The long road to Bethlehem

Miracles do occur.

To this I can personally attest, because another one happened last weekend when my talented partner Jeanette and I weathered another in an increasingly long list of Sunday School Christmas programs. We were aided by a most helpful crew of assistants, tech people and Sunday School teachers–we thank you most sincerely.

You’ve got to hand it to the 26 three- to 10-year-olds who pulled it off; they were ultimately adorable, engaging, expressive, enthusiastic and spiritually inspiring as they innocently shared the Christmas message via music, words and actions.

The congregation appreciated their efforts, as did we. Was it the softly sung “Away in a Manger” or the belted out “Let Them In” (to the tune of that 2014 favorite, “Let it Go”) that was more charming?

Hard to say, but the overall effect resulted in a sanctuary that resounded with applause at the program’s conclusion.

So, you ask: Where’s the miracle?

That would be surviving this annual journey to Bethlehem. The moving target of students, with attendance varying due to illness, sports, family vacations, Thanksgiving and more, is always a challenge to navigate, as we try to keep track of who was present when we introduced a new song, or passed out speaking parts, or outfitted costumes.

Then there’s the fact that Jeanette and I more closely resemble Laurel & Hardy than Balthazar, Melchior and Casper.

One Sunday in late November was a doozy. The children’s choir was singing a number for the church service, but we were frantically preparing packets of lyrics for rehearsal purposes and going over Christmas program songs on top of the needs for the day at hand.

The first casualty: a stapled finger, as the packets were speedily assembled. Pulling out the staple was a quick remedy; I mean, Jeanette barely noticed. (She’s from North Dakota, after all.)

Next up: as Jeanette dashed to the office to make a few extra copies, a door unexpectedly closed behind her–and, unbeknownst to me, she became locked in a vestibule between the office and the pastor’s study, with a door to the parking lot at her back.

What choice did she have when no one responded to her desperate knocks but to exit the church and reenter (in frigid weather) through another door? I was surprised to see her walking in, and cluelessly asked her where she had gone.

As we continued collating, playing a game of beat-the-clock before church began, blood suddenly began dripping on a paper. What’s this? A bloody nose! Good thing neither of us is squeamish. The missing car keys at the end of the morning capped it all off.

During one Saturday morning practice session, Jeanette was in the midst of directing the 20-some kids in attendance when her cell phone rang. I kept playing the piano, monitoring her conversation with one ear cocked as the youth continued warbling, “Angels, We Have Heard on High.”

“You did WHAT??” I heard, seeing Jeanette’s eyes open wide in horror. “WHERE?”

Nothing like learning your child has just projectile-vomited in a friend’s vehicle while hitching a ride to a sporting event. But the show went on.

The Sunday before the program, things seemed to be coming together. Arriving almost on time (a miracle in itself for typically tardy me), I tossed my cell phone and coat on a front pew before settling into place at the keyboard.

But later, after church, I couldn’t locate my cell phone. A desperate search ensued, with me carefully rethinking my earlier movements and retracing my steps. No luck.

Hours later, I was leaving home with my daughter, ready to head to the church to hunt for it again, when I asked her to try calling my phone just in case I’d accidentally dropped it in the car and we’d hear it ring.

“Hello?” Someone had answered it! But who?

Jeanette’s son, who heard something in his mother’s bag and checked it out, thinking it was her phone (which happens to be identical to mine–oops). Turned out she had TWO phones–and one of them was mine. Mystery solved.

We won’t soon be mistaken for the Wise Men/women, but I strongly suspect God isn’t finished with us yet.

Joy to the world!

A (shameless) holiday greeting

May all the holiday letters you receive this season be sincere, fact-based, humble and modestly informative…unlike the following fabrication (which nevertheless follows a format we’ve personally witnessed more than once):

December 2014

Dear friends and family,

What a year it’s been! As usual, the past 12 months have flown by faster than Santa’s sleigh circles the globe on Christmas Eve. We’ve held on for the ride, often by the skin of our teeth, but somehow the reins are still in our hands so we’ll have to count it a success.

Along with all our neighbors here in the upper Midwest, we shivered through a frigid winter (minus the three fabulous weeks we spent in Hawaii during February) before being rewarded with….a relatively short and tepid summer.

But the so-so summer wasn’t much of a problem for us, because we took what has to be the most ideal family vacation during those summer months–sailing in Patagonia–and each of us took a turn as “skipper.” Our handlers said we all were naturals who seemed like we’d been sailing for years!

