Monthly Archives: May 2016

Angry Birds

angry birds banner

Last evening, while I was puttering in the backyard, a blackbird fledgling hopped through the open door of the garden shed. My efforts to coax it out only caused it to scamper further into the dark recesses of my “woman cave.” All the while, the child’s mother was scolding me loudly from a nearby tree. When it was time to go in for the night, the little peeper was still in residence. Rather than locking him into the dark and stifling structure, I propped the door open a few inches to permit his egress at his convenience. I’m hoping, when I check the shed after work today, that I’ll find its population down by one, rather than up by an indeterminate number of snakes, mice, rabbits and other undesirable tenants.

My mom worried that the little guy might fall victim* to a white cat that prowls the neighborhood overnight. However, based on my experience of bird-cat relations, I’m more hopeful. Despite anti-cat propaganda that puts cat-caused carnage against bird populations on a par with the Visigoths’ sack of Rome, I maintain birds can hold their own against their feline foes.

In 2013, a controversial study in the journal Nature Communications postulated that cats are responsible for between 1.4 and 3.7 billion bird deaths a year. That does indeed seem appalling. But consider that the world population of birds is estimated at 400 billion, and the paltry .00925% that cats cull seems a little less egregious. Based on the cacophony of tweets and chirps that starts up about 4:30 am every morning outside my window, I can say with certainty that the winged creatures are not endangered species in my yard, at least.


We maintain a congeniel habitat for our feathered friends.

Indeed, my experience suggests that birds are often the bullies in cat-bird interactions. Last summer I witnessed the startling spectacle of a bright orange blur of cat streaking across the neighbor’s property at full speed, pursued by a trio of dive-bombing bluejays. The last I saw of the beleaguered feline, it dived under a camping trailer; the jays perched on top of the vehicle, laughing and pointing at their humiliated victim.

Peep, stymied by a fragile mesh of screen.

Peep, stymied by a fragile mesh of screen.

More recently, I had just lain down for a Sunday afternoon nap (that’s what weekends are for, yo), when I heard my cat Peep chattering from his perch on the windowsill. She was clearly agitated by something, making that staccato eh-eh-eh-eh sound that I’ve always interpreted as the cat version of a string of obscenities. I got up to investigate and discovered, a mere foot or so from the screen window behind which my cat glowered, a tiny bird on the end of a tree branch. It was a house wren (Troglodytes aedon), about the size of a tangerine, and it was taunting my cat. I swear to God it was staring Peep straight in the eye, bobbing gently on its twig and singing a sprightly song whose lyrics can only have translated to, “Neener neener boo boo.”

At left, the house wren, Troglodytes aedon. Not to be confused with Trog, the 1970 low-budget horror film that marked the low point of Joan Crawford's career (right).

At left, the house wren, Troglodytes aedon. Not to be confused with Trog, the 1970 low-budget horror film that marked the low point of Joan Crawford’s career (right).

Frankly, as stealthy as cats imagine themselves to be, a bird that allows itself to be snuck up on by a cat is, in my opinion, not much of a bird. Birds have the great advantage of wings, which allow them to flutter just out of reach of their earthbound enemies, who are left to shout in impotent rage and shake their furry fists toward the sky before stomping off petulantly to take a nap.

As for the ghostlike predator that stalks our neighborhood, I hope he doesn’t have to depend on his hunting skills to make a living. A few days ago a quiet evening around the firepit was interrupted by a raucous din coming from the lilac hedge. A murder** of crows had descended on the shrubbery, occupying almost every branch. Their attention was directed toward the ground, and they were hollering in unmistakable fury. Beneath them, in a little hollow among the roots, cowered … the white cat. Whatever it had done to piss these guys off, it clearly regretted it. Rather intimidated myself, I backed away and left the stand-off to reach its natural conclusion. I haven’t seen that cat since, by the way. I prefer to assume he found other, more hospitable hunting grounds. But I did see a bit of white, furry fluff adorning a new nest in the pine tree yesterday …

Our swallow condo is always a hot property.

Our swallow condo is always a hot property.

*Sad coda: The fledgling apparently did leave the shed overnight, but was found some yards away, deceased of unknown causes.

** a group of crows is known as a murder, presumably because their raucous cries inspire homicidal thoughts in anybody who has to listen to them.

