July 2012


If you have lived in or around Wisconsin, then you already know all about the awesome-ness of cheese curds. If you are from a more coastal state, then you possibly feeling a little disgusted and wondering why any food would include the word “curd.”

A cheese curd is basically the first substance you get when making cheddar cheese. After milk, culture, and a coagulate come together, the curds and whey separate (yes, we are all thinking about Little Miss Muffet right now). Whey is drained from the cheese vats, and the curds remain.  Typically, these curds are then pressed into molds to be aged and turned into the cheddar cheese blocks that we all know and love (mild cheddar ages the least amount of time, extra sharp cheddar can age for years). However, if you can snag these curds before they become cheddar cheese blocks then you have scored yourself a tasty treat.

Cheese curds are mild tasting, slightly rubbery in texture, and salty. They squeak when you bite into them, which causes them to also go by the moniker “squeaky cheese.” The thing about cheese curds is this: they HAVE to be fresh. I don’t mean they were made two days ago and flown to you from a Wisconsin farm. I mean REALLY fresh. If a cheese curd was created at six in the morning, you’re going to want to be eating that cheese curd for lunch. Or breakfast.

It’s not like they are poisonous after a day has passed, they just aren’t quite as good. Don’t get me wrong, if someone gives me a two-day-old cheese curd, I’ll eat it…but I wouldn’t spend any money on these over-aged cheese particles. The tell-tale sign of a cheese curd past its prime is that it no longer squeaks when you bite into it. You can cheat a little bit by bringing your curds to room temperature (10 seconds in the microwave usually does it) which brings back the squeakiness, but that trick usually only works for a day or two.

So herein lays the eternal problem for a west-coast gal who loves cheese curds: You have to buy cheese curds directly from source (i.e. a dairy farm). Once cheese curds have gotten to the supermarket, they are no longer fresh (even if they’ve been vacuum sealed). This is why cheese curds are primarily a Wisconsin treat. Tons of farms in Wisconsin make cheese curds every morning, so you are guaranteed to get the good stuff. But Wisconsin is far away.

There ARE places in and around Seattle where you can get cheese curds, but most of the curds have been flown in from Wisconsin days ago and are therefore not worthy. A few Pacific Northwest farms (Ballad Family Farm in Gooding, Idaho and several of the Tillamook farms along the Oregon coast) and Beecher’s Cheese shop at Pike Place Market do make cheese curds, but not on a daily basis – so you can’t count on them for freshness. When I was little there was a place in Mt. Vernon that made fresh curds every Sunday. My Wisconsin-bred father would take me and my brother there. We would take our ice cream cones up to the observation deck to watch the workers drain the whey out of the cheese vats and churn up the cheese curds. But that place closed years ago, so back to Wisconsin we must head.

This is one of the good things about living in Colorado – I’m three states closer to Wisconsin. Luckily I have several family members residing in Wisconsin, so I have non-cheesy reasons to visit too. I headed that way a couple weeks ago with my family, driving past endless rows of cornfields until we reached our destination. Shortly after hitting the Wisconsin state line, my parents and I were at Cady cheese, making our first cheese curd purchase of the week. I’d had a minor panic attack the previous day, worrying about whether or not I could eat cheese curds, because apparently un-pasteurized cheese and pregnancy don’t mix. But all ended well. Cheese curds are pasteurized. Thank goodness. I can handle the no-drinking part of these nine months, but the inability to eat raw cookie dough and soft cheese is a little tougher.

We stopped at Cady cheese a few days later on the way out of Wisconsin, buying several bags so my dad could take some back home to my brother – a task he failed to accomplish when packing his suitcase early the next morning. My poor brother therefore didn’t get his cheese curds until several days later when my mom returned home with them. And if you’ve been paying attention, you know this delay is completely unacceptable.

So if you’ve ever had a non-Wisconsin cheese curd and were left unimpressed, do yourself a favor and head up to America’s Dairyland. Get the real stuff. Somewhere between the squeaks you’ll be glad you did.

I love geography because of the Olympics. When I was little my parents hung a world map near our television. Each time an athlete was about to dive, race, wrestle, or perform a routine on the uneven bars, my brother and I would race to the map and locate his or her country. I remember being especially amused that there was a country called Hungary, and nearby was another one called Turkey. How crazy is that?!? We poured over the map during commercial breaks, memorizing capitals and tracing our fingers over rivers.

