Musings, North Dakota Living

A Good Day’s Work

After spending three weeks in Minnesota on vacation, I came back to our farm two days ago, our farm in the middle of the oil field that has been waiting patiently for me to come back home to western North Dakota. When I turned my little SUV north onto Highway 85, I was met with the familiar line of scoria-covered oil trucks that I really didn’t miss while I was gone, but it was good to be home for the first time in almost a month.

I’m a teacher, so the summers are a blessed offering of time to get things accomplished, a luxury that doesn’t seem to exist during a school year. When I arrived at the house, I spent the large part of the day paying bills, making phone calls, planning a friend’s baby shower, organizing the fridge, and other tasks that stare a person in the face after an extended leave of absence.

Then, after checking off this great list of things, I finished the novel I had started on vacation. Then, I watched a couple shows I had DVR’d. Then, I sat there. I’m not a person who gets bored easily, but before my vacation I quit my bartending job and finished the curriculum units I had been hired to write for the high school. For the very first time all summer, I felt like I had nothing to do. I like having things to do. I like to feel, well, not worthless.

So when my brother the farmer mentioned to me this morning that if I was looking for some work, I could weed the rock gardens, I racked my brain for something “important” to do instead. (I don’t like weeding much.) But as I couldn’t think of anything and I couldn’t stand the thought of sitting in the house another afternoon, I grabbed my orange-and-white gardening gloves, my sunglasses, and an iPod dock and headed out into the glaring heat to pull some stubborn weeds for a few hours.

And you know what? I liked it. It felt good.

While I was sweating in the sun, struggling against the unfriendly little weeds doing their darndest to stay right where they were comfortably rooted among the rocks, I had time to reflect on many similar days growing up. In my family, summers off from school didn’t mean summers off from responsibility. We packed up every June and moved to the farm, and while we spent a lot of time doing fun things like riding horse, driving four-wheelers, and swimming in a nearby nasty little pond, our free time didn’t come free. We had to work for it.

In those days, we were paid by my Grandpa Tim or my dad, whoever was doing the “hiring” that day, our age’s worth in dollar bills for one day of work. So, if I was 11 and I spent a day hoeing tree rows, I was paid 11 dollars that day. It seemed like a heck of a deal, because sometimes, someone delivered ice cream bars while we were working, and plus we got a dollar raise every year.

I didn’t know that I was cheap labor.

But I knew that when I went back to school in the fall, I had more money and a lot more stories than most of my friends.

As we grew older and reached high school, it was time to start saving for college, so our wage situation changed. Some of us were paid hourly. I was paid a lump sum that guaranteed I would be on call all summer for odd jobs and would run a combine during harvest. My brothers and I paid for college that way: Picking rocks, hoeing long rows of evergreen trees, shoveling out grain bins, and my least favorite, “riding the rake” — which meant sitting for hours on a wooden square fastened to an old dump hay rake. This hay rake was usually pulled by my dad or one of my brothers driving a tractor. My job was to guarantee that the lever released the hay when it was supposed to. It was bumpy, it was uncomfortable on the wooden square, it was usually hot and windy, and every so often the rake would start “bucking,” so if I didn’t hang on tight, I might end up lying in a windrow wrapped in hay.

Some of those jobs were just no fun. My favorite, however, was hauling grain in old dusty trucks to the old dusty elevator, because the old dusty elevator men would insist that I sit inside the air-conditioned office and sip a cold root beer from the ancient pop machine — I always tried to bring quarters — while they dumped my truck for me. (I’m thinking they didn’t have many tiny blonde girls as customers.) It was the special treatment, all right, and I liked to tell my brothers about it so they would hopefully be a little jealous.

My other favorite job was running one of the Case International 1480’s during harvest. Compared to the other farm jobs, this job was a luxury that we all fought over. That’s because there was less grain chaff and more air conditioning and music on the AM radio.

