Friday, May 28, 2010

On the road again...

A long weekend at the cabin means no wifi for miles. Glorious, glorious! See you next week!

Flashback Friday

The little-known fact about this column, which originally ran in March 2009 (and which I like to call "Why I Still Look at Cribs at Target"), is that I had to leave out one pivotal scene.

If you've ever had a professional massage, you know that massage therapists leave the room to give you privacy to undress and get on the massage table.

Well, not this time. When I left the steam room, the massage therapist walked me down the hall in my little white towel, led me into a room, stood next to the head of the massage table and said, "You can put your towel on the chair and get up on the table."

So there I was, climbing up on the table -- knee first, of course -- naked. While a stoic Asian woman stood next to me saying, "Get up there, now. Get up there."

Ah, good times.

* * *

For my birthday back in November, my husband bought me a gift certificate for an hour-long massage.

"You should really get that massage," Jay reminded me a dozen times over the next three months. And I wanted to. What I didn't want was to admit I'd misplaced his gift. ("Misplaced sounds so much friendlier than "accidentally threw out," doesn't it?)

Eventually I ran out of excuses and called the spa — Naoko Esthetics — and asked if they'd possibly believe that I had a gift certificate that I'd lost. Turns out they didn't need to believe me because they can track these things. In fact, they were able to tell me that my husband bought the certificate two days before my birthday and that it was not only for a massage, but a steam, as well.

The steam was news to me. I'd never had one before. I told Naoko, the owner, just that when she led me to the steam room the next day.

We stared at each other a few seconds before I said, "Umm… I don't know what to do."
"Just leave your towel on this chair and sit inside," she told me. "I'll come back for you in 25 minutes."

Easy enough. I stepped inside the steam room, which looked like a big, foggy shower fitted with benches. A digital thermometer on the wall read 110 degrees and I thought, "You aren't kidding."

I'm native Minnesotan. I've Norwegian blood in my veins. I'm not bred for prolonged high temps. What if it's so hot that I pass out? I thought to myself. Worse yet, what if I get dizzy and try to leave, but pass out on the way and am left lying, naked, half in and half out of the shower?

Once I realized I was going to survive the heat, I tried to figure out what one does in a steam shower. Should I be sitting? Lying down? Leaning against the wall? Should I be meditating? Stretching? Napping?

As a rule, I'm not very good at sitting still for more than a minute or two. I tried to do some deep breathing, but I'm too easily distracted. Breathe in, one; breathe out, two, I thought. Breathe in, one; breathe out two; I wonder if this is water or sweat running down my shoulders? Smells like water. Hmmm… tastes like water. Oh, eww… look at that; I really need to start doing sit-ups. What if I lie down… will that flatten…? Yes, better.

I'd forgotten all about the breathing by the time Naoko called from the other side of the door, "Are you ready?"

"Sure," I answered, jumping to my feet.

"OK, shower," she said. And I did.

A few minutes later, I sunk lazily into the massage table under a starry, blue ceiling and Naoko's expert hands.

"This is a birthday gift?" she asked.


"When is your birthday?"

"November," I said. "The sixth."

"Ah…" she said, getting all shiatsu on my back. "You are changing your job or your residence soon?"

"No," I answered. "I don't think so."

"Yes," she corrected. "I think by your birthday in 2009, you are changing your job or your residence."

"Oh!" I answered, suddenly aware I wasn't only getting a steam and a massage — but my future, as well.

"Well, we hadn't planned on moving…"

"And I think by your birthday in 2010… no, 2011… you'll have a baby?"

"I don't think so."


"No. I mean… well, my husband doesn't want… well, no."

"I think by 2011 birthday you'll have another baby. Now, your husband — when is his birthday?"

"January 2."

"Ah. He's not very romantic. He's realistic."

I was about to answer "yes," but then reconsidered. He did, after all, buy me this massage. And it was shaping up to be one of my most memorable gifts yet.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

How many have you read?

