Thursday, October 30, 2008


Today was the big day. I had even thought about taking a camera along to record the historic event, but then I remembered that I would be alone and it would be dark—not exactly prime camera conditions. In any event, I was doing some mental drum rolls and trumpet fanfares as I steered from my usual 6:20 a.m. route to work and headed toward the U.S. Post Office.

Today was the day I was officially going to mail all my official paperwork in to the official state of Minnesota to get the official wheels rolling for my official January retirement. I had one envelope for the Teachers’ Retirement Association and one for the Minnesota Public Employees Retirement Association: two envelopes that marked the beginning of my new life as a retired person at the end of January.

I had carefully filled everything out (going so far as to fill out practice forms first so I didn’t make mistakes on the finals). Tom and I had gone to a notary public to validate signatures on the forms. I had put in my birth and marriage certificates to verify that I was a legitimately-born person and that Tom was my real husband.

The plan? Drive up to the outdoor mail depository behind the Post Office and ceremoniously deposit the two envelopes in the receptacle while humming “I Did It My Way.” It was destined to be a time-standing-still moment.

Now I’m not superstitious. When someone says, “When your palm itches, you will come into some money,” I just laugh merrily and make a mental note to change my dishwashing detergent. And when someone warns, “If you count the number of vehicles in a funeral procession, you will soon have a death in your own family,” I wave my hand airily and say “pshaw.” And even when people say not to tickle a baby’s feet because that will cause the baby to stutter, I give their toes a little tweak anyway.

However, when I drove up to that mail receptacle to drop in my two life-changing letters, the sight of a completely trashed mailbox caused a moment of consternation. It looked like a Mack dump truck had backed into it—and then backed up and hit it again.

Mailbox (picture taken later in the day)

I racked my brain: Was there an old saying about never mailing your retirement applications in a smashed mail box or you would lose your pension in a bad economy? (Let’s see, “If a bird flies into your house, a death will occur . . . Two deaths in a community will be followed by a third . . . Never say ‘thank you’ when someone gives you a plant or it will die.”) I was pretty sure I had never heard an old saying about mangled mailboxes and retirement letters.

Picture of me taking a picture of the mailbox.

I drove around to the front of the Post Office, parked my car, and walked inside the lobby. It was quiet and dark—the main part of the Post Office wasn’t open yet. The mail slot in the lobby looked healthy and whole. I carefully opened the little door to the mail slot. I could hear cheerful voices of the graveyard-shift mail sorters coming from the room in the back. I did a little mental drum roll and a trumpet solo as I dropped the letters into the slot. I waited; nothing happened. No explosions, no screams, no sounds of the Teachers’ Retirement Fund shattering into a million pieces. I quietly closed the little door and went back out to my car.

Now it’s official, smashed mailbox or not.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


I’ve just seen another one of those “must-see” movies—about the Lost Boys of Sudan entitled God Grew Tired of Us. I’ve been reading in the Fargo Forum since 2001 about the teenaged immigrants who were resettled in the U.S. from Sudan (with an annual average temperature of 100 degrees). Some were sent to Fargo, North Dakota, in January—yes, January, in below zero weather and were expected to assimilate into the climate and the culture at a polar opposite of their own.

Although the movie doesn’t follow the Fargo group, it does tell the story of other Sudanese boys who went through many of the same struggles in other parts of the country.

The movie helps understand what led to the cause of the thousands of Lost Boys to begin with—the civil war in Sudan, the order to kill all boys in Southern Sudan ages 5-18 because they were potential soldiers, their subsequent pilgrimage/flight to Ethiopia and then to Kenya, the refugee camp, the U.N. resettlement program. Very interesting, very sobering—but underneath it, a resilience and humor that is pretty amazing.

These boys formed families when their own families were killed or separated from them. And although we Americans egocentrically believe that America is the answer to every immigrant’s dream, it’s a tough place to come with its unfamiliar processed food that causes stomach aches, unfamiliar technology that sometimes frightens, and less-than-welcoming citizenry (picture a group of black Sudanese faces on the streets of an all-white Fargo neighborhood).

