My mother lived 600 miles from me and before she passed, she would come for a visit once or twice a year. At the end of one of her trips, we were driving to the airport on 465 which suddenly transformed into a virtual parking lot, as we were delayed for an hour in stop-and-go traffic. What a pain! How would we ever make it to the airport the mandatory two hours before take-off? As my blood pressure rose, mile after hot muggy mile, I wondered what could possibly be so important as to inconvenience hundreds of motorists with equally tight schedules.
Then I saw it. Bridge construction! No accident. No stalled car. No crime in progress. Just routine bridge construction. When I settled into the notion that we were just going to crawl toward the airport for a while, it occurred to me that I have never seen bridge construction happening during a thunderstorm, a wind advisory, a snowstorm, or a tornado. Engineers and construction workers alike know that the time to fortify a bridge is during fair weather.
Bridge construction may be a pain in the neck, but consider the alternative: no bridge at all or one that is not safe. When a bridge’s maintenance is neglected, it isn’t long before stress cracks appear. When the traffic gets extraordinarily heavy or the elements get violent, those hairline fractures grow and could cause the entire structure to crumble.
What perfect imagery for how to build and maintain a life. Into every life, a little rain must fall. Storms come to everyone at some time along the way. The time to build friendships and plug into nurturing situations is during fair weather, during the good times. Relationships are the rebar of the bridge, the foundation of the support columns, the strength of the concrete.
What does bridge construction look like in your life?
The best storyteller in our home is my husband. This piece hopes to capture a few of the stories he has told and retold over the years, although I am sure they won’t carry the humor with which originally delivered. Karl has a way with words and a true appreciation for weaving details and delivering a punch line that I can only aspire to. But here goes.
Will Rogers once said, “There are three kinds of men in this world. The one who learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”
I’ll let you guess which one I am.
There was that time I walked home from Kindergarten in the middle of the school day, across Arlington and then across 38th Street. I scared my mom half to death when she turned around from hanging clothes on the line to see her five-year-old little boy standing behind her, a long time after she had sent me to school. I told her I didn’t like my teacher because she was young and pretty. She marched me right back to school (they didn’t even realize I was gone) and talked the office into switching to the plump grandma-like Kindergarten teacher. I happily went to school every day after that.
The time I tried to fly using an old woven aluminum lawn chair and balloons I blew up myself. Incidentally, it didn’t work. As kids growing up in the 1950s, “Lawn Chair Larry” and I may have been dreaming of the same big adventure. But unlike me, he actually achieved his dream decades later by attaching 43 helium balloons to a chair and floating almost 16,000 feet up. I had to settle for imagining I could fly up and over my neighborhood. In my mind’s eye, I could see myself floating above the rooftops and surveying Drexel Avenue and the alleys below.
The time the seventh-grade-me told my dad I was growing a beard. My sideburns had grown in over the summer into soft blonde peach fuzz on my cheeks. My dad caught me admiring this new development as I said, “I think I’ll grow a beard.” Bob didn’t hesitate and in a low baritone voice, “The hell you are.” And I didn’t. Until I was out of the house.
One time I was camping with my friend Dan down by the Muscatatuck River, and he used a rubber glove as an oven mitt to lift the kettle of boiling water off the campfire. I remember I watched him in slow motion put on the glove and reach for the handle of the steaming pot. I thought to myself, “That can’t be right.” Then I heard a yelp that brought me back into real-time. One of those physics lessons that will stick with a guy.
The time I called Paul McCartney on the phone at his MPL office. I am not sure what possessed me. I had been a fan of the Beatles since I was a kid. Paul McCartney inspired me to learn to play the bass and choose music for a career. One day, out of the blue, I picked up the phone and called the number listed for his London office. A woman answered, his secretary I presumed. I was shocked and scrambling for words simply said, “Yes, is he in?” She said, “Oh I’m sorry, you just missed him. Can I help you?” I proceeded to warn her about an ad I had seen in a music magazine selling Beatles satin tour jackets. I told her I knew tour jackets hadn’t been a thing during the years the Beatles were touring, so these must be scam artists trying to profit off the Beatles’ name. She was very polite, thanked me, and said they’d look into it. I’m not sure what I would have done if she had let me talk to him!
The time we played Legend Valley Ohio, or was it the Minnesota State Fair, and the roadie wouldn’t let me hold Willie Nelson’s Martin guitar, Trigger. I swear the guy was 9 feet tall and very determined looking. I asked. He just shook his head “No.” That was that.
The time our instruments and equipment were impounded in Lubbock, Texas because the club owner hadn’t paid his taxes. We were able to straighten it out the next day, but it scared the bejeebies out of us! Note to self: always pay your taxes.
The time I totaled an antique stagecoach. (No, I was not born in the 1800s.) The band was doing a photo shoot and had arranged to use a Wells Fargo stagecoach as the backdrop. None of us knew a thing about horses or any vehicle one might hitch them to. When we arrived, the horses were leisurely grazing in the adjacent pasture, happily minding their own business. I heard that they rounded them up using mini-bikes and circus whistles of all things, so they were not so leisurely by the time the hitching process began. By the time we climbed aboard, the horse collars were in place, but no bridles and bits! The photographer snapped his first photo and the sound of the shutter must have been reminiscent of the sound that a rattlesnake makes just before he strikes because those horses took off like they were running for their lives. I was in the driver’s seat pulling on those reins with all my might. To no avail. Because there were no bits or bridles! We rounded the corner to the barn and the stagecoach started to tip. We all jumped off and hit the gravel driveway at a full gallop. When I landed, I blew the seat out of my jeans and chipped my ankle. Tim drove me to the hospital and we wondered aloud just what we would tell them at the registration desk when they asked about the nature of our injuries. The photos hit the Associated Press and the story spread on the wire across America. Our 15 minutes of fame I guess.
Then there was the time we drove to New York City to play on the NBC Today Show. We had just signed with Warner Brothers and ICM, and we had a song on the Billboard Top 40. We were finally riding a wave of success after years of toiling in clubs six nights a week. Goes without saying, we were feeling a little full of ourselves. And then, as if God himself snuck up behind us and tapped us on the shoulder with a crash course in humility, our server at the Star Café put his thumb in our cottage cheese. On purpose. Scowling. Note to self: Always be respectful to your servers. Especially in New York City. But really, anywhere. Be kind to your server.
