Halfway to a Hundred…Place your bets!

“Whew. Made it. Been climbing a long time. The view sure looks pretty nice from up here though.”

“What’s that you say? “It’s all downhill from here.””

(Wiping sweat of my brow) “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“What’s that? I can’t stop here? I have to keep going?”

“Are you sure? Well, alrighty then. I guess I will start my way down the other side.”

Well after 50 years of navel gazing I have reached a conclusion. Our clock is either ticking or it has stopped. It is a simple clock. There is no pause button. No reset button. So what are we to do?

As Lewis Carroll’s King says gravely to Alice, “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” In a nutshell there is really no other way.

Every living thing on the planet begins¬ life as a lottery winner, overcoming overwhelming odds just to get here. The chances of our existing are infinitesimal when you consider what had to happen at precisely the right moment and circumstances since the beginning of time.

As Carl Sagan said, “If you wish to make apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” Our shared beginning (big bang) predates our individual beginning (by about 13.8 billion years according to NASA, or by 6,000 years according to Mike Pence), but is nonetheless the first prerequisite. In the present, via direct and butterfly effects, we too are influencing the future, albeit in microscopically small ways. Our lifespan on this planet is again insignificant compared to the planet’s age (4.58 billion years), but we also know that our planet has dates with its own destiny (less than a billion years for life on earth) as does our sun (5 billion years until it is estimated to convert to a gas giant).

In my ongoing navel gazing quest, I think about these beginnings and endings and their significance. But the reality is likely that they don’t really matter. We are here now. At least for the time being, because as Anne Lamont observes, “100 years from now? All new people.” However, if Politifact checked Lamont’s statement they would say it was only “mostly true” as it is currently estimated that there are 450,000 people living that are over 100 years. So for accuracy’s sake the quote should probably be rewritten to read “125 years from now? All new people” as the oldest verified person to live made it to 123 years of age.

But the point is nothing lasts forever, not you or me, and the future is sketchy at best. We don’t know with certainty when our time will be up or even what is going to happen tomorrow. So in the grand scheme of things all we have for sure is the present. What I like about that is that we all share that (the present), at least until we don’t.

Well I guess I have gone on and on without saying much about my first half century. So here are a few highlights:
1) Meeting and wooing Pam. Great partner and friend on this journey.
2) Birth of Jake & Tucker. Seeing a life start that wasn’t there before is pretty great if the circumstances are right and they were.
3) Growing up. It was mostly a lot of fun. Great people. Loving family. Lucky.
4) Watching my kids grow and enjoying the people they are becoming.
5) Achievements. There have been a few that I am proud of and that made me happy. Most fade to black pretty quickly.
6) Enjoying a good story, and laughing with friends/family. Is there really anything better than that?
7) Speaking of stories. Reading. Many amazing books out there, that open up all kinds of worlds and thoughts.

And a few things I have learned so far. Actually most of what I have learned I have appropriated from others, so I will use their words to share:
1) “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” –Plato
2) “You’ll see some terrible stuff, I guess. That’s how it goes. But try to look for the good things, too. They’ll be there if you look. So watch for them.” — Going After Cacciato
3) “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” – Kurt Vonnegut
4) “It is something-it can be everything-to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below.” – Wallace Stegner
5) “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, “And this too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!” – Abraham Lincoln
6) “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” – Robert Frost
7) “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” — Theodore Roosevelt
8) “Someday is now.” — Gaddy Bergmann
9) “So many books, so little time.” — Frank Zappa
10) “The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.”
— Douglas Adams
11) “Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy.” — Albert Einstein
12) “Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.” ― Dalai Lama XIV
13) “Some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity. . .” — Gilda Radner
14) “Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.” — Kurt Vonnegut
15) “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” — Maya Angelou
16) “None but ourselves can free our minds.” — Bob Marley
17) “He still had some doubts about the decision he had made. But he was able to understand one thing: making a decision was only the beginning of things. When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision.” Coelho, Paulo
18) “Have fun storming the castle!” — William Goldman
19) “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” – Dr. Seuss
20) “And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” – Kurt Vonnegut
21) “May you live every day of your life.” — Jonathan Swift

Well it is about time I got started on the next adventure which if following Swift’s advice begins today. It has been a lot of fun so far, and I feel fortunate/blessed to be here and traveling these paths with you, and to be sharing stories and laughing about our respective wrong turns and detours. I would like to think that I will live to be 100 and that more escapades lie in front of me than behind me. But life’s a gamble and we never know for sure what lies around the next corner, which makes it interesting. Thanks for your part in my journey, and I wish you all the best in your respective travels!

