Monday, December 22, 2008

"Cold Enough for Ya?"

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

"Cold enough for ya?" asked Ralph, as I blustered into a holiday party on Sunday. Shivering in my boots, I said, "Just about!"

Of all the winter traditions, this brief exchange (Cold enough for ya? Just about!) might be my all-time favorite.

A couple of years ago, a friend from Arizona landed here in February. She turned to me with wide eyes. "Is it possible that my nose hairs are freezing?" she asked. "Oh, yes!" I said.

I used to describe the cold to my Illinois grandpa. "As long as I keep blinking, my eyelashes don't freeze together, and I'm OK."

Sometimes Ferne (age 99 1/2) will ask me for the weather report, so I give it to her in layers. Lately, we've had Ski-Mask-Plus-Hat-Plus-Scarf Days. So far, those are the coldest.

A student of Kris's just got frostbite on his face. Ooops! Playing in the snow, he couldn't discern the kill-you cold from the really-kill-you cold.

Facing the really-kill-you cold, I go for a walk with Jasmine. As Jasmine (part Siberian Husky) leaps into the snowbanks, I have an urge to ask her, "Cold enough for ya?"

She kicks up snow with her snout. And I can almost hear her -- "Just about!"

Friday, December 12, 2008

Oh, That Governor of Illinois!

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

I don't go around thinking I'm an expert on Illinois politics. But being born, raised, and corn-fed in the Land of Lincoln -- I feel a certain privilege to speak on the subject.

That Governor Rod Blagojevich! What was he thinking? people ask themselves. Trying to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat?

Honestly, I'm surprised no one thought of it sooner.

1) Kids from Illinois -- like Governor Rod Blagojevich (D) -- grow up with a skewed sense of heroics. I was arguing over Kant in my dorm room before it occurred to me that Al Capone might have been a bad guy. My dad had friends who lived in one of Al Capone's old houses, strategically tucked along the Kankakee River. Going there was the coolest thing on earth when I was a kid, what with all the hiding places and tricky ways to escape. Groping for identity, halfway between Hollywood and New York, we took to Al Capone like flies on honey. He was our Midwestern claim to fame.

2) Like Al Capone, the first Mayor Daley of Chicago captured the public's attention for scandalous reasons. As far as I know, he never bootlegged. But when he was getting elected, even dead people managed to give him their vote.

My favorite joke ever:

The Pope, the President, and the first Mayor Daley are on a boat. The boat starts to sink, of course. There's room for just one person on the raft. The Pope says, "I should get the raft. I'm the leader of the most powerful religion in the world." The President says, "I should get the raft. I'm the leader of the most powerful nation in the world." The first Mayor Daley says, "I should get the raft. I'm the leader of a really important city. Well, anyway, let's just take a vote." All three cast their ballots. The results come in --
Pope, one vote.
President, one vote.
Mayor Daley, five.

3) It's pretty much a tradition for Illinois Governors to get themselves arrested. When news of Blagojevich's arrest was announced, a North Dakota friend, David, was eager to discuss it. But I just couldn't arouse myself. "Yeah," I said, "I heard. He's not the first." As it turns out, Blagojevich is the sixth Illinois Governor to face arrest. The most recent ex-Governor, George Ryan (R), went to prison for his own ingenious scheme -- selling phony truck drivers' licenses.

So you see, in Illinois, you can buy just about anything: A truck driver's license. A vote. Bootlegged liquor.

Even a U.S. Senate seat.

Or maybe not.

Friday, December 5, 2008

What Do I Like Best about the Night?

Some say winter begins at the end of December. The way my eyes see it (peeking over two scarves and under two hats), winter is upon us. In honor of these long nights, I'd like to share a short celebration of the darkness, "What Do I Like Best about the Night?"

It comes from my CD of children's poems, Toenails, Teeth, & Tarantulas. Kris Kitko's musical accompaniments will enchant you! Soon, you can hear more music and poems through CD Baby. But in the mean time --

Happy winter. Happy darkness. Happy long, long nights!

To listen:
1) Use the player on the left.
2) Turn up the volume on your speakers.
3) Imagine yourself as a kid again. (This is for the child in your heart.)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Shakespeare and Lefse

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

You may not have noticed this, but the stuff that Shakespeare and I have in common is uncanny.

A quick review:

William Shakespeare and I both...
A) Have ancestors who were lured to North Dakota in the 1870s (or so) by promises of its Norway-like mountains.
B) Have an age-old family tradition of making lefse with our Norwegian ancestors here in North Dakota.
C) Grew up knowing what "lefse" was, that it existed, and that it's pronounced, LEFF-suh.
D) None of the above.

(See what I mean?)

Much like William Shakespeare, I spent years and years of my life completely ignorant of lefse.

What I didn't know was:
A) Lefse is a flat bread, much like a tortilla.
B) Unlike tortillas, lefse is made with potatoes.
C) Also unlike tortillas, lefse came to America from Norway.
D) All of the above.

So, while preparing for the lefse extravaganza at Julie's, naturally I had some questions:

Q: Do we really have to peel this mountain of potatoes?
A: Yes.
Q: Is it fun to put potatoes in a great, big, giant garlic press (AKA "ricer") and squeeze them out like spaghetti?
A: Yes.
Q: Are there lefse-making songs?
A: No.

I didn't tell Julie this, but as far as I'm concerned, lefse cries out for lefse-making songs. Something familiar, something popular, something everyone can sing. Here's what I have so far:

A) Bridge Over Troubled Lefse.
B) I've Been Working on the Lefse.
C) From This Lefse They Say You Are Going.
D) Star-Spangled Lefse.
E) I Wanna Hold Your Lefse.

And my personal favorite:
F) Girls Just Wanna Have Lefse.

Anyway, back to Julie's. For some reason, in spite of William Shakespeare's total ignorance of lefse, we decided to watch Shakespeare at the lefse extravaganza. Before long, after boiling, peeling, ricing, chilling, flattening, cooking, flipping, and storing lefse -- William Shakespeare's words got kind of jumbled with the potatoes. Even William Shakespeare was all about lefse.

Shakespeare's most famous quote:
"All the world's a lefse."

Shakespeare's most famous play:
Romeo and Lefse.

Shakespeare's most famous character:
Lady MacLefse.

All in all, after toiling in the kitchen with my lefse-making friends, even though I didn't learn a whole lot of Shakespeare, I did learn a little something:

Potatoes get peeled faster with many hands.

Happy Lefse!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Legalize Love. Protest H8.

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

A string of good luck leads me to Minneapolis on Saturday. To a protest of California's Proposition 8. To a banner that reads, "Legalize Love," and a sign that says, "Shall I vote on your marriage?"

My good fortune:

1) My aunt Janet rescues me at the train station in St Paul (has a little trouble finding me, as I snap pictures of graffiti in the bathroom).

2) This nice couple, Dennis and Brian (together for 27 months after falling in love at a volley ball game -- opposing teams, of course) open their hearts and car and let me hitch from St Paul to Minneapolis.

3) The protest grows so large that even though we arrive an hour late (long story), we make it in time to join the burgeoning march.

In chorus with hundreds of marchers, I chant:

Out of the closets and into the streets! (A classic.)

1-2-3-4. Love is what we're fighting for!
5-6-7-8. End the violence, end the hate!

Gay, straight, black, white --
Marriage is a civil right!

What do we want? Civil rights!
When do we want 'em? Now!

I peruse the signs and posters:

No more Mr Nice Gay!

Shall I vote on your marriage?

Legalize Love

Focus on your family!

Marriage = Heart + Heart

Stop H8!

Marital Status --

Love Love Love

(This one is Brian's sign...)
So you want me to marry your daughter?

As the march snakes along Nicollet Avenue to Loring Park, I watch people watching us. Construction workers, speechless. A cab driver, cheering. Passers-by, waving and honking. A homeless man, shaking his styrofoam cup in time with our chant.

On street corners and city benches, the homeless guys watch us, study us, discuss us as we march. One man smiles broadly, toothlessly, marveling with a friend. Another jostles a shopping cart, crammed with his worldly goods, toward the street to let us pass. Many men beg with empty cups.

As we watch each other, I wonder, what is the meaning of love?

"Legalize Love," the banner reads.

I wonder, if we legalized love, how would my life be different?

