Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dancing our way through Christmas

Our grandkids love to dance. ViMae will tell you she wants to be a ballerina, and she can show you her best moves and her several tutus. She wanted to take classes, but around here you have to be four to enroll. So in the meantime, she twirls and spins and practices raising her leg to there. Augie joins in by grabbing her arm and swinging her around until one or both fall down. Then they laugh and do it again.

This fall Peter and I took them both to some free noontime presentations by the St. Paul City Ballet. The sessions graduated from barre exercises to snippets of a ballet-in-progress, and finally fully costumed excerpts from the company's holiday production. The Enchanted Toy Shop borrows some music from The Nutcracker; Augie recognized it as being from Disney's Fantasia. They love the Nutcracker Suite portion of Fantasia, and Augie can hear two notes of music and tell you exactly what it corresponds to--for example, the dancing mushrooms, the turnips, or his favorite, "the flowers that fall down over a waterfall."

We explained that the music was first written for a ballet, and the kids said they'd like to see it. Cue another great opportunity. A local dance school was presenting a 20-minute version of Act 2 of The Nutcracker at Rosedale Mall on Wednesday evenings before Christmas. We met the kids and their parents for dinner and then found the performance just as it began. The kids made a beeline for chairs up front and watched every step. This was no virtuoso performance, but it was up close and lively, and the kids thoroughly enjoyed it.

A few days later, we watched parts of two new DVDs--Act 2 of the Nutcracker followed by the corresponding segment of Fantasia. They loved both, and they danced around the den the whole time we were watching.

On Christmas morning at their house, The Nutcracker was playing as they opened gifts, and again they danced. Look at that picture of Augie, wearing his elf hat and red pajamas, dancing like the "action elf" he claims to be.

It will be some time before they are old enough to sit through a full-length performance, but a Christmas Nutcracker is definitely in their futures.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

We wish you a...

...Merry Christmas! And if Christmas isn't your holiday, have a wonderful weekend!

We'll be with the grandkids and their parents, seeing Christmas through the excitement of children. And that is the best gift we could ask for.

I began Christmas Eve day as I always do: listening to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College in Cambridge, England. Every year it opens with the pure soprano voice of a young boy singing "Once in Royal David's City," and every year I get chills the instant I hear it. Somewhere deep inside me lives the girl who loved midnight Mass and whose greatest musical performance thrill was playing the organ for the parish men's choir for two years. (Remember, beating Bob Dylan in a talent contest wasn't especially significant until several years later when he became uber-famous.)

The Festival is broadcast around the world by American Public Media and the BBC; you can learn more about it on the APM web site and listen to it until December 31 on the BBC site.

May you, too, encounter something during this holiday that stirs fond memories and deep satisfaction within. And just for good measure, a couple of bonus pix:

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Best Flash Mob Ever - Hallelujah Chorus

I've never seen a flash mob in person. I didn't know much about them--mostly associated them with mischief. Well, this one is the opposite of mischief. It gives a whole new meaning to the concept of Shock and Awe. Enjoy.

(If the embedded version doesn't work for you, try this link.

P.S. According to Blogger, this is my 250th post.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Wedding promises

A week ago today my youngest brother, David, married Monica, whom he'd been dating four years or so. About 40 close friends and family gathered at a friend's home on a Saturday afternoon for a ceremony that was intimate, loving, and intensely meaningful.

Their vows, and the officiant's charge to the bride and groom, were clearly based on mutually frank discussion. The officiant counseled patience, helpfulness, taking time for oneself, and other virtues. And to David she said, "Ask Monica for the help you need."

I'm sure every guest was listening from the perspective of their own partnership. For example, if David finds it hard to clarify his needs, he is clearly not alone among my siblings. When the subject comes up, our spouses and significant others have been known to roll their eyes, exchange knowing glances, and mutter about not being mind readers. It occurred to me that 26 years ago I had included in my own vows a line about asking for help, and it's still something I have to work on. Not that I don't seek help. Rather, I might assume that what I need is obvious, so when I finally ask for it I issue what sounds like a scolding, not a request. When I invite advice, I may reject it in a way that isn't very gracious. Sometimes I comment about something when I'm not even asking for help, but Peter thinks I am. Oh, the opportunities for misunderstanding are plentiful.

For Dave and Monica, questions of seeking and giving help have a special significance right now. In early November, he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. For this 55-year-old lifelong non-smoking distance runner, the news was both shocking and puzzling. He wasn't aware of any symptoms until late September, when he had some shortness of breath, which led to the discovery of a blood clot, which led to the discovery of the tumor in his lung.

