Holy Smokes & Applejack

Fall has finally rolled around again, though it might not feel like it yet, which means harvesting plenty of tomatoes for bruschetta and autumnal flavored coffees at Aldi.

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Men of God at Wildewood got together last week for the first time since last spring. On this week’s agenda was learning the manly art of barbecue, with Zach (and Fred) from Holy Smokes up in Sioux Falls. Zach is a hooligan-turned-pastor who has both a church and a barbecue business, so he gave us the run-down of different types of barbecue, methods for cutting a pork butt for smoking, and all the tips and tricks of slow-cooking meat on a variety of smokers to get that sweet coat of “bark” that everyone loves.

We had some barbecue pulled pork sandwiches for together before Zach’s barbecue run-down, and we each got a package of rub to take home with us. I’d never given much thought to smoking meat before, it sounds like it would be perfectly fine to do it with our humble propane grill on the deck, so maybe soon I’ll go give it a try.

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Fall also means that it’s time for the Applejack festival in Nebraska City. The weather looked foreboding, so we brought an umbrella just in case, but despite the dark cloud looming overheard we didn’t have a drop of rain until we left.

We started the day with a pancake breakfast down at the firehouse, catching a flew flapjacks and letting the kids climb on a firetruck or two. We stopped by the book sale at the library to grab a few new books for the kids and samples some honey from the Calvary Church pavilion up the street, stopping to admire some old brick-wall advertisements and smell the roses along the way.

We spent most of our time down at Kimmel Orchard, riding the hay rack down to the rows of Jonathan, Honeycrisp, and Gala trees so Hannah and Aaron could pick a couple pecks of apples to take home with us. Hannah and Aaron got some quality time on their relatively new playground and even got some ice cream afterward. They had a bunch of educational booths inside from the UNL extension office, many of which having to do with bees and pollination (and making masks). There was a sampling of a dozen kinds of honey, which we got to try out. Then on the way home, we swung by Union Orchard for a couple apple donuts on the way home.

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In other news, Aaron has been learning to play the viola through String Sprouts, a program from the Omaha Conservatory of Music. He’s only just begun, but he seems to know how to hold his viola and bow like a champ so far.

Vivian had a baby shower on Sunday, so I took the kids to mom and dad’s house for a while in the afternoon, primarily to try out the “Let’s Go Code” game Uncle Jonny gave Aaron for his birthday. Our biggest challenge was keeping the kids following the rules, but it was fun just to get them to try it out.

Then we had some delicious ribeye steaks for dinner.

Rare Breeds

We’ve had a few gorgeous days here and there this week, necessitating a trip or two to a park, but mostly it’s been hot and muggy as summer absolutely refuses to make way for fall. Fortunately, our tomatoes have started kicking into high gear, giving us plenty of tasty treats for bruschetta and such.

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On Wednesday, I spent the evening with Tom Becka and Jeff Koterba in Benson, who were helping to raise a few dollars to renovate the Benson Theater. The theater has been vacant for several decades, but there are some very elaborate plans to bring it back to life, and they’re about half a million dollars shy of meeting their goal.

The event was at the “B Side,” which was once the “PS Collective” connected to the Pizza Shoppe where 88 Improv used to perform (and Tom once “performed” for use amusement years ago). The room was now sealed of from the pizza, but there is now a bar where I got a “figure of speech” to sip as Tom and Jeff introduced themselves and dove headlong into a Facebook argument IRL on stage for us. The title of the event was “Rare Breed,” and asked “are cartoonists and commentators going extinct.” I would certainly say “no,” as the Internet has made it easier for anyone to have a platform to spread their views or cartoons with almost no overhead whatsoever, but it did launch into a long-form discussion on such things as “fake news” and red light cameras, among other things. We also got to try drawing our own editorial cartoons from a list of topics, a la the Kaneko event a few years back, so I tried my hand at a caricature of Ben Sasse.

It was a fun evening, primarily because I always prefer arguing “IRL” as opposed to online, where being snippy and sarcastic often gets you likes when thoughtful discussion gets ignored.

