Taking the fork in the road

When you come to a fork in the road, take it! – Yogi Berra

Being a parent and watching your children grow, change, struggle and/or thrive can be quite interesting. Every so often you recognize parts of yourself reflected through their lives. When they show some of your better traits or abilities you are pleased and filled with pride. However just as likely to appear are parts of your persona that you would just as soon skip a generation or two or ten. Making things more intriguing yet is the fact that each child is also his/her own person with unique talents, challenges and aspirations.

When our kids are young we tend to start them out on familiar paths. If we enjoyed particular sports we will likely introduce them to these as soon as or even slightly before they are ready. If music or art is in our background chances are they will give them a try as well. Reading, dancing, camping, scouting, cooking, skiing, academics, religion, etc. are examples of other interests we bring to our children to see whether they will take them up and make them their own.

Interestingly enough I have heard stories of more than a few top athletes who purposely did not encourage their children to follow in their footsteps. Some may have been wary of the pressure put on their kids to live up to what they accomplished, while others weren’t sure whether the sacrifices required to be successful in their chosen area were worth it.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to hear Bjørn Dahle, a legendary world and Olympic champion skier from Norway, speak shortly after the Birkebeiner ski race in Hayward, WI. Dahle pretty much said that he had to sacrifice a great deal to get to where he was and implied it was perhaps too much and that he didn’t necessarily want the same life for his children. Instead he wanted them to choose and follow their own interests.

In the end I don’t think it really matters what path our children choose as long as they find one or more that they enjoy and which challenges them to grow and learn.

Our two sons tried on many hats, helmets, and uniforms to varied results before landing on areas where they continue to thrive and grow. What I enjoy is that the places they have landed aren’t that familiar to me so I have been able to experience/explore these facets of our community as they have dived deeper into them.

For example my youngest son just participated in his first play at MHS with the Middleton Drama Club. What I found out? There are many truly talented and entertaining kids in our midst, and more importantly these kids are pretty amazing in the way they support and encourage each other both on and off the stage.

I feel very fortunate that my son has fallen in with such a good group of kids and teachers, which they have both also encountered in the exceptional music programs at the high school. We know several other students who have had very enriching experiences in various clubs (yearbook, art, foreign language, Model UN), and teams (debate, sports, and academic) to name a few of the many opportunities available to students in our district.

The long-winded point I am trying to make is that there are many different paths our kids can follow. The familiar ones are comfortable to us but might not be to them, and the unfamiliar ones can be quite interesting and exciting for all. It really gives me hope for the future to see what these kids can do when they come to a fork in the road and, as Yogi Berra advises, take it.

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One Last Time

Beginnings and endings are a part of each of our lives, and we often use the milestones created by them to define who we are.

My oldest son Jake is about to begin an ending of sorts called his senior year.

I  very clearly remember Jake’s first day of school. We had prepared Jake for all facets of that first day and made several reconnaissance trips to his school, classroom, playground, and bus stop.

The night before we gave him his ceremonial bath so that he would be squeaky clean for his first day of school. When morning arrived we made Jake’s favorite breakfast and packed his lunch in his lunch box, which we then put in his backpack with his school supplies. Jake’s 3 year old brother Tucker was an enthusiastic participant in all of the preparations and proceedings and we all marched down to the bus stop to join the other new kids and more experienced 6 and 7 year olds waiting to get on the bus. Tucker got in line behind Jake and even though we had explained several times that he wouldn’t be getting on the bus with his brother, when the time came and Tucker was left behind his face momentarily reflected utter confusion which was soon displaced by distress. It was actually quite priceless and Tucker made a quick recovery.

And now suddenly or not so suddenly depending on your perspective, we have reached Jake’s last first day of school. It is only the beginning of many lasts in store for Jake and his fellow senior classmates. There will be last games, last concerts, last dances, last lunches, last sleepovers, last gatherings, last classes, and finally last exams as they creep incrementally closer to the ceremony that marks the ending of their high school careers.

