Friday, September 27, 2013

Rituals and Routines

Big Horn Sheep on Fall River Road, 2012

We are headed out on our yearly pilgrimage to Estes Park, CO and Rocky Mountain National Park on   Sunday for a week of "west and we-waxaction". I wrote that in an Elmer Fudd voice if you couldn't tell. Why? I have no idea but that's what my in-my-head voice was saying. Anyway, the trip almost didn't happen this year because of the flooding in Colorado, putting one of our cherished rituals and routines in serious Jeopardy. I mean really serious Jeopardy.  Like " Give me Mother Nature for $300, Art" type Jeopardy.

I've come to appreciate the value of rituals and routines. Our married life is full of them and many of them revolve around food. For example:

On Sunday mornings, we almost always read the paper and have coffee and then go exercise. I will run and GK will walk Grace. We then have a homemade breakfast and Grace the beagle gets her weekly scrambled egg in her dog food bowl. She starts getting excited when she sees the white microwave bowl come out of the cupboard and hears the crack of the egg. Even the beagle likes rituals and routines.

We usually have a home cooked meal on Sunday evening, followed by a trip to the Dairy Queen for ice cream when the weather is good.  We use the drive-through and will order a couple of Blizzards and a kid's cup of vanilla ice cream. You're probably wondering "who is the kid?" Yeah, the kid. Put yourself in the shoes of the employee working the drive- through when we pull-up.  You open the window to hand us the order, only to be greeted by the face of a bug-eyed and intensely focused beagle. OK, I confess. Besides the scrambled egg, Grace also gets a little ice cream once a week.  I can only imagine what those employees say after we drive away. Sunday is a really good day to be a beagle at our house.

Other food related rituals include only having sweet corn on the cob in the summer when you can buy it from the roadside stands. Chili is only made and served starting in September and isn't usually served much after the holiday season. Monkey Bread made with Rhodes frozen sweet dough is always served on Christmas morning after we've opened our gifts. We averted a near crisis last year when GK couldn't locate the Rhodes sweet dough at her usual grocery outlets. I went on a mission one night to find the dough and vowed not return home without it. I even made a stop at the Super Wal-Mart, a store I avoid like the plague.  The ritual of the Monkey Bread meant I had to expose myself to the mutants and trolls who shop there. If you shop at Wal-Mart and are reading this, you are exempt from the mutant and troll reference. Of course they didn't have the dough, but I did finally locate several packages of the Rhodes sweet dough at the Hy-Vee and the Christmas ritual was once again secured.

Our yearly trip to Colorado is all about rituals and routines. The drive up the Big Thompson Canyon is the warm-up act. We always stay at the same condo in Estes Park, usually in the same unit. We arrive on Sunday afternoon, the first week of October, unload our stuff, then  head for the local Safeway to buy any needed groceries that we didn't bring with us. GK uses her Safeway card which she keeps in her purse all year, to get the extra discount ( We don't have a Safeway in Omaha).  We grill fillet Mignon steaks, purchased at our neighborhood Fareway store, for our Sunday night meal. 

Mr. Elk near the golf course in Estes Park
First thing Monday morning, we walk around Lake Estes and get our first up close and personal look at Mr. Elk, who is usually guarding his harem on the golf course.  If you haven't yet witnessed the annual Elk rut, it's a sight to behold. Think Testosterone Overload. "He who gets the most cows wins" is the name of the game. Here is a brief synopsis of what you get. Starting in September,  the elk come down from the higher elevations for their mating season. The more senior and experienced bull elk try to round up as many female elk as they can. More is better. We once saw one who had 37 cows. Stud Elk. There are duels and jousts between the bulls especially when some junior wanna-be, "still with fuzzy antlers" guy tries to hone in on the harem of a more senior elk and steal a few cows. Can you  blame them? Do you want to be the junior elk who, after the rutting season is over and you're hanging around with the other guys and one asks, "Hey junior, how'd you do?" and you got nothin'? I didn't think so. Nonetheless, there is a lot of bugling, snorting, posturing  and chasing, and according to my sensible wife, "ridiculous, inefficient, and sophomoric" behavior. Even the commentary is part of the ritual.

