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Murder at the Marsh

It never ceases to amaze me how certain things, activities, even people that seem irreplaceable are, in fact, not.  Along the lines of favorite things that no longer are, https://oldladywriting.com/2019/08/06/a-few-of-whose-favorite-things/ I once kept a list of “Things that I Loved That Got Discontinued”.  When life was less full of stuff, before a certain gazillionnaire made everything magically available for purchase online, finding a substitute for certain beloved items was much, much harder than it is today.  I have to say, though, some of these still have no parallel. 

Shanty Creek Resort, site of the below-mentioned Oktoberfest and many a ski-trip since
Not the actual photo of incomparable deliciousness, but a close approximation.

The items I miss the most are: Celestial Seasonings Irish Cream Tea, Breyer’s Vanilla Chocolate Almond Swirl Ice Cream, Peanut Butter and Jelly Pop Tarts, and Lean Cuisine Linguine with Clam Sauce.  I actually wrote to Lean Cuisine when I could not find my favorite entrée in the frozen section of my local Meijer’s, and they wrote back that it had a “small but loyal following”.  What they meant is, it was not selling well. What I read was, there are others like me, who are they, where are they, can we form a club? To this day, I have not found a more delicious linguine with clam sauce at any restaurant from North America to Italy itself.  As for tea, I visited Celestial Seasonings headquarters—which merits a separate story, because it was a magical experience—and was told roughly the same thing about the Irish Cream tea.  A pity about all these delicious foods.  Tastes are hard to replace.

Amongst the non-edible items, I miss St. Ives Henna Shampoo, although it is quite possible that I just mourn the thick hair of my younger days.  I just searched and saw it on EBay for $80, and died laughing.  That’s nothing, though—the apricot variety, with which I am not familiar, is going for $120.  I don’t know what miracles shampoo would have to perform for such price.  I would probably pay that much for the linguine with clam sauce, though—I have my priorities.

I also listed several experiences that are never to be repeated, such as the Oktoberfest weekend at Shanty Creek resort in Bellaire, Michigan—a magical weekend during which spouse fell in love with spaetzle and won an apple pie in a pumpkin seed spitting contest, and just had fun badly dancing the polka.  This was even before I liked beer!  We attempted to make it an annual tradition, but as soon as we registered for the following year, it was cancelled never to be enjoyed again.  Until we went to the original Oktoberfest in Germany—and again, our luck manifested itself, because the following year, the plague came, and Munich has not held its celebration since…

But there is nothing that I miss more than Murder Mystery Weekends.  Back in the days before all information came from the interwebs, we used to search for fun activities in the magazines.  This seems impossibly quaint now, but I remember vividly perusing the pages of AAA’s Michigan Living and uncovering all sorts of cool stuff, like the aforementioned Oktoberfest. 

Participation in murder mystery weekends required teams of three or four, and spouse and I joined forces with his parents.  This was over 20 years ago, which is shocking in itself, and remain the pinnacle of my relationship with my in-laws.  Oh, this was serious business!  We would show up at the Marsh Ridge resort in Gaylord, Michigan for a Friday night dinner, when the plot was set and the first murder would occur.  Inevitably, we missed it.  No one is that focused after a week’s work and a drive Up North.  Then the real entertainment began.

Certain rooms at the resort were designated as “crime scenes”.  Teams would be allowed to enter for a few minutes at a time.  We could question the suspects—a pointless task that was usually left to my mother in-law, as it yielded little to no results, but kept her occupied while spouse, father in-law, and I searched for clues by lifting and opening everything that could be lifted and opened.  My first move was always to lift the toilet lid.  There was never anything there. I still maintain that it’s a great hiding place.

Murders and searches would continue throughout Saturday, with a break for lunch.  It was intense, alternately frustrating and exhilarating.  At one point, my father in-law said that even when you return to your own room, you just want to tear everything up looking for clues!  Saturday after dinner, after the last desperate rummage and the last exasperated interrogation, we had to prepare and submit our detailed solution.  On Sunday at breakfast, all was revealed, and the team who solved the most crimes and found the clues was awarded the most points and was declared the winner.  I have to add that the young man by name of Jim Russell who masterminded and wrote the intricate scripts and played the chief detective who served as the sort of advisor to us hapless sleuths was an earnest and thorough host whose genuine love of the game prevented the experience from becoming the random unsolvable farce that murder mystery dinners and weekends usually are.  No, this was like the early seasons of Midsomer Murders, convoluted plots full of wacky characters, mild shocks, unexpected laughs, and satisfying conclusions. 

One of the resort rooms in all its ’90s’ glory. Note the jacuzzi tub on the left–not that anyone had time for that during the Murder Mystery weekend!

