A Mind of One’s Own


Credit: National Institutes of Health.

I’ve written about my father a few times in this blog. It’s time to give my mother some attention.

My mom is 91, and she and my dad are still together, living in a memory care facility in the Twin Cities area. When my brothers and I moved our parents from my city to their current home last fall, I inherited a hope chest, of sorts, in which my mother stored blankets.

Once I got home and was cleaning it out, I discovered the chest was where she also stored some of her journals. I never knew she kept journals. And to think, all those times I was writing journals and squirreling them away at home, she was doing the same thing!

To ease some of my parental separation pangs, I read her journals, which spanned a period of over thirty years. Recently, I went back into one to look up a piece of information. I found the info, but also got caught by a short comment, where my mother mentioned that an acquaintance of hers complained that my mother was “willful.”

This is true. My mother is the sort who puts her foot down on a decision, and that is that. The problem is, she’s not good at explaining why she made the decision. She makes up her mind, and that is how it is going to be, gall dang it all to heck.

However, instead of her acquaintance’s comment eliciting self-reflection, my mother went on the offensive in her journal. (A good offense is the best defense, right?) But she didn’t go on the offense against the acquaintance who made the comment. Instead, her next entry was a complaint about how I had a mind of my own.

Now, I take that as a compliment. Why would I want anyone else’s mind, anyway? (Smirk.) I suspect my mom wanted my mind to be the same as hers.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while could tell you that I think a bit differently from most. The world needs different viewpoints, and as long as I’m not getting into huge conflicts and arguments over it, I think that’s okay.

The problem is, my mom’s style generates conflict, and she is too stubborn to change her mind once she makes it up.

This all reminds me of something I read recently, which described how people who don’t fit into groups shouldn’t necessarily feel bad. It might mean that they are leaders rather than followers. That gave me some comfort. There have been instances where I’ve felt on the fringes of groups, and maybe that’s why. (Besides the fact that I’m 60% introverted. Grin.) I have also successfully led groups, but it takes a bit of prodding to convince me to do so.

In any event, I love my mother, even if she is willful. And as for myself, I wouldn’t have it any other way than to have a mind of my own.

My Recent Embarrassment with White Culture


Nothing says Native American better than a white girl in a headdress.

Native Americans are the largest non-white population in my northern Minnesota county, coming in at just over two percent. Even though they are the largest “minority” population, in my experience, the “majority” community still struggles to remember to represent Native Americans on decision-making and natural resource committees. But I recently participated in two events where natives were remembered and asked to take part. However, the events reflected poorly on us white folks.

The first event was a journalism panel for a project (One River, Many Stories) that’s trying to bring journalists together to write about a major river that flows through our community. The river, which has been a dumping ground, is being cleaned up and is the focus of major restoration and community planning efforts.

The three journalists on the panel were speaking about collaboration for this project. One was Native American and the others were white. Granted, getting media types — who have been trained to compete with each other — to cooperate is a tall order to begin with, but as the discussion and Q&A session progressed, I felt increasingly chagrined. The native journalist was giving the audience tips on how to find story sources through old records and by talking to people. The white journalists were spouting the corporate line and jumping on chances for exclusive stories. Hello. The whole point of the discussion was collaboration, which the white journalists just didn’t seem to grasp.

Even the audience (mostly white from what I could tell) ended up grand-standing and sniping about which media outlet was the better storyteller. I left the event embarrassed by the blatant blindness to the benefits of collaboration by the white folks.

The second instance was an open mic poetry/prose reading last night at a local coffee house. Although anyone is welcome to read at these sessions, each features an established writer who is given extra time to showcase their work. The featured reader last night was a Native American. His reading concluded with a song he sung in Ojibway. Once done, he invited a lady on stage to read, who also looked native.

Their poems were moving and heartfelt, raw and sentimental. They worked for me. What didn’t work was the lady who read last. She was a blonde older woman who ended her set with a song from a play she wrote. She said she decided to sing in appreciation of the featured reader. But as she belted out several times that she was a “full-blooded Indian” and had endured repression as a native, I began to squirm.

Now, I know that Native Americans come in all colors, but this lady was definitely not native. And I understand that she was trying to honor the culture in an artistic fasion. But I don’t think she realized how farcical it is for a native to see a white person trying to “be” native. It made about as much sense as a Nigerian singing onstage about being Swedish, even if that Nigerian really digs and honors Swedish culture.

