Friday, February 27, 2009


One look at the weather channel on Thursday morning reconfirmed that we had made the right call about leaving early. According to the weather map, we had missed the really bad weather by only about one-half inch (on the television screen anyway). And reading your comments from Thursday, it sounds like we missed snow, hail, sleet, and various other weather dangers that Tom and I are much too fragile to drive through.

We were on the road by 7:30 a.m. on Thursday and drove through the rest of Nebraska and into Colorado. After the miles and miles of the flatness of Nebraska, there’s nothing better than to see those Rocky Mountains coming up over the western horizon. The book-on-CD of the day was A Thousand Splendid Suns, written by Khaled Hosseini, the author of The Kite Runner. It’s amazing how many bad things can happen to good people, just because they happen to live in Afghanistan. My advice: just say “no” if the Taliban offers to take over your local government.

We arrived in Denver by 3 p.m. and by following a complicated set of directions (take I-70 to I-25 and drive 0.3 miles left and 0.1 miles right and turn onto this little road going west and that little road going right and type in the secret code to the gated community), we arrived at Tom’s sister’s home in Littleton, Colorado (on the southwest side of Denver).

We had a great time visiting—we arrived early enough to go hiking in the Red Rocks Amphitheater area. It felt terrific to go for a hike after sitting in the car for two days. After a dinner of grilled salmon, asparagus, and pumpkin praline pie (thereby undoing all the good done by the hiking), we hit the hay.

Today, Friday, we traveled about 700 miles, from Denver to Colorado Springs to Pueblo in Colorado to Santa Fe to Albuquerque in New Mexico and finally our stop for the night, the Comfort Inn in Holbrook, Arizona. We passed through some very dramatic scenery—mountain passes, deserts, national forests. The temperature was up to 63 degrees in New Mexico—hurray! Our CD book for the day was a Tony Hillerman mystery entitled The Sinister Pig. By a strange coincidence, the book takes place in the Gallup area of New Mexico that we were driving through—eerie!

Tomorrow morning, we will arrive in Phoenix. I hope Colbie is as excited to see us as we are to see her. I’ll have a lot to tell her about the trip!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


We had planned to leave for Arizona at 5:30 a.m. on Thursday, February 26. But Tom and I are old and easily frightened, so a weather forecast of 4-6 inches of snow being dumped directly on the road we were planning to travel on Thursday moved our plan up by about 16 hours.

Instead of going to bed in our own bed one more night, we loaded up the Camry at 1 p.m. on Wednesday and are currently at the Day’s Inn right off Interstate 80 in Lincoln, Nebraska. It’s a very basic hotel room (define "basic" as "crusty"), but we’ll be staying here less than 12 hours, so it’s all we need. The price was right.

We left Alexandria in 19 degree weather with piles of snow; and by the time we reached Nebraska, it was 45 degrees with only slight traces of snow in sheltered places. So we’ve already driven through the teens in Minnesota, the 20s in South Dakota, the 30s in Iowa, and the 40s in Nebraska—and by Saturday, we’ll be in the Arizona 80s!

I had stopped by the library before we left town and picked up some books on tape. Today we listened to a book called The First Patient by Michael Palmer—a mystery thriller about the President of the United States’ personal physician going missing and how it all tied into the CIA, the Secret Service, and nanotechnology used to deliver hallucinogenic drugs triggered by a remote control device. (Wow! Did that ever sound dumb when I wrote it down.) It wasn’t exactly great literature, but it kept us occupied for six of the eight hours it took to drive to Lincoln.

So good night, Lincoln. Good night, University of Nebraska. Good night, Cornhuskers. Time to turn off the lights. One day closer to holding Colbie! We’ll be on the road again at 8 a.m. Thursday, on our way to Denver.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


I come from a family of readers. As far back as I can remember, there were books—not very many, but there were always books. My mother had been a one-room country school teacher before she got married, so she must have decided ‘mama didn’t want no illiterate children.’

The picture shows my mother reading to us kids on a Saturday night—maybe around 1951 or 1952. As you can see, being read to evidently gave us headaches as we all had to have our little heads tied up in bandanas. (Actually, the bandanas held rows of bobby-pinned curls in place so we would have pretty hair for church on Sunday. We were a very wholesome family.)

In elementary school, we had a large bookshelf in the back of the classroom. When we were done with our work, we had permission to read library books. I think I read every book on the shelves including every single Laura Ingalls Wilder book, all the Bobsey Twins books, and any Nancy Drew book I could lay my hands on. I think I read most of them twice. When I ran out of books to read, I remember just making up stories and telling them to whomever would listen.

