#46: Go to a concert at Orchestra Hall

One of the motivating forces behind many of the items on my 101 list is the general idea of taking full advantage of all local offerings before longing to travel and see sights that other cities/countries hold; aka, “Things I Really Should See In The City That I Haven’t Yet Made The Time To Explore”. Certainly a lot of personal growth and expanded awareness occurs as a result of experiencing places and situations beyond one’s “normal” worldview – and I am definitely a fan of such travel. But there is also something to be said for maximizing opportunities that are in one’s own “backyard” – and I crafted this “101” plan in part to help get me out of routines and nudge me to encounter local new and novel happenings.

I have been a fan of classical music for the majority of my life. (Indeed, the original introduction to this post was a page-long narrative of that tale – but after I reviewed that story I realized it was more a telling of my past than a connection to the present, so I chose to replace the intro to this post with the content you just read in the opening paragraph. But, if you are curious about the backstory to this 101 item and want to read about it, you can do so here.) I attended community orchestra concerts in my youth, and professional symphony performances in my high school and college years. But when I began working full time, those musical outings fell by the wayside. Now, one could make the case that I was busier as a working professional than I was a high school/college student – and certainly there is some truth to that statement. However, it’s also true that for my entire professional career, I have worked within six city blocks of the home of the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra. (And for ten of those years, I worked literally across the street from Orchestra Hall.) So really, I had no reason to not attend a concert, save apathy (and laziness).

So two years ago I started to make plans to go to a Minnesota Orchestra performance. But then, things got complicated…

First, Orchestra Hall shut down for renovation just as I was starting to review the orchestra’s performance schedule – so item #46 on the 101 list was delayed a year. Then, once Orchestra Hall re-opened for business, the orchestra went on strike for fifteen months. (Long story short: It was a labor/wage issue between the orchestra board and the orchestra musicians. [If you want to read official reports about the event, this article provides a nice, quick summary.])  [And disclaimer/clarification: The orchestra called the situation a lockout, not a strike. I don’t know the difference between the two…]Either way, yikes. I began to wonder if I would be able to complete this 101 task by my self-appointed deadline. Happily, the orchestra board and the orchestra musicians were able to reach a middle ground (though neither side seems overly pleased with the compromise – but again, that’s another tale for another day), but when I looked at the schedule and tried to secure tickets for a concert, I found that every evening and weekend event was already sold out. (Apparently the year-plus orchestral absence created a pent-up demand for their live music.) Starting to feel a little frustrated, I explored an unlikely opportunity: young people’s concerts.

The orchestra offers concerts for “schools, homeschools and families looking for an outstanding arts experience that is both educational and engaging.” A lovely side benefit of these concerts is that they are cheap! (One ticket to attend a Young People’s Concert costs just $6.25, whereas a regular symphony ticket costs anywhere from $25-$85 [or more], plus a $6 processing fee!) Now, attending a Young People’s Concert also meant that I would have to take a day off of work (as the concerts are offered mid-day on Mondays through Thursdays), and that I would be experiencing the orchestra in the presence of hundreds of children (versus adults), but these were both concessions I was wiling to make. So, on an overcast spring day, I stood in line with a bevy of high-energy kids, and made my way into the newly renovated Orchestra Hall.

As I walked through the glass doors into the airy lobby, the very first thought that came into my mind was how stunning the remodeled space looked, and how welcoming it felt. A sleek architectural design, replete with modern slate-gray floors and brushed chrome accents, blended artfully with light natural wood. Making my way inside the auditorium itself, I saw that geometric sound panels lined the ceiling. While I’m confident these items were chosen for the wonderful acoustics they provided, a nice “side benefit” to the panels is that they lended a slightly “funky” feel to the orchestral space. (Note: “Funky” is used here in a positive context.) :)

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(I wanted to take more pictures of the other areas of Orchestra Hall, but my phone/camera decided to seize up just as I left the auditorium to snap more images.  So, if you want to see the other areas of the newly renovated space, you will need to visit the photo gallery on this MPR blog site.)  [P.S. My phone is fine now.  Just required a hard restart.]

I took a chair in a first-tier balcony section at stage left, about fifty feet (or so) away from the orchestra. As the audience started to fill seats on the main floor, I noticed that most of the students looked to be anywhere from 4th through 8th grade. A few moments later the musicians began to trickle onto the stage, and I saw not one, but two female bassists! (Of 6 total.) And one of these women occupied First Chair! I loved it. (Though I will admit that as I watched the bassists play, I felt an ache in my heart – literally. Clearly I miss the joy of making music with an orchestra.)

Five minutes later, the conductor walked on stage – and at this point I noticed that the main audience section was barely halfway full. I felt disappointed. These concerts are a tremendous opportunity to expose kids to an amazing, world-class cultural experience – and local schools aren’t taking advantage of it. (For a variety of reasons, I’m sure; but still. It made me sad.) The conductor explained that the piece the orchestra was going to play is called “The Rite of Spring” (“Le Sacre du Printemps” in French) by a man named Stravinsky – and that originally, the piece was a collaboration between the music composer Stravinsky and a dancer/choreographer named Nijinsky. (I didn’t know this!) To better explain the backstory to the creation of “The Rite of Spring”, the conductor introduced Lauren Stringer, an author and storyteller, who wrote a children’s book titled, “When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky: Two Artists, Their Ballet, and One Extraordinary Riot.” Ms. Stringer read her book aloud to the audience while select illustrations from the text projected on a huge screen above the stage. Additionally, a piano accompanied the reading and added small passages of happy, heavy, confused, or suspenseful music as appropriate (based on the content of the text). It was a true multi-media experience, and the kids seemed really engaged by it. (So was I!) :)

During the ten-minute reading of the book, the kids and I all learned that this work (both the music and the dance went with it) was quite radical for the time when it debuted – so much so that the first performance of this piece was “boo’d” by a sizeable section of the audience. In fact, these individuals felt so upset by this work that they threw hats/gloves/coats/boots at the orchestra, and rioted in the streets after the performance. Holy buckets!

But – an equally strong portion of the audience loved the new direction this piece headed; so much so that they rioted against the symphony patrons who were rioting against the orchestra! Oy…

After the present-day kids got all amped up on the notion of past patrons throwing shoes onto an orchestra stage and engaging in vandalism and violence after a performance, the conductor resumed control of the microphone and explained that “The Rite of Spring” is sometimes called “Scenes From Pagan Russia”, because it celebrates the gods in nature that control the changing seasons. (At least, according to Russian paganism.) The conductor further explained that “The Rite” is one body of music that is separated into two parts, and each section is 15 minutes long. The first section of the work represents the awakening of spring. In this portion, a group of people dance slowly and quietly to represent the thaw of winter. Then an old wise woman takes the stage and “predicts” the arrival of spring. Upon her prediction, a group of young girls dance to represent the unfolding of spring – and when they are done, an old wise man takes the stage and bends down to kiss the earth in gratitude. Then everyone dances in a big group celebration.

Once we received a briefing on what occurs visually in the piece (e.g., when the piece is played with a dance troupe [which did not take place in this outing; this was strictly an orchestral performance]), the conductor stepped onto his platform, and the music began. I really enjoyed knowing the story behind the music – it helped me “follow along” with the orchestra and the emotions they infused into the piece.

As the orchestra played, a two-person camera crew live-streamed the performance to the huge overhead screen where the story illustrations had displayed earlier – so everyone in the audience could see close ups of various musicians performing in real-time. I have never experienced anything like this before – it was super cool.

(An interesting and new-to-me fact: Several of the musicians wore ear plugs. I understand this for the percussion and trumpet sections [and for the people who sit immediately in front of these areas] – but is ear protection necessary for a flute player? A bassoonist? And yet, these musicians [and several others] wore plugs. This seemed rather strange…)

That being said, the orchestra gave a very lively performance. The “Rite” is a very energetic piece, with many contrasts: loud and soft, fast and slow, excited and relaxed – an ample offering of changes and variety to help keep the attention of children.

