Friday, December 19, 2008


It's official: I'm no longer a teacher. I am a former teacher. Today was the final day of fall semester, and I don't see my name on the teaching schedule for spring semester.

I've been feeling a little fragile all day. I've taught my last class, graded my last paper, entered my last end-of-semester grade. No more lesson plans, no more pre-class butterflies, no more purple pens writing praising/encouraging/constructively criticizing remarks in margins of papers. No more learning new software and wrestling with hardware; no more frantically trying to work through a new textbook that the publisher decided to release five minutes before class started. No more teaching highs; no more teaching lows. No more hours at the kitchen table on Sunday night, working my way through a stack of technical writing statistical reports.

No more waking up at 2 a.m., worrying about some other mother's child who isn't doing well, who isn't adjusting very well to college responsibilities. I . . . am . . . exhausted. And I will miss it. It was a wonderful, worthwhile way to spend my life.


We aren't even prejudiced. Colbie may very well be the cutest baby ever born on the continental U.S. (I would have said "in the world," but I didn't want to sound like I was exaggerating.) We'll be meeting her in just a few days.

Monday, December 15, 2008


2:28 a.m. Phoenix time, 6 lbs. 13.5 oz., 19 inches long.
Mother, father, baby doing fine!
Grandparents on Cloud Nine!

Sunday, December 14, 2008


If you are from Minnesota, you can skip this entry. You're probably seeing the same thing right now out your window. This is for all of you ex-Minnesotans who really, really miss the changing seasons.

Generally, when I look out my back window, I can see the Methodist Church, the church parking lot, and the church parsonage--clear as day, half a block away. Today, this is what it looked like out our back window. Even Poppy, the cat who NEEDS to be outside, didn't need to be outside today.

Disappearing church

And our neighbors across the street are just so barely there. In case you needed a Minnesota fix . . .

Yoo Hoo!! Thompsons! Where did you go?


New experience: I just read a book where I put off reading the final ten pages for more than 24 hours because I just dreaded how it would end. And I didn’t want it to end that way. But it had to end that way. Sometimes I get the feeling that I’m not the intended audience for the books I read. They’re being written for someone else—someone much younger and more flexible than I am. Someone not as easily disappointed.

The book I was reading was Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. Prepare to be inspired and thrilled and enlightened--and utterly, completely bummed out in the ending, because that’s the way it had to end. The book is loosely and fictionally based on the 1996 Japanese Embassy hostage crisis in Lima, Peru.

Sometimes there are books that make me think contrary my normal values and beliefs. Secret History by Donna Tartt made me understand the need to murder someone (yes, Bunny must die!!). Lamb: The Gospel According to Bif, Christ’s Childhood Friend by Christopher Moore made me think that maybe one of the three wisemen actually was a Buddhist. And Bel Canto made me really, deeply sorry to see the bad guys lose. I’m getting too old to read books like this.

I recently expressed to Tom that all the books I was reading lately were kind of bizarre or depressing. So in thoughtful Tom fashion, he brought me a suggested reading list from a newsletter of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart Convent in Fargo, North Dakota, in which Presentation nuns had all written down a list of their favorite books. After all, if they're good enough for the Presentation nuns, he figured I might benefit from them, too.

Here’s the new list of books the good sisters recommend: A Monk in the Inner City, The Hard Work of Hope, The Power of Now, They Come Back Singing, and Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality. Just by their titles, I know these are books that will inspire and lift me to become a better human being. Heaven knows I need all the help I can get.

And unlike Geek Love, the book I read before Bel Canto, these books will not contain even one aqua boy with fins instead of arms and legs who is the father of the albino dwarf’s illegitimate baby, Miranda—who coincidentally was born with a small tail protruding from the end of her spine, although Miranda was a very talented medical artist. (I am not exaggerating. This really is the plot of the book Geek Love.)
For whatever reason, some of the books I’ve been reading lately are making me feel a little weary—like I’m not the intended audience. Maybe Tom's right and I’ll benefit more from the good sisters' suggested reading list.

Friday, December 12, 2008


At Christmas time, people bring out their collections: Department 56 Christmas villages complete with electric trains, Santas, SnoBabies, Willow Tree figurines, Christmas dishes. And I have to admit, cheap as I am, I have a collection, too.

