Four and a half hours and a tank of gas

I just made the absolutely dreadful drive across North Dakota from my hometown of Williston to my current residence in Grand Forks. It’s supposed to take 5 or 6 hours, but I made it in four and a half on 3/4 of a tank of gas. I know that’s not something anyone particularly cares about, but it gives you some idea of the sheer boredom this drive causes. That achievement is the biggest excitement I can get out of that many hours in a car on the same highway with only the company of my boyfriend’s dog and nothing to look at but flat prairie as far as the horizon. It’s a beast of a drive — Not for the faint of heart.

*Dun dun dun (ominous music)* I didn't take this, but I have pictures that are exactly the same.

The drive is generally one of those times in life that you wish you could fast forward through. I faintly remembered reading an article once about a writer from a big city (I think he may have been from the New York Times) who had to drive across North Dakota and considered the solitude to be almost a religious experience from the chance for pure introspection.

…Yeah. My drive usually consists of pumping myself full of as much caffeine as possible and singing terribly to my iPod to keep myself awake. (In all honesty, it was a really great article — I can’t seem to find it right now, otherwise I’d link to it.)

I usually spend the entire time thinking about what I could be doing if I wasn’t struggling to stay awake and keep the death machine between the painted lines. So, instinctively, for the first 30 miles, I started making a schedule in my head of everything I needed to do as soon as I got out of the car. But soon, I started to notice the countless fields and ditches that were flooded. I don’t delight in natural disasters, but I did find it relieving to have something new to look at on the uber familiar ride. (I can tell where I am by “landmarks” like old, abandoned tractors and the occasional hill.) Like my dad, those farmers won’t be able to put in a crop this season. (Yeah, I’m a farmer’s daughter, too. Can I fulfill anymore stereotypes?) Although it was shocking and saddening,  I realized that there are some things we can’t control — like a long, boring drive you’ve taken far too many times.

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That's suppoesed to be prairie as far as the horizon. This area four miles west of Towner, ND, was one of the most severely flooded areas visible from the road.

As I surveyed the flooded land, spanning most of the Highway 2 area in northern North Dakota, I took the time to relax for once. I thought about things I like to think about instead of worrying about things I can’t control. I listened to my iPod for more than just background music while studying. I belted out everything from Bon Iver to Backstreet Boys.

I usually hate the inherent isolation of North Dakota — As if the state isn’t isolated enough from the outside world, you have to drive hours to get to the next major city. But I think I finally learned how to use that time wisely. I’ve spent most of my time being a miserable ball of stress lately (more so than usual even), so it seems like the drive I usually dread was just what I needed.

Wild Wild Williston: Part I

Every time I make a visit to my hometown of Williston, ND, dramatic changes have taken place in the once sleepy and static western North Dakota town. I think if I posted one entry about everything that needs to be said about Williston, it would be a novel. So, I’ll post a little about it here and there.

About 20 miles keeps us from being considered Montanans. Although, much of the rest of the country probably mistakenly considers us Canadians anyway.

Growing up, most people I met from other cities in North Dakota associated Williston with the meth problem that raged in the area throughout my childhood. At its peak, meth labs were being busted in homes, cars, and hotel rooms several times a month — perhaps even weekly. I remember one time, back when it was acceptable to let your children sell the products their schools made them peddle door to door, my friends and I knocked on the door to what I would now consider a shady-looking house. Despite the lack of a response, we heard definite movement inside, so we waited on the doorstep for a few minutes before we heard a car spinning out and speeding away from the back of the house. Chances are, we were on the doorstep of a dealer or a meth lab.

This just made me laugh.

Now, at least it seems that a majority of the meth has crawled back into whichever hole it came from. Today, it’s all about oil. Depending on who you talk to, it’s made this small town drastically better or vastly worse. But either way, the story’s the same: It’s a different place, even in the three years since I moved away for college. From Stanley, ND, a small town about 80 miles east, to Williston, a metropolis of oil rigs have cropped up. Signs marked “Rig 619” and so on sit at even the most seemingly inaccessible approaches branching from Highway 2 on the way to Williston from the east.