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In-Between Days

This might be the strangest age yet. Too old to be young. Too young to be old. Somewhere in the middle, but likely closer to the end than the beginning.

Kids moving on, but not unassisted. Parents mostly independent but getting older with actuarial tables catching up to them and their peers.

Feeling mentally wiser but a little slower. Capable yet content. Not wanting to set the world on fire, yet driven to make something meaningful.

When I started college many years ago, I remember my Dad saying that walking around the campus he still felt like a student himself, or at least he could easily relate to them. Now I can relate to him. He was right. I don’t feel like I have changed much, although I realize my circumstances have.

My memory could be better. Current details fail to register, and long remembered details seem to take longer to bring to the surface. I am not afraid of passing on, but am afraid of fading away.

Physically age is beginning to register. Some is situational and I can make things better by trying harder, but some is chronological and feels hardwired. Reading words requires greater magnification and lighting. Hairlines recede and won’t come back. Joints make their presence known on occasion. Mirrors seem less friendly than they once were, and I avoid finding my way into pictures and inhale and hold when I do.

Watching aging rock stars defy the odds is amusing as they earned their chops by singing out against a generation that was younger than they are now.

Watching movies that were significant at different ages put things in perspective too. Hard to believe movies made in the 90s and 80s are hitting their 20s and 30s in age. Hard to believe there are James Bond movies over 50 years old.

Lots of life yet to live (knocking on wood). Guaranteed ups and downs. New to us perhaps but not new.

The in-between days are not a bad place to be, but the recognition that you are there is strange.

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Moving On

Our Mercury Zephyr station wagon was loaded up and waiting. My Dad put the car in reverse and backed slowly out of the driveway onto Columbus Drive using his side mirrors to see since boxes and luggage obstructed his rear view. By the time we drove past Pinta Court the occupants of his vehicle were wailing in harmony. Assurances of “We’ll be back before you know it”, and “You’ll love your new home in Virginia” fell on deaf ears.

“Back before you know it” turned out to be a seven year adventure and we had similarly sad good-byes with the friends we had made in Virginia when we headed back to Middleton.

I am pretty sure nearly everyone can relate to this phenomenon on some level as, according to the US Census, the average person moves 11.7 times throughout their lives.

Moves are often milestones and we talk about the time before and after them in ways that are significant.

Moves can be exciting like when you get your “first place” as an adult and/or sign a lease with a group of friends.

If you are fortunate enough to purchase a house the first time you unlock the door and walk in you will likely experience the euphoria of ownership, which typically lasts at least until the first of 360 mortgage payments is due.

Some moves are sad like when a job sends you somewhere you would rather not go, a relationship ends and you go your separate ways, you find yourself needed/wanting to move back home to get back on your feet, or a health condition leads you to shut your door for the final time.

We just moved, and this one was bittersweet. We designed and built our most recent home 10 years ago to meet the needs of our immediate and extended families. And the house did a great job on all fronts.

But times are changing and our needs with them. Our kids’ educational pursuits are leading them out of the state and suddenly our home feels a lot bigger and as Gandalf said to a certain hobbit at the end of the Lord of the Rings, “It is time Frodo.”

But no matter what is behind a move there is one universal truth that can be said about the act of moving. Drum roll please. It’s kind of a pain.

Ever since HGTV came along every house that is for sale has to be “staged”. Staging means removing all the stuff that you enjoy like personal photos, your bugs under glass collection, that old comfortable dilapidated chair and pretending that you instead live in Pottery Barn or that Martha Stewart has moved in.

For us staging meant moving personal belongings and years of clutter accumulation to a rented storage facility. And storage facilities are a story unto themselves (stay tuned). You can see a lot of things at a storage facility if you pay attention.

Then there is the “honey-do” list that somehow managed to avoid getting “honey-done”. Those items are put on the fast track and before you know it you have a house that is nicer than it has ever been and you aren’t so sure you want to move anymore.

Then of course is the home sale and all that goes with that. I have to admit we were fortunate there and quickly found buyers for our home. That said there are always a few speed bumps along the way and Murphy from Murphy’s Law seems to spend much of his free time harassing home buyers and sellers.

But the real fun comes when it is time to get everything out. Some folks hire movers to get them from point A to B. I call these folks the fortunate and smart ones. Others do most of the moving themselves but hire professional for the heavier items. I would call these the pragmatic ones. Then there are the folks who beg their teenage kids and their kids’ friends to help them move. I would call these the desperate ones or “us”.

