Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Mind Turning 60

What's to love about turning 60? In my opinion, a whole lot of things.Tomorrow’s my 60th birthday, and I’m looking forward to it. Really I am, and for these 10 good reasons.

10. Ordering off the 55+ menu at IHOP will be easier. Five years ago, doing so made me feel like an imposter. Now I feel like I’ve earned it.

9.  The AARP has lowered their annual membership price to $12 in honor of my birthday. Thoughtful as the gesture is, I’m not taking them up on it.

8.  Tomorrow morning, I will be grateful for the ability to walk 6 miles pain free…even at my age.

7.  German Chocolate Birthday Cake! Need I say more?

6.  When people inquire about my age, and I tell them, with suitable self-effacement that I am 60, they will have all the more reason to respond, “You certainly don’t look your age.” (And this would be your cue to type something similar in the comment box.)

5.  Being 60 makes the fact that my mystery novel, set in the decade when I was in my 20s, is considered historical fiction a little easier to swallow. Mainly because I can wash it down with birthday cake. (See #7)

4.  On my official birthday, all those early Facebook birthday wishes will no longer feel like being pushed into old age.

3.  Once I’m 60, the Man of Steel, who hit the same milestone waaaay back in March, will no longer feel as though he robbed the cradle.

2.  The day will remind me of Mom’s 60th in 1988. Our son was 6, and our daughter was a newborn when the sibs and I hosted a gigantic surprise birthday shindig at her church in Le Mars. She was clueless, and the many friends and family members who gathered to honor her, was a glorious tribute.

1.  I’ll be celebrating my birthday with my family. What could be better?

I’d love to hear bout your 60th birthday memories in the comment box. If you don’t have any, see #6.

The Fly Over Life on This Fantastic Friday

When I wrote this post I was grateful for fly over country. 5 years later, I'm still grateful and a little bit more so.

For those of you who don’t live in fly over country, this Fantastic Friday post explains what you are missing.

You know how jet setters dismiss the land between the east and west coasts as fly-over country? They scoff at what they consider a wasteland of cornfields, a vast expanse where nothing worthwhile happens, nothing of consequence is produced, no one of importance lives. Well, I love living in fly-over country, no matter what the jet setters think of it. But, the past week exposed an unexpected truth.

We live a fly-over life.

A midweek visit to my son and new daughter was void of the hoopla that characterized much of the last two years: no illness, thus no dramatic health cures; no happy announcements, thus no need to plan big celebrations; no crises, thus no anxiety-racked discussions. Instead, in our time together we talked about jobs, exchanged recipes, played with the dog, and went to bed by 9:00 PM.

Pleasant, but boring.

A perusal of our weekend activities confirms life’s fly-over status. I made cookies for upcoming church events and cleaned some drawers in the kitchen – without burning a single cookie or pinching myself with kitchen utensils. Hiram reinstalled the sink in the upstairs bathroom without cracking the porcelain or ruining the newly laid tile. We comparison shopped for a new refrigerator, washer, and dryer – and found what we needed for less than expected.

Appreciated, but boring.

A phone call to our daughter and new son was uneventful. She’s keeping up in school and making progress with her online, custom sewing business; no need for me to swoop in and chair a planning pow wow. He likes his job; no need for encouraging words to buck him up. They’re looking ahead to next year, hunting online for an apartment near the campus they’ve move to next August; no need for parental reminders to think about the future.

Reassuring, but boring.

I live a beyond-the-excitement, happily-ever-after, fly-over existence made possible by the exciting lives of others:
American revolutionaries
hardy pioneers
abolitionists and Civil War soldiers
WWI doughboys
survivors of the Great Depression
Tom Brokaw’s greatest generation
war veterans
my Alaskan homesteader in-laws years
my courageous and determined parents

Because of them, Hiram I will spend a quiet, fly-over Thanksgiving with our daughter and new son in their tiny, college apartment. We’ll talk about work, exchange recipes, do a few odd jobs, and be in bed by 9:00 PM.

I am exceeding grateful for those who made possible this boring, fly-over life. You?

Top 10 Final Thoughts about Gimpocity

Here are 10 final reflections on times when poor health pulls the rug out from under you and changes life in unexpected ways.The Man of Steel is back on his feet, and I’ve begun therapy for my hand. Here are a few final reflections on the double whammy of gimpocity we recently experienced.