Copy of farm (39)

We worked all summer this way. Sometimes we complained, but I think we all liked it. We sweated in the sunlight, we itched like the dickens when we shoveled barley, we got covered in dirt hoeing trees – but we bonded, too. I know my dad and Grandpa liked it, because not only were they getting some pretty decent labor, but it was proclaimed to help us by “building character.” If we grumbled, my Grandpa would say, “Enthusiasm makes the difference!” or “You got to have a heart like a lion!” When he pulled up in his blue pickup to hand out the slightly melted ice cream bars, he would shout, “What a good-lookin’ crew!” I think I heard that line a thousand times.

I missed my Grandpa Tim and those good days of work while I was pulling weeds today.

I’m glad there are still weeds to pull, though, because someday I will need a character building program for my own kids, and I bet my brothers will want one for their kids, too. On a farm, there are always weeds. There are always rows of trees to hoe and rocks to pick and machinery to drive. I can’t wait to send my kids to the farm to work for Grandpa Mike and Uncle Danny. They will complain about hoeing long rows of trees and I will say, “Enthusiasm makes the difference!” They will roll their eyes and complain some more, and I will smile a little and bring them ice cream bars if it’s a hot day.

And someday, they will look back and be grateful for that good day’s work.

My brothers and I during harvest 2002, building character
My brothers and I building character during harvest 2002
Musings, North Dakota Living

What America is Made Of

You may remember a popular old nursery rhyme about what little girls and little boys are made of. Little girls, of course, are made of sugar and spice and everything nice. I can attest to this because I was once a sweet little girl. (I’m not sure what happened — the spice is still there, but the sugar seems to be running low.) Little boys, according to the rhyme, are made of slugs and snails and puppy-dog tails. Also, Barbie dolls. Broken ones. And I’m not trying to be gender neutral: On a few occasions my brothers dismembered my Ken dolls and/or set them on fire.

Maybe that’s what happened to the sugar.

Anyway, this Fourth of July week got me thinking: What is America made of?

If you asked this question, you would get a smattering of answers. Some might have less-than-glowing words for the U.S. in its current state of debt, questionable foreign policy and bipartisan craziness. Some might supply vague and generic answers, abstract words that in many ways have become watered-down, have lost their power and meaning. Freedom. Democracy. Rights of man. Liberty. The pursuit of happiness. Those things are important, no doubt, and we owe immense gratitude to the servicemen who have retained them for the rest of us, but sometimes American culture and politics and history books cycle the words around and around, and we lose complete sight of what they mean.

Therefore, I thought some concrete objects might help. Those old nursery rhymes were good that way. If girls are made of sugar and spice and boys are made of slugs and snails and Barbie dolls, then we need concrete objects for America, too.

America is not perfect, but it’s her birthday this week, after all.

This is what I think America is made of:

It’s a sunset over a Midwest lake.


It’s a four-legged resident of the Midwest plains.


It’s the relics of the past that America was built on.


And it’s the symbols of progress, and you wonder if you always have to take the bad with the good, or if there are better ways to do things.


There are always better ways to do things.

It’s the water towers proudly proclaiming the names of the towns they belong to.


It’s the roads that lead to nowhere, which really lead to somewhere if you don’t mind getting lost.


And it’s the dogs that accompany you along the way.


It’s adorable sundresses on those little girls that are made of sugar and spice.


And inflatable hot dogs. (Sometimes, America does make me shake my head a little.)


But the kids have fun, anyway.

It’s an outdoor concert on a hot July night.


And if you’re lucky, it’s a Guster concert. (Seriously, check them out: Your life will be better for it.)


And when the outdoor concert is in the outfield of a minor league baseball stadium, and it’s America’s birthday week, and you can sit on blankets in the grass and buy brats and beer and mini donuts,  all those things make it feel even more like America at its best.


I could keep going, because America is made of a lot of things, both good and bad. But most of all, it’s made of its people: the rich, the poor, the old and young, the teachers and lawyers and coal miners and farmers and cashiers and biologists, and most importantly, the children. That’s what matters; that’s what our countrymen have been fighting for all these centuries.

