Culture Shock

In Gary’s Stories by Gary



My cousin Marilynn and I lost our spouses eleven months apart.  Between those deaths she had lost her father who was a mentor to me.  We teamed up to recover from the grief.  We talked a lot.  We spent some weekends together.  We vacationed in the Wisconsin north woods together.  She became the sister that I never had and I, the brother she never had.  We poured out our hearts and souls to each other.  Our bonds strengthened, and we became soul mates of the deepest order.  Less than a year after my wife died, my mother died.  A year and a half after that my father died and others in my extended family had died.  I was struggling with perpetual grief recovery.  We decided I would spend the winter of 2008 with her.  It would be good for both of us.  She could help me spiritually, and I could help her with home maintenance.  We thought we knew each other well, but both of us were in for culture shock.

The first culture shock was cooking.  Sis was a traditional cook (read that as “old school farm cooking”).  Meals were made from scratch and cooked on the stove.  A meal must include everything in the food pyramid; whatever that is.  Cooking was a methodical process, and time was never a big factor.

Reflecting on my many years as a workaholic and traveling test engineer, food had three requirements.  It must be fast, it must be filling, and it should taste good; end of conversation.  I cook with a modern age microwave.  Whatever is in the bag is ok.  I prefer 5 minutes or less in the microwave.  My favorite meal is two packages that take 90 seconds each.  Time is money.  I ain’t got a clue about protein, carbohydrates, and all that stuff.  I know meat, bread, and potatoes.  A pound of hamburger, a loaf of bread, and a can of Diet Coke is a full meal.  Add ketchup, onions, and pickles, and my food pyramid is complete.

I come by the “time is money” philosophy from my dad.  When my brother and I grew up on the farm, the noon meal went like this.  We left the field to get to the fuel pump at the machine shed by 11:50.  Between 11:50 and 12:00 we went to the basement to get worshed (an Iowa word) and then sat down at the dinner table by 12:00.  Eating was done by 12:15 when the weather report was on the TV.  We adjourned to the living room to watch the weather and farm report on WOI-TV until 12:30.  Then, dad gave the daily proverb: “Ain’t no rest for the wicked and the righteous don’t need it so let’s go to work.”  Out the door we went to fuel the tractors and grease the implements.  Then it was off to the field to get the implement in the ground by 1:00.  That was the noon hour on Fritz Stratton’s farm.

Sis and I looked at each other as we tried to comprehend the others cooking style.  Silently in our heads we had the same questions; “What is wrong with you? How can you cook like that?”  We talked about it.  Our personalities are a lot alike.  We are sometimes wrong but seldom in doubt.  We are self-sufficient, and self-assured.  We are persistent and reluctantly admit we might be a bit stubborn.  The likelihood of either of us changing our ways is slim.

Then there was the problem with the stove.  Sis has an electric stove and I use a gas stove.  Whichever one you have you don’t like the other.  The kitchen in my fire department had electric stoves so I had some experience at what a miserable cooking device they are.

One day Sis was having a busy day.  I said I would cook supper and it was ok with her.  My first question was “Where is your cast iron skillet?”  The reply was “I don’t have one.”    “WHAT?” I replied,  “How can you cook without a cast iron skillet?”  “I use waterless cookware” she said and handed me a skillet.  She knew my patience, or more correctly the lack there of.  I liked gas stoves because when I want high fire I get fire NOW.  When I want low fire I get it NOW.  So she proceeded to lecture me (her term would be instruct me) to never use high heat on a waterless cookware pan.  That lecture had the tone of voice every man knows; the tone that means listen, pay attention, don’t argue, or you’re in big trouble.  I did all three.

So I commenced to cook.  One item I was about to prepare was instant sweet potatoes.  About the time I was ready to do that, Sis came in the kitchen and said she would fix them.  I handed her the box and said, “The instructions are on the side.”  The next thing I know she sets this pan of soup looking stuff on the stove.  I ask “What’s that.”  “The sweet potatoes” Sis replies.  “No, I reply, those go in the microwave.”  Well, I never see stove top instructions on a box and she never sees the microwave instructions.  So we have a laugh.  Eventually we get the soup boiled down to almost potatoes.  What should have taken four minutes takes a half hour.

