“Hang it All!”

14 Jan

I recently finished reading a book. It was a good book, well-written, kept me interested all the way through. But then I got to the last page. Only I didn’t realize it was the last page. I was reading on my Kindle and so there was no thickness of the remaining pages to clue me in. I knew from the “% read” at the bottom of the screen that I was nearly done. Knew too, that there was no Glossary or Tolkien-esque appendix that took up half of the book, but I assumed, as I pressed the “Next Page” button, that there would be an epilogue if not a short final chapter.

I read to the end of the page. I turned to the next. And the book was done. And I did what I have never done before. I shouted,

“You jerk!”

as if the author could hear me.

I am a person who likes her loose ends tied up. As a writer I keep a list of loose ends that I must not forget about. As a reader I do this too, only they’re mental lists and not separate files on my computer.

Loose ends Drive Me Bananas. And the loose ends in this book I read were HUGE.

I suppose you’re all dying to know what the book was. I debated telling you or not, but I guess I will because I’m not saying she is a bad writer, or that I disliked the book…I just HATED being left hanging!

I know, I know: it’s a writer’s prerogative. She or he can do whatever they like and if they like leaving their readers unfulfilled, well, fine. They have a right. For whatever reason, she wanted to leave the reader wondering, pondering, considering her book as we drive down the road to pick our children up from school. She wanted us to think. She wanted us to have lively discussions at book club – which I know we will! She wanted us to blog about it.

And so I say to Ann Patchett, author of State of Wonder, yes, you’ve made me think. You’ve made me consider Easter’s fate and the narrator’s future and the crotchety doctor’s wishes as I wash the dishes and fold the clothes and do other things that I’m too proper to write about.

And you’re driving me nuts.

So my question for you all is this: do you like loose ends that make you think? Or do you wish that all authors would tie their loose ends up in pretty bows that don’t stress you out and cause you to call them names when you reach the last page and discover THE END written in nasty, bold letters?

As my children like to ask, “Which would you rather?”

Barnstorming (without an airplane)

7 Jan

I love a good barn. The older the better. So I asked someone I know if he’d be willing to let me explore and photograph his lovely, old specimen of barnishness. Happily, he said yes, and even though the hunters didn’t appreciate that I had taken over “their” space, I spent a good half hour or so exploring the lovely old weathered barn where once cows and sheep and horses (and at least one homeless man) lived. Now it’s home to barn swallows and mice and dust motes.

And the ghosts of chickens past.

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The Perfect Birthday

31 Dec

When it’s your birthday you shouldn’t have to do anything you don’t like…right? That, at least, is what I always thought when I was a kid. It was always a total rip off when I had to go to school on my birthday…especially if my birthday was the first day of school following Christmas break.

If I stuck with that philosophy now my day sure would be nice. See, I’m turning 44 this week so I’m thinking that I ought not to have to do any dishes on that day. Nor should I have to wash (or fold) any clothes. I won’t wear my heavy coat when I leave the house because I don’t like my heavy coat. Never mind that I’ll freeze to death. I won’t sneeze because I hate sneezing. I won’t throw up because I really, really hate throwing up. I won’t answer the phone because I don’t like telephones. I won’t sweep. I won’t dust. I won’t water my temperamental plant. I won’t eat anything I dislike. This includes coffee that gives me heartburn and anything that will add to my waist line. But I will drink weak but utterly delicious coffee and eat cake.

Magical cake that has no calories.
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I won’t exercise. I won’t run the microwave and the toaster at the same time, thereby avoiding the deep, dark basement when I pop the breaker. I won’t do that. I won’t. I won’t clean hair out of the drain or wipe toothpaste out of the sink. Heck, I’ll avoid the bathroom as much as possible because, let’s face it, it’s not my favorite room. This means I won’t have to wash my face and my skin will be perfect. And my hair. That, too.

And birthdays are all about favorites.

