Friday, December 30, 2011

Mountains and Valleys, Version 2011

We got back from our trip to Pigeon Forge, TN yesterday. It was a good trip, albeit a lot of driving. The cabin was nice. It was part of a multi-home development that went up the mountainside. I can't say I agree with the mentality of destroying mountains with this kind of developmental blight, but the view was spectacular.

While we were there, I saw the need for hiking to the top of the mountain. It was a small mountain, but the climb was steep at times. Once I got past the paved section of road, it turned to gravel, so it wasn't that difficult of a climb, just strenuous. It was far from a nature hike in that I passed lots of empty electrical and water utility boxes that were set into the ground as part of future development. It looked to be a case of a development that had either lost its funding in the housing bust, or was just planned for slow development as the money came in.

When I got to the top, I took a few pictures and the bad video you see on this blog. It was a great view, but I've been to higher places. I "summited" this hiccup of a mountain with Ben on Wednesday. When we got there I placed a dollar bill on a flat rock on the summit. I weighed it down using two small rocks so it wouldn't blow away. I did it just to freak out the next person who chooses to find the highest spot on a non-descript Tennessee mountain. Ben thought it was kind of a cool idea. I just think its fun speculating what the person might do when they get to it.

It seems that my past few vacations have taken me to the mountains. From the Great Smokies, to the Adirondacks, to Colorado, we've seen all heights. I'm not sure if it's just coincidence that we've vacationed to these high spots or if there's some sort of unconscious intent to push ourselves as a family to higher heights. It started, I think, with Colorado. The massive mountains out that way just kind of take your breath away.

Driving to to the top of Trail Ridge Road and taking the Cog Railway to the top of Pikes Peak just kind of imprinted on us how small we are. At the same time, they allowed us to see life from a new perspective. It's one thing to look up in wonder at the mountains, but another to look down and out at the expanse of the world. Both can be life changing events, but first you need to look up to understand why you want to go there.

For me and my family, this year has been one of high mountain tops and some extremely deep valleys. While no one likes to dwell for long in the valley, life can't always be a mountain top experience either. They come as a set. There's a reason for both, and this year I found out more about what those reasons are.

Goodbye 2011. Here's to a happy and healthy 2012.

Blogging off...

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Night Before The Night Before

In my youth, this was not a good night for me. You see, we typically would open all of our gifts on Christmas Eve. Way back when us kids were all quite young, we would pile into the car and trek all the way to White Bear Lake to our aunt Helen's house. Her family and my grandma and grandpa would meet there, have a huge dinner in the basement family room and then, after every dish was done and dry, we would head upstairs to open presents. It was for this reason that I grew into adulthood thinking presents should be passed out and opened on Christmas Eve. I still do.

Because we celebrated on Christmas Eve, I spent most of Dec. 23rd wishing it away. I would watch the hours tick by, not wanting to wait until the next day to open all my gifts. I would work myself up so much that sometimes I would be on the verge of throwing up. Working myself up to the point of being sick. I've always been an internalizer, so this was the perfect storm of worry and anxiety, and excitement and joy. Wrap it all up in seeing the mound, or rather mountain, of presents under the tree and it all combined to drive me to the brink of insanity. I get sick just thinking about getting sick.

I remember one touching moment when I was about 11. I couldn't sleep because my stomach was upset. My sister Pat, who was 16 at the time, came in to my room and asked if I wanted to come and help arrange the presents under the tree; to shuffle the presents around, so no person got two in a row when they were handed out. She knew it would be a good way for me to work through my excitement, and it was. We went downstairs and shuffled presents, shook a few and shuffled some more. It couldn't have lasted for more than half an hour, but I've always remembered it as a tender moment between Pat and I. It's strange what kids remember, so never discount the impact of your actions, both good and bad.

The anticipation of Christmas is still there for me as I suspect it is for most people. I don't get sick any more of course, but still look forward to going to Christmas Eve service, eating a good meal, and opening presents on Christmas morning, even though it is a day late. The holiday is usually surrounded with a trip far away in our case. Every year we seem to spend driving either east to NY or west to MN. I look forward to those trips as well because we get to see family.

In the end, after all the presents, food, lights, shopping, decorations, carols, traffic, stress, and anticipation, family is what it's about anyway. Go enjoy yours and have a Merry Christmas.

Blogging off...

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Drumming of my Heart

As my obsession with my own mortality continues to dominate my thoughts, I've become incredibly attuned to commonplace things of beauty on a regular basis. Lately it's been in music.

Take for example Middle Schoolers singing Christmas carols. Last night was a "worship night" at Mosaic's Sunday PM which is the 6-8 grade ministry at church. I lead a small group of about six boys in the sixth grade, but they are part of hundreds of middle-schoolers that attend regularly. Usually our night is divided up into 3 areas; gym time, large group teaching and small groups. Because we're so close to Christmas, they just made last night to be mostly singing and then released to small groups.

There was a single guitarist/vocalist, Jayden Lee (formerly of Sons of Korah) who lead the group of students. Because their voices weren't drowned out by the usual over-accompaniment of drums, bass, etc, the student voices were more audible than usual. The young voices filled the room with hymns and carols.

I'm not sure why it was so breathtaking to me. Maybe I've become soft at 50. Maybe it was the sense of hope that these kids will grow up to be okay in a world that is not. Maybe it was the fact that 200 teens found time to be in church on a Sunday night when the rest of their peers were texting, facebooking, or gaming. I do know that it was a reminder of why I was moved to help lead middle schoolers when all I could do was think of reasons why I wasn't a good fit. God said "Wrong again, Jim."

I'm not sure why it hit me, but lately nothing surprises me. Being 50 with one less brother in the world tends to  change one's outlook in dramatic ways.

On Friday night I was watching a video of Neil Peart, the drummer for Rush where the video focused strictly on him. Now, if you know anything about rock music, Neil Peart is perhaps the most well known living rock drummer. His drum set surrounds him and none of them is unused by the end of a concert. Trust me, he's good, if not the best.

So I'm watching him and I'm caught up in how privileged I am to see a man with this kind of skill. He is a craftsman in every sense of the word. I think of all the hours of practice he must have put in so that he could one day say he was the best. Of course, he's the best in my generation and that made me think of previous generations who had their own best, Buddy Rich, John Bonham, etc. For some unknown reason I was almost brought to tears.

Then there's Mark Knopfler's guitar and lyrics on the song So Far From The Clyde. Everytime I listen to it I get goosebumps. It's crazy because it's about the decommissioning and recycling of a ship. If you listen to the lyrics though they speak of the human condition, at least to me. The guitar riffs are so sad and forlorn that they  just break me. Simple sounds that have a thousand layers.

I was watching Bruce Springsteen Live in Dublin where he was playing the Pete Seeger sessions. He plays with about a 10 piece band including fiddles and a complete horn section. Listening to it is an absolute audio buffet. The thing that struck me is that in all of the chaos, there is a complete order to things as well. That's what makes it so outstanding. One of the best parts is when the horns kick in and start dragging. It is amazing how it pulls at my soul.

So, I'm not sure why it is so much in my face lately, but the beauty of life is there. Music is just one area that I'm writing about. It's there in so many other places as well. It's right there for anyone looking for it. Right there.

Blogging off...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Spirit of Now and Then

I'm working on trying to get into the Christmas spirit, whatever that is. We've had our tree up for a couple of weeks and the same goes for the Christmas lights outside. There has been no snow at all around here, so it's looking more like March outside than December. (I'm REALLY okay with that too. Really.)

It seems that you can't force the spirit upon yourself. You can surround yourself with lights and carols and shopping and feasting, but if you're not content, none of that stuff is going to make you happy. You can't buy, eat  or see happiness, it just is. I always think that once the lights and the tree is up, then I'll be "in the spirit" and magically change my attitude, and am always a little shocked when it doesn't happen instantly. For me it's like a slow burn that builds up as Christmas gets nearer. I always manage to hit Christmas Zen, but sometimes it's not until as late as Christmas Eve service, which is fitting anyway, if you think about it.

Thinking back to last year at this time and there's a whole different dynamic to our family than last year. I am extremely grateful that we took the trip to Mayo over Christmas to see Rob and his family. As tough as that was, it was still where we needed to be. The older I get, the less it's about stuff and the more it's about people. I look forward to holidays for catching up with family as much as unwrapping gifts. In the past it's been as fun to see the cousins getting along and having fun as it is talking to the adults. The fact that my kids have cousins that they get along so well with is something I'll always be envious of. We were far from our cousins in St. Cloud, so didn't know them like our kids know theirs. It's good for all of them.

