Thursday, May 31, 2018

We miss you, Dad

Today marks seven years since we lost my father to cancer. Sharing the column I wrote two years ago, just before Father's Day, in memory of him.

Five Years Gone By

Originally published June 17, 2016

In 2007, I helped write my maternal grandfather’s obituary. I called it the hardest writing assignment of my life.
I was wrong.
Less than four years later, my father asked me to write his obituary. He’d been diagnosed with brain cancer in 2010, shortly after undergoing brain surgery on his 36th wedding anniversary. We lost him on May 31, 2011. He was 58.
In addition to his obituary, I also wrote and delivered a eulogy for Dad. Writing often serves as my therapy, so sharing his story and the lessons he taught my family, and the legacy of love and friendship he left helped me.
We laid him to rest in the U.P., his birthplace. I visited him over Memorial Day weekend. While driving in rainy weather on Friday and Saturday, I realized that driving in the rain could serve as a metaphor for the cycles of grief.
Sometimes the rain comes down in an unexpected torrent, leaving you unsure where you are and unable to see ahead. Sometimes the rain is steady, but you can keep moving forward. And sometimes there is a break in the clouds, allowing sunlight to pour through, offering hope of better weather ahead.
In the five years since we lost my father, my son learned how to drive, graduated from high school and is now attending the same university his grandfather and I did. My sister moved from Indiana to Georgia and Florida, and now works in Indiana again, commuting back to Florida most weekends. I made a commitment to better health before turning 40 and ran my first half marathon. My mother recently remarried, adding not only a wonderful stepfather to our family, but also a stepbrother and stepsister.
Not a day goes by when we don’t miss my dad. But we carry him with us in our hearts.
The lessons we learned from his life and losing him too soon still resonate with us. I shared some in my eulogy, and feel those lessons are worth sharing again.
My father kept a planner, tracking his life in his neat, precise print. He logged his exercise routines, and kept references and business contacts in it. He stored a copy of his favorite margarita recipe in the planner, and tucked in a photo of my mom and a love note from her. He kept a list of his friends, and wrote down his values — from having close relationships with those he cared about, to having security and a meaningful job, to having free time to enjoy his hobbies.
Dad also wrote down his dreams.
Perhaps someday we’ll understand God’s plan in not giving him enough time to achieve them all.
If we can learn anything from losing him, please let it be this…
Writing down dreams and goals is important, but don’t wait for some future date to pursue them.
Buy that home in the mountains or on a lakeshore.
Travel to Alaska… Yellowstone… England… or France.
Visit the Apostle Islands.
Drive a Corvette Stingray.
Live each day as if it may be your last, and always let those you love know how much they mean to you.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Women continue march toward equality

My column from January 21, 2017.

I am a feminist.
It’s a word that far too many seem to find even more offensive than another word that begins with “F.”
Gloria Steinem said, “A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.”
I do not hate men or believe I am better than them. I don’t feel I deserve special privileges. I believe that as a human, I should have equal political, economic and social rights.
Why do I identity as a feminist?
When I was born a woman could not apply for a loan or credit card without a male co-signer. Three months later the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was codified.
Harvard grudgingly admitted women, but did not abolish quotas or offer similar scholarships until the late 1970s – when it finally began using the same criteria to admit a woman as it used to admit a man.
A pregnant woman could be fired from her job without recourse until 1978.
While no law prevented a woman from serving on the Supreme Court, no woman was appointed until Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981. Today there are three women serving out of what should be a court of nine judges (one seat has been vacant for nearly a year).
Marital rape was not criminalized in all 50 states until 1993. And around the world 120 countries still don’t have laws against marital rape, and too many allow child brides — some younger than 10.
A women could not attend a U.S. military academy until 1976. Women could not fight in combat until 2013.
I grew up near the largest ski jump in the western hemisphere, but a woman could not compete in Olympic ski jumping events until the 2014 games in Sochi.
In my mother’s lifetime (in 1972) women could not enter the Boston Marathon. That’s the same year that Title IX – the landmark legislation that banned educational discrimination on the grounds of gender – passed.
While many only think of sports when they hear Title IX, it also opened doors for women in higher education. Before it passed it was legal to expel a pregnant student. Title IX allowed boys to take a home economics class and girls to take shop class.
Women could not serve on juries nationwide until 1973.
Before the Equal Pay Act of 1963, employers could openly discriminate against women by offering unequal pay for performing the same job as men. Unfortunately a wage gap still exists.
In my grandmothers’ lifetimes, women could not enlist in the military. It wasn’t until 1948 that Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act.
In my great-grandmothers’ lifetimes (in 1920), American women finally received the right to vote. Until the Cable Act passed in 1922, an American woman who married a foreigner lost her American citizenship and had to take her husband’s citizenship — even if they both lived in the United States.
Today, a Women’s March on Washington takes place in Washington D.C., with more than 600 “sister” marches planned around across all seven continents, with at least eight marches taking place in Wisconsin. There are even marches organized in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and I admire participants for their bravery and pray for their safety.
The Women’s March on Washington’s stated mission is, “We stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health and our families, recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.”
It was created to send a message to the new presidential administration that women’s rights are human rights. This is at a time when women still hold less than 20 percent of the seats in Congress, although we make up more than half the population.
While we’ve come a long way on the path toward equality, on a global scale there is still a long road ahead of us. Educating females is not a priority: Of the estimated 781 million illiterate adults in the world, roughly two-thirds are women.
Malala Yousafzai — who stood up to the Taliban and survived being shot for speaking out about education for girls — said, “I raise up my voice—not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard .... We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”
In sexual assault cases we too often still blame the victim, if we believe them at all.
Females make up 98 percent of trafficking for sexual exploitation.
“Like a girl” is still considered an insult.
So today I stand in solidarity with those who gather in support of equality. And I will continue to march forward seeking it.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Digging In To One's Roots

