Cutting my teeth on gravel

Gravel is hard. Wait, it’s soft, which makes it extra hard! Sunday rollers

On my days off, I’m forcing myself to explore the hilly, twisty, turny gravels north of my home. If a person rides south, they’ll hit a few hills before pancaking a few miles north of DeWitt. Flat is fine. In fact, it’s fun because I can go fast! But flat doesn’t cut the butter when you’re eyeballing Dirty Kanza 2019.Sunday harvest

It’s weird how even within a couple of rides, it seems like I’m getting a feel for this new style of riding. I’m starting to get a slight understanding of how to climb gravel: similar to the road in that I’m “sittin’ and spinnin’” but different because while most road climbing is steady and long or short and sweet, gravel inclines can be sudden and wall-like.

I’m “lucky” to have really hilly gravel near my home. Even though I’ve lived here for 12 years, the backroads are easy to get lost on because they move with the land–rising and falling, meandering and bending. Just a few miles to the south where it’s super flat, the backroads are laid out in perfect squares. But where I live? I never know where I’m going to end up! Not only does that make riding exciting, it’s also very surprising. I’ll be pedaling along and suddenly drop into a valley then just as quickly, need to grind and claw my way up and out.gravel and cows

And yesterday’s climbing was tough: nearly every road had been covered with a fresh layer of rock and then graded.  On one particularly tough climb, I started spinning out and eventually gave up and walked it.

I’m currently riding the stock 700×42 Sawtooth tires on my Specialized Sequoia and I’m learning I probably need a tire with some real tread. Also, much like when I started riding a fat tire a year ago and messing around with tire pressure, 35 psi in my rear wheel is too much. A couple days earlier I was riding at about 19 psi and though it was too squishy, I didn’t seem to struggle with spinning out so much.gravel creek

Aside from the tire issue, I’m also gaining a little experience with gearing. When climbing on the road, I stay aware of how many gears I have before I max out. On gravel it seems like I max out before the climb really even starts. There’s so much “mental” to it. Not only am I deciding where the best line in the gravel lies then trying not to bite it as I move into it, but the environs are gorgeous and I’m trying to enjoy the views. And when that view is suddenly a big ass hill and I haven’t been paying attention to my gears? Ugh. . .there’s a learning curve to this gravel stuff. For sure.

A friend told me it took him three rides to decide if he even liked it. I’m already sold, mainly because of the exploring that’s waiting for me out my backdoor. . .strava tuesday


Zombie flies beat biker butt

I’m failing as a parent.

I know, I know…every parent thinks that, but this time it’s for real!

So how, exactly, am I failing. Drugs? Porn? Grades in the tank? Nope.

My son won’t bike with me. *gasp*little mac bike path

His resistance started two years ago when he and his sister were 11 and 13. It was spring break and I’d loaded up the bikes and headed to the Duck Creek Bike Path in Bettendorf. We had a history, us three, of rolling along on the Clinton and Fulton-Thompson bike paths. I wanted to increase our two-wheeled sojourns and introduce them to new views.

It was the first ride of the year so I knew it’d be short, but around 2 miles, KidBoy started to derail. His butt hurt. Despite several breaks, we eventually had tears…and a very brief ride. It pretty much set the tone for the year.Mo on trainer

So last year, saddled with new bikes and high hopes, the butt pain and tears continued. Not with his sister, though. Except for a literal run-in with a fence, KidGirl’s a natural, even on the trainer.

The kids wear all the proper gear, we’ve adjusted saddle height, tilt, even added one of those BS cushioned seat covers. But it’s clear, KidBoy doesn’t want to ride and is holding on to any excuse. While Marty and I both believe it’s a “time in the saddle” issue, our son is unwilling to put in the time to get his duff toughened up.

Today was their last day of spring break and since KidGirl was hitting the links with Marty, I offered KidBoy the following: an hour of relaxed cruising or sweeping the attic and ShopVac’ing a winter’s worth of nasty-ass dead and undead flies.

He chose the flies. FLIES!!! An afternoon in a gross, web-filled attic with a bazillion zombie flies vs. a glorious spring day in the fresh country air…20160329_131814

Last winter he made the comment, “Just because you like fitness doesn’t mean I like fitness.” Was he pushing my buttons? Of course. But was there a nugget of truth? A glimpse into his personal teenage angst? Probably. So what do I do???

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.

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.

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.

