Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Last thoughts...

So. Our Fargo adventure is over. I accepted the clerking job from Judge Magill on September 30, 2005, and started this blog ten days later.

Between then and now, Fargo went from mysterious northern locale to the object of much research to home. It is, finally, where we spent a year. We had left so much of our stuff behind in Rockville that even before we unloaded the moving van, our Rockville house immediately seemed full and familiar and home. Now, two weeks later, at odd moments, it's almost as if we never left. Well, except for all these damn boxes I still have to unpack.

Looking around the house, the town, and the metro area, we realize a year really isn't that long a time – except for Rockville's nifty downtown, which had been years in the planning but was finished while we were away, everything is largely the same as when we left. We had lived in this house nine years before heading to Fargo, and could have ticked off a tenth here quite comfortably.

But instead we picked up our lives and our stuff and moved it all north for the year. We saw and did and ate all sorts of things we had not seen or done or eaten before. We made great new friends. We became more resilient people. I look forward to seeing how that resilience expresses itself as the five of us face new challenges.

Thank you to those who made this all possible: those who hired, encouraged, and moved us; those who welcomed us and took us in; those who kept us connected to life back in Maryland; those who taught us about the law, North Dakota, and making deer sausage; and those who helped us return. Our year in Fargo will always be a very important year for our family to have lived.

And with that, I close the book of "Fargoing." It was always designed to be a "deployment blog," and our deployment is over. I hope you enjoyed reading about our adventures; thank you for doing so.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Safe in Rockville!

Well, we have ignored R.E.M.'s advice and have Gone Back To Rockville. The trip was uneventful. Jen and I pulled in last night around 9 p.m. Everything was unloaded this morning by a swarm of our friends, to whom we are very grateful.

Here's what led up to it:

Penske, the company that rented us our truck, has a little online quiz if you want to tow a vehicle on one of their trailers. I had planned to drag the Pathfinder back here, as I didn't make any good plans to dispose of it in Fargo. I drove it over to the Penske truckyard and onto the trailer, and discovered that while a 1993 Pathfinder meets the height, weight, width, and length requirements for the Penske 4-wheel trailer, the wheels do not.

The webbing that is supposed to go over the tires and hold the truck to the trailer simply wouldn't fit over the Pathfinder's tires. The Penske guy went back into the office, consulted his system, and said, "It meets all the requirements, but there's a little note there: 'Check tires.'"

So, my fine truck had to be left behind. Ellie is distraught. P. and her husband T. have kindly agreed to handle selling it for us, which is a really big deal, and we thank them. Used vehicles do not have to be inspected before they are resold in North Dakota – it would never pass inspection in Maryland; you fail if you have rust spots!

I think the Pathfinder will have a solid next career as a hunting truck. Older trucks are in high demand in that area in the fall for guys to fill up with sporting gear and take off after deer. It'll be good for that.

Packing up was otherwise without trauma. Well, except for P.'s son E., who we hired along with his brother, his dad, and some of his pals to help us pack up. E. cut his knee on the tin on the back of our washing machine and had to go get stitched up. He had to miss two days (at least) of baseball. It wasn't a very big cut, but it was deep, and was in a place that bled a lot. He dripped all over the sidewalk:

In the end, the 26-foot Penske truck we had rented the year before to take us out there didn't quite cut it, and I had to dash out and rent a U-Haul trailer to get the last bunch of boxes on board.

It looked a little ridiculous, but it worked. I had great misgivings about whether a U-Haul trailer would make the journey in one piece, but it did just fine. The Penske truck had over 100,000 miles on it, and was not real happy taking some of Pennsylvania's hills at any kind of high speed, but it chugged up over each one of them eventually.

Just as the sun was setting, I crossed into Maryland (see right), which is never quite as gratifying as it should be when coming from the West, because it's such a little state, and you feel you really oughta be pretty close to home if you're crossing into Maryland, but really you have about 100 more miles to go.