During the school year, the kids were stellar students, as usual. (And why would you have expected that to be different from any other year?)

Junior traveled to Stockholm in April after learning he was receiving the Young Adult Nobel for his research pertaining to the gene that causes autism. He also played rugby at his Ivy League college, managing a straight-A average even as he volunteered 20 hours weekly with inner-city youth at an underperforming school.

Susie was elected “Most Likely To Succeed” and “Best Smile” in her senior class! We weren’t surprised, because her ACT score ensures she will be at the top of her game wherever she chooses to attend college–and boy, do those acceptance letters keep rolling in! The photographer who took her senior pictures said he’d never seen a more photogenic girl; we just don’t know which of the 150 poses to select because she looks simply fantastic in every shot.

Spike, our youngest at 13, is considering a summer 2015 stay in Japan, as he has nearly mastered Japanese through his independent Rosetta Stone language study. Already, two Japanese grammar schools have expressed interest in having him tutor students in English for eight weeks, as he has excellent skills in working with 5- to 7-year-olds. As captain of his football team this fall–and quarterback, naturally–he was lifted to his teammates’ shoulders after clinching the district title. We couldn’t be prouder of our baby!

Malcolm was rewarded for his outstanding effort at work with another promotion, and we are celebrating by building a four-room addition onto our house and importing a purebred English bulldog–we think that breed will go well with Malcolm’s new man cave.

Together, we trimmed down and toned up; everyone says we’ve never looked better. Not a day passes that someone doesn’t guess I’m 10 years younger than I am! I think Susie comes by her good looks honestly.

I’m nearly finished with my Ph.D. in educational psychology–what fun it’s been to write my dissertation! At the same time, the elaborate gingerbread house I made (from scratch!) won first prize in the regional craft fair, with every bit of it edible and delectable.
For Christmas Eve, I’m planning an intimate dinner for 16, with a menu suggested by my friend Nigella Lawson’s “Nigella Christmas:” wasabi crab cakes and cranberry/soy-glazed cocktail sausages, followed by chestnut soup and char-grilled peppers with pomegranate, turkey with allspice gravy, maple-roasted parsnips and golden fruitcake.

Finally, would you believe that the lottery ticket Malcolm bought on a lark was a big winner? We haven’t even decided yet what to do with the $50,000 he won, but I’m sure we’ll find a way to put it to good use soon. Maybe he’ll add a little something extra to the always-generous check written out annually to his alma mater!

There are so many more wonderful things from this past year that we’d love to share with you, but it’s time for Susie and me to drop off a donation at the food pantry before we head to the mall; it’s so important, especially at this time of year, to put other’s needs before one’s own.

In the spirit of the season,

Suze and family

Good starts

Days of Play-Doh, Matchbox cars, board books and Barbie dolls have been left in the dust at our house.

Lately, my kids are more absorbed with navigating iPads, writing English essays, working advanced algebra problems, planning social get-togethers, playing musical instruments or showering (lather, rinse, repeat) following athletic practices.

But not so long ago simpler activities filled their waking hours, and the labor-intensive years of infancy and toddlerhood are fresh in my mind, even as my recently licensed daughter (surprisingly!?) freely critiques my winter driving skills.

Interviewing Tara Thompson, coordinator of District 518′s Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) and School Readiness programs, for an article last week provided a rush of memories from my kids’ younger years. Then, participation in ECFE classes brought a welcome change of pace, for parent and child alike.

As recent transplants to Worthington with a six-month-old son, we found ECFE an ideal place to connect with other new moms and dads while our baby benefited from similarly aged playmates and explored a wealth of colorful toys.

As he and our local circle of friends grew, ECFE classes remained in our weekly routine. Hearing from experienced parent educators that a child’s stages and habits were within the realm of “normal” was reassuring, and realizing other parents didn’t exactly have “it” all figured out made less-than-perfect parenting moments easier to accept.

Whether celebrating a birthday, coping with the emotional fallout from a miscarriage, or seeking remedies for separation anxiety or sibling jealousy, having a sympathetic group of parents with whom one could talk–aided by a parent educator’s advice and input–made a positive difference.

