As I grow older I often think about my past life. The places I have been, the people I have met and the things I have accomplished. I guess if I were challenged to put it all in one word, I would say, “satisfied.” I look around me at the way my world has changed and although its still pretty damn good, I hoped for far more then this. I wished that someway, somehow, we would have managed to live in peace with each other better. I wished we wouldn’t have changed so many things in the name of personal freedom, and especially at the expense of the things that got us where we are, like morality and honesty. I wished for an end to the greedy and gullible way we defined success. But as Grandma said, “If wishes were horse’s beggars would ride.”
Then I switched gears and zoomed in at what I could control—my own life. The late Frank Sinatra sang a song that’s lyrics spell out so well, how I feel today about my past life, in his song “My way.” I’m going to skip the first few lines because I don’t feel the end is near or anticipate the final curtain. But I do realize that realistically it is possible, so maybe writing this now is the prudent thing to do. I have lived a life that’s full and for so much of it, I did do it, “My way.” The fruits of my labors show not in any wealth I have accumulated, which by the way isn’t that much, but in the eyes, minds and bodies of the three children, eight grandchildren and three great grandchildren I call my own. No accomplishment in life could cast a shadow on me more then this does because I knew years ago that life was not infinite but my influence could be to some extent and that’s what kept me on the straight and narrow.
Regrets, yes I have had a few. But unlike Frank they were not too few to mention. For you see if you want to bury your regrets someplace where you no longer go, then you’ve wasted their lessons. I’m not talking about living in the past, I’m talking about not repeating the mistakes of the past anymore then you have to and believe me if you think you can discount them as just some Freudian slip, then you will repeat them again, as sure as God made little green apples. The best men are born out of their faults. I, like Frank, did bite off more then I could chew on more then one occasion. Did I chew it up and spit it out? Maybe nothing quite that dramatic but I did face my problems and not run away from them and for the most part turned most of them into a learning experience.
But it is in the last part of the song that I find the biggest message. Frank sang, “What is a man, what has he got? If not himself he has naught.” For years I have had on my desk, a poem by some anonymous person called the “Man in the Glass.” Look it up or Goggle it, because its message is something that should be every person’s mantra. In short it says to look in the mirror, because there you will meet the one person you can’t deceive.
This essay was too much about me and not about others far more worthy then I but in reality it rings true for every person who ever lived. My accomplishments, my victories in life pale in the context of many others but to me they were fulfilling and I truly feel that in the end, I will be able to say. I never cheated the Man in the glass.
Friday, March 24, 2017
Once on a camping trip to the boundary waters, I remember sitting around a campfire in the evening and being mesmerized by the absolute quietness. It was almost an eerie feeling but it was then that I realized how important my hearing was to me. I lived in the cities at that time, in a place where there is no such thing as a quiet moment. From my bedroom window there was always the sound of constant traffic, if not from the street in front of my house, from the freeway three blocks away. Neighbors talking in their yards and cars starting up. Train whistles from the tracks two miles away and sirens from emergency vehicles, and the back up horns of garbage trucks and delivery vehicles. There was always a lawn mower or a snow blower going someplace and the constant spitz, spitz, spitz, of the neighbors sprinklers. Dogs barking and feral cats meowing. Then we moved to the lake and the sounds changed and our world changed. At least the way we heard it. As I sit at my desk this morning I hear three things. Raindrops on the roof, the hum of the refrigerator and the clicking of the keyboard as I type. Some other sounds I might hear from time to time are the loons celebrating, a passing boat motor and waves lapping on the shore but this morning, it’s pretty quiet. My son-in-law told me that after he and my daughter moved to Arizona the sounds he missed the most were birds singing and the wind in the trees. They have trees, but not the kind that make much noise and in the hot months the birds seem to disappear. Mostly all you hear is traffic. Incessant traffic in a busy, busy city and air conditioners running. As a kid growing up in Staples we had our share of noise pollution for a small town. We lived a block from a major highway and it was a busy railroad town during the age of the steam engines. But for the most part wherever you live you may hear a lot but you digest just what you want to hear and tune the rest out. It’s when you change environments that your ears get a work out, at least for a while. There are sounds I used to hear that I miss and I will probably never hear again. The church bells ringing on the Catholic Church in Staples calling people to worship on Sunday morning. The click of Moms knitting needles, as she sat in her chair in the evening knitting. Sitting in the train depot on a cold winter night, I would just close my eyes and listen to the telegraph keys clicking off a message from the clerk’s office. Cows mooing in a cattle truck, at a truck stop, a block from our house. Then there were the sounds of my three brothers breathing as we slept, four of us in the same cold room. We are constantly barraged with sounds and sometimes when we hear nothing, that’s when we get alarmed. It’s a feeling that something is wrong, something is not working. Something isn’t right. We don’t realize how important our ears are-- besides holding our glasses up-- until its totally quiet. I remember as a fire fighter working in a blackout environment, inside of a burning building, listening for the crackling of the flames and the sounds of my partners breathing apparatus. When our first baby was born, I remember standing in the bedroom doorway at night, listening to him breathing. I needed that reassurance he was all right. How different it must be not to hear.
