Friday, December 16, 2016

Kindness of Strangers

The phrase "kindness of strangers" was first used by Tennessee Williams in his 1947 Pulizer-winning play, A Streetcar Named Desire. The saying has been used multiple times in songs and stories since then, and it evokes an unselfish generosity that seems to be channeled through people from a divine source.

The kindness of strangers has been a saving grace for me throughout my life. There always seems to be a few perceptive souls around who notice if I seem to be lost or struggling, and offer assistance.

As a child, I remember my trepidations when starting a new school. "This place is so big! There are so many people! I feel so lost!" A kind student or staff member would notice my hesitancy and gift me with a kind word or smile, letting me know I had a friend to share that moment.

At the age of 19, I made a “Jack Kerouac”-style year-long solo European ramble, getting myself into tight spots regularly. Usually a kind person would step up out of nowhere to help me out. It could be something as simple as someone stopping to give me directions, or something as extreme as the fellow who sucked gasoline through a hose to transfer to a small portable gas tank when I ran out of petrol on an Italian highway!

With the profusion of scam artists, people may be tempted to not be kind when a stranger asks for assistance, thinking it is a set-up. How many times have you driven past those people holding cardboard signs at intersections without stopping to give spare change? Sometimes it could be a trick, but going with your gut feeling helps guide you in handling situations. But if you have a general attitude of suspicion towards people, you are missing opportunities to grow as a person, and just feel good about helping others.

It would be great to pitch in on a group effort on a grand scale, such as when hurricanes, tornadoes and floods hit an area, and join with the hundreds of Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers who travel across the country to search for victims, distribute food, or administer medical care.

Last summer while walking to the library near our house I passed a man holding a cardboard sign that said, "Will work for food." On the way back from the library I stopped and asked him if he would do yard work for me in exchange for food. Without hesitation he nodded, folded up his sign, put it in his pocket and started walking home with me. Tony was grateful for the opportunity, and, I learned, very hard-working. He come to our house nearly every day for about three weeks, weeding, trimming bushes, cutting back scrub trees.

Each day I would give him a sack of food and a twenty dollar bill. Tony said he had worked nearly 30 years for the suburb of Brooklyn Park, who then hired a young man to take his place and fired him, leaving him homeless. I called St. Stephens Outreach Services, who sent two social workers to our house to interview him. The next day they gave him a tent so he would have better shelter at his campsite near the river. The homeless shelters were overcrowded, so this was a stop-gap solution. Aiding someone in this way felt more effective than giving money to a charity, as I could directly impact someone in need with food and friendship. Also, none of the money I gave Tony was siphoned off for "administrative costs."

What inspires strangers to be kind to people they do not know? I think it is the idea of “paying it forward” and “what comes around goes around.” We can empathize with people and the situations they find themselves in, and want to make their paths easier. We hope that others will do the same for us when we find ourselves stuck in a jam!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

How to be a Real and True Friend

Buddy, crony, homeboy, BFF, chum, confidant, pal.  No matter what term you use, a true friend can be hard to come by!

The dictionary definition of friend is, “person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.”
What is a true friend? When I was a child, making friends seemed easy. Whenever I saw another small person like me, we recognized an immediate kinship and began playing together. But as typically happens as we age, that facile closeness happens less and less often as suspicions and competition arise, and it becomes much harder to trust others and feel that they truly “have our back.”
My favorite type of friend appreciates me for me, not what I can do for them, really listens, and supports what I am going through and what I am trying to accomplish. There is an easy trust —almost a telepathy.

I try to be a good friend by listening and responding to what the other person is saying, showing genuine interest in others and what they are up to, giving suggestions or physically being helping with a project, and observing to see how I can add value to a situation.

Growing up, I discovered that sometimes friends can become too close. From fourth through eighth grades, I was best friends with Stephanie J. We became close friends and did everything together. It got to the point where if my classmates saw me without her, they asked where Stephanie was. It was divine and terrible at the same time!  We shared some hilarious, exciting times and 100 percent supported each other without question, but what was terrible was that by the time she moved to a different city after eighth grade, I was socially awkward with anyone who was not Stephanie.  In high school I was shy and especially afraid of boys.