And the little ones? I can still see their delighted faces as we entered the ECFE classroom. Their happy anticipation of playing with friends or exploring paints, hats, books and blocks was quickly converted into pursuing those important childhood tasks. I think my kids’ favorite part was grabbing my hand as they ventured into that wonderland of child’s play, knowing for a full half hour a parent was at their disposal, ready to follow them into whatever activity seemed most appealing.

When talking with Thompson about ECFE’s 40th anniversary, she affirmed the program was established with the intent of bringing children (ages 0 to 5) and parents together in just that way. The first third of a 90-minute ECFE session is devoted to parent/child interaction, in an environment filled with developmentally appropriate toys and activities for the children involved–and in a classroom where parents are free of distractions like jobs, household chores or their other children.

After a circle time for all, parents retreat to a separate space to discuss parenting issues with a licensed parent educator, while the kids stay and play under the supervision of a licensed early childhood educator.

I asked Thompson how it’s going for parents of 0- to five-year-olds these days, with the proliferation of cell phones, iPads, iPods and other portable electronic devices that were not in frequent use during my kids’ toddler and preschool years. She acknowledged new challenges have arisen; these days, a parent might be more inclined to scroll through a smartphone while pushing a two-year-old in a shopping cart than to talk to the child about the colors, grocery items and people they encounter.

“Conversing with your child and labeling things you see and do is of huge importance,” confirmed Thompson. She described “wake-up” calls some ECFE parents have shared: one mom discovered her young son assumed every trip in the van meant watching a certain video; another parent’s toddler could manipulate her cell phone as expertly (if not more so) than she could.

Thompson worries that, with the prevalence of the Internet and social media, more parents now think ECFE isn’t necessary for them, that they can get all the information and support they need online.

But, just as with kids, face time is critical for parents–and even Thompson, who holds degrees in early childhood development, said she benefited from attending ECFE classes with her daughters when they were little.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” wrote the great U.S. social reformer Frederick Douglass. That’s exactly the theory behind ECFE, and other 0 to 5 educational initiatives.

And really, what’s more important than giving kids a good start in life?



What this woman wants (hint: NOT a free turkey)

Like it or not, the calendar page has flipped from October to November, and in three short weeks most Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving–or, as it’s known in Worthington, the “other turkey day.”

Nightfall is arriving more quickly, chillier air is prevalent and drivers navigating rural roads are probably noticing more deer along their routes.

“Watch out for deer!” is a common cry–but who knew there were hidden benefits to not only seeing one but also hitting one?

Recently, Daily Globe sports reporter Zach Hacker wrote about his unfortunate entanglement with a daring deer along I-90 while returning from an assignment around 9 p.m. one evening. But when I informed him of an opportunity that could arise from that encounter, he wasn’t sure it was worth the trade.

“Hit a deer? Get a turkey!” cajoles an ad that’s been frequently seen in the Daily Globe’s pages of late. An enterprising auto body shop in Fulda is making that enticing offer, which the aforementioned Zach would have preferred the option of declining.

What is that? Should we be AIMING for deer along the highways in order to obtain a free turkey for our Thanksgiving meals? Would the small savings thus realized on a family’s food bill be a reasonable off-set for the costs incurred in auto repair and insurance costs resulting from a deer/vehicle accident?

And is offering a free turkey for a car/deer confrontation even a smart marketing plan in these parts?

Not according to the June 2014 report on deer-related crashes, enumerated by county, from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety.

While certain counties had astoundingly high numbers of deer/vehicle crashes in 2013 (consider: Washington, 93; Carver, 102; Stearns, 89; Anoka, 84; Dakota, 140; Hennepin, 149; and Sherburne, a whopping 178), the counties in our region had surprisingly few (Nobles, 11; Cottonwood, 3; Jackson, 5; Rock, 5; and Murray, home of the turkey-for-a-deer-hit body shop–1).

That makes the “Hit a deer? Get a turkey!” promotion an incredibly safe, low-cost gimmick for the body shop in question–I mean, even if they landed the vehicle repair contract for every deer-struck auto, they’d be giving away 25 turkeys, max, in a five-county area (based on those 2013 statistics). This is not exactly the best recipe for drumming up dozens of new customers.

Perhaps this region has more accurate deer hunters, better drivers, fewer (or faster) deer or simply more motorists reluctant to report their deer deeds than other parts of the state.

Support for that latter theory comes from the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s online booklet, Traffic Safety Fundamentals, which is careful to point out the following: “Deer hits are underreported because they rarely result in injury to vehicle occupants. Conservative estimates are that 24 percent of rural crashes involve hitting a deer.”

