Why I Wear What I Wear on Halloween

In college I was told to wear a sexy costume on Halloween. Not by any one person of course, that’s not how it works. No one comes up to you and says, “Late October is the only acceptable time for you to express your sexuality.” But you see it on every television and in every magazine. You hear it from your friends and classmates. The message is clear, and it has no acceptable opposing point of view.

I never needed Halloween to show some skin in public. I had, in fact, become quite accustomed to it. It started some time in high school when I realized that most of my bathing suits covered me less than most of my underwear. If I was fine wearing the former in front of everyone at Wild Waves, I saw no problem wearing the latter for a play or a party. They’re just boobs, after all. Everyone at the beach can see them.

My comfort with being scantily clad in public made other people very uncomfortable. This pleased me to no end. Good, I thought. Be uncomfortable. If you’re so wrapped up in your own bizarre misconceptions about sex that you think a man’s bare chest is of no consequence and a woman’s bare chest signals the fall of civilization, then you deserve to feel uncomfortable.

In college I majored in drama and dance and often had to change my clothes between classes and activities. No bother, I thought, I’ll just do it right here. Right here in the theater, right here in the lounge, right here where other people may or may not be watching. These are my friends, and this is just skin. Proximity is not intimacy. I was very careful about who touched my bare skin, but I didn’t care who saw it.

Being comfortable in a bra makes you into something of a spectacle. There was always a bit of shock on the faces of the accidental observers. But every time someone saw me casually switch into yoga pants in the hall, their shock softened. It was working. Perhaps my classmates were still fetishizing women’s skin in general, but they were no longer fetishizing mine in particular. Familiarity with my bare stomach took away the associated stigma.

I started to wonder: What if my sexy Halloween costumes could be this confrontational? Halloween is normally the one night a year where women are allowed to be publicly sexy without being labeled as sluts. The fall air was filled with sexy pirates, sexy cops, sexy nuns. How could I compete with that?

This is how:

Full Body Leia

I spent months on the costume, and still didn’t have time to make all of the accessory pieces. But I did it. My top was made of wire and Crayola Model Magic. It didn’t hold my breasts in so much as it floated directly in front of them. I was very exposed, and people certainly noticed. It’s one thing to see Carrie Fisher be mostly naked in a movie, it’s another to see a friend of yours do it at a house party. I talked to party-goers about the outfit, the skin, the exposure. I was a one-woman political conversation piece. My plan had worked. I was on to something.

I created a set of rules:

  1. The costume had to be inherently skimpy, not just a sexy version of something. I didn’t want to be a “sexy witch” or a “sexy nurse.” I wanted to be as accurate and authentic to the original as possible.
  2. The outfit had to be well known. I didn’t want to spend the whole night explaining myself to people. If they didn’t recognize me, they would be the weird ones.
  3. There couldn’t be a cheap, easy, popular version of the costume readily available. No one likes to run into themselves at a party.

Princess Leia in the gold bikini was an easy pick for all three rules. The following year I was Tinkerbell in her signature mini-dress, a costume I’d always wanted to wear. She was a little tame, however, and I did run into another Tinkerbell. Clearly I needed to up my game.

LeeLoo from AboveThe third year of my new costume tradition I was Leeloo from The Fifth Element, wearing the white thermal bandages from when she first appears. It wasn’t easy creating straight lines on a curved figure, but by now I had a sewing machine and considerable determination. I spent hours watching clips of the film and sections of the costume test footage on the DVD extras. I spray-painted a wig. I showed some serious underboob. People applauded my efforts.

Years went by and I found new challenges. My pool of potential characters grew smaller. There are only so many costumes that fit every one of my rules, and over time I allowed myself to go lax on some of them. Lara Croft wasn’t very skimpy. Maid Marion from Robin Hood: Men in Tights wasn’t as recognizable. There was a good chance I’d run into another Wonder Woman, and very few people know about Molotov Cocktease.

But the point, and the reactions, were the same. Because let’s get real, I was dressing up as the symbols of my own oppression. These were the women our culture throws in front of us for the express purpose of being objectified. Han Solo is imprisoned in carbonite, Princess Leia is imprisoned in a bikini. Batman wears body armor, Wonder Woman wears a bustier. Molotov herself is a commentary on the ridiculous outfits we put our female characters in while still expecting them to backflip their way through lasers.

Maid MarionAnd we accept it. I believe the main reason we find it so acceptable is that we’ve trained ourselves to ignore the ridiculous. When we see a women in a video game sporting a bikini top and a semi-automatic, it’s not shocking. It’s nothing new, it’s nothing to question. And when we stop questioning it, we stop thinking it’s strange. That is, until that girl from your English class shows up to the party wearing nothing but metal panties and a wig. Suddenly it’s not just a character. It’s not just Hollywood. Because you, man or woman, no longer have the luxury of voyeurism. It’s not a far-off Her, but a right-here Me. I am standing in front of you, showing you just how ridiculous I can be. I have destroyed the suspension of disbelief. My body suit is taped directly onto my skin, I can’t go to the bathroom, and I am the most comfortable person in the room.

I think my overwhelming comfort may be the most shocking part for people. It’s not such a surprise to my friends anymore, after so many years and so many costumes, but I will still find the occasional stranger at a party. And I can see it in their eyes, their face, their body language. They cannot stand what I’m wearing, and they really can’t handle how casually I’m wearing it. Because even on Halloween, there’s a limit to how accepting a woman ought to be of her own body.

