Posts made in February, 2011

Oprah adventure!

Longboat Key sunset

Of all the weeks of my life, I think this one will go down as the craziest and most wonderful one ever. Today, Sunday, I’m writing this post from sunny Longboat Key, Florida, where it will be 80 degrees later today. On Monday, I was shoveling 18 inches of new snow at home in Minnesota. And by 6am Tuesday morning, I was in a car with my best friend, Betsy, bound for Chicago and a spot in the Oprah Show audience. It’s hard to believe it’s only been seven days.

But, first things first.


I received this email message ten days ago, on Thursday, February 17…

From: OprahShowAudience
Subject: Audience Invitation to Attend “The Oprah Winfrey Show”! Please READ & RESPOND.
Date: February 17, 2011 3:23:21 PM CST
To: undisclosed-recipients

You are receiving this message because you sent an email to about being available on Wednesday February 23, 2010. I read your email and would like to invite you to attend the taping of this show to be in our audience!

…to which I replied:

“OMG!!! YES, YES, YES! Of course I can make it!”

Logically, I knew there was a snow storm coming. Logically, I knew I would be leaving for Florida with my family on Saturday morning. Logically, I knew my son had a huge presentation due for his geography class and needed my help. These things I knew.

But here’s what else I know. When you’ve been trying to get tickets to the Oprah Show for over ten years, you don’t question the logic. You just go.

Many of you followed our adventure on Facebook, but for those who didn’t, here’s what you missed:

Oprah Adventure – video update #1
On our way to the Windy City!
Feb 22, 2011 6:34am

Oprah Adventure - video update #1

Facebook status update
Just got on I-94 in St. Cloud… here we come Oprah!
February 22 at 7:37am

Oprah Adventure – video update #2
February 22 at 9:31am

Oprah Adventure - video update #2

Oprah Adventure – video update #3 (part 1)
February 22 at 1:15pm

(Betsy writing) After stopping in Eau Claire to eat, we got word that an old friend of Joy’s was in town getting his car fixed. It’s an Oprah-style surprise for Keith Oliver, father of Amy Oliver, a classmate of Joy’s from high school!

Oprah Adventure - video update #3 (part 1)

Oprah Adventure – video update #3 (part 2)
February 22 at 1:28pm

(Betsy writing) Joy finds Keith Oliver back in the service center waiting area. “Surprise! It’s Joy Almendinger!”

Oprah Adventure - video update #3 (part 2)

Oprah Adventure – video update #4
February 22 at 4:56pm

“You can say money, but it won’t get you too far…”

Oprah Adventure - video update #4

Oprah Adventure – video update #5
February 22 at 7:28pm

We finally made it! We’re checked into our hotel and having a little wine to celebrate our good fortune. Cheers!

Oprah Adventure - video update #5

Oprah Adventure – video update #6
February 22 at 11:02pm

We found a bit of deep fried crawfish and authentic blues at a joint just around the corner from our hotel. Would have stayed longer, but are abiding by the self imposed Oprah Show curfew!
Oprah Adventure - video update #6

Oprah Adventure – video update #7
February 23 at 5:28am


Oprah Adventure - video update #7

Facebook status update
In the cab… on our way!
February 23 at 6:31am via Mobile Web

Oprah Adventure – video update #8
February 23 at 6:45am

‎(Betsy writing) We arrive at Harpo Studio at about 6:45am. It’s a beautiful day and we are among the first in line! We are getting so excited it is hard to think. Once we wait in this hallway for a few minutes, we are escorted inside, they take our coats and hand us a blue disclaimer form. There is a lot of information in small print that totally overwhelms Joy. Soon we are escorted into a holding area where we sit patiently with 300+ women (and a few men) all dressed up and buzzing with excitement! Is this really happening?

Oprah Adventure - video update #8

There’s a big gap in time here, and that’s because we couldn’t have any cameras, phones, or even a piece of paper when we went into the studio. They took us through security and went through our purses, putting all non-admissable items in a Zip-loc baggie. They took our coats and gave us a blue piece of paper to look over and sign.

