Finding the Ocean – The Final Chapter

On September 1, 2017, I did something a little crazy. (Again.) On a complete and utter whim, I took off on a 4,700 mile road trip to go find the ocean. Just me… and the dog.

Continue along on my healing and soul-inspiring journey below, or start from the beginning

Today is Jacob Wetterling’s 41st birthday, so I thought it would be a fitting day to wrap up my “Finding the Ocean” story. Here goes.

In my last post, Chapter 13, I shared what I had written on September 6, 2017. It was exactly one year to the day that Danny Heinrich had confessed to killing Jacob and I was still trying to block all of it from my memory. It’s why I had taken off on this cross country road trip in the first place. I didn’t want to think about it… didn’t want to remember.

Looking back now with some fresh perspective, I’m glad I was able to be there. It was devastating and traumatizing, but I went because I felt I was somehow a part of it all. I wanted to see it through to the end, but there was definitely no “closure.” There was just raw, painful, deep SORROW for all that poor boy had to go through on that night in 1989 and all his family had to go through in the 27 years after. It was just so utterly devastating, and again, for the millionth time, I wondered whether this was better. Was the knowing better than the not knowing? Logically, I knew the answer was yes. But there, in that moment, in that courtroom, the answer was definitely no.

I’m going to finish my “Finding the Ocean” story with a journal entry I wrote on the last leg of my trip. This was the first time I had ever written about any of this, and as I read back over it now, I realize how long overdue this catharsis was.

Thank you for taking this journey with me, and for all your kind words and support. As you have probably gathered by now, Jacob is pretty special to me. He came into my life at a time when I was desperately searching for purpose, and he was my light through a very dark tunnel. He renewed my faith, my spirit, and my hope.

This journal entry picks up just after I had made it out of the Federal Courthouse after Danny Heinrich’s confession on September 6, 2016. I had finally made it back to my car after getting locked in the stairway and nearly passing out.

Journal Entry – Days 6 & 7

Somehow I made it back to my car. I sat in the parking ramp and tried to tune in to WCCO on my iPhone so I could listen to the press conference. I could have stayed, but chose not to. I just needed to get out of there.

The reception inside the parking ramp was terrible, so I started the car and headed out. I found my way to 1st Avenue and started heading northeast toward the freeway entrance on 3rd Street. I just wanted to go home. I had my iPhone connected to the Bluetooth stereo on my car, so by now, I could hear that the press conference had started. Sheriff Sanner from the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office and Andy Luger, the U.S. Attorney, had just finished speaking, and now Patty was going to make a statement. I couldn’t believe it. I was in such a sorry state, barely able to drive or think, and here she was, about to make a public statement in front of millions of viewers, just moments after hearing Danny Heinrich confess to her son’s kidnapping and murder.

I wanted to see it, so I pulled over and parked across from the Loon Cafe, just as Patty was starting to speak. I was watching on my iPhone and had tears streaming down my face when all of a sudden, someone started pounding on my driver’s side window. It startled me so much, I screamed and threw my phone across the car. I turned and saw a biker pounding on my window and yelling at me to get out of the bike lane. I’m not sure if I said anything to him; I’m not sure I needed to. Between the scream and the tears, I think he felt it was best to just get back on his bike and keep going. I scrambled to retrieve my iPhone, which had landed under the passenger seat after hitting the door.

Patty spoke through tears. What hurt the most is when she said, “To us, Jacob was still alive… until we found him.” It didn’t matter that it had been 27 years. To her… to all of them… Jacob had just died that day, and with it, the hope that he would ever come home.

I sobbed. I watched life go on around me – people walking, talking, driving, biking – and I marveled at how different life felt, even though it still looked the same. Everything about who I was and who I had been felt different. What I had done had mattered. In the end, the Paynesville cases had mattered. Jared’s case had mattered, and all the research we had done together had mattered.

And then… Patty thanked us. In her darkest and most trying moment, she thanked Jared and me for what we had done. I couldn’t believe it.

After she finished speaking, I pulled back onto 1st Avenue and continued heading toward the freeway entrance on 3rd Street. Suddenly, I felt the need to hug my mom. More than anything, I just wanted to drive to her house and let her wrap her arms around me. I wanted to feel safe, and loved, and normal again.

So, that’s what I did. I drove to my parents’ home in Oak Grove, and when I walked in, my mom was standing with her back to me listening to the radio. Frank Vascellero was on WCCO Radio talking about the live press conference which had just ended. My mom turned just then, seeming to sense I was there. She wasn’t startled; it was as if she just knew it was me. She had tears streaming down her face, and so did I. All she said was, “Oh, Joy,” and then we hugged and cried for a long time. As we stood there, I heard Frank Vacellero say my name. He credited me for helping find Jacob, and then I cried harder.

My mom had been out running errands and had also been listening to the live press conference in her car. She had raced into the house and turned on the radio to catch the rest, and that’s where I found her when I walked in.

“Were you there?” she asked me.

I nodded.

I couldn’t talk about it… any of it. I didn’t mention being locked in the stairway, or almost fainting, or the biker who made me scream and throw my phone across the car. I just sat there and let her make me a toasted peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a glass of milk. Later, we opened a bottle of wine, and maybe I shared some of it. All I remember is feeling safe and loved, and so very grateful to have someone to cry with.

Later, around sunset, I was on my way home and driving through – of all places, Paynesville – when Patty called. She and Jerry were also on their way home, and they had called to check on me. They told me they were worried about me because they hadn’t seen me after the court hearing.

They were worried about me.

I marveled at these kind and caring people. In their deep grief and sadness, they had called to check on me. I didn’t tell them much, but I did mention I had gone to my parents’ house because I needed a hug from my mom. “This was the hardest day of my life,” I remember telling them.

I know that sounds hard to believe, and even harder to explain. I had been through death before – the loss of children, tragedy and grief – but nothing like this. I had never been through evil before. A child – a happy, smiling child with blue eyes and a yellow sweater – was gone because of one man’s evil and selfish act. And to have lived with it for all this time without telling anyone – to watch this family suffer for 27 years – that was incomprehensible to me.

Patty thanked me then. She said if it wasn’t for me, this day would have never come. Through tears, I said something then that even surprised me. “It wasn’t me, Patty,” I said. “It was God.”

I couldn’t believe I’d said it, but I believed it all the way down to my core. And, in that moment, I knew they believed it, too.

“It was God, and you, and me, and Jared, and everyone,” she said. “We all helped bring Jacob home. We all mattered.”

I’m done with this chapter now. After sitting at that picnic table on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation – after finally telling this story and putting all these words and feelings down on paper – I can finally think about that day without crying. (Well, without crying as hard or as often, anyway.)

I made it to Jackson Hole around 7 PM and had a great time drinking wine with Inger and her daughter, Annika. We laughed and reminisced and watched our dogs play. All felt right with the world again, and it was such good therapy on a really hard day. (Thanks Inger and Annika!)

One more thing, and probably the most important thing. I left Jackson Hole on Thursday, September 7th and started heading to Whitefish, Montana to meet Ross. He and his brother, Rob, had driven their 81-year-old dad out to Whitefish to visit his sister who was suffering from Alzheimers. I pulled into the Rocky Mountain Lodge where they were staying just before 10 PM. Ross was waiting for me in the parking lot as I arrived, and as I rolled down the window to talk to him, Zoey leaped all the way from the back seat as soon as she heard his voice. Her tail wouldn’t stop wagging.

I parked the car, got out and gave Ross a huge hug and a kiss. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been so grateful and excited to see him. He is so supportive and understanding of all my “crazy.” I can’t think of another husband who would be so understanding when his wife tells him on the Friday of Labor Day weekend that she is taking the dog and going to find the ocean. How truly crazy is that? But, he gets me, and he let me go.

So, off I went, without telling a soul because I didn’t want to explain it to anybody. Honestly, I couldn’t even explain it to myself. It started as a bucket list thing and ended up as something so much deeper.

Life is, indeed, a journey. Every milestone I’ve passed up to this point, every bump in the road, every missed turn, and every sweeping breathtaking view has brought me to where I am now. It all mattered, and it all made a difference. And sometimes, by running away for a few days, you actually end up closer to where you’re really going.

Biggest lesson? Follow your heart, believe, and focus on the love. These are the things that have brought me to where I am today.

I’m not sure what my next story is yet. I spent a long time researching the names on that big rock, thinking it might be fun to find those people’s descendants and see if they knew about Register Rock along the Oregon Trail. I didn’t get very far though, so not sure on that one.

We’ll see what comes up…

Read More

Merry Christmas!

For the past two years, I’ve been blogging exclusively about the 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling. It has been immensely rewarding… and heartbreaking, horrifying, frightening, and maddening. I’ve learned a lot about the case, and I’ve learned a lot about people. Mostly though, I’ve learned a lot about myself.

The thing is, I’m a writer. And the one thing that makes me a writer is that I write. But, for two years, I’ve written nothing but blog posts and emails. I’ve barely had time to read, let alone write. So for 2015, I’ve decided to get back to the craft a bit. I’m going to dust of my copy of The Artist’s Way, buy myself a fancy new pen, and get back to my morning pages. If you have a writer on your Christmas list, I highly recommend this gift!

In the meantime, here’s a little ditty I wrote several years ago for one of my Loft classes. It’s sort of a grown-up Christmas story. Hope you enjoy it.


Illustration by Betsy Bonnema

Illustration by Betsy Bonnema

Santa’s Sunburn

Santa wasn’t feeling well,
His head and stomach hurt.
His jolly laugh became a moan
He couldn’t eat dessert.

“What’s wrong with Santa?” asked the elves.
He’s not his happy self!
Yesterday he cancelled lunch
And yelled at Master Elf!”