Saturday, March 18, 2017
As the oldest child of my parent’s family, I often think about my roots. How I would like to go back to that day and time once more, and sit around that table with my immediate family. There wasn’t anything tangible there to brag about, except our quality of life. Now I’m going to shock you by telling you the “quality of life” I talk about had nothing to do with the tangible things we equate with it today. Our house, back then, didn’t have much of that. Meals were always on time, but red meat was largely absent. There was no soda in the fridge, and no candy dish. Maybe a homemade cake for a birthday—and there were ten of us, so that was a plus. The house went cold at night when the fire went out. Clothes were mostly hand-me-downs. There was one TV and one phone. “So tell me,” you say, “where was this ‘quality of life?’” I measured quality of life in the love, and character, of my parents and siblings. This example must have stuck, at least with my generation, because the seven surviving siblings are all with the spouses they married, except me—and I am a widower who was married forty-nine years. My father never worried about handouts, he only prayed that someone would always give him a job and let him earn his way. He was one of the hardest working men I ever knew. My mother always made good meals out of little. In the eighteen years I was home, going out to eat never happened unless it was potluck at a church, or a relative’s home. Mom washed clothes for her family and hung them outside to dry—even in the winter. She baked all of our bread, grew a garden, and canned the vegetables. You get the picture. As the oldest, I have seen the births and lives of twenty of my parent’s grandkids and thirty-some great grandkids. I have also seen where that love and respect, our parents demanded from us, has been watered down. We were raised as a Christian family, and that, too, has been lost in some cases. It’s funny how love and respect seems to run off and hide when that leaves. I sometimes wonder what the fourth generation will be like, but I know time will run out for me before then. We’re no different than most families, and I daresay this story could be repeated by anyone of that same era. That the decline of love and respect for each other, the decline in morality and faith in God, the love of power and money, poor work ethic, and an attitude of entitlement was going to happen in this fast changing world. It was going to happen because many people today don’t know anything else. I still wish I could go back and sit with my family, at that table we had in the late 1950’s, knowing what I know today. That I could say to my parents, “You tried so hard to raise us right, and you showed us the right way. I would hope you wanted us all to have a better life than you were able to give us, and for the most part, that happened, but Mom and Dad, somewhere some of us made some trade-offs that ate away at your way of life, and we are living to regret it.”
Monday, March 6, 2017
I have at times, written about the ethnic problems we are having in this country and I have often felt that people saw me as hypocrite when I write about them. I, living in a part of the country that is predominately white. It wasn’t always that way though as I lived in the Twin Cities for many years and in some very diverse neighborhoods. I once had a black man working for me for ten years or better. I would say African American for the politically correct people but I have no idea where his ancestors came from. It could have been Haiti for all I know. We became the best of friends and ate lunch together everyday. I cried the day he retired and we said goodbye.
He told me in our lunchtime conversations about growing up in Mississippi and the discrimination he faced as a child. Yes, he was still bitter and in a way I didn’t blame him a bit. But on the other hand he was driven to make good for himself and he was a good and faithful employee. It hurt him to talk about it and we didn’t do it often. He wasn’t one to complain a lot so he harbored a lot of hurt. He was a single man with no family and I always thought he would have made a good mentor for some young black child. I guess as far as that goes he would have made a good mentor for any child. You see children are copycats. Mom’s a doctor they want to be a doctor. Dads a truck driver, they want to follow his lead. Good examples begat more good examples. But when dad is not even there, or worse yet, is there and sells drugs to make ends meet, then you have trouble. I don’t want to insinuate that this is just a black problem, it isn’t. It just seems to be more egregious in the black community and one only needs to look at Chicago and its gangs to prove that.
We’ve been a long time getting to this kind of unrest in our country and it’s going to take a long time to make it right. I think the cure for this kind of social unrest lies only in education. But for those who are nodding their heads yes and want to spend mega funds for changes in education you need to answer this question first. How do you motivate kids, who drop out of school in the ninth grade to sell drugs and join gangs, not to do that? Common sense says you can’t teach students who aren’t there. So were back to a problem that can only be solved with the cooperation of parents and guardians. That’s the only people kids will listen to. Were back to the family structure and hasn’t that always been where good seeds and bad seeds get sowed.
There is a widening education gap between whites and people of color. There is no appreciable difference in the learning ability of people that has to do with race. Only in the desire to learn. A desire that is not inherent but is instilled by the parents, guardians and peers, but how do you manage that? I know the schools are not equipped to do that, nor should they be. Caring about these kids is everybody’s responsibility because in the end, everyone is impacted. There has to be a way to put pressure on parents to quit looking the other way and get involved in their kids lives. Yes, poverty plays a big part in this. Poverty has always been a seedbed for crime and discontent but a lack of education also plays a big role in being in poverty.
Sunday, February 26, 2017
Last night Pat and I went to a Fleetwood Mack concert down here in the retirement community we live in. It was quite a different experience because we do go to concerts back in Minnesota too but keep in mind back there, some people under age sixty-five attend too. I was drawn back to a concert fifty years ago that I attended in the twin cities when I was in my forties. I went home practically stoned because of the pot smoke cloud I was enveloped in and I wasn’t even a willing participant but I did enjoy the singing. The odor at the concert last night was far more subtle, being somewhere in between ‘Evening in Paris’ and ‘Ben Gay.’
For a time last night everybody just sat and enjoyed the band but then came a moment when we were all asked to standup and get with it, meaning the music. Now I remember a time when dancing was when you held your significant other and you tried to move with the music. What was happening last night was more like---well let me put it this way. If you went out on the street and gyrated like that, I am sure someone would intervene and you would probably end up sitting on a couch someplace, talking to some bespectacled therapist with a clipboard in a white coat. At least anyway after all the usual physical ailments that could cause such jerking and twitching had been ruled out. Due to a sore back lately I could only do something that looked like I was thumbing a ride.
