Thursday, August 28, 2014

Eventful Decorah

Summer is generally so beautiful in Minnesota it’s hard to leave even to take a vacation.

We bestirred ourselves this year and actually left the state for a couple days. 

Now as we come to the end of August we pat ourselves on the backs for doing so.

Two days gone guarantees a small trip. It was a perfect length of time and we played it leisurely. We dipped just below the state line to visit Decorah, Iowa.

We’ve driven past Decorah heading north many times. We’re coming from St. Louis or other points south and we don’t stop. 

We’re closing in on the Minnesota border with its promise of home in a few more hours. We keep promising we'll come back some day and see the town properly.

We knew Decorah to be interesting. It’s been covered in Midwest Living which scouts out the cool spots. 

Luther College, a private liberal arts college located there, is one of the reasons Decorah has been attracting interest.

With a beautiful campus, and an academic program to be proud of, it's the strong music tradition and excellence of its many music groups that come to mind when I think of the school. 

A musically talented young woman we know chose this school as a match for her gift of a voice and this is how we came to hear of Luther College.  

Then there’s the small matter of Decorah’s Norwegian heritage. The city is proud of its Nordic connections via its early population of Scandinavian immigrants from which it developed and grew.

You start out to see one thing, as we did with Decorah, and the nature of travel is that extras are generously thrown in. 

These bonuses can be as special or as appreciated as what you set out to enjoy. 

One such place turned out to be a gem of a discovery. This was Spring Grove, Minnesota. 

From the map it lay just off our route. Spring Grove struck me as a refreshing name. I suggested we detour the few miles to check it out.

A sign at the entrance to town informs that Spring Grove is the first Norwegian settlement in Minnesota.

It's a pretty little town set in green hills. The original families could have believed they were back in Norway with the verdant hills and steep valleys. All that was missing to make it Norway were the fjords.

The quarter Norwegian in me was happy to touch base with this original setting of Norwegian relocation to Minnesota.

Norwegians from the Old Country dispersed through the state in the years that followed the settlement of Spring Grove.

Leaving all behind, it took brave hearts. Those who settled Spring Grove, then a wilderness, and who preceded the rest of their countrymen, were role models for the rest.

Burr Oak is an Iowa hop and skip over the Minnesota border. It’s sits barely off Hwy 52. Burr Oak was another serendipitous find. As a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan it was like finding a lost chapter of her life.

Laura Ingalls and her family lived in Burr Oak about a year when she was a small girl. 

The Ingalls family moved from Minnesota when friends from their former home in Walnut Grove bought a hotel and then asked Laura’s father to manage it.

I don’t believe the Iowa year is chronicled in The Little House in the Woods series, which is why coming upon Burr Oak was a surprise. (We must have missed the signs other trips.)

There are some facts known about her time here. I found them at an online link. Laura and her friend Alice roamed the pretty hillside above town, and Laura’s little sister Grace was born here. 

The new baby was after the loss of nine-month-old Freddie, who died before their move to Burr Oak. Laura attended school in Burr Oak adding to the education begun back in Walnut Grove. 

Burr Oak is attractive as you picture Midwestern hamlets towns to be. 

Masters Hotel, now the site of Laura Ingalls Wilder Park and Museum, and where Pa in 1876 took the position as manager, has a white painted exterior and is pristine with orange daylilies growing alongside.

Our Iowa getaway was unplanned even to motel arrangements – perhaps not the smartest thinking during busy vacation season.

We came into Decorah the day after Nordic Fest 2014. We missed all the activities associated with the annual event.

Bad timing to miss Nordic Fest you say. Fifty-fifty bad luck, or equally good luck, is more like it.

Yes, we missed the event and it’d have been a blast (a reason to return next year). 

However, without motel reservations made, if we arrived while Nordic Fest was going on, we probably wouldn’t have scored a room.

Coming when we did, we had an available room and a room at Country Inn and Suites that faces a quiet hill. The place serves cookies, warming Al's heart. 

Country Inn and Suites is located on the Trout Run Trail (the trail is practically right out the door). 

Trout Run Trail is part of a trail system Decorah has developed and recently extended. The trail, we were told, is an 11 mile loop, and learned that eagles nest where hikers can view them.

