A “Fair” Way to Say Adieu to Summer

071_1024There are two types of people in Minnesota. We are State Fair people. I’m not sure how to classify the other type–Elitist? Boring? Enochlophobic? Misanthropic? Anyway, I once fit into one or more of these other classifications before actually experiencing the fair for the first time. We were transplants to Minnesota and the hubs mentioned that the Minnesota State Fair was supposed to be a big deal. I recoiled with a scowl. My vision of a fair was of tromping over straw-covered dirt paths, risking my life on rickety rides and ordering $5 hotdogs from a vendor who’d surely slogged the food over from a nearby gas station dumpster.

But then! But then! I got pregnant. My being knocked up has nothing to do with the fair, per se. But being hospitalized on bed rest during the “12 Best Days of Summer” meant I watched a lot of KARE at the Fair. Everyday, a new delight was paraded or spotlighted on KARE 11 news. I wanted to try those great-looking foods, watch demonstrations by artisans and performers, trace the history of agriculture and win a giant stuffed toy! I wanted to experience all the great stuff I was seeing on TV.

The following year, with our then one-year-old in tow, we ventured out for our first visit to the Minnesota State Fair. We haven’t missed a year since. That was 15 years ago.

The Minnesota State Fair really is a big deal. It’s not plopped down on some farm field, but has a mapped urban location with paved streets and permanent buildings that feature displays of fine art, creative handcrafts, home-baked goods, youth science experiments, innovative technologies, cultural exhibitions and more! We learn something new or every year.

DSC02322_1024The barns are enormous and the State Fair has helped this city girl develop a deeper appreciation for farming and the proper care of animals. I remember being so excited about the new CHS Miracle of Birth Center in 2006. I wanted our children to experience a nearness to nature that I’d never been privy to. And it’s amazing! Filled with baby chicks, rabbits, lambs and cows. Oh my. We once sat for some time waiting to witness the birth of a calf. I was awe-struck. Trouble is, one of our kiddos prefers the dried and fluffed animal variety and has some trouble with anything squishy or covered in the gelatinous goo associated with a trip through the Play-dough maker of life. Poor kid had to lie down for nearly 30 minutes after seeing Mother Nature do her thing. So, we rarely venture into that barn anymore. Don’t need to traumatize the boy any further. But I still highly recommend it! For most people, it’s thrilling and adorable.

IMG_1049_1024The Mighty Midway is mighty indeed. There’s even a Kidway with smaller amusement rides for those not yet taller than a yardstick. Once our kids graduated to the larger rides, they decided that throwing baseballs at plates or shooting bb-guns at rubber ducks was more their speed. And the hubs–that poor guy has been trying for years (and spending a small fortune) trying to lift a pop bottle to standing with a plastic ring attached to a fishing pole. He swears that one day he’s gonna start practicing at home before heading out to the fair. But he’s yet to get ahead of that curve. Still, we laugh. We cheer each other on. We occasionally win small stuffed animals that we toss sacrificially to our happy dog when we get home.


And the food. Yes, the food. Not gonna lie. We plan most of our day around the food. Most expert fair-goers do the same. Cibophobics and Paleo-vegan-gluen-fun-food dieters can give it a rest for a day. Our annual forage through Minnesota fair food has not resulted in any long-term health effects or above average BMI. So relax and enjoy some Minnesota bounty and the ingenuity of these amazing food vendors.

First, we peruse the Blue Ribbon Bargain Book for coupons. Those who want standard fare like corndogs, pizza or cheeseburgers are sure to find a discount.

Then we map out where our favorites and must-try items are located so that we don’t overlook or eat too much of any one item while we’re there. Some of our regular favorites include:

Walleye Cakes, Fried Pickles, Korean Tacos, Turkey To Go, Porkchop on a Stick, Deep Fried Candy Bars, Roasted Corn on the Cob and Wild Rice Burgers.

This year we look forward to trying:

Kalettes, Indie Frites, Cluck and Moo–Oh, and the Blueberry Beer! So good. So, so good.