When Jen and I finally did arrive, we were met by my sister Meg, her husband Griff, and their baby, Benjamin, who was born in March and who I had not yet met. The three of them will be living upstairs for awhile, which we're looking forward to. Also waiting for us were our pals the Hoyes and Mike Detwiler, which made it a very warm welcome. Later, Meg and I walked to Rockville's spanking-new downtown and enjoyed a beer at our new brewpub. Very cool.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Final Countdown

Well, this is just about it. All the kids have headed back East. Jen and I spent the weekend packing, and we are now awash in a sea of boxes. Judge Bye and his wife held a lovely going-away dinner for the law clerks tonight, and very kindly included me and Jen. My last day of work is tomorrow.

Pinky (right), the Daughter Formerly Known as Katie, had a great time in Alexandria with her Auntie L.J. and Uncle Seth, and has now headed to Atlanta for grandparent time for the next couple of weeks. L.J. and Katie obtained permission to add "a few" pink highlights to Katie's hair; this is what she ended up with, which does not look like "a few" to me, but I'm told I'm overreacting. All I can say is, when the day comes and L.J.'s wee daughter Sylvie, my lovely niece, needs a ride to go get a Mohawk, I'll be there for her.

One really, really sure sign the end is near is that we have started to repeat the events calendar. Jen and I went to the Fargo Street Fair over lunch on Thursday, where we once again bought a big honking bag of kettle corn. This was one of the first things we did when we arrived in town last summer. Here Joey and Ellie were then:

And here they are now:

Judging from the pictures, we are returning the kids to Maryland taller, older, happier, more tan, and a little more clean. I expected a year in Fargo would have most of those effects (particularly "older"), but "more tan" does surprise me.

Though we didn't make it to a Red Hawks game, we did get to the rest of our to-do list – celebrating Ellie's birthday and going to Space Aliens – simultaneously on Friday night:

Here's the main Space Aliens dining room:

Space Aliens is probably the single thing the kids will miss most about Fargo; on Tuesdays, kids eat free and get ten tokens apiece to play video games and win tickets to redeem for valuable prizes. The best part is, they'll provide three kids' meals for every adult meal. Well, this wasn't quite as cool as I'd envisioned; when I took the kids there when Jen was out of town, I ended up sitting at the table by myself for long stretches, keeping guard over hats and coats, usually, while the kids played in the game room.

Joey and I were out until 1 Friday night at Fargo's big Harry Potter book-release party at the Barnes & Noble, the last one ever. Joey wrapped up Book 6 with a few days to spare, and was good and ready. We showed up at 9 p.m. and just squeaked in the door; everyone who arrived a little later had to wait outside until 12:30 or so, when the crowd inside had thinned out. The line stretched two blocks long.

It was quite an event. They took Polaroids of the kids, told their fortunes, had little bottles they could fill up with layers of different colors of sand, and read from the sixth book for the last half-hour before the seventh book was released. At the stroke of midnight, the reader nabbed a copy of Book 7 and started in on that.

They also held a costume contest. Here is Joey practicing his Quidditch moves, as he came dressed as Quidditch-playing Harry:

Here he is after winning second place in the 10-and-under group:

Joey worked out exactly what he wanted to do as he presented himself to the crowd, and executed it nicely. He was well-received by judges and spectators alike. He was awfully proud of himself, and I am proud of him, too.

[Reflecting on the event the next day, I realized that it was the first of many times in my life where one of my children would be the expert at what we were doing and I would be the novice. I could point out those dressed as Dumbledore and Harry, and that was about it. Joey knew the full cast of characters cold, and engaged in intelligent conversation about obscure Potter plot points with grownups.]

Since we were in the third group of those who had reserved books (the 501-750 range!), we had to wait for a good while after midnight to purchase our copies. It was a pretty hellaciously big crowd (for midnight at a bookstore):

The Fargo Barnes & Noble sold 1,000 copies that night.

Ellie and Joey groggily kissed Fargo goodbye – Joey on three hours' sleep – around 4 a.m. Saturday, when Jen drove them to the Minneapolis airport. They flew alone with each other to Baltimore, were picked up by my dad, and are safely on the Maryland beaches.