We had some good chuckles about our different views on cooking.  It was culture shock that maybe we didn’t know each other as thoroughly as we thought.  By the time the winter was over, each would have a better understanding of the other.  Neither of us is going to change, but we understand each other.

Laundry was another thing but less traumatic.  Sis did my laundry for me and folded the clothes.  Clothes hangers were another issue.  Now, hangers are correctly used when the hook is toward the left arm of shirts.  She put the hook toward the right arm.  I have since learned this is a woman thing.  How could they be so wrong?  Sorting clothes is another issue.  What is it with women and colors?  Having been married to a Norwegian I was forced to learn to separate whites.  After my wife died I used my own rules to worsh (yes, it’s an Iowa word) clothes.  Whites were separated.  Everything else went into two piles, dirty and filthy.  It’s a lot easier and takes fewer loads, read that as less time.  When doing laundry my rule is whoever does the laundry gets to do it their way.  So I survived the winter and reversed a few hangers.  Don’t be expecting either of us to change on this one either.

The next thing we experienced is driving in the city.  One day we drove to the place where Sis works part time.  As we got in the car I envisioned the route to the four lane expressway, down the expressway, off the exit, and into the office.  My travel rule was to always take the highest rated road and I used snow removal criteria for that rating.  First choice is the interstate, then multi-lane expressways, then Federal numbered roads, then State numbered roads, then local roads with two digit numbers, then three digit numbers, and so on.  The objective is to get on the biggest and fastest road you can, run the speed limit, and get there as fast as you can.  Time is money and were burn’n daylight don’t ya know.  Well it didn’t turn out that way.

Sis commenced to take numerous two lane side streets to avoid the traffic.  I could see traffic moving swiftly along the express way just a couple of blocks away.  How inefficient I’m thinking.  I was also surprised because it is well known that when driving on an interstate Sis has a lead foot.  We chugged along at 30 mph, between numerous stop signs, as she explained her logic.  The trip is less hassle with less traffic and people don’t drive so fast.  There are more things to see, and besides, it doesn’t take that much longer.  I listened politely.  It was her car, her city, and her route to work, but our adventures with streets would soon get worse.

One day I ventured off on my own to explore the Green Bay metro area.  I had a paper road map to guide me.  These were the days before I had GPS.  I love hardware stores and I found my way to Martin Hardware not far from Sis’s house.  I walked in, looked around, and began to drool.  This was a hardware store’s hardware store.  There was a lot of stuff in this store.  I began to wonder around and look.  A person asked if he could help me.  I said I was just browsing and struck up a conversation which is unusual for me as I try to keep a low profile and remain a very private person.  Well, it turned out he was the owner and he commenced to show me all the new stuff he had in the store.  There were items I didn’t know I needed.  I bought some diamond drills for drilling glass and some other handy dandy items.  If I moved to Green Bay, Martin Hardware would be my second home.

I ventured to other places and around Brown County most of that day.  I was struggling with street names.  This wasn’t Phoenix where road names never change in the 100 miles from one side of Maricopa county to the other side the county.  In Brown County, the road name changes every quarter mile.  When I got back to Sis’s house I started asking her questions about street names and routes I had taken.  The first issue was I refer to roads by their number, and she refers to roads by their name.  I asked about a north-south road I was on and she told me I was on an east-west road.  By the tone of our voices, we both knew an argument was coming.  We staked out our position, and both of us dug in our heels. We went back and forth on that issue and it became obvious we weren’t on the same page, heck, we weren’t even in the same book.  Now this wasn’t totally unexpected because Sis had tried to navigate for me on a trip or two we had taken together.  It was obvious that an engineer and a nurse had different concepts of what entails navigation and giving directions.

