Pup sparks recall of baby’s 1st year


It was just a week ago when I first saw a picture of “Champ.” Two-toned black and white coat. Two tiny bottom teeth mere buds in his gum line. His pink nose and top lip split in two, the result of a common birth defect in Boxers and other dogs with “smushed” faces. Champ was born with a cleft lip and palate, and the memories flooded back.

Solo Champ 1Marty and my first child, daughter Moira, was born with a cleft lip and palate. I didn’t know it happened in other species. And yet, why wouldn’t it?

In the two weeks before Moira was born, we learned as much as we could about clefts: how they developed, how they’re corrected, what else was wrong, what we could do.

Whether human or puppy, the head grows in such a fascinating way. The face basically starts at the base of the skull with two mirror-like sections on each side growing up and forward. Each section reflecting the other as it grows, the flesh wraps around the top and sides of the skull before finally coming together at the nose and mouth.

Our septums and that indent in the middle of our top lips? They’re like biological seams, evidence in flesh of our fetal experience. This basic blueprint for the face, as explained to Marty and I, was usually in place before most people even learn they’re pregnant, about midway through the first trimester.

~But clefts can be startling and scary. Startling simply because they look unnatural, a wee little face unfinished. And that’s basically what they are, as cells divide and flesh meets and grows together, a cell gets dropped or lost, leaving the lip or the palate or both, open. All the material is there, but at the very end of the process, it just didn’t come together.

The scary part is in the survival. Kids (and puppies) with clefts have a terrible time eating. Robbed of the ability to suck, nursing is often unsuccessful. Moira was fed with a soft-side bottle that we’d squeeze to the rhythm of her gnawing. I had reams of yellow legal pads documenting her nourishment by the ounce, by the hour. We kept a hospital-grade baby scale handy, measuring her losses and gains.

~I don’t like thinking back on this. It was a heart wrenching time. All I wanted was to comfort and cuddle my child and yet every feeding was choked by the worried thought, “How much would she eat this time?”

At death’s door, Champ is given a chance

~When I met with Champ’s foster mom, Tara Hansen of Miles who is also a vet technician at DeWitt Veterinary Clinic, she exhibited many of the same emotions I did nearly 15 years ago. Almost steely, I could feel her push aside the fear that comes with caring for a child with a cleft and focus on the task at hand, Champ’s survival.

Champ was two days old when he arrived at the vet clinic. Tara has a friend who breeds German Boxers and when his latest litter was born Jan. 18, one had a severe cleft palate. Two days later, unable to nurse, the pup was brought to Tara at the clinic to be euthanized.

Tara is not your average animal lover. She and her family have fostered countless animals in the past, but it’s the Boxer breed of dogs that is her calling. She and her family have two at home, six-month-old Lola and six-year-old Lucy. Just last fall, her eight-year-old Boxer Layla died from cancer of the blood vessels. “Now that she’s gone, I feel like I have to carry on caring for the breed.”

That’s what drove her to ask Champ’s owner if she could try to save him. “I knew the survival rate was low,” she said, “but I had to give it a whirl.”

~A brief attempt was made at bottle feeding Champ, but the cleft in his palate is so wide, the risk of aspiration was too high. “He’s turned blue on me. Several times,” she said.

So began the process of tube feedings every two hours in which Tara passes a feeding tube down Champ’s throat and into his stomach . . . every two hours. That means where ever Tara goes, Champ goes, too.

But it’s not all bad, with a four-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, Tara’s kids have relished the tiny baby. And the furry kids, how have they reacted? While the older Lucy doesn’t pay much attention, six-month-old Lucy may be a puppy herself, but has taken to mothering Champ like a pro. Even the family’s 15-year-old cat has proved vital, filling in on nap and cuddle duties when Lucy or the kids need a break.

~As she would with any other puppy, Tara started Champ on regular puppy formula, but after the first several days of slow, but steady gains he reached a point in which the formula wasn’t enough, “he was just stuck at 22 ounces. He wasn’t gaining and he wasn’t losing.”

After searching various website dedicated to the care of puppies with clefts, she learned goat’s milk could help boost a pup’s growth. And it has. For the past week, she’s been feeding Champ a half and half mix of puppy formula and goat’s milk. When I met him, Champ’s eyes had just opened and he was learning how to use his legs under that large, heavy head of his, bobbing all around.

While Tara loves to see him doing so well, she admits the feedings are growing increasingly more difficult: Champ can no see the tube coming and wants to fight it and chew on it.

~Monday Tara and Champ head to Ames and the veterinary college at Iowa State University for a surgery consultation in which she hopes a feeding port can be put in Champ’s stomach until he’s healed from the oral surgeries.

Tara was told medical costs could run as high as $3,000 so she set up a Go Fund Me account to collect donations.

Many people have asked Tara if she’s keeping Champ or, more commonly, can they adopt him. More than Champ’s foster mom, Tara sees herself as his protector. While there are many who’d love to adopt him, she has found Champ’s forever home in the arms of a local couple. After he heals from his surgeries, Champ’s new family will train him as a therapy dog for their chiropractic clinic!


Originally published 7 February 2015 in The Observer.

Champ loses battle for life


Last Saturday I told you about Tara Hansen, a veterinary technician at the DeWitt Veterinary Clinic who had taken on the role of foster mom and caregiver for a Boxer puppy born with a cleft lip and palate.

Monday night, sitting on the couch with my husband who was looking at his phone, I heard him groan, “Oh no…”

~Tara & Champ 2Looking at his Facebook feed, he merely turned his phone to me, showing me the following message posted to the Boxer Champ community page:

“It is with a very heavy heart to have to type this update . . . (definitely) not an update I ever thought of writing. Champ passed away in my arms tonight. I fought for him until the very end attempting CPR, but it was too late. His little body couldn’t fight any more.”

Marty was stunned. I was in disbelief. And when I told daughter Moira, she bent her head to hide her tears.