I'm definitely not as well-read as I'd like to be -- though since starting this MFA program, I have almost doubled my book inventory. Still, the list of books I "haven't gotten to" yet is significantly longer than the list I have.

So I'm always curious when I come across lists cataloging the books that one "should" have read. The list below was posted on a friend's Facebook page recently, with a note that it was compiled by the BBC.

While I don't put a lot of stock into what others think I should read, it is fun to play the game and see how I stack up, so to speak. I put an X next to the titles I've read, and when all was said and done, I came up with roughly 30. How about you?

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen X
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte X
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling X
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee X
6 The Bible X (parts)
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte X
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell X
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott X
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller X
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare (so close!)
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien X
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger X
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegge X
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell X
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald X
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh X
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck X
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll X
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma-Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis X
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hossein
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne X (so wise!)
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell X
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown X
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding X
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafo
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez (own it!)
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck (how could I not have read this?)
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold X
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas (own it!)
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding X
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens X
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce (does it count that I own it?)
76 The Inferno – Dante
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens X
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker X
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert X
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White X
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom X (wasn't blown away)
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole (started it, couldn't finish)
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare X
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl X
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Workshop Inspiration

At my small-group writer's workshop tonight, I assigned this writing exercise: "Write about what your mother's or grandmother's hands have done."

(The assignment, incidentally, was inspired by my aunt, who, gathered around her mother's deathbed with her siblings, said, "Imagine what those hands have done." It's a fantastic thought, isn't it?)

Usually, while my students are writing, I review the day's workshop pieces and prepare for the second half of class. Today, however, I scrawled out my own brief response to the assignment. It reads:

My grandmother's soft, vein-lined hands did not...
latch necklaces
apply rouge to wrinkled cheeks
play piano
write high school assignments
dip their fingers in the Rhine, the Danube or the Thames
hold the hand of her evil stepmother
soak for a manicure

They did...
Pour molasses
Flatten lefse
Deal cards
Wash plastic straws
Fold in prayer
Open the cookie jar
Knit socks and mittens and a thick pair of taupe legwarmers I refused to wear
Form popcorn balls for 30 Halloweens
Spank sons
Throw away the half-full bottles of whiskey they found in a can of nails in the garage
Hold six newborn babies to her chest
Weave their fingers in mine

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Video Tuesday

Here's a secret about this week's video: I purposely taped it outside in the wind so my bad hair day wouldn't be so obvious.

Monday, May 24, 2010

53 Comments I Haven't Read

Here's the link to my 5/19 "schools in crisis" follow-up. I see the column's garnered 53 comments. I haven't read a one of them, and I won't. But it might be interesting reading for you. I'm sure there are some doozies in there. :)

More School Stuff

From the "topic that won't die" file, I bring you another entry in the Rochester Public School budget cuts saga.

Tonight, at Willow Creek Middle School, there's a meeting for anyone interested in supporting the inevitable fall referendum. I don't know what to expect from this meeting, but I'll be attending to see how I can lend my hand.

Also, I got an e-mail recently from Chuck Briscoe, Century High School principal. He's always been kind and supportive of my work with the Post-Bulletin and I'd long hoped he'd be in place when my boys made it up the ranks to Century. Unfortunately for us, Briscoe has recently accepted an assistant superintendent position in the Anoka schools for next year.

Before he goes, however, he offered this advice for parents in answer to my, "tell us what we can do!" plea. Here's what Briscoe says:

I have shared this list of advice for parents for the past few years on how to work with teenagers:

For the past thirty-four years, I have had the good fortune to work with high school students. Each day at Century, I work with 1500 students. This does not make me an expert by any means. I have seen students and my own children make some very positive and, at times, courageous choices. I have had to love students at times when they may not have been the most lovable. I can promise you that 99.9% of all the students that I have had the privilege to work with will go down the right path, graduate from high school, and move on to the next level of learning.

The following list is what I believe you can do as a parent to, not only survive your years with your teenager, but also to be able to look back and say those were some of the best years as parents.

Ten Tips to Stay Ahead of the Game

Be a parent not a pal. As parents we need to be our teens’ anchors, not their best friends. Set clear boundaries, yet approach your teen with love and respect. Ignore the attitude. Save your energy for the big stuff. Is it really worth arguing about blue hair? You will find that by practicing my 24 hour rule (wait for one day before saying anything) many things will look different.

Talk the tough talk. Teens need to know your perspective on tobacco, drugs, alcohol, and their friends. Explain why you feel the way you do. Ask them are their friends taking them in the right direction or in the wrong direction?

Compliment your teen. Make it a habit to say at least three positive things to your teen every day. Some days this may be a challenge but there is something nice you can say each day. It is very easy to notice the negative; no teenager or adult who I know has complained about receiving a compliment.

Get to know your teenagers’ friends and their parents. Friends are a big deal, but connecting with the parents of these friends will become your lifeline. By consistently checking in with parents you will have your finger on the pulse of their activities.

Don’t be a maid. It is important for every teenager to have a meaningful role in the family. Every teenager is capable of mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, helping with laundry, and cleaning their own room. Who will be there to assume this role when they leave home?

Make respect and trust a two-way street. If you expect respectful behavior from your teen, parents and principals need to demonstrate how they handle issues in a respectful manner. Explain to your teenager that they will earn a great deal of trust by consistently doing what they say they will do.

Listen, don’t lecture. When kids are ready to talk, be ready to listen. This may not be at a convenient time for you, but please try and take the time to listen at that moment. Please resist offering too much advice but helping them think through their issue by asking them questions.

Agree to disagree. It may seem like you disagree about everything with your teen. Don’t worry, they are figuring out for themselves where they fit into the world and may be using you to try out different perspectives.

Have fun together. These can be challenging years as a parent, but there can be plenty of fun times and good memories. At this stage, you be the last person your teen wants to be seen with in public, but offer to drive them and their friends to school and athletic events. Listen to their conversation during the drive; it will provide a wealth of information about your teen. Remember to smile and search for things you can do together.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Flashback Friday

Here's an oldie but goody I wrote for the Post-Bulletin almost exactly two years ago. Happy Friday!

* * *

My husband has this Mother's Day thing down. He's concocted what he calls a "win-win-win." Here's how it goes: He and the boys head north to spend the fishing opener at Grandma's house… and I stay in Rochester.

By myself.


It's genius, really. Jay gets to fish. The boys get to see grandma. I get to be alone. (Had I mentioned this part?)

As they squeeze into the van on Friday afternoon, amid mountains of tackle boxes and fishing rods, snacks and stuffed animals, books and DVDs, I give my boys roughly 1,323 kisses. I remind them to be good. I remind them to eat healthily. I remind them that I love them more than all the stars in the sky and more than all the fish in the sea and all the way up to the sky and down to the earth.

My six year old says, "I love you, my cute, precious Mommy." My eight-year-old says, "Love you, too, Mom… can we start the movie?"

They pull out of the driveway and I wave madly. They drive down the block and I wave madly. They turn the corner — and even though I'm pretty sure they're not looking anymore — I wave madly. And then, right before they're out of view, I panic.

I think, "My entire life is in that van." And I fight the urge to sprint down the street and stop them from going. Or at least go with them, so if they end up in a fiery crash on the highway, at least we'll all crash together.

Which is a horrible, morbid thought. But it's true.

And just when I start thinking I'm the worst mother in the whole world for letting my kids leave on Mother's Day weekend, they turn the corner and I realize I'm alone.

Like really alone. Like I could do ANYTHING.

And suddenly, I'm literally jumping up and down and squealing. Right there in the driveway. I take three flying leaps into the house while squeaking, "Alone! Alone! Alone!"

But once in my living room, I just turn in circles. "I should read!" I think, grabbing my book. "No! Wash the lunch dishes first! No! Nap! Write! Clean! Call your sister!"

There are too many options. I want to do everything. I want to do nothing. I call Jay and the boys instead.

"Where are you?"

"At the SA on 37th…."

"Tell the boys I love them."

"I will."

"Be careful."

"I am."

"Do they miss me?"

"I'm sure they do."

"Call me from the road…."

Ultimately, I have a calm and productive weekend. I go to Bunco. I meet a friend in Minneapolis. I do no fewer than 10 loads of laundry. I sleep in — on sheets fresh off the backyard clothesline.

When I get the call a couple days later that my boys are in Pine Island — almost home! — I feel a mix of anticipation and panic. Sixteen minutes left!

My gut instinct says a sweet-tooth free-for-all is the only acceptable way to end the weekend. I ravenously pop a leftover May Day Tootsie Roll into my mouth while simultaneously opening the Neapolitan ice cream, which I eat straight from the carton. I wipe the chocolate from my lips. I compose myself. I take a final look at my spotless kitchen. (Goodbye, sweet, clean kitchen. I'll see you again next year…)

And then I'm there — just where they left me — waving and blowing kisses in the driveway as they pull back in.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sanity Break

Whew! This has been a pretty intense couple of weeks. So why not cap off several days of "school crisis" posts with this clip from the Onion News Network? Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Jen's World Wednesday

Here's today's column -- a follow-up to the "schools in crisis" Jen's World that ran in the 5/5 Post-Bulletin. This online version includes the full transcript of my interview with Rochester Public School superintendent Dr. Dallemand. You can view it here.

School Resources

Today, my follow-up column on the Rochester Public Schools budget cuts comes out. I got an unprecedented response to the original column (originally printed in the 5/5 Post-Bulletin).

I have to say I'm feeling unsettled about the follow up. I received so much information that I would've liked to bring to readers' attention -- including the entire transcript of my interview with Dr. Dallemand -- but I just didn't have the room to do it. This is a topic with much weight in Rochester, and I'm disappointed that it hasn't been covered with more ink in the Post-Bulletin.

I did send two files of supporting material to the P-B for inclusion on -- including the full interview with Dr. Dallemand. I don't know that they'll make it on, however. (The downside to being a lowly freelancer. I guess my editors didn't take me seriously when I asked, "How many pages do I get this week?")

I'll watch the P-B site and provide links if the interview with Dr. D goes live. And if it doesn't, I'll post it here. In the meantime, here's some advice and resources from two Jen's World readers:

Long-time teacher Chuck Handlon from Century High School, for instance, offered these suggestions for taking an active role in your child’s education:

1. Be involved in your child's school. Volunteer to help, visit sometimes, show you care.

2. Be positive in your comments and interactions with the school. If you are constantly complaining and critical of school, teachers, district administration etc. you are training your child to be negative.

3. Be informed. Ask questions, try to understand what your child faces at school.

4. Advocate for your child. You know your child best and you can help the teacher understand your child's needs. As our class sizes balloon we are less able to have the time to spend with your child. We make mistakes, but most of us care about your child.

Handlon wrote, "As an educator with 34 years experience I have seen the huge difference between students who have supportive, involved parents and those who do not."

Handlon also offered a link to an organization that has information related to school. It’s called Parents United, and it’s an advocacy group in St. Paul:

Additionally, a parent with children in Rochester public schools wrote this message:

The Minnesota 2020 website has a treasure trove of information on the education situation in Minnesota, especially their Hindsight Blog. It can be found at:

They just had three great articles in a row: one on Race to the Top, another on the claim that teacher’s salaries are too high and that’s the problem with school funding, and a third that has some great info on how state aid to Minnesota K-12 public schools has been cut by $1,400 per pupil in real (i.e., inflation-adjusted) dollars since Pawlenty has been governor. These are all factors in what we face here in Rochester.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Racing the Clock

So it's a bit after 10 a.m. on this beautiful sunny Tuesday -- which means I'm roughly one day late with tomorrow's column. So what do I do? Start a new blog post!

