A Question of Distance

I write a piece each week for a project called Story Worth which my daughters purchased for my birthday. It seems they actually want my memoirs, go figure. This week’s assignment was to write about the farthest trip I ever took. What follows is my answer to that question.

This is an interesting question as there are two different answers. If we consider total distance, regardless of the means of transportation, it would be our family trip to Italy in 2006. We flew into Rome for that trip and then over the course of two weeks, traveled to Positano in the south of Italy, and then crisscrossed the country ending up in Venice. From there we crossed again to Siena and Florence, and eventually returned to Rome. This trip was an incredible adventure and a cherished family memory. We discovered so many things and both viewed and learned an incredible amount of history as we traveled from city to city. Along the way we formed a friendship with the families who accompanied us on our tour. These were people we had not known before entering our hotel in Rome. People whom we never would have known except that fate had put us together. The beauty of travel is not just the scenery and the history you experience, but the people you meet along the way, fellow travelers on the journey.

That trip was by far the farthest distance wise, but if I think about the longest driving trip I ever took, it would be my drive to California and back in the summer of 1977. That summer, my brother and I loaded up my 1974 Mustang compact and headed west for California. It would take us three days and numerous stops along the way before we would arrive in Sacramento, but we made it. I could tell you of the adventures along the way, but most were sworn to secrecy and the statute of limitations has not yet been lifted. I can tell you that among some of the records set, one was touring both Yellowstone and Mt Rushmore on the same day. Even the park ranger questioned how we accomplished that one.  Along the way, we slept under the stars, that was until we thought we heard a bear, explored an abandoned gold mine at two in the morning, and met countless characters along the way. That trip was a bonding experience for my brother and I that will forever entertain us each time the story is retold and would establish a friendship that has lasted to this day.

Never discount the value of travel. The world is such a large and diverse place. Each new place you visit and every new person you meet adds to the whole of your being. Take time in life to travel, whether it be to far off lands, across your own country, or just in your state, look for the beauty, make new friends, and always enjoy the ride.

When the Trail Ends

I have been spending a lot of time hiking trails lately. They are generally quite well marked and often carry signs reminding us to follow the trail and stay on the trail, but what happens when the trail ends? Most of the time we are on trails that are just loops and if we do in fact stay on the trail, we end up where we started. But what if the trail is one of those that lead us out to a point and then expect us to return the way we came. I ran into one of these on my latest hike and the metaphor was worth exploring.

I found myself at the end of the point with this spectacular view. I could take my picture and then turn back, but what if? What if I stepped off the trail and followed the rocky shoreline that lead beyond? It would not be the safe trail I had just left, but where would it lead me if I was willing to put in the effort? What would lie just around the bend? I didn’t follow the urge that day, but I thought about it, and even regretted not having tried. Eventually, I returned to the trail and back tracked my path to the starting point.

I think the trail is a metaphor for life. We are all on a trail. The trail leads us through our decisions, through our careers, through our life. We can trust that the trail we are following is the right one. We can follow it precisely to where it leads. But what if the trail comes to an end? Do we turn back around and go back to where we began? Do we loop endlessly around repeating the same things day after day? Or do we ignore the stay on the trail sign and step off? Do we take the risk and make our own trail? Sometimes our trail, the trail we were following, does come to an end. I contend that only if we are willing to do the later, to make our own trail, can we truly experience life the way it is meant to be.

When we blaze our own trail, we must assume the risk, but without risk, there can be no reward. I am not promoting recklessness, rather I am encouraging resourcefulness. You can never know what was just around the bend unless you find a way to continue the trail. That next step you take may be the most important step you ever take. Where is your trail leading? Will you stay on the trail or make your own?

It’s all French to me

Four days ago we entered Canada. No big hoopla, but we needed not just our passports, I remember the days when we didn’t even need those, but also proof that we were vaccinated and held proof of a negative Covid-19 test. Good for you Canada. I wouldn’t trust us either. We entered just north of Detroit and after a long day of driving, departure time from Madison, 4:00 AM, we arrived at Niagara Falls, Ontario. Yes, the Falls were spectacular. And Eh, the Canadians are as friendly as everyone says, They actually let you in gracefully when you need to change lanes, of course maybe they have heard so many stories about American drivers that it is just safer to let us cut in. Second day of travel took us to Toronto and the CN Tower. Much to be said about dinner at 1800 feet above the city, or as the Canadian’s measure it, 533 meters. They don’t realize that when you measure it in feet, it’s a lot taller. At least it sounds like it to us “size is everything” Americans. Needless to say it was a very moving experience, maybe in part to the fact that the restaurant was rotating.