Here’s how my mind was working at this point:

What is it? This thing? Let’s see… it’s a blue piece of paper. Lots of words. So many words. My God, what does it say?? Think Joy. It’s a blue piece of paper. It has a line at the bottom. That means I’m supposed to read it and sign it. OMG… I can’t read this. I can’t think. I can’t process. Just give me the damn pen.

They ushered us into a holding room with rows of seats arranged back-to-back. At this point, we still had no idea what the show was about, nor what to expect.

Here was my thought process at this point:

Oprah. We’re going to see Oprah. I wonder how all these people got tickets. I wonder what the topic is. Let’s see. Do these people look like they have anything in common with me? Maybe it’s a show about blogging. Maybe it’s a show about Oprah’s biggest fans. Maybe Betsy had something to do with this (I eye her suspiciously). No, but that can’t be… I’m the one who got the tickets. I wonder why no one knows what the topic is?? OMG. Maybe we’re all getting on a bus and going somewhere. Maybe we’re her best, most ultimate viewers ever, and this will be something even bigger and better than the “Favorite Things” show or a trip to Australia. Oh, but it doesn’t matter what the topic is. Just being here is enough. Just getting to see Oprah is enough. But, I just wonder…

Betsy and I had been very careful to wear bright, colorful, non-patterened outfits in hopes of getting a front row spot. When they called our numbers (that were on the blue piece of paper… we had no idea), we were ushered into OPRAH’S STUDIO where we were asked to pick a spot in the back section. We ended up in the second to the last row… which was actually a great seat. Oprah’s studio is much smaller than it appears on TV, so we were actually very close to her, even in the back row.

As it turns out, the show was about Susan Lefevre, aka Marie Walsh, the fugitive mom. She was arrested in Detroit at age 19 for a drug-related charge. She was promised probation, so she plead guilty and ended up getting sentenced to 10-20 years in a medium security prison. She was so distraught, she ended up escaping, then went on the lam for 32 years and became a suburban wife and mother in California.


It was an interesting topic, but truth be told, I could not follow a word that Susan Lefevre/Marie Walsh was saying. It may have been similar to the blue paper situation, or it could be that Susan/Marie was rambling a bit, but whatever the case, I think I will watch the show and say to myself, “Huh, I don’t remember her saying that.”

Oprah Adventure – video update #9
February 23 at 11:30am

‎(Betsy writing again) If I seem emotional and mushy in this clip, it is because I am. What an experience. Along with witnessing a great Oprah Show, we got to spend another 45 minutes or so just chatting it up with Oprah after the taping. She was all that we had hoped she would be…. so funny, so real, so kind and so gracious. She told stories, swore, answered questions and gave us the inside scoop on lots of fun topics. She also joked about her hairstyles and many fashion mishaps from the 80s. It was fabulous! Yes… I cried… WE cried… out of pure happiness. Sappy, I know. But hey… it was Oprah! And she rocks!

Oprah Adventure - video update #9


It was an amazing, crazy, inspirational journey that left me thinking… this was meant to be. Betsy and I… at Oprah… after all these years of trying… during Season 25, her last year… while we ourselves just so happen to be on sabbatical celebrating 20 years of business…

Yes, it was meant to be. I have so much more I’d love to share about Oprah, but my word count is already nearing 1400, and I really need to move on to my Villa Am Meer story this week, while I’m on Longboat Key.

So, THANK YOU OPRAH. Thanks for the memories. And don’t forget to check Betsy’s blog at for more about our Oprah Adventure.

Here’s our final wrap-up video that we took in the car on our way home (note this was taken via web cam, so the image is reversed… Betsy’s the one driving). Thanks for following our journey, and check in to read more about Villa Am Meer this week!!

Oprah Adventure - final video update

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We interrupt this regular blogcast…

For those of you who have been following my Love Letters story, I apologize for this momentary lapse, but I have some important news to report. Huge news. Huge enough to preempt my regular blogcast.

You see, after many, many years of trying… my request has finally been accepted, and I AM GOING TO SEE OPRAH!!!

Yes, it’s absolutely true. This Wednesday, my best friend (and business partner) Betsy and I will be in the audience of the Oprah show. We have no idea what the topic is yet… nor do we care.

We. are. going. to. see. Oprah.