For my part on Saturday morning, I headed east to Detroit Lakes, where Judge Magill swore me in to the Maryland and Eighth Circuit bars (It was just in time; while I was there, he also signed the papers terminating me as his clerk!):

I chose to embrace the lake setting and dressed casually for the occasion. It was a good choice; it was warm and beautiful at the lakes. I will miss the Magills; they have been warm and gracious to us throughout the year. Judge Magill says he'll miss me; he very well may, but I know for sure he'll miss Ellie; they hit it off really well.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Oh, dear.

It looks like Fargo's winter took more out of the boy than we'd suspected.

Joey's class had their poems – all concerning "The Important Thing" about summer – published on the back of the Forum's sports section today. Joey's classmates cited all sorts of important things about summer: vacations, being able to play, the lack of school, how much fun it is, getting to spend time with family.

And Joey? What does he think is the important thing about summer?:

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Here a Year!

We arrived in Fargo a year ago today. I don't have any great insight to attach to this anniversary. We'll be taking off for Maryland two weeks and a day from now. Geez, we have a lot of packing to do.

Here's what's going on in the meantime: I'm wrapping up the last few opinion drafts at work. Jen is trying to get her suitcase back from AirTran, which lost it on her way back here last weekend. Katie is with her Auntie LJ in Alexandria, VA, and will not be back. Joey and Ellie are enjoying one last round of swimming lessons.

Joey is winning the race to finish up Book 6 of the Harry Potter series before Book 7 is released at midnight on July 20. He has been reading all day and all night; when I returned from three days in St. Louis last month, I asked Joey what he'd been doing, and he said he'd been reading Harry Potter. "OK," I replied, "What else did you do?" "Um, nothing else," he said.

We have two copies reserved at the Fargo Barnes & Noble. The plan is for me to go with Joey to this very last Harry Potter release party, bring him back to the house, and catch a few winks of sleep. Then we all leave around 5 a.m. for the Cities so he and Ellie can fly back to Maryland to go to the beach with Grandmas Mary Ellen and Judith. Then Jen and I pack like mad for a few days.

Some things we have to do before we get out of here: Go to Space Aliens one last time. Pack. See a Red Hawks baseball game. Celebrate Ellie's birthday a little early. Finish packing.

For some reason, it hit me hard last night that the milk I was buying doesn't expire until after we're back in Maryland. It's a sure sign the end is near:

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Things You Can See in Fargo that You Won't See in Rockville

I've been collecting photos for this post for awhile. (Don't fear – we don't still have snow on the ground here; it was 97 degrees here yesterday.)

Now, this is not a definitive list; it's just things I've noticed. And it's not to say they are unique to the Fargo area, exactly – some may be spotted elsewhere in the Midwest. And it doesn't include things I've written about before, such as sunsets, sun dogs, below-zero temperatures, sugar beets, all-you-can-drink milk, mashed-potato wrestling or the famous fire-hydrant sign with nothing but a fire hydrant on it. But they are cool.  Here goes:

Car plug: OK, this is something I think everyone expected us to see up here, and we did:

This is an electric plug for an oil-pan heater. Outlets are found at some parking lots, but not, as in some places, at every parking spot along every street. I ended up parking inside at the courthouse this year, and we had the garage at home, so we didn't have a need for one. You don't really need them for trips to the grocery store.

Highway gate:

These are swing-out gates at some interstate on-ramps that the police use to close them down. This only happened one time this winter, I think. But out East, there's no mechanism at all for keeping people off interstates; the weather's never enough, and if there's an accident, we just park a police car there.

Roger Maris tributes: Maris is still a hero here in his home town for the record 61 home runs he hit in 1961, breaking Babe Ruth's storied record. He has a museum at the mall (right), and a very impressive homage at the giant Scheel's sporting goods store:

It seems a little silly – Maris' mark has been bested by Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, and Sammy Sosa – but on the other hand, if Major League Baseball ever decides to wipe its steroids-infected records from the books, Maris may once again be the single-season home-run king.