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Friday brought along some gorgeous weather, so we took the kids to the park for a lunchtime visit. Then that evening, Vivian and I attended a “Tribute to Patriots” event, where we got to hear from Congressman Devin Nunes of California, emceed by KFAB’s Scott Voorhees. He’s been in the headlines recently for his role in investing Russian collusion, but he had a few other interesting stories about his interactions with President Trump. We saw several familiar faces there, including Don Bacon, Lt. Gov. Foley, and the usual band of GOP volunteers. They had a few awards at the end for the “five that drive,” which included several of them.

It was a lovely evening, though I forgot my memory card, so I couldn’t use my “good camera” to get any pictures. We also had a late dinner, so we wound up crashing at our old Village Inn for chicken pot pie and a french dip sandwich together (and pie, of course) before calling it a night.

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Saturday turned out to be the perfect day for just about everything outside — including a bit more house painting in the morning followed by a picnic lunch at Hickory Hill Park with our friends, the Lenarts. We’d been aiming at having another meetup for a while and managed to land on the perfect day for grilling a few burgers outside while letting the kids play on a new playground together.

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Then that evening, we had another trip to the zoo, courtesy of the Autism Society of Nebraska. We dropped by around six and had a look around the mostly too-dark-to-film “kingdom of the night” beneath the desert dome. We saw an alligator or two in the swamp and some snakes before heading upstairs to the drier part of the dome, where we got a peek at a fox, some mongooses, and some rattlesnakes.

The kids spent plenty of time playing on zoo statuary before we headed to the jungle to hang out for the rest of the evening. The bats were out in full force once again as we looked around upstairs and down, and then we dropped by the Wild Kingdom pavilion to cool off with a dance and a ride in a Humvee before calling it a night.

Balloons, bounce-houses, and talking trash

We had a delightfully short week, thanks to Labor Day, and now we’re speeding headlong into a busy fall season and another school year.

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On Wednesday, I attended a luncheon with Mayor Jean Stothert and the Business and Professional People for Life at the Garden Cafe. I’d attended this lunch many, many times before, but this was the first time I’d brought my dad along, who seemed to get a kick out of talking theology with the Catholics at our table.

Strangely enough, Mayor Stothert kept very much to a budgetary stump speech, talking mostly about the new trash contract with the city and other fiscal issues. She didn’t talk about pro-life issues until one person specifically asked her to during the Q&A, during which she briefly mentioned she’d been pro-life since her days as a nurse and it was one reason she didn’t attend the “Women’s March” that happened a few years ago.

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Then on Friday, we took the kids out to Ditmar’s Orchard for a lovely evening of balloon watching and quality outdoor time in the country. There were a few new additions to the playground, including a rolling slide made of PVC pipe and a teeter-totter airplane (in addition to the swings and monkey bars). There were a few other photo-worthy attractions, such as a set of stocks that we made use of, and a “Dr. Oxygen” was on hand to make bubbles for the kids to fight over trying to pop on our way back to our seats.

The balloons started sailing in around 7:30, sailing over the hills to the west before getting carted back to the orchard to re-inflate and glow for everyone. Our friend Lisa sat and had some snacks with us, such as some apple cider donuts I grabbed in advance. Then the balloons took turns glowing in sequence before the guests were allowed to come up close and take a look at them. This all seemed fairly routine for Hannah, who mostly wanted to get back to the playground, so we let her and Aaron have some more fun after dark as the band Clean and Easy played songs for us until around 9:30 or so.

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Hannah and mommy went to a birthday party for her friend Lily on Saturday as I stayed home with Aaron and set up my new Raspberry Pi to play BurgerTime for his amusement. Then around dinnertime we went down to Wildewood Christian Church for their Saturday Spectacular. This consisted of BBQ sandwiches and hot dogs for dinner, along with a few indoor games, and an inflatable bounce-house and obstacle course outside, which kept the kids busy most of the evening.

Then around seven, local comedian Jarrell Roach came to do a stand-up set, much of which included audience participation. He had us doing rock, paper, scissors and singing the ABCs, and he somehow made it funny. He also brought up one “lucky” audience member to demonstrate the difference between men and women toward the end of the show. It was the first time Hannah or Aaron had seen a stand-up comic, and they surprisingly seemed to enjoy every bit of it.

We’ve got more activities in store this week, much of which will be political. In the meantime, we’ll be busy recovering and hopefully be ready for more fun soon.


