We were just strangers when we met

The sign read “There are no strangers here, just friends you haven’t met.”  This turned out to be pretty prophetic.  By the end of one month of travel, we had met many strangers who by the time we had to part ways, were new friends.

August found my wife and I on a trip up the Rhine in Europe.  It started with us meeting two couples from Nebraska, Mureen and her husband Murray and Gayle and her husband Larry.  We shared stories and drinks and continued those conversations all week long.  Now we also met another couple the very first day and bravely introduced ourselves.  Through the next ten days, we shared walks and talks, dinners and stories of our lives.  But eventually we were saying goodbye to our new friends, Polly and Stu, but knowing we would make a mutual effort to meet again.  Strangers had turned out to be friends we just hadn’t met.

And then there was Lucerne.  We had boarded a paddlewheeler for a trip around Lake Lucerne.  Knowing no local dialects and completely on our own, we took a seat across from an elderly women.  As the boat moved away from the pier, she leaned over and asked if we were from the U.S.  Over the next hour we carried on a fascinating conversation learning things about our new friend, Lucerne and Switzerland.  When she had to disembark at her stop, the women next to her, not knowing any of us, leaned in and said “I’ll take care of them from here.”  And she did.  No language barrier was going to thwart the effort of strangers becoming friends.

My wife and I just returned from a short trip to the North Woods.  On day two of our stay, I headed out to an area golf course.  I was going to squeeze in a quick nine holes somehow hoping I could just play alone and practice my game undisturbed by any semblance of competition.  But this was not to be.  Instead, I was paired up with two gentleman, Gene and his son-in-law, Ryan.  As they had never played the course, I turned out to be their guide.  The three of us shared a very beautiful fall morning and what turned out to be one of my best scores of the season.  As I finished on the ninth hole, we all wished each other well and where we had been strangers just two hours earlier, parted as friends.

The next day, Deb and I took a long bike ride on a trail near our cottage.  When we returned back to our car, which we had left parked at a local pub, we decided we needed some lunch and the pub looked inviting.  It was while we were there that I discovered the sign I quoted at the beginning of this piece.  It was placed prominently above the bar and in the patrons soon proved how true it was.  In no time at all we were in conversation with two local construction workers, the bartender / owner of the pub and two other couples who were traveling like us and had decided to drop in, because that’s what you do at a North Woods pub.  The sign was true, there really were no strangers there.

The next day found us again at the end of another bike ride exploring yet another local pub.  Before you start worrying about my drinking habits, remember that we are on vacation, wait even better, we are retired.  Earlier, as we were locking our bikes and walking downtown, a woman crossing the street had overheard us pondering about this new place, well new to us, and told us it was a great place and that we ought to stop back later when the place opened.  Well it was later and we heeded her advice and entered the establishment.  To our surprise, the women, it turns out her name was Margaret, was not only working there but was in fact the co-owner.  We ordered our drinks and retired to the warmth and coziness of their backyard patio.  There Margaret waited on and conversed with us, sharing her story and getting ours in return.  Within the span of half an hour, we felt like friends.  Hopefully Margaret is reading this blog and is approving my story.  There is no doubt that The Vine in Minocqua will be a new favorite stop on our stays up North and we will look forward to more conversations with the owners, Margaret and Scott.

Our trip was coming to a close when we got one last chance to make a stranger a friend.  It was Saturday and we had just finished golfing.  Not wanting to miss the Badger’s football game, we stopped in the Sayner Pub, yes, I know this is starting to sound like a North Woods pub review but it’s just a coincidence.  We seated ourselves at the bar, best viewing position, I swear, and began watching the game.  We were soon surrounded by strangers who through the comraderie of a sporting event would become our new friends of the day.  Bob on our left, recently retired and living up North and Ryan on our right who turned out to be from Madison.  The Badgers won, we all celebrated and after sharing our stories, parted with the memories and emotions of another well spent day.

This piece would be pointless without a message, okay moral.  One never knows what interesting story resides in the stranger sitting next to you or maybe waiting in the same line.  That is unless you take the step to find out.  To maybe even introduce yourself.  What’s the worst that could happen?  They might just turn out to be the friend you haven’t met.

