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Archive for the month “July, 2018”

Aitkin County Fair Review

Review of the Aitkin County Fair

Aitkin County Fair Review

H. Bradford

7/30/18

Aitkin County is Minnesota county with a population just over 16,000.  Despite the fact that is the neighboring county to Carlton County, where I grew up, I have never attended their county fair.  I usually attended the Carlton County Fair or a fair in St. Louis County.  This year, I attended the Aitkin County Fair with my family.   The fair was held early by fair standards (July 4-7th).  I attended on Saturday, which was the final day of the fair.  Here are my general impressions of the fair, though it may be an unfair assessment.


 

Pros:

 

Free Admission:

Most fairs charge a fee to enter.  This was always true of the Carlton County Fair.  The Aitkin County Fair costs nothing to attend!  There is a $5 parking fee, but this is easily avoided if a person parks further away.  This means that a person looking for free summer fun can wander around the fair at not cost.  Of course, rides and food are a bit spendy, but a person could choose to spend nothing! Image may contain: 1 person, standing and outdoor


Children Activities:

There were a variety of free activities for children.  There was an entire building dedicated to free crafts for kids, where children could make noodle necklaces and spinners.  My nephews did a few of the free crafts, but were less interested in other free activities such as viewing animals or learning more about farming in an interactive, children’s barn.

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Tractor Parade:

Another highlight of the fair was the tractor parade.  There is something really fun about watching a parade of tractors.  The drivers tended to be older men, but there were also some kids and women.  The tractors followed the perimeter of the fairgrounds for a 20 minute parade that showcased the mostly older model tractors. Image may contain: sky, tree, outdoor and nature


A Variety of Booths:

The Aitkin County Fair featured a two buildings of booths.  My favorite booth was for the Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge.  This booth was selling guidebooks on a variety of topics at half price.  I purchased a guide to ferns, a guide to moths, and a wildflower guide.  I also purchased two half priced children’s books for my nephews on the topic of bats.   I collected pamphlets from other booths on gardening in Minnesota, Minnesota trees, and pollinators- which may have come from booths for the DNR and University of Minnesota Extension.  The Aitkin County History Society also had a building at the fair.


 

Aitkin Gobblers:

This doesn’t have much to do with the fair, but the mascot for the Aitkin schools is a turkey, since the area was once known for turkey farming and processing.  Aitkin County once produced a half million turkeys each year and Land-o-Lakes operated a turkey processing plant in Aitkin until 1985.  The school adopted the turkey mascot because of the importance of turkeys to Aitkin.  Well, I think this is a great, unique mascot.  I made a point of trying to find an Aitkin Gobbler T-shirt while in Aitkin, but I could only find one at a local thrift store.  I purchased the shirt for $3, but was disappointed that it did not feature the image of a turkey.  At the fair, there were only a few turkeys.  One of them looked droopy and had an empty water dish, so I gave it some water (which it immediately stepped on and knocked over. Oh well, at least its foot was no longer dehydrated..)  There are not many turkeys in Aitkin any more, but at least a few could be found at the fair and I found a Gobbler shirt.     The range of wild turkeys is expanding, so it is more common to see wild turkeys in Aitkin and Carlton counties.  So, perhaps the turkey will return as a wild and free bird.  Fair organizers should really play up the importance of turkeys…

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Fire and Rescue Table:

Aitkin County Fire and Rescue had an awesome table tucked away in the far northeast corner of the fair.   The table gave away full sized bottles of water for free to combat heat exhaustion.  We were all given at least one bottle of ice cold water.  They also gave us vials of insect repellent and other free items related to staying safe.  We were encouraged to take us much as we wanted.  Maybe because of the isolated location of the table and the fact that it was the last day of the fair, we were given a large amount of free goodies.


 

Cons:

Banana Derby:

The Banana Derby should probably go into the “con” category.  It is one of those surprising things that seem out of place in this day and age.  The attraction was literally a race between two dogs with monkeys riding on their backs.  It was free to observe and money was made through promotional photographs with the monkeys.  This didn’t seem right.  Monkeys in sweaty, polyester jockey costumes holding on to dogs as they ran on a small track.  Even if the dogs and monkeys are treated well, that sort of performance is probably stressful and tiring for the animals.  Is this the worst offense of the fair?  After all, animals are put on display for several days or served as food.  This is a complicated issue, but there seemed like something distinctively exploitative about carting dogs and monkeys around the country and training them to race.  Perhaps it is simply the unusual nature of this particular entertainment that calls into question the issue of animal treatment.  I will say that whole thing was pretty surreal.

 

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Lack of Produce:

Because the fair is held in early July, most gardens have not produced many crops as it it too early in the season.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, eggplants, peppers, and so on tend to arrive later in late July and August.  Thus, the fair did not have many vegetables on display.   What could be done?  Maybe people could be encouraged to enter peas, lettuce, or immature versions of the later season crops. Image result for shriveled vegetable

Not an actual photo from the fair…but my impression of the veggies…


Business Booths:

While there was a building full of booths for organizations, there was another that was focused on businesses.  These offered prizes to promote their business.   These prizes seem a little scammy.  For instance, I received a call that I was one of  the finalists for a prize at the “Atkin” county fair.  Considering that the caller did not know how to pronounce Aitkin, I felt that it was not a representative from a local business or a genuine prize.  My brother also received a call regarding another prize, and it was clear that everyone who entered likely got a call from the business.  The prize offerings seemed like a way to gather customer contact information to trick people into purchasing products and services.


Lack of Swag Bags:

While at the fair, I tend to collect various pamphlets and free things.  Soon, my arms were full of books, pamphlets, and booklets.   None of the booths offered any sort of bag to carry the items in…except…the Aitkin County Republican Party.  I grabbed several bags and gave them to my family members.  I didn’t mind carrying my stuff around in a bag that said “God Bless America- Aitkin County Republican Party” as I found it rather ironic.  I didn’t feel ashamed, as it felt more like a prank or that I was a troll.   Is this wrong?  Should have I cared more?  I would have felt more embarrassed with a Democrat bag, since at least that would seem halfway plausible to the rest of the world.  A long story short, I guess I should have come prepared with a purse or backpack large enough to carry my loot.

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Not an actual photo of the bag, but you get the idea…

 

Overall:

The Aitkin County Fair is definitely a small fair.  There aren’t huge crowds and it is easy to amble along, enjoying this slice of rural living.  Rural life has been in a long decline, so there is a sense of emptiness at the fair.  Still, there is a sample of what once was with barns of goats, rabbits, cows, turkeys, pigs, and chickens, even if there are only a few representatives of each.  The few withered vegetable entries were sad, but on the other hand, there seemed to be robust interest in creating art, as the art barn had many entries.   There are carnival rides, free activities for kids, organizations with booths,  and of course, the tractor parade.  There is also music, fireworks, tractor pulls, 4H demonstrations, and a magician.  I did not partake in those events, but I am sure that each would add to the experience.  As a whole, I think it was a charming fair and worth a visit precisely because it is a small town affair and because of the hard work the community puts into organizing it.