So, I encourage you to consider what makes you happy this time of year and pursue it. Remember the loved ones that aren't here to share it with you and be thankful that you had the times with them that you had.

Personally, I'll never forget the annual tradition Rob and I had of going to Midnight Mass at St. Lukes every Christmas Eve. Without fail as we were walking home with hands in pockets, he would catch me off-guard and bump/push me into a snowbank. He would laugh and laugh and I usually ended up laughing too. I cherish the fact that he always made it a point to go to with me, as neither of us much attended mass regularly at the time.

I'll also never forget the first time I went to Midnight Mass with my sister-in-law Jane. Rob and I were being quiet and reverent and as I went to sit down, Jane pinched my butt. Now, I didn't know Jane very well at this point, she was fairly new to the family. So when it happened, I was shocked. Shocked in part because I took Mass so seriously, probably too seriously, and was so surprised by what I now call the Christmas Goose. Of course all three of us started giggling and could barely stop. Knowing Jane like I do now it totally fits her personality. She's so fun-loving and has a great sense of humor. She also knows I take myself too seriously and sometimes need to lighten up. It was a lighthearted moment that endeared me to her spirit forever.

It's these kinds of things that are what Christmas memories are all about. Cherish them. Make new ones. Love the moments. Relive the good ones. Life is too short for humbug.

Blogging off...

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Look Back at the First Fifty

This is likely the last post before I officially become an AARP target. This Sunday I hit 50 and I'm having a little problem with it, frankly. It's not even because I feel old, per se. It's more about what else it means. It means when I read in the paper that someone died at 61, that I'm only 11 years from that. I can remember vividly the surprise party for Donna's father's 50th birthday. Her father. He was old then. That would make me...old, I guess.

A list of things I was glad I did in my first 50 years:

1. Worked and paid my way through my last two years of High School and all of College. (With ZERO debt, mind you.)

2. Lived in a dumpy first apartment. It allowed me to appreciate the nice ones more later.

3. Took a job in mapping for $5.00/hour out of college to gain some valuable experience. If I would have snubbed that job I might never have known the joy I've had working in GIS/Mapping all these years.

4. Moved away from home to take my second job. I never wanted to move, but a job change required it. Waukesha/Milwaukee is home now.

5. Wrote letters to Rob when he was in college. It is how I met Donna. From pen pals to husband and wife.

6. Waited 5 years to have kids after marrying. Those years seem so long ago, but it was important to build that marital foundation first.

7. Took lots of vacations with my family. Mercer, South Dakota, Poconos, NY State and City, BWCA, Colorado, Myrtle Beach, Orlando. Those are the things they'll always remember.

8. Stayed with Elmbrook Church. Our church has seen 3 head pastoral changes and has had multiple programs come and go. The focus is still clear though and "church" is about a whole lot more than a building.

9. Stayed with the house we're in. We looked at moving about 5 years ago, but only would have bought more house than we could have afforded anyway.

10. Took writing classes. It has uncovered a love of mine that was untapped for so long and is finally being put to use.

I cannot say I don't have any regrets of the past 50 years. There are some stupid things I've done. Some foolish things too. Most of them were minor things and I am not ashamed to say that some of the stupid foolish things I've done are the things I'll remember when I'm old and in the rocking chair. Of course that's a long way off, because I'm still kicking and I'm certainly not old.

But I am blogging off...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

December Thoughts of a Sagittarian

December 2011 is upon us. It was unusually mild today with clear skies and little if any wind. November was fairly mild too. There was no snow to speak of in November and no real cold snaps either.

You don't know how happy this makes me.

I am not a big fan of winter. I don't like ice fishing much, and am not really a downhill skier. I cross country ski and when I do, I really enjoy it. At the same time if it meant not skiing all year because there was no snow, I'll take the no snow, every time.

So if you throw in a mild week at the end of November and no snow as of Dec. 1st, well, that makes winter just that much shorter for me. Seriously, I appreciate every mild or snow/rain-less day.

I know, I know, if I don't like winter what am I doing living here? That is the question.

I did get my outdoor Christmas lights on today. I started this task 2 weeks ago but ran into two strings that were defective, so I just quit. Donna picked up a couple of new ones, and so I got them all up tonight. I am not a big outdoor light-show guy, but for some reason, it doesn't feel right if I don't do these eave lights every year. Tomorrow Ben and I are going to get a Christmas tree, and this weekend we'll put it up. As much as I hate the winter weather, I do love the holiday season.

As I was walking home from work on Tuesday, I came across a breathtaking sunset that I had to capture on my phone. It is the image shown above. It is these kinds of sunsets and landscapes that remind me of the power and beauty of God. It also evokes memories of Rob for some unknown reason which makes me sad and joyful at the same time.

The latest revelation about Rob's story that has occurred to me is that his passing at this young age, and the fact that he is in heaven already, has made my acceptance of my own fate much more bearable. It's not that I'm morbid or wanting death at all, only that if I was suddenly faced with it I would be much more able to deal with it knowing that he is there already. Another way to put it is that heaven, death and dying just got a whole lot less scary. I think this is a healthy outlook and am going to run with that for now.

Blogging off...

Monday, November 28, 2011

Cyber Monday

Had a really good, relaxing trip back to Minnesota for Thanksgiving. Because we left on Wednesday, and I took today off of work, it's been a good recharge of the batteries for me. We had extraordinary weather while we were up there. Thursday and Friday were spectacular; in the high 50's and low 60's both days. I was actually shooting hoops in a t-shirt for an hour and a half on Friday. Unbelievable really. Usually it's snowing and 30 degrees.

I managed to avoid black Friday madness for the 49th year in a row.

We stayed with my sister in-law's family again. She's a great hostess, and our kids get along so well. We call it the Landwehr hotel, and we are grateful she opens her house to us the way she does. My brother wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

Looking back on the weekend, I have nothing but good memories to store away from it. We had a family "Amazing Race" game before Thanksgiving which was a blast. We had to find clues around the Shoreview Community Center and some of the events included a basketball shoot, a toast to my brother Rob, and blowing a bubble with chewing gum and posting it to Facebook. It was fun even though at one point during it we had lost the youngest and the oldest racers.

The weekend was a perfect chance to reflect on how much I need to be thankful for. I got to know my nephew Mike and his girlfriend a bit better. (I had never met her.) He has been sober for 2 years now and is a new person. He is absolutely inspirational to me. I also got to laugh (and cry) with my sister and niece on Saturday's celebration of December birthdays (Donna the 7th, Paul the 2nd and myself the 11th)  I also got a chance to spend some decent time with my brothers Tom and Paul and my nephew Nick on Friday night. Usually our time is so short that we never get much below the surface. We had some great laughs as well as some serious discussions. I am privileged to be a part of such a strong family.

I also got to experience Midtown Global Market which was a bit like Milwaukee Public Market. It's in Minneapolis on Lake Street and features food and goods from several different countries. It was nice to get out of the house for a bit.

Back to reality tomorrow. I'm thankful for many things this holiday season. Thankful for my health. Thankful for my great kids, and beautiful wife. Thankful for my faith that has been tested these past 12 months, and thankful for my Minnesota family.

Blogging off...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Moment of Pause

In the spirit of the upcoming Thanksgiving, I wanted to touch on some things I'm thankful for.

1. My Mother. She continues to amaze me with her strength and love in this, the toughest of years.

2. My Wife. She helps to run a tight (but fun) household. I am extremely blessed to have had her for 21 years (and counting).

3. My Sarah. Her academic talents, huge heart and strong faith are dizzying. I love her wit.

4. My Ben. His free spirit, compassion for others and his love of all things social, are my envy.

5. My brother Tom. I credit him with giving me my sense of humor and my love of all things outdoor.

6. My sister Pat. She's always got my back. She defends and supports me with a mother's furor.

7. My sister Jane. Her love of family and her kids is evident every time she opens her home to us.

8. My brother Rob. For teaching me how to live for and love today and quit worrying about tomorrow.

9. My sister in-law Jane. Her strength, perseverance and smile. What a light!

10. My brother Paul. He gave me the love of music and taught me to lighten up.

11. My In-Laws. My New York family has always respected our decisions and has never meddled. Love them.

12. My Job. This year marked 15 years at the county, and I still love my job.

13. My House. It's old and comfortable. There are days I hate it, but most are good.

14. My Faith. Thanks to my friend Pat for discipling me back when I didn't want to be discipled. It was a great foundation.

15. My Friends. Good friends to fish with, watch the game with, laugh with, cry with, mourn with. Like wine, they get better with age.