My column from January 7, 2017.

Years ago a school project that required my son to work on a family tree sparked my interest in digging into my family’s history.
Using genealogy resources available online, a family Bible, photographs and conversations with a paternal great aunt and my maternal grandmother, I traced my way back through the past and learned what “once removed” means when talking about cousins.
Social media played a role in my search. I met distant cousins on both sides of my family, including one from my mother’s side of the family still living in Finland and one on my father’s side who lives in Cornwall in the United Kingdom. I discovered a distant cousin who lives in Wisconsin, but is also a Yooper. We both attended Michigan Tech, where her daughter and my son are now in their third year as students. She is a descendant of Sam, a younger brother of my great-great-grandfather Henry.
Two five-generation photos printed in newspapers —one featuring me as an infant, and the other with my paternal grandmother as the baby — helped me trace back that branch of the family tree to the names of my great-great-great-great-grandparents on the maternal side of my father’s family.
The Lutey family Bible, passed down to my father and now my son, helped me discover the names of my great-great-great-grandparents, which led to the discovery of my great-great-great-great-grandfather John Lutey, born in Cornwall in 1795. His brother is a great-grandparent for my distant cousin in Cornwall, but I did not need that research to tell me he was family. He looks too much like my grandpa Jim and great uncle Hans for me to have any doubt.
Given what I learned about my family’s origins, I could tell you I was part Finnish, Swedish, Cornish, Danish, Slovakian and possibly French Canadian and Austrian. One birth certificate suggested I might even have traces of First Nation Canadian in my blood.
My cousin in Finland set me a digital copy of a hand-drawn family tree that also helped me in my research. I printed copies to share with my grandmother, who shared closer roots to that side of the family. I’ve traced my family back to great-great-great-grandparents through that tree and conversations with Grandma Ethel.
Last year, I tried another method of climbing my family tree – using my DNA to tell me more. What I learned fascinated me, and suggested inaccuracies in old birth records (or the scandalous possibility that a person I thought was a distant great-grandfather might not be).
The DNA test revealed my ancestry origins as being approximately 56 percent from Finland/Northwest Russia, 14 percent from Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway and Denmark), 12 percent eastern Europe, 10 percent from Ireland (which includes Scotland, Wales and Cornwall), 6 percent western Europe, 1 percent from the Iberian Peninsula and less than 1 percent from Great Britain.
The mystery of the Iberian Peninsula percentage puzzled me, until I remembered my history lessons and the story of the Spanish Armada during the reign of Elizabeth I of England. In 1588, a fleet of 130 ships set sail from Spain, intent on invading England. They failed, and one-third of those ships did not return to Spain. Some sailors washed up on the shores of Ireland.
Mystery possibly solved.
I found it fascinating that my Cornish ancestry is considered as being from Ireland and not Great Britain. Having Scotland included in that bloodline lends credence to research that suggests the Lutey family name originated there.
I usually pay more attention to St. Urho’s Day — a March 16 celebration of a fictional Finnish saint — but this year I plan to enjoy St. Patrick’s Day, since I can now legitimately claim I am 10 percent “Irish.”
I bought another DNA testing kit as a Christmas gift for my son and look forward to him sharing his results.
A cousin on my mother’s side used a DNA test from the same source, so it helpfully revealed our family connection as “highly likely” to be first cousins. The site,, also reveals many potential fourth to sixth cousins, but will only allow me to connect with them if I sign up as a member. While I initially used a site called Family Echo to build and store my genealogy research and family tree, I am slowly importing that information into in hopes of connecting with more family.
If you are interested in tracing your family’s roots, I recommend starting at a local library to utilize genealogy tools available there.
Digging into your family’s past serves as a great way to find distant relatives and offers a personal look back at history.

Update- As part of a research study, I received the results from a different DNA test (through 23 & Me) that switched the "Irish" to United Kingdom. So much for claiming Irish blood on March 17.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Combating the Winter 'Blahs"

My column from January 13, 2017.

