As the Wheel Turns

Sunday was Father’s Day in the U.S.  Vince texted me at 8:00 am and asked if he could stop by.  He had already invited me for brunch, in recognition that I was/am both a mother and father to him.  But when he showed up he had a Roku stick for my T.V., and even better, he set it up for me!

And so I was able to watch the new season of Orange is the New Black on my T.V.  How ironic, that a year ago he was in prison, and now I am watching a show about prison thanks to him.  This coming weekend he will mark two years of sobriety with a barbecue.

So people can be redeemed and restored to sanity.  No situation is ever hopeless.  Never lose hope, even when it’s all you’ve got.

I’m going to take a break from blogging for a while.  I’ve been posting 700 words every other day since September 2014.  The first year, half of the posts were written by Vince, although I did spend a fair amount of time typing and actually posting them.

Now I devote every Saturday and Sunday morning to writing, and each post takes about an hour and a half from blank page to Pending Publication.

Writing, editing, finding photos, researching things like the State of Missouri’s motto—I get into the zone, aka, in the now, and that’s great.

But it’s summer!  I’d really like to sit out on my deck with a cup of coffee, read the (real) newspaper, and listen to the birds.

And since I am terrible at just sitting and doing “nothing,” here’s my to-do list of projects I’ve got queued up.  I’d like to publish the first year of this blog—the posts focused on Vince’s and my prison experience—as an e-book.  That feels like it could be a contribution to reform of mass incarceration, or at least a good read.  That’ll take some time.  If anyone out there has any advice for me, I’m all ears.

Then, and this may sound grandiose, but I’d like to try my hand at writing a novel.  The big, sprawling, character-packed type like Dickens or Tolstoy.  Not that I’m comparing myself to them or would even expect to get published.  I don’t have a master’s in Creative Writing from Yale, I’ve never been to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I don’t live on the east coast and I don’t have any connections in the publishing world.

But I think it would be fun.  About a year and a half ago, my uncle died.  He was a retired English professor and I carted home some bags of classic novels and have been ploughing through them.  They’re like crossword puzzles composed of intersecting people and events.  These are the old style books that people would collect and display proudly on their living room bookshelf.  They are “lavishly illustrated” and have beautiful leather bindings that are, sadly, disintegrating.

So I’ll just publish and e-book and write a novel this summer.  Ha ha!  Then there’s travel.  I’ve been stockpiling my paid time off, and I could take as much as five weeks off at the end of the year.  It also looks like I’ll be going to east Africa for work.  So where could I go from, say—Ethiopia?  India?  South Africa?  Japan, Myanmar, Australia…so many choices!  Trips take a lot of planning, so I need time for that too.

I don’t know how long my break from blogging will be, but the next post may be a report from afar.  Have a wonderful summer, or winter, depending on which hemisphere you’re in.

On Our Last Leg

This is the last post in a series of 32 posts about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

Why are there so many anti-Abortion billboards in Minnesota?  I don’t know.  On this road trip we passed through nine states, including Minnesota.  Some states had a sprinkling of anti-abortion billboards, but mainly they had billboards for adult superstores.

adults Lions den truckers x

“Southern X Posure.”  Get it?  Do you get it?  I love the euphemism “Gentlemen’s Club.” Really, no actual gentleman would step foot in one, right?  But seeing these every couple of miles makes you wonder if there are any gentlemen left.

Why was it okay to advertise porn in Tennessee, one of the most conservative states, while in Minnesota—one of the most liberal states, we were bombarded with anti-abortion billboards?  Maybe the social conservatives who live here feel outnumbered, and therefore that they must fight harder than if they lived in Tennessee.

The route from Albert Lea, Minnesota to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport wasn’t very interesting, just a straight shot up Interstate 35.  We passed more towns with old world names, like Geneva, Manchester, Kilkenny, and Dundas.  There was the sadly-named Hope, Minnesota.  Had the founders, in their denim overalls, chin beards, and gingham frocks, engaged in some magical thinking?  “If we name our settlement Hope, surely the Good Lord will cause us to flourish!”

