Sunday, June 28, 2015

On the Eve of Forty Eight

Today marks forty eight years since my father's murder. I've never really been able to remember the exact date until the past year or two -- June 28, 1967. It's not a date I like to remember, so I always just kind of knew it was in June sometime.

Those of you who know me, know that I was only 5 years old when it happened, so remember little of my dad - a handful of memories, or cerebral snapshots of our times together. As the story goes, he was murdered in a seemingly random, racially motivated attack while minding his own business in Happy Harry's bar in a racially transitional part of town. I originally thought there were 4 men that beat him, but was corrected after my mother read a poem I'd written about that night. She said it was a band of 11 people. I guess the numbers don't matter, what matters is that he was outnumbered and singled out because of his skin color. They beat him, left the bar and returned and beat him again, fracturing his skull.

As much as I have never wanted this event to define me, it certainly played a significant role in my upbringing, and ultimately my personality and character development. While I may have harbored some hatred and fear as a kid, I am long past that. In fact it's my feeling that the only way we will ever get along despite our cultural differences is to integrate, listen and love those that are different than us. This goes for people of all races, cultures, and orientations. As tragic as my story is, there are tons of people with worse stories and, for the most part, I came out unscathed. Luckily we had a mother who made a commitment to raise us right and loved us enough for two people.

None of this is to discredit the role that my stepfather, Jack, played in my formative years. Time with him and his natural family were some of the best times as a kid growing up. But deep down we knew he wasn't our "real dad" - a stigma every step-parent has to battle with, I suppose.

So what ultimately came out of my dad's early death when I became a dad myself? Well, I remember thinking the thing I wanted to do most was just BE THERE. Be there for my kids when they learned to walk and talk, be there for their first day of school, be there to teach them how to fish, and be there for them emotionally and physically. And while I always tend to look back at some things I could have done better, I think I can safely say I did the best I could at the time. There's no "Owners Manual" for parents, and so we winged it and crossed our fingers. Read to them, feed them, hug them daily and tell them you love them until you're sure they know. Those things are all they really need anyway.

Oh, and probably a diaper change somewhere in there.

From what my mom has told me, our dad loved his family more than anything. I have no doubt that he would have been there for all of us as we grew. I always kind of wonder what really happened that night in June, but as I said in Dirty Shirt, I guess that will have to wait for that one day when we're reunited around the campfire in heaven.

In closing, I have to say that in light of what has been happening of late with the #blacklivesmatter, alleged police profiling, the Charleston shootings, the Confederate flag issue and even some of the hate directed at the gay marriage decision, it seems that we still have a whole long way to go in this country. And each of us as citizens can choose to be either part of the solution or part of the problem. After forty eight years, I'm trying my best to be part of the solution.

I love you Dad.

Blogging off...

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Brothers, Sons, Daughters, Uncles and Cousins - Then and Now

In a bit of a prologue to the story below, I was vetting my kids' clothing before they were packed for the BWCA trip. I had specific instructions that they were to wear long sleeves for the way into the portage, as the bugs were bad. Ben hadn't packed one and couldn't find a decent one in his closet, so he reached into his laundry pile and pulled out a flannel shirt. He smelled the armpits, and threw it into the bag I was packing. I thought, "Well, it's always good to start a trip with a dirty shirt."

I done raised him right.

A Foggy Morning.

This past weekend saw the return of our group to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, (BWCA). There were seven of us, my brother Tom and I, his son Hunter (17), my kids Sarah and Benjamin (19 and 16) and my nieces Alison (18) and Amanda (14). The only difference from the 2012 trip was Amanda took my nephew Nick's place. It was her first trip to the BWCA and we were anxious to see how she'd fare. It also meant Hunter and Ben would have to portage and share a canoe all weekend, the source of my own anxiety when I thought about it too hard. 

Our entry point starts with a long, rocky uphill climb. I had a pack that felt about ten pounds heavier than I would have liked, considering I had a 56 lb. canoe on my shoulders as well.

The portage was spirit sucking.

