The past 10 days have been a wild weather ride, but there have been some moments of beauty.

Snowy path 1390167 BLOG

I didn’t get any photos of the Historic Polar Vortex, because I wasn’t outside long enough. But I can tell you this with some authority: 32 degrees below zero Fahrenheit is EXPONENTIALLY colder than just zero. It felt as if my skin was literally being scalded.

As any Minnesotan will tell you, though, the real menace when it gets so cold is black ice. That’s because anti-icing chemicals stop working, and car exhaust freezes into an almost-invisible film on the roads.

Black ice 1380868 BLOG

This doesn’t stop my hardy statemates from venturing out, however. (As you can see, parkas with furry hoods are all the rage. And also, sidewalk sweepers count as pedestrians.)

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Others prefer to go running and sledding in the woods …

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… or just venture outside in shorts. (One wonders how this guy got into a university.)

Polar vortex Miles in shorts BLOG

After the bitter cold came a sudden warm-up, which caused an equally sudden melt. I ventured out early last Sunday in hopes of seeing something beautiful. Instead I found this eerie glow under the new 35W bridge in Minneapolis.

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I also hung around Minnehaha Falls for a while, hoping some of the fog would burn off.

Mhaha Falls composite CX BLOG

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Alas, the only color I spotted was this forlorn mitten.

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The drive home along the Mississippi felt like being on the edge of a pirate map: “Steer to port, me hearties, for at starboard there be dragons.”

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But we did get a clear evening or two in there, with the promise of warmth to come, and longer days.

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It’s just a matter of time before I’ll be complaining to you about the heat and mosquitoes.

Years ago, back when I had free time, one of my hobbies was collecting and playing with fonts. I’d take one of my photos, set a bit of text, and call the result a “fontplay,” after the now-vintage website.

I made most of my fontplays for Facebook (to the dismay of my graphic-designer friends). But since I’ve closed my account I’ll no longer need these — so here are five of my favorites, ready to post as your own cover photo.


Be kind 2 FB

Give a man a fish



Mark Twain 1010337 FB

Web of life FB COVER



Did you hear about the latest scandal in which Facebook staffers called children “whales,” and discussed the merits of “friendly fraud”?

Probably not … because who can keep track of all the Facebook scandals? In 2018 alone we learned that:
50 million profiles were “harvested” to influence an election
Facebook and some 60 tech manufacturers secretly exchanged user data
A big-time hack hit 30 million accounts
The Pikini app stole (and published) teeny bikini photos
6.8 million users’ photos — even those marked private — were exposed by a bug
Netflix and other companies perused your private messages

And there’s more! You can read the list of all 21 scandals on Wired if you really want to flip out.

But back to the whales and the friendly fraud.

Why is this case so important? Because unsealed documents from a class-action lawsuit show that Facebook deliberately and persistently sought to swindle minors. (My favorite was the internal memo titled “Friendly Fraud – what it is, why it’s challenging, and why you shouldn’t try to block it.”)

According to The Center for Investigative Reporting,

“Facebook orchestrated a multiyear effort that duped children and their parents out of money — in some cases hundreds or even thousands of dollars — and then often refused to give the money back.”

“The mechanism was simple and lucrative,” wrote Roger Dooley in Forbes. “Many free games offered ‘in-app purchases’ — things like weapon upgrades, extra lives, or character costumes. When a small initial purchase was made, often with parental consent, the app maker retained the card information. From that point on, additional spending was as simple as clicking an icon to get an upgrade. Many games didn’t make it clear that real money was being spent.”

According to the court documents, the average Angry Birds player was only five years old — and one teen ran up more than $6,500 in gaming costs. But to the dismay of many parents, Facebook refused to refund the money, instead offering “digital rewards such as ‘flaming swords or extra lives’.”

None of the articles I read disclosed the settlement’s terms, except for the usual press-release mumbo-jumbo (“… we routinely examine our own practices, and in 2016 agreed to update our terms and provide dedicated resources for refund requests related to purchases made by minors on Facebook”).

One final shock

Although I’d been distressed by the campaign influence and hacking scandals, this latest misstep was the last straw for me. Yesterday I went nuclear and permanently deleted my Facebook account.

Facebook permanent deletion

The help pages provided detailed instructions, including how to download everything — your posts, likes, photos, messages, personal information.

And here’s where I got my final shock: Facebook had provided my “personal information” to literally thousands of companies and individuals. (Facebook says it doesn’t sell users’ information, but that smacks of semantic tap-dancing.)

And what does this “personal information” entail? Is it just my email address? A list of my friends? Favorite movies, places I’ve visited, private messages? I don’t know.

What I do know is that in spite of promising that it’s “free and always will be,” Facebook is exacting a very real cost for many who use the platform, whether in money or in privacy. Each of us must decide whether we’re willing to pay the price.


International Holocaust Remembrance Day passes mostly unnoticed in the United States. But would Americans maybe take a greater interest if they knew Hitler had been devising a “Final Solution” for North America, too?

At least that’s what a book recently acquired by the Library and Archives of Canada suggests. Taken from Hitler’s own bookshelf, “Statistik, Presse und Organisationen des Judentums in den Vereinigten Staaten und Kanada (Statistics, Media, and Organizations of Jewry in the United States and Canada) provides details on the Jewish population of large cities such as New York and Montreal, as well as small Jewish communities throughout North America,” according to the BBC.

Searching for more information, I was dismayed that two of the top-10 hits on Google were for an extremist website. One comment minimized the book’s significance, while another seemed to call for “racial purification” of a different sort.

holocaust rememberance googleIt’s tempting to dismiss these as fringe views, except that our top government official has lobbed equally incendiary words when speaking of immigrants (“These aren’t people. These are animals.”).

I don’t know whether he actually believes this — and I don’t want to go full Godwin’s Law here — but it’s a fact that labeling any group of people as subhuman is the first step in committing atrocities.

So today let’s remember the more than six million victims of the Holocaust. And let’s also not forget the lessons of the past, lest history repeat itself.

To learn more:
Tribute to Hélène Berr
Interview with Louise Dillery
Stolpersteine – stumbling stones into the past
The Vel d’Hiv round-up of 1942

Thanks to a long and glorious history of missing major astronomical events, I didn’t get my hopes up when I heard about last night’s “super blood wolf moon.”

But guess what? For once I met all the criteria of (1) being awake, (2) occupying the right hemisphere, and (3) having clear skies. And here’s the result, as seen from my own back yard:

super wolf blood moon fb2

Sorry the actual blood moon turned out a bit blurry; it was only 3℉ (-16 Celsius), so by the end my hands were useless red stumps. Plus, the full eclipse made the moon almost too dark to photograph. But I learned from the experience, and will be better prepared for the next one in 2022. Fingers crossed I’ll again be awake, in the right spot, and under clear skies!

PS: Although last night’s eclipse was beautiful, my favorite photo of the moon remains this single frame, which I shot from the kitchen window of a little apartment Esteban and I rented in Venice. There’s something to be said for actively reducing light pollution and banning cars.

moon over venice 1630492 blog

The strangest thing just happened on my way to dinner.

As I was approaching downtown Minneapolis, an ink-black cloud overtook my car — thousands of crows, swirling like tufts of lint circling a drain.

This happens every winter, apparently: To evade predators the crows band together and form a “mega murder.” They even have their own Facebook page.

crows over minneapolis

Photo by Scott Shaffer … but multiply the crows by three.

Anyway. As the light turned red I stopped and reached for my camera, but a sound distracted me. “Plunk.” Was it starting to rain, as well? “Plink, plunk … PLOP!”

It took a second to register as the blobs on my windshield multiplied. “Oh crap,” I thought. I was caught in a literal sh¡tstorm!