Niagara Falls Bathed in Blue Light

That brings us to Quebec and Quebec City. I was fully aware that the province’s official language is French, but who knew they are actually French? First stop at a gas station, or should I say station-essence, left me believing I WAS in France. Now I may be exaggerating just a bit, I do understand geography, but it is surprising. It is also culturally stimulating. It is, in fact, the next best thing to being there.

St Louis Street in Old Quebec

Not that Quebec isn’t naturally beautiful sitting gracefully on the St Lawrence Seaway, but it’s when you pass through the gates of the Old City that Quebec’s charm, they pronounce it K’ebek, and her Old World beauty strikes you. You are transported in time and space to the culture of France. The architecture of the buildings, the beautiful artwork, and the sumptuous restaurants awaken your senses. Close your eyes and you are not just in Canada, you are in France.

Heart of Old Quebec

I choose to travel for many reasons. Sometimes for business, other times for pleasure, often just to satisfy my restlessness, but I also travel to experience a different culture. We can all too often assume that everyone everywhere is just like us. Until you travel, you will never appreciate how different we can be. This trip has shown me an aspect of Canada I had never experienced. It showed me France.

The Frontenac Hotel

Bon jour fellow travelers and merci for taking the time to read my blog.

PS: Big shout out to Larry Landsness for the incredible job of research and planning that went into this trip and it’s making it a success.

Don’t Miss the Moment

There are moments in our lives that happen but once. They are often filled with emotion, sometimes good and sometimes not so good. I want to speak to those moments filled with the good emotions.

I recently got to officiate my own daughter’s wedding. And yes, it was filled with emotion. There were many moments that day. There was the walk down the aisle. The moment I had to switch from father of the bride to officiant. The exchange of the vows, first dance, father daughter dance. The day was literally filled from beginning to end with these moments, but the one that nearly escaped me was the most beautiful moment of the day.

I had become overly busy with helping to keep the wedding on schedule. This I believed was my duty as the officiant. There were lots of questions coming my way about when to start, where to stand, how to present a particular reading, and the like. Suddenly, the groom was beckoning me. As I approached he told me that Kathryn, my daughter and bride to be, needed me. My thought, soon to be one I would regret, was what might possibly be wrong. I was totally unprepared mentally for what followed. As I rounded the corner, she was standing there in the middle of the side lawn away from everyone else. The sun shone behind her and created this halo effect as she stood there, stunning in her wedding gown. I had to collect myself as I realized what I was witnessing. She told me softly that she wanted me to be the first to see her. As we embraced, I knew in that moment that I was the luckiest dad in the world. My little girl was all grown up, about to be married, and still wanted me to be the first in her life at that moment. I was so busy with the process of the day that I nearly missed the meaning of the day. I almost missed the moment, one I could never have had again.

How many moments have you missed in your life? If the answer is none, you are a better person than I. If you can’t say you’ve never missed a moment, pledge to never miss another. Promise yourself to always be in the moment, to savor the emotions that come with it, and to hang onto the memory that moment creates. You don’t get but one chance to go through life. Don’t miss the moments its made up of.

What’s it like when your daughters get married?

Kathryn is getting married this weekend. She is my youngest daughter and the second to get married. Family and friends are gathering, some for the first time in a long time. Preparations are in order and we are trying to enter the let go of the stress period. It seems the question I have been asked the most is how am I feeling as my daughter gets married? Given the number of times it has been asked, I thought I would try to answer it here.

Bailey and Kathryn have been on their own, living away from us ever since the day they left for college. They have grown into beautiful, successful, independent, and I might add, brilliant women. So why is it that it is such an emotional rollercoaster ride when eventually they get married?

As a father, you become the go to person in their life. When they have that question about how things work, dad’s the one they ask. When things don’t work, dad’s the one they ask why. They may take their broken heart to mom, but it’s dad that’s asked to fix it. In short, dad is the real man in their life. This might be the place for me to chastise the fathers that are absent dads. How could you fail to fill that important role in your child’s life? What was more important?

When your daughter gets married, you are about to be replaced. There is suddenly a new man in their life and rightfully so. They have chosen the man they will spend their life with. The man they have fallen in love with. The man they might one day start a family with. As much as you respect the man they have chosen and trust him to take care of your little girl, it is hard to step down from the position you held for all those years. But as the understanding, caring dad you are, you accept your new position with grace. In short you get over it.

