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Saturday, June 19, 2021

A Tribute to Dad on Father's Day Weekend

 My father the second-born, only boy of five kids. I would describe my aunts (Dad's sisters) as vivacious–always ready to greet anyone with a hug and a kiss. I remember Grandma Shirley telling stories of family outings when the girls tore into anything of interest as little Ronnie walked around, hands behind his back, studying things. He was also the kid who needed to be coaxed into going back to school on his second day of kindergarten. Needless to say, my dad isn't a social butterfly, and not very inclined to greet people with a hug and a kiss. But I did learn a few things from him.

Lesson #1: Power of Laughter

Some of my early comedic heroes include Bill Murray, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Akroyd, Chevy Chase, and Ron Ronfeldt. In addition to laughing at the Coneheads, I laughed at my dad. He was uncommonly funny. Dry. A bit twisted. He didn't tell stupid dad jokes like "Three men walk into a bar...the third one ducked." No. He created games like "The Dead Game" and at-home versions of "Name that Tune." I won't explain The Dead Game, as it involves obituaries and a temporary reprieve of decorum. Name that Tune was a bit more innocent–a family tradition beginning shortly after I began piano and learned classics like "Mister Frog is Full of Hops." Dad could almost always name Mr. Frog in one note.

Dad didn't always love attending my activities (Overly-involved parenting wasn't really a thing in the 80's.) It never bothered me. But it was nice when he came to Senior Night when the football team and marching band were being recognized. As the athletic director thanked the parents for all of their support and dedication to the kids, he leaned over to Mom and whispered, "What instrument does Stef play again?" Now, that's just funny.

Lesson #2: Work is Good

I don't know any dad in this part of the world who doesn't try to impart a work ethic into their kids. Dad was no different with his only child–a delicate daughter whose preference was to stay inside and either read or play barbies. I had a lot of standard first jobs: mowing, babysitting, and the pinnacle of all first jobs in Shelby County: walking beans. At first I was excited to be on an exclusive crew of bean walkers and making the high salary of $3/ hour. It only took me about 30 minutes (at most) to tire of the bugs, heat and monster button weeds. But I did it. When I was asked, I did it. One summer, I seemed to be enjoying a reprieve of the fields. Dad took notice of my lazy summer days. One night at supper he mentioned that Forrest Adams was needing bean walkers and I better be ready to go the next morning. My heart sunk to the floor. Being the quick thinker that I was, I replied, "I can't! I have to exercise tomorrow." To be fair, I had just started on a new program. It wasn't a lie. Dad didn't scold me. He chuckled. And rather than feeling resentful, I felt, well, foolish. (I can't imagine if my husband, a true farm kid, would've told his dad he couldn't walk beans because he was starting a new exercise regimen.) It took some time, but eventually I began to understand the value and fruits of working hard. 

Lesson #3: Humility

When my dad was playing football in high school, the coach pulled him aside before a game one night and asked him if it would be okay for the announcer to call out his son's name, instead of Dad's, in the starting lineup. The coach assured him that he would still start and play the whole game. But it would mean an awful lot to the announcer. Who was my dad to argue with that?

One time when I was was in grade school or junior high, I was bragging about how fast I was. (I was super uncoordinated, just fast.) Dad sat and listened. Eventually, he said, "I was pretty fast in school too." Ha! Of course, I didn't believe him. He was an old guy (probably around thirty) who wore work boots and jeans. So, he challenged me. We went out in the yard, he still wearing his boots and jeans. He gave me a head start, which I assured him I didn't need. But lo and behold, he kicked my ass. 

I guess you could say my father is a "character" guy than a man of show. That's why he'd much rather be seen on an antique Indian motorcycle with hints of rust on the gas tanks, as opposed to riding a shiny new Ducati or even a brand new Harley. It's hard not to respect that.

My dad, protecting me from the fish!

The summer after I graduated from the U of Iowa (Bachelor's Degree in hand), I got a job detasseling. I had had a few accomplishments in my life by then, but Dad told me more than once, how proud he was of me for doing that job. It was humbling. It was hard work. But fortunately, I knew how to laugh. All gifts from my father.

Of course, I learned many more things from Dad...things like driving a stick shift. But my favorite lesson of all from him? Love comes in all forms. He might not be a big hugger. But when I stop in for a visit over lunch and Dad shows me his tomatoes or a funny YouTube video, I feel his love for me.

Happy Father's Day, Dad!

Love ya to pieces. 

