These Are a Few of My Favorite (Christmas) Things

December 31, 2016

2016-rearviewMost of us have 2016 pretty firmly in our rear-view mirrors. There are a lot of my friends who can’t wait for the year to be over. Many are struggling with the losses we experienced this last year. Whether it was personal loss, artistic voices that were silenced, or post-election blues, there was more than enough sorrow to go around.

Even the Christmas season—to me, at any rate—seemed less focused and full of hope than any I remember. Of course, that may be a reflection of my own state of mind. And still, there were some things under the tree that I appreciated more than other things I’d received in the past.

We’ve all received those Christmas presents that glittered and promised so much. Often, it was a matter of days before they’d lost their luster. Sometimes what we think we want is a far cry from what really satisfies us.

I had three Christmas gifts this year that were, perhaps, the opposite of that experience.

strapA Guitar Strap: My son gave me a guitar strap for Christmas. That may not sound like much to you. After all, you can run down to Guitar Center and pick up a pretty nice strap for $15 to $25 bucks that will serve the purpose. But this one was different. My son made it himself. Once (when he thought I wasn’t looking) he went down to my music room and measured the straps I had. Then he made a killer strap out of parachute chord that is soft, pliable, and incredibly strong and comfortable. It’s a perfect fit. I overheard him telling someone (when he thought I couldn’t hear) that it took him more than 8 hours to make it. Beyond that, it was something he thought about and knew I would like. I may be the world’s “OK-est” guitar player, but it’s something I love to do and he knew that and responded with a gift that acknowledged that.

 

g-pixArt for My Office: My daughter is a very talented and creative soul. She’s been an actress in Hollywood and is a gifted writer. But she also has some significant artistic talent when it comes to painting. She created a series of extremely simple and elegant paintings of some of my favorite guitars that now hang in my office. They are a reminder of a common passion that we share. I could purchase stunning images of these same guitars and hang them in my office, but they simply wouldn’t have the same incomparable weight and meaning. These are stunning in their simplicity.

 

 

bootsHiking Boots: My wife bought me a new pair of hiking boots. I know what you’re thinking. That’s not particularly sexy or cool. Maybe you’re thinking that it’s akin to a man buying his wife a vacuum cleaner or a crock-pot for Christmas (and my apologies to any man who did do that this year). Nothing could be farther from the truth. Those who know me know that we hike almost every morning. We don’t just walk around the block. We go to a nearby park that’s really kind of a wilderness area. We hike rugged trails that climb and dip. We see deer and owls and sometimes coyotes. We witness incredible sunrises that sleeping people miss every day. It’s as much a spiritual exercise as it is a physical one. And there has never been a day when we weren’t glad that we went (even when we really didn’t want to drag our sorry asses out of bed in the dark). And having the right footwear is absolutely essential for enjoying that experience. A pair of Nike’s just wouldn’t work.

I don’t know what you got for Christmas this year. I do know that the gifts I received are ones that I’ll enjoy for a long, long time.

Happy New Year!


Little Lies

November 20, 2016

littleliesStanding at my mirror
Staring at my face
Looking past the crow’s feet
To another time and place
I try so hard not to ignore
The sorrow in my eyes
I would if I could but it’s just no good
How we love our little lies

Sitting with some friends of mine
Talking about how life has been
We speculate about the future
Confessing some of our sin
Talk about the clouds that
Obscure the sunny skies
We smile and say that we’ll be OK
How we love our little lies

Walking in the wilderness
But never quite alone
With a mind that’s full of questions
And a heart that feels like stone
Trying hard to sort it out
Feeling halfway wise
But I know I’m just deceiving me
How we love our little lies

We don’t play well with others
You can read it in our face
And we extend a finger
When we should extend some grace
We talk about loving others
When in truth we just despise
But we cover it with sympathy
Because we love our little lies

We pontificate on love
Because the concept seems so nice
But when it comes to true love
We just can’t pay the price
We play the game of love
But we hide our cards with sighs
And we never show our hand
Because we love our little lies


Dining with Doctors

November 17, 2016

diningwithdoctorsFor some reason, throughout much of my adult life, I’ve found myself in the company of doctors on a social level. At times I thought it was due to the fact that I’m a sick bastard and that those in the healthcare profession are somehow drawn to me in the same way that a firefighter is drawn to a flame.