Parallel to me, a police officer and a young man were running in some distress, for they too were being bombarded.

When the light turned green I considered coming about to get some video, but realized it would be pointless through my poo-coated windshield. And anyway, I was laughing too hard by then to wield a camera.

But now I’m curious: Where do all those birds come from? And where do they end up each night? I hope to be back soon with more on the mega-murder of crows in Minneapolis.

Zoom, zoom


I haven’t been taking many photos lately because my main lens is malfunctioning. On occasion it gets stuck, and the only way to lock the focus is to zoom in a bit.

Sometimes I mess up the timing end up with a photo like this one, which is actually a perfect metaphor for the past two months: zoom, zoom. How time flies!

forest zoom 1370015 blog

When I last posted back in November, I was looking forward to 11 days of staycation with Esteban. “We’ll visit museums,” we promised each other, “and try new restaurants.” But instead we napped every day and watched movies and ate three pies. (Main takeaway: I can’t be trusted with unstructured time. Or pie.)

I had also intended to finish editing the photos from my last three trips and maybe write a couple of blog posts. But that didn’t happen either.

Instead, I spend many hours outside, enjoying the long fall.

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The colors were so thick in spots that they seemed to be flowing from the gutters.

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On another morning, I spotted a lone doe. It’s too bad I wasn’t able to capture the huge cloud of steam she let out with each breath; this was as close as she let me get.

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Then the winds picked up and in a single day we lost most of the leaves.

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Soon, everything was kissed in frost and the only color left was that of the moss and lichens.

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But even in the muted browns of Frontenac State Park there was still beauty.

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My friend Pam and I were surprised to find many mushrooms still thriving — though alas, none of them was edible.

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Then came Daylight Saving Time, with its earlier-by-an-hour sunsets. Even after 40-some years in Minnesota the sudden darkness still shocks me every time.

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On the plus side, the early sunsets do make it easier to admire the seasonal decorations.

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And in spite of our pie-induced torpor, Esteban and I did manage to visit a couple of museums. If you’re anywhere near the Twin Cities I highly recommend “Egypt’s Sunken Cities” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

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Among other topics, the exhibition examines the cultural cross-pollination that occurred between Egypt and Greece in the two sunken cities of Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion — such as the Greek toga-like garment draping this figure in a classic Egyptian stance.

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I could go on and on about this marvelous exhibition, but I’ll leave it there for now with my hopes that 2019 is off to a good start for you.


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Esteban and I were supposed to arrive in Rome today.

I say “supposed to” because when our flight took off yesterday we were still at home in our pajamas, eating French silk pie and watching reruns of Big Bang Theory.

There were some omens our trip might be doomed, like the public buses that caught fire just days after we bought our plane tickets. “We’ll just stick to the subway,” Esteban said. But then an escalator malfunctioned, piling a couple of dozen people at the bottom. “No problem,” I replied. “We’ll walk!” Or sprint, maybe, to outpace the wild boars.

But in the end, it wasn’t the flaming buses or killer escalators or rampaging boars that finally did us in; it was an infection that needed surgery.

Esteban and I weighed the risks of going anyway — because maybe the antibiotics would at least keep the infection in check. But maybe wasn’t good enough for me. “The only thing worse than sepsis is sepsis in Italian,” I reminded him. So last Sunday we reluctantly cancelled everything, just four days before our scheduled departure.

Last night we consoled ourselves by sharing memories of the few days we spent in Rome in 2007. There were the usual touristy shots of the pseudo-gladiators and the spot where Rome was founded …

Rome psedogladiator BLOG

Rome first settlement CC BLOG

And there was the ancient Forum, of course. It took little effort for us to imagine tens of thousands of Romans milling about in this former center of commerce, government and worship.

Rome forum columns and temple CC BLOG

Rome Forum 1 BLOG

Rome forum dig 2 CC BLOG

Rome Palatine tunnel BLOG

Rome Palatine arch CC BLOG

One of our most vivid impressions of Rome was the coexistence of old and new.

Rome basilica with Jesus CL BLOG

Absolutely everything was steeped in centuries of history, from the fountain the courtyard of a police station to the hand-carved street signs.

Rome Palatine Hill 2 CC BLOG

Rome ancient street sign CR CL BLOG

Esteban also pointed out that some of the pavers in the Forum still bore grooves from the centuries of chariot traffic.

Rome chariot grooves and cigs CL BLOG

We also remembered the excavation of Largo Argentina, which jutted like old bones out of the city’s belly.

Rome Largo Argentina 2 CC BLOG

And Trajan’s column — which celebrated his many exploits in battle — next to an 18th-century basilica. (Yes, an 18th-century basilica is considered modern in Rome.)

Rome Trajan Column 2 BLOG

… or a different but oddly similar basilica, flanked by Constantine’s Arch.

Rome basilica and arch BLOG

I wish I had taken more photos of the sculpture that adorns many of the ancient monuments, like these beautiful statues on Constantine’s Arch.

Rome Constantine column detail BLOG

In fact, there was sculpture everywhere in Rome.

Rome Castel sculpt at dusk BLOG

Rome Castel St. Angelo 1 CL BLOG

But some of the most beautiful was arguably in the Vatican.

Rome St. Peter Pieta BLOG

Rome Vatican window CC BLOG

Esteban and I were overwhelmed by the scale of the Vatican, in fact — like the chairs set up in the piazza, ready to welcome the faithful to a not-quite-personal audience with the Pope.

Rome Vatican audience CC BLOG

And here is one tiny bit of St. Peter’s Basilica to give you a sense of scale.

Rome Vatican inside 1 CC CR BLOG

In fact, 11 years later my most lasting impression of Rome is one of scale — because this city wasn’t built for humans, but rather for posterity.

Rome Vatican columns 2 CC CR BLOG

Maybe it’s because the individual Roman was an afterthought that the Eternal City overpowers visitors to this day with an almost crushing sense of history,
reducing us to mere ants among the glory of her ruins.

Rome Palatine from Colo CC BLOG

Rome city view copy BLOG

Rome Colosseum tunnels CC CL BLOG
To give you a sense of scale: That’s a group of some 20 people inside the red box.

Although Esteban and I are disappointed not to be in Rome today, what we had most looked forward to was time together. So we’ve decided to take a week off work anyway and be tourists in our own town. (Yes, we will wear fanny packs.)

Maybe I’ll bring your a few stories next week about what we did when we were not in Rome.


Today marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. I hope longtime readers will forgive my republishing this piece, but I can think of no better way to honor the soldiers who died than to keep their memories alive.
I am immensely and forever indebted to Gilles Thomas and Gilles Chauwin for having given me this truly extraordinary opportunity. Merci infiniment.

“Excuse me,” I said in French, “but could you please pull over?” We were about an hour out of Paris and the car seemed to be spinning slowly to the right, even as I kept my eyes on the horizon. I got out and paced along the side of the road, trying to focus on the gravel beneath my feet and the sun-dappled, golden forest around me. Fall had come late this year, but I welcomed the crisp air.

“Tout va bien?” asked Martine, Gilles’ friend and our driver. Gilles’ girlfriend Jeannine shot me a sympathetic look in the back seat. “Oui, merci” I said. “C’est parti.”

About a half hour later we were walking through the old castle gate and into the medieval town of Laon.

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I had commented earlier, when we’d glimpsed the town in the distance, that the original settlers had chosen their spot wisely: Perched atop a hill, they would have seen trouble coming from miles away. But not in their darkest nightmares could they have imagined the violence that would unfold a few hundred years later in the verdant valleys below.

