Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Cabin Fever

If you know me from Facebook, you're aware that I've spent the last week or so changing my cover photo and my profile pictures. While it probably seems like a frivolous use of time, I actually did it in lieu of any kind of post on many days. The pictures were all taken over the past 8 years at the resort we go to every year. Each time I posted a picture it brought back fond memories of good times at Pine Forest Lodge in Mercer, WI. Some were kid pictures, some teen, and some adults. All of them however, have smiles in them.

When we ask our kids about what their "favorite vacation ever" was, they have different responses, South Dakota, Colorado, etc. But when we ask them what are some of their favorite memories of a vacation, they always go back to "the cabin with our cousins." It seems there's a timelessness to all summer vacations "at the lake," and I'm sure this is true for many, many families all over the country. It's a Midwest thing that has gone on for generations, getting away from it all in the woods of the great north.

I can remember a weekend when we were just little kids and my mom was dating a man who took us up to his cabin in Hibbing, Minnesota. We had a blast as a family and it was where I remember catching my first really big fish. One of the more classic pictures of it is below.

It was a thrill then and represents one of my earliest cabin memories. 

Over the years, Mom always saw to it that we got up to a cabin every year. At first it was Morningside Resort in north central Minnesota. This resort was the site of numerous family gatherings over the years. The lake never produced much in the way of fish, as I recall. I remember fishing with my sister's father in law Johnny, and after trying corner after corner of the lake he said, "There ain't no fish in this lake, Jim." I think he was on to something. 

We switched to a newer, better maintained resort after the owners of Morningside let the place slide too much and we looked for a change. We ended up getting a place in Hackensack, MN. (Who needs a house out in Hackensack? Is that all you get for your money?) It was a nice place but the beach access was a drag and the owner was less than accomodating. 

After 3 years there we found Pine Forest Lodge and have been there ever since. It is my Minnesota family's home away from home for a week every year. We drive up from Waukesha and they drive from the Twin Cities. It's an even 5 hour ride for all of us, so no one gets stuck driving more than anyone else.

One of the the owners (John) used to work with my wife at the Southeastern Wisconsin Center for Independent Living in Milwaukee. He and his wife are wonderful hosts and we consider them part of the family while we're there. I remember John once saying that it gave him great joy to see families coming together every summer and just having a blast. That is part of the reason he and Sherri bought the resort in the first place. 

The week (or weekend) consists of a lot of fishing, swimming, reading and cousins running between cabins to see what the others are up to. Fish are caught and released, old stories recounted and embellished, junk food consumed and everyone moves to their own schedule. At night campfire discussions rise and fall with the flames and there is always an air of fun to the conversation. If you want to talk politics or religion, don't do it there. If you want to talk about the time someone fell off the dock, well, bring it!

The beauty of the cabin is everyone's open door policy. Feel free to stop by and chat with whoever you'd like, whenever you'd like. It allows family to talk below the surface and find out how everyone is really doing, what they're really going through. 

Given the circumstances of almost two years ago, we all understand the importance of time together. No one takes the cabin for granted anymore, a legacy my brother left with all of us. I cherish the time I get to spend in the boat fishing with my brothers Paul and Tom, the "coffee time" with mom in the mornings, the beach time with my sisters Pat and Jane and the "outlaws" Patty , Jane TL, and Deb. I look forward to throwing nieces and nephews off the life raft as we play "trivial pursuit" and they guess the wrong answer. 

And now, with the latest trend of having friends come up, I enjoy their company at meal times, fishing with my buddy Steve, and laughing around the beach area and campfire.

Pine Forest Lodge is a refuge for me, for my family and my friends. It's one place I hope will never change. Like my kids, after the "big" vacations, my first thought of "best memories" comes from the cabin at Pine Forest Lodge and all the others. 

If you haven't tried it as a family, you might best start now, because time's a wastin'.

Blogging off...

