The following is my tribute to my sister, Denise, two years younger. She passed on Feb. 6 after living five years with metastatic breast cancer. Her services were held Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, at Peace Church, Duluth, MN.

I sat the other day and gathered pictures of Denise.

So many photos. Stacked up prints … skinny kids with knobby knees dating back to our childhoods in the ‘50s and ‘60s taken in careful pose in twos, threes, fours, fives, sixes and finally sevens by our father, aware of the cost of developing but not, clearly, of child rearing.

Each photo is a piece of her life and our lives and I had too few pieces of her to hold.

I looked at one of the photos and thought what was she doing smoking a cigar? Without wine?

Denise with cigar
Denise Marie (Shipley) Hamsher

My stacks of photos reminded me of her stacking and organizing fabric for her quilts. She would stitch together carefully arranged pieces to become a greater, warmer whole.

She would make the quilting run in elegant, geometric loops and sweeps, or orderly lines, or organically, like spreading branches, connecting each piece and binding them tightly, even if stitched imperfectly, where only she could see and would point out.

Our lives in memory are like that: episodes and people stitched together. For Denise, it was always careful, determined, practical work. Denise warmly embraced life with Dennis, Chris, Becky and Lara, and each grandchild, Zalia, Tinley, Brooklyn, Owen, Leila and Matteo, this gifted time had graced to her.

Life doesn’t always run along the stitching laid out in plan. It doesn’t for any of us. Cancer certainly wasn’t in the pattern. Denise chose to live with cancer, not letting it break her off her design, simply folding it into her life.

This past December she made sure she was with family over the holiday as in pattern. Family is a bit far-flung but it was she who made the journeys. Her visit to us was joyfully welcomed.

She took respite in Costa Rica in early January this year, as she had since resting there after a mission trip a few years earlier. Earlier trips now seem so long ago. Then, we had forgotten cancer as she had walked with us; bicycled to beaches and into town and back; and, laughed about grandchildren at restaurants over fresh fish, rice and beans, and gin and tonic from grapefruits picked off the trees at the house we all shared.

But this year, when she rode the bike to Playa Carillo, she rode back on Dennis’ motorcycle. We walked more slowly to sunset on the Pacific beach together, she holding Dennis’ hand. We took the bus into town and not a bike on the beach. She was stoic, but weakened, as we knew since she had relinquished the kitchen she had always commanded previously there and elsewhere.

Denise and Dennis were planning trips to Alabama and on a Mediterranean cruise. One evening she sat in our chat circle and arranged travel insurance. It was a “just in case” arrangement, she said, turning the focus to what they would do in Barcelona.

She lived with cancer, but it wasn’t going to dominate her days.

Our time for our visit had ended and she and I hugged goodbye, her grip around me stronger and longer lasting, it seemed.

My heart feared.

Memories occupied the trip home for Roseanna and I. Regret crept back for childish teenage fights Denise and I had. Who was in charge while mom and dad played bridge? (She was!) Who got the car this night? (I did.) Roseanna reminded me that Denise had introduced us one winter evening some 50 years ago.

Denise clearly wasn’t well and wanted to see her doctor here in Duluth. She returned early. Dennis took her home where she passed peacefully in her bed, her family beside her. This is so precisely how she intended … having lived with cancer.

It was the last piece she had determinedly stitched into the pattern of her life.

In my tomorrows, I will wrap myself warmly in her quilt, running my hands over the stitching while tracing the better memories of our lives, episodes we can laugh about or cry over even regret but must always embrace.

Denise lived with cancer while planning quilts, gathering the pieces, artfully laying out the design, stitching the pieces, then the quilting to bind everything together only to, once finished, give quilts to family, her children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces and nephews and their children and beyond to friends. This was her pattern.

It is how she addressed life.

It would be good to live as generously determined, as purposefully stitched to life, living with as did my sister, Denise.

Grassley School of Personal Finance

The honorable Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-IA, suggests we’d all be wealthy and subject to the estate tax if only we’d not spend so much money on “whisky (sic), women and movies.” This is clearly the opus to The Grassley School of Personal Finance. He could have so many emeritus contributors, like Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI.

Well, as Philip Bump notes in the Washington Post, if you forego buying 310,000 bottles of whiskey, you’d have $5.5 million instead. Or, a heck of a lot of date nights, 83,000, with my 45-year spouse (the “spending on women” thing confuses me as what in Grassley’s experience suggests spending is widespread on, politely, escort services?). Or, 523,000 viewings of Justice League.

Bump missed so much that Grassley clearly would include in his curriculum. If I could only spurn some two million cups of cafe coffee I’d achieve $5.5 million; if my kids could have foregone 1,890,034 school lunches (at $2.91 average cost); if only …

Let’s turn to Ryan, who suggested a single mother earning $30,000 will see a $711 increase in her tax refund under the GOP tax reform package. This is n amount sufficient, he said, to “start saving for her future.” But the benefits to Ryan’s mythical “Cindy” expire in the House “tax reform” bill though Ryan promises they won’t. I’m sure Cindy will be able to find an investment use for the $59.25 that she’ll see at least once.

Of course. Maybe Cindy would like a better apartment than the $700 a month, or 28% of her gross monthly income she mythically pays. Pray she not work in a metro area as the median rent where I live 45 minutes northwest of Chicago is more than $1,500. “Pray” must be good as several religious bloggers boast of living well on $30,000 a year. My research was road-blocked by the first blog’s reference to accepting boarders as a means of defraying housing costs. I’m doubting mythical Cindy’s mythical $700 apartment has a spare bedroom.

