Who Knew Christmas Trees Fight Back?

The day after Thanksgiving, our tradition is to cut our Christmas tree. Yesterday was no exception other than the fact that my younger daughter and her husband would be unable to share in the festivities due to Covid-19, the virus hell bent of ruining our family traditions. John and I would be tasked with cutting their tree.

The day started out beautiful, sunshine and temps in the upper 40’s. Perfect weather to cut a fresh tree, which coincidentally was what half the population of the state had decided to do and at the same tree farm we had chosen. As was the tradition, we would meet our daughters and their families out at the tree farm for a day of bonding over picking out and cutting our three trees. The men folk, John and I, damn you Eli, were well aware of the painstaking process that lay ahead of us as we marched back and forth, checking out at least a hundred trees before the women folk, Bailey and my wife, would settle on the very best tree ever! All that remained was to cut them down, at ground level, in the muddy ground. The first tree fought a little bit before John was able to saw through. Tree number two, Kathryn and Eli’s actually went quite well, but then came the tree Deb had chosen for our house. This should have been my warning of things to come. With two people pulling on the tree as I attempted to get my saw to cut without binding up, we eventually got it to succumb to my efforts, but not before we cracked a nice chunk out of the trunk. No problem I told Deb, the skirt will cover our damage.

After standing in line with the mobs that like us, felt yesterday was THEE day to cut a tree, we got our tree back to the loading barn, violently shook free of loose needles, bound up tighter than an Egyptian mummy, purchased and paid for with a small loan we took out at the bank ….. have you bought a Christmas tree recently? And it didn’t even come with lights and decorations! We were now ready to pull up the car to load up our tree for the ride home. Fifteen minutes later after waiting in the line of cars loading their trees, John and I managed to jam two of the trees into the back of my Jeep with the third tree tied to the back. As my grandson and I climbed into the car for the drive home, it became apparent that a seven foot tree in a six foot bed, would be sharing the space between us. Just one more minor inconvenience. This too will pass.

An hour later, after dropping the first tree at Bailey and John’s house, and the second tree at Kathryn and Eli’s place, Deb and I arrived home with our “best tree ever”. Into the house and into the stand, I wish! After three unsuccessful tries at centering the tree in the stand, we finally got the beast secured. Leveling and centering came next and thanks to my wife’s keen eyeballing abilities, we eventually reached perfection, some twenty minutes and several gymnastic maneuvers later. Next step, throw on the lights. starting at the top, and after too many times to count of circling the tree, (this step might be what inspired Brenda Lee to write “Rock Around the Christmas Tree”) we ran out of lights two feet from the bottom of the tree. This is where the math you’ll never use should have been used…… pi x diameter = circumference, average circumference x number of times around the tree = the number feet of lights you’ll need, which apparently was short by 100 more bulbs. But wait, we had an unused box of exactly 100 ‘white’ light bulbs. Saved….NOT! This is where one learns that there are many shades of white lights, none of which matched our already strung white lights.

One hour later, Deb has returned from Target with the light supplies needed to finish our assault on the Christmas tree. Would these be the right white? Close enough, the tree is strung and lit, Deb now begins the final Battle of the Tree, while I retire to the coach, content to watch my first Christmas movie. Things are going well, Deb has half the ornaments on the tree when, out of the corner of my eye, I simultaneously hear Deb scream and the tree cant drunkenly towards the front door. As the tree tilts further toward Deb, I snag the backside of the tree and haul it back up. Close call, but after some tinkering with the anchors and Deb sternly scolding the tree, we have it standing upright. All that leveling and centering is far less important now as Deb wants this battle over. Establishing that the tree now seems stable, we will settle for the leaning tower of Christmas and move on.

We settle in for a quiet night of sleep planning on dreaming of the beauty of the tree that awaits us tomorrow morning. 7:00 am comes quickly and we rise, vision of tree grandeur dancing in our heads. As we enter the living room, ready to turn on the Christmas lights, there lays our tree, yes, I said lays not stands our tree. Our tree lays draped like a drunken sailor across the chair it took out on its way to the floor. Christmas balls are strewn in a dizzying array across our living room floor.

I turn to my wife, anticipating either tears or a string of curses, but to my relief, she is laughing. As we survey the scene of the wreck, we decide we will not be defeated by this tree. We resurrect the tree, replace the stand, straighten the lights and start replacing the bulbs. In order to thwart any further escape attempts, we hog tie it securely to the stair rail and dare it to try to get loose from that.

