Saturday, September 27, 2008


I saw another good movie, Bella. It wasn’t until the movie was all over and I was putting the DVD back in its sleeve that the title of the movie clicked. ‘Oh—Bella!’ I thought as the light in my mental attic finally flashed on. (It seems like that light’s bulb is getting dimmer as time passes. What used to be a three-way 1500-watt floodlight is now a flickering 40-watt.)

I didn’t know if Tom would like Bella because in a stretch, it might have been a chick movie. But it wasn’t. It was a movie about friendship and sacrifice and tough lives with tough breaks and flashbacks and pain and family and Mexicans and Puerto Ricans—just gritty enough so that even Tom liked it.

After I had seen it, I read that the movie had won an award at the Toronto Film Festival in 2007. The director was a 29-year-old Mexican making his very first film. So it’s kind of a neighborhood project—our Southern neighbors provided the talent, our Northern neighbors recognized the talent, and we Americans in the middle declared it the #1 film of 2007 in a New York Times poll. Bella was a North American love fest—and we liked it, too.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


It happened again on Saturday. Tom and I were driving down to Collegeville for our annual St. John’s University football game on an absolutely picture-perfect fall day—trees that were beginning to turn color, the blue sky reflected in the blue lakes. We were listening on the car radio to Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers’ show, Car Talk, on Minnesota Public Radio . . . and then it happened.

A woman called into Car Talk from Grand Rapids, Minnesota. You would have thought she said she was from Outer Mongolia somewhere north of the Arctic Circle. “Woo-oo, Grand Rapids, Minneso-o-ota! Just how cold does it get up there?” challenged Brother Ray or Brother Tom, I forget which one. And like a true Minnesotan, the woman from Grand Rapids rose to their expectations and bragged about the one day last winter where the temperature reached minus 40 degrees.

That was enough to send Click and Clack over the edge, absolutely ridiculing anyone who would willingly and knowingly live in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. The lady fed right into it; after all, it was Click and Clack and they make fun of everything. “Well,” she said, as all we Minnesotans have said a thousand times, “my dad says it builds character.” Ha-ha, everyone laughed.

Then I held my breath; would she say the other cliché? The one you just have to say if you mention the other one about character building?

She did. She added the one that all of our Minnesota dads have said a million times: “The cold keeps out the riff-raff.” Click and Clack heartily agreed that riff-raff wouldn’t be able to survive a Minnesota winter.

Hurray! She kept the myth alive! What the lady failed to say (dumb like a fox, that lady) is that the Grand Rapids, Minnesota, area is one of the most beautiful spots on the face of the earth. If Minnesota has 10,000 lakes, the Grand Rapids area has a thousand of them. It’s right on the edge of the Chippewa National Forest, and for the next week and half, the whole countryside is at peak for fall colors. Even if Click and Clack don’t want to go to Grand Rapids, other tourists will be driving through Itasca County to see some of the most beautiful fall colors in the nation. These tourists will use the hiking and biking trails, camp grounds, resorts, and fishing lodges.

But by reinforcing the stereotype, the MPR listeners from all over the country believe that Grand Rapids is somewhere near the ends of the earth. I don’t suppose the people up there want Click and Clack’s east coast bumper-to-bumper traffic clogging up Forest Road for the people who appreciate Northern Minnesota’s beauty.

The lady from Grand Rapids did us all a favor—by keeping the riff-raff out. Grand Rapids will be Minnesota’s little secret.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


I always get a little nervous when I don’t have a book to read. My left eye starts twitching, and I panic that I won’t have anything to occupy my mind so I’ll have to deal with real life. Heaven forbid.

I recently found a promising-looking new reading list in Shannon’s Real Simple magazine. Readers were asked to write in with the titles of books that their book clubs had really enjoyed. So this will be a reading list I whittle away at for the next several months:

· Secret History and The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
· Nausea by Jean-Paul Sarte (nobody in the book club liked it but it created discussion)
· Animal, Vegetable, Mineral by Barbara Kingsolver
· Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
· The Road by Cormac McCarthy
· Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson
· Same Kind of Different by Ron Hall and Denver Moore
· Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
· The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
· Little Heathens by Mildren Armstrong Kalish
· Ghost Story by Peter Straub
· Life of Pi by Yann Martel
· Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
· A People’s History of the U.S. by Howard Zinn
· The Quality of Life Report by Meghan Daum
· Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran
· The Bible by various authors
· Maus by Art Speigelman
· Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
· Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
· Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
· Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
· Blindness by Jose Saramago

I had already read a few of them (The Secret History, Life of Pi, Three Cups of Tea, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Bible). I’ve just started Animal, Vegetable, Miracle—looks a little heavy.

