Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Just when you think you’ve heard everything—well, you find out you haven’t heard everything. In the little town of Harrold, Texas, located 30 minutes away from the nearest sheriff’s office, some teachers are coming to school this fall armed with concealed weapons. Honestly. The superintendent of schools, David Thweatt, convinced the school board that after two years of looking into security options for the school (security cameras, metal detectors, uniformed guards, etc.), the best protection was to allow selected teachers to carry guns.

In his defense, Superintendent Thweatt isn’t letting just any teacher carry a gun. Only those teachers who have been first approved by the school board as having the correct personality will be allowed to be armed—personality traits that include how that person reacts to a crisis. Although the policy may be radical, Superintendent Thweatt isn’t stupid enough to give guns to emotionally unstable teachers. Yes, all teachers will be entrusted with the responsibility of educating 25 or 30 kids, but they all certainly won’t be trusted with guns. So for school invaders or terroristic students, it becomes a game of Russian Roulette: Does Professor Plum have a revolver in the library? Does Miss Scarlet have a concealed weapon in the chemistry lab? The thinking is that if the misbehaving parties don’t know who is armed, they are less likely to misbehave anywhere.

Another part of the plan: Any teacher authorized to carry a gun must also receive special training in crisis intervention and hostage situations. So while the other teachers in the district went to summer workshops on math curriculum and English as a Second Language, a special elite few went to S.W.A.T. training. How much do you want to bet that Superintendent Thweatt, his friend the phy ed teacher, and his good buddy the football coach all got to wear flak vests and watch videos of the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas—while Miss Millicent, the creative writing teacher, had to settle for three continuing ed credits in ENGL 507 The Poetry of Keats?

I’m waiting for the day when the Minnesota State Colleges & Universities system offers the opportunity for select instructors and professors to carry firearms during the school day. I’m going to be first in line—nobody would ever suspect that I’m packing heat under my green corduroy jacket with the elbow patches. School terrorists would think I was just another Miss Millicent, ready to crumble at the first sight of trouble. But it would be their last thought as I whipped off my bifocals, hit the floor rolling, and took ‘em out with my pearl-handled derringer.

Monday, August 25, 2008


I often find myself at the nursing home, sitting in a room with my almost-90-year-old mother and my 91-year-old father, looking for topics of conversation. There isn’t a lot to talk about because their lives are pretty narrow these days—and mine isn’t a whole lot more exciting. For some reason, they don’t confide in me about their health or their views on death or how they’re being treated by the nursing home staff. Instead, they tell me stories. Maybe they tell me stories because I ask questions. Maybe they tell me stories because I’ve always liked to listen to stories. Or maybe they tell me stories to keep me from fidgeting. For whatever reason, my parents tell me stories. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in an episode of Garrison Keillor’ Prairie Home Companion.

Recently as we were sitting around my dad’s room in the nursing home, I asked a question about the Carlisle band. Both of my parents grew up in Carlisle, Minnesota, and the community band was a huge part of their growing up years. The band had been organized in 1894, and still today, over 100 years later, the band continues to play at community events. Especially in the early days, the band was always full of both my mother’s and father’s relatives, most of them Norwegian farmers from the surrounding community.

The question I asked was, “When did women start playing in the Carlisle Band?” fully expecting the answer to be that the first women to break into the all-male musical ranks were my cousins, maybe in the 1960s or 1970s. However, here’s the story I got from my parents:

The first women to infiltrate the all-male band were summer visitors to Carlisle during the 1930s, the Hoverstein sisters, who rented an empty farmhouse north of Carlisle. During the rest of the year, the four Hoverstein sisters were all teachers. But in the summer, along with their brother Joe and their widowed mother, they rented a place in the country. My mother seems to remember that they were from the Ada area. She thinks they summered in Carlisle because they were related in some way to the Ogaards who owned the Carlisle general store at the time.

The Hoverstein sisters were a musical bunch, so every summer, they broke the gender barrier and sat in with the all-male Carlisle band. In those days, the Carlisle band was at the center of every single social event in the community. Whether it was the 4th of July picnic at Haldorson Island or a golden wedding anniversary or a celebration at the church, the Carlisle band members were there to entertain. (See above picture for my mental vision of the Hoverstein sisters.)