Mrs. Santa shook her head.
She knew the problem well.
It happened every year this time…
The month when Christmas fell.

Santa had anxiety
Too much to think about.
So many questions on his mind!
So much to figure out!

Would the toys get made on time?
Would there be enough?
Could the reindeer pull the sleigh
If weather got too rough?

“Don’t you worry, little friends
No need to tell me more.
She gave them all a little wink
And hurried out the door.

“Santa Claus!
Where are you dear?
I need to talk to you!”
She found him in the kitchen
Adding spices to the stew.

The cooks just looked at Mrs. C
And slowly rolled their eyes.
She gave them all a knowing glance—
I do apologize.

“Santa, come. Get out of there.
The cooks have work to do!”
He followed her begrudgingly
Still mad about the stew.

“Santa, what’s become of you?
You’re driving us berserk!
You micro-manage everyone!
Just let them do their work!”

Santa heaved a heavy sigh
He knew that she was right
The stress was catching up with him
‘Twas not a pretty sight.

“Now listen up,” said Mrs. Claus
“No time for explanations.
Go take a bath and pack your bags.
We’re going on vacation.”

Santa Claus just stared at her
“You’re kidding me,” he said.
“Christmas comes in just two weeks!
I need to pack the sled!”

“Oh no you’re not,” said Mrs. Claus
The work will all get done.
You’re taking me to Mazatlan
Our flight takes off at one.”

Santa knew he couldn’t win
Mrs. Claus was firm.
He took a bath and packed his bags
But couldn’t help but squirm.

“Who will handle inventory?
Who will wrap the gifts?
Who will sort and pack the toys?
Who will check the list?”

Mrs. Claus just smiled at him.
“It will get done, you know.
The elves will handle everything
You need to ‘let it go’.”

So off they went to Mexico
To bask in warmth and sun
They swam, and danced, and shopped, and ate
Everything was fun!

As one day faded to the next
Santa soon relaxed
His head and stomach pains were gone
His appetite was back.

In fact, when Mrs. Claus was gone
To do a postcard mailing
She suddenly saw Santa Claus
Fly by her parasailing!

And once when writing postcards
To her friends in Pennsylvania
She saw her husband poolside
Doing what? The Macarena!

Santa was himself again
His “Ho Ho” had returned.
With one day of vacation left.
That’s when he got sunburned.

While Mrs. Claus was packing
Santa strolled down to the beach
He laid down on a chaise lounge
And he promptly fell asleep.

He stayed like that for hours
His white skin turning pink
When he awoke at 3pm,
It hurt to even blink.

Poor Santa was a lobster
As red as red could be!
He couldn’t even wear a shirt
Or bend to touch his knee.

The plane ride home was agony
His wife just sat and chuckled
Poor Santa’s belly hurt so bad
They couldn’t keep him buckled!

When they got home on Christmas Eve,
The elves were calm and steady.
They’d packed the sleigh and hitched the team
Everything was ready.

But now when they saw Santa
They couldn’t help but stare.
He couldn’t even bend his arms!
A panic hit the air.

His face was redder than his suit
And much to their dismay,
His body was so stiff and sore
How could he drive the sleigh?

Santa gathered them up close
And gave them each a smile
“I need to tell you something
That’s been due for quite a while.”

“First of all, I’m sorry
For driving you berserk.
You made this Christmas happen!
Because of your hard work.”

“But now we have a problem
And I need your help once more.
I cannot slide down chimneys
‘Cuz my belly is too sore!”

“You’ll do the route without me
Just follow Rudolph’s lead.
Master Elf will guide the sleigh
He’ll help you if you need.”

But Master Elf was panicked.
He couldn’t go alone!
A Christmas without Santa?
He made a nervous groan.

“Now listen up,” said Santa
“I need you all to know
That Master Elf is in command
I’ve learned to ‘let it go’.”

“You don’t need me to drive the sleigh
Like every Christmas Eve.
The only thing you need from me
Is knowing I believe.”

So Master Elf stood very straight
And eased his worried frown.
“Tonight we ride for Santa Claus!
We will not let you down!”

And so the busy-ness began
The bows and boxes flew.
The elves worked hard for Master Elf
They knew just what to do.

Whenever Master Elf returned
They quickly packed the sleigh
Checked the list not once, but twice
And sent him on his way.

Santa watched them from the house
His heart was broke in two.
They didn’t need him now at all!
His sleighride days were through.

But Mrs. Claus took Santa’s hand
And looked into his eyes.
She knew what he’d been thinking
For her heart was kind and wise.

“Now Santa, lose the sour face
It’s just one year, you know.
I’m proud of you for being strong
You’ve learned to ‘let it go’.”

“Leaders cannot simply be
A bossy signal caller
For making someone else feel small
Does not make you look taller.”

“Great leaders need to plant a seed
And wait for it to grow
With time, and grace, and endless trust
They’ll reap just what they sow.”

With that she turned and left the room
And Santa went outside
He headed toward the workshop
Letting go of foolish pride.

And when he entered through the doors
The elves let out a shout
“Hooray! We did it Santa!
The presents all got out!”

They stood with faces beaming
So proud of all they’d done
And Master Elf, though tired,
Was enjoying all the fun.

“Of course you did it!” Santa said.
“I never had a doubt
‘Believing’ is what Christmastime
Is really all about.”

“So here’s to my friend Master Elf
Let’s all give him a hand!
From here on out, he’ll always be
My Second-In-Command.”

Master Elf stood up just then
With teardrops in his eyes
“Thank you for believing, sir.
It was a great surprise.”

And so, that’s how it went that year
When Santa got sunburned.
He became a greater leader
From the lesson that he’d learned.

For people will not follow
When they’re told just what to do
They must find faith within themselves
To make a leader true.

Merry Christmas!

Read More

Just open the door.

Think Inside The Box

Think Inside The Box by *BKLH362 Digital Art / Photomanipulation / Conceptual, ©2011-2012

She imagined her life as a box
With herself on the inside
And the rest of everything on the outside.

The box was pretty
She had created nice things for herself
Inside the box

It was comfortable
And safe
And creative
And warm

Yet, outside the box,
She could hear sounds
They called to her, made her curious

She wondered if she could crawl up and out of her box
But she knew it was safer to stay
So she stayed.

Yet… every day
She heard the sounds
Smelled the wonder
Imagined the possibilities

She crawled up
On top of one of her familiar things
And tried to see over the top of the box
But it was too far away.
So she quit.

Later, she tried again
She piled some familiar things
One on top of another
And climbed to the top
But still, she couldn’t see.

So she quit again.

“I’ll stay here where it’s safe,” she said.
She moved around her box
Among all the familiar things
Admiring one… rearranging another.
These are my things, she said
And I love them.

But there’s more came the whisper.
Out there… there’s more.

She ran at the wall
Climbing and clawing her way to the top
But she fell down, over and over
And it hurt.

Each time she fell
It left her bruised, embarrassed
And scared.

But the sounds of opportunity
And the smells of wonder
Wafted into her box once more

So she ran at the wall again
Faster, harder
She clawed and climbed
Refusing to let go

But she fell again.

So, she got back up
And tried harder.
But she fell, and she fell, and she fell

And that little part of her
That thought she could do it
Began to die and fade away.

Perhaps I can’t do it after all, she said.

So she sat down among all her familiar things
And tried to admire them
Tried to love them
But they were dull now.

I can’t do it, she said.
So I guess this is it.
Just me, and my box,
And all my familiar things.

And then, she heard it
Something from outside
Over the wall
She heard a whisper

“You can do it,” the voice said

Then one voice became two
And two became three
And they grew louder, stronger
You can do it, they said.
Just try.

So, she ran at the wall
And leaped
With all her might
She fell, and she tried again

You can do it, they said

She clawed and climbed
Slid and fell.
Over and over
Until she was exhausted

I can’t do it, she said.

But you can, said the voices.
Just open the door.

And there it was
In a place she’d never seen before.
So she turned the knob and walked out
Into the embrace of
Wonder and possibilities

You could always do it they told her.
You just couldn’t do it alone.

(Copyright Joy Baker, 2011)

Read More

God gave me a puppy

This business of “becoming me” has not been easy. I admit, there have been many tears, fears, and red wine headaches along the way, but finally…possibly… I feel like I might be getting there. Not sure where, exactly… but I think I’m getting a little closer to “there.” Certainly the trail has been rocky. But each morning, I wake up, I put my hands out in front of me, and once again, I begin to inch my way toward the light. Sometimes I’m not even sure which direction the light is, but then I stop, breathe, and very slowly, I begin to spin around until I can feel the light tugging me in the right direction. Then I start walking again. And right then and there, I thank God for giving me the courage and the faith to make this journey in the first place. And when I stumble (which I often do), I take another moment to thank God for the mysterious little gift he gave me last fall… at a time I thought he was too busy listening to everyone else’s prayers to hear any of mine.

You see, it was at that time… God gave me a puppy.

Zoey, 9 weeks

Zoey, 9 weeks

It went something like this.

Jordan (my 16 year old) and Cole (my 14 year old) asked if they could go watch the girls’ volleyball game in Albany that night. Jordan had just gotten his driver’s license about nine months earlier and I was a little nervous (OK, downright terrified) to put all my eggs in one rusty pickup truck and send them rollin’ on down the highway. But, knowing that Jordan was a good driver, I sucked it up and said sure.

So, off they went.

