Sweet Dreams are Made of Cheese

A Portland friend messaged me this morning. How nice is it to live in a state with no known cases of coronavirus? I bet you can still find toilet paper in the stores there. The crazy thing is, she wasn’t exaggerating. Costco and other stores are reporting their shelves have been wiped clean in the U.S., Canada, and overseas. If you’re looking for toilet paper in many parts of the world, you’re shit out of luck. Even single-ply rolls are being hoarded, the clearest case yet that the world is on the brink of mass panic and desperation.

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I’m having trouble understanding the logic here. There are certain items that make sense stocking up on, whether you’re worried about COVID-19 or the zombie apocalypse or, scariest of all, another four years of Trump. Like wine. While everybody else is making a beeline for the TP, I will happily choose chardonnay over Charmin. (Actually, I pine for Pinot Noir and savor Sauvignon Blanc, but I was aiming for alliteration.) If I were to end up quarantined, I’d make damn sure at least some of my hours were happy.

Look, toilet paper is important; I’m not suggesting otherwise. But if we’re being honest, isn’t it really just a luxury? There are plenty of alternatives in a pinch. If the shit really hits the fan, you’re going to need canned goods and bottled water. Medicine and first-aid supplies. Candles and batteries. Not Angel Soft or Quilted Northern.

People sure are funny when the end is nigh.  


Tara recently made herself an omelette for breakfast and I couldn’t help but notice a gloriously crispy cheese skirt on her plate. “Is that a grizzly bear in the backyard?!” I asked in an attempt to distract her so I could grab it for myself, but my wife is onto my tricks and rarely falls for them anymore. In retrospect, I probably should have kept it simple and claimed to spot a deer or squirrel instead of a bear. At least those creatures have actually appeared in our yard and might have warranted a glance on her part.

If you’re unfamiliar with the culinary delicacy that is a cheese skirt, it’s the crispy, golden-brown cheese that you find on the edge of a pan when you’re making lasagna or enchiladas or baked macaroni ‘n cheese, i.e., the very best part. I don’t have any actual statistics to back this up, but I’m pretty sure the top three reasons people go to war are for economic or territorial gain; nationalism; and an unwillingness to cede the cheese skirt to other diners.

Thinking about this after Tara swatted my hand away from her plate, I had a revelation. “We should open a restaurant that specializes in cheese skirts!” I said excitedly. After all, there was a Seinfeld episode about a business called Top of the Muffin to You! that sold only the top part of the muffin, i.e., the very best part. Genius idea, Elaine! Imagine going out to eat and finding cheese skirts on the menu.

There’s already a restaurant in California that specializes in cheese skirt burgers. If people are already flocking there for the cheese skirt, let’s just eliminate the superfluous items like the burger patty and bun. I picture appetizers made with different cheeses like cheddar, gouda, and pepper jack. Just a big ol’ plate of cheese skirts! (Maybe I’d offer a marinara dipping sauce. Maybe.) And we’d serve cheese-based entrees like the aforementioned lasagna, complete with their own impressive cheese skirts. Maybe we’ll reinvent some classics, like the Philly cheese skirt steak. How about a decadent slice of New York cheese skirt cake for dessert? Or maybe we do it on a smaller scale. Buy a food truck and serve piping hot bags of cheese skirts. Chips are ubiquitous, french fries are obvious, and popcorn is boring. But cheese skirts…now, there’s a unique (and delicious) idea! Am I right or am I right?

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Living in the heartland, I can tell you that cheese curds are wildly popular here. I see no reason why cheese skirts can’t be just as big.

Whaddaya say? Anybody care to invest in my get-rich-quick scheme, or should I aim for Shark Tank instead?

(I’m only signing a deal with Lori Greiner, though.)

Variety is the Spice of Life

We made a Target run this morning, but managed to stay within budget for a change, only spending $150 when our shopping list totaled about $60. If you’re questioning how spending 2.5 times what we’d planned constitutes fiscal responsibility, then clearly you have never shopped at Target. Last time, we dropped $295 after planning on spending $75, so clearly, this is progress.

But I digress.

In the name of efficiency, we often split up in Target. Not in the “I’ve had enough of you, you stupid jackass!” sense; what I mean is, we go down different aisles to grab what we need. Tara is usually stockpiling cleaning supplies and toilet paper, while I’m hovering near the wine section. What can I say? We have different priorities. (We’re still not splitting-up-splitting-up, though.) In any case, after I’d grabbed a bottle of sauvignon blanc, I went to track her down. Found her in the pet food aisle, and to my delight, she was choosing cans of cat food very carefully, alternating flavors to ensure that Sydney had a wide variety.

That is true progress, because once upon a time, she scoffed at me for doing the same. One day soon after we began cohabitating, we were shopping for groceries and I freaked out because Tara was grabbing cans of cat food from the shelf and throwing them in the cart willy-nilly.

