One scoop or two? (A quick bite of the manuscript)

Wilcoxson's logo
In Livingston, Montana, we find the slice of heaven where Wilcoxson’s ice cream is made—a nondescript building in a residential neighborhood. When we enter, the receptionist apologizes that tours are not allowed, for health reasons. But from her desk she answers our questions with kindness. Wilcoxson’s is and always has been a Montana product, made only here in Livingston, as well as in Billings—different products at different production facilities. The company was founded in 1912, and the luscious curls of cursive font on its trademark red and white red  logo have never changed. The ice cream is made with only the best ingredients, some local, some ordered from sources on the East Coast. It can only be found in and around Yellowstone, in parts of Montana—but not all of Montana—and northwestern Wyoming.

We thank her and leave. We return to our car, parked out front, and eat lunch. After a few minutes the receptionist runs out. She leans down to the open driver’s side window.

“Here.” She lifts a box containing three Wilcoxson’s Frosty Malt Cups, chocolate flavored. Mr. Wilcoxson, son of the company’s founder and an octogenarian who still comes to work every day to oversee for quality, wanted us to have these.

 

 

Since high school

Here’s one inspired by my recent ten-year high school class reunion. For the writing approach, I tried out the same “we” narration as in “They met us at happy hour.”

For anyone who didn’t graduate with us, a little context: our public high school is in western Wisconsin. Our class was quite white, mostly Christian, and more middle class than not.

Our public high school is in western Wisconsin. Our class was quite white, mostly Christian, and more middle class than not. Our mascot? The Wildcat.

Since high school we’ve grown out our hair. Or we’ve chopped it all off or gone bald or shaved our head for childrens’ cancer research. We’ve lost weight and gained weight and gained weight and lost weight and gained weight and.

We’ve slept with the same person since high school. We’ve come out. We’ve left our virginity Up North, Out West, overseas. We’ve hooked up with a bunch of different people. We’ve followed women and men to the coasts and across oceans, seriously considered converting to Judaism. We’ve had our hearts toasted by love. We’ve divorced and we’ve married—sometimes, each other. We’ve found the love of our life, no doubt. We’ve committed in spite of the questions in the back of our mind. We’ve tried to make it work out. We haven’t found a partner, have often relished that freedom—sometimes ached that loneliness. We’ve watched Facebook and longed for bits and pieces of each other’s lives. We’ve remembered the grass is always greener.

Since high school we’ve kept pretty close to home. We’ve lived, volunteered, and studied abroad. We’ve hopped around a lot for school and work and love. We’ve moved to cities and bought farms. We’ve built houses, moved back in with our parents, and shared more rentals, with more roommates, than we can count on our fingers and toes. We’ve settled. We’ve drifted. We’ve started to take root.

We’ve finished our PhD, master’s, JD, DC, associate’s, bachelor’s. We’ve completed apprenticeships and transferred and dropped out and decided to go back to school and started a certificate program online. We’ve served our country. We’ve been awarded scholarships and internships and grants and fellowships and assistantships. We’ve come to owe the government and the banks thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars in student loans.

We’ve taught your children in elementary school, in college. We’ve nursed your grandmother. We’ve installed the electrical wiring in your home. We’ve been in charge of the venue where you had your wedding, landscaped your yard, served as your neighbor’s public defender. We’ve counseled the people you know are addicts and the people you don’t know are addicts, and the prospective students, and we’ve cleaned your teeth. We’ve fixed your software and sold you a thing or two. We’ve made art you’ve hung in your living room. We’ve written an article you’ve read. We’ve adjusted your spine.

Since high school we’ve lost our moms and our dads. We’ve become people’s moms and dads. We’ve had babies that were born and babies that were lost. We’ve hurt unimaginably. We’ve throbbed and sobbed and kept silent and cried out. We’ve learned how permanent loss usually is. We’ve started to heal, but we’ve come to understand that we can never go back, not quite.

In five smiley minutes of catch-up questions—How are you? What are you doing these days?—we’ve told each other the shiny side of our stories. We’ve withheld what cracks our sleep. But, look: since high school we’ve learned the truth, we’ve all been in the real world. We’ve had our pain and our failures.

We’ve been knocked down a few pegs since high school.

