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.”


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.

Joe Brown’s goes to the dogs, literally

By now, it’s no secret we’re a family of animal lovers. And except for a couple of cats we had during the seven years we lived in DeWitt, our entire cast of fur-covered Murrell children have dwelled in the confines of the old Joe Brown place.

Our family began with Tuttle, a black lab wedding gift from Marty’s brother and his family. Named after M*A*S*H character Hawkeye’s childhood pretend friend, Tuttle was kind of ours and kind of my parents.

When our first human child arrived, we determined Tuttle needed a vacation and would be happier at my parents’ Grand Mound farm. Mom laughs about it now, but apparently we never really verified that little agreement. I assumed Marty had cleared it with them and vice versa, but as Mom tells it, “One day, you brought Tuttle out for a visit. And left! Marty would take her hunting . . . and then bring her back!”

maudry in pastureBy the time Moira was three and Maclane arrived, Tuttle was back. Back in DeWitt for a couple more years before heading north to the old Joe Brown place.

By the time we moved, Tuttle was around eight. Though not terribly old, she’d lost the spring in her once-youthful step. Enter Zeke.

A RAGBRAI teammate from Ames realized his behemoth, caramel-colored giant of a mutt was too big for his small house in town, and since we had a big ol’ house and all that fresh, country air. . .

But Zeke turned out to be awesome with the kids and a buddy for Tuttle before her health deteriorated into a debilitating spinal condition that ended her life.

One of my favorite Zeke memories occurred during a particularly long road trip. If it’s possible for a dog’s hair to turn green, poor Zeke’s had. When that oh-too-familiar stank wafted to the front of the vehicle and I turned around, a woefully comic expression rested on his face. Zeke was car sick.

After depositing some of his stomach’s contents in the back of our old Ford Explorer and leaving the rest in a ditch alongside the road, he eventually passed out.

His favorite pastime, however, would also be his demise: chasing down the many milk trucks that travel to and fro Blanchard’s nearby dairy.

After Zeke died, Tuttle’s health failed and we found ourselves dogless. Within days Marty located a beagle pup, Sydney. She was an absolute sweetheart except for an irritating habit of snacking on dirty underwear, specifically small, pint-sized Spiderman briefs.

Sydney was our one and only mother, having found herself in the family way after dog-sitting Dad Reed’s fully-loaded springer, Chubby. Dad couldn’t remember if Chubby was fixed, but when we’d taken Sydney to the vet to be spayed, it was too late.

Following a litter of seven puppies that winter, Sydney, like Zeke, met her end on 136. Again dogless, Marty and the kids visited a local shelter and were sweet-talked into taking TWO dogs: a massive black lab mix named Gordy and a small, ugly-as-sin rat terrier, Maudry.

After a few months, 136 struck again by luring Gordy to his death. This was around 2009, which I’m happy to say was the last such victim. For now.

Maudry, who wheezed like a chain-smoking 87-year-old bridge player and exhibited a similar level of fitness, remained committed to her belief that she be allowed to hump all the couch pillows and sleep her days away. What a peach.

As lovely as she sounds, old Maudry needed a companion. When a neighbor called to see if we wanted a puppy, a springer/collie mix, that’s when Joe Brown “The Dog” entered our family.

Joe, who remains alive and well with my brother, Matt Reed, is one of the funnier dogs. One Christmas we went south and Dad Reed agreed to dogsit. When we returned and brought Joe home, he seemed blue. When Dad came over for supper, Joe jumped in his car.

The two were perfect for each other. Dad thought Joe should stay outside, Joe thought he should be in. Come sunset Joe would bang on the front door and Dad would yell, “Knock it off!” This banter became an evening routine with Joe always winning. The most faithful of companions, Joe remained at Dad’s side until the end.

Prior to Joe’s taking over Dad’s place, we briefly had a trio: Maudry, Joe and Pugsley, a stray pug. We quickly learned, he was probably a stray for a reason.

Whether it was finding him on top of the dining room table or snorting dead flies, Pugsley was at once both cute and gross. His biggest fault, though, was his running.

