Wednesday, April 29, 2009


When you leave for work at 6:15 a.m. and don’t generally get home until 4 or 5 p.m., neighborhood happenings are the last thing you are worried about. However, when you start spending most of your waking hours in and around your house, all of a sudden the neighborhood becomes a highly intriguing place.

Take, for example, the mysterious house on the corner, about a block from my own house.

When it was first built, a middle-aged pastor and his wife lived there. I don’t know about pastors in your neighborhood, but in mine, they generally try to keep a low profile. If they are doing anything out of the ordinary, they always pull the shades first. It’s how pastors keep their jobs.

When the pastor died, the house was purchased by a young couple (and eventually a baby) who were two of the hardest working people I’ve ever seen. That house was re-sided, polished, shined, and groomed within an inch of its life. Those two kept the most immaculate yard in a six-block radius. Every blade of grass, every shrub, every flower in the yard was a photo op for Better Homes and Gardens. They made the rest of us step up our game a little.

Then, two years ago, the house was sold. We started noticing the deterioration almost immediately: untrimmed trees and bushes, two barking dogs in an outdoor kennel, trash in the yard, unmowed grass. But none of our business really—and besides, I went to work every day so I didn’t have time to worry about the neighbors.

After I retired and was around the neighborhood all day, I noticed what had been happening. All of a sudden, the house had become a pickup truck magnet. Not just one drive-around-town pickup truck or a couple of working-man pickups with pickup box tool chests in the bed. No, these were tricked out, pimped up pickup trucks—three of them parked there on a regular basis, and several others that would come and go.

Their tailgates said things like “Southern Belle” and “Hillbilly Deluxe” and “Redneck Mud Militia.” Decals in the rear cab windows read:

*I Killed a Six Pack Just to Watch It Die
*I’m Not Speeding, I’m Qualifying
*White by Birth, Trash by Choice
*Bubba Is My Old Man
*You Say Potato, I Say Tater

And while the three or more men who come and go around that house drive new-model, detailed trucks, the two women who appear to live in the house drive those 20-year-old, 180 thousand mile, rusted-out-silver kinds of cars with no hubcaps or mufflers. I guess it’s tough to be a redneck woman unless your redneck man decides to give you a ride in his redneck truck.

They moved a hot tub into the driveway in front of the garage. If I walk by early in the morning, the edge of the tub is lined with beer cans. Flood lights glare until late at night as they work on their trucks and re-paint cars in the garage.

I intend to bake a cake one day and take it over, just to be neighborly and all. (Or if it’s a meth lab, I want to make sure they have proper licensure to run a business in a residential neighborhood.)

Besides, there are too many trees in the way to get a good look through my binoculars.

Monday, April 27, 2009


If you have seen the movie Blood Diamond, released in 2006, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, you will want to take time to read the book, A Long Way Gone, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, written by Ishmael Beah.

From 1991 to 1999, Sierra Leone was involved in a bloody civil war between its corrupt government, its military, and the RUF (Revolutionary United Front). The movie Blood Diamond shows how young boys were conscripted into the RUF, while A Long Way Gone (a true story) describes the author’s same conscription into the Sierra Leone army in 1993 at the age of 13. Both the movie and the book are sobering reminders of what was happening to children in Sierra Leone less than ten years ago and what is still happening in many other parts of the world today. Using intimidation, drugs, and fear, children ages 12 to 18 are forced to become a part of the mindless killing going on in war-torn countries.

Blood Diamond wasn’t a fun movie to watch, but it was important to watch it. And after reading A Long Way Gone, you can get an even greater understanding of the horrendous impact on civilian populations of these civil wars and the struggle for power. The author, Ishmael Beah, was born in 1980—startlingly close to the ages of my own children. I struggle to get my mind around the fact that while my children were taking swimming lessons and writing book reports, Ishmael Beah was forced to carry an AK-47 through the forests of Sierra Leone, witnessing and participating in murders of the "enemy." It was only when UNICEF intervened on his behalf in 1996 that he was “rehabilitated” and eventually found his way to the United States.