Walleye Cakes

Walleye Cakes

Fried Pickles

Fried Pickles

Blueberry Beer

Blueberry Beer

I’ve only scratched the surface of all there is to do and see and eat at the Minnesota State Fair. It truly takes more than one day to get it all in. But, we’ve limited our annual excursion to one full day because admission, parking and eating can quickly count up. But it’s worth every penny to be part of this terrific Minnesota tradition. What are your favorite state fair activities, experiences or foods? Are you a single day or multi-day visitor? Do you like it best during the day or after dark? How many Grandstand shows have you taken in?

It may be August and many Minnesotans may dread the inevitable march toward winter on the tundra. But waving adieu to summer with this kind of send-off is something our family will always cherish.

The River Raft Ride - A Minnesota State Fair tradition for the boys.

The River Raft Ride – A Minnesota State Fair tradition for the boys.

Have fun at the fair!



Hospitality Geared Toward Blessing vs. Impressing

photo from partycity.com

Photo from partycity.com

I first got a clue about entertaining when I was in my early twenties. My aunt was hosting a bridal shower and a few of our female relatives were asked to help prepare the food. Each was assigned a dish. “And be sure to bring a crystal bowl for the buffet table,” she’d said. “That way all the food can be served from crystal bowls.”

I thought the crystal bowl thing was a stroke of genius. I’d never considered serving food from matching dishes before! In fact, I knew nothing of what was entailed in real entertaining–that hostesses needed to consider not only food and beverage, but also serving bowls, plates, flatware, napkins, cups, table coverings, center pieces, etc. I simply had no idea how much forethought, organization and creativity went into a proper celebration!

I was intrigued and wanted to absorb this knowledge about beautiful presentations and hospitality. So I paid close attention and made mental notes. Some years later, I hosted a bridal shower for my soon-to-be sister-in-law complete with little crust-less finger sandwiches served on a three-tiered display that I’d picked up along the way.

But there was more to learn. After children came along and I stopped working outside the home for a while, coffee with other mothers became a thing. I remember so looking forward to the company. But I especially noticed that coffee was always served with some type of pastry or banana nut muffins or blueberry scones. Sometimes homemade. Other times, store bought. It didn’t seem to matter. But presentation seemed integral with floral patterned paper napkins and cream and sugar sets. I made more mental notes. But once when I offered to host coffee at my house, I was either too lazy or too busy to make or buy food. So I served only coffee. When the first of only two guests arrived, I apologized for not providing snacks and received a comment that kinda floored me. I expected to hear, “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.” Instead, she said, “It’s okay. You’ll learn.”

For a moment, I kinda wanted to rant just like my mother did when her sister asked her to bring food to a bridal shower in a crystal dish. But, what I’ve come to realize is that upping your game when it comes to hospitality is more than an added bonus for your guests. In some cases, it’s what’s proper. But in most cases, it’s about bringing out your best to bless your guests.

Okay, now I get it. Well, almost. This past year, I had a conversation with a friend about what’s appropriate to serve to any casual guest, whether formally invited or of the pop-in variety. She explained to me that her parents are of a certain age that they expect to be offered a beverage at the very least whenever they visit somebody’s home. So maybe it’s generational? I’ve tried to remember this, especially if we’re entertaining guests of a certain age. We had some over 70 pop-ins this past week. I right away offered ice water. They readily accepted. Whew. Didn’t blow it.

Then again, maybe it’s not generational. I once tried to save a buck by buying beer in cans for a smallish gathering of friends. One friend declined the beer with a comment along the lines of being too old to drink cheap beer. Got it. Beer in bottles and preferably of the micro-brewery variety labeled with kitchy names like swamp water or bathtub brew.

Another time, when I served dessert to a small group and asked if it was okay to top it with Cool-Whip instead of real whipped cream, I’m pretty sure somebody groaned. So now I only buy Cool-Whip for that church cookbook marshmallow fruit salad recipe that old folks and children on the tundra seem to love.

Now I’m not trying to overwhelm anyone with implied rules for entertaining. I am a firm believer in letting folks grab whatever they want right out of my fridge, especially any teenage friend of our children. Have at it.

