Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Misadventures over Money

My grandfather came to this country from Italy when he was a teen. 

He came alone and one could say he never looked back.

He left the Old Country behind in a resounding way as many immigrants of the early 20th century did. 

His ties to his homeland were never put aside however. Connections to his past were kept alive through the stories he told.

“Misadventures Over Money" could easily be the title of this story he told around our dinner table. I wrote this down many years ago with as many details of his story as could be recalled.

One wishes you asked more questions when personal stories are told. There can be so many missing parts. 

When this is the case our imagination or intuition fills in. It becomes more a story, in a sense, as we ponder it and put together what hasn't been said.

Grandpa was a bright inquisitive boy born into hard times. There was enough to eat but one can assume actual money was scarce and prospects for advancement even more so.

The family almost surely economized severely, bartered to get by, grew much of their vegetables, had fruit trees and a diet dependent on fish which the father caught.

My great grandfather fished the sea for a living or to supplement his income which derived in part from his skills in stone masonry. 

He was part of a fishing crew. Occasionally he took my grandfather, then a small boy, along.

The story as told to us begins with a dream. It’s a dream of three numbers. This dream came to my great grandfather while the fishing crew was out for the night.

When he awoke he remembered the numbers. He regarded them as lucky. They were surely numbers to play on the lottery!

The fishing crew was onshore when my great grandpa had the dream. They were pulled up onto land and at a shepherd’s hut or some other rustic shelter. 

This apparently was done when rest was needed (they fished at night) or in bad weather.

My great grandfather decided to entrust his son with the mission to return to the village and place the numbers on the lottery.

My assumption is the crew were located close enough to home that my grandfather could cover the distance on foot.

He was dispatched with the admonition to avoid their house at all costs before placing the bets. 

My great grandfather had a strong hunch that precious coins used on gambling wouldn’t go over well with his better half.

Hunger or thirst or simply the momentum of homecoming landed Grandpa at home before carrying out the errand.

His mother was quick to sniff out something suspicious about his early return. He had no plausible alibi to give to squelch her questions or maybe he didn't wish to be, or dare to be, dishonest with her.

He admitted to being his father's courier with numbers to wager on in the marketplace.

“Gambling, nothing!" his mother exclaimed."Take that money and buy some macaroni with it. We'll have a fine meal for your father tonight!"

The father shows up much later. He makes a grand entrance. He’s smiling. A cigar is clamped in his teeth. "We're in money," he announces.

"What do you mean?" great grandmother asks. She has a foreboding that he is referring to the lottery. 

Perhaps she has the tiniest twinge of misgiving. Could it be, she wonders, that her sense of right has worked against her this day?

He happily explains. The posted winning numbers are the very numbers he dreamed last night. His numbers turned up and won the lottery for him.

“No," his wife corrected. "You won no money. I had the boy take the money and buy macaroni with it. It's your supper tonight."

"Ah." The shrug is expressive. "I guess I wasn't meant to be rich."

My grandfather counted his lucky stars that his father accepted the situation so well. 

He tucked into his pasta with no scolding at all and the bliss of knowing that the meal was inadvertently helped to the table by him. 

Hearing the story as a young girl it was easy to picture the cast of characters.

There was the dreamer – my great grandfather. There was my biddable grandfather. 

He was easy-go-lucky like his father but with a streak of common sense to recognize and negotiate with trouble (in this case his mother if he didn’t come clean).

Then there’s my great grandmother. I thought of her as practical, watchful, prudent. She isn’t what you’d call the fun one in the trio.

I’ve come to see her in a different light. She had the concerns for feeding her family in tough times. 

She likely thought of herself as more realistic than her husband about finances. 

Someone had to protect and watch out for the family's interests. It was up to her to balance his more carefree ways with a stricter adherence to frugality.

As my great grandparents and grandpa walk through this short story they can be any one of us. They play out their roles as we would in our own way.