Dave immediately went into action. He and Monica, who had been talking about marriage, decided to do it immediately so they can take this journey together. They are choosing to focus on all things positive, to take hope from stories of people who have beaten the predictions and the odds, to draw strength from positive thoughts and actions. He has begun chemotherapy in the hope of shrinking tumors in his lung and bones. If all goes well he'll have radiation later targeting the ones in his brain. Dave and Monica are exploring healthy diets and ways to sustain energy and handle stress, they are supporting one another, and they know they have a strong support system of friends and family.

The wedding was a happy occasion. As guests ate brie and wedding cake after the ceremony last Saturday, snow began to fall, gently at first and then more insistently, in huge wet flakes. A couple of dozen folks joined the wedding couple to continue the celebration at a neighborhood restaurant, the front windows of which framed a glowing, magical wintery scene.

David and Monica, may you give and receive all the help you need, and may the love and joy and magic of your wedding day sustain you forever.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The importance of blueberries

Yesterday the children and I were reading, for the hundredth time, Little Cottontail. It's the story of a bunny who wants to be all grown up, but his mother says he must first learn many lessons. Among them:  how to wash himself, how to find food winter and summer, and how to avoid being caught by a fox.

We have often talked about that fox. Ask what he would do if he catches Little Cottontail, and ViMae says, "Chomp." We talk about children learning to watch for cars, to be careful when climbing, to listen when grownups warn them that something is dangerous.

We also talk about balance in nature. If the fox gets Little Cottontail, that's good for the fox, bad for the rabbit. If the rabbit eats the farmer's lettuce and carrots, good for the rabbit and bad for the farmer. ViMae once picked up a forkful of omelet and declared, "Good for me, bad for the egg."

Yesterday when we read that Little Cottontail's mother taught him to raid the farmer's vegetables and fruits, I made a comment, something like, "The farmer won't like it if the rabbits eat all his lettuce. We won't like it either, because we get our vegetables and fruit from the farmer."

Augie suddenly buried his head against me and wailed something about rabbits eating his blueberries. I thought he was joking, but then I realized he was crying real tears. I finally got it out of him: "I don't want the bunnies to eat all my blueberries." And then he was sobbing again.

I explained that the bunnies would never eat all the blueberries. I said bunnies don't even like blueberries. I said farmers have fences and other things to protect their crops. This boy who cheers for the bunny hero in a dozen different stories would pause for a moment and then cry again. "What if the bunnies eat all my blueberries!"

Here's the thing I didn't tell him. Blueberries are out of season, and they are getting very, very expensive. I still buy them because this boy loves them so, and because I have loved them ever since I was a child picking quarts of them alongside my family in the woods around our cabin. More recently I learned that blueberries are high in antioxidants, and they've even been called "brain food." That's an investment I'm willing to make.

In the summer when they are plentiful, we eat them by the handful with every meal. As they get more expensive we share a few with our oatmeal in the morning. But in the coldest months, when blueberries get to be $5 for a few ounces, I usually don't buy them.

Until now, that is. I may cut back on something else, but I'm pretty sure I'm going to be buying blueberries on a regular basis.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thankful Thursday

Abby posted these on her private site. I'm re-gifting them. We'll be having dinner with these delightful children and other family in a few hours. Happy Thanksgiving!

P.S. I just realized that Miss Buckle, a photographer who lives in Norway and has a fabulous eye, has a weekly feature called Thankful Thursday. So I'm linking up with her today. Her images on this particular day are in-your-face portraits of classmates. She's also great with scenery and with sweet glimpses of her beautiful blonde sons.  

Saturday, November 19, 2011

More stuff I wish I didn't know: That beautiful warm sun is not my friend

Don't get me wrong; I love the sun. A shining sun sustains my mood. A sun that stays behind the clouds saps my energy. In the winter, when it hangs so low in the sky that it can't warm anything, I suffer from Seasonal Affect Disorder, the initials of which are no coincidence. But that's a topic for another post.

Sun on my skin warns me and, I'm told, produces vitamin D.

It also produces skin cancer.

I've been lucky so far. Over the past 15 years, I've had six or eight basal-cell carcinomas (very slow-growing, do not spread to other areas), one squamous-cell carcinoma (faster, deeper, can spread to internal organs) and dozens of pre-cancerous bits that my sharp-eyed dermatologist has deftly removed. In most cases, treatment has been little more than an annoyance.

A month ago - just a few days after I fell - I went for my twice-yearly checkup. I pointed to a tiny new red spot just below my nose, which I thought resulted from my fall. It was next to some scar tissue from an earlier fall, which occasionally peels, I said. Hold it, he said.