10. Having no one in the house who can drive is a problem.

9.  Having one driver, who is also a nursing mom, in the house with 1 baby and 2 gimpy adults is not a problem. However, it is a challenge that requires creativity and determination.

8.  A back that moves without pain should never be taken for granted.

7.  Ditto for having 2 opposable thumbs.

6.  Hand therapists spend their evenings thinking ways to inflict pain on people careless enough to sever the tendon to a thumb with a kitchen knife.

5.  The painful exercises hand therapists inflict upon people careless enough to sever the tendon to a thumb with a kitchen knife also engender healing at lightning speed.

4.  Thumb therapy exercises every 2 hours pretty much consume a person’s day.

3.  Pie makes gimpocity tolerable.

2.  So does good coffee.

1.  Babies make everything more tolerable.

What makes hard times tolerable for you? Leave a comment.

Top Ten June Blessings

To fight fighting discouragement and a tendency to dwell on what's wrong in my world, I'm counting June blessings this week.Life’s been rough at our house lately. So I’m fighting discouragement and a tendency to dwell on what’s wrong in my world by giving thanks for the small and good blessings that are part of each day.

10. The weather’s been so pleasant, we’ve hardly needed to turn on the AC.

9.  The propane company sent a letter saying our bill will go down over $100 in September.

8.  At this moment, the weeds are pulled and the housework is done.

7.  The herb garden provided fresh parsley, basil, and cilantro for several meals this week.

6.  Our first CSA produce pick up is today.

5.  But the CSA strawberries started early so we feasted our way through 2 delectable quarts…and I took some down to Mom last week, too.

4.  Revisions on my mystery novel are moving along and the escape therapy is just what the doctor ordered.

3.  The Man of Steel and I will take Mom to a family reunion in Minnesota this coming weekend. She will complain during the whole trip and then thoroughly enjoy being queen for a day in the presence of her nieces and nephews.

2.  My daughter held the phone close to our 2-month-old grandson’s mouth so we could hear him coo. Happy tears!

1.  In the last week, God arranged encounters with 2 dear friends and a sister who understand my current struggles and the time spent with them was soothing balm to the soul.

What blessings are you thankful for this week?

Ten Men Who Changed My Life

John, Jim, HarlanAt the beginning of last Tuesday’s post, I explained the reasons behind that day’s list of ten woman who changed my life. Today, the exercise continues and concludes with a list of ten men who also impacted my life. My hope is that what you read will prompt you to do something similar and discover many, many reasons to be thankful for the people who touched your life in profound ways.

10. Gene Ulrich, a college science professor family friend when my sibs and I were quite young. He had a way of relating to us as children that made us feel secure, valued, and interesting. Years later, he became a middle school teacher and was one of 4 finalists for NEA National Teacher of the Year. His interactions with us taught me how to relate to children.

9.  Tim Trudeau, the pastor of our local church who constantly exhorts us to read, to learn, to be curious, to become experts in something, and to delve into Scripture and mine it for the jewels waiting to be found in it. Because of him, I continue to be a life long learner.

8.  Dory Little, pastor of the church we began attending in 1985 when we moved to Boone. He was the first expository preacher I had ever heard. The impact of his belief in the power of Scripture and his willingness to test and approve it using reason and logic showed me that Christians don’t have to check their brains in at the door.

7.  Tom Balm was the pastor of the church my family attended during my childhood. He was a creative, funny man who marched to his own drummer. He also visited my father almost weekly, and they would laugh together until they were both crying. Through his example, I learned humor can be healing and faithful friends do not forget invalids and shut ins.

6.  Harry Thompson was the pastor at the church my parents attended during college. A couple decades later, he and his wife retired and moved down the street from us. He “adopted” our family, helping us kids with 4-H projects and visiting Dad nearly every day. My life was changed by his steadying presence in our home. One day, when it’s time for me to quit driving, I hope to follow his dignified example by turning in my driver’s license out of concern for others on the road.

5.  Mr. Frerichs, an extraordinary and precise high school senior composition teacher at Le Mars Community High School, who provided a strong foundation concerning the mechanics of writing. What he taught his students–and what his students complained about every single day–I now draw upon every single day with gratitude rather than complaint.

