St. Martin Island Princess Cocktail

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This is a drink I spontaneously created while on vacation on the island of St. Martin with ingredients we had on hand. It’s a perfect summer cocktail when you can’t decide whether you’d like a margarita or wine.

I named the drink for the island and for the name the zipline instruction guys called me when I was getting ready to throw myself off the zipline platform. Yes, I am a fifty-year-old “princess!” It became my trip nickname. This is a perfect summer drink.

Ingredients:

White zinfandel wine
Key lime juice (not just any old lime juice, it must be Key lime!)
Simple syrup (a 1:1 cooled mixture of water and sugar that has been heated so the sugar dissolves)
Ice

Pour the wine in a glass until it’s ½ to 2/3 full. Add lime juice (1+ tablespoon, to taste). Add enough simple syrup to sweeten. Add a couple of ice cubes. Enjoy!

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How we almost saw Biosphere2

20190619_091811I meandered down to Tucson, Arizona, with one of my sons last week. On the last day of our trip, before we caught our plane back home, we had a few extra hours. We decided to go see Biosphere2, the world-renowned self-enclosed science station run by the University of Arizona that’s about a 45-minute drive outside of town.

Because we would be time-limited, I checked the station’s website to see when their tours run. The text said tours were offered throughout the day on a first-come, first-served basis. Great! We would have time for a tour if we arrived right when their doors opened at 9 a.m.

However, when we got there, the docent said the tours wouldn’t be starting until 10 a.m., which was when we needed to leave to catch our flight. We were disappointed, but decided to pay the entry fee anyway and take a self-guided tour of the grounds.

I remembered hearing about the facility while I was growing up when a team of “terranauts” closed themselves into this giant terrarium for two years to see if humans could live in a man-made environment, with the thought that something similar could be done on some other planet, like mars.

What I didn’t realize from the news stories about the experiment is that Biosphere2 has different enclosures for different environments. There’s a rainforest, an ocean, a desert, and a coastal fog desert. To ensure adequate air exchange, there are event two “lung” buildings that control air volume.

On our self-guided tour, we were able to see the outside of the rainforest building, which is covered in glass panels. Leaves were plastered against the windows, making it look like the plants were just about to burst out of their man-made enclosure.

We were also able to go into the living area that the team used when they were enclosed in the facility. Unfortunately, construction was going on, so we really weren’t able to see much of anything. But there was a cool globe where we could see graphic representations of world populations, Facebook friend links and the like.

The last place we visited was the ocean building. We were able to go inside it and see the exhibits. Unfortunately, the ocean itself is experiencing an algae overgrowth. The water was green, which made it hard to see any fish.

Although we hardly got to see anything, it was still cool. I would like to go back there again under better circumstances and try to get the official tour.

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The huge rainforest pavilion, with plants plastered against the glass.

The Love of Their Life

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I have developed a fascination with obituaries lately. Most likely, this is because I read them out loud every month from the local newspaper for my volunteer stint with the Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss.

Despite my history as a romance writer, the cynic in me always gets a kick out of obituaries that state the departed met or married someone who was the “love of their life.”

I have noticed that the “love of their life” phrase is usually used when the “love of their life” survives the person for whom the obituary is written. Could it be that the survivors are the ones who wrote the obituaries? If so, are they including the phrase because it’s true, or as an ego boost for themselves and a way to assert their important status in the departed person’s life?

The romance writer in me would like to think the phrase is true. But I have done an informal survey and have noticed that almost every time, the “love” is the one who is the survivor.

If the couple had a long relationship, I’d be inclined to believe that the phrase is true, but length of a relationship does not always indicate a happy, loving relationship.

I often wonder if the departed person would have included the phrase in their obituary if they had been the one to write it. Since they are dead and I cannot ask them this, I guess this is one of those unanswerable burning questions that will plague me for the rest of my days during the wee hours of the morning.

What do you think about this phrase? Is it overused? Is it just a way for survivors to feel better? Am I entirely too cynical? Should I try to solve world hunger instead?

Happy Belated Birthday Bob (Dylan)

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Bob Dylan’s childhood home in Duluth.

Last Friday was Bob Dylan’s birthday. My hometown of Duluth does it up right by holding an annual Dylan Fest — a week of events that features song, poetry, lectures, tours, and birthday cake.

This year, we attended the launch of a new book of poetry inspired by Dylan. “Visiting Bob” contains 100 poems by U.S. and international poets. A half dozen of the poets read their works and other poets’ works. Some of the poems were beyond me but others I understood. One that stuck was by local poet, Connie Wanek. Its theme was Dylan sightings in Duluth — are they false? Are they true? It ends on a hopeful note that perhaps someday the poet really will see him back in this town where he was born.

We also attended a lecture by one of the poets from Texas, David Gaines. Because he wrote a book about Dylan, he attracted media interest when Dylan won the Nobel Prize. Gaines described his experience being interviewed by Swedish public television and other major media outlets. He also got to travel to Stockholm to attend the airing of a Swedish public television story in conjunction with the prize ceremony.

