Friday, December 22, 2006

My plane, my child

I ordered my RV-7A slow-build kit in the spring of 2001. Like many airplane builders, I wasn't sure I had the skills to build an airplane. I wasn't sure I had the money either. As I get started on the finishing kit five -- almost six -- years later, I'm still not sure where the dough is going to come from for my pay-as-I-go project. It's a balancing act to make sure there's not more "go" than "pay." But so far, so good, so slow.

What intrigues me about the slowness of the project is how many life forms it has taken on. I talked a few weeks ago about how the project is building me too, but the project has also been quite transformative.

When I first contemplated a homebuilt, I thought it would be a great way for my kids to be involved in something with me. At the time, they were 15 and 12 and, looking back, I probably should've started it earlier. But, of course, there wasn't the money to do so because, among other reasons, there were two kids who were 15 and 12.

Long-term, I viewed an airplane as the way to visit the kids when they went off to college in the far-flung corners of the universe. I saw the plane as the magic carpet for Dad.

The kids were as excited as I was when the tail kit arrived. They enjoyed helping to unpack everything. But as I started the project, it was rare to find more than one of us in the garage. The 12-year-old made a few more appearances during the original construction of the "H" jig to build the HS (at that time), probably because 12-year-olds are more "Dad-friendly" than 15-year-olds, who are starting to discover girls, TV, sleeping late, videogames, and one-word answers to any conversation the old man should initiate.

So the project became an occasional solo act. By the time the wings came along, things had changed. We realized one of my sons had some special needs at the time and it was a difficult time for all of us. The annual trip to Oshkosh with him, and his occasional bit of help on the plane turned the project into "therapy" for a short time, and between it and me, the strings that connect a father and son, though frayed, never broke. Never.

When things got worse, however, enthusiasm for the project waned because life was getting in the way. It's hard to be excited about flying, when your child is in pain on a near daily basis. And so, in a fit of my own desperation, the project was put up for sale. Fortunately, it didn't sell and I listened to someone on a bulletin board who said, "just roll it into the corner." Since it was a pay-as-you-go project, leaving it alone for awhile didn't cost me anything. And so, my project became an abandoned project.

As a few months went by, the ups-and-downs of family life started to stabilize a bit and work resumed on the project. From time to time, my youngest boy, then 15, helped me buck the rivets on wing skins. And my oldest son would take a crack at it too, and proved quite good at it.

I started treasuring more, those times. I started treasuring more, the dings or dents that they helped me make in my wings (OK, I made most of them by myself!). When they would help me with a particular section, I would have them "autograph" the inside of the part with a Sharpie pen. I have quite a few autographs and messages that will be there forever. I'll never erase them. And so now, my project was a father's scrapbook.

Just this morning I was downstairs finishing up putting some nutplates on the wing skin (where the fairing attaches) and I started looking over those wings that have sat in the family room for the last 3 years. I cringed at one bad rivet on the rear spar doubler, and then started looking inside the skins and finding the messages from both kids on the days they helped shoot some rivets. "World's best flush rivet," one said. Another just said, "Sean," in his barely-legible signature that didn't mask his pride at mastering something. Anything. Something propelled him on his road to adulthood, past the minefields of adolescence. I think a few well-shot rivets deserve credit.

When the fuselage kit arrived, both of my lads were becoming young men -- fine young men. I realized as I looked back on the project, that there's a parallel between building an airplane and raising children. Plenty of people tell you it can be done with patience and a lot of money. That you'll start out trying to get the hang of it, make your share of mistakes, but pressing on and doing the best you can, you'll get better at it. And by the time the finishing kit arrives, you'll realize you were better at it than you sometimes thought, often wishing that you could go back and do the parts again, armed with the knowledge you didn't have before. Sometimes you'll look at other builder's projects and wonder why theirs are so perfect to the naked eye, but then they note that they made mistakes too, and you feel better. Your project is another of your children.

And then the first flight comes and your project is a finished airplane flying on its own power, and you burst with pride -- and maybe some tears -- at your accomplishment and the beauty of your project. The folks who said, "it'll get better" when you were folding over rivets, were right. It does. It gets darned near perfect and the occasional poorly-executed task in the past seems insignificant, no matter how much sleep it caused you to lose at the time.

