All posts by Minnesota Steve

Gimpy old guy who loved Minnesota and yet left to live closer to his daughter and grandson. I enjoyed three mild winters in Oregon, then we all moved to Michigan. After two years there, I'm back in St. Paul. This is my fourth home in six years. I don't figure on moving again.

A Brand New Start

It was a year ago that we lost our Steve.  I’m re-running one of his posts (from February 2020) for the day.  You can answer his intial question or share a Steve memory!

Today’s post comes from Steve Grooms.

I have been marveling at what my daughter accomplished this past year. Last winter she, her family and I were living in Port Huron, Michigan. She couldn’t find a job, for the local economy is depressed. My son-in-law had a job he detested, with no possibility of finding a better job. I lived in a senior citizen complex near their rental home, staying alone in my room unless my daughter was visiting me. Nobody was very happy.

It became painfully clear that my daughter and s-i-l had to move and set up new lives. Since I cast my lot with my daughter’s family when I sold my home in 2014, I would have to move too. The experiment of living in Michigan was mostly a botch.

Because my daughter was not working, she was the obvious person to do the research and planning necessary to make the move possible. But, oh my, what a fiendishly complicated task that would be.

Breaking this challenge down into smaller pieces, my daughter needed to:

  • Pick a new town and neighborhood to live in where all four of us (three adults, a kid and a large old dog) might be happy.
  • Find a new apartment or rental home where my daughter’s family could live, doing this research while living in Michigan, unable to look at rental properties in person. This would be especially difficult due to the shortage of affordable housing.
  • Find a senior living community for me. It had to be near her home near her new job . . . wherever they might be. Once again, my daughter had no way to visit the various facilities under consideration.
  • Find movers who could relocate two households 800 miles without charging much.
  • Devise a way to get three automobiles from Michigan to Minnesota, a feat complicated by the fact we had only two drivers.
  • Find a job for herself (a job near her new home and my new apartment, wherever they would turn out to be). This decision, too, had to be done without the benefit of a visit.
  • Find a job for her husband (or at least identify a process which he could follow to find one).
  • Find a great new school for her fourth-grade son.
  • Do all the physical work of boxing up two households for the move.
  • Clean her rental home and my apartment.
  • Accomplish all of this and make the actual move in less than three months.

I wonder if that list adequately reflects how complicated this was. The sixth item alone is daunting. Everything on the list was inextricably connected to all the other issues, which made the overall project extremely tricky. Each choice depended on several other decisions, and there seemed to be no obvious place to start.

My daughter was amused by how her research turned out. The Minnesota metro region emerged as the clear favorite for many reasons but especially its strong economy. St. Paul seemed the most attractive city in Minnesota. The most desirable place to live in St. Paul, her research said, turned out to be Highland Park. So my daughter’s search for the ideal place to move led her to exactly the neighborhood where she had grown up.

We made the move last June. I believe this is the most difficult my daughter has ever faced. As of the middle of January, 2020, every single item on the list has been met successfully. My daughter now lives in an apartment a few blocks from her childhood home (although serious house-hunting begins this spring). And everybody, even the old dog, is delighted to be here.

What is the hardest thing you have ever done? Have you ever discovered that you needed to make a brand new start?

Claiming Your Space

Today’s post comes from Steve.

I paid no attention to home decor in the early years of my marriage. We were grad students living on sketchy incomes. Our furniture—sagging, mismatched and threadbare—came as gifts from our parents. Moreover, my former wife dominated all decorating decisions. When I ventured to suggest something that might make our home attractive, she was amused that the spouse with lousy taste was offering advice to the spouse with good taste.

Then, rather suddenly, the marriage ended. Within a few weeks I lost my father, my job and my wife. Everything about my life changed almost overnight, with my address being virtually the only thing that stayed the same. When my erstwife suggested I was now free to sell the home and move anywhere on earth, I panicked. Like a man who has suffered a shipwreck and now clings to floating parts of his old boat, I needed security. I needed my home to be constant and comforting.

But there was a problem. The upstairs of my home had become a place where I did not belong. I lived in the basement, rarely venturing upstairs where everything reflected the taste of my former wife. That began to bother me. After dithering for half a year, I decided to take on the challenge of changing everything about the appearance of the upstairs of my bungalow. I had to make my home a place where I would not feel like a trespasser.