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A Review of Three Minnesota National Wildlife Refuges

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A Review of Three Minnesota National Wildlife Refuges

H. Bradford

7/29/18


This past weekend (+Monday and Tuesday), I visited three state parks as part of my goal to see all of the state parks in Minnesota.  As it happens, all three state parks were not terribly far from National Wildlife Refuges.  Thus, I also visited three National Wildlife Refuges during my mini-vacation.   National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) are administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service for the purpose of conserving…well, wildlife!  I will admit that I am not as familiar with NWRs as I am with state or national parks.  From my limited experience, it seems that NWRs that I have been to differ from state parks in that they typically do not charge a fee or requite a sticker.  At the same time, camping is not typically allowed and there are fewer amenities, programs, and regular staffing.  They also seem less busy or tourist oriented than state or national parks.  On the other hand, some allow hunting and trapping, which is not always allowed at state parks.  My general impression is that NWRs are less family and tourist friendly, but great for bird/wildlife watching and a variety of independent outdoor activities.  There are 13 NWRs in Minnesota, which are among the 550 spread across the United States.  This is a review of three of them.

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Sherburne NWR:


Sherburne NWR is located near Zimmerman, MN and about a half an hour south-east of St. Cloud, MN.  I visited the refuge with my brother as a Saturday excursion during my weekend visit.  The park contains oak savanna, wetlands, and prairie ecosystems and offers hiking, but also a wildlife drive and opportunities for fishing and hunting.   My brother and I mostly partook in the wildlife drive, which provides a few opportunities to stop for short hikes.  The primary purpose of the visit was birding.

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The wildlife drive took us through a variety of landscapes, including the three mentioned on the website: prairie, wetland, and oak savanna.  We took a short hike in the prairie area, which unlike the state parks I had visited over the weekend, was devoid of bothersome insects.   While it seems that woodland wildflowers peak in the early spring, the prairie wildflowers were in full bloom, creating colorful fields of orange and yellow.   As for birding, the park has several species of sparrows which are not regularly seen in Northern Minnesota, where I live.   For instance, during our short hike, I heard a Field sparrow.  The song is very distinct, even though I have never seen or heard one before.  I imagine that it is the sound of a Frisbee being thrown or a UFO taking off.   There were also many grasshopper sparrows, another sparrow that I hadn’t seen before.  They have an insect like song that sounds like a cross between a buzz and a hiss.  Over twenty species of sparrows can be found in the wildlife refuge, so it seems like a great place to visit to see sparrows (even if I only saw a few species).

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The wildlife drive follows along some lakes, where trumpeter swans, double-crested cormorants, great blue herons, and various ducks can be seen.  For me, a highlight of these area was seeing black terns, which are another new bird for me.  I was unable to photograph them, as they zip along pretty quickly.   They don’t range near Duluth, but are found in other parts of Minnesota in prairie or prairie transition areas.  Another highlight was hearing a Least bittern in a ditch by the lake, though I did not see the bird hidden in the thick vegetation.   I am not a great birder, so I would suggest that less skilled birders (like myself) review bird song/calls before heading to the park.  It definitely helps with sparrow identification (as they all look pretty plain and brown) and for hard to spot birds.  I listened to a bird CD in my car on the way to Lake Maria State Park from Duluth (a three hour drive) so a few vocalizations were fresh in my head.

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The only buggy area was on the north-west end of the lake, where there was a small oak forests and trail.  We were too mosquito bitten to venture far, but we did see a red bellied woodpecker.  This was a new woodpecker species for me and one that I later saw more of at Charles Lindbergh State Park and Crane Meadows NWR.  As a whole, I would say that the park offered great birding opportunities.  I would definitely return to see more sparrows and to view the Sandhill cranes which migrate through the refuge in large numbers each fall.    I like that the park offered a wide variety of ecosystems and a wildlife drive.  While we didn’t do much hiking, I would like to return to try out the trails.  The park was surprisingly busy, with several vehicles slowly moving along the wildlife drive, also trying to spy on birds.  There isn’t much room for passing, so, be prepared to take it slow and follow the caravan of wildlife enthusiasts!   The refuge is about 30 minutes drive away from Lake Maria State Park, so both could be visited in the same day (though I visited them over the course of two days).

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Crane Meadows NWR:


Crane Meadows NWR is only fifteen minutes away from Charles Lindbergh State Park and only about ten minutes away from Little Falls.  This makes it very accessible and very easy to take in along with Charles Lindbergh State Park.  The NWR was a welcome reprieve from the mosquito swarms that characterized Charles Lindbergh State Park.  Crane Meadows NWR was bright and sunny, and although the trails followed along the Platte River, the wildlife area lacked the deer flies and mosquitoes that plagued my other outdoor adventures over the weekend.  Crane Meadows is only 2000 acres (compared to over 30,000 for Sherburne NWR) and does not have a wildlife drive.  Instead, it offers a few looped trails along the Platte River to Rice Lake.  The longest loop is just under four miles.  I hiked this loop, which was the best hike of the weekend because 1.) it wasn’t buggy.  2.) There was an abundance of birds.  3.) The trail passes a variety of ecosystems, such as oak savanna, tall grass prairie, sedge meadow wetland, and more!  The trail can only be used for hiking, so horses and bicycles are not allowed.  Perhaps owing to the length and limited use, I did not see any other people on the trail.

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As I already mentioned, the hike was very enjoyable, with easy terrain and a variety of habitats in one relatively small area.  I did not see as many birds as I did at Sherburne, but I also covered a smaller area.  There were some noteworthy birds on the hike, including a great crested flycatcher, another new bird for my list.  The yellow, gray, and rusty orange bird is easy to identify (which is not true of most flycatchers, which look pretty similar in their variations of pale yellow, olive, and gray plumage.)  Another highlight was a few red headed woodpeckers, which I have not seen in Minnesota before.  I also saw red breasted woodpeckers and a swamp sparrow.  Other sparrows included song sparrows and chipping sparrows, both of which are pretty common in Duluth.  The martin house was busy and there were also many barn swallows.

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Like Sherburne NWR, I would definitely visit Crane Meadows again.  The leisurely hike and variety of birds made for a great way to spend an afternoon.  I would say that the main downside of the NWR is a lack of amenities.  There are no toilets on the trails, but there is a port-a-potty at the parking area.  On the other hand, there was hardly anyone at the NWR, so that was a plus.  As a whole, it is a nice, compact wildlife area with easy access to Little Falls.

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Rice Lake NWR:

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The final NWR that I visited was Rice Lake NWR, near McGregor, MN.  I have visited this area many times, but couldn’t resist making a pit stop on my way home to Duluth.   Of the three, this NWR has the widest variety of things to do.  There is a wildlife drive, which I have done many times.  There is an observation deck and several hiking trails.  The NWR also features Native American and Civilian Conservation Corps history.  Native Americans continue to use the wildlife area for harvesting wild rice and maple syrup.  In fact, Native Americans have used the park since at least 1000 BC and there are burial mounds within the refuge.  Each time I visit, there are usually at least a few people fishing, which seems to be the most popular activity.  Rice Lake NWR is rich in waterfowl and each spring and fall during migrations.  In fact, the area holds the state record for the most waterfowl seen in one place at one time, when a million ring necked ducks were observed in 1994.   Like the other two parks, there is a wide variety of sparrows that can also be seen, including the rare LaConte’s Sparrow (which I have not seen).