The fact that that this is an unusual obsession became abundantly clear to me when I started teaching geography to middle schoolers. You know how every so often surveys will come out, alerting the American public that 50% of adults can’t locate Canada on a map? I never believed those statistics until I started teaching. Believe me, they are true.

But getting back to the Olympics: In addition to improving my country identification skills, the Olympics have often been important to me. My best friend and I spent the winter of 1994 alternately glued to our TV’s and our ice skates during the Lillehammer Olympics, convinced that Tonya Harding was innocent and we would be able to pull off double axels by March.

My best Olympics experience was during the 2006 Olympics. I’d spent the previous months traveling through Europe and was student teaching in Norway that winter. I’d been so busy drinking at every bar in Trondheim that when February rolled around I didn’t even realize that the Olympics were about to commence. The weekend of the opening ceremony I’d signed up to go skiing with a group of fellow international college students in Sweden. After our snowy bus ride up to the mountains, we all cooked dinner together and turned on the TV to watch all the countries parade into the Olympic arena in Turin, Italy. There were about a dozen of us in that ski cabin, all from different countries. We each cheered as our respective athletes waved their nation’s flag and flashed genuine smiles for the cameras.

Although I no longer harbor any illusions of becoming an Olympic athlete (especially since I repeatedly tripped over my skies getting off the chair lifts that weekend in Sweden), I still am awed by the way we manage to come together in friendly competition and celebration every two years. It’s a continual reminder that although we are from separate countries, there are things that bind us together as one world.

Since the Clinton Lumberkings (that would be the Seattle Mariners single-A farm team) was out of town when my parents and I were passing through Iowa, we opted for the next best baseball option in the area: The Field of Dreams movie set.

In case you haven’t seen the 1989 flick, the movie stars Kevin Costner as an Iowa farmer. He hears a voice that cryptically tells him to build a baseball field in the middle of his field and take a cross country trip to find a reclusive author. Back in Iowa, players’ long-dead (particularly Shoeless Joe Jackson and other White Sox accused of throwing the 1919 World Series) emerged from the cornfield to once again partake in their favorite pastime. The movie is based on the book Shoeless Joe, but the movie is better. Although to be honest, I only got through ½ the book and I’ve seen the movie dozens of times.

The baseball field is still in the middle of an Iowa cornfield, and it is free (Yes! Free!) to visitors. The couple who owns the property is (according to their website) committed to keeping the site from getting over-commercialized, and they’ve done a good job. There is a small shack of souvenirs and an information board about the field and movie, but that’s pretty much it. Families are free to run around the bases (much smaller than a regulation ball field), walk through the surrounding cornfields, take in the sites from wooden bleachers, play catch in the outfield, and take batting practice from home plate. Don’t forget to bring your own baseball gear.

The Field is scheduled to be sold in late 2012, but apparently the new owners are also committed to keeping the site as is and accessible to visitors. We will see. Presently, Field of Dream hours are 9am – 6pm, and the field is open daily from April 1st to November 30th. The Field is located at 28995 Lansing Road in Dyersville Iowa, which is in the middle of nowhere. You can check their website for a map (and other information, including movie trivia) and directions, although my GPS got us there with no problems.

This post contains affilitate links to Amazon.com. Purchasing a book or movie via these links will earn me a bit of money, so thank you!

I didn’t think there would be much to blog about during my drive through Nebraska and Iowa. It’s not like I was going to come up with anything interesting after then ten hours of this:

But eventually the corn fields give way to Lincoln. Luckily for me and the 263 thousand people who live there, the capitol of Nebraska (and home of the University Nebraska Cornhuskers) is actually a cute town.

The place to be on Friday evening is the Historic Haymarket District. (Then, if you are into the bar scene, head seven blocks east.) These few blocks are between the North/South 7th and 9th streets and the East/West running O, P, Q, and R streets. This logically laid out grid makes it hard to get lost. At the northwest corner of Haymarket (7th and Q), a kid’s park and water fountain down by the old Amtrak station offers views of the huge new stadium being constructed nearby. There is also a parking lot here. We easily found parking at a metered lot here, and a local assured us that meter maids didn’t work past seven on weekends…although she also told us that tourists got a get-out-of-jail-free pass, so I probably shouldn’t quote her here as a reliable source.

