Thursday, May 31, 2012

10 Things I'll Miss While in France

I found my beloved yellow mustard at a pseudo-American diner in Dijon

Soon it will be time to zip that suitcase closed, stuff it in an overhead bin, and take off for five weeks in France.  The trip means a summer of adjusting to all the differences between home and another country.  If I didn’t enjoy that change in my daily life I wouldn’t be crossing the ocean every summer.  As much as I embrace this opportunity to try on another culture, each summer there are some things from home that I pine away for without end.

Amerique, tu me manques* 

10) Yellow mustard 
We’re always based in Dijon, so you can guess what comes on sandwiches.  The problem is, I don’t like it.  I’ll cook with it, but I don’t want it on my turkey or ham sandwich at lunch.  The new Subway restaurant, nor the local McDonald’s serve it.  So I alternate salads and kebabs for lunch (and delicious packaged soup if it’s cold).

9) Doggy bags
The restaurant portions aren’t huge (usually), but by about the fourth course you’re getting full.  I would love to take home that last bit of duck or the delicious pizza or the regional casserole I couldn’t finish.  Someone suggested I always carry some Tupperware with me.  Yeah, right.  I admit it.  Probably the reason I can’t finish these fabulous meals all the time is because I regularly commit one of the French cardinal sins – I snack during the day.  If you only eat at meal time, of course you’re not too full for dinner.  So shoot me.  I’m an American, therefore I snack.

8) American music
It’s played surprisingly often over there, but not often enough.  I’ve tried to find something I like, but the videos are cheap and cheesy looking and the musical style sounds like it hasn’t advanced much more since Charles Aznavour was causing all the French chickies to swoon.  Last year Lady Antebellum music was really big on the French Muzak stations.  Thank heaven for small favors.

An American funk band played on one of our visits 

7) An IHOP breakfast
The French don’t do breakfast, unless you consider a piece of brioche and some yogurt breakfast.  Last summer I noticed some cafés opening early (before 8 a.m.) for the first time.  They served a light breakfast of croissant, juice, and yogurt.  Some even offered things like oatmeal or a bowl of mixed fruit.  But some mornings I want pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon (none of that Canadian kind), lots of syrup, etc.  It’s not like I do it all the time at home, but at least once or twice a month I indulge.

6) Extended shopping hours
France is good at leisure and family time.  I don’t need everything to be going on a 24-hour cycle.  But couldn’t something besides restaurants stay open until 10 or 11 p.m.?  Couldn’t the Petite Casino market stay open for more than three hours on Sunday in case you were out of town, arrived home in the late afternoon, and realized you had nothing for dinner.  What if you ran out of batteries at 8 o’clock on a Saturday night?  On Friday night stores stay open until 8 p.m.  Most close by 6 or 7 o’clock.  Can’t we find some kind of compromise here?

5) American television
I’m not a huge series TV watcher.  I can get my Daily Show and Rachel Maddow online.  However, I’ve found very little French television that grabs my attention.  Even the late night sex TV can be pretty boring.  When they do show BBC programs or old Law and Order episodes, they always dub the dialogue.  It’s just not the same without the New York cop accents.  Unfortunately, I can’t access Hulu TV in France.  So I’m stuck in a continuous loop of BBC News and CNN International.  Sometimes you just want to watch a little television while eating your lunch, you know.

4) Over-the-counter medicine
If I have hemorrhoids or a discreet vaginal itch, the only option in France is to explain your malady to someone in a white coat behind a tall counter.  That person will decide your best line of attack and retrieve it for you from a wall of remedies behind him or her.  The French pharmacie is not like ours.  They take all medicines very seriously, and even ibuprofen (although it doesn’t require a prescription) requires this consultation.  I just wish once I could walk in, grab a tube of Neosporin for a blister on my foot, pay, and leave.

3) Toilets
The French adore modern design.  They fill their 16th century buildings with 21st century furniture, but so often it seems like they didn’t bother to update the plumbing as well.  I just do not understand why a modern country still uses holes in the ground for many public toilets.  Others may bear a passing resemblance to modern toilets, but don’t be fooled.  If I have to pay to use it (which is the norm for most public toilets), I have high expectations.  On random street corners, though, they have completely automatic toilets that sanitize themselves after every use.  But just don’t take too long on the pot because automatic means it also automatically opens after a predetermined amount of time, possibly leaving you exposed to all passers-by.  And forget popping into a local café or even McDonald’s to use the facility.  They’re on to you and don’t offer that unique American service.

Be quick about it if you don't want your secrets exposed
2) Impromptu friendships
Let’s face it.  The French are more reserved than Americans.  They can be warm and helpful and funny.  However, don’t expect to start chatting up the couple sitting at the café table a mere 12 inches from you.  The French don’t do idle chit-chat.  Two Americans standing in line at a Starbucks can practically become best friends while waiting for their non-fat lattes.  The French, maybe after 10 or 15 years.  That whole vous-tu division in their language tells it all.  Everyone in your family is tu; everyone outside it gets the more distant and formal vous.  It is what it is, but good ol’ American “hail fellow, well met” neighborliness would make it a whole lot easier to make a new friend in that country.