How would yours?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Blizzard Conversations in Bismarck

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

Conversation One:

A birdhouse changed me. Months ago, I paced the sidewalks of Bismarck, rehearsing the reasons to leave this place. And then I saw it. Up there, hanging from an evergreen. Made by loving hands, no doubt about that. The walls, maybe, were pieces of a long-ago barn. The roof, almost thatched, sloped to keep the snow from piling up, come winter. And you could peek inside, that was the thing. As if the hands that made this house, the hands that hung this house, were ready to love whoever might move in.

Then came today. Jasmine, honorary coyote, loves a blizzard. So we walked those same sidewalks, Jasmine stretching the leash to its furthest reaches, me doting behind. And there it was. The birdhouse. I peeked up, up. A creature had built a nest in there. And what was nestled inside? No! A squirrel?

Up ahead, I spotted someone tinkering with a snowblower, turning cranks or screws to get it to work.
"Does your squirrel have a name?" I asked.
He twisted around to face me. "No." Big smile. "I haven't given him a name."
I said, "Looks like a pretty good buddy."
He stole a glance toward the birdhouse. "Yup."

Conversation Two:

Young guy shovels the longest sidewalks you'd ever care to see: Getting there.
Me: Yep.
Guy: It's not so bad out.
Me: It's beautiful really...
Jasmine approaches the Shoveling Guy, sniffing, curious.
I nod toward Jasmine: Especially to her.
He scratches her like dog lovers do: Yep.
Then Jasmine and I head east again.
Shoveling Guy: Have a good one.
Me: You too.

Conversation Three:

Ferne's friend, Marilyn up at the nursing home, is eager to meet my mother ASAP. It started a few days ago, as we peeked out the window for signs of the rumored blizzard.

"If there's a blizzard, nobody'll come and see me," she said.
I grinned. "Someone will."
She looked at me uncertainly. "Who?"
"Oh, no. You're so cute and sweet, you'll fall over. Stay at home with your mother. She needs you."
(How I wish I could stay at home with my mother!)
Today, Marilyn asked, "How's your mother?"
"She's good," I said.
"Is she clearing away...? You know."
I clarified, "Is she shoveling the snow?"
Marilyn nodded. "Yes."
This line of questioning led me to explain, "You said you used to live in Rockford, Illinois? My mom lives in Homewood, Illinois."
"I want to meet her... I'm so fond of her daughter."
"Thank you! I'll tell her you said that. That will make her proud."
"I'm proud... I want to meet her!"
"Yep, that's a good idea."
Marilyn nodded vigorously. "I'm in love with it."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

99-Year-Old Woman Lives to See It: Barack Obama to the White House

That's Ferne at age 21. She remembers 1920, and her mother's fierce pride over casting her first ballot. She remembers the mid 50s, when children of all races could sit in her classroom. She even remembers hearing of this person, Barack Obama. As a matter of fact, she thought I'd said his name was Iraq Obana.

A presidential candidate named Iraq? Didn't bother her. Neither did Hussein. Neither did the notion he's a Muslim. Many times, Ferne has said, I'm glad I grew up in a family where there wasn't any discrimination. Today I asked, Did you ever think you'd live to see this day? Ferne said, No, and laughed.

Monday, November 3, 2008

"Sarah Palin" to Liberal Voters: "Just Don't Vote!"

"Sarah Palin" just came out with a short, sweet video. It's addressed to you and me. Her message to peace-minded voters: Just don't vote!

You can click on the YouTube video link to the left. Or you can see us (I mean, Sarah) at

See you at the voting booth, if you haven't been there already...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Let's Play...Founding Mothers

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

I haven't had a really good pet peeve for ten years. Maybe twenty. It's been a long time since I've let myself get full-scale annoyed by other people. Mostly, I just bumble along, getting annoyed with myself. But lately, that old annoyance is creeping back.

List of current pet peeves:
1) The rampant, free-flowing use of the term Founding Father.

OK. I guess I have only one pet peeve to date.

And before we go any further, don't get me wrong. I have been graciously hosted by the Father of Bluegrass Music in North Dakota. I've had my picture taken next to Mister Shelterbelt of the Great Plains' tree. Though I've never met the Fathers of Perfumery, Canadian Rodeo, Modern Sabre Fencing, the Yellow School Bus, Fourth Generation Warfare, or the Compact Disc, the Internet assures me their contributions have bordered on the extreme.

Honestly though. No matter what I'm told, I've always been pretty sure that history was (and is) full of women. Still, do I know who my mothers are? Not very many.

So, in case you're as pet-peevish as I am, I'll invite you to play a short game. Founding Moms. The object: Guess who said what and when. Are you ready?

1. The rights of the individual should be the primary object of all governments.
A) Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1939.
B) Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
C) Mercy Otis Warren in 1805.

2. How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles?
A) Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
B) W. E. B. DuBois in 1909.
C) Maria W. Stewart in 1831.

3. Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street.
A) Paul Wellstone in 2000.
B) William Jennings Bryan in 1908.
C) Mary Elizabeth Lease in 1890.

4. Establishing lasting peace is the work of education; all politics can do is keep us out of war.
A) Erik Erikson in 1969.
B) Jean Piaget in 1955.
C) Maria Montessori in 1949.

5. I want to be remembered as the person who helped us restore faith in ourselves.
A) Barack Obama in 2008.
B) Gordon Brown in 2007.
C) Wilma Mankiller in 1993.

Doesn't it feel good to have some Moms?

I'll admit, Founding Parents isn't catchy. It's only true.

(P.S. Click on the Comments for little-known facts on these Founding Moms.)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Sarah Palin and Yours Truly

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

It all started when Kris declared, You should go as Sarah Palin for Halloween! Before this crucial moment, it never occurred to me that Sarah and I might have anything in common. But upon further investigation, I found...

Sarah Palin and I:
1) Are women with bangs.
2) Were both completely unknown as of August 29, 2008.
3) Can see a foreign country from within our home state.

Looking at this list, naturally I ask myself, Well, what do I have in common with Joe Biden? More than it may seem...

Joe and I:
1) Are not married to Elizabeth Edwards.
2) Are not married to Bill Clinton.
3) Have never been mistaken for Kathleen Sebelius.

So maybe I should go as Joe Biden...?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Wisdom (Not My Own)

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

I used to be a wild-eyed collector. In 1978, when my family moved from Chenoa up to Bourbonnais, Illinois, my collections had to go with me. We carried my brother's effects (hardly any) to his brand-new room. With sweat dripping and muscles popping, we hauled my stuff (endlessly endless) to mine. Dad discovered my rock collection, in two giant boxes, hiding among the others marked Karen's Room. Long story short, he almost sent me back to Chenoa.

I don't collect rocks anymore, from other people's parking lots. Now I collect their wisdom. Here's a little I gathered this past month:

On the Empire Builder train out of Minot, North Dakota, I met a florist named Bonnie. Her advice...
Let the flowers speak to you.

On a stroll through the Illinois woods, my seven-year-old cousin turned to me, and she said...
I like snakes.

While visiting my dad, I did some research at the Kankakee Public Library. Shock of the world, I spotted an old heart-throb at the check-out counter. As the heart-throb said...
Time marches on.

In Chicago, my mom and I found ourselves at the Freedom Museum. Here, I first learned about America's founding mother, Mercy Otis Warren, who once said...
Every domestic enjoyment depends on the unimpaired possession of civil and religious liberty.
In other words, we're only free in the home when we're truly free in our country.

On the Empire Builder back from Chicago, I met a political scientist named Maggy. We talked and shared our souls from Chicago to Minneapolis (eight full hours). World-wise and shrewd, Maggy reminded me...
There's only one remedy for a jellyfish sting.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

This Bag Is for Peace

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

I've been away from home now for nearly two weeks, and it occurs to me that I'm living a double life. Back in Bismarck, I would have spent today, the International Day of Peace, knocking on neighbors' doors (for peace), drumming through the streets (for peace), or circling the state capitol with bubbles (for peace).

Instead, I spent today, the International Day of Peace, in the presence of my mother and an unusual paper bag. We (my mother and I) attended an inspiring peace celebration in the south suburbs of Chicago. Sponsored by Generations for Peace, the celebration included a bass guitar, a couple of maracas, fresh water, a DVD, a dog-eared book, and the unusual paper bag.

A few specs on the bag...