Sprague Lake
Then it's back to the condo for breakfast before we head into Rocky Mountain National Park for the rest of the day. Even our first day in the park is a routine. We start off at the Endovalley, then drive up the Old Fall River Road to the summit of the mountain  (elevation 12, 183 feet). We get that part of the trip knocked off on our first day just in case it snows and they close the roads for the season. We stop in at the  Visitor's Center, have a drink and a snack, then drive back down Trail Ridge Road to view the majestic views and the aspen that are turning a hundred shades of gold. On Wednesday evening of our week, we always eat at the Dunraven Inn. On Thursday, we order pizza to-go and spend our last night relaxing in the condo before heading back early the next morning. In between are trips and hikes all over the park, elk watching and taking in the sights and sounds of nature. The condo sits right on top of Fall River so hours are spent sitting and listening to the water rush by, reading and just smelling the mountain air. We've never tired of our routines and rituals.

GK and the Aspen
Which brings us back to this year's trip. Because of the extensive rain and flooding, (no plagues, grasshoppers or famines, thank God!) the  two primary highways into Estes Park are closed. No Big Thompson Canyon warm-up show this year. But we will be able to take an alternate route in for from the south that was just opened up last week. The condo where we usually stay is not able to open in time for our trip because of sewer problems. GK said ixnay to the idea of using port-a-potties when we heard that another property nearby was offering them as an interim solution.  Fortunately, we were able to secure what looks to be a nice condo on a property in another part of Estes that has working toilets, just no river running outside our door.  A reasonable trade-off, we both agreed. And Rocky Mountain National Park, which was closed for over a week and a half, is now 93% open to the public. 

As much as we cherish our rituals and routines, we pride ourselves on making the best of what life deals us. Going with the flow- doing a little rope-a-dope in the face of reality. Lord knows we've had enough practice to last 2 lifetimes. So our trip out and back will take a few hours longer, but we'll get to see some scenery we've have not yet seen. We won't get to stay by the river, but we'll still be grilling our fillets on Sunday night. The park didn't get washed away in the flood. Mr. Elk is still up to his old tricks and promises to put on another bawdy, tawdry, foolish show. The Dunraven Inn is open and ready to serve.  And the aspen will still be turning a hundred shades of gold.

Aspen trees in RMNP

Friday, September 20, 2013

Babies, Beagles and Blessings

"Maesyn, meet Grace."  "Grace, meet Maesyn"
I love this picture. Both Maesyn and Grace seem to be checking each other out. I'd give anything to know what is going on in both of their minds. When we decided to get a dog 4 years ago, one of the factors we weighed very heavily was how the dog would be with young children. As we researched and spoke with people who had beagles, we heard story after story like these:

"Oh, I had a beagle when I was a kid. That dog and I went everywhere together"

"Beagles are so good with kids, my kids tugged on their ears and the beagle just went and hid after a while."

Then there was the neighborhood kid who told us after he met Grace for the first time, "We had a beagle but we had to put her down because she went mad."   "Thanks for sharing, kid, now get lost",  I muttered in my WC Fields voice.

 Beagles are dopes, but I say that affectionately. They are not high energy dogs, except in short bursts. They are breed to sniff out things like rabbits, moles, and even bedbugs. Seriously. When the University of Nebraska had an outbreak of bed bugs in some of their dorms last year, guess who saved the day? A beagle! We thought about having Grace get a part-time job as a bedbug sniffer since she is officially listed under the "expense" column in the family budget, and last I checked, has generated no revenue. Our beagle gets wound up when she sees the signs of a walk, which she gets almost everyday. But after her walk, she is content to lounge and sleep on one of her many pillows for the rest of the day. Unless, of course, she hears the refrigerator door open. I'll text Georgette when I'm away from the house and ask, "How's Grace?" or "What is Grace up to?"  I usually get a short, terse answer such as "Dope", Or "Grace is dope".  Grace's laid back, dopey temperament makes her easy for kids to be around, especially toddlers who might want to pull on hers ears like Lyndon B Johnson did.

Grace, Maesyn and Sayler on Christmas Day
Grandchildren were not of my list of life goals and I managed to avoid fatherhood very intentionally. Then at the ripe old age of 43, I married Georgette, and the next thing I know, we've got 5 grandchildren. The fact that I am writing today about a dog and our grandchildren is more than serendipitous. I literally took the express bus to Grandpa-ville. Not a bad deal, you're thinking. Live without children until midlife, skip changing diapers, cleaning up vomit, sleepless nights and making financial sacrifices, let someone else do all the heavy lifting, then swoop into their lives to save the day and reap all the blessings as if you'd been there all along. Well, not quite. Most of that is true except for the part where I saved the day. No one needed any saving and as far as swooping in, let us just say that's open to interpretation. Needless to say, I have the family that I never thought I wanted and now can't imagine my world without.