It's not a thick book--it doesn't take long to read. However, you will find yourself thinking about it for a long time after.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


Yesterday was my father’s 92nd birthday. He did NOT want a party. He just wanted to sit quietly in his green chair in Room 117 at the nursing home and turn 92 with “no fuss” (his words).

Well, a person can’t just let his or her father turn 92 with no recognition whatsoever, so we honored his wishes and just did the minimum. Only people who lived within 20 miles of the nursing home and were coincidentally in the neighborhood anyway stopped by—purely by chance and accident. Nobody made him a cake—but Pete’s County Market happened to have Oreo cakes on special, and we were curious what an Oreo cake tasted like.

And most importantly, nobody went out and bought 92 candles to light. Instead, one of us just dug in the back of her cupboard and resurrected the oft-used birthday number candles. It’s a shame to waste them by using them only once.

Candles Appear for the First Time on December 23, 2004

Candles Appear for the Second Time on November 8, 2008

Candles Appear for the Third Time on April 25, 2009

So, our dad’s 92nd birthday got noticed—but not celebrated, just like he wanted. He would have been pleased to know that the candles were being recycled.

P.S. J-9, what are you doing on May 24, 2010? I’d suggest you come home and celebrate your birthday. We’ve already got the candles for your cake.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


You would think that my rural childhood would have led me to be a terrific gardener, being a daughter of the earth and all. But I am not. I have gone through phases where I wanted to be Mother Nature’s good and faithful servant. However, it takes dedication, commitment, and patience to be a nurturer—and unfortunately, none of those characteristics made it into my shaky repertoire of personality traits.

Over the years, I have had a dozen or so houseplants, and I have killed all but one. The one still living is a spindly, stunted little philodendron in my living room that is rarely watered, never fertilized, and seldom pruned or dead-headed. It’s just one of those plants born with an innate will to live. It doesn’t get bigger—or smaller. It just exists, and I take no credit for its persistent, pathetic life.

My outside plants are even worse. Our house was built next to a former gravel pit. The ersatz soil is nothing more than gravelly, sandy stuff that’s a poor excuse for real dirt. Creating a garden would involve bringing in black dirt—and here’s where my rural mindset comes in. Something inside me rebels against paying for dirt. DIRT, for goodness sakes. It would be like paying for AIR or RAIN! So I struggle with the available soil and cheer for any little plants that actually survive in my yard.

Over the years, I’ve resorted to becoming a “pot” farmer (no, I don’t grow marijuana). Every May, without any expectations whatsoever, I sigh and plant geraniums and marigolds in flower pots on the deck. It’s not that I like geraniums and marigolds so much; it’s that they are the only flowers I’ve found that can withstand my absent-minded, sporadic attention and don’t die under my care.

I have only one success story when it comes to growing anything: my day lilies on the east side of the garage. Several years ago, my master-gardening, green-thumbed younger sister was thinning out day lilies in her Garden-of-Eden back yard. She gave me some day lilies to take home and plant. I remember wondering how long it would take me to kill them—one growing season or two. But, knock on wood, they are actually still living, several years later. Yesterday, I was cleaning out all the old stalks and autumn leaves from last fall, and I found new green shoots coming up. I wept with relief. It means that I am not a total loser; I don’t kill everything that I touch. The day lilies are proof that my agricultural roots are still there—maimed, stunted, and semi-dormant, but still there.

Proof of Plant Life in My Yard

Saturday, April 18, 2009


On the last morning we were in Phoenix, April 1, I wanted to show my son and daughter-in-law what I had noticed the day before: how Colbie was already interested in books and being read to. She had excitedly looked at the pictures in four books as I read them to her.

Sure enough, we pulled out a book, and Colbie again listened carefully, mesmerized by the pictures and the sound of a voice. Does anyone need any further proof that not only is my granddaughter beautiful beyond description, but also smart beyond her 4 months (3½ months at the time)?

If anyone hears of a good deal on airline tickets to Phoenix, please let me know.

P.S. I have now been blogging exactly one year (first entry was April 19, 2008). I am sincerely grateful for the three or so people who have read my ramblings so faithfully over the past year, hoping that some day I'll actually write something worth reading. Bless your faith and persistence!