Current location: Flossmoor, Illinois
Future destination: Tehran, Iran
Purpose: World peace

Essentially, we were all invited to write notes to the people of Tehran, Iran, and then drop our notes in the peaceful paper bag. The contents of the bag were unknown to me, mostly. All I could spot were scraps of white paper, earnest notes written by earnest peacenicks, addressed to the people of Tehran.

I'm told they celebrated the Day of Peace in Tehran today. Maybe they pounded drums, surrounding Azadi square with bubbles of peace. Or maybe they did as Generations for Peace did today, right here in Illinois. Sing loudly for peace. Dance circles for peace. Extend the hand of friendship to would-be enemies.

Some of the Illinoisan peaceniks wrote volumes; I watched them fill their paper scraps with inky, reaching words for the people of Tehran.

I wondered, what did they say?
We don't hate you...
Please don't hate us...
We don't want to drop bombs on you...
We're sorry for what the USA might do...

My note was brief.
We wish you lasting peace.
From a mother and daughter in the U.S.

Simple words, far from profound. What could I say to someone I do not know, and I do not hate?

Maybe next year, I'll send bubbles.

P.S. People of Tehran, Iran, held a candlelight vigil this morning in honor of the Day of Peace. In Afghanistan, NATO forces and Taliban forces agreed to a day-long ceasefire, enabling transport of crucial medicines. I am not aware of an official response to the International Day of Peace in Iraq.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Were You at the RNC?

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

Dragon Jane was there. Maybe you were there. There's so much I want to tell you about the RNC in St. Paul.

The thrill of being inside a giant peace dragon, blowing bubbles from her mouth, seeing The Wall Street Journal, CNN, and countless others taking footage of this mythology in the making.

The rush of getting a standing ovation for our peace performance at the Lowry Theater in St Paul.

The promise in attending Ripple Effect, an enormous downtown peace festival, where we received free art, signed petitions, met activists from all over, planted magic seeds, laughed at a puppet show, and heard lots of pulsing music, some of which we liked.

The shock at having our luggage searched right there on the sidewalk in the city.

The fear at seeing riot police in riot gear refusing to let anyone (even pedestrians) cross the streets.

The disappointment at spotting a vandalized police car, windows smashed, tires slashed.

The panic at hearing stories from our friends of tear gas, pepper spray, billy clubs, maybe even rubber bullets, wielded at nonviolent protesters and bystanders, more than 800 of whom were arrested throughout the week.

The worry over a baby shrew we found in a city park.

The sadness over seeing a reenactment of Guantanamo.

The hope that comes from seeing good friends (new and old)...Lizzie, Baba, Cam, Hillary, Rae, Laura, Julie, Jill, Melissa, Nicholas, Ariel, Jeanne, Gerry, Diane, and more.

The joy of eating Afghan food, and Thai food, and a pita.

The gratitude toward our anonymous patrons for making this trip possible.

A deep concern and adoration for humanity.

P.S. This is all I can say about the RNC for now. More soon...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

North Dakota Big Foot

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

I can't be the only one who's disappointed that Big Foot turned out to be a hoax, that money changed hands, that a rubber gorilla suit was to blame. Maybe it's just my disappointment talking, but I'm inclined to think there's more here than meets the eye. Maybe it's not that Big Foot doesn't exist. Maybe the Sasquatch searchers just searched the wrong state.

If I were Ms. Big Foot, looking for a state, I would settle down...

1) Where the human population is one of the lowest in the nation (about 47th would be best).

2) Where I'd have over 70,000 square miles to call my own.

3) Where there is no registered chapter of the Sasquatch Information Society.

4) Where the winters can get so brutal, everyone looks like a Sasquatch.

5) Where the name of the state means North Friend.

6) Where black bear, wolves, and mountain lions are rumored to make their homes, but it's so easy to hide, almost no one ever sees them.

7) Where UFO and alien encounters are on the rise, especially near Tappen, diverting people's attention away from Big Foot.

8) Where, if people are into bigness, they can just take pictures of Salem Sue.

9) Or Tommy the Turtle.

10) Where, if worse came to worse, I could find my portrait along the hallway of the capitol, one more famous North Dakotan.

Yes, I've decided. If I were Ms. Big Foot, I'd settle down right here. After all, Sasquatches have been sited at least twice in North Dakota (in 2000 and 2007).

Someone ought to tell those North Dakota Sasquatches, You got to be more careful! Take a cue from your buddies back in Georgia!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Mosquitoes and Why I Love Them

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

Today is the day I began to love mosquitoes. I mean, don't they love me after all? Don't they get all jumpy and expressive when I come around? They treat me like a rock star. So today I decided I'd love them back.

Ten real reasons I love mosquitoes:

10) I like to play connect-the-dots.

9) They don't know the difference between a president and a prisoner.

8) They give strangers something to talk about at the bus stop.

7) They're not as bad as chicken pox.

6) They're friendlier than some of my neighbors.

5) They help me keep up my speed on the 50-yard dash.

4) They remind me that small can be powerful.

3) They teach me that each creature exists for its own ends, not mine.

2) They keep me on my toes with my anger-management skills.

1) They rhyme with burritos.

There! Maybe tomorrow, I'll love Dick Cheney.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

One Big Surprise at Bismarck's PrideFest

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

The surprise? This Saturday, from 50 feet away, I heard someone call out to me, I care about you.

Do you remember the last time you heard, I care about you?
I'm more accustomed to hearing, I love you, from my brother, for instance.
Love, love, love, from Dragon Jane.
I like you, from Ferne's roommate, Marilyn.
I'll miss you over the weekend, from Ferne.
Be a good girl, from Grandpa Van. To which I always replied, You too.

The only time I recall hearing, I care about you, was this Saturday at the North Dakota Capital PrideFest. The words came flying across the road from a scripture-quoting protester. I care about you. Then he elaborated.

Like the other 1,099 PrideFest goers, I was quickly bound for hell.

I didn't give this statement a lot of thought at the time. I mean, there was a merry-go-round, after all. And a campfire, a live band, shared snacks, good friends, loving kids, the stranger who gave me a Mardi Gras necklace, someone's gentle hand to hold, not to mention a love-infested Dragon Jane performance.

I wonder, though. Had I given these words, I care about you, any thought at all, what might I have said?

Well, then, come on over! All kinds are welcome here.
Even me.
Even you.

Monday, July 21, 2008

"And We Saved the Tree"

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

Tree-hugger is one of those terms I wear proudly, like a Girl Scout badge. There's worse things to hug in this world, I'm pretty sure. And (no offense to all the huggable trees out there) there's one tree I especially love to hug. I gaze on my friend, this 60-year-old elm tree, from my window every day.

I turn to this tree when I get the news...
Polar bears may be extinct by this summer.
Wolves being shot to death in Idaho and Wyoming.
Hundreds of bison needlessly slaughtered in Yellowstone National Park.

Even when I cannot bear to read this news, I feel it. I can tell my world is suffering from a distinct loss of the wild. I know I don't hear bison thundering on the plains, or listen to the wolves calling to the moon, or live in a stable climate that can nourish cold-weather species for very long. So, because I need to, I gaze on my tree each day.

This living, nurturing, mama tree reminds me there is wildness. The squirrels climb, with braiding tracks, up and down her trunk. Birds of many kinds, every shade of prairie color, stop here for a moment. This tree is my place of peace, my wild refuge.

But then, just before Earth Day, I see two City officials circling my tree, with an ominous piece paper in their hands. In my best June Cleaver impression, I bustle out the door and ask, Can I help you?

My tree will be chopped down, they say. Something to do with water pipes. That's all I understand. My tree will die this summer. There's nothing they can do; they seem sorry.

I concoct schemes:
1) Become a full-time tree sitter.
2) Chain myself to the tree.
3) Invite my dad to Bismarck and chain him to the tree.

Soon I become...
1) Depressed.
2) More depressed.
3) Even more depressed.

Then, weeping under my tree one night, I ask myself these questions...
1) What if there's a way to save my tree?
2) What can I do in my lifetime?
3) What if City officials love trees too?

I call all kinds of people and make some curious additions to my vocabulary:
1) Curb stop.
2) Water valve.
3) Water main.
4) Service line.
5) Service connection.
6) Directional drill.
7) Splice.

Many times, Kris and I talk to...
1) The city.
2) Contractors.
3) Subcontractors.
4) The work crew from Geo E Haggart, Inc.
5) Friends and family (for good measure).

How all of the above decide to help us, I don't know. But on Thursday, July 17, 2008,
our water line is moved, clear around the tree.

