Musings, Travel & Adventure

Coming Home: Not As Easy As I Thought

When I flew out of Minneapolis for Asia on a Friday in early fall, I felt queasy. Three months wasn’t a long time to be gone — or was it? I had no idea what to expect. Would I like Asia? Would I like living out of my backpack for that long? Would volunteering be rewarding, difficult, or both? Would I like the food? Would I get sick? Would I still like my brother Tommy after all that time spent together? (Kidding, Tommy.)

I really didn’t know all the answers to these questions, which was both exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. I love to travel, but I also love home, and previously my longest trips had only been a couple of weeks at most. I was determined to make the best of it regardless of what I found overseas, but I knew it wouldn’t be the most comfortable period of my life by any means. That really wasn’t why we were going. If anything, I wanted to be uncomfortable. So as we flew out of Minneapolis that rainy autumn morning, I did my best to push my nervous thoughts to the back of my mind. I remember commenting to Tommy, “Well, no matter how this trip goes, it will be a sweet feeling to land back on American soil in December!”

Because coming home is always an amazing feeling, right?

Fast forward to that December plane ride home to America from Beijing, and something remarkable had happened, for better or worse: I really didn’t feel as amazing as I had thought I would to be coming home. I didn’t feel excited. I didn’t feel eager. Instead, the same queasy feelings that accompanied me on the way to Asia were flitting around in my stomach during the return flights. What was going on? Could it be that I actually enjoyed myself so much that I was now going to pine away for Asia? This was unexpected. The thought of facing “real life” back home was as terrifying to me now as flying into the unknown in Asia had been. I had definitely experienced culture shock when we had first landed in Cambodia months earlier, but it hadn’t taken long to adjust. In fact, it didn’t take long at all for me to fall in love with Cambodia and Thailand.

I had also heard of something called “reverse culture shock,” a term used to describe a difficult adjustment back to life in America. I assumed, however, that it was only for people who spent years overseas. I was not at all prepared for it to be difficult for me. But strangely, it was. It turns out three months was long enough to pick up new habits and expectations, and not long enough for me to miss home much at all.

When we finally landed in Minneapolis, I felt empty.

I had planned and looked forward to and lived the trip for so long, and it had gone so fast, that I wasn’t sure what to do with myself now that I was back. Three months no longer seemed too long, but not long enough at all. I missed Asia incredibly. Where was the sunshine? Where was the diversity? Where was the fresh fruit being sold on every corner? Where were the challenges of trying to converse with people who don’t speak my language? Where were the interesting crowds of people? And why is everything here so darn expensive? Christmas, while it is one of my favorite times of year, just made everything worse. After living out of a backpack for that long and cycling only a handful of outfits, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I owned, and getting more stuff as gifts seemed unnecessary. I missed the simplicity of only a few days earlier. I missed the friendliness and curiosity of the Khmer and Thai and Chinese locals. I didn’t really miss the bad plumbing, but even our fancy American bathrooms added a whole new adjustment. And oh boy, I missed the food. (Except, of course, the fried tarantulas! Those I can live without.) I was pretty excited one night after Christmas to find both pad thai and a native Thai waitress at a new restaurant in town, and she was pretty excited too when I tried out one or two of my terribly-pronounced Thai phrases on her.

I was genuinely surprised and a bit bewildered by the overall difficulty of adjusting back, and I was hard on myself for it, especially when I considered how fortunate I am here at home. Was I just being dramatic? Or negative? I didn’t want to be like that. But it wasn’t until I had an email conversation with my friend E, who currently lives in China, that I understood these feelings weren’t necessarily bad or unusual. She assured me that it happened to her, too, the first time she moved to China for a summer and then returned to America. Through our conversation, I began to look at the whole process differently. Instead of feeling depressed about missing my adventures in Asia, could I take that new perspective that I had wanted so badly and work to apply it to my familiar life here? Could I simplify things, focus on teaching and family and all of the important things, and most of all, know in my heart that these experiences, even if we never get to have them again, make us who we are?

What I was feeling made even more sense when I came across this quote by Miriam Adeney:

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.” 