Music has changed dramatically over the ages and I’m not sure what really is music anymore. I used to like holding her, her head on my shoulder as we floated around the floor, she felt so good and smelled so nice. We could actually talk to each other in a normal voice. We could understand the words and hum along. Now in between the vocal outbursts and deep knee bends, pelvic thrusts and back bends the musicians do, they’re simultaneously physically assaulting a steel guitar or a set of drums. I do think they are more athletes then musicians and I applaud them for their dexterity and multi tasking.
Now to be fair there are people who can really sing, that still do sing and that is my cup of tea. People like Carrie Underwood and Josh Groban. For me to pretend that I enjoy this other metallic mayhem that some people enjoy, would be disingenuous so I’m not going to go there. However I will state, that if some people do enjoy this, them more power to them and I believe that if you look hard enough you will find an amendment to the constitution that says to people like me, “butt out and go find something else to do”. Like writing an essay about how terrible our music is. I have tried hard during my life to listen to different forms of music saying maybe I would develop a taste for something other than the country western singers. True I did lose my wife, had a dog and a pickup truck, so I did once fit the mold. I tried once to listen to classical music like Mozart and Beethoven. I even bought some tapes but then one day on a long motor trip I feel asleep somewhere in Mozart’s sonata number 12 and ran of the road and hit a haystack so due to concerns for my well being, I quit that kick. Guess I’ll just watch for a while.
Saturday, February 18, 2017
Back in the early 20th century, the British Empire was still ruling a large portion of the world. It was a very expensive operation as British troops were needed in many places to keep the peace and World War I had been very costly. Yet even with all of the expense they were always up to a new challenge, mapping and exploring far away places and one of them was the countries of Tibet and Nepal. In the early part of the 1920’s they made several trips to this area, which remained mostly reclusive because of its vast geography of mountains and glaciers. It was here that Mt. Everest was a big part of the mystery. They had not seen or conquered it, so not only did they map and photograph it; they actually made plans to climb it. The Brits had long been interested and active in mountain climbing and had mastered most of the Alpine peaks in Europe over the years. But here was a mountain that was many thousands of feet higher then anything the Alps had, had to offer and it had remained a mystery and unclimbed. Something the British thought was a challenge they just couldn’t pass up. There were a lot of reasons not to climb to the top of this peak but they ignored them. They just couldn’t pass this up.
Some of the most obvious reasons, not to climb this mountain, were the unknown. How would people react to breathing air that was one-fourth the oxygen level of what they were used to breathing? How would they cope with the cold and winds that constantly swept the mountain? How would they react to the mental challenges of being one wrong step from death for weeks at a time? They were about to find out and a young man by the name of George Mallory would spearhead their efforts. Mallory climbed on Everest three times before he was killed in a fall along with his partner Sandy Irvine. So great were the risks that his death was a death, he felt was inevitable, if he kept climbing there. His mummified body was found in 1999 and it remains where it was found. After his death the Brits kept trying to climb Everest but it was not until 1953 that the mountain was first climbed to the summit, by a New Zealander, namely Sir Edmund Hillary. The Brits have long argued that there was no conclusive evidence that Mallory and his partner Irvine did not reach the top in 1924 and were killed on the way down but the fact remains, that to be successful you have to get down alive or at least have a photo of yourself, standing on the top.
So where am I going with this history lesson? Just to say that I so admire people who’s level of personal achievement in life means taking risks to get there. Sometime in the future, people will blast out into space to conquer what may be the only frontier left to explore. We have climbed the tallest Mountain on earth and been to the deepest part of the seas. There will always be risks associated with this kind of exploration and even to this day climbing Mt. Everest is not without its perils, although clipping into a rope and climbing up a well worn path today, just isn’t the same as having to find your way. No one can control the weather and that is and always will be the biggest problem. There wasn’t any pot of gold on top of Everest and there won’t be one in space either. The only reward will be in conquering the unknown. Sir Edmund Hillary said and I quote, “Its not the mountain we conquer, it is ourselves.”
Monday, February 13, 2017
I thought I would switch gears and just for craps and giggles write about our stay in Arizona. Since the 1st of the year, Pat and I and our two dogs have resided in Maricopa, which is south of Phoenix and fifteen miles from Casa Grande, if that means anything to you. Our house is in a retirement community so unless someone’s grandchildren are visiting it’s pretty much the haunt of the silver heads. Just like in the Army, lights out, is around 9.30 p.m and wakeup is around 6.30 a.m. although you don’t see too many people exiting their abodes before 8 a.m, unless it’s women in their housecoats to get the newspaper or old men in their---aw forget it.
One of our early morning activities is walking the dogs. I did walk Molly up north too but there are some changes. #1 is Molly has to be on a leash and this automatically turns this seventy-five pound Lab into a sled dog and I have worn the heels out of my shoes and probably will need roto-cuff surgery when I get back to Minnesota. #2 is up north, Molly poops in the woods and my theory is if it’s good enough for the bears, it’s good enough for Molly. Not down here. No woods and no bears and strict orders to pick up after your pet. Most people you meet with pets have a leash in one hand and a bag of excrement in the other. Blows my theory about not taking any crap from anyone. The place is clean so everybody for the most part participates. The contents of the bags go into the garbage, along with the plastic bag, which isn’t supposed to, but I draw the line at cleaning out the bags and recycling them.