There was that one time I kicked Tom Wright in the head. Not on purpose of course. Let me set this up. We were recording an album in Nashville, Tennessee, and the three of us were standing in the isolation vocal booth. Recording albums is a tedious process with lots of takes and retakes and waiting and retakes and listening back and tweaks and audibles and listening back. I guess it had been a long day and I didn’t know it, but Tom’s back was hurting him. In the pitch-dark booth, recording our vocals, we stood in the same order as on stage: me on the left, Tom in the middle, and Tim on the right. The door out of the booth was on Tim’s side. I didn’t know it but between takes, Tom had laid down on the floor in hopes of alleviating the pain in his back. We finished a take and the engineer said, “Come on back in. Let’s listen to that one.” Tim turned and walked out the door. I put my headphones on the mic stand, turned to walk out, and WHAM! A blood-curdling scream came from out of the darkness! Startled I screamed back! It was a little bit like the scene from ET where Drew Barrymore’s character and ET spot each other for the first time. Tom: “BUB! WHY’D YOU KICK ME?” Me: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING ON THE FLOOR?” And the guys in the sound booth: “WHAT HAPPENED? WHAT’S GOING ON? EVERYONE OKAY?” It seems the very pointy toe of my brand new western boot had caught Tom right on the top of his head with the force of a soccer forward!
The time we warmed up for Dolly Parton and she ended up in the hospital. It was the summer of 1982 and the band had the awesome privilege of playing the Indiana State Fair Grandstand ahead of Dolly Parton. She fell ill during the concert, was taken to the hospital, and had a hysterectomy due to endometriosis the next day. She was 36 years old. What was an exciting night for us personally and professionally, turned out to be a life-changing heart-breaking day for her. She never did have children and she suffered from depression for a long time after that day. Goes to show you never know what’s going on behind the scenes in a person’s life, you might as well be kind to everyone.
The time I ran over myself with the car I was driving. I was in Minnesota taking my little boys fishing. I borrowed Grandma’s car and headed for the lake. At the top of the drive, I stopped to open the gate. I set the emergency brake (which no one told me hadn’t worked in years), put it in neutral, and got out to unchain the lock. Walker (age 6) and Jackson (age 3) unbuckled their seat belts and stood up, excited to finally be at the lake and ready to go fishing. I walked around to the front of the old Honda Civic. As I reached for the chain and padlock, I noticed a crew of men working in the yard next to the beach property. About that time, I heard one of them say, “Oh-oh!” There was no time to react, no time to turn around and see it coming. Now rolling at a pretty good clip down the steep driveway, the car hit me in the small of the back and threw me up on the hood. My head flew back and shattered the center of the windshield, leaving me spread-eagle atop the hood of the little car, the back of my head lodged in the dent of shattered safety glass. The sky was so bright, like looking directly into a grand opening searchlight. Then in an instant…BAM! The diagonal pipe of the gate smashed into my upper lip. And again…BAM! The same pipe caught the bottom of my nose, collapsing it and pushing it off to the right in that Z formation. And then…SCRRRAAAPE…across my forehead, before it came to rest at the very top of the windshield, preventing the car from traveling down the driveway between the trees and into the lake. All of this happened in less than five seconds. In the blink of an eye. I ended up with a broken nose, but the boys were not injured.
The time we played at a casino on Christmas Day. We flew out of Indianapolis on Christmas Day morning and played that night in Reno Nevada. It was a surreal experience leaving our Christmas traditions in Indiana and walking into a casino just a few hours later to see people gambling, drinking, and in general ignoring the fact that it was Christmas Day. It was like we had landed on another planet. We’ll never forget it.
The time I found myself in the middle of a gunfight and police foot chase in Terre Haute. I was scheduled to do a service at a little church on North 13th Street on Sunday morning. By the time I arrived, it was the middle of the night after a long drive from a Knightsmen gig in Rushville about 200 miles away. The pastor had assured me the key to the church was in its usual hiding spot. But it wasn’t. It was now approaching 3 am and, dressed in all black, I was crawling around on my hands and knees looking for the key when a shadowy figure sprinted past the church and into the darkness. A moment later, a couple of policemen followed with guns drawn in hot pursuit. I was glad they didn’t see me. After the service the next day, daylight revealed bullet holes in the front door of the church. I’m sure there is a bigger story here; I was just glad to get out of town in one piece.
The time I split my pants on the platform doing a Sunday morning service. After church, the pastor’s wife asked if I would like to change my pants before heading out to lunch. Unknown to me, I guess I had played the entire service with the back of my dress slacks split right up the back! Talk about keeping me humble!
The time they found me sitting on the hood of my car playing guitar on the mean streets of East Chicago. I was waiting for someone to unlock the church, so I could load in and set up for a service the next morning. The caretaker arrived and hurried me into the building and locked the door behind us. His message was loud and clear: I was very lucky not to have been assaulted and/or robbed doing something so blatantly silly. The pastor of the church was also a part-time bus driver in that neighborhood, so we had that in common. But his stories were nothing like my petty complaints. One little girl on his route got a bike for Christmas, but couldn’t use it for fear of having it stolen. It was not unusual for a child on this bus route to be killed in some random gang violence. One boy tried to start him on fire while he was driving the bus in an effort to let him know who was boss.
Did I ever tell you about the time I was driving school bus and a fight broke out on the bus, then a bigger fight broke out when one of the dads got on the bus to break it up? From age 55 to 65, I drove a school bus. Ten long years. Those early morning hours were definitely not ideal for a night owl musician like me. But with two active boys at home, we needed health insurance, and I went where they offered the best coverage for the best price, while allowing me the flexibility to continue the music ministry. I had spent my whole life in music and ministry, so bus driving was brand new for me. For starters, passing the CDL drivers test was, shall we say, a challenge for me. The license branch clerks knew me by name by the time I finally passed it. I’m not exaggerating. They teach you a lot about air brakes, just a little about handling children, and virtually nothing about dealing with their parents. I learned a few things from my time as a bus driver. First and foremost, even the best kids are at their absolute worst when riding the school bus. Kids are usually altogether different on the bus than the little angels their parents believe they are. Secondly, the people driving school buses are some of the most interesting, dependable, and patient people on the face of the earth. Most of them have more than one occupation and are often living out their passions during their off time. The responsibilities of the person driving the little darlings to their future run a wide gamut, everything from comforting the Kindergartner on the first day of school, to memorizing all the children’s names and addresses even when they can’t tell you where they live, to keeping children safe when they get on and off the bus (crossing your fingers that some idiot doesn’t blow through the stop arm), to watching out for distracted drivers in a hurry on their cell phones, to keeping one eye on the weather and the other on the teenager dressed in black standing in the dark at the end of his driveway, to making sure kids stay in their seats and not bully each other (without laying a hand on them), all while enduring a noise level probably deemed medically dangerous. I also learned to laugh. A lot. Like the time I reached up to close the ceiling vents on the school bus and my pants fell down around my ankles. Luckily there were no children on the bus. But the security cameras WERE rolling. Aren’t you glad you don’t have the job of monitoring all that footage?
