I moved away from Minnesota when I was 18 and haven’t always been the best at communicating with family members back home. This is especially irksome to my mom’s mom, who happens to be a prolific letter-writer. Once, when I returned for my parent’s 25th wedding anniversary, Grandma asked me, “Have your hands healed?”

“Nothing’s wrong with my hands. Why do you ask?”

“Well, you never write! I assumed they were broken!”

Point taken, Grandma.

I have not been a good letter writer for some reason, which is weird because I actually enjoy writing. It’s just easier for me to pick up the phone and call. I like hearing her voice on the other end of the line, the Minnesota accent that thickens with age and the Scandinavian colloquialisms that make me quietly chuckle.

Grandma on her 90th birthday with my mom, sister, and niece (I’m always the photographer, never the photographed)

So, to kickoff my “40 Days to 40” project yesterday, I called my now 92-year-old grandma. I wanted to ask her if she remembered turning 40. I figured she would because this woman forgets nothing. Especially birthdays (I get a card every March 26 with $2 or $3 tucked inside). But, to my surprise, she did not actually remember! She reasoned this is because she was chasing after a 2-year-old at the time, and turning 40 just “wasn’t a big deal.” The extended family probably would have come to the house, and there would have been a cake, but the details are all lost, blurred together with her 91 other birthdays and milestones. “It’s only a big deal if you make it a big deal,” she said.

That’s probably true, but since I don’t have 5 kids–including a 2-year-old–to run after, I suppose I have a lot of free time to make a big deal out of things.

I can only hope to look this good at 90!

My Grandma has spent most of her 92 years taking care of other people, mostly children. In fact, she still babysits! I think that’s one of the secrets to longevity – always having a purpose, knowing that waking up every morning will make someone else’s life a little better. Also, I imagine she has one heck of an immune system after caring for 3 generations of children with all their mutant flu and cold viruses. I’m rooting for her to be the first centenarian in the family, although she laughed when I told her this. “As long as I’m not stuck in no wheelchair!” Truth be told, I think she’s far too stubborn to get stuck in a wheelchair. If her legs stopped working, she’d will herself to move them and walk home. That’s the kind of person she is.

While children have dominated the landscape of Grandma’s life, there were other interests that speckled it with color. Back in 1943, “Pageant of Poetry” published one of her poems.  She showed it to me after her 90th birthday party.  I had known about the anthology for a few years but had assumed she’d never be able to find it. Surely, it was buried under 70 years of memories. Not so! She simply walked into a room and proudly emerged with it a minute later.


I was thrilled to hold that book in my hands, knowing that Grandma was the first woman (that I know of) in my family to be published.  It meant that my desire to write and be published came from somewhere.

“Do you wish you’d have written more?” asked my mom, who also happened to be there at the time. I had been wondering that myself, but there’s something in Mom that also loves to put pen to paper.

“Oh ja,” she’d said. “But you know it cost money to send things in and there were always kids to take care of…” There may have been a hint of sadness in that statement, but I could be projecting.  _dsc8898

As she talked, I thumbed through the book, and something caught my eye. Inside the front cover were a few, crisp sheets of paper. I pulled them out to take a closer look. They were the birth certificates of each of her 5 children! Again, I could be projecting, but I can’t help but think that’s significant.

I remembered this as I spoke with Grandma yesterday, contemplating existential anxieties and what it means to turn 40. And suddenly, something clicked for me.  For a while, I thought that Grandma put her writing on hold to put her duties as a parent and grandparent first. But, that’s not true–Grandma never gave up writing. She adapted her writing to fit her life. She expressed herself in the hundreds of letters she’d sent to me over the years.

It makes me think I should try a lot harder to write back. And, I should finish all of those writing projects that I’ve started.  I think I can make a big deal out of that.