Several hours later, while I was washing my face and getting ready for bed, I heard the garage door opening and said a quick little prayer of thanks for delivering my boys home safely. A few moments later, Jordan walked in with a sheepish grin on his face. He said he and Cole had a surprise for me. I grabbed a towel to dry my face and sarcastically (cynically?) replied, “It better not be a puppy.” The grin froze in place, replaced by a momentary look of… panic? But, Ross and I followed him anyway. And there, in the garage, just as I had feared, was son #2 holding a purple leash with a tiny black puppy attached to the end of it.

“It’s a hunting dog,” they quickly explained. “We bought her with our own money.” This was followed by a lengthy string of positive affirmations. She’s a Black Lab! A purebred! The runt of the litter so they’d gotten a good deal! She had papers! And a lineage that included a national field trial champion! They promised to feed her, train her, clean up after her. (Dress her up warmly, and send her to school. Teach her how to fight to be nobody’s fool.) And, oh yeah, they’d named her Zoey.

I stared at those two beautiful children of mine… the ones I’d given life to, fed, nurtured, and loved… and in that moment, all I could think about was how much I wanted to tear them limb-from-limb. But I didn’t. Instead, I bent down and picked up that tiny, scared little puppy and suddenly realized I was a grandmother.

And then I went to bed and cried.

I cried for Riley, our 15 year old Golden Retriever who would surely feel like he was being replaced. I cried for the new carpet I would never see anytime soon, the dog hair I would never be done vacuuming, and the loss of freedom I enjoyed whenever I left the house on a whim. But mostly, I think I cried because I was entering a brave new world where my own babies were suddenly capable of making their own decisions, driving on freeways, and accessing their own bank accounts.

Damn it all to hell.

Sometime during the middle of the night, I heard the puppy whimpering in the bedroom next to ours, and it was all I could do not to get up and let her out myself. What if Cole doesn’t hear her in time? Will she pee in her kennel? And then what? Will she just have to lie in her own stinky mess all night long? I waited. And soon enough, I heard the kennel door rattle and then my own little boy in his little boy voice say, “You gotta go potty, Zoey?” And in that moment, I was very proud.

And then they left for school.

What about me, I screamed? Hey God, what about me? When can we talk about me?

And then God answered, “Man am I hungry! When do we eat? Is it time to eat yet? Right now? Come on! Let’s eat!”

I took a deep breath, fed that little puppy and thought to myself, I don’t have time for this. I need to form a plan. Write a resume. Update my LinkedIn profile. Get a job. Make a living. Write a screenplay. Join a book club.

And then God peed on my carpet.

So, I got down on my hands and knees with a wet rag and a bottle of Resolve (aptly named) and said to myself, “Damn those kids. They have no idea how much work it is to raise a puppy. Seriously, what were they thinking?? Of course, they were thinking since Mom isn’t working anyway, she can just stay home and watch the puppy.”

But then God stared at me with those big, curious brown eyes and said, “What is that? That soft, floppy thing. Is it a toy? I love it! I must have it! Let me have it!”

Exhausted, I crashed on the couch with another cup of coffee and told myself, I’m too old for this. I’ve already been here. Done this. It’s my time now. I have plans, big plans, and they don’t include staying home all day and watching a puppy. I am woman. Hear me roar.

And then God jumped into my lap, spilled my coffee, licked my face, exhaled some stinky puppy breath, cuddled up into a ball, and fell asleep.

So, there I sat. Stuck. Still. Frustrated. Exhausted. Spent.

And 100% head-over-heels in love.

Later that afternoon, someone who sounded a lot like my husband, walked in the front door and yelled “Where’s my puppy? Well, there’s my good girl! Were you a good puppy today? Oh yes, you’re such a good puppy, aren’t you Zoey? You’re my good puppy, aren’t you?”

It wasn’t Ross, I realized. It was God.

And later that evening, while we were all sitting in the living room, watching Zoey play on the handmade wool rug that Grandma Martha gave us for a wedding gift (the one Riley was strictly forbidden from ever laying foot on) I looked up at my beautiful family and wondered how long it had been since we’d all sat together in one place, talking, laughing, and enjoying one another’s company.

And in that moment, I realized God had been listening after all.

View the rest of my photos on Flickr…

Read More

I did it.

I did it.

I did-it. Did-it. Did-it!

I finished my screenplay.

Granted, it’s just a first draft, but the point is… I finished it. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

And, you know what that makes me? A screenwriter.

When I started this crazy quest back in November—this leap into the great unknown—I was completely and utterly terrified. (To be honest, I’m still terrified.) But this online screenwriting class has kept me focused. More importantly, it has kept me writing. It gave me a deadline, a purpose, and a goal. And with a little guidance and encouragement, it also gave me confidence.

I began writing a story I had no idea I could write. Sometimes the words that appeared on the page were as much a surprise to me as anyone. But that’s the fun of writing… the bliss of it. It’s like taking all the crazy tidbits you’ve been carrying around for a lifetime, throwing them onto the floor like a bag of ice you need to break up, and then watching the individual cubes spill out and melt into something that starts to make sense. It’s truly a wonder.

Here’s the other thing about my screenwriting class. It connected me to other people out there who think like me, write like me, and WANT like me. People from all over the world. From my basement office in New London, Minnesota, I watched the Writer’s Guild Awards, live on Ustream. And last week, after the conclusion of the 2012 Spirit Awards, Tony Greco (the founder of Screenwriters Online) even took us on a driving tour of old Hollywood using his iPhone and a mobile hotspot. He took us up the Pacific Coast Highway, past Gladstones restaurant, and up Sunset Boulevard. It was at that very intersection where Thomas Ince, a silent film director and actor, bought a 460 acre ranch in the Santa Monica hills and developed the world’s first motion picture studio. Incidentally, Ince also became the world’s first screenwriter, when he began writing down slug lines for his scenes, like “EXTERIOR – CATTLE RANCH – DAY.” And that’s how screenwriting was born.

Inceville, Pacific Palisades, California

"Inceville" in the Pacific Palisades

So now that I have a finished screenplay, what next? Well, I did actually ask that question, and the answer Tony gave me was, “You start the next one. And when that one’s finished, you start the next one after that.”

I have to admit, that’s not exactly what I wanted to hear. I was actually thinking more along the lines of, “You get discovered! By an agent, or a manager, or a producer, and they all clamor for your script and offer to pay you hundreds of thousands of dollars for it.”

But apparently, that’s not the case. Who knew.

[Actually, that is the case. Not sure about the hundreds of thousands of dollars part, but everyday, some lucky screenwriter gets a chance to pitch his/her script to an agent/manager/producer who says, “I like it.” And that’s the beauty of Screenwriters Online. Before they started in 1995 (ironically, within blocks of the original Ince Studio), people like me were shut out from the magic and wonder of Hollywood. But now, when I login to my online class with my laptop and glass of wine, I get to sit alongside others like me and at least imagine the possibilities. It’s like playing the lottery, I guess. You can’t win if you don’t play.]

So, now it’s onto my next big thing (NBT-2). I wonder what that will be?

Thanks for tagging along…

I sent my blog post to Tony Greco, founder of Screenwriters Online, and he sent me the following message:



I’m going to link it.

BUT one thing.. when you asked me what’s next after completing, I told you to write and write some more. BUT I also said, you can now pitch it in our MasterClass sessions with agents, and especially Managers, production executives, and studio executives who appear here in our online Masterclasses. And we will do more of them.

Also — Here is some more information for you on Inceville and the Pacific Palisades.

Enjoy it– Tony

Here is a link to our village paper, The Palisadian Post (my favorite newspaper because it is truly about the events that happen in our lives here).

You can see more about INCEVILLE at this link:

The black and white picture I’m including is the studio grounds, with the stables etc. I drove you up from the coast highway, up Sunset Blvd to the Lake Shrine. The picture is looking down on Sunset Blvd, and in the distance is the sea where the studio sets from Triangle Ranch are. The Indians lived on site.

Ince Studios

Ince Studios

“It was here at Inceville, now Sunset at Pacific Coast Highway, where in 1913 alone, Ince made over 150 two-reeler movies, mostly Westerns, thereby anchoring the popularity of the genre for decades. It was at Inceville where many of the filmmaker’s innovations were developed, such as the shooting script, which included stage direction, dialogue and scene description for interiors and exteriors.”

‘He was really the father of the modern way of writing a script,’ says Marc Wanamaker, founder of the Bison Archive, a research and informational archive on the history of the motion picture industry consultant and author of several books such as ‘MGM, When the Lion Roared,’ ‘Destined for Hollywood,’ and ‘Hollywood’ Then and Now.’

The other color pictures I sent are of today’s Lake Shrine, which is an exquisitely beautiful lake fed by a natural spring from Santa Ynez Canyon (where we are). The Lake is surrounded by hillsides of hanging gardens and meditation paths. The lake is full of Swans and this place is called the “Fellowship of All Religions.” It includes statues and shrines from all the world’s religions, dotted around the constantly-blooming exotic flowers, trees, and hillsides which surround this natural lake. It also houses a portion of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes in a 4th century sarcophagus.

This place was founded by the great Indian saint Paramahamsa Yogananda, who brought eastern religions to the United States in the 20s/30s. Yogananda called the Pacific Palisades ‘The Mecca of the West.’ See the pictures I sent. What a transformation. Once a stable, now a lake 🙂

Elvis Presley loved this place. According to his friend, Jerry Schilling, he walked around the lake and picked up some brochures, then later sent away for information about Eastern philosophy. Elvis developed a 12-year relationship with Sri Daya Mata, the woman who is now the president of the Self-Realization Fellowship, and would often call her for advice when he was troubled.

The memorial service for The Beatles’ George Harrison was held here.