Way back on September 21, 2008, I put together a list of books I planned to read, and I am happy to report that I have almost read my way through the list! I’ve read a couple of Donna Tartt’s books (Secret History and The Little Friend). I’ve already written about some of the books I read: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (Barbara Kingsolver), Bel Canto (Patchett), Geek Love (Dunn), and Maus (Speigelman).

Three of the books I had planned to read were MIA. The library’s computer tells me that life isn’t always easy on the shelves either. Me Talk Pretty One Day (Sedaris) is always checked out and has a waiting list (even books have stressful, busy lives). And Same Kind of Different (Hall & Moore) is a victim of battered-book syndrome and is currently in the repair shop. A book I wanted to read by Peter Straub (Ghost) was reported as missing or stolen from the bookmobile, so I have visions of its current life on the run, living out of a car, perhaps hidden under a pile of fast-food wrappers.

I’ve read some very strange books including Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (Moore), The Quality of Life Report (Daum), Magic Terror (Straub), Life of Pi (Martel), and Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Pessl).

I’ve read some interesting non-fiction books: The Worst Hard Time (Egan), Little Heathens (Kalish), Freakonomics (Levitt and Dubner), Reading Lolita in Tehran (Nafisi), and Three Cups of Tea (Mortenson).

And I’ve read a couple of books that really made me stop and think: The Road (McCarthy), Blindness (Saramago), and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Safran). I’ve currently got A People’s History of the U.S. (Zinn) and plan to read it on the way to Arizona.

I’m currently working on my new reading list because that makes it easier to decide what to read next in a world where 57 million books are published every minute. Maybe the list will include A Hope in the Unseen (Suskind), A Long Way Gone (Beah), Breakfast of Champions (Vonnegut), For One More Day (Alborn), Odd Girl Out (Simmons) . . . Oh, my gosh! So many books, so little time. I might have to start reading faster.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in terms of emotional adjustments when I retired. One problem I didn’t anticipate was purple pen withdrawal syndrome.

Technically, I no longer have the right to take a purple pen and give my opinion of other people’s work. For 32 years, without ever being questioned, I was able to scribble margin notes, put checkmarks next to incorrect answers, draw arrows or smiley faces, and otherwise desecrate and graffiti the work of others. No questions asked. My students were pretty well conditioned to expect to be judged or encouraged or criticized or praised with my purple pen.

So what does a former teacher do with her purple pen comments on life when she no longer has the authority to evaluate and judge others? Shake with DTs? Curl into a fetal position? Go into treatment?

Maybe it would be better if I withdrew gradually. Do you suppose brides would mind if I sat in the pew at their weddings and circled spelling and grammar errors on their wedding programs? Would they object when I handed them the purple-pen corrected copy in the receiving line?

Will the local paper appreciate it if I circle a spelling error in last Friday’s edition (H.S. Hocky Team Wins! Have you ever heard of spellcheck?)? Do you think the local grocery store will thank me if I use my purple pen on the sign that announces that “Banana’s” are 40 cents a pound (plural, not possessive, dummy!!!)? Do you think people would appreciate getting back their Christmas letters, their wedding gift thank-you notes, or printed copies of their emails with my purple-ink suggestions for correcting dangling participles and rewriting topic sentences?

I didn’t think so.

The day I retired, I left my purple pens in the pen holder on my desk for the next person who occupies my office. However, I’ll have to admit I did keep one purple pen as a souvenir to remind me of the days when I could throw my purple ink around with impunity. Now if I used it, I would just be considered an annoying old fussbudget.

Occasionally, I hold my souvenir purple pen in my hand and remember the old days when I had ten-foot piles of papers to grade. It seemed like there wasn’t enough purple ink in the world to tackle the task in front of me.

I miss the students, I miss my co-workers—but now that I think about it, life without my purple pen is kind of liberating. Let the world make mistakes and get the wrong answers! It’s not my problem any more.

Friday, February 13, 2009


I wrote in an earlier blog that when I retired, I had to give up the best office that I’d ever had. I lamented that Tom had an office (thereby breaking the 11th commandment : Thou shalt not covet thy husband’s office.). But I had reason to whine: I had nowhere to park my retired butt when I wanted to conduct my very important retired-person business and think my very deep retired-person thoughts.

No more worries: I’ve finally carved out a little space for myself.

Here’s the great part. I took the corner of an infrequently used bedroom and left the bed in it! It’s just like we used to talk about at work, how great it would be to have a bed in our office for a little siesta after lunch. (Don’t lie; you’ve thought the same thing.)

