Tuesday, June 16, 2009


For a Mother’s Day gift in May, my daughter and her husband gave me a book and a sock monkey bookmarker. The book has long-since been read and passed on to the next person to read, but the sock monkey bookmarker has become my long-term reading companion.

Of course, sock monkeys are one of the oldest toys around. Kids used to get them for Christmas during the Depression—hand made by Ma out of worn-out Rockford Red Heel socks. They ended up under Christmas trees from Maine to California during the 1930s.

My bookmarker is an updated version, but it has the same sticky-out ears, same straight-across smile, and same round-button black eyes. However, I’m having one major problem with my sock monkey bookmarker: It’s hard to take any book seriously when it has a sock monkey sticking out of it.

I tried putting the sock monkey into some of the more serious books I had sitting on my shelves: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Norton’s Anthology of English Literature, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. I even tried sticking him in my master’s thesis entitled,

“Analysis of Transferability of Technical Writing in Fulfillment of General Education Requirements,” which was without question the most boring document ever written since the beginning of time.

The results? All the books took on the look of Curious George Goes to the Hospital.

Don’t get me wrong—I love my sock monkey bookmark. All I’m saying is that it’s become more difficult for me to take an author’s angst as seriously as I did before, with the little sock monkey smirking at me over the top of the book.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


A while ago, I wrote about my non-green thumb when it comes to growing plants. Now I have another admission to make: I also do not attract high-class birds to my bird feeder.

A few weeks ago, we sat at our friends’ home, eating dinner. Outside their window, a couple of bird feeders had attracted three beautiful yellow finches—honestly, just as if they were there to add ambience to the dinner table. We all ate our meal, ooohing and aaaahing over the yellow finches flitting daintily like tiny dancers, hired for our special entertainment.

And once when we were visiting one of Tom’s sisters, we spent a half hour looking out their dining room window at their three bird feeders—and we saw a couple of hummingbirds, three cardinals, a brilliant blue jay, a red-headed woodpecker, and a dozen or so scarlet tangers. It was like watching the nature channel on cable TV.

So why does my bird feeder attract only big, noisy, ugly birds that look like extras in a vampire movie? I don’t know if they’re blackbirds or crows or ravens or what they are. All I know is that they’re huge and rude and scare all the other birds away—plus leave enormous, pungent piles of guano (fancy name for bird poop) on our deck furniture and driveway.

I have tried different kinds of bird seed: “Song Bird!” claims one bag. I buy it, put it into the bird feeder, and suddenly I have 87 turkey vultures circling around my yard.

I have tried “Black Oil Sunflower” and “Striped Sunflower,” hoping to attract the goldfinches, cardinals, and bluejays that the bag says I will attract. Instead, ugly brown rough-legged desert buzzards swoop in, scaring away any little titmouses and nuthatches that may timidly ventured in for a snack.

I have tried millet and cracked corn and safflower blend. The result? Bad-luck albatross-type birds, disease-carrying pigeons, bossy blackbirds—cawing and swooping around the yard. What have I done to attract these large, ugly, evil birds?

Sometimes I feel like I’m in a bad Alfred Hitchcock movie as The Birds in my trees lay in wait . . . biding their time . . . waiting for the day when I let my guard down so they can take over my house, my yard, my bird feeder . . . and make it their own.

I'll admit I've been tempted to just shoot a long-horned steer, throw its rotting carcass into the yard, and let the evil birds have their way with it, ripping and tearing its flesh with their beaks and talons. The heck with those tiny little thistle seeds at $6.50 a pound.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


Doesn't it seem like I just got a new pair of walking shoes? But in looking back, it’s actually been a year (see “Mama’s Got a New Pair of Shoes,” June 27, 2008). I figure that I got over 1,000 miles out of my current pair of Nikes (conservative estimate of walking 350 days last year, average of 3 miles a day—over a 1,000 miles). I think that’s about the equivalent of walking from Alexandria to Denver, Colorado—well, spread out over a year, which isn’t nearly as impressive.

Anyway, one day last week, I looked down at the toe of my shoe and my sock was staring back at me, so I knew it was time.
Time for a New Pair of Shoes

Luckily, my daughter Shannon is home this weekend, so I’ll make her come with me again. That way, I don’t have to make intelligent conversation with the athletic-shoe sales associate. She can talk jock-appropriate shoe analysis with him while I just decide what color I like best.

