Friday, May 29, 2009


I've got about five minutes to write this entry before I get into my car, head down for the Twin Cities, and hop a plane to Phoenix. Get ready, Colbie--Grandma's coming!!

Since I'm traveling light and not taking along my laptop (desperate grandmas just do carry-on bags so that they can get to their grandchildren quicker), this may be the last post for awhile. In the meantime, I have got one of those 1950s TV test patterns for you to look at. Don't give up on me; this blog is just in the "stand-by" mode until I return. With pictures, I'm sure.
Don't touch that dial. I'll be back before you know it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


I admit I get a little crazy in the spring, oohing and ahhing over every little proof that winter is gone and won’t be coming back until next November. I get excited when I see green grass; I turn cartwheels when I spot returning robins and finches.

You may have been misled to believe that the culmination of this springtime fervor was Pink Day when the flowering crab tree bloomed—that now I could stop being excited about spring. Wrong. You forgot about Lilac Day when the row of lilac bushes next to our house begins to flower. It becomes another day to get the camera and corral anyone within the sound of my voice to line up for a photo shoot.

“Shannon!” I shout, grabbing my camera. “Stand in front of the lilacs!” She has lived around me long enough to know it’s useless to argue. So she stands in front of the lilacs. “Look happy!” I encourage, twisting to get the right sun angle. She squints directly into the sun and gamely tries to look happy in a lilac-sort of way. “Another one!” I urge, and this time I catch her unprepared, so her eyes are closed, trying to protect what’s left of her retinas. “One more,” I enthuse, and this time she strikes a pensive pose, trying to look like she’s recalling Walt Whitman’s poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloomed.” I think that’s what she was doing anyway—either that or trying to figure out how to escape. Four shots later, she steps away from the lilac bushes, all shot out.

“Tom!” I call to my reluctant husband, suddenly breaking into a sweat of photographic fervor. “Stand next to Shannon.” He stands still for only two shots, and then he’s had enough. After almost 36 years of marriage, he doesn’t have to pretend to be polite any more. Both shots show father and daughter bathed in direct sunlight coming in from an unflattering angle. I really need to take a photography class.

Tom takes the camera from me. “Now YOU stand next to Shannon,” he orders bossily. Oddly, when I want people to be in pictures, I sound cheerful and persuasive. Tom just sounds cranky. He takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r, as usual, trying to get the shot framed just right. By the time he finally snaps the pictures, we impatient posers are feeling more than a little hostile toward the photographer.

Shannon moves away from the bushes. “Now you two stand next to the lilacs,” she commands, reaching for the camera. Ah, the second generation of camera Nazis has begun. Tom sighs and moves next to me. I force him to stand closer to me, even though he doesn’t really want to.

By the time we’re done, we have taken eleven pictures of various combinations of the three of us, standing in front of the lilacs. Eleven.

I now know how Walt Whitman felt when he wrote the incredibly mournful, “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloomed.” He probably wrote it right after he had finished with a family photo session.

Monday, May 25, 2009


Memorial Day was first celebrated over 140 years ago when following the Civil War, freed slaves decided to exhume Union soldiers’ bodies from a makeshift mass grave at the site of a former Confederate prison camp. They then reverently re-buried each soldier individually and put a fence around the graveyard, declaring it a Union military cemetery. Each year thereafter, flowers were put on the graves in memory of the sacrifice these soldiers had made in liberating the slaves. After World War II, the holiday was expanded to include honoring all American military casualties.

I’m not quite sure when Memorial Day became something a little different—a date that marks the beginning of the tourist season in Minnesota lake country, a day off from work, a day to cook hotdogs or brats on the grill, the weekend of the Indy 500. It became a day to pull the weeds around Great Aunt Matilda’s headstone, regardless of the fact that she was not a military casualty but merely a victim of old age.

So today, I’m putting out my flag and taking a minute to remember all those soldiers who died in the service of their country. As usual, we’ll go downtown at 10:15 a.m. and take in the Memorial Day parade. The most touching part for me is when the veterans march past in their uniforms (or at least their hats if the uniforms themselves don’t fit). There aren’t any World War II veterans marching any more. The few who are left ride in the backs of convertibles donated by the local Ford dealer. And even the Vietnam vets from my era are looking a little long in the tooth. Last year, a few Iraq war veterans joined in the parade. But there’s something about watching them all march down the street, keeping step with the high school marching band, that still makes me a little teary-eyed and proud.

