Saturday, December 31, 2011

Baby, It's Cold Outside

My friend Lime has posted about dear friends of hers from Trinidad who came to visit over the Christmas holidays.  Trinidad qualifies to be called 'tropical', and her guests had explicitly hoped to share a White Christmas with Lime and her family (alas, if the weather in Lime-ville is anything like it is in Our Town, that may have been a forlorn hope).  But actual snow on the ground and in the air, such as is typically to be found where the Lime family lives, qualifies as a major novelty for most Trinidadians.

Besides which, it reminds me of a story or two from my own young life. . .


At the university I attended, there was a dormitory that was more-or-less reserved for housing foreign graduate students, and late every fall, with the first significant snowfall, a wonderful scene unfolded as dozens of African, South-Asian and Latin-American grad students would gather on the lawn, snapping photos of each other in the first actual snow any of them had actually seen in their lives.

There was another graduate student at my school in those days, not foreign, but American-born, who was known campus-wide (and it was a very wide campus) as The Mad Hawaiian.  He was, as the nickname might imply, a native of Hawaii, and when he arrived on campus, he didn't even have a pair of long pants to his name.  Now, one might presume that a Hawaiian coming to live in Michigan, in all its wintry wonderful-ness, might, soon after his arrival, equip himself with some typical Michigan-type winter-compatible clothing.  But not The Mad Hawaiian; he reasoned to himself that 'cold is just a state of mind', and why should he spend a big wad of money on clothes, anyway?  (He was studying Computer Science; 'nuff said.)  And so, in the bleak mid-winter, with snow and wind and sub-freezing temperatures, The Mad Hawaiian could be seen walking around campus in a T-shirt and shorts. . .

(As a footnote, some years later, a friend of ours, who hadn't attended our university, and had only moved to Our Town after Jen and I had long since graduated, told us about this unusual guy he worked with, whom everyone called The Mad Hawaiian.  I couldn't believe my ears, and double-checked the name, and it was indeed the very self-same Mad Hawaiian.  I aksed if he dressed unusually, and he said no, it being a somewhat professional business office, he was obliged to wear long pants and a collared shirt.  Which seemed a little disappointing, somewhow. . .)


Our family hosted a Nigerian grad student, years ago.  It was a wonderful experience for us, to spend a year getting to know a man from a culture very different than our own.  It was delightful just to sit with him and talk for hours about life in Nigeria, and his hopes and aspirations for when he returned (he was married, with four children, so his presence at an American university was a huge sacrifice, not just for him, but for his wife and kids, as well).  He came from northern Nigeria, which is a predominantly-Muslim part of the country, and he told us some eye-opening (and occasionally hair-raising) stories about living as a Christian in the midst of a Muslim majority.  The Nigerian Students Association on campus held a few events during the year, to which our family was invited as esteemed guests, and treated to authentic Nigerian cuisine (of which exotically-spiced cream-of-wheat seems to be a staple).

Over Christmas, the folks who were sponsoring his studies (a missionary society; he was getting a degree in counseling to benefit his church back home) brought his wife over to spend the holidays with him, and they were both grateful for the opportunity to spend a couple weeks together in the midst of the long grind of his studies.  It was the first time she had ever been out of Nigeria, to say nothing of America, or even The West more generally.


A brief aside - several of our friends have hosted foreign students over the years, mostly from Latin America.  Since the American school year encompasses the cold-weather months, they always tell their guests to be sure to pack a warm coat.  Which, to the ears of someone from, say, Costa Rica, evokes what Americans would call a 'wind-breaker' - a light jacket, suitable for spring or fall.  But in Latin America, it is 'a warm coat', and is only worn on extremely cold days, when the air temperature drops below 15C (59F).  One poor girl got off her plane in the midst of a raging blizzard, with snow, below-zero (F) temperatures and howling wind.  When her hosts saw her 'warm coat', they took her immediately to buy a REAL 'warm coat', before they even took her home.

Another family we know hosted a student from New Zealand (the South Island, which is the colder of the two).  He arrived in October, and stayed for six months, returning home in April.  But, New Zealand being in the Southern Hemisphere, the poor fellow lived through 18 consecutive months of winter (or something close to it). . .


So, returning to our Nigerian student's wife. . .  As it turned out, we proceeded to have a record-breaking cold snap the whole time she was here - below-zero temperatures virtually every day of her two-week stay. There is absolutely nothing in the experience of any Nigerian that would remotely prepare them for below-freezing temperatures; but this was cold that made even us hardy northerners shiver.  The poor woman wore about five layers of sweaters and thermal long-johns, and I don't think she ever got warm, the whole time she was here.  Even sitting in our dining room, next to the heat duct, and near the stove, she would just sit shivering.  We felt terrible that we couldn't do something to relieve her discomfort.  And of course, the cold broke the day she flew out. . .

Sunday, December 25, 2011

God With Us

This is from a Christmas meditation I wrote in my 'paper journal' back in 1987 (and yes, it does strike me the tiniest bit oddly to think that 24 years ago, I was 7 years married, the father of three children, and writing theological meditations in my journal. . .)


"Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
     and they will call his name Emmanuel - 'God With Us'."
          - The Gospel According to Matthew, chapter 1, verse 23
              (ref. The Book of the Prophet Isaiah, 7:14)

God is no longer remote from us; He has come to us - God is with us.

How differently would we understand our lives if we were more consciously aware of this foundational truth - God is with us.

How differently would we relate to our minor trials (or our major ones, for that matter) if we knew - really knew - that God is with us.

How different would our sins look to us if we really understood that God is with us?

What a privilege, what an awesome possibility is laid before us - God has become one of us, that we might become like God.  And yet how little do we - do I - take hold of it and venture so bold as to live by means of God's grace?

O God, have mercy on us; help us to take hold of what you've laid before us, to take on more of your divinity, as you've taken on our humanity.  Make us holy, as you are holy, and help us to live more truly as your presence in the world. . .

Friday, December 23, 2011

O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

(ref. Isaiah 7:14)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

O King of the Nations

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

(ref. Isaiah 9:6, Isaiah 2:4; Isaiah 28:16, Ephesians 2:14)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

O Morning Star

splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

(ref. Isaiah 9:2; Isaiah 60:1-2, Malachi 4:2)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

O Key of David

Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

(ref. Isaiah 22:22, Isaiah 9:7, Isaiah 42:7)

Monday, December 19, 2011

O Root of Jesse

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.

(ref. Isaiah 11:1,10; Micah 5:2, Isaiah 45:14, Isaiah 52:15, Romans 15:12)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

O Adonai

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

(ref. Isaiah 11:4-5, Isaiah 33:22; Exodus 3:2, Exodus 24:12)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

O Wisdom

For the last week of Advent, I am posting the O Antiphons, verses to an ancient Advent hymn (dating back at least to the 5th century), sung at Vespers, one verse each day from December 17-23.  These may seem somewhat familiar to some of you; the familiar Advent hymn/carol O Come, O Come Emmanuel is based on them (rendered into consistently-metered rhyming English). . .

I am here giving both the ancient Latin text, and the English translation, as well as the Biblical references provided in the excellent Wikipedia article. . .


O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

(ref. Isaiah 11:2-3, Isaiah 28:29)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Godspeed, My Children

In the general busy-ness of the season, I find that I have neglected to mention to you all that two of our progeny - 2F and 4M - will be flying off tomorrow morning to spend Christmas with friends in the UK - London, Glasgow and Belfast.  This is the second time in the last three Christmases that they'll have been off-continent.  And, more to the point (at least where Jen and I, and the rest of the family are concerned), apart from us.

Of course, we wish them Godspeed, and joyous times with their friends.  Their friends are our friends, too.  One is a young woman who has shared many a meal with us around our table (and with whom we saw Paul McCartney last summer), who is spending a year in London doing missionary work.  Another is a young man from Glasgow who spent a year-and-a-half in Our Town (and who dearly wanted to see Sir Paul with us, but he got terribly sick the day of the concert; so 4M ended up using his ticket) doing the same thing, and became a close family friend while he was here (at his 'going-home party', one of the kids pasted his face onto a Harry Potter life-size 'cutout', and it has stayed in our dining room for the entire four months since he left).  2F and 4M will carry our greetings, and our love, with them.

2F is actually looking into returning to Europe as a 'missionary' in her own right, and part of the purpose of her trip is to make connections in that regard.  Which thought makes us immensely proud of her, and a little bit sad, to think that she could be so far away from us, for an extended (and possibly indefinite) period of time.  But those things will happen, when one undertakes to live radically for something (Someone) bigger than one's own preferences and comfort.  So you could pray for 2F, that God will give her clear discernment, and open or close the appropriate doors in her path.  And for both of them, that He will 'guard their going-out and their coming-in', and return them safely to the bosom of their family. . .


