Wednesday, March 24, 2010


They’re all just a little different and they’re all strangely alike. The bedspreads are different colors but all made of that weird polyester ‘quilted’ fabric. The ‘furniture’ is all bolted to the walls with the exception of the odd chair that only becomes a repository for your dirty clothes. There’s the plastic ice bucket, the remote that never matches the TV, the Kleenex and toilet paper that both have the texture of tree bark. They’re all kinda creepy.

They’re also kind of amazing. Ironing board, refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker, phone, hair dryer, alarm clock, TV – everything you need to make it through the time of your stay in relative comfort. And, someone else washes the sheets for you. Not too bad a deal, eh?

My hotel odyssey started in earnest during my junior year of college. That’s when I transferred to South Dakota State University and started doing forensics on the weekends. Every weekend it was a different hotel and, because we were always on a budget, the hotels that were chosen were often the least expensive and least luxurious. Additionally, that hotel room was shared with 3 other women. It was…cozy, let’s say.

The romance of hotels, if there ever was any, wore off quickly. Beds were often less than comfortable and showers were often less than hot. Sheets were thin and walls were often thinner. Once I ended up spending the night in a hotel in Sioux Falls, SD. A friend and I had road tripped down for a show. When we left Brookings it was sweatshirt weather and when we emerged from the theatre several hours later we were in the midst of a blinding blizzard. After 10 minutes (and less than a mile) on the highway we wisely turned back and got the last room at the first hotel we came to. There was no TV, only one blanket and when we woke up in the morning there was a miniature snowdrift just inside our door.

As time passed, I was more in charge of the choice of hotel. But let’s face it – it’s still a crapshoot. And, once you start traveling in other countries, all bets are off. I stayed in a hotel in Brugge once where the bed had a body shaped cavern in the mattress – you literally were cradled in the indentation in the mattress. But, the room over-looked one of the canals and was within earshot of one of the most melodic church bells I’ve ever heard, so I figured that the tradeoff was worth it. Once in Amboise, France my hotel room was on the top floor of the building and if I sat upright in bed I smacked my head on the pitched roof.

I once stayed in a hotel in Turkey, in a town right on the border of Russian Georgia. This particular hotel, we learned afterwards, was rather well-known locally as being the workplace of choice of a good number of Georgian ‘working girls’ – euphemistically referred to by the locals as ‘Natashas.’ Those rooms were very interesting, most containing vibrating beds with strobe lights in the headboards – not something we had anticipated finding in a country that is 99% Islamic.

In a hotel you’re in that odd place – alone, but not really. You’re surrounded by people and, depending on the hotel, you can hear more or less of them. You’re limited in what you can do – watch NCIS re-runs on TV, swim in a pool the size of a postage stamp, read the complimentary copy of USA Today. And, in a hotel you’re in that wonderful place – that place that lets you go and explore and see new things and visit new places. So call the front desk and arrange your wake-up call, prop yourself up with all the pillows from both beds, grab the remote, and settle in for a re-run or two. Tomorrow it’s time to explore.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Nephew's Facebook post:
"Why Do 'Nice Guys' Finish Last With Women? When asked what she wants in a man, a woman will often say, “I just want a nice guy...someone who cares and who listens” but she will then do the OPPOSITE and date a bad boy, a jerk...or a guy who doesn't treat her well. What's going on there?"

Aunt's Facebook response:
"What's going on there is that you have dated A woman (not all women) who really either A) doesn't know what she wants or B) is a liar about what she wants. In either case, consider yourself lucky to have found out now. Grieve, learn, move on. Ultimately - nice guys don't finish last. It just might take a while to find the right one."

Relationships are a tough thing. I'm sure all of us can feel nephew's pain here. If you're a man, you've probably said the same thing at some point in your dating history. And, if you're a woman, you've probably said the female variation "Why do guys say they want a 'nice girl' and always end up choosing the bitch instead?"

You might be thinking that "Well, nephew is young, and he will probably have many more girlfriends before he meets the right one." And, of course, you are right. But that knowledge, nor my platitudes, hardly help nephew as he goes through the disappointment and frustration of trying to figure it all out. And, the experience he has had with this woman colors his expectations and interpretations of the women he has yet to meet.

I suspect that this thing he is experiencing has been going on for centuries. Yet, I wonder if it is in some way different, more pronounced, in this day of our current media. After all, what role models are we giving young people to look up to as they try to navigate relationships. TV? Really? What do we have? On the dramatic front - Desperate Housewives, Gossip Girl, Two and a Half Men. Or, on the reality TV page we have the Real World, the Bachelor, the Marriage Ref. Are any of these something we'd put up as an ideal? Something to emulate? And let's not even get started on daytime Soap Operas or on vampires as role models.