Time to go put out my flag.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Thursday started out to be a gloomy, cloudy day with a stiff northwest wind. I think that was why I didn’t realize right away that it was Pink Day.

Later that afternoon, maybe around 2 p.m., the clouds started disappearing and the sun made its way out. The temperature climbed and the sky was almost completely blue when I started my four miler at about 3:30 p.m. I hadn’t gone a half a block when it hit me: it was Pink Day—the day the flowering crab trees in our neighborhood burst out in their pink blossoms, announcing that it is finally spring.

We have a flowering crab tree right outside our living room window, too, that on Pink Day at sunset makes the whole living room take on a rosy glow. Over the years on Pink Day, I grab whomever happens to be around and stand them in front of the flowering crab tree for a picture. Sometimes it’s one of my children—or maybe two. Sometimes it’s a cat. Sometimes it’s one of my children holding a cat.

Pink Day 1991

I can remember several years when Pink Day came in early May when I was still teaching. I always resented the waste of all those pink blossoms at home, peaking out, while I was stuck inside a building at work. But this year, of course, I am able to maximize the pinkness. Retired people have all the luck.

Pink Day 2008

Halleluiah! Pink Day is here! Luckily, I have a "kid" home for Memorial Day weekend—now all I need is my camera and a cat!

Pink Day 2009

Friday, May 22, 2009


(Story from the nursing home, told by my 90ish parents, during a visit on 5/21/09)

My mother had six brothers--four older and two younger. Even the largest, busiest farms in Carlisle couldn’t keep that many boys gainfully occupied, so my mother remembers that neighboring farmers would hire her brothers to work for them as “hired men.” Even though they were called hired men, most were actually just teenagers, anywhere from age 15 and up, when they went to work and live (room and board included with their wages) at another farm in the community.

My dad remembers that my mother’s brother Fred was hired to come and work for his family in about the late 1920s. As a little girl, my mother worshipped her older brother Fred (as did her two younger brothers). Fred was ten years older than my mother, but he always took time for the little kids. Fred had a talent for drawing, and my mother remembers that he would draw pictures and tell stories to my mother and her brothers, Art and Otto. Sometimes on Sunday afternoon, when the horses weren’t working, Fred would take the little kids down to the barn and let them help brush and curry the horses, which they loved to do.

In those days, going to high school involved moving into town. So after Fred finished eighth grade, he decided he was done with schooling and stayed home to help farm. A few years later, my dad’s father, Albert, was struggling with some health problems involving his gallbladder and appendix. My mother’s brother Fred was hired to come and help out. Even with my dad’s family, Fred took time in the evenings for the little kids (Alice, Mildred, and Al). The same stories and drawings that had entertained his younger brothers and sister at home also entertained the little kids in my dad’s family.
My Mother’s Family ( approx. 1940): Back row: Art, Elmer, Otto, Clifford, Fred, Morrill. Front row: Lena (my mother), Emma, Edward, Clara.

My mother’s younger brother Otto was the hired man for my dad’s family at the time my parents were married in 1941. Otto had a little different nature than Fred. While Fred worked quietly and diligently, if Otto didn’t want to do something, he blurted right out that he didn’t want to. My dad remembers that Otto was helping build the new house that he and my mother would move into a few months after they were married. Otto’s job was to help dig the water cistern. Unfortunately, it had been a wet spring; the deeper Otto dug, the more he ran into sloppy, heavy mud. Finally, disgusted, he climbed out of that hole, threw down his shovel, and refused to go back down. So my dad finished digging the 12-foot deep cistern himself while Otto found something a little more glamorous to do. It’s hard to fire the hired man when he’s your brother-in-law.

My mother’s brother Clifford worked mostly for his grandfather, Frank. Grandpa Frank knew that Clifford loved animals. So one spring, instead of paying Clifford in cash, he gave him a ram—a male sheep—to raise. However, Clifford loved that buck so much that he made a pet out of it, and it roamed freely around the farmyard, just like a dog. My mother learned to be very wary of Clifford’s pet because it had a mean, mischievous streak. It would sneak up behind the children when they were bent over doing their chores or playing in the yard. Bam! The buck would butt them in the behind, toppling them over, and then run away. For a year, Clifford kept that naughty pet ram until finally it grew to adulthood and he sold it. His brothers and sister were very glad to see that ram go.