Fields of Flight 2019

Pink Poodle, Tailgate Breakfast, and Turning 41

I turned a year older on Thursday last week, and boy am I starting to feel middle age catching up to me — mainly because we seem to have a non-stop schedule full of fun this time of year.

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Vivian kicked things off early in the morning with some breakfast pizza and banana bread when I got up, as well as some fun maple bacon coffee I picked up at Aldi the day before. Hannah made her own card for me, and I played some video games with the kids before heading off to work.

At the office, I found a Happy Birthday banner waiting for me, as well as Pinkie Pie with a birthday card at my desk, courtesy of Dr. Keefe (as usual). I had my own little celebration over lunch taking a brisk walk to Walmart to splurge on a few childhood treats for myself, namely Ruffles, Cracklin Oat Bran, and Pimento spread (not eaten together, of course).

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Then that evening, my parents took me out to the Pink Poodle in Crescent, Iowa, a family-owned steakhouse in a tiny town along the Old Lincoln Highway just a few miles north of Council Bluffs. I had a rib-eye steak and baked potato, which came with soup, salad, and bread served family style. I even got some chicken livers as an appetizer, which Vivian always liked to point out whenever they’re on the menu (and I decided at last that they’re not my thing). The little restaurant had a lot of home-spun charm, including cabinets filled with antique dolls and a framed newspaper article about one of their servers, who had been working there since 1956. It’s the sort of place I’d definitely go to again, if only to get the prime rib, which apparently comes in Fred Flintstone sized slabs.

Of course, we also had a smiley-face themed party waiting for me when I returned home, including a smiley-face cake and gifts from Vivian and the kids.

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Then on Friday night, I had a “pizza picnic” at Soaring Wings with a handful of our mutual friends. I’ve been to this venue for birthdays twice before, and it seemed the perfect venue, with a live band playing music on Friday nights, and with the weather clear, dry, and in the 70s, it was a perfect evening for food and drink on their lawn. Of course, I snapped a few photos of the picturesque scenery before having a few samples of time inside, eventually settling on a rosé called Hummingbird (that’s the word). We’d dropped by Papa Reno’s for a Supreme Pizza beforehand, coupling it with an alfredo pizza courtesy of Jenny and Kody and a cheese steak pizza from Jon Paper. Venche and Ben joined us as well, bringing along baby Anya and a selfie stick for our amusement.

The band played a handful of cover songs and even announced my birthday to the crowd, which was delightfully embarrassing. We even had the chance to dance a couple times down in front, which seemed an appropriate way to wrap up the night.

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I was up early the next day with my dad for a trip down to Lincoln to attend a “tailgate party” down at the Governor’s Mansion. The day started off gray and rainy, but we were quickly led inside to meet and greet Gov. Ricketts and his wife Susanne in the parlor. Then they had breakfast for us out back underneath a couple pavilions in the backyard, so we didn’t get too wet. We sat with a few other guests and talked about politics and such as we ate. One was Bob, the guy whose photo I snapped at the Millard Days parade as he walked up and down the route carrying a batch of GOP yard signs.

A couple hundred other guests came and went throughout the morning before kickoff, and I didn’t recognize anyone else other than the Foleys, who sat next to us. Dad and I headed home afterward, taking scenic Highway 6 back to Omaha as a line of cars came crowding into Lincoln, apparently quite eager to see the Huskers struggle to beat the South Alabama Jaguars.

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We had church and some more house-painting on Sunday with some truffle mac and cheese and pot roast to hold us over until Labor Day. Then my parents had a lovely cookout for the whole family on their lawn, with my dad smoking two tiers of burgers in his backyard smoker and Jack and Donna bringing up baked beans and cobbler to have with it. Uncle Nathan even took some time to draw with Hannah as Grandma introduced Hannah to a thing called a “newspaper” before we headed home.

Then that evening, because we’re gluttons for punishment, we took the kids down to Pump it Up to let them bounced around, slide, and bat some balloons to burn off whatever energy remained before bringing our long, long weekend to a close.

Millard, Museums, and Lost in Fun

Summer vacation’s officially over now, and fall-like weather is starting to make a welcome return. That seems to mean packing more fun into every possible moment, right before I turn one year older.