I met up with my daughter who was taking a break about a third of the way in. My brother happened along and the three of us all did a pack shuffle to get the group back to Zen. Eventually, after a few visions of Mother Theresa and a couple of walking black-outs, we all made it to the end. I look at this portage as our own little personal marathon every time we walk it. It builds character and gives one a great sense of accomplishment.

Once we arrived, we set up camp and ate a quick lunch of sandwiches we'd packed. Everyone was anxious to get out fishing, so we made quick work of it. While Tom and I set up camp, Hunter and Ben went across the channel to get firewood. They found a dead birch and brought back a boatload of wood. All weekend I was amazed at how far the kids had come since our last venture in 2012.

We set out fishing before dinner and despite a slow evening, we landed a handful of Walleye and a couple of Rock Bass. Alison stole the show on our boat, landing four fish on the day. Ben and Hunter roamed looking for Northern Pike and Hunter managed to get a fish or two.

Once back at the site, I sensed Sarah's angst at not getting a fish. She set to work right away, fishing from the cliff our site was perched on, five feet above the waters edge. Within an hour she had a small Northern Pike on the line. She beamed for a picture and rested easy knowing that the first one was out of the way. Sometimes that's the hardest part.

That night we had a great meal of Tom's Jambalaya and sat around the fire mourning the fact that we forgot the Smores ingredients. Every trip has something that goes missing, and this time it was the Smores. We lived through it. It was a great night finishing out a satisfying first day.

Saturday morning Tom and I got up early and started breakfast. It was a beautiful morning filled with the sounds of red squirrels, woodpeckers and the wind in the trees. An hour later the rain came. It rained from 8 AM to  4 PM. The teenagers slept until about 11:00 and then gathered under the tarp and ate chocolate chip pancakes. When the rain stopped periodically they'd run out and cast a few lines. It was during this time that Alison managed to haul in a nice 28" Northern Pike, the biggest fish of her life. Because she was on "the cliff," I scrambled down the rock wall and grabbed the big Pike so she wouldn't lose it.

When I measured it, she was happy to hear it was an inch longer than her biggest. It made me think of Rob and how proud he would be of this moment. Here she was with two of his siblings and all of her closest cousins in one of his favorite places on earth. Three years earlier we sprinkled his ashes on this very lake and we couldn't help but feel his spirit right there with us. It was a moment that made all of the planning, and stress and pain and bad weather worth it for me. I was a proud dad by proxy.

The weather cleared around 4:00 and we headed out fishing again. This time the girls all asked if they could share a canoe. Tom and I agreed it would be okay. The water was calm and letting cousins build a little self confidence and have a blast in the process seemed like the most prudent thing to do.

And all I can say is that listening to the girls laughing and talking in muffled conversation across the bay from us warmed my heart. Again, how lucky are we that we have raised girls that love the outdoors and are becoming adept fisher-women, campers and canoeists? It was such a cool night. Furthermore, Ben managed to hook into a 24" Northern that night that was his personal best as well. When I heard he'd got one, I was ecstatic. He was the only one who'd not had a fish yet, so this completed the group.

Tom and I managed to land a few Walleye ourselves. It was great spending time in the canoe with him and was likely reminiscent of my dad and his twin brother Tom doing the same thing over fifty years ago.

(Oddly enough every night we hooked them to the stringer a big Pike, or snapping turtle would eat them off overnight. At one point I picked the stringer up and just a fish head was left! Yikes!)

That night we had a fantastic dinner of spaghetti followed by a night around the fire. It was this time around the fire listening to Hunter and his cousin's banter that made me pause and appreciate how lucky we are as parents to have such good kids. The fact that they can sit on a log, drink water filtered directly from the lake and tough out inconveniences like pit toilets and all day rainfalls makes me think that I want these guys on my team during the Zombie apocalypse.

We got up early on Sunday which was Father's Day. It was foggy and we pushed off into the white wall and felt our way back to the portage. Frankly, I can't think of a better way to have spent Father's day than with family in a place that meant so much to my Dad, uncles and brother. The fog was a mystifying and surreal ending to a great weekend.

Great kids, wicked senses of humor and tough as nails. There was not a cell phone or screen in sight for two days and they lived to tell about it. They made some incredible memories, moments I'll never forget. I don't know when we'll get back, but until I do, I've got a feeling it's only going to get better.