Sooner or later, we all get leveled by what’s beyond our control. Against what’s inevitable we’ve tried to convince ourselves that people remember how good we used to be at chemistry, volleyball, hockey. Nobody cares. We’ve learned how to laugh at ourselves—much better than at each other.

Since high school we’ve lived common experiences across very different lives. In the local paper we’ve read each other’s engagement and wedding and birth announcements. And obituaries. We’ve grieved our friends. Their deaths have punched us in the heart and the gut, reminding us how few somedays could remain, cutting deep down to where we hold all the dreams we’ve deferred.

We’ve tried to take those lessons to heart, or we’ve realized we really should get on with taking those lessons to heart. We’ve decided to head in new directions. We’ve watched ourselves and each other become someone different from what we once were. We’ve grown wise enough to know we can change course, and that’s OK, and what people think doesn’t matter, so long as we’re improving and growing (seriously, finally—fuck what people think).

So we guess you could say that, yeah, we’ve come a long way, since high school. And we still get to choose just where it is we’re headed now, next.

The best part? We’re not as stupid as we used to be, but we’re almost as young.

From our senior yearbook.

From our senior yearbook.

 

If I had a blog all about butter…

This is butter. Eat butter.

Here is butter. Eat butter.

(June is dairy month. I’m from Wisconsin. You knew this was coming.)

If I had a blog all about butter, I would write about the time I lost my innocence:

“Never?”

“No, never,” I respond to the lunch lady at Bogalusa Elementary School in Louisiana. I am 19, here for lunch on a volunteer trip, and have never eaten grits.

She can’t get over my northern lack of exposure. She ladles a hefty dollop of the white-gray sludge from her serving bowl into a square partition on my blue plastic lunch tray. I lift my tray and study the grayish heap.

“Is that it, do I do anything else to them?”

“I like ‘em with butter,” she says. “Want some butter?”

Heh. Do I want some butter? I’m from Wisconsin over here. Now we’re talking.

“Please. Butter makes everything better.” I put out my hand, ready to receive a couple of small golden rectangular packets, butter pads within.

She picks up another ladle, this one submerged in a vat of glistening liquid. It is orange. By the time she’s done pouring, my grits are covered to a depth of half an inch in highlighter-bright grease.

“Enjoy!” She smiles warmly. My “thank you” can hardly be convincing. I appreciate the sincerity of her hospitality, but this is horrifying.

By the time I reach my seat, the surface of the radioactive puddle on my tray has congealed like wax. I wedge out a small portion of the concoction and smile as the teachers and students with whom I’ve been working study me intently: here’s a Northern whose life’s about to be changed. A grits first-timer!

I lift the spoon to my mouth. The layer of waxy grease collapses and melts, oozing into a spoonful of spit-soaked grits to yield me a mouthful of oily, textureless mass. I roll it with my tongue (do I chew this?) and do my best to fake a smile. “Mmm, grits with butter!”

If I had a blog all about butter, the blog would suck, because I would probably just post this New York Times op-ed about butter over and over again:

Bittman writes, “…let’s try once again to pause and think for a moment about how it makes sense for us to eat, and in whose interest it is for us to eat hyperprocessed junk. The most efficient summary might be to say ‘eat real food’ and ‘avoid anything that didn’t exist 100 years ago.’”

If I had a blog all about butter, whenever I wasn’t busy posting and reposting the Bittman op-ed quoted above, I’d quote Julia Child:

“If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.”

And now that summer’s back here in the Northern Hemisphere, and since I recently finished my first batch of homemade ice cream, I would also say, “If you’re afraid of butter, make ice cream.” (I never realized how easy it could be!)

If I had a blog all about butter, you’d have to forgive me whenever I started to sound evangelical. As a friend of a friend recently said, lifting a stick of butter:

“This was made by God, in Wisconsin, with cream.” Then she lifted a tub of margarine. “This was made by God-knows-who, God-knows-where…with God-knows-what.”

If I had a blog all about butter, I would explore how fake butter—margarine, oleo, and other butter substitute products and spreads made with industrially processed vegetable oils or questionably rendered animal fats—ever came to be, anyway.