When I heard Season 25 would be Oprah’s last year, I decided to pull out all the stops in order to get tickets for her show. Over the years, I’ve tried phoning, emailing, snail-mailing… the works. However, Season 25 presented a new challenge. Anyone wishing to attend a taping of the Oprah show had to submit an online request and, in a nutshell, tell the Harpo staff why they were worthy of being in the audience for Oprah’s final season.

I tried them all.

I have told Oprah how much I love Shaun Cassidy, M.C. Hammer, and Diana Ross. I’ve written long dissertations about being a multiple (a twin that is, not personality), why the Sound of Music is my favorite movie of all time, and why I am absolutely one of her ultimate viewers.

Denied. Denied. Denied.

I have recorded every show. Read every Book Club book. Followed Jean Chatzky’s Debt Diet. Last week, I even bought her favorite Centerville Chicken Pie from Harry and David.

Anything for Oprah.

However, time was winding down. This was the last season, and alas, it seemed this would be one item on my bucket list I’d never be able to cross off.

When I saw an audience reservation topic titled, “Girlfriend Groups,” I thought AHA. This, I know. This will surely get me a spot on Oprah. Here’s what I wrote:

In 1991, when I was in my young 20s, I moved from Minneapolis to Spicer, a small town in west central Minnesota. At the time, there were more people in my high school graduating class than the entire town combined. I really had no intention of staying. I followed a college friend whose family had a lake cabin in Spicer. She’d recently started her own graphic design studio and invited me out to do some freelance copywriting and waterskiing. We had a great summer, business was steady, and I bought in as an equal partner in the company. Then winter came. I learned that Spicer is really a summer town, and not much of a winter one. The cabin people left, the lake froze over, and I was more homesick than ever. But then, the craziest thing happened. Betsy (my friend/business partner) convinced me to join a pool team. She said it would be a good way to pass the time over the winter. I reluctantly agreed, and the decision changed my life. We joined a team with Diane, a party girl and former skating car hop; LeeAnn, a lawyer, singer, and guitar player who drank Jack Daniels on the rocks; and Shelly, a daycare mom who could bank an 8 ball with 90% accuracy. Over the course of that pool league, we got married, divorced, had babies, changed careers, raised families, laughed and cried. Then, in the fall of 1998, LeeAnn’s two year old daughter, Emma, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Eight months later, Shelly’s 10 year old son, Cody, was killed when he was hit by a car. Five months after that, Emma died. We didn’t know how we could go on. But we did. We’ve helped each other through tragedy and triumph. We’ve learned to rely on each other as much as we rely on our own families. And to this day, we’re still as different from one another as any girlfriend group could possibly be. But love is the tie that binds. And love is what we do.

I had poured my heart out and hoped for the best. I waited for a reply which never came.


At that point, I realized that if I couldn’t even get Oprah tickets by laying it all on the line and ripping off my emotional Band-Aids, well, then, I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.

Then, two weeks ago, I saw a notice on the audience reservations page that said “Last Minute Availability! February 22 and 23 shows!” I have absolutely no idea what I wrote. Nothing long, nothing moving, and certainly nothing that followed any journalistic standards (at least not that I can recall). But, I guess it did the trick. I got the following email last Thursday:

You are receiving this message because you sent an email to about being available on Wednesday February 23, 2010. I read your email and would like to invite you to attend the taping of this show to be in our audience!

I leapt off the couch and started screaming something about Oprah while my husband and teenage sons looked on in (shock? bewilderment? horror?). When I stopped shaking and could finally speak coherently, I read the entire email to them. It wasn’t a joke. I was going to see Oprah.

Bucket list, be damned.

So, join me this week as Betsy and I head out on our big “Oprah Adventure.” We’re heading out at 6am tomorrow morning, braving two feet of new snow, and hell-bound for the Windy Cindy. We’ll be blogging and podcasting along the way, so stay tuned.

OMG. I’m going to see Oprah.

Follow our journey…

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Love Letters, Chapter 8

I Married Them by Janet Dunning Van Duyn

New here? This is the eighth chapter of a story that began with a pair of love letters I purchased on ebay. Start from the beginning….