“What are you doing?!” I shrieked inquired.

“Buying cat food?” she said, turning a declaration into a question the way people do when they think the answer should be plainly obvious to the person with whom they are conversing. And then, adding insult to injury, she did it again: “It’s on the list?”

“Right,” I said, and began digging through the cans in the cart. “But look at this! You’ve got chicken, chicken in gravy, chicken pate, and…good lord, babe…another chicken in gravy!”

She stared at me blankly for several long seconds, oblivious to the point I was trying to make. “Yes, and…?”

Clearly, Tara had never gone shopping for cat food with me before. Not only do I mix up the flavors so no two cans are identical; when I stack them in the pantry I alternate between different proteins. Beef/chicken/fish. She’ll never be stuck in a rut with me around, that’s for sure.

“Sydney needs variety! It’s the spice of life, you know!”

At that point she laughed out loud. Said cats will eat whatever is in their dish and would happily scarf down chicken in gravy for a month straight without complaint. I, however, refused to accept this faulty logic. “Maybe so,” I conceded. “But she’ll grow sick and tired of it. She cares! I know she does!”

My soon-to-be wife simply rolled her eyes and humored me as I replaced all those cans of chicken with tuna and lamb and turkey.

Eight years later, here she is, doing the same thing she ridiculed me for when we first got together. And yes, she even stacks them in the cupboard the same way I do.

I’m glad she has finally seen the light.

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You’d get bored with the same old chicken in gravy every day, too!

Saturday was warm. Record-breaking, even. Our high was 74º, which is about 30 degrees above average. With bright sunshine and a rare early taste of spring, Tara suggested we take advantage of the weather and go hiking. And with memories of last weekend’s Badlands trip still fresh, we decided to head out late in the afternoon so we would reach the summit of Buzzard’s Roost right around sunset.

This was an excellent idea…in theory. But once we arrived at the trailhead, we realized we might have been a little overzealous and jumped the gun a bit. The parking lot was a quagmire of mud, snow, and ice, and the trail wasn’t much better.

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Fortunately, we had hiking poles. Unfortunately, that level trail got a lot steeper. Fearing for her safety, Tara decided to turn back, but encouraged me to go on ahead. Honestly, I was fearing for my own safety a little bit too, but the summit was tantalizingly close and we’d come all that way, so I continued my ascent very carefully. There were enough bare patches along the edge of the trail to provide me with semi-solid footing, and a few minutes later, I reached the top. The trail leveled off then, and it was fully exposed to the sun, so it was more muddy than anything else.

I was well rewarded for my efforts.

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It’s amazing how the Black Hills give way to the endless flat prairie to the east.
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View from the summit.
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Another Saturday, another sunset.

I didn’t stay long, knowing that I had to get back down the trail and darkness comes quickly in the canyon. I ended up taking a different path down, which was a little bit longer but not as steep, and didn’t have as much snow and ice to contend with.

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The nearly-full moon cresting the treetops stopped me in my tracks. (Literally. If I’d kept walking, the shot would have been blurry, duh.)

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I met up with Tara at our pre-appointed rendezvous spot and we made it back to the truck without incident. And okay, fine, lesson learned: even though practically every bit of snow has melted in town, leaving our yard clear and barren for the first time in months, it’s a different story up in the Hills…especially on north-facing slopes. As eager as we were to hit the trail, it’s really best to hold off on hiking around here until April or May at the earliest.

Afterward, we drove a couple of miles to Hisega and treated ourselves to Mexican food from a restaurant we’d heard good things about.

Lemme tell ya, those margaritas never tasted better.

You’ll Have to Pry that Thesaurus from my Frosty, Deceased Hands!

I read with great consternation dismay this morning that one of my favorite go-to reference materials, the humble modest thesaurus, is widely maligned vilified by the cognoscenti scholars and practitioners. This has me feeling melancholy sorrowful.

Quite frankly, I don’t understand where all the hatred is coming from.

As outlined in this article (which, thankfully, stands in defense of the thesaurus), people who use it are considered pretentious. Not sure what that word means? If only we had some way of looking up a similar word in order to clear up any confusion…

Hey, wait. WE DO!

(Arrogant. Conceited. Pompous.)

To accuse the thesaurus as being responsible for “transport(ing) us to our current state of linguistic and intellectual mediocrity” is a bit harsh. Sure, you can overuse a thesaurus, and the results are often cringeworthy. Like, for instance, if you say “I’m feeling very borborygmic, gastroenterologically speaking,” when a simple “I’m hungry” would suffice, then you deserve heaps of ridicule ’cause that’s just stupid. thesaurus

But used judiciously, the thesaurus can be your best friend. I rely on it so often, I actually have the Power Thesaurus Chrome extension downloaded to my laptop. But don’t worry, you won’t ever find me writing, “50 Shades of Grey is very piperacious!” because, first of all, I wouldn’t be caught dead reading a romance novel. But if I did, I might describe it as being “racy” instead.