Here is Hope’s claim to fame: “Hope had a depot on the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.  A post office called Hope has been in operation since 1916.”  Hope is an unincorporated township, which means the U.S. Census doesn’t bother listing its population, so I can’t tell you whether it is tiny, miniscule, or sub-atomic.

We crossed the Minnesota River as we approached the airport. The Minnesota originates in Big Stone Lake, near the South Dakota border, and flows east until it merges into the Mississippi. I let Lynn believe we were crossing the Mississippi one more time—after gazing out over it in Memphis, New Orleans, and Hannibal.

In 11 days, we had driven 2,660 miles (4,280 kilometers).  If we had followed the Mississippi, we would have driven 4,640 miles because it meanders.  Some day I would like to take a meandering road trip.

Don’t get me wrong, we saw a lot and had a great time.  We saw cranberry fields and went to a Native American pow wow in Wisconsin.  In Chicago, we saw the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome and one of the iconic painting, American Gothic.  We were moved to tears in the American Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.  We spent five days in New Orleans with friends, heard lots of music, and ate lots of Cajun and creole food.  Lynn and I spent six days in a Mini Cooper and were still speaking to each other.  We had the chance to try pickled pigs lips.  Instead, we ate at a Cracker Barrel.

We did go off piste a few times, but it would be great to take a road trip with no time limits.

Instead, I dropped Lynn off at the airport at 7:00pm to catch her 9:00pm flight, and drove home.

It was good to be home but it also felt weird.  I had bought this condo so my son would have a supportive place to live when he was released from prison.  I had told myself that I was buying a condo because it made financial sense, and maybe it did, but underlying the decision was my desire to give him a fighting chance of making it once he was released.  (My apartment landlord wouldn’t have allowed him to live with me.)

And Vince was making it.  He had a job, he was sober, and after seven months he had moved out to his own place—the day before Lynn arrived.  So now I stood in the doorway of the empty bedroom.  I felt a little sentimental, but I was mainly happy for Vince and for me that we both had our own space.

The next day I went back to work and got down to writing proposals to fund torture rehabilitation—and banking more paid time off for the next holiday.

Endless Iowa

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

There was no time to visit any of the Mark Twain historic sites, so Lynn and I rolled out of Hannibal and headed north.  Even though Minnesota borders Iowa to the north, and Vince lived in southern Minnesota for years, I had never crossed the state line into Iowa.  All I had ever heard about it was that it was flat and full of corn fields and pigs.  That you could actually smell pigs on a breezy day.  That did not appeal to my sense of adventure.

But there was no other way to get from Missouri to Minnesota, so I lost my Iowa virginity.  How bad could it be?  I prefer landscapes of woods and water, but fields must have their own beauty.

Here is what I imagined:

Here is what we saw for five hours:


It was early spring and everything was still brown. And flat, flat, flat.

Desra had given me some very good advice.  “Iowa has half the population of Missouri, so there aren’t as many towns. If you think you’re going to need gas, don’t wait until your tank is almost empty.”  She was right.  In the hundred miles between Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, the two largest cities we passed, there was only one exit of note, to a place aptly called Center Point Travel Plaza.  The other exits led off into corn fields.

I’m sure Iowa is beautiful in the spring, when the bright green corn shoots up from the black earth.  I’m sure there are many fine people in Iowa, and it’s a great place to raise kids. That’s what people say when a place is boring, “It’s a great place to raise kids.”

It’s not like I live in some mega city like New York or Shanghai or London.  Most people outside of the U.S. have never heard of Minnesota.  Most people on the coasts sneer at the Midwest, which includes Minnesota and Iowa. We are derisively referred to as “fly over country.”  But I’m never bored in Minnesota.  I think I would kill myself if I had to live in Center Point, Iowa.