I know it’s not because of my innate scientific skills. My scores on the scientific and math sections of the SATs and ACTs lowered the bar for many a high school student and single-handedly allowed many of them to be accepted at colleges and universities that otherwise would have rejected them.

Nonetheless, from my college days on, I always found myself interacting with medical types. In college I had friends who were pre-med and nursing students. When I lived in Germany after college one of my roommates was a medical student (who fainted at the sight of blood—but that’s a different story). Another of my best friends when I lived there was also a medical student and later became head of internal medicine at the hospital in the town where we lived.

Even now three of my closest friends are physicians (of different stripes). One is an OB/GYN, another is an infectious disease specialist, and a third (his wife) is actually my primary care physicians. Even my own daughter works in the Intensive Care Unit at one of the local hospitals.

It is this last group of people about whom I am currently speaking. We tend to spend a lot of time together. And while my pathetic match and science grades precluded me from a career in medicine, I still find the field absolutely fascinating.

Because we spend a lot of time together—and because what my doctor friends do for a living—we often discuss their work while dining together. While we never discuss specific patients (HIPPA wouldn’t permit that, nor would my friends share it even if HIPPA allowed it), we do talk about situations that they encounter.

Sometimes other non-medical acquaintances want to talk about their specific maladies or issues. I remember a time or two at an outdoor table at Taco Bell (I can’t believe how much I despise Taco Bell, but some people like it and that, too is another story) I was able to witness plein air “surgery” as my friends removed toenails and performed other medical procedures in between bites of burrito.

What I find more interesting, however, is that some rather “earthy” topics find their way into our dinner conversations on a fairly regular basis. We’ve become quite used to it, so discussing puss or weeping infections or other bodily functions at the dinner table has become something that raises no one’s eyebrows.

We sometimes forget, however, that the general public is often a bit more reserved about such topics at the table—a fact that was brought home to us not long ago at a restaurant where we were dining.

We were seated at a table that was in close proximity to other tables, which meant conversations would occasionally spill over from one area to another. I had asked my friends about some of their more unusual cases and how they had reacted to them. The conversation drifted a bit and I became aware of another conversation at the table to my right.

A couple sat there—my guess was that they were a few years older than us. Despite that, they were quite affectionate: holding hands and giggling like high school kids. I thought it was rather nice. Then the gentleman’s cell phone rang and he stepped away from the table for a moment. A small cloud seemed to form over the woman’s face.

I really wasn’t trying to listen, but then we were in close proximity. I tried hard to refocus on the conversation at my own table when I heard her say, “So, was that your wife?” The handholding and giggling ceased and the couple focused on their meals in silence. That allowed me to better focus on the conversation at my table. And just in the nick of time.

My infectious disease specialist friend was describing a case he’d been called in on that had baffled some of his colleagues working in the ER. It seems that had a patient who was in severe distress and the pain was emanating from a rather sensitive (and private) part of his anatomy. I winced slightly. My wife and my female primary care doctor did not.

It was clear that the patient had an infection (hence the summoning of my ID doctor friend), but the source of the infection was a mystery. There was nothing to indicate an STD or any such thing. It didn’t take my friend (who, by the way, is really good at stuff like this) to arrive at the root of the problem.

It appears that the male patient had been eager to impress a female of the species with his “manliness.” Nature, however, had not been overly gracious to him in that regard, so (in a matter of speaking) he took matters into his own hands.

He had injected himself with transmission fluid in an attempt to appear virile and vigorous. But not having immediate or easy access to a hypodermic needle, he had taken a needle used to inflate basketballs and footballs, and had sharpened it on the concrete sidewalk before plunging it into his most private parts.

It was at that point that the gentleman sitting to my right (remember him?) gasped, “OK, that’s enough!” My head whipped around to look at him and he rather sheepishly grinned back at me. I think it was at that moment that he realized that if he could hear what transpired at our table that I had a pretty good idea of what was going on at his.