As a writer and editor, one of my pet peeves is redundancy. I hate it when somebody uses the same word two or three times in a paragraph (or, worse still, the same sentence); I find it so distracting, whatever point they are trying to make is lost to me. So I will frequently turn to the thesaurus for alternate words. Not so-called $5 words, either; simple, straightforward replacements. If the synonym you are using requires the average reader to look up that word in a dictionary, you have failed, my friend.

Let’s say I was editing this paragraph (which, believe me, is very similar to a lot of what I deal with on a daily basis):

“If you’re looking to buy a house, don’t settle on the first house you see. And if you’ve looked at a dozen different houses but still haven’t found one you like, don’t despair: your perfect house is out there!”

See what I mean? Distracting! I might consult the trusty thesaurus and come up with the following edits:

“If you’re looking to buy a house, don’t settle on the first dwelling you see. And if you’ve looked at a dozen different residences but still haven’t found one you like, don’t despair: your perfect home is out there!”

No more distracting redundancy, and no need to consult the Oxford English Dictionary to look up “residence” or “dwelling.” If, however, I changed it to this…

“If you’re looking to buy a house, don’t settle on the first abode you see. And if you’ve looked at a dozen different domiciles but still haven’t found one you like, don’t despair: your perfect habitation is out there!”

…then you’d be well within your rights to bitch-slap me. That’s just ridiculous.

Also, not all synonyms are created equal. Take “permitting” and “allowing,” for example. Any thesaurus worth its weight will list both words, but what’s missing is context. You would say “I’m going hiking on Saturday, weather-permitting” but should never say “I’m going hiking on Saturday, weather-allowing.”

The lesson is this: don’t hate the thesaurus, hate the thesaurus user! I believe the KISS rule applies here: Keep It Simple Synonym-wise.

OK, gotta run. It’s almost repast time!

Calidum et Deliciose Succosum

If you’re wondering what’s happening in my lil’ Midwest town, the big news last week was the unveiling of a giant hamburger statue.

I’m not making this up, kids.

Apparently, people in Rapid City are really fond of McDonald’s Quarter Pounders. So much so that we beat out a bunch of other cities vying for this statue, an 11.5-ton bronze behemoth mounted on a granite base and inscribed with the phrase “hot and deliciously juicy” in Latin.

Still not making this up, I swear.

I can’t believe there was an actual competition to land this thing. We “won” by beating out nationwide competitors from Hawaii, Wyoming, and North Dakota. Rapid City was chosen because we are one of the nation’s top markets for the Quarter Pounder in terms of per-capita sales, our McDonald’s use fresh beef (which means, what…not all of them do?!), and we have a well-known affinity for statues. This latter part is true, but those statues are U.S. presidents that are displayed on various street corners throughout our lovely downtown, not a gaudy bronze hamburger in a parking lot off I-90.

“McDonald’s wanted to celebrate the city’s passion for this classic menu item,” Anne Christensen, field brand reputation director for McDonald’s, said in a statement.

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Photo Courtesy of Rapid City Journal.

I don’t know, guys. I’m all for public art, and I’m Team Burger, but that doesn’t mean I feel the two should coexist. Also, I can’t remember the last time I had a Quarter Pounder. I visit McDonald’s very infrequently, and I only ever order an Egg McMuffin. If I want a burger I’ll go to the Sugar Shack or Sickie’s Garage.

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A statue more my speed.

Yet, some people in town are positively gushing over the burger statue. Josh Ullmark, District Supervisor for McDonald’s, said, “I’m super happy we got it…I can’t wait until tourist season comes…We’ll get some landscaping and lights put on it. It’s going to be beautiful.”

Then again, Josh may be biased.


I ended up working from home 3.5 days last week because of my cold. Can’t remember the last time I was so beaten down by an illness. Usually, Tara will get sick and I’ll be  perfectly fine; this time the complete opposite occurred. Go figure.

By Thursday I’d been stuck inside the house for days and decided it was time to head back to the office, but it quickly became apparent I’d rushed things, so I came home at lunchtime. Friday morning, I woke up feeling 1,000 percent better. Funny how a cold that has lingered so long can just suddenly disappear.

Saturday I was symptom-free and felt great, so we took a trip out to the Badlands. It was a glorious Leap Day, full of sunshine and 60º weather. We were even able to get in a little hiking, though it was very muddy in places.

I calculated in my head that this was my ninth trip to the Badlands since we moved here 20 months ago. That annual pass is definitely paying for itself. This desolate, rugged country is, without a doubt, one of my favorite places on earth.

Our plan was to hang around for the sunset, which we did. It sure didn’t disappoint.

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It was pushing 7:00 by the time we got back to town, so we stopped for dinner…at a burger place. One that did not have a single arch, golden or otherwise.