My sons are out of the house now. They're flying on their own. My oldest son, now 21, isn't pounding rivets with me anymore, but he is working with me at my place of business, and it's been a great time. My youngest son, 18 and counting, shares an apartment with the brother he used to battle on a daily basis, and is Minnesota's youngest EMT, working on becoming an advanced EMT and paramedic. He's going to school and working full-time. I didn't build them by myself, but I did some of it.

And so now my airplane project is my youngest child; keeping the old man company and reminding me on a daily basis that when I'm gone, it, the dings, the dents, the autographs, and the eventual flying magic carpet, will remind someone that I was once here. Doing the best I could, making my share of mistakes, and loving every minute of it.

I dream of the day my project will be fully grown, and we can go flying with its siblings.

(This article originally was written for the RV Builder's Hotline)

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Video Bob

I'm late getting to this but when MPR did its election-night party in November, a talented gentleman named Bo Hakala produced three segments on how blogs have changed the way we cover politics (yeah, I know, the header says I don't cover politics here.).

I wasn't aware they'd been subsequently posted online but here they are. I'm discussing Polinaut, which I started last December, and how, ummm, it was accepted -- or not -- by a mainstream newsroom.

Here's the segment on the blog's spot in history.

And here's a segment called "Putting the V in blog."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Dance of the Sugarplum Idiots

My wife and I have a lot of stuff; we don't need any more stuff. So this year we're not buying a bunch of Christmas presents for each other. And the kids are grown now, so for the most part they'll get one big present each. And my siblings and I have never exchanged Christmas presents. So our stress when it comes to shopping is at a very low level.

Instead, this year, we're buying as much stuff as we can for the kids in pediatric mental health facilities. You know, the places where the athletes with TV cameras in tow rarely visit. We're also buying Christmas presents for a man and his little girl that my wife knows that barely has enough money to keep the lights on.

Every year, we've both always taken a day off from work and gone shopping at the Mall of America, mostly because we like to watch people, and it's usually a nice time with a relaxing lunch to boot. This year was no exception.

At every turn there was a good memory. One time we took my mother and father there. Dad was in a wheelchair and he'd wave his cane (jokingly) to clear people out of the way.

Today, we stopped to watch some kids in a band set up and play. I like kids in bands. Don't ask me why; I was never in one. But I do remember the first time I saw my son, Sean, play at one of those elementary school band nights. He played the trombone and, I guess, he played it well, even though I don't recall hearing him practice. But the particular night I went -- it might've been 5th grade or 6th grade -- it was the first time I saw my son as someone other than my son. It was the first time I recall seeing him master something I never mastered and realized this kid really was his own person.

The same is true for Patrick. He played the trumpet, although -- again -- I never heard him practice. Now, you have to understand elementary school bands. First, they have too many clarinets and, second, because they have drums... everything they do has to have drums in it. So if they did Beethoven's 5th... it always comes out as Beethoven's 5th march.

And you can also sort of hear the kids saying "1-2-3-4-" in their heads as they played. Patrick was different. He grooved on the trumpet thing. He'd swing his head back and forth, the way a trumpet player should. For all I know, he couldn't play a lick. But it doens't matter. Band is like golf. It's not important to be good; it's only important to look good.

That's what I was thinking about as I watched the kids get ready. And then they played the theme from the Nutcracker and Carolie remembered stuff too. One time she was decorating a tree at home and listening to the Nutcracker CD. Carolie being, well, Carolie, she started dancing as if she were a ballerina. Patrick, quite young at this age, was astonished. "How do you know all the steps?" he gasped.

"Dare me to start dancing," she said to me today when the kids started playing.

"Yeah," I said.

So she did. She walked up to the front of the atrium hall where a huge Christmas tree was and started the whole "ballerina" thing. I was laughing so hard I couldn't get my camera to work right (picture is a re-enactment). And because we were laughing so hard, we had to excuse ourselves from the concert and continue our shopping.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Instant karma

There are times, I guess, when we're embarrassed by our children. I know when my oldest son was very young and learning how to talk, my wife was embarrassed because he couldn't say "truck" quite right and he'd take him with her to the town square Post Office, which, unfortunately, has a fire station next to it. When the fire truck would go by, Sean would point and say "fire truck," only it was one syllable and didn't sound like truck.

Then there are times when you want to scream, "this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased."

Such a moment occurred just a few minutes ago.

I work for a large corporation; a corporation which pays its employees well and gives them all the benefits they can eat. This afternoon an ice cream social was held for the company's annual giving campaign; basically, throw some money out of your paycheck each week to a charity, such as a homeless shelter, or a food shelf, or a community health organization.