It should’ve been no surprise given that’s how we got him. We could barely let him out to pee without him taking off. On one such adventure, we learned he’d shacked up for a weekend with Joe and Kelly Sparks under the pseudonym “Larry.” What a player.

It was clear Pugsley needed open, corralled spaces and we weren’t about to fence in our yard. Though Maclane continues to resent me for it, I encouraged Marty to find Pugsley a new home with an enclosed yard.

And then a pregnant stray showed up at Marty’s parents’ Arkansas home! When the pups arrived, they looked a bit Labrodor’ish. And Marty wanted a hunting dog.

So with hopes the Lab line ran strong, Charlie was brought from Arkansas to Iowa where he continues to be the best darn dog on the planet! He loves the outdoors, tries to flush birds and is a pro at avoiding eye-contact with cats. He’s great at scaring off possums and skunks, doesn’t snore too loud and has the most expressive face ever.

He’s so mutt’y he probably has a dozen different breeds flowing through his veins, but he’s proven himself the most devoted overseer of the Joe Brown place.

Except for having to put Maudry down a couple years ago due to her suffering with COPD-like breathing troubles, we’ve had no further canine sorrows. Let’s hope this lucky streak continues!

Originally published 6 December 2014 in The Observer.

Beatles tribute hits Vegas jackpot

It was a moment of weakness when I registered for the Las Vegas Rock & Roll Marathon last spring. Friends were signing up & the early-bird registration was quite affordable at $125. So with thoughtless fingers, I completed my online registration.

I had no business doing so, for several reasons: A) I did a Rock & Roll half marathon in Chicago in 2010 and given the high price tag, it should’ve been fabulous. It wasn’t. Neither awful nor awesome, the “meh” attitude with which I was left me caused me to swear off future Rock & Roll events.

vegas mom & dadMy second mistake was forgetting I’ve never had a desire to visit Sin City, ever. It’s hot, it’s crowded, I don’t drink, I try not to smoke and I don’t gamble.

Then I figured it could be a short getaway for my husband and I . . . until Marty was lured to Florida for a week of golf with his brother-in-law. Then, as the event grew nearer, the friend I planned to travel with opted to drop out.

When I told my mom about the event and my predicament, she said her and Dad wouldn’t mind going back to Las Vegas since their last visit had been 25 years ago.

So I booked a package deal through Allegiant Air for the three of us. Flying out of Moline Friday afternoon and returning Monday, we had rooms at The Mirage and complimentary tickets to the Cirque du Soleil Beatles LOVE show for Friday night.

Because I’d never expected to visit Vegas, I was ignorant of its geography and really only knew it sat in the desert. I didn’t realize it was surrounded by the attractive red rock of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Sitting sandwiched like an eight-year-old between her parents, our flight out was cramped, noisy, but incredibly smooth. (Our return was opposite in every way: I’d selected seats with extra leg room, the 7 a.m. departure was quiet, but both the take-off and landing were a bit bumpy.)

Arriving in Las Vegas mid-afternoon we were able to check-in to our hotel, collect our tickets for the 9:30 show that evening and visit the race expo for my bib number and swag all before supper.

Having left Dad back at the hotel, Mom and I tackled the expo by ourselves. Try as I might to avoid having my picture taken, Mother insisted I stand before an expo sign. Ugh. But as fate would have it, while Mom attempted to take said picture, some people began walking in front of me. Turned out these random strangers were friends from the Cedar Rapids/North Liberty area who I didn’t know would be there! It was estimated 40,000 runners participated in the Saturday and Sunday events and there I stood with a gaggle of buddies as if we were at some local Iowa race!

Mom marveled at the size of the packet pickup and number of vendors. While I normally loathe expos because of the crowds, seeing Mom sample nibbles of mint chocolate chip PowerBars and snatch up free samples of organic Hemp Pro protein powder, it was totally worth it.

Plus, we both got suckered into purchasing hand lotion. As the vendor massaged the aloe cream into Mom’s hands, she said the magic words, “It won’t wash off, no matter how many times you wash your hands.” Mom, being a nurse, immediately said, “We’ll take two.”

