Jun 1, 2017

Parting Thoughts

   Just so you know, I am not the kind of person who spends much time thinking of death or dying, since I believe I have a lot of living left to do.  It seems a little morbid to think about one’s own demise, and if it were up to me to choose the time of my departure, it would be in my sleep, in the middle of the night, on the eve of my one hundred and seventh birthday. As hard as it is to ponder, it is no secret that death is inevitable. From my evangelical Christian perspective, excepting for Christ’s much anticipated return; we will all have to eventually “shuffle off this mortal coil”.

  Maybe it was the movie we watched the other night that started me thinking about it. In the movie, a father who passes away has extensively planned his funeral down to the smallest detail. I woke up thinking about it this morning, and I am determined to see that my death will not be some morbid event. Sure, there will be sadness, but I don’t want things to get too gloomy. I also want it to be simple and inexpensive for my family. Most of all, I want them all to get through it with ease, and a little bit of humor.

  I haven’t gone as far as making actual funeral arrangements. Both my conscience and my wife won’t let me. Some would say it’s good to be prepared for the sake of your family, and I can’t argue with that. But at the moment I don’t want to get bogged down with death preparations when I am still in the process of making “rest of my life” preparations. I do, however, have a few requests that I hope my family will take into consideration when the inevitable time comes. If they don’t; well, I won’t mind. After all, I won’t be there, anyway. Still, I want to have my say in the matter while I am still here.

  First of all, I am not a fan of funeral homes, and I know it will pain my friend John Shannon to hear it. Sorry, but everything in a funeral home seems a little too formal, too quiet, and sad for me. Worst of all, they often smell like roses, which is why I can’t stand the smell of roses. I think I took too many trips to the funeral home as a child, and the fragrance of roses carry thoughts of funeral homes and death to me. No, I would prefer not to be laid out in a funeral home. I do, however, greatly respect my friend John, and his funeral business. It is for this reason that I would want him to oversee the planting of my remains into the ground. Since my wife refuses to put me in a cardboard box as I would prefer, I will leave it to John to find a more suitable container for my remains, and guide the family through the proceedings. Then again, John may not be involved at all by the time I kick off, since he and I are roughly the same age. I’m thinking a small family moment at the graveside would be all that’s needed; some reading of scripture and a word of prayer. For everyone else, I would like them to join my family for a nice, informal get-together.

  At this nice get-together, I would like for it to be a family friendly event where the children and grandchildren are free to do what children do, instead of being forced to endure all the solemnity. They aren’t going to understand much about what’s going on, so let them have a place to hang out and play. Someone will probably want to show pictures of me, so I will leave it to my wife and kids to pick the ones that were most memorable to them, and hopefully the most flattering to me. I hope there won’t be flowers, (especially roses), but if anyone insists on sending some type of plant, then let them send ferns. I like ferns.

  Then there is music to consider. Since my musical tastes are so varied, it would be great to have many styles of music playing, so long as it’s joyful. It would be nice for someone to play “All The Way My Savior Leads Me”, a hymn that is near and dear to my heart. There should also be a bagpiper on hand to play “Amazing Grace”.  Sure, that sounds a bit cliché, but I’ve always loved the sound of bagpipes.  My hope is that someone can find a uillean piper, and let him play anything he wants, because any song sounds good when played on uillean pipes. I only request he would somehow slip in the theme from the movie “Braveheart”, just for fun. 

  I hope they will serve food at my memorial. Nothing brings people together the way food does. I would like for them serve all the healthy stuff my wife wanted me to eat while I was living, as a small gesture of discouraging anyone from joining me prematurely due to a bad diet. The only exception would be those little hot dogs in barbecue sauce that are cooked in a crock pot. What kind of send off party would this be without those?


  If someone wants to get up and say something about my life, then that will be up to them. I just want my passing to be a celebration of life, not death. Not just my life, mind you, but life itself; because life is fleeting and we should enjoy it as much as possible. Please don’t feel too sorry for me when I am gone. I believe I will be living quite happily in my eternal home, where I hope God might possibly allow me to hear the sound of bagpipes...and I won’t have to smell any roses. 