Friday, April 17, 2009


(This conversation took place at the nursing home on Thursday, April 16, when my dad, who will be 92 next week, and my mother, age 90, reminisced about Ralph, my dad’s cousin, friend, and neighbor, who passed away over 25 years ago.)

When my parents got married in 1941 and moved into their new home, their closest neighbors were my father’s aunt and uncle, Sigurd and Laura, whose farm place was just kitty-corner across the road from them. My father had always been friends with Sigurd and Laura’s fourth child, Arnold, who was the same age as he was. But their fifth child, Ralph, was a couple of years younger than my dad, one of the “little kids” in the community, so my dad hadn’t spent much time with him.

That all changed when my dad became their closest neighbor. Eventually, all of Sigurd and Laura’s children got married and moved away, and Ralph was the only one left at home. My dad and he became great friends. My mother described Ralph as a man with a “big heart.” They always enjoyed when Ralph came over and pulled up a kitchen chair for a visit. He was a welcome visitor, very social and friendly.

When Ralph got married in the late 1940s, Sigurd and Laura moved to a house in town, and Ralph began farming on his own.

Part of Ralph’s charm was his excitable personality, so when my parents were reminiscing, they mostly remembered stories in which Ralph would telephone my dad, sputtering with a wild account of what was happening over at his farm. Then my dad would jump into action, ready to help him out.

Ralph at Our Kitchen Table (1952)

One time, Ralph called, shouting that he had a chimney fire and that his roof was in flames. It was deep winter, and all the roads were blocked with snow. So my mother remembers that my dad ran out to the barn, threw a blanket and a bridle on one of the work horses, and took off for the neighboring farm to help Ralph. The horse wasn’t a saddle horse; its broad back was so wide that my mother remembers that my dad’s legs and feet stuck straight out from the horse as he took off across the yard. My Uncle Al also got a call (he lived with my grandparents about a half mile away as the crow flies), and he took off on foot through the snow drifts to help. By the time the two men got to Ralph’s, the fire was already out. Ralph was up on the roof, ripping smoking shingles off as fast as he could. The roof was damaged, but the house was saved.

Another time, the phone rang and it was Ralph, excited because a 250-pound sow had fallen into the silage pit. While most of a silo’s cylinder is above ground, several feet of a silo are below ground. In the spring when the silage level is low, the door to the silo opens into mid-air. The pig had escaped from a pen and had taken a tumble of several feet, down into the silo pit, into the chopped corn below. My parents were both laughing about that story. “How did you get the sow out?” I asked, trying to visualize my dad and Ralph shoving a 250-pound sow back up and through the small silo door from the pit below. My dad’s eyes don’t twinkle very much anymore, but they twinkled at that. “There was a lot of squealing,” he said, grinning at the memory.

The pig story reminded them of the time Ralph’s cow had gotten stranded in a ditch. Another phone call, a tractor, a loader—more chuckles from my father. He and Ralph had had some adventures together.

But they were faithful neighbors. They might both be out haying, watching storm clouds roll in from the west. If one of them got done before the other, he would hustle over to the neighboring farm to help get the other one’s hay in before it got drenched. And if it was harvest, and one or the other of them had a few acres left as the sun set and the sky grew dark, the other would drive over and pitch in until both of their fields were done.

Ralph was my father’s cousin, but he was also a great neighbor and my dad’s good friend. He died in 1981—in his mid-60s. Too young. Today, while my father spends his days in the nursing home, Ralph’s son rents and farms my dad’s land as well as his own family’s farm. In a way, it’s a tribute to my dad’s friendship with Ralph, entrusting the land to Ralph’s son.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


While a lot has been written about the 5 stages of grief, the 3 stages of love, the 26 stages of death, and the 3 stages of pregnancy, I had to look up how many stages there were in retirement. Even all-knowing, all-seeing Google isn’t entirely sure how many retirement stages there are.

The most credible list I found included 5 stages: Imagination, Anticipation, Liberation, Reorientation, and Reconciliation. Mostly I liked the list because it appealed to my old technical writing infatuation with parallelism (all items in the list ended in “tion,” making the bulleted list parallel—aaahhh, bliss!!).

