Category: family

If it could go wrong, it did . . .

Welcoming committee in Banff - Royal Canadian Mounted Police

Our welcoming committee in Banff.

…except when it mattered.

With a tip’o the hat to that rode-hard-put-away-wet cowboy crooner cum hippie, Willie Nelson, I’m:

“On the road again,
I just can’t wait to get on the road again . . .
Goin’ places that I’ve never been
Seein’ things I may never see again
And I can’t wait to get on the road again”

But this time to Canada for a family reunion with the Reist’s, a branch from my dad’s side of the clan.  We’re going to spend a weekend together near Didsbury, a farming town of about 5,000 north of Calgary.

I’m traveling with my chronically peripatetic sister, Linda.  In a rental car, we’ve front loaded the reunion by several days to first go down the east side of the Continent’s spine from the Calgary to Glacier National Park.  Then turning west over the Divide and heading north through Banff and continuing to the iconic Fairmont Hotel on Lake Louise.  Then crossing the Divide again for the reunion before taking in the last day of the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” the Calgary Stampede.

A comedy of errors.  That wasn’t so funny.

But this little story comes with a sub-plot that, infuriatingly, just keeps on giving.

It began early in the morning when Linda flew in from her home in Albuquerque to DIA where we were scheduled, we thought, to catch a Frontier flight together to Calgary.  But when she got to the gate she was told that the plane had already left.  And that Frontier wouldn’t have another flight to Calgary for three days.  Information that she immediately communicated to me while I was in my Uber to the airport.  Talk about that sinking feeling.

“But,” she continued, “I might be able to get us on another airline that leaves this afternoon.  But it’ll probably cost more.”

“Well, what choice do we have?” I replied.  “We’ve got all the other arrangements made.  I think we have to take it if you can get it.  But I wonder what happened?  I have it right here on my calendar that we should have had plenty of time to catch this flight.”

“Well, I’m not sure, but I think the travel agent messed up and didn’t send us the notice of the change.”

“Great.  And, of course, it’s my travel agent.   Well,” I sighed, “you better get the tickets.  I’ll deal with the travel agent later.”  And you can bet your bottom dollar that I will.  ‘Cause those tickets, purchased at the last possible moment, cost so much that you couldn’t get me to confess how much even if you put thumb screws on each of my fingers.  And toes.

But wait.  There’s more!

When we got to the rental car desk in Calgary, the hits just kept coming.  I’d forgotten my driving glasses-didn’t really need ’em to sit in the Uber on the way to the airport.  And it didn’t seem quite fair to have my sister do all the driving.

Seriously abashed, I had to call my understandably resentful wife to have her ship them to the Lake Louise where I could take up the slack for the last few days of driving duty.  And, at the time, it seemed like a good plan.

Until, that is, I got this text from my wife:  “Took the glasses to the UPS store.  $165.09 to have them shipped to Canada!”

“Oh, my Lord!” I exclaimed as I stared at the little letters on my phone.  But my sister didn’t seem much surprised:  “Lake Louise is remote.  There aren’t any airports around there.  I just hope they get there in time.”

But wait!  There’s still more!

From Calgary, Linda drove us back across the U.S. border to Glacier National Park.  There, we planned to spend a night and then take a ride in one of the famous open top “Red Bus Tours” that navigate the Going-to-the-Sun-Road to see the spectacular peaks, glaciers and wildlife.  To make sure we were on track to be at the proper bus stop to answer the early morning “‘Board!” we scouted out the area after dinner at the rustic Lake McDonald Lodge where our table overlooked the lake and the rugged peaks beyond.

While on the road the next morning, we got engrossed in one of the several nourishing conversations that occurred during the trip.  Since Linda moved away from home for college when I was a kid-and she never lived in Denver again-this was the most time we’ve spent together for decades.  As she drove us down the winding two lane highway that followed a powerfully sinuous river coursing beneath pine clad slopes, we talked about war, peace, Christianity and my relatively recent conversion to near pacifism.  So, rather than going just a few miles to the turnoff to catch our bus, we, completely absorbed, drove miles by it before she realized where we were.  And so we missed the tour altogether!

Oh, well!  All’s well that ends well.

Turned out, however, that it wasn’t altogether a bad thing.  The drive back up across the Canadian border to our next layover in the tiny tourist burg of Radium Hot Springs on the west side of the Divide pretty much burned up the day even without our “going to the sun.”  And even though the summer days that far north are anything but short.

True, the glasses fiasco continued to plague us for a few days; something, said the email from DHL, about getting a tiny pair of glasses across an international border.  So Linda was at the helm for the rest of the drive.  And I gave up and just told DHL to “return to sender.”  Which they did.  Has to be about the most expensive round trips that a pair of glasses has ever made.

But at least they were there to greet me when I finally made it home.

 

 

Gonna’ take a sentimental journey

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A sentimental journey home!

Cruise the blogosphere for for any length of time and, count on it, you’ll come across a bunch of sites devoted to travel.

