Throwback Thursday


Every now and then I’m tempted to recycle one of my favorite old rants in lieu of posting something new. Generally this occurs when I find myself lacking an idea for a post, but sometimes it happens when I have an abundance of ideas but insufficient time to do any of them justice.

Historically, I have resisted the urge to post a blast from the past because I don’t want to disappoint my fans or be perceived as resting on my laurels. However, since I don’t have legions of fans to disappoint–and those I do have might both appreciate and understand my impulse to air a rerun–I’ve decided to give in to temptation and cross my fingers that readers will find it as funny today as I did when I originally wrote it.

And so, without further ado, I give you O Pioneers! 

As a kid I was fascinated with American pioneers and captivated by tales of their experiences. Traversing across this vast land of ours in search of opportunity, they seemed so strong. So ambitious. So determined. I would gobble up books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and imagine all the adventures I would have if I lived on the frontier. Okay, mostly I imagined how I would murder Nellie Oleson, avoid prosecution, escape from a frontier prison, suck up to Miss Beedle, or devise something better than a bag of straw to sleep on, but sometimes I actually pictured myself sewing, making soap, and finding a way to eat the same thing over and over again–or doing the same thing day after day–without losing my mind. It would not have been an easy life.

Later, after I had read My Antonia and Caddie Woodlawn, seen a few John Wayne films, and watched almost every episode of How the West Was Won, Grizzly Adams, and Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, I realized something very important: I am not cut out to be a pioneer. Or a pilgrim. Or a settler. Basically, I’m not cut out for life in any time except the present. To belabor the point: When it comes to centuries, I prefer the 20th and the 21st.

Notwithstanding the fact that the entire continent of Europe would have had to have been on fire or sinking rapidly into the ocean for me to have boarded a boat that would take a month or more to reach its destination. And never mind the mice, fleas, rats, lice, seasickness, and food borne illness that would have passed for entertainment back then. Just imagining myself effectively stranded at sea with no hot shower, no microwave, no Kindle, and no computer to help me while away the days, I know I would never have survived. I know this because I know myself, and although I might have had a Bible, a hymnal, and even a wooden bench to bang my head against, there aren’t enough Bible verses, inspirational songs, or concussive head injuries to keep my mind occupied for three weeks or more. No. In less than fourteen days–I believe they called that period a fortnight–this gal either would have died of boredom, or staged a mutiny or committed suicide just for the sake of amusement.

Now let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that I was born in one of the colonies, and did not have to suffer that hellish journey across the Atlantic to settle somewhere in North America. And let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I was the wife of someone who wanted to go west. Wanderlust or not, I would have gotten about as far a the foothills of the Appalachians because I would have taken one look at the mountains–and our covered wagon filled with all our worldly possessions, and another two or three looks at the mountains, and four or five more looks at the covered wagon–and decided I was more of an East Coast sort of gal. Because even if I thought I had the mettle to climb those mountains or the time, energy and patience to find a short cut through them, all it would have taken was one glance DOWN the mountain, and I would have been paralyzed with fear. Not of falling, mind you. Of landing. Hard. At which point I likely would have decided I was more of an introvert than an explorer, and would have headed for the nearest cave or hollowed out tree to live on my own until I starved to death.

Now lets say, again for the sake of argument, that I was born in one of the colonies, and was transported through the mountains and across the rivers as, say a child or a fetus in the comfort of a horse-drawn wagon and/or uterus, and arrived safely in the big woods, or a prairie, or Kansas, or any other part of the Great Plains. Under those circumstances–and barring a catastrophic accident or an outbreak of tornadoes, measles, or small pox–I would have had a slightly better chance of surviving the experience since I would have grown up there and, owing to the fact that there were no books, movies, or web articles on the subject, I wouldn’t have known yet just how bad I had it.


Wisconsin: What’s not to like? (Okay, so there is ONE thing.)

In case you’re new to my corner of the Internet and/or haven’t been following this column for the past three years, the Jarhead and I are relative newcomers to Wisconsin. We moved here in 2009 after relocating about every two or three years for the past twenty-four.

That’s not hyperbole. Take a look at my resume if you don’t believe me. Based on how many jobs I’ve had and in how many states, it would not be unreasonable to wonder if I have a problem with authority or commitment. Or if we’re on the run from the law. Or in the Witness Protection Program.

It’s tempting to think I’m exaggerating. Especially, it seems, for folks who have lived in the same town their entire lives. To them (or you, if you’re among them) the idea of having lived in more than ten dwellings in eight states is daunting if not unfathomable. In fact, the very thought of moving to another HOUSE makes many of them weak in the knees—never mind moving to another city, state or country. So when they find out just how many times we’ve packed and unpacked our stuff and how many homes we’ve had to buy and sell, they tend to get short of breath and start having heart palpitations.

It only gets worse when they find out that we’ve never spent more than one day touring homes before buying one of them, and have always bought one of the first six we’ve seen. Because most of these folks will have looked at between 30 and 60 homes before deciding to buy their first, and those we’ve met who would like to find a different one will already have spent years looking before finally pulling the trigger or giving up the hunt.

