Thursday, August 16, 2018

Ally & the Israelites

The first week of school always has me like
simultaneously...all week. Mountains of paperwork...and we only have one kid. But blissful peace and quiet for 6 hours everyday. The hurry and scurry routine of breakfast (Throw away your trash, please), brushing teeth (I don't believe you, let me smell your mouth. No, go do it again.) and getting shoes on (they go on the other feet). But blissful peace and quiet for 6 hours everyday.

Wait. Did I say that already?

Blue talks a lot. And at one point over the summer if he said, "Hey MOM" one more time, my head was going to shatter into a million tiny pieces all over the driveway.

So, yes. Peace and quiet. At the Commissary. At the dentist. While I write blog posts.

I miss him a little. But mostly I'm super excited to see him at the end of school everyday, which makes me feel like a better Mom. And less like my entire body is burning after being peppered with the same questions all day.

But at the same time I feel like the summer flew by. Like flew. I do usually feel that way after a summer when we move, but we arrived in May. There's no reason I should feel like we were shorted a summer. And yet the barely touched bucket list says otherwise. What the hell did we do all summer? I don't even know.

I think, maybe, I've spent a lot of time complaining.

Have you ever sat through a sermon on Sunday morning and thought, "Well, that was uncomfortably relevant to my life right now?" I don't know if that's a God thing or if pastors are taught to preach on wide-ranging topics that could apply to 90% of their congregation on any given Sunday, but that happened to me this week. We weren't going to go, but we had skipped 2 Sunday mornings in a row and I was feeling guilty. So, I dropped Blue in child care and found a seat in the middle of the middle.

I like our pastor. He reminds me of Nadia Bolz-Weber. On our first Sunday his sermon included a reference to wham bam thank you ma'am and while I was sort of appalled at first, I decided that his preaching style is a mix of relaxed Californian with the filter switched off. I think he's the type of person who is honest and sincere, if not always totally politically correct, and I'm good with that for the next 2 years.

Anyway, this week he talked about the Israelites...and how they loved to complain; in Exodus 5 (when they blamed Moses for how Pharaoh was treating them), in Exodus 16 and 17 (when they were hungry and thirsty), in Numbers 14 (when entering the Promise Land looked too hard) and then more about no water, Moses sucks as a leader, etc, etc, etc. Our pastor encouraged us to trust God and to trust the journey. He suggested we stop grumbling and start living.

I think I've been grumbling. If not on here, at least to everyone around me. It's hard to imagine a more drastic change than from the fertile fields of Dutch Amish Pennsylvania to the concrete jungle of Los Angeles. And we had ranked this duty station somewhere near the bottom because I've never had any desire to live in L.A. Visit? Absolutely! But I hate crowds. I consistently choose national parks over Disney World because...crowds. For the love of all things Amish, please don't make me move to L.A.

And yet...here we be.

So, yes...there has been some (or a lot of) grumbling. The traffic. The cost of dining out. The crappy service we've gotten every time we've eaten out. The wall-to-wall people regardless of where you go and when. The homeless on every corner and everywhere in between. The trash on freeways, in yards, in parking lots, on the sidewalks. The cost of gas. The high crime. The "all-about-me" attitudes of the natives in this area. The air quality. The water quality. The quality of life.

Grumble. Grumble. Grumble. Grumble. I am an Israelite.

In my spiritual life I do believe that God has a plan for me. Sure there is some free will, but for the most part, there is a reason why things happen. Lately, I have spent entirely too much time fighting when I should be following. Neal will tell you I've always had trust issues. He would probably be the least surprised by this sudden lack of faith in the future. God brought us here for a reason. We are going to the Promise Land, but we are going to be "hungry", we are going to be "thirsty" and there are going to be challenges. For the record, I have no idea what the Promise Land looks like. If it's just a bunch of milk and honey, I will probably complain about that, too. I would like some sweetened almond milk with a dash of locally sourced honey, please. But maybe it's retirement with a higher rank pay, maybe it's living in a historical home in a historical city. Maybe it's simply being able to look at Neal and know that we did the best we could with what we had and we tried to help others along the way. Whatever it is, God is taking us there. I just need to stop complaining about the trip.