Apr 15, 2017

Mrs. Landscaper

As much as I hate to admit it, one of the most dreaded sentences to ever reach my ears came from the mouth of my lovely wife the other morning as we backed out of our driveway. She said. “That bush needs trimming”.  The only reason those simple words seem so ominous to my ears is not her fault. It is my own attitude toward such a chore that is the problem.

  It sounds funny to say it, but with all my perfectionist tendencies, when it comes to landscaping I am always the first to say, “That looks good enough to me”. For my lovely wife, the opposite is true. The point was proven when I finally did get around to trimming that bush, and just as I was about to put away the trimmers she appeared at the window and began to sweetly point out spots that I had missed, or where it needed “more shaping”. She was right, of course. The job wasn’t perfectly finished, but I was. It was “good enough” for me. I trimmed for a while longer, until it finally passed her specifications, then I lopped off a couple more branches just for good measure. Admittedly, she has a good eye for this sort of thing. My eye may be just as good, but at the time it was being struck by too much debris to be objective.

  I don’t really mind being the general laborer for my lovely Delilah of pruning, but I do try to be a voice of reason to a woman who seemingly hasn’t seen a tree branch yet that wasn’t worth a bit of hacking on.  I, on the other hand, tend to lean more toward letting trees grow up and out the way God made them. I know my philosophy doesn’t work too well in a residential area, and I don’t mind giving our bushes and trees an occasional trim job now and then. I’m just not as into complete limb amputations as she is.

 I remember one early instance, when she called my attention to a bush at the edge of the yard of one of our first homes.  Actually, it was a bush with a different bush growing up inside it. “I’m going to trim that thing, and get rid of that other bush”, she said. “Okay”, I said. When I returned home from work that evening, both bushes were completely missing, with nothing left but a couple of stumps sticking out of the ground. She said, “The more I trimmed, the worse it looked, and so I went ahead and cut them both down”. I was probably a little overly concerned about it, but only because we were renting the place.  

Last year she decided that most of our trees were in need of serious pruning. I knew she was probably right, but I still had to fight a feeling of dread as soon I heard the words “trees” and “pruning” in the same sentence.  We started on a Saturday morning, and by the middle of the day, we were still only halfway through the first tree. “Haven’t we taken off enough?” I asked, looking around at the truck load of limbs covering the ground. “This tree is starting to look really....open.” That’s when she informed me that according to tree experts, the branches of a fruit tree should have spaces between them open enough to throw a cat through.  I’m not much of a cat person, but the thought of tossing a cat through a trimmed tree just to determine if we were finished sounded a little cruel. Still, at that point I was willing to go look for one, if I knew what size cat were we talking about? I saw places in that tree that you could easily toss a mountain lion through. All in all, when she finally declared the project finished, the trees didn’t look half bad. That is, it didn’t look half bad to me. To this day, she still wishes we had pruned off more.

  She comes by this love of horticulture naturally, having inherited her father’s interest in growing and maintaining plants. I come by my complaining naturally too, but I’m working on it. To make a marriage work there are compromises, tolerance; and in my case, the freely giving of manual labor. I couldn’t care less if a few branches on our ornamental fig are crossing each other. However, I will pull out the saw or the limb cutters and help her with the high branches because it makes her happy. Besides, she’s not any pickier about the shrubs and trees than I am about keeping the cars clean or how the grass is cut. We just have different priorities. Thankfully, this particular priority only pops up once or twice a year, and all it costs me is some time, patience and a little sweat. Well...okay, a lot of sweat, but I still think she’s worth it.   
 

Mar 21, 2017

Staying In The Game

   Given the fact that my brother and I were so involved with music, we never participated much in organized sports. We did, however, play many disorganized ones, such as a pick-up game of basketball, football or softball with our friends. I never excelled in any of them, but still enjoyed playing whenever the opportunity presented itself.

  One such opportunity arose during a church youth camp many years ago, when a few of us teens chose sides for a game of football. Even though I weighed about a hundred and thirty five pounds soaking wet at the time, I still thought I could hold my own among the group I was playing in. Besides, this was church camp, so it’s not about whoever wins the game, but that we all had fun participating, right? Okay, I was overly optimistic and foolish back then.

