Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Chapter's End

It was 11 years ago when Wendy and I left our eldest son Greg at Central Michigan University to begin his quest for higher education. I remember Greg almost quit school right then when he spied a cowboy hat and guitar already dropped off by the roommate he hadn't yet met. He was sure it was a bad omen.

Fast forward a few years later and Greg was singing duets with his now best friend in one of the Mt. Pleasant pubs. His roommate turned out to be not such a bad guy after all.

One's journey past high school through the college years in a way mirrors life itself. You never know where you're going to end up or how you're going to get there. But somehow you manage and usually it turns out being not so bad.

That journey to college campuses near and far ended for Wendy and I this past weekend when we drove to Ithaca, New York, to watch our youngest son Scott graduate with a Master's Degree from Cornell University.

As we sat in the warm, muggy sun as thousands of academics processed to their seats inside Cornell's football stadium, I thought to myself, no more trips here. Or any other institution of higher learning. Not on behalf of my two boys anyway.

Not that Wendy and I made a habit of popping in on our boys as they earned their credits and counted down to commencement. But there was moving in, moving out, siblings day at Central Michigan, Easter at Michigan State, spring break at Cornell.

Along the way we discovered a cider mill north of East Lansing, spent a night at a quaint pub with live music in Mt. Pleasant to hear Greg's roommate entertain the revelers, and motored across Lake Seneca, one of New York's Finger Lakes, with Captain Bill's dinner cruise.

There were also trips to find Christmas tree farms and u-pick pumpkin patches, shopping trips to local supermarkets to help the boys stock up on groceries, and the inevitable dinner at a local restaurant.

We even one time watched one of Greg's intramural soccer games, remembering how we had watched him play organized soccer since he was eight-years-old. At this game, however, we were the only parents there. Some of Greg's friends teased that it was "cute" to have his parents as spectators.

We didn't witness all the major events, like the time Greg had the police burst in on him guns drawn while he was working the late shift at a local business. He shouldn't have ignored the alarm he had tripped. We weren't there either when Scott experienced tear gas first hand walking home during one of Michigan State's students encounters with local police in a post-victory celebration that got out of hand.

Now it's all history. Chapter's end. But another chapter begins. I like the theme of Cornell's commencement, described in the Cornell president's commencement address as well as in a video marking the occasion . . . goodbye Cornell, hello world.

Whether Scott's job leaves him here or Michigan or takes him somewhere else (Washington DC, he hopes), I'm sure it will help to write another chapter for us as well.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

I Would Prefer Bill Knapps

I have one more day to enjoy being 57. Actually less than that, since it’s Tuesday evening and my birthday starts at midnight. Fifty-eight-years-old???!! Bring on the dancing girls.

What did I accomplish this past year? Not much, I guess:

1. Became a grandpa but I didn’t have much to do with that, not this past year anyway.
2. Worked on my retirement nest egg but that stands about where it did last year at this time.
3. Bought a new mini-van but that didn’t help my retirement nest egg (see 2.)

Anyway, does anybody else sign up to become a member at these websites where you get a free gift coupon on your birthday? Maybe I’m just getting cranky in my old age but the gifts seem to get chintzier with each passing year--hea, spell check doesn’t object to chintzier, but it doesn’t like “hea.”

Red Lobster sent me an e-mail with a coupon for $5 off two adult dinners. Okay, so Wendy and I went. The check at the end of it all still seemed a bit pricy. I calculated that the $5 probably paid for one short domestic beer with taxes and tip. Woo hoo! Party down, man. Hmmm, spell check is okay with “woo” but not “hoo.”

I also got a birthday coupon worth one free personal pizza at a pub Wendy and I frequent. But the pizzas to choose from??? A Greek salad pizza with fresh greens, Caribbean jerk pizza with scallions, Bistro arugula pizza with baby arugula or Margherita pizza with fresh basil.

For my birthday, I want a pizza oozing cheese and meat bi-products. Fresh greens? Arugula? I'm a man, not a rabbit. Is a Greek salad pizza supposed to be trendy or something? Don't think so. I guarantee you that you won’t see a Greek salad burger coming anytime soon to your local McDonalds.

Bring back Bill Knapps. Now there’s a restaurant chain that knew how to handle your birthday. They deducted your age as a percentage off your meal (so that would be 58 percent for me--boo-yeah, still can do the math) AND a free birthday cake. And I don’t even think they had arugula, baby or adult, on the menu.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Raining Elephants

At some work-related seminar in my not-so-recent past, the teacher used the phrase “raining elephants” to describe obstacles that prevent you from reaching your goals.

I seem to be thinking a lot about that lately.

For example, as I consider retirement and the income I’ll need then to ward off starvation, Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder has decided to tax my meager 401K. That became the law this past week. Like I said, aining elephants.

Ironically, to make it easier for those baby boomers already close to retirement, the law only affects those born 1953 and after. My birth year? 1953. Uh, raining elephants, like I said.

Well then, maybe I could be more entrepreneurial and come up with some cash to make up for what the governor took away. My ‘found on the ground’ has been lagging lately, because all the real rain we’ve been getting prevents me from bicycling to my usual spots (might as well call it raining elephants too), so Wendy and I dug through our excess household baggage and joined my sister-in-law in a garage sale this past Saturday.

Our take? One quarter for a pair of safety glasses. Didn’t help that it again was raining (elephants?) much of the day. Since I had to make a couple trips with our Grand “gas-slurping” Caravan, I figure we’re about $40 in the hole.

But Wendy and I could take some solace in the fact that we got to bring our grandson Grant home, as well as his Boston Terrier brother Simon, to entertain while his parents enjoyed a night out for their anniversary.