The Lake Shrine

The Lake Shrine

The Lake Shrine

The Lake Shrine

The Pacific Palisades also became the home of some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, including Bertolt Brecht (Three Penny Opera), Thomas Mann, Igor Stravinksky, Arnold Schoenberg, (creator of the Twelve Tone scale and composition), Henry Miller, and Salka Viertel. Greta Garbo’s screenwriter also lived here. (She wrote Anna Karenina, Queen Christina, Two-Faced Woman, The Painted Veil)… and many more. Today it is the home of Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Billy Crystal, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Cruise, etc, and so on…

Note: If we weren’t the first, we were among the first to offer online screenwriting classes and sessions. Our first was February 1996 with the genius screenwriter, Michael Tolkin, of The Player (see it if you haven’t – a must see for anyone writing in Hollywood). He also wrote Deep Impact and Changing Lanes.

Enjoy it all, Joy.


Read More

I’m not really a detective; I just play one on the internet.

Oh my, it’s been a long time hasn’t it? Well, no worries. I’m still kickin’ it here in New London. The truth is, I’ve been busy working on my screenplay and having a ball. After my 4-week “Story” class ended, I signed up for the 8-week “Screenwriting” class. While the first class concentrated on plot, character development, and the “three act structure,” the second class is all about writing. This is where the story really takes shape and the characters start to come to life. It’s been so fun to write, and I’m already up to Act III. By the end of this class, I will have a completed screenplay under my belt. (That’s a big deal. Seriously proud of this!)

Now, then.

(BTW, did you know that’s the name of a real town near my parents’ house? Nowthen, Minnesota. You just can’t make this stuff up.)

The other thing I’ve been up to for the past several months is playing a detective on the internet. Since I started this blog, I’ve had three people contact me and ask me to help them find their biological birth mothers. Isn’t that the coolest thing ever? I just love-Love-LOVE doing this, and although I have yet to crack my first case, I’ve gotten close enough to know I can do it. And I absolutely can’t wait until I can actually call one of these people and let them know I found their mom. Talk about rewarding work!

So, what qualifies me to do this, you ask? Absolutely nothing. Except… over the years, I’ve become pretty dang good at “people finding.” It started when I was working on my own family tree. From there, I used my detective skills to track down over 600 classmates for my 20 year high school reunion. And while other people (sane people) would consider this a daunting and tedious task, I admit I kind of enjoyed it.

Here’s why. The truth is, deep down, I’ve always wanted to be an Angel. (And really, come on, tell me one little girl who grew up in the 70s who didn’t.)

Charlie's Angels

Here’ a little snippet from a blog post I wrote in 2009, just after Farrah Fawcett died:

I remember watching the pilot episode of Charlie’s Angels with my mom in 1976. I was only 9 years old (and up way past my bed time), but from the moment I saw that show, I was completely hooked. Maybe it’s because I had already been playing detective with my cousin Kristine for about a year or so and was ripe for a new TV role model. You see, Kristine was older and cooler than me, so she always got to be “Pepper” from Police Woman. I had to be “Christie Love.” I had no idea who that was, but Kristine told me she was the only other female detective on TV at the time. So, that’s who I got to be… Christie Love. Nice name for a hooker maybe, but not a serious detective like myself.

So, onto the scene burst these three beautiful TV police detectives who were smart, sporty, and independent. They worked for themselves, had a fancy office, fancy cars, and fancy clothes. My new life plan was set. I wanted to be a detective.

Of course, by fifth grade, reality set in when my Farrah Fawcett haircut went horribly wrong. But I never really outgrew the dream of being an Angel.

During my sabbatical last year, when I was deep in the dreaming stage of my mid-life crisis, I wondered what it would take to actually get licensed as a private investigator. I mean really, how hard could it be? (I know… I’ve inherited this faulty gene from my mother.)

So, I checked into it. First, you have to be free of felony convictions.


Second, you have to be of good character, honesty, and integrity.

Check, check, check (back me up here, people).

Third, “the applicant must supply a $10,000 Surety Bond at the time of application.”

And there you go… the deal breaker. I’m not even sure what a Surety Bond is, but I’m damn sure I don’t have an extra $10,000 to go buy one.

So, for now, I’ll just keep playing a detective on the internet. And if you have any unsolved mysteries to throw my way, by all means, send them!

Read More

The thing I have in common with Taylor Swift…

I know what you’re thinking… the hair, right? Or is it the voice? Both very good guesses, but, mmm… no.

The very cool thing I share with country singer/songwriter/superstar Taylor Swift is… drum roll… we both grew up on a Christmas tree farm.

Taylor Swift was raised on an 11-acre Christmas tree farm in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania (near Reading). In 2008, Taylor (then age 18) appeared on the The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and shared this story about her experience:

“Yes! I did [grow up on a Christmas Tree farm], so this is a good season for me. I was too young to help with the hauling of the trees up the hills and putting them onto cars. So, it was my job to pull off the preying mantis pods off of the Christmas trees. The problem with that is if you leave them on there, people bring them into their house. I forgot to check one time and they hatched all over these people’s house. And there were hundreds of thousands of them. And they had little kids, and they couldn’t kill all of them because that’d be a bad Christmas.”

Here’s a photo of Taylor Swift’s family. God bless ’em, they do look like tree farmers, don’t they?

Taylor Swift family

Younger brother Austin, father Scott, mother Andrea, and Taylor Swift

Here’s a photo of my family. This was taken at Farm Fest last summer when my parents won “Farm Family of the Year” for Anoka County:

Anoka Farm Family of theYear, 2011

Kathy and Will Almendinger

My parents, Kathy and Will Almendinger

Dan Almendinger and Joy Baker

My twin brother, Dan Almendinger, and me

As I type this, I’m lying in bed staring out the window at a beautiful, peaceful scene… acres and acres of Christmas trees, lining the banks of the Rum River. Here are some photos I took last year, after the big Thanksgiving snowfall:

Isn’t it beautiful? The thing is though, I have a short window of opportunity to enjoy the scenery before throngs of people armed with orange hand saws descend on the farm in search of the perfect Christmas tree to adorn their rumpus rooms.

Oh, how I love it.

Er, at least most of it.

The thing is… Christmas tree growers have exactly three weekends per year to earn a living. The season starts on Black Friday and ends (for the most part) the week before Christmas Eve. As you might imagine, it’s very stressful. Last year, when the metro area was hit by two big snowstorms that took place on the first two weekends, it was tough… and not just for my family, but all Minnesota tree farmers.

And, really, snow isn’t even the worst thing to hit a tree farmer. Consider the time a few years ago when a careless smoker tossed his cigarette out the window and started a fire that burned down forty acres of beautiful 6′-8′ Fraser Fir (that had taken ten years to grow, feed, and shape). Or the time two Mother’s Days ago when a late frost killed all the new growth on the trees, setting back their cutting dates by a full year. Or the back-to-back droughts of the mid-2000s that killed nearly every single seedling my family planted for two or three years in a row. Rough.

With all the stress though, I still love it. I’ve never known anything different, so I guess I wouldn’t know what a normal Christmas is for most families. For me, Christmas means a brief and shining respite with family on Thanksgiving before all hell breaks loose the next day. It means getting up before the sunrise, pulling on Carharts, Sorrels, and a pair of leather choppers, and arriving at the little red pay shed early enough to start the propane heater (that my uncle Chuck welded together) before the first customer arrives. It means learning how to work a hand saw better than most men, and learning how to calculate sales tax by age eleven. It means snow down your neck, pine needles in your underwear, and my mom’s homemade soup on the stove when we finally arrive home.

Well, looks like the first customers are about to arrive. I’d better get going. Taylor Swift and I have a busy schedule today.

Merry Christmas!

Read More

My life as a writer – Week 1

It’s been a full week since I officially sold my company in order to move on to the “next big thing.” I have no idea what that next big thing might be, nor do I have any Plan B lined up at this time. As I mentioned in my last post, I leaped, and now I’m waiting for the net to appear.

For now though, my NBT (next big thing) is a screenplay I’ve been working on for the past four weeks. Back in October, I signed up for an online screenwriting class at Screenwriters Online. What I didn’t realize at the time is that this class would move at such breakneck speed. What was once a tiny seed of an idea four weeks ago, is now a complete synopsis and an entire first act.

There are over 20 people in the class, which includes screenwriters from all over the U.S. There’s even one person from Hong Kong. The class is taught via text chat, so I’ve never actually seen the instructor or any of the other students. I simply pour myself a glass of wine at the appointed time, login, and “watch the credits roll,” so to speak.

The instructor who teaches this particular class is named Sangram Pradhan. The man is a movie genius. He can back up his lectures with on-the-spot examples from any movie, any time, any place. According to his bio, he is a former Executive with The Film Department and Sony Pictures. He was also a Development Executive on these films:

LAW ABIDING CITIZEN, starring Gerard Butler, Jaime Foxx
SUPERBAD, starring Michael Cera, Jonah Hill
STEP BROTHERS, starring Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly
WALK HARD, starring John C. Reilly
21 JUMP STREET-now shooting with Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill
BAD TEACHER- starring Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel

So, like me, you’re probably asking yourself, what in God’s name is she doing in this class? I have to admit, I felt like a kindergartner among grad students for the first two classes. However, by day three, I had caught my groove, and now I really love it. Unfortunately the class ends on Thursday.

So, by Thursday, I’ll probably be on to the next NBT. But for now… this week… I’m calling myself a screenwriter.


Read More


I have some big news to report. As of November 1, I have sold my half of RedStar Creative to my business partner, Betsy Bonnema.

Phew. There. I’ve said it.

This has been a painstaking and agonizing decision for me, on so many levels. First, Betsy and I have been friends for over 25 years. We were roommates in college, maids-of-honor in each other’s wedding, and for the past 17 years, have been like second moms for each other’s children. This will never change.

