Monday, March 25, 2013

Learning to Enjoy Coffee

I have never drank a cup of coffee in my life, if you don't count that one time my manfriend Jordan made me this fantastic Chocolate-and-Peanut Butter Mocha Smoothie that tasted like a giant Reese's Pieces cup.

I've tried coffee many times, giving it tentative sips here and there, but never committing to chugging a whole pot of the liquid cocaine, which is evidently what it takes to develop a taste for the stuff.

I want to like coffee, first of all because it's the single-most readily available drink at practically every gathering (after water), and the Mennonite in me just hates to see all that free coffee go unclaimed. Coffee is also a great drink for diabetics, since it doesn't necessarily REQUIRE sugar, and coffee in-and-of itself doesn't have carbohydrates that would require an insulin shot. I also love the way my church sits down at potlucks, after which the older generations strike up pleasant conversations over a cup of coffee and a slice of pie.

For many years of my childhood, I couldn't even stand the scent of coffee. Now that I've gotten old and my sense of smell has dimmed with time, I find it to be pleasant, which is a great evil considering that something that tastes so rancid could be disguised with such a fragrant aroma. The smell/taste mismatch is like biting a large chunk out of a candle, only to find that it DOESN'T taste like "Meadow Showers" at all.

Spoiler alert: It tastes like wax. If you have the candle lit for 4 hours before sampling it, you get a fine example of what hot coffee feels like inside your mouth.

Is there a word for "expecting one taste but getting another"? When I asked Mr. Google, all he could tell me was that my search involved wine-tasting, which makes sense.

Discerning Patron: "Um, I'd like to try a glass of wine. Might as well start with the best. How about a glass of 1966 Chateau Lafite?"
Waiter Dressed as a Penguin: "A wonderful choice, sir! I trust that you'll LOVE it. Here you are."
Discerning Patron: *sip* "BLAUGH! It appears that this beautifully-named bottle of wine has turned."
Waiter Dressed as a Penguin: "What! What do you mean?"
Discerning Patron: "The flavor is horrendous."
Waiter Dressed as a Penguin: "But, ah, you don't approve of the subtle hues and slight woody flavor?"
Discerning Patron: "No. It tastes like that one time I had a throat sore and had to gargle vinegar."

I searched for "waiter with wine clip art" and found this photo. Thank you, Internet, for thinking just like me.

I find coffee to be the same experience. There are many wondrous flavors with exotic names that never quite match the taste I conjure up in my imagination before trying them. For instance, "Jamaican' Me Crazy" coffee instills a word-picture of tangy, fruity, sweet coffee that causes you to crave more. Instead, you get Slightly Different-Tasting Coffee.

This is not a "Flavors of Every Food in the World" chart. This is a Coffee Flavor Chart, which is what happens when you give coffee to the person who invented color palettes. My curiosity has been piqued, and I now desire to witness coffee that can be summed up as tasting 'Carbony', 'Ashy', and 'Charred'.

When I was younger, my sister Shelley tried her best to grow me up and get me to like coffee. Her methods for getting others to acquire a certain taste were hiding that flavor and surprising you with it. Like that one time she offered me some chocolate-covered peanuts which were actually chocolate-covered espresso beans. I grabbed a small handful and popped a few into my mouth. The shocking disparity in Taste Expected vs. Taste Received was about the same as if she'd have offered me some "pie" and "chips" but served me cow dung.

Hey kids! Let's play "Spot the Difference." Can you tell me which of these are a delicious peanutty snack? Be careful: if you choose the wrong one, you'll have a burning, overpowering coffee flavor embedded in your taste buds for 24 hours. 
I was at the Kalona Chamber of Commerce Luncheon today, where I felt vastly under-dressed in my work clothes amongst the movers and shakers of Kalona, who were dressed nicely and seemed to know which spoon to use for the soup. Steaming canisters of coffee were passed around, to which I gave my standard "No thanks, I'm too young to drink coffee." answer. One lady smiled and replied "I suppose we'll accept that answer." while another one declared "You're never too young to drink coffee!" So I admitted that I just couldn't get used to the taste. "How do you begin to like coffee?" I asked.