We knew our kids and their friends were close to broke and could use some extra money and we knew we were cheap so it seemed like a perfect match. And to some extent it was. But in the words of Roger Murtaugh in the movie Lethal Weapon, “I’m getting too old for this $&*#!!”, and next time we are hiring professionals. On to the next adventure!

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Small Town Living

Living as an adult in the town you grew up in can be interesting.  Running into people with knowledge of some of your highlights and lowlights you feel a bit like the Wizard of Oz after Toto pulls the curtain back.  It is hard to maintain the illusion of being the all-powerful Oz (or even a mostly functional adult) when all is revealed or remembered at every encounter.

Fortunately Middleton is big enough these days that you get to experience the benefits of both relative anonymity and familiarity. Most of the people you encounter didn’t grow up here so you get to start fresh with them, but several times a week you run into people you have known for decades.

I never thought I would be in this position.  Like Jimmy Stewart in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, I had big plans to “shake the dust of this town off my back” and see the world. Perhaps if that was my plan I should have considering going further than 7 miles down the road for college.

After college I applied to jobs near and far, but ending up getting a good job in Madison as did my soon to be wife.  When we got our first place together we looked in Middleton but elected to live in Madison, which really does feel far away relatively speaking and is itself a great place to live.   However as our family grew we eventually were drawn back to Middleton because we thought it would better meet our family’s needs.  And it did and does.

Familiarity can be pleasing. Although most of my closest friends from high school no longer live here, several people I was friends with at different times of my life still do and I enjoy running into them at various places around town.  It is also fun to see parents of good friends and find out the latest news.

Given that my family has roots in Middleton that go pretty far back, I also enjoy running into acquaintances of my Moms, Grandparents, and even my Great Grandfather.  A few years back, I stopped at the Missouri Tavern just outside of town and met Mae, the matriarch and proprietor of the tavern. In the course of our conversation I learned that she knew my great grandfather well and that her husband Al was a good friend and a fishing partner of his.  Mae has since passed on but I feel fortunate to have made her acquaintance.

Next up are the people you knew well at some point but whom seeing brings up awkward memories.  To them I say, “I won’t judge you if you don’t judge me.” For the most part it is not a problem, but it is hard to make a complete break from the past.

Another interesting sub-group of people to run into is people who were upperclassmen while you were in high school.  Unlike anybody else in the world where a decade or more of age difference doesn’t really matter, most will seem forever older, if not wiser, in your mind.

Then there are those whom you would just as soon not run into.  You didn’t hit it off in the day, and it isn’t likely you are going to hit it off now.  Strangely enough it seems like these are the folks you tend to run into most frequently.  You may nod at them or call them by name, but after awhile you just tend to pretend that you don’t really recognize each other and get on with your respective lives.

The most interesting category of people to run into is the kids of people you went to school with.  Surprisingly there are quite a few of them around.  If you liked the parents there is a good chance you will like the kids.  Nature nurture or both, who knows, but many likeable traits seem to be passed on to subsequent generations.  What is fun about seeing these kids is that you get a sense of continuity and you realize it is possible for a community to take on and maintain the traits of the people who live there.

I don’t know if my kids will eventually end up here or alternatively shake the dust of this town off of their backs for good.  The early indicators are that they are going to take a lap or two around to see what the rest of world has to offer.  But that was my plan too and I, like many of my peers, found my way back to the Good Neighbor City, which I must admit is a pretty great place to call home.

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Confessions from a back of the pack athlete

Over the years I have entered a lot of “races”. I put the word races in quotes because while other people compete for position or time, my “race” is to make it to the finish line before the event organizers pack up their gear and leave.

At first glance you might be impressed by the list of races I have completed, which includes: two 140.6 mile Ironman Wisconsin triathlons, twenty 50K cross-country ski races, two marathons, several 100 mile bike rides, a half-dozen half-Ironman distance (70.3 miles) triathlons, another half-dozen half-marathons, a few 2.4 mile swim races, and numerous 10k and 5k runs and triathlons of various lengths.

Impressed yet? Well if you saw my finishing times or places in these races you might instead wonder, “Why do you do that to yourself?” In any case I know I ask myself that question at least once during each race.

Perhaps a childhood memory of mine has something to do with the answer to that question. It was the 1970s and jogging was starting to grow in popularity with the masses. My Dad joined in and signed up for a 10k race, went for a few short training runs and declared himself ready. He took me with him to the race, which consisted of two laps of a 5k loop.