One explanation of the early butter-fake oleomargarine comes from the book Kitchen Literacy, by Ann Vileisis (thanks, Island Press, for the “blind date” email offer that landed this book on my shelf for free!). In its early days, this version of fake butter was made from by-products of the meat-packing industry:

By Ann Vileisis, published by Island Press (cover from kitchenliteracy.com)

By Ann Vileisis, published by Island Press (cover from kitchenliteracy.com)

“The [oleomargarine] industry grew substantially in 1883 when the Chicago packing houses began to tap their own mammoth fat supplies to make oleomargarine. Beef fat removed during slaughter was washed in water, minced by machine, then pressed through a cloth to yield light yellow oleo oil. The oleo oil was mixed with deodorized lard (hog fat), salt, coloring, and sometimes milk and butter.”

As more and more people left farms for cities, eventually forgetting what butter looked and tasted like, they became more accepting of the industrially produced counterfeit. The market for butter-fakes grew—right alongside industrial producers’ potential for new profits.

If I had a blog all about butter, I would write about the health benefits of eating the gold of dairy. Do you know how contested are the studies that have backed the “be afraid of saturated fat” refrain since the beginning? Do you know how butter can be not just not bad for you—but actually good for you?

Just wait! It won’t be long until we see butter—and other quality, saturated fats—on the latest lists of dietary super foods (right next to blueberries and sardines, I reckon, when Aunt Mary’s wisdom takes hold!). Yeah, of course: don’t let your diet consist of butter ONLY, but don’t be afraid of the stuff. When you want some butter, have some damn butter—and have enough of it to enjoy.

Butter loves you. Butter wants you. You know you want it, too.

If I had a blog all about butter, I would post an annoying number of recipes born on the marketing websites of Wisconsin dairy producers. Why stop at butter, when there’s also cream and sour cream and full-fat yogurt and mascarpone to make your next recipe unforgettably delicious? (I swear they’re not paying me.) Can I help it that the good people of Wisconsin have given us  so many “I-need-to-get-that-recipe-from-you”-inspiring food ideas*?

*BUT, if I had a blog all about butter, I would use an asterisk whenever I posted a delicious recipe that calls for butter alongside the real dietary villains in our midst—sugar and processed grains. That asterisk would be a tiny reminder that, when it comes to baking with sugar and flour—all in moderation (I love to bake, so I know this one’s easier said than done…but saying it’s a start).

Nevertheless, when it comes to doctoring up your steamed veggies (quality fat makes it possible for your body to assimilate vital nutrients!) or frying that morning egg (as my dad would say, there’s nothing like butter to season your cast iron)—or any other time refined sugar’s not involved—butter out!

And, finally, if I had a blog all about butter, it would become clear that, whenever I proclaim my butter-love, I am not even joking.

Really. I am not Paula Deen over here! My love of butter is not a guilty little pleasure. It is not about excusing reckless self-indulgence, or rationalizing bad food choices even if they undermine good health.

See, I don’t view butter as anything to be guilty about. I’ve learned about it, I’ve eaten it, and I’m serious. At the end of the day, butter is…just…better.

Worth a Thousand Words – and More (#tbt)

Hi everyone! I’m excited to share that for the last few months I’ve been working like a madwoman on a brand new Yellowstone manuscript. I can’t wait to share the whole thing, but I’m not there quite yet. Until I am, I thought I’d take advantage of Throwback Thursday and share a visual taste of what I’m up to. The following pictures, paired with quotes from the manuscript, hint at a few of the stories I’ve been working on lately…

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Above: One minute I am doing some tone-deaf singing along with a few nostalgic ‘90s Spice Girls songs—if ya wanna be my lover, ya gotta get with my friends–the next; rattle, clank, clankety clank, screeeeeech. I hit the brake, pull to the shoulder, and step out to examine my car. Hanging from the underside of my Civic and dragging in the gravel on the shoulder, there is a large metal thing.

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Above: The calf pushes up on its legs—the little creature is all legs, it seems—and manages to stay standing a few seconds before its front legs give out simultaneously. It bows for an instant before its back legs collapse, too. The fawn is once again a disorganized heap of brown, spots and legs sprawled on the grass.

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Above: I wish I didn’t need any help. I don’t want to need his hand. But I do. I’m so glad it’s there.

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Above:  Yes, it’s just the three of us out here today. Just us, together with the bison—each to the other, another group of mammals in the sage. This morning rises like cream rises. The summer has begun.