"Just drink it for a while." One man offered.

"Try flavored coffees, like hazelnut." A young woman said.

"Just drink it black. Plain coffee is the way to go." Said one woman, who you wouldn't have suspected of having anything wrong with her at first glance but evidently had no taste buds.

"Dunkin' Donuts coffee is the best. It's not as bitter as regular coffee. Try some of that, but eat a donut with it." Said another man.

"Home-brewed coffee is the best. It's not as bitter." Said one helpful woman. 

"No, I really like Starbucks coffee. It's the best." A lady commented.

"Do you have to get the mocha frappuccino with extra soy foam and caramel?" I asked the Starbucks lady.

"Nope, their plain coffee is really good." She replied.

"Take a cup, fill it half full of sugar, and then just top off the rest of the cup with coffee." Said one young man. I thought I detected a twinkle in his eye, but that might have been glaucoma. 

What I gathered from the conversation was that everyone has their own way to adapt to coffee, and it's up to me to figure out what mine is. Perhaps my method will include getting stranded on the side of a mountain in a blizzard with nothing but Instant Coffee packets, which I'll mix with a little snow and eat in order to keep from falling asleep and dying of hypothermia.

From what I've observed, it appears that after a person has acquired the taste of coffee, any and every type of coffee automatically becomes drinkable. That completely baffles me. Many times, upon consuming the beverage, a person will decide they don't quite like it as much as another type. Does that thought not surface until the end of the cup? "I don't really like this brownie, but I need to eat the entire pan before I make a decision." Being able to drink any coffee is equivalent to owning a car that's able to run on gasoline, diesel, kerosene, liquid petroleum, crude oil, and/or corn syrup. 

I suppose that's not terribly far-fetched. Ever since the day a man accidentally put diesel in his gasoline-burning car and gummed up the engine, companies have been dreaming up vehicles that run on multiple fuels. This car (still being developed by Brazillian designer Obvio and Auto company Lotus) is a "Tribrid" that runs on Bio-ethanol (fancy term for french fry grease), natural gas (CNG), or electricity. Obvio, how are you still in business? At least they're trying.

And I'll certainly keep trying. Perhaps some day I'll groggily wake up, stumble into the kitchen, pour myself a stiff belt of burnt, ground-up bean juice and realize I've been drinking coffee for years, not knowing how I began to even like the stuff.

How do you like your coffee?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Aleluia, the Great Flood is Over

The flood waters are finally receding from my yard. Now, I enjoyed them while they were here and got a lot of mileage out of the "We've got excellent beachfront property now!" pun, but I'm relieved to see the waters leave.

 This was the water level when I last posted. We'll call this Hour 0

This was the water level 24 hours later.

Here's our circle driveway. The water was coming up over the lower lane.

Here's the neighboring trailer. The water seeped into the concrete basement but they stayed high and dry.

Fortunately this was the height that the water got. That night, temperatures dropped to 25 degrees. I hoped the water would freeze 8" thick so we could have our very own skating pond, but it didn't freeze more than a questionable 1/4" crust on the surface of the water.

But that made for a peculiar sight when the waters receded. At Hour 36, I woke up to see this:

The water had frozen at its peak, then left little icy tutu's on all the trees as the water lowered.

So here's how the yard currently looks, as of Hour 72.

I really wouldn't mind a little green in the yard, but do you think my sisters in Oregon would spare just a fraction of their lush surroundings? Evidently not. Shipping is outrageous.

The water got to roughly 5' deep in several spots of my yard, 8' if you were unlucky enough to trip and fall into one of the many ditches scattered around.
My measuring methods included dunking a kayak paddle in various locations, and eyeballing this post from afar. I think I'm accurate to within plus or minus 8 inches, maybe.