So, beginning next week, I will be reviewing some of the activities we've done so far. I will focus more on the positives with a sprinkling of keepin it real for good measure (y'all should know that something is only 5 miles away but it will take you 30 minutes to get there and you're going to have arm wrestle some guy named Bobo to get a parking space). I'm done grumbling. I'm ready to trust.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Where Art Intersects With Life: Our Customized Narrative Illustration (a Review)

Last Christmas we received the most unique Christmas card from my friend, Brooke.
I stared at it for a long time, trying to absorb the combination of details, all of which embody Brooke and her family; her husband's tattoos, Brooke's appreciation for a nice glass of red and the color purple, their three furbabies with three very distinct personalities. "I took thorough pictures of my husband's tattoos and the house is perfect, right down to the metal art between the windows," Brooke mentioned. "And Clover barks at the TV. I think that's the big detail that made me cry when I saw it. Like YES! That's my family!"

Then I had a thought. I must have one of these. It was the perfect 50th birthday gift for the man who now owns a Big Green Egg and all the accessories, a complete beer-making kit and a subscription to Audible.

I texted Brooke immediately and she put me in touch with the artist, Jarrett Rutland, a Maryland Institute College of Art graduate and Asheville, North Carolina resident who illustrated the children's book Alligator Wedding
before writing and illustrating 2 children's books of his own: I Love You No Matter What: A Prince Chirpio Story 
 
and Chilly da Vinci (due out December 4th, but you can pre-order here).
Jarrett is also the creator behind Escapist Comix (or click here for non-Facebook folks), home of the Robot Samurai Penguins comic book series. And now he is creating customized narrative illustrations for families worldwide.

I had no idea what to expect regarding Jarrett's process, but Brooke mentioned that he communicates mostly through text messaging and he may friend request me on Facebook so he can develop a sense of our personalities and interests. I readily agreed to the first, I had to think for a minute about the second. Admittedly, my Facebook friend group isn't exactly restricted to the inner circle, but I had reservations about granting access to a complete stranger. Isn't that how Dateline starts? It also gave me pause to think that someone could learn more about me through my Facebook page than from my answers on a questionnaire. But for about 90% of us, this is our truth. We live online and if you are hiring an artist to draw an accurate impression of your family, something that exceeds caricature, you should let him in.

My first text conversation with Jarrett discussed, naturally, his prices. After all, it is a custom piece of artwork by a published artist. How much was this going to set me back? Jarrett charges $260 for a 10"x12.5" piece and $290 for an 11"x15" piece. As anyone with a Business 101 class under their belt will tell you, charge just slightly more for the bigger product and people will almost always veer in that direction. I was already spending $250+...what's another $30? Also, that was still within my This is a big birthday budget. And as I type this post, when I glance at our artwork hanging on the wall, I can't imagine it being anything but what it is, which is perfect.

 But I'm getting ahead of myself.

After I sent a deposit to Jarrett through PayPal (which officially placed our order in his queue), he emailed me a questionnaire. It included fairly basic questions like Describe the members of your family and What are some of your interests? Initially, I was going to surprise Neal with this gift so I was going to answer all of the questions on my own. But as I thought about it hanging in our house, I decided we should do this together. So, one night after Blue went to bed, we sat down with a bottle of wine and a pen and answered each question with excessive (bordering on obnoxious) detail. I wanted to cover all of our bases. Brown paper packages tied up with string, these are a few of our favorite things...

Seriously, it was at least 2 paragraphs for each answer. But I write a blog and no one has ever accused me of being shy, humble, or brief. 

And then I sent a ton of pictures; 20, to be exact. Pictures of our RV and my hair and Blue's bike and Neal's uniform (with close-up pictures of his patches). I sent pictures of my favorite Birkenstock sandals and the Little Free Library Neal built in Leavenworth and my favorite UK hoodie. Jarrett asked for clearer pictures of Blue's Cub Scout hat, which I had to go looking for because it had fallen behind the bookshelf after the last den meeting. And then I asked him to please include our angel baby, but not in an obvious way because I was still not ready to answer a 5 year-old's questions about the son that came before him. I mentioned that Mom and I both have blue butterfly tattoos to symbolize Shepherd's life and that he could use that somewhere in his narrative.