Shannon and I went down to Glenwood yesterday and did one of my favorite walks: along Lake Minnewaska. Just park your car at the public beach and start walking west along the path. Our goal was Torgy’s Restaurant, two miles away. Much of the walk is right along the lake with occasional landmarks—Lakeside Ballroom, the city park, the public boat landing, Hunt’s Resort, Waskawood RV Camp and Marina. But eventually you find yourself at Torgy’s where you can stop and rest awhile on the outdoor deck—or you can do like we did yesterday, just turn around and walk the two miles back to the public beach.

Walking by Beautiful Lake Minnewaska in Glenwood

I love Glenwood. It makes me glad to be a Minnesotan in the summer!

Thursday, June 11, 2009


My favorite part of the day is when I go for my 2 to 4 mile walk. It cleans the cobwebs out of my brain and lifts my spirits. Today I decided to head for the Hobo Trail. I don’t know the real name of the trail, but for 35 years we’ve called it the Hobo Trail. It starts at the Depot Restaurant (formerly the railroad depot in Alexandria) and winds its way around Lake Agnes to City Park.

Local lore says that back in the Depression, the rail-riding hobos would get off the boxcars at the depot and then walk on a dirt path around Lake Agnes to the public park where they would camp out at night before looking for work in the morning. There aren’t any more hobos riding the rails and the trail has been paved with asphalt, but I like to believe that the hobo spirits still walk the trail.

All the locals know the trail well. But if you’re a tourist, you probably won’t be able to figure it out without a little help. So here’s how you access the Hobo Trail:

First, park your car on 2nd and Broadway, right next to the statue of Big Ole and the Depot Restaurant.

Face east and take the trail on the left, not the right (that’s the Central Lakes Trail), and start to follow it around the lake.
Notice the turtle pond on the right side of the path . . . . . . and the lake on the left. Keep following the path around the lake.
Here is where the tourists lose heart and turn around because the trail leads to the rear parking lot of the local Mexican restaurant. Don't give up; just keep going and turn left.
Follow the alley, past the dumpsters, and through another parking lot.
Eventually, you will find the link to the Hobo Trail that leads to City Park.
Follow the trail along the lake.
Finally, you will arrive at the park near the bandstand.
You can walk all the way out to the point separating Lakes Agnes and Henry.
You can even see all the way across the lake to where you started, over by the Depot Restaurant.
Today, the only customers at the City Park swimming beach are two duck families.
Nobody’s at the fishing pier today.
I love the Hobo Trail. It’s not a very long walk—two miles total, out and back. But it’s a little bit of Alexandria’s history, kept alive by those hobo spirits and those of us who like to occasionally take a walk with them.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


(Another story from my 90ish parents, told in the nursing home.)

One of the strangest stories in my mother’s family was the tale of her great uncles, Severin and Ottin Sletvold. By the time my parents were born in 1917 and 1918, Ottin had already passed away; but Severin was still a fixture in the community until his death in 1942.

Severin and Ottin were a set of identical twins born to my mother’s great-great grandfather, Ole Sletvold. They were born in 1851 in Sletvold Nordre, Rommedalsvegg, Strange Hedmark, Norway—the seventh and eighth children of Ole and his wife. That, in fact, is how they got their names: the Norwegian words for “7” and “8” are “syv” and “atte,” so the twins’ parents just picked names that were similar to those numbers, Severin and Ottin.

When the family immigrated to the United States, Ole homesteaded a farm in what became Oscar Township, which contained 75 percent Norwegian immigrants. There, as young boys, Severin and Ottin discovered that the untapped muskrat population was a source of cash money, so they spent much of their boyhood trapping and selling muskrat pelts, saving as much money as they could.

By the time Severin and Ottin were young men, they had sold enough muskrat pelts to buy a farm together. In fact, they did everything together—including, it appears, falling for the same girl, Taaline Linner, who lived on a nearby farm.

Both of the twins wanted to marry Taaline. But since they had done all their courting together, the irresolute Taaline said she didn’t prefer one twin over the other and said she would marry either one. So Severin and Ottin decided to resolve the issue the same way they had resolved disagreements before: they arm wrestled for Taaline’s hand in marriage.