I was afraid that I had lost our OTHER dock (yes, we lost half a dock a few weeks ago when there was a mini-Spring-thaw.) but I found it, tied up but desperately trying to flow downstream. You can't see it in the photos because it's halfway down the embankment, straining on its cable tether. I'm still hunting for objects that were previously in my yard, but are now completely gone. Missing are several blue plastic barrels, which most likely are halfway to the Mississippi by now. I found several of our makeshift bridges. Made from pallets, plywood, and other wooden refuse, they floated over to the other side of the Hwy 22 bridge and got lodged in some trees. Once the ground dries more (it's terribly muddy right now) I'll put them back where they belong.

The pallet-bridge my friends and I walked on at Hour -12, with ominous flood waters rushing swiftly down the ditch underneath it. The heavy brute was washed 200 yards downstream.

I've got dozens of photos and videos more, but I'll cease and desist. I'm afraid these photos aren't really that interesting if you haven't been to my place and ran around in my yard. So they're practically like an "outside" joke. Heh heh.

I'm expecting to see the yards dry up quickly, due to the extremely dry summer we had last year. I'm excited because this almost-annual flooding invariably coincides with the Annual Mosquito Hoedown & Family Get-Together, which starts in May/June. The puddles encourage mosquito breeding, so if all this is dried up, we won't have the infamous clouds of carnivorous insects that we get some years.

Aside from a few splashes from a misplaced paddle stroke, I kept myself high and dry for the duration of the flood. That is, until the day I saw dry land and started running around in the yard. I THOUGHT the massive puddle was only 12" deep, but the yard plummeted in an unexpected spot and I was instantly rewarded with freshly-defrosted water dumping into my water-proof boots. I slogged back to the house through two feet of water and took a long bath. I expect to feel my toes again sometime, hopefully by next month.

Keep your eye peeled to my Facebook account; I'll probably be posting more photos on there.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Iowa Weather

It's currently flooding in my yard.

We got 6 inches of snow on Tuesday, March 5th.

We've got 3 feet of water on Sunday, March 10th.

A scant 5 days later...

My friend Cody, kayaking in the yard. Cody sense of adventure is matched only by his colossal beard.

Cody enticed Victor and I to go kayaking with him, and I'm glad he did. I had just got home from taking a rowdy bunch of Kids Club kids to Iowa city, and I was ready to take a nap. But Cody persisted, and we had an excellent time, cruising around in the yard and fighting the slow but steady current that was doing its best to ship us to the Gulf of Mexico, free of charge.

The view off my back porch/grilling deck. Due to the heavy fog, you can't really see the bridge that we had a campfire under YESTERDAY, while the water was just a foot from overflowing the banks.

It'll be nice if the Spring melt flooding gets finished before summer, because that will curb the dense mosquito population that converges on this area whenever there's a puddle to spawn in.

"Out of the south cometh the whirlwind: and cold out of the north." -Job 37:9

This verse was most likely talking about Iowa (or perhaps the Midwest in general). We get snow AND rain in the same week.

I've lived in Iowa my whole life, but it still finds ways to surprise me. What next, Iowa? Meteorites? Tsunamis? An earthquake? An invasion of rednecks and/or hippies?

Lord have mercy.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Quick Romp to Minnesota

Sometimes, little things sneak up behind me and whack me upside the head, reminding me of how quickly time flies. This past week, the little Reminder Goblin informed me that it has been THREE YEARS since I went to Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute (SMBI) for a term.

I made lots of friends at SMBI, and out of those friends was formed a tight-knit bunch that went the extra mile to spend time with each other. Two summers ago, I hosted this bunch at my parent's place, showing them the wonders of rural Iowa.

The Swinging Bridge in Columbus Junction
The Cheese Factory, Kalona Bakery, Central Discount, and Coffee Shop

We spent the weekend taking photos*, singing old choir songs, eating loads of food, and playing games. I showed Doyle the underbelly of a crop duster that we were chasing on a 4-wheeler. We got too close and were rewarded with a sticky pesticide mist. I hooted and got us out of there, none the worse, but poor Doyle had an allergic reaction that lasted for a few weeks.