Why do people think places like Iowa are good places to raise children?  Because they’re safe, probably.  But children are also able to create their own adventures wherever they are.  In fact, the less there is to do, the more inventive they become. Winters are long on the prairie.  They force people to create entertainments and art out whatever is at hand, like fabric scraps and seeds:

State fair bama Bachmann Vices of the first lady

I’m afraid kids raised with screens won’t have the patience to create great works of art like these.

And so we crossed Iowa, and I began to feel like I was in a trance because there was nothing to look at and no variation of the landscape. There weren’t even any billboards, probably because there wasn’t enough traffic to entice advertisers. I could see how people dozed off and ended up in a corn field.

We stopped to get gas and bought snacks to tide us over instead of having a meal.  I got my standard road trip meal—teriyaki beef jerky and a Diet Pepsi.  I whined about how boring Iowa was the whole way, to help me stay awake.  Lynn must have found that pretty boring.

We killed an hour talking about some sort of test she uses to assess what roles people play in work meetings.  Obviously no one fits neatly into one role every time.  There are the obvious ones like the Leader, the Compromiser, the Ideas Person; and the unhelpful roles like the Avoider and the Clown. I consider myself a leader with ideas, and I think others are stupid if they don’t immediately see the brilliance of my ideas.  Hmmm…that may actually make me a Show Off or an Autocrat.

Finally we crossed the border into Minnesota.  I had imagined it would be dramatically different—Minnesota would be gently rolling wooded hills dotted with sky blue lakes.

But no, for at least an hour it was the same as Iowa, with the addition of anti-abortion billboards.

antiabortion 2 antiabortion 4 antiabortion 1 antiabortion 3

Wayside Waylay

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

Our last day, and it would be a long one.  Eight and a half hours of driving, not counting stops.  Lynn’s flight left at 9pm, and we had been hearing how long the lines at the airports were. It seemed like a good idea to not push our luck by dawdling along the way.

I did want to stop in Hannibal, Missouri, which my mom and her husband had described as quaint and which was the boyhood home of Mark Twain.  But that was at least two hours out of St. Louis and we hadn’t eaten breakfast.  I stopped at a wayside rest to get some advice on where to eat.

If you’ve never done a road trip in the U.S., wayside rests are located about every 100 miles and have their own freeway exits.  They vary from just a gravel parking lot with a pit latrine to a gleaming air conditioned building with vending machines.  But there are no museums or gift shops or restaurants.  I like them because you can get in and out in five minutes without getting distracted. Usually.

This one in Missouri was the rare wayside rest with an information desk.  The woman was very friendly and a font of information.  Well, more like a slow-motion geyser.  She spoke with a slow southern drawl.  “Ya’ll could drive along the river, it’s very picturesque.”  She handed me a map of the Scenic River Road.  We didn’t have time, sadly, for the scenic route.  She highly recommended we take some extra time and go to a small town whose name I can’t remember.  She handed me five maps and brochures.  Looking at the map now, which town was it?  It couldn’t have been Mexico, Paris, or Florida—I would have remembered those.

“It’s a historic town with an absolutely darling downtown and a famous restaurant that serves throwed rolls.”  She handed me another brochure and tried to explain what throwed rolls were but I couldn’t get the concept.  “It’s only 20 minutes off the interstate.  Ya’ll can get cheese grits, and buttered corn bread, and….”  Mmmmmm.

People think that providing lots of choices is a good thing, but after 11 days on the road I was done making decisions, even about where to eat.

“We’re kind of in a hurry, I’m afraid, so it’ll have to be somewhere right off the highway.”

She handed me more maps and brochures for restaurants and scenic attractions. She must get mostly retired people who had all the time in the world.  Lynn had abandoned me.  “I’d better check on my friend,” I lied.  “She gets upset if I keep her waiting.”

The info lady looked disappointed.  “Just a few more suggestions,” she pleaded.  More brochures, more maps.  It must get lonely working in a highway wayside rest.