Following the expo, we grabbed Dad and enjoyed a massive buffet at the hotel. If I was still drinking, it would’ve been a steal at $35 a head because all-you-can-drink wine and beer was included. That said, I attempted to eat my weight in sushi, shrimp and chocolate . . . not the best move considering how tired we were feeling and still had the Beatles show to see at 9:30 (11:30 our time).

But what a show!!! I had absolutely no idea the sensory overload we were in for. Premiering back in 2006, much of the music featured came from the Beatles psychedelic album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The songs and voice overs of John, Paul, George and Ringo were acted out with the acrobatic prowess of the famed Cirque du Soleil troupe.

Done “in the round” with the audience circling the stage, our nose bleed seats from above gave us a bird’s eye view of EVERYTHING! Whether it was trapeze artists swinging from a ceiling dripping with twinkling lights to the sound of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or bubbling, billowing fabric slithering from a rising bed and covering the audience 20 rows deep during “Within You Without You,” the three of us agreed you simply didn’t know where to look!

From all directions came colors and movement and sounds. No wonder the people sitting next me had seen the show seven times! Every song was a different scene offering weird, eye-popping, candy-colored costumes. We were riveted by the roller skaters zipping and flipping over half-pipe skate ramps to the song, “Help!” and transfixed by the floating jelly fishes bobbing from their bungee cords during “Octopus’s Garden.”

I could go on, but no words, no photos will ever do this 90-minute show justice! That, alone, made the trip worth it.

Tune in next week for two vastly different tours of the Las Vegas Strip!

Originally published 22 November 2014 in The Observer.

Vegas 26.2 proves too great a challenge

I’d traveled to Vegas to run the Las Vegas Rock & Roll Marathon. My husband couldn’t join me so Mom and Dad opted to go!

It’d been 25 years since they last visited Sin City. A lot has changed. We spent much of Saturday morning and afternoon walking the Strip. I booked us at The Mirage because not only did I think Mom and Dad would enjoy it, but the marathon finished there. Little did I know it was also seated at the north end of the Strip.

Strolling south we visited casinos in Harrah’s, the Flamingo, New York New York and the Monte Carlo. There were crystal chandeliers, hot pink leather seats and gorgeous silver Audis waiting to be won. Absent were the tuxedo’ed James Bond-types.

~vegas marathonThough the casinos were mostly the same, Mom and Dad both admitted disappointment with how lavish and outlandish the Strip had become. The old Vegas was gone, replaced with extravagant shops like Prada, Tom Ford and Guicci. It’s truly like a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah.

We had supper at Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill inside Harrah’s. With hard-working waitresses in cowboy hats and chaps, Mom and I giggled watching tables of middle aged men drool over the in-your-face breasts and butts, ignoring their poor dates.

The rest of the evening and much of Sunday I hung out in my room while Mom and Dad roamed around. The anxiety I normally feel before a marathon was amped up even more because it was a night event. Start time: 4:30 p.m.

When I joined Mom and Dad for coffee and muffins Sunday morning and again for lunch, I kept telling them, “This wait is killing me!” As with many runners, I’m used to a morning routine of coffee, breakfast, race. This was a mind game of waiting. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t relax, couldn’t calm down. Despite it being my 12th marathon, it felt like my first.

Ever since my first in 2010 when I saw a runner wearing a tall Eiffel Tower cage, I knew I wanted to run in costume. Since then I’ve acquired all sorts of tutus and shirts and tights. For Vegas, I decided to go with a holiday theme: red tulle skirt, black capri tights, candy-cane striped socks, a Santa hat, elf collar and a green t-shirt that read “Santa’s coming? I know him!” from the movie Elf.

Some people think I do it for attention, but I dress up to give other people a laugh and this costume didn’t disappoint. While waiting for the race to start, a gaggle of Santas passed through my start corral so I shouted, “Santa! I know him!”

When the Santas turned around and greeted me, I turned to my race mates and screamed, “They know me!” That’s all it took for a few of us to start swapping Elf movie quotes. Still, we were in for a long wait and though the majority of runners were doing the half, even they were antsy to get going.

I was assigned Corral 28 based on an estimated finish of 4:40—a tad hopeful, but not impossible given my marathon PR is 4:32. But this was the first I’d run with a required finish time of five hours or less. That, alone, does a number on the psyche.