Home decor, something I had ignored all my life, became an obsession. Although I had never bought furniture, now I haunted furniture stores and consulted catalogs. Having never bought a lamp, I bought seven, all with stained glass shades. I gave away the art that my erstwife had put up and replaced it with original art, a big tapestry and a triptych. I collected fine art pottery and a handsome Mission clock to promote a turn-of-the-century look. I bought six rugs, including two hand-tied Bokhara orientals from Pakistan. I changed the color of every wall of every room. I installed new sconces, chandeliers and light switches. I studied the Arts and Crafts movement in American domestic architecture, and educated myself about the fascinating home design movement that produced the bungalow. My home had been built in 1925, and now I honored that by filling it with lovely objects from the early 20th century.

Reclaiming my home took about four years. I understand that the way I accomplished it was unusual, but I had been put in unusual circumstances. It was the perfect project for a divorced gentleman who was not as young as he once had been. Buying Chinese knockoffs of Tiffany lamps was healthier than other ways I might have processed the divorce. When I was done, virtually nothing was the same. It was all different and it was all me. The upstairs became a place that made me smile, a place where I could—finally—feel “at home.”

Have you ever taken a serious interest in the look of your home? Are you fond of any particular style of domestic architecture (Colonial, modern, Gothic revival, Arts and Crafts, etc)? Or, like most people, are you happy with an eclectic approach?

Timmy, The Brawler

Today’s post comes from Steve.

Timothy Gruncheon Grooms, born in a barn in Iowa, was adopted into my family in 1946. He was officially my sister’s cat and always seemed to understand that. Although she did things to him that were beneath the dignity of any cat, he slept each night in the crook of her arm.

Timmy was a fighter. My parents had never heard of a cat being confined, and they would have been appalled at the suggestion pets should be neutered. So Timmy was a free-range tomcat who roamed the neighborhood fighting with other cats and filling the world with orange and white tabby kittens. All the fighting he did caused Timmy to have a fat face because so much scar tissue built up on his cheeks. His ears were riddled with cuts and holes. I did witness one epic encounter in our backyard, Timmy relentlessly chasing another cat, and I was shocked by the violence of it all.

Timmy obviously lost some fights. Once he came home with a chunk of tissue the diameter of a nickel missing from his left cheek. Our vet gave us a spray to keep the wound clean, but our dog had a better idea. Danny, a sweet golden retriever, began following Timmy, licking that wound. Danny and Timmy never had physical contact before or after that incident, but Danny licked Timmy’s wounded cheek until fresh skin formed over the hole.

My sister bonded with Timmy as if he were her child. As I recently wrote, she dressed him in doll clothes, including a bonnet. She plopped him on his back in a baby stroller and went about the neighborhood with him that way. The set of Timmy’s ears were a clue to how he felt about this, but he accepted it all. When Nancy’s fascination with medical issues led her to subject Timmy to some treatments, including an enema administered by eyedropper, he put up with that, too.

Timmy was the most remarkable athlete I’ve ever known. Two stories established his legendary status.

Once our family was in the dining room watching television (eating Swanson’s TV dinners on our TV trays). A bat entered our home and began flying from room to room. Timmy was sitting on a braided rug in the middle of the dining room. As the bat wobbled through the dining room a second time, Timmy shot off the floor like a jack-in-the-box, snatching the bat midair. To my eye, Timmy’s leap took him five feet into the air, and it could have been higher. With the bat in his mouth, Timmy went to the back door and asked to be let out.

In our last home in Ames my mother kept her precious chinaware in a cabinet by the front door. Timmy’s way of letting us know he wanted to be let out was jumping to the top of that cabinet. One afternoon he did that, just as he had countless times before. Timmy, from the floor, could not see that my mother had filled the cabinet’s top with stacks of china. My mother screamed in terror when Timmy walked to the cabinet and launched his leap. Once he was in the air, Timmy saw the china and performed a desperate midair gymnastic maneuver. He managed to land with his four paws in the tiny openings between the stacks of teacups and plates. Standing there, Timmy was unable to move, and he let out a dismayed yowl so we could rush to his rescue.

By 1964 our family, Timmy included, was living in Wayzata, Minnesota. He acquired one annoying habit late in life, crawling around inside the family Christmas tree in the middle of the night, eating tinsel and knocking glass ornaments to the floor. Timmy still lived much of his life out of our sight, and he still got in fights. His health declined. My sister, who was then a student at the University of Minnesota, fell in love with a young man, and they soon got married.

In 1965 Timmy disappeared for four days. We feared we would never see our 19-year-old cat again, but at long last he dragged himself home in terrible shape. He clearly had lost a big fight. Stroking his scarred old head, my mother had a heart-to-heart talk with him. “Timmy, old guy, you have been Nancy’s baby all these years. She is now married and will soon have a baby of her own. You look like you’re at the end of the line, but I’m asking one last thing of you. Can you keep it together a few more months? Can you keep alive until Nancy’s new baby arrives?”