In the “Curriculum for Living” coursework I took last year through LandmarkWorldwide, I learned that once babies learn language, they develop a voice in their head that is constantly judging everything around us.  They call it the “Already Always Listening.” The constant narrative in our head seeks to make ourselves right and others wrong. The price of being right is that we sacrifice closeness with others, and thus, happiness and fulfillment. My theory is that when the voice in our head develops (when our vocabulary expands), we start judging everything, which makes those magical automatic friendships harder to come by. Once we are aware of the voice (assuming we ever do), we can actively choose not to listen to it or automatically believe it, and instead consciously set aside judgment so we can enjoy the company of others.

Friendship is sharing a cup of coffee, a joke or story, enjoying the moment together, without expectation. Enjoying the beauty of nature together in the moment. Helping someone because you want to, not because of what you will get in return. Sightseeing in a new city, delighting in discovering the neighborhoods, appreciating the architecture and the unfamiliar foods. Calling a friend to share a difficult situation, and not being worried about being judged. Friends make the journey of life easier, help us feel connected in the community, and feel our life is making a difference.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Nature of Laughter

The nature of laughter is, for most people, a spontaneous release of energy when you find something amusing. It manifests in many forms and has many names, such as guffaw, titter, giggle and snicker. Laughter is stress relieving. It is social. It is something you do more of when you are rested than when you are stressed and exhausted. It leaves your muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes after, reduces stress hormones and boosts the immune system, according to an article in

As human beings, we are able to see the humor in a situation due to our developed intellect, which lets us see situations in perspective.

Apes, rats and dogs display behaviors that appear to be laughter, but will we ever really know if these creatures are actually laughing until we can speak the same language and ask them? According to a Wikipedia article, rats like to tickled, and have more optimism after they have been tickled. Dogs seem pant in a way that sounds like human laughter, display a "play face," and are more pro-social when they hear recordings of dog laughter. Chimps and other apes create laughter-like vocalizations, interspersed with panting, in response to tickling, play-chasing or wrestling.

When I laugh, it is often to share a special moment with someone, bringing us closer. Other times it is out of pure enjoyment of a funny movie, ridiculous situation or joke I have just heard.

My friend Lisa Bouta, a certified laughter yoga professional, begins her monthly Metro Women in Business meetings with a group laughter yoga exercise, setting a positive tone for the entire meeting. To visit Lisa's Meetup, which meets on the fourth Monday of the month in the south or west Minneapolis metro area, RSVP to:

Usually, laughing and a genuine smile happen at the same time. But for someone with a twisted psyche, laughter could be a cruel celebration of another's pain. There may be a smile, but it's more of a grinning rictus ("sustained spasm of the facial muscles"), and not a genuine smile of happiness. There are many famous examples of movie actors with cruel laughter, including "The Joker" in Batman, or Vincent Price in Michael Jackson's Thriller video.

I enjoy hearing people's many different types of laughter. My favorite type is a woman's high-pitched laughter with a dose of musicality.

To sum up my philosophy of laughter in a few words, I hearken back to a column in the old-fashioned Readers' Digest magazine: "Laughter—the Best Medicine"!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Cut Trees, Cut Years, Cut Lives

They cut down the trees on our median a few weeks ago.  Not just trimmed them, I mean they cut them all the way down; the tree trimmers returned with a chipper and and chewed up the stumps. The first few days after this the "tree butchery", I felt a palpable sadness, like a weight sitting on my chest. The street was eerily bright, no longer filtered through many branches. Before school one day, Tacy knew they would be cutting the trees, and she ran out to the Russian olive tree and gave it a hug and kiss. After school a few days later Joscelin ran up and down the street with our Chihuahua, kissing each stump.

Desolation: post-tree removal on Northeast Main Street
 Why the five-block stretch of clear cutting?  Turns out the neighborhood group decided that the sprinkler system was out-dated and the soil poor and not absorbing water. They wanted to start over by ripping out the sprinkler system, replacing the soil, making the median concave, and planting native plants and different trees. Granted, most were ash trees that would have been cut anyway, thanks to the Emerald Ash-Borer infestation. But a few were saplings that had just been planted last year. And why did they have to cut the majestic Russian olive in front of our house?  I had climbed that tree as a 10-year-old — all of my kids have climbed it — and it was strong and healthy.