Scar tissue doesn't peel. What I had was a little triangle, less than a centimeter in any direction, likely a basal cell carcinoma. It was in a dangerous spot (near the nose), I'd had it for years, and the new spot was an expansion of that. Without even waiting for a biopsy, he prescribed flourouracil, a chemotherapy cream that creates a nasty but efficient chemical peel of the cancerous tissue. It also irritates the heck out of regular tissue. I applied it daily for four weeks across half my upper lip, producing a painful, bright-red swath until a couple of days ago, when my treatment was up and I could begin to heal.

I was already feeling a bit old and vulnerable after falling, and this didn't help.

On the other hand, it may have saved me from something more serious. And it reminded me to wear sunscreen. Lots of it, even though I hate the feel and it blocks my pores.

And now I'm reminding you. Wear sunscreen, avoid getting burned, learn what to watch for. They tell you the ABCs of melanoma - assymetrical, brown or black, changing. It's good to know those, because melanoma kills. But especially if you have a light complexion, blue or green eyes, and a history of sunburns, you should know that non-melanoma skin cancers may be white or pink, are often pearly but can take many forms, sometimes show up where there was an injury or an insect bite. Wikipedia and other sites have good info, sometimes with fairly grisly photos. Don't let yourself show up there.

It's been snowing all day and the sun is nowhere in sight. When it returns, I will receive it with joy - and sunscreen. Yes, even in winter.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Stuff I wish I didn't know: falling

About a month ago, enjoying a walk around the lake in Como Park, I tripped and fell. Hard.

I’d fallen once before, so I was very conscious of getting my hands in front of me. Good, I thought, I’ve broken my fall. But my head had momentum, and I couldn't stop it. My cheekbone hit, but not heavily like fifteen years ago when I landed flat on my nose, teeth, and chin.

Two women helped me up and made sure I was okay. And I was, sort of. I’d been in high spirits just before that one false step, laughing at the antics of a little dog being walked by one of the women now helping me. I got up, not quite as quickly as I intended. I took stock.

My hands stung; they were full of tiny cuts from the devilishly jagged bits of gravel embedded in the walking path. I knew I’d have bruises on my face, hip, and shoulder. I didn’t know yet about the pulled something-or-other near my ribcage, but for the next two weeks it would stab me every time I sneezed, and occasionally it would cause me to blurt out a four-letter word. Since I didn’t know about that yet, I mostly worried about the bruise on my face, which turned out to be minimal.  

I walked back to my car and drove to the fish-and-chips shop to pick up dinner.  It felt like the “plucky” thing to do, although I tried to shield my hands, which didn’t look very appropriate to be in a place where food was served.

From that fall, I learned three things I’d rather not know.    

  1. Crushed rock used in paving projects is razor-sharp and jagged, and bears no resemblance to the friendly rounded pebbles fished out of stream beds for use in, say, playgrounds.
  2. No good deed goes unpunished (okay, I’ve been saying this for a while). I was, after all, trying to get stronger and healthier by walking that path.
  3. I have reached an age, or perhaps a state of mind and body, at which falling makes me older. I didn’t feel embarrassed; I felt vulnerable and old. When you feel that way, it’s easy to act that way. My cuts and bruises have healed, but it has taken a while to get my confidence back. This is complicated by that fact that there is always something else that can go wrong…but that’s a topic for another day.
Still, I am reminded every day that I have a great life and that it would be ridiculous to waste it worrying about the small stuff. I’m starting again on efforts to get stronger and healthier. But I’ll be doing that indoors for a while. I don’t do winter.  

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Meet Smaug the Dragon...and Bob the Builder

If you're a fan of The Hobbit, you know that Smaug is a dragon who spends a lot of time lying atop his enormous pile of stolen gold, until his chest is almost entirely encrusted with gold.

ViMae's Daddy has passed along his love of this story, and she decided to be Smaug for Halloween. "Maybe a nice Smaug," she says. Still, she wants to breathe fire and scare other children.

We started with a red hoodie and pants, and I built the whole costume on the hoodie.I posted some sneak peeks here.

She was very specific: There had to be gold, jewels, and long, "mean" wings. I bought stick-on jewels at the fabric shop and she applied them.
I glued some pointy wings to the sleeves of the hoodie and drew on them with a gold pen. (ViMae was planning to fly from door to door trick-or-treating; Pa and I were careful to tell her these wings are just pretend.)