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Getting Dirty

By guest blogger, Alex Kramer 

A few weeks ago, I had the radical idea that fully submerging my hands in soil would solve all my problems. This stemmed from a romantic daydream of working and living on an olive farm in Italy, listening to records and writing music in my free time. But I don’t live in Italy. I live in Colorado. And despite growing up in a cornfield, I rejected any notion that I might enjoy working with the land. I was too punk for that. Nowadays, I tend to reject the notion that to be one thing you can’t be another. So I took my tattooed, blue-haired, semi-city-fied self out to the farm — Esoterra Culinary, to be exact — and prepared to be schooled. 

It wasn’t my dad’s farm, that’s for sure. Mark, the man that owns the farm, and his young daughter (probably 7 or 8), greeted me with raw fennel to snack on and a tour of all the produce they grow — rows of chicory, raspberries, tomatoes, sunchokes, and so much more just starting to sprout, seeking the spring sun and rain. It was the lay of the land, if you will. Then they put me to work. 

For 3 hours, I hung out pulling bindweed and planting peas in the mountain heat and morning breeze. Amongst plants I can’t remember the names of, I got dirt successfully wedged in every crevice of my hands. Mark’s daughter told us about her future plans to open a raw food restaurant with her friend — she even made us a plate by cutting greens straight out of the ground so we could sample her work (shockingly, delicious; the girl knows what’s what). She showed us her mom’s sundress and told me she would like her hair to be a rainbow. I think it would suit her.

I told you I originally wanted to put myself in this foreign situation to solve all my problems. Those problems include a need for movement, a stressful job/boss, and a long-pushed-off eating disorder. Eating disorders, actually. I have such a complicated, tumultuous relationship with food that’s been exacerbated by anxiety, depression, and life circumstances for years. It’s been festering in the heat of my life. All these things swarming along inside my head have external effects — and food became a battleground. After years of negative thoughts and a fair amount of repression, I didn’t feel like hating myself anymore. I went back to therapy and was honest, am continuing to be honest. I’m volunteering at a culinary farm that’s already begun changing my perception of food. Something happens when you eat vegetables straight out of the ground. There’s a new appreciation knowing exactly what’s keeping my brain thinking and my heart pumping. I understand why the bunnies like it so much.

Everything that I was, that’s been done to me, and that I’ve done to myself is a past-tense. The future is as green and fertile as the pea shoots (hopefully) coming out of the ground. 

The next morning: Sunday. I’m writing this in my pajamas, listening to Muddy Waters and watching it rain by the window. I am sore in places I haven’t felt since soccer but daydreaming of the flowers that will come from the rain. And despite the mosquito bite on my face and the large strip of sunburn on my back, I am already looking forward to next Saturday.

Alex. True Blooded Farm Girl.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

A Toast to Thirty Years

Thirty years ago, on Memorial Day weekend, I met the love of my life.

I had just graduated from the University of Iowa and was home for the summer. I needed to make a little money and save a little money for grad school in the fall. I didn't hide the fact that I had a bit of heartburn over coming back to Shelby County. The heartburn went away in a hurry. As it turned out, Doug Kramer was my Tums.

Two grown children, two dogs, and an abundance of cats later, I look back on these past thirty years with wonder. How did we do it? How did we manage to be a couple that still talks to each other? To be fair, our talking ratio is usually 70/30, with me doing the lion share. But it's been that way since day one. It works for us.

Anyone who's married knows that it's not all sunshine. This realization actually comes as a shock when you fall in love and you're certain your partner can do no wrong. I distinctly remember my mother telling me something to this effect before our wedding day. I nodded, but smiled to myself thinking, but doesn't she realize I'm marrying Doug Kramer?

Through a few ups and downs, with the downs basically surrounding cow incidents, we now find ourselves in that state of "I'm so glad I ended up with you." I've been thinking about this and boiled down the keys to our happy marriage to five primary tactics. For what it's worth, here they are:

  1. Do nice things for each other. A no-brainer, heh? You'd think! But it's pretty easy to rely on only birthdays and anniversaries to do this. And when kids come along, most of the giving energy is focused on them, if you intend to spoil them like most parents. But nice gestures don't have to be big. The smallest of gestures are like little happiness pills. For example,

    I'm going to the kitchen, can I fill your water?  Or
    I'm going to the liquor store, do you need anything? (Doug loves buying me alcohol as much as he likes buying it for himself.) Or
    I'm going shopping, can I pick you up some new shoes? (I love buying Doug shoes as much as I like buying shoes for myself. Almost.)

