tumblin' tumbleweeds.

We were at a stoplight on our way to the zoo, and the eighteen-wheeler in the lane next to mine was over the line that should have been running between us. Driving next to trucks in a compact car always makes me a little nervous anyway, but I hate it when they start to infringe on what the department of transportation mandates is my turf. But what could I do? I could ram the guy for all I'm worth, and perhaps on his next stop he might have noticed a little red paint on his bumper.

The light changed, the truck pulled ahead. Lying on the road underneath the truck and explaining its position was a tumbleweed. Apparently, trucks give birth to tumbleweeds. There's so much about this Midwestern life that I know nothing about.

Josh was excited, because he had never seen a tumbleweed in real life before. I wasn't that excited, because though I couldn't remember specifically when, I did have the vague notion that I've seen one at some point previous.

"We should go get it," he exclaimed.

"And do what with it?" I asked, quite logically.

"Take it home!" he replied.

"Home?" I responded, afraid of where he was going with this.

"To North Carolina!"

I'd like to pause at this point in the story and point out that I consider myself to be a much mellower person than my mother. She is, bless her heart, a bit uptight and excitable. While this trait makes her very detail-oriented and a good person to plan for something, when things go a bit awry, she freaks out. I have a trace of this in me, but either I hide it better or the trait is one of those that becomes more pronounced with age.

However, when Josh started talking about transporting this two foot tall tumbleweed back to North Carolina, I freaked out. I was already picturing driving around with the tumbleweed behind us, explaining its presence to my parents, carrying it through the airport, taking it through security.

"Ma'am, what's this in your bag?"

"It's a tumbleweed, sir."

"Why do you have a tumbleweed, ma'am?"

"It's my boyfriend's. He's going to keep it in his room at the mental asylum. They took away his pet boulder."

Despite every bone in my body, even the tiny ones in my ear, vehemently protesting the idea, I agreed to turn around and get the tumbleweed. I didn't want to be a killjoy, a party pooper, a Salsola spoilsport. Secretly, I was hoping that Josh would come to his senses. Sometimes in love, you have to gamble a bit.

We continued on to the zoo, our new pet in the backseat, already shedding. By the time we got there, the back of the car was covered with the beginnings of little tumbleweeds. I suppose that's part of the design. The tumbleweed is like a sailor sowing his oats at every port, its transient nature is the key to its continuation as a species. And either the sight of the mess already made or the sight of my frown was enough to bring Josh back from the brink of insanity change Josh's mind.

He was contented to allow me to take pictures of him standing proudly next to the tumbleweed before releasing it in the wild, sort of, but not at all like the end of White Fang. I would post the pictures for you to see, but I'm afraid that you, seeing my handsome boyfriend, would try to lure him away from me.

"Hey, sugar, I'd let you have a pet tumbleweed..."


local color.

There are several steps to true thrift store patronage.

1. Entering a thrift store, perhaps accidentally.
2. Buying something used as a joke or costume.
3. Buying something that you would actually use/wear on a regular basis that you happened to notice while looking for a joke or costume.
4. Entering a thrift store while not searching for a joke or costume.
5. Buying multiple items on multiple trips to the thrift store because you're financially disadvantaged.
6. Buying multiple items on multiple trips to the thrift store because money's a bit tight.
7. Buying multiple items on multiple trips to the thrift store when you have no financial restrictions other than personal thriftiness.
8. Entering a thrift store with the intent of looking for a specific item (e.g . jeans) when you have no financial restrictions other than personal thriftiness.
9. Buying a gift for someone else at a thrift store when you have no financial restrictions other than personal thriftiness.
10. Entering a thrift store while on vacation in a town other than your own.

I know these steps, for I have taken them all. You may be horrified. If so, we probably don't hang out much. There may be more steps yet; I'll let you know when I find them. I see the ten steps as an evolution of thought. You start out with the idea the new is better, then work up to the idea that used is just as good, but cheaper, til finally you start thinking that something is better because it has been used.

While I could probably write long, passionate entries about each of those steps, I'm still in Kansas mode, and so it's the last on which I'll concentrate: Thrift stores are the best places to get souvenirs.

