Um... no

Camping. People extol its virtues and wax poetic about how relaxing, how rejuvenating it is.  I don’t enjoy it.  I tried it a few times when I was younger.  Not for me.  If camping in a trailer, it’s doll-sized everything:  doll-sized bathroom,  doll-sized stove,  doll-sized sink.  I am, however, a full-sized person. Or there’s “rustic” camping, involving sleeping in a tent. I’m beyond an age where crawling into a fabric lean-to in order to sleep on the ground appeals to me.  And digging a pit toilet.  Um – no.  There are also camping in-betweens, like a yurt or walled tent.  Been there, done that. Still: no.

I’ve not been shy about expressing my aversion to camping. But I want you to know -- I am a team player. I can keep a stiff upper lip and all that.  And my dear Wally has fond memories of camping in his youth. So, I lovingly admired his ingenuity when he bought an old van and fitted it with clever transformers: a wall flipped down to make a bed.  A table slid out from a platform where bins of cookware and a stove were stored.  Folding chairs were tucked into a corner. He was so proud. He planned a road trip for us in this miracle camping van. I said, “Okay.”

So on a warm mid-summer day, we headed west from Michigan toward our final destination of Yellowstone National Park.  Sitting up high in the van’s cushy captain seats afforded us optimal views over the tops of lowly sedans and guardrails.  How about that? Riding in the van and sightseeing was more enjoyable than I had anticipated.  As evening approached on the first day, we looked for a campground.  Being a planner by nature, I had been inclined to scope out our options ahead of time, but this was Wally’s trip; I was trying to embrace his more laissez-faire approach. After darkness had fallen, we finally saw a sign for a campground.  We pulled into the rutted driveway and pointed the headlights in the direction of a signboard with a rickety wooden box attached.  The faded instructions, posted on yellowed, wrinkled paper told us to pick a spot and put our $15 in the box. That seemed like low rent.  After consulting the diagram and choosing a non-electric lot near the bathhouse, we drove in the dark and finally found our numbered sign. We bumpity-bumped over protruding tree roots before Wally safely put the van into park.  I was learning so much!  Money box, non-electric lot, numbered sign post – but my education was only beginning.  After the long ride, a visit to the bathhouse was imperative.  A dim yellow bulb signaled the entrance where the muddy cement floor gave rise to equally wet concrete block walls that appeared to be a mosquito breeding area.  Swarms lit on my head, my arms, my backside.  I didn’t need the mosquitoes to hurry me along; the odor was overpowering. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to take the time to flush. No flusher on these commodes.  I ran back to the van and jumped in. Of course, mosquitos followed me.  The whining of the pests, the itching, and the hot humidity of the airless van made sleeping out of the question. Once a glimpse of light filtered the sky, we were up and on our way.  Tired and hungry, Wally promised breakfast out.  At home, I may have graded the restaurant average, but on that morning, it was two-thumbs-up-excellent.

The next few nights were spent at hotels where we gratefully took long showers and watched TV in bed with the air-conditioner blowing and coffee brewing.  When we got to the cool shadow of the Grand Tetons, we saw a campground and I was persuaded to give the van another chance.  Our spot showcased the mountain vista. Watching the sun set behind the peaks would have been inspiring and maybe even relaxing, except for the ominous signs posted everywhere.  Beware of Bears signs warned us that neglecting to secure even a bottle of shampoo would bring bears running. The bathhouse had clean tiles and flushing toilets, which was a relief, but the massive latches on the doors meant to foil the wily bears were a challenge. With little regard for the bears, Wally started a campfire and roasted some hotdogs and beans. We ate like cowboys amid sagebrush and fear.  Thankful that we didn’t attract any furry visitors, we quickly disposed of our trash after deciphering the baffling dumpster lids. We survived our second camping night.

At Yellowstone, we saw the eruption of Old Faithful and the mysterious boiling mud pots. A bison ran alongside the van for a bit, dove into the dust, rolled over and stood again with astonishing speed for such a bulky animal.  Completely worth the trip. 

