Archive for May, 2010

A Few Thoughts On Memorial Day


For the past 20 years or more, I’ve been hosting a Memorial Day picnic at my home, inviting family and friends and friends of family  . . . anyone who wants to come over and have a hamburger with a crowd of near-strangers. The guests may change but the menu doesn’t: it’s the typical American picnic food: hamburgers, bratwurst, potato salad, baked beans, lemonade, chocolate cake, and whatever anyone else cares to bring along. What’s better than picnic food? Answer: Nothing.

We’re not an especially patriotic family but I think we’d all say we feel blessed to be living in America, and we honor those military men and women have and who continue to defend this country so that we can wake up every day knowing we’re safe and free. Service personnel everywhere, living and dead, I thank you. My family thanks you. That is the end of my Memorial Day speech.

My dad served in the Army in WW2, though I’m not sure where he was or what he did, since he did not share this information with us. I do have a letter he wrote to his parents from Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, in 1943. In it he says the he is doing well, and that the thing he wants most is a Parker 51 pen that apparently would write under any circumstances. It is poignant to me that his wishes were so small: a fountain pen.

I wish he were here. I wish I could have bought him one.

In 1966 I married a soldier and did a 9 year stint as an army wife. It was an interesting life in which we met a lot of great people and I began to understand the sacrifices military families make. When Charles decided to retire from the army after 17 years of service, so very close to retirement, I decided to retire from marriage. It was so long ago that I often say that my marriage seems like it happened to someone else; that I am just remembering someone else’s memories.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s picnic because whether it rains or not (and we have done our share of garage grilling) it always is a great time with family and friends, and for me it signals the kickoff to summer.

And we need a picnic. It has been an emotional week for me, what with Lily (the bear) and her cub being separated Friday before last. After watching Lily from the time she was hibernating in her den and about to give birth, and then seeing what a gentle and funny mother she is,* it was stunning to me that she would leave Hope sleeping in a tree and wander off for 50 hours. I’m sure there was a reason for it, but nature is mysterious to me, like the wind chill factor or which one does the revolving, the earth or the sun. But due to a series of fortunate coincidences, Lily and Hope were reunited last Wednesday, a video I have watched and wept over about 130 times by now.

But I digress.

The other emotional event happened on Thursday at work, when a recently returned soldier (Corey) came to Advanstar to present us with a certificate and an American flag that had flown for one day in Iraq (“in the face of the enemy,” he said, which even now gets me all choked up)  because last winter we had taken up a collection of gifts for our troops over there. Corey is the son of one of our employees, who introduced him to the group, and when he started telling us about the flag, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house, or on the deck, as it were. Funny to think that the things we donated, packed up and shipped over there would result in this kind of extraordinary Thank You note, but I know I will never forget the day.

So between the reunited mother and cub and the reunited mother and soldier son, it was an emotionally charged week.

Sometimes you just gotta cry. And sometimes you just need a family picnic.

This year we have some new additions to the family, including baby Gabriella (whose subsequent weeks are not going as smoothly as the first, because apparently babies take a while to consider their new surroundings and then all hell breaks loose) and whose mother is now considering “Gripe Juice,” a name that cracks me up and which is something I’d like to keep in a bottle at my desk; and Katie’s fiance Eric. Next week youngest sister Krista will be married to Davin, and so the family grows and grows. It’s a beautiful thing— More people to argue with and get irritated over. (Just kidding, dear family.)

So the cake is baked and the potato salad is in the refrigerator, and the gang will convene tomorrow at noon and we will all be glad to be together.

I hope you are doing something special for this weekend, and that you’ll take a moment to remember those who’ve gone before us.

Corny, huh? But heartfelt.

Happy Memorial Day. Happy summer to you!

*Oh, PS: Check out the “Dislodging the Cub” video at Or, if you just want a really good cry, watch the “reunification” video of Hope finding her mom. It’ll make you forget all about Old Yeller.

Penelope, The Little Fat Princess


I wrote this a few months ago for the Animal Allies website, but thought I would update it and add it to my own site. June 5 is the annual Walk for Animals at Bayfront Park, so this is a good time to tell a story about the nice pets you can find at shelters. Some of them will be available for adoption at Bayfront, so grab your kids and go pick one out! Here’s our story:

Last year about this time, my beloved Siamese cat, Mei Mei, died at the tender age of 19. She was never an overly affectionate cat, and from the day I brought her home from Animal Allies she displayed some serious trust issues. But she also had moments of sweetness and humor, and she lived with me and my other cat Sam for 17 years. We were all used to each other and lived in harmony, so Sam and I were both bereft when she left us.

I’m not one of those “I’ll never get another cat” types, because I love cats, and while I understand that one cat does not replace another cat anymore than your second husband replaces your first, I do know that life has to move forward, and so it did for Sam and me.

My decision to get a new cat was spurred on by Sam, who was left home by himself for the first time in his 17 feline years. Leaving for work that first morning, I turned and watched him walk slowly through the kitchen completely alone for the first time. It was more than I could bear. A sweet and gentle cat, Sam soon began searching the basement for his old companion. He cried a lot. He began throwing up. I did the same, except for the searching-the-basement thing. I knew where she was, and I knew she was not coming back.

I went online to view the cats for adoption at Animal Allies. There were tons of them. Penelope stood out immediately: clearly she was part Siamese, with Mei Mei’s dark ears and legs, and part calico, giving her an oddly pied appearance. She had been at the shelter 2 months. She needed a home. Most of all, she looked sad. Her photo looked sad. When I went to see her in person, she looked sad.

Penelope needed a home. Sam needed a companion. Penelope was sad. Sam was sad. I was sad. Wasn’t this a sign that we belonged together?

I scooped her up and brought her home, though “scooping” is hardly the word. While Penelope has the same 19″ waistline as Scarlett O’Hara, she happens to be a cat, and they apparently don’t make cat carriers for the full-figured gal. (They do, but they’re called dog carriers.) A very nice Animal Allies lady (Steff) set the too-small carrier on its end, opened the door, picked up Penelope by the scruff of her neck and sort of poured her in. I’m surprised we didn’t have to grease her sides. Getting her out of the contraption was my problem, although once I got home she shot out of it like it had been spring-loaded.

As advised by Steff, I put her in a separate room so she and Sam could sniff one another under the door. I was supposed to keep her in that room for at least four days, but after a few hours of mutual sniffing, I opened the door.

Sam took one look at her and backed away. I’m sure he was thinking “What the hell happened to YOU?” For her part, Penelope was curious but not in a big hurry to get acquainted. There was a certain amount of hissing and slapping for a few days, but eventually they both accepted their fate.

While it is pure love on my part, Sam has his reservations. Still, he has stopped haunting the basement, has stopped crying and stopped throwing up. She is his secret pal, and sometimes he lets her lick his head or share his dish of special food designed for the senior cat if he thinks she needs a treat.

Here's Penelope showing off her go-go boots. Here’s Penelope showing off her go-go boots.

It’s a joy to have Penelope in the house. She is sweet and playful, affectionate and well mannered. I refer to her as the Little Fat Princess, because she is. She is a bit of a loner, often retreating to the guestroom for her many beauty naps, but also knows that television time means prime lap time. Penelope’s approach melts my heart. She jumps on the arm of the couch and puts a tentative paw on my arm, as if asking “Do you mind if I sit here?” Given permission (and it’s never refused) she flings herself against my arm and squints adoringly up my nostrils.

Who would not love this girl, I ask you?

Of all the cats at the shelter, was she the best choice? Absolutely. Were there others who may have fit in just as well? Absolutely. And here’s the thing about cats: When you find the one you want, you just know it.

So, a lesson learned. Sometimes you think you’re going to rescue a cat, but sometimes the cat rescues you.

Wasted And Useful Lives.


That’s the caption of a Bernie Kliban cartoon from years ago. As I recall, the frame was divided in half, with one part showing a man lounging on a tropical island, and the other part showing a fellow sitting at an office desk, pen in hand, working out some problem.

Trouble is, I could never figure out which was the wasted one and which was useful.

But the other night I was watching (more) pointless television with two cats and a bowl of popcorn on my lap when an always-busy friend called to tell me in breathless tones that she has signed up at a local gym for workouts that will develop her upper body strength, which she felt she could manage between her pilates and yoga classes.

I felt exhausted by the time we got off the phone. The “Wasted and Useful Lives” caption seemed to be hovering over my head, though this time I was pretty sure which was which and who was who.

I don’t want to come right out and admit how lazy I am, but my upper body strength has been developed mostly through typing in online chat rooms or hitting the buttons on the remote. Occasionally I’ll hoist a cat up into the air, but they don’t like that very much, and it’s a good thing they land on their feet a large percentage of the time.

I don’t need my doctor to tell me I should get more exercise (and we both sort of snort after the word “more”) but he tells me all the time anyway. Sure. He knows it. I know it. But let’s face it: Exercise is hard.

I used to take regular walks around my neighborhood when I was younger (two summers ago, I think) but these days I find reasons to not do it. Possible reasons: It’s too hot. It’s too cold. It’s raining. It’s too dry. It’s windy. I think I saw a rabid dog.

This is a good time to mention that the Lakewalk Extension, a beautifully surfaced walking path that stretches across most of the city, is right outside my front door. I barely have to cross the street before I’m there. If you’re the kind of person who looks for signs from the Universe, as I often do, the only thing missing from this scenario is the neon arrow reading PATT JACKSON: WALK HERE.

Not to say I’ve never been on the Lakewalk. I have. Theoretically I could leave my house and walk all the way to Canal Park without straying from the path, but hell: I’d be happy if I made it back to the wooden bridge on 35th.

The hardest part of any undertaking, for me, is the starting part. The part where you put on your comfy shoes and grab the iPod and head out the door. That’s the part that trips me up every time. I can distract myself with household tasks, both wasted and useful, that will keep me occupied until it’s too dark to safely be on the lakewalk. Laundry, perhaps, or washing the kitchen floor, or rearranging dishes in the kitchen cupboards. (Seriously: shouldn’t the cups and glasses be on the bottom shelf?)

I’m not an outdoors person. I prefer to be indoors reading or writing and wearing ratty clothes you wouldn’t want your dog to see. I’m not a sports person. I don’t see the point of either chasing or hitting balls or putting them through hoops, and I don’t run. I can’t remember the last time I ran. If a bear were chasing me, my obit would include the words “… was eaten by a bear.” I don’t play tennis or golf or go kayaking. I hate winter, which is totally an outdoor venture, and I don’t go fishing or otherwise kill things.

I read. I watch TV and movies. I sit in front of my computer most of the day. This is what I do.

I have the shape to prove it.

I own a stationary bicycle but I haven’t used it in years and I’m not sure the pedals even work anymore. I have a workout tape for “full figured women,” but the last time I watched it (I swear to God) I sat on the couch eating popcorn and wondering how those people got so fat.

However, this has got to change.

While I’m frankly surprised I have already lived this long (“You’re too old to die young,” Mr Lettman might remind me) I have no desire to shuffle off this mortal coil any time soon. (And shuffling would precisely describe it.) So I am going to start exercising. Nothing major (I don’t want to shock my system any more than it already has been) but I will start hitting the Lakewalk at least 3 times each week.

I must. It’s the very least I can do, isn’t it? (Asks the woman who prefers doing the very least when it comes to things that exert her.)

So if you see a large auburn-haired woman on the Lakewalk huffing and panting, you might think geez, she’s walked a long way, and very quickly, too. But if it’s me, you’re wrong. I’m probably about 10 yards from my front door and thinking of turning back.

Still, the longest journey begins with a single step, and that is how I will begin on the road to better health. Later I’ll be able to write about the wasted and useful parts of my own life, but for now I must begin by taking that first step.

Not today, though.

It’s raining.