Our 3 grandchildren who live in Florida have 3 dogs: Cooper,  a homely but lovable chihuahua, Calloway, a stout and stodgy English Bulldog, and Penny, a skittish Yorkie. Sayler and Maesyn, pictured here, live in Kansas City and have no pets.........yet. For now, Grace is their sometimes-dog and  takes part in all of our holidays and other gatherings except when there is a large children's birthday party. It's just easier on everyone, Grace included, when the house is full of toddlers, amped up with candy, cake and the now fashionable Jump-house rental, that Grace stays home. 

It's absolutely delightful to watch our grandchildren grow and develop and I haven't yet tired or gotten used to being called "Papa".  Knowing they will be a part of the rest of my life is both gratifying and hopeful. Grace, on the other hand, has reached her potential and may not be with me the rest of my life. Today, the blessings of grandchildren and a beagle are far more than this reluctant Papa could have ever hoped for. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Male Seeking Female: Must Share Mowing

I'm having a problem in my marriage and need I  some advice.

Did that get your attention?  Are you skipping ahead and looking for the juicy tidbits? Are you thinking that I've gone off the deep end and am about to spill my marital dirt all over the front yard for everyone to see? Or that you might have to pull out your TMI sign and wave it in my face?

Relax, there's nothing too tawdry about what I'm about to share. Besides if there was, I have way too much pride to share it on a blog. And because my wife (who will be referred to as GK from here on out since Georgette is way too many letters for me to type repeatedly) has promised to never throw my stuff out on the front yard no matter what I may have done to deserve such treatment, thus I will not throw our issues out on the blogger front yard for everyone to read.

Now back to that problem. This problem has a lot more to do with marital bliss than marital dirt and could best be described as a "quality problem". If you are not familiar with the concept of the "quality problem", here are a couple of examples.

"We are really stressed out about our retirement. We can't decide to buy a second home in Costa Rico or Aruba"

"This college decision is driving us crazy. The offer from Yale is really good, but Stanford wants her too.  I just don't know what we're going to do".

"We got in a big fight over where we wanted to go out for dinner. I had my heart set on Moe's 5 star over-priced and pretentious cafe and he wanted to go to Wally's upscale bistro where the cool people go".

Those are quality problems. They are sometimes to referred to as fancy problems. You know one when you hear one because they usually induce the urge to vomit. Or to shout out, "Spare me!" Or to lash out in a blistering tirade about your real problems and how life isn't treating you fair, none of which I recommend you do. People who continuously share their quality problems with the hopes of getting some sympathy just don't get it and you'll be waiting your time. It's like trying to teach a pig to sing-it annoys the pig and wastes your time.

So where was I?   Oh yes, marital bliss and my quality problem. The problem I'm having is about who gets to mow the lawn. You heard that correct. We both like to mow the lawn and can't seem, even after nearly 16 plus of marriage, to get that worked out. It came to a head just a couple of days ago when I received a text from GK while I was at band practice that stated " Front and sides done. My turn!" It was 7:50 pm in the evening on a weeknight. 

 A little background might be helpful-when we first hooked up (not as in "hook-up" like the kids say these days) we were in our mid 40's. GK had raised 2 children and managed her  household and career just fine, including lawn mowing duties. So when we agreed to merge households ( OK, I got rid of my dumpy apartment and moved into her house) and get married (those character building nights really were unnecessary at our age) we had a few things to work out. At first, I insisted on doing my own laundry. That didn't last long. "You don't sort your clothes by whites and colors? "Here, let me help you fold those""You know it will be easier if I just do your things, it's really no big deal"

Seriously? No big deal? I hated doing my laundry so I just threw everything into the washer and turned it loose. Worked fine for me.  She has been doing my laundry ever since.

Meals were no problem because she loves to cook and is always planning and organizing the next meal. I'm a grateful, card-carrying member of the Clean Plate Club which makes me the best audience a cook can have.

Now for the lawn mowing. At first, when we lived in Lincoln and both worked locally, we agreed to split the lawn mowing 50/50. If she did her half on Saturday morning, I'd get my half done Saturday afternoon. Every now and then one of us would do the entire yard so the next mow would belong to the other person. The lawn was easy to mow and our arrangement worked fine until we moved to Omaha.