I remember cheering for my dear, not yet so old, Dad as he was running near the front of the pack on the first lap. He waved and smiled proudly at me as he ran past. I also remember looking for him on the second lap and wondering if I had missed him. Just about the time I was starting to question if I had been abandoned he slowly came shuffling along with a pained expression on his face. No wave or smile this time, but he nevertheless persevered and finished the race.

A few weeks later his first letter to the editor of the Washington Post (we lived near D.C. at the time) was published in response to Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Broder’s criticism of then President Carter for entering a 10k run and collapsing near the end of it. Let’s just say for my Dad Broder’s criticism was personal and he could relate to President Carter’s pain.

Perhaps my Dad barely finishing that 10k race inspired me to enter some of the dozens of races I have barely finished. To be fair my Dad is a pretty good athlete and that first race was more of an exception than the rule. Now in his 70s he continues to inspire his friends and family and is still running (and frequently beating me) in local races such as Crazy Legs and the Berbee Derbee. He has also completed around 25 Birkebeiners and is still going strong and is finishing near the top of his age group. Me? It is much easier to find my name if you start with the last place finisher and work your way up than starting with the first place finisher and making your way down.

The main reason I “compete”, and I feel compelled to also put that word in quotes, is because signing up for a race forces me to get up off the couch and move a little bit.

Paying exorbitant race fees can also be motivating. Sure in theory I could just train for and go out for a long run or bike ride on my own or with friends and save a lot of money. But I have found that if I pay someone $50, $150 or even $750 (in the case of Ironman) to periodically hand me water cups that were likely filled with a garden hose I will be much more likely to get out and train. Maybe it’s because I have some “skin in the game” and don’t want my cash outlay to come to nothing. Paying your race fee also gets you a complementary race t-shirt that when worn communicates to your neighbors and friends, who really don’t care, that you finished xyz race.

So why else do I compete? Perhaps you are thinking us slow boaters have more fun than the over-stressed and over-trained contender class? One would think that there would be a little extra camaraderie amongst us back of the pack athletes but one would be wrong. Most of us are in pain and singularly focused on getting to the finish line before an important part of our bodies shut down. A few extroverted optimists will smile and say something encouraging like, “Keep going! You’re not dead yet!” as they shuffle past you.

Being a back of the pack athlete can certainly be a humbling experience, and for me this is especially true in triathlons. I am actually a decent swimmer and usually finish with the front of the packers on the swim. The problem with this is that I am definitely a back of the pack biker, which means that I am immediately and continually passed by hundreds, and in bigger races thousands, of people on the bike portion of the race. Want to guess the number of people I usually pass on the bike? Yep you guessed it, zero! On the run most of the parade has already passed me by and I might even get to pass a few who are experiencing injuries or whose nutrition didn’t work out and are throwing up on the side of the course.

Of course there are a few perks to being a back of the pack athlete such as when the aide station worker takes stock of your condition, looks both ways, and then offers you a “shot of something stronger” instead of the usual Gatorade.

After the race is done I usually try to connect with my front of the pack friends who likely finished hours ago, had their celebratory beverage(s), showered, changed, had a bite to eat and maybe even taken in a movie while I was still out on the course. They kind of know the score but may slip up and ask me how I did. When that happens I usually say something like, “I didn’t notice my finish time” which is code for “Please change the subject.”

Upon sharing with someone who didn’t do the race that I completed such a race they usually also ask, “How did you do?” to which my pat answer is, “I got my money’s worth”. This is meant to communicate I was out on the course a long time without specifically saying I came in 4,223 out of 4,320.

In this modern era of instantly posted race results anyone who wants to know how I did can easily find out, and I must confess that I check on the fellow racers that I know from time to time. To them I often don’t even mention that I have done a race because I know many of them would look up my finishing place and have a good laugh.

My Dad is starting to find his way to podium finishes (top 3 in his age group) in some of his more recent races. I asked him what his secret was and he said that he was “winning the war of attrition”. He told me that if you keep competing long enough eventually all of the people who used to beat you will either drop out of racing or die. So I guess in the long run I have that to look forward to which is nice.

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A Sense of Place

“There it was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness its headquarters.”
— Wallace Stegner (Crossing to Safety)

For many of us the mere mention of a particular place brings forth a wave of pleasant memories.

