Category Archives: literature

Stuck in a rut

Yeah, it’s been one of those winters that started early, acted badly, and overstayed its welcome. The weather forecasts sound like a broken phonograph record, a tale of five days of below normal temperatures, a one-day sharp warm up, a one day sharp drop, and a skip to the beginning. This last round left an unwelcome seven-inch dumping of snow, numerous traffic accidents and snarls, and several million short-tempered people. It has been a season of hoping that the snow is finally done falling for the season and then having that hope smothered under several inches of slush.

The constant weather disappointments test resiliency. Resiliency has its roots in hope. We have all heard the adage “Hope springs eternal”. Dante Alighieri in the “Divine Comedy” imagined a warning on the gate to Hell including the phrase “Abandon all hope, you who enter here”. Hell is a metaphor for losing all hope. People’s attitudes change for the worse as hope dwindles.

There may be light at the end of the tunnel, and it may not be a snowplow’s headlights. A slight threat of snow Sunday night gives way to a slight chance of 70° on Wednesday, at least according to the latest four-minute entertainment piece, er, weather forecast. I think they’re about to get one right for a change. Road crews have alternated between emergency pothole repair and snow removal these past few weeks. People in Minneapolis and St. Paul have played a game of constantly moving their street parked cars to accommodate valiant but futile snow removal efforts and may enjoy a break from shovels and tow trucks. Vehicles and bridge surfaces will enjoy a salt-free diet again. Ducks trying to land on lakes will not skid after bouncing off ice, but gracefully set down on water. Perhaps humans will molt their winter outer layers, too.

If the weather permits in your area, get outside and enjoy nature. Enjoy time with those you love. It may help give hope to someone who needs it.


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“Thar she blows!”

In “Moby Dick”, the lookout shouted “Thar she blows!” to signal a whale had surfaced. That lookout could easily have been forecasting our weather as of late.

November is a month of extreme weather in the Midwest. This year is no different. Three days of high winds have sent what was left of our fall colors nearly to the North Pole. Not many birds have braved the wind. During a brief interval when the wind speed dropped to a gentle breeze, two bald eagles were soaring with a group of over a hundred terns. There were also nearly a dozen hawks I could not identify gliding the updrafts and downdrafts in a looping figure “8”.

Change is definitely in the air. Most of the songbirds have molted their brilliant summer plumage and are in their duller winter feathers. Goldfinches are hanging on to the coneflower seed heads for dear life while showing off messy table manners. Peregrine falcons and kestrels are making more frequent low altitude flights looking for a quick snack, at least when they can maneuver. Squirrels and raccoons have been gorging themselves to help get through the winter. This means quite a few of them are too heavy to get out of the street quickly enough, which delights the crows to no end as they line up at their version of an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Not much is blooming at this point. Several hard frosts took care of most of the flowers. The blanket flowers around the mailbox are still trying to bloom, and their puffy seed heads are blowing around. I’m sure the front lawn will have dozens of new blanket flowers germinating next spring. Otherwise, most the greenery has turned to a muddy brown or into desiccated brown stalks. This summer arrived late which meant the fall colors were not as spectacular as in past years. My burning bush never got the chance to turn red before the leaves went flying away and the Autumn Blaze maple leaves turned a dull burgundy rather than a bright red. My neighbor’s sugar maple turned yellow instead of the usual orange-red. Maybe this year’s fall fashion colors were earth tones and dull yellows.

The dried plants are also causing increased dust in the air. Upper respiratory illnesses and allergies increased, too. Sharp changes in the weather seem to increase the likelihood of illness and discomfort. Lucy suffered from nasal allergies and sinus problems. I have a close friend who is suffering mightily from blocked sinuses, and another friend battling what seems to be the flu. My nasal allergies and sinus problems are in high gear with little hope of near-term abatement.

Adding insult to injury is the Winter Weather Advisory (recently downgraded from a Winter Storm Watch) for the Twin Cities effective Tuesday night into Wednesday afternoon. While we have already had a couple of days of light flurries before a several day stretch of summer-like weather, we are possibly skipping the light snow and might get an entire month’s worth in a twelve-hour period. The storm track and intensity are still in question, so the forecast amounts are ranging from 2″ – 7″; our average November monthly snow total is 9.3″ according to the Minnesota Climatology Working Group. Today has seen rain so far. Perhaps the rain will lower the amount of snow we can expect from the storm? One can always hope. I have jumper cables and a shovel in the car just in case and the snow thrower is ready for service.

The forecast for the next ten days is for high temperatures in the low 40’s, which is about normal. I know someone who will spend several days in a warmer area later this week. Unfortunately, I am too heavy to be considered checked baggage, but I will happily be the taxi driver to see the smiles. The ground will be wet enough to enjoy a bonfire, some hot chocolate, and many laughs with friends once the streets clear. One has to make the best of whatever weather comes along.