Nancy’s baby arrived in August. A few days later, Timmy died.

Timmy was a vivid character in our family life for nearly two decades. Have you ever had a pet with a distinctive personality?

Olfactory Highs and Lows

Today’s post comes from Steve Grooms.

Humans are generally thought to have five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and feel. Actually, careful researchers don’t agree, with some arguing for as many as twenty-one senses.

Of the big five, the sense of smell seems special. It is regarded the most “feeble” (relative to the smelling powers of many animals). Another oddity is the way smell is tied to another sense, namely taste. Smell also seems more capable of evoking disgust or delight than other senses. Finally, smell seems hooked up to memory in ways that are not true for other senses. A circus poster might remind us of circuses we’ve seen, but the smell of a new car overwhelms us with new car memories.

I have vivid memories of personal highs and lows in my sniffing history.

My erstwife and I spent the summer of 1970 living in the home of a friend who took her family to Europe. Barb’s house was perched on the banks of the Saint Croix River just north of Stillwater. A spring that burbled out of the ground fed three ponds on the property, one of which was patrolled by fourteen colorful trout. It was an exotic place, especially for two impoverished college students whose former housing was a dilapidated brownstone apartment near the University of Minnesota.

That summer was hot and humid, which made it the stinkiest summer of my life. The heat and muggy air produced three especially disgusting olfactory events.

sma-brule-crew-scan-editThe worst was the garage meltdown. We left Barb’s home for a four-day visit to Wisconsin’s Brule River. The upright freezer in the garage vibrated as it ran. In our absence the freezer’s shaking jiggled its electric chord out of the outlet, causing the freezer’s contents to melt, spilling pungent liquids all over the garage floor. Those liquids then decomposed. Most spectacularly, the gallon pail of chocolate chip ice cream melted and then decomposed. When we got home and opened the garage door the odor was indescribable and unforgettable. The smell was still identifiable as ice cream, but ice cream gone ghastly and foul. On a meter measuring disgusting stenches this would have pegged the dial at a perfect ten. (Or, if you’ve seen “This is Spinal Tap,” an eleven.)

Two years later we joined a group of free spirits who hung out at a fly fishing tackle shop in Brule, Wisconsin. These were about two dozen unique young people: painters, photographers, students, fly fishermen, motorcycle freaks, fishing guides, back-to-the land hippies, pot farmers and lost souls. The word “counterculture” was perhaps the only description that applied to all of us.

In 1972 consumers didn’t have anything approaching the wonderful assortment of foods and beverages that exist now. If you wanted a good bottle of ale, the nearest place to get it was London. American stores only sold that thin, gassy liquid called lager. If you wanted a decent cup of coffee, you had to go to an upscale restaurant. I spent decades desperately trying to brew good coffee at home, not understanding that restaurant coffee had been roasted in ways grocery store coffee had not.

One of our group worked in a store in Milwaukee that sold exotic spices, herbs, unique tea blends and restaurant-quality coffee beans. The store was called Milwaukee Coffee and Spices. It still exists 45 years later but is now called Penzeys. That worker agreed to sell us anything from the store’s mail order catalog at wholesale prices. This was a once-in-a-lifetime deal. My wife and I were living in a duplex in a distressed neighborhood of Saint Paul. To simplify the order, all of the packages would be shipped to our home. I would deliver them to the shop in Brule for final distribution.

We had recently acquired our first hunting dogs, an incorrigible springer spaniel and yellow Labrador. Because the puppies defeated every effort to confine them, we locked them in a glassed-in front porch while we spent the day at the University. When the UPS man delivered the shipment of exotic foods he chucked the whole lot in the porch. Those packages sat for hours in the warm and weather-tight confinement of the porch.

Words cannot describe the complex smell that greeted us when we walked in that porch. The main components were dark-roasted coffee and green tea, but with strong overtones of hot curry, cloves, garam masala, ginger, cumin, cinnamon, marjoram, chili peppers, bay leaf, dill, garlic, rosemary and others. All of those smells floated over the baseline odor of dog shit (which, oddly, mixed with them agreeably). We knew the instant we opened that door that we were encountering a smell that was unique in human history. And, friends, it was a bit of heaven. I almost wept with disappointment days later when the smell dissipated, never to be experienced again by anyone.

What memories do you have—good or bad—tied to smells?