With each of these approaching lasts for parents there is a realization that we are almost out of time to get in the lessons/advice/instructions we thought we had all the time in the world to convey. Some of these lessons are basic survival skills such as laundry, cooking, and changing a light bulb, while others are deeply profound such as being kind, patient, and giving with one other.

Truth be told the advice train may have already left the station. I remember my Dad telling me when I was around 11 and I thought that he was the greatest that very soon I would reach an age where I thought he was the stupidest person alive (“no not me Dad”) and each subsequent year he would get a little stupider in my eyes until magically at about 20 years of age I would realize how wrong I had been and he would once again become smart.

Given that my kids are still at an age where they will likely consider me and by extension my advice to be slightly more useful than something that is not very useful, I realize I have to pick my moments carefully. By the way my Dad was pretty close to dead on in his prediction but he neglected to tell me what I would think of him when I became the age he was then. He is pretty o.k., which is high praise in my family, but I now realize we both are pretty much winging it and lost the instruction book a long time ago.

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A Certain Number of Times

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well, yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” – Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky)

I walked out to the garage to say goodbye to my wife’s parents who were visiting us for Easter. I found my wife and her mother holding hands and crying through her folk’s car window. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the tears were not of sorrow but of joy and had something to do with the Joni Mitchell song “Circle Game” that was playing on the stereo.

I like to describe my wife’s family by saying, “There is never a dull moment even if occasionally a dull moment would be welcomed with open arms and given a seat at the head of the table”. There are six kids (now all with families) coming and going through her folk’s household. Their house would also attract what I would call “strays” that were friends who ended up calling Pam’s mother “Mom” and hanging out at their house as well.

When Pam was growing up whoever was around in the summer would pile in the family conversion van and head out on the open road to her grandfather’s place in the mountains in Upstate New York (about a 20 hour drive). On the way there they would inevitable pop one of just a dozen or so well played 8-track tapes into the van’s stereo. Since they are a lively bunch they would all sing along with the various performers as they bopped down the road. One of these recordings included Joni Mitchell’s song “The Circle Game”.

A song linked to these formative memories was bound to evoke sentimental feelings. Making matters even more bittersweet the lyrics to Circle Game happen to be about how fast time moves forward with the years being added like trips around a merry go round. Additionally, they were both remembering a particular point in time where Pam’s Mom sang this song to her on a stormy night at her Uncle Tucker’s house.

When I noticed them sharing this moment, I couldn’t help thinking of the above quote by Paul Bowles. It is a great example of the phenomenon he is talking about. How many more times will Pam and her Mom get to share this particular memory? This led me to think about other moments happening right now that are special and only available for a limited time.

Just this last week I got to see my son Jake, a junior at Middleton High School, perform with his band Autumn Underground to a full house at the MHS commons. How many more times will I get to see him sing a song he wrote with a group of kids that rehearse in our basement? Also last week I got to see my son Tucker play his first Lacrosse game ever. That was likely the last time I will see him try a new sport for the first time. I am not particularly sad about either moment. They are growing and their lives are changing, and it is only natural that they will do some things for the first time as they do other things for the last time.

I think the point the quote is trying to make is not that we should hold tightly on to the past and let go reluctantly, but it is rather that we should be mindful of and savor the experiences we are having right now, even if some of those experiences are simply remembering a special moment in time with a loved one.

I will leave you with the same chorus from Joni Mitchell’s song the Circle Game where I left Pam and her Mom, “And the seasons go round and round; and the painted ponies go up and down; we’re captive on the carousel of time; we can’t return we can only look behind, from where we came; And go round and round and round; in the circle game.”

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The whole truth or something like the truth

There is a scene from the movie “Princess Bride” that I’m often reminded of when trying to get a straight answer from my kids.  In it, the heroes are trying to find a way into a castle that is blocked by a gate, which leads to the following exchange with the gatekeeper:

Westley: “Give us the gate key.”

Gatekeeper: “I have no gate key.”

Inigo Montoya: “Fezzik, tear his arms off.”

Gatekeeper: “Oh, you mean ‘this’ gate key.”