It’s a documentary, but it’s told like a story. I will never again read another article in the Fargo Forum about the Sudanese immigrants without thinking of this movie, God Grew Tired of Us.

Sometimes I’m embarrassed for myself and other Americans about how little we know of what’s going on in the rest of the world.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


The reason I haven’t written for a week is not because nothing has happened; in fact, it’s just the opposite. It is quite exhausting to have a birthday and turn 60, I’ve found out. After we got back from the North Shore, we got an offer to pontoon down the Mississippi River on a sunny October Saturday afternoon. That would have been a lovely time all by itself; but at the end of the pontoon ride, there was a surprise 60th birthday party for me with balloons and cake and French champagne and some of my very favorite people! And my birthday wasn’t even for another six days!

Then, because my employer does not have a specific policy about employees getting a week off work when they have a significant milestone of a birthday, I was expected to teach all week—including calculating mid-semester grades for a hundred students and conducting a mid-
semester advising day. But finally, Friday arrived—the actual birthday—and there were good wishes from co-workers and 15 birthday cards in the mail at home and two lovely bouquets of flowers to help commemorate the day. And I have been sung to a total of eight times (yes, I counted).I think my birthday is over now. I am officially 60 years and 2 days old. If the next 363 days are as much fun, I think I will like being old.

So I finally got my retirement letter written, my plantar’s fasciitis is much better, the walking trails have been beautiful this fall, and life seems to be good. When I listen on the radio to reports that the economy is falling apart and the world is going to hell in a hand basket, I just want to suggest to people that they live simply and within their means, walk two to four miles a day, go on a trip once in awhile, try to stay positive, give their employers an honest eight-hour day, and take naps when they get tired.

Now that I’m 60, I feel like I should start philosophizing more. Isn’t that what old people do?

Friday, October 17, 2008


Tom and I just got back from two days on the North Shore of Lake Superior. We drove up to Duluth on Thursday, and then took Old Highway 61 (North Shore Scenic Drive) from Duluth to Two Harbors. Along the way, we stopped at the French River to sit on wet rocks.

Hanging Out by the French River

We got into Two Harbors Thursday afternoon, so we were able to walk down to the waterfront before dark. Then this morning, we went down to the shore again and walked around the beach and out onto the breakwater.
Tom hiking out to the end of the Breakwater in Two Harbors

Later this morning, we drove to Gooseberry Falls State Park where we spent 2½ hours hiking around both the Lower and Upper falls loops. It was a perfect hiking day, about 50 degrees, maybe a bit past autumn color prime, but a great day of hiking. (My plantar fasciitis will probably be screaming at me in the morning, ‘You idiot!!’) We found out that there are a dozen state parks at intervals along the North Shore and vowed that we will hike every one of them—but not today.
Lower Gooseberry Falls in the background
Finally, we drove back to Duluth and went down to Canal Street. We ate lunch at Grandma’s, the home of the famous Grandma’s Marathon, and then finished our trip by walking along the boardwalk in Canal Park. What a great way to spend two days!
Beautiful Lake Superior

It’s nice to know that after 35 years of marriage, Tom is still my favorite hiking partner—and I’m sure he’d say the same (if he knows what’s good for him.)

Thursday, October 16, 2008


“It is with a heavy heart . . .” No, scratch that. “I would like to respectfully inform you that I will be . . .” No, too weird. “I have very much enjoyed the past 32 years . . .” W-e-l-l, there have been days.

“Pursuant to Article 351 in the master contract, I am hereby officially informing you of my impending retirement . . .”
Whoa, Nelly! Sounds like I’m writing a Congressional bill.

“I regretfully tender my resignation to pursue a life of leisure . . . No, that makes me sound lazy. Besides, I’ve been putting off doing projects at home for so long that my list is now approximately eighty miles long. Life of leisure? It will probably be awhile before Tom and I are regulars at the dances down at the Senior Center.