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Where the wild rice grows…


In addition to the hiking trails, wildlife drive, fishing, birding, and Native American history/use, this NWR generally has pretty good amenities (at least compared to the other two refuges).  There are several toilets or port-a-poties spread throughout the refuge as well as two picnic areas.  There is no running water, however.  The refuge itself features mixed forests, lakes, and bogs.  Because it is a very wet environment, there are always lots of insects!  Of the three refuges, this was the worst, with swarms of deer flies AND mosquitoes.    I have never successfully hiked in this refuge since these attempts are almost always thwarted by voracious insects.  Even an open window during the wildlife drive attracted unwanted deer flies into my vehicle.

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National Wildlife Refuges are a different experience than state and national parks.  While they may not be as full of tourists, activities, and amenities, they are great places to spend a day taking in nature.  All three of these locations are relaxing, tranquil, and great for birding.  All three are places that I would visit again.   There are only 13 of these gems in Minnesota, and only 12 can be visited!  I will definitely be visiting other NWRs in the future and hopefully you will be inspired to visit them as well!

 

A Review of Three Minnesota State Parks

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A Review of Three Minnesota State Parks

H. Bradford

7/27/18

This past week I visited three Minnesota State Parks.  My goal is to one day visit all 66 state parks.  Usually, I try to visit a few new ones each year, so it is a long term goal.  The three parks that I visited are each located in central Minnesota and are each within one hour driving distance from St. Cloud.  I chose the parks since I visited my brother this past weekend (who lives in the St. Cloud area) and it was a way to kill two birds with one stone.  Well, really, I don’t want to kill birds at all.  Typically, I prefer to watch them.  Violent idioms aside, here is my review of the three state parks that I visited.


Lake Maria State Park:

Lake Maria State Park is located near Monticello, Minnesota, about three hours south-west of Duluth.  There was some road construction along the way and when I stopped at a gas station about 10 miles away from the park, the staff and a customer had no idea where Lake Maria State Park was.  The customer reckoned that he had heard of it before.  This did not bode well for the state park.  When I arrived not long after the stop, I found that the park office was closed.  It was a Friday, which I assumed might be a busier day of the week for a state park.  With the park office closed, I decided to do some hiking, then check back later (since I like to collect state park patches).   My first hike was to Little Mary Lake.

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(Sorry to disappoint anyone but Lake Maria’s sign is not this sparkly in real life.  I just had a sparkle setting on my camera by accident.)


Almost immediately, I was attacked by deer flies.  I did not think to wear my hat, so during the course of my hike, I picked dead deer flies from my hair in a demoralizing journey to the lake.  Had I counted the number of dead deer flies, I would not be surprised if at least 50 found their death in my hair.  The hike itself was hard to enjoy, as my constant battle with the flies made it impossible to stop for photos or bird watching.  The trail was dotted with many swampy pools, which seemed like the perfect environment for breeding insects.  The forest itself was unique, as it is a remnant of the “Big Woods” that once covered that part of the state.  The surrounding area near the park is either farm fields with corn or big box stores along I-94, so the park is a piece of what once was.   The forest also seemed unique to me because of the large number of basswood trees.  I might have appreciated the park more had my hike not been marked by the incessant attack of deer flies.

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One of Lake Maria’s swampy pools.


Little Mary Lake features a wildlife lookout, wherein visitors can take a moment to enjoy the swans and other waterfowl on the lake.   Further ahead, there is a boat landing and interpretive trail.  I enjoy interpretive trails, though the Zumbrunnen Interpretive Trail was overgrown with sedges and other vegetation.   Upon finishing this trail, I headed back to my car to eat a snack, put on a hat (to guard against flies), and wait for the visitor center to open.

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The wildlife lookout area


My second hike of the day was to Lake Maria.  I took a meandering path instead of a direct route, which took me to a bluebird restoration area, then back to the lake.  The lake itself was actually much smaller than Little Lake Mary, despite the fact the larger lake is called “Little.”  Once again, I was pestered by flies. Despite wearing hat (which I retrieved after the first hike), they flew at my face and under the brim.  This made for an exhausting day, as my hike seemed like an endless battle with flies.   However, I think that the park would be more enjoyable in the autumn or spring when the flies are not as thick.  Since the park is almost entirely forests and lakes, I am sure that it would be particularly nice in the fall.

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Pros:

The park was almost entirely empty.  I hiked from 11:30 am to about 3:30 pm and only encountered one other hiker.  There were several other people in the park, but I can count on one hand the number that I saw at various points during the day.  The park also features backpacking campsites.  It seems that it is a great park to visit if someone wants solitude.  I assumed that since the park is only 22 miles from St. Cloud and 45 miles from Minneapolis that it would be much busier.  This was not the case at all.  Lake Maria features lakes, forests, and plenty of birds.


Cons:

The flies were insufferable.  The natural ponds and lakes and surrounding farmland seem to be the ingredients for a lot of flies.  I would definitely have arrived more prepared for flies had I been thinking about it.  They bite any exposed skin, making taking photos difficult as they would land on my hands.   Another con was that the park office did not open until 2pm.  I wanted to purchase a year long park sticker and an embroidered patch, but had to wait until the park office opened.  Stickers can be ordered online, but I wanted the sticker right away as I had planned on visiting two other state parks that weekend.


Charles Lindbergh State Park:

Do you like aviation history and relentless swarms of mosquitoes?  I sure don’t.  This made Charles Lindbergh State Park a bit of a disappointment for me (heavy emphasis on the mosquito swarms).   Charles Lindbergh State Park is located about an hour north west of Lake Maria State Park, or about 30 minutes south of St. Cloud Minnesota.  The park was established with donated land from Charles Lindbergh Sr., the father of the famous aviator and a state congressperson.  Upon arriving at the park at about 9am on Monday, I found that the office was closed.  Bugs and closed park offices were a theme over the weekend.  I had intended to camp there, so I dropped off some money for firewood and set off to explore some of the historic buildings around the park.

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Because the park was created through a land donation of Charles Lindbergh Sr., visitors can walk around the family farm house.  The farm house was not open during my visit, but the grounds were open.  Visitors can also view a dilapidated house which was used by tenant farmers on the Lindbergh property.  There are some signs which tell the story of the farm, which seems oddly situated in a wooded strip of land between the Mississippi River and Pike Creek.  Near the farm, there is a museum dedicated to Charles Lindbergh Jr., the famous aviator.  The museum, like the farm house, was not open.  In the opposite direction, there is Weyerhauser Museum, but once again, this museum was not open.   Although the museums were closed, there are a few interpretive signs and a pleasant trail along the Mississippi River, which connects these sites.

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Tenant farmer house

 


After viewing these historical sites, I decided to do some hiking within the woods.  This was where I was bombarded by mosquitoes.  It is little wonder, since the trail followed Pine Creek, a wonderful breeding place for the blood thirsty plague.  I sprayed myself with DEET, but this would not defeat the relentless mosquitoes, which prodded my skin and clothes for any DEET free areas.  On the bright side, it caused me to hike very quickly as the mosquitoes pushed me forward.  I hiked a 1.5 mile loop which took me through the forest, along the creek, and to the landing site of Lindbergh’s “Jenny” airplane.  I am not really interested in aviation history, but the clearing was the only mosquito free area of the hike.

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I would have hiked longer, but the mosquitoes were making me miserable.  Instead, I headed to the park office, which was again closed.  I decided that I would leave the park, head to Little Falls, find some lunch, then go hiking elsewhere (at Crane Meadows National Wildlife Reserve).  This 3.5 mile hike proved to be bug free and greatly improved my bug bitten morale.