While it might come in handy to have by my side a giant who is capable of removing limbs when I am trying to get information from my kids, this is impractical for several reasons.  For starters I would never advocate the removing of any child’s limbs (or any other physical violence) and my kids know that, so they would readily call that bluff.  Secondly I hear that giants with that capability are quite expensive.

So getting straight answers from my two teenage boys requires different tactics.  As my teenage sons and I get older, my cross-examination skills and their evasion skills have evolved. I have learned from experience that specific questions with verifiable answers are the way to go, whereas they have become masters of partial answers, deflections and generalizations.

For example on the topic of homework we have learned that simply asking “Did you finish your homework?” is a mostly meaningless query. Responses we have heard include, “Today’s homework? Why yes.”  Sounds good and I start to walk out the door, but then think a little more and ask: “What about the project that was assigned last week?”  To which I hear, “Well no, I am not quite done with that.”

Then another thought hits me and I ask, “What about the worksheet you missed last Friday when you were on that field trip?”

“I am almost done with that one.”

To which I follow up with: “Why did you say you were done with your homework then?”

To which I hear, “Because I thought you were asking about the homework that was assigned today.”

Paging Fezzik!

Another example demonstrates avoidance and misdirection, favorite tactics of teenagers everywhere.  After complaining for several days that he wasn’t sleeping very well at night, I happened to walk into my youngest son’s room to talk with him about a different topic (e.g. the status of his homework).  I looked around and noticed that the head of his bed was about nine inches lower than the foot of his bed (could this be why he was having trouble sleeping?!)

So I asked him about this, “Hey Tuck, how is it your bed is sagging?” Like the gatekeeper in the Princess Bride his first line of defense was evasion, “Hmmm, Is it sagging?  I didn’t notice.”

I ignored this response for now (a tactic of mine) and investigated further. I initially thought one of the cross planks simply might have fallen off the frame, so I removed his bedding, and pulled his bed away from the wall only to discover that the entire wood bed rail had split away from the bed frame.

I am no Sherlock Holmes, but it was pretty obvious to me, even with my limited deductive reasoning powers, that this could only have happened by the application of a large force.

My son’s room is mostly like other kids’ rooms with one notable exception.  There is a permanent ladder attached to the wall across from his bed that goes up to a small loft/crawl space.  Now ever since we have been in this home, I have been warning my kids not to jump from the ladder to the bed below, and as far as I know (which I realize is not much of a guarantee) for the past eight years they have not done so.

Given that they are now “responsible” teenagers, I figured I didn’t have to continually remind them not to do this anymore. But the splintered wood indicated otherwise, so I asked, “Hey Tucker, any idea of what or more specifically who could have hit your bed with enough force to splinter the bed frame?”  Which was met with a blank stare (the animalistic instinct inherited from possums).

So I tried with a smile to say, “Anyone I know for example jump off this ladder onto that bed over there?”  “Anyone named Tucker?”

So Tucker did the brave thing and said, “I cannot tell a lie” – which is, of course, in and of itself a lie – “my friend George did it.” [Note: George is not the actual name he said – changed to protect the innocent, or if not innocent, then at least the innocent’s parents!]

Now don’t get me wrong. It is entirely possible that his friend was responsible, but lemmings rarely go off cliffs alone so I am pretty sure I figured out what happened.

My problem  – or my kids’ salvation depending on how you look at it – is that I remember what it was like to be their age.  In this case the apple may not have fallen very far from the tree, so it is hard for me to feign indignant anger for very long.

I recognize I might not be getting the whole truth, but if I work at it  – and what else is there for me to do for entertainment – I usually have a pretty good idea of what is going down (in this case my son and his friend from the heights of his ladder to the depths of his bed).

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Ba Rum Pum Pum Pum

My all-time favorite Christmas song is the Little Drummer Boy, which tells the story of a boy who gives the gift of the song in his heart and finds out, despite his initial doubts, that it is a most worthy gift. I like the song because it reminds us that we don’t have to be a king or a wise man to make a positive difference in someone’s life.