Snow dumping:

I just thought this was funny – I'd never thought of snow as being something you could litter with. This sign is in Island Park, next to the Y.

Travel agencies:

People flee this town in droves during the winter, and there are travel agencies all over. This one seems to be unusually full-service:

Street Signs. The have some absurdly high-numbered streets around here:

But the funny thing is, it's not in town that they have them – it tends to be out in the middle of absolutely nowhere:

I've seen streets numbered into the 200s. Now that is planning ahead for future growth!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

First kid on my block...

I may be the only guy in North Dakota with an iPhone. I kind of ended up with one when I was in Chicago the day they were released.

The Forum, always one to stay on top of larger trends, see "Fargo Star," wrote an article the week before it came out, moaning about how there were no Apple or AT&T stores in Fargo, and AT&T won't write contracts here, so the iPhone wouldn't be available to North Dakotans.

The truth is, it does work here. Not perfectly, but it does work. AT&T's coverage is crappy, but on the bright side I'm costing them money by forcing them to route my calls through other people's cell towers. The reception does seem to be a little better than my old Sony Ericsson phone (which, honestly, did start to die last week and prompt the upgrade), but most of the same dead spots exist for the new machine.  Since we have less than three weeks left here (holy cow!), I think I can put up with it. It worked great in Chicago.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007


"With the Fourth of July approaching, Fargo police are reminding residents that having, selling or using fireworks within Fargo city limits is prohibited," the Forum reported on June 29.

Have the cops split? They have? Okay, enough of that. On with the show!: "Families shopping for explosive entertainment this Fourth of July are seeking the biggest and brightest burst for their buck, local vendors said," the same newspaper gleefully reported two days later.

We missed this holiday last year, arriving in Fargo on July 12. A few days later I stopped by the fireworks warehouse around the corner from us. North Dakota has funny laws – out-of-staters like us can buy them within the city limits year-round, but North Dakotans can only purchase them for a week or so before and after July 4. I picked up a few items last July and promptly forgot about them in a closet.

Last year, I wondered why the laws were they way they were. Now I know.

These people are nuts for fireworks. Joey, Ellie and I decided to set up chairs on the sidewalk in front of our house instead of crossing the river to see Minnesota State University's show. The show came to us, in 360-degree surround sound. I'd guess a dozen different sites were shooting them off around us – and big ones, too! 

"It'll go all night," our next-door neighbor said a little wearily from his front stoop; indeed, as I write this at midnight, our windows are sill rattling.

The outpouring of amateur rocketry prompted me to dig through the closet and pull out my paper bag of explosives. For one, it seemed like a good occasion for them. And also: I probably don't want to toss them into a moving van in three weeks and drive across the country with them in a 150+ degree moving van.

I checked out my stash – some parachute rockets, three "ladybugs," some things that light up real, real bright instead of exploding or doing anything, and one Mammoth Smoke, the munition of my college years. Without boring you with the details of how I know this, I will just say that Mammoth Smokes are more impressive when set off inside a car driving down an Interstate highway than they are when painted thinly across the vast North Dakota plains.

I kept the kids back at a safe distance, rolled up the windows of the truck and moved it down the street a ways. The very first thing I set off was a ladybug, which spun on the ground for a few seconds before shooting straight into the sky and sparking. I looked up, up, up to see it go, looked down, and there was a Fargo police car stopping in front of me. The officer got out of the car and informed me that all fireworks, including sparklers, were illegal within the city limits. Oops.

The officer then said, to my great relief, that the police's task tonight was to go after the really impressively loud rockets going up all around us, and that I shouldn't expect any more police on my street tonight. Whew! I took this as implicit permission to shoot off my relatively quiet fireworks, and did so.

Watching from home was a good idea. The kids were tired; fireworks can't get going here until 10:30 or so because it stays light so late. The mosquitoes were also out in force, which Joey and Ellie are totally unprepared for – I don't think we saw one bug last summer; this summer is far more typical, and they are ever-present and vicious.

