Winter Fun in Wisconsin

Cheese-300pxRecently, someone from the deep South asked me, “So what do y’all do in Wisconsin in the winter?” I was surprised. I thought everyone knew what a blast Wisconsin is in January! We have phenomenally fun activities going on all the time here.

First, there are Packer games. The colder it is, the better the turnout. Wisconsinites take great pride in knowing how to dress for these events. Those cheesehead thingies everybody wears? Lined with head-warming uranium-enriched chemicals, this traditional Wisconsin headgear is  made from a secret recipe inspired during somebody’s hours of boredom while freezing in a tree stand, waiting for the legendary thirty-point buck to appear. Basement Packer chapels and decorating our living rooms in gold and green also keep us pretty busy.

People “up nort'” enjoy raking four-foot piles of snow off the roofs of their trailer homes several times during the season. It is great exercise, and although not as exciting, is more fun than having the roof collapse into the living room.

For those who are more inclined to sedentary entertainment, a quiet afternoon spent fuzz-balling your red union suit is guaranteed to enhance your serenity.

You no doubt have heard whispers about the Polar Bear Club. On January 1st, members congregate on the shores of Lake Michigan (or other suitable ponds), strip down to their thermal underwear, and go for a swim. I must explain that these are not sane Wisconsinites. Too much fuzz-balling of the red union suits can push people beyond serenity into hallucinogenic euphoria. I might add that the multitudes of people who come just to spectate suffer some noggin problems as well.

Reading seed catalogs from cover to cover multiple times is also a favorite activity. At the end of winter, Burpee has a contest exclusively for Wisconsinites: whoever sends in the most thumb-worn catalog with their order of $100.00 or more gets a plaque with a big pumpkin superimposed over the state capitol, which reads, “Home-grown Wisconsinite and proud of it!” It may not ever warm up enough to get a harvest out of those seeds finally planted midsummer, but dreaming is almost as good as achieving, right?

The men all grow bushes on their faces. Outsiders think it is in admiration for those Duck Dynasty fellers. Nope. Purely a Wisconsin thing, contrived for survival. The Louisiana guys just stole it.

And we shiver. This is a health bonus. It tones the muscles. The more sleek you want to be, the more you turn down the thermostat. There are no gym fees, you don’t have to leave home, and the added bonus is a lower fuel bill. It’s a no-brainer.

“Remembrance Parties” are a big trend right now. The idea is to gather a few intimate friends, slurp some spicy-hot chili together (in hopes of generating authentic perspiration), and swap memories of the previous summer. “Joe, do you remember when we wore short-sleeve T-shirts last July for a couple of days? Refresh my memory. What did that feel like?”

Some of us find enjoyment in traveling from park to park to watch the bubblers freeze over (probably referred to as water fountains where you come from). It’s not quite as much fun as watching the Polar Bear Club carry on, but it works in a pinch, if you’re going stir-crazy inside.

Contrary to rumors, we do not enjoy lemming races. That is strictly an event in Upper Michigan, which Wisconsin is unfortunately adjoined to — but we can’t do much about them.

Now for a cultural exchange — What do all yous guys do in the winter?

Keeping Fit in Pitt (Part 2)

I was wrong in yesterday’s post about Pittsburghians not knowing that it is good manners to say “hi” to strangers when passing.  It is not Pittsburghians who are ignorant on this point; it is just the ones on the part of the Montour Run Trail behind Susan’s house.

Today I took the trail where it continues on the other side of the highway, and almost all the folks walking and biking it said hello to me before I had a chance.  I will not have to try to elevate their culture after all.  They were a different group: not so focused on building their muscles and seeing how much wheezing they could handle before cardiac arrest set in.  They were the mom-and-dad type with little kids, or the I-am-just-out-for-a-stroll-to-enjoy-the-weather-and-I-don’t-care-if-I-elevate-my-heartbeat-to-its-maximum-potential-or-not type.