Other turkey-related ad campaigns exist in this season; during a nightly news broadcast from a Sioux Falls, S.D., TV station, a Hy-Vee commercial caught my attention.

“Buy a turkey, get a free ham!” the ad proclaims.

Maybe some people love both turkey AND ham, but if one is setting out to purchase a turkey, does it necessarily follow that one also needs, wants or even likes ham? If I want to buy a turkey, I’ll buy a turkey; must I also procure a ham?

The words of Dr. Seuss’ famous book pop to mind: “I do not like green eggs and ham; I do not like them, Sam I am.”

Well, it happens that I’m not a huge ham fan, but it’s more the advisability of these marketing ploys with which I take issue: I don’t WANT to have to hit a deer in order to “win” a free turkey, and I don’t really WANT a free ham if I’m in the market, literally, for a turkey.

For the frenzied November Thanksgiving hostess or intrepid road warrior, offers like these sound more appealing:  ”Stop in and spin the wheel at our body shop for a chance to win a free auto detailing,” or “Enter our drawing for a complimentary Thanksgiving feast (turkey to pie) prepared at your home by a professional chef, complete with servers and a clean-up crew.”

Now you’re talking turkey.


Autumn reflections

Fall fever

When the days are as mesmerizing as the past several have been, the compulsion to linger outside and simply “seize the day” is strong.

The poignant tune “Autumn Leaves” comes readily to mind as trees shed their summer coats like so many raindrops, and the vivid array of colors across the landscape is a constant source of eye candy. Shades of goldenrod, scarlet and rust abound, accents against a sky so blue it can seem as though one is seeing it for the first time. And recent sunsets? Positively awe-inspiring!

One of the loveliest local views: looking south towards Lake Okabena along Whiskey Ditch. But really, almost any direction delivers appealing tableaus.

I’ve been striving to devise a means of drinking in so much of this color that it will, like jars of canned ripe tomatoes and summer peaches, last through the long, white winter that’s bound to arrive, but we know it’s impossible to hang onto this season indefinitely.

How can a person stay inside when today–pick whichever of the last days you particularly enjoyed–could be the last “nice” day before the weather takes its inevitable turn for the worse?

Playing for the Supremes

Sixteen volunteer musicians from the 54-member Worthington High School orchestra, under the direction of Melanie Loy, provided pre-dinner entertainment for the Sept. 30 meal at which the Minnesota Supreme Court Justices were the guests of honor.

Maybe it’s because the orchestra typically garners a smaller, more select audience than the marching band (which by its very nature has the chance to parade before thousands of people during the course of a season), but many attendees expressed delight and were duly impressed with the disciplined group of students serenading them on string instruments.

Among those applauding the orchestra’s efforts were the Supreme Court Justices themselves–notably, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea and Associate Justice David Lillehaug, the latter of whom grew up in Sioux Falls, S.D., and has ties to the Worthington area.

“My father was a band director, so I have a special appreciation for the dedication it takes to become an accomplished musician,” Lillehaug wrote in personal letters Loy said were sent to each participating student in care of the high school after the occasion.

It was an honor–one not likely to be soon repeated–to host the entire Supreme Court of Minnesota in Worthington over a two-day period, and the gracious attention, humility, intelligence and empathy of each Justice was readily on display.

And while the Justices won’t collectively be back in town for awhile, all interested parties may hear the nearly 190 local 7th through 12th grade orchestra students in concert this Monday at 7 p.m. at Worthington High School.

Revisiting Weenie World

Having previously spilled some secrets of a workplace lunchroom and revealed that my husband’s colleague “Todd” is a hot dog aficionado, I wasn’t surprised to receive the following message from “Todd’s” wife–which I thought, given the abundant portion of interest expressed in my “Hot Dog!” blog, many readers would relish reading:

“Just as a point of clarification: ‘Todd’s’ meal today was actually ‘lite’ turkey cheddar wurst–not hot dogs–ha! :) :)  We actually don’t serve regular hot dogs very often, but ‘Todd’ is a fan of brats and Polish sausage, so we let him have those periodically! The rest of the family are not such fans of tubular meats.”

Makes you want to run to W-2′s Quality Meats for a batch of fresh, flavored brats, doesn’t it?

Happy Birthday to Ray!