Joey very quickly wearied of slapping bugs off himself, and asked if he could watch the rest of the show from inside.  I think, honestly, that his retreat had to do more with Harry Potter than the bugs. He is in J.K. Rowlings' thrall – most of the way through the fifth book, and trying desperately to finish up everything before the seventh and last book arrives July 20.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Leaving our mark...

The long winter is finally over. Not because it's gorgeous out, but because North Dakota finally has an elementary school listed in the Wikipedia: Bennett Elementary School.

The entry was created by Katie's fourth-grade class. I came in and demonstrated what the Wikipedia was (about half of them knew already), and noted that Bennett had no entry, indeed, that not one elementary school in North Dakota had an entry. The kids took the bait, and we researched the article over two more class sessions, the last one just before school let out for the summer.

I thought it was a cool project, because it gave the kids a good lesson on what the Wikipedia is, how its entries are created, and, more generally, how to research, source, and construct an article of their own on a topic they're actually a little interested in. And at the end of the day, instead of having worked on a project just for the sake of working on a project, we have added a little bit to the world's store of knowledge.

Katie and I took on the task of assembling the research into the article. I was afraid for awhile that we would get distracted by summer and head home to Maryland without getting the damn thing published. But we managed to get it out. Now I'm afraid that the entry will be deemed insufficiently noteworthy for inclusion in the apparently-not-quite-bottomless Wikipedia pit. We'll see.

Hey, be nice!

The senior class of Falls Church, Virginia's Marshall High School were told by their graduation speaker last week to avoid Fargo at all costs.

"My advice to you today," said one of the school's history teachers, Tim Kane: "Work hard, believe in something, be passionate and be persistent in whatever you do or you will end up in Fargo."

"Yes, Fargo, North Dakota — the armpit of civilization. Why Fargo, you ask? Because for me, Fargo, North Dakota, is the physical and spiritual symbol of what happens to you when you die inside."

Awwww... that's not very nice. After all, the East Coast doesn't have to look this far for world-class armpits – New Jersey alone has several outstanding ones, including my native city of Camden. Certain parts of Richmond, in Kane's home state, come to mind as well.

How fitting that the address took place in DAR Constitution Hall, a symbol of ignorance in Washington ever since its managers prevented Marian Anderson from singing there in 1939 because she was black. Eleanor Roosevelt, disgusted by the racism, resigned from the DAR and arranged for Miss Anderson to sing on Easter Sunday morning from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a rapt crowd of 75,000 and a national radio audience. Where's Eleanor when you need her?

Kane's comments were reported this morning in the Forum in a column by its editor, who printed Kane's work phone number and e-mail address, and urged his readers to teach him about Fargo and to "[r]emember to follow his own advice and 'believe in something, be passionate and be persistent in whatever you do.'”

Neither I nor the Forum's editor, apparently, feel like having much of a sense of humor about this. I think it's because the weather has been gorgeous this past week; today is a high in the mid-80s with 50% humidity. We are totally headed to the pool for the day the moment it opens, and I'm not going to take anyone saying anything bad about this town today.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


After a week of heavy rain leading up to the Fargo AirSho, organizers were getting a little nervous; advance (nonrefundable) ticket sales were slow. “Whether we put a show on or not, we have $300,000 worth of expense,” one of the coordinators told the Forum. “All we ask is that people take the risk with us.”

The appeal to Fargo's community spirit proved unnecessary, as Saturday morning was beautiful, and about 15,000 people showed up to see the sights, the air show's best day ever.

Also helping was publicity from the Navy's Blue Angels, who took flight practice at low altitudes all over Fargo this past week, providing a window-rattling running reminder that this town was about to have an air show. Jen and I had lunch on the south side of town on Thursday, and the formation of four Angels swept over several times as we ate. Our waitress said the day before they had come by so low and loud they caused sympathetic vibrations in the kitchen's exhaust hoods, which had scared the hell out of one of the cooks. But she said this with a smile on her face – I get the impression that people thought it was pretty cool. The lunchtime flyover did provide the final bit of convincing I needed to drag the family to the show.