Somewhere over Ireland

We have been flying all night, which is a relative term.  While my watch says it is 5:00 am, the outside tells me it is much later.  Seven hours later to be exact.  It is a strange sensation, especially if it is the first time one has ever done it, to fly east, racing toward the sunrise.  The airlines, Delta in our case, does everything possible to help you through this body clock dilemma.  You are served dinner at 11:00 pm, lights and all noise dimmed, eye shades handed out along with blankets and pillows all to get you ready for the big time shift that awaits you.

I walk through the plane several times during the wee hours of the morning, enviously watching the seasoned travelers actually sleeping.  But sleep eludes me.  Though the seats are “comfort seats” designed for extra leg room, my legs will not let me sleep.  They twitch and remind me that I am sitting up when they want to be stretched out parallel to gravity.  The night passes and then at roughly 1:00 am, my time when I should be sound asleep, the plane catches up with the sunrise and reality sets in, you have reached tomorrow, today.

The plane comes awake at 4:30 am.  By this I mean that the lights are slowly brought up and breakfast sounds are coming from the galley.  At 5:00 am we are having breakfast, while miles below, somewhere over the coast of Ireland, they are sitting down to lunch.  As we are landing soon, my body will just have to adapt if this adventure is to begin.  It has been twenty-four hours since I got up in my bedroom thousands of miles behind us.  The world has shrunk and we aren’t in Kansas anymore.

Next stop, Amsterdam, with its canals, windmills and bikes…..hundreds and hundreds of bikes.


The Friends We Make

I have been getting over a bit of writer’s block lately. Plenty of thoughts, but just not connected. In the midst of that, a title came to me and after a lot of searching for inspiration, I think I am ready to tackle this piece.

Deb and I just returned from some long awaited travel. We started the winter with a two week stay on Kauai and Maui in the Hawaiian Islands, returned home for a quick two week catchup, and then went down to Cancun for one more week. Hopefully you are not judging me for my irresponsible galivanting, but we had saved up for this and Covid-19 had left us longing to start traveling again. Regardless, we took both trips looking forward to the memories we would make. And we made memories.

These two trips, in some ways similar, had marked differences. Hawaii was activity driven. With my faithful travel master friends, Larry and Annette along for the journey, we never lacked purpose on any of the days. There were waterfalls to hike into, zip lines to tackle, whales to watch, and fish to snorkel among. Every day had a hike planned for at least part of it. Cancun, on the other hand, was meant for soaking up sun, walking the beach, and eating at a different restaurant every day (we were in an all inclusive so why wouldn’t we). Where our purpose in Hawaii was exploring and, as it turned out, exercise, Cancun was about down time.

We met random people throughout our stay in Hawaii, but they were usually “one and done” as we moved on and so did they. Cancun was different. As it was an all inclusive resort, it was like being held in this exotic, beautiful, prison. There was no need to venture outside of the walls and the food and the guards were incredible. The offshoot of this kind of vacation is that all the guests are traveling in the same circles. We were all there together and seeing a couple multiple times a day was the norm and offered the chance to make new friends, which we did. Though there were multiple couples, Chris and Sammy, Kristy and Chuck, not Paul (inside joke), half the state of Nebraska, and a very friendly group from Green Bay, Wisconsin, there were two couples who deserve a shout out.

Marcello and Julianna from Sao Paulo, Brazil were there to do a recommitment of their marriage vows on the occasion of their fifteenth wedding anniversary. We met them one of our first nights. They had come into one of the lounges and Julianna’s beautiful wedding dress caught our eye. Something told us they were looking for company. They had, like us, made the trip alone. As we started a conversation, we discovered that Marcello was able to speak some English but Julianna could only speak her native tongue, Portuguese. After spending some time apologizing to each other for not being able to adequately speak each other’s language, it was decided that we could fill in most of the gaps and we would not let it get in the way of what instantly felt like a friendship in the making. By weeks end, I was improving my very limited Spanish, and Marcello, his English. We had spent hours learning about each other and forming a friendship that just might, with the help of Facebook, last beyond our week in Cancun.

On night two of our stay, we sat across from a couple playing cards and talking with each other. As is the way with me, my incessant belief that people want to join in a conversation, I asked what game they were playing. That is all it took. By the end of the evening, we were making plans for breakfast the next morning. Erin and Alex, as it turned out, were from St Louis, a city we visit often and, by the end of the week, a city we now had a new reason to visit.