She loves that the tail swings when she walks, and in this photo she is admiring the shadow of her spikes, wings, and claws. Pink claws.

Augie decided to be Bob the Builder. Not surprising for a kid who owns a full-size tool box, hammer, screwdriver, and metal measuring tape, and who spends lots of play time constructing roads, houses, zoos, castles, etc.

Peter and I scouted up the necessary garb including "work boots," and Peter fashioned a tool belt using his own father's WW II ammo belt.

Augie brought goggles and some toy tools. The minute he put on the goggles, he was the proudest builder in the universe. He kept them on for hours.

Our trial outing was to the library for story hour Thursday. We knew from last year that lots of children would be wearing costumes. (Pa was the only grownup wearing one: his red sweater and Santa hat.)
Friday evening, the kids and their mom and dad went to a preschool party. These two photos are from Mommy's blog: she reports that ViMae did a lot of fire-breathing, and Augie stayed in character all evening. No surprises there!

A comment on another blog said the real test of success for a costume is how the child feels wearing it.By that standard, these outfits seem to be a real success, and it's the most fun I've ever had celebrating Halloween.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Grandma's been busy...

...and here's a sneak peek at the project that has consumed my time and creative energy for the past couple of weeks.

We took the project out for a test run yesterday, but it's making its real debut as I write this. I'll post pictures of the completed creation in a couple of days. Can you guess what it is?

Meanwhile, I'll just say that between this and the World Series, Grandma's been putting in some late nights!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

What's the deal with the monkey?

September is a great time to get back to walking. The scenery is beautiful, and I am motivated to get in some walking now, before winter makes it nearly impossible.

I've been walking around the lake at Como Park about three times a week. The scenery has been so wonderful I had to take my camera one day, so I'm sharing.

Geese, ducks, cormorants, herons, and other birds make good use of the lake during migration. I miss most of the birds-in-residence because I don't walk at dawn.

People-watching is great; folks of every description run, walk, bicycle, or skate the paths around the lake. There are babies in strollers, dogs of every size. and one dignified-looking monkey. I don't know the monkey's story. How does one ask? "Hey, mister, what's the deal with the monkey?" I think I'll just mind my own business.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

October adventures

A stretch of Mississippi River that divides Minneapolis and St. Paul residential areas is breath-taking in its autumn colors this year. With Vi and Augie, we drove along St. Paul's East River Road and stopped at this overlook.

The kids enjoyed the color, but they were disappointed that we couldn't climb down the bluffs to the water.

But...we visited another part of the river, where it curves around downtown St. Paul (or vice versa). We took a picnic lunch to Harriet Island, played at the playground, and walked along the river to look at buildings, boats, ducks, and minnows.

The playground includes this impressionistic sternwheeler meant for kids to climb.   
Under the plastic slides and bridges of today's playground equipment are cozy spaces where Augie "opens a restaurant" and serves me lunch. Today's pretend menu was potstickers and lo mein.

A highlight of the day came during our picnic, when Augie pointed to the sky and shouted, "Look! An eagle!" Sure enough, he'd spotted a bald eagle soaring above the Mississippi. It circled slowly above us, and in the noonday sun its white head gleamed against the deep blue sky. Alas, it returned downstream before I managed to get my camera out.

Peter and I have scouted a few Twin Cities bird-watching spots, hoping to find a place that the kids can enjoy. At Harriet Island yesterday, we learned that it only takes one really good bird to make an outing a success. Extra points for playgrounds and colored leaves.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Ode to a friend

Our friend Herb had a soft, deep voice and a deadpan delivery that made him seem perpetually glum.

When our efforts to rescue the historic State Fair Carousel hit the media 23 years ago, he was among the first to call. We weren’t sure what to make of him, but he became a hard-working volunteer and fiercely loyal board member during some unexpected struggles. He also became a friend.

One hot July day in 1990, Herb introduced us to his twin passions: eight or ten vintage Cadillacs and a roomful of jukeboxes. There was real joy in his eyes as he powered up the music, and from then on we knew him as a romantic at heart. We weren't too surprised when, four years ago, he married a second time, to a woman from his high school graduating class.

A year later Herb tripped and fell, and his leg shattered. His doctor never questioned why the injury was so severe. When it didn’t heal, Herb sought a second opinion and learned that he had sarcoma, a devilishly aggressive cancer. With chemo and radiation he managed to live three years, instead of the six months he’d been told to expect.

Yesterday Herb was buried. The parking lot was full of old Caddies as his car-club friends said goodbye. His daughter played haunting English horn and violin solos. A carousel pin graced his lapel. Herb was a traveling salesman, a humble man, a sometime curmudgeon, a valued friend, and a dedicated volunteer who found satisfaction in service to the carousel and his automobile clubs. He will be missed.