Though the race started at 4:30 p.m., it wasn’t until 5:10 that I go rolling and by the second mile I knew I was in trouble. Whether it was the long wait to start, the previous day’s walking or the evening timeframe, I could tell I was pushing too hard and getting nowhere. I felt like I was in quicksand.

As the course ran along the Strip, I took in the lights, but worried. I spotted my parents and Hi-5’ed Dad, not stopping to talk. Off and on, I ran with a Quad City friend who was doing the half.

Around the ninth mile, she veered toward her finish while the full course headed to Fremont Street, which was a delight! With a massive video screen canopying the pedestrian mall, crowds lined the race course and Hi-5’ed us as we went through. I noticed my face was having trouble smiling. My cheeks wouldn’t work!

And then it happened. Just before Mile 14, as I trailed runners taking the course’s left turn, several race officials walked onto the course and formed a human barricade. I’d missed the cutoff. Me and everyone behind me were denied further progress.

I heard one runner shout at the race officials, pleading he be allowed to continue. No dice. We’d run the first half too slow. They’d turned us around and sent us back to the finish.

This was on an out-and-back portion of the course so we blended in with other runners who’d already circled through the portion we hadn’t.

I felt a weird mix of angst and relief. Like a neon billboard, the thought that crowded out all others was: “This would be my first DNF (Did Not Finish).”

I couldn’t understand what I’d done wrong. My training was solid, the course was flat, the temperature was perfect and yet none of that matter. It was a race in which things just didn’t come together.

As the course took runners back through Fremont Street I tried to smile and wave. When I headed toward the finish, I palmed the many hands sticking out. I felt like a poser, but couldn’t find another way off the course. I headed down the finisher’s chute and over the finish line. Weird.

I spotted a half marathoner sitting along the edge, pulling out a cigarette. I nearly joined him. I felt gross, on the inside.

After my parents found me, their faces falling when I told them what happened, I went to my room and messaged friends of the failure. It wasn’t long for a Facebook comment to pop up from one of my dearest friends, Observer-alum Shelly Seifert, “Your children are watching how you deal with this.”


Does it get any more real than that?

There is way too much heartache in this world to let a little ol’ marathon get me down. Besides, I have no regrets! It was a great way to see the city and a fabulous experience with my parents!

For all the junk that chokes my Facebook newsfeed, recently a friend posted an article by runner Dane Rauschenberg, “Six Ways You Can Succeed in Running.” No. 6 on the list was “Remember How Lucky You Are.”

“. . . the main and best thing about running is that you get to do it. . . You are traversing the world, one foot at a time . . . there are thousands who wished they had it so easy. Don’t take it for granted.”

And I don’t intend to. Hopefully Thursday I ran my fifth Turkey Trot in Davenport. Tonight, my son Maclane and I will done costumes for Clinton’s Symphony of Lights 5k at Eagle Point Park. Tomorrow I plan to strap on a headlamp and join my Cornbelt buddies for a 6 a.m. long run along Bettendorf’s Duck Creek Bike Path.

Originally published 29 November 2014 in The Observer.

Movie sheds light on orphan train history

It was 2000 when I first heard about the orphan trains. I was working as a stringer for The Quad City Times and was assigned a piece on the Delmar Depot and a Maquoketa man who landed in the area after riding an orphan train from the east.

He was quiet and kind, showing great patience with my nervous, cub reporter-self. Inviting me into his home, I sat with him and his adult daughter while he shared his experience.

wilton orphan depotIt wasn’t a happy one. I remember he swallowed back tears telling me of the pain he felt being given away. He talked of being taken in, not as a son, but as a farm hand, and how the other kids at the farm would make fun of his eastern accent, specifically for how he said the word “horse” as “haws.” He said it was hard coming on an orphan train because, as he put it, he wasn’t wanted.

Not to wax saccharine, but in spite of this man’s sad start in life, I remember looking at his daughter and thinking of the love he eventually found in marriage and creating his own family. Surely it doesn’t replace the early love lost, but it must’ve filled at least a little of the empty space. My inexperience cost me. I didn’t ask the question, and he’s since died, taking his story with him.

