2014 literature year-in-review

It was nearly three years ago that my Kroymann aunts, cousins and I formed The ‘Fun Book’ Book Club. As with any group, there have been lapses in our gatherings, schedules get tight and life’s pace quickens, yet through this we’ve managed to keep at it. And I think we’re all pretty grateful for the constancy this group provides.

While all our meetings eventually dissolve into fits of laughter listening to one another’s stories, we’re getting better at actually talking about our books. But honestly? The books may be the reason for our gatherings, but it’s our relationships, the varying hues love takes between family members, that keep us coming back.

Given the busy time December is, last year we did not choose a book for our January 2014 gathering and did not kick off the year until February with Mary Lawson’s “Crow Lake,” the story of four orphaned siblings and how they navigate life in their quiet Canada community.

In March, we took on the issue of brain injury in the story “Left Neglected” by Lisa Genova followed by April’s choice of “Emily’s Story” by Wisconsin writer Clark Kidder who some of you may remember provided the backdrop for the “West by Orphan Train” documentary that premeired in DeWitt earlier this fall.

May had us reading Nora Ephron’s reflections in “I Remember Nothing,” before taking a break in June. July had us enjoying the mysterious young-adult tome “We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart that kept us guessing until the very end.

With the Iowa State Fair and school’s early start, we skipped August and resumed in September with Jodi Picoult’s “The Storyteller.” Although several of us agreed there were ways to easily trim this 480-page behemoth, the instinct for survival in Nazi Germany reminded us how easy it is for human nature to spin out of control in the face of “mob mentality.”

Like January, April, June and August, October was also a miss, but in November we tackled “The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan. A non-fiction reflection of the Dust Bowl era told by survivors of that man-made disaster, “The Worst Hard Time” provided the backdrop for Ken Burns’ 2012 PBS documentary ”The Dust Bowl.”

One Dec. 1 we met under the guise of discussing that month’s selection, Lisa Scottoline’s “Don’t Go,” but used it as an excuse to enjoy the PBS premiere of “West by Orphan Train.”

After discussing Scottoline’s mystery about a podiatrist serving in Afghanistan whose wife dies while he’s overseas. We agreed this riveting whodunit kept us guessing until the last pages. Then we watched the movie and just as when we read “Emily’s Story,” again we were astounded by the strength of orphan train riders who truly rose above terrible circumstances. ***

At the end of this month’s meeting, one person had a copy of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winner “Olive Kitteridge” and offered to let another member read it. When all of us piped up that we wanted to borrow it, we opted to make that our January 2015 choice. Already, we’re off to a better start than in 2014! (And having finished it, I now understand why it was recently made into a mini-series for HBO! A truly wonderful tale of community, marriage, perspective and age.)

In addition to The ‘Fun Book’ Book Club, my nightstand held a steady flow of varied and enjoyable literature starting with the awkwardly wonderful David Sedaris and his nutty collection of essays, “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.”

Swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other, I simply adore author Anne Lemott. Recently she authored a trio of small tomes, the first of which I read this year, 2012’s “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” I have yet to devour subsequent books, “Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair” and “Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace,” but they are on my bookshelf, at the ready.

Like Sedaris and Lamott, some authors you can absolutely trust to captivate and entrance while others? Not so much. Fortunately, of the 26 books I read this year, only four were disappointing: “The Outcasts” by Kathleen Kent, “Whores on the Hill” by Colleen Curan, Marissa Silver’s “Mary Coin” and, in spite of its Pulitzer, Donna Tart’s “The Goldfinch.”

The rest were delish, including Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder” about a researcher who is sent into the Amazon in search of colleague’s remains. Though the book’s ending leaves you to decide what happens, the story and writing were gorgeous.

Similarly “The Art of Hearing Heartbeats” by Jan-Philipp Sendker was a sweeping tale of an adult daughter’s search for her missing father that takes her from New York to Burma. Captivating in the telling of the two lives her father lived, this tale was a beautiful example of love and sacrifice.

Additional adult books included “California” by Edan Lepucki, which I wrote about in September, “The House Girl” by Tara Conklin, “The Telling Room” by Michael Paterniti, Barbara Kingsolver’s debut novel “The Bean Trees,” Fr. Thomas Keating’s “Finding Grace at the Center” and “The Story of Beautiful Girl” by Rachel Simon who also wrote “Riding the Bus with My Sister,” adapted for tv starring Rosie O’Donnell.