At the end of the reunion, we signed our names at the bottom of a pact, stating we would certainly do this sort of thing again.

 I believe that, if he were alive today, John Hancock and I would be friends.

This year, Doyle graciously declared he would host the reunion at his cozy homestead in Pennington, Minnesota. I was only vaguely aware that people actually LIVE that far north. I picked up Matthew at the Minneapolis airport, which was about halfway to Doyle's from my place. We then journeyed together to Doyle's, arriving Friday evening.

Of the original group, only Matthew and I made it to Doyle's. To be fair, two of our bunch (Karlin and Jeanie) have gotten married since our reunion in 2011, and married people aren't allowed to make random visits to the Far North, so we forgive those two. There is NO EXCUSE for the others, except for Shelby who is serving the Lord in Oregon, Tanisha who was helping in two weddings, and Rolanda who is teaching school in Illinois. I'm sure the others all had excuses too, but I don't know what theirs were.

Not one to let his guests sit around, Doyle immediately introduced us to "Broomball", a sport played with an ice rink, hockey sticks, and a miniature soccer ball. Doyle's family had set up an ice rink in their driveway, complete with sidewalls and hockey goals. We enthusiastically played for a few hours, sliding around the slick ice with our tennis shoes. Even though I scraped my shin up when I tripped over the sidewall, I very much prefer broomball to hockey. Perhaps it's because I'm not very steady on ice skates and I have a healthy fear of losing my teeth from flying pucks.

As an amateur photographer with a 6-year-old point-'n-shoot camera, I'm fairly pleased with this photo.

On Saturday, we roused around 9am and headed out to get some serious fishing done. Doyle had rented a heated ice-fishing cabin out on Lake Bemidji. I have heard only good things about fresh walleye but unfortunately I'd have to settle for some perch, since the walleye season had just closed.

We got our fishing licenses and headed out, loaded down in a 15-passenger van, hauling a trailer full of gear and snacks. We drove RIGHT OUT ON THE ICE! I can hardly even believe it. I suppose people drive out on frozen bodies of water in Iowa, but only when they have nothing to live for and wish to die in a horrible frozen drowning sort of way.

 Lake Bemidji. A full-sized snowplow truck carved this avenue for fishermen.

The Graber in me just had to know how much ice I was standing on. Just as I began to sorely miss my tool pouch, I found a tape measure in the cabin. 31" is more than enough to drive on, but not quite enough to insulate our ears from the sound of ominous crackling when people drove by the cabin.

The fishing went splendidly, the catching not so much. We were there from 10am-4pm and our group caught 5 fish, 2 of which had to be returned. Our guide had said we'd catch "a hundred fish" from the area he pointed out, but evidently the fish were fully aware that it was Saturday, and they didn't get out of their fish beds. We had plenty of snacks and good stories to keep us busy, while we sat comfortably in a posh little fishing cabin. The cabin had a little propane heater that kept the place 60 degrees all day, so soon we were shedding our winter coats and lounging around in our socks. If you have to go ice fishing, that's the way to do it. This is far different than the methods used to ice fish in Iowa.

1. Locate body of water capable of holding fish AND capable of freezing thick enough to walk on.
2. Hike out on aforementioned miraculous body of water, pulling sled with all fishing gear.
3. Drill hole, being careful not to crack the eggshell of ice which would then send you plummeting to your icy tomb.
4. Fish.
5. If not entirely frostbitten by the hearty gales of wind whipping over the pond/lake surface, high-tail it back to someplace warm.

I have never gone out of my way to go ice fishing (and thought I never would), but Minnesota knows how to do things properly.

1. Toss all gear into vehicle.
2. Drive right to fishing spot, out on the middle of a giant lake most Iowans would call an ocean.
3. Fish inside, with music playing and heater roasting.
4. (Theoretically) catch mountains of fish.
5. Toss gear back into vehicle, drive home, chuckle at unfortunate Iowan fishermen.