We shifted our conversation to a more appropriate topic (it might have been something along the lines of how sausage is made) and went on with our dinner. The couple to my right left without having dessert.

It did remind me, however, to exercise a bit of caution when dining with my doctor friends. You never know who might be listening.


When the Wheels Came Off

October 12, 2016

60bugGenerally speaking, when you hear someone talking about “the wheels coming off,” it’s a pretty good indication that something has gone really, really wrong. I have my own somewhat unique (and literal) perspective on that phenomenon, and it all begins with a black 1960 VW Beetle like you see pictured here.

When I was in high school, most of the kids I knew didn’t have the cool cars that high school memories are supposed to be made of. Brooke Paulger, with his bright red 289 Mustang with the Hurst shifter, of course, was an exception to the rule. Most of us, however, drove our parents’ cars or lumbered around town in some kind of vehicle inherited from a grandmother who could no longer drive.

That was certainly the case with me—although instead of driving my grandmother’s hand-me-down, I drove a vehicle inherited from my sister. My parents had purchased it (for a whopping $150) so that my sister could travel back and forth to Iowa City to college. Driving back home one day, she ended up with a piston in the back seat (it was, after all, a rear-engine car).

We towed the bug home behind our other car. Since my sister was graduating and getting married she no longer needed a vehicle. So my dad bought a similar car for $100 from a friend. That car had a working engine, but the body was in terrible shape. Together, we took the functioning engine out of that car and swapped it for the one in the black VW. Then my dad sold the all the remaining parts for $100 to someone who wanted to make a dune buggy.

So it was that I ended up with a black VW bug that actually ran (albeit not very fast) my junior year in high school. What it lacked in style, it made up for in the fact that it was a car. Plus it had a radio that worked—even without the key! I was golden.

Because the car was 10 years old (and we really didn’t know much about the condition of the replacement engine) I was under firm instructions that the car was never to leave town. It was the kind of arrangement that a teenaged boy eagerly and immediately agreed to—only to forget about 10 minutes later.

That car saw all kinds of activity that the two schoolteachers who had owned it before couldn’t even imagine. Pretty much any activity that you’d associate with a 17-year-old boy happened in that bug. Harry Chapin once sang that he “learned about love in the back of a Dodge—and the lesson hadn’t gone too far.” Having a German car didn’t change that scenario for me (and the back seat was considerably smaller, anyway).

One of the activities that my friends and I engaged in with that car, however, was the procurement of libations for our weekend enjoyment. Being only 17 (and looking all of 16) the procurement procedure was sometimes complicated. That meant relying on the kindness of strangers who were 21 years of age or older in order to get what we wanted.

Usually that involved the purchase of some god-awful concoction such as Boone’s Farm Apple Wine or Ripple Pagan Pink. On occasion, we’d save our cash and get something “really special” such as Colt 45 or Budweiser Malt Liquor. On occasions where we were flush with cash and wanted to prove that we were cool (like Janis Joplin), we’d get a bottle of Southern Comfort (and pretend to enjoy it).

Finding those kind strangers of legal age sometimes proved to be difficult. So when we latched on to a supplier, we held on for dear life. My friend Scott had found such a supplier who lived in Aurora (Remember Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World? Yeah, that Aurora!). It really wasn’t all that far away—but it was a strange and mysterious place to some of us. Plus, it was “out of town”—a place I wasn’t supposed to take my car.

But one Saturday night, my friend Scott had made connection with our supplier in Aurora and he didn’t have access to a car that night. That meant the task fell to me to get us over there if we wanted to have our hootch for the weekend.

So I took off from my house—telling my parents I was on my way to Scott’s. Hey! It wasn’t even a lie (to a point). But when I got to Scott’s house, he wasn’t home. Rather than wait in his driveway, I drove around the neighborhood streets a bit. Roughly 15 minutes later, I tried again. Scott still wasn’t there, so I drove some more. Once again, nobody answered the door when I rang the bell, so I set off one more time, taking a longer route.

I was headed down a long hill when I heard a strange noise and then felt a significant clunk. I was having a bit of trouble steering, when I looked out the passenger window and saw somebody’s wheel roll past my car. I was about to laugh at the poor sucker who had lost his wheel, when I realized why I was having a hard time steering. It’s pretty humiliating when your own wheel passes you!