Picardy looks peaceful today, dotted with tracts of woods and farm fields full of potatoes and beets. But during World War I this stretch of land — the “Chemin des Dames” — was literally soaked with blood between 1914 and 1918 as battles raged continually for control of the strategic crossroads.

Laon bears scars from some of those conflicts: Barely upon entering the cathedral, Gilles pointed out several columns full of scrawled messages from both World Wars. “En esperant être reunis et des jours meilleurs,” wrote one person (“In hopes of being reunited and of better days”). I wondered how many people had sought solace in this sanctuary over the centuries.

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Outside, the sun was dazzling at its mid-day peak, and we squinted as we walked around the corner in search of lunch.

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In his characteristic generosity, Gilles pulled several books and DVDs from his backpack and began to distribute them. “T’es un véritable Père Noël,” (“You’re a regular Santa Claus”) I joked, as I accepted his presents and thanked him for lunch. Little did I know that he was about to give me an even greater gift.


The gift of discovery

Gilles had told me months ago about the Carrière de Braye (Braye quarry), which lay just a half hour’s drive away. It was a source of limestone as early as the middle ages, but it found new purposes — as a shelter, dormitory, field hospital, and storehouse — during World War I. Since then, however, these man-made caves have sat largely untouched.

I’d seen photos of some of the artifacts and inscriptions the soldiers had left behind, and I was eager to experience the history first-hand. Still, waves of apprehension washed over me as Martine negotiated the winding one-lane road: Would I feel claustrophobic, with only my headlamp to light the way? And what if the vertigo returned?

But soon there was no going back: We’d reached the quarry.

“I present to you Gilles Chauwin,” said my friend Gilles Thomas. After exchanging greetings and pleasantries, Mr. Chauwin set off to open the entrance.

The Braye quarry — located near the village of Braye-en-Laon, in the French department of Aisne — is one of several hundred man-made caves in the region. Locally the quarry is known as “la creute des Américains,” or “la creute des Yankees,” but I soon came to think of this one as “Mr. Chauwin’s quarry.” He’s been exploring and researching this quarry for more than 40 years, and has amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of the events that surrounded it and the men who took shelter inside.

In fact, even while we were still on the surface Mr. Chauwin’s devotion was evident: With his own hands, he had created a memorial sculpture at the entrance — as well as a locked, double-gated vestibule to protect the quarry from intruders and vandals.

Chemin Dames 1220318 BLOG

“Over there is where the canal came from,” my friend Gilles said, turning in the opposite direction and gesturing down the hillside. He had told me in the car that a river of sorts used to run directly through this quarry, and that for a while the Germans actually had barges that brought in supplies through the partially subterranean canal.

A couple of hunting parties — complete with shotguns and baying beagles — interrupted our history lesson. I watched the men in bright orange vests tromp toward the woods and wondered whether they knew what lay underfoot.

Chasseurs 1220314 BLOG

Now it was my turn to see for myself. I felt a pang of fear as I approached the entrance and saw a ladder descending into the darkness. I was comforted to see that Mr. Chauwin had tied the ladder off at both ends, to prevent it from slipping. But wait! Was that a landing in the middle, with a gaping hole below it? My heart pounded. “You know how to climb a ladder,” I told myself. “You can do this.”

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War-time pastimes

Any misgivings faded the instant I stepped off the last rung. Some 30 feet below the earth, the air was cool and moist and quiet. I fiddled with my headlamp as I followed my new friends into a narrow passage.

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I was astounded by the wealth of artifacts that lined the walls and lay in heaps on the ground. Though thoroughly rusted, the old helmets still kept their shape — and judging from the stacks of bottles, drinking was a big pastime.

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So was drawing and carving. “Look at this,” Mr. Chauwin said in French, pointing at the wall. The inscription was in German: “ERRICHTET, 31-7-1917.” The German soldier who made the inscription had likely been there for the Second Battle of the Aisne, in April of 1917.

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To weaken the German defenses, French general Robert Nivelle had pelted the Germans for six days with some 5,300 artillery guns. But what he didn’t know was that the Germans had holed up in these quarries.

On April 16th the French infantry and some colonial Senegalese troops advanced, only to be stopped by intense fire from the Germans’ new MG08/15 machine guns. The French suffered more than 40,000 casualties on the first day alone — and over 120,000 in the next 12 days.

Just as the numbers are staggering, so were the methods of war: Although poison gas and longer-range weapons were making their debut, many of the conflicts were still fought hand-to-hand — by musketeers, like the one who wrote a lengthy inscription in pencil.

Chemin Dames musketier 1220362 BLOG

“It is crossed out by the person who took the picture to say, ‘I am the last person who took this picture,’ ” said my friend Gilles. It was only the first of many vandalized or missing inscriptions I’d see during our two hours underground. No wonder Mr. Chauwin had installed two gates.


A descent into hell

At various points we passed mounds of rusted barbed wire. “That was to keep out the rats,” Mr. Chauwin said. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the soldiers’ need to ward off pestilence as they slept among their injured and dying comrades.

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There was also the risk of cave-ins and collapses. We passed one section where the roof had disintegrated, and another where a cave-in killed a quarry worker and his son in 1838. I felt like I was disturbing a tomb when I crawled through a narrow hole to read their memorial; their bodies still lay next to me, somewhere under the pile of rubble.

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Even today there are unstable areas that need to be reinforced.

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These subterranean dangers — and the terror that reigned above the ground — took their toll on the soldiers. “They were afraid,” Mr. Chauwin said, as he pointed at a skull one soldier had carved into the soft stone.

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The men who took shelter here — whether German, French, British, or American — knew that death might find them at any moment. Some seemed to accept their fate, like the man who wrote the gladiatorial motto, “We who are about to die salute you.”

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Many were obviously proud of their contribution to the war, like the soldiers of the First Platoon Company C Signal Corps, 101st Field Battalion, who created a detailed plaque listing the date of their service and their commanding officers. “They even spelled out ‘Massachusetts!’” I quipped.

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Other soldiers memorialized their units, their friends, and even their horses.

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But the vast majority of the men were keenly aware that they likely were creating their own memorials, and their thoughts turned to what they cherished most.

“Merciful Heart of Jesus have mercy on us,” wrote one.

Heart of Jesus 1220601 detail BLOG

Another felt it important to record what looked like baseball game results. But maybe the “Red Sox” and the “Yankees” were code names, and it was a different kind of score?

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Some soldiers pledged allegiance to their Masonic temples, or drew harps and clover leaves to celebrate their Irish heritage. A few dedicated their inscriptions to their women back home — and a handful even listed their complete address, perhaps in hopes that news would reach their loved ones if they didn’t survive.

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Through their beautiful drawings and carvings, I felt a deep personal connection to the humanity of these men.


A project of the heart

It was evident that Mr. Chauwin felt a deep personal connection the men who left their traces here, too.

Mr. Chauwin pointed out a carving by Corporal Earle Madeley. “Look at the bottom,” he said. “He was one of the few who wrote his age.”

Corp Earle Madeley 1220571 BLOG

Earle William Madeley, of Plainville Connecticut, was 20 years old when he was killed on July 21, 1918. On the ground beneath Earle’s inscription sat a photograph of his grave at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery.

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Corp Earle Mackley and Charles Anderson 1220571 BLOG

In trying later to learn more about Corporal Madeley, I stumbled upon the memoirs of Charles Leo Boucher — “Lucky Charlie” — who provided a first-hand account of his time in a nearby quarry:

On the last day of our hike from the Aisne Front … we saw nothing out of the ordinary till a large opening on the side of this hill came into view. This proved to be one of the openings or entrances to the famed “Chalk Mines of Soissons.” As we marched down a slope, which led us into the mines, thousands of lights came into view and routes leading in every direction.