MolotovThis is why in high school I opted to play a vampire prostitute in front of the entire auditorium. This is why in college I would change my shirt wherever my shirt happened to be. This is why I have spent so many months of my life in front of a sewing machine. This is why I own moldable plastic pellets and a grommet maker and fabric button covers. Yes, I enjoy making costumes immensely. But if that were all it were about, I wouldn’t have to try so hard to find the most absurd outfits on earth. I do it because it is still the majority mindset that I should spend my life ashamed yet beautiful, except for the sanctioned times when I am required to be on display and ridiculous.

The famous burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee once said of her nude performances: “I wasn’t naked, I was completely covered by a blue spotlight.” That’s how I feel when I’m in costume. I’m not naked – I’m wrapped head to toe in everyone else’s insecurities. I’ve made 10 Halloween costumes but I’m always wearing the same thing: a mirror.

I imagine there are some readers who have been able to get this far into my story and still believe that my Halloween costumes are vulgar and vain. That I shouldn’t be talking about something like this in such a public forum. That being sexual in one aspect of my life makes me incapable of being smart, reasonable, caring, and warm in other parts. That I’m really doing it all for male attention. If that’s you, then I imagine every photo in this article has made you cringe in your chair. That’s a good thing. You may need to feel offended and off-put a few more times before you let go of the idea that women belong to anyone but themselves, that other people get to dictate the entrance fee I place on my own skin. But don’t worry. I’m here to help. And I will be here – half-naked and making you feel uncomfortable – until you change your mind.Wonder Woman

Cultural Shift, Brought to You by GeekGirlCon

In the world of comic book, video game, and other nerdy conventions, there’s been an unfortunate harassment problem. Specifically it is harassment of women who come to cons dressed in costume, and it takes many forms: catcalls, groping, name calling, etc. One particularly problematic form it takes is people taking photos of women in costume without their consent. A common manifestation is the “up-skirt shot” where a harasser will do something like pretend to tie his shoe so he can take a photo of a woman’s crotch from underneath her skirt. While harassment is a problem at nearly all conventions, many do little or nothing to stop it. GeekGirlCon isn’t like that.Sailor Mars

GeekGirlCon is a Seattle convention with a specifically female-focus. While men are invited and encouraged to attend, it’s meant to be a celebration of “women contributing to science and technology; comics, arts, and literature; and game play and game design.”

While many conventions suggest that you should ask permission to take someone’s photo, GeekGirlCon insists upon it – and they mean what they say. Not only is the policy laid out explicitly in all their rules and codes of conduct, they stress consent in other ways. They make sure the official convention photographers are easy to identify so you can tell them apart from attendees. They give attendees the option to get special stickers indicating they don’t wish to be photographed at all. These stickers are honored even by those official photographers looking for candid shots. They also make it clear that if you ever see a photo of yourself on any official GeekGirlCon site and wish to have it removed, all you have to do is ask. It’s a very different atmosphere than the normal (though understandable) position of “we reserve the right to use your photo in all promotional material.”

Because of this kind of support, the rule of asking before photographing is well-followed. EXTREMELY well-followed in fact. Even if you are already posing for someone else’s photo people will ask if it is okay that they snap one as well. It’s a good policy and I’m glad they have it, but it’s had an even greater unintended consequence.

Outside of the harassment, there is a culture of benign yoyeurism at most cons. You walk by in a costume and people stare. Sometimes they try to be subtle and avert their eyes when you look over. Sometimes you hear people whisper to their friends, “Oh hey look, Sailor Moon.” Occasionally people will take your picture without asking, and when you catch them it’s clear that they just didn’t want to bother you, or didn’t think their personal photo was worth asking you to turn around. Sometimes you can tell the photo they got was pretty bad because of how you were positioned. They think it doesn’t matter because they’re the ones choosing to have a bad photo. I don’t think they realize how frustrating it can be for people who spend hours making a costume perfect to then have a bad picture taken.

Like I said, this voyeuism is benign. It’s not harassment, there’s no sexual overtone, and it doesn’t make the person in costume feel violated or unsafe. But it’s weird and sometimes annoying. You knew when you put on your costume that it would attract attention, but it’s still weird to have people stare and whisper from a few feet away.

GeekGirlCon has unintentionally abolished this voyeuristic con culture. Since you have to ask before taking someone’s picture at GeekGirlCon, you have to talk to people more. And once you start talking, you can’t stop. When I walked by in costume I didn’t hear any hushed conversations. Instead, people would tell me directly how much they loved my costume, the character, and/or the show. Even if it was just a short and simple, “Your costume is great,” it was always direct. There was nothing furtive, no whispers or sideways glances. People smiled and talked and engaged each other.

It’s a good reminder of how culture shifts happen. I’ve never even heard the voyeurism thing identified before, and I hadn’t really thought about it until I noticed its absence. It was so subtle, so light, and so accepted that no one even bothered to give it a name. All GeekGirlCon did was make a rule and stand behind it. They didn’t mean to change the culture, it happened on its own. I’m reminded of a story I heard recently about child custody laws in Oregon. Previously there had been a default of children going to the mother if there was no objection from the father, and the majority of children ended up with their mothers. The law was changed to make joint custody the default. Technically the fathers always had the right to ask for joint or full custody, but it was only after the default changed that they began to fully exercise that right. There was a huge shift in the number of fathers who requested joint or full custody after the law changed. Oregon didn’t force its fathers to stay active in the lives of their children. All it did was suggest that being a father means as much to men as being a mother does to women. And the culture shifted.

