Sunday, June 24, 2012

Pleistocene Park?

Some years back, we took the kids (however many of 'em we had at the time) to the Big City Zoo an hour-and-a-half down the road. Which was a mildly hefty admission all by itself, even after we sorted out who got the 'student' fee, and who was an 'adult' (and just between you and me, why do 13-year-olds count as 'adults' for zoo/museum/theater admissions, but nowhere else?), and who got the 'too-little-to-understand-anything-anyway' free admission.

The day we went, there was also a Dino-mation exhibit (I think that's what it was called), with the realistic-looking mechanical dinosaurs, which charged a separate admission. We'd seen the Dino-mation exhibit a couple times before, at the little science museum in Our Town, but that had been a pretty stripped-down exhibit, due to the small space available, and we (some of us, anyway), were looking forward to seeing The Whole Schmeer.  I didn't really appreciate the separate admission, though.  As many kids as we had with us, it put us in a tough spot to stand at the entrance to the exhibit trying to decide who we'd spend an extra admission on, and who not.  In the end, I took the three oldest kids with me; Jen professed not to be all that interested anyway (or at least, not interested enough to pay the extra admission), so she took the opportunity to get off her feet for a bit, and look after the young ones.

The four of us really enjoyed the exhibit.  The 'dinosaurs' were very realistic-looking; they even had a little 'side exhibit' explaining the ways that they had simulated their skin.  And of course, they programmed their movements for maximum effect, having them look menacingly in the direction of their viewers, and maybe even unleash a roar in our direction.  It was very cool.  And of course, there was a little gift-shop at the end, where the kids convinced me to buy a realistic-looking (and vastly over-priced) T-Rex hand-puppet, which in subsequent years made some very, uh, entertaining appearances at family gatherings, and such. . .

Once we had finished with Dino-mation, we were released back out into the Zoo proper, to continue our observations of the actual living creatures - elephants and hippopotami, giant tortoises, penguins, and the like.  Even a wolverine.

Now, one of the Dino-mation critters was a woolly mammoth, which was very realistic-looking, and, as it happened (mammoths having been pretty big critters, and all), stuck up above the surrounding wall which was supposed to keep the riff-raff from seeing the extra stuff they hadn't paid for.  So, a bit later, we were walking through the part of the zoo adjacent to the special exhibit, and Jen spied the mechanical mammoth, in all its woolly, tuskular splendor, sticking up above the wall, turning its head and trumpeting. She got all excited, pointing excitedly and saying, "Look! They've got a MAMMOTH!! How did they get a MAMMOTH!?!" So I had to explain to her that, no, it wasn't, you know, a REAL mammoth, 'cuz, like, mammoths are, you know, extinct and all. . .

Have I mentioned before how really, really much I love my wife?

But you know, in a 'Jurassic Park' vein, there are lots of remarkably well-preserved mammoths, frozen into the Siberian tundra.  Thus, there is a fairly readily-accessible supply of mammoth DNA available, and much easier to get at than looking for amber-encased mosquitoes, if anybody wanted to clone one.  (And just for fun, here's the Wikipedia article on mammoths, including recent/current attempts to do just that. . .)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Today's Marker of the Inexorable Passage of Time

. . . and another 'decade birthday' -

Happy 70th to Sir Paul McCartney.

Yeef.  I didn't think Beatles were allowed to be 70 (although I suppose Ringo has been there for a couple years, now. . .)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Best Man I've Ever Known

Yes, yes. . .  I've posted this same item the past two Father's Days.  But today is the first Father's Day since my dad died last August, as well as being his 90th birthday, had he lived to see today.  So, you would be very kind to indulge me. . .


In honor of Fathers Day, I'd like to tell you about my dad. My father has been, in many ways, the rock of my life. Mothers have come and gone for me, over the years (strange as that is to say, and I really don't mean it in any way to denigrate any of them); my family has moved from town to town, and from house to house even when we stayed in the same town; I have changed schools; friends have come and gone. But from the time I was adopted around my first birthday, until he died last summer, my dad was one of the very few utter, rock-solid, take-it-to-the-bank constants in my life.


Dad was born and raised on a farm in central Michigan, the oldest of five children - three boys, two girls. He attended a rural one-room schoolhouse (to which, of course, he walked five miles through the snow, barefoot, uphill both ways). Those were the days before Rural Electrification; chores were done, and so was schoolwork, by kerosene-lantern-light. Electricity didn't come to my grandpa's farm until Dad was in his teens.

By a combination of genetic endowment and abundant hard work, Dad grew into a large man - 6'-4" tall. When he was young, he was rail-thin - about 180 pounds or so (by the time I came into his life, he was a fair bit bigger than that) - but his 'Popeye-esque' forearms bespoke many cows milked, and a good deal more physical strength than might first meet the eye. When I was in high school, and doing weight training for football, I got pretty proud of how strong I was becoming, and so I challenged my dad to arm-wrestle. The fruit of all my training was that I could then 'hold him off' for a second or two before he slammed me. Up to the day he died, I didn't want to arm-wrestle him; I don't think my ego could have taken getting slammed by an 89-year-old man.