I’m sensitized to this issue from recently reading Alexie Sherman’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” but also because over the years I’ve spent time on reservations around the country, in kiva ceremonies and at pow wows, and with Native American medicine men. Besides, don’t forget that I am a whopping 0.4 percent Native American myself (smirk).

I realize I’ve opened a can of worms with this post. I guess what I am trying to say with it is, please, please, please white people – there are better ways to honor Native American culture than by trying to pass yourself off as something you are not. And please learn how to collaborate, a trait that seems to come so much easier to native peoples. I worry about white culture’s ability to survive on several levels unless we do so.

A good blog post about Native American cultural appropriation can be found here.

As I left the coffee house last night, the two native poets happened to walk out behind me. I casually held the door open for them. It was the least I could do.

That Scalp-Tingling Feeling



People at one of my recent book events (but not the one I describe here).

While I was sitting at a bookselling event today, waiting for someone to come to my table, I experienced a feeling I’ve had only a few times in my life: a tingle that travels from the back of my neck up to my scalp, and I kind of zone out.

It’s a pleasant feeling – one I first felt in elementary school when the rest of the class was bent to their work and the teacher was writing on the chalkboard – the chalk rasping softly on the board. It was peaceful, and then the tingling began in my neck and travelled up my scalp. My eyes unfocused and I was just living and feeling in the moment.

Today it happened while there was a large crowd at my bookselling event. People were visiting various tables where artists were displaying their wares around me. Their talk was a low hum, everyone was busy looking at the artists’ offerings or in conversation. I observed the scene and the tingling began.

I realized that in all the books I’ve read or conversations I’ve had, I’ve never heard anyone else describe a feeling like this.

I tried to figure out just what it was. It’s peaceful and fuzzy. Dare I say I was contented????

Maybe that’s it: scalp-tingling contentment. Has anyone else ever experienced this, or am I just weird? By the way, I had sold a lot of books by this time, so I was content in that respect. (Smirk.)

My Obituary

I was digging through an old grocery bag of papers and artwork from my school days when I found a news story that detailed my death. I must have written it for English class. Here it is:

Another schoolwork bag find: my shadow portrait from sixth grade.

Another schoolwork bag find: my shadow portrait from sixth grade.

Marie, 16, died today after saving five girls from drowning. She was lifeguarding at the YWCA girl’s camp, Camp Wanakiwin. The girls were having trouble swimming to shore from an airplane that crashed in the lake near the camp.

Said one of the rescued girls, “She was going back to the plane to get a sixth girl when the plane blew up.”

Marie had completed her sophomore year at (specific school name deleted to protect the innocent). Her anatomy teacher said that she was witty and smart. “I used to give her a hard time,” he said. “Her presence will be sorely missed in school.”

Marie was one of the top swimmers and cross-country skiers at (school name), holding the city titles for 100-yard breaststroke and girl’s senior high cross-country skiing.

The funeral will be held at First United Methodist Church, 10 a.m., this Wednesday.

I’m sure I wrote the story tongue-in-cheek (delusions of grandeur, much?!), but it gives a glimpse into the things that were important to me at the time: mainly, my lifeguarding class and athletics. My anatomy teacher was my favorite because he was always cracking jokes and made learning fun. And what better way to leave this world than in an effort to help others, combined with a big explosion!

Later, after I became a mother and wrote a relative’s obituary, I wrote a serious obituary about myself. Motherhood and my relative’s death reminded me of my mortality, and the journalist in me wanted to know that the last words written about me would be somewhat accurate. That obituary has been lost to the winds of time, but I recall it focused on my career and role as a mother.

Lately I’ve been considering taking a stab at another one. Not to be morbid, but because I’m not sure that my kids or relatives know enough to do it justice. I mean, think about it. Good obituary writing is an art. And for some people, it’s the only time they’ll ever get in the newspaper other than their birth announcement. I’d really rather have my obituary say more than I liked knitting and was a good speller.

I’ve saved a couple of friends’ obituaries I thought were well written. But I suppose that even after I rewrite mine, I’ll have to update it — sort of like a resume or a will. Things change the longer you live. Accomplishments that were important to you in high school no longer matter as much when you’re in your fifties.

From my past efforts I know that writing your own obituary causes you to take stock of life. It makes you ask: Is what I’m doing really important? (To yourself or to society.) Is this how I want to be remembered? Do I need to change something?

Who will write your obituary after you die? Do you think they’ll get it right? Does it matter or is it all vanity? It’s something to consider.

The Purge (or When a Trip to the Dump can be Good for the Soul)

Image courtesy of St. Louis County, Minn.