It felt great to be in costume at GeekGirlCon. I was proud of my outfit and the work I had put into it. I got to have conversations with people about the show I was representing and about the work that went in to creating my costume. I had a great time and talked with some wonderful people. And most importantly, I got to smile for every picture.Sailor Scouts


The Tiny Town of Ten Sleep

I stop for the night at Ten Sleep, a tiny town about halfway between where I’ve been (Devil’s Tower) and where I want to go (Yellowstone). The first motel I spot is made up of cabins, but there’s no office to check in to. I call the number on the sign but no one answers. I pull my car out of the lot and go two hundred yards over to the only other motel in town. This place has a front desk, but no one is sitting at it. I’m looking around wondering how obnoxious I’m willing to be when an older woman appears. I book my room and ask if she has a recommendation for where to get dinner.

Carter Inn“What day is it?” she asks, looking at the calendar on the wall.

“Tuesday,” I say.

“Well then you only have one option, so I recommend it.”

The Ten Sleep Saloon, like all of Ten Sleep, is only a few blocks away. She’s tells me I can walk to it. I casually mention what a nice night it is for a walk.

“They’re saying we got a big storm coming tonight,” she warns. I decide I better take a coat and umbrella.

I spend an hour or so in my room before heading to dinner, and on my way out I see that rain has fallen on my car. I hadn’t been paying much attention and I start to wonder if the storm has already come and gone.

I cozy up to the bar and order the Ten Sleep Saloon Burger, since I’m a sucker for anything that’s named after the establishment. My burger is pretty good considering it’s just bacon, cheese, and BBQ sauce. FOX News is on the TV and the two young people beside me laugh at the caption “A New Axis of Evil?” when it comes on the screen. I start to wonder how much the ideals of FOX News match the political climate in Ten Sleep when a man asks the bartender to change the channel. Two men play pool behind me. One of them seems to be a shoo-in for the win, until he scratches on the eight ball. A man smokes at the counter. Credit cards are not accepted.

Storm over the RoadIt’s still a nice night when I walk back to my room, though the wind is picking up. By the time I’ve crossed all three blocks, it’s strong enough to fight against. I’m in my room for only a few minutes when the lighting starts, then the rain. The Red Cross alarm app on my phone goes off, warning me that I’m about to experience severe thunderstorms. I peek out the window at the rain and wind, and I start to worry we’ll lose power.

I’m trying to go to sleep when I hear an incredible, loud bass noise. It’s a fast vibration, like someone running a jackhammer outside my door. I hop out of bed immediately, terrified of what’s going on. It’s the door to my room. The wind is so strong that it’s pushing against the door and causing it to shake ferociously against the frame. For the first time since I was seven I worry that the room I’m in can’t withstand the storm.

I take a wash cloth from the bathroom and shove it between the door and the frame. The noise stops and I can hear only the wind. I take a moment to settle back down. My worry serves no purpose. I’m in Ten Sleep, there’s no changing that. The storm is strong, and there’s no changing that either. I just have to get back to bed and hope nothing smashes through the window. I pull the covers over my head just in case, and fall asleep to the sound of howling.

The next morning the sky is clear and the ground is dry. I’ve become unaccustomed to the sudden changes in weather the rest of the country gets on a regular basis. On my way out of town I stop at the local bakery and order a breakfast sandwich. The bakery was recommended to me the night before by the hotel clerk. It is, after all, the only place that’s open for breakfast on Wednesdays.

Moonshine Gulch, Part Three

Snack BarA man walks into the Moonshine Gulch Saloon in bike shorts, and two friends quickly join him. I don’t know how long they’ve been riding, but I know Rochford isn’t near anywhere else so it must have been a while. All three men order a beer, which seems like a strange choice to me. I’m not a fan of beer anyway, but I can’t imagine having one in the middle of a long bike ride.

I sit and enjoy my Dr. Pepper as Betsy busies herself around the bar. The bicyclists have all opted to sit out front on the porch, but I think she still feels the need to get back to work now that she’s got more customers than just me. There’s a police scanner on in the background. I hear them say that a woman has been getting calls from a man in Deadwood. He’s claiming she owes him money on a car and is threatening to come down. She’s at the post office waiting to make a report.

Time passes and one by one the bicyclists come back inside, each ordering a second beer and returning to the porch. As Betsy gets their drinks I start to examine the wall behind the bar. In addition to being a saloon, Moonshine Gulch is something of a general store. At least, a general store for non-perishables. On one side there are tins of spam, bottles of ketchup, cans of fruit cocktail, and just-add-water chow mein. On the other side are snack-sized bags of chips and several rows of candy bars. There are sandwich bags full of in-shell peanuts that were clearly divvied up by Betsy herself. Of course you can also buy boxes of sandwich bags.

In addition to the food, the back of the bar is covered in pieces of paper spouting cliches and political opinions, like “Who you hang with in life is who you are,” and “I’ll keep my money, my freedom, and my guns and you can keep the CHANGE.” They’re the kind of thing the old man at the hardware store might repeat to you with a laugh. “We ain’t everybody’s cup of sunshine.” Maybe something you’d read in a chain email from 1998. “It’s not the edge of the world, but you can see it from here.” Nearly every phrase is hand-written, indicating these truisms are spouted nightly by the bar’s patrons.