Patient Zero

I very rarely get sick. I think my last cold might have been in 2016? Can’t tell you the exact date, other than, literal years ago. So when I felt a tickling sensation in my throat late last week, I didn’t pay it much attention.

Until I started coughing.

Even then, I was in denial. But by Monday morning, it was painfully obvious: I had a full-fledged cold.

Well, crap.

It’s amazing how quickly I pivoted from “I am not sick!” to “Babe, I think I might have that coronavirus. Could be the avian flu or mad cow disease, though. Maybe there’s some weird hybrid of the three and I am Patient Zero.”

Fortunately, I have a job that allows me to work from home, which is why I have been ensconced at the kitchen table for the past two days with a laptop, hot soup, and Dayquil. Turns out I picked a pretty good time to get sick, because it started snowing Monday morning around 10 a.m. and didn’t let up…yet. 27 hours later it’s still coming down a little, but the sun is finally breaking through the clouds and it appears those flurries are down to their last gasp. I’m not sure what our snowfall total is exactly; we had 8″ on the ground at 6 a.m. and it snowed at least another 1-2″ after that. Calling it 10″ certainly isn’t exaggerating.

The good thing about all this snow (which ended up being way more than predicted)? We finally got to use our snowblower. Yes, I am sick, and probably shouldn’t have gone out there to clear the driveway and sidewalk. But snowblowers have gas-powered engines and pistons and carburetors. Testosterone boosters, all of them. I’ve been chomping at the bit to try ours out and wasn’t about to let a little thing like a cold stop me.

To be honest, those initial five minutes turned into a comedy of errors as I tried to figure out first how to start it, and then how to operate it. Even the damn snow chute was causing me all sorts of grief. I’d be aiming it at places I had just cleared, or into the wind, where it came blowing back into my face. I turned the snowblower off to regroup, and then promptly flooded the engine when attempting to restart it. All our neighbors were out, clearing their own driveways. I’m sure they were laughing at me.

But I got it started again, learned how to work the controls and where to aim the flying snow, and within minutes had mastered the beast. Tara took over shortly, because again, I didn’t want to push my luck. Gotta say though, this thing is slick and did a great job clearing almost a foot of wet snow. What took us 10 minutes with the snowblower would have taken 45 minutes shoveling. Thanks again, mom and dad! This truly is a gift that will keep on giving.

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I don’t feel quite as bad as I did yesterday, but will probably need a third day of recovery at home before I feel up to returning to the office. And because I never let a little thing like a cold ruin my day, I told Tara not to be surprised if she finds me nursing a glass of wine this evening.

Alcohol does kill germs, right?!

London Calling

I’ve learned some really cool things about the Black Hills during the course of my job. Like the fact that there is a secret chamber behind Abraham Lincoln’s head on Mount Rushmore that functions as a time capsule of sorts for future generations. It contains copies of important historical documents like the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and the Constitution, as well as the history of the mountain carving. The idea is that, if some folks stumble upon this mountain carving 1,000 years from now and are like, “WTF is that?!” they’ll have the answer at their fingertips. Assuming they can pry open the 1,200-lb. granite slab blocking the entrance.

The whole thing is a little unnerving though, because if some future civilization has no written record of Mount Rushmore, then we’re assuming a worst-case scenario like an  out-of-hand coronavirus that wipes out humanity. Cheery thought!

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Hidden chamber leading to the Hall of Records.

In any case, once I heard about this Hall of Records, as the hidden repository is called, I knew immediately that I wanted to check it out and asked one of my coworkers if I could “pull my media card” and ask for a tour. After he stopped laughing so hard tears were streaming down his face and realized I was serious, he let me know the chances of that happening are pretty much zero. Once upon a time, the National Park Service used to invite select groups of people to check out the Hall of Records, but then in 2009 a bunch of Greenpeace activists gained access and unfurled a giant banner over the monument decrying global warming, and that put an end to the tours.

But hey, you never know if you don’t ask, right? I’m writing a legitimate story about the Hall of Records, so if they want to pull a Bloomberg and stop-and-frisk me for a hidden banner stuffed in my pants, more power to them.


I’m a huge Jack London fan; as a child, he was the author who pretty much ignited my love of reading. I devoured Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea Wolf with the same zeal I hold today for lava lamps and Bloody Marys and Pink Floyd records. I found his writing to be very accessible and lacking the simplicity and gimmickry of, say, a Hemingway. His tales were set in exotic locations and featured colorful characters, both human and animal. One of London’s biggest strengths in my opinion was his ability to anthropomorphize animals. He wrote so convincingly of Buck’s transformation from domestic pet in sun-drenched California to alpha dog of the Yukon who (spoiler alert!) answers the call of the wild that I believed with every fiber of my being the thoughts attributed to the St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix.