This idea resonated with me greatly. I left a small part of my heart in Asia even after a few short months, and that’s okay with me. Dramatic? Maybe, but whatever. I’ve never been one to hold back much. And the richness I’ve gained from the whole trip has emerged during the weeks I’ve been home, especially once I was able to get past feeling empty and lost. Most importantly, I’ve started to realize that you don’t need to fly across the world for new experiences. It’s about saying “yes” when opportunities present themselves, trying new things, accepting people no matter where they come from, and enjoying the little things that surround us daily.

Coming home has turned out to be its own new experience now that I’m adjusting again. I feel like I’m getting a fresh start, so I’ve decided to fill my life with things that are meaningful, big or small. I’ve taken up local adult classes on everything from photography to crochet. I’m drinking tea for the first time ever. I sleep less and converse more. I have a new fascination for people from other cultures and have become more outgoing in general. I also have a new appreciation for drinkable tap water and flushing toilets! That new perspective is working its magic, and coming home — well, truthfully it hasn’t been as easy as I thought. It’s a little too cold now and a little too expensive, and I still find myself looking at flights online during my free time. I will more than likely jump on a plane overseas the first time the opportunity arises.

But this is home. And I’m finding again that it’s not so bad, after all.

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

Getting Settled in Phnom Penh

Things have changed.

A week ago, there were threats of snow in North Dakota, most of my meals were coming from the basement freezer as I tried to frantically pack and wrap up the last few days of my job, and my little Ford Escape took me everywhere I needed to go. Now, there are warm rain showers every day, most of my meals include noodles or rice, and we ride everywhere in tuk-tuks.

I love all those pieces of home, but Cambodia so far has been pretty awesome. Tommy and I are hanging out in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, for two weeks for TESOL training before we go to volunteer teach in Thailand. We have class every day from 9:00-5:30 and get the evenings to hang out at the hotel, explore Phnom Penh, or do homework. Here’s a little update on what I’ve experienced in Phnom Penh so far:

FOOD: We have been trying some of the local food since we got here: amok, lok lak, and some strange little salt-and-sugar rice cakes I found at the convenience store, to name a few. My favorite so far was Tommy’s lok lak dish, basically a pile of beef, rice, sauce, and a fried egg on a plate. Oh man, it was good. My stomach has been a bit gurgly the last few days, but I was expecting that. At least I haven’t gotten food poisoning yet. With my luck, it’s probably inevitable at some point.

TRANSPORTATION: As for getting around, we have been escorted everywhere by tuk-tuk, which is basically a four-person carriage pulled by a motorbike. Most of the locals, however, drive motorbikes, or motos. The traffic is absolutely nuts. There are lanes painted on the roads but no one pays too much attention to them; they are more like general guidelines. The moto drivers cut each other off, travel in huge swarms, drive down the wrong lanes and pull in front of oncoming traffic all the time. They actually have amazing skills. They are within inches of an accident at all times and never even blink. They text and drive, and they phone and drive. They ride two or even three or four to a bike. We have actually seen a family of five driving down the street on one motorbike. Twice. (And people think my family is crazy.) The amazing thing is, none of them really get mad. Cambodians are cheerful. This would not happen in America: road rage would run rampant.

I am not the first Westerner to marvel at this incredible transportation system, nor will I be the last. However, Tommy and I have both agreed that the traffic is our favorite part. Especially since we’re not driving. (Then my amusement would probably turn into utter terror.) The motorbikes do look really fun, but these drivers have mad maneuvering skills which I’m pretty sure I don’t possess. They say many tourists to Southeast Asia have died or been seriously injured by renting motorbikes. Considering I really haven’t driven a motorcycle much back home, I don’t think I will try to learn how in Cambodia.

WEATHER: Cambodia is currently nearing the end of its rainy season, meaning the weather is generally humid, the temperature is in the 80s or 90s, and at least a couple heavy rain showers hit every day, lasting anywhere from 10 minutes to a half hour or more. Don’t worry; this doesn’t affect the volume of traffic. Instead, all the moto drivers come out in full force wearing brightly colored ponchos. I even saw one zooming down the street holding an umbrella during yesterday’s heavy rain.

RANDOM TIDBIT: We were quite amused to find out that you can go to the local shooting range right down the street, and for $10 you can fire off AK47’s, for $50 you can toss a grenade and for $350 you can shoot a rocket launcher. We haven’t done this yet. Maybe I will toss a grenade before I come home.

Or maybe the traffic is a big enough thrill for now.