At 4:30, I ask, Are you done already? Yes, they say, they're done. One crew member tells me, We didn't tear up the concrete. He gestures toward the elm. And we saved the tree.

Tree-huggers, every one.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

My Life Is a Game Show

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

Did you ever think your family was on TV? Somehow, I happened upon an episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show when I was a kid. After that, I knew: Somewhere, somehow, my life (like Dick's) was being broadcast over the airwaves. How my mother ever convinced me otherwise, I don't recall.

Little did I suspect that in my lifetime, my childhood notion would become reality (TV) for so many. Strangely enough, this leaves me feeling...inspired? But I'm not going to make my life a reality TV show. Mine's going to be a game show. Or, anyway, questions for a game show. Want to play?

1. Please note the top photo. This is not a blemish or a bruise. It's a tattoo. OK, it's not a tattoo anymore. But it used to be (sort of).
Anyway, what do you suppose it said? And who do you suppose put it there?
A) I love Barack Obama, put there by Jesse Jackson.
B) I love Barack Obama, put there by Bill O'Reilly.
C) Urban Harvest, put there by Tracy.

2. What did Ramona call me as I was hauling Urban Harvest gear to the truck, carrying a potted plant on my head?
A) Courageous.
B) Karen.
C) Butchy Poo.

3. True or False. After hugging city trees with Katy and me, Aria (age 6) became a tree herself (or at least she looked like one).

4. True or False. At Carol and Fred's house, I did my impression of Grandpa Van's rooster-navel joke (for no reason).

5. Why has Connor (age 5) chosen black as his favorite color?
A) I don't know.
B) Frankly, I find black to be exponentially superior.
C) Black is very dark.

6. It was so hot this week (in between not being hot at all), Corinne had to peel what off of Roberta's back?
A) A tarantula.
B) An admirer.
C) Roberta's backpack.

7. True or false. Did I actually catch Bonnie saying, Well, yeah, my toes go numb. But they don't fall off?

8. How old are some of the people I've danced with this week?
A) Three.
B) Six.
C) Eleven.
D) Nineteen.
E) Thirty.
F) Sixty-nine.
G) All of the above.

9. In working with city engineering to save our boulevard tree, the engineering department has been genuinely...
A) Friendly toward tree-huggers.
B) Helpful toward tree-huggers.
C) Willing to hug a tree when no one's looking (maybe).
D) All of the above.

10. On the way home from an enchanting hike with the Badlands Conservation Alliance in the North Dakota Badlands, Kris and I happened upon the Belfield Quasiquicentennial (125th) Celebration. The crowds craned their necks to the sky, awaiting the parachute jumpers, who were getting outsmarted by the wind again this year. Last year, where did the parachute jumpers land?
A) By the bank, as planned.
B) Upside down in a juniper tree within the proposed Badlands Wilderness Area.
C) Next to the railroad tracks, as a train was approaching.

11. On the Badlands hike, I spotted a horned lizard (a.k.a. horny toad), which earned me an A for the day from a retired minister's wife and a college professor. It never crossed my mind to pick the lizard up. Good thing. Had I been so foolish, what might the lizard have done?
A) Started singing La Bamba.
B) Turned into a princess.
C) Intentionally squirted blood from the corners of her eyes for a distance of several feet.

12. True or False. I won the Eco-Kids Project raffle! And now I have a marvelous original children's painting, Zoo Zingers, by Gwyn Ridenhour. (If only those guys in junior high could see me now. I am a winner.)

Go, team, go! Thanks for playing.

(For the answers, click on comments.)

Monday, June 30, 2008

Celebrating Sister's Day...

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

Since as early as I can remember, June 24th has been a profoundly important day in my life. We celebrate Mother's Day, Father's Day, Grandparents' Day, Veterans' Day, Administrative Professionals' Day. But for me, June 24th has always been Sister's Day, the day I became a sister for the first and only time.

I have often wondered, How do you actually be a sister? How necessary is a sister to a brother? He has a mom who does all the mom things, aunts who do the aunt things, grandmothers, a girlfriend, et cetera.

What's my actual purpose in this setup? He's long past needing a babysitter, fashion consultant, chauffeur, advice-giver, book-reader, shoe-tie-er, song-singer, note-writer, snack-saver, or playmate anymore. So who am I?

I flatter myself sometimes as being the person who knows him best in all the world. I knew what made him cry out in the middle of the night, what made his heart open wide, what made him so angry he just about pummeled me to the ground. And I still do.

Maybe I am the keeper of the memory, as the sister. This, I remember well:

My little brother hurts.
I see bleeding on his head.
I'll die if my brother should die.

The doctor stitches him up.
There's no anesthesia for him. So there is none for me.
Let me in that room! Let me stop the needle that makes him scream.
I scream because he screams.
We are screaming.

My mother takes me away. She carries me down the hall, as far as we can go from my brother’s screaming.
Dad is with your brother, she says. Davy will be fine.
Down the hall, I can hear him still. I can always hear him.
I will always cry, if he must cry.

Whew! Thankfully, that's not all I remember:

Talking through the heating vents when we're supposed to be sent to our rooms.
Plotting a doorway from his room to mine.
Taping a box of paper clips inside his Christmas present, so that shaking it would give him false clues.
Watching Perry Mason for real clues.
Finding artwork and notes on my door,
Good job!
Dancing like Bo Jangles in the kitchen.

Being a sister, it's not what I remember really, or even how well I know anyone. Mainly, it's how I feel. Love you, bro.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Number Thirteen

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

Who's counting? OK, I am. Never one to avoid the 13th floor or the 13th camping spot, I'm ready to celebrate this 13th blog entry. (A definition of celebrate: share quotes, news, and updates.)

1) Love & B.S. (all about Grandpa V)
One of my favorite Grandpa V quotes...
I'd rather sit down and talk with a pig than eat one.

2) The Umbrella & the Runaway Horses (written by Grandma Z and me, sort of)
More about Grandma Z: She remained a devoted pianist until her final days, forgetting words, names, places, and faces, but never In the Garden.

3) Fascism, Ferne, & the Ten Commandments
Holding steady: The Ten Commandments still adorn Hillside Park. Fascism still bedecks the monument, though the graffiti appears to be melting these days. Ferne turned 99 two months ago.

4) Uffda! Barack Obama + Hillary Clinton = North Dakota?
Still seems possible, doesn't it?

5) The Orange Thingy...for Earth Day
One of the neighbors (who had refused a free, CFL, Earth-Day lightbulb from Sierra Club) stopped by the other day. I noticed you're natural types. I thought you might have a use for this lawn sweeper. I'm not using it.

I've been merrily (and freely) sweeping my yard (more weeds than grass clippings) ever since.

6) Nothing in Life is Free, Except this Piano
And this lawn sweeper...?

7) Four Things I Did Not Do With My Rebate Check
1. Frame it.
2. Blow it all on Red Hots.
3. Fold it into an origami tanker.
4. Buy a Barbie.

8) One Quick Recipe for Peace
Another ingredient: Talking to trees, talking to birds, talking to spinach.

9) Top 10 Reasons to Stay in Bismarck, ND
Three more reasons: Trees, birds, spinach.

10) Listening for Voices
For visiting ancestors, I have better luck with dreams than electronics. If anything should change, I'll let you know.

11) Surprises at Fargo Pride
Here's a surprise I neglected to mention: At the outdoor Pride festival, I (subtly) chased after a woman wearing a paper-bag sign attached with clothespins to her back. What did the sign say? “Old woman wearing shorts. Deal with it.” This was, of course, well worth the (subtle) chase.

12) 10 (Sort of) Fun Things to Do With Food Scraps
As Sara said the other day, while discussing whether tarantulas eat people or just bite them, If I had venom, I'd eat humans.

13) Number Thirteen
Thanks for celebrating!

Monday, June 16, 2008

10 (Sort of) Fun Things You Can Do With Food Scraps

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

When I say food scraps, I mean pits, peels, seeds, stems. The stuff that gets pushed to the edge of the plate, plunked into the garbage, tossed from the window of the car. The stuff that doesn't inspire us, interest us, or nourish us.

Or does it?

1) If I were Kristi, I'd co-create food-scrap art with Karen (who wouldn't be me anymore, because I'd be Kristi). Then I'd nickname it Chipper. See photo.

2) If I were Julie, I'd take elegant photos of food-scrap art, as co-created by Kristi and Karen. See photo credit.

