Nostalgia for the County Fair

I spent Saturday with my youngest two girls, their paternal biological grandmother, and my husband at the Blue Earth County Fair.

The girls’ bio-grandma, whom we call GG, grew up in the community of Garden City, Minn., where the BE County Fair has been held for more than a hundred years. As we walked the grounds, GG told us about the fair of her childhood, which was always packed with people and amazing food. She had a neighbor who spent the entire three days of the fair making the “world’s best” onion rings, and the general noise and crowds forced her father to put a wire fence around his property, just to keep the fair patrons from parking on his lawn.

This year’s fair seems diminished in comparison, but it was no less fun for our little group. The fair board no longer contracts for carnival rides, but there were bounce houses, renaissance-style fighting tournaments, a fun maze, and a small “train” ride of linked cars behind a mini-tractor. Food, animals, and exhibits also were plentiful, though GG often told stories of days when the buildings were packed to overflowing, something that wasn’t the case this year.

Our first stop at the animal barns made the little girls giggle at the crowing of roosters in breeding pens, coo over freshly shorn sheep, wave at the massive “piggies,” and look on with big eyes at the bulls and cows. They got to pet rabbits and play in a field corn pit with shovels and strainers.

After playing on the bouncy rides for a bit, we made our way through the center of the fair to the food booths to snag a couple of bags of mini-donuts to share, since the smell of the freshly fried treats called us. We ate them while watching the the little train go around the fair. While the girls didn’t want to go on the train at first, they later chose to try it, and enjoyed their rides.

We also tried Okojobi soda, which was handcrafted and tasty, before entering the exhibit halls. We wandered through the vendors, then through the 4-H exhibits. While in the 4-H building, the girls tried to drive the tractor simulators–which were bigger than they were–and I got some cute pictures.

When it was time for lunch, we chose to support the 4-H and headed for their hall, where we settled down with beef commercials (roast beef in gravy, on white bread, with from-scratch mashed potatoes) and refills of our Okojobi pops. The 4-H stand also offered a wide variety of meal options, and home-made pie, but we were pretty full after our “commercial treat”.

Afterwards, we wandered over to watch the horses in the arena, then looked through the competition booths, voted in the peoples’ choice competition for best of show in several categories (sewing, gardening, “trash-to-treasure” crafting, woodworking), and played in a special kids’ area. We continued on to visit with the Blue Earth County Historical Society workers in their big building, taking old-timely pictures and viewing a live demonstration of a lace-maker.

We wrapped up with a trip through the one-room schoolhouse, which was decommissioned in 1965 and moved to the fairgrounds in 1968, and a local family’s log cabin that had been moved to the grounds and restored. We were worn out, but we had to stop at the girls’ great-grandma’s house before we headed home.

When we talk about the rural experience, I think that we sometimes forget these foundational places of gathering, talking, exhibiting, and visiting. To see the fair diminished hurts a little. As we went from exhibit to exhibit, we heard how things “used to be.” I don’t think we ought to dwell on what used to be, but appreciate what we have. Young people in 4-H still thrive, educate, exhibit. And friends and neighbors still gather around pie, fried food, and too much sugar.

The weather was perfect, and so was the day.


Mental health is on my mind this week. I’ve struggled with chronic depression for years; at points, it’s made me withdrawn, dissociative, restless, and unbelievably angry. I’m in a good place right now, but there are others around me who are struggling.

I have a niece and a nephew whose anxiety is so crippling, leaving the house is a struggle.

I have a daughter whose depression is putting her in a very dark place, and I’m deeply worried about her.

When I talk about depression and anxiety, I don’t mean the everyday struggles that come from stressful situations that arise during the course of regular life. I mean the overwhelming struggle to simply get out of bed in the morning, engage with other people, and get things done.

At points in my own life, I’ve had to literally map out my day in ten-to-fifteen minute increments, on paper, so that I could check things off as I went to feel accomplished and somewhat positive. And sometimes, the biggest check mark was right next to “Get up.”

What many don’t understand is that depression and the family of illnesses that surround it aren’t situational, and they can’t be explained away. Biochemical problems in the brain create a medical problem that can be treated with medication, and therapy can help people who suffer from these illnesses to come up with coping strategies. When left untreated, many who suffer can turn to self-medication in the forms of alcohol or other drugs, looking for anything that might help take the pain of these illnesses away.

It can’t be beaten. We can’t just get over it. We can only do our best to control how we deal with it. And we need others to understand that sometimes, we can’t even do that. These illnesses are insidious, making our own minds turn against us, and rendering us impotent, helpless to make any changes at all.

If you are struggling, too, remember you are not alone. You are loved. Help is available to you. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255, and if that’s too much for you, go to to chat with someone online.

Chicken Parmesan for two

One of the most popular posts on the blog so far has been the Rhubarb Cake recipe. I thought I’d share some my other family favorites, too.

This recipe I originally made for Matt and myself when we were a family of two. Years ago, I submitted it for a Taste of Home contest, and while I didn’t win, it was published in the magazine. I still really love this, but now, of course, I need to at least double it.