And finally, there was a time I did a service on Christmas morning at the Pendleton Correctional Facility. I was about ready to wrap it up when a surly-looking huge black man stood and asked me if he could sing a song. What could I say? He stood head and shoulders over me. I handed him the mic and he proceeded to tenderly deliver the most beautiful high tenor version of Silent Night I have ever heard. You could hear a pin drop in that room. When he finished, there was not a dry eye in the place. The next Christmas Day when I returned to the prison, I looked for Dwayne. Turns out he had been released after serving nine years in prison for a rape he did not commit. The following year he was dead. Cancer. But I never will forget that Silent Night. The Bible describes angels as large powerful protectors and messengers. Just like Dwayne.
The first book I remember reading was when we were still on the farm so I might have been 9 or 10 years old. It was called Gopher Tails for Papa written by Erling Nicolai Rolfsrud and my mother and I read it together. It is a heartwarming look at the early days of North Dakota settlers and it gave my mother a chance to reminisce about how similar things were where she grew up in Grant County, Minnesota. The plot line of this little book involves the collection of gopher tails by the Lutheran church where the protagonist’s father was the minister. The tails were turned in for bounty payment and the money was used for an organ that would replace the accordion being used. During the pandemic homeschooling of 2020, Christian and I read this together. It was tough to explain the “gopher tails for bounty” concept to this city kid born in the 21st century; in fact, he was pretty freaked out. But not as freaked out as he was when I described singing hymns in church with an accordion as the only accompaniment!
The next book that stands out in my memory is one I read in junior high school. It was called Manchild in the Promised Land and is a 1965 autobiographical novel written by Claude Brown. When the rest of the girls in class were reading Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, I was reading Brown’s coming-of-age story set in the poverty and violence of Harlem during the 1940s and 1950s. The New York Times praised the book, saying that it is “written in brutal and unvarnished honesty in the plain talk of the people, in language that is fierce, uproarious, obscene and tender, but always sensible and direct. And to its enormous credit, this youthful autobiography gives us its devastating portrait of life without one cry of self-pity, outrage, or malice, with no caustic sermons or searing rhetoric.” For me, I just knew it opened my eyes to a place and time I knew NOTHING about. My friend, Nelly Schoen, loaned it to me, but not before it suffered a little water damage. It seems she was reading it in the bathtub and her mom walked in and surprised her. Nelly quickly hid the book from her mom, by briefly sitting on it under the water. I didn’t care. I read it cover to cover.
In college, I remember picking up East of Eden by John Steinbeck. To be clear, I picked it up and could not put it down! That’s really saying something for a 608-page book! It is a masterpiece of Biblical scope and indeed has the power and simplicity of myth. Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. The term “east of Eden” appears twice in Genesis (3:24 and 4:16); both accounts denote an instance where man experienced a separation from the blessings that God had intended for him. He says in Chapter 34, “We have only one story. All novels and all poetry are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.” My son, Jackson (30), recently listened to this novel on Audible and told me it’s his favorite book of all time, the movie is crap, he added, but the book is amazing!
Somewhere along the way, I read Giants in the Earth by Norwegian-American author Ole Edvart Rølvaag. This novel follows a pioneer Norwegian immigrant family’s 1873 struggles with the land and the elements of the Dakota Territory as they try to make a new life in America. He writes of snowstorms, locusts, poverty, hunger, loneliness, homesickness, the difficulty of fitting into a new culture, and the estrangement of immigrant children who grow up in a new land. I found this book fascinating and learned a lot about my Norwegian heritage as my people on both sides came to America during the late 1800s.
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott are two of my favorite books. Traveling Mercies introduced me to the art of memoirs and Bird by Bird is a book full of writing advice. Traveling Mercies is a collection of autobiographical essays in which she explores her life without God, her road to faith, and her continuing struggle to live a life worthy of the beliefs she holds. I remember reading it while on vacation with some friends in Florida. I read it on the beach, by the pool, on the veranda, and in the condo. I read to myself and got uncontrollable giggles. I read parts of it out loud to the others until I thought they would vote me off the island!
Bird by Bird is Anne LaMott’s advice on writing and getting published. Bottom line, LaMott says, write the things that are important to you, whether you ever get published or not. Just write for the fun of it. Write for the therapy of it. The art of writing is its own reward.
When our boys were little, I began to read a lot about the African American experience. My two favorites are The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride and The Content of our Character by Shelby Steele. Both excellent. Both are well worth your time.
The Color of Water touches readers of all colors as a vivid portrait of growing up the son of a black man and a white mother during a time in our history when families like his were rare and even illegal in some states. It is a haunting meditation on race and identity. It is a lyrical valentine to a mother from her son. We learn that Ruth McBride Jordan is a self-declared “light-skinned” woman evasive about her ethnicity, yet steadfast in her love for her twelve black children. James McBride, journalist, musician, and son, explores his mother’s past, as well as his own upbringing and heritage, in a poignant and powerful debut. At seventeen, after fleeing Virginia and settling in New York City, Ruth married a black minister and founded the all-black New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in her Red Hook living room. When James was a little boy and becoming more conscience of race, poverty, and inequality, he asked his mother, “What color is God?” She replied, “God is the color of water. When a person looks into a pail of water and sees his reflection, that is the color of God.” Ruth McBride taught her children great values, firmly convinced that life’s blessings and life’s values transcend race. Twice widowed, and continually confronting overwhelming adversity and racism, Ruth’s determination, drive, and discipline saw her dozen children through college–and most through graduate school. At age 65, she herself received a degree in social work from Temple University. Interspersed throughout his mother’s compelling narrative, McBride shares candid recollections of his own experiences as a mixed-race child of poverty and his eventual self-realization and professional success. I loved this book!
Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White by Brent Staples is interesting to me because my kids are biracial. In this evocative memoir, Brent Staples poses some compelling questions: Where does the family end and where does one’s self begin? What do we owe our families and what do we owe ourselves? What part of the past is a gift and what part a shackle? As the oldest son of nine children, Brent grew up in a small industrial town near Philadelphia. Scholarship opportunities pulled him out of the black world where he had grown up into a world largely defined by whites. This narrative, it could be argued, parallels the narrative of my kids, as we raised them in largely white suburbia. Again, I learned so much from this book, as painful as it was to read.
I have two friends who have had their work published. Jackie Schmidt (aka Gypsy Moon) was in my original Scribes group and she wrote Done & Been: Steel Rail Chronicles of American Hobos. Jackie’s book is one of the only primary resources on American hobos, who are clearly a part of the history of railroading in America. Jackie Schmidt, who was later elected a Queen of the Hobos at their National Convention in Britt, Iowa, has collected their stories. She has also teamed up with modern-day hobos to ride the rails in search of adventure and self-knowledge. Her book gives us a history of hobos, a collection of fascinating stories, and an account of what it is like for a middle-class woman to take to the dangerous pastime of hoboing. Jackie’s dad was himself a hobo in his younger years and Jackie (well into her 70s now) recently married a man who has been riding the rails since he was 11 years old. Funny side note: I remember my mother had a little wooden plaque hanging on our front door depicting an image of a cat, which was a sign of hospitality to strangers and friendship to the migrant workers who passed by.