I laid down the rules for the kids as we took the shuttle bus from the parking lot: "No matter who asks you, no matter how nicely they ask, no one is joining the Air Force or Navy today. Got that?" We found a relatively dry spot in some still-soggy grass, and set up on our blanket:

One of the planes demonstrated was the Air Force's A-10 Thunderbird II. The announcer claimed the plane featured "devastatingly good looks." Nice try. Even I know that the A-10 – better known as the "Warthog" – is as ugly as it is effective. And boy, is it effective. Up at the top of this post is the A-10 flying in tandem with the P-51 Mustang, a legendary – and good-looking – fighter plane from WWII.

We were also treated to a B-52 flyby:

The announcer encouraged us to walk around the rest of the show, as we could see the action from anywhere, as they had "The world's largest theater screen – the big blue North Dakota sky."

Katie and Joey and I took a look around the displays. They crawled into a few helicopter cockpits and then took turns controlling a missile battery:

I gotta say, I had not seen that before. Best thing was, there were no lines – they just walked into the cockpits or grabbed the stick and started aiming.

Show organizers zipped around in GEM electric vehicles and on oversized Segways with rugged all-terrain tires, the latter being something I had not seen before. One display as we walked in was a bunch of really big pieces of farming equipment. I tried to convince Joey that they were airplanes, not tractors. "We're at an airshow, Joe. Why would they have tractors here?" I almost had him going.

The highlight of the show was, of course, the Blue Angels:

It had been unclear for awhile whether they would perform, as they had lost an Angel in an airshow crash in April. They apparently asked an alumnus to return, and performed with all six slots filled.

The Blue Angels are kind of a funny thing. They're very fast, and very loud, and they like to show off how closely they can pass each other, and how closely they can fly next to each other, often with one plane upside down. But something seemed missing. Maybe it's because these guys are flying fighter jets that are so capable that they can easily do what used to be impossible, or maybe it's because they're such superior pilots that they make it look easy. But somehow their performance came off as kind of sterile rather than thrilling. It was cool to see once, but I'm not sure one would get much out of seeing them again. In some ways, seeing them buzz the town the week before was cooler, as it was unexpected.

Here they are toward the end of their show, doing what I think is called the "Delta Break." I've seen film of a tighter cross, but this was plenty tight for me:

Little-known Blue Angels fact: the group's name stems from one of its founders' spotting an advertisement in 1946 in The New Yorker for the city's popular "Blue Angel" nightclub.

The AirSho was a cool outing. Having said that, it was overwhelmingly, if not surprisingly, militaristic. A few civilians showed up to put their stunt planes through their paces – and they were pretty impressive – but the bulk of the show was showing off machines designed for killin'. Having said that, the A-10 was the only plane for which its description centered on its firepower; the flying abilities of the others were impressive enough that we didn't need to dwell on their killing capacities.

After the show was done, the five of us were treated to a miracle of efficiency: we strolled to the front gate, hopped onto the first bus that pulled up, were taken directly to our parking lot, and zipped right out. "This is just the perfect-sized town for any kind of event like this," Jen said on the bus. (By contrast, the Joint Services Open House at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland draws hundreds of thousands of people annually, and creates traffic havoc in and around Washington, D.C. We had never mustered the courage to go when we were back home; it's convenient that even for Fargo's popular events you don't need to be brave, you can just show up.)

On Sunday, as Katie, Joey and I were out for a Father's Day bike ride, the Blue Angels treated us to a show in the skies above us as we rode north. "Angels at 10 o'clock!" Katie cried out as the diamond formation came into view. Joey joyfully rang his bicycle bell in an effort to get their attention he fully knew was futile. We were lucky to be on a very straight road, as our eyes were skyward for a good portion of the ride. Heading home later, we saw two Angels streak off to the south and disappear into the clouds, presumably heading for their next show.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Fargo-Ecuador connection...

Our great friend Dan Powers sent greetings this evening, along with a link to a cool map that tickled him. It renames each American state with a country that generates a similar gross domestic product (GDP) each year:

North Dakota, forty-eighth among the states and D.C., matches up to Ecuador (70th among nations at $32 billion). Seventeenth-ranked Minnesota, appropriately enough, is similar to Norway (28th among nations with a $262-billion GDP).