Yesterday marked the 84th birthday of a Worthington treasure: Ray Crippen. Ray, a former Daily Globe editor and local historian, still contributes weekly columns to the paper, and dozens of people have told me they look forward to his work more than anything else the Globe offers.

And why not, when he is a walking encyclopedia of Worthington and Nobles County people, places and things? His knack for sharing memories in a dryly humorous manner, and for making historical events many would dismiss as boring into episodes of intrigue and inspiration, is exceptional.

In addition, Ray has long been a thoughtful, generous mentor to writers and historians, and those of us fortunate enough to benefit from his experience and friendship couldn’t be luckier.

Thank you, Ray, and best wishes for a much-deserved happy birthday!

Hot dog!!!

One morning several years ago, an extremely simple but highly memorable “Arlo & Janis” cartoon by Jimmy Johnson found its way to our breakfast table and thereafter assumed permanent lodging in our family’s lexicon of private jokes.

In the course of the cartoon frames, Janis scrounged through her cupboards for meal ideas before reluctantly settling on a menu of hot dogs–maybe accompanied by canned tomato soup.

But from the look on the faces of her son and husband when she set the food on the table, you would have thought she was serving caviar, champagne and cheesecake.

“Oh boy! Hot dogs again!” enthused Arlo with a huge smile, much to Janis’ chagrin.

So it goes with hot dogs. Remember that old car commercial, “Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet?” Hot dogs are a top 10 “All-American” food, which is not to say they are exactly the healthiest choice.

The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council euphemistically reveals that hot dogs are made from “specially selected meat trimmings,” but no one wants to think very hard about a hot dog’s origin, composition or overall nutritional ranking.

For better or worse, hot dogs are an apparent staple of the American diet. The above-referenced organization says U.S. consumption runs at an average of 60 hot dogs annually per American, with 155 million hot dogs eaten on July 4 alone.

More than 60 of that July 4 count is downed by one man–Joey Chestnut, the reigning U.S. champion since 2007 in the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. His personal record: 69 hot dogs (don’t forget the buns!) in one sitting.

Last July, he chowed 61 hot dogs, but that was plenty to top the second-place finisher (poor guy only ate 56). Plus, Chestnut had other things on his mind that day, like proposing to his longtime girlfriend (also a competitive eater) right before the contest began.

She said yes, by the way–and why not, when the Money issue of ESPN magazine noted that Chestnut’s competitive eating skills helped him earn a 2012 income of $161,400. Not bad–if you like eating hot dogs.

Which, apparently, many people do. My husband is one of the certified hot dog fans.  Like the cartoon character Janis, I always feel guilty when resorting to a “meal” centered on hot dogs (other than during the summer grilling season).

But just last weekend I produced a boiled hot dog for him–accompanied with a bowl of homemade vegetable soup, in an attempt to balance out the preservatives–and he seemed thrilled.

Me? Not so much. I’ll eat a hot dog when I have to, and I think eating one is mandatory when attending a Minnesota Twins game, but whether it’s dressed up as a Kramarczuk’s sausage or decked out in a cornbread coating at the Great Minnesota Get-Together, it’s still not my ideal bite.

Beyond baseball, hot dogs are ubiquitous at concession stands, whether they be for hockey, swimming, football, basketball or at the beach. They’re cheap, easy to heat and fit ever-so-neatly in those tasty but equally unhealthy white buns that sell for 99 cents–in packages of eight. (So why do hot dogs typically come in packages of 10? Hold that thought!)

 Then there are people like–let’s call him “Todd,” a colleague of my husband’s, who may thank me for assigning him an alias. It’s difficult to know if a week ever passes without him  chomping down at least one hot dog–but more often, if he eats one, he eats two. Todd has been known to eat three hot dogs, expeditiously, for lunch. If pressed, Todd might be able to give Joey Chestnut a run for his (considerable) money.
But everyone has a weakness.
Over the weekend, my daughter posed this to me: If you could push a button and receive $6 million in exchange for eliminating all pizza from the face of the earth forever, would you do it?
“No way!” I answered. “I can live without millions of dollars, but not without pizza.”
Touché, tube-steak lovers.