My friend, Pat Johnston, published a collection of poetry entitled Perspectives on a Grafted Tree: Thoughts for Those Touched by Adoption. Pat is an infertility and adoption educator and author from Indianapolis. She offered me much-needed instruction and encouragement at a critical juncture in my life, i.e., the point where Karl and I were grappling with our own infertility issues and beginning our journey to adopt trans-racially. The collection includes works written by all sides of the adoption experience: adoptive mothers, adoptive dads, birth mothers, birth fathers, and grown adopted persons. Some poems are written from a place of joy. Others from a place of anguish. All are written from the heart. You know that old saying … You don’t even know what you don’t even know? That was me. I guess all we have is our own paradigm. This book helped me expand my consciousness about adoption, the process, and the people.
Two books I loved about middle eastern issues were The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and Son of Hamas by Mosab Hassan Yousef. Son of Hamas was written by the son of one of the founding members of Hamas. Born a Palestinian, Yousef worked undercover for Israel’s internal security service Shin Bet from 1997 to 2007, where he was considered to be its most valuable source within the Hamas leadership. The information Yousef supplied prevented dozens of suicide attacks and assassinations of Israelis, exposed numerous Hamas cells, assisted Israel in hunting down many militants, and incarcerating his own father, Hamas leader Sheikh Hassan Yousef. In 1999, Yousef converted to Christianity, and in 2007 he moved to the United States. This is a riveting account of one man’s encounters with three vital cultures: Palestinians, Jews, and Christians. He offers a deep perspective into the things that drive conflict in the middle east and throughout the world. I must admit, I have never understood why these groups can just agree to disagree and get on with life. This book opened my eyes to the complexities of their histories together.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini tells the story of Amir, a young boy from the Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul. The story is set against a backdrop of turbulent events, from the fall of Afghanistan’s monarchy through the Soviet invasion, the exodus of refugees to Pakistan and the United States, and the rise of the Taliban regime. It is a father-son relationship story with themes of guilt, redemption, and atonement running throughout. This book is so beautifully written, it really makes you care about the characters a world away. The power of regret is a strong power.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brian is a collection of linked short stories by American novelist Tim O’Brien, about a platoon of American soldiers fighting on the ground in the Vietnam War. It is based on his experiences as a soldier in the 23rd Infantry Division. I did not think I would like this content because it seemed so dark and sad. However, I was taken by the first chapter and could not stop reading. In war, there are no winners. That’s what you will take away from this book. It is a timeless message, from the wars in Viet Nam to Afghanistan to Iraq to Ukraine. There is nothing new under the sun, as it says in Ecclesiastes. This book was required reading for Walker in his junior year at University High School and I can see why.
A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch are memoirs written by Indiana native Haven Kimmel. I have read some of her fiction, but it doesn’t hold a candle to her real-life stories. When Kimmel was born in 1965, Mooreland (near New Castle) was a sleepy little hamlet of three hundred people. Nicknamed “Zippy” for the way she would bolt around the house; this small girl was possessed of big eyes and even bigger ears. Laced with fine storytelling, sharp wit, dead-on observations, and moments of sheer joy, Haven Kimmel’s straight-shooting portrait of her childhood gives us a heroine who is wonderfully sweet and sly as she navigates the quirky adult world that surrounds Zippy.
She Got Up Off the Couch focuses on her mother, her depression, anxiety, and the day she finally got up off the couch and enrolled at Ball State where she finally took control of her own destiny. I love a good memoir so I loved this book! USA Today writes, “Almost dreamlike in some of [her] elusive storytelling, [Kimmel] pulls off a feat that’s harder than it looks: write for adults from a child’s perspective . . . Zippy’s parents must have done something right to produce a girl who could write such a simple and lovely book.”
And finally, Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible is called The Message. Growing up there was one Bible in our house and it was the King James Version. Since then, many varying choices have been published. But the one I like best is The Message which is the Bible in contemporary language. It falls on the extreme dynamic end of the dynamic and formal equivalence spectrum. It is very easy to understand and follow. Sometimes the ever-so-formal King James version — not so much. Leo Tolstoy once said, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” Great literature always includes the salvation story dressed up in different words. There is always some form of sacrifice and reward, death and rebirth, a journey, or a homecoming. The Bible offers much wisdom and insight and comfort and challenge for everyday life. The more you know about people, the more you see the principles of Scripture in living form.
“There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”
Sir Ranulph Fiennes is credited with this quote, probably in reference to his experiences as a worldwide explorer who holds numerous endurance records.
But the thing I like about these words is the insinuation of personal responsibility. Growing up in Minnesota, we learned early that the nature of your clothing had a direct correlation to the success of your outdoor plans. Dress for the weather and have a great time. Dress poorly and have a miserable time. It’s that simple.
You will encounter people throughout your life who make a habit of blaming everyone else for their woes. Figuratively speaking, they dress in inappropriate clothing and are continually too cold or too hot, insisting those around them are to blame for their misery.
They blame the government. They blame the schools. They blame their parents. They blame their boss. They blame their spouse. They blame their business partner. They blame the system.
People like this would die from exposure during a trek across Antarctica and blame the weather. While the weather may be the driving force, it’s their lack of foresight and preparation that would do them in. People like this have not discovered that they can give leadership to their own thoughts. And they live in misery. Usually making those around them miserable along the way.
It’s best to plan ahead, set your priorities, and put on the appropriate dress for the occasion. Only then can you be the master of your own fate and the captain of your soul. After all, you are the master of your own destiny. You can influence, direct, and control your own environment. You can make your life what you want it to be,” says author Napoleon Hill.
Here are a few more thoughts from famous writers on the topic:
“Take responsibility of your own happiness, never put it in other people’s hands.” ― Roy T. Bennett, ‘The Light in The Heart’, 2020
“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” ― George Bernard Shaw, ‘Man, And Superman’, 1903
“Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” ― Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Existentialism And Human Emotions’, 1957
“And a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, ‘Player Piano’, 1952
“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.” ― Noam Chomsky
“The thing the sixties did was to show us the possibilities and the responsibility that we all had. –John Lennon
This a paraphrased synopsis of a speech Pope Francis recently gave. I could not come up with better words, so here ya go!
“Contrary to what the world around us would have us believe, being happy is not having a sky without storm, a road without accidents, a job without effort, a relationship without disappointments.
“To be truly happy is to stop feeling like a victim and become the author of your own fate. You CAN give leadership to your own thoughts. It’s walking through deserts but being able to find an oasis deep in the soul. It’s thanking God every morning for the miracle of life. It’s kissing your children, cuddling your parents, having poetic moments with your friends, even when they hurt you.
“Being happy is letting the creature that lives in each of us live free, joyfully, and simply. Being happy is having the maturity to be able to say, “I’ve made mistakes”. It’s having the courage to say, “I’m sorry.” It’s having the sense to say, “I need you.” It’s having the ability to say, “I love you.”