All of this is to say that when I learned there was a new Call of the Wild movie starring Harrison Ford coming out, I knew I had to see it. And yesterday we did. The reviews have been mixed, with a lot of people deriding the fact that Buck is a CGI creation and not a real dog, but I think this is rather silly given that one of Ford’s most popular roles had him starring alongside an 8′ tall shaggy brown creature whose speech is made up of wails, growls and moans.

Call-of-the-Wild

The movie was pretty good escapist fare. I felt a little bad because it was a sunny, warm day—at least by South Dakota standards—that would have lent itself to outdoor exploration. But I got over that quickly, especially when we followed up the film with pizza and beers at Independent Ale House. They’re one of the few places in town that offers decent sours on tap—the only beer I can even remotely stand.

Tonight, we’re going to barbecue chicken on the grill before the next round of snow arrives tomorrow.

Conflict of Interest

I got burned by an Englishman yesterday.

Not physically burned, as in, he spilled his scalding hot tea on my arm while reaching for a crumpet. (By the way, I’ve never met a stereotype I didn’t fully embrace.) Instead, I refer to the definition in Urban Dictionary:

A usually sarcastic and insulting comment, devised to burn someone’s emotions.

What happened was, our Creative Director at work—the one who made me cut my beautiful words—called me over to his desk. “Could you pad this article?” he asked. “It needs to be a little longer.”

“Wow, this is a change of pace!” I replied. “You’re asking me to add words instead of cut them!”

“That’s right,” he said, and without missing a beat, delivered the barb. “You didn’t write this one.”

Oh, snap! The thing is, he’s not wrong. I do tend to be wordy. Others might call me long-winded, but I prefer to think of myself as simply being an overachiever. Why describe something in six words, for instance, when 18 would paint a much more detailed and compelling picture?

Irony alert: I’m a writer and editor. That latter task requires trimming down copy to eliminate redundancy and more succinctly fit in the confines of a particular space. I’m good at it, too…except when it comes to my own work apparently.

Being a writer AND an editor is a conflict of interest!


This morning, I shoveled snow for the fifth time in 10 days. The annoying thing is, it’s just been a little bit of snow every time, usually an inch or two. Not enough to drag out the snowblower, which we have yet to use. It mostly melts in a day or two, because we’ve been yo-yoing between, say, 18º one day and 47º the next.

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Yesterday’s commute home was treacherous but pretty.

If it’s going to snow, Tara and I both think it should really snow. Go ahead, Mother Nature: impress us! Not that I’m complaining. Even a dusting of snow covers up the barren ground and makes everything look beautifully pristine.

The weird thing about Rapid City is, our “snowy season” is really March and April. 42 percent of our snowfall occurs during those two months.

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Rapid City snowfall

In Portland, if you reached late February without seeing snow (as they have this year), then winter is essentially over. Spring is in full swing by March. Out here, we can forget about planting that garden of ours until May at the earliest.

As fond as I am of the winter months, I do long for mild summer evenings spent on the patio, something meaty sizzling on the grill, a glass of wine in hand.

It’s just great to live someplace where I can equally appreciate all four seasons.

I Myth You: Truths About V-Day

Happy Valentine’s Day, if you’re into that sort of thing. Funny, the only time I ever cared about V-Day was when I didn’t have anybody to share it with. Back then, I was all, “Woe is me! I’m all alone while all these couples are having romantic celebrations!” I didn’t even really know what these imagined romantic celebrations consisted of, though I was fairly certain they ended with a romp in the sheets, which was enough to justify their existence at the time.

Not that I ever admitted this to anybody, of course. Instead, I adopted a holier-than-thou stance. In the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey’s character famously states, “Valentine’s Day was invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.” I would repeat this ad nauseam to anybody who cared to listen, proud of my anti-Capitalist rant. When a friend said that Valentine’s Day had been happening since Roman times and the idea that Hallmark invented it was a myth, I replied that the Romans also invented gladiator matches but I didn’t see armed combatants fighting to the death before crowds of bloodthirsty spectators anymore, which is admittedly twisted logic, but I had to defend my position, you know? Plus, I kinda forgot about Black Friday. I’ve seen video of angry mobs fighting over the last 55″ TV in stock, and it’s even uglier than those Colosseum battles.

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When Tara and I got together, our first Valentine’s Day was romantic. We celebrated by getting all dressed up and enjoying a fancy dinner at Jake’s Famous Crawfish seafood restaurant in downtown Portland. I even drew a red heart on the plate using the frosting from our cheesecake.

Our second V-Day as a couple was a little more conservative. It went something like this:

Me: So, would you like to go out to dinner?
Tara: I don’t really feel like dealing with all those crowds. Unless you really want to.
Me: That’s okay. Let’s skip the fancy meal and just exchange cards instead.
Tara: Perfect!

Valentine’s Day #3:

Me: You didn’t want to go out, did you?
Tara: Hell, no! And don’t you dare get me a card, either.
Me: Deal!

And then I proceeded to make an off-color joke about “having a heart on for you.”