Like a cruel ding-dong ditch ‘em, ‘Menopause’ comes a’knockin’

Last Sunday, I sat in the fourth row at the Adler, listening to a quartet of women sing about my life. Honestly, I’d hoped the topic would sail over my head, that the theme would be some unfamiliar nether issue waiting for me many years off in the future. Sadly, “Menopause the Musical” hit every stinking note with surprising precision.

Is that “TMI” (too much information), that I’m sitting squarely in the midst of “the Change?” Tough. It has/is/will effect half the people on this planet so why shouldn’t we talk about it? And yet our culture, for as progressive as we may think ourselves (well, maybe not so much after last Tuesday) we continue to dance around the issue.

At least the musical gave good beats with which to do that dancing.

I knew I had a few telltale symptoms, but as each scene passed and the songs built one on top of the other, I was aghast at how strongly I could relate to the four women on stage. No offense, but those four women looked much older than me!

Not that they weren’t attractive, mind you, but they certainly weren’t 35. And neither am I, even though my mind would have me believe I’m still in my early 20s. Where did the last two decades go?!

I guess I can thank the women of the Baby Boomer generation for not going quietly into that dark “Change,” but I don’t know how ready I am to join you.

Once the 1980s gave way to the ‘90s and I no longer required cans of Aqua Net to set my hair skyward, increasing my height a solid 6 inches, I slowly drifted away from worrying about my looks.

Maybe it was the “freshman 15” in college or maybe it was just the style of the times: large, flannel shirts and grunge music, but somewhere along the way I lost the ability to be “girlie.”

Sure I might wear a bit of makeup, but any concept of how to accessorize scarves and beads and earrings and bangles was snuffed out by my penchant for plaid button-downs and KSwiss sneakers.

And my fashion sense hasn’t improved much. Instead of the oxford shirts, it’s race t’s. The KSwiss tennies have been replaced by whichever running shoe currently holds my orthotic inserts.

So what does this have to do with menopause? In spite of my best efforts to shun my gender, I am indeed a woman . . . and boy do my hormones ROAR!

Take the night sweats . . . the heat I emit is similar to that of a self-cleaning oven, as if I might set the bed on fire. I was running with a girlfriend earlier this week who told me that when she suffers night sweats her husband asks if she’s sick, “Do you have a fever?”

There are times I’ll wake up FREEZING and drenched, leggings, long-sleeved t-shirt and my entire side of the bed, soaking wet. Gross? Well, apparently that’s just run-of-the-mill menopause.

During Sunday’s performance, one of the characters made mention of waking up in a puddle and not knowing whether to change the sheets in the middle of the night or simply lay down a towel and go back to sleep.

Are there hidden cameras in my bedroom?! There’s only one way writer Jeanie Linders could’ve known that about me and that’s if it happened to her and a host of other women. And yes, my running buddy admitted it happens to her, as well.

And speaking of sleep, I never realized my lack of continuous shut eye was menopause related, but when the musical hit that note, I was reminded how over the last couple of years, I’m waking more and more often for no reason and struggling to fall back to sleep.

My doctor recommends I take Black Cohosh, morning and night, but I haven’t noticed much of a difference.

The differences I AM noticing are those marching across my body, starting with my face. I remember my skin being younger-looking, more like Play Doh, smooth and healthy. But now? For the first time I’m noticing wrinkles in new places. My forehead is creased with many and varied lines and my dimples no longer seem youthful, but rather sad and weathered.

And that area between my neck and chest, the décolletage? Let’s just say that if it wasn’t for the dang hot flashes, I’d wear turtle necks year round! Where did all those freckles and furrows come from?!

Maybe this is why I abandoned my “girlie” side years ago, maybe I secretly hoped that if I ignored the “girlie” part of me and focused on the “biking, running, sporty-Grrrr” part of me, I wouldn’t be bothered when age came a’knocking.

But guess what, I’m bothered.

While I’m not ready to delve into wrinkle creams, age-fighting serums, Botox and all the other “solutions” the beauty industry is hocking, I am beginning to understand on a very personal level why women pine for such treatments.

This aging business is quite disturbing. For someone like me, who really didn’t care about all that, to suddenly care about all that?! It’s weird.

I can only imagine how freaked out normal women must be, women who actually put an effort into coordinating an outfit and putting on make-up. In my effort to set myself apart from all of you, I find that I’ve been right beside you all along.

Hopefully next time you see me and I’m lathered like a horse, you’ll know I’m just struggling through a hot flash. Misery loves company, so please don’t let me suffer alone, remind me you know how it feels. I like empathy.