Neither Marty nor Moira had the pleasure of meeting Champ. In fact, most of his fans never got the opportunity to stroke his sweet little cheeks or shake one of his cute, tiny paws. But he had a huge fan club to be sure.

None of us would’ve learned of this sweet little puppy had Tara not answered the call of her heart, a call that whispered, “Give him a chance. Try,” when he was brought to the clinic to be euthanized.

Tara is the quintessential animal lover, truly going to any lengths necessary to help an animal in need. Whether it’s to bottle-feed an abandoned litter of newborn kittens, find a new “forever family” to adopt a homeless dog, or, as she did with Champ, devote herself morning and night to the survival of a struggling animal who needed a shot at life.

I know plenty of people who roll their eyes at those of us who connect with other beings covered in fur (or scales or feathers). They mutter thoughtless things like, “It’s just a dog.” So I’m sure there are a few readers wondering why I give so much attention to animals. Simple, each animal, each creature (yes, even spiders) are a living, breathing being that has purpose. Often times, we’ll never know their purpose.

When I talked with Tara the day after Champ passed, she admitted she wasn’t completely shocked that he died because he was exhibiting a few troubling symptoms indicating he was struggling.

“But at the same time, I was upset. I still am.”

Tara reviewed the symptoms with me, saying that at 7 a.m. Sunday, after Champ’s morning tube feeding, she saw him start to gag and struggle. He was open-mouth breathing and turning white. Taking an infant bulb syringe, she did an emergency suction on Champ and discovered copious amount of mucus had coagulated in the back of his throat.

Hearing this took me back nearly 15 years to Moira’s first five months, before any surgeries started to correct her cleft, when her breathing would rattle when mucus clogged the back of her throat. Marty and I grew quite adept with the bulb syringe. Fortunately for us, that usually relieved Moira’s woes and she’d return to easy breathing.

With Champ, however, Tara could tell things weren’t right and she feared pneumonia could be setting in. After clearing the mucus from Champ’s throat, she then took him to the bathroom and started a hot shower so the steam could enter his lungs and loosen any remaining mucus. While it seemed to help, later that day she gave him a nebulizing treatment for safe measure.

The following morning, Monday Feb. 9, Tara woke to give Champ his breakfast and found him in his kennel. “He wouldn’t stand up and he had blood all over the side of his face.”

After Tara cleaned and then fed him, “he perked right up,” she said.

Once he was stable, she and a friend loaded him in the car and made the three-hour drive to Ames where they met with doctors at Iowa State University’s veterinary college.

Tara explained what had been happening over the last 24-hours and while doctors initially guessed the blood may have been caused by irritation to the throat from the tube feedings or sneezing that may have caused Champ to bite his lip, chest films were taken.

“I was sure he had pneumonia,” Tara said. While the films didn’t indicate pneumonia there were a few small spots doctors couldn’t explain. “I wonder if it was some blood clots,” she said.

While in Ames, doctors mapped out a progression of surgeries and had tabled the idea of a feeding port due to Champ’s fast growth rate. His first surgery was slated for next month.

Returning home, Champ was tired and Monday evening, after a feeding “he fell asleep,” Tara recalled. “Then all of a sudden he woke up and threw his head back.”

Tara immediately suctioned Champ, “I ended up getting a whole bunch of blood out of there.” Then his heart stopped. “I started doing chest compressions and by then he was doing agonal (spastic, labored) breathing.”

Despite her efforts, Champ died.

Having raised nearly $2,000 in donations for Champ’s medical costs, Tara wants all the money returned. Many of her donors, in thanking Tara for her compassion and hard work, wanted her to keep the money as compensation. She refused, “It was something I never wanted to pocket the money from or be paid for.”

Instead, Tara is suggesting donating in Champ’s memory, either to an animal shelter or the “Care for Cleo” fund at the DeWitt Veterinary Clinic, which covers costs associated with helping stray and unwanted animals.

Writing on the Boxer Champ Facebook page Wednesday, Tara wrote that despite the heartbreak of losing Champ, she will continue her work.

“In three short weeks I was able to watch this little guy open his eyes, struggle to take his first steps and see him find his little voice. In three short weeks my heart was wrapped up in his pudgy little Boxer body. I will continue on and do whatever I can for animals, this will not detour me from doing what I feel is right. . .

“. . . If (we) humans could take a few lessons from animals, our world would be a much happier and loving place to be!”

RIP Champ. . .


Originally published 14 February 2015 in The Observer.

Northeast wins in cakes & melons


It was a double-win weekend for Northeast! First, the Fine Arts Boosters held its annual cake auction Friday between the girls and boys varsity basketball games against Cascade. Though the basketball victories may have gone to the Cascade Cougars, the cakes went to Rebel supports like . . . well, hot cakes!

During the live auction, my husband Marty hoped to take one back to his employer, but as bids climbed toward $1,000 he opted to snag a couple of smaller ones from the silent auction.

For one who has a major sweet tooth, but tries to eat healthy, the cake auction was a mine field! I fantasized about scooping up palms full of frosting and shoving it in my face. As we sold pieces by the slice, I actually had to tell myself (out loud), “Don’t lick the knife.” I fingered the $20 in my pocket, trying not to throw it down and flee with a box!

I refused to let Marty bring his two cakes into the house. Having enjoyed a slice at the auction, I knew how wonderfully delicious they were. It was either devour an entire cake or resign myself to a few smaller cakes of the dry, puffed rice variety.

In all, the Northeast Fine Arts Boosters took in over $8,000! But that would not be the end of Northeast success for the weekend.

It’s hard to believe it, but the 2015 triathlon season is underway, kicked off last Sunday in Muscatine with the 21st Annual Try Melon Tri at the Muscatine Family YMCA. While this indoor sprint tri is a standard for many of my pals, last weekend was my first time. And what a time!!!