Could I also solicit your prayers for an immensely perplexing situation in which Jen and I find ourselves?  Without going into detail, I'll just say that two friends of ours are caught in a massive, emotional breach of their relationship.  We are trying hard, 'insofar as it depends on us', to be at peace with both of them, but it's not easy.  Pray that we can maintain friendship with both of them, and that the breach between them can be healed.


Come quickly, Lord Jesus. . .

Sunday, December 11, 2011


The Optimist says the glass is half-full. . .

The Pessimist says the glass is half-empty. . .

The Engineer says the glass is twice as big as it needs to be. . .


Among Roman Catholics, today is popularly called Gaudete Sunday (because Catholics like to be all high-falutin' and throw Latin words around all the time, an' stuff; 'gaudete' just means 'rejoice'), the Third Sunday of Advent; the 'rejoicing' being because Advent is (at least) half-over, and it's all downhill to Christmas (so to speak).

Our family traditionally procures our Christmas tree on Gaudete weekend, although we might not set it up for a few days (if it's cold enough outside, we'll just stash it behind the garage), and we won't decorate it until it's at least less than a week 'til Christmas.

But - it's gettin' close. . .

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Good Day, Sunshine; or, A Day In the Life

As I mentioned in my previous post, I've been considering burning my last day of vacation for 2011 on the first sunny, 40-degree day that came along, so as to sneak in one more ride on my bike before pulling down the curtain on the riding season.  In checking the online weather forecasts, I came to the easy conclusion that yesterday was that day. . .

Besides which, I've piled up a few of those 'getting-ready-for-winter' projects that needed to get done, and the weekends have seemed to fill up with other things (what with Christmas approaching, and all that).  And last week's snowfall was a major warning shot across my bow.  The fact that it melted off so quickly can only be counted to God's mercy. . .

First, I needed a pair of new front tires on my car (in order to hold down the magnitude of single expenditures, I usually buy tires in pairs - fronts and rears, staggered by a few months so as not to hit the budget all at once).  I've known that for a while, and last week's snow served to accentuate the urgency of it.  But it's always a bit of a hassle to pull off.  Weekends, as I said, tend to fill up with other stuff, and it's hard to set aside the 1-2 hours just sitting in the waiting room.  Sometimes, Jen and I will trade cars for the day, so she can cover that detail for me, but her schedule is fuller than it used to be, and it's not such a simple matter for her, either.  So, having the day off, I showed up at the tire store at the opening bell, to get in at the front of the line.  And then, Jen had an errand for me to run, at a store walking distance up the street from the tire place, so I was gainfully engaged while the car was being worked on.  An hour after dropping the car off, I had my new tires, and Jen had some staples restocked in the pantry.

Next was the roof.  Our back roof has always had a pretty significant ice-damming problem, and a key component of our strategy for dealing with that has been a heat tape which we run in a zigzag pattern over the bottom three feet or so of the roof.  But this past spring, we had our back roof re-shingled, and the roofers had to remove the heat tape in order to put the new shingles down (heck, just to get the old shingles off).  So, once the new roof was in place, I needed to re-install the heat tape.  It would have been smart of me to do it in the summertime, or at least the early fall, when the asphalt of the shingles was still reasonably soft and pliable; but I wasn't that smart.  And again, last week's snowfall highlighted the urgency of getting the heat tape done; that the snow melted so quickly was pure grace from God.

So, after I returned from the tire store, I grabbed 5M, and the two of us went to work - he worked on the roof, installing the clips for the tops of the zigzags, while I worked from a ladder along the edge of the roof.  We borrowed 6F's blow-dryer to soften the asphalt in the localized areas where we needed to mount the clips.  The process is a little bit tedious, involving mounting the clips, running the tape through the clips, and then going back and readjusting everything to get the tape where it needs to be, while more-or-less matching the length of the tape to the required coverage area.  It was a bit chilly out - high 30s (F), but the blow-dryer kept our hands warmer than they'd otherwise have been, and the sun was shining.  We finished in a little over an hour, and now our new back roof is ready for winter's onslaught.

Having finished both of those, it was still before 1PM, so there was plenty of time for me to go out on another 17-mile bike ride, which, with the sun shining brightly, was a very happy one, even if it was a few degrees colder than last Saturday's ride had been (and the wind wasn't blowing quite so hard, either, so that was nice, too).  I even had time to ride over to the bike shop when I'd finished my ride, because the ride had exposed my need for a new rear tire on the bike, as well.

I went home, showered, and was preparing to take a short nap, when 7M reminded me that he had a basketball game on the other end of town last night.  With my long commute, I hardly ever get to his week-night games, so I had a rare opportunity, which I was only too happy to take (his team played their worst game of the season, so far, but he seemed reasonably philosophical about it afterward; perhaps my presence helped him reach such equanimity) (or, you know, perhaps my presence had nothing to do with it; who knows?)

So - one solitary vacation day, in the middle of the week, in December.  And what a day it turned out to be. . .

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Miles and Miles to Go. . .

For the last five years (roughly coinciding with my renewed commitment to seriously riding my bike), the weather around the turn from November to December has just been uncanny - within a day either side of the First of December,  we've gotten the first significant snowfall of the year, which stays on the ground, and marks the change in temperatures from generally above freezing to generally below.  Meaning that, once the snow comes to stay, it really stays, and my riding season is effectively ended.  Five years in a row.  You'd think that, one of those years, the Sender of Snow would slack off just long enough for me to sneak in a quick 15 or 20 miles on the 3rd, or the 5th maybe, but no dice.

So when we had a run of warm weekends this November, I was hopeful that maybe this year, winter would hold off a few days, and I'd be able to get a few December miles in.  And all the moreso, since, as of Thanksgiving weekend, I was at 1388 miles for the year, and it would only take a dozen miles for me to pass 1400.

But, when I checked the weather forecast Tuesday afternoon, Our Town was predicted to get 6-10 inches of snow.  Which is a lot of snow, especially for the first real snow of the season.  I took my laptop home from work, and made arrangements to work from home on Wednesday if the forecast proved accurate.  Which it did.  The snow started falling Tuesday evening, as I was maybe 20 miles from home at the end of my commute, and it snowed hard all night and into Wednesday morning.  When we went out to shovel the sidewalk and driveway, by golly, there was anywhere from six to ten inches of wet, heavy snow on the ground.

So I called my boss, and told him I'd be staying home.  He seemed surprised, since where he lived, they'd only gotten a bit more than an inch.  So I checked the weather map online, and it turned out that the 'snow belt' ran right up the middle of Michigan's mitten, virtually centered on Our Town.  Fifty miles to the east, or fifty miles to the west of us, barely an inch of snow fell, but from the Ohio/Indiana border, running right up the middle of Michigan, it was 6-10.

So I just laughed, and noted ruefully that Wednesday was the Last Day of November.  Right on schedule.  But Wednesday itself was a pretty warm day, with high temperatures going into the 40s (Fahrenheit), so even by the time we went to bed on Wednesday, there was quite a bit less snow on the ground than there had been that morning.  Our street, which is only two blocks long, and a dead end, never did get plowed, but by the end of Wednesday, we had no problem getting in and out with our cars.  So, for a 6-10-inch snowfall, it was pretty benign, as such things go.

But of course, there's a big difference between what you can reasonably drive a car through, and what you can reasonably ride a bike in.  Patches of ice aren't that big a deal in a car, but on a bike they can be treacherous.  And, riding as we do along the edge of the pavement, if the snow significantly impinges on the available pavement, it quickly becomes a pretty dicey situation, sharing even less pavement than usual with the motorized vehicles, which are ten times heavier, and at least three times faster, than I am.  So I was not particularly hopeful that I would be able to get a real, outdoors-on-the-pavement ride in.

Thursday and Friday were warm-ish (for December), with high temperatures in the upper 30s (F), which is above freezing, but won't turn snow into water at a very rapid rate.  Plus, we got maybe another half-inch or so over Thurday night.

Yesterday morning, it was overcast, but again in the low 40s.  I wasn't optimistic, but I really wanted to ride.  So, after my usual round of morning errands, I decided to reconnoiter the route I would take if I did ride.  And I found that the pavement, for the most part, was clear and dry, especially on the country back roads that I'd mainly be riding on.  The busier country roads all have paved shoulders, and even those were clear.  The biggest problems were all in the city, and they were manageable, if I just exercised some common-sensical caution.

So I scurried home, got into my 40-degree riding gear (regular riding gear, with an extra pair of wool socks, sweat pants, and a blaze-orange hoodie, and real gloves with fingers and everything) and got out on the road.  I had a great ride (especially once I got out of town) - 17 miles, brisk fresh air, and no significant issues with the motor-vehicles.  My heart, lungs, and legs hummed happily along, and I even got home in time to get to 7M's basketball game (and before the rain started).

So it's 1405 and counting.  I've got one more vacation day left for this year, and I'm thinking of burning it on a 40+-degree day, should one pop up in the middle of the week, and get one more ride in, before I pack it in for the winter, and take my bike for its annual winter tune-up.