Happy Valentine’s Day! I have lots to report this week, including a phone call with Dr. John Van Duyn’s youngest daughter. I also have an update to my Villa Am Meer story, which I’ll (hopefully) post later this week.

But first! A book report on I Married Them, a humorous novel by Janet Dunning Van Duyn.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably been wondering how to pronounce the name Van Duyn. Is it Van-Doo-Win or Van-Doo-Ween? Well, the answer is neither. The actual pronunciation is Van-DINE.


A few things first… just to recap. Janet Dunning was the first wife of Dr. John Van Duyn (see Chapter 6 for full details). They were married December 21, 1935 in Syracuse, New York. After they were married, John and his new wife Janet moved into the Leavenworth Mansion at 607 James Street. They lived there with John’s parents, Dr. Edward S. Van Duyn and his wife Lucy (Leavenworth), as well as John’s younger sister, Constance. I Married Them is a fictional novel that depicts the real life of the prominent but eccentric Van Duyn family.

I first learned of this book’s existence when I found a biography of Janet Van Duyn in a 2002 book called Contemporary Authors (Publisher: Tom Gale). I did a search online and found a used copy for sale on ebay. I won the auction and paid $1.00 for the book, plus shipping.

I Married Them by Janet Van Duyn, ©1945

The book starts like this: “The train moved sluggishly across the New York Central trestle on East Hall Street, throwing up little puffs of smoke which hung depressingly in the morning sky.”

Aboard the train is Cleary, the eighty year old Irish seamstress for the MacLean (Van Duyn) family. She’d been the family seamstress for over sixty years, coming to work by horse car, cable car, “or whatever the current conveyance may be” to do the sewing (and whatever else had to be done) for the MacLean family.

“Most of East Hall Street is wide and beautiful, with great arching trees and venerable houses. The houses ranging along it in dignified rows from the trestle all the way up to the hill are solidly built painfully respectable, and appallingly homely.”

“The house on the corner of East Hall Street ad Sullivan Hill was no exception; there was plenty of smoke and soot with which to woo the Greek Temple that was the home of the Doctors MacLean.”

General Leavenworth Mansion as depicted in "I Married Them" by Janet Van Duyn

As Cleary arrives at work, she recalls how fearful she was of the bronze statues that guard the front walk.

“Cleary wasn’t the only one who had been frightened by these austere creatures. Many of Parthia’s small children had dashed tearfully into their parents’ arms at the sight of them. Older children were braver, of course, and sometimes downright impudent to these twin guardians of the MacLean family seat. They kicked them, rode them, used them as targets for sling-shots, and even went so far as to knock them from their pedestals regularly every Halloween.”

Leavenworth Mansion 1934 South Elevation Front

As Cleary arrives at work, she asks Binnie, the cook, for a cup of weak coffee. Binnie tells her they’re out of cream and asks Cleary to run over to Viglione’s to get some.

“Viglione’s was the Italian grocery on Sullivan Hill. It was used by the MacLeans as a kind of auxiliary ice box, for it seemed impossible to keep enough food in the house to satisfy the various appetites of all the family and their friends. The problem was neatly solved by never having much of anything on hand and letting people run over to Viglione’s when they wanted something to eat. The MacLeans lived off Viglione’s by a sort of symbiosis, a fundamental and easy arrangement. It was just a step across the hill from the side door, and what was the use of loading up pantry shelves when one had a grocery store practically in one’s own kitchen?”

By page 15, author Janet Van Duyn had set the scene so well, I felt I already had a strong sense of who this family was, even though none of the main characters had even been introduced yet.

Chapter one, “The Toast is Burning,” introduces the characters one-by-one in a chaotic breakfast setting, which appears to be just another “day in the life” of the eccentric MacLean family. Cleary begins the day by preparing a tray for “Doctor Mac,” the elder of the two doctors living in the mansion (the eldest, Dr. MacLean Sr., has already died at this point). As she climbs the stairs to his bedroom, the author gives this description of the historic Syracuse home:

“The hall was very dark, since it ran straight through the center of the house and was blocked off in the middle by a double door separating the front from the back. At the front were two parlors on each side of the hall, called the Red Room and the Green Room. They were high and spacious affairs, containing huge carved antiques which Colonel Davenport had had made to order. The Red Room had a red carpet and long red portieres; the Green Room had the same in faded green. In each room hung an elaborate crystal chandelier, and each had a marble fireplace over which gaped an enormous gilt mirror. These mirrors were so large they almost covered the side walls, making the rooms seem twice as spacious as they really were. When the doors were wide open the hall was flooded with light; when they were closed, as they were now, one groped his way through nubian blackness, hoping for the best.”