This time of year brings to the surface examples of people making a difference in the lives of others. Just last week the Middleton High School Chamber Singers completed their annual “Tour de Middleton” where they climbed on a bus early in the morning and disembarked late at night and in between brought their gift of song to senior centers, churches, and nursing homes around town. One stop that resulted in tears of joy and sadness was to a critical care unit where several in the audience were likely experiencing their last Christmas. Many in the choir broke down in tears as they sang but one choir member thought this was ironic as the audience were themselves smiling as they enjoyed the beauty and comfort of the music that was offered. If you think about it the audience’s smiles were in themselves gifts as many of the singers will long remember this time when they brought happiness to others at a critical stage of life.

The M.O.M (Middleton Outreach Ministry) benefit production of Young Jack Frost that was recently held at the Performing Arts Center is another great example of people giving of themselves for the benefit of others. Professional and local actors, writers, musicians, local businesses, volunteers and neighbors came together to tell a beautiful tale of redemption and growth while fostering a feeling of community with the audience and raising money for those with the greatest needs. The $30,000 plus that they raised may not sound like a lot compared to some things, but it is sure to make a difference in the lives of those finding they need a little help to get through a rough patch in their lives.

While these are great examples of helping others, I think many of us are like the little drummer boy before he decides to play his drums. We don’t know what we have to offer that is valuable to anyone. What we don’t realize is that pretty much everything we have to offer has value: the song in our heart; our time and attention; even the smile on our face can be the most valuable gift we ever give. At the Middleton Chamber Singers tour the seniors in the critical care area gave as much as they received, and that is the real beauty of the song The Little Drummer Boy.

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Criminy – A Thanksgiving Story

“I jus go nuts at Christmas” is a vintage holiday tune by Yogi Yorgesson that in a thick Scandinavian accent tells the tale of a family celebration gone awry. It is a favorite in our household because half of my family comes from Scandinavia and gravitates towards self-deprecating humor and the other half comes from Germany and, strangely enough, also enjoys Scandinavian depreciating humor.

While we are not quite to the Holidays yet, Thanksgiving is upon us. Thanksgiving is a lot like the Holidays, absent the cards, carols, trees, wreaths, decorations, lights, wrapped presents, and good cheer. Basically what you get with Thanksgiving is a combination of lots of family and lots of food.

In addition to being fun, family gatherings are also frequently “interesting”. After all these are the people who have known you since you arrived on the scene or at least all of their lives. They have seen you at your best, worst and everything in between. And if they are like my sister they catalogue each of these moments away in the recesses of their memory for retrieval at the optimal time (optimal meaning most embarrassing).

I think most families have at least one keeper of the family lore. Each time my wife Pam’s family gets together at her grandparent’s place in upstate New York, her Uncle Tucker inevitably tells the story of when she was learning to drive his truck (at 9 years of age… don’t tell anyone) and almost took out one of his favorite trees while backing up. After decades of telling this story and pointing out the resulting scar on the tree, the tree mercifully fell over during a hurricane that hit the east coast this past summer. Pam’s brother, who was there at the time, sent her a picture with the comment from her uncle that her bad driving finally did the tree in. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Pam’s uncle took a chainsaw and cut out the section of the tree with the scar on it and preserved it in polyurethane so he could continue to tell that story in the decades to come.

At this time of year my sister likes to tell a Thanksgiving story about a banana cream pie from about a quarter century ago that I call “Criminy”. For those of you who not familiar with the word “Criminy”, it is according to Webster’s “an expression used as a mild oath to express surprise”.

Now I think Webster got the definition wrong as there is nothing mild about the word’s use on the rare occasions when my Mom has seen fit to use it.

Basically what happened is this. On the day after Thanksgiving my Mom and sister went to join thousands of other bargain hunters at West Towne Mall. At some point during their travels they remarked how nice it would be to have a piece of leftover banana cream pie upon their return home.

However, while they were shopping I was working up an appetite playing basketball at the high school and came home to an empty house and a full refrigerator. There is nothing in the world I like better than my grandmother’s homemade banana cream pie so I decided to have a piece before working through the leftovers. After quickly finishing the first piece I thought to myself that the only thing better than one piece of banana cream pie is 2 pieces and before long I just took the whole tin with me to cut down on return trips to the fridge.