“My friend has to catch a flight to London,” I said, backing away as if the flight was imminent.

Meanwhile, I kept getting texts from Air B&B and the Quality Inn urging me to “Write a review of your stay!”

“Do your own marketing,” I muttered.  I am definitely happier when I get breakfast.

Lynn insisted she wasn’t hungry, so rather than look like a whining hungry weakling, I drove straight through to Hannibal.

This is a postcard depicting Hannibal:

Postcard Hannibal

This is what Hannibal really looked like:

boarded up houses

Dilapidated houses, block after block after block.  Was this a result of the Great Recession, or a longer term decline?  There was no signage directing visitors to a historic district, but by just following the streets downhill, I eventually hit the river front, where a couple natives out for a walk pointed the way.

The downtown was quaint.  It consisted of about four blocks of antique stores, a boarded up theater, a couple restaurants, and half a dozen Mark Twain historic sites.

Quaint Hannibal

We settled in at Becky Thatcher’s Diner, and the food was fantastic.  Really fantastic, not just because I was starving.  Lynn had corned beef hash for the first time and I had a huge omelet with potatoes.  Neither of us talked much, unless you count “Mmmm” as a word.

Who Doesn’t LOVE?

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

After re-gifting the doughnuts to our neighbors, Lynn and I drove off laughing.  “Who doesn’t love doughnuts!?” That was our topic of conversation as we drove downtown in search of breakfast and the famous arch.

“People assume that everyone loves whatever they love,” I said.

“Yes,” replied Lynn, “Who doesn’t love chocolate?”  Lynn is allergic to chocolate.

“Who doesn’t love ice cream?” I asked.  “I don’t like cold food, in general.”

“Neither does Richard,” said Lynn about her husband.  I always keep his meals warm in the Aga or he’ll whinge that they’re cold.

Aga—the iconic British range.  Whinge—a British term similar to whine.


“Who doesn’t love candles?” Lynn said next.  “I don’t understand this obsession with candles—artificially fruit scented.  ‘Natural’ pine.  Apple pie.”

“Doughnuts!” I offered.  Then, “Who doesn’t love kittens?  People who are allergic to them, that’s who.”

Then—it couldn’t be avoided—I asked “Who doesn’t love dogs?”  Lynn has seven dogs, and I don’t care for dogs.  I could write several posts on this, but I worry about the hate mail I would get.  There is a secret cabal out here of people who don’t care for dogs, but we keep our mouths shut until the dog’s nose is in our crotch or it’s jumping up on us with muddy paws.  It seems acceptable to make jokes about killing your kids while bashing people who don’t love dogs.  Here is one of the more tame Facebook posts I’ve seen on the subject.


Wow.  Really?  I don’t have a soul because I don’t care for dogs?  That seems harsh.  And the fact that I love my family and adore little kids and have lots of friends doesn’t make up for it?  Oh that’s right—those are just people, and people are hard work.

Anyway, Lynn seems to accept me anyway, although she may wonder if I have a soul.

All this time we were driving into downtown St. Louis, or Sen Louie, as Lynn pronounced it.  We hadn’t seen anything that my mom’s husband had recommended, but there just wasn’t time. This was going to be our big miles day—almost 600 from (965 kilometers) from St. Louis straight to the Minneapolis/St. Paul International airport via Iowa.

But we had to see the Gateway Arch, which was built to symbolize the westward expansion of the United States.  It’s 630 feet tall (192 meters), and it’s beautiful.  I thought that Lynn, having worked and lived off and on in Finland for years, would appreciate that it was designed by a Finnish-American architect, Eero Saarinen.

I had been to St. Louis decades earlier and took the elevator to the top of the arch.  I don’t remember much about it.  Apparently there’s a riverside park and museum at the base.  But we never saw any of that, because the construction and traffic in downtown St. Louis was horrendous.  We spent a precious half hour driving around in circles and waiting at excruciatingly-long traffic lights for nonexistent cross traffic.  We caught glimpses of the arch but there were no signs indicating how to get to it.