Love Travelling.  Dan Flying Solo.  A Broken Backpack.  The Path Less Pedaled.  Nowhere.  The list goes on and on.  And for those of you who just can’t get enough, check out Top 10 Travel Bloggers You Should Already Be Following.  How dare you be so late to the party?

Now, I’ve done a bit of traveling.  And a bit of blogging.  After all, I’m retired.  But I’m bush league compared to these guys.

It just comes with the territory

Nonetheless, I just got back three week trek through Scotland, England and London with my sister, her husband and some of her equally Allmon Brothers-esque, “Ramblin’ Man” companions.  And trust me, “Lord, they were born ramblin’ men.” And women. Definitely, more so than I.

But when I got this email from my sister late the other night (I had taken a different flight and was already home), I doubt that even she and her husband realized what a trip ending “adventure” they were in for:

I’ll bet you’re home; we’re in the Boston airport having been rerouted after our flight out of London was delayed so long that we missed our connection in Reykjavík to Denver.

We spent the night on the floor in the Boston airport waiting for employees to show up so we could get our boarding passes for Denver. In about an hour we’ll board a plane for Denver, check again for our bags when we get there, (our bags didn’t make it to Boston—don’t know why; they may be in Denver🙏) and then head for ABQ.

We should be home by 4pm-ish. That’s enough to sour one on ever leaving home again!
Sure hope you didn’t have to play ring-around-the-rosie to get home.
All in, she later reported that the trip home took 36 hours!

But I wonder

Do I follow all, or even a few, of these travel blogs?  Not really.  But I have written about a few of the mostly U.S. road trips that I’ve taken over the years; that’s probably how I got on the radar of some of these travel bloggers.

Which means that I have no real idea if the type of scenario described by my sister and which illustrates the dramatically less glamorous side of travel-and which is a loathsome fly in the ointment of that more glamorous side-ever makes it into the hip travel sites.   You know, the type of travel blogs gorgeously illustrated with photos of drop dead beaches.  And stunning mountain vistas.  And exotic city scapes.

But, on reflection, these travel snafus almost certainly do make it on to the pages of the tourist blogs.  And, if they don’t, how could they lay claim to even a modicum of authenticity?  Hey, even my flight home from London was delayed two hours on the tarmac when a baggage door was dinged during loading.  As the pilot told us, it was about 30 minutes to fix the ding.  And 90 minutes for paperwork.

The bottom line

So, yes, the trip was interesting.  And-wait for it-I’ll milk this trek for another post or two in the next several days.  But are they the kind of posts loaded with those glamorous photos that are likely to make you pack your bags and take your chances with the airlines?  Don’t hold your breath.

 

 

 

 

On the water front

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The Lord still inhabits the praises of his people

Last winter my sister, Linda, and her husband came to Colorado for a visit.  Don’t ask me how, but they managed to wedge it in amongst all their other globe girdling trips.  As I’ve said of them before, throw a dart at a map of the world.  And they’ve probably been there.

Over dinner, they mentioned that they were going to Scotland and England this spring with a group of friends.  I took the opportunity to invite myself along.  Graciously, they didn’t let the opportunity go by.  Even though she introduced me to her friends as “my brother who tells corny jokes.”

So here I am in Scotland in the little seaside town of Oban, staying at the Alltavona B&B. My hostess tells me that in Gaelic the name means “beside the water.”  Which is appropriate; I’m watching the ferry go by no more than 200 yards from my window.

Today, however, I’d had enough of the “cozy” 8 seater van, counting sheep and lochs, tasting whiskey, eating bangers and mash, and watching three thousand foot peaks go by that are all above timber line because we’re so near the arctic.  So I stayed behind while the rest of the gang jumped on a small boat to go to an island to see puffins.  Not my thing.  It’s time for me to fire up the blog and reflect on the trip.  Not to mention that I consider sea sickness, to which I’m so prone, a fate worse than death.

Rosary beads aplenty

I asked our hostess about an internet cafe.  She was puzzled, “We have internet here.”  I assured her that I preferred to work in a coffee shop.  “Well, in that case, why don’t you try the chocolate shop?  It’s just down the way.”  So I walked down the bay, crossing the street a time or two, trying to avoid getting run over by looking the wrong direction.  And there it was: the Oban Chocolate Co.   The coffee was good.  So was the scone and jam (too early for chocolate).  But the internet connection was terrible.  So, after some futile fiddling, I headed back to the Alltavona.

Halfway there, the bells of a squat, stolid church began clanging; it’s Wednesday morning here and time for mass.  Even if far from musical, the bells were, at least, the real thing.  I walked up a few stairs and went through the doors behind a couple of elderly ladies.  Finding a place to sit was absolutely no problem.  To describe the interior as austere is an understatement.  Roughly quarried from the grey, volcanic rock of ages that underlays so much of this part of Scotland, the charcoal stone was only broken by the white lines of mortar that bound the structure together.  Sun streamed through simple windows, faintly stained rose.  The church had been built during the lean days following the end of World War II.

The tiny congregation in the cavernous structure was just finishing the rosary as I sat down.  Several participants fingered their beads from where they prayed on wooden kneelers.  Soon, a priest began saying the mass.  His homily was brief.  And even forgettable.  But it was a welcome sabbath from days of restless movement, of random historical fact strung on random historical fact.