Oddly enough, what Wisconsin author Clark Kidder wrote in “Emily’s Story” about his own grandmother’s coming from New York to Iowa on an orphan train echoed a similar experience.

First being taken in by the Pelham family of rural DeWitt, Clark noted it wasn’t a good environment for Emily. She was then taken in by a LeClaire family. Again, more pain awaited her. In fact Emily was never formally adopted, rather she grew up in Wisconsin, staying with families that gave her shelter in exchange for housework and childcare.

As with the Maquoketa gentleman, Emily’s joy did not take flight, it seemed, until a friendship with Earl Kidder sparked into romance and a family of her own grew up around her.

Since that mid-90s newspaper assignment the story of the orphan trains remained a part of me. Maybe it’s the regular drives through Delmar and past Maria Casad’s shadowy mural of train passengers, or maybe it’s the unsettling disbelief that such things took place for 50+ years from 1854 to 1930.

Given today’s standards for adoption, it’s surreal to imagine loading trains with orphans and indigent children, and sending them blindly into an unknown. Obviously organizers hoped they would find new, loving families, but there were no guarantees.

As the children were paraded across stages like that of DeWitt’s Operahouse Theatre, reciting a poem or a psalm, they could be taken into the home of a predator just as easily as that of a caring family, eager to give shelter and love.

I still question why I never learned about it in school, as if it was some ugly mark kept hidden, forgotten in a corner of our history. I marvel at how few people are aware of this period. While the movement was sparked out of concern and love for those children, as with so many altruistic efforts, pure intentions are easily sullied by the harmful actions of a few.

Monday the history of this orphan train experiment will come to the big screen in DeWitt with the premiere of the film “West By Orphan Train.”

Through an odd twist of events, Clark reached out to one of my dearest college friends, Colleen Bradford Krantz whose 2010 documentary “Train to Nowhere” on illegal immigration, sparked her book of the same name.

Clark pitched the idea of doing a documentary on the orphan trains, using his grandmother’s story as the framework. Colleen agreed and pulled in Iowa Public Television to partner on the project.

In planning the film schedule, Colleen realized how close my daughter, Moira, was in age to Emily when she rode an orphan train to Malone Station east of DeWitt. With Moira portraying Clark’s grandmother, additional children were needed to portray other orphans and Maclane happened to fit one of the costumes, serving as an extra for filming at the depots in West Liberty and Wilton.

Even though witnessing movie magic was an enjoyable experience, it remained a sad look at our nation’s past. Watching Moira wander, alone, along Anne Soenksen’s property near the original Malone Station; seeing Maclane sit on a suitcase and stare across the West Liberty railroad tracks . . . my mind continued to turn over the sadness experienced by so many young ones.

Reading “Emily’s Story,” I gaped at the strength necessary to withstand rejection at such a fundamental level, in many cases by your own family and then by adoptive families taking you in solely for your ability to work.

Seeing mine and the other children in period dress left me emotional. Their little bodies. Their long, sad faces. It was hard NOT to imagine the fear Emily and thousands of others must’ve felt as their trains chugged toward the next stop . . . being marched across a stage, holding their backs straight, chins up, hoping to be chosen by a nice family.

I know not every story was one of sadness. In spite of her tough start, “Emily’s Story” is a beautiful telling of one girl’s willingness to persevere. In fact, after my book club read it, a single word, “spitfire” continually sprang to mind whenever I thought of Emily. She simply never gave up. And thanks to her grandson’s book and Colleen’s film, her story and that of other orphan train riders are preserved for the ages.

Monday, consider joining Clark, Colleen and the Friends of Frances as we host the premiere of “West By Orphan Train” at The Operahouse Theatre. This free event begins at 6 p.m. with Clark signing copies of “Emily’s Story.” The movie will show at 7 p.m. and a question-and-answer period with Colleen and Clark will conclude the event.

*Unfortunately I was unable to locate a copy of my orphan train piece in the early 2000s and did not want to risk misidentifying the name of the Maquoketa gentleman I interviewed. My deepest apologies for the omission.

Originally published 25 October 2014 in The Observer.