  2. Be willing. I'm not talking about sex, entirely. But we certainly would've missed out on experiences if we wouldn't have melded our lives together. I never would've understood the powerful feeling of driving a tractor, like I did that one time. And he never would've realized the joy of having a cat who likes to eat chips off the counter. Beyond tractors and cats, I truly have a fondness for sports. And sometimes, just sometimes, Doug will be the first to crawl into bed and open a book.
  3. Remember why you fell in love. Modesty, cuteness and sense of humor.  Whenever we get a little snippy with each other, I force myself to remember those things that made me fall in love with him. I also do something else. This might sound a little strange, but I don't think about Doug being my husband. I think about him as someone I'm getting to know better and a child of God. I realize that he has his own fears and vulnerabilities. It makes my love for him grow deeper.
  4. Consider the tone. Jerry Seinfeld once said, "I didn't know I would be discussing the tone of my voice with my wife. I thought it was a marriage. Apparently, it's a musical." For some reason, it's easy to be condescending to the people we love most. It's never right, but a spouse and a child always seem to be fair game. And it's toxic! So, I tell Doug to call me on it if my tone becomes impatient with his computer questions. And he understands that he might need to muster up the happiest tone he can while repeating directions to a cornfield five times to a person who's directionally challenged.
  5. Movie Night. Obviously, this  is probably the most important aspect to our happy marriage. Doug and I have fairly different preferences when it comes to cinema genres. If we could find a movie that stars Steven Segal as an 18th Century poet, we might have a consensus. But that movie hasn't been made yet. So, we rotate. Thanks to Alex, we now have a new method in which we draw a random actor out of a hat and choose a movie that actor has been in. Not that there aren't a few sighs after a movie has been selected, but for the most part we see a nice variety of killing and poetry.
So, that's it! I love who I ended up. I love the children we created and raised. And I love the home and lives we made together. To the next thirty years...and beyond.

Summer of 1991. Happy Doug.
Summer of 1991. Happy Stef

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

In Centerfield

Softball. Baseball.

Those were the only youth sports when I was young, that I remember anyway. When I asked Mom if I could go out for softball, she convinced me, in that loving tone of hers, that softball was probably not my sport. As it turned out, "my sport" ended up being piano. With my father being a motorcycle guy, and a mother who had her fill of chasing older brothers' fly balls her entire childhood, I grew up knowing very little about America's pastime. 

Then I met Doug. He told me he played town team ball. I said, "Oh! I'd love to come and watch you play softball sometime!" He was quick to set me straight. "Baseball. Not softball. Baseball." 

Now, I wasn't completely clueless. I had attended a few high school games. But the summer of 1991 was my first real education of the sport. Admittedly it started off as an excuse to watch my cute new boyfriend in his uniform. I'd drag my high school buddy, Jill, along. (Her Mom did not talk her out of playing softball.) Jill taught me terms like "warning track" and "tag up" and "full count" and "cleanup hitter." I learned a lot that summer! Most notably? How a slice of lime completely enhances the taste of Bud Light.

Fast forward a few years, beyond Doug's town team baseball days. Doug taught me more as we watched and attended MLB games where concessions of hot dogs, popcorn and nachos trumped all the Michelin restaurants of the world. By the time we signed our kids up for tee-ball, I knew important things about the sport. Like the Yankees were the devil. 

Little League was our first foray into "extra-curricular" activities for our children. It didn't take me long to adopt the mindset of every parent who watches their kid play a sport for the first time. You know the mentality: "My six-year-old clearly has talent! Is it too early for colleges to be scouting?" By Middle School, both of our kids were done with summer ball. They had other pursuits. 

But we remained a baseball family. Every year, we religiously watch baseball classics: Fever Pitch, Major League, Bull Durham, Moneyball, 42, Trouble with the Curve. (There are more we don't catch every year, for all you Field of Dreams fans.) The baseball formula works beautifully in cinema. It's sooooo feel-good! And it provides us a plethora of lines that speak to life itself. "Careful kid, they'll break your heart." or "How can you not be romantic about baseball?" 

Some of my favorite family memories took place in Kaufmann Stadium (Kansas City), Target Field (Minneapolis), Busch Stadium (St. Louis), and at the stadium of stadiums: Fenway Park in Boston. The Green Monster where the soundtrack of the Dropkick Murphy's doesn't leave your brain and fans loiter to celebrate well after the game has been won. 

There are many things to love about this game. Some say it's too long. Too slow. Too boring. But the pace of the game and the patience required to watch is one of the best things about it. For a person who can rarely sit still and has five million things jumping around in her brain, baseball is the best. Watching and waiting for a hitter to smash the ball out of the park forces me to do something I rarely do: be present and live in the moment. 

