Saturday, July 19, 2008


I have fond memories of the TV series Get Smart back in the sixties, so it’s no surprise that I also enjoyed the current movie by the same name. I remember trying to cleverly pepper my stories with phrases like “Sorry about that!” and “Would you believe?” and I remember my dad doing the same thing. It makes me laugh just to hear someone talk that way again.

Get Smart came to us for the first time at about the same time as a new discount store in Crystal called Target. It was owned by the top retailer in our area, Dayton’s, and no one else in the world knew anything about it. Would you believe that the name Dayton’s was once on storefronts all over the Twin Cities and that the name Target was on only one? Would you believe that some forty years later a former stripper named Diablo Cody would choose that same Crystal Target as a place to pen her Academy Award winning screenplay, Juno?

Back in the day, Target was simply our neighborhood bargain basement store. My friends and I jokingly called it “Tar-ZHAY,” as if it were an exclusive French boutique. We all shopped there, but none of us admitted that anything we wore actually came from there because we considered ourselves far too sophisticated for Target couture.

For me, “Sorry about that!” “Would you believe?” and “Tar-ZHAY” are words and phrases that I once used as often as kids today use “Whatever.” or “Ya think?”. Another favorite of mine at the time was “co-inky-dink.” Like most young teenagers, I was fascinated with the supernatural. My friends and I brought out ouija boards at slumber parties. We “oohed” and “aahed” over songs about kids with mysterious and tragic deaths such as” Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri Las and “Strange Things Happen” by Dickey Lee. We scared the daylights out of our freshmen “little sisters” when we drove them to a graveyard and abandoned them there as part of a prank. Sorry about that!

Co-inky-dink was our word for anything that we considered coincidental. It was not limited to situations where two or more events happened to occur at the same time, but was used more broadly to infer that supernatural powers must have been involved for something to take place because we believed that whatever happened must have been more than just a chance occurrence. It was also assumed that there was some mystical reason for this co-inky-dink to occur and that made for a lot of “oohing” and “aahing” and fun speculation on our part. I still think it’s a fun word and I had a chance to use it myself this week.

I don’t know how many Golden Retrievers are in the Helping Paws breeding program, but I just learned the names of two of them: Maisie and Summer. Maisie is the name of our last Golden Retriever and Somer is the name of my daughter who is eagerly awaiting a puppy. That is a bit of a co-inky-dink.

Maisie and Summer are not popular pet names. Would you believe there are only two Maisies and five Summers at our veterinary clinic? (There are also 2 Maiseys, 1 Maise, 8 Maisys, 2 Maizys, 3 Mazys and 1 Somer.) Meanwhile, there are 431 dogs and cats that answer to the name Sam, including those named Sammy, Sampson, Samantha, Sammie, Sammi, Samuel, Samson, Samwise, Samsyn, Samual and Sammy Porkchop. There are 312 dogs and cats called Buddy. There are 334 dogs and cats called Max, including those named Maxi, Maximus, Maxine, Maxwell, Maximillion, Maxx and (Would you believe?) Maxwell Smart.

It is possible that the mother of the Helping Paws litter this fall and the mother of our puppy will be a Golden Retriever named, not Sam or Buddy or Max, but Summer or Maisie. That would be quite a co-inky-dink!

Saturday, July 12, 2008


Looks like I’ve put the cart before the horse, counted my chickens before they hatched and forgotten that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. There are six new Helping Paws families waiting for five Labrador Retriever puppies. We are the sixth on the list because our application was the last to be processed. We will not be getting a puppy this time around.

I was wrong about the c-section, too. There were nine puppies in the litter, as expected. However, the first two were born out of their sacs and did not survive. After the eighth puppy also had problems, Sheba’s owner took her to the vet to deliver the ninth, but neither the eighth or ninth puppies made it.

Many people are disappointed about this sad turn of events, but Somer is crestfallen. She does not want to hear another word about a puppy until one is placed in her arms.

We are hoping that will happen in November. There is a Golden Retriever in the Helping Paws breeding pool being bred this week. If she gets pregnant, we will be first on the list for one of her puppies this fall. I am not excited about the wait, but I am excited about the possibility of a Golden.

Spanish speakers have a word that means both waiting and hoping, esperanza. Americans don’t really have such a word, probably because our culture puts such a high premium on instant gratification. We do have some sayings that fit, though: “Good things come to those who wait.” “Anything worth having is worth waiting for.”

The pictures above are of the Golden Retriever puppies born last spring. Are they cute or are they cute? As much as we wanted one of them, it was not meant to be and they have all been placed with other Helping Paws foster families. We now know that the same thing will happen with the labs that arrived last week. Our puppy just hasn’t been born yet. We’re waiting and hoping. Esperanza.

Sunday, July 6, 2008


Lots of people are asking if we’ve gotten our puppy. No, we haven’t, and we haven’t been able to contact the Helping Paws directors either, because they are on vacation. This is the only information we have from the Helping Paws website.

“On July 1, Sheba, one of our breeding dogs, gave birth to five Labrador Retriever puppies—two females and three males. These puppies will be placed with their foster families around September 1 to start their service dog training.”

We don’t know why only five puppies were born. The ultrasound or X-ray taken while Sheba was pregnant indicated nine pups. While either test could easily have been off by a puppy, it is highly unlikely that either test would have been off by four. The last we heard, Sheba, who was pregnant with her first litter, seemed agitated and appeared to be engaging in nesting behavior a few days after her June 26 due date.

It is my guess that the first puppy got stuck, a Caesarian section was performed, and only five pups survived the procedure. Of course, I am only speculating. We have been looking several times daily to our email and the website for more information on what happened, all to no avail.

We hope that all five puppies are healthy and that one of them will be placed with us. We have been told that the directors of the program will evaluate the temperament of each puppy at about seven weeks and place each one with the family that seems to be the best fit. I have joked that we will get the sickly runt because we have the experience of already raising four dogs; our primary trainer, my husband, is a veterinarian; and we have offered to cover all the vet bills for our puppy. Somer replies to my attempt at humor with a dagger stare and a sharp reminder that “no ‘sickly runts’ are going to be used for this program.” She is serious about this; there is no room for joking.

We have also noticed that six families have been contacted about fostering a puppy from this litter. If only five families are needed, we could be the one eliminated. Also on the list is a family from our Mother-Daughter book club, who applied to the program before we did. Their family and ours had no idea that the other was interested until after our applications were being processed. Now we are really hoping to do this together.

Waiting for this puppy has actually been a lot like waiting for a baby in that pregnant and adoptive parents rarely get exactly what they want, precisely when they want it either. Somer’s friend, Katherine, claims to be the exception, arguing that she is the child of her parent’s dreams and she is. However, her parents were hoping for a baby in early summer and had to wait until August. And let’s face it, sometime in her life even “perfect” Katherine will probably do a thing or two that disappoints her parents. That’s just the way it is.