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Thirty Six Lives

We have two cats, Chester and Isabelle. They are both tabbies and we love them as much as anyone can love a cat. They are our second set of matching cats as a family. When we first got the house, we got Bogie, a black and white rescue cat from the Humane Society. Bogie was a little lover and a really great cat. He was alone though, so when my wife brought home a matching, smaller, black and white girl cat we suddenly had a matched set and were a two cat family.


Bogie - L Jezebel - R

Cats bring a sense of life to an otherwise calm ordinary home. They come around when they want, and when they don't they retreat to hidden places. They're kind of introverted animals that way. It is a quality that makes them easier to love. Come to me when you need some attention, leave me alone when you don't.

Jezebel, or Jez as we called her got very sick and we had to put her down due to renal failure. It was one of the hardest things we had to go through as a family. Death of anything is never easy, but we were all surprised at how attached we were to this little life.

Not wanting Bogie to feel bad, we ended up getting Chester to fill the hole. Within a year of that, Bogie fell ill with some form of leg tumor and had to be put down as well. Again, a very difficult thing, especially for me, as I was always closer to Bogie than to Jez. It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do.

Again, not wanting Chester to be lonely, my wife and daughter were online at the Humane society's site not too long after Bogie died and before you knew it, we had adopted Isabelle and we had two matching tabbies.

They are a couple just like Bogie and Jez. Littler female who favors the women of the house and older, bigger male that favors the males.

Chester has taken up some weird habits. Unlike dogs, cats lead pretty uninteresting lives, but Chester, or Chet as we sometimes call him, likes to spice things up. For example he has a thing for fresh water, preferably my fresh water.
It's fairly annoying, but comical at the same time. Cats can be entertaining if they get bored enough. 

Another example of his zeal for fresh water, is his love of the freshly flushed toilet. Man, I tell you there's nothing like lapping it out of the bowl where someone has just done their business. What's with that? 

And people say cats are smarter than dogs, cleaner than dogs. Well, I ain't buying it. They're dirty little lovable creatures just like dogs. They tend not to want to lick your face after they've licked themselves like dogs, but dirty creatures nonetheless. Lovable dirty creatures.

In the heat of summer our cats often seek out cooler spaces. Isabelle prefers the basement window sill has her perch to watch the world and stay cool at the same time. Her brother Chester is not as keen on the basement. He prefers the bathroom. After all he's got a fresh water supply and a bed all in one spot. 
Evidently the cool marble of the vanity feels good. I can imagine wearing a fur coat would be a bit warm on 90 degree days, so I can't blame him. It only makes going to the bathroom a bit less private. (He'll usually jump out of the sink to go to the "fresh" toilet water after I've flushed, so there's that.)

We have grown tired of the constant shedding that both the cats do. We suck up a canister's worth of cat hair twice a week with our vacuum. Because we were "conscientious" owners, we chose not to declaw them, so they've also destroyed most of our furniture, which to a cat is really an over sized scratching post. We've kind of decided as a family that when these two cats go, that's it. No more cats. We love them, but...

Until then if I could only get Chester to use the toilet as a toilet and wash himself in his bed, I'd be in business.

Blogging off...

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A View From The Cheap Seats

I went to a Brewers baseball game the other night with my family. We got discounted tickets for Sarah's good grades at school. They were the nosebleed seats in section 424 of Miller park. None of us went to a game last year and this was the first of this season. None of us are big baseball fans. We're a football family for the most part. I used to enjoy going to games at County Stadium when it didn't cost the GNP of Guam to go see a game.

I can't complain this time because, on top of discounted tickets we got a $10.00 voucher (per person) as a "fan appreciation," measure by the owner Mark Attanasio. (Every fan for every game in August gets a $10 voucher.) It was a public relations face-saving measure for the Braun steroid mess. I give Attanasio credit, he loves the fans and always seems to know when to come up big. He's one of the best things that ever happened to this organization.

Anyhow we went and despite being high up, the seats really weren't bad. They did an amazing job with that stadium. Much like Lambeau, there really isn't a bad seat.