Learning from “Senor Billy”

Although the lyrics to John Lennon’s wistful ballad “Imagine” are considered sacrilegious by some, a different view of its phrases such as “Imagine there’s no countries…and no religion too,” might be that they are simply a broader exemplification of true Christianity.
In remembering Bill Potts, who died in Worthington last Wednesday at 90, those lyrics sprung to mind.
He didn’t care if you were two years old or 75, a Guatemalan immigrant or a college-educated Minnesotan, a Mormon missionary or a fellow Protestant–to Bill, you were simply a human, and therefore you were worthy of his time, his interest, his entertainment, his birthday greeting.
Bill was a friend of mine–but then again, didn’t everyone think Bill was their friend? You may chuckle, recalling a special moment or memory you shared with Bill, only to realize now that most people around town had their own moments with and memories of Bill.
When my then-young family came to Worthington over 19 years ago, we happened to join the church where Bill had long been a presence and participant, and due to our common musical interests, our paths crossed early and often. A few years later we moved to the central Worthington neighborhood Bill and his “bride” (his common reference to his beloved wife Colleen) occupied, and we saw him even more frequently.
Rare was the day we didn’t spy Bill either biking or walking past our house, and he often stopped to chat, resting his arms on his bike’s handlebars. Or, he might ring our doorbell to alert us of a natural phenomenon he’d noticed and had to draw to our attention.
“Did you see the owls in your trees?” he’d ask, or he’d comment on the nesting wood ducks, or a family of rabbits under a bush, or even the striking color in an evening sky. “Wouldn’t want your kids to miss it.”
Well, we wouldn’t want our kids to have missed Bill.
Sometimes he’d drop off vegetables from his backyard garden, or cookies Colleen had made, or a stack of 1960s-era Ranger Rick magazines enjoyed by their children (because they knew OUR kids would love them, too) or a piece of music he wanted me to play for him, and he never lacked a twinkle in his eye, always linked to a joke or wry observation.
Irreverent? Yes. Intelligent and enthusiastic? Definitely. Bill never missed an opportunity to learn, engage and expand his knowledge–or to serve, though he never sought recognition for his efforts.
Bill was a successful Salvation Army Christmas kettle bell-ringer (and that service came complete with his patented, shimmy-rich “Jingle Bells”), a faithful, funny and evangelizing church choir member, a frequent entertainer at local nursing homes, a tutor to neighborhood school children whose parents’ English skills were lacking–heck, he learned Spanish (one of five languages he knew) in order to better understand and relate to his new-comer neighbors.
With Colleen, Bill befriended young Mormon missionaries over the years, inviting them for meals–and, in a twist few but he could achieve, convinced them to join HIM at our church on occasion. How could they resist?
Bill prized classical choral literature, like Charles Gounod’s “The Seven Last Words of Christ” and Handel’s “Messiah,” but he also loved spirituals (such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”). One of his traditions was singing “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” each Christmas Eve at church, and for several years, he’d drop by my house that day for a quick practice run-through, most often with a plate of Colleen’s cookies in hand.
He’d brush snowflakes from his jeans and shoes and greet my children with a wink and a hearty, “How are ya, kid?” before unleashing his powerful baritone in the simple telling of Christ’s birth that also speaks of people rejecting Jesus due to his humble origins.
Accompanying for “Señor Billy’s” memorial service was an emotional experience, partly because the selections (“The Lord’s Prayer” and “Hymn of Promise”) were ones I’d played for him when he was the guest soloist at numerous funerals.
I imagine there IS a heaven, and Bill is there now, hoping we’ll follow his lead by fully engaging in life and helping others, without regard to their race, backgrounds or social status.

Livin’ the sitcom life

Even with our eldest child at college, the home front remains a bustling joint with two active teens on hand.

Either someone is running in, sweaty and shower-needy, from a sports practice, or is dashing off to confirmation or a concert, or is STARVING and has to EAT SOMETHING NOW, or is in the throes of a homework assignment at 10 p.m. that’s taking longer than expected (although s/he said at 5 p.m. it “will only take a few minutes” and then delayed its start until 8:37 p.m.), or arrives for a quick meal with unannounced friends in tow, or needs a ride, or lost a critical article of clothing in the laundry mix, or—well, this illustrates the typical scene.

And while there are rarely blocks of unclaimed time available for something as leisurely as TV-watching in our household, our youngest has developed the not-altogether-approved habit of switching it on at odd moments, most commonly during dinner on nights when he is eating alone because schedules have scattered three of us across town or region.

That’s how he discovered “The Middle,” a half-hour sitcom set in a small Indiana town that depicts, in comedic style, the lives of the middle-class Heck family. Dad Mike and mom Frankie (played by Patricia Heaton of “Everybody Loves Raymond” fame), plus their three kids (like ours, an eldest son, middle daughter and youngest son), experience crazy situations that are all-too-relatable.