There was some confusion about the Hoverstein sisters’ names, but my parents positively identified the two older sisters, Ruth (trumpet) and Gladys (French horn). The younger two were less clear, but my dad wondered if one of them wasn’t named Deborah. The reason that trumpet-playing Ruth was especially clear in their memories is that my mother’s trumpet-playing older brother fell head over heels in love with her and wanted to marry her. Ruth, however, turned him down. My mother believes it was because Ruth didn’t want to spend the rest of her life as a farmer’s wife near Carlisle, Minnesota. So Ruth and my uncle were an item until she broke his heart. Later, my uncle told my mother that if he couldn’t marry Ruth Hoverstein, he didn’t want to marry anyone. And sure enough, he remained a trumpet-playing Norwegian bachelor farmer forever.

Gladys Hoverstein turned her attentions on my mother’s other brother, the tuba player. He was, according to my mother, the tender, romantic sort who fell in love easily—and often—so Gladys’s summer fling didn’t scar him for life. The younger two Hoverstein sisters had summer romances with my mother’s cousins who farmed west of Carlisle. My mother didn’t remember the two younger Hoverstein sisters very well and made the disdainful remark that they “just played some little instruments so they could be in the band, too.” Joe Hoverstein, the lone brother in the houseful of women, paid attention to my dad’s older sister.

So if anyone ever asks, the first women to break through the men-only barrier in the Carlisle Band were not my cousins in the women’s-lib 1970s. It was those heart-breaking Hoverstein sisters, way back in the 1930s. I wonder whatever happened to the musical Hoverstein sisters, who spent their summers playing John Phillip Sousa marches and toying with the hearts of those poor Norwegian bachelor farm boys from Carlisle, Minnesota.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


I’ve been experiencing an eerie “twilight zone” feeling for the past few days. Part of it is reverse jet lag where I am dead tired—and I mean dead as in rigor mortis tired—at 7 or 8 p.m. I suppose it’s because only a few days ago, 7 p.m. Minnesota time was 2 a.m. in Rome. That also explains why at 3 a.m., I am wide awake and ready to go. I don’t mean the drag-yourself-out-of-bed-and-face-the-day type of ready to go. I mean the fired-up-to-take-on-the-world-show-me-a-mountain-to-climb type of ready to go.

Add this twilight zone/jet lag feeling to the fact that it is last teacher workshop week in the last semester I will ever be teaching (retiring January 31, 2009), and you have a recipe for an almost out-of-body experience. I feel like I’m kind of floating at the top of the ceiling, watching myself go through the day.

“Oh, look,” says the floating me, looking down at the flesh and blood me, walking into my office. “Isn’t this special? She’s coming for her very last teacher workshop.”

“Cool,” says the floating me, doing the backstroke up near the ceiling tiles, “she’s sitting through her very last workshop division meeting—and she hasn’t felt compelled to take a single note or volunteer to be on even one committee.”

“Wow!” says the floating me, looking over my shoulder at the computer screen where class lists seem to scroll down forever, “that’s a lot of student names to learn. Since it’s your last semester, why don’t you just call them all ‘buddy’ or ‘sweetheart’ this one time?”

The last lesson plans I’ll ever need to write, the last time a publisher can throw out a new edition of a textbook five minutes before the semester starts, the last time I’ll need to worry about learning new software, the last papers I’ll ever grade, the last time I’ll get to . . . last time . . . last time . . . last time.

The real me is still working feverishly at my desk getting ready for the onslaught of students next Monday, going through all the motions of being the conscientious teacher people expect me to be. But that twilight zone/jet lagged/floating me up by the ceiling is just smiling lazily, telling me to just relax and enjoy all of these “last times.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Hop-On/Hop-Off Bus: We have found that the HO/HO bus is always a good way to get our bearings in a new city. So we stumbled around until we found Via Veneto (a couple of blocks from our hotel), which was Stop #11 on the sightseeing bus route. The bus took us to Stop #1 at the Stazione Centrale Roma Termini (Rome Central Train Terminal) where we waited twenty minutes for the HO/HO bus to reload and fill with tourists. Sitting in the top of that bus, we were introduced to Rome in August—hot, humid, and unrelentingly sunny. However, once the bus began moving to cover its route, the breeze helped to cool the oppressive heat. The route took us past Quirinale, Colosseo, Piazza Bocca Della Verita, Piazza Venezia, Piazza Novona, San Pietro (St. Peter’s and the Vatican), Ara Pacis, Piazza Cavour, and Fontana de Trevi (Trevi Fountain). It was amazing to see all the historic places we had only seen in pictures before. The streets in Rome are narrow and crowded—but all of a sudden, they open into beautiful squares (piazzas).