Brendan and Kenneth

I paused for a few minutes to read about the church when the service was over.  The bells that had summoned me to worship were good Catholic boys: Brendan and Kenneth.  The church is named after St. Columba, the Irish evangelist who brought Christianity to Scotland in the 6th century.

Christianity’s never been a popularity contest.  Consider what they did to its founder.  But no more could it be extirpated by hanging Jesus on a cross than it could be stamped out by a scant attendance at a Wednesday morning mass.  Like the resurrected Christ himself, the Church is built for the ages.  And the long haul.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Romancing The Stone . . . er, The Tom

750x450 turkeys (1)

Stock photo of turkeys

Getting under the hood

My son, Byron, and I went turkey hunting a few weeks ago in central Nebraska a couple of miles west of the little town of Wolback (population 257).

It was a guided trip with Gobble and Grunt Outfitters.  While by no means cheap, for city slickers like us a guided trip represents the best chance to get one of these gorgeous, tasty critters.  And also get a peek under the hood of a rural way of life that we, otherwise, have become almost entirely disconnected from.

Let’s cut to the chase

Might as well get right to it:  I got one bird; Byron got skunked.  But only because mine was the only bird we saw that we could legally take.  Mike, the owner of G&G honored their guarantee and invited Byron back, gratis, later in the season to try again.

Toward the end of the first day, our guide, Nick, set us up  in a “double bull” blind about 10 yards away from our three decoys on the edge of an alfalfa field.  After the obligatory crow calls to see if we got a quick response from a nearby tom, the three of us climbed into the blind. Where Nick then started using a mouth and slate call to imitate a hen and attract a love struck gobbler. 

And sure enough, there came the unmistakable “oble, oble, oble” behind us and to our left.  At which point Nick really got after it, yelping, purring and cackling to signify an amorous hen.  And a then switching to the frantic gobble of a strutter angry that a rival was muscling in on his harem.  As the responses drew closer and closer, time seemed to stand still.  Although my heart certainly didn’t.  Until, finally, what looked like a gaudy bowling ball appeared no further than 10 feet to our left.  Strutting like a little Napoleon, he turned to the right straight in front of us and sashayed forward to challenge our tom decoy.  Where he met his Waterloo.  See the instant replay above.

Country kitchen

We got back to the “hunting lodge” as the sun sank into a reddening western sky.  The home of Mike’s parents when it isn’t being used for guiding, the walls were covered with the heads and racks of huge white tail deer. Side tables displayed monstrous, stuffed gobblers.

Ray, the cook, lives in Wolback.  Apologetically, she told me that her grandfather was a “moonshiner” in town back in the ’30’s.  And about a tragic night years ago when her dad, and a sizable percentage of the town’s youth, were killed in a car wreck caused by the kids drag racing down the highway.

Of German stock, she’s a firm believer in carb loading.  Dinner that night was mashed potatoes and noodles garnished with a smattering of cubed beef and thin, gray gravy.  And some very tasty home-grown sweet corn that Mike’s wife raises and freezes.  Don’t let me forget the dinner rolls.  Or sheet cake dessert.  Did I mention the tossed salad sitting next to the Dorthy Lynch dressing?

Roger and his son, Hunter, a couple of good ol’ boys from Arkansas, shared our dinner table.  After hearing how their guide had driven nearly 400 miles that day in a monstrous Dodge Ram crew cab to get them three birds, I asked Roger, “what do you guys do?”

“We do baseole.”

“I’m sorry,” I responded, “what did you say?  Base hole?”

“No.  Base OIL.  We reprocess used OIL.”

“Oh.”

The Wicked Witch

After dinner, all 8 or 10 of us went out on the south facing front porch where more big pickups occasionally roared by on Highway 22 before they crested a rise and slowed into Wolbach.  Every room in the cabin was wired for radio. Occasionally the country western music and ag reports were interrupted by severe weather warnings about a storm cell boiling up to the west.  Coming from our right, lighting brilliantly flashed time and again, making the the branches of the bare, early spring trees in the front yard stand out in stark contrast.  And the black clouds overhead swell white.

I looked, but never saw Dorothy’s Wicked Witch of the West riding by on her broom.

Grease.  And gumbo.

The heavens opened that night.  And reduced the majority of the back roads we used the next day to a vicious combination of grease.  And gumbo.

Our guide, Nick, also piloting a huge pickup, was a last minute addition to the guiding crew because two of Mike’s regulars had medical emergencies.  Responding to an SOS sent out over Facebook, Nick applied, got the gig, and drove nearly straight through from his usual happy hunting grounds in New Jersey.   He only made it to Nebraska a couple of days before the season opened.  Which wasn’t enough time to really get the hang of the back roads that ran like rat mazes through this vast, rolling country.  Especially when Nick had to keep us on greasy roads and steer clear of ditches and deep ravines with one hand.  While holding his cell in the other.  And stealing looks at its GPS maps.  My seat belt remained buckled, my knuckles were white.

