Monday, October 26, 2009


A colleague of mine died last week. It was sudden – completely unexpected. He was Mr. Healthy – walking to work and home every day, healthy eater, slender – yet still died of a massive heart attack without warning of any kind at age 66.

Doug and I started at Inver Hills the same year – 1989. We’ve been colleagues for 20 years. Our offices were in different buildings so we didn’t see each other on a daily basis. But we were friendly, talking with each other at duty days, sharing the common greetings of passing between classes on the mall, sharing an in-depth (and, I must admit, usually confusing) conversation at a conference (Doug taught Philosophy), sharing a laugh and a snarky comment or two about administratively required ‘work’.

Working with really smart people can be pretty intimidating. After all, they’re smart. They all have at least a Master’s degree, and most have more – advanced course work, an advanced degree. Beyond their degrees, though, they’re smart. Really smart. In some cases, scary smart. The smart, most of the time, isn’t really about their book learning or their degree. It’s an inherent thing – a combination of curiosity, wonder, determination, analysis and creativity. It’s the thing that drove them to pursue the field they did, and to desire to share their discoveries with others. It’s the thing that makes them fun to work with.

Some people perhaps have a perception of college teachers that’s pretty outdated – that they are these intellectual eggheads, who live in a fog in their ivory towers with no connection to “the real world” and no idea how to relate to the world that “real people” have to live and work in. Maybe that’s true – somewhere. But it’s not true about the colleagues I’ve had. Of course there’s always an exception or two, and maybe there are a lot of exceptions as people are people wherever we go. But the colleagues I’ve had in the places I’ve taught – those who are colleagues in the real sense of the word – have been people who have taught me to be better, challenged me to re-think a situation or an approach, helped me to see beyond the immediate and grasp the long-term, helped me to focus on the things that are really relevant and significant. They’re the ones that have helped to make ‘the job’ an opportunity for something beyond the ordinary. And, they’ve helped me keep my sanity!

So hats off to my colleagues. And hats off to Doug – philosopher, teacher, colleague.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


I visited my hometown this past weekend. It was the MEA break so an opportune time to make the trek across South Dakota to Rapid City. For those of you wanting to visit, the directions from Minneapolis are simple: Head south on I-35 and turn right at I-90. Drive forever.

For those of you who think I am exaggerating, clearly you’ve never made the drive. Mind you, I’m not judging it – I’m simply stating the facts. The reality is that some of the best times in my life have been spent watching the sun rise in my rear view mirror. It meant I was headed home.

Visiting your hometown is always an interesting experience. It’s your home – but it’s not. You know where most things are and know how to get wherever you might be going. Many things are just as you remember them. Some things have changed a little. Some things are new. But the essence of the place is still the same. It smells the same. It looks the same. The weather is still the same – 20 degrees warmer than it should be – 81F and a sunny, clear blue sky on October 18.

While growing up, my hometown seemed like a pretty big place. Now, not so much. It’s not that you can drive from one end of town to the other in second gear (like you could in my mom’s hometown) but you can drive from one end to the other, through town in traffic, in half an hour. One afternoon I visited my friend Barb who works at the Dahl Fine Arts Center. She gave me the full tour (I hadn’t been in the place since high school) and showed me the expansion, the behind-the-scenes areas, the newly constructed event center and the remodeled old MDU building which is now the office space. It was great to see how the place has changed and improved and great to see my hometown showing a commitment to the arts as well. As I left to go meet family for dinner, she advised me about how to miss the ‘rush hour’ traffic. I couldn’t help it – I laughed out loud. I gave myself 20 minutes to make the trip. I made it in 8. I laughed out loud again.

Being in your hometown reminds you of who you were when you were there. You replay events from your childhood. You see the house where you grew up, your old schools, your old church. You drive the street that used to be the ‘place to be seen’ when you were in high school. It all looks smaller now. You wonder what your life would have been like had you stayed. You try to imagine it – get a mental picture. Who would you be? What would you be doing? Who would you know? What would you be concerned about? You would be different – that is certain.

Being in your hometown also reminds you that you have the power to become. You have choice. You are not limited by your birth place or your birth station. You aren’t stuck being someone or something that doesn’t fit. You can change. You can become. You are allowed to grow into the person you wish to be. It’s up to you to make that choice. Once you have done that, if you like, you can always go visit – for a little while - the person you used to be. Then it’s time to get back in the car, put the visor down, and head back home – into the sunrise.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


I’ve been cleaning closets. This is one of those chores that I’ve been putting off for months. There’s always something better to do than this, isn’t there? The problem with cleaning a closet is that it doesn’t stop with just one. One closet bleeds into another and before you know it your entire house is a train wreck. There are jeans that you should have banished to the rag bag 5 years ago, shoes that you never should have bought in the first place and clothes that haven’t been in fashion since the 80s (and, let’s be honest, can we really call what happened in the 80s ‘fashion’?)