In our every day lives, we pass by so many Marcello and Julianna’s, so many Erin and Alex’s, but we never get to meet. When we travel, it seems so much easier to take the risk and start that conversation. In the case of Marcello and Julianna, we had to overcome the language barrier, but I will tell you that the challenge made the friendship all the sweeter. With Erin and Alex, the conversation was easier, but we still had to take the risk and put ourselves in play. In both cases, we formed a friendship that just might last long after the vacation ended. That is, of course, if both sides make the effort to keep the conversation going.

We are home now and the world is back to passing us by on the street, but what if we just once in a while mustered up the courage to talk to that person across the aisle or at the next table over. Who knows whether or not that is a friendship waiting to be formed. Don’t be afraid to take the chance. After all, can we ever really have too many friends?

72 years and a cloud of smoke

Appleton Post Crescent

February 1951

Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Wundrow of Rt 4 Appleton, Wisconsin, announced the birth of their first born son at 2:25 AM on February 25th at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton. The baby boy named Kenneth, apparently by the attending nurse, weighed in at 8lbs 8 oz and joined the family previously ruled over by two earlier sisters, Karen, aka Peaches, and Kathleen, aka Kay also both named by same said nurse. Kenneth will now attempt to take his place on the family farm and attempt to survive the bossy nature of his two siblings.

As time passed, Ken, Kenny to his parents and absolutely no one else, was joined by another brother, Karl. Ken and Karl were to become fast friends and thick as thieves. There was no challenge that once thrown at one brother by the other wasn’t met by the other, no matter how great the danger. In time, mom and dad Wundrow would add two more brothers, apparently just to keep the two sisters in check.

Kenny would eventually become Ken, enter high school, and graduate summa cum average. Woodstock was in full swing that summer as was the Vietnam War. Ken wanted UW Madison, mom and dad, wanted Fox Valley Tech. A compromise was struck and Ken was off to Wisconsin State College at Oshkosh, later UW Oshkosh. He entered as a science major, apparently aiming to be a scientist, and left as a math teacher with a degree in education. Seems the counselor thought he’d make a better teacher than a scientist. That, or the fact that scientists didn’t get draft deferment status.

Loyal Middle School (Loyal, Wisconsin) needed an interim math teacher and four years later, Oregon School District (Oregon, Wisconsin) did as well. Twenty-five years later and an illustrious career in education coming to a close, Kenneth Wundrow, EA. sold his blossoming tax business to the highest bidder, left teaching, and entered what would be a tax and financial planning career.

Now entering his sixth year of semi-retirement, and because a reasonable number of people still feel he has a little bit of wisdom left to share, volunteers as a business mentor. When able to say no, he travels the “world” with his wife of forty-two years, Deb.

And that’s it. seventy-two years summed up in two or three paragraphs. Some where along the line I have grown a little over four feet and gained roughly 180 pounds. I’ve added two beautiful, incredibly bright daughters to this world (Bailey and Kathryn), inherited two well appreciated son-in-laws (John and Eli) and at last count, two incredibly sharp grandchildren (Jackson and Adela) with a future draft pick to be named in June.

Life IS good and on this day each year, I want to thank the countless number of friends who wish me happy birthday, support me in my endeavors, and generally make living so worth well. Age is just a number and whether or not I like mine being such a big one, I will savor all the years that have passed and wisely spend all the ones that remain.

My Bucket List of Thrills

I long ago created a list in my mind of the five daring feats I wanted to complete in my lifetime. They were in no particular order at the time, to jump out of a plane, parasail, paraglide, bungee jump, and zip line. The first one that I accomplished was to jump out of a plane. I had a friend in the Air Force and while visiting him in North Carolina, he informed me that he had begun a skydiving school and wanted to take me up. The following day, I mustered up my courage, listened to the lesson, practice jumped off a picnic table (not sure that was convincing), and the next morning I was crowded into a plane full of skydivers. Back then, they were not doing tandem, so I would be jumping alone and being a beginner, would come out of the plane at 10,000 feet on a tether. The tether being what would pull my chute at the end of a 200-foot freefall. I steeled my courage as I approached the open door of the plane and then summoned my innards to stay put. I not only managed to exit the plane, there had been some doubt, but I thoroughly enjoyed the rush and then the reassuring opening of my chute and the reasonably gentle ride to the ground. Number one was off my list.