With the weather sunny and pleasant – actually a tad cool for this time of year - we made the most of the time by using it outdoors on the trails.  

Along with the trails we enjoyed Dunning’s Springs. It occupies a shady glen, has a neat overhead walkway, is worth a camera shot or two and comes with some history besides. 

Later we found a little prairie park with wildflowers. Rocks are placed strategically. I parked myself while Al photographed flowers and butterflies and enjoyed the mild warmth on me from the lowering sun.

The big hill next to our motel was bright with firefly light when dusk turned to night. Hundreds of miniature lights wove luminous trails in a ever changing pattern against the hill as it disappeared into deep shadow.

The firefly show was quite magical, as was the vacation in its brief entirety. It was a pleasant chance to drive not too far, and to enjoy something quite nearby.  

Ro Giencke – August 28, 2014


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Loud is the new silent

Noise is with us wherever we are. 

There’s no avoiding it. As a presence it travels with us and is there before we arrive.

Stop for gas and you almost don’t want to get out to pump it. 

Music at gas stations is often very loud. It blasts you as you fill your tank. 

Conversations at restaurants must compete with the music being played. Words get swallowed up by the impossible decibel levels allowed by some restaurants. 

We and other couples we know have walked out of restaurants because they’re too loud. 

We don’t elect to spend our dinners shouting at our servers to be heard. From experience (trust me on this) the noise prevents any actual visiting from taking place.

A number of us are scratching our heads at indoor malls. We wonder if we wandered into a disco by accident. 

The hard-hitting volume to the music reaches the farthest corridors. The high decibels might work in a nightclub. It seems overdone for the shopper crowd.  

Don’t get me (or a bunch of us) started on the hand dryers installed in many public restrooms and at Interstate rest stops.

Multiple hand dryers with several in use at once are like an echo chamber of horrors. 

They're so hurtfully loud that tots have been seen to cry when they come on. It startles them. Sensitive ears among them are particularly shaken. 

It doesn’t seem right that little kids, still somewhat protected from the assault of noise, should have to stand under these loud dryers every time they use a public washroom.

Leaf blowers are the bane of residential areas. Their disquieting din drills into the neighborhood quiet. 

They grind away, from one yard to the next, blowing a few leaves off the driveways. Their stink and unwelcome volume of noise drifts through opened windows.

On our table the meal may be on but when leaf blowers are whining nearby it strikes me that what we're being served is polluted air.

It makes me wonder if anyone brooms away leaves anymore. A broom is exercise, is low cost (and low maintenance), gets the same results as a leaf blower and doesn’t foul the air or break your eardrums. 

If you can’t use a broom for leaf removal from your sidewalk or driveway will someone please invent a silencer for residential leaf blowers. I plead!   

Constant extraneous noise, whether from music or equipment used every day, can't be good thing. 

This certainly is true in regard to our young. With a lifetime of hearing ahead of them, universal loud noise is doing some of its greatest harm to this generation.

Young people work and study to loud noise for hours at a time. They listen to it at decibels that make my ears ache. 

Many teens are accustomed to music being loud. They’re talking as loud as their grandparents to compensate. 

They sound like my grandpa who had to ask us to repeat what we said. He was deaf at an early age (not from loud music). It isn't fun to lose you hearing he'd tell them.

My generation took it on the ears too. We had our rock concerts. We were not without our own addiction to loud music.

We’re paying the price years later in wholesale hearing loss. But our ears took breaks in between. It wasn’t a continuous thing except for the rock stars.

Those in positions that decide the decibel in places we shop, eat out and go to relax can’t be unaware of the "too loud too long" effect on humans. 

Loud steady noise impacts employees and the rest of us. What it may do in the long term we can only imagine now.

Reduced exposure to noise, and a responsible decision on the part of businesses to sensibly monitor decibels where people congregate, are sound steps towards protecting our hearing as individuals and as a society.

Each of us must decide how willing we are to put our hearing on the line. 

Some of us are pushing back against excessive decibels. Our method is simple and works. We measure decibels onsite with a smartphone app.

When we think a place is too loud, and the noise potentially injurious to the health of our ears, we employ the app. It has helped us decide a few times whether we stay or move on.