You know how I said earlier that when “the wheels come off” it’s usually a bad deal? Initially, that was my reaction to this particular turn of events. But then I realized that if Scott had been home when I first drove by, we would have been driving home in heavy traffic at a much higher rate of speed—with a car full of illegal booze.

Sometimes, when the wheels come off, it’s not as bad as you think.


Tales From the Trails

October 2, 2016

afahikeHiking the trails near our home is something we have done for years. We rise early in the morning (5:00 for me) and hit the trail by 6:00.

In the summer months, the light is already in the sky. Sometimes we get to watch the sun rising in the east as the moon sets in the west. In the fall and winter months, our journey begins in darkness. We wear headlamps to find our way, and one of my friends commented that we look like a bunch of miners trudging to the mines. But even in the winter we get to see the sun rising and casting it’s glow over “our” domain.

There are benefits to hiking so early. Most of the year we have the trails to ourselves, which is incredibly peaceful. It’s a chance to talk with our good friends—with whom we have been taking this excursion for some 20 years or more.

We’ve changed locations a time or two due to extenuating circumstances. We used to hike on the property of the United States Air Force Academy, which is only about 2 miles from our home as the crow flies. You can see a view of that particular trail above. That came to a rather abrupt end when Spenser the Wonder Dog (who looks like he’s a mix of Great Dane, German Shepherd, and a brick wall) decided he was a herding dog. Spenser is a member of our good friends’ family and I think I’m his uncle—although we’re still trying to work that out.

Unbeknownst to us (at least initially) is that the property on which we were hiking was also where some members of our Air Force pastured their horses. We saw gates and spencer-mikeoccasional “evidence” that horses had been on the trail, but we never actually spotted them during our walk. That is, until one day, when we caught a glimpse of the horses on a hillock in the distance. We ignored them and they ignored us and all was good.

Spenser, however, didn’t ignore them. The next morning, Spenser went walkabout in search of his equine friends. None of us noticed it at first. After all, there were approximately 7-8 people and an equal number of canine companions swirling around in a clump. Who was going to miss one large 3 ½ legged (yes, Spenser has certain limitations) going off on his own?

The short answer to that question is that the horses noticed. When we noticed that Spenser had gone missing, we began calling and whistling. As the best whistler in the group, I just about blew my brains out until—there in the distance, with the rising sun at his back—Spenser appeared . . . with a small herd of about half a dozen horses in front of him.

We all stood dumbstruck as Spenser (obviously very pleased with himself) drove the horses right up to us and awaited praise for his good work. Spenser was quickly leashed and we moved on down the trail as quickly as possible. The unfortunate outcome is that we were invited not to visit the Air Force grounds again any time in the future. While we were not confronted directly, the fences and gates that were erected within days were a pretty strong clue that we personas (and dogs) non-gratis.

So it was that we shifted the location of our morning constitutionals to a semi-wild city park in our neighborhood. Our morning excursions moved to Ute Valley Park, not far from our home. We would meet in the parking lot of the middle school (where some of our children had attended) that abutted the park and set off at our normal time. We always returned long before the students began arriving so that wasn’t an issue.

We enjoyed many of the same pleasures here that we had grown to love about our previous hiking spot. The sun still rose in the east. We often saw simultaneous sunrises and moon sets. The trails were challenging (the vertical climbs were the equivalent of climbing a 40-story building each morning). Although, when it would rain, we would often end up with 3-4 inches of mud on the bottom of our boots, it was still a delight.

chip-mikeIn the meantime, however, Spenser had acquired a new family member. Chip, who is part pit bull and part a sweet tempered Yosemite Sam, had joined our ranks. Chip is a sweetheart who loves to play with everybody—rather vigorously. One day as we were finishing up our walk in the parking lot, we encountered some teachers coming in early to get ready for their day with the students. This was a common occurrence that we actually looked forward to each day. But on one day, Chip (in his excitement and eagerness to say hello) jumped at a teacher to greet her. Although he was on leash and never got near the aforementioned teacher, Chip was reported to the Principal’s office and we were summarily banned from the parking lot.