Precisely fifteen minutes later, the first movement ended. Immediately the conductor picked up his microphone and walked us through the plot line of section #2 – which is as follows:

Night has now fallen in the forest. A handful of people are in the forest, and they are very frightened. But soon, a group of young girls appear, and a lone girl dances in thanks for the gods blessing them all with spring (which alleviates the fear of the original crowd). Sadly, though, the young girl dances herself to death. (Though the word “death” was never used by the conductor. Rather, he explained that “the girl’s life force is returned to the earth”.) And apparently that’s how the whole production ends. Kind of a downer.

But I didn’t have much time to get depressed, because the orchestra members immediately put their instruments up to their chins/chests/mouths and began playing the second movement. As I sat listening, a few random thoughts entered my mind:

  1. If I were in the original audience when this piece debuted, I probably would have occupied the “I don’t like it” camp. I prefer ‘classic’ to ‘modern’ things – be it food, music, dance, fashion, interior design, painting, sculpture, or any other form of artistic expression.
  2. I recently saw a news article explaining how basketball coaches experience a workout right along with their players during a game, because of all the jumping/arm waving/yelling the coaches do throughout the match. As I watched the conductor move with crazy levels of vigor and enthusiasm, I wondered: if a basketball coach and an orchestra conductor went head-to-head, who would the better “athlete” turn out to be?

Another 15 minutes later, the final portion of this performance drew to a close. The audience applauded the conductor, then the orchestra, then the author/storyteller, then the conductor again, then finally the orchestra again. After the conductor and author/storyteller exited the stage, the orchestra members began to pack up their music and walk away as they were ready. This seemed an odd ending to the event: no curtain drawing to a close, everything exposed for everyone to see. Kind of like learning how the sausage is made – it erodes some of the “magic” of the experience. (FYI, that’s just an expression. I don’t eat sausage.) :) But the final element to the closing actions that made me laugh was an announcement that came on over the PA: “We will now be clearing out the auditorium from the back. Please stay seated until your row is released, and walk to your bus in a single-file line.” Ah, if only all concerts were released in such an orderly fashion…

All in all, this outing was a cool experience – but also a sad and painful one. I didn’t realize how much of a void not playing in an orchestra has left in my life until I found myself literally on the verge of tears within moments of the first movement beginning; as I watched bows and fingers articulate in perfect unison I ached to hold an instrument and play along. It hurt. So I don’t know if my heart can take another performance. Honestly.


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Backstory to 101 Item #46

At the end of our fourth grade year, my classmates and I were invited to attend an “instrument” evening.  The purpose of this gathering was to allow each of us to get a hand’s-on opportunity to try any brass, wood, percussion, or string instrument that caught our eye (with the intention that we would begin playing that instrument in the 5th grade band or orchestra).  When I walked into the huge high school music room and saw an abundance of options before me, I felt a little overwhelmed.  I had no idea what I might want to play, so I meandered around the room, looking at everything but touching nothing.

As I approached the tallest instrument in the room and gazed up at its scroll, a teacher from the high school across town approached me and said in a stern tone, “You can’t play this one – you’re too small.”  I turned my head and looked up at the man, silent.  Literally a second later, my mom approached me to check in, and asked, “So, Stef, have you found an instrument you might want to try yet?”  Looking first at the man, then at my mom, I nodded my head, pointed to the string bass just to the right of the man, and quietly answered, “Yes.  This one.”  The man looked furious.  My mom, unaware of the comment this teacher had uttered just seconds before, said, “Great!  I’ll tell the elementary school orchestra teacher, and we’ll get you signed up.”  My mom turned and walked toward the registration table.  I followed behind her – but not before I looked back over my shoulder, locked eyes with the man, and smiled sweetly. (Take that, you jerk.)  :)

Four years later I secured first chair of the high school string bass section.  The older boys who sat in the second-through-fifth chairs were irked that a freshman girl could play better than they could – but they also recognized that I did possess more skill than each of them.  (And I really did.  Music always came easy to me – and though the string bass was larger than I was, I had no issues learning how to extract beautiful sounds from it.)  After a few weeks the dust settled, and the guys respected me as their section leader and treated me as one of their own.

A few months later the entire high school orchestra took a field trip to Chicago to attend a concert performed by the city’s Symphony Orchestra.  I had been to concerts performed by local community musicians, but this was my first exposure to live music performed by professionals – and I was quite excited.  A supposedly really good cellist was scheduled to play a solo during the concert – and somehow, our high school orchestra director had secured four second row seats to the event, which he shared with his wife, the orchestra’s cello section leader, and me.  Soon after we found our chairs the stage curtain lifted – and I realized I was literally less than 20 feet away from Yo Yo Ma.  Oh. My. God.

Unfortunately, what I didn’t know was that two days before the concert, I had been exposed to the chicken pox virus (compliments of my friend’s two-year-old nephew).  While my sister endured her bout with the pox when I was in third grade, I never contracted the virus – so my parents assumed I just must be immune to the malady.  Indeed, with each successive breakout in elementary school, I returned home unaffected.  I figured my body was just really good at fending off the pox.  And apparently it was – for a while.

However.  When I turned fourteen, I guess my luck with pox immunity ran out – and less than 10 minutes after Yo Yo Ma began playing his stunningly beautiful music, I fell asleep in my concert chair.  The pox had begun their war – and my body surrendered.  I was sick; and I missed a once-in-a-lifetime performance.

For the next three years of high school the orchestra made our annual pilgrimage to Symphony Center in Chicago, and each year I got to see and hear amazing musicians.  But no experience was quite like my intimate-yet-brief encounter with Yo Yo Ma.

Still, I loved attending these concerts, and was grateful for the opportunity to witness true professionals create stunningly beautiful music.  When I finished my senior year of high school, I set my bass in a corner of my parent’s house (as my college dorm room had zero space for such a large instrument).  I had every intention of playing it when I came back home for breaks; but without daily exposure to its strings, my interests drifted to other things – and I never picked up the instrument again.

Sad.  But true.  But sad.


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What I like about me

One of my writing friends achieved a milestone with her blog today – she published her 100th post.  (Woot!)  To celebrate her accomplishment, she decided to celebrate herself – and she loudly and proudly wrote 10 things she likes about herself.  Then, to keep the good times rolling, she asked her readers who have blogs if they would play along and  participate in the activity as well.  So, in honor of Miss Jennie’s big day, here are 10 things I like about my own self:

  1. I try my best and give my all – no matter how “unimportant” the task at hand may be.
  2. I notice little moments, and I take the time and make the effort to share them, so that other people might enjoy them as well.
  3. I support other people whenever and however I can.
  4. I volunteer, simply because I believe it’s the “right” thing to do in life.
  5. I’m a fantastic listener.
  6. I’m always on the lookout for things to learn.
  7. I’m brave. (#11, 16, 69…)
  8. I’m action-oriented.  Even (especially?) when things might be uncomfortable, I suck it up and go for it anyway.
  9. I love.  Even when it’s risky to do so, I can’t help myself.  I love.
  10. I can write this list with ease.  Up until a few years ago I would have struggled with this task; today, I banged it out in just 10 minutes.  I’m proud of how much I’ve grown.  :)

Jennie, thank you for being a force for good in the world.  I’m more than happy to play along with you.

Friend, readers, Romans – lend me your likes.  :)  What do you like about YOU?  Share a comment – or write a whole post about it.  If you decide to publish a little somethin’-somethin’, I’ll link to it below.  (And I bet Jennie might just do the same, too.)