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A mosquito breeding area


When I returned to the park in the early evening, the park office was still closed.  I set up my tent at the campsite, took a short jaunt into the mosquito infested woods, then settled down at my campsite with a fire and some reading.  A wasp flew into my tent and I could not find it.  This caused me some concern.  Another source of concern was the nearby campers, who seemed to be very rowdy and loud.  Because of the loud neighbor campers and the mysterious disappearance of the wasp in my tent, I decided to sleep in my car.


Sometime after midnight, a police officer woke me up.  He questioned me about the behaviors of the nearby campers and if I had witnessed anything unusual or anyone in distress.  There were several squad cars parked near my campsite.  I only said that they had been loud earlier, but I didn’t hear any fighting or anything more concerning than the ruckus of loud conversation.  The officer left, but sometime later I was roused again, this time by a sergeant who wanted me to make an official witness statement.  I really hadn’t been paying attention to the other campers, their conversations, or what they were up to.  I have no idea what sort of crime happened on the other campsite.  I never heard anyone in need of help or anything that sounded like an argument or fight.  So…I don’t know.  But, it made me feel uneasy for the rest of the night.  The officers also seemed surprised that I was camping alone and in my car, rather than my tent.  I explained that a wasp had entered my tent and I could not locate it.   The rest of the night was a fitful sleep of wondering if someone had been hurt or if I failed to help someone.  I had a dream that a woman came knocking on my car door asking for help.  In the morning, the park office was still closed as I left…

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My shirt says…camping is in-tents.   Owing to a wayward wasp and concerning crime, it was a little too intense, even if it was not in-tent.


Pros:

Charles Lindbergh State Park features museums and historical buildings, melding history and nature into a unique state park.  The park is located along the Mississippi River, so it is also a good place to visit if a person wants to take in a section of the second longest U.S. river.   However, most of the trails are not along the Mississippi.   The park is conveniently located near Little Falls, MN which has a historic downtown and several local attractions, including the Minnesota Fishing Museum (inconveniently closed on Mondays as well).  The town has a variety of restaurants and stores, making it easy to restock or recharge while camping.  The park is also less than 10 miles from Crane Meadows National Wildlife Preserve.  Location and history seem to be the best features of the park.  Like Lake Maria, the park was fairly empty.  While the campground was active, I didn’t see any other hikers on the trails.


Cons:

The park was not staffed between 9 am Monday and 9am Tuesday when I left.  I checked the office numerous times, but I saw no one there.  This meant that I could not collect an embroidered patch from the park.  It also meant that no one was around to attend to the campground, which in the case of my stay, was the site of some kind of crime.  Obviously, visiting the park on a Monday was not a perfect idea, since the museums were closed.  There were also a lot of hungry mosquitoes.

Crow Wing State Park:


The final park that I visited was Crow Wing State Park, which is less than 30 minutes north of Little Falls near Brainerd, Minnesota.   Of the three, I spent the least amount of time here, since I was simply stopping by on my way home.   Crow Wing State Park is the park that I would most likely revisit and was my favorite of the three.   I spent under three hours at the park, hiking around on Tuesday morning after leaving Lindbergh State Park.  Once again, the park office was closed.  It was closed throughout my visit (though I saw staff poking around the park- just not attending to the office).  Thus, I was unable to obtain a collectable embroidered patch once again…since….once again, the park office was closed.

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Much like Charles Lindbergh State Park, Crow Wing State Park was a breeding ground for aggressive swarms of mosquitoes.  The mosquitoes were actually far worse in some areas of this park.  Once again, DEET didn’t do much to deter the menacing cloud that followed me around the park.  My 100% DEET spray, which is potent enough to remove my nail polish and destroyed the fabric of my leggings, didn’t bother them that much.  The mosquitoes mostly bounced off my skin, looking for a clear spot to feast.  I can only be thankful that the mosquitoes here do not carry tropical diseases as we would all be doomed.  At some points, I actually jogged down the trail, hoping to out run them.  I didn’t.  There were just too many.   Oh well.

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More mosquitoes…

 


Insects aside, there was a lot to like about the park.  For one, the trails were accessible and could easily be visited by families.  The trail that I visited passed through the remnants of the former town of Crow Wing, which was established at the confluence of the Mississippi and Crow Wing rivers.  There is nothing left of the town but sign posts where businesses and town amenities once stood.  However, this was interesting and there were a few interpretive signs which told the story of the long lost 1800s trading town.  Another bonus of this area was that it was situated in a sunny clearing that was devoid of mosquitoes.  Because of this, I took my time, taking in the signs and the history.  Highlights of the remnants of Crow Wing include a reconstructed wooden boardwalk and the restored home of Clement Beaulieu the head of the American Fur Company trading post in Crow Wing.  It is one of the oldest wooden houses in Minnesota.  The town of Crow Wing had a population of 600 people at its peak, most of whom were of Native American descent.  The interpretive signs did not mention (at least the ones that I read) that the town collapsed because of the relocation of local Native Americans to White Earth Reservation in 1868 and the subsequent railroad construction in Brainerd.

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Aside from the town of Crow Wing, visitors can hike along the Red River Oxcart Trail to where oxcarts forded across the Mississippi River.   The Red River Trail was established as a trade route to Winnipeg, Manitoba.  The section near Crow Wing was constructed through Ojibwe territory, as it was viewed safer at the time than passing through Dakota territory.   In addition to this trail (which was very buggy) visitors can also view a battle site where Ojibwe and Dakota people fought in 1768.  There is also a reconstructed chapel of Father Pierz, who built a mission near Crow Wing and promoted white settlement and the acculturation of Native Americans (through conversion to Catholicism and adopting European farming practices).  I did not visit the chapel as I was not as interested in Catholic history and the mosquitoes were too intense.

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Pros:

This state park was my favorite of the three.  There is a lot to like!  Native American history, a ghost town, ox cart trail, and battle site (though there was not a lot of information about the 1768 battle).   It also seemed to be the most accessible of the three parks, as the trails were flatter and the distance to the ghost town was not far.  With that said, those with walkers or wheelchairs would still find it difficult to navigate.  However, families or those with less restrictive mobility issues might be able to enjoy the ghost town.  The reconstructed boardwalk is rustic looking, but this also makes it uneven.  That could be a challenge.  As a whole, state park hiking trails do not seem that accessible, but this one might be slightly less daunting.  The history is the main attraction of this park.  The nature is also nice as well.  Although it is only 30 minutes north of Little Falls, the landscape features conifers, wetlands, and wet prairie.  It is also a location to enjoy the Mississippi River (as it meets the Crow Wing river).


Cons:

There really weren’t any cons to this park, other than the mosquitoes.  I suppose that a con could be that the ghost town of Crow Wing seems to be excellent habitat for snakes- as I saw at least three by the boardwalk.  I am not bothered by snakes, but this might frighten some people.  Interestingly, I also saw a small lizard.  There are only three lizards that are found in Minnesota.  I have never seen one.  I believe that the one that I saw was a prairie skink, as that is the most common and is found in that part of the state.  Again, this should go in the pros, as who isn’t pro skink?  So scratch that, there is nothing wrong with this park except for the millions of mosquitoes and fact that the office was closed AGAIN!  I missed out on another collectable patch.