It's a story of dreams, hopes, work, relationships, community, responsibility and love. That's a full plate of concepts in any story and this one comes with pasta besides. 

Ro Giencke – October 31, 2012






Tuesday, October 16, 2012


We’re having a day that's a flashback to summer.

It's mild and sunny with a light breeze ruffling the remnant foliage.

One-day warm-ups, such as come amid prevailing cooler conditions, are very helpful. They give little spaces of time here and there to get at outdoor jobs.

It’s the perfect day for yard work. The lawn was mulched and deck furniture was stowed away. It’s that much to the good already as we seize the day.

It’s also a chance for one last shot in the sun. If leisure is on your to-do list this is the day for it.

Just as today has popped off the summer calendar so too have flashbacks of another kind been showing up since last week’s story (“Reboot,” previous posting).

In that article I told about my closet cleanout. The gist of it is my separates were evaluated for more effective usage. 

Some pieces were weeded out and in general a commitment was made to stay on the ball with the closet as a whole.

Almost as soon as the story was online I started analyzing the motivation behind the cleanup. What got me to do this – now?

I mean – we all clean our closets after all. They’re often overhauled at the change of seasons and we’re at the biggest seasonal changeover of all.

Fall is when we transition into wardrobes that require more layers of clothing. It’s natural to get in there and get reacquainted with what we have.

So I knew the cleanout was going to happen sometime, as it did. But the feeling was that there was a stronger push behind it. 

The images – call them flashbacks – reminded me this was indeed the case.

The first flashback is of a cool spell this past summer. It was late summer, mid or possibly late August.  

It was a few days with temperatures below what had been running the norm. Accustomed to the heat this whispered autumnal to me.

Daylight comes later in late summer. You wait for the sun to strengthen. I was looking for something from the closet appropriate for the cool house until the day warmed up.

Standing at the closet with doors wide open I couldn’t find a single thing to wear. I might as well have been a deer in the headlights of a car.

I was caught in an appalling lack of reaction. After weeks of summertime attire the switch to anything else seemed out of my decision-making powers.

Long sleeves didn't feel right nor did pants. The first wearing and pairing of the next season's clothes can feel strange. You're unaccustomed to them.

No little voice from out of that assemblage piped up. If  “wear me, wear me!” had come to my ears I’d have appreciatively obliged.

My brain surveyed the closet and held silent. It had nothing to offer. I didn’t have a clue what to put on.

It’s like the knack of dressing had deserted me. Over the summer I’d forgotten how to prep for anything but ninety degrees.

My mistake was to mention this dilemma of wardrobe choice to Al.

“It’s not set up to be complicated,” he retorted, never realizing the injury to my ego at the imputed rebuff that it’s not rocket science to, for goodness sakes, pick out something to wear.

His statement might once have been construed as a direct aim at my abilities to think in place. As with many comments with a sting I've learned, with the passage of time, they often offer a grain of truth to chew on.

If you open to the frank talk and allow, as it were, the salt to rub into the wound, you can take these remarks and turn them around as bonus advice however you wish to use it.

A second flashback involved a conversation with a friend. The visit happened a couple weeks before school workshops began.

So we’re talking mid August, which about coincides with my closet freezeup.

Perhaps it was the double reinforcement of self-confessed clothing failures (for my friend had her own tale of woe) that lent strength to the need to stand inside my closet anew.

She said the hardest thing about going back to school is deciding what to wear each morning.

Students, paperwork, overcrowded schedules, meetings with parents – while not a piece of cake, after all these years she’s hit her stride in each of those areas.

But personal presentation skills! In other words, the image in the mirror before she sets off to school each morning! Each year comes with new styles to weave into her basic career look.

It does seem to get harder as we get older, and our associates get younger, with their fresh complexions and way of getting everything pulled together just so. We agreed on this.

Try to look effortlessly dressed by 6:30 AM, maximum latest moment for getting out the door, she groaned.

Bring into the classroom not only the authority which proper dressing provides, but dress well, comfortably and within budget. This is the part of her career that can bring her to back-to-school despair.