Parasailing came next. I had arranged a family trip with my wife and two young daughters to Mexico. On day two of our trip, the parasail boat pulled up to our beach. The girls were definitely game, my wife was not, but after a brief negotiation, more so with my wife than the boat driver, we were harnessed up and getting ready to be launched from the back of the boat. My daughters were first and went tandem. Watching from the back of the boat I caught myself wondering why I had had to wait so long to do this. They sailed for some time and eventually were winched back in and then it was my turn. They hooked me in and away I went. Some seventy feet in the air, I felt an urge to show off for my daughters. I would pull on the harness and swoop from one side and then back to the other. It was on one of these graceful swoops that I looked down at my harness and suddenly realized that I was hooked to the tow rope, not with a locking carabiner, but rather a simple S-Hook. I decided it might be time to sit still, very still. Again, I survived, and the experience was well worth the time and the money. Number two had been completed.

It would be another thirteen years before I got a chance for my next bucket list feat. My older daughter and I were in Columbia visiting my younger daughter who was spending the summer in an internship for study abroad. We had barely settled in when my younger daughter informed us that she had arranged a paraglide adventure for later in the week. Paragliding, unlike parasailing, is done without any connection to the ground. It is in actuality, flying sans an engine. We would at least be flying tandem with an experienced pilot, interpretation here, a thrill junkie. Our glide would take off from the edge of a three-thousand-foot cliff, ten-thousand feet up a mountain. Our lesson, all five minutes of it, consisted of three commands that our non-English speaking pilot had learned, possibly sometime during the five-minute lesson. The first command was “walk”, the second was “run”, and the third was “sit”. I was ready, or so said my daughter, and the pilot said “walk”. So I walked, waiting for the next command, to run, all the while noticing that we were terribly close to the edge. “SIT” screamed the pilot. My mind, already racing, was asking what the heck happened to “run”. Fortunately for both of us, the pilot was so forceful in his command, I sat! And in that instant, we were airborne. For the next fifteen minutes we literally soared like a bird. We would turn on edge and drop several hundred feet only to turn again and gracefully sail upward on the updrafts coming from the valley below. There are no words to describe the sensation. The flight ended far too soon. As I checked off number three, I promised myself I would find some way to do this again. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened, but then I’m not done yet.

This morning, as I awoke to our third day on the Island of Kauai in Hawaii, I was greeted by Larry, our traveling guru, with “Do you want to go zip lining? There is an opening if we get there in the next ten minutes.” My response was immediate, “Of Course!” or some slightly more colorful version of that. We got to the Koloa Zip Line Company in time to join our group of fellow zip liners. We would be doing eight different zip lines ranging in length from 400 feet to the last one at 2,600 feet, half a mile. We were told that on the last zip line, we would hit a speed of 54 miles per hour. I was stoked (apologies for the obvious reference to my age). I was also nervous, but that soon turned to excitement. With each zip line accomplished, confidence grew. Where there was hesitation on the take off for the first zip line, it became wanting to go before the guide was even ready to let you go on the remaining lines. Each line offered the chance to try a different technique. Though I balked on the first chance to go superman (on your stomach, arms outstretched in flying mode), the next chance up, I agreed, got strapped in, and took off. Our guides were incredible, they kept us safe, challenged us to try new techniques, and bonded us as a group. As with paragliding, it ended all too soon. I had flown over a valley, a gorge, and canopies of trees. I had a blast. Number four, done.

I still have number five out there. My wife says, “And that’s where it will stay!”, but we will see. I have climbed a mountain, made it to the top of Half Dome, albeit via the trail and cables, and have so far accomplished four out of the five thrill feats I decided on so long ago. Each one of these had an element of fear that I needed to deal with, but I have found that by spending less time thinking about the what ifs and more time thinking about the sense of accomplishment and the ultimate reward of the experience, the easier it is to take that first step; the first step out of the plane, the first step off the boat, the first step off the cliff, or the first drop onto the zip line. In every case, the rest was a piece of cake! A delicious, exciting, and rewarding piece of cake.