1) Mexican food
The food in France is delicious.  Yet after a few weeks there I just crave queso cheese, cumin, and hot sauce – and lots of warm, crispy chips in a basket.  Some days I imagine if I knew how to cook the dishes from my favorite Mexican restaurants at home and opened a restaurant there I could make a fortune.  Heck, some days I’d even be ecstatic over a little Taco Bell.  The best I can do is some Old El Paso seasoning and taco sauce in the grocery store.  That’s about the extent of “ethnic food” at the market.  Maybe if I traveled to Marseille, which has an extremely diverse population, I could find a little spicy something from Spain.  The first place I go when I get home is the closest Mexican restaurant.

These are bits of America that I’ll miss.  But that time hasn’t come yet.  If you want to know what the French miss when they’re away from France, check out this list.  If you keep an eye on my blog, you’ll soon start seeing all the things I love about that country.

On the other hand, in America I don't get an impromptu circus while eating dinner
When you leave home, whether traveling near or far, what are the things that you miss the most?  Share your favorite things in the comments box.
*America, I miss you

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bored Games Kids Play

 Sometimes the most exciting games require little more than space
School’s almost out for the summer.  I know that because the neighborhood grade school just held its field day at the park up the street.  For many of these kids, summer means computer camp, or summer school, or art camp, or circus camp, or 8 weeks of sleep-away camp in a place halfway across the country, or heading out of state to their family’s summer home someplace cooler and less humid.  The one thing that the kids in my community don’t do in the summer is get bored.  Are the only games they know digital and Hunger?

I remember summer boredom well when I was a kid.  As I recall, it didn’t kill me and didn’t cause my brain to deteriorate.  At least I think it didn’t.  Maybe I could have founded a multi-billion dollar technology start-up or had written a best-selling novel by age 25 if I had never been allowed to be bored.  But there it is.  My parents didn’t care enough for my future or safety because they left me to spend the summer sitting in a friend’s tree house reading Nancy Drew books or let me take off on my bike in the morning to ride all over town (without a helmet – egads!) and not return until dinner.  Or I just sat around playing solitaire all day.

Summer boredom was great.  During the day my friends and I would be so bored we’d start peeking in the windows of empty houses or climbing into the loft of the one remaining barn in the area and make up stories of murderers and ghosts and criminals on the Most Wanted lists who clearly had taken up residence as evidenced by an abandoned hammer in the corner or a light bulb burning at night.

We were bored enough to sit in the driveway past midnight telling ghost stories about the crazed killers who escaped from insane asylums and were out to get all young lovers parked on country roads or teenage girls babysitting alone on a Friday night.  We were bored enough to play 20 rounds of the card game Slap Jack in the breezeway of our unairconditioned 60s ranch homes.  We were bored enough to play kick ball in the street until the complete darkness set in and the porch lights failed to illuminate our game.

I went to a morning music camp a couple of weeks each summer.  And I went to a week of Bible school when younger.  But for all my friends, the summer was the same.  Morning was reserved for doing our household chores.  We ate hot dogs and Campbell’s soup for lunch.  Then we started knocking on each other’s doors saying, “What do you want to do?  I don’t know, what do you want to do?”

Everyone likes to let loose on a hot summer afternoon

We had a bottomless well of games to play.  Games with cards.  Games with balls of all sizes.  Games with ropes.  Games that required no equipment at all, like Freeze Tag.  Or games that didn’t require anything more than a piece of chalk and small stone – not even friends – like Hopscotch.

I don’t much remember my kids playing games during their summers.  They did play cards.  However, as much as I wanted to resist it, I became one of those parents who started scouring the local papers in March for suitable summer programs.  Why?  Not because I thought it was better than sitting around being bored.  I did it because everyone else was, which meant no kids were around for most of the day (or evening, because of organized sports) for my kids to play with.  They were kids when dodge ball was discouraged because someone’s body or feelings might get hurt.  They were kids during the rise of the video screen.

Are childhood games a thing of the past?  Canadian writer Marijke Vroomen Durning has asked that question on her website Games We Used To Play. It grew out of a question about whether we are losing the art of play.  The site is a way to relive the games we remember and see if they connect with someone else. She asks readers to submit the games and their rules to the site, so pop on over and see if one of your favorites is there. 

As a post-script, last week a flyer came attached to an e-mail from my neighborhood association president.  Apparently there will be a family kickball night soon up at the park.  All adults and children welcome.  Yep, that’s the way things go now.  It would never occur to the kids on my street today to grab a big, red rubber ball and kick it around until dark.  Yet the parents do fondly remember their days of running the makeshift bases.  So they decided to organize and manufacture “play” for their own children.

Something’s not right here.  Anyone for double-Dutch?

Do you think that the idea of play has disappeared from the youngest generation? What was your favorite game as a child? Share stories of your childhood summers in the comments box.


In addition to teaching teamwork, check out how your childhood games can save you when the Apocalypse hits at the end of 2012.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Happy Belated Wordle Day

As part of Michelle Rafter's Blogathon Challenge we were supposed to turn a blog post into a Wordle creation.  It was supposed to happen on Monday, Memorial Day.  However, I wanted a real Memorial Day photo and post for the day, so here is yesterday's post re-imagined in the colors of summer.  I hope your holiday was grand.

I went swimming at my sister's on Monday.  Leave me a note in the comments box about the fun things you did for the holiday.

Monday, May 28, 2012

I Shop In Memory Of . . .


What does Memorial Day mean to you?  The day the community pool opens?  The beginning of the last week of school?  A great day to buy lawn furniture on sale at the local big box store?