Old Farmer’s Almanac 2015 forecast

The opening verse of the song “Like the Weather” by 10,000 Maniacs pops to mind during cold, rainy periods such as the recent soaking we suffered earlier this week. . .

              “Color of the sky as far as I can see is coal grey.

              “Lift my head from the pillow and then fall again.

              “Shiver in my bones, just thinking about the weather.

              “Quiver in my lip as if I might cry.”

Those dreary days can be easily forgotten as Wednesday gave way to gentle fall conditions. Is anyone with me in noticing the tree color? Could I be hallucinating or do the reds seem incredible this year? Even the sumac, usually a gorgeous deep burgundy is a flaming candy-apple red in many places!

I suffer such a love/hate reaction to this time of year. One the hand, the temperatures are falling and the changing leaves are lovely. But on the other hand, days are shortening . . . and I need my Vitamin D!

Admittedly, my schizophrenic-like attitude toward the weather is one in which I’m seldom content. Heat is my constant foe, and humidity? Forget it! I will never complain about the cold because you can always put on more layers (though my sisters would argue otherwise). But during those thick, steamy days of summer? You can only get so naked before you’re arrested, and then you’re still gross and sweaty!

In spite of my aversion to warmer climes, I must admit my recent sadness. All the glorious leaf colors and cooler temps serve as sentinels to my seasonal depression, heralding shorter days, cabin fever and miles waiting to be slogged on the treadmill.

While I truly appreciate temps in the teens, the limitations winter places on our lives is a total bummer. Thanks to wool socks and all sorts of layers, at least the cold and wind do not imprison me. But snow and ice? Yeah, I’m out . . . or rather, in.

When I asked my 11-year-old son his thoughts on the coming winter, he shared his excitement, claiming “there’s more to do outside during the winter.” Maclane noted sledding, snowboarding, snowball fighting. (I’ll remember this when he wants to be a toad, sit on the couch and play Minecraft all day.)

It was about six weeks ago, listening to Iowa Public Radio’s “Talk of Iowa” with Charity Nebbe, that I caught her interview with an editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

The winter forecast? Cold and blustery.

Seriously? After last winter?! Honestly, I hate to complain about last winter, but even I found it a little . . . long.

And now it would truly seem that our last hot days are behind us. Hurray! But does that mean I’m ready for cold and blustery? Nope, which is why I opted to snag a copy of the 2015 edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac to find out for myself all that next year has in store for us.

Scanning the table of contents, there’s an actual guide to using The Old Farmer’s Almanac, a good thing considering there are parts which read like Galileo’s notebook. The calendar pages are the meat of the almanac, “these pages are unchanged since 1792, when Robert B. Thomas published his first edition. The long columns of numbers and symbols reveal all of nature’s precision, rhythm and glory, providing an astronomical look at the year 2015.”

One thing I remember from the public radio program was that the Almanac claims to have an 80 percent accuracy rate. Googling the question, “How accurate is The Old Farmer’s Almanac” I found many sites itching to complain about such a boastful claim.

A meteorologist writing for Slate, an online magazine, reported “Independent verifications of its forecasts by actual meteorologists over the years showed skill that was ‘laughable at best and abysmal at worst’ with accuracy about as good as a coin toss.”

But doesn’t longevity give its predictions a little cred? The Old Farmer’s Almanac has been released continually on an annual basis since first published 1792. And come on, am I alone in believing the science of meteorology can be a tad “iffy” at times?

While science is reporting a “warmish” winter, The Old Farmer’s Almanac is predicting temperatures, precipitation and snowfall “below normal.” Could this be an indication of less ice i.e. fewer miles on the treadmill? Time will tell.

But as I read further, it was next summer’s prediction that had me groaning: “hotter and slightly drier than normal.” Though that could indicate a possibly less humid summer, it sounds like a scorcher could be in store.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll just enjoy fall while we have it: the beautiful colors, the milder temps, and the last few passes with the lawnmower before winter arrives and I batten down the hatches.

Originally published 18 October 2014 in The Observer.

Luck be not the lady for me

I tend not to pay attention to luck as I’ve resigned myself to having very little of it. That’s not to say I’m a pessimist, I’m just not the one to win playing scratch tickets and my number is rarely drawn for a prize.

