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About gretcheno

I grew up at the top of a 90ft. cliff, in Washington state, within sight of eagles, whales, Mt. Baker, and Canada. I quickly learned that I don't have one artistic bone in my body...except when it comes to words. I learned that I can make people smile with my writing. Finally, at age 41, with years spent in Oregon, Berlin, Germany, and now Minnesota, I'm ready for more than just my family and friends to read my words.

Memoirs of a (sometimes) football fan

I did something the other evening which I hadn’t done in years. In fact, probably not since I’d graduated from high school. I attended a high school football game. (Go Trojans!)

The last football game I attended in person was at my alma mater, the University of Oregon. (Go Ducks!) I didn’t go to a lot of games over my four years of college but from time to time I wandered across the Willamette River with my friends and we enjoyed rooting for our (then perpetually losing) team. That was fun enough, but it’s a whole lot more fun to watch them winning these days on television. That way I can stay dry (it rains a lot in Eugene) and I can go to the bathroom without having to stand in line.

Back when I was in high school I didn’t attend too many games, either. I actually have some pretty good reasons for this. For one, I attended three different high schools, due to my father’s job.

I do remember going to one or two football games my 9th grade year at my school on Orcas Island, Washington. Forget about Friday Night Lights, our games were always played on Saturdays because the opposing teams had to take a ferry to get there and that added a huge amount of time to their traveling schedule. (Go Vikings!)

The next year I lived in Bend, Oregon, and there at Mountain View High School I attended just one game. I didn’t know very many people, and going to football games alone is no fun. (Go Cougars!)

Then I moved to West Berlin, Germany, and I was there for my last two years of high school. There, at Berlin American High School, I attended a handful of games (Go Bears!) but my best friend was the school mascot – which meant that she got to run around in a bear suit for the entire game – so I didn’t have her to sit next to and my other friends weren’t really into football so mostly I stayed home on Saturday afternoons. Yes, the games were on Saturdays there, too, also due to travel issues. It was kinda a big deal getting to and from West Berlin.

So all in all, being at any kind of football game was an anomaly for me. I do remember, way back in third grade, briefly considering becoming a football fan simply to improve my math scores. All the boys were really good at their 7 times tables whereas I hated and despised the 7 times tables and I knew that somehow their talent was involved with football scores.

I don’t really understand the sport of football. Ok…I don’t understand it at all other than I know that a First Down is a good thing and that field goals are sometimes worth one point and sometimes worth three, depending on if they’re accompanied by touchdowns or not. And I know that to get a touchdown the guy with the ball has to cross the end line without dropping the ball and somehow Mary, the Mother of Jesus is often involved.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve never attended a game here in Worthington prior to this year, but there it is. And the truth is, I enjoyed myself. Does that mean I’ll be going to a lot more games from here on out?

Let’s not get crazy here. I mean, I enjoy hearing my son play tuba in the pep band, but I can only take so much sitting in the cold cheering for the home team before I zone out and begin wondering why some of the players have long black socks and some of the players don’t and wouldn’t they all be more aesthetically pleasing if they all matched and do they need to hire a fashion consultant to take care of this problem?

Apparently the snappy uniforms of the Oregon Ducks have rubbed off on me.

(Incidentally, I’m a little worried about the Ducks this year, what with losing Marcus Mariota and all. And even I know, deep down, that snappy uniforms or no, it takes more than that to win a football game.)

And to that I say: Happy Homecoming, Worthington Trojans!

Comfort Books

I don’t have comfort food. I have comfort books. There are certain books which, if I’m feeling ill or weary, I’ll go to on the shelves. The Chronicles of Narnia, Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter. (Obviously there’s a theme to my comfort books!) Just the title, “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” makes me feel happy. That book, plus a cup of coffee with just a tad bit of cream…well, what more could a girl ask for?

I’ve loved books for as long as I can remember. I had shelves along three walls of my bedroom growing up – not the entire walls, and there were just three shelves, but there were so many books that I sort of grew up in a library. If I sneezed, I knew the Kleenexes were located between C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. It was a handy thing to know.