And then I waited.

One morning I got a text. "What do you think?"
I didn't answer right away. I sat down for a minute and just took it all in. It wasn't at all what I was expecting. It was so much better. There we were, perched atop Delicate Arch at Arches National Park, where we had dragged Blue on a 5 AM hike up a rock face so we could see this icon before the Moab heat overwhelmed us. The Big Green Egg was smoking meat below and Blue was feeding the wildife. A beer, a bourbon and our precious butterfly. It was almost perfect.

"I LOVE IT! But, um, can you add our cats? Lulu is the Tortoise Siamese and Poppy is our angel kitty," I asked Jarrett. He answered immediately. "Of course!" I understood how important it is to be happy with the first draft. Everything builds from this and it is sometimes impossible to make changes after the ink is on. I needed to be sure this is what I wanted. Jarrett sent a second proof with both kitties depicted and I was sure...now it was perfect. Time to paint!
 
I waited and Jarrett worked. 
I had to do a lot of things to distract me because the anticipation was almost too much. I didn't get any of these updates until after the piece was completed and I mentioned to Jarrett that I would like to write a review for my blog. So, in the meantime, I knitted a triangular washcloth and watched old Mr. Rogers episodes on YouTube with Blue.

Then one morning I got a text. "What do you think?"
Yes. Yes. Holy crap how did you do that? YES!
Although...could you add a little more brown to Lulu's fur...and maybe give my pants a hem? I felt it was risky to even question, considering the paint was already dry, but you never know until you ask. The worst he could say was no, I'm sorry and I was OK with that, too.

Jarrett managed to adjust the hem and he added a little mottling to Lulu's fur. He even added some stars and connected them, forming constellations out of all our previous duty stations. I actually cried.

People may see this piece hanging above our couch and think it's a fun depiction of our family; a unique piece of art that illustrates our appetite for smoked meat, Blue's obsession with animals and my love of reading, but the more subtle details are precisely what make it so special. There is an inside joke (about the squirrel), a big brother keeping watch over baby brother, and dawn breaking behind us, which is exactly how it looked when we rounded the final turn to Delicate Arch. And who could know when we received the completed piece that Blue would be catching lizards in Southern California just 6 months later? This duty station wasn't even on our radar at that time. He has yet to try to feed one baked goods. I think it just hasn't occurred to him.
Of all the things in our house that spark joy, this is at the top. It is our family: a family of 4 with 2 furbabies.

Here is the genius behind Jarrett's talent: this could have easily become a painting that featured us in the middle, surrounded by all of our favorite things. And I sent him a lengthy list of our favorite things. He didn't include all of them. He used about 1/3 of what I sent him, but he chose the perfect 1/3. I couldn't narrow it down, but he could. He didn't include my camera or the RV or our bikes or the map of all the places where we've been. I was picturing a campground scene with us huddled around a fire roasting s'mores, while the lights of the RV glowed from a distance. Obviously, this is nothing like what I imagined. But depicting us lounging on top of Delicate Arch lends a magical quality to the entire piece. We would never realistically sit in this particular spot, but it certainly represents how relaxed we feel in nature, especially in our national parks, and how accomplished we felt after conquering this hike with a 3 year old at 5 AM. It isn't a collage of interests, it's a snapshot of this moment in time. Neal won't always be in the Army, Blue won't always be fascinated by lizards and someday Lulu will cross the rainbow bridge, but right now, this is our life together. It was intended for Neal, but it ended up being a gift to all of us.

Since completing our narrative illustration, Jarrett has finished dozens more, most of which can be seen on his Facebook page under the Customs Album. These are just a few of my favorites from his recent work:
This last one...that sky. Don't you just want to pull up a chair and watch the sunset?

Many thanks to Jarrett for capturing the absolute essence of Team Miller. If you would like your own customized narrative illustration, mention this blog post when you book and get 10% off your order! 

