Tuesday, September 30, 2014

To Red Cloud and back

September has been a mix of different things including a recent trip West. 

It wasn’t bigtime West as one thinks of the magnificence of mountain peaks or the sublime shimmer of turning aspens along steep canyons but that’s not the point. 

Our rambles put us across the Missouri River and for me that’s where the West in attitude and inclination begins.

The trip was fun and relaxing with many sights seen and things done. It started out as a chance to visit a few places we’ve wanted to see for a long time.This included (my choice) Red Cloud, Nebraska.

Red Cloud is the girlhood home of Willa Cather, the author who through books like My Antonia helped me to appreciate the prairies and Great Plains. 

Before I found Cather my conception of the Great Plains, and Nebraska in particular, was not favorable. You usually can’t fathom what you don’t experience, and this was an area I didn’t know firsthand.

The vast region which slopes to the Rockies held no romance for me, and therefore no interest, until Cather’s words transferred its color and reality from the turned pages to my mind. 

Once latching on to the idea of prairie as beautiful in its way the prairie with its native grasses, history and culture has become a subject of growing and continuing interest to me.

Willa Cather came to Nebraska at nine from the verdant state of Virginia. Transplanted at an impressionable age she was to find and mine in Nebraska all the material she would need for her writings. 

Many of her novels are set, or set in part, in this marginally populated region which many years later, and not so very flatteringly, came to be called “flyover country.”  

Her descriptions of the land, hospitable and challenging by nature and by the season, with its bounty of planted orchards and field crops, and winters of wind and hunkering down on widely scattered farms amid creeks and arroyos, cracked open this part of the world to me. 

It was as if I physically annexed these millions of acres of the middle West to my own Midwest perspective.  

Farewell  I 35 and 80 70, this time we aren’t going to use you, we said. And we mostly stuck to our word, resisting the convenience of the interstate systems which expedite travel time. 

Instead, we studied maps for state or county roads that linked the small towns. The routes were sometimes winding and sometimes slow but they put us smack dab in the countryside and this suited us perfectly this time.

We especially enjoyed the designated scenic byways. Iowa's Highway 44 is named the Western Skies Scenic Byway. It’s a name to thrill to. 

The name is evocative of the big skies we came for and the long horizons that are a nightly show as the sunset spreads its flame for all to see.

As we pointed the car toward Nebraska it came to me why my folks went West every fall. They went in September after the summer place was shut at Labor Day and the family, from all our different places, had made our summer visits.

They went West when grasses start to get that burnished color and leaves are starting to turn. 

Their long driving vacations in the mild Western air under cloudless skies would have been a tonic to them, facing (like all Minnesotans) the long winter ahead.

They could get the sun-stoked West deep into them before settling in back at home and waiting for flurries to announce the next season.

Travel educates is the conclusion we come to every time.On the return we visited Kansas City with its fountains, plaza district, art galleries, and so many other places to take time for, that another trip specific to Kansas City is in order.

Northern Missouri is the country of Jesse James, Calamity Jane and horse-drawn buggies (among local farms are those who practice simpler ways.) Southern Iowa is the birthplace of labor activist John L. Lewis.

Red Cloud, Nebraska, the original impetus for the trip, proved to be the means of finding many other places and personalities, past and present. 

Sights and names pique interest and lead to self-directed learning. City is good, and the places one lives, but there are times when to be out in open spaces fills us with the whole sense of being alive.

Fall here proceeded apace in our absence. The deck was half buried in fallen yellow leaves. The leaves were soggy, indicating a shower had passed through rather recently. 

Trip completed, it’s always good to be home as I step out to sweep off leaf debris.

Ro Giencke – September 30, 2014

Thursday, September 18, 2014

September carves a memory

Everything quickly shifts with the new school year. 

The neighborhood quiets in the absence of kids who are gone for a good portion of the day.

It’s not that their presence especially registers in the summer. 

Gone are the times when the young are seen and heard in outside play that can go on all day. 

So it’s not an abrupt change in activity that one notes. But somehow, nevertheless, with September a pronounced stillness settles over the tree-lined streets and rows of homes up and down the block.

