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.

Reflections on Time

We go through decades in our lives. If you are reading this, you’ve gone through at least one. In that first decade we learn a lot, some would argue most, of what we will need to survive our remaining decades. We learn that hot things can hurt. That counting will help us figure out how far we still need to go, though asking the question “are we there yet” holds a lot of pleasure for the questioner. We figure out that food comes in an incredible variety of forms and delivery systems and that we are often forced to eat some of the foods even though we don’t like them. We hopefully learn to play nice and to vow to practice that in the decades to come every chance we get and with everyone we meet even when they haven’t learned this lesson as well.

In our second decade, we anxiously await our teens and when we finally achieve them, we have no idea what to do with them, especially the hormones. We hopefully learn to drive, though it is becoming questionable whether future generations will ever need to drive the car at all. In the last part of the decade, we get to vote which is all too often filled with disappointment, sometimes even when our candidate wins. Make no mistake here, you still need to vote. No vote means you are only allowed to be disappointed. And as that second decade comes to an end, you are given the keys to adulthood and the admonition “go get a job kid cause you’re on your own”. Ah the sweet smell of freedom and the lure of the wild.

Decade three starts the trip of wonder. We wonder about everything as we wander through our twenties. We try out our wild side, three hours of sleep and a recovery plan seem perfectly natural. We figure out our tolerance for risk, and generally amass the mistakes we will refer to in our later decades as lessons learned. This is the decade where we will explore our sexuality (god I miss that, but maybe not), decide to decide what we might be, and as we approach the end of the decade, come to the realization that this was the decade when we actually grew up.

Thirties, these are the years we re-find and re-define ourselves, not that it is the final time we will do that. We either find our soul mate or decide that we would rather fly solo. We settle down, maybe even buy a house and, if we are up to it, make it a home. It is during our thirties that we will likely start our families. It is the decade where we will claim we left our wild days behind, no matter how wild we still remain.

Our fifth decade is the decade we will look back on and want a mulligan. Not because we messed up, but because it was the decade we played young people’s games and held grown up jobs. We were in our prime and still full of energy, energy we likely needed to deal with our children. We make actual grown up decisions and start building our bucket lists.

Then comes our sixth decade. We come to the realization that like it or not, our wealth determines both our success and status all the while learning that it still can’t really buy happiness. We learn that money can buy us time and maybe offer more choices, but happiness comes from the people around us and our connection to family and friends. We start to spend a little too much time with the “what ifs” and the “if onlys”. We start counting our gray hairs and spending time trying to look once more like we did a decade earlier. If we are lucky, as we approach the end of this decade, we start to appreciate who we are and the person we have become. We may even accept who we are as the better version of who we were.

Decade number seven brings you the respect of age and the realization that your journey through the first six decades have left you tagged as “experienced”. Experience somehow equates to wisdom and wisdom redefines you as a commodity. Your children refer to other people your age as “old” but not you, and all it took to earn that dignity was paying for a college education or two or three and being there through every crisis they faced on their journey through the earlier decades. This is the decade you will likely experiment with retirement as a title. And, if all has worked out, you will travel and start checking off some of the more possible things on your very long bucket list.

And that brings me to tonight at midnight. It is upon that momentous tick of the minute hand that I will enter my next decade. I cannot tell you what it will hold or how it will define me but I enter it knowing certain truths. I am a better version of the me I have sometimes been. I have in fact learned from the mistakes I have made and have applied them to my decisions that followed. I feel good, even valued for the help I have given to those I have met along the way. I have raised, with the help of their mother, two beautiful successful daughters. I have been blessed to be part of the lives of two equally impressive, uniquely inquisitive, challengingly energetic grandchildren of whom I am so incredibly fond. Do I wish I could be forty something again, of course, but then all these things that I am so grateful for would not have happened yet and possibly wouldn’t. I will not trade what I have for a what if. I am possibly and finally content.

By the time you read this I will have crossed the milepost and will be beginning my 70th trip around the sun. Send me no gifts for all I ask is that you take the time to think about the decades YOU have crossed and vow to make the next one just a little better than the last. Promise to do one more good deed than the last time. Help one more person than before and look for the good in the people around you so they may see the good in you.

I Need a Drink

When this is all over, this Coronavirus thing, I need a drink. Not that I can’t have one in my home and not that I haven’t. Just last night, with the temperature dropping toward the upper 30’s, my wife and I set up lawn chairs, six feet apart, invited our neighbors, no more than four, to set up their chairs, six feet away, and we shivered through a COVID 19 style cocktail party. For now this appears to be the norm for social gatherings. Save for the strange process of passing ten feet to the right and waving to anyone you meet on your walk, all other interaction has been relegated to the internet. I have zoomed and duo-ed to the point of being a disinterested third party and have listened to every classic song sung to new lyrics on Facebook. I have avoided the news like a, well…. plague, and finished my house projects well ahead of their time. I am a little worried I’ll end up creating a to do list for my neighbor’s house.