40 Days

My mom turned 40 at Kramer’s Supper Club in Evansville, Minnesota, a no-stoplight town in the West Central farmlands. It was a surprise party. I was 17-years-old at the time and the only one of my 4 siblings to snag an invite because I had a car and agreed to sneak in the cake ahead of time. The room was decorated in prerequisite black and white graveyard-inspired decor because turning 40 means you’re about to die, and that’s obviously something you should joke about. My friend Missy came along, and we sat by ourselves when things got started, plotting to steal a taste of someone’s unattended beer. We got our chance when all the adults cleared out after dinner. No one noticed us hanging back, taking swigs of Miller High Life from half-empty bottles. That night defined for me what a 40th birthday was supposed to look like. I assumed it would take a lot longer to get there myself.


I recently polled my Facebook friends to see how they spent their 40th birthdays, and here were some of their experiences:

  • Had a hysterectomy
  • Took a two week trip to the UK
  • Had too much sushi and wine
  • Cut off very long hair for Locks of Love
  • Enjoyed a farm to table dinner
  • Took a long weekend on the Olympic Peninsula
  • Forgot because brain dumped out pre-divorce memories
  • Had tea and played with kittens
  • Went to Disney World and then went on a rafting trip to see Grizzly bears
  • Turned 40 in a Chicago hotel room
  • Started a random tradition of spending every birthday somewhere I’ve never been before, doing something I have never done before
  • Disneyland!
  • Husband planned a surprise party
  • Went off to an island alone and considered how I wanted to live the next 40 years
  • My wife left me
  • Saw Queen Latifah
  • Cooked dinner for a few closer friends
  • Parents took me to Italy


Now it’s my turn to summit that infamous “hill” and start the gradual decent into old age. I’ll be 40 at the end of March, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how I want to celebrate it. I don’t have any scheming daughters to sneak sips of my wine (Miller High Life was something I never tried again), and my life hasn’t followed a traditional path with a husband, kids, and whatever else we attach to the American Dream, so I don’t really feel 40. Maybe no one ever really feels 40. Is it even really that significant anymore?

Scrabble 40.jpg

It must mean something—the number 40. It’s the number of weeks human beings gestate before birth. And then we grow up listening to American Top 40 before settling into 40 hour work weeks after college. In the Bible, people were always spending 40 days wandering around or getting tempted or rained on.  40 must mean something.

Today marks 40 days to my 40th birthday. And while I don’t know how I’d like to celebrate the actual day yet, I’d like to take that time to meditate on what I’ve accomplished so far and to think about what I’d like the next half (or so) of my life to mean. Over the next 40 days, I’m going to seek out new experiences, make new connections, strengthen existing connections, and hopefully finish a few projects that I started in my 30’s. This was inspired by my friend, Renata, who had one long, continuous celebration. And why not? If we’ve made it this far, shouldn’t we take some time to celebrate ourselves?


I’ve come up with about 20 things to do so far, so I’m in need of some ideas! Big or small. Feel free to comment with suggestions or simply share what turning 40 means to you.

In the Nest

I bought my first lawnmower on Friday.  It was super hard. I logged onto Lowe’s website, browsed through the selection of available lawnmowers at the Bellingham store, and then paid for the one I wanted. My plan was to breeze into the store after work, pick up my order at the Customer Service Desk,  and roll on out without any hassles.

People* would take notice as I strolled to my car, knowing I am successful enough to afford a house that has a lawn that needs mowing.  They would stop me and give unsolicited advice, and I would feign interest in what they had to say. My mental fortitude would be rewarded when these people* offered to assist do all the mowing. I’d then give them bottles of Corona from my optimistically stocked refrigerator as a reward.

*People: Noun, plural. Young attractive men.

Unfortunately, all my dreams came to nothing when the employee at the Customer Service Desk delivered my lawnmower… in a box!

Slap forehead.

I didn’t want to assemble anything. It wasn’t sexy. Plus, I just wanted to get to the mowing. Even the idea of stopping at a gas station to put fuel in my new, shiny red gas container seemed like an insufferable delay.  See, some birds had moved into the wall in my living room, and I’d been listening to them scratching and squeaking for a few weeks. Recently, a trail of poop had appeared across the deck because of their frequent trips beneath the eaves. A friend’s weird little dog ate some of it!  I couldn’t ignore the problem any longer.

So what does this have to do with mowing?