The run-down, dusty town with a population that, for years, could barely break 13,000 gradually exploded to its current population, estimated between 17,000 – 19,000. With the influx came a much-needed expansion in businesses and restaurants. A town boasting a Wal-Mart Supercenter and an Applebee’s as some of its biggest shopping and dining attractions, Williston had been in desperate need of “stuff to do.” After the last oil boom in the area peaked and busted in the 1980s, Williston was left with buildings, houses, and public works projects it couldn’t fund or fill. For this reason, the city’s being cautious. Business expansion has been slow to start, but it’s picking up speed — A Mexican grill is moving into the old Quizno’s, and a Menard’s is planned to be built west of town.

Bustling Main Street, Williston - "Dragging Main" is a favorite weekend activity of high schoolers

The slow-moving business expansion may be due, in part, to the focus on housing.  (The New York Times has a really interesting article on this, available at the link in the previous sentence.) The little town just couldn’t accommodate the population growth — Houses, apartments, and developments are going up in areas that I never thought I’d see as anything but open fields. But that’s a step in the right direction. The waiting list to rent an apartment in Williston is still about 8 months, leaving many people with few options. Hotels are completely booked every day of the week. Even throughout the harsh North Dakota winter, slews of new residents made mobile homes their semi-permanent homes. Many sported satellite dishes.

The campground near my parents' house is usually uninhabited during the winter, but was filled to capacity this January.

The people who live here are likely making more than many professionals in other areas of the country, but Williston just doesn’t have the space to house them.

Home sweet home

The area has tried to combat the problem by bringing in “man camps,” dorm-like housing options used to house athletes and workers at the  Olympics. Some man camps are located outside of Williston and Tioga, ND, a town of about 1,200 at the heart of the oil patch, 45 miles east of Williston. (I interned at the weekly newspaper in Tioga one summer — It was one experience I’d never want to relive, but that’s another story.)

The ATCO Lodge in Williston offers digital cable, wireless Internet, and includes all meals.

Before coming up with these solutions, Williston was battling new residents who decided to make themselves at home in one of the city’s local parks. Last summer, tents began appearing in a popular park for children, and they never went away. Christened “Tent City,” hundreds of residents crammed into the park and lived there through the summer. In early fall, the city finally ruled that the residents of Tent City had to find another place to live.

A family of three from Utah in search of higher-paying jobs lived in the Tent City among roughnecks.

Even with many potential solutions in the works, the housing problem has yet to be solved in Williston. “They” (whoever they are) say this oil boom is supposed to stick around for a minimum of 10 years. But, in the back of my mind, I wonder. The drastic changes the city is undergoing reminds me of a child forced to grow up too fast. Hopefully by the time the city catches up with it, the boom doesn’t bust again.

Hello, Gypsies!

"Vaarry niiiice!"

So, I stumbled upon the sneak peek episodes of an upcoming series on TLC called “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.” I honestly expected to watch about 10 minutes, because the preview reminded me of “Toddlers and Tiaras,” which chronicles the life of miniature pageant divas. If you’ve ever seen an episode, you know how appalling this insight into their lives is, since they’ll eventually be the future of America. But, I digress.

Cue the theme music from "Psycho"

“My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” didn’t make me fear for the future of American culture and society. I actually found myself completely engrossed, mainly because I — like most people — know nothing about modern Gypsy culture. To be honest, I had no idea Gypsies still exist. Probably because their lifestyle is intentionally kept extremely secretive. But I found their way of life so interesting and strangely contradictory that, instead of changing the channel during the first commercial, I watched straight through the second episode to a full hour.

Both of these might actually be brides -- Anything's possible for the Gypsies.

The show started in the UK, where a large population of Gypsies continues to reside. Called “Big Fat Gypsy Weddings” in its original British version, the show caught the interest of over 9 million viewers. The pilot episodes that premiered tonight on TLC featured Gypsies from the UK, but a little pop up appeared at the bottom of the screen asking, “Are you a member of the US Gypsy or traveller community?” and offering a website where you could sign up for the show. (The terms “Gypsy” and “traveller” seemed to be used interchangeably on the show — I’m not sure if different subcultures have different preferences. I mean to be PC. For the sense of ease, I use the term “Gypsies.”) I’m really interested to see what turns up in the US, since in my bubble of North Dakota, I’m completely naive to the fact that cultures like this exist.

The shows I saw both featured one bride and one young girl preparing for her first communion — the second most important milestone in a gypsy girl’s life. (Her wedding is the most important, often planned by Gypsy girls since they’re able to talk. Religion is a staple of Gypsy culture — It seems most are Catholic.) For these girls, the bigger and more over-the-top these events are, the better. Donning dresses that oftentimes outweigh the wearer, the Gypsies ensure they’re the center of attention on their big day.