So back to my opening tirade. When this is over, I am going to spend every chance I get going out to eat in crowded, noisy restaurants. Going to drinking establishments, be they bars, saloons or even corner taverns where I can watch sports on their wall to wall TVs all the while talking to total strangers about everything and anything while sitting mere inches away from my newest friends. Isolation can be a good thing for introverts and for flattening the curve, but for me an extra extrovert, it is becoming a death sentence. Death by isolation. I saw a Facebook rendition of Adele’s “Hello” sung to COVID 19 lyrics and I totally identified. The only difference being that the singer had abandoned even the act of wearing pants while I still have mine on, at least at this point. Check in on me in another two weeks of this, and I might have followed suit or the lack of. Apologies for that visual.

There is a point here, isn’t there always? The economy is going to need an incredible boost when this is over. I for one am going to cease on-line shopping for at least a little while. I will avoid take-out where possible and I will do anything in my power to single handedly drag the economy back from the edge. I will never again complain about a crowded restaurant or a noisy bar. I will drink in the ambiance of foo foo boutiques and volunteer to go to grocery stores and even go shopping with my wife.

These are desperate times. In short, I need the old normal…..I need a drink…..preferable with friends…..lots of friends…..maybe friends with hugs.

Wind in the Trees

For those of you who were never aware, I grew up on a small dairy farm just outside of Appleton Wisconsin. Yes, as my high school classmates so often reminded me, I was a “hay seed.” All though an often painful handle to accept, I later became comfortable with the moniker, but not until later in life when I looked back at the memories it evoked and the undeniable aspect of my character that it became.

Being a particularly beautiful day today, I was out on the deck of our home when the wind picked up and began rustling through the leaves of the trees that line our backyard. It was the sound of that wind through the trees and the cooling effect of it on my face and arms that brought back the memory. It poured over me and gently floated me back to a time when I was about ten or eleven years old. In this memory, I am back there with my brother, sitting under the grain trailer in the middle of one of our fields, a stem of timothy grass danging from the corner of my mouth and that reminiscent wind rustling through the trees, cooling us on a hot July afternoon. We are waiting for the combine my dad is operating to fill with the oats I and my brother will haul back to the grain building on our farm.

Though this was hard work for us when other boys our age were off playing sand lot baseball or down swimming in the river on a hot and lazy summer afternoon, it was none the less a very pleasant memory. It took me back to a time when things seemed so simple and so peaceful. When I still had an entire lifetime ahead of me. It was time spent with my brother and my dad. It was a time, even if I was a hay seed, that I was glad to be a farm kid and being told by my dad that he was proud of me.

Memories are like that. It can be the simplest thing that evokes them. The words of a song or a glance at an old picture may be all that’s required to take us back to a particular time or place. For me, it was the rustling of the wind through the trees on a warm spring morning. The key is to choose to hold onto those memories that evoke a sense of peace and calm. Of happy times with friends or family, or even just the beauty of someplace we once visited. Though it is often difficult to forget the harsher memories, we don’t need to go back there and we certainly should avoid reliving them. Choose instead those memories that take you back to a place of contentment. A time of wonder and opportunity.

We are more in control of our attitudes than we believe. Evoking positive, peaceful memories is an easy thing to do. Memories can calm us and even inspire us. And here’s a thought. We have the ability to both recall and create our memories. The next time you travel, the next time an activity feels special, the next time an event is especially emotional, sense the world around you in the moment. Take in the smell and sounds that surround you. Observe the people sharing the moment with you. Create the details of a memory worth recalling.

Listen to the wind. It might be calling you back.

Sign Said, Last Gas for at Least 200 miles.

It was to be a simple trip. My daughter Bailey and I would be attending her cousin’s wedding in Bishop, California. After a late flight into Las Vegas and a night on the infamous Strip, we picked up our Pontiac G6 that next morning at the car rental agency. From there it was a four hour drive across the desert to our destination in the mountains of California. Except for a modification to my brother’s speed in the lead car, he thought the speed limit was 95 when in fact that was the interstate’s numeric designation, the trip was uneventful. We stopped for lunch in Beatty, Nevada half way across the desert and arrived in Bishop by mid afternoon.

The next two days passed quickly and on Sunday, after the wedding festivities had wound down, Bailey and I left for Las Vegas. A few facts pertinent to the story. It was late Sunday afternoon, I had not driven the rental since we had arrived on Friday and we no longer had the accompaniment of my brother as he was staying a few days longer. These facts will play heavily in the events that were to follow.

Bailey and I are known to have a habit of visiting sites that are near our route when traveling. This Sunday afternoon would afford us an opportunity to pass near “The Ancient Bristle Cone Pine Groove”. Some of these trees were over 3000 years old.