The thing is though, I’ve been going through a “growth phase” for quite a while now. Several years ago, I bought a print by Brian Andreas called Angels of Mercy. Every day, I sit in my office and stare at this little drawing and I wonder, “What if…?”

ANGELS OF MERCY by Brian Andreas

"Angels of Mercy, by Brian Andreas"

Around the same time I bought that print, I read a book by Po Bronson called What Should I Do With My Life? It talked about people who had good, stable, well-paying careers who threw caution to the wind, quit their jobs, and bravely charted new paths, this time doing something they loved.

I admired those people so much for their honesty and their bravery, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how I could possibly quit my career and start over. For one thing, I was already doing what I loved. I owned my own ad agency. When I was a senior in high school, I gave a speech at my graduation commencement. The principal introduced me by saying, “Joy plans to go the University of Minnesota next spring and pursue a degree in journalism. One day, she hopes to own her own advertising agency.”

And by God, that’s exactly what I did (though it didn’t happen exactly the way I intended). After college, I wanted to be an advertising copywriter with a Minneapolis ad agency. I wanted it more than anything, and I worked relentlessly lining up informational interviews with busy, unpleasant creative directors. Unfortunately, there were no jobs to be found. In the spring of 1991, when things were looking pretty bleak, my friend Betsy called and invited me to Spicer for the summer. She enticed me with some freelance copywriting gigs, and the opportunity to spend my lunch breaks waterskiing on Green Lake. Enough said… I was in.

Betsy and Joy, Green Lake, 1991

Betsy and Joy, Green Lake, 1991

By June, Betsy and I realized we were a great creative team. She offered me an opportunity to buy into the company as a full partner, and I took it. For the next 20 years, we would run our business together, squeezing in marriages, babies, and “Life 101” classes along the way.

At some point though, I realized I wanted more. I wanted to be able to use my gifts of reading and writing to somehow make a difference. But for me, the thought of quitting my job was preposterous and self-indulgent. Who was I to want more when I already had so much?

I made myself miserable trying to figure out how to move on to “the next big thing” while still clinging to my “one sure thing.” When Betsy and I decided to take a creative sabbatical earlier this year, I started dabbling with the idea of doing something different. I had always wondered what it would feel like to wake up each morning and be a WRITER… a real one, who wrote for a living.

It felt good. I wrote and I read; I blogged and I journaled. However, as I wrote, it became more and more apparent to me that this is what I was meant to do. At the same time, that realization was extremely frightening. After all, everyone knows that writers are poor. Quitting my job and becoming a writer didn’t seem like an upwardly-mobile move for me, or my family.

I was really struggling, trying to cling to my safety net, but knowing I had to make a leap of faith. Then, I remembered something my friend Jane had told me a year earlier. She said, “Leap, and the net will appear.”

Leap, and the net will appear.

So, that’s what I’ve decided to do. I’m leaping into the great unknown… a scary, exhilarating place that offers no promises or guarantees. I have no Plan B at this time, but will leap with faith and courage, and hope that the net appears.

A few months ago, I wrote this song at a time I was really struggling for answers. I dedicate it to all the other women out there who are facing this same battle.

By Joy Baker

She sat there
Waiting, wondering
Feeling scared
And all alone.
She was begging for some answers
To this life she’d now outgrown
Is it over? Am I finished?
Is this how the plan will end?
Can you hear me?
Are you listening?
Don’t you know how hard it’s been?

But I AM here, came the answer.
In the wind. And in the trees.
In the smiling laughing, crying
In the falling of the leaves.
In the then, and in the now.
The beginning and the end.
I am here. Always here.
And I’ve just one word to send.

You must leap (leap!)
Leap for all you’ve ever been
You are strongest
After weakness
You are ready to begin.
So just leap (leap!)
I’ll be with you
Always near.
Trust me, know me
Travel with me
Take the leap (leap!)
And the net will appear.

Every new beginning
Is the end of something done.
When you think you’ve lost it all
There’s still a battle to be won
So come with me
Live in peace
Hold my hand
And then we’ll soar
Higher up, to see new places
Where you haven’t gone before.

You must leap (leap!)
Leap for all you’ve ever been
You are strongest
After weakness
You are ready to begin.
So just leap (leap!)
I’ll be with you
Always near.
Trust me, know me
Travel with me
Take the leap (leap!)
And the net will appear.

She stood slowly. Can I do it?
I don’t know. I’m happy here..
Am I really? Is it worth it?
Living every day in fear?
I’ve come through it
Bruised and broken.
I’ve been down
And almost out.
But I’m back
And I can make it.
Take my hand!
He heard her shout.

Let’s go leap (leap!)
Leap for all you’ve ever been
You are strongest
After weakness
You are ready to begin.
So just leap (leap!)
I’ll be with you
Always near.
Trust me, know me
Travel with me
Take the leap (leap!)
And the net will appear.

Time and love

"She knew the answers would come with time and love."

Read More

The old and the new

For 15 years, we’ve owned an amazing Golden Retriever named Riley. He’s been such a good dog… so gentle, happy, loyal, and loving. We bought him from a family in Willmar (the Dols) when our oldest son was just a year and a half old. I think we figured since life was already so crazy, why not add a puppy to the mix?

Jordan and Riley

Jordan, 16 months; Riley 10 weeks

Jordan and Riley went through potty training at the same time, and all I can really remember from this time of my life is a never ending barrage of urine and feces. (Honestly, what were we thinking?) I’m surprised I managed to fall into bed each night with the child in his crib and the puppy in his kennel, and not vice versa. Thank you, God, for that.

Oh… and one other thing… I was also pregnant with son #2 at the time.

Joy, Jordan, and Riley

Halloween 1996 - Joy, Jordan, Riley, and Cole (in utero)

Cole was born in November, 22 months after Jordan, and took an immediate liking to the big orange fuzzy thing we called Riley. On any given evening, we’d find him snuggled up next to the dog, blanket in one hand and a fistful of fur in the other. Riley, bless his heart, just took it all in stride.

Cole and Riley

Nap time for Cole and Riley

Two weeks ago today, Jordan (now 16) said to me, “Mom! Have you seen Riley’s foot?” He had a nasty looking bump between two toes that he kept licking and chewing. It didn’t look good. I brought Riley to the vet, and he confirmed what I suspected. A tumor. The doctor didn’t know if it was benign or malignant, but stated that the only way to remove it and make sure they got all of it would be to remove the entire toe. And at Riley’s age, the anesthesia is always a concern. Dr. Dan was very kind; he knew what I was thinking, and he knew where the conversation was heading. He handed me a box of kleenex when my eyes started to well-up. Somehow, I asked the hard questions – how much longer, and what’s the process? He talked me through it, explained what would happen when Riley was put to sleep, and handed me more kleenex.

I left the vet’s office a complete wreck. Of course, I knew this day was coming. Riley’s hips have been bad for a long time. We need to lift him in and out of the car now days, and when things are really bad, he even falls down the stairs. His hearing and eyesight are failing, and his faculties certainly aren’t all there. But, he’s family… and I love him.

After the appointment, I took him to the public access on Green Lake and let him fetch the stick a few times while I tried to collect myself. He’s not much of a swimmer for a Golden Retriever. He loves the water, but something never quite clicked when he was younger. Instead of paddling when the water starts to get over his head, he just stands on his hind legs and walks. Then, when the water gets over his head again, well, he sinks. Of course, he can swim just fine if he has a stick or a duck in his mouth, but without it, he’s sunk. Literally.

Riley and Joy at Green Lake

Riley and Joy at Green Lake

Suffice it to say, last week was not a good week. I was really down, feeling bad for Riley. Then, last Thursday the boys asked if they could borrow the car and go to the varsity volleyball game in Albany. I said sure.

They came home with a puppy.

And I wanted to kill them.

For about thirty seconds.

Since then, this little black lab puppy they named Zoe has wormed her way into my heart. Once again, it’s a constant barrage of urine and feces, but I’d forgotten how much joy a new little life can bring into a household. She’s bouncy and curious, and sweet as can be. She’s a snuggler and curls right into my lap every chance she can get. She’s also a chow hound and eats everything in sight, including Riley’s food, the cat’s food, my laptop cord, and the living room rug.

Damn, but I love her.


Zoe, the new addition

As for Riley? Not so much. But, in his good old boy way, he tolerates her. And when he has enough energy, he even pounces a bit and tosses her around with his nose. But, I know what he’s really feeling, and that makes me sad. He’s being replaced, by a younger, cuter model, and life will soon go on without him.

Don’t be sad, Riley. No one could ever replace you. And when it’s your time, we’ll be there for you. Just let us know when you get too tired, old buddy. We love you, and we’ll be there.

Jordan, Cole, Riley, and Zoe

Jordan, Cole, Riley, and Zoe

Read More


I was having coffee with a friend the other day when she brought up the subject of “synchronicity.” I can’t remember exactly how it came up, but I was telling her the first time I’d run across the term was while reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. In a nutshell, the author explains that synchronicity is one of those curious moments when you say to yourself… wait a minute, whaaa? It’s a coincidence – a happy clash of fate that seems pre-destined, like it was always meant to be. According to Cameron, these synchronous moments demonstrate “the hand of God, or good, activated by our own hand when we act in behalf of our truest dreams, when we commit to our own soul.” Synchronicity is a powerful force, and the trick is to pay attention to it.

So, it’s odd I was having this discussion about synchronicity with this particular friend at that particular time. Here’s why.

Last week, I received a package in the mail from one of my favorite aunts. Inside was a little book called Angel Unaware, written by Dale Evans (yes, THAT Dale Evans, of Roy Rogers fame). There was also a note from my Aunt Carol (a fellow book lover) that said, “I’ve hauled this little book around with me since 1956. I’ve read it and reread it and cried every time. It’s time to pass it on and I know you will enjoy it.”