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Obviously the event can’t start with all 106 people cannonballing into a pool at once so participants, who are assigned a timer (mine was volunteer Lisa Longtin of Muscatine), are placed into 9-person start waves taking off every 30 minutes.

Start times are based on one’s estimated swim time for 900 yards (or 18 50-yard laps). I didn’t think my 15 minute estimate was overly ambitious, but it put me with the Big Guns in one of the earlier waves. When the whistle blew the field left me choking on their splash.

I felt like a tug boat slowly chugging along, especially given the two young women on either side of me who apparently had gills instead of lungs, flipper vs. feet. They slipped along, seemingly without effort, gliding smoothly through their laps.

ITry Melon Tri 2015 bike was second to last out of the pool, posting a time of 18:14, much slower than I hoped. Oops. After wasting three minutes drying off and pulling pants on over my swimsuit as well as socks and shoes onto my feet it was off along a carpeted runway to the stationary bikes.

Prior to the start, a stationary bike at the registration table allowed participants to determine their appropriate seat and handlebar height. When I reached an open bike, I quickly made my adjustments and started spinning, my timer Lisa doubling as a wonderfully supportive towel/water girl.

A small handlebar monitor provided distance and time. I finished the 10 miles in 19:09. Again, given the time I lost in the pool, I was second to last off the bike.

It was time for the “fun” part: 40 laps/2.5 miles on an indoor track. While running is what I do the most, it remains my weakest sport. I’m a turtle, a back-of-the-pack’er! While I shuffled around and around, I found myself in the opening scene of last’s year’s Captain America movie “The Winter Soldier.”

Remember how the movie starts, in the pre-dawn hours on Washington D.C.’s Mall when Sam Wilson aka Falcon is out for his morning run? He’s soon lapped THREE times by Steve Rogers aka Captain America, saying, “On your left.”

I felt like I was standing still as a pony-tailed blur in black and blue flew past me. Then it hit me! This was the woman I chatted with before the swim, the same woman who, when I told her where I was from said, “I grew up near Charlotte!”

It was Nancy Foxen, daughter of the late Don and Judy Paulsen, 1996 graduate of Northeast! And she DOMINATED! Turns out this indoor tri thing is her deal! And she lapped me way more than three times.

When I talked with Nancy several days later, she said she ran track and cross country in high school, but it wasn’t until after college when her husband’s work lead her back into sports. Chris is the high school track and cross country coach at Muscatine, “my husband is definitely a big influence on my health,” she said. “Running just got more important.”

As Nancy and I talked, she shared that swimming was her weakest area and that it was only six years ago when some friends taught her to swim. She competed in the Crossroads Tri in DeWitt a few years ago, but the swim portion wasn’t fun.

Nancy explained if she’s going to participant in an event, she wants to enjoy it and perform well. Open water swimming can be nightmarish, which I can certainly attest to, and because of this, she limits her triathlons to the indoor variety.

Last Sunday marked her third year of taking overall women’s honors at the Try Melon Tri, making her the winningest female in the event’s 21-year history! Not only that, but each of the three years she has bested herself and Sunday’s time of 49:42 was the fastest women’s time ever posted!

The event attracted 88 men and women as well as 18 teams. Way out of Nancy’s league, I posted a 1:05:54, good enough for a second place age group award. Medals are fun, don’t get me wrong, but it’s meeting people like my timer Lisa and especially Nancy that make these endeavors all the more worth it!


Originally published 31 January 2015 in The Observer.

Runners enjoy warm winter races


Last weekend, that smell?! *sniff, sniff* Did you catch a whiff? That hint of “spring” in the air?! Call me optimistic (or delusional), but I swear I detected the coming of tulips and robins on the wind.

Don’t get me wrong, I love all four seasons, but from a running perspective a little warm-up goes a long way! Especially given the double-header of events of last weekend.

Starting with Saturday’s 33rd running of the Frostbite Footrace along the hilly roadways of Scott County Park.

What used to be a five mile event was pared down to a 5k a few years ago. At the time, I was pretty bummed as it was just a handful of local events that were longer than a 5k. I’d asked race director Marianne Schroeder why the change and her reasons were simple: numbers.

Not only does it take fewer volunteers to coordinate a shorter race, but shorter distances open themselves up to more people willing to challenge themselves. I get it! Five miles sounds daunting, but a wee over three? Whether walking or running (or a little of both), 3.1 miles are doable!

And it was VERY doable last Saturday! The race started at 1 pm, perfect timing for temperatures to reach a gorgeous 42 degrees.

The Frostbite saw over 200 participants toe the start line including local runner Ashely Spain of DeWitt who smashed one of her 2015 goals—running a sub-25 minute 5k! Ashley and I messaged back and forth in the days prior to the race.

As a member of the Facebook group “DeWitt Running Club,” Ashley’s training paid off with a time of 24:46 to snag top honors in the women’s 30-34 age group! (Second place was more than a minute and a half behind her!) Taking the overall 65th spot from a field of 242, Ashley broke the tape on the heels of Quad Cities Cornbelt Running Club president Paul Schmidt (that’s some impressive company she’s keeping)!

Myself? I finished. Having run the Frostbite several times, it was a treat not to have to slog through slush, squint into blowing, snowy headwinds or lose feeling in my toes and fingers. It was a fun day of rTriple D 2015unning in which I high-fived some volunteers and chatted with many friends out enjoying Scott County Park’s hills. I am seldom a contender and was surprisingly pleased that my turtle-ish 31:48 placed me in the top half of my 40-44 age group.

While I tried to challenge myself, in the back of my mind, I knew I had to conserve a bit of energy for the following day’s half marathon along Dubuque’s Heritage Trail for my third visit to the Triple D Winter Race & Poker Run.

As described by race director Lance Andre, “The Triple D is a winter endurance trail event that traverses Dubuque County, Iowa, in the dead of winter by bike, ski or foot.”

