Words of advice while you’re trudging to your happily ever after


“I was married by a judge. I should have asked for a jury.”
Groucho Marx

July 28, 2015, made for 18 years of wedded bliss and we were married by a judge.

I think the juries of our families might have come back with a verdict of “this won’t last.” But they all wisely kept it to themselves.

mike and brenda 2We eloped because we (I) wanted to avoid the emotional stress of orchestrating a formal wedding. We picked Lovington, NM, as our destination. With two “best women” as our witnesses we agreed to the civil vows given to us by the judge.

Nine months later we followed up with a reception at the insistence of our families (who I think secretly would have liked the emotional stress of a formal wedding). Many precious friends and family attended the reception and gave us fine gifts. The gift I treasure the most, though, is the “Book of Marriage Wisdom” I asked our guests to write in.

Their thoughts have helped us over the years, maybe you’ll find some that will help you:

  • “Take a lot of walks. Also one day at a time.” (JT and HT).
  • “Just be sure to each give a little over 50 percent.” (DL)
  • “Three things to remember always: trust, communication, and honesty.” (SW)
  • “Don’t wait for the other one to say sorry.” (ME)
  • “Be patient with each other!” (BS and OS)
  • “The most important thing I’ve learned being married is to remember that you’re in this thing–called life–together. The world around you may fall apart periodically but if you face it together it will all be OK. Mutual love and respect and keeping a relationship alive and growing are essentials. May you always be grateful to God for bringing you together.” (GB and SB)
  • “Be good. Love each other. Let God lead you everyday.” (VM and JM)
  • “Always keep your face towards the sunlight.” (VT)
  • “Love and laugh together for a very long time. Don’t go to sleep mad at each other. (Unsigned).
  • “Don’t go over the max on your credit cards.” (MJ)
  • “If I had it to do over I would have respected my husbands’ needs more. They may be different from mine and unique to him. If I could practice “live and let live” daily, that would be my goal. Forgiveness is not forgetting, it’s letting go of the hurt. I would pray for God’s will in my mate’s life and realize it was none of my business to figure out what it was. God loves you both tremendously and you are His gifts to each other. (JC)
  • “Always talk about stuff. Never go to bed mad at each other. Be each other’s best friend. Make a date night once a week and stick to it. Respect each other’s opinions and don’t try to be someone you think the other one wants you to be. Be yourself. (JAH)
  • “Take each other seriously. Take the good with the bad. The good can help get you through the bad. Never stop laughing. Have as much fun as you can. And remember at least life is never boring.” (DRH)

What advice do you have?

mike and brenda


From Iowa to New Mexico to Maine to China

Maine 029

Jing Zhang Director of Chinese Language-Culture Center & Confucius Classroom of Maine President of Bangor/Portland Chinese Language School Director of STARTALK in Bangor, Maine

The other day, I gave my son, Chris, and two of his friends a ride to the skating rink. On the way there, the two friends started speaking in Spanish, not uncommon in Hobbs, NM. After they were done, my son said “Hey, I’m bilingual, too, I speak Chinese.”

Yes, he does.

Chris will be in Bangor, Maine, (his fourth summer there) at the StarTalk Language Immersion Program for two more weeks and then traveling to China for his three-week study trip. He is already Skyping with his Chinese host family. As a family, we have all worked hard to help Chris achieve this goal.

(致谢 zhì xiè expression of gratitude) But I especially give thanks to my dear friends, Dr. Kesho Scott of Grinnell College, and Dr. Yusheng Wu, of University of the Southwest, for the inspiration provided to my son for this journey. Four years ago, Dr. Scott led a series of workshops here in Hobbs for a Black History Month Project for University of the Southwest. But with my son, she spoke about her annual trips to China to teach at universities in Beijing and Shanghai. That same year, Dr. Wu came to teach at University of the Southwest and where I was working at the time as Director of Public Relations. My son and Dr. Wu forged a friendship and graciously worked with Chris over the years, helping him practice Chinese.

These two people planted the seeds for a dream for my 15-year-old son with roots which reach clear around the world. He is showing his appreciation by growing…


Drink some coffee and grow up!

creative non fiction

coffeeI was nine, when I tried coffee for the first time. Sitting with my mother at our breakfast table, I took a sip from one of our reversed-dyed Easter egg coffee mugs and immediately scrunched up my face.

