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.

Monday, September 14, 2015


                                 My father was a wandering Aramean...  ~Deuteronomy 26:5

When we lived in Alaska, I was amused to discover that an old Alaska pioneer was anyone who’d been there about ten minutes longer than the next guy.

And on our way to Alaska, I saw a bumper-sticker, “Welcome to Oregon—Now go home!” 

Somewhere in your family’s immigrant past—and mine—someone wanted them to “go home,” whether they were Dumb Norskies, Bohunks, Krauts, Chinee, Polocks, Jews, Darkies, or….

Even if you trace your ancestors to the Mayflower, someone didn’t want them here—and I don’t just mean the Native Americans.  (The very first act of the starving 1620 Mayflower sojourners was to steal a granary of Native corn.) The English Puritans established religious freedom for themselves but didn’t extend it to anyone else. Quincy, Massachusetts, was founded by a group of Puritans who were expelled from Plymouth Colony for being too “merry.” (The original name of Quincy was “Merrymount.”)

Jack Rakove, in Revolutionaries—his excellent history of the American Revolution—points out that Ben Franklin felt that German immigrants should be sent back to where they came from, because they “were too stupid to learn English, didn’t know how to make use of liberty, were too swarthy in their complexion, and ‘will soon outnumber us.’” (That’s not the last time that list of complaints has been uttered.) I don’t know whether or not Franklin later acknowledged the important role played by German-American regiments in the ultimate Colonial victory. Today, 20% of Americans are of German ancestry.

A deeply peripatetic trait known variously as immigration, emigration, migration, wanderlust, pioneering, gold-seeking, refugeeism, draft-dodging, etc., is not only built into our American genes, but is what makes the whole human story a story. The “genographic” map of one’s ancestral line produced by DNA-research projects such as that offered by National Geographic opens a whole world of possible destinations if one wants to visit “the old country.” You and I have been everywhere.

Reasonable and caring people can differ over what might be the most humane and workable approach to the challenge of the current migrant crisis in Europe--and the issues of immigration in our own country.  But I’m grateful that—in the case of my own pioneering ancestors: Jorgen and Hannah and Ole and Beret—they weren’t simply told to “go home.” Or maybe they were. But we’re still here.

Welcome to America. 

"O Pioneers!" is the title of a novel by Willa Cather

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


"Hey, look, here's a bunch of Grandpa's old Facebook posts..."

I’m one of those Facebook users who alternates between railing against the evils of the medium and deciding to post yet another bon mot that the world can’t do without. This desire to share my pearls of wisdom notwithstanding, my frustrations with the site lead me—a number of times a year—to seriously consider quitting it. The hook that keeps me in the game (as is true of many of my generation) is the addiction to the perpetual album of photos of our grandkids. (And, I will confess, Facebook is the only means I can think of to nudge this humble blog on its way into the wide world.)

In the interest of clarity, I’ll state directly that the main cause of my frustration is the disingenuous way that the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world pander to users by introducing the site and its various features (and ever-changing tweaks) with the assurance that they are only providing what we all want: We all want our “Friends” to know about what we’re doing and what we like and whom we’re with and what music we’re listening to. Not only is this an ambiguous half-truth, but it masks the real truth: That the features and tweaks are expressions of ever-more clever ways (tricks) to sell us to advertisers. To repeat what is now a truism: The Facebook user is the product; the advertiser is the customer. (Zuckerberg’s mantra could well be, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”)

I don’t have any objection to an entrepreneur producing, for profit, something that the public finds useful. My objection is to the disingenuousness and, yes, dishonesty. I would happily pay a reasonable amount for an ad-free Facebook—one that applies the principles of, for example, the Duck Duck Go browser: “We don’t read your stuff, we don’t track you and we don’t sell you to advertisers.”