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We kicked off our busy weekend with our old friends Randy and Jolene to celebrate their son Emmett’s birthday. They had it down at Eagle Ridge Park, which had a playground and a splash pad separated by a small bridge, so we wound up wandering between the two with the kids to play and get wet, alternately. Randy grilled some hot dogs, and Jolene brought out a piñata for the kids to take a couple whacks at before we had cake.

We had a handful of old friends with their own kids, as well as a second birthday party next door, so we had a veritable zoo of kiddos playing together most of the evening. Mostly, though, it was just gorgeous, end-of-summer weather. (We also got some cool shades to take home afterward.)

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The next day, I was able to drag the family all the way down to Millard to enjoy at least one legit parade together before the summer ended. It was the perfect morning for a parade, cool and cloudy with a slight breeze. A handful of our favorite politicians were walking the catawampus Main Street, including Mayor Stothert, Don Bacon, and state senate candidate Andrew Sakalosky (as well as a guy with signs for a dozen more). Most of the parade had local businesses and churches giving out candy (and frightening children), as well as some Irish dancers, Country Kickers, and a few marching bands. A few men riding lawn tractors pulled a train of kids through the parade, and one guy rolled a giant beach ball toward the end (for reasons I can’t explain). One float even featured the model of Millard itself.

Our kids got a decent haul of candy, and then we stopped by BIG Meats afterward so Vivian could get a nicely-marbled hunk of beef to take home (as thanks for letting us use their parking lot).

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On Sunday, we spent the evening at the Children’s Museum with the kids. They got a brief look at their new playground outside before going in to have the usual run of their balls in pneumatic tubes, makeup table, model river water table, pretend cooking, Gordman’s animal slides, and baby hospital. We had the most fun upstairs for an “Enchanted” traveling exhibit that featured such things as a “hall” of mirrors (which was about the size of a closet), a blacksmith table with a giant foam hammer, a bubble fountain, and a stable with a dozen plush unicorns for Hannah to care for.

The whole night was hosted by the Autism Society of Nebraska, which had some of the sensory overload of the Museum tamped down just a tiny bit, (though with all the kids running around you might not have noticed).

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Hannah started the second grade on Monday (with a picture, of course). Then we spent a long, fun day in Lincoln on Tuesday. The kids got to play at Lost in Fun down in South Lincoln, getting their fill of a foam ball pit, climbing wall, and bounce house for most of the afternoon. In the meantime, I did some freelance work for my old company Land and Sky, shooting video and taking pictures of beds, continuing a gig I started some 15 years ago.

Before we headed back to Omaha, we dropped by Big Sal’s to grab a giant combo pizza for dinner together. (Hannah wanted to stick around and shoot some pool in the meantime.)

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Before we returned home, we swung by the Durham to see some dinosaur bones. They had several model skeletons, skulls, and even a model heart on display — as well as a giant, fully-assembled T-Rex skeleton named “Scotty.” The kids were a little more interested in a giant video screen that superimposed dinosaurs walking around on top of live video of themselves.

We also had enough time for a brief walk by other things, including a buffalo skin, some trains, and an exhibit on polio — which I explained to Hannah that her grandpa had when he was little. It came complete with an original “iron lung,” which a man down the street had to use when my dad was little. Polio is one of those things I’m glad we no longer have to deal with — through the magic of medicine and vaccinations (of which my mom was one of the first recipients).

Waning wet days of summer

We’ve had a week or so to recover from our camping trip, but we’re quickly transitioning into another school year in the process. Aaron will be spending his pre-Kindergarten year sharing home-school activities with Hannah and doing some other work to prepare him for the possibility of full-time public school. Hannah’s also got her home-school class lined up and just got to meet her new teacher with classes nearly ready to start.

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In the meantime, Vivian was brave enough to leave me alone with the kids over the weekend as she went off to a B&B with her lady friends for a girls-only weekend. I took the kids to grandma and grandpa’s house over the weekend to mow their lawn and have some burgers for lunch. We also played some Pictionary-style games on Uncle Jonny’s Nintendo Switch, which even Hannah was able to participate in.