“How do you stand this stuff,” I asked her.

“You learn to like it,” my mother responded, as she took a sip from her own mug as easily as if she was taking a swallow of tap water.

Learning to like most things deemed for grown ups, such as coffee, has been my ongoing struggle into maturity. My mother was 40 when she answered my question about coffee drinking. Now, I’m nearly 50 and finally learning to like coffee, but I have, as of yet, failed to learn to like it straight up black as my mother did.

After my first coffee encounter,  I chose to avoid it for a long time. Most people I knew by the time they were 25 jolted themselves awake with a cup of joe. Not me. Although Pepsi is an afternoon drink, something to refresh and revive you after a long day toiling in the sun, it was the closest to the coffee jolt that I would allow. Later, I switched to Diet Coke when I conceded I needed to stoic up a bit in my approach to life. No more unlimited amounts of a sugar buzz for me. Before bedtime I would be lulled into dreamland with a somniferous sip of milk, or later in my life, herbal tea.

Coffee, on the other hand, is what you drink to parachute yourself into your life, to hit the ground running, to take on the battles of the day. But I wanted no part of that. I didn’t mind watching other people jump from the plane, but I didn’t want to myself and I barely wanted to even board the plane.

People would ask, “would you like a cup of coffee,” and immediately I responded with a grimace on my face at the long ago memory of that one sip. “No thanks, I can’t stand coffee,” I said. “But do you have a diet Coke?” I convinced myself that caffeinated cola products were just as grown-up as coffee even though whenever I ventured into Quik Trip, a local convenience store, the people in business suits gravitated to the coffee makers and the high school students headed for the refrigerated drink section.

I graduated from college with a journalism degree, a field notoriously famous  for hard drinking, chain smoking, facts oriented wordsmiths. These people were content with the world as it was without embellishment. I wanted to search for deeper meanings and look at life through an artist’s lens, softened by sugar and cream.

I needed to dig deeper to reconcile the life of the coffee grower in Brazil who handpicks a crop by hand and earns less than five cents a pound with the coffee drinker who spends an average of $6 a day from specialty coffee shops.  And I wanted to excuse myself for any culpability in the exchange. Dollar for dollar, the exchange rate is in favor of the middle man on Wall Street and not the field worker or the coffee drinker.

It’s easy to be in solidarity with third-world farmers by refusing to drink something I didn’t like anyway. But giving up other luxuries, such as my car, is another matter. Petroleum is the most traded item on the world market with the U.S., China, and India leading the way.  All the way around, petroleum is a volatile commodity on the markets for pricing and as a discussion between opposing political forces.

In the end, though, it’s been an oil and gas man who has progressively changed my thinking about certain grown-up aspects of life , such as coffee, that I only cared about from the edges.

My husband has been a thermos-full (and many times two) of coffee a day drinker for most of the time I’ve known him: 17 years. As part of his morning routine he brews a pot of coffee, takes a single mugful from the pot to drink with his breakfast, and the rest he pours into his thermos, which he takes with him to work. When I first met him he drank only the strongest black brew that could be made, cowboy coffee. He had lived for 12 years in the west Texas, eastern New Mexico region of the United States and there the sugar-filled mocha lattes and double espressos were harder to come by than just plain, straight up black coffee.

In urban areas you can now buy a cup of instant mix cappuccino at a gas station. Until recently, in west Texas oil towns your offerings of coffee were limited to a range of intensity of black and decaff and the decaff, many times, could only be obtained by special request of the attendant. It’s not that the lighter versions are hard to buy or transport to the remote desert it’s just hard to sell to calloused-hand oil roustabouts and rodeo riders.

I have always had a shut down time of 6 p.m. when I stopped drinking pop. My husband can savor a cup of coffee just minutes before bedtime and still drift off into lullaby land as if he had been rocked to sleep like a baby in his mother’s arms. He has either developed a tolerance to caffeine or he ignores its stimulating effect to ensure a restful night of sleep. He knows every day is a rigorous joust in conquering the monstrous iron machinery.

My husband had a brief period when he disliked coffee. In his 20s, my husband participated in a smoke-ender’s program. A three-pack a day Marlboro man, he voluntarily signed up for the program when the oil company he worked for enacted a policy prohibiting smoking at the gas plant. It was a sensible policy on the surface, but a difficult one to enact from a practical matter. Many of these guys had smoked from the time they were teenagers and it didn’t occur that their deadly personal habit could have far harsher consequences if the right flick of a cigarette met up with the wrong vapor of gas.

