Monthly Archives: January 2013

Worlds of Difference

TboltkidJust finished a pair of enjoyable reads with, let’s just say, disparate themes on adolescent coping.

The first, Bill Bryson’s memoir “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” (Broadway Books, 2006), delivers a hilarious look at American life through juvenile eyes in the 1950s. The second, Dan Erickson’s fact-based novel “A Train Called Forgiveness” (Amazon, 2012), recounts a young man’s struggle with a mind messed up from six years of torment and abuse as a teenager in a religious-based cult in the 1970s.

Don’t know which rock I’d been under to miss Bryson’s work until now. If you have an oversized butt, reading this could very easily laugh off a size or two.

Bryson writes of a childhood where disagreeable persons are effectively zapped into inconsequence with an imaginary ray. Along the way, he enjoys the freedom of just being a kid during a time portrayed as one of the happiest and best in American history. He puts a face on Des Moines, Iowa, that looks very much like Anywhere, USA, with multiple story lines and images that should be familiar to anyone who lived during the Eisenhower administration. Sorta reminded me of “A Christmas Story” without the holiday.

Family dysfunction gets shrugged off as Bryson finds humor in the quirks of his parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and childhood friends. Television, consumerism, anti-communism and fear of atomic destruction are all addressed from past and present views. Thought I knew all about the 1950s from my own experiences, but Bryson showed just how much I didn’t know. Or had forgotten.

traincoverDan Erickson takes a decidedly more serious look at coping through the mind of Andy Burden, a boy delivered into a Washington state religious-based cult by his parents and deeply scarred by the ordeal. Forced to work long hours on a communal farm and punished by a self-proclaimed Moses for not doing enough, he grows to resent what he considers a gross denial of adolescence.

I was drawn to this book by reports that it is a fictionalized account of the author’s real-life experiences in a cult in my hometown while I was away at college and later working in Alaska. The story unfolds through the transcribed notebooks of Burden, a schizophrenic songwriter and convenience store cashier tormented by voices from his cult days. The voices remind him of his unworthiness, threaten to come after him and promise punishment for his disloyalty.

Fortunately, Burden also hears a single comforting voice in his head for at least a morsel of courage and self-assurance, enough to stop self-medicating with drugs and alcohol and deal with his suppressed feelings in musical and lyrical composition. That takes him to Nashville on a pathway of discovery and forgiveness aided by insights gleaned from a cast of fellow dysfunctionals and social outcasts who help and befriend him.

Easy to say it’s all about forgiveness. Harder to find and apply it.

Despite his heavier theme, Erickson’s book, the first in a cult trilogy, is a quick read that, much like Bryson’s, you won’t want to put down until it’s finished.

For the record, a voice in my head made me write this review.


Filed under Book reviews

The Plunge

Yes, Disneyland and Universal Studios have some wonderful rides. But for homegrown exhilaration, it was tough to beat the laundry chute at the Hollister house.

Nine-year-old Gary Hollister discovered the marvel within weeks of the family’s move into the old three-story Victorian house on the edge of town, and he kept it to himself for almost a day and half before letting his 8-year-old brother Billy in on the secret.

After that, it was easy to make new friends. Easy to make a little money, too, at 25 cents per slide.

Laundry chute photo from, dedicated to a family restoration project of an 18th century  home in Lancaster County, Va.

Laundry chute photo from, dedicated to a family restoration project of an 18th century home in Lancaster County, Va.

Unlike most laundry chutes with a simple vertical drop, the Hollisters’ chute was unique from interconnection to drop spots on all three floors. It featured a lengthy slope of about 70 degrees between the third and second floors, then a 5-foot vertical drop to a similar slope cutting back the other way to an eight-foot drop from the basement ceiling into a pile of pillows, couch cushions and dirty laundry.

Feet-first was the recommended method, although Gary and his new pal Ron pulled off memorable head-first efforts that earned them neighborhood acclaim.

There was a “no girls” policy early on. But that ended the day Ginger and Wendy heard of the fun and sweet-talked an invitation from Gary at school. And Billy caught wind of the intrusion when he came home and heard giggles coming from the third floor.

“Now, girls, once you start down, keep your body straight and your hands at your side, and you’ll go through like water in a hose,” Gary said. “Don’t lift your knees or ball up in any way, or you could get stuck. Got it?”

“I’ll show ‘em,” said Billy, who assumed a seated position on the sink counter, put his legs inside the laundry chute’s pull-down door, leaned forward and disappeared like a mole down a hole, as the word “Geronimo” echoed back.

“OK, Ginger,” Gary said. “You’re next. Feet-first, if you please!”

“Forget that!” Ginger said as she eschewed a helpful lift onto the counter and dove head-first into the chute, with Wendy on her heels in like manner.

It was the first tandem head plunge in Hollister laundry chute history, but the point was quickly forgotten when neither girl emerged into the basement pile.

Fearing they were stuck, Gary called out from every drop station in the house and received no answer. He then dropped a basketball down the chute from the third floor and it came through with no trouble.