A set of six bikers ride in from Minnesota. The first one walks up to the counter while the others are still removing their gear. He looks at the menu and the beers and decides to get an ice cream sandwich. Betsy walks around the front of the counter to get to the back room, and she emerges holding a single ice cream sandwich. As the first man pays two more enter. They see his sandwich and decide to order the same. Again Betsy walks around the counter to get to the back room, and comes out with two more sandwiches. Just as she’s arrived the last three bikers enter, and all opt for ice cream sandwiches. I am the only one who sees the humor as Betsy goes to the back room for a third time.

Everybody SmileThe bikers join the cyclists outside, and I say my goodbyes to Betsy. She tells me it’s a shame I couldn’t come by on a Sunday afternoon when people gather in town to play music. I tell her about Mountain View in Arkansas, where they play in the park every night. The bicyclists come back in briefly to order another round, and I walk out of the dingy darkness and into the bright South Dakota sun. I turn around to take a picture of the bar, and both sets of riders smile at me.

I recommend you stop by Moonshine Gulch when you have the chance, even if it’s not for many years. I imagine they’ll still be there. Like the scrap of paper says,

“Here today and probably tomorrow.”

Moonshine Gulch, Part Two

Betsy and the Mop GirlBetsy Harn is wearing three pairs of glasses. The frames on her face are pale pink, and propped up on her head are a set in dark, reddish brown. She has a third pair tucked into the front of her shirt. Her hair is curly and blonde, but turning equal parts grey and brown at the roots.

“Can I help you?” she asks, as though I must be lost. I tell her about the woman I met in Rapid City, and how she told me to visit Moonshine Gulch. Betsy is astonished.

“I didn’t know anyone told anyone to come here,” she says. “Well, what can I getcha?”

I order a Dr. Pepper so I’ll have a reason to hang around. I sit at the bar next to where Betsy has planted herself. The whole place is dark. It has that cold glow all bars have when the sun is bright outside. She gets my drink and we chat for awhile. She tells me she’s making some soup in the back for her own lunch, and asks if I’d like any. I suddenly realize it’s been hours since I’ve eaten, and I tell her I’d love some. As she’s getting the soup I notice that there are hundreds of baseball caps nailed to the ceiling directly above me, and a collection of dollar bills covering the ceiling a few feet away. The chandelier is made from an old wagon wheel, and there’s an upright piano in the corner. The walls are covered with photos and tin cans and leopard print bras. One side of the room has a fire place and the other side has a wood burning stove, though I can’t tell if they’re for use or for show. There’s an old border collie at my feet which is never acknowledged and never moves.

Dog in MoonshineBetsy comes out with my soup. Despite assuring me that it is just something she put together and not an item off the menu, she’s still dressed it up like a restaurant dish and added a side of crackers. The two of us sit together at the bar eating our soup while she runs through the phone book. Betsy has a property in Edgemont, a town 70 miles away. She recently got some squatters out of her building, but they broke a 6 ft window and she doesn’t think she can fix it herself. She’s going through the phone book and calling nearby towns, looking for someone who can handle a window that size. As I listen to her conversations I find out that the property is an old church, which she explains to people as being “across from the bar.” I flashback to my childhood vacations in Montana.

Betsy and I aren’t the only ones in Moonshine Gulch Saloon. There’s another woman who’s been moping the floor the entire time. She reminds me of Megan Cavanagh in A League of Their Own. She’s short, round, and quiet, with red hair pulled into a side braid. Her stature is slumped and her eyes are wide and beautiful. They’ve got that big, quiet brightness of eyes that don’t know their own worth.

“This mop’s about had it, Betsy,” she says, “I’m picking up strings.” She takes a few of the gray, old pieces of mop off the floor and sets them on the counter next to me. I finish my soup and Betsy still hasn’t found anyone who can replace a six foot window.

Piano in the Corner“It seems like there ought to be an easier way to look up businesses when you don’t know their name,” she sighs.

“I thought businesses in the phone book were already organized by type.” There’s uncertainty in my voice. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to use a phone book.

“Yeah, but not everyone can afford to be in the phone book,” she says. This is news to me.

Having given up on finding anyone for now, Betsy tells me more about life in Rochford. She says they get a lot of bikers driving through on day rides out of Sturgis. When they turn south out of town, the locals take bets on how long it will be before the riders come back, since the pavement ends just down the road. Betsy and her mop woman are the only two people I’ve seen in the last two hours, and I’m intrigued at the prospect of seeing other locals.

“How many people live in town?” I ask.

“In town? Nine,” she says, “And it’s three too many if you ask me.”

Moonshine Gulch, Part One

I’d only had a smart phone for two months before I left on my trip. I made the upgrade specifically to help with my travels, and it was a real lifesaver. After three months on the road, I had become confident in, and dependent on, my little iPhone to see me through the toughest times. It told me what to do in a thunderstorm and how long before the current traffic would break up. I could ask Siri where the nearest wifi was when I needed to stop and do some writing.

But there are still inhabited places in this country that no cell phone can reach. Case in point: Moonshine Gulch.