3) If I were Ursula, I'd bury food scraps (i.e. potato peels) in my garden. Then I'd accidentally grow potatoes.

4) If I were Tracy, I'd feed food scraps to a seething mound of worms and then show it off to a class of awe-struck first graders.

5) If I were Bill (at age 3 or 4), I'd stick food scraps up both my nostrils, purely as a scientific experiment.

6) If I were Jim, I'd go ahead and eat the apple core.

7) If I were Brian, I'd go ahead and eat the strawberry stem.

8) If I were Grandpa Z, I'd go ahead and swallow the red grape seeds.

9) If I were Buddha, I wouldn't have any food scraps, surviving on but one grain of rice.

10) If I were me, I'd blog about my food scraps (of course) and then run off to peek on them in their compost bin.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Surprises at Fargo Pride

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

OK, I confess. I wasn't anticipating Fargo Pride with the full force of enthusiasm that's kind of my trademark. For one, I've attended a lllllllllllllllllot of Pride-type Events in my lifetime. To name a few...

Madison, Wisconsin in 1988.
Michigan Women's Music Festival in 1995.
Chicago, Illinois in 2002.
Bismarck, North Dakota in 2006.

How much more Pride did I need? I mean, really. But you know where I'm going with this. Fargo Pride knocked my socks off. Or something. Here's a sampling of Fargo Pride surprises:

1) The Fargo Police Department had a booth there, staffed by their real, live GLBT liaison, who was giving away (yes, giving away) totally free Junior Police Officer stickers. (See photo.)

2) NDSU had a representative there, who was giving away (yes, giving away) totally free NDSU Pride bracelets. (Rainbow style, of course. Wearing mine now).

3) Barack Obama had a booth at Pride, supporting GLBT folks. Since I didn't see him there in person, I went up to ask, Does he know you're doing this? Sure enough, he does. The Barack Obama Pride pamphlets are paid for by his campaign. (Really?)

4) Two Fargo City Commissioners and one hopeful County Commissioner spoke at the Pride celebration. (And none of them fell into a faint.)

5) Unlike Chicago Pride, none of the floats (as in zip, zero, nil) advertised beer.

6) Two young men stepped off the sidewalk to join our float, hoofing behind us, smiling widely, singing along. (In an alternate universe, I'm pretty sure I'm their mom...)

7) Brandee (age 11) tossed candy from our float with all the exuberance any parade deserves.

8) Though the size of the crowd was nothing like Folk Fest in Bismarck, and though unclaimed candy littered the street, some folks did turn out to watch the parade going by.

9) Rainbow flags decorated the lamp posts up and down Broadway. (This was not guerrilla pride. The City of Fargo OK'd this.)

10) We had a bona fide float (thanks to Lola, Carlie, Ella, Julie, and Brandee) with rainbows streaming everywhere and Kris singing (and singing and singing) into the mic. Now, get this: Our float won second prize!

First prize winners...just you wait 'til next year!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Listening for Voices

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

In between sips of Mystic Mayan Cocoa tea, Jan makes this casual declaration: I like my gray hair. I'm sure she's not the first person to utter such subversions. Mama Lola (as she's known to many) has said the same herself: I like my gray hair. I earned every bit of it.

I jump to three conclusions whenever I see a woman with gray hair. She has...
1) Wisdom.
2) Reached the last decades of her life.
3) Enough of #1 to face #2.

Visiting Ferne at the nursing home, sometimes I want to blurt out, But I'm not ready! I'm not ready to be 99! Then I realize I'm not 99, and I feel a little better.

Still, I have to admit, sometimes I fear for the future. For one, I've kind of gotten used to having Mom and Dad around. A phone call, an email, a hug. I'm a sucker for the stuff that parents can do when they're alive.

Annette (from Dragon Jane) has written a piece for her grandmother that simply tears my heart out. (If you'd like to join me in that, please read on...)

From Dear Grandma by Annette Martel:

...Now that you're gone,
I worry about losing my parents.
The hardest thing I've ever done in my life
was to watch my mother
watching you lie in a hospital bed during your last days...

...I remember,
For a moment, I stopped breathing,
When I realized someday,
That would be me standing next to a hospital bed,
Saying good-bye to my mom.

Like Annette, I'm not ready. I'm a thousand miles from Mom and Dad, and even that is too much. After losing all my grandparents, and a friend, and the loved ones of my friends, and various beloved pets, I'm ready to dig my feet in the ground and cry, No! We're not ready!

But, ready or not, Kris and I make our regular hike to the cemetery. This past Memorial Day, we took flowers to Helen and Fred senior. And that's not all. We also carried a tape recorder. (This is true.) Some people promise you can record voices from the afterlife, voices you can't hear until you play them back on a tape recorder. So we spoke our greetings and offered our flowers. Then, with curiosity bumping into skepticism, we shamelessly pressed record.

I wondered what Helen and Fred might want to say. We love you? Kris, tell your dad there's a million bucks hidden under the floorboards? Next time, bring your fiddle and guitar?

Later, we listened back. And what did we hear?
Traffic. Wind. Our footfalls. No voices.

Which leads me to three conclusions:
1) Maybe recordings of the afterlife are a lot of wishful thinking.
2) Maybe Helen and Fred would rather be silent.
3) When it comes to recording, maybe Fred and Helen just aren't ready.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Top Ten Reasons to Stay in (Move to?) Bismarck, North Dakota

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

Are you ready? I'm about to reveal the top ten reasons to stay in (move to?) Bismarck, North Dakota. This is not a joke. Really. A few years ago, I would have burst out laughing at the title of this piece. Top reason I stayed in Bismarck in the mid-90s? I couldn't get a ride to the train station.

But isn't that how I've always been? As a teenager in Kankakee (KANG-kuh-kee) County, Illinois, I had a favorite nickname for the County: Skank-akee. (Skanky meaning something I didn't like...not interesting, not progressive, not vibrant enough.)

And I admit, Bismarck does have its share of skanky aspects. (I can hear certain voices enumerating them right now.) Still, I choose to live here, and in this place, I have a beautiful life.

As a matter of fact, I have moved to Bismarck three times already. This last time, it's as if I was running by, and Bismarck reached up and took me by the ankle. Nearly five years later, here I am. Which brings me back to my Top Ten list. In all honesty, these are only my reasons. (Feel free to comment with your own.) But if you're anything like me (a quirky, tree-hugging, peace-loving type), these reasons may apply. Here we go...

Number Ten:
Last winter, someone put smiley faces of snow on all the tree trunks in Hillside Park. (I've never found out who.)

Number Nine:
If there's such a thing as reincarnation, I plan to come back as the North Dakota Badlands.

Number Eight:
I like the dirt in my garden, and I'm convinced it likes me back.

Number Seven:
If there's such a place as heaven, it's streaming with rivers and kayaks.

Number Six:
As long as I have comfortable shoes and bicycle grease, I can hoof and pedal almost anyplace. And usually, a driver will stop and let me cross.

Number Five:
Does Welcoming Congregation mean anything to you? It does to me. (Thanks.)

Number Four:
There are these crazy, generous people (like the Archibald Bush Foundation, NDCA, and DWAC) who actually place value on the arts in North Dakota.

Number Three:
Urban Harvest has tossed me a life-line to the places I would move to, but now I don't have to.

Number Two:
Dragon Jane Performance Art Company pushes me to the edges of who I can be. (And somehow, I like that.)

Number One:
My North Dakota loved ones and friends nourish my wandering roots. And can you believe? Some of them read this blog!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

One Quick Recipe for Peace

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

I've heard it said a dozen times, a hundred times, a thousand times. As Cookie (age 7) said the other day, A million times. A google. Pretend I just said infinity. In other words, I've heard it said an infinite number of times:

Imagine peace. But I've never known for sure, what do other people imagine? Buffalo storming the prairie once more? Voices always singing? Streets remade into long community gardens?

Probably, we all have our recipes for peace. Christian's (age 10) goes like this:
1. Join the peace gang.
2. Stop mean people.
3. Love!

Most of the time, I use recipes for something yet to come, a dish I plan to make. Something in the future. Still, sometimes a recipe will be rooted in the past. I'll prepare a dish first; then I'll try to figure out how it happened. So here are some of last week's ingredients of peace...

Casting the only no vote in a roomful of yeses, and still feeling heard.

