Thursday, November 5, 2009

I love my cell phone

This has really happened: I’m talking on my cell phone and I realize… I can’t find my cell phone. A wave of panic washes over me. I begin searching frantically, all the while continuing to talk. When I finally realize I’m holding my phone in my hand, I’m embarrassed, but relieved.
I admit it – I’m obsessive about my phone. An over-the-hill BlackBerry, it goes with me everywhere. At night, it resides on my bedside table. When I shower, it waits for me on a nearby shelf.  When I walk or hike or shop, it’s in my pocket. And when I can’t find it, even for a moment, I panic.
It’s not like I’m obsessed with talking on it. I don’t have thousands of minutes. I don’t have unlimited texting. I have a Bluetooth but I only use it at home when I’m interviewing someone for a story. But I have become accustomed – some might say addicted - to being able to connect with people anywhere and any time.
I have friends who archly proclaim “Oh, I have a cell phone, but I hardly ever use it,” the same way they would say, “Oh, I don’t watch television;” as if having AND using a cell phone is somehow a weakness or a character flaw.
So, yeah, I am attached. It’s an attachment that started when my daughter was in middle school. My husband and I both worked 25 miles from our home, and we found our first primitive cell phones gave us a valuable connection. We felt safer; she felt safer. And as she grew up, we depended more and more on our phones to keep track of each other (OK, I admit that we used them more than she did for that reason.)
When she went on her senior trip to Mexico during high school, she called us to reassure us she was safe.
When she rolled her pickup truck on an icy mountain road, she called us before she called 911, to tell us she was OK. We got there before the EMTs. (For a while after that, I panicked just a little bit every time she called.)
When she was in Santa Fe, N.M., with a class from her college, she was hit with a debilitating flu. Stuck in a cheap hotel room for five days, she called me often for advice or for company.
One winter night, when I found myself stuck on Vail Pass in a blizzard with a windsheild wiper that broke off in my hand, I called my husband, and he talked to me while I waited for help. When his tire blew out on a mountain pass and he spun out, landing precariously close to a creek, he called me, and I went and picked him up.
But my phone dependency isn't just reserved for emergencies.
I like having that connection. Today when I was walking my dog in the forest nearby, I was pocketless, and I carried my phone. In the forest, it rang. It was my sister, checking in while she walked her dogs. For a while, we walked and talked together.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Tricks and treats

When our daughter was little, we would follow her around our dark neighborhood as she gathered about 20 pounds of candy in a pillowcase. We’d lived in the same house since she was two, so she developed a long timer’s knowledge of the neighborhood, knowing and remembering the best-decorated houses and the houses with the best candy.
I was jealous of the neighbor who went all out, piping creepy organ music through external speakers and setting up an entire yard of plasterboard tombstones. I was impressed by the couple who dressed up like scarecrows and sat, motionless, on their front porch, jumping up whenever a group of trick-or-treaters approached. And the entire neighborhood was awed by the family who gave out “FULL-SIZED CANDY BARS.”
So one year, we went for it. We decorated the front porch with sticky plastic spider webs; brought out the strobe light (left over from our rock ‘n’ roll days – that’s another story), and played spooky music on a CD player in our garage.
We thought it was the high point of our Halloween attempts, but the lights caused some of the parents to stumble drunkenly in the driveway, and the littlest kids were a bit scared by the music.
The next year, we took a new approach. We kept the strobe light packed away and bought FULL-SIZED CANDY BARS. We had done it – become legends among trick-or-treaters. Word of our generous treats traveled fast, and costumed children flocked to our door in large, boisterous groups.
We had tried to balance our supply according to demand but we were woefully under stocked, and after we ran out, the doorbell kept ringing. We raided the cupboards and came up with tiny boxes of raisins. We raided the change jar and started tossing quarters into the bags of those who still came.
But our shot at becoming a neighborhood legend was over. We were instead branded as “the house where they give you raisins.”
The next year and every year after that, we’ve handed out those woefully unimpressive snack-sized candy bars. No matter how many we buy, we run out. We aren’t about to improvise (we still remember the raisin debacle). So we are forced to turn off the yard light, close the blinds and wait it out.
This year, two feet of snow blanket the ground. Trick-or-treaters are going to have to work hard to fill their bags and I’m thinking it might be time to impress the crowds once again.
I wonder where that strobe light is.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Snow day

It’s been snowing all day today, and I wish my sister was here. She lives a thousand miles away, but if she were here, we would celebrate the deep snow and treacherous roads the way we always did: With a road trip.

When I lived in Iowa, she and I would wait impatiently each winter for those nasty blizzards that closed schools and work and made many roads impassable. We would make a plan and head for the mall.
We didn’t really like the mall when we could get there without adversity. But if we had to really work for it, it became an adventure. And if it was open when we got there, we rarely bought anything. Instead, we wandered the quiet halls in our snowboots and heavy coats and treated ourselves at the food court.
“It’s our Norwegian heritage showing,” we would tell each other. “Yeah, we’re not afraid of a little snow.”
I’m not sure why we celebrated that “heritage” at Sears instead of on cross-country skis, but it seemed right. And afterward, we waited for the inevitable question from family and friends: “You went out in that?”
Oh yeah.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Respite on the highway

I returned last night from a 1,500-mile road trip. It should be about a 10-hour trip, each way, but it took us 12 hours to get to my parents’ house in Iowa and 12 hours to get back. Those extra two hours? Don’t tell my mother, but we wiled away those extra minutes at highway rest areas. Before we left, my mother had warned me to stay away from them. “Bad things happen there,” she said ominously. “Really?” I asked. “What kinds of things?”
She went on to regal me with stories from her friends who had heard about vague rest stop horrors from their friends, or read about them…somewhere.(All predicated with “They SAY…”)
I was traveling with my daughter and my dog. Our traveling days were warm. The sun shone brightly. So we stopped at rest stops, unfolding our stiff legs out of the car and exploring the tiny park-like parcels of land. After stops along I-76 in Colorado, I-80 in Nebraska and I-29 in Iowa, we began to feel comfortable with the rest stops’ sameness – sensible concrete buildings where unrecognizable music played on some hidden sound system; lobbies where the furnaces were already turned on; well-kept grass lawns; and a smattering of original touches – a modern sculpture gallery in one, a plastic dinosaur in another; a well-raked sandbox in another. The centerpieces of the rest areas – the bathrooms – were uniformly clean and quiet. Along the way, we found small treasures – a cattail-fringed pond glowing in the sunset; an elm dropping acorns to the ground.
The stops provide a welcome respite from the hum of the highway and endless mazes of road construction cones. They are a throwback to the past; to a time when towns near the interstate highways weren't all built up with Wal-Marts and McDonald's.  And they are disappearing - Arizona recently announced it is closing its rest areas to save the state money. 
Yet, when I saw my sister during our Iowa visit, she echoed my mother’s concern. “Don’t ever stop at rest areas,” she warned. “People disappear.”
“Really?” I asked her. “What happens to them?”
“I don’t know,” she replied in a hushed voice.
I don’t either. We exchanged greetings with other travelers. We did see one car with Oklahoma license plates that had been painted with the words to the Pledge of Allegiance (why would you do that?) and countless strangers smiled at our beagle, who always steals the show.
I don't feel any more endangered at a rest area than I do at, say, a shopping mall or an airport. They SAY bad things can happen there, too.
And on our rest area tour, we had no close calls, no scary encounters, no 911-moments, except for these: that cheap tissue-paper toilet paper that tears when you try to pull it, and one unforgiving vending machine that took our dollar and kept our Sweet Tarts.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The adventure continues