My sister and I were commenting on this. I mentioned the older students who are at the curb each morning for their bus.

We usually don’t have the drapes open that early, but sometimes we do, and then there are glimpses of them as they step quickly in a marvel of timing that shaves it incredibly close. 

Teens perfect that timing, as we recall how it was with our kids as they met their bus.

She and I keep an interest in the young ones around us. They’re maybe not front and center in our attention at this juncture in our lives but they’re much more than background in our lives. 

They’re part of the important fabric of our surroundings. They shape our wider community.

We may not know all their names or instantly recognize them as neighbors if we were to meet in the store. But we’re aware of their young healthy forms as they walk past our houses. 

We mentally wish them well in their studies and elsewhere as the road of life moves them along.

“Probably our neighbors had the same interest in us when we walked to school,” I throw out to my sister. She likes that idea. She says yes, that’s probably so.

At grade school age we weren’t cognizant of those neighbors whose places we went by as we trudged along, a little family group, with an exact number of minutes to get  to the street corner so the school patrol would let us cross before the school bell rang.

There weren’t neighbor children to walk to school with. We were the school kids these neighbors saw day after day, always the same group, shuffling along if we had an early start, or hurrying our pace if late out the door.

They possibly noted us out their windows or from their gardens and knew the time by the consistency with which we came past.

She and I laughed when one of us brought up the name of an elderly bachelor neighbor and suggested he might have been among those who watched us go by.

He was a character and somewhat of a mystery but we accepted him from the few facts known of him. 

We didn’t know his age or if he was retired or if he had ever held a job. Kids generally accept what is, and don’t particularly wonder about what isn’t filled in.

That comes later when we have time to think about past acquaintances. 

We take them apart in their aspects as we have them in mind. Sometimes, and often, we see them differently afterwards and with greater respect. This comes from having experienced, in the meantime, a great deal of life.

This neighbor was nearest to us on our west. His home, a big white family residence shaded by venerable oaks, stood imposingly on a rise of land between our property and the elementary school.

The south slope of his hill, along which we filed past, because that’s where the sidewalk was, was banked with sumacs whose bright red cones will always be the picture of September to me.

He was apt to be outside in fair weather which is why we saw him frequently in the pleasant fall days or again in the mild weather of spring. He was almost always with a pipe, holding it or smoking it.

He lived with his two sisters who were also unmarried. He might have been in his 60s. The sisters were several years older. 

One can imagine that quite often he found the fresh air healthy for him. It provided a place of separation from domestic life inside. It was possibly the only place he was able to smoke his pipe.

They were Irish, and proud of it, and very musical. The mother, long deceased, had been organist at the Catholic church.

The oldest sister, lustrous white hair scraped back and secured in a bun low at the back of her head, was tall and had a commanding personality. 

She taught piano in the home. She was the extrovert, the one who liked to visit.

The younger sister, soft and round, gray hair wound in a braid on top of her head,  with sometimes a shawl over her sweater, nodded agreeably as her major contribution to the conversation.

She was a smiling, kindly, gentle presence as she kept her hands busy with crocheting or other handwork.

These scenes with the sisters are of the future when we got to know them better and went to see them on occasion. In grade school it was the bachelor brother we saw, and often heard, as he played on his xylophone. 

The xylophone was set up on a lower terrace of their yard. It was a short distance from their house. It faced our place. What he played traveled clearly to our yard.  

He had a pet Chihuahua which was his dear companion. Unfortunately for our ears the dog barked a lot. 

We heard considerable barking from that direction when we played outside after school. The barking and the music always let us know our neighbor and his dog were out.

It was our first acquaintance with a Chihuahua. We didn’t think much of this breed of dog. It exhibited nervous energy along with its constant yipping.

Not many families had pets in our part of town. Dogs that were pets tended to be pretty mellow or were hunting dogs trained for fall pheasant or duck hunting. 

A little dog all ambitious with noise to make was a novelty to us.  

Along with his music and his Chihuahua (whose name my sister remembers and tells me of when I forget - so handy to have another’s memory working for you!) this neighbor had one other interest that we knew of, and in later years our family was the recipient of the output of his pleasurable pastime.

