A Life More Ordinary: Reflections on Shoveling and Suitcases


I once met a Guatemalan woman who told me of her childhood when she was part of the armed resistance against the dictatorships before the 1996 Peace Accords. Rebels in the hills carrying guns, ducking through the forests as helicopters flew overhead. Sneaking into villages and acting out little morality plays to tell the villagers of the evils of the government and the gringos (me!) from the north. Being flown to Cuba for medical treatment. Being separated from her rebel parents and hidden safely in Nicaragua in a camp full of children with similarly revolutionary parents. Fascinating stories worthy of a memoir. In return I told her some stories of my childhood, my grandmother, my small-town upbringing – things that border on idyllic and enter the mundane – and apologized for their silly saccharine details. Good grief, how painfully ordinary and boring. But she was riveted and protested: “These are things I never had,” she said. “Please, tell me more.” Humbled and a little embarrassed, I did. But the lesson of perspective and context stuck with me.

When is ordinary no longer ordinary? At what point does thinking/living outside the box become the box? Think about it: if Lady Gaga DIDN’T wear a meat dress, that would be news. We come to expect absurdity from her the way we expect the sun to come up each day. Your life, no matter how extraordinary, becomes your personal form of “business as usual.” Hopping another flight around the world? Again?? It sounds glamorous to the ones who aren’t flying, and yet no matter how fortunate the traveler may seem, many of the sacrifices that come with it might be intolerable for the envious. And the traveler – me, in this case – can find oneself looking longingly at some of the bonuses of the life left behind.

Since 1997 my life has been in and out of “the box.” Teaching overseas and freelance/travel writing have kept me out of my home base for long periods of time (when I had a home base at all). I just became conscious of the fact that my nightstand back in Madison migrated out of the corner to another wall where it is now my de facto luggage rack, a suitcase yawning atop it, my personal items jumbled within like the junk drawer in the kitchen. I rarely am around long enough to store the suitcases on the top shelf of the closet. Being home and doing absolutely nothing but reading a book or grocery shopping is now a pleasing break from routine.

I returned from Thailand to Wisconsin this winter mostly to promote my latest Wisconsin’s Best Beer Guide, which as one might imagine, sells pretty good around Christmas in this frozen tundra of brewski. I swapped out the warm weather clothes, loaded the trunk and set off town to town doing signings at brewpubs. But when Mother Nature brought out a can of snowy whoop ass this weekend, I had to stop and catch my breath at my parents’ place in the heart of the storm.


Down with a cold, I dozed half of Saturday with the wind howling outside. When I got up, two shovels were propped up against the counter in the kitchen. Passive aggressive hints from my mother? I bundled up and headed out into the blizzard. The city had just finally plowed for the first time for the day and had left a bank as high as my waist at the end of the driveway and so I set to it with my mother.

I haven’t shoveled snow in years. Even in Madison I’m in a condo and the service is done for us. The exercise was welcome and made a blustery day seem warm in moments. It also made me feel like a pathetic old man. Is that my back? I feel a bit lightheaded. Chest pains or just gas??? Shall I dial 9-1 on the cell phone just to be prepared?

Then there’s the futility of it all. Snow was still coming down and 30-40 mph gusts were just replacing anything I tossed downwind. So much for the nostalgia of snow removal. Much like mowing a lawn – the sweet smell of fresh cut grass! – the just-like-old-times attraction wears off in about 5-10 minutes. But there was still a feeling of being home, a feeling that now more often comes to me when a Bangkok street food vendor recognizes me and starts cooking “the usual” before I even order.


I have plane ticket itineraries to sort out this week again already – Kenya, Turkey, half a dozen countries in Asia – but in the meantime, I will watch football at normal waking hours and throw a pizza in the oven, stop in at my local library, play some guitar, drive around doing errands, have a beer or six with friends, do trivia night at the pub, make some bread, maybe re-paint the bathroom. Maybe shovel some snow again. This is so amazing.

19 thoughts on “A Life More Ordinary: Reflections on Shoveling and Suitcases

  • December 13, 2010 at 2:06 pm
    Permalink

    SNOW!! I read this and I was immediately transported back to my teenage years and early 20’s in the snowbelt of Ontario. Wow, the stories we could both tell about snowstorms. Haha

    You’re right though, we seem to find a routine no matter where we are or what we’re doing and sometimes we avoid writing or talking about something because we think it’s boring. I cannot wait to get back to Canad nest week. Yes, it will be freezing ass cold, BUT I can do things like flush toilet paper and eat sandwiches and have buttered popcorn!

    Reply
    • December 13, 2010 at 7:32 pm
      Permalink

      Flushing toilet paper is a luxury, yes.

      Reply
  • December 13, 2010 at 4:17 pm
    Permalink

    First snowfalls should always give one a giddy feeling, plotting with skates, sleds and skiis. It’s the February snowfalls that are a challenge!

    Reply
    • December 13, 2010 at 7:30 pm
      Permalink

      True that! So I won’t feel so bad about skipping out on them!

