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Christmas letter

December 20, 2009



Hi All,


When I sat down to write this letter I was afraid I wouldn’t have anything to say, because it didn’t seem like much had happened this year, but I looked at the pictures and realized it’s been jam-packed with events!  The big things for the whole family were the flood, and all the milestones for Aidan, which bring changes for all of us as well – last spring he was doing all the Senior things – prom, applying for schools and financial aid when every river in the region overflowed its banks and we spent two weeks completely consumed by flooding.  Both Aidan and Gregor filled sandbags as part of school, and Dave and I also spent hours in the Fargo Dome or the Municipal garage filling bags.  It turns out the four of us make a pretty good team – one person filling bags, one holding, one tying, and one putting the bag on a pallet.  We also spent some time placing bags out by the river.  It was an amazing experience, I’m glad we’ve had it, but we’re all really hoping that permanent flood protection is in place before it happens again.  By the time the flood was over it was a real rush to get things ready for graduation – Aidan graduated in the Fargo Dome, and it was odd to watch with memory providing glimpses of the same space full of piles of sand, dump trucks, pallets of sandbags and thousands of people. 


In early March we started work on our house.  We got a new roof, and the ‘bad’ insulation in the attic removed and replaced, an egress window installed in the basement, and our porch remodeled into a sunroom with a wood stove.  We are enjoying it very much – in fact we spend much more time on it than in the living room these days.  All the windows make it a marvelous place on a sunny day, even in the winter time.   


Summer was very busy – both boys were at the zoo most days, Aidan to work and Gregor as a volunteer.  In addition, Gregor participated in Trollwood, which is an internationally recognized arts school in Fargo-Moorhead.  Unfortunately, Trollwood is as far from our house as you can get in the two cities, and it’s pretty far from the zoo too – so I spent a lot of time driving.  Gregor was a part of the orchestra for ‘The Wiz’, Trollwood’s summer musical, in July, which meant long hours for him and even more driving…  The production was amazing though – it was clear that the long hours had paid off.   He also went to the International Music Camp in the International Peace Gardens for a writer’s camp, had a great time, and met fun people. 


The whole family also spent some time on Isle Royale with Gari Jo and her family, Dad, and Holly.  It is a beautiful place, and the flowers there were lovely – I was captivated, as you’ll see from the pictures.  We didn’t see any moose, but did see snakes.  I’d have been happy to switch. 


There were lots of changes at work for me – because of staff changes I wasn’t laid off over the summer as usual, and ended up working about half time.  I went to a lot of trainings, learned a ton, and helped the new education coordinator get up to speed. My job responsibilities changed again, and I now spend more time coaching and mentoring teachers than with children, but I’m still in the classroom most of the time, which I love.  It’s been super challenging, as I’m trying to figure out what it is I do in the classroom that makes things work, and help other teachers develop those skills.  That’s been hard as most of it I do without thinking about it, but I’m becoming a better teacher as I figure it out too. 


Aidan ‘moved’ into the dorms at NDSU in late August, but he’s still home most days for at least part of the evening.  We enjoy his company, and he seems to be enjoying college.  Gregor has joined as many clubs as he can fit into his schedule, and auditioned for everything he can audition for in high school.  He is in two choirs, two orchestras, and had two parts in the musical this fall.  He’s also in a latin club, writer’s club, and improv club.  He manages to fit school in around those somehow and seems to thrive on all the activity. 


In October Dave and I went to Vail with Daye and Pete for a conference on women warriors in fantasy literature.  Dave taught a class, but I just enjoyed myself.  It was a blast, and the resort we stayed at was beautiful.   I found the conference both fascinating and funny, and one of the authors who was featured there, Kristin Cashore, has become a favorite of mine.  The other two, Tamora Pierce and Sherwood Smith, were already favorites. 


I think those were the highlights for me, and I’ll let the others add anything I missed.  In between excitements, we all have work and school, we see Brandi, Jason and Landra often (Landra is an imperious and verbal two-year-old now, and loves to visit – which I’m sure has nothing to do with the fact that we all dote on her).  We are still active in the SCA and attend several events most months, just to make sure we don’t have too much free time on our hands! 


We hope you are all busy and happy as well, and wish you blessings and joy in the New Year,




Dave here,


I don’t have much to add to the Wife’s note, as she is pretty efficient and comprehensive. I’ll just add a bit about things from work- pretty geeky stuff, so read on at your own risk J. We’ve made a good bit of progress over the last year in learning how a gene we call DORMANCY ASSOCIATED MADS-BOX (or DAM for short- pun intended), acts to induce buds to go dormant in the fall. It turns out that this gene is very similar to another gene that prevents flowering by turning off a gene called FLOWERING LOCUS T (or FT for short). In an interesting twist of fate, a group of scientists in Sweden were trying to make poplar flower earlier to help grow them faster by turning on FT. They succeeded in making poplar flower faster, but turning on FT also prevented the buds from going dormant in the fall. From these two observations (DAM looking like a gene that would turn off FT and the fact that when FT is on, buds don’t go dormant), we hypothesized that when DAM is turned on by cold or short day lengths, it causes dormancy by turning off FT. We have been doing experiments all year to demonstrate this is the case, and will have a paper discussing our results available online within a month or so.