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Beyond 101: Visit the Art Shanty Projects

I live in a state where winter can occupy the climate for six months of the year – literally.  (I.e., November through April – or longer.)  Fortunately, I also live in a state populated by hearty and determined folk of strong Midwestern stock who refuse to let a little double-digit sub-zero temperatures and a few feet of snow knock them down.  Indeed, my fellow citizens laugh in the face of brutal Arctic conditions; instead of burrowing indoors until the ice melts, people here plan activities that make ice a critical element to success!  In addition to hobbies like broomball and ice fishing, annual events like the Winter Carnival turn what could be perceived as a liability into an asset.  Small towns throughout the state also host localized versions of winter celebrations – but very few are as unique as the Art Shanty Projects.

I heard about the Art Shanty Projects from three different individuals: a colleague, a friend on Facebook, and one of my yoga teachers.  Adhering to my Rule of Three, when  the project was mentioned at the end of savasana last Sunday, I took that as my cue to make the long drive across town, get over my semi-irrational fear of walking on frozen water, and explore a variety of artist-created ice houses spread over a small stretch of winter lake.

Describing the Art Shanty Projects is a slightly challenging task.  The creators of the event describe it this way: “Art Shanty Projects is an artist driven temporary community exploring the ways in which the relatively unregulated public space of the frozen lake can be used as a new and challenging artistic environment to expand notions of what art can be.  The project provides a unique opportunity for artists to interact with their audience, and vice versa, in an un-intimidating, non-gallery like environment. Artists can choose to work in a way that directly engages the audience – i.e. knitting or singing Karaoke – or in a more passive way.  The project must self-govern to respect the environment of the lake and the community of fisher-people that already exists.  We are bringing a new use to a place that already has an established relationship with its patrons.”

Sarah Harper, a journalist for a local indie paper, described the Art Shanty Projects like this: “It’s a juried event, so people have to apply to be able to put their ideas into the form of plywood, paint and 2-by-4s. But you don’t have to be a famous artist, or even a professional one, to get a spot. The result is a wide range of shanties. Some have simple premises, others higher-minded; some are built beautifully, others are a tad more ramshackle.  The event is cool (and cold, heh) because none of the shanties take too long: you’re in, you’re out, you’ve gotten the picture and you’ve been reminded that snow isn’t just the thing your car gets stuck in. It can be the thing you do yoga (“snowga”) in with the free spirits running the Meta Shanty.  It’s not a contest – actually, it’s the exact opposite of a contest.”

My yoga instructor (the gal whose comment nudged me into going to the Art Shanty Projects) described the event like this: “It’s kind of like Burning Man…only family-friendly…and no drugs…and really cold.”  Hmm…. sounds, interesting?

As I have never been to Burning Man, the above description provided me only a vague sense of what the Art Shanty Projects might be like.  But my curiosity was piqued, and my sweetie was game to explore them with me – so yesterday the two of us bundled up in our warmest winter gear, and made our way to a frozen lake to take in the experience.

Now that I have been to the Art Shanty Projects, I can see why they are challenging to describe to someone who has never experienced the event.  To me, the gathering reminded me of a very cold, speed-dating version of the Fringe Festival.  But if a person is unfamiliar with the Fringe, that explanation doesn’t help much, either.  So I think one of the best ways to describe the experience is not to talk about it, but to show it.  With that, I give you…

(As lived by Stef)

1. Pedal Bear

As my sweetie and I left solid land and forged a path across the ice (gulp), the very first thing we saw was the Pedal Bear.  I hadn’t planned on taking photos during this outing (since I wanted to keep my body as warm as possible, and the outdoor air temp was a mere 8 degrees F), but as soon as I saw the Pedal Bear, I knew that plan was out the window; this stuff was too good not to document:

01_polar pedal

As my husband and I crossed in front of this contraption, the little “bear” steering the big bear around the lake yelled, “RAAAAWWWWRRRR!!  Get out of my way, or I’ll eat you! RRAAWWWRRR!”  then laughed.  Awesome.

From the creators: “Engage in conversations about climate change, alternative transportation, and innovative use of recycled materials while pedaling the Pedal Bear! A larger than life polar bear will rove across White Bear Lake powered by the kinetic energy of our shanty audience.”

Pedal Bear was like a PedalPub, but without the alcohol, and on ice instead of the street.

The Pedal Bear was massive; I was impressed with the size of the big bear as I was the personality of the little steering “bear”.  Here’s a close-up of both of them:

02_polar pedal close up

2. The Curling Clubhouse Ice Shanty

From the creators: “Here you’ll find everything you need to engage with the sport of Curling! The Curling Clubhouse Ice Shanty will provide a modified rink, instructional diagrams and lessons. But wait that’s not all! The shanty itself will provide an observation deck and warming house complete with a small gallery on the history of curling.”

The above description is exactly what this shanty delivered:

03_curling indoors

From the interior of the shanty. The walls inside the space had a variety of curling-related information – including the 2014 Olympic schedule!

04_curling outdoors

Just outside the shanty – a lovely curling area.

3. The Mailroom

From the creators: “A surrealist shanty, once inside visitors are inside The Mailroom they are transported to a lonely hotel hallway for a moment of solitude with an  invitation to share anonymous stories.”

Again, this description is quite apt; here is what I encountered when I entered The Mailroom:


4. The Dance Shanty

Upbeat music from inside this PVC-pipe-and-tarp construction entertained the entire lake – and passers-by were invited inside to dance for as much (or as little) as they wanted.  When my sweetie and I entered the Dance Shanty, the hosts welcomed us with a huge “Woo hoo!”  It was a wonderful way to be greeted.  :)  My sweetie and I jumped around inside the Dance Shanty for a song, then continued on our exploration.

The Dance Shanty welcomes all event participants - young, old, and everyone in between.

The Dance Shanty welcomes all event participants – young, old, and everyone in between.

5. North Flicks

As my sweetie and I approached the North Flicks shanty, the first thing we saw was a window. I peered in, and couldn’t really make out what was going on inside:

08_north flicks window_looking in

Some sort of art/craft project – but what exactly?  Now a bit more curious, I walk in the shanty for a closer look:

09_zoetrope sign

A sign informed me I could “Create my own zoetrope”.

But what’s a zoetrope?  As I looked at the materials on a table, I deducted that a zoetrope is a circular version of a flip book. (Both of these items are simple forms of animation.)


The strip of a face appearing (in the bottom right corner of the picture) is what helped me figure out the objective of this shanty.

Fun!  But the space was crowded, so I decided to let the kids make the craft; my sweetie and I continued on to the next shanty.

6. The Creep Shanty

From the creators: “Who says we can only be creeped out at Halloween?  This Haunted attic will house a variety of disturbing yet engaging activities. Have your photo taken with a washed–up post–holiday Santaclown. Visit with demonic toy puppets. Sit down at the Donner Dinner Party. Hopefully you make it out of The Creep Shanty with your wits about you.”

11_aim to offend 12_shame break

Oh darn, we missed this one.  Oh well.  :)

7. Lost Found and Wanted

13_lost found and wanted

From the creators: “An art shanty version of the want ads. Lost, Found & Wanted Shanty will be making connections all over shantytown throughout the month. Visit a real old fashioned typewriter in this shanty to write up and post what you’ve lost, what you’ve found, a personals ad, or something to trade. With visitors encouraged to share both real and fictional needs, exchanges, and invitations this shanty is sure to help make dreams come true.”

From inside the shanty:



The sign on the door made me smile:

16_door is alarmed

I can’t tell if the door is alarmed as in it will sound loudly should someone attempt to break in (which is laughable, considering that the shanty is made of plywood and contains nothing valuable inside), or if the door is alarmed as in it is worried about the contents within its four walls. I like the absurdity behind both interpretations. :)

8. Drama/Puppet Therapy Circus – Sami Shanty

17_therapy circus

Approaching this shanty, my sweetie and I saw a few interesting pieces outside:

18_inward looking chair

Sometimes a chair is just a chair. And sometimes not. :)

19_outward reflection chair

From the creators: “In the tradition of the Sami structure known as the Lavvu, the Drama/Puppet Therapy Circus Shanty will encourage audiences to look either to their past or their  future for inspiration in participating in this shanty’s activities. Visitors will be given the choice to perform or observe and the line between private confessions and performative scripts will be blurred.”