I’ll talk to all of my dear friends I’ve lost track of over the past 44 years. I’ll go and visit all my favorite places. But I won’t suffer from jet lag. I’ll have all the time in the world to write and I’ll be focused, creative, and edit-proof. I’ll also spend hours on end with my family and my children will never squabble or argue with me, nor will they make messes. Or if they do, they’ll clean them up.

My husband will bring me breakfast in bed after I’ve slept in until I wake up on my own. My bedroom will be toasty warm from the fire my husband will light in my magical fireplace that only appears on my birthday and never leaves a mess behind itself.
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I will luxuriate in a bubble-filled bath with water that never grows tepid because a magical fire-breathing dragon is keeping it heated from below. And he won’t poop or stink up the space beneath the house ‘cause I wouldn’t like that and my birthday is all about stuff I like.

I’ll eat chocolate and read a fabulous book and have soup and everything I cook will turn out perfectly and even prettier than the photo in the cookbook. I will find an agent and a publisher and be famous, all in one day. But with none of the obnoxious stuff about fame…’cause no one wants that.

And if I don’t want it, I won’t have to deal with it.

Because it’s my birthday.

And it’s supposed to be perfect.

Or, rather, it’s my birthday…and no matter what I do – or don’t do – it will be just fine. Because maybe our birthdays as adults aren’t quite as exciting as they were when we were kids…but still, it’s a birthday! And that, as they say, is far better than the alternative.

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My LGB Train of Happiness

24 Dec

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What is it about toy trains that triggers our smiling muscles? Is it their disarming little chug, chug, chug as they circle around the track beneath the Christmas tree? Or is it their tiny whistle (or not so tiny in some cases) that echoes the steam engines of the past? Or is it just that humans like anything in miniature?

I lived in West Berlin, Germany, for my last two years of high school and I came home from school one day to discover that my dad had bought a wonderful “Lehmann Gross Bahn” toy train! The “Lehmann Large Train” is the largest gauge toy train that I’ve ever seen, though admittedly I am no expert on such things. During their four years in Germany, Dad added to the train each year until he had six cars and many other add-ons such as a Gandy Dancer, gates that rise and fall when the train approaches and passes by, street lights, a signal bridge, people, trees, and even a typical notice pillar (which I can’t remember the German name of) – a common sight around Berlin which lends a small-town atmosphere to the sprawling city.
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In the 25 years since I graduated and moved back to the states, the train stayed with my parents for a few years and with my sister (who had young boys) for quite a few more. But now it has come home to me! In three large “Max Marotzke” boxes (and one smaller one holding nothing but track), the train arrived. Max Marotzke was the name of the moving company that moved Mom and Dad from Berlin to Connecticut…well, Pan Am shipped them – in their own sweet time – but that’s another story!

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My sister sent the first box way back in March and my kids very much enjoyed discovering all the hidden treasures beneath all those Styrofoam peanuts! Then, this past summer, when we were out in Washington, my husband packed the rest of the train stuff and the day after we arrived home the US postal service delivered it to our door.

Now, finally, after all that waiting, the boxes are open and we’re setting up the train! It is easy enough to put together the track and set the train on top of it – even I can do that – but woe betide my children if they didn’t have their dad to make it go, light up the lights and make the engine steam. I am no engineer, but he, thankfully, is. For real. (Yet another reason this English major married a mechanically-minded man.)

The train station needs a little model glue...

The train station needs a little model glue…

And so, thanks to my husband, my father, my sister, and Max Marotzke, the train circles our tree as well as the entire living room here in Southwest Minnesota – thousands of miles and 25 years after it first circled our tree in West Berlin.

(Talk about the passage of time and miles – what about the passage of political tyrannies? I returned to a united Berlin a few years ago – what a joy it was to see the unified city as it was meant to be!)

Yes, there are many reasons that this toy train makes me smile. But the best reason of all is the newest reason – my three kids, engrossed by the circling engine as it chugs into their lives as it once chug, chug, chugged into mine.

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Letters to Santa

17 Dec

It’s that time of year again – the time I look forward to with a smile of anticipation and a gleam in my eye. The time when the newspaper prints children’s letters to Santa.

Oh, my word, how I love those letters.