My September began with melancholy thoughts of my late parents, and in mid-month I was mindful of the loss of my brother five years ago. As we attended services for Herb on the last day of the month, it dawned on me that I’ve reached an age where funerals and loss are no longer rare. But if Anyone is listening, I’ve had quite enough for now, thank you.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A visit to the nature center

Augie was hurtling toward the floor. I watched frame by frame as he landed on his face. On part of a deer skull. With antlers attached. Amid loud, indignant sobs, he clamped both hands tightly over his right eye. I pulled him into my lap, held him, rocked him. Meanwhile, Peter begged, “Let me see your face.” Finally we saw: A large bruise was forming an inch below the eye. We shared a look that said omigod, that was close. As we left, I reached to help Augie down from another bench. “Grandma,” he said, “I didn’t hurt my legs.”   

Mr. London Street has returned to writing his lovely 100-word posts, something at which he excels. When this real-life adventure happened yesterday, I decided to try writing about it in exactly 100 words. You’ll just have to accept that antlers of various sizes are a popular part of our local nature center’s hands-on learning tools. Augie is fine; Peter and I are still a bit shaken.  

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Missing my brother

Bruce, Keith, Allen, David, 1959?
I grew up as the oldest of six children. My sister is about four years younger than me, and starting three years after her birth my parents had four boys in six years. The first, Bruce, was smart and funny and very introverted. Until he left for college, he was pretty much inseparable from Keith, 14 months younger, also smart, and extroverted enough for the both of them.

Bruce sailed through engineering school and undertook a master’s. That’s where he ran into his first roadblock: his adviser left for a year, and Bruce could not complete his master’s project. I’m sure he didn’t make an issue of it; instead he found an engineering job at a paper mill in Michigan.
He was never one to stay in close touch with the family, but after a while he went incommunicado. Unable to reach him, my mother finally called the paper mill. She was told he no longer worked there. They connected her with the personnel department, where a woman did her a great kindness. “I can’t talk about confidential information,” the woman said, “but let me tell you what I can.” She said people had liked my brother, and that he wasn’t fired for misbehavior. The bosses were all engineers, she said, and engineers are not known for communication skills. Bruce was not the first bright new hire to need more help and guidance than he was given.

Uncle Bruce with Lisa and Chris
Losing his job was a shock for to my brother and to our family. Nobody had taught us that workplaces are not like classrooms. Assignments aren’t always spelled out clearly, criteria can be hazy, and you won’t always know the questions, let alone the answers. Bruce found another job, and another after that. He always waited until his money was running out before he started looking, and sometimes he cut it too close for comfort.

Then one day he got hired at a startup company making PUR water filters. They had a great story. Their new technology was more effective than anything on the market at the time. It could convert sea water to potable water; it could even pull a drink out of a mud puddle for someone in a remote location. Their first customers included the US Navy. One day a news story broke; a couple had been stranded at sea aboard their boat and had survived by cleansing sea water through their PUR filter. With the help of that story, the company’s founders talked their way into the household market. Business took off. The company grew. My brother was loving it. He received awards for developing new approaches to inventory control and distribution. He made friends, bought a little house, bowled in a league with brother Keith, enjoyed the occasional visit to the local racetrack, and happily joined the family three or four times a year for holiday gatherings.

Me (left) and Lynne with Al, Dave, Keith, Bruce 1985
One day Peter asked Bruce, “If money were no object, what would you do?” The answer: “Sit around in my underwear and watch television.” We thought that was a good answer. Happiness is being satisfied with what you have, loving what you do. And he seemed happy enough; he was extremely well-read, had opinions on lots of subjects, and never minded when somebody disagreed. He refused to take things personally.

Everything changed when the founders sold the business to Proctor and Gamble. Oh, the company survived for a few years, during which Bruce shook his head about various changes made by the “suits” from P&G. Then came word that the plant would close. All the jobs were exported to Mexico. My brother tried to be stoic about it, but I know it broke his heart. He was one of the last to leave; he was the one who knew how to disassemble the lines and ship everything out.

He looked for another job, without much hope of finding one. When funds ran out, he began to take small weekly withdrawals from his retirement funds. He stopped paying his utilities and began to live off the grid, using a windup flashlight and a sometimes cooking on a small charcoal grill. He was probably sitting around in his underwear, but he was no longer watching television. Except we didn’t know it.

