Thursday, December 29, 2016

A New Hope

We are a couple of days away from 2016 being over and done with. And let me tell you, I'll be the first one in line toasting good riddance to it. It has been a tough, difficult year in our country and our world - one of the worst I can remember anyway. I try and be as positive a person as I can, but this year was a struggle to keep my chin up.

There were a multitude of racially charged cop/citizen shootings that created demonstrations and counter demonstrations. Throw on top of this the nearly weekly active shooter occurrences and it kind of makes one sick to their stomach. I don't know what the answer is anymore, but I'm guessing a good start would be less guns and more punitive measures on gun crimes. I'm no expert though, so this is just a thought. I just want it to stop. 

And of course we had a rash of high profile celebrity deaths this year too. For some reasons the ones that always hit me the hardest are the rock stars of my youth. This year saw names like Prince, David Bowie and Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, Glenn Frey and George Michael. I was never a huge fan of any of them, but they were all the face of my young generation, so it's a bit of an eye opener. When you're young, you kind of assume these guys are going to live forever. When you see the ages of some of them you kind of look over your shoulder to check for guys in long black robes bearing scythes. 

And then, don't even get me started on Carrie Fischer. That one slays me. 

There might have been one of the biggest election circuses that ever saw air time this past year too. I'm not sure. I can't remember. I bought in early to the candidate who got aced out (not naming names, but it started with a B) and when said candidate dropped out I was left with no good option. Another lesser of two evils election. It was divisive and ugly and long and drawn out. I for one am glad its over. Let the praying begin (and that would have been true for either candidate.)

To pile on to the craptastic year that was 2016, my wife and I have had a handful of health issues afflict our parents. Donna's father had a couple of heart stents put in today and her mother is struggling with worsening dementia. A couple of days ago my mother was admitted into a hospital for some lung related issues - a form of COPD. My wife and I realize we are of an age where this is the new normal. We will continue to love and try and help where and when we can. 

Because of the rough year we've had, the fear of the future is not really fear at all anymore. I can't wait for it, really. Last night I saw Rogue One with my daughter and the final line mentions that a data exchange about the death star gives the rebellion "hope." 

That is is a message I will ride alongside into 2017. 


Blogging off...

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Santa's Gift

We just returned from our Christmas celebration after a 5 hour drive through a relatively torrential December downpour. There were moments of white knuckles and at least two incidences of a second or two of uncontrolled hydroplaning - which was kinda fun - in a one-horse-open-sleigh kinda way.

As in years of recent past, we stayed at the Homewood Suites in New Brighton, Minnesota. It is a pretty nice hotel and their suites have a kitchenette and separate living areas that makes it quite comfortable.

On the evening we arrived, we spent some time with my sister in-law, Jane and her two girls. We always used to stay with them during holiday stays, so our kids grew up together. Part of our evening was spent going through Jane's scrapbooks of a few of our family vacation trips together. Two of the trips were spent with three of us siblings and our families. We saw Colorado, South Dakota and Pennsylvania. It was a blast going back through some of the things we had forgotten about on those trips. Some of the sketchy 3 star motels that were blatantly mis-reviewed and shouldv'e been two stars or less!

Then, last night we continued our tradition of going to Christmas Eve service at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in downtown Minneapolis. The church is majestic and beautiful empty. Fill it with choirs of children, middle schoolers and adults and you have a transcendent experience. As usual I was a mess by the second chorus of Silent Night. So choked up I couldn't sing. It just means so much to me to be able to share that place and that music and that experience with my kids, my sister in-law, her daughters and the spirit of my brother Rob on Christmas Eve. It is one of the high points of every Christmas.

After church we crossed town to Woodbury where we had the gift exchange at my niece's apartment complex party room. It was our first year not at my sister Jane's house, and we were all a little apprehensive about how it would go.

It was perfect!

Santa managed to make an appearance for a bit. We snapped a bunch of family pictures with him and somewhere along the line, my niece's boyfriend managed to propose to her. He got down on one knee and did the surprise thing. It was a cool moment and we all celebrated it with hugs, congratulations and champagne.