Brushing my furry dog (very!). Watching wisps of fur fly. Imagining birds who will claim it for their nests.

Gathering up the compost. Stink!

Laughing nicely about being nice girls while pushing each other (nicely of course) at Dragon Jane rehearsal.

Reflecting on words of wisdom I've gained from Ferne (age 99). Then hearing Ferne ask me, What are your words of wisdom?

Shaking a maraca in the Band Day Parade with Urban Harvest. Being a Sky Fairy with Aria (age 6), bringing enchantment from the sky.

Waking up to purring cats pressed against my side. Feeling as if my own body is purring.

Having this phone conversation...
Happy Mother's Day! I say to Ramona.
Knowing I want to adopt but don't have the funds yet, Ramona replies, Happy Mother's Day to you, too!
I say, laughing, I think.
Then Ramona says, We're all mothers, aren't we?

I like to see my week written down this way. It makes me want to ask you, How was your week? What was your recipe for peace?

Monday, May 5, 2008

Four Things I'm Not Going to Do with My Rebate Check

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

Four things I'm not going to do with my rebate check:
1. Frame it.
2. Blow it all on Red Hots.
3. Fold it into an origami tanker.
4. Buy a Barbie.

You couldn't mistake me for a Barbie fan, not anymore. Judging by the news, I'm not alone on that. Barbie sales have fallen 12% in the US. Where did I hear this? From Mom. The same mom who wouldn't let her daughter have a Barbie.

This rule, which inspired plenty of stink eye (behind her back, of course), also gave me a glimpse of something way beyond Barbie. I learned, or at least I sensed:
1. Barbies don't look like women.
2. Women don't look like Barbies.
3. It's fine if I don't look like Barbie,
4. Because I can't.

Still, I was a child of the space age, forever awash in aphorisms proclaiming the human potential. School assemblies, pep rallies, graduation ceremonies, all taught me this: Aim high! You can do it! Be whatever you want to be! All you have to do is put your mind to it.

OK, that sounds bitchen! (I never really said bitchen. Not very much.) But who should we aim to be? At pep-rally age, my friends and I dreamed of being Barbie when we grew up. Interestingly enough: Breast augmentation is now the most popular cosmetic surgery in the nation. That's this year. In 2006, liposuction topped the list.

What would life be like, being Barbie? Can we do it?

Women with breast implants are three times more likely than the rest of us to kill themselves. (Not only that, they're three times more likely to die of alcohol and drug abuse.) Could it be that they've had cancer, and suicide seems like the only way out? Well, no. Women who get implants and kill themselves later aren't any more likely to have a history of cancer. The main difference between them and me is...tell me again?

Mom always hoped I'd have a healthy image of my body. I guess she never heard: You're supposed to set attainable goals for your kids.

Her no-Barbie policy (unaltered by the stink eye) was accompanied by others, equally as trying for a three-year-old:
1. Don't just run off to Danny's house. Ask your mother first.
2. Try to eat popcorn without plunging it down your throat.
3. Politely say, More milk, please? Don't slam your cup on the table.
4. No guns, ever, of any kind.

The first rules, though challenging, were doable with practice. But Rule Number Four! Mom, why?
1. Guns aren't toys.
2. Killing isn't a game.


I've heard it said that a nation is like a family. The federal budget is a checkbook for the entire US-family, all 300 million of us. I recently went to a program by WAND, a national women's peace organization, that came to Fargo and Bismarck. This is what I learned:

In the US-family checkbook...
For every $1 for education, 7 goes to weapons and war.
For every $1 for ag and the environment, 8 goes to weapons and war.
For every $1 for health, 9 goes to weapons and war.

I suppose the weapons are there so we feel safer. But I don't.

Maybe I'd feel safer with a Barbie.

Maybe not.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Nothing in Life is Free, Except This Piano

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

We thought you were giving away your piano. If we were wrong, please let us know! Thanks!!! Signed Karen (first name only) with my number.

I have to admit, Kris and I have unearthed more than our fair share of nifty home furnishings from alleyways, curbs, and even those industrial-style dumpsters. A rattan couch, pap san chair, cat post, monocular, greeting cards, fresh flower bouquets, sturdy Zenith television (with a handy knob to press for a color picture).

But never, ever had I seen such a funky, glittery, Free-Love era, 64-key piano, with plush blue bench. Until last week.

Standing there after dark, at somebody else's curb, tinkering at this sparkling piano, I suddenly heard this voice inside my mind: Art imitates life, it said. And then another voice (which sounded like Woody Allen's) replied (inside my brain): Life imitates art.

Honestly (though I've considered myself an artist for many years) I'd rather aerate the lawn than contemplate this question: Does art imitate life or life imitate art? If I need more to think about, I'll just gaze at my navel.

But now, with this funky piano in my living room, life and art are colliding something fierce. If I'd been asked to write a play about, say, a piano, I'd be thrilled to dream up ideas like these:

1. Have character (Karen) find piano on curb on garbage pick-up day. (Check)

2. Make piano funky beyond compare, with parts covered in vinyl. (Check)

3. For intrigue and suspense, be certain no one is home at piano-house. (Check)

4. Include loving characters with interesting lines. (Check)

For instance...
JULIE after helping haul piano:
Thanks for inviting me to be a part of the fun.
DAN after helping lift piano:
Oh, that's what friends do for each other.

5. Include teasing characters with funny lines. (Check)

For instance...
KRIS after seeing piano on curb:
You don't think it's haunted, do you? What if it starts playing at three a.m.?
CORINNE after hearing news of the piano:
So you put it on your bike and brought it home?
WAYDE after hearing news of the piano:
Oh, good! You found that piano I lost!
MOM after Karen has moaned about not having picture of piano on curb:
You could take it back outside and get a picture. Like a...reenactment...It could be an annual event!

6. To heighten suspense, have Dad issue warning about taking other people's discards. Have Karen return to piano-house and still find no one home. (Check)

7. Send Karen downtown on bicycle, on windiest day of year, to get piano books. (Check)

8. Close on a cliff-hanger. Will Karen ever really learn to play? (Check)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Orange Thingy...For Earth Day

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

This is an ode to the orange thingy. Probably, you've seen it, or one like it. You have to admit, it's orange. Painted that way. Spray paint most likely. Not a thingy, really. More like a place, a spot. A section of the sidewalk that was wrecked by some type of accident. And now, this location, this dangerous location, has been carefully painted orange. (For my protection. Your protection. One person looking out for the next.) Maybe by someone who was hurt there already. Tripped, fallen, skinned their knee. Or maybe this person's auntie. She doused that spot in orange before the next set of knees came skipping past. Or it could be Parks and Rec. A worker from Parks and Rec, with grandkids of her own who walk, skate, bike, tease, and loiter on this sidewalk. She arrived at the scene with a can of paint and a purpose.

So I'm watching the cars (and bumper stickers) sputtering past the park. If you can read this, thank a teacher. That's one. Freedom isn't free! That's another. And all of a sudden, everything comes together. The orange thingy, the bumper stickers, my life. It all makes sense.

For me, it comes down to lightbulbs. Saturday morning, I'm strolling around my neighborhood. Not too far from the orange thingy. Doing my best to give away free lightbulbs. Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs. CFLs for short. The kind that reduce carbon emissions and help stop global warming. Courtesy: Sierra Club. And I'll be perfectly clear. The bulbs are 100%, no-money-down, no-questions-asked, entirely, totally free.

But the woman across the street, she can't come to the door, isn't dressed, she says. The guy up the block, well, CFLs won't fit in any fixtures in his house, garage, or camper (now or forever). Someone else has heard something (she can't remember what) that she doesn't like about CFLs; somebody else can have it.

Maybe it's my spiel. Would you like a free light bulb for Earth Day from Sierra Club? Maybe they're uncomfortable with stuff like planet Earth. Maybe they think we'll sneak back after hours and...plant a tree?

Or maybe it'!

Everybody will tell you, don't think this way. Rid yourself of distractions. Focus on the lightbulb. But as soon as I start to think, You know, maybe this is about me, everything changes. These people, these unwilling people, they're my neighbors, you know? My neighbors. They live here. I live here. We live here.

So I'm knocking on your door to give you a lightbulb, yes. But I'm knocking on your door to knock on your door. I'm your neighbor just down the block, I say. I live just over there. Nice to meet you.