When we left Yellowstone, we passed through a good-sized town where I looked at the gas gauge and saw that we had less than half a tank.  My dad indoctrinated me in the virtues of a full tank, so I mentioned that we might want to fill up.  Wally said we had plenty of gas; we’d stop later.  I bit my tongue and we headed into the desert.  Mile after mile, the gas gauge continued to drop as we passed exit after exit with No Services signs posted. The low fuel light glowed and my anxiety grew. I checked my cell phone: also No Service. There were few cars on the road. You know where my thoughts were going, right? Why didn’t we fill up when I said to, and what on earth would we do if we ran out of gas out here in this god-forsaken wasteland?  Finally, an exit with a gas station appeared and the van coasted in on fumes.  After filling the tank, we went inside to pay.  Just as we were ready to leave, a man and woman hustled in and started for the rear of the station.  The cashier called, “Restroom is out of order.”  The panic in their eyes made mine water. My gas anxiety met their toilet anxiety. 

On our last night before reaching home, Wally persuaded me to give camping one last go.  After claiming our camping spot, we climbed an embankment adjacent to the campground to eat dinner at a restaurant with a moose statue out front.  I took that as a good sign; I love moose.  After hoisting our full bellies back over the hill to the van, we fell into bed and slept until I woke up at about 2 a.m., needing to go to the bathhouse.  Since it was pitch dark outside and a bit of a walk, Wally agreed to go, too. It was a nice bathhouse, clean, and bug- and odor-free. Maybe, I thought, if we found a nice campground like this one, I could camp in the van more.  That notion quickly disappeared when, returning to the van, we realized that we were locked out.   We peered in the window to see the metal of the keys in the ignition, glinting in the moonlight.  Wally paced and thought out loud about how he might remedy the situation.  I sat on the picnic table and swatted mosquitoes.  Minutes dragged by. Finally, I heard Wally’s voice from the other side of the van.  He had woken some folks in a nearby trailer and they gave him a wire coat hanger. Who even has wire coat hangers anymore? Wally straightened the wire and began to thread it through the window frame.  After many misses, he asked me to hold his cell phone like a flashlight.  “What???  You had your phone all this time? I’m calling 911!”

“No,” he said.  “That’s not what 911 is for.”

“This is exactly what 911 is for.  Stranded in the middle of the night.  An emergency.”

“Just hold it here.” He trained the light on the lock button.  I held the phone and sure enough – he popped the lock.  Thank goodness he bought an old van with protruding door lock buttons. And now I know he is not only handy in retrofitting an old van into a camping vehicle, he’s also proficient in breaking-and-entering.

The van continues to take us on road trips. We catch great views along the way from our high vantage point. We take turns napping on the bed in the back sometimes.  We have plenty of room for luggage and purchases where the camping gear was once stowed.  Wally also uses the van to haul building supplies for his job. We live in complete harmony because, after what we now fondly call our Yellowstone Adventure, Wally doesn’t like camping, either.

green van.jpg

How to Find a Petoskey Stone

How to Find a Petoskey Stone (or at least call yourself a rock hound)

1.    Go to northern Michigan.  These special rocks, the state stone of Michigan, can also be found in some other mid-western states such as Iowa and Wisconsin, but since I am a Michigan girl and have only found them here, I say this is the place to look.

2.    Choose a day not too windy, not too cold, not too wavy. It’s hard to see rocks in the water when the waves are rolling.

3.    Think about using sunscreen on your shoulders and on the back of your neck, even if the day is overcast.  You’ll be looking down a lot and can still get a nasty sunburn, even on a cloudy day.

4.    Have bug spray on hand if there’s no wind.  The horseflies may be biting. They like to land on your head. If you wear glasses, take them off before spraying around your hair; the spray will ruin your lenses.

5.    Bring a bucket or similar container.  It’s just too easy to ruin a perfectly good shirt using it as a rock-carrying sling, and quite unnecessary if you plan ahead this way.