Here Come the Robots

Today’s post comes from Steve Grooms

I used to hate computers. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, computers increasingly intruded into the lives of average people. And they were no fun. I hated them. Just about everybody did. People had notes on their cubicle walls saying, “I am a human being. Do not bend, fold or mutilate.” That—for younger readers who might not know—was a reference to the legend printed on the universally hated computer data cards.

When I heard that people were buying computers for their homes, I was astonished. What? People needed computers to do their taxes? That made no sense at all. I suppose I first heard about home computers in 1980, for that is when the first home computers were hitting the market.

Well, guess what? The most astonishing gift I got in the Christmas of 1982 was the computer my parents gave me. My life has not been the same since then. I used that primitive computer (an 8 bit CP/M Osborne) to write six books. I soon was writing email letters to friends, sending articles and manuscripts electronically to publishers and even (yes!) using the computer to do my taxes. A computer hater became a computer lover almost overnight, and now I can’t imagine life without my computer. I use it more and enjoy it in more ways than my TV.

All of this is necessary background for what this blog is really about, which is robots.

When I first heard people wanted robots for their homes, I was amazed and derisive, just as I had been about home computers. And just like computers, robots are coming into our lives and into our homes. The most militantly humanistic young couple I know owns a robot that whirrs around vacuuming their home without human guidance. The manufacturer of the Roomba now makes a similar robot that mops tile floors.

Now there are robot lawn mowers that will roar around peoples’ yards mowing the grass without human guidance. If I had a lawn to mow now I’d be tempted by these. They aren’t cheap. For all I know, they might chop up the occasional tulip garden or Pomeranian. But these are the “Model T” versions of robotic lawn mowers, after all. We can expect them to get better and cheaper year by year, just as computers did.

When I scoffed at the notion that robots would enter our homes, I was thinking of little tin men clanking around brandishing brooms, trying to sweep the kitchen floor. But that’s not the way it will happen. Of course, that could come. Sony already makes a robot called the QRIO that looks like the stereotype of a robot, something that has two legs and two arms and walks upright. But that’s not how robots will first enter our lives.

The first robots to enter our homes will be stationary, yet they will be able to listen to us and talk back. And they are already here. Examples include the Amazon Echo, Amazon Dot or Google Home. These little robots were extremely popular Christmas gifts this year. What they feature is artificial intelligence. They talk to us and respond to things we say. They interact with their human “owners.” They even perform simple tasks, like playing music or ordering takeout food.

I first understood how close all this is to revolutionizing our world a few weeks ago when I viewed a promotional video for Jibo, the “home robot.” I used to think “home robot” was an oxymoron like “military intelligence.” But, no, it is a clever new social robot. Watch this video and draw your own conclusions:

This is the future. And the future is now. Robots are changing our lives, just as computers once did. Brace yourselves!

What will home robots do? Nobody can know for sure, but the general answer is that they will do anything that is unpleasant or bothersome to the point we don’t like to do it ourselves.

Something else that is coming—and indeed is here already—is the robotic pet. These are highly popular in some societies. Count me among those who are creeped out by the idea of a robotic cat or dog. But many people, particularly in Japan, find robotic pets comforting. A robotic cat presumably would not need a sandbox, and it would only “eat” batteries.

Beyond doing unpleasant things, I am convinced that social robots will increasingly serve as substitutes for human friends. We already have robots that chat with us and perform small tasks. It wouldn’t be difficult to create a small robot with AI that that would have something like a face and something like a personality. Are there lonely people in this world who would love to have a robot that never tires of talking to them and laughs explosively at their jokes? How would you react to a robot that sits by your toaster in the morning chatting with you, making coffee, delivering a weather report and saying snarky things about Donald Trump?

What bothersome tasks would you like to have done by a home robot?

The Good Place (and the Other Place)

Today’s post comes from Steve Grooms

“The Good Place” is one of the popular new TV shows. It’s a clever comedy that plays with notions of what Heaven might be like. I’m not that clever. When I try to imagine Heaven, I end up hoping it would be a whole lot like the places I’ve already known and loved. That says nothing about Heaven but maybe a lot about me and my limitations.

But it is a hard concept for me to contemplate. I once heard about a lawyer who died and was whisked up to some fancy gate in the sky. There he is invited in to do his favorite thing on earth, which was golfing. Amazingly, his very first swing results in a hole-in-one. The next hole was the same, and so forth for the whole round. Every shot went in the hole. The lawyer confided to his caddy, “You know, I didn’t expect to get to Heaven. In my career I, uh, took a few ethical shortcuts.” The caddy turns with a devilish grin and asks, “What makes you think you are in Heaven?”

