Some of them are more like millstones. The death anniversaries, the birthdays of your deceased loved ones, the date of your first wedding when you’re no longer married to that person, the day the music died…whichever time it died. These dates hang over us commemorating what might have been, what should have been, what was.

We each get a birthday that’s supposed to be our day. The day we were placed on the earth to enslave at least one or two adults for the next 20 years or so. For me, this has turned into a day for which I have NO expectations, and then I’m not disappointed. My husband threw me off my game a couple years ago when he had a surprise party for me, damn him.

But some of us truly have a day that really DOES belong only to us. A milestone we can celebrate however we choose. Except one particular way: we don’t drink to it. It’s our sobriety date.

Today, September 9, is my 13th. Thirteen years since my last drink. That’s a grade school and high school education. That’s some marriages. A car replaced. At least two presidents, three if things are extra messy. Some new houses start looking old by then. Carpets certainly do. It’s getting up there.

Each year of sobriety feels different. I’m feeling grateful this year.

The first year or two, my mantra was the great Carrie Fisher quote from Postcards From The Edge: “Thank GOD I got sober now so I can be hyper-conscious for this series of humiliations.” Two months in, newly divorced, broke, with Christmas around the corner, I was fired from a job I hated. And things went downhill from there.

It was a humbling experience to get sober in my hometown after having lived away for 20 years. I went to 90 meetings in 90 days, “the poor man’s rehab” as we called it. Outside the rooms, I had little support from people around me when I stopped drinking. The lack of support varied. A couple of my friends said, “I never thought you drank too much,” and that was that. No questions asked. On the bright side, my daughter said the same thing. Eternal thanks for that one.

Others said, right to my face, “I hear you took the cure,” an expression I’d heard since I was a kid in my town. Anybody who “couldn’t handle” their booze and had to quit was taking the cure, those lightweights.

If I ordered a Diet Coke amidst a table of drinkers that included my mother, she’d nod in my direction and say, “There’s nothing worse than a reformed ANYTHING.” Always a big laugh.

So, maybe you can see why the Carrie Fisher quote rang true to me. This lack of understanding pissed me off, made me feel singled out, even sorry for myself at times. But as the years of sobriety have added up for me, the quote has changed from sarcasm to truth.

I really am grateful now that I’m sober to feel all of it – the humiliations, the joys, the sad things and the crazy things – without being numb. Numb is dumb, my friend Ray used to tell me. And I really hate to be dumb. Nothing much scares me any more. Terrible things happen, and we get through them. Some people don’t. We learn. We learn how to feel. We learn how to help other people feel. Nothing is perfect, nor will it ever be. People are mean; people are nice. Sometimes nice people are mean.

Simply put, the last thirteen years of sobriety have given me a life I could never have imagined, not in my wildest dreams. And my dreams were pretty damn wild.

A Master Class in Memoir

Would you like to spend 5 days in October working on your memoir with a master teacher? Come to one of New York’s most gorgeous Adirondack Mountain lodges and workshop your writing with eight other students, with a private chef, luxurious accommodations, amidst fall splendor.

Details are here, for the second annual Dartbrook Writers Retreat, a memoir workshop with writer Abigail Thomas.

A Master Class in Memoir.

Real-Phonic Radio Hour

As regular readers here know (and I mean you, Mary Ellen Gross), one of my cherished memories is Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble in Woodstock, NY. It was the original event that took us to upstate NY for the first time.

Now in Minneapolis, we’re always on the lookout for live music. We’ve found an array of venues with a little something for everyone… if you look hard enough and are willing to skew the demographic at times.

Last fall, we learned Amy Helm was coming to town. She’s a favorite of ours from back in Woodstock. We were first introduced to her beautiful voice at a Midnight Ramble.

We were a bit puzzled by the venue. It was a library in St. Paul, and the show was described as a monthly event there. Hmm. Sounded interesting. After double-checking, we headed over to the James J. Hill Library for the Real-Phonic Radio Hour. 

As soon as we walked into the building, it was clear this wasn’t your ordinary library. Nor your ordinary music venue. The elegant open space had a stage set up on a platform in front of the three stories of book stacks. The audience seating was made up of rows of comfortable leather library chairs, small tables and couches. We sat down, and began to take things in. It felt like being in someone’s living room. Someone with a huge ornate living room. In fact, it felt a little bit like being in Levon Helm’s living room, which we observed aloud.

The show started, with the house band, Erik Koskinen. Emcee/producer Thom Middlebrook did an intro, cracked jokes, cued our applause, told us we were being recorded and introduced Erik, Paul Bergen, JT Bates and Lizz Draper. This band is one of the real treasures of the local scene — if you haven’t seen them, you’re in for a treat. Erik and Paul also produce the show.


Next came Montana singer-songwriter Martha Scanlan, of Cold Mountain soundtrack fame. Her pure, sweet voice was a perfect match for the room. Her gift for storytelling via the stillness of her songs was a revelation.