The recommendation had come from Barb, the friend of the mother of the girlfriend of my Couchsurfing host in Rapid City. She told me the wildflowers near Deerfield Lake were lovely, and that I should visit Moonshine Gulch. In hindsight I probably should have asked for specifics. For example, “What is Moonshine Gulch?” would have been a helpful inquiry. But in my mind I was sure it was a geographic feature, probably part of a state park.

Deerfield LakeI was about 20 minutes out of Hill City when the map on my phone stopped loading. I could still see the little dot representing where I was, but I could no longer zoom and I couldn’t pull up any new directions. I was smack dab in the center of Black Hills National Forest, and there was no signal. I managed to find Deerfield Lake without much trouble, mostly due to the fact that it sits right on Deerfield Road. After taking in the simple beauty of the lake, I pulled out my computer to look at the Google Maps screenshot I’d taken the day before. The screenshot was only meant to be a reminder of where to go next, not a replacement for real directions. It didn’t include any specific roads and was zoomed out too far to show details. I stared at the map on my computer, then at the roads leading away from the lake. Without directions on the computer or signs on the roads, all I had to go on was angle and proportion. I made a choice and started to drive. I made another choice and continued to follow the shape on the map. I ended up on a dirt road, which is my least favorite place to be when traveling alone. I kept going.

Rochford ChapelA half hour went by before I found pavement again. There were a couple of old houses and a lot of grass. By now I figured I had to be near my destination. I drove slowly past the houses, trying to find a sign that pointed to Moonshine Gulch. I turned the corner and came upon a spot where one road created a T-junction with another. There were about five buildings and it was the closest thing to a town I’d seen in miles. I saw a large sign on one of the buildings for the “Moonshine Gulch Saloon.” I figured I must be close to the gulch if there were businesses named after it. I started driving down one of the roads away from town and found a park. I figured it was the place I was looking for, but a brief exploration proved it was not. I went back towards town and took the only other road out. I passed by a chapel and not much else. I turned back.

Rochford AntlersIn the center of town there was a small building labeled the Rochford Mall, with the caption “The Small of America” on the side. I parked my car and walked up to it hoping for a friendly store owner, but the shop was closed. There didn’t seem to be anyone or anything around. The chapel sign had referred to Rochford as well, so I knew that’s where I had to be. I turned back to face the saloon again. It had the false front of an old-timey building and a soft drink machine on the porch with an outdated Dr. Pepper logo on it. A Miller Lite banner declared “Welcome Bikers.” I read the main sign again in my head: Moonshine Gulch Saloon.

This was the place I was looking for.

My Kind of Crazy

I walk into a backyard scene straight out of a 1990’s family comedy, something Netflix would recommend because you liked “Beethoven” and “Cheaper by the Dozen.” Two kids are jumping on a large trampoline while a third child sprays them with the garden hose. Water is getting everywhere. More children are running around – I’m not sure how many because they’re moving too fast. There’s a zip-line strung between two trees, and dog poop all over the yard. A small, homemade skateboard ramp built from mismatched pieces of wood is nailed directly into the patio.

Jumping out the WindowAs I step off the deck, I see an eight year old boy approach an older woman. He’s shirtless and his arms are covered in marker, with a unibrow drawn on his face. I don’t notice this at first though, because there is a deep red chunky substance covering his legs up to the knees. He looks like he’s been wading around in a pool of internal organs.

Eventually Arik walks out from the detached garage to greet me. He’s my couchsurfing host, though this isn’t his house. His house is a three minute drive away, where I’ve just come from. This is Karen’s house, and these are mostly Karen’s kids. She was the first host in Rapid City I contacted about housing, but she was already having several travelers come through that month and she tries to give the kids a few days every week without someone new sleeping in their home. Arik was the next person I contacted, not realizing that he and Karen are sweet on each other, and have been for some time.

Karen pops out of the garage before too long. Both she and Arik are young, at least at heart, since they don’t seem old enough to each have kids as old as theirs are. I never learn much about the other birth parents of any of the children. It feels a bit rude to bring it up and Karen and Arik don’t seem particularly interested in explaining.

Stirring the PotArik takes me back into the garage to see the cause of the young boy’s bloody legs. They’re making homemade choke cherry jelly, and the kid wanted to stomp the cherries like wine grapes. Karen assures me that they washed his legs and feet before doing it. The pot they are using is huge, and they’re stirring it with the handle of a garden hoe for lack of a four-foot spoon. I’m introduced to a friend of Karen’s who is stirring the pot. Most of the other kids running around belong to her. Once the smashed cherry goop comes to a boil there’s nothing to do but wait.

The friend gives her goodbyes, and Karen, Arik and I sit at a picnic table as the remaining children continue to run around the yard playing. Every ten minutes an alarm goes off, signaling one of us to get up and stir the cherry pot. At the table we talk about couchsurfing and world traveling, two topics I often discuss with hosts. During our conversation the oldest boy (who’s probably around 12 or 13) is practicing a twist maneuver on the edge of the skateboard ramp. The eight year old walks up behind his mom and grabs her beer, flinging it back in a high, fast swig. He slams it down on the table and walks off, and all three of us look at the beer as it foams up to the rim with bubbles.

“You gotta teach that kid how to drink a beer,” Arik says.

“I know,” she replies with a sigh. “We talked about it the other day, but …” Her voice trails off in that distinctive way parents have when they’ve acknowledged the futility of instructing the young.