We progressed steadily up the championship ladder, ransacking hotel rooms and working our little gray cells, and finally won—of course we did!  But as is the way of things, instead of being rewarded with the grand prize of free return the following year, we were informed that the resort will no longer be hosting murder mystery weekends, and were given gift certificates for the pro shop.  We loaded up on sweatshirts, the last of which, barely worn, I just recently donated (it had neither hood nor pouch, and the sewn on logo was scratchy).  It is small wonder, because the cost of the weekend was a bargain, and the additional property damage inevitably caused by overzealous amateur investigators was not sustainable.

A couple of sad mystery-less years followed, during which spouse and in-laws and I in vain searched for a replacement.  Then the weekend was remounted, but with a different cast and crew.  It became unnecessarily challenging, and it didn’t take.  We did win the consolation prize for funniest answer with a hilarious poem which we sadly did not preserve—but the prize itself lives on, my lucky running hat which accompanied me on three half marathons, two marathon relays, and countless races from one to ten miles.  

Then I had another kid, another job, and life became busier.  The more things change, the harder they are to change back.  But I miss the utter escapism of those murder mystery weekends, and I miss the good times with my in-laws.  Both are high on the list of Things that I Loved That Got Discontinued.

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Thank You for Being a Friend

According to my recently unearthed diary (it was not missing or anything, I just do not like to refer to it too often because of the cringe factor), my teen years were full of seemingly perpetual anguish related to various betrayals which I would never recollect but for this traumatizing written record.  I was, at times, surrounded by The Mean Girls—but who wasn’t in their teen years?  But in a period of just three days recently, I interacted with a variety of people who, in various ways, reminded me how incredibly blessed I have been by friendships in this lifetime. 

  • I auditioned for several parts in a show at the local community theater.  I did not get cast for several reasons. 
    • First, for one of the characters, my Russian accent is no longer convincing.  Yes, and I feel slightly stupid even writing this, but I am only identified as vaguely Eastern European to someone with a very good ear.  There were literally women on that stage who sounded authentically foreign-born (and weren’t), while I was doing a desperate impression of Crazy Russian Hacker.  And I am terrible enough with accents that I cannot just summon it.
    • Second, the director decided that the part of a “wanna be lawyer” should be played by a man, because, well, lawyers are men.  Triggering, and certainly nothing I have not heard from every corner over the past three decades, but for reasons passing understanding I always expect more parity from community theater.  What an unlikely source of optimism!  This actually reminds me of a time when I was not cast in another show.  It was a dual part—Eastern European mother in her youth in Act I, and then her daughter, a lawyer, a couple of decades later, in Act II.  The director called me and told me that I was believable as one but not as the other, and for the life of me I cannot remember which one was which.  There is great irony somewhere here, but ultimately, I guess I would prefer to think that I am an implausible lawyer.  Frankly, I usually feel that way anyway…
    • But, my point in all of this is that I ran into two women I know at the audition.  The camaraderie, the emotional support, the cheering each other on and complimenting each other even though we were up for the same couple of parts was absolutely lovely.  I have not known either of these fine humans in my youth, so cannot tell with certainty if we are all improving with age or if I am meeting a better class of people. Perhaps a little bit of both, which is both sensible and hopeful.
  • Not to make it sound like my American youth was misspent in the friendship department, the following day I drove to Hell (a real town; I am not this inventive) for a “Still 50” party of a high school classmate I have never met before.  Well, we met during a series of Zoom calls that were held on the regular during the darkest days of the pandemic, and encompassed a group of pals who all graduated within three years of each and now live all over not just the continental U.S., but as far as Hawaii.  I count myself more than a little lucky to enjoy the company of almost a dozen folks who knew me at my utmost awkward, clueless, and, in my mother’s characterization, gloomy, and who still willingly interact with me going on forty years later. 
  • The following day I had a lunch lasting several hours with a college friend.  We have not seen each other in about a decade, which is a ridiculous and inexplicable gap, but there it is.  The old saying of picking up where you leave off without missing a beat is always true with this friend, and has been for over thirty years.  I often see people question if there can be genuine, non-romantic friendship between men and women, and this long-standing unshakeable bond between an introverted engineer/scientist and a [seemingly] extroverted lawyer/amateur thespian is a testament to the fact that friendship, like love, is a gift that you take where you find it.
  • And finally, there is my childhood BFF.  She is the one whom I met on my first day of school, and who is the closest I have come to having a sister in this world (I have known my actual sister for a fraction of the time, both in quality and quantity—but that is another story for another time).  We have lived world apart for over forty years, and have averaged one in-person meeting per decade during this time.  Right now, she is on a road trip to the Russian Near North.  From each scenic stop, she has been sending me daily videos, narrating the town histories, telling fun local facts, showing scenic views.  They visited Novgorod the Great, Petrozavodsk the capital of Karelia, Murmansk above the Arctic Circle, stopped on the shores of the Barents Sea.  I have felt included in this wonderful adventure.  In return, I send videos of my foster dog.  And beer.  And my office.  And I feel unbelievably fortunate that my first school friend is still my best friend.  She is, and always will be, family.