Funny how things change once you’re in a committed relationship. It’s not that we aren’t romantic. We’ve been together for eight years now, and we’re actually still sickeningly sweet toward one another most days. Just not on the one day where you’re supposed to be sickeningly sweet toward one another. I chalk this up to our rebellious nature, a sort of damn-the-man ethos, if you will.

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Nowadays, I am pretty ambivalent about the holiday. I don’t begrudge those who like to pull out all the romantic stops and I won’t trot out all that made-up holiday nonsense. When you think about it, all holidays are made up, right?

We’ll celebrate tonight by partaking in our favorite Friday pastime: playing cards in the basement while listening to records and enjoying cocktails. Knowing me, there will be another off-color joke or two.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Happy V-Day (or not), you crazy fools in love!

Pretzels are the New Pickles

There are surprisingly few things I miss about living in the PNW. Family and friends, of course. Powell’s Books. Liberalism. But most of my fondest memories are tempered by reality: the worsening traffic jams, the median home price inching ever closer to $400,000. Tara longs for the ocean at times, and while the ruggedly beautiful Oregon Coast will always hold a special place in my heart, I have lived within 100 miles of an ocean for 82 percent of my life. Yes, I did the math. I think it’s safe to say I’ve gotten sand and saltwater out of my system at this point in my life.

One thing I do miss, however, is our favorite hangout: Shanahan’s, an unassuming little Irish pub in downtown Vancouver, WA. Many a Friday night was spent tucked into our favorite spot in the corner. We had a server who became so familiar with us, she would bring us our drinks without even taking our order. Tequila soda for me, Bud Light for Tara. Once, she saw us crossing the street, and had them ready for us the moment we sat down. It’s hard to find service like that anywhere.

Always, that first round of drinks was accompanied by fried pickle spears. They were our go-to app, and those are what I miss more than anything else. Hot and crispy, with fresh dill weed mixed right into the batter…that was the secret. You might think a fried pickle is a fried pickle is a fried pickle, but you would be wrong, wrong, and wrong. It’s very hard to find the perfect fried pickle. Some places serve them sliced, but then the ratio of batter to pickle is off. Murphy’s Pub in Rapid City is known for their fried pickles, and yes, they’re good, but they come wrapped in prosciutto and stuffed with mozzarella. It’s the definition of overkill: tasty but unnecessary. The pickle should be the star, not everything that surrounds it. Like Shakira during the Super Bowl halftime show, not her backup dancers. Her hips don’t lie. Her backup dancers’ hips might be a little looser with the truth, but I’m not invested in theirs like I am hers.

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Err…weird analogy. Hopefully you catch my drift.

So, we simply resigned ourselves to a life without fried pickles. It was one of those trade-offs of moving to the Midwest, like giving up the ocean for the prairie or swapping Dungeness crab for buffalo.

And then, a funny thing happened. We discovered the pretzel sticks at Paddy O’Neill’s. Like Shanahan’s, it’s an Irish pub. A little more upscale—it’s in the lobby of the Hotel Alex Johnson, after all—but the Happy Hour is decent, the drinks are good, and the food is on point.

Especially those pretzel sticks.

They’re Bavarian style—soft, chewy, and buttery. Topped with finely sliced green onions and served with a warm queso dipping sauce that has a subtle kick. We’ve ordered them a few times now, and I’m always surprised at just how addictively delicious they are. We stopped by last Friday after work, and after scarfing ’em down, I realized something interesting: I didn’t miss those fried pickle spears from Shanahan’s quite as much as I had in the past. The pretzel sticks at Paddy’s are a worthy successor to the pickles and our new go-to appetizer. I can live with that.

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Not my photo. Not even the pretzel sticks from Paddy O’Neill’s…but they look identical.

I’m not saying we won’t be hitting up Shanahan’s on our next visit to the PNW….but it wouldn’t shock me if I find myself wistfully longing for the pretzels when we’re there. You always want what you can’t have, right?

 

The Verdict is In: My (1st) Experience as a Trial Juror

If I’ve been incognito this week, my apologies. I was called for jury duty and, somewhat to my surprise, actually chosen to serve. I’ve had a couple of close calls over the years, but this was a first. It turned out to be a fascinating experience, one that gave me a rare opportunity to play a key role in the American judicial system. I enjoyed it far more than anticipated. I thought I’d share my story through the eyes of a first-timer, for those who are interested in learning what it’s like to spend three days in a jury box.

The Jury Summons

Like the majority of Americans, when I received my jury summons in the mail, I felt my stomach turn with dread. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say most people aren’t exactly eager to receive that piece of paper in the mail. Even the judge acknowledged this. My first instinct was to try to figure out how to get out of serving, and I turned to the internet for suggestions. As usual, Reddit was a great source of information, though the advice people had posted (pretend you never received the summons and ignore it, show up wearing a JURY NULLIFICATION t-shirt, act like a racist, etc.) just didn’t sit well with me. Honesty is, and always will be, the best policy. I decided to show up as instructed and answer all questions honestly while hoping I wouldn’t be one of the 12 people ultimately selected.

