Saturday, September 20, 2008

Mennonite Grocery Sandal Scandal

I shop for groceries at as many as five places: The local Weis Market, a modern, typical grocery store; the local Super Walmart for a few items that are crazy expensive elsewhere; the Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays and the Flea Market on Thursdays for fresh and often local produce; and the nearby Mennonite grocery store where nearly everything is amazingly inexpensive.

I call it the Mennonite grocery store because every woman I’ve seen working there wears traditional Mennonite dresses and bonnets. Mennonites are not far removed from the Amish, and the similarities apparently appeal to the local Amish population: there’s a hitching rail in the parking lot, and on most Wednesdays several Amish buggies pull up and their riders step out to shop.

On a particular Wednesday, the Amish shoppers arrived wearing what I imagined was their most formal attire: the men wore dark pants, button shirts, jackets, leather dress shoes, and black hats—altogether natty. The women wore dark dresses and heavy bonnets.

I, on the other hand, had chosen an old tee shirt, shorts, and sandals (without socks). Oh, the scandal!

At first, I paid no thought to my attire; I dress this way often, as do many of my fellow Americans. But then, at the end of the “oops, we backed a truck over it cereal” aisle (there’s a reason things are inexpensive in the Mennonite grocery store), I noticed a young Amish boy in his dress finest pointing at my feet with one hand, and trying to hide a laugh with his other hand.

I wasn’t mortified; but I was suddenly very self-conscious. Do Amish, I wondered, have a dress code against sandals? Do my bare ankles offend? How fortunate for me that the adults showed restraint about my apparently tasteless foot gear!

I stewed about this for months; I even took to wearing socks and shoes on my Wednesday shopping trips.

In time, I came to believe that my sandals hadn’t been scandalous in the first place. Many patrons of the Mennonite grocery store wear sandals without socks… and there’s no doubt: if you live in the United States, you’re going to see a lot of naked ankles. So, I’m back to wearing sandals on my Wednesday shopping trips.

Still, I wonder: whatever could that Amish boy have found so funny about my feet?

My Feet

For the complete City Slipper experience, visit my web site at

Also, please visit my blogs about growing your own vegetables and fruit: Your Small Kitchen Garden and Your Home Kitchen Garden

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Rural Moonglow

Here’s something I enjoy a few times every month or so: moonglow. It occurred to me recently, that moonglow might be a completely unknown phenomenon to someone who lives in the city. Sure, city dwellers see the moon, but they also see the light from thousands of electric-powered lights; except during a power outage, there’s never a time when the moon lights up a city. Often in the countryside, the moon provides the only light.

To appreciate moonglow, it helps first to appreciate darkness. On an overcast night, when the moon is down—or when the clouds are particularly thick, it can be very dark indeed. In the city, I never wandered into a place even vaguely as dark. These nights aren’t light-free; in a small town, there is always light bouncing off the clouds, and your eyes adjust so you can make out shapes in the darkness.

However, get rid of the clouds and the moon, and the world becomes impressively dark—still not so dark that your eyes won’t adjust, but dark enough that you can’t make out textures and changes in surfaces. Is there someplace you can experience this level of darkness without fleeing the city? Maybe in a windowless room with the lights off, but with a dim frame of light leaking in around the door. If there’s digital equipment throwing off blue, red, green, or orange light, you’ve got it too bright for comparison.

When I first step out into a night so dark, I step slowly, and feel for the stairs with my feet. Even after five minutes, I can’t make out shapes along the side of the road; looking into the distance, I might be able to make out a tree, a tree line, or a house against the sky—but the darkness has almost no texture at all where I happen to be walking.

In contrast, it’s astonishing how bright the night can be when lighted by a full moon. Holding a book or a newspaper, with 20/20 vision, you can read by moonlight. It can be bright enough not only to see shapes, but to make out colors—though barely. Once your eyes adjust to the moonlight, you can walk and play outdoors reasonably effectively without other light sources. And on a clear, moonlit night when the land is covered in snow? Wow!