From Iron Horse Park you can follow your nose to the old Creamery Building at 7th and P and stand in a line that suggests that this is THE place in town for ice cream. In reality, Ivanna Cone’s was a cute shop with average ice cream. (Unless you get the lemongrass basil flavor, which I would classify as far below average ice cream). Also in the creamery building is the Indigo Bridge bookstore featuring post “Occupy Lincoln” lectures and the TADA theatre, currently showing the hilariously (if inappropriate) Avenue Q puppet show.

It was suggested that we enjoy dinner at the New Orleans-y Buzzard Billy’s (8th and Q), but we opted for Lazlo’s Brewery & Grill (7th and P) instead, which was FABULOUS. I had the best salmon (pesto crusted!) that I’ve ever eaten. Isn’t that typical? I grew up in Seattle and my favorite salmon thus far has been in Lincoln, Nebraska. Lazlo’s also has Omaha steaks for people who believe in more geographically appropriate dining. My beer-loving father reports that the brew was good, with a mild-yet-acceptable IPA. Being seven months pregnant, I can also report that the water was delicious. Lots of tasty ice.

Before heading out of town on Saturday morning, we checked out the Farmer’s Market, also in the Historic Haymarket District. The market is open from eight to noon weekly from May through October. It features tons of people, slightly pricey vegetables, not as much corn as I’d expect in Cornhusker territory, and (as typical in the mid-west) barely any fruit.

There are several hotels downtown, (the Embassy Suites on 13th and the Holiday Inn Downtown on P are both in the Haymarket District) but if you want to save some money, choosing a hotel out by the airport is a good option. It’s a quick ten minute drive into town. We took the scenic route into town, past waterfront lakes, fishing ponds, and the Sea Dogs Minor League baseball stadium. These sights all convinced me that I would gladly spend an extra day or two in Lincoln, Nebraska.

After wandering around the Crazy Horse Memorial site I decided to pick up something I’d been long meaning to read: Stephen Ambrose’s “Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors.” I started reading it at the Black Hills Mile Hi Motel in Custer, South Dakota. Quite fitting, I believe. Then I wanted to bring the book along with me to the Buglin’ Bull, where I ate a delicious Buffalo burger, but I thought that would be a little too cheesy.

So I read most of the book back home in Denver, wherein I had an increasingly hard time picturing George Armstrong Custer in his namesake town where I spend subdued evenings spotting deer along the Mickelson Trail.  I don’t think the quiet small town matched the General’s flamboyant personality. Custer as the guy who racked up the most demerits at West Point (one hundred were allowed every six month period. Custer once hit ninety in the first three months), wore conspicuous attire even in the battlefield, and spent months in New York and Washington schmoozing with reports and politicians.

However there is no denying that Custer loved the area. He was constantly itching to get back west where he could hunt buffalo, march his men through blinding blizzards, and hunt Indians. Even when everyone else was miserable, Custer rarely found anything on the Great Plains to complain about. Custer once toured the area with Colonel Stanley, and his love of the area is downright comical when compared to Stanley’s notes:

“Stanley said it had rained four out of the past six days, sometimes in torrents, and that he was miserable. Custer said, ‘Our march has been perfectly delightful thus far.’”

“No artist, he [Custer] wrote, could fairly represent the wonderful county we passed over, while each step of our progress was like each successive shifting of the kaleidoscope, presenting to our wondering gaze views which almost appalled us by their sublimity.” Stanly told his wife that while the river itself was beautiful, “the country adjoining is repulsive in its rugged, barren ugliness.”

Hilarious.

Custer’s cockiness, optimism, and craving for attention caught up with him though. When he and his entourage (which typically included a menagerie of animals, a band, and a reporter) headed out to Little Bighorn he refused extra cavalry support, refused to rest his men and horses before the battle, and refused to properly scout the area. Crazy Horse and the largest collection of Sioux Indians that had “even collected on the northwest Plains,” trounced the cocky General. Custer and his 225 soldiers died that day.

I hate to say it was a good thing Custer died, but…well…yeah. Ambrose cautiously suggests that had Custer been victorious, he may have secured the Democratic Presidential nomination. And this pro-slavery Southern Democrat (who “had nothing new to say – he merely repeated whatever the current wisdom of the Democratic party might be. He filled his letters and his conversations with political slogans, which enlightened no one…”) would have been a terrible president. A town named after him is okay, but I’m glad school children have never been expected to revere him as a president.