Dad was one of those 'Greatest Generation' guys, whose lives, well into their 20s, were defined by the Great Depression and World War II. As a boy growing up, my grandpa always had the farm, but there were significant stretches of time during which the family lived in a larger city about an hour away, where grandpa ran a gas station, when farming wasn't so lucrative. Eventually, even that bit of provision went away, and they returned to the farm. My aunt recalls her dad saying that, as long as they had the farm, they wouldn't go hungry.

Dad graduated from high school in 1940, part of a graduating class of eight. He went to college 20 miles from his dad's farm. He wasn't the first of his family to go to college - both his parents had attended college, although neither of them had earned a degree. After two years, he transferred down to the larger school which I later attended, to study Chemical Engineering.

He only completed one semester there before he was drafted, and became the lucky recipient of an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe, courtesy of the US Army. He was in an artillery unit, which was probably fortunate for him, in that he generally stayed 15-20 miles behind the front lines, and so, besides firing his own big guns, he was not often being shot at in anger. He doesn't tell many 'war stories', but he has a few about being strafed, and diving for his foxhole. And during the Battle of the Bulge, the front lines got considerably closer to his position than was usual, or comfortable.

Dad survived the war (obviously), and even stayed on after the war for two years, working for the US State Department in the post-war reconstruction. During that time, he met and married my 'first mother', returning stateside in late 1947. He finished college on the GI Bill, earning his BS degree in Chemical Engineering in 1949. I have his college yearbook, and I was amused to find among his fellow-graduates a future head basketball coach at our mutual alma mater, and a future governor of Hawaii.  He also shared his time on campus with a future Hall of Fame baseball player.


The one huge, overriding lesson that my dad taught me, by example much more than by anything he ever said, was a commitment to duty, and the deep connection of duty to love. Dad always - ALWAYS - did his duty, and I came to understand that 'duty' was how my dad expressed love. He was not the most outgoing of people (although he could be 'social' when he had to be), and I often longed to just sit down and engage in a relaxed, flowing conversation with him. With few exceptions, though, Dad just didn't do 'relaxed flowing conversation'. But he showed his love to me hundreds of times over, often as not without saying a word.

He and my 'first mother' were married for nine-plus childless years before they adopted me. I had a conversation with my aunt - Dad's sister - not long before she died, and she told me that adopting hadn't been his idea - that his wife had dearly wanted children, but he'd been ambivalent about adopting. But, out of care and concern for his wife, he'd signed on for it, and I came into their life. A year or so later, they adopted my brother. All of which became almost bizarrely ironic after Christmas of 1964, when my mother left him, and, in the process, my brother and me. I have no idea exactly why she left him, or exactly what her grievances were. I will say that, as I got to know my dad over the years, he was not always the easiest of men to live with. But, even so, he was, at one and the same time, the best man I've ever known.

So anyway, my dad, who'd been ambivalent about adopting in the first place, was suddenly a single father to two boys. We moved out of our house on Lake Huron (which, while we'd lived there, had been a pretty good working model of heaven), to a house in town where my brother and I could look after ourselves a bit easier. For a year, we ate a lot of mac-n-cheese, and I got introduced to kippered herring; Dad was not exactly a gourmet chef.

In the finest fashion of doing his duty for us, he quickly set about finding a new mother for us (and not incidentally, I'm sure, a new wife for himself), and by the following fall, he was engaged to the woman who would be his second wife, and my-brother's-and-my 'new mother'. She was a divorcee herself, with three kids, two girls and a boy. So when they were married in 1966 (just before my tenth birthday), Dad was suddenly the father (step or otherwise) of five children, spanning less than three years in age. Which was pretty intense right from the start, as we were all trying to figure out how to live together. To say nothing of what it was like when all five of us were teenagers at the same time.

In the next five years, Dad and Mom had two more boys together, so my dad, who might have been content to be a childless husband in the mid-50s, was, by the end of 1970, a father of seven. Without going into brutal detail, I'll just say that blended families have a unique set of challenges all their own, and Dad, in the course of doing his duty to his new family, endured more grief than he deserved, for trying to do right by his new wife, and seven kids. It is a testimony to his and Mom's love and perseverance that today our family is  still intact and strong.


Dad was my baseball coach for much of my youthful 'career'. Not because he was so deeply versed in the subtleties of baseball; he wasn't, and the 'baseball guys' in our town tended to regard him with a degree of mild contempt (but come on, he wasn't as dumb as they took him for, either). But, as our dad, he knew instinctively that he wanted to have his hand on our lives, and coaching our Little League teams was just obviously a really good way to do that.

He was also very solicitous of our schooling; one of my enduring memories, especially of my young childhood, was that I had all the books I ever wanted, and maybe even a few more besides. It wouldn't surprise me, though, to find out that he got into the whole baseball thing when he started thinking I was becoming too much of a sedentary nerd. . .