If snow affects you over the next few days, take it easy when shoveling or using a snow thrower, be careful on the roads, and stay warm. As always, for those of you lucky enough to have a special someone close by, make sure you give an extra hug just because you can. It will brighten your day, too.


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“There is a garden, verdant, beautiful…”

Well, maybe not today, but spring is continuing to make inroads at wresting control of the seasons from winter. The title of the post is the first line of a poem by Reyvrex Questor Reyes titled “Love Sonnet 58 There is a garden, verdant, beautiful“. Lucy would have liked the poem.

Several days of above freezing temperatures and several nights of light fog have devoured about five inches of snow cover in my back yard. The calendar says April but the weather behaves like March. While the yard is not verdant yet, its color is showing a green tinge in the brown. The front yard has a couple of snow piles created by the snowblower. After pulling back the leaves that had piled up in the gardens last fall, I was happy to see daffodils and squills poking through. Some areas of the yard remain frozen solid and other areas have thawed to about two inches down. Yesterday’s snowfall was a reminder that the weather in Minnesota s unpredictable. My yard looked like it had a bad case of dandruff and it melted later in the evening.

I have mentioned a couple of times that Lucy enjoyed poetry. She had a “Nothing Book” in her nightstand where she had transcribed poems that she liked. Julie gave Lucy the “Nothing Book” on Lucy’s 22nd birthday in 1980. The first poem Lucy had jotted in there was a haiku from the James Bond story “You Only Live Twice” by Ian Fleming:

You only live twice…
When you are born, and
When you look death in the face

We both enjoyed baseball, a game played on a verdant ball field. It is a game that spans three seasons and we would enjoy it on the radio while we worked in the gardens or were out for a walk. A. Bartlett Giamatti, a professor from Yale who later became the Commissioner of Baseball, had a quote in “The Green Fields of the Mind” which sums baseball up nicely:

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”

We went to some games at the Metrodome and wished we could be outdoors…except for one game when a severe thunderstorm roared through. Watching the Teflon roof bounce and seeing the flashes of lightning through the fabric made for an interesting evening, but we stayed dry. I was fortunate enough to see some Twins games at the old Metropolitan Stadium, now the site of the Mall of America. Lucy wanted to see a game at Target Field and to attend a St. Paul Saints game at Midway Stadium, and I plan to do both during this baseball season. Let me know if any of you would be interested in joining me.

I hope the weather where you are at is acting more seasonal than it is here. Give your loved ones a meaningful hug, try to get out and enjoy nature, and “root, root, root for the home team”.

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The comforts of home

What do you consider “home”? Is it the house you grew up in? Is it the first place you lived in after moving out on your own? Is it the house you bought with your spouse? I know some of you moved often during your childhood. Others of you spent time in one or more foster homes before adulthood. Still others are renters and quite satisfied with not worrying about maintenance.

When we were younger, we could not wait until we could start our new adventure. What we didn’t know then is that adventure culminates in finding our new “home” and building new memories. I think we go through a restless period akin to Goldilocks sampling the porridge, chairs, and beds in the Three Bears’ home. We may not know what we are looking for, but we know when we find it.

Home is the place where you made the most memories, where you felt safe, grounded, and surrounded by love. Even as adults, many of us consider “home” as the place we grew up, not the place in which we currently reside. Home is where the heart is. I consider two places as “home”: my primary home is the house Lucy and I bought and my other home is the house my parents now live.

One difficult transition we can face as adults is the sale of our childhood home. Lucy’s siblings found a buyer for their parent’s home and it has been bittersweet for them. The transition is a loss and reminds us that time marches forward even if we may not like the tempo. What was once familiar and comforting has changed. Someday I will be unable to maintain my home, which will probably require me to move into a senior’s center. I will have my memories of home to help me make that transition just as memories of my time with Lucy help me transition to a life without her. In both cases, one can hope the new owners will start building memories of “home” there and have love and joy fill the rooms.

Thomas Wolfe wrote a novel called “You Can’t Go Home Again” with the main point being:

You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

I submit that Mr. Wolfe was wrong. “Home” may have a number of physical changes besides a new owner; in fact, the structure could no longer exist. The memories remain even if the abode does not. Our memories are powerful and can change our perceptions. In “Paradise Lost”, John Milton wrote:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

The mind’s power is what helps us cope with the myriad of changes modern life sends our way. We cherish those memories of home, each one a thread woven into our life’s fabric. We use that fabric to shelter us from the unpleasantness that sometimes arises in life. As such, we never lose “home” unless we want it to go away. It will always be with us because it is part of us, providing us with peace, comfort, and smiles. You can go home again. Please keep Steve, Suzy, and Julie in your thoughts as they make this transition.