He had a hobby of woodcarving. His carvings of birds and animals were whimsical and intimate. They were folk art but we didn’t know the term then.

He must have spent hours carving these various figures. He carved farm animals and more exotic creatures like giraffes with long thin wood necks. 

It’s easy to see him taking satisfying puffs of his pipe as he worked. Almost surely his dog was companionably at his side.

Prompted by the visit with my sister I ponder the long progression of students back to school each year to a new round of academics and playground friendships.

I consider the adults who, for as long as there have been students going to school, have observed and encouraged them from a distance or near at hand.

In the neighborhood hush of a new school year we listen with our ears and hearts. A new crop of scholars heeds the summons of the familiar peals of the school bell. 

Ro Giencke - September 18, 2014

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Goodbye summer

Reading magazines on the deck yesterday after supper smacked of wonderful indulgence.

Mild sunlight filtered through the high green branches to dapple the pages I turned with leisurely interest. 

It was like stolen time to be outside in the last of the day’s warmth at the end of the season.

The reading session was particularly appreciated because that’s it for deck time for awhile.

A chilly jab of northern air is headed our way. Signs of the season are everywhere. (Even three wooly bears seen today with their black and brown stripes are part of the signs.)

One way or the other these signals of the season are there to be interpreted and heeded. We’re moving into fall.

With reluctance backed by common sense I’m ditching the summer shorts until next year. 

Even more than the leaves starting to turn, in a few bold splashes here and there, wrap-up of summer is defined by me by the packing away of shorts.

It’s goodbye summer. Balmier stretches may return, bringing more lukewarm weather in the days to come, but this first chilly outbreak is reality knocking on the door. 

It tells us there’s now no turning back, even with a few reprieves granted us.

Fifty degree temperatures intensified by 30 mph winds will make midweek a taste of mid-October. As much as I like pumpkin time it’s a jolt to move so quickly to the further end of fall’s spectrum.

Wanting to hold on to summer, or at least to slow it down, was no doubt behind an impulse purchase made today on a trip that ostensibly started out to return some library books.

Yellow flip flops at Old Navy had summer written all over them. They made a snazzy pair in their sales bin where they shared discounted prices with other footwear which hadn’t made it out of the store during beachwear season.

In the gloom of skies expectant with rain the pop of yellow tantalized me. The flip flops couldn’t be passed up.

My only thought was to take them home with me, put them on then and there and dance with them in the little patch of summer they create wherever they step.

Descend into the chilly zone tomorrow if we must, on my feet are sandals the color of a field of sunflowers. I can now embrace eternal summer with the insouciance supplied by my bargain footwear.

With the forecast for cooler temperatures my closet has been briefly inspected. Sweaters that have had their seasonal rest are being reviewed for the wearing they soon will get.

Summer is in my blood which makes my conscience twinge at the delight which awaits in reuniting with my sweaters.

Luxury may be described in terms of diamonds and stretch limos. For me chunky knits and oversize cotton cardigans have the same luxurious effect.

Clothes closets aren’t the only areas inside the home being opened for seasonal review. Bedding here in the Midwest is rotated as well. 

Breathable bed linens and light summer spreads are stowed to be replaced by warmer layering including blankets. 

This seasonal succession of bedding items culminates in the comforters which make bedrooms veritable scenes of hibernation. We snuggle deep into the quilted coziness when the thermometer nosedives, as it predictably will before long. 

All of this is gratifying in a Martha Stewart way (or like that other methodical, efficient, industrious and organized Martha, sister of Mary in the New Testament.)

There is consummate satisfaction in effectively managing one’s home according to the season. 

With the summer ship pulling out of port, as ice crystals form over polar regions, the changeover in our house to indoor time has begun.

Ro Giencke – September 9, 2014



Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Summer on a stick (record-breaking 2014 Minnesota State Fair)

We almost got to the Minnesota State Fair this year but as it turns out we weren't really needed. 

Without our help 2014 goes into the books with a new State Fair attendance record set. Thank you to the 1.8 million visitors (and then some) and the gorgeous August weather for making this record possible.