My wife Pam’s family has one such place that fits prominently in their collective memories and it is affectionately called “the ranch”. The property was purchased by Pam’s grandfather and briefly converted into a riding ranch where a stable of horses gave trail rides to passing tourists. The riding ranch didn’t last more than a year or two, but the name stuck and it became a place where family congregates in the summer months to enjoy the area and each other’s company.

For Pam this place is a retreat and refuge from whatever is going on around her, and a place where she always feels welcomed and loved. Despite it being a 1000 miles from our home we try to get there most years for a week or so around the anniversary of her grandfather’s birthday.

I remember the first time I was invited to go to the ranch. Pam and I were in a long distance phase of our relationship and I was unsure of my immediate prospects. So when Pam invited me “to the ranch” and shared with me the fact that it was her favorite place on earth and one that she didn’t share with many people I took it as an encouraging sign.

Still I didn’t really know what to expect, as “a ranch in the Adirondack mountains” sounded pretty extravagant. When I got there the setting was certainly beautiful, 100 acres of wooded hills and fields including a pond with fish, beavers and various other critters. It is about a 10-20 minute drive into the mountains from the nearest town depending on who is driving, but this is far enough to feel away from it all.

On a clear night the stars seem to explode like fireworks and you realize infinity is more than just a concept. At night, the spaces between places on the property are dark and campfires are most welcome both as the center point for the evenings entertainment, the means for roasting marshmallows for S’mores, and as a natural source of heat and repellent to bugs and legendary creatures (bears, wolves, etc.).

The accommodations are simple but nice. The first time I went there, three families totaling about 20 people shared “the cottage” which is about a 600 square foot no bedroom house with an attic loft, one overused bathroom, a small galley kitchen, a cramped dining area and a living room with a few old (not antique) pieces of furniture. A certain dilapidated chair still sits tucked in a corner because it was “Pops” chair and nobody has the heart to take it out.

When it was time to sleep my first summer, we claimed a few precious feet of floor space in the living room wedged amongst others also sleeping there. Regardless of the cramped quarters those 20 people loved those 600 square feet like nothing else.

I have been there many times since, and our kids always look forward to a trip “to the ranch”. It was a special place for Pam’s grandparents, and remains a special place for Pam’s parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and our and their kids.

It is the kind of place where would be spouses get invited to have their tires kicked and their sense of humor tested by the family. If they aren’t scared off (and a few have been over the years) they get to come back to take their seat around the fire. Our oldest son Jake just took his first trip as an adult with three other friends and we were all very pleased and proud when he announced that they would like to include an extended visit to “the ranch” on their trip.

I know many others have places like this. There is one on my Mom’s side of the family called “The Cottage”, and one on my Dad’s family called “Bjørkum” (Norwegian for birch).

And around town I have heard several folks fondly discuss in their heavily Wisconsin accented voices their imminent plans to “HEAD UP NORT”.

Many of these places have persisted in families through multiple generations. They endure longer than the people who enjoy their turn around the campfire, and if we are fortunate these campfires will keep burning for many generations to come.

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A Moment in Time When Everything Changes

“That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.” – Charles Dickens (Great Expectations)

I think most of us looking back can remember a similar day. There is a before and an after to these days which mark the points where we set off on a path that forever changes our lives. For some it might be a positive development such as getting into college or being offered your dream job. For others it might be something tragic or sad or even an occurrence that seems completely random at the time.

For me the instance that started a chain reaction involves getting a flat tire. Had I not had the flat tire just about everything in my life after that moment would have turned out differently. I wouldn’t have married my wife Pam, and my sons Jake and Tucker would never have been born.

Looking back I realize how fortunate I was that somebody broke a piece of glass, and that traffic and wind placed that piece of glass directly in front of my spinning wheel which hit the piece of glass at a perfect angle to send it through my tire and inner tube, releasing the 100 lbs. of pressurized air and flattening my tire. Dozens of other seemingly insignificant details all conspired to make this moment a turning point in my life.

The funny part about the moment of getting this flat is that I wasn’t sad or even annoyed but almost immediately saw the opportunity it presented and thought “Pam”. But for this to make sense I need to back up a little bit.

Pam and I first met in graduate school at UW-Madison. I was taking a facilitation course and was assigned to help a team of graduate students who were working on a project for a local hospital. Pam was on that team, and we quickly became friends. Pam and I were both interested in other people when we began the class. My romantic interest quickly moved on to other interests, but Pam didn’t know this so she felt safe confiding in me what she liked/didn’t like about her other suitor. Their relationship was officially on “hold” since they lived in different parts of the country and both agreed to keep their options open. She would ask my advice on what different things meant from a male perspective, and I would say things like “Ouch, that’s not a good sign!” Little did she know I was taking this inside information to heart and I began to think about her in a different way. That said, I didn’t see an opening and so was content to remain friends. Pam was and is a great friend.