4. Mr. Hallum, another superior high school teacher at Le Mars Community School, who turned tongue-tied, insecure high schoolers into gifted, confident speakers and actors. He also took me aside one day and said if I wanted a lead in a play, losing 20 pounds would make that much more likely. That was all the motivation one chubby sophomore needed to change her eating habits, develop a healthy lifestyle, and snag the lead in the fall play her senior year.

3. Jim Hoey, my uncle and demanding high school World Cultures teacher, who filled another bedrock role in the lives of me and my sibs. He was a father figure who did for us what Dad couldn’t. He took us swimming, camping, hunting, exploring. He took us up on top of our roof to see the view. He pushed Dad in his wheelchair up hills and across fields and carried him to the basement when the tornado siren blew. When Dad could no longer get out and about, Uncle Jim visited him several times a week. Because of Uncle Jim, I know the joy of adventure. (Jim is on the left in photo above, holding my little brother.)

2. Harlan Stratton, my dad, whose sense of humor never failed throughout his 38 year battle with multiple sclerosis and who never became bitter. From him I learned that by choosing to live well in adverse circumstances, parents can bless their children beyond measure. (Dad is on the right in the photo above.)

1. Hiram Philo, my husband, also known as the Man of Steel. From him, I have learned so much about loving unconditionally, though I don’t do it nearly as well as he does. Because of him, I was able to leave teaching to do what I do now. Thank you so much, Man of Steel!

Who’s made a difference in your life? Leave a shout out in the comment box below!

Ten Women Who Changed My Life

Dorothy and DonnaA few Sundays back, our pastor spoke about the importance of leadership in the church and in individual lives. He then paid tribute to 10 people who had influenced his life in profound ways. He encouraged everyone listening to do the same thing. After giving the matter some thought, my list quickly grew to 20. Not being able to prune the list to 10, I solved the dilemma by making 2 lists: one of influential women and the other of influential men. To prove that chivalry is not dead, the women’s list comes first.

10. Mrs. Margarent Eggleston, Franklin Elementary 2nd grade teacher, who presented her students with oodles of opportunities to be creative…and let this girl use show and tell to hone her stand up comedy routine.

9. Mrs. Zoe Hemmingson, Franklin Elementary 4th grade teacher, who made social studies come alive for her students. 10 years later, she taught social studies elementary teaching methods at the college where I learned how to make social studies come alive for my students.

8. Betty Kingery, Westmar College elementary education professor who had taught elementary school for many years and passed her practical wisdom and humor on to a bunch of wannabe elementary teachers, one of whom wouldn’t have made it through her first year of teaching without the wealth of resources she provided.

7. Cheryl Gottschalk, the Harding County Schools elementary principal who gave specific feedback after every classroom observation and submitted my name to Who’s Who Among American Teachers. Until then, I had no idea whether or not my teaching was up to par.

6. Dr. Ruth Monroe, Westmar College theater professor. She was a strong, independent, creative, single woman who opened doors to the world to her students. She took us to the Guthrie in Minneapolis, to Broadway, to Washington, DC, and demonstrated how to mount professional productions in unusual and unexpected places.

5. Dorothy Pederson, head dietician at Brentwood Good Samaritan Center, who was my first boss. Under her tutelage, I learned time management, efficiently, and quality control. She promoted an insecure high school junior from dishwasher to assistant cook and made me feel competent.

4. Jane Bricker Lindell, who into our neighborhood between our 8th and 9th grade years. At the beginning of 10th grade, she suggested I read the textbooks and complete my assignments on time and then made sure I did. Because of her, I became a good student and had a magical high school experience.

3. Judith Markham, who was an editor at Discovery House Publisher when we first met. She encouraged me to pursue writing and publication through traditional publishing houses. She championed the book proposal for my first book, A Different Dream for My Child, and edited the project. Without her, I might not have become a published author.

2. Donna Hoey, my aunt and Mom’s younger sister. Words aren’t enough to tell what a presence this woman was and still is in my life. She was unconditional love, security, kindness, and stability to a little girl whose life was upended by her father’s illness. When she hugs me each time we meet, she still makes me feel safe. (On the left in the photo above.)