It seems fair that businesses which interface with the public advise us up front about the decibel levels they keep. 

Decibel information can be posted on their front doors. It’d be like the signs that ban guns on the premises or the No Smoking notices we see everywhere.

This information would also be handy on web sites. We can check to see if (besides Tuesday specials and weekend hours) we want to go at all. The music (as posted by decibels) may be too loud for our tastes.

Loud has worked its way into almost everything. It’s taken for granted. It’s maybe time to see how some of this can change. It’s time to reflect on how sound has grown.

We’ve come a long way from the sound experience of my generation. If you were country raised or from a small town (both boxes checked for me) this applies all the more.

When I grew up, as a summer country resident, and in town from September through May, sounds were in the background more than they are now.

The wail of fire trucks, ambulances or police cars was pretty much absent. I wasn't able to differentiate one siren from another when we did hear them. All caught our attention as sirens are meant to do.

Our town did have a couple means of keeping the community informed through the use of public sirens. 

There was a noon whistle (whistle, not siren, as I recall) and a 9:30 pm curfew siren. The noonday whistle meant lunchtime. Curfew at night called kids still outside in from the dark.

When it comes to remembering sounds I wonder if it’s possible we’re not as emotionally attached to childhood sounds as to associations that come with other of our senses.

Cinnamon rolls fresh from the oven, for instance, remind us of the good aromas from the kitchens of our youth. It takes just one whiff to be transported back to five and eight and ten years of age.

Specific smells evoke the past. They can make us nostalgic. Smell, an agent of connection, makes us appreciate its influence on us. Smell taps something deep inside. Smell has a raft of associations.

Sounds heard as we grow up are perhaps stored on a memory disc apart from the rest. Or maybe sounds are so integral to the events that it takes some work to find them and sort them out.

Outdoor sounds, not indoor sounds, are what I remember. Except for school, and winter’s indoor hours, outdoors is where we spent our time.

It’s great exercise to meditate on sounds remembered from long ago. The sounds we wind up recalling can be as healing and connecting as smell associations or old photos we look at that put us back into the scene.

The process of recalling sounds started out slow when I tried it. One or two remembered sounds floated upward easily. They in turn delivered others. 

It’s as if each nudges the one next to it and says Hey, you’re part of this too.

The haunting cry of loons is at the top of remembered sounds. Elusive and shy of humans as they were then, we were proud that we had a family of loons (the Minnesota state bird) nesting on our lake.

Birds and waterfowl, gathering in flocks in the late summer, and treating our area as a layover on their seasonal migration, come to mind.

I can hear the twitters among the birds, heavy by count on the telephone lines by the river, with its morning fog as the days cooled, and the sharper calls of migratory Canadian geese.

Frogs croaking in the spring, the lazy drone of honeybees in our garden and the chorus of cicadas in the backyard add to the repertoire of sounds.

Summer rain created a range of sounds. There were the gentle ploop-ploop sounds of raindrops on water if it began to sprinkle when we swam or were in the boat. 

Summer rains were sometimes not much more than medium drizzle and if we got caught out in it we didn't mind getting a bit wet. 

There was the tattoo of steady rain on the porch roof and the barrage of rain against the window panes in the fury of a thunderstorm.

The sizzle of summertime rain on superheated highway is especially recalled. A tarry smell arose in vapors of steam from the hot wet asphalt. This smell was a distinctive smell of summer then.

These were our barefoot days. Our feet knew intimately the burning heat of sun-baked pavement. Quick steps across the hot road, the pads of our feet like on fire, is another sound of summer that drifts to me. 

A rural neighbor had a dock for a float plane. The float plane was for occasional fishing trips up north.

We didn't have a nearby airport and weren’t under a direct flight path (although we occasionally saw jet contrails high in the sky). The float plane made us feel modern. Air space was otherwise the realm of birds.

In the country we had minimal car traffic. A small number of cars and farm equipment passed by on any given day.

A car going by made for some interest. We knew the neighbors’ cars. My brothers could tell who was going by without looking. They could tell by the sound of the engine or the speed at which the car was driven.

When we thought about it we wondered where the farm neighbors might be going. There weren’t many places to go to then - to some other neighbor’s or into town.