The living room in the house I grew up in had (surprise!) four walls: one wall had the fireplace, one was a huge sliding glass door out to the deck, one was floor to ceiling windows (and it was a cathedral ceiling, so yeah, a lot of glass) and the last wall was floor to ceiling book shelves.

In other words, my parents had a lot of books.

When it came time for us to move out of that house, the ratio of boxes of books to boxes of everything else was pretty humorous. I’d wager that the ratio was about equal, actually, though I might be wrong. There might have been more boxes of books.

Over the years I have come to follow in my parent’s footsteps. Though, I admit, this hasn’t always been a good thing. Especially when, combined with my husband’s appreciation of the written word, it means that the bookshelves in the playroom (yes, books belong in the playroom) are three-deep, resulting in our Ikea shelving giving way over the summer and revealing a terrible truth: we needed to thin out our library.

And so began a process which is almost done – I say almost because really, it must continue if I’m ever going to buy more books…which of course I am. We started sorting and the piles grew higher and higher: piles for give-away. Piles for the library book sale. Piles for nieces and nephews. As the process went on, it became easier and easier to ditch certain books. You know: the ones that weren’t mine.

But when it came to my books…oy, that wasn’t so easy. I mean, maybe I don’t want to read it ever again, but maybe my kids will someday? And hey, this is a classic, we can’t get rid of this. And my old college anthologies will come in useful someday. You know…when our kids go off to college and maybe find themselves doing research into late 1980’s textbooks…

Okay, okay. I know. I still have some work to do. But for now, the shelves are fixed. The books are neat. Everything fits. And who knows? Maybe when I bring the biggest box of all to the Bookshop in Sioux Falls to sell, they’ll give me so much money for them that I can shop to my heart’s content and get a whole lot of new books? Won’t that be fun?

Trouble is, my husband says that we need to have a new goal of getting rid of one book for every new one we buy.

(Why do you think I kept all those anthologies?)

Okay. Gotta go. I’ve got some book readin’ to do.

The Last Time I Went to a Bible Study

The last time I went to a Bible study at my church I felt safe. I harbored no fear that a dangerous person would walk in. No fears that he would bring a gun with him. No fears that he would use it.

The last time I went to a Bible study at my church I sat down, opened my Bible, and knew exactly what to expect: that we’d spend the next hour talking about the Bible. Surprise! We’d read passages, look up corresponding verses. Maybe I’d write down a few lines about what I was thinking. Maybe, if it was a particularly heart-searching lesson, I’d even underline a verse with red pen. Wild and crazy times, I know.

The last time I went to a Bible study at my church I was distracted. By the last words I said to my children before leaving the house. By my shoes. By the taste of coffee in my mouth. By what I needed to do after the study was done.

The last time I went to a Bible study at my church I couldn’t remember if I had prepared my lesson beforehand and then I remembered I hadn’t and I felt a little guilty about that but then I figured that God loved me anyway so I shouldn’t let it bother me even though it did.

The last time I went to a Bible study at my church I had no thought of racial tensions outside of the building. Or even in the building, for that matter. I didn’t think once about my white Scottish ancestors or my German blood on my father’s side or the little smattering of Swedish that my children inherited from their dad. I didn’t think about what any of that meant to my life, my plans, my family. I didn’t think about entitlement or racial profiling or people who might judge me by the color of my skin rather than the content of my character.

The last time I went to a Bible study at my church I didn’t think, in other words, about anything very important. Because, after all, I was attending Bible study, for goodness sake! A nice, pleasant, uncontroversial, calm, understood, safe, place.


For me. A white woman in middle America. Who, when she goes to Bible study, does not need to worry about being shot. I’m not saying that I want to worry about that. I’m saying that it’s horribly, terribly wrong that anyone should need to worry about it.

We live in a messed up world. And it’s not getting better; it’s getting worse. I want everyone, everywhere, to be able to go to Bible study and not worry about anything worse than what they’re going to fix for dinner when they leave. That’s what I want. But that’s not reality. And I don’t think that anything short of Jesus coming back is going to change that.

Is that fatalistic? Possibly. All I know is that there are millions of people out there who are helpless in light of the few fanatics who set out to do horrible things – like shooting up a Bible study in South Carolina – leaving millions of innocent people afraid of what will happen the next time they go to a Bible study, or to school, or to work, or to the grocery store, or step out of their front door.