Talk about a waste of time. I mean, as much as I love looking at houses on HGTV, I do NOT want to spend days, much less years looking for a place to live. Find me five to ten options, and I am happy to look, compare, and then choose from among them the one that suits me best. Just as I don’t need to see every head of broccoli in the grocery store in order to choose one to cook for dinner, neither do I need to see every house on the market—today, tomorrow, and next week, month or year—in order pick one to live in for the next few years or so.

In fact, never the type to do things half-way (or the easy way, for that matter) we bought our current home—a Midcentury Eyesore, to be exact—before the old one even sold, and started contributing to the local economy by purchasing the tools and materials we would need to fix it up way before we understood everything that needed fixing. In short, we went all in. And we’ve never regretted it.

And why would we? Wisconsin is wonderful. The people here are the most personable in the country.

By that I don’t mean Wisconsinites are nice. Minnesotans are nice. We’ll smile at you and open doors for you, and insist that you take the last of whatever’s available at the sample stand at Cub Foods (which counts as nice EVEN if we know there’s something fresh coming out of the toaster oven in 90 seconds, by the way.) But as many have observed, our niceness seems rather deliberate—as if we want you to like us, if only in passing, or we’re hoping it will stop you from killing or maiming us.

But Wisconsinites aren’t just nice. They’re not necessarily even all that polite. They’re actually very direct and honest which is refreshing—if somewhat disconcerting—to someone who is accustomed to indirect speech and habitual courtesy. More importantly, they’re warm and personable—as if they are really glad to see you.

But it isn’t just the people and their warmth that makes Wisconsin great. Or the cheese. There is also the scenery, the parks, the pace—which is perfectly situated right around brisk but never reaches frantic—and the fresh, clean air. And it probably doesn’t hurt that Milwaukee, Madison, and most of our relatives are close enough to visit but not close enough to see every day.

In fact, about the only downside to living in Wisconsin is having to deal with some really lousy drivers. I say this because among these warm and personable people dwell some of the most confounding operators of motorized vehicles I have encountered in my life. Chief among my complaints in this regard are those who underutilize their directional signals; those who turn right or left or go straight from the wrong lane; and those who can’t seem to fully grasp the purpose of a passing lane.

Of these, the underuse of turning signals is the least infuriating. Sure, it’s frustrating when the driver in front of you starts to brake for apparently no reason when you’re going 55 on an open road—especially in broad daylight—and continues braking past four or five possible turns before simultaneously putting on his or her signal and executing a left. But it’s not as bad as getting into the left lane behind a sedan whose driver decides only after the light has turned green that he/she would like to turn right, forcing you to sit idle as he/she waits for traffic to clear so he or she can switch lanes while kicking yourself for taking that route in the first flipping place. And while it can be annoying to sit at a stop sign waiting for a vehicle coming from the left to pass only to have it suddenly, and—again—without signaling—turn onto the very same street you are on; this pales in comparison to almost being fatally injured because a driver chose to come straight through an intersection from an oncoming lane that is designated for left turns only.

Most confounding of all, however, are the drivers who view passing lanes—those rare and beautiful features of the rural landscape that were designed, I’m sure, to preserve the collective sanity by making it possible for one to overtake slower drivers on single lane roads without risking life and limb—as their own personal race tracks. On virtually every trip I’ve made between southeastern Minnesota and the Fox River Valley I have become an unwitting competitor in a drag race against someone who had been driving sub-50mph for the better part of the previous hour.

Maybe that’s why they’re so friendly in person; they’re making up for that fact that, behind the wheel, they’re dangerous.

It bears mention here that not all Wisconsinites are bad drivers, and even those who are don’t count among the world’s worst. Having lived on both coasts and in Italy, I can attest that this distinction belongs to suburban Philadelphians. Technically, suburban Neapolitans are just as bad, but they’re sexier with it. Like leather and miniature cars, vehicular incompetence just looks better on Italians.

A significant difference—besides the languages—between bad drivers in here and those near Philly and Naples is that you expect Neapolitans and Philadelphians to be bad drivers. Around Philly—where some have raised rudeness to an art form—bad driving is but one aspect of a general lack of courtesy. I won’t pretend to understand this since Philly is supposed to be the City of Brotherly Love, but it goes a long way toward explaining why someone will cut you off and flip you the bird for being in the way in the first place.

In the case of Naples, bad driving is also an aspect of the general approach to life. Although they are not a rude people, Neapolitans are impatient and intensely competitive, and this translates into what looks like rudeness to Americans (especially Minnesotan-Americans.) Not wanting to wait their turn, they will cut in front of you not only on the road but also in line at the store—and attack you verbally if you attempt to stop them or return the favor.

It is with this in mind that I am so profoundly confounded by some of the drivers in Wisconsin. Given how genuinely warm and friendly they are in person, I’m at a loss to explain the utter lack of sense, awareness and courtesy they show behind the wheel. It’s positively fascinating—in a circus side show, or Unsolved Mysteries kind of way.

Still, if being surrounded by bad drivers is the price you pay to live here, I can accept that—although apparently not quietly.