As I said, as a family, we don't have much patience for baseball. I was telling my wife that part of it with me is the 30 seconds between each pitch on top of the twenty minutes between each moment of measurable action that just makes the game drag on. Throw in a few-four-or-five pitching changes, and the 5 minutes at each half inning and, well, you lost me. I can do it, there are moments I actually really enjoy it, but for the most part, a game or two a year and I'm good.

On a related side story, the family of four behind us had a couple of kids about 6 and 8 years old. At one point in the third inning, the eight year old said "Dad, how long does this game last?" The dad answered with "Oh, about three hours." To which the son asked "How long has it been so far?"


Sorry to go all Andy Rooney on you, but I guess it's different strokes for different folks. The running time on this game ended up at about 3:40. I can barely sit still for a two hour movie. They try desperately to keep your interest in between innings, but I knew when they resorted to "Who works harder, the teacher, Mr. fill-in-the-blank, or the steelworker, Mr. fill-in-another-blank?" Really? Who thinks these games up?

Anyway, we managed to use up our vouchers rather quickly. A micro-brew beer and a bag of peanuts pretty much took care of it, but like I say, it was better than me footing $40+ on food. Thanks again, Mark.

It was an enjoyable night out for all of us. There were lots of lead changes and a smallish crowd so we could stretch out. Also it was nice not to have to deal with any drunks around us, either. There was one super-avid fan (might have had some issues) behind us, but he was harmless and funny. The Brewers ended up losing 8-5 when their pitching fell apart, but that's kind of the MO right now.

With the Packers starting their regular season in a couple of weeks, I've pretty much put the baseball season behind me. I don't watch the playoffs or the World Series unless a team I care about is in either. I will be going to another baseball game in September when my nephew and his wife come, but until then it's all green and gold for this guy.

Blogging off...

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Bricks And Bubblers

We had friends visit us from New Jersey this past week. They drove all the way from NJ, about 14 hours altogether, and stayed at our house for 5 nights. The couple are college friends of my wife's and they hadn't seen our house in 18 years. Their visit spurred the realization that Milwaukee and Waukesha have a lot to offer as Midwestern cities. It's true that neither is Chicago, nor intends to be. Chicago is it's own slice of great, but these two cities to its north have their own good qualities too.

Tuesday was dedicated to showing them a bit of Milwaukee's vibe and culture. We started by taking a tour of the Guest House, the downtown homeless shelter that I've written about in the past. Our friends, Jon and Janine had baked a ton of cookies that they wanted to donate to the lunch program at the house. Our friend Eric works at the house and was generous enough to take us on a tour. We got a behind the scenes look and story of what it takes to feed, house and counsel over 80 men on a rotating basis. It was uplifting to hear Eric tell of the efforts and successes of the Guest House's programs. It showed them that on top of all the city has to offer in the way of arts and entertainment, it cares about its own.

From there we moved on to the Milwaukee lakefront. As we drove along it, they were amazed at the beauty of the lake, but perhaps more importantly that the view of it along Lincoln Memorial Drive was so open and exposed. Much of this is attributable to the foresight of Frederick Law Olmstead and other landscape architects who had the vision and saw the value in preserving park areas for the public good. Jon mentioned the vibrant difference in the blue waters of Michigan and it was again driven home that we are lucky to be this close to one of North America's biggest natural water bodies.

We stopped for coffee at Collectivo (formerly Alterras on the Lake) for coffee and cookies in the early afternoon. This coffee is a local favorite and despite the clunky new name, is a business that was born and bred in Milwaukee. It's also proof that people WILL support a local business over a corporate conglomerate like Starbucks if given the chance.

From there we went to the Milwaukee Public Market and the Old Third Ward. Oddly enough I had not even been to the Market before and found it to be much nicer than I thought. It has tons of artisan foods from local purveyors and was bustling with a late lunch crowd to boot.

The Milwaukee Public Market is a little gem inside a bigger gem known as the Third Ward. This area is packed with great restaurants, galleries, bars, stores and antique shops right downtown. We shopped and walked around enjoying the mixed architecture and the energy that the area pulses with.