Do the lightbulbs move any faster? Not in particular. But I meet the friend of a friend. I admire a little sidewalk art (hearts and flowers mostly). And maybe I make someone's day. This is my lucky day! he says. It's not every day you're walking along and get a free lightbulb!

Then I meet a neighbor whose best friend in the world has passed away. My friend was an only child, she says. It devastated her parents. Fifty-five years, we were best friends.

I listen, saying little, indulging myself in the smell of her home. Exactly like Grandma Z's used to be.

There's not too much I can do, she says. I'd like to make a donation or help you out, but I just can't. Still trying to get myself together.

I tell her, That's OK. The lightbulb'

We talk a while. Her best friend, her health, the environment. You're a lovely person, she offers. I can tell.

It's maudlin, I know, but I tell her, So are you.

She talks some more. And I listen.

Well, if there's one thing I can do, she says, looking in my eyes, it's change my lightbulb.

So whatever you're trying to do, teach a class, defend a country, protect a kid, save the earth, I think I get it.

We don't always agree. We wouldn't pick the same shade of paint every time, the same cause, the same purpose. But I believe you did it out of love. And just in case you're hoping someone would notice: Somebody did.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Uff Da! Barack Obama + Hillary Clinton = North Dakota?

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

Obama T-shirts! Made in America. Hillary's are made in Mexico! So the vendor calls, walking the line, peddling Obama-ware to a merry crowd. I mean that. Merry. This line, these 17,400 people or so, compose not only the largest line I've ever been in, but the merriest. We have braved the Grand Forks wind, walking this line for an hour. Maybe two. So what's another hour among 17, 399 friends?

Some have come to hear Barack Obama. For instance, the child who carries a giant, orange Obama poster. Which he, not his brother, has made; he assures me of this. Some have come for Hillary Clinton. For instance, the women who sport Hillary buttons as large as strawberry pies or maybe circular saws. And some (like my friends and I) have resolved to cheer for both, and also for each other as much as possible. In this spirit, we throw ourselves into a game of 20-questions, which is record-breaking both in length and complications. My turn.

Person, place, or thing? Tracy asks.
Does it talk? That's Spencer.
Does it have a spine? That's Ramona.
Somehow, these are tough questions. A thing? Sometimes? Depends?

Then Tracy spots a long row of plastic bottles, there inside the window. Uff da! she cries. Food and drink aren't allowed! So the four of us scarf down water, apples, cashews, marveling at the delightful combination.

And we're in! We move through the security contraptions. The officers let Spencer (and his key chain) through, at last. Two of our apples (Uff da!) are confiscated. Then we see the time. 5:45! Obama was to speak at 5:30. Say it isn't so! The four of us scale the stairs, two, three at a time. We tear through the Alerus Center, past fancy renovations we barely notice.

Can we make it? Yes, we can! (Sorry.) Obama hasn't started yet. Only Senator Conrad (D-ND). Ramona finds us the best possible spot (at the farthest, farthest reaches of the Alerus Center). Just in time to hear Conrad proclaiming Obama's Midwestern values. No chance to wonder what Midwestern values might be, or what his dad's opinion is in Kenya. Here's Barack Obama! And what's the first word he speaks? Uff da!

We cheer, applaud, jump to our feet, dance together. And before we know it, we've found a brand new spot, and now we're doing the wave for Hillary Clinton. Former Governor Sinner introduces her, asking the pulsing crowd, Have we confronted our gender bias?

Too soon, the Obama and Clinton shows are over. Still, I'm as merry as ever. (Except for the couple of times I had to boo. I admit it.) All along, I've been taking notes. On an envelope, a wrapper, a receipt. This is history in the making, and I'll be taking a little to the folks back home. But suddenly I'm flustered and befuddled. Maybe it's running into my partner's ex. In a crowd of 17,400 no less. Or that terrifying game of 20-questions. Or doing the bump with my friends. But I've dropped my notes to the floor! Hillary wrappers here. Obama receipts there. I can't seem to sort them, one from the other. They're sticking together, clinging together. They almost seem to be running together! I gather what I can, my mismatched bits of paper. And this is what I've got...

CLINTON: I didn't know there were this many Democrats in North Dakota!
OBAMA: It's the party of tomorrow!
CLINTON: Let's believe in ourselves.
OBAMA: This is our chance to start over.
CLINTON: We stand on the cusp of a new beginning.
OBAMA: That's why I'm running; that's why you're running.
CLINTON: The Bush Administration has used fear to divide us and fatalism to discourage us.
OBAMA: They have destroyed generations of goodwill and understanding with the rest of the world.
CLINTON: Since when did America become the can't-do nation?
OBAMA: Theirs is a party that uses religion as a wedge and patriotism as a bludgeon.
CLINTON: You wish they'd just apologize.
OBAMA: With Bush's tax cuts, you're on your own. Ordinary people, most of you here today, you can just fend for yourself.
CLINTON: If you listen closely, you can almost hear the sound of the moving van backing into the White House.
OBAMA: We'll bring a new kind of politics to Washington.
CLINTON: And take that money away from the corporations.
OBAMA: The arc of justice doesn't bend on its own.
CLINTON: Here in North Dakota...
OBAMA: Right here in North Dakota...
CLINTON: We will once again enjoy peace and prosperity.
OBAMA: I am my brother's keeper. I am my sister's keeper.
CLINTON: Give us the child to learn, the people to work, the veterans our care, this country to rebuild.
OBAMA: Every child is our child.
CLINTON: For me, this is no longer debatable.
OBAMA: I love this country not because it is perfect, but because we've always been able to bring it closer to perfection.
CLINTON: God bless you, and God bless America.
OBAMA: Uff da!

Someday maybe I'll get my notes in order. Someday maybe Clinton and Obama will be president. And if I have a chance, maybe I'll even ask them 20 questions. For starters...
1. Who got the apples?
2. Did you hear us in the crowd? (We were the ones going, Uff da!)
3. Where are Hillary's T-shirts really made?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Fascism, Ferne, and the Ten Commandments

© 2008, Karen Van Fossan

I shouldn't start this story with Ferne. I should start with the vandalism. The crime. Impeachment. No offense, Ferne. But 98-year-old women don't make headlines very much. Anyway, I have to start this story with you. This story is all because of you – your habit of living uphill. See, mostly, I'm a bicycle person. I'd rather be a boat person. But you and I live in Bismarck. You, at the top of the highest hill. Me, at the bottom. Which brings me back to my bicycle. I am not in love with uphill biking. As far as I'm concerned, it sucks. (Have you heard that expression?) It sucks so much that sometimes I don't bike – I walk.

And that's where it started. For me anyway. I was scaling Hillside Park. On my way to you, Ferne. Finding every shortcut I could find. Squeezing past fences. Winding around the springtime trees. Darting through parts of the park I otherwise wouldn't have known.

And that's when it happened. Bam! I was face to face with...something. At first, I thought, a gravestone. But, Ferne, do you know what it was? The Ten Commandments. And I don't mind telling you, I gaped. I gaped hard.

But that gape was nothing. Compared to this. By now it was winter, the coldest day of the year. Huffing and puffing, my eyelashes freezing, my fingers turning stiff in my gloves, I wound my way through Hillside Park – making my visit to you.

And here we go. Another bam. The Ten Commandments, vandalized. Footprints on the ground. Spray paint on the monument. One simple word. “Fascism.”

So I ask you, “What does 'fascism' mean to you?”
You lean forward in your easy chair. “What?”
“Fascism,” I answer.
“Oh,” you say. “Fashion?”
I inch myself closer. “Fascism. You know, the political term. Does it mean anything to you?”
Yes, it means plenty. Italy. Heads of state. World War II. Even Bush.

“Now, why hasn't he been impeached?” you like to say.

Then I read you the news. The hardest news we can get. So you can go, “Oh,” with 98 years of compassion in your voice. And later when I'm gone, say a prayer.

People say that nursing homes are lonely, Ferne. People don't want to hear what elderly women have to say. But if you could meet the person who did graffiti on the Commandments – I guess I'm just wondering. Would you and she have plenty to discuss?

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Umbrella & the Runaway Horses, 1921

From "Ruth's Fables"
By Ruth Shoger Zurbrigg and Karen Van Fossan, her granddaughter
In memory of Grandma Z

Would you like to hear the story of the runaway horses? It began (like so much of my life) with piano lessons.