6.    Put on your swimsuit or shorts or – if you don’t like your legs showing too much – capris.  Even pedal-pushers or bermudas would be good, although young people may not know what those are.  You might like to wear flip-flops or water shoes to protect your delicate feet from pokey rocks.

7.    Find a nice lake with a rocky shoreline.  One of the Great Lakes is best, but inland lakes can be good, too.  Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay is famous for its Petoskey stones.  I also love all the colorful rocks along the Lake Superior shoreline, even further north.  Please note that a sandy shoreline is swell for swimming and building castles with fancy moats, but you won’t find good rocks there.

8.    Wade into the water.  You’ll see that the rocks nearest the edge have been washed and rolled clean so you can see them best.  The rocks further into the lake may be excellent, but you can’t tell because they are covered with green mossy slime.  Besides, the slime is slippery and a falling hazard.

9.    Bend over and study the rocks.  Stand in one spot for a while until you can discriminate among all of the colors of gray.

10. It’s almost impossible to identify a dry Petoskey stone.  The lake water works well, but the rocks can also be found in gravel pits and along roads.  If you find a possible Petoskey stone in a dry location, spit on it to know for sure. Rub the spit around with your finger.  Check both sides. Sometimes the Petoskey part isn’t covering the whole stone.

11. Maybe you’ll spy a cool striped rock, or one in a color you like.  Feel free to pick it up for your collection, but keep looking.  The more you look and pick up cool stones, the more you will feel like a real Rock Hound.  It’s an old term for somebody who likes, knows about, and collects rocks.

12. You may want to keep your rocks in water or lacquer them to show off their beauty.  Or you can polish them.  The link at the end of this article tells all about polishing stones.

Here are some helpful photos so you will know what you’re looking for:

These are fossils.  They’re super cool, but they’re not Petoskey stones.


This is a shell (also not a Petoskey stone).

lake shell

This is a Petoskey stone wannabe. It’s not quite there, but you can see that it’s trying.

PS Wannabe

Can you spot a Petoskey stone here? 

lake rocks w/ps

 THIS is a Petoskey stone!

Petoskey Stone

What is a Petoskey stone anyway? It is a fossil colonial coral that lived in the warm Michigan seas during the Devonian time around 350 million years ago.  Do you want to know more?

Read Rocky Lottie and Lakey Lottie!




To Finish or Not to Finish....

To read or not to read -- that is NOT the question.  Yes, you need to read, but do you need to finish that book?


Perhaps, like me, you were told to “finish what you begin,” and that adage extended to books.  From childhood throughout my youth and into adulthood, I dutifully finished every book I started.  I’ve waded through some tomes that were pretty much pure torture.  One that immediately comes to mind is Atlas Shrugged.  I finished it, but began to speak to myself differently after that.  “I’m a grown-up.”  “I don’t have to read things I don’t like.”  “Life is short.”  “There are so many great/enjoyable books out there.”  You get the idea.


So now, I give a book a good go, but if it doesn’t grab me by the third chapter or so, I make a different choice.  You may wonder – should we “make” kids finish books?  


If the child has a chronic problem of not finishing things, then maybe a well-chosen book with subject matter of interest to said child should be a must-finish project. Maybe an incentive could be established to encourage the finishing of one book, then two, etc.  If you find a series of children’s books, and the first one is a hit, then you are golden.  Here’s a handy online database that may help your search:  (Hint:  Elementary-aged boys tend to like factual, non-fiction books.)


Maybe your child’s school has an active Accelerated Reader (AR) program with points earned for reading books and taking online quizzes.  For some kids, that’s great incentive to finish a book.  If you want to look up the reading level and point value of books, you can go to:


My own kids weren’t crazy about AR, but they liked to “earn” new books by reading a certain number of books (in keeping with their ages/abilities).  They would keep track on a reading chart at home and then we’d make a trip to the bookstore so they could choose a new book for their growing home library.