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Then on Wednesday, I dropped by Barley’s in Council Bluffs to see Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, one of about five hundred Democrats currently running for President. His brief stump speech was more criticism of Trump than talk of actual policy, though he only briefly touched on overturning Citizens United, which seemed to get the most response from the crowd (aside from a brief mention of Congressman Steve King).

Bennet was probably the most punctual candidate I’ve seen so far, starting and stopping nearly to the second between noon and one. He stuck around for fifteen minutes afterward meeting and greeting guests, and even signing autographs for one super fan, who had a gift for him from Nebraska.

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With summer winding quickly down, Vivian and I decided to have one last rendezvous at the park before they shut off the fountains for the winter. There were far fewer kids with school back in session, so we had the place almost to ourselves. After a quick bite and a swing, Hannah and Aaron had a good run getting wet around the spire through the water. I forgot to bring my trunks, but that didn’t stop me from rolling up my pant legs and joining them for a bit as well.

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Then after work, I joined the kids for a spur-of-the-moment trip to Fun Plex. The Omaha water park is only open for a few more days, and they had a deep discount for guests this week only before shutting down for the season, so we dropped by with the kids to take advantage of it. After getting a bit wet in the children’s area, we took the kids for some floating in the giant wave pool and then along the lazy river. They both had the most fun over on the water slides, of course, and both Hannah and Aaron went down on their own this time around, which was something of a milestone.

We had just a couple of hours to enjoy ourselves before heading home, grabbing some Krispy Krunchy Chicken for dinner at the corner of 36th and Chandler. The place was highly recommended by my dad and was much better than you may expect coming from a gas station.


Fun at Fun Plex

Two Rivers Camping Trip

We just got back from a three-day weekend of camping down at the Two Rivers State Recreation Area, right on the edge of the Platte River. It was a hot and muggy weekend filled with bugs and ending in rain, but we still managed to have some fun with the kids cooling off in the river and watching the kids make new friends on the communal playground.

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After spending a good chunk of Friday packing up and getting food for our trip, we headed across the river and past Waterloo to our site at the Goldenrod Campground. Ours was lot 72, right next to the playground and a small water pump that was used almost non-stop through the weekend. We got the tent set up and Vivian made a “hobo style” dinner of chicken, potatoes, corn, and carrots wrapped in foil as the kids explored the playground next door. Our kids also got some special presents for the weekend — a tent for Hannah’s doll and a travel version of Hungry Hungry Hippos for Aaron.

Our friends the Mills joined us in time for dinner as the sun went down and the entire campground filled up with travelers. According to a sign at the entryway, every single site was booked for the weekend.

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The next morning, Nate and Lexi fixed us a breakfast of “Dutch Baby” and some eggs, and afterward Hannah found a tiny toad, which she decided to name “Gooey.” Then after breakfast, we headed down to the riverside to wade in the Platte River. There was enough sand left at a washed-out campground to create a makeshift beach for us as we led the kids down into the nice, cool water. The Platte was shallow enough to wade out a ways, and Nate brought and inner tube that the kids got to ride on for a bit. It was mostly nice just to escape the oppressive heat and humidity in the cool water for a bit.

Then on the way back, we dropped by the lake by our campsite for a little more swimming. That water was even colder, which almost made up for the gross algae and mud as we splashed around for a bit with the kids.

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The kids spent some quality time on the playground in the afternoon and also made some tin foil “creatures” with Vivian’s direction at our picnic table. Vivian and Lexi made some chocolate cake in the Dutch oven in the meantime, and I broke open Aaron’s game of “goofy ball toss,” which he played a bit with August once I got it assembled. Lexi made some barbecue chicken for dinner, which we ate with tortillas.

Then after the sun went down we broke out the marshmallows, which the kids roasted together over the fire for s’mores. Mostly, however, we tried keeping cool under the faucet, and after the sun went down we eventually had to retreat to our tent to avoid being eaten alive by an oppressive swarm of mosquitoes.

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On Sunday morning, we woke up to the sound of patter of raindrops on our tent following shortly by thunder and a torrential downpour. Our tarp did a fairly decent job keeping most of the rain out, though it came down hard enough in spots to leak through. Once it let up a bit, we started tearing down the campsite, but we were still soaked within minutes. Then we made a hasty return home, wondering if next time we ought to just rent one of the cabooses on the south side of the camp instead.