So much for my critique of the Facebook business model. Despite my misgivings, it seems that quite a few (million) people find it useful. And, as it turns out, I just discovered one good thing about it myself (in addition to the grandchild photos). I was scrolling back through my own posts ("status updates")—quite a ways back—looking for a scrap of poetry I had posted, and I found the process to be surprisingly interesting and enjoyable. Not because my entries were so wise and witty, but because, it occurred to me, I was reading a journal—a sort of diary. And that struck me as a potentially good thing about Facebook. Depending on how one uses it, it can serve a function that is very similar to how our forbears in earlier centuries used a diary or journal: to record observations of the passing scene, the politics of the day, family news, a bit of humor or poetry—even, in the case of our family, how the crops were doing and how devastating the cloud of grasshoppers was.  Although historically some diaries have, no doubt, been intended to remain private, most journals have been kept with the idea that the thoughts and news being recorded will one day be examined by a later generation. Thus, the revelation that came to me about how Facebook postings can serve as a journal is not that it is an opportunity for a narcissistic treasuring of one’s own precious jewels of wisdom, but that it may be a very practical way to provide the kind of message-down-the-years that grandchildren previously discovered in their grandparents’ desk drawers or attics.

I started the blog that carries this essay as an attempt at producing a digital journal (the pen-and-ink variety having come to naught for me). It has worked pretty well in that regard (with occasional gaps of varying lengths). And, in a very general sense, the main audience I have in mind for my blog is two-fold: You, dear reader (and thank you); and—just as real to me—my grandkids, twenty or thirty years from now. Not that I’m writing targeted entries to them, but that they might be just as pleased one day to find the dusty papers of a grandparent as I have been.

The more immediate nature of Facebook entries (as compared to blog posts) makes them akin to “daily diary” jottings. Imagine an eighteen-year-old great-granddaughter reading the Facebook Diary of her great-grandmother—produced when she was eighteen years old herself. (And it might actually be beneficial if we all write these digital musings with the understanding that our grandkids will one day see them.)

An1860 letter to Caryl's great-grand-father
from a friend. In a later letter, he sheepishly
reports that his father had just bought him
out of the Civil War draft. Early Facebook?
When I refer to coming across the “dusty papers” of one’s grandparents, I don’t mean that metaphorically or virtually. I think an important part of this time-capsule-like interchange is the transferring of the digital material to ink and paper. To publish it. So it can be found, perhaps as a last resort, in the bottom of a dusty trunk in the attic.

For this very reason, I regularly order a handful of copies of my blog in book form. (One for each of my grandkids to discover in 2035, three to push on my wife and daughters—now!—and one to keep for myself as a, well… journal.) I’ve known of similar publishing possibilities for Facebook, but have not seriously considered the idea because I have equated it with the navel-gazing aspect—the worst feature—of “social” media. (One publishing title is “EgoBook”--for the coffee table!) But what made me give it a second thought—and what made it an “epiphany” for me—is that experience I had of scrolling through months of posts, and realizing the similarity to an old-fashioned journal. That, plus the discovery that one can edit these “Facebook Books,” choosing what to put in and leave out, as one would surely want to do.

So there’s one good thing about Facebook. Perhaps another, I’ll allow, is that I get to peek at your Daily Diary entries. Some of which are more interesting than others.
I occasionally publish my blog collection (for the purpose stated above) with blog2print. I'm still researching apps for printing a Facebook journal book.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


Building and maintaining and sharing a cabin with my sisters and their husbands (Barb & Phil and Betty & Jeff) in an isolated Black Hills creek valley has been, for Caryl and me, an experience of love and joy (and a bit o’ work) for twenty-three years. It’s not that we’ve never disagreed about what color to stain a wall or what kind of dish soap to use, but a certain openness and honesty in communication (and that love thing) makes it work. I have friends who have told me that they wouldn’t be able to do something like this in their family, which makes me feel all the more fortunate when I contemplate that this dream, which Caryl and I could probably not have realized on our own, has been reachable when shared among the six of us.

I’ve mused in earlier essays (here, and here) about this partnership and family experience. But in this post I share a memory of a particular vignette in our cabin-building odyssey—a memory that just now came to me as I was reaching into the refrigerator for some orange juice.

The exterior walls of custom-cut logs, and the roof of the cabin, were erected by Jorgensen Log Homes, the company owned by our brother, Bob (we love him, too); Jeff and Phil and I finished off most of the interior. At that time we were all living six hundred miles away, in Minnesota, where we were serving as pastors of Lutheran parishes. The finishing work was accomplished in a series of week-long study/work retreats, with a daily pattern of examining preaching texts or discussing theology in the morning (honest!), and working on the cabin in the afternoon and evening…and, usually, into the night. In these kinds of projects, we make a pretty good triumvirate: Jeff is a skilled woodworker with experience in home-building, Phil is an old farm boy who knows a lot about a lot of things, and I make a pretty good pot of coffee--and am fairly adept at learning the minor crafts to which Jeff introduces me. A typical workday would start with Jeff giving us our marching orders, including giving me a quick tutorial in my assignment (I am now, for example, learned in the ancient art of scribing: cutting a board-end to fit around an irregularly shaped log), and each of us bending to our particular task. (With the occasional break for that coffee I mentioned.) In this way, we made good progress and solved most problems. Until, that is, it came to installing a propane refrigerator.

In the early years, we had engaged in some earnest conversation and Whole-Earth-Catalog-research regarding keeping the cabin off the grid. Somewhere in those discussions, the idea of a propane-powered refrigerator came up. We researched that, too, and came upon a retired handyman in suburban Minneapolis who repaired and restored these appliances for sale. We called him, described our need, and arranged to pick up a refrigerator in preparation for our next westward work trip. Arriving at the handyman’s address, we were met by his wife, who sadly explained that her husband had died only a few days earlier. After receiving our sympathy, and with some hemming-and-hawing on our part, she invited us into the garage, which was a gallery of used propane refrigerators. Somewhat timorously, the widow pointed to one of the appliances and said, “I think it was that one.” We examined it to the best of our knowledge (there’s the rub!), paid the agreed upon price, and loaded the refrigerator into our trailer. This “loading” was the first of a number of times that the three of us lifted, pulled, pushed, man-handled, and cursed what amounted to the dead weight of a bull elephant into or out of our little trailer. (I don’t think this was the occasion on which, before driving off, we noticed that the trailer hitch was actually causing the front end of the car to elevate noticeably. Another story.)

We said our sympathetic farewells to the widow, and headed for the hills. Six hundred miles and ten hours later, we backed the trailer up to the steps (eight steps!) of the cabin porch, and proceeded to… (see “lifted, pulled, pushed…” etc., above). We hauled the beast up the steps, across the porch, heaved it up another small step into the front door, and rolled it across the floor into its assigned corner.

After our huffing and puffing had subsided, and our faces had returned to their normal color (and, maybe, a well-earned beer), we examined the ancient owner’s manual that we found inside the refrigerator. Jeff had piped in the propane supply in readiness, and he hooked it up. Guided by the yellowed manual, we turned knobs and tried various connections and controls. Nothing happened. We tried again. The woodworker and farm boy and coffeemaker had met our match. We were stumped.

After some head-scratching, my brother helped us to locate a local retired handyman (!) with considerable experience in propane refrigerators. Arriving at our remote cabin, he—a man of few words—proceeded to examine the unit from every angle, including on his knees. He straightened, rubbed his chin, eyed the hulking thing for a few more minutes, and broke the long silence with, “Yeah, we might be able to get ‘er goin’…, but then again... this just might kill you boys.”

We called the trash hauler that day. He and his burly associate bound the appliance to a freight dolly and wheeled it (surprisingly easily, I thought) down the steps and away.

Well, that’s a long way to go to get to what has become a bemusingly appreciated mantra among us. Every once in a while, as the three of us are rubbing our own chins and pondering how to get around some conundrum, I can’t help suggesting, “This just might kill you boys.”

Postscript: Later, upon further reflection, we determined that the poor widow had probably--completely innocently--directed us to a unit that her late husband had not even started on. Probably a blessing in disguise for us.

Our current (non-lethal) refrigerator.
A sensible Whirlpool.