We ventured over to the Walker's Point area for a quick ice cream pick-me-up at the Purple Door Ice Creamery. This is a relatively new ice cream purveyor in downtown offering eclectic ice cream flavors like Whiskey, Blueberry Buttermilk and Raspberry Green Tea. Again, proof positive that if you produce a good, locally made product, people in Milwaukee will embrace you and support your cause.

We closed out the evening with a quick trip to South Shore Park in Bayview where we had another breathtaking look at the lake as well as a view of the city Skyline from the south. From there we went out to a Tapas dinner at Pastiche Cafe' in Bayview. The food was phenomenal and the restaurant sits in the midst of what might be the hippest part of Milwaukee at the moment, Bayview. Young and old mix it up in this neighborhood as art meets life along busy Kinnickinnic Avenue.

The rest of the week was spent walking among the quaint shops of Waukesha, enjoying the beauty of structures like the Calatrava and eating the regional favorite frozen custard from throwback storefronts like Kopps. It made me realize how lucky I am to live where I live. Milwaukee has the "big" appeal of Chicago with a small town charm to it. Waukesha takes both of those down another level to create its own kind of cool.

This is my home and I'm glad to be part of it.

Blogging off...

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Getting Away

I spent Friday and Saturday with my son Ben and one of his friends as part of Ben's 15th birthday. He said he wanted to go camping with some of his buddies, but as it turned out, only one could make the trip. I assured him that it was going to be fun whether it was one friend or three. Middle schoolers seem to do best one-on-one anyway, so it worked out well that it was just one.

It was my intent to be on the road by 10:00 AM. Anyone who puts a timetable to a launch time for any vacation gets what they deserve. Unrealistic planning and packing schedules, unforeseen trips to various stores and whatnot, and of course the obligatory trip back home to get what you forgot to pack.

I was running behind schedule and told Ben to tell his friend it would be more like 10:15-10:30. When I picked his friend up at 10:35, I realized I forgot the camp chairs and also the card games I was going to bring. Bear in mind that construction in our neighborhood requires a 10 minute re-route around it to get home from his friends house.

Nevertheless, we got on the road at 10:50. Not bad, less than an hour late.

Anyways, neither of us were going to let a schedule get in our way. We were out to have fun and we were not disappointed. It was a blast.

He and his friend asked if they could turn on the radio on the way up. Thankfully they like a station that plays a fair amount of music that I like. Ben quickly rattled off the name of each group or song that came on and I filled in on the "older" ones that he whiffed on. (e.g. Pearl Jam, The Clash). It took me back to the summer days in Minnesota riding with my older brother Tom at the wheel of the 73 Impala so long ago. The only thing missing was a mono, push button AM/FM Radio playing the Doobie Brothers' China Grove.

When we got to the beach at Kohler Andrea we all went in the water (Lake Michigan) which was bitingly cold at first, but then became bearable. We hung out in the sun, played Frisbee, ate Cheeto snacks and drank lots of Gatorade and water.

After about 4 hours of beach we set out for the Long Lake Recreation Area where we had a site reserved for camping. The boys were great about helping set up, proof that they had both camped enough to know that everyone helps. After we set up the tent and everything, I got a fire going and we roasted hot dogs over the open fire. The great thing about camping with only other guys is the expectations for food are very low. This keeps it easy for everyone. Hot dogs and beans, followed by Jiffy Pop on the stove and S'mores later on by the fire.

The next morning we broke camp and set out for the Parnell Fire Tower for a hike. When we reached the top we saw an incredible vista of the Kettle Moraine State Forest.

I tell this story, not because any one detail was amazing or awesome or phenomenal.  I tell it because it was really, really, really good to spend time with my teenage son, who I love. It was great to talk to him about music, coming high school apprehension, stupid You Tube videos, past vacations, girls, friends, and a dozen other subjects. In our day to day recklessness, we don't always get a chance to talk in depth.