School is getting set to start again, so Vivian and I barely have time to recover before jumping back into that daily routine. Maybe I’ll have the chance to catch my breath before my birthday the end of the month.


Camping Highlight Reel

Feeling Sassy

It’s been a fun week in politics leading up to our annual camping trip with the Mills.

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First up on Monday was an event with Senator Ben Sasse, who announced the kick-off for his re-election campaign in a hot, steamy airplane hangar in Millard. A crowd of a couple hundred people were there and included GOP all-stars past and present: Don Stenberg, Kay Orr, Dave Heineman, Jean Stothert, Pete Ricketts, Congressmen Bacon and Fortenberry, and many others. The oppressive heat didn’t seem to be anybody down (even the ones in suits), as a couple folks broke out dancing waiting for things to get started. Jim Rose from KFAB acted as emcee and introduced Sasse with a brief line-up of VIPs before the junior senator took the stage with his family. He then gave a brief stump speech on civility and socialism, touching specifically on the aftermath of the mass shootings over the weekend.

Sasse stuck around to meet-and-greet and get selfies with several of people in the crowd (including me, of course). Then he and his family rolled off in a giant campaign travel-trailer as his 2020 bid for re-election officially began. Sasse didn’t do any interviews with the press afterward, however, but several of his guests did. The rest of us stayed and mingled for a while, and I enjoyed seeing Jon Tucker and Tom Becka get into a real-life Facebook argument before I headed out.

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Meanwhile, Vivian took the Hannah and Aaron to “Pump it up” for a night of bouncing in a large, inflatable playground to burn off some energy. It was hosted by the Autism Society of Nebraska, so there was no blaring rock music overhead this time around, which made for a strangely more peaceful event.

Then on Wednesday, Vivian took the kids on their last trip to “Mud Pies” at the Fontenelle nature center. They’ve been going to this little program since Hannah was barely a toddler, but now they’re remodeling and restructuring or something so the program they knew won’t be there any longer. It was kind of a sad way to say goodbye to the days of painting and visiting animals (both real and plush) that they’d grown up enjoying for so long.

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Then on Wednesday, Congressman Don Bacon hosted a town hall, the first since the one I attended in Omaha back on May. The event was held at the Fire Barn in Waterloo in a room that only held around 120 people. A campaign staffer apologized for the small venue, saying that they couldn’t get a larger one due to “liability concerns.”

Whatever those concerns might have been, they didn’t materialize as the town hall started. The folks in the room were largely friendly, and there were only a few times people seemed to be yelling out of term (unlike previous town halls where it seemed more the rule than the exception). Many of the questions were on gun control, assault weapons, red flag laws, and racism in America (particularly relating to President Trump). Bacon answered the questions drawn randomly from a box, even if they were from people who hadn’t made it into the room. There were about four or five protesters outside, but the back-and-forth inside was congenial to say the least, even among those who disagreed with the Congressman.

There was also national media present in the room, with folks from the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and even Vice among them. It’ll be interested to see the reporting on the event, since there weren’t the partisan fireworks some might have been expecting.

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Then on Thursday, just to be bipartisan, I swung by the “Tech Brew” event in Council Bluffs to catch a glimpse of Andrew Yang, who today qualified for the next Democrat debate). About 70 people (including a handful of media) turned out at the Kitchen Council to see the entrepreneur turned Presidential candidate. I’d heard a bit about him via the Joe Rogan and Ben Shapiro podcasts, and I’d also read a bit about his proposal for a $1,000/month Universal Basic Income, which sounded a bit far-fetched to say the least. He was a very interesting candidate, however, sounding very reasonable as described how workers displaced by automation had helped elect Trump. I didn’t have long to stick around after the Q&A, but I’m hoping he has the chance to swing by again before the caucus is over.

Hot in the Pot

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We’re enjoying the downward slope of summer and getting a few things done around the house before fall. I’ve been doggedly putting a fresh coat of paint on the house, which would have been hard enough if the paint store could consistently match the paint. Donna also came by and got the kids to help her plant a few new daisies in our yard (transplanted from her own). In addition to this, we’ve had an abundance of visitors — namely bag worms wrapped in leafy cocoons — descending from our maple tree into the yard. I’ve been busy getting rid of the little pests and hoping they haven’t caused any permanent damage.