During harvest, when Doug is in the fields and the kids are gone, I turn on the TV to listen to a baseball game. There's something soothing about the dull roar of the crowd and the smooth voice of the broadcaster announcing "the 2 and 2 pitch." And when there's a perfect catch, a strikeout ,or a grand slam, I cheer with delight! Because we all need something to cheer for that's not political or divisive, even if you happen to cheer for those damn Yankees.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Plant This!

My mother had a vegetable garden throughout my childhood. The best part, as I recall, was the snapping of green beans before throwing them into a boiling pot. Of course, I'd sneak a few raw ones. The crunch was certainly more satisfying than the unsalted, uncooked taste of those green, velvety beans. When Dad suggested I make a little money by taking over the garden and selling the produce at the Farmers' Market, I quickly became enthused. Mom's reaction was a bit more sober.

It made sense that I take over the garden. After all, Mom worked and my babysitting jobs didn't occupy my entire summer. Of course, I would weed it! Of course, I'd keep up with the picking of radishes and carrots!

Dad usually had a few money-making schemes for me. Once, he built hutch to raise rabbits. He recognized the fast-growing market for rabbits in Kirkman. But fortune was not on our side. We quickly learned that the phrase "breed like rabbits" was a big, fat lie. Not only did our rabbits NOT breed, but they died. Maybe we just lacked the skills of a proper bunny whisperer.

Dad also drew Tippie the Bird for me several times in attempt to win that big cash prize offered to the best artist under the age of 18, as advertised in the TV guide. That only landed us an invitation to attend art school. No cash prize. I always wondered how many kids were kicked out of that school once they realized the parental sketching involvement.

When all else failed, there was always a farmer's field to walk. Since Dad never acknowledged any of my valid excuses (such as my strict exercise routine), I assumed growing a garden might relieve me of the awful job of pulling button weeds from a soybean field.

So, it was a plan.

This is what I envisioned. Still do.

No matter what the age, planting a garden is exciting. It seems so... noble! Carefully laying the seeds in the freshly hoed ground. Watering the rows just so, making the dirt a deep, rich brown. Then waiting and waiting and waiting for that first sprout. When it does, it's magic.

Anyone who grew up in Kirkman knows how easy it was to get distracted. My two best friends and I had things to do (beyond exercising), such as keeping up on Young and the Restless and General Hospital. We were also called to listening to the groundbreaking albums of Joan Jett, Michael Jackson, and The J. Geils Band. (It wasn't so easy to keep up with pop culture in the days of no cable and no Internet.) No matter, it's no surprise it didn't take long for the garden to go to hell, just as the sage in our family had predicted.

Well, I'm a bit older now. I've dabbled in flowers and vegetable gardening throughout the nearly 27 years of our marriage. Sure, I've had some failures. But I've had a few successes as well. The thing I like about this particular hobby? For every fifteen failed projects, it only takes one success to make you feel like an accomplished master gardener. One beautiful lily bloom is all it takes to offset your six failed tomato plants.

I finally convinced Doug to till me a garden again. I've been asking the last few years, but he would usually give me a similar reaction as my mother did all those years ago. Either I wore him down, or he was tired of my never-ending list of house projects now that we are full-fledged empty nesters.  The last time I had a real garden was back at the old house when the kids were little. Alex would sneak the fresh strawberries from our patch, just as I did the green beans.  Cole was too young, but I doubt I could've convinced him to try a vegetable or fruit from the garden––unless of course it would've tasted like a cheeseburger.

So, here I go. The new garden is half-planted. My enthusiasm for this project is over the moon. Who knows if anything will grow? We can be fairly confident that weeds will grow. But I hope, hope, hope I can deliver a few fresh green beans to my mother.

Wish me luck!

A rare pic
of the kids amidst flora...note the gardening Crocs.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Something to Believe In

I'm a Hawkeye. My mama raised me that way. I married a guy who claims to be more of a Hawk fan than me even though I actually graduated from there. He argues that his emotional outbursts during games are proof of his loyalty. Just because I don't have as much testosterone to incite anger doesn't mean my heart isn't on the verge of exploding every time I watch our black and gold competitors! No matter, we do agree that we are quite blessed to have two children who pledged themselves to Herky the Hawk, giving us every reason to trek to Iowa City. (We're also blessed that our kids are healthy and smart and beautiful and yadayadayada.)

My fandom has regained a certain momentum since we no longer have kids to watch from the stands. (Kids that we birthed, I mean. You know, the kind that allows you to leave work early without judgement from others.) Mostly, I like to watch the Hawks. But I really could cheer for just about any team and any sport, except the Yankees (obviously). At this very moment, I happen to be watching women's soccer, as I'm sure most everyone is. Go USA! After experiencing that period in 2020 that confined us to Netflix, Prime Video and the Food Network, I really, really appreciate watching live games. (Doug would argue that replays are better, as long as you know that Iowa has already won.)