My brother Bruce had had a heart attack in about 1991, when he was 40. At the hospital, we’d heard the doctor’s advice: stop smoking, eat less fast food, get more exercise, take these pills. Over the years, he did seem to be eating more wisely and riding his bike a lot.

On Friday, September 15, 2006, he went to his bank to withdraw a few dollars for the weekend. He dropped to the floor, dead of a heart attack at 55. When we got his keys and entered his house, we learned the truth of his existence. That’s when we discovered that he had no electricity and no heat (we don’t know for how long). About three years of unopened mail was tossed on the floor near and under his bed. Books overflowed their shelves. There was a lot of dust, but no animals and no filth – it was not a garbage house. But it had problems, including the fact that the cold water in the kitchen sink was running full blast and couldn’t be turned off. Clearly it had spilled over at some point; floor tiles were lifted out and there was still the smell of mold.

Emptying Bruce’s house after his death, it didn’t take us long to find the very pills he’d brought home from the hospital 15 years earlier, plus the prescriptions, never filled. We also found cigarettes, and his reading spot reeked of cigarette smoke. We found bags of empty Mountain Dew cans, and new cartons in the kitchen. And a large bottle of aspirin.

Clearly (to me, at least) he knew the risks. He was having pains, had no interest in being medicated, and stocked up on caffeine and nicotine, two things that could help send him on his way.

Al, Kay, me, Dad, Keith, Dave, Bruce 1993?
He did it because he was depressed. He was running out of money and knew he’d never find a job like the one he’d loved and lost. Things around his house needed fixing, and although he had assembled an impressive supply of tools and how-to books, he couldn’t manage to do the work. I talked with my doctor about some of the things we found, and my doctor called them classic indicators of depression.

How could we not have known?

We held a celebration of his life a month later. We called all the numbers on his cell phone and located many former co-workers who considered themselves his friends. They all came, and they brought others, and they all told us how much they had enjoyed my brother. He was funny, a good story-teller, proud of his family, and very, very good at his job. The stories they told, and their obvious regard for him, were extraordinary gifts for our entire family.    

Having been stunned by finding the hidden sad and dysfunctional part of his life, it was wonderful to discover the equally well-hidden happy and successful part. It makes me smile to think of it now. Except that I am angry – very angry – that an American company shipped my brother’s job across the border. Of course he’s just one among hundreds of thousands. This exporting of jobs is not good for the country or for the people to whom it happens. I wish I believed that all the other people’s stories turned out happier.

It has taken me a long time to write this, and to decide whether to publish it. The time has come. Bruce, I thought about you all this week. We miss you. Rest in peace.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Class reunions: young and old, then and now

Recently, Marion at Create Joy and Wonder wrote about the anxieties involved in preparing to attend a high school reunion. Reading her words reminded me that I attended my (gasp) 50-year reunion in July and still haven't written about it.

This reunion has stayed on my mind longer than the previous three I've attended, and it has eluded easy description. I finally understand why.

Attending this reunion immersed me in a dual reality. For three days (including the four-hour drive each way), memories of high school came flooding back. Some were in sharp focus, some were hazy, but all were in living Technicolor. I recalled the faces of my classmates as they once were, youthful and unlined. And yet, the faces that now surrounded me were - like my own - older, creased, a bit saggy. I often found myself peering into those faces, seeking traces of the person I had known. Sometimes recognition came easily; other times the transformation was almost complete. This seemed especially true of the men; I easily recognized a small handful, but sometimes, looking around the room, I was tempted to wonder whether some of us had wandered into the wrong party.

I began to notice that I was carrying in my mind both faces, the "then" and "now" of each classmate I happened to speak with. With 350 graduating seniors and more than 200 at this reunion, my mind was a crowded place! 

Something else was crowding in as well. No matter the conversation, I always had a visual subtext: We are old. Yes, we might be smart, fun, enthusiastic, engaged in lots of interesting pursuits, but the faces kept reminding me, we are old. I shouldn't have been surprised. Most of us turned 68 this past year. But what we had come to celebrate was our youth. We surrounded ourselves with yearbook photos - classes, prom, band, the Sweet Shoppe, the junior class play. I could visualize those scenes; I knew how they played out, I could even feel the emotions - elation, disappointment, embarrassment, nervous excitement - that accompanied those days. It was amazing to be able to reach out and touch those times, and yet to have traveled so far from them.