If incentives to read are not an issue, and you have an already voraciously reading child, then he or she has probably developed some discernment about what they like, and even recognize the difference between good and not-so-good writing.  In that case, I would apply the same principle that I give myself:  Read a few chapters, and if you’re not engaged – give it up and make another choice. 


They may not yet be grown-ups, but they may be allowed to obey the little voice in their heads that says things like: “I don’t have to read things I don’t like.”  “Life is short.”  “There are so many great/enjoyable books out there.”



Although I gave parenting my all, I know I made lots of mistakes. Perhaps you’re confidently parenting with skill, but maybe – like me – you could have used some pointers. Let me encourage you here, at the beginning of a new school year, that you have an opportunity to draw a line in the sand and make a fresh start. In the spirit of “It’s never too late,” I’m offering a few tips I’ve picked up over the years that I hope you’ll find helpful.

10. Laugh a lot. Don’t allow the pressures of parenting rob you of your sense of humor. Most things are just not worth the angst. Really.

9. Let your kids “own” their stuff. By that, I mean that it’s important not to rob your kids of tasks or opportunities for growth. Just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean they don’t have to do it THEMSELVES. If they are struggling, trying, working, the best thing you can do is take a stance of benign and friendly neglect in order to grow capable people.

8. Good enough is good enough. Perfect is too much – for anyone. Let it go already.

7. Rest is important for you and for your kids. When everyone is tired, over-scheduled, and stressed, nobody is at his or her best. Enforced “down time” and bedtimes are a must.

6. Don’t expect kids to be more mature than you are. ‘Nuff said.

5. It’s natural to get angry at times. Of course you do! But try try try NOT to react or punish out of anger. Give yourself a breather. Take deep breaths, count to 10, or walk away with a promise to return. Then deal maturely with the issue keeping long-term goals in mind.

4. Are you a “messy” and your child is a “tidy”? Are you a “quiet” and your child is a “noisy”? Are you a “doer” and your child is a “thinker”? Learn to love and accept your child for the person he or she is. They are who they are. They will likely still have those traits as adults. Hopefully, they will love and accept you for your traits, too.

3. Enlist their help with household tasks, even at a very young age. Let them take charge of some jobs. Parents are not household servants. You are a family working together so everyone can have a life.

2. Less preaching, more showing. Let your kids see you living out your priorities and values. They are studying you and your actions. Live what you believe so they want to emulate you instead of some dubious public figure.

1.Respect your children. What a wonder to have little people who love us and learn from us. Listen to them, value their opinions, learn what makes them tick. Respect gives dignity and makes people feel loved. The relationship is everything.

I’m pulling for you. Keep calm and parent on.

Children and Reading -- Part 1: Choices

When I worked in the elementary school library, parents would complain that their children didn't like to read, or that they would only read graphic novels, or would only read non-fiction, or would only read magazines.  I like a discerning reader as much as the next book lover, but let's keep our eye on the goal.  The goal is reading. My own children's choices in reading material was not always stellar.  One liked Rainbow Brite and the other liked to read the Sesame Street Dictionary, but guess what?  They are both excellent readers and writers as adults. And be honest, now.  Don't we like our People Magazine,  50 Shades, sports pages?  Of course we do. And we are reading.  Hopefully, we choose to read more lofty, well-written materials as well.  Let's not expect more of our children than we expect of ourselves.   So, I say -- let the kids read what interests them.  You may be sick of Captain Underpants, but they aren't.  Okay, Mom & Dad:  No eye-rolling,  sighing, or disapproving crabby faces.  Smile and be happy for your budding readers.   Let them indulge in reading for their pleasure, and you will have another life-long reader in the family.  

More ch - ch - ch - changes!

In late January, I began a part-time, on-call position as a biometric technician for the U.S. Department of Immigration office in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Quite a switch from other positions I've held, but I like it and the people I work with are so nice and professional.  The bonus is that I am meeting people from all over the world! What a wonderful opportunity.  I might find material for writing, you never know.  Life is GOOD.