It costs a ton and a half of money to travel. Yes, I know I can backpack, sleep on the floor in hostels, and hitchhike on the back of mule carts across the Gobi Desert. But I’m old, and I need a bed and running water. So when we travel, I don’t budget a lot of money for shopping and souvenirs. My family back home knows how frugal I am; there are no t-shirts that say “My Mom Went to Estonia and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt” in my children’s closets.

But everywhere I go, I try to find an ornament that I can bring home to take out at Christmas time and hang on my Christmas tree. It doesn’t have to be a real tree ornament. With a hot glue gun and a 69-cent pack of wire ornament hangers, I can make just about anything into an ornament. Refrigerator magnets, tiny souvenir plates, carved wooden trinkets—nothing is safe from being noosed and hung from a branch on my holiday tree.

Last Friday night, Tom and I set up our six-foot artificial flocked tree (complete with fake pinecones) that we got at Menard’s. It looks kind of cute after the sun goes down and it’s all lit up with twinkly lights—if we squint a bit and drink a little wine. Add a pine-scented candle somewhere in the room, and you almost feel like you’re stopping in the woods on a snowy evening with Robert Frost—well, with a little imagination.

So while other travelers are buying gifts for family and friends, I am scrounging around in foreign bargain bins or haggling with street vendors, looking for little doo-dads. Then in December, I can carefully hang them all on my almost-life-like fake Christmas tree (complete with fake pinecones) from Menards. That’s when it really seems like Christmas.

Camel from Tunisia
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
Moose from Homer, Alaska
St. Petersburg, Russia

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


I feel sorry for everyone who doesn’t subscribe to the Fargo Forum these days. I’ll bet your newspapers are full of doom and gloom: state budget shortfalls, laid off workers, death-spiraling housing markets, rising costs, tough times.

If you subscribed to the Fargo Forum, the headlines on Tuesday, December 9, would read: Free North Dakota Tuition Plan Rekindled—New Version Broadens Eligibility.” We’re talking free college tuition here. Don’t get me wrong; I know the bill didn’t pass in the North Dakota House (killed on a 28-65 vote). However, just think about it. It’s December 2008, and the country is in a recession. Here in Minnesota, the state has a hiring freeze and a $5.2 billion budget shortfall.

But on the other side of the Red River, North Dakota is wondering what to do with a $1.2 billion surplus, mainly the result of oil and agriculture revenues. Unemployment is among the lowest in the country, and sales of new cars are up 27 percent over last year. And they’re thinking maybe they should take some of that extra state money and help their kids pay for college.

That’s why I can’t help but looking longingly in a westerly direction and think, “Ah, North Dakota. Wouldn’t you like to be more than just friends?” After all, it takes me two hours to drive to the Twin Cities, but only an hour to drive straight west to North Dakota.

Jim Lileks, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune (a Minnesota newspaper on the verge of bankruptcy) wonders whether it might not be in Minnesota’s best interest to just take over North Dakota. In a recent column, he says:

We need bold, new solutions, like annexing North Dakota. They have natural resources aplenty, and the population density of Antarctica, even if you figure in penguins. Pushover. We have National Guard soldiers who've been to Iraq; I think Fargo would be an easier tour of duty. We would not only be bigger and richer, we would be the weirdest shaped state in the nation, and cement our stature as the state with the greatest number of old guys named Elmer.”

Somebody named westernmn had this comment in response to Lileks’ column: “Living in western Minnesota feels almost like being in a different state. . . I've often thought we have more in common with the Dakotas than southeastern Minnesota, where the metro is (people from the Twin-Cities think they are located in the center of Minnesota). There's a North and South Dakota, maybe we should succeed from Minnesota and become ‘East Dakota.’”

So here’s my home-made map of what I think the new state of Dakota would look like:
The new Minnesota looks quite a bit like the old one—just thinner. And the state is currently into belt-tightening, so this just might be the answer. Of course, those of us in East Dakota would be happy to help North Dakota figure out what to do with its budget surplus.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


Another story about Carlisle from my 90-ish parents during a visit at the nursing home.

On Sunday, when Tom and I brought my mom over to visit my dad at the nursing home, the conversation turned to horses. I think the conversation started because we were having some snow flurries, and my mother remembered that when they were kids, they always wished for snow at Christmas time so they could take the horses and sleigh to church on Christmas Day. Back in those days, Hedemarken Church had a barn on the north side where all the fathers would unhitch the horses, get them out of the wind and cold, and feed them a little hay while the families attended church inside. The barn was torn down when most people started driving automobiles to church in the 1930s.