I was not quite surprised to find a near-empty reception area, but I was delighted to see my son, Sean, eating some ice cream, and filling out a form to contribute some of his money.

Sean is an intern here, gets no benefits, is not well paid (but he's not complaining), and, like any kid just out on his own, there's usually too much month and not enough money. And yet, there he was, giving it away.

"You make me proud," I said to him, reminding him that karma will surely come into play.

Of course he was reminded that when he gave up his place in a line for concert tickets because there was only one left and a girl really wanted to see the act, the ticket-seller told him he will be rewarded via karma.

"I went back to my car and it was towed away," he reminded me.

"He didn't say you'd be rewarded today," I said, even though I was.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A life in murals

I've been working on a few Flash-related projects lately. I'm not particularly proficient at Flash, although I'm better than I was last year and better than the year before that. By the time, I retire, I'm hoping to warm up to average.

I did one for MPR the other day on a Cooperstown exhibit, and I finished one today about a gentleman out in Moorhead (on the North Dakota border), who spent much of his life painting murals at Concordia College.

He died in May at a young age and left a legacy behind. Not bad. Of course, you'll need Flash installed to see it. Also you will not see it if you're using Firefox. Use Internet Explorer; just this once.

Friday, November 24, 2006

What I did on Thanksgiving

Baseball as America
I made this for a piece that ran this morning on MPR. You'll need at least Flash 8 to see it. Click on the image. Baseball season is coming. Indians tickets went on sale this morning. BTW, I bought a brick at the new Heritage Park.

There was a game back in 2001 in which the Tribe was trailing 12-0 after just a few innings. Carolie and I went to bed and Patrick, being a real fan, stayed up. After couple of minutes he popped into the bedroom announcing the Indians had scored a run. "That's nice," we'd say, and roll over and put a pillow over our heads.

Patrick kept coming, only he got more excited. "Now they're only down by 6!," he'd shout. That's nice.

This went on for some time until he came in announcing, "they're only down by 1 and Lofton just hit a triple with nobody out."

We got up to watch the end of a game the Indians would win over Seattle 15-14.

So the brick will say,

"'Dad, now they're only
down by 6!'
8/1/05 CLE 15 SEA 14
Patrick Collins kept the faith."

We'll be traveling to Jacob's Field next year to find our brick.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Turkey echoes

OK, so it's Thanksgiving and the Collins family is getting a taste of its own medicine. We won't have the whole family for dinner today. Bummer.

Patrick had a ride-along last night with the ambulance folks in Arden Hills, and he's working at his regular gig today since he's not exactly senior in command. (He works for Allina Health Care's transportation folks, taking people to and from the hospital. I guess they need an EMT for that sort of thing).

Sean is coming over later, but we don't know when. You may recall last summer at Patrick's party, we invited the Carter sons over for Thanksgiving since their parents were moving back to Boston. But Carolie hasn't been able to get ahold of them all week. So we presume the sound of a full house is going to be replaced today by the sound of an empty nest. This, of course, takes some getting used to.

A few years ago -- well, many years ago now, I guess -- we vowed one year (even with a full house), to get out of here for Thanksgiving, and the next year I took everyone to DisneyWorld, which was great fun since we stayed in one of the nice on-park hotels (Boardwalk).

Carolie and I, in our youth, always worked Thanksgiving. It wasn't until we moved out here, I think, that I pretty much stopped. It was a little easier to take when I worked at the RKO Network since it was located at 1440 Broadway and there was some sort of parade going right by the building.

At the station where Carolie and I first met -- WBEC in Pittsfield, Ma. -- there was a man who lived in the house across the street who always used to make a full Thanksgiving dinner for the announcers and newscasters who had to work each year.

We've had varying amounts of success every year in trying to get more people to our Thanksgivings. When we lived in Belmont, Ma., Carolie invited a woman she worked with to our home for dinner. And after she cooked, we waited and waited and waited and she never showed up. A day or so later, at work, she admitted to Carolie that being African-American, she felt uncomfortable coming the mostly-white Belmont. Right. And using a telephone's a real stretch too, right?

We had a friend who lived nearby who we called to see if he wanted to come over for dinner. In fact, he got several such last-minute phone calls; a testament to our inability to pull in a crowd.

I wish he lived nearby now.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

On funerals

I've been to two funerals in the last week. I go to more funerals now than I do weddings or baptisms. Such is life... and death.