The wisdom of the years taught me that not all friendships are for always.  Some relationships are for a season, and every season has its ups and downs.  Looking back, there have certainly been some downs.  But, as the song goes, thank you for having been a friend (this is the Russian/Georgian version—not to be confused with the theme to “The Golden Girls”).  The ups have, and continue to, fill this life with meaning, warmth, and laughter. 

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I Went Up North Once. Once.

I do not know Michigan well.  I have lived here intermittently for a total of about 35 years.  While I have made a point of hitting the major museums in the metropolitan Detroit area and even farther afield when my children were young, much of the state still eludes me.  I had a few obligatory encounters with it upon first being brought here when I was in high school.  I think my mother organized get-acquainted trips to Mackinac (if you are not from here, do not bother trying to pronounce it) Island, Traverse City, and Holland.  Only the last one is remembered, because we took pictures of ourselves wearing wooden shoes and standing next to decorative windmills.  Shortly thereafter I learned that Holland, Michigan bears about as much resemblance to the country for which it is named as the Renaissance Festival to the actual life of the period.  The other trips left no impression whatsoever, if they even happened. 

And so, for the first long post-pandemic weekend, I decided to go and look at the Sleeping Bear Dunes, which seem to consistently show up in those “10 Things to See” and “Best of” lists that I usually do not trust.  The closest lodging appeared to be in Traverse City, and so I figured we can hit both landmarks with one trip. 

Of course, no trip involving me goes completely smoothly.  Under the category of “What fresh hell is this”, my car was assaulted by a flock of birds.  Or maybe it was one bird.  It was all so sudden!  One moment we were merrily cruising on a very boring stretch of I-75 at a safe speed of no more than five over the limit, and the next, my entire windshield was covered in a vile substance, reducing visibility in a most dangerous manner.  I am not a fan of birds.  They have never contributed anything positive to my life, whether in a friendly, decorative, or nourishing manner.  This was just a culmination of everything I have always known about them as an unpleasant species.  It was all uphill from there.

Because Michigan has an inhospitable climate with more rainy days than Seattle (I read this factoid somewhere and cannot stop repeating it), a long sunny weekend is rare and treasured.  Memorial Day being the first long weekend after a dreary winter, most of the state’s inhabitants flock “Up North”, ostensibly to enjoy the beautiful nature.  We arrived around the early dinner time.  Strangely enough, the nature areas were sparsely attended.  Everyone was at the restaurants.  Literally every sit down restaurant for miles had a dinner wait list of at least two hours, putting our mealtime somewhere between eight p.m. and next week.  We opted to eat what might have been a pressed rat sandwich at a fast food place.  To be fair, we did not travel Up North for the food.  I am told there are some nice restaurants there, but I remain skeptical.

For dessert, we had gnats.  That was surprising and unintentional.  Apparently they are plentiful around the Grand Traverse Bay, and pursued us in swarms for the duration of our promenade.  While not biting, they were quite aggressive with their intent to enter every orifice.  We have managed to both inhale and ingest more than we wanted, which is to say, any.  Although I do enjoy trying unusual food, the gnats made me feel a little like being in a Monty Python “Crunchy Frog” sketch.

Overall, this was a very successful trip, and the extra layer of confusion and inconvenience actually added that certain Midwestern charm to the experience.  I mean, if everything had been perfect, it would not have been Michigan, but Ontario. 

I have been to that area once in the winter (ask me about the ski trip to which my mother brought more suitcases than there were days), but this was really the first time that I was able to walk, observe, and enjoy.  The town itself remains indefinable, as I have not noticed anything distinguishing it from any other similar small tourism-focused towns in Michigan, outside of the various local festivals which I have never attended, and so far without regret.  I am given to understand that the area wineries are lovely, but again—the Niagara wine region is just as close, and Canada has my heart.

Nonetheless, Grand Traverse Bay is lovely.  It is an objectively beautiful area and, gnats notwithstanding, promenading along its shore was a joy.  While I do not enjoy aquatic activities, or being wet in general, I like bodies of water on sight, and harbor a hope that my Third Thirty (or sooner) includes being near one.  It is not likely to be this particular one, but it sure is picture-perfect.

The main event of the trip, Sleeping Bear Dunes, also did not disappoint.  I did not know Michigan had this much sand!  I was warned in advance that if one goes down the sand mountain to the water, one must climb back up.  As we say back in the Old Country, there are no fools here—of course I did not go down the sand mountain.  I am most assuredly not a climber.  I stayed at the top and took photos with my phone, though I am sorry I read the plaque about the legend of the sleeping bear—it is very sad.  We stopped at the various scenic locations in the national park, enjoyed the views, walked on the trails (I would not call it hiking, which I believe requires a bit more vigor than what we exerted), and returned home.  Despite the fact that on a holiday Monday the four hour drive doubled in time spent due to traffic, the trip was ultimately both worth it and not requiring of a repeat.   Until some gal pal persuades me to explore the Leelanau Peninsula’s wine country.