The nonfat yogurt works really well in place of an egg wash-and-flour combo, and it makes for a lighter breading, too. I’ve experimented with the bread crumbs, too, and Japanese panko bread crumbs work well, if seasoned with Italian herbs and granulated garlic first.


Amy’s Chicken Parmesan for Two

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded out to ¼ inch thickness

½ c. plain nonfat yogurt

½ c. plain or seasoned Italian bread crumbs

8 oz can of plain tomato sauce

1 T. Italian herbs, mixed (parsley, basil, oregano)

¼ t. garlic powder

8 oz. spaghetti, cooked and drained

½ c. shredded mozzarella

Grated parmesan

Coat the pounded chicken in yogurt, then roll in crumbs and saute in an ovenproof skillet until golden on both sides. Remove from the pan. Add tomato sauce, herbs and garlic powder to the pan; stir and heat through. Toss in the spaghetti and stir to coat. Place chicken on top of the pasta, and sprinkle the whole pan with the cheeses. Cover the pan, remove from heat, and and let stand for five minutes, or until the cheese is melted. Serve.

Great Influences on Scholarship

Last week, I discussed some of the most influential general fiction and creative nonfiction I’ve read. In response, I was asked about scholarship that made as significant impact on my work, and that list is significantly easier to narrow down.

This is NOT an exclusive list, but these were the first books that popped into mind as in some way pivotal to my thinking and scholarship.

William Holtz, The Ghost in the Little House.

Holtz’s work has been roundly criticized by Laura Ingalls Wilder scholars because of its central theme. His assertion is that Rose Wilder Lane truly wrote the Little House books. While I disagree with that claim, Holtz raised important issues in the book and opened up an entirely new discussion that needed to be held about the role Lane played in the construction of her works. It also unveiled Lane’s role behind the curtain and taunted scholars with the notion that Lane, herself, needed scrutiny. Since I’m one of those scholars, I consider this work hugely important for my scholarship. It helped give me direction.

Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound.

Full disclosure: I studied under May at the University of Minnesota. This book identifies the concerted cultural effort made in the 1950s to confine women to the home for their own “safety” in the face of the Soviet threat. A later follow-up work shored up some holes in the original narrative with regard to race and class, but it was truly an eye-opener for me.

Linda Gordon, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction.

Gordon’s work is an historical case study about forty orphans who were brought by nuns from New York to Arizona to be placed with Catholic mining families. In New York, the children were undesirable because of their ethnic Irish and Eastern European roots; in Arizona, white mining families were incensed that “white” children were being placed with Mexican families. It artfully illustrates the idea that race itself is a social construction that is variable among populations, and not a fixed thing. It’s a brilliantly written book that I highly recommend.

Stuart Hall, “Encoding, Decoding.”

Ok, so this isn’t a book. It’s a white paper that became foundational to the construction of cultural studies theory. Some might say it’s a bit dated now, but it was frankly the best explanation for how people interpret the meaning of media content to that point, and an excellent starting point for further discussion. The key point of understanding here is that media producers do not have the tools to reach all aspects of their audiences, and that they fail to account for race and class, in particular. Hall’s three-point discussion about how audiences and producers work together to build a shared understanding of content remains a key part of my own theoretical arguments.

The Culture War on Twitter

I’ve been sort of watching the train wreck that is William Shatner’s twitter feed for a while now, and I’m trying to wrap my head around the all out flame-war between Shatner and varied people who want him to take back his opinion on the American Library Association’s removal of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from an award it presents occasionally.

Shatner originally said he thought the removal was bad decision. Later on in the multiple tweets that were exchanged between him and several others, including literary scholars and librarians, he clarified that he appreciated the reasoning behind the decision, but that the execution of it was handled badly. In his words, the ALA could have chosen to simply retire the award, and start a new one under a new name, rather than publicly “shaming” an author whose 19th century perspectives on race didn’t align with 2018 perspectives.

Along the way, he angered more than a few women scholars who were taking him to task.

The whole thing fascinates me because of the convergence of different spheres in my world–the Laura Ingalls Wilder community warring with the Star Trek community warring with the #immodestwomen movement all at once.

I’m fascinated and bothered, because at the core for each group? They’re all saying the same thing.

History shouldn’t be forgotten. The Wilder books should not be read in a vacuum, but with guided discussion on historical context about race and culture. Star Trek did groundbreaking work in countering racism, but didn’t go as far as some in 2018 would prefer. Women scholars deserve their accolades and achievements.

But the sheer inability for any of the parties involved to really “hear” what the others were saying–especially points of agreements–makes me wonder if folks really just like to argue, or if they genuinely don’t understand the commonalities in their arguments.

At any rate, I’m going to continue to watch the train wreck. I’d urge people involved in the culture war to look for commonalities, if they can. But I worry that the sheer cognitive dissonance involved for some may make that impossible.

The Influence of Books

One of the writing groups I belong to this week started sharing the Facebook game that encourages people to post a book cover each day for seven days, choosing the books that have most influenced them.