Upon returning home my sister and my mother made a bee line to the refrigerator to get themselves a piece of banana cream pie only to discover, no pie! My sister was hopping mad and immediately deduced who had dispatched the pie. When I ran into her later that afternoon, she told me that I was in big trouble with Mom. I said something like, “It was just a pie, and I was hungry,” to which my sister said. “Oh yeah? Well Mom said ‘Criminy.’” Gulp. I suddenly realized that if my Mom said “Criminy” my immediate future was indeed looking bleak.

So I said to myself, “Think, think, what can you do to make this right?” and I headed out the door in search of redemption, which I thought I found at Baskin Robbins (which was then located near the MacDonalds off of Allen Blvd). I used a big portion of my meager teen-age funds to purchase a Banana Split Ice Cream Pie and took it home and gave it to my Mom with an apology. She looked surprised and said, “What’s this for?” and I confessed to having eaten the banana cream pie. She then said, “That’s no big deal. Why do you think I would be mad about that?” My sister then came in the room and flashed me a Chesire Cat sized grin… to which I silently mouthed the word, “Criminy”. Happy Thanksgiving Everyone I hope you all make a memory or two and enjoy your equivalent of banana cream pie!

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Walking the Mom

“Are you ready to go?” “Yes Mom.” “Do you think you’re dressed warmly enough?” “Yes, Mom.” “You know it’s only 50 degrees outside?” “Yes, I know Mom.” “Because you could run back in and get a sweatshirt, I would wait.” “No Mom, I am fine.“

So began an episode of what I used to fondly call, “Walking the Mom” back when I was in high school. You wouldn’t know by the button down sweaters she used to wear on these walks, but my Mom was a walking speed demon. Once she headed out the door she was off like a shot and for the next 30 minutes or so I was hard pressed to keep up.

Our walks would take us around the neighborhood, by the elementary and high schools, through downtown Middleton, by her folks house on Hubbard Avenue, pretty much anywhere you could draw a 2+ mile circle from our house on Columbus Drive. Despite the open-air locations, at one point or another my Mom would use the opportunity to “corner me” so to speak and ask the list of questions she had been compiling since our last walk. Typical answers by me included: “Mom, I am just friends with that girl, and no one says ‘make a play’ anymore“; “ Yes, I did say thank you”; “No, I was not aware that boxer shorts are healthier than briefs and by the way can we talk about something else.”

Fast forward a few decades and I am once again walking with my Mom. This time she is joining me at the Middleton Dog Park off of Hwy Q for walks around the .75 mile loop with other dog owners hoping to work off some of their dog’s energy before getting on with their days.

Both in high school and more recently my Mom’s main reason for walking was to get in better shape, with perhaps the collateral benefit of getting to spend some time together. Who knows maybe in high school her primary reason was social and the exercise was just a ruse. As a parent of two teenagers I realize that you take what you can get as far as social interaction with your kids. Teenagers tend to relate to us when they are ready and not always on our timetable. As I get older I also recognize that things won’t always be as they were or are and that I should take advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves.

These walks are a small example of something I have been thinking about for awhile that I call “social movement”. In a former career life I studied what people can do to improve their overall health status and quality of life and being physically active and socializing are among the most important. Combining these two you get “social movement”. If you look around the Middleton community you will see dozens of opportunities for social movement (nature conservancy, dog parks, exercise groups, bike rides, fun runs, etc.) and I look forward to exploring these in more depth in the not too distant future. But for now you will have to excuse me as it is once again time to “Walk the Mom”.

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Little big things

There is a quote I like by Kurt Vonnegut that goes, “Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things. “

Achievements and accolades are nice but if you really think about the memories that mean the most to you I would wager that many simply involve spending time in the company of other people. Making the highlight reel of my life are such little things as a hug at an airport, taking naps with my then infant sons, a special lunch in a restaurant with my folks, and several episodes of just telling stories, joking around and laughing with friends.