This isn’t some amazing discovery, but it seems worth mentioning for people who have never experienced it. Take a trip some time: go where there is no concentration of streetlights, cars, and porch lights—far from a city. Find a secluded road or path and walk it at night not just once, but on several nights. See what it’s like moonless (walk cautiously), and compare it with another night when the moon is up—and maybe even full.

For the complete City Slipper experience, visit my web site at

Also, please visit my blogs about growing your own vegetables and fruit: Your Small Kitchen Garden and Your Home Kitchen Garden

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Small Town Values

I enjoy the comedy of John Stewart on the Daily Show, and was quite amused on Friday by his piece on small town values. (Follow this link if you want to see it.) Ignoring the political focus of the segment, I imagined myself trying to answer the question, “What, exactly, are small town values?” It’s a challenging exercise.

Uniquely Small Town Values?

The only value I can think of that may be uniquely small town is that of preferring to live in a small town. After that, it seems you can find any “small town value” in every community… and you can find just about any “value” imaginable in a small town.

Lewisburg, for example, has people who value education, who value religion, who value family, who value friends, who value health, who value stuff, who value freedom, who value their careers, who value community, who value sports, and who value TV shows. There are folks here who value their own interpretations of right and good to the degree that they expect everyone to share those interpretations. Other folks value diversity so much that they won’t express a position on either side of an issue. In short, there is absolutely nothing that makes “small town values” any different from what nearly every American would refer to as “values.”

If you want to politicize the notion of small town values, consider that there are Christian-raised, small-town, family-loving folk who are drug addicts, pregnant but not married, divorced, kleptomaniacs, rude, war-mongering, hateful, and all kinds of less-than-perfect. You can find a whole bunch of similar folks living in cities. I believe that neither small-town- nor urban-America would claim these as their values.

And Your Values?

While I haven’t been able to pin down what makes values “small town,” I have noticed a significant difference in how people relate to their values. My acquaintances in the city were never shy to reveal their points of view… but they also rarely injected moral, religious, or political commentary into a conversation. In small town USA—at least in the small town USA I know—for many people, religiousness is almost a calling card; sometime during a first meeting, it’s common to be asked what church you attend.

So, based on my experiences, I can add a second value to my short list of small town values: making sure other folks know what you value.

Across the US, our core values as basically the same. We differ in interpretation, in expression, in policy, and in behavior… but ask us what we value, and the answers will be boringly consistent. No group, organization, region, city, or town has a lock on values… Go ahead: ask anyone.

For the complete City Slipper experience, visit my web site at

Also, please visit my blogs about growing your own vegetables and fruit: Your Small Kitchen Garden and Your Home Kitchen Garden

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sinking of the White Pearl

A week has passed since the event, but it’s still fresh in my mind as if it happened only minutes ago: my son went down with his pirate ship, the White Pearl. (No worries. He came back up. This story is not a tragedy.) About five weeks back, my son’s friend invited my son to participate in Sunbury’s upcoming Cardboard Boat Regatta. Roughly, the rules require that boats entered in the regatta be made entirely of cardboard. Though they can be held together at the seams with duct tape, the boat cannot be covered entirely with duct tape. After that, only glue, caulk, and paint are allowed.

My son’s friend designed a boat that resembled the great ships of old-time pirates. Together my son and his friend cut cardboard, glued it together, caulked seams, painted, and created special decorative touches. There was a mast, a skull-and-crossbones flag, a crow’s nest, and a bowsprit. There were pirate costumes, a toy parrot on a shoulder, a baby doll with a pirate’s hat in the crow’s nest, and the ship’s name: The White Pearl painted on its bow.

baby on board

At the regatta, there were dozens of clever boat designs: one shaped like a dragon, another like a hammerhead shark, a truck with wheels, a small car, a gondola, something called Alien Invasion, and even the Titanic II (which looked more like a river barge or a rectangular canoe than an ocean liner).