However, I’ve got a pretty great life, but luck has very little to do with it. For me, I think it’s more about simply doing the best I can and trusting that things will work out. And they always do . . . just usually not according to my plan or timeline.

Take my string of bad luck last week. It was a classic case of “if it could go wrong, it did.”

bad luck lpIt started on Thursday afternoon. I was in Milan for an appointment when I received a call from the school, my son was laid up in the nurse’s office with back pain. He woke that morning complaining his lower back hurt so I gave him some ibuprofen and sent him on his way.

Maclane is rarely one to cry wolf so I cancelled the appointment and headed back home. While in route, I contacted our chiropractor in Clinton who told me to bring him in.

When I got to Northeast to fetch Maclane, the boy was in tears. Unfortunately, once we got to the chiro, he said Maclane’s muscles were too locked up to be adjusted and suggested we visit our doctor and have him x-rayed, though Maclane could remember no trauma.

I opted to try one more thing before heading to the doctor, my soft tissue therapist in Davenport who has also treated both kids for posture and muscle issues.

I started seeing this guy a year ago and his ability to find the problem, workout the pain then identify exercises to strengthen the affected area is AMAZING. Luckily, he was able to see Maclane yet that night.

Back to the Quad Cities we went and after a number of strength tests, the therapist opted to do a cupping on Maclane’s back which involved placing 12 plastic vacuum cups over his lower back. Leaving them in place for 10 minutes, the therapist explained the technique creates negative pressure on the skin’s surface allowing the soft tissue underneath to release.

Within seconds Maclane started joking and giggling about how weird it felt. The boy was getting relief! After removing the cups, the therapist covered Maclane’s lower back with an analgiesic then kinesiology tape, assigned him some exercises and scheduled him for a follow-up.

Maclane practically danced out of the office and to the car only to have another monkey wrench thrown at us: my car wouldn’t start. Two hours later, with an auto service looking it over and Marty waiting in the wings to rescue us, the service guy reprogrammed my key fob and brought the car back to life. Whew!

But the next morning my car barely started so we took it directly to DeWitt’s Bauer Repair. Eventually we’d learn it was a battery issue—that as a battery weakens, it shuts off service to various systems. I’m just grateful it was such a simple fix.

But the luck issue was far from over.

Last Friday, if you’ll remember, was a gorgeous day, and since I had no transportation, it was perfect for catching up on laundry and mowing the lawn. My plan was to quickly mow around the clothes line and lp tank which was nearby, hang a couple of loads of on the line and then proceed with mowing.

Our 1,000 gallon lp tank had been listing terribly and literally mere moments before jumping on the mower, I’d been looking at it, its left side sinking into the ground, knowing it needed to be moved.

Well . . . it got moved alright.

As I was mowing around it, the back tire of the lawn mower may have made contact with the tank. If it did, it was a light nudge, hardly a push, in fact, it was likely the wind, but whatever it was, as I drove my new mower away from it, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. The tank was rolling after me.

It sounds horrible, but it only rolled forward a foot or two, the line didn’t disconnect and all was well. (My lack of luck? Maybe I’m luckier than I thought because several people said it could’ve easily resulted in an explosion. Yikes!)

As it turned out, Eastern Iowa Propane was able to move it to a different spot and all is well.

Except one final “grrr” happened before my bad luck streak would be complete.

While a writer really only needs pen and paper, in today’s world, computers are vital. Mine seized Sunday as I was working on a project and stayed frozen until Wednesday when I was able to get it to a tech person. Of course it started right up for them! The techies claimed it was a glitch in one of my programs, but it solidified the disdain I have for my dependence on technology!!! (And my belief that computers have personalities and that mine is a passive-aggressive jerk.)

That said . . .

My son is again chasing soccer balls,

My car is purring like a kitten.

My fuel tank is sitting solidly safe

And my computer isn’t giving me fit(ten)s.

I sure hope these days of bad luck are done,

That blue skies and happy faces return.

But I guess it helps to count my blessings

And consider this week a lesson learned. . .

Originally published 27 Sept 2014 in The Observer.