I'm a big fan of used items anyway. I like things which are unusual, I like things which have a history, and I like things cheap. It's a win-cubed situation. Each trip to a thrift store is a treasure hunt through the trash of other men. And so to pass up the opportunity of visiting the trash piles of people in a completely different part of the country is more than I can bear.

But there is something more genuine about thrift store souvenirs. This souvenir shot glass is a remembrance of my visit to Kansas, but this used flannel work jacket and this university football practice jersey are relics of daily life in Kansas. We are remembering the place itself instead of just our limited experience as outsiders. Yeah, there's a space museum there, but so are there hundreds of people who pass by it daily on the way to work.

Perhaps you need the nine steps before to appreciate the ideas behind the tenth. I would not be in the least surprised that most people don't give a crap about the daily life in their vacation destinations, and that's fine. You can still have a great time in Kansas eating at Applebees (*shudder*) and buying t-shirts at the airport. I guess I just want to soak up every bit of new experience possible, the stuff that I cannot get at home. I want local color, not Anytown gray.

If you don't get it, you don't get it. You take your vacations your way, and I'll take mine. Just don't expect any used presents from me, bucko.


salt of the earth.

We can be happy underground.
-Ben Folds Five

People are naturally curious about Kansas. The most common question is "What are you going to do there?" However, they don't mean it the same way they do when they're asking about your upcoming trip to the Bahamas. They really mean, "What is there to do there?"

There is stuff to do in Kansas. I know, for I have done them.

In the town of Hutchinson, known as "Hutch" to natives and visiting North Carolinians, there exist two sites that may interest any wayfaring wanderers. In fact, both of them have been nominated to be one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas. I have no idea why Kansas in particular gets a whole extra wonder than the rest of the world, particularly since none of the Wonders of the World are in the Sunflower State. One of these Hutch-based, wonder-worthy sites is a space museum, and the other is a salt mine 650 feet below the town, leaving one to believe that Hutchinson isn't that exciting at ground level. The town is also the home of the largest and longest grain elevator in the world. I viewed the grain elevator in question, and was heard to remark, "Man, that's a big grain elevator. Uh, honey, I think we're lost." I guess I was less than amazed.

Hutch is the Salt City, though it used to be called Temperance City. Perhaps the name change came when the townspeople started drinking a lot of margaritas. More likely, it came when the salt mine was discovered and ten or so salt companies suddenly popped up.

I've always thought that your guide could make or break a tour experience. A good tour guide is interesting, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about the subject matter. A good tour guide is willing and able to answer follow-up questions. A good tour guide makes you want to spend lots of money at the requisite gift shop.

In case it is not obvious yet, I would like to state plainly that we did not have a good tour guide. He was not interesting, knowledgeable, or enthusiastic. He was unable to answer follow-up questions. Not only did we not want to spend lots of money at the gift shop, we wanted our $13.50 tour fees back. Our experience was so bad that we purposefully voted against the Underground Salt Musuem in the 8 Wonders of Kansas contest. We filled our ballots with checkboxes next to sites we'd never been to, just to make it clear that the salt mine should not get a vote.

The Underground Salt Mine and Museum tour started out well enough. We were given hard hats, a safety lecture, and a personal rescue device meant to allow us to breathe for up to ninety minutes in case of a gas leak. We were advised not to lick the walls. As far as tours go, that's pretty hard-core. We boarded a two-level elevator and descended down, down, down towards the general direction of China in the pitch black. Someone asked how long it took to get up and down, to which our guide replied, "About a minute. It's the same going up or down."

"Only if you take the elevator," I said.

Once we reached the bottom, we found ourselves in a long room, hundreds of feet long. The ceilings were high and patterned, as if cut by machine. The walls were striated various shades of gray, and never before have I felt such an urge to lick a wall before. The floors were smooth, the air was cool. We boarded a small tram and waited. I was excited at the time, because the idea was so neat. A museum! UNDERGROUND!

Had the ballot for the 8 Wonders of Kansas included a category for "Site with Most Wasted Potential," I would've given it to the salt mine. It's such a great idea and very different from any museum I've ever been to. Where else do you get a personal breathing apparatus? What other place recommends that you do not lick the walls?