By the end of the day, the mud was caked on so thick I expect you’d have to take a hammer and chisel to it.  Before you went to the car wash.  But for all that, we never saw a bird we could shoot.

Strange fruit

We came up empty again the next day.  But it was at least under sunny skies and roads that were slowly drying out.

That afternoon, Nick set me up in the blind on the edge of a field of cut corn with a line of trees to my back.  He and Byron took off on foot to see what they could scare up in a heavily wooded ravine to the west.  Just emerging buds shrouded the tree tops in a faint green mist.

Time moved at a different pace.  During the three or so hours I sat out there in a folding chair, my shot gun pointed out over the field, maybe four cars went by on the dirt road to my left.  Traffic isn’t measure in vehicles per hour.  It’s per day.  And your average kindergartener could count that high.  A squirrel’s repeated “chrrrrrrs” was big news.

Several weeks before, record rain on top of a heavy snow pack had turned usually placid creeks into raging torrents in that part of Nebraska.  The evidence was plentiful on the far side of my field that ended at a row of trees before plunging into a stream that, again, was scarcely more than a trickle.  Trees from upstream that had been uprooted and swept away were piled up, helter-skelter, against the trees that were still standing.  Ten feet up in those branches, and who knows how much farther above the stream bed below, shreds of plastic fluttered in the gentle evening breeze.

As the evening shadows stretched across the field, I heard that “oble, oble, oble” again, to my back and up a woody draw.   My heart raced.  I strained to get a look.  But never saw anything. Byron and Nick walked up to the blind and we packed up.

Time to head home.

 

 

Project Sanctuary Redux

Project Sanctuary Bus at Snow Mountain Ranch

What is impossible for man is possible for God

Well, here I am again.  At a Project Sanctuary retreat, the only organization designed to serve the entire military family, helping them reconnect after a member returns from one of our perpetual wars.  Except it’s winter this time and we’re at Snow Mountain Ranch, a YMCA camp just over the Continental Divide from Denver.

Much is the same.  Lots of hyperactive kids who, before the week is out, have made some new buddies.  Plenty of opportunities to unwind:  ice fishing on Grand Lake, snowmobiling on the Continental Divide, a trip to the Fraser Rec center for the water slides or flips off the tramp into the foam pit.  Like last time, I’m sous chef for Tom who, despite laboring under the handicap of institutional raw materials, manages to whip up pretty tasty meals that satisfy the whetted appetites of everyone from kids in high chairs to their parents.

And, again, more of the darker aspects of a Project Sanctuary retreat.  The Post Traumatic Stress workshops.  The “Reconnection With Your Family” sessions.  The presentation from the Cohen Veterans Network on how to access mental health care for service members when, as is too often the case, the VA system falls short.

A Well Oiled Machine

Since I was there a couple of days longer this time, I had the opportunity to get to know a few of the families better than last time.

One of those was the Johnson family.  The husband, Jeremiah, is a military nurse.   His wife is Felicia.  They live near San Antonio, Texas.

My acquaintance with the Johnsons began when I sat on a bench next to an older daughter, Toby, looking across Grand Lake where one of the P.S. kids squealed with delight as he pulled a trout through a hole in the ice.

“So,” I asked, “what grade are you in?”

“Well,” she replied, “I’m in about 11th grade.  But my mom home schools us.”

“That’s nice; home schooled kids usually do very well.  How many brothers and sisters do you have.”

“There’s 8 of us, the youngest is 1, the oldest 20.”

“You’re kidding,” I said, looking over at her dark eyes under the Prince Valiant haircut.  “And you guys all drove up here?”

“Yep,” she said, “all except my oldest sister. She lives in Colorado Springs.”

“Amazing.  And what do you think you want to do when you’re done with school?”

“I want to be a farrier.  We have a horse and I like to work with them.

“Not easy work,” I said.  “Is that why you have that splint on your wrist?”

“No,” she replied, “I’m accident prone.  I cut myself.”

But wait.  There’s more.

That evening I got the chance to speak briefly with Toby’s mom as we stood in line for supper.  

“Toby,” I began, “tells me that you guys have eight kids.  And that you have a blog.  How in the world do you do it all?”  

Without skipping a beat, and holding the one year old on her hip, she pointed upward and said “We get some help from up there.”

“I have a blog also,” I said.  “What do you write about? And how often do you post?”

“It’s about Christian homeschooling.  And I post once a week.  Here’s my card.”

“The ‘Zoo I Call Home,'” I read.  “That’s a good one.  I’ll definitely take a look.  Here’s the card for my blog.  With all your spare time,” I concluded, as a little boy in boots that looked like they’d been through several kids before him began tugging at her, “maybe you can take a peek at mine sometime.”

Life with an open hand

In the “liberated” ’70’s, when I was a new believer and a student at C.U. Boulder, I knew a guy named Mike McElroy.  He ran the Christian bookstore on The Hill.  Mike was a brilliant, thoughtful guy who had a way of forthrightly challenging my comfortable assumptions.  I’m sorry I’ve lost touch with him.

Mike and I both attended the Hillside Church of the Savior, a Protestant church that met in the home of Gene Thomas and had a vibrant outreach to college kids.  

