Winter Waiting

Perhaps it is because the season of winter bridges those seasons of autumn and spring that we bestow so much power to the New Year. We quickly transition from the dying of fall in which flowers, trees, and even the grass lose their color and their foliage, into a cold and barren landscape of winter that drapes itself in a blanket of white and long shadows, and finally, and for many, slowly into a season of new life; spring.

The old year passes. The new year begins. Dark at first, yes. Cold in its beginning, certainly. But the landscape, lonely and forsaken, contains a hidden hope for a brilliant spring; one filled with color, sound, and scents.

I never regret the winter months. They give me the opportunity to reflect: Sitting beside a warm fire, with a coffee in my hand on dark mornings, I ponder the meaning of life. I think about the things I can accomplish. I plan great and daring feats and dream big dreams as my dog sleeps at my feet.

January is a month for short days and long shadows. It is a month of solitude and visions of what can be. If I strive to be my very best when the days grow longer, and the sun once again warms the earth, I can achieve anything. January is a month of new beginnings, even before the snow has had a chance to melt away.

If my car tires and battery are new and my hat and mittens are at my side, I say bring on winter in all its glory. In my estimation, winter is not the end, but an exciting new beginning. It opens new chapters to the book of my life, and I am glad for it.

Working in Tandem

Modu likes to draw, and while he is not professionally trained, he has been able to create some beautiful work. On the wall in the lunch room in the Nessima Camp of Catania, his map of Africa is a featured image. To the right of the map, he’s added a proud lion, a towering giraffe, and a stately Baobab tree. He is quite good.

Together we sat at the table sharing our love of drawing. He drew an alligator. I drew a dragonfly.

Then we tried an experiment: I drew a squiggly line and asked him to make a picture out of this. He’d never played this “game” before, and it was quite a challenge. He couldn’t readily think of any option that might complete the picture. So, I asked him to draw a line, and then I finished the drawing adding some eyes, a nose, and a mouth. His squiggle became a man’s face.

We tried again. I turned Modu’s jotting into a car. I gave him another simple line, and he turned it into a box on top of a truck. He wrote the number 32, and I turned it into a man with glasses. I wrote the same number, and he turned it into a starling.

Finally, we returned to the original, complicated line. We studied it together for a few minutes. Even I found myself stymied by the nonsense image. And then inspiration hit. Modu picked up his pen and started to draw. In a matter of seconds, he’d turned a meaningless form into an original, creative image.

It was a flash of inspiration and a quick sketch, but a perfect example of cooperation and creativity. The image might not be gallery quality, but in my judgment, it wins an award any day.

An Open Letter to Kroger

 

An open letter to the management of my local Kroger:

Dear Madams and Sirs,

This missive is a formal protest: On the afternoon of October 31, 2017, I walked into my local Kroger with the hopes of picking up some candy to hand out to eager children on Halloween. I noticed something odd as I walked in the door: the pumpkins that had festooned the entryway since July 4 were no longer present. There were no plastic cat skeletons or scary tombstones. That should have been my first warning.

Continue reading “An Open Letter to Kroger”

Almost Twins

My brother and I at my nephew’s wedding (2012). Photo courtesy of Kelly Kanedy Schwindt (https://www.facebook.com/kelly.k.schwindt)

For 10 days of every year, my brother and I are the same age. I say we are twins during this short window in time. My daughter tells me that I don’t understand the meaning of the word “twin”.

However, I disagree. I mean, obviously, we look freakishly alike. We share the same humor (twisted). We enjoy similar taste in books, music and have actually found that we do similar things at the same time, without talking to one another about it.

For instance, a few years ago I started riding a stationary bike and reading some of the classic books that I never read in school, despite the assignments (sorry Mrs. Washler). The next time we were together, my brother mentioned that he’d started riding a stationary bike and reading the classics that he actually DID read in school. He wanted to re-read them because they were so great the first time (teacher’s pet).  We both were reading the same books, in almost the same order, at almost the exact same time!

Freaky, right?  But the similarities don’t end there:

  1. We were both born on presidents’ birthdays: Todd was born on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and I was born on George Washington’s.
  2. Todd plays the guitar and sings. I play the radio and hum along.
  3. Todd skydives. I look up at planes that pass overhead.
  4. People like Todd. People I know tell me that they also like Todd.
  5. Todd is artistic. I visit museums.
  6. Todd used to own a pickup truck. I want to own a pickup truck.

We couldn’t be any more alike if we tried.  Like I said, and despite my daughter’s protests, we are almost twins!

Water Off a Duck’s Back

I believe everything we need to know about life, we can learn from the birds. For instance, did you know that ducks are waterproof?  Really. It’s true. But more on that later.

