About Ellen Shriner

I write short memoirs and personal essays. I have also completed a workplace coming-of-age story that takes place in 1979 and 1980 during my first year of college teaching. I write on topics of interest to working women, middle-aged mothers, Baby Boomers, people who love to read and write, and those who belong to writers' groups and book groups.

Keep a Book Journal? Um, Not So Much

I have loved to read since I was in grade school—more than 50 years ago. In the intervening time I’ve gobbled up a lot books. I slowed down while my sons were growing up, but now I can read as much as I like. So much so, that I consciously limit my book intake so I can fit in all of the other things I want to do. Nonetheless, I average about four books per month. Until recently, I never kept a book journal or list of what I’ve read.

Why not? Laziness, mostly. Making a list or creating a system of tracking what I read seemed like homework. Besides, aside from me, who cares what I read? If anything, keeping a list might make me feel vaguely guilty about all that reading . . . when I could be doing something more virtuous and less fun like training for a marathon (oh wait, I’m not a runner).

Learning that Star Tribune books editor Laurie Hertzel never caught on to using Goodreads made me feel better. I’m a Goodreads dropout too (my apologies to the dozen people who follow me).

Her article about book journals describes the various ways avid readers approach book journals. Some people record the title, author, and date the book was read to keep from accidentally repeating a book or for a sense of accomplishment. Others rate the books. The article also mentioned that a few particularly organized readers develop Excel spreadsheets—that’s so not me!

That’s why I’m surprised that in the last two years, I’ve begun making a few notes about my reading. It began as a list of books I want to read, culled from book reviews and book blogs. I’d jot my list in Notes on my phone. But after I read the book, I didn’t always delete the title (re: laziness) so the list began to grow.

My process is still hit or miss, but sometimes I add a gold star next to titles I loved in case anyone wants a recommendation. I’ll put a + next to pretty good books, +~ next to books that were good but didn’t quite work, and a ~ for so-so books. Books that I actively disliked or abandoned get a NOT symbol or a minus (these days, I’ll desert a book if I don’t love it after 50-75 pages—life’s too short). When I’m underwhelmed by a book, I occasionally jot a brief note about it, especially if I’m trying to understand why I didn’t like something that was critically acclaimed.

 

Book notes

Reading is the real pleasure. Some people enjoy making scrapbooks of their experiences or photo albums of their travels. The process enhances their enjoyment. I don’t do either one. For me, the fun is stepping into another world, a different time, or an unfamiliar culture. Getting caught up in a story. Unlike real life, I have no responsibility for the characters and no ability to intervene in their dramas. I’m just along for the ride. The experience is enough.

However, if you ever want a recommendation or my opinion, just ask—I might have a note!

Shopping? Let Me Grab My Laptop!

When I received a gift of money recently, my first impulse was to grab my laptop and shop online. Maybe there are some summer tops on sale. Wait. What? I’m going to shop online despite having a stack of 30% off and $10 off coupons from local department stores? Even though I might have to pay shipping charges? Um, yeah. For me, online clothes shopping is more fun than in-store shopping.

 

It wasn’t always this way. A long time ago, in a land far away, when my sister and I accompanied my mother on shopping trips to department stores, it was a fun excursion (for us, anyway). We all had to change out of our grubby around-the-house clothes and into something more presentable. There was a saleslady and cash register in every department. She’d help you find another color and bring the item to your dressing room—so my mother didn’t have to get completely dressed again or send my sister and me on a mission to fetch another size. Sometimes Mom would treat us to Cokes in the store’s coffee shop, while she had a cup of coffee.

Fast forward to today. On the rare occasion when I shop in-store at places like Macy’s, Kohl’s, JCPenney, or Herberger’s, my chances of finding a sales clerk are slim. Plenty of times, I’ve zigzagged through the store before I spot one several departments away. And this bored underpaid person doesn’t look too happy to see me with my question about another size.

To be fair, I have an uneasy relationship with sales clerks. The ones I remember from my girlhood often looked down their nose at me and my teenaged girlfriends as we flipped through the racks. When I was older and clearly a serious shopper, often a saleslady’s “help” turned into pushy upsell.

Today, if I want a snack to fuel my shopping, I can buy bottled water and a candy bar at the checkout. Not exactly the same as sipping a leisurely Coke while spinning on stools at the counter with my sister and mom.

I do get that customers like me helped change the retail experience. We don’t come because it’s no fun, and it’s no fun because we don’t come.

Nevertheless, if I want to shop for clothes these days, I’m most likely to be sprawled on my bed in my nightgown. There I can happily scroll through several store websites at once, checking for clearance items and considering the possibilities. Maybe the blue patterned one. No wait, what about the green one? And my coffee’s near at hand.

16 ½ Things I Love About Summer

1. Early morning walks around the neighborhood (a.k.a. my own tour of gardens).

2. Strawberries, peaches, and cucumbers with dill in sour cream. Burgers/brats/shish kabobs on the grill. Homegrown tomatoes and sweet corn in August.

2 1/2.  Picking fresh herbs from my patio pots: basil for caprese salad, fresh mint for mojitos, and cilantro for quesadillas.

3. Waking up to birdsong at 5:30. Being awake and refreshed when hardly anybody else is up. Adding that extra hour to my day.

Mears Park, St. Paul

4. Cutting through Mears Park, along the man-made stream on the way to the St. Paul Farmer’s Market on weekends.

5. Walking to get an ice cream cone from the Grand Old Creamery.

6. Feeling bathroom tile that’s pleasantly cool to my bare feet—not frigid—so I don’t have to hop from one throw rug to the next.