So relatable, in fact, that when the rest of our family finally found itself in one place at the same time and watched an entire episode, we stared at each other with knowing eyes and dropped jaws, spending a minute in stunned silence.

“Mom, are you, like, secretly writing for this show or something?” my daughter suspiciously inquired.

“I wish,” I replied, picturing the riches that must roll the way of TV sitcom writers relative to the income of lowly freelancers like me.

“Do they have a secret camera somewhere in our house?” mused my son, studiously peering around the kitchen, his gaze lingering on THE IDENTICAL cow print that hung on a wall of the Hecks’ house.

“Wow, I was starting to wonder,” I said, trying to laugh.

How does this real-life episode sound as a possible plot line for Frankie?

Our daughter’s first cross country meet of the season was a “night run” on a golf course outside of Canby–very rural, very dark, very unfamiliar.

Cutting it close, as usual, three of us leaped out of the car after parking far down a gravel road, which was already lined for nearly a mile with the vehicles of more timely spectators. Despite earlier storm warnings, the weather looked good, so we left our umbrellas in the car.

The sky darkened as we watched the girls’ race, before all daylight disappeared and the boys took off. We were following the action when fat drops of rain began pelting us, slowly at first, but soon accelerating.

“I’ll run to the car and drive it close to the entrance,” I volunteered, thinking I’d be out of the deluge faster that way.

I darted up a slope and turned in the direction I supposed was that of the road. But as the rain kept pouring down,  I became enveloped in streams of rain and blackness–and, with my glasses as useless as a windshield without wipers, I couldn’t see anything, much less a road.

Stumbling in mud, I happened upon…the most distant portion of the boys’ course, and I had to pause as runners passed, praying none of them recognized me as I tried desperately to get my bearings. Somehow spotting a similarly soggy course monitor, I cried, “Where’s the road?”

“That way,” she pointed–about 45 degrees away from where I’d been heading.

Changing course, I finally reached the road but couldn’t locate our car, so I pressed the panic button on the key fob. With alarm beeping and headlights flashing, I pushed forward until I collapsed, dripping, in the driver’s seat.

When I’d guided the car down the narrow gravel road, now crowded with other spectators and runners also frantically seeking shelter, I called my husband, who I could see standing about 50 yards away–looking in the opposite direction from where I was blocking traffic.

Another successful family outing!

Roll ‘em?



Investing in our future

Yep, it’s September, so the kids are back in school–and so are the teachers and staff.

Cafeteria lunches are being dished up, homework is being graded, quizzes administered, athletic games played, test scores analyzed, locker combinations learned, routines established.

And this week, however early in the year, is Worthington High School’s Homecoming. The Trojan Field lights are primed for tonight’s football game and appearances by the WHS Homecoming court, choir and marching band to boot.

With all that activity under way, it’s easy to lose sight of what keeps this education train chugging along on a daily, monthly and annual basis: state, local and federal taxpayer funding. We’ve come a long way from drafty one-room schoolhouses dotting rural landscapes, but there’s never a shortage of needs, even in this age of air-conditioned buildings and school-issued electronic learning devices.

Achievement gaps persist, language barriers can exist, too many students report for the first day of kindergarten without invaluable early childhood education experiences, some kids are victims of domestic abuse and others arrive from deprived homes with incomes well below the poverty line.

Adequately educating student bodies that walk through our school doors with such a wide variety of challenges, backgrounds, needs and abilities is obviously not a simple task.

And yet our future–the future of Worthington, Minnesota, the United States–depends on it. If the current generation of students falls behind and/or fails to meet minimum educational standards, with what are we left? Where will we find the engineers to design and maintain our roadways and bridges, or the nurses to staff hospitals and clinics, or the meteorologists to alert us to weather patterns?

Today at 9 a.m., a kick-off rally for the District 518 referendum takes place at WHS. The district is requesting a $500-per-pupil levy for a 10-year period, with the vote going to the people on the Nov. 4 general ballot.

A vote in its favor will maintain the essential level of support the district receives for students, and the proposed new assessment is not dramatic (homeowners of $100,000 houses will realize an annual increase of $13.40 per year, while owners of $125,000 houses will pay an additional $16.75 annually, the district’s materials cite).