There is nothing more important to me at this stage in his young life than to know that he is loved, his opinions are heard and valued and that I am proud of him. Teenage years are tough years, and as a parent, I'd like to help iron out some of the bumps before he gets to them. If that means taking him camping during an already too-busy summer, then so be it.

You all need to remind me of this when I fall into the trap of putting dad/son trips (or dad/daughter or dad/daughter/son trips) on the back burner. My kids are home for one and four more years respectively. There will come a day when I'll look back on trips like this and smile and say, "This is my son, in whom I'm well pleased."

Blogging off...

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Prodigal Wallet

One of the more distressing things as an adult is a lost wallet. I lost mine yesterday, or at least thought I did, and it made for a a very long, miserable day. I first noticed it was missing when I went to leave for work. Now people who know me know I'm a "pat-down" guy. I have a ritual where I tend to pat three zones of my person before I go somewhere. This is done to check for three items: Keys, phone, wallet. I'm a bit neurotic about all three and so if one goes missing, look out. That usually calls for a double-pat, where I'll re-pat the areas I just patted out of anxiety just to make sure that whatever item I don't have is really gone.

As I get on my bike yesterday, I realize I don't have the discomforting pain in my butt that a wallet brings to a guy on a bike. I turn around, head into the house and begin my search. I checked all the usual spots. Dresser, back counter, stairway post, coffee table, kitchen ledge, nothing.

Along about this time I think to myself, well, this is disturbing.

I speed up my search looking through all of my "secondary stashing places." Coffee tables B, C and D, the built-in buffet and my bedside table. No joy.

Ramping up the anxiety level a notch, I begin to question when I last saw the wallet. The last time was at work the day before when I used it to get out of the building. Knowing this narrowed down the location of the wallet to anywhere between work and home.

Okay, the heart sinks, the dread sets in, and anxiety ramps up to critical level. At this point I'm late for work and I have to go. I leave my poor wife in shambles because we share a debit card and a credit card and cancelling them both is a huge hassle. Never mind that I had my license, a work credit card, a health care card, work access card, and $60.00 cash in it.

Bye hon, have a nice day.

At work it was hard to focus. It's funny what your mind does when something is missing like this. For example I must have checked my backpack thoroughly 3 times, even though I rarely put my wallet there and had no recollection of putting it there yesterday. Were the second and third times really necessary? Maybe there was a pocket I missed? Maybe it will magically show up?

Maybe not.

Now bear in mind that I lost my wallet this spring on a bike ride when it fell out of my bike bag. After retracing my ride in it's entirety, I got a call from Carroll University saying the wallet was found a block from home. Some honest student (God love him/her) turned it in intact and I picked it up that night.

So at this point I have what you might call a history.

Because of this history, I started mentally beating myself up. All day at work I trashed my own character because Didn't I learn from my past mistakes, or Wow, twice in 6 months?. I couldn't wait to get off work in part to get home where I could quiet the voice by at least looking more thoroughly.

When I got home I started the irrational crazy search. You all know it. If you have kids, you REALLY know it. I call it that because you spend your time obsessively looking for the lost item often times in places that no sane person would look. You do this because, you're not thinking straight. You're obsessed. This makes you look in irrational, crazy spaces, like I did.

For example I looked in:

  • My camera bag 
  • The junk drawer
  • The garbage (complete with potato peelings and coffee grounds)
  • Under my bed
  • On top of the auxiliary fridge in the garage (because, you know, that's where I always put it)
  • My bike bag (even though I'd learned that lesson and wouldn't put it there again, ever)
  • In the drying shirt I'd worn that day hanging on the line (WTH?)
See what I mean? Not rational. Crazy search. Obsessive, crazy, nut job search. 

I knew I was getting desperate when I started looking in my son's room. This is because I try and avoid his room. It makes me itch. It's messy most of the time, his window fan runs constantly and I think his bed was last made when it was a crib. 

After picking up a couple of blankets and various articles of clothing, I looked under his hat on his desk and low and behold there lie my wallet!