We have lots of rabbits along the trails, which by the way are beautiful trails winding their way through ponds, and green meadows and along the backyards of beautiful homes. The ‘Sound of Music,’ could have been filmed here instead of traveling over to Bavaria or wherever they went, but back to the rabbits. Pats dog Bailey is very good at flushing rabbits out of the bushes so she-- Bailey not Pat-- dives in and Molly remains outside ready to pounce on the prey. This necessitates me into burying a deadhead to hold myself back when the rabbit runs out and Molly takes chase. I can tell by my shirtsleeve length that my right arm-- my leash holding arm-- is now an inch longer then the left. The rabbits have no real enemies here, save for the occasional encounter with a Grand Cherokee driven by someone with 60 80 vision, who has trouble distinguishing anything beyond the hood ornament.
Needless to say dogs waste elimination, is not limited to solid wastes. The liquid waste you can’t pick up. Molly is some kind of self-proclaimed doggie urinalysis analyzer, so this necessitates many stops for her to really breathe in the aroma. It’s like pou- pouri for dogs. They say a dogs nose is hundreds of times more sensitive then humans so for us to really draw a parallel to this, it would be like sticking your head in a full diaper pail. Not really finding the attraction here.
Since I’m limited to about 6oo words in this column I have spent the whole allotment talking about the unsavory bathroom habits of dogs and I have no room left to tell you how nice it is here, but you’re in Minnesota and I’m down here and you don’t want to hear it about it anyway, so Ta Ta until next week.---Mike
Friday, February 10, 2017
I remember so well my dad and his brothers and sisters getting together in what could only be described as a forever-ongoing family roast. Although they differed a lot in their religious views and political views, whenever the family got together all of that was pushed to the background by their humor. In short they loved to laugh and they didn’t mind being laughed at either. My father had the uncanny ability to keep somewhere in his frontal lobe, within easy recall, a list of jokes that would be the envy of Johnny Carson. I used to tell people, “Dad had a million jokes and I heard them all a million times.” The irony of it all was they seemed funnier every time he told them and he always laughed the hardest.
At the time I thought all of this family goofiness was my dads attempt to be an entertainer. But as the years went on and I became more in tuned with his wit, I noticed how so many times dad would use this humor to defuse situations that had gotten out of hand. In short he just wanted everyone to get along. As the years have gone by, I have noticed how some of dads humorous spirit in his descendants, has turned to rancor. Apparently it’s not something that stays in your D.N.A or if it is, it’s being bred out of it.
Years ago humor was appreciated much more then it is today. If you went to a movie you always got your spirits lifted by the Bowery Boys, The Three Stooges, The little Rascals, followed by a cartoon. Who could forget Tweety and Sylvester, the Roadrunner and the Fox or that swashbuckling Pepe le pew the romantic skunk? Television had its humor too. People like Jack Benny, Red Skelton, and a whole cast of characters that didn’t have to be filthy to be funny. Carol Brunette had one of the funniest casts anyone ever put together in a television show and even today it beats anything modern day television now has to offer. Was all of the good humor just used up? I don’t think so. I think they just quit trying.
We’ve lost our ability to laugh. We would rather engage in conflicting and often inflammatory views of what goes on in this troubled world to each other. We love to blame someone else for every bad thing that happens because for some reason in our seriously mixed up minds, that seems to make it all right. We no longer want to just correct someone-- we want to humiliate him or her. What is so troubling about this is, the more we live like this, the more depression and sadness there is in our world. And the more people are depressed and sad; the more they turn to alcohol and drugs to make them happy and we all know the consequences of that.
There is a man in our church who loves to laugh. I don’t know him that well but I do know life has not always been a bed of daises for him and his wife. Yet his group of friends seems to grow as he has had this Pied Piper effect on people with his humor. I have occasionally stayed on the sidelines and watched as he talks with people and noticed how he always leaves them laughing. Lately I’ve made an effort to know him better, simply because well-- he’s my kind of guy. I too like to be personable with people and especially with those who like a good laugh.
Saturday, January 28, 2017
If you can believe the weather forecasters, sometime today it will start to rain and then change to snow and that winter we all hoped would come later then sooner, will be here. I took a “once more” look around the yard this morning to see if there was anything I missed in my winter preparations. Put away the rakes and dumped the potted plants. I moved the snow blower from storage to active duty, checked the oil and gassed it up. Put the plow on the 4-wheeler. Let the games began.
There is a certain amount of sadness that comes with the end of fall but then sadness might be to strong a word, but the brevity of the proper wording eludes me at this time. I guess it’s somewhere between sadness and acceptance. We had one of those autumn seasons that seemed to be a gift from the Weather Gods but there comes a time when the earth has tilted to far on its axis that even they can’t squeeze out another Indian summer day so they too capitulate and admit its time.
For Molly and I, it’s one last walk in the woods today. I used to walk all winter no matter the weather but old age brings with it a certain amount of uncertainty and slipping and falling far off the beaten path is not something I need. Some time after Christmas Pat and I will leave for a warmer gentler climate. Something that when I was young and brash I swore I would never do. That was before I saw the winter season through the eyes of the skeptic I have now become to be and not the eyes of that energetic young man who loved to ice fish, snowmobile and scoff at the elements. “Bring it on” was my mantra back then.
I close my eyes, sitting here at my desk and my mind wanders back to the early 1950’s in Staples where I grew up. Our house was heated with wood. We had one of those old forced air furnaces in the basement that looked like the arms of an octopus if you ventured down there to see it. It worked on the concept that warm air rises and it expelled its heat through a large register in the floor. Sad to say it only worked as long as you fed it, which was about every two hours. That meant at night the fire went out. Four of us boys wintered in an upstairs bedroom at night. I say wintered because the temperature in that unheated room frequently went below freezing at night. I submit as evidence of this the frozen enamel pot we took up with us for nature calls at night. We were told to empty it and clean it each morning and some mornings that only consisted of tossing a frozen urine ice cube into the commode.