What about real life role models? Politicians? Nope. Celebrities? No. Even ministers? Not really. Everywhere we look we are shown examples of how to lie and cheat and deceive and manipulate in relationship - rarely are we shown ways to do it well. And everyone justifies their cheating and lying. Flying off to meet your mistress in Argentina and leaving your wife and children is fine "because she's your soul-mate." Of course, lying and deceit and manipulation are much more dramatic and make for much more 'salable' TV. I get that advertisers go for what sells. And, I get that adults should all know better and recognize that it is simply 'dramatization.' But do kids?

How many young people watch TV and think that this is really the way to behave in relationship? You lie, you cheat, you deceive - you do whatever you have to do to get what you want. Why does the young girl want the bad boy, the one who treats her like dirt? Is it because media glamorizes him? Portrays him as being 'misunderstood' but really possessing a heart of gold? Let's face it - the reality is the jerk is often just that - a jerk. Change the genders and the generalization still applies.

How many parents monitor their kids' TV watching past a certain age? How many parents have conversations with their kids about what they're watching? Do they discuss what they're seeing -- what is. or is not, good role modeling? I suspect not. I suspect that most people assume that they've imparted good values to their kids and that their kids are smart enough to 'know better.' And I believe that most people are sincere in that. They really do believe they are doing right by their kids and, after all, 'it's only tv.'

What's the answer? I don't have it. And I'm not trying to blame TV for all our social ills. I don't think it works that way. But I would wish for something different on TV (and in the news) - for role models that show that good relationships start with good communication - honesty, sensitivity, compassion. That it isn't just about getting what you want at all costs. That you really do have to be a decent person to grow a decent relationship. The TV might not be as 'dramatic' but I wonder if our relationships would be, at least a little bit, more healthy.

Monday, March 15, 2010


I have laryngitis. I woke up with a scratchy throat Saturday morning and by Saturday evening my voice was well on its way to another dimension. By Sunday morning - gone. In recent years this has happened to me, on average, twice a year. It usually happens about 2 1/2 weeks into each new semester. I know this because in one of my classes I've been outlining class content every semester to see how things change and evolve. So, I have records from the past 5 years that indicate the timeline. (I, of course, blame it all on those coughing, spitting, hacking, germ factories called 'students.') :-) I realize that losing your ability to speak is difficult for most people. But I think it's probably a little more difficult for someone like me.

In case you hadn't noticed, I have a lot of words. I've been told that by many
people - and I have to acknowledge the truth of it, though I don't have as many as some people I've known. I suspect that this has manifested itself in my life in many different ways. For one, I chose to be a teacher. I chose to be a teacher of communication. In those capacities, you're often asked to present, to lecture, to speak. And today I cannot.

Being unable to speak, for someone like me, is difficult. Very difficult. I have a running commentary on life that zips through my head and, often, out my mouth. Luckily, I have developed friendships with people who enjoy talking as well. It's obviously far more fun to talk when you get a response from someone. These relationships give me an outlet for my words, and allow me to learn from others' words at the same time.

One of the topics I teach about in all my classes is 'effective listening.' I'm aware of my listening habits and work hard in my daily life and relationships to be a good listener. Of course, sometimes I'm more successful than others. However, being unable to talk - imposed silence - causes you to listen in a new and different way.

It makes me aware that in regular conversation I am responsive. I am quick to ask a question or to make a comment. I have words to offer. While the response is good, I believe, perhaps the quickness isn't always. I picked up a friend from the airport last evening. Since I had no voice, the conversational burden fell to her. Other than the whispered 'really?' or 'oh?' I wasn't able to offer much. And the silence on my part, caused her to say more than she usually does. And I suspect what she said was different from what she would have said had I been asking questions.

I also found myself listening in a different way. I had questions in my head, yes, but the questions went unasked. And as her story continued, the questions went away. I found myself caught up in trying to place myself where she had been and to take part in her experience. It was interesting to see how the story evolved when it wasn't directed by my questions or comments, when it was motivated by her desire to tell it, and when it was full of the details that she believed were significant.

The experience made me more aware that some people (not this friend, by the way) don't hold up their end of the conversational bargain. They give only the most basic of detail and they want you to work to pull the story out of them. And, when that happens, it isn't my job to pick it up and fill in the blanks with my words, no matter how comfortable that behavior is for me. I can wait. I can be silent. I can let them find their own words.

Friday, March 12, 2010


I like to bake. It's something my mom taught me to do when I was growing up and I really enjoy it. I like the entire process - picking the recipe, gathering the ingredients, the measuring and leveling, the mixing, liquids and solids separately, then together - all of it. I'm also pretty good at it. 99% of the time what I bake turns out well. Really well. People like my baking. They ask me to bake things. Cakes, pies, cookies, tarts, cheesecakes - I can make you fat in 180 different ways! Let me try! :-)

Then there's the other 1% of the time. Disaster. Not just "oh, not my favorite" or "well, it 's just a little too sweet for my taste " or "nice, but I prefer your Chocolate Coma Cookies." No, I'm talking disaster. Un-savable, inedible, unmitigated disaster. Like yesterday.