That is not what America is supposed to be.

The next time I go to a Bible study at my church I’m going to pray. Because, in all honesty, that’s the only solution I see to this horrible problem.

Remembering Mt. St. Helens 35 years later

May 18th, 1980, 8:32am. 35 years ago. I was ten years old. It was a Sunday morning and my mom, sister and I were just about to leave the house for church. My other sister was off at college and my dad was down in Oregon for his job in the Air Force.

We were literally just about to go out the door when we heard a muffled BOOM.

“Oh,” my mom said. “They’re dynamiting on Buck Mountain.”

“On a Sunday?” my sister and I responded. “No. That’s not dynamite. That’s Mt. St. Helens.”

“No,” Mom disagreed. “We couldn’t hear that from here.”

But we could, and we did.

We got into our beat up Station Wagon and turned on the radio. Sure enough. A mountain had blown up. But it wasn’t from dynamite. And it wasn’t little Buck Mountain that rose behind our house. It was Mt. St. Helens, 300 miles away, and the skyline of Washington State would never look the same again.

Dad, down in Portland at the USAF Air Rescue Reserve squadron of which he was a part for many years, showed up at the mountain about 24 hours later in their search and rescue helicopters. They couldn’t get there safely any sooner. Even then they were risking their lives to search for the people who had been reported as missing on the mountain.

Over the course of the next few days and weeks they rescued survivors, located the dead, and witnessed something which they had hoped to never see. It was fascinating, yes, but it was horrifying as well.

Back on the island, I showed up that Sunday afternoon for rehearsal for my 4th grade play, Sleeping Beauty. (I was Maleficent, thank you very much.) I remember our teacher, Mrs. Brown, telling us what to do in case of an earthquake. No one knew what to expect. Would the mountain blow again? Would it trigger earthquakes or tsunamis?

As it turned out, we were fine. No quakes, no tidal waves, not even any ash came our way, as it all blew in a different direction, eventually making it’s way around the entire globe.

Dad, a semi-professional photographer, took hundreds of photographs of the devastation, quite a few of which hang in the Mt. St. Helens Interpretive Center located on the foothills of the mountain today.

It makes my heart ache to compare those photographs with a different photograph, hand-tinted, taken some 30 years prior to the explosion. It’s shows my mom, about 10 years old, with her sister and my grandpa in a meadow of wildflowers on Mt. St. Helens. The peak of the mountain rises in the background.

Now that peak doesn’t exist any more, and those little girls are 70 some years old. New wildflowers have filled in much of the ugly devastation, though nature can never replace the top of the mountain itself.

If you’re interested in hearing more about the explosion and my dad’s rescue missions, please tune in to my weekly radio show, “Everyday Epiphanies”, which airs every Sunday morning at 9:30am on KWOA, AM730. I’ll be talking specifically about St. Helens on the 24th, but I’m on every week! “See” you there!

The Sound of Musings

This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the movie, The Sound of Music. I’m 45 years old. This means that one of my favorite movies of all time is older than I am. I am not alone in this love of The Sound of Music. There are many people who regard it as their favorite. People who know the lines, the songs, and even the exact movement of every character as they sang the songs or delivered their lines.

It’s like it’s a cult and they’re devoted fans.

I’m not that fanatical about it, but the movie’s endurance is rather interesting, I think. It means that of all the fancy, high-tech, special-effects-laden films that have been made over the last 50 years, this musical with the singing nuns and dancing children out performs them all. And it has Julie Andrews. Can’t forget about her.

When I was quite young, in the days before Blue Rays and DVD’s and even VHS tapes – not to mention re-releases of movies for the big screen – the only chance we had to watch something like The Sound of Music was at Thanksgiving or other holidays when they’d air them on TV. I loved those opportunities, and so did my older sisters. We’d scan the TV guide (the kind inserted into the newspaper, not the kind you could buy) to see what time it was coming on and we’d arrange our schedules so that nothing interfered with our watching. Because, after all, there were no DVRs, either, to mean that we could watch a televised show later on. It was then…or never.