Click this link to see real photos of the mansion, including scans of the original blueprints

Leavenworth Mansion, first and second floors

Leavenworth Mansion, first and second floors

As the breakfast scene progresses, we learn that Doctor Mac often had his breakfast in bed because of a chronic cough he inherited from his service in World War I. On this particular day, however, he decides to join the rest of the family in the breakfast room, “the small bright cubicle behind the Green Room which the MacLeans used for all family meals because it seemed cozier and more convenient to the kitchen than the large state dining room across the hall.”

Here’s how Janet Van Duyn describes each of the characters, in order of appearance:

Dr. George MacLean – (Dr. John Van Duyn in real life, the recipient of my ebay love letters.) “There was a commotion on the stairs that sounded like the noise of several people descending rapidly. It also sounded like the special noise my husband, George, made whenever he had a tilt with stairs. He came bounding into the room looking like an Arrow collar model gone wrong. Like Doctor Mac, George was also a physician and was making impatient preparations to follow in his father’s footsteps. Someday he’d become one of Parthia’s leading surgeons.” (George is a high-energy, fiercely-competitive, absent-minded professor. He reminds me of Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, especially with this line, “Aw, just leave me Dick Tracy, won’t you Binnie? I’ll take it up to him later.”)

Pim MacLean – (Constance Van Duyn in real life, John’s younger sister. She attended the same boarding school as the author and was the maid of honor in John and Janet’s wedding. She was also an actress, puppeteer, and fortune-teller in her day.) “The seductive Levantine Princess—at least that—paused in the doorway, fluttered a hand condescendingly in Binnie’s direction, then advanced into the room with a dignity which remained impressive despite the clack-clack of common flapping mules. She was arrayed in a brilliant Japanese kimona and the large orange poppies embellishing it flashed and danced as she swayed voluptuously over the table. Stately and perfectly poised, with slanting green eyes, and an aggressive chin gallantly supported by a firm jaw, she gave the general impression of being what a Levantine Princess loos like before breakfast—until you noticed that her neck was draped with what appeared to be a string of freshly caught fish—silver perch.” (Pim is easily bored, especially with her frequent male suitors.)

Doctor Mac – (Dr. Edward S. Van Duyn in real life. ) “He was a short, stocky man with thinning white hair. On his face was a perpetual scowl, but it denoted absorption in what he was doing, not ill-humor. When he walked he bent over slightly, as if he thought that by doing so he would arrive at his destination more quickly. At the moment his destination was obviously breakfast, and no more fuss. He stumped over to the table and began to cough. The toaster had started to smoke again. He flipped out a slice of blackish toast and burned his fingers as he did so.” (Doctor Mac is a curmudgeony old coot who plays a mean hand of bridge, but has very little patience and even less bedside manner.)

Carrie – (Lucy Leavenworth Van Duyn in real life.) “Carrie now came into the breakfast room. She’d taken the time to dress, a good three minutes at the outside. Her dress was on wrong side out, her hair was combed and arranged in front but hung in long, gray locks down her back. My mother-in-law was a handsome woman, with straight, prominent features and flowing light brown eyes. Her body was thin and wiry and she had the kind of slimness that makes clerks in specialty shops say enviously: “Madame does not need a corset; the Lord has given her one.” (Carrie is the tie that binds this family together, yet she’s as funny and eccentric as they come. She’s loves to entertain and jumps at any opportunity to swing from the chandeliers, even if she’s entertaining heads of state.)

Next time… a few more of my favorite excerpts from the book, as well as my conversation with Dr. John Van Duyn’s daughter.

Read next chapter…

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Love Letters, Chapter 7

The General Leavenworth Mansion – Syracuse, New York

New here? Start from the beginning….