A few miles north of Custer, SD is the Crazy Horse Memorial. Kind of. It’s actually the site of a museum that looks out at a huge rock face that barely appears to have Crazy Horse’s face carved out, despite the fact that construction has been going on since the late ‘40’s. The memorial is going to be HUGE, although I doubt I (or anyone reading this) will be alive to see it completed. The fact that it’s taken over half a decade to carve out but a face is kind of sad, but maybe symbolic of Crazy Horse. Unlike Custer, he was a much more modest leader, recognizable in battles for his lack of war paint and feathers.

 

*Purchasing “Crazy Horse and Custer via the affiliate link above will earn me a bit of cash, so thanks!

Baby clothes and running shoes do NOT go well together

Lately I’ve been feeling like I did during my freshman track season. It is not a good feeling. On the assurance that I would NOT actually have to run (“you can be a thrower!”), I joined the track team as an out-of-shape ninth grader with the hopes of scoring a cool track sweatshirt.

I did have to run. Three miserable laps around the track as a “warm up.” I couldn’t even make it once around with slowing to a walk. And I was a terrible thrower. I lived in daily fear of track practice. I couldn’t keep up with the slowest of the slow. It took me a good couple months before I could complete those three laps around the track. (Yes, I know. It’s not even a mile).

That summer something clicked, I could suddenly make it through three and then five mile runs. I joined the cross country team and have been a runner ever since. I’d taken pride in the fact that I could always, in an emergency, drop everything and run three or eight or thirteen miles if I had to.

I forgot what it’s like to desperately try to keep pace with someone. I forgot what it was like to attempt to keep your hard breathing under wraps so the person you are running with wouldn’t know how much you’re struggling. I forgot how embarrassing it is to have to stop and slow down…one mile into a run. I forgot how hard running can be.

When I got pregnant six months ago, I confidently assumed that I’d run all through my pregnancy. People do it all the time! Doctors say as long as you were already a runner, you were good to continue. I’d already planned on running a half marathon at five months pregnant and maybe even Grandma’s full marathon in Wisconsin the month after that.

That sooooo did not happen.

Running sucks when you are pregnant. I wasn’t even a month along when a friend and I went on a fast four mile run. I spend the next day curled up in bed with cramps, convinced that I had killed the baby. On the repeated assurance of my doctor and ten different pregnancy books I kept trying. I slogged through slow runs, wishing I could hold my boobs and belly while running (wouldn’t that have looked cool?) I managed a slow three miles a couple times a week, but I dreaded those runs like I used to dread track practice my freshman year. Last week I laced up my running shoes and headed out with the lofty goal of running two miles. I made it about five steps and decided that I was done running. I have officially given up.

I can still log miles on the elliptical. I can swim laps. I can lift weights at BodyPump, and I can walk, but those things just don’t have the same ring or allure. “Lifting Weights Through this World” is just not a cool title for a blog. So hopefully you lovely readers will forgive me for carrying on with a misleading title for the next three or four months. While you are all out running, I’ll be taking a nap.

I love conferences, workshops, and conventions. I love planning my conference days using the glossy color-coded schedules. I love all the free pens they give away at Expos. I love sitting in conference rooms listening to people who seem to have done way more with their lives than I have. I love how I can have my cell phone out because people just think you are tweeting about the panel discussion. Also, there is usually free food.

But my favorite part of conferences is always the drive home. You can’t help but to leave a conference feeling inspired about all the lesson plans you are going to create (after education conferences), chapters of that YA novel you are going to rewrite (after SCBWI writing conferences), and in my ex-husband’s case, all the Star Wars figures you are going display (after Comic-Con).

A couple weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend TIE, the Technology in Education Conference up in Copper Mountain, Colorado. They must have a lot more money in Denver than in Las Vegas, because my school paid for my conference fee AND housing. In Las Vegas I had to beg my principal to send me to the National Social Studies Conference with the understanding that I would pay for my own hotel and airfare.