16. My Writing Class. A strange thing to be thankful for, but I love these people and those nights I get to go and play writer. It stretches me and gives me great joy.

17. My Pets. It's a weird thing if you think about it, having animals running around your house. They give the house a whole new energy.

18. Wisconsin Sports Teams. We're reaching the zenith of Packers/Brewers/Badgers success and it sure is fun. I think back to the Packers/Brewers of the late '80's. We've come a LONG way.

19. My City. Waukesha is quaint, safe, boring and beautiful. My second home.

20. My iPod. Strange again, but I use it daily on my walk to work and it helps make my day a little easier.

That's it. I challenge each of you to count your own blessings this Thanksgiving. You shouldn't have to look far to realize how lucky we are in this country.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Blogging off...

Friday, November 18, 2011

Writing For My Life

An update on  my writing is in order, as it's been a while. 

I continue to try and blog twice a week or so. This keeps my skills up and forces me to get something down at least twice a week. Without it, I would be left to my writing class only, and I think it's important to keep active in many areas to keep you sharp. Sometimes the blog feels forced and other times it rolls off readily. When it does that, it's almost visceral. I kind of get in a writing zone and things come easily. These are some of my best writings; funny and succinct. Usually they are driven by an event that happened that calls for a humorous post.

I'm still in AllWriters' workshop on Wednesday nights. This has become one of my favorite nights of the week. I get the chance to rub elbows with other writers and just be "cerebral." As I told my wife many years ago when I was taking a continuing education class, it just makes me feel like I'm doing something with my life when I'm in school. There's something about surrounding yourself with smart people that brings a level of satisfaction and confidence. True, work gives you some of this, but I think people need a balance of activities outside of work that keeps them learning, fresh and interesting. 

This class is that for me. The students there are all trying their best to make a name for themselves. They're submitting work, getting published, getting rejected, and learning a ton along the way. Most of us are amateurs. The instructor Kathie Giorgio and her husband Michael have more publishing credits to their names that I could ever count, so I would call them professional writers. They are the exception though. The rest of us are either beginners, or fledgling writers doing what we love in the hopes someone will take notice and publish us.

This past week there was 5 of us writers + the instructor. I find it fascinating to hear the story behind these writers' story. What goes on in their heads as they struggle with plot, characters and time. It's all the same thing I struggle with, so it is refreshing to see that I am not alone. It seems that most writers struggle with what I call the "inner critic." This is that voice in my head that says "that sucks" or "this is no good, what are you doing? You can't write." Again it is refreshing to know that I'm not the only one who's seen this guy. He lives in most writers' head. He brings you down and keeps you second-guessing  yourself. 

On the publishing side of things, my poem Soul Pane is now published in this quarter's Issue of Verse Wisconsin Magazine. The issue just came out this week. I don't even have my complimentary copies yet. 

I also got a rejection last week Sunday that I'd sent to Adventum Magazine. I actually submitted two articles to that magazine, but neither made the cut. Onward and upward though. I refuse to dwell in the negative for very long. There's too many other quality publications out there. 

Yesterday I submitted a couple of poems for publication in a poetry calendar. It would be a nice addition if one of the pieces was accepted for that. I have a few straggler pieces out there as well. Most of those fell into the "6 weeks to 6 month" notification black hole. Time will tell. 

All I know is that I'm doing what I love, people are noticing, and suddenly I can't get enough of it.

Life is good.

Blogging off...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Slightly Above Average Weekend

It was a fairly average weekend. At the same time, I'm learning to appreciate average in ways I've never known before.

Friday night I had the house to myself for about 3 hours. Ben had a sleepover and Donna and Sarah had to work. It was a chance for me to write a bit, surf the web, listen to the stereo at my own level and just be alone. I'm one of those people who's very comfortable being alone and tends to want to do too much when it happens. This time I allowed myself to do just enough. It was great. While the alone time was good, it was nice to greet the girls when they got home too. We just had pizza and hung out.

I learned there's peace in being alone, and peace in being together with family.

Saturday morning was filled with the usual busyness. Cutting the grass, cleaning the house, walking the dog. In the afternoon we  all went down to the east side of Milwaukee for Ian' Pizza for a kind of belated birthday lunch for Sarah. I had a slice of Mac n Cheese pizza that was really, really good. A strange combo, but divine. I split a second piece with Ben and got Chili-Cheese-Frito's Pizza. Again, strange but really good. I love that part of town and miss being around it. So much vibrancy and character compared to Waukesha (though Waukesha is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was 10 years ago.) After lunch we took a walk along the shore of Lake Michigan in 55 degree weather. From there we went to Alterra for coffee and had some great face-time with Ben and Sarah.

I learned to not take for granted the great city we live near and the great lake its on. We are incredibly fortunate.

Today we woke and went to church like any average Sunday. As we sometimes do after church, we went to the Steaming Cup for coffee and cinnamon rolls. This has become one of my favorite venues lately. I don't know if its the atmosphere or just that when I go I have the undivided attention of my wife (if I go with her) or my kids if they are there. The coffee is good and it's a good way to slow down our Sunday after the rush to get to church.

I learned that as much as I like these trips for coffee, its something the kids will probably always remember with great fondness.

Tonight I led my small group for Mosaic again. I played dodge ball until I nearly had a heart attack. I have to remember that I'm not 13 anymore and at 6'5" I am a BIG target. A couple of times I was so gassed I had to take a knee. Between the adrenaline and chucking dodge balls with all my might, I get gassed pretty quick. Took a shot to the face, two to the chest and one in the crotch tonight. As I said I am a big target. A bit slow moving too, evidently. It was a blast. Then after the message our small group met and had a fun yet deep discussion. They are a really well behaved group of kids, and I'm glad to be part of their lives, albeit small.

I learned that although I never thought I'd want to lead teenagers, God had different plans.

So, never discount the value of an ordinary, average weekend.

Blogging off...

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Bio Fueled Squash Mobile

I just finished making a car out of vegetables with Ben. It was a school project for the STEM academy that he attends. STEM for those who don't know is a charter school that focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. It is in its second year and all in all, seems to be better than it was its first year. Year one everyone was new to everything, so the communication was bad, the curriculum was confusing and the students were disoriented as to the new expectations.

Year two has seen some improvements in the communication for sure. Ben's teacher from year 1 was an email fanatic. Some days we'd get 3 or 4 emails. I'm all for communication, but my time spent reading email is valuable too. Lets keep it to two, or better yet one. Ben seems to be doing better as well. We've been trying to work with him on remembering homework assignments BEFORE he leaves school. He's doing better than early in the year, so something must be clicking. In fact, he even came down and asked me if I would help him with his vegetable car. It's not often that he remembers something's due, let alone asks me 2 days in advance to help.

Now, I'm not sure how a car made out of vegetables fits into rocket scientology, but I trust they know what they're doing in STEM. It certainly required a bit of creativity if nothing else. I guess they're going to race them all down a track of some sort for sort of a veg-car derby.

I recall being in 8th grade when the big thing in science class was ice cube experiments. I remember questioning how this was going to prepare us all for the rigors of high school science. Sister Fill-In-The-Blank-Cuz-I-Can't-Remember said that I should rest assured that the principles of experimentation would apply. I passed freshman biology and sophomore chemistry, so I guess she was right. I also now know that ice cubes melt faster when you stir them vs. when you don't. (I may have known that before the class, but I digress.)

There are several differences between the school days of now vs. back when I was a kid. The biggest for my kids is that they don't have to wear uniforms. Because I went to private grade/high schools, I always had to wear a uniform. No worries about fashion or style there. You were always out of style in your parochial uniform. It did make getting dressed much simpler. I've heard that Einstein wore the same clothes every day.

Maybe that's what they were trying to do...make lots of little Einsteins.

I remember my mother every fall would have to go to the uniform store, a unique store that sold everything from school uniforms to nurse skirts to janitor uniforms. First she would assess the hand-me-down factor and see if Paul could wear Rob's pants from the year before and so on. Then she'd lay out the money for everyone to have two pair of pants and two shirts. Some years they would change the style or fabric of the uniform to my mother's chagrin. That meant that some of the hand me downs would not work because they were out of style.

Nowadays, kids all need to have the aeropostle shirts or the skateboard shoes, etc., etc., all in the name of being cool and fitting in. It's funny how as a culture, we train them young that style and name brands matter (they don't) and that you are what you wear (you aren't). It's no wonder they grow up to be consumers of all things name brand. What do we expect?

On top of that kids are going to school with expensive phones and expensive iPods, iPads and laptops that, back in the day, would have made my mom's head spin.