Ottin, although the younger at No. 8, won the arm wrestling challenge and married Taaline. Since the brothers owned the farm together, all three lived together in the same house anyway. (I asked my mother why so many Norwegian farmer bachelors lived with their married brothers, and she said that most men couldn’t afford to buy a farm on their own. So they teamed up with a brother to buy a farm. Usually, the more outgoing brother worked up enough courage to get married, while the shyer brother remained single. That was my mother’s theory anyway.)

Ottin and Taaline had several children (maybe 10 or so?). One of their children even went on to become a Minnesota State Senator.

As for Severin, he became one of the wealthier men around the Carlisle area. He lived very simply, and without a wife and children, was able to squirrel much of his money away. Men who wanted to get started in farming often came to Severin for a loan to buy land. During the “Dirty 30s” of the Dustbowl, when many of the men he had lent money to were no longer able to keep paying their mortgage, Severin ended up owning several foreclosed farms in addition to the farm he owned with his brother.

When Ottin was killed in 1909 (kicked by horse, my parents thought), Severin continued to live with Ottin’s family in the farm house, although there was never, according to my parents, any “funny business” between him and Taaline. Severin stood by the results of that arm wrestling contest when Ottin had won the hand of Taaline for life, fair and square.

Sunday, June 07, 2009


I just finished reading Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and on page 215, he explains his writing style in the book: “ . . . I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out.” And then he added his own hand-drawn illustrations.

I thought I would try my hand at writing in the Vonnegut style. So here’s my impression of me, writing like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., in Breakfast of Champions, giving every fact equal weight, leaving out nothing:

Margaret suspected her cupboards were empty. She hadn’t shopped in weeks. But she walked into her kitchen anyway, certain there must be a scrap of food somewhere. Her cupboards had never been entirely bare because this was America.

She knew there were starving children in foreign countries like the Philippines, which is an island nation in the Pacific where rice and pinakbet are the staples foods. However, this was Midland City, Illinois, where there were very few starving children. And even those children have access to the Midland Community Food Bank where various service groups like the Elks, the Rotary Club, and the Knights of Columbus at St. Joachim Catholic Church regularly raised money to replenish the shelves with canned food like Franco American Spaghettios and boxes of General Mills Cheerios.

General Mills was recently told they couldn’t advertise “lowers cholesterol” because it makes Cheerios sound like a drug.

Margaret opened the first cupboard door, and reached for an open box of stale crackers on the second shelf. They were Kellogg’s All Bran crackers. Kellogg’s is an American company which is the world’s leading producer of cereal and other grain-based convenience foods. Kellogg’s has been in operation since 1906 when the two Kellogg brothers first discovered how to make cold cereal by dropping small bits of rolled grain on a hot, flat stovetop. The All Bran crackers that she found were a relatively new addition to the Kellogg’s line of convenience foods, and the box looked like this:

There, that’s me, writing like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., in Breakfast of Champions. All information is included and all facts are given equal weight. Plus I illustrated it, just like Vonnegut did.

Now the only thing left to do is wait for the publishers to come knocking on my door. After all, Vonnegut died in 2007, so the literary world is bound to be looking for his replacement.

Saturday, June 06, 2009


It’s early Saturday morning, and Tom is preparing to take off on a two-day fishing trip, his 800th fishing trip of the 2009 season. This is astounding because walleye season only opened on May 9, and already he has fished a total of 73,052 hours.

The reason I know this is because I have calculated it on my official “Wife Calculator.”

A Wife Calculator cannot be purchased in the Electronics Department at Target. It cannot even be purchased on the Hewlitt-Packard web site, which mistakenly boasts that the world’s most powerful calculator is the HP-33, a programmable scientific calculator for computing statistics, base-N, mathematical functions and fractions. No, the HP-33 pales in comparison to the power of the Wife Calculator.

In addition to adding up fishing hours, the Wife Calculator can also rapidly compute the number of hours spent playing golf, watching sports on television, or playing spider solitaire, while simultaneously creating an inverse ratio to time spent doing household chores carefully handwritten by above-mentioned wife on a lengthy to-do list. (For example: if household chores are X and leisure activities are Y, then X:Y is 1:653.)

It’s all very complicated.

The best thing about a Wife Calculator is that it never needs to be purchased. As soon as a woman signs her name on a marriage certificate in the presence of two reliable witnesses and a member of the clergy, the Wife Calculator is simultaneously, biologically implanted in her brain by an act of nature similar to a lightning strike on steroids.