Ever since the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, most national holidays have come on a Monday to allow for a 3-day weekend.  While no one would state it so bluntly, the act allowed more time to indulge the foremost American cultural tradition of shopping rather than engaging in solemn reflection on the meaning of Memorial Day or Martine Luther King Day.

Some citizens, however, are petitioning to have Memorial Day shifted back to its original day of May 30.  The holiday has begun to mark the beginning of the summer season to most people rather than a day given to honoring those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for this country.  Furthermore, they’re proposing that all institutions that have them ring their bell for one minute on that day in recognition of those who died.

What do you think?  Have we lost the meaning of this holiday in our rush to celebrate summer?  Should we move the holiday back to its original dates instead of celebrating only on Mondays?  Share you opinion about Memorial Day or your own summer plans in the comments box.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

5 Steps To Fight the "New Normal" Of Midlife

At midlife good health can seem like hiking an endless path

Yesterday I got on a bike.  And promptly fell off.  Flat on my back onto my camera bag.  In the parking lot at the head of the bike trail.  In front of people wearing all kinds of serious biking attire and swilling packs of energy gel.  What can I say?

It had been well over a year since I had pulled out my bright red K2 bike.  At the time my arms and hands would quickly go numb and it didn’t take long for my lower back to seize up, all due to my degenerating cervical disks.  And the last time I had ridden, my gears acted up and went all off track.  When I tried to stop I went down hard in the street.

And now it was happening again on my first time back in the saddle.  Somehow in the past year the seat on my bike had been raised, so as I started to pedal everything was all off balance.  In trying to dismount and fix it, down I went.

The New Normal of Midlife
This recovery after surgery – adjusting to a “new normal” – some days makes me want to curl up on the couch with a peach cotton throw over my feet and NCIS marathons on the television.  And it wouldn’t be too hard.  Face it, I’m past fifty years old and no one expects much of women my age.  When most women pass the half-century mark and talk about their aches and pains (and believe me, they’re never shy about it), they shrug their shoulders with a “Whatcha gonna do?” attitude.

No, I won’t ever get back to where I was.  I won’t be riding any roller coasters unless I want more neck surgery.  Heck, at this stage of the game even falling asleep in a chair and letting my head droop forward makes everything hurt.  But I hit the gym or hit the yoga mat at home almost every day.  It won’t make me look 35 again; it won’t even make me feel 35 again.  But it’s something.

At midlife it’s so easy for women to give in to health inertia.  We’re pulled in so many directions every day.  We’re tired.  We feel guilty focusing on ourselves instead of those around us. We feel invisible so why does all this focus on exercise even matter?  The top 3 health issues for women – heart disease, cancer, and stroke – however, can all be controlled by lifestyle changes.

With my addiction to fast food French fries, I’m constantly searching for inspiration for a more healthy lifestyle.  Bloggers Nadine Feldman and Jackie Dishner are two women who have found many ways to energize this midlife stage.  They’ve decided not to sit home, invisible, talking of aches and pains.  I read them and decide to push ahead with getting strong again.

And so I get back on the bike and take off down the path.  It’s a hot day, but the sky is blue and my legs are strong.  This is what healthy feels like after so many summers of weakness.

What Can You Do?
Every step toward good health doesn’t have to be grand gestures.  Go to your doctor and have that long-delayed checkup.  Stop smoking.  Shoot for losing 10% of your body weight if you want to see significant health improvements.

On a daily basis, though, there are 5 immediate steps you can take to get past a woman’s sluggish attitude toward health that makes midlife feel like inevitable decline.
  • Reduce Stress  Stress and anxiety play havoc with health.  They weaken the immune system.  They strain the heart and blur the mind.  It needs to be controlled by therapy, by laughter, by rest, by exercise.  Find healthy ways to bring it down to a manageable level and you’ll add years to your life.

  • Get Enough Sleep  Many women start their sleepless nights with the birth of their first child.  It doesn’t stop as the children grow.  They have work at the office, managing their children’s schedule, caring for elderly parents.  They are doing the laundry at midnight.  However, sleep deprivation can lead to heart disease, depression, and weight gain to name a few effects.  To be healthy, you must have a regular sleep schedule.

  • Move  The body was made to move, not sit in front of a screen all day.  It needs cardio for the heart and weight-bearing exercise for muscles and bones.  A strong body helps hold off the ill effects of such problems as arthritis or osteoporosis. It helps hold weight down.  It improves balance so fall aren’t as much of a problem as you age.  Find what makes you happy and do it.  It’s not about becoming an athlete; it’s about moving too fast for old age to catch you.

  • Eat more green, less fat  You don’t need to make an immediate shift to veganism.  Just make small improvements each week in your diet.  I won’t give a treatise on good nutrition.  But it’s about portion size.  It’s about eating less processed food.  It’s about eating more vegetables and fruits and less fatty foods.  And this is the one thing that I battle day in and out.  It’s not easy after a lifetime of fast-food taste buds, but it’s essential.

  • Follow a passion that makes you grow  Do something on a regular basis that fully engages you, from finishing crossword puzzles to finishing marathons.  It’s about keeping the heart and mind engaged.  The happier you are the long the life-expectancy.  This seems like the easiest to do, but women are conditioned to give it all to everyone else.  For some, following their own passion could be more difficult than giving up chocolate.