Once, for reasons that I’ve entirely forgotten, we got into a discussion about sex, contraception, and children.  Mike’s opinion was that the Catholics had it right.  And Protestants had it wrong.  “Catholic doctrine forbids the use of contraception.  And it’s not because the Pope wants us to procreate like rabbits.  It’s because sex without contraception is to be open to how God may want to intervene in our lives.  Contraception is our way of saying “No” to that intervention.”

Mike’s argument impressed me.  But it wasn’t something we adopted for our marriage; I had my tubes tied after our third child.  The prospect of the financial burden of having more kids frightened me.  And a good case, of course, can be made that fear is the opposite of faith.

I didn’t ask, but given that they live smack dab on the buckle of the Bible belt, I’d be stunned if the Johnsons are Catholics.  But regardless of their denomination, the Johnson’s, with their 8 kids, took a different path than ours.   One that, at least from the perspective of an outsider, is driven by faith.  One that’s radically open to how the Lord might choose to disrupt their lives with little ones.  A life that puts up with cars that have 350,000 miles on them.  A life that grins and shrugs when a hand me down boot has a hole worn through the top.  But one that that allows the Johnson’s to know, first hand, the promise and, no doubt, the challenges of Psalm 127:3:

“Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him.” 

 

There’s A Clean, Well Lighted Place

750x450 a clean well lighted place

And Then There’s Family Promise

No less a literary titan than James Joyce once described Ernest Hemingway’s short story, A Clean, Well Lighted Place, as ” … masterly. Indeed, it is one of the best short stories ever written…”

And there was a time when, as a youth who aspired to write the mythic “great American novel”, I would have unquestioningly agreed; I was a big fan of anything by Hemingway. However, I’m now, at best, ambivalent about the author.  Like many of his stories, booze and “nada” are central to A Well Lighted Place.  Which, I suppose, isn’t surprising given the horrors that Hemingway and the 40 million other members of his “Lost Generation” endured in the trenches of World War I.

But I was reminded of the story last Saturday as I was waited in a clean, well lighted place, i.e., my church, to shuttle a van full of homeless Denverites to their next stop in the Family Promise program.  And, it is to be hoped, their next stop on a road that will eventually lead them out of homelessness and to a place they can call home.

What they do.  And how they do it.

750x450 family promise

Started in 1982 from a businesswoman’s chance encounter with a homeless woman, Family Promise has grown into a national organization engaging 180,000 individual volunteers and 6,000 faith congregations.

On several occasions during the year, our church hosts families referred to us by the organization.  The accommodations are anything but fancy, but they’re clean and well lighted and safe.  Teams of volunteers feed our guests.  The bathrooms include showers.

During the day, families stay at a downtown Denver location where long term planning for employment, housing and financial stability are the focus.  It was my job, this time, to drive the van to that location.  On previous occasions my wife and I have helped provide dinner.

You can lead a horse . . .

I’ve lived in Denver my entire life.  And there’s little doubt that I’ve been blessed.  So, I’m certainly not as well acquainted with the tougher side of life with which others are familiar.

But sheltered existence or not, no-one who drives around town can miss the countless beggars and panhandlers that are seemingly a permanent fixture on so many street corners.  This is particularly noticeable to me because I remember seeing few, if any, of these people growing up here.

I hope that Family Promise can make a dent in the problem.  Especially for those-and you’ve seen them as well-who have kids sitting by their side as the mother (don’t think I’ve ever seen a man doing it) holds out a hand to cars at the red light.

But I fear that making a dent in the problem will be tougher, and more complex, than we imagine.  One of the issues that defies easy solution is the deinstitutionalization of individuals with mental illness.  This “reform” may have seemed like the right thing to do at the time.  And relieved severe over crowding at Pueblo’s state hospital.   But how many of those patients wound up begging on street corners?  And not really interested, or able, to lead lives off the street?

I don’t know.  I just know what I can do.  And invite you to do the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But there came a time, after I became a Christian, that I soured on Hemingway.  His nihilistic atheism.  His misogyny and the way he treated women as mere objects.  His he-man bravado on African safaris and lion hunts.  And the tough guy bravado in the many war stories he wrote from personal experience.  And, finally, the alcohol and even binge drinking that played into so many of his novels.

 

 

Out of the mouths of babes

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Too soon old, and too late smart

Tuesday mornings have gotten to be one of the best of the week for me.  I get to go to my daughter’s home, take my four year old granddaughter by the hand, and walk around the corner to Duffy Roll.  There, we both tuck into one of their delish “minis” over a cup of joe (for me; Bridget can’t stand the stuff) and orange juice (for her).

That delightful “chore” done, we pull out one or two of the books we’ve carried along and, with the sun streaming through the windows, I read to her.  Titles like “Every Cow Girl Needs A Horse”; the kid is pumped about going to the National Western Rodeo in a few days.  And “I Wonder Why I Blink”; I swear that her mom is letting her cheat off her anatomy notes from nursing school days.