“May your life become a garden of opportunities for happiness, that in spring you may be a lover of joy and in winter a lover of wisdom.
“And when you make a mistake, start over. Because only then will you be in love with life. You’ll discover that being happy isn’t having a perfect life.
“Use your tears to irrigate tolerance. Use your defeats to train your patience. Use your mistakes with the serenity of the sculptor. Use your pain to tune into pleasure. Use your obstacles to open the windows of intelligence.
“Never give up. Above all never give up on the people that love you. Never give up on being happy because life is an incredible spectacle.”
The first time I ever saw Karl was in late January 1981. He was watching the Super Bowl in the basement of my parents’ Chanhassen home. My sister, Holly, was married to the Road Manager of the band Karl was with and had invited them over to watch the game. The Wright Brothers played a lot of venues in Minneapolis over the years, but this time they were midway thru a weeks-long engagement at the Carlton Backstage Lounge.
I was 26 years old and could not have cared less about the Super Bowl. Truth is, I couldn’t tell a Raider from an Eagle if you held a gun to my head. I had planned to be out all day and I assumed the band would be long-gone by the time I got home from tending to my horses: fixing fence, chipping ice out of the water tank, hauling bags of grain and bails of hay into the barn. It was the kind of hard work that made my fingers freeze while sweat ran down my back and steam rose from my tuque.
In my memory, I came in through the garage and scurried up the stairs to see what my mom had rustled up for supper. (Karl’s memory of this moment is different; you’ll have to ask him.) On the family dinner table at the top of the stairs were the leftovers from a delicious game-day spread my mom had prepared. I was starving. As I changed my barn clothes and washed up, Karl made his way upstairs to the table and was visiting with my mom. I later learned that he too could not tell a Raider from an Eagle.
I’m not sure I even said “hi” as I sat down, grabbed an entire turkey leg and began to devour it like I had been stranded on a desert island, turkey grease running down my chin. In no time flat, only the bone remained and I headed off to bed, Mom trying to be polite enough for both of us. The fact is that my false impression of those guys was that they thought they were big shots, celebrities, or some such, and that was enough to make me want to stay clear.
Fast forward to July 1981, the band was back in town for a few weeks. Holly kept asking me to come out and watch the band, saying they were really good and that the place was sold out every night. I kept turning her down as I had no interest in hanging out in some smokey bar listening to some country band. Then one hot day she invited the band members out to Chanhassen for a picnic and fun at the Lotus Lake beach lot. Holly remembers that they tried to water ski and they had canoe races (which Holly and Tim lost big time as their canoe spun in circles). Karl remembers that I came to the beach in a purple off-the-shoulder swimsuit (I have no memory of this). Later in the day, when the party moved back to the house, I remember walking into my bedroom to see Karl sitting on my bed, dressed in his dead grandfather’s black polyester dress pants and a long-sleeved plaid shirt buttoned up to the collar, sweating like crazy, a giant fan blowing in his face, trying to cool down. He looked absolutely miserable! I convinced him that it was cooler outside and I asked if he’d like to go with me to feed the horses. Conversation came easy to us and at one point he asked if I liked movies. It was opening week for Airplane and Raiders of the Lost Ark so we decided to go see the double feature at the Mann France Drive-In Theatre. We talked and laughed and laughed and talked some more. We later learned that not everyone laughs at every line in Airplane. But we did. I think we both were beginning to suspect that we were soulmates destined for each other.
Over the next couple of weeks, we had a few more dates on Karl’s days off. Our first official date was to see some comedy and improv at Dudley Riggs Brave New Workshop downtown Minneapolis. I wore a pretty lavender sweater, tight white pants, high heels, and a dainty pearl necklace I borrowed from my sister, Solveig. I must have been fussing about being in a hurry — I was going to school full time, working full time, and taking care of my horses where I had them boarded. I was stressing about what I should wear and generally being a snappy grouch trying to get ready. When Karl arrived, I remember my mother taking him aside, gently grabbing him by the lapels and speaking into his face, “Have fun. And by the way, she is a much nicer person if you feed her.”
We arrived at Dudley Riggs early and stopped at the concession stand where, for some weird reason, I choose a large Dr. Pepper. Probably because I was still starving. As I went to sit down, I lost my grip and the entire tankard of Dr. Pepper ended up in my lap. On my foxy white pants. I am not kidding! The enormous cup was completely empty. There I sat in sticky brown liquid and ice. I remember thinking, “If he still thinks I’m cool after this debacle, we really ARE meant for each other.”
Later that week we visited the top floor of the Foshay Tower where there happened to be an exhibit about UFOs, Area 51, and aliens from outer space. Again, we both found this fascinating. Or maybe we just found each other’s company fascinating. Either way, we had a great time.
I remember we went to the Skyway Theater downtown to see newly released Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. As we neared the top of the escalator, there was a young man on a ladder changing a light bulb. Out of the blue, Karl stopped and pointed at him, shouting with his great big voice, “Hey look out! That guy is stealing light bulbs!” I thought it was hilarious as patrons throughout lobby all turned to see the thief in action as we casually sauntered by.
Well, I know you’re dying to know if I ever went out to see the band perform at the Carlton Backstage. The answer is YES, and yes, they were really good! Holly was right. Even though my day was packed from 5 o’clock in the morning til my head hit the pillow at night, I would go to the club every night to listen to the band. One night after the show we went out to get something to eat at Hotel Sofitel on France Avenue. I remember thinking it was so fancy. For dessert I ordered cheesecake. He ordered Peach Melba. When the waiter set them down, I longingly looked at Karl’s more delicious choice. He caught the look in my eye and quietly asked, “Do you want to trade?” as he switched plates. Just one more sign that he was the one for me.
The band’s three-week engagement dragged along for the rest of the guys whose families were back in Indiana. But it flew by for Karl and me. And when they took off, there was a great big giant hole in my heart. A couple of weeks later, I made a road trip to Indiana to see him. The band sold out the Murat Theatre downtown Indianapolis, along with other engagements that week. All good reasons to get all gussied up and hang around backstage. This time it was even harder for me to leave, but I just had a couple of months before graduation, so back to Minnesota it was, the hole in my heart even bigger.
It had been quite a summer! But as August was drawing to a close, the love of my life was off playing music in Las Vegas and I was still stuck at home. Then very early one morning (I was heading off to school and Karl hadn’t been to bed yet) the phone rang. He asked me to marry him. I said yes. And that was that. We were married on December 21 and I moved to Indiana on Christmas Day 1981.
We had our first date in July, proposal in August, honeymoon in October, reception in November, and our wedding in December. The rest, as they say, is history.
The summer of 1965, the year I turned 11 years old, my Mom put my nine-year-old sister and me on a Greyhound bus bound for Minneapolis—a four-hour bus trip all by ourselves. What was the occasion? Was it a family emergency? Some sort of medical crisis?