Well…I rent, and I couldn’t let the landlord see the condition of the lawn, tall with grass and burgeoning with ecosystems usually found in the woods and not suburbia. I’m too old to be looked at sideways for not doing things I’m supposed to do. So, in order to tell him about the birds, I first had to mow the lawn.

Arriving home from Lowe’s, I assembled* the lawnmower and managed to mow half of the lawn.

*Assembled:  Verb. Past tense. Service completed by friend Andy while author plays with new weed wacker.  

And then, due to circumstances beyond my control (i.e. busy social schedule, cleaning the condo I’d recently sold), I didn’t finish it. Of course, the birds weren’t aware of their impending doom and had, therefore, neglected to move out of my wall, saving me the inconvenience of calling the landlord.  I heard them there this morning.

Because today was my work from home day, I decided to finish the rest of the work over my lunch break.  Honestly, I was looking forward to it because I discovered that mowing is actually AWESOME. There’s a good chance I may never share the duties with my roommate, Anne, either. I’ll pretend like it bothers me, but secretly I’ll love it and do it every work-from-home-Tuesday.  The neighbors, as it turns out, have a rather nice-looking landscape guy, and it’s fun to catch his eye as I’m slaving away with the weed wacker under a heaving branch of tent caterpillars.

But I digress. Back to the task at hand. The winds were intense this winter, and evergreen branches were strewn all over the place – big ones, little ones covered in pine cones. I walked through the lawn before mowing, picking up all the larger branches.

Finally, I powered up my new toy and mowed on! I hadn’t gone five feet on my first pass when a bird flew out of the grass in front of me. It startled scared the shit out of me and I dropped the throttle, stopping the engine.  As I reached down to start it again, I noticed another branch sticking out of the jungle grasses. I picked it up and flung it onto the patio.

I turned back to the mower and there, where the branch used to lie, was a little grass nest. Inside of it were four peach-colored speckled eggs.


If I had found diamonds there in the grass, I wouldn’t have been more excited.  What treasure! Of course, I dropped everything, sprinted inside, and grabbed my camera. Mamma bird worked herself into quite a frenzy as I danced around the nest, snapping photos.


Finally, when I’d taken enough pictures, I realized I needed to finish the lawn, but I couldn’t move the nest.  The mother would abandon her babies. I couldn’t mow over them either, scrambling them all over the yard. What horror! I felt attached to their little unborn lives now that I’d photographed them.


There was really only one choice. I mowed around them.

Afterwards I carefully placed the branch over the nest again. Hiding inside and peeking out my patio door, I waited with my camera for the mother to return. She circled the area for a minute and then landed on the neighbor’s fence, cautiously hopping sideways until she was directly across from her nest. Finally, she glided down to the branch, inspected the area, and then ducked inside to check on her little eggs.


First, I was glowing with the excitement of getting to witness this whole thing – for finishing the lawn without displacing or murdering any of God’s creatures. And then I had the deeper sense that I had the power of life and death in my hands this morning. Maybe they were only birds, but I heard the desperation, the powerlessness in the mother’s chirping.  Her terror. It was sobering.

How often have I felt like some giant mower hovered over me threatening to chop all of my dreams to pieces? And sometimes it does.  Eviscerated hopes have hung out of me, still pulsating as the life drains out, and amputated bits have been scattered across the lawn of my life.  So great is the emotional carnage, I wonder about the existence of God.

But then, as I put down my camera and walked away from the patio door, I felt something stronger. Peace. In the quiet, most insignificant moments I feel like there’s Someone out there who still sees me. Someone who keeps me safe when I’m at my most vulnerable and can’t save myself any more than those eggs could sprout legs and run away.

Maybe these are extreme thoughts to think just because of something that happened with a lawn mower, but I feel that life’s lessons are hidden in the most ordinary of tasks.  Today I knew that I’m not alone in this world. Something bigger than myself sees me and cares about my dreams. At least, I’d like to think so.

The Heart Recovers


Have you ever noticed how, in our pursuit of the perfect home or job or relationship or image, there’s usually this one problem in life – some offshoot of annoyance that’s so close to being right, but it just isn’t? It steals our focus, and all of our accomplishments and potential blur into the background.