My father walked everywhere he went in the winter because the car won’t start anyway. He wore long johns and two pair of pants to his work on the railroad. Six buckle overshoes with felt boots inside of them. Stocking caps and chopper mitts. But he never complained about the cold and he wouldn’t listen to us if we did. Mom told me that in one twenty-year stretch he never missed a day of work. He couldn’t, he needed the money that badly. Minnesotans are survivors and for many years I was proud to be one too. But I got spoiled as the years went by. So I’ll see you all in the spring but I’ll still be writing from Arizona.
Sunday, January 22, 2017
A while back, my friend and I, and our two nemesis called dogs, crammed into my SUV and set our sights on Arizona. “What are you going to do down there,” you say. Same thing we do here—only it’s warmer. Hey, that was pretty good logic. I think.
When you pack, keep in mind that, down here in Arizona, they have stores like we have in Minnesota. One credit card takes up far less room than two months of supplies. In 1846, the Donner party took less on their trip to California, than I have taken on some trips. The only advantage to having a car packed full, with dogs and supplies, is that no carjacker in their right mind is going to bother you. Also, remember that 12 oz. of coffee at seven in the morning, means 31 oz. of urine two hours later, squeezed into a 30 oz. bladder; and the urge will manifest itself, right after you have passed the last rest stop, for the next sixty miles. Doing the pee, pee dance while strapped into a bucket seat is no fun.
The trip involves two overnight stops. Because of the dogs we have to go to pet friendly motels which should be named, more appropriately, human friendly kennels. Do not be fooled by vets who say you can drug your dog. Most dogs do well while under the influence, but if anything, bark and growl even more. Its better if you can, drug yourself, so at least you get a couple of hours of sleep. Men—watch what you eat. You are in a closed-up car so forgo the burrito until you get there or, at least, stop to kick the tires once in a while.
Now, there are some games you can play to pass the time on the trip. Roadkill bingo is one of my favorites. But remember, there are very few porcupines in Arizona, and an equal shortage of armadillos in Iowa, so you might have to change the cards from time to time. Instead of a free space, just put a raccoon in there. It is my belief that no raccoon ever crossed the road safely; even though the chicken did it just to show the raccoon it could be done. Remember, you are not allowed to stop to identify any animal that has been repeatedly pulverized. A deer is counted as only one deer, even if it’s all over four lanes. You get double points for anything you run over yourself, but only if it’s still alive.
This is important. Your navigation system will take you on the shortest possible route. It does not know, and I might add, does not care, that getting on the Dan Ryan Express in Chicago, at four thirty on Friday afternoon, is not a good idea. It does not know that babies have been born, weaned, and have taken their first step while going through downtown Atlanta. It is all right to tell it to shut up, once in a while, and get out the old map and look for an escape route. Men do not argue with her about the route. Just do it, and if it’s wrong, it’s still your fault. I know it’s not fair, but as my old dad said, “A fair is where you go to get your pig judged.” Bon voyage, and may the force be with you.
Sunday, January 15, 2017
I wrote this six weeks ago but as I write this it is 25 below zero outside with a wind chill of God knows what. I know this-- I don’t want to know what it is. I opened the back door to let Molly out this morning and she looked at me as if to say, “I will drink my own urine and eat my own poop before I’m going out there.” I grew up the consummate Minnesota male. I slept in an unheated bedroom with three brothers and lived in a house where we had to let the faucet run at night to keep the pipes from freezing. Most houses creak and groan all winter in the cold, ours just froze solid and let out one big bang in the spring. If we complained about the lack of heat in the house, dad just gave us a look that said he was ashamed of us for being such weak links in the family gene pool and told us to grow a set or we would never survive in this world. That was nonsensical to me when you’re just going to freeze them off anyway.
Once out in the world and on my own I found there were places that actually heated their house’s 24 hours a day. But yet my macho attitude had me taking a job outside in the winter flooding ice rinks and as a fireman fighting fires in subzero temperatures. One fire in particular was fought for over eight hours in 31 below zero temperatures. They had to bust the ice off my turn out gear buckles with a rubber mallet when we got back to the station so I could get out of it. But I lived and I wore it as a red badge of courage. When I recanted this story to my dad, who had worked outside most of his life, he just said, “Poor baby.”
As the years have peeled away I became more aware of how miserable it was sitting in my house in the winter. Wrapped in a blanket, even though it was seventy in the house. I took a few exploratory vacations to warmer parts of the United States. There had to be a reason I surmised why most creatures either left Minnesota or crawled into a hole in the ground to wait out the winter. When I got there, low and behold, some of them birds were there all warm and cheerful. I once told a hotel employee in the south how cold it was back in Minnesota. She had tears in her eyes and took my hand telling me, “ Honey it’s going to be alright now.” To all of you that still have to work and live in Minnesota in the winter. I say God bless and I hope your day in the sun will come. It could be worse-- you could live in Wisconsin.
I love Minnesota. It’s been my home for over seventy-five years. From the end of March to the end of November, it’s unequaled for beauty and quality of life and I’ll be back during that time. In the spring and fall the changes come at us every day, one of them heralding in the glorious summer and another ushering us back out We call it the theater of seasons. But after the 15th of December until the fifteenth of March, not much changes. At least for me it just stays cold and dark. I live on a lake with sixty-nine homes and come winter there are very few of them occupied. I know today my dad is looking down on me, sitting in this chair in the Arizona sun with a sarsaparilla in my hand and he is scowling at me. I can only say, ”I’m sorry Dad for failing you.” I’m a wimp-- but a warm wimp. I raise my glass. Here’s to you pop’s.