Conversation with another friend forms a third flashback. Living well, she observed to me, has a great deal to do with how much relates relevantly.

Her words struck me as very wise, and even more so because they sort of just dropped from her.

We were enjoying the fall colors and stopped for a bite to eat. We were at one of those lovely out of the way places you find on the color road and everything of the moment is pure enjoyment.

There is relevance all about you if you know how to look. What she says is right on.

It’s in front of you if you can see to connect the dots from A to Z. Well heck, sometimes the line needs to be  drawn from only A to B. It’s all relevant.

When you expect to note relevance these things are yours to accept. 

You stick out your hand, say thank you very much and say yes to the opportunities. Relevance makes life wonderful in all its textures, flavors and truths.

I wasn’t thinking of her words in conjunction with my closet but they wound their way into me to have that effect.

It’s up to me to put relevance into my separates. The relevance is already in each piece of apparel. My role is to relate its worth as it stands on its own and as a match with other pieces.

Somehow these recent scenes came together in one clarion call for action. Clean the closet couldn’t have been shouted any louder than if a cheerleader with a megaphone showed up just then.

I was nudged through a sequence of separate but connected events to this very cleaning day. Each was a link, one to the next, to action taken.

As the flashbacks take a curtsey for their help it occurs to me it can be beneficial to use this reverse scene technique to look at ourselves.

As we finish a next assignment or project let’s consider – not forward, as is frequently recommended upon completion of a consuming piece of work – but backward.

Review the steps involved in getting there. Each entails a choice and a response. Each has been a decision. Each leads to something next. It gets you, in the end, to the end.

You maybe wind up at a distance from the original or intended goal. It may be a reconstruction of the goal entirely.

Flashbacks give us clarity on how we perform the steps that get us to achievements.

It can also make us realize this: we think we accomplish singlehandedly but, more often than not, our completed actions stem from a whole lot of other influences.

The flashbacks related to the closet clean have been helpful. They’ve even propelled me to a flash forward moment.

You see, I thought the clothes in their tidy piles or tucked in drawers, or as they march in order on the hangers, belong to us  We’re the owners.

In truth they own us. They own us if we don’t have a handle on them and don’t utilize them and don’t take care of them.

Otherwise they’re a pretty accumulation and that can be fine.  Unless, like me, you think we should wear better with age than that.

Ro Giencke – October 16, 2012

Thursday, October 11, 2012


It’s a gray windy start to this second Thursday of the month. 

On the lawn the yellow branches of the birch tree glow like an electric torch.

The fall leaves cheerfully illuminate. It’s as if a light switch was flipped in the yard when the clouds scudded in.

The bright leaves will soon blow away. Until then they form the periphery of my view at my work station and are enjoyed very much.

It’s being typical October weather. October sees a wide range of conditions.

Fifty degrees has been the daily high. That’s somewhat below average. Last year, as an example of how variable our autumns can be, it was 83 on yesterday’s date.  

So you never know. What to expect is up for grabs except there’s no doubt that a forward advance on winter is being made.

It was blustery last weekend as the chilly spell settled in. Al got a taste of it as he volunteered at a soils exhibit at a regional park.

Three days of border collie trials, held at the park where he volunteered, became great spectator sport for him. He told me about it when he got home.

The collies come from around the Midwest to compete. I believe the trials are every year.

These intelligent trained dogs herd the sheep following sets of specific orders. The orders are communicated by blasts of the whistle. This is how the handlers convey their instructions.

Each whistle has a meaning. The collies alertly distinguish between the different signals. They have to be efficient, watchful and ever mindful of the message of the whistle.  

They carry out the directions with purposeful and joyful strategy. They're born and bred to herd.

Four sheep are allotted to each competing border collie. The black and white collies make a wide circle to come from behind as they herd their charges. They do this so as not to spook the sheep.