We wait too long after one of the alarms, and the bottom of the cherry pot burns. Arik starts to worry that we’ve ruined the whole pot of jelly. We grab spoons from the kitchen and everyone has a taste, but no one can say for sure. Choke cherries are bitter, and it’s hard to tell if the flavor we’re sensing is bitter or burnt. To be safe we decide to empty the pot and clean off the burnt bits of the bottom. We help Arik with the arduous task of emptying several gallons of boiling jelly into a giant rubbermaid container so he can give the pot a thorough cleaning.

While Arik works, Karen and I go into the kitchen so she can clean up the remains of the family dinner. The stereo in the living room starts playing the Avett Brothers.

“You swept me away,” she sings sweetly along as she glides from one thing to the next. She tells me about her mother Mary, and how she’s trying to get Mary to change some of her eating habits.

“She needs to get rid of that non-fat crap she’s on, and go down to the co-op to get some raw, whole milk,” Karen tells me. “But I suppose she also drinks those Ensure things, and that’s a lot of dairy for one day.”

Occasionally kids run through the kitchen. None of them ever stop, except to pick up a quick snack.

“The other option is to get her off dairy completely,” Karen continues. “I told her, ‘Don’t give up the cream in your coffee, because that’s non-negotiable.’”

People tend to have the most interesting opinions about food, even when they don’t think they do. In fact, especially when they don’t think they do. I keep talking to Karen about her nutritional values, and she explains how they never have white sugar in the house, because her family doesn’t need it. She gets some raw brown sugar from the co-op for guests to use in their coffee, but that’s it.

Standing around in the kitchen I begin to feel a bit useless, which I objectively am. I start to walk aimlessly around the living room, doing what I always do: trying to find the least invasive way to look at all their stuff. Our possessions tend to reveal a lot about us. For example Karen had a lot of books on the shelf, including this small sub-section:

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Better Birth

The Pregnancy Book

The Birth Book

Gentle Birth Choices

I combine the books with the other evidence to create a fuller picture of Karen. She’s very happy to be a mother, and considers it an important part of who she is. She thinks her job as parent is one that ought to be approached purposefully and with knowledge. But she also doesn’t restrict herself to modern science and traditions. She’s interested in what is natural and what feels right. She’s looking for wisdom, not just intelligence.

Dog EatingHer youngest, an adorable girl around five years old, comes into the kitchen. She’s curious and self-motivated like her older brothers, but so quiet I often forget she’s there. Without words she informs her mother than she would like to be lifted up and put in a nearby cardboard box, where she proceeds to play games on her mom’s phone. The box is tall and skinny, and Karen has to use her foot to prop it up against the counter to keep the little girl front falling flat on her face.

Outside Arik has cleaned out the pot, and bits of burnt jelly are strewn about the yard. The dog starts to eat them.

“He’s gonna get the shits,” Arik says. No one intervenes.

At the end of the night I say my goodbyes and head back to Arik’s house. He’s opted to stay with Karen and the kids, and it’s probably for the best. Arik’s house only has one bedroom and it belongs to his teenage daughter. Arik’s bed is in the living room, partially blocked by a screen. I sleep a few feet away on a bed that’s been pushed up against the front door, blocking it completely. The screen door in the back is the only way in and out of Arik’s house. This works out well for the house’s other occupants, Buddy and Mama Katt, who can come and go as they please. Mama Katt is fluffy and insists on rubbing against everything I own. Buddy is a shorthair and seems absolutely unconcerned with the intruder in his home.

Pouring JellyI spend the next day exploring the Black Hills on my own. I’m only home for an hour when I get a call from Arik inviting me over for pizza back at Karen’s house. After dinner I help them process the 120 individual jars of choke cherry jelly that they’ve spent the last 48 hours making, and we talk about how Arik might sell them at a local farmer’s market. One of the boys runs around the back yard acting like a ninja, but he has a tough time being sneaky. The dog has a particular aversion to the boy’s mask, and it follows him around, barking and trying to pull the thing off of him.

After another long night of good conversation, Karen says she’s ready to go to sleep. It’s clear to me that the older kids are all still up and running around, and Karen tells me that they don’t have a bedtime. They are responsible for managing their own time. Karen home-schools all her children, so they don’t have to be ready to go at 8AM every morning, they just have to get their work done on time. I say my goodbyes as Karen and Arik head for bed. The boys are playing games in the living room.

Arik, Karen, and their kids are living lives that might seem slightly outside the social norm. To a certain extent, this behavior is praised. We love to hear about entrepreneurs and artists and other great people who throw off the shackles of mediocrity and go against the grain. But we only like it when they deviate in one specific way, not in a million tiny ones. Each individual step away from societal norms is reasonable, it’s only when a person tries to do too many at the same time that we call them crazy. Of course in some respects they’re just as ordinary as the rest of us. They have kids and houses like most adults. The kids skateboard and play video games like most kids. With a different measuring stick, I become the crazy one. I’m the one who doesn’t plan to settle down and start a family, the one who isn’t really interested in owning a home. We’re all our own kind of crazy. They may be the ones welcoming strangers into their homes, but I’m the one sleeping with strangers.

Of course, I’m also drinking that non-fat crap they sell at the grocery store.