What steps would you recommend to make midlife less of a drag and more energized?  What are your plans for putting off feeling the effects of age?  Share all your secrets in the comments box.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


To see the Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie—
True Poems flee—

Emily Dickinson

If you have a favorite summer poem or song, share it in the comments box.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Summer Reading For You


Summer reading.  I know it’s at the top of your priorities right now as you settle into that pool recliner on Memorial Day.  To make it easier for you, I’m offering a list of the many wonderful memoirs produced by the immensely talented presenters at my nonfiction writing conference sponsored by River Teeth magazine.  I vouch for the poetic language and unforgettable characters in all of them.

Ana Maria Spagna
 -- Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness The Washington state community in which she lives is so remote that it takes four hours by boat and six hours by car before she even reaches somewhere that she can board a plane.  But in the simple coming together of American potluck suppers she gives an honest portrait of the difficulties and rewards of living with others in a small, isolated world.
-- Test Ride On The Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey  Because her father died when she was young, Ana never knew that her father had been arrested for a bus protest in Florida during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.  His case went all the way to the Supreme Court.  She begins her search for the other original remaining riders to learn the truth of conflicting stories at the same time she begins caring for a mother diagnosed with terminal cancer.  This book is the winner of the 2009 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Contest.

Hope Edelman
-- Author of Motherless Daughters and Motherless Mothers, Hope wrote the memoir The Possibility of Everything about a time when, in the midst of many kinds of upheavals in her life, her 3-year old daughter started exhibiting extremely strange and disturbing behavior.  With few effective treatments left to her and her husband, they take a leap of faith and head to the jungles of Belize seeking an alternative cure with a healer. Of course, what they discovered in that jungle applied to more than their daughter.

Walt Harrington
-- In The Everlasting Stream: A true Story of Rabbits, Guns, Friendship, and Family, award-winning Washington Post writer Harrington brings to life the annual hunting rituals on his father-in-law’s rural Kentucky farm.  Four African-American men of the South introduce a white city-slicker to the world of the woods, hunting, and a different definition of manhood.  He learns lessons of adaptation and growth.

Joe Mackall
-- The Last Street Before Cleveland: An Accidental Pilgrimage  Joe returns to the street where he grew up upon hearing of the death of a childhood friend who had long been lost to him.  He came back to understand the life of his lost friend, but he is drawn into larger questions that get at his own rejection of this neighborhood, his depression and addictions, and the over-arching Catholic faith that defined his youth in this blue-collar world.
-- Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish  When an Amish family of one of the most strict sects moves in next to him in his Ohio town, Joe has no sense of how much he will be drawn into that world.  He writes this book not from the perspective of an anthropologist or someone temporarily immersed in the extreme strictness of this life.  It is written from the perspective of a neighbor who is witness to the daily life and the familiar struggles of this Amish family and their community.  His attempt to understand this world and write about it tests the friendship of the Amish and this “English” man, but it results in a very human portrait of this traditional American clan.

What will you be reading this summer?  Please share in the comments box.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Beautiful Night For Baseball

Busch Stadium in St. Louis

As a delayed Mother’s Day present my kids took me to the ballpark.  A perfect night.

Temperature in the low 70’s at Busch Stadium.

A sea of red in the stands.

St. Louis Cardinals 6, San Diego Padres 3

3 homeruns by the World Champion Cards.

Hotdogs and cotton candy.

What team or teams have you followed since childhood?  Tell me a sports memory in the comments box.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Looking Forward to France -- Suggestions Welcomed


Summer is speeding toward us.  For me, that means soon heading off to France for a month or so.  This week will begin a frantic week of list-making as I start packing now and getting all my house ducks in a row.  As I look forward to France, I’d love to have your suggestions for two things.

First, tell me what you want to see pictures of.  Each year I pick one or two themes for my photographs, e.g., dogs or blue shutters.  What would you like to see in France?  Someone has already suggested road signs.  What’s your desire?

Second, what kind of stories do you want?  Do you want to hear about the museums outside of Paris (still not sure if I’ll spend any time there)?  Do you want to hear about the food, or the transportation, or habits of the natives?  What makes you curious?

Just tell me in the comments box what intrigues you about that country and I’ll see if I can offer it to you next month.  Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a travel story from August 2009 that I was reminded of as I spent Monday chasing down quilt barns.


Joys of Flying Solo

When women friends (never men) hear that I like to travel alone, these situations are exactly what they worry about when they cluck “How brave” or “Isn’t it dangerous to do that? -- as if I were backpacking through Zimbabwe instead of simply riding Britain’s National Rail line or driving to Tennessee for a couple of days to wander through Iris City Gardens or walking the 10 kilometer path from Oberwolfach to Wolfach in Germany or strolling down Lower Broadway in Nashville at 2 a.m., taking pictures of the crowds and the neon and ducking into the clubs hoping to hear Music City’s next big star. Right after those responses comes the predictable, “Aren’t you lonely doing that?” But I’m up for hitting the road alone at the drop of a hat.  (Continue reading)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Barn Quilts of Champaign County, OH

Quilting is such an iconic American art form.  While everyone doesn’t have a handmade quilt on their bed like they did a hundred years ago, few people would way, “Me? Nah, I just don’t like them.  They’re too, like, homemade and crazy looking.”  In recent years, this particular art form has gotten it’s own particular gallery that put them in their most natural setting – American farms.

 As you drive the back roads and rural counties of Ohio, northern Indiana, Iowa, and other Midwest places your eye can be stopped by a bright, unique quilt square hanging up high on the side of a barns, downtown cafes, and other buildings of these communities.  If you see one, you have to know there are one or two dozen more somewhere out there.