This is it. The end of my writer’s block. Oh, I’ve been writing for the past two weeks, but none of it ended up here, on this blog.
But it’s been a tumultuous two weeks, and each time I sat down in front of my computer to write about it, I drew a blank.
How does a writer write when she’s dealing with a seemingly never-ending stream of e-mails and letters informing her that her services are no longer needed?
It’s kind of strange – you would think that if I had more time to devote to the blog and I needed less time for work that pays me, I could sit all day, expounding on all sorts of topics in elaborate detail.
But it doesn’t work that way. With each announcement, accompanied by predictable explanations that include the words “monetary concerns,” “cutbacks,” and to put a little spin on it, “transformation,” and the usual platitudes like “I hope we can work together again some time,” and “we loved your work,” I got more frustrated.
More frustration? Less productivity.
Since I started working full-time as a freelance writer, life has been unpredictable but enjoyable. One job would end and another would begin. Several provided steady, reliable paychecks, something that’s really unusual in the freelance world. And I supplemented our income with strange little jobs – the kind I would have thought about in whimsical terms (“I could be a …”) but never pursued when I had a full-time job.
But about six months ago, everything started falling apart, and in the last month, my schedule really began to deteriorate. I started hearing from colleagues who were also supporting themselves freelancing, and their experiences were the same.
I shouldn’t be surprised – one of my long-term projects had to do with cars and newspapers (couldn’t see that coming!) Another one was a dream job with a promising future, but when the owners sold out, the giant conglomerate that took over obliterated the local content.
And so on and so forth.
I’ve gotten used to living month-to-month, not knowing what’s coming up. It’s an exciting life. Adventurous, even.  The dictionary defines “adventure” as “an undertaking involving danger and unknown risks.” Dangerous? I’m not sure of that. Risky? Perhaps. There are inherent risks in not having a reliable income.
But it is an adventure, nonetheless.
Right now, one of my friends is in the midst of a three-month adventure, traveling though China, Bali, Australia and New Zealand. I know another woman who is moving to Helsinki, Finland, because of her husband’s new State Department job.
I don’t have any travel or relocation plans in my future, but, like them, I have the thrill of not knowing what will come next. My life will continue to be an adventure

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

An Alzheimer's lesson

I told my dad on the phone that we had a bear visit our deck last week. It had snowed and I left our bird feeder out overnight. In the morning, surprisingly large bear footprints were framed by the slushy snow.
I laughed as I told the story. I knew we weren't in danger. I knew I could prevent further visits by doing what I should have done that night - not offering any more midnight snacks.
Dad listened carefully. Then, five hours later, he called me back. He was upset. He just couldn't shake the image of a bear threatening us. “Are you safe?” he asked. “Can you do anything to make sure nothing happens?”
We’ve lived in the Colorado mountains for more than 20 years, and we’ve entertained my parents many times with stories about the wildlife that visits our yard – deer, bear, raccoons, a bobcat, foxes, and in the first few years, an elk herd that has since moved on.
My dad was always interested and amused by our tales about the bear we caught clutching a PopTart wrapper in our garage; the deer that stood down our beagle, the fox who trotted up to us with a pillaged hotdog in his mouth.
But this time, there was no laughter; only fear.
My dad has Alzheimer’s. Most days, he keeps it at bay. He loves to talk about politics and sports and the economy. He jokes with my mom and volunteers at a local nursing home and plays a mean game of Gin Rummy.
The disease is hardly recognizable most of the time. But when something worries him, it consumes him. My story about a bear was something he couldn’t let go even though he couldn’t do anything about it; and ultimately, because he couldn’t do anything about it.
So he called me back. “I’m sorry to bother you. But I’m just worried about you,” he admitted. “I know,” I said. “And I appreciate it.”
The next day, I called my parents in the morning. “The bear hasn’t been back,” I reported. “I don’t think you have to worry anymore.”
“That’s good,” my dad said, noticeable relief in his voice. “I’m glad to hear it.”
Alzheimer's is erasing parts of my dad, day by day, but one thing that hasn’t vanished yet is his ability to love and desire to take care of his family. If that love comes through as worry, that’s OK.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ready for some football

Today is my dad’s 80th birthday. Seven hundred miles separate us, so we won’t be celebrating together. But today, my thoughts are with him, and I’m thinking about…football.
It’s almost impossible to talk about my dad without talking about football.
He played in high school and for the Air Force. The football stadium in my hometown is named after him. When it was dedicated several years ago, our family snuck in one afternoon to take photos of him underneath his name which had been painted in bold black and red letters.
My dad didn’t think he deserved the honor. The school and the town did. His family did. He had been a middle school guidance counselor, teacher and coach for decades. He was known by generations of families simply as Coach. He coached many sports including girls’ basketball, but he loved football most of all.
He believed in football. He lived football. He thought football – coached the right way - taught valuable lessons about hard work and team dynamics. He was proud when he got to coach both of my brothers.
He worked every weekend during the high school football season, and when that season was over, followed teams on TV. Sunday afternoon football games on TV were the music of my childhood.
My dad followed football at all levels - high school, college and the pros - even when he retired from coaching. He knew – and still knows - every player from his home state who went on to college fame and those who went further, to the pros. After he transitioned from coaching to the athletic director position at his school, he still lived for football, offering his experience whenever it was requested. After he retired, he still lived for football, teaching coaching classes at a community college.
In retirement, it was the football he missed the most. He still attended high school games in his hometown, but he had to sit in the stadium beneath his name instead of standing on the sideline, closer to the action.
When my brother became a football coach in a small town about an hour from my parents’, a new football ritual was started; a priceless gift for my dad. For several years, my parents have traveled every Friday night to cheer on their new adopted team. After each game, my dad, not my brother, calls to give me a report.
My brother has started a new season with a young team – all his starters were seniors last year, my dad reports. “It’s going to be tough, a building season,” he tells me. “But they look pretty good.”
So do you, Dad. So do you.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Ooooohhh, aaaahhhh...aspens

A neighbor just asked me about the best weekend this year for aspen viewing. To answer that question requires a deep knowledge of the science of trees and weather, as well as a talent for looking into the future. In other words, no one knows.
But being asked made me feel good. When I worked as an outdoor writer at a Colorado Springs newspaper, I would get dozens of calls each year with that very same question. “My relatives are coming from Texas/Kansas/anywhere where there aren’t aspens. What will the peak weekend be this year?”
At first, I tried to explain that it was complicated and impossible to predict with certainty. Colder nighttime temperatures, the chance of snow and rain, and wind all played roles in the aspens changing.
Some years, the leaves have stayed green until a wind storm or deep freeze takes them overnight. Other years, they slowly change from summer green to a limey shade, taking on a tinge of gold before erupting into golds, reds and yellows.
But people wanted answers. I eventually gave up, and using my powers of observation (and guessing) I would throw out some dates. I felt more helpful; they felt more hopeful. Everybody won. And sometimes, I was right.
That brings us to the aspen report for 2009. The leaves are turning at 8,500 feet right now. It’s a subtle change so far, with an occasional overachieving tree that just couldn’t wait for the others. But I’m shooting for Sept. 25 and 26 at optimal dates… unless, that is, we get rain or wind or really cold nights.
Best bet for the best long-view aspen photos? Highway 67 to Cripple Creek (that's where I took this aspen shot last year). For further trip planning and a closer look, I’m offering up a trio of favorite places to hike amongst the aspens.
- Buffalo Peaks Wilderness Area between Fairplay and Buena Vista. Take a part or all of the Rich Creek-Rough and Tumbling Creek loop trail. (
- Putney Gulch-Horsethief Falls section of the Ring the Peak Trail. (
- Three-Mile Creek Trail off Guanella Pass Road. (

Thursday, September 10, 2009

To the good life

I interviewed a documentary film director this week, and when I asked him about the best moment of his life, he said, “Birth.”
I’m not sure if he was trying to be funny or deep or inscrutable, or was just annoyed by the question.
I know it was a cliche, in the same line as “if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” (Thank you, Barbara Walters.)
But this guy is at a high point in his professional life, and I really wanted to know if there’s a moment when you know you’ve made it, personally, professionally or both.
Of course birth and death are the bookends of our lives. But what about all that stuff in between?
I suppose for some people, “best” is defined by money or possessions. For others, it is professional recognition.
I think the best moments of my life are both large and small. In the “large” category: the day I met the man who would be my husband; the day we were married, and the day our daughter was born.
But it’s the smaller, more random events that sit between birth and death that make a life worth living. Just daydreaming for a few moments brings some to mind:
The night I played synthesizer in a heavy metal band.
The first time I climbed Pikes Peak.
When I finished writing my first book.
When a copy of that book arrived in the mail.
The day I learned to drive a stick shift.
The day I taught our daughter to drive a stick shift.
The first time I saw the mountains, glimmering in the distance as we drove west across Nebraska.
Watching bald eagles fishing in the icy winter waters of the Mississippi River on a -20 degree morning.
Watching deer graze in our backyard.
Teaching our daughter to read.
The day we bought my husband’s dream car, a black Camaro Berlinetta, off the showroom floor.
My first piano recital.
The day I skied alone after a foot of fresh powder, when the skis were blue, the sun warm, and the slopes virtually empty.
My daughter’s college graduation day.
There’s a common theme here. Most of these are from my life as an adult. Moments of personal accomplishment, discovery and adventure rank high on my list. But it’s a really long list. It’s a really good life.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Happy day

Today is our wedding anniversary.
I won’t say what year we were married. Let’s just say it was long, long ago.
It was a beautiful day in Iowa, a hot, Indian summer kind of day. Our car started on fire on the way to the ceremony (faulty wiring) but we made it just in time.
Our wedding was small, done in what our daughter now calls “hippie style.” A family friend who was a Methodist minister read Kahlil Gibran (“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you”). I wore my mother’s dress, all netting and pearl buttons, from the 1950s that fit perfectly; Mark wore a black polyester suit we found at K-mart (his first and last suit). We each had one friend stand up with us. We made the sandwiches (it was Iowa; of course we served ham) for the reception for our 20 guests. There were no bridesmaids in goofy matching dresses or groomsmen in matching rented tuxedos. There was no catered dinner or dance. No open bar (no bar at all). There was no expense, really, other than the cost of a really cheap suit, a bouquet of flowers and a plate of ham sandwiches.
After the reception, we stopped at Burger King (don’t know why; just sounded good), then headed to Colorado for a camping honeymoon in Rocky Mountain National Park.
It was perfect.
Happy anniversary to us.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Feeling nostalgic

Remember when…
You didn’t have to take off your shoes before you were allowed on an airplane?
If you wanted your oil changed, your nails done, your vision checked, your paycheck cashed and your grocery list filled, you had to drive to five different businesses?
Hitchhiking was something everybody under a certain age did?
Tattoos were something everybody over a certain age had (if they were in prison or the military)?
Coors had to be refrigerated at all times?
You were out and forgot to make a call, so you stopped at a phone booth?
KFC was called Kentucky Fried Chicken?
You had to drop off the film of your vacation at the local drug store and wait days while they developed it?
You bought film?
You had to pay a monthly fee for your e-mail account?
You got your check handed to you in an envelope at work, and you had to drive to your bank to deposit it?
A 36-inch TV was REALLY big?
“Friend” was a noun, not a verb, and “twitter” was commonly used in the phrase “all a’twitter”?
If you wanted your car window down you had to crank it down and if you wanted your car door unlocked you used your key?
You could smoke in a bar, and a restaurant, and at work, and you did?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Bird brain

A strange bird has been watching me all day through my deck door. I believe this bird is the cause of my ineffectiveness today. I believe this because I’ve spent most of my afternoon watching this bird instead of writing, which isn’t a great way to spend a Monday.
Overall, it was a good Monday. I was excused from jury duty. (It’s not that I don’t enjoy doing my civic duty, but I have a very busy week ahead of me.) I went grocery shopping and scored some great big juicy ears of Olathe sweet corn. I walked my dog our usual three miles. I thought about a story I’m about to begin to write.
And, I watched the bird, photographed the bird, and researched the bird in a pile of birding guides I keep on my desk.
I’ve determined the bird is an evening grosbeak, a largish bird that one of my guides say is seen mostly in the winter. I remember this bird and a pal showed up at my feeder about this time last year, or was it later? This thought makes me pause and wonder if summer is over. I think about all the things I planned for the summer that I haven’t accomplished yet. I think I have fall fever. Is there such a thing?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Working for a living

He strapped on his guitar, shook his head, swept his hair from his eyes, and said, “It’s been years since I’ve played the blues.”
This road-weary musician had just turned 13. Did he mean he had put away the blues with other childish things, when he was, I don’t know, maybe six years old?
A 20-something woman I know who has two small children sent out a Christmas letter last year. “I’m taking a much-needed break from the workplace,” she explained. She had worked for two years.
To the 13-year-old veteran player and the worn-out 27-year-old, I have to say, “Are you kidding me?”
Maybe it’s a sign of my age or my frustration with the workplace, but I just don’t have the patience for people who don’t seem to have earned the right to be world-weary yet: the pint-sized 10-year-old dancer on “America’s Got Talent,” who is voted off and says in a burst of tears, “I’ve wanted to do this my whole life;” the fame-weary movie star who “retires” before the age of 30.
But maybe there’s something to this life fatigue thing. My daughter and I were talking the other day about the first fall after her college graduation. She was feeling wistful about the first day of classes, and a little sad that part of her life was behind her.
“Now I have, like, 60 years of work ahead of me,” she said. I thought back to when I was just out of college. Did I feel that way about my life? I don’t think so. We were excited to have taken the next step in what was a predictable life – work in our chosen fields.
Today, life is less predictable. My daughter’s friends with new degrees in English or communications are all working. One is at Home Depot. Another is a bookkeeper. And another joined the Air Force. My daughter manages a gift shop at a local tourist attraction.
They are all in their 20s; all doing something different than they dreamt as they toiled over Shakespeare and technical writing assignments in college.
I try to assure my daughter that life will get better. That she will find her “dream job.” That she won’t have to work until she’s 75 because there won’t be any Social Security. But it gets harder to be convincing when she looks at my own life, shaken up by the economy.
I’ve had to reinvent myself and take on jobs that have nothing to do with my profession. I’ve embraced them all, believing that a variety of experiences make for an interesting life. But I hold that belief because I had the chance to follow my dream for more than three decades.
It’s more difficult for a 22-year-old with $45,000 in college loans and no hindsight to believe she will go further than Home Depot. I guess I see why she already feels like she needs a break.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A scent, and a memory

I never particularly liked petunias. They don’t have much of a perfume, and they never really fit into the overall design of my barely tamed rock garden filled with plants that don’t need watering and have the decency to come back every year on their own anyway.
My grandmother loved petunias. Each summer, she would fill spare planters and flower beds with their bright blooms. She died several years ago, and I never thought much about petunias after that.
But one day, when I was in a garden shop checking out the newest perennials, I happened upon a petunia riot of pinks and purples and reds and a soft blueish color. Their scent – really just the faintly spicy aroma of their leaves – instantly transported me to my grandmother’s patio.
In her honor, I bought several petunia plants, transplanted them into a pot and set them on my deck. Loving the hot morning sun and cool nights, they thrived. Ever since then, I’ve decorated my deck with petunias each summer.
They are cheerful flowers that bloom over and over, and they’ve weathered hailstorms and windstorms. On rare days when the sun doesn’t shine, they glow in the gloom.
I admit they have won me over with their brilliant display. But I most appreciate the way their scent sparks a memory. Scientists say that the sense of smell – the very first to develop in our bodies – is the strongest sense and can trigger strong, almost photographic, memories.
The acrid smell of wood smoke in the air reminds my family of the first days of the Hayman fire that roared through the forest a quarter mile from our house in 2002. The smell of baking bread takes me back to my mother’s kitchen, where homemade cinnamon rolls were on the menu every Saturday. The scent of a newly mowed soccer field in the park near our house (the only refined grass around) conjures up memories of a backyard hide-and-seek game when I was growing up in Iowa. The aroma of pipe tobacco transports me to a time years ago when my father was a pipe smoker.
My dad lost his sense of smell decades ago. Several studies have linked that loss to Alzheimer's, with which he was recently diagnosed. For years, he has missed out on the good - and bad - smells that have surrounded him. Now, other forms of his memory are leaving him. But when I told him about the petunias, planted in honor of his mother, he smiled, and remembered.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A word

Throughout my professional life, I’ve worked hard to avoid using clichés in my writing (except in headlines!) and have tried to be careful with my use of idioms.
After three decades, I must say it’s been an emotional roller coaster.
I don’t know if my attention to the words I choose even amounts to a hill of beans.
Still, the English language, and our use and abuse of it, fascinates me. In his town hall meeting this morning, President Obama made a reference to “bean counters.”
I cringed. Does anyone under the age of, say, 40, even know what a bean counter is? That in this case, in the health-care debate (a debate that has also included many references to "reinventing the wheel"), it has nothing to do with beans?
The way we use language can break down barriers or form new ones. And clichés and idioms don’t help. They are, by their nature, old-fashioned. After all, the definition of “cliché” is “an overused expression” and it has to be used for a while before it wears out.
So many times, calling on clichés announces to the reader or listener that the writer or speaker is just plain old.
My 21-year-old daughter recently asked for my advice about how to handle a situation at work. Should she talk to her boss or leave it alone? “It won’t hurt to put in your two cents worth,” I told her. She stared at me blankly. “What does that mean?” she asked.
The expression (which hearkens back to a time long ago when postage was really two cents, and you could send a letter stating your opinion) really dated me.
Just as dangerous: cultural references writer Ralph Keyes calls “retrotalk.” Comparing someone to Eddie Haskell? Sure to confuse almost anyone under the age of 50 – the iconic show, “Leave It to Beaver,” the TV sitcom where Eddie lived, went off the air in 1963. In an article about this alarming trend, Keyes calls out media types who throw out references to Jimmy the Greek, Howard Beale, Joe Friday, and Rod McKuen.
Is there anyone under the age of 30 or even 40 who can tell me what any of those names signify (other than, maybe, Trivial Pursuit fanatics or journalists)?
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to be a party pooper about this language thing; just trying to do the right thing. And let me tell you, it’s no walk in the park.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Goodbye, Buster

For years, Buster played a supporting role in our pet menagerie; a tiny Yorkie mix with Benji fur and eyes that looked like black marbles.
Months ago, he began to grow more detached, patiently enduring the loss of his sight and hearing.
And in recent weeks, he had become a ghost; pacing the house in the same pattern, curling up in a dark corner and only coming out for a bite or two of food and the uncomfortable force-feeding of medicine that kept him alive.
Buster had lived with epilepsy for 15 years and a heart murmur for almost that long. And in the end, he was on medication that helped the inflammation around his heart but gave him an insatiable thirst. But still he survived.
He was comfortable with the place he chose for himself amongst our cats and dogs. When we got him, our goofy yellow Lab Waldo was two years old and we jokingly called the tiny terrier “Waldo’s dog.”
Buster worshiped Waldo, and was a patient partner in our young daughter’s play. When she dressed up the dogs, Waldo would frantically race until he was free of the confining costumes. Buster would sit quietly, wearing the frilly doll hats and dresses happily.
When we went camping, Waldo chased around the campsite and Buster went to his favorite place – burrowed into the bottom of one of our sleeping bags. He was a great camping dog, we would brag, and if he got tired on our longer backpacking trips, we just carried him.
Epilepsy was like a cruel shadow that followed him everywhere. For several years, he suffered seizures almost every month. One weekend, he had dozens of seizures, each one leaving him weak and temporarily blind.
But he always recovered, and we thought he deserved our support. And as the years went on, his epilepsy diminished, replaced by heart disease.
Waldo died two and a half years ago, and after that, Buster withdrew, seeming lost and old. He coexisted with our new dog, Hunter the beagle, but never really interacted with him. He wandered our house, peeing in any available corner. We stopped taking him for walks because he would gasp for breath. He had congestive heart failure, our longtime vet told us. With a new medication, he could last maybe a couple more years. We were going to give him that.
But in the past few weeks, Buster became afraid. He wouldn’t let anyone touch him or pet him. He whimpered all night and wandered the house all day.
He was miserable and so were we, so I called our vet. Lisa, his assistant, listened while I told her our decision about Buster. “You did a great job,” she said softly.
We took him in. Afterward, my husband and I talked about how hard it is to take that step, to make a decision we shouldn't have to make. “That’s part of owning pets,” he said. “It’s the hardest part.”
And it’s a part we are willing to accept, again and again.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Away from it all

I’ve been gone for a week, exiled from the Internet, TV, and even (horrors) my cell phone.
When I returned, I had 148 e-mails, including 12 from a company that promised I could have a better erection if I sent for a free sample of their product, and a plea from a Nigerian lawyer to help him find a home for $10 million.
I quickly turned on CNN this morning, and found out that: Washington is still working on health care, there’s unrest in Iran, and a tornado touched down, somewhere.
I didn’t spend the week in the wilds, although that sounds wonderful. I was visiting my parents in a small town in Iowa, a less-than-wild place where the Internet is just an annoyance, where TV is an unnecessary distraction from the art of “visiting,” and where the day is spent trying to decide whether to “open up” the windows or endure the air conditioning.
My parents had the Internet once, but got rid of it. They have cable, and will turn it on for occasional reruns of “Rosanne” and for the 6 o’clock news (along with regular Weather Channel updates). They even have a combo DVD/VCR and a cell phone, but neither is ever turned on.
But when they have guests, they concentrate on the entertainment at hand – conversation.
I admit that I didn’t really miss anything important in my self-imposed technology exile.
And I rediscovered a life I had forgotten. In Iowa, breakfast is big; dinner is served at noon, and supper in the evening. And even though my family is several generations removed from the farm, you wouldn’t know it. Food – lots of hot dishes (that’s casseroles to you), and always followed by dessert – is important and it brings everyone to the table for, you guessed it, more visiting.
One of my relatives regaled us with a story of a wedding she had attended in a farming community. The bride had the audacity to serve her guests “gourmet” wraps (gasps here) and, instead of a cake, cream puffs. That might play in California, but in Iowa? Many fondly remembered another wedding, where the banquet featured thick marbled steaks.
But all that cooking makes for a hot kitchen, so my mom and dad (and as far as I can tell from extensive research, all Iowans over a certain age) follow each meal with a discussion about opening/closing the windows and turning off/on their air conditioning. “Do you think we should open up?” one will ask the other. “I just hate that closed-in feeling,” the other will declare.
So the windows come up and the conversation warms up, extending into the thick nighttime air and the evening’s entertainment – the glitter of fireflies.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Home, sweet home

One of our neighbors tore his upstairs deck off his house, leaving an ugly scar and a heck of a drop from his sliding door. That was two weeks ago.
Another one started mowing his yard for the first time this summer, ran out of gas, and stopped. That was three weeks ago.
I notice these things because they make me feel better when I procrastinate. All summer, I’ve written “to do” lists crowded with tasks such as “re-stain the deck,” “weed the flower garden” and the most ambitious, “terrace the back yard.”
The lists pile up on my desk, but eventually I guiltily bury them under more important lists related to my profession, which is writing.
One of the most difficult things about working at home is the insidious way that home gets in the way of work.
Maybe it’s a female thing, but I have a hard time sitting down at the computer in the morning if there are dishes in the sink or clothes in the hamper. And if our yard does need mowing, I have to keep the blinds pulled so the tall grass doesn’t lure me to the outdoors.
Even work-related tasks get preference before I actually start making money. Sure, I might sit down at my computer as the sun comes up, but I have to check my e-mail first. And I have to respond to e-mails I’ve received. And I have to send e-mails I didn’t finish the day before. And then, there’s Facebook and Twitter. Hey, I have to keep up with my networking.
Work is pressing on me as I check in on CNN’s web site for the headlines and then Google news to see if CNN missed anything. (It’s important to be informed, right?)
Then, it’s back to my e-mail to see if anything new has turned up.
By this time, it’s usually time to put another load in the washing machine. And before I know it, it’s lunch time (followed by more dishes).
I used be awed by inspirational stories of dedicated writers who picked up pen and paper every day at dawn; whose work transported them into another world where nothing mattered but their written words.
Now I’m pretty certain they remained focused with the help of both a maid AND a secretary.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Lion vs. chainsaw

When I read the story about a camper in Wyoming using a chainsaw to protect his family from a mountain lion, I had one question:
Who takes a chainsaw on a camping trip?
I’ve been camping for nearly two decades in the Rocky Mountains, and I can’t recall ever hearing the whine of power tools on any of our trips.
I have to admit that we don’t even own a chainsaw. When my family camps, we embrace the Leave No Trace principles of camping. If we have a campfire at all anymore, it’s in an existing fire ring, it’s made of gathered dead wood and pinecones, and it’s just big enough to warm a pot of water for coffee.
Our biggest campfires have been on winter camping trips when we tried to keep warm as the temperature dropped below freezing.
But in July, when on a cool night temps might dip into the 40s? A chainsaw? Does anyone really need that much firewood?
I know that at this point, some readers who are all about power equipment and camping will label me a “greenie” or a “tree hugger.”
I’ve been called that before. Several years ago, we were in Alaska in January. During a week there, we stayed in the home of a lifetime resident whose home was decorated with animal skulls and whose breakfast table groaned with a bounty of moose sausage and reindeer steaks.
Still, we were getting along nicely until our host started grumbling about the “G-D-tree-hugging bunny-lovers.” “They’re trying to ruin everything,” he declared, certain that we shared his dislike for anyone who treasured trees OR bunnies.
We didn’t argue with him. After all, it was 20 degrees below zero outside, we were in a small town and there was nowhere else to stay.
But his attempt to denigrate me didn’t work. Of course I love trees and bunnies, and while I’m glad this renegade mountain lion didn’t hurt any people, I feel sad that he had to die.
After the Boulder Daily Camera carried the man-vs.-mountain lion story, readers sparred online about chainsaws, camping and wild animal encounters. There were basically two camps – those who cheered on the brave chainsaw camper and those who grieved for the mountain lion.
I admit - the mountain lion fans were my kind of people. You know – tree-hugging bunny-lovers. It’s an insult we wear proudly.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Life in 140 characters