  My first clue should have been when a guy on the other team mentioned he played football for Lexington’s Tates Creek High School...on the varsity team. All that meant to me at the time was that it was a good thing we had someone playing who knew the rules. It didn’t even faze me when he ended up being the first guy I was supposed to block. I looked it as a challenge. I remember thinking I might not stop him, but at least I figured I could slow him down a bit. Did I mention I was overly optimistic and foolish back then?  The next thing I knew, I was flat on my back, looking up at the sky, gasping for breath. That guy went through me as if I were one of those paper hoops the players run through at the start of a homecoming game, only I’m sure the hoop never wheezed with pain. After enduring a couple more hits like that I needed to make a choice. It would have been no disgrace to feign an injury and step off the field, but at the time the only thing that was really hurting, (aside from my chest, my gut, and the back of my head), was my pride. Instead I chose to stay in the game, and did my part for the team, which wasn’t very much. Mr. Tates Creek continued to outrun, slip past, and basically trample upon me for the rest of the game which, mercifully, didn’t last very long.

  Afterward, when my ears finally stopped ringing and my breath returned, I tried to put my moment of bruised shame into perspective. This guy was good at football, or at least he was better than most of us playing that day. He had obviously worked hard to become that good. So even though I was little more than a doormat to this guy, I still considered my masculinity to be intact because I stayed in the game and didn’t back down. Besides, I’m sure this guy could never play along with one of Neil Peart’s drum solos, and I could. That put us on equal footing in my mind, so I held my dirt encrusted head high as I limped off to join the others for the evening meal.

  I still carry this stubborn “stick it out and see things through” attitude with me today, but I still have moments when I find myself shrinking back and trying to call it quits. One such moment is when I find myself playing music with far superior musicians, which is pretty much any time I play music. A couple of years ago, a friend and I were asked to play along with a very talented Bluegrass group, even though neither of us played much Bluegrass music. At one point during an up-tempo tune, I looked over at my friend and asked him how he was doing. “My arm is going numb”, he said, with a big smile on his face. Mine was too, but as long as he kept playing, so did I. Neither of us proved to be very impressive that night, but just like that memorable football game, we lasted through it and managed to enjoy ourselves in spite of our limp arms. This is where humility comes in, and I remind myself of how much I can learn from others, and to be thankful I can play well enough to not stink. That’s the nice thing about music. Even if you aren’t super accomplished, as long as you can stay on beat and on key, no one minds your skill level. If either of us had given up and stopped playing, we would have missed out on a lot of fun.   


  Overcoming those deficient feelings and sticking it out becomes more crucial when it involves family and marriage. I certainly felt pretty much out of my league when I asked a certain Wyoming redhead to marry me, and even more so, after meeting her imposing city manager father. Somehow, I have been able to keep her happy, and like my music analogy, I have managed to stay on beat and on key enough for us to make beautiful music together. We have both stayed in this game together for quite a number of years because we have never considered quitting as an option, even after discovering we are sometimes not the perfect spouses to each other. We have walked through many challenges with our children and discovered we aren’t the perfect parents either, but our kids still need us just the same. In spite of our deficiencies we both still line up daily on that metaphorical line of scrimmage, and lead our family through the game of life; often against a front line that’s far rougher than that Tates Creek kid. At the end of the day, however, after the ringing in our ears subsides, we clean the encrusted dirt off our heads, and thank God we aren’t in this game alone.

Dec 26, 2016

Another new Year

  Once again, this big blue ball we live on has made its annual five hundred and eighty-four million mile trek around the sun, and most of us have come through the trip reasonably well. Even if you didn’t, you can hopefully encourage yourself along with the rest of us that a new year symbolizes new beginnings. A new year offers us a clean slate; a new start; a proverbial mulligan shot to replace any of life’s faux pas we have had the previous year. Even those lingering problems that just won’t go away by the change of the calendar can still take on a different perspective if we can take a moment to view it in a new light.