I remember Lily Tomlin’s thoughts on the Good Place. She was asked if we would have sex in Heaven. “Of course we will!” she said. “We just won’t feel anything.”

Mark Twain has a famous quote on the topic. When asked where he’d like to spend eternity, he said, “Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.”

It seems the cartoonist Gary Larson is an expert of Heaven and Hell, for he drew many cartoons on that theme. I’ve found about 30, and there may be more. One cartoon shows a bunch of devils laughs hysterically at notes from a Suggestion Box. In another a devil tells a new arrival, “Your room is right in here, Maestro.” (The room is filled with doltish guys holding banjos.) And in another cartoon a new arrival in Hell has just taken a swig from a coffee cup. “Oh man!” he says, “The coffee’s cold. They thought of everything!”

The more I try to imagine heaven, the weirder it becomes. I have to admit that drifting on a cloud with a harp singing the lord’s praise would get old in a hurry. Any place that has me singing is gonna be more like Hell than Heaven. I’m not the only one to wonder if things might get a little dull in the afterlife. In one of my favorite Far Side cartoons some fellow sits all alone on a cloud thinking, “Wish I’d brought a magazine.”

I’d like to think Heaven comes with a good cable TV package and no irritating commercials. I’m sure Heaven will have really fast internet connections. It would be great if I could eat ice cream all day and not gain weight. In my version of Heaven, in fact, scotch and wine would be health foods. Doctors would frown during annual checkups and ask, “Are you sure you are getting enough beer and pizza?”

And dogs! I want to say that Heaven just would not be Heaven unless it would return me to my dear buddy Brandy, the impudent springer spaniel who shared so much of my life. But right there I’m in trouble again. Before Brandy there was Danny, and a more lovable and loving dog never lived. After Brandy came Spook, the elegant gentleman who never did a single naughty thing in his life. Spook was followed by Katie, who loved me totally and helped me survive a difficult time. I can’t imagine Heaven without any of these dogs, but I can’t quite picture Heaven with all of them milling around my feet.

But while I can’t form a clear picture of Heaven, it is not hard to imagine my personal Hell. For me, Hell would be a windowless room with a telephone, computer and uncomfortable chair. I would be given some crucial task to perform, but to do it I’d have to gain cooperation from my bank, or a large software business, or an insurance company, or Social Security, or . . . you get the idea!

My personal hell would involve struggling to find phone numbers for businesses that don’t want me to call, so they don’t list their numbers. In my version of hell I’d spend hours “on hold” while insipid music plays in my ear. Periodically a voice would come on to say “Your call is very important to us,” which is a lie, a damned lie, actually. And then, after sweating an hour or two on hold I would get to one of those triage tapes that gives me four choices, only none of them will be remotely appropriate for the issue I’m calling about.

When home computers were just becoming popular it was tricky to connect to the internet. (Does anyone remember using a telephone modem? Remember the bizarre sounds they made, like R2D2 vomiting in an echo chamber?) In the early days of home computing, frustrated consumers would have to phone their ISP for help getting online. Before they could talk to a human being a taped voice would ask infuriating questions, like, “Are you sure your computer is plugged in?” Or the taped voice would say it wasn’t necessary to for me to bug a customer service agent with my issue. All I had to do was to log onto their helpful online database!

Now, that would be my version of Hell. And if the managers down there truly “think of everything,” when I walk in Hell they’ll hand me a notice telling me that there was a goof in the Registrar’s Office. I didn’t actually graduate, for I still have to take several more years of German.

What would be your version of Heaven or Hell?

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Today’s post comes from Steve Grooms.

They say we all get fifteen minutes of fame, but that’s surely not true. Some of us never experience the consummate weirdness of sudden fame. Others, for better or worse, get far more than the allotted fifteen minutes.

I’ve had a few moments of fame, if we can agree that fame is a relative term. One was fun, if silly. The other was not fun at all.


One overcast March afternoon I caught a four-pound carp in the creek that ran near our home in Ames. In Iowa any stream small enough to be called a “crick” is small indeed. Squaw Creek is ankle-deep, with a few holes where the water is knee-deep. I spent hundreds of hours fishing the creek. Mostly we caught chubs and shiners the size many anglers use for bait.

Then came the magic afternoon I caught the carp. In fact, I caught two mighty fish that day. My trophy carp (if that is not an oxymoron) made me famous. That was six decades ago. In all that time I’m not sure I’ve ever matched that accomplishment. Kids in Ames—even kids who had never met me—knew my name, for I was “the kid who caught The Fish.”