And then there is the flip side of this ride. Your position may be diminished, but you have, provided they chose wisely, gained a son. A son you can now spend time with learning new ways to do things, getting your computer to work better, and a needed resource for those tasks you were never really great at like grilling anything better or properly preparing the Thanksgiving turkey. Never underestimate the knowledge and skill of the younger generation or the youthful energy they bring to a project you needed a strong back to get finished.

Still, the most important, pleasing result of watching your daughters get married, is the incredible sense of pride you experience as they slide their arm through yours and walk down the aisle with you at their side for at least one more time. You have succeeded. They are fully grown, independent, and ready to start this new phase in their life. They have survived middle school, high school, first dates and last dates, college life, and cruel professors, often with your advice in their ear telling them you can do this. You realize at that moment that you aren’t being replaced, just added to the partnership as that second opinion. After all, they told him that he would be expected to ask dad first for their hand in marriage. As you walk them down the aisle, you come to know the incredible depth of the love you hold for them and that in your heart they will always remain your precious little girl. 

First Jobs…..How do we get them?

For my birthday this past year, my daughters purchased a membership for me in Story Worth. I currently write an article a week for the collection. Each week, I get a new question to write about and at the end of the year, Story Worth will bind and publish my responses in a book to be shared with my grandchildren. This week’s question was “How did I get my first job?” What follows is my response. I felt that I wanted it added to this collection as well.

The question here is whether we talk about my first job or my first career job. My first jobs were all part time in nature starting with my very first job as a busboy for an exclusive country club. I followed that up as the weekend car wash manager and from there, graduated to a combine operator for a canning company harvesting peas. My first life skill job was that of a rough carpenter on a house building crew. Over the next eleven plus years I would work for several different contractors building homes and apartments. This job provided me with skills that I applied throughout my life. All of these first jobs were landed through the connections my father had. Though he got me in the door, it was my willingness to do more and to learn everything I could that kept me employed and often promoted. I learned through my father to make connections, to always be networking, but also to go above and beyond the job expectations. Hard work does pay off but so too does ingenuity and initiative.

My first career job was in teaching and came immediately after graduation. Due to circumstances, I graduated in December and looking for a job in teaching meant my opportunities were limited. If I were to teach, I would have to accept a midterm assignment or offer myself up as a substitute teacher. The latter was not very attractive and the former meant I had to replace someone. I threw my application out statewide and even some out of state schools as well. My only opportunity, there was a glut in teachers due to the Vietnam War, came out of a tiny town in far northern Wisconsin.

A teacher was being let go for discipline reasons and I was granted an interview along with three other math educators. When I arrived for the interview, we were all in one room. Sitting across from me were three highly gifted math students. I knew they were sharp because they had been my competition through my degree program at the university. We had all just graduated from UW Oshkosh that December of 1973. How could I even compete for this position? Listening to them talk about how they were going to present themselves, I realized they were going to sell themselves based on skill and knowledge. I had to take a different tack. I decided I would root my answers in discipline and relationship. If I could maintain discipline in the classroom, I could develop a relationship with my students. I would inspire them with my passionate belief that learning was easier in a safe and relational environment.

                                          Loyal High School Logo

Twenty-five years of teaching later, spread across two different districts, I retired on my terms. In between I would make numerous presentations to multiple school districts, win a District Teacher of the Year award in my third year of teaching, and receive two nominations for State Teacher of the Year awards. I would develop educational games, create project based curriculum and write concept based curriculum for the district math department, K-12. My proudest achievement was that my students always knew why they did the math. On one occasion I was asked how I answer the question “why do we have to learn this?” My response was “I don’t know. I’ve never been asked.” As the saying goes now-a-days, mic drops!

I hope the take away from this piece is that who you know is important as long as there exists a relationship of trust. Networking is an important part of that relationship and will help open doors, but ingenuity and initiative will keep the doors open. Never stop growing, learn everything the job and the world have to offer. And one last piece of advice, and this too came from my dad.  Whenever I wanted to change jobs, he would look at me and ask why I wanted to do that and then he would follow it up with “whatever you decide, be the best at it.”  Wise words from a wise man.

Thank you Cat Stevens for Reminding me!

I just returned from meeting my daughter and son-in-law at the airport. They were returning from a quick five day kid free vacation and we were returning their prodigy. Where had the kids been you ask? Why with us for their own five day staycation with Mimi and Opa.