Participants choose their poison with runners and cross-country skiers taking on the half marathon, marathon or 50k ultra marathon distances. Bikers have just one option: a plus-100k/67 mile spin.

It’s billed as a trail event, but the Heritage Trail is not an up and down, twisting-turning, tree roots and tripping tumble fest. The Heritage Trail is an old railroad bed i.e. FLAT (for me, its most attractive aspect).

The terrain is not the challenge and it certainly isn’t an event that most people “race” because of the weather, typically Dubuque’s average temperature is 24 degrees and most participants are merely seeking a finish.

In 2015 and 2014, however, the relatively warm temps have been a welcome reprieve from my first Triple D in 2013 when I ran the full marathon on a day so cold my braids froze like Pippy Longstocking and my Camelbak crunched with ice.

But the nightmare that was 2013 continues to fade, replaced by last year’s and this year’s comparatively balmish, sunny events that left many of us stripping off layers as we ticked off the miles.

I usually enjoy seeing a host of friends at the Triple D and this year was no different! There were buddies from the Quad Cities, my relay captain from Clinton, Paul Wiederholt, and fellow Skeff Race Board Member Bill Petsche of DeWitt.

Paul, ever the maniac, ran the marathon as a “recovery” run having raced a 50k ultra in Arizona the week before. I, my QC pals and Bill proved much saner by doing “just” the half marathon.

In the week prior, the emails were flying among friends about the trail conditions. As temperatures began to climb, many of us worried the trail would turn to soup. Those of us running the half were very lucky as the limestone surface remained firm until the last couple of miles.

But the bikers as well as the marathoners and ultra runners had a different story to tell. As the cloudless sky lead to the day’s high temperature of 40, the sun beat the trail into, as Paul would later describe, “an interesting mix of frozen, slushy, soupy (and) some parts more peanut butter-ish.”

Bill, I and the rest of the half’ers finished long before the trails deteriorated to that point, and while our calves and shoes were certainly mud-caked, nothing could compare to the Facebook photos of the bikers, who were encrusted in a tan casing of goop from front to back, head to toe. All of them, I must add, grinning hugely.

It looked so gross and fun that I may just have to consider the bike option next year! Kudos to everyone for getting their “grrrr” on last weekend! Keep up the good work!!!


Originally published 24 January 2015 in The Observer.

Clyde the Cat adjusts to domesticity


Sullen Boy remains a pouty force about the house. Some of this I attribute to hormones, a little might be connected to the weather, but I’m beginning to suspect he thinks it’s funny to act so moody. But it’s when he’s with Clyde that his guard drops and the ooey-gooey sweetness of this 11-year-old boy is revealed.

Recently he told me he thought readers would be interested in an update on our semi-feral housecat. In October, I shared about adopting Clyde from the Quad City Animal Welfare Center in Milan, Ill., after reading his story on Facebook.

clyde gutHe’d been brought into the shelter in January 2013. He was roughly 6 months old at the time and was rescued from the streets of Rock Island. He had a few “issues” that had made him not the most sought-after cat. Mainly, he wanted to hide and stay hidden for the rest of his life.

It broke our hearts to think of this somewhat mentally-effected cat craving solitude among 20 or more other felines in the shelter’s cat room, so we threw our own sanity out the window and adopted him. This was in early September and when I wrote in October, he was still a solitary being, sticking mainly to Marty and my bedroom, specifically under our bed.

In the three months since I wrote that, Clyde’s personality has morphed from fraidy cat to crazy cat. It’s been a daily journey watching his confidence build and his personality change. He’s no longer the scared, untrusting cat we brought home in early September.

Because he does not venture downstairs, he continues to live a bit of a solitary life and likely why he’s made friends with the guinea pig, Nova. The pig’s cage is on the floor in one of the upstairs rooms and has an open top. It’s not uncommon to find Clyde in the cage with Nova, nose to nose.

This is one example of his continued “odd” nature. On the one hand, he’s wary of any other living thing, yet on the other, he absolutely craves connection with any living thing. And in this craving, it appears he’s “imprinted” on me.

I’m the first one he approached, I’m the first one he let pet him, I’m the only one he lets pick him up. When he was still sleeping under our bed, I remember talking to him (yes, in the house, we talk to our animals) and telling him he’d probably be more comfortable on our bed.

I’m not sure how soon after that, but it wasn’t long before he found his way up. I’d sense a presence at our feet in the middle of the night, but by morning, he’d be gone. Soon after this started his bravery grew. In the minutes I read before turning out the light, Clyde would emerge from under the bed and meow at me. I’d coax him up and he’d stay at my feet. If I moved toward him, he’d bolt.

But eventually, he inched his way toward me and nightly nestles in against my chest, my hand stroking his soft fur, his purr lulling us to sleep.

Now when I go upstairs he doesn’t charge out of sight. In fact, when I’m gone, he usually wrestles back the covers on my side of the bed, kneads himself a nest and wriggles in for a long winter’s nap . . . every day. His sanctuary is no longer under the bed or behind furniture!

And when I show up on his turf, he merely yawns and stretches, waiting to be pet. While he remains skittish with both kids and Marty, Sullen Boy is developing a bond with this weird cat. Sullen Boy has figured out that Clyde loves to watch his fish tanks, especially at night.

We realized this after waking suddenly to Clyde galloping from the hallway into our room, leaping across our bed, stabbing a claw into the palm of unconscious, slumbering Marty and leaping back to the floor, charging back to the hallway and skidding to a stop before the closed bedroom door of Sullen Boy.

We assume the whole performance was his way of saying, “I’d like to watch some fish. Now.”

And apparently Sullen Boy has a softer approach than either KidGirl or Marty. He talks low and softly, approaches slowly, and he’s often rewarded with a rubbing of Clyde’s generous gut. Clyde has thusly taken over Sullen Boy’s room, chilling out under his bunk beds, stationing himself before the fish tanks or snoozing on a pile of clothes in a wide swath of sunshine.