The Minnesota State Fair, our final summer hurrah before school begins and fall arrives, really did itself big this year.

Our State Fair is one of the standout state fairs in the country. It has some of the highest attendance numbers even without the count that we put in this year. 

I won't discount Texas, and certainly not Iowa, and a handful of other states who also know how to throw a State Fair party. We're all states that esteem our State Fairs and each with its particular foods and flair.

The Minnesota State Fair retains its draw even as its expands and modernizes. I think this is in part because it manages to keep its down home feel. 

The twelve days it runs are full of events that stay the same with changes introduced that keep the State Fair evolving.

It's a place for food on a stick (it's the stuff that legends are made of) and many other kinds of food and dining venues. You can fare well at our Minnesota State Fair.

Many visitors make a beeline for the Miracle of Birth birthing barn. Farm animals are born and we get to watch. 

It brings us in touch with our rural heritage which is only a couple generations removed (or even less) for plenty of us.

We can see the horses, chickens and bunnies which have their bucolic appeal in the midst of so much Fair clangor.

We can sit in on the judging of farm animals carefully raised for showing at the fair by dedicated youngsters who tend them and come with them to the fair.

We can buy tickets for Grandstand performances, try our luck on the Midway and do the rides. We can check out the homemade jellies and carrot cake and marvel at the array of bars, a Minnesota baking tradition.

One can assess the local art scene (the art exhibit hall is a stop I always make), sample Minnesota wines and get a health check or meander through the global market, not to be missed.

We can chat with our politicians (the ones we vote for and the others ones, those for whom we don't.) 

Each candidate who visits the State Fair (an important place for them to be seen) likely views each of us as a possible vote and a golden opportunity come November.

We voters can discuss directly with the candidates our issues or concerns. Politics at the State Fair is a proving ground for democracy at its truest and most grassroots level. 

We can buy some useful or clever item from the commerce building (or elsewhere) that we don't know how we ever lived without before its marvels were demonstrated to us. 

The State Fair is a chance to revisit favorite places from all the times before. It's a small city to explore. Wear athletic shoes and be prepared to hike a few miles. 

Another helpful tip: locate the patches of shade (they're scattered across the grounds) and all air-conditioned buildings. Someday you'll appreciate you did your homework.

In 90 degree heat (last year six days were in the 90s at the State Fair, and we were there sweltering on the hottest of those days) you'll want to know how to escape the sun.

Local TV stations broadcast their nightly news programs live from locations around the State Fair. Show up at news time and you might be on TV as as part of the TV audience.

A bench to sit on feels wonderful by late afternoon when the news programs begin. Be in the front rows if you can. They're closer to the food samples that will be passed out sometime in the program courtesy of the many different food venders. 

The local stations do a fabulous job of promoting the fair (as do the local papers, in a concerted effort to present to the metro community the State Fair adventures that await.)

There are on-site interviews and interesting facts shared about the fair. This detailed and varied coverage lets everyone attend, even those in front of our TVs as it was for us this year. 

When I'm at the Minnesota State Fair I always think of old family friends of ours. They didn't miss a year, not even when it got difficult for them to walk and to be on their feet for any period of time.

They loved the State Fair. They put up with the heat and inconveniences because they looked forward to it with the eagerness that never stales. 

They wouldn't have missed the Minnesota State Fair for the world. They loved it because it was their tradition. 

Do anything once and enjoy it, then do it again and you have the start of a tradition, no matter what it is.

Tradition aligns you in a way that feels right and proper. It sets you straight with your world to have some tradition that matters to you. It says something to you that may be only a whisper to others or heard not at all.

For roughly a third of Minnesota the State Fair we embrace is not a whisper and it surely doesn't go unheard.

It's a robust call-out to find ourselves and find each other each year as summer slides into September and another school year begins. Students are in the classrooms the very next day after the final day, which is always Labor Day. 

Seeing the Minnesota State Fair come to an end makes the last bite of our desserts on a stick taste both sweet and bittersweet.

Ro Giencke - September 3, 2014