So sitting in my tram, taking goofy pictures of Josh and me with our silly hard hats, I had no idea that the best part of the tour was already over.

I'm about to say unkind things about our tour guide, who I'll call Steve. If he gave us his name, I didn't catch it, which is bad form, I think. How can I be your friend on this, our underground journey, if I don't know your name? However, since I am southern and therefore don't wish to seem like a mean person, I'll be sure to throw in a "bless his heart."

Steve, bless his heart, had a speech impediment.

I feel for those who stutter, I really do. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to be unable to express yourself fast enough that people will listen to you. How irritating it must be for others to constantly finish your sentences for you! Even if a stutterer is never cured, I do hope that one can find people who are patient and understanding as well as a career where one can thrive and be happy.

Don't be tour guides. Other careers to mark off your list: disc jockey, telephone operator, TV weatherman, auctioneer, President of the United States.

I think that I could have been okay with St-St-Steve as a tour guide had it been worth it to listen to what he was trying to say. I could probably be patient if I was rewarded at the end of it. But Steve did not reward listeners. He talked, badly, and said nothing.

"Up here, on your right, up here, you'll see, a, uh, well, it's what's called, a, uh, a wall, uh, the miners call it a...gob wall, and it's called a...we call it a, uh, a gob wall, because you see, it's called a gob wall, and the miners, they, uh, well, they just gob things together to make...it, the gob wall, they gob together stuff to make the, uh, gob...wall. In the, uh, mine. They do this, they make this gob wall, what is called...the gob wall, to close off part of the mine, with the gob wall, and that's done to control air...to control air flow. So to control the air flow in the mine, they, the miners in the mine, build this, what's called a gob wall, to control the air flow."


A tour guide should answer your questions, not create more. Going down, down, down in that elevator, I had one question. Just how do they mine salt anyway? After that one speech in front of the gob wall, I had a bunch more. How do they decide where to build the wall? By control the air flow, does that mean control where the air goes or what kind of air comes in? How do they know if bad air is there? Does bad air mean poisonous air or just too much or what? Where does the air come from? Is the bad air caused by the sighs of frustration from tourists? Also, just how do they mine salt anyway?

Every stop was like this: a mangled speech about something that we were looking at that left me more confused than before. It was painful. I wondered if my personal rescue device would give me access to some sort of air that would put me in a better mood, like pure oxygen or laughing gas. It seemed like Steve had simply glanced over some information before starting - perhaps he did it in the elevator on the ride down. Later, Josh and I toyed with the idea of doing the research ourselves and sending them a script with strict instructions to use it exactly.

At one point, we were allowed to vacate the tram and dig through a big pile of rock salt. We were given tiny canvas bags and told to fill them with as much free salt as we wanted to commemorate our visit to the Kansas Underground Salt Mine. I wondered if this was how the miners did it. I could've asked Steve, but he might have tried to answer me.

By the time the guided part of the tour was over, we were left to wander through some exhibits. One of them was the display created by the marketing minds at Underground Vaults and Storage. A long time ago, someone came up with the brilliant idea of charging people to store things in the salt mine for them, where their valuables would be safe from weather, natural disasters, theft, and slugs. A lot of movie studios and some governments make use of the underground storage; in fact, the master copies of The Wizard of Oz are there.

The display was basically a timeline of twentieth century events that could have caused damage to items stored in traditional methods. However, it all seemed pretty irrelevant. That is quite impressive that the storage units were unaffected by either the 9/11 attacks or Hurricane Katrina, but I bet that had more to do with the fact that they were hundreds of miles away. Now that I think about it, nothing in my apartment was harmed in those events, either. Perhaps I should get into the storage business. I understand that the point is that the units are immune to the general idea of terrorist attacks, but couldn't they just say that? It irritated me that the whole thing was a sales pitch, when it could have just been fun trivia. I'm just Jane Kansas-Tourist. I don't have anything worth saving underground.