Conclusion:

If there are two lessons to draw from these state park visits it is 1.) be prepared for bugs.  2.) state parks need more funding and staffing.  To address the first issue, yes, I have complained a LOT about insects.  I could certainly dress differently or prepare myself in other ways for the massive amount of insects.  Another idea is to visit these parks in times of the year where the insects are less active.  Daily weather variations can also make a difference.  Had there been heavy wind or rain, the insects would not have been as active.  I think that next year, if I visit any state parks in the month of July I will choose places that are not as wet, as each of these parks is either located on rivers or lakes.  Southern or Western Minnesota might be better options for July.  To address the staffing issue, I was shocked that the parks seemed like ghost towns…(aside from the actual ghost town of Crow Wing).  The parks seemed very understaffed.  What has happened?  We really need to do more to staff the parks!  Of course, there were few visitors at the parks as well.  These parks may not be as well-visited as other parks in Minnesota.  Nevertheless, it is summer, so I expect that there would be SOME tourism to these parks.  I guess we really need to promote state park visits and funding for staff.   Otherwise, hopefully this inspires someone to visit a state park this summer and now you know what to expect!

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What is LASIK Like?

What is LASIK Like_

What is LASIK Like?

H. Bradford

7/15/18

Earlier this week, I underwent LASIK eye surgery.   In the past year, I had considered it more deeply than in the past.  I figured that perhaps I would try to get it in a few years to mark turning 40 (as I am constructing a list of things I want to do to mark that milestone year).  However, a few things had prompted me to get the procedure early.  One, in April, one of my contact lenses (one eye) was back ordered for over a month.  This meant that I had to wear the wrong eye’s prescription in the back ordered eye (as I had run out of contacts for that eye but was able to re-stock the other eye) for over a month.  Two, in May,  I actually lost a contact lens while at work.  This meant that I had to have one of my housemates drive to my job with a replacement lens so I could see well enough to work.  Both of these instances made me consider moving my timeline ahead.  I ultimately decided to go ahead with LASIK because I found that I could qualify for reasonable financing, which made it possible for me to afford the procedure.


 

History:

I began wearing glasses in the first grade.  I remember that I actually WANTED glasses at the time, since I thought that glasses were cool.  Although I had mild vision problems, I remember lying on the vision test since I really, really, really wanted to glasses.  Yes, I lied.   I began wearing glasses, which as is turned out, was not all that I hoped it would be.  By the time I was in high school, I really hated wearing glasses, especially an exceptionally dorky pair that I had in 10th grade.  As it turns out, glasses can be expensive and after my parent’s divorce, I remember getting a cheap replacement pair that I really hated since that was what my mother could afford.  There is no shame on my mother or for being poor, it was simply a reality of my life and what we could afford. Thankfully, I was able to get into contact lenses in the 11th grade.  From then on, I wore my contact lenses every day and only wore my glasses for a few minutes a day (such as when first waking up or just before bed).  I wore my contacts without problem or incident, spare an inflamed cornea that I suffered in my early 20s.  I switched contact lens brands and the problem cleared up, spare one week of wearing an eye patch….which I also didn’t mind for the pirate aesthetic.


However, in the past few years I have traveled a bit more and started to feel a longing to be rid of both contacts and glasses.  In one instance, I remember traveling some very dusty roads in Namibia, which irritated my eyes.  There was also a dusty windstorm which also resulted in dust in my contacts.  Generally, wearing contacts during travel that involves camping, dust, wind, or water activities has been an inconvenience.  In my imagination, I began to think that I would be more adventurous if I simply got rid of my contacts once and for all.  This is patently untrue.  I am not adventurous because I am cautious by nature.  HOWEVER, I imagined going rafting, kayaking, paddle boarding, swimming, camping, and other activities far more if only I was rid of contacts.  In my medical imagination, I began to associate LASIK with freedom and adventure.  Beyond this, almost everyone in my family has had LASIK.  This includes my mother, father, brother, and even my grandmother.  They are all advocates of LASIK, as it has worked out well for them.  Therefore, I felt confident that it would probably work out well for myself as well…

The Process:

I had not been saving for the procedure, as I had fantasized that it would happen at some far off time (in a fantasy world where I am better at saving).   I noticed that Weiss Eye Clinic in Hermantown offered financing for LASIK.  Before making an informational appointment, I checked to see if I would qualify for the financing option as that was no point making an appointment if I could not afford it.  I qualified online, so I made my appointment.


The first appointment was a consultation with a basic eye exam.  It was a short meeting which discussed how LASIK work and checked my eyes to see if I would qualify.  One important test was the thickness of my cornea, which was well above average and therefore eligible for LASIK.   Corneal thickness is important since LASIK reshapes the cornea.  I was told about some of the risks, which I had already read about online and didn’t feel particularly concerned about (I suppose since everyone I know who had the procedure did not have any major complications).   From there, I scheduled another eye appointment.  This was scheduled over two weeks from the consultation date, during which time I could not wear my contact lenses.


Not wearing my contacts was awful.  I hate wearing glasses.   I actually had a count-down on my bedroom calendar.  Each day, I checked to see how many days I had left on my calendar.   I have not watched a calendar countdown with such anticipation for the end since I was a child and my mother would hang up a cloth Advent Calendar with pockets for each day.  A stuffed mouse would sit in the pocket for each day leading up to Christmas, moving one pocket over for each passing day.   I was very aware that I was always wearing glasses.  They became sweaty and foggy with heat and temperature changes.  They always seemed to get dirty, so I would wipe them off multiple times each day.  It was my first time regularly wearing glasses since 10th grade.  I also felt that I couldn’t do physical activities.  I imagined them bouncing up and down on my face while running or just getting dirty and sweaty.  When I went for walks, a sudden rain suddenly became an enormous annoyance as once again, the glasses became unusable.  I know that people wear glasses without problem and actually enjoy wearing them, but to me, they are a facial prison.  I can honestly say I hated every day that I had to wear my glasses.  The only bright side was that I picked up a lot of overtime at my job.  I had 25 hours of it one week.  This made the time pass faster and made glasses less terrible, since I wasn’t doing anything public or active (just working).


After what felt like an eternity of wearing glasses, I had my eye exam.  It seemed like a regular eye exam, which generally tested my vision to make certain that the surgery would make the proper refractive correction.  I also had to watch a video and take a quiz about possible complications.  The only unusual aspect of the eye exam was a glaucoma test, which I have not had before.  My eyes were dilated for the test and remained dilated for several hours after.  This made for an interesting morning as I went about my day in the intensely…painfully bright world.  I went for a hike and imagined that I was a dark elf or some other mythical creature of a nocturnal world. I kept to the shadows of the trees, trying to avoid the sinister sunlight which I could barely endure.  After all, this was my first time leaving the dark, matriarchal comforts of Menzoberranzan.  (Yes, oddly I thought a lot about dark elves on the hike).  I don’t own prescription sunglasses, which may have helped.   I also went for lunch at Toasty’s, trying not to let the world see the fact that my pupils were giant lunar eclipses.  By the time that I had a work meeting a few hours later, the pupils were not quite as huge- but still large enough that I felt that I had to explain myself.  In any event, I was scheduled for the actual LASIK surgery about a week and a half after this exam.