This year the letters (all from first graders) seemed less greedy than in previous years, which is nice. I recall one wee girl last year who wanted a diamond ring. (Don’t we all, honey.) My older kids and I love reading these letters out loud though our youngest child – whose letter is amongst the ones printed this year – doesn’t understand the humor we find in her classmates epistles.

I decided to give you a few excerpts from this year’s batch of letters, with my daughter’s full letter at the end…and a “just for the record” explanation of her wishes!

Dear Santa, I have been a very good girl. How is Mrs. Claus? Do you sing Christmas songs in the sleigh? I hope you like our cookies…

Dear Santa, Do you like ice?

Dear Santa, Can I pet your reindeer?

Dear Santa, How are the elves? I love you Santa.

Dear Santa, Thank you for our gifts. Is it fun to ride in a sleigh? Please bring me a puppy. Thank you, Santa.

Dear Santa, When are you coming?

Dear Santa, I have been thankful for [my brother] because I like him.

Dear Santa, I help my mom set the table.

Dear Santa, I have said kind words to my sister and my parents.

Dear Santa, I want to help the world. Please can I have playdoh. Thank you.

Dear Santa, Sometimes my room gets messed up, but then I clean it up.

Dear Santa, Do you get presents for Christmas?

Dear Santa, Am I on the good list?

Dear Santa, I want walkie-talkies please…for my sister I want chapstick. For my baby brother, I want him to have
toys…for my dad, he wants a car…

Dear Santa, I think I want a new dog.

Dear Santa, I think I was a good girl.

Dear Santa, Will you please bring me socks?

Dear Santa, What do you do all year long? How often do the elves go to the dentist?

Dear Santa, I want…a REAL race car, the one that uses gas.

And finally, my favorite letter: Which, interestingly, is not signed “love” or even “your friend” as most of the letters were…but simply signed with her name.

Dear Santa, My name is Lucy. This year I have been quite good. What I would MOST like for Christmas this year is an iPad because my family has one but I don’t. If your elves are not too busy I would also like an iPod. I promise to leave you some chocolate milk and cookies on Christmas Eve. Merry Christmas! Lucy.

The photo says it all.

The photo says it all.

I am not entirely sure what to make of this letter, but one thing is for sure, she belongs to a tech-savvy family, can you tell? Please hear me, however, when I say that her entire family does NOT have iPads! I do not, and the only reason that her brother and sister do is because they have them through school and when summer comes and they have to turn them in they will go bonkers. My husband does have one, but it’s through work. I just feel the need to explain all of that! Also, I’m certain that the reason she wants an iPod is because she loves music and has been walking around with an ancient walkman CD player which breaks its volume control every time she drops it…which is fairly frequently.

I told Lucy, as gently as I could, that Santa wasn’t likely to bring her those things. She didn’t look me in the eye when she replied, but she said cheerfully enough, “I know. It’s you and Daddy who bring the presents, anyway.” She walked away, and I was left feeling slightly bad and slightly glad and slightly confused about what I ought to be feeling.

It’s hard to compete with Santa.

Here’s my letter to the Jolly Old Elf:

Dear Santa, Please give me the gift of time…and the wisdom to know how to use it.
Sincerely, Gretchen

Anticipation? Or Instant Gratification?

10 Dec

When I was in 5th grade I was invited to a birthday party of a classmate who had newly moved to Orcas Island. This was all very well and good, but it meant one thing first and foremost: my parents did not know her parents.

But we did know one thing about them and her: She was named after an Indian Goddess and she lived at Polarity Institute.

Translation: she lived in a commune and was involved in a cult.

Or something close enough that it was very, very suspicious to my parents.

To this day I am amazed that my mother allowed me to go to the party. Not that Mom would have worried that I’d be sucked into some bizarre group, but it was all just so UNKNOWN…I mean, I never knew anyone else who ever visited the commune and I certainly never did so again – not because anything bad happened, the opportunity just never came up. As I recall, my friend had moved away by the 6th grade, anyway.