Honestly, I can really be stellar at procrastinating. The truth is, I wrote most of this week's Jen's World in the shower this morning (where I do my best thinking). Now I just have to get it down on paper.

Yesterday was my big interview with Dr. Dallemand, the superintendent of Rochester public schools. Once I got around my pre-meeting jitters (I went to the bathroom at Dunn Bros. no fewer than four times before he arrived), I had a good conversation with Dr. D. I have to say I believe this man has honorable intentions -- and I'm interested in how readers will respond to this week's column, and what Dr. Dallemand has to say.

Of course, first there has to be something to which to respond. I'll get on that...

Monday, May 17, 2010

Interesting follow-up...

I found this on the Minneapolis Star-Tribune site this morning, which adds to the public schools debate: State's bad teachers rarely get fired.

Early Morning, Big Day

After a wonderful weekend at Wisconsin Dells with our friends the Winklers, it's back to the grind. I'm up MUCH earlier than usual this morning preparing for a big day. (By "MUCH earlier," I'm talking several hours here, people. I've been sitting at this computer since 4:45 a.m. -- and I don't usually roll out of bed until at least 7:30, when Christian -- dressed, fed and brushed -- literally stands at the head of the bed and says, "Mom! Time to get up!")

But I needed no responsible 10-year-old or even alarm clock today. This afternoon, I have the rare opportunity to sit down with Rochester public schools' superintendent, Dr. Romain Dallemand -- a meeting I've been thinking about all night.

Nearly two weeks ago, I wrote a Jen's World column about the state of Rochester public schools, and my concerns about the massive budget cuts we've undergone over the past two years. For me, the biggest single detriment of the cuts (which have reached $15 million) revolves around class sizes. Thirty kids in a second-grade classroom is too much, and my own sons are feeling the crunch. But many of my readers expressed other concerns about Rochester Public Schools, from teacher tenure to unfair pay raises for upper-level administrators.

Frankly, whenever two or more parents get together anymore -- at a playground, a garage sale, the grocery store -- talk turns to the schools. And it's not usually very pretty. Parents are frustrated. And Dr. Dallemand has taken a lot of the blame.

Dr. Dallemand has his detractors -- and many of them. To this point, I have not been one of them. I believe in his plan to educate ALL the children of Rochester, and bridge the "opportunity gap" in our education. And I have long been a staunch supporter of Rochester public schools. But as I stated in my column, it's getting harder.

I have the opportunity to ask Dr. Dallemand some difficult questions today. And I don't want to mess it up.

So tell me, what would YOU ask your school superintendent if you had the opportunity? And what do you think I shouldn't leave out?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Flashback Friday

Writing a newspaper column as a certain impermanence to it. Sure, occasionally someone may cut out an excerpt and post it on their fridge--but for the most part, my work is read today, gone tomorrow. And I'm okay with that. Especially because I've kept every column I've written in the last five years (even the ones that sucked) in a tidy little file on my hard drive.

It's fun to pull the olds one out once in awhile and dust them off. Here's a Jen's World that ran in July 2007. Enjoy! And have a great weekend!

* * *

Last week at dinner, my boys — sons Christian and Bergen and husband Jay — were planning the next morning’s outing to the Silver Lake Skate Park.

“I think I’ll join you,” I say, to their surprise.

“Really?” says my husband. He knows Saturday mornings are my work time — which is precisely why he takes the boys to the skate park. I decide it’s time to see what I’m missing.

“It’ll be fun,” I say. “Maybe you could teach me some tips tonight, Christian.” (By “some tips,” I mean, of course, “how to ride a skateboard.”)

So after dinner Christian and I head to the training grounds — i.e. the driveway — where my eight-year-old puts on his most serious teacher face.

“The first thing I want you to do,” he says, “is learn this trick.” And then he deftly flips his upside-down skateboard and lands on it in a single motion.

“Don’t you think I should learn to ride it first?” I ask.

“No,” Christian says confidently. “This isn’t hard.”

So I practice the skills Christian deems necessary. I learn to flip the board and land squarely on its top. I learn to rock like a teeter-totter with my feet on either end of the board. Thirty minutes later, I can even lift the nose of the board to pivot in circles. All of this is possible… as long as I’m on the grass.

But I can’t ride down the sidewalk without falling off. Christian assures me this is OK.

Bright and early the next morning, we have the skate park to ourselves. I’m relieved to see that I won’t have to face the pity stares of the 11-year-olds who wonder why someone’s mom is trying to do an ollie.

Five-year-old Bergen rides his training-wheeled bike up and down the ramps. Christian practices his turns. Jay impresses his girl by popping wheelies. (“Wheelies?” There must be a new vernacular for this, but I’m not cool enough to know it.)

I practice moving forward. It looks easy enough. Stand on the board and push off, right? Not so much.

Christian tries to help. “Soft, like you’re holding a teddy bear,” he coaxes.

I have no idea what he means, but I nod and say, “OK” with the same seriousness with which he offers the advice.

When moving forward proves too difficult, I entertain myself with my “turning in circles” trick. Feeling confident with my skater grrrl move, I decide to show off for my husband. “Watch this!” I yell. I stand on the board, turn it once, twice, three times before it flies out from under me and I land on my ass.

I know there’s a certain stigma attached to skateboarders, but I’m here to tell you that skateboarding is a workout. It’s a challenge. Even with my limited repertoire, it’s obvious it’s no sluffer’s pastime. No wonder my children love to watch the “big kids” do their tricks — and try to emulate them they’re alone and have the freedom to fail.

When we leave, I entertain dreams of getting my own skateboard and practicing at home.
“Maybe we should build a turnpike!” I say excitedly as we load up our boards and bikes.

“It’s a halfpipe, Mom,” said Christian in a way that tells me that if he were any older, he’d be rolling his eyes.

But he’s eight. And so I’m still cool just for trying — which is why he’s already invited me along for next weekend, too. And it’s why I’m going to go.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


What a great way to start the morning!

I just found the coolest bookshelves on Amazon. They make your books look like they're floating on your wall. I'm so buying some.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Oh happy day! (And a recommendation to boot!)

One of my very first thoughts every morning, even before I even get out of bed, is this: What do I have to look forward to today?

There's always something--and I think I could make a pretty compelling argument that having something to look forward to is a significant component of happiness. (I mean, think of the alternative: Nothing to look forward to?) So whether I'm due to finish up a deadline, meet a friend for lunch, or carve out an hour to read uninterrupted(!), I take a few seconds every morning to acknowledge these activities before I start my day.

So this morning, I'm lying in bed (laying? I can never remember; must look that up) when Christian wakes me with breakfast. This is his new thing. He's been bringing me breakfast in bed every morning since Mother's Day: One bowl of Cinnamon Life on a plate with a napkin, and a cup of juice. After he leaves me with breakfast, and after I think about how lucky I am (Seriously. Can I just keep my kids young forever?!), I think: Okay, what else do I have to look forward to today?"

And that's when I remembered: The first meeting of my new small-group writing workshop! Tonight I'm sitting down with a new group of students for a four-week workshop. I cannot tell you how excited I am to get to know these writers and read what they've written.

We'll start the evening with a few writing exercises -- likely a few that I've gleaned from Abigail Thomas' book, Thinking About Memoir. Thomas is one of my favorite writers, and if you're looking for a good read, I highly recommend her book, A Three Dog Life.

Stephen King called A Three Dog Life, "The best memoir I have ever read." For other reviews, visit Thomas' Web site here.

Under the "Getting Started" link on Thomas' site, Thomas recounts how she got started in writing -- and offers a few writing exercises, too. Worth checking out.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Video Tuesday

So, the Post-Bulletin has me make little online videos to promote the column each week. They're quick little things, but I always dread them because: (1) In order to look decent on video, I have to wear a ton of make-up; (2) I'm always throwing these videos together at the last minute, without the time nor ambition to throw on a ton of make-up. Or, in most cases, any make-up. Because, really. I work from home. It's far too much effort to get all dolled up for the cat.