Some problems can be fixed, others can’t.  When they can’t, we need to let them go. Yes, it’s difficult and we will hurt. Maybe a lot. Yes, we’ll feel empty for a while, and there will be this hole in our hearts in the shape of that thing we’ve released.


But not forever.  We will start to enjoy the freedom that comes with unburdening ourselves, and one day something beautiful will blossom and fill out that empty space.

Why I Travel


If you look at the earth from 37,000 feet, you’ll see rivers. You’ll see the scars left by those that dried up, snaking through the deserts. Farmland will be divided into little squares by red gravel roads, and you’ll see the hovering cumulous cast shadows on fields. There will be glowing patches of city lights, ink blots that are lakes, and the white, serrated edges of mountains. From the stratosphere, it all makes sense. The world is orderly. Quiet. Beautiful. You can’t see the cars littering the highways or the emails cluttering an inbox, and you can’t hear the neighbors fighting or the kids crying, and you can’t feel the shame and disappointments gripping your throat and the fear that you’ll never realize your dreams or find love or ever crawl out from under your pile of debts.

At 37,000 feet, you can breathe. You can enjoy the reprieve, the short moratorium you’ve declared on your responsibilities and open up your mind to the possibility that your life can still mean more than the mistakes you’re trying to fix.

Photo Credit: Sidney Gomez
Photo Credit: Sidney Gomez

See the world through an airplane window.

The Essence of Being Human

I Heart You

I received some disappointing news earlier today about something I had wanted very badly. It just so happened that a good friend of mine got the thing that I wanted. My first reaction was negative; I spouted off a rant on Facebook, growled a little at my desk, pouted and then took a walk around the block. At the end of my walk, a single word came to me: Ubuntu. Years ago, I read about this philosophy as it was explained by Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.

In other words, I was being a jerk. There isn’t some well of blessings that is about to run dry. There are enough good things to go around, and it’s important that we allow people to have their moments and to praise their accomplishments. And, equally as important, when our dreams seem to be scattering into the wind, we need to remind ourselves that everything we hope for is still in our hands. Nothing is ever lost.



I couldn’t resist the title. The word conjures up a fond memory for me. (And where did your mind go just then?!)

I last made it home for Christmas in 2008. My oldest niece and my nephew were both 4 at the time. Just before Christmas Eve dinner, Ella tore down the stairs from my mom’s playroom and through the house screaming. She stopped dramatically in the dining room, brushed the hair from her face, and declared, “Isaac is trying to screw me!”

My siblings and their spouses all looked at her with confusion. Screw? What!

Seconds later, Isaac ran up behind Ella with a devilish grin on his face…and with a giant, orange plastic screwdriver in hand.

Top 12 Memorable Moments of 2012

2012 was a year of extreme highs and lows, surprises, and good friends. Here are 12 of my most memorable moments from the past year, with pictures!

1. Posing for Trish Harding
I am not exactly what you’d call model material. But, Trish doesn’t care. All shapes and sizes are welcome in her art classes. Dressed in costume, I modeled for half a dozen students as they sketched or painted, and I even earned tips!
Posing for Trish Harding

2. The Deck Fire
In March, a house guest who visited from Ireland lit my deck on fire with a cigarette. Then he stuck me with the repair bill. Happy Birthday to Me.

I have since insured every aspect of my life. Unfortunately, there is no insurance for poor decision-making. We simply have to live with the consequences and hope for payment plans.
Deck Fire

3. Little Brother
My 35th birthday was probably the worst on record. However, my brother Chris flew out to Seattle from Minnesota in May with his company, and his visit more than made up for it. They booked me a room in the Four Seasons, paid for my fine dining, a cruise around Lake Union, and a flight in the Evening Magazine airplane over Seattle!