It turns out the opening I was looking for was the one in my tire. I was in a bike class and we were about 2 miles into the start of a 30 mile ride when my tire went flat. I had recently used my spare and not yet replaced it and my instructor was reluctant to lend me his as it would leave him without one. So he told me to walk back and wait for the class to return. I immediately formed an alternative plan.

Pam was working as a student advisor at the Lakeshore dorms, and one of the perks of this job was that she got free room and board and an office on Lakeshore. I was going to be tight on time that afternoon since I couldn’t use my bike to get around. As luck would have it Pam and I had a meeting at the hospital shortly after my bike class.

So I thought Pam might be able to help me out by stashing my bike in her apartment and giving me a ride to the meeting. So I headed to her office on Lakeshore path, knocked on her door, and entered in full spandex and biking garb.

Pam looked at me, smiled, and said… “Now there is a familiar face that is out of place” and the rest is, as they say, “history” (well not quite yet). Pam helped me out so I insisted on taking her to dinner to thank her. So our first “not quite a date” was dinner at Paisans. Soon after we started studying together but things remained mostly platonic with a little bit of flirting around the edges.

The next key moment came during finals week when Pam and I were studying and I could not concentrate (wonder why?). So I suggested that we set a goal to study until a certain point in the evening and then reward ourselves by renting and watching a movie. I could tell she could see the wheels were turning in my head but she reluctantly agreed probably to keep me from annoying her with my fidgeting.

So I went off to the video rental place in the Union, and rented the movie “Casablanca” (all’s fair in love and war) and met her at her apartment. I sat on her couch while she made us some popcorn. There was an open couch seat next to me and an open chair next to it. I told myself that if she sat next to me I was “In like Flynn” and if she sat in the chair it was “Game Over” and time to move on.

Well you can probably guess where she sat and the rest we can now say is “History”, except of course the part that we are still writing together today. In fact it will soon be our 20th Anniversary!

It just goes to show that you never know what the next spin of the wheel is going to bring. Here is hoping it brings you something as terrific as it did me! Happy Anniversary Pam!

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Living on the Edge

“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

It is easy to forget that there is a whole world out there waiting to be experienced.

We often don’t realize what a small corner of the world we inhabit. Our lives become routine for various reasons including: necessity (we need to pay the bills and/or take care of others), choice (we like what is familiar) or habit (it is easier/less risky to do the same things over and over).

Occasionally something forces us out of our comfort zone or we purposely venture out and seek new experiences. My kids interest in music in general, and in particular heavy metal type music when they were younger, provided me with just such adventures.

Kids today have worlds of music at their fingertips that few of us “old folks” could even have imagined. My kids enjoyed exploring these worlds and before long they began forming bands and making their own music. Their foray into music has been great fun and a positive experience for all.

They soon became interested in seeing as much live music as possible and I accompanied them to several of the shows on their wish list. Given that many of the initial acts they wanted to see were on the harder side of the music genre made for some very interesting concerts.

It is difficult to describe these shows in just a few words. One word that comes to mind is “Scary”. Almost immediately you realize you are in a place with people that are very different than those you typically encounter. Most are dressed in dark clothing. Most have scraggly hair. Many have tattoos showing around their clothes. Many have piercings sticking out from various parts of their bodies.

I remember calling my wife from one of these shows and telling her, “I have just delivered our sons to the 7th layer of hell”. I went on to describe a person there who was handing out Satan worshipping pamphlets, two women who were wearing only body paint for tops, and various vendors with booths at these concerts that included a strip club, a tattoo shop and recruiters from all of the armed forces.

Not surprisingly I often looked around and wondered whether bringing my kids to these shows was a good thing, a bad thing or somewhere in-between. Musically I actually think it was a good thing as surprisingly many of the bands were very talented.

Socially/culturally it was probably not all bad either. Middleton is certainly a very nice place to live. The schools are great, the neighbors are friendly, and there are parks/paths everywhere. It’s also close to Madison, which is a magnet city for many cool things. There are certainly problems in our community but they are usually not that obvious unless you know where to look.