Every family and every generation had their “hired men” and “hired girls,” usually in their teens or early twenties. They weren’t needed at home but were the right age to go to work for someone else until they were old enough to get married and have homes and farms of their own. And many times, the “hired man” would end up marrying one of the farmer’s daughters or the “hired girl” would catch the eye of the farmer’s son.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Before yesterday, my vision of vinegar was the picture to the right. On cleaning day, I drag out the gallon jug of white distilled vinegar, pour it into a bucket with some warm water and ammonia, and then start mopping the kitchen floor. You know—vinegar. It cleans windows and ceramic tile and makes dill pickles taste like dill pickles.

I’m not totally ignorant. Once in awhile, I’ve run into a recipe calling for a couple of teaspoons of vinegar or a salad dressing that requires a half a cup or so. However, I was under the impression vinegar was vinegar and that it all basically tasted the same. Wrong again (although that's nothing new--third time today).

Yesterday, my sister and I drove out into the country about four miles from Long Prairie and found the Leatherwood Vinegary (think of “winery” but they make vinegar instead). Vinegar, I found out during our tour, is fruit juice, like grape or apple, or wine to which a vinegar starter culture has been added. Then the vinegar maker needs a dark, warm place and lots of patience while the vinegar does its thing. (Obviously, this is the simple visitor’s impression of all the skill and chemical reactions taking place in the process.)

At the Leatherwood Vinegary, the vintners (not sure what to call them since vintners make wine—but the “vin” at the beginning seemed to fit vinegar makers, too) gave us a tasting session. While I don’t remember all the flavors, we started our tasting with some of the fruit-flavored ones: raspberry, chokecherry, apple, papaya. The herb-infused vinegars were also interesting: basil, tarragon, garlic, catnip (yes, catnip!), oregano—all the way off the pack-a-wallop charts to horseradish and jalapeno pepper. We were given little “medicine dropper” samples so we could find our favorites.

Leatherwood Vinegary is actually the home of the vintners, Nancy and Ron, so appointments and tour reservations are necessary. I guess they don’t want you showing up when they’re in the shower. If you twist an arm, they might even let you walk the path down to the Long Prairie River which runs past their property (watch for the woodticks and poison ivy, but well worth the walk). But for sure they’ll let you see the free-range chickens that lay the green eggs (no ham), the herb gardens, and the dozens of fruit plants and trees. And if you’re lucky, you might even get a glass of homemade red currant wine served with homemade bread and hummus, sitting in the gazebo next to the koi pond.

I’ll never look at vinegar the same way again.

Monday, May 18, 2009


The life of a retiree is highly diverse, and I find myself enjoying one terrific experience after the other. After spending the month of March in a “gated community for active seniors,” I doubly appreciate the variety of ages I’m exposed to when I just live in my un-gated, diverse, redneck neighborhood in Alexandria.

On Friday, I stopped by ATC graduation and hung around with my former 20ish crowd. Even though I am not officially an instructor at ATC any more, some of my students graciously agreed to pose for a picture with me. Being retired is great, but I do miss being around those young people.

Some of My Former Students on Graduation Night

Then on Saturday, I helped serve a funeral for an 87-year-old parishioner from our church who passed away. Like I wrote in an earlier blog (see 11/2/08—“Funeral Bars”), those homemade funeral bars truly do seem to give comfort in the eighth stage of grief: Healing Through Bars.

On Sunday, we visited the vineyard of our friends who, four years ago, decided they wanted to grow grapes in their retirement years. We were invited to share a special occasion at the vineyard: bud break. I had never heard of bud break before (it’s the first emergence of the shoots that produce grapes). We had a wonderful evening, wandering in the vineyard—listening to our friends describe how they prune the vines, select the buds they want to keep, and train the vines to grow along the wires. (We decided Jesus must have spent a bit of time in the vineyards at bud break, too, since he talked about it so much in his parables.)

Bud Break at the Cedar Rose Wild Vineyard

Then today, I drove down to the Cities to help my daughter (who is a school social worker at two elementary schools in the Mound Westonka School District) chaperone an environmental field trip for third graders. We had a perfect day of team building, examining snails and aquatic dragonfly nymphs (who knew that dragonflies started out as water bugs), and putting up pink tents in teams. I didn’t know I liked third graders so well, having spent my whole teaching career in college classrooms. Third graders are really terrific people.

3rd Grade Environmental Field Trip

Maybe that will be one of the best parts of being retired—spending days in the company of a variety of people, from 90-year-olds to recent retirees to college students to third graders. I’ve enjoyed the past four days a whole lot!