For lighter reads, I ventured into young-adult lit. In addition to “We Were Liars,” I discovered “Radiance” by Alyson Noel, the first in a series about a young girl’s mission in the Afterlife. Then Ransom Rigg’s came out with his second in his “Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children” series, “Hollow City,” continuing the journey of the peculiar children’s effort to save their beloved mistress Miss Peregrine.

Finally, this year saw a few books adapted to screen, including “Rosewater,” the directorial debut of The Daily Show’s John Stewart. Based on the personal narrative by Maziar Bahari, “Then They Came For Me” tells of Bahari’s imprisonment and torture in an Iranian prison for his journalism. I’ve yet to see the film, but this book reminded me that despite our imperfect system, it’s good to be American.

To finish out 2014, I’m currently reading Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” a weird look at the various idols and stories that built our history and shape our present views.

While 26 books in a year could be many to some or just a few to others, whatever you do KEEP READING! Happy New Year!!!

Originally published 27 December 2014 in The Observer.

Adventures in lawn care & life north of Hwy 136

Just so you know, I kind of love mowing lawn. It harkens back to those pre-teen years when cousin Laura (Olson) Wallace and I would spend hours and HOURS grooming Gramma Olson’s expansive front lawn, orchard and sprawling east yard that doubled as a baseball field.

More than a job or task to sweat through, mowing Gramma’s grass offered a sense of pride. The clean lines. The level grass. The smooth results. Could there be a more visual example of the term: perfect?

Like a spotless kitchen, a clothesline filled with laundry or a re-organized desk, the feeling of order—albeit brief—is one of the best feelings I know!

And it’s in the grass, a perfectly coiffed lawn, where I find my greater peace . . . or at least I did.

For the first chunk of Marty and my marriage, we were “townies” living in DeWitt, Iowa, and the mowing of our corner lot was his domain. I was used to caring for big spaces with big lawns, not small, fenced-in plots of grass.

A phrase like “clipping the lawn” sounds cute and suggests a job that requires minutes, which is how long it took Marty when we lived in town. A cool 45-minutes of sauntering behind a push mower and that was that.

So when we left town and took over the old Joe Brown place, I was stoked at the idea of having a big lawn. What I wasn’t prepared for was how unruly that lawn would be!

Initially I envisioned using our push mower on the three mow’able acres that made up our four acre parcel. I saw my legs getting buff, my arms, toned, but then reality hit me. We needed a riding lawnmower and went with what we could afford, a hand-me-down freebee from Dad Reed.

That old John Deere lasted a few passes before chugging to its death, mid-job. It didn’t even make it to the end of the season. And because we lacked the necessary moving equipment, the poor thing sat in our front yard for a couple of weeks while grass grew up around it.

If Joe Brown’s spirit still hangs about our farmette, I’d like to think he and his late wife Marge find our efforts to tame their wild land humorous. I’d hate to think he’s put a curse on us.

But when you consider our history with lawnmowers, it’s hard to think otherwise. Joe Brown’s has shown to have the exemplary talent for weed growth and lawnmower extermination.

To date, Joe Brown’s has killed not one, but TWO old John Deere mowers, our once-new push mower as well as a new Poulan. And our current used Sears Craftsman looks as if it won a lawnmower demolition derby (and mows like it, too).

The serenity I used to find in mowing my parents’ and grandmother’s yards has yet to be found at Casa Reed Murrell. Who knew you could actually take smooth ground for granted, but you can. I did. Having grown up along Hwy. 30, between Calamus and Grand Mound, the ground is flat and the lawns have a near fairway-like quality.

After nine years of working to make Joe Brown’s ground behave, fighting with it to smooth itself out, Joe Brown’s ghost has been laughing his tail off.

The early years were fraught with spring thaws that would have the lawn heaving various forms of detritus: glass and bricks, car door handles and lug nuts, batteries and hub caps. The first mows of the season were very much like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates.

You’d think I’d get used to the loud bang that results from running the mower over these objects, but when the blades find an old wrench and send it banging around the undercarriage and out the side, that’s a sound (and feeling) from which you don’t quickly recover.

And then there were the imaginations of our children when at ages three and six, Maclane and Moira, would take large rocks and make “dinosaur nests.” The kids, especially Maclane, were huge into dinosaurs and one day they hatched the brilliant idea of pretending the decorative river rock around the house were dinosaur eggs. They’d take these rock “eggs” and build nests throughout the yard. Sometimes at the base of trees, other times, out in the middle, blanketed by grass “so they’d stay warm.”