So that's my disclaimer. :)

And here's today's video:

Monday, May 10, 2010


This summer, I'll celebrate 10 years as a freelance writer. And let me tell you, I know how lucky I am to work from home. My flexible schedule means I get to be the one who sends my kiddos off to school in the morning and greets them when they come home in the afternoon. It means I can chaperone field trips, meet friends for lunch, run errands before the 5 o'clock rush, and take off for a long weekend without submitting PTO forms. Frankly, the savings on shoes and dress clothes alone is enough to throw a party.

Funny thing, though: The benefits are also the detriments. My world is nothing if not a blurring of the lines. Without the 8-to-5, work wiggles its way in to evenings and weekends--while family and community obligations like to set up shop right there in the middle of the day. And those long weekends? You bet I take them -- but I also take my laptop right along with me.

Take today's to-do list: Chaperone the 2nd-grade field trip to the Olmsted County History Center. Write the end-of-program report for an arts grant. Answer reader mail from last week's column. Stress out over my sons' class sizes, and daydream about starting my own private school. Clean the bathroom, which was recently hit by Hurricane Christian and Bergen (and, yes, Hurricane Jen). Do the dishes. Wonder if it's going to rain like they say it will before hauling out the hose for the potatoes I finally planted yesterday. Attend a school volunteer dessert, which I really have no time to squeeze in -- except that it's DESSERT. Run to OfficeMax when I realize I'm out of the paper AND the ink I need in order to -- oh yeah -- work.

That last line best describes how my days have felt lately: "Oh yeah -- work." It's always the easiest thing to put off, isn't it?

Today, work entails tweaking an essay I wrote earlier in the semester. I have to send it to VCFA today in order to make my next workshop deadline. (A "workshop" is a session in which a writer sits in a room with a dozen other writers, listening to them talk about the pros and cons of his/her story or essay. Did I mention that the writer -- in this case, me -- isn't allowed to speak?)

I'm sending a piece titled, "After". The essay, which currently stands at 22 pages (but must miraculously top out at 20 by 4 p.m.!), intertwines two unrelated stories -- one of which explores how my grandmother is coping with my grandfather's death. I'll include a small excerpt at the end of this post.

Which, it turns out, is where we are now. (As much as I've stalled, it turns out that essay isn't going to trim itself into a tidy 20 pages....)

Wishing you the peace -- or the controlled chaos -- you long for! I've found that either option is fantastic, really, in its own way.

An excerpt from AFTER
My grandma and I take the boys to the zoo. We're checking out the blowfish when my grandma calls out in pain and grabs her arm.

“What happened?” I ask as my hand flies to my neck where I can feel my heart beating too fast. “Are you okay?” I'm the last person anyone wants nearby in an emergency. I panic.

“I'm fine,” she says. “Just a pain.”

By the time we get to the shark tank, it's happened again. Twice.

“Seriously, Grandma,” I say. “Do we need to leave?”

She takes a step closer to me. “If anything happens, my keys are right here.” She pulls them out of her shorts pocket and jingles them in front of my face. “See? Here.”
She returns the keys to her pocket and says, “I'm going to go find a water fountain and take an Ascriptin.” As she shuffles away, I hear her mumble, “I've learned just not to worry too much. If it's my time, it's my time.”

Two hours later, after feeding the giraffes, protecting our bags from the goats at the petting zoo, and taking a 40-second, $18 ride on the water taxi with the boys, we head for home. My grandma—who did not have a heart attack and die in the aquarium—sits low beside me, barely seeing over the steering wheel of her Park Avenue. We're just a few blocks from the house when she makes an unexpected turn. She likes to take odd routes sometimes just to shake things up, so I don't say anything. Thirty seconds later, she asks, “Where am I?”