The great thing about little things is that they are something most of us have in common. People of all ages, incomes, nationalities, religions, races and political persuasions experience and value them. At times it may seem that we are very different from each other, but if we look below the surface we often find we enjoy many of the same things.

If you like little big things Middleton is a great place to live. I think just about everyone in town has been on a float or marched in the good neighbor parade at one point in their life. Nearly as many have likely spent a few quarters trying to win a stuffed animal or taken a ride on the tilt-a-whirl at the good neighbor festival.

Middleton is full of places where little big things occur. The world class Performing Arts Center at the high school is figuratively and occasionally literally hopping with local talent. Our schools are terrific as are the extra-curricular activities available through them. If you enjoy following sports then you are in luck too as Middleton is the home to many fine community and school based sports programs. In addition there are plenty of great recreational resources to get you in the game as well.

I greatly enjoy stumbling across little things that make a big impression or simply brighten my day, and in the coming weeks I look forward to sharing a few of these stumblings with you.

Just to whet your appetite (and as an aside the expression “whet your appetite” dates back to the 1600s and is believed to originate from the need to lubricate whet stones used to grind tools to prevent their overheating… and as a second aside in case you were wondering I didn’t actually know that until just a few minutes ago when I looked it up) the following is a sampling of little big things I have stumbled across in the recent past:

• Hearing stories about life in Middleton at different times from my grandmother who still lives on Hubbard Avenue in the house her grandmother used to live in (e.g. there used to be a bootlegger operating out of a chicken shack next to the current Middleton firehouse and those in the know remarked that the chickens died of old age on their frequent drives between Middleton and the stills operating out in the countryside).
• Buying a guitar from and making a connection with a musician from a different generation.
• Taking a drive down memory lane (otherwise known as Columbus Drive) on a snowy winter day.
• Watching a group of teenagers spontaneously play music and sing with and for each other.

And I am sure there are many other yet to be encountered little big things that I will stumble into soon. For example just this past weekend I ventured out to a new restaurant (new to me anyway as the restaurant has been there for years) and very much enjoyed overhearing the following conversation between our server and the establishment’s proprietor:

Server: “…Look at this plant! How do you expect to keep a dog alive if you can’t even keep a plant alive?”
Proprietor: “(pause)… A dog will remind me when it is thirsty.”

A little thing that made me smile, and I am hoping the retelling might just make you smile too.

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The Musicians Among Us (From the Archives)

“Music cleanses the understanding; inspires it, and lifts it into a realm which it would not reach if it were left to itself.” ~Henry Ward Beecher

The Musicians Among Us

Every now and then you experience something that makes you rethink what you thought you knew.

I had just such an experience a fortnight ago when I was literally blown away by the musicianship and showmanship of the Jazz Ensembles on display at the annual Jazz Cabaret at the Marriott convention center in Middleton, WI. The Jazz Cabaret featured four local high school Jazz Groups (2 from Middleton, 1 from Madison East and McFarland), including the “6 O’Clock Jazz Group” that our son Jake plays percussion with.

Jake was one of only a handful of freshmen performers in the band and he did a great job, but the highlights of the evening were the featured upper classman musicians who were simply amazing. If they were playing along with a late-night band you would never notice they didn’t belong. The evening included one of the best trumpet performances I have ever heard, and a saxophonist’s who delighted the audience and brought them to their feet with an inspired performance.

I felt like Baloo the bear in Disney’s Jungle Book movie. For those of you who don’t watch this movie several times a year like I do, Baloo is a bear who can’t help dancing/bobbing his head when he sings/hears a catchy tune. If you saw me sitting at my table in the back of the room you might have smiled at the middle-aged goofy looking man tapping/bopping his head to the beat of the music on stage.

What excited me most was the opportunity that was created by and for these kids. Performing in that venue before a large enthusiastic audience is something that these kids will remember for the rest of their lives. They played professional arrangements of Jazz standards and they flat out sounded great. For some it may be a stepping stone to other stages of their musical journey, but I suspect for many it will be the pinnacle of their musical careers.