Image courtesy of St. Louis County, Minn.

Today I got rid of some dead weight and made a new friend along the way.

It was time for fall cleaning, if you will. I got rid of some household hazardous waste (fluorescent light tubes and used snow blower oil) and detritus accumulated over several years — both mine and my parents.

My family moved our aging parents twice in the past several years — from their home to an assisted living facility, and from there to another facility in a different town. I kept some of their things on the chance they might need them, but now that it’s been several years and they live out of town, I realized that ain’t gonna happen. So it was time for a purge.

How it works at our self-service dump is you tell the attendant what you’ve got in your (car, truck or trailer) load and they assess you a charge. Then you drive up a hill. Below the hill are large dumpsters either for metals, cardboard, wood, or miscellaneous waste. You park on the dumpster hill and then toss your junk down into the appropriate container. After that, you drive down the hill and loop back to the entrance to a shed where electronics are collected.

The last time I visited the local dump (now called the more politically correct “Materials Recovery Center”) was about a year after my divorce. I loaded all the junk my ex (who was sort of a hoarder) left into my then-boyfriend’s truck and we made a date of going to the dump. Hey, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

Let me tell you, throwing your stuff into the dumpster abyss is a rush. You’re flinging off your old world to make room for the new. It can get addicting. My boyfriend and I laughed as we did it — the feeling was so freeing. This time, I felt rather sad because some of my parents’ discarded items meant their lives would never be the same, but still it felt good to get the stuff cleaned out of my house and garage.

And I made a new friend in the form of the lady attendant who assessed my load. We happened to have the same type of vehicle, so while I was showing her the stuff in my trunk, we talked about the merits of our cars. I paid and when she came back to give me the receipt she asked more questions about my car.

I thought having a dump worker who wasn’t a stressed out robot was a nice change of pace. But the guy in the truck behind me did not. He yelled at the woman to hurry up. Ignoring him, she replied to me, “It’s my job.” (With the unspoken, “And I can do what I like to make it bearable.”) We exchanged a few more words and then I went on my merry way up dumpster hill.

After my cathartic dump (smile), I waved to her as I left.

So, that’s life in northern Minnesota. We make friends at the dump and get our kicks tossing stuff away. What can I say?

Try visiting your local dump someday. It could be good for your soul.

Spending the Fourth of July in . . . the Twilight Zone

William Shatner and the gremlin in

William Shatner and the gremlin in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”

While most people in Duluth were finding their way to favorite spots on the hillside or waterfront to watch the night’s fireworks display, I got distracted by the SciFy channel’s Fourth of July Twilight Zone Marathon. I had socialized and visited the beach earlier in the day, and was watching a bit of television before leaving for the fireworks. Problem was, an episode was airing that scared the bee hooosis (Minnesotan for bejesus) out of me when I was young.

I hadn’t seen “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” since that fateful night my parents were out and I watched a scary television show despite their instructions to the contrary. Would the episode be as frightening to now? Would the face that appears in the airplane window when the passenger draws back the curtain make me hide behind the living room curtains like when I was little?

I had to watch it. Fireworks be dammed. Cue Rod Serling’s opening narration:

Portrait of a frightened man: Mr. Robert Wilson, thirty-seven, husband, father, and salesman on sick leave. Mr. Wilson has just been discharged from a sanitarium where he spent the last six months recovering from a nervous breakdown, the onset of which took place on an evening not dissimilar to this one, on an airliner very much like the one in which Mr. Wilson is about to be flown home – the difference being that, on that evening half a year ago, Mr. Wilson’s flight was terminated by the onslaught of his mental breakdown. Tonight, he’s traveling all the way to his appointed destination, which, contrary to Mr. Wilson’s plan, happens to be in the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone.

Robert Wilson is played by a young William Shatner. His wife sits beside him on his plane ride home from the sanitarium.

I marveled at the 1960s clunky airplane backdrop, made with cheap wood paneling, the airline seats with so much room on either side they looked like today’s first-class seats, and the quaint plaid curtains covering the plane windows.

Was I was scared watching the show now? Of course not. I’ve been too jaded by the likes of “Jaws,” and “The Exorcist,” and “Amityville Horror,” and dozens of other horror movies for a little Twilight Zone to scare me. But I understood why the story was so frightening when I was younger; it was the feelings that Mr. Wilson was alone in his belief that someone was out on the airplane wing. The plane is in peril from this person outside. Only he knows this, but he can’t make anyone else believe him because the humanoid (which we later learn is a gremlin) hides when anyone else tries to see him. That kind of emotional tension must have been unbearable to me as a child.