Some Words About Mothers


My mother died a few days before my 10th birthday.

That was 52 years ago, but to this very day it is one of the most profound and defining statements of my life.

My mother suffered with cancer in the days before there were many treatment options, and she died at St Mary’s hospital in April, 1958, the same hospital where I was born just 10 years before. I never had a chance to say goodbye to her, and if I had had the chance, I’m not sure I’d have known how to say it. I had no concept of death. When I heard the news of her death, which involved weeping people in our kitchen, I clearly remember  being confused about what that meant, exactly. She wasn’t coming home? Ever?

This was before television and movies showed us every aspect of illness and hospitals and death and grief and how people manage it all, and frankly, I didn’t have a clue. After her funeral, we rarely talked about my mother. My dad was not someone who communicated with me except in the most irritated way, and nobody seemed to want to have a little chat about the Missing Person in our home, so I never talked about it with anyone. It quickly became a fact of life, and for children, whatever their circumstances, life is just life: No better or worse than anyone else’s. But when I got older and looked back on it, and all I could think was “Oh, my God!”

I miss my mother. I’ve missed her all my life. My “older” sister, 13 at the time, was thrust into the role of mother to three younger sisters, with (if memory serves) very little help from Dad or anyone else. How she accomplished this, I do not know. She cooked, cleaned, did laundry, celebrated our birthdays and major holidays, kept us in line, and still managed to get good grades in school. My younger sisters and I looked up to her as the stable adult in our family, a burden which must have kept her awake most nights. Those were turbulent days, and my sisters and I clung together like survivors of a shipwreck, which in fact we were.

Here’s what I remember about my mother in the few short years I had her: She laughed a lot. If she became angry with us, it never lasted long. She had shiny dark hair and I thought she was beautiful. She loved to cook and entertain. She wore dresses when most of the neighborhood moms wore slacks. She and my dad loved to go dancing on Saturday nights, leaving us with various babysitters that we tormented. She drank tea from a pink and white china cup and saucer. She was a Girl Scout leader, and once took a bunch of us on a picnic to the zoo. One Thanksgiving I watched as she cleaned the pinfeathers off a turkey using tweezers and a match. She taught me how to skip while she was wearing  only a bath towel.

I have never not missed her.

I rarely go to the cemetery where my mother is buried. Frankly, I do not see the point, though I understand I am in the minority with this thinking. I do not feel the need to stand at her headstone to remember her. I never forget her. She is not at the cemetery; she is in my heart. She is with me every single day of my life.

I am always aware of mothers: good mothers, bad mothers, indifferent mothers, mothers who shouldn’t be mothers, childless motherly types who should have a passel of kids.

In the world of good mothers I recognize my sisters, who, despite having no role model for the station, managed to become good and loving mothers to their children, who is turn will be good mothers to theirs. My sister Kim is a good mom to all the shelter cats and dogs she’s adopted in her life; they get loving care and laughter and room to roam. Lily the bear is a good mother to her cub Hope, teaching and playing and cuddling. I have friends who have produced the most wonderfully amazing children, and my hat is off to them. (I don’t actually wear a hat, but boy, if I did.)

So here’s the thing: If you’re a mother, be good to your kids. Have fun with them. Help them create good memories, and give them the gift of your time. They will not remember or even care whether or not you kept a spotless home or that your cakes fell flat in the oven. They will remember that you laughed.

They will remember that you knew how to skip.

The Axe Man Cometh.


I wrote this piece for the Duluth Budgeteer when they asked for a public opinion submission. It appeared in the April 25 (2010) edition. I was simply going to link to it, but it is now archived and no longer free. Here it is in its entirety:

The Axe Man Cometh

You can’t turn on the television or open a newspaper without hearing about another business cutting back or shutting its doors. It’s become a national epidemic and certainly Duluth is not immune: places like SMDC, Minnesota Power, Questex, Qwest, and large and small shops of all kinds have taken their hits. So you go about your daily business, if you have any left, and you move on to other matters in life. You don’t pay too much attention until it affects your business or your company, and suddenly it’s Big News, worthy of note.

And so it happened with Advanstar Communications Inc, my long-time employer, late in March. Summoned to a mandatory meeting, we sat in stunned silence hearing the bad news: Major cutbacks. New directions. Tough economy. New management. Outsourcing. (That dreaded word!) We absorbed the words but not the shock. That came later.

Advanstar’s a funny name and a lot of people had never heard of us, or else they saw our buildings but didn’t know what we were about. Advanstar has a long and rich history in Duluth, beginning in 1939. We’ve gone through a lot of new owners and name changes, from Davidson to Ojibwe Press to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (HBJ) to Edgell Communications and finally to Advanstar; we’ve been in and out of debt (mostly in, it would appear) and we’ve published more than 100 trade publications, business journals and directories; operated more than 80 trade shows and professional conferences, and most importantly, kept nearly 250 persons gainfully employed in Duluth alone. Good benefits, good salaries, great folks to work with, and many years of memories, mostly good and a few bad. Our major competitors included some of the greats, like McGraw-Hill, Primedia Inc, and Penton Media. We’d undergone layoffs and recoveries and bumps and restarts, but always managed to stay afloat in the worst of times. In uncertain economic times, as they’re called, we were sometimes nervous but always hopeful of our futures. We dodged a lot of bullets. Until now, of course.

I’m not savvy enough to understand the national economy. I know it’s bad, but I don’t know why, and probably never will. I know that some companies save millions by sending jobs to foreign shores, but I don’t know why it seems like a good idea to put millions out of work in this country because you can get it done cheaper in other places, and I certainly don’t understand how much is “enough” when it comes to making a profit. I don’t blame any one person for the decisions that were made at our company, but like so many others, I’m wondering why this happened. Aren’t current reports stating that the economy is picking up? So why us? Why now?

Here’s what I do know for sure. By the end of November, nearly 100 Advanstar employees will be out of work. Many of them are close friends, and at this writing most do not know how they will find secure jobs in a town that is already staggering under the weight of unemployment. Departments are breaking up. Friendships are tested. People talk of digging up roots and moving their hopes (and skills and talents) to larger cities. Home and car purchases are put on hold, belts are tightened, budgets are scrutinized, nights are sleepless, and fear becomes a family member.

For the city of Duluth, it represents tremendous loss: loss of revenue in homes and taxes that folks can no longer afford, loss of income for local merchants whose offerings are no longer affordable, loss of friendships and families as people move away, loss of community — loss, loss, loss. What good does this change do for our community? None that I can see.

If there is a solution other than new businesses moving into the area (and what would attract them, at this point?) or current employers suddenly able to expand their employee counts, I do not know what it is. How many more jobs will be lost? How many more companies will have to close their doors? How long before things begin to turn around, and Duluth once again becomes that prosperous, thriving jewel in the crown of Lake Superior? Does anyone have a clue?

When unemployment hits, it hits hard. We are learning this at Advanstar, just as others in Duluth have learned. Times are tough. I’ve revised the old line: Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for Advanstar. And it tolls for thee.

Gabriella At One Week. Edited.


Here is Gabriella celebrating her first week on earth. As you can see, she is flashing a gang sign. I guess she’s part of Minnesota’s “Fairview Babies,” whose colors are pastel pink and blue. Oh, they grow up so fast, don’t they?


On second thought, my friend Cathy may be right. Gabriella MIGHT be a budding hippie, flashing us the peace sign, though it’s been a while since Cathy’s had kids of her own, and recently tried to feed her infant grandson some oatmeal raisin cookies. I think he was about 2 weeks old. But I digress. “Hip” is in Gabriella’s genes. I have photographic proof of her grandmother in hippie garb.

On third thought, it would have been funny to put a cigarette between Gabby’s fingers and perhaps and empty beer bottle near her feet. I’m going to have to gather those things up for when I babysit!