I am a rabid reader, and I have been since I first learned my ABCs. To narrow the list down to seven has proved impossible, but in thinking about the influence of books on my life I have, at least, been able to narrow them down.

Books by or about women leaders and legends.

This interest starts with Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the entire nine-volumes of the Little House series of books. But it also includes The Story of My Life by Helen Keller, and biographies of Elizabeth Blackwell, Clara Barton, Juliette Low, Louisa May Alcott, and Queen Elizabeth I. It includes Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Mountain Wolf Woman. Frankly, I can’t recall all of the women’s biographies I’ve read over the years, and these are just the top tier.

Books about the U.S. western experience.

These are largely fiction, but I enjoy both creative nonfiction and fiction that focuses on the U.S. west. I read every Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey book I could get my hands on when I was a tween and teen, and to this day, I can get easily sucked into any of the Sackett books by L’Amour. I’m also fascinated by the actual history, and most historical sites that feature a western anecdote can count on my purchasing several books from their gift shops.

Science fiction (not to be confused with fantasy).

This habit I totally picked up from my father, who also enjoys science fiction. We went through an L. Ron Hubbard phase together, and I must have read Heinlein’s Strangers in a Strange Land until it wore out. We’re also both Star Trek fans, though I have to admit to not being as rabid about that as others I know. (Best Star Trek captain is Janeway. I know them’s fighting words, folks, lol.) I’ve tried my hand at writing cyberpunk, too, in homage to Philip K. Dick.


I love a good mystery. I’ve gotten quite good at spotting the perpetrator early on in the text, but there a few authors who can still get me. Let’s start with the classic Sherlock Holmes, because variants of those stories can be found everywhere, and they’re clearly influential to this day. I’ve enjoyed Agatha Christie as well, and my favorite contemporary mystery writer is J.D. Robb, the alter ego of Nora Roberts, who also appears in the next category.


My grandmother loved a good Harlequin romance, and I was introduced to the world of the paperback romance novel at a young age. There’s something comforting about a story that I know will have a happy ending. It’s like eating cotton candy. Of all the romance writers available today, my favorite is Nora Roberts. Despite my busy schedule, I make time to read the new Nora Roberts books as they come out. I also appreciate her work ethic as a writer.


Oh, boy. I love fantasy. As a kid, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I do as an adult, but now, of course, I’m a true convert. I enjoy, particularly, the Tolkien and the Harry Potter universes. I also have been turned on to The Mortal Instruments series. But honestly, Harry Potter is the true favorite here. I keep my wand in my office, and I sorted Slytherin on Pottermore.

What’s fun in looking over the entire list is noting the different kind of influences these different fields have left with me. I’m a cultural historian that focuses on women’s history, but I’m also a media scholar fascinated by contemporary media technologies and popular culture. It’s hard to know at this age which came first, but this list was fun to complete.

An Overdue Age of “Immodest Women”

I’ve been thinking this week about my colleague and good friend, Dr. Jensen Moore, whose tweet (@magicalpr) about reclaiming her title of “Dr.” went viral. With #immodestwomen, women with doctorates and other credentials have stepped up and reclaimed the honorifics as their due.

As they should. As all women should.

I recently discovered that I am the first female full professor in the history of the Department of Mass Media (and any of its previous incarnations). The thought dumbfounded me a bit, because how is it still possible that some firsts like that still exist in 2018?

I was tempted to downplay the achievement. I am always tempted to downplay my achievements, and in many ways, I often do downplay my achievements.

Part of this tendency to modesty comes from socialization and acculturation. Women of my cultural background (white, small town, upper Midwest, largely rural) get on with things. We step in, we do what needs to be done, we step back.

The tactic we’re taught is to work around and behind the scenes to effect change. Up front, well-publicized rebellion against the status quo only incites the menfolk. Present a well-thought out fait accompli, on the other hand, and the menfolk take the credit. Whether they do or not doesn’t matter, as long as the project (movement, whatever) gets done.

Evidence of this attitude can be found in multiple places. Historian Genevieve McBride documented an entire women’s movement in the Midwest that happened underground, in the women’s clubs and social circles. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in her column in the Missouri Ruralist, discussing suffrage, that many women agree that their men “are not infallible.” She did so while pointing out strategies for working around them.

In Mary Poppins, Mrs. Banks sings a song about her suffrage work, and the lyrics are telling: “While we adore men individually, we agree that as a whole they’re rather stupid.” I’d forgotten this line until I introduced my preschool-aged daughters to the movie, and it caught me by surprise, even as I giggled.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said, in her book, A Midwife’s Tale, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” The line also became the title of another of her books. Her point, in general, is that everyday women simply get on with what it is they need to do, as her protagonist, midwife Martha Ballard, did.

The lesson behind #immodest women, therefore rings with truth. Go ahead and get on with it, but don’t forget to take your credit where its due, too. In today’s climate, those living modestly get overlooked and left behind.

Congratulations, Dr. Moore, for raising this issue. And to all my colleagues, past, present, and future, remember to claim your title and own your own achievements.