Imagine, bouncing along (there’s no smooth rolling), focusing on how grateful you are that the machine was actually working, only to have one’s reverie harshly interrupted by the horrific sound of large river rock being chewed up by your already-ailing lawnmower?

Nope. Not fun.

Along with this, let’s not forget the oodles of trees Marty’s planted every year. Adding to the handful of young firs already established, he’s added countless variety of trees and bushes. Between the trees already here, the stumps of trees lost and the ones Marty and the kids planted, we have exactly 95 trees (and two stumps) around which we now mow.

It’s a job requiring much patience, many hours and lots of “Marty” since he’s the only one who can get the Craftsman mower to start.

Just as I’d begun to think I would never again experience the Zen-like satisfaction of a day’s worth of lawn work, I went and got myself an early birthday present!

For the last year I’ve been sniffing around for a new (or newer) mower. But it couldn’t be just some ordinary rider, Joe Brown’s was proving to be a wily foe. It was time we got serious and until recently, it was an expense I simply couldn’t justify.

The Pat Howell quote: “Grass is the cheapest plant to install and the most expensive to maintain,” couldn’t be more true.

Tune in next week for adventures in zero-turn mowing . . .

Originally published 6 September 2014 in The Observer.

Lady Justice descends on serial-killer lawn

So I love mowing lawn, right? Well, I did . . . back in the day, when still a minor living at home.

The smooth, evenly cut grass of my Gramma Olson’s big yard was a thing to behold. Sure my lines could get a little crooked, especially when ground squirrels whizzed by, diving for their burrow right in front of my mower. But her lawn was flat, the grass was smooth and all felt right with the world.

I thought every lawn was like this. How naïve.

Tnew mowerhe nearly three acres that make up the mow’able portion of our Joe Brown farmette are anything but flat. And smooth? Hardly. Though fitting, given Joe Brown’s used to be a horse ranch, I didn’t think it possible to get saddle sores from mowing. You can.

Our “lawn” is made up of several areas: the front yard, the back yard, the yard in front of the corn crib and the yard behind the corn crib. I’d estimate the only flat, smooth portion is a 10-foot by 40-foot plot northwest of the house. The rest is a mine field.

Hindsight being what it is, I shouldn’t be surprised the four ordinary lawn mowers we’ve operated over the last nine summers would simply falter when faced with the monumental task of taming the beast that is the Joe Brown yard.

I never knew Joe Brown, but am often regaled with wild tales of goats in the bath tub, horse kibble in the kitchen, engines in the dining room and assorted saddles and bits in the living room. I never tire of hearing how nutty and open-hearted he was, but shaping up the Joe Brown place is no small feat.

It was clear, as Marty endlessly toiled to sustain the life of our fourth mower, a used, beat-up Sears Craftsman, we could no longer get by with a common, ordinary machine.

And given Marty’s work schedule coupled with his involvement at the Rock Creek Eco Center, not to mention managing the Charlotte Little League and coaching both baseball and soccer, he was eager to rid himself of the chronic pain that is the maintenance of the Joe Brown yard.

Which leaves me . . . and my lack of education in the industrial arts.

For a year I’ve been nosing around at local dealers, perusing the Internet, eye-balling sale ads and basically looking for something to smack me alongside the head.

Not only did I have my brother, Matt Reed, on the hunt, but Mom and Dad Olson, as well. The hunt was fruitless or maybe I was just gutless, how could I not be?! Our Joe Brown yard had killed three mowers and the fourth was dying a slow, hard-to-watch death. This yard was a serial killer!

Depending on whether it was Marty or I doing the mowing, the job could take anywhere from four to six hours. After, of course, the battery sat on a charger for a couple of hours. And the result of all that labor? A crappy looking lawn.

By Labor Day weekend, after wasting Friday fighting to get the dang thing started and burdening Marty with the task after he got home from work, I snapped. We were either going to fork over the cash for an appropriate mower or buy a herd of goats.

With Dad Olson available to “window shop,” he and I went to G & H Mowers in Grand Mound, Iowa, where he showed me what he’d wanted to buy last spring before Mom went and bought a new house.

I can’t help but feel like Tim ‘The Tool Man’ Taylor when I speak of this beast: a 48” Simplicity Champion XT commercial zero-turn riding lawnmower. Arw arw arw!!!

G & H co-owner Dennis Galloway reviewed the specs, told me about the four-year warranty and what they offered for maintenance. I figured if it was good enough for Dad, it was good enough for us and by Tuesday afternoon they’d delivered it and schooled me on the wily ways of zero-turn mowing.