The full map is here.

Monday, June 11, 2007


At lunch today, my colleagues J. and P. had a great idea: "Why don't we go kill some clay pigeons?" While in general I'm really not a big fan of guns, I figured this was a golden opportunity to try something I'd never get to do back East.

So after a return to the office of a respectable length, we took off for the sporting-goods store to pick up shells and pigeons, then drove out to a deserted field on the outskirts of West Fargo. It was a beautiful afternoon to be outside.

Here's how it works. One guy places a clay pigeon, a little soft ceramic disc, in a plastic arm. Here are the two together:

He throws it:

Then the other guys shoot at it. We were throwing them low today, because the wind was picking them up pretty well – a few actually boomeranged over our heads. It doesn't take much effort; I'd say it's easier than throwing a Frisbee, and harder to screw up.

In this clip, the camera is sitting on the box of targets in the grass. I yell "Ready!", throw the pigeon, then pick up the camera to film J. and P. shooting at it. Very exciting; lots of wind noise:

I was shooting a 20-gauge pump shotgun with target loads, versus a larger 12-gauge shotgun and more-serious "hunting loads." J. took a good deal of pleasure in having me try out his 12-gauge with the biggest hunting-load shells he'd brought along, which near about ripped my arm off when the shotgun kicked back. Here's the bruise I have at the moment, which will undoubtedly get far more colorful tomorrow:

Want to know something surprising? I was pretty good. I hit my very first target, and then hit about 75% of them from there on out. No one was more shocked than I, though J. and P. were close.

Here's film of me at the end of the afternoon hitting three in a row. You're not going to be able to see the targets disintegrate with YouTube's low-quality video, so you'll have to take my word for it. On the last one, I'd forgotten to pump the shotgun, so I missed my first shot. I then pumped it, fired, and hit it on the second try:

[Please excuse my undoubtedly myriad serious safety violations.]

What P. is saying, as the film ends, is, "I find it very hard to believe that this is your first time doing this." It made my day. I'm attributing it to good coaching from J. and P., and from hundreds of hours over the years of playing first-person-shooter video games.

I was very pleased to have been asked along, and more than a little glad that I didn't embarrass myself in the process. I was also pleased to be able to tell the kids about it and not have to tell them I'd killed anything.

The list of things I've gotta do before we leave Fargo is getting shorter.

Crime Report...

Well, we had a great weekend going to the rodeo and then to the city pool all afternoon Saturday and Sunday.

The only glitch – and I'm only reporting this out of an obligation to make this deployment blog complete – was that we accidentally left the van unlocked Saturday afternoon, and Jen's purse was stolen out of it.

There was hardly any cash in it; we were able to cancel all the credit and debit cards and stop payment on the checks Jen was carrying before anything else happened. (The lack of activity on the cards makes me think that the person simply wanted the cash and ditched everything else – which adds up to a lot of trouble on our side for their gain of $20.)

Still, Jen is out a driver's license and a cell phone. The Fargo cop to whom Jen gave her report said not to worry about it, to tell anyone who pulls you over that your purse was stolen. We'll see how that works. In the meantime, Jen received a call back from a very unexpectedly nice and helpful person from the Maryland MVA who will get her set up with a temporary 45-day license to tide her over until we return to Maryland's warm and humid embrace.

The cell phone is a bit more of a pain. We've been dying to finish up our two-year contract with the ever-pleasant-to-deal-with Cingular, which is up this fall. If we get a replacement phone from them, we'll have to either pay full price for it or get a mildly subsidized phone stapled to an ironclad brand-new two-year commitment. I think I may pick one up used on eBay instead.

Or: Jen suspects I am less than fully upset about the loss of her cell phone because I figure she might let me buy one of Apple's upcoming iPhones (right) to replace it. And while that may now be the case, I can honestly say it didn't occur to me until she said it out loud.