Thursday, May 14, 2009


(Another memory from my 90-ish parents, telling stories from the nursing home.)

My mother admits that she was pretty old—probably around fourth grade—before she realized that God wasn’t Norwegian.

At the time she was a little girl—in the 1920s—Norwegian was the only language spoken in her home. And on Sunday mornings, at Hedemarken Lutheran Church, the service was in Norwegian, too. At school, the children were taught in English and all their books were in English; but their school books weren’t about God. All the prayers she knew and all the religious material she read about God were written strictly in Norwegian.

The great realization came when she was around ten years old. Many community social events were held at the one-room schoolhouse in those days (just like you see on Little House on the Prairie). At this particular community event, the Beske girls were in attendance. The Beske sisters did not attend Hedemarken Lutheran Church because they were German—and the Germans had their own church. My mother remembers that one of the Beske girls picked up a piece of chalk and started writing some words in German on the blackboard. When my mother asked what she was writing, the Beske girl explained that the words referred to God.

My mother was shocked. She had no idea that a person could write about God in German. She had thought He belonged entirely to the Norwegians because everything she had ever heard or read about God in her short, sheltered lifetime was in Norwegian. She never said anything to the Beske girl, and she never asked anyone about her newfound knowledge or discussed it with a grownup. It was just like a light bulb had gone on in her head.

Hedemarken stuck to Norwegian services long after many of the parishioners (the younger generation or people moving into the community) could no longer speak the language fluently. It wasn’t until Pastor Salveson came that English started creeping in because he had pity for the non-Norwegians in the congregation. First he got the congregation to agree to every other Sunday—one Sunday in Norwegian and the next in English--before he switched over to English completely.

Some old-timers were staunchly opposed to the English services. My Grandpa Albert was church treasurer at the time, and he remembers one stubborn parishioner in particular who wrote on the outside of his offering envelope, “For the Norwegian Service ONLY.”

My dad had sat thoughtfully while my mother told this story. Then he said (mostly with a twinkle in his eye) that he was so slow that he probably didn’t realize God wasn’t Norwegian until after he was confirmed because all their confirmation lessons were in Norwegian, too—including all the prayers, creeds, and Bible verses they memorized. Then more seriously, he said that for many years, he always thought about God and talked to God in Norwegian, convinced that Norwegian was the language God understood the best.
P.S. More memories from my parents can be found at: 5/5/09 (Aunt Clara), 4/17/09 (Great Friend and Good Neighbor, Ralph), 3/9/09 (Family Military History), 2/24/09 (The Readers), 2/4/09 (First Two Men in My Life), 1/26/09 (Evening), 12/9/08 (Horse Memories), 11/15/08 (As Brave as Mrs. Skogen), 11/22/08 (My Parents' First House), and 8/25/08 (Stories from the Nursing Home).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


I never, hardly ever forward emails and YouTube stuff, but I loved this one.

"This will brighten your day! In the Mayo Buildings is a piano and sometimes people stop to play. This is the cutest little video of two older folks playing the piano in the Gonda Building, and is worth watching."

I wonder if I can teach Tom to play the piano.


(There’s absolutely no reason why anyone should read this very long entry. It’s fiction—no, it’s not about you—and it just fulfills a need I have to say that I’ve published fiction, even though pathetically I had to publish it myself on a free internet blog site.)

When the first New England Weekend catalog arrived in her mailbox, Diane vaguely wondered how in the world her name had landed on its mailing list. Her lifestyle? Her buying habits? Never. Why would her name appear as a potential customer of an upscale leisure catalog from Maine?

She had skimmed through the catalog briefly, raised her eyebrows at the prices, and then had tossed it into a pile of discarded magazines and glossy fliers on the front porch. The pile was three and a half feet tall—but it was nevertheless dwarfed by the teetering five-foot stack of old newspapers on one side and an untidy mound of Mel’s old shirts and pants on the other.

Diane sighed as she looked around the cluttered three-season front porch that ran the length of her house. Except for a narrow path that led from the exterior door to the interior door, the porch was full of Mel’s “stuff.” Mel had saved every item he had ever owned in their thirty-three years of marriage.