We had crested the first of our three mountain passes when we came upon the road to the grove. Not being able to resist, we took the turn off and headed toward the site. Poor planning step one, the road into the grove was over 10 miles one way. We arrived at what we thought was the grove only to realize it was a vista just below and the actual grove was still another mile or so up the grade. As we started our climb, I noticed, somehow for the first time, the fuel gauge on our G6. The gauge was already nearing the “E”. Poor planning step two, not having driven the vehicle all weekend, we had not considered our fuel supply. We were now faced with a critical decision. Drive back to Bishop, some 50 miles behind us or count on a gas station somewhere ahead. At the time the decision seemed obvious and, poor planning step three, we chose to drive on. Had we been paying attention on the drive out from Vegas, we would have been painfully aware that the only gas station had been in Beatty complete with a sign that said, next gas at least 200 miles. This was the same Beatty that was still some 100 miles ahead. Did I tell you the gauge was nearly on “E”? By the time we reached the highway we had left to drive into the grove, the low fuel light was now on and the gauge was glaring back at us on “E”.

Time to update you on our conditions, beside the fact that we were counting on something that didn’t exist, we still had two more mountain passes to clear. Add to that, mountains don’t tend to offer great cell service and mountain passes even less. Needless to say, we had no cell service, a car reading empty, and 100 miles to go.

At this point, the science of physics becomes important. Cars run on fuel, altitude climbs are hard on mileage efficiency and wind resistance only makes matters worse. Here, in no particular order, were our scientific conclusions, coasting was better than driving, braking causes resistance, using the AC reduces mileage and rolled up windows create less wind resistance. Did I remind you the temperature was in the upper 80’s. The last two decisions, no AC and rolled up windows, were tough ones, but we were determined to make it to Beatty even as the vehicle was warning us otherwise. As to the coasting and no braking conclusions, you would be shocked by the speed a 3000 lb vehicle can reach coasting down a winding mountain pass. You would be further amazed at how long we could let this go each time before lightly using the brakes to bleed off some of our speed. One of our conditions was now working in our favor for the moment. It was late Sunday afternoon and we had the road to ourselves. But this also meant that when the car would be finally completely empty, WE WERE ALONE.

We somehow made it up the last pass and were now coasting down the last grade where we could see Interstate 95 off in the distance.
This highway would lead us into Beatty or at least put us in proximity of fellow travelers. But what seemed to be in reach was just another mirage. Distances in the mountains and now down on the desert floor can be deceptive. What seemed to be right there was actually close to 20 miles ahead. Down on the desert floor, no more coasting available and more heat than we could take, we were willing the car to reach for the interstate. If we could get there, then maybe we could at least be saved. As we neared the entrance to the interstate, the road took a jog back to the north before winding onto the interstate. Off to our right was a long abandoned bordello and a parking area that ran along the edge of the interstate. The needle on the fuel gauge had long ago passed “E” and the decision became easy. We left the road, shot through the abandoned parking lot and up the side of Interstate 95, easily cutting off another half mile. Desperation was now becoming our co-pilot.

We were now on the interstate and had at least the occasional car or two to give us comfort. We also had picked up cell service again and the first call went out to Triple A. A pleasant voice took our call but informed us that if we were still running there really wasn’t anything they could do. We would need to call back when we are actually out of gas and stranded. My daughter asked where the agent was located and when she replied New Jersey, Bailey told her that we weren’t. Once she explained where we actually were and that we had just passed a sign that told us Beatty was another 60 miles ahead, she responded with a phrase closely resembling the phrase Steve Martin gets from Bunny at the rental desk in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. And so we motor on. We are now down to considering drafting the next semi we can find.

About this time my wife calls from our safe and cozy home back in Wisconsin. She is checking in on how we are doing. Being the considerate and wise daughter I raised her to be, Bailey tells her we are just great and that we will be in Beatty soon, under her breath, “one way or the other.” Any whiff of what was really going on and we would have been subject to an embarrassing lecture and then an Air Force rescue in the Nevada desert. And so we motor on.

The Pontiac G6 has decided it too refuses to give up or the fuel gauge has been set extremely conservative to thwart the effort of optimistic drivers like us, pushing the limits. Either way, the road mileage markers become more and more promising and then suddenly, from a slight crest in the highway, we view Beatty up ahead. Still five or six miles distant we begin to believe we will make it. Fear has now been replaced with determination to complete this epic record. At about a half mile out we spy the gas station up ahead on the right. We can take the jog to the left, turn at the light and head back down to the gas station. Or, we can cut through the motel parking lot, across an alley, through the grocery store parking lot and roll up to the pumps. Of course, we chose the later. As we pulled alongside the pumps, and as God is my witness, the car stuttered once and shut down. Bailey and I jump from the car and with fists held high, yelling at the top of our lungs, did our gas dance around the now quiet vehicle. One gentleman looked at us and said “that drive across the desert can be a killer.” We just replied “Oh Yeah! Don’t we know it!”

Beatty NV motel

It was a year latter, and we were on a family vacation in Hawaii. The car rental agent said we would be getting a Pontiac G6, but he wanted to upgrade us at no cost to a little larger car. Bailey and I looked at him and in unison said “we’ll take the Pontiac.”

Was it automotive ingenuity or just dumb luck? Or maybe, was it a car with a soul that said no one gets stranded in the desert on my watch. Either way, an epic story and a happy ending.