My mother especially remembers their horses Daisy and Prince. They had originally belonged to the Pergande family, neighbors who were retiring from farming and were auctioning off all their farm equipment and animals. Mr. Pergande approached my mother’s father, Edward, prior to the auction, wondering if he wouldn’t bid on those two special horses because the Pergandes wanted them to go to a good home where they would be treated well. My mother seemed quietly proud that her father had been asked to do that.

Anyway, her father did purchase the horses at the auction. Daisy and Prince weren’t just any old farm horses; they were “small and quick.” My mother laughingly remembers that when they were hitched up to the sleigh in the winter, those horses would run with the sleigh. And when her father went to hitch up the horses after church was over, she would watch him running in circles with the two prancing little horses, around and around the sleigh to settle them down because they were so excited at the prospect of pulling the sleigh back home.

But although they were little and quick, Daisy and Prince were still expected to pull their weight with farm work. They would be hitched up with the big sturdy work horses, the five-horse teams balanced just right (two in the front, three in the back, my dad remembered), and Daisy and Prince would work in the fields right along with the big draft horses.

My mother remembers another set of neighbors, the Sundrys, who were also retiring from farming and had a saddle horse that they needed to sell. They, too, approached my mother’s father and wondered if he didn’t want to buy their horse, Babe. Although the horse belonged to the whole family, it was my mother’s older brother Clifford who loved that horse the most. He faithfully took care of her and rode her to Saturday confirmation classes.

Both my parents' familes had twelve to fourteen horses at a time, and they were carefully taken care of. The horses were very, very important to the farm operation. The reason farms needed twelve to fourteen horses was that the teams had to be rotated for work, especially in hot weather. My mother recalled one time when her father was working out in the fields on an unusually hot day. He was so close to being done with a field that he worked the horses longer than he normally would have, just to finish the field before heading back home. Later, my mother’s brother Clifford came running into the house from the barn, very upset. “Jerry [one of the horses] is in trouble,” he told his father, worried. Later that night, Jerry died of heat exhaustion. My mother said that her father felt just terrible—he felt so responsible that his hard-working horse had died, as well as the economic loss. The guilt stayed with him a long time; her father never pushed a horse that hard again.

So that’s what happened on Sunday at the nursing home—looking out the window, watching the snow come down, remembering the horses and sleighs from 80 years ago.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


This is a warning to all of you: either be happy or stay the heck away from me. A multi-million dollar, twenty-year study by some of the finest minds in the country has finally proven beyond doubt that happiness is catchy—but so, unfortunately, is unhappiness.

Earlier multi-million dollar, multi-year research by very smart people concluded that obesity and cigarette smoking are contagious, too. That is, if you hang around with chubby friends or family, you are more likely to become a chub scout yourself. Ditto for cigarette smoking. But now there’s a new twist on the value of hanging around with the right people—your happiness depends on it.

Researchers have found that happiness is contagious—it’s a collective phenomenon. To paraphrase the researchers’ results, we pick up our emotional state from people around us through mimicry and emotional contagion. We copy actions, facial expressions, and emotional states that we observe in others—whether we’re around them for a few seconds or for weeks or months. (Time is immaterial here. When we’re around unhappy people, it just seems longer.)

The study, done by American researchers (sociologists from Harvard, UC San Diego, etc.) called the Framington (Massachusetts) Heart Study, was conducted from 1983 to 2003. The study, like most academic studies, is full of big words like “ego” and “cohort” and “first order relatives” and “systematic social ties,” and “base mean index score.” But the bottom line of the study was that happy people tend to be connected to one another in big happy clusters. In the study, researchers found that clusters of happy people and clusters of unhappy people were too large, too defined, to be just chance occurrences.

So be wary of hanging around with Debbie Down-in-the-Dumps and Martin Miserable. They are not only affecting themselves; they are creating a ripple effect of unhappiness around them. Their entire cluster of social ties is being pulled down into their sucking, swirling vortex of wretchedness. Thanks a lot, my downer friend.