There were three divisions: Adults-only, mixed adults and children, and children-only. During the race of the mixed division, I learned that moms and their teenaged sons should not build and race cardboard boat together. She yelled, “J stroke! J stroke!” He yelled, “I’m trying.” She yelled, “Sweep! Sweep!” He yelled, “Shut up!” Neither looked happy, though their boat stayed afloat through the whole race.

Then there was the White Pearl. Two good friends, dressed (roughly) as pirates, set the boat in the water. My son’s friend in front, my son in back, gently climbed into the great ship. My son, however, could not get his right leg into the boat—with each attempt, the boat listed hard to the port side (left)… and then the starter’s horn sounded.

The mass of boats surged forward as the crew of the White Pearl paddled. With each stroke, the great ship listed more to port. After, perhaps, five or six strokes, the great ship’s mast fell, and only seconds later the spine of the White Pearl cracked… she hadn’t even cleared the end of the dock.

The stalwart pirates managed to save the baby, as they dragged sixty pounds of soggy cardboard out of the river. The whole mess went into a nearby dumpster. But, when prizes were awarded, my son and his friend received notice for Best Sinking! Knowing the deadly sins, I try not to feel pride, but on this day my soul is weak. I so hope they enter next year’s cardboard boat regatta.

For the complete City Slipper experience, visit my web site at

Also, please visit my blogs about growing your own vegetables and fruit: Your Small Kitchen Garden and Your Home Kitchen Garden

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Country Wedding

This past weekend, my wife and I attended the wedding of one of her friends. In my experience, it was an uncommon event: it was held at a farmer’s produce store outside of town.

I’ve attended, perhaps, twenty weddings. Most were held in churches, followed by drives to country clubs or hotels or other places that could hold crowds for meals and dancing. Only three weddings I’ve attended were outdoors and independent of churches. Those were the most enjoyable, excepting, of course, my own wedding which, though it was in a church, made all weddings pale in comparison. (My wife might read this blog entry. You get my drift.)

This weekend’s wedding was absolutely delightful! The farm market—Ard’s—has evolved in the twelve years we’ve lived here from a simple produce store with a deli counter into a produce store with a restaurant and family-friendly attractions. These include a rope maze, a gunny sack slide, various playground items, a goat pen, and a corn maze that opens when the corn is tall enough.

We’ve gone to Ard’s for their annual customer appreciation days (a small carnival), to choose Christmas trees, and to ride a hay wagon out to a pumpkin patch where we harvested our jack-o-lantern candidates. Ard’s seems very successful, and I’m sure some of that success comes from these extra bits they provide for the community.

For the wedding ceremony, there were rows of benches on the lawn behind the building—adjacent to an open-air dining area (under cover) that wraps around the back corner. Sitting on these benches put the goat enclosure immediately to our right; we could see the goats wandering up and down a ramp that leads to a feeding station about 20 feet over our heads.

During the ceremony, a rooster crowed three times, and then strutted between the guests and the wedding party. The service was simple and pleasant, and afterward we walked to the dining area where we had a buffet dinner service before guests (especially the youngsters) headed out to play volleyball, to explore the corn maze, and otherwise to enjoy the farm market’s recreational facilities.

As the bride’s brother spun up some tunes and got the dancing started, I enjoyed the goats, visited the rooster, and watched patrons of the store come and go. It was such a pleasant time in such a remarkable place. Imagining that the choice of this venue must represent the tastes and sensibilities of my wife’s friend and new husband, I must conclude: my wife has good taste in people.

For the complete City Slipper experience, visit my web site at

Also, please visit my blog about growing your own vegetables and fruit: Your Small Kitchen Garden

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


While at the Mennonite grocery store today, I did quite a bit of shameless people-watching:

There was a heavy old woman who I saw only from the rear as she selected a cart outside the store, pushed it in front of the entrance door, and stopped there to read the specials listing—blocking my way for several seconds (very unhealthy seconds for a former Bostonian). When finally she started walking, it was with a slow limp, so I felt not only impatient, but also guilty about being impatient.

There was a late-middle-aged mother with her twenty-something son. He seemed nervous and awkward. She also seemed nervous. She was helping with his grocery shopping, and they were carrying on as if they’d both gotten their first own apartment and they were stocking the larder for the very first time.