First, I’ve never felt like a bigger idiot than when making the first passes around the front lawn. It was an all hands, no feet operation. To move ahead, you pushed the hand levers forward. To slow down, you pulled them back. There was no cruise control and no foot break. When I went forward it was either like a snail or a rocket. Clearly this took more finesse than I expected. And straight line? How ‘bout squiggles?

The turning was pretty awesome, but the looking out for low-lying tree limbs was another thing. The Champion XT came with a roll bar that Dennis warned we would likely remove if we had a lot of trees. (Remember, we have 95. NINETY FIVE!)

After snapping a couple of limbs and almost getting thrown off by one particularly strong branch, I parked it and let Marty remove the bar.

I’ve since mowed one other time and I’m quite smitten with the machine. Our grass looks level, the mounds of hay-like clippings are decreasing and the time? The first mowing took 3.3 hours and the second, 2.9!

I think this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Originally published 13 September 2014 in The Observer.

Character building remains strong part of 4H

It’s been my experience, both as a participant and parent of a participant, that little builds character like 4H.

Back in the ‘80s when I was a member of Calamus, Iowa-based 4H group, the Marvelous Maids, my mother was usually at the helm of my projects, projects usually confined to sewing, zucchini bread and carrots.

My zucchini bread is a Mueller family recipe and was a definite blue-ribbon winner. Since then, I’ve altered it with walnuts and made it a muffin mix which is popular with running friends for the combined carbs and protein.

The original recipe, however, was used by my daughter Moira for her first club show a couple years ago. She easily carried on our family tradition of blue-ribbon baking.

I can’t remember baking anything else for club show, but do recall a last-minute garden entry in which I pulled a few pathetic carrots from the garden, slapped them on a plate and headed off. I’m pretty sure they may have won a “white.”

My projects generally went along with whatever type of crafting my mom was doing at the time. There was her latch-hook phase during which I completed a wall-hanging of Lucy from Peanuts. This phase abruptly ended after one of my younger sisters grabbed Mom’s hook off the table and shoved it in her eye, snagging the small, pink nodule at the inner corner. (Fortunately, my sister was fine, but Mom? Probably scarred for life.)

Her real forte was sewing and while Mom could wield a mighty needle and thread, whenever she set in to prepare me for the next sewing project, she never failed to remind me of the time she sewed over (and through) her finger in Home Ec.

This story cemented in me a healthy fear of sewing machines and thusly, my years in 4H were not many.

Of the two sewing projects I completed, I remember a matching short outfit in which the shorts were solid red and the red-trimmed short-sleeved shirt sported a complimentary watermelon pattern. It was pretty rad.

What wasn’t “rad” was the AWFUL fashion show in which I, Tami (Diercks) Nielsen and Carie (Sexton) Nelson had to model our creations in front of a judge, our mothers and whoever else enjoyed the sick pleasure of watching young girls suffer.

I’m guessing I was roughly 12-years-old and had there been a table nearby to flip, I surely would’ve done so. “Modeling?! Nobody said anything about MODELING?! This is so unfair!”

(Whenever Jimmy Fallon does his “Ewww!” skit on The Late Show, I’m 100 percent certain he’s channeling my 12-year-old self.)

Truth be told, I was likely informed of the fashion show aspect of my sewing project weeks in advance, but given my young self’s tendency to space out and forget uncomfortable or boring details, I stood gawking at the adults around me, ready to burst into hot, steaming tears.

We were told to “relax” and “have fun!” But even now, I challenge anyone to prove to an awkward, pre-teen girl how sashaying before family, friends and strangers can be anything other than terrifying.

I’m not sure how, but I made it through. Tami, ever the seamstress star, trumped Carie and I with some fabulously complicated creation. Both Carie and I knew Tami would be chosen to represent the Marvelous Maids at the county club show. The real question was, “Who would be second?”

Turns out, my pouty emotional “duck-face” was not what the judges were looking for. Carie, in her baby blue matching shirt and shorts, smiled and bounced happily before the audience. Using a tennis racket prop, she charmed one and all and was crowned “runner up.”

Was I bummed? Probably, but let’s be honest. Who wants a moody adolescent grumping about the county clubshow cat walk? The point of these fashion shows were (and probably remain) not to simply show-off one’s sewing ability and/or fashion sense, but to look fear in the face and suck it up! To persevere with shoulders back, chin up, eyes bright! To exhibit the maturity, the “moxy” that 4H instills in its members!