I opened the book, and on the front cover was an inscription that said “Passed on to Joy Baker with love 9/15/11.”

Angel Unaware, by Dale Evans Rogers

I smiled and leafed through to the Foreword.

This is the story of what a baby girl named Robin Elizabeth accomplished in transforming the lives of the Roy Rogers family. Our baby came into the world with an appalling handicap, as you will discover when you read her story. I believe with all my heart that God sent her on a two-year mission to our household, to strengthen us spiritually and to draw us closer together in the knowledge and love and fellowship of God. It has been said that tragedy and sorrow never leave us where they find us. In this instance, both Roy and I are grateful to God for the privilege of learning some great lessons of truth through His tiny messenger, Robin Elizabeth Rogers.

I recalled that I’d heard of this book before, but didn’t remember reading it. I continued on to the first page.

Oh, Father, it’s good to be home again. I thought sometimes that You had forgotten me, Down There. Two years Up Here doesn’t seem like much, but on earth it can be a long, long time—and it was long, and often hard, for all of us.

Wait a minute… whaaa?

When You lifed me up from the earth, just a few minutes ago, it was Sunday, and my Mommy and Daddy were crying, and everything seemed so dark and sad and confused. And all of a sudden it was bright and clear and happy, and I was in Your arms.

Wait one cotton pickin’ minute… whaaa???

Here’s the thing. In 1999, my good friend LeeAnn (the same one I was having coffee with on Friday) also lost a two year old child. Her name was Emma, and she died from brain cancer. Even more ironic, LeeAnn and Dale Evans were almost exactly the same age at the time their daughters were born.

But still, that’s not the crazy part.

After Emma died, I was really lost… and pretty mad. For the first time in my life, something that I had REALLY REALLY prayed for didn’t work out. Emma died, despite my prayers, despite all our efforts and pleas. She was only two, and her death tore me apart.

I tried to think of something I could do to take some of LeeAnn’s pain away. My friend Betsy suggested I write a book about Emma. So I did… and here’s where things get really… well… SYNCHRONOUS.

I called the book Emma’s Gift and here’s the Foreword:

This book was written in loving memory of Emma Clayton Butcher, a beautiful baby girl who was diagnosed with a highly malignant brain tumor when she was just a year old. Her brave fight lasted only a year, but among her Circle of Friends, Emma left a special gift. A renewed faith in God, in heaven, and the precious gift of friendship.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

There was a bright light. It was a beautiful light… warm and glorious. It filled the room and lifted her up, up, up. There were beautiful voices. Singing. Praising. Comforting. This place was filled with love! And finally, there was peace.

“Father!” the little angel called. “I’m home!”


This little book that my aunt had carried around with her since 1956 was almost a direct parallel to the story I wrote to honor Emma over forty years later. We even wrote from the same voice… using first person to describe events from the two year old child’s perspective. (And here, I thought I’d been so clever.)


I went back and looked at the inside cover again. “Passed on to Joy Baker with love 9/15/11.”

More Godbumps. Emma died on September 10.

Not sure what all this synchronicity is about, but you can bet I’m paying attention. You see, Emma’s Gift was the first book I ever wrote. I sent it off to a Minneapolis publisher and was close to having it published. The whole process made me think, well heck, this writing business is easy.

It turns out, the writing business is not easy. In fact, it has kicked me in the ass for the past decade. But, I’ve learned a lot… about the industry and myself. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the good fortune of having a book published, but I do know this. Writing is who I am… it’s what I love… and I have Emma to thank for getting me started.

So, Emma… if you’re listening, thanks for the gift… again. I think I’ll pop in on your mom again this week. I have a good book I think she’ll enjoy.

Emma’s Gift

This book was written in loving memory of Emma Clayton Butcher, a beautiful baby girl who was diagnosed with a highly malignant brain tumor when she was just a year old. Her brave fight lasted only a year, but among her Circle of Friends, Emma left a special gift. A renewed faith in God, in heaven, and the precious gift of friendship.

There was a bright light. It was a beautiful light… warm and glorious. It filled the room and lifted her up, up, up. There were beautiful voices. Singing. Praising. Comforting. This place was filled with love! And finally, there was peace.

“Father!” the little angel called. “I’m home!”

“Well hello my beautiful child! Come give me a big hug, I’ve missed you!”

The little angel ran to Him and was swept up in His strong and loving arms. “I’ve missed you too, Father!”

“Come sit with me now, tell me of your adventure,” He said.

The little angel sat on his lap, not sure where to begin. “Just start at the beginning,” He said gently, “And don’t leave out a thing.”

“Well,” said the little angel, “my adventure started when I was born. My
mommy named me Emma.”

“Emma…” said her Father. “That’s a beautiful name. Graceful, yet strong. Just like you, little one. Go on.”

The little angel told of being a baby. She tried to explain the feelings of love, and trust, and warmth whenever Emma’s mommy held her in her arms. She described her mommy’s smell, and her voice. She described the special love she felt whenever her mommy would sing songs to her, or rub her tiny back.

Then she described her daddy. Strong and comforting. He made her smile, and she made him laugh. He was a fun daddy, and she loved him very much.

And there were other special people. Her mommy’s friends, who also held her, talked to her, and made her feel loved. There was laughter then, and so, so, so much love.

“But then I got sick,” the little angel said. “My mommy and daddy looked sad and worried. They held me and rocked me, and they loved me like always, but now they cried instead of laughed.”

“How did that make you feel, little one?”

“It made me sad to see them so sad. But they loved me more than ever. Everyone loved me… my mommy, my daddy, and all my special friends.”

The little angel told of her adventures in the hospital. The scary doctors with their needles and tubes. They said nice things, and they smiled at her nicely, but then they would give her owies, and it made her very, very angry. But her mommy would hold her again, sing to her, and rub her back, just like she always did. It would make her stop crying, and it would remind her how lucky she was to have such a wonderful mommy.

But the owies kept coming, and now, when she looked into her mommy’s eyes, she could see such deep sadness. Sometimes it was hard to stay awake, and sometimes she just felt like going home. “Remember when you called for me Father?” asked the little angel. “You told me to come home, but I didn’t want to leave my wonderful mommy. That’s when you told me about the gift.”

Her Father nodded, and said, “Yes of course, go on. Tell me about your gift.”

“You told me to leave a gift for my mommy. Something wonderful, so that she, my daddy, and her friends could look to it and always remember me. But I was so little, and so weak. I didn’t know how to make a gift. I couldn’t cut or paste, or glue or tape. I couldn’t sing, or dance, or write. But then I remembered the greatest gift of all… your love, Father.”

The little angel stopped, and tears came to her eyes. “It’s OK little one, tell me how you gave them your gift.”

“I quit fighting you, Father. It made me sicker, but it brought them all closer to you.”

The angel cried and cried. She told Him how she missed her mommy, and her daddy, and her friends. And oh! How she loved Him! But it didn’t make her miss them any less.

“There, there little one. Don’t be sad, for you have done God’s work, and you have done a wonderful, beautiful job.”

He brought her to the edge of the clouds, and said, “Look there. See? They’re OK. Because they know someday they’ll be here with you. And listen, I can hear them praying! Like they’ve never prayed before. They know me again, and for that, I have you to thank.”

“What are they saying?” asked the little angel. “Do they miss me?”

“Of course they miss you, my dear! They pray and ask me over and over, ‘Why God? Why did you take her after such a short time?”

At this, the little angel laughed. She laughed, and laughed, and laughed. “Poor mommy and daddy,” she said. “What they should be asking is, “Why God? Why have you LEFT us here for such a LONG time?”

He laughed and swung her up in His strong and loving arms. “Now you understand little one! And someday, so will they.”

The little angel hugged her Father, and together, they entered the gates of Heaven.

Copyright 2000 Joy Baker

Read More

September 12, 2001

I’ve been wondering what to write about lately. There’s so much good material… my road trip to Chicago, the Minnesota State Fair, the first day of school, the Vikings season opener…

Ah yes… all good material for sure. However, there’s something important looming. Something heavy.

We dread it; we revere it; we hate to re-live it… but we must.

In three days, it will be the tenth anniversary of September 11th.

Everyone is being asked to remember where they were on that day. Of course, we all know where we were. I was a young mother and had just waved goodbye to my first grader as he boarded the school bus at the end of our driveway. I glanced at the time in the corner of the TV screen and hurried to get my four year old ready for daycare so I wouldn’t be late for my 9am meeting.

The first plane struck as I was trying to find some earrings to match my outfit. Such a bummer. What a tragedy. Those poor people. Now then… silver hoops or beady dangles?

I was making my bed and preparing to leave when the second plane struck. I sank onto the bed, my eyes glued to the Today Show. “Clearly, this is some kind of attack,” Matt Lauer and Katie Couric were saying. I couldn’t process it… couldn’t really understand the implications… all I knew was that this day would go down in history. I watched in horror for a good several minutes before I finally went and scooped up my four year old and hugged him tight. “Look Cole,” I said. “Look at the TV. You’ll remember this day forever.”

About ten minutes later, I dropped Cole off at daycare and somehow managed to show up on time for my 9am meeting. I stumbled through it, then left around noon, finally realizing that no one else would be coming into the office that day.

I don’t remember much else from that long Tuesday, but I do remember this. While I was tucking my little boys into bed that night, I remember being thankful that they were so blissfully ignorant to the devastating events of the day. But then, as we were finishing our night time prayers, Cole said something I’ll never forget. Very quietly, he added, “And God bless the people in the crashing towers.”

God. bless. the. people. in. the. crashing. towers.