In good news from the front, the tree is still standing. We have faced the enemy and he is ours. Maybe let’s get a smaller tree next year.

Twas the night WAY before Christmas and all through my house ……..

As I write this piece, Christmas music is playing in the background. For those of you who are now questioning my authority to be playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving has even arrived, will be quite upset to know that I started it this year on November 1st, literally the first day I could find a station putting it out there. And…..I am not ashamed!

There is no better season than Christmas in my book. We have just come off a very mean spirited election season, plenty of blame on both sides. I for one am desperate for some cheer and Christmas brings that to me each and every year. It is a chance to be reminded that people matter more than things. It is a season for giving and for receiving and the best gift one can give or get is the sense that we can all, for at least a couple of months, take the time to care for each other and to spread a bit of joy even where there is little to be found. It is a season of hope buoyed by the Spirit that lives more generously in its traditions. Christmas is a chance for a reset.

During Christmas, the memories of my childhood come floating back. The first Christmas I have memories of happened when I was maybe six or seven years old, and yet all these years later, lots of years later, they are still vivid. I can recall getting my Christmas bag of peanuts and carrots as we left church Christmas Eve, a simple reward for the Christmas pageant we had just pulled off in angelic perfection despite a year of less than angelic behavior. Of getting dad to hurry us all home to open the presents beneath the tree. Of finding that tin tab garage set complete with its lever for the car elevator. I am sure the five Christmases that came before were also full of traditions, but memories of them unfortunately weren’t recorded in my childhood brain. When I think about my first Christmas memories, I also recall the first Christmas celebrated with my wife in our tiny little house on Ring Street. That first Christmas it was just Deb and I and Huckleby, our cat. Then I think of the first Christmas for each of my daughters. I know it’s just a fact of life that they too will have no memories of that first one or much of any before they were old enough to start the act of remembering. I will promise myself to ask them to share their first memory of Christmas and I suspect it won’t match mine. But then it is their memory to recall in the way it comes back to them. We all have memories of our Christmases, and at this time of year we should take time to recall the best of them and then let them inspire us to spread the good cheer of Christmas wherever the opportunity presents itself.

Christmas music sets the tone for me. It lifts my spirits, renews my faith in mankind’s ability to care for each other, and rekindles those traditions my family share, the ones we have created, and the ones we will create. This Friday, in the rain, snow, sleet, or I hope, sunshine, you will find my family cutting our traditional tree(s). I will string indoor and outdoor lights that will cut out shortly after I plug in the last strand. My wife and I will set aside enough time to watch as many Christmas movies as possible. Christmas eve, I will sing my favorite Christmas carols and then return home to wait for the arrival of my two grandchildren. I will wait till they are fast asleep and then creep down the hall to place the Santa gifts beneath the tree. And then, Christmas morning I will sit back and watch the chaos erupt as the presents are exchanged and opened with wrapping paper discarded and covering the room like a blanket of Christmas morning snow. I will soak in each and everyone of these traditions throughout the season, and if I am lucky, maybe another great story will emerge,

This Christmas season take a pledge to make it the best one yet. Reach out to family and friends and even, and maybe especially, to a stranger. The season of Christmas is a reminder to share; share joy and peace and self. My Christmas music has been playing since November 1st and will continue until someone convinces me the season is over. But I will tell you, I won’t be convinced easily.

So if you haven’t yet turned on the music, stop being the grinch, find a Christmas station, and go Rock Around the Christmas Tree. Brenda Lee is waiting to get you started.

(For additional reading, check out “Lost and Found”: https://kenismsblog.com/?s=Lost+and+Foundand “Can we at least drive it around the block”: https://kenismsblog.com/?s=Can+we+at+least+drive+it+around+the+block)

A Saint for all Reasons

Disclaimer, I intend no offense to Catholics or the many saints that exist, but did you realize that there is a saint for almost every purpose. Did you know that Saint Alexander of Comana is the patron saint of charcoal burners. That will come in handy next time I am forced to grill. Meanwhile Amand would be the patron saint of bartenders, another one of my many occupations. Anthony the Abbot would be the patron saint of gravediggers. And let us not forget the patron saint of women seeking husbands, Anthony of Padua. Shouldn’t that one have been a female? And those are just the patron saints that start with the letter A. If you want to check out the complete list for yourself, go to: https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/24191/documents/2019/11/Patron%20Saints%202.pdf