I had no legitimate excuse not to attend, anyway. Yes, it’s stressful to be away from the office for days on end, especially when you work for a publishing company and there are deadlines. But my supervisor was completely understanding and encouraged me to “have fun.” Fat chance, I thought. I was still grumbling over the inconvenience of it all as I headed out the door that first day.

Voir Dire

I was instructed to show up at the Federal courthouse in Rapid City Tuesday morning at 8:00 a.m. After passing through a metal detector—the process reminded me of the TSA experience, only I got to keep my shoes on this time—I made my way to the third floor, checked in with the clerk’s office, and took a seat on a hard wooden bench in the courtroom.

First impression: the courtroom was enormous. Federal courts are much larger than state courts, it turns out. It was also very bright, with rows of overhead fluorescent lights. I’d brought along a book and read a little of it while stealing glances at the other prospective jurors as they filed in, wondering which of the poor suckers would end up being selected. There were 42 of us and they were choosing 12 jurors and an alternate, which meant I had about a 70 percent chance of walking out of there a free man. I liked those odds.

The clerk came in and showed us a 20-minute video titled “Serving on a Jury” narrated by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts. Typical propaganda, I thought. Afterward, the judge and lawyers entered the courtroom. His Honor talked a little bit about what to expect. One of the things he said was, “The people who are chosen today are actually the lucky ones.” Per the jury summons, we were on call for a two-month period. The clerk said the court docket for February and March was pretty full, which meant that many—if not most—of the people not chosen that day could expect to end up back in that very courtroom to go through the process all over again at some point before March 31. Around this time, my attitude began to change. I figured, this was expected to be a three-day trial. There was no guarantee the next one would be as short. Plus, the atmosphere felt charged-up, almost electric with anticipation. Maybe being chosen wouldn’t be so bad after all, I thought.

The clerk called names at random to fill the 31 seats in front of the bench: the jury box plus two makeshift rows. I was about the 23rd person called. The 11 not initially called were instructed to remain in the courtroom, as some would likely be needed as people were excused. Sure enough, this happened.

Voir dire is the legal phrase for the jury selection process. It was a little bit intimidating, but also, very interesting. Both attorneys asked questions of everybody, and we had to pass around microphones when answering. I found myself trying to figure out the intent behind each question in order to determine what the lawyers were looking for. Some questions were pretty obvious, while the intent of others is only clear now that the trial is over. I was asked, for example, whether I’d ever bought a house, and if so, did I buy the first house I looked at. If I had children, did I ever have to mediate an argument between them, and whether the child I assumed had been the victim had actually turned out to be the instigator. Whether I thought a witness who appeared nervous while testifying might be hiding something. When I answered honestly that it could lead me to perceive guilt, I was asked whether I was nervous answering questions in court and had to admit that I was.

Touché. Message received.

Let me make one thing clear here: anybody who truly wanted to get out of jury service at this point could have done so very easily. The judge, who exuded fairness at all turns, made it clear that if you had a prior commitment or were morally opposed to the jury system or were simply uncomfortable being given the burden of deciding another person’s fate could speak up and he would excuse them without prejudice. Nobody did so, though a couple of people had legitimate health concerns and were dismissed.

I will say, it was pretty obvious to me who would not be chosen. There were a few pretty vocal people who you just knew would cause trouble in the jury room. There was also a 78-year-old woman with concentration difficulties and a 19-year-old college student who had never heard the phrase “reasonable doubt” before.

We were excused for lunch at 12:00 and asked to return at 1:30, at which time, the jury would be seated.

I went home, called Tara, and said I kind of hoped they would choose me. Quite a change in attitude from just a few hours earlier.

The Trial

I returned to the courthouse as instructed, and the lawyers were tasked with eliminating 18 of the 31 people in order to arrive at their jury. We were told their decisions weren’t personal and we shouldn’t feel badly if we weren’t selected. They then passed a sheet back and forth for about 15 minutes, deciding on peremptory challenges, which allow them to strike potential jurors without reason. Of course, there are reasons on both sides, though I’m sure those vary based on any number of circumstances.

They began calling names and asking those people to stand. I had just started to think I wasn’t going to be selected, and actually felt a pang of remorse about this, when they called my name. I was about the ninth person chosen. It appears that the people selected for jury duty were mostly those who had flown under the radar, hadn’t rocked the boat, and were neither young nor old. There were seven men and six women. All white, but this being South Dakota, that’s not exactly surprising.

Everybody else was excused and we were sworn in. The judge gave us instructions, we were shown the jury room, led back to the jury box, and the trial started immediately. It took about 15 minutes for me to get over my disbelief. It felt very surreal to be seated on a jury hearing a federal case…one that turned out to be very exciting.