I already had my desk (just never used it), and I painted a little cupboard that didn’t have any “Feng Shui” in its former spot (or so I was told by my daughter who does yoga, so she should know). I moved a radio/CD player in, set it to the oldies station (songs from the 50s, 60s, and 70s so I actually know the words), hooked up my printer, displayed my favorite pictures, arranged my pens and pencils, and presto! My office was born.

The result is a little haven where I can go that makes me feel like I still am a contributing person shuffling highly valuable papers and legally binding documents. After all, people who have offices have real business to take care of.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


The beautiful child below is, of course, our new granddaughter Colbie, born December 15, 2008. She is now seven weeks old (picture shows her at six weeks). I have been desperately scouring through family photo albums, trying to find a relative—it doesn’t matter how many centuries back—who resembles her: Great-great Grandma Olga’s freckles and red hair? Aunt Barb’s French or Aunt Annette’s Norwegian nose? Great-Great Uncle Napoleon’s eyebrows? I'm looking for any hint of a family resemblance.

I am very close to admitting that at six weeks, Colbie may look like her mom’s side of the family, especially her Uncle Brian who lives in Colorado. Lucky for all of us, Brian is a very good-looking guy.

So I want you to examine the picture carefully. If any of you find any resemblance at all to one of our family members, living or dead, black sheep or white sheep, please let me know. We would like to believe that at least one measly little Norwegian or French gene in our family pool was strong enough to find its way to our new granddaughter!

Sunday, February 08, 2009


I grew up in a family of six children, five girls and one boy. So I am fortunate enough to have four sisters, even though I haven't always appreciated them as much as I do now. I’m number 3 of the 5—yes, a typical insecure middle child, if that helps explains anything.

Back in 2004, my sisters and I decided to schedule a spring break trip for any of us who could make it, and we’ve managed to pull off a trip with three or four of the sisters participating almost every year since . But this year, for the first time, all five of us are planning to make the trip!

2004 - Sanibel Island, Florida

2005 - Mission Bay, San Diego, California

2006 - North Padre Island, Texas

2007 - Lobster Lake, Alexandria (health concerns with our parents kept us close to home)

Planned for June 2009 - Beach house near Jacksonport, on the east side of Door County, Wisconsin (Lake Michigan side, not the Green Bay side).

I feel sorry for people who don’t have four sisters to have adventures with. Over the years, we’ve had our rental car towed, we’ve been lost, we’ve met up with a rattlesnake along a trail—but when you’re faced with adversity, there’s nobody better to face it with than your sisters.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Don’t get excited. This is not a tabloid-type story where I disillusion you by admitting that Tom is actually my third husband. No, the first two men in my life were my father and my grandfather.

By the time I was born, my grandfather Albert was already 63 years old—an old man, I thought at the time. But he didn’t act all that old. In fact, my earliest memories of my grandfather were after he retired from farming in 1954. He and my grandma had moved to a house in Fergus Falls; but in the summer, especially during harvest, he would drive out to the farm to check on the crops. I can remember him driving slowly into the farmyard, his hat tipped back on his head, honking at us kids if we were playing outside.

However, the biggest treat was if Grandpa decided to sit down at the piano and pound out a tune or two for us. When my grandpa was eight years old, his mother, Marit, died, leaving his two older sisters, Lena and Ella (18 and 20 years old at the time) in charge of raising him. It was Ella who taught my grandpa Albert how to chord on the piano, the basis for his lifelong talent of “playing by ear.”

If the mood struck him, or if we grandchildren begged enough, Grandpa would sit down and play “Mockingbird Hill” or “Sugar in the Morning” or “I’m Going to be a Cowboy” loud enough to shake the rafters. He’d sing along—and we would too: “I’m going to be a cowboy, when I get big like my dad! I’ll be bronco buster and ride o’er the plains like mad. Oh, give me a home in the saddle, along the western plains. I’ll be the grandest cowpoke that ever rode the range!”

Grandpa at the Piano

The second man in my life, my dad, is now 91 years old and living in a nursing home, but I have always had a favorite picture of him. It was taken in the late 1940s or early 1950s, I think—and he looked kind of like a movie star, I always thought. It’s nice to think your dad looks like a movie star.

My dad wasn’t a piano player; he was a singer. He had a song for every occasion, especially when we were in the car and he was trying to keep six antsy kids from killing each other. He’d sing songs from way before our time—songs he’d learned when he went the University of Minnesota Ag School down in St. Paul. Our favorite was “Bessie the Heifer” (it was an agriculture school, after all). And we’d sing along with gusto: “Bessie the Heifer, the queen of all the cows, she gave more milk than any other cow! In the morning she’d give pasteurized, at night she’d give homogenized . . .” You get the picture.