Yesterday, Carolie, Patrick, and I went to the funeral for former Rep. Jeff Hansen, whose son, Adam, has been a friend of Pat's since kindergarten days. Adam is one of the Twins batboys and graduated from Woodbury High School in June, as did Patrick. And he's a darned nice kid.

Eighteen is too young an age to be burying your father and it was hard watching Adams watching his father for the last time.

I find funerals, however, fascinating. The religious part of it, of course, is always worthy of thought and consideration but I also feel at times that funerals are the last great act of theater. I can't go to a funeral anymore without leaving thinking the person must've been the greatest person that ever walked the face of the earth; and perhaps they are. If they were as described, they were and are all better people than I'll ever be; not that I set the bar particularly high for that sort of thing.

Tell the truth, though. Do you ever sit at a funeral and think, "I wonder how many people will come to mine?" Or, "what will they say about me?" I kind of think I'd rather have a eulogy that says something like, "he really tried to be good at what he did, but what made him such a schmuck?"

Also yesterday, they had the funeral for Ed Bradley in New York and, as expected, it was a jazz funeral. Bradley, apparently, really was as good as they say he was and the funeral appeared to be a party, which is what funerals should be.

At Jeff's funeral yesterday, I half expected "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" to be on the list of hymns since he was such a big baseball fan, but no.... it was pretty standard stuff.

It better be at mine. How cool would it be to have a huge pipe organ in a church belting out Take Me Out to the Ballgame?

The only other request I have just for the record -- is for a small band of some sort that can play decent Greatful Dead music to play "Ripple."

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?

It's a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they're better left unsung
I don't know, don't really care
Let there be songs to fill the air


Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone


You who choose to lead must follow
But if you fall you fall alone
If you should stand then who's to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home

Here, listen to it. (RealAudio required)

If funerals are a celebration, why don't we actually celebrate?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The picket fence syndrome

As I remember it, my mother came into my room on the day -- or pretty near the day -- I turned 16. Since I was a teen, I was sleeping late. She said it was time for me to get a job, or paint the white picket fence that surrounded our house. I chose the picket fence. About 20 pickets later, I was working at McDonald's, and with a few minor exceptions, I've been working every day since.

Looking back, I'm going to guess that the announcement of my employment future that morning came after severe parental projection. Parental projection occurs late at night when you sit and try to figure out where your kids are heading. You project the future and then you try your darndest to prevent it. Oddly enough, I find most parents project the worst-case scenario, which is odd considering you start out projecting them as future presidents. When they get their first hit in T-ball, you suddenly see scholarship opportunities. Sometime between then and, say, 16, it all goes south.

I'm very bad at this. I spend considerable time trying to figure out where my kids are going to end up. I'm not any better at it this week because Sean told me over lunch the other day that he's down to one class at school while working fulltime. "Are you going to take classes next semester," I asked. "Probably not," he said. In my house "probably not" translates as "no."

He doesn't feel he's learning anything at school and he's probably right. Sean is pretty much a genius and he needs a real challenging class -- or classes -- that will help him get "his certs," which I think has something to do with what computer geeks need to have a comfortable life with, umm, computers.

I tried to explain that he has to look at things "long term," and that at 21, working at MPR -- even as an intern -- with some tremendously talented people who can teach him, and the possibility of a full-time gig someday -- maybe -- is a good place to be, especially since he likes it so much.

"Keep your options open," I tell him, trying to get the message through that continuing studies is a long-term solution, not a short-term one. But I don't think it's going to work out that way and I hope he knows what he's doing, and doesn't end up selling pencils on the street.

But kids don't look long-term sometimes. They look at what they're making now and what the quick payoff could be. I have a hard time relating to that because I got in the radio business working 6 days a week for $105 a week because it's the price I had to pay in the business. Survive for a few years, and things start opening up.

And things did. The folks that didn't want to make $105 a week dropped out of the business and, suddenly, paths started opening and I've done, well, OK. Nonetheless, I think about how I'm going to stay employed, until I retire 12 years, 6 months, and 13 days from now.

Smart, eh? Long-term thinking. Except that from time to time I remember that from the day I started painting a picket fence to right now, I've gone to work in the radio or news business each day, and I often think if I were to do it again, I'd go be a bush pilot in Alaska when I got out of school ... or work with Special Olympics... or build Habitat for Humanity houses ... or fly LifeFlight helicopters for next-to-nothing, and worry about the future... later.

I don't regret what I've done, but I also recognize what I didn't do.