Plus there’s the tension and surprise when Mr. Wilson closes the curtain after seeing the gremlin the first time, but then wants to open it up later, just to check if anything is really out there. His hand hesitates above the curtain as he struggles with his feelings. When he draws back the curtain, the gremlin’s morose yet curious face fills the entire window. (I suspect this is the point where I fled behind the curtains.)

Nightmare_ar_20,000_Feet_GremlinThe gremlin’s appearance in the window is scarier than the appearance of the gremlin itself. He’s more like a wooly clown with a bad make-up job. But it’s all the peril and tension that made this episode so memorable.

This little trip down horror memory lane was worth missing the fireworks show. Even after all these years, it reminded me what makes a good horror story: tension, surprise, peril, and emotional isolation.

Now, if I could just remember that the next time I write a horror story. Who knows? Maybe I will scare the bee hooosis out of a seven-year-old.

The Rachel Files: Final Entry

This weekend, my temporary housemate who moved out a year and a half ago came to pick up the rest of her stuff that I was storing in my garage. “Rachel” was finally able to get her own apartment (after moving in with another, more suitable housemate).

I was happy to have the space in my garage back, and I was happy that she hadn’t been living with me for that whole time. Can you imagine how insane I would be by now? (To read the beginning of the three-month saga from 2013, start here –Half-Empty Nest Syndrome— and read onward.) As it is, we were able to hug and wish each other well.

I sure hope her building has a good plumber!

Rockin’ the First Day of Kindergarten

Five-year-old me wearing my cowgirl outfit from my Grandpa. I suspect the card is from him, too.

Five-year-old me wearing my cowgirl outfit from my Grandpa. I suspect the card is from him, too.

Last night, I attended a performance of “Love, Loss, and What I Wore” – a play about the associations between women’s clothing and emotions. It reminded me of how my childhood friend and I rocked the first day of kindergarten.

When I was young, my grandfather owned a western goods store in southwestern Minnesota. He sold saddles, boots, and clothing. When we visited, I loved the smell of leather in his store, and riding the ponies, mules, and horses he kept on his land.

For my fifth birthday, he sent me and my neighborhood best friend, Jody, cowgirl outfits – shirts, short skirts lined with white fringes, cowgirl boots and western hats. Mine was blue and Jody’s was red. We were both horse crazy and loved those outfits — so much so that we decided to wear them the first day of kindergarten together. We wanted to be stylish, yes, but we also wanted to catch the attention of the boys by twirling our short skirts so they could see our underwear. We must have been pretty provocative five-year-olds!

Our first day of kindergarten went as planned, including the twirling. I don’t recall if it garnered any male attention, but for me, the cowgirl outfit was the first of many favorite clothes yet to come. And it made what could have been an intimidating experience into one of confidence and fun. Do you have any favorite clothing memories?

How I Fought for my Mole

Cindy-Crawford Style Noted

Cindy Crawford and her mole. Image from Style Noted website.

I have a skin condition (rosacea) that, if left untreated, will turn my face into a vein-strewn red mess. Years ago, I had an elective skin treatment to eliminate the broken veins that had snaked their way onto my cheeks and nose. It was a light laser treatment, which they said would “feel like a rubber band is being snapped on your face.” Let me tell you, it was a heck of a lot more painful than that! But the treatment worked well. Since some veins and other assorted age-related globules were beginning to appear on my face, I decided it was time to subject myself to more elective self-torture.

I went to a local plastic surgery clinic that has a skin care specialist. She took one look at me and gave me a facial to remove about seven years of dead skin. We discussed options for removing my globs and decided on the lamprobe, a device that uses high-intensity something or ruthers to zap the veins and bumps into oblivion. This option was cheaper than the laser treatment I had before, so I was all for trying it.

We discussed what she would remove on my face next week, once my skin recovered from the shock of the facial. Things were fine until we talked about the big juicy mole I have on my right cheek. Well, it used to be a mole until a couple of years ago when its color began mysteriously disappearing. Now it’s just a big bump.

I swear I could hear the saliva collecting in the skin care specialist’s mouth as we discussed zapping my mole. She wanted it to add to her collection of dead skin tissue that I’m sure she keeps on a shrine in a hidden room inside her home.

I panicked. Unlike the other unwanted spots on my face, my mole had been with me for as long as I can remember. It had become part of my identity. Sure, it wasn’t as sexy as Cindy Crawford’s mole, but I was uncomfortable at the thought of parting with it.