While this sounds fascinating, this shanty was very full when my sweetie and I approached; and in the interest of staying warm, we decided to continue on.

9. Ice Ice Maybe

20_ice ice maybe

From the creator: “The Shanty’s primer high-end boutique specializing in the commodification of timelessness, Ice Ice Maybe offers the finest ice encased objects that money can’t buy.”

When we entered this shanty, the greeter welcomed us very warmly, and explained the concept: “Ice Ice Maybe is the only retail shanty on the lake.  On the ledge outside you will find a variety of treasures; if you deem any of them to be intrinsic to your nature or anything that you need, bring it inside.  I will ask you a series of questions about the item, and determine if it should belong to you.”  Hmm, interesting!  I stepped outside the shanty to “shop”:

21_ice trinkets

22_more ice trinkets

But none of the items available for “purchase” called out to me – so my sweetie and I kept on walking.

10. Elevator Shanty

Within ten feet, we found ourselves outside a strikingly real-looking elevator – complete with a lobby!


24_elevator lobby

But please remember that we are literally on a lake.  Very intrigued, we stood in line to ride the “elevator”.

As we waited for the elevator to return to the ground floor (and yes, the numbers above the door were changing as we were waiting), the artist in charge of the shanty asked, “So, do you folks know what to do in an elevator?”  Um, yes?  She continued, “So, you know that you have to push a button to go anywhere, right?  Because some folks out here, they  walk into the elevator – but then they just stand there.  I guess they don’t know that the elevator won’t move unless they actually press a button…”  We smiled.  Point taken.

A second later the doors opened, and my sweetie and I entered the space along with six or eight other people.  The man nearest the control panel asked us what floors we needed.  A few folks tossed out numbers (“Six!” “Nine, please.”  “Eight.”), and the man pressed the corresponding buttons:

25_elevator interior

Again, this is inside a plywood box on a LAKE! Yet it felt like a real elevator. So friggin’ cool.

A second later the floor of the elevator felt like the box was really going up!  Now, I ride an elevator at least ten times every day when I’m at work, so my body knows exactly what the sensation of an elevator ride feels like – and this experience was spot on.  It was the strangest feeling.  Incredible.

From the creator: “While waiting in the ice-lobby visitors cannot even begin to imagine where the Elevator Shanty will take them. With elevator themed music, puns, and general rowdiness the Elevator Shanty will surely take you to new heights on the ice.”

11. The Jigsaw Shanty

26_puzzle shanty

As my sweetie and I approached this shanty, we saw jumbo-sized puzzle pieces in the area outside the door:

28_make a puzzle

Once we stepped inside the shanty, we found out what was going on:

27_puzzle shanty wall

Each wall of the shanty was a puzzle!  The host of the shanty invited us to write a secret on one of the walls; next weekend’s visitors to the shanty would construct our wall as they made their own.  By the end of the month, all four walls would be decorated and re-constructed – and the Jigsaw Shanty would be complete.  Cool!

12. Speak Your Truth/ This I Believe Shanty

29_high school art shanty

The instructions for this shanty were posted on the door, and read: “Enter – wait for eyes to adjust.  Artwork made by Southwest High School students based on what they believe. 3 people at a time.”

After entering the shanty and waiting for my eyes to get used to the dim light, I saw a lovely mixed-medium piece:

30_high school art

My favorite.

13. Are You a Robot/Monster?

31_robot monster exterior

From the creators: “In the age of Instagram and Facebook uploads what could be more fun than getting your picture taken as a Robot or Monster? This shanty revives the tradition of cardboard cutout photos in Art Shanty fashion.”

When I peered inside the shanty, I saw this:

32_robot monster interior

A classic stick-your-face-in-the-hold-and-become-a-creature display!  The entire shanty provided robots and monsters of various shapes and sizes on both the inside and outside of the space; probably 20 different options in all?  But this one was my favorite:

33_puppy monster

Puppy monster! :) What a cutie.

14. The Wind Shanty

From the creators: “Celebrating the blissfulness of wind, this shanty will invite all who enter to reflect and play with the wind. Writings about wind will be encouraged as will all kinds of interactive wind games such as flying kites, designing your own wind spirals and wind dancing.”

Outside of this shanty I saw one person skiing behind a kite (an activity that seems perfectly suited for a frozen lake), and inside I saw a variety of very unique wind chimes.  Here’s one sample:

34_wind shanty

A perfect chime for a poet.

15. Cook Yourself Kitchen and Ski Up Refrigerator

A.K.A. – A sauna.

Yes, a real wooden sauna was attached to a small shanty.  From the creator: “Bastefully enjoy cooking yourself and other visitors in a traditional Finnish sauna. Not into cooking? Visit on Sundays for an eclectic line up of performances hosted  in the Ski Up Refrigerator.”

My sweetie and I visited the shanty on a Saturday, so I don’t know what the ‘Ski Up Refrigerator’ is all about; but the sauna is the real deal.  I didn’t go in (there was a big line), but I saw lots of people going in (and coming out), and they were definitely warm after visiting this one!

35_sauna shanty

The sauna. The attached shanty is to the right, just beyond the snow wall.

16. The Meta Shanty

36_meta shanty

From the creators: “Rejuvenate yourself in this metaphysical space for decompression. Inside the geodesic dome of The Meta Shanty you will find Loving Kindness Meditation, Astrological Readings, Taro Cards, and Essential Oils Workshops. Out on the ice you can participate in Snowga (yoga in snowsuits), Qi-gong, and Tai-Chi.”

Now this is my kind of shanty!  Sadly, when my sweetie and I were walking by, none of the outdoor activities were occurring.  And though I wanted to explore this shanty, I didn’t want to remove my boots (again, I was attempting to preserve my body heat as much as I could), so I just walked past this one.  Sad.  :(

17. Town Hall Shanty

From the creators: “Hear ye, Hear ye, people of Art Shanty Town are invited to, well, name the town! Visitors to the Town Hall Shanty will be invited to participate in governing Art Shanty Town through opportunities ranging from creating a code of law to designing a flag and seal. Outside of the Town Hall Shanty is a village green for public discourse and celebrations.”

Apparently Carl was one of the first visitors to this shanty, as the Town Hall was named after him:

37_town hall carl

I suppose I could have re-named the Town Hall after myself, if I asked for a dry erase marker….

Inside, the shanty offered a variety of clever programs and events:

38_town hall carl event

As well as some cool art postcards (made by the shanty creators, and sharing an important message):

39_town hall carl art

Outside of the shanty, the Town Hall did have a “village green” (white), complete with official city bell!

40_town hall carl bell

(Yes, we rang it.)  :)

18. Sunrise Shanty 

42_sunrise shanty explanation

More from the creators: “Share the intimacy and preciousness of watching the sunrise with a small group of shanty goers in the Sunrise Shanty. Utilizing a solar-powered dawn simulator small groups will sit together first in the darkness and slowly getting to know each other over the course of an imitation daybreak.”

A lover of the sun, I was excited to experience a unique sunrise.  My sweetie and I entered the shanty, and sat it two chairs the creators had set out.  One of the creators nodded in our direction and said, “Hello,” while the other one looked off into space while simultaneously cooking something on a very small wood-burning stove.  I smiled at the artist who greeted us.  The four of us then sat in silence.  A few seconds later four more visitors came into the space, and the two creators treated them in the same fashion.  The new visitors smiled back, and now the eight of us sat in silence.  After a full minute of silence, the four newest additions left the space; after another full minute of silence, my sweetie and I also departed.  Upon leaving the shanty, I saw this sign:

43_sunrises every 30 min

I guess that explains it?

While I was disappointed to not see an indoor sunrise (or sunset), I was impressed by the real wood-burning stove.  It made the shanty nice and warm.  Cozy.

41_sunrise shanty

The exterior of the Sunrise Shanty. It ain’t much to look at, but it sure felt good inside!