Who would have ever thought that writing a retirement letter would be such a challenge. I thought it would kind of write itself.

“Working here for the past 32 years has been the most rewarding experience of my life . . .”
Well, not exactly. It actually was my life, in a sense. Think of the hours I’ve spent in the classroom or the time in my office frantically preparing for classes or the weekends correcting papers on the kitchen table. Think of the sleepless nights I’ve had, worrying about students (for example, this past Tuesday night). Most of the stressful times I’ve experienced were directly job related. Virtually every single gray hair on my head was bought and paid for by those students.

“I quit! Take this job and shove it! . . .”
But to be fair, most of the recognition I've received and satisfaction I’ve felt in my life was because of that job.

Just keep it simple: “I would like to inform you that I am retiring from my teaching job effective January 31, 2009 . . .” It seems like a life-changing event of this type should have a more dramatic ending--a clap of thunder, a flash of lightning, and a voice from heaven saying, "Well done, oh good and faithful servant." Or am I getting retirement mixed up with a Cecil B. DeMille movie?

Friday, October 10, 2008


There’s nothing more pathetic than old people doing an organ recital: my ouji hurts, my falapagus aches, my glutiglopilus is inflamed. Yuck! That’s why it’s with great reluctance and self-conscious rectitude, I describe my first athletic injury.

This is my (drum roll) first athletic injury since starting my two- to four-mile-a-day walking habit. Yes, an athletic injury—no scoffing, please. Since I only go to the doctor every five years (where the doctor tells me I am just fine and have the blood pressure of a teenager), my athletic injury is self-diagnosed. But I’m 100 percent sure of my diagnosis, courtesy of

The Mayo Clinic website describes the sensation as a “sharp pain in the inside part of the bottom of your heel, which may feel like a knife sticking in the bottom of your foot,” otherwise known as plantar fasciitis. It’s been coming on gradually for a couple of months; but it hurts the worst when I first get out of bed in the morning, when I’ve been standing for awhile, or when I get up after I’ve been sitting. So it seemed more like a condition that hurt when I wasn’t walking, rather than when I was. But on Wednesday, when I got out of bed, it was more like a Bora Bora machete was sticking in the bottom of my foot than Mayo Clinic’s knife analogy.

So I’m doing all the self-treatment exercises (cold packs, towel stretches, calf stretches). And I even went so far as to crawl into the back of my closet and resurrect a pair of black EasySpirit oxford/tennis shoes that I had bought for some trip or other and wore only twice.

They are easily the most comfortable pair of shoes I have ever owned; but even for a non-vain person, they are also easily the ugliest shoes I have ever owned. However, because I wanted to get better, I put those ugly shoes on and wore them to work yesterday. And today. And I didn’t walk 2-to-4 Wednesday, or yesterday, or today. (I can feel the mental illness creeping in already.)

So tomorrow morning, bright and early, I expect to be cured. I’ve iced, I’ve stretched, I’ve worn the ugly shoes. I expect to rise from my bed a cured woman. I’m not much of an athlete; three days should be enough to cure me of my not-much-of-an-athlete injury. If I need to, I'll even walk my 2-to-4 wearing the ugly shoes.

Sunday, October 05, 2008


I’m only halfway through Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and already I am guilted into altering my faltering ways. The author and her family uprooted themselves from their home in Tuscon, Arizona, to try an experiment. Their goal was to live a year sustaining themselves only on food grown locally—and they decided to do it on her husband’s land in the Southern Appalachians. (Don’t we all own a small farm in the Appalachians to use when we want to conduct a social experiment?)

The reason I am trying to change my own faltering ways after reading half of the book is because the author makes a good point. We try to eat healthy at our house, loading up the grocery cart each week with fresh fruits and vegetables. We try to eat lean meat and non-meat sources of protein. We try to limit our fats, sugars, and calories in general. I thought we were doing pretty well for a couple of old farts who were raised on lard-fried donuts and ground beef.