It’s simply not a quick chore. You try going by that old saw “if you haven’t worn it in the past 2 years, give it up” but you can’t help but talk yourself out of it. “Well, no, I haven’t worn it in the past 5 years BUT it goes perfectly with that …” or “Well, no, I haven’t worn it BUT I love it and as soon as I lose that 5 pounds it will fit perfectly.” Tell me that you’ve been there with me. Or, even worse, the jacket or pair of pants that’s too big. And I’m holding on to these because - what – I think I’m going to grow into them???

And then there’s the joy of discovery. That pair of Capri pants you searched all summer for but didn’t find because they were stuffed in between 2 winter jackets. The 3 blue tanks that you bought in exactly the same shade because you couldn’t find the first one because it slipped out of the pile of laundry and got jammed in the back of the drawer. That dress that was actually part of a Halloween costume back in college. That old bowling shirt of your Dad’s.

This exercise is a good one. It forces you to make decisions, cull the herd so to speak. My old grad school roommate, Marcee, was addicted to white blouses. She must have had 30 of them in her closet – she said you could never have too many. That may have been true for her (and may have been true for me about something other than white blouses, if the truth be told) but I’ve decided that I can have too many and it’s time to bite the bullet and start weeding. If it doesn’t fit – out. If it hasn’t been in fashion for over a decade – out. If it isn’t flattering – out. If it isn’t comfortable –out.

Admittedly this culling has gotten easier since I started doing more of my shopping at Savers. Let’s face it, when you’ve paid $4.99 for that top, it’s far easier to make the decision to dump it then when you’ve paid $49.99. It’s also easier when there’s a place for it to go. Value Village and Savers both take donations. I can drop off a bag of clothing (and anything else I need to weed out of the house) and know that there’s another life for it. I’m not throwing away something perfectly good (I am my Mother’s daughter, after all, and she did manage to beat one or two things into my hard head!) or contributing to a landfill. Someone else – someone who doesn’t have a lot of disposable income, someone who is between jobs, or someone who simply likes a good deal and wants to live more green by recycling whenever possible can get perfectly good, usable, wearable, and even fashionable clothing at a great price.

But the best part of all of it is the sense of freedom that comes with it. There’s less stuff to dig through, there’s less stuff to move around, there’s less stuff to weigh you down. There’s less stuff and when there’s less stuff there’s more room. Room to breathe, room to grow, room to invite others in. So get going – cull that herd. It’s good for others, it’s good for you, it’s good for that closet.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


I woke up to snow this morning. Now I know that many of you are thinking – ‘You live in Minnesota – what did you expect?’ and I get your point. But, I didn’t expect it on October 10. I know it’s only about an eighth of an inch and will probably be gone by lunchtime so it’s really not a big deal but I’M NOT READY!!!! Last year Autumn seemed to go on forever. It was great! Long stretches of cool days with a bright blue sky. Autumn smells, Autumn sounds. This year it seems like Autumn is trying to bypass us completely. The leaves on the trees are still green and have hardly begun to drop. There’s even one lone tomato still trying to turn red on the vine and, yet, snow.

Snow acts as a bit of an insulator. Everything is quieter after a snow. Traffic sounds are muted. There are fewer people out walking on the street. The squirrels are slower to venture out harvesting. Looking out at it from inside, it’s pristine – untouched as it covers the deck. This early in the season it is not, however, inviting. It doesn’t call to you to come out and make a snow angel or have a snowball fight. I don’t think longingly of my skis hanging in the garage. It looks odd – out of place with the green grass poking up through it and the garden plants trying to shake it off in the occasional breeze. It’s that same sense you get when walking along the ocean when summer is gone but where people have forgotten to take in their beach chairs and umbrellas. Something’s wrong with this picture.

Of course, maybe what really bothers me about it is the reminder of the passage of time. Snow means another summer is gone. Seven or eight long months before it’s warm enough to swim outside, eat breakfast out on the deck, sleep with the windows open. It’s time to switch the closets over from Spring/Summer clothes to Fall/Winter clothes. Take the screens off and wash the windows. It’s another season closer to that next birthday. It’s the reminder that we only have a limited number of days and hours. It’s the encouragement we need to make the most of them.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


My friend Keith has a radio show. He’s a professor at the University of the Cumberlands (Williamsburg, Kentucky – in case you’re not familiar) in the Communication and Theatre department and he’s the general manager of the radio station there. Twice a week during this academic year, his show runs from 10-noon (EST) on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The show is called Strictly the Sixties and showcases – you guessed it – 60s music. Keith wrote his doctoral dissertation on the music of the Beatles so I guess this was a logical extension of his interests and passion.