“You just turned off Sun City Boulevard,” I say. “You're two blocks from home.”

“Oh!”' she says, covering her mouth. “I did that last time, too.” She slows down to pull into the next street.

“No, Grandma—you can't turn here,” I tell her. “This is a cul-de-sac, a dead-end.”

“I know where I am,” she says, annoyed. “I like to go this way.”

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Scenes from my Mother

Last week, I sent two essays to my MFA advisor, Laurie Alberts. The first essay in packet I liked a great deal. It's about the crash-and-burn of one relationship (the guy came home from the bar with another girl on our anniversary, people) and the bouncing back with my "rebound guy." Whom I married.

The second essay, about a conversation I had with an old teacher, felt... incomplete. I couldn't pin down what was missing--but I knew I hadn't nailed it. There's something to be said about writer's intuition because when I got my packet back this weekend, Laurie agreed with me. Only she recognized the problem. (That's why she's the teacher.)

"This story is much more about your mother than about this nameless guy in the restaurant," she wrote. "You've given us your mother mostly in summarized reports. You need to write an essay that is much more focused on that relationship ... Your mother deserves real scenes, not reports."

Okay, sure. I would've rather received a letter from Laurie reading, "What do you mean you're not sure about this essay? It's brilliant!" But she was right. My mother deserves real scenes. So in honor of the ineffable Penny Haugen, here are two:

We're at Godfather's Pizza, and, frankly, I think we're embarrassing my dad. Amy's roughly five seconds from hyperventilating. Angie can't see through her tears. I'm sitting on the floor next to my chair, shrieking. My mom's throwing her hands in a "I'm laughing too hard to talk" gesture.
Who knows what was so funny? That's not part of the memory. Had I fallen off my chair? Did one of us snort during a giggle? Did we overhear something of great hilarity from a neighboring table? I mean, anything could've spurred this outpouring.
When we finally calm, our stomachs aching, our throats hoarse, my mom wipes her eyes, shakes her head and says, "Oh, that was funny."
Which, naturally, gets us started again.

My grandma's doing the dishes at the kitchen sink, the clink-clink-clink of Corelle against cutlery the soundtrack of this memory. My mom's sitting on the blue flowered couch under the living room window. I'm sinking into her, my face in my hands, my breath a jagged mess of tears. "But why doesn't he want me?" I cry. "How can he do this?"
"I don't know," my mom tells me, near tears herself as she smooths my hair with the hand that isn't wrapped around my shoulders. "You are a beautiful person and I love you."
"But why doesn't he?" I say, my words a squeak.
"I don't know," she answers. "Maybe because he's not very smart."

Here's the thing. My mother has never once told me that she'd always be there for me. That she's only a phone call away. That "family is forever."

But she's never had to. Because I've always known. She has lived every minute of her parenting life by these truths, ensuring that her three daughters know, unequivocally, that she has our backs no matter what.

My God. My greatest hope in this world is that my sons never question these same truths about me. Happy Mother's Day, Mama-cita. I love you.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

New blog!

Humorist, newspaper columnist, and Algonquin Round Table member (who I'll forever envy for getting to hang out with Dorothy Parker), Robert Benchley, once wrote this: "Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment."

Well then. I guess that explains why I've meant to create this blog for years, but have never gotten around to it. With all the "real work" that I find myself tied up with, fun projects like these too often take the back seat.

But no longer! Welcome to my new blog, Writing Jenny. (It's like Waltzing Matilda... except my name isn't Matilda. And I'm not waltzing.) I plan to share links to my Post-Bulletin columns, certainly, but also other writing.

In fact, let's start with a link to a Rochester Magazine article I wrote this month on my new hairdo -- and how my grandmother unwittingly played a role in its inception. (Or perhaps it was wittingly. She can be a crafty old broad.) You can find it here:

There's a Change in the Hair

Thanks for joining me here! I look forward to hearing from you.

P.S. With the launch of Writing Jenny, I've joined the world of Twitter, as well. You can follow me at JenniferKoski.