After the gift exchange, people started to clear out - always a time of melancholy for me. I am such a sucker for family and I felt we were just getting started and, here it was, time to go. I had some great laughs with Tom, Jane, Mom and Paul as well as my nieces and nephews. For all of the commercialism and hustle and bustle of the season, this is really what it boils down to for me. We could all just get together for food and drinks and we would have just as much fun.

There were a few noticeable missing personalities. My sister Pat and her son Michael are sometimes home, but they are in California with her other kids. Also missing were my sister in-laws parents, Dwight and Carolyn. They are battling through some health issues with Carolyn and weren't up to making the trip. I missed chatting with them and I know they missed us too.

The whole experience is a reminder of how lucky we are to have each other. I feel the love of Christ in each of these relationships. He brought us together as a family and continues to see to it that we come together a couple of times a year to enjoy each other's company. I am blessed beyond measure and wish the same for you and your family.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Keep It Down Over There

Well, I am the not-so-proud owner of a new pair of Phonak hearing aids. Yep, it's official, I'm old. I got them on Tuesday and went through all the fitting/training procedures at the audiologists office.

I was surprised by the small size of them and when they're in, they are very difficult to see. (Of course I realize that by posting this, I am tipping you all off, and now you'll be looking for them next time you see me. Don't be a judger.)  In fact, the day I got them I went to Ben's swim meet neither my friend nor Ben noticed them until I mentioned it to them. That was my big hangup for so many years was the vanity end of it. That and the fact that it skews me as "old," which I may be becoming. Not sure yet.

Anyways, when I first tried them on, I was shocked at how loud and echoey my voice was. The doctor adjusted it and said that over time my brain would get used to it and I wouldn't notice it anymore. The other thing that was shocking was, I could hear her rustling papers even though I couldn't see the papers. I know for sure this is a sound I wouldn't have heard without the hearing aids. It made me wonder how many other sounds I haven't been hearing over the years.

I went to work after the fitting and the first thing I noticed was the clicking of my mouse - super annoying! I hear every click, which I don't recall hearing before, at least not at the present volume. The other annoyance is the clicking of my keyboard keys. Again, I've heard those before, but never this clearly. I'm not entirely sure this is a desirable fix.

The coolest thing about them though is that if I'm not hearing something, all I have to do is click the right one and everything goes up a notch. Same goes for situations when something is too loud - like, say, any political speech or banter - I can click the left and it all goes quieter. So, if you see me picking at my left ear, you'll know.

I was set up at 80% of my max with a slow adjustment up to 90% over thirty days. This allows me to get used to them. I also need to have them set it up so I can use a phone app to adjust them - which I think this model is capable of.

My whole concern over how they look and people's perceptions is totally stupid and selfish. I think of my brother Rob who wore hearing aids his whole life and never much cared what people think. I need to get over it and rejoice in being able to hear things that I should.

So that's what I plan to do. And don't be talking about me behind my back, because I might just hear ya!

Blogging off...

Sunday, December 18, 2016


December is a month full of significant birthdays for me. My brother Paul's is December 2nd, my wife's is December 7th, my own is December 11th and my stepfather, Jack's is today, December 18th. He would have been 87.

Jack dated my mom  for nearly 10 years before they married in 1979. They divorced in 1985 and we sometimes joke about how getting married was the biggest mistake they made. When they didn't get along during the dating years, they just stopped seeing each other for a couple of weeks. Then, they'd get back together and all would be good again until the next time.

While I can't paint Jack as a saint - he had drinking problems for most of his adult years, the cause of both his divorces and the source of much hurt to his families - I think it's only fair to point out the good on his birthday.

Jack had a wicked sense of humor. He loved to laugh and was great at getting others to laugh with him. That's why people liked him. I know there were several occasions that Mom pulled him along to something he maybe didn't want to go to because she knew people "loved Jack." His sense of humor and wit were part of the reason he earned the moniker "Happy Jack," or just "Happy." He was also a smoker and as bad as that habit is for you, there is nothing quite as funny as a good "smoker laugh." It comes from the chest and fills a room. The good ones usually end up causing a coughing fit by the laughter afterward.