I simply cannot get used to all these houses built into the sides of the mountains.  We’ve got some of the same in Door County and the east side of Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin, but most of our state is mildly hilly or fairly flat.  I also cannot get used to how some houses’ front doors open almost directly onto the highway — or else have a goodly flight of stairs up to the door.  I would be a lean muscle machine if I lived here permanently.  If the up-and-down-hill walking did not do it for me, running from the copperheads in the summertime would.

I am developing a theory: even driving the hairpin turns and up-and-down slopes burns calories.  It would be possible to be quite athletically fit in Pittsburgh even without consciously exercising — if it weren’t for Chick-fil-A to ruin it all at the end of the day.

Susan has always been mystified by part of the local culture.  Although their home is only fifteen minutes from the heart of Pittsburgh, many people from their area — even very youngish people — have never been to the City.  Even more of them have not ever been to the other side of it.  They just live and die in their own small corner of the suburbs (suburghs?).

If Susan had wanted to know the answer, all she would have had to do is ask.  One of the natives explained it to me.  They all get lost if they travel outside of a certain small radius.  You see, because everything is in the mountains, there are no such things as square city blocks.  All the roads wind this way and that, without any organization, rhyme, or reason.  Finding your way around — especially around the city to the other side of it — is nigh-on to impossible.  So they all just stay in their township and the couple of townships nearby.  It is completely a safety issue.  There now.  That makes sense to me!

You might ask, “But what about one of those little GPS gizmos?  Wouldn’t that take care of the problem?”  We tried the GPS gadget to get us to Pittsburgh from Wisconsin.  It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.  It tried to tell us Susan’s address did not exist.  After awhile, it decided the existence was a distinct possibility, but the directions given were not sensible.  If we had listened, we would have ended up on the wrong side of the city, lost forever, never to find Susan or Wisconsin again.

So, I understand.  I would behave myself and stay in my suburgh too.

Keeping Fit in Pitt (Part 1)

Where the Wild Things Are

We are visiting Susan and family in Pittsburgh for a few days.  They do not really live in Pittsburgh, just in one of the rural, wooded suburbs that surround the city.

I am in the midst of being a very cool grandma.  As everyone knows, cool grandmas come in a wide array of colors and shapes, but they are only really cool if they get artsy-craftsy with the little ones.  I have about three things in my artsy-craftsy arsenal, so it’s good that I am a long-distance grandma and can spread those three things out over my entire career.

Hence, I came prepared with a bucket of seashells and a huge jar of popsicle sticks.  We made treasure boxes by gluing the sticks together in dizzyingly-high layers until we reached the attention span limit.  The seashells became lid decorations.  The small fry will remember my visit fondly forever.  Now you know how to be a very cool grandma, if you didn’t possess that information before.   Isn’t the Internet wonderful?

Jason Upton sings, “Do you really want to know … where the wild things are?”  I know.  They live in suburban Pittsburgh — both inside and outside the house.  We arrived to find Susan and her husband in a massive battle with squatters — an army of mice.  These are brazen rodents: they do not wait until we are all snuggled in bed with the lights out to reconnoiter.   They watch us from corners, waiting for the very moment we leave the room, whereupon they scramble from their bunkers in search of plunder.  The killer beagle is not concerned.  He should face a long stint in the brig for dereliction of duty. 

Francis Scott Key described the battle he witnessed as “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.”  Here it is more like snap, crackle, and POP — sounds of mice rummaging through the cupboards and their eventual demise in the cleverly positioned booby traps.

I commented darkly that we should consider mouse croquettes for dinner some evening.  I’m not sure that  is any more of a gross idea than escargot or frog legs, but it was merely a conversation starter, not an idea to be seriously entertained.

The house has a history of wildlife intrusions.  Last summer Susan found a baby snake coiled among the children’s toys.  Her heroic husband strode to the rescue, scooped the viper up in a box, and hurled him down the hill to the creek.  I’m not sure it was a real viper.  Chris said you can tell whether they are poisonous or not by how slanted the eyes are — but he didn’t examine the eyeballs intently enough to find out.  He’s a very just-get-the-job-done kind of guy.