Besides the crammed front porch, Diane knew the attic was full and the garage was overflowing—because that was where she had carried items that no longer fit into the house. The dining room table was chronically heaped with piles that Mel intended to “go through sometime.” She occasionally tried to sort the piles when Mel was gone. But he amazingly knew every treasure in those stacks and would hunt frantically for missing fliers, coupons, or stray socks.

Mel loved garage sales and auctions. He especially loved the jumble boxes that people would assemble for their sales. “Look at all this great stuff I got for just fifty cents!” he would exclaim, rummaging through the box excitedly. Diane would try to look calm as he showed her an ancient egg beater with a broken gear, three orange plastic trick-or-treat pumpkins, an aqua lei from the county fair, or a ceramic troll with synthetic green hair.

Their yard contained every car Mel had owned since they’d been married—eight of them, although only two were actually running. Their elderly neighbor on the north, 82-year-old Gertie, would gaze nearsightedly at all the cars and quaver to Diane, “Houseful of company?” Diane would just smile wryly and say, “No, Gertie. Just Mel and me.”

When the second New England Weekend catalog appeared in the mailbox, Diane was about to toss it in the pile on the front porch, but the cover picture stopped her. White wooden Adirondack chairs were framed against a blue ocean background. A sailboat floated by. Border flowers surrounded a surrealistically green lawn—lilies, daisies, irises—in a profusion of blue, yellow, and orange. On a side table sat a colorful plate filled with grapes, peaches, strawberries, and watermelon.

No people cluttered the picture—just a single pair of red canvas shoes abandoned casually next to an Adirondack. Diane visualized herself sitting in one of the glossy white chairs, looking out over the flowers to the water and the sailboat, delicately picking the plumpest red strawberry from the plate.

Absently, she leafed through the catalog and saw herself slipping her feet into the red canvas shoes before leaving for a walk on the beach dressed in the coastal linen walking shorts and the lime-colored linen/cotton rib sweater from page 11. On an impulse, she mentally added the beautifully groomed, intelligent-looking golden retriever from page 22 (cozily sleeping on a forest-green cedar-filled dog bed) to run along beside her on the beach for companionship.

She thought briefly of adding Mel to the vision. But when she tried to put him into the River Pocket shorts and a pastel Kennebunkport Polo from page 27, Diane couldn’t keep the image in focus. In her mind he kept changing back into his ragged cut-off jeans and stained “We Fest 1995” tee shirt. So she kept the dog and eliminated Mel from her daydream.

The third catalog came a month later. Diane was still puzzled. Why did they keep sending her these catalogs? She had never ordered anything, yet they came with dogged regularity.

She cleared a spot on the couch, pushing aside the camouflage and blaze-orange hunting clothes that Mel had found at a garage sale the weekend before. Mel hadn’t hunted in twelve years. However, a widow had been selling all her husband’s hunting gear—and Mel had gotten the whole smelly pile for twenty-five-bucks-what-a-deal.

From the odor, Diane had half expected to find the widow’s dead husband buried within the pile of old clothes. As usual, she had looked at the pile without comment and left the room. Normally, she would have come back later, sighing and scooping them into the washing machine to at least retard the mildew growth. But this time, she had turned her back. So they had lain on the couch for four—no, five—days, making the living room smell like a duck blind.

Now as she sat looking at the New England Weekend catalog, she immersed herself in the pictures of cottage teak furniture with mortise and tenon joinery. She imagined her front porch cleared of Mel’s junk, the teak steamer chair from page 30 in the northwest corner and the garden arm chairs flanking the front door. Maybe she would add the Maine potting workbench on the south side and keep it filled with huge New Guinea impatiens in terra cotta planters. Perhaps she would lay a monogrammed doormat in front of the door. She might even train the beautiful golden retriever to lie on the doormat and greet visitors as they came through the sunny front porch.

Sighing, Diane tossed the catalog on top of the sliding magazine pile, turned, and went back into her kitchen. She looked at the counters, heaped with Mel’s treasures. The table overflowed. She would have to try to clear a space big enough for two plates in order to eat dinner.

She felt crowded, closed in, with every nook, every space, every wall, every surface covered, filled up, overflowing with Mel’s belongings. She was sure that if she walked through the house and retrieved only those items that belonged to her, she would fill a shoebox. The rest was Mel’s.

She half hoped that no more New England Weekend catalogs would arrive in her mailbox. They seemed to be the catalyst for the visions that made Mel’s messes feel even larger. She wondered if she could fill out a form at the post office to have them held.