I just got started on Twitter, and I have 22 followers. I had 23, but I had to block some city in Tennessee. I’m not sure why they were following me, but the idea of an entire city in a state I’ve never visited hanging on my every word was just creepy.
I follow 49 people – a modest number, to be sure – but I’ve been careful, with a couple of misses. For about 12 minutes one day, I was a Pizza Hut follower. I’d read somewhere the restaurant chain was offering its followers free stuff, so in a fit of hunger, I signed up. But after my Twitter account became clogged with pizza ads and deep questions like this one- “Would an Italian taco be similar to just a thin crust pizza rolled up?” - I said goodbye to the Hut.
For now, my favorite Twitter friend is Sarah Palin. That woman can tweet! It’s as if her brain works in 140 characters or less. Earlier today, she wrote: “elected is replaceable; Ak WILL progress! + side benefit=10 dys til less politically correct twitters fly frm my fingertps outside State site.”
I read that and thought to myself, “Wow! I HAVE to start using abrev + shortng words + ad many more !!!!s. And I shld spell out words like politically correct when they make prfct sense abrev-ed.”
Following Twitter is like sitting in a crowded coffee shop and listening to random bits of conversation. Lance Armstrong says he would like to be Mick Jagger for a day. A guy traveling in Europe on a bus was forced to unpack all his luggage for customs officials in Romania. There’s a chipmunk in the house.
This is life, on a large scale or extremely personal. It’s solemn news from Washington and Iran sprinkled amongst Harry Potter trivia, British Open fan gossip and tips about a new restaurant in Seattle/Denver/London.
It’s at once mesmerizing and annoying, an enlightening view of the world and a colossal waste of time.
A marketing wizard says it’s the new way to brand yourself. A CNN news anchor says it’s the best way to make your voice heard.
Actor Ashton Kutcher has more than 2.8 million followers on Twitter. Barack Obama has more than 1.7 million. Even someone who calls himself “Fake Barack Obama” has more than 3,000.
I’d better get busy.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Two cents worth

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” It’s an old ad slogan-turned-cliché built around a simple truth – an image can do the work of many words.
So what is the worth of a word?
As part of my job as a freelance writer, I spend part of nearly every day looking for jobs on the Internet. I don’t rule anything out. I check government job postings, journalism job sites, newspaper classified ads, and on-line help-wanted pages at community bulletin boards.
I’m looking for writing jobs, but I tend to approach the ads with an “I could do that!” attitude and find myself dreaming about second careers as a veterinarian (too much school), EMT (I missed the age requirement) or dancer (don’t have to tell you why not).
Craigslist, the free classified ad site that publishes 40 million new ads each month, has proven effective but frustrating. Among the ads that have resulted in jobs (two) are an untold number of “experienced writer wanted” ads that play to a writer’s ego but not her wallet.
Many Craigslist job descriptions are written so poorly that it’s obvious they aren’t really looking for writers (unless it's to write their ads!) But even some of the most respected Web sites featuring good writing pay poorly – one offers a 10th of a cent per view, and many don’t pay at all, other than “the reward of seeing your work in print.”
When I worked full-time at a newspaper, I was paid by the week, not by the word. Most weeks, I churned out thousands of words for that salary; other weeks, fewer. I wasn’t getting rich, but I knew my craft was valued by my fellow writers and my newspaper’s readers. I was a writer. I had a job people respected.
Today, “writer” has been devalued, at least on the Internet, where a writer might never go beyond the 140-character syntax of Twitter.
My friends who are avid readers still cherish good writing. We talk often about books and outstanding magazine and newspaper articles. My friends who are writers still look for magical writing as well.
And I’m grateful that many people still understand the value of words as images and images as words.
Gaylon Wampler’s photograph of a sparkling aspen tree on a dark hillside ( is a visual essay that, without words, addresses the beauty of a singular tree, a fall night, and a chance encounter with nature.
And an essay by noted naturalist and author Ann Zwinger also paints a picture, this time with words that dance across the page: “Aspen has éclat, a glorious brashness in defiance of the rules, the flapper who does the Charleston in the midst of the grand waltz. The landscape would be dull indeed without them.”

Friday, July 10, 2009

Not-so-empty nest syndrome

Let’s talk empty-nest syndrome. I’m thinking of this because I’m looking at a nest stuffed with six barn swallows at Fountain Creek Regional Park. The squawking babies are crammed together in a mud pouch, and their mother swoops and dives, returning again and again as she tries to get them all fed.
The nest in this case is definitely not empty, but soon it will be. The birds will learn to fly and will never return to this cozy (if a bit messy) home.
That’s how it goes in the bird world. The human world is more complicated.
Our daughter – our only child – graduated from college two months ago. She left home for college after high school, leaving me in the throes of empty-nest syndrome. Then, unexpectedly, she came back, living at home for six months after she transferred and she finished school nearby.
In May, she left again. “This time, it’s for good,” she told me. “OK,” I said, secretly hoping that she would return once more, because I like having her around. She knows it could happen; so do we. So many of her friends – college students and recent graduates – are struggling to find jobs and find their places in the world. Many are living with their parents longer than they ever thought they would.
It’s not the same world it was when we graduated from college, we told our daughter. It’s a lot harder to live on your own when jobs offer low pay, few benefits and little job security.
She’s luckier than many of her friends – she has a full-time job she likes, that pays more than minimum wage. She rents an apartment with two friends. Her car is paid off. She’s not sure what she wants to do with her life, but we tell her that will come.
We have tried to instill in her the quality of optimism. We want her to feel like there are no limits to what she could do. But we’ll always keep the nest ready, just in case.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Dream a little dream

As we watched a kayaking drama unfold along the bank of a fast-moving creek Saturday morning, I remembered my first pair of hiking boots.
What, you may ask, do hiking boots and kayaking have in common?
I’ll explain. We had hiked to one of our favorite fishing spots Saturday morning; a rocky creek that’s really just a pipeline channel leading to a reservoir. From bank to bank, it’s about 10 feet wide at its widest point. As we sat watching the clouds move in and the jumping trout flash silver in the sunlight, a pair of kayakers approached. They were properly outfitted, but their gear was emblazoned with the logo of a local rental shop and we guessed they were visiting Colorado, or were at least newcomers to this particular sport.
The gallery of anglers grew quiet and studiously watched their fishing lines as the men passed by. Then, the lead kayaker hit a rock and unceremoniously turned upside down in the chilled, shallow water. In silence, he pulled himself and his boat out of the water and soon the pair headed back to the open water. No one was hurt except for maybe the kayaker’s pride.
Now, back to my hiking boots. In the mid-1970s, there weren’t a lot of choices for hiking boots in Iowa (where we lived). So my husband and I each bought a pair of leather Timberlands and set out on our Colorado vacation. The first day, we chose a 12-mile trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. About three miles in, we realized we were in trouble. Both of us had oozing blisters and shin splints from pounding on the rocky trail in our shiny, stiff boots. At one point, we met an elderly hiker, his own boots well-worn. “Did you break those boots in before you came here” he asked.
You know the answer. We limped six more miles and left the trail, catching a shuttle bus back to our car. We didn’t hike the rest of the week, but we still talk about that trip.
So here’s the point: Colorado is filled with people finishing the sentence, “I’ve always wanted to…” and realizing their dream. That’s why they come here. That’s why we live here. Isn’t it great?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The good, the bad and the really bad

“It was a quiet day, the kind of quiet that makes a person’s ears feel like they are stuffed with old socks, when Sally stepped out of her squeaky deck door to check on her bird feeder, an old but serviceable metal bucket perched on a card table, and was surprised by a sparrow alighting on her stiff hair; colorless, tangled and arranged on the top of her head like the foam on top of an especially ambitious café latte; a bad omen, she thought, remembering what happened the last time hordes of birds invaded her neighborhood.”

Stop! Before you start spreading rumors about the demise of my writing, read on.
I missed entering the most well-known (only?) competition for bad writing, the annual Bulwer-Lytton fiction writing contest (, but I still wanted to try my hand at being the best of the worst.
The contest, begun in the ‘80s at San Jose State, is named for the author of the infamous novel that begins, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Entrants are required to write an opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels. This year’s winner, David McKenzie, was interviewed Tuesday on NPR, and said his sentence came to him “in a moment of bad inspiration.”
I can relate to that. But trying to write badly in a good way is a great exercise for the brain (and it’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to writing a novel).
Writers in this year’s contest were asked to keep their entries under about 60 words, but there was no way I could cut anything out of my opening sentence. I mean, what would you cut out?
It’s also fun and invigorating to read great opening lines. Here are just a few memorable ones:
- “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.” Alice Seabold’s “The Almost Moon.”
- “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell’s “1984.”
- “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy in “Anna Karenina.”
- “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” Jeffrey Eugenides in “Middlesex.”
- “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Anne Tyler in “Back When We Were Grownups.”

Monday, June 29, 2009

Working girls

Until two years ago, I thought I had it all figured out. I would keep working until retirement, then leave the office in a flurry of decorated cakes, speeches and goodbyes, to live comfortably, if not affluently, for the rest of my life.
That was then. This is now. Laid off from that job that allowed me to save for retirement, I’m now a freelance writer. It’s a fulfilling life, but one with fewer financial benefits, less stability and a less-certain timeline for the upcoming decades.
I no longer have a plan that includes a life of leisure in my old age. But it’s going to be OK. I know it is, because I watched my grandmother work happily until she was in her mid-80s.
Widowed in the 1950s, she got a job as a retail sales clerk in a clothing store in the small town where she had lived most of her life. She had never gone to college, never gotten her driver’s license, but she was proud of her job and she was good at it.
Each morning she walked to work. She lived frugally on my grandfather’s small railroad pension and her regular salary. She never made grand retirement plans, and never complained about working.
In 1976, when she was 74, she was named Employee of the Month by the town’s Chamber of Commerce. She was immensely proud of the small wood and brass plaque they gave her, and kept it as one of her most prized possessions.
She worked another decade after her award, and lived past her 100th birthday, spending her final years in a nursing home, slowed by arthritis and other ailments.
When my parents gathered up her few remaining belongings after she died, they came across the small wooden plaque.
Today, it’s displayed on my wall, a reminder to live a modest life with pride.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Beetle mania

Ladybugs. Here. Now. Armies of them. This ruby red lady was sunning herself on a yucca plant at Pulpit Rock Open Space.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

What a day for a day hike

Backpacker magazine recently listed “America’s Best Day Hikes,” including the “best of the Rockies.” Many of their entries were worthy suggestions (Mount Sherman for best alpine view, Wyoming’s Lamar Valley for best wildlife), but I started thinking about my own favorite day hikes that are closer to home. These trails are perfect for families, and none of them require a day-long commitment.
Best wildflowers:
Aiken Canyon Preserve (4 miles, loop trail, easy). The plains meet the mountains in this quiet little preserve managed by the Nature Conservancy. This is the best time of year to hike the trail that’s bordered with a crazy quilt of wildflowers (my favorite is the scarlet paintbrush). Watch for rattlesnakes, black bears and foxes here as well, and don’t step on a lizard. The preserve is open year-round, dawn to dusk, Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
(On Colorado Highway 115 south of Colorado Springs; for more information,
Best view: Devil’s Head (2.8 miles round trip, moderate). Steep but short, this trail winds uphill through stands of aspen and pine and deposits hikers at the last remaining lookout station in the Pike National Forest. More than 100 metal steps lead to the station, where you’re rewarded with a 360-degree view of the forest and mountains that spread out at your feet. On a clear day, you can see 100 miles in all directions. The station is only staffed from mid-May through Oct. 1. (Off Rampart Range Road; for more information,
Best wildlife:
The trails at Mueller State Park near Divide (vary in length, up to 10 miles, easy to moderate). I know what you’re thinking: State park = campgrounds = crowds and noise = no wildlife. But we’ve had some of our best wildlife viewing at this park that’s home to a healthy elk herd. We’ve also see badgers, golden eagles, porcupines, skunks, and even salamanders here.
(Off Colorado Highway 67 south of Divide; for more information, www.
Best mountain summit:
Mount Rosa (5 miles round trip, moderate). How often do you get to the top of a mountain that is, well, shaped like a mountain? Rosa has a decent point and offers a great view from its top. And the hike to the summit offers the best Colorado has to offer – a green meadow, the deep shade of a spruce forest, and tiny wildflowers only found at this elevation. Rosa, which peaks at 11,499 feet, is thought to be the mountain summited by Zebulon Pike when he was trying to reach a nearby peak that was later named in his honor. (Off Old Stage/Gold Camp Road; 12.5 miles to Forest Road 379. Park there or drive up the 4WD road to Frosty Park (the meadow); walk through clearing and watch for trail cairns on your right.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tails on trails

In all of our years of hiking in the Rocky Mountains, we’ve had our share of animal encounters: An elk calf lying on the trail, its mother standing threateningly nearby; a moose crashing through the willows; a rattlesnake sunning itself on a rock we had just brushed past.
But those all pale next to the worst kind of animal mix-up – with another hiker’s dog.
It plays out the same way almost every time: We walk one direction on a trail with our leashed dog. Coming toward us: Another hiker with one or more loose dogs. They smile and yell, “Don’t worry! He’s (they’re) friendly!”
The “friendly” dogs approach our dog and a fight ensues. Sometimes words follow, as an animal encounter escalates into a people conflict.
Animal behaviorists tell me the trouble arises when one dog perceives itself as having to be on the defense (the leashed dog) and the other dog is on the offense. The leashed dog feels threatened or frightened. The unleashed dog senses that fear and attacks.
For more than a decade, we walked our favorite trails with Waldo, a yellow Labrador retriever who was perceived by other hikers as a gentle giant. But he didn’t like other dogs, and he really didn’t like loose dogs approaching us. Many times, Waldo taught the “friendly” dog a lesson.
Now, we hike with our beagle, Hunter. He weighs 30 pounds, and although he’s all muscle, he’s also obsessively pack-oriented and not very brave. On a hike last weekend on a trail in the Pike National Forest, a man approached us with two dogs – a pit bull and a small shaggy black dog. Both were loose, and when the hiker saw us approaching, he quickly leashed one dog - the pit bull. The black dog, head and tail down, headed for us, his eyes on Hunter. “Don’t worry,” the man shouted. “He’s beagle friendly.”
That was a new twist – this dog especially appreciated beagles. Turns out he wasn’t really a beagle lover after all, and after a skirmish between the two dogs and verbal sparring between the hiker and my husband, we continued our hike.
As the day wore on, we encountered a dozen more loose dogs, and we developed a new strategy. When we were surrounded by a pack of dogs – five of them, all loose, and their owners said, “Don’t worry. They’re friendly,” my husband responded, “How do you know my dog is?” he asked. “You’d better watch out for him.”
(Note: This method only works with people who don’t know much about beagles.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

You like tomato, I like tomahto

When I was a little girl, my family would visit Great Uncle Sam’s farm in southern Minnesota.
Sam had a small farm with several hogs that seemed as big as horses to us; a collection of chickens and ducks, and fields planted with a tangle of strawberries.
We were frightened by the gigantic hogs and a little intimidated by the cranky ducks that would chase us across the yard.
We were really there for the strawberries. Sam’s land was perfect for growing sweet, dark, palm-sized berries. Our group of cousins would spread out like field workers and scour the fields for the berries, returning with sunburns and berry-stained fingers and faces.
Ever since that time, I’ve searched for strawberries as richly sweet as Sam’s, but over time, I’ve gotten used to the idea that I traded the fruit and vegetable bounty of the Midwest for the scenic bounty of Colorado.
The only strawberries I grow now at 8,600 feet are the tiny wild version with raisin-sized fruit that blanket the ground under our aspen trees. Still, l crave those Minnesota berries, along with the tender yellow sweet corn with kernels as large as Chiclets and bulbous tomatoes that grew in the black soil of our barely tended gardens in Iowa.
So this year, instead of depending on farmers’ markets, I’m growing my own. Tomato, that is.
I have one tomato plant in a pot on my deck. Every day I chase the sun, moving the pot around the deck so it can soak up every minute. At night, I tuck the plant in under the eaves, protecting it from wind and hail. I water it and fertilize it and worry about it. I’m become obsessed with its well-being.
My attention has paid off - in a few short weeks, it has grown three times its size, and today has a dozen yellow blossoms, promises of fruit to come. I wait impatiently for the first tiny green tomatoes to appear. When that happens, I’ll have to compete with other tomato-lovers – the black bears that patrol our neighborhood looking for a quick snack.
They’ll have to fight me for my tomatoes.

Monday, June 22, 2009

2 txt or not 2 txt

A confession: When my daughter was living with us a few months ago, she and I would text each other….while we were both in the house. I would be upstairs, and she would be downstairs, and we would text about important topics such as whether the clothes dryer had stopped, or what was on the menu for dinner.
So I understand the convenience of texting, and even appreciate its economy of words. But I’ve had to put aside my attention to the rules of English – “wat r u doing?” “going 2 a movie.” And I’m worried that it could mark the end of conversation as we know it.
My daughter, who’s 21, sends and receives about 4,000 texts every month. She says she would rather text than talk, even with her best friends. “We just don’t like to talk on the phone,” she says, her fingers flying over the tiny keyboard on her phone.
She recently graduated from college, and as she labored over two dozen hand-written thank-you notes for graduation gifts she received, she said she wished her QWERTY keyboard could have done the job for her.
But letter-writing was an art, I told her. Texting isn’t. It gets the job done, but I would guess there’s not a lot of poetry or even memorable prose in the millions or billions of texts sent every day.
Still, there's even some good news about texting. A recent study in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology found that texting can have a positive effect on a child's reading development.
Last week, an Iowa teen-ager won $50,000 in a national texting contest sponsored by LG. Her proud mom said she texts about 500 times a day, which is about once every three minutes in 24 hours, not taking any time out for sleeping, eating, and maybe even studying.
After completing a series of texting obstacle courses, the two finalists had to text this 140-character message error-free: “Zippity Dooo Dahh Zippity Ayy...MY oh MY, what a wonderful day! Plenty of sunshine Comin' my way....Zippitty Do Dah Zippity Aay! WondeRful Feeling Wonderful day!”
OK, maybe it wasn’t Walt Whitman (way too many characters in that guy’s work) but at least it rhymed.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Seeing double

Not much to say here, except "aaaaaawwwwww." A watchful doe guards her month-old twin fawns in the backyard of my friends just down the street. One of the fawns is brave and frequently bounces away from her family. The other one is more timid, and stays in the tall grass or near her mother.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Beagle brains

Here are some of the reasons I have fallen in love with beagles:
- They live an unrepentant life.
- They know what they like and they go after it…every time.
- They’re emotional and have a great sense of humor and a flair for the dramatic.
We live with a two-year-old beagle named Hunter S. Thompson. We originally named him Hunter for his insatiable nose, but soon added his middle initial and last name in honor of the late Colorado gonzo journalist who never did anything halfway… ever.
Hunter came into our lives a few months before I was laid off from my job as a journalist and before my husband had life-changing open-chest surgery. It was a year of transition in our lives, and in retrospect, probably not the best time to welcome a beagle puppy into our family.
We bought a book about beagles and how to train them. It said they are single-minded and can be hard to train. Hunter ate the book. Before he grew out of toddlerhood, he also destroyed 28 pillows (yes, we kept buying new ones), two TV remotes, a slipper, three books (in addition to the training book), two fleece blankets. a corner of the couch, and countless bath towels and socks.
I know the tale of Hunter’s destruction isn’t that different from many other puppy stories, but there’s something about a beagle’s attitude that’s as impressive as it is maddening.
Hunter is a little mellower now (we’ve only lost two pillows in the last six months), but he still lives his life with no regrets, and is thrilled to see what he can find around the next bend in the trail. I'm trying to be more like Hunter.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Wild kingdom

A packrat was living in our woodpile until we flushed him out, and he moved into our garage. Which is attached to our house. Which made me nervous.
Don’t get me wrong. I love seeing and interacting with wild animals on the trail, or at the park, or even in my yard. But when they could possibly be setting up residence in a downstairs closet, everything changes.
During the 20 years we’ve lived in the mountains, we’ve had many animal encounters. Fox, deer and elk are regular visitors to our backyard. Flickers show up at the bird feeder, and flammulated owls call to each other from the dense ponderosa pines that surround our neighborhood. Black bears check out untended garbage cans in our neighborhood, and mountain lions make rare appearances and leave not-so-rare footprints on park trails. We’ve encountered rattlesnakes, badgers, porcupines, moose and coyotes on our hikes throughout the Rocky Mountains.
And each time we see a new creature, we consider ourselves lucky. Until the packrat.
Here’s the problem: packrats are, well, rats; creatures we associate with filth. But here’s what Encyclopedia Britannica doesn’t tell you - packrats are fuzzy, cute, cuddly looking, almost chinchilla-like. Think giant hamsters with long hairless tails. Our outrage over a rat in our garage was diminished by this guy’s soft black eyes and twitching whiskers. Even though he had crafted a nest of dryer lint, pinecone needles and M&Ms with peanuts in the air filter compartment of one of our cars, he had still won our hearts.
We made a half-hearted attempt at flushing him out of the garage with brooms, but this packrat was fast and crafty.
We started to lose patience and we armed ourselves with shovels. We would have to eliminate this pest. But we couldn’t… not with shovels, certainly. And also not with rat poison or any other of the methods proven to work. I searched the Internet for remedies, and found tips on scented dryer sheets (rats aren't supposed to like the smell) and dry wool (to plug holes they might have made).
So we blanketed the perimeter with dozens of sheets of Downy. We haven’t seen the rat since, and our garage smells April fresh.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

To sleep: perchance to dream

I love camping. It’s sleeping outside that I hate.
This might sound impossible, you say. How can you go camping without sleeping outside, you ask. Simple. I just don’t sleep when we camp. My tent mates – my husband and our daughter – burrow down into their sleeping bags and they’re gone in minutes. But over the years, I’ve become the self-designated, ever-vigilant campsite sentry.
As the moon moves across the sky, I lie in the tent, listening for sounds of animals that could eat us or at the least eat our Poptarts. As the night shadows create spooky shapes in the trees, I watch for intruders, tossing and turning uncomfortably. The minutes and the hours pass slowly and I rejoice at the first light of dawn, then the first bird song, then the first rays of the sun.
My camping insomnia started years ago. Our daughter was small and when it was time to sleep, she would wedge between us in the tent. By the time I was settled, she would have wiggled onto my side of the tent. The dogs would follow, curling themselves around my legs and at the small of my back.
We camped for a year in a Black Diamond Megamid, a spacious single-wall pyramid-shaped tent that sleeps four. Our final Megamid adventure was in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness about three miles off the trail. We were camping at about 10,500 feet and we could see our breath. It started raining just as we began to set up camp, and it continued to rain and snow throughout the night. It didn’t take long for both dogs and my daughter to wedge themselves against me on one side of the tent’s unforgiving center pole. My husband sprawled comfortably on the other half.
In the morning, as we scraped ice off our sleeping bags (condensation from the night’s moisture); he said he was sold on the Megamid. “That thing is great!” he proclaimed. In the interest of camping unity, I didn’t say anything. But the next time we prepared for a camping trip and he pulled out the Megamid, I diplomatically said, “I’m not camping in that thing again….ever.”
He was stunned. The Megamid is a gearhead’s dream tent. It only takes about five minutes to set it up and it fits into a pack about the size of a loaf of bread. It is incredibly lightweight (about three pounds) and it’s a sturdy shelter against wind, rain and even snow.
I haven’t camped in the Megamid tent since then. Sometimes, when we go with a group, my husband sets it up for himself and one of our dogs. I stick to our trusty dome tent (a decade-old Taos), where I can wait the night out a little more comfortably.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Fashion forward

After my first year of working at home, my wardrobe needed an upgrade. I gave away all my sweatpants and replaced them with…yoga pants. That’s right. For most of my second year in my home office, I’ve spent nearly every day swathed in slightly fitted black cotton knit boot cut pants with a hint of Spandex (that's the precise way they're described in the catalog.) I pair the pants with one of my seven Columbia fleece jackets (inexplicably, my collection includes two identical pine green zip-ups) and Ugg boots and I’m ready for the day.
This has become my signature look. I like to think of it as “mountain woman meets spiritual fitness guru meets practical free spirit.” I don’t think that’s how my husband would describe it, but he did tell me he was grateful that yoga pants don’t get as baggy and shapeless as the old drawstring cotton sweats (thanks to that hint of Spandex). And when I change into a pair of blue jeans (I call it “dressing up”), he knows I’m actually leaving the house for the day.
I’ve written about outdoor recreation for years, so my wardrobe already leaned toward practical/casual for all those days on the trail or in the forest. I own several pairs of hiking boots and a drawer full of SmartWool socks. I have enough fleece to fill its own closet (don’t you be judging me about the fleece!), and I’ve always favored pants over dresses. (Boots and Birkenstocks just don’t have that dressy look.)
Even when I worked in an office, I figured out a way to dress almost trail-ready most of the time. But now that I spend most days at home writing, I’ve shed my wardrobe of every skirt and dress I owned.
My choice of clothing is often a response to my complete frustration with how to dress. Women my age are often stuck - between fashion better suited for their daughters and fashion (I use the term lightly) that’s heavy on puckered elastic waistbands and embroidered theme sweaters. My 21-year-old daughter often thanks me for not wearing the same kinds of clothes she does, and at the same time is grateful I refrain from sweats emblazoned with pumpkins or Christmas trees or hearts and flowers. And she even occasionally borrows my look, picking out a fleece jacket from my vast collection or threatening to steal my Uggs.
Maybe my look will catch on after all.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Life after layoff

My parents are worried about me being unemployed. “Do you have a job yet?” they ask when we talk on the phone. It doesn’t matter how many times I describe my work as a freelance writer and tell them how my profession works. In their minds, if I don’t drive my car away from my house to the same location and sit down to work at the same desk every day, I’m not employed.
I don’t blame them for being worried. For 20 years, I did drive my car to the same parking lot, walk into the same office building and sit at the same desk. I had gotten my job at a mid-sized newspaper shortly after moving to Colorado. It was my dream job. The paper was growing and its owners were investing in its growth. I worked with writers and photographers and artists who were major talents. Our newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize. We covered the Olympics and the state’s pro sports teams just like our much larger competitors. We traveled the country and the world. We were innovators and dreamers and we got to see many of our dreams become realities.
We were good at our jobs and proud of them. We felt powerful and secure. It was still a time when employees, especially employees of newspapers, were rewarded for their good work, for their longevity, for their loyalty.
But things changed. I lost that dream job, unceremoniously dumped in a brief meeting in an icy conference room on a Friday morning. It’s been a little more than two years, and I still can recall how I felt that day. For months, I was defensive and angry. I was laid off, not fired; one of the first groups of casualties in what has become almost daily business at newspapers around the country. But what’s the difference, really? I lost that job, my dream job.
So now I’m a freelance writer. What does that mean, my parents ask. It means I spent every day job hunting. It means reinventing myself, selling myself, working to make myself look more appealing than the competition. It means taking on other jobs that don’t involve writing – a stint as a caretaker at a nature center; a bizarre month working for the U.S. government on the 2010 Census project.
On my best days, I revel in the freedom. My office looks out at the mountains, and I’m often interrupted from my writing by the chirping of a hummingbird gorging himself on the feeder I’ve placed outside my window.
But the irregularity of my profession can be unnerving. Jobs are disappearing as newspaper and magazine companies cut their page counts or cut out major projects. Other companies have eliminated their freelance budgets. Still others have closed.
There’s something kind of thrilling to see what comes to me at the beginning of each month. But it’s kind of like fishing, where on some days, even the most experienced angler doesn’t get any bites. (No, Mom and Dad, that doesn’t mean I spend all my time fishing – it’s just a figure of speech.)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Fish stories

After living in the Pikes Peak region for more than 20 years, I’ve gotten accustomed to seeing soldiers. There are nearly 20,000 of them stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, with nearly 20,000 more at other military installations in the area. Still, my life rarely intersects with any of them. I don’t have any friends in the military, and I’ve only visited the area military bases a handful of times, working on stories for the local newspaper. So when I get a chance to meet soldiers off-base and talk to them about their lives, I welcome it. I had such a chance last weekend, and we found a common ground in fishing. My husband and I had hiked the Rainbow Gulch Trail to Rampart Reservoir to reach our favorite fishing spot – a rocky perch on one of the lake’s inlets. Soon, we were joined by two guys with military haircuts; one teaching the other about trout fishing. At first, we politely observed each other’s space. But when the rainbow trout started jumping out of the water right in front of us, we started talking about fish. The soldiers had been transferred here from Georgia; both had seen action in Iraq. They didn’t say much about that, other than how bad the food was. They delved into politics (it became obvious we wouldn’t agree -they were Huckabee fans; we voted for Obama.) We talked about how soldiers are respected more now than they were during the Vietnam War, but how that treatment varies around the country (it's better in Colorado than in Georgia). But mostly, we talked about fishing, and the good fortune of having this fishing spot so close to home, and the good luck we were having on that day as the fish practically jumped into our laps. We shared fish stories, and by the end of our morning together, even the quieter soldier had relaxed and started talking. He was a bass man, he said, but now he understood the appeal of the sport of trout fishing. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” On this day, we were all there for the trout and the sun and the wind that pleated the water. And, it turns out, the company.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Little Night Music

At first, I thought I was channeling summer in Iowa, where I grew up. Every night this week as the wind died down, the quiet was filled with the sounds of ... chirping frogs? My neighbor heard them, too. "Did you hear... frogs the other night?" he asked hesitantly. But we live in Colorado, at 8,600 feet, in the midst of a ponderosa pine forest with very little grass. There are no ponds or streams or lakes in our neighborhood and when it rains, the water disappears into the gravelly ground. Our nights are quiet, without the calls of locusts or crickets or the constant hum of bat wings I would hear in Iowa. So surely there aren't any amphibians here, right?
Wrong. My friends at the Colorado Division of Wildlife tell me the night music is coming from toads - perhaps Red Spotted Toads. Every night, they serenade us from their hiding places in tall grasses and under rocks.
We've lived here for more than 20 years, and we noticed the chirping for the first time last summer. A DOW biologist said he wasn't sure why the toads have relocated to our mountain town, but there's undoubtedly a reason. According to Frogwatch USA, frogs and toads have more significance than just their musical ability. They are important indicators of changes in the environment.
I hope they stick around, because I've gotten used to their night music and will miss it if it stops. The sounds of nature are renewing as well as environmentally significant. When we first moved to Colorado in the 1980s, we spent a lot of time exploring Rocky Mountain National Park. Cub Lake was a favorite destination. Cold and clear and covered with lily pads, it was also frog central. We could hear the frogs from the trail before we could even see the alpine lake. Their hypnotic sound made us linger. But one summer, they were gone. Cub Lake was just as beautiful as ever, but silent. Biologists believe pesticides or parasites might be to blame for amphibians disappearing at Rocky Mountain National Park and other locations around the world. For now, the toads that serenade me are secure in their mountain retreat. I hope they stay that way.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Over the past two years, I've been handed many challenges. I was laid off from my job at a newspaper where I had worked for 20 years. It was a job I had created; a job I loved, and a job that was snatched away from me on a sunny Friday morning.
My husband, a musician, had emergency open chest surgery; a procedure that introduced both of us to the maddening health care system and reminded us that we weren't immortal after all.
My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
Our seemingly ageless family dog, a yellow Lab named Waldo, died as he neared the age of 16.
Our lives seemed to switch into a lower gear. Saddened by the loss of Waldo and slowed by my husband's health, we didn't hike for more than a year. The closest we came to camping was throwing open our bedroom window on a chilled night and letting the wind blow through the room.
Our home in the mountains became our sanctuary, our retreat, and sometimes, our prison. As my husband healed, there were weeks when our cars never left the driveway. But throughout it all, we held onto our professions, the work we loved. For me, it was writing. For my husband, it was music. I began taking freelance writing jobs. He taught and played music. The click of my computer keyboard and the rumble of his bass guitar were the background music in our home.
And after two years, amazingly, we are still doing what we love. And we are finding our true selves again. We went hiking last week, and we're planning a camping trip with our new dog, a beagle named Hunter S. Thompson (you'll read more about him later.) Both of our professions have been deeply wounded by the economy, but we believe in what we do.
At my last newspaper job, I helped create a blog about Colorado and the outdoors. This time around, I'll write about the world beyond my window as well as the big and little events that are part of the experience of being a Coloradan, a boomer, a wife, a mother, a woman, and a beagle's best friend.