And then finally, it was the underground gift shop, where they had t-shirts and hats that said things like "Salt of the Earth" and "Where the sun REALLY don't shine." I am related to people who would enjoy this kind of humor, but they didn't have my dad's size. Okay, fine, I thought they were kinda funny, too. Back up, up, up the elevator, where Steve encouraged us all to vote for the Underground Salt Museum to be one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas. It was dark, so I felt free to roll my eyes.

It's not that I'm saying you should never visit the Underground Salt Mine and Museum. I would just, you know, wait a few years. Give them a chance to do a little research, train some tour guides, get speech therapy for Steve. They've got a fantastic space down there, if only they'd figure out how to show it. Go now, and you're just setting yourself up for disappointment. Someday, I hope to have a wonderful time 650 feet below the town of Hutchinson, Kansas. Sadly, that experience has not been (groan) mine.


my kansas roots.

To: Developers_Group; Support_Group
From: Sandra
Subject: Vacation

I will be on vacation from Wednesday, October 10 - Friday, October 12. I will be in Kansas.

Go ahead and start with the Dorothy jokes.


For the most part, it's a good thing to work in an office where everyone can joke around. But if you're announcing your upcoming vacation in what is widely considered the most boring state in the country, you can expect all your quips and asides to come back at you.

I'm going to Kansas, maybe for the last time. Even if I do someday enter within the borders of the Sunflower State again, it won't be the same thing as "going to Kansas." See, our annual family vacations consisted of piling the whole bunch into as many vehicles required and then driving from North Carolina to Kansas. While there, we would spend several days enjoying the local, uh, attractions and visiting my maternal grandparents. Then we'd drive back. Each leg of the trip was two full days of driving, rising earlier than the sun did and arriving at our destination sometime after it had disappeared over the horizon.

People have always found our annual pilgrimages fascinating. In fact, they find the fact that I have a Kansas connection fascinating. Suddenly, I become the closest thing they've ever known of a person who came from Kansas. "I'm not from Kansas," I tell them, "My mother is from Kansas." They shrug and ask if it's really as flat as they've heard. Josh is particularly amused by it. His last two ex-girlfriends had Nicaraguan and Chinese heritage. Yeah, well, his current girlfriend is half-Kansan.

I don't know how Kansan I actually am. There is a lot of my mother in me, but how much of it is from her home state and how much of it is just her? I do claim my midwestern heritage, but I'm not sure why. I feel certain that it's a part of me, but I'm not sure which part: my skin tone, my sense of humor, my love of corn? Is it really only from all those week-long visits as a kid?

It seems now that my Kansan roots are being uprooted. My grandmother, eighty-seven years old in the shade, is moving from her gigantic farmhouse, which is mere miles from where she was born, to a tiny town in the mountains of western North Carolina. My parents are going to fetch her and bring her to her new home, vastly different from her old in that it has trees and hills and, you know, neighbors. Not a lot, and you can't see them because of the aforementioned trees, but neighbors nonetheless. She's selling the farmhouse and the barn and a chunk of the land. So even if I happen to find myself driving down a long and straight road with neverending fields on either side of me, I can't go back to the farm. I suppose I'll just be like all the other Kansas tourists. I can only assume they're from Oklahoma or Nebraska or somewhere really boring.

And, because it's my last chance, I'm taking Josh. It seems like a big deal to me, like bringing him to Thanksgiving at my parents', but times a hundred. I've watched all my siblings bring spouses through the initiation ritual of a Kansas trip. It's bonding by shared experience. I'm sorry that you don't like taking baths, but this dusty farmhouse with no showers is a part of my childhood. That decrepit barn is important to me, so take my picture in front of it before it falls down. To us kids, it's a shared family memory. Even though everyone didn't get to go every year, we all have the same idea of what going to Kansas smells and sounds and tastes like. It's a bit hard to explain to our peers, who went to the beach during their summer vacations. How can you know what it's like to be in this family if you've never been to Kansas?



"Would you like to try the mealworm marinara?"

The thing about eating food with bugs in it is that it's all in your head. I have a history of unpleasant bug eating, starting with chowing down on a locust after receiving some bad advice from an older brother, on to eating a cricket in a sucker as a matter of pride. But I found myself in line at Cafe Insecta only for personal pride. No one knew me there, so I wasn't going to lose face by not getting my recommended daily allowance of grasshoppers. I'm not sure why I was in line, really, except that I knew that I was dreading it, and somehow that was reason enough that I should grab a plate and say, "Please, sir, may I have some more?"