I had a very fine piano teacher when I was about eight years old. She was Mrs. Wernicke, a German lady. Before I took these formal lessons, my mother had taught me to play hymns from the old pump organ. But after my father presented my mother with a new piano, arrangements were made for me to take lessons from Mrs. Wernicke! I hummed all day when I heard the news. (I still had to do chores, of course, but couldn't I hum a little while gathering eggs?)

Well, naturally, I was quite insulted when Mrs. Wernicke had me start in the Beginners Book. It was much too easy for Ruth Shoger! But she taught me more about technique, keeping fingers curled, and other important matters. With her persistence, I was able to finish Book Number One during the first summer (thank goodness).

My younger sister Lucile and I took lessons from her for several summers. Since Mrs. Wernicke lived in Aurora, Illinois, and we did not – our dear Aunt Carrie opened her house in Oswego for lessons one day a week. Also, we studied with others, one being Mrs. Marshall Updike. We were fortunate to have so much music in our lives. (At least I thought so.)

Sometimes I had to walk two miles to the house where the lessons were being given – and several times walk home, too. Many bushes and weeds grew on either side of the gravel road. I walked as fast as I could. I could just imagine all the slippery snakes, waiting among the grasses for my ankle.

Mrs. Wernicke herself often walked through our little town of Oswego, in order to take the street car back to Aurora. One afternoon, she walked past our home, carrying an open umbrella. Umbrellas were not only for rain in the 1920s. Umbrellas could keep out a little heat and a quite a bit of sun.

At this particular time, my father happened to be on the road as well. He drove a team of horses, Bell and Switchtail, in the opposite direction – in the direction Mrs. Wernicke was coming from. They pulled a small cultivator up, up, up the hill.

Well, Bell and Switchtail saw this lady and her strange umbrella. And oh, my! They ran ahead, willy nilly – the cultivator clanging and clashing behind them. Panicked, my father chased behind them up the hill. He was certain Mrs. Wernicke would be flattened beneath their hooves.

Poor Mrs. Wernicke!

Well, thankfully, no one was hurt – not even Mrs. Wernicke's umbrella.

But the horses! Where had they gone? Had they been bitten by a snake? Caught on a lonely fencepost? Run over by the cultivator?

No, indeed, they hadn't. After such commotion, Bell and Switchtail finally stopped at the water tank. They stood there, with their front feet soaking in the water.

The moral of the story? Everybody feels the heat sometime.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Love and B.S.

From "Hospital Memoirs: Love and B.S."
In memory of Grandpa Van (Feb. 22, 1923 -- Nov. 29, 2006)
By Karen Van Fossan, copyright 2008

January 2, 2005
My grandpa's life may pass at any moment. I know this, and so does he.
Once a merciless teaser, he strains to lift his head and even speak.
“I hope you can sort out the B.S. from the love,” my grandpa says. He drops his head to the pillow. He turns to find my eyes.
I say, “I can.”

February 2, 2005
Sometimes Grandpa speaks. Sometimes he only mouths the words, and I am left to read lips. The words I've learned so far: Orange juice. Water. Carmex.
The ventilator dries my grandpa out. But any liquids could choke him. So Carmex is as close to satisfaction as he can get.
He moves his crackling lips.
Ever diplomatic, I ask, “Would you like a little Carmex?”
Could be, he's fallen asleep again. I wait, ever waiting.
He mouths the words, “I'd rather have a beer.”
His eyes dance. And I throw back my head. And both of us are laughing.

February 8, 2005
Grandpa opens his eyes, and I look up.
“Grandpa, I'm going to send a note to Patty. You know – Patty. Is there anything you'd like me to say?”
He motions with his head like, No, not really.
We're quiet a while.
“I just don't feel that I've lived a full life."
“You're ready for more life?” I ask.
“A better life," he says.
He drifts again. I watch the geese preening out the window.
“There's so much I know now that I didn't know before,” he says. “I could live a much better life.”

February 8, 2005, Later
“I'm trying to get better,” he says.
“You're getting better?” I ask.
He says, “Trying to.”

February 10, 2005
When he speaks, he pushes air with each sound, pushing hard to be heard. He could ruin his vocal chords, the medical people tell him; he oughtn't try to speak.
But life, to my grandpa, is conversation. So here it is.
“Do you hear that?” Grandpa says.
“Yes,” I say. I wait.
The ventilator hums and rumbles and, lately, has started revving.
“What's it sound like to you?” I ask.
“A mo...” he says. “A motorcycle...It gets me up and gets me started.”
I ask, “Ever think you'd be riding motorcycle at age 81?”
Grandpa is grinning.

February 10, 2005, Later
Grandpa peers around, but does not see me.
“I'm here beside you, Grandpa,” I say.
He asks me, “Size what???”
“I'm beside you,” I say. “I'm with you.”
“Well, good...You better hurry.”
“I'll hurry,” I say, “if you hurry.”
Grandpa smiles wide. I see his toothless gums. He says, “Bless your heart.”

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Seven Working Principles of Peace Theater

Peace Theater happens in kitchens and kayaks, cross-country trains and street corners, wherever people tell an honest story and allow these stories to transform them. Peace Theater is an invitation to wholeness, a reinvention of the ancient traditions in our blood. It is a sacred and a literal place to gather – like the village green or tribal dance, an opportunity to see and be seen, to create and be created.

1. Roots: We are rooted in our community, our ancestry, and history.
2. Longing: We speak to, and from, our collective desires for connection, meaning, and presence.
3. Authenticity: We tell truths as we know them, writing within the real-life contexts of body, river, soil, and air.
4. Compassion: We find how to love each character we present, even though that character may challenge us to our core.
5. Voice: We honor the voices around us, attuning to the mysteries within them.
6. Vision: We offer transformative art, a re-imagination of the stories of our lives.
7. Surrender: We surrender the drive for success, devoting ourselves to the sacredness of the creation and the creating.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Recommended Reading

If you're looking for Peace Words or Peace Books, here are a few recommendations. (Last update 7-1-09)

Novels for Adults
* The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver; HarperPerennial; 1988.
* The Book of Dead Birds: A Novel by Gayle Brandeis; HarperCollins; 2003.
* Correcting the Landscape by Marjorie Kowalski Cole; HarperCollins; 2005.
* The Echo Maker by Richard Powers; Farrar, Straus, & Giroux; 2006.
* Kissing the Virgin's Mouth by Donna M Gershten; HarperCollins; 2001.
* PUSH by Sapphire; Vintage Contemporaries; 1996.
* The Red Azalea by Anchee Min; Berkley Books; 1995.
* A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris; Warner Books; 1987.

Nonfiction for Adults
* An Autobiography or the Story of My Experiments with Truth by M. K. Gandhi; translated by Mahadev Desai; Navajivan; 1927/2005.
* The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future by Riane Eisler; Harper & Row; 1987.
* Getting in Touch: The Guide to New Body-Centered Therapies edited by Christine Caldwell; Quest; 1997.
* Getting Our Bodies Back: Recovery, Healing, and Transformation through Body-Centered Psychotherapy by Christine Caldwell; Shambahala; 1996.
* Peace: 100 Ideas by Joshua C. Chen & Dr. David Krieger; CDA; 2004.
* Practicing Peace in Times of War by Pema Chodron; Shambhala; 2006.
* When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson & Susan McCarthy; Delacorte; 1995.

Books for Young People
* After Tupac & D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson; GP Putnam's Sons; 2008.
* Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1982.
* Cool Women: The Thinking Girl's Guide to the Hippest Women in History edited by Pam Nelson; Girl Press; 1998.
* Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis; Scholastic; 2007.
* Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti; Scholastic; 2005.
* Holes by Louis Sachar; Frances Foster; 1998.
* Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata; Atheneum/Simon & Schuster; 2004.
* Marie in the Shadow of the Lion by Jerry Piasecki; United Nations; 2001.
* The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo; illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline; Candlewick Press; 2006.
* Peace Tales: World Folktakes to Talk About by Margaret Read MacDonald; Linnet Books; 1992.
* Rules by Cynthia Lord; Scholastic; 2006.
* Savvy by Ingrid Law; Dial; 2008.

Picture Books
* A Book of Hugs written and illustrated by Dave Ross; Thomas Y Crowell; 1980.
* The Peace Book written and illustrated by Todd Parr; Little, Brown & Co; 2004.
* Somewhere Today: A Book of Peace written by Shelley Moore Thomas; photographs by Eric Futran; Albert Whitman & Co; 1998.