KidGirl, on the other hand, with a personality more joyful and cheery, continues to foster a relationship with Clyde. Her glee being her biggest hurdle. She approaches Clyde with laughter and smiling while Clyde remains wary and easily rattled. But they’re working on it.

Marty? As Clyde grows more comfortable, so does Marty. When Clyde isn’t sleeping against me, he’s usually at our heads, wriggled in between our pillows. Marty’s an animal lover, through and through, but he was never 100 percent on board with Clyde’s adoption. Yet he’d readily admit that rescuing Clyde from the cat room at the shelter was a good thing.

But his punctured palm did not win Clyde any points.


Originally published 17 January 2015 in The Observer.

Vacation’s over! Go back to school!


In both 2012 and 2013, snowstorms cancelled the last day of classes leading into the year’s winter break. Except for a brief return Monday (for Northeast students) Mother Nature gifted mine and yours with a couple of extra days this week. If we ever needed it confirmed, this week did so: Mother Nature is no mother.

If she were, she’d have known these kids needed to be back in school. NOW. Already a long break from classes (Dec. 20-Jan. 4), my two were ready to be back at it. Admittedly, I much prefer extra days on the back end of break vs. Decembers 2012 and 2013 when that last day before winter break, with all of its scrambling to finish shopping and baking and cleaning before the kids are released, were foiled by “Mother” Nature. Pfft!

holiday goofballsThis year’s break wasn’t the easiest as one person to whom I shall refer as “Sullen Boy,” clearly missed the memo about holiday cheer. All Sullen Boy wanted for Christmas was a go-cart. All Sullen Boy’s sister wanted for Christmas was for her brother to get a go-cart. All Sullen Boy’s parents wanted for Christmas was for Sullen Boy and company to stop with the go-cart already!

Over dinner one night in early December, we told Sullen Boy and his sister there would be no go-cart under the tree. And we’d already let the Big Guy know as well. Our reason was simple: Marty and I didn’t know what the heck to look for, where to look for it, and couldn’t he just wish for something easily found on Amazon?!!!

Except for the occasional “I don’t care, Christmas is gonna suck,” Sullen Boy held it together during the weeks leading up to Christmas. Aside from his regular sulking over the knowledge of no go-cart, I suspect the child needed a quality dose of Vitamin D. And here we can blame “Mother” Nature, again. Gray skies and fog? In December? Seriously?! Sullen Boy’s lucky he didn’t find a full-spectrum energy lamp under the tree!

Up until Christmas Eve, it appeared Sullen Boy had come to accept there would be no go-cart on Christmas morning. Marty and I weren’t saying, “Never,” but rather, “Not now.”

And we thought he understood, that he was ok with that, that someday, maybe even in February when he turned 12, his dreamed-for go-cart would appear. Then, while having chili at my parents’ house on Christmas Eve, Sullen Boy dropped the bomb: “If I don’t get a go-cart, I’ll know there’s no Santa Claus.”

WHAT?!!!!!

I was aghast at this mastermind, wielding Santa like an Ace up his sleeve. Who does that?! Apparently my kid, that’s who. With a stubbornness that can only be linked to a long line of stubborn Murrell men, I blame his father.

In spite of my sisters and parents scolding Sullen Boy that Santa doesn’t respond well to veiled threats, he knew he’d struck emotional gold. While it surely wouldn’t result in a go-cart ‘cause Santa don’t play dat, Sullen Boy had just won the guilt game.

And when Christmas morning arrived, resplendent with moderate temps, green grass and a beautiful sun we hadn’t seen for what felt like weeks, Sullen Boy’s expectations were met, there was indeed no go-cart waiting for him.

I didn’t hear him say the words, but I knew he was thinking, “See, there’s no Santa.”

And Mother Nature, in all her irony, shined a glorious sun all over the day.

I will go no further into Christmas 2014, about how Santa may have mixed things up and accidentally given Sullen Boy a couple of repeats from the year before. I also won’t go into the Christmas Day gathering at my parents and how, just as grace was being said for Christmas dinner, I burst into tears.

I will merely say that this holiday was not our best example of gratitude and goodwill. Taking a cue from Sullen Boy, it was pretty lame.

On the consumerism side of things, this holiday is awful, but for whatever reason—lack of sun, lack of snow—I just never felt that pa-rum-pa-pum-pum drumming in my heart that only the Christmas season brings.

I think it actually had a lot to do with the season kicking off so dang early! What was with the Christmas radio station cueing up long before Thanksgiving?!

By the time the manger was ready, I was beset with some of Stephen Colbert’s Grinchitude. If I had to listen to Mariah Carey sing “I All Want For Christmas is You” one more time, I was going to make a fruit cake just so I could drop-kick it out the back door.

And now here we are, finally enjoying Mother Nature’s gift: winter. Suddenly it’s cold outside and I want to bake, snow is swirling and blowing and I want to listen to music. The holiday fir, dropping its needles like snowflakes, is suddenly just a bit prettier today than it was two weeks ago.

While Sister occupies a rocking chair on the porch, ears covered in headphones, Sullen Boy cuddles up to me and suggests we open the puzzles, asks if we could play Scrabble . . . and so what if I crave a bit of “me time,” them being home a couple of extra days? Okay Mother Nature, you win: Thank you!


Originally published 10 January 2015 in The Observer.

2015 training for heart & brain


Resolutions are such bunk. What better way to start off a new year than setting ourselves up for failure?! And yet, thanks to radio and television programs which drone on about resolutions, resolutions seem unavoidable. It’s no surprise many of us buy into the idea that we must dramatically change our life. Why do we torture ourselves so?!

Sure, a new year definitely brings with it the idea of renewal, rebirth, rejuvenation, but let’s tone it down a little, folks. Let’s reframe those resolutions.