But Barbara Kingsolver wants us all to take it a step further. She wants us to question where our food is coming from.

Our generation of Americans has been conditioned to assume that we can have any food we want any time of the year we want. We expect to go to the grocery store and be able to buy strawberries in January and asparagus in November. We don’t stop to think that strawberries in Minnesota ripen in June and asparagus plants peep their tiny heads in May. To get strawberries to Minnesota for Christmas or asparagus in time for Thanksgiving means transportation. And transporting food from Southern California or Chile or Honduras or Australia means oil consumption and higher prices.

So here’s what Kingsolver suggests: eat locally produced food only in the seasons it is readily available. Obviously, if you live in Minnesota, there is a period of several months where the only foods in season are snowballs and icicles. So we need to rely on canning, freezing, and otherwise preserving food during the times when it is available. She advocates gardens and farmers markets and locally produced meat.
So yesterday for the first time (I am embarrassed to say), I went to Alexandria’s farmers’ market. What an eye-opener. Beautiful fruits and vegetables, grass-fed beef, bags of apples. True, I did have to make another stop at the grocery store when I got done. But even at the grocery store, I started checking labels. Dannon Yogurt came from New York; Old Home Yogurt came from St. Paul. This bag of carrots came from California; that bag came from Anoka, Minnesota. These sunflower seeds came from Texas; the other sunflower seeds were processed in North Dakota. The choices were made for me, just based on fossil fuels consumed to bring the food to the store.

Okay, so Kingsolver is a little preachy (don’t even get her started on processed foods!). And okay, so my little bit won’t probably help very much. But I felt kind of good about my choices yesterday at the farmers’ market. The little boy who helped me pick out a squash, some red onions, and peppers looked as pleased as punch with the $8.25 I counted out into his hand. And the man who put an extra apple on top of my bag of Honeycrisps because “it looks a little empty there” won my undying loyalty.

My refrigerator looks different to me now when I open it. Okay, it’s the same bowls of fruits and vegetables, but I’m proud that most of them are locally grown or shipped within the state. I might have gotten on the bandwagon a little late for this growing season, but I think this will be a habit I will try to stick to.

Like Barbara Kingsolver says, we might as well drink a quart of oil than eat Chilean grapes in February, because that’s how much oil it took to transport that plastic bag full of grapes to a grocery store in Alexandria, Minnesota.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


Every time I go out into my yard to do a little yard work or head down the street for a walk, Max, our neighbor dog, goes into a barking frenzy. I have lived in my house since 1976; Max has only lived next door for maybe seven or eight years. I feel I have a right to be in my yard or walking down my street, but he treats me like I’m the neighborhood deviant and he’s the Neighborhood Watch.

Max is not an attractive dog. I think he’s mostly Pekingese—with a little Shitzu (or Shitzhead, as Tom guessed) mixed in. I suppose Max has a breed name, but he’s just a mangy looking dog with a medically serious under bite. Even when he’s not in a barking frenzy, he just looks like he’s mad at the world.

He also roams the neighborhood at will. He will sit in the middle of the street and look at oncoming cars as if to say, “Go ahead—hit me. Make my day. I’ll sue.” Of course, no one would purposely run over a dog, and Max knows it. So drivers swerve and honk and curse while he just sits there on his furry little haunches and looks annoyed.

Once, a new neighbor told me that he thought the dog was ours. That hurt. Just because Max is just always in our yard barking at me doesn’t indicate ownership—or even friendship. Besides, he uses the neighbors’ lawn across the street as his bathroom, which I believe means that Max prefers their yard to ours.

I am generally an agreeable person who likes animals. But Max has a face and disposition that only his mother could love. I'd take a picture, but he's got the kind of face that could seriously damage a camera. My only consolation is that I’m going to outlive him. Dogs don’t live forever, and women in my family tend to die really old, like 95 or 100 or more. I’ll win in the end.