I better stop now. I'm starting to sound like I'm almost 50.

Blogging off...

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Out of the Blue

Got a random phone call yesterday at work from a friend I'd lost touch with for the past 20 years or so. I thought he was a user of our GIS system at work.  He caught me off-guard by saying his name and then saying could you take down this email address and send him mine. When I heard that I realized it wasn't a person from the public, but rather and old friend, I felt embarassed that I didn't catch it earlier. At the same time, what would have prepared me for someone I hadn't heard of for twenty years?

In any case, it was great to hear from him. I'd been thinking about the guys I used to hang with back in the day ever since Rob got sick. I thought I should probably tell them of it, but then thought it might be too weird after such a long time of no contact to pull them into such a grievous situation. Rob actually hung around them a few times after I had moved out of state, so he has seen them more recently than I.

So we caught up on a few things over the phone. It's a funny thing, old friends. You can tell a good friend when you pick up with them right where you left off 20 years ago. I've done it with my friend Pat in Minnesota, my friends Maureen and Mark in Durango CO, more recently with our RIT friends in NY, and now Terri and Mark in Minnesota.

I think you go through phases in your life where you kind of make your own lives for a long period of time and then when something tragic or monumental happens, you reconnect. It's not that you intentionally disown these friends, it's just that you move away, make new ones and then get caught up in your new life to the point that time just gets away from you. The next thing you know, you're approaching fifty and you realize that you've lost touch with people who, in part, made you who you are today.

When you get together with these people, as I did at my Cretin High School 30th reunion in 2009, it is important to maintain a healthy focus on the here and now and not get stuck in the past. We tend to glamorize and glorify the past as having been better than it actually was. We all need to realize that we're not 25 anymore and that we've got pretty good lives right now.

Rob made that glaringly clear the last time I talked to him. I said I was struggling with with the point of all of these memories with him if the end result was we're going to get cut short anyways. He said "Jim, you can't go back." He went on to say that the memories are things he cherished, but we can't forget that we are in the midst of making memories every moment of every day. If we're focused on how good things were, we tend to temper how good things are. It was a luminous moment for me, one I'll never forget.

I'm not sure where this reconnection will take me. I'm only sure that life is too short to dismiss people who care enough about you to try and get back in touch.

Blogging off...

Monday, October 31, 2011


Another Halloween is upon us and we whiffed on it. Frankly, I'm alright with all of it. This year we didn't buy so much as a pumpkin. Usually we get pumpkins at the Fall Fest that we spend with friends in early October. Because we missed it this year, we never really got around to getting one at the store. I stopped by the grocery store the other night, but all they had were Charlie Brown pumpkins, so I passed.

Neither of the kids is interested in Trick or Treating this year. Sarah's too old and Ben said none of his friends are interested in it this year, so we're just hanging out at home. It's a bit of a crossroads for us as a family, and thus a bit bittersweet for me. I've never been a big fan of Halloween, but I did enjoy getting together with our friends Patty and Brad to walk with our kids through their neighborhood. It was sort of our tradition, and this year even their kids weren't interested, with the exception of their youngest, who's birthday also falls on Halloween. She and some friends are going out trick or treating.

In trying to think of some memorable Halloween costumes and events of the past I came up with a few.

There was the year I was trick or treating with Rob and we were followed by a couple of teenagers for the last block or so before we got home. When we got to our house, Rob, suspicious of the teens, took a shortcut up the hill, while I was out to prove that I wasn't scared and kept walking to our steps. At the base of the steps one of the kids stole my bag, and they both took off running. I was pissed and went in and told Tom. He and a friend went out looking for the guy while I followed, but no luck. As I was walking back from then end of the block, I saw the remnants of my bag underneath a parked car. I went and got it and it was all there. All my candy. It turned out not to be a tragic holiday after all.

There was the year that Intelligraphics had a Halloween party with a DJ and I dressed up as the Jolly Green Giant and Donna was the Little Green Sprout. We looked like a couple of trees out there on the dance floor. At that same party I also remember our friend Bill Lee dressed in jail stripes as James Brown, shortly after he'd been arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. Bill did an amazing rendition of JB, too.

One year we attended a party in our friend Stephanie's basement and I dressed up as a pirate. I wanted to find a stuffed parrot toy for my shoulder, but all I could find was a grouse or a partridge. Not caring, I taped it on and went to the party. People kept calling me out on it. A few even wondered if I was Dr. Doolittle.

In 1988, Rob, Jane, Paul and Keith came down for Halloween. We spent the night at various East Side locales. The best costume of the trip was Paul's. He had a piece of green carpet with a football field on one side and a baseball field on the other and carried an umbrella spray painted silver. When people asked what he was, he said "The Metrodome". Classic. Creative and classic!

Our kids had some memorable cute costumes, none of which I can find pictures for, of course. One year at a particularly scary house, Sarah and Patrick approached the witch cautiously and when they got their candy, Sarah ran back to us and Patrick froze in fear. We had to go rescue him from himself.

This year Ben did get a plain mask that, when worn with a hoodie sweatshirt is downright creepy. He's using it to scare the kids as he passes out candy.

It's a fun holiday if you keep it in perspective. I'm one who's not into dressing up for it too much anymore. I think it's best left to the kids anyways.

Boooooing off...

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Time is of the Essence

Had a tough day today with regards to Rob not being with us anymore. It sneaks up on me and overwhelms me when I least expect it. I don't really know how it comes up, but when it does, its not a pretty thing. It does cause me to think pretty deeply about what life is all about, where I'm going and what is important. It may be the only positive thing to come out of the whole momentary deal.

It always dredges up great memories that we shared together, which is a good thing. The down-side to it though is that it sparks me to thinking that we'll never be able to make any new ones. What's done is done. That also is one of the last things he said to me when I was telling him how we'd never have the chance to make new ones as we both reminisced about the past. He said "You can't go back," which is true. I'm not sure that's what I want to do, but my tendency is to color the past better than it was, and in turn, mourn the loss of the good old days. (That were no better than the now new days.)

It's a little like the Ecclesiastes 3 verses that the song Turn Turn Turn was derived from.

  • There is a time to ride bikes to the Mississippi River and throw rocks, and a time to watch the river flow by with your kids.

  • There is a time to share a bedroom with a brother and a time to share one with your wife.

  • There is a time for staying up all night with your brother partying and a time for early to bed because your exhausted from being a new father.

  • There is a time for eating dinner with 6 kids around the table and a time for eating alone on a business trip.

  • There is a time for playing tackle football with your brothers and a time for watching your son play tackle football.
  • There is a time for dating and a time for weddings.
  • There is a time for college and a time for work
  • A time for apartment and a time for a house
  • A time for a new friend and a time for old friends
  • A time for the Beatles and a time for Green Day
  • A time for transistor radios and a time for iPods
Because all things in life are what you make of them. It can be drudgery or joy. The choice is yours. How do you want to live out your days. Your time is short. It may not seem that way. Tomorrow might seem like as far out as you can see. But when you have something as traumatic as losing a sibling at a young age, you see life out a whole lot further and suddenly, every day seems significant. Every week is a big week. 

So my advice to you is to go out and make your life bigger. Bigger than TV. Bigger than the next toy or electronic. Bigger than your car, your house, your school, or your posessions. Bigger.

Blogging off...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Wrong and Right

From where I stand here are ten things that are wrong and ten things that are right with the world today:

1. That people waiting in line for anything can't leave their cell phone alone for 5 minutes.
2. Drive through lines at Walgreens to get prescriptions. It's no wonder we're sick. We're too lazy to get out of the car. (Have never used the drive through lines, personally)
3. Penalty challenges in the NFL, College Football and many other sports. Spare me the 5 minute stoppage.
4. Intersection cameras. Two words: Police state.
5. Leaf blowers. Can you get any more annoying and offensive?
6. Vat-o-popcorn at the theatres for, like $11.00. C'mon!
7. Talk radio nut jobs. Left wing/Right wing, all of them. Think for yourself.
8. Any TV over 50 inches. Why?
9. Overblown team introductions for ANY sport. I saw the Buffalo Sabres introducing the assistant Medical Trainer over the PA last weekend for their opener. Glad I saw that.
10. College tuitions. Out of site. Education should be affordable.