It was smooth sailing until the surgery.  I thought little of it and had no anxiety prior to the surgery.  Oddly enough, I was not at all worried about having my eyes pried open and corrected with a laser.  My only worry was that I might get sick from the Valium I was given before the procedure.    I have emetophobia, so my main concern when entering a new situation is whether or not it will make me puke.  I did not suppose the laser would cause me to vomit, hence it caused no anxiety at all.   Thankfully, the Valium was awesome.  I don’t drink or use drugs, so I generally enjoy when I am given a medically sanctioned sedative.  I need to be sedated.  I am stressed out about the world.  I work at a domestic violence shelter.  I feel like I am living life in a meaningless hellworld where everything will die, everything is painful, and there is nothing I can effectively do about it.  Yay, Valium!


The procedure itself involved being given Valium, putting on medical booties and a hair cover, having numbing drops administered to my eyes, then laying out on a table.  While on the table, my eyes were clamped open in a way that I imagine is similar to a scene in A Clockwork Orange.  I was too numb and relaxed to mind.  While on the table, I looked up at the laser.   The procedure I underwent was Z-LASIK, which apparently is performed using only a laser and is marketed as bladeless.  I understand this to mean that a laser is used to both make a flap in the eye and reshape the cornea.  Thus, while on the table, a small flap was cut into my eye with a laser.  Once the flap was made, the cornea was reshaped.  From my own experience, it involved looking up at a red light.  There was also a green light, which I was not supposed to focus on.  The red light appeared diffuse with a focused red dot at the center.  I gazed up at the light, like looking into the eye of a mechanical angel or God.  There was a slight humming sound and accompanying odor, which was the smell of carbon atoms released from my cornea.  It was not an unpleasant or worrisome smell.  The whole process lasted less than a minute then was repeated on my other eye.  I did not feel any pain or discomfort, though I could feel that something was happening to my eyes.


My brother warned me that he could not see at all after his LASIK surgery.  However, I could see right away.  My main problem after the procedure was that I had trouble walking, as the Valium had made me unsteady.   After the surgery, I was instructed to sleep (as I would sleep through the pain as the drops wore off).  When I arrived home, I slept from about 10 am to 3pm (I took a Tylenol PM).   When I woke up, I could see generally well and didn’t feel too much discomfort, though light was shrouded in halos.  I could see well enough to drive….and felt well enough to go to a HOTDISH Militia meeting and a Homeless Bill of Rights event that evening.   My only error was that my night vision was not that great the first day and after both meetings, I went for a walk until dark, then had to drive home.  So, as a word to the wise, it is probably better to test your vision a bit more after the surgery.   I went to work the next day.


 

     After Care:

Aside from sleeping, I was instructed not to go into water (other than a shower) for two weeks, to avoid eye makeup for one week, to put antibiotic drops in my eyes for four days, wear goggles while sleeping, to avoid rubbing my eyes, and wear googles or sunglasses while doing outdoor activities that could result in a foreign object entering my eye.   I had an eye appointment the morning after the surgery and another following up will happen at one month, three month, six month, and twelve month intervals.  During the next two months, my eyes could change and adjust.  For now, my main side effects experienced have been dry eyes after sleeping, halos, and lessened night vision.  I have noticed that the halos and night vision has improved over the past few days.  I hope that they continue to improve as my eyes heal, since I work at night.  None of these side effects are severe enough that I regret having the procedure done, though I am still operating under the assumption they will continue to improve.


It is truly amazing to see with my own eyes for the first time since the first grade.  Each day, I still come home from work thinking that I have to take out my contacts.  It is great to wake up able to see and go to bed able to see.  I think this will also help on flights and at work.  Whenever I wanted to take a nap, even a short 15 minute nap, I have had to take my contacts out.  This is because they always became uncomfortably plastered to my eyes after even the shortest nap (which I sometimes use my break to nap).  This means that taking small naps on planes, buses, trains, or on work breaks has meant taking my contacts out.  It is great to sleep without taking out my lenses!  Flights are terrible because they have always dried out my contacts.  At least now I can see on flights without removing my contacts.  I also had the great realization that I can actually see in the shower.  This seems like no big deal, but it is neat to be able to see ALL of the time.  I think that it really does open up possibilities- especially in terms of water sport participation.  I hate water.  I am a coward when it comes to water.  But, at least I will be able to SEE if I choose to go rafting again or SEE if I do any activity that involves water in my eyes.  One of my goals is to try out more watery activities, even though I hate them…simply because I CAN!


 

Cost:

My procedure, including all of the follow up visits, cost $3,300.   My insurance covered a $400 eye exam prior to the LASIK, but insurance does not cover LASIK itself.  Weis Eye Center offers financing through CareCredit which is a glorified, medical credit card.  The main benefit of this card is that you pay no interest at all if you pay off the balance within 12 months.  However, due to other bills and spending goals, I opted to pay interest and finance the procedure over 2 years.  I could have chosen to pay it off in 3, 4, or 6 years, which obviously would have resulted in smaller monthly payments, but much more interest.  My hope is that I can pay it off in less than 2 years to avoid paying as much in interest (even though I will pay some).   I feel comfortable that this was not a terrible financial decision, even if paying it off in one year would have been more ideal.  With that said, I believe that insurance should cover the procedure.  While it is viewed by society as elective or cosmetic, I think that it is entirely reasonable to want functional eyes without the use of glasses or contacts.   I have found glasses and contacts to have many draw backs, especially regarding travel and physical activities.  I think that anyone who wants to have their eyes corrected should be able to access this (so, ideally, beyond insurance it should be a part of the services available to people if medicine was socialized).   Of course, each person has to weigh the risks on their own.  Dry eyes, halos, lessened night vision, or more serious complications are certainly worth considering.  And, not everyone hates glasses and contacts as much as I have disliked them.  Glasses can be fashionable and more comfortable than contacts.  And, obviously, I wore contacts for years without problems other than minor inconveniences.


     Conclusion:

It is entirely possible that some complication could still arise or that my minor eye problems will not correct themselves.  Still, to me, LASIK feels like freedom.  I certainly idealize it.  Realistically, I have not done a single adventurous thing since getting LASIK earlier this week (though I did SIGN up to do snorkeling on my upcoming trip).   But, I have enjoyed the everyday advantages of not wearing contacts.  Seeing all of the time is great!  Not having to touch my eyes or take out my lenses is also super!  I will be going camping next week, and it will be nice to be able to blindly navigate to a toilet at night or not have to fumble around to find my glasses in the dark.  So far, I have enjoyed the sum of the small, everyday advantages of not wearing contacts.  While I won’t magically become more intrepid it will at least give me one less thing to worry about.  With that said, I definitely recommend LASIK.

Illegal Abortion: Lessons From Romania

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Illegal Abortion: Lessons from Romania

by H. Bradford

7/10/18

I recently read Gail Kligman’s The Politics of Duplicity.  In the past, I had read parts of the book, drawing from it for my thesis on the topic of abortion in formerly communist countries.  In preparation for my upcoming short vacation to Romania, I wanted to read some books about Romanian topics, so I reconnected with the book for that purpose.  Reflecting upon the book, there are some lessons that can be drawn from Romania’s abortion experience.  Abortion access has been relentlessly attacked and restricted since its legalization in 1973 and Trump’s Supreme Court nominee will certainly be hostile to Roe v. Wade.  While the spectre of inaccessible, if not illegal, abortion has haunted America for decades, there is fearful anticipation among activists that a new era of attacks on reproductive rights is upon us.  Therefore, Kligman’s book is timely for anyone looking to learn from the historical horrors of illegal abortion.