Cars we couldn’t identify were the tourists, and at the end of the season most of them were gone.

The sounds of nature were all around but were often muted. You had to have an alert ear and be observant.

The soft thud of an apple off the apple tree in August or September could go unnoticed as you walked by. It takes being on watch. 

This gets you to notice things to wonder about. It’s a gift that develops when you spend time in nature.

The rumble of farm pickups and tractors over the wood planked bridge near our country home is a sound my ears readily pick up again. 

As kids we swam in the river under the bridge. The bump-bump-bumpity-bump of farm equipment crossing over was exciting.

It was like two different worlds going on, which of course is exactly what it was. 

The farmers (often farm kids were driving the tractors – teenage boys with sun-bleached hair and strong with well-worked summer muscles) were probably unaware of us.

From under the bridge we were hidden from them, and were far removed from the reality of their working day.

I still hear (as memory brings it to me) the sounds of our farm neighbor calling his herd of cows to the barn in the late summer evenings. 

Getting his dairy herd into shelter was a nightly ritual shared with us through the sound of his voice carried across the river.

It gave a sense of ineffable peace. It was like nothing could ever change. You could believe his voice would go on everlastingly into the summer dusk.

The barking of farm dogs running out to chase our car (and other cars) and the snapping noises some made as they went for the tires comes to me. 

This memory lies further down in the pack. It didn’t emerge immediately. But it has shown up and makes me smile as thought is given to it.  

A few dogs in our rural neighborhood were inveterate car chasers. 

Some did it for the love of it. Others were quite mean-spirited. We knew those places and were glad we were safely inside the car whenever we rode that particular stretch of road.

It was the era before boom boxes. Music outdoors was mostly limited to transistor radios. Transistor owners used earplugs to keep the sounds contained.

Because of the general quiet surrounding us the sounds I recall are of nature or they’re communal in nature. 

The sounds are the sounds of our lives. We were at play, at peace with each other and outside in the fresh good air.

We never dreamed life would be so much louder than it was then. The sounds of our youth become a marker by which we measure change.

Ro Giencke – August 23, 2014







Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Fall in line

The big fall fashion editions of magazines are starting to come out. 

We have first looks at colors and silhouettes we’ll see, and some of us will wear, in the season ahead.

While January is reckoned the start of the New Year those of us with any interest in styles and trends pounce on August and September as our new year (sans capital letters). 

These transition months kick off the new look inaugurated by autumn-winter collections shown on fashion runways around the world.

Not that we’re tired of summer wear. Not by a long shot. Summer wear means summer. 

Dressing lightly is my kind of style for as long as summer chooses to hang around. I suspect this thinking prevails pretty much across the board.

Most of us, nevertheless, are refreshed by a new palette of colors and new textures. It’s within us, I believe, to be renewed by change, like a coat of paint on the wall, which makes for instant transformation.

Even should we live in a climate without four seasons (certainly not the case here in the Midwest) there is in many of us a tendency to choose what we put on by the time of year we're in. 

While a seasonless wardrobe is the ideal – staples to wear at any time – the practice of rotating pieces in our closet has an amazingly comfortable right feel to it.

The fall line, presented on glossy magazine pages, at online retail venues and perhaps most tempting of all, via racks of newly shipped merchandise in the stores, makes this an interesting time for your closet.

This season meshes with back to school shopping. Sales and promos bring in students and their families as they restock for the school year ahead.

In the stores you marvel at tweaks in style in the fall collections. 

Embellishment (or lack of it) change in proportion, wider hemlines, and other details, abruptly make last year’s almost identical pieces appear oh so last season. How do they do that you wonder! 

Then there are trends that are imaginative forays into new territory. These clothes may catch on. They may not. They do cause you to stop and consider.

Mostly I consider how far removed we become in time from trends that seem aimed for quick trajectory. 

Trends for the most part are reduced to fads in my increasing loyalty to the tried and true. It makes it easier to pass by items not needed but are cute / on sale / or which shout Buy me. 

My sister and I, non-fashionistas from the beginning, nevertheless enjoy the fashion hype that comes with the fall lineup.

On our last visit she gave me a clothes catalog she was done with. We swap catalogs and jewelry, just as we swap clothing from time to time.