1. Any free wireless
2. One person, one vote. (Most of the time)
3. Recycling is prevalent everywhere
4. Windmills and CFL bulbs (Love them or hate them.)
5. Hybrid cars
6. National Health Care. The US can learn from Canada and Great Britain.
7. Organic Farming and locally grown food. Support it!
8. Freedom of religion
9. Light rail and bike lanes. (Learn from Madison, WI and Portland, OR)
10. Food shelves

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Patience in the Tempest

I spent much of last weekend fishing for musky in the northern reaches of Wisconsin. The weather was, oddly enough, very fall-like. We left from Waukesha on Thursday morning in a steady drizzle and drove for 5 hours in an almost constant rain. My friend who went with admitted he was in a funk and a bit on the cranky side. We got up to Presque Isle about 2:00 and the rain just kept on coming. It rained so hard and long that we didn't even get a chance to fish on Thursday which was part of the reason behind leaving early. We hung out and watched baseball and football that night with the intention of getting a full day of fishing on Friday.

Friday we woke to high 40's and a light rain and winds gusting 20-25 mph. We got our warm clothes on and covered it with our rain gear. We committed to trying one lake and if that was too choppy or slow fishing, we would try another. We stopped in town and got some live bait, sucker minnows that were $7.50 each. (Yikes). These are big fish, in some cases more than 12" long. Ours averaged 9". The saying goes, "You want to catch a big fish, you have to use a big fish." Sounds logical to me.

We launched on the first lake found a protected shoreline and fished for an hour or so. Then we tried a couple of new spots and proceeded to buck the wind for another hour. Steve's funk continued and he said we should get off this lake, get some lunch and try and adjust his attitude.

After an appetizer sample of fried food and a beer at the Pea Patch Steve seemed to be in a much better state. We headed over to the other lake and launched. We again found a protected shoreline and trolled for a while with no luck. The rain was intermittent, but light most of the time. Because using a trolling motor is forbidden in the waters we were in, we row-trolled. This can be tough in wind, but we were fortunate to have found enough protected shoreline that it wasn't too bad.

We moved to a new location and after an hour and a half were starting to get the feeling that we might be out of luck.

Then the ticking started.

The ticking of the reel usually signals that either a fish is on, or you have a snag. "Fish on!" Steve said. Because I was busy casting and preoccupied, it took me a second to realize that he wasn't kidding.

This is typically when the chaos starts. These are big fish, and because they tend to pull the sucker around and  chomp on it a while, it gives you a few minutes to prepare the boat for the fight and subsequent landing. I reeled in my line and then reeled in the other sucker that we were trolling behind the boat. It's important to have nothing that could get snagged on the line of the caught fish. I get the net ready and Steve gets the pliers, towel and cameras ready.

There was some discussion earlier on who would get the "first fish." Typically we take turns and we usually get one each anyway. It was an unofficial agreement earlier that Steve would take the first fish because he put the most work into rigging up the suckers.

When it was go time Steve handed me the rod and said "It's Rob's birthday. Bring it in." I was moved that he was that willing to let me take the first fish and reach my goal of trying to catch a musky on Rob's birthday. That's what you call a good friend.

I reeled up the slack to the point where my rod tip was in the water, then reared back and set the hook. The fish was quite a fighter as it dove left and right on me. As I recall, it fought a little harder than my first big one two years ago. After a minute it was boat-side and it made one last lunge away from the boat when it saw the net. I reeled him the rest of the way in and Steve netted it. It was a beautiful 34" musky, small by musky standards, but after fishing for 6 hours, I am always relieved to see a fish on the end of any line. We snapped a couple of pictures and set it free. Catch and release is all we fish. These fish are too special to keep. One day it will be someone else's trophy picture.

An hour later we had another fish in the boat, a 30" Tiger Musky.

When that was released, we figured our luck had run out, so called it a day.

Through all of it I became painfully aware of how important it is to stay patient in life's adverse or stormy conditions. If you freak out, throw in the towel or lose your temper, you're likely to miss the joy and happiness that may be as near as the next hour. Any fisherman knows, the worst fishing is typically when the sun is shining and the sky is cloudless. If you tough out the storm, you'll be glad you did.

And glad I was.

I had caught one of the most coveted fish, a fish that was for years the subject of smack talk among the brothers and I had done it on my brother's birthday, while wearing a shirt that was given to me by his wife. In my eyes, there was no place I would rather have been on that crappy day. I was absolutely happy the whole day. Some would call me nuts, but none of it would have happened if I'd had enough sense to get out of the rain.

Blogging off...

Friday, October 7, 2011

Homecoming Revisited (Is that redundant?)

I went to the Waukesha South Homecoming game tonight. It was a 34 - 7 blowout where South was never really in the game. It was much like the other games I went to this year. Tough to watch, over by halftime for the most part. It's not a knock against the football program, but I guess it probably is ultimately.

Going to these games brings back memories of homecoming games when I was a student at Cretin High School. Cretin was much like the Waukesha South team at the time. A not-very-good team in a tough conference. I don't recall seeing them win a game, actually. I would usually go to these games with a few friends, mainly to goof around and flirt. (Which is pretty much what my daughter does at them too, so some things never change.) I'd watch the games of course, but they were always such blowouts that I'd lose interest and end up goofing off...and flirting.

It's kind of ironic because now Cretin has a good team that is consistently in the State Championship game that is played at the Metrodome. They finally won the big game last year after coming in second so many times. It however is a much different scenario now. The program has money behind it, big money. Tuition at the school is considerably (exponentially) higher than when I was a student there. I was able to pay my last two years' tuition by working as a busboy a couple nights a week. Try and find a student that can do that in these times. I don't thing it's happening. Not with what tuition costs.

So it was a walk down memory lane. And we lost, just like we did 35 years ago. Football is timeless.

Blogging off...

Monday, October 3, 2011

Mid-life Monday

Had a bit of a mid-life moment today. I was riding home on my bike, like I did last week, and the month before that, and the year before that and the job before that, thinking I've been here before.

No, no that wasn't it. It was the thought that my life has become as predictable and as boring as the morning paper. Yeah, that was more what it was. That was it.

There is a rut in the road from my doorstep to my workplace that my bike tires have worn. I knew exactly what my evening would bring even as far as writing this blog. I knew it would be an evening of a bike ride, a bit of the evening paper and a walk of the dog. Then I'd pick Ben up from practice, eat some dinner, watch 12 minutes of the football game, feel the guilt that I wasn't writing, start writing and go to bed at 10:00.

Tomorrow will be strikingly similar. Strikingly.

What I really want to do tomorrow is Para sail. Or get kicked by a kangaroo in the outback of Australia. Or eat a chocolate covered insect in the jungle of Vietnam in a grass hut. Or ride a Harley out to Seattle and down the coast. Or climb a half dozen of the high peaks. Or sit on a crowded train in Turkey and wonder where I was going to spend the night. Or bike through Tuscany. Or help some Somalis dig a fresh water well. Or get a tattoo. Or catch a marlin in Florida. Or picket with the Wall Streeters in NY. Or bungy jump from the Royal Gorge bridge. Or learn how to do a 90 meter ski jump. Or get snake bitten in a perilous location. Or play receiver for the Packers for one series. Or skydive from a small plane. Or listen to Coldplay at the Opera House in Australia. Or help people stack sandbags to save their house from a flood. Or take a chopper ride in Hawaii. Or learn electric guitar. Or sleep in a mosquito net bed in Mozambique after a day of helping aids patients.

I'd really rather not dodge traffic on my bike tomorrow.

I realize that I have it good, really good. I have a beautiful wife who cares about me and two great kids that are as good as a man could ask for. I have a great job and a nice house in a great city/state. A dog, two cats and a pension.

I also know this is only a passing feeling and is completely unfounded. I have no plans on going through with anything drastic, and if you know me, you know I'm not that way. I won't be running off with the cleaning woman, as we have none. I won't be getting a Porsche Boxster convertible, as I could never afford the insurance and would look pretty ridiculous in something so small. I won't be taking a meditation class as I have inner peace without it.

But by writing it all out, in a way, I feel better already.

Blogging off...

Monday, September 26, 2011

Momentary Sports Mecca

It's a good time of year to be a Wisconsin sports fan. I'll admit I am pretty much a one trick pony when it comes to sports. I LOVE NFL football, but don't have a ton of time for the rest of sports. I'll watch the standings for all teams from WI and MN, but really other than pro football, I don't really care who does what. When the baseball playoffs start if the Twins or Brewers happen to be in them, I'll start watching, but don't really watch much more than the standings during the year. That probably qualifies me as a fair weather baseball fan, but you know what? There's only so many hours in a week. I feel guilty enough watching two Sunday games and a Monday Night game.

Basketball is even worse. Any game where they score points every minute just don't do anything for me. If I watch a game, it's only the last few minutes of one, because why watch the first 100 points? Again, fair weather? Probably, and I'm OK with that.