The sheep aren’t rushed to the gate. A certain pace is maintained. There can't be any nipping if the sheep chance to dawdle. This would disqualify the collie.

A number of herding techniques are tested such as circling a post in the right direction, moving the sheep through three gates, getting the sheep into a pen and separating the four sheep into two groups of two. 

Both the handler and the dog have to be at peak performance to do well in the competition.

It can happen that the handler causes a mistake or delay of time, while the collies are impeccable in carrying out their orders. Handler and collie in all instances have to, together, be at the top of their game.

The various herding skills, in total, are completed in eleven minutes. There’s no time to waste.

I was deep into closets while the border collies were making their times herding the sheep to the finish line. For me, too, there was no time to waste.

My mission was to switch the house over to Central Standard Time.

This wasn’t a matter of setting the clock an hour behind, which will happen soon enough, and with it an extra hour of sleep gained.

My energy was going into closets. The plan was to unplug the previous system, that of the summer closet, and restart our wardrobes in the direction of the cold months which align with CST.

As I plunged in there was initial dismay. If the closet was a garden the closest way to describe it was weedy. It was overgrown. It needed pruning. Somehow it had gotten away from me.

Closets breed mysteriously when doors close on them is my conclusion. The accumulation is never as you remember it of your own making.

With outerwear shifted front and center in the main closet my closet was next. 

Unlike the general closets, which get all sorts of things put into them, my personal space is for the most part neat. Items line up on hangers according to color and type.

Nevertheless the closet has become a bit untidy. The post-Labor Day two-step, as I call it, is responsible.

I dive into cold season items while still keeping out the warm weather clothes. The pieces mix and marry on the hangers.

If the selections in my closet are any indication clothing is becoming more seasonless. Many pieces can be incorporated through the year.

Hurrah, I say. Seasonless is a practical trend. You get more bang for your buck owning a piece that translates into other seasons.

This can be done through layering. Cut  and weight of the material pronounce some separates perfect for any time and almost any situation. 

Bold colors as the new neutrals also help.These pieces deliver year-round punch.

Seasonless purchases are as apt to be in for the long haul as once favorites had their seasonal moment and disappeared until next year, or a Caribbean cruise, came along.

It’s majorly worthwhile to seriously evaluate the collection which comprises your wardrobe. 

This was a discovery made on this cleanout. Maybe it’s not a discovery so much as an old truth forgotten too easily.

Closets tend to be visited via hurried peeks inside to pull out something which will do okay for the day ahead.

This time my approach was businesslike. The items were analyzed as a client or a work associate would be sized up. 

I wanted to determine the growth areas and strengths of my wardrobe. It's a first step in getting greater use out the closet. It's like learning to work together as a team.

Put in this light it gives the items a different value. Outfit possibilities came to mind as each separate was assessed for full potential.

This bodes well for future dressing. Jeans and tees pairings are frequently my go-to choices. Other ensembles can do the job just as well. In using them my closet serves me better.

Lots of us edit our clothes minimally. It’s hard to part with things. Our wardrobes share our story. 

For some of us there is emotional attachment, if even  the tiniest amount. It can be hard to clinch the actual elimination of familiar items.

Our pieces – bought at discount, splurged on, received as gifts, found at garage sales – all of the above and more – have been with us through the ordinary as well as the eventful.

They’ve held with us longer than some friends. They’ve been with us through more than one national election and, to be honest, when it comes to their vintage, through a couple babies or household moves.

Eventually, usually by dint of some mishap (shrinkage, fading, loss of appreciation for a certain color, etc), it's recognized action is necessary. A thorough closet clean gets us to the donation box quicker.

Many places accept clean, lightly used clothing. There are also consignment shops and eBay for cash back on items you no longer love. 

With these helps to make it so easy, clothes editing should happen more often than it does. It’s that it’s work. It’s work, time and process. But the payoff, as we may need to remind ourselves, is grand. It frees us bigtime.

I call my seasonal forays into the closets the grand reboot. It does give the sense of stopping the old series in its tracks. 