I felt like the "Lorax" speaking for the trees when I phoned Mr. Michael Rainville, a long-time neighborhood group committee member.  "Couldn't that one Russian olive be spared, at least?" I pleaded. Rainville explained that the plan had been years in the making already, and it was impossible to change at this point. Soil replacement, rain garden construction and sprinkler removal were involved, so it was just easier to take all the trees out and start over. 

When my mom, Gerry Bruins (83), learned of the tree cutting plan, her countenance visibly saddened and she remarked, "Who would approve of such a plan?" She mourns the loss of sheltering shade and the trees' cooling effects. As frail as she is, it is doubtful she will witness the growth of the new trees beyond their sapling stage.

Falling leaves, felled trees, garden tools stored in the garage, tomatoes harvested...and Mom is growing old. Like trees, we have no control over when death swings its scythe our way. One minute we are sharing our moments and talents with others, the other we are hacked down and ground up into wood chips. Throughout the past 22 years of my married life, it has been a blessing for me and David to live with my mom. At first, the decision to move out of our hip Uptown apartment and into her 1890s duplex was due to financial concerns; now Mom truly needs someone to look after the house and yard, give her rides to appointments and the grocery store, and help keep her finances in order.

I never thought my Mom would become frail. She was such a dynamo, always doing favors for others and generous to a fault. In addition to holding down a full-time job with the city, she raised me as a single parent from the time I was 10, helped care for her own mother on weekends by painting and wallpapering the house, helping with grocery shopping, gardening and more.

How do you come to terms with the things you love winding down, wearing out and being cut down? I think the answer lies in making peace with our humanity, and being okay with doing "enough."  It requires self-reflection and an arbitrary decision as to what "enough" will be. Prioritizing our energies into the most important work is another factor. Easier said than done! Believe me, I have fought against it long and hard. Not so long ago I was still pulling all-nighters in my attempt to be a top-notch mother and successful business owner! And man, did I pay a price. My damaged feet are now unable to wear anything except well-padded athletic shoes or frumpy cork-soled shoes. Next weekend I hurtle towards Year 51 on this planet, and I believe accepting yourself for being human and finite is our challenge as well as our salvation.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Synchronicity: a surprising new "why"

This morning when I realized my new "why," and it brought a tear to my eye.  Yesterday was the 31st anniversary of my dad getting struck and killed by a drunk driver near Menomonie, WI.  So how did an "old" event lead to a new driving force in my life?

I always thought I already knew my "why" -- an impetus to get my butt out of bed in the morning and focus my energies.  Personal development trainers constantly admonish us to find a meaningful goal to motivate ourselves into action. For the past several years, I've been telling everyone that I want to:
  • Send my kids to the colleges of their choice
  • Save for retirement
  • Pay off my mom's bankruptcy (new on the list as of last year)
  • Protect the environment
  • Protect endangered wild animal species
The above list has been pasted on my bathroom mirror for so long, the paper is water-stained and yellowing!  (Posting goals in the bathroom has become the modern-day equivalent of wearing one's heart on the sleeve.)

So far, I am still working on making the list a reality.  While our oldest kid IS in college, it was his second choice, which he attends because it gives him the best financial aid package. My "protect endangered species" goal is manifesting through my Youth Art for Saving Wolves MN project. I envisioned myself as a wealthy benefactor, traveling the world and donating large sums and organizing massive projects, but this smaller project is a step in the right direction.  The other goals are still mostly in the "some day" category. 

I was born on my dad's birthday, creating an especially close connection between us.  I absolutely totally freaking adored Dad!  He would take me motorcycling, snowmobiling and four-wheelering.  I even liked watching him tinker under the hood of his car.  Dad was a mechanical engineer with 3M, well-regarded by friends and co-workers.  Just being with him in public seemed to elevate my status.