The Only Lira de Braccio in South Dakota

National Music MuseumI wasn’t sure what to do for most of South Dakota. All I knew of it was Wall Drug, the Badlands, and the Black Hills. While at least two of those things are well worth the trip, there’s a lot more area to cover when crossing South Dakota. I was worried about being stuck on I-90, watching the blood slowly drain from my veins as I mentally ticked off the mile markers. in Minneapolis I met a member of a tribe located in southern South Dakota, and he assured me that there was more to see if I knew where to look – especially if I got off the interstate. He told me I was better off on highway 18, which runs parallel to I-90 but near the state’s southern border. He also told me to check out the music museum.

StradavariVermillion, South Dakota is not a large town, and the University of South Dakota is not a large school. But tucked away in a smooth stone building on the south edge of the campus, you’ll find the National Music Museum. I walked up to the front counter on a Friday morning, ready to pay my admission fee. The woman said the museum was free on Fridays, and offered me an iPod with which to listen to the audio tour (also free). I took my museum map and iPod and thanked her. I walked into the first room, which was filled with old stringed instruments, including many rare pieces from Europe. And there was a Stradivarius. Like, a real Stradivarius. The kind that sell for millions of dollars. There were several, in fact. As I listened to the audio guide tell me about the most famous violin maker in all of human history, I looked up and around, trying to see if anyone else was as flabbergasted as me to find such a thing in this little corner of South Dakota.

PhysharmonikaAfter checking out the only Lira de Braccio in the Western Hemisphere, I moved onto the next room, which featured members from the most unusual branches of the piano family. There were large organs and tiny keyboards. A few of them were so adorable and compact I wanted to take them home with me. I learned the origin of the phrase “pull out all the stops.” It comes from the organ, which has a numbers of pegs known as stops that control the air moving through the pipes. You would get a very powerful sound if you were to pull out all the stops.

Glass ArmonicaUpstairs I saw horns with no keys, whose sounds were made by the player’s embouchure alone. I learned that the saxophone was, in fact, invented by Mr. Sax of Belgium. I even got to see a Glass Armonica, one of the many things invented by Benjamin Franklin. Inspired by the sound of a wet finger on the rim of a water glass, Franklin designed and built an instrument made of glass bowls, which the musician would play using a moist finger. There was even a tiny metal bowl built in to keep some water nearby.

As my time was running short, I only had a few minutes to check out the player piano, the Indonesian gamelan, and the original heart-shaped trumpet from St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. On my way out I stopped to look through a few postcards and the woman at the counter handed me a stack of extras for free. The cards had black and white images of unusual music-related scenes, such as a baby inside of a tuba or Mr. Rogers holding a double bell cornet.

Sgt Pepper HornIt’s no secret that the world is filled with tiny surprises like these, and that you’re most likely to find them when you’re not looking. But most travel surprises are valued simply because of their oddity, their contrast to the expected. The National Music Museum certainly falls into that category, but it’s also an objectively interesting and valuable place. It’s a fascinating, well-curated collection of rare and valuable pieces. It’s cheap most days and occasionally free. It’s the kind of place many cities would love to feature as part of their downtown tourist area. But it’s not in a big city. It’s not even on the main road of the small town of Vermillion. The National Music Museum is the most impressive place I’ve ever found on such an unimpressive street. And it is a long way off of the interstate.


Men in Suits

At a certain point in my journey I realized how much my high church upbringing had made me suspicious of clergy in suits. When I was growing up, priests wore robes during the service, and had a collar on afterwards. If they weren’t at church, they were dressed casually, like normal people.

But suits? Suits were what businessmen wore. Suits were for car salesmen and motivational speakers. Suits indicated earthly, financial wealth (odd that I never connected the beautiful robes, alter coverings, and gilded Bible pages with wealth).

I associated clergy in suits with men on television. Men with huge congregations – the kind that could afford theatrical lighting and professional cameras. And they were always men. I knew plenty of female clergy that put on collars and dressed in robes. I’d never seen a single one of them wear a suit – even in their off-hours.

Now I know it’s certainly possible for a person to both wear a suit and be an informed presenter of religious teachings. I’m just not used to seeing it. There is a deep and inherent “otherness” for me when I see a preacher in a suit. I don’t think anyone tried to teach such a prejudice to me, I think it formed organically. This trip has offered me many opportunities to examine that prejudice. I have learned through experience that preachers in suits, though they represent a wide range and people and places, do have one thing in common.

I have no idea what they’re talking about.

Arkansas, South Carolina, Maine, Michigan – it doesn’t matter. They always start out clear. “This is the story for today.” “This is the verse we’re going to unpack.” They start to preach on a subject and I’m following along, but then it happens. It happens every time.

“Let’s go back to scripture.”

Suddenly, we’re no longer at that particular paragraph in Corinthians. We’re no longer in the story of Cain and Able. Suddenly we’re in James, or Psalms, or some godawful place in Deuteronomy. At first it makes sense, we’re connecting what we were just talking about to this new place. I can follow that. But it doesn’t last. Inevitably we have to “go back to scripture” again. We hop from one book to the next, connecting seemingly arbitrary dots in the most commonly reinterpreted book in the world. Nothing is given context, nothing has story. By the end I can’t even tell you how many unrelated passages we’ve talked about. And what’s worse, I have no idea what I was supposed to take from the whole thing.

