The El Dorado Map by Michael O

I just finished The El Dorado Map by my friend Mike O’Hearn.

It’s a couple days until Christmas. If you like adventure stories, if you like westerns, if you like great plots with twists and turns and plenty of danger, and you like a character you can root for and love, who ends up growing miles by the end of the book, then this story is for you, no matter what your age. It is, by genre, a middle-grade novel, so if you’re looking for a last-minute present for a youngish reader, male OR female who likes adventure, my advice it to jump on Amazon or run to Barnes and Noble and get this ASAP.

I just survived an aneurysm and brain surgery, and I read this book in two days; I couldn’t put it down.

The back of the book reads thus:

El Dorado“When your pa’s an outlaw, you grow up mean, tough, and fast–unless something powerful, even supernatural, changes that path. One day, young Cody’s path changes with a bang. Arrested after a stagecoach shootout and deserted by his pa, the young gunman finds himself alone in the Freelands. Alone, except for a mystical man in black, who aids Cody in his escape from jail. Once free, Cody sets out to blaze his own trail but instead finds trouble–including mythical creatures and legendary beings–at every turn. He also finds a map to the fabled city of El Dorado, where the streets are supposedly paved with gold. But his good-for-nothing pa is after the map as well. It’s only a matter of time until destiny brings their paths together again…”

Yes. Yes, yes, and yes. The mythical creatures are woven so seamlessly into this story that the magical realism breathes as easily as the horse Cody rides. I think of Marquez or David Almond who have created real worlds woven with magic realism. Here it happens in the old west, riddled with danger and real human emotions. I forgot the beings were legendary. They were fully alive and believable for me. And I feared them…and came to understand them.

Cody gets into the kind of trouble that forces him to make decisions about what kind of human being he wants to be…who he will become…if he survives being his pa’s son. I held my breath a few dozen times while reading this book. High praise. I couldn’t put it down, and I doubt you or anyone on your list will be able to, either. Read it. You won’t be sorry.

O’Hearn, Michael. The El Dorado Map. Mankato, MN: Capstone Young Readers, 2016.

Searching for Sugarman

Have you heard of the musician Rodriguez?

Rodriguez after-the-facts-page-001

I’m a little slow when it comes to popular and rock music. I blame this on the fact that even though I was a child of the 60s, I missed the whole decade. My mom thought pretty much everything going on in the secular world that decade was a sin, so I missed it. Rock ‘n Roll topped the list.

Of course my music taste has changed and grown voraciously since then, but I still am slow on the uptake, and I need to work in quiet instead of with the radio or stereo (or iTunes or iPod) going.  So I still miss a lot.

That’s my only excuse for not knowing about Rodriquez until this fall. Have you heard of him?

He’s a Detroit musician whom I would liken to a cross among Jim Croce, Bob Dylan, and James Taylor. That’s just me. He writes as brilliantly as Dylan, but his voice resonates like Taylor’s. His stuff is amazing, and as revolutionary as the Beatles’.  Rodriquez’ work received brilliant reviews, but he never made it big in the U.S. His producers/agents knew he was the “Real Thing” and should be bigger than Elvis, but he never grew bigger than who he was, and he worked labor jobs his whole life.

Except for South Africa.


His songs inspire dissidence under oppressive regimes; his lyrics demand people do some thinking for themselves and don’t accept authority in an unjust society. His vinyl albums made their way in to Apartheid South Africa, and caught on like wildfire. His songs were banned in that restrictive society for obvious reasons, but pirated copies spread until he was “bigger than Elvis” in South Africa. And Rodriguez had no idea. And South Africans had no idea about who the man behind the music really was.

Everybody had heard about his death: rumors that he set himself on fire on stage, that he died of a drug overdose…and the South African search was on. “In 1997, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman set up a website, called ‘The Great Rodriguez Hunt’, with the intention of finding any information about the mysterious US musician of ‘Cold Fact’ fame. (  Originally, he wanted to find out the truth about how Rodriguez died. The search uncovered far more than “Sugar” expected.