To provide some context, in 1966 abortion was made illegal in Romania by the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu.  Decree 770 made abortion illegal in most cases, spare some medical conditions, age thresholds (40 or 45 depending upon the age), rape, incest, fetal deformity, or having already raised a certain number of children (4-5 depending on the year).  Abortion remained illegal until the collapse of Ceausescu’s dictatorship in 1989.  During this time period, contraceptives were unavailable in Romania, women were subjected to regular mandatory gynecological exams to monitor pregnancies/abortions/reproductive health, abortion seekers and providers were imprisoned, childless people were fined, homosexuality and adultery was criminalized, and divorce was made difficult to obtain.  The state mobilized propaganda, medical institutions, and the criminal justice system towards enforced reproduction in the interest of demographic goals.  According to Kligman’s book, this reproductive dystopia was the inspiration of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Although the United States is very different from communist Romania in the 1960s-80s, some important lessons can be drawn from these nightmarish decades.


1.Abortion Does Not End With Illegality:

Despite Romanian’s draconian laws and lack of access to birth control, abortion did not end.  Women either found legal channels, such as obtaining an abortion for medical purposes (as some conditions allowed for abortion) or faking a miscarriage or illegal channels, such as willing doctors or underground providers.  Most often it was through illegal channels.  The option of travel was not available to most Romanian women, but for a privileged minority this was also a means to obtain an abortion.  One way or another, women continued to seek abortions.  Of course, the ability to seek an abortion was largely dependent upon privilege.  Women who knew doctors, had more social networks, had favorable connections to the police or state, more money, or other resources could more easily circumvent the laws.  Thus, the burden of illegal abortion hits the most marginalized populations the hardest.  It is the poorest and most estranged from social institutions who were forced to reproduce.   For example, Kligman (1998) relayed the story of a peasant woman who was awarded a Medal of Maternal Glory for having 10 children.  She used the award ceremony as a platform to beg for an extra bed.  While she was celebrated for her large number of children, it may very well been for lack of access to an alternative and certainly, this state celebrated choice was not supported by accompanying material resources.


Within the United States, if abortion was made illegal, abortion seekers would continue to have access to it.  Women with careers, credit cards, no criminal histories, U.S. passports, and paid vacation time could access abortion in other countries if it was made illegal here.  Generally, those with resources such as money and vehicles could travel to states where abortion laws were less restrictive.  Those with social networks or living in urban areas, might have access to underground illegal abortion services.  Thus, once again, abortion would not disappear, though the limited access would have the greatest impact on poor women, women of color, rural women, women with criminal histories, immigrant women, and those whose access is already severely limited by lack of abortion access and funding.  The Anti-abortion movement is inherently a war against the most oppressed members of society.  While illegal abortion would certainly be a challenge to educated, “middle class”, mobile, white women, the impact would be deeper felt by those who face multiple oppressions.


  1.  Unsafe Abortion:

The illegality of abortion in Romania drove women to seek abortions.  Some abortions were performed by doctors looking to supplement their modest incomes and some were performed by those who genuinely wanted to help women.  These abortions were made unsafe by the secretive conditions that illegal abortion created.  Doctors had to hide their tools, work quickly, and perform abortions in private residences.  Others were self-induced or performed by non-professionals.  About half of these illegal abortions were performed without harm to the woman.  As for the rest, women often found themselves suffering complications from the herbs, plants, toxins, or objects used to perform the abortion.  This created the hard choice between seeking medical help and risking criminal charges or the possibility of death.  Around 60% of women who went to the hospital for pregnancy complications had sought illegal abortion.  In all, there was an average of 341 deaths per year from abortion complications while abortion was illegal in Romania.  Illegal abortion is the death sentence for some women.


Maternal death can also be expected if abortion were to be made illegal in the United States.  There are some key improvements in the United States compared to Romania.  For one, abortion medicine is more advanced.  In Romania, abortions were only performed by curettage, as vacuum aspiration was unavailable before 1989.  Mifepristone had not yet been invented, so medical abortion was also unavailable (misoprostol the other drug used to induce abortion had been invented but would not have been available in Romania).  The lack of abortion technology made abortion less safe in Romania than if abortion became illegal in the United States.  Nevertheless, if abortion were illegal in the United States, abortion seekers and providers would still face tough choices if complications arose.  Because doctors in the United States are better paid than those in Romania and their education comes at a steep cost, fewer might be incentivized by earning extra money than those in communist Romania were.  This may put women in the hands of those who have less access to abortion medicine/knowledge.  Illegality means less regulation, oversight, uniformity, accreditation, sanitary conditions, and more dangers.  This isn’t to argue that only medical professionals are capable of providing safe abortion.  There were certainly Romanian women who obtained safe abortions from non-medical providers whose folk knowledge of plants and good fortune were enough to end a pregnancy.  However, illegal abortion creates more unknown variables that can contribute to a lack of safety.


  1. Criminality:

In Romania, both women and doctors were imprisoned for seeking/performing abortions.  Time in prison was generally one to three years.  However, some repeat offenders found themselves in prison for longer.  Even those who facilitated abortion were imprisoned, such as the girlfriend of a doctor who was imprisoned for one year without a change of clothes.  She was believed to have hosted the abortion in her apartment.  Doctors who performed illegal abortions could lose their medical license, or at the very least, had to work in another area of medicine.


If the anti-abortion movement in the United States believes that abortion is murder, then it follows that abortion must carry with it some sort of penalty.  In the U.S. the penalty for murder is often life imprisonment and sometimes capital punishment.  Those who argue that abortion is murder rarely argue for the same punishment as murder, which is odd, as it indicates to me that they do not believe it is actually murder or that if it is murder, it is a different kind of murder.  Why is it different?  And, if it is different, it concedes that a fetus is not the same as a born human, for which the punishment is the harshest among all crimes.  But, supposing that abortion is made illegal but the punishment is more minor, such as a few years in prison.  The United States has the largest prison population in the world.  22% of all of the prisoners in the world are in the United States.  Illegal abortion could potentially add many people to our prison system, as one in three women have had an abortion.  What would society be like if one in three women were imprisoned?  The United States has 30% of the world’s female prison population.  African Americans make up 40% of the United States prison population, despite the fact that they are 13% of the general population.  Criminalizing abortion, like criminalizing anything in this country, disproportionately impacts people of color.

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  1. Unwanted Children:

One outcome of illegal abortion in Romania was unwanted children.  After all, not all women could successfully access illegal abortion.  Many of these children found themselves on the streets or were put into overcrowded, underfunded orphanages.  Because of unsanitary medical practices and lack of transparency/policy regarding HIV, some of these orphans contracted HIV.  After the collapse of communism in Romania, the Western Media broadcasted the images of underweight, despondent, dirty, neglected children in Romanian orphanages, revealing and perhaps making a spectacle of the horror of their abuse.  Romanian society failed to care for the children that women were forced to birth.  I doubt the United States would do much better.