By then, it’s time to walk back home, get her buckled into her car seat (which, in my estimation is like most child safety devices: almost entirely adult proof-at least for an old curmudgeon like me).  And head to her preschool, where I give her a kiss and a hug before she circles up on the floor with her buddies.

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Can you believe this?

This little weekly ritual all got started nearly nine months ago.  Why nine?  Because that’s when my daughter felt a need to get a little break from raising two still very young daughters.  While holding down a part time nursing job.  All while coping with the stress and strain of growing a third little munchkin.  Which, we were eventually delighted to learn, will be our first grandson.

Boy, is Bridget excited to have a baby brother!

But, at least initially, I wasn’t so thrilled to help out every Tuesday morning.  “After all,” I thought to myself, “I may be retired.  But I still need to spend a lot of time working on my blog and the other stuff I do.  This babysitting thing is really going to cut into my day!”

You probably can’t believe the thought even crossed my mind.  And, at this point, I’m ashamed to have to ‘fess up to it.  Yet there it is.  But now am I ever glad that Bridget’s mom asked.

“I’d rather be a mom.”

Not long ago, as we walked home after reading about how our muscles and bones work in, I Wonder Why I Blink, I asked, “Do you think you might like to be a doctor or a nurse when you grow up?  You already know a lot about the various parts of our bodies.  Your mom’s a good nurse and helps little kids.  Maybe that’s something that would interest you.”

“No,” she answered, without skipping a beat, “I want to be a mom.”

Now, do I really have any idea what this bright little four year old is going to do for an occupation?  Of course not.  No more, in all likelihood, than she really does.  But I definitely admire her aspirations.

She doesn’t know it yet, but society will probably pressure Bridget to change her mind.  As if aspiring to be a “mere” mom is a second class calling.

But Bridget’s answer was also very revealing.  It says a lot about her mom.  And, for that matter, her dad.  How she admires them.  How she loves them.  And how they love her and her little sister.  And their new baby brother.

Shoot for the moon. Miss, and land among the stars.

So, here I am.  Initially a bit resentful at being dragooned into spending one morning a week with my granddaughter.  But also thinking that, at least, I’ll be able to pour a few drops of wisdom from my “vast reservoir” into the empty cistern of this little child’s mind.

But what really plays out?  Just the reverse.  Little Miss Sunshine turns my Tuesday mornings into one of the brightest days on my calendar.  And then takes me to school on straightening out my work and family priorities.

So, Bridget, you hang in there.  Pay no attention to your old papa.  Or any of the other nay sayers.  You’re definitely on to something.

 

 

 

 

 

He who must not be named

750x450 polar express

Out of the mouth of babes

Our two little granddaughters spent the night with us a few days ago.  It was the first time we’d had them both at once.

Although we were a bit concerned that the movie picked out for the evening, The Polar Express, might go over the two year old’s head, she was entranced.  Her four year old sister, of course, was all in right from the beginning.  In part, no doubt, because my wife practices what Toy Story preaches:  No Toy Gets Left Behind.  At least when it comes to the grandkids.  There was the conductor’s cap.  And the silver bell.  Not to mention the bottomless bowl of buttered popcorn.

And, because nothing succeeds like excess, a live, repeat performance of the story a few nights later at the Colorado Railroad Museum.  But this time, the grandkids dragged along their parents.  It was a fine evening, too.  Especially chugging around a loop about 10 times, sitting in a beautiful old narrow gauge passenger car, while the coal fired steam engine blew it’s whistle every time we crossed a road somewhere out near Golden.   (Warning!  Don’t even attempt to find the museum without tuning up your GPS.)  The conductor and the white jacketed chefs, replete with toques, served hot chocolate and cookies.

When the silver bell falls silent

The story’s about a kid who’s an agnostic when it comes to Santa Clause.  But as he’s dozing off one Christmas eve, a big coal fired locomotive and passenger train mysteriously whistles to a stop in front of his house as snow drifts down through clouds of smoke and steam.  Despite his skepticism, the boy climbs aboard and off the train goes on a wild, gorgeously animated ride to the North Pole where Santa and hordes of elves await.

As the film winds down, Santa is preparing to take off in a sled dwarfed by a bag of toys.  But before the sled leaps into the air, he turns to our young, but now converted unbeliever and announces, “You get the first gift of Christmas.  What would you like?” In response, the boy points at one of the silver bells hanging from the harness of Santa’s eagerly plunging reindeer and says, “One of those, please.”  With that, it’s in the boy’s hand and from there into the pocket of his night robe.

Unfortunately, there’s a hole in the pocket and the silver bell goes missing.   But, next morning, hidden away in a little box under the tree, the silver bell reappears.  But when the boy eagerly rings the bell, only he and his sister can hear it; their parent’s are deaf to its beautiful tones.  And, with each passing Christmas, fewer and fewer of the children’s friends can hear it either.

Until, at last, even the boy’s sister goes deaf.

Meanwhile, back on the train.  And away in a manger . .

After the cookies had been eaten, the cocoa drunk, and a few spills cleaned up, the conductor and chefs serenaded us.  They had great voices, no doubt. They’re professional actors who have to knit together Lord knows how many acting and other gigs to keep body and soul together in a town like Denver.