There was a very pleasant young-looking older gentleman with a full head of white hair. We did a little shuffle dance in front of the deli counter as I bounced from end-to-end selecting lunch meat and cheeses while he held position awaiting service. We chuckled together several times.

There was a young couple who seemed exasperated with each other as he repeatedly asked her whether she wanted the item he held. Later I saw him pushing the cart alone and dropping in items; she was nowhere near.

There was a woman only a little older than I, dressed modestly and meticulously. She smiled warmly each time we passed, and she filled her cart with supplies for pickling and making jams, jellies, and preserves. I guessed she ran a tight and very happy Mennonite household.

The moment that made all this so memorable was the one that took place between an impossibly old couple. She sat in a wheelchair, and he somehow pushed her around, though looking frail enough to qualify himself for a wheelchair. Estimating forward from my dad’s 88 years, these folks must both have been in their late 90s.

He doted over her, including her in every moment of their shopping trip. At the tomato bin, he leaned in for a tomato and held it close so she could reject it, sending him back for another to judge.

I thought hard about the idle inattention that is so common among married couples: how easy it would be to leave the wife home—or simply to push her along while loading the cart to your own whim. To see this couple completely involved both with their chore, and with each other, infused me with hope for the long-term health of my marriage. Wouldn’t it be sweet to reach 90 with my wife, and still find ways to spend quality time with her?

For the complete City Slipper experience, please visit my web site at And check out my other blog: Your Small Kitchen Garden.

Friday, August 8, 2008

West End Fair

It is so intensely fair season in central Pennsylvania. Every small town, every county, and every fire station…as well as some farm stores, a hospital or two, and bunches of churches, sponsor fairs, festivals, or carnivals. With some of these events running for a day, others for a weekend, and still others for an entire week, it’s impossible to patronize all of them. For that matter, smaller fairs and carnivals seriously resemble each other. Unless you absolutely can’t live without fried dough, you can quickly overdose on fair season.

This past week was about the Union County West End Fair which runs for a week at the western end of Union County. Last night, my daughter and I headed out to enjoy the county fair atmosphere.

We visited a pavilion of exhibits that had been submitted for judging. These included baked goods; fresh vegetables; canned fruits and vegetables; crocheted and knitted clothing, blankets, and rugs; photos; paintings; paper crafts; sculptures; scrap books; flower arrangements; and antiques (yes, if you have an old stove-top coffee percolator, it might win a blue ribbon at a county fair).

Other pavilions held rabbits, pigs, sheep, cows, and goats. Off beyond the pavilions was a track designed for the tractor pull. Here’s a niche sport: Hook your tractor to a heavy weight, and pull the weight as far as you can on a soft dirt track. The trick is to keep the tractor’s wheels turning without letting them lose their grip on the track. From time-to-time a tractor pulls a wheelie as it approaches a stall.

Just off the fair’s midway, a large open-air stage faced three rows of bleachers and several dozen lawn chairs. A talented bluegrass and country band played for about 90 minutes, with a second set scheduled to start 90 minutes later. My daughter and I watched a few heats at the tractor pull, shared a funnel cake while we listened to the band, and left the fair after about two hours.

The music was quite good, and the rabbits and goats were especially cute. The pigs, cows, and sheep were also entertaining. Still, the high point for me was dinner I had at a friend’s sausage truck—Gunzy’s Hot Sausage.

My friend--a school teacher—has been working the sausage truck with his family since he was a kid. This was the first time I’ve seen the truck. It is actually a large trailer whose sides fold out to create an enormous restaurant at the fair. The sausage is a perfect mix of hot and sweet, and I’d have been satisfied if the entire fair was no more than my friend’s sausage truck.

Still, I had a relaxing evening with my daughter doing something “different.” We won’t be going to a lot of county fairs and firemen’s carnivals, but I’m sure we’ll find a few things to entertain us at the fairs we do visit.

For the complete City Slipper experience, please visit my web site at