Sunday, November 22, 2015


Yesterday, Caryl asked if I could start staining the trim on the new windows in the front entry. I replied that I’d get to it soon, but first I needed to finish a paragraph I was struggling with in my blog. As soon as I said this and headed toward my desk, I started smiling—laughing a bit at myself, really—as two seemingly-unrelated vignettes formed in my head in rapid succession. In the first, my dialogue with Caryl turned into an Arlo ‘N’ Janis cartoon. The last two panels went something like this: Janis: “And how many readers do you have for this blog?” Arlo: “Uhhh, can I count you?...”

The second vignette: Years ago, after I had been in my new parish for a few weeks, I made my first pastoral call on Rollie (not his real name), who had been in the nursing home for a number of years. Rollie had been an accomplished musician, and, as he sat on his bedside chair, he described with glowing eyes and gracefully moving hands the oratorio he was working on. (“Then the trumpets come in…” etc.). After a few minutes, he paused, and with a bemused look on his face said, “But I’m stuck, pastor. I want to use the word ‘alleluia’ in my oratorio, and I think Mr. Handel has that copyrighted.” That sounds like a punchline out of another cartoon, but Rollie was dead serious. So I sobered my smile a little and assured him that anyone was free to use the word “alleluia,” and that he wouldn’t get into trouble. He seemed a bit relieved, but the next time I visited him, he told me about his oratorio and said, “But I’m stuck, Pastor….” He was still worried about the copyright. It became clear to me that Rollie’s oratorio was the product not only of his musical aptitude, but also of his growing dementia.

What stands out in my memory—more than the cloud that came over him when he fretted about “alleluia”—was the way Rollie’s eyes glowed (in that house of dulled eyes) as he was describing the glories of his oratorio. I could almost hear those trumpets.

The hapless Arlo often reminds me of myself, with Janis (Caryl) listening to my latest scheme before leveling me with a comment that is both smart and loving.

But I also identify with Rollie. I am (I hope) a bit more fully into my right mind than he was when I visited him, but, still, this little blog project is sort of my oratorio. And if the day should come when I slip a little, I hope my eyes shine like Rollie’s when I explain to the visiting pastor, “I’m just finishing a paragraph that I’ve been struggling with in my blog!” A really sensitive pastor will tell me that he’s one of my readers.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


The Mall O', adding another hotel wing.
One of the surrealities of these modern times is that the Mall of America, forty miles from our home in Faribault, is an international tourist destination. Folks in Germany and Japan and France buy airline tickets and arrange vacation trips to Bloomington, Minnesota, to devote—I suppose—a number of days to explore all that the Mall has to offer.

It is expected that a certain sector of society—namely, the American husband—will disdain the Mall experience, but I kind of enjoy it, in the same spirit that I enjoy going to the state fair (and only at about that frequency); it throbs with a kind of fun energy. (Partly because of all those people from Germany and Japan and France.) So, although my appraisal comes with the caveat footnoted below,* I am not writing to deride or denigrate the Mall O’, but to offer something better—including a better tourist experience for our international travelers. And for you.

Northfield, Minnesota is a mere fifteen miles from where we live. It is forty-five minutes for the big-city dwellers of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and—for those jet-setters—is just as accessible (with an additional twenty minutes or so) to the International Airport as is the afore-mentioned Mall. Caryl and I love our home and our life in Faribault (a town with an interesting history and vitality of its own), but these days our hearts belong in Northfield, because that’s where Beret and her Joel and their kids—our grandkids Sam and Violet—live.**

Truth be told, I write this not to lure the Germans or the Japanese, but to sing the siren song of Northfield to those of you who live within driving or occasional visiting distance, and, more to the point, just to lift up what I like about the place.

Northfield is a college town, with two of the nation’s finest: the beautiful campuses of St. Olaf and Carleton. (Beret and Joel are St. Olaf grads.) These two anchors lend the town both an air of stability and an ever-youthful buzz. The downtown sits in a river valley between the two campus hills. It is this downtown that I initially set out to write about.  (I know this is already sounding too much like a Chamber of Commerce puff piece, but I’ve only just begun….)