There are undeniably destructive undercurrents running through these shows. I have no doubt that drugs are a part of at least a sub-culture, as are other potentially dangerous activities. At the last show I went to two of the acts had band members who died in the past year from drug overdoses. Many of the other band members looked like they were candidates for that to happen to them too.

As a parent this is troubling. Whenever I see an example like that I talk to my kids about it, and discuss what they need to do to avoid being in situations that could lead to similar problems. I know that these problems aren’t limited to people who are into music, but I am not naïve. As such I was not ready to let my kids go unaccompanied there, but I think at the end of the day being exposed to different ways of living provides a useful perspective.

I also suspect many in attendance dressed up (or down) for the event and put on their best piercings, make-up, and/or body paint. For example, I doubt many of them wear body paint to their places of employment. Then again maybe a few of them do.

Vonnegut talked about walking as close to the edge as he could without going over, and that is what going to these shows with your kids feels like. There are a lot of good things to see on the edges, but there are some bad things too, and the trick is in knowing how to navigate these boundaries. I know I have seen a lot at these concerts that I haven’t seen anywhere else. The funny thing is the people that go to these concerts aren’t bussed in from out of state or from underground. We share the same zip codes, but our lives don’t intersect that often. I also believe that most in attendance were basically good people. Just because they look different doesn’t mean they are better or worse than anyone else.

I have very much enjoyed stepping out together with my sons in this way. I am concerned for the times when I won’t be there with them but feel like that is part of what growing up is about, for them and for me.

The great thing about the world we live in is that there are lots of corners like this out there, and all you have to be is curious and a bit adventurous and the world is your oyster, or so the fortune cookie says.

Here is hoping you find some interesting and thought provoking things on the edges of your journeys!

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It’s Complicated

When people ask me why I cross-country ski, which to date nobody actually has, my ready answer is “It’s complicated”.

The complications start with my Dad who spent a few magical winters of his youth living in Norway after WWII. He and the kids his age would head out to the mountains on cross-country skis as soon as there was snow and make jumps, forts, hold races, etc. These ski-clad adventures are among his fondest childhood memories and he wanted to create similar experiences for my sister and me when we were growing up.

The problem is that we grew up in Wisconsin and Virginia and there weren’t mountains or gangs of ski-clad kids to join. Cross-country skiing for us usually meant plodding along behind my Dad overdressed and overheated with a couple of inches of snow sticking to the bottoms of our wooden skis. We would slowly trudge up hills and then awkwardly slide down the other side with many wobbly wipeouts occurring on the descent. Getting up after a fall on cross-country skis is kind of like a newborn baby giraffe trying to stand for the first time. It takes a few attempts and you’re not really sure if it is a good idea.

Still every year when it snowed my Dad would get that for off look in his eye and excitedly ask, “Who wants to go skiing with me?” My sister and I would pretend that we didn’t hear and try to avoid making eye contact, but I wasn’t as quick as my sister at coming up with an exit strategy so before I knew it I was once again scraping snow off of the bottoms of my skis and/or dusting myself off after a low-speed wipeout.

This continued more or less until I was 18 and went to Norway as an exchange student. There I did get a glimpse of what my Dad was seeing in his far off looks. Still I preferred downhill skiing and when I had a choice that is what I would do.

But upon my return my Dad believed I was then a card carrying member of the Norse cross-country ski club and I didn’t have the heart to tell him I still didn’t like it that much. He kept asking and because he looked hopelessly disappointed if he couldn’t get anyone to go skiing with him I said yes more often than not.

But then something happened that changed everything. My Mom called me up at college one day and said with concern, “You’ve got to help me. I am really worried about your Dad. He is about to do something really crazy and I need you to go with him to make sure he is okay.”

I said, “Sure of course, whatever you need”, and she went on to tell me my Dad had signed up for the Birkebeiner in Hayward Wisconsin. I asked her what that was and she said, “I don’t know, but it involves cross-country skiing and has a Norwegian name so there is no stopping your Dad.”

The Birkebeiner (a.k.a. The Birkie) is a 35-mile cross-country ski race named after the Norwegian race of the same distance. The race was started by Tony Wise who brilliantly invented ways to get people to head up to Northern Wisconsin in the dead of winter to spend money at his resort.