      Reply
  • December 13, 2010 at 4:35 pm
    Permalink

    Never really thought about lives being reversed like that. I wouldn’t mind being in your shoes in terms of traveling. Sure, I’d be farther away from home, but it sounds like you’re back in Wisconsin about as often as I’m back in Pittsburgh and in all the times I’ve been abroad, I’ve never really felt homesick. I love my family, but can deal with seeing them only a few times a year, although I can’t say the same about my wife.

    And as much as I could kvetch about being stuck in Philly having to study a bunch of finals and not being able to travel much, I always think that it could be worse. I could still be stuck in Freeport.

    Reply
    • December 13, 2010 at 7:33 pm
      Permalink

      We were both in Freeport about the same time, no? I agree. That was more than enough. (Though I met some great people there!)

      Reply
  • December 13, 2010 at 8:38 pm
    Permalink

    I hope one of those Christmas beers is with me! Nice piece, Kevin. I just pulled back into Milwaukee last night after twelve hours of plane travel, so i can relate. Nice to be home again,

    Reply
    • December 13, 2010 at 11:06 pm
      Permalink

      Yes, we better plan for that. Time is running out! I need to sneak a day in Milwaukee in here somewhere. Maybe another freaking book signing (read: tax write-off)

      Reply
  • December 13, 2010 at 10:23 pm
    Permalink

    Maybe you should’ve tried the snowblower.

    Reply
    • December 13, 2010 at 11:04 pm
      Permalink

      Vicki, you KNOW how Mother disapproves of the snowblower! (Something slightly Norman Bates-y in that statement). It leaves puddles in the garage. It’s scary. It might not even work. Maybe there’s no gas. What if it breaks? Then what? You see how hard the neighbor’s snowblower is struggling with all that snow? (And finally) That’s OK — it’s good exercise.

      I no longer argue. I expect the story to show up in an Oliver Sacks book someday. Or a variation on the Family Car skit in Ernie’s flower box on Sesame Street.

      Reply
  • December 13, 2010 at 10:34 pm
    Permalink

    Pretty much the same time, although I was there for another year after you left. The experience wasn’t for naught, as I don’t think I would’ve been an exchange student otherwise, which would have drastically changed the course of my life up to now.

    Reply
  • December 14, 2010 at 1:47 am
    Permalink

    We all want what we don’t have; it’s the human condition. I do miss a decent beer and being able to communicate without some form of sign language. And meatloaf. Snow, though, is all yours!

    Reply
    • December 14, 2010 at 1:53 pm
      Permalink

      Come on, not even just a little bit? It’s perdy! But I will be happy to cut it short in January. The beer and meatloaf — that’s another problem. I had some stellar meatloaf at Titletown in Green Bay last week — stuffed with Havarti, sun-dried tomatoes, and made with ground beef and Italian sausage. Just ridiculously good and with Bridge Out Stout on the side. Good lord. Almost enough to keep me here. Almost.

      Reply
  • December 14, 2010 at 1:56 am
    Permalink

    “Passive aggressive hints from my mother” that’s funny 🙂 Yeah, true. We don’t relize how pricess what we already have ultill no longer there. But I don’t think I miss winter for a while. I terribly miss summer!
    How do you feel see that much of feezing snow in years? 🙂

    Reply
    • December 14, 2010 at 1:49 pm
      Permalink

      I just got my first real cold in about 5 years. In Thailand illnesses tend toward the digestive system. Not sure which I hate worse. I do love the snow. It’s extremely beautiful especially as we often have perfectly clear skies afterward. It’s not winter that bugs me, but rather the LENGTH of it here. Goes on forever some years.

      Reply
  • December 14, 2010 at 1:36 pm
    Permalink

    Great blog! After I read this, I think I know what you feel. Good job dude 😉

    Reply
    • December 14, 2010 at 1:51 pm
      Permalink

      Really? I’d have thought my endless whining about it in Bangkok might have been clear. I can whine more when I get back. Punk! 😉

      Reply
  • December 15, 2010 at 3:46 pm
    Permalink

    I enjoyed reading your book The Yogurt Man Cometh. Being a wife and Mother and following my husband around the world, I can relate to your experiences with laughter, now. Being from the Midwest, it is a hard thing to shake off. My strongest culture shock was moving from Ames, Iowa to the Chicago area. Ha! Keep writing and entertaining me.

    Reply
    • December 15, 2010 at 4:31 pm
      Permalink

      Vanessa’s mother I presume? 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I may do an e-book of the huge Egypt/Syria portion that got deleted. I hear you on the culture shock: my first job after college was proofreading for a law firm on the 84th floor at the Sears Tower. Going from Marshfield to Chicago was a leap and not always in expected ways. I was shocked to visit my doctor’s office in a converted apartment above storefronts on Clark St or the like. Surely if little old Marshfield had the humongous Marshfield Clinic, Chicago would be the same.

      Thanks for following along!

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *