Don’t tell my law partners, but I have been a master over the years of sometimes playing hooky in the middle of the week.  It was most often unplanned and last minute during a regular weekday when I decided I was caught up on my work, and nothing would suffer if the work was put on hold.  I would skip work and take the kids to the zoo, the Science Museum, a movie or the Mall of America.  They were either in day care and I would take them out, or it was a holiday from school, or summer vacation and they had nothing better to do.  Those days were some of the best.  I couldn’t give them much warning because sometimes things changed at work and I could not leave, so since I did not want to disappoint them, I would not tell them until I was very img_5087sure that we were going. They were even more excited by the surprise.

On those days I would call or simply show up and say I have off, let’s go and do something fun! These spontaneous outings taught them to be flexible and go with the flow.  Now as adults they are still very good at going with the flow and dealing with changing plans or unexpected fun that arises.  All of them are always up for an adventure. I’d pack a lunch for us or more often eat out.  We loaded into the Yukon, or if I had not planned ahead well enough in advance, we’d be stuck with my commuter car since Joe usually drove the family Yukon to work. In that case I would cram them all into my little car and off we went.

img_5088The thing I remember best is that they were always so grateful for the adventure.  They never complained and seemed to be on their best behavior.  I suspect that even as very young children they knew there was something special about the unexpected middle of the week adventures.  We had plenty of fun as a family on the weekends, but this was different.  It was unexpected and exciting.

Recently I was reminded of one of those fun days as my kids fondly reminisced about a particularly  memorable middle of the week excursion.  Now that they are in their twenties and have lives of their own, I don’t get to play hooky and leave work to do fun things with them. I miss that, but I love it when they visit and I am particularly happy when they remember the good times we have had together. The event they remember was a trip to the Mall of America, when the kids were fairly young, maybe 10 years old to early teens.

I picked them up and I told them we were going to the Mall of America to ride the rides at Camp
Snoopy and have some lunch. It had been a particularly terrible couple of weeks at work, with one hearing after another and my stress level was through the roof.  I did not tell them that, but knowing kids they probably knew more than I gave them credit for.  We headed off and I bought img_5083them all wrist bands so we could ride as many of the rides as we wanted.

We did most of the rides that day, but the one that they remember best was the Mine Ride.  It was one of those rides that had a large screen playing a fairly short movie in front of you and the seats move as if you are part of the movie, and it is really loud for effect.  We had been there before, but they changed up the movie every so often so it was still new to us. The movie they played that day was called Crescendo.  It had music notes and a picture of a piano on the advertisement poster outside the ride, and it looked like an odd subject for the mine ride which usually featured a mine car and small tracks on the screen to make it feel as if you were riding into a mine shaft really fast and jerky for affect.  We took our seats as usual expecting a usual ride.

The movie started with a man in a truck on what appeared to be the streets of San Francisco, with its winding roads and steep hills.  The man backed up to a baby Grand Piano and used a long chain to connect it to the back of his truck.  Before he took off a tall, thin gentleman in a tuxedo and tails, who looked to be ready for a concert at Carnegie Hall, came out, bowed and took his place ceremoniously on the piano bench, attached to the piano, and he began to play in img_5086the middle of a street.  The piano was on wheels, and as the truck took off it pulled the piano. As he played louder and louder the truck went faster and faster, hence the Crescendo name.

When he went around corners the piano flew wide around the turns and almost hit other vehicles and just missed panes of glass carried through the street. It was one of the best comedy sequences I have ever seen.  The music was classical music, and as the truck drove faster the camera would pan onto the pianist’s face, one minute concentrating on the music and the next frightened as his piano veered towards train tracks, narrowly missing being crushed by fast moving train cars. I could not help but laugh harder and harder.

His music flowed with the crazy fast driving, and as we watched our own chairs jolted and moved as if we were riding on the piano with him, and I could not stop laughing.  It was not an, oh I am amused laugh, but a belly aching loud laugh, that everyone in the theater could hear.  I think my kids were actually a little embarrassed and I am sure that some of the people in that Mine ride probably thought I had been drinking in the middle of the day, because the laugh was so continuous and ridiculous. I don’t know why that hit me as so funny.  As we left the theatre, we had even more fun as the kids were poking fun at me for laughing so loud and hard and how the other people probably did think I was drunk.