Man, this is just more fun than a human being ought to be allowed to have. . .


And alas, my Spartans went down to defeat in the Inaugural Big Ten Championship game last night.  Great game, if you didn't care who won; we've had a few of those with the Badgers, in recent years.


Honestly, though, in August, I'd never have expected us to be this good again.  I figured we'd be good, but our graduation losses from last year's co-championship team, along with a really gruelling schedule, seemed to portend a small regression, at least in the wins and losses.  But here we were, playing for another conference championship.  Whaddya know. . . maybe, just maybe, we're becoming pretty good.

Wouldn't that be fun?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent. . . Eventually

We had a good time at my sister's for Thanksgiving.  It was the first major holiday without Dad.  It wasn't this deep melancholy thing; in fact, my brother, who is the executor of Dad's estate, brought some of the last of Dad's things to have us sort through, and take what we wanted.  I took an old tie-tack of Dad's, that was a 'working' pair of square gears.  It was very emblematic of Dad, and something an engineer like me can appreciate.

My sister is in the process of a divorce from her husband of 31 years (they were married the same summer as Jen and me).  So, for her sake, it was probably good to have some company to fill her house for the holiday; and filling houses is something our family excels at. . .

Alas, the Lions lost, and the less said about that, the better, probably. . .

But my Spartans finished their second consecutive football season with double-digit wins, something that's never been done before in school history (although, to be perfectly fair, our best teams, back in the 50s and 60s, only played nine or ten games, so double-digit seasons were a little harder to come by. . .)


We got to spend some time with our grandchildren and their parents yesterday evening, and had a really warm, wonderful time together.  Some really fine kids, being raised really well, there. . .


We've had a surplus of warm (albeit windy) Saturdays this November.  So, the 30 miles I rode yesterday brought me to a total of 1388 for the year.  If I can get in one ride in December (which I haven't done in fifteen years or so), I'll sneak past 1400 again.  Wish me luck. . .

OK, then. . . on to the main event. . .


This next is a re-post of something I wrote back in 2006 (and re-posted again last year. Who knows? Maybe this will end up being a Tradition around here. . .)

At any rate, 'tis the season. . . And while I'm at it, I'll give a shout-out to my good friend Suldog, whose 'Thanksgiving Comes First' campaign against premature Christmas-y-ness partially inspired my dredging this up from the archives. . .


In our culture, the Friday after Thanksgiving marks the more-or-less 'official' beginning of the commercial season of 'Christmas', with the sales, the extended hours at the malls, special advertisements, etc., etc (although, honestly, the stores have been in 'Christmas mode' pretty much since they took down the Halloween stuff; maybe even before that). It's what much, if not most, of our culture thinks of when they think of 'Christmas', but less and less does it have any discernible connection with the actual content and meaning of Christmas.

One time I was visiting family in a large, midwestern city over Thanksgiving, and the following day, the local TV news had several reporters on site at various malls, doing interviews with shoppers. They asked one guy what the 'true meaning of Christmas' was, and he said, "We gotta get out here and spend money to keep the economy going strong." I am not making this up; he actually said that.

I sometimes wish that they would come up with a different name for the year-end consumerist feeding-frenzy. Just leave Christmas out of it. Or, maybe we should come up with another name for the celebration of Christ's Birth and Incarnation. Let 'em have 'Christmas' for the 'shopping season' - admit that we've lost it, and start over with a new name.


Anyway, today is the First Sunday of Advent - the beginning of the Christian season of spiritual preparation for Christmas. As I've gone along, I've come to really love Advent, imperfectly though I may observe it. In rough terms, Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter, just with not quite the same 'penitential' emphasis. Rightly done, Advent is a time of contemplation, a time to step back from the normal frenzy of daily life, take a few deep breaths, and anticipate the coming joy of Christmas. Advent is pretty much the polar opposite of 'consumer Christmas'. Pausing for contemplation is not a thing Americans are terribly inclined to do (perhaps I should rather say it's a thing that we're inclined to do terribly).

In the larger American culture, the 'Christmas season' runs from the Friday after Thanksgiving until Christmas Day, but in traditional Christian circles, the Christmas season begins on Christmas Day and runs until Epiphany (January 6) - thus, the 'Twelve Days of Christmas'. So, when most of our neighbors are finished with Christmas, we're just getting started. It always perplexes me just a bit to see all the Christmas trees out on the curb on the 26th; when Jen was a kid, Catholics didn't even put their trees up until Christmas Eve. And, just as I'm getting pumped to sing 'Joy to the World' and 'O Come, All Ye Faithful', most of my neighbors are sick of hearing them.

Maybe I should blame it on the Magi - they started the whole giving-gifts-at-Christmas thing. I doubt they had any clue how far it would get out-of-hand, though.

When it comes right down to it, though, I suppose I've got to admit that my spiritual preparation for Christmas is my own responsibility. It's not up to American culture to get me spiritually prepared. It might be nice if the culture were more supportive (or even just less disruptive) of what I'm trying to accomplish, but it is what it is.

So, our family is setting out on Advent. If, over the next few weeks, I seem a little reticent and low-key about Christmas, you'll understand, won't you? And then, if I'm getting all Christmas-y just when you're getting tired of it all, you'd be very kind to indulge me. In the meantime, I'll be over here, singing 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel', in a minor key. . .

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Grief. . . And Gratitude

It's nearly three months since my dad died.  And introspective fellow that I am, it hasn't hit me like the ton of bricks I thought it would.  I was prepared for huge, crushing grief, an utter earthquake in my life.  Dad was one of the very few constants in my life; mothers have come and gone for me (strange as that is to say, and I really don't mean it in the least bit pejoratively toward any of them).  We've changed houses and cities; friends have come and gone, but since the day he adopted me (before my memories of anything earlier had kicked in in earnest), Dad was always there for me.  So I was prepared for some pretty significant emotional churning (and recalling what I experienced when I met my birth-mother, that wasn't an unreasonable thought).

But it hasn't been that way at all.  I miss him.  Oh, without a doubt, I miss him terribly.  Ever since Mom went to the nursing home, I'd had a pattern of calling Dad roughly weekly.  The calls weren't always terribly stimulating; often as not, he'd just keep me up-to-date on his current medical status.  Sometimes we'd talk about recent progress on the family genealogy (and in the last year before he died, he made a really significant breakthrough, tracking our surname-family back across the ocean, into 1600s Germany), or just what my packet of his grandkids (the 'production side' of the family tree) were up to.  It wasn't terribly burdensome - I'd usually call him on my cell phone driving home from work (my daily commute covers many miles of lightly-traveled freeway, so it wasn't a big deal) - and it was always good just to hear his voice.  I miss those calls.

On one level, I've been mentally preparing myself for his passing for the last 20 years; his brothers were 47 and 58 when they died, and my grandpa didn't see 70, either.  So once Dad hit 70, I figured he could be leaving any time.  So maybe that's helped; I don't know. . .

Mostly, I've just felt a sadness.  Not a big, up-front, dominating-my-consciousness sadness, but just a background sadness that's just kinda. . . there.  And doesn't go away (at least, it hasn't yet).  I'm not depressed; I still enjoy my life.  I take joy from my marriage, and my kids (all of them), and my network of good friends.  I'm enjoying the challenges of my job.  I just miss my dad, that's all.

They tell me that, in time, it will mostly go away.  That the sense of sadness and loss will soften and heal.  And I believe them.  But just at the moment, I miss him.  Ever since I moved out of my parents' house, I've often, when I found myself wrestling with some conundrum of life, asked myself what Dad would do about it.  I rarely ever called and asked him directly, but it was always comforting to know that I could.  And now I can't anymore.  But I can still draw on the internal resources that his own strong character provided for me; only now, I have to pull it from my memory of him.  And I suppose that that's comforting in its own way. . .


Thanksgiving is coming soon, and this Thanksgiving promises to be as significant as any we've had in quite a few years.  Perhaps most obviously, this is the momentous First Holiday since Dad died; the first time our family will be gathering for the holidays without our parents.  And who knows how that will be?  But I am gratified that we are all inclined to keep our family connections alive (and given the Yours-Mine-and-Ours nature of our family, perhaps all the moreso).

So, it being Thanksgiving, I am grateful for my family.  And I am especially grateful for 55 years of life with my Dad in it.  I am grateful for his strong character, his sense of duty, and the strong example he gave me.  I can't even begin to say how my life has been better for him having been my dad. . .

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sick to My Stomach, Again. . .

I really don't want to say anything about the whole mess that's going on at Penn State right now, but on another level, I really don't want to let it pass without comment, either.  It's just nauseating, sickening, and sad, depending on which angle you're viewing it from.  And I have multiple perspectives that probably don't add up to a single coherent set of thoughts, but as I've listened to the sports-talk shows (I have a long commute), there's been a distinct shortage of rational commentary, and even what passes for reasonable, isn't always.  (*sigh*)  Fools rush in; Lord, have mercy. . .