On fourth thought, maybe it’s the V for victory? At the office, Dan claims all babies look like Winston Churchill, and while I don’t think Gabriella does (a Spanish word, by the way, meaning “most beautiful baby in Minnesota and perhaps the world”) but maybe she’s thinking of that famous speech: “We shall play on the beaches and the sand lots, we shall play in the fields and in the streams, we will play on the hills, we shall never take naps….”

I dunno. I’m fighting the notion that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Bear In Mind.


Since early January, I have been in love with a bear. It’s a female bear, but in matters of the heart, there are no rules. Her name is Lily and she’s 3 years old and weighs approximatey 400 pounds, from the looks of things, but what can I say: Love is love.

I first heard about Lily through my sister Kim, who informed me that bear researchers had put a camera in the den of a pregnant bear. (A job I would not want.) I was incensed. That’s outrageous, I said. It’s intrusive, it’s foolish, and we don’t need to be watching some poor pregnant bear who probably just wants to be left alone.

But that was until I saw Lily, and then I was hooked.

Most of the winter in her den, Lily slept. Occasionally she’d move or scratch an ear or sneeze. I couldn’t get enough. She was so big, so black, so … bear-ish. Sometimes she’d leave the den and wander a few feet away to do whatever it is bears do when they leave a den (the camera was only pointed one way) and then she’d lumber back in and fall asleep. This was better than anything on television. (And I should know, speaking of things that never leave the den in winter.)

Lily gave birth to one cub (later named Hope) on January 22nd. For many days we were unable to see Hope (literally, I mean) and then one day Lily moved her head and there was Hope’s tiny baby bear head, with her pointy nose and rounded ears. Oh, the beauty of it.

Sometimes Lily would leave the den and Hope would bumble around, awkward and alternately seeming bottom- or top-heavy, but always fun to watch. The best parts happened when Hope realized Mom wasn’t around, and would bark out a “Maaah!” sound, which was music to my ears.

Bears. You gotta love ‘em.

Many years ago I lived in a rural area during the time that Duluth closed its city dump, and the bears moved closer to town. My yard became a regular route for bear traffic, which scared me at first and later was a delight once I realized they wouldn’t try the door handles or peer into the windows. They were spectacularly black and beautiful, delicately dining on raspberries and sometimes pulling entire limbs out of my apple tree. I couldn’t get mad at them. They were bears.

Sometimes I’d stand on the porch and yell to them, which did absolutely no good, and later I stood on the steps and talked to them, which also had no effect, though it was fun to address such a huge and uncaring audience. From those same steps I fed an entire loaf of banana bread to a bear, which the DNR would hate to hear, though I now consider myself somewhat of a bear expert.

Fact: They like raspberries and apples

Fact: They will eat banana bread

Case closed.

While Hope is adorable in a cuddly teddy-bear kind of way, Lily is the current object of my affection. She is calm and sweet, eats grapes and nuts from the hands of bear researcher Lynn Rogers, occasionally slips off her radio collar but obliges as Lynn slips it back on, and seems to enjoy single-motherhood a great deal.

Gentle and affectionate, at least on camera, Lily spends her days teaching Hope to climb, forage for dinner, and navigate the wilderness. (Please note: You would NOT be able to climb a tree fast enough to get away from a bear. Lily would not chase you, I’m pretty sure, but any other one would. You wouldn’t think something that big could climb that quickly, but don’t bet the farm on it. Who knew?)

So thank you, Lynn Rogers and Sue Mansfield at the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota. Thank you for your hard work and your dedication, and your helpful notes to let us know what Lily’s doing and why. The highlight of my day is checking in to see how she and Hope are spending their time.

It’s not a bad life.

You can see Lily at But don’t go falling in love with her.

This is not Lily, but this is how Lily would look if she showed up for a picnic at my house.

I wish!

Gabriella Rose


I know it’s irritating when people get all gaga over a new baby and insist you look at 4300 views of the same face, and I promise I won’t do that. Look how good I was about not showing you 4300 pictures of my cats! (And believe me, I could.) But I just got this one and had to share.

Okay. Continue on with your lives.