No, it was much bigger than that. It was a pilgrimage, the culmination of months of fanatical dedication and study and planning. We were going to see…the Beatles in concert at Metropolitan Stadium!
We had given the widow’s mite–all that we had–$4.50 for each ticket. My sister Holly and I were huge fans of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Even to the point of speaking with British accents. Imagine that! Little girls from west central Minnesota with Norwegian brogues imitating the Liverpool accent! We thought we were so cool.
We didn’t simply listen to She Loves You one time and accept that the Beatles were a good band. No, we couldn’t just leave it there. We listened to those records over and over and over and over again. Then we pooled our birthday money and allowance, so we could buy teen magazines in hopes of learning something very personal about our favorite Beatle. A 33 was $5.00, a 45 was $1.00, and we did odd jobs around the house to earn enough to buy the latest release. We dreamed of a marriage proposal and a fairytale life of celebrity. We were truly nutz about the Beatles!
Hour after hour and day after day, we listened and sang along, talked about them and read about them. We memorized lyrics and stats, and hoped for the day they would re-run Ed Sullivan. We were obsessed. And then we couldn’t wait to go out and share what we learned with friends, classmates, cousins, anyone who would listen.
Years later when we were grown, we often asked our mother, “Mom, just what WERE you thinking? Didn’t that sound just a teensy bit dangerous to you? Putting your little girls, 9 and 11, on a Greyhound bus, trusting we would be safe as it stopped in every little town and dive truck stop along US 55, 4 hours away, to the Bus Depot on First Avenue downtown Minneapolis?”
She would just say, “No, you were fine. I knew you would be okay.”
Our Uncle picked us up at the depot and we stayed with our cousins until the concert the next day. We were so excited! We found our seats up in the nose bleed section, and then we heard the first strum of the first song. Sadly, that was the last music we heard for the night as the stadium erupted with screams of teenage fan girls, drowning out the entire concert. Not to mention the Fab Four looked like tiny little dolls on that itty-bitty stage. We didn’t care. We loved every minute of it!
My name is Mia Hinkle and I am here to talk about CHOICES.
When I look back now at that on that crazy experience and the choice my mother made to arrange this outing for us, I just shake my head. What was she thinking? I have an 11 year old grandson and it makes me nervous when he rides his bike to the neighborhood pool! THE POOL IS ONLY ONE HOUSE AWAY!
It turns out that my mother made that choice based on her confidence in us, that we would follow her direction, and stay on the bus, and NOT get off until we saw our uncle at the bus station. And it worked out. We stayed safe because we followed her words. And the reward is that we have a legendary story to tell all these years later!
I believe God calls us to a great and legendary adventure if he can trust us to choose to follow his instructions. Some of the most amazing things can happen when we follow God’s plan for our lives.
Unlike plants that simply grow, drop a seed, and then grow some more, and unlike the animal world driven by instinct, God has given mankind the privilege and the responsibility to make our own choices. Life is full of choices and we are called to make them all day every day. Making choices are part of the privilege God has given us, part of our God-like character as it says in (Gen 2:19) “Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.”
Free will and the ability to make choices are gifts from a loving God. But along with privilege comes responsibility; a responsibility to make the choices we can AND a responsibility to bear the consequences. That’s where the rubber meets the road.
In my twenties I owned a couple of horses and rode western-style showing them in horse shows in timed events like barrel racing and pole-bending. A ballet in dusty boots. One balmy summer evening, I was practicing poles with my quick little Arabian mare whose registered name was Lucky Lola. Looking back, I should have quit while I was ahead. The best pole benders know there is usually only one good run for a horse and rider on any given day.
Normally Lola and I would glide between those poles, switching leads like a Lipizzaner; barely a breath from each one, floating on the wind. But that day, the sun was going down and it had been a long day. Lola was getting tired. I was pressing my luck. We were both loosing focus. As if to let me know she was done for the day, her here-to-for nimble weaving between the 6 poles just 21 feet apart, turned into a straight line race that slammed my knees against each of those poles at a break-neck speed.
Like I said, I should have quit while I was ahead. Instead, in a flash of pain and frustration, I planted my spur into her left shoulder and yanked the reins to the right to let her know I didn’t want her to hit another pole with my kneecap.
Well, I must have pulled those reins way too far and down we went! I had pulled her head right out from under her, just like in the TV westerns when the rider gets an arrow in his thigh.
Consequently, she went into a forward roll at a full gallop. Needless to say I was not ready for THAT, and as she went down, I flew from the saddle right into her path, breaking our collective fall with the crown of my head on the hard packed dirt. I held on to the reins and she rolled right over me – all 900 pounds of her. I don’t know how long I lay there as she stood over me. The next thing I remember I was leading her around and around the edge of the arena trying to cool her down. Later that night, I ended up in the emergency room with a concussion.
There were definitely consequences when I chose to ignore all the signs and keep pushing when I should have quit while I was ahead.
I could have broken my neck!
It has been said that if you want to know what is really important in a person’s life, take a look at their day planner and their checkbook. How we spent our time and our money is the key to what we treasure. Our choices tell where our values lie. Our choices tell what is really important to us, what our desires really are. Our choices tell where our hope is.
Our daily choices tell where we are heading. Each choice takes us down a road. Perhaps it is the first step in a new direction or it may be building on previous choices. Little choices can very easily lead to habits – good and bad.
Unfortunately, sometimes our choices are based simply on the path of least resistance.
Let me tell you a story about a day I followed the path of least resistance and rushed through something I should have taken my time with.
It was a crisp cold Saturday in the dead of winter. Yes, it was Minnesota, but we were die-hards and rode horseback in winter and summer just the same. We had purchased a pure bred Arabian stud colt as a yearling and we counted the days until he turned two and we could begin to break him for riding. He was high strung and gorgeous, dark dapple grey with striking confirmation. Finally, in late winter he was old enough to ride. I was lighter so I got the honors. I put the saddle on him inside the barn and cinched it up tight. I knew better, but I was in a hurry and my fingers were cold.
Horsemanship 101 or just plain common sense teaches you to tighten the cinch a little at a time, walking the colt around a little bit between each tightening. Remember this is a brand new sensation for a young horse, and it’s best to take it easy the first time if you want to have a second.
Anyway, I cinched up that saddle as tight as I could and led him outside. I remember hearing the hard packed snow squeak beneath his hooves, but his steps were halting and stiff. I hadn’t realized that he had filled his lungs with air and was holding his breath like a little kid throwing a temper tantrum. It really wasn’t working for him to walk and hold his breath at the same time. I felt like I was dragging him with each step.
In his panic when he finally took a breath, he seemed to just explode — rearing up on his hind legs and throwing his head from side to side. I was at the end of the lead rope and knew I could not let go of this young stallion. A stud loose on a horse farm will cause mayhem with a capital M. In other words, his very basic instincts would take over! If you know what I mean.