That’s what America is made of.

How To's, Musings

How to: Guacamole

Although an extensive list, some of my very most favorite things about summer include:

1. Time to travel far and wide

2. Time to explore close to home

3. Time for “summer tasties.” Aka GOOD FOOD. My favorite any time of the year, of course, but something special in the summer.

I talk about the first two quite a bit in Boomtown Diaries, so this time, I need to give just a little shout-out to the third one. In the summer, the produce aisles are bursting with color, the farmer’s markets are bursting with home-grown goods, and the smell of anything on the grill tantalizes everyone’s senses for miles around. Since the last day of school (aka, my last day of packed lunches and cafeteria food), I haven’t held back on all those promises I made to myself of summer tasties, all throughout the long winter months.

Let me give you a sampling of just one amazing weekend full of summer tasties.

It started when I collected my Bountiful Basket:


This was like Christmas. I paid a reasonable price a few days in advance and on the designated Saturday, went to collect my basket. It was a beautiful sight. For days I ate fresh apple slices, nectarines, butter lettuce, peppers, and cucumbers, and drank lemon-lime-cucumber water, which apparently is bursting with health benefits.

I didn’t eat the brussel sprouts, though. Some habits die hard.

I had also never done much with avocados, but when I found them in my basket I decided I was craving homemade guacamole, so I did a little research online and whipped up my own version of various recipes I found, taking out things I didn’t like and adding a couple others. It turned out pretty good, if I do say so myself. See the recipe below.


That same weekend, I hopped over to a nearby boomtown which every Saturday night from Memorial Day to Labor Day grills “hamburgers in the park” for anyone who wants to stop by and fork over a couple bucks to the local Lions Club. Why are these hamburgers so good? I don’t know. But they are. I’ve been trying to get my hands on them every summer Saturday since the days I was ten years old. Growing up, we played a game of whiffle ball every Saturday after eating hamburgers. These days, the whiffle ball gang is scattered far and wide, but the hamburgers are still tasty.

I enjoyed my first “hamburger in the park” of the summer on the same Saturday I picked up my bountiful basket. Double the bliss.


The next day, we put some of the peppers from my basket to use and grilled some pretty amazing steak kebabs.

They were also somewhere on the scale from Christmas to heaven.


(Saul was also very interested in these kebabs.)


And to top it all off, I had found a Coke in a little boomtown convenience store that was from Mexico. For those of you who don’t know, Coke from many countries south of the American border tastes much better than American Coke. My brother Joey, who once brought me a Coke from Guatemala, says it’s made with real sugar unlike our American version, which is made with high fructose corn syrup. I admit, both the Guatemala Coke and the Mexico Coke have proved their superiority in my book.

Plus, why does it taste better from a glass bottle?

It’s just one of those little mysteries of life.


Mysteries like:

Why are hamburgers grilled in the boomtown park by the Lions Club the tastiest of all?

Why did I feel an almost-spiritual connection to that beautiful, colorful bountiful basket? Can fresh fruits and vegetables speak to the soul?

Why did I use the word “bursting” three times in this blog post?

Why haven’t I made steak kebabs every day of my life?

Maybe these aren’t deep life mysteries. Maybe they are just more evidence of the fact that summer, including all of its “tasties”, basically kicks butt. Maybe summer makes everything crisper, fresher, crunchier, more tender, and more refreshing.

Here is one recipe for a delicious summer treat.



2 avocados, peeled, pitted and mashed
Juice of 1 lime
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp minced garlic
1/2 red onion, diced
2 T chopped cilantro (I used fresh)
1 diced tomato (I actually used 2 roma tomatoes since they are a bit smaller)
1-2 diced jalapeño peppers (skip if you don’t like much spice)
A pinch or dash of cayenne pepper


Mash together the lime juice and salt with the mashed avocados. Mix in the rest of the ingredients. Add or remove ingredients to taste. Refrigerate and SERVE!

A summer tasty. Delicious.