  Then again, maybe some things are a little harder to look at in a new light. For instance, the window in our bonus room is still cracked, thanks to my zealous desire to try to repair it, when I should have just left it alone until it could be replaced. Sadly, it is one of those specialty windows that you can’t replace the glass easily, and to find a comparable window has been hard. I was able to get the broken thing closed, and if no one touches or breathes on it, it may hold together a while longer. So far the only “new light” I can see regarding this window is the refracted light shining through a huge vertical crack down the center of it. I’m still not sure when the “new beginning” replacement will take place, but it eventually will. Along with the window situation there are also bills from last year that need to be paid, the cars in the driveway are in need of servicing, and I still have some emotional and mental baggage left over from the previous year to deal with. Even so, if I try hard enough, I can still picture January as a fresh shot off the starting line in the next leg of the marathon of life.   

  That is what I tried to do today. I brewed a fresh pot of New Year’s coffee, then sat and pondered over things I accomplished, the good times we had as a family, and even how we came though some difficult moments this past year . Then I thought about all the new possibilities the coming year might bring.  I also reminded myself of some notable new beginnings that Januaries past have given me. 

The first notable January beginning I can think of is my own birth. I was born on last week of a very snowy January. My mother and I had an extended hospital stay due to the snowy weather. The doctor didn’t want us going home with treacherous roads and icy sidewalks, which was probably a good thing for both of us. Having a January birthday may be one reason I end up looking positively into the future each year. Even though each one reminds me I am not getting any younger, there’s still a lot to be thankful for and to be positive about. My wife always tells me that age, and the date on the calendar are “just numbers” and they shouldn’t discourage me. I wonder if she feels the same way about those “just numbers” on the bathroom scale. I don’t think I should ask her that question, since my birthday is just around the corner and I want it to be an enjoyable one. 

  Even my spiritual birth began on a January several years ago. That particular January was an all time low and an all time high at the same time. Someone once said “When we are at our lowest point we are open to the greatest change”. A great change happened that one winter evening, one that I have reflected on with gratitude every year since.

  Another notable new beginning was the January closing day of our first home purchase. I remember waking up that morning and thinking about all the papers we would be signing and how momentous the occasion was. The thought of purchasing our own home was exciting enough, but my wife added to the excitement by crawling back into bed that morning to tell me that the “stick had turned blue” and, “It is a good thing our new house has four bedrooms”.

  Januaries are new beginnings for a lot of people besides me. I think that’s why New Year’s resolutions are so popular. Fitness centers, weight loss organizations, and civic organizations have noticeable spikes in membership. Many companies begin their fiscal years in January, with new budgets and sales projections. Now, if only banks would do their part and wipe a few debts off at the beginning of each year, it would be a real fresh start for many of us. Of course that will never happen; because just like my cracked window, a new year is a time for new beginnings and a fresh new attitude, but not a perfectly clean slate.


  

Sep 14, 2016

Leaving The Nest

  My wife and I have recently celebrated a second child leaving the nest. This time it was our oldest, and our only son. He finally vacated the boarding house that we call our home in order to marry the love of his life and start a home and family of his own. Somebody shout Hallelujah. 

  Of course, the wedding was wonderful. My wife cried a little, since this was her only baby boy who was now all grown up. Yes, even I may have shed a tear. But this was nothing at all like my daughter’s marriage a few years ago. That felt more like being smacked in the chest with a two by four. I moped around for days after her wedding. After my son’s wedding all I could think about was picking out paint colors for our newly vacant guest bedroom, and feel nothing but pride for my son.

  That leads me to ponder why I feel so different about my son’s wedding than I did my daughter’s.  I think we were just as anxious for him to move out as he was to leave. But why were we so eager?  It isn’t as if we didn’t love him as much. Was it because he had waited so long before moving out? No, I personally think it is because he is a guy.

  Even though I love all four of my children equally, each one is different and I relate to them in different ways. When raising them, I have learned that they all respond differently in different situations and what may have been a successful plan of dealing with one child never quite seemed to work the same with the others. When you throw in the gender difference, well that’s when it really gets tricky.

  Because my son is both our firstborn and the only boy, I think I set different expectations with him early.  You tend to make all your mistakes with the firstborn, regardless of gender anyway. They become the guinea pig for your developing parental skills; the one in which you try out all the things you are reading about in your parenting books.  They are the ones who are hit with the highest expectations; the ones most hovered over, and the ones who aren’t supposed to disappoint.  If he is a son, and you are the father, that throws another facet into the mix. His expectations are instantly higher because you want him to be a better man than you.

