Walls – Which side are we on?

The tide of refugees and immigrants and the resulting walls and discussions of walls – in Europe and the U.S. – remind me of a sculpture I saw at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Border Dynamics” is a greater than life-sized metal work created by Guadalupe Serrano and Alberto Morackis of Taller Yonke.

"Border Dynamics"

“Border Dynamics” by Guadalupe Serrano and Alberto Morackis

People on each side of a wall push against it. Yet, who is trying to get by? Who is resisting?

The figure on the left in the foreground appears almost bored, apathetic, in his effort. Is he worn out by the effort? Acting out of obligation rather than belief?

Meanwhile, the figure on the right shows purpose, determination. There may be desperation in his face.

Border Dynamics

“Border Dynamics”

The figures behind these two have different attitudes. One pushes with greater energy, one with less. But neither in the same way as the figures in the foreground.

Maybe the figures on the right are trying to push the wall down, but maybe they are not. Maybe they are trying to hold back the tide of immigrants, those weary travelers barely able to stand against yet one more barrier.

Who has more resolve? People seeking to keep people out? Or people seeking to get in? The range of emotions on both sides of the fence indicate the answer is not clear or united on either side.

My work in progress – a contemporary novel set in Iowa – includes characters on all sides of the immigrant issue. Exploring and presenting these diverse points of view honestly and fairly is a challenge that makes writing this novel particularly interesting. In each scene, I seek to understand the world view of the characters to know how they’ll behave. Often the characters surprise me, acting in ways I don’t expect.

As I write, I run into the wall of my own prejudices and am forced to look back on my life and explore the defining moments that shaped my attitudes and actions. One of the reasons I write what I do is because writing offers an opportunity to understand myself and the world around me. This novel is doing that – in spades. And it’s often uncomfortable.

I circled the “Border Dynamics” sculpture, studying the the figures, trying to imagine each one’s story. I came away with more questions than answers. Like the discussions of immigrants and borders and walls we face today.

Saying Good-bye to an Old Friend

When my husband I moved to our acreage 10 years ago, I loved all the trees, but particularly the big old willow.  I frequently carried a chair and a book to the tree where I’d spend hours watching the graceful fronds sway in the breeze rather than reading, romantic notions of summer picnics and moonlit trysts playing through my mind.Willow tree - prairie planting

The willow was a landmark for people looking for our driveway. It marked the seasons with golden pollen in the spring and gold leaves in the fall, all the while offering inspiration: for a poem I wrote a friend struggling after a divorce; for our grandchildren who ran through the fronds that skimmed the ground, for photographs that hang on my walls.Willow tree - winter

The willow stood watch over the prairie patch I planted, a backdrop instead of the focus for my many photos of prairie flowers. It was a perch for owls and hawks that took to the highest limbs as they kept an eye out for their next meal.Willow tree - Blue Vervain

As the years passed, the winds of time took their toll. Dry rot claimed the center of the trunk, and limbs fell with increasing frequency. We knew the tree would have to come down. Even though we’ve lived with this tree for such a short time, when the chainsaws arrived, I felt as though I was losing an old friend.Willow tree - removal

The man who led the team was respectful of this gracious old lady. “She was older than any of us,” he said when we asked. “It was time.” I have yet to count all the rings on the stump, but there are easily 70.Willow tree - removal

The landscape is different when I look out my office window now. The willow occupied so much space and now it’s gone. I echo Bob Hope when I think of the willow: “Thanks for the memories.”

Top 10 Reasons To Love the Iowa State Fair

Our state fair is a great fair, acclaimed in book, movies, and song. As a 4-H member I yearned to go. Alas, that desire was unfulfilled. Now that I live within four miles of the main gate, though, I never miss the annual extravaganza.

With a nod to David Letterman and the Late Show, and before August slips away, I must share my Top 10 Reasons to Love The Iowa State Fair.

Drumroll please …

Iowa State Fair Goat

Keeping an eye on passers by.

10. Inquisitive goats. And pigs and horses and cows. I love livestock.

9. Joining a queue for no reason other than the possibility of free stuff. Our line led to Mixify – an initiative to help educate teens about the importance of balancing calorie intake with activity. I explained how I keep moving and walked away with a t-shirt and a frisbee.

8. Cattle Judging. Watching little kids manhandle a 1,000 pound steer around the arena is a hoot. “Just don’t let go,” is the advice one kid gave the new Drake University President Marty Martin before the celebrity steer show. Good, simple advice; I like that.

Iowa State Fair Giant Pumpkin

The winner weighed in at 1,235 pounds.