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I am allowed to talk about the case now that the verdict has been delivered, but at the time, we were instructed not to discuss it with anybody, including family members, coworkers, and the other jurors. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but it was a criminal case in which the defendant was charged with five counts involving possession of guns and distribution of methamphetamine. Over the course of a day and a half, the prosecution called 10 witnesses, ranging from the arresting officers to drug analysis experts; an agent with the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Alcohol, Tobocco, and Firearms Agency; a cellphone data extraction specialist; and a shackled inmate transported by a Federal Marshal. We watched body cam and dashboard videos from tribal police officers and I learned more than I ever imagined I would about Glock 9 mm semi-automatic handguns. These firearms made it a federal case; Glocks are manufactured in Austria and shipped to Smyrna, Georgia; the only way they can possibly reach South Dakota is by crossing state lines. The defense offered up plenty of rebuttals and cross-examination, but didn’t call any witnesses. We never even heard the defendant speak, except briefly on video during the police search.

The judge has a rule in which everybody in his courtroom stands up and stretches every 45 minutes. I cannot stress how much I liked him. He was personable and polite, the epitome of fairness. Judges sometimes come across as stern and intimidating, but he was anything but. He treated us with respect at all times, stating that in his courtroom, people don’t just rise when he enters the room, they also stand for the jurors. Sure enough, they did so every time we entered and exited. He also made occasional lighthearted comments throughout the trial, and even joked at one point that he had an extra robe if his clerk wanted to play judge. All of this served to humanize him. At the same time, when somebody stepped out of line, he was quick to admonish them and keep order in the court. This only happened once or twice.

We were given frequent breaks, including 90 minutes for lunch, and released both days a few minutes before 5:00. I was home, sipping a glass of wine 15 minutes after listening to testimony in a federal criminal case. This made the whole experience palatable.

On Wednesday afternoon, the prosecution and defense rested.

The Deliberation

Thursday morning, both attorneys gave their closing arguments. The prosecutor went first, speaking for about 25 minutes. He went over each count against the defendant, explaining how the burden of proof had been met by the government, as required. The defense attorney was up next; he spoke for about 15 minutes, followed by a 10-minute rebuttal from the prosecution. After that, the alternate juror was dismissed. Sucks to be her; I’d hate to get that far without being able to see the whole thing through. The case was officially handed over to we, the jury. It was almost an emotional moment for me. I felt in awe of my own responsibility as we adjourned to the jury room for deliberation.

Our cellphones were confiscated, the door was closed, and we elected a foreman. Then we discussed each count in detail and took votes by raising our hands. This, at least, was pretty much like you’d see in any John Grisham book or legal thriller. Pizza was brought in for lunch as we talked our way through the case.

The evidence was also brought into the courtroom (minus the bullets, wisely). It isn’t every day that you can say you held a Glock semi-automatic handgun, a bag of meth, and $2,500 cash in your hands, but today I did just that.

For me, the decision was easy. I was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt on all five charges. We were unanimous on three of the five counts pretty much right off the bat, but really had to discuss and (politely) argue a little bit about factors like possession, intent, consistency of testimony, and character before everybody was on the same page on the other two. We could have found him guilty on some of the charges and not guilty on others, but in the end, we came to a unanimous decision across the board: guilty on all five counts.

I was nervous when we filed back into the courtroom and the judge read our verdicts. I’m not sure why; maybe I was expecting some last-minute courtroom dramatics, perhaps an angry outburst from the defendant or somebody in the audience, but none of those things occurred.

A few minutes later, the judge came into the jury room to chat with us and answer questions. Again, this is testament to his personability. He speaks to every jury after every trial to gain their feedback, explaining that he is appointed for life and will never do anything else, so he wants to make sure he gets it right. Somebody asked whether he thought we’d made the right decision, and he assured us that, based on the evidence, we had.

Sentencing takes place in 4-5 months. The judge said anybody interested in attending could let the clerk’s office know on our way out, so I did just that. I think I was the only one, actually. Call me a completist, but I really want to see this through and am curious what sentence the defendant ends up receiving. I know it will be significant given some of the mandatory sentencing guidelines that must run consecutively.

Final Thoughts

Yes, this is a very long post. I’m almost done—I promise!

This whole experience was nothing short of incredible. It may be a cliche, but serving on a jury is a rare opportunity to not only witness democracy in action, but to play an active role in the process. I’ve never been the type to wear my patriotism on my sleeve, but it really is a privilege to serve and makes me proud to be an American. Just witnessing the dynamic between opposing lawyers, hearing from expert witnesses, and learning how to dissect and apply law is exhilarating.

I’m off the hook now for two years and won’t be called for jury duty again in that time, but should I receive a summons in the mail at some future point, I won’t be nearly so opposed.

Doing your civic duty kinda rocks!