I had no idea there was this much local talent in our midst, and I would wager that this doesn’t just happen by chance. The Middleton Jazz bands were led by their director, Mr. Brad Schneider, who certainly deserves much of the credit for providing this magical evening. Mr. Schneider is in turn supported by a small army of parent volunteers that helped make the event a reality.

Also deserving of credit is a district wide music program that is the envy of many throughout the state. Middleton is fortunate to have some truly dedicated teachers that take great pride in the programs they offer their kids. Unfortunately the support for music seems to be waning a bit in the current environment (send a message to your school board member and school principals to let them know you support music in your district), but hopefully the core of what is special about the district will persist.

And last but certainly not least are the talented individuals who work hard to create beautiful music. They reminded me of just how important music can be and how it can make you feel. The great thing about live music is that you don’t simply passively listen to it, but rather you become part of it through a give and take. The performers join together and offer up their music. They in turn are inspired by the response they receive from their audience and the music takes flight. The audience breathes in the music and makes it their own and lets it move them and take them to a better place. At the end of the evening both are better for the experience.

I thought I knew what to expect when I walked through the double doors of the Middleton Marriott, but as it turned out I had no idea what I had been missing. Pretty Cool, and who knew it was available just a short distance down the road.

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Birch Legs (From the archives)

A milestone for Dad.

I am not sure why we often tie our celebrations and recognitions to the base ten system… 10 year reunions, 50 year anniversaries, bi-centennial, millennium, etc…

I guess it makes it easier to remember or recognize the longevity of something when the most recent number forces the next column of the odometer to go up a tick.

The reason for this review of the connection between base 10 system and celebrations is that my Dad recently hit a significant base ten milestone. Was it his 70th birthday? Nope…he already did that. His 50th year class reunion? Despite repeating a grade due to moving between countries he already celebrated that one too. His 50th wedding anniversary? Good guess, but that milestone is still a few years away.

Depending on how you look at it, the milestone I am referring to requires an even greater commitment and perseverance to reach than the aforementioned ones. Give up yet?

The occasion I am referring to was my Dad’s completion of his 20th Birkebeiner Cross-Country ski race. The race is 35 miles long, the approximate equivalent of a marathon on skis, and runs from Cable to Hayward, or Hayward to Cable depending on the year. Upon reflection, 50 years of marriage probably takes slightly more commitment and perseverance, but skiing the Birkie 20 years in a row is a close second.

Actually my Dad skied 20 Birkies in 21 years. His reason for missing a year was that all the snow had melted and the race was cancelled. That almost didn’t deter him, and he had to go up to the start of the race to hear the official news of the cancellation in person… whereas a more reasonable but less enthusiastic skier (think his son) was more likely to conclude from the weather reports and mud on the ground that the race was a near impossibility and stay home. But not too many would accuse my Dad of being unenthusiastic where cross-country skiing is concerned. If it is snows a ¼ of an inch in November or December, he is out there pushing through this miniscule precipitation and the much larger quantity of leaves to get in a precious early season workout. In Southern Wisconsin you never know how long the snow will be around, so my Dad would say you have to make the most of it. If there is a heat wave and the snow melts, he will try the mostly frozen lake, and ski through slush or standing water to get one more workout in.

For those of you who know my Dad well, you probably have heard a Birkie story or two or hundred. Why he missed the first 15 races I can’t imagine, but when he was 50 years old a friend of his who had done the race a few times convinced him that he should give it a try. My Mom was worried about him completing such a long and grueling event, and asked me if I would go along to make sure he was o.k.. She shouldn’t have been worried, at least not about him, because he finished that first race before I did, and with rare exception most every other race we have skied together (I have finished 15 Birkies to date).

After his first race he was hooked, and the race has been the highlight of his winter (if not year) ever since. I would guess that just about any other day of the year is negotiable in terms of where he will be, but not Birkie day. No trips shall be scheduled, or events planned where his presence is required on this most sacred of days.