First, let’s talk about how hard life can be and how people can be very mean. It’s true, and you know it’s true. You can’t deny it. There are days when you walk out of your office, church, school, home, or beauty salon and wonder if you can ever return.

People say hurtful things. It is almost as if they relish in the painful look on your face. They search for ways to stab at your heart and wound your spirit. I don’t know why this happens; I can only assume that their pain must require this kind of pathetic response. This mode of living is sad; it is unfortunate for them and tragic for you. A life lived at this lowest level, day in and day out is toxic, and it can become debilitating and life-threatening if we don’t protect ourselves.

Here’s where the duck comes in. Did you know that there is a special gland located near the base of their tails called the Preen Gland? This fantastic adaptation produces a special oil that ducks use to coat their feathers. This oil, once applied to the surface of the feather, creates a protective barrier that keeps out the water and life-draining cold temperatures. It helps trap in their life-sustaining body heat.

But here’s the thing: The duck has to spend much of its time preening to benefit from this protection. Otherwise, the water world in which they live will kill them. Without self-care, the water will seep into the down feather layer and make it impossible for them to survive. Their self-maintenance saves their lives. Without this protection, they can’t float above the water. Without this self-care, the weight of the water in their down makes it impossible for them to fly away from danger. In short, without taking the time to take care of themselves, the ducks will die.

When is the last time you protected yourself from the constant barrage of negative statements and hurtful comments? When did you last take some time to prepare your outer shell, preen yourself, oil your feathers? Does the constant barrage roll off your back or does it seep in where your protection is weakest?

Allow me to offer some suggestions you might consider to strengthen your protective layer, keeping you safe from the hazards or interpersonal life:

  • Spend five minutes in solitude.
  • Speak words of encouragement to yourself and especially to others. (By the way, did you know how smart you are?)
  • Take time to look at art.
  • Go for a walk in the woods.
  • Take up a hobby. My wife enjoys knitting. I enjoy playing guitar.
  • Laugh. Watch a funny movie. Go to a comedy club. Read a comic book (I suggest the Far Side, whenever possible).
  • Sing at the top of your voice when you are in the car.
  • Pet a cat.
  • Walk a dog.
  • Eat an excellent meal.
  • Drink a fine wine. One glass will do.
  • Smell a beautiful flower.
  • Hug a good friend.

In short, preen.  Take time to take care of yourself, and in the end, the vitriol of others will quickly roll away, like water off a duck’s back.

One Too Many

It might be correct to say that I point the camera into too many faces and take too many snapshots.  In fact, some have mocked my shutterbug fascination.  My neighbor wonders why I keep taking pictures of my backyard, close ups of my flowers, “artsy-fartsy” photographs of my tomatoes and lettuce.

My first digital photograph, 2004.

No one understands that moving art takes work.  Great pictures require time, patience, a well-trained eye, and an artistic flare.  And I stuck to my guns through every heckle, jeer and taunt.

Until last year, when I realized I might have a problem. To enter the 21st century, I decided to start using the “Cloud.”  While no one knows what the “Cloud” is, it seems to be all the rage.  Never one to be left out of new technological fad, I decided to move my file folders full of photos to the “Cloud” and free up some space on my hard drive.

A windy walk. Yellowstone National Park, 2009

Before I give you the shocking details, I just want to outline a few of the facts:

1)  I started taking pictures with my Olympus 35mm in 1991.

2) Before that, it was a 110 mm camera or disposables from the drug store.

3)  These photos were expensive to develop and print and there were many years when we would have a drawer full of film rolls awaiting a significant financial investment and a brave trip to the photo department at CVS.

4) The anticipated cost never stopped me from TAKING the pictures.

5)  I took LOTS of pictures.

6) We didn’t see the results until a decade or two later.

And sometimes, you need to capture photographic evidence.

We welcomed our first digital camera to our family in 2004, and it revolutionized the way we (I) took pictures.  Gone were the days of 36-frame rolls that could vanish with one accidental opening of the back of the camera.  Gone were the outrageously priced processing fees.  I could point and click for hours.  The only limitation was the size of my memory card and the battery life of the device.

A few years ago, my wife bought me an electronic Olympus that utilizes my original lenses with a 32 Gb flash drive and a 24-hour battery life (and I have three batteries charged and ready at all times). This camera didn’t allow for auto-focus, and which limited my picture-taking ability as I slowly turned the focus rim to ensure I’d captured the right shot.

However, I’ve recently upgraded once again. Now I have a Nikon D3400 with auto-focus, a super-fast shutter speed, and high-definition capabilities.