Thinking back on it, it still makes me smile.  I think it was the slap stick comedy of it mixed with the beautiful classical music that fit each part of the pianist’s ride to a T, and the facial expressions on the pianist’s face as he would, time after time narrowly escape injury and death.

The fact that our own seats shook, rolled and rocked each time his piano went around corners and stopped suddenly, helped with the effect I am sure, but another part of my pure joy may img_5089have been the circumstance itself.  Here we were on a normal weekday when my kids would have been at home, and we were having such a great time, eating fun food and riding the rides together.  We were enjoying each others’ company instead of working the day away.  We have plenty of those days in our life time. To experience the pure joy of spending time together was the crescendo of my week, especially as a nice break to the stress of work life.

I am so glad I had that opportunity to be able to spend that time with the kids in unexpected adventures. It was fun for all of us and yet another reminder in the middle of work stress of what is important in life.  When I think back on it, I don’t remember any of those things that made me stressed that week, but I do remember a random weekday spent with my kids laughing so hard that my sides hurt and I now have the joy of reminiscing about the fun we had, so many years ago. It is easy to say we need to remember what is important in life, but we need to ensure that our most memorable, loud and intense memories and moments are those shared with family. Like the crescendo in a fine piece of music our best moments in life should be loud, intense and memorable.

Glitter, Champagne, and Doing the New Year Right

I love New Year’s Celebrations. It represents a reason to get together with friends for one final celebration after all of the major holidays are over and we all go back to work in January. (Usually we are trying to catch up after all of the goofing off we did during the holiday season). It is an easy holiday because there are no presents or shopping needed; it is a pure 2000fenjoyment type holiday. Also, the thought of a new fresh start is always exciting to me. You get to begin again on whatever your aspirations and goals, or set new goals. I like to look forward and decide on something new to learn in the coming year or try something I have never tried before.

Some people make New Years resolutions and set such things as weight goals or getting healthy and those are fine, but it is also our opportunity to have gratitude for all of the things we have and all of the things we have accomplished in the past year, and to shut the door on any disappointments or troubles we had in the past. We can also take stock of 2000dwhere we are with our dreams, our family, our job and life itself. We can plan and look forward to making a great year for ourselves. I plan fun things for us and get them booked in the cold winter months. I try to have something fun to do at least once each month.

Before New Years Eve I find a quiet place at home, at work, or at a coffee shop, and I do my planning and dreaming. I think, “What would I like to be grateful for next New Year’s and what steps would I take to achieve that goal?” Some are lofty, out-there goals, and others are very attainable with some discipline. Once my planning is done and I feel good about my plan, I am ready to celebrate the coming of the New Year. Every year is a new year of possibilities. New hopes, new dreams and sometimes a continuation of goals and dreams, but always mixed with plenty of gratitude for what we do have.

When the night arrives, I dress for it, I plan for it and I always enjoy it. There is always2000c champagne or some other special drink involved and glitter, somewhere or everywhere. Most years it is glitter eye shadow for the occasion and when we were in college in the 1970’s, New Year’s always involved sprinkling glitter on each other at midnight, which usually turned into dumping glitter on one another. It was a complete mess and I would find glitter in my hair and in the shower for days! When I was dating it always involved going downtown for the action of the big city and when I was married and our kids were young, it was family activities that usually ended at 10:00 p.m. instead of midnight.

IMG_4872One of my favorite New Year’s celebrations of all time was when it turned the year 2000. What a celebration that was! I cannot believe it is over 15 years ago. How time flies. There was so much hype in the years before, about our entire computer system and possibly society collapsing because of this Y2K bug as it was called. People were stockpiling food and gold and guns trying to be prepared for anything. We did not have a lot of concern and believed we were fine, but decided to take the kids out and celebrate big just in case. We went to a German restaurant that had prepared special food and they had a polka band and a guy dressed like the Kaiser getting people to dance. We had so much fun that night and threw all of our cares to the wind. We had a little wine, ate good food and danced with the kids as a family. There is nothing better than family time.