For those of you who may not have read the sports pages (or heck, the front pages) over the past week, the situation started coming to light with the arrest over the weekend of Jerry Sandusky, who, back in the 70s-90s, had been the defensive co-ordinator of Penn State's football team, on charges of sexually molestating young boys.  Which was a fairly big deal, and not quite your garden-variety sexual-abuse story.  Penn State is a pretty prominent football program, and their head coach, Joe Paterno, is one of the most beloved figures in all of college athletics; Jerry Sandusky was Paterno's right-hand man for decades, and widely expected to be his successor when (if) he ever retired.  Until he (Sandusky) suddenly and unexpectedly retired himself in 1999 - he had started a foundation to help 'at-risk' kids, and he wanted to devote more of his time and energy to the foundation. 

So far, so good, right?  Except that it turns out that, from at least 1994, until at least 2009, Mr. Sandusky sexually abused at least 9, and possibly 20 or more, boys who he'd met through his foundation.  In 2002, he was seen 'in the act' by a graduate assistant, who, after much anguished soul-searching, told Coach Paterno the next day what he'd seen (though perhaps not in very specific detail).  Paterno told his 'boss', the university's Athletic Director, about it, and the AD told his boss.  And the upshot of it was. . . basically nothing.  Sandusky was told not to bring boys onto university property anymore.  No-one called the police; no-one even bothered to find out the name of the victim.  And Sandusky got to abuse kids for seven more years.  Unbelievable. . .

Now that the situation has come to light, it winds up being utterly devastating - an all-consuming fire that ends up with one of the great coaches of all time, who is, by all accounts, and in all sorts of ways, a good man, and a decent human being, being summarily fired from his job of 46 years, the Athletic Director and at least one other high-ranking university poo-bah fired, and the president of the university resigning under a cloud.  And it's all so sad.  Except when it's sickening.

Of course, it all starts with Jerry Sandusky, who was obviously something very, very different than he appeared to be.  But the responses of those who might have done something about it were unbelievably, unfathomably lame.


And the thing is, I understand it.  I understand, which is not to say that I excuse it, or that the behavior in question is remotely defensible.  It's not.  But I understand.  Sinful human being that I am, I understand.

I played football, and my sons have played football.  Football coaches are a pretty unique breed of human being.  The most successful ones (I stop short of saying 'the best ones') are usually pretty monomaniacally focused - all they do is football, all they know is football, all they care about is football (one famous coach, when he finally got the coaching job of his dreams, told his wife, "just go ahead and file for divorce, 'cuz this is the last you're ever gonna see of me."  What a prince, eh?).  Football coaches are not, as a general rule, great intellects (except where football is concerned), or moral philosophers.  They're football coaches, and that's what they do.  And so, I can understand Joe Paterno taking the report from the grad-assistant and passing it on to his boss, and going back to the business of coaching football.  And hoping that it goes away, so it doesn't distract anyone from football stuff.  And never having it bubble to the top of his consciousness that, Holy Shit, a kid was molested by one of my coaches, right here in the football building showers.

The young graduate assistant, who in the meantime has become an assistant coach, has come in for a ton of criticism, and justly so.  Most of it has been on the order of, "You accidentally come upon a 60-year-old football coach raping a 10-year-old boy in the showers, so. . . you go home and ask your dad what you should do?  How the hell do you walk away, and leave the kid to keep getting raped??  And yet, on another level, I can understand.  Let me explain. . .

Years ago, in our Christian community, we had a very strong, very charismatic leader.  The kind of guy who walks into a room, and everybody turns to notice.  The kind of guy that other guys - even really strong guys in their own right - wanted to follow.  The kind of guy whose approval other men (and, let's be candid - women) craved.  In the fullness of time, his feet of clay became all too evident, but by that time, we were all trained to think that he was 'special', and the normal ways of doing things didn't quite apply to him.  The evidence was right in front of our faces, but we didn't see it; we didn't want to see it.  And I can easily imagine that Jerry Sandusky had carved out a similar niche for himself at Penn State. I mean, he was the guy who coached the linebackers at 'Linebacker U'.  I can easily imagine a grad-assistant having some serious soul-searching with himself, just because of the cognitive dissonance between what he'd seen, and what he'd always known of Jerry Sandusky. . .  And then wondering who the hell would believe his word against Jerry Sandusky's, anyway. . .

Another story from my own life.  When our older kids were single-digits young, Jen and I became friends with another couple, who lived down the street from us, and had kids the same age as ours.  They even joined our community, and we spent quite a bit of time together, for a while.  Then, after we'd known them for a year or two, suddenly the husband was arrested and charged with child molestation - his daughter had a little friend over, and he 'helpfully' offered to give the girls a bath (no, the 'little friend' was not our daughter; as far as we were ever able to discern, our girls were never his victims).  And the thing is, I was absolutely certain that the charges were ridiculous.  I knew this guy.  He was a family man's family man, devoted to his wife and kids.  And yet. . .  Big life lesson there for my young self.

There's a part of me that wonders about Mrs. Sandusky - certainly, it's not unprecedented for a husband to be engaged in behavior of which his life-partner is clueless, but I wonder what, if any, clues she might have had. . .


When I scrape all these thoughts into a pile, I don't know what conclusion, exactly, they lead me to.  I hasten to reiterate that, by saying 'I understand', I am in no way excusing anyone's behavior, or making light of the heinous-ness of the crime.  In part, I am invoking The Log and The Speck - I am not certain that, in the same circumstances, I would do significantly better.  Part of what I find grating in much of the public commentary is the sanctimoniousness, the affected moral superiority of so many of the commentators, as if THEY could never do anything so DISGUSTING as that (and good for them, if they couldn't, eh?).  I just hope that I know myself, and my own potential for sinful bahavior, a little bit better than that.

On another level, everything coming out of Penn State in recent days is just more data to confirm what GK Chesterton once said, to the effect that, of all the teachings of Christianity, none was more empirically obvious than the fallen-ness of human nature.  Feet of clay all over the place in State College, PA these days.  And therein lies the bulk of the sadness.  It wouldn't have taken very many people to be very 'heroic' at all, to make a much better (though still sickening and sad) situation of this, but nobody, not even the formerly-sainted JoePa, found it within themselves to do so.  The guy who is at the center of it all, who was once a Respected Leader and Former of Young Men, is now a poster-boy for 'We Had No Idea'. . .  And somewhere out there are 20 or so young men and boys who got dragged through experiences that no-one, much less children, should ever have to endure, at the hands of a trusted mentor (I will admit that there is a part of me that isn't beyond observing ruefully that Catholic priests don't have the pedophilia market cornered; but there is absolutely no joy to be taken from that observation. . .)

Things are only just getting underway in earnest, and by the time you read this, even more facts may have come to light.  It is entirely likely that things will get worse before they get better.

Lord, Have Mercy. . .


(add November 13)

In reading through the indictment, it appears that there was an incident in 1998 which seems to have led to Sandusky being told by Joe Paterno that he would never become the head coach at Penn State, which in turn seems to have precipitated Sandusky's out-of-the-blue retirement after the '99 season.  In that case, the police were involved, but the District Attorney decided not to bring charges against Sandusky.  It is never stated why the DA decided that, and the DA seems to have dropped off the face of the earth, but if anything, that situation seems even more egregious than what happened in 2002, and reeks of the DA 'protecting' a prominent person.  Although, again, the DA isn't around to give his story. . .

So, if Joe Paterno knew enough to tell Jerry Sandusky he wouldn't be getting head coaching job in 1999. . .

Man, much as I might wish otherwise, this just keeps getting worse and worse. . .


(November 14)

And here is an op-ed (from the NY Times, of all places) that makes a similar point to the one I started out making. . .

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Life Is Like That, Sometimes. . .

Recently, I was cleaning out my desk, and I came across a file of some of my favorite old cartoons.  Now, I don't have any plans to turn this humble blog into a Xavier-style clearing-house of visual humor, but perhaps some of you will appreciate a few of my favorites (quite aside from the insight they might provide into the bizarre twists and turns of my psyche) (and of course, my ego must be simply titanic for me to think that any of you might even want such insight. . .)

Anyway, in honor of All Saints' Day -  this one hit me where I was living, a few years back. . .


I rode another 33 miles this past weekend, which gives me a total of 1238 miles for the riding season, through October (which is down a bit from my usual mileage, because of my dad's death, and a couple bouts of unplanned illness) (but hey - who plans their illness?).  In past years, I've had three or four good riding weekends in November (recent years haven't afforded me any rides in December, but if the weather is agreeable enough, I'll go out any time), although my miles will start to decrease with the temperatures (once it gets below 40F or so, it becomes an issue of keeping my toes warm, and that limits my rides to around 20 miles; below 32F, I stay indoors).  So, I've got maybe another 100 miles or so before the season ends. . .