You can email Jarrett at jarrettrutland@gmail.com or message him on his Facebook page. If you are interested in checking out exclusive, behind-the-scenes footage of Jarrett's work, you can subscribe to his Patreon page here
 




Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (a sort of book review)

I wake up every morning to a kiss on the forehead from my husband. I get out of bed, rinse out my $400 bite guard that keeps me from grinding my teeth to dust in my sleep, pour on a few drops of Clary Sage to help balance my hormones and go downstairs to make a cup of coffee from locally sourced beans. I watch whatever Blue is watching on Netflix while I scroll through Facebook, check Pinterest, text my neighbors to see what they have planned for the day. I hard boil some eggs, make some toast for Blue, give the cat her thyroid medication, turn on the AC if the humidity is creeping up to 70%. Another summer day stretches out before us, just waiting to be filled with a Target run, some laundry, a picnic at the beach, flying kites on the hill, a sunset stroll after a casserole dinner.

Five miles away, a mom unzips the tent door, peeks out to see the sun rising over a steady stream of early commuters. The 405 is already getting jammed up and it's not even rush hour proper yet. I don't know what follows next. They go to look for food or scrounge to find leftovers stashed in the corner of the tent? Maybe they know of a soup kitchen or church that offers breakfast once a week. Then another summer day stretches out before them, waiting to be filled with what must be done just to meet their most basic of needs.

It's hard to not think about the homeless population in Los Angeles. While we could avert our eyes from the panhandlers in Richmond or the huddled masses of homeless men on the MLK Jr. Boulevard of almost any city, L.A. is a labyrinth of homes, apartments, tents, RVs and vans. Everyone here has an opinion on how to address this issue and they will tell you...in barber shops, grocery stores, on the local radio stations. Everyone wants to fix it, no one knows where to start. It is the result of decades of poor decisions, exacerbated by the law they passed in 2007, which allows the homeless to set up camp on the city's sidewalks. Meant to offset the shelter shortage L.A. was experiencing at the time, it has become a permanent solution to a rapidly growing population's most basic need. A temporary fix has become an eyesore and, in many cases, dangerous. The city officials have scurried to construct or renovate shelters, but no self-respecting resident wants a homeless shelter in their neighborhood.

Can you blame them?

It's the very reason why Australia was colonized. Send them over there.

Except the only potentially habitable frontier is exoplanets so, for now, we must find a place for them here.

I will, begrudgingly, admit that I have echoed the likes of Ebenezer Scrooge when talking about the homeless population. With firsthand knowledge of homelessness limited to the one time I moved in with my grandmother when my best friend ended her lease and moved (I was living in her entryway at the time), I have often found myself exclaiming, "Why don't they go to the shelters? Why can't the churches take them in?" But some life experience and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond (a sociology professor at Princeton University) are teaching me that the issue is infinitely more complex.

Neal and I are part of a book club that chooses books based on what they will teach us about different populations living in the United States. From Girl in Translation to The Distance Between Us to Negroland to Evicted, we have exposed ourselves to the wide range of cultures living all around us. But Evicted has shaken me the most, so far. Perhaps it's because a novel that explores homelessness feels so relevant right now, much more than when we lived in Dutch Amish Pennsylvania.

In recommending Evicted (which is set in Milwaukee) to someone, I may go so far as to suggest reading the epilogue first. In it, Desmond explains that to truly immerse himself in the homeless experience, he moved into the trailer park where some of the individuals in his book lived. And then when the trailer park was condemned, he moved to Milwaukee's north side, into a rooming house with a security guard he knew. But, of course, he has 2 degrees, has taught at Harvard and everyone around him knew he was writing a book. He didn't have the true experience. But I suspect he got pretty darn close.

Evicted compares and contrasts two worlds: the one where tenants are scraping Social Security benefits and pocket change together to make rent (or at least try to keep from getting evicted) while landlords express concerns about how many times the police are called to their properties or what to do about late rent payments. Throughout the book, someone is hustling and someone is getting hustled, but who is doing what is constantly shifting. Because Desmond wore a recording device the entire time he lived among his subjects, he has included verbatim conversations throughout the book, especially once his neighbors relaxed their guard around him. Although one woman was convinced he was undercover with Child Protective Services the entire time, even asking again when he saw her again after a couple of years.