In frustration, I got out the map and laid it out on the kitchen table.  I pointed to the road and said, “See here, it goes north-south.”  She says, “No it don’t; it goes east-west when it crosses the river.”  “What river?” I ask.  Sis came over to look at the map and placed her finger on the river.  Well, she was talking about downtown Green Bay (Main Street / 141) and I was talking about the eastern suburb area (Hwy 141/Main Street).  We were both right, but we were in different parts of the county on a road that didn’t change name / numbers and the road went in multiple directions.  So the conclusion was that asking each other for driving directions was going to be an adventure unto itself.  However, there would be more culture shock.

On a Friday afternoon we were traveling to the “Holy Land” area south of Green Bay.  It is called the “Holy Land” because most towns have a St. something name with a church on a hill and a bar or restaurant that serves fantastic fish on Friday night.  Sis wasn’t sure of the exact route so we went while it was still daylight so she could use land marks to navigate.  She is pretty good at navigating by land marks.  However, her memory of some landmarks was a little fuzzy because she had only been on this route once.  I dug out my paper road map of Wisconsin.  Sis looks out the window; she looks at the map; she looks out the window; she asks what direction we are going; she starts turning the map upside down.  What the heck is going on.  Well, it seems that she doesn’t read a map like “normal” people.  North is not up.  She has to have the map rotated so it points in the same direction my truck is going.  If you are going south, then the south end of the map must be pointing toward the front of the truck.  Well that was new to me, but she was the navigator and I was totally lost; well that’s not true, according to her dad, I wasn’t lost, I just didn’t know where I was at.  It’s amazing what your uncle can teach you.  I asked her to just give me a general bearing and I would work it out.  She didn’t understand navigating by a bearing.  We had a good laugh about how a nurse navigates, and an engineer navigates.  We drove directly to the restaurant and enjoyed a fantastic evening of Friday night fish with the trimmings (Wisconsin brandy old fashioned sweet).  We followed the bread crumbs and had a great trip back home.  So navigating roads became another culture shock that we had conquered. Our adventure to the “Holy Land” brought us to an even greater understanding and appreciation for each other.

Each others patience was a mild culture shock for us.  We knew Sis had more patience than I do.  In fact most other people have more patience than I do.  I spent my life as an engineer and a firefighter.  Decisions had to be made and sometimes made in a few ticks of the clock.  I am action oriented.  I want action, and I want it now.  Sis had a career as a nurse.  She had lots of patience.  Her approach was wait and see what happens; let the medicine work for a while.  We understood that about each other.  However, we didn’t fully understand the depth of how each of us approached our own patience.  For me, having a lot of patience meant waiting until tomorrow.  For Sis, having a lot a patience meant waiting until next year.  I was thinking about buying a house in the Green Bay area.  I couldn’t find what I wanted.  I was frustrated.  In her most sisterly voice, my Sis told me to have patience and I didn’t need to make that decision right now.  Because of the tone of her voice, and that she is my sis, I listened.  That was the most important advice I’ve ever been given.  If there was culture shock, it was because I listened and took her advice.

I began this story in 2011 and I’m finishing it in 2016.  Sis and I have both mellowed with time, and we surprise ourselves at how we sometimes embrace the others characteristics.  I moved to Missouri in 2010 and in 2011 I took a back road home from town to avoid the traffic and congestion.  I’m driving down the road, and I broke out laughing.  I think I just became my sister, driving the local back roads to get from here to there.  I would admit to cooking more on a stove and Sis to doing more microwave.  She still cooks on the stove according to the food pyramid.  Although once considered impossible I pick more microwave meals that include vegetables.  I have learned about carbs, proteins, and fats.  Even more scary, she sometimes admits to thinking like me, the engineer/firefighter, and I like her, the nurse/nutritionist.  Our bonds have strengthened as we have mellowed.  Sometimes we have ESP about each other.  Our souls remain linked as we continue this journey of earthly life, and it is a great adventure.


If our culture shock gets too great we remember the wisdom of her father, my uncle Art, and my mentor.