On the other hand, the researchers are even tentatively saying that happy people create their own karma (therefore making the TV show My Name is Earl accurate and prophetic). Because happiness spreads from person to person, the happiness we create around us ripples to others, and ripples and ripples and ripples, until eventually it comes to ripple back over us. Now isn’t that a good reason to make an effort to smile?

Friday, December 05, 2008


I wish I remembered where I read it so I could give credit where credit is due. Maybe it was in Ann Patchett’s book, Bel Canto. Maybe it was in the Reader’s Digest. Maybe it was on the back of a shredded wheat box. But somewhere I read that most people in their lifetimes make six connected decisions that change the course of their lives.

Personally, I think this might be a rip-off of the old game, “The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” a brain game invented by three students from Albright College that theorizes that any actor in Hollywood can be tied to actor Kevin Bacon in six steps. For example, if you “six degree” Kevin Bacon with Jessica Tandy: Kevin Bacon was in Flatliners with Julia Roberts, who was in Closer with Jude Law, who was in The Talented Mr Ripley with Gwyneth Paltrow, who was in Seven with Morgan Freeman, who was in Driving Miss Daisy with Jessica Tandy.

But let’s get back to the subject of six major decisions that bring you where you are today. The choice of your “Six Major Decisions” will change, depending upon where you are in life. What may have looked like one of the top six in the year 2008 may not even make the list in 2030. So the list will reflect where you are today, at this time.

Right now, without much explanation, these are the six major decisions as of December 5, 2008, that have changed the course of my life:
  1. In 1968, turned down a fine arts scholarship offer at UMM to major in theater and English and continued on track for Business Education at MSC.
  2. In 1971, agreed to let my boss introduce me to someone he had met who worked for another agency and who my boss thought would “be just perfect” for me.
  3. In 1981, made a decision to resign my teaching position rather than take a maternity leave, directly leading to returning to school and getting a master’s degree in English.
  4. In 1985, made a decision to go to Colorado for Christmas, which I believe did more to shape the direction and goals of all my children than any other single piece of parenting Tom and I did.
  5. In January 2000, made a decision to change my lifestyle and get healthier.
  6. This one is still up for grabs. Could it be my decision to retire in January 2009? Or will it be a later decision at another fork in the road that leads to even greater changes?
Maybe my sixth decision will lead me to starring in a movie with Kevin Bacon (see Decision 1 where I turned down the theater scholarship). Full circle. Why not? Don’t all roads lead to an encounter with Kevin Bacon?

Monday, December 01, 2008


Our new treadmill arrived today. It’s much more sophisticated than the one we bought eight or nine years ago—the one that recently passed away from high mileage and old age, may it rest in peace. The new one is a NordicTrack C2155 with a two-speed fan, an Interplay Musicdock for an 8-stage iPod workout routine (iPod sold separately), a 12-grade incline, a pulse/heart rate monitor, and a digital training zones screen display. I think it can also make a seven-course dinner.

Brand new fancy-schmancy NordicTrack C2155 treadmill down in the basement.

When I drove home from work today, the car thermometer showed 18 degrees. The stiff wind out of the northwest was strong enough to make the flag by the Knights of Columbus bingo hall stand straight out. So when I walked through the door and Tom told me that the new treadmill had been delivered, I decided to try it out.

Instead of bundling up and enjoying the sights of nature through the half-inch slit between my stocking cap and scarf, I watched “Cash Cab” on the Discovery Channel. And instead of inhaling the fresh, icy air of a late Minnesota afternoon, I inhaled the slightly stale air in the basement, punctuated with the aroma of the cat litter boxes in the laundry room. It took me a while to figure out all the buttons and digital read-outs; but the belt went around smoothly and the little fan blew an enthusiastic breeze on my sweaty brow.

I still plan to walk outside whenever I can. After all, we want to make this treadmill last as long as humanly possible. But the main reason I need to walk outside is the endorphin factor. I believe wholeheartedly in the theory that exercise produces endorphins, which create a sense of positive well being. However, for some reason, treadmills don’t bring out the endorphins in me. I can walk two to four miles on that treadmill, and all I feel is kind of sweaty. But when I walk the two to four miles outside, I feel downright happy. Endorphins are nature’s way of saying, “Now isn’t this fun?”

So God bless the fancy new treadmill—it will save me from frostbite and fractured hips on those bitterly cold days when the paths are too treacherous to navigate safely. But I look forward to any days I can be outside walking, radiating my sparkly endorphins all along the trail.