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I Canna Catch a Break

Cat Garden1

The pathway to Junk World

Last evening my 89-year-old mother and I sat in our lawn chairs in the backyard, half dead from many hours of toiling in the gardens. Mom looked across at the neighbor’s yard, a featureless expanse of green lawn, and remarked, “I bet they’re just as happy as we are, and they don’t have a single flower in their yard.”

Point taken.

New host bed in progress.

New hosta bed in progress.

Nevertheless, I look forward to planting season on the ol’ homestead every spring. My master plan, to replace ever blade of grass on the property with a flower, is advancing nicely. I installed a large, new shade bed this spring and filled it with hostas, astilbe and ferns. My mom approved of converting an otherwise barren patch of earth underneath a massive maple tree to this purpose. However, she has cautioned against any more excavations. “I think any more gardens might make the yard look a little … junky,” she averred.

Yep. That’s what I was going for. Call it an homage to that classic 1970s sitcom, “Sanford & Son.” Once I roll in a few derelict cars and leaking oil drums, the scene will be complete. Watch for my spread in “Better Homes & Gardens.”

Cat Garden 2Perennials are the foundation of most of my beds. Unfortunately, my favorite flowers are all of the sort that do not naturally occur on the tundra (i.e., central Minnesota). Here in Zone 3-to-barely-4, plants like gladiola, dahlias, begonias and calla lilies have to be laboriously dug up in the fall and reinstalled in the spring. Each fall I “lift” dozens of dinnerplate and other fancy dahlias, wash them off, label them and store them in a cool room in the basement. And every spring I unpack the boxes and throw away the alternately withered or mushy contents, which will invariably have croaked over the winter.

I have tried every method propounded by the gardening magazines to preserve these devils: wrapping each individual corm in plastic wrap, burying them in vermiculate, in sawdust, in wood shavings. The result is always the same: I fork over a C-spot to someplace like White Flower Farms or Spring Hill Nursery for this year’s “Dinnerplate Dahlia Collection.” Ka-ching!

I have slightly better luck overwintering gladiolas; about three-quarters of the bulbs I toss into a paper bag and stuff into a dark corner are viable the following spring. Begonias are a lost cause; happily, they’re fairly cheap (after Memorial Day, at least).

Canna flower

Canna flower

My real success story, however, is cannas. And by “success story,” I mean oh-my-god-what-am-I-going-to-do-with-all-these-damned-cannas. I started with a single plant half a dozen years ago; this spring I’ve already put in three dozen huge rhizomes and have another crateful still in the basement to find a home for. I’m not even particularly fond of these tropical-looking plants that produce a rather lukewarm fringe of flower late in the season. But it’s hard not to respect a plant as robust and prolific as this is. At the rate it’s reproducing, I’ll be able to put in a 6’ canna hedge clear around my property in a few years.

In the meantime, though, I still have to figure out what to do with that couple of dozen rhizomes languishing in the basement. Every nook and cranny in all the full-sun beds have already been claimed. I can think of only one solution. Looks like I’ll have to dig a new bed on the west side of the house. (I think there’s a broken down old snowblower in the shed that would make a nice focal point.)

Just don’t tell mom.

Cat Garden 3

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Car Talk

brokenKiaYou can pretty well figure how the weekend is going to go when a cop wakes you up at 7 am on Saturday morning to inform you that your car has been hit by a garbage truck. Yes, my darling girl, Little Red, was laid waste by the waste collection service. It was the once-a-year community yard waste clean-up day in my hometown. My little vehicle was just sitting quietly by the curb in front of the house when the garbage truck driver – apparently stunned by the 32 bags of leaves and debris I had pyramided next to the driveway – cut in too close and caught the left front side of my Kia. Well, I had about a year of my car looking good, which is a new record for me.

I’m not really a car person, nor do I come from car people. Basically, in our family we buy something used that we can afford, then run it into the ground. My mom is still rockin’ a 1983 Dodge Caravan with 148,000 miles on it; it’s her baby, and she’s determined that it will outlive her. I am thus astonished when I hear people at work talking about trading cars with some regularity and discussing the various features and aesthetic appeal of their vehicle of choice.

Meh. As long as it runs, I don’t much care what my wheels look like. My first car was a hand-me-down – the family’s Pontiac sedan I inherited when the Caravan (used, natch) was purchased to replace it in the mid-80s. I got it when I was about a junior in college; back then, kids didn’t drive their own fancy wheels to high school like they do now. We had to WALK the six blocks, whippersnappers!

Eventually that old buggy started to fall apart. I recall having a dead battery one sub-zero morning; the helpful service man, once he ascertained that I don’t know anything about cars, sold me a $150 battery (this was back in the 80s, remember) that my father later averred would power the space shuttle. I think the slick salesman pegged me as a rube when he asked me if I’d ever had my tires rotated and I replied, “Don’t they rotate when the car moves?”


Pontiac Sunbird

Pontiac Sunbird

When the Pontiac finally conked out, I made my first car purchase (and by “my purchase,” I mean my Dad picked it out and paid for it, as I recall, even though I was in my 20s. Once Daddy’s little girl, always Daddy’s little girl. Did I make payments to my parents for it? I hope so.) My new ride was a silver Pontiac Sunbird, circa 1986 or thereabouts. Again, it wasn’t new. I bought it from a local guy. It was a two-door and had a manual transmission. I didn’t actually know how to drive a stick, but how hard could it be?


My father, never known for his patience, was my tutor in this endeavor. I seem to have repressed much of the experience, but vaguely recall a lot of stops and starts, my Dad snapping, “Shift down! Let up on the throttle! Not that fast! Shift up! Press the gas!” in a litany that got louder as my skills failed to advance. It’s possible I may have snapped back … all I know is that in the middle of a block some distance from our home, my Dad suddenly demanded that I stop the car and let him out! This incident morphed into family legend, my pops embroidering it more with every telling.

The Sunbird was a good little vehicle for a decade or so. Then it started leaking oil. By this time I was living in the Big City* and didn’t know where to take it to get repaired. I figured I could just as well wait until the next time I got home to Osakis and have the local guy take a look at it. In the meantime, I’d just pour a quart of oil in the engine every morning before I went to work.

You thought YOU were having a bad morning?

You thought YOU were having a bad morning?

This worked fairly well for a few days … until the morning commute when I was startled to see smoke rolling out from under the hood of my car. I was on the freeway in rush hour, so what could I do but just keep rollin’? I got off on my exit and made it to the stoplight at the corner of my office building before the sight of flames licking my windshield convinced me it might be best to stop. As I got out of the car, a man across the street started yelling, “Get away from that thing! It’s going to blow!”

Oh. They do that? Who knew?

Anyway, the fire department was called and yada yada yada, my silver Sunbird was left a smoldering carcass in the middle of downtown St. Paul. I later learned that my colleagues watched the excitement from our sixth floor offices, wondering what kind of idiot let their car go up in flames like that. When the blaze was extinguished, the fire captain approached me, looking grave.

“Have you had your oil changed recently?” he asked.

“Um … yes,” I fudged.

“Well, be sure to tell your insurance guy that whoever did it forgot to put the oil cap back on. We found it sitting on the transmission. Your car was splashing oil all over the hot engine all the way from Shoreview.”


Ford Escort

Ford Escort. A noble steed.

My next car was a NEW black 1997 Ford Escort. Again a manual transmission, but four doors this time. Weezy, we movin’ on up! I had it almost a week before a deer jumped out onto the freeway in front of me. The collision beat the hell out of the right front end (and I suspect didn’t do the deer much good, either, but he scampered off into the ditch and out of sight). With $1,000 in damage and an $800 deductible, I decided if it was drive-able, it could live without cosmetic surgery. Fast-forward another five years or so, when a car hit me in an intersection and then sped away, leaving me with a left-side dent to match the deer-caused damage. Well, there’s something to be said for the aesthetics of symmetry.

Bowed, but not broken, my Escort continued to serve until last summer. It was rusting badly around the dented places and starting to nickel-and-dime me to death with small repairs, so I decided it was time to put it out to pasture. Enter my little, bright-red Kia, purchased from the same guy I got the Sunbird from 30 years ago. People told me I looked “sassy” in it. And now it’s been hit by a garbage truck and is as decrepit as its owner. That’s what an old maid gets for being sassy. Little Red currently rests where it fell, awaiting the conclusion of the endless dance of insurance dickering to find out who’s going to pay the $4,200 it’ll cost to get her moving again.

Little Red, in happier times

Little Red, in happier times

Even when she’s patched up, I know she’ll never be the same. That’s just as well. We’ll grow old together, Red and I, increasingly rusty, wheezy and cranky. That’s what old friends do.


*St. Paul. Not exactly New York City, true, but it has more than 1,000 people. That says big city to me.




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Fish Out of Water

Lake Osakis. Pretty, yes?

Lake Osakis. Pretty, yes?

It’s fishing opener weekend here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes (11,842, actually). I won’t be on any one of them. That’s in part because it’s going to be damned cold, but mostly because

  • I’m ‘po folk and don’t live on the lake, nor can I afford a boat, nor do I have any friends who meet those qualifications; and
  • I can’t imagine anything less diverting than sitting for hours in an open boat on a choppy lake staring at a line hanging in the water.

Minnesota State Pastime

Fishing opener is a Big Deal here in Minnesota, though I’m not sure why. It’s not like serious anglers can be desperately pining for the experience; only scant weeks ago they were all sitting in their fishhouses on the frozen lakes (or, for those true Minnesotans who have manly hair on their chests, sitting outside on an upside down 10-gallon pail in -35° windchill, staring into a round hole in the ice.) Fun times.

They trot out the governor on these occasions, flying him in to some obscure lake that needs a tourism boost. This year he’s on Big Sandy Lake near McGregor, up north a ways. Our current Guv is a scion of the Dayton family, which founded what is now known as Target Corporation. With a family worth of approximately $1.6 billion, I’m guessing that apart from this one day a year, Mr. D doesn’t spend a lot of his free time sitting in a 14’ Alumacraft in a bright orange life vest and wool stocking cap with a can of beer in his hand. He also will almost certainly not catch anything; as far as I recall, no governor ever has. This begs the question of why this is deemed such a prize PR opportunity for the communities that host it.

Lake Osakis, on the shores of which my hometown is situated, is one of the larger natural bodies of water in the state, comprising about 6,300 acres with a maximum depth of 73 feet. It’s long been known as one of the best walleye fishing spots in Minnesota – though that reputation is apparently not compelling enough to tempt the governor to visit OUR little burg. Hrumph.

That's good eatin'?

That’s good eatin’?

Sadly, Osakis’s fame has dimmed just a bit in recent years; with the DNR harvesting large numbers of walleye fingerlings from our lake to dump in other people’s lakes (presumably those the governor has expressed an interest in touting; but I’m not bitter),  it’s possible the fishing is, as they say, not quite what it used to be. Still, if the photos the local resorts publish are to be believed, people still pull some sizable walleyes, northerns, crappies and the like from the water. As far as I know, we’ve also escaped (so far) the invasion of zebra mussels, Asian milfoil and other “non-native species” that are wreaking havoc on the bio-culture of other area bodies of water. Fingers crossed.

(Thankfully, Lake Osakis has not experienced the ignominy that attached to a recent ice fishing tournament in a nearby town; hundreds of fishermen paid big bucks to compete for a $20,000 prize, only to stomp home mad when not so much as a half-ounce sunfish was pulled from the lake that day. Oops.)

garage sale

Many treasures can be found at the annual citywide garage sale. Look for these on an upcoming episode of “Antiques Roadshow.”

Hereabouts, the fishing opener is complemented by an unofficial citywide garage sale “for the ladies.” (We’re all about the traditional gender roles here in God’s country.) I’ll be passing on that popular entertainment as well, as I have quite enough junk in the basement already. We had our own garage sale one year and made about $50, which, given the enormous amount of work that went into the thing, should have gotten us arrested for subjecting ourselves to slave labor.

So what do non-fisherpersons/non garage-salers do on this magical weekend? Well, since it’s forecast to be about 40 miserable degrees, I expect I’ll wrap up in an afghan, turn on the electric fireplace and watch the governor freeze his kiester on TV.


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A Bruce for All Seasons


It’s Bruce Boxleitner’s birthday today! Is it strange that a 50-year-old lady knows when an actor’s birthday is? Only if it’s also strange for her to run a Tumblr called The All Bruce Network and publish a Bruce-a-Day calendar and –


Well, all right. But in my defense, being a sad old spinster has the happy benefit of not being required to be a mature and responsible role model for my offspring. I am free, therefore, to remain perpetually an adolescent. Mr. B isn’t my only celebrity crush, of course. I also have a cheap thing for Pierce Brosnan. And an age-inappropriate yearning for a young British actor named Andrew-Lee Potts. For many years I was passionately devoted to Matthew Ashford, who played Jack Deveraux on Days of Our Lives, but he has lately shown himself to be a cad, so he’s dead to me now. No more January 29 birthday wishes for YOU, Matt.


Mark your calendars!

My appreciation of Mr. Boxleitner is of long standing – dating from his early role as Luke McCahan on “How the West Was Won.” That’s … 40 years ago. I followed his career from Luke to Billy Montana (The Gambler) to Tron to Frank Buck (Bring ‘Em Back Alive) to Lee Stetson (Scarecrow & Mrs. King) to John Sheridan (Babylon 5) to Bob Beldon (Cedar Cove). There truly is a Bruce for every stage of life.


yodabruceGiven my decades-long loyalty, it’s kind of a shame that I’m pretty sure I’m this guy’s least-favorite fan. He seems like a man whose dignity is important to him, and it’s true that I tend to be a little *ahem* irreverent at times. I may have Photoshopped him into Yoda. And Frankenstein’s monster. All in good fun. (We tease because we love, Bruce.) Although I’ve never* sent him any of the bewildering variety of strange fan art I’ve created around my poor, unwitting creative muse, I know he’s aware of it at some level since other people have tweeted him my stuff. He’s responded a couple of times (even retweeted a Photoshop of him as Ben Hur; he’s always wanted to drive a chariot).


Though I follow him and have on rare occasions tweeted him on Twitter (a social medium he seems lately to have abandoned), mostly I leave the guy alone. I don’t need to be his friend. I’m not looking for his approval of my fangirlishness. And he doesn’t have to do anything for my benefit, either, except continue creating the body of work that I enjoy watching so much. Live and let live, in other words. (Come to think of it, we have the kind of perfect relationship that has eluded me in real life. There’s a reason I’m single.)

So, on the off chance that he stumbles onto this (and I hope to God he doesn’t), happy birthday, Mr. Boxleitner, and thank you for many years of entertainment. Now, as my readers enjoy this little retrospective of his career that I created last year at this time, I’m off to make cupcakes for Pierce Brosnan’s birthday next week.

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Hosta la Vista, Baby


If grass could be nurtured by being watered with tears, I’d have the lushest lawn in town. Instead, the backyard increasingly resembles the aftermath of Sherman’ March to the Sea. I’ve written before about the annual rage-fest that commences lawn mowing season. To briefly recap: I hate mowing, and all that that implies. By extension, I hate grass. Fortunately (?), the ever-deteriorating state of the lawn means I have less grass to hate every season.


Five years of expensive lawn treatments have yielded remarkable results!

My lawn suffered years of benign neglect under my father’s watch; since I bought the place a dozen years ago, this patch of scrubland has suffered a much more active form of attack: the withering force of my contempt. Twice a summer I have the local “lawn care specialists” come in to “feed and weed.” Judging from the ever-widening patches of barren dirt they leave in their wake, I can only assume they are “feeding” a potent diet of arsenic laced with antifreeze.

I’m okay with that.

My mother, whose 89 summers of disappointment have somehow not yet crushed her optimism, would continue planting and watering grass seed every spring and fall until Armageddon. Not me. Every blade of grass we fuss and stew over, only to have it wither and die by season’s end, is just one more reminder that I could be spending my time and money much more productively on, say, hostas.


Well. That’s nice and … green.

This is a big step for me, admitting that I need hostas in my life. Of all the garden stalwarts, these leafy greens are my least favorites. They’re just … green. Yes, I know there are varieties that are striated or pale or blue-green. Still boring. However, hostas offer one great advantage over showier vegetation: they’re damned hard to kill. They also grow in shade, which, thanks to my father’s slight obsession with trees, we have aplenty.

One of these things is not like the other.

One of these things is not like the other.

Our friends at Wikipedia inform me that there are 45 species of hosta and more than 3,000 registered cultivars. They range in size from four inches to over six feet. They are sometimes called “plantain lilies,” which seems nefarious, since the spindly, half-hearted blooms that appear on these things in late summer resemble lilies in exactly the same way that the Mitchell, South Dakota Corn Palace resembles the Taj Mahal – which is to say, not at all.


Broadleaf plantain. I’ve spent a lot of money to eradicate this hosta lookalike. Irony is fun!

Nor, as far as I can tell, do any of these cultivars produce a banana-like plantain fruit, which would at least be interesting. They do, however, somewhat resemble broadleaf plantain, a common weed that I’ve spent a helluva lot of time digging OUT of the yard. This, I believe, is what they call the Circle of Life.

Despite my distinct lack of enthusiasm for this plant, I have decided it is at least better than … nothing. So this year I went whole hog and ordered a “pre-planned hosta garden” comprising 20 hostas AND a “Hosta Mixture Super Sack,” which includes an additional 10 plants. This represents my second-to-last resort. If the hostas fail to take off, I will commit to that ultimate solution for the lazy or discouraged lawn owner: spray paint.


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The Secret of My (Non)Success:

(A Fairly Cynical Reflection on “Dreaming Big.”)

NeverRecently I attended a “Dream Workshop,” designed to “guide [me] on a journey to discover what [I] really, really, really want.” That’s a fairly ambitious goal, especially since I am programmed not to want anything, but to be satisfied with what I get, which is frankly more than I deserve. One of the exercises we completed was creating a “dream board” – a visual representation of our ideal life. Here’s mine.


Someone asked me, “How do you expect to live in such a tiny house, with all your stuff?” My answer: “It’s not a house. It’s a potting shed.”

Pretty! Realistically, though, the only element of this collage I’m likely to achieve is another cat.

My kind tend to be suspicious of dreaming. In fact, “you must be dreaming” was one of my father’s familiar expressions of disapproval. In our pragmatic view, unless your dreams are modest indeed (“I dream of a chicken sandwich for lunch!”), you are 1) getting too big for your britches and 2) almost certain to be disappointed.


The pinnacle of my success

I’m prepared to concede that the world needs a few dreamers; I wouldn’t have the job I do if it weren’t for one. On the other hand, it’s us just-do-your-jobbers, this-is-as-good-as-it-gets-ers who free up the heavy thinkers’ time to do all that, well, heavy thinking. We deem it more honorable to starve to death doing honest, menial work than starve to death trying to, in my Dad’s parlance, “set the world on fire.” So it’s hard to appreciate the blue sky when your nose is to the grindstone.

Whenever I hear a famous actor tell how his family supported him in pursuing his dream, I feel sorry that he wasn’t loved enough to be told not to be a damned fool. Seriously, what kind of parents encourage their offspring to go into a profession in which the chance of success is infinitesimally small and the chance of suffering rejection and disappointment is roughly 100%? (I briefly dated a theatre major whose mother pleaded with him, “Don’t go into acting, Joe. You’ll only end up unemployed and doing drugs.” He did, by the way. Mother knows best.)



As I assume everyone knows, the keys to success are not intelligence or talent or willingness to work hard; these are qualities many abject failures possess (*waving my hand in the air wildly*). No matter how hard you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, the only thing you’re likely to get is laughed at when you fall on your keister trying to pull yourself up; bootstraps don’t work that way, duh.

Nope. What you really need to get ahead are self-confidence and chutzpah – neither one of which I possess in abundance. Apparently the ability to play well with others is also important. Every authority on professional development stresses “using your contacts” and “networking.” Okay. And if you don’t have either or those? Where’s the fast track for curmudgeons?

familycrestSurely the biggest factor determining whether you make something of yourself or die in obscurity is, it seems to me, a willingness to promote yourself and what you have to offer. Hubris! By contrast, my family crest is emblazed with these words of wisdom: Quare et vos credatis sunt tibi magna? (Roughly translated: What makes you think you’re so important that anybody is going to look at you*?). Our coat of arms is a mouse, dormant.

Having reached the half century mark (that’s more than halfway to dead), it seems unlikely that I will ever meet the common definition of “success.” That’s okay. I’ll continue to write things nobody reads, putter in my garden and collect cats. That’s close enough to a dream life for me.


*That’s not really our family crest motto (we’re not important enough to have a coat of arms; our people have always been rabble). It’s also not a very accurate translation into Latin of something my grandmother told my mom when she was fussing over her appearance as a teen. It’s become my personal credo.

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