Doyle perfectly planned every single aspect of our trip. The only thing he had no control over was the weather and the fish themselves. The weather was excellent, which helped negate the lackluster fishing. When we looked back over the weekend, we decided that it was a wonderful day, unspoiled by dirty fish-cleaning chores. :)

We went back to Doyle's, ate some supper, and then rushed to play some volleyball at a nearby rec center. Doyle had spread the word of volleyball gamery to some friends. He also posted the event on facebook, but nothing prepared him for the nearly 50 people that showed up, many traveling from hours away. He had only rented one court and the strangely unhelpful rec center staff wouldn't allow us to have a second court. We alternated teams and all played a few games, ending with a boisterous game of Speed Volleyball. We were about to play a second game when the Unfriendly Staff informed us that our rental time was up. They wouldn't let us extend the time, despite the fact that there was nobody else in the rec center.

So Doyle, Matt and I ran back to the fishing cabin and threw some lines into the water. We got several enthusiastic nibbles but no catches. We stayed there from 10pm-12am and then called it quits. Quits for fishing, but we still had some energy to burn. Like rowdy children at a sleepover far from their parents' watchful eyes, we stayed up til 3am playing games and telling stories.

"Thou shalt not do things on a Saturday that hinder you from attending church on Sunday." 
With my own words to my brother Shane ringing in my ears, I awoke and attended church with Doyle's family, doing my very best to keep my eyeballs open.

We played more broomball, ate more fantastic food (Doyle's mother, Hope, prepared veritable mountains of food for us, and went the extra mile to make gluten-free food for me), and then hauled out a game of Settlers of Catan. I introduced a few of my many homemade Settlers variations, which were accepted by the group. One of the variations was that we collected our resources on the numbers of each individual dice as well as the total of both. For instance, if the dice rolled were a 3 and a 6, we'd collect our resources on every settlement or city touching a 3, 6, or 9. It causes the game to go much quicker and also makes the 2-6 numbered spots extremely valuable. If the two dice were the same, such as a 5 and a 5, we'd collect double on the 5 spots. For those of you that play Settlers, feel free to ask about this or other variations. For those of you that don't play Settlers, come visit me and I'll introduce you to an incredibly fun board game. 

With the advantage of creating the variation, you'd think I'd win! But alas the Minnesotans were quick to learn and Terrill ended up beating me, with Doyle being close to a victory as well.

Matthew and I were informed of a massive storm headed toward Minneapolis, so we briefly debated the pros and cons of being snowed in at Doyle's. I was fairly certain we'd stay, but Matthew decided we should try to run for it, so we left mid-morning on Monday. We rushed to the airport, praying that God would hold back the storm for us, and He did just that. We got to Minneapolis on time, and I didn't see a decent flake of snow the whole way home.

Driving through Cedar Rapids, I realized that there wasn't any snow to be seen! The ground was all muddy and brown. I got to my place and went to sleep, only to awake and find SIX INCHES of snow on the ground this morning. God provided me with a miracle by keeping the roads clear all the way home, and I'm grateful.

I fought my way to work on slushy roads and quickly set out to scrape the driveway. I've never drifted with a skid steer, but it's been one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had while removing snow.  I was clearing the driveway primarily because the kids needed to go to school after their 2-hour delay, but also because my parents were scheduled to arrive home later this evening. Well, God decided to give my parents a longer vacation in Florida, since this snow storm canceled over 150 flights coming in to Chicago. School was eventually canceled, so only my coworker Stan and a few customers made use of my snowplow handiwork.

Doyle, thank you and your awesome family for the wonderful trip and even more wonderful hospitality. With scrapes, bruises, and a bare minimum of sleep, it was exactly the kind of vacation I needed.

*Dear reader, are you my friend on Facebook? If so, you can see more photos of these events in my Albums "SMBI Mini Reunion - 2011" and "Minnesota Trip 2013".