How have I had to compromise? I wanted a Golden Retriever. As it turns out, the Golden in the breeding program didn’t get pregnant this spring so I won’t be getting one of her puppies, but I might be getting a Labrador Retriever. I wanted the puppy at the beginning of the summer, when Somer was on vacation. That didn’t happen because the spring puppies were all placed before we our application papers were processed, but I might get a puppy at the end of the summer when Somer goes back to school. I wanted to foster the dog for two years, while Somer was still at home. If we do get a dog, it will probably stay with us for 2 ½ years, being placed with a disabled person after Somer leaves for college. When I found out that my friend was also interested in fostering a puppy, I was excited to share the experience with her. I now know that it is possible that only one of us will be getting a dog. It is possible that we won’t be getting a dog at all.

So, I might have put the cart before the horse here, but I don’t really think so. I’m an optimist at heart and I believe that one of those five puppies will be coming to live with us in a few more weeks. And like most expectant mothers, I’ll have made a few compromises along the way and be absolutely thrilled with what I get.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


On a good day, and there have been many lately, I eat my lunch out on my deck before I go to work. A cardinal always joins me in the overhanging ash tree, singing

“what CHEER. what CHEER. Wheet, Wheet, Wheet, Wheet, Wheet.
what CHEER. what CHEER. Wheet, Wheet, Wheet, Wheet, Wheet.”

I call him “Lounge Lizard” because he’s all decked out in his finest orange feathers and he reminds me of the guys in their rust-colored polyester leisure suits who used to hang around the piano bars in my single days. They sang “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” or “For the Good Times” or whatever it took to get a date. This cardinal is just as persistent, but he only knows one song and he doesn’t appear to have any takers.

I sit overlooking my swimming pool, which is cool, calm, and refreshing, even when I’m not swimming in it. I am surrounded by beautiful flowers: fuchsias (attracting the occasional hummingbird), begonias, marigolds, roses, lilies, spirea, daisies, geraniums, impatiens, dianthus, petunias, clematis, coreopsis and hydrangeas. Even my peony bush is hanging on to her last showy blossom for the Fourth of July.

I rock forward and backward in my swivel chair under the umbrella with the matching blue-gray stripes, protected from the sun. I open my Star Tribune to the Variety Section and look to Family Circus, For Better of For Worse, Sally Forth, Baby Blues and Zits for a laugh. (Zits usually hits closest to home these days.) I then turn the page for a little relationship advice from Carolyn Hax, which is often caustic and doesn’t usually apply to me, but I enjoy it anyway. Before settling in with the daily Sudoku, I stir the cherries into my yogurt and take the Isaac Asimov Super Quiz.

I don’t know why I subject myself to the quiz, because I’m not particularly good at it. I usually can answer at least one of the questions and am spared the embarrassment of the scoring category “Who read the questions to you?” Still, learning that I “should hit the books harder” or that I’m “plenty smart, but no grind” is not exactly an ego builder. I guess I do the quiz because every once in a while I get all the questions right and earn the reward of “Congratulations, Doctor.” I suppose it’s the same reason some people play slot machines.

Yesterday was a Congratulations, Doctor/three cherries in a row kind of day. The category was “Starts and Ends in A.” I knew I had a shot at it because it was a word thing and I love words. Here it is:

Each answer is a word that starts and ends with the letter “A.” For example: An aerial. Answer: antenna. (Actually I think that’s one of the hardest ones.)

Freshman Level
1. A pleasant smell.
2. A level area where sports events take place.
3. Measurement of a surface.

Graduate Level
4. A list of matters to be discussed.
5. A loss of memory.
6. A large fleet of ships.

Ph.D. Level
7. A supposed invisible force surrounding a living creature.
8. Something added to a text.
9. A word used by conjurors when performing a magic trick.

Answers: Aroma, Arena, Area, Agenda, Amnesia, Armada, Aura, Addenda, Abracadabra.

I went through the questions lightning fast and my memory, which isn’t as good as it used to be, didn’t fail me. One of my favorite writers, Anna Quindlen, who is about my age, says that her “memory is now so bad that (she) can reread mystery novels and not recall whodunit.” I can relate. However, yesterday, my memory for “A” words was with me. I tried to share my excitement with the Lounge Lizard, but he was unfazed and never missed a tweet in his same sorry song.

“what CHEER. what CHEER. Wheet, Wheet, Wheet, Wheet, Wheet.
what CHEER. what CHEER. Wheet, Wheet, Wheet, Wheet, Wheet.”

Monday, June 30, 2008


We are becoming a foster family. I feel like an expectant mother (without the morning sickness). Ian is talking about cigars and decorating a cake to bring to work. Somer is calling all of her friends on their cell phones (and she is going crazy because none of them are picking up.)

We’ve been on eggshells all weekend waiting for our “baby” to arrive. We just got word that he or she will probably be born sometime tonight. The due date of June 26 (the same due date I had when I was pregnant with Erin) has passed; and this baby is taking its own sweet time, just as Erin did twenty-five years ago.

We are throwing around names like Mischa, Owen, Murdoch, Sawyer and Kenzie. There are new items on our “To Buy” list and new jobs on our “To Do” list.

I have surprised a few people by agreeing to this arrangement because our “baby” is not the kind of baby that usually interests me. Our “baby” is a Labrador puppy. This is what I get for living with people who love animals: Dog #5.

Actually, I’m caught up in the excitement, too. It’s not a long-term commitment because this dog will not really be ours. We will foster it for 2 ½ years and teach it what it needs to know to become a service dog. Our “baby” will be placed with a handicapped person at about the same time as Somer heads off to college.

Wish us well!

Thursday, June 19, 2008


At my last MAD (Mother and Daughter) Readers meeting, we discussed Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. It’s the first book in a series about a girl who falls in love with a vampire. It is not my genre AT ALL, but I did enjoy it and I am working my way through the second book. The series is immensely popular with teenage girls and their mothers, reportedly selling better than Harry Potter in some areas.

Some of the vampires in the book have special abilities, such as being able to see the future or to read the thoughts of others. I’m told the idea of super powers is common in fantasy stories, which I don’t know because I wouldn’t read fantasy stories at all if they weren’t so popular with my daughter’s friends and their moms. One of the questions that we explored in our discussion of Twilight was “What special ability do you have right now that could develop into a super power?”

My daughter, Somer, mentioned that she thought it would be cool to have the power to “shape-shift,” although she didn’t feel that she had any special abilities that would qualify her for that super power. She was quite sure, however, that my super power would be “mind control.” That got us all laughing, especially since we had just been discussing my extensive summer job list for Somer. I know I am a controlling person and I laughed as hard as everyone else about my potential for mind control.