This morning our church was celebrating All Saints weekend and the conversation about saints came up. We were asked to consider the people in our lives that have passed on and though too many came to mind, I found myself thinking of my brother. He was only seven when he died. I was only eight. We were thick as thieves in our short lives to that point but we had already survived a lifetime of hijinks. There was no dare that he wouldn’t throw down and there was no challenge I didn’t accept. “I bet you can’t jump from that rock to this one.” I bet you’re too scared to jump off the hay loft.” And then there was the “I dare you to jump from that fence post to this one.” Though most of them resulted in various injuries, that last one was way too close to serious, not that mom or dad ever found out thanks to the unwritten code that we just didn’t tell on each other, ever! We clearly needed a patron saint of our own, like maybe Cajetan, the patron saint of gamblers.

My brother Karl and I circa 1959

Looking back and thinking about the impact on my life, I am nominating my brother for the patron saint of risk takers and I am thanking him for impressing on me the value of taking a risk. Without his encouragement, er goading, would I have grown up to accept and deal with the risks in life that gave me the opportunities to succeed, or the ability to take chances when they took me to the next level? Or for that matter, to have and have benefited from the experiences of my life? Without the willingness to take acceptable risks, would I have ever climbed a mountain or jumped from a plane? That last one definitely traces back to the leaps we took from the top of the hay mow. In short, life might have been far less exciting without the occasional walk on the edge.

Don’t get me wrong. There are risks we should never take, especially when they might impact others. But if it’s an acceptable risk, if we understand what we control and that within that element of control, we can build in the safety net we need, maybe then we might be willing to take the leap. One of the strongest traits of a leader is the willingness to take the risk that is necessary to advance the cause. Without risk takers imagine all the inventions, all the historic events, businesses, and all of the discoveries never made. Would we have ever walked on the moon or would we just be earthbound wondering what was out there? What would the world be like without risk takers?

Today I thought about my brother who all those years ago dared me to take the chance. For that he is MY patron saint.

For Karl

Apparently It Skips a Generation

Sharing our childhood home with my grandparents created so many endearing memories, most of them the sights and scents of my mom and dad, and my grandmother canning in our tiny farmhouse kitchen. There was the hundreds of mason jars lined up on the table, the big blue canning kettle and the steam rising off the boiling water ready to seal the fruits and vegetables into those mason jars where they would slowly disappear from our fruit cellar as the long winter gave way to spring and our garden thawed out, readying itself for the next growing season. Every once in awhile something brings that memory flooding back. In those moments, I can still remember the smells wafting from the kitchen all the way to my upstairs bedroom, that aromatic mixture of pickled corn and beets, dill pickles and relish, fruits and ah yes, the apple sauce. Oh that glorious mixture of apples and cinnamon. That recipe so perfected by my dad.

When canning came to an end each fall, and all the canning equipment had been stowed away, we would stack the shelves of our basement fruit cellar with enough canned vegetables and fruit to last us through the winter. We were self sufficient and I always remember mom and dad’s pride as they recorded the inventory. Nothing in our garden had gone to waste. As the winter wore on, each meal would be augmented with something from the cellar, fresh, aromatic, and delicious. But my favorite was always the apple sauce. We would have it on ice cream. We would warm it up and put it in a bowl with a little splash of cream, or as my grandfather liked it, spread across a warm slice of grandmas’ homemade bread. There just wasn’t anything it didn’t go well with.

Recently, after trips to every apple orchard pumpkin patch in the area, with grandchildren in tow, my daughter handed me a pint of the golden nectar. She has been working on it for the past several years and she just might have perfected it. Somehow, through experimentation, old recipes scratched out on weathered notecards, and of course hours of shared applesauce sessions at her grandfather’s side, Bailey has come as close as humanly possible to my dad’s apple sauce recipe. It now sits proudly on my counter awaiting the moment I crack the seal and carefully ration out my first serving.

Where my wife and I have never seemed to successfully carry on the tradition, my daughters have prevailed. They have become the gardeners, the chefs, and yes the canners I never was. The art had skipped a generation but thanks to my daughter, I now have a pint of homemade, ready to savor, dad’s special recipe, apple sauce, and along with it, a chance to bask in the memories it has evoked. Memories of being that eight year old kid, sneaking down the stairs , and sneaking a peak of my dad as he worked side by side with my mom as they canned more than just food for the winter, but memories for a life time.

You’ll have to excuse me now, I have a bowl of warm applesauce and cream waiting on my evaluation.