7. Sunning with a book and swimming at Schulze Lake in Lebanon Hills Park.

8. Grabbing Wednesday night supper from the food trucks at the Nokomis Farmer’s Market.

9. Fireflies in late June.

10. L o o o n n g days that stay light past 9:30 p.m.

11. Heat lightning.

12. Road trips—leaving early with a sack full of snacks and a cooler packed with cold drinks. Passing rippling fields of impossibly green corn and soybeans. Pink, purple, yellow, and white wildflowers tumbling across ditches.

13. Drinking wine and reading after dark on the front porch.

Powderhorn Art Fair, Minneapolis

14. Art fairs bursting with jewelry to adorn me and artwork to adorn our home.

15. Outdoor dining at area restaurants—in hidden shady gardens, improvised patios framed by flower pots, or even at tables three feet away from traffic.

16. Drinking beer (don’t tell the park rangers) around the campfire we don’t really need and seeing a breathtaking number of stars come out overhead.

Inventing a Life

During recent conversations with friends, I realized that each of us is considering how to reinvent our lives. One is widowed at 65. Another’s ailing father recently died, ending her time-consuming caretaking responsibilities. A third friend is trying to understand what retirement will look like. I’m contemplating how my life will change when my oldest son moves to the West Coast in a few weeks.

The widow said, “What do I do with all of the expectations I had?” Unspoken is how devastating her loss is. Her best friend is gone. Her children live out of town. This is not what she imagined for her life.

The friend whose father died now has the ability think about how she wants to use her free time. She said, “Now is the time to enlarge my circle of friends and activities. I’m going to need them as I get older.” Unspoken was the awareness that some friends might move away—to warmer climates or to be closer to grandkids—and some will get sick or die. During the next 30 years, the ranks will thin out. Better to cast a wider net.

My semi-retired friend is also considering how to enrich her next 30 years. She already has a full life—plenty of friends, her writing projects, yoga, biking and more. She asked, “What experiences do I still want to have?”

I don’t have answers for my friends, but I do understand the questions. Numerous times, I’ve had to re-envision my life.

Sometimes I’ve embraced the need for a major life change, like when my husband and I decided to downsize and move from the suburbs to the city. We eagerly searched for a new house and tried to picture ourselves in a variety of neighborhoods. We were seeking a new lifestyle, and I was excited about the possibilities.

Other major changes were thrust on me, like family illnesses. When my younger son severely injured his knee and needed to rehab with my husband and me, we all had to figure out the new dynamics.

How odd he must have felt to move into one of our spare bedrooms at 25. He’d been on his own and managing well since he was 19. While he was bedridden, we cooked for him and helped him wash up. He could make his own health care and financial decisions, but little else was under his control at first. When he wanted privacy, he even had to ask someone else to close his door.

Seeing him grimacing in pain and knowing that I couldn’t fix that was hard for me. I also had to walk the line between suitable caretaking like fetching ice packs or water and fussing too much. None of us knew what the next day or next week would bring, but I knew we’d figure it out. And we did.

Image taken by Daniel Schwen. Made available through Wikimedia Commons.

Some big changes are mixed blessings, like my oldest son moving out west. He and his significant other have dreamed about new opportunities for him and a well-regarded medical residency program for her. After months of uncertainty, their life is unfolding as they had hoped. I’m excited for them and think the Bay area will be fun to visit. But I’ll really miss them and know our time together will work differently. We won’t have the impromptu dinners and walks we all love. Instead, our future visits will be planned well in advance. We will need to create different rituals for birthdays and holidays. Inevitably, he’ll be far away and miss out on some events, like going for a beer with his brother, hearing my husband’s band perform, or attending one of my publication readings.

Whenever I’ve undergone a major life change, I’ve had to invent a life that better fits my new circumstances. That requires emotional energy, and sometimes that’s hard to find. But I’ve been separated from family before. My husband and I moved away from my Ohio family nearly 30 years ago. I know a lot about maintaining strong long distance connections.

So I’ve begun thinking about how we can use phone calls and FaceTime to maintain close ties with my son after he moves. I’ve checked out airfares. Bit by bit I’m inventing the new shape of my life.

Lawn Care Craziness (Or in Spring, Anything Seems Possible)

I have never cared deeply about having a perfect velvety green lawn. Or rooting out dandelions, creeping charlie, and crabgrass. And yet, lately I’ve been trying to rehabilitate my lawn.

My neighbors care even less than I do, so creeping charlie crept over from one neighbor and dandelions blew in from the other neighbor. Crabgrass sensed an opportunity and launched its own attack. After only one inattentive year, our yard became The Bad Example. Clearly, its sorry state doesn’t bother my neighbors, but it does bother me.

I’ve invested a lot of time creating and cultivating flower gardens, so having a ratty weed-choked lawn seems incongruous.

Creeping charlie is the worst. I can live with it around the perimeter. But I thought it would be nice to have some actual grass in the main part of the lawn. Being organically minded, I didn’t want to nuke the yard with chemicals that would kill the weeds but poison the butterflies, bees, and birds I’m trying attract.

I read up. Several websites suggested covering the offending patch with cardboard and plastic in the fall. The heat and lack of light would kill the weeds and then I could rake them off in the spring. We tried it and all that did was kill the grass. The creeping charlie was alive and well. Sigh.

So then I began digging it up. A s l o o o w w w process. Until The Perfect Husband got involved. Boom. Done. Except for the oh-so-tedious process of knocking the soil off the dead weeds so the city would agree to take them as yard waste.

We reseeded. Lush grass is due to sprout any day. 

Meanwhile, all those dandelions I dug up last year are back and showing me who’s boss.

This focus on lawn care may be a fool’s errand. But hey, it’s spring. Anything’s possible.