Anyways, I discovered a lot of great resources at TIE. Whether you are a teacher, writer, or someone that needs to make a spiffy presentation, check out these resources:

Prezi: PowerPoint is on the way out. It’s all about Prezi nowadays. Prezis are not part of an “office” package that you’d buy, but a free tool online. You can pay for advanced features, but so far I’m happy with the free version. With PowerPoint, you put all of your text/links/pictures/video clips on slides and then present your information by clicking through said slides. With Prezi, you put all of your information onto one big blank slate. You give each chunk of information a number and then trace the “path” you’d like your presentation to take. When it’s time to present, Prezi zooms in on the first section of information (like the first slide on a PowerPoint), and continues to zoom through the entire presentation. Zooming is oh-so-cooler than clicking through PowerPoint slides. As a teacher, I’m all about cheap, attention-getting gimmicks and this is a good one.

Making a Prezi is easy and fairly intuitive. There are a couple of cute tutorials on their website you can watch before creating your own. A couple of nice features include the ability to quickly import your PowerPoint right into your Prezi, so you don’t need to re-type any information if you are updating your presentation. It’s also really easy to find picture and videos to embed. You know how with PowerPoint you had to go online, find an image, save it, and then import it? With Prezi you can search online and import images without even leaving your Prezi. Same with videos. Just click on the YouTube icon, search for you topic, and embed. Easy, easy, easy. I also like that all your Prezis are stored online. No need to carry flash drives between home and work. And if (when) your computer crashes, know your Prezis are safe and sound online.

Check out this “Ted Talk.”  Ken Robinson’s Prezi (which is a high quality that I am nowhere near mastering) in an interesting and humorous look at changing education paradigms. (Really, I swear it’s interesting, despite the word “paradigms”). For a less high tech and entertaining Prezi, click here for my first one, on the oh-so-exciting topic of the rules and procedures in my classroom.

Edmodo: This is like Facebook for school. Many teachers have been itching to use Facebook as a way to communicate with students, (if all our students are engaged and in one place online, lets capitalize on that and remind them they have homework due!) but haven’t due to all the personal complications that this can cause. Even teachers with special “classroom only” Facebook pages do so cautiously, hoping that something will not go awry, landing them on the evening news about social media misuse in the classroom.

Edmodo is safe. There is no way for students to communicate directly with each other, because all Edmodo comments are out there for everyone to see. So if Jose and Demarius want to discuss how one of them should dump with Courtnee because she refuses to “give it up,” they will have to take that conversation to a non-school sanctioned forum. Which I’m sure they’ll do. But at least it won’t be linked back to your classroom.

Besides lack-of-student privacy, Edmodo has several other great classroom features. Because the site is set up similar to Facebook, it is familiar and easy for the students to use. The teacher can post polls, surveys, or questions (requiring a response for a grade, if desired) on the main news feed for students to answer. I already have my first few homework assignments for September loaded onto my classroom pages and students will have the option to turn those papers in online or in person. There are calendars and reminders to help keep you and your students organized, and special features for parents so they can stay in the loop.

But there is some fun stuff too. Like Facebook, Edmodo encourages people to communicate with each other. I see Edmodo as a good tool for me to make sure I give every student some personal attention. Between classroom management issues and giving personal attention to the kids that need it the most, some kids (especially quiet, “middle of the road” kids) can get lost in the classroom. Hopefully Edmodo will be a way for me to give some of those students more of my attention. One teachers at the TIE conference made up hundreds of “badges” that’d she would award to students on Edmodo, many of them funny (the Brittney Spears “oops, I did it again” badge for students who correct teacher mistakes) and indicative of inside jokes and classroom culture (the “you like chicken” badge for the kid who talks about KFC everyday). I also hope Edmodo will be a good way for me to stay connected with my high schoolers during my (way to short) maternity leave this winter.

Storybird: This is a great website for elementary and middle school language arts teachers. On Storybird, students choose a set of pictures and create a story based on them. This may seem pretty simple, and it is, but I’m mentioning it here because the pictures are GORGEOUS – real picture book quality (we are sooo not talking about clip art here!). Pictures are searchable based on theme. Each artist has several different pictures on a common theme, allowing students to select a “set” or pictures to use in their book. This website is ridiculously easy to use, so kids are focusing on choosing art and making stories instead of the technical aspects of writing online. Books can also be emailed to parents, which is very cool. If you are an artist, check out this site to build your brand and make some money.

A few more websites to check out: