A Halloween Spin


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The clown costume my daughter wore. There might be a picture of her in it somewhere. I hope there isn't a picture of me in my clown costume.

The clown costume my daughter wore. There might be a picture of her in it somewhere. I hope there isn’t a picture of me in my clown costume.

As I’ve written before, I don’t usually dress up in costume on Halloween. But one year I did. It was the year my daughter wore a homemade clown costume, a hand-me-down from her cousin. When I told a friend at work that my daughter was going to be a clown, she volunteered she had an adult-sized clown costume I could borrow, so my daughter and I could both be clowns.

She wouldn’t let me say no. So I was a clown that year.

That was also the autumn I first had vertigo.

I distinctly remember my thoughts the morning I woke up with vertigo, because it was so unexpected. It happened during a frantic time at work. I was part of a large team of attorneys handling a major lawsuit that was in the throes of both discovery and settlement discussions. We spent our days scheduling depositions, producing rooms full of documents, and arguing coverage with insurance companies. I wasn’t sleeping well.

On this particular morning I woke up feeling surprisingly refreshed. “This will be a good day,” I told myself when I first awakened.

Then I sat up.

The room spun. “Low blood pressure,” I assured myself. “It will pass.”

I laid back on the bed, then slowly sat up again.

The room spun again. “I don’t have time for this,” I admonished my body. But the room kept spinning.

I stayed home from work that day, but the next day, because I really didn’t have time for this, I went to work.

The vertigo didn’t bother me when I drove, and I made it to the office fine. I could sit at my desk and read, and I dove into the papers piled up in my office. But if I stood up and looked down, the room spun. When I visited other peoples’ offices, I had to grab at their furniture or I would fall over when I tried to read while standing.

A mirror similar to the ones I bumped into

A mirror similar to the ones I bumped into

The vertigo also bothered me when I walked. I couldn’t always keep to a straight line. I had to attend meetings in other parts of the corporate complex, which were best reached by traipsing from building to building through the connected parking garage. This parking garage had safety mirrors, which, as I discovered, were set at five feet off the ground.

How did I discover the height of the mirrors? Well, I’m five-foot-one (probably five-foot-three in the heels I wore), and I walked into the mirrors in several occasions during those weeks. The blows to my head made me even more disoriented than my weaving gait.

Now, how does all this relate to the clown costumes?

Well, that was also the year I worked the Halloween party at my kids’ school. My son was in grade school, and my daughter was no older than kindergarten, maybe still in preschool. The party was an effort to keep the kids in a safe environment. Lots of candy. Lots of games. Parent chaperons to run the games.

I was scheduled to be one of the parent chaperons. After quickly donning my borrowed clown costume after work on Halloween night, I went to the kids’ school to run the bean bag toss game. It was mass confusion and sugar hysteria. Kids shrieking and running. Complete pandemonium. The noise reverberated in my ears.

After the kids threw the bean bags, someone had to pick them up to set up for the next contestant. That someone was me. But leaning over to the ground made the room spin. I spent the evening in spinning pandemonium, and soon developed a headache.

I know many people with vertigo are nauseated and completely incapacitated. I was relatively lucky. In fact, when I finally went to the doctor for tests a few years later (during my third episode of vertigo), I was told that I “compensated very well.” That meant I could convince myself the world wasn’t spinning when my inner ears told me it was. I guess that’s a good life-skill to have. But I’d rather not need it.

What Halloween reverberates in your memory?

Two Autumns in New England


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When I attended Middlebury College in the mid-1970s, the school had a long weekend without classes in October each year. The weekend typically occurred near the height of the spectacular autumn colors, though, of course, the peak colors could never be predicted precisely. I can’t recall whether the weekend was called “Parents’ Weekend” or “Fall Break”. Whichever it was, we got out of classes for two days and lots of families showed up.

In October 1973, my freshman year, my parents came back for the weekend, which is why I think it was Parents’ Weekend. It was the first time my mother had seen the Middlebury campus.

My father feeding a tame squirrel in Montreal, October 1973

My father feeding a tame squirrel in Montreal, October 1973

I remember lots of activities while my parents were there, including the only football game I ever attended at Middlebury. I didn’t watch the game for long, because I don’t much care for football, particularly live (at least on television someone knowledgeable tells me what’s happening and there are replays of everything important). My parents also took my friends and me out to dinner to the Dog Team Restaurant, famous for its sticky buns. (I can still taste them.)

My parents and I also drove to Montreal for a couple of days while they were there. We drove north on the narrow highway U.S. 7 on a cold, gray day until reached Canada, then followed a similar Canadian route. I don’t remember any fall colors that day, only clouds and rain.

We arrived in Montreal, where it was frigid and windy. We found our hotel and checked in. Our room was too hot.

As the only speaker of French in the family, I was tasked with getting the room cooled down. I found a hotel maid and told her “Il fait chaud” (“It’s hot”) in my best French accent. I gestured toward the thermostat. She finally understood me and in a gutteral Quebecois I could not understand explained how to work the thermostat.

The room cooled off pleasantly. My father decided my Middlebury education was worth something. (Mind you, I’d had six weeks of college French at this point—so it was really my public high school education he was lauding.)

The next year, my sophomore year, my parents could not get to Middlebury for our October break. My grandmother (Nanny Winnie) decided she would come instead. She was generous with her pocketbook and plenty of fun, so that was fine with me.

Nanny Winnie did not drive, and I didn’t have a car on campus. She flew to Burlington, Vermont, and took the Greyhound bus to Middlebury. The main hotel in town was close to the bus station. A friend of mine with a car drove us to the Dog Team Restaurant for more sticky buns.

Maine tidal flats, October 1974. Unfortunately, the picture doesn't do the colors justice.

Maine, October 1974. Unfortunately, the picture doesn’t do the colors justice.

The next day Nanny Winnie and I rented a car. Today it is very difficult to rent a car unless you are at least twenty-five and have your own credit card. In 1974, the rental car companies were much less picky. My grandmother’s credit card and my driver’s license got us a car, even though I was only eighteen and didn’t have a credit card. I recall some questions about why she didn’t have a license, but she just shrugged and explained that she had been in a wreck when she was seventeen and never drove again. The rental agent liked her as much as everyone else did.

We drove through Vermont and New Hampshire to the coast of Maine. It was the height of the fall colors that weekend, and the weather was perfect. I have never seen such juxtaposition of cerulean sky, sapphire seas, and orange and red leaves.

Now Nanny Winnie liked to drink. We sat in a small restaurant one evening with a bottle of wine between us. I had one glass (in 1974 the legal drinking age in many states was eighteen), and she finished the bottle. She got to telling me stories . . . the same stories over and over again.

It was the first time I wondered if she was getting old and senile. She was sixty-six at the time—less than a decade older than I am now. I don’t know if that evening was an early sign of Nanny Winnie’s later dementia or if it was just the alcohol. She lived for another twenty-nine years before dying with Alzheimer’s, so I suspect it was the alcohol.

Those were the only two Octobers I spent at Middlebury, but I look back on them fondly. And as I remember them, I wish I had Nanny Winnie and my parents telling me stories again.

What memories do you have of beautiful autumn days past?

How I Launched My Writing Career


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Toronto skyline, from Wikimedia Commons

Toronto skyline, photo from Wikimedia Commons

Almost exactly ten years ago, in late September 2005, I attended a three-day diversity training program in Toronto. The program, called “Women Supporting Women”, was sponsored by Procter & Gamble. Most of the attendees were P&G employees, though they had a few guests there like me.

The women attending the program learned about each other as individuals and as members of various races, ethnicities, nationalities, sexual orientations, and professions. Each of these dimensions was a part of who we were, but only a part. We learned about our similarities and our differences, about how far we had come in overcoming our prejudices, and about how far we still had to go.

As we talked to each other, of course, we discovered things about ourselves as well. One of the things I learned about myself was how important my creativity was to me, and how much I had stifled it for decades as I went through law school, the practice of law, and corporate management positions.

I knew I wanted to write, and it became obvious to me that if I was going to do so, I needed to get going on it. One of the attendees told me about The Artist Way, a book by Julia Cameron, which I have since read and which has been a tremendous help to me in rekindling my creativity.

At the end of the Women Supporting Women program, we each wrote a personal manifesto (though I thinks it was called something else). My manifesto ended

“And I will write a book before I die!”

About a year after I attended the program, I retired from my corporate job. I immediately launched into writing.

I wrote the first draft of a novel—my practice novel, I called it—during the first half of 2007. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew I wanted to write, and so I did. The first novel I wrote was about a business in trouble and the people who led it. I wrote many drafts as I learned about story arc and point of view and developing characters, but I ultimately published that novel. (It’s published under a pseudonym, so I’m not naming it here, though I know some readers of this blog have read it).

LMH front cover finalBut the novel of my heart, the book I have wanted to write for twenty years or more, is the one I have just published—Lead Me Home: Hardship and hope on the Oregon Trail. I have always been fascinated with the courage and determination of the pioneers of the American West. Perhaps I see their physical journey as a metaphor for the life journey we all are on.

It has taken me ten years to fulfill my manifesto, but I have done it. And, boy, does it feel good!

I declared in late January of this year that Lead me Home would be publishable by Labor Day . . . And it was. It was not only publishable, but actually published on Amazon and on Barnes & Noble in early October.

A page from an early draft, with comments from my parents -- my mother marked a typo

A page from an early draft, with comments from my parents — my mother marked a typo

It also pleases me that my parents got to read an early draft of Lead Me Home. My mother could still read in the summer of 2010 when I gave it to them, though she had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She caught some typos in that draft. My father was a big help in critiquing it, and he pushed me to get it published during the five years between then and his death this past January.

I am sorry my parents did not live to see the book published, but I know they would be at least as proud of it as I am.

Along the way, I have discovered that Lead Me Home is just half of the story I want to tell. There will be a sequel. The sequel is drafted, but I have a long slog ahead in revising it.

So I’m not finished yet—I have more dreams to fulfill. But I’m taking a few days to celebrate publication of Lead Me Home.

What dreams are you proud of fulfilling?

My Novel, Lead Me Home, Is Now Published!


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Ever since this blog’s inception, I have posted that I was writing a historical novel about travel along the Oregon Trail. My novel is finally published!

LMH front cover Facebook optimum 600


Lead Me Home: Hardship and hope on the Oregon Trail is now available on Amazon in either paperback or Kindle formats and on Barnes & Noble in the Nook format.

I hope you will take a look at Lead Me Home by clicking on one of the above links.

Here’s what the novel is about:

In 1847, Caleb “Mac” McDougall, a young Bostonian, seeks adventure on the Oregon Trail. As he passes through Missouri, he rescues Jenny Calhoun, a lonely girl in trouble.

To join a wagon train bound for Oregon, Mac and Jenny pose as a married couple. On the arduous six-month trek, they confront raging rivers, rugged mountains, and untrustworthy companions. Together, Mac and Jenny face the best and worst in themselves and in each other, while discovering the beauty and danger of the western frontier.

Fans of Lonesome Dove and True Grit will enjoy Lead Me Home—a gripping saga of courage, sacrifice, and enduring friendship.

The writers among you know how we help each other. But for the non-writers, I have learned that the best ways to support writers are to

1. Read their book.

2. Post a review if you liked it, on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and/or Goodreads, or another site of your choosing.

3. Share information about the book with your friends and family.

I hope you will read Lead Me Home and enjoy it. If you do, please review it. And please share this post with anyone you think might be also be interested in reading my book

Many thanks to my readers for your encouragement over the past several years. It has meant the world to me.

A Summary of Haunting Books for 2015


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In past years, each October I have used this blog to review books that I’ve found “haunting” during the year. But this month I have other things I want to write about, so this will be the only post on haunting books this year.

I’ve read a bunch of them.

I reviewed Go Set a Watchman recently, so I won’t write more now, other than to say that the book haunts me, both for itself and for its comparison to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. I didn’t think Go Set a Watchman was as well written as Harper Lee’s other book, but it offers a picture into the segregationist times of the 1950s that is hard to forget.

51MfO0a70ZL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_All the Light We Cannot See was the best book I’ve read this year. The Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Anthony Doerr haunts me because of the compelling characters and the tragic circumstances in which they found themselves. The book is about two children who come of age during World War II—a blind French girl named Marie-Laure and the mechanically gifted German boy Werner. Their lives touch briefly, leaving bittersweet consequences. It isn’t a happy book, but then, what war story can be? Doerr’s novel is similar in tone to The Book Thief, though the authors’ writing styles are very different.

515p3OrN1KL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_ nightingaleAbout the same time I read All the Light We Cannot See, I also read The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah. If I hadn’t read Doerr’s book in such close proximity, I might have liked The Nightingale even better than I did. I’ve read a couple of other books by Hannah, but The Nightingale is her best by far. Because both this book and Doerr’s book were about France during World War II, it is impossible not to compare them.

The Nightingale is an adult story. It deals with the terrible choices that must be made during war. Should one collaborate or not? What is collaboration and what is survival? What happens on the home front while men are away fighting? Can there ever be friendship between the occupied and the occupier?

51AVlW-rAKL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_ americanahTwo other books I also compared this year were Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Passing, by Nella Larsen. I read both because they were part of the Stanford Book Salon online reading program for Stanford alumni. Both novels were about Blacks in America, though they dealt with very different segments of Black culture in very different times.

Americanah is about a Nigerian student who emigrates to the United States. We see her cope with racism in America, which she had not experienced in Nigeria. And we see her similar problems re-entering Nigerian society when she returns. The book describes both the uniqueness of American and Nigerian societies and the universal themes of family, love, and disengagement.

51RyErPbmuL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ passingPassing dealt with African Americans in Harlem during the 1920s. The main character was a Black woman who could “pass” as white, and did. While the book is dated in many ways, it raises questions about whether we can ever escape our past, and whether we should do so if we can. If someone tries to escape herself, is she doing it because she hates her very being? Or is it a rational act in a racist society?

51zmixPZBiL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_ ghost boyAnother haunting book I read this year was Ghost Boy, written by Martin Pistorius with Megan Lloyd Davis. The book is about Martin Pistorius, a South African who was in a coma for 14 years, beginning in his teenage years. For most of this time, Pistorius was conscious, though unable to move voluntarily or to communicate. He hears his family communicate, including his mother’s wish that he were dead. He despairs and hopes he will die. Ultimately, one of his caregivers notices that he can communicate with his eyes, he is tested, given a computer to help him communicate, and slowly returns to a productive life, though with significant disabilities. The book haunted me because it reminded me of how we treat the most vulnerable in our society. And because it is probably one of most people’s worst fears to be trapped in one’s body, unable to communicate, unable to control any aspect of life.

51VepxnZBCL._SX315_BO1,204,203,200_ midwivesTwo other books that dealt with health issues that haunt me are Midwives, by Chris Bohjalian, and Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande. I didn’t compare these books, because they were very different.

Midwives is a novel about a midwife involved in a delivery that goes terribly wrong and the consequences to herself and her family. There is family drama, courtroom drama, and introspection—both the midwife and her family members wonder if she could have made a mistake. It’s about doubting self and doubting those we love.

51C9yK9VzzL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_ being mortalBeing Mortal is nonfiction and discusses the way our society treats the elderly and dying, written by a medical doctor. Given my own family’s involvement with Alzheimer’s and nursing homes over the last few years, and my own fears of aging, I was moved to tears frequently as I read Gawande’s book.

Finally, an honorable mention in the category of “haunting book” goes to The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. As a writer, I admire the author’s development of three unreliable narrators. It is a good murder mystery, and, though I guessed “whodunit”, I enjoyed it until the last page. This novel isn’t quite as haunting as Gone Girl, but it is well worth a read.

All of these books deserve your time.

What books have haunted you this year?

My Grandfather’s Clock, My Memory, and the Passing of Generations


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My grandfather's clock now ticks in my home

My grandfather’s clock now ticks in my home

I’ve written before about my grandfather’s clock. It is now ticking away in my house, after two service calls from a local firm that repairs antique clocks.

The clock worked after the first service call, but just a few days later my husband and I left town for two weeks. When I got back, I couldn’t get the pendulum to keep swinging for more than an hour or two. These old clocks are very temperamental, and I was told by the second serviceman that I must have pushed the two hands together in a way that caused friction, which resulted in it stopping after a bit. I’ve now been instructed in how to reset the time.

Since the second repair visit, the clock has kept ticking. But it loses about three to four minutes a day. In my father’s house it kept excellent time. I haven’t considered the clock’s current problem enough to require another service call. We all slow down as we get older, and after well over 100 years, the clock is entitled to move slowly if it wants. I set it a little ahead when I wind it, and periodically adjust it during the week. Or I just let it chime the hours late until the next Sunday morning when I wind it.

The clock has shown me the falsity of my own memory. I wrote in February of this year that my grandmother kept the clock for years after my grandfather died, and that it didn’t come into my parents’ possession until she downsized into assisted living.

See the edge of the clock on the right? Picture from September 1972

See the edge of the clock on the right? Picture from September 1972

But last month I posted about my brother’s Eagle Scout ceremony in 1972. There in the background of the picture of my brother and me I can clearly see the corner of the clock. So it was in my parents’ home by September 1972. At that point, the only move my grandmother had made after my grandfather’s death was from Pacific Grove, California, to Klamath Falls, Oregon, when she remarried in 1967. Her next move was in 1972, after her second husband died.

Based on this photographic evidence, I have to conclude that my parents acquired the clock in 1967, and it must have sat in the living room of their home beginning that summer, just before I started the seventh grade. Until I saw this picture, I had no recollection of the clock being there.

Though once I focused on that photograph, it seemed right that the clock sat in the corner of the hearth seat where so many of our family pictures were taken. If I dug hard enough, I might find a family picture from this era with the clock in the background.

Now I must conclude that my father took over the task of winding the clock sometime in 1967. He continued winding it until January of this year when he died. For over forty-seven years he wound that clock. Every Sunday night.

I have kept the tradition of winding the clock on Sundays, though I have switched to winding it in the morning. I have a weekly reminder set on my calendar to wind it at 9:30 every Sunday morning, just before I go to yoga class. I left town for several days last week and wound it an extra time on Tuesday, in case I didn’t get back home on Sunday.

I have been winding the clock for several weeks now, but it still makes me nervous. I remember so many admonishments from my grandfather—and later from my father—not to touch it. It still feels wrong when I turn the key in the two holes that lift the weights—one for the pendulum and the other for the chimes. Winding the clock isn’t supposed to be my responsibility. It’s supposed to be the responsibility of the generation ahead of me. But there is no generation ahead of me any more.

The odds are slim that I will maintain possession of the clock for forty-seven years, as my father did. But perhaps I will have it long enough to become comfortable winding it. And to become comfortable in my role as the senior generation in our family.

Are there any responsibilities in life that you have had for over forty years (or at least for a very long time)?

Time for Lentil Soup


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20150128_152012As autumn approaches each year, I think about soup. I will eat soup any time of year, but on cool evenings, it is sustaining and comforting. Add bread and salad, and you’re ready to eat.

I make most of my soups in a crock pot, so it’s a quick and easy dinner (though does require some thought around lunch time about what’s for supper). A crock pot full of soup makes enough for several lunches and dinners later in the week. Or to freeze. And all afternoon, you get to smell it cooking.

Lentil soup is one of my favorites. It’s tasty, full of protein (particularly when I add meat, which I usually do), and requires no advance soaking like beans do. It’s my go-to meal when I’m busy throughout the day but have responsibility for dinner.

I don’t really have a recipe for lentil soup—I throw whatever I have on hand in with a bag of lentils and let it simmer for hours.

Here’s the way I made it most recently:

1 pound lentils

1 onion, diced

1 can of diced tomatoes

1 package of diced ham

1 package of Polish kielbasa, sliced

2 Tbsp of Italian seasoning

1/4 tsp of garlic salt

Some leftover fresh basil (I’ve never put this in before)

1/2 cup of sliced carrots (Yes, even though I hate cooked carrots. I pick them out when I eat it.)

A bottle of beer (I usually use wine, but the beer was getting old)

2 cups of water (you may need more—lentils are thirsty little legumes)

I think that’s all.

It was really good. Anything with kielbasa and beer will turn out fine.

What is your favorite quick and easy meal?

A Question I Will Never Answer: Who Was My Mother?


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My mother, Mary Claudson, rest in peace

My mother, Mary Claudson

In the fifteen months since my mother’s death, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering who she was. Actually, I wondered this for years before she died as well. I know the basic facts of her life, but who was this woman in her heart and soul?

I think my sister and I both wonder this at times. My mother left behind some diaries, and my sister and I have talked about wanting to read them for clues as to how our mother thought. But my early perusals of these diaries show that they were either travel journals that simply recount where she was and what she saw on her trips abroad, or they were reflections on Bible passages that talk about what the readings said, not what they meant to her. In neither of these diaries does she seem to have written about her own hopes and dreams, her ambitions or her failings. And that’s the woman I seek to know—the woman she was beyond just being my mother.

In addition to skimming her journals, I’ve also turned to some of her books. She had a shelf or more of religious and philosophical works. Books by Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, and Norman Vincent Peale, to name a few. She was a heavy underliner. I’ve read some of her books to see what she underlined, but she highlighted so much of the text that I can’t tell what made the greatest impression on her. And rarely did she annotate a margin with any personal comments.

20150926_150725The other day I opened a small volume by Thomas Merton, from the Modern Spirituality Series. It is a short collection of excerpts of Merton’s writings, little essays organized for daily reflection. As was true with many of my mother’s books, at least half of the text was underlined. I read, doing my own highlighting in neon yellow marker, trying both to understand and to ignore her blue ballpoint pen lines. I wanted not only my mother’s understanding of Merton, but also to glean my own understanding of his spirituality.

I read each essay, one after the other, pausing briefly to think after some of them.

And then I got to page 34.

Suddenly the underlining stopped. My mother had heavily marked page 33 on “Thy neighbor as thyself”. Page 34 on “Fanaticism” had no markings. Nor did any of the following pages.

Why did she stop reading?

I will never know.

The Merton collection of essays was published in 1990, so she read it sometime after that. She was fifty-seven in 1990, a couple of years younger than I am now. She probably read the book when she was about my age. Did she read the book as part of a church class? For her own private reflection? Did she just happen upon it, or did someone suggest she read it to deal with some challenge in her life?

I will never know.

My desire to know her heart and soul is ultimately impossible. For none of us really knows the other.

One of Merton’s essays in this little volume of my mother’s—a part that my mother underlined—reads: “In reality, all men are solitary.” That is on page 30.

In the essay on page 31—also underlined—Merton says: “Solitude is not withdrawal from ordinary life. . . . solitude is the very ground of ordinary life. It is the very ground of that simple, unpretentious, fully human activity by which we quietly earn our daily living and share our experiences with a few intimate friends.”

Ultimately, my mother was a solitary person. And so am I. And so are you. She, like me and like you, went about simply and quietly pursuing her daily life, sharing just a bit of herself with her intimates.

Despite our solitude, we are nevertheless called to help each other. The last little essay of Merton’s that my mother read, the one on page 33, ends: “No man who ignores the rights and needs of others can hope to walk in the light of contemplation.”

That is how my mother lived her life—focused on the rights and needs of others. More I cannot say. I cannot say what caused her to stop reading the little book of Merton essays. I cannot say why she highlighted what she did. All I can know is what I observed in her actions.

All I can do is hope she found—in this life and the next—the light of contemplation.

What do you wish you knew about your parents?

The Sites Gun Shop in Arrow Rock, Missouri


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Sites house (above) and gunsmith shop (below)

I had the pleasure of spending a weekend in Arrow Rock, Missouri, earlier this month at a writing workshop sponsored by Friends of Arrow Rock. Arrow Rock is where my forthcoming novel, Lead Me Home, begins. Arrow Rock has preserved many of its original buildings from the mid-19th century, and I enjoyed the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere of what my emigrant characters must have experienced as they prepared for their journey in 1847.

I researched Arrow Rock while I wrote my novel and learned quite a bit about its history. One of the tidbits I learned during my research was that John Sites, Jr., owned a gun shop in Arrow Rock during the 1840s. I even toyed with the idea of having my protagonist buy a rifle from Sites before he set out for Oregon. But I decided that including this scene would slow the novel’s pace, so I didn’t write it.

My time in Arrow Rock this month allowed a tour of the Sites Gun Shop. I was fascinated to learn about the manufacture of rifles. If I had gone on the tour before writing my book, I might have made a different decision about including the scene with Sites. Part of the fun of writing historical fiction is dropping these pearls of fact into the story.

But since Mr. Sites and his gun shop never made it into my novel, I’ll tell my blog readers about him today.

John Sites, Sr., was a German immigrant who moved to Missouri in 1834. He owned a gunsmith shop in Boonville, Missouri. His son, John Sites, Jr., opened a gunsmith shop in Arrow Rock in 1844—this is the John Sites that my characters would have met.

At the time, Arrow Rock was an important waypoint on the Santa Fe trail, and was poised to serve the same purpose on the Oregon and California trails. If I had included a scene in my novel with characters buying guns from Mr. Sites, it would have been accurate—his guns have have been found in several western locations, including California, Oregon, Montana, and New Mexico.

The stages of making a gun barrel, from steel bar to unbored barrel.

The stages of making a gun barrel, from steel bar to unbored barrel.

What fascinated me the most on my tour of Sites’s gun shop was the exhibit showing how he shaped his gun barrels. I love seeing products get made, and touring plants was one of my favorite activities when I worked at Hallmark Cards. Watching greeting cards come through the presses and plastic goods go through the extrusion machines was much more interesting than my usual work of drafting legal briefs or HR policies.

Barrel boring machine

Barrel boring machine

Mr. Sites started with steel bars and ended with bored rifle barrels. The photograph above shows the various stages in the process—from steel bar, to partially shaped bar, to crude tube, to unbored barrel. Then the barrel was placed on the boring machine and the final barrel was produced.

Unfortunately for Mr. Sites, with the advent of modern manufacturing plants, the gunsmith craft became less important. In his lifetime alone, guns went from finely crafted goods requiring years of expertise to create to mass produced products. When he died in 1904, his inventory of gun stock blocks was worth just 25 cents.

Gun stock stored in rafters

Gun stock stored in rafters

While it is sad to see pieces of history disappear, the changes are often the result of progress. We must move on, but places like Arrow Rock are valuable because they preserve times past. Someday our marvels, too, will be relics. Already, the early PCs and cell phones of our lifetimes seem like antiquities. Did you ever think we would carry the world’s knowledge in a smartphone smaller than a deck of cards?

What historical items or places have you seen that pique your interest?

Top Tips For Students and Parents Attending College Fairs


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Middlebury RHS college fair 9-15-15Last week I represented Middlebury College at the Kansas City Private High School’s College Fair. I’ve done this event several times in recent years. I enjoy getting to talk about one of my favorite places and times of my life—my college experience at Middlebury (see here and here).

I am an alum, not a professional college admissions officer, so I’m limited in what I know about the admissions process and financial aid packages. I have been a parent taking kids to these fairs, so I have experience from that side of the table as well.

Each year the kids look younger (and so do the parents, I must admit). But each year, the experience is similar. Some kids are well prepared, others don’t have a clue why they’re there. The parents all want to know about test scores and financial aid.

Here are my tips for students and parents about how to get the most out of your two-hour look at a variety of college possibilities:

Five Tips for Students:

1. Have a reason for stopping at a college table

It’s best if you’ve done some research in advance, and at least know where the college campus is. Most college fairs publish a list of the schools that will be represented, and you can select five to ten in advance that you know you want to investigate.

That being said, college fairs are an opportunity to explore. So even if your reason for stopping by is to ask “I don’t know anything about liberal arts colleges. What do you see as the pros and cons of attending one?” you at least sound like you’re thinking seriously about the next phase of your life.

2. Don’t take information on a college unless you think you’ll read it

This stuff costs money to produce and to transport around the country. Colleges create the brochures and other materials for you to learn about them, so take the pamphlets if you might be interested.

But if you know in your heart that you would NEVER go to a school where the temperature dips below 40 degrees, then DON’T take information from a school in Vermont.

3. It’s OK not to know what you want out of life

Don’t be embarrassed by not having your whole life mapped out until retirement, including your future kids’ birthdays. Most people don’t at sixteen or seventeen. Don’t make stuff up. Do be prepared for questions about your interests.

You can respond to questions about prospective majors and the like by stating what you’ve enjoyed in the past or what you’d like to explore. “My favorite course so far has been American History. I’d like to take more courses in this subject in college.” Or, “I’ve always wanted to learn Mandarin, and my high school doesn’t offer it. Does your college?” Or, “I’m really into photography. How can I continue that interest at your institution?”

4. If you do know what you want to pursue in college, be able to probe quickly

For example, “I want to get a pharmacy degree. Does your school offer it?” Or, “I want to play Division I football. What division is your school in?”

That will speed the process for both you and the college representative. We both have better things to do than chat about a school that can’t meet your needs.

5. Don’t look bored

This is your life we’re talking about. Even if your parents dragged you to the college fair, get what you can out of it. Even if you’re introverted and hate talking to strange adults, have a question or two prepared to get the discussion going. I’ve given you several examples in this post.

My suggestion: Go to the fair with the intentions of (1) gathering data about five schools you think are definite possibilities for you and (2) researching three more schools that you don’t know much about but that sound interesting.

Five Tips for Parents:

1. You really don’t need to be there at all

I know you have a vested interest in where your student goes to college. You’ll probably be paying a lot of the expense. And you want your kid to be happy. But almost all of the information that is shared at college fairs can be learned at school websites. Let your student take the lead on this.

2. If you do attend, only attend with your student

I don’t mind talking with the parents that do come with their kids. But I do mind the parents who wander the aisles picking up information on behalf of their student—“Johnny was too busy tonight, so I’m taking brochures home to him.”

If your kid doesn’t care enough to spend two hours at a college fair (or do his or her own research on the internet), then does he or she care enough to go to college? Why should you make it easier? Applying to college requires a student to invest a lot of time for a reason. It’s his or her future we’re talking about. They need to care.

3. Let your student do most of the talking. . . just listen

You can learn a lot about your kid listening to what they ask about. Did you know he was interested in psychology? That quidditch is her favorite sport? If your kid says he is interested in a Classics degree and you think that is totally impractical, then you have something to talk about on the drive home.

I try to direct the conversation toward the student. If a parent asks a question, I answer it, then ask the student a question directly. I want to know if my college fits the student’s interests, not the parent’s.

4. You won’t get a sense of the money issues at a college fair

All you’ll hear is “needs blind admission” and “the college will work with you.” I can tell you what the tuition, room and board costs are, but I can’t give you any kind of commitment. An alum like me doesn’t even know the college’s process for awarding financial aid. You won’t even get a commitment from the professional admissions office employees at a college fair.

So wait for your student to narrow down his or her preferences before discussing money. Then contact the admissions offices directly. And be sure to follow all deadlines for getting information into the financial aid offices.

Besides, you might be surprised by a scholarship offer before you have to commit.

5. Support your kid

The colleges admissions process is a stressful time for students. I know it’s stressful for parents also, but it’s worse for the kids. But if you think the autumn is bad, with its college fairs and application deadlines, just wait until spring. Then the envelopes, skinny and fat, start arriving.

And it’s time for decisions.

Do readers have any additional tips to offer?


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