Bernie Bruins, August 1965
Dad dreamed of breaking away from 3M and starting his own company.  For nearly his entire career, he had been making 3M rich by giving them his time and engineering talents.  In the last few years of his life, he secretly kept a few designs from 3M, and had started scoping out industrial office space to develop his inventions at.  But one cold February night in 1984, during a diabetic attack on a country road in Wisconsin, he stopped the car and was struck and killed from behind by a drunk driver.  He was declared dead on arrival at the Menomonie Hospital.

Dad, you died broke, divorced, lonely and unable to break away from the corporate chains to create the wealth you deserved.  You were a smart guy, and I know you would have seen the brilliance of the ACN compensation plan, with its triple-whammy of residuals, leverage and bonuses.  ...and we are doing all of this while wiping out childhood hunger in the US!

My new epiphany is this: in exactly one year, I will be the same age Dad was when he died.  If, by God's grace, I live beyond that age, it will be like Dad is passing me the baton, and encouraging me to work smarter and go farther than he was able to at his soul-killing job at 3M. Dad, I promise you I will honor your memory and go to the top in ACN! 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Minnesota Senior Games: from novice archer to silver medalist in three months

With my three Minnesota Senior Olympic Games events behind me, but the archery event only yesterday, the adrenaline is finally subsiding and I can tell you what it was like.

Two days ago, I spent the afternoon preparing for the tournament, having my bow repaired at Average Joe's Archery, and practicing and adjusting my sights at Rapids Archery in Coon Rapids, MN.  If you have not discovered Rapids Archery yet, I highly recommend it!  For a mere three bucks, you can practice shooting all day long, and the bales are well marked and maintained.

Yesterday morning, with bow case and a couple of lawn chairs loaded in the van, I excitedly drove to Bloomington's Marsh Lake Park archery range for the Senior Games tournament.  It was a beautiful day for archery: overcast, four-mile-an-hour wind, not too hot.  Although I left 75 minutes prior to the event, a highway closure added a 25-minute detour through South Minneapolis to my trip. 

I had practiced once at the Marsh Lake Park archery range.  Today it had been amazingly transformed.  The half dozen saggy straw bales facing east had been moved off to one side and replaced by a neat row of 19 deluxe foam bales on wooden easels across the range's north side. Colorful, four-foot-wide plastic targets were tacked onto each bale.

Archery targets at the MN Senior Olympic Games
By the time I parked the van, it appeared as though the other contestants had already checked in. The majority were men, dressed in neat outdoorsy clothes and looking ready for a day at the lake, with coolers, bowstands and spotting scopes (like a telecope) set up on tripods.  Some had even brought mini awnings and umbrella chairs.

I set down my equipment, took out my bow out of its second-hand hunting case, and walked over to the check-in table.  As I walked past the row of men with expensive-looking equipment, I felt their eyes upon me.  "Do I look like an amateur?  Do I look too young?  Does my bow look cheap?"  I wondered.  I own a decent bow -- an "Infinite Edge" by Diamond -- but it is green camouflage and looks like utilitarian hunting bow, not a fancy wooden or high-tech one.  Then I spotted Roger and Kathy Wertanen, a friendly couple I had met at the previous Saturday's Track and Field event, and felt a bit more at ease.

2014 Minnesota Senior Games archery contestants
The check-in staff inspected my bow, asked if my arrows were marked with my initials (they weren't yet), checked the bowstring's draw weight, and made sure I had brought a release.  Then they handed me a clipboard with my scoring sheets, and told me I would be shooting at Bale #17.

The six female archers were grouped at one end of the shooting line, the men at the other end.  I must have had a bewildered expression, and the other woman in my age group, Julene Hakl, reassured me, "We'll get you through!"  She and and a few volunteers began filling me in on the myriad rules: don't touch the bale before the arrows have been scored, mark all of your arrows, make sure your arrows are the same color,  etc.  A dad sitting behind me volunteered his 11-year-old son, Noah, to act as my "spotter," looking through a spotting scope and telling me where my arrows were hitting.  Noah seemed happy to take on this important job, and I was happy to not have to bend over and pick up my binoculars after each shot. 