We were just a few steps outside the barn door when he reared up and I flew thru the air like a rag doll at the end of the lead rope. When I landed in a snowdrift on my back, his two front hooves landed firmly on my sternum. He stood there stiff legged for what seemed like forever; his full weight planted just below my throat. I was holding on so tight, I could feel his hot breath on my face.
I was saved that day by the grace of God … and cold weather. I had on two sweatshirts, a down vest, a down jacket, and insulated coveralls. Providence must have known all those layers weren’t quite enough to save me from harm, so I mysteriously landed in a foot of freshly fallen snow, and not on the icy driveway just a few feet away. Not a scratch on me.
My choice to take the path of least resistance and rush though the cinching process could have taken my life on that bright blue winter day!
It is true, some things are out of our hands. God has some influence. People and situations have some degree of control over us. But there are still plenty of choices we are called to make for ourselves. Some are big life altering decisions like whether to marry, who to marry, where to go to school, whether to have children, which job to accept, where to live. Those are the big ones.
But there are plenty of choices that might seem minor, but ultimately add up to having a significant impact on our lives. Have you ever worked with a plum line; you know that little chalk string you snap against the drywall when you are building something? If you are off just a little tiny bit at the top of the wall, you will be off by a lot at the bottom of the wall. Little daily choices add up.
God has called us to be decision makers. To allow others to make decisions for us – those that we should be making ourselves – is not being what God has called us to. We need to actively accept responsibility for the choices we are called to make. We may seek input from others. We may ask for God’s guidance. And then we follow through and make the choice. Here is an example of allowing others to make decisions for us.
Back at the stable, I was helping my horse trainer boyfriend with a thoroughbred that was really fast but had a problem with the starting gate. He was scared to death of that tiny space and would not get in. So the trainer got the bright idea to take both my horse, Lucky Lola, and this new one he was training to the racetrack during off hours, thinking my little Arabian would have a calming effect on this spooky race horse.
Me: Are you sure this will work? Trainer: Of course it will, trust me.
The thoroughbred had been soured at the track in his previous life, so when he stepped out of the trailer at the track, his entire countenance ratcheted up a few notches. Ears straight forward … nostrils flaring … fighting the lead rope, he knew where he was and didn’t like it one bit. We trotted around for a while to get the lay of the land and eventually it turned out my seasoned little mare DID have a calming influence on that flighty thoroughbred after all.
We approached the back side of the starting gate. I remember thinking that I agreed with the race horse; it looked really tiny.
Me: “Are you sure this is a good idea? It looks a little dangerous.” Trainer: “No it will be fine, just ease her on in there. You go first.”
Lola had never seen anything like it, so, no reason to be frightened she walked right inside the gate with me on her back. The thoroughbred saw Lola walk in unafraid and so he did the same. For an instant, there they both stood as if they were in their stalls waiting for supper. But when the gate shut behind us with a loud CLANK, Lola began to freak out, snorting and pawing the ground beneath us. I swear she was trying to get down and crawl out on her knees. She became more and more agitated – again banging my knees against the teensy metal cage. Note to self: starting gates are not made for people in western saddles.
Finally the bell rang and the front gates flew open. My little grey mare shot out like a watermelon seed on the Fourth of July on to the racetrack and barreled around the curve like she thought she was Secretariat.
I’m not sure how to describe the scene, except with the imagery made famous by Saturday morning cartoon characters. You know the ones … where Wiley Coyote hangs in midair for several seconds looking terrified before he plummets to the bottom of the canyon to his violent demise.
There I hung in midair … my trusty steed becoming smaller and smaller as she barreled around the track … until suddenly and with great impact, my tailbone slammed onto the track with a dull thud and I slid to a stop on my back in a cloud of dust.
The mix of sand and clay found its way into every crease and crevice of my 20something year old body. When my head stopped spinning, my ears were ringing and I could taste blood and dirt. There was sand in my boots. There was sand in my bra. There was sand in my underpants and where the sun don’t shine! I feel like I may have been taller before that day … like my spine was compressed just a little with the impact.
When I regained my bearings, I looked around to see that goofy thoroughbred just standing inside the starting gate looking around. The trainer was encouraging him with whip and spurs to spring forth, but I think that race horse was just too stunned at the sight of greased lightning resembling a little grey Arabian mare disappearing down the track, while her rider, the big-eyed Wiley Coyote suspended in midair before crashing to the ground, little birds circling my blonde head with their maniacal chirping.
I could have easily been paralyzed.
This is what can happen when you allow others to make decisions for you, when you clearly know better and should have taken a different path.
I went on my Discipleship Walk (#3, Table of Mary) in 1989, 33 years ago this month. I learned a couple of things that weekend.
First, the world of God’s people is much bigger than the church I attended or the one I grew up in. People from several different denominations attended that weekend. In this room today, there are women from nearly 20 different churches, ranging from very traditional to very charismatic. Some of us are still looking for that good fit and are between churches right now. Rest assured, God will meet you right where you are this weekend.
Secondly I learned it’s nearly impossible to have an effective Christian walk without Community. That is without a good church and Godly people you can connect with and learn from.
Third, I learned about Accountability Groups, small groups consisting of a few women with whom you can enjoy authentic relationship. These are women who love you just the way you are. These are women who hold you accountable when you start to get a little squirrely. These are women who are there for you, love you, and care for you.
My Accountability Group has been there for one another since 1998. I can’t take the time here this morning to tell you all the ways they have been there for me in good times and in tragic. I can’t imagine life without them.
Over the next couple of days, we will present you with many ideas and testimonies.
We want you to listen to each speaker with an open and discerning mind.
Only you can make the final decision about how the things presented this weekend may apply to you.
God has given you the privilege and responsibility of CHOICE.
Our mom was full of sound advice. When we were growing up, I remember hearing a lot of “stand up straight” and “get that hair out of your pretty face.” As teenagers, we heard, “you don’t have a curfew but just remember, nothing good happens after midnight.” When the grandchildren began arriving, I remember her saying, “it’s impossible to spoil a child by loving him/her.” And one of my favorites, “Happiness lies not the absence of challenges, but in how we respond to those challenges.”
After we grew up, she used to call us at our jobs very early in the morning, long before we showed up for work; she was an early morning riser. She would leave us voice mail messages which we listen to as soon as we clocked in. Her voice was a comfort and those little nuggets of wisdom were a great way to begin the workday.
Years before Facebook made sharing our points of view so convenient, when Mark Zuckerberg was still in diapers, our mom was sharing nuggets of wisdom with her kids thru voicemail messages and cards sent via snail mail. Here is a sampling of the stuff she thought was important enough to leave for us. I am certain there were more, but these 30 ended up on a memorial photo of her created by Solveig’s friends, Pam and Bill Corrigan.