Incidents of this sort must be why Susan once announced that she would much prefer to live in an apartment with concrete all the way up to the foundations and not a blade of grass or a tree in sight. 

We Did the Door

We just got back from a couple of days in Door County.  I could post the pictures and tell you what a wonderful place it is to visit, and I would sound like a travel magazine.  But anybody who ever reads this blog knows that’s not what you’re going to get. 

We did the things we like to do, which means we avoided all the tourist trinket shops entirely, and visited the photogenic places — Cana Island, Peninsula State Park, Cave Point, a few pretty buildings, and the ferry port on the edge of the world.  Beebee had a good time with her dad’s camera.  She probably had a good time with her parents, too, but the camera won the popularity contest.

I restrained myself from bringing little bits of Door County home with me. Last time, my mind got stuck in the groove of crab claws and other lake debris being cool.  I brought home a margarine bucket full of such things.  It resides on a shelf in my closet, and I take it out and look at it every couple of years with my nose plug in place, because all those little marine life thingies smell horrible.  I think someday I will show my crab claws to the grandchildren to see whether they are scared or delighted.  I would imagine at least one of them will be delighted.  I will tell him Grandma got these while sailing the seas in a pirate ship, and he will think I am even cooler!

I noticed they don’t have any homeless people hanging around under the docks and park benches in Door County.  It’s probably because they would freeze to death in the middle of July.  I’ve never been to Door County when it wasn’t freezing.  I recommend bringing your winter coat when you come in May.  We didn’t, and we should have.

I didn’t see too many taverns, either — not that I missed them, or needed one, or anything like that.  I suppose the locals there get the same satisfaction out of a bowl of lingonberries as folks in my neck of the woods do out of a bottle of beer.  (Lingonberries are like a cross between cranberries and currants.  You eat them in a sauce.)

Eating is a problem in Door County, unless you bring your own food or have a wallet the size of Warren Buffet’s.  The lingonberries cost, folks!  And when it is off-season (it still is, in late May) there are not a lot of places open for business.  The owners stay in Florida until June, hoping to store up warmth, somewhat like a solar battery.  They want to bring back at least the remembrance of what it was like not to shiver constantly.  But Al Johnson’s is always open.  I would eat every meal there  —  if I had Warren Buffet’s wallet at my disposal.

We stayed at the same resort that we were at the last time.  Back then, it was elegant to my plebeian eyes, but it was decidedly tired this time.  The entire building was extremely musty-smelling and my nostrils were assaulted with nastier-yet odors upon entering our room.  I did not look under the bed for dead mice resting in an ashtray full of cigarette butts, but I think I would have found that if I had looked.

The lady at the front desk informed us that if we wanted to go swimming and had not brought our suits, they had a supply of left-behinds from previous guests.  We could pick through them and wear them if we liked.  Uh, no thanks. I wonder if they offer free recycled underwear that was left behind, too.  How about toothbrushes?

Which brings me to my husband, who forgot his toothbrush.  He thought he was going to share mine.  There are times when I am not in a sharing mood.  Forgotten toothbrushes are one of those moments.  Beebee thought it should be no big deal if he just didn’t brush until we got home from the trip.  (I see that I am going to have to monitor the child’s toothpaste consumption, to make sure it is being … consumpted.)  Thankfully, my husband did not think skipping the tooth maintenance was a good idea.  We sent him down to the desk, and they sold him a toothbrush.  It was still neatly wrapped in plastic, so I don’t think it came out of the box of recycled underwear and bathing suits.

It’s a good thing that the resort thought to keep a stock of (new) toothbrushes, as we were staying at the absolute end of nowhere, at least five miles from inhabited places, and by this time every store in town would have been closed anyway, because it was after 3:00 p.m., the official time all the businesses shut down and everybody forgets to breathe until morning (except Al Johnson’s, which serves lingonberries far into the night — until 8:00 p.m., in fact).

So that’s the angle on Door County that no one else will tell you.  There’s more, but we’ll save it for another day.

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