  In spite of this, we do our best to show equal love, equal justice, and give equal opportunity to all our kids. My son would probably argue that we were tougher on him, but it only seemed that way because he was the hard headed one who always insisted in arguing his case before every punishment.  So much so that I think he should have studied law. His sisters, however, perfected the art of melting into a pool of tears at just the right moment, which can sometimes make a father mistakenly think they have learned their lesson.  His sisters also never seemed to test the limits as often as he did.

  But getting back to this moment of separation, I think it’s the moment we fathers tend to push more on our sons. After all, they are the “chip off the old block”. We want to see them take charge of their destiny; to get out in the real world and make something of themselves; to pay bills; to find a wife; to be a man. This threshold crossing moment is a cause for celebration when you are a son. This is what we have cheered them on to do. They are now successfully launched.......we hope.

  With daughters, a father will always think differently. A daughter’s moment of venturing out into adulthood makes fathers think we are no longer needed. For years we have been their champion; their provider; the one who always tried to make things right. When they leave, they are proving they can stand on their own two feet, and we don’t feel as needed anymore. If they leave and get married, it’s even worse for us. We feel we have been replaced.


  Now that my son is successfully launched and I have gained another daughter, (one who calls me “Pops”), I can now settle into a tentatively restful state for a few years. After all, the next two have a while before their inevitable launch time comes. Since they are girls, I'm hoping it is a very long while.



Aug 21, 2016

Sweden

 

 A few weeks ago, while waiting to board a plane, I happened to see some movement out of the corner of my eye, and was surprised to discover a small sparrow sitting a couple of seats down from me. Who knows how the little guy ended up inside the airport terminal, but there he was; sitting as if he were waiting for the same flight as my wife and me. It was at that moment I felt a real affinity with that little bird. As he flitted around the waiting area, I realized I was feeling just as out of place as he seemed.

  It wasn’t the plane trip that was making me feel out of place. I’ve been on countless planes, and it wasn’t because we were going out of the country either. This would be my fourth trip overseas. No, I was feeling out of place because we were boarding a flight to Sweden for a reunion with my wife’s extended family. Her Dad reconnected several years ago with his relatives in Sweden, and they have stayed connected via Facebook, emails and occasional visits. This trip was my wife’s second visit. It was my first. Originally, I hadn’t planned on going. Truth be told, the only reason I was going now was so my wife wouldn’t have to travel alone. After all, this is her family. I have no connection beyond being married to her. So there I ended up; seated at the departure gate, having an empathetic moment with a wayward bird.

  I suppose my awkward feelings may have stemmed from the memory of a family reunion years ago when my wife’s family visited relatives in Kansas. It was an uncomfortable situation for an in-law like me. When forced to introduce myself to people, I had to point out my wife from across the room and explain how she was Pearl’s granddaughter, who was somehow related to whoever it was that invited us. I discovered that it’s very difficult to explain such connections to a member of a family to which your only link is through marriage. It would have felt less uncomfortable for me if I had said I really wasn’t family, and I had only crashed their little get together in order to get some free food. I spent most of my time there following around the one relative I knew and trying to avoid eye contact with everyone else.

  I was planning to use this same strategy when I arrived in Sweden. I intended to fade into the background and not say much. I decided that if I simply followed my wife around as if we were a set of Siamese twins I could fit in a little better. I did try to learn a few phrases in Swedish, even though most Swedes speak English fluently. I didn’t do so well, because every word or phrase I attempted to learn was so similar to the little bit of German that I learned years ago, I found myself speaking German instead. I thought of the little bird again, and wondered if I would end up just as conspicuous, even if I did keep my mouth shut and act like my wife and I were joined at the hip.