Also this past weekend, Jen engaged in her annual ritual of Providence and Resourcefulness, aka The Canning of the Applesauce.  I don't know how many bushels of apples she started with, but by the time she finished, we had 75 quarts of applesauce in the pantry.  

Mmmmm. . . home-canned applesauce. . .

I love my wife. . .

Sunday, October 23, 2011

All Wet

I have lived virtually my entire life in Michigan, surrounded by four of the five Great Lakes.  We have more miles of shoreline here than any other state, except Alaska, and an awful lot of it is really nice, sandy beaches.  The town I grew up in was right on the shore of Lake Huron, and for a couple years, we lived in a house which had Lake Huron as its back yard.  While we lived there, it was a pretty good working model of Heaven.

In my hometown, we would go down to the beach pretty much whenever school wasn't in session, roughly from early June until the end of August.  A really warm weekend in May might coax a few hardy souls into the water, but you couldn't really count on the lake being warm enough to swim in, that early in the season.  September was similar - you might get a weekend warm enough to head down to the beach, but once football season started, we were usually otherwise occupied.

(Once Jen and I were on a 'getaway weekend' at a B&B on Lake Michigan; it was a lovely weekend in April, and a warm breeze was blowing in off the lake.  We took a leisurely, romantic walk along the beach, and as the waves lapped gently onto the sand, we thought it would be fun to let the water roll over our toes as we walked.  But then, in April, it's only been a couple weeks since all that majestically beautiful water was ice.  And 35-degree water has a decidedly un-romantic effect on the toes; not for nothing do we speak of taking cold showers to, um, cool our ardor)

Now, Lake Huron, at least where I grew up, was typically around 65 degrees during the summer months, but we counted anything much above 60 as eminently swimmable.  If you really had your heart set on getting wet, you might wade into water in the upper 50s, but you didn't stay in for very long.

I had a friend who grew up in Marquette, Michigan, on the Lake Superior shore of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.  Now, Lake Superior is COLD. . .  Really, REALLY cold. . . C-O-L-D.  The old quips about the balls on a brass monkey, or witches' mammary glands, or well-diggers' backsides, were really invented with Lake Superior in mind.  Folks in Marquette, my friend told me, don't really go swimming much, at least not in the big lake; it's just too cold.  But even so, everyone in town listens to their radio all summer long, waiting for the one glorious day in August when the weatherman comes on the radio to tell them that the water temperature is above 50 degrees, and then, like a civic ritual, the whole town goes down to the beach and swims, until they can't feel their toes anymore.  Which takes about a minute or two.

When Jen and I were on our honeymoon, we were driving along a lightly travelled road in the UP (when it comes to the UP, 'lightly travelled' means a car might or might not have come by in the last 24 hours; a story is told of an old Yooper who pulled up and moved to Alaska when he started seeing neighbors once a week or so; it was just getting too darn crowded. . .), and we happened upon a lovely beach.  I pulled the car off the road, directly onto the beach, we changed into our swimsuits right there in the open air, and ran into the lake for a quick dip (Jen still refers to this as her first serious act of marital submission, as I insisted that she not miss out on the experience).  When I go into Lake Superior, I will wade in slowly, giving my feet and legs time to go numb get used to the water; usually by the time I'm knee-deep, I can look into the crystal-clear water and see two strikingly white things that look suspiciously like my feet, as all the blood has by then retreated to warmer places.  At that point, one should either just jump in and get totally immersed, or call it day and get out of the water; trying to slowly wade in past the, uh, T-bag line is an exercise in masochism. . .

I set a goal for myself, when I was in my teens, to swim in all five Great Lakes - full immersion; wading in knee-deep doesn't count.  And I'm happy to say that I achieved that goal, before my 30th birthday.  Since Lake Ontario is the only one of the Great Lakes that doesn't lap onto the shores of the state of Michigan, we had to make a special point of vacationing at a cottage in Grimsby, Ontario (from whence the Toronto skyline is visible across the lake on a clear day), in order to collect Lake Ontario (and Niagara Falls, while we were at it) (no, I did not get 'fully immersed' in Niagara Falls); and thus did I duly accomplish my goal.  So I expanded my goal to include both of the oceans that wet the shores of the United States.


I added the Atlantic Ocean to my collection when our family went to Florida for spring break, more than 20 years ago.  The proximate cause for our trip was to meet my 'first mother', after not having seen or heard from her in more than 20 years.  But we had a standing offer from my aunt, who lived on Florida's Gulf coast, to stay with her, so we took her up on that, and we had a great time.

When we left Michigan, it was 35 degrees, and a gray, dreary rain was falling.  As we drove southward on I-75, the air got warmer with each passing mile; by the time we were in Kentucky, the grass was green.  By Georgia, we saw flowers blooming in the red clay soil.  We stopped at the little 'Welcome to Florida' rest stop just across the Florida line, for a complimentary cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice, and 2F (who was about four at the time), spying a palm tree, spontaneously ran over and laid a big friendly hug on it.  By the time we arrived at our destination, south of Tampa, it was 85 degrees, and we felt like we were really getting one over on the Universe.

The next day, it was another delightfully sunny, 85-degree day, and we announced our intention to go swimming.  My aunt chuckled, and said that we'd probably be the only ones in the water, since the locals didn't get in the water in March.  Undeterred, we drove down to the beach, on one of the keys (a 'key' in Floridian geography is a geographic entity somewhere between a sand-spit island and a glorified sand-bar), and, as my aunt had predicted, we had the entire beach virtually to ourselves.  For miles in either direction, we saw nary another human soul beside ourselves.

And what a beach!  The beaches on the Great Lakes are nice - brown sand, with patches of tall grass appearing here and there.  But this beach on the Gulf coast of Florida was the most amazing beach I'd ever seen (still is, as far as that's concerned) - fine, white sand, the consistency of flour, stretched as far as the eye could see, and gave the water itself a greenish hue unlike anything we see in Michigan.  It was simply spectacular.

Although, the idea (which ocean-dwelling-types just take for granted) of having to take a shower after swimming, just seemed wrong.  I get the whole thing about not wanting to walk around with a salt-film all over yourself, and I didn't like it, either.  But up here in the Great Lakes, we tend to think of going swimming as roughly akin to taking a bath (OK, kind of a cold bath; and you have to kinda get used to the vaguely 'fishy' smell).  So, needing to shower after swimming seems to sorta defeat half the purpose of going swimming in the first place. . .

Now, 1F was a fairly cautious child, and bright enough to know that things live under the water, where she can't see 'em - fish, and whales, and sharks, and jellyfish, and all sorts of things.  As a very young child, she would resist even wading into the Great Lakes, for fear of the unknown critters and thingies that might be lurking where she couldn't see 'em.  We were finally able to convince her that there were no sharks, or anything else that might be inclined to make a meal of her, in the Great Lakes, that those things only lived in the ocean, and not the Great Lakes; and that assuaged her fears.  But now, in Florida - THIS was the ocean, by golly, and there ARE sharks in there, and she wasn't about to put herself so rashly in harm's way like that.  I finally got her to get in the water by telling her that sharks can't swim when the water is shallow, and I promised to always keep myself between her and the deep water where the sharks were (she didn't so much mind the idea of her dad becoming a meal for a shark). . .

There was a mild dispute, though, as to whether the Gulf of Mexico really counted toward my 'both oceans' goal, or whether the Gulf should be considered as a separate body of water unto itself.  No matter, though - my mother lived on the Atlantic coast of Florida, and when we drove over to visit with her and her husband (geographic note: the 'middle' - ie, non-coastal - parts of the state of Florida are singularly boring to drive through; unless you can convince your kids to make a game of counting dead armadillos, or somesuch), we took our opportunity to avail ourselves of the beaches on that side of the state.

The Atlantic beaches reminded us much more of our good-old Michigan beaches, than the Gulf-coast beaches had.  The sand was a familiar brown, and the wind whipped on-shore just like it did back home, creating some much-more-impressive waves than we'd seen on the Gulf side of the state.

At one point, we were walking along, and we spied, maybe 50 yards or so ahead of us, what looked like a sandwich bag that someone had discarded on the beach.  Now, Jen is a very committed picker-upper of trash, so she 'tsk-ed' in the appropriately disapproving manner, and walked ahead to dispose of the offending refuse.  By the time she was just bending down to pick it up, I was close enough to notice the long 'stringer-things' spreading out from it, and I quickly yelled at her not to touch it, and leave it alone.  When I got close enough to get a good look at our 'sandwich bag' (which even looked like it had grape jelly smeared on its insides), it was apparent that this was no piece of human-generated litter, but a beached jellyfish.  And we breathed a heavy sigh of relief that Jen hadn't gone ahead and grabbed it up. . .