Now, I do enjoy the NCAA Tournament in March. Do I watch any games other than the one's Wisconsin and Minnesota (rarely) are in? No. As soon as the Wisconsin teams are out of it though I lose interest. I'll root for the teams from my bracket, but only from the standings in the paper. You won't see me tuning in to LSU vs. Oregon St.

Having laid that out there, I AM excited about the Milwaukee Brewers at the moment. It's been 29 years since they won a division title, so when they won it on Friday, it was fun to watch. I even registered online for the opportunity to buy tickets if my name was drawn from the lottery. I got notice on Saturday that my name was not drawn, but I would be eligible for the NLCS or World series if they get that far.

Now, this is a small market team that has built a pretty good club from the ground up. In 2008 they won the wild card almost solely on the arm of CC Sabathia. This team is a much deeper club in many ways. Their pitching can be suspect at times, but they have plenty of offense and know how to win at home. It would be nice if they could get home field advantage and help themselves out.

Meanwhile the Packers are starting hot as well at 3-0. Their wins have been ugly, but are wins are wins. I expect they'll go deep in the playoffs and be right in it at the end.

Then, the Badgers are 4-0 as well. Their first real test is this weekend vs. Nebraska, so we'll see what they're really made of soon enough.

To round it out Ben's Jr. Blackshirts are 3-1.

Until then though, I'm taking a baseball team with a playoff berth, two unbeaten football teams and my son's team on the right track and running with it.

Blogging off...

Friday, September 23, 2011

The University of Traffic

This is a post in the hopes that the Dean of Carroll University does a Google search on his own school and this blog comes up as one of the top 3 hits.

I have always loved living near Carroll University. I loved it even more though when it was Carroll College and it was a smaller, quaint college tucked inside the center of Waukesha. What has happened is they have grown the college by leaps and bounds. They are building apartment/dorms exponentially and filling them.

Now I'm all for free enterprise and growth. I guess bringing in people to spend money in the city is a good thing. They will eat at our restaurants, buy our groceries (and beer), and shop at our stores.

That said, much comes along with the growth. First and most obvious to me is the traffic. Foot traffic, auto traffic, bikes and scooters. They cross the road wherever is convenient for them and I've almost hit a couple on my bike. It's perilous at 7:30 in the morning and continues throughout the day. Added to this is the traffic for the schools nearby as well as people trying to get to work.

This has served to make me a crabby man.

They need to build a bridge over the Barstow/College crossing. Traffic trying to turn left AND right are both backed up because students are crossing to get to classes from their dorms on Grand Ave.

They now have a campus security cop-car wannabe, a couple of student shuttles to shuttle the students 3 blocks and the other day I even saw a Campus Security Harley Davidson. I couldn't believe my eyes. A motorcycle to go in a 3 block square? Seriously? The thing will never see second gear for crying out loud. What's he going to do, write out warning tickets? Does he get orange and white lights instead of red and blue?

This is a sign that Carroll University charges too much for tuition. That and the fact that they change the flowers in front of the dining commons and the campus arches every 30 days, whether they're dead or not. It's out of control spending caused by out of control tuition increases.

All of this is happening because there was no plan. No campus plan for traffic, controlled growth or neighborhood impact. My advice to the Board of Regents and other University mucky mucks is to now figure out how to fix what they broke. Wake me when it's done.

Blogging off...

Monday, September 19, 2011

You Took

Below is the poem I wrote for my brother's funeral. It speaks of Rob's overcoming adversities as well as God's righteous plan, albeit mysterious at times.  I miss him unbelievably, but realize we'll be reunited one day.

You Took                                   By Jim Landwehr

You took away his hearing,

So that he might become a friend
to those You also chose for deafness.

So that he might better appreciate
the touch of his loving wife and beautiful daughters

You took away his hearing, Lord
but he listened to You still.

You took away his sister,

So that he might be a blessing
to his brothers and sisters remaining.

So that You could show him the love
of stepbrothers and sisters that he might never have known.

You took away his sister, Lord
but he trusted you still.

You took away his Father,

So that he could be a better father
to his own daughters

So that he might more completely love
his Mother, whose love never ceased.

You took away his Father, Lord
but he loved his Father in heaven still.

You took away his legs,

So that he might better see
that it’s people that matter, not circumstances.

So that he might fully proclaim that
no disability can keep a good man down.

You took away his legs, Lord
but he walked with you still.

You took away his life,

So that we might stand and recognize
the way he touched our lives, each one of us.

So that his memory shall resonate
for decades to come; an echo he hears in heaven

You took away his life, Lord
and now he’s with You, and us, forever.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Musky Men

While we were up in Mercer, WI a couple of weeks back, I had set a goal to catch a musky with some of the equipment Rob gave me the last time I saw him. He gave me his musky rod and lures because he knew I would use them. It meant more to me than most of my possessions. It's weird how sentimental you can get about such things, but when someone very close to you passes away, you kind of grab on to what you can of them in a desperate attempt to heal some of the pain. To some it's jewelry, some a car, and some it's fishing stuff. My friend Steve got his brother's golf clubs and he treasures those.

Mercer is where my brothers Paul and Rob both caught their muskies. Paul caught his first when one year he decided to try fishing for musky - a very difficult fish to catch - after having such crappy luck fishing for anything else on Spider Lake. We wished him luck as he headed out with his rod and a very large lure. Turns out he caught one on his first cast, a feat that is nearly impossible. Musky are known as the fish of 10,000 casts, though they say with modern stocking and tackle/techniques, it is now more like 3,000 casts. In any case, they are not the fish of one cast, that's for sure.

Seeing Paul catch one, sparked the interest of Rob and the next year (2006) he caught his first musky (above) in a spot very near to where Paul got his. (No, not tellin' where.) A few years later I managed to get my first one in the same county, but on a different lake. All of this left Tom, my eldest brother, as the only one without a musky to his credit.

So, as I said, my goal was to catch a musky in Rob's honor. I got up early 3 days in a row, by 6:30 and got on the water. I fished using Rob's rod and reel, and I fished using my own new rod and reel. I threw lures from big to small. I tried it early in the morning and literally 10:00 at night. (Fishing at night was a first for me and quite a strange experience, especially with steam rising off the water which created an eerie scene.) I tried the old spots and familiar bays and the new spots including the narrows and other areas. I threw and reeled, threw and reeled and threw again.

I threw until my fingers were blistered and my shoulder blades were sore. I was desperate. "Must catch fish. Must catch fish."

While we were busy trying the whole weekend, so were my brothers Tom and Paul. Paul was trying solely for Musky and Tom for anything with fins. We had heard from a guy on the lake that he'd landed two musky on Saturday, but we had not so much as a follow to our credit.

We came home Sunday night to report that we had failed yet again to get a fish. It looked like there would be no musky this trip. I walked down to the big family cabin at Pine Forest Lodge where the bulk of the family was staying. When I walked in, I quickly found out that Tom had caught a 36" musky that evening about dusk.


In fact, I thought the only thing better than me catching one with Rob's equipment would be Tom catching his first during the trip.

A side story to the catch was that when Rob caught his, my sister Jane went to town and bought him a shirt with "Muskie Man" and a man in a superman outfit on the front. Well, Rob's wife Jane brought the shirt up to Mercer with her with instructions that whoever catches the musky during future trips must sign the shirt and gets to keep it until the following year. Tom got the honors this year. I'm sure Rob was looking down from heaven and smiling.

I'm booking for that shirt next year.

Blogging off...

Monday, September 12, 2011

Coming Up for Air

It has been a brutal couple of weeks. As most of you know, my brother passed away on Tuesday, August 30th after a long, courageous battle with cancer. Much has transpired since then, too much to list here. I do want to talk a bit about our trip to Mercer, WI two weeks ago.

On Tuesday, when my family gathered at my brother's house to support each other, the idea was postulated that maybe it would be a good thing if they all went up to Mercer to be with us and heal as a family. When we got word that that was going to happen, we were very excited. Because of Rob's quick passing, I never got the chance to get home and be with my family during their grieving. This would give them the opportunity to come to me, in some respects.

We drove up on Friday after work with our friends Jill and Steve who had planned to come with us all along. They were fairly trepidatious about the thought of being caught in the middle of our family's mourning. We assured them that we wanted them there to support us and hoped they would carry through. They did and it turned out to be a good thing for everyone.