1. Dorothea Stratton, my mom who carried three young children and a disabled husband on her determined shoulders throughout the 1960s and 70s. Because of her, I am an educated woman. Because of her relationship with Dad, I understand what it means to love someone to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part. (On the right in the photo above.)

Who are the people who profoundly changed your life? Give some of them a shout out in the comment box. I’m looking forward to meeting them.

When I Say, “Jump,” You Say, “How High?”

Roger Hallum Scholarship Fund A while back, one of Gravel Road’s top ten post listed many lessons learned from Roger Hallum, high school drama coach in the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. The response to the post by his former students was heartening and eventually resulted in the creation of a website in his honor to promote the Roger Hallum Scholarship Fund. It’s my pleasure to introduce you to Roger Hallum, a most extraordinary teacher.

When I say, “Jump,” you ask “How high?” Those words ring in the ears of Roger Hallum’s students decades after he uttered them. Hallum, Le Mars High School speech and drama coach from 1969-1975 was speaking to a tough crowd–three dozen or more high schoolers who comprised the cast and crew of 1971 fall play, You Can’t Take It with You.

Hallum’s students took his words seriously and jumped as high as they could whenever he asked. In turn, he believed in them and trusted them to do more than they thought they could do. The lives of those students were profoundly impacted by Hallum’s wisdom, humor, and faith in their abilities.

Several months ago, Chris Lindell, ’74 learned that Hallum had died on July 1, 2009. He passed the news along via Facebook, and his former students began to share their favorite memories of him. Funny stories about standing on stage and hearing his voice booming from somewhere in the dark theater. Practical advice useful to this day: “When you’re going to give a speech, never say ‘I’m gonna talk about’ about what you’re gonna talk about.” And regret that “I don’t think I ever saw him after he left and I’ve always wished I’d had.”

Eventually, Hallum’s former students created a scholarship to honor Hallum’s wisdom, humor, and faith in their abilities. Through the Roger Hallum Memorial Scholarship, they hope to pass along his confidence in young people to today’s LCHS graduates.

The scholarship fund is available to Le Mars Community High School graduating seniors who are pursuing a college degree in the creative arts. The fund is administered by the Le Mars Community School District Foundation. Donations are tax deductible and may be sent to the following address:

Le Mars Community School District Foundation – Roger Hallum Fund
940 Lincoln Street SW
Le Mars, IA 51031

More information about the scholarship fund, Hallum’s biography, and a picture gallery can be found at Questions can be directed to Jolene Stratton Philo, ’74 at or to Chris Lindell, ’74 at

Former students of Mr. Hallum are invited to leave a tribute or share a favorite memory about him on the tribute page at the Roger Hallum Scholarship website.

Smelling the Lilacs While They Last this Fantastic Friday

LilacsThis post that first appeared in May of 2008 speaks for itself. Uncle Ralph, you are dearly missed.

On Sunday, the swiftness of death and the uncertainty of life touched me twice. Mom called after lunch with the news of her brother’s death. His son had called Saturday and said Ralph was failing. “Within a week,” he said. We thought we had a few days.

But Ralph didn’t mess around. He died like he lived – fast and full-steam ahead. The swiftness of his passing surprised but didn’t shock us. After all, he was in his late eighties and had lived a good life. Once we received funeral details, we crowded a trip to Minnesota  into the upcoming week’s plans and moved on.

In the evening, my husband and I helped at a graduation party for our friends’ daughter. During the festivities, word came that a tornado had destroyed a high school in Parkersburg, where the uncle and aunt of the graduate teach. Next we heard seven people had died in the storm. Then word spread that some of the deaths occurred at graduation parties. No one said the words, but we read them in one another’s eyes. It could have been here. It could have been us.

This morning I walked down our road. The grass glittered, washed clean by gentle rain in the night. The birds sang. The trees swayed gently in the breeze. The first iris bloomed in the ditch. The lilac branches drooped under the weight of blossoms at the height of beauty. Tomorrow, they’ll begin to fade. If the wind comes up, they’ll be gone.

I did the only thing I could in the face of the fading beauty of this life and the swiftness of death to come. Today, I smelled the lilacs.