Musician Molly Maher, who is one of the producers of each month’s show, gave a beautiful and heartfelt introduction for Amy Helm and Byron Isaacs.

It was a full circle moment seeing two of our favorite musicians from our beloved Woodstock, playing right here in St. Paul in this new-found magical setting. The show was fantastic, with lots of jamming (including Molly) and a full stage of incredible musicians. We could have listened for hours.

After the performance, I talked to Molly. It turns out she modeled this event after the Midnight Ramble in Woodstock, having been there herself twice. We were astounded. Kismet, karma, full circle.

We’ve been back several times, and each time has been another unique and wonderful experience. We’ve chatted with people, often the same people, about this best-kept secret in town for live music. We joke that we shouldn’t tell anyone else.

But for Molly’s sake, and yours too, if you’re a music fan, I’m telling you. You must go. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen, I promise. The quality of the music is first rate, and it’s an intimate night you won’t soon forget.

The most recent show featured honeyhoney, a duo from Nashville, aka Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe. And wow, are they good. Full of energy and joy, and life. Funny, talented, original and super nice. Jim Turner, one of my college friends, plays the Angel of Death in one of their videos, so I mentioned that to them. It was old home week after that.

Also featured was Brandon Sampson, a singer-songwriter from Rochester, MN, who has his own show called Americana Showcase. The audience, including us, loved him.

I’m not aware of another place in the Twin Cities where you can find such great shows, walk right up and talk to the band, have a drink and a few hours of kick ass fun for $20. Go. Oh, and you get 25% off the ticket price for bringing a non-perishable food item for their monthly food drive.

The Real-Phonic radio hour is held on the 3rd Thursday of every month. Next performance is April 17 at 8 pm, featuring Joe Pug.

Check out some photos from the honeyhoney show. Hope to see you at the library soon.


You Are, I Am

My husband and my friend Marybeth.

My friend Martha Frankel calls my husband The Friendliest Man on Earth. He wanders off when I’m with him to chat with strangers, while I sit and pretend to be involved in reading my menu or lately, my phone. Then he comes back and tells me he just met the guy who invented gum, or something equally interesting and outrageous. I wrote this as an assignment my teacher Abigail Thomas calls Two Pages. Her students write two pages on a theme she suggests. Often, the theme comes from a poem she shares with us; this one is inspired by the poem Litany, by Billy Collins.

You are the one who chats with the man in front of you in line at the grocery store check out.

I am the one who thinks every kind of store should have a self-checkout: tire stores, shoe stores, bakeries.

You are the one who knows the names of the doorman and his kids.

I am the one who knows the name of the doorman. 

You are the one who bumps into someone you know in almost every airport we pass through.

I am the one who keeps my earbuds in, sometimes even without music in them, so I don’t have to talk to a single person at the airport.

You are the one who takes 15 minutes to say goodbye. Even to the guy fixing the furnace.

I am the one who waits in the car.

You are the one who’s walking behind someone and notices their collar isn’t quite the way it’s supposed to be and gently fixes it, sometimes imperceptibly.

I am the one who curses slow-walking shoppers. 

You are the one who volunteers to clean out my mom’s pantry after she dies and makes me an orphan, mostly because you’re nosy.

I am the one who can’t bear to open its door.

You are the one who cries when watching Grey’s Anatomy.

I am the one who calls it High School Hospital.

You are the one who calls my daughter to see how she sounds.

I am the one who tracks your son online when he runs his first half marathon.

You are the one who buys me a comb when I mention I can’t find mine.

I am the one who frames a tiny picture of 9-year-old you and puts it on your desk. 

Woodstock Country Inn, Woodstock, NY

     It was hard to stop taking photos during our recent lucky fall stay at New York’s tranquil and beautiful Woodstock Country Inn. Located on gorgeous Cooper Lake Road, the 19th century farmhouse turned inn was built as the home of Woodstock artist Jo Cantine. Her paintings and handpainted furniture still grace the inn. Every window has been carefully placed to frame and enhance the unparalleled Hudson Valley light and landscape. And the details inside the house are as captivating as the view outside.
     The shared living room invites guests to cozy up to the fire, play cards and board games, or spend some quiet time with a book in a comfy corner chair. Each room offers its own unique amenities, including private entrances, cable TV, en suite baths, and private patios or balconies with breathtaking views.
     The surrounding hills and meadows allow for both brisk morning walks and captivating sunsets. The inn is located just two miles from the heart of Woodstock, but feels miles away when you’re tucked into your room overlooking the rolling wooded landscape. It was hard to say goodbye to this luxurious country comfort, but the memory of our stay will linger forever. And of course, we’ll be back.

A List for Grandma

We lived in Minneapolis when my daughter was little. She loved spending a couple weeks every summer with my mother and father in Iowa.