So it was, that with a heavy heart—and a few more drops of gasoline—that we moved down the road to approach the trail from a different starting point. But our adventures were not over!

Lest you think that all of our hiking trails led to trouble and sorrow, I need to make mention of the matter of the unmentionables. Unmentionables they were, and yet, mention them, I must.

One dark Monday morning we hit the trails before dawn, equipped with our headlamps and well-worn boots. With only one cup of coffee under our belts, we were not yet in fully functional mode—but we pressed on.

I followed my wife up the first hill in the dark. Our friends and their dogs were in front of her. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw something drop at my wife’s feet. The deep shadows of early morning, of course, made it difficult to tell for sure. I thought it might be a pair of gloves or a headband, or something of that nature.

I called out to my wife, “Did you drop something?” She turned—her headlamp searing my eyeballs and temporarily blinding me—and said, “No! Why?” By this time I had caught up to her, and I reached to the ground to retrieve what I had seen fall to the ground.

As I plucked it from the ground, it revealed itself to be a pair of women’s black underwear. Not slinky or kinky, but certainly not something a red-blooded male would ignore. And while I have seen a lot of things out on the trails, this was certainly not the kind of thing I normally encountered in the wild. I held them out to my wife andcloseup asked, “Are these yours?”

My wife looked at me as if I had asked her how many legs she had. “Of course they’re not mine! I don’t even own anything like that!” I glanced back at the item in my hand and said, “But they’re the same size, color, and brand that you wear.” As the person who has done the lion’s share of laundry in our household for the past 20-some years, I have a certain amount of knowledge of what passes through our washing machine and dryer, and I was sure I’d seen these errant underwear before.

“Absolutely not!” exclaimed my wife. “What in the world would my underwear be doing out on this trail?” She had a good point. As I pondered that question, our friends (who had been ahead of us on the trail) returned and asked what was going on.

As I attempted to explain the situation (while my wife vehemently asserted that she had had no sartorial relationship with those panties) my friends looked at me with horror in their eyes.

Their horror soon became mine as I realized that I had stumbled upon a scene of sexual violation, and now my DNA was all over the evidence. On top of that, I was standing in the dark with what most assuredly was a handful of kooties! I quickly dropped the item in question and we marched on.

As we finished our hike and returned past the spot where I had initially noticed the unmentionables in question, I looked at them again. Having laundered certain items many, many times, I had a certain degree of confidence that I’d seen this particular garment before. But being the wise man that I am, I left the article draped over a convenient cactus and moved on.

Later, after we had been home a while, my wife had a chance to look in the drawer where she keeps certain unmentionables. In her defense, she came to me and said, “You know, I think those actually were mine.” We deduced that (due to that evil force known as “static cling”) the aforementioned unmentionables had lodged themselves inside her hiking pants and had dislodged themselves during the vigorous trek up the first hill.

The next morning as we hiked, we made a concerted effort to retrieve the errant underwear—to no avail. They were nowhere to be found. My wife dissuaded me from posting signs of the lost item and asking helpful citizens to call us with any sightings.

As you can imagine, this is not a subject we discuss in much detail anymore. Still, I wonder . . . where did those unmentionables end up?


Summer’s End

October 1, 2016

4seasons2

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summer is bleeding—its strength has been spent
While autumn is creeping and spreading its tent
A pavilion of color that stretches so wide
To cover in beauty the season that’s died

Fall slips away like a lingering smoke
While winter envelopes the world in its cloak
A time of deep silence, of sleep, and of death
‘Til spring gently wakens the earth with its breath

Spring dares to peek through the last winter snow
Breezes bring faint scents of life as they blow
The sunlight grows, burning off winter’s haze
Until with full force it becomes summer’s blaze

There are so many things I don’t comprehend
I don’t have the wisdom to see to the end
When does autumn begin and sweet summer end?
And when is a lover no longer a friend?

For some life’s a mystery—for others a joke
Life is a stream and we’re all in one boat
Racing through waters of joy and of strife
What in the end will we take from this life?