Over Seattle

4. Horseback riding for the first time
In July, I camped (er, stayed in a cabin with running water and electricity) in Leavenworth. I rode Titan through the steep and treacherous trails of the north Cascades and probably evaded death a couple of times. My horse loved the grass growing on the sides of the cliffs and wasn’t scared to walk right over the edge to get to it. He also liked biting the arses of the horses in front of him. Cheeky bugger.
Horseback Riding

5. Danger
I had such a great time hanging out with my girlfriends this year, I had to include a shout out to them. Our mantra can be summed up in a fuzzy cell phone photo. I’ll never tell what kind of danger we actually got into…

6. Meeting Jack McGee
I watched every episode of every season of the FX series, Rescue Me. Jack McGee played Chief Jerry Reilly for three seasons, and I loved him! In July, I had the opportunity to meet him at a gala to raise funds for the Burned Children Recovery Foundation and specifically, Camp Phoenix.
Jack McGee

7. Ryan Stiles Celebrity Golf Classic
The day after the gala, I volunteered at the Ryan Stiles Celebrity Golf Classic. Again, this event was designed to raise money for the Burned Children Recovery Foundation. I manned hole #9 with Cerise Noah, and took lots and lots of pictures. In 2012, a total of $160,000 was raised for the BCRF and their Camp Phoenix program for childhood burn survivors.

8. NYC Pitch Conference
Even though the New York City Pitch Conference was brutal, I walked away with some dear friends. And, who can beat seeing this in their email inbox?
NYC Pitch

9. Discovering the rainbow over the Rock of Cashel
In pursuit of the perfect picture, I hid in the old ruins of Hore Abbey in Cashel, Ireland in October. Little did I know that when the rain passed, I’d step out of the ruins to spot a rainbow over the Rock of Cashel!
Rock of Cashel

10. Seeing the Cliffs of Moher for the first time
Everything in Ireland is beautiful, and I had more favorite moments than I could possibly count, but seeing the Cliffs of Moher was one of the biggest. I woke up early to beat the rain and then battled the wind to get this shot.
Cliffs of Moher

11. Getting Published
Okay, this won’t official happen until 2013, but I found out in 2012. An essay based on one of my book chapters will be published in the next WhatcomWRITES, Loyalties Anthology. I’ll be reading the essay in early March at Village Books in Bellingham.

12. Reading at Village Books
I completed Laura Kalpakian’s Memory into Memoir class at Western Washington University earlier this year and was honored to read one of the chapters at Village Books. I didn’t complete my memoir while in the class, but Laura and my fellow “Skedgers” continue to give me great feedback that has helped me go from zero to over 250 completed pages. That is my greatest accomplishment for the year.
Village Books

Who knows what 2013 will bring?

I leave it with my latest fortune cookie…
Fortune Cookie

The $6,500 Cigarette

$6,508.02 to be exact.

It’s amazing to me that one little cigarette could cause so much damage – one little cigarette, improperly extinguished in a wooden planter filled with potting soil. (See “There’s No Place Like Home” for the full story)  But, I should count myself lucky. I only lost my deck. I Googled “potting soil fires” and found an overwhelming number of stories, many about families who lost their entire homes. The Colorado Springs Fire Department reported an excess of 3 million dollars in damage one summer due to potting soil fires.

Potting soil? I was surprised too! The fire investigator who came to my home informed me that he investigates about 50 fires a year that started in potting soil. Many people think that potting soil is just dirt, but it isn’t dirt. It’s actually a mixture of combustible materials and Styrofoam pellets, perlite, and vermiculite, which are added to the soil mixture for aeration and water retention. Some contain fertilizers, which will accelerate the fire (see “Potting Soil Fires and Your Safety”).

But, the potting soil wouldn’t have been an issue had it not been for the cigarette. FEMA listed some startling statistics on their website regarding cigarette-related fires:

  • Every year, almost 1,000 smokers and non-smokers are killed in home fires caused by cigarettes and other smoking materials.
  • More than 1/3 of the people killed in cigarette-related fires were children.
  • 25% of fatalities were neighbors or friends of the smoker.

I’m extremely lucky to have woken up in time and spotted the flames on my deck. There were two adults (myself included) in my condo that night, 5 children and their parents living downstairs, and another 3 people next door – including 2 of my best friends. Had I not woken up, everyone could have been displaced. Or far worse.

The insurance covered the damages, less the $1,000 deductible, for which I am responsible. The kicker? I didn’t start the fire. I’m not even a smoker. I just so happened to have a house guest who smoked and decided to use my planter full of potting soil as an ashtray. He has refused to pay the $1,000 deductible, even though he is solely responsible for the fire. His excuse? I made him feel bad about it. 