Firing Line:  I am on the far right, in the black shirt

A loudspeaker voice announced that we would get two practice rounds before the official event.  Thank goodness!  I shot all of my arrows into the grass during practice, and discovered that I was aiming with the wrong distance pin.  A group of volunteers came out to help locate the arrows, but I found most of them by taking off my shoes and going barefoot.  This was against official rules, but it was before the event and I found the arrows quickly.  A "traffic light" set up on one side of the field shone green during the five minutes we were allowed to shoot each "end" (set) of six arrows, yellow with 30 seconds remaining, and red in between ends.

Then the whistle blew, signaling us to step up to the firing line.  My stomach was full of butterflies, and I wondered if I was prepared enough.  Was everyone scrutinizing me?  We began shooting at the longest distance, 60 yards, the opposite of how I had been training.  I blocked out of my head the realization that I had only shot at a 60-yard target for the first time the previous day.  I focused on maintaining proper form: taking a deep breath, getting anchored, finding the target with the proper pin, firing, holding "still like a statue" until the arrow hit the target.

Female archers score their arrow hits

After the first six arrows actually hit the target, I realized that I could fare decently if I maintained my focus and paced myself.  I had done a yeoman's job setting my distance pins, so the key would be using the correct one at each distance, and not allowing my nerves to take over.  Plantar fascitis had flared in my feet two weeks prior, putting me on crutches for a weekend.  To preserve my stamina, I sat in my lawn chair every spare moment.  The previous day's four-hour practice marathon also concerned me.  Would my strength withstand two days in a row of shooting?  While there was no getting around holding the bow and drawing back the string, I set the bow down and rested as much as possible between rounds.

I would be remiss if I did not mention how lovely it was to meet the other archers and shoot with them.  Their dedication to the sport and shooting skills were admirable, and give me new levels to aspire to.  During one scoring round, Norma and Edna (pictured above in the yellow and blue shirts), remarked, "We've been discussing you, and you must be a 'miracle child,' because there is no way you could be old enough to be in this tournament!"  Rather abashed, I thanked them and explained that although I was still 49, my 50th birthday in December made me legal to join the Games. 

The event was supposed to end at Noon, but one archer's equipment failure, requiring extra make-up time, stretched out the event until after 2:00 pm.  Nobody had explained the complicated scoring process at the end, where every participant is expected to tally the score sheets until they match. Despite losing one arrow and hitting the wrong target with another, I earned 23 points above the minimum.  I not only qualify for next year's national event, but because there were only two people in my age category, I earned a silver medal!

My daughter, Tacy, running late for a birthday party, frantically called me on my cel phone at 2:15 to inquire as to my whereabouts. Sigh! The kids were unaware of my accomplishment.  Reassuring Tacy that I was going as fast as humanly possible, I finished scoring my and Norma's tally sheets, and turned in mine at the booth.  I told the staff I was in a rush because my daughter was late for a birthday party.  Most Senior Games participants are retired and must not have many obligations.  They looked perplexed, and said they were about to hand out the medals.  I think they had planned to do it more "ceremoniously,"  perhaps in front of the entire group.  But after explaining my home situation, they nodded in understanding, handed me my silver medal in its plastic bag, shook my hand, and said "Congratulations!"

As I drove home, the adrenaline began to drain away and I felt as though I could have collapsed in a chair for the remainder of the day.  But not until I drove Tacy to her birthday party and picked up a few groceries on the way back.  Olympian by morning, mom by afternoon.  This tournament begins my journey to the 2015 National Senior Games.  Looking forward to honing my skills during this next year!

Silver Medalist Janet Lenius
Saturday, Aug. 9th, 2014

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Not Your Average Ordinary Workout: The Senior Olympics

An unexpected side benefit of attending the Ann Bancroft luncheon (see previous post) was that I ended up in the National Senior Olympic Games!

Standing in line next to me waiting to talk to Ms. Bancroft was an employee of the National Senior Games Association.  The fellow informed me that Minneapolis was hosting the Games in 2015, and that competitors must turn 50 by Dec. 31, 2014 to qualify.