The juxtaposition of then and now, young and old, has stayed in my head since that mid-July reunion. It reminds me that over the course of our lives, we are at once the same and different. The shy small-town girl is not so far from the surface. And if I deny that, if I think for example that I have become totally citified and sophisticated, then I am not being authentic. I've run into a few people like that at reunions over the years...people who have cultivated new manners of speaking and have seemed to consider themselves far more refined and cosmopolitan than the rest of us. Maybe they are, but I'd rather have it all - the cosmopolitan-ness and the roots in our working-class northern Minnesota town. In that sense, if we are lucky and wise, we are still young

I mentioned to my hair stylist that I was going to my reunion. She had recently attended one in her tiny hometown. I said I thought that people going to their first reunions sometimes worried about how they would be perceived. "For some people, it's all about job status and success," I said. "Oh," she said. "At ours, it's all about the dance-off."

That seems like a good approach. What really matters at reunions is the same thing that matters in life: what kind of person are you in the here-and-now? At each of my reunions, I talked with dozens of people. I hit it off with some, and not so much with others. Beginning way back at our ten-year reunion, some of the best conversations have been with people I didn't know well in school. It surprised me then; it doesn't any more. A couple of people I did know well have turned out to be not all that interesting. But any disappointment has been more than offset by the delightful conversations, some lengthy and others relatively brief, in which a wide variety of classmates and I have discovered the things that connect us through the years and across the miles.

P.S. If you have a reunion coming up, go to it. You'll have fun. The best way to prepare is to contact people you'd really like to see there and arrange to spend time together. My friend Cynthia recruited me and our friend Nancy, and I was delighted that she did. It meant a lot to reconnect, and it was too important to leave to chance.

P.P.S. During our reunion, the planning committee asked whether we wanted to come back in five years or ten. We all raised our hands for five. And we all made a joke that we knew wasn't really a joke: Who knows whether we'll still be around ten years from now? (And silently I added, Who even knows about five years from now?)

I'm planning to be at my next reunion, feeling both old and young.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Goodbye, summer...Hello, September

For me, no other month ends with as much finality as August. For one thing, June, July, and August are "the summer months." Even though summer officially extends another three weeks or so, it's not the same. Our long summer evenings, when it was light past 9 p.m., are gone. Temperatures are beginning to cool, or to transition to whatever craziness the next season brings. If garden tomatoes aren't ripe by now, they never will be. And of course school is back in session. Since I spent nearly my entire career working at colleges and universities, that sense of gearing up and getting serious every autumn is thoroughly incorporated into my biological rhythms. Actually, this serves me well, since our daycare with the grandkids corresponds to their parents' high school teaching schedules.

In fact, people around here began declaring "Summer's over" as soon as the State Fair opened a week ago. I steadfastly refuse to accept that line of thinking, just as I don't consider Christmas to be over on December 26. But somehow once the Fair started, I lost track of the days. When I looked at the calendar late this afternoon and realized that the date was August 31, it came as a bigger surprise than it should have. And when I opened the calendar to this month's firefighter photo, it was again oddly jarring to see, in capital letters: SEPTEMBER.  

It's not that I dislike September. I love fall colors, sunny days that morph into cool nights, and even the transformation of the garden as the perennials begin to lie down for their winter naps. Last year's autumn was spectacular, and I'm hoping this year will be the same. But to step from August into September is to leave something behind. Our week at the lake. Trips to the ballpark. Long summer evenings with late sunsets. And maybe something else: maybe the myth of carefree summer days when anything is possible.

This sense of loss seems complicated this year by a cluster of significant dates. August 31 was my Mom and Dad's anniversary. She died in 1980 just a week before what would have been their 40th anniversary. I often don't even remember the date of her death; but I always remember their anniversary, followed closely by Dad's birthday on September 4 and Mom's on September 7. Ever since Dad died in June, they've both been on my mind.

I'm choosing to believe that my reaction to the calendar is an artifact of that process, and that September is going to be a fabulous month. And oh yes, here is Mr. September from the St. Paul Firefighters Calendar, proceeds from which support two children's health charities.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Lovely distractions

Let's face it, since I retired I'm really not into goal-setting, scheduling, achieving, etc. Especially during the summer, which is my vacation from childcare for the grandkids. But Monday, they come back to begin a new season, and I am not ready.

I've had two months to finish painting my office. I still have two doors to do after the dreaded painting fiasco, and they're not going to get done by Monday. I have boxes of papers and knickknacks that I brought home from my workplace last December. And other boxes of papers and knickknacks that have been packed up since the painting project and need sorting. I do NOT want to just throw all this stuff back where it was; I want to sort and toss and recycle.

But I keep being distracted. One, I get drawn to the computer to read blogs. And two, there's this garden just outside my window. It calls to me in many ways.

