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I’m that guy.

bkgrnd color fill (linear burn) background copy (darken)Recently, Becky and I were out for a walk around the neighborhood when we got into a conversation with one of the neighbors who was out in his yard. They have one of those Dutch Colonial houses that are reminiscent of a barn and were in the midst of putting on new red siding. Becky had given the color selection a minor eye-roll, but I thought it was a big improvement over the faded blue that came before. We stopped to introduce ourselves and I complimented him on the new look. I mentioned that someone had told me he was a musician and we talked about that a bit, it turns out he plays the vibraphone and teaches a McPhail, so he’s got some serious cred.

He asked where we lived and I gave him my standard answer, if you are driving north on Zealand and cross 40th you will hit my house. It didn’t seem like that painted a crystal clear picture for him so he asked, “Is that by the guy with the weird rocks?”

“Do you mean the people who did the stonework on their exterior?”

“Yeah some kind of weird rocks, he turned half his yard into a garden.”

“Oh… That’s us.” I said with a chuckle, not wanting him to think I was offended. But he didn’t even seem to notice, and after a few more comments about the strange guy with the rocks the subject changed.

When we got back to the house I looked at my garden and it is indeed unconventional, at least for the burbs. The border is limestone slabs that I scavenged (with permission of course) from a neighbors collapsing retaining wall. The slabs next to the curb have been pulverized by cars and snowplow blades. I’ve used a random selection of rocks and bricks and concrete border thingys to landscape, well really mark plantings. The plants look a bit like they’ve been planted by random chance rather than design. A couple of falls ago I spread some cone flower seeds in the front garden. Now there’s a very healthy stand of cone flowers that look great, except that they’re right in front of the fancy day lilies that I planted, crowding them out and blocking them from view. Whether it’s laziness, ADD, or lack of care the weeds are threatening to overpower the plants. Another factor is that things come up in the spring and I can’t remember if I planted them or they’re just some new weed.

And then you get to the lawn. To paraphrase the old blues tune, if it wasn’t for crabgrass, I wouldn’t have no grass at all. I think the U of M Horticulture Department should tour my yard so they can identify every noxious weed known in the state. I did Chemlawn for awhile and it worked but I didn’t like the environmental problems, it was expensive, and I didn’t trust their applicators to not spray my plants. I was going to do it myself (no help for the environment there) but that requires remembering to do it on a regular schedule, which has never been one of my skills.

I try to rationalize that the garden style is informal, that the style I’m going for is “eccentric old folks next door.” And as far as the lawn goes I tell myself it’s because Americans obsession with lawns is crazy and that mine isn’t so bad, it’s just that the next door neighbor’s looks like a velvet carpet.

Yup, I’m that guy. The guy who’s yard is dragging down property values, who’s inept at the basic skills of home ownership. The guy that folks shake their heads when they walk by and wonder what form of mental illness leads to such degradation. About the guy down the street that called my rocks weird, cripes, he makes his living playing the xylophone!

Mother’s Day

First, before I go into my Mother’s day schtick, a quick story. We were grabbing a late lunch in the kitchen after shopping when a catbird landed on the oriole feeder that hangs from the eves just outside the door from the kitchen to the deck. I realized I could sit inside the door at an angle and be pretty inconspicuous to birds on the feeder. I ran downstairs, put a telephoto lens on the camera, returned and pulled a stool up to the most advantageous spot. All I had to do was wait, I was sure I’d get a great shot. I started lining up the shot and focusing in on the feeder when I realized that the neighbors 25 year old son was in the hottub and if he happened to look around as I was taking a photo of a visiting bird, it would appear to him that I was taking a photo of him, in the hottub. That would be just too weird. The bird photography will have to wait.

400640_10103135469141640_394589640_nWe had a nice Mother’s day, did a bit of grocery shopping, came home and spent a couple of hours video chatting with our far flung daughters. I love talking with my girls, although when the three women of the family get going it’s hard for me to get a word in. I’m so proud of them, they’ve turned out to be independent, talented and charming, and it’s a blessing to me that they’re both involved in the arts. Plus the men in their lives are also artists. We have our own little family salon. Becky being the “woman prominent in high society,” required by definition.

A lot, probably most of the good qualities of our daughters comes from having Becky as a mother. Her technique for raising strong daughters combined fierce love with a refusal to coddle. I was a much softer touch, and the girls, of course, knew it. But early on we agreed that we would present a united parenting front and I think we did pretty well at that.

Thanks Becky for being the mother of my daughters.

momNow let’s talk about MY mother. My mom coddled me a little too much I think, but only out of love. I was a late comer, born when she was 42. I was pretty sick in my first year, had pneumonia three times before my first birthday. I think that left her with the idea that I was fragile. Enough of that though. She had an amazing sense of  humor and when she got together with her two sisters, it was like a comedy act. When she would make some wisecrack at the dinner table, my dad would say, “Real funny, you ought to be on Ed Solomon.” For some reason he always said “Solomon.” Must have been some inside joke.