Just a Little Ride Across Wisconsin

The time is just a few minutes after 3:00 am. John is already up and carbo loading on a breakfast of pancakes and syrup. In a little more than an hour he will be starting off on what will be a 240-mile trek by bike across Wisconsin. The ride will start here in Lacrosse, Wisconsin and work its way southeast across the state eventually ending on the waterfront in downtown Milwaukee. He will be accompanied by 700 fellow bike riders, some as lone riders like John while others will ride for teams of several riders. The trek will take them through nearly 70 miles of gravel trail and tunnels, with another 170 miles on backroads as they rise and fall over 6500 feet of total elevation. While the ride starts with hundreds of riders, only about 160 will cover the entire 240 miles in a single day. John has trained all year for this ride, but today will be his distance record as he joins the group to cover it in a single day.

3:45 am Ready to roll

I will be driving the sag wagon for John’s trip, accompanied by my daughter Bailey who is John’s spouse. Our job will be to meet him at the designated checkpoints along the way where we will refresh his water bottles and provide him with the snacks and food he has planned out for each stop. This honor had fallen to my younger daughter, Kathryn, last year, but is mine to experience this year. I am honored to be on his sag crew and a part of his journey.

It is now 4:30 am and we are with John as he awaits the start and continues to check and recheck everything on his bike. The start is only minutes away now and bikers are coming from every direction to find their starting positions. The start area is marked off in intervals that closely mimic the starting paces the riders intend to keep. The faster pace riders are placed near the beginning, while slower starters will take up positions further back in line. The last thing any rider wants is to be involved in a collision within the first mile of the ride due to an uneven start. John will take a position in the top third of the riders with a chosen pace around 15 mph. My first impression is of how focused John is. If he is to be successful, he must maintain a sustainable pace, pay attention to his times as he has planned them out, and be able to break the ride into segments. He will likely be on the bike for up to 17 hours and he has to find ways of avoiding thinking about how much he still has left, as opposed to focusing on the segments as he finishes one and begins the next. Only if he thinks of them as a bunch of shorter trips, will the totality of the trip not take its toll on his emotional energy.

Focused! John prepares and Bailey syncs the app we will use to track John.

It’s 5:00 am, the start! John gives us a cursory glance and a wave, and he is off into the dark. By the time Bailey and I have made our way back to the hotel, the app on her phone shows John already 6 miles out. Sparta is our first check point some 30 miles away. We decide we better forego breakfast and get on the road to meet him. It’s amazing how this feels like a sacrifice for us and then we remember, John’s on the bike, we are in a car. Way too easy to lose perspective. We vow to toughen up, but not without a cup of coffee to go.

The weather last night was dotted with torrential downpours. We are worried as John approaches the Sparta Elroy trail, as to the condition of the gravel bed. How messed up will the tunnel surfaces be. One of those tunnels is nearly a mile in length and there are no lights. The riders will depend on the collective light cast by their bike lights. As John prepares to leave this first pit stop, he expresses concerns about switching from pavement to the gravel trails but grabs fresh water and a couple bananas and heads back out. He will repeat this action up to ten more times throughout the day. At least the rain, forecast to be off and on all day, has so far held off. We pick John up as the trail crosses through the next three villages. He does not stop at any of these, but I can feel the relief in Bailey as she waves him through. Each crossing shows he is riding strong and has chopped off another ten miles here and another fifteen miles there. His next planned stop will be Elroy.

We are there waiting in Elroy. It is amazingly only 9:45 in the morning. It seems so much later but then we remind ourselves that John has now been riding for almost five hours. Again, with the perspective! This is the point where he will switch from the Sparta Elroy trail to the 400 Trail as it winds its way down to Reedsburg. As it turns out, we were able to pass John a slice of pizza and pudding cup at the old train depot in Kendall. He warned us that he may not stop at Elroy and as he approaches us on the trail, he gives a thumbs up and rides straight through. I guess we catch him at Reedsburg.

We wait at the depot in Reedsburg and eventually we start seeing riders we know have been coming through the previous checkpoints around the same time as John. Bailey’s app says that he is about 2 miles out and so we wait. Then suddenly we see him making the corner leading into town and the end of the 400 Trail. He reaches the depot covered in mud, gravel, and grease. His black bike is barely recognizable, but John just wants a quick refuel on some snacks and heads back out. We will meet him in Wisconsin Dells where he will take ten minutes to wolf down a burger and fries that we are to pick up while we wait. The good news, he is off the gravel trails for the next few hours and the sun is out. The bad news, the Baraboo Ridge lies dead ahead and that means the hills have begun.