I have also tasted the other kind of fame.

In 1966 I was walking in the West Bank, near the University of Minnesota, at the corner of Cedar and Riverside. It was a dodgy neighborhood in those days. The stoplight turned red just when I wanted to cross Riverside. At that moment three young men stumbled out of a local bar that catered to a rough clientele. They were in a foul mood, out of money but determined to get even drunker than they already were. The first thing they saw was me.


“Hey,” one of them snarled, “do you think you’re tough?” I mumbled something about not being tough. One of them came up behind me and delivered a roundhouse blow to my right ear. I saw stars. The drunks debated who would “get to finish this guy off.” I talked them back into the bar by offering to buy a round of drinks. When they tilted their glasses to drink, I sprinted to safety.

The next day I nursed a sore ear and reflected on my vulnerability. I spent a lot of time in that area, which meant I could run into trouble again. By coincidence, my local grocery store had just put up a display card selling tear gas canisters. These were brass cylinders about four inches long, with a plunger knob on the end. If you got in trouble, the display said, you could snap that plunger and POOF! disappear in a cloud of gas. No need for guns, knives or spilled blood. Any time I was threatened I could escape with the aid of modern chemistry.

The next day was a Monday, a day I had to be at my office. During our lunch break I described my mugging to associates in the freshman adviser office in Johnston Hall. Of course they wanted to see the tear gas device, so I passed it around. The last guy to examine it returned it to my desk.

Moments later there was an explosion. The office instantly filled with tear gas. The cylinder must have rolled off my desk, landing on its plunger. All the advisers dove for the floor. Those were days of student protest, and everyone’s first assumption was that our office had been bombed. I ran into my office to grab the textbooks I’d need, inhaling enough tear gas in the process to render me speechless for two days. A hand-written note on our office door said, “220 Johnston Closed On Account of Tear Gas.” That little brass canister held enough to flood the whole second floor with tear gas. The senior administrators of the College of Liberal Arts wept as they worked that afternoon.

There was a party for College of Liberal Arts workers several weeks later. At that party someone introduced me to E. W. Ziebarth, the dean of the whole college. Dean Ziebarth was a remote, godlike figure who looked exactly like the actor David Niven. He had elegant manners, although none of the workers was bold enough to speak to him. Shaking my hand, the dean looked confused for a moment, trying to place me. Then he smiled, “Oh, yes! The Tear Gas Kid!”

Have you ever done anything to win fifteen minutes of fame?

What’s Your Morning Ritual?

Today’s post comes from Steve Grooms


When I worked as a writer for Democrats in the House of Representatives, our radio man was a fascinating guy named John. During a lunch break, John once announced to the gathered staff that a recent study discovered that most fatal heart attacks occur early in the morning. We wondered: Why?

“First, people brush their teeth when they get up. We have toxins in our teeth. Brushing  loosens them and sends them into the blood stream. Bingo! We drop dead still clutching our toothbrush!”

“The other thing,” John added, “is people use the toilet in the morning. A lot of people die of heart attacks while sitting on the toilet.”

The lunchroom went silent. “You can thank me later,” said John with a broad smile.

“Now there are two things you won’t be doing each morning. I just freed up a lot of precious time for you.”

In spite of John, I continue to have morning rituals. Older people find that rituals are comforting and they help us organize our lives. My rituals probably differ from yours.

Unlike most baboons, I am retired, I live alone and I have no pets.

Morning begins when I fire up my desktop computer. I don’t sleep much, so I’m often on the computer by 4 or 5 AM. The world outside my windows is dark, and no birds are yet filling the air with their tunes. I enjoy the radio while I’m at the computer, usually music on Folk Alley or NPR’s Morning Edition. I wear headphones to avoid disturbing the sleep of my upstairs neighbors.

As I drink black coffee I study my internet browser (Google’s Chrome). I’ve set Chrome up to display 16 web sites that I have “bookmarked” for easy access. I always begin with the site on the far left side of the bookmark bar. That’s NBC News, which I use as my basic source of national and international news.

After reading interesting stories there I move to the next site to the right, which is the online version of the Washington Post. That’s a great site. I can easily spend an hour reading all the news, op/ed and lifestyle stories in this (paperless) paper.

The last thing I read on the Post site is my favorite: Carolyn Hax’s column of personal advice. I never used to read advice columns. Carolyn’s column starts with letters in which readers describe their screwed up lives and dilemmas. Then Carolyn speaks up to analyze the situation and propose solutions. Damn, she’s good!

Next comes the online version of the Star Tribune. I read that closely. While my body is in Oregon much of my heart is in Minnesota. Following that, I read the online version of The Oregonian. That paper delivers weak writing in a frustrating format. I rarely waste much time with it.

Having read news stories for maybe two hours, I move right again to the link for Trail Baboon. That’s my treat after studying so many depressing news items.

Next comes the NPR site, a highly varied compendium of stories running on NPR. After that I read MinnPost. Next is Politico, a political news magazine that is often boring but not always. I finish my computer time by indulging my weakness for news about the Minnesota Vikings. I blush to confess I read five web sites that talk about nothing but the team. There are, I suppose, worse vices.

All that computer time accounts for maybe three hours of my morning. Then I move to the second big event of the day: writing my letter. Since I’ve mentioned this often before, I won’t say much here. In 1999 two things happened at about the same time. An old friend lost her husband to cancer. My marriage ended.

The two events merged in an odd way. My friend was living in a valley outside a tiny town in extreme southeastern Minnesota. While she had a few friends, she was an outsider living in a highly conservative corner of the state. I began writing daily email letters to her to soften her grief and chat about progressive politics. What I didn’t understand for many years was that my friend was handling being a widow well, but I needed the correspondence as a way of processing my own grief. I write a letter each morning, even on days when I can barely stand thinking about my life. Writing those letters is healthy for me. Knowing I “have” to write them encourages me to think more about events in my life, living a little more completely.

My letters give me a reason to reflect on each passing day and to seek meaning in the mundane events of my life. I often roam the back alleys of my history, relishing old memories and rediscovering myself. Just as singers need to sing and athletes need to exercise, writers need to write. The daily letters have become a crucial connection with that part of me.

Do you have a morning ritual?


Remembering Someone

Today’s post is by Steve Grooms

One morning around 1955, George Grooms—my father—woke up with a smile. He had been dreaming. In this dream my dad was walking the sidewalks of our town when he noticed a distinctive dog sitting on the curb. The dog was some kind of hound, a bloodhound or basset. It had a long, pendulous nose and droopy ears. The most memorable thing was the dog’s expression. The dog seemed utterly grief-struck.

In the dream this melancholy dog looked at my father and spoke one short sentence.

“Cheer up,” said the dog.

Cheer up?   What a bizarre comment! The saddest dog in the universe had just told my dad to cheer up!

Dad rushed to his office without talking to anyone. He began sketching the melancholy dog before his memory of the dream faded.

My father was a genius at imagining unique toy animals and then figuring out how certain shapes of fabric could be sewn together to form a three-dimensional stuffed toy.


Designing stuffed toy animals is one of the most obscure jobs in the world. My dad was once considered one of the two or three best designers in the world.

This dog resisted the design process. The body was easy, but all the prototypes Dad created looked jolly or cute. None had the tragic look of the dream dog’s face. Dad knew that the problem lay with the eyes. No matter what eyes he put on this dog, it looked idiotically cheerful.

Then Dad did something totally original. He fashioned eyelids that could be sewn in place to give his stuffed dog a sad expression. This was a radical innovation in the 1950s.

At that time stuffed toys were generic objects meant to be given to undiscerning infants. Stuffed toys were designed to be inexpensive. But my dad was an artist, and the artist in him knew this dog had to have a distinctive face for it to connect with people.

Those eyelids were the first of many innovations he would develop to create stuffed toys with vivid expressions. My dad’s company sold these stuffed toys under the name “personality pets” to highlight the way they differed from cheap, generic stuffed toys.

There was never an issue of what this dog would be called. Cheer Up appealed to children and adults, becoming the first of my dad’s designs to be famous. Cheer Up came in several forms (sitting, lying prone, lounging on his back) and several sizes.

Several years ago I was invited to attend a special meeting of the Ames Historical Society. The society was premiering a film that celebrated my father’s company.

Collegiate Manufacturing had been a significant employer in Ames for over 40 years.

The day before the film was shown I was invited to the home of a man who had a wonderful collection of stuffed toys from Collegiate Manufacturing. It was emotional for me to wander his basement gazing at hundreds of stuffed toys designed by my dad.

Monkeys, dogs, tigers, giraffes, horses, skunks, turtles and other critters stared at me from Don’s display shelves. I grew up knowing these toys but had not seen any of them for nearly 60 years. While I recognized many, I was most moved by Don’s collection of Cheer-up dogs. He had about three dozen Cheer Ups.

Don repeatedly urged me to take some toys as a gift. I was touched by his generosity, but I turned him down. I had no right to anything he had collected.

A day later we had the historical society meeting. When the meeting was over, I rushed to my car to start the long drive to my Saint Paul home. Don ran to catch up with me, shoving a box in my hands. “Don’t refuse me again,” he said. “I could tell by your eyes which ones meant the most to you.” The box held three Cheer Up dogs in the three poses that had been most popular.

My father died in 1999, and I heard that Don died a few years ago. Yet both live on in memory and in the friendly form of the little Cheer Up that sits on my bedroom dresser.

Most mementos honor the memory of a special person. My Cheer Up celebrates the memory of two men with good hearts.

Do you have a memento that helps you remember someone special?

Who Are YOU?

Header Image by John Tenniel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s post comes from Steve Grooms.

When Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole, one of the many peculiar creatures she meets is the caterpillar. After initially ignoring her, the caterpillar asks Alice a rude question: “Who are YOU?” Who indeed! Alice struggles to answer. She has already experienced so many bewildering changes she no longer knows what to say.

Who are you? To some degree, it is a trick question. The question implies that there is a definite answer, and that simply isn’t true. We all have multiple identities. They change and evolve as time passes. Many of us claim identities that don’t quite fit the facts. Some of that is innocent, in a way, since we often deceive ourselves about this issue.

For much of my life I had an identity that seemed credible to others and was comforting to me. Then one day, like Alice, I experienced so many changes that I totally lost my ability to answer the caterpillar’s question. I have spent almost two decades developing a new answer to the question. By now I have constructed a new identity, using pieces left over from the wreckage of former identity but mostly based on fresh insights.

There are conventions to help us answer people who ask us who we are. A century ago it was common to identify by referring to church affiliation or participation in service clubs. One of my grandmothers identified as a Methodist. The other was a proud member of the Loyal Order of Moose.

In earlier times people were identified by where they lived. Biblical scholars claim we know much about Jesus if we remember he was a Nazarene. I have recently learned that I am (and always will be) a Minnesotan.

Most people, when asked who they are, start by referring to their occupation. I am intrigued by the ways this varies. For some people, it is impossible to separate their identity from their work. For others, how they make money has nothing to do with their true character. Increasingly, people define their identity by their recreational interests.

Many people—but I think especially women—define themselves in the context of their immediate family. Ask who they are and they answer with information about their husband and/or children. And yet for some people, the roles of wife and mother are irrelevant to any useful understanding of their unique identity.

I smile to remember how my father characterized himself the night he met the woman who became his wife (and, a bit later, my mother). He said he was an artist who rode in cavalry charges on weekends. Both facts were true. What he did not say was that he became a cavalryman as a way of proving he was not gay. To be fair, he was probably not
sufficiently self-aware to know that about himself at the time.

Modern understanding of personality has been impacted by therapy so profoundly that many people use concepts from counseling when expressing their identity. Who are you? One answer that might be useful is provided by Meyers-Briggs. In that context, I am an ENFP on a good day but an INFP on a more typical day.

It is relatively easy to describe identities if we are allowed to use an unlimited number of words. What is far more challenging is compressing the description until we are left with a handful of essential truths that reflect the essence of a person.

As an example, let me introduce my friend, the 92-year-old woman I write each morning. Who is she? She is a reader, a donor and a traveler. There is far more to know about her, of course: mother, widow, former university administrator, avid student of history, and so forth. But I suggest “reader, donor and traveler” define her unique and essential character. Anything I might add to a definition of her personality would have to come after those first three characteristics.

Reader. She reads voraciously, especially history and social commentary. The word “reader” also reflects a commitment to lifelong learning. Her greatest fear is that she might lose her sight. Books have been her main source of solace in the years since her husband passed away.

Donor. My friend addressed a midlife crisis by simplifying her life radically. She and her husband sold their South Minneapolis home and built a primitive house in a valley in southeast Minnesota. Their new home had no bathroom, running water or furnace. It was such a cheap place to live that my friend and her husband could donate to causes close to their hearts, two people of modest means expressing generosity on a scale normally associated with wealthy people.

Spiritual voyageur. My friend was raised as a judgmental sort of fundamentalist Christian. With the passing of years she became more tolerant and progressive. An abhorrence for sin morphed into a compassion and a deep concern for social justice. My friend often refers to her “voyage” as a person of faith. To her, it is the single most consequential fact of her life.

The caterpillar became a butterfly, although she is too modest to claim that.

Who are YOU?