On my way home from the writing conference, I knew I was in the heart of barn quilt country and I was determined to follow the “crazy quilt” route of some county in Ohio to see as many as I had time for.  Donna Sue Groves had painted the first one on her barn in Adams County, OH to honor her mother.  Some are painted directly on old wood barns, some are on giant “canvases” hung high.  They all have a story to tell, representing the history of that farm, or recreating a favorite pattern.  I could go on and on about these different stories, but you can get an idea in Barn Quilts and the American Quilt Trail Movement, by Suzi Parron and Donna Sue Groves.

I wish I could give you a website so you could follow trails of your own or see a lot, but this is a local movement.  Some counties have a website, some websites simply ask for you to submit GPS coordinates of any you see.  As for how I found mine, through searching “Ohio barn quilts” on the internet I knew they were in this county, so as soon as I saw my first one, I went to the Chamber of Commerce in the largest nearby town and they had a map.  But the searching is half the fun as you wind through all the small towns, the beautiful landscape of rural America, the two-lane roads.

Meanwhile, let me share a few of these pieces of art from Champaign County, OH.

"Zerkle Star," Zerkle Barn

"Christmas Star," Zerkle Barn

"Circle Upon Circle," Circle Barn

"Dresden Plate," Sliker Barn

"The Hunt," Yocum Barn

"Hand of Friendship," Hill Barn

"Sprigs of Lavender," Lavender Barn

And another example of barn whimsy on the back roads

If you have a family quilt, tell us a story about it.  If not, what is your favorite folk art form -  furniture-making? whirligigs? pottery?  Share your own ideas about American art or anything about our culture that is distinctly “American.”  If you happen to come from another culture, share in the comments box any piece of your culture that everyone in your country knows and loves.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Warmth - haiku from Ashland, Ohio


Sun shines down on all;
Rays embrace each small creature –
Love sizzles and burns.

The Blogathon challenge for today was to write a haiku.  My small offering came from the hot colors in the stained class on the chapel of the Brethren Church, with which Ashland University is affiliated.

In a day or two I’ll give you a good list of books I bet you haven’t read, but let’s talk reading today, too.  Do you write or do you read poetry?  Who’s your favorite poet?  If you’re not a poetry person, what’s your favorite kind of writing to read when you want to connect with the world around you or escape it? Please share in the comments box.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Ohio Is Getting A Bit Squirrelly


I’m still in Ohio at the conference.  Today I saw a black squirrel and it stopped me in my tracks.  No camera available because the computer was heavy enough.  I hope to get a picture of one tomorrow.

We’ve spent the weekend trying to come up with new terms for what we do.  Creative nonfiction?  Nah, why do we have to make an argument for its creativity.  Personal essay?  What about raising it’s image (oh, memoirs were sooo last year) to memoireture?  What do you call the essay that’s even too long to be a Kindle Single?  Something the equivalent of fiction’s “novella”?  Can we come up with something unique for the short nonfiction pieces that match flash fiction?  How about “memoirette”?  And while we’re at it, what is the appropriate number of words that makes “flash” flash?

Yes, we’re playing the part of word geeks to absolute perfection.  Some might think that we’re some kind of academic elite who need to come down from the clouds and join the real world.  But what could be more real than focusing on the words that we all use every day.  What could be more real than devoting time to telling the stories of extraordinary, ordinary lives?  If woodworkers got together and exchanged techniques for cutting curves for tables that worked better than anything that came before or if they spent long afternoons talking about woodworkers they had known and admired they would not be accused of not living in the real world.

So we gather and talk for twelve hours a day about how to tell stories.  Because there are so many stories that need to be heard.  And it’s so hard to do it well, to be both truthful and engaging.  So forgive us if things get a bit squirrelly.

What could you talk about forever with friends or colleagues?  What brings out your inner geek?  Share your story in the comments box.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

River Teeth and Robert Atwan -- Nonfiction Rules

On the road to Ohio
Dateline: Ashland University, in Ashland, OH

Event:  Celebration of the art and craft of nonfiction

Hosts: River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative

Best Lines Heard So Far:  At the end of Robert Atwan’s keynote address, after he finished talking about how he began the Best American Essays series in the 1980’s (he wondered if there were enough good essays out there for even one edition) he threw off two lines in reference to the recent spate of memoirs that turn out not to be completely true or accurate.
“The rise of the memoir came at the same time as the invention of the keyboard and PC.”
“You can do anything you want in nonfiction, but if something is not true, make sure it’s not verifiable.”

Long day tomorrow so the post is short.  However, I want to direct your attention to the website SecondAct.  As part of this WordCount blogathon Michelle Rafter challenged those of us over 40 to write a post about reinventing ourselves in this part of our lives.  I’m proud to say that my post got a mention along with half a dozen others who have compelling stories to tell.  For your weekly dose of inspiration, head over to and read some of them.

How have you reinvented yourself?  Share your story in the comments box.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Let Me Get Back To You, I'm Busy Blogging

This weekend I’m on the road and in Ohio at the River Teeth writing conference.  Lots of good people speaking and expanding my mind.  Also on the agenda is one-on-one work with Joe Mackall, whose memoir The Last Street Before Cleveland: An Accidental Pilgrimage needs to be on everyone’s reading list.  Then when you finish that, move on to his look at an Ohio Amish community in Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish.