Yesterday was “National Napping Day” in areas that switched to Daylight Saving Time on Sunday. I hope that those of you who actively participated did not do so while driving. Other whimsical days this week include “National Pi Day” on Thursday and “National Quilting Day” on Saturday. Holiday Insights lists more if these interest or amuse you.

Tomorrow marks eleven months since Lucy passed away. Please think of her tomorrow. Thank you for keeping Lucy in your heart.

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Traho digitus meum

March weather at times seems like a series of practical jokes. The dog Latin post title translates to “Pull my finger” and fart gags (pun intended) date back to ancient Greece. Read “The Clouds” by Aristophanes for some 2,500-year-old proof. (The EPUB format is compatible with Nook readers.)

Today’s weather was a “pull my finger” sort of day. The heavy snowstorm threatened for last night took a more leisurely route and may arrive tonight. A Winter Storm Advisory issued Sunday morning became a Winter Storm Warning by Sunday afternoon declaring 7″ – 12″ of snow during the day Monday. Mother Nature gave us a “pull my finger” joke with the delay.

I’m a very logical, linear person and that can cause some “pull my finger” moments, as Lucy found out while we were dating. We learned quickly how to adjust, mostly with me adjusting to her communication style. My sister-in-law Julie has had the misfortune to experience a few of these moments, yesterday included. I feel badly that she ends up as the occasional (I hope) locus of my foibles and I am deeply grateful for her good humor and patience. I really am lucky having Julie and Suzy in my life.

Movie listings in the daily papers, on Yahoo! and on Google presented a “pull my finger” moment yesterday with a bogus showing time. Suzy, Julie, and I had planned on lunch and a movie yesterday. We settled for lunch at TGIFriday’s. It was still a very nice day despite the “Keystone Kops” subplots.

Parking in downtown Minneapolis is usually a “pull my finger” ordeal. During an event, parking downtown has a finishing touch of a flaming bag of dog poo. There are numerous restaurants worth the trouble of finding near the Convention Center. Check the Minneapolis Convention Center event calendar  before making the trip, trust me on that.

It’s been nice getting a chance to see some long-time friends. I’m catching up with Susan, and I have to make plans with Mike and Ken next week.

The Forsythia cutting is in full bloom, which is about three weeks earlier than I expected. It is a welcome splash of color and a reminder that spring is on the way in sixteen days. Another sure sign of spring are the seed and gardening catalogs arriving in the mail. Jung and Burpee seed catalogs are here and the Spring Hill Nursery catalog will probably arrive yet this week. Lucy had planted some Gloriosa lily bulbs a couple of years ago and I would like to try them again. It’s time to get the dahlia tubers in some dirt and start the seed tray.

I have completed the blog conversion. Facebook has been problematic with group notifications, so I have created a “Journey of the Teal Owl” page. If you could take a moment and “Like” the page, it will help with future notifications. I’m still discovering features with the WordPress software. Let me know what you think!

Having fun with loved ones is always a pleasure. Some of you like to play practical jokes. Let that special someone know that you care, hopefully without having him or her pull your finger.

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Many of you will recognize the title of tonight’s post as a snippet of the first sentence (and paragraph) of “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens. That one sentence in its entirety has 119 words, 169 syllables with a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease of -34.1 and a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 47.6. The two metrics, courtesy of, would indicate at a passing glance that the opening sentence would be impossible for most people to read much less comprehend. Yet the juxtaposition of the best of times enjoyed by England, and the worst of times endured by France, during 1775 is easily understood along with the subtle mockery by Dickens of “its noisiest authorities”. “Giving him/her the dickens” was a phrase meaning giving someone the devil back in Shakespeare’s time, a couple of centuries before Charles Dickens took pen in hand, though Mr. Dickens made a literary career out of bedeviling the unjust.

The past year was a study in juxtapositions. For some of you, 2012 was the best of times. There were births, graduations, engagements, promotions, weddings, new homes, favorite teams making the playoffs, and other celebratory achievements. For others, including me, 2012 was the worst of times. There were deaths (and far too many of them), divorces, lost jobs, lost homes, player lockouts, misfortune, and dashed hopes. For the rest of you, 2012 was just a year, neither good nor bad. It was merely indistinguishable and unnoteworthy from other years.

Humans are optimistic by nature. For thousands of years we have looked to the New Year to absolve the shortcomings and misfortunes of the old year and look forward with optimism that the new year will be better. It is more than huddling with people outside to see a ball or some other object drop, cuddling up with someone special while watching television coverage of New Year’s celebrations worldwide, or hoping for a kiss from someone special at the stroke of midnight, though all are enjoyable endeavors.