The catalog comes from England. It has luscious pieces. It offers beautiful soft cashmere sweaters with prices comparable to the cost of an air ticket to London.

Maybe if we teamed up and ordered a sweater and split the time of wearing it between us we could afford a catalog purchase. 

That is, if we could agree on a color. It makes the transaction dubious as we’re drawn to different hues.

From the fall magazines, and catalogs like the one my sister shared with me, we get an idea of key looks of the new season.

Investing some time this way you develop the ability to discern where the winds of fashion change are occurring. 

You note if a blouse is tucked in or left out, whether it’s loose billowy pants this year or if leggings are still in charge.

The details are like a set of directions. You can follow or refer to them or disregard them entirely. Fashion, ultimately, is what you make of it.

What these fashion sources particularly help with is suggesting how pieces from our closets can be worn to be made to look current.

Unlike young shoppers, and those in the prime of their careers, many of us past those stages buy less for our closets now. 

Our closets are established through generally careful purchases and many years of making advantageous buys. 

We’ve weeded and refined our closets, adding to them as some piece, with its perfect color or functional value, is put on the hanger next to the rest.

A closet is ongoing maintenance. Without effective management, however, it can take on a life of its own. 

As with anything it can grow out of bounds (think weedy garden). A neglected closet is robbed of its true worth, furthermore robbing you.

One way to maximize your closet is to utilize each piece for all its worth. In other words, wear what you have and make it work even better for you.

To do this you pull together what you already have. You clinch a look with an accessory like a scarf or an interesting brooch, as a friend does with panache, making brooches her signature look.

You let the way you dress, or a dominant color you wear, be your style. This is, I think, what classic dressing means.

Half your life you don’t want to be considered a classic dresser. At least that’s how it was for me. 

Classic sounded boring. I took it to mean Chanel, conservative hemlines and discreet hound's tooth checks. Nothing was farther from me than that.

Classic dressing suits me now and I like it. It’s just how you interpret what classic is. 

Classic for me is casual and I’m fine with that. When you ace what you wear it’s because it fits who you are. That’s classic defined in the real.

When my sister and I are together next there’s a Pottery Barn catalog for her. She’ll enjoy it. 

Neither of us can totally change out our homes or our closets. (Nor would we want to.) But a fresh look can greatly revive us. It can be done quite easily and without great expenditure of time or money. 

It takes something as simple as one item introduced, or switching an item around. It's a genius system if you think about it. And your home and closet will thank you. 

Ro Giencke – August 13, 2014


Friday, August 8, 2014

Fishing in the slow lane

It’s been a pleasant day of sun and high cloudiness. This has been our weather the past several weeks.

It's been a long string of nice days. We stop and comment to each other about it. “A bunch of beauties,” we nod and say.

It’s starting to be called an exceptional summer. June rains, even with the widespread damage that resulted, contributed hugely to the beauty around us as it turns out. 

Wildflowers and flowers in the simplest of garden settings stand taller than we ever recall due to the bounty of sun and rain.

Though warm temperatures hold, and the days are falling perfectly one after the other, like ripe fruit for the picking, we can tell inroads are being made on the season.

Acorns are falling, there is some slight tingeing to a smattering of leaves and, most significant of all, the sun creeps off to bed earlier each evening.

These signs, taken as a whole, remind us that August shares its beginning letter with autumn and in the end hands summer off to fall.

Another indicator of the time of year is a sign seen on the side of a metro bus the other day. 

Maybe you have to be Minnesotan to know what the sign advertises before you read the other part of the sign that tells you who is paying for the sign.

"As a Minnesotan attendance is pretty much mandatory" is the message. To those in the know (Minnesota natives and Minnesotans by adaptation or adoption) it can only mean one thing.

It means the Minnesota State Fair. It runs August 21 to Labor Day, September 1 this year.

Along with the chuckle the sign provided we agreed that mandatory is a good word. Mandatory is pretty much the only correct word to use in connection with the State Fair.

Obligatory might be a close second if there was a vote. Both words fairly accurately define how seriously we take our State Fair.

Attendance is almost de rigueur at what is arguably Minnesota’s oldest and best annual tradition. 