The stop in Wisconsin Dells goes well and Bailey and I hide our shame as we finish off our McDonalds burger, fries, and a shake, oh the humanity! John wants to get right back out so his hamburger will wait. Fries and a pudding cup are all he takes time for, and he is off for the climb over the ridge. Once he clears the ridge, it will be mostly downhill to the ferry crossing at Merrimac. As Wisconsin Dells was designated as the halfway point, over 400 riders have now disappeared from the ride. But John and about 160 others will trek on. As we wait for the ferry to complete its trip across and back on the river, John gets a well-deserved half hour rest. But time can become his enemy if he is to finish by 10:00 pm in Milwaukee. The ferry barely drops the gate and John and about 30 riders are headed down the road.

As nice as the sunshine was at the ferry crossing, the blackening skies on the other side of the river bode nothing but bad news. John had barely reached the next village at Lodi when the skies let loose. The rain came in torrents. Bailey and I are on the road when the storm hit and are barely able to keep driving. We catch ourselves complaining about the rain when the reality hits us that John is somehow continuing to ride in this. We know that because we are tracking his progress on the app. He has slowed considerably but he is still moving south. We stop complaining and once again regain the perspective. We say a silent prayer and wish him God speed.

We reach the next checkpoint at Bristol where a group of friends and family will await John’s pass through at the Sassy Cow Creamery. John is looking forward to seeing his children at this stop. Jackson and Adela have made posters and will be there to cheer him on to the finish some 90 miles ahead. This will be his encouragement for the final push. The problem is the rain. It is coming down so hard that we can barely see across the street. But then we all catch a break. The rain lets up just long enough for us to spot John’s light blinking through the gloom. It is around 3:30 as he crests the hill and we all clang bells and rush out to welcome him to this briefest of stops. Hugs from Jackson and Adela, encouragement from the friends and family that are there, and John gets back on the bike and heads on down the road. As the rain starts back up, we can just catch a glimpse of the red light on the back of his bike fading into the distance. I will forever hold that image of that solitary rider disappearing into the gloom.

This is where I left the sag wagon. I needed to drive my wife and our grandkids to the hotel in Milwaukee where we would wait for John to finish the ride. Bailey would see him through the next two stops at Waterloo and Lake Mills. At Lake Mills she would wave John through as he had to enter gravel trails once more for 25 more miles on the Glacial Drumlin trail to Milwaukee. The next time she would see him would be the finish line in Milwaukee. As we found out later, this was one of the worst legs of the trip if not thee worst. The trail was littered with tree branches and water running in the ruts. This leg alone would do in the casual rider, but John must push through this ever mindful of the distance remaining and the approaching darkness.





Back on the gravel

The call came in from Bailey at 9:30. She was at the finish line and John was 9 miles out. The goal of finishing before 10:00 was in jeopardy but he was pushing as hard as he could. As the minutes ticked down, we waited at the finish line, Jackson and Adela with their posters, and the rest of us with fingers crossed. At 10:00 the app said 1 mile out. At 10:05 we saw bike lights crossing the avenue three blocks down and at 10:06, to the screams of “you made it”, and 17 hours after leaving Lacrosse, John finished the ride. I should add this note. At that 1 mile out mark, John had called Bailey and said I need a hamburger when I come in. My wife immediately headed to the restaurant only to find out the grill had been shut down for the night. Upon hearing the story and seeing John’s children waiting, the chef said I am going to fire up the grill and make him the perfect hamburger, which in John’s case is plain, no condiments just the meat. The least we can do after 240 miles.

I would never have fully understood this ride or my sons-in-law’s obsession had I not been able to be even a small part of it on his sag crew. My deep respect for what he accomplished goes without saying. You are the toughest guy I know. Now get on that bike and start training for next year.

It was Just a Perfect Night

Sometimes things just work out. I had driven downtown to meet my wife and daughter. My daughter had just finished her first yoga class as an instructor and we decided we should celebrate with a dinner and a drink. The first eating establishment we tried offered too small a menu. The next, closed for the evening. The third try offered no parking and no outside dining. Ready to give up, we found ourselves at The Madison Tap at the Robinia Courtyard, a place none of us had been before but had heard enough good things said about them, to give it a try.