After unpacking, settling in and saying hello to sister in-law Jane as well as John and Cheri, the proprietors, we went down and said hello to my family. Steve and Jill were reluctant to do that, but were gracious enough to carry it through. When they did, they said that the whole experience of meeting my mom and some of the others in the family was touching for them as well. Steve lost his brother (47, same age as Rob) to pancreatic cancer last December (2010). He said he was touched by my mother's mentioning his loss and her genuine nature about both of our situations. It made me proud to be called her son, and proud to be called his friend. Jill was moved by the whole situation as well, and it was really, really good to finally introduce my good friends to Mom.

After introductions, Steve, Jill and Donna saw to it that I spend time with my family out on the deck of the big family cabin, while they went back to our cabin. I went back and there they all were, Mom, Tom, Pat, and Jane. Paul didn't get up until Saturday, but the rest were there. Just being there was absolutely healing. Laughing with them, telling stories of Rob and sharing other family memories and just being around them was therapeutic. It was a night to remember...and part of a morning too.

There was much fishing all weekend long, with few results as expected at this very difficult lake to fish (Spider Lake). One of the funnier things that happened was that over the course of the weekend, Steve's fishing rod kept falling out of the boat into the water. The first two times he lunged over the boat side to grab it before it sunk to the bottom, and each time he got it. The third time was at night and I managed to hook his rod with my very large musky lure on the back side of a cast. When I flung it forward he said "Jim, that's my rod!" as it flung into the water in front of me. I reached over with my own rod and managed to hook it before it sank to the bottom.

It was then that we joked that Rob was playing with us and seeing to it that our rods were always falling overboard. We said he was jealous that I was already fishing with someone else, and to make matters worse, I was doing it on "our lake." It was a lightening joke to an otherwise heavy weekend.

The weekend had so much more to it. So many layers of grief, sorrow, healing, renewal, growth, memories and memory making. As time goes on, I'll try and recount some of those on this blog. For now though, I'm going to slog forward, grinding through my grief and sadness and try and see where I land when the dust has settled on this incredible loss in my life. Rob's passing has made heaven so much more real to me than it ever was, and for that I am grateful. At the same time, there are moments in every day when I cannot believe he is gone. Fortunately I know that the former is where I know we'll meet again, and that is the source of incredible hope and relief for me.

Blogging off...

Monday, August 29, 2011

Summer's Looner Eclipse

This time of year always reminds me of the summer's-end vacations. Those vacations squeezed between summer vacation and school, or between summer and fall.

Long ago it was when the brothers and I would typically take our Boundary Waters Canoe Area trip every year. We would usually drive up Labor Day and spend most of the week in the BW. We loved that time of year because it wasn't too hot, and the bugs were almost a non-factor. The nights got a little cool, but nothing unbearable and the days were usually in the low 70's and not too humid. The fishing was slightly better than in the heat of summer, but really you needed to wait a week or two later to get the good action, at least I'm told that.

The other vacation that we took this time of year was usually a trip to the cabin in Mercer, WI which I never knew until just now, is the Loon Capital of the world, whatever that means. I mean who's to say it's the Loon Capital other than the Mercer Chamber of Commerce? Maybe there's more loons in Hayward WI, or Ely MN, or Duluth. I guess you've got to be known for something. They do have a 2000 lb, sixteen foot giant loon in town, so I guess that qualifies for something.

Anyways, my family from Minnesota would typically rent out 3 or 4 cabins and all meet up there for a week of fishing, swimming, golfing and just hanging out. It was a great way to get the adult siblings and all the cousins together for a whole week when the kids were small. Before Mercer it was a place in Hackensack, MN, home of Lucette, Paul Bunyan's sweetheart evidently. She is over 12 feet tall as well and probably weighs as much as the loon. I read where her head fell off during a storm some years back and while they fixed her, they said she wasn't around because she was "with child." There is a smaller statue of Paul Bunyan's child next to her.

So welcome to Americana, I guess. It seems there's many towns that claim to be Paul Bunyan's birthplace, including Bemidji MN, Eau Claire WI, and even Bangor ME.

Perhaps we'll never know the truth.

Before Hackensack, we would go to Morningside Resort in Aitkin, MN, which as near as I can tell is only famous for the Turkey processing factory in downtown. It was always traumatizing to go to the Aitkin County Fair and have to walk past the plant and see all the turkeys flopping around upside down on their way to a thanksgiving demise. 

All three of these places hold great memories. We'll be heading back up to Mercer this weekend with some friends. We're looking forward to re-connecting with the proprietors of Pine Forest Lodge, John and Cheri Stratte, old friends from way back. I hope to land a musky or two and a few walleyes with the kids too. Look for a picture by the sixteen foot giant loon, soon enough.

Blogging off...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Where Are They Now?

I was thinking about old Viking football players today, for no good reason. As I ran through the names, I began to wonder where they are now. Where do football players end up after their gridiron careers are over? I'll cover a short history of a few of my boyhood heroes.

Carl Eller was one of the original purple people eaters and one of my biggest heroes. He had his share of battles with substance abuse after his career and is now trying to sue the league for it's unfair medical and compensation  of retired players. He still makes an appearance at old-timer homecoming games.

Alan Page, another PPE original has had a very successful career as a Judge on the Minnesota Supreme Court. My mom once saw him on an elevator and thought to herself, I know a boy who used to idolize you. (That would be me.) He doesn't like talking about his playing days much. He'd rather talk about what he's doing right now. A great man.

Jim Marshall was another PPE who, sadly, announced he is battling cancer. He had an amazing career, but most people remember him for his wrong-way run for a safety after recovering a fumble. Too bad because he was an amazing player and a great role model.

Fran Tarkenton, another one of the greats. Went on to do That's Incredible and proved that he was a much better QB than an actor. One of his best passes was the one that went out of bounds to avoid a sack. No one did it better. That and scrambling.

Gary Larsen, one of the original PPE. He once met my sister in Northern Minnesota when she was out to dinner with my mom and dad. I remember she brought him back to the cabin. I shook his hand and thought WOW!

Wally Hilgenberg, a formidable linebacker recently died an early death, related to his multiple concussions. His family donated his brain to scientific research.

Bob Berry, a 3 year backup to Fran Tarkenton now lives in Nevada. Not sure what he's doing.

Chuck Foreman still looks like he could play. He was amazing. Great moves and an excellent receiver out of the backfield. Had a fumbling problem, but when he didn't he was incredible. He's a substitute teacher in MN. Gotta love real guys like that.

Karl Kassulke was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident and never played again. He is deceased.

All of this goes to show you that even someone who is a hero to you as a kid is just another real person who has real problems and eventually has to get a job just like the rest of us. The problem is I carry these names around in my head and their stories, even though they've been out of the game for years. I carry their numbers, their stories (e.g. Jim Marshall once burned twenty dollar bills to keep warm during a snowmobiling outing gone bad.) Why can't I get rid of this and remember things like where I put my glasses?

Blogging off...

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Party of the Third Part...

It has been a weekend of parties for me.

Last night we started with a going-away party for our friends from church. They are moving to the Albany, NY area as the result of a job move. This family has grown closer to us over the years and so the fact that they're not going to be part of our lives anymore kind of hurts. Their son went on the Dominican Republic trip with Sarah. Donna has become fairly close to Jana, so they'll miss each other greatly.

They both have been faithful servants in the church, in the student ministry, women's ministries and others. They were the family that loaned us their truck when Donna was home alone and the serpentine belt fell off the van. It was never a question for them and they were quick to offer. That's what church people do, and that's what family does.

The second party was a couple of hours later in Bayview. It was hosted by our oldest Wisconsin friends, Jill and Steve. We've been friends with them since about 1990 when Donna was working at SEWCIL. Steve has become my fishing buddy and we've been through a lot of things together. They have helped us with many projects around the house, and we have returned the favor on a few occasions. Like our church friends, they would do anything for us. Jill always introduces Donna as "my best friend, Donna," which is a sweet term of endearment, albeit a bit uncomfortable for Donna.

We drove down to this party with our other long-time WI friends Patty and Brad. They too have been through a lot with us, most of all, our kids. Sarah and Patrick and Ben and Lauren all grew up together. Abby came along later and is like the baby girl in both our families. They kind of comprise a mix of the first two groups of friends. We got to know them first through church and now they've become long time friends.

The final party was today. It was an old friend of mine from work and his family. They have a party every year at this time called brewfest where he showcases a number of his home brewed beers and soda. As I said, he and I used to work together many years ago, and have kind of loosely kept in touch over the years. He lives on the same street, about a half mile away. Like the others, he too has borrowed me vehicles, watched my cats, helped me with home projects as well as biked and skied with me.