Desmond spends much of his time following individuals and families around as they seek to secure housing, which is challenging because of their previous evictions, arrest records and what they can afford to pay versus what most landlords are charging, even for substandard housing. Some landlords won't rent to African Americans, some refuse to rent to a single mom of 4 kids, many will turn a blind eye to all of that, but the evictions come swiftly as soon as the police are called for a noise violation. Although the book only follows the stories of about 10 people, the number of times they are able to procure housing and then find themselves on the street again in just a few months' time is dizzying. It is the vicious cycle I always assumed it was, but with a million more motives driving the actions of everyone involved. And I never knew there is a mathematical calculation for what it should cost for housing: 30% of your income. More than that and something will give. It isn't sustainable. When someone is completely dependent on disability and SSI, 30% isn't much.

There are shelters. But they only allow people to stay for so long and if it's a shelter for women and children, perhaps your 16-year old son won't be welcomed. So, Desmond offers a housing allowance, a kind of voucher system, as a partial solution. He explains it better than I can but, needless to say, it involves some government assistance to span the chasm between 30% of a homeless person's income and what the landlord is charging.

And there are other factors, too...mental health and drug or alcohol abuse problems, the loss of a job, death of a spouse, a serious national financial crash. When the law allowing homeless people to sleep on the sidewalks was passed in 2007, it actually set the stage for the tent cities that are now commonplace all over Los Angeles, even in Beverly Hills and Bel Air. Massive foreclosures in 2008 pushed people into the streets, mortgages skyrocketed which sent rents soaring...which pushed more people into the streets. Skid row bled into every artery around Los Angeles. Eventually, the markets stabilized but the housing shortage in L.A. continues. The cost of living is still climbing. It is a wonder how anyone can afford a roof and a bathroom out here. Even at the bank across the street from our house there is a banner reading, "Apartment loans available." That isn't an invitation to become a landlord; it is so people can afford the first and last month's rent, plus the security deposit, which could easily total $12,000.

During our book club meeting, one of the participants suggested that the best way to begin helping the homeless is to start closest to home. That may mean helping someone in the family or a neighbor. As she spoke, my mind was drawn back to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. When we toured the Amish countryside last fall, our guide took a moment to point out the Amish homes, which sprawl across an acre or more of their family farms. The Amish don't sell their homes; they build an addition when an elderly family member is no longer able to live alone. Multiple generations living under one roof, caring for each other. For the record, Lancaster has a homeless population that hovers around 320 people while Los Angeles weighs in around 50,000. I understand that one city is significantly larger than the other but the difference in city size does not justify the difference in the size of the homeless population.

I enjoyed reading Evicted and discussing it with others who all brought a different perspective to the conversation. I don't know that it solves the crisis, but it certainly opens up the dialogue, which is what our book club is all about. Even after I turned the last page, I continue to contemplate the issue, reading article after article about homelessness in towns from Los Angeles to Lancaster. And that is, to me, what makes a book worth reading.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Roadtripping to Des Moines Part 2: This Town is Ready for a Political Candidate, a Zombie Apocalypse or Both

Just so you know, there's more to Des Moines than covered bridges and shearing sheep. Like this, for example...


Yes, politicians will pause for an interview with CNN in the middle of an Iowa cornfield. I give Iowans a lot of credit for not letting it go to their heads.

But also, the Downtown Farmer's Market, where you can eat your way through, starting with a gooner at 9 AM and ending with a papusa and a train ride.


Oh...What is a gooner, you ask? It is like a crab rangoon, filled with sweet and savory options. You can get 4 for $5 and that's 2 more than you can really eat all by yourself, especially if you want to save room for the gourmet doughnut booth on your way back through.

But about that barrel train ride...

I think it was about $2 and around and around he went for several minutes. It's the perfect kid-friendly activity for parents who just want to eat their gooners in peace.

Plus, there are other things to see at the Saturday market...
like the World's Furriest Hawkeye fan. I'm pretty sure if I started drinking at the beginning of a football game, I would think this was Sean Connery by the 4th quarter.
Also, belly dancers because...why not?
And all manner of unique, handcrafted goodies at every turn. I bought a pair of mitten gloves from the very hands that knitted them.