Jack loved kids. He had 8 by his first marriage and married into our family of 6 kids. He frequently mixed the families by taking us out to the beach. He spent much of the time either horsing around with us in the water (including his famous "butt bouncer" dive off the diving board or throwing the football to Timmy, Maggie and Theresa (his twin girls) and me. He and Mom took us camping and made sure that we had fun when we were there. I remember one year we went camping and we went to town to get something, not realizing we had the bug spray in our car. When we got back to the campsite, he joked that he'd been spraying Raid bug fogger on himself.

Jack had all the sayings. He was the king of a bunch of sayings, some of which got more prevalent when he'd had a few drinks. A few of his lines were:

"Not to worry!"
"Can of corn."
"Piece of cake."
"I'm a quiet man." (He was not.)

His nickname for his girls was "Toots" (less than flattering, ha!) and his go to phrase whenever he and Mom were arguing was that he'd go and "Sleep in my one-third of the house down at 965." (His family lived on the same street as we did, two blocks away.)

I realized coming into a family as any stepfather must have been a tough thing to do. I was lucky, Jack always liked me - for whatever reason. He taught me a love for football and the Vikings. He SHOWED UP when my grade school football team went to the City and then Twin City Championship games. It totally caught me off guard, but meant the world to me.

The last time I saw Jack was on Easter Sunday in the late 90's. Jack was in a nursing home for a rare disease that was eventually the end of him. I told mom that I thought it was more important to go see him than to go to church. We went and I introduced him to our daughter Sarah who was just a baby. He was in rough shape, but he still had his wicked sense of humor. Mom scolded him for being a slob and picked up his room a bit, but he just made light of it and we all had a laugh. For some reason I felt I needed him to meet my daughter. I don't know if he remembered it a week later, but it's a day I will never forget.

Because when you love someone, despite their imperfections and their flaws, warts, tics, bad habits and all of the hurt  they might have caused, at the end of the line when life is coming to a close, I like to focus on the beauty that that person brought to the world. Some prefer to dwell on the bad - and there's maybe space for that - but it's not my style.

People in your life shape you and make you who you are. You take their influence and try and make it better in your own sphere of influence. That to me is what relationships and love and family is all about.

So, Happy Birthday, Jack.

Blogging off...

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Winter Camping Close To Home

It has been an interesting few days around this 95 year old house.

If you recall, I've mentioned we've had furnace issues for a while now. We've been walking the tightrope for about a year now. Our furnace started making some noise a couple of years ago. We had it checked and the guy said it was the inducer, it costs around $600 and that it could probably go for a while but would eventually need replacing. We were contemplating replacing it at the time, but since the noise wasn't too bad, we figured we'd ride it out for a while.

Well we rode it through last winter and by the end of the season, she was howlin' pretty good. When it fired up this fall, it was no better. It's weird how those things don't fix themselves with a little time off.

Knowing that I would absolutely lose my mind if I had to listen to the roar of that thing for another season, we decided to have it "assessed." The assessment was that the patient was old, lived a good life but was on about stage 3 of a very expensive cancer. The inducer was now up to around $650, with a "failing main board" to the tune of another $700. If we fixed both of those we would have a patient with a new heart and brain, but a 21 year old liver with heavy cirrhosis scarring and a 21 year old gall bladder that caused heartburn.

Oh, and it's appendix was about to burst.

It was not a glowing bill of health.

So we saw the writing on the wall and decided to bite the bullet and get a new furnace. When we sell the house in the next 5-10 years, it will be a decent selling point. Yeah, that's it.

The date was set for today back in November. That way we figured we'd nip any chance for a cold-snap disaster right in the bud. We got this.

In true form, timing is everything. Yesterday when I woke, the furnace was acting up. It roared for a few minutes then powered down with no heat blown our way. Then, oddly enough it powered up again a minute later, howled for a few minutes, then shut off again.

To make sure nothing tragic happened like a total failure and burst pipes, I stayed home and furnace sat. I holed up in an office with a space heater and worked.

The thing worked on and off all day and into the early evening. So we went to bed and crossed our fingers.

I woke at 2:30 because my nose was cold thinking something wasn't right. Checked the thermostat and it was at 56 degrees. I put the space heater on in our room, turned on the bathroom faucet slightly and went back to bed and thrashed around in bed like a heavily caffeinated meth addict.