We celebrated with gusto as we ended a century and turned the calendar to the year 2000. It was the last night of a thousand years and the first night of a thousand more years, which made it particularly spectacular, but the 2000efact that it came with threats of potential doom, lent an air of “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die” attitude. The threats of gloom and doom were not very believable, so it was more exciting than any kind of real fear of a disaster. It did however, reaffirm that none of us knows what tomorrow brings, so it is important to take every opportunity to celebrate with glitter, crazy hats, and good food and drink with your family. The most important thing in life is to enjoy the moment, because on our deathbed, 2000gwe will not remember things that we did at work, but we will remember those times that we celebrated life. We will remember those times when we got dressed up and wore glitter and when we danced with a child in our arms, laughing until our sides ached and kissed at the stroke of midnight. Celebrate New Year’s with gusto every year. It is the opportunity for new beginnings and the beginning of new opportunities.

Fishing and the Original Red Dawn

My husband and I had two daughters and one son. We always said each of our kids had their special place in our family. My daughter was the first and oldest child, which gave her that special space, and my son was in the middle but the only boy so that was special, and my youngest was a girl and the baby so that was her special place.

My husband is and was a great dad and with our son. He had an immediate connection because they were the only guys in the house. It was easy for me to develop a close relationship with my girls. We had a lot in common, not just because we were the same gender, but our personalities fit well together even though we were different in many ways. We had developed a bond easily choosing activities and flowing from activity to activity with ease. We had a connection that was effortless to maintain.  I decided early on that as a mom I would need to make sure that I developed a good relationship with my son. I knew it would not be as effortless as with the girls, but I had had three brothers and I had grown up on a farm. We had gone hunting and fishing, and I was somewhat of a tomboy. So I decide to plan a couple of days together just him and me.

benfishyI took a couple of days off and told him to hitch up the fishing boat. I borrowed a friend’s cabin for the night. I told my son to pack for fishing, just him and me, and I was hoping that what I had planned would meet the clear excitement and anticipation I could see on his face. We got up early the next morning and drove up north to Crookneck Lake by Randall, Minnesota. We launched the boat after careful bait selection at the local shop and with our lunch cooler. We were lucky enough to have a really warm sunny day that allowed a comfortable full day in the boat. We discussed bait choices, depths to try for different fish and sometimes just sat in silence. As the day wore on the conversation became less superficial as we settled into a rhythm and the unwritten understanding in that no topic was off limits and there would be no judgment. We laughed together, we sometimes clumsily pulled in fish together, and we had the best day on the water anyone could hope for.

We caught a small Northern Pike and a crappie just enough for a little dinner. As a little chill started in the air, we made our way to the cabin and I handed my son the staking knife and even though he had seen fish cleaned before he had never actually done it himself. I gave him a few tips as he completed the task and the pride I could see in his eyes trumped the fact that the fillets looked like they had been through a meat grinder. We cooked up the fillets and washed them down with a beer that I brought to share even though he was not quite drinking age.

After dinner we built a fire and I put in the original Red Dawn movie and there alone in the cabin, warm cheeked from the days wind and sun, we watched high school boys save the United State of America with their guns and pickup truck. We shared one more beer and as the movie came to an end we could feel the tiredness, one only feels from all day outdoor activities, and we sunk into our beds. The next day we swam in the lake to cool off after a sunny day in the boat and headed back home.   I knew it would be fun just to be together and do outdoor things, but I did not realize how really special it would be. Such a simple concept that did not require spending a lot of money created a lifelong memory for both of us. Teenage boys are not the best at expressing themselves, but he talked about our fishing trip for years. I would listen with pride when he would always start with, “My mom and I had the best bro weekend ever, we fished and watched Red Dawn up north at a cabin.” In all the things we do as parents that we question and wonder if we did them right, or could have done something better, this was a perfectly planned and executed bonding between mother and son.

A Bat with an Ugly Face


Photo by Jane Wachutka

My grandmother on my mother’s side was one of a kind and everyone in the family could tell stories about her.  She was born to German immigrant parents in Pierz, Minnesota but if you heard her speak you would swear she was fresh off the boat from Germany. She and Grandpa spoke mainly German to each other in regular conversation and my mother had to remind them to speak English when talking to the grandchildren.  We had by osmosis picked up enough words over the years to know when to pass the bread at the table and we knew all of the words that had to do with us being in trouble for bad behavior. She was short and stout and I swear she was born wearing an apron. Grandma embraced her role as a farm wife and loved her large garden and orchard. That is what she called it and it was fruitful despite the poor soil in the area and the short growing season and cold winters in Minnesota. She had a number of varieties of apples, raspberries, blueberry bushes and a pear tree. I never actually saw pears on it, bet she claimed it grew pears.