How did I get to be this way? I think it is common for oldest children, especially girls, to be bossy. I think it is also common for some children with an alcoholic parent to strive for control because their lives with that parent are unpredictable. In my case, it may also be genetic. I am told that, as a four-year old, when I was asked to pick up my toys in the front yard, I sat on the front steps and told my neighborhood friends and sisters which toys they could pick up for me. My dad responded by saying, “Some people are roofers and some people are foremen. It looks like we’ve got a foreman.”

I found my abilities as a controlling person to be quite beneficial as a teacher and as a parent of young children. The children in my classroom and home had clearly-defined expectations, well-planned activities and predictable routines. When I am feeling defensive about this aspect of my personality; I defend it, arguing that I am not bossy and controlling, but rather assertive.

However, no matter what name I give it, I do not find my controlling personality to be at all helpful in parenting my adult children; who are now trying to find their own way and eager to distance themselves from my way of doing things. I struggle with this because I still want to be involved in their lives and most of the time I am not. I didn’t expect to find this stage of parenting to be the most difficult for me.

In Mistaken Identity, the book that I just read with my adult group (I hesitate to call it my “Adult Book Club” because that suggests a type of literature which we have not yet explored), the issue of control takes on an entirely different light. This is the tragic account of two young women who were mistaken for each other after an accident in their college van. One family mistakenly buries the other’s daughter, thinking she is their own. The other family cares for the first family’s daughter for five weeks, thinking she belongs to them. Some readers find this book overly religious, but I find the depth of faith of the parents and the sisters in both of these families to be truly inspiring.

The most poignant moment in Mistaken Identity occurs for me when Newell Cerak, the father of the daughter who survives, tells Don Van Ryn, the father of the daughter who dies, that he feels guilty because his family has had the happy ending. Don Van Ryn responds that his family has had a happy ending, too, but that they just haven’t gotten there yet. I had to read and re-read his statement, unable to fathom this father’s composure in such hellacious circumstances. Don Van Ryn has no doubt that his family will have their happy ending when they are all together again in heaven. I do not know when I have read anything that touched me more.

No one in Mistaken Identity has any super powers. This is not a fantasy story. No one in the book is destined for mind control. The parents and sisters of Laura Van Ryn and Whitney Cerak are ordinary people sustained by the grace of God. They know that God is in control and they are not, and they are happy with that. I also know that God is in control and I am not, but I have a little more trouble keeping my assertiveness in check.

Thursday, May 8, 2008


The Odyssey is an epic poem, probably written by Homer, which describes the adventures of Odysseus on his ten-year journey home after the Trojan War. The Coen Brothers’ movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, is a retelling of The Odyssey, set in the American south in the 1930’s. Another version of the epic is being played out by twenty-somethings in America today.

In an article in the New York Times last fall, David Brooks wrote about a current life phase that follows childhood and adolescence, a period of roughly ten years, which precedes adulthood. This phase, which he calls “odyssey,” is the transition between student life and adult life. It is the time when adult children move in and out of everything: home, relationships, careers and school. It is a time when parents become increasingly anxious because their adult children can’t seem to decide what they want to do with their lives and get on with it. Brooks says,

“There used to be four common life phases: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now there are at least six: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age. Of the new ones, the least understood is odyssey, the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood.”

Using Brooks’ figures, fifty years ago some seventy percent of thirty-year-olds had moved away from home, become financially independent, gotten married and started a family. Ten years ago fewer than forty percent of thirty-year olds had done the same things.

There was an odyssey phase in my own life, but the only name we had for it at the time was “early mid-life crisis.” I left a terrific teaching job in my mid-twenties to take advantage of an opportunity in broadcasting. I gave up regular hours with great vacations at a job I knew how to do well for overnight shifts and a decrease in pay at a job for which I wasn’t trained. I’m sure my parents were very anxious.

It wasn’t easy for me either. I loved teaching, but I didn’t love my life. I didn’t want to be stuck in the same position ten or twenty years down the line. I wanted to try something new. When the rare opportunity for a paying gig as a performer fell right into my lap, I ran with it.

Brooks acknowledges that this is not an easy thing to do, “The odyssey years are not about slacking off. There are intense competitive pressures as a result of the vast numbers of people chasing relatively few opportunities.”

My journey into the world of radio and television lasted about six years. It was filled with the notable experiences and hardships that characterize an odyssey. I believe I am a better person for having taken the trip. That doesn’t mean, however, that it is always easy for me to watch my children as they struggle in their own odyssey years. I remember well that it is not an easy time.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


The only time I have seen a real coyote was in the parking lot of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, AZ. My cousin Lynn, who lives in Tucson, acted as though it was almost an every day occurrence. She reacted as I might have, had it been a raccoon going through the garbage at a Minnesota State Park.

The coyote that I saw was smaller than I expected, more like a medium-sized mongrel dog than a wolf. He walked stealthily between the parked cars with his head and tail lowered, eyes slyly shifting from side to side, disappearing into the desert scrub as quickly as he had appeared on the concrete. He looked thin and hungry and I wondered, “Is he tracking a rabbit or some chicken nuggets?” I grabbed my children’s hands, fearing for their safety.

I saw a dancer portray another kind of coyote on stage last weekend in Border Crossing at the Ritz Theatre in Minneapolis. Jennifer Ilse brought to life the trickster coyote, popular in folklore. She did not slink, but held her head high. She drummed a native beat with her feet and spoke with the cunning of a survivor coyote, one who has used her wits to adapt. Mothers should hold their children tightly in the face of this animal, as well.

Ilse’s coyote earns her living transporting human cargo. She is a smuggler of illegal immigrants at the United States-Mexican border. Ever the trickster, she entices groups of migrants to relinquish their life’s savings and follow her, exploiting their need and promising things that she cannot deliver. My daughter is one of her desperate followers.

This is a tragic story of our time, well told. I recommend it. Performances continue this weekend, Thursday through Sunday.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


LE:MON is an acronym for Leadership Evolved: My Oh Nine. The Oh Nine could also be written as '09, the year that my son and his classmates will graduate from college. He is currently running for president of his class as the LE:MON candidate and he has faced some criticism from his opponents because he is new to student government. Colin channels Daniel Day-Lewis and addresses his critics in this You Tube video, which I find very entertaining.

Friday, April 11, 2008


All of us have seen disturbing news clips of young children in the Middle East shouting hateful things about Americans. We are shocked and saddened by these images and we are angered at the people who have taught these kids to hate us so much.

In Pakistan, Afghanistan and some other parts of the world, it seems that the virulent Anti-American sentiment is being taught at madrassas, Islamic schools, funded by the Saudis. Madrassa or madrasah is actually an Arabic word for any type of school, but it has come to mean a school where Islam is taught. The madrassas built by the Saudis in Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent years are said to espouse a radical, violent form of fundamental Islam that is anti-Western and Anti-American.