So to all the members of Clinton County’s 4H clubs, I encourage you to trust in the process of character building and go to it! The coming week will be filled with experiences both nerve-wracking and exhilarating so embrace it! Let the fun, the hesitation and even the fear that comes with having your efforts scrutinized by knowledgeable judges mold you into stronger, braver individuals. Have a great Fair Week!

Originally published 12 July 2014 in The Observer.

County fair crunch time leads to state fair crunch time!

And here I thought it was just my kids!

In talking with many parents, it’s clear that a lot of our 4Hers spend most of their year talking about projects and what they’re thinking about doing, but when it comes to the execution? It’s usually the two weeks prior to the county fair when the rubber meets the road and 4H Crunch Time hits.

Throughout the county, there were sanders sanding, photographers photographing, painters painting, bakers baking and knitters knitting. It doesn’t matter how detailed their plans, how pure their intentions, every year the ball-and-chain that is ‘procrastination’ bites many a 4Her in the keister.

2014-07-09 09.10.52Why? As has been our case for the last four years, I listen to their grandiose ideas for numerous 4H projects. These projects remain lofty ideals as Moira and Maclane try to convince us their “plans” are stored right upstairs, tapping their temples.

Those plans remain closeted safely in their minds until finally, usually sometime in late June, do those plans jostle loose after receiving a loud dose of motivation from their loving father.

It’s only after those pep yells talks begin are those dreams parsed from “what can I do to help myself learn and grow as a person” to “what can I get done in two weeks?”

To their credit, both Moira and Maclane had decided months ago what they wanted to do for their fair entries: Moira would refinish a dresser once owned by the late Joe Brown, and Maclane would create a new sign for the late Bruce Bielenberg’s Lake Loretta.

There’d been talk of photography exhibits, baking, gardening, maybe even a little knitting, but when 4H crunch time hit, they both chose to focus on one large project. Again, I have to give them props because they certainly didn’t gain this less-is-more mentality from their mother. I’m notorious for taking on more than I can handle . . . must be those sensible Murrell genes.

For this, I am grateful, because shouldering just the one project held within it many more meltdowns within the two-week 4H crunch time than I ever could have imagined. Literally spitting mad, Moira would burst through the backdoor, gagging and yelling. “Sanding is terrible! It keeps getting in my mouth!” (Maybe next year we’ll remember to dig out the dust masks?)

2014-07-09 09.19.32Then there was Maclane’s behemoth eight-foot-by-four-foot sign that required the same design be painted on both sides. He struggled with the design process and accepting that the little, happy trees in his mind are not easily translated onto canvas, er, plywood.

And just managing the size of the project, sent him spinning. More than once hot tears sprang loose when a strong wind would come up and blow the sign over. Admittedly, there were moments when I wanted to get in there and help him, but Marty and I agreed, they must do their own work.

In spite of the heavy angst each project caused the kids, they hung tough. Neither were easy, nor impossible . . . it’s weird how they each chose the perfect project for themselves.

That’s what is so impressive about the county Fair and touring the auditorium where each club displays the efforts of its members. The creativity, ingenuity and unique designs are inspiring! Every year, without fail, I end up strolling around with the same giant, weirdo smile on my face—we grow great kids here in Clinton County!

And though Moira and Maclane didn’t execute their projects for the accolades, it’s what they received! Each were practically floating on Monday when, during the judging process, they both learned their entries were considerations for the state fair.

I really hate to admit this, but selfishly I’d hoped they’d remain considerations. How could we possibly fit a visit to the state fair into an August schedule that’s already laden with a week-long vacation and the annual insanity that is our early school start?

And then there’s the potential heartbreak and havoc of having one child’s project make it to the state fair and the other not. Sure, we’d navigate those waters just as we’ve done every other crisis, but . . . fortunately for 2014, we don’t have to.

As luck would have it, we don’t have to find out: BOTH ARE GOING!

This is truly a fresh experience as neither Marty nor I had any project at the state fair. Though my nephew, Jacob Reemstma has shown livestock, this is virgin territory for our gang!

So I guess we squeeze a second trip into our tight August schedule. I think it’ll be worth it. While the state fair is a big deal, I believe the best part of this year’s 4H projects happened the day before our local Charlotte club show on July 11.

Moira walked up to Marty and asked, “So what furniture can I do for next year?” Do I dare hope she start that project sooner?

Originally published 19 July 2014 in The Observer.

Grateful to put county, state fairs behind us

What was the best thing about the 2014 Iowa State Fair? Leaving.