Allied troops were coming and going — British, French, and Italian. Guides from the French Army took over and led us into a section that had been assigned to us till we moved on the next day. Our bunks for the night were formed by using four pieces of two by four, two long and two short, and after they were nailed together, heavy screening was attached then the forms were placed on sturdy legs.

Then, I began to explore our new surroundings. Well, it didn’t take long for me to get myself completely lost. I had located a French canteen and as soon as I had made my purchase, I turned to go back to our location. Oh! Brother! There were plenty of routes but I wasn’t sure which was the right one.

In the meantime a French Sergeant saw me and realized that I was lost so, with a little French I had picked up plus a bit of English he understood, he first took me to his outfit where a good sized party was underway. One of the non-commissioned officers had just been promoted and a celebration was in order and I was invited as their guest.

Plenty of food and wine was consumed and then, I was guided back to my outfit. I was told that there were over twenty thousand troops billeted in this particular section of the mine and, without guides, one could travel all night without getting to your destination so once again, I was just “Lucky Charlie.”

Other portions of his memoir painted a much darker vision:

The barrage lasted till dawn began to show and then our first casualty was discovered. He was almost completely covered with earth and the blood was pumping from his mouth, ears, and eyes. Nothing could be done for him so he just choked up and passed on.

Then Corporal Coe got a bullet in the guts and we laid him on the parados. He kept hollering “Charlie! Oh! Charlie! For God’s sake, do something for me.” I gave him some water from my canteen. Then, I ripped open his shirt and there was a hole in his belly. Then a piece of shell hit him in the neck and decapitated him completely so his misery was over.

Charles Boucher himself was twice gravely injured, and almost lost a leg to gangrene — but he survived the war and came home. “Lucky Charlie,” indeed.


First-hand accounts

A surprising number of similar first-hand accounts still survive. But perhaps one of the most compelling was the collection of sketches Mr. Chauwin had urged me to look up online.

C. LeRoy Baldridge published “I Was There With the Yanks on the Western Front” in 1919. Now available through The Gutenberg Project, this collection of visual memoirs literally put a face to the names I’d been seeing in the quarry.

image011 image020 image044 image050

But, for all the beautiful simplicity and expressiveness of Private Baldridge’s sketches, I was especially touched by his opening words:

It has been a keen regret to me that my artistic skill has been so unequal to these opportunities. The sketches do not sufficiently show war for the stupid horror I know it to be.



The stupid horror of war

As we approached one of the quarry’s dead ends, we reached a small shrine with three black crosses propped against the wall. Above them, in an alcove cut into the stone, hung the British, American, French and German flags. We all fell silent and an air of reverence overtook us as Mr. Chauwin distributed votive candles. One by one, we lit our candles and placed them beneath the flags.

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I stood there for a few moments, in the warm glow of the flickering candles, and thought of the men who had stood on this very spot a century ago … and who had then died, cold and wet in a field somewhere, far from their families and friends, fighting “the war to end all war.”

And I thought of the stupid horror that is war. I thought of the strange amnesia our species has, that even as we mourn the senseless losses of generations past, we continue to slaughter and maim and destroy.

Still … I continue to hope that one day we’ll finally overcome our seemingly innate mandate for self-destruction, and that one day we’ll come to see places like Mr. Chauwin’s quarry as museums of a time we temporarily went mad.

Je vous remercie encore, Gilles et Gilles — de tout mon coeur, et pour toujours.


Friends think I’m macabre (or maybe just weird) when I urge them to visit Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. But this is no common graveyard: It’s a living museum, filled with the stories of more than one million souls.

Grounds Père Lachaise rotunda 1040686 to 1040688 BLOG

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The luminaries’ names span the centuries — from the 12th-century lovers Héloïse and Abélard to the 20th-century Lizard King (Jim Morrison). Frédéric Chopin and Gertrude Stein are here. So are the writers Honoré de Balzac and Marcel Proust, the dancer Isadora Duncan … painter Eugène Delacroix … the list goes on and on.

Chopin tomb 1370377 BLOG

Chopin’s tomb is always adorned with flowers and little Polish flags.
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And it’s all set in 110 acres of contemplative, tree-lined cobblestone streets.

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Père Lachaise is so vast that if you wander along the walls — or pause atop the hills — you may even forget you’re in a cemetery.

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How it all started

Père Lachaise was born out of necessity when Paris’ other cemeteries became insalubrious and overcrowded. Under Emperor Napoléon’s authority, a magistrate named Nicholas Frochot annexed a parcel owned by some retired Jesuit priests (whose order included Louis XIV’s confessor, Father François d’Aix de La Chaise, for whom the cemetery is named).

When Père Lachaise opened on May 21, 1804, its first burial was five-year-old Adélaïde Marie Antoinette Paillard de Villeneuve — the daughter of a bellhop in Faubourg St. Antoine. Sadly, her family didn’t buy a plot “in perpetuity” and all traces of her have disappeared.

Parisians mostly shunned the new cemetery, however, until Nicholas Frochot had a stroke of marketing genius: In 1817 he decided to reinter of the beloved 17th-century French authors Molière and Jean de La Fontaine — and soon Père Lachaise was the place to be dead in Paris.

Héloïse and Abélard were also reinterred as part of Frochot’s plan, though there is considerable doubt that the remains actually belong to the star-crossed lovers. But who cares? It’s a lovely monument, and it keeps their story alive.

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In fact, Père Lachaise contained mostly modest family plots and communal pits until the first sculptural tombstone was installed in 1809 — a mother’s tribute to her fallen son.

Antoine de Guillaume Lagrange DROPPED BLOG

After that, the race was on to keep up with the (dead) Joneses. That’s when Gothic family chapels of all sizes started popping up …

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… and funerary statues became a thing.

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The stories of one million lives

In addition to being beautiful, many of the sculptures at Père Lachaise are also meaningful. Some tell us who the person was in life, like this simple homage to a painter-poet.

Poète et Peintre Père achaise 1370293 BLOG

Other memorials are more ornate, like this sepulcher for Étienne-Gaspard Robert. Under the stage name Robertson he performed a “phantasmagoria” show with optical illusions so shocking that his audiences would faint. He was also a keen hot-air balloonist, although sadly there are no balloons among the bats.

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Then there’s the Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach, whose flair for drama and romance extend into the afterlife as he climbs out of his tomb, clutching a rose.

Georges Rodenbach Père Lachaise 1000196 BLOG

Victor Noir’s tomb is known for romance and drama of an entirely different kind. Born Yvan Salmon, Noir adopted his pen name when he went to work for La Marseillaise newspaper in Paris. In January 1870 he was sent to arrange the details of a duel, but instead got into a scuffle with Prince Pierre Bonaparte and was shot dead on the spot.

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Sculptor Jules Dalou sketched the scene and — *ahem* — “erected” a life-sized statue of the fallen 22-year-old. Legend says that rubbing the statue’s manhood will bring fertility, enhance your sex life, or fetch a husband within the year. So many women have molested the poor statue that it may soon need repair.

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Of course, stories like these aren’t always so evident: Only recently did I learn that Oscar Wilde isn’t alone in his tomb, for instance. Next to him — in an urn — are the ashes of his friend Robert Baldwin Ross, who commissioned the monument but is not mentioned on the statue.

I also read somewhere that the groundskeeper of Père Lachaise found the enormous “member” on the statue so scandalous that he chiseled it off and used it as a paperweight. I wonder if it has turned up on eBay yet — and if so, what keywords one might use.

Oscar Wilde Père Lachaise 1040758 BLOG

More recently, thousands of women (and presumably some lipstick-toting men) have paused here to kiss Wilde’s tomb. The practice was halted a couple of years ago with the installation of plexiglass barriers, but now visitors are smooching the plastic. Things like this must drive the city officials mad.