That day was so deep… so significant… so tragic. It changed us, and it changed our nation forever. And while people are quick to remember their memories and emotions from September 11th, it’s really September 12th that holds more significance for me. That’s the day our nation woke up at war, and I started to question everything I thought I knew.

What’s Al-Qaeda? Who’s Osama Bin Laden? How could those people hate us so much? Are we bad? What’s wrong with us?

I scoured the internet, searching for answers. I read passages from the Koran, trying to wrap my head around the term “jihad.” I started reading my Bible for the first time, and craved to understand the differences between the world’s major religions. I signed up to be a Sunday School teacher, poring over my weekly lesson plans and trying hard to stay one step ahead of my well-versed third graders.

And, like most… I questioned my purpose. Life suddenly seemed so important. Was I using my God-given talents to make a difference in the world? Or was I wiling away my time, oblivious to any higher meaning?

About that time, I decided I wanted to be a writer. A real one… that actually wrote for a living. I took a writing class and suddenly felt at home… at peace… like I was finally “among my people” and doing what I was supposed to be doing with my life.

But unfortunately, my higher purpose did not pay the bills. So, ten years later… here I am. Still searching, still wondering, still hoping to get it right.

Yet, that’s what we’re all doing, aren’t we? Hoping to get it right?

We search for meaning, strive for balance, wish for happiness, and pray for peace. And at the end of the day, we just hope we’ve set a good example for our children, who aren’t nearly as blissfully ignorant as we may think.

God bless the people in the crashing towers.


Read More

I’m back!

Hello blogosphere… I’m back!

It’s been a long time. After finishing up my last post about the set of love letters I found on ebay, I got busy writing a book about my own family history. It’s a long and winding saga that took me five years to unravel, but I finally got it all down in print, just in time for our Almendinger family reunion last weekend. I also gave a two hour genealogy presentation about our colorful German ancestors, and it was a real hit. However, the thought of writing any more about my Almendinger family history right now does not jazz me in the least. So, even though I told you in my last post that I’d share some stories about White Charley and Over-the-Wall-Fred here on my blog, I’m afraid those will have to wait for another day. I’m “Almendingered-out” for the time being.

I’ve also been on an emotional roller coaster this week. I have a friend who’s struggling with addiction, and I participated in my first intervention on Tuesday. It was hard, but successful. My friend is now in treatment and hopefully on the way to recovery.

I try to journal each morning, and here’s a little snippet of something I wrote today. If you’re the praying type, please keep my friend in your prayers.

I’m afraid today.
Afraid for the life of my friend.
Happy that she’s agreed to seek treatment.
Proud of her bravery to face her addiction.
But worried.
So worried.

Will she really do it this time?
Stick with it?
Get healthy?

It’s all waiting for her.
All of us are here.
Waiting for her.

Come join us, the voice whispers.
Here, in the middle of life.
It’s not always pleasant.
Sometimes it rains, or storms.
But that’s OK too.
That’s just a part of it.
Embrace it. All of it.
The good days, the bad days.
The sun, the rain… the storms.
It makes us who we are.
The bad days remind us
that there’s still room for improvement.
More rainbows ahead.

Hold on, my friend.
One day at a time.
I’m here. We’re here.
In the middle of life.
So go now.
You go, and learn how to start living again.
We’ll be waiting.

Read More

Happy Mother’s Day

A tribute to my mom…

It’s been a long time since my last post. The truth is, I’ve been working on a book I hope to finish by the time our Almendinger Family Reunion rolls around this August. It’s our family history – the story of White Charley, my paternal great-grandfather, who was a German immigrant, a U.S. Infantry soldier who served during the Indian Wars, a blacksmith during the corruption-filled days of early Minneapolis, and finally, a pioneer in the deep woods of northern Minnesota. It’s a story of tragedy and triumph that took me on all kinds of crazy adventures, and I plan to share the story here on my blog… right after I wrap up my Love Letters story this week.

But first… on this special day… I wanted to share a bit about my mom.

Joy and Kathy, Quebec 2010

Joy and Kathy, Quebec 2010

Her name is Kathy, and I love her to pieces. She’s not your typical homey-bakey mother… not by any stretch of the imagination. She was never the head of the P.T.A., a bake sale organizer, nor a Brownie troop leader. She is… in the best possible way… a complete and utter goonball.

I think it was my Aunt Carol who coined the nickname Goonball, and it’s what my cousin Lisa has called her ever since she was old enough to talk. It’s entirely appropriate.

My mom does not like rules. In fact, she hates limitations or boundaries of any kind. Those of us who know her well shudder from fright whenever we hear her say, “How hard can it be?” I’m sure it will be a fitting epithet for her headstone one day: “Here lies Kathy. Apparently it was harder than she thought.”

If my mother hadn’t been such a good legal secretary back in the day, I’m sure she would have been doing stand-up comedy instead. She is a gifted storyteller who loves to “work the crowd.” She knows how to make people laugh, and considers it her duty to do so. In fact, when riding an elevator, I’m sure it would kill her to stay silent for the entire time it takes to reach her floor. She would consider it a personal defeat if she didn’t have everyone laughing by the time the doors opened.

This is her gift… her sense of humor… and she uses it to her advantage whenever possible.

In 1988, my parents celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. My twin brother and I were college seniors at the time, with no means to throw them any kind of fancy party. They knew this, and instead, made their own plans. They rented a hotel room in downtown Minneapolis and invited us to join them for dinner at Murray’s Steakhouse – “home of the silver butterknife steak.” If you’ve never been to Murray’s, it’s an upscale Minneapolis landmark – a swanky place with lots of red velvet and waitresses who look like they started sometime during the Nixon administration. And man, do they serve a mean steak.

We enjoyed an amazing, luxurious dinner and were treated like royalty by the attentive wait staff. It was a perfect, magical evening. After we finished our dessert and my dad finished his snifter of Drambuie, we headed back out to the car. They drove a full size conversion van at the time, and my mom offered to sit in back with me so my brother could sit up front with my dad. We were still ooh-ing and aah-ing about the amazing dinner and didn’t seem to notice at first how long it was taking the car ahead of us to pay for their parking fee. It appeared to be a heated discussion between the driver and the parking attendant, and I could tell my dad was losing patience. He got out of the car to go check on the situation.

From the back seat, I could now see that my dad had gotten involved in the heated discussion as well. There was a lot of fast talking and finger pointing, and I was starting to get nervous. My brother got out of the car to see what was going on. I witnessed more fast talking, and then suddenly, the two men got out of their car and started taking their jackets off. Not a good sign.

Without thinking, I jumped out of the van and ran into the middle of the melee, determined to be the voice of reason. I have no idea what the problem was, except that the two men refused to pay their parking fee, and the poor parking attendant was noticeably shook. The situation was escalating from bad to worse when, out of nowhere, we turned to see my mother coming toward us with a snow brush in her hand yelling, “I… am… a MOTHER!”

And just like that, it was over. We were silent a moment, staring at her in complete bewilderment, and then each of us quietly retreated to our respective corners. The men in front of us paid their parking fee, and drove off. And that was that.

There are many lessons my mother has taught me over the years. Good life lessons… about being honest, having integrity, and doing the right thing. “Remember who you are,” she used to tell me. I didn’t really understand what it meant until I got older, but it’s something I now tell my own boys. It’s a phrase that grows with you along life’s bumpy journey.

So, thanks Goonball. For all the fun and crazy times… the adventures and misadventures. Thanks for being my proudest supporter, my loudest cheerleader, and my most loyal fan. Thanks for grounding me when I deserved grounding, and for picking me up when I was broken in pieces. Thanks for believing in me and always telling me I could do whatever I wanted. (And thanks for not allowing me to wear that pair of boxer shorts to school in 7th grade when it was all the rage. You were right about that.)

And the two life lessons I will remember the most? First, remember who you are. And for God’s sake… carry a big snow brush the next time you run into the middle of a rumble.

Got it. Thanks Mom.

Read More

Our last day on Longboat

It’s our last day on Longboat Key, and I can’t believe how fast the week went by. Like every year, I get here and think, “Wow, a whole week! It’s only Saturday, and we have seven more days!” And then, suddenly, it’s Friday, and I think, “Wow. Now how did that happen?” Rats.

A photo from our first sunset last Saturday:

I know I said I was going to update you on the outcome of Hermann Kohl’s national bootlegging trial this week, but that’s a little too time-intensive for my last day of vacation. Instead, I thought I’d just upload a few photos from the field trip that my mom and I took today. Even though it was a perfect, sunny beach day, I really wanted to see the John and Mable Ringling Museum, so that’s what we did. Well… kind of. We actually never made it to the museum because we were too enthralled with Ca d’Zan (“House of John”), the Ringlings’ waterfront mansion on Sarasota Bay.

What a great and tragic love story. John and Mable both came from humble beginnings, but soon became one of the wealthiest couples in America. They were married in 1905, and began work on Ca d’Zan in 1924. Under the artistic direction and ever-watchful eye of Mable, it was completed two years later, in 1926.

In 1927, John and Mable decided to begin construction of a museum to house their ever-growing art collection. John had acquired several hundred valuable works of art while traveling Europe in search of new circus acts.

Sadly, Mable died on June 8, 1929 from complications of Addison’s disease and diabetes. She was only 54 years old. She had spent only three years in the Venetian-inspired palace she had helped design and build.

John was devastated by Mable’s death. Only four months later, the great stock market crash of 1929 hit and the Florida land boom went bust. Times were hard for the Ringling Brothers’ Barnum & Bailey Circus, and John had been a bit reckless in his financial dealings. Construction of the Ritz-Carlton hotel he’d been building on Longboat Key was halted permanently. It stood vacant for almost 40 years before it was finally torn down in 1964. (Today, it is the site of the Longboat Key Club resort.)