This story started with a pair of love letters I found for sale on ebay. They were written in 1949 by a woman named Ruth Ives of White Plains, New York, and addressed to a Dr. John Van Duyn of Duluth, Minnesota. I bought them with the intent of finding the original owners (or their families) and returning them. Easy… especially since I live in Minnesota.

Or so I thought.

As it turns out, Dr. John Van Duyn wasn’t from Minnesota at all. I’m still not clear exactly how he ended up in Duluth, Minnesota in 1949 (still working on that), but I’ll get to that later. What I did learn from the 1920 U.S. Census and other data available on, is that Dr. John Van Duyn was a third generation surgeon from Syracuse, New York. He belonged to a prominent family there, and lived in a historic mansion at 607 James Street.

(A mansion, you say? Oh yes, a mansion.)

Leavenworth Mansion

Leavenworth Mansion, 1934 - Syracuse, New York

It was known as the Leavenworth Mansion, named after Dr. John Van Duyn’s maternal grandfather, Elias Warner Leavenworth. Leavenworth was born in Canaan, NY in 1803 and graduated from Yale in 1824. He went on to study law, and was admitted to the bar in 1827. In 1850, he moved to Syracuse and married the daughter of Judge Joshua Forman, the founder of Syracuse. In 1836 he was appointed Brigadier General of Militia, and in 1849, served Syracuse as the city’s second mayor.

Work began on the Leavenworth Mansion in 1839, while Leavenworth was President of Syracuse Village. It was designed by architect Deacon Elijah Hayden, one of the first architects in Syracuse, and was completed in 1842. You can read much more the Leavenworth Mansion on the “Syracuse Then and Now” web site.

On September 2, 1945, the Leavenworth Mansion was featured on the front page of the Syracuse Herald-American. The article was the first in a series concerning historic houses in the Syracuse vicinity.

Syracuse Herald American, 1945

The Leavenworth Mansion was featured in a 1945 article in the Syracuse Herald-American

“A sacred spot – in the sense of beauty – to Syracuse, and for that matter, to the world, is a noble mansion which stands at the corner of James and North McBride Streets…”

“Technically, it is known as the General Leavenworth mansion; colloquially it is called the Van Duyn house…”

“From a home standpoint, it might be well to consider that this is where Dr. Edward Seguin Van Duyn makes his residence with Mrs. Van Duyn. He is the present head of a family internationally famous, but “Who’s Who in America” states simply that he is a surgeon, born in Syracuse, Aug. 20, 1872, the son of John and Sarah (Faulks) Van Duyn. He was graduated from Syracuse University with an M.D. degree in 1897 and married Lucy Leavenworth Ballard on Feb. 4, 1903. Their children are listed as Mary L., John and Constance.”

The article goes on to talk about Janet (Dunning) Van Duyn’s book, I Married Them, which was published the same year as the article.

“Now comes the version in a book entitled “I Married Them,” by Janet Van Duyn. On an introductory page is the warning: “This is a work of fiction. While certain aspects of its background and its characters are drawn from experience, it is not intended as a factual or biographed report in any sense.”

“Then the author, described on the publisher’s jacket as ‘blonde, blue-eyed, cool, detached,’ has this to say in her opening chapter, called “The Toast Is Burning:”

“The house on the corner of East Hall Street and Sullivan Hill was no exception; there was plenty of smoke and soot with which to woo the Greek Temple that was the home of the Doctors MacLean.”

“This mansion of an architecture known as ‘pure Greek’ – from which the American Colonial is said to have been adapted – crowned the top of three ragged terraces and was approached by a flight of irregular stone steps guarded, half way up, by two ferocious bronze lions. Built in the eighteen thirties by Col. Jonas Davenport, the maternal grandfather of the man I married, its high Ionic columns and gabled roof gave it a purity of line and dignity which neither the ravages of time nor the onslaught of soot has been able to destroy. A century ago the house had been beautiful and imposing; now even though the blinds sagged and the lawn was unkempt, it still retained a certain grandeur.”

Next time… my favorite excerpts from Janet Van Duyn’s book (it’s very funny)…

Read next chapter…

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