Four representative establishments of this little burg worthy of a visit:

The Rare Pair is already (without my help) a shopping destination for folks from all over the area—and for parents and alums who are dropping off college kids or returning for the Christmas Festival or a concert. It offers the perfect blend of the latest hipster threads and a more traditional stylishness. The RP clientele is probably 80% women, but there’s a good men’s section that has both of those categories, too. 

I'm not sure if my Stormy Kromer cap, from
the Rare Pair, is hipster or traditional
Beret works at the Rare Pair. I used to tell people to “look for the beautiful blond,” until I realized that she was one of many. (And—only in Northfield—for a while she was one of two “Berets” in the store.) Everyone at the Rare Pair is friendly and welcoming and helpful—no matter what their hair color.

Goodbye Blue Monday is the Platonic ideal of a coffee house. Décor (what décor?), selection, vibe, efficient but friendly baristas. (Oh, and the almond croissants!) I have read that to get the best espresso you have to go to Italy. Well, I went to Italy this summer, and I came back to Goodbye Blue Monday (okay, I was coming back anyway). I found nothing better in Italy (in fact, a lot of push-button machine espresso drinks).  GBM does it by hand and produces a consistently excellent cup. Some of the baristas even know how to do that picture thing on top of the perfectly formed crema.

The Tavern Restaurant. Built into the ancient stone walls of the lower level of the historic Archer House Hotel. Always full of happy diners; always friendly. It has become—for Caryl and me—our “local.”

But le Coeur de ville of downtown Northfield is Content Bookstore. It is for me both an oasis and a reprieve. A reprieve because, as I have confessed elsewhere, the last bookstore left Faribault as I was happily clicking away on Amazon. But no more. For a variety of reasons, I now use Amazon for research or as a last resort. The most important reason is that I simply want this bookstore to stay here—to be here for me. For us. This means I have undergone an attitude adjustment: Instead of clicking on Amazon, I email my friends at Content and inquire, “Can you order for me….” Instead of looking
Content sells books both new and used.
impatiently at my watch, drumming my fingers and expecting the Amazon serf/elves to deliver an order to my doorstep in the next ten minutes, I am happy to pick up my books during our next trip to Northfield (see “Grandkids,” “Blue Monday,” and “Tavern,” above). I fantasize that—in my relationship with the bookstore—I will develop the same quirky correspondence and lasting mutual affection as that between book-seeker Anne Bancroft and bookseller Anthony Hopkins in “84 Charing Cross Road.” (I guess that puts me in the role of Anne Bancroft; I hope my Content friends find me as charming.)

(By the way, if I’m looking for a special sauté pan or paring knife, I buy it or order it from The Measuring Cup kitchen store—right next door to Content Books. A few more bucks (than Amazon), a bit of a wait, and another excuse for a latte across the street at Blue Monday! Attitude adjustment.)

Since this is not, in fact, a Chamber of Commerce piece, I am not going to list every last business in Northfield, but we appreciate many more: The Ole Store Restaurant, Tandem Bagels, the Contented Cow pub, Grundy’s hamburgers at The Reub (or is it The Reub hamburgers at Grundy’s?)….

And I am not completely discounting those international tourists. They really oughta come to Northfield. When Caryl and I visited England, we had a wonderful time in London, but what gave heart and soul to our experience were places like Wath-in-Nidderdale and Chipping Norton and Woodstock and Padderdale. Not to mention Madderdale. And, in the same vein, we discovered that our English hosts were interested in the wild American west. What better place for them to visit than Northfield, whose doughty citizens and shopkeepers defeated Jesse James and his gang in 1876.***

In a stroll of a mere two-and-a-half blocks, a visitor can walk from The Tavern, to Blue Monday, to Content Bookstore, to the Rare Pair--and end up at the very bank doors out of which the James Gang ran for their lives.

Then back up the street to the Tavern Lounge. (Did I mention that there’s a bar above the restaurant? Just off the Archer House lobby.)
I’ll meet you there after you pick up your bookstore order.
*I don't want to inject politics into this homey post on Americana, but I was dismayed at the ham-handed way the Mall responded to the recent "Black Lives Matter" demonstration. I agree with the defendants' lawyers that the Mall ought to be considered a public square.