I was unaware that such a thing as Senior Olympic Games even existed!  I used to run 5k and 10k races in my 20s, before giving birth to my first child at age 30, but gave that up due to overstretched ligaments that were causing pain during the high-impact exercise.  Five years later my second child arrived, and with her came added foot problems.  I was forced to (gasp!) begin wearing comfort shoes (how humiliating)!  I spent my 20s in three-inch heels.  But I digress...

Me running Grandma's Marathon at age 22

 In the ensuing 19 years, I've done "maintenance-level" exercise, such as spinning  classes and weight training, to stay toned and feel good, but have not competed in any races. 

But after a week or so, curiosity got the better of me and I Googled the website,  I turn 50 this year on Dec. 6th, so I will definitely qualify.  The listings included some "old fogey" sports like bowling and horseshoes, and there were events that were out of my grasp, such as running races.  But then I spotted race walking and archery. 

"Could I?" I asked myself.  I was unsure as to whether I could withstand the training or learn the proper form, but my 12 years of distance running and dozens of races had to count for something.  I had even run a marathon!  Race walking would surely be lower impact and seemed within my grasp.

I had tried archery with my daughters at Girl Scout camp, but not other than that.  Unlike the discus throw, archery seemed to pose less of an injury threat.  Then there is the "Hunger Games" appeal and the way that movie has romanticized the female archer as lone hero.  Another appeal was that it is a practical skill.  If our society collapses into anarchy and we end up hiding out in the woods, the ability to shoot a rabbit for dinner would definitely be handy!

So one evening in May, after the rest of the family had gone to bed, I impulsively registered for the 5000 meter racewalk event and the compound bow archery event.  Total cost: $40.  The confirmation email arrived the next day, making it official.  Now I was committed, and my journey as an Olympian had begun!

My first job was to purchase a bow.  I found one on Ebay that turned out to be made for someone much stronger than me.  I could not even pull the bowstring!  No worries, the seller happily refunded my money once I returned the bow.  When purchasing my second bow, I was careful to pay attention to the "maximum draw weight," and got one rated for 25-35 pounds.

My next mission was to get the bow fitted for me and buy some arrows.  I took the bow to Average Joe's Archery in Coon Rapids, MN.  The staff there treated me very well, expertly assembling the pieces, fitting it to my strength and arm length, adjusting the sights, cutting arrows to the proper length, and even coaching me on shooting techniques.  I happened to visit during their "Customer Appreciation Days," so ended up getting free shooting practice on their range as well! 

Now I am in practice mode, refining my technique and aim, and learn how to score my "ends" (groups of arrows).  The Minneapolis park system has four free archery ranges that I have been regularly visiting.  I've enjoyed meeting other archers and learning all kinds of helpful tips from them, including their favorite archery shops and ranges. I consistently group my arrows at the nine-o'clock position, so I plan to head back to Average Joe's for another lesson on technique, and buy a few more arrows to replace the ones that mysteriously disappeared in the woods.

The racewalking practice has been a "long, winding journey" as well.  I found a book called "Racewalking Clinic," which has practice drills specific for the race walker.   I have also watched a few YouTube videos.
My technique has been inconsistent, as I don't believe I completely understand it.  I want to "get" the form one hundred percent before I start adding speed, but now that there is only one month before the race, I need to start adding speed!

Shooting pains under the toes have been cropping up during my fast-paced three-mile walks. Last week I made the mistake of going out for a race-walk without first warming up or stretching.  After a half-mile the foot pain was so great I had to hobble back home. My wonderful husband David (who happens to also be a massage therapist) informed me that a muscle underneath the calf, not the toes, are the source of the problem, and that I can prevent or reduce pain by massaging this muscle.  Check.

I also got in to see a podiatrist, who chided me for not warming up or stretching, and recommended that I add long compression athletic socks (I am really a fogey now!) as well as replace my "Smartfeet" shoe inserts and wear pads under the balls of the my feet.  Check.

Today I emailed the organizer of Twin Cities Race Walkers, and asked about their twice-monthly meetups in Como Park.  If I can meet even once with this group to learn their techniques, I believe it would be tremendously helpful. 

With one month left before the competitions, the pressure is mounting.  But I am excited to see how far I can go with my two new sporting endeavors!  So, dear readers, what have you done for your body lately?