It seems to be a banner year for phlox, and I have four different varieties all blooming their heads off. They are sending out a powerful scent, almost overwhelming. It makes me want to, I dunno, dance or daydream or gaze out at the flowers. Anything but paperwork.

Second, for the last couple of weeks I've been visited by butterflies, especially monarchs and tiger swallowtails and the little white ones whose name I never remember. With the window open I often hear their wings flap before I even see them. Then I am compelled to watch, and to pick up a camera and see whether I can capture some photos that top the ones I've already taken.

There also seems to be increased bird activity all around us. Goldfinches have been coming to the black-eyed susans that have volunteered themselves from the back yard into this pink-and-purple spot outside my window. Other finches follow, and I hear cardinals and other birds just out of sight. I'm forever pressing my face against the screen and craning my neck trying to spot the source of a tsk or a call. But they elude me, and my camera. Just as well. I have paperwork to do.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A rediscovered treasure

Our daughter Abby has been making greeting cards since she was a kid. Using colored markers, glitter, stickers, and more recently photos, she creates cheerful, heart-warming messages for birthdays and various holidays. I sometimes come across one that I used as a bookmark, but mostly they are with the cache of cards that I've been consolidating, little by little, in my office.

In 1996, when she was a sophomore in college, she used her card-making skills to create a Christmas gift. It's a display piece that features cut-out illustrations of some of my favorite activities: gardening, baseball, art (or does that one represent lounging?), theater, fishing, and Christmas. It, too, has been in my office, but like everything else it was packed away while the ceiling was being repaired. I just pulled it from the box moments ago.

I love that the photos still represent my interests, except of course for the grandkids. But then I read and rediscovered the poem. It was lovely at the time. It's even greater now.

The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe
by Joyce Johnson

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,
And all her grandchildren played there too.

She laughed at their jokes (when they were funny)
And kept a green jar of bubblegum money.
She rode with them on the carousel
And played Monopoly very well.

She taught them to paint and how to bake bread.
She read them riddles and tucked them in bed.
She taught them to sing and how to climb trees.
She patched their jeans and bandaged their knees.

She remembered the way she'd felt as a child,
The dreams she'd had of lands that were wild,
Of mountains to climb, of villains to fight,
Of plays and poems she'd wanted to write.

She remembered all she'd wanted to do
Before she grew up and lived in a shoe.

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe
And lived in the dreams she'd had once too.
She told those she loved, "Children be bold.
Then you'll grow up but never grow old."

 And that is exactly the message I want to give to those I love. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The most clever birthday gift ever

One night last week as his family drove home from the baseball game, Augie announced that during the game he had thought of a great birthday gift for Pa. (His parents had been working on the idea of getting something the birthday person would like, not something you would like.)

"We should give him his own copy of Pretend Soup (a children's cookbook) and all the ingredients to make Number Salad." Augie has his own copy but had never made this recipe. He was sure Pa would enjoy it.

His parents and sister agreed that was a wonderful idea. (Mom and Dad also marveled that he'd kept this exciting secret to himself while we were all together at the game.)

He proudly presented the gift on Sunday, and on Tuesday Augie and Vi made two batches of Number Salad for lunch at our house, sharing with Pa, me, and their mom (Dad was working).

The recipe begins with one handful of coconut and two tablespoons of orange juice concentrate. "Handful" is a subjective term; Augie pulled out at least 1/3 cup while Vi daintily withdrew about a tablespoonful. The beautiful thing: It doesn't matter!

Then you cut, count, and drop in 3 orange sections, 4 apple slices, 5 cubes of cheese, 6 banana slices, 7 pieces of melon, and 8 grapes. (Having put in the specified number of pieces, or any number you like, you can eat the excess.)

As you stir ("9 times"), the coconut and orange juice concentrate form a dressing - a pretty clever idea if you like coconut (we liked it more than the kids did).

The kids dished up Number Salad for lunch. Two batches was more than enough (we were still full from breakfast) so Pa and I had the rest with dinner.

We have many other wonderful recipes to try, as we continue to enjoy Pa's birthday gift. Timing is perfect; Peter had just mentioned that he wanted to involve the kids more in meal preparation this year.

Pretend Soup, by the way, is by Mollie Katzen, author of Moosewood Cookbook, and Ann Henderson, a preschool teacher. All recipes are kid-tested. Grownups do the difficult steps; kids use table knives for any cutting they do. They participate in lots of cooking at home, and they are very proud of their efforts. I wish I'd had that opportunity as a kid, but more than that, I love that they do.


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