7. Giant things – Random things – Butter things – pumpkins, tomatoes, bull, boar – a hot wheels race on the grand concourse – the butter cow, joined this year by a tribute to Monopoly. It’s all good.

6. Food on a Stick – The Ultimate Bacon Brisket Bomb, a bacon-wrapped, ground brisket/jalapeno/cheese-filled concoction earned the public’s favorite new food-on-a-stick award, so of course we tried it. The smoked brisket mac n cheese is better. IMHO.

5. Quilts – The needlework is amazing. My friend Sheryl entered five projects and took ribbons on four. My sister-in-law Anita won a blue ribbon. These are talented folks.

4. Ice Cream. When one massive scoop costs $4 and a second massive scoop costs only $1 more, you can imagine what we chose. Even though that’s more ice cream than I eat in a normal week. And I eat ice cream every day.

Iowa State Fair - Chia Cow

Just the thing for a dairy farmer’s daughter.

3. Peanut Brittle Judging. My first experience at food judging provided 17 entries –  enough to appreciate the range of Iowa candy maker creativity – and satisfy a sweet tooth.

2. A Chia Cow. I want one.

1. I avoided every single presidential candidate. Given the number of candidates and the fact that every one of them wants to see the butter cow and flip a pork chop and hold forth from a hay bale, that’s no small feat.

There you have it my friends – The Iowa State Fair. I can’t wait for next year.

What are your favorite things to do at the fair?

On the other side of the table – Iowa State Fair

With every presentation I made as a 4-H member, getting to the Iowa State Fair was my goal. Each year, I did my best, yet it was never enough to go beyond the county level. The judges always chose someone else, and I was always disappointed. I spent some time railing against the unfairness of the judges, let me tell you.

Seventeen peanut brittle entries waiting for the judges.

Seventeen peanut brittle entries waiting for the judges.

As an adult living only four miles from the fairgrounds, the allure of the State Fair remains strong. I’m always eager to attend. A couple of years ago, I entered a quilt and earned a third place ribbon. For once, I was delighted.

It didn’t occur to join the judging ranks myself until this year when Des Moines Register columnist Kyle Munson announced on FaceBook that he was looking for judges to join him for the new peanut brittle competition.

Peanut brittle is one of my favorite candies. I make it every year. Seemed like those were qualifications enough to judge. I signed up.

When the day rolled around, I was ready. And excited. And hungry.

Seventeen entries greeted us. A respectable number for the first year, and a number we figured two judges could get through in the hour allotted. Volunteers supplied plates, napkins, and damp clothes, along with crackers and water to cleanse our palates. A writer sat beside each judge, to record our comments, tally scores, and keep things moving.

Spectators filled the chairs, leaning forward in anticipation, straining to hear our words, watching our faces as we sampled from each plate. Some hoping, no doubt, to be judged the winner. With their eyes on me, I felt the weight of responsibility.

The task was more challenging than I imagined it would be. Judging is a subjective task, maybe more so when it comes to food. The score sheet with it’s weighted percentages for Taste, Texture, and the nebulous Other Considerations gave some structure to the process. But even with that, there were so many reasons to have different opinions.

  • Was the best peanut brittle the one that was most like the recipe I make and love dearly?
  • Was it one of those with unexpected ingredients, like dried Kalamata olives or cayenne pepper and mustard or the perennial State Fair favorite bacon?
  • Or one of those stretched so thin with forks you could almost see through the brittle?

Judging at the State Fair level is serious business.

Judging at the State Fair level is serious business.

As it turns out, 17 entries is a lot to judge in only one hour. One little taste of an entry, savor the flavor, consider the texture, note whether it stuck to my teeth, take into account how it was presented. Make comments. Assign scores. Eat a soda cracker. Drink water. On to the next entry.

After we evaluated each salty/sweet brittle individually, Kyle and I went behind the curtain to discuss and decide on the final winners. We emerged with three ribbon winners and an honorable mention. The crowd applauded the results. The blue ribbon winners cheered.

Judging peanut brittle taught me a lot. Being a judge is tough. You want to be fair, you want to reward the best, but best is relative. I can be more empathetic with the judges that kept me out of the State Fair all those years ago. I still don’t like it, but I empathize with their challenge. And I empathize with those who entered full of anticipation and didn’t win. Judging can be as bitter sweet as entering.

In case you’re wondering, we awarded the blue ribbon to a wonderful peanut brittle that included a hint of coconut and was served up in a little red bucket with tissue paper. I’ll be trying that secret ingredient myself come the holidays.