One shanty that we walked by but didn’t enter was Noah’s Art Shanty.  The space was absolutely packed each time my sweetie and I walked by (as in, another body literally could not fit beyond the door); after our third time past this shanty, we decided to just skip it.

One shanty that we never saw (but that apparently was at the event) was The Music Box Shanty.  I wonder how we missed that one?

After an hour of being out on the lake, I was ready to get out of the wind.  I felt really happy by all that I had seen and experienced – but I also wanted my face and hand to get warm.  (My left hand was fine; it was my right hand that was a wee bit frozen from being exposed due to all the picture taking.  [But it was worth it.])  :)

As my sweetie and I walked off the lake to head back to the parking lot and into our warm car, we passed by this sign:

44_no swimming

Yeah, that seems about right.  :)


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Beyond 101: Donate my hair*

(*and color my hair, and allow someone else to choose my hairstyle)

I was born with a full head of hair.  At one month old I sported a lush black mop top; by the time I was two years old my chestnut-brown hair was halfway down my back.  During my childhood and adolescence I vacillated between exceptionally long hair and more manageable chin-length styles.  I rarely worried when I visited our family stylist – if she gave me a “bad” haircut, I knew it would grow out in a few months, and I could try something new at that time.

As a kid, it didn’t even occur to me that other people might have a different relationship with their hair.  But as I transitioned from naïve childhood to less-innocent adulthood, I realized the power that hair can wield.  I’ll spare everyone a diatribe on the influence of beauty in American culture; suffice to say, “pretty” people are often treated better than “less pretty” individuals – and wearing long hair is one way an American woman can help herself appear “beautiful”.

Over the past few years I have let my hair grow.  Not for any particular reason – apart from frugality, laziness, and apathy.  Due to these three forces, I simply didn’t bother to schedule frequent visits to the salon.  So I’d see my stylist once every six months to clean up my hair’s jagged ends and give my straight locks some more body and movement – but otherwise, I just let my hair go.  As the length moved past my neck, then shoulders, then upper back, I began to notice my personality change ever-so-slightly.  As my hair rested past my chin, I began to feel more comfortable in the presence of other people.   When my strands moved closer to my shoulders, I began to feel more confident.  As my mane grew longer and swayed across my back, I found myself occasionally feeling cocky.  With long hair I felt pretty and powerful; apparently I gave more importance to hair (beauty) than I wanted to admit.

I don’t want to live a life where my self-worth is measured by external factors – so when I realized the nearly-unconscious influence my hair was having on my heart, I decided change was necessary.  I needed to cut my hair.

For many years I had considered donating my hair to a well-known national organization that provides wigs to cancer patients.  But my hair was never long enough to meet their usage criteria.  As I became more serious about making a drastic change, I conducted research about various nonprofit organizations that provide free wigs to individuals who need them – and learned that many groups do not accept layered, gray, or color-treated hair.  As I’m approaching my forties, my dark hair is beginning to show signs of my age (i.e., I’m starting to gray) – and a few months ago I realized that if I was serious about ever donating my hair, now was likely my last window of opportunity to do it.

So I let my hair grow unfettered for another two months; and the second it got to a sufficient length, I made an appointment with my stylist.  During our consult, I told her that I wanted to donate my hair.  She smiled.  When she asked me what style I wanted to receive after she chopped off my braids, I replied, “G, I want you to do whatever you want.  I’ve been coming to you for over ten years; if there’s a style you’ve always wanted to give me that I haven’t been willing to try before, now’s your chance.”  My stylist’s smile grew much more broad. I continued, “Oh – and I’m willing to have my hair colored, too.  So you can do something with that if you’d like as well.”  With that, G’s eyes grew wide and bright.  She clarified, “So, I can do anything I want to your hair?”  I nodded, and answered, “Yup.  Whatever you want.  I trust you.  Just don’t make me look like a boy.”  G laughed, told me there was no way she could make me look like a boy even if she tried, but then promised that she would give me a very feminine style.  With that, she practically skipped to the far end of the salon to mix up a demi-permanent color for my head – and I sat back in her chair, anxious, but also excited.

When G returned, she segmented my hair into four sections, then loosely braided each one.  She applied a small band just below the spot where she would make the big cut – and when I saw how close her scissors would be to my head, I inhaled sharply.  G paused.  She said, “Are you sure about all of this?”  I drew in a breath, and answered honestly, “No, not at all.  But I need to do it.  So go.”  With that, I shut my eyes – and heard a big snip.

Ten seconds later, four long braids laid on G’s workstation.  Wow.  It was done.

But actually, it was only just getting started.

Now that my hair was nine inches shorter, G applied the color treatment to my strands that remained.  I kept my eyes closed for the remainder of the salon appointment – I wanted to experience a big surprise at the end of it all.  So I had no idea what color G chose (not that I would probably have been able to tell from looking at the mixture, anyway…); I only know that the dye mixture felt cool, gloopy, and heavy as she applied thick layers to sections of my head.

Once every strand of hair was sufficiently coated, G wrapped my head in a towel, then had me go off to “process”.  The wait time was rather short (just 10 minutes), but during that time I enjoyed a lovely seated massage.  When the requisite 10 minutes had elapsed (and my shoulders had loosened ever-so-slightly), G’s assistant took me back to the sinks and gave my hair a through rinse, then a proper shampoo and condition.

From there, I was led back to G’s salon chair, where she began the “real” haircut. For fifteen minutes I heard scissors snipping all around my head, and felt more and more of my neck being exposed.  After getting the general shape of the cut where she liked it, G blew my hair dry.  I thought that was the end of the scissors part of the day, but in reality G had a lot more cutting planned.  Once my hair was dry she could see how the style would actually look when I wore it each day, and she performed detailed shaping work accordingly.  For another fifteen minutes G circled around the chair, cutting hair on one side of my face, then the other, then taking the back up a bit, then balancing the front… I genuinely feared that by the time G was finished, I would only have a few inches of hair remaining.  It was at this point that I had a silent chat with myself – and it went something like this: “Stef, you surrendered control of this appointment.  And you did so for a reason: to be free.  Your hair does not define you.  No matter how long or short, how dark or light, how curly or straight, your hair – this hair – is just that.  Hair.  Little colored strands of proteins protruding from your skull.  Whether you have a ton of it or none at all, the core being of who YOU are remains unchanged.  So move past this.  Focus on your heart, not your head.  And most certainly not your hair.  Do that, and you’ll always be beautiful.”

At that moment, G set her scissors down.  She gave my new style a few swipes from a hot iron, and a liberal dose of spray.  I heard her set the product down; then she asked me, “Okay Stef, are you ready to see?”

I took in a breath, and set a tight smile on my face.  “G, I am.  Let’s do this.” And I opened my eyes.

Upon seeing my reflection in the mirror, I beamed.  G had given me a super-cute bob that maximized the slight curl of my hair while also keeping the strands manageable.  As she slowly spun me around to look at the cut from all angles, I told her, “Oh G, it’s terrific.  I love it!”

“And what about the color, Stef?  Do you like it?” G asked.

Truthfully, I was so focused on the cut, I didn’t even notice the color.  I leaned towards the mirror for a closer look.  The hue G chose was a few shades darker than my own, but it looked completely natural on me.  And in addition to covering the few gray strands growing around my temples, the treatment gave my hair a depth and luminosity that had been lacking for quite a while.

“It looks really good, G.  My hair looks so much shinier than before!” I answered.

“And warm,” G added.  “I think this color adds a lot of warmth to your hair.”

I nodded in agreement.  “That’s a perfect way to describe it.  Warm.  I like it.  I really do.”

Now it was G’s turn to smile.  “I’m so glad!  I had so much fun doing this cut and color; I don’t often get to do whatever I want to a client.  I really enjoyed myself, and I’m glad you’re happy with the way things turned out.  And,” she closed, “you don’t look like a boy.”