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Above: “I have a saw in my van!” Bob offers from behind us on the trail. “I can bring it over to your campsite tonight.” Earlier, before Bob turned creepy, I made the mistake of responding when he asked which site number was ours.

In Defense of Sardines: Happy 101st Birthday, Great Aunt Mary

Aunt Mary and her siblings

Great Aunt Mary (upper left) and her siblings, c. 1920. Grandpa Koshere was not born yet.

The things my great Aunt Mary credits for her 101 years are love, laughter, humor, blueberries, and sardines (two cans a month).

She was born on this day in 1913 to Slovenian immigrant parents in the Iron Range town of Chisholm, Minnesota. Her youngest brother, Frank, was my father’s father—Grandpa Koshere.

I recently visited her with my dad and stepmom. Before we came she warned us she would look different from last time; it had been a year since they last saw her and four since I did. She still lives in her own apartment on the third floor of an assisted living home, where she’s lived for the last 30 years, but she spent a few days in the hospital four months back. She said she’s lost weight, and her left hand’s no good anymore.

When we arrive she greets us at her front door with her walker. Her body is smaller than it was, but she stands straight. Her hair is still amply shaded by black pigment (it’s eating fresh vegetables, she says, that keeps some natural color in with the gray). Still, I can tell she has lost some of her strength. When we hug, she looks me over and then points down. “Look! I used to have such nice strong hips. Now I can hardly sleep on ‘em, they’re so bony.” Her left hand does seem to be limited these days—stroke? arthritis?—yet her eyes are deep-set and have what I always remember about them—a decisive, enthusiastic shimmer.

We unwrap a package of smoked Lake Superior ciscoes, a loaf of marble rye, and a bouquet of yellow flowers. She makes us coffee and serves us cupcakes—she baked them, and made the frosting, last night—and as we peel the skin and bones out of our smoked fish, Aunt Mary tells us stories.

She tells us about when my grandfather, Frank, and their brother Vic went off to the War together. There was that one night in France when Frank was standing guard, and it was so cold. He was so cold he wet his pants. He was so cold he couldn’t raise his arm to salute the commanding officer, a real devil of a guy. He worried he might be court-martialed for that.

When Frank and Vic came back from the war, Aunt Mary’s husband got them jobs in the mines in Chisholm, and they came to live with her family on the farm. Every month Frank and Vic paid $40 each for room and board. Aunt Mary would use twenty and save twenty.

On the farm she slaughtered pigs and made sausage. She fed Frank and Vic good bone-broth soup and baked them apple strudels. When Vic moved to Milwaukee a year later, and Frank a few months after that, for a factory job at Harnischfeger, Aunt Mary gave each one the savings that grew from his $20 a month. They had eaten well living with her, and before they moved her husband took them each to a men’s department store to fit them for some new clothes.

She weaves back and forth in this story. She often returns to when they first came home from the War. They were so skinny. She told them, “Tonight you’ll stay in a house and have a warm bed and a good meal.” Her eyes fill and shine. My dad’s and mine follow.

“When they got home from the War they were boys,” she says. “When they left me they were men.”

Her stories of my grandfather are in some ways an exception for Aunt Mary; we know when Grandpa Koshere was born, when he went to the War, and when he passed (I never knew him: lung cancer, 1984). But something I rarely know about her other stories is when in the last 101 years they took place.

There was the lake she used to swim across. One time—it must have been in eight, nine, feet of water—she looked down and saw a boat on the bottom, all filled with sand. She called up the boys, and they were able to get that boat out of the lake and hauled up on shore. The boys put the boat up on the hill for her, and she filled it with soil and flowers. From that point on everyone called it Mary’s garden. She planted so many flowers in that boat over the years.

Listening to her is like going swimming with her, flowing from 1927 to 1983 to 1949 to 1998, and perhaps all in the same breath. Decades ago, days ago? You never quite know.

So I can’t relay the chronology of when she found that boat at the bottom of the lake, or begin to guess who she means when she refers to the boys; there are a lot of family members I don’t know. But I do know how those people and those stories made her feel, how they make her feel still. Does it matter if she’s talking about 1972 or 1930? She’s laughing now. She’s crying now. What persists are the feelings of things.