Tuesday, January 10, 2017
This morning as I write, there is a soft snow coming down outside of my window. There is a time in late autumn when the world seems washed out of all of its color. Things seem all grim and gray. It’s a time of the year when the days grow shorter and the world grows colder and this all add’s to my melancholy. Then the first snows come and clean everything up. All of the unattractive things get covered up and sealed away and our black and white world of winter takes on its own persona.
Something else is happening this morning as I write. A few weeks back I wrote a column called, “So God made a baby.” The story of my first great grand child. Today my grandson’s wife is in labor with their first child and another great grandchild for me. My heart has never been fuller then it is right now, as I see my family growing. I thank God that I am still here on this earth to witness this and experience these children being born. When I look out the window at this winter wonderland today, I can only say, “What a beautiful day to have a baby.”
My columns are published weeks after I write them. So by the time you get this Pat and I will be in Arizona for the winter. Leaving Minnesota and my family here is never easy but I have a family in Arizona too, so for me it’s a chance to spend time with them also. In a perfect world-- would it be that we all live blocks from each other and spend Sunday afternoons with hot dishes and Jell-o with vegetables in it, and real whipped cream on top? That’s the world I grew up in, in Staples. No one ever moved far from the nest over there. But for some of us as we grew up and branched out, so did our boundaries and now-- even though many miles separate us, we just don’t seem that far away. I write from my heart and the biggest part of my heart will always be In Minnesota, so my columns will continue.
So it’s a New Year in a vastly troubled world, filled with mistrust, violence and threats around every corner. Drugs and immorality abound and we ask what kind a world, are we bringing these babies into? But is the answer not to have babies and give up on the world. Well that’s kind of like throwing in the towel. NO, I have a better idea. Lets just quit doing what we have been doing and get back to the ideas this country was founded on. The Democrats lost this last election because they were more concerned with culture and social issues that affected one percent, then they were with the real issues that affected most of us. I’m no big fan of the man who got in office and yes he scares the hell out of me but that’s what happens when you breed that much discontent. Lets hope cooler heads will prevail in Washington and they start thinking about where this country is heading and what kind of a world we are leaving for these babies that are just coming into it.
I want to wish Happy New Year to all of me readers. It’s such a pleasure for me to be able to talk to you like this. We need to look at 2017 as three hundred and sixty five pages in a new book. One more chance to get it right. Lets leave our flaws behind us and let’s dwell on all of the potential we do have, to get it right.
I always remember the day after Christmas as one of those days when your feelings were all mixed up. As a kid maybe you received something special and you were elated and you couldn’t wait to try it out-- or on. Or maybe despite all of your hints, you were disappointed in it all because you weren’t old enough to realize what being selfish was all about. It was more of a time of you receiving then giving anything, so the joy that came from giving was largely absent. You did make your parents a gift in school but you were disappointed when you heard your father whispering to your mom as she opened it, “What in the hell is it?”
As a married adult with kids of your own you could only wonder how in a few short hours, all of your work-- and most likely all of her work-- in the preparation for the kid’s Christmas, had been reduced to a cardboard box full of torn wrapping paper, a sink full of dirty dishes and the dread of the bills coming in January. You remember how long after the kids had gone to bed, sitting on the couch with your arm around her and a drink in your hand, thinking how much she meant to you while she was thinking, “Who’s going to clean up all of this mess.” But in a way you were glad it was over for at least another year and you were most thankful that you still had each other.
As an old adult and a widower living alone you try to do what you can to get in the holiday spirit. You drag out some decorations and try to make the house look festive but the only one who sees them are you and the dog, which outside of peeing on the tree he wasn’t that interested. You fill envelopes with money because you don’t know what to buy anyone. Your kids are grandparents now themselves, living three hours away and starting their own traditions, so at Christmas you go there and try to fit in. There are way too many places to go, so you just pick one. The excitement you used to have for getting gifts is ebbing. You have everything you could possibly want. But you do still have a family that cares for you, so who could ask for more.
25 years ago I used to go and pick up my father-in –law from the nursing home at Christmas and bring him out to our place for dinner and the evening. I would see the longing faces on those sitting in the day room in their wheelchairs who had no one--no place to go. I felt so bad for them and wanted to bring them all home for Christmas but somehow I realized my home was not the home they wanted to be at. I wanted to sneak my father-in–law out the back door just to avoid the longing faces. I tried to rationalize that maybe they were alone because there was nobody left for them, or maybe there was somebody but it wasn’t possible to bring them home for one reason or another. Or God forbid. No one cared.
My Christmas this year was fine. People I love tried their best to make me happy and that’s not always easy. I did enjoy going to Mass and singing carols even though I sound terrible. Not as bad as that woman in front of me though who I think got laced up too tight in that spangled dress. But all in all, its time to move on with life so happy New Year everyone.------Mike
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Six years ago this Christmas Eve our whole family gathered to celebrate Christmas at our house as we had done for years. But that year’s celebration had a problem in the room. Grandma had been diagnosed with cancer earlier that year and had only months to live. Christmas is always hard when someone is missing. But this one was especially egregious because she wasn’t missing and we all knew-- and yes even her-- that this would be the final one.
The gifts were there as she was an early shopper and most of them had been bought months before. She sat in her favorite recliner trying to mask the pain she was in. A frozen smile on her face. She made all the grandkids open their gifts one by one so she could enjoy that last giving moment with each of them. Then lastly the adults. In the meantime the gifts that had been given to her sat unopened. She said she would get to them later. She didn’t want this to be about her, it was her last time to make her grandkids happy. There in, laid her whole reason for Christmas giving.