I’M SORRY!!! Between the crowds, the sun and the motorized scooters, I just couldn’t take it! I keep thinking if I’d had an umbrella with me, to provide perpetual shade, then maybe I could’ve sucked it up. But the little I saw showed me little has changed since I last visited the fair in 1995.

Dad Olson poked fun, “You mean to tell me, you run all these races, out in the heat, and you couldn’t take the fair?!” Yes.

In my defense, my miles and racing drop significantly in the summer. And when I do run, I’m mentally prepared for the gross dirtiness (and it’s usually at some ungodly pre-dawn hour).

mo 4h dresser ribbon winnerThe weather, as many of you know, has been quite mild, but bright, blinding sun does a number on me. No, I’m not some delicate flower. I think I’m more vampire.

Even so, I just couldn’t get excited for the state fair. This lack of interest wasn’t helped when the night before, my father-in-law, who’d just come from the fair and seen Moira’s blue-ribbon Joe Brown dresser and Maclane’s red-ribbon Lake Loretta sign, told Maclane he thought his sign would’ve earned a blue ribbon if his project book had made it to the fair.

WHAT?!!! The next 18 hours was a mix of high-pitched emotions ranging from my husband emailing ISU Extension and ringing up different county fair board members to my son crying himself to sleep.

Marty, I and the kids all agree it was a painful lesson in not leaping to conclusions. Just because someone says it’s so, if we’d waited and seen for ourselves, Marty’s lunch would’ve had fewer feathers and Maclane’s pillow, less sodden.

WP_20140709_003Turns out, after making our way from the north entrance of the fairgrounds all the way to the southern edge and the Poultry building where the 4H exhibits were displayed, it was written right on Maclane’s tag that his project book was, in fact, there. There was no way of attaching the book to his project, so his along with other books detailing other projects, was kept in a separate area of the building where visitors could ask to see it.

I was simultaneously relieved and livid. Maclane and Marty had been put through hours of wasted emotion, yet it was wonderful watching Maclane’s attitude transform. From slow-footed and frowny to skipping and gleeful, proud of his red ribbon, the boy was back to his wise-cracking, comic self.

After snapping pictures of Moira with her gorgeous dresser and Maclane with his colorful sign, we headed to the cattle barn to meet up with my sister’s family, the Reemtsmas. While Moira and Marty were excited to see more sights, Maclane and I, along with nephew Nicolas were ready to leave.

The grit behind the livestock fanfare

Walking through the cattle barn was probably my favorite part of the whole fair. I’d much rather walk up and down the rows of cattle pens vs. stand in line to see the Butter Cow. To see how different families camped out, with food spreads, lawn chairs and hammocks was fascinating, likely because I grew up on what I used to call a “nice” farm i.e. just crops, no manure.

As a kid, I loved not living with the aroma of hogs and cattle, but as an adult? There’s a certain ‘grit’ one develops when working with livestock. Watching Phil and Jacob fluff up the steer’s coat, Phil working a brush on the legs while Jacob wielded a blower, I couldn’t understand how the beast was so still, how Phil wasn’t getting kicked in the head.

I may have thought such detail work was reserved for a couple weeks during fair season, I was quickly informed this is the daily grind for many “real” farm kids. The feeding, the cleaning, the walking, the brushing, the washing—all in a day’s work. I can’t help, but giggle thinking this is my sister’s brood.

In June, having stopped by Angie’s place for a visit, a nearby oinking alerted us to a hog on the lam. Looking north into their pasture, we saw cows curiously walking along the fence-line, following the jaybird-hog.

With the Reemtsma men away, we took it upon ourselves to right the situation. Despite her best efforts to scold the pig into submission, clearly Angie (and I) were ill-equipped to deal with loose livestock.

While it’s one thing for a mother to threaten and coerce her daughters into modeling their sewing projects, clearly it was Angie’s lost battle trying to reason with a pig.

Had we been real farm girls, maybe we would’ve know that a boot to the side would’ve nudged the pig along. That a rightly swung shovel provided more motivation than a stern look and a hand on the hip as Angie yelled, “Bad pig! Go to your pen!”

Such is life on a real farm.

In spite of my lack of enthusiasm, I think our area kids, not to mention my family, did pretty dang awesome in the world of fairs this year.

And though Maclane and Nic were happiest while swimming at the hotel, and Angie and I, resting pool-side, Marty and Moira “fair’ed” their hearts out, returning to the hotel that evening, bellies full of cotton candy and funnel cake.

I can’t be the only one who’s glad it’s over, can I?

Originally published 16 August 2014 in The Observer.