I laughed out loud.  “You’re right G, I don’t look like a boy,” I affirmed, smiling.

G led me to the salon’s hostess stand.  I thanked G one last time, gave her a hug, and then turned my attention to the salon receptionist to process my payment.  The gal looked at me and asked, “How can I help you?”  Slightly confused, I replied, “Um, yes, I’d like to pay for my services, please.”  The receptionist appeared genuinely surprised, and asked, “Er, okay…. what services did you have done, exactly?” Now I was really confused; this woman had checked me in for my appointment less than two hours ago.  I gently stated, “I just received a cut and color… from G…” – and immediately the woman’s jaw dropped.  She stated/asked, “Wait – when you checked in, did you have hair down your back?”  I nodded yes, and the gal squealed, smiled, and cried out, “Oh-my-gosh, your hair looks SUPER cute!!  And the color looks terrific!  Wow, I didn’t even recognize you – you look so different!  You look great!” The other assistants behind the stand nodded in agreement.

I have to admit, I liked that reaction.  :)

After processing my payment, I walked to my car.  As I opened the door to get in, I caught my reflection in the driver’s side window – and felt a small jolt of surprise.  I did look rather different… Wow. This change is going to take some getting used to.  But it’s good.  Change is good.

The next day, I got to enjoy various colleague’s reactions to my significantly different appearance.  A few individuals actually didn’t recognize me immediately; it took them a few seconds before they were able to process my new look.  Some colleagues played it cool (“Hey, nice haircut,” they said in a very mellow tone), others tried to be funny (“Say, where did you hair go?” they chuckled good-naturedly), and others were effusive in their praise.  My favorite reaction was from a lovely lady who, when she saw me for the first time post-cut, cried out, “Oh wow, Stef!  Your haircut is lovely!  You look so darling!” She paused, then stated again, “Absolutely darling!”


It’s been a week since my big haircut took place, and over the past seven days I’ve mostly gotten used to the new length and style.  (Though I am still surprised each morning when I shampoo my head in the shower, and realize that my hands don’t have much hair to wash!)  I’ve learned how to dry and style my hair in a way that I like, and have adjusted to seeing my short locks in a mirror or window reflection.

In the grand scheme of life, a haircut is a rather unimportant event.  But change – particularly an adjustment in an individual’s personal appearance – is not always so trivial.  Through this experience, I received the opportunity to dig deeper into my own constructs of self, value, worth, “beauty”, surrender, and acceptance – as well as to see how others around me respond to these notions.  Most importantly, though, I got to help a child cultivating these notions for herself; and while I like to think that my gift of long hair will help a young girl develop a sense of self-acceptance, my larger hope is that one day she won’t need a wig to see her true value and worth.

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#71: Shop at Penzys

Before my husband and I got married, we took our relationship on a few “test drives” to see how we might fare when the novelty of romantic infatuation waned (as it always inevitably does).  One of the best ways to learn about another human is to travel with them – and within the first year of our courtship, my husband and I traveled to meet his parents, my parents, and a few siblings and other family members.  One such trip took us to Madison, WI, where my husband’s older brother was finishing up a PhD (or maybe his post-doc; I’m not sure…), as well as learning the ropes as a new dad.

During our weekend in their apartment, my future brother- and sister-in-law treated my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I to several terrific home-cooked meals.  One dish involved chicken (I ate meat back then) seasoned with incredible flavors that were new to me.  When I inquired about the food, my now-sister-in-law disclosed that the meal was incredibly easy to pull together; the seasoning was a spice blend from Penzeys.

At the time, I had no idea what Penzeys was.  Some special store brand sold in Madison?  A local artisan spice manufacturer?  A specialty food store?  Turns out that Penzeys is a bit of a mix of all three – it’s a specialty store that focuses on distributing high-quality spices, as well as creating unique spice blends.  They began as a local shop in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, but now have multiple locations in 29 states.  I was intrigued to learn more about this “Penzeys” place, but my then-boyfriend/now-husband and I chose to focus our limited time with his brother’s new baby son instead of going shopping.  (I still stand by this decision.)  ;)  I figured I could check out Penzeys some other time.

Yet, over a decade later, I still haven’t gotten my rear in gear to make a brief drive across town and explore the special spice store.  Why?  I’m not sure.  Part of the issue is laziness, I’m quite certain.  Another likely reason is that I seem to always be able to find some other way to fill my time.  Additionally, some part of me felt like I never had a ‘real’ purpose for shopping for spices.  I mean, if I need cinnamon or oregano, I can pick up those items at my local grocery store.  Why drive all the way across town to get something I can purchase so close to home?

Well. This weekend, each of those factors was challenged: I got motivated, realized I had a block of open time on my schedule, and found myself so utterly bored with my usual meals that I desperately needed something to make them novel again.  Finally, 14 years (!) after I first learned of Penzeys, I got my butt in my car and made my way to the shop.

After a challenging two-block walk pushing against 30 mph winter wind, I stepped into the cheery, bright, country-esque space – and felt like I had walked into a rural Indiana neighbor’s home.  It was quite a lovely feeling, actually.

The store was divided into small ‘shops’ – sections of the store focused on a particular theme.  I could describe each of these shops to you – but I think in this case, photos will be much more effective (and enjoyable) than words.  So I present to you a fun little ‘virtual’ tour of Penzeys:

The very first section I saw was dedicated to pepper. I found this to be rather strange…

Once I got closer to the shelves in the pepper section, I realized there is quite a variety of peppers available.  White, black, green, pink, whole, cracked, ground… I had no idea pepper was so complex!

Look at all that pepper.

Continuing in a counter-clockwise path along the store, the next area I walked into was the Baking section:

03_baking sign

This area had everything from cocoa powder to vanilla beans, from almond extract to lemon peel:

I'm a fan of the cocoa.

I’m a fan of the cocoa.

Apparently an important element in baking is cinnamon; so much so that this power spice had its own dedicated section!  (Just like her friend Mr. Pepper.)

Is cinnamon "above" associating with the other baking spices?  Cinnamon, don't get uppity...

Is cinnamon “above” associating with other baking spices? C’mon cinnamon, don’t get uppity…

The next section was also dedicated to a sole ingredient; but this item definitely merits its own special space on the sales floor.  Wars have been waged on behalf of it, after all.  I’m talking about NaCl.  (Aka ‘salt’ for any non-chemists in the house.)

They put it in a boat - how cute.

They put it in a boat – how cute.

After a lot of homogenous displays, I was happy that the next section I approached was rich in diversity; I entered the land of “Seasonings.”

A-Z seasonings, no less!

A-Z seasonings, no less!

Every spice and seasoning blend had a sample jar that customers could open in order to see/feel/smell the product (and taste it, I suppose, if a person didn’t mind the billions of germs that surely lived amid spices that thousands of other people had put their noses up in to… But I digress).  I found that sniffing unknown items really helped me determine if I might like them.

John, this one's for you!  I'm not a big fan of garlic, so I passed on this option; but I did think about you enjoying it on a bagel with cream cheese and sliced tomato.  :)

J A, this one’s for you! I’m not a big fan of garlic, so I passed on this option; but I did think about you enjoying it on a bagel with cream cheese and sliced tomato. :)

Dad, of course I thought of you when I sniffed this.  (After I stopped coughing, that is…)

Dad, of course I thought of you when I sniffed this. (After I stopped coughing, that is…)

After smelling every new-to-me seasoning, I performed the same actions in the Herbs section:


And again in the Spices area:


Which got me thinking: What’s the difference between a seasoning, an herb, and a spice?  (The question intrigued me so much that I actually researched it; I discovered that a spice comes from the bark, root, stem, seed or fruit of a plant, an herb is from the leaves of a plant, and a seasoning is anything that flavors food [like salt].  Thanks for the info Maraline!)