The other night I was talking to Alex on the phone, while watching a basketball game. I had to confess this as I was making "OH NOOOO" responses to positive things she was telling me. Doug was gone to a meeting, and my daughter was like, "Wow Mom. I have to give it to you. You're watching basketball and you don't have to?" But here's the deal. I like watching sports. I have always liked watching sports. I learned at a very young age that I was too uncoordinated to play just about any sport I tried.  I was (am) a horrible athlete, so I'm terribly fascinated by people who know how to do things like catch a ball. They make it looks so easy! 

Most recently, I've become completely absorbed in college basketball, watching any "Big10 Journey" that features an Iowa player. It's hard not be a cheerleader for just about anyone when you watch a kid who grew up dressing up like Spiderman and fighting with lightsabers (much like your own kid). It's even harder not to form an attachment and deep empathy for that same kid who has fought cancer. I dare you to watch this and not become a Hawkeye fan. Come on you ISU fans, watch it....

It's been a rough year, as we all know. We're edging toward March Madness–the month we were deprived of last year. It was a dark and sad and scary month. And while we're not out of the woods yet, I encourage every one of you to sharpen your pencils, pick a team, any team, and get yourself ready to complete that office bracket. Forget about all the strife in the world and let yourself get lost in the games. And most of all, find someone to cheer for. Sure, the team might break your heart. But then again, they might not. And there's always next year.

Bleeding black and gold...

Monday, December 7, 2020

The Grocery Store Chronicles

It's that time of the year! When trips to the grocery store are fast, frequent and furious. (Well, okay, perhaps the entire year of 2020 has embodied the fervor of holiday grocery shopping.) Whether you're a Hy-Vee or Fareway fanatic, these stores are the place to be. A home away from home. The place to grab your milk. The place to let Eddie or Joe educate you on all things meat. The place to crash carts with the same person over and over again as you zig zag through the store trying to remember where they moved the Parmesan cheese.

As a kiddo, the grocery store was a magical place that earned me a Kit Kat for being good. Or if things weren't going so well, a threat of getting sent to the car. Sitting in the car wasn't only an acceptable form of punishment in the 70's, it was condoned by mothers who really had no escape.

As a teenager, the grocery store was quite possibly the worst place to be, especially if I had to tag along with parents. Much to my dismay, Mom would usually pick out the lane with the cutest grocery bagger. I tried to play it cool, even as she offered me the Kit-Kat for good behavior.

As a college student, the grocery store was a wonderful place again, especially if I was with my parents who were always generous enough to subsidize a cart full of Ramen noodles, and a few Kit Kats for good measure.

Then I landed my first job after college. I knew I had really made it when I could proudly glide right past those Ramen Noodles wearing my heels and a smart blazer.

When I became a parent, admittedly the grocery store lost its magic. Getting groceries with any child under the age of 8, wearing heels (smart blazer or not) is simply hell. No longer was it acceptable to send kids to the car for bad behavior. And Kit Kats were hardly a bargaining chip. My kids were the masters of manipulation. Getting a Kit Kat was merely child's play for them. If we didn't exit the store without at least an additional $50 worth a crap, I could safely assume they were ill.

I clearly remember the day I was able to get walk into Fareway without the kids. Handel's "Hallelujah" greeted me as I walked into the door. The heavens opened and golden rays of lights shined brightly over the produce as I was able to actually deliberate on which apples I wanted to buy. 

As I tiptoe into this brave new world of empty-nested-ness, one thing has becomes clear–especially during the pandemic. Our grocery stores are treasures. One week after the Kramer family garbage disposal (aka Cole) left for college, I spent $300 on food for Doug and me. I was well-aware we had no kids at home. At first, I thought perhaps I was either channeling some guilt for not having enough snacks at the house for the kids (as I was often reminded of) or guilt from feeding our family too shittily throughout the years in the name of convenience (potato chips as a veggie type stuff). But I think more than anything, I was just relishing.

Someone mentioned to me that it appears we're starting to settle into this new world of no kids in the house. Perhaps my grieved expression has faded a bit. Not that I don't miss our kids terribly. I do. But it has occurred to me that I could and should relish more moments that don't involve the kids–like spending time watching Jerry Seinfeld with my hubby, listening to a friend at work, sending funny texts to my parents, or staring at the meat counter debating whether to try the salmon or the cod. 

For me, here they and dog included: