My little white boy in an all-black program

Pixelation14There’s almost nothing

I’d rather

Not write about

Than this:


And the honest truth about how I

Respond to racial difference.

But here goes.

After searching online,

I found a new after-school program

For my 9-year-old:

One that’s affordable and


That his school will bus him to,

And that had an opening.

I went over to

Sign him up and

As I was standing there

Waiting for the director to

Get some paperwork,

I read a brochure about the program

That I hadn’t seen online.

I learned that this program is

Intended to demonstrate and teach

African-American heritage to its students

Through different art forms.

And then I looked around and realized that

All the staff and kids

Were black.

I had two nearly simultaneous reactions:



Let’s just call it what it is:


Of putting my little white

Finnish boy in an all-black environment.

And then,


Shame for feeling that way.

For the next couple days before

He started there,

I thought about my son.

At nine, he was too old now to

Not notice race,

But not old enough to have

Too many culturally prescribed

Notions about it.

It was going to be something

New for him,

Something I’ve never experienced

In my life


For the first few weeks

Everything went great.

Everyone was friendly and welcoming,

The kids calling out,

“Bye Victor!” when I’d come to pick him up,

The staff giving me an

Indulgent play-by-play of his activities.

In the car,

I’d ask him how it went,

And he said his usual:


And then one day,

When I came to pick him up,

He was sitting on a bench

In the playground

Instead of playing with the

Other kids.

In the car

When I asked how things had gone that day,

He said,

“I dunno.”

I tried to probe a little, and he finally said,

“I don’t wanna go back there.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I feel embarrassed.”

“Why do you feel embarrassed?”

“Because I’m the only white.”


Here we go.

At that moment,

There was a part of me that wanted to

Yank him out of that program

To protect him from ever having to feel

Unsure of himself,

Or wary,

Or out of place.

But I knew that wasn’t

The answer.

He was going to stay in that program.

And we were going to talk about this.

“You know, buddy,” I heard myself say.

“A lot of black kids in Minnesota

Experience it all the time,

Being the only black kid in the room.”

I named a boy in his class at school

Who is one of a couple black kids

In his class.

And I told him about the

Handful of black kids at my

White suburban high school.

And I told him about how

I wish I’d had an experience

Like his

When I was his age.

What became clear as I

Stumbled my way through this


Watching him through the rear view mirror

As he gazed out the car window,

Screwing up his nose to push his glasses up

The way he does,

Was that I had



For him.

Just a handful of experiences

And a freaked out

Willingness to


If he wanted to discuss.

Now when I come to pick him up

I find him out of the playground with the

Other kids,

And he went back to saying,


When I ask him in the car

How it went.

It’s no big deal to him again.


I feel unsure even writing about this.

I brought up Victor’s situation

To a black girlfriend of mine,

Seeking some input on how to talk about


With kids


And honestly.

She was utterly gracious.

We laughed about how Victor used to call

Black people

Brown people,



Their skin is brown,

Not black.

And I confessed that once,

At the height of Victor’s struggles in school

When the district changed its busing policy

So that he might have to go to

Our neighborhood school,

I vowed not to send him there.

“He’ll be the only white kid in his class.

I won’t put him in that situation,”

I’d said then.

“I just won’t.

I’ll take him on the city bus myself

To a different school

If I have to.”

This is my liberalism:

Words, ideas, good intentions.

But when it comes to my family,

I stay where I’m comfortable.

I’m dismayed to think that

I don’t even know how to

Talk about this,

Or write about it,

That it feels like there’s no language

That strikes just the right tone.

I want to

Bear witness to the

Differences between

My experience and


To acknowledge past and present


And beauty,

And the commonality of daily living we all share:

The sleeping,

The eating,

The breathing,

The raising kids.

To just see you

And acknowledge you

And say,

“Yes, I see you.

I see you.

I don’t know what to say

And I don’t know what to do,

But I see you.

We see you.

My boy and I,

We see you.”

It seems like a start to

Me, who has

Lived long in

Shame and


Who doesn’t want the same

For her boy.




My brother’s wedding: first big family event since our mom died

10672363_10204471243522534_8656715992297499162_nIt was the

First big family event after

My mother’s death:

My little brother got married.

Doug’s now-wife,

The incomparable Sarah,

Had come into our family

Three months before our mom

Died of Alzheimer’s.

Unfazed by the

Slow-burn trauma

Our family was slogging through

At the end of Mom’s




Sarah plunged right in.

She and my brother exchanged

The giddy first Christmas gifts

Of their relationship

In the sick room where we

All had gathered.

No squeamishness,

No wariness,

Just a deep empathy,

And an intuitive sense of what

Needed to get done–

Meals cooked,

Thank you cards written after the funeral.

During those dreadful last months

Of my mother’s life,

There were flickers like

Lightning bugs of

Laughter and lightness and

Hope for the future,

And Doug’s relationship with Sarah

Was one of them,

And Sarah herself was another.

WP_000005The day of the wedding,

I carried in the palm of my hand a

Small, round picture of my

Mom and my brother

When Doug was probably about five,

His hair white blonde,

Sucking in his bottom lip the way

He used to as a child,

My mom in her late 30s–

Probably my age–

Pretty and happy to have her

Favorite little boy in her lap,

Looking slightly above the camera,


As we walked to the wedding together,

I silently showed the

Picture to my brother,

And we put our arms around each other

And he said,

“Thank you, Jen.

Thank you,”

Blinking tears.

I’m the one who cried for

Much of the ceremony,

Looking down into my palm

At the picture,

Or at the empty chair in the

Front row

Laid with a bouquet of yellow roses.

It was Mom’s little boy

Getting married,

The one she got to care for,

Who let her care for him,

Making sure he had flannel sheets

On his bed in the winter,

Patching up his

Favorite blanket over the years.

My brother gave

My mother the kind of

Motherhood she was suited for,

And now there he was,

Under a pure blue sky,

Starting on the next part of

His journey,

With Sarah.

With my mom, too

In a way,

But also very much

Without her.

Later at the end of the reception,

In the soft,

Other-worldly glow of the

Tent lights

It was me and a dozen or so of

Doug and Sarah’s friends left,

Dancing to an iPad playlist.

It was fun and wild and

Most people were pretty wasted and

Feeling the music in that

Drunken way

I remember

(or don’t remember).

There was my little brother and his


Their friends gathered round and round,

Laughing and moving their alive bodies,

It was a joyful and sweet moment,

But what would’ve been just a

Tinge of nostalgia about

Change and

New life journeys

Was instead a wave of grief.

Our mother,

Doug’s mom,

Was dead.

She was dead.

Her ashes moldering in a

Cemetery 80 miles away.

And our lives progress on.

Grandchildren born and

Children married.

There will only be more and more

Events and even


She will have missed.

This: Doug and Sarah’s

Life together,

She won’t see it.

They won’t get the

Benefit of hearing her say,

“I’m so proud of you.”

And indeed,

For all of us young,


Healthy people

Dancing under the

Glowing tent,

This is our moment to be

Heedlessly alive in this world,

But it’ll pass.

We’ll die, too.


I’ve learned,

Is a voluminous container that can

Simultaneously hold

Sadness and joy,

Bitterness and gratitude,

Fear and faith,

Pain and freedom.

And that night

Dancing with my little brother,

I was buffeted with them all.

It was almost

Too much to bear,

But as we do,

I bore it.

And I laughed,

And I cried,

And I danced,

And I cheered their dancing:

Doug and Sarah’s.

My neighbor, who strolls to work

e7c31270d4edaa92_barefoot-walking.xxxlarge_1There he is,

Across the street,

Emerging silently from his house

(Confederate gray with

Neat navy and burgundy trim,

And flowers–

Pink and white and alive–

Spilling from the window boxes).

Every morning he comes out as the

Sky is pinkening,

The eastern exposure of the

Neighborhood houses

Glowing softly,

The various greens of the grass and leaves

Hazy and still.

It’s 6:25 a.m.

In the summer,

I am on the front porch at this time,

Doing my writing

When he steps onto the sidewalk,

Slinging his backpack over his left

Shoulder like a


In a t-shirt even on the cool mornings.

He steps out of the house

Where I’ve seen him

Watering his flowers with a

Girlfriend, or maybe now a


“There he is,”

I whisper to Joe

Who’s come out to

Kiss me good morning.

“Look how he walks.”

And we watch him.

His walk is gentle,


Watching him is like

Listening to a delicious voice speaking.

He strolls silently and slowly,

Looking around the

Treetops of his neighborhood

Like a visitor,

Taking it all in.

His left hand

Loosely clutching his backpack strap,

His right arm swinging mildly.

“I love watching him walk,”

I whisper to Joe.

“He walks so slowly.

And I think he’s on his way to work,

Probably to the bus stop.”

Who, I always think

When I see him,




Looking around his neighborhood

As if he’s

Never seen it before?

Walking for me is


“I recognized you by

Your walk,”

Joe said to me recently.

“How do I walk?”

I’d wondered.


Purposeful,” Joe had said.

“That’s how I walk,”

Joe points out on the porch this morning,

A little piqued,

Because I’m always telling him to

Hurry up,

Or I walk ahead of him,

And then wait impatiently for him to

Catch up.

Walking is all about

Getting somewhere,

Doing something,

Especially on the

Way to work.


There is such a thing as

Walking meditation,


Ever so mindfully,

One places one’s bare foot

On the grass,

Relishing the

Textures and

Temperature and


Observing how one’s

Arms and

Shoulders and

Torso and

Hips respond to the


I’ve tried it

Once or twice.

It’s lovely and


These days,

I experience strolling


Through my neighbor.

I take a long breath and

Watch him walk and

Think how lovely it must be to

Just stroll.



How’d that happen? My 20-year high school reunion

10527756_10152590765660960_2524194636405812403_nI recently went to my

Twenty-year high school reunion.

The jitteriness of the old

Teenage insecurities mostly

Dissipated as soon as I walked in the door

And was overcome with a

Flurry of hugs and squeals.

Some of these people I’d known since

I was five years old.

And now, incredibly,

We were standing around with

Drinks in our hands

Talking about our own five-year-olds.

Culturally, it’s easy to

Delineate a generation by its



Clothing styles,

Current events at

Formative times.

But that night,

There was no talk of

Gas prices in 1994, or the

Clinton presidency,

Or that new “email” thing.

That night, the talk was about

Friends who couldn’t make it,

Our young children,

Astonishment that our

Parents were aging,

Some of them even


In high school,

We had no idea that we

Wouldn’t always be

Supple and


With the world laid at our feet.

Twenty years on,

We were starting to understand

The truth

That’s made it easier to relate to

People in other stages of life:

We were once like you,

And we will one day be like you.

Leaving my child by boat, like my ancestors did

P1040960I had never left

My first boy

In such an ancient way:

By boat.

Shiny, modern airports

Have always been the scenes of

Our parting.

Tears in the security line,

And then the suddenness

Of a plane trip

Away from my boy.

And a mere few hours later

I’m eight time zones,

One ocean,

And half a continent away from my son.

This time was different.

This time, at the end of our

Big family trip through Europe

The five of us

Said good-bye to Victor for

His summer in Finland with his dad,

And we got on a boat

In a harbor in Helsinki,

And set off into the

Baltic Sea for Germany,

Where we would fly home.

Once on the ferry,

After the craziness of getting

The rest of the kids out of the

Car hold and

Our stuff deposited in our

Cabin for the 30-hour trip,

Joe took the kids

And I had a few minutes alone.

I sat on the bed and

Watched out the window as

The boat chugged along the

Pine-forested coast of Finland and

Out into the Baltic Sea.

The steady rate at which the boat moved

Me away from my boy

Felt humane and natural

Compared to the

Otherworldly shock

Of the airplane lift-off.

With every few meters and

Knots the ship moved,

I acclimated to my boy’s

Physical absence.

It was a slower,

Gentler parting.

And I realized,

As I sat cross-legged on the bunk

Watching the sea swirl and foam,

One that I’m not the

First in my family to have made.

At the turn of the century,

My Finnish great-great-grandparents

Left for America

By boat,

Leaving behind their

Teenaged daughter–

My great-grandmother Selma–

And her younger brother Toivo.

A year later, in 1906,

The siblings would make the

Trip together:

A 16-year-old and a 12-year-old,

Traveling for weeks across the

Atlantic to

Meet their parents in

Their new homeland in 1906.

So as I sailed away from Finland,

Leaving my son behind for the summer,

I thought of my great-great-grandparents

Doing essentially the same thing

110 years earlier.

My situation,

Of periodic, international separation

From my little boy,

Feels abnormal from my

Low-boil heartbreak perspective.

But I know it’s actually not.

Parents and children

Are separated in our world

All the time,

And they always have been.

Whether through

Wartime chaos,

Arbitrary national boundaries,

Military service,

Difficult circumstances and decisions,

Sickness and death,



Parents parent from a

Distance as best they can–

Or are unable to parent at all.

I think about the

Parents I know who

Don’t experience separation from

Their minor children

Sometimes with envy,

Until I remember that

Those of us who do

Endure it

Are only experiencing a

Premature and


Version of what every parent

Eventually has to do,

Which is



And turn our children over to

The world and

The universe with

Trembling hands.

Whether they’re eight or

Eighteen or


It has to be done.

What was that like for my


I wondered as I watched the

Sea pass beneath our ship.

Did parents experience the

Maternal and paternal instinct in the

Same way back then

And back there,

When infant mortality was

30 times higher

Than it is today

And many families lived in

Third-world conditions?

I imagine they

Loved and grieved their children

With the same ferocity

As we in first-world modernity,

But perhaps there was a

Certain resignation

We don’t have today

To the fact of

Tragedy and pain,

Such as through separation from

A child.

It’s always been a comfort to me

To know that,

Though it feels like it sometimes,

I’m not the only one

Enduring the absence of my child

In this world.

The idea for

The novel I just finished the first draft of,


Comes from the stories of

Undocumented worker parents in our country


Leaving their children behind,

Sometimes separated from them


Those stories hurt my heart

So I wrote about them to

Soothe myself.

I’m fortunate.

I know I can get out my credit card

And my passport

At any time

And be with my boy within

24 hours, if I really needed to.

Not every parent in my

Situation has that luxury.

And certainly my

Great-great-grandparents didn’t.

In a few weeks, it will be time to

Go to the airport and

Wait outside the frosted glass

Sliding doors of

International arrivals,

Craning my neck to watch for him

Every time the doors open.

Maybe this time I’ll

Think about my great-great-grandparents

Waiting at the train station in

Waukegan, Illinois for their

Children whom they hadn’t seen in

More than a year.

How much taller would they be?

Was everything okay on the trip?

And most importantly,

Which train car would they step off?

There my boy will be,

Bigger and wearing new clothes,

Pulling his suitcase and

Pushing his glasses up on his face.

When he sees me

His mouth will twist up into the

Sly, embarrassed smile he gets with a

Rush of strong feeling.

I’ll squeeze his bones like a

Bundle of long sticks

And lift him off the ground,

Which I can just barely still do.

On the car ride home,

I’ll tell him about his

Great-great-grandmother’s journey from

Finland to America.

He’ll probably have questions about the

Boat and the


Logistics are important to him.

And he’ll know

That he’s not alone

In this family by

Splitting his life between two countries.








Our epic trip to Europe, recounted for your reading pleasure

We’re back from our trip:

A three-week tour of Europe

That we’d planned for nearly two years.

Here’s a brief outline of some trip highlights.

Arrival: Munich, Germany.


Trey, Joe and Victor feasting at a Munich beergarden.

Hotel concierge directed us to a

Beergarden where waitstaff wore lederhosen,

And we feasted on pretzels, meat and sparkling water.

Next day, Neuschwanstein castle

Which the Disney castle is based off of, and our first


Cassidy, Trey and Victor with Neuschwanstein castle in the Bavarian Alps.

Taste of castles being at the top of a hill

You have to walk up.

Kids were troopers on a hot day.

Germany surprise:

Joe’s high school German

Bubbling to the surface, and

He as astonished as anyone that he could

Read a few signs and

Understand snippets of overheard conversations in German.


The R.V.

Next day: picking up the R.V.

From a company with the baffling name McRent,

And getting lost trying to leave Munich by

Relying on an offline maps app I’d downloaded.

I literally realized we were

Going the wrong direction by the

Angle of the sun.

And later that night,


Postcard of Prague at night.

As we drove into Prague at midnight,

I was using landmarks like the

Havra River and the Prague castle to navigate by.

Which were lovely at night, BTW.

Prague is magical,

Even when it is midnight and

You’re driving an R.V. down

Questionably narrow cobblestone streets with a

Car full of strung-out, jet-lagged kids.

Spent our first night in the R.V. in a

Parking lot of an apartment complex

Because our campground had

Locked its gate for the night.

Next day: Prague.


Us on the Charles Bridge, Prague.

Wandering the Old Town,

Charles Bridge up to the castle.

Hot, and again,

Castle at the top of a hill.

Kids troopers.

Souvenir of the day:

Green Bay Packers Russian nesting dolls,

Number 12: Aaron Rodgers.


Rocky, Cassidy, me, Trey and Victor having lunch in the catacombs of a Prague monastery.

Lunch of pork shoulder,

Dumplings, sauerkraut in the

Catacombs of a medieval monastery.

Delicious hot shower at the campground.

Next day, I asked the campground owner to

Show me on a map

How to drive to Krakow, Poland.

I wanted highway numbers,

But he laughed and shook his head.

“Here we don’t use highway numbers.

Just follow signs to the

Next town,

Then the next town,

Then the next town

Until you’re there.”



But it mostly worked.

We stopped at a Tesco hypermarket

On our way out of town to load up on groceries

We didn’t really end up eating

And got to Krakow before dark.



Cassidy, Trey and Victor in Wieliczka Salt Mine in Krakow, Poland. Chandelier and floor and everything is made of salt.

Joe and the kids were intrigued by the

700-year-old Wieliczka salt mine, where

Miners had, over the centuries,

Carved sculptures and cathedrals 200 feet underground,

So we went there first.

Konrad the tour guide picked us up at our

Campground and drove us there.

He informed us that

We could go home after Krakow

Because it was the best city in Poland.

The salt mine was strangely interesting,


Sculpture of the seven dwarfs carved of salt in the Wieliczka Salt Mine, Krakow, Poland.

Enough to keep the kids occupied for

2.5 hours on a guided tour.

The tour guide kept saying the miners had

Carved all these sculptures and

Underground chapels and a cathedral in their free time,

And I was surprised to think miners had

That much free time.

After the salt mine,

Konrad the tour guide

Drove us to Pod Wawelem restaurant in the

Shadow of Krakow castle where we


Cassidy and Trey about to dig into their massive fish platter at Pod Wawelem restaurant in Krakow, Poland.

Feasted on pierogies,

Sauerkraut, beef tartare,

Polish mushroom soup,

Fresh fish and weinerschnitzel for a total of about



The two-floor kids play area at Pod Wawelem restaurant in Krakow.

And the kids played in the

Two-floor indoor play area.

After that,

We strolled around the Krakow main market square,


Main market square in Krakow, Poland.

Which is delightful.

Krakow, like Prague,

Was spared during the war because

Hitler didn’t consider it Slavic

As opposed to Warsaw, which was utterly destroyed–

And rebuilt.

That night at the campground,

We watched the Netherlands-Spain World Cup upset

With a bunch of Dutch campers who had

Decorated the outdoor T.V. viewing area with

Orange streamers and who

Passed around shots at

Every goal.

The next day, we drove to Gdansk,

Stopping at Lodz where we got

Turned around at a gas station with a


Chinese restaurant with Route 66 sign at a gas station in Lodz, Poland.

Restaurant attached that had a

Route 66 sign but which served

Chinese food from a Polish-only menu.

Joe ordered number 12

(Aaron Rodger’s number),


Trey, Cassidy, Rocky, me and Victor in Gdansk, Poland.

We spent the next day in Gdansk,

Parking the R.V. in a lot outside the Old Town and

Walking in.

The Old Town is lovely,

And we all bought souvenirs and


Cassidy feasting in Gdansk, Poland.

Had our second-to-last gluttonous restaurant feast

Before taking the ferry that night to Scandinavia

Where only Arab royalty and

Russian oil magnates can afford to

Feast in restaurants.

When we got back to the R.V.,

We had our only minor disaster of the trip:


Attempted R.V. break-in in Gdansk, Poland.

Someone had tried to break into our R.V.

By jimmying the side door open.

They didn’t make it in, though.

The damage would cost us the 500 Euro deductible,

But at the time we just chuckled at the

Incompetence of the would-be thief,

And we were glad we’d brought our passports with us that day.

On our way to the ferry,


Victor, Trey, Rocky and Cassidy frolicking on the Baltic Sea beach in Sopot, Poland.

We stopped in the resort town of Sopot on the

Baltic Sea which looked like a

Communist-era resort town for

Party higher-ups.

Sopot was the only place we

Drove the R.V. too deep into a

Narrow dead-end cobblestone street and had to

Slowly back it out of the trap.

It was an overnight ferry we took from Gdynia, Poland to

Karlskrona, Sweden,


Buffet feast on the overnight ferry from Poland to Sweden.

On the ferry, we feasted at the buffet before

Jerry-rigging Rocky’s pack-n-play between two bunks in our cabin

And passing earplugs out to Joe and the kids against the

Drunk Euroteens squealing and pinballing down the hallways.

The next morning, we drove to Gothenburg on the west coast of Sweden,

Where Victor and I lived in 2006-07.

I haven’t been there since, and


Caroline and me in front of St. Andrew’s church in Gothenburg, Sweden.

I got a chance to spend time with my

Dear friend-of-Bill’s


Who had seen me through the

Scary, wondrous months of early sobriety and the

Uncertainty of divorce.

We went to a 12-step meeting at St. Andrew’s Church,

Which is where I attended my first 12-step meeting on

Oct. 1, 2006.

The next day, we drove north along the Swedish coast to

Oslo, Norway,


Therese and me.

Where lives my best girl and muse,

Therese, whom I hadn’t seen in more than six years.

As we drove toward Oslo, I was telling Joe

All the parallels between Therese and me:

How we’d met and became close friends,

Working together at a magazine in Minneapolis in 1999.

Me a reporter and her a graphic designer,

When she was married to her American husband, Noah.

How we’d both moved to Scandinavia, her to her native Norway,

And me to Finland around 2003.

How we’d been pregnant at the same time with our


Milla (wearing a Minnesota Rollergirls cap) and Victor, both born in 2005.

First babies, Victor and Milla, born in 2005.

How we’d both gotten divorced and then

Remarried to men who had two older kids.

How we’d been pregnant at the same time with our


Liv, wearing her American (and Norwegian) colors in honor of our visit, with Rocky. Both born in 2012.

Second babies, Rocky and Liv, born in 2012.

The highlight of my trip was

Sitting at Therese’s kitchen table

After the kids were all in bed and the

Husbands watching World Cup,

Drinking tea and talking


It’s still there:

That otherworldly connection of a

Good friend.

Therese, Milla and Liv

Took us around Oslo,


Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo, Norway.

To Vigeland Sculpture Park,

The largest sculpture park in the world made by one artist,

Depicting family relationships in

Various forms.


Rocky, Joe, Trey, Victor and Cassidy in front of Joe’s favorite statue at Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo, Norway.

Joe got a picture of himself with a

Statue of a man juggling

Four babies,

Summing up,

He said wearily, his life.

(Poor guy).


Trey and Cassidy with a 16th century Norwegian barn at the Norwegian Folk Museum in Oslo, Norway.

We also went to the

Norwegian Folk Museum

An outdoor facility with buildings from various points in

Norwegian history,

Back to a Stave Church built around 1200.


Cassidy and Trey with a Stave church built around 1200 at the Norwegian Folk Museum in Oslo.

As a history geek,

I love this kind of place,

Standing in a centuries-old farmhouse and

Imagining the daily tasks and

Worries and small joys of the long-gone inhabitants.

I could’ve spent a whole day there.

We left Oslo the next day,


Victor, Rocky, me, Therese, Liv and Milla about to say good-bye in Oslo.

An easier parting since

Therese and her family

Will be in Minnesota next summer.


We drove across Sweden to the east coast,

North of Stockholm,

Where we caught an overnight ferry to Turku, Finland.

This ferry wasn’t as fancy as the first one.

It was mostly for truck drivers.

And there was no internet,

Cass and Trey noted.


Entering Finland!

Then, Finland!

Victor had been asking through the whole trip,

“When will we get to Finland?”