I think it’s best to intersperse some of these books with other fluffier reading material so you don’t start taking yourself too seriously. For example, I read the latest Janet Evanovich book, Fearless Fourteen starring Stephanie Plum, girl detective, before I tackled The Secret History (a $15 soft-cover book with 559 pages of super teeny tiny printing, written at a reading level of 11.8—not exactly a skimmer). And after The Secret History, I read an Anna Quindlen book (Rise and Shine), just to keep my right brain as limber as my left brain before I started Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It’s all about balance—and heaven knows, I need to keep my brain balanced: a little fluff, a little literature, a little shallow, a little deep.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Last night, it got a little later than usual before I had time to take a walk. Because I was alone and it would be twilight before I got back home, I decided to take the “safe” route and walk down Rosewood Lane, around Melody Lane, and then wind my way around Runestone Heights before I climbed the hill back up to the top of Nissen Street. It’s a familiar, safe walk in my neighborly ‘hood.

For the past three summers, I’ve admired one beauty-loving Melody Lane homeowner who has planted flowers all along the street edge of her property, across the road from Lake Victoria—about one hundred feet or so of colorful blooms. When I pass by, it almost feels like I’m walking along a hedge of wild flowers. Once last summer, the lady was out watering, and I had a chance to tell her what a joy it was to walk down the road next to those beautiful flowers.

Last night as I walked by, it was already getting dark, but I noticed something new. A small wooden sign, hand-written in black magic marker, read, “You are welcome to pick a bouquet for your enjoyment. Add several hosta leaves from the the driveway for accents.” And underneath the sign was a pair of blue scissors, hanging on a nail.

I don’t know why, but that little sign with its generous invitation, its neighborly sharing, just touched my heart. I guess because most of the signs along walking paths usually read, “Private Property,” or “No Trespassing,” or “Vicious Owner Has Gun.” You know the kind of signs I mean.

Feel free to pick the flowers . . . so I snipped a blue one and smiled all the way home.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


For months, I’ve had a movie on my Netflix list named Young @ Heart. It wasn’t being released on DVD until September 16—and sure enough, it arrived in the mail today.

So do whatever you need to do to get the movie—rent it from a video store, buy it, borrow it, bootleg it, download it illegally, or steal it from your neighbor’s mailbox. Just get your hands on a copy of that movie.

What can you expect when you watch this movie? Lots of nose hair and ear hair (and even old ladies with a little chin stubble). Wrinkles and age spots. Canes and wheelchairs and oxygen tanks. Ill-fitting clothes from the 80s—or maybe Goodwill—purchased when their bodies were a completely different shape than they are now. Genuine old people (it’s a documentary, after all), warts and squirrelly eyebrows and all.

But what you don’t expect is that a guy named Bob has organized them into a senior citizen chorus that sings Jimi Hendrix and James Brown (“I feel g-o-o-d . . . like I knew that I would . . . ). Don’t expect polished, professional singing. They can’t remember the words, they can’t keep the beat, sometimes they end up in the hospital instead of at chorus practice.

It’s one of those movies that you should see if you ever plan to get old someday. It’s a good lesson in how to live well (or as the BeeGees and the Young @ Heart chorus would say, “Ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive!).

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Like millions of other Baby Boomers, I went to see Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson work their way through a “Bucket List” of things they wanted to experience or accomplish before they died. While it’s always been a little tough for me to sit through two hours of Jack Nicholson at one time, the premise of the movie was thought provoking enough that I started my own less ambitious “pail list” after I saw it.

So far, I’ve come up with 38 things I want to do. I did have 40 items at one time, but anyone will tell you that a bucket list is a little fluid. What seemed like a good idea in 2007 doesn’t seem like such a good idea in 2008. Or a place described in a travel magazine in 2005 is now making headlines because a tsunami thundered through and wiped out the entire population—except the chickens who sensed the wave was coming and headed for the hills. Or maybe it’s somewhere that tourists currently get an exchange rate of 2 cents on the American dollar and a bowl of noodles costs $45.

So for whatever reason, my pail list has a tiny tide that goes in and out depending on the mood. I won’t share my entire pail list, but items that I believe will stay on it are:

1. Go on a New England cruise up the east coast past Maine, Newfoundland, down the St. Lawrence River, and end up in Quebec City where we will wander out in the countryside and find Tom’s French-Canadian roots
2. Walk the Dells River Walk that opened in Wisconsin in 2004
3. Fly over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter
4. Go to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia
5. Commit to health: walk every single day and never eat after dinner for the rest of my life
6. Belong to a book club
7. Play with my own grandchildren
8. Teach a night class for one semester at Kauai Community College in Lihu’e, Hawaii (or whatever teaching load is enough to pay the rent on an ocean-side condo during that semester)

Some items on the list are very do-able; some are very pie-in-the-sky; and some are really going to happen (see #7!). There’s nothing on the list that would probably float someone else’s boat, but it’s fun to dream a little, even if the image of Jack Nicholson sometimes pops in uninvited into my daydreams.