Her ability to grow, raise and cook everything to not only feed her family of eight over the years, but to utilize everything without waste, in hindsight, is nothing less than astonishing.  She had chickens for eggs and meat, goats for milk, cattle, pigs and geese.  It was a way of life that is mostly history as local farmers have become more specialized instead of having the variety that they had back then. Grandma never said it, but you knew she loved her farm and she loved her way of life.  She greeted us with a big hug and always had homemade pie, which she made effortlessly without any recipe, and chiffon cake. We cousins, and there were a lot of us all around the same age, have fond memories of running loose around her farm in the warm sunshine, playing and sometimes getting into trouble, while our mothers helped with the harvest or canning, or if we were just there to celebrate a holiday or visit. It was a big close knit family and we all lived within a few miles and not a week went by without at least one visit.

She was never trying to be humorous, but my grandma was one of the funniest people we knew.    Grandma could sit in the kitchen, snapping beans talking to our mothers about normal things and it was like watching stand up comedy, except she was serious. I don’t know if it was the enthusiasm with which she could tell a story, or her ability to take normal events and spin them into pure entertainment for the entire crowd. She was genius because it made the mundane work of taking the stars off of a table full of strawberries or shelling a mountain of peas actually fun.

I remember one particular fall day when we all came over to help with the harvest of her garden and orchard.  It was the seventies and she and grandpa were getting older and they needed more help. Grandma’s three grown daughters, our mothers, were helping with the snapping and canning of green beans.  Her kitchen was small in her farm house but that did not prevent this crowd from getting the work done.  Our mothers did the jar filing and the canning, and we older girl cousins, about eight of us, sat around the old farm table and did the snapping of the beans. The guys were all out helping grandpa and doing the actual picking in the garden.

We sat around the table as they brought in bushel after bushel of green beans to add to our job.  My grandma was in charge in her kitchen, or at least she thought so, and our parents were very respectful to let her think she was in charge even as she got older and forgetful. As we sat around the table, long before any iPods or cell phones, we carried on conversations about everything and yet nothing.  My grandma many times was the center of any conversation.  If at any time the conversation lagged someone would get it kick-started again.  At one point my mother asked a simple but loaded question.  In hindsight asking simple and direct questions to my grandma was like turning a switch that got her going on a humorous story.  My mother was genius.

My mom asked what she and grandpa had done the past Saturday night and we could tell by her wind up that it was going to be a dosie.  She, in her heavy German accent started with” Auch…” which if you are not German sounds more like someone clearing their throat than an actual word if it is done right.  You could see her whole body get ready for the wind up and off she went… It started with…“While we were watching the Twins game all of a sudden a big bat started flying around our heads.” Clearly one of the biggest bats according to her story that she had ever seen, and she described it in great detail. She spun her tail giving every detail of how it flew from corner to corner in the room, swooping and diving like it had been hit by the cattle prod.  Her voice became louder and louder and more shrill as she continued.

Like any good German she was telling the story as much with her hands as her words. As the story got better she was restricted sitting behind the table with the beans in her lap.  She stopped what she was doing to stand and swing her arms re-enacting how she and grandpa were ducking and how grandpa was swinging the broom at the bat. But the best part of the story was that she was insistent that this was no ordinary bat flying around the house. She was insistent that this particular bat had the ugliest Shniss (evidently a German word for face or at least she thought so) that she or anyone had ever seen.  It was not only the ugliest schniss she and grandpa had ever seen, but she described it as almost demonic, as if it was sneering at them with its contorted face, as if teasing and taunting them.

The way she described it, it sounded as if this particular bat had an evil plan as it flew around swooping at their heads.  It was clearly no ordinary bat as you listened to her story. They lived in an old two story stucco farm house that had an attic and some interesting dark and creepy crawl spaces upstairs that we had used for hide and seek many times over the years. It was not at all surprising to hear there was a bat in this old house, but to have one that was so evil and had such an ugly face flying around their heads, was a story that had us laughing so hard that we lost track of time and made us not mind our work. The more we laughed, the bigger the story got.