On our way home from the lecture, we decided to stop by Bob Dylan’s home on the hillside, since it was on our route and we’d never seen it. A fan owns it and has spiffed up the duplex. Dylan lived in the right-hand side. A plaque on the front of the home proclaims its significance.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve lived here over five decades and never looked it up before. ‘Bout time, I guess.

When I posted the house photo on Facebook, one of my friends said they had a chance to rent the place in the mid-1970s, but turned it down. They didn’t know the home’s significance, however. When they found out afterward, they deeply regretted their decision because they were fans.

Another friend said she walked by the place thousands of times but it took years before she learned who had lived there.

These are typical instances of  “Duluth” to me. It’s a big small town. It’s large enough to get lost in if you want, and to never see parts of it. But it’s small enough that everyone has friends in common through one means or another, whether they went to school with them, or worked with them, etc.

Even after all this time, this town still has hidden gems to discover for those who take the time to look.

My First Book of Pig People

20190429_121407I was rummaging through old files the other day and found the first book I ever wrote: “The First Book of Pig People.” As the name suggests, it led to sequels: “The Adventures of Janet and Harry,” “The Adventures of Sally and Fred,” and “Jace.”

I wrote and fully illustrated the books one summer when I was age eight or ten, which was in the early 1970s — as you can see from the platform shoes and clothing styles in the cover photo. I worked on them with my girlfriend Karen, who wrote her own books. We’d bring our stories to each other’s houses and sit at the kitchen table, scribbling away with our pencils. I also remember writing while lying in the grass in Karen’s back yard.

As you can see from the cover photo, the characters are human with pig noses. Why the mix of human and pig? Perhaps it had something to do with my connection to animals. It might also do with a poster one of my brothers had up in his room. As I can recall, it featured a humanoid pig creature littering, and it contained an anti-littering slogan. But, as with most story ideas, who really knows what strange subconscious depths it came from?

Upon finding these early efforts again, I was impressed that I knew I would have sequels from the beginning. Not bad planning for a youngster.

The main characters in the series are two women and four men, because each woman ended up having two boyfriends, mainly due to the lameness of their initial boyfriends. Four pets were also involved: a parrot, a cat, a dog, and a walrus-bird hybrid I dubbed a “walbirus.” With that particular pet, I decided to combine two of the most improbable animals I could. The walbirus also sports a pig nose, it has the head of a walrus, a small walrus body, and wings. Yes, it can fly! Like the humans, the pets also sport pig noses, and the spots on the dog’s coat each contain two piggy nostril markings within them.

The pets drive the story. A cat tells his man (Karl) to let him outside. While on his walk, the cat meets a dog. The cat invites the dog to his house to meet Karl.

Of course, the pets can talk. Hmm, what other stories have animals that talk? Oh, there was that novel I wrote when I grew up called “Eye of the Wolf,” which features talking wolves. Seems to be a common theme here.

The dog then invites the cat and Karl over to his house. The dog’s human is a woman (Janet), and at the sight of her, Karl “knew they were going to be good friends.” Romance blossoms, thanks to their pets.

Later, the cat and dog go on a walk and meet a parrot who lives in their neighborhood. At first, the cat wants to eat the parrot, but the parrot talks him out of it, because he’s “too young to die.” In the way of stories written by children, that makes immediate sense to the cat, who befriends him instead.

The trio travel to the dog’s house to introduce the parrot to Janet. Karl is also at the dog’s house. When the parrot tells them who his master is (her name is Sally) and Karl (stupidly) tells them that Sally is his new girlfriend, Janet kicks him out.

Intrigue, romance, jealousy, talking animals . . . what a great combination for a story! I won’t bore you with the rest of the intricate details, but in the end, the women have a brawl over the men and each woman ends up married. Karl walks around for most of the story with a pillow strapped to his behind from all the kicking-out by angry women. It’s so bad, he hires a bodyguard to protect him.

When the bodyguard asks Karl why he needs his help, Karl says, “I have two girlfriends. They found out that I found out that they found out I was in love with both of them. So they fight me. And I’m too young to die.” The bodyguard (Jace) agrees and everything is all right. Jace eventually gets his own story at the end of the series. (The walbirus is Jace’s pet.)

Hmmm, Karl was the name of the bad guy who gets into a fight in “Eye of the Wolf,” too. I honestly did not make that connection until just now. I wonder what I have against men with that name?

The spelling in the stories is creative, “introduchen,” “charicktures,” for characters, “dubble” for double, and “nabors” for neighbors.

In the sequels, the pets, while still integral to the plot, take more of a back seat. As in the first book, most of the sequels end with marriages. Gee, my novel “Plover Landing,” ends with a marriage. Hmm, I detect another commonality. I’m sure other similarities exist as well. If I were a major literary figure instead of just a world famous blogger (ahem), a psychologist delving into my genius would have a field day with these early stories.

Apparently, my plot ideas haven’t changed much from the beginning. But I hope my spelling has at least improved.

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Jace’s wedding at the end of the series.

Book Review: Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

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Sinclair Lewis. Image courtesy of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

I was motivated to read “Babbitt” because the author lived in my hometown in the 1940s for a time. I periodically drive by the house Sinclair Lewis used to own and it made me curious to read his works.