Unfortunately for Cindy, $59.25 a month boost won’t help get her through community college, which might be a fine investment, but average costs were $3,260 two years ago. (The last data I found.) In demand technical certificates could get her a job boasting about $39,000. The roughly $5.8 billion in tax cuts for the wealthy would cover two years of community college for 1,779,141 people. Maybe a tuition tax credit would help! No, too progressive?

I might be wrong in this and plenty of families are living comfortably or not on $30,000 a year. But the point is that Grassley and Ryan et al simply can’t see the complexities of life in America if they think their tax reform is a solution. If you’re one of those who voted GOP because of diminished opportunities, perhaps you’ll think hard on their message and lack of empathy for people like their mythical Cindy. Last I saw, the top 1%, even top 20%, weren’t lacking for opportunities but I’m sure will welcome the tens and hundreds of thousands they’ll get in benefit from the GOP efforts.

Maybe, and this is entirely sarcastic, Cindy and her 11-year-old daughter could become one of those “women” on which Sen. Grassley thinks people of all gender identities (he’s politically correct, right?) are spending so much money. Best that they move to Alabama where such activity seems acceptable at young age.


On Tyranny

History shows us that tyranny doesn’t arrive in the cloud of a hopeful revolution or an invasion, but most often we invite it through the front door, engage it to sit with us, agree with its fears, and find ourselves surprisingly captive by our own actions.

Listen a bit to Timothy Snyder, Yale history professor, author of seminal work on the Holocaust, and a little book titled “On Tyranny.” He offers much on YouTube, so take advantage and gain some understanding of our current times.

Bread Bags

Thinking, vaguely, about opening a fundraising campaign to finance science-method research on how long bread bags last as waterproof covers for shoes. #joniernst

A Lesson from Isabel

Once upon a time companies provided pensions but they didn’t want to. So, the 401k was invented and, to get people to sign up, companies promised matching contributi­ons. After a time, many companies stopped making matching contributi­ons because they didn’t like to. (Details here and here.) Then Wall Street fraud bleed our 401ks in part by slipping toxic mortgage bonds into our portfolios­. Retirement portfolios have been battered by the mortgage crisis and subsequent resulting volatility in stock and bond markets.

In the meantime, Social Security didn’t skip a payment. That’s why it’s called a safety net. Do you really want to rely on Wall Street to be your safety net? Ask this question of your Representative or Senator. I’d ask this of my representative but, unfortunately, it’s Joe Walsh and, given his recent performance, I’m afraid his head would explode and by-standers would get hurt. Newt Gingrich’s head, at least egotistically, has already exploded in promoting the privatization of all retirement funds.

Where is all this coming from? David Koch ran as vice president in1980 on a plan to abolish Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and all forms of “welfare” and public education. The results of his failed campaign are being played out today.

Post-1980, Koch and his brother set about to redefine the narrative, the “script” as he called it that politicians follow. The Koches founded the Heritage Foundation, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and more, all organizations that set about to recast the narrative. While this sounds conspiratorial, it’s not. You can look up on ALEC’s web site how mush so-called model legislation, crafted by corporate lobby attorneys, they’ve pushed through state legislatures. The contentious Arizona immigration bill is one. Ohio Governor John Kasich’s anti-union legislation so roundly rejected by voters is another. This isn’t conspiracy: it is history and current events. ALEC Exposed discusses the forces behind ALEC model legislation.

My late grandmother, Isabel, told me why she was staunchly Republican. During the depression, she was offered a job, a great opportunity since she was disabled young by severe arthritis. But, one requisite was she would have to register Democrat. She wouldn’t and didn’t take the job: A stand of principle over self-interest and a stubbornness that defines our family heritage. She also told me that as much as she rejected Franklin D. Roosevelt, that Social Security was the best thing the government had accomplished. Social Security enabled my grandmother to live to 88 with a modicum of dignity. Details here, so we needn’t bandy about percentages of seniors living in poverty before and after enactment. Legitimate dispute may exist on the percentages but no dispute should exist that too many elderly lived shorter lives in poverty before Social Security.

Today’s GOP and its Koch-driven allies simply don’t want to pay towards the earned benefit that is Social Security, promoting some sort of Libertarian Nirvana where we all take care of ourselves. Would that we all had the wherewithal. I don’t like the look of a nation where a huge proportion of elderly live in poverty and I’m willing to live with fractional abuse of the system in order to retain a safety net.


Remember when teachers, sanitation workers, street workers, police, firefighters, social workers and clerks trashed the mortgage market; crashed housing values and our 401k plans; sent the banking system to the brink; demanded trillions in bailouts; and, then, paid themselves huge bonuses with our tax money. Remember?

Neither do I.

This isn’t original but I can’t find the source.


Is it insecurity in their own relationships that drives some people to deny compassion, intimacy and love between others?


Why does “union thug kindergarten teacher” resonate?

OK, pick a grade. This meme doesn’t resonate at all, unless, perhaps, your childhood and school years were marked by apathy, mediocrity, ending in a base sort ignorance leaving you searching for someone else to blame.

Beware of politicians who need a demon to advance their agenda.

Fat and lazy? Teachers or ...
Jonathan Schmock