Blogger Nadine Feldman pointed me toward another blog that likes to keep it short and sweet.  If you only have a minute, try out Just a Minute, I’m Busy.  After reading an entry you’ll still have time to eat a sandwich before your minute’s up.

When you’re cutting into a fresh, delicious piece of salmon or halibut, think of fabulous blogger and Alaskan fisherwoman, Tele.  Right now she’s out there in the cold northern ocean with iffy internet connection. You’ll be hooked on Hooked when you read her last post just before she hit the wide sea.  It tells us a touching and eye-opening tale of a side of that large, wild state most of us never hear about.

Sometimes a delayed flight is worth it.  What do you think?

And finally, if you’re wondering when I’m going to return your phone call, answer your e-mail, or otherwise take care of business, maybe this has something to do with it.  (If you posted this on your blog this week, please speak up in the comments so I can give you credit.  I forgot to note the source for the link.

What are you doing for the weekend?  Share your plans in the comments box.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Straight Poop (Dog, That Is)

Can this face really do wrong?
To the lady at the park today, yelling at me from 50 yards away to come up and pick up my dog’s poop:

I’m pretty darn sure that my dog did not do that.  I’m pretty sure she was leaving a #1, although I can’t be certain because she was about twenty feet behind me, but I do know she had done her business at the house shortly before we left.  And don’t you see the ream of bright blue, perfume free, biodegradable dog waste bags tied onto the leash?  If I did miss it, I’m sorry.  The only three or four times I’ve been caught out without a bag seems to be when the poop police are on patrol.

Who ever thought that picking up dog poop could actually become a successful profession that advertises in respectable newspapers and magazines.  But consider that America’s 78 million dogs produce 10 million tons of waste a year, there’s enough to go around.  Some days I think at least 5 million tons have been left in my front yard since my house is a corner lot along a well-traveled route to school, parks, coffee shops, and every place you’d want to take your dog.

There’s other ways to make money off of it just waiting to be created.  To encourage citizens to pick up after their pet, one city in Taiwan is offering them a chance at a lottery for all the poop they bring to a central poop depository.  France has over 8 million dogs, and some days it seems as if they’re all leaving their calling cards in Paris.  The French dog owners are only just now learning to pick up after themselves.  I’ve noticed the streets of Dijon are a little cleaner each year I’ve gone.  It costs the cities of France hundreds of millions of euros each year to clean up after them all, so the city of Toulouse is trying to conquer this by working on a formula to compost it into useable fertilizer.

So lady, believe me.  I’m trying to be part of the solution, not the problem.  When you shuffled past me later on the walking path, scooting your walker along looking for other scofflaws to scold, at least remember that in your eternal vigilance there was no reason for you to scowl and me and let loose with one final expletive.  In the 30 years I’ve picking up poop in rain, shine, cold, snow, and stinking heat I might have missed one or two.  Give me a break.

What kind of neighbors do you have? How considerate are they about this issue? Does your town encourage healthy habits by setting up boxes that distribute mutt mitts?  Give us the straight poop in the comments box.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

5 Truths Travel Taught Me About Midlife Success

When young, it seems easier to balance a heavy load
I was a bad mother.  When my daughter started college I unloaded all her worldly possessions into her cramped dorm room, helped her put some curtains up, and then was on a plane for a two month stay in France before she had even memorized the weekly rotation of meat surprise in the student cafeteria.  Since she was just a Skype call away I wasn’t going to sit at home mourning my empty nest while my husband headed off to Europe for an extended stay to do his research in mathematics.

I’ve been traveling ever since.  It hasn’t always been easy because my children’s transitions to adulthood haven’t always gone smoothly.  In addition, I’ve suffered several years of physical ailments that finally required surgery and a long recovery.  Through it all, though, travel has been a touchstone as I entered this mid-point of my life.

Even when I haven’t been on the road, though, my life is being shaped by my journeys.  Travel has taught me how I want to live more than my daily perspective telling me how I want to travel.

I offer up to you five truths that my travel has taught me about making midlife and beyond even better than what came before.

1) Pack Light
I’m all about doing every trip with only carry-on luggage.  My health goal in life is to be strong enough to carry my own luggage up the stairs on the train platforms in Europe.  So it’s all about minimizing stuff.  You can travel farther faster through the second half of your life if you’re not carrying around all your resentments, feuds, unmet expectations from the first half of your life like over-packed luggage.  Do you need them?  Really?  Learn to let go and leave behind so you can concentrate not so much on the weight resting on your shoulders but the vista before you.

2) Learn the Basics of Different Languages
Sure, I mixed up “push” and “pull” in German and, therefore, gave the two Turks working behind the pizza counter in Wolfach endless amusement as I yanked, pulled, tugged, and everything else on a bathroom door that actually said “push” in the language of that country.  But I knew how to smile and say at least “hello,” “goodbye,” “thank you,” and order my lunch.  I’m not great at speaking foreign languages, but I’m not afraid to try anymore and I don’t let my pride raise its useless head when any native corrects my mistakes.  I just smile and say “thank you” in whatever tongue I need.

Don’t let yourself believe the hooey about old dogs and new tricks.  Open your ears when talk turns to Pinterest, Twitter, and smartphones even if you don’t think you’ll use them.  Talk to people older, younger, and different than you to learn what’s on their minds.  Don’t be pridefully ignorant of contemporary culture. Learn basics of the languages used by the worlds around you.  It’s not necessary to get on a plane to experience something new.  You can always learn a new tongue.