It’s a miracle.

The garage door just went up and I heard the sound of a Ford Explorer engine starting. This quickly triggered a chemical reaction in my brain that jump-started the Wife Calculator, which immediately whirled into action. And that’s how I know that Tom just left on his 800th fishing trip to begin his 73,053rd hour of fishing.

Thursday, June 04, 2009


(Another story from the nursing home, told by my 90ish parents.)

My dad was raised in a household with what he describes as “three fathers.” His own father Albert was, of course, the biological father. But until my dad was ten years old, his grandfather Martin also lived with the family, so he was the second disciplinarian. And the third disciplinarian, and by far the toughest of the three, was “Uncle,” my dad’s bachelor Uncle Carl, who also lived with the family until his death in 1947.

Grandpa Martin had been married twice (his first wife died at the age of 24, leaving him with two children, Johanna and Helmer, ages 4 and 1). Martin remarried three years later, and my dad’s Uncle Carl, born in 1870, was the oldest of this second batch of six children. My grandfather Albert was Martin’s youngest child (born in 1885), so Uncle Carl out-ranked his much more easy-going baby brother by 15 years.

Photo taken in the late 1800s: (Front Row, Seated) Grandpa Martin, Lena, Albert (my grandfather in big bowtie), Johanna, Henry. (Back Row, Standing) Ella, Ole, Helmer, and Carl.

My dad grew up with Uncle Carl in the house, even sharing a bedroom with him until my dad got married in 1941. My dad remembers Uncle Carl as grumpy and tough. In his younger years, Uncle Carl had been active in the community—a musician and officer in the Carlisle Band and a regular churchgoer. However in 1900, his younger brother Ole married Clara, a girl from a nearby farm. Uncle Carl, who never married, rarely left the farm again after that. My dad believes from what he heard growing up that the 30-year-old Carl had wanted to marry Clara himself, and his brother’s marriage to her caused him to withdraw from the outside world to a narrow life on the farm.

It was tough growing up in a household where three men felt they had the right to discipline and raise Albert’s children. While my dad’s father Albert was good-natured and easy-going, Uncle was hard on the children. Most of the time, Albert tolerated his older brother Carl’s ways because he was a hard worker and was especially good with handling horses. But occasionally, when things got too bad, Pa would step in and intervene on his children’s behalf.

Even though Uncle rarely left the farm, he was always curious about people in the community. If the family attended a community function, Uncle would pump them for information when they got home. When the children in my dad’s family got older, Uncle was very critical of his brother and sister-in-law for letting the children “run too much.” He felt that his nieces and nephews were entirely too free to come and go when there was plenty of work to do at home.

Uncle Carl would get grumpy with Albert, too. Once when he was upset with his younger brother, Carl threatened that no one in the family would get his share of the farm. Calmly, Albert just shrugged and said Carl could do as he pleased. But he pointed out that if Carl died without a will, the family farm would have to be sold to split the inheritance with all of his brothers and sisters, since Carl had no children of his own. That gave Carl something to think about because he was fiercely loyal to that farm. Shortly after, he drew up a will that made sure his share of the farm stayed intact with Albert’s family.

My dad remembers that in all the years he worked side by side with Uncle Carl, the man gave him only one compliment. When my dad got married in 1941and moved to his own house, grumpy Uncle Carl reluctantly conceded that my dad “had been a pretty good worker.” My dad laughed when he told that, knowing that this compliment had only been given because he was safely moving a half a mile away.

Uncle Carl died of a heart attack in 1947 at the age of 77, and yes, despite his threats, he did leave the family farm to Albert. This is the land that my dad and his brother still own in Carlisle Township.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009


Colbie was as glad to see me as I was to see her. I really think she remembered me from the time we spent together in March. When Colbie met me at the door, she hugged me! (Really! She hugged me!) She is wonderful, delightful, and totally perfect. Is there any other feeling on earth that can compare to the feelings of being a grandmother? Her spit-up is inspired—her poopy diapers are works of art. Her smile melts my heart. She laughs at my jokes and listens intently when I sing an off-key, lyric-deficient song. She looks thrilled when I pick her up after a nap—like she’s happy it’s me. I am completely in love with Colbie.

And I now know why we grandmas have all those wrinkles and that loose skin on our jowls and necks. It’s so our grandbabies can grab us by the face and tell us, “I’m so glad you came to visit me!”