I'm hosting some friends for dinner tonight and I'm cooking Italian. I decided that I wanted an Italian-inspired dessert. In searching for something appropriate I came across a recipe on a website I visit regularly for Limoncello Cake. Just the ticket. I like Limoncello. The people who are coming to dinner like Limoncello. Cake is easy - it's, after all, cake.

So I was reading the posted reviews for the recipe and came across one that wasn't particularly positive. Normally, I would decide that one less than stellar review was easy to ignore. However, this review was by someone whose opinion I trusted and she used the one word that triggers me - bland. The last thing I wanted to serve was a bland Limoncello cake. She also mentioned that she had a recipe that was so much better.

So, I wrote, asked her if she would share her recipe, she graciously replied with a 'yes' - and I was in business. Operating under the assumption that any cake with booze in it will always taste better the second day, I decided to bake a day early. Thank God. I baked. It was a brick. Really. A solid brick. The cake bakes in a loaf pan so it was the shape, the size and the consistency of a brick. When I took it out of the pan and put it onto a serving plate, it was as heavy as a brick. When I tasted it, it tasted - well, you get the idea. Clearly, I screwed up!

So, back to the recipe I went. I went back over the process in my head. I did everything the recipe called for. I added every ingredient the recipe called for. Now what? But the more I looked, I began to realize what had gone wrong. The recipe did not include either baking soda or baking powder, the 2 common ingredients in baking that chemically react with the liquids and cause baked goods to rise. How could that be? Everyone knows you need one of those things in a recipe. What dope wrote this recipe and didn't include that ingredient?

I had pretty well decided the author of this recipe needed a little instruction in the basics of baking when I read a little further. "Self-rising cake flour." Not just cake flour but "self-rising" cake flour. Hmmmm. So maybe the author of the recipe isn't such a dope after all and I need a lesson or two in reading the directions more carefully! Now, in my own defense, I didn't know there was such a thing as 'self-rising' cake flour. I thought cake flour was cake flour. Period. But that's a pretty weak defense. I didn't read the ingredient list carefully, and the result was my brick. My delightfully lemon smelling and beautiful lemon colored - brick.

So my lesson was a pretty obvious one. Slow down. Don't assume you know what's coming just because you've done something before. Take time to consider that there might be an alternative way. Read the directions!

So, today I'm baking another cake. This time, I'm going to use the first recipe that I looked at and rejected. I've read it carefully; it calls for baking powder and baking soda, both. This sucker should rise. Given the 'bland' comment, I'm going to toss in a little more lemon zest and juice than the recipe calls for, but I'm going to give it a shot.

Am I going back to try the other recipe again? Yes - just not today. I'm going to give it another try when I can take my time and really pay attention to what I'm doing - and when I have the time to find a store that sells 'self-rising' cake flour! And in the meantime, I'm spending a little more time reading directions.

By the way - I've gotten a couple of lovely compliments on the photo of the lemon cake. I can't take credit for it - I snagged it off of this website and want to make sure they get the credit. They'll sell you the cake for $27.95 plus shipping! Looks good, huh?

Thursday, March 11, 2010


I heard it for the first time in months this morning. I was in the midst of the morning routine I've developed while on this sabbatical. I had finished my morning writing, I'd finished my allotted 2 cups of coffee, I'd finished breakfast, I'd finished answering emails and was in the midst of my daily blog reading. There are several blogs I check on a regular basis. I was reading one, Tongue in Cheek, a blog written by an American woman living in France about life in France - one of my favorite daily reads. That's when I heard it. Thunder.

It has been drizzly, cloudy, foggy all week long - and dreary. No sunshine, no blue sky. Normally I hate weather like this. You have to have virtually every light in the house on to even come close to approximating daylight. It feels like it's 4:30 in the afternoon all day long. It's a struggle to wake up and an even greater struggle to stay up. I want to curl up on the sofa under a blanket and take a nap - all day.

But today it's different, because there is thunder. Immediately following that sound I heard another sound coming from my kitchen; it was familiar, yet I couldn't place it. When I went to investigate it was the sound of raindrops pounding on the garden window in my kitchen. It's another sound that I haven't heard in months. And, just now, there is lightning. Signs of Spring.

Yesterday I had some errand to run and while I was out I could see patches appearing in lawns - places where the snow has melted down enough that you can actually see grass. It first appears on the edges of the sidewalks and driveways where you were a little over-zealous in your shoveling. Then, it starts pulling away from the house and the garage. Then it starts spreading out from under the evergreen trees where it was protected enough that the snow never really got that deep to begin with. All of those can happen, and there can be more snow. But you know Spring is coming when the patches start - holes in the middle of lawns that can't possibly have come from the heat of the house or the warm air blowing from the dryer vent. It's real snow melt.