Romanian society had some advantages over the United States when it comes to the care of children.  In Romania, retirement age was 57 for women (and 55 upon request).  For men, it was 62 or 60 upon request.  Therefore, unwanted children or children that parents simply could not care for, could be sent to retired grandparents or other relatives.  In the United States, full Social Security benefits begin at 66, but many people feel that they can no longer retire.  The pool of retirees who can provide care work for children is smaller as the economy and lack of pension benefits at jobs forces U.S. workers into the job market longer.  Romania also offered 112 days of paid maternity leave, a birth bonus, and a 10% stipend for their second child (more for additional children).  While these government funds were not sufficient to defray the actual cost of raising a child, at least the government made some effort to provide for families.  The United States does not offer free daycare, paid maternity leave, or any additional funds to support families.  In this sense, our country is profoundly unequipped to support mothers and children.  There are programs for needy families, such as MFIP and food stamps, but only the poorest can access these and this does not resolve problems such as affordable daycare and paid leave, which all working parents need.

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  1. Ideology of Gender Oppression:

In the United States, it seems that one of the biggest incubators of the ideology of gender oppression is religion.  After all, most anti-abortion groups are religiously affiliated.  Because religion has been used to justify homophobia, lack of abortion access, and the oppression of women, it is easy to view religion as the source of gender oppression.  However, one lesson from Romania is that religion can be completely absent from public life and the state can still propagate ideologies that justify the oppression of women.  Romania, like all communist countries, was an atheist state.  Nevertheless, the state created mythologies about nationalism and building communism, in which the role of women was both that of a worker and glorified mother.  While the case for illegal abortion is often made on religious grounds in the United States, nationalism, economic prosperity, and even science can be mobilized to oppress women.  In Romania, propaganda created a mythology that women were naturally meant to be mothers.  That this was what made them the healthiest, happiest, and most productive.  Any ideology that states that women are naturally “X” should be a red flag.  Women are not naturally anything.  Woman is a social category which has divided the world in an unequal gender binary.  So, while I write now about women and often discuss women’s rights to abortion, it is important to remember that men and non-binary people also seek abortions.  Not all people with uteruses are women.  Part of the fight for reproductive rights is the fight to challenge notions of gender or what is natural, since “natural” is a dog whistle for what is expected and enforced.  The fight for reproductive rights is not a fight against religion, though some religions are involved in the anti-abortion movement.  In a discursive sense, it is also a fight about the very notion of what it means to be a woman.  It is a fight against the demographic and economic interests of states, which are invested in the reproduction of workers and soldiers if not the actual upkeep of children.

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  1. Culture of Suspicion:

Kligman (1998) noted that Romanian abortion laws created a culture of suspicion.  Women were made to have regular gynecological exams.  Doctors were mobilized by the state to police the bodies of women.  Everyday citizens were recruited by The Securitate to spy on one another.  Relationships between couples, neighbors, co-workers, doctors, etc. deteriorated as it was never certain who could be trusted and who could not.


The United States is not the same sort of police state, but because of our political and cultural environment, abortion is still a matter of secrecy and shame.  Few people discuss their abortion experience even though abortion is common.  If abortion were illegal, this secrecy and shame is likely to increase because of the legal consequence.   Therefore, it is important for supporters of abortion to fight the shame.  In the arena of discourse, we should never accept that abortion should be rare, that it is shameful, regrettable, or that no one is pro-abortion.  I am pro-abortion.  If abortion is medicine, then I am as much for abortion as I am for dental treatment, eye exams, cancer treatment, or any other form of medicine.  Abortion can be life saving.  Abortion is sometimes freedom from poverty or abusive relationships.  Like anything, it can be a positive, negative, or neutral experience based upon social and personal circumstances.

 


  1. Abortion and Abuse

Kligman (1998) did not give as much attention to this topic as it deserves, perhaps because of lack of research in this area.  However, she mentioned that in Romania, divorce was hard to obtain and abuse was considered a personal/family matter.  Even if a woman sought to escape an abusive situation, survival on a single income and the ability to obtain housing would have been nil.  She also wrote that men really did not take responsibility for pregnancy prevention and that it was up to women to obtain an abortion or deal with the consequences of pregnancy.  State health propaganda suggested that couples should have sex several times a week.  The state fostered a society wherein domestic violence was inescapable by virtue of social norms, lack of resources, enforced pregnancy, and state sanctioned male entitlement to sex.


If abortion were illegal in the United States, victims of domestic violence would similarly find themselves forced to have the children of their abuser.  Due to the efforts of the feminist movement, domestic violence is not inevitably viewed as a personal or family matter but a problem related to patriarchy and the exertion of power.  Advocates have pushed back against this narrative.  Shelters, community responses involving education police and social services, and laws that protect victims from such things as eviction or job loss are some of the victories of the feminist movement which Romanian society did not have.  However, illegal abortion would still have an impact on victims/survivors as it would force them to have the children of their abuser and through this connection continue to have to deal with them in courts (for child support, custody, visitation) and in life (if the abuser does have partial custody, visitation).  Enforced pregnancy (through rape or sabotage or denial of birth control) is one of many ways that abusers exert control over victims.  Illegal abortion is essentially the state’s sanction of sexual abuse.

  1.  U.S. Foreign Policy- Exporting Anti-Abortion

One final lesson from Romania is that Western countries were either indifferent or supportive of Ceausescu’s abortion policies.  Nixon visited Romania in the early 1970s, Jimmy Carter hosted a visit of Ceausescu in 1978, and the United States looked at Romania as a potential ally due to its independence from the Soviet Union, relations with Israel, and willingness to engage in trade agreements with the west.  The suffering of the Romanian people and the restrictive abortion laws mattered very little to the two ruling parties of the United States.  This is because ultimately, U.S. economic and political interests as an imperialist power supersede principled concerns about the rights of women.  Lip service may be given to these concerns from time to time, but these concerns meet their horizon where US hegemony is challenged.


Our country’s hostility towards abortion has a global impact.  One example is the Global Gag rule, which began with Reagan and has been squarely supported by Republicans since.  Basically, it means that oversees organizations which receive U.S. aid cannot provide or promote abortion services.  I expect that if abortion became illegal in the United States, we would empower and expand restrictions elsewhere.  In terms of abortion, the worst offenders, of course, are Republicans, but at the heart of the issue is a shared, underlying view that the United States is exceptional, correct, important, and deserves a disproportionate place in shaping the history of the world and lives of the people of other countries.  The United States is not exceptional, or it is only exceptional in its atrocities, war mongering, genocide, racism, mass incarceration, and capacity for immiserating the world.  I believe that if abortion became illegal in the United States, the people of the world would help the oppressed women here.   In return, it is our duty to demolish U.S. power abroad.

Image result for jimmy carter ceausescu

Conclusion:

Illegal abortion seems like a nightmare, but in this nightmarish lens, it is always an Other.  It is an exotic, Eastern, communist dystopia that is distant from the United States on account of time, place, and political/economic system.  But, the challenges faced by Romanians are some of the same faced in the United States before abortion was illegal and which are faced today where abortion has not yet been legalized.  In Romania, the people rose up and killed their dictators.  In the United States, social movements also tirelessly worked to legalize abortion and contraceptives.  While women might not have the power  to “shut things down” when it comes to reproduction (to quote Todd Akin famous rape statement) there is always the power to shut society down through protest, strikes, and civil disobedience.   As challenging as it is, it is our best and only hope in rolling back the tide of attacks against reproductive rights.

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