Monday, September 08, 2008


Twice a year, a small catalog arrives in our mailbox announcing the new classes for adults, the “Learning for Life” Community Education offerings. Just last week, the Fall 2008 issue arrived. I love reading through the Community Education catalog. I have never taken a single course, but I love looking at what I could be taking if I made the time—a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, a dancer, a prancer, or a lifestyle enhancer.

For example, maybe I should take salsa lessons from Nelly DeLaRosby who, according to the catalog, “learned Salsa in Mexico.” So this would be authentic salsa, not your fake Midwestern hotdish version of salsa. If salsa seemed a little beyond my abilities, I could try beginning ballroom dance, swing dancing, or line dance (I think that’s how I got shin splints a few years ago). Or maybe I could try a little Tai Chi taught by the local middle school social worker.

“Are You Moody?” asks the title of one class. A certified nurse practitioner is willing to teach me about various mood disorders for only $5 on November 5. There are also sessions on acupuncture, body detoxification programs, permanent makeup, or intentional living (as opposed to my normal unintentional living). I could take a class on the “psychology of unexpected grace or loss” that would help me with both good and bad unexpected change in my life--everything from winning the lottery to dealing with the death of my cat, I suppose.

If I want something a little more artistic, I can take classes in pottery, water colors, glass etching, jewelry making, and stained glass. If I feel like I need more practical skills, the catalog describes classes in welding, ironworking, photography, song writing, papermaking, candle making, and woodworking.

I could learn to play the ukulele in six easy lessons for $24 or learn to make my own yarn in one session for $24. Hmmm . . . same price, so I’d have to ask myself which one would improve the quality of my life more. If I chose to make my own yarn, I could also take a class that would teach me how to knit for only $7. Evidently, it’s harder to teach someone to make yarn than it is to teach someone to knit. The sheep shearing probably factors into the cost.

I could learn to make my own earrings, learn to play Bunco, or learn to grow really good apples. I could go to a class called “Super Speed Cleaning” or choose from several classes that would teach me to frame walls, tape sheet rock, install windows, side my house with vinyl, install floor and wall tile, or put in a wood floor. I could learn to defend myself from attackers using only objects women usually carry in their purses. I could learn to make wine in the bathtub or spaghetti sauce in a crock pot or home-made bread on a rock in a campfire.

On October 7, I could learn to field dress and cut up a deer for only $14 (deer not included). I am trying to visualize how this can be done in the local high school cafeteria where the class will be held.

I could take the Dale Carnegie four-session series on moving past my comfort zone, or I could learn to market my small business. I could learn to burn DVDs, set up a Facebook or MySpace account, and become a Microsoft Office whiz. Although it’s too late for my recent trip to Italy, I could prepare myself for a future trip by taking a class called “Instant Italian” (or “Instant French” or “Instant Spanish”) that promises to prepare me for typical situations a tourist encounters when traveling.

I could stretch my musical horizons by taking classes in jazz and classical music. I could join a coffee and doughnut discussion group, a short story focus group, a legacy workshop, or an “interactive journey with the physics of sound and magnets.” I could tour Amish country with a woman who left her Amish community at the age of 24 and now gives bus tours of the Amish homes, farms, and schools in the secret society she left behind. I could make a quilt or an apron or learn how to cook healthy meals for one. I could take a hayride where someone from the Douglas County Historical Society points out historic landmarks around the city.

I love to read through the catalog and fantasize about the better person I could be if I would only make the time to sign up for the Community Adult Education classes. I could be an apron-making, Italian-speaking, bread-baking, deer-gutting, tile-laying, ukulele-playing Renaissance woman, in tune with my community and the wholesome activities that make West Central Minnesota such a great place to live.

Sunday, September 07, 2008


We just helped moved her again—my middle daughter who keeps moving. She should have been born with wheels on her feet and a luggage handle that you could just pull out of her back. She’s a mover—which seems odd since she really dreads moving. It’s not a genetic condition; her father and I have lived in the same house for the past 33 years.

So after my daughter’s last move, I had to pull out my address book one more time and X out the old and write in the new. My poor address book has been crossed out and edited so many times that I have to stop and think who lives where.