Oscar Wilde Père Lachaise 1040759 BLOG

Hidden among the more obvious tributes are many smaller, symbolic gestures — like the simple Star of David that adorns Marcel Marceau’s grave. Before he was world-famous as a mime, he joined the French Resistance against the Nazis and with his brother Alain saved dozens of Jewish children.

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Another tomb that contains hidden symbolism is that of Théodore Géricault, the Romantic painter whose huge Raft of the Medusa is among the most-visited paintings in the Louvre.

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But why is he shown bald and reclining? As a wealthy young man, he had two loves: painting and horses. Because these passions were sometimes at odds, though, he would have a servant shave his head so he’d resemble a convict (and be too ashamed to go out, so he would therefore stay in and paint).

Géricault 1110182 BLOG

Sadly, a series of serious equestrian accidents left him disabled and eventually claimed his life. Perhaps that’s why he is shown unable to stand, reclining with his palette for all eternity.

The sheer number of stories like these is so overwhelming that you’re bound to miss a few of them on the first (or ninth) visit. This memorial had always caught my eye, for example —

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— but not until yesterday did I learn that it’s dedicated to Jean-Joseph Carriès … a fine sculptor and miniaturist himself. He was only 39 when he died of pleurisy.

Jean-Joseph Carriès. by Nadar

Although a few of the tombs have been classified as historical monuments, most are private property — which is why they’re in various degrees of (dis)repair.

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Still, enough vestiges remain of even ordinary lives to provide a tangible and compelling connection to the past.

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And this is why I come here: To be reminded that no matter how small — or how large — our lives may be, each of us has a story. To be reminded that our actions will influence how we’ll be remembered … and that the most permanent and worthwhile of all achievements is to love and to be loved.

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Are you dying to see Père Lachaise for yourself? You’ll find directions at the bottom of this post.

But if you desire a more permanent stay, you may be disappointed to learn that Père Lachaise has officially been full for 60 years. There are still a handful of burials every month, however.

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If you can cough up the €16,000 for a plot and meet the criteria — belonging to a family that owns a tomb “in perpetuity,” keeling over in Paris, or having an address in Paris when you cast off your mortal coil — you, too, could be buried among the luminaries at Père Lachaise.

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Père Lachaise at sunset 1230245 BLOG


Admission to Père Lachaise is free.

Hours are seasonal: From November to mid-March it’s open weekdays from 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturdays from 8:30 to 5:30, and from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Sundays and holidays. From mid-March to October it’s generally open weekdays from 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m., Saturdays from 8:30 to 6:00, and Sundays and holidays from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. NOTE: To enjoy a leisurely visit, please give yourself at least two hours before closing time.

Maps of Père Lachaise are for sale at many of the florists surrounding the cemetery, or you can download one for free from the city’s website. This same free map is also available at the office (“Conservation”) near the Porte Principale on Boulevard de Ménilmontant. Para personas de habla Hispana, este mapa también se ofrece en Español.

Getting there is easy via public transportation. Located in the 20th arrondissement, Père Lachaise has two entrances. The main entrance is on the Boulevard Ménilmontant, with nearby Métro stops at Père Lachaise (lines 2 and 3) and Philippe Auguste (line 2). You can also take bus routes 61 or 69 to the main gate.

The second entrance is on the rue des Rondeaux, served by the Gambetta Métro station (line 3) or several bus routes (26, 60, 61, 64, 69, 102).

Still want more? Here’s a feast of Paris cemetery trivia, and Paris’s official web-guide to its municipal cemeteries.

I wouldn’t blame the casual reader of this blog for concluding that Minnesotans talk about nothing but the weather.

But when you consider that our temperature range here is a whopping 174 degrees (and that it once dropped 71 degrees in a single day), perhaps you can understand all the fuss. And boy, was last weekend fuss-worthy!

A week ago Friday I visited the Quaking Bog, near Eloise Butler. This is one of my favorite fall hikes in the Twin Cities because it has such a mix of color — golden aspens, red maples, deep-brown oaks, evergreens.

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And although those colors were still patchy on Friday, they were brilliant in the late-afternoon sun.

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I was sad that several pines had been vandalized, though (because even with peace symbols, the paint is still toxic to the trees). People are so weird sometimes.

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Saturday brought a stroll through the Como Conservatory in St. Paul. It does my soul good to visit these huge greenhouses where it’s always summer.

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In the beautiful Japanese Garden, however, it was definitely fall. I loved how the yellow maple leaves highlighted the stone paths and … well, pretty much everything.

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And what about these Japanese maple leaves, dancing in the wind?

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The Como Conservatory also has a vast and gorgeous bonsai collection, which by itself is worth a visit. I was especially smitten on Saturday with the tamarack grove — perhaps because it reminded me of my recent trip to the North Shore.

Como Japanese garden 1360249 BLOG

Maybe because I had bonsai on the brain I was drawn to a little ficus in the gift shop, looking unkempt and neglected. I forgot to take a “before” photo; but here’s how Gus looked after his first haircut.

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On Sunday I had planned to drive north for one more shot at the fall color, but instead got distracted by the snow.

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Isn’t that crazy? I can’t remember the last time I saw snow pile up on flowers and still-green leaves.

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The photos really don’t do it justice.

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But by that afternoon we were back in the 40s. That’s when I became inexplicably fascinated with water drops on oak leaves. (Let’s just all be glad that photography provides a harmless outlet when these things capture my attention.)

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Perhaps I’ll entice Esteban out for one last peek at the fall colors this weekend. Or perhaps not. Either way, I promise to move on soon to other topics. Like Rouen. Mont Saint-Michel. And maybe a preview of our trip to Rome!

Thank you, as always, for stopping by.





When we last left Minnesota’s North Shore, it was snowing. On October 5! I guess that’s what you get when you drive almost to the Canadian border.

Map of Norh Shore BLOGThe blue star marks the Twin Cities, and the red star is where we ended up.

But remember what I said about the changeable weather along Lake Superior? 24 hours later it was sunny and comparatively mild, so my friend Uta and I headed out for some hiking. I was so excited to see the sun that I even snapped photos through the (dog-spit-covered) windshield.

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Oberg Mountain Trail

Our first destination was Oberg Mountain, off Highway 61 (see directions below). It’s a favorite spot for fall color … as the full parking lot attested. Sigh.

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The signs weren’t kidding when they warned of sheer cliffs.

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And parts of the trail were rugged, with lots of rocks and roots on which to sprain your ankles.

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But the light filtering through the birches and maples was a gorgeous distraction.

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And the reward of these vistas was well worth the climb:

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Some of the overlooks were overcrowded, but it still warmed my heart to see so many people out enjoying nature.

Oberg crowded at the top 1350508 BLOG

Even after a three-mile loop through the woods we weren’t sated, though, so we drove south on Highway 61 toward the lake.

Sugarloaf Cove Nature Center

It’s a good thing Uta has such sharp eyes — and knows the area — because I would have sailed right past the unassuming turnoff at marker 73. I was surprised that just five minutes later we were gazing out at Lake Superior.

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We didn’t hike to the famous pebble beach because there was a family there with 782 children. (Or at least that was our estimate, from all the yelling and carrying-on.) But we did spot one of the old mooring rings that remain from the harbor’s logging heyday.

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On our way back to the car we also spotted this portly red squirrel — the only wildlife we saw during our entire four-day weekend.

Superior squirrel 1350664 BLOG

Illgen Falls

“I know of a secret spot,” Uta said as we hopped back in the car and backtracked north on Highway 61. Again, I would have missed the unmarked parking lot … but I could already hear the waterfall.