So those were the first two men in my life. My Grandpa Albert died in 1970, but I just saw my dad today in Room 162 at the nursing home. He doesn’t feel like singing any more. But all the tunes that run through my head are because they put music in me as a child. What a gift!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


I wish now that I had taken a picture of every office I’ve ever worked in—from my first office right out of college to my office on the 8th floor of a skyscraper in downtown Minneapolis to the motley collection of a dozen or so different offices I had when I worked at the college. It seems like I’ve always had an office to do business in.

By far—by miles and miles—the best office I had was the last one. We moved into a brand new classroom building in 2004 (or thereabouts), and I was awarded a rare, precious one-person office. I felt like a queen. I felt my years of cubicles, desks tucked under stairwells, makeshift offices, and cobweb-filled corners were finally behind me. I finally had a beautiful office with a window.

However, since I was not awarded “professor emeritus” status when I retired, they made me give my office back (sigh). So now I am at home, figuring out which corner I can make into a little office to call my own. Tom has his office, and I know I can go in there whenever I want to. But it’s his stuff all over the desk and his cooties all over the chair. I have to be careful not to disturb his little piles, and I feel like a guest.

Right now, my desk is in the spare bedroom, my laptop and chair are in the living room, my printer/scanner/copier is in the dining room, the envelopes and stamps are in Tom’s office, and my important papers are tucked behind a flour canister in the kitchen. Any business that I conduct involves running frantically from room to room.

So that’s my first retirement project: carve out a little space for myself. I need to gather the bits and pieces from all over the house and bring them to one compact space. It will be a place where I can go to do my readin’ and writin’ and ‘rithmetic. A little spot to call my own.

Monday, February 02, 2009


Besides the obvious things (words, paragraphs, chapters), the insides of library books are an interesting anthropological look at that book’s readers. Margaret Mead didn’t need to go to Samoa to get her anthropology material; she could have just started turning pages of books at the Douglas County Library to get an insight into the culture and reading habits of rural America.

The most commonly found artifacts inside a library book are food droppings. Apparently, people often read and eat at the same time. The food droppings harden into tiny little blobs on the page, creating a mixture of visual and “scratch and sniff” clues. Powdery orange Cheetos fingerprints are one of the most common sightings, followed closely by chocolate (usually in smears) and grease (scratch the page lightly and sniff to determine if it’s lo-fat mayo, olive oil, or McDonald’s French-fry grease).

Spills are usually coffee (again, scratch and sniff to see if it’s Folger’s dark roast, Caribou skinny latte, or fair-trade organic), but can be soda or wine. Sometimes it’s just a small drop on the corner of a page (harder to decipher), but occasionally the reader has done a full-page or even a multi-page spill. Those I assume are alcoholic beverages made by people who drink and read at the same time. They might also be spills from multi-taskers who attempt to drive a car, talk on their cell phone, drink a beverage, and read a book simultaneously.

I have checked out travel books and found tokens of other people’s adventures inside. Last summer, I found a ticket stub to a Vatican tour in a travel book on Italy. Another time, I found a ticket for a boat ride on the Langayene Fjord near Oslo, Norway. It’s always nice to be reminded that other people are having more fun than you are.

Our library prints out receipts (like at the grocery store) for checked out items. So often, when I’m reading a book, someone’s old receipt is tucked into the spine, probably used as a bookmark and forgotten in the pages. It’s kind of interesting to see what other books this particular reader was attracted to—a mystery? a bodice-ripper? a self-help? Maybe it’s like where some helpful marketer says, “If you like this book, you’ll really like . . .”

Sometimes there are penciled notes in the margins or underlines and stars by significant passages (Hmmm, Why would they underline ‘Apple seeds contain a cyanide compound, and 8 ounces of the seeds would kill a human being.'??)

Money, however, never makes it through the re-shelving process. Librarians have a special sense of smell that can sniff out paper currency inadvertently left within the pages of a library book. Most librarians have supernatural powers.

Personally, I think it would be kind of fun to purposely leave little notes inside of library books—kind of like fortune cookies or messages in bottles. Tiny little notes that would inspire or encourage the reader to be a better person or live a better life. For example:

Or better yet, mess with their minds a little:

Maybe now that I’m retired, I’ll have time to go to the library and just rifle through all the books on the shelves, looking for ticket stubs, notes, scratch and sniff food blobs, and other anthropological treasures that will give me insight into the exciting worlds of my fellow readers.