My only consolation is that this is a good story – that maybe someone can read this message and learn not to extinguish cigarettes in potting soil. God forbid anyone should have to wake up in the middle of the night and see the home they’ve worked so hard to pay for up in flames. Or worse. The deck, the patio door, and a window can be replaced. Some things can’t.


I feel like I’ve been weathering a storm since around St. Patrick’s Day. One thing after another has gone wrong, but I have to take accountability for my actions. I could have made some better choices. Ultimately, I keep letting people into my life who end up hurting me. I end up losing my temper instead of holding my tongue. I say out loud what everyone else keeps to themselves. I create the storm.

There’s No Place Like Home

I fall in love with each country I visit. In 2006, I loved Scotland so much that I schemed for months to return as a tour guide for Old Reekie Tours and lead people through the haunted vaults of Edinburgh. In 2007, I became so attached to Tanzania I bought every book about Africa I could find and started the prerequisites for nursing school so that one day I could return and open a mobile clinic for the nomadic Maasai people.

Several years and trips later I ended up in Ireland, and not only did I fall in love with that beautiful country, I fell hard for a handsome cop in County Cork. I flew back to see him for my birthday last March, and the second trip wasn’t nearly as magical as the first – as many of you who have followed the story know. One year ago today I roamed the streets of Dublin, heart-sick and wondering what happened. The end result of all that roaming around upset was that a bartender took a liking to me and decided to fly over here (Seattle, Washington) to see me last week. This did not end well.

I woke up at 5 a.m. this past Saturday, and I heard a rustling sound in my living room – almost as if someone was opening and closing the blinds on my patio door. Figuring that was the bartender jet-lagging around the living room, I decided to ignore it. A few minutes later I heard what sounded like multiple people picking up and moving things around, so I got out of bed to investigate. When I opened my bedroom door, I first noticed the unusual brightness of my living room. The second thing I noticed was the orange flames lapping at the patio door glass.

I ran to my front porch to get a fire extinguisher, fuming with the knowledge that the bartender had started the fire with a cigarette. He’d been smoking on the deck earlier.

Caught up in the moment, I forgot about the little hammer dangling to the left of the glass container holding the extinguisher. Instead, I kung fu’d the shit out of that glass, cutting my hand but quickly getting to the red canister. The bartender appeared as I ran back through the living room so I gave him the extinguisher, and I called 911. I have fantasized for years, ever since I went through fire academy, of putting out a fire with an extinguisher, and it broke my heart to delegate that task, but I needed to get the fire department on the way. The flames shot past the top of the door, and I feared they had extended into the ceiling or roof – and we wouldn’t have been able to extinguish that.

Fortunately, the fire had not extended anywhere outside the deck thanks to my hardiplank siding. However, had I slept even just 10 more minutes, the fire would have eaten its way through the second pane of glass on my patio door, and I would have lost everything. That noise like rustling blinds I heard? That was the first pane of glass breaking apart.

After the fire department left, I looked at the bartender and said, “You’re going to need to find an earlier flight back to Dublin.” He knew what he had done and didn’t fight me on it. In 7 short hours, he was gone.

After all of this, I came to the realization that I love my home.  I love the city in which I live and all of the wonderful people who come with it.   I don’t need to travel to distant places and leave pieces of my heart around the world.  I’ll still visit other countries, but I won’t be leaving my heart anywhere.  I’m content, for now, to remain home and finish up my memoir about Ireland.

Ireland will always be Kieran to me anyway.

I think this will make a great final chapter to the story, don’t you?

My poor deck
My poor deck


Going Red

Many of my readers are on Facebook, so they already know all about my red hair. However, I really wanted to share it with the WordPress world too! Naturally a strawberry blonde, I’ve gotten progressively blonder over the past couple of years. I needed a change.

 Thanks to Sandra at the Velvet Rope!

*Update (2/15/12):  Sadly, Sandra is no longer at the Velvet Rope.  She has returned home to L.A. to be with family.  I’m confident that another stylist at V.R. will also do a good job, but damn I’ll miss Sandra!