Mix family reunion with party vibes and throw in multiple foods on a stick (for some, the biggest draw). That's a start. Everyone has something that's favorite at the fair which they go back for each year.

In the meantime there’s plenty of great summer ahead. Some of the best moments are now.

Parks and beaches have been busy ever since it was dry enough to come out and play. And play is what we’ve all been doing to the fullest extent. 

The enjoyments of summer were brought home by a fishing scene we witnessed at a city park. 

Two small boys, maybe ages five and three, were shore fishing with their dad.

The brothers were fishing for panfish. They were having phenomenal luck. They cast and the fish repeatedly took the hook.

The boys were fun to watch. They were very into fishing. With each catch their dad released the fish back into the water.

You could tell the dad was liking this quiet time with his sons. They didn’t chatter or fall in or elbow each other out of the way. 

They cast and caught fish, always turning to him to help take the newest fish off the hook.

Before the dad threw the fish back in the water he took a picture of each boy with his fish. 

It was time slowing down in the best sense. The three were lost to the world in the patterns of casting, catching and companionship.

The younger boy, a natural fisherman by the way he cast, struck a fisherman’s pose when his picture was taken. He held the fish out in front of him and wore his broadest smile.

The camera caught the pride on the boy’s face. In some way the dad also recorded the reflection of his own pride in his two sons. 

The pictures are proof that the boys fished. The photos are testament to a father giving of himself to make his sons happy. 

Lots of good summer stuff is going on. We have delightful weather, low humidity, still generous amounts of daylight and nights that are good sleeping weather. It hardly gets better than this.

August lets you know that, however much you’re in the thick of summer, the season is preparing to wind down. Time takes on an air of appreciation all its own.

Ro Giencke – August 8, 2014


Saturday, August 2, 2014

Painting buddy

Our yard is in continual motion.

Chipmunks dart around shrubbery. Squirrels do their high wire acts on the overhead lines.

The red squirrel count seems higher than what we judged to be a low cycle a couple years back.

I mentioned to Al that by their numbers the chippies and squirrels came through the hard winter fine. He said yes, of course, hibernation is a great asset.

There is also the blur of wings that we occasionally catch. It’s not only the various birds that nest around here, but wild ducks have also raised their families on our pond.

The ducks were here this spring. I thought they moved on. My more watchful husband tells me they’ve been here all the time.

They fly in low through the cover of trees to find the patch of water that remains from our heavy June rains. We see them paddle in their domestic groupings. They apparently regard us as home territory.

When cleaning the stair railings out front there was such a stir in the shrubbery. Chipmunks were playing tag in and out of the bushes. They made quite a commotion.

They’re spunky little rascals and the property damage they can do is in our experience. They better play more quietly or stay farther away from the house. They’ve been advised, let’s say!

Today, an absolutely fabulous first Saturday of August, I got around to painting our pair of Adirondack chairs.

The chairs came with the house and we appreciate them for that. They’re a tie to previous owners who sat in them, as we have, and like us enjoyed the cool breezes under the trees.

Painting the chairs has been on the summer to-do list. We consider it fast work to have the painting done before Labor Day. They do look nice all gleaming again.

The repaint was in white, the original color. It entered my mind to introduce a new color for the chairs.

We see bright lawn chairs wherever we go. They look playful and contemporary but in the end we didn't try new hues. fresh coat of paint is a clean pristine touch that best suits the Adirondack chairs, the yard and us.

The white paint was well brushed onto the backs of the chairs when a leaf on the seat of one of the chairs caught my eye.

I bent to brush the leaf away and realized it was a little tree frog. It was green and cute as a button.  

I went on painting the first chair. The tree frog would be gone when I get to the second chair I figured. 

A smile on my face wasn’t for the excellent brush strokes but for this tiny pal, newly met, who ruled the wood chair like it was a throne.

The tree frog, when the paint can was moved over to the second chair for painting, was still there. It held a more advantageous spot. It hunkered in a crack between the slats in the chair seat.

It was obvious it wasn’t going to budge. My tree frog was a chair frog and a chair frog it intended to be.

Cautiously I painted around it. It didn’t bat an eye. It sat quietly all the while. 

My painting buddy was still claiming its chair when I finished the job.

Ro Giencke – August 2, 2014