Dreams Can Come True

Growing up on a small Wisconsin dairy farm in the 50’s, I constantly had chores to do, among them, cropping the fields, stacking the mows, filling the cribs and silos, and the main one, milking twenty three cows twice a day. Because my dad always believed that music would keep the cows content and that they in turn would produce more milk, meant that he would play the radio with the station tuned to WGN out of Chicago. This was an am radio station with a wide assortment of music, news, and talk shows. Thus, I and the cows were treated to a wide variety of programming. Two of my favorite programs were Let’s Go Fishing and Hawaii Calls. Let’s Go Fishing, as the name implies, was a half hour show about fish and catching them. The catchy little tune they would play, totally intended that pun, has never found its way out of my brain; “Let’s go fishing, for a day and a half, and a half a day, for a day and a half a mile.” Don’t ask me why they ended it with “mile” and I will leave the melody to your imagination. The second program was entitled “Hawaii Calls”, a show that took you through the music and stories of the Hawaiian Islands. As I listened, I would imagine one day getting to go there, but to my ten-year-old self, it seemed an impossible dream.

This memory has remained so vivid to me, and I have recalled it countless times over the years. I am happy to report that sometimes the impossible dreams of our childhood do in fact come true. As I write this blog, I am sitting in the Denver Airport waiting to board our flight to Hawaii. We will be spending the next two weeks Island hopping between Kauai and Maui. I say waiting, waiting because our flight is delayed for a technical issue, hopefully one that has nothing to do with the guidance system as I really want to get where we are meant to be. If not, I fear I will have the wrong wardrobe packed. Though this is not my first trip to Hawaii; Deb, my daughters, and I made the trip in 2008, it will be looked forward to no less than my first one. This time, my wife and I are traveling with two dear friends and looking forward to a shared experience as we explore the attractions and enticements of the Islands. There will no doubt be several Mai Tai and other fruit laden cocktails mixed in with hikes, waterfalls, and dinners on the beach.

Travel has always been an integral part of who I am. It started all those years ago as I poured over my National Geographics and listened to radio programs like Hawaii Calls. During my college years It grew into trips outside my home state. Eventually, it took me both north and south of the border and even across the ocean. It has introduced me to new friends and new places. It has allowed me to experience the cultures of people very unlike me and my travels have created memories everywhere I went.

It was just a radio program that planted the seed, but now, all these years later, Hawaii actually is calling and by the way, we just got the call to board our plane.



19 days, 15 hours, or as my grandson Jackson would say, 19 more sleeps. That’s what the widget on my phone is telling me as it counts down to our Hawaii trip. It has kept me optimistic through these cold dreary days of winter as we prepare a little more each day for our departure and greatly anticipated trip to the Islands. As much as I can’t wait to trade emails and meetings for sand and sun, the anticipation of the trip and the excitement it generates will not be overlooked. Just as joy is in the journey, anticipation is that joy.

Anticipation: the act of looking forward. especially : pleasurable expectation. They looked forward with anticipation to their arrival. Carley Simon felt strong enough about anticipation to write a song about it. My intent is to convince you that it’s the anticipation of things that brings joy to the waiting.

I am, as my readers know, a very visual person. From the moment we began our planning I was already there. I could see the aqua blue water, the lush tropical jungles, the palm trees swaying in the breeze. Hell, I could feel the sand between my toes. The fact that there was still better than six months to wait only enhanced the anticipation and that only heightened my awareness and spiked the excitement. The first part of my trip had begun, the anticipation of what it could be was setting in. I knew that anticipation would make the wait bearable.

Life is a constant process of anticipation. The anticipation of that surprise birthday party you just know they are planning. Meeting that special someone on a first date. A family wedding with all it’s planning and tension. The first day on a new job or just that first cup of coffee in the morning. My wife conditioned me to that last one and now I wake up dreaming of it. If you aren’t recognizing and savoring those moments of anticipation, well you just aren’t living. Just as the story is read between the lines, true joy of living is between those moments of anticipation. Anticipation is the hopefulness that allows us to tackle each brand new day, each brand new opportunity, life’s next adventure.