And the songs’ sentiments were nice enough.  Santa and his elves.  Warm and fuzzy holiday feelings.  Songs that would have felt perfectly at home on Broadway.

But any mention of what Christmas is actually about?  The birth of the Savior?  Or any of the wealth of traditional carols that so joyfully and beautifully express the real significance of the season?

Not on your life.

Until, that is, I heard a small voice, down and to my left, coming from the mouth of our four year old granddaughter who was butchering the lyrics to one of those wonderful old carols:

Away in a manger, no hay for his crib,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on his head . . .”

When life is stranger than fiction.

So, when is it going to dawn on us that things like The Polar Express is a near perfect illustration of the ludicrous contortions we’ll put ourselves through to avoid mentioning what Christmas is really about?  How we’ve grown tone deaf to the One who started it all so long ago in that manger in Bethlehem?  How so much of the real significance of the season has been driven into hiding by relentless commercialization?  By the cowering fear of giving offense by even uttering the word “Christmas”?

And, above all, of mentioning the Name of He who must not be named:  Jesus.

On marriage.

750x450 p&p double wedding

When the movie’s better than the book.

Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice, is one of those stories I’ve never grown tired of.  I’ve read it repeatedly.  Listened to it in the car at least twice.

And, on more occasions than I’m willing to admit, watched the 1995 BBC TV version starring Jennifer Ehle, as the lovely, strong willed Elizabeth Bennett.  And Colin Firth as the imperious Mr. Darcy.  (Spoiler non-alert.  If you’re not familiar with the story, this post won’t do much to change that.) 

Blame my wife; she’s the one who made watching it a Christmas tradition as she wrapped presents.  So, I now binge watch it around Christmas also, staying up far too late, guiltily creeping up the stairs, bleary eyed, hoping not to wake one of our out-of-town kids.  Or, far worse, one of the infants that now tag along with them. Talk about living on the edge.

Perhaps I should start a support group: “Hi.  My name’s Spencer. And I’m a P&Paholic.”

How can TV-of all things-improve on perfection?

Don’t get me wrong.  The TV version of the story isn’t better because it deviates dramatically from the original.  The novel’s sparkling repartee is faithfully recreated on the small screen.  As are the novel’s twists and turns that keep readers and watchers in suspense right up to the last few pages.  Or the last reel.  (Unless, of course, this isn’t your first rodeo. . . but, let’s not go there.)

No, in my book, the TV version excels because it wraps with the wedding liturgy that is taken straight from the 1552, Anglican Book of Common Prayer:  “Dearly beloved . . . ”  

But perhaps you’re dismissive of that scene, with the four newly weds standing shoulder to shoulder, because it was just too sweet.  Too “everything tied up in a pretty package with a lacy bonnet on top.”

Well, I beg to differ.  And, in fact, what makes the scene a winner is its bracing astringency.  A badly needed tonic in our world where marriage seems to owe more to the Mary Poppins’ variety of piecrust promises: “easily made, easily broken.”  Than to the solemn vows that would be commensurate with a recognition of the central-nay, crucial- role that marriage and family play in a healthy society.

Checking the boxes

The TV version of the wedding liturgy tics all the important boxes.  

“Matrimony is a holy, honorable estate, signifying the mystical union of Christ and his Church.”

Check.  

“It is not to be entered into unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy man’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts, but reverently, discretely, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.”

Check.  Again.  But, how dare these religious fuddie-duddies talk about the proper role of sex right in the middle of a day that’s supposed to be about nothing but gauzy veils and getting the wedding cake frosting just so?

Well, get ready.  Because there’s more.  “The procreation of children.”  “A remedy against sin and fornication.”  “For the help and comfort of one another, in both prosperity and adversity.”

But in the end, don’t take my word for it.  Watch the show.  Right to the end.  Give it some thought.  Maybe, even, make it a Christmas tradition.

But take care.   You may wind up as a member of P&Panonymous, too.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I. The Communion Of Saints.

Mom's old home in North Dakota

My mom and her family were blown out of their North Dakota home during the dust bowl days.

PAST.  Present.  And Future.

I’m on the road.  Again.  Marleen and I flew to visit our son in Omaha.  But, because she’s not a fan of long road trips-and I still am-I rented a car and took a circuitous, sentimental  journey back to Denver.

On the way, I listened to hours of recorded books: one of the pleasures of road trips for me.  One was The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk.  The other was The Heart of the Mattera novel by Englishman Graham Greene, considered by many to be one of the best writers of the 20th century.  More later.

My first destination was the far south east corner of North Dakota.  It’s where my mom grew up during the Great Depression in a small farm house with her parents and six siblings.  The family was blown out during the Dust Bowl.  After selling all they could at a farm auction, they headed to west to Yakima, Washington to work in the fruit orchards and canning factories.  For some reason, the last two to leave North Dakota were my grand mother, Hazel, and the youngest daughter, Connie.  They hitchhiked the 600 some miles from North Dakota to Yakima, Washington.  Real Grapes of Wrath stuff.