I can't describe the relief, joy and happiness. It was a little like the emotion of watching my daughter being born. "Look honey, it's a wallet! We have a wallet!" 

Well, that might be a stretch, but I've got to say it's the happiest feeling I've had in say, oh about the last six months.

Blogging off...(Pat, pat, pat)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

What's Next Is Right Now

Being Sunday, the pace of life slowed to a crawl today. Sometimes I have a hard time forcing myself to be okay with that slow pace. Like many people Sunday tends to become the day that you race around trying to get done what you couldn't get done on Saturday. As a person of faith, I am also convicted by the fact that it is a commandment to keep it holy. It's my guess that this would include not working yourself to death. Sabbath comes from Shabbat which is Hebrew and means to cease. I need to be reminded that ceasing is okay.

Anyhow, as I was slowed down today, I had a lot of time to reflect. Often times, I try and see what the future holds for me and my family. This introspection, or future gazing if you will, only leads to frustration. No one knows what their health, job or family situation is going to be like tomorrow, let alone beyond that into the future, so why bother.

Frustration from that today caused me to shift gears and think about the purpose of life TODAY. From there it spun me to the past week I had, which at the time seemed ordinary and mundane, but after looking harder, it was really a phenomenal week. A phenomenal week that is really just a small part of a bigger, really, really good life.

Thinking about the week made me realize there are two central tenets that make up much of what we call happiness. They are Community and Family. I saw examples of each of these this past week.


  • The Guest House: We served 85+ men dinner again this past week. My family and a couple of other families grilled and served a BBQ feast for homeless men at the Guest House shelter in Milwaukee. These men have their own supportive community and by serving them, we were helping our community be a better place. Furthermore, my serving them gives me a sense of purpose. It's a win win. 
  • Coffee Group: I meet with a few guys every Thursday to talk through a book that we are all reading. These books are spiritual in nature and some of the conversations we have are quite heady and thought provoking. I don't know how I landed in this group, but I am glad I did. Again, being part of this tiny community gives me a depth of purpose that I otherwise wouldn't have.
  • Our Bay View Friends: These are a group of friends that have grown from two to about eight or ten people. We get together periodically and while our focus is more fun and laughter, we happen upon some tough subjects too. They call us their displaced neighbors and they help make our suburban community a little more urban. They care about us and vice verse. 
  • My AllWriters' Group: Writing friends and colleagues that are out to help me succeed. We critique each others' work in the interest of helping to make our writing sell, succeed and sing. We are tied together by the love of words and again, I'm fortunate to be a part of it.
  • Church: At church today I was reminded of the importance of corporate worship and the sense of community that a church imparts. We have been going to the same church for 21 years, and while pastors and much of the congregation has come and gone, there are a number of friends and stalwarts who have stuck with it and see the value of the community beyond the politics of the pulpit. We're blessed and, with a bit of luck, are a blessing as well.

  • My Distant Extended Family: My sister in-law and her two kids came down from the Twin Cities to visit us and her sister this weekend. Her son stayed at our house for a couple of nights and we were amazed at his politeness. He's grown into a good kid with great manners. It was a joy to see him hanging out with Ben and it made me thankful that we have the close family that we have.
  • My Local Extended Family: I was fortunate to see my brother in law in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying last night and it was amazing. He and the rest of the cast nailed it. It was a fun and at times rollicking musical that was pure entertainment. Afterwards we got talking with him and his partner until the wee hours of the morning. They are our only Milwaukee family and it is great to get together with them. 
  • My Immediate Family: Our daughter was gone overnight at the Packer Scrimmage yesterday and it was a weird deal. It was not right not having her around. She had a great experience, but it was too quiet without her and it gave me pause to think what it's going to be like when both her and Ben are gone. We're blessed with good kids and wonder what we did to deserve them.
In closing, it was a bit of a philosophical day today. Lots to be thankful for, and the realization that trying to map out the future will only serve to cause me to miss what's happening in the immediate. And from what I just laid out, the immediate is pretty dang good.

Blogging off...