It became obvious early on that we would be camp directors. Events were planned, clearly not enough of them. Activities were put in the schedule, not always their idea of fun. And sleeping arrangements were made, not to be followed. For the next five days, I swam in our pool more than I had in the last five years. I watched My Little Pony, two entire seasons! My co-director and I took turns reading every Berenstain Bears book, just praying it would put them to sleep, it didn’t. And we learned that strawberry milk and ice cream actually can be breakfast foods, like we were going to do battle over proper dietary intake, though we did broach the subject once only to surrender our entire force at the first sign of trouble. I leave it to their parents to reestablish any semblance of control, in my opinion, an appropriate lesson for sending us all those pictures of them hiking by beautiful mountain lakes while we manned the castle walls.

During my grandpa sitting adventure, I ignored the forty plus emails in my inbox. I shirked my volunteer duties completely. I pushed every request for my attention aside with “I am tied up for the next five days” as my all too literal excuse. I skipped meetings, rearranged appointments, and in general shut out the outside world. In other words, sheer stress free bliss.

For the past five days, I played, laughed, wrestled, made up games, and learned more than I ever thought I could about Minecraft and building robots. For long hours each day, I was a kid again. At one point, to negotiate one child who wanted to fish while the other wanted to swim, we wound up fishing in our swimming pool. No I didn’t stock the pool, just removed the hook, tied on a washer, and two of us would play the role of fish, mermaid in Adela’s case, while the third member of our fishing excursion would cast the line and reel us in. I can hear you laughing and I know what you are thinking and I am here to tell you, yeah it looked that silly, but the sheer pleasure of the game and the laughter of my two grandchildren was worth it even if my wife someday posts the video on Facebook.

If I had a wish, I would want everyone to at least once in a while have the chance to play with a grandchild. To experience the complete release that not having a work schedule, not worrying about what anyone thinks of them, not sweating the little things, actually feels like. To have the chance to just be a kid, if even for a little while.

I leave you with this thought, The Cat’s in the Cradle and the Silver Spoon! Don’t miss the message imbedded in the song.

Turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks

For over sixty years, friends, relatives and even strangers have tried to teach me how to fish. I have been taken out in countless boats only to be taken back to shore and dropped off for distracting them with my excessive pacing on their too small for that boat. I was simply too impatient with the process. Though my impatience has certainly been part of the issue, my general attitude was the greater problem. Why would I want to spend a good portion of my vacation throwing a line at fish who never showed much interest in biting what I was offering. There were so many other things I could do that seemed more productive. Even chasing a golf ball around the course seemed more entertaining and much more likely to offer the greater exercise.

Don’t get me wrong. Over the history of my near fishing career, I have managed to catch the occasional fish that others told me they could use as bait. I even managed to “suck” a fish out of my dad’s pond with a cane pole but telling that story will have to be a blog of its own. The bottom line is that I never came close to qualifying as a fisherman, let alone to own or deserve my own pole.

All that changed last year. My seven-year-old grandson, Jackson, wanted to fish. Unfortunately, I was the only one available to teach him. Reluctantly, I decided to try. I started by digging out my daughter’s old pole, she had lost interest almost as fast as I had with the only difference being that she at least made it to the owning a pole level. Next stop, the bait shop and a dozen Canadian Crawlers, hopeful this was the way to go. And then, poorly outfitted, I took him down to the end of our dock. What happened next was magic. He caught a fish on his second cast, and he was hooked. By the end of the summer, he was asking how he could catch the really big fish, you know, the kind you have to carry one of those heavy-duty nets and a baseball bat to defend yourself. I started to hear walleye, northern, and muskie being bandied about with regularity. I could only hope taking him to local sports bars to show him monster mounted muskies and northerns would dissuade him in his dangerous quest. It didn’t. Other seasoned fisherman would slide by in their boats and Jackson would engage them in fish conversations. “What have you caught?”, “I just caught a smallmouth bass, but I got a largemouth yesterday.” Until we started these lessons, I didn’t know mouth size was such a big deal. My wife asked him if he had caught a loudmouth bass and I didn’t even catch her faux pas. As the conversation between these fishermen carried on, I dreaded being asked my role for fear that I would have to admit I was only his bait caddy.

It is now year two of these so-called fishing lessons and the strangest thing is happening, I am finding myself liking this fishing gig. Not only has Jackson made me appreciate the art of fishing, but he has also hooked me on the sport, yes, I just called it a sport. He started me out small, a couple of crappies here, a bluegill there and then it happened, I caught a smallmouth bass. I was ready to have it mounted for display in one of those sportsman’s bars right next to the 52-inch Muskie, but I quickly came back down to earth as I heard Jackson casually say, “Nice job Opa, you caught a smallmouth.”