After leaving the land of spices, I discovered another set of mini-shops within the store.  Each of these sections was focused on more comprehensive foods and/or ‘giftable’ items, such as:


These ingredients help anyone make a pot of chili to the level of their heat tolerance/liking.  [I'm a super-mild gal.]

These ingredients help anyone make a pot of chili to the level of their heat tolerance/liking. [I'm a super-mild gal.]


13_soup bases

Likely a tastier alternative to bouillon.



This section was kind of crazy. They had blends labeled “Buttermilk Ranch”, “French Vinaigrette”, “Green Goddess”… and each one smelled exactly like the way the item usually tastes! Forget Hidden Valley (and all of their artificial ingredients) – hello Penzeys!

And last, but certainly not least, gift boxes:

15_gift box

I had no idea Milwaukee was a specially designated ethnic group…

The variety of gift boxes on display was quite unique; Penzeys offered everything from interesting flavor combinations like Salad (see picture above for some ideas), Curry, Cheese, Extracts… to more occasion/recipient-specific boxes like Spicy Wedding, Cocoa Lovers, Baker’s Assortment, Grill and Boil, Taste of Mexico, Salt Free…

Once I finished my exploratory walk around the store, I made a second circle, selecting a few key items to purchase.  I limited myself to spices/seasonings/herbs that I likely wouldn’t be able to purchase anywhere else; and at the end of this tour of Penzeys, I returned home with:

16_my purchases

Each of these spice/seasoning blends (apart from the salt) smelled absolutely fantastic in the store – but the real test was yet to come. Of course, I’m talking about taste.

The first item I tore into was the salt.  After reading The Four Hour Chef last year, I realized the importance that high-quality salt can make in enhancing the flavor of food.  As a result, I promptly ordered the primary brand of salt that Tim recommended in his book – and I was not disappointed.  But I recently ran out of my last box of that seasoning, so when I was in Penzeys I asked one of the store clerks what salt he recommended.  He pointed me towards the Gray Sea Salt – and when I saw it was from France, I was sold.  :)

The packaging noted that the salt was a tiny bit damp to the touch, and had a slight floral scent.  As I picked up the first grains with my fingers, I did note that the salt felt a wee bit like moist sand.  I sprinkled a healthy portion of the seasoning onto my food (sautéed broccoli), and took a bite.  As the veggie approached my lips, I actually did smell the tiniest hint of a floral note, which really surprised me (as I’m not a fancy foodie who can detect notes of cinnamon amid the mole sauce).  Encouraged, I began chewing the broccoli – but found that the salt tasted just like regular old Morton’s.  Which isn’t “bad” (it is salt, after all), but this Penzey product pales in comparison to Maldon’s.  Lesson learned.

The next evening, I decided to crack open the “BBQ 3001″ blend.  As I started to twist the lid, I noticed something small-yet-special:

17_penzey heart

The lid of every Penzey’s spice container is marked with this lovely safety seal.

18_penzey message

The full message is “Love to Cook – Cook to Love.”

Aw… I love it when manufacturers use product space in creative ways.

I added a liberal sprinkling of the blend to a mock-chili I had thrown together, and was surprised by the first bite.  I tasted a lot of what I consider non-standard BBQ spices: cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg.  It was as if my chili had cookie crumbles in it; it was bizarre, and rather unpleasant.  But instead of abandoning the meal and starting over, I decided to add some salt to it – and that one action completely transformed the flavor profile.  The dish went from sweet to savory, and the seasoning blend became a cohesive BBQ flavor.  With a few grains of salt, the smoke, pepper, and mustard seasonings in the “3001” blend came through – and my meal became a savory chili delight.  Wild!  Almost magical.

Feeling encouraged, the next day I experimented further, and combined 1/4 teaspoon of the Pizza Seasoning with 1/4 cup of regular tomato sauce to see if I could make pizza sauce.  As the mixture cooked (in a microwave for 60 seconds), it absolutely smelled like pizza!  But my nose has been fooled before; could my tongue be convinced that this duct-tape-and-string concoction fill the role of a suitable pizza sauce? The answer: Totally.  This mixture tasted like a slightly spicy pizza sauce.  Wow – what a cool trick!

I have yet to open and use the Singapore Seasoning, so at this time I can’t report on my experience with that blend.  But, if you are eagerly anticipating my riveting review of this flavor encounter (that’s a little sarcasm for ya), let me know in the comments, and I’ll whip up a quick dish so I can add a P.S. to the bottom of this post.

Otherwise – this has been my full experience with task #71.  I have to admit, it was a lot more fun than I expected it to be!


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Beyond 101: Eat an MRE

I’m a learner.  I adored school at every stage of my development; in fact, I remember being angry the first time my mom kept me home because I was sick.  I read books with voracity (see 1981) and spent hours flipping through encyclopedias, just to see what interesting facts I might acquire.  I preferred museums to movies, delighted in exploring unfamiliar places, and was usually game to try any new experience.  My curiosity sometimes put me in not-so-great positions (like getting stuck in a cave [literally]), but overall, my inquisitiveness served me well.

And it still does.  I still revel in knowledge, continue to have the heart of an explorer, and find new endeavors deeply satisfying (usually).  :)  So when one of my work colleagues commented that he was thinking about acquiring some MREs (meals-ready-to-eat) for his next backpacking excursion, and our manager offered to bring in a leftover MRE from his former military days, I offhandedly commented, “Yeah, and if you have a vegetarian one, I’ll try it, too.”  Now, truth be told, I wasn’t overly eager to consume an MRE; I’ve been told they’re kind of nasty.  And I thought (suspected) that the military probably didn’t even make vegetarian options for their industrial, shelf-stable, tragedy-ready meals – but my manager surprised me by immediately responding, “Sure, I’ll bring in separate meals for each of you.  You can both enjoy the goodness that is an MRE,” offering the last statement with a semi-sarcastic tone.

So thanks to my overwhelming desire to try new things, my sometimes-impulsive nature, and my big mouth, earlier this week I found myself sitting in my manager’s office, peering down at a very bland MRE bundle:


The only “semi-vegetarian” meal my manager had remaining in his residual stockpile of MREs was MRE #4 from 2005 – aka the cheese and vegetable omelet.

Notice the little soldier on the top left side of the packaging?  Semi-intimidating.

Eggs?  Seriously?  I can think of fewer things that might be nastier in a dehydrated, reconstituted, preserved form than eggs.  Alas, “beggars” can’t be choosers, so I took the brown package from my manager (who was smiling fiendishly, I might add), and began to explore the contents within:

After a bit of struggling, I was able to break through the heavy-duty outer wrap - and peered inside the package.

After a bit of struggling, I was able to break through the heavy-duty outer wrap – and peered inside the package.

When I turned the outer pouch upside down, two tightly wrapped packages spilled out.

When I turned the outer pouch upside down, two tightly wrapped packages spilled out.

After I broke apart the plastic-encased pack from the above photo, I was left with the following: Shredded potatoes with bacon (which my manager assured me wasn't really meat, so I was fine to eat it)...

After I broke apart the plastic-encased pack from the above photo, I was left with the following: Shredded potatoes with bacon (which my manager assured me wasn’t really meat, so I was fine to eat it)…

… the main course...

… the main course…

… toaster pastry (fits in nicely with the breakfast theme)...

… toaster pastry (fits in nicely with the breakfast theme)…

… crackers (which, seeing them marked this way, reminded me of a very funny skit from Chris Rock about generic food his mom used to buy when he was a kid, because she was cheap)...

… crackers (which, seeing them marked this way, reminded me of a very funny skit from Chris Rock about generic food his mom used to buy when he was a kid, because she was cheap)…

…jam (to spread on the crackers)...

…jam (to spread on the crackers)…

…Skittles?!  I was expecting chocolate!  Big bummer...

…Skittles? I was expecting chocolate! Big bummer…

…ah, good ol' Accessory Packet C...

…ah, good ol’ Accessory Packet C…

… a very sturdy spoon (I'm not sure if the heft of this utensil is a good sign or not)...