You start over. Maybe starting fresh is the better way to put it. It’s an excellent thought as you open your closet the next time.

Despite the piles of clothes laid out on the bed and draped over backs of chairs, and pieces sorted, tried on and rehung on hangers, the time, when I looked up from the closet overhaul, surprised me.

Going pall-mall, with a brief break for lunch, it wasn’t as late as I figured it might be. In fact, there was time to try a new bar recipe, which follows.

There are many ways to reboot, it occurred to me as the pan was removed from the oven in a soothing essence of chocolate and coconut delight.

Quick & Yummy Coconut Bars

In 13 x 9” baking pan melt ½ cup butter. Remove from heat. In blender pulse the contents of one 8.5 oz package Keelber Coconut Dreams into crumbs. (The crumbs make about 2 cups). Sprinkle cookie crumbs over melted butter.

Pour 1 15-oz. can sweetened condensed milk evenly over crumbs. Top with 1 6-oz. package chocolate chips, ¾ cup flaked coconut (organic coconut flakes is what was used in this recipe as they were on the shelves) and 1 cup chopped walnuts; press down gently.

Bake at 350 degrees 25 minutes or till golden brown. Cool. Cut into squares and enjoy!

Ro Giencke – October 11, 2012

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Road and river

The furnace went on for the first time this season. It kicked in almost reluctantly.  

It hasn’t been needed in such a long time. 

It must have reasoned, in its dull mechanical way, that we could make it a while longer. We could let it stay off a few more days.

We almost could have. The walls of the house have retained some of the pleasant summerlike heat which today is turning its back on us. 

It’s been a lovely run of weather. But most definitely it’s time for the furnace to do its thing.

Gusts tear at the leaves. Twenty-five mile speeds will play havoc with even the best combed dos, as witness the disarrangement to the trees that still have foliage.

I swept one layer of fallen leaves off the deck. It’s already crunchy with those that followed.

The orange and yellow maples, illuminated to perfection by forenoon sun, have gone from splendid to stripped through the wild workings of the wind. Mild fall, which has held on, is finally conceding to mightier forces.

As if shaking the last of the beach sand out of our sandals we’ve been on the go a lot. You try to pack in one more memory, and then another, before the inside season literally leaves no more outs.

We were at the Arboretum earlier this week. The macro color, as Al calls it, was eye-popping gold and russets. The trees, shrubs and grasses shimmered in October sunlight.

Above the burnished hills Canadian geese (migratory perhaps but as likely the permanent crowd) squawked in vee formations across the blue sky.

Another day was spent at Hastings and Red Wing enjoying the Mississippi River.

Al has been keeping tabs on the new bridge construction at Hastings. A couple extra trips have been taken that way through the summer and fall.

I’ve written of our love affair with Highway 61. It’s a beautiful road in the northern part of the state as a recent trip again verifies.

It follows the curve of the north shore of Lake Superior. It enters forests and passes innumerable streams and waterfalls. It’s very photogenic.

This national route has a different allure as it leaves the Twin Cities going south. This is the stretch that most speaks to me.

Highway 61, and the equally charming Hwy 35 on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River, earn rave reviews in travel blogs and travel magazines.

They’re called among the prettiest drives in America. The area the two roads take in is currently in the news for a different reason. The scenic region has become a center of frac sand controversy.

It’d take another day to address the issues tied to fracking, a mining process which uses sand, as it applies to this beautiful fragile portion of the Upper Mississippi.

From an environmental and appreciation view my thought is this. Outside interests have a moral obligation to listen to, respect, and concede when necessary, to the inherent interests of residents.

The local populace lives in the place impacted, after all. They’re the ones left to deal with any problems when all is said and done, and the last truck or final piece of construction equipment is taken away.

These folks, many of them lifelong residents, are generally not the ones who gain, financially or otherwise. 

Outside concerns too often have a vested interest in someone else's resources, with the intent of earmarking these resources for other places or other uses.

Whenever citizenry is involved there should be exercised a thorough program of planning and proceeding with thought to the future.  

This includes proper weighing of facts and careful scrutiny of end results for all concerned, including effect on land, air or water quality.

It may be slow and tedious deliberation. This is all to the well and good. It assures a degree of responsibility which can prevent grievous mistakes in the long run.

The Mississippi River, as many other places because of the extreme gift of their natural surroundings, gives to all. It's among accessible places we go to for renewal  individually and as a society.

These locales are not just another sandpile or dumping station from which to extract maximum value indiscriminately. 

Frack mining debate goes on in the river valley. It will continue to be the testing grounds for grassroots action. 

What's at stake is deeper than residents versus "other." The issue has the potential to divide communities and neighbors as opinions are formed, sides are taken and irreversible decisions are potentially set in motion. 

A more positive outcome might be a better informed willingness to work together on all sides toward the best long-term solution, which I hope will be the case.   

Wow. That was waiting to be said. But the discussion isn’t for now. Our day, with the oaky river bluffs not quite turning, but the weather sure to do so, was a time to concentrate on the feel-good moment of the river town experience.

At Colvill Park in Red Wing is a garden we seek out when in town. It’s a joyous garden. I believe it’s tended by volunteers. It has raised beds which get the blooms to you without having to bend.

It's not a big garden. It’s designed for easy enjoyment. It's segmented into themes - butterfly, moon (white flowers), kitchen, children's area of miniature plantings, plantings for fragrance and the like.

I learned two new flowers with the assistance of a volunteer gardener. I appealed to her expertise as she did some end-of-the-season pruning.

We came to identify my questioned flowers as cleome and turtlehead. You can’t help but admire a species with the name turtlehead. It has to stand out above the rest.

My friendly floral guide said a party for the volunteers was held in the park last week. Pumpkin and apple pie were served from tables on the lawn. It sounded wonderfully small town and fun.

Next up for us was coffee. In Red Wing we like to go to Caribou Coffee. The handsome two-story brick building was originally the railroad station.

I walked around the station house to what was the front of the building in the railroad days. A planted row of crabapple trees beyond the platform is a bucolic touch on this once bustling side.

The platform faces the river which is close but isn't visible from the depot. Grain elevators and a screen of trees afford a setting typical of so many Midwestern  rail stops of the minor order.  

My thoughts wandered to Minnesota-born writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. Returning as a student from his eastern colleges at the start of winter holidays he possibly came home by train this way.

Perhaps he stomped his boots on the snowy platform during the short stop as the train chugged him home to St. Paul.

On the coffee shop grounds (no pun intended) a table sat apart from the other tables. It was under a crabapple tree. The shade it offered made an inviting spot to settle with our coffee.

Tiny red crabapples were thick in the branches above us. It was a lovely bower for hiding away.

Two nearby trees stood in the last of their fall colors. One tree was almost bare. The second tree emptied in the snap of a finger.

Blasts of wind are often considered the perpetrators of leaf fall. The blow loosens their tenuous anchorage.

This was lighthearted release. The leaves as one unit slipped into the breezes and filled the air with a golden swirl of unpremeditated freedom.

Anyone pulling into the parking lot a moment later might have noticed two bare trees ready for winter. 

But the dance of the leaves was ours to remember when we come back in the spring and the new buds are tender green.  

It was appropriate that the rumble and dust of trucks delivering corn from the fields was background to  picnic lunch at Levee Park. Our possibly last outing of  fall was catching the pace of busy harvest.

The pattern of industry heard in the noises of the truck engines was duplicated on the river. Barges were nosed expertly toward the port by tugs for loading with grain from tall storage bins.

These barges, their season soon over, go downriver in  the reduced water levels of the drought-stricken Mississippi.

The harvest activity was, in its own way, as ideal a fall scene as the bright foliage we came to see. 

Ro Giencke – October 4, 2012