Christmas had always been her forte. Each year she started shopping the day after Christmas for the next one. Every closet in the house was stuffed with bags by Thanksgiving time and then after the meal, she and her grandkids would decorate and then the wrapping started and the gifts piled up, until you scarce see the tree.
Christmas has been somewhat hollow for all of us since her passing. Oh, we put on our best faces and try not to let it spoil the celebration. But I’ve seen those wet eyes mirrored in the lights of the tree. Those wistful looks and I know what they’re thinking. There is no delete button in the human heart. What lives in there, is there, as long as the heart lives’ on. Oh we can try to override those precious memories and yes for the sake of the heart and for the sake of those who love us, over time it is probably a good idea. I know I have moved on. This year has brought a new great grandbaby. New memories with my special friend Pat and a winter home in a warmer place. My Christmas has been scaled back considerably because I think we, as a family all know, there is no forgetting what once was and there is no sense in trying to emulate it, even if we could.
I didn’t write this to be a sad letter, just a letter of a fond memory of days gone by. I am sure that in every home and heart there are similar stories and life tells us if they aren’t there now-- they will be someday. Rather we choose to live in the here and now and we can ruminate about the past but its not good to live there. This is the Christmas season 2016 and it will be, just what we make of it.
So Merry Christmas my friends and in the words of Tiny Tim, “May God bless us every one.” It’s kind of fitting to say that, because after all he is the reason for the season. God that is-- not Tiny Tim.
Tuesday, December 13, 2016
This year for Christmas I want you to come along with me as I set the scene for one of my most memorable Christmas’s. Our house back in Staples was what many would call a shack. A large boxy house that sat back from the street on a big lot surrounded by mature trees. We were the last house on Third Avenue before the end of town and the beginning of the woods and swamp. There was always peeling paint and cracked windows and a porch on the back that looked like someone started something they had never finished. A driveway full of chuckholes that had your car lurching from side to side as you drove in. In the winter the smoke from our wood fired furnace would settle over the neighborhoods on the west end of town to the ire of our neighbors. I think we were the only ones in town, who still burned wood.
But as we all know perceptions can be deceiving and so it was then. For inside the house was a family that did care what others thought of them but didn’t get caught up in all of the hoop-la of keeping up with the Jones’s. Oh, I guess the Christmas I remember so well would have been in the early fifties. Dad had taken the family out on our annual tree hunt. It was right after Thanksgiving and we brought home a splendid spruce tree he’d, had his eye on for some time. Tied to the roof of the car he drove through town like a young man showing off his big buck deer at hunting time. Six little snot nosed kids with rosy cheeks rubbing the frost off the car windows with our mittens as we made our way home in that old thirty-six Plymouth. The tree decorations had been brought down from the attic by dad and were waiting for us and after supper we all went into the living room to trim the tree. The little ones got to decorate as far up the tree as they could reach, as mom carefully handed them each a bulb and then the older kids did there part and then at last dad crowned it all off with the angel on top. Then the final thing was dads magical bubble lights. He would handle those lights like they were the Crown Jewels of England. Each night we would get to watch them for few minutes and then he would shut them off; until Christmas Eve, when the lights would be allowed to burn until we went to bed. Over the ensuing weeks more and more packages would find their way under the tree. There were things we had made at school for our parents and a box from Grandpa and Grandma. But the gifts from mom and dad, to us kids, wouldn’t appear until Christmas Eve. It was their way of making us behave for a while. Like Smith Barney used to say, “We had to earn it.”
All of my life since those days, I have been so blessed with opulent Christmas Gifts, fabulous dinners and spectacular decorations. Happy Christmas holidays for sure, but yet those days, from those meager beginnings, still burn front and center in my heart and it baffles me why. For you see it is in our nature to want more and better things and here I am, hanging onto memories of that frugal Christmas. As I said it baffles me-- but then when I dwell on those long gone holidays looking for that elusive meaning. I find that there is something that was there then, that just isn’t here now and that is we never expected, anything more then we got.
Thursday, December 8, 2016
This year my oldest granddaughter gave birth to the first, of the fourth generation in my family. I have yet to hold Emily because we are separated by nearly 2000 miles. But next week I am going there and I can’t wait to meet her. Her mom and dad have sent so many pictures and I feel like I already know so much about her.
What is there about a baby that just buoys every ones spirits? No other creature on earth can make you feel so humble, so mellow, and so caring. Only a baby can make you act like a goofball making funny faces and crawling around on the floor with them. Babies have a way of making a family, from a relationship that was once just two loving adults. “I saw a quote once from a new mother who said, “I never knew how much I loved your daddy, until I saw how much he loved you.” I have only seen pictures of Emily, that maybe involved minutes of my time but I already have so many ways to love her.
I remember so well when our first-born came along and one thing that was so new to me was to see my wife basking in her new found motherhood. A side of my wife that I had not seen until then. I call it motherly instinct but call it what you may, it is a bond that is unequaled in this world and now I will get to see it in my granddaughter. It is a built in love in moms and dads that passes all human understanding. There is an emotional side of all of this for me. Because I am going to see in Emily’s mom, something that started a long time ago in another mom who has gone on before us-- her great Grandma. I am sure today that she too, is so proud. My wish is that some day, Emily will lie down on a clear night and look at the stars twinkling in the heavens above and as Rick Bragg said, “See them as holes in the floor of heaven.”