Bugfest is put on every year in downtown Raleigh by the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. I like festivals, and I guess bugs are pretty cool, so I wanted to go.

The outdoor activities were mostly hands-on things for kids. They varied by the sponsors. So the North Carolina Beekeepers association had a bunch of hives on view behind glass, and some local dance studio led a bunch of little girls dressed as butterflies in basic frolicking around a giant flower. There was also a sort of bug Olympics, where little kids pretended to be dung beetles and pushed giant balls around with their stomachs. The balls were brown, of course. There was a flea circus, and I found out once and for all that flea circus is a pretty literal term. It was a circus in a suitcase. I guess there were fleas involved, though it was hard to tell from my vantage point of ten feet away. Maybe the entertainment is really in having a lively ringleader.

Inside the museum was four floors devoted to educating minds about all kinds of bugs. There were live bugs for holding and live bugs only for looking. There were dead bugs held in place by stickpins. There were a billion little kids, and not only little boys. Perhaps some little girls have some snakes and snails mixed in with the sugar and spice. I wished I had a little kid to drag around, because my excitement over the creepy crawlies was really not enough to sustain my interest at any one booth for very long. It was truly a lost opportunity to be a cool Aunt Sandra. I did spend a little money, because I'm really good at that. One booth was selling beautiful rainforest butterflies in frames, the proceeds of which were to benefit the beautiful rainforests. I didn't buy a bug coffin suitable for framing, but I did buy a necklace charm which contained a butterfly wing. Of course it's gorgeous, especially if you don't know what it is. Whether it's cool or just creepy, I feel no need to decide.

But then after I'd looked at all the exhibits and admired all the many six-legged creatures, I found myself facing my fears at Cafe Insecta. The buffet was a free service provided by museum dollars, an opportunity to gross out all the little kids. It started innocently enough, with a smashing shrimp dip, but then it quickly went downhill with ant hummus. There was grasshopper stirfry, lasagna with mealworms, and some spicy crawfish with vegetables, the last which I would have gladly eaten anyway. There was a lovely worm and watercress salad, some hush "grubbies," and some friend crunchy thing with six-legged crunchy things inside. It was all undeniably gross, and I will allow the teenage girl inside of me to confess that the Ew factor was very high. But I did it. I didn't go back for seconds, and I had to talk to myself a little bit ("it's all in your head, you can't even taste it, it's all in your he- ew, a worm!"). So now I've done it, and I feel no need to do it again. Sure, I'll wear dead insects on a string around my neck, but I'm definitely above eating them.


return to sender.

I occasionally get misdirected emails. There are people out there who think that they have my email address. Perhaps they wish to be more like me. Or maybe they're just forgetful. It's a bit annoying, having people who forget that they're not you, because you get spammed that way. So I get emails from companies directed to Sandra SomeOtherLastName. But I also get some real correspondence, too. I always read them, because I have no moral qualms about reading email that was sent to me, whether the other person knew they were sending it to me or not. Sometimes I delete it, and sometimes I respond, telling the other person that they've got the wrong address, please stop sending me e-cards of butterflies and flowers. I periodically get reminders to get pick up my cat's medications in Houston, and I once had a really hard time convincing a Colorado technical college that I had not missed my meeting with my academic advisor.

The problem was actually worse with my previous email address. I would get daily emails meant for other people. I got several letters from a guy in prison who thought he was writing to his mom. He told me a lot of fascinating details about some sort of Little Debbie scandal. Apparently, he'd been framed by some execs, thus his stint in the big house. I really wish that I had saved those.

I got a new email this morning, one from a teacher at the Anglo-American School of Moscow.

Good Evening!

As you may know, we have had a substitute teacher assistant all week. Today our substitute teacher assistant needed to go home ill and another substitute assistant arrived to assist our class. Brian* had great difficulty with this change and was not listening to the substitute's instructions and was acting very silly during the break and at lunch. I know that change is a difficult thing to deal with, but Brian needs to listen to all adults that speak to him and also needs to stay in control when these changes occur. The substitute assistant spoke to him and so did I. Could you also speak to him about listening to adults and showing respect for all?