“Holy cow,” Billy hollered up while climbing the stairs. “The girls got swallowed.”

“Only one thing to do,” Gary responded.  “Got to go in and find ‘em.”

He dove headlong into the chute but found no obstruction – just a long, dark slide of twists and turns before landing on a haystack near Ginger and Wendy in a strange new world of anime Amazons and flesh-eating monsters. No link to home except for Billy, and he soon followed, feet-first, with “Geronimo” still on his lips.

(This was written as a Writers Kickstart prompt, 500 words or less on the four-part topic Laundry, Children, Dirty and Secrets.)

Copyright, Keith L. Olson, 2013

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Lutefisk Leftovers

English: A fork next to a serving of lutefisk ...

A fork next to a serving of lutefisk at a Norwegian celebration at Christ Lutheran Church in Preston, Minnesota (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had lutefisk for lunch the other day and invited  all my Facebook friends. No one accepted, but many sent their happy regrets.

Around here, stating publicly that you like lutefisk could haunt you later in any civil action in which your judgment is questioned.

I eat it because my heritage is Norwegian, my folks ate it every year at Christmas time, and my sister maintains tradition by serving lutefisk at our joint family Christmas dinner. My sister and her husband, another fellow with Viking blood in his veins, like the stuff well enough, but my late brother wouldn’t touch it, nor do either of our wives or any of the kids, who double-down on the meatballs and gravy.

Back in the day, my mom made Christmas lutefisk the old-fashioned way. She bought it in frozen blocks that came  in a wooden crate from somewhere in Minnesota. Classic lutefisk is codfish that is cured in lye as a preservative, and you had to the boil the fish in cheesecloth to get the lye out while maintaining at least a degree of solidity in the fish. The process left a gelatinous mound of product and a stink that could cover up a meth lab.  And I can recall the occasional poisonous zing of biting into a pea-sized bit of lye that somehow survived the boiling and made it onto my plate.

For me, biting into a bit of lye was the ultimate “nasty” associated with lutefisk.

My dad enjoyed his lutefisk spread onto potato lefse and bathed in melted butter. Others mix their fish with a forkful of mashed potatoes to get it down. Some folks also serve it with bacon and onions. Like my dad, I prefer the lefse method, and refer to it as a Norwegian taco. Wash it down with dark beer and a shot of aquavuit, and you can ski, skate or copulate like an Olympic medalist.

I’m not sure how lutefisk is processed these days, but it no longer comes in lye. My sister, who sent her uncooked leftovers home with me,  got hers from an outfit named ScanSpecial, Inc., in Poulsbo, WA, and paid $11.99 a pound, which made it more expensive than fresh salmon or beef steak.  She bought lefse, too, although homemade lefse isn’t that difficult to come by. The kids at my church make and sell lefse as a holiday fundraiser. And, you know, the commercial lefse  sold under the name Mrs. Olson’s isn’t half-bad, and, by golly,  it lasts longer than the homemade stuff by several weeks in the refrigerator.

My sister sent me home with one pack of lefse and about a pound of fresh lutefisk. The cooking directions on the bag were partially obscured, so I called the phone number for ScanSpecial, Inc. to ask whether boiling or baking was the best method, and a polite female American voice told me to do both. I boiled some salted water and simmered my lutefisk for awhile before rinsing it and baking it in a 400-degree oven till it was done. Notice that I do not provide cooking times here. As they say, cooking times vary with elevation and appliance types, and I won’t be held responsible for anyone’s undercooked, overcooked or bad-tasting lutefisk.

Old Norwegian joke: What’s the difference between good lutefisk and bad lutefisk? Church attendance.

Flavor? I would almost categorize lutefisk as essentially tasteless. But that would be heresy! How about saltines with the texture of raw oysters. Without salt. Unless you add some salt and pepper yourself, as well as melted butter, to give it some flavor.

No one came by for my lutefisk lunch. But I had three helpings, eating in the living room while watching SportsCenter. Oddly, none of my dogs came over to sniff my plate or beg for a morsel. Guess my training methods are finally working.

Since my dogs wouldn’t eat my leftovers, I deposited them in a plastic bag in my garbage can outside, and sprayed the kitchen and living room with aerosol cleaner to disperse any lingering smell. I then went out and skied a quick 10 kilometers while smoking a cigar and satisfying a sudden craving for pickled herring.

Ten Good Things About Eating Lutefisk

1. Not as bad as people say, and a little goes a long way.

2. Attests to your Scandinavian mettle.

3. Keeps cats away from your door.

4.  Leftovers will remove wallpaper.

5. Farts or body odor go undetected.

6. Codfish get their revenge.

7. Someone somewhere makes a killing, shoveling fishy stuff into a bag.

8.  Promotes hair growth (especially blond)

9. Turns women into electric blankets of lust turned up to 10.

10. Makes men horny, too, with no need of medical attention for an erection lasting longer than four hours.


Filed under Memoirs