**Just as our hearts are also tugged toward Boston/Quincy, Massachusetts, where our Anna lives. Another place in which we love spending time. We're looking forward to a visit in three weeks.

***The captured members of the James-Younger Gang were jailed and tried in Faribault, the county seat. I like to tell my Northfield friends that this means that Faribault really defeated the gang, but they don't buy it.

Northfield has developed a beautiful walkway along the
Cannon River. Here it is set up for the annual Market Fair.

NOTE: I think of this blog as part of a conversation. I realize that the "Comment" section of this site is unwieldy, but I invite you to try it. For the time being, the only alternative is to share your responses to this essay on Facebook, either to my Timeline, or as a private Facebook "Message." (I actually prefer email, but the trolls make it difficult for me to post my address here.) I value your part of the conversation.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


 A recent emphasis in parent education and child development studies—based on both research and common sense—is the idea that raising a child with the encouragement of “You can do it” is more nurturing and more lasting than a diet of “You’re so smart.” (Or so “special.” I once heard a speaker remind a group of parents that a child who grows up hearing how special he is may discover—upon beginning his first adult job—that he and his parents are the only people who share this view.)

This is another reminder of the power of words and word choices. Perhaps, even more than for a parent, it is spontaneously intuitive for a grandparent to want to blurt out, “You’re so smart!” to the grandson or –daughter who is the apple of his eye. Yet I am making the verbal shift from “You’re so smart,” to, “Hey! You figured it out!” as I interact with my (very brilliant) grandkids. I am convinced—by the research and the common sense—that there’s an important distinction in the developmental implications of those two phrases. And the second is no less loving than the first. (I suppose that a similar critique could be made of a childhood where one constantly hears, “You’re so beautiful!”)

In a parallel vein, the late child psychologist Haim Ginott emphasized the different messages conveyed (when complimenting a child's drawing, for example) by, on the one hand, saying, “You are a great artist!” or, on the other, “I like that drawing.” In the first instance, an adult has laid upon the child a burden (“great artist”) that she may or may not want to accept. (And, again, I’m thinking here of childhood-long patterns of communication.) In the second, she knows—somewhat objectively—how a grownup feels about her drawing, which perhaps has the effect of being more “encouraging” than having to live up to an imposed label of being an artist.

And it is a word choice. The words we use are not just a matter of dry verbiage; they are the building blocks of the emotional environment in which relationships thrive or wither. (As someone has said, “Remember—it is you who makes the weather.”) I’ve discovered that one can even catch oneself and make a word-choice shift in mid-sentence: “You’re so sm…. Hey! You figured it out!”

(Of course there are variations on “You can do it:” “You figured it out;” “Let’s sit down and see if we can figure this out;” “Let’s try again;” “This is a tough one, but I think you’re on the right track;” “You used your thinker!”)

I had the practical veracity of this concept demonstrated for me, personally, just yesterday: My handyman skills are just slightly beyond knowing which end of the hammer to hold. This is why my favorite tool is my iPhone, with which I take a photo of the project at hand so I can text it to my brother-in-law, Jeff, with my question. In this case, I was trying to make a simple repair to the tailgate of my utility trailer. Simple, but I ran into a bit of a poser, so off went the photo/text to Jeff. Then, just after I sent it, that cartoon light bulb came on over my head: an insight that enabled me to complete the repair. Before he could respond, I sent Jeff a follow-up text, “I figgered it out!”

I haven’t heard back from Jeff yet, but I know what he’ll say. Dearly though he loves me, he won’t say, “You are a brilliant mechanic;”  he won’t say, “It’s because you’re so smart.” He’ll say, “Good for you; you figured it out!” I could receive no greater encouragement—or higher praise.
BONUS for parents: Doing some reading for this post, I came across this very practical article about some everyday ways to apply the principles of "You can do it."

NOTE: I think of this blog as part of a conversation. I realize that the "Comment" section of this site is unwieldy. For the time being, the only alternative is to share your responses to this essay on Facebook, either to my page, or as a private message. I value your part of the conversation.