  It turned out that all my concerns were totally unfounded. We were greeted at the airport by three men who knew us on sight, and vice-versa. After the hugs and handshakes we headed to the home of the relatives who invited us, and for the next week we were treated to family gatherings, lots of food, sightseeing, more food, still more family visits, and still more food. We visited my wife’s grandfather’s old home, her great grandmother’s home and the church and cemetery where many relatives were buried. All the while, I never felt excluded. In fact, I felt I was part of it all. I had become the new addition to the genealogy charts that were on display. There was even a connection in appearance that everyone noticed at the first family gathering. Many of the men my age were of similar build, bald, and had beards.  Someone jokingly asked my wife, “So, which one is your husband?”

Each day, this family did its best to cross many items off the “bucket list” I never knew I had. We stayed in a guest house that sat literally along the Baltic Sea. We went shopping in Stockholm, travelling there by boat instead of car. I drove a large cabin cruiser boat through the Stockholm Archipelago. We took a dinner cruise.  I fished for herring.  All the while, I felt as much like family as I would with my family here at home.

  I can now say that this Kentucky boy of obscure heritage is now considered a part of a family with deep Swedish roots, even if it is only due to being married to my lovely wife. Our children share this heritage, and so do our grandchildren. That, at least, is my small contribution for posterity.   


  Coming home, we had a stopover at JFK Airport in New York. To my surprise, as we stepped on the moving sidewalk after passing through customs, I spotted not one, but two little sparrows darting around the ceiling above us. For some reason, the sight didn’t look as peculiar as it did just a week before in Louisville. Perhaps it was because they looked so content in their predicament; they didn’t seem out of place at all. Well, at least it seemed that way to me.

Midnight moon over the Baltic

Aug 4, 2016

Background Noise

   You would think that a busy guy like I am would love to have a few moments of silent bliss just to sit and think, or to indulge in a little reading without interruption.  I have discovered, however, that when this rare opportunity comes around I am either too restless to sit still, or else become bored and sleepy. After blowing my most recent opportunity of peaceful uninterrupted bliss, the truth finally dawned on me. I need a little background noise in order to relax.


  The moment of self discovery came this past weekend, when my wife left for a couple of errands that would take a good part of the morning. This left only my girls at home, who were unusually quiet that day, thanks to a fresh collection of library books to occupy themselves with. This should have been an ideal time for me to do the same, or at least work on my next article. Instead, I ended up restlessly walking through the house in search of something to do. It wasn’t until my wife returned, and my daughters were back to their active selves that I finally sat down and quietly read a book.

  Maybe this little problem I have with silence stems from being a parent for so many years. My wife and I are now halfway through raising our four children, and past experience has led me to equate silence with children getting into mischief. I know numerous examples of quietness leading up to a child doing something he or she (or they) shouldn’t have been. One such quiet moment found one very young child sampling the used tissues and Q-tips from a tipped over bathroom trash can. That example is tame compared to a few other instances, but I think you get my point. To most parents, silence instantly means something is not quite right. Now that our children are older, I had hoped this mindset would change. Not so much.

  Surely that can’t be the only reason that silence makes me restless. Maybe I have just become used to the ordinary sounds of life around the house, and my subconscious needs to hear some activity in order to compensate for my own inactivity. Perhaps something deep inside thinks that if there is no commotion, no sounds of activity going on, that I should go and create some.

  This doesn’t mean that I need to have a lot of noise. No,  just normal rhythm of home life is enough to make me content; the clinking of dishes in the kitchen; the sound of the clothes dryer; feet going up or down the stairs; the call for someone to come and fold their clothes; just normal sounds. The funny thing is that these sounds aren’t so noticeable until they’re absent, and that’s when I get restless.  In fact, I don’t actually notice these sounds while I am reading, writing an article, or working on a project. I don’t because I am a guy, and therefore have the uncanny ability to tune out everything else around me when focused on one thing. This “tune out” ability really frustrates the females in my life, and I can’t seem to make them understand that any attempts to carry on a conversation with me at these moments will sound like the voice of Charlie Brown's teacher, or at best, an annoying buzzing sound. 


  Still, the truth of the matter is I need a little “buzzing” in the background  to relax and enjoy a book, sand on a piece of wood, or even write a magazine article. The noise is comforting, even when it’s the barely noticeable, mundane resonance of life. In the midst of it I am comfortable. It also means I can be content in knowing none of my kids are up to anything.