First, pause. Take a few moments for silence. Turn off the tv or radio, step away from the computer, put down the Smart Phone or tablet, and listen to the quiet . . . then search your heart. Chances are you know what changes you need to consider. Notice I wrote “consider,” not “start.” For me, just acknowledging and thinking about a specific issue I’m struggling with is a hard enough “start.”

While I’m not a big follower of self-help gurus, I’ve learned some of their notions are pretty spot-on. Take, for instance, the idea that most changes we make in our lives do not come easily. To change, we first must want it.

Another truism gurus spout is being steady with one’s progress. While quick results definitely feed that baby within who “wants what she wants and she wants it NOW,” real results come from taking a slower, more focused and conservative approach to change.

In 2014 I identified four goals I wanted to complete: the spring Hawkeye 50k trail run in Solon, the annual Cornbelt 24-Hour-Run in May, the Racine, Wis., Ironman 70.3 in July and by year’s end, lose 30 pounds. Three out of four ain’t bad.

The 50k was awful, but I finished. The 24-Hour-Run was a joyful riot and I’m definitely doing it again. The half Ironman was amazing so I’m doing that again, too. But the weight loss? Hmmmmm.

Food, per se, is not the enemy, it’s what I eat. For the record, I love garbage. Chips, candy and pastries? Deep fried anything, heavy cream sauces and extra cheese? Bring it!

I’m 8 pounds lighter going into 2015 and while that’s far from the 30 I’d hoped to drop, it’s been a year of learning how hunger, boredom and anxiety play into how and what I eat. In the past year, I’ve really begun to experience the power food holds over me.

A year ago I embarked on a 90-day candy experiment in which I cut candy from my diet. Are there times when I’ll eat candy? Sure, but I don’t consider it a daily or even weekly component of what I put in my mouth.

I did a couple of cleanses and food challenges and through them, am gaining a better understanding of portion size, calorie count and that if I string together too many days “good” eating, I get really, super grumpy.

I’m seeing I will never achieve eating perfection and that it’s ok to have days where I “blow it” and eat anything and everything. What matters is how I follow up those junk days. When I refocus my senses, allow my body to feel hunger and provide necessary structure for my eating, I don’t feel like a failure.

I bought the book “100 Days of Real Food” by Lisa Leake and am realizing the importance of cooking, and that preparing a box of Hamburger Helper does not constitute cooking. I and my family don’t need to drown our veggies in cheese or our pasta in heavy sauces.

I guess I’m growing more mindful of the impact healthy and unhealthy food has on me and my family, and that I don’t have to be so black and white about my food choices. It’s ok to indulge so long as the Big Picture focuses on better health.

Early last month I discovered hot tea. I’ve always wanted to be a tea drinker, but coffee has been my standard go-to. Then one morning I dropped a tea bag in hot water and “Bam! I’ve been doing it every morning since. Does that mean I don’t drink coffee? Heck no! As with candy, I’m totally game for coffee, but I don’t need it.

For 2015 my goals include losing 20 pounds, shaving at least 30 minutes off my Ironman time and focusing less on racing and more on increasing strength and balance. And not just in a physical sense.

As evidenced by Linda Watson’s column last week, change is in full swing at The Observer and who knows where that change will take us. It seems prudent, at the very least, that I slow down and focus on each day. How can I make it better, not just for myself, but for my family and those around me?

I pared down my calendar of events. Instead of four marathons, I’ll just do two. Instead of a race every weekend, just one or two a month. And with both kids in middle school, include them in my training with spins in the basement and hikes at Maquoketa Caves, Scott County Park and the dirt tracks of the Paul Skeffington Memorial Trail.

My 11-year-old son and I like to joke about our 1-pack abs, but when I spin on my bike in the basement or bust out 300 crunches, I want my kids to understand it’s not about the size of my jeans or what I look like. It’s about function. I cannot run or bike or swim or anything if my body doesn’t function properly, which brings me back to food. We can exercise 8 hours a day, but if we’re not eating well, we won’t function.

At Casa Reed Murrell, we don’t diet. We train—our brains, to crave healthier food and our bodies, to live stronger. We’re far from perfect, but we’re moving forward.

If I gleaned anything from my 2014 calendar it was that more is not necessarily a good thing. So I invite you to step into some silence and meditate on what your heart and body are trying to tell you. What is it that needs altering in your life? Maybe it’s nixing Coke, maybe it’s removing a game from your Smart Phone, maybe it’s adding more Down Time to your life.

Whatever your gut is telling you, I promise you change is possible.


Originally published 3 January 2015 in The Observer.

2014 literature year-in-review


It was nearly three years ago that my Kroymann aunts, cousins and I formed The ‘Fun Book’ Book Club. As with any group, there have been lapses in our gatherings, schedules get tight and life’s pace quickens, yet through this we’ve managed to keep at it. And I think we’re all pretty grateful for the constancy this group provides.

While all our meetings eventually dissolve into fits of laughter listening to one another’s stories, we’re getting better at actually talking about our books. But honestly? The books may be the reason for our gatherings, but it’s our relationships, the varying hues love takes between family members, that keep us coming back.

Given the busy time December is, last year we did not choose a book for our January 2014 gathering and did not kick off the year until February with Mary Lawson’s “Crow Lake,” the story of four orphaned siblings and how they navigate life in their quiet Canada community.

In March, we took on the issue of brain injury in the story “Left Neglected” by Lisa Genova followed by April’s choice of “Emily’s Story” by Wisconsin writer Clark Kidder who some of you may remember provided the backdrop for the “West by Orphan Train” documentary that premeired in DeWitt earlier this fall.

May had us reading Nora Ephron’s reflections in “I Remember Nothing,” before taking a break in June. July had us enjoying the mysterious young-adult tome “We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart that kept us guessing until the very end.