Two weeks later, another catalog arrived. Resolutely, she put it into the magazine stack on the front porch without looking at it. It lay there for a whole day before she gave in and cautiously opened the first page. In minutes, Diane was walking along the ocean in a berry-colored field coat and roll-up Panama hat, with rubber wellies on her feet. The dog was there—Mel was not. The sky was overcast and a light rain fell as she and the dog sauntered along the beach toward her house. The dog ran ahead toward the back door, past the Hatteran sunbrella striped hammock (page 18) and the New England Spirit Gas grill (page 19). He waited patiently while she wiped his damp paws on a plush monogrammed pet towel so he wouldn’t leave tracks on the wool dhurrie rugs (page 23) that lined the hardwood floors.

Finally, seated on the cottage mission futon, nestled against needlepoint pillows, and cuddled under a tapestry throw, she laid her head back contentedly. The dog sighed and lay faithfully at her feet on a sun-yellow and blue plaid rug from page 36. Closing their eyes, she and the dog rested until Mel’s voice broke the reverie.

“Diane!” he called. She startled, disoriented, unsure of where she was. “Diane!” came another call from the back door. She opened her eyes, blinking. No dog lay at her feet. But the mildewed hunting clothes were still lying in a pile at the end of the couch.

“Diane!” The third call was impatient. “Where are you?”

Sighing, Diane rose and went to the back door where Mel stood holding a dirty gunnysack, his shoes caked with mud.

“Gees, Diane, where were you?” He didn’t wait for an answer but handed her the burlap bag. “I was down by the grocery store and just happened to be driving through the alley. Saw a kid throwing this in the dumpster.” He saw Diane’s look. “They weren’t in the dumpster, Diane. He hadn’t put them in yet.” Diane gingerly took the sack. The damp burlap spilled, and sprouted potatoes rolled in every direction. The putrid odor of mold wafted up.

“I know there are some soft ones in there,” Mel hurried to explain, “but you can cut out the bad spots. Why don’t you sort through them and pick out the ones we can still eat.” Diane felt nauseated as she bent to pick up the first potato. Her fingers hit a rotten spot and sank into an oozing brown center.

She opened her mouth to protest but Mel had already turned and left by the back door. Diane slowly gathered the potatoes with two fingers and put them back into the rotting gunnysack. Her stomach turned with the thought of sorting the potatoes one by one.

Holding the gunnysack as far away from herself as possible, Diane walked out the front door straight to her neighbor Gertie’s garbage can set out by the street. The garbage truck was due within the hour. Deliberately, she walked back into the house, pushed the moldy hunting clothes off the couch onto the living room floor, and opened the New England Weekend catalog to page 104 where a fit, healthy looking woman walked along the beach in a print linen/cotton jumper, a cotton lace stitch sweater the color of the ocean knotted casually over her shoulders, faithfully followed by her well-brushed golden retriever.

Friday, May 08, 2009


I know it sounds like boasting, but not only is my five-month-old granddaughter Colbie exceptionally smart—she’s also a budding artist! And besides being ambidextrous in her artistry, she is also quad-dextrous, able to use both her hands and feet to color (red crayon is her hand and blue crayon is her foot)!

My very first Mother’s Day card as a grandmother:

I apologize to my son who also colored some of the flowers on the card. I had to cut off his coloring because it didn’t fit in the scanner. I hope his feelings aren’t hurt—although I think one of his flowers made it in the lower left-hand corner.

Thursday, May 07, 2009


After I finished reading Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer (who also wrote Into the Wild and Into Thin Air), I find myself thinking more than usual about zealots. Of course, this doesn’t have to be much since I have an embarrassing history of rarely thinking about zealots. (In fact, I had to look up the word “zealots” in the dictionary.)

The book centers around the true story of two Fundamentalist Mormon brothers (different from mainstream Mormons who say that the Fundamentalists are not Mormons at all). In July of 1984, the Lafferty brothers, after receiving a revelation from God, murdered their sister-in-law and 15-month-old niece—a holy act of obedience based on a “removal revelation” straight from God Himself, they were convinced.

According to Dr. Stephen Golding, a forensic psychologist who testified at the Lafferty brothers’ trial, a zealot is simply someone who takes a belief (religious, political, personal, etc.) and allows it to become extreme and fervent. A zealot is willing to go to great lengths to impose those beliefs on other people and act on those beliefs.