It was a bit like winter camping in a large wooden tent.

A few hours-that-seemed-like-minutes later, I woke to the alarm. I went downstairs and saw we'd hit a new low of 51 degrees.
Seems kind of small for 4K

Not bad...liveable, I thought. I fired up the oven like an urban hillbilly and went about breakfast and my routine. In the shower it occurred to me how much more steam gets generated when it's hitting 51 degree air. It's kinda purty.

Our dog and cats were practically bedding down together to share the body heat.

The installers were supposed to show up at noon. True to form and fear, they were two hours behind schedule. Nonetheless, they got the new one in (not without having to replace one plumbing valve that was rusted open - Imagine that!)  and were setting up the thermostat until we realized our wifi was out due to an area-wide outage. Doh!

Well, at least we got heat. And I thank God for that.

Blogging off...(using a data tethered hot spot from my phone.)

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Trips Around The Sun

As it turns out my blog post day (Sunday) falls on my birthday this year. I turned 55 today and while birthdays are always a little special, as we get older, they tend more and more to drift toward the "just another day" on the spectrum of life events. So today I will spend watching the Packers/Seattle game with a couple of close friends, eating ribs and birthday cookies and enjoying the downtime that snowy Decembers bring.

And it will be a really, really good day.

When pressed to think of memorable birthdays past, a few come to mind.

  • In 1972, we celebrated my golden birthday a day early on Sunday, December 10th. I remember the Vikings played the Packers and because the game was not a sellout, they blacked the game out in the Twin Cities. My mom and stepfather knew I was a big Viking fan and made it special by taking me across the border into Hudson, Wisconsin where the game was being shown. As I recall, even there the screen was fuzzy and snowy because, well, TV wasn't what it is today. I drank soda and ate beer nuts and well, the Vikings didn't get the memo and lost to the Packers 23 - 7. It was a good day nonetheless.
  • I don't recall much about my 16th "sweet 16" birthday. I'm not sure it was much of a thing back then - maybe so.
  • One of the best birthdays on record was my 30th. I was back home visiting with Donna because Mom wanted to take me out for dinner. Leading up to dinner, I sensed something was up because the phone kept ringing - more than usual, anyway. By the time dinner was done, I had kind of forgotten all the suspicion, and when I walked into Mom's house on Larpenteur, there were probably 40-50 friends and family, Surprise! It was so great talking to everyone and having some laughs. My brother Rob kept pulling me into the laundry room for secret shots of Yukon Jack - a Boundary Waters traditional spirit. Before the night finished out, I was telling my wife and Mom how to hunt Snipe at night using a burlap bag. That might be the Yukon talking, there. In any case my 30th was harder for me than 40 or 50. It was then that I realized I'd never play in the NFL (not that I could have at 25 either), and that I was leaving my youth behind. 
  • For my 40th birthday, my wife did something kind of cool. She told people to send cards, stories and pictures of me. It was fun reading some of the things people remembered. 
  • My 50th was a small affair, just how I'd asked for it. We spent it with a handful of good friends. with dinner at our house and a few beverages. The best part about it though was the surprise of a significant chunk of money toward my purchase of a fishing Kayak. I have my wife to thank for making that happen. It has been the source of so much fun for me that it's hard to imagine life without it.
In between each of these were the "average" birthdays, filled with chocolate covered angel food cake (a favorite), treats at work and hand made cards from the kids. All good. 

And so, as I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror today with an ice pack strapped to my elbow (tendinitis), swabbing my eyes for my blepharitis (eye condition) and my face for my rosacea, and remembering that Thursday I get my hearing aids, I took stock and thought, this must be what 55 looks like.

Well, at least I've got my health.

Blogging off...

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Its Beginning To Look Like Not Quite Solstice

Well, the BIG winter jacket came out this week.

The polar blast has swung into Wisconsin with a vengeance. Temps aren't even that bad, low to mid twenties. It's the wind that is killing us. We've had a steady 10-20 mph wind for the past three days. It makes a feel-like temperature in the low single digits. The other day I was walking home and faced a strong head wind for much of the walk. I began to wonder if I would make it home without sustaining a frostbitten nose. Thankfully I had a great jacket with a decent hood and made it home unscathed - albeit delirious and out of breath.