Finally, I found a parking lot with a good view of the thing, we snapped some photos, and left town.

the arch

Note to self: I need to learn how to erase ill-placed streetlamps such as in the photo above.

My vision had been for us to have a solid breakfast at some nice café at the foot of the arch with a view of the Mississippi.  Instead, I had a protein bar that had been in the back seat of the car for 10 days and Lynn went hungry until we got to Hannibal, two hours north on the Mississippi, past Chesterfield, Troy, Eolia, Bowling Green, and New London.

“New London!” said Lynn, studying the map.  “I’m sure it’s rich in culture and history.”

“We’ve got one in Minnesota, too.  There’s probably a New London in every state.”

“Well they had great hopes, didn’t they, these people who started places like Oxford, Mississippi and New London, Missouri? They really were very brave and idealistic.

“But let’s not stop there.”

Notes from an Anglo-Irish-German-Czech-American Jewish Atheist

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

Desra gave us a ride back to the Air B&B.  Inside, Lynn said pensively, “If I went to dinner in London with someone who was Afro Caribbean, I don’t think the subject of race would even come up—but we spent the whole dinner tonight talking about race.”

Of course they don’t have African Americans in England.  The race labels were confusing when I lived there, especially who was covered by “Asian.”  In Minnesota, Asians are Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, and Thai.  By far the largest group, the Hmong, are mountain tribes people from Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and China—where they are called the Miao. That’s pronounced “meow.”  Our newest arrivals are the Karen, an ethnic group from Burma/Myanmar.

In England, an Asian is most likely from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh.

Lynn herself is Anglo Indian because her ancestry is English and Indian.  Note that the Anglo comes first, whereas in the U.S., we say “African American” or “Muslim American.”

This labeling is all very fraught with the peril of offending one side or another.

“What if you were having dinner with a Pakistani or other Muslim?” I asked Lynn.  “Would race or religion be a theme in every angle of the conversation?”

“Hmmm…maybe,” replied Lynn. “Yes, that might be it.  It’s not that we don’t have prejudice in the UK.  But I think it’s the Muslim population that’s getting the brunt of the suspicion and animosity, especially since September 11 and seven seven.”

July 7, 2007—the day on which 52 people were killed and 700 injured on the London transport system in an Islamist terrorist attack.  I remember watching it on the news, in Spanish, from my bed in a hotel in Cusco, Peru, where I was vomiting my guts out into an ice bucket after eating some bad guinea pig. That’s a story for another post, but here’s a free tip for you: never use a hotel ice bucket for ice.

We reference so much with these simple dates: 9/11, 7/7.   So much has changed.  In the U.S., half the population—the conservative half—replaced its constant fear of a mass attack by communists with fear of a Muslim attack, which has made possible the rise of a demagogue like Donald Trump.  The strange thing is, they don’t fear the white guy next door with 50 guns who just lost his job and his wife and is acting strangely—just “the Muslims.”

The third major terrorist attack in the west was 11-M, the train bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004.  Almost 200 people were killed and 2,000 were injured.  I don’t remember where I was that day.  But I do vividly recall being in Spain sometime after 9/11 but before 11-M studying Spanish.  I was chatting with a British woman and somehow 9/11 came up.

“Now you lot know what we’ve been living with all these years from the IRA,” she said casually about the attack in which nearly 3,000 people died.

Back in St. Louis after a good night’s sleep, Lynn and I were preparing for our last day on the road.

“What do we do with the doughnuts?” she asked.

I carried the box out with us, thinking I would take them home to Vince.  Then I spotted a kid on the porch of the house next door and approached him.

“Hey kid, want a box of doughnuts?”  He was chubby and his eyes said Yes as he also backed away from me toward the door and called, “Daddy!”  The father came rushing outside, looking panicked. I could just picture myself at the police station: “No officer, really! I just wanted to give him the doughnuts; I wasn’t trying to lure him into my car.”