While lists are helpful, they don’t always explain individual differences. So here’s my own list of the stages of retirement I have experienced so far:

1) It’s All About Me Stage – People send you cards and have parties for you. You are the center of attention. Retirement seems kind of like having a birthday, but for lots of days instead of just one. You feel very important.

2) Deer-in-the-Headlights Stage – After reading eight books, walking four miles, and finishing an expert-level crossword puzzle book—all in one afternoon—you realize you will need to find other activities to keep you busy for the next 30 years.

3) On-line Banking Stage – You need to constantly reassure yourself that Social Security or your retirement fund is actually direct depositing money into your bank account. You may check several times a day in case they decide to take it back. You try to overcome the skepticism that for the first time since 1970, money appears, even when you don’t go to work.

4) Go-Someplace Stage – When people are asked what they plan to do following retirement, the No. 1 answer is “Travel.” So very soon after retirement, most people are compelled to climb into a car or an airplane and just go someplace. It doesn’t matter where. They just go someplace, usually a place where millions of other retirees have also gone.

5) Home Again Stage – Since travel wouldn’t be travel unless you came home again, eventually you arrive back where you started. It is at this point that you realize you weren’t just on vacation and that you’re not expected back at work on Monday morning. Actually, you’re not expected anywhere. To compensate, you might invite 27 people over for Easter dinner to prove that your life still has value.

6) Non-productive Wake-up Call Stage – One morning (usually Monday morning, April 13, at 8 a.m.), somebody (usually a helpful spouse) points out to you that perhaps you should do something more productive than just writing blogs and doing crossword puzzles. Immediately, you adopt the “I’ll show you” passive-aggressive attitude and begin your productive stage by vigorously scrubbing out his favorite red and white Playmate fishing cooler with Comet cleanser, thereby removing the natural fish bait scent he has worked years to develop. After that, you starch his boxer shorts, downsize his wardrobe into a Goodwill box, and change the sheets on only your half of the bed.

7) Dream About Old Job Stage – In this stage, you might wake up in the morning (usually Wednesday morning, April 15), the sheets a sweaty, twisted mummy wrap around you, dreaming that you are back at work teaching. You might dream that you decided to do a fashion show in one of your classes, and you, complete with microphone, describe each student’s clothing choice for the day. (“And here is an unshowered, baseball-capped Tiffany, who chose to wear an XXXXL 'Property of UCLA' gray hooded sweatshirt with her Joe Boxer ladybug-print flannel pants to class, thereby sending us the message not to expect much from her today and that she would rather be home in bed.”)

I haven’t experienced all the retirement stages yet, but I have the feeling I’ve just begun to morph and evolve into this complex creature, a retired person.

Thursday, April 09, 2009


Ever since I can remember, my family has celebrated Easter with a ham. It’s never been the Easter turkey or the Easter roast duckling under glass or even the Easter rabbit (which just seems wrong because of all the hard work the bunnies do delivering Easter baskets). It’s always an Easter ham. I believe it stems from the original Easter tradition when the angel rolled a one-hundred pound ham away from the opening of the tomb on Easter morning. (I hope that wasn’t sacrilegious.)

My older sister is the queen of hams. Every time we go to her house, she serves the perfect, moist, delicious ham. However, we’re not going to my sister’s house this year; the ham responsibility is mine.

So yesterday, I stopped by the grocery store to look at hams. I left without even buying one because I had found it less confusing to buy a new car.

There were whole hams, half hams, shank hams, butt hams (excuse my language), butt portion hams with center slice removed, bone in, bone out, semi-boneless, fresh hams, dry cured hams, wet/brine cured hams, smoked hams, hams that were cured first and then smoked, hams with water added, hams in “natural juices” (pig juice?), fully cooked hams, partially cooked hams, uncooked hams, boiled hams, hams that were brown-sugar cured, honey glazed, caramel-color added, and spiral cut—all from a variety of pigs that had led diverse life styles including organic, factory farmed, and free range.

I decided to sleep on it.

My dreams were filled with visions of hams, flying around my house, dropping jelly beans and chocolate Cadbury eggs on my family down below. I think I got the ham mixed up with a pinata. It was a tossing and turning kind of night, but by this morning, my decision was made: a whole ham, bone-in, in natural juices, spiral cut. After a quick stop at the bank to take out a second mortgage on our house to finance the ham, I drove to the grocery store and made my purchase.

I can hardly wait for the wonderful smell of baked ham to fill the house on Easter Sunday. I hope it turns out like my sister’s.

My Dream Ham

Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Today I decided to unofficially, single-handedly reopen the Central Lakes Trail, reclaiming it from the winter snowmobilers and re-establishing eminent domain for the walkers, joggers, bikers, and stroller-pushers. It got up to 41 degrees today, the wind was out of the southwest, and I felt like walking four miles.

I laced up my Nikes, put on my windbreaker, broke out the sunglasses, and gloried in the freedom of taking a walk at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, just because I could.

The trail was almost completely free of snow, except for the shady spots. I saw three other people out on the trail: one hardy runner wearing shorts and a t-shirt and one young dad pushing his stocking-capped, blanketed little boy in a jogging stroller.

Still Some Snow in the Shady Spots

The ice is still on the lakes, but it looks porous and mushy. I wouldn’t advise driving a Ford F-150 pickup truck out on the ice these days, even if you hear that the crappies are biting. You might want to wait until the ice goes out completely and then take a boat.

Ice Receding on Lake Geneva (View from the Trestle Bridge)

I’ve got my fingers crossed that winter is over. We don’t need any more snow. The 8,000 or so inches that have accumulated in Minnesota since last fall are enough to prevent any threat of drought. It just feels good to have a little of that thin April sunshine soak into our bones.

Sunday, April 05, 2009


I missed being the queen of my own kitchen. For a month, we shared a house in Pebble Creek with two of Tom’s older sisters. Bless their hearts, they always had ideas for groceries and dinners. By the time I thought of starting to plan a meal, those two ladies had already figured out what to cook, what ingredients we needed, and when the meat needed to be thawed. Bless their hearts, bless their hearts. Over time, I gradually assumed the role of the pleasant but dim-witted sister-in-law whose main responsibilities included setting the table and unloading the dishwasher.

The kitchen in our rental home was state-of-the-art. The gas stove included a convection oven; the microwave had buttons that all but launched dinner to Saturn. The refrigerator had filtered water, crushed ice, cubed ice, ice from Antarctica, ice from the North Pole—all at the touch of a screen. There were two machines on the counter that I never even touched because I was afraid of them: one machine could pulverize a human body in 3.2 seconds (much like the wood chipper in Fargo), and the other would brew exotically named coffee, one tiny cup at a time, at the cost of $14.82 a cup.

The kitchen in our Pebble Creek house had some kind of glass-block windows located up by the ceiling that kept the kitchen in constant twilight unless the overhead lights were on. The walls were painted a Type-O-Blood-Red that absorbed all natural light, all designed to keep out July’s 120-degree Phoenix heat.

When I came back home to Alexandria on Friday, the first thing I noticed was how light our kitchen was. We have two large south-facing windows that flood sunlight through the entire room. The second thing I noticed was that when it was dinner time, I got to decide, all by myself, what to make. The first night, I made home-made clam chowder. The second night , I made turkey tenderloins with brown rice and broccoli. Tonight I’m stirring up a huge, golden pot of chicken curry, and it smells wonderful. The neighbor dogs are all hanging around, especially the Pakistani herd dogs that live down the street.

Tonight’s Chicken Curry

I don’t have to consult with anyone. I am once again the master of my own kitchen, the queen of my domain. It doesn’t even matter that there’s snow in the yard. I’ve got my kitchen back.

Friday, April 03, 2009


Along with approximately 8 million other “active senior adults” (and I am beginning to loathe that term), Tom and I started our odyssey back to Minnesota on April 1. Since we were newbies, we didn’t know we had joined the mass northern migration of geezer snowbirds until we started back.