Every day this week the snow pack has continued to shrink, and shrink noticeably. The snow bank that I used for the beer refrigerator for my pre-St. Paddy's day dinner party this past weekend is now nothing more than a bumpy little hill. The holes left from the bottles of Guinness and Harp are now gone and the snow that is left is slightly reminiscent of a ski slope with moguls - in miniature.

The house is warmer, even though I haven't touched the thermostat at all. I've put away one of the extra quilts for the bed. I've gone from 3 layers of heavy clothing down to 2 layers of lighter weight. There's a promise of outdoors, being able to wear a jacket instead of a coat, wearing shoes instead of boots, and the reminder that sandals and flip flops exist for a reason and soon you'll actually get to remember what for. There's a promise of open windows.

It's still cold out, damp and chilly and too early for those things quite yet. But the promise of them is there in the rain. In addition to melting the snow it erases the dirt, that brown/black crust that sits on the edges of the snow banks the plows have created in the front lawns. Part dirt, part car exhaust, 100% ugly. It's being washed away by the rain. It's leaving clean behind it.

That's what Spring is about. Washing away the old. Beginning again with the new. New chances. New hope. New opportunities. I know there's still a possibility of a blizzard. This is, after all, Minnesota, and we haven't had State HS basketball tournaments yet. But even if the blizzard comes, it won't stay. The birds that nest every Spring in the tree outside my office window are back. I can hear them singing as I write. Spring is here. Open your grasp and let go of the winter. Open your arms, and windows, wide and embrace the Spring.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


I hosted a dinner party this weekend. That feels like an odd sentence for me to write. It sounds so grown up. I generally think of dinner parties as being something that adults went to in the 50s and 60s. They were an activity that a wife was required to do to entertain her husband's business clients or co-workers, where everyone had one too many cocktails and people ended up involved in 'indiscretions' of one variety or another. In other words, they were something out of Peyton Place or The Graduate or maybe in today's venue Desperate Housewives. My life, truly, is none of those.

Yet, I hosted a dinner party. This is a small group of people that has come together in the past few years, 4 or 5 times a year, to share dinner together in each others' homes. In truth, I've been having people over for dinner for years - friends, family, people from work or church or some group I've belonged to. But these current dinner parties are different, whether I am the host or the guest. They are an 'event.'

There is preparation. Since this particular dinner party took place in early March, I used it as an excuse to do some early Spring cleaning - dusting and vacuuming and floor mopping. I turned off the furnace and opened windows on every side of the house to blow out all that winter air and bring in the fresh spring air. I added leaves to the table and put out a freshly washed tablecloth in spring colors. I filled vases with Tulips. I brought out extra silver and dishes to accommo-date the courses - drinks and appetizers, salad, main course, dessert. I filled a China sugar bowl and a creamer to go with the coffee and dessert. I brought out wine glasses and cordial glasses. And, this being Minnesota, I used the snow bank outside my back door as an extra beverage refrigerator.

There is strategy. You plan the work that needs to be done so it is spread out over several days before the party. That way you are not so exhausted by preparation that you are too tired to enjoy your company. You plan the menu so that the majority of the cooking can be done in advance or so that most things are done in the oven. That way you can actually spend time with your company instead of being in the kitchen slaving over a stove. You plan the music so that it enhances the mood of the evening and the conversation without overpowering it.

There is serendipity. This is the piece that you really can't plan. You invite the guests, but they determine the conversation. Yes, of course, you can do some planning here - not inviting this person, or at least not inviting this person and that person for the same evening. But then again, if you must think of those things, why invite them at all? This is your event and you get to spend it with people that you enjoy. This isn't your parents', or grandparents', dinner party where you're obligated to invite the boss or the obnoxious co-worker. This is your dinner party where you get to invite people you actually like.

And that's the reason to host a dinner party - the people and the conversation. During the course of our 6 hours together we covered it all -- or at least a good part of it. There was religion and traveling and health care reform and movies. There were aging parents and non-maturing children. There was politics and education and theatre and the judicial system. There was laughter and joking alongside serious discussion and thoughtful, measured opinions. It was nothing short of delightful. Evenings like these are special. And it isn't the food or the flowers or the wine. It's the people.

These evenings also bring home, in another way, the fleeting nature of life. We are all together this evening, but there is no guarantee that we will be again. Each of us has an end point, and none of us has a promise that it will occur when we're 102 and sitting in our rocker on the porch. It could be next year, next month, tomorrow. All the more reason to make each day an 'event.' We get to choose how to spend our time, and with whom. We get to choose our path. We get to choose happiness.