A short hike took us to the edge of Illgen Falls, which were spectacular after the previous days’ rain and snow. Yes, I did walk right to the edge to get these photos.

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Uta was even more brave: She actually lay down on the edge.

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She also took me upstream to her favorite swimming spot, where a way-more-fancy-than-me photographer was futzing with his tripod.

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When we finally returned to the cabin, the rapids in Uta’s back yard were running pretty vigorously too.

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Beaver Creek Falls

On our way home the next day I asked Uta to pull off Highway 61 one more time for a parting look at the Beaver Creek Falls. There was no hiking required for these views:

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Back in the Twin Cities, I’m already missing the birch trees and pine forests of the North Shore. But I’m grateful to live in such a beautiful state — and to have such a wonderful friend with whom to share it.

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••• IF YOU GO •••

Oberg Mountain Trail
From Tofte, take Highway 61 North about 4.5 miles. Turn left onto Onion River Road (Forest Road 336). Proceed for about two miles to the parking area on the left.
• Three-mile moderate hike on dirt trails, with significant vertical changes.
• Keep children and dogs from the edge of the cliffs.
• Waterproof shoes with good tread recommended.

Sugarloaf Cove Nature Center
Located lakeside on Highway 61 at mile marker 73 (9096 West Highway 61, Schroeder, Minnesota).
• About a half-mile, easy hike to the lake on maintained trails.
• Staffed welcome center with gift shop (hours vary by season).
• Active research area; don’t disturb plants, rocks, or wildlife.

Illgen Falls
From Highway 61, take Highway 1 toward Finland, proceed 1.6 miles, and park on the gravel pull-off on the left side of the road. Look for the sign that says “Illgen Falls, Devil’s Rock” at the head of the short gravel path.
• About 0.3-mile walk to the edge of the impressive 35-foot drop.
• Waterproof shoes with good tread recommended.
• Accidental-death insurance coverage also recommended. (Kidding.)

Beaver Creek Falls
The Beaver Creek Falls bridge is just east of Beaver Bay on Highway 61. There’s a parking lot at the intersection of Lax Road and Highway 61, adjacent to the bridge.
• Easy stroll from Lax Road lot is less than one-tenth of a mile.
• Panoramic view of four torrents running a course of approximately 300 feet.
• Access to rustic hiking trails that take you down to the waterfall’s edge.

For even more information on fall colors along the North Shore, visit this wonderful website.

My friend Uta has invited me countless times to the cabin she and her husband bought three years ago in northern Minnesota, near Lake Superior. Her persistence finally paid off last weekend when we sandwiched a visit between winter storms and work obligations.

Yes, you read that right: winter storms.

The North Shore is famous for its changeable “lake effect” weather — and for even longer, harsher winters than we endure in the Twin Cities. Still, neither of us had expected to look out the window and see this on Friday morning:

View from back yard 1340679 BLOG

I bundled up (because I had packed poorly in my haste to leave town) and headed out for a stroll … but stopped on the front steps. Even the utility shed was beautiful under its white blanket.

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Farther down the gravel road, the trees and leaves were frozen in their fall glory.

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But apart from the tiny footprints of a bird (probably a dark-eyed junco, on its way south) I didn’t see or hear any wildlife.

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The only sound, in fact, was the soft murmur of the Baptism River’s rapids. No cars, no airplanes, no lawnmowers or snowblowers. Bliss.

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See the copper color of the water?

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Someone once told me it was from the soil’s high iron content (this is in the Iron Range, after all). But Uta thought it was due to tannins from all the leaves. Whatever the case, the brownish-tan color even leached through the tire tracks on the road.

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It was still snowing, so it didn’t take long for my fingers to become red and numb. I was relieved to spot the garage as I walked back up the steep road.

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In the back yard, the lawn furniture and barbecue looked as frozen as I felt. I was grateful to have a cabin to retreat into, instead of just a tent.

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Back of cabin 1350060 BLOG

By the time Uta and I finished breakfast, the snow had turned to rain — and my hopes of seeing any fall color were fading by the hour.

But remember what I said about the changeable weather? In 24 hours, the landscape would change again. I’ll leave you with this photo as a little hint.

Fall color 1350439 BLOG

Our North Shore adventure will continue in a few days.



It now looks and feels like autumn in Minnesota, with highs only in the mid-40s (4.5 Centigrade). But before we embrace the fall colors, here’s one last look at the summer of 2018.


Thanks to haze from the blazes in California, the sunrises take on an eerie red glow.

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So do the roads, which are practically illuminated by fluorescent orange cones in the ubiquitous construction zones.

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The lupines bloom, even as the daisies and coneflowers begin to fade.

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As if on cue, the oak trees drop their acorns almost overnight. One enterprising young neighbor decides to capitalize on the windfall. Sadly, his supply far exceeds the demand.

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Esteban and I go to the Renaissance Festival.

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It’s the same as ever: lots of pottery …

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… and music …

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… and pottery and music …

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… elaborate costumes …

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… ballerinas masquerading as unicorns …

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… ponies masquerading as unicorns …

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… audience participation …

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… and being wanted by the wenches. (With extra points awarded for the jaunty tricorn hat.)

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September brings even shorter days, but — paradoxically — warmer weather. Esteban and I brave the sun and visit the State Fair. To my dismay, we speed through the horse barn and miss the heifer judging.

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But at least we get a hands-on demonstration of the restorative power of goats and sheep.

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State Fair sheep 1330770 BLOG

And to my delight, I somehow manage to convince my husband to join me on the Sky Ride (shown below, on the left of the frame).

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Never mind that our gondola lists precariously toward Esteban’s side — or that the roofs below us are inexplicably covered in underwear. (Fitting tip: If your bra or underpants fall off spontaneously, try a smaller size.)

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From our dangling perch we see — and hear — the Giant Sing-Along. Predictably, the enormous karaoke machine is playing Twist and Shout.

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The Sky Ride also gives us a bird’s eye view of the food options. (Schnitzel strips! Corn dogs! Strawberry smoothies! Funnel cakes!!)

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But because we have already gorged ourselves on cinnamon rolls, pork chops, turkey drumsticks, fried pickles and mini donuts, Esteban and I resist the temptation.

We waddle over to the Fine Art building where we find a Van Gogh …

State Fair art 1330894 BLOG

… and a snowy Minnesota landscape where no van should go.

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It’s only 11 a.m., but the fairgrounds are already at capacity. We call it a day.

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On our way out we encounter another man with dubious taste in t-shirts. Good for you, buddy!

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Back at the office, a newsletter glides across my desk on its way to publication. My friend and colleague Tom notes that there are no more summer months on the calendar. Unfazed, our client says it’s still summer.

Optimism? Or tragic denial? Either way, I don’t argue.

Insight IMG_9056 BLOG

It went by so fast that in my mind it’s still summer, too.

How is the weather in your neck of the woods?

It’s officially fall in Minnesota — as I will show you soon. But first, here are a few more memories from my unintentional summer vacation.


June brings us the summer solstice — which in Minnesota means days that stretch from before 5 a.m. to well after 9 p.m. Although my photos don’t do it justice, the light is spectacular!

Marsh sunrise 1320407 BLOG

Rainbow 1320236 CL CT BLOG

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June is also lady slipper season, so I make the annual trek to Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden to see my state’s official flower.

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The cattails are already taller than I am, even when the elevated walkway gives me an extra six inches.

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I continue my habit of forest-bathing, too — until a cloud of horseflies turns my strolls into involuntary interval workouts, with much sprinting and shouting and waving of the arms.

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June also heralds another beginning: a sneak preview of the new Bell Museum. I am thrilled to see the restored dioramas by Minnesota painter Francis Lee Jaques (and grateful to my friend Tom for teaching me about Jaques).
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But it’s a bit disconcerting to see other things still in storage, like these pheasants in a plastic bin.