When apartheid ended, Rodriguez finally played to sell-out crowds in the ampitheaters of South Africa. And still nobody in the U.S. knew who he was.

You have to watch the documentary, “Searching for Sugarman.” That tells the entire amazing story. I watched the thing twice. I could hardly absorb it enough. And no matter your taste, I think you’ll like his music.

Rodriguez three years ago


Grading papers…from African students

somalia flagAs an English teacher, it’s sometimes a challenge to read papers from students who are not native English speakers. It’s especially challenging because some of these students have the most to say. Some have traveled unbelievable distances–emotionally as well as on the globe–in order to sit in my classroom. That’s humbling.

That’s not to say that I don’t realize that my own time is more in demand because they are in my class. I cannot grade a non-native speaker’s paper as fast as I can grade a fluent southern Minnesotan’s paper. Well, that’s not always true because some of the white kids who grew up around Mankato certainly don’t have the best of the best writing skills.  BUT I’m busy making generalizations here. I can grade a student’s paper who doesn’t struggle with the language or with getting ideas on paper or with sentence structure faster than I can grade a paper written by someone who struggles, no matter who he or she is, and no matter where he or she’s from. That’s just a fact of grading. And of course, I like to grade easy-to-grade stuff. I have more to do in life than grade papers.

HOWEVER, this morning, I read a paper by a student from Somalia. I can say this in complete anonymity because I have so many Somalian students, I’m not revealing anything. The introduction to the paper was long and rambling. I had a sense of the student’s entire afternoon before doing the interview (the crucial part of this assignment), and then the student got down to business, telling the story gleaned from the interview.

My first response was to say (and I did), “Look at your introduction. You wander around, setting up the interview, but we’re on page two before we even know who is going to be interviewed or the point of this paper.”  Yes. I said (wrote) that. The online tutoring center where the paper had been submitted said the same thing.

That’s when it hit me. This is an African paper. Africans talk like this. You meet an African for a meeting, and he or she asks you how you are, how your family are, and all sorts of other things before he or she talks about the most important issue of the meeting. Africans are on “Africa time” because caring about the people around them are more important than the deadlines imposed.

This is an African paper. It’s set up like an African talks. It wanders into the subject, and, finally, the story of this paper–gleaned from the interview as assigned in my class–packs a powerful wallop. It’s a great story.

Yeah, the writer could have elaborated in places. Some details needed adding. Some shifts–from interviewee’s very happy marriage with everything sunny to full-blown war in the space of a sentence could use some more explanation, a transition even. But that’s how it happens. Happy life—then BAM! War has descended, and that’s what happened in Somalia.

I struggle grading this paper. I want to say to the writer, “This is spectacular! This is a story that must be told! Thank you for writing this!” And I do. I wrote that on the top of the paper. But I also had to mark down points for a bunch of run-on sentences, lack of editing as suggested by the online tutor, and some ways in which the point of the story wasn’t clearly spelled out by the writer. We as readers feel it, but as a writer, the responsibility is to make sure it won’t be mistaken.

So, this wonderful, powerful paper ended up getting a C. And I’m in turmoil. I want to give this an A, but it’s not an A paper by my standards. It’s powerful, though. And I justify myself by saying, well, this writer has much to say, so if I guide this ability through the semester, this writer will be producing really good, powerful, acceptable work at the end of the term. Is that really what will happen, though, or am I just forcing one more African to fit into the western model of what we deem acceptable as writing?

Help. I don’t know. I love these students, and as I get older and am much nearer the end of my teaching career than the beginning, I feel as if I’m only beginning to grasp the ways I can be a real teacher. I’ll keep muddling through.  msomalia maleeshiyo

Thoughts on crashing and riding again

On Labor Day I crashed on my bike. I crashed hard. Hard.

I was riding in a group of about 20 guys. After a nice little loop around Minneopa, we had come back into town on Carney, which is newly paved and smooth riding. For this reason, guess I wasn’t being vigilant–never okay or excusable on a bike–and dropped into a hole something like a manhole with access to the water main, I guess. Anyway, I slammed over my handlebars against the pavement and broke my collarbone, my shoulder blade, and three ribs.