And I’m fairly certain that my family and friends are not the pretentious prigs they may seem like in this post. It’s really not about crystal dishes or bottled beer. It’s about my learning to view everyone who enters our home as an honored guest. It’s about trying to make people feel special even if for just a little while. Cause life out there is hard. And when you come here, I want you to feel loved. I’ve learned the value of a little extra effort, that in most cases, it’s much appreciated. Although there was that one time when I hosted a dinner party and one guy said eating off anybody’s good china made him feel uncomfortable. I guess I can’t win. Good thing I’m not trying to “win”.

photo from ameliasaltsman.com

photo from ameliasaltsman.com

I’m no Martha Stewart or Pinterest professional. I’m just trying to learn from others so that I might be able to serve others as best I can. I want my door to always be open. I want company to always feel welcome at our dinner table. And I never want you to think you’re not worth the effort.

What do you think? Are there any rules to entertaining? How do you make guests feel special? Does it matter?


Is Anybody Buying What You’re Selling?

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Anyone who’s ever been in sales likely knows about the “pen test”. I failed my first “pen test” when I was 22 years old. A fresh faced college graduate with Working Girl  dreams schlepping my briefcase from brokerage house to brokerage house on the hunt for a job in the midst of a recession. Most hiring managers were impressed with my chutzpah. But a successful stockbroker is a successful sales person. And sales people must be clear about what they want and they must ask for it–something I find too many non-sales people are reluctant to do–and that’s unfortunate. Because thinking clearly about what you want and articulating clearly what you want are vital life skills. It also helps mentally compare motivations with values to check that they are in line.

The “pen test” is a good measure of a basic sales skill. For me, it went like this: one of those brokerage house managers listened intently as I prattled on about my academic accomplishments and work ethic, etc. He glanced at my resume and complimented my aptitude. But then he did something I thought a bit strange at the time. He plucked a pen from a holder on his desk and handed it to me. “Please try to sell me this pen,” he said.

Thinking this a very odd request but knowing that the first rule of improv (and desperation) is never to deny an invitation, I took the pen and began to list all of its many features and benefits.

The manager listened. And nodded. And smiled. But he never gave an indication of when I was finished selling the pen. It seemed he was waiting for me to say more. I continued with my flowery narrative: how stylish the pen was, how smooth it wrote, how it wouldn’t leak in your pocket, etc. But his face remained unchanged and seemingly underwhelmed.

I finally stopped talking about the amazing pen and asked, “How’d I do?”

He retrieved his pen from me, replaced it to its holder and said, “You did fine but you forgot the most important part.”


“You never asked me how many pens I wanted to order.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

We can’t just talk and talk and talk when we want something to happen or someone to act. At some point, we need to clearly say what it is we want. Salespeople want a sale. But everybody wants something at some point. Are you making it clear what it is you want–when you’re having a disagreement, when you’re nagging your spouse or children, when you’re complaining at the customer service counter or to your boss or to your staff? If you’re not getting what you want, maybe it’s because you haven’t asked. Maybe you don’t even know.

A couple of years ago, a teacher said something to my son that upset him so much, he didn’t want to return to school the next day. He buried his head under his covers distraught at the possibility that his teacher disliked him. Fury vibrated in my soul and my blood boiled at the thought of someone, especially a teacher, upsetting my child to such a degree with careless words. I called the principal and requested a meeting. I remember still shaking with indignant anger while gripping the steering wheel during that drive to the school. Then, I paused and asked myself, “What exactly do I want from this meeting?”

A fair question. Always. Venting frustration and complaining about things we don’t like or believe are unfair do little to nothing to solve any problem unless we can articulate what it is we want an offending person to do.

Sometimes we just want to be heard. If so, say that. Sometimes we want an apology. If so, say that. Other times, we may want revenge or to inflict pain on those who’ve hurt us. If that’s our motivation, we need to hit the pause button and take stock of our values and behavior.

In the case with my son, I wanted him to feel safe and accepted in this particular teacher’s classroom. And once I’d figured out exactly what I wanted, I knew how to state my case and ask for it. The principal and teacher readily agreed. The teacher even hugged my son when he returned to her class and assured him that her words were not meant to be hostile. She would never be my son’s favorite teacher (and possibly he was never her favorite student) but they could co-exist with an understanding based on clear expectations that were in line with good values.

I’ve tried to ask myself this question, “What do I want?” whenever I lead a meeting, write a blog post, return an item to a department store, plan a vacation, consider a job opportunity or find myself feeling depressed or jealous or fat or unhappy. And what if I answered that question by saying, “Today, I want my actions to give glory to God.”?

Because what good is it to wallow in negativity or aspire to some vague notion of joy? Emotions come and go. They are unstable and unpredictable.