Blogging off...

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Twenty Five Years

In my previous post I mentioned that my wife and I are approaching our 25th wedding anniversary (Tuesday, June 16). I'm pretty sure being married that long puts me in the old guy category, but our love for each other is young. For being two very different people with regards to lifestyle, we're also very compatible. The theory that opposites attract is maybe true in our case.

It was a hot, ninety-plus degree muggy day, for our wedding. Our family rented rooms at the now-defunct Kellogg's Inn, a small hotel out behind the restaurant by the same name. It worked out really well, as we were all in one spot and were able to communicate details, etc. That morning we had breakfast at the restaurant and shortly after that started getting ready for the wedding.

Gorham, New York, where Donna was born and raised is a small town. A gas station, small grocery, diner, small library and a few other miscellaneous businesses. We were married in the Gorham United Methodist Church. It was small but beautifully quaint - like something out of an old movie.

My family, the groomsmen and I got to the church an hour and a half early. There was much activity, moments of great confusion (quickly resolved) and eventually we all found our places.

Our pastor was Carlos Smith and his wife Pat was the vocalist. They both were amazing. Carlos told a story during the "homily" or whatever the Methodist equivalent is, that told of a man and wife who were married for 50 years. Every time they had dinner, the man gave his wife the heel of the bread. Feeling offended on the eve of their 50th wedding anniversary, she finally spoke up. "I've been meaning to ask you why every time we have bread you give me the heel?"

The husband said, "Because it's my favorite part."

It was a great story with the perfect message for any newly married couple. Sacrifice is so important to a good marriage. There's not much room in a good one for selfishness.

Pat closed out the service with a beautiful song and we formed the worlds longest reception line - or so it felt. I met a ton of people who I didn't know, but had a great time nonetheless.

Donna and I, Rob and Jill - the best man and maid of honor - climbed into Donna's uncles Lincoln Continental and after a stop at Donna's house for a bottle of champagne, we headed to the Geneva Rod and Gun Club (also now defunct) for the reception.

There was a sit-down dinner, followed by a DJ and lots of dancing. The place is right on one of the finger lakes and was a magical place for a reception. All of my brothers and the maid of honor all gave spoken toasts to our marriage. The place was teeming with love and support. That love sustains our marriage even today, of that I am convinced.

The capper to the best day of my life was when it came time to leave, we boarded a yacht that some friends of Donna's parents had arranged to take us across the lake to our car. It was such an incredibly cool way to leave a party. We felt like royalty.

At one point as we were cruising along the lake, I took out a dollar bill and threw it to the wind. Donna looked at me and said "What are you doing?"

I said, "I've always wanted to do that."

It is a ritual I try and catch her with every year on our anniversary when we go out to dinner, usually tossing one out the window of the car. Makes me feel rich. Ha!

If people are wondering what our secret is to staying together for 25 years, I would have to say three things are key:

1. Sacrifice. Do nice things for each other. Compliment each others' strengths. Realize that they're doing their best at this thing as well.

2. Laugh together daily. We crack each other up every day. It relieves stress and keeps things light. It is much of what drew me to her. Our senses of humor align quite well.

3. Share your faith. Our marriage was built in a church and despite a slow start, we hooked up with a church in the early 90's and our spiritual growth alongside each other has been the glue that holds us together in many respects. It pulls us through the hard times and makes the good times that much better.

So, that's it. Twenty Five Years! The next 25 will probably go even faster, but like these, I plan to take them one day at a time.

Blogging off...

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Get Me To The Church On Time

This June 16th my wife and I will celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. It is hard to fathom that time has gone by this quickly. While I say that, I can't imagine that both of us will be around for our 50th, but hey, never say never.

Our wedding day was such a big event in our lives, that I think it deserves some reflection. So, I'm dedicating the next couple of posts to it.

At the time, I was living in a large victorian home that my roommate was in the middle of renovating. We lived upstairs while he gutted - and I mean, down to the lathe gutted - the downstairs. Donna was back in New York, so most of our planning was done by letter (snail mail) or long distance phone calls. She took on most of the planning, while I was in charge of getting the groomsmen tux sizes and securing a rental station wagon to haul her stuff back from NY to Milwaukee. I was also in charge of making a map from the church to the reception, but more about that later.