On our way out to Arizona at the end of February, hotel reservations were unnecessary. Tom and I had our pick of hotels, rooms, and rates. Hotels offered us bargain-basement prices just for the honor of our presence. However, what we learned on the way back is that every person over aged 60 from the states of North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa had Texas and Arizona rentals that went until March 31—and then it was mass migration back north. Like geese, we hit the highways all at the same time and vied for the same hotel rooms. It was an ugly, dog-eat-dog, gray-haired battle for highways and hotels.

Our first day on the road, we drove through places with names like “Bloody Basin Road” and “Big Bug Creek.” We went from the balmy 70-degree temperatures of Phoenix to steadily dropping temperatures—elevation 5,000 feet, 59 degrees. Elevation 6,000 feet, 50 degrees. We passed signs into the Verde Valley that warned us about “Safety Pullouts” and had runaway truck ramps that looked like gravel skateboard ramps, angled off into nowhere. We passed signs that said “Watch for Falling Rocks” and “Watch for Ice”—so we did (luckily, we encountered no falling rocks or ice).
In New Mexico, when the sign read “Elevation 6,000 feet”, the wind picked up to near gale forces. RVs swayed dangerously across the center line. We passed signs inviting us to visit the meteor crater and the petrified forest, but we white-knuckled onward. One mile outside Leupp, New Mexico, we drove into a wild dust storm, and the semi trucks weaved dangerously from one side of the road to the other. We drove out of the dust storm at Tucker Flat Wash, although a sign warned us, “High Wind Advisory – Drive Carefully.” We passed a McCain/Palin billboard near the Cottonwood Wash—good grief, don’t they know the election is over?

All we saw was empty landscape and blowing dust. We drove by the signs for “Animated Dinosaurs” and “Jack Rabbit Petrified Wood,” not even tempted to stop and explore. We listened to a book on CD by Ann Lamott entitled Joe Jones. The foul language on the tape stripped the new-car smell right out of our Toyota Camry.

We drove through Hopi reservation land and Navajo reservation land. We were bombarded by tumble weed hurtling across the highway, smashing into the car. We lost an hour with a time zone change. The temperature dropped to 48 degrees, and at 3 p.m., we ran into a snow storm outside Gallup, New Mexico. The temperature continued to drop: 34 degrees, 30 degrees. New Mexico was the land of road construction, and we lost an hour in the heavy snow and one-lane construction-zone traffic. “I’m beginning to dislike New Mexico,” the usually patient Tom commented. Sky City Travel Center . . . Albuquerque . . . strange-looking clouds in the east as the sun set behind us in the west. When we finally got to Tucumcari, New Mexico, we were just relieved that New Mexico was mostly behind us. That was when we discovered that every senior citizen from Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, and Wisconsin was on the road with us.

At the fifth hotel we tried, a Super 8, we found the last room in Tucumcari—under renovation with one double bed and no TV. But it was better than sleeping in the back seat of the car at a rest area. All we needed was a bed, and that was what we got.

The Last Hotel Room in Tucumcari, New Mexico

After our traumatic experience on Wednesday, we were grateful for Thursday’s uneventful (although windy) drive across the Texas panhandle, up through Oklahoma, and up into Kansas (beautiful, flat, uneventful Kansas). We made it to York, Nebraska, before calling it a day. Tom was celebrating his 65th birthday, so we had a 9 p.m. dinner at Applebee’s in York, Nebraska, where a friendly waitress gave him a Key Lime dessert on the house.

Friday was a beautiful day, and Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota had never looked so good. We could almost smell home. We listened to a CD book entitled The Secret by Rhonda Byrne and learned how we are all governed by the Law of Attraction, and she told us how we could make our lives darn near perfect if we would only learn to think good thoughts and visualize the life we would like to lead. Rhonda was earnestly persuasive, and Tom and I will try to be a better people.

I was afraid our house would look shabby after the $600,000+ rental in Pebble Creek—but it looked beautiful. I fought the urge to bend down and kiss the shabby carpet and caress the outdated wallpaper. The cats were not dead, courtesy of Cindee from the “Affordable Pet Service” who had kept them alive for five weeks.

I miss our little Colbie like an amputated limb, but it’s good to be home.