With the Iowa State Fair and school’s early start, we skipped August and resumed in September with Jodi Picoult’s “The Storyteller.” Although several of us agreed there were ways to easily trim this 480-page behemoth, the instinct for survival in Nazi Germany reminded us how easy it is for human nature to spin out of control in the face of “mob mentality.”

Like January, April, June and August, October was also a miss, but in November we tackled “The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan. A non-fiction reflection of the Dust Bowl era told by survivors of that man-made disaster, “The Worst Hard Time” provided the backdrop for Ken Burns’ 2012 PBS documentary ”The Dust Bowl.”

One Dec. 1 we met under the guise of discussing that month’s selection, Lisa Scottoline’s “Don’t Go,” but used it as an excuse to enjoy the PBS premiere of “West by Orphan Train.”

After discussing Scottoline’s mystery about a podiatrist serving in Afghanistan whose wife dies while he’s overseas. We agreed this riveting whodunit kept us guessing until the last pages. Then we watched the movie and just as when we read “Emily’s Story,” again we were astounded by the strength of orphan train riders who truly rose above terrible circumstances. ***

At the end of this month’s meeting, one person had a copy of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winner “Olive Kitteridge” and offered to let another member read it. When all of us piped up that we wanted to borrow it, we opted to make that our January 2015 choice. Already, we’re off to a better start than in 2014! (And having finished it, I now understand why it was recently made into a mini-series for HBO! A truly wonderful tale of community, marriage, perspective and age.)

In addition to The ‘Fun Book’ Book Club, my nightstand held a steady flow of varied and enjoyable literature starting with the awkwardly wonderful David Sedaris and his nutty collection of essays, “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.”

Swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other, I simply adore author Anne Lemott. Recently she authored a trio of small tomes, the first of which I read this year, 2012’s “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” I have yet to devour subsequent books, “Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair” and “Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace,” but they are on my bookshelf, at the ready.

Like Sedaris and Lamott, some authors you can absolutely trust to captivate and entrance while others? Not so much. Fortunately, of the 26 books I read this year, only four were disappointing: “The Outcasts” by Kathleen Kent, “Whores on the Hill” by Colleen Curan, Marissa Silver’s “Mary Coin” and, in spite of its Pulitzer, Donna Tart’s “The Goldfinch.”

The rest were delish, including Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder” about a researcher who is sent into the Amazon in search of colleague’s remains. Though the book’s ending leaves you to decide what happens, the story and writing were gorgeous.

Similarly “The Art of Hearing Heartbeats” by Jan-Philipp Sendker was a sweeping tale of an adult daughter’s search for her missing father that takes her from New York to Burma. Captivating in the telling of the two lives her father lived, this tale was a beautiful example of love and sacrifice.

Additional adult books included “California” by Edan Lepucki, which I wrote about in September, “The House Girl” by Tara Conklin, “The Telling Room” by Michael Paterniti, Barbara Kingsolver’s debut novel “The Bean Trees,” Fr. Thomas Keating’s “Finding Grace at the Center” and “The Story of Beautiful Girl” by Rachel Simon who also wrote “Riding the Bus with My Sister,” adapted for tv starring Rosie O’Donnell.

For lighter reads, I ventured into young-adult lit. In addition to “We Were Liars,” I discovered “Radiance” by Alyson Noel, the first in a series about a young girl’s mission in the Afterlife. Then Ransom Rigg’s came out with his second in his “Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children” series, “Hollow City,” continuing the journey of the peculiar children’s effort to save their beloved mistress Miss Peregrine.

Finally, this year saw a few books adapted to screen, including “Rosewater,” the directorial debut of The Daily Show’s John Stewart. Based on the personal narrative by Maziar Bahari, “Then They Came For Me” tells of Bahari’s imprisonment and torture in an Iranian prison for his journalism. I’ve yet to see the film, but this book reminded me that despite our imperfect system, it’s good to be American.

To finish out 2014, I’m currently reading Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” a weird look at the various idols and stories that built our history and shape our present views.

While 26 books in a year could be many to some or just a few to others, whatever you do KEEP READING! Happy New Year!!!


Originally published 27 December 2014 in The Observer.

Cookies & forgetting togetherness


It’s that time of year again. When the baubles and trimmings, cooking and gatherings remind me that I have the shortest memory on the planet.

As if we need reminding, this is the time of year when goodwill and kindness should abound, when tolerance and love should be chief. When the red kettles and bell ringers stand at store entrances; when the Santas are sitting; when the dreidels are spinning.

cookie decoratingI look at this time as a reminder to be good, not because the Elf on the Shelf is watching, but because it’s simply the right thing to do.

But earlier this week, I found myself forgetful.

Tuesday night, after Moira begged and bugged, pleaded and implored to roll out the cookie dough I’d mixed together a few days earlier. I forgot the reason I’d made the dough in the first place: as a show of goodwill, kindness, tolerance and love.

I gave in to Moira’s insistence and as we got started, felt myself begin to crack. I’d forgotten these cookies weren’t about Jenny and how tired she was, about the mess it would make and she’d be stuck cleaning up. These cookies represented an awful truth: I HATE BAKING.

I feel awful even typing the “H” word, but baking is such a messy pain. And cutout cookies? Good lord! The flour, the rolling, the sticky dough?!

After gathering the necessary gear, immediately I struggled to get the cold, hard dough from the container. It was as if the dough had turned to stone.

Moira, excited to use the new snowflake cutter, wore it like a bracelet and fiddled with the star, tree, rocking horse, angel and dove cutters. Anxious to have something to do, she chirped about school and a book she’d been reading. I forgot her excitement. I forgot how precious and fleeting such moments are.

I tried explaining cutouts aren’t really a two-person job which is code for “Beat it!” but I held my tongue and struggled to work out a two-person system.

I’ve never been the most patient person and as the dough continued to frustrate me, I started to fear it would take all night. And when I get fearful, I get ugly.