The specialist said I should think about it during the coming week, and let her know when I came back for the procedure. So I did. The more I thought, the more I knew my mole had to stay. But that old crone’s bump alongside my nose? That could go. All those bumps on my forehead? Those could go, too. Good riddance.

The day of the procedure the specialist showed me a small device (like a pen) that had a pencil-lead thin metal probe on the end of it. This is what she would stick into my skin, firing the high-intensity whatevers to zap my face.

Would it hurt? She wouldn’t answer that directly, instead saying how some patents “got tired” after the worst blemishes were zapped and sometimes decided to leave the rest for another time. That did not bode well.

She washed my face and we discussed again what would go. The mole? “It stays,” I said. I gave her the whole Cindy Crawford argument.

She countered with “But Cindy Crawford’s mole has color to it. Yours doesn’t. It’s just a bump!”

After further negatory comments on my part, she begged, “Are you sure you don’t just want it made smaller? I can do that.”

“We’ll see once we get to that point,” I said.

She began on my forehead and worked her way down my face. It @#$%^&*! hurt. Not as much as the laser, but enough that my back arched several times while the probe did its nasty work. Specialist Lady said I was doing wonderfully.

Somewhere in our conversation punctuated by small moments of intense stinging – like a wasp was having its way with my face — I asked her if anyone had ever tried to hit her because of the pain. She said a woman raised her arm once, but put it back down after the specialist called the woman’s attention to it.

When Specialist Lady arrived at my mole terrain, I knew by that point how much more it would hurt than the other things she’d removed. I turned a hard heart to her pleas and said no again. But I did let her take off a mole on my lower neck as a consolation prize.

However, it’s been a few days now, and my neck mole has turned into a colorless blob. I’m a bit worried it will stay that way and am regretting giving Specialist Lady even this bit of turf. Well, I guess if it stays a colorless blob, it will match the one on my cheek! Who knows? Maybe I’ll even become attached to it.

* * *

P.S. My  neck mole did eventually disappear, so the treatment worked!

On the Ice Bucket Challenge and Apologizing for Happiness

Smileyes By Ramesh NG via Wikimedia Commons

Smileyes By Ramesh NG via Wikimedia Commons

My youngest son wanted me to video his friend dumping a bucket of cold water over his head, joining the masses participating in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. This was back a couple of weeks ago when it was all the rage. I agreed and probably laughed about it. My son then proceeded to make a snarky comment and went outside to join his friend who was waiting in our driveway with the bucket.

Stunned by my fifteen-year-old’s comment, I stood in the kitchen, at war over whether to call him out on it, but also feeling pressure to go outside and take the video. He doesn’t usually say such things, but the past few days, I’d noticed an edge to him that hadn’t been there before.

When he came on the porch looking for me, I motioned him into the house. I told him that if he wanted me to do something nice for him (take the video), he needed to be nicer to me and apologize for his comment (the words to which I can’t even recall any more).

He apologized and we had a rather heated discussion about what was wrong. It turns out, it’s all my fault. I was laughing too much. It annoyed him.

Now, even if I do say so myself, my laugh is not annoying. In fact, back when phone contact was the norm, my Allstate agent used to call me and crack jokes just to hear me laugh. He actually admitted this to me. My laugh is hearty, yes, but not unusually frequent. And I’m not one of those people who goes around smiling all the time. But, as you can probably tell from this blog, I do have an easy and strange sense of humor, and enjoy laughing when I have the chance.

Before I knew what was coming out of my mouth, I apologized to my son for being a happy person. In part, I did it to show him the absurdity of his complaint. I also did it because he had apologized to me and I was trying to move the discussion forward. Other parts of our conversation revolved around the need for him to find a way to deal with hearing his mother laugh. I have many things I could be sad about. I’m nowhere near as resilient as I used to be, but I’m not about to stop laughing any time soon. Afterwards, we went outside and commenced with the icewater dumping.

Last night, we had an airing out session about several things, and we talked more about the Terrible Awful Problem of having a happy mom. I told my son it’s rather normal for teenagers to get annoyed, especially when they are sleep-deprived. The day before the annoyance incident happened, he had his friend over for a “sleepover,” which usually involves almost anything but sleeping. We also talked about how annoyance over little things can be a waste of time and energy, and we both laughed about how silly it was to be annoyed by happiness. He assured me his annoyance wasn’t because he was unhappy, but because of hearing my laugh so often lately.

If having a happy mom is the worst issue for my son, I’d say we are doing all right.