Religious Zealot
A zealot is often a narcissist, too: lack of empathy for others, exaggerated sense of self importance, a belief that they are special (i.e., have special insights that others are not capable of having), a need for admiration, a sense of entitlement which may lead to taking advantage of other people, and an arrogant/patronizing/contemptuous attitude toward others’ opinions. A zealot honestly believes that his or her extreme view is “right” or “good” and opposing views are “wrong” or “evil.”

If you’re a zealot, it’s tough to maintain personal relationships because friends and family often feel judged—again, whether it’s religious, political, or personal issues. Zealots make the people around them feel kind of squirmy and disrespected. It’s tough to share your viewpoint with those narcissistic zealots because they’re not much interested in what you think, since they’re convinced your viewpoint is wrong or evil if it doesn’t match theirs.

Political Zealot
I don’t deny that it’s good to have personal values and beliefs to guide our own lives. It’s fine to work for causes we believe in. It’s all right to have open dialogues about religion or politics or lifestyles when both sides are seeking to understand—not to judge, demean, apostatize, or condemn the other’s viewpoint.

After reading Under the Banner of Heaven, I am all in favor of having a world full of people who are wishy-washy, middle-of-the-road, let’s-get-along, I’m OK/You’re OK, lots-of-gray-areas types of people. Give me folks who don’t want to start wars over whose religion is the true religion and whose religions are spawns of Satan—or whose political party will lead to an enlightened age and whose politics will lead us to Armageddon—or whose lifestyle is pure and whose is an ‘abomination in the eyes of God.’ Give me people who believe that every religion has some good in it and that the honest aim of every political party is to improve the lives of its citizens. Give me people who believe that life is a healthy balance, not a zealous pursuit of extremes.

Zealot on Steroids

In fact, let’s put all the zealots on an island together, somewhere in middle of the Arctic Ocean, and let them fight it out. Maybe the last zealot standing will be the one who is truly getting revelations from God. Or then again, like past religious and political wars have shown, he might just be the one with the biggest gun.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


I'm starting to get a complex--with Pickles ridiculing our twittering and googling and blogging and all. Maybe I should take up serious journalism instead. Or knitting.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


The following are recollections about my mother’s older sister Clara, taken from a conversation with my 90-ish parents at the nursing home on Sunday, May 3.

Of the eight children in my mother’s family, only two were girls: my mother (born sixth in 1918) and Clara (born first in 1906). Because she was the oldest, Clara became her mother Emma’s right-hand helper. She was an indispensable girl who helped raise her younger brothers and sisters and do the chores that were women’s responsibility on a farm.

Clara, like other children around Carlisle, went to a one-room school through eighth grade. At that point, any child wanting to go on for more schooling had to move to Fergus Falls and work for room and board with a town family while attending classes at either the public high school or Park Region (formerly Park Region Luther College and now Hillcrest Lutheran Academy) from 9th through 12th grades.

After 8th grade, Clara found a place with a town family and started classes at Park Region. However, a few months into the school term, her mother Emma became ill and Clara at age 14 went home to take over the household. (At this time, there were probably three pre-school aged children in the family.) Even after Emma improved, Clara never went back to school. Instead, she stayed home and became almost like the second mother to her brothers and sister.

Clara immersed herself in the Carlisle community. She was the Sunday School superintendent at Hedemarken Church for many years. She was an active 4-H club leader. She often helped her aunts when they had to feed threshers or can meat after butchering. She worked hard at home, but Clara was also a busy, well-respected, and important member of the community.

Clara had chances at marriage, my dad remembered, as several local men expressed interest in her. However, she was very particular and could find fault with all of them. Besides, Clara felt she was needed at home as her mother often had health issues that sent her to her sick bed.

In the summer of 1948, Clara was 41 years old and still living at home.

One night, when the Ottertail County Fair was in full swing, my parents offered to pick up Clara and take her with them to the fair. Clara took them up on their offer. While the three of them were walking around at the fair, they met my father’s sister Eunice and her husband Tony who lived near Underwood. My parents swear it wasn’t pre-arranged, but Eunice and Tony had brought Tony’s bachelor brother Albert with them to the fair.

My parents laughed as they remembered how those two 41-year-olds stuck like glue to the sides of their respective siblings, fearing (my mother supposed) that someone would make them talk to each other. Clara and Albert had known each other for years, but Underwood and Carlisle were a long ways apart and they saw each other only rarely. Besides, Clara had later confided nervously to my mother, “Albert is so BIG!” Although Clara was no small woman herself, being next to the 6’4”, 300-pound Albert made her very uncomfortable, especially when she was used to her much smaller brothers.