She made this list when she was a third grader, after her visit, and sent it to my mother.

My daughter’s in her 20s now, and my mother is gone.

Looking at this, it seems like yesterday. It all goes by so fast. People always say that, and it’s true.

Ps. As for #22, Hoot was the owl who lived in the trees by the creek in the backyard. As my daughter remembered, “Grandma talked to him.” I thought it possibly said, “Look for loot” which wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

GREER Chicago

My addiction to paper has led me to some wonderful places.
One of the most beautiful and interesting is GREER Chicago, an exquisite stationery and gift shop in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago.
Past visits have been the subject of posts here, but GREER is never the same from one visit to the next.
The hand of Chandra Greer, the owner, is evident throughout every inch of the store.
Here’s a photo tour/attempt to try to capture some of the beauty, grace and fun that is GREER Chicago.

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Springsteen and Me

     This isn’t just about Bruce and me. I used that title as a nod to my grammarian friend Stephanie, who took her red pen to the title of a new documentary, “Springsteen & I” – because technically it is poor grammar. My advice to my dear friend: Roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair. I promise you’ll forget all about grammar after seeing the film.
     The film is made up of Springsteen fan-submitted videos recounting what Bruce has meant in their lives, with forty years worth of his performances sprinkled in. It’s funny, joyous, moving, stunning, silly, and in the end, a profound elegy to an artist quite unlike any other in the emotion and devotion he inspires in his longtime fans.
     Maybe you aren’t one of them. But there might be another artist out there who moves you the same way Bruce does me. Two of my favorite men, Tim Sieck and Tommy Mischke, recently had a discourse on whose version of the song “52 Vincent Black Lightning” is better, Richard Thompson’s or The Del McCoury Band’s. Tommy declared that when it comes to music, one’s reaction is very, very personal. What touches one person may leave another cold. That’s just the way it is.
     But if you’re lucky, music really can change your life. It’s not a cliché. It’s the truth. The Springsteen documentary is all about this: that day, that night you saw or heard something that opened up the world for you. A lot of people who saw the Beatles or Elvis on Ed Sullivan say nothing was ever the same for them after that.
     September 26, 1975, ended up being that night for me. What I heard that night 38 years ago changed me in a way I couldn’t put into words. I’m still trying.
     Here it is. At age 18, I saw a 26-year old Bruce Springsteen perform live for my first time. He was fresh out of Jersey. Born to Run had been released one month earlier. Few of us on the University of Iowa campus knew who he was. The only reason I did was because a friend who’d been to New York told me it was mandatory and we were going. As a freshman, I asked no questions.

     I knew from the very first pull on his guitar, Bruce and his band were something I’d never seen or heard. He was all kinetic energy and passion, a wiry kid in a biker jacket, his curly hair jammed up under a tweed newsboy cap — both soon to be tossed aside as he worked the crowd. He never stopped talking or singing or dancing or playing that guitar. The music was jazzy, soulful, bluesy, funky…and the best rock ‘n’ roll I’d ever heard. This was back in the days of his storytelling. The stories painted pictures as vividly as the songs they introduced. This was the Bruce who asked, “You talkin to me?” which young Bobby DeNiro saw at the Bottom Line in NYC and stole for Taxi Driver. Google it; it’s true. His charisma was mind-boggling. Clarence Clemons was the dominant figure in the stories and on the stage. I’d never seen a little white guy cuddle up that way to a black mountain of a man on stage, kissing him and hanging all over him as they made the best noise I’d ever heard. Watching them showed me there was a lot more of the world I needed to see.

     Bruce sang about the kids gathered beneath that giant Exxon sign where their midnight gang assembled…I knew about a midnight gang in search of something, not knowing what. I knew about spirits in the night.
     As I watched him and listened to his explosion of horns, guitars, piano, organ, accordion and harmonica, I wanted it all. I wanted to be on the east coast where this sound was born. I wanted to be lifted out of my quiet little Iowa life and live those lyrics I was hearing. I wanted to go meet Eddie across that river. Anything else paled in comparison. I was in awe, speechless, spellbound, forever changed.
     A couple years ago, I reconnected with a friend who saw me after the concert that night. She chuckled derisively at me and said, “Remember when you saw Bruce Springsteen and said your life was changed forever?” She said it like that was just so silly.
     “I do and it was,” I answered.
     What strikes me about it now is that I did know my life was changing. In that moment, I knew it. I’m so glad it was something I experienced and now can hold forever. The best $3.50 I’ll ever spend.
     I’ve seen Bruce perform often since then, more times than I’ll admit to you – and the memory of that first night comes back to me each time and makes me cry.
     I could go on. But I’ll spare you.
     So, this is about a moment when music reached out and grabbed me and never let go. A profound moment – and I want to know if you’ve had one of your own.  And if you did, did you know it at the time?