In related cell-phone news, Cingular has very thoughtfully has placed "Off Network" on the main screen of our phones these past few months to remind us on a daily basis that we're costing them money by not being in an area where they provide their own service. When I called to get Jen's phone deactivated, several Cingular folks gingerly raised the issue; I replied that when I'd called them before we left Maryland and asked whether we could get out of our contract because we were moving to North Dakota, they had said, "Oh, no, no, no...." So the daily reminder that it's costing them dearly to transmit our calls on other people's networks has actually been a happy part of each of my days.

Watch out, Utica!

Jen got a kick out of this.

Entering West Fargo on 13th Ave. South, you see this sign:

...which reminded her of an episode of The Simpsons, which features an educational 1950s film bearing an eerily similar title:

Sunday, June 10, 2007


Last week, Judge B. and I were discussing the family's trip out to the western Dakotas. One thing I was hoping to see while we were here was a rodeo, I said; he immediately suggested the Hawley Rodeo, a local institution held in June each year. I didn't get around to Googling it until Friday, and lo and behold, it was that night and the next!

Jen was a little dubious, but responded to the argument that since I had agreed to go to the Fargo Star competition against my better judgment (and ended up enjoying it immensely), she should return the favor.

The weather looked to be gorgeous Friday night, and looked a little iffier for the rest of the weekend, so we, uh, seized the bull by the horns and took off for Hawley, about 20 miles east of Fargo in Minnesota. The rodeo featured seven events: Bareback bronc riding, saddle bronc riding...

...tie-down roping of calves, steer wrestling, team roping, barrel racing, and for the big finale, bull riding.

We saw our buddy Erin at the rodeo. She grew up nearby and used to barrel race. "It's a girl thing," she said, and indeed, most of the barrel racers were women. They had two breeds of "barrel racers": national and local. What's a barrel race? Well, here's Shannon Porch from Wanblee, S.D., one of the national racers, tearing it up:

The national riders made it look easy; the local riders provided a better idea of how difficult it is to get a horse to make those kinds of turns.

During the internission, they had sheep riding for the kids. We all thought, "Oh, how nice! Like pony rides, but on sheep." You had to sign up in advance for it, which we did not do, and then they picked a few names. Ellie was moderately distraught about not being able to do it.

We should have known – it's not at all like a pony ride. It's more like a bull ride, but kid-sized. They had to wear helmets, and the idea is to see who can hug the neck of the sheep the longest – and not fall off – while the sheep wander around, not really minding their riders. The event led to some colorful spills (right; click on the picture for more detail).

The kids crowded the fence to watch. I thought once Ellie saw all these kids getting tossed off their animals, she would reconsider her desire to do it, but no, she went from moderate to quite acute distress – distress so severe it could be cured only with a few cookies.

The only off note was a full page in the rodeo program entitled "A Sad Parallel" comparing the mess birds make when you put out a feeder to the mess made by those allowed into the United States through our immigration policies. (Though the piece wasn't specific, I think it was referring to our Mexican brethren, not Canadian.) One complaint: "Corn Flakes now come in a bilingual box." Oh, the humanity! I had no idea the people of Minnesota wanted so badly to have those migrant farm work jobs for themselves. It was perhaps the most unfriendly thing I've seen since I've been here.

The finale was the bull riding, and it was everything you'd expect. Some cowboys barely made it out of the gate before being tossed high; some made it to the buzzer. The kids crowded the fence again, and were thrilled. I think even Katie liked it; she is taking animal cruelty pretty seriously right now, and was not a big fan of the calves being lassoed, yanked around by the neck, and tied up. But the balance of power in bull riding clearly shifts to the bull – the men seem quite outmatched. At one point, I believe the announcer said, the score was "Bulls 7, Cowboys 4."

About 840 people attended the rodeo on Friday with us. It is the biggest annual event in Hawley, a town of a little less than 2,000 souls. The five of us sat on a blanket and ate quite reasonably priced hot dogs and nachos for dinner. As Jen and I strolled across the grassy hill in search of some food, she graciously admitted she was enjoying herself.

It was a beautiful night, and the rodeo was a great excuse to be out in it.