I will be brief today as I believe I have made my point. To truly enjoy the next adventure, one must embrace the anticipation that comes before. I will look at my cell phone tomorrow and the days remaining will be down to eighteen, eighteen more days of anticipation. I will trade waiting and impatience for that anticipation any day. Afterall, why hurry the process of getting there when all it will do is start the countdown of the days I will be there. Hawaii awaits me, what awaits you?

Savor the anticipation.

Headed Home: The end to a twenty-three year run

My wife has lovingly referred to it as my tour. There was the Wisconsin tour, the Mississippi tour, and now the Iowa tour. Lest you get excited, there were never amps to be lugged about, press agents, or even screaming fans, no, it was my tax gig. For 23 years I have held sway in over 30 cities in three states as I taught tax law and planning to my faithful tax planning students. I hopefully educated them on at least several new tax codes, gave them some hot planning tips for managing their clients and employees, and maybe even provided a little entertainment mixed in with the lecture. Along the way, I visited multiple casinos, far too many hotels, and even learned a little Cajun. I visited at least half a dozen universities and witnessed the aftermath of two hurricanes, several tornadoes, and multiple blizzards. I met over 1500 tax planners, EA’s, CPA’s and attorneys and made friends with most of them. Today, as I sit in Ohare International Airport, I thought it appropriate to jot down a few passing thoughts as this phase of my life comes to a close.

I just finished an in-person presentation in Sioux City, a pretty little city tucked neatly in the corner of three states; Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota, which in its early years, served as the railhead for some historic cattle drives. It is not my true final gig as I have one more in-person to be held in Ankeny, Ia, and then one more on-line performance in a couple weeks. When that last one concludes, it will be in fact my very last one ever. The groupies say that I will be back, but I am no Brett Favre or Tom Brady. I have been saying it was my last year for the last six years, and this time it really is. I know that a year from now, I will miss the stage, I am after all a true ham when you give me the mic, but I won’t miss all the late-night drives, many done in rain or snow, the prep work, and the nervousness the nights before and the mornings of. I may appear cool, calm, and collected, but anyone who tells you they don’t sweat a little as they take the stage, is, shall we say, bullshitting.

I started this little career back in the year 2000, when the owner of the firm I was working for, turned down the request to be the speaker for these tax schools. He instead sent one of my mentors, Phil Harris, to hit me up for the job. I still remember a nervous Phil sitting down across from me and making the most tenuous job offer ever. It didn’t help much when he started out with “you aren’t my first choice.” He went on to tell me he would offer me half what he had intended and just a two-hour slot. I, being full of myself, needing the revenue, and just plain hopeful that I would impress him, accepted the job. Two hours turned into a half day, and by year two, I was the entire second day of a two-day conference. Along the way we built a two-way trust between Phil and I, and we became the two-man show known as Tax Insight. Phil gave them the theory and the law; I gave them the planning and the practicality. We wowed our crowd with famous hits like, The TCJA, Qualified Charitable Deductions for Everyone, and the ever-popular Passive Activities and You.

Six years ago, as I was ready to hand over the mic to younger talent, Phil became ill and within a year had passed away. Thus began my run of one more year’s. I was devastated by Phil’s passing and knew I had to stay on with the transition, year one, and then the attempted sale, year two, gifting to Iowa State University, year three, Covid-19 forcing us to move on-line, year four and five, but as year six approached I had to redraw the line in the sand, With that decision, year six would be, with acquiescence to my wife, the farewell tour. We even entertained making up shirts with the names of all those cities our tour had passed through, but saner minds prevailed, and the shirt idea was nixed.

It has been, despite my whining here and there, a spectacularly great decision. I learned much along the way; taxes, business planning, the histories of people, places, and things, and even some odd tidbits, like always make sure you know where the wipers and light switches are on your rental car especially when driving through Mississippi in the dark. As I leave, I want to thank my co-workers who unbegrudgingly filled in for me back at the office while I galivanted around the countryside, my boss who not only put Phil onto me, but gave me the time off to do it, and especially to my wife, Deb, who supported me, cheered me on, and eventually even became my paid handler, coincidentally the best I ever had.

But all things do come to an end, and this will be my swan song. I am extremely proud of the work I have done and will be forever grateful for the experience. If there is a lesson here for my readers, never be afraid to take the chance. You just might surprise yourself as to what you can accomplish and where the decision might lead.

Thankyou Phil