Our first Birkie could best be described as a boondoggle. We got a late start on the trip up, drove through a white out snowstorm, barely picked up our race numbers in time, struggled to find any place still serving food, and got lost and stuck in a snow bank in the middle of nowhere while attempting a U-turn. A little after midnight we dug ourselves out and finally made it to the private house where we had reserved a room. We knocked on the door of the then dark house and were led to our room by a young girl who told us her mother was sleeping at a neighbor’s house. Our “room” consisted of two cot-looking beds on a concrete floor in the basement with a hanging sheet dividing the room. We realized quickly it was probably her and/or her stuffed animal’s beds as they were very short (we are 6+ feet) and full of stuffed animals. Nonetheless my Dad was asleep and snoring loudly within minutes. I put two stuffed animals over my ears and tried to make the best of it.

But my Dad’s snoring woke up a person who, unbeknownst to us, was sleeping on the other side of the sheet. He shook my Dad awake and asked him to quit snoring, which he did but was back at it in about 5 minutes. The person complained again, so consequently my Dad gave me the job of hitting him whenever he started snoring, which he did approximately every 5 minutes or so. So I hit my Dad about 12 times an hour for the next 5 hours until the person on the other side of the sheets turned the room lights on and proceeded to wax his skis. There turned out to be about 10 other skiers in this tiny house, which we realized when we got in line for the only bathroom/shower.

We splashed some frigid water on our faces, got dressed and headed out the door to go ski 35 miles. The race was certainly tough. We were undertrained, undernourished, sleep deprived, lacked the gear and specialized clothing that most had, but nonetheless we made it to the finish line! And we were hooked, at least my Dad was, and by extensions I was as my Mom was still worried and wanted me to keep going with him.

25 years later we are still doing Birkies together, and I have to admit that over the years I have actually grown to enjoy cross-country skiing and the Birkie. Signing up for the Birkie motivates you to get outside and keep moving in the dead of winter. The best part is that you typically get at least a few magical moments each year where it is pretty much just you moving gracefully (yes the giraffe does eventually grow up) through a beautiful and peaceful snowy woods, and these moments make it all worthwhile.

Where cross-country skiing and my kids are concerned I took a different route than my Dad did with me. Where he had fond memories of skiing in his youth, my memories were at best mixed so I didn’t push them to go out cross-country skiing with me. They both seemed to enjoy downhill skiing more so I would do that with them instead.

However, as they near the age where I started skiing Birkies I am wondering if I ultimately did them a disservice by not dragging them up and down hills like my Dad did when my sister and I were young. Perhaps when they have kids I will show up at their homes and ask hopefully “Who want’s to go cross-country skiing with Grandpa?” If I sound desperate enough perhaps one of them will join me out of pity and the chain that was broken will be mended and continue another generation.

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Life Goes On

“100 years from now? All new people.” – Anne Lamont

The above quote is a useful and humorous reminder that we are all here for just a little while and contrary to how things may seem at times we are all imminently and inescapably replaceable.

Movies provide an interesting demonstration of this notion. An almost magical facet of movies is their ability to capture and preserve a moment in time. Through movies we see glimpses of what life was like in other eras while the actors within these movies stay the same. We get to enjoy such greats as Cary Grant, Betty Davis, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Orson Welles, Ingrid Bergman, Jimmy Stewart, Katherine Hepburn and many others in their prime as long as the movies they appear in continue to exist. Of course off screen all of the actors I named have fulfilled Anne Lamont’s 100-year rule and are no longer with us.

Closer to home my folks are getting older and are doing very well. However they are at an age where their health concerns and those of their cohorts are getting more serious.

I talked with my Dad about the recent loss of some of his friends and colleagues. My Dad sad that he was of course saddened by their passing, but that he had learned something valuable from them which was strangely comforting to him as he thinks about his own mortality. The lesson he learned is best summarized by the statement, “Life goes on”.

While he misses these individuals and other friends and family members who are no longer with him, he also continues to notice that the sun keeps rising, the seasons keep changing, and his grandchildren keep growing. He realizes that this will be true after he is gone too. Rather than finding this alarming he is reassured by it and I think I understand why.

Perhaps when you recognize “Life goes on” then you also realize that the weight of the world does not rest solely on your shoulders. You don’t have to fix everything. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to do your part, it just means that it takes multiple people and multiple lifespans to keep things moving and we are all in this together.

What I find comforting about Lamont’s quote is that whatever problems seem huge and/or insurmountable today probably aren’t if your frame of reference is 100 years. If you had a bad day at school, or the office, or at home, there is time to turn things around and move on, and if all else fails even our most stubborn problems will cease to exist at some point and usually much sooner than 100 years. This almost makes you want to break into song, oh I don’t know something like, “Ob-la-di Ob-la da life goes on, brah/La la how the life goes on!” – (The Beatles).

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