Grandma’s story was getting so big that she now had to move around the areas of the kitchen and her small frame gesturing with her whole body as she was pointing at the upstairs and the bedroom as she was recreated the ugly faced, evil bat’s rampage around the house. As my Mom and her sisters and we cousins listened to grandma’s story, the volume to the collective laughter continued to grow until the room was in an uproar.  But as we laughed at her story and the seriousness with which she insisted that the Bat had such an ugly schniss, she seemed to be even more driven to make us believe that this was no ordinary bat and she worked even harder to convince us of how evil this bat really was.  Her story wound up with grandpa catching it in a fishing dip net and almost getting bitten taking it outside where it, in its clearly evil ways, escaped the net and flew towards the barn.  By the time this was over, everyone was convinced that she believed this bat was the devil itself, she and grandpa had escaped its evil plot and more importantly we were convinced that we had the best and funniest grandma in the world.

Our big family taught us an appreciation for hard work and to find satisfaction in supporting ourselves. Grandma taught us simplicity and the importance of family and that we can find humor in everyday activities. She taught us that nothing tastes better than food we have grown with our own hands and even now so many years later, and being so far removed from the farm, I think of grandma Barbara when I trim the blueberry bush in my flower bed and grow fresh herbs on my windowsill in an attempt to hold on to my past.  It makes me smile and brings back so many floods of memories when I bake those blueberry muffins from scratch with my home grown berries.  It is amazing how a simple woman in her own corner of the earth had created  her own paradise in her orchard and how she could have such a profound affect on so many in her family. We love you Grandma.

blueberry bush

The Lost Concept and Hidden Values of the Family Vacation

Vac95 No, I am not talking about the recent concept of a vacation that provides separate child activities from the parents and thus mimics daycare.

Yes, I am talking about packing up the van with the maps, auto bingo, and a cooler full of sandwiches and some junk food. Cell phones are allowed for emergencies only. (Yes, your office can get along without you). Many of us traveled like this when we were growing up and sadly too many of us have not attempted it with our families. There is no better way to get to know your family than to spend time in close quarters with limited distractions. The destination is not as important as being together. My husband, three children and I have traveled to destinations like California, Canada, Yellowstone and Michigan to only name a few. Two weeks seems to work quite well.

Between our children in school and us at work, we all live very structured lives. Children expect to be entertained and/or have their time structured. Therefore, it is more difficult for our kids to go with the flow. It takes the first few days to develop the loose vacation, go with the flow, “yeah, let’s stop and see the world’s biggest ball of twine,” before lunch, attitude.

The time we spend together has become the most memorable and fun. It kills me to hear friends respond to the idea of a “driving vacation” as one that is, “no vacation for me.” My response is that you have no idea what you are missing. We have spent many miles telling stories about when they were babies, stories about what things were like when we were young, and about things our parents told us about the “old days.”

On a long stretch of road in upper Michigan, I started telling fictional stories because I had run out of real stories. I grew up on a farm and proceeded to tell an extreme whopper about how we had discovered a sea serpent in our waterhole. Their little eyes grew larger and larger as the whopper got bigger and bigger, involving secret caves and culminated in saving the friendly serpent. The kids caught on quickly and took turns over the next 200 miles telling whoppers about things living in a secret closet they discovered in our study and about secret wells and animals in the woods around home. We laughed so hard at times we almost wet ourselves.

There are always some tense moments. When my son was two and strapped in a car seat on the way to Yellowstone, he would become antsy. Whenever we stopped for a bathroom break (and there were a lot because I was pregnant) we would find him a grassy spot and I would tell him to run. After a couple of days he would say, “Daddy, I have to run.” We would find him a spot and everybody was happy.

Occasionally the kids will give indications of needing space. It usually starts with the “she’s touching me” syndrome. As a joke on one trip I took our quilt and made a tent over my daughter be stretching in over the seats. It was a perfect private space. She could see out her window but was separated from everyone else. She read under the tent for awhile and later emerged with a refreshed attitude. My kids continue to do this on vacation. Sometimes they make the tent big enough for all of them and close us out. It warmed by heart to hear the giggling coming from the tent.

To pass the miles, we have done each others hair with beads, read, bought junk at the tourist gifts shops (it is all the same types of junk as when I was young) and we collect rocks at every stop. When we arrive home, we have had fun and our van looks like bears have ran-sacked a fast food restaurant dumpster. But, we have learned to live together in close quarters. We have cried, yelled and laughed hysterically together and learned a lot about each other, that could never be achieved at home or anywhere that separates the family. Go with the flow. Pack up the family and be patient because the right attitude takes a little work. See where the road takes you.