Compare this to the sermons I was raised on. When I imagine a sermon, I am basically seeing a TED Talk. I see an informed and learned professional who has a clear and single message to relate to his or her audience. The inspiration for the talk is one of the scripture readings, and that reading is the only scriptural evidence used. Historical explanations will be given, alternative translations may be cited, but the speaker will rarely move to a different passage. When they do, it will be by way of paraphrasing only. “This is meant to remind us of the story of Moses’s birth, and how he was saved from certain death.” We wouldn’t turn back to Exodus to read about Moses. That’s a different reading. It’s a different sermon. It’s a different day.

Cross and sky

For my non-religious readers this may seem a dreadfully specific point to distinguish. I bring it up because it’s a perfect example of how blind we are to the experiences of others. Those parishioners in Arkansas and Michigan have likely only seen the type of sermon you get from a preacher in a suit. My TED Talk religion might come off as boring. They might accuse me of allowing too much of my faith to come from my priests, and not enough from the Bible itself.

With this in mind, I always have trouble when people argue against “religion.” What religion? Which experience gets to take credit for all people of faith? For all of Christianity? Which format is up for debate? Which group gets to remain uninvolved? We like to talk about religion and politics and race and poverty like they are universal truths. But we come at them with such wildly different experiences, it’s no wonder people are more inclined to fight than discuss. We probably aren’t even talking about the same thing.

I’m reminded of a scene from the Oscar Wilde play “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Two women are sitting together at tea, discussing a man they both know named Earnest. As their opinions of Earnest begin to clash, the politeness in the room starts to drop. By the end the women are fighting to the highest degree that polite British society will allow, and all because they don’t realize they are talking about two completely different men, both named Earnest.

I think some people talk about religion thinking it’s all men in suits. I think others assume it can only be women in robes. Neither is right, neither is wrong, and we are destined to always disagree so long as we keep up our mutual ignorance. There is a special part of my stomach that starts to turn when I realize I have been ignorant about someone else’s experiences. That part got quite a workout on this trip, which was the point.

What I find amusing is that I credit my religion for instilling this knowledge-seeking, ignorance-loathing standard in me. Were someone to ask what I find most beneficial about faith, I would tell them humility. It’s that constant feeling that there is and always will be something that you do not understand. And it is your duty to chase after that mystery with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul. Knowing that men in suits preach in a way that I can’t understand makes me want to listen to more men in suits. Traveling around the country once just makes me want to do it again. The more I learn the more I discover all the things I don’t know. And I think it helps me to become a better person. I think we could all stand to have a bit more of our own ignorance thrown into our faces.

So here is my suggestion to you, whether you are the preacher-in-a-suit type, or the woman-in-a-robe type, or the let’s-just-toss-it-all type: seek out your ignorance. It is out there. It always will be. The Well of Personal Ignorance never runs dry.

The Troll Capitol of the World

I’d like you to take a minute to consider the possibility of there being a Troll Capitol of the World. I’d like you to ask yourself where such a place might be, and why it might bear such a moniker.

While you’re considering that, I’d like you to also imagine the road out of Madison as it winds towards Dubuque. It’s a small highway cutting its way through the farmlands of Wisconsin. About 25 miles out there’s a point where highway 18 splits off from 151, becoming it’s own quiet main street. Before rejoining 151 a mere three miles later, it cuts a straight path through Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin: The Troll Capitol of the World.

Peddler TrollIt was late afternoon on a Sunday when I arrived at Mt. Horeb, and the Chamber of Commerce was expectedly closed. I took a picture of the female troll outside the Welcome Center. Two doors down I saw what looked to be a couple of shops with wood carvings out front. I took a few pictures of those trolls, too. I walked past the Peddler Troll to get to Open House Imports, the most Scandinavian store I’ve ever seen. There were clogs and viking paraphernalia and tiny figures of women with wreaths of candles on their heads. I saw a shirt that proclaimed “Leif Was First” and four shelves full of specialty beers and ciders. And of course there were the trolls – hundreds and hundreds of stuffed and ceramic and wooden and plastic trolls.

I picked up a postcard and stood in silence as the woman behind the counter rang me up. She had already handed me my change and told me to have a nice day when I finally managed to form the most polite version of the question I could.

“So, what’s with the trolls?”

Tooth Fairy TrollShe told me that traditionally trolls protect the farmland, and she gave some coded phrases to indicate that the area might have been settled by Norwegian emigrants. She gave me a magazine called “Southwest Wisconsin Uplands” and showed me the page with the “Trollway” map. The thoroughly not-to-scale map indicated ten official trolls, though I’d already seen several that we not officially marked. I thanked her and set out on my journey of troll discovery.

Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to live in one of these towns – one of these towns that has “a thing.” Mt. Horeb has trolls like Roswell has aliens. You see it everywhere. I found a tooth fairy troll in front of the dentist’s office, and a sign in the pub for the 11th Annual Thirty Troll Brew Fest. Does it ever become tiring? As a citizen, do you ever wish you could walk down the street without seeing a smiling but eerie face staring back at you? Do you ever wish you weren’t the Troll Capitol of the World?

Acordian Troll CloseupSuch questions go without answers in Mt. Horeb at 5PM on a Sunday. Everything was closed and few people were around. But if you ever find yourself on the way to Dubuque during regular business hours, do me a favor and stop by Mt. Horeb. Ask them if they like their trolls. Who knows, maybe they do. Or if they just keep them around for the sake of the kids, and the crops.