Last year, when we reconnected via Facebook (ain’t the Internet grand??) after 20 years, this radio program was one of the things that I discovered. Last year, listening was hit and miss. I was teaching full-time and while his show schedule didn’t actually conflict with my class schedule, unfortunately meetings - bloody meetings - often interfered with my listening. This year, my sabbatical allows much greater freedom so I’m able to listen with more regularity and, more significantly, uninterrupted.

The show is great fun. It runs for 2 hours, starting with music from the early 60s – pre-British invasion. Then it runs through a wonderful variety of stuff that you haven’t heard since you were a kid. The second hour of the show always starts with a set including a triple play of music from the Beatles (of course) and from, what Keith calls, the ‘usual musical suspects’ including Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones. This is radio the way you want it to be. There is uninterrupted music – 5 or 6 or more songs at a run – but it is followed by a rundown of what you’ve just heard (including performer and year of release), something you rarely get on commercial radio. You’ll hear a song that you love followed by a song that makes you cringe. Some of the music is funny, some just plain weird, and some incredibly obscure. When’s the last time you heard the Beatles singing “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” (ever?) followed by the beautiful “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “The Fool on the Hill”? It is also interspersed with interesting bits of information and trivia about the bands, the individual performers and the 60s in general. It’s a great cultural history lesson, all delivered to your desktop in manageable 2 hour segments.

For me, of course, a big part of the fun is the fact that it’s my friend’s voice I’m listening to. It almost feels like we’re actually in the same room (the wonder of technology) even though we are 900 miles apart. And we’re not alone in the room. His wife- my friend Marianne, and our friends Bill and Teresa and Gabrielle are there in the room also. I hear all their voices, their laughter, and I feel like I’m sitting in the midst of love and acceptance.

It’s just a radio show – but it’s a radio show that has reminded me of a couple of important lessons. The first lesson is it reinforces what we know in our hearts – that when we’ve connected in a meaningful way with another person, it doesn’t matter how much time and distance separates you. You are connected – you’ve made an impact on them and they on you. They’ve helped to shape who you are and you’re never really without them after that. You carry them along with you and they are part of what makes you who you are. The second lesson? Of course, "plastics."

By the way - for those of you who have emailed me asking how to listen in - here's the web address:
Click on 'Listen Online.' Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


It’s Autumn. Leaves are turning and falling. Days are shorter and shorter. Capri pants are out - sweaters are in. That smell is in the air. It’s that time of year when you want to pick up a backpack and a number 2 pencil. You want to be outside as much as you can because you know what’s coming. You find yourself with an urge to make soup and the coffee tastes better than it ever does in the summer. You put an extra blanket back on the bed.

This seasonal transition we’re in seemed to happen overnight – one day you’re in sunshine and shorts and the next day you’re thinking maybe you should turn the furnace on. It was probably more abrupt having spent the 2 weeks prior to the change in 95 degree heat with 95 percent humidity. I don’t think I was quite ready. I still want those 60 degree days where the sun shines and you can do some Fall clean-up in the yard. I’m not ready to hunker down for the count quite yet. Transitions are always a challenge in some way.

The transition back to regular life is marked by Haiti leftovers. I came back with intestinal bugs – always a pleasure and I won’t bore you all with the details. This time I also came back with a different experience – Dengue fever. A mosquito borne viral illness, it is characterized by fever, headache, back ache, joint aches, and a funky reddish tinge to the skin. In short, you feel like a truck hit you. Cure? Tylenol and a lot of naps. Ah, Haiti – the gift that keeps on giving.

Tim O’Brien starts his book, The Things They Carried, with a litany of all the things different soldiers carried with them through the Vietnam War. There were many things that everybody carried. They were necessities – SOP – for all soldiers like a rain poncho, ammunition, dog tags. In addition to the things in common, they all carried something unique. They carried photos or foot powder or extra socks or a Bible or a talisman. And they all carried their history.

Haiti, and Valentina, are now part of my history. Back at home, there’s work to do and I’m working. There’s a house to clean and I’m cleaning. There are bills to pay – yep – I’m paying. Life is back to normal. I’m moving on which is what we all do because we have no choice. Life is full of experiences and changes for all of us. None of us is exempt. No matter how big it is to us at the time - no matter how intense – our pain is no bigger than anyone else’s pain. We all have to deal with the stuff that comes our way. The best we can do is try to integrate those experiences into who we are and where we are. Let them in. Learn from them. Let them change us. Carry them.