And once we drove off the ferry,

He sighed, “I love Finland.”

This is where he was born,

And where he spends summers with his dad.

It’s one of his homes.


Victor, Rocky and Trey and Victor’s grandparents’ country home in southern Finland.

We spent that night,

Midsummer Eve,

At the country home of Victor’s grandparents,

Where Victor’s dad presented him with a real crossbow,


Cassidy and Rocky in the sauna.

And we took our first Finnish saunas

In the beautiful sauna Victor’s grandfather had built.

In Finland,

The sauna is a sort of sacred,

Meditative place,


Joe in the sauna.

And it’s where you bathe,

By soaping up and pouring water over yourself.

The best is to get really steamed up and

Then go stand outside to cool off.

It’s not for everyone.

Cassidy was a good sport

And tried it out

But it wasn’t her thing.

Joe, Trey and Rocky liked it.

The next day we went to a

Railroad museum where you can

Joe, Victor, Tapio, Cassidy and Trey taking a break from pumping along the tracks in southern Finland.

Rent the two-man train cars you move by

Pumping with your arms.

That evening,

We went to my cousin’s summer cottage and

Had a sauna there


Joe taking the native sauna plunge in southern Finland.

And jumped naked in the cold lake.

We had a delicious meal of

Smoked fish, vegetables and small, Finnish strawberries.

And watched World Cup soccer with my cousins.

Next day was the family gathering at another cousin’s house where I


Katri, me and Jenni , cousins, in Turku, Finland.

Got to see my Finnish cousins and good friends,

Katri and Jenni,

Whom I first met in 1997

When they came to Minnesota during their trip to America.

I got to meet some new cousins, and was

Treated to my cousin’s Iina’s lovely hospitality.


Midnight in southern Finland in late June.

That night back at Tapio’s parents’ country house,

Victor, Trey and Tapio played army in the woods

In the late night dusk

Before taking one last Finnish sauna.


Me, Riikka and Victor with the Helsinki cathedral.

The next day we spent in Helsinki with Riikka,

Victor’s aunt, and we went to Suomenlinna, an island fortress

Off the coast of Helsinki


Victor and me in Helsinki, about to say good-bye for the summer.

We said good-bye to Victor for the summer–

Always hard and sad.

And then me, Joe, Cass, Trey and Rocky got on our last ferry ride

From Helsinki to Germany,

30 hours through the Baltic Sea,


Rocky on the ferry from Finland to Germany.

I was ready for a break from touring

And it was nice to sleep in and nap in the

Ferry in our room,

And take a long sauna, and watch World Cup.

When we arrived in Germany, we drove through the night to


Cassidy, Trey, Rocky and me in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany.

Rothenburg, a medieval, walled town

Where we spent our last full day of the trip

Wandering cobblestone streets,

Feasting and

Buying souvenirs.

Everyone but me was ready to go home,

And Trey got a little homesick.

We spent the night in an R.V. parking lot

Just outside the walled down where we saw a

Huge R.V. with a Florida license plate.

A little foretaste of home.

The next day we returned the R.V. and

Flew home where

Rocky waited until we were in line at

Customs and immigration to have his only

Epic meltdown of the trip.


Overall, the trip was lovely.

I loved seeing the sights and

Eating the food and the twice-daily ice cream.

But as I’d hoped,

The best part was the


Everyone on the ferry to Suomenlinna in Helsinki.

Quality family time.

No devices,

So we had to interact,

And it was fun to come up with inside jokes:

“Is that a bird up there?”



“Crabby card.”

“Suomi in my belly.”

I had never spent that much time with my

Stepkids and I enjoyed having these new experiences with them.

It was gratifying to know that we could

Make this happen

With some planning and saving,

And I’m inspired to do something like this again,


Keep those passports handy.

Now that we all have our passports…


Putting a cramp in our $20K vacation before we’ve even left

car-tripWe’ve been planning it for

Almost two years:

Our big family trip to Europe.

All six of us tooling around the

Continent and Scandinavia in a

Rented R.V. for three weeks

À la “Vacation” and “European Vacation.”

Particularly, for me, Chevy Chase’s epic rant:

“I’m gonna have fun and

You’re gonna have fun.

We’re all gonna have

So much fucking fun

We’re gonna need plastic surgery to

Remove our goddamn smiles!”

We’ve spent nearly two years and

More money than our wedding

On this thing.

It had better be



The good news is,

I know me well enough to

Guard against my

Fun-fatal desire to control




And controlling everything

Isn’t even my biggest problem.

(Although it is one problem.)

I’m prepared for the possibility–

Nay, the likelihood–

That some part of the trip

Will be co-opted by a

Half-day visit to a

Polish or German or Swedish

Urgent Care

For an ear infection or a

Broken arm.

I get how my silly little plans can be

Flung and quashed like

So many cars in a

Godzilla-esque movie called

“Your Jet-Lagged Toddler.”

What I’m actually more

Worried about is that the

Trip will be


That it actually will be so transformative for our

Blended family that’s still

Melding and setting like a

Rainbow Jell-O mold,

That I won’t want to come home.