Add to this the increasing quality and ease of using a phone with a camera and, of course Instagram. There is no end to the picture excitement I can create.

 

How does one say goodbye to this masterpiece from 2013?

And this is my problem.  Between shutter-finger reflexes, my digital camera and my ability to scan into our system every print picture I’ve ever taken, I have amassed quite a bit of digital data and enough photography to bring Kodak back from bankruptcy.  When it came time to move my beautiful works of art over to the “Cloud,” I discovered that I had a collection of photographs that exceeded 48,000 images. (This is not an exaggeration for the benefit of this story.)

 

I’ve crashed my Google Drive multiple times trying to move this mass of Kodachrome over to my space.

And here’s the problem:  What picture do I delete?  Sure, there is an occasional random shot of my shoe or a bad picture of someone with their finger up their nose but even taking those goofy moments into account, how can I delete my babies?  And where do I start?

Achieving excellence in pictures demands that the artist snap a lot of average photos.  I just never dreamed that great art would require these kinds of hard choices.

A grand view of the Grand Canyon, 2015.

Practice Makes Perfect

Do you remember learning to brush your teeth? Do you remember learning how to tie your shoes? How about walking around the room? Eating solid food? Skipping? Pulling on your pants? Neither do I…And yet, I do these things every day without a second thought. Okay, in truth, I rarely skip, but I could if I so desired.

I had the privilege of babysitting two charming young ladies a while ago. As they prepared for bed, they took up their toothbrushes and went to work on their petite, perfect enamels. Their scrubbing took on an aggressive vigor. Each tooth received devoted attention until the “spice” of the paste forced a quick rinse and spit.

After prayers were said and the night-song was sung and they were soundly tucked into their beds, I sat in the silence of the living room, waiting for mom and dad to get home. I did some internal math. I calculate that these young women have already performed this night-time brushing ritual more than 500 times in their very short lives. And yet, holding the brush is still a challenge, the minty taste still overpowering, and the angle of the brushes in their little mouths is too sharp. I wondered, how much longer will they have to practice this daily habit before they are masters of the brush, lords of the oral cavity, and keepers of the dentistry? The old saying is true: “Practice makes perfect”.

This thought made me ponder, what corners of your life skills require ongoing repetition in order to make perfect?  What habits do you need to perform on a daily basis to help make them optimal?  What qualities within your character need more attention?  What characteristics in your life would benefit from more practice?

Perhaps you need to practice patience with others, or yourself?  You may need to apply sincerity to your words. It is possible that you should exercise more love for others.

Think about it for a moment: What life skills and healthy habits do you need to improve through practice and persistence?

Oh, sure, it might not be easy, no new skill ever is. It is possible that your hard work might be a challenge to your body, mind, and spirit. The angles might be tricky. The taste in your mouth might be too strong. But it is only through constant practice and attention to detail that you become the master of these things that matter so very much. It may take hundred’s of attempts before you get it right, but in the end it is worth the time and the attention.  After all, the old saying is true:  “Practice makes perfect”.

A Missed Opportunity

She was beautiful.  With perfectly feathered hair, a long, goddess-like neck, and her newly-formed bosom, which may or may not have received assistance from a box of tissues, Trudy was everything an 8th-grade boy could want in a girlfriend; she was a girl. That alone qualified her as an object of desire for this thin, pimply-faced 8th-grade boy.

Our young love affair began when third-parties delivered handwritten notes on lined school paper. We passed them in the hallway after lunch each day. It started with simple flirting messages about the day’s lunch or the color of her sweater; however, they quickly escalated to the ultimate bold and daring query of a junior higher, “Will you go with me?  Yes or No?” To my great joy, relief, and surprise, my note returned via the delivery system with the word “Yes” circled in pencil.  We were now officially a couple, and I felt obliged to provide a token of my adolescent affection.  I offered my John Wesley medallion, purchased the previous summer at the junior high Methodist Church Camp.  For the rest of the week, the symbol of my love dangled on a long, gold chain around her graceful neck and against her perfect, Kleenex-padded breasts.  The founder of Methodism never looked so good.

Over the next week, more hand-scrawled messages passed in a desperate effort to take our relationship to the next level. I handed my notes to Doug, who passed them on to Paige, who handed them off to Trudy.  Finally, a scrap of paper asked Trudy if she would sit beside me at the next Friday’s basketball game.  The reply, via Paige to Doug to me, once again had a fantastic penciled circle around the word “Yes.”