We had some lovely cool weather on Friday night for our second and final trip to the SumTur this season. The August and Gabriel (and Joe) came along for some quality running-around time with Hannah and Aaron, dancing by the stage and flipping chairs before the sun went down. Then we headed back to our blanket to watch How to Train Your Dragon 3.

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On Saturday, we took the kids down to Dream Land Park for the first time since its major remodeling last year. They got an hour or two of swinging on giant saucers and climbing on a rope merry-go-round. There were plenty of other fun places to explore, like a rope bridge, captains helm, bouncy bridge, sticky metal slides, and some replicas of a few historic buildings in Council Bluffs (redone as play areas). I also found a stash of a certain plant that I’d found there last time we visited three years ago. (Apparently nobody’s gotten rid of it yet.)

Afterward, we stopped by Arby’s to have a dinner of sandwiches, fries, and milkshakes with the kids before heading for home,

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Then on Sunday, Phil and Jen invited us over for a “hot pot” at their house. I can’t recall having such a thing before, but it apparently involves cooking a variety of raw ingredients in a giant wok — shrimp, beef, chicken, fish balls, fish cakes, boh choy, rice noodles, and any number of things — full of boiling chicken stock. Another family was invited with their kids, so our kids got to play with some new friends for a while before we sat down to eat.

I managed to help myself to multiple tiny bowls along with some Asian “barbecue sauce” (mixed with raw egg and soy sauce). I was also happy that our kids sampled a bit of everything, including the fish balls we’d brought from the Asian market. After we’d had our fill, we got to sample some of Jen’s birthday scotch before she served up some shaved ice with vanilla ice cream, sweet red beans, and frozen fruit for dessert before we called it a night.

Bookin’

Summer’s now on a downward slope, with a week of muggy hotness and scattered days of showers, with time for some house painting, VBS, and a few visits from politicians in-between.

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On Friday, it was Cory Booker who dropped by. About a hundred people came to the Gathering Room to see the New Jersey Senator and Presidential Candidate (polling around 1.5% nationally). He was introduced by three local Democrats and then gave a brief stump speech focused on “values” rather than “policy.” He had a great deal of enthusiasm and energy, which made for more interesting photos than most other candidates I’ve photographed. He also seemed to enjoy making a number of “dad jokes,” asking me personally during the Q&A if I were walked on as a child since my name was “Matt.”

My question was a bit more seriously, as I briefly relayed the assault of journalist Andy Ngo by Antifa in Portland and asked Sen. Booker if he would condemn them for it. You can read a partial transcript of his answer here, but he essentially condemned the violence but not the group itself, saying he wasn’t familiar with the situation. I thanked him afterward (during selfie time) for the question and said that the sides these days are not so much right and left but fringe versus mainstream, and we all should be OK with calling out the fringe, no matter which side they think they’re on.

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In the meantime, our kids were having a week of VBS at First Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, learning about Jesus healing lepers, washing feet, and being a servant in many other ways. We went to the church for service on Sunday so they kids could stand up front and (almost) sing a song or two from their week with their little friends. Our friends the Mills were there as well, and we stuck around afterward for fried chicken and some playground time before dragging the kids home.

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Then on Wednesday night, I dropped by a town hall with Jeff Fortenberry, who actually represents my district here in Nebraska. It was a packed house, and as usual the crowd seemed to be peppers with members of the opposite party. Things stayed mostly cordial, though one lady seemed to want to talk over everyone else during their questions before being told my another audience member, “We came to talk to him, not you.” Another woman wanted to argue with Fortenberry over the words “climate change” and seemed uninterested in his actual proposals on green energy and reducing carbon emissions, and another wanted him to condemn President Trump’s tweets (which he did).

A few more people had more serious questions, such as a woman whose parents died of carbon monoxide after their car, which had a key-less ignition, was accidentally left running. There was also a blind veteran who talked about the difficulty deaf veterans have getting help at VA hospitals when nursing staff have to deal with calling “711” and TTY machines. It was a good exchange overall, and it was especially nice to be able to have a back-and-forth with someone who will actually be on my ballot next year.