Girlfriends, let’s help each other through this! No matter how different we each choose to cope, let’s have each other’s backs on this and just do whatever we must. Me? I think I’ll sign up for another race . . . and slather on extra sunscreen.

Originally published 8/15 November 2014 in The Observer.

Film, music & make-up: a great week of area entertainment

Movies and mayhem, both musical and otherwise. What a week it’s been!

Without a doubt, Monday’s premiere of the documentary “West By Orphan Train” at DeWitt’s Operahouse Theatre crushed anyone’s expectations.

Hosting the event was the Friends group from the Frances Banta Waggoner Community Library and we offered a secret preview that afternoon to residents of local assisted living facilities. With 10 people attending from Maggie’s House in DeWitt and another 20 traveling from Grand Haven in Eldridge, we had a solid start to the day’s event.

orphan train mo & mac behind depotSpending the remainder of the afternoon with film director Colleen Bradford Krantz and Clark Kidder, author of “Emily’s Story,” I took them to Ann Soenksen’s to show Kidder where his grandmother’s school would have stood while also allowing him to visualize the general area of the Pelham Farm where his grandmother lived for several months. Eventually we stood at the Malone train crossing, where Emily arrived in Clinton County via orphan train from New York.

When we returned to DeWitt and walked toward the Operahouse at 5:30 Monday night, people were already trickling into the lobby. By 6:10 p.m., as Kidder’s book supply started running low and the crowd swelled, all of us began to fret over the theater’s capacity of 236.

Within 20 minutes, the house was full!

Opting to offer a second showing, we rolled the 60-minute film early and had another 150 people return at 8 p.m. for that screening!

While hindsight remains 20/20 and both Krantz and Kidder agreed the afternoon preview would have been a great option for others, no one could have prepared us for the wonderful interest in this project.

Admittedly, we live in a pretty cool area. Not only do we support the arts, but we have a solid interest in the orphan train story due, in part, to the Delmar Depot.

Many people connected with Krantz and Kidder, sharing stories of family members who came to the Midwest on an orphan train. One of the more exciting meetings was with a Muscatine woman whose mother was an orphan train rider and is still alive!

Iowa Public Television will be partnering with Krantz and Kidder for another local showing at Davenport’s Figge Art Museum, Sunday Nov. 16 at 2 p.m. A tentative IPTV airing is set for Monday, Dec. 1 at 7 p.m.

As if I didn’t get my art “fix” Monday, Tuesday was the Northeast Marching Band Extravaganza in which both the middle and high school marching bands performed in the gymnasium.

When we moved our family into the Northeast School District nearly a decade ago, we attended a football game and watched a small, rather rag-tag marching band take the field. Both Marty and I came from strong high school music programs and we were adamant that both our children participate.

In the few years since our first experience watching the Northeast Marching Band, the program has burgeoned under the tutelage of Gerald Creger, Matthew Bolahan and Laura Horst, making Marty and I (selfishly) very excited for the coming years!

During Tuesday night’s concert, the middle school band began their set with Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” I barely stifled a giggle as Creger prefaced the song by claiming it’s a mainstay for anyone with a guitar, electric or air. Myself? I remember killing it on the keyboard. Seriously, few are the chords less familiar!

After a smokin’ hot rendering of that classic, the band proceeded with the theme from “The Pirates of the Carribean” before closing with an impressive parade number.

Prior to the high schoolers taking the floor, Creger noted the band participated in the Musky Marching Invitational in Muscatine where they won the third place trophy. They also took part in the Iowa High School State Marching Band Festival at the newly renovated Brad Street Stadium in Davenport where they achieved an ‘Excellent’ rating.

The gym then filled with the music of Billy Joel, a multi-piece homage titled “Piano Man-the music of Billy Joel.” From “Only the Good Die Young” to “Air” (Dublinesque) it was both exciting and gorgeous to witness.

Hats off to the seniors and we excitedly wait the 2015 season to hear how the younger performers try to fill your shoes. Great work and many thanks for all your hard work!!!!

And finally, what Halloween is complete without ghouls, especially in Charlotte? Yep, the local haunted house is baaaack!

After 2012’s sudden and soul-crushing closing of the Charlotte Haunted House, Mike Jensen and the rest of the Citizens For Charlotte crew resurrected this community tradition inside the walls of the old stone Charlotte school.

With last weekend’s opener attracting nearly 1,000 people (official headcount was 989), it’s clear this town gives a great scare. Consider joining us tonight for the final screams of the 2014 season!

Originally published 1 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.