Here’s the ambulance. And Gianni Anderson.

photo 2-11And the fire truck.

fire truck smile



And here I am, lying on the pavement in the middle of the road, in so much pain I was hoping a truck would come along and put me out of my misery. And Andy Fischer asked me to smile. and I flipping did!


Skarpohl, here’s evidence that what you think is a smile is really a grimace.


That’s the deal. I instantly look for reasons; deeper meanings as to why this happened, which of course there are none. Stuff just happens if you aren’t paying attention, which I wasn’t, I guess. So there’s the lesson: never quit paying attention. And yes, get back on the bike. ASAP.

But I think along the lines of the following. Maybe it’s because I was raised to expect that life would dole out “comeuppances” for doing something wrong. Maybe I spent far too many years believing all things work together for good…when I know that’s absolutely not true on a world-wide basis. At any rate, crazy as these thoughts are, this is what went through my head:

Maybe I needed to slow down? I usually live at a fairly frantic pace.

Maybe I needed to write more and bike less? But no, biking is living, it means being vibrantly alive, and it makes me happy, and I write and teach better when I ride a lot.

Maybe, maybe, the forces of the universe said, “You are just too happy. Life is too good. Take this and see how you do!” I wrote a blog earlier this summer about happiness and aging. Was this a test to see how I do with being set back? I don’t believe that. But I wonder if some shred of me does wonder that since it even entered my head?

Maybe since I wrote that post about aging and happiness, those same forces of the universe smacked me into the pavement and said, “okay, are you still happy? Still love your life?” Truth is, yes, I do,  didn’t like it much the first 48 hours when I sort of wanted a Mac truck to put me out of my misery, but since then, life has gotten a little better every damn day.

Mom’s second-most-used adage was “Pride Cometh before fall.” Was I getting proud? That always hangs around the back of my head. “Stay humble…avoid falls.”

And, today, wonder of wonders, Tom helped me get into the figure-8 brace to hold my clavicle in place, and it isn’t sending me into paroxysms of shoulder blade pain like it did last week, and in fact feels pretty darn good, so yeah, I still do like life. And awesome friends have been showing up with food and flowers and books and movies, and I am fortunate as all get out to have so many awesome friends. Seriously.

And here I am with my friend-of-30-years, Carol Daniels, who came to visit.

Carol and me arm

Maybe the universe is telling me to switch sports or hobbies? ABSOLUTELY NOT!!!! Surprising how many people have suggested that. Seriously?  I crashed. It hurt. I will heal. Not a huge deal in the scope of things. Tyler Hamilton rode a few days of the Tour with a broken collarbone (‘course he didn’t have a broken shoulder blade or ribs to go with it at the moment, but come on)! I can’t wait to get back on my bike. In fact, it is what I miss most while in my recliner.

HERE’s the other thing: people have asked if I have weak bones or something since I have broken, um, several in bike crashes. Actually no. I just hit hard. The pavement, that is. I’ve crashed many times mountain biking and never broken anything. I got hit by a car and broke no bones, though I cracked my bike. This time, the ER doc thought I would have broken elbow, hip, arm, hand, wrist…but no. Just the biggest impact sites.

And I submit: What’s the point of going through life doing things halfway? I’d rather go hard, crash a few times, get up and ride again, and love what I do, rather than live too carefully.

Okay, as my daughter pointed out, there may be a middle ground. But still, I love what Hunter S. Thompson said, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, “Wow! What a ride!”


Why I love my Newf

Birthday girlHere’s a story about what my Newfoundland Freya did this morning…

I haven’t written for a bit because school started and because last week, I crashed hard on my bike during a delightfully fun group ride and broke my shoulder blade, collarbone, and three ribs. I am off teaching duties for a couple weeks. More reflection on this in a future post.

Here’s the story:

Today, my friend Barb brought her Irish wolfhound Maggie over. Maggie is an absolute sweetheart, but she is a jumper and I was a little worried. Maggie often jumps on me because she’s so excited to see me. I told Barb that if she did that, I would probably be back in the hospital. We had planned to keep the pups outside so Maggie couldn’t inflict further damage on my broken bones.