And so we've come upon that time of year. The jig is up, the furnace is howling - shaking the whole house - and there's no turning back. Time to gas up the snow blower, ready the shovel, bust out the wool socks and cotton long johns and brace yourselves.

I am determined to make the best of it this winter and try and not be a depressed whiner about it all. Every day is a blessing I'm told, even if my skin has all the suppleness of a Nevada salt flat. I aim to look at it that way even if I AM looking through the periscope hole of my parka hood. It's winter dang it. Joy to the world, right?

I'm looking for the good in the little things. Things like:

  •  The clear blue skies of the morning walk - when it's not cloudy and battleship grey. Though clear skies usually mean cooler temps. But the clear blue skies. Yay, that!
  • The fact that Christmas is coming. The lights are beautiful and the tree is purchased and up. I only lost a couple of fingers picking it out last night, but it was worth it. It's beautiful. Yay for the tree!
  • That, despite our howling furnace that shakes the house, we are slated to get a new one installed a week from today - at great expense mind you. It won't fit under our Christmas tree, but we will be putting a bow on it - To: Donna and Jim from Donna and Jim - for the next three years! Yay, heat.
  •  In two weeks, the days will start getting longer. I know this is a simple joy, but it is the start of a climb toward June 21st when it is light out until nine o'clock - and I love that. I know it's only longer by 3-5 minutes a day or something ridiculous. but hey, I'm struggling here. Work with me. Yay, longer days in two weeks, after a ridiculously short December 20th. 
  • Both of my cars have batteries less than 3 years old. Yay, cold cranking amps!
  • We had an extremely mild November and, so far a fairly dry December. That much closer to April. Yay, meteorology!
  • I've found that dark beer helps. Yay, beer!
So, it's one day at a time around here. Lots of winter ahead, but I'm counting on you all to keep hounding me about how it's not that bad - even when I know you're lying. 

Because, I love winter! Love it!

Blogging off...

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Pushing For The Wall

Friday night marked the start of my son's senior year of swim season. As you recall, he decided to join the team last year after not playing any sports in high school in the previous years. It was such a good experience for him that he decided to do it his senior year as well.

The meet was held at Waukesha North, a competing school in the city. It was a "compass meet" which I think means all the Waukesha teams South, North and West. There were a handful of other teams as well, including Mukwonago and Homestead.

Of course I went to the meet to cheer him on. I always forget how much I enjoy watching swimming events. The summer Olympics always find me glued to the swimming events watching Michael Phelps break records and take home medals. They help me appreciate what really goes into the training and competitiveness of the sport.

I am a fledgling swimmer - one who loves the water, but can't do much more than crawl/back float out to the island every year at the cabin. This is not an insignificant distance, but crawling/back floating is not really swimming. Or is it?  I don't know.

So when I see these boys doing a stroke as difficult as the butterfly and the backstroke, I have nothing short of great admiration for them. My sister in-law who coaches girls swimming once tried to give me some pointers on doing the butterfly but I ended up looking more like a man who'd just seen a shark and was trying to notify people. It's actually on a videotape somewhere, I think.

My admiration holds true for the breast stroke and freestyle. None of them look easy. I've often mentioned that I would like to one day learn how to swim freestyle (or any of them, really) because it is such a great sport for your health. Maybe in retirement.

And I might be a big sap, but there were a number of times I got kind of choked up at the meet. Like the time the Freshman from a competing school was struggling as the last kid in during the 400 meter freestyle. The whole natatorium was cheering him on as he floundered and pushed himself. It reminded me of Ben's first 200 yard backstroke race, where the whole place was cheering him on. It sounds weird I know, but in these days of political yuck, things like this restore my faith in humanity at times. Maybe if we all plugged for one another a little more instead of insulting one another's political party in the comments of the latest expose, we'd be a better world.

Swimming as a unifier!

Or the multiple times I saw teammates cheering on their teammates, regardless of what place they were in during the race. I also really like it when the winner of a race is congratulated by the second place guy - or vice verse. It is the ultimate Team/Individual sport, much like Track and Field. These boys are trying to improve their personal bests and help their team at the same time. It is a beautiful show of sportsmanship and something that is refreshing compared to all the chest thumping and grandstanding we see in football and basketball.