Our home in Omaha has a steep backyard. The front and sides are relatively flat but there is more sq. footage. We agreed that I would do the backyard because of the hills and GK would do the front and sides. I was traveling a lot in my job and she was commuting back and forth to Lincoln so she would do her half during the week and I would do my half on the weekend.

Now here's where it gets a little dicey. I work locally so I'm home by 5 most nights. GK still commutes so she usually isn't home until 6. This summer, I've been starting the mowing a bit after 5 and usually have the entire lawn done or nearly done by the time she pulls in the driveway. Here is what typical transpires next:
"Thanks for doing my half but you didn't have to."
"I got on a roll so I did both halves"
"I was planning on doing my half"
"I appreciate that, Hun, but it doesn't make sense that when are commuting an hour home from work and I have the time, for me not to mow all of it. Besides, you're going to still make dinner, aren't you?"
"Yes, but that won't take too long. I can still do my half."
And so it goes.

Now you get why this is a quality problem. So back to that text, the one the said "Front and sides done. My turn!"  We've been mowing on Tuesday evenings. Monday I went to band practice at 7pm and while I  was at rehearsal...yep, she got me. She outwitted me. She mowed.  Gotcha! Touché! Checkmate.

So my question is this-Do I concede and stick to mowing just my half-regardless of whether she is still on her commute and is planning on making supper? Or do I continue to try beat her to it knowing that I might be denying her a little bit of pleasure, strange as that may seem? I'd appreciate any advice you might have.

Just don't tell me what I already know. That the only marital problems I have are quality problems. That I should be glad she's not keeping score. That life isn't always fair. That I got more than I deserved. And that if I write another story whining about one of my quality problems, you just might try to teach this pig to sing.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

They're Putting the Band Back Together

Band rehearsal starts tomorrow night at 7:15 and I am really looking forward to it. The last time I played was at the 4th of July concert, so I got my alto saxophone out and practiced a little bit this afternoon to knock some of the rust off. OK, practice might be overstating what actually occurred. I played a few scales, blew a few tunes and riffs that are easy to retrieve from my memory bank, then played along to a CD that has jazz standards on it. It's one  of those play-along CD's that are similar to karaoke, only for an instrument instead of a vocalist. I was more than rusty and just wanted to make sure I hadn't forgotten how to play. I hadn't.

You see, I still love to play, I just don't like to practice anymore, not that I ever enjoyed practicing that much even when I was in music school. That's why being a performing member of a group is so important to me. Tomorrow evening, I will join in with about 60 other band nerds who make up a community concert band called the Nebraska Wind Symphony and we will make music......again. Everyone will be a little rusty and it will take a couple of rehearsals to get our chops back to where they were, but we will get there. We always do.

I can't count the number of hours I've played in bands in my lifetime, but it has to add up to thousands of hours. Beginning in the 6th grade, all the way through high school and college and for 10 years post college, my life was centered around music and playing in bands and orchestras. Marching bands, jazz bands, pit orchestras for musicals, dixieland bands, the list goes on and on. I've been in bands that played in bars and clubs where we performed "Mustang Sally" or "Brown Eyed-Girl" so many times you could play it your sleep, and sometimes did.  I've played Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" so many times I could puke. And I've led bands as the conductor  which is another wonderful experience altogether from just playing in the band.  

That's me (front center) in the glasses and the groovy
neck strap playing in the HS Pep Band, 1971.
For most of my adolescence and young adulthood, music was what I did and was what I was about. When I left my career as a music teacher  back in 1984, I was lost musically, for a few years. With no gigs, I found it difficult to practice much. That changed in 1987 when discovered the concert band that I am a member of today. This concert band has become my musical base, the group that keeps me playing and even practicing, just enough to keep my musical fires burning. 

Musicians are an odd group of characters, band nerds especially. I say that affectionately as I am a band nerd, big time. We come from all ages and walks of life- teachers, veterinarians, computer geeks, a minister or two, retired folks- but we share a common love for band music and we love to play. We gather every Monday night from September to July to make music and prepare for our concerts, where we share our music with the community. We play marches, overtures and original works for band. And for 2 hours we forget, momentarily at least, about whether we've saved enough for retirement or the trouble we are having at work, or about the health problems we are going through. We just make music-music that quiets the mind and soothes the soul. 