Today, Jackson and I spent an hour in a bait shop staring at the countless lures and fishing gear as if it were a candy store, and tonight, while everyone was finishing dinner, I caught myself wandering down to the dock and casting a line. To my sheer delight, I caught two nice smallmouth bass. I reveled in the fight and beamed with pride as I pulled each one to the surface. Later, as we all sat around the campfire, I found myself drawn once again back to the dock. As I cast my line out unto the lake’s surface, softly shadowed in the twilight glow of a northern Wisconsin evening, I came to the realization that I was in, hook, line, and sinker. I guess now I’ll have to buy myself a pole.

All I can say Jackson ….. you really did teach this old dog a new trick.

From the Mouth of a Child

Just the other day we were returning from our trip up to the family cottage. Having stopped at the Big M for a treat, my daughter asked Jackson if he could wish something for the earth what would it be? Jackson never hesitated in his response, “I would wish that cars and all engines stop using gas. It makes global warming and that is bad for the earth. And someday that will be bad for me.”

Jackson is seven. Think about that. He doesn’t question the science. He doesn’t ignore the obvious and at seven he wants to do something about it. I could only marvel at his response and at the same time wish that some of our leaders could be half as wise as he was in that moment. His generation will inherit the actions we take and at present, we still resist. We balk at the changes required because we think of the effect on jobs and even more so the cost. But I will tell you that our inactivity will cost far more in the future, provided that in the future we even have the option.

We must take responsibility for what we have done. My generation is guilty of ignoring the warnings, of not making the effort to be even a little more responsible with our choices, of electing leaders with our wallets instead of our ethics. We must be far more serious about recycle, reclaim, and reuse practices. We must, simply put, ACT. And we must do it before it is too late.

We owe it to our children, to our grandchildren. I don’t want Jackson asking me ten years from now why I hadn’t done anything when I knew it was my responsibility and not that of a seven year old who doesn’t even have a vote. It is not too late. From the mouths of our children comes a plea to save the earth. We must save it so that they might have a future filled with all the bounty we have enjoyed. Do it for Jackson and all the Jacksons so that their wish may still come true.

Maybe Covid-19 Wasn’t All That Bad

We should always look for the silver lining, and when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. I started thinking today about all the changes Covid-19 brought about and I started to realize that as bad as the pandemic was, there were things I accomplished. I finally got that Little Library built. During the pandemic, it became my wife’s total focus. We now have neighborhood children putting in book requests to their favorite librarian, Ms. Debi. The treat bags and notes ay have something to do with her popularity.

And there are all the things I learned, useful things. Top on the list would be Zoom. Before Covid-19, I would resist Skype calls, Duo calls, and any other virtual calls. Then came the pandemic and suddenly, virtual meetings, virtual gatherings, even virtual game nights, became the norm. I am proud to say, I am now a Zoom, Google Meets, and Microsoft Teams wizard. Seems strange to say I am a virtual expert. Does that mean, not really, just imaginary?

Another learned process, making wearing a mask a fashion statement. I admit that when it started, I wasn’t too stylish. But as time went on we all got pretty clever and fashionable. We wore masks sporting our favorite logos, coordinated our masks with our ensemble, and even found ways to make them almost sexy. I for one, sort of miss donning my various masks now that I have been vaccinated. Thanks to Covid-19’s mask wearing mandates, I will be better prepared to rob a bank if I ever decide to go rogue.

And then there is the improvements to my office décor. Pre pandemic, I hadn’t really thought about my shelves. Once I started Zooming (is that a word?), I started seeing it as my backdrop on my zoom calls. Time to clean up my act. Off to storage, went a lot of the memorabilia, unread books, and just piles of paper and files. Thank you Covid-19!, my office is quite impressive these days.

Six feet used to be a rough estimate that was anywhere from way too short to ridiculously long. A couple of months of pandemic rules, and I can now nail six feet to within a couple inches. I feel like a walking ruler. Want to know how long that putt was?, I got it. Need that board cut to six feet?, leave that tape measure in your tool belt. Admit it, how many times during the last year did you find yourself moving that extra three inches to put six feet between you and that other person.

There were a lot of other little lessons learned. I have now mastered the art of separating the wafer section from the wine pod in those little communion cups. I discovered that you can actually party outside in the middle of winter with snow falling as long as you have that fire pit going and the now all important patio heater. I actually drove seventy-five miles to a Lowes to find mine. I am even looking forward to this fall when I can fire it back up and party. I might even invite more than ten people.

I know it wasn’t at all good, but it wasn’t all bad either. I have developed skills that were clearly lacking and as an added bonus, I now know every dog and every dog walker in the neighborhood. Admittedly, I will see if I recognize them without their masks.

And one final observation, it seems that as we learned to stand six feet apart, we somehow all grew a little closer.