That is not to say that madrassa schools, by definition, dispense hatred for Americans. Barack Obama attended a predominately Muslim school, which could be considered a madrassa, when he lived in Jakarta as a teenager. Minneapolis StarTribune columnist, Katherine Kersten, reports that there is a Muslim charter school in a suburb of the Twin Cities operating today. She gives compelling evidence that this school, TIZA, which is funded by Minnesota taxpayers; provides class time for the study of the Qu’ran. The problem with TIZA is not that the students study a radical, hateful breed of Islam, because there is no evidence to support that they do. The problem is that they study Islam in a public school. I spend a lot of money to send my kids to a private school where they learn about world religions, examine their own faith and are allowed to sing Christmas Carols. Taxpayers do not support my children’s school and they should not support TiZA.

The Saudi-built madrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan raise even greater concerns. Vali Nasr, the Iranian-American Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University has said,

“In order to have terrorists, in order to have supporters for terrorists, in order to have people who are willing to interpret religion in violent ways, in order to have people who are willing to legitimate crashing yourself into a building and killing 5,000 innocent people, you need particular interpretations of Islam.
Those interpretations of Islam are being propagated out of schools that receive organizational and financial funding from Saudi Arabia.”

Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, has asked, "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?"

Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State, has denounced madrassas in Pakistan and several other countries as breeding grounds for "fundamentalists and terrorists."

These people know a lot more about all of this than I do, but I recently read a book that supports what they say. Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin tells the story of a lost mountain climber, Greg Mortenson, who stumbles into a remote village in Pakistan after his failed attempt to scale a mountain known as K2. Mortenson’s decision to repay the villagers for their kindness leads him to build them a school. Since then he has built 57 other schools, all in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where 24,000 students, more than half of them girls; are currently learning to read, to write and to do arithmetic. The only other schools being built in these remote areas are Islamic fundamentalist madrassas, where students learn fundamental Islam and to hate Americans.

It is Mortenson’s mission to “promote peace, one school at a time.” He has his detractors, but there are many who believe he will one day earn the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. Tom Brokaw, one of his first supporters, describes Mortenson’s efforts as “proof that one ordinary person, with the right combination of character and determination, really can change the world.”

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Congratulations to my brother-in-law, Pete, who made it to the final round of Jeopardy at the Mall of America last weekend, when the Jeopardy Brain Bus rolled into town looking for contestants. His name now goes on file with those of the other finalists from Minneapolis and everywhere else try-outs are being held. Pete was told that he has a shot at being called up for the TV show anytime in the next eighteen months. He’s down-playing the whole thing, which is characteristic of him; but I am hoping he gets the call, wins big, retires early, travels everywhere and invites me to visit him.

I do not know if the word rhinotillexis was a part of my brother-in-law’s try-out, but I have been told that this is one of Ken Jennings’ questions: “What pastime is technically termed rhinotillexis?” In these days of the internet, the answer to the question is easily found: What is nose-picking?

At first I was not sure why I was provided with Ken Jennings’ question about rhinotillexis and this picture of Pete in the same e-mail from my sister, but I assumed there was a reason. After thoroughly scrutinizing the photo, I think I have figured it out. I now wonder where the future Ken Jennings is hiding his index finger.

Just kidding, of course! Bravo, Pete!

Saturday, March 8, 2008


I remember my dad singing songs from The Music Man long before I first saw The Music Man. I remember him imitating the traveling salesmen, “But he doesn’t know the territory,” loving how the lyrics matched the cadence of the moving train.

I also remember his: “Oh, we got trouble! Right here in River City! …..Capital ‘T,’ …..rhymes with ‘P,’ ….. stands for Pool!” I’d write the whole thing, but there is that law about copy infringement getting in the way.

My dad didn’t have Robert Preston’s voice, but he did have his enthusiasm. His delight with The Music Man rubbed off on me and I thought of him last weekend when the musical opened to a full house at Breck School. I wish he could have been there to see his granddaughter perform with all of his enthusiasm AND a lovely singing voice.

Somer plays the farmer’s wife, which she claims, tongue-in-cheek, is the best part in the play. She is pictured at the top of the cast photo, re-enacting Grant Wood's American Gothic. The lead roles of Harold Hill and Marian the Librarian are played by deserving seniors, who do a great job. Somer, as a sophomore, is waiting her turn. She has the right attitude: There are no small parts, only small actors.

Cast members are now wearing t-shirts advertising the play with the word Shipoopi across the front. It’s the title of a lesser-known song from the play, one I never heard my dad sing. A shipoopi, according to the lyric, is a girl who’s hard to get. The actors in the play sing out the merits of the shipoopi while dancing the Virginia Reel. They have a great time with it and the audience does, too.

Congrats Somer, Sweet Sixteen! Break a leg in your final performance! Your dad and brother and sister and I will all be there, puffed-up with pride as we watch our shipoopi!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


“They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway. They say there's always magic in the air.” Ian and I got to experience George Benson’s Broadway magic in New York City over President’s Day weekend, twice.

The first was a college improv show at 116th and Broadway, which is about eighty blocks north of the theatre district, but on Broadway, and magical for the parents of the performers, just the same. Our son was both the emcee and a performer in this year’s “Fruit Paunch Formal Show,” and he did a great job. In one of his sketches he played a young schoolboy with an exaggerated lisp giving an oral report on walruses (walrutheth). He described how they had three tusks (tuthkth) that were so (tho) long that if they were laid out end to end they could stretch (thtretth) all the way to Buffalo. The college audience loved it, but I loved it more than they did. I actually remember when Colin was that earnest, bespectacled schoolboy giving oral reports with a slight speech impediment.

On our second night, the three of us had dinner at a great little Italian restaurant near campus and then took the subway to Times Square. On the train, I sat next to an artist who frenetically sketched three portraits of other passengers and a quick profile of me in our half-hour ride down Broadway. Our destination was the Broadhurst Theatre, the same stage where Joel Grey gave his Tony Award winning performance in Cabaret some forty years ago.

We had tickets to see the Broadway revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with a star-studded all-Black cast. I had never read the Tennessee Williams play or seen it performed, so I am not familiar with the Elizabeth Taylor-Paul Newman version, or any other version, for that matter. The play we saw was directed by Debbie Allen (“Fame”) and starred a foul-mouthed James Earl Jones (“The Great White Hope” and the voices of Mufasa and Darth Vader), an overweight, unkempt Phylicia Rashad (“The Cosby Show”), an alcoholic Terrence Howard (“Crash”), and a very hot Anika Noni Rose (the “Dream Girls” star who takes a back seat to Jennifer Hudson and Beyonce Knowles in the movie). Also very recognizable is a henpecked Giancarlo Esposito (“Homicide: Life on the Streets” and “Law and Order”). I can’t imagine any way in which Taylor, Newman, Burl Ives or any of their cast mates could have been superior to any of the actors we saw.

In the play, Terrence Howard’s character, Brick, is disgusted with his family’s mendacity. The word, which is new to me, describes the primary motivation for his behavior. He blames his struggles with honesty and his escape into alcoholism on his family’s mendacity, or untruthfulness and tendency to lie. He doesn’t call his family members prevaricators or outright liars, but mendacious, a term which refers to much more clandestine behavior. He accuses them of lives filled with secrecy, concealment and attempts at deception.

I like Tennessee Williams’ choice of word. Years of subtle mendacity in the lives of his characters have destroyed any good that may have once existed in their relationships, and make it very difficult for each character to recognize the truth. Keeping secrets, brushing small annoyances under the rug, keeping up appearances and refusing to face hard truths are not in the best interest of family harmony or personal satisfaction, although they may seem to be at the time. I am grateful for the new word and all that it illuminates in my own life.

Bravo to Broadway magic and neon lights!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


In my search for useful two-letter Scrabble words, I have found another good one: ai. This is not the AI of Artificial Intelligence, Artificial Insemination or American Idol. This is the ai that is the three-toed sloth of Central and South America. The plural of the word is ais. It is pronounced “eye” or “ah-EE,” which is similar to the sound made by the sloth and how the mammal got its name.

There are at least three species of ais, including the Maned Three-toed Sloth of South America. These ais have a coarse outer coat with hairs that apparently angle up so that they will hang down when the sloth is in its normal position, hanging from forest trees. Even a good dose of Frontline wouldn’t eradicate the critters that supposedly live in ai fur: algae, mites, ticks, beetles and moths.

The Maned Three-toed Sloth eats from the trees where it hangs. It is rarely seen on the ground because it cannot stand or walk and is reduced to dragging itself by its front legs and claws when it is on the forest floor.

One of the seven deadly sins that was the subject of many lessons at St. Margaret Mary and St. Margaret’s Academy has the same name as the sloth, which is considered to be a sluggish and lazy creature, although I’m not sure that the description is completely fair.

Human to sloth: “Excuse me. Why are you so sluggish and lazy?”

Sloth to human: “Excuse ME! Why don’t you try hanging in trees all day and night; moving to a new residence every time you run out of food; providing reliable, rent-free housing to numerous undesirable pests that you cannot evict; and dragging yourself around on the ground by your arms every time you to need to use the privy?”

No thanks. I’ll pass. I’ll stick to finding places on the Scrabble board where I can rack up points with my ai, which appears to be a whole lot easier than being a sloth.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


AE: American Eagle Outfitters
A&E: Arts and Entertainment Television Network
AE: The United Arab Emirates
æ (the letters “a” and ”e” stuck together with no space in between them): a letter in some languages and the representation of a vowel sound in other languages. In the International Phonetic Alphabet æ represents the “a” sound in the word cat.
ae.: (ae followed by a period): at the age of; aged

Surprisingly, ae is also a word. It’s new to me, but it’s been in Scrabble Dictionaries for at least thirty years. It is an adjective and it means “one.” I don’t know how to pronounce it because Scrabble dictionaries don’t give pronunciations and I can’t find it anywhere else. I may not be able to use it to improve my vocabulary, but I will definitely be able to use it to improve my Scrabble game.

P.S. ae is not the only two-vowel, no consonant word in the Scrabble Dictionary. More later.

Monday, February 4, 2008


Somer did a report for biology this weekend on moose. She learned that the moose are able to adapt to the harsh winters of northern climates because they have very thick fur, which keeps them warm in the winter; and because they have very long, thin legs, which help them travel through heavy winter snow. No wonder I have so much trouble adapting to Minnesota winters. I have thin skin and short, thick legs.

Somer also learned something about the word moose, which, of course, interests me. The plural of moose is moose. The plural of goose is geese. The plural of mongoose is mongooses. English, such a fascinating language!

The word plural, of course, means more than one. As we all know, plural nouns are usually nouns ending in the letter “s,” such as the word mongooses, but there are exceptions such as the words moose and geese. There is also another, much more disturbing, use of the word plural.

I recently read Escape, Carolyn Jessop’s memoir of her life in a polygamist cult, where she was given in marriage at the age of eighteen to a fifty-year old man living with his three previous wives and their many children. I am currently reading Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, which is a scholarly history of the Mormon faith and its fundamentalist offshoots, often polygamist cults or polygamist extremists. I am also a fan of the HBO television series Big Love, which is a fictional account of a polygamous family. In each of these stories the word polygamy is interchangeable with the phrase plural marriage.

Actually, there is some appeal to plural marriage for most women, including me. It would be very nice to have sister-wives as confidantes and partners in cooking, cleaning and child-rearing. The appeal, however, ends there. The attractiveness of the arrangement is also based on the assumption that the wives are companionable and cooperative, which is usually the case in the fictional Big Love, but rarely evident in Jessop’s real-life narrative.

It is not uncommon for polygamist groups to force 14-year old girls into plural marriage with older men and to drive out 14-year old boys before they become competition for the established male hierarchy. Forcing young girls into marriage and forcing young boys to fend for themselves on the street are child abuse. The man who kidnapped 14-year old Elizabeth Smart in Utah 5 1/2 years ago believed the Lord had asked him to take her as his second wife. He abducted her from her bedroom at knifepoint, raped her and claimed her as his own. The fact that she was eventually rescued and is said to be doing well is miraculous. The fact that some version of what happened to Elizabeth is still happening today in polygamist cults in the United States is unspeakably sad.

More than 10,000 polygamists are now living in one such cult in Colorado City on the Arizona-Utah border. They are members of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS), an offshoot of the Mormons (LDS) who believe that the Latter Day Saints erred when they gave up polygamy as espoused by founder Joseph Smith and his successor Brigham Young.

The lives of Colorado City residents are funded by American taxes. American laws, which should protect the children living there. are rarely enforced. According to Krakauer members of the FLDS in Colorado City consider the governments of Utah, Arizona and the United States to be “Satanic forces intent on destroying them.”

From these “Satanic forces” Colorado City polygamists received over six million dollars in aid in 2002. The government paid for their school, which employed FLDS teachers and taught FLDS doctrine. The government paved their streets, improved their fire department and upgraded their water system. The government built an airport outside of the city, which is used by few people other than Colorado City residents. In 2002, 78% of the town’s Arizona residents received food stamps. In fact, each resident received an average of eight dollars in government services for every dollar paid in taxes. Members of the FLDS are told by their leaders that this assistance is coming from the Lord, that defrauding the government is “bleeding the beast” and therefore virtuous.

Manipulating words to make plurals is fun for word nuts like me. Manipulating people into plural marriages and a government into supporting them is criminal and pathetic.

Thursday, January 31, 2008


Really good Scrabble players can apparently decode AAAGMNR immediately. I guess I am not a really good Scrabble player because I had to work at it. I was stuck on MANAGAR for quite awhile, thinking it could be some version of manager or have something to do with eating from the French word manger. It’s not MANAGAR. (Loyal readers may wish to pause here to decode AAAGMNR. The answer is provided in this blog entry and I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun.)

There are more than two thousand active tournament level Scrabble players in the United States and some of them will meet in Scottsdale, AZ over the President’s Day weekend. While their competition definitely intrigues me, I’m just a recreational player and I’m not foolish enough to think I belong there.

Seven-letter words that use all of a player’s Scrabble tiles are known as bingos because they earn the player fifty bonus points, in addition to the score of the word that is played. Bingos from last year’s tournament include:
seringa - a Brazilian tree
imphees - African grasses
caseose - a water-soluble protein
I can recognize that each of these words contains an “s” and assume that the players were probably able to find a place for them on the board by making a plural of another word. Still, these bingos are not anywhere in my vocabulary and these players are clearly out of my league.

That’s not to say that I don’t share the tournament level players’ passion for the game. It would be nice to recognize in an instant that AAAGMNR can be played as ANAGRAM, but I think I got the same thrill out of figuring it out, even if it did take me a little bit longer. I probably even have a greater sense of accomplishment because I had to work a little harder to get it.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


Somer and I spent the MLK weekend at the Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson, Arizona with one of Somer’s friends and her mom. We went hiking and horseback riding on the 640-acre ranch and in the adjacent Saguaro National Park every day. What a fabulous place!

Our picture was taken Sunday morning as we were riding to an outdoor cowboy breakfast at the old homestead on the ranch. I thought Somer was riding right behind me, but I was so busy enjoying the beautiful desert landscape and trying to keep my trusty horse, Zephyr, from getting a mouthful of low-growing brittle brush that I wasn’t really paying much attention to where she and Hondo ended up in the line.

Guide: There is a photographer up ahead who will take your picture individually, or in a group, if you would like.
Me, calling over my shoulder: Come up next to me and we can have our picture taken together.
Lady behind me, who was not Somer: Well, ……all right……but I’ve never even met you.

Fortunately, Somer was only two horses behind the mystery lady, so she managed to catch up to me before the picture was taken. Not so fortunately, Zephyr decided to position himself in such a way that I have saguaro branches growing out of my shoulders. It is probably no surprise that the lady behind me disappeared completely as the picture was being taken, without ever asking to make my acquaintance.

It isn’t obvious in the photo, but we were surrounded by majestic saguaro (suh-WORE-oh) cacti wherever we went on the ranch and in the park. Native only to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, California and Mexico, they are prolific and incredibly beautiful in Saguaro National Park.

The saguaroes are not only cacti, but trees, because they have woody skeletons (somewhat visible in the photo of the decaying saguaro above), which resemble a bunch of broom handles approximately 1-2” in diameter standing together, with bunches of curved broom handles reaching skyward here and there along the sides to form the branches. We passed a few of the still-standing skeletons on some of our hiking trails, and we also saw them overhead, as the ribs have been fashioned into amazing pole-like ceiling “planks” in the Tanque Verde guest rooms. I wanted to take our entire ceiling home with me. The last time I felt that way, I was in the Sistine Chapel.

The first time I encountered the word “saguaro,” it had the alternate spelling “sahuaro,” and I pronounced it “saw who arrow.” Sahuaro Hall was my freshman dormitory at Arizona State University. I was very interested in the fact that I would be living in a co-ed dorm, meaning that one of the wings housed men and one of the wings housed women. The only thing we actually shared was a dining hall, but this was still considered a rather risqué living arrangement for a St. Margaret’s Academy girl at the time.

As an eighteen-year old, I was very excited to be headed to Sahuaro Hall and anxious to meet my roommate, but not so interested in the word “sahuaro.” I left for college without learning how to pronounce it or finding out what it meant. I was going to Arizona to get away from home and out of the cold, and I didn’t give the unfamiliar name of my new living quarters a second thought.

Family who picked me up at the Phoenix airport: “Where will you be living?”
Me: “Saw who arrow Hall.”
Silence. Exchange of puzzled looks.
Mother in family: “Is that one of the dorms?”
Me, trying to be shocking: “Yeah. It’s the co-ed dorm.”
Mother in family, trying not to be shocked: “Oh. That’s nice. How is the name spelled?”
Me: “S-A-H-U-A-R-O.”
Mother: “Oh, Sahuaro! That’s the name of our biggest cactus and our state flower.”
Me: “Oh.”
Five-year old boy in family: “You’ve never heard of a Sahuaro Cactus?”

I spent the next nine years in Arizona and one by one learned to love, and to pronounce the names of, the desert trees and desert cacti there. I can smile about my comeuppance with the word sahuaro now, but I was mortified then. Though I was raised in Minnesota, the desert became an important part of me in the time that I was there. Today the saguaro cactus feels as much mine as the sugar maple that grows in my front yard.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


There is no one who sports a unibrow more prominently than Frida Kahlo. Her paintings are currently on exhibit at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and it’s a good show, although it was very crowded last Sunday afternoon. The $10 admission fee allows non-members to view 46 paintings, primarily self-portraits, and 90 photographs from her personal albums. There is an additional charge for the audio tour, but I didn’t need it. Thursday nights are free between 5-9 and draw huge crowds, last week 2,000 people.

The exhibit closes In Minneapolis on Sunday, January 20, and then moves on to Philadelphia. It is a better collection of Kahlo’s work than what I saw at museums in Mexico ten years ago, but it is missing one thing. The Dolores Olmeda Museum outside Mexico City actually has live Mexican hairless dogs on site. The rare xoloitzcuintlis dogs, pronounced something like “show low eats queen tlees,” are usually called xolos. They are featured in Kahlo’s work along with parrots and monkeys. The xolos I saw in Mexico were yappy and interesting-looking, but it would be a stretch to say they were cute.

Getting back to the unibrow, Frida may be the poster child, but she’s not the only person to have one. I remember when Brooke Shields had eyebrows that were well on their way to meeting above her nose. In a controversial topless photograph by Francesco Scavullo, the pre-pubescent Brooke’s eyebrows were badly in need of a tweezers, but her mother refused to let anyone touch them.

On a recent “Traffic and Trivia” bit on K102 radio, Kirsten Klein reported that the body part that gives women the most trouble is their eyebrows. That’s news to me. I pretty much ignore mine. Once, in high school, I tweezed them to pencil thin lines and got teased by my friends. After that, I let them grow back and left them alone. That’s apparently what Frida did, too, but her result is a bit more extreme than mine.

As for the word unibrow, according to People Magazine, the Oxford English Dictionary now includes it: unibrow (noun) A pair of eyebrows that meet above the nose, giving the appearance of a single eyebrow. The Oxford English added 2,500 new words and phrases last year including:

Omigod (interjection) Expression of astonishment or shock, pain or anger: Oh my God!

*Crapola (noun) Material of poor quality, rubbish; nonsense

*Bogus (noun and adjective) Very displeasing or inferior, bad

*Smoosh (verb transitive) Squash, crush or flatten

Fricking (adjective and adverb) Expressing amazement, anger, exasperation, etc.

Nyah (interjection) Expressing a feeling of superiority or contempt

Buzzkill (noun) A person or thing which dampens enthusiasm or enjoyment

*These words are already in the Scrabble dictionary.

Omigod, Frida must have had one crapola eyebrow wax to get that fricking unibrow look. Nyah, I don’t mean to be a buzzkill, but her stylist should have her tweezers smooshed and a great big “BOGUS” stamped across her license.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


I am sorry that the Golden Globes have been cancelled because there are some really good movies out there right now that deserve to be recognized. I am all for the television writers getting their due, but I would like to see Ellen Page and Emile Hirsch pick up trophies for Juno and Into the Wild. I hear that Daniel Day Lewis is a shoo-in for best actor, but I haven’t seen his performance in There Will Be Blood yet, so I’m rooting for the young Hirsch, who I think deserves every award out there.

Both Into the Wild and Juno have Minnesota connections. Into the Wild was produced by Minnesotan Bill Pohlad, who previously produced Brokeback Mountain and is the son of Minnesota Twins’ owner Carl Pohlad. It is a faithful retelling of Jon Krakauer’s tragic account of a young man who dropped out of American society to live on his own in Alaska. It is based on a true story and I loved both the book and the movie.

Juno was written at the Target store in Crystal, Minnesota, where I shop when my husband doesn’t do it for me, by a former stripper; who reportedly still owns a house in Robbinsdale, the suburb next to mine. The writer, who goes by the pen name Diablo Cody, says she wrote the screenplay about a boy she hurt in high school. A few years ago she wrote a book, Candy Girl, about her experiences in Minneapolis strip clubs such as Sex World and Déjà Vu. The book is pornographic and less than great literature, but I could not put it down. Juno shows off Cody’s writing abilities better than Candy Girl, and the movie is beautifully acted, comedic and poignant.

One of the Christmas releases that I really enjoyed, The Great Debaters, is not getting the attention that it should be getting. I saw it with my family Christmas week and it was already relegated to a small theatre with a smaller audience. All the movie trailers that preceded it seemed to feature black actors in violent roles, as if these were the only movies a Great Debaters’ audience would enjoy. The film does have a primarily African American cast, led by Denzel Washington, but it is not violent and it is not just for blacks. It is an uplifting, motivational coming-of-age story with universal appeal, based on a true story.

There may be a bit of a pattern to my movie preferences here. My favorite books and movies usually fall into the category of memoirs, based on true stories or historical fiction. That doesn’t really explain my interest in Juno, but it is a quirky version of a real high school relationship by a person who used to live in my neighborhood, so it feels like it fits my genre.

The Great Debaters is also excellent because it educates its audience on the word “denigrate.” The word comes from the Latin words “de+nigrare,” meaning “to make black.” Washington’s character makes the case that the word we use to mean “disparage” or “defame” also means “to blacken” and that it has racist undertones.

I have used the word denigrate without knowing its origin or its ability to offend. I have also used other words unintentionally that were equally insensitive. Mulatto, a word that is sometimes used to describe a person with both black and white ancestry, comes from the Spanish word mulato, meaning “a young mule.” Papago, the name given by the Spanish to an Indian nation in Arizona, means “bean eaters.” Unfortunately, there are probably other words that I still use that are unintentionally insulting to someone.

The words we use have the power to inflame and incite or to heal and uplift. This holds true for debaters, screenwriters, television writers and all the rest of us. The lesson in denigrate is that it is important to choose our words well, and that it is unfortunate that even when we do so we may still accidentally offend. Resolved (as they say in The Great Debaters): Sticks and stones can break your bones and words can be MORE hurtful.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

qaid and qadi

In my search for u-less “q” words (see: qi), I have found two more good ones: “qaid” and “qadi.” Qaid has been listed in Scrabble and other dictionaries for more than thirty years so it should be widely accepted in most friendly Scrabble games. Qadi appears in newer Scrabble editions and might require a bit more negotiation if a current dictionary is not available.

A “qaid” is a Muslim leader. The word can also be spelled caid and has plural forms of qaids and caids. It is usually pronounced “ka-EETH,” rhyming with Sayid , Naveen Andrews’ character on the television show Lost. A second pronunciation, “kithe,” rhyming with the word “tithe,” is also listed. It comes from the Arabic words "al+qadi" meaning “the qadi” or “the judge.”

The Muslim word for judge from which qaid is derived, “qadi,” appears in newer Scrabble dictionaries, immediately before qaid. It is pronounced “kah-dee.” An alternate spelling is cadi and the plural forms are qadis and cadis.

The words qaid and qadi bring to my mind “al Qaida,” the Islamic fundamentalist organization that we all associate with Osama Bin Laden and several terrorist attacks, especially the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. It seems to me that the words qaid, qadi and al Qaida are probably somehow related. However, al Qaida comes from the Arabic words “al+q’ida” meaning “the base” or “the foundation,” which is not exactly the same root as “al+qadi” meaning “the judge.” Still, al+qadi doesn’t seem all that different from al+q’ida, and “the judge” and “the base or foundation” could be considered synonyms of a sort in a legal sense. I guess it is possible that the words are related, but I don’t know for sure.

Few Americans are familiar with the word qaid, even though it has been in our dictionaries, and not just our Scrabble dictionaries, for years. On the other hand, nearly all Americans are familiar with al Qaida, which is not in the dictionary yet. It will get there eventually, and, in time, it may even lose its capital “Q,” become a common noun, and thus become an eligible Scrabble word.

There is precedent for this in the word “nazi,” which has been in Scrabble dictionaries for over thirty years. A member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party is a Nazi, with a capital “N.” A fascist who holds similar views to the Nazis, but is not necessarily a member of the party, can be called a nazi, without a capital “N.” In fact, anyone who is considered overly regimented or dictatorial in today’s world can be called a nazi. Remember the soup nazi on Seinfeld?

In years to come the word qaida or alqaida might be listed in the dictionary alongside qaid and qadi and be in common usage as a synonym for terrorist. If we have been able to desensitize ourselves to the horrors conjured up by the word Nazi to such an extent that we are now able to use it in Scrabble games and comedy sketches, perhaps we will someday be able to do the same thing with the word al Qaida.

Saturday, January 5, 2008


I have just finished a book called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. It is a true story about a Hmong child with epilepsy who was born in California twenty-five years ago. The child does not receive appropriate medical care because her parents do not understand the doctors and the doctors do not understand the parents. The parents do not speak English, but even if they did, the doctors would not have really understood them because the Hmong culture was so completely foreign to them.

For example, the Hmong believe that the human soul is like a shadow that does not always stay with a person, but takes flight as easily as a butterfly. They also believe that when a soul wanders away from someone, that person will feel sad or sick. When the soul returns, the person will feel well again. The family in the story believes that their daughter has seizures when she is separated from her soul. They want to explain this to her doctors, but they don’t know how to do so.

Most of the Hmong in America spent some time in refugee camps when they were forced from Laos after the Vietnam War. The doctors there often treated the sick with antibiotics, which were sometimes successful. By the time the Hmong arrived in the United States some had learned to trust western doctors enough to seek their medical help, usually hoping to get the short course of antibiotics that had helped them when they were refugees, regardless of their current medical complaint. At the same time, most Hmong held tight to their belief that the sickness was caused by the loss of the shadow-like soul. Hmong families were willing to hedge their bets by seeing a western doctor, but they did not abandon their traditional attempts to reunite the patient with his or her lost soul.

The Hmong use the word “neeb” to mean healing power. It is pronounced “neng.” The final “b” is included in the written form only to indicate in which tone the word should be spoken. The word comes from “ua neeb kho,” which is a ritual performed by a shaman. In the healing ritual, or neeb, an animal is sacrificed and the soul of the sacrificial animal is traded for the wandering soul of the sick person. Different sicknesses require the sacrifice of different animals, including chickens, pigs and cows. Some sicknesses require the sacrifice of a dog, which has created much anxiety among American pet owners in Hmong neighborhoods and has been the source of racist jokes.

“What is the name of the Hmong cookbook?”
“I don’t know.”
“101 Ways to Wok Your Dog.”

The family in the book had several neebs performed on their daughter’s behalf. They wanted to explain the neeb’s importance to their daughter’s doctors, but they were unable to do so. Meanwhile, the American doctors were unable to communicate the importance of correctly administered anti-seizure medications to the Hmong parents.

We learned about pagan practices and ritual sacrifices such as the neeb when I was in grade school. I brought part of my allowance to school each week to rescue the poor, pagan babies in Africa from such a life. Every $5 that we collected purchased a Catholic Baptism for one of these children and allowed us to give him or her a Christian name. My friend, Vicki, contributed so much money to the mission box that she believed there were little girls all over Africa answering to the name of Victoria Rose.

Never did I imagine that these poor, pagan babies would some day become a part of my American world or that my desire to convert them would be replaced with a desire to understand them. One of the largest settlements of Hmong refugees in America is now in the Twin Cities. A Hmong family moved into the house next door to ours two summers ago and lived there for a short time. A Hmong boy attends school with my daughter, Somer. Sister Michaelene, the third-grade teacher who I considered to be omniscient, collected our quarters for the missions without preparing us for these eventualities because she did not see them coming any more than we did.

As more and more Hmongs become Hmong Americans, words like neeb will find their way into our language, our consciousness and our dictionaries. They will challenge our way of looking at the world. They will help us to understand each other. We can hope that they will teach us to avoid repeating the sad chain of events that affected the life and family of a poor, pagan epileptic Hmong child born in California twenty-five years ago.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down sometimes reads a bit like a history book, but it's interesting history and I highly recommend it. Published in 1997, it is a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. I do not recognize the other non-fiction books that have won this award, but the fiction winners include All the Pretty Horses, A Thousand Acres (a personal favorite of mine) and Atonement.

P.S. Neeb is not YET a Scrabble word, but it does remind me of some words that are.
1. nee: born with the name of (feminine). Example: My gramma is Loretta Pelletier, nee Reinert.
2. ne: born with the name of (masculine). My cousin, Joan, played this one against me in Tucson last week. Example: My brother-in-law, Peter Somers, ne Stenzel, thinks he invented Platers (See: Platers).
3. neb: the beak of a bird. I remember this one because it is like the French word for nose: nez, and a stereotypical French nose can look somewhat like a beak.
4. n00b: someone who is new to a website or game, especially an on-line game. It can also be spelled noob and is short for newcomer or newbie. Newcomer and newbie are in the dictionary; n00b and noob are not in the dictionary YET.


On the day after Christmas, I climbed Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, AZ with my husband and older daughter, Erin. It’s only 1.2 miles to the top, but it’s a difficult hike because the trail is very steep and at times it requires both hands and feet. I have four broken fingernails to show for it. We reached the Echo Canyon trailhead to begin our hike at the same time as a mother with her young children.

Mother: “Move over so the FAST HIKERS can pass.”
Me: “No one has ever called me a FAST HIKER before. Thank you so much for that!”

When the real ascent began a few minutes later, my husband and daughter, who are fast hikers, left me in the dust (and rocks and cacti). I told them to go. It is not fun for them to have to slow down and wait for me; it is not fun for me to try to keep up with them. I enjoyed my hike at my pace, which was, in my defense, faster than the mother and her kids.

I have always been slow. My mother says that I was born three weeks late and that I haven’t been on time since. I posted my Christmas Wordoku two days after Christmas. I am the last one to finish a meal, the last one to get to the car when we go to church, and definitely the last one to reach the top of the mountain. I don’t always like this about myself, but I have learned to accept it. I look for support wherever I can find it. My favorite fable is The Tortoise and the Hare. My favorite Bible verse is “He who is last shall be first.”

This brings me to the word “shuffle.” I listen to oldies on my iPod Shuffle. With or without tap shoes, I still like to perform the “Shuffle off to Buffalo” that Dorothy Lundstrum taught me in 1959. My sister, Nancy, can shuffle a deck of cards backwards and forwards, but I can’t. Finally, as it relates to being slow, when I say I am going for a jog, I am really going for a “shuffle.”

My jogging shuffle is a little bit faster and more energetic than my walk; but runners, and even some walkers, pass me all the time. I shuffle like an old lady pushing a walker, but there is no metal contraption in front of me and my mittened hands are tucked inside my sleeves to keep them warm. I shuffle down the walking path at my own speed and I try to ignore the critical comments.

Girl from kitchen window: “Pick it up, lady!”
Man in front yard with leashed schnauzer doing its business: “You’ve got to go faster than that!”
Man about to LIMP past me on Theodore Wirth Parkway: “Are you recovering from an injury?”

Even Katie Holmes got criticism for running the New York Marathon because it took her 5½ hours. I don’t get this. America is full of overweight, out-of-shape people. It is time we begin applauding everyone who makes an effort to stay fit, no matter how slowly they run or, in my case, shuffle.

There is a Palo Verde tree at the top of Camelback Mountain that is fully decorated with Christmas ornaments. It’s terribly tacky and wonderfully festive at the same time. Ian and Erin were waiting for me there to have our picture taken after our climb. The photo tells it all: my grin is just as big as theirs. It doesn’t matter that my trip to the top took longer.