We can find something familiar in strange languages

3) Revel In the Unfamiliar
The best kind of travel takes you out of your routine and enlarges your world.  It doesn’t always have to be about risking life and limb.  You can set limits of how far you want to stretch your experience.  There’s no shame in deciding not to bungee jump or eat fried monkey brain.  However, a highly choreographed tour that promises comfort at every stage can put bars around you rather than expand you.  If you don’t at least occasionally dare the unfamiliar and uncomfortable when you travel, how much do you learn about the place you’re visiting, or yourself?

It’s the same at midlife.  I give you permission to ignore all those stories about people older than you, 50+ years of age, who tackle Ironman Triathalons on a regular basis.  Just step outside of your comfort zone.  Learn a language.  Take pastry-cooking classes. Travel – solo – to a foreign country.  Stand on your head and look at the world from a new perspective.

4) Take Lots of Pictures
Find ways to remember and record your life before it passes you by.  Remember all those snapshots you made on every family vacation?  Pull out the camera and record what’s important in your everyday, ordinary life.  Establish a correspondence ritual with a family member or friend.  Patrick McGraw began sending weekly e-mails to his mother at her request.  He began grudgingly but now treasures the digital archive of his life.  Take up pencil drawing or watercolors.  Keep a daily one-sentence journal that notes one image, thought, emotion, or quotation that defined you that 24-hour period.

In the first half of your life you were probably too busy to stop and reflect.  Slow down and capture each moment now.

5) Focus On What You Can Control, Not What You Can’t
Last summer on a trip to France I almost missed my connection for the transatlantic portion of my flight.  The plane got in late to Paris and I missed my train to Dijon, leaving me sitting on the floor among the Sunday crowd of travelers for almost eight hours until I could get a seat to continue.  It rained almost every day of the 6-week stay in Burgundy.  Due to my inattention and stupidity my wallet was stolen on the metro in Paris so without a license I couldn’t rent a car for my trip to visit a friend in Loire.  And my pain that eventually led to surgery grew exponentially worse each day.  Yet still I wrote, practiced my French any chance I got, climbed a mountain, and made new friends.  It was a great visit.

Plenty of aches, pains, economic uncertainty, family problems, and more are out of your control.  Energize the second half of your life with all that you can influence such as what passions you follow, a healthy diet, exercise, how you spend your hours, how you think.

Most of all, when you commence your second act, remember to enjoy the journey.

Don't focus on this in your second act
Now head to the comments box and tell us your story of traveling through midlife, whatever that might be.  If you haven’t reached it yet, tell us what concerns you, who your role models are, where you hope to be.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Graduation Speech I'd Give -- To Parents

T and I fighting over who deserves
the certificate more
Welcome.  We’re so happy to see you all here because these kids up front with the funny hats and long robes really didn’t know how they were going to get all their crap home tomorrow.  It’s been a long four years, full of ups and downs (the downs mostly in your bottom line because all of your offspring really were having the time of their lives).  I wish I could give each and every one of you an 8x10 embossed certificate marking your tremendous achievement – not killing your young in any of the previous 22 years no matter how many times you felt like it.

In recognition of all you’ve achieved in the past, I think this year I want to direct my graduation address to you, the parents.  I’ve watched thousands of parents come and go during my tenure at the head of this institution.  I wish I could have talked to each of you individually.  If I had, here are five pieces of advice I’d pass on to you:

1)  Parents, it’s time to land that helicopter.  Give your precious baby two weeks – tops – at home and then tell little Jill or Johnny that it’s check-out time, the lease is up, this building is condemned.  Whatever it takes to get them out and fully on their own.

You may think that, with this economy, it’s better that your child stay home and save money until he or she can get a good job and get a secure financial footing.  Think again.  Did he save any money while in college?  Then why do you think it’s going to happen now?  Unless your child is contributing each month to mortgage, water, and electricity payments, there won’t be any saving going on, unless it’s saving up for that big screen LCD television for his room or her girlfriend trip to a condo in South Florida because she soooo needs it after 4 years of torture.  If you think it’s cruel and heartless to kick the kid out, then give her a lump some to set up an apartment and then let her sail off into the big world on her own.  The only way to learn to live in the big, wide world is to live in the big wide world.

You may say, “Oh, my child has college debt and living at home will help with that issue.”  I say, “Living at home and debt are two different issues.  They are college graduates.  It’s time they live like adults, not like college students home on Christmas break.”  Find another way and time to address the debt.

2)  Don’t offer any advice about anything unless your graduate asks you.  Three months ago, before graduation, they didn’t think you knew anything about “the way things are” now.  Three months after graduation they’ll still be thinking that until they have a boss your age who says the exact same things you’ve repeated ad infinitum.  So save your breath.  A real adult asks for help when he needs it.  When he comes to you for advice you know you’ve done your job well.

3)  If your child decides that, instead of getting a serious job with benefits after graduation, she’s going off to hike the El Camino de Santiago then wish her well.  If she’s doing it all on her dime (she is, isn’t she?), you should have no real opinion.  If you really must stick your nose in, perhaps you could offer to buy her some trip insurance in case of emergencies, or see if you know anyone who knows anyone in the region so she can have a friendly telephone number to carry with her.  Not everyone who gets a job immediately succeeds and not everyone who doesn’t ends up a failure.