The nearest towns to where my mom grew up are Lidgerwood and Wahpeton.  My mom’s last remaining relative in the area, Clark Williams, was my gracious host and guide on what was a cool, grey day.   Wikipedia characterizes Clark as one of the Wahpeton’s “notable people” because he represented the area for years in the state House.  Not much older than I, his health isn’t good.  While we were waiting for our hamburgers at Dee’s Bar & Grill in Lidgerwood, he stepped out the back door for a smoke-before coming back in to hook himself up to his oxygen tank.  I was disappointed to learn that his side of the family seems fractured and that I wouldn’t be able to participate in a family reunion-because they don’t have them.

It wasn’t easy to tell if my mom’s old house hard by the Wild Rice River is still occupied; Clark thought it was.  Brown William’s house, my grandma’s brother, was just around the corner.  Although the house is no longer in our family, it still looked good with a fresh, grey tin roof.

The geography of the area is peculiar.  Although it’s not far from the headwaters of the Mississippi in Minnesota, this flat, extremely fertile country is drained by the Red River that runs north to eventually drain into Canada’s Hudson Bay.  As I drove north from Omaha on a dark night, it was disorienting for a Coloradan to see a road sign flash by telling me that I was crossing the Continental Divide hundreds of miles west of the Rockies.

The Past: Custom and Tradition.

In his frightening novel, Nineteen Eighty-FourGeorge Orwell depicts a world in which “Big Brother” manipulates everything, including history.  An entire bureaucracy, the “Ministry of Truth,” is given over to rewriting the past to make it conform to the current party line-which changes from day to day.  Inconvenient historical facts are consigned to the “memory hole.”  The fickle nature of the past adds measurably to the hellish world that Orwell, drawing on the hellish world that Joseph Stalin had created in reality, depicted in his novel.

The antidote for the horror of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Stalin’s gulag?  Russell Kirk’s 1953 tome, The Conservative Mind.  The book-be prepared for a long one-surveys conservative thinkers and their ideas from Edmond Burke (1729-1797), an English politician and philosopher, to T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), the Nobel laureate author of what is perhaps the most famous of modern poems, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  

For a book that was written as a doctoral dissertation, The Conservative Mind is remarkable not just for the breadth and depth of its scholarly content.  It also played an enormously influential role in reinvigorating conservatism when the movement had been almost entirely written off in the wake of what seemed the irrevocable triumph of New Deal liberalism.  The book’s a “must read” for anyone who wants to understand the rise and meaning of modern conservatism.

It’s Burke that casts the longest shadow over the pages of The Conservative Mind.  His extended essay, Reflections on the Revolution in France, profoundly influenced both the England of Burke’s day and the modern conservative movement.  Written as a warning against the bloody excesses and turmoil of the revolution, Burke was not an advocate of putting society in a straight jacket. However, he believed that change in a healthy society should be evolutionary and guided by tradition and custom-or, as he put it in the language of his time, “prescription.”  In so doing, society fulfills its obligation to generations past, present, and future.

Bonanza!

One of the early conservative statesmen that Kirk describes is John Adams.  Founding Father, our first Vice President, second President, and rock ribbed New Englander, Adams sired a host of descendants. Including John Quincy Adams, the sixth President.  Somewhere down the line, another John Quincy Adams came along who lived in Wheaton, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.

In 1881, this particular Adams took advantage of cheap railroad land in the Dakota Territory to purchase 9,600 acres and gave it to his daughter and son-in-law as a wedding gift.  It eventually became the Adams Fairview Bonanza Farm, about 15 miles from Wahpeton.  Making the most of the flat, fertile land, Bonanza farmers put together armies of workers, mules, and capital to grow enormous quantities of mostly grain to feed the world’s rapidly expanding population.  At one point, the Adams farm was a virtual small city, with bunk and mess houses, several barns, an office building, and a grain elevator at the end of a rail spur.  There was a herd of 10,000 sheep.

Now, the original rambling farm house is now a lovely B&B; I stayed two nights in the master bedroom suite.  One gray morning, to stretch my legs, I walked to the nearest section crossroad.  It might not have been in the middle of nowhere, but I think I saw it somewhere out there beyond those fields that ran as flat as a table to the horizon.

 

John and Tuula Kube,my gracious hosts

John and Tuula Kube, my gracious hosts.

My gracious hosts, John and Tuula Kube, are, just like my mom’s family, good Scandahoovians.  (They’re no relation to the original Adams family.)  Great French toast and Swedish pancakes were served up for my two breakfasts.  It goes without saying, slathered with plenty of butter.  And, despite my having invited myself to dinner, a wonderful meal of local beef and steaming bowls of fresh vegetables out of their garden.  While they don’t farm the place themselves anymore, they do rent it out to other local farmers.  Their daughter and her family live just across the gravel road.

Was it an accident that I stayed in a bedroom in a house that had once been owned by a descendant of a man who’d played such an important role in our nation’s history?  And whose story I’d been listening to?  Probably.  But it sure was a nice serendipity.  And more than enough to slingshot me on to my next destination, far across those lonely plains, as John and Tuula shrank in my rear view mirror.