That I’ll want the experience to go

On and

On and

On and


See, I’m the kind of person who,

Like all persons,

Not only avoids

Unpleasant experiences,

But clings to pleasant ones.

“Clinging” in the Buddhists sense:

The desire to make things stay the same

When in fact,

They’re always



This, supposedly,

Is why the so-called good things

In life cause suffering, too.

Kind of a buzz kill

If what you’re going for is a

Perpetual state of

Giddy, feverish

Happiness with a

Capital H.

Which is what I’m going for.

It’s that clinging tendency

That makes me want to

Marshal the six of us to a

Flawless experience of

Family togetherness

In a lovely field at the

Base of a German castle with a

Rainbow cresting overhead and a

Warm breeze tousling our hair and

I want to

Cryogenically freeze us there so

We’ll be deliriously happy in that

Moment of

Family togetherness

Forever and ever,


So I guess the lesson here is,


It’s about “being in the moment”

(Hate that phrase)

But it’s also about

Letting that moment pass into

The next moment.

And it’ll be about finding some

Goddamn little thing to be

Grateful for as I

Drag our overloaded suitcases and

Jet-lagged toddler back into our

Trusty, boring ol’ St. Paul house

At the end of our trip

And contemplate

Going back to work

Three days later.

Mindfulness and gratitude at that moment?

We’ll see.

Wish me luck.

Midlife crisis? But I’m not… oh fuck

dbe02bc194a8af59659c70c4466378e2412209fa6e94806369f84b5212b12813I did the math

The other day.

I was assuring myself of

The vast stretches of time

I have left to

Accomplish all the things I’ve

Set out for myself,

And I was thinking,


I’m not even

Middle-aged yet.

I have plenty of time.

But then I thought,

Wait a minute.

If an “age” is,


Ten years,

And the actuarial tables say I’ll live to 86.

The range of me being

Middle-aged is about

38 to 48.

And I’m 38.


I used a cat meme

As the photo for this blog post.

Oh my God.




I was talking to

My friend the other day

About how I was

Regretting old,

Highly impactful decisions,

Panicking that I might not

Accomplish everything I mean to,

Feeling envious of friends

Who seemingly have

More more more

Than me.

“Sounds like you’re

Having a midlife crisis,”

She observed.


It’s true.

I have been ruminating on

Decisions I made at





Which at the time

Looked like little adjustments but

Which sent me off in the most

Head-scratching trajectories.

I can see it now:

The decisions I made that were most

Impactful of my life

Were made

Completely impulsively.

On a whim.

Just because.

Or even out of spite.

My trajectory has been a

Bizarro one,

Leaving in its wake

A couple of unpublished novels,

An international co-parenting arrangement,

Membership in a recovery program

And a resume that takes longer to

Explain than to read.

I heard someone recently read

Robert Frost’s

“The Road Less Travelled”

And I was swooning until

I realized mine is the

Road Never Travelled.

I bushwacked my way into such a

Heart of darkness

Of life experience that I could

Barely find my way out

(Once I’d sobered up enough to

Get myself turned back around.)

And I know I sound insufferable.

The saddest part about a

Midlife crisis is

You just sound so whiny and


But the most painful part

Has been this new


Watching other people

Blast off in a

Straight line toward

More money,

Bigger houses,

Better careers–

Or at least it looks that way in


The envy is




It hurts

In my chest and my gut.

And it puts up walls between

Me and people I care about.

It has helped,


To just acknowledge what’s

Going on.


I’m having a midlife crisis

Because I’m middle-aged.

I keep thinking of the

Motto for G.I. Joe

(Which my brother and I used to play

Three decades ago (!)):

“Knowing is

Half the battle.”

Just a little reductive,

But it’s true.

Knowing is truth.

I’m in this

Perfect storm of

Wisdom and experience

Shelf-clouding against my old naivity

With lightning strikes of

Overwrought survival instinct.


I’m having a mid-life crisis.

I don’t know much

(That’s part of the whole

Wisdom piece)

But I do know that what I’m

Freaking out about–

Stuff and money–





I’m pretty sure I know why

I was put on this earth:

To create kids and books and friends,

And sidle up a little closer to the

Force that made me.

These days,

My decision-making is much easier:

Will it help my kids and friends

And help me write books and

Get me closer to my higher power?

If not,

Then no thanks.


Even when it’s about you, it’s about us

CAM00318I’m one of those parents.

For gifts, I give people tchochkes

With pictures of my kids on them.

This year for Christmas

It was one of those mugs you can

Put pictures of your kids on and,

In just a few tips and taps of your keyboard,

Be done with your holiday shopping in like

Ten minutes.

Did I stop to think about whether

The recipients

Needed or


Another coffee mug?


I assumed that,

Because these are picture of

The Kids,

You know,

The Kids,

They’d be interested.

The grandparents,

I’m pretty sure,

Actually really like the mugs.

But I felt a little sheepish

Handing over the two

Uniform little boxes to my

Brother and his fiancee,

Who had gotten everyone in our

Family something

Individual they might actually like.