And then there was the fact that this was the first of the last. The last few times I will see my boy compete in a high school sport. That reality is one I'm having a hard time dealing with. Talk to me next fall when the house is deathly quiet. Those will be strange days.

Plus, I get really wound up watching some of the close races. Waukesha South has a really good swim team, one of the top in the state, and many of their races have them finishing 1, 2 and 3. It is fun to see them competing even against their own teammates.

Ben did well in his first meet of the year. His times were up a bit from the end of last year, but that's to be expected given that it's been 9 months since he swam competitively. He'll improve and finish strong, of that I'm certain. He really enjoys his friends on the team and loves being part of it all.

And, if you ask me, that's what it's all about.

Blogging off...

Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Party On The Iceberg

Well, I had my hearing test/evaluation today, and let's just say that if it was the ACT exam, I'd definitely want to retake it.

I pretty much failed with flying colors. 

Now, I;d had my ears tested about 8-9 years ago, I would guess. Back then they told me there was some loss and that I should probably consider a hearing aid somewhere down the road. Now, when you say this to a man, "down the road" means 8-9 years down the road. Not a big fan of doctors...

Anyways the whole experience was fairly stressful in a strange way. 

Once I filled out all the paperwork asking questions like what types of situations I would like to hear better in and things of that nature, I was taken back to the soundproof booth. There the Doctor and her intern asked the same questions. (Why?) Next she told me how the exam would be conducted. It was basically 3 parts.

  1. A series of ascending sounds - Click the clicker when they start.
  2. A sentence - repeat the sentence back (or as much as you can recognize)
  3. A sentence in a setting with steadily increasing background noise - repeat back as much as you can hear.
It was clear, this wasn't my daddy's hearing test with just a series of beeps.

As they started making the noises I strained to focus and listen. For the first few notes, I clicked away. They seemed to be timed roughly the same length apart from one another, so I could almost fake it. Until I couldn't hear anything....and I was pretty sure she was making sounds, because when I didn't respond, she kept reacting in a way that was telling. A couple of times I faked it when I thought I should be clicking. 

Because lying on a hearing exam, well, that helps make me look not so deaf right?

It was clear I was taking this exam personally. To me they were grading on a curve and I was shooting for a C+, because I know my ears and they're not honor-student ears.

We moved on to the second test. I got most of those right - I think. The one I may have made up had something to do with a party on an iceberg. That might have been a guess on my part. Haven't heard much talk about iceberg parties - unless maybe the test designer was from Antarctica. That could happen.

The best/worst part of the test was the last part. I had little issue when they had just a few people as background noise. "The footpath to the lake was well lit." No problem. But as they turned up the ambient noise, suddenly I was hearing things like "...occupied territory...on the dogs."  (Was there a "niner" in there?)

Now, this pretty much sums up my past couple of years at any party. I do a fair amount of what is known as the "deaf nod". Yeah, I heard you (no I didn't).

I told the doctor that by the time they had reached the "peak volume" of background noise was around the time that I left the party. I then asked her if people can really hear the sentence of the speaker in that last situation. She said, "Yep! People with normal hearing could hear that fine." 

So much for my C+.

When she gave me the results she mentioned that I had "moderate to severe" hearing loss, especially of high frequencies. Most people start hearing speech in the 8-12 DB range, I am in the 25ish range. She may have said I had a 60 DB loss, but I'm not sure. There were a lot of numbers, graphs and facts flying around at that point. I was a little like the cancer patient after diagnosis. The whole room was kind of spinning. (Just kidding, but it was eye opening.)

In any case I'm going to be fit with a pair of very expensive behind the ear hearing aids. And by the time I walked out of the office, I'd come to the realization that vanity is stupid and that I should have done this 5 years ago because it will be good to hear again.

Ironically enough, later tonight when I was walking the dog, the song "Hear that sound" by INXS came on my iPod.

The answer is, no, I don't hear that sound. 

But I will soon enough. No more occupied territory on the dogs for me.

Blogging off..