As my own family has grown, and I have endured the trials that come along with raising my own kids, I have come to understand and appreciate my dad in new ways. As I've coped with my own kids' troubles, it has occurred to me, many times, that Dad had endured similar stuff, and at the hands of kids who weren't even 'the fruit of his own loins'. And he did it without complaining. Honestly, I can't remember ever hearing him whine about the latest outrage that one of his kids had perpetrated, or the latest of their messes that he'd had to clean up after. I am sure that he grew from the experience, and became a kinder, gentler man than he started out being.


As I said above, my dad is still the best man I've ever known - by far. His quiet strength, his patient endurance, his utter faithfulness to his duty, no matter how unpleasant, taught me volumes. I know that I am not, nor will I ever be, even half the man he was, but if I can even get close to being half the man my dad was, I'll have done well, indeed.

Being his son is one of the very best things that has ever happened to me.  I miss him still, but at the same time, I am utterly grateful for all that he has meant, and will continue to mean, for my life.

Thank you, Dad, and Requiescat In Pace; it has been a privilege. . .

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Birth Daze

Today, our family is heading off to Jen's ancestral hometown, in Michigan's 'Thumb' (and don't you wish your state had a 'thumb'?).Truth to tell, before I married Jen, the Thumb was just about the only part of Michigan that I hadn't seen in the two-decades-plus of my life to that point.  The first time I went home with her, I sorta figured out why; I was. . . underwhelmed.  The Thumb is about the largest expanse of really, REALLY flat land to be found in this state.  As a result, the local economies are pretty much given over to farming - sugar beets and soybeans most prominently.  The mascot for Jen's high school is the Pioneers, in honor of the local sugar factory.  So, the next time you crack open that 5-lb bag of Pioneer sugar, you can think of us, OK?  And I can't pass by without mentioning her hometown's charming little Swinging Bridge, which is all of 2 blocks from where my dear wife grew up; just sayin'.  Over the years, our kids have had a lot of fun, uh, swinging on the Swinging Bridge (aka the Mother-In-Law bridge, for the sign over the 'townward end' urging its crossers to 'Be Good to Your Mother-In-Law'; are they talkin' to me?)

I always do as I'm told. . .

The proximate cause for our journey today is a gathering of family and friends in honor of Jen's mother's 80th birthday.  So please join me in wishing my mother-in-law a very happy and prosperous birthday.  In the mother-in-law sweepstakes, I hit it big - my MIL is one of the saintlier people I've known in my young life (she would have to be, in order to bring the likes of me into her family).  On the old theory that your mother-in-law is a glimpse into what your wife will be like in 25 years, I married even better than I knew at the time. . .

It seems that years ending in '2' are looming large in my life, these days.  Which is to say that I know lots of people celebrating 'decade' birthdays this year.  Besides my MIL, I've already told you about 1F, who recently turned 30, and 8M, who turned 10; but 5M will be turning 20 in another month, as well (and the notion that I'll have five children older than 20 just seems the least bit. . . I don't know. . .)  Several of my friends are celebrating their 60th this year (yeah, I'm one of those guys who likes to play with older kids).  I'm sure, if I think hard enough, I could come up with someone turning 40 or 50.  My birth-father turned 80 earlier this year, and if my dad were still alive, he'd be turning 90.  And later this year will be the 110th birthday of one of my grandmas (well, she died 26 years ago).

Anybody know any centenarians?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

When Did This Happen?

Please join me in wishing my eldest daughter a very happy 30th birthday, today. I'm not sure how that happened; I am nowhere near old enough to have 30-year-old children. . .

In all seriousness, I could hardly be prouder of her.  She spent much of her 20s dealing with a lot of, um, stuff in her life.  And as I sit here now, she has done a remarkable job of getting her life back on track.  Well done, Sweetheart. . .

God is good. . .


On a different (although not totally unrelated) note, today is also the 38th anniversary of the life of the Christian community of which I have spent virtually my entire adult life being a member (and again, the idea that, 38 years ago, I was nominally an adult, just doesn't seem right. . .)  Nevertheless. . .

"Behold, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren dwell together in unity."  (Psalm 133:1)


On a somewhat less 'cosmic' level, as of the end of May, I have 584 miles on my bike so far this season, which is nearly 200 more (ie, half again) than I've ever had at that point.  The warm winter goes a long way, but not all of it, toward accounting for that total.  We'll see where it all ends up (and what it might mean - or not - for my general overall state of health and well-being). . .


(add 5 June)

Since we've been discussing 'celestial events' around these parts just lately, I thought I'd flag for any of my readers who might be interested that this evening, for seven hours starting at 6:09 PM EDT (that's where I live), Venus will be making a transit across the face of the sun.  Sorta like a mini-solar-eclipse, except that Venus is way too far away to actually block out the sun, or even dim its light appreciably.  But if you look carefully (with proper eye protection), you'll see a small black dot (that would be Venus) making its way across the face of the sun.  I've got my #14 welding shade at the ready (although they tell me that, since it will still be happening through sunset (at least locally, here in Michigan), it'll be no less safe than watching any sunset, and might even be that much cooler).

Transits of Venus are pretty rare, occurring in 8-year pairs every 110-120 years or so.  So if you happened to miss the one in 2004, this is your last chance 'til 2117, and good luck with that.