This girl was actually a non-Gypsy marrying into the traveller lifestyle. She was assured hers was the biggest dress the designer had ever created.

Another unique thing about Gypsy culture is the average age they tie the knot. Most girls begin looking for a husband by age 14 or 15 and are married by 17. Teens often get dolled up and attend other Gypsies’ weddings in hopes of finding a future husband. From the time they can toddle, Gypsy girls are raised strictly to be housewives — It’s unacceptable in Gypsy culture for a women to go into the workforce, placing even more emphasis on the need to marry early.

Gypsy women’s emphasis on capturing the center of attention through their looks isn’t saved exclusively for their weddings. Going out on the weekends, these young girls definitely portray a much older image. They generally wear short shorts or skirts and cropped tops — even at age 7 or 8. Special occasions are another story. The picture below features a bride-to-be at her bachelorette party. Her mother and friends were all dressed similarly, supporting her on her last night as a single girl.

No, she's not the entertainment at the bachelor party -- She's the bachelorette.

Despite the reputation their clothing style might give them, Gypsy girls have extremely strict morals. They are closely sheltered by their parents and families — Dating is a strict process. Any kind of physical interaction before marriage would cause the girl to be viewed as “scandalized.” (Which is probably another reason for the early marriages)

Another element that stands in strict contrast to Gypsies’ emphasis on looking their best is their home life. They’ve generally moved away from the traditionally nomadic lifestyle they’re known for, but retain the potential to be mobile, shunning stationary houses in favor of trailers.

The bride in the pink dress featured in one of the earlier pictures goes "house hunting" with her fiance.

In light of my low expectations from the commercials, I’m proud that I can safely say I didn’t spend another mindless hour in front of the TV losing brain cells and faith in humanity. Although “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” undeniably has “big fat” entertainment level and shock value, it’s also worth a watch for its educational insight in to a subculture that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. Ten million British viewers can’t be wrong.

Apocalypse with a View

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This moose seems a little displaced on the side of the highway southwest of Williston, ND, but he's not in the middle of a lake. All that water is supposed to be prairie.

Flooding seems to be a problem this year for every area of North Dakota where high water is usually the last thing on residents’ minds. Everyone expects the Red River Valley in eastern North Dakota, including Grand Forks where I’m attending school, to experience some stage of flooding, but central and western North Dakota generally dry up pretty quickly. Visiting Williston, ND, the place I call home, I’m getting a firsthand view of the unusually marshy basin.

Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised. This is the year of psychotic weather phenomena. I hate to admit it, but come on, there have been so many uncharacteristic weather catastrophes, it’s getting a little hard to ignore. And that was the one and only reason that I did think twice about  the whole Rapture scare last weekend. I’m enough of a weenie to always have that faint idea in the back of my mind that crazy end of the world predictions could happen. And if there’s anything that could place some validity behind that, my worrywart self will continue to consider it possible. I’m sure Harold Camping didn’t mind the validity it appeared to place behind his claim either.

Got Raptured?

But, you’ve gotta admit, the false Rapture predictions gave us all the ability to make Rapture jokes, have Rapture parties, and make Rapture playlists. I kind of wish people would predict the Rapture more often. Unless there’s another random doomsday prediction (Camping says he’s moved the doomsday date to October 21, 2011 — can’t wait) or until December 21, 2012, the inhabitants of Earth are supposed to be in the clear, somehow hanging on by the thread.

All jokes aside, though, tornados, earthquakes, mass bird and fish deaths, and flooding are all sobering and ominous events. For those who are affected by the disasters, it likely feels like the end of days. The rest of the world can only look on in empathy and apprehension. Personally, all these events keep me a little on the edge of my seat.

Stoop kid’s afraid to leave his stoop. Maybe Jamie Lynn should have tried that.

Stoop Kid: A Hey Arnold! classic

Ah, yes. Nothing can soothe the savage college student like a little piece of nostalgia. Chances are, if your interest was piqued by that sentence, you’re a 90s kid, or the parent of one. And you know it came from an episode of Hey Arnold! You grew up on Nickelodeon at its prime. Who can forget shows like Doug, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Rocko’s Modern Life (my personal favorite — I own every episode ever made on DVD), and the ultimate classic, Rugrats (which — OMG — still has a maintained webpage on Nickelodeon’s site). Netflix one of these shows in a room full of 18-20somethings and we’re mesmerized in front of the boob tube with our mouths open, likely regressing to the same position we took while watching TV as kids.