Considering that many teachers pay hundreds of their own dollars to supplement what is provided for their students (a recent survey conducted by the National School Supply and Equipment Association–notably, NOT a teacher advocacy group–reported that a full 99.5 percent of U.S. public school teachers spent at least some out-of-pocket money for the 2013-14 school year on classroom or other instructional supplies, with a per-teacher average of $485 annually expended by those surveyed), this doesn’t seem like an exorbitant amount to ask.

Additionally, our schools strive to meet state and federal mandates that are, nevertheless, unfunded by those governing organizations, leaving local administrators with no choice but to direct dollars to cover those imperatives (even if they wouldn’t otherwise be first on the list of budgeting priorities).

A pair of creative teachers (one a physical education instructor, the other a science specialist) from Union Grove, Wis., has made a start-of-school video for a third consecutive year, spoofing popular songs (last year they used “That’s What Makes School Beautiful,” this year it’s to Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose”) to cleverly fire up their high school students for the year ahead and to reinforce a few basics (stay awake, be on time, do your homework, pay attention in class).

They also manage to clearly convey the notion that, really, American students are darn lucky to have the opportunity to learn and attend schools that have, for the most part, decent standards, buildings and educators.

Ultimately, education is about opportunity, and school is where kids can grow and learn so they can, in turn, become contributing, productive citizens.

Locally, referendum volunteers have chosen the theme “Strong Schools = Strong Communities: Invest in Our Future.”

And that’s an opportunity we can’t afford to waste.


Calculating minds

It was a date.

My husband and I had agreed to rise early on a rare Thursday when he was scheduled to “vacation” from work in order to tackle some at-home projects, with the intent to squeeze in a run before charging headlong into necessary tasks.

He, being a focused firstborn, followed through with his end of the bargain, rolling out of bed at nearly his usual time and brewing his customary pot of strong coffee to get the juices flowing.

I, a slacker second child, ignored his departure and promptly returned to dreamland.

But not much later, a slight noise–the recycling truck? an outer door creaking?–alerted me to the reality that morning was already in progress, and I jerked unsteadily toward the window, whipping up the shade just in time to see him passing through the door in running gear.

Still lacking my glasses, I called out to him, “I’ll be right down,” and quickly I threw on shorts, a t-shirt and socks before scooting down the stairs.

“I wondered if you were coming, but I didn’t hear anything so I thought I’d go ahead,” he explained, waiting as I tied my tennies and guzzled a half cup of hot, necessary caffeine.

“It’s okay,” I said. “Since it’s later, let’s just go for a shorter run–maybe down the street, through the park, up the path and back.”

He agreed and we were soon off, he with noticeably more pep and vigor in his step than I had in mine. But I was moving, taking strides, and before long the relatively cool air and bright mid-August morning were motivating me.

Because I’d dressed myself (bleary-eyed and blind) without regard to his get-up, we both happened to be wearing black shorts and matching Dri-fit shirts in bold gold-and-black from the recent local Mary Kay 5K. So much for being inconspicuous.

“How far have we gone?” I inquired as sweat started collecting on my forehead.

“Less than a mile,” he answered, having previously charted most possible jogging routes around town leading from our house.

“Are you sure?” I replied, incredulous.

“Yes, we’ve been running seven minutes,” he said, consulting his watch in mid-step. “Unless you’re running a seven-minute mile.”

“Oh,” I said, chastened. “But it feels like it’s been at least a mile.”

“How far will it be if we follow the path home?” I pestered my reluctant running coach.

“Well, it’s about one kilometer from here to our house, so 1.1 or 1.2 miles altogether,” he answered with precision.

“Really?” I queried, doubting his calculations. “I thought it was at least a mile and a half.”

I volunteered that it would still be far enough for me on this particular morning, while he determined to do an additional loop on another path to extend his distance.

“So you’ll run about four miles, then,” I said encouragingly when he detailed the route.

“No, that will be about two more miles, and two plus this one will be a little over three,” he said patiently.

“But this is really closer to two, so it’s more like four,” I contended, irrationally desiring to extend my own run without expending further effort.

“Jane, two plus one is three, not four,” he responded, giving me a quizzical glance.

I complained, “That’s why I had problems with math–there’s just no room in it for personal interpretation and creativity.”

And this, friends, is why I may not be in adequate shape to run the Turkey Day 10K on Sept. 13. In sum, running’s all in the numbers–and apparently every one counts.