As we were shown to a small table in the courtyard, a band began to set up. As the instruments and the musicians started filing in, it became clear we just might have stumbled into one of those happy accidents. Who doesn’t appreciate a chance for live music. As we finished our meal and contemplated a second drink, someone in the band started hanging up their banner. Much to my surprise, the band turned out to be Mama Dig Down’s Band. In my preretirement career, I had become indirectly associated with the band and knew the band’s organizer and lead singer as well as several of the band members. Tonight was going to be a reunion of sorts and I just had to hang out and listen to them play.

If you are unfamiliar with the band or may have never heard them play, they are a multipiece brass band offering a wide range of music but specializing in the New Orleans Jazz style. Oh yeah, and they are great! As Mama Dig Down opened their set, the courtyard literally began to vibrate with the resonate sounds of their lively brass music. Soon patrons began spilling out of the bar and into the courtyard and in no time at all, the crowd was rocking to the sound. In fact, it was nearly impossible to not begin moving to the rhythm of the band as the horns wailed out their jazz beat and the drums drove it home. For a moment, if you closed your eyes, you could imagine yourself standing in the middle of Bourbon Street in the center of the French Quarter. The effect was magical.

I had not started the evening in the best of moods, but I certainly ended it in a great mood. Nothing raises one’s spirits like live music shared with the people you love in a setting you wound up at completely by accident. Thank you Roc and Darin and Mama Dig Down’s Band for a perfect evening. So perfect, not even the parking ticket under the wiper blade of my car could wipe the smile from my face.

The Art of the Tale

It was a lazy summer afternoon. We were up north at our cottage and had gone for a walk along the winding barely two lane road that found its way to our cottage near the end of it. Jackson and I had fell well back of his mom and sister as he asked only the questions an inquisitive seven year-old could ask. Realizing that they had gotten so far ahead as to be completely out of sight, Jackson and I settled on a tale we would tell when we got back to the cottage. We would tell them that as we rounded the last bend, there in the middle of the road stood a big old black bear. This was something we had all long wished to see but never had and thus the bait in the story. We practiced how Jackson would tell of the event and anticipated the surprise on his mom’s face when he would spring it on her. As we entered the cottage and his mom asked where we had been, Jackson looked her in the eye and froze. “You tell the story Opa.” This had been Jackson story to tell but he just hadn’t yet embraced the art of storytelling.

There is a story within a story here and that was the story inside. Storytelling is an art as old as time. In fact without it, we wouldn’t have history. It is that storytelling throughout time that gives us the accounting of our history. Some stories are just that, a retelling of an event in a just the facts ma’am, kind of style. Other stories are told for the enjoyment of the listener, while still others, like Jackson’s, just to spin a yarn. These last two styles need to be rich in the colorful detail that makes them worth the time spent listening.

I come from a long line of artful storytellers. From my grandfather and my father, through my aunts and my uncles, I learned the history of the family and the family farm, but I also heard stories of the adventures and misadventures of the storytellers. I would often hear the same story told by two different tellers but each with their own choice of detail and sometimes, facts. The multiple telling of the same story taught me perspective. With story telling, there is an obligation to the overall facts of the event, but there is also literary freedom in the way the event was remembered and the storyteller’s style of retelling it. That is the art of storytelling.

Stories are powerful tools. As I previously mentioned, they can tell the history of an event or they can do so much more. If used properly, a story can be used to motivate through the lesson it delivers. The best motivational speakers use personal stories to relate their topic to the listener. By personalizing their message with their own experiences via stories, the speaker draws the listener in and paints a verbal image that helps them both relate to and remember the message. And of course, when properly enhanced and artfully told, the story can be pure entertainment. Most of my storytelling falls into this last bracket.

I have been accused of embellishing the facts and I will never deny that I might have, just a bit, but I believe the story should be entertaining. To that end, I reserve the right to a little additional literary freedom. Many of my favorite stories to tell have, needless to say, grown in stature over the years. I have also been accused, mostly by my wife and daughters, of making the story longer every time I tell it. I choose to blame that on my memory of the event continuing to improve with each retelling.

Throughout my adult life I have told stories. Some may have been told in my childhood, those being the ones I usually told to get out of the trouble I had so artfully gotten into. When I taught, I used them to relate life lessons to my students. As I developed my career as an investment planner, I told them to help my clients understand the financial decisions they would need to make. As a bartender I picked up the art of telling the story well and as a parent I used stories to guide my daughter’s decisions, to help them learn of their past, just as my father and grandfather did before me, and often, just to make them laugh. And they usually did.