Even though Clara had some initial misgivings about Albert’s size, it was the meeting at the fair that got a fire lit under Albert. He was living on the family farm with his aging Aunt Neena who kept house for him. So the very competent 41-year-old Clara from Carlisle looked very appealing and certainly worth the long drive to Carlisle.

October 1949

Albert and Clara were married in October of 1949 when they were both 42 years old. My mother, pregnant with her fifth child at the time, nervously compared the waistline of her bridesmaid dress hanging in the closet to her expanding waistline, hoping it would still fit on Clara’s wedding day. Clara and Albert’s three nieces (including my 3½ -year-old sister) were the “very active” flower girls and Tony was his brother’s best man.

Clara moved into the big farmhouse on Albert’s family farm in Underwood, and Aunt Neena happily moved into Underwood. But out of habit, Clara never stopped cooking for her seven siblings (quantity-wise anyway). Her huge freezer was always full to the top; and whenever a family holiday was held at her house, the food never stopped appearing on the table. It became the family expression that if we wanted to describe a cook who over-estimated the amount of food her company would eat, we would call her “Aunt Clara”!

Albert and Clara never had children of their own, but they were always very interested in their nieces and nephews. I remember going to their house growing up: playing Cootie on the dining room floor, sitting at the foot-pump organ in the living room, reluctantly using the chamber pot in the closet—and, of course, partaking of the loaded, bountiful table as Clara showed her love for us all by stuffing us full of her wonderful cooking and baking.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


Tom's favorite comic strip is Pickles, maybe because five out of seven days of the week, it kind of describes our current life. Anyway, Friday's Pickles was so on target that I had to put it in here in case you didn't see it.

Actually, it's an eerily accurate comparison--except that bloggers blow out what's in their brains rather than what's in their nose. Otherwise, it's about the same.

Saturday, May 02, 2009


Tom’s Ford Explorer was due for servicing yesterday. Luckily, the place where he gets work done on his car, Nokomis Auto, has a convenient lounge for guys to sit in while they’re waiting: TV set, magazines, newspapers, coffee pot—and other guys waiting while their cars are serviced.

For those of you who know Tom, it will be no surprise. He struck up a conversation. I wasn’t there to witness it, but the conversation probably started with a nod and a comment about the weather or the coffee--or how the taste of coffee changes with the weather. Who knows. Tom loves to talk to people—but even more importantly, he’s an honestly interested listener.

And faster than you can change the oil on a car, Tom knew everything about the other guy waiting to have his oil changed. The man had moved here from the Twin Cities about three years ago. He lives over by City Park on Lake Agnes. His wife found a job working for a company down in Glenwood. He’s in his 60s; his wife is exactly 60. He and his wife are both IT people—computers, technology, electronics . . . he has a woodworking shop in his basement. In the time it takes to change the oil, Tom knows it all. He is a listener, and he asks good questions.

“Oh, by the way,” nonchalantly added the 60ish guy who was having his oil changed, “I walk six miles a day, outside, year round—and my 60-year-old wife is a marathon runner who competes all across the country. She averages about 10 miles a day.”

Tom told me about this conversation when we were out walking on the trail yesterday afternoon. It kind of stopped the talking between us for a few minutes as we soberly pondered that six-mile man and his marathon-running wife. And I don’t know why, but somehow (quietly, without even discussing it), we didn’t stop at the usual turnaround spot. In unspoken agreement, we went an extra half mile beyond our usual four-mile hike.

(Written in a muttered undertone): Darn geezer overachievers. Always making the rest of us feel like lightweights.

Friday, May 01, 2009


When all three of my kids were little (preschool and elementary), we used to spend the evening of April 30 making May baskets. They weren’t very fancy—usually a paper cup with a pipe cleaner handle or colored construction paper folded and stapled into a cone with a paper napkin for filler.

Then on May Day, the kids would run around to all the neighbors’ houses, leave a May basket on the doorstep, ring the doorbell, and run like crazy. (If you got caught, they could kiss you, you know. Ew-w-w-w!!)

Do you know, 20 plus years later when some of our old-time neighbors ask about my kids, they smilingly remind me of those May baskets and how much they looked forward to getting them every year. A paper cup, a pipe cleaner, and 25 cents worth of candy. Who’d have guessed it would be that important.