I’ll tell you one thing, my Mom should be sainted for putting up with me. I was a classic case of ADHD, before anyone had ever heard of it. I could have been the poster child for Ritalin. My sister, who was in college when I was 6 or 7 must have been taking a child psych class and seriously suggested I see a shrink. I think some of my teachers did too. I did well in classes, but was a total pain in the ass to the teachers. “Bobby bothers other students.” Mom of course was, “Oh noooooo. Not little Bobby.” She couldn’t possibly be in that deep a state of denial. I’m sure that she suffered greatly from the thought that she’d brought a psycho into the world. I feel bad for my parents, when they should have been happily settling into empty nesting, they were stuck with a bratty little kid.

The photo on the right was taken at our wedding. Around that time Beck said to me, “Your Mom has such beautiful hair.” I gave her an amused look and said, “You’ve never seen my mother’s hair.” She always wore fancy wigs. She loved Becky. I’m sure she was glad I’d found someone who was up to the challenge.

Here’s to Moms.


Rose’s great escape

Yesterday was the 147th anniversary of the murder of my great-great grandparents and their 3 year old daughter at the beginning of the Dakotah Conflict in 1863. Below is a blog post I wrote several years ago after Quinn and I made a pilgrimage to the Minnesota River Valley to look for the site of the massacre.

In March of 1862 my great-great grandparents, Johann and Kathryn Kochendofer with their five children, John, 11, Rose, my great grandmother, 9, Kate 7, Margaret 5 and Sarah 3, to a homestead located in Flora Township in the southwest corner of Renville county, Minnesota, just upstream and on the other side of the Minnesota River from Redwood Falls. The farm sat at the edge of the prairie, where it began sloping down to the river valley. It’s a beautiful spot for a farm, with fertile fields in front, and the backyard dropping off into a wooded hillside. They had spent the spring and early summer living in a tent while they broke the ground for farming and built a log house to shelter them for the winter.

Around noon on August 18th of that year, Johann and John had returned to the house from the fields for lunch, Kathryn was in the kitchen cooking and the girls were doing laundry when a group of Indians armed with rifles appeared. After a short conversation, one of the Indians took an axe that was leaning against the woodpile and threw it down the hill into the woods. Johann told John to get the axe and return it. As he stood speaking with the intruders, he had his hands on Rose’s shoulders as she stood in front of him. Suddenly one of the Indians shot him. Kathryn ran to the door of the house and was also shot. The girls ran into the house and hid under the beds but they heard John yelling for them to run for the woods. They all ran from the house except for little Sarah who would not come.

There is a steep ravine right behind where the cabin was. It’s easy to conceive of young children playing hide and seek in that dark wooded gulch to pass away the summer. The knowledge they gained would save their lives. As they ran into the woods, their dying father motioned to them to go to the Schwandt farm, there closest neighbor, below them in the valley. As the girls ran through the woods they were reunited with John and then started to make their way to the neighbors. When they cleared the woods and looked down, they saw that the Schwandt farm was also under attack and they witnessed the murders of the entire Schwandt family. A pregnant woman was cut open, the fetus pulled from her body and nailed to the barn door. What they didn’t know was attacks like these were occurring up and down the valley. It’s estimated that as many as a thousand settlers were killed in the next few weeks.

John remembered that his father had told him that Fort Ridgley was downstream from them, but they weren’t sure how far. But they decided that they had no choice other than trying to walk there. For the next several hours they made their way toward the fort, hiding in the tall prairie grass and stopping at stream beds to rest and drink. When the little girls were too tired to walk any farther, Rose and John carried them on their backs. Late that afternoon they joined several other settlers who where headed to the fort in ox carts. By nightfall they reached the fort, eighteen miles away, only to be told that they could not come through the barricades, for fear that the Indians would rush through with them. They spent the night hiding under the wagons and in the morning they were allowed to enter the fort.The fort was manned by 180 soldiers, with 250 civilians who had escaped the massacre. The fort was not in a good defensive position, sitting on high ground surrounded on three sides by ravines that allowed attackers to get unseen into rifle range. But it did have six artillery pieces, which were stationed on the four corners of the fort with the two lighter 12 pounders in the central parade ground to be moved quickly where they were most needed.On the 20th around noon they were attacked by a force of about four hundred Indians led by Little Crow, the commanding chief of the Indian forces. After a fierce battle they drove the attackers off. But little crow returned again two days later with 800 men. Out numbered four to one and facing wave after wave of Indians attacking from the ravine the soldiers fought for 6 hours using the canon to break the charge after charge. A final assault came at the Northwest corner of the fort, right were the biggest gun was waiting with a double load of canister shot. As the attackers came up from the ravine the big gun and both the twelves fired simultaneously ripping huge holes into the advancing line. At that point the fighting stopped and the Indians never returned to the fort. Casualties in the fort were three dead and thirteen wounded.