The difficulty of knowing the dates of her stories has a lot to do with the pace of them. Aunt Mary speaks with urgency, and one story flows into the next before you realize she could very well be on to a new decade, or generation. You can tell the end of one story from the beginning of another when her emotion flares: she chuckles, or her eyes start to glisten. Sometimes she says something reflective like, “I sure had a lot of good experiences. We had lots of fun.”

Then, a sliver of a pause—and it’s on to the next tale. It seems her pace only increases the more stories she tells. There is so much to share, and only so much time for sharing. She can’t form the words fast enough. Suddenly her telling is doing something noticeable to her whole physical presence. Her eyes shine, her forehead rises, and her voice speeds.

There’s a good word for Aunt Mary as storyteller: lively. Of life. As she approaches the edge of a lifetime, I can’t help but see her stories as her vitality itself. To watch her tell them, you know they keep her blood hot, they keep her voice on. Her stories give life to a grandfather I never knew. They bring flowers back to gardens long gone. They return her, and they ground her.

Her stories are the life she stands on.

Aunt Mary’s vitality is a teacher for me. What matters more than stories, I wonder? But then I think of how lucky Aunt Mary truly is. She’s a rare one who lives, this long, to tell the tale. What happened to the stories that preceded her? And what’s going to happen to hers? Does a lifetime of stories set like the sun?

Think of all the stories that are gone—paper burned, ink blotted, memory lost. Think of all the voices that no longer exist to tell them: disaster, famine, war, genocide. Think of all the, all the, stories obliterated from this planet. What, really, do hers—do any of ours—matter?

The letter Aunt Mary received from President Obama on the occasion of her 100th birthday thanked her for the vital contribution her life has made to the American narrative.

The American narrative. That’s an idea I want to take comfort in: the threads of her stories live on in a broader tapestry. But is that all? Is that enough? Her story contributed to the American narrative, but her people came from Slovenia. Another letter arrived for her on her 100th birthday; it was in Slovenian, and she could read it. Hers is also an immigrant narrative, and a Minnesotan. A Catholic’s and a woman’s. A story can be named and named.

Naming the universals of a life’s story gives me comfort and discomfort, and for the same reason: we call out the universals because our details will, someday, be lost. We’re going to lose them, or our children will, or our great niece will.

In the face of all that, Aunt Mary’s stories teach me:

What stories do is end.

What stories do is keep on.

What stories do is find new details.

And what we live for, what our stories and our voices are for while they’re here, are the details.

Happy 101st birthday, Aunt Mary.

Dad, Aunt Mary, and me

April 5, 2014: Dad, Aunt Mary, and me

Questions I Have for Whales

Gray whale

Do you see the gray whale? This one’s headed north, to eat. Point Loma, California, beyond.

I recently went on a wildlife tour from San Diego to view gray whales. Every year, gray whales swim one of the world’s longest marine mammal migrations: from 5-6,000 miles, each way, between their summer feeding grounds north of the Aleutian Islands and the warm lagoons of Baja California. At this transition time of the season, in waters so close to Baja, the whales we found might be headed in either direction. Yet whenever we spotted a whale, our captain and guides were quick to assess: “Here’s one still making its way south,” or “This pair’s headed north.”

My first question: how did they know with such clean confidence where a given whale was going, which part of the journey it was doing?

The answer: You know by which way the whale is headed. North? North. South? South. The whale goes where it’s facing; the whale faces where it’s going.

Huh! Are we sure it’s not more complicated? This seems too simple. I thought of the many questions I’ve asked about place and direction and orientation in my life, and those of my friends—especially at this life stage.

What makes it so simple for the whales? What talks to them, says, Go this way? From whom and from where is that original voice?

I’m no marine biologist. I imagine there’s nuance here that I don’t know and can’t understand. But I find myself envious. I envy the seeming simplicity of their orientation. If my friends and I were whales, what would we look like to a boat of eager tourists? We’d be spinning, swimming in big circles and small circles, cruising back and forth between two or three or four or more places. We’d be ridiculous as whales! The whale guides from the natural history museum would frown. They would say, “This behavior is puzzling. They’re wasting precious blubber. Who knows how these whales expect to survive to eat and mate and calve.”

Of course, whales we are not. But are our wanderings anything like their migrations? What tells us, too, to move? Is it the same voice that talks to them?

And perhaps biggest of all my questions: what’s the voice that says, OK, you can stop now. To them? To us?