“Even when it’s a gift for you,

It’s about us,”

I joked as they

Very graciously

Admired the mugs after

Prying them out of the unbreakable

Styrofoam packaging.

It’s true.

I don’t have time to think about

Much else besides

Keeping my kids and myself


No small feat.

But I do recognize that

It must get tiring for people to

Ask how things are going,

And have me talk

All about

My kids:

Ear infections,

New sports season starting up,

All the school closings this winter.

What’s worse,

When people tell me

About stuff going on in their lives,

I’m really good at

Co-opting their experience

And providing a corollary about my kids:

“You say you’re recovering from a

Car accident that almost killed you

And left you fighting for your very life?

My son’s favorite movie used to be Cars!

He was really scared of that scene

Where the semi-trucks fall asleep on the road…

I bet you get why!

Ha ha!”


I’m starting to realize

(And this is not to news to

Childless people, I’ll bet)

That most selfless of activities,

Actually makes people


Self-centered, not less.

How can this be,

You bluster,

Imagining scenarios in which you’d






For your child?

Here’s how I see things:

I pretty much think of my kids as

Part of me.

Maybe it’s because they came out of my body.

This is mostly a good thing.

It’s what makes me sure I’d

Jump into oncoming traffic to snatch my child

Out of danger.

Or scrape poop off my 1yo’s butt with the

Edge of his wet diaper

(Because I can’t find the wipes)

Then go finish eating my dinner

Without gagging once.

Same with boogers.

Your kid’s boogers?


My kid’s boogers?

Whatev. I’ll blow my nose in that tissue later

‘Cause they’re practically



See how this works?

So if my kids are

Part of me,

My self-centeredness

Has now expanded to

Include my kids.

Now instead of one

Self-centered person,

You get a three-fer.

I’m not really sure what the

Point of thinking myself into this

Paradox has been

Except to acknowledge the grumblings of the

Childless population who

Complain about how

Oblivious parents can be to

Anyone around them except their

Little precious.

I’m not wishing this parenting time away

Because I know these years and days and minutes are

So dear,

But it will be nice,

Once the daily tornado of child-rearing is over,

To come up from the cellar

And have a nice chat with my neighbors

About anything


My kids.

Antidote to mommy guilt?

MOMMY_guilt__470x4510One of my boys has


I won’t get any more


Because it’s his story to tell

If he ever wants to tell it.

But he’s got some


That are going to make his


A little more


Than the average

Kid his age.

And it’s funny.

As I’m discussing him

With his various providers and advocates,

I’ll make a



About damage

I must have caused him,

And they always look at me



“You don’t blame yourself,

Do you?” they ask.

Their attention suddenly shifted

From my boy

To his mother possibly about to

Start weeping.

They’ve seen weeping mothers before;

They know the signs.

I want to laugh.

Of course I blame myself.

Are you kidding?

You can slap down

All the research you have about how

This doesn’t cause that, etc.

But I want to smile kindly and say,

“I know you’re trying to make me feel better,

But please,

Don’t bother.

No matter what you say,

No matter how many studies you show me,

I will blame myself.

You might be able to

Convince my twitching brain,

But in my gut,

I know

It’s my fault.”

The guilt and self-blame feel as inevitable as


You can’t stop it.

It will have its way with you

And leave you pale and depleted.

The saddest thing I heard about

Motherhood was how


Will put up a

Wall between

You and your child,

Will hinder you from loving your child

Wholly and completely.

I’ll admit I’ve

Given in to it,

Let it so twist me up that

All I can do is gaze down on my boy

From miles above him with

Mortified eyes,

Or snap and growl when he only needs

Softness and warmth.

But there’s this


I think about

Who gives me hope.

A mother of four boys,

I knew her when she was

Already elderly and


Two of her boys had had

Very difficult

Tragic lives.

Addiction and violence killed them

When they were young men.

And I remember her saying things like,

“He wasn’t able to get well.”


“He wasn’t willing to use the

Resources available to him.”

And somewhat even

Shrugging her shoulders.


Some might see that as

Cold or cruel,

But the way I saw it, she was

Placing responsibility for her sons’


On her sons.

She didn’t blame them,

But she didn’t blame herself,


I wish I had gotten a chance to ask her

Before she died,

How she at least seemed to not

Blame herself

For her children’s suffering.

I imagine she would’ve talked about

Using her own resources,

Because I saw her doing it.

She was busy with church

And service and grandkids.

I’ve been talking to

A lot of people,


Who’ve shared their own stories,

And given me information,



A friend just yesterday

Observed that

This is probably a lot harder on me

Than it is on my son.

And I had to stop and frown,

(I frown a lot when talking about this)

And contemplate that.

I think she’s right.

I guess I’ll take a cue from my elderly friend:

Give my boy all the resources I can,

Then step back and let him use them.

And if at some point in the future he

Stops using them,

Let him do that, too.

And meanwhile,

Stay busy, looking around me

At the world

Instead of staring

Hysterically only at