“They had us brush our teeth five times a day,” Mike said of one of the techniques used during the six-week program. “The taste of the coffee just didn’t sit well in my clean mouth.”

Except for that brief interlude, my husband has sped like a train through life with coffee and caffeine coursing through his engine. This penchant for coffee is one of the few bad habits that remains with my husband. As he has matured, my husband has eliminated a number of other poor lifestyle habits in addition to smoking cigarettes. He’s  embraced the responsibilities of his life as a husband, father, and employee and immersed himself in all of it.

While I, on the other hand, still pitter patter my way around the edges of life. Any sign of an uncomfortable situation within my responsibilities cause me to scrunch my face much like that first sip of coffee did. And while I’ve been able to reduce my consumption of Diet Coke and increase my cups of daily coffee, my coffee still comes with a side of cream and sugar.



Century farms.  Marriage vows. Each of them bound by bands of nothing (1)00. Both of them held together by the daily decision to stay in one place, no matter what.

For the Century Farms, the land is more powerful than the individuals trying to submit it to their wills, as the land will never be completely tamed by the stewardship of those owning it.  The land must possess the farmers, as the land has remained, but the people toiling on it have disappeared over time. And even if their bodies aren’t buried on the land, their sweat mixed in with blood and love have been tilled into the sweet, black earth, and they will either poison or fortify the crops, based on the farmer’s skill and life’s luck.

In Iowa, a Century Farm cannot be a plot of garden like in the neighbor’s backyard.  Instead, a Century Farm must dramatically encompass a chunk of the countryside, at least 40 acres, or nearly one square mile.  And the only bond the farm owners must have from the first to the last generation is that there be a piece of paper documenting their relationship through legal agreement to a common name.  No inquiry is made into whether an emotional connectedness exists, either in their opinions of each other or of that piece of land. The Century Farm is homesteaded by a clan of people who, for whatever motives, have agreed to combine their diverse stories into a singularity of history as it is symbolized by a sign on a wooden post at the entrance to the farm lane. Despite the laudable effort of their time to that piece of earth, the land has no judgment of the work of these disparate people; it only absorbs what they give to it.  But in the end, the land ultimately will decide whether the family can continue its commitment by either allowing them to reap more bountiful harvests, or evicting them through the sheer poverty of what the family has contributed.  The pioneering farmer plants his stake on this piece of land, ignorant of all that could pass to his and to the future generation’s way from the infinitesimal universe—drought, flood, tornado, fire.  Succeeding blood lines look back at what has been conquered but also forward to the always potential rich bounty that this family’s patch of golden green foliage and coal-black soil will produce. The 100 sign stands sentry at the entrance as symbol to this family’s devotion to the work of this land.

A married couple looks across the wide expanse of virginal years and declares their stake in each other’s future.  For better, for worse.  For richer for poorer.  In sickness and in health.  The fertility of their dedication looms larger on the horizon than the external calamities that may beset them.  Those are blurred by love’s lushness.

Love conquers all.

Yet with no other options available, the potential of their lives is prostituted by the demands of daily living.  Grand love is condensed into the moments of singular sameness—same job, same car, same bed, same family reunions.

There was no romance or efficiency of work for the pioneering farmer who turned the earth with a hand shovel—just sheer determination to cultivate what would grow to make a living and a life.

It’s not the plentiful harvest that divines the character of a Century Farm family; instead what gives the Family its sense of Century (1)00 are the very disasters everyone hoped to avoid, but didn’t, and stayed put anyway.  It’s not the drudgery of everyday living that determines whether the couple will be among the 50 percent who stay put, no matter what.  The “story of them” is authored through the commemorations and crises—births, deaths, house purchases, job changes—obscured on the distant horizon by their love’s lushness, but culminating into a frenzy of staying put, no matter the conflict the unexpected common experiences create.

Yet the significance of these events fades away:

during the momentary rectitude of quiet conversation;

sitting on the patio;

hearing the wind chimes;

watching the setting summer sun; and

brushing with bare feet the dog that lies beside both of you.

No obligation to keep you together except the two bands of nothing (00).