But Freya refused to leave my side and wouldn’t go outside. Maggie was not to be deterred and finally came inside.

Freya was as protective as I have ever seen her. She barricaded my chair, and she would not let Maggie near me. These two have known each other since puppyhood, and are great friends and playmates. Today, however, Freya growled at Maggie whenever she tried to approach the front of my chair. Freya played linebacker–blocking Maggie any way she tried to move to get to me, and Freya growled if Maggie got too close. When Maggie finally settled down, and it was obvious that Maggie would not jump on me, Freya assumed her bear rug position near my feet. If Maggie approached me from the back, Freya did nothing and knew I was safe I guess.

One more way I am stunned and brought to tears by my Newf’s wisdom and protective kindness. Freya, I love you. Thanks for loving me.


“From South Central College to South Africa”

“From South Central College to South Africa” is the name of my story about our trip to South Africa that came out in the Mankato Magazine this week.  The biggest problem  when working on the story was cutting it down to fit the magazine!  It could have been a novella. I’ll try to fill in some gaps here.

First, I talked about Fresh Start, the youth recycling program in Smutsville, the township in Sedgefield. Fresh Start recycling program

Here’s a link. The story tells how kids can bring glass, paper, plastic, and aluminum to Fresh Start where they earn tokens to spend in the Fresh Start store. Clothing, toiletries, school supplies, toys, and much more are purchasing options. The day they opened, 112 kids were standing in line with bags of recyclables.

The first child in line, receiving his tokens, walked wide-eyed into the store (in a storage container–thing boxcar-sized). He looked around, and his eyes lit up. What did he select? Toilet paper! With many families sharing toilets in the townships, toilet paper is at a premium. What a perspective that gives us on first world problems  like slow internet!

I’ve talked about our bike ride in Soweto, eating cow cheek and drinking home-brewed beer in a shebeen. Here are a couple photos of that:

Cow cheek (a little gristley) and pap

In the shebeen-tasting local beer from a calabash














Here we are at the most southern tip of Africa. This is Cape Agulhas, where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean. It’s so strange to look across the sea in a southern direction and know that the next land mass is Antarctica. Cape Agulhas






We stayed in the Cape Agulhas Backpackers, which was one of our favorite stay-over spots (we had MANY, so that may not be a fair thing to AFROVIBEsay, but we loved it). I’ll post more pictures of that in the next blog post.



At Afrovibe Adventure Lodge on Myoli Beach in Sedgefield, another of our faves.





Our greeting committee in Langa Township, and typical township shacks. That’s all for now, but more very soon.

Greeters in Langa Township Typical township shacks

Happy Birthday, Freya….errrr…being owned by a Newfoundland

Birthday Girl copyFreya Bear, the Newfoundland dog whom I own and love, turned seven years old yesterday, August 10. (Do we truly “own” an animal? No, truly, it’s she who owns me).

Freya is arguably the smartest, sweetest dog I’ve ever known, though I’ve certainly loved some other dogs with all my heart.  Why do we love our pets so, so much? There are starving children in the world, and there are so many causes we should get behind, and so many things to worry about…why is it that pets consume our hearts so entirely?

Birthday girl

Unconditional love, yup, that’s what good dogs give us. That’s why animals win and break our hearts.

Always, always happy to see us, they forgive us for leaving them for eight hours a day, love, love, love.

If only we could learn from our dogs. I’m sure that’s why dog is god spelled backwards. God who can send one of his children to hell doesn’t seem very unconditionally loving to me. Backwards? yup. So let’s go with Dogs.

Car ride copySo yesterday, on Freya’s seventh birthday, she and I spent the day with good friends Roger and Gwen Hart who have two Newfies. In the morning, Freya lifted her head and ears the moment I said, “Freay, we’re going to go see Buster.” She jumped up and went to wait at the back of the car for the trip.


We had a blast. Much laughter, good food, much great conversation.