Hope all is well back in the states! Don’t worry about me in Cambodia. For now, I’m perfectly happy eating rice and zooming around in a tuk-tuk.

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Musings, North Dakota Living

Next Year Country

Mother Nature is a beautiful woman.

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But sometimes, she can get pretty darn ornery.

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On Saturday, she sent some brutal winds to knock over farm equipment and basketball hoops, and she sent a sky full of ice down to pummel 1100 acres of some of the most beautiful crops this family of farmers has ever seen. It’s sad to watch months of growing go to waste in one short stormy hour. It’s sad to watch once luscious crops, waving in the breeze only that morning, lying crushed on the ground.

Next year will be better.

Because like one of our neighbors said, this is “Next Year Country.”

Next year, the rain will come.

Next year, the hail won’t.

Next year, the prices will be sky high.

Next year, we’ll have our best crops yet.

Because if there’s one thing  we’re good at around here, it’s looking forward to making things better, now and in the future.

Especially when this year didn’t quite turn out as planned.

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Musings, North Dakota Living

International Harvester

I’ve been away for a little while. I’ve been in North Carolina meeting my nephew, Minnesota floating on a lake, the capital city taking care of important business (and shopping) matters.

I’m back at the farm now with the boys, preparing for harvest. A lot of preparation is needed for something like harvest: Change the oil on all the combines, set the sieves, fill up gas tanks, clean out cabs and truck beds, learn how to operate the new grain cart, stock the fridge with sandwich meat, watch the sky for dry weather, and the list goes on. Today, we moved combines, headers and trucks 20 miles to our furthest northwest field, with hopes set high to start tomorrow.

Let me tell you, things are not the same as they used to be.

When we used to move our harvest equipment, we used to make full use of highways, gravel roads, and whatever was the most convenient to move combines with 30-foot-wide headers attached, no problem. We might be passed by a pickup or two or the occasional semi, or we might meet nothing at all. We drove through town, we had entire highway lanes to ourselves, and we never used pilot cars. Western North Dakota was a whole lot of wide open space.

That was back then.

This is now. The oil field has made 20 miles seem a whooooole lot longer. And I’m telling you, it is not a job for the faint of heart. Today, I moved a combine that didn’t even have a header attached, and it was still quite a thrill. If you want to see angry men, just take up an entire lane of an oil field highway and force dozens of semis and pickups to drive 19 miles an hour behind you, unable to pass because of steady oncoming traffic. You will get middle fingers. You will get honks and glares. (You will also generally ignore them because your machine is bigger than their machine, and there is nothing you can do about the 19 mph.) However, you can’t ignore all of them, and some can get pretty ornery. Last year, one of us overheard someone at a convenience store say confidently, “Farmers and their equipment just don’t belong in oil field traffic.”

Hey. We were here first, buddy.

Anyway, this all reminds me of country singer Craig Morgan’s song from a few years back, “International Harvester.” My dad and I used to laugh about it and watch the video on Youtube. Some of the lyrics go like this:

“Three miles of cars laying on their horns,
Falling on deaf ears of corn,
Lined up behind me like a big parade
Of late-to-work, road-raged jerks,
Shouting obscene words, flipping me the bird.”

Or this:

“Well I know you got your own deadlines,
But cussin’ me ain’t saving no time;
This big-wheeled wide load ain’t going any faster
So just smile and wave and tip your hat
To the man [or GIRL] up on the tractor.”

The song is a little obnoxious, but we can relate. For one thing, we also drive Case IH (International Harvester) combines. The video even features the same model of combine that we ran for years, which I first learned to operate at age 12. We’ve upgraded since then, so the  difference between our operation and the song is that we go a little faster these days. But not much. The only other big difference is instead of three miles of cars following me, it’s three miles of scoria-colored tanker semis and jacked-up pickups.

It’s just one more adjustment we have to make as we welcome the chaos of progress. But someone has to feed America, so we’re going to keep pluggin’ along in the Case International Harvesters, and hopefully for the sake of safety, we can all share the roads.

Here’s the video. See you out there.

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.

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http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Old_dump_hay_rake_in_Olomouc.jpg

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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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There are always better ways to do things.

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

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

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

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

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

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But the kids have fun, anyway.

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

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

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(Saul was also very interested in these kebabs.)

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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.

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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.

GUACAMOLE

Ingredients:

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

Directions:

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.