John had to borrow money to complete the construction of Mable’s beloved art museum. In October 1931, “The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art” was officially opened to the public. Five years later, John Ringling bequeathed his art collection, Ca d’Zan mansion and entire estate to the people of the State of Florida.

Read much more about the Ringlings and their art museum at this link:

Joy at the main entrance to Ca d'Zan (House of John)

Mable picked out the colors of the window panels which glow from every room of the house

John and Mabel had no children, but considered their two pet birds as children

The Tap Room saw a lot of action, even though it was the Prohibition era

Joy and Kathy on back patio of Ca D'Za

Marble staircase leading out to Sarasota Bay

Kathy showing off the waterfront side of Ca d'Zan

Railing detail on marble staircase

Mable Ringling's Secret Garden

Final resting place of John and Mable Ringling, and John's sister, Ida Ringling North. (We wondered where Mr. North was... I'll have to get to the bottom of that.)

Until next time… we’ll miss you Longboat Key! XOXO

Read More

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

Read More

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…

Read More


So sorry for the long lapse in my posts lately! Things got a little crazy around the New Year. We happened to be in Fargo for a wrestling tournament during that huge blizzard that caused a 100 car pile-up on I-94 heading west. When that happened, we were heading OUT of town on I-94 heading east. Sheesh… it was bad. Very thankful we made it home safe and sound. As it turned out, the rest of the team (including all coaches and parents) got stuck in Fargo for another two days because they closed the freeway.

So, why were we in such a rush to get home, risking life and limb? Well! As I mentioned in my last post, we had a date with a crown roast for New Year’s Eve, and we were determined to get home and get our party on! We had four couples over for the big shin-dig, and we had a blast. Here are a few pictures:

The roast was absolutely delicious! If you can believe it, Ross made the little paper hats for the top. I was running behind, so I asked him if he’d take the directions I’d found on Martha Stewart’s web site and go make them for me. He scoffed a bit, made himself a rum and coke, then disappeared into my office for a long while. When I finally went to check on him, here’s the sight I saw (I’m still laughing):

So, that was our New Year’s Eve. The next day, January 1, we celebrated our annual New Year’s Day tradition with Ross’s family – New Year’s Pancakes for about 100 people. Ross’s Grandma Martha turned 97 this year on December 27, and she’s held this tradition in her family ever since she was a child. The recipe is German… homemade buttermilk pancakes with diced apples and anise seed. So yummy! Email me if you want a copy of the recipe.

The next day, January 2, we took the kids to St. Cloud to go “gift card shopping.” They each bought a new snowmobile jacket, and I bought myself a new Nook from Barnes & Noble (love it!). Not sure what Ross bought. Maybe some new socks… he loves SmartWool.

Then… on January 3… I officially started my two month SABBATICAL. My best friend and business partner, Betsy Bonnema, and I are celebrating our 20th year in business this year. (We started a small ad agency together just out of college – RedStar Creative.) Rather than the family cruise we had always talked about, we decided to give ourselves two months off (two months!) to not work and, instead, concentrate on our creative endeavors. Betsy is a very talented artist and spends a lot of time repurposing old furniture into beautiful and meaningful works of art. She’s also a talented writer and keeps a blog at Check out some of her amazing art, and don’t miss her Christmas post… it’s really special.

As for me… well… I haven’t actually had time to start my sabbatical yet. I’m busy trying to get a new web site launched for one of our clients, so I’ve been working on that for the past few weeks. Once that’s done, however, I’m hoping to do a lot more writing, including finishing-up some writing projects I’ve started over the years. Mostly though, I’m looking forward to just “being still” and catching up with this rolling snowball that’s become my life. I look forward to discovering new possibilities that might come my way if I just sit still long enough to pay attention.

And of course, I haven’t forgotten about my Love Letters! Rest assured, I’ll be back in the next day or two with Chapter 6 of my Love Letters story. Stay tuned…

In the meantime… back to work…

Read next chapter

Read More

Why I live in a small town

Dedicated to Private First Class, Ryane G. Clark

You may or may not know this, but my small town of New London, Minnesota lost a soldier last week. He was 22 year old Ryane Clark, a 2007 graduate of New London-Spicer High School, where he was a wrestler, and an Eagle Scout.

Today, Pfc. Ryane Clark returned home. His remains were flown to Willmar Municipal airport, and from there, began a 20 mile memorial procession, ending at the funeral home in downtown New London.

Eight soldiers with the Army’s 27th Engineer Battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C., carry the casket containing the body of Army Pfc. Ryane Clark after it arrived Thursday at Willmar Municipal Airport. Photo courtesy of West Central Tribune.

I never knew Private Clark, nor his family, but I know of them. Everyone knows *of* everyone in a small town. Even if you haven’t met them directly, you know someone who’s dated their daughter, goes to the same church, works at their auto repair shop, or went on vacation with them last spring. Everyone knows OF everyone here.

I happened to be working at a client’s office in Willmar today, so I decided to leave early in order to pay my respects along the procession route. Even though I didn’t know Ryane, I wanted to be there for him. He was a wrestler; my boys are wrestlers. He lived in New London; I live in New London. He died to protect our country. I live in this country.

I wanted to be there.

So, as I drove home along MN State Highway 23, I noticed people already beginning to line both sides of the road. Just outside the electric cooperative, employees had gathered on the center median, between four lanes of busy, fast-moving traffic. They waved flags as I passed. I waved back with tears streaming down my face. Behind them, crew members had backed one of their high wire repair trucks into the ditch, and extended the hydraulic arm, raising a flag in Ryane Clark’s honor. The back of my throat tightened, and an unexpected sob snuck out of me.

Flag raised at Kandiyohi County Power Cooperative

My thoughts turned to the Clark family, knowing they were not far behind me. They’d be passing this exact spot just moments from now. If I was this choked up, how would they feel?

As I got closer to Spicer, (our neighboring city, just four miles north of New London), more and more people were gathered along the route. I wondered how long they’d been waiting there. Rounding the corner and pulling into town, I noticed the entire parking lot of Jahnke’s grocery store was full. People were lined up, waiting in their cars, ready to move out to the road once the procession got closer. I stopped at the red light and noticed a woman at the corner, sitting in her wheelchair scooter. She was by herself, holding a flag… waiting. I wondered who she was; why she cared.

Someone had thought to tie yellow ribbons and an American flag to every light post in the center of the road. There were flags and people everywhere… at Town and Country Tire, the Dairy Queen, along the bike trail, and in front of Mel’s Sport Shop. More tears, more choked-back sobs.

I neared the turnoff to my house and wondered if I had time to grab my camera. This was an amazing sight, and I wanted to save it in my memory. But, did I have time? I listened to Q102 as Mary Elin Macht gave an update on where the procession was in Willmar. I decided it wasn’t worth it. It was more important to pay my respects than to preserve the memory.

I drove into New London and first noticed the gigantic tower erected at the concrete plant. Was it a truck? I wasn’t sure… how could any hydraulic arm get that high? And proudly displayed atop the tower… a flag. I slowed down and prepared to turn left onto Highway 9… the road that runs right through downtown New London. And there, on either side of the main drag, were two fire trucks with their ladders extended, forming an arch over the road. A gigantic American flag was draped from the end of each.

The bawling started… I couldn’t go down that road. There were people lined up along the entire street. I moved back into traffic and took the back way into town. As I pulled into the driveway of our creative studio, I took a deep breath, said a little prayer, and got out of the car. God, help me through this. Help this family. Help our town.

The schools had let out early so all the grades could attend the procession. Even the elementary kids had walked over from the grade school. The Color Guard from the American Legion was parked on the road beside me. The plan was for them to lead the procession by foot once it turned onto Highway 9, and continue all the way down Main Street, to the funeral home. I looked at the members of the Color Guard, wondering if they could even make it that far. They looked to be in their late 70s, or maybe even their early 80s. But I could tell no one would question the logic. They were soldiers, a band of brothers, and they had lost one of their own.

As the procession neared, we heard a helicopter overhead. Channel 11 news out of Minneapolis was covering the procession. Hmm. Wasn’t sure what I thought about that. It was loud and obtrusive, but then, I guess this story was newsworthy.

And then, around the corner, I saw the Color Guard heading our way. Every grade school child along Main Street put their hand over their heart and said nothing. Not a word. Not today.

God bless you Ryane Clark, and thank you for your service to our country.

Click to view a quick clip of the procession from my cell phone…

Read More

New York City

Start spreading the news…

Taken at the Top of the Rock on our 16th anniversary,
June 11, 2010

For our 16th wedding anniversary, I surprised Ross with a whirlwind vacation to New York City. Neither one of us had ever been there before, and we had a ball seeing all the sites. And I do mean, ALL the sites. We were only there for the weekend, but man, did we pack it in!

Being the born-again genealogist that I’ve become of late, it was fun to see Ellis Island and re-live the immigrant experience from my great grandparents’ perspective. But we did so much more… we stayed at the historic Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue, visited Rockefeller Center and the “Top of the Rock,” took the NBC tour and saw where Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live are filmed, visited Ground Zero and the 9/11 Memorial Museum, saw Wall Street and Battery Park, rode the Staten Island Ferry, rode bicycles around Central Park, toured the United Nations building, ate a fabulous dinner in Little Italy, and topped it all off with a ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

Here’s a link to my pictures on Flickr. If you view them as a slideshow, make sure you go to “Options” and choose “Always show title and description,” so you can see the captions, and choose Slow for the speed, or you’ll go bonkers trying to read the captions before the next picture shows up.


Read More