I managed to work it out so my friend Pat would drive from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Milwaukee, then he and I would drive the rental car out to NY. After the wedding, he would drive the station wagon back to Milwaukee alone with all of Donna's stuff in the back. Donna and I would then drive her Chevette with all the wedding gifts back to Milwaukee, which was about as bad as it sounds.

I called the family and was surprised to hear they could all make the trip. Family comes through when you need them most.

As the date approached, my fiance' got significantly more stressed, rightfully so, of course. When she called me to see how the map was coming, I made the mistake of saying I hadn't started it and that I wasn't quite sure where the one she sent me was.

Wrong thing to say to a maxed out bride.

She let me know through her tears and terse words that I'd let her down. I then assured her I would find the map and get it done and out that week. I did and got back in good graces. Message to future grooms: When you are assigned your one or two jobs before the wedding, get them done. Save yourself (and your fiance') a headache.
Family and friends at Wedding Eve picnic - Gorham NY

After my family arrived we all touched base and said our hellos. On that Thursday evening, we had our wedding rehearsal at the church and then a bridal dinner at the Thendara restaurant. Much of that is a blur. I do remember giving Donna a pair of pearl earrings as a wedding gift that night.

The following day my mom and sisters drove up to Niagara Falls. By the time they got to the backyard gathering at the Neufangs house, they had been through the toll booths a number of times. It seems they got a wee bit lost in Buffalo/Niagara Falls.

Nevertheless, we all managed to make it to the church on time the next day. More on that in my next post.

Blogging off...

Sunday, June 7, 2015

It's All About The Bass

Yesterday was the fishing opener. Well, it was MY fishing opener anyway. The real opener was a couple of weeks back, but I didn't get out for it and usually don't. With my fishing kayak, I take what the spring/summer/fall schedule gives me.

Because we had an event Friday night, I had little time to prepare for my first venture out on my favorite lake. (For those of you wondering, the name of the lake is Secret Lake. Google it. ;-)  Furthermore, we were out late the night before. As a result, the next morning, I woke early and hit the ground running. I needed to eat breakfast, make a thermos of coffee, load the car and load the kayak on top. Because I woke a little late, I was frantically packing to get on the water. Fish wait for no one.

After a 20 minute drive, I repeated the whole ritual in unload mode, working quickly and methodically. When I finally got in the boat, I thought, Man, that was a lot of work for a little fishing. Ten minutes later I had my first fish on and quickly concluded that ALL the work was worth it. This is my happy place. When I die, Donna has instructions to create a funeral pyre out of my kayak, light it on fire and push me into the lake like the Vikings did in a Norse Funeral. Oh, and bait a line and put it out the side too. Ha!

In the process of packing and during the fishing. there are 10 observations I had.

  1. On the first trip of the year you will forget at least one item. This year it was my floppy hat. Oh, and my frozen Goo Goo Cluster that I was so looking forward to. 
  2. I loaded the kayak on top of the car by laying a towel on the SUV's hatch to protect it from scratching. I couldn't find the wool blanket I usually use, so I used the towel. When I got to the lake I realized I never took the towel off after loading the kayak. It blew off somewhere along the ride is my guess. Come to think of it, that's what happened to my blanket LAST year. 
  3. The minute you apply sunscreen, the clouds will roll in.
  4. A paddle into the wind across the lake does not guarantee the wind at your back on the return trip. Wind is a funny thing.
  5. It's really OK not to post to Facebook that you're fishing. Really, it is. 
  6. I'm a little put off when other people paddle by and want to know how I'm doing. I know it's a weird thing, but I'm not there to chat.
  7. The minute you put a goal to catch "one more fish" is like the kiss of death. You might as well just leave. It's not happening now buddy. Thanks for cursing yourself. 
  8. I have a really hard time taking a break from fishing to eat a few pretzels. To me it's "down time" and I know that's weird. But when you're obsessed, simple functions like eating take a back seat.
  9. While fishing alone is fun, fishing with a buddy or my kids is even better. There's no one there to admire your nice Smallmouth except you. But solo fishing beats no fishing everyday!
  10. The fact that my wife knows me enough to ask "when are you going out fishing in your kayak" means I am a lucky man. She knows what it means to me and how it brings me back to center. It's like a runner needing to run to get it out of his/her system. Once I've done it, I'm good for a few weeks. It absolutely is my favorite pastime and I am blessed to have a partner who can appreciate that.
I managed to catch about a dozen bass - Largemouth, smallmouth and a rock bass, so it was a really good morning. 