I am now working on the next generation of stories as I go for long walks with my grandchildren. Through my stories, I hope that they will learn the histories of their parents, their grandparents, and the relatives that came before. They will hear stories of adventures and even some misadventures. They will hear stories of people and places and things. They may even hear stories they will choose to one day retell. Through them all, I will try to pass on the beauty and the art of telling the story. Even if it’s a tall tale of the bear we never saw.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Can you really have too much of a good thing. Let’s take ice cream. I will unashamedly admit that on more than one occasion I have literally licked the bottom of the bowl and it may not have even been mine.

For the past three weeks, we have been at a condo we rented on the gulf in Florida. Every day has been sunny with temps in the 80’s. When we weren’t basking in the pool just outside of our lanai, we were at the beach, with our toes in the water. And every evening, ah, the sunsets.

Sunsets on the ocean are spectacular. Weather permitting, and it was, the sun arcs toward the water’s edge in a blazing orb that gradually deepens in color from bright white to blazing yellow and eventually to deepening shades of orange. As the outer rim touches the ocean’s edge, the march below the waves accelerates, or so it seems, and in a matter of minutes, its gone. As the last sliver of the sun disappears, the skies light up in an explosion of deep oranges and soft reds, but not before this halo of light seems to erupt into the dusk sky. The strange thing is that no two sunsets are ever exactly the same and no matter how many photos you have snapped, you find yourself taking one more.

As I said, we were here for three weeks. Our first week was shared with my daughter, her husband and our two grandchildren. To say the energy of two young grandchildren kept us busy would be an understatement. Daily trips down to the surf, hours of swimming in the complex’s pool and long walks down the beach shelling, the sport of finding the best seashells, filled our days from dawn to the evening sunset. Sadly, they had to go home at the end of that first week leaving my wife I to keep each other entertained. Near the end of week two and missing our grandchildren, my wife asked the question, was three weeks too long? Were we in fact ready to go home? As the question hung there and the sun began its descent to the ocean, the answer was obvious. Were we in a hurry to return home where spring was waging a losing battle to push away winter? Where it had snowed the day before and temps still hovered near freezing?

Let’s not be hasty. We deserve a few more days of falling asleep to the sounds of the surf rolling onto the beach. To walk with sand tickling our toes. To just gaze out at the ocean as sail boats go by first following the wind and then alternately tacking against it. To catch a few more amazing sunsets. And there you have it, you really can’t get too much of a good thing.

I’ll have to wrap this up. The sun is dipping toward the ocean and I can hear the mellow sounds of the conch shells beckoning me out to watch.

The Call of the Road Trip

The road trip has been talked about for generations. When I was growing up the best road trip one could take, was Route 66. This one was so famous, they wrote books about it and even made a TV show with Route 66 as the premise. The idea of a road trip offered a chance to see America close up and if you really wanted to see the out of the way, you had to take the by ways and avoid the free ways.


During my lifetime I have taken my share of road trips. The first road trips were relatively short in that they didn’t even leave the state. Later, my road trips expanded beyond the borders of my state and several took me all the way across the country. I have driven to San Francisco on one coast and New York on the opposite. One trip reached the tip of Cape Cod, while another the tip of the Florida Keys at Key West. Two took me out of the country to Quebec City on the Atlantic side and Edmonton, Alberta on the western side of Canada. Each and every one of these trips hold very special memories. Memories of driving with my small children. Bonding trips with friends from college. Several long trips with my wife as copilot. In the end, I brought home lots of photos and souvenirs, but more importantly, incredible memories of the places and views as well as new friends made along the way. I could never pick one favorite trip, but there certainly were some great ones. 


There is one trip that does stand out from the rest for it’s sheer audacity. It was the summer of 1977, I had just resigned from my first teaching job and had moved back home before I would start my new one that fall. My brother had some vacation time coming and asked if I were up for a road trip. We would load the car and head west eventually reaching Sacramento where we would drop in on our sister. We had zero plans but big ideas. With my little red mustang loaded with the few things we thought we might need, we said good by to our mother and headed west. We reached Omaha, Nebraska sometime in the wee hours of the next morning and passed Lincoln around sunrise. Some small Nebraska town out in the middle of nowhere became our first pit stop. It seems the Nebraska State Patrol believes one should drive slow enough to truly enjoy the amazing scenery their state has to offer. After paying for our share of that view, we were back on the road. We eventually crossed the Rockies, the Great Salt Lake, and the Sierras arriving at our destination, my sister and brother-in-law’s home in Sacramento. It had taken us most of two days and I am not even sure I remember where we stopped for the night or even if we did. All in all, we spent the better part of two weeks on that trip. We toured Sacramento, took in one of my brother-in-laws stock car races, made several new acquaintances curtesy of the Sacramento night scene, and re-established our significance to our sister.