When feeling down in the dumps, one of my favorite ways to lift my mood is to find a cute animal video online.
It becomes much harder to feel grumpy when watching puppies or kittens frolic, chubby baby pandas taking turns going down a slide or sloths hanging out after a bath.
Sometimes the cute animal videos make the news. Owners of a convenience store in Toronto shared surveillance footage of stealthy squirrels that slip in the front door to shoplift nutty candy bars as part of a plea for ideas on how to prevent the theft. Simply closing the door is not an option, as the store feels stuffy (and an open door is more likely to bring in customers, not just larcenous squirrels.)
I sympathize with the storeowners. Shoplifting, even when committed by tiny, furry beasts, costs business owners far too much. Those poor squirrels clearly have a need for chocolate though– and studies show that dark chocolate stimulates the production of endorphins- brain chemicals that bring feelings of pleasure. I tend to squirrel away stashes of chocolate at home, the office and in my purse for a quick mood-lifting fix.
Exposure to the sun can help improve one’s mood, a resource that can be rare during winter months. Listening to upbeat music serves as another spirit enhancer, one that I try to use cautiously, given my tendency to sing along or start dancing at my desk. Such behavior can disrupt (or wildly entertain) the workplace.
 Another suggestion is to keep a positivity journal. Write down at least one good thing that happens each day in a journal or on a slip of paper stored in a decorative jar. Taking the time to look back and reflect on the good things in life can help us cope with the bad.
Studies suggest scents can help lift spirits. Try using a candle, essential oil diffuser or a roll-on. The scent of lemon can induce feelings of joy, lavender can calm and peppermint improves concentration. If you can track down scratch and sniff stickers, that could be a fun way to enhance your mood. Those were one of the best rewards for good work in school—even the ones that smelled like a freshly cut lawn, licorice or leather. Orange, grape, pizza and popcorn remain my favorites.
Sometimes just taking a few moments to focus on your breathing can help improve your mood. When we become tense we tend to take rapid, shallow breaths. A few deep belly breaths can help calm and center you.
Recent weather (and road) conditions have denied me access to one of my most reliable methods of boosting my spirits – going for a run. Sub-zero temps earlier this month did not deter me, I just added more layers. But ice-coated streets and sidewalks make running too hazardous, especially after a slip and fall. I own a pair of ice/snow cleats that fit over boots or running shoes and tried to go for a run on Wednesday morning, but even those did not offer enough grip to pick up the pace safely. A friend and I made it for about 1/3 of a mile before opting to visit a gym for a cardio-focused workout. While not nearly as satisfying as a long run, working up a sweat helps my mood. I often call exercise my “sweat-therapy.”
How do you combat the winter blahs?

Thursday, April 19, 2018

I Must Remember This

My column from January 21, 2017.

Why did I walk into this room?
When this question pops into my head, I often have to backtrack and scan the area I just left until my brain kicks the reason back out for me.
Short term memory issues could be because of my age, a side effect of medications I take, caused by depression or perhaps all of the above with a side dose of my occasional tendency to be a ditz.
I too often find myself easily distracted, and compare it to a dog that behaves until…SQUIRREL!
Or perhaps a toddler entranced by something that glows, shines or sparkles. I focus best while reading, which may be why I love books as much as I do.
I tried playing games designed to help improve one’s brain, until studies revealed those games were not much use in preventing memory loss. Which is just as well, as I’d rather play Tetris, Freecell, Angry Birds or Plants Vs. Zombies.
There are steps we can take to help us remember. When introduced to someone we can listen carefully and repeat the name, then picture an image that reminds you of the name and link that to an aspect of the person’s appearance.
Establishing routines helps too. While in the frenzy of moving, I began wearing my car and house keys on a lanyard around my neck so I would not lose track of them. Now my keys go into a bowl by my front door as soon as I arrive home.
Mneomonic devices are useful for helping us to remember. An acrostics, acronyms, rhymes and alliteration help, which is why music students learn “Every good boy does fine” to memorize the treble clef, HOMES can help us remember the names of the Great Lakes and “Thirty days hath September” keeps tabs on which months of the year have different amounts of days.
Eating more “brain” foods filled with vitamins and antioxidants, including blueberries, dark chocolate, broccoli, cauliflower and turmeric may help. Omega-3 fatty acids are particularly beneficial for brain health. Since I don’t like canned tuna, herring or sardines, I eat walnuts, flaxseed, winter squash, pumpkin seeds, soybeans and spinach or take a supplement instead.
Getting more sleep helps, as fatigue plays a large role in memory issues. Exercise helps, too. One of the best ways to strengthen the brain is to keep learning and developing new skills. Maybe I should give knitting or crocheting another chance.
Making time for friends, laughter and reducing stress also help with memory issues.
My family history includes dementia or Alzheimer’s disease on both sides of my family tree, something that concerns me more as I am just a few years away from being considered “middle-aged.” My brain still holds on to details most may consider trivial (you want to pick me for your trivia team), but it also tends to remember faces far better than it holds on to names. If interrupted while working on a multi-step task, I may skip one of the steps.
Our memories help determine who we are, which is why it’s so hard when memory-related issues take loved ones away from us. I’ll never forget the day my grandfather asked me who I was. Even worse was the time he did not remember my mother, his daughter.
One of the best things about being a writer is that it helps capture who I am and what I care about, in case the day comes when my brain fails to remind me.