I offered the box to the father, who looked inside to make sure they really were doughnuts (I wonder what else he suspected could be inside?  Snakes?).  He looked up at me with a grin, thanked me, and the two of them hurried inside, where I could hear the boy calling out excitedly, “Mom! We got doughnuts!”

Smoked, with a Side of Shouting

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

Desra was waiting in the Shaved Duck when Lynn and I arrived. I immediately noticed that the music was deafening.  The tiles floors and tin ceiling didn’t help.  There was nothing else in the vicinity and Desra had picked the restaurant so I didn’t want to dis her choice, plus I didn’t want to be one of Those Old People who complains about loud music.

I wasn’t sure what the concept for the Shaved Duck was.  Was it code for something? “Shaved duck” suggested something vaguely naughty.

On the back of the menu it stated that the place was “a smokehouse and gathering place.”  The menu featured Slow Smoked Duck Breast, Smoked Meatloaf, and Loaded Smoked Potato Wedges, which were essentially French fries covered with pulled pork, baked beans, bacon, white cheddar cheese, and Bourbon barbeque sauce.  As is the trend, there was a fancy version of macaroni and cheese, this one topped with duck and jalapeño chili.  I was pleased to see an iceberg lettuce wedge salad on the menu, a classic that’s making a comeback.  The one at the duck added bacon and cherry tomatoes and came with ranch dressing; in my opinion it should just be really fresh, crisp iceberg lettuce with Roquefort dressing.

I had a vegetable and smoked Mozzarella sandwich, and we shared some buttermilk cornbread and crab cakes.  What I really wanted was shrimp ‘n’ grits, but my health-conscious conscience was saying I should ease back into my healthy eating habits. I keep myself on a pretty tight leash.  But I still had two days left of the vacation.  Why couldn’t I just order what I really wanted?  Sigh.

I caught up with Desra, who I hadn’t seen since we finished grad school 10 years earlier.  Her master’s degree was in Urban Planning and mine was focused on Foreign Policy. She reminded me she had run for Minneapolis City Council, which isn’t for the faint of heart.  She then led a nonprofit neighborhood association until she met her husband and moved to St. Louis a few months earlier.  Her husband taught African-American history at a community college and was working on his PhD, which I assume will get him onto the tenure track at a university.

She had a huge, blindingly brilliant diamond ring which I admired.  I sighed inwardly when she mentioned how old she was—the same age as Vince.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if my son could meet such an accomplished, upbeat, beautiful bride?

I  hadn’t realized she was originally from New Orleans, so Lynn and I talked about that—or rather shouted.  I described our visit to the civil rights museum, which she hadn’t visited yet. We talked about real estate prices in St. Louis vs. Minneapolis.  Desra was job hunting and seemed positive she would find something soon.

The duck was packed, and there was a raucous group near us with one woman who kept braying loudly, “Har, Har, HAR!”  Do restaurants crank up the volume to create a festive atmosphere?  Or maybe they want us to hurry up and leave so they can turn more tables?

Sometimes if I am on my own turf I will ask a server to lower the volume.  But again, I didn’t want to be an old fogey.  I also began to worry that maybe I had some early hearing loss.

Much of the conversation touched on race issues.  All the subjects above—from a recent Minneapolis electoral race to real estate to the higher education system.  This brought us to the question of fraternities and sororities.

“Yes,” asked Lynn, leaning forward to make herself heard, “We don’t have them in the UK.  What’s their origin?  Were they designed to exclude black students?”

I could hear one out of five words Desra said.  She hadn’t belonged to a sorority, but there were certainly black sororities and fraternities, so the Greek system wasn’t inherently racist, but of course it depended on the campus.

We exited the restaurant Desra exclaimed, “I can’t believe how loud it was in there!  I feel like I’m deaf now!”