Like counting our blessings, examining what drives our thinking and thus, what it is we want, and then practicing the skill of being able to speak that truth in love can go a long way in accomplishing personal and professional goals. It can also help smooth out rough patches in relationships and dial back a tendency to simply complain when we’re unhappy.

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

We can tap dance around most any issue ad nauseam. But eventually, we must offer ourselves and the world clarity of motivation and desire. Only then will we know if anyone is buying what we’re selling.


Seeing Beauty in the Broken Body of Christ

World Vision wants the whole world to have access to clean water.

How beautiful is the body of Christ. Over the years–particularly in the past few weeks–I’m reminded of the multifaceted meaning of this statement. For me, to hit the pause button on this busy life and ponder the beauty of the holiest man to ever live and how he sacrificed his life that all may live… how beautiful. And to bear witness to the body of Christ–the church–living as Jesus lived; sacrificially, intentionally, with love, mercy, tenderness and grace… how beautiful.

When the hubs and I were about to embark on a cross-country move 20 years ago, far away from all family ties and childhood friends, we asked another couple who’d done the same for advice. They said, “Find a church and jump in with both feet. Get connected. Get involved and immersed. Even if you believe you’ll live in a place for only a short time.”

So after driving from Michigan to Washington, unloading our furniture, dishes and our freshly minted wedding album, we went on a hunt for a church home. There is no magic formula for finding the “right” church. The hubs and I have Lutheran backgrounds and so that helped us narrow our search. We found a place that felt right, and by “felt right” all I can say is, we wanted to return each Sunday. So we followed our friends’ advice and jumped in. We joined bible studies, attended potlucks, offered requested input on staffing decisions and even warily joined with the choir on an Easter Sunday when they summoned the congregation to the front to sing the Halleluiah chorus. The singing that day sounded truly awful. Only the choir knew all the words and most of them were Q-tip haired octogenarians whose singing voices had already gone on to heaven ahead of their feeble bodies. But nobody cared about that. A beautiful sound wasn’t the point. The beautiful body of Christ was the point. And it was SO beautiful. In that place, people we hardly knew cared for us for two years. They invited us to barbecues and Christmas dinners. We celebrated the births of their children and mourned the deaths of their loved ones. We helped raised money for a leaking roof and for needy families. It felt like home. Like family. I’m so glad we jumped in even though we would only live in Washington a short time.

Two years later, we relocated to Minnesota, and began again. We attended Sunday services at a few local Lutheran churches and discovered one that kept drawing us back, and so, we “jumped in with both feet” again. We’ve now been members at Woodbury Lutheran Church for 17 years. We’ve seen pastors and members come and go. We’ve watched toddlers become teenagers, celebrated weddings and attended funerals. We’ve seen self-sacrificing, Godly people bring comfort to the infirm, offer endless prayers for the lost and lonely, feed the hungry, fix leaky roofs, care for disabled children, adopt orphans, house the homeless, support struggling families and bring praises to a loving and forgiving Creator each and every day no matter what that day may bring. How beautiful.

Kirk Ingram suffers a spinal cord injury.

Kirk Ingram suffers a spinal cord injury.

Going to worship on Sunday morning is like going to a family function–only so much better. Because despite all of our combined dysfunction, deficiencies and occasional despair, together we find joy and delight in the presence of the Almighty–and in community with each other. This is our family. And it is beautiful.

A generation ago, the church played a central role in American community life. Today, for far too many folks, church is viewed to be either an outdated ritual to be shrugged off or shunned or a strange and mysterious club that intimidates with its cliques and secret handshakes. Trust me. The “right” place is neither of these things.

I have found church to be a safe place to learn a moral language and develop a strength of character steeped in ancient biblical wisdom. I’ve found church to be a place to discover who created me and for what purpose. It is a community of believers (and some skeptics) who are journeying together in this life toward the next. And when I get distracted by all that needs to be done Monday through Saturday, the church points me toward the cross every Sunday. And it is beautiful.

I’ve found church to be the place to find perpetual renewal and to be surrounded by people who love each other despite personal failure and where people support one another through the struggles of this life. We rock each other’s babies. We comfort each other’s sick. We dine together. We drink together. We laugh together. We cry together. How beautiful is the body of Christ.