The cartoon case of Doug

After engaging in the aforementioned activity not long ago, I couldn’t help but think about the striking difference between the episode of the always-wholesome Hey Arnold! I’d just watched and the shows my little sister, who’s 10, watches on a daily basis. Hey Arnold! and similar shows almost always incorporated some sort of life lesson into its silliness. Looking back, these messages held through into my adult years — In fact, everyday events sometimes still prompt me to reminisce about some TV show I used to watch as a kid. Whether it’s Rocko’s Modern Life’s satirical commentary on, well, modern life, or CatDog’s message of universal acceptance of those who are different.

I’ll admit, I’m a cartoon-lover. So, every time I visit home and am sharing the living room with my sister, I can’t help but get sucked in to whatever show she’s watching. Only, they’re hardly ever cartoons anymore. She went through a Zoey 101 phase a few years ago, until her favorite show was cancelled due to the star, Jamie Lynn Spears’s, teenage pregnancy. What a great role model for a then-5 year-old.

Don't make it sound too good, Jamie Lynn.

Then, she was addicted to Hannah Montana.

Hannah Montana was apparently the wholesome alter-ego.

Yeah, my point exactly.

Aside from most of these shows being mind-numbingly vomit-inducing, the demographics they appeal to are completely inappropriate. Shows like Hannah Montana and Zoey 101 deal with pre-teen issues, like shopping and makeup and dating boys. But the main age group these shows appeal to is 8-10 year-olds, and it definitely shows. My sister comes home from school with stories about her friends putting on makeup to go to movies with boys. They’re fourth-graders.

As if it isn’t bad enough that my little sister is singing along to the radio about “boys trying to touch her junk,” she’s got her role models, who are only 6-8 years older than her, getting knocked up and dancing on poles.

I’ve tried to turn my sister on to the cartoons I grew up with but, alas, she finds them boring. So much for that mode of sisterly bonding. I find she tries to have more things in common with me than I would ever expect of my 10 year-old sister. At age 10, I was still playing with Barbies and stuffed animals. While it’s fun to have a sister to talk with about painting nails and clothes shopping, it makes me a little sad that she’s growing up so much faster than I ever expected.

“Aww, you’re such a good … human.”

Those are the kinds of praises this little guy/girl is probably getting from its friends and family. I know whether I’m baby-talking to an infant, dog, cat, or petite lap giraffe, I tend to whip out the, “Who’s a good girl/boy?” So this situation would set me up to spill the beans.

If you haven’t heard about this yet, a Canadian family has decided to raise their baby, ambiguously named Storm, without a gender. Not surprisingly, this has provoked a negative uproar from psychologists and parents everywhere. The couple’s rationale? They want Storm to be able to decide for itself which gender he or she will choose. (Wow, I even feel bad calling an unborn baby an “it.” Here, we’re talking about a four-month old infant. I mean, just look at that cute little…person.)

Baby Storm -- I think it looks like a little boy, but it's really at the gender-neutral phase.

Of course, the parents, Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, know Storm’s gender, as well as its brothers Kio and Jazz. But they all make a point not to use the distinctions “boy,” “girl,” “he,” or “she” when talking to or referring to it. The couple wants their pristine newborn to remain untainted from gender stereotypes.

Many are applauding the parents’ desire to keep their baby free from the constraints of stereotypes, but most believe they’re going about it in the wrong way. Especially since infancy is a critical time in a child’s development. One child psychologist even said the parents are “creating, in some sense, a freak.”

The couple’s parenting techniques are being called into question in regards to their older children, as well. Both sons are allowed and encouraged to dress and act in any way they want, including wearing dresses and growing their hair long. (My computer froze for 20 minutes trying to add a picture, maybe I’ll add one later if it’s up and running.)

I wonder if even Lady Gaga would approve of leaving this baby in the dark in regards to its gender. After all, how’s it supposed to know which “way” it was born? Maybe what this couple is doing is the ultimate application of her “love yourself the way you are” declaration.

Here’s the popular excerpt from the e-mail the couple sent announcing their experiment to their family and friends:

We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place? …).

Anyway, it’s ultimately the parents’ decision — No amount of outrage or speculation from people like me who have no bearing over their lives can change their decision. But, who cares, it’s still a heck of a talker.

What do you think?