If I could talk one on one to Emily today I would say this. “On my walls are pictures of all of my grandchildren Emily. Yes, I knew all of them when they were like you. Brand new and just entering into this world. I saw them grow up and be the young adults they are today. Your Mom was one of them but I can tell you the moment you were born, she was changed forever. For you see, you are her first-born and that brings love by a whole different name to all parents. Children have a way of doing that to you. My biggest worry about my grandchildren growing up was that they would succumb to some of the temptations, this world today can give you that steers you in the wrong direction. But they didn’t and my worries were unfounded. Their mom’s and dads like yours will too, showed the whole world and I, how to create goodness. I won’t be around for much of your life Emily but I ask you to make us all proud as your parents did for us. God bless you on this journey little one.”
Each day there is born into this world many babies. I think what I wrote above goes for all of the mom’s and dads and grandparents of the world. That was our hope, was it not? To be a part of something that will live on long after we are gone. Emily is for me the start of something good. Babies-- what a wonderful way to start out as human beings
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Over the fifty years I was together with my wife we accumulated a lot of things. The only difference was, most of my stuff was out in the garages and hers was in the house. But now the time has come to weed through all of it and decide what is worth keeping for posterity and what has to go. My wife’s family is all gone now so there is no interest there. My own children, some whom have been married for thirty years themselves, have no interest either. Most of it is old pictures and papers and tossing them away seems so cold. So that is my quandary and I’m a long way from done.
But this is really not about what I found in all of those boxes but about one thing in particular I came across the other day. It was a baby book. The kind your mother keeps for you. Notes about your development from a baby to a child, written by your mother. What was so mind blowing for me was, this wasn’t my wife’s baby book or our kid’s book but my baby book and I didn’t even know it existed.
You see my mother left my father and her family when I was four years old and my kid brother was two. Why this happened is not important to this essay. My father later remarried and I was blest with a wonderful stepmother and six more siblings. Over the years I was made aware of my mother but until I was a young man she made little effort to see me. She and all of my parents have long since passed away.
My father must have passed this box of pictures and papers on to my wife before he died and she either wasn’t aware that it was in there or knowing my past, thought it might be too painful for me to deal with, and didn’t show it to me. Either way right now I was looking at it for the first time. I was reading my mothers musings written seventy-five years ago. There were swatches of my baby hair and baby pictures I had never seen before. Her name scrawled on a birthday card was the only other time I had seen her writing. As I read through this I was getting to know more about her then I ever knew before, twenty some years after she died. I can’t share what she wrote but it made me cry. All I ever knew about her was all the wrong things she may have done and now here was a woman seemingly so in love with her infant son.
Over the years, family and friends who knew my past have asked me if I loved my mother? I have a hard time answering this because in my past there was another woman who was the only mother I ever knew. Someone who earned my love and respect. Do you love someone because of blood ties more then the one who took care of you when you were sick and sad. I don’t know and I don’t know if I will ever know. But I do know as I read what she wrote, that no matter if I loved her not, she loved me. To those of you out there who have split up a family for whatever reason, I ask that you make every effort to keep your kids front and center. To love them and be a part of their lives even if you can’t live in the same house. Don’t make them wonder years later if they really loved you or not. Love is such a beautiful thing and the more people you can love in your life, the better a person you will be for it. Someday when you are old like I am now, you will need that love from your children. Especially when you’re all alone in the world once more.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
My life has been made up of many chapters. From my youth growing up in a small town, in a poor family; to marrying a young lady I always felt blessed to have as a wife and the mother of my children; to having a career that spanned four decades and brought with it a world of satisfaction and accomplishment. To retirement to the lake with my writings, grandkids, traveling both with my wife and now with my special friend Pat; and now new plans to spend my winters in a sunny warmer climate. Yes, I have been so blessed.
Is this the last chapter? No one knows that but God but I do know one thing. From a prince to a pauper you only go around once in life and as my father used to say. “Life is pretty much what you make of it.” For many of us life has thrown up roadblocks at us but what we did to get around those roadblocks and keep on, keeping on, was what defined us. We are each of us our very own person, as different as the snowflakes that fall in the winter and as different as each of our personalities are. All of us combining, in one-way or another, to make up this smorgasbord we call life. For without this mix and match, we would have a very bland world indeed.
I have learned one thing about life that has been proven to me over and over again and that is the fact that home is always home, no matter where you go. The essential parts to a house are boards and glass, nails and shingles but the essential parts to a home are you and your loved ones. These precious people who are always with you, because they live in your heart even when they don’t live in your shelter. As for the house, it lives in every lumberyard in the country. As a firefighter I watched so many people lose every tangible thing they owned. I tried to comfort these people-- often wrapped in blankets in the middle of the night sobbing and dazed. I tried to tell them. “Yes you have lost something precious here but the stuff you lost had no soul, no personality, no heart and the most precious thing you own has survived and this is one of those road blocks you have to knock down, because it is that resiliency that got you where you were before all of this happened and it is that same resiliency that will get it all back again. Bigger and better.”
So I will leave Minnesota for a few months this winter and do what so many other Minnesotans have done, go where the earth is not sleeping. Follow the birds of the air that figured it all out a long time ago. Those birds probably say to each other-- what so many of us say. “I wish we didn’t have such a long trip and God willing we will be back because this is the place where we raised our families. This is the place where a lot of our heart still lives.” Minnesota is a precious gem but its one of those places where God has said, “You need to hunker down for a while because Mother Nature needs to take a break but I promise you the 2017 summer model is going to be spectacular. In a way I will miss the wind howling around the house on a cold winter night. The house cracking and creaking with the cold. Pushing my snow blower down the driveway my mustache full of frozen snot. Yes, I will miss it but I won’t miss it much.