I checked the Pacific Ocean off my list when I went to visit my birth-mother the first time after our reunion.  She and her husband live in California, near San Diego, which, as long as I'm on the topic, is about the most perfect climate I've ever experienced - 75F pretty much every day, 50F pretty much every night.  That visit was also the first time I ever experienced jet-lag, going virtually face-down in my dinner-plate, because my body thought it was 11PM; and then, the next morning, I popped out of bed at 5AM, feeling like I'd slept in, bright-eyed and ready to go.

My first full day in California was beautiful, like pretty much every day is in Southern California.  Looking out over the ocean, there were a dozen or so surfers taking advantage of the six-foot breakers rolling in.  There is an underwater 'shelf' a couple hundred yards or so out from the beach, so the swells that roll in from Hawaii, or Tahiti, or wherever the waves come from that roll in on the beaches of Southern California, break sharply, and consistently, when they encounter the shelf.  I wondered to myself how they manage to keep the kids in school there; where I grew up, on the Great Lakes, the school year roughly coincided with when it was uncomfortable to be in the water.  But if it's 70F outside in November, I could imagine myself weighing an imaginary balance in my hands: 'let's see. . . school. . . or surfing. . .?'

I took several walks on the beach there, and I encountered sand crabs for the first time - little critters that are almost insect-like, that burrow into the sand on the beach.  You can always tell where to find them, because they leave a tell-tale pattern of little holes in the sand.  So, when you see the holes, you can just scoop up a handful of sand, and let the wet sand slip through your fingers, and you'll be left with a half-dozen or so of the little crabs, wiggling and crawling on the palm of your hand.  It's a little disconcerting at first, but after a while, it's kinda cool.

The Pacific is also where I first encountered tides in a major way.  Of course, there are tides on the Atlantic coast, but when we were in Florida, we just spent an hour or two on the beach, and returned to the house; we didn't spend a sufficiently extended period of time at the beach to notice the difference in the water levels.  But where my birth-mother lives, we could see the ocean pretty much all the time, and there is a sea-wall, perhaps 10 feet high, between the water and any inhabitations.  So, at high tide, the water laps up against the bottom of the sea-wall, and there really isn't a beach.  Which was a little disappointing, when I wanted to walk on the beach and there was no beach there for me to walk on.  But at low tide, the beach was yards and yards wide.  So I learned to read the tide charts, so I could plan my walks more intelligently. . .

The first day I was in California (after rising at 5AM), I announced my intention to go swimming, as that would mark the completion of my goal of swimming in all five Great Lakes, and both oceans.  Immediately, my hosts adopted concerned looks.  "Oh, no," they said.  "You can't do that.  At least, not without a wet suit."

"What?!?  Why not?"  I wasn't about to wear any freakin' wet suit; I wanted to feel the ocean on my own skin, doggone it. . .

"Well, it's November."

"It's 75 degrees."

"Yeah, but the ocean is only 60."

I looked at them incredulously.  "Let me tell you about Lake Huron. . ."

So I changed into my bathing suit, climbed down the sea-wall, and waded into the ocean.  The water was a little on the chilly side, but in justr a few minutes, I was used to it, and I had a ton of fun wading out to where the waves were breaking, and feeling them smack against my back.

Then I went back to the house, showered the salt off myself (I still can't get used to that idea), and smiled with the satisfaction of having completed my hydrological quest.  Now, I suppose I'll have to look for an opportunity to collect the Indian Ocean. . .


I'm sorry, but I have to take just a second to mention the football game my Spartans played last night against our friends from Wisconsin (who just happened to be ranked #4 in the country coming into the game).  What a wild, zany, crazy game.  We were almost instantly behind 14-0, having run only one offensive play (a fumble).  Then we were ahead 23-14 at halftime, having blocked both a field goal and a punt, and scored a safety, besides.  We went ahead 31-17 early in the 4th quarter, but the Badgers stormed back to tie the game with just over a minute left.  It looked like the game was headed into overtime, but my Spartans threw a 'Hail Sparty' pass on the last play of the game that bounced into the hands of our receiver on the 1-yard-line, and it was initially ruled that he hadn't scored.  But the call was reversed 'upon further review', and we won 37-31.  What a crazy game!

Of course, I'm glad we won, but what a kick in the head it has to be for Wisconsin, to lose like that.  I know how it would've been for me if we'd lost, after playing so well the whole game, against a superior opponent. . .

Which, I suppose, is just one more reason to enjoy sporting contests, but stop well short of investing them with anything approaching ultimate significance. . .

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Roar of the Tigers

OK, with apologies to all my non-sports-fan readers (which is to say, pretty much all of you except Suldog); you know how some guys are with their sports teams. . .


My Detroit Tigers had a pretty darned good year in 2011, winning the American League's Central Division, thus reaching the post-season for the first time in five years (unless you count the 12-inning play-in game they lost to the Minnesota Twins in '09), and only the sixth time in my own young life.  Then we beat the mighty Yankees in the first-round series, earning us the right to be defeated in six games by the Texas Rangers for the American League championship.  Alas, of our four losses to the Rangers, one was by one run, and two were in 11 innings (although getting beat 15-5 in the final game tends to stick in people's minds).  That said, the Rangers are a really strong team (such hitters!), and they'll acquit themselves well in the World Series, I'm sure.

I'll beg your indulgence for a few paragraphs while I briefly review the season. . .

It was an odd season, beginning with a sense that this was a pretty good, competitive team, and that the Central Division was ripe for them to win it, with even the better teams all flawed, to varying degrees.  And yet, us Tiger fans spent most of the season in frustration, wondering when the team was going to stop struggling so much, and show its true quality.  Well into August, the Tigers were only six games above .500, and a game or two ahead of the second-place Cleveland Indians (or was it the Chicago White Sox?  It varied from day to day).  Then suddenly, in mid-August, everything started clicking, and the Tigers finished with 95 wins, winning the division by 15 games.  Amazing.

For much of the season, the only real attention given to any individual Tiger was focused on Justin Verlander, their ace pitcher, who will undoubtedly win the American League's Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the league.  I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that JV won 24 games (a really large number, in these days of five-man pitching rotations), allowing 2.4 runs per nine innings.  Opposing hitters could only hit .192 against him, and he amassed 250 strikeouts during the season, besides throwing his second no-hitter.  As phenomenal a season as any Tiger pitcher has ever had.

There was also our closer, Jose Valverde, who collected 49 saves without blowing a single opportunity (which isn't to say that we were never nervous when he was in the game).  Miguel Cabrera had a relatively quiet season, by his standards, but still led the league in batting average, while hitting 30 home runs and driving in 105 runs.

A couple of the Tigers' young players had breakout seasons - Alex Avila made the All-Star game as the best catcher in the American League; not many of us saw that coming.  And Brennan Boesch developed into a steady, productive major-league outfielder, which was not obvious at the end of 2010.

The pitching looked to be a strength, given how well Max Scherzer had pitched the second half of 2010, but he never really found that groove in 2011.  Rick Porcello is still a promising young pitcher, but the fulfillment of that promise remains mostly in the future.  But the acquisition of Doug Fister at the trade deadline was a stroke of pure genius; he'd gone 3-12 in Seattle, but with an ERA of around 3.3, so he was pitching well, without much to show for it.  Then, practically from the minute he arrived in Detroit, he was right on a level with Verlander for shutting down opposing hitters (and frankly, in the post-season, he pitched considerably better than Verlander did).

In fact, several of the Tigers' deals this year paid big dividends.  The big off-season free-agent signings were Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit, and both were huge contributors to the team's success.  If Martinez did nothing else, he earned his pay for making opponents pitch to Cabrera; a .330 batting average (and close to .400 with runners in scoring position, or when Cabrera was walked ahead of him), with 103 RBIs, were above and beyond.  And Benoit, after some early struggles, settled into a lights-out 8th-inning guy, handing games over to Valverde.

At the trade deadline, the Tigers picked up Wilson Betemit and Delmon Young, besides the aforementioned Mr. Fister, who both contributed solidly to the amazing stretch run, capably filling gaps in the lineup.  In the past, these deadline deals have often as not turned to dust (*cough* Jerrod Washburn *cough* Aubrey Huff *cough*), but this year, it seemed like every single player addition (with the exception of Brad Penny, and even he had his moments) just worked out wonderfully.  I love it when a plan comes together.

So, it was an odd season - four months of frustratingly mild success, capped off with an incredible final six weeks.  And in the end, this was one of the better teams in Tiger history, for sure.

And the nice thing is, the team looks to be set up for a nice run for a few years to come.  With few exceptions, most of the Tigers main players are young - 28 and younger.  And if some of the younger players start living up to their potential (which, I realize, is never guaranteed), we could be having a lot of fun for the next few years.  It would be nice to have it be our turn to win the division for four or five years in a row.  We've never done that (at least, not in my lifetime); it would be nice to see how it feels. . .