After the game, the two middle school newbies strolled to Trudy’s sister’s car.  We walked side-by-side across the snow-covered parking lot, holding gloved hands, bundled in our warmest winter coats, trying to gather the courage necessary to initiate the physical contact we both desired and dreaded.  Older, wiser, and more experienced, Trudy’s sister offered advice as only an older sibling can, “Hurry up and get it over with.” She then climbed into the car, started the engine, and waited for the rookies to experience their first kiss.

Knowing time was short, I turned to Trudy, closed my eyes, and leaned forward, raising my arms over her shoulders.  With her eyes closed, Trudy did not see this romantic gesture and raised her own arms.  We clashed mid-air. Undeterred, I lowered my arms to wrap around her waist.  Trudy did the same, only to clash again.  Up and down our arms flailed in the cold winter night until, after several attempts, we finally found a satisfying configuration and drew one another as close as our puffy down-filled winter coats would allow.  With my head tilted and my eyes closed, I licked my chapped lips in preparation for the sublime encounter…and then it happened.  With all the passion and enthusiasm I could muster, I planted the wettest, sloppiest kiss – squarely and firmly on the tip of her chin.

In hindsight, it is apparent that I failed to account for our height difference. Trudy was a couple of inches taller than my diminutive frame. With an additional two inches of 70’s platform snow boots added to her towering elevation, I was only grateful that I wasn’t kissing my Wesley medallion. However, having gotten this close, I was not about to give up.  I kept my slobbery mouth pressed firmly against her perfect chin and started sliding up to find her lips. Unfortunately, at the same time, Trudy decided to help the situation by tilting her face down.  Before I realized what had happened, I was sucking on her left eyebrow, a stream of spittle leaving a wet trail of failure up the side of her face.  In the cold, night air, with the car running beside us, we groped and wrestled until our lips finally met in a moment that was at once disgraceful and oddly satisfying.

The following Monday, to no one’s surprise, Paige handed a note to Doug who passed it on to me. It contained my now tarnished Wesley necklace and the word, “No” circled in pencil.  I’d like to think it was a mutual parting of ways, based on hours of discussion and a realization that our interests were diverging as we aged those short two weeks.  But we both knew the awful, heart-breaking, and embarrassing truth.

A Heart Filled with Gratitude

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

I often find that my heart is hard and my responses are harsh. I frequently experience moments of selfishness.

If you are like me (and I pray you are better than this), you know that we are less than grateful. We are selfish and rarely satisfied. Despite jobs that pay the bills and provide high levels of entertainment, a home that keeps us warm and dry, food in excess, and productive, full lives, we often yearn for more. In the process, we fail to recognize the abundance of blessing in our lives. We overlook the gifts for which we should be grateful. We bypass the simple things that can warm our hearts if we allow them.

If simple little Piglet can understand the importance of gratitude, how is it that we who are well-educated, highly-sophisticated and well-heeled, can ignore this fundamental truth of life? How hard would it be to stop and give thanks for those little things that mean so much to us?

For instance, today I am especially grateful for the first cup of coffee in the morning. This dark liquid warms my heart and satisfies my soul.  With the first sip, I pause and remember I am grateful. May my relatively small heart hold a significant amount of Gratitude.

 

Jonathan and the Giant Peach

I have no idea why it was there…but there it was. As if anyone ever needed a giant peach in their front yard, someone had determined that setting this humongous fruit alongside the road was a good idea.

Jonathan and I were on our road trip to visit three Indiana colleges in as many days. We drove to Terre Haute, Bloomington, and Evansville. We took highways, byways, and back roads. We saw a lot of cows, corn, beans, tractors, barns, and trees (southern Indiana is very rural).

We also saw this peach, a 30-foot-tall Santa Claus, a personal roller coaster called The Blue Flash, and an over-sized elephant next to a gargantuan martini.  I didn’t realize that southern Indiana had so much to offer!

These kitschy oddities were quite a gift on this university tour. The campus visits provided no excitement. But the giant fruit? It left us laughing. Anyone can go to college. Anyone can pursue a degree. And most people do. The mass of 18-year-old’s and their doting parents was mind-boggling, and in some instances, nauseating. But somewhere out there was a unique individual or two who dedicated their time to form a massive peach, or a back-yard roller coaster, or a 500-gallon alcoholic beverage, and putting it in their front yard!

I’m grateful for the fantastic fruit we saw on this road trip. It restored my faith in humanity. So often we live like sheep; following blindly into the next expected thing; however, the Peach revealed that there are still people in this world who take a different path and pursue their passion.

I want to be more like them. I want to pursue a dream. I want to make a statement. I want to craft a legacy…sans the 15-foot fruit, coasters, or drunken elephants.

#ayearofgratitude