I felt such a plea needed a response. What if Brian's problems continued, and he became President of the Russian Federation and restarted the Cold War...all because of me! I had to reply.

As much as I would love to give little Brian a talking-to, I think you have the wrong email address. I don't have any children. If I did, I would be sure to teach them to show respect to all adults.

I hope you're able to track down Brian's parents and that his behavior problems desist.

Ladies and gentleman, I have saved us all from certain Strangelovian doom. Thank me later.

*By the way, the kid's name was not Brian. Trust me, you'll never guess it.


my aim is true.

I'm not really an Elvis fan, but I did see him last week.

When a free concert ticket comes my way, I generally take it. And so it was in this way that I ended up stuck in the line of SUVs on the way to the Elvis Costello concert. This was Josh's dad's birthday present, to take his two sons to see Elvis with the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra. His oldest son's girlfriend got to come, too.

Like I said, I'm not really a fan of Elvis Costello. His music is something I'll probably be really into at some point later. When I listen to it, I enjoy it, but I don't really come back. Then someday, something will click in my head and suddenly, I'll know every word to My Aim is True. I tell you this from experiencing the same phenomena many times with other acts. (See The Violent Femmes, Ween, Modest Mouse).

I don't say much on the drive over. I like Josh's dad, but I grew up in an environment that didn't stress either music or literature, his true loves. Besides, I like watching the three guys interact with each other, because they're all so much alike. Later, I will ask them to postpone the discussion of who is the greatest living guitarist until after the concert. I sometimes wonder how much the father lives through the sons. He's got their band's CD playing in the car, and they talk about the possibility of covering a song from his old band. I am at most every show, but he's probably the biggest fan. For now, they're talking about cartoons, another of their shared interests. Josh's dad says he isn't able to stay awake to see the late night ones, but he can usually catch the 10 PM reruns of Futurama.

One thing I can participate in is the running joke of making fun of Cary, the high-class suburb of Raleigh where the concert is being held. I have to admit that the venue is beautiful, all cobblestone and pine trees, but I know I'm paying for it with these $6 beers. Yeah, that is the fancy beer price, but when the Budweiser is $5, you might as well pay the extra buck and drink something good. Our seats are general admission lawn seats, and so we stand at the back.

Costello comes out in a tuxedo and says lots of charming British things. Or rather, they were normal hello-how-are-you things, but they sounded charming with a British accent. He introduces the "band" - the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra. That's a long way from The Attractions. "Give it up for my main man on the cello!" (insert long, rockin' cello solo here)

The first few songs are purely instrumental, written by Costello (I think). He started out in 1977 as a rock star, but like most of the audience, he's mellowed in the last thirty years. He then starts moving into the old favorites, saying "If I don't play 'Allison' tonight, there might be a riot later." He plays the guitar, but there are no face-melting solos. He's playing rock and roll songs, but is he playing rock and roll?

The men are torn. I can see it in the way they bob their heads to the drums and guitar sounds that aren't playing right now, but are in the albums in their heads. They play a little subtle air guitar and make the noises that the symphony won't. They're happy to be here, but sad that this is the way it is.

We slip out during the encore, after Costello has fulfilled his promise of playing "Allison." Josh's dad talks about how good it is that Costello has not sold out, how if he just played the old favorites as he wrote them, he could sell out huge auditoriums. Instead, he's doing what he wants, experimenting with new music for less money. Me, I think Costello probably makes more than he can complain about, but if he does that doing what he wants, more power to him.

Later, when we are at home, Josh plays My Aim is True for me from a vinyl disc older than either of us. He's grateful to me for listening to it with him, despite having spent the evening listening to the same songs. But to him, they were not the same songs.

Some rock stars never get old, but the ones who survive age along with the rest of us. We're still young enough to think that there's nothing worse than getting old and slowing down. But Josh's dad understands, because he was twentysomething in a rock band back in the 70s, too. Now he can't stay awake to see the late night cartoons. It's not good or bad; it's just the way it is.