And, as long as you're indulging me my sporting affections, can I also mention that yesterday, my beloved Spartans were victorious over our intense in-state rivals from Ann Arbor?  And that this was our fourth consecutive victory over the Wolverines?  And thus, an entire senior class will have graduated from the University of Michigan never having defeated their 'little brothers' from up the road?  I can hear the Wailing of the Victims from 60 miles away. . .

All kidding aside (well, most of it, anyway), these are good times to be a Spartan. . .


Thank you; you all are very kind to indulge me in my reverie.  We will return to our regularly-scheduled programming with the next post. . .

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

You Can't Go Home Again. . .

Okay, my friend Suldog has done it again (this is becoming quite a habit with him. . .); with his recent post (which was really a fairly old re-post), recalling the house he grew up in, he has provoked a whole set of reminiscences to bubble up from the back corners of my brain, and into his comment-space.  Which, in its turn, has provoked me to write a more complete account for your enjoyment.  Or, you know, whatever. . .


When I was a young child, our family moved around quite a bit.  Just sitting here keying this in, I can think of eight different houses that I lived in before I went away to college, six of them before I was ten years old.  The house I was adopted into, in suburban Detroit; our first house Up North, which we only lived in for about a year, when I was four; then back to the Detroit 'burbs to start school, and yet another house in the same 'burb; then back Up North, to the house on the shore of Lake Huron.  We lived there for about two years, and I can still conjure up a tear when I think about moving out of that house when my parents divorced.  We moved to a house 'in town' for about a year, and then, when my dad remarried, we moved to another house closer to the edge of town, where we actually lived for seven years, virtually until I graduated high school.  Then my parents moved to suburban Chicago virtually simultaneously with my graduation, so after that summer, I went back to Michigan for college, and my family commenced morphing into Chicago-ites (or whatever they're called); rooting for the Bears, the White Sox (ugh!), and (please God, no) the Bulls.  It's funny - my family lived in that house in suburban Chicago for 35 years, but I never really 'lived there'.  It's the last house Up North, where we only lived for about 7 years, that holds most of my memories. . .


As I said, we moved there after my folks got married, just before I turned ten.  That's where all the 'new-blended-family' drama played out, and where my two youngest brothers were born (okay, they were born in the hospital; we didn't live that far north; but that was the house they came home to).  I was in 5th grade when we moved there, and we moved out less than two months before I graduated (I only consented to move to Chicago if my credits could be transferred back, and I could get an Up North High diploma) (I'm sure that my folks were really worried by my little ultimatum; at any rate, they found my terms acceptable). . .

Sometime when I was in junior high (I want to say it was '68, since my memories are intermingled with the Tigers' world championship, and twelve seems about right for how old I was), in order to leverage the available space in the house, Dad decided to turn a third of the basement into a deluxe, three-boy 'boy-cave' bedroom.  Each of us had our own little 'niche', with a bed, a closet and a built-in desk-and-shelves all our own, so it was almost like we each had our own room, even though it was all contiguous open floor-space; it was quite cool.

The construction of the bedroom was also the occasion for a goodly bit of training for my brothers and me.  We helped Dad frame in the walls, run the wiring, and hang the drywall, so by the time it was finished, those things weren't so daunting anymore.  To this day, I don't mind doing a bit of electrical work, and I always think of constructing that bedroom whenever I have to do some.

Our yard was something like a quarter-acre, on the wooded dead-end of our street, a block from our closest neighbors.  On a snowy day, the walk down our street was like something out of Currier & Ives.  The house itself sat on the top of a little mound, with the basement open on one end to a walk-out.  The back yard was pretty open, and we would often have our friends over for backyard whiffle-ball (in the summer) or football (in the fall) games.

In the corner of the yard, there was a mountain-ash tree, which produced delightfully-colorful orange berries in the fall, which the birds loved to eat (my brother and I, though, tended to fixate on what a pain those berries were to rake off the lawn, and the way they gave the birds the runs, which also involved more work for us).  In the late fall, the berries, whether still on the tree, or fallen to the ground, would ferment.  Which gave rise to the annual ritual of The Day of the Drunken Birds - the birds would gorge themselves on the fermented berries, and for that day (and maybe a day or two after), we'd have birds staggering and falling in the back yard, struggling to take flight, but not quite getting their wings to work properly.  Or, if they did manage to take flight, they'd fly into the windows, or perform bizarre drunken aerobatics.  Good, good times, those. . .

Truth to tell, though, 'wooded' is a little bit of a misleading adjective for the end of our street.  Our yard was bounded on two sides by what could only be justly called a swamp (although, to be sure, there were plenty of trees).  Many a baseball of ours became water-logged and useless for having been errantly thrown into the swamp, and found/retrieved only several days later (of course, we never really knew for sure that the baseball we pulled from the swamp was the one we'd most recently lost, or the one we'd lost six months ago).  When I was in high school, Dad assigned my brother and me to drain the swamp.  For a couple weeks that summer, we were out in the swamp with shovels, knee-deep in, um, swamp-goo, dredging a channel down to the main drainage ditch that ran along the street (okay, it was a dirt road, but it was inside the city limits, and for postal purposes, was designated as a 'street', so I'm going with that).  It was nasty, smelly work, but once we'd met Dad's specifications, the swamp sho-nuff drained, and our errant baseballs landed on a floor of damp leaves, instead of eight inches of standing fetid water (and, you know, whatever else).

The standing water accounts for the mound that the house sat atop.  Actually, the basement floor was maybe about a foot above the local water table, so the house was built basically as low as it could have been, and then the mound was back-filled around the foundation wall to leave it looking like the ranch house it was supposed to be.  Not long after we moved there, we had a massive rain storm that left our basement filled with about a foot of water, destroying several boxes of 'important' papers (including my adoption order).  Which was remedied, in large part, by opening the walk-out at the far end of the basement, and letting the water run out into the yard (and ultimately, the swamp).

That mound also made for some, uh, unique challenges for young drivers-in-training, as it required a subtle touch on the accelerator pedal to balance having enough power to climb the hill, but still go slow enough to safely guide the car into the garage, whose opening was roughly three inches wider than the land-yacht 9-passenger station wagon that was necessitated by the size of our family.  The first time I drove the family vehicle, I left it so squirrelly-sideways inside the garage that my mom couldn't get it back out without peeling the trim-strip off the side of the car.  Yeah, Dad was real pleased with me that day. . .

I've written elsewhere about some of our snow-bound winter adventures, living on a dead-end street, and what that meant for snow-shoveling duties.  Especially the time we got 42 inches of snow in a week, and it became an open question as to whether we were strong enough (especially after a few hours' shoveling) to throw the snow to the top of the existing piles. . .

So it was with a degree of wistfulness that we left that house, with all its memories, and moved to metropolitan Chicago.  Which could hardly have been a bigger cultural shock to us north-woods bumpkins.  But that's another story, to be told (if at all) at another time. . .


When our family moved to Chicago, my grandma continued to live Up North, so for a few years, I had a place to stay when the urge struck me to renew contact with my roots, and I stayed with her a few times for short visits.  But not long after my ten-year high-school reunion, Grandma died, and it was a bit more of a chore to 'go back home'; and for several years, I didn't go back.

But when I got the invitation to my 20-year reunion, I was eager to go back and see the old hometown again.  I booked a room at a motel by the shore, that had once-upon-a-time been one of my customers on my paper route; right next door was the local miniature-golf establishment, where I'd spent many happy summer hours in my youth (especially since it, too, was a paper-route customer, and when I'd go collecting, I'd have a big wad of cash in my pocket, which just seemed to call out to me that I should play a round or two of miniature golf).  I went to the reunion and got reacquainted with several of my old friends (although there were twinges of sadness, to find that the football captain and the cheerleader, who had both been friends of mine, were in the midst of an acrimonious divorce, and seemed bent on using the reunion as a contest to see 'who-has-more-friends'; nice).

The day after the reunion, I decided to do some retrospective sight-seeing around my old hometown.  The schools I'd gone to were still there.  Well, except for two of them, which had been torn down, and there were green, grassy parks where they had once stood.  One of the old ball fields I'd played on was overgrown, although the old chain-link fence marking its boundaries was still there, leaning askew, and rusting.

The downtown, which in my day had been a typically bustling commercial district (well, as 'bustling' as a town of 15,000 souls can conjure up), was almost completely given over to little shops catering to the tourist trade, selling T-shirts and baseball caps and coffee mugs emblazoned with the name of the town and maybe a deer, or a fish, or a lighthouse.  All the 'real' stores had moved to the mall that had gone up at the edge of town a few years previously.

Then I drove over to the other edge of town, where our house had been, to see what it looked like.

For starters, it wasn't a dead-end street anymore, and it had neighbors.  The swamp was gone, with new houses standing where it had been.  There were houses next door, and behind it; and the woods to the side of our yard were thinned to the point where other houses were visible between what trees were left.

The mound our house had stood on had been removed, the foundation-wall standing exposed to the air.  A new garage had been built, on the level of the basement, and what had been our garage had been converted into living space on the main floor.  The back yard was fenced in, which it had never been in our day (what would have been the point?)

