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...