If you happen to be visiting Des Moines in the fall, you can also have your pick of fall festivals hosted by the local farms. They usually include a petting area, apple cider doughnuts, train rides, sliding down a half-pipe on a potato sack, bounce pillows...
and, of course, the infamous corn pool.
To be honest, I couldn't remember which farm we visited so I thought I would just Google "Des Moines farm festival corn pool" and get my answer. But, no. As it turns out, there is more than one farm offering a pool o' corn for kids to stomp and swim in freely for the entire month of October. But getcha some of this. It's entirely worth the bra full of corn you'll have to dump out that night. And it's significantly better than that one time in Kansas when I dumped all of Blue's sand out of his sand table, bought a 20 pound bag of feed corn at the farm and tractor store and dumped that in his sand table. The squirrels loved us and the neighbors had corn stuck in their tires for weeks.

If the fall festival is worth two cents, it will have other activities, like the Flying Houndz Frizbee Trick Dog Show, where pups leap and twirl to the oohs and ahhs of folks like us.
And the racing pigs. There's always racing pigs. I don't know why this entertains me so.

When your belly is full of apple slushie and freshly baked pumpkin bread, head back over to the covered bridges to check out what you missed last time.


Maybe stop to do a handstand
and pick up some astroturf flip-flops.
Then swing by Zombie Burger + Shake Lab (don't worry, they have multiple locations in Des Moines but we hit up the one downtown) and grab the Trailer Trash Zombie burger with a Chocolate Nutella Marshmallow shake on the side. Make it boozy for a little extra.
Bonus points if you can manage to not look like a tourist in here. I failed miserably.

If, after all of this, you are down for a little more adventure, drive 3 hours northeast to Dyersville, Iowa...otherwise known as The Home of The Field of Dreams. We actually drove like six hours from Kansas to Dyersville and then swung through Des Moines on our way home. When we left Kansas City, it was a balmy spring day in May, with temperatures reaching in the mid-70's. But someone forgot to tell Dyersville that winter was over. It was freaking freezing. And we were utterly unprepared. We stopped at the Target in Dyersville and I bought a scarf while Shana found the very last rain coat in the store because they had already made room for the bikinis and floppy hats. I promised Blue I would wrap him in the picnic blanket from the trunk. We drove with the heat on and then leaped out to see the baseball field surrounded by, naturally, rows and rows of corn.
How can you spot 2 city girls at the Field of Dreams baseball field? They are looking for corn. In May. And this is how we came to learn the snappy farmer's rhyme: knee-high by July. There is no rhyme about May.
Do we look cold? We took one selfie as Blue ran in the opposite direction in total defiance. He is not up for our shenanigans on a good day, never mind when he's getting chapped by the wind while we take a thousand pictures of a house and a corn-less field. Apparently, even if you don't grow it, they will still come.

But I loved the movie and we enjoyed the 20 minutes we spent wandering the grounds. Next time, though, we'll plan our trip around a Ghost Sunday baseball game. I'll gladly pay my $90 to reserve a seat on the swing on the front porch of the farmhouse, just as Ray would want us to.

This is all we could squeeze into 48 hours in Des Moines, but rest assured my DSM bucket list grows by the day. In addition to touring Fort Des Moines, I would also like to swing through in February for the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival, stop back by Fong's Pizza (yes, the crab rangoon pizza is everything you think it is) and play a few games at Up-Down, an arcade featuring our favorite video games from the 80's and 90's (I could hold my own with some Mario Brothers).

We had a blast living in the Midwest and would have no qualms about retiring there...if it weren't so far away from an ocean in every single direction. But Midwesterners are some of my favorite people, ever. They are hard-working, honest, generous and kind. They take pride and joy in their homes and towns, which shines through in everything they do. I'm looking forward to the next time I get to land in this "fly-over" state!
















Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Roadtripping to Des Moines: Part 1 - We'll Cross That Bridge When We Get to It

I can't remember how I came to have a copy of The Bridges of Madison County in my hands, but I think it may have had something to do with the women in my family. Most likely, one of them read it and the copy got passed around until it was my turn. I zipped through it in about a week, relishing every steamy, forbidden love scene. Yes, her husband and children were away at the State Fair with their prize pigs or whatever when the main character fell in love (into bed) with a National Geographic photographer who just happened to be passing through. And no, now that I'm married with a kid I probably wouldn't read more than 3 pages of a book where the wife cheats on the husband. But I read this book when I was in high school and, oh lawsy, it set the fires a-burnin'.