After we got the first couple pans through, me getting more crazed and upset with each lump of flour, I yelled at Moira, “I just want this done!”

I forgot she’s just a little girl.

Then I saw it. I saw that I was injuring this little girl’s spirit. I saw Moira, who’s just innocent and happy and filled with joy of the season. I saw her chin drop, her shoulders sag. She asked to leave. “Oh, no,” I barked. “We’re in this together.”

Both Marty and Maclane cut in, offering to help, but I refused, boiling.

And then something happened.

I’m guessing when I muttered, “We’re in this together,” that it was a prayer of sorts.

Instead of pushing my daughter into a state of tears, it was as if my attitude of awfulness fell away and a flow was found amidst the baking madness.

Magically, a calm blanketed me and we struck a rhythm. I rolled and we both worked the cutters. Moira lumped the scraps into a ball as we took turns laying them on the cookie sheets. When a batch came out of the oven, Moira would scoop them from the pans to the cooling racks while I’d roll out the next batch.

I felt my breathing settle and my pulse slow, it was then that I remembered.

I remembered this wasn’t about Jenny or the cookies or the mess. I remembered I needed Moira! I needed her to show me how to behave! I needed Moira to show me what goodwill and kindness, tolerance and love looked like.

I forgot all of this.

But I’m never forgotten. The love that makes this season bright sustains us all, even me, in our darkest, most-harried and wrecked moments. The goodwill and kindness, tolerance and LOVE reached beyond this Earthly plane, into the darkest corner of my soul to remind me, “Do not despair.”

Maybe a meltdown during cookie baking isn’t a big deal to most, but it’s in these moments that I see how far I have to go, how much better I want to be. I know I’ll soon forget, again, and get all wrapped up in Jenny, but Tuesday night Santa came early. That from the most feeble of phrases, “We’re in this together,” comes the most honest of prayers: “We’re in this together.”

Without Moira (and every other living entity), I cannot know and understand what goodwill and kindness, tolerance and love looks like, feels like. Thank goodness “we’re in this together.”

Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas!


Originally published 20 December 2014 in The Observer.

Battling consumerism with gratitude


I think there was a time when the holidays excited me. I assume I used to want to break out the decorations and crank up the Bing Crosby.

Today? I’m just tired. It feels like a sham.

Could I be struck with a bit of Grinchitude to quote wordsmith Steven Colbert? Possibly. I can only speak to my own observation of our country and that observation is “depressed.”

I’ve got a good life. A GREAT LIFE! But when I consider the lives of other Americans, those who haven’t had my opportunities and good fortune? I find it difficult to be merry and bright.

There is so much suffering, right here! I don’t have to reminisce about old Sally Struthers commercials for starving Ethiopians, I need only turn on public radio for soundbites on the increasing level of poverty right here in the United States.

That social class I grew up in, the Middle Class? It’s disappearing, folks. Profit margins for big companies are larger than ever, and yet the minions (you and me) are making less and less in jobs that require more work and effort than ever before.

The most recent jobs report noted a smidgeon of wage growth, but today a $10 an hour job (if you’re lucky) brings a lot less into the home than the same wage 10 years ago.

I know I’m not the only one who sees fatigue plaguing us at every turn.

I refuse to shop at that big, blue-bannered box store with the yellow smiley face. We try to shop local and though most employees of local stores appear cheerful, I know they’re struggling. How do I know? Because we all are. Our dollar, at least here, appears to be weakening.

This isn’t new news. This is reality for 99 percent of us. Day in and day out, we fill our fuel tanks, our cupboards, our refrigerators. We work to replenish the bank accounts to once again fill the tanks, cupboards and fridges. It’s the hamster wheel . . . and I want off.

So how do I do this? How do I confront this soul-sucking reality, not to mention the social issues that plague our nation?

A beloved mentor once told me, “When all else fails, count your gratefuls, Jen.”

So here goes:

I’m grateful to be an American. This isn’t necessarily easy for me to say. I hate the tarnish that’s dulled our reputation. I cringe at the behavior of our leaders. And yet I must stay mindful that I live in a country that affords me crazy-good freedoms.

I’m grateful I don’t live with fear for mine or my family’s lives. I don’t worry that my children will be taken from their school and killed. I don’t worry about us being taken by terrorists and tortured. I don’t worry about being murdered for my gender or skin color. I’m grateful to live where these gratefuls are seldom even recognized as such.

I’m grateful I have shelter. Our cupboards are full, our roof doesn’t leak and our furnace keeps us warm. What’s more wonderful than all of this? Knowing that if my world collapsed tomorrow and we were suddenly without such comforts, Marty and I have an incredible family and community that would lovingly shelter us.

I’m grateful to live in rural Iowa. While I totally enjoyed being a “townie” those years Marty and I lived in DeWitt, I adore living in the wilds where, if I need to, I can run out to the clothes line in a towel and not care (though not in December).

I’m grateful for humility and forgiveness. Anyone who knows me well is aware that when I lose my moral focus, I become a massive, oversized jerk. These episodes are often painful and end with me making amends for what I’ve done. I’ve never enjoyed this. Ever . . but when I’ve found the humility to recognize my wrongdoing, the forgiveness that’s been offered me leaves me speechless and often in a puddle.

I’m grateful for family and friends. This may sound a bit too obvious, but my family and I haven’t always been so glad to know each other (see prior grateful). The relationships I have with my family today—my parents, my sisters, my brother, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, my nieces, my nephews, the Reeds, the Kroymanns, the Olsons, the Murrells—are the stuff of miracles! And friendships?! My cup of egg nog runneth over.

So there you have it, once again that beloved mentor of mine was right. Nothing turns my gray skies blue like remembering the things that truly matter. I may not be able to effect change on the big picture, but if I can keep these gratefuls in mind, I open myself to small opportunities for little changes. And just thinking about the possibilities drives my Grinchitude away.


Originally published 13 December 2014 in The Observer.