There are many stories to be told about the Dakota Conflict, stories of bravery, cowardice, brutality and sacrifice, on both sides. There were two other major battles, in New Ulm and at Birch Coulee. I haven’t spoken of the events that led up to the conflict, the Indians were provoked by cruelty and broken promises, they were starving and feared that their families would not last through the coming winter. If you are interested in finding out more of about the Dakota Conflict, Over the Earth I Come by Duane Schultz is an excellent read and covers the events very thoroughly.

After Henry Sibley arrived at the fort with reinforcements, parties were sent out to bury the dead. Johann, Kathryn and little Sarah were buried in unmarked graves near the house. In 1891,the man who had taken over the homestead found them while digging a post hole, John, by then an adult returned to the farm and brought the bodies back to St. Paul were they are now buried. The children made there way to St. Paul and stayed with relatives. A year later they were returning from a visit to St. Louis when the steamboat they were on caught fire and sank. Rose ended up going to stay at the Keller farm near Ellsworth, Wisconsin. She took a shine to one of the Keller boys, Ted, and they were married. They moved to South St. Paul where they owned an orchard. Rose lived into her eighties, long enough for my brother and sister to know her. I come from tough stock.

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Way back when I first discovered the internet, one of the first things I did was start playing online chess. I’d been thinking about learning the game and I figured that could most easily be accomplished online. I found a great site, that offered both live and “correspondence” games as we

ll as all kinds of teaching tools. I bought some books, studied a couple of openings. I liked to use Ruy Lopez as white and the Sicilian Defense as black. I learned them out to about three moves (and all the permutations) but that really didn’t matter because playing at the level I was, no one stuck to the book, so you had to improvise. Those two do usually end up with a slight position advantage, if you don’t hose them up.

So it’s what, fifteen years later? And I haven’t learned squat. I was getting pounded on Caissa, but I think that the self limiting nature of the demographic that signs  up for online chess results in some bogus ratings. Bunch of nerds, if you know what I mean. There’s a lot of good players and as time wore on there weren’t many people around who weren’t rated way above me. Plus guys I beat early on were thumping me regularly. I got frustrated and gave it up. Continue reading


It rained yesterday, so Rebecca and I decided to head to the local multiplex and see Robin Hood. It was a fine example of the swashbuckling kind, great battle scenes. I just finished reading Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, which takes place in England about 75 years earlier, both i think did a good job of depicting the grittiness of Medieval life.

Some of you might notice that in the first scene when the boys raid the barn, Marion laments that they have no “seed corn.” Well, I was all over that, because I knew that there was no corn in Europe in 1199. what I didn’t know was “corn” in those days was a general term for any cereal crop, not just maize, which of course was a New World plant.

Death to the bunnies

Looking out of my  office window, I saw a fox patrolling along the other side of my yard from the cemetery this morning. It was big and healthy looking with a thick coat. It stopped to check out the hole in the fence that the rabbits use and then continued up the line. That’s probably a great hunting technique. When it surprises a rabbit close to the fence it can pin it against the fence and shorten the chase. Kind of like fast food for foxes. A few years ago my garden was being devastated by bunnies, they mowed down my flowers almost as fast as they came up. I would get up in the morning on weekends and see a half dozen of the furry eating machines in my backyard. Then the foxes moved in. I haven’t seen a rabbit in the yard for several days now. I love foxes.

We also have a pair of great horned owls nesting in the neighborhood. That’s not hurting the cause either. Every once in awhile I come across a pile of fur or feathers in the yard and it makes me smile. I wonder how the varmint population control mechanism works. Some of the little bastards must survive to breed, or the killers would move on, not enough food. Maybe there really hasn’t been that much of a population decrease. Maybe the survivors are just a more cautious brand of bunny. I have noticed that when I do see a rabbit, they seem to be quick to move between areas of cover, rarely do I see them basking in the middle of the yard anymore.

Come to think of it there hasn’t been as many house sparrows around for awhile either. That’s probably the work of the cooper’s hawk that lives in the area. Although we have a flock of goldfinches that can empty a thistle sock in about 24 hours. But maybe they’re just more cautious. Cooper is a crafty predator. I’ve seen him fly low across the neighbors yard, hidden by the lilac bushes and swoop into our yard, which has several bird feeders, for a surprise attack. It’s fun to watch, one second the yard is full of noisy birds flitting around the feeders and suddenly they scatter in every direction. Some dive for shelter in the wild grape that covers the fence, and the hawk will follow them right in, flapping it’s wings and thrashing around in the vine looking for lunch.

It’s like I live in a cafeteria for predators.