And the seasons of life—like the seasons of earth
Repeat their same cycles of growth, death, and birth.
And are we the wiser when all’s said and done
Than in the first season when we’d just begun?

For sooner or later the seasons will cease
The spirit of mankind will find its release
Whether in winter, spring, summer or fall
The end of the seasons will come for us all.


Concerts for the Common Man (Part1)

August 7, 2016

MyConcertsSmallI always enjoy it when someone posts something on Facebook asking people to remember their first concert. The responses are sometimes surprising, but always entertaining. Sometimes the choices seem like odd twists of fate. Often the first concert someone went to was not so much a matter of choice of taste, but of chance. You went because your friends were going or because you scored tickets, or because it was a spur-of the moment thing and you thought: “Why not?”

As we grew older, however, our choices became more deliberate. We went to see who we wanted to see. Sometimes (OK, often) it was peer influenced. Eventually however, the groups we paid our hard-earned money to see where bands that spoke to us somehow.

That kind of thing always leads me down a path to the concerts I’ve attended over the years—and the impressions they made on me that have stayed with me. I happen to be one of those people who sees a story (or at least a potential story) in most everything that happens here on this planet. Here are a few of the stories behind some of the concerts I’ve seen over the past 50 years or so.

It’s usually a good idea to start at the beginning, so that’s where I’ll start my story. The first rock concert I remember seeing was Strawberry Alarm Clock. I should probably clarify something here. I’d seen bands perform before, but they were always at free events. When you have no money, you tend to gravitate toward events that don’t tax the contents of your wallet too much.

So let me clarify that Strawberry Alarm Clock was the first band I actually paid money to see. One of the big differences with this band was that they actually had a hit record that was playing on the radio. They were, therefore, the real deal. They were pros (even though some bands I’d seen in the past—such as The Flock—would go on to release singles and albums of their own. Strawberry Alarm Clock had bona fides. They were getting airtime on major radio networks.

The venue where I saw the band was something of a novelty in and of itself. It was the Jaguar Club in the neighboring town of St. Charles, IL. In the days of my youth (as Led Zeppelin would later sing), this venue would host such luminaries as The Who, and The Yardbirds (with a relatively unknown guitarist named Jimmy Page). It was (to me and I suspect to many others my age) an almost mystical place. Real rock stars played there in front of regular people like me.

One weekend, my parents (who never would have let me attend such a gathering of unsavory characters) were out of town. My friend Brian Wermich and his buddy Chuck Mason (both a year ahead of me in school) picked me up (I wasn’t even of driving age at that point, and Brian had his own car) and off we went. We had raided my parent’s meager liquor cabinet before leaving, but I hardly needed anything more intoxicating than the chance to see real rockers in action.

Standing on the sidewalk outside the club, waiting for the doors to open was something special in itself. Coming from a small Midwestern town, we weren’t used to standing in line for anything. It was a new experience. There were “cool” people everywhere. People were dressed in bell-bottoms and fringe and all kinds of outlandish gear. This was unlike anything I’d ever been to with my parents. These were people my age acting independently and making some kind of statement (although exactly what that statement was remained mysteriously vague).

When they finally let us in, it was a like stepping into another world. Strobe lights were flashing and black lights made the simplest white shirt glow with an eerie and entirely enticing iridescence. There were hundreds of people my age milling around digging the music—with not an adult chaperone in sight.

Then there was the music. It was the first time I didn’t just hear the music—I actually felt it. At first I thought the bass runs would blow right through me. Guitar riffs pierced my mind (and my ears) and stopped me in my tracks. I ran into my friend Rob Stanfield inside and just stared at him, shaking my head. We had spent many an hour (while walking to school together) talking about music and guitars and bands. Rob (having had an older brother who lived in the Old Town district of Chicago) had been to many concerts and was already light-years ahead of me when it came to live music. Having already experienced what I was going through many times himself, he just smiled and nodded as if to say, “Well, now you know!”

It was like a powerful drug. I knew that once would never be enough. I would have to return—many times to many different stages—for another taste. I was hooked. And I didn’t even know it at the time.

Next stop: “Sort of seeing Jethro Tull at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin.”