Also, my mother had a brush with Lewis. As a home economics major at the University of Minnesota, to gain experience she worked as a cook for a professor who had Lewis over for dinner one night. As I recall, my mother was not impressed with the author, saying that his face was pock-marked, he seemed unhappy, and was inordinately self-absorbed.

Although the book and its slang are dated, I found the tale eerily relevant, given the current political climate. It’s not so much a story as it is an extended character study of George Babbitt, a real estate broker in the mythical town of Zenith (which is patterned after Sauk Centre, MN). And if you ever wondered how white male privilege came about, this story reads like a propaganda packet for it and it will enlighten you.

During Babbitt’s time, cigar lighters in cars were a big deal. Ads were written in flowery language with fountain pens, and protracted descriptions of electrical outlet covers could make their way into novels. “Boosterism” was big. Prominent community members were expected to extol the virtues of their small towns far and wide to encourage business and prosperity.

Babbitt is a 48-year-old economic booster who faces a mid-life crisis – kind of like if Donald Trump ever got a conscience or sought spiritual enlightenment. The story follows him from his rise to the ultimate booster, to his decline after his friend is jailed for a shooting. Babbitt begins to question the social culture of his town and he rebels to the point of drinking heavily, having an affair, and consorting with **gasp** liberals and men deemed as socialists.

Babbitt is brought back to the fold of social respectability after his wife contracts appendicitis and the community rallies around his family. However, after his wife’s recovery, the old rebellion starts in on him again. He feels powerless to act on it because he’s finally back in the good graces of the town’s powerful men.

It is at this time [spoiler alert!] when his son elopes with the neighbor girl. After they come back home and announce their news, the shocked families start expressing their disapproval, except for Babbitt, who takes his son aside into another room. Babbitt praises him for having the guts to buck society and do the things that Babbitt was never strong enough to do. Thus, he passes the torch of social rebellion onto his son to carry.

My favorite scene in the book involves the subtle satirical humor at a dinner party where all the men complain about small town hicks who repeat the same things over and over again during their dinner parties because they are so uncultured. Each big city cultured Zenith man at the table expresses this same complaint, just in different words.

Although Lewis is an astute observer of human nature and his story is meant to be a cutting social commentary, the language makes it rather quaint today. It’s full of words like “zip” and “pep,” and such shocking swear words as “golly,” and “rats.”

But I liked the story. I gave it three out of five stars on Goodreads. I feel I’ve done my duty in reading a local author. Next time I drive by his former house, I’ll utter a couple of “gollies” in his honor.

Bellying up to the Water Bar

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Friends Pat and Tari visit my Water Bar.

Last week, I had the chance to watertend for my job. What’s that? It’s like being a bartender, but without the alcohol.

I learned my new trade at an open house hosted by the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) in Duluth, Minnesota. The “Tapping into Science” event was the brainchild of June Breneman, a friend of mine and fellow science communicator, with the intent of celebrating the importance of clean water by offering the public a chance to taste regional water at a Water Bar and local craft beer brewed with Lake Superior water. It’s also an opportunity to put water professionals and educators in contact with the public in an approachable setting.

Unlike a real bartender, my preparation was minimal. All I needed to do was read a one-pager on how to tend water and watch a short video. Plus, I had help. I worked with fellow watertender Steve Berger, who serves as chief of staff for NRRI.

Steve and I served three varieties of water from growler jugs. Varietal #1 was from Minneapolis, which gets its water from the Mississippi River. Varietal #2 was from Duluth, which gets its water from Lake Superior. Varietal #3 was from Buhl, a small town on the Iron Range, which gets its water from an aquifer.

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Me, watertending. Image courtesy of the Natural Resources Research Institute.

Like a real bar, the atmosphere is intentionally casual, with convivial and open-ended interactions. As the one-pager says, there’s no wrong or right way to do it, so that takes the pressure off right away!

We wore aprons with big blue water drops on them and served the water in compostable plastic cups on a flight board featuring three circles with numbers for the different types of water.

I arrived thirsty, so before the event began, I did my own tasting. #1 had a chemical tang to it with a hint of algae. #2 didn’t taste like anything to me, probably because I live in Duluth and am so used to it. #3 tasted much like #2. I found it interesting how many subtle differences I could taste between the Minneapolis water and the other samples when drinking them sequentially.

Most of our patrons at the water bar wanted to guess which samples came from which locations. It was interesting to see their different interpretations of the tastes. The experience sparked many discussions about the kind of drinking water people grew up with and the sources of the drinking water they now use.

After finishing their flights, patrons walked down the hallway to visit water research displays and to sample beer from three local breweries.

This is a unique way to encourage thought and discussion about water. If you work for a water organization, keep this in mind as a public outreach method. The Water Bar and Public Studio provided materials for the bar. It’s a nonprofit arts organization connected to the Freshwater Society in Minnesota. According to June, the amount organizations pay for the bar materials is negotiable.

Now I have a new skill to list on my resume.

And I have a whole new definition for what constitutes a “dive” bar. 🙂

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A flight of water.