At this stage of life, I am blessed to still be able to play and to have a group to perform in. Both are gifts. I'm not the best player in the section anymore, nor do I lead or conduct the group. Those are in the rear-view mirror, as they say. The day will come when I will play no more and that will be a sad day. But that's not today. Today, I'm just a second chair saxophone player who wants to play band music and is looking for a gig.

 Tomorrow night, at 7:15, they are putting the band back together again. I'll be there.

This video is of the Nebraska Wind Symphony at it's 25th year anniversary concert in 2002 where I conducted the group in a medley of show tunes called, "Broadway Show-Stoppers".

Monday, September 2, 2013

Sometimes, there are more important things.......

The congregation had settled in for another of Pastor Frank's sermons at the Lutheran church I attended back in the late 80's. Pastor Frank usually gave a good sermon so the fact that I was constantly switching channels had less to do with him and more to do with my short attention span. But for some reason that Sunday, I tuned back into his frequency just I time to hear him say, "Sometimes.....there are more important things ....than being right..."  As he paused momentarily, I remember the voice inside my head saying  "Ooh, that's good" as I began to wonder what some of those more important things were. The pause lasted only a couple of seconds when he completed his message with "even if you are." Then he said it again.

"Sometimes, there are more important things than being right, even if you are". 

He could have left the "even if you are" part out and his statement would have still resonated with me that morning. It was  like those words flew out of his mouth and made their way across the congregation and like a wayward foul ball, whacked me upside my head. Except no one came running to to see if I was alright. To this day, I have no idea today what the rest of his sermon was about , but I have never forgotten those words or who it was that said them to me.

I have a confession to make. I know this will come as a surprise to some of you who know me, but I can be a bit of a know-it-all. Stop your laughing....What? You already knew that? ....You say I 'm a what?  A sexual intellectual? What you mean by that?.....Oh I get it, I'm an F****ing know-it all!

More times in my life than I'd like to admit, I have thought I was right and then went on to tell you I was right, only to lose in the end. Sometimes I meant well, it's just that I tried too hard. I wanted you to like me or think I was smart. Other times, I didn't mean well and used my righteousness to hurt you, embarrass you or put you in your place. Either way, it was wrong and over time I paid a price for it.

The truth is, most of times when I thought I was right and told you I was right, I was acting out of fear. Fear that you might be right. Fear that I might be disappointed in the way things would turn out. Fear because I felt less than you. Fear that I might not get something I thought I deserved or would lose something that I thought I was entitled to. Driven by a thousand forms of fear, I stepped on those who cared about me or pushed away those I didn't think cared about me. And I was left wondering why at times, I felt so alone.
Pastor Frank's words came at a time in my life when I was just beginning to realize who I was and who I wasn't. As I went forward from that Sunday, I often used his words in my teaching, always taking time to tell others about who he was to me. Whether counseling with couples or  teaching about conflict resolution or relationship skills, his words have
came in handy so many times I could not count.

So, what is more important than being right, even if you are? I'm sure you have your own list, but here a few of mine: 

Having a good day with a bit of serenity.
Maintaining good relationships  with family and friends.
Giving others the respect to live their own lives, their own way.
The possibility I could be wrong.
Staying connected to others rather than driving wedges or creating barriers.

We live in world gone mad, it seems at times. If you are looking for fault in people, places or things you don't need to look very far. And even if you are just going about your day, minding your own business, it seems like there are plenty of people who you would swear, just got out of bed to drive all the way over to your side just of town to ruin your day. Believe me, some days I need all humility, restraint and grace I can get.

I was teaching a seminar once where I told a story about a man in my city who was killed in a road rage incident. Turns out he thought he was right and went after the driver who he thought had wronged him, only to die as a result of his efforts to retaliate. I had Pastor Frank's quote on my PowerPoint and shared it with the class. At the end of the seminar, a man came up and told me he enjoyed the seminar and then he handed me a napkin with a handwritten poem on it. He suggested it would have come in handy to the poor soul who perished in the road rage incident. As he walked away, I read what he wrote on the napkin:

He was right, dead right.
And now he is gone.
And he is just as dead as if he had been wrong.

Last fall, Pastor Frank passed away here in Omaha. I attended his service and was able to share this story with his son and daughter--that I used their father's words  many times over and always mentioned where I learned them. It was the least I could do to honor an old friend and the man who conducted our wedding ceremony. His words ring as true today as they did some 25 years ago and for that, I am truly grateful.

Note: The poem written on the napkin is a version of an old English poem that dates back many years. If you google it, you will find slightly different variations of it.