One other thing we have been making progress on is in a project designed to learn exactly how weeds reduce crop yields. Interestingly, experiments from a lab in Canada have shown that weeds can reduce crop yields even if the weeds are physically separated from the crop and the crop has grown taller than the weeds. It is suspected that the crops are “seeing” a change in the level of far-red light (which all plants tend to reflect). I have been working with a scientist down in South Dakota State University to look at the genes that get turned on and off in corn when it is grown next to weeds. Our hope is that we can discover the genes that are turned on (or off) by the weeds and which reduce the crop growth. If we can do this, we should be able to identify the proteins that are part of the system that allow crops to “see” nearby weeds. If we can manage that, we should be able to come up with a way to make the crops “blind” to the weeds. The initial part of this work earned us the Best Paper of the Year in the journal Weed Science for 2008.

One final project that has turned out some interesting results is some work I have been doing with Dr. Igor Andreev, a scientist at the Ukrainian Academy of Science. Leafy spurge (the weed that I work on) was brought to the US by immigrants from the Ukraine in the late 1800s, and although leafy spurge is more a wild flower than a weed in the Ukraine, here it is very aggressive, very difficult to control, and is very damaging to the ecosystem. I had Igor send me wild Ukrainian leafy spurge and I compared it to leafy spurge from the US. We found that the leafy spurge from the Ukraine was acting like it was being attacked by plant pathogens whereas the US leafy spurge was not. We think that there might be some specific pathogens in the Ukraine that are keeping their leafy spurge from growing so aggressively. I am in the process of putting together a team of scientists to see if we can confirm this initial observation, and to see if we can identify the pathogens (assuming our initial ideas are correct). If we can show that the reason why leafy spurge became invasive is because it was released from this native pathogen, it will prove a long standing hypothesis as to why some plants become invasive and others do not. It might also provide us with a new way to control leafy spurge in the US.

            Thus, as you can see, my research this year has been really fun and interesting. I expect no less from 2010. I’ll try to keep my web page updated with links to my papers so anyone who might be geeky enough to want to read them can easily find them ( Beyond the science experiments, I had the opportunity and reason to test the effectiveness of medieval armor against medieval weapons for the class I taught at the conference in Vale. If you are interested, you can check out some of the videos from the test that I posted on YouTube by doing a google video search using the term “tarrachalfson” (all one word just like I wrote it-

            Well, I have probably taken up my allotted portion of your time, and will turn over the letter to Gregor for his input. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!









A year went by, or so I’m told,

That must mean I’m getting old,

But thinking back I see it was,

Great fun and joy and lots of buzz,

There was the play, oh what fun,

Called Urinetown, ‘twas filled with puns,

Then Writers’ club and music stuff,

At times it put me in a huff,

But no matter what, when I look back,

A year of fun is all I track,

That’s been my year’s quick rundown,

Great fun it was with ne’er a frown







            Funny, I actually remember a lot of frowns. And a good deal of surliness. And frequent forgetting of instruments and music. But amidst Gregor’s high school tribulations, I’ve been having a wonderful year. The end of senior year was a little stressful for a while, but after AP tests, it was a piece of cake. Speaking of AP tests, I think I gained some bragging rights from my performance on them. With a score of 3 being a passing grade and 5 being a perfect score, I got a 2 on Macro Economics (which I wasn’t taught in class), a 3 on U.S. History and European History, a 4 on Micro Economics and English, and a 5 on Biology. Of course, that did cause a few glitches because any test I got a 3 or better on gave me credit for college classes, but I received the scores after I registered for classes. So I needed to do some rearranging and wound up with kind of a weird schedule for the fall, but it worked out. First semester went pretty smoothly. My lowest grade was a C in chemistry. Turns out that class is really hard, but one C isn’t bad and I’m still not sure if he’s going to use a curve, so I might get a better grade, considering the class average was a low 60%. In non-academic related news, my senior prom was a ton of fun thanks to my wonderful girlfriend, Kathy and all my other friends. Dorm life was a little stressful at first since my roommate was the sort of person who always falls asleep with the TV on. But he moved out about half way through first semester, so now I’ve got the room to myself which is awesome. I’m fairly certain that I’m going to get to keep the single room for next semester unless something weird happens, but for now I’m staying at home for winter break and just relaxing and enjoying myself.


Hope you all are having a as good a Christmas season as I am!