That didn’t go so well either. He gradually grew fussy as the night wore on so we decided to feed him a bottle. Elephant showers anyone? Whether we fed him too quickly, not enough, or something else, Grant was the antithesis of a happy baby afterwards. Cried and cried, very loudly. Could not be consoled.

For better than an hour we tried rocking him, singing to him, even giving him a bath. He just wailed and wailed. While we dressed him for bed, I took a look over at Simon who was unusually placid lying there in a chair, his head resting between his front paws. I thought he would be antsy and nervous seeing his brother in such distress, but he just looked at me with this “welcome to my world, folks” expression.

Eventually, after another bottle and more rocking, Grant finally settled down and went to sleep in grandma Wendy’s arms. But even as he nodded off, his shoulders shook as he choked up occasionally, leftovers from his marathon cryathon. Made Wendy feel terrible.

You have to believe that the skies are going to clear up some time. Not tonight though. I've been up and down our stairs here a dozen times re-booting my modem since I keep losing my internet connection. I see it's happened again. Right now I think if I encountered an elephant in our front room here, I'd give it a good whuppin'.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Is This Legal?

Check this out. I found it when I was cleaning out a storage area in the basement underneath the stairs. Wait, let me zoom in so that you can focus in on what had me curious.

I thought all lead-based paints were supposed to be verboten. When I had an advance technician checking our house prior to the arrival of carpet installers he was looking in particular for any evidence of lead-based paint in our modest two-story home.

Good thing he didn't check under the stairs in the basement. But I'm not sure this can has even been opened. It could have been here when we moved in almost 20 years ago. So can I be held responsible if it's a pre-existing condition? Didn't Obama change that last year?

So how to get rid of it. We can dispose of dangerous household chemicals by taking them to a special drop-off at the local landfill. But not latex paint as you can just mix whatever's left in the can with sawdust and throw it away with the rest of your garbage. Wonder if that includes lead-based lacquer.

Speaking of souvenirs from the previous owners, I'm trying to dispose of their gas grill that has sat unused in our backyard since we've moved in. Never used it. It's only use is as a home for bees and wasps. I'd like to get rid of it but it's attached to a natural gas line that runs underground and into our home. In otherwords, beyond my area of expertise.

I called the gas company but they weren't too helpful. After transfering me to another line, the lady there asked if the homeowner was deceased or bankrupt. No! Then she said they had transfered me to the wrong place. Makes me feel really confident I'm going to get a helpful answer on how to remove an outdoor gas grill without blowing up the neighborhood if they can't handle a simple phone network.

Eventually I got someone who thought he knew the answer. He even checked with a co-worker to make sure. So what am I supposed to do? Call a plumber!

Let me close this week with a couple recent pictures. My father is breaking in his new camera and is posting some of his efforts on his Facebook page, when he can get the photos to upload. He liked this one he took of a double rainbow up north near Hubbard Lake.

And following in the like-father-like-son theme, here is a picture I took Sunday of who else but my one and only grandson. We celebrated Mother's Day at a local pub but Grant's looking a little glum. Maybe he was hoping for a live band. He does enjoy music, even at three months.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011


Like Americans everywhere, I was very happy to hear that that mastermind of 9/11 met his demise at the hands of U.S. special forces this week. As with most Americans, however, it also brought back some sorrow recalling the events of that most tragic day almost ten years ago. I thought it would be appropriate to reprint here a blog that I wrote involving one of those most deeply affected. The original blog ran over five years ago (wow, have I been blogging that long??) and was titled Stranger on a Train . . .

Anyone who rides AMTRAK knows it has the mechanical dependability of a very old car. Electrical malfunctions, engine breakdowns and track problems are commonplace. While we were riding back from Chicago last year, the air conditioning failed in nearly all the cars, though not in the dining car where we sat as part of an overflow of ticketed passengers. Before long, a woman about our age asked to join us at our table, wanting a respite from her warm, stuffy accommodations.

She was talkative in a motherly manner. At first she seemed a bit self-conscious at intruding but eventually she opened up. After describing her work with executives in the auto industry and the challenges of traveling alone, she began talking about her life and her family. Her husband had died some years ago, stricken by cancer in the prime of life. That left her to shepherd their two young daughters through the often tumultuous years leading to adulthood.

While she spoke, she pulled out a picture of her daughters. They were both long-haired, slender, conservatively dressed and with a scholarly demeanor. In fact, both girls were bright, though the older daughter held more of a passion for success. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a business degree. Then, she was among a few fortunate graduates to secure a position in the lucrative field of investment banking.

Eventually, she landed in New York, with a salary approaching six figures, her mother said. Pretty good for a young twenty-something. Four years ago this past Sunday, she was at her post high up in the World Trade Center towers. Then the planes hit. Her mother anticipated a phone call, knowing her daughter would want to let her know right away that she was okay. So she waited. An hour passed. Then two.

When after several hours, there was no phone call, the mother said she was overcome by a feeling of tranquillity. Whether it was mother's intuition, a spiritual sense, or something else, she knew her daughter had perished that morning. Her words brought my wife to tears. They both hugged and cried together for a moment. Then the mother went on to talk about her surviving daughter--her career as an oceanographer and her life on Cape Cod.

After we got off the train, my wife and I made sure the woman's car was still there where she left it. She thought it might have been towed after several days. The car was there and we parted ways. That was the last we saw of her. This past week I thought about that woman, whose name I don't remember. As I watched news footage of the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the memorials marking the anniversary of 9-11, I thought of how we opened our hearts as a nation to those affected. And it doesn't always take a generous donation to offer comfort. Sometimes it just takes sympathy, a few tears, and a hug.