And with any kind of luck, we can put off the funeral pyre for a decade or two.

Blogging off...

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Welcome To The Club

Clubs and memberships are a part of life. We've all been in one or another. Some of us are card-carrying members, others are members in name only - the ones who are on a roster but never show up. Some go through life jumping from one club or membership to the next in an attempt to make a name, build a resume, or just to keep busy. Clubs and memberships mean a lot to some people and less to others, maybe those that have been burned by a club. Facebook and LinkedIn always ask you to add groups/organizations and memberships to your profile. It uses these groups to find you friends whether you want them or not.

I can't really think of any groups I was part of in High School. No debate team or yearbook club for this guy. Played a few sports, which are clubs of their own, but no high school clubs.

In college I got into a couple of associations. The first was the University of Minnesota Association of Geographers, or UMAG for short. It was a fledgling group of students who got together monthly in a conference room and listened to a visiting professor or graduate student talk about their current project du jour. It was fun being around others with similar interests and studies, mostly because none of us were sure what we were going to do with a degree in Geography. Luckily, that worked out rather well for me, having reached 30 years in the profession just this week.
Anthropology Prez. at the Anth. Annual Conference

The other college group was the U of M Anthropology Club. It too was fledgling, but had a bigger draw - believe it or not - than UMAG, and actually put together an annual conference every year. The conference was usually held at the Mississippi River Headwaters near lake Itasca. It was a beautiful setting where we pulled in speakers from all over the state to give workshops and presentations. We even tried to get Harrison Ford to Keynote one year. Indiana Jones was all the rage in the Archeology world at the time. I think we even got a letter back from him mentioning he was flattered but would have to pass. I ended up as the Club President my senior year, a position with about as much clout as it sounds. It was A LOT of fun. I'll always look back at those years at the U of M as some of the best. (I might add the group is still around and doing quite well.)

Once we enter the working world, there are new groups and memberships to be a part of. Some of the professional groups I've been a part of have the strangest acronyms.

IGUG - Intergraph Graphics Users Group (Now defunct but a big software and hardware manufacturer in the late 80's and early 90's.)

EWUG - ESRI Wisconsin User Group. (ESRI makes the GIS software we use and this is a Wisconsin user group that meets annually to share ideas and network.)

SEWETUG - SouthEastern WI ESRI Technical User Group. (Like above except for SE WI only)

One of the credentials us GIS Map geeks can earn is GISP or GIS Professional. This is an experience, education and contribution based credential meant to denote a level professional experience. I've had mine for 10 years and just renewed for another 5 years.

Then there's the club that no one wants to be a part of, American Association of Retire Persons. Got that card a few years ago at age 50. Actually bought into it for a year, never used it once, let it lapse, and haven't renewed. Maybe someday. Or not.

I suppose my AllWriters writing workshop is a club of sorts, even though it isn't named as such. We support one another, there's fees (every 10 weeks, tuition) and though we welcome anyone, we attract mostly serious writers. More recently I joined the Wisconsin Writers Association for much the same reason - networking and camaraderie.

And I guess our churches are clubs too. Most even have membership classes to join to lay out the tenets of the church. It is the goal of CollectiveMKE, the church we are currently starting up, to not be a club - we welcome anyone - but I'm not sure we can get away from it. If we claim to welcome anyone, well, we're part of the "welcome anyone club," aren't we? Well, I guess it's better than the alternative.

I encourage you to look back at your clubs, memberships, and associations over your life. They can tell you a lot about what's important, maybe what you were striving for or the name you were trying make for yourself.

Blogging off...