New Year’s symbolism echoes our optimism. The melancholy and decrepit old year gets ushered out and the joyous and innocent baby new year gets pressed into service. Our old year is weary from our tribulations, melancholy from our sorrows, and decrepit from bearing our burdens, while our new year is energetic, happy, and fit. We have weathered millennia of tragedy and strife, and no doubt will face other challenges in the upcoming year, but for this brief instant in time, all is happy and well. “Out with the old and in with the new” indeed.

For those of you on the roads tonight, please be careful and lay off the joy juice before driving. If you’re outside watching something drop besides the temperature, stay warm and enjoy yourselves! For those of you spending time with loved ones (or just a loved one), make the hugs meaningful, and enjoy your first kiss of the new year. Happy New Year, and may 2013 be better than 2012 for all of you!

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Lost in Translation

No, this isn’t about the Bill Murray movie from several years back. This started with a gleeful Facebook post which resulted in me trying to find a recipe for tater tot hotdish, which resulted in me finding a piece of notepaper Lucy left in the recipe box with a couple of Finnish phrases on it. Lucy was extremely proud of her Finnish heritage. She had the two phrases written out with a brief description of what sort of wall hanging contained each statement. She had seen these in one of three places: Finnish Gifts in downtown Minneapolis, Bergquist Imports in Cloquet, MN or Irma’s Finland House in Virginia, MN.

The first phrase was “Ota hymy huuleen ja juoksee vastatuuleen”. She had written “Smile and run against the wind” as a translation. Google Translate indicated “Take a smile on the lip and runs into the wind”.

On the back page was “Siunaa Jeesus ruokamme, ole aina luonamme. Lucy’s translation was “Dear Jesus, Thank you for our food and be present with us always.” Google Translate came up with something puzzling: “Jesus will bless our food, not always with us”. The subtlety of language comes into play. This is why auto-correct features are unintentionally hilarious or painfully vexing.

Google is a huge corporation. They have many brilliant minds working for them and advanced technology at their disposal. Something as simple as a before meal prayer still proves problematic for computerized translation, but a human translator has an easy time.  Words can have multiple meanings and definitions depending on context. A machine will try to use algorithms, which parse words and then assign a weighting factor to determine probable usage. All that sentence diagramming we were subjected to in middle school was not for naught.

The Chinese proverb “A picture is worth ten thousand words” is quite appropriate thousands of years later. Brilliant writers can “paint with words” in ways that I cannot, but even they get hindered by the sterility of purely written words. A human reader can remember passages that were a few words, sentences, paragraphs or chapters back, which help convey mood and context. A machine will look at a preceding word, the preceding sentence, and the current one. Even today, how many times has an email or note from someone caused the wrong reaction because even though the grammar and usage was correct, the intention was lost? How many times have passages been “taken out of context” to prove or disprove a thesis?

Take the three word phrase “I love you.” The phrase is easily translated into hundreds of languages.  No problem with meaning, right? C. S. Lewis very artfully demonstrated the difficulties of expressing emotion through language in “The Four Loves“. Love, while seemingly a simple concept is an extremely complex emotion with many different contexts. For example, Marcy is married, has a child, both parents still living, several siblings, and many friends. Even though Marcy will say “I love you” to her spouse, child, parents, siblings, and friends, there is a different form of love expressed using the same words.

In addition to words, humans will use tonality, inflection, and expressions to help convey meaning. We’ve seen movies where one buddy will slur “I love ya” before the copious quantities of alcoholic libations previously consumed are unceremoniously liberated and/or unconsciousness. “I love you” spoken to a spouse can have different meanings depending on mood. The degree of love between two people can differ. Romantic comedies have used a variation of A loves B madly, B loves A not as much (or at all), hilarity ensues while equilibrium establishes or fails, and all the loose ends tidy up in about 105 minutes. Affection, or caring, or adoration, or comradery:  it’s still those three words, “I love you”.

The visual and audible cues are very important. How do we determine if a person is angry or pretending, sincere or lying, happy or putting on a brave face? We try to “read” a person’s clues in their voice, eyes, mouth, nose, neck, posture. People with certain spectral disorders lack the ability to pick up those cues, and some sociopaths have the ability to “fake” these cues on demand. Without those cues, we are subject to misinterpretation. Some people were uneasy watching “The Polar Express” because the available cutting edge Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) failed to adequately capture facial expressions. Compare those characters to a newer CGI film like “Avatar” and notice the more life-like facial expressions.

Make it simpler for your loved ones. Find time to ota hymy huuleen ja juoksee vastatuuleen when there is no risk for frostbite. Be genuine with your hugs and tell your loved ones that you care. Give them as many cues as you can. There is elegance in simplicity especially in a fast-paced and complex world.

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