And then one day I was invited to a friend’s birthday party. I was 10, I believe, so it was 1980. This friend lived on a commune, inhabited by a group of individuals who believed in a lot of things that my parents did not believe in, but for some reason my mom allowed me to attend the party. My parents considered them to be a cult…though probably they did not refer to themselves that way. Anyway, this…group…must have had a lot of money because, for the first time in my life, I saw a VCR and there, on the top of the stack of movies they owned, was The Sound of Music.

“You mean you can watch The Sound of Music at any time you want?” I squealed, amazed and impressed and excited beyond belief.

“Sure,” my friend shrugged. “Big deal.”

We were about to put it on but her mom said that the party games took precedence. I remember nothing about the games, just the disappointment I felt at being denied The Sound of Music. I do, however, remember that there wasn’t any birthday cake. Apparently sugar was against their religion.

But that’s neither here nor there. What is applicable is that, ironically, The Sound of Music has become, like the commune my friend was a part of, a cult classic, with a following of obsessive fans, and 50 years of sustainability under its belt.

Which, as far as I know, is a lot longer than the cult my friend was a part of. She – and the entire commune full of people – moved away not long afterwards and I’ve never heard of them again.

Funny thing, that. Quality lasts, I guess. And The Sound of Music has “lastability”. Danger, humor, love, music, children, nuns, Nazis…and Julie Andrews. Now there’s a description of a cult I could be a part of.

I guess it’s time that I learned the exact movements of every character so that I can apply to be a member. Care to join me? I even own it on Blue Ray, so we won’t have to wait until Thanksgiving to start learning…

An Oregon Fan Through and Through

The truth is, life is easier when you don’t care about sports.

This deep thought occurred to me Monday night as I finally admitted to myself that three minutes of game play was probably not enough time for the Oregon Ducks to make up their point deficit against Ohio State in the college football national championship game. It was painful to admit. But it was, sadly, true. Ultimately, the game was a loss for my Oregon Ducks.

I never remember a time when I wasn’t an Oregon fan. My mom attended the U of O and ever since I was old enough to think about such things, I decided that I wanted to be a Duck when I grew up. When the time came to apply to colleges I sent my application off from my home in Germany and waited with baited breath to learn my fate. I didn’t apply anywhere else. I guess I was either very confident or very foolish.

When I found out that I was accepted I took it in stride. None of my classmates really knew anything about the U of O – they were mostly going to east coast schools – so I didn’t talk about it much, but I began secretly buying up green and yellow clothes and even a button-down shirt covered in ducks which I found in a German department store.

By the time I got to Eugene I dove into college life like a duck taking to water. Well, ok, I did have a few weeks of homesickness, in which the orange carpet of my dorm room absorbed more than a few tears, but I quickly came to love college and my life as a Duck.

I didn’t attend a whole lot of football games during my four years of school and I only remember going to one basketball game. I did go to a Track and Field invitational where I saw Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Florence Griffith Joyner and Carl Lewis running just a few feet away from me which was easily the most exciting sporting event I’ve ever seen in person.

You see, back then Oregon didn’t win many football games. It was fun to go to a game or two a year, but we went just to support our team, not to see a fantastic football game. It wasn’t until several years later, after I moved to Minnesota, that Oregon began to win consistently. Somewhere in there I married a U of Minnesota alum and we moved to Worthington and, much to my amazement, found out one year that Oregon and Minnesota were set to play each other in the Fiesta Bowl. That was a lot of fun in our household. (Oregon won, by the way. But the same match up happened a year or two later in which Minnesota won, so we’re even.)

And then, suddenly, Oregon seemed to blossom as a team. We were winning! We were on TV! It was exciting to be a Duck! Our perpetual underdog feeling was beginning to dissipate!

And then along came this year. It’s been amazing. We were winning (except for that Arizona game but we made up for that in the Rose Bowl) and we even had the first-ever Duck Heisman Trophy winner! Whoo hoo! We were even favored in the championship game!

But it was not to be.

Oregon has never won a national championship. Ohio, on the other hand, now has yet another trophy to add to their case. Yes, I’m bummed about that. “Number Two” doesn’t have the nice ring to it that “Number One” does.

But that’s life as a sports fan I guess.

Like I said, life is easier when you don’t care about sports.

And to that I say, Go Ducks!

Handel’s Messiah – Take 2

Part of me doesn’t want to listen to Handel’s Messiah again for at least a year.

Another part of me wants to be back on stage again and again, singing it better each time, and reveling in the fun of the moment, the gorgeous soloists, the lovely accompanying symphony.

Part of me will not miss waking up singing a different chorus every day, wondering which one it will be today that follows me around incessantly.

Another part of me will miss having the background theme songs in my dreams.

I will miss having something to challenge me musically – it had been many, many years since I’d sung in a choir and what will fill that void? I will miss seeing new friends every week. I will miss the anticipation – several decades in the making – of singing this oratorio. For as long as I can remember – probably way back when my parents sang in it when I was a kid, Dad taking the bass solo and Mom the soprano – I have wanted to be a part of The Messiah.

In 10th grade, I missed out on singing the Hallelujah Chorus because I was ill. Had I known that it was a traditional part of the Christmas program at my school (it was my first year there) then I would have dragged myself out of bed and sung my heart out (probably infecting the entire soprano section in the process).

But I didn’t know. And I’ve been bummed ever since.

If I had a better voice – and a lot more ambition – I probably would have sung it long before now, as had many members of the chorus. But as it is, I second-guessed my presence in the rehearsal room every week! But I never wanted to quit. Not once.

As we performed the songs last night – to a sold-out crowd – I tried to enjoy the moment, to soak in the music, the ambiance. I was sitting right behind the bassoons with their fabulous, pure, deep notes, which was enough to practically make me swoon. And as for the soloists – well, I closed my eyes and imagined I was in Carnegie Hall, they were that good.

I wished I was sitting next to my husband so that I could hold his hand and share the moment, but he, a tenor, was much too far away in the 70-some member choir. It was fun singing with him, though. He sings a lot more than I do so I enjoyed the rare chance to at least be in the same group with him.

Handel’s Messiah actually features in our courtship. My parents had invited him over for dinner – it was the first time he met my dad, I think, though he’d met Mom before. He came into the house and we all sat down at the table and The Messiah was playing in the background. My dad turned to him and asked him if he know what the music was.

Colin smiled and replied, “Handel’s Messiah!”

Dad smiled in return and, with his smile, told him he had permission to court his daughter.

Colin swiped his forehead and said, “Phew! I’m just glad it was a well-known piece of music!”

Dad nodded. “You got lucky, young man.”

That all happened close to 20 years ago. Last night, sitting there beneath the bright lights, felt like the culmination of that moment.

At various times throughout the concert I squinted into the crowds and found our children, sitting with a dear friend of mine, and I couldn’t wait to hear what they thought of it all.
When it was all over – after the intermission, after the Worthington Area Symphony Orchestra filled the auditorium with the marvelous strains of The Nutcracker Suite in the second half of the program and we’d sung Christmas carols (such a great entrance into the holiday season) and retrieved our coats and returned our music (a sad moment) our kids finally found us and hugged us and told us what they thought. Our youngest, at seven years old, said, “I loved it!” I asked her what bits she liked best. Without a pause she replied, “I don’t know. I slept through most of it.”

And that, my friends, is how our children keep us humble. Because Mom may be having an existential moment. But Lucy, lulled by the beauty of the music, just needed a nap.

Chiseling Down the Wall – My Memories of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

The first time I saw the Berlin Wall was the summer between my sophomore and junior year in high school. We had just moved to West Berlin because my Dad, who had been laid off from Pan American World Airways for 14 years, had unexpectedly been recalled…and sent to Berlin.

I remember when we got the news that we’d be moving. We’d known the assignment was to come through that day, so I’d made Mom promise to leave a message for me at school telling me where we’d be moving to. To my surprise, in the middle of algebra class, my teacher handed me a note. It read simply, “Berlin”.

Suddenly the world opened up for me. Visions of bratwurst, dirndls and Cold War spy movies filled my mind.

Clearly, I had no idea what I was getting in to.

By the time we’d moved into our apartment in the Dahlem district of Berlin, registered me for school in the US Department of Defense-run Berlin American High School, and learned to avert my eyes when walking through city parks where there were clothing-optional volleyball games in progress, I felt like I’d aged about a million years from that day in algebra class. West Berlin was not what I had expected.

It was better.

With the exception, of course, that every aspect of life was controlled by The Wall.

My mom and cousin Eleanor banging out their bits of the wall.

My mom and cousin Eleanor banging out their bits of the wall.

Living in the city, going about my daily life, I didn’t give the wall much thought. But whenever a sports team or, in my case, the Drama Fest team, had to go to another West German city for a competition, we had to climb aboard the Duty Train (the nightly military train that took soldiers and their families across East Germany in the dark) with the window shades pulled, so that no Westerners could see the glory that was the DDR, the Deutsches Democratic Republic of Germany.

It was impossible for civilians to ride this train, except in the case of students like myself, so I’d come with an armload of special papers while my military-dependent friends could pretty much just hop onboard. The Duty Train was really the only way out of the city apart from flying. There were day passes available to military dependents to enter East Berlin, and as civilians we could enter the East through Checkpoint Charlie, but there were many rules and curfews required if you did so.

One of the rules was that you weren’t allowed to take any paper money – East Marks – back into West Germany. My uncle (when he and my aunt visited us one Christmas and we all went into the East) chose to be stubborn rather than spending his leftover marks. He opened an East German bank account with his ten marks…the equivalent of less than five dollars. I suppose the account still exists, though it’s more likely that the bank itself dissolved with the fall of the wall.

The gate that December.  Note the Soviet flag still flying.

The gate that December. Note the Soviet flag still flying.

Another rule about crossing into East Berlin was that civilians couldn’t drive their cars. This meant that whenever we wanted to go there – which was only twice for me – we were required to walk through Checkpoint Charlie and be scrutinized by the East German guards.

This wasn’t too big of a deal, but it took awhile, depending on whether the guards felt like opening the window or not, and on how long the lines were. Both times I visited they glanced at my passport and waved me through. Both times my mother, however, was scrutinized. She must have looked like she’d be easily intimidated. She would stand there, trying to look cross and aloof, but probably the shaking of her hand as she handed over her passport gave her away. I actually wanted to be scrutinized. I thought it would be fun. But no, they picked on Mom instead.

I disliked visiting the East. Oh, it was interesting seeing Alexander Platz and visiting the Russian-run department store, but it was a gloomy place, a gray place. The above-ground subway, the S-Bahn, gave a shrill whistle at every stop which always gave me a headache, and seeing the windows of the houses that faced the wall literally boarded up and seeing the guards with their guns patrolling no-man’s land and their guard towers and their utter disdain for us westerners was a little off-putting.

Of course, never far from one’s mind when visiting East Berlin, was the fact that you could leave…and every single person you saw around you could not. Well, they could go into the rest of East Germany, but they certainly couldn’t go into the west.

(By the way, if you ever get to Berlin today, the Checkpoint Charlie Wall Museum (Mauermuseum) is a must-see. It tells the story – and often preserves the means – of the many escapes and escape attempts that were made in the 27-year existence of the wall. There is little more humbling in life than to realize how you’ve taken your freedom for granted.)

I remember one time going to a fair and riding a Ferris Wheel that was set up right alongside the wall. Every time we reached the apex of the wheel ride we could see over the wall and into the streets and lives of the East Germans on the other side. I felt like a bird must feel. Only birds have the right to fly anywhere they choose. Even they had more freedom than the East Germans.

A hole in the wall...with the "Pope's Revenge" in the background.

A hole in the wall…with the “Pope’s Revenge” in the background.

I visited the wall several times while in my two years in Berlin. Usually we’d take the U-Bahn, the underground, to the Reichstag (now the Bundestag) and get out there, walking the short way to the Brandenburg Gate. My mother and I did that when President Reagan came to speak at the wall, in the spring of 1987. We had signed up for tickets, which we clutched, along with our passports and civilian ID cards, as we joined the line which snaked back and forth for row upon row.

There were three checkpoints along the way, all manned by West German guards. I handed my pile of documents to the first. He glanced down, prepared to wave me forward, then gave a snort. A snort which could only be called a laugh.

He looked up at me. “Gretchen?” He asked.

I nodded, confused.

Then, with another laugh, he handed me my papers and waved me on.

I shuffled forward, uncertain and a little perplexed.

At the next checkpoint, it happened again.

Papers handed over, name read, guard guffawed. Only this time he called over his friends to add a little humor to their day as well. “Gretchen!” he said, lending his German pronunciation to my name. “Ya, ha ha!” his friends agreed.

As I approached the third and final checkpoint, Mom and I prepared ourselves for the laugh fest.

I handed my documents over and, sure enough, the guard smiled and chuckled.

“It’s my name, right?” I asked. “Mein namen?”

“Ya,” the guard replied. “Das ist ein kinder namen.”*

A name for children.

Fine. Whatever. Give me my passport, please.

And then, after taking our place in the standing crowd and seeing East German guards staring down at us from the top of the Brandenburg Gate with rifles slung over their shoulders, the president appeared. When I looked back up, the soldiers were gone.

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” President Reagan said. And I laughed a little, inside, at the absurdity of the thought.

Turns out I was the who was absurd. And I’m so glad.

A not-very-good shot of President Reagan speaking at the wall.

A not-very-good shot of President Reagan speaking at the wall.

I was in college back in the States on November 9, 1989 – 25 years ago this month – so I wasn’t there when the wall actually opened up, but I went back several weeks later for Christmas. My parents and my cousin Eleanor (who was visiting for Christmas) and I took the U-Bahn to the Brandenburg Gate, bringing a hammer and chisel with us to claim our small piece of history. The crowds had thinned greatly from the initial days after the opening of the wall, but there were several people there, chiseling and hammering and swigging from bottles of wine.

We approached a large hole in the wall and gazed through into the former No-Man’s Land, the place of such loathing and horror in the past. An East German guard, still patrolling but unarmed, walked up on his side of the wall and smiled at us. He was still wearing his uniform, complete with Russian-style fur hat with the ear flaps folded up.

In broken German, Eleanor struck up a conversation with him and he replied amiably, smiling all the while. We were making friends with a man who, only weeks ago, would have had orders to shoot us.

Eleanor and the guard, in an unprecedented cultural exchange.

Eleanor and the guard, in an unprecedented cultural exchange.

I went back to Berlin a few years ago, walked through the Brandenburg Gate, saw the renamed Reichstag and the US Embassy abutting the Gate itself, stayed in a Hilton hotel in the former East Berlin. Such decadence in the city that had been so dreary!

The Brandenburg Gate from the East, taken in 2012.  The US Embassy is the building to the left.

The Brandenburg Gate from the East, taken in 2012. The US Embassy is the building to the left.

Every moment of my time there was surreal. It was beyond fantastic to see the city I had come to love as it was meant to be. A unified whole.

PS – I know that reunification wasn’t all easy, what with broken Trabants on the autobahn and sales of pornography skyrocketing (blue jeans and bananas rounded out the top three most-bought items by the East Germans). But still, reunification brought about the ultimate end of World War II (the end of the Allied Occupation in the city) and the end of Germany’s split personality, so to speak. And while it might not have been easy, it was, in the end, Sehr Gut.

Handel’s Messiah – Take One

Okay, so it’s the morning after the first rehearsal for November’s joint Worthington Symphony Orchestra/ Community Choir performance of Handel’s Messiah and my mind is spinning from my experience last night.

As I walked into the Fine Arts building at Minnesota West I had one thing foremost on my mind: I haven’t sung in a choir for, oh, about 15 years, and what on earth makes me think I’m able to do this? I haven’t got the range I used to have. I haven’t got the breath support, and I’ve never sung this piece of music before so am I even going to be able to learn it and not be a complete voice-cracking fool as I reach for those high soprano notes?

Okay, I guess that was more than one thing, but they were all connected.

I sat down, clutching my pristine copy of the music, and pulled my reading glasses out of my purse. As I did so, I contemplated the fact that last time I sang in a choir I didn’t need glasses. Suddenly I felt old and even more insecure than I had when I walked in the door.

And then John Loy asked for a show of hands of how many people had sung this before. I was sitting in the front row, and I didn’t look back, but it felt like about 90% of the people in the room raised their hands. John was impressed by the number of hands raised. I was frightened.

Then Kerry Johnson, our fearless director for the evening, began leading us in warm ups and I flashed back to my college choir experience. I was in Women’s Chorus, a non-audition choir, because I couldn’t sight read and didn’t have a good audition for the University Singers. I was crushed mostly because I knew I could hear the music once and learn it even if I couldn’t sight read it. And then I flashed back to the present day and began worrying about sight reading and if I was going to be utterly horrible at this first rehearsal and then it was time to begin with the first song and Diane Mick began playing piano and suddenly we were singing!

And even though I couldn’t sight read and even though I hadn’t sung in years and even though I couldn’t hold a note as long as I used to, suddenly I knew I’d be okay because I knew this music! I could reach the notes (most of the time) and I could stagger my breathing with the ladies next to me and I didn’t think that Kerry and John would kick me out because even though I was far from excellent, at least I wasn’t pathetic.

Now I’m not saying that I didn’t have some voice-cracks that a could have made a middle-school boy proud, and I’m still not sure that I can ever hit a high “b” the way I’m supposed to and I’m not sure that it will be pretty if I do…but I am saying that I’m having a lot of fun trying. And to that I say, “Hallelujah”!

The Disheveled Gardener

Last spring I had the fun assignment of sitting at a table in BenLees and interviewing five ladies from the Worthington Garden Club for a story I did for the Daily Globe. That was a hoot. The five of them were so knowledgeable and encouraging. I went home feeling inspired and ready to face the gardening season, despite my previous incompetence in that area.

Flash forward to about a month later. I stood in a greenhouse at Grandpa’s Fun Farm, staring at the rows and rows of herbs, tomatoes, and pansies, trying to decide which ones were worthy of coming home with me. I bought sixteen tomato plants, some parsley and thyme, quite a few pansies and other flowers, and a beautiful red geranium.

Poor doomed plants. Next year when I come into the greenhouse all of the growing things need to play dead and then maybe they’ll escape my black thumb.

Ok, I am exaggerating. A little. But it is true that within two weeks my geranium had suffered Death by Drowning in the adorable teapot I’d planted it in because I hadn’t given it any way to drain. The marigolds were well on their way to a similar death except that I realized their plight and took them out of the adorable TAC Sale find (a roasting pan) and shoved them into an old Weber grill – which comes with a drain all ready and waiting. True, the grill got kicked over later in the summer by an unsuspecting young man, but they survived somehow…or, rather, half of them did.

My tomatoes took off well, but a few weeks into June I realized that I’d forgotten to take precautions against blossom rot and I couldn’t remember exactly what I’d been told to do, anyway. (Note to self: write everything down.)

Around that same time I finally remembered to plant some wildflower seeds I’d optimistically purchased and forgotten all about. I spent some time weeding a spot large enough to take the entire mammoth package of seeds. Then I fertilized the ground, planted the seeds, watered them, and walked into the house only to hear a loud clap of thunder followed by a violent burst of rain which took half of my seeds into Iowa in about three minutes. The other half did grow, but apparently I over-fertilized them as all I got was a jungle of three-foot high stems and leaves and about three pink blossoms two days ago. I think they’re morning glories, but I’m not certain. I noticed today that there are a few…what are they called? Oh yeah, forget me nots.

I planted some sunflowers the same day as the wildflowers, but they were all eaten by rabbits except for one which somehow grew up in the tomato barrel.

My cherry tomatoes have done well. I made a fantastic roasted tomato-basil soup but I had to use dried basil as I forgot about my basil plants and they all went to seed and got smashed up by hail. I thought my large tomatoes had miraculously escaped blossom rot but just this week I see that they have not. Sigh.

I think, when it comes down to it, I ought to stick to theology and forget about gardening. Then again, maybe if I prayed a little more for my plants that would help. Either way, the “disheveled” moniker fits. And, I’m okay with that. A few disheveled plants, plus this disheveled gardener/theologian, and I have a happy summer.

I wonder if I dare plant some bulbs this fall?