Our return trip back across the country was equally noteworthy. Safe to say, we still went more or less by the seat of our pants when it came to planning. Night one found us rolling out our sleeping bags under a moonlit Oregon sky only to be awakened soon after by rather large animal sounds, at least they sounded large. Back in the car, we decided we were not cut out to be cowboys sleeping under the stars. We reached Yellowstone by morning and actually made Mt Rushmore in time for the evening lighting of the monument. I still remember Keith asking if the one day park sticker we had bought that morning in Yellowstone, also got us into Mt Rushmore. The look on the ranger’s face said it all. I believe his exact words were, “You’re covered on the park entrance fee, but maybe I should be giving you a speeding ticket instead.” After a good laugh, we were granted entrance to the park. Our intent that night was to pitch a tent and start back on our trip home the in the morning. Our intent was valid, but after a night out in Keystone, two more new acquaintances, and a trip to an abandoned gold mine at three am, it was already dawn when we got to our tent. Our camp ground neighbors commented on how impressed they were with our being such early risers. We left them believe that.

 
That trip sticks out in my mind as being the event that re-bonded me with my brother. Sharing all that time, and yes, adventures with him, renewed our brotherhood. That is what road trips are meant to do. We get to reacquaint ourselves, we discover new places and new people, we adventure. The open road cannot be seen from 30,000 feet up. It needs to roll beneath the tires of your vehicle. It needs to be seen from the windshield of your car and it needs to invite you to pull over, get out, and experience it first hand. Every road trip I have taken has afforded me those priceless opportunities. Next time someone offers you the chance for a road trip, don’t hesitate. Throw a few things in the back of the car, buckle your seatbelt, and hit the road.

                                 Queet’s Beach, Washington.  One of many great road trips with my daughters

The Christmas Letters

It is five days until Christmas Eve. I have purchased my gifts, the few I actually purchase. I have even wrapped them and actually put name tags on them. My wife has always been frustrated with me for having to tell everyone to whom the gifts I wrapped must go on Christmas morning. I am ahead of the game this year though I am unsure of why that is.

The main gifts I give to my family each year are actually letters of affirmation given to each of my daughters, their husbands, my grandchildren, and of course my wife. I try to include a memory in each letter that brings the affirmation into focus. This process was started a long time ago when my oldest daughter turned sixteen. Soon my younger daughter was looking for her letter and before I knew it, I was writing letters for each of their birthdays and Christmas. As family members were added, they were also included. Though I love to write, just as I am doing right now, keeping those letters fresh and more importantly, meaningful, is no easy task. This is especially true at Christmas when they all come due at once. As the date approaches, I start looking for excuses to end this process and just call it a wrap, but then I am reminded of how important they have become to each of the recipients, my younger daughter’s spouse actually used the letters I had written for him over the years to ask me for her hand in marriage, and so I begin to write.

The amazing thing about this process is how easily the words flow once I begin each letter. Before I know it, the letter has written itself. The beauty of this whole thing is the incredible feeling of peace it gives me. The chance to share the pride I have for each of them, the love and respect I feel for each of them, and the chance to reminisce with a memory, makes it all so rewarding. And then there is the satisfaction of watching them pour over them Christmas morning. One Christmas, intending to measure the expectation, I pretended to have forgotten to write them. The outcry was a rather rewarding experience. And so I continue to write.

My letters this year are all written, last one was finished just last night. As always, it was a very satisfying endeavor. Now I wait anxiously to see how they will be received Christmas morning. Whether you are a seasoned writer, a reluctant one, or even a hack, I encourage you to adopt some form of this project. Life flies by too fast for us to not acknowledge its passing with some form of milepost. Mine has been these letters, each one representing a blink in time. It really does seem like it was just yesterday when I wrote that first letter to my then sixteen year old daughter. Christmas morning her seven year old son and her four year old daughter will open theirs. I am so glad that each year I can be sure that they will be looking for the next one.

One last thought, as the father of two strong willed daughters, these letters are sometimes the only chance for me to get a word in edgewise. Think about it.