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With much (well-deserved) fanfare, the Bell Museum opens to the public on July 14. I don’t know what it says that my favorite part of the big celebration is a poorly taxidermized squirrel.

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Plus the stunning building, of course! If the architects designed it to reflect its environment, they succeeded in spades.

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July also takes me back to Frontenac for another visit with my friend Pam. It’s blistering-hot again, so we stick mostly to the woods.

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But I do manage to spot an elusive damselfly among the leaves, and a hummingbird moth in the neighbor’s garden.

Dragonfly 1330305 BLOG

Hummingbird moth 1330333 BLOG

During one of our strolls Esteban and I stop to admire our neighbor’s kids’ sidewalk art. (Note the sea turtles and starfishes. These are not native to Minnesota.)

Sidewalk art IMG_8771 BLOG

During another stroll, Esteban and I happen upon a juvenile hawk that seems to have an injured eye.

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Juvenile hawk 1320709 BLOG

We consider taking it to the Raptor Center for evaluation, but realize it’s already quite sharp and pointy — and that one does not simply pick up a bird of prey.

Bird of prey meme BLOG

When we come back the next morning it is gone. I fear the worst … until I see it high up on its perch a few weeks later. It sees me, too. (Sorry for the crappy phone photo.)

Juvenile hawk IMG_9010 BLOG.jpg

During a visit with my friend and neighbor Mary, I note through her stained-glass window that the days are getting shorter already.

Mary stained glass IMG_9241 LIGHTER BLOG

And soon it will be August …

It snowed in northern Minnesota yesterday — so it seems OK now to kiss the summer of 2018 goodbye. Here are some of my favorite moments from my unintentional summer vacation.


Dense fog forms as the dew point rises faster than the temperatures.

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Gibbs Farm Museum looks like a literal ghost town, shrouded in the mist.

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But the poor visibility doesn’t impede the sheep’s eyesight in the least. I am so excited as they gallop toward me: Many wet sheep will be pet this day!

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Alas, it wasn’t me they were after, but food — and I have none. Many wet sheep will be disappointed this day.

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A couple of weeks later I go morel hunting with my friend Pam and our mutual pals David and Marie. Now it’s almost 100 degrees — 37 Celsius — so we don’t spot a single mushroom. But David is intrepid enough to knock on the door of the long-abandoned Locust Lodge (as Pam eggs him on).

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I am relieved no one answers; everything on this property seems dead.

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We are not disappointed to leave without mushrooms, though, after last year’s unexpected bounty in a most unexpected place.

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The flowers are blooming in earnest now — peonies and moss everywhere, and hybrid lady slippers.

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The bugs are blooming, too! See if you can spot the cloud of larval mosquitoes enjoying the lovely sunset.

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And see if you can spot the hairs on this frisky, friendly fly.

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The sudden cornucopia of bugs inspires me to deface the quotes on my teabag tags — like this one, which reimagines Lord Byron’s immortal words, had he lived in Minnesota.

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Well, that’s about it for May. I’ll be back soon with June and July …


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“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”  — Anne Lamott

I didn’t set out to unplug this summer. It happened organically, thanks to meandering morning walks that took longer than expected — and work deadlines that came up faster than expected, too.

I felt guilty at first for neglecting my blog and Facebook friends. But when I realized my absence made no difference, I reveled in the recaptured time.

There’s been some photography and a bit of writing. Mostly I’ve spent the summer reading, though — sometimes devouring whole books in one bite.

Here are 10 of my favorites; maybe one of them will speak to you as well. (If my selections seem a bit eclectic, blame my neighbors’ ubiquitous Little Free Libraries.)

Little Free Libraries BLOG

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler
“Luminous.” That’s the word that comes to mind again and again for this poetry disguised as a novel. The chapters of Andreas Eggers’s story accumulate as gently as the snow in his native Alps. But then it all crashes down like an avalanche and you stumble away, dazed and transformed. Few books have stuck with me like this simple story of a humble life.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
This classic is billed as a “must-read” for all writers, but I’d expand that to include all living human beings. It’s full of fantastic advice (see the top of the post) — and it somehow radiates hope and encouragement, too. I expect it will remain the most dog-eared and highlighted book on my shelf for a long time.

Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon
If you’re distressed about the state of the American union, pick up this book. It was born in the aftermath of the author’s divorce — which is maybe why his longing for understanding and connection seeps through in every sentence. He’s a master of written dialect, too, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself calling your car a “sumbich.”

City of Thieves by David Benioff
This book is so close to being a screenplay that you can almost picture the camera directions. So what? It’s meticulously researched and richly imagined, complete with a heartbreaking ending. One caveat: The author is also a Game of Thrones co-creator, so expect lots of sex and violence and blood and transgender chickens. (Yes, you read that right.)

Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill
I’ve never read anything like this one-sitting gem. At first blush it’s a collection of random thoughts — quotes, memories, casual observations — that read like entries from a diary. But then they coalesce into a story of friendship, marriage, and betrayal. No new ground is broken here, but the ingenuity of the narrative structure makes it well worth digging into.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
This sprawling, 775-page novel won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Some friends question whether it deserved the honor, but I couldn’t put it down. Tartt creates vivid characters and then seamlessly weaves their stories together against a backdrop of art theft, antique restoration, drug addiction, Vegas … well, you have to see for yourself!

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
“What the hell is happening?” It took me about 20 pages to realize that — like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense — I has crossed to “the other side.” I can’t say I enjoyed this book per se, but I did love the stunning originality of its narrative device. Plus, I learned a lot about President Abraham Lincoln through his contemporaries’ writings.

Paris Was Ours by Penelope Rowlands
This collection of 32 essays is somewhat uneven in its quality, but I did enjoy learning how these writers came to Paris for the first time, how they were seduced, when they fell in love. As with all love stories, there are bittersweet moments and disappointments. But overall you’re left with a mosaic of fond memories as diverse as the city that inspired them.

The Pearl Diver by Jeff Talarigo
Here is another quiet little book about an ordinary life — this time, a young woman in Japan who is banished to a leper colony in the 1940s. Talarigo’s imagery is so vivid that you can practically hear the surf and smell the brine, but the real protagonist here is the human spirit in all of its relentless tenacity.

Rubicon by Tom Holland
Some academic writers use their prose to belittle your ignorance; others speak to you as an equal and then elevate you with their knowledge. Tom Holland is among the latter. With his crisp writing and dry wit, he has somehow turned the demise of the Roman Republic into a page-turner that makes figures like Marius and Pompey feel like old friends.

Well, time to plug back in. I’ll return soon with the obligatory summer recap (with 30% more goats!). And I look forward to seeing what you’ve been up to, as well.



In spite of his casual dress and soft southern accent, Windrow intimidated me when I first joined the news desk. He was whip-smart, often funny, sometimes gruff. He was also an experienced editor and a commanding presence in the newsroom.

That’s why I snapped to attention when I saw his name on my phone’s display. “Give me everything you have on sea monkeys,” Windrow drawled. The internet didn’t exist yet, so I scurried to the archives in the basement and found two clips (TWO clips on Sea Monkeys!), which I left with pride on his desk.

Minutes later, a message blinked in bright-green letters on my ATEX terminal. Only Windrow wasn’t thanking me: “What we have here is a failure to communicate. Snow monkeys. White. Furry. Live in Japan.”

He could have written me off right then as an idiot who couldn’t tell brine shrimp from macaques — but he didn’t. Instead, Windrow patiently read my halting drafts of a dozen small writing assignments. He corrected my split infinitives, my malapropisms, the occasional factual error.