And then the movie came out.

And then they cast Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep as the two star-crossed lovers and all of us who grew up thinking they were old when we were babies just rolled our eyes and gagged a little. Really? Matt Damon wasn't available? What about Tom Cruise? Truly, I would have even settled for Keanu Reeves. And what about Francesca? The most popular actresses in 1995 included Nicole Kidman, Elisabeth Shue and Mira Sorvino. I would have chosen any of them over Meryl Streep. Well, maybe not Mira Sorvino. She has a weird face that makes her look like she just stabbed either your gerbil or your grandmother...a little hard to tell which.

My point is, I had just finished my junior year of high school when the movie premiered and I was completely grossed out by 2 very old people chasing each other around the kitchen while trying to get naked. I gave up halfway through and went back to watching While You Were Sleeping.

But...I have always loved the actual bridges of Madison County...which are, as a matter of fact, in Iowa. Most of them dot the landscape around Winterset, Iowa and are so close together that if you visit the area during the Bridges of Madison County Festival in October, you can board a Winterset school bus that will take you to several of them.

And that is exactly what Blue and I did. We drove from Fort Leavenworth, KS to Des Moines, IA just to attend this festival and walk the bridges where Francesca and Robert flirted and fell in love. (Although in my head, Francesca is played by Sandra Bullock and Robert is played by Robert Downey, Jr.) And we visited with our friend, Holly, an Iowan who loves random adventures as much as we do...especially when it involves a school bus full of people who are at least 30 years older than any of us.

But before we could go here, we had to get on the bus...
Holly is kind of a creeper. She's like Mira Sorvino in that way. Actually, she photobombed our picture and I said, "You better be careful. You'll end up on my blog." Three years later...

So, we got on the bus with a lot of people who probably thought Clint Eastwood was perfectly cast as a sex symbol (which is going to be me someday when I talk about how profoundly hot Patrick Swayze was in Dirty Dancing) and rode out to our first stop, Roseman Bridge.
For the record, Blue was 3 years old when we did this and was completely bored by touring covered bridges. But I promised him ice cream at the end so he wasn't a total nightmare. He still refused to smile or even look at the camera, though.
I spent a lot of time checking him for ticks.
Someone just couldn't resist jotting down a lyric from The Bridges of Madison County, the Musical on the inside of the bridge. Don't let them near the Titanic exhibit. They'll be scribbling "I'll never let go, Jack" across a glass case before you can call security.
It's like a painting. The red bridge contrasting with the green landscape and the blue sky...this is God's country.
I would have renamed that road, too. Why not cash in on some of the fame? Iowa was due.

The bus then brought us to North River Schoolhouse, a one-room school built in 1874. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been impeccably maintained. There was even some sand to keep Blue entertained while we listened to the guide.
We saw Cedar Bridge from the bus, but it's accessible through Cedar Bridge Park.
One more drive-by. There isn't enough time on the tour to get out and walk through each bridge, but you can always come back - which is exactly what I did 7 months later.

When we returned to Winterset, there were food trucks and arts & crafts waiting for us in the town square. We stopped to watch a farmer shear his sheep (which is a much rougher affair than I was expecting but the sheep didn't seem to mind).
And a place to sit and ponder how much you would love to own this place where you are sitting.
There is even a mini covered bridge where you can get a selfie (or a normal picture where you actually ask some random person to hold your phone and try not to crop anyone's head off).
By the way, if you don't understand my shirt, you and Neal will have something to talk about. He didn't get it, either. Meanwhile, Holly and I were laughing to the point of making a scene while we looked for my size at RAYGUN.

As we ate our street food on the lawn of the square and listened to live music, we decided this was well worth the price of admission. The bridges of Madison County are charming. I can see why someone wrote a book about them. And it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility to spot a photographer from National Geographic, wading through the creeks with his camera over his head, trying to capture all of this simple beauty in just one frame. The bridges are a treasure, tucked away in the outskirts of Des Moines and waiting for you to cross them, whether you are with a Robert, a Francesca or a good friend and your toddler.