Tour of Rome: At 3 p.m. after checking into the Hotel King on Via Sistina, we met and walked back to Stop #11 on Via Veneto to grab the HO/HO bus with the intention of getting as close to the Pantheon as possible. We rode to the train terminal (Stop #1) to load more passengers. However, after a long wait of about 10-15 minutes, while we baked in the sun on the open-topped deck, the driver decided to call it quits for the day. Welcome to Italy! We found a spot on the bottom of a second bus. Luckily, the second bus wasn’t jam-packed because a fight between the bus driver and an irate passenger cleared away some of the faint-hearted tourists. We had just ridden an airplane for a thousand hours or so to get to Rome, so we weren’t about to be scared off a bus by a measly little brawl, so we grimly held our places. All eyewitnesses had different versions of what actually happened; but a little kick to the groin, a few angry words in Italian, slammed bus doors, and off we went.

Pantheon and Trevi Fountain: We got off the bus, consulted the handy map that had been provided, disagreed about directions a bit (first of many times)—but ended up at the Pantheon. What an amazing building! We were close enough to walk over to the Trevi Fountain. Since we were at the beginning of our vacation in an expensive area of the world, we didn’t want to start throwing our precious Euro coins into the fountain, even if that is what tradition tells us to do. Luckily, M&C had brought a supply of U.S. pennies for just such an occasion, so we threw them in. Since they were M&C’s coins, evidently they will return to Rome six times, or so the legend goes.

Monday, August 18, 2008


It seems to me that there are two different kinds of vacations to take. The first type of vacation is where you go to a familiar place and do familiar things. Maybe you have a favorite cabin on the lake where your family has been gathering for years. Maybe there’s a spot on the ocean where you love to walk the same beach, time after time, year after year. The activities are comforting and predictable, and the relaxation is deep. There are usually no surprises—just the comfortable familiarity of a traditional vacation spot.

The second type of vacation is one where you have new adventures and try new activities. The stress level is somewhat high because you are always being confronted with the unknown: How do I get from Point A to Point B? How do I communicate when I don’t know the language? How should I behave? What does this cost in American money? How does this strange process work?

Our recent 35th anniversary trip was the second type of trip, the new adventure with new activities. For the past two weeks, there have been times when we were disoriented, when we were nervous and wary, when we were uncomfortable, when we were hot and sweaty, but also when we were downright dazzled. However, it’s impossible to have a new adventure without risking the unknown.

The following are things I have now done that I had never done before:
  • Bought a ticket at 8:09 a.m. for the 8:11 a.m. express train from Livorno to Florence, Italy, and literally ran from the ticket counter down the platform to catch the train, even though I wasn’t entirely sure we were even getting on the right train.
  • Saw a cow’s head hanging in the entrance of a meat market in Tunisia where the temperature was 117 degrees that day.
  • Camped out for 15 hours on the floor of JFK Airport in New York with approximately 10,000 other displaced travelers who were victims of cancelled flights and missed connections because of two days of thunder storms.
  • Went to mass in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Vatican City on our 35th wedding anniversary.
  • Rode in a van hurtling along at speeds between 85 and 100 mph (speedometer read 145 kph at one point) on the highway between Rome and Civitavecchia, Italy.
  • Entrusted my life to an Italian bus driver named Pasquali who managed to get us from Naples to Amalfi on a road along the Amalfi coast that was approximately three inches wider than the bus itself and whose road shoulder dropped hundreds of feet into gorges below (and unlike some other passengers, I never threw up).
  • Witnessed a fight between our bus driver and an irate passenger near the Rome Central Train Terminal—luckily our driver won with a swift kick to the groin and slammed bus doors.
  • Was serenaded by four members of the Opera La Roma on the Spanish Steps in Rome who sang for free to the unwashed, sweaty masses of tourists and Italians who treat their opera singers like we treat our rock stars.
  • Had our anniversary song sung to us in Indonesian (didn’t understand a word but there were lots of smiles and a lot of clapping).
  • Walked six miles in 95-100 degree heat (three miles were planned, but the other three were not entirely intentional) in Palma de Mallorca.
  • Saw where the richest of the rich people on the face earth go to play in Monte Carlo—where the yachts are so big that they have helicopters perched on the back of them (we now have new standards for what constitutes “rich”).
  • Haggled with a street vendor who spoke only Arabic asking 12 Euros for a crudely made wooden camel, during which I resorted to the old trick of pulling an empty pocket inside out to show him that the 3,5 Euros I was offering was all that I had.
Was it fun? Not always but mostly. Was it comfortable? Occasionally. Did it broaden my understanding of other people, other places, other customs? Most definitely. Would I do it again? Absolutely—but not anytime real soon. I need to get caught up on my sleep.