I must admit there is something special about “The Birkie”. It begins when you bite the bullet, sign your life away and submit your race application. After this is done you usually have a moment where you say, “Do I really want to do this again?” which is typically followed by a yes, no, maybe debate in your head.

Once you sign up you are in, and this is the lever that helps you avoid going into hibernation in the long Wisconsin winters. You start saying to yourself 0 degrees isn’t that cold, and study the weather report like a meteorologist. You become an expert on polypropylene and the wicking properties of various fabrics. And if you know what is good for you, and from past experience you do, you get your butt outdoors for extended periods of time to build up your endurance for race day.

Then there is the Birkie weekend itself, which begins with the drive, which is spent hydrating and stopping every 60 minutes for a bathroom break on the way up and the packet pick-up where everyone (well except us) tries to look like they are a word-class athlete and above the fray while greedily searching their goodie bag for hard as rock free samples of granola bars.

Then there is the enigma and nemesis of “The Wax”. There are numerous conflicting and constantly changing wax reports. There are the “old pros” who are reluctant to share what they plan to do in fear that they will lose their waxing advantage. There are the wax sellers (a.k.a. carpet baggers) at the expo, who conveniently tell you what you are planning to do is all wrong (This year they said, and I quote, “What you plan to do is fine if you want no glide in the beginning and no grip at the end”). They follow this by telling you what you need to do is buy whatever wax they happen to have left and start over. After 20 years of diligent effort, I think my Dad still hasn’t found his holy grail of waxing, although I am confident he will keep trying.

Of course the highlight is race day which is comprised of two seemingly equally challenging events… getting to the start of the race on time, and the actual race itself. There is one road into the busses that get you to the start of the race, and 8,000 people all jockeying for position and parking. Traffic jams are the norm not the exception. Once you get to the start of the race the nervousness and self-questioning starts… Did I train enough? (Answer: No)… Did I get the wax right? (Probably not)… Do I have time to go to the porta-potty one more time before the gun goes off? (Hardly!).

Then the gun goes off and the fun begins. Each person has their own tricks to get them through to the end of the race. It is the one time of year where you can get several continual hours to reflect on everything from soup to nuts. Sample thoughts that enter your mind include: … This is great!…I’m going to do 30 more of these… This hurts!… This is the last one I am going to do… only 53 more kilometers to go… only 52 more kilometers to go….only 51 kilometers to go… only 50.5 kilometers to go… well you get the point.

Then there is the finish, where crowds of strangers and if you are lucky a person or two that you know cheer you on, and offer words of encouragement as they down their 11th beer of the afternoon.

When you see the finish line you realize your journey is soon reaching its end, and the post race rituals are about to begin. Beer and brats rarely tastes better than they do at the Angler Bar in downtown Hayward after a long day of skiing. It is time to undo all of the good you have just done by exercising all day, and after a beer/brat and a shower we usually find our way to a restaurant for some guilt free eating and imbibing and repeating of stories that are 20+ years in the making and sometimes telling.

I think the lesson of the Birkie is that life is what you make it. Tony Wise the founder of the Birkie had a vision of an event that could draw thousands of people up to Northern Wisconsin, and he boldly made this vision a reality. Each person signing up for the race has their own vision for the future too, and they go about making it happen. Wisconsin winters can be long, cold, and dark. The Birkie provides a way to thrive in this environment by motivating you to get outside in the elements. Each year you get at least a few magical moments where it is pretty much just you moving through a beautiful and peaceful snowy woods, and these moments make it all worthwhile.

I am proud of my Dad for achieving this base-10 milestone. The Birkebeiner has undoubtedly added to the quality and likely the quantity of his life. His example of what is possible merely if you choose to make it so will impact those around him for decades to come.

I am reminded of a quote I like from the movie Cousins where a man in his 70s is talking to his adult son, and says “…son, you’ve only got one life to live… you can either make it chickensh*t or chicken salad”.

Well after completing 20 consecutive Birkies there is little doubt about which of these two paths my Dad pursued, and continues to pursue in his life. Congratulations Dad! You are a true Birkebeiner!

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