… a very sturdy spoon (I’m not sure if the heft of this utensil is a good sign or not)…

…a hot beverage bag (which my manager told me I might as well throw away, since the heater would likely barely be able to heat the food components of the meal, much less have any leftover power for warming water)...

…a hot beverage bag (which my manager told me I might as well throw away, since the heating element of the meal would likely barely be able to heat the food components, much less have any leftover power for warming water)…

…and last (but certainly not least), the heating element of the MRE.

…and last (but certainly not least), the heating element of the MRE.

Once everything was separated into their individual packages, I broke down the contents one step further – i.e., liberating the individual condiments from their collective plastic container, and removing the “hot” portions of the meal from their cardboard box.

The accessory packet contained: a mini bottle of hot sauce (which my manager swore I would need to make the meal palatable), a tiny ration of toilet paper (which would be the entire quantity a person had to use for their day - unless they brought some extra on their own accord), a single moist towelette (I love how a fancy waiter is presenting the package - what a disconnect), moisture-proof matches, a packet of salt (but no pepper - I was disappointed by that), two pieces of gum (which my manager swears have a laxative effect; I took his word on that one), and a package of apple cider (which I promptly threw away, because I dislike it that much).

The accessory packet contained: a mini bottle of hot sauce (which my manager swore I would need to make the meal palatable), a tiny ration of toilet paper (which would be the entire quantity a person had to use for their day – unless they brought some extra on their own accord), a single moist towelette (I love how a fancy waiter is presenting the package – what a disconnect), moisture-proof matches, a packet of salt (but no pepper – I was disappointed by that), two pieces of gum (which my manager swears have a laxative effect; I took his word on that one), and a package of apple cider (which I promptly threw away, because I dislike it that much).

The further I get into this meal, the less appealing it gets.  Hmm...

The further I get into this meal, the less appealing it gets. Hmm…

As I slipped the egg pouch from its brown overwrap, I noticed that he backside of the container contained some “persuasive” text.

Aka, this food is crappy, but you need to eat it anyway.

Aka, this food is crappy, but you need to eat it anyway.

Once I had removed as much extraneous packaging as possible, my manager suggested I start warming the eggs; and while they were heating, I could explore the no-“cooking”-required elements of the meal.  That sounded like a solid plan to me, so I examined the heater element of the MRE kit to determine how to get the eggs hot.

I chuckled at the illustration to incline the food pouch on a “rock or something”.

I chuckled at the illustration to incline the food pouch on a “rock or something”.

In my naivety, I expected the heating element to get really hot; otherwise, how could it penetrate the heavy-duty plastic casing around the eggs enough to actually warm them?  Answer: it couldn’t.  And it didn’t.  I was able to carefully-yet-comfortably handle the flameless heater for the duration of my meal experiment:

The egg pouch inside the “heater”.

The egg pouch inside the “heater”.

Once the egg/heater combo was set to do its thing (my manager offered one of his business books as the “or something”, since we didn’t have any rocks readily available in his cubicle to lean the eggs against), I cracked open the consume-at-room-temperature food items, and began to sample the various components of the meal.  First up: crackers.


Two crackers came in the pouch.  I broke the corner off of one, and noted that the texture was decent – i.e., not rock hard, yet not crazy-crumbly.  I started chewing on that first bite – and within seconds every drop of moisture was removed from my mouth.  Immediately my mind went back to the Fort Snelling bakeshop, and the hardtack ration the period-actor shared.  I smiled to myself; looks like some things rally never change!

I massaged the strawberry jam packet to 1) ensure any liquid was re-integrated into the solid mass, and 2) warm it a bit to hopefully make it more pliable, then applied a smallish glop of the jam to a section of the cracker.  I tried this next bite of augmented-with-jam cracker, but found it only marginally better.  Luckily, there was a lot more food for me to try – so I set the cracker aside, and broke into the toaster pastry.

As I lifted the pastry from its plastic packaging, I immediately noticed that this item was actually soft!  I expected the “pastry” to be impossibly hard (a la the regular toaster pastries that are sold in supermarkets), so to see that this version had genuine tenderness was impressive.  As I set the pastry on the desk, I also noticed that it had a natural apple and cinnamon scent to it.  Again, impressive!  I found these traits encouraging; now I wondered how the pastry would taste:

22_toaster pastry

Popping a bite into my mouth, I was truly pleased with this item.  It was appropriately flaky, had a good apple and cinnamon flavor to it, and wasn’t cloyingly sweet.  I would actually eat this again!

Feeling encouraged, I made the move towards the main component of this MRE: the eggs.  I extracted the plastic pouch from the flameless heater, shook the excess water from the outer wrap, and massaged the crap out of the pack.  As I kneaded the pouch, it made a “squish, squish” sound.  Ew.  I could also feel the ineffectiveness of the “heater” device; as I kneaded the pack, I could feel cold parts of egg mingling with warm parts of egg – rendering the entire contents only slightly warmer than room temperature.  Again, ew.  Once I mixed the eggs as much as I could, I ripped the top of the pouch, and found:

23_cooked eggs

If I had any illusions that I might be able to consume this meal as my actual lunch, they were shattered the second I saw this glorious mess.  However, I was determined to get a decent sample of the fare – so I picked up the brown plastic spoon, scooped out a glob of egg drivel, and drove it into my mouth.

Holy hell.  The eggs looked like sawdust, and their texture was comparable.  Even more bizarre than the texture of the eggs, though, was their flavor.  They tasted like a combination of eggs, salsa, and tuna.  How the military was able to infuse eggs with a fish flavor, I have no idea (or, perhaps, I just don’t want to know…); suffice to say, it wasn’t a pleasant experience.  I took another bite, then decided to pause on the eggs and try my luck with the shredded potatoes.


I followed the same process with the potatoes that I used with the eggs: warm them for a few minutes in the ineffective flameless heater, knead the pouch to mix the warm parts of food into the cold parts (while hearing and feeling the same “squish squish”), then tearing open the pouch to find:

25_cooked potatoes

Using the same brown spoon, I scooped up a glob of the potatoes, popped it into my mouth, and started chewing.  Now, if I didn’t know that what I was eating was supposed to be potatoes, I would have sworn that I was eating a mild jalapeno rice.  The “hashbrowns” had the exact texture and flavor profile as a cheap Mexican pilaf; it was confusing.

Seeing as how both the eggs and the rice/potatoes weren’t great on their own, I wondered if adding them together might improve the situation?  I put a small scoop of each onto the spoon – and was surprised to discover that co-mingling these items had absolutely zero effect.  Instead of tasting an egg/tuna/potato/rice casserole, I tasted two very distinct items at the same time.  It was very crazy, almost surreal.

By this time my manager was having a grand time observing me sample this not-fantastic food.  He commented that the way he ate his MREs when he was in the field was by dousing the food in hot sauce to make it more palatable.  I’m not a fan of hot sauce, but I figured I would at least try the suggestion.  So I dabbled a tiny bit of hot sauce into the egg packet, stirred it around a bit, took a bite – and almost gagged.  Hot sauce definitely did NOT help me; in fact, it rendered the meal completely inedible.  Now that the eggs were toxic, I tossed them into the trash; my manager immediately collected the rest of the meal and, with an air of satisfaction, heaved it into the can.  It made a large, heavy, “thud” sound.

If I were starving, I could (and would) totally eat this meal – or any MRE, for that matter (so long as I wasn’t forced to use the hot sauce).  But.  I don’t think I would choose to consume an MRE voluntarily.  If I was ever placed in a situation where my options were dehydrated food or an MRE, I’d select the first option.  But hey, now I know!  And even better, my MRE curiosity has been satisfied.

After my manager and I briefly chatted about what I thought of the MRE, he did offer that the military tries to improve the meals with each passing year.  And since the meal I just ate was from 2005, current-day MREs might taste (and feel) a whole lot better.  Still, I think I’ll pass on eating another one.  Thanks anyway.


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