4)  If you can’t hold back from offering advice, then while they’re waiting for that elusive fast track to a career (of course, while holding down a restaurant job or working as a cashier at a Bed Bath and Beyond because you’re not paying the bills.  Remember?) suggest that they learn a new skill.  Maybe they can learn some html and set up a better website for your church.  Or they can learn how to do spread sheets and inventory your CDs or your salt and pepper shaker collection.  Or they can pick up some construction skills volunteering for Habit for Humanity or building sets for community theater.  Who knows?  Along the way they might meet someone who’s looking for someone or they might find a new passion that brings new opportunities.

And finally
5)  Realize that now is the time for you, also, to figure out what you’re going to do for your future.  Today marks the end of your career as life managers for Sissy or Bill.  It’s time to find your own “something new.”  Buy yourselves a plane ticket to somewhere interesting and don’t come home until the coast is clear, until these college graduates have moved on down the road to their own lives.  Then pat yourselves on the back for a job well done and commence to following every dream you had held in reserve so that your babies could follow theirs. 

What advice would you offer to newly minted “parents of college graduates”?  What would you say is the maximum amount of time they can have their old room back before you convert it into a home gym?  Share your graduation advice and stories in the comments box.

Stephen Colbert imparts wit and wisdom to the Class of 2006 at Knox College.  Watch and learn  what the rules of comedy improvisation can teach these students about life

Monday, May 14, 2012

My 10 Favorite Photos of France and Photo Tips

The cheapest and most memorable souvenir that I bring back from any trip is a camera filled with photographs.  I wish I had time to take lessons and improve.  And I wish I could use a DSLR, but my neck, shoulder, and rotator cuff problems just won’t allow me to carry the weight of all that equipment.  So I do the best I can with what I have.

My summer excursion to France is fast approaching, so you’ll be hearing more about that in upcoming weeks.  Today, however, is about looking back.  Here are just 10 of my favorite photos that capture the flavor of France for me.  Who knows – I might do a Part 2 since I didn’t even reach the end of my collection when I stopped at ten.

I always try to have a photo theme to carry me through the summer and open my eyes in a new way – dogs, cats, graffiti, gates, etc.  The theme for this summer hasn’t been set yet.  Perhaps the alphabet.  Who knows?  But traveling with the camera does open my mind to new perspectives on a place.

The fountain in the main square of Dijon comes up out of the ground.  On a hot summer night it becomes the community swimming hole for infants, dogs, grandmothers, teens on skateboards.

The City of Lights from the top of Notre Dame.
Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris – it begs you to sit a spell.
France is full of window whimsy.  This one was in Beaune.
I love that their dogs are everywhere.
And so begins the morning ritual of scrubbing down the front of a Dijon chocolate shop.  It’s as pristine outside as it is inside.
More window whimsy in France, this time for a chocolate shop.
This is what fresh strawberries are supposed to look like.  The next time you hit the supermarket notice how much or how little red you see when you slice one open.
I believe they call this color “peach.”
One can never have too many red geraniums, n’est ce pas? 

Make your own souvenirs.  Here are some sites with helpful travel photography tips:

-- National Geographic tells you how to find the good pictures that define a place.

-- What subjects you should think about photographing

-- Taking family vacation photos that document the family as well as the place

-- Easy-to-use technical advice

So tell us, where are you off to this summer?  What’s your favorite souvenir to bring back from your travels?  Do you have any suggestions for a photo theme I can use this year in France? Any photo tips? Share all in the comments box.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

My Mother Taught Me . . .

5 questions I'd ask

On Saturday night Brad and I had a barbecue for all the graduate students in his department, including their spouses and all their young children, plus assorted faculty members.  The little ones had great fun chasing the dog around, Frisbees and footballs were thrown across the yard, and we had enough chairs and food for all.

When I was growing up I watched my mom host bridge parties, church events, and large family gatherings all the time.  She did it with ease, or at least from my perspective it always ran smoothly.  She taught me how to make everyone feel at home.  She taught me to do the best I can to prepare, but don’t sweat the problems.  I remember one Thanksgiving dinner when our dog was over-eager to get a bite of that turkey dinner.  She knocked the gravy boat with her nose as it was being passed around the table and all that sticky liquid poured down her head.  Even Mom laughed as we just continued on with our celebration (although we were a little short on the sauce for our mashed potatoes).

She taught me that nothing was more enjoyable than opening our home to others.  So whether it’s for 4 or for 50 people, I have no problem volunteering.  And as I bustle around the kitchen setting out the serving trays and counting the silverware I feel her working right beside me.

In honor of Mother’s Day, tell us what your mother taught you.  Please share in the comments box.

While thinking of Mom I revisited this post in which I wondered what might have been on her mind even if no one bothered to ask her.  Read it and tell us what would you ask your mother.

5 Questions I’d Ask My Mom

Short of winning the lottery and giving it all to her, I’m not sure what I ever could have done to have honored her properly.  Diamonds?  Brunch at the Ritz-Carlton?  A Wii Fit?  Now that I’ve been a mother for fifteen years, however, I think that maybe the greatest gift I could have given her was my undivided attention as she told me her story.  She deserved to be more of the foreground rather than the background of my life.  If Mom returned here for just one day so that I could get it right, I would make sure I asked her these five questions (in no particular order).
(continue reading)


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