When my middle daughter first left home in 1997, I carefully wrote “Bethel College, St. Paul, MN” in my address book. However, that was soon replaced by a dormitory at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, MN. There were at least four addresses in St. Joseph—including the post office box numbers for two dormitories, Zierdan East Apartments, and Campus Village Townhomes. During these same years, I penciled in addresses for her temporary jobs in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, and Manchester Center, Vermont. She did an internship one January in Nassau, Bahamas, and another internship where she lived on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota. After graduation, the addresses included East End Road in Homer, Alaska; Penkiril Street, Bondi, New South Wales, Australia; and a couple of addresses in Olivia and Bird Island, Minnesota. Then a couple of Des Moines, Iowa, addresses followed. Last Friday, we brought a load of furniture to an address on Nathan Road in Plymouth, MN. Is that 16 moves in 11 years?

My youngest daughter’s move count is currently at 10, I believe. She first ran away from home to Towers Residence Hall, University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. While in Eau Claire, her addresses included a house on Niagara Street, a house on South Farwell Street, and a final one on Chippewa Street. A change of college majors caused a westerly move, first to Pine Cone Road and then to First Street, both in Sartell, Minnesota. Along the way, I also penciled in a summer address at Williams Bay, Wisconsin. Student teaching resulted in a move to West 37th Street in Minneapolis, and a teaching job offer caused a major move to South 50th Street in Phoenix, Arizona. Finally, after her wedding last summer, she and her husband settled in at North Willow Street in Chandler, Arizona. It seemed like half the people at the wedding introduced themselves by saying, “I used to be the bride’s roommate.”

My son left home in 1994 and his address was pretty stable at the USAF Academy, Colorado Springs, for four years. He moved to different dorm rooms during that time, but for four years, I always knew where his post office box was. Then began the moving: Ciarfeo Street, Laughlin AFB, Texas, and Shoreline Road, Del Rio, Texas, while he completed pilot training. He must have lived in Nevada for awhile because I have an address for Paradise Road in Las Vegas. A little slip of paper tucked in the address book indicates an APO address in Saudi Arabia in 2002. He and his wife were stationed at Canon AFB in Clovis, New Mexico, and lived on Don January Court before they bought a house on St. Andrews Drive in Clovis. Their address in Goodyear, Arizona, near Luke AFB has been in my address book for a few years now, but again, little pieces of paper stuck here and there show temporary training addresses—maybe in Arizona, Florida, Alaska, Denmark, one of the Carolinas? It gets a little fuzzy sometimes. Most notably, there’s an address at Kunsan AFB, South Korea, in 2006-07. I would count up his moves, too, but I’m not sure which were just short-time, temporary moves where he just packed his clothes, and which were actual moves where he brought his furniture along.

This isn’t an accurate count, but I estimate my kids have lived in approximately 12 different states and 4 foreign countries (which would make sense if I had 12 children, not 3). I know I should either just pencil in addresses in my address book or keep them in an electronic database. But that would spoil the fun of looking back and remembering where everyone started out and where they’ve been along the way. My scribbled and x’ed out address book is a reminder of the adventures and opportunities my kids have had while I’ve been hunkered down guarding the home front for 33 years here on Nissen Street.

Monday, September 01, 2008


It's Labor Day and Hurricane Gustav is in town. No, I don't mean THE Hurricane Gustav; he's obviously still down in Louisiana. I mean his close-together-isobar offspring, Son of Gustav. The Weather Channel says the wind is blowing around 35 mph in Minnesota today, and it made for a wild walk on the Central Lakes Trail this morning. Since the wind was out of the southeast, it was a crosswind--dramatic and frenetic. I just loved it. When I walked on the bridge over the channel between Lake Geneva and Lake Victoria, I was grateful I wasn't a high-profile vehicle or I might have been swept off the bridge into the choppy channel below. It was exhilarating.

While there are several things in my life I am grateful for, one of the top ten on my list is that I live just a few blocks from the Central Lakes Trail. I never, ever get tired of walking the trail because it's never the same. Sure, it's the same stretch of asphalt--but the weather, the seasonal changes, the hikers, the bikers, the in-line skaters, the dog walkers, the colors, the air--all of them keep changing.

It doesn't matter if I'm tired when I start my walk, I always feel more energized when I'm done. I can be lower than low when I start my walk, at the end of the worst day ever lived by any human being on the face of the earth; but by the end of my walk, I'm feeling pretty optimistic.

The Central Lakes Trail is actually the only form of recreational activity I do where I can come out financially ahead by doing it: the few dollars I spend on walking shoes and deoderant are quickly offset by the money saved in psychiatric fees and drugs for high blood pressure or arthritis. My biggest fear in life--hands down, my biggest fear--is that something will happen to me so I won't be able to walk every day. Three years ago, I developed shin splints and couldn't walk for a couple of weeks. They were among the worst couple of weeks of my life.

So today, when I was joined on my walk by the wild wind son of Hurricane Gustav, it just made the walk better--more dramatic, more dangerous, more exhilarating. Hair whipping, trees bent, white caps crashing--a walk on the wild side.