My visit there was less than spectacular. I remember we were only allowed into the common room. I don’t remember cake, games, or anything else. Pretty much we were just left alone to hang around. I vaguely remember seeing a tall tree-house kind of thing on top of a pole. Or maybe I just imagined that.

I do, however, remember this for sure: they owned a VCR.

This was amazing to me.

Never before had I known anyone with such a thing. I didn’t even know what it was, to be honest. I remember going home after the two allotted hours and telling my mom, “They have a machine and they can watch The Sound of Music ANY TIME THEY WANT!!!!!”

This was miracle indeed. To be able to watch such a splendid movie at any given moment!! To not have to wait until it came on television?!

Remember those days? The waiting? The anticipation? I remember waiting for the Charlie Brown Christmas Special to come on TV. I’d pray that we had nowhere to go that evening. I’d write it on my calendar. I’d practically camp out in front of our little black and white set – the screen was smaller than my laptop’s screen is now – and woe betide anyone, parent or sister, who wanted to change the channel. Not that we had many channels to choose from. We had three, in fact, and all were out of Canada.

Now, when ABC advertises that the Charlie Brown Christmas Special is coming on my kids could care less. Not because they don’t like the Charlie Brown Christmas Special – quite the contrary – but because we own it. On Blue Ray. Black and while TV? What’s that?!

I have to say, it’s a mixed blessing, being able to own things like the Charlie brown Christmas Special. The anticipation is completely gone. That excitement. That skip in my step as the hour approached when we’d be blessed with Linus’ wisdom. Yes, it’s lovely to be able to watch it at any time…but, somehow, it’s not the same.

Somehow the magic has gone.

I’ll always remember my trip to the commune with a smile if for no other reason than I cherish that magical moment, that awe, when I realized that the technology existed to watch a favorite movie at any moment I so desired.

Yes…magical…and yet I had no idea how magical anticipation could be as well.

PS – We own The Sound of Music, too. But I hardly ever watch it. Maybe I should set a time – like my birthday – could that add the magic back? We have a family tradition of watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy every New Year’s weekend…and yes, we look forward to that as part of the festivities, so I suppose one can kind of manufacture that magic…with the added pleasure of being able to watch it any other time we so choose. The best of both worlds? Kinda of. But not quite…not quite…

Couple of Thoughts on St. Nicholas Day

6 Dec

Okay, it’s been ages since I posted on a non-Tuesday! But I realized that it’s ST. NICHOLAS DAY!! So here’s my tiny recollection of that day while living in West Berlin in the ’80’s.

We came home the evening of the 5th of December, walked up the two flights of stairs to our apartment (one of four in the building) and as we reached our floor, there on the usually pristine doormat were three boots of various sizes. No, not three pairs of boots. Just three boots. Three unmatched boots. With some holly as decoration festooning the laces.

“Ummm…what’s up with that?” I asked Mom.

Her face broke into a grin and she clapped her hands in delight. “It’s St. Nicholas Day tomorrow!” she exclaimed.

“St. Nicholas Day?” I asked, knowing vaguely that St. Nicholas is the pattern for Santa Clause, but having no idea that he had his own day.

“Yes, the day when German boys and girls put out their boots on the doormat and wake up to find them filled with goodies!” Mom explained.

“The luckies,” I said. “Boots and stockings, too?”

“I’m not sure they do stockings here,” Mom said.

“Oh,” I said, entering our apartment and considering this new tradition. “I’d hate to do without stockings,” I finally said. “But can I put out my boots tonight?”

“No,” Mom replied, hanging up her coat in the wardrobe. “Nice try, though.”

I shrugged my shoulders. “It was worth trying,” I said, grinning. “Now I just wish we could see what St. Nicholas brings them! Wouldn’t that be fun to see?”

I never did see the boots filled. But I love the idea.

Happy St. Nicholas Day, everyone!

My second thought: I posted over on my other blog today – a re-post from two Christmases ago when I lamented my lack of creativity in shopping for my brothers-in-law. Check it out if you have the time! Here’s a photo to entice you…

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