Laughing with three dogs

Freya and Buster Brown swam in Storm Lake. Newfies are natural swimmers, bred to be lifeguard and life-saving dogs, and though I only take Freya swimming once a week or so, she runs to the water and can’t wait to fetch the bumper. Freya wants the bumper with me








She and Buster almost competed to reach their “quarry” in the water. Roger Hart is adept at timing throws so one dog swims for each bumper.

Roger and Buster in water Freya and me shore








It’s a beautiful thing to watch Newfies swimming.

Swimming in tandem


However, when she gets tired, she takes the bumper and runs toward the car!




Soggy  tired Freya



This year, The Harts have added another family member: little Leo. All puppy, all Newf, all goof!




I think I know you or at least I want to know you


Freya and Leo bouncingAll in all, it was a happy, happy way to spend my Freya’s birthday.

And I just had to indulge by posting all these pictures!

swimmerLove (and love being toweled off)

“The Best of Hank and Rita”

Hank-and-Rita-Hi-ResA “Barroom Operetta” is how “The Best of Hank and Rita” is billed.

A barroom operetta. How would you approach that, exactly? Expecting belly laughs and raucous, maybe raunchy humor?

I didn’t read much about it beyond the P.R. postcard. I knew that I wanted to see this show because Ann Fee and Joe Tougas, a musical duo known locally as “The Frye,” would make this too good to miss. Neither one does art half-assed, and I knew this would be good.

But this–this show–this barroom operetta–exceeded every possible conception I had about it. This is theater at its finest–maybe I even dare to say perfection.

Joe and Ann play a couple who has been on the road, performing country music for their entire life together. Rita lets us know before she’s even shown up on stage that she’s had enough, that their musical and life harmony is over. Done. Hank doesn’t know that, but they’re going to play one last show together. And the audience for the one last show is us.

Us. the audience. We know what Hank doesn’t know. Dramatic irony. We grow more and more uncomfortable as the couple uses songs they’ve written and performed over the years to tell the story of their love–and fights, and unfaithfulness, forgiveness…the list goes on.

As Hank sets out the play list for the night, Rita balks. She doesn’t want to sing the romantic tunes Hank has picked. So she retaliates with heartbreak choices Hank tries to refuse, but Rita won’t let him off the hook. This goes on, and it’s as uncomfortable as being at dinner with a couple who’s feuding but trying to put on a good front. Worse, maybe. Because Hank and Rita have a show to put on, and the show must go on, no matter what they’re feeling. And we feel all of that with them. Every bit.

Hank and Rita on stage

Ann–as Rita–has a face that reads like a novel on stage. I think that if I couldn’t hear the words, I might have been able to follow the story just from watching her face. And Rita the performer shines her practiced performer’s smile over the audience, trying to mask the pain inside. We, who know what’s going on inside her, see her smile as a mask. It’s not Ann Fee’s smile. It’s Rita’s performer smile. Amazing acting.

The final twists in the story–not just one but two–send us reeling. We didn’t know what was going on all along. And the discomfort we felt for the two characters quadruples. And so does the way their story hits us where it hurts, and where we all are human.

And that’s just the story. The music is nearly unbelievably perfect. Joe wrote eleven new songs for this operetta. We all know Joe can write, but these songs nail the relationship of Rita and Hank. And Ann’s sultry voice, turned country for the night, blends with Joe’s in a way that makes the lyrics vibrant, haunting.Ann and Joe on stage

Musical theater can sometimes be a mismatch of timing and songs that fill space or only echo what’s been said without really adding to the plot. Not true here. It’s seamless. A breath-holding night, where we can’t wait to hear what message will flow through the next song.

I didn’t want the evening to end. Time flew past, and I couldn’t believe it was over. The ending is so haunting that the audience sat in stunned silence for long seconds before we broke into applause.

This is a must-see. All performances in Mankato sold out. You’ve still got a chance to see them in New Ulm, Bryant Lake Bowl, and Duluth. Don’t miss it. I’m driving north, because I am absolutely, positively seeing this again. Maybe more than once.