Live beneath your means.
Buy whatever kids are selling on card tables in their front yards.
Treat everyone you meet as you want to be treated.
Admit your mistakes.
Be brave. Even if you’re not, pretend to be. No one can tell the difference.
Don’t spread yourself too thin. Learn to say ‘no’ politely and quickly.
Don’t expect life to be fair.
Never underestimate the power of forgiveness.
Beware of the person who has nothing to lose.
Instead of using the word “problem” try using the word “opportunity.”
Never walk out on a quarrel with your spouse.
Give yourself a year and read the Bible cover to cover.
Be bold and courageous. When you look back on your life, you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did.
Forget committees. New noble world changing ideas usually come from one person working alone.
Learn to listen. Opportunity sometimes knocks very softly.
Donate two pints of blood every year.
Make new friends but cherish the old ones.
Street musicians are a treasure. Stop for a moment and listen, then leave a small donation.
Pray not for things, but for wisdom and courage.
Wage war against littering.
Never take action when you’re angry.
Have good posture. Enter a room with purpose and confidence.
Don’t procrastinate. Do what needs doing when it needs to be done.
Get your priorities straight. No one ever said on their deathbed, “Gee, I wish I had spent more time at the office.
Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m sorry.”
Make a list of 25 things you want to experience before you die. Carry it in your wallet. Refer to it often.
What is the best meal you’ve ever had? THAT is a hard question. Throughout my 68 years I have probably eaten over 75,000 meals. I love all kinds of food, so I probably loved most of them. There are, however, a few culinary memories that stand out.
When I was little and we lived on the farm, our folks liked to have parties. Friends and family, lots of people, music, laughter, and good food. On warm summer evenings, the party would often include smoked sunfish. Preparations were a family affair. In the days leading up to the gathering, our Grandpa Tody would take my brothers, Hans and Dickie, fishing for sunnies from a wooden boat on Lobster Lake in Douglas County. On the day of the gathering, before the guests would arrive, my mom would hand me a feed sack filled with freshly picked corn-on-the-cob and guide us outside to pull the husks and silk off. It was a big job for a little kid with little fingers. Meanwhile my dad would drag out the 55-gallon drum (probably an empty DDT drum; he was a crop duster) and set it near the swing set in the shade. He would place dry corn cobs on a custom-made grate, set them on fire, spray a little water on them, and once they began to smoke lower them deep into the barrel. There were a blue million sunfish, scales off, skin on, which were then lowered on an identical grate into the barrel. He then covered the barrel and left the little fishes there to smoke. When we finally were allowed to “come and get it,” each mouthful melded into the perfect blend of summertime flavors. Corn-on-the-cob with melted butter and salt. Potato Salad made with boiled new potatoes from my mom’s garden. Home grown cucumbers and onion in a sweet vinegar dressing (still a standard in my kitchen). And a bunch of little smoked sunfish with crispy skin. Each bite better than the last. We kids sat cross legged in the grass giving no care to wiping our chins between bites. Fireflies flickered around us bringing the “show” portion of “dinner and a show.” Just one of those magical childhood memories.
Another culinary memory involves the Opryland Hotel, Caesar Salad, and Bananas Foster. This experience is very different than smoked sunfish in the grass. I was 27 and had just fallen for the love of my life that summer. We were in Nashville staying at the Opryland Hotel and the Country Music Awards were happening all around us. Everything was new for me that fall. I was in love for the first time, I was weeks from finishing up my accounting degree in Minneapolis, Karl was in a band who had recently signed a recording contract with Warner Brothers and had a song on Billboard’s Top 40. They had been traveling to lots of upscale places, but that week they were playing at the Opryland Hotel, perhaps the most opulent place I had ever laid eyes on (excluding Europe). It was a hope-filled and exciting chapter of our lives. We just KNEW that it would be The Wright Brothers who would next year be accepting a CMA award! It didn’t turn out that way. Anyway, we made reservations at the Old Hickory Room which was the fanciest restaurant in the Hotel. Karl and I ordered Caesar Salad for two and we watched in amazement as it was created at our tableside. It was 1981 and I guess Caesar dressing in a bottle had not been invented yet. So it began: a dark wooden cart loaded with all the ingredients sidled up to our table. The chef began to assemble the ingredients in a large wooden bowl beginning with smashing anchovies and garlic cloves into a paste, spooning in Dijon mustard, a sprinkle of fresh ground pepper, a couple of splashes of Worcestershire Sauce, two raw egg yolks, the juice of a lime, and a generous handful of grated Parmesan Cheese. He smashed it all together with a teak fried spatula, then slowly drizzled in extra virgin olive oil while continuing to mix the dressing. I remember how good it smelled. I had never seen anything like it; it was like he was working a magic trick right in front of us using the most unlikely of elements to create something wondrous. Romaine leaves left whole, washed and dried thoroughly, were added to the large wooden bowl where they were gingerly and completely coated with the fragrant dressing. Toss in a few large croutons and voilà! Caesar Salad! How could the lowly romaine leaf be so delicious that I can still recall it 4 decades later? I don’t remember which expensive steak I had, but when it came time for dessert, we ordered Bananas Foster and it came to our table ON FIRE! What an amazing meal! What an amazing weekend! What an amazing beginning to our life together. I cried like a baby when it came time to board my flight for home.
As lovely as that Opryland Hotel meal was, no gourmet meal has ever tasted as scrumptious as freeze-dried Chicken Noodle Casserole and Peach Cobbler over a campfire at the end of a long day paddling the sky blue waters in God’s country, i.e. the Boundary Waters Canoe Area at the border of Minnesota and Canada. What is it about eating outdoors that heightens the senses of taste and smell? Evolutionarily, we’re programmed to relax in nature. The landscape elicits a soft focus from us to calm our nervous system down after being in a fight-or-flight scenario (i.e., paddling for your life against the wind and lugging a canoe on your shoulders across long slippery portages.) When we are relaxed, our parasympathetic system, known as the “rest-and-digest” branch, kicks in. I was 25 years old when I took my first trip to the BWCA on a paddling, portaging, and hiking trip. I went 3 summers in a row with some really good girlfriends. We put in at Camp Tuscarora at the end of the Gunflint Trail. At day’s end, we would locate a campsite, set up the tent, gather firewood, build a fire, boil water from the lake, and add it to freeze dried packets of God knows what. When it finished cooking, it magically looked and tasted better than the real deal! Evening meals in the BWCA were, I believe, tied to the concepts and the physicality of sacrifice and reward. We had worked hard all day and were rewarded with a delicious meal. Everything tasted soo good.
As I wrap this up, it occurs to me that the one element tying these three experiences together are the people involved in each. Smoked sunfish with my family of origin. Caesar Salad with my soon-to-be husband and my newly created family. And freeze-dried food with good friends. People I love wove a slender silver thread through these memories and put a bow around some of the best meals I’ve ever had.