Understand that I'm not a big, big-party kind of guy. I prefer smaller affairs with a couple of friends or a couple couples. I do OK at them, but going to them has lost much of its appeal over the years. I'm not a hermit, but as I said, I'd rather get together with a few close friends so we can talk and hang out.

Having said that, it has become brutally apparent to me this weekend that I have some really, really great friends. Friends that care about what's going on in our lives, friends that love us and our kids, friends that share our perspectives and respect us when we take a different route than they would take. They cheer for us when we do well, they grieve with us when we need comfort and they laugh with us almost always, which is a great relief.

With Donna and I both being transplants from our families east and west, these friends have become what we call our Wisconsin family and we've learn to depend on each other. I for one am extremely grateful for all of them. They make us who we are.

Blogging off...

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Small World of Minnesota

I am writing this on my new laptop which I picked up from a UPS Customer Center. I mention it only because of the strange, albeit cool encounter I had with the staff.

I walk in wearing my Twins shirt that Rob had given me a few months ago. Now I get more people connecting as Twins fans than I ever thought I would. I don't watch many games, but I follow them in the newspaper pretty close.

So this UPS driver says "Hey, a fellow Twins fan!" and comes up and shakes my hand. We talk a little baseball and I find out he was born and raised in MN. When he asked where I was visiting last weekend I said Shoreview.

"That's where I grew up!" he said.

Well it turns out that I ended up talking to him and the woman behind the counter for about 10 minutes. I told them about Rob's situation and many of the events around it. The guy and the woman were seriously distraught and compassionate about the story. He said it sounded like I had a really cool, close family.(See yesterday's post)  He was exactly on point and it was good to hear someone remind me that it's not just my understanding. People recognize it for what it is.

After feeling like I had just talked to my neighbors for 10 minutes I took my package and walked away.

I think God puts people like this in our path during times like this to remind us of how blessed we truly are.

Blogging off...

Monday, August 15, 2011

Family Strength

It was a good weekend to be a Landwehr.

We went to St. Paul this weekend to help Rob and his family with some painting/staining projects and got more than we gave, as usual. By this I mean that we were so uplifted by the love and support and joy of our family that what we came to do, paint a fence, actually became a side project to the bigger one of connecting with family.

It started with stopping by Mom's place where we had an hour and a half chat with her and my sister Pat. It was great to see Pat again and catch up with all that they were doing.

We moved on to Rob and Jane's next where the cousins immediately reconnected and went off to their lair in the basement. They are such good friends and enjoy each other's company so much. It helps us adults have time to catch up on all that's new with us.

Donna and I treated Nick and Janet to dinner at Senor Wong's in downtown St. Paul. It is an eclectic blend of Mexican/Asian food (hence the name) owned by a friend of Nick's. We were not disappointed in his choice as the food was outstanding. Better yet was getting one-on-one face time with the two of them. They are recently engaged and we were anxious to hear their plans. Rumor was a destination wedding in Fiji, but they quickly disclaimed that as a pipe dream. They want a destination wedding but are just not sure where yet.

When we got back to Rob's place he was up waiting for us to watch a movie. We don't get that option often, so stayed up and watched with him. The movie was disappointing, but it was great sharing some laughs with him.

Saturday was paint day, and paint we did. Shed in the morning, fence staining in the afternoon. My brother Tom came and helped in the late afternoon and my niece Steph and her boyfriend Derek came and took care of the kids for the evening. It was a long day of music, hot sun and paint. The cedar fence we stained looked spectacular when all was over and done with. A job well done.

After a dip in the pool (me) we had dinner and watched the Vikings preseason game (in the background) while we talked. We had some great laughs the three of us, recounting old times and old friends. After the game, Tom left and Rob and I continued our chatting until midnight. We talked about everything from college experiences, to hospice questions, to heaven and all things in-between. The whole deal was a magical evening that I'll never forget.

Sunday we woke at 8:00 and started right in on the staining at 9:00. By one o'clock we were done with the rest of the fence and started to pack for the trip home. We woke Rob up from his long power nap. He was wiped out from the previous night's festivities and so slept most of the morning and into the afternoon. It was an especially difficult goodbye for me as I knew the next time I come he'll be in in hospice care. I gave him an extra hard hug and he seemed to return it as well.

So, for a weekend that was supposed to be all work and no play was much more than both. It was proof to me of the value of family, ALL family at every level; mother, sister, brother, niece, nephew, in-laws and future in-laws. They form the net we need to catch us when we're free-falling through a tragedy as big as we are right now. They are beautiful, loving, caring people who are genuinely concerned with how I am doing, how the family is doing.

They are my family, and I love them infinitely.

Blogging off...

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Back in the Saddle

I started back at my writing class last night. It was good to be back around heady writing types again. We're a motley bunch, but we all understand each other. We encourage each other, point out our redundancies, point out our redundancies, give each other hints and point out our redundancies. It is a great climate to work in. No one is overly critical in part because Kathie won't have it. She said we need to be critical, without tearing down. No one benefits when a person gets insulted to the point where they question their ability.

We've got a little of everything in the class. Memoir, poetry, and lots of fiction. It is fascinating to follow the stories from week to week and see how they develop. It's a bit like I'm reading 10 books every week. (Or a chapter for 10 different books each week.) We listen as characters get killed, experience death and divorce, morph into zombies, grow old or die young.

While we work hard, we have a lot of fun in class too. The conversation often (sometimes too often) drifts off subject and we end up talking about a crazy side topic. Last night it was about the popularity (or not) of the e-readers (Nook, Kindle and iPad). People have definite opinions about whether they like them or not. I personally don't like them, only because I'm a bit old-school. I want to be able to put it down without knowing that it might get legs and I'd be out $120.00 or so.

At the same time, I recognize that they're here to stay and are a very efficient way to store many books. My fear of course is that it will one day supplant the written form and that would be sad. Infinitely sad. Fahrenheit 459 kind of sad.

We also got off on a tangent about the source of the phrase "God never gives someone more than they can bear." The closest source we could find was that it was Mother Theresa, and even that was not a direct quote.

The tangents take the edge off of class a bit, but the can get a bit far afield at times. Kathie is pretty good about keeping us on track though, so it's all good.

There were a couple of new students last night. Kim is writing her memoir, so is a kindred spirit of mine. She's starting from birth though, so goes back much further than me. Laura was the other new face and I think she's writing fictional short stories. Then there's the usual suspects, Mario doing poetry, Stacy and Mud doing Young Adult Fantasy, Ellen doing memoir, Sandy doing fiction, and Michael doing mystery. As I said, it's great diversity and makes for an interesting literary cocktail. They're great people. I love 'em.

Blogging off...

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Saturday Searching

Today was a good day.

Today was also an emotionally hard day.

It was filled with good stuff. Coffee with a new friend. The farmer's market for a loaf of good bread. Football equipment hand-out for my 13 year old son. A little house cleaning. A bit of editing. A long bike ride. Saturday service at church. Brennans for some goodies with Donna and Ben. A beautiful evening walk with my iPod and my dog. A dinner with the good bread from the market.

And yet there was this cloak of sorrow that prohibited it from being all it could be. It could have been a completely satisfying and perfect day.

Only it wasn't.

It was almost perfect.

People have told me there would be days like this. Days where you try to run from the pain and sadness, but you can't seem to outrun it. You try and keep real busy thinking life is all normal.

And it's not.

A thought comes along and there I go, wailing like an Iraqi.

A song plays on the iPod and there I go again.

Today the sight of a tree made me cry (for crying out loud). What's with that?

It's the thought that I'll never be able to camp with my brother again. That the day will come soon when he's forced to leave his house for hospice. That I'll never be able to road trip with him again. That I'll never be able to help him with a home project again, or vice versa.

How can life be so stinking rich one moment, and yet so incredibly sad the next?

I think it's God's way of mixing me an emotional smoothie.

Thanks for that...I think.

Church was especially hard this evening. The music always gets me and tonight was no exception. The take away from it was that it is in our desperate moments, our desperate reaches, that God shapes us. The pastor said that it is often times immediately after these times of trial that God does something wonderful and it helps us understand His timing.

But as I said, the day was full of much joy and goodness too.

The warming words of a friend who lost a brother to cancer struck a chord and helped me work through some of it.

The thought of the excitement and apprehension of Ben as he got his football equipment. I can remember well getting my equipment from Mr. Wescott out of his big scary closet of football stuff. It made me feel much bigger and tougher than I really was. I loved every minute of those days.

The freedom of riding my bike.

And so I'm left to reconcile what kind of day it ultimately was.

I've come to the conclusion that it was exactly the kind of day I needed.

Blogging off...