I got out of the car and stood, leaning against the car, surveying the house that I'd grown up in, and yet, so very different, both in itself, and in its surroundings, from the one I'd grown up in.  As I stood there, the owner of the house came out onto the porch and asked if he could help me with anything.  I explained that I'd grown up in his house, and was just recalling having lived there, once-upon-a-time, and I'd be moving along soon, if he didn't mind.  It turned out that he was still the same guy who'd bought the house from my dad, and he asked if I'd like to come in and look around.  I thanked him and told him that, if he didn't mind, I'd like that very much.

So I went in and had a look around.  The main floor was still pretty much the way I'd remembered it, except for the new family room where the garage had been.  I was especially eager to have a look in the basement, and the bedroom that my dad and my brothers and I had put so many hours into building.  But when we went downstairs, there was no bedroom to be found; just a regular old basement, mostly used for storage and laundry, and 'utility-type' stuff like that.

I thanked him most graciously for affording me the opportunity to come in and have a look at my old house.  Then I left and proceeded on my way back home, having been confronted most directly with the truth of what Thomas Wolfe had once said, that You Can't Go Home Again. . .


Sunday, September 25, 2011


And now for something completely different. . .

I have been chosen by my good friend Suldog to participate in a nifty little exercise of vanity called a Re-Blog Something-or-Other (and honestly? I'm flattered, and honored, and all that, to be chosen by as talented a blogger as Suldog as someone he regards as worthy of your attention) (But - Suldog?  Really?  The same guy who responds to awards proferred upon him by reaching up the awarder's a**hole and disemboweling them from the inside?  Okay; if you say so).  Which means I'm supposed to give you all links to seven of my old posts that meet certain, uh, Standards of Excellence.  As determined by me, so you can take those standards with the appropriate Grain of Salt.  (So, okay, re-posting old stuff isn't exactly 'unusual' around these parts; and heck, in recent months, a large proportion of my posts come, if not as a result of a direct request from Suldog, at least as provoked from something I read at his blog, so that's not so unusual, either; but work with me here. . .)

Anyway, the challenge (and, honestly, it's not exactly all that 'challenging', either, but that's what they're calling it) is to come up with seven posts that fit into the following categories:

1) My Most Beautiful Post
2) My Most Popular Post
3) My Most Controversial Post
4) My Most Helpful Post
5) A Post Whose Success Surprised Me
6) A Post I Feel Didn't Get the Attention It Deserved
7) The Post of Which I'm Most Proud

So then, I'm supposed to provide you links to the erstwhile posts-of-excellence, and then impose upon five of you to do likewise (although, I'm not sure I even have five regular readers anymore; especially if I'm not supposed to nominate Suldog, or any of my fellow-Suldog-nominees).  Anyway, between this current incarnation of my blog, and the previous one (when I was blogging under the pseudonym Desmond Jones - you know, the fellow who had the barrow in the marketplace, wife Molly, and 'a couple of kids running in the yard' in the Beatles' song, Ob-la-di Ob-la-da), I've written something like 250-300 posts over the past five-plus years (and I know that some of you do that many in a year), through which I'll now sift with a fine-tooth comb, for your edification and enjoyment (cue the whiny teenager-voice, directed at Suldog - "You always make me WORK!!")

Anyway, without further ado. . .


My Most Beautiful Post

I'm not often accused of being 'beautiful', but I can think of a couple posts that could qualify.  Here is a post I wrote to honor my father, which, in light of his recent passing, is all the more poignant for me. . .

The Best Man I've Ever Known

Now, those of you who have known me for a while know that I often find it difficult to be ruthless in trimming these lists down to the specified number of items (for example, I once compiled a list of 15 favorite books that ended up being something closer to 50, spread over two posts).  But this next one is pretty darned beautiful, too, if I may say so myself (and it has its own relevance to recent events in my life) . . .

In Dying We Are Born to Eternal Life

My Most Popular Post

I'm not real sure how to 'quantify' the popularity of my posts.  I'm inclined to just count the number of comments they've received, although sometimes that just means that one commenter and I have gone back-and-forth on some tangent for a few turns.  I could count views, but (shameful confession of bloggerly ineptitude) I don't know how to do that.  Anyway, I went through my list and checked which posts generated the most comments, with a minimum of tangents, and a loose pattern emerged.  Several of the posts of mine that have generated the most comments have been 'retrospectives', of the sort that 50-something guys like me often enjoy, such as

Where Were You. . . ?

I could also note that, in my old blog, there were a few posts of a more, um, risque nature that were quite, uh, popular, but I took 'em down (possibly at my wife's urging), and they're not coming back.  Sorry. . .

My Most Controversial Post

I am not typically much of a controversialist in my blog.  I'm not much into politics at all (I have some definite political opinions, to be sure, but I also believe that politics is vastly over-rated as to what it can actually accomplish, and at any rate, the portion of our life that is more-or-less directly affected by politics is, mercifully, pretty small) (wait - is that a controversial statement?).  But I am passionate about a few things that might be counted 'controversial'; and a couple of them have made their way into my blog, like

It's Personal

my take on abortion, which, I think, is a little bit different than a lot of what gets put out for general public consumption; definitely colored by my own status as an adoptee, and thus a one-time 'unwanted pregnancy' my own self.

And again, since I'm so numerically-challenged on things like this, I'll give you one that comes out of the fact that my wife and I are the parents of eight children, which can be controversial in some eyes, all by itself -

Methinks Some Folks Doth Protest Too Much. . .

My Most Helpful Post

Again, 'helpful' isn't really a direction that I take very often with my blog.  I mostly fancy myself as a story-teller, with stories drawn from my life (and I'll leave aside the question of how vain a person must be to think that his life is so freakin' interesting that he'll post it on the Internet, because, you know, it's just that good).  But the rules say I have to give you something in the category of 'Helpful'.  And, in the sprit of self-help testimonials, a few of my life experiences have provided me/us with wisdom that might actually prove helpful to someone else (and yeah, I'm just that freakin' wise. . .)


A Post Whose Success Surprised Me

Again taking the measure of 'Success' as roughly equivalent to 'popularity', as measured by the number of comments, I think the post whose popularity most surprised me was

All My Grandchildren

Which was also a high comment-generator and, depending on who you are, and what tugs at your own personal heart-strings, might also be counted as Beautiful. . .

A Post I Feel Didn't Get the Attention It Deserved

You mean, besides the sports-related ones?

Of course, this could easily become the sort-of grumpy, effete, 'we-artists-are-so-misunderstood' category.  But honestly, the posts which come to mind here mostly suffered from bad timing - being posted when my readers were otherwise occupied; holidays, or summer vacation.  I once posted a Christmas poem that I think is really excellent, and then re-posted it a few years later, and it never generated much commentary either time; apparently, not many folks are blogging on Christmas morning (or it may be that not many of you are much into poetry; but thank you, Lime - I can always count on you) (and, by not actually separating it out and citing its title, the Christmas poem thus doesn't actually count against my tally) (as if it matters). . .

I thought my Mother's Day post earlier this year was pretty good, but evidently my readers were all out to the Sunday Brunch Buffet with their mothers (or their kids)

Random Thoughts On Mother's Day

And I wrote a post about growing up on the Great Lakes that I thought was pretty good, but seemed to coincide with all my readers' summer vacations -

Big Water

The Post of Which I'm Most Proud

This could also be the 'abortion' post I mentioned above, but since I already mentioned that, and have other candidates, let's not cheat the system by trying to double-dip, shall we?  A couple years back, I wrote a piece on my experiences with black folks, inspired by Suldog's and Michelle Hickman's tandem posts on their own growing-up experiences.

Ebony and Ivory

I also wrote a post on the Theology of the Body that I'm kinda proud of (which, again, depending on who you are, might even be counted as Helpful) (or, you know, not) -

With My Body, I Thee Worship


OK, so I gave you eleven posts for the price of seven (somewhere in there, there's a 'crap' joke waiting to be made); no extra charge.  I hope you enjoyed the tour.

I'm supposed to pick five of you to carry on the Tradition (tags are the chain-letters of blog-space; but one doesn't want to be a jerk about it); but Suldog has done it already (and besides, the rules stipulate 'no tag-backs', or something like that), and he picked Lime; if my seconding his nomination will provide extra impetus toward her actually doing it, then well and good.

Michelle Hickman's The Surly Writer is a worthy blog; I'm a little surprised she didn't score one of Suldog's nominations instead of me.  Michelle, if this strikes your fancy, go for it.

I'd nominate Bijoux, but she just announced that she's going on hiatus.  And I'd nominate FADKOG, too, if she wants to; but her blogger-momentum isn't what it once was (neither is mine, for what it's worth).

Anyway, thanks, Suldog.  If I was as clever as you, I'd call down some really creative curses on you.  But I'm not; so, just thanks. . .   ;)