Such a math-ish term for a word girl to use!  Isn't this just life?  You think you know what's next, but NO!  Life has a surprise for you.  I had just such a surprise a couple of weeks ago when I received a phone call letting me know that I am being transferred from the elementary library where I have been for the past couple of years to -- wait for it -- the High School library!  Wow!  I will be with the Very Big Kids.  So I am attempting to shift gears in my head, recalibrate my thinking, learn about books for older students.  I'm sad to leave my little students.  I'm quite sure nobody is going to offer me a proposal of marriage with a pink cardboard ring on Valentine's Day or run up and hug me in the hallway, but there will be other rewards.  My recalibrated self is counting on it. 

Iowa Writer's Festival July 2013

Here I am once again looking for my muse in order to write what's on my heart.  What's the problem?  I think I write a little too succinctly to be able to write a whole novel, although I certainly have plenty of material.  Maybe a novella?  chapbook?  pamphlet?   

There are some very talented writers in my class and I learn so much from reading their work.  The instructor is also so good and I have my conference with him this morning.  I'm hopeful that I'll have a sense of direction after today.  It seems like I generally have this lostish feeling mid-week when I come here, and then experience some kind of breakthrough.  Let's hope the trend holds....

Shining Eyes and the Power of Music

I love to listen to TED Talks online.  If you have never seen/heard one, I urge you to take a few minutes to enjoy this one:  It's a wonderful demonstration of the power of music, and a strong argument for more music education in our schools.  This is why I play CDs of classical music during open times in the elementary school library where I work.  We all need more -- not less -- exposure to beauty.

Nearly July 4 -- what???

I can hardly believe that June is nearly over; summer is whizzing by.  Last weekend, I went to Iowa City -- not for the writer's festival -- but to hang out with friends who were taking classes.  I'm going again in July for two classes:  Dialogue "You Talkin' to Me?" with Kate Aspengren and "Stinky Magic" the middle grade novel with Kelly Dwyer.  

Back to my weekend -- because of my lame hand, I shipped via UPS my "luggage," which was really a sturdy Scholastic Book Fair box, and I took the Amtrak from Holland, MI to Chicago, then walked a block from Union Station and caught the Megabus to Iowa City.  The Megabus stop in Iowa City is right behind the Sheraton where I stay.  Slick!  I liked it so much, I'm taking the same transportation when I go back even though the pins come out of my finger on July 3 and I will hopefully not be so incapable.  I may actually take a suitcase!!!

So, I caught up with friends from prior years:  Jane T, Rosemarie B., Stephanie Z., Jim C., and had a chance reacquaintance with Margaret, a pioneering documentary filmmaker who, in retirement, is writing her memoir. I was included in friend Kate Aspengren's class dinner on Thursday evening and as usual, met some very talented and interesting people.  On Friday, we went to a theater production, and on Saturday, ate out with some new friends from Argentina and Chile.  Laughed in excess: good for the soul.  

Dinner with Kate and Jane before the theaterTapas with new friends from Argentina and Chile

Kate and I visited her "statue" on the Iowa City Literary Walk.  Did you know that Iowa City is one of 5 Unesco World Heritage Sites for Literature?  Kate is a playwright and a humorist and a good friend.  Now she is famous.  So happy for her!

Kate Aspengren. The book on the top has her name on the spine.On the way back home, I sat with a very nice woman on the Amtrak.  Sherrie and her husband are creatives with a business in Grand Rapids.  Their newest venture can be seen at  We had a nice time sharing stories about the creative process.  I hope to see their booth at the Sunday Fulton Street Art Market soon.

My children's early reader chapter book is nearly ready for publication.  I am self-publishing through It's a bit of a learning curve and somewhat challenging, but I am super excited to see Lucky Lottie in print. Excerpt coming soon.  Stay tuned....

welcome to ms. hen's pen

so glad you found this page.  i am typing with one hand because i broke my little finger playing kickball at school. for the record, i made a good kick, but i tripped over my own feet running to first base.  i now have two pins in my finger and a gigantic bandage.  there may be a lottie story in all this some day, but for now i have only one hand to use.