I never got over the intimidation (because the more I worked with him, the more I respected his command of the craft). I never got to be part of his inner circle, either — he already had lots of friends and a devoted staff. But I did grow to like him and admire him greatly.

Windrow taught me a lot about writing, and storytelling in particular. He was a prodigious teller of tales, drawing from his youth in Tennessee, his Navy days, his early jobs and teaching gigs. (He was also a restless soul who once hopped a Polish freighter to Rotterdam, then spent a year crisscrossing Europe.)

Back in the U.S., Windrow used his GI Bill to complete a Masters in Journalism at the University of Missouri and took work at the San Antonio Light in Texas. I’m fuzzy on how he ended up in Minnesota, but I’m sure that too was a colorful story.

And that’s how I would describe Windrow: colorful. Hilarious. Boisterous, sometimes, and wise. Kind, giving, complicated but authentic. Larger than life.

Larger than life … yes. But not immortal.

I checked Windrow’s Facebook page last night when I learned of his passing, planning to express my condolences and belated thanks. But instead I found a gift: one last story of his, inspired by the exploits of Minnesota’s world-famous skyscraper-climbing raccoon.

He posted it publicly, so I hope it’s OK to pass it on here.

A few winters ago my sisters and I were going through the stuff in my Cromwell Square condo’s attic, deciding what to toss and what to keep.

We found a packet of love letters my father sent my mother in the late ’40s. Paul was home from the war in Europe and farming with my grandfather. Bo was a student at a women’s college in Georgia.

Every letter started out “went coon hunting last night.” Sometimes he was eating breakfast in his hunting clothes as he penned the letter, having spent the entire night pursuing the wily Procyon lotor (as the scientists call him).

He would mention who accompanied him, certain hounds that distinguished themselves, how many coons they bagged, what dark parts of Hatchie Bottom he ventured into.

I would not consider this a particularly effective way to woo the fair sex. Nevertheless during their engagement, she went coon hunting with him.

“I was standing in freezing water up to me knees,” she told me. “Shining the light on the coon, way up in the top of the tree. The dogs were howling and frothing at the mouth. The coon sailed out of the tree, landed on me, knocked the flashlight out of my hands and I went down into the water. Then all the dogs jumped on top of us,” (her and the coon).

Bo Kinney hunted the raccoon no more, but she married Paul anyway.

Many people fancy raccoons, probably because of their appearance: the cute masked faces; inky black, inquisitive eyes; paws that resemble little hands; long ringed tails.

This panda resemblance does not guarantee a genial nature. My Great Uncle Frank once gave me a young coon for a pet that I named Zip. The first thing Zip did was bite me.

A Minnesota raccoon found fame recently. The coon, probably looking for pigeon eggs, started climbing the 25-story UBS Plaza building in downtown St. Paul. Once it passed 100 feet and reached the 20th floor, crowds appeared in the streets.

I quote the New York Times:
Gawkers flooded the streets below UBS Plaza. Some brought binoculars. A girl clutched a raccoon stuffed animal. A marquee on Minnesota Public Radio’s building across the street flashed the breaking news: St. Paul’s downtown raccoon reaches new heights.

The saga was online in no time, trending on Twitter. “The internet went bananas,” CNN reported.

I learned early on in the news business that people love small animals, and like to pull for the little guy.

The St. Paul raccoon embodied this story. Eventually she topped the 25th floor where animal control folks lured her into a cage baited with cat food. (She was very hungry after her Mount Everest moment.) They released her unharmed into the wild.

I liked coon hunting when I was young, but never shared my father’s zeal.

I liked sitting by the fire out in the woods at night listening to the men tell stories, but my enthusiasm waned when we were slogging through icy slews, standing under huge cypress trees shining lights up into the treetops. You spot the coons by their bright eyes. Some coons are so smart they put their paws over their eyes (or so I was told).

Paul said when he got too old to coon hunt he would fox hunt. It’s easier on you, he explained to me. You sit by the fire and listen to the dogs run the fox. You never catch one. That sounded great to me.

Paul brought me home after midnight once half frozen and drenched to the bone on a school night. I was about 12. My mother sat up waiting for us and had a fire going to warm me.

It was the only time I ever heard her speak sharply to him.

May you live on in your friends’ memories and stories, Windrow. And may angels sing you to your rest.

A squall blew through the Twin Cities this afternoon, dumping as much as six inches of rain in one hour — and turning the storm sewers into geysers.

On the plus side? I can probably skip watering the flowers tomorrow.


I seldom write about politics here — because in a democracy everyone is entitled to their beliefs. But when children are being deliberately brutalized for political gain, it becomes a moral imperative to speak up. My hope is that some of you will call your representatives in Congress and ask them to please support more humane ways of enforcing our nation’s laws.

Yesterday we celebrated Father’s Day in the United States. But thanks to the direct actions of the government more than 1,000 fathers spent the day separated from their kids. And at least one of these fathers — Marco Antonio Muñoz — will never see his children again, because he’s dead.

Muñoz and his family were apprehended at the Weslaco, Texas Border Patrol station on May 11, where they were arrested under the “zero tolerance” immigration policy Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April.

According to a Border Patrol official, “… Muñoz ‘lost it’ after Border Patrol told the family they would be separated. ‘The [Border Patrol] had to use physical force to take the child out of his hands.’” Muñoz later killed himself in his jail cell on May 13.

Although Muñoz’s case is extreme, it’s hardly unique: The Trump administration separated 1,995 children from 1,940 adults between April 19 and May 31, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said last Friday.

McAllen Texas immigrant arrestA child cried as her mother was searched and detained in McAllen, Texas, this past week.
Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

The officials could not confirm whether parents are allowed to say goodbye to their children before they are separated. Some reports have alleged that parents were told their children were being taken to a separate facility for a bath; others have described children screaming in the next room as their parents were being arrested. In some cases the parents have even been sent home without their children.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said he is simply enforcing the law. But there is in fact no law mandating that parents must be separated from their children at the border.

DHS officials have also said they have “no choice” but to separate parents and children, claiming that the only alternative option is to ignore the law. (Never mind that previous administrations have found other ways to keep migrant families together as they wound their way through immigration court proceedings.)

Meanwhile, Trump is blaming the Democrats for this “forced family breakup.”

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In fact, it was President George W. Bush who initiated the “zero tolerance” approach for illegal immigration on which Mr. Trump’s policy is modeled.

In 2005, Bush launched Operation Streamline, a program along a stretch of the border in Texas that imprisoned all unlawful entrants and expedited assembly-line-style deportation trials. However, exceptions were generally made for adults who were traveling with minor children, as well as juveniles and people who were ill.

But it’s really not about whom to blame, is it? What matters is that this systemic child abuse masquerading as law enforcement must stop. And the cold truth is that if Trump “hates separating families” as much as he claims, he himself can end it — today — with a single phone call.

Children should never be used as pawns for political gains, especially when it will cause them irreparable, permanent trauma.

Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, saw some of the detained children in April. “It was really devastating to see,” she said. “The first room we went into was a toddler room and there was a little girl who couldn’t have been more than two years old who was just sobbing and crying and was inconsolable.”

And beyond the trauma our government is deliberately inflicting on these children, we are also harming ourselves and our standing in the world.

Remember how shocked the nation was to see Otto Warmbier coming home comatose from North Korea, after being detained for taking a pamphlet from his hotel room? We will no longer have the moral high ground or the right to be outraged over such mistreatment of American citizens if we ourselves are doing irreparable damage to those we detain.

As a society we would be horrified if a police officer pulled over a car for a moving violation and proceeded to beat up the children who were riding in the back seat. Isn’t it just as horrifying to beat up children psychologically under the pretext of enforcing the law?

We can — we MUST — do better than this.


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