Tonight, my oldest son, is sleeping on a sidewalk outside of the Best Buy in Oakdale, because tomorrow on Friday morning they'll sell Playstation Wii'ss to the first 20 people in line for a couple hundred dollars and he knows he can immediately turn it into $2,000 on E*Bay.

I hope he uses the money for classes, but maybe he'll buy some flight lessons and a ticket to Alaska instead.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Accentuate the negative

I've been working on covering the campaign of 2006 since January of 2005. I'm glad it's over. It's taken a lot of work, 7 days a week at ridiculous hours of the day and what do I have to show for it? A bunch of other people got new high-paying gigs and get to drive shiny black Escalades. Well, good for them.

Sen.-elect Amy Klobuchar was in yesterday so I introduced myself. "Oh, you're Polinaut," she said. Nice. I introduced her to Sean who noted that he worked backstage Sunday night at the MPR Senate debate, and then -- being my son -- he told her he thought she was better at the State Fair debate. The two then engaged in a wonderful exchange of tactical analysis of the campaign, and the one thing I noticed is that Sen. Klobuchar kept focused on Sean and what he was saying, where a lot of politicians would've blown him off and focused on some, oh I don't know... blog writer. That was cool. And it told me a lot.

I like covering politics, it's people who like politics that drive me crazy. By the end of the campaign, the rabid element of the electorate is foaming at the mouth, ready to kill anything, not for the sport of it, but because their brains are sparking from the wrong neurons.

We had a Democratic wave in our corner of the universe too, with the exception of our congressional race, which was won by a woman who is far right wing, and goes to church on Sunday and apparently listens to God, but not the 44% of the voters who don't like her.

Her opponents said she was a crazy, out-of-control rabid, God squadding, gay hating, Pope killing monster. "Just listen to her," they said. They're pretty upset with the media because the media didn't report every day "Crazy, out-of-control rabid, God squadding, gay hating, Pope killing monster still in race for Congress." Neither did her opponent. "It's not the opponent's job," they said,showing a fairly sizeable ignorance of the democratic process.

So the morning after Election Day, one of the calm, well-reasoned, logicians sent me an email, "Fuck you, Collins. Good riddance." I'm guessing he doesn't get the concept of irony.

I wrote my last post on Polinaut Tuesday night and by Wednesday morning, several had admonished me for being cynical and negative, although -- as near as I could tell -- they didn't explain why Polinaut's readers had made it the most read page on the MPR Web site in just a few months.

What the detractors have done is what a lot of us do during the political season. They assume that democracy hinges on people doing things their way. They insist that there is one right belief, and it is theirs.

This is the true source of their irritation, since there are now 300 million people in America and at any given time, 4 of them will need months to come up with a proper date for a picnic.

This "negative" thing on the other hand, is one that has dogged me for some time. I happen to like being known as "the idealistic cynic" (that should've been the name of the blog), for while the people who call other people "cynical," mean it in the negative, it betrays their ignorance of who the cynics were... and are. They believed that perfection was possible and, if nothing else, one should strive for it.

That's a difficult concept for Minnesotans to understand, for they will gladly forfeit perfection -- or the drive for it -- in exchange for the perception of warm civility.

It's called passive aggressive. In Minnesota, a person might smile and say to someone else, "have a nice day," when they really mean, "you should die."

The other person will say "thank-you," and then walk away, and both will think "what did he mean by that?" They will then substitute reality for the answer to that question.

In a world where you only have so much time and energy to expend, far too much of it here is spent trying to figure out what the words that are used really mean. Communication in the upper Midwest is an entirely fraudulent exercise, something that frustrates just about everyone who has ever moved here, especially those from the East, which has become the mover-and-shaker capital of the world because the time not spent trying to figure out what someone else really meant is used to move and shake.

It is not everyday I quote Harvard professors. But Phillip Greenspun has a tremendous treatise on "the negative people" today. Many Minnesotans won't understand it, but maybe some will:

The true pessimists are those who never complain.

And they are the ones who can make a difference

Monday, October 23, 2006

Dimwits and lightbulbs

For a large part of my adult life, I have offered wondered where people get the time to do the things that people do. You know, stuff aside from raising kids and schlepping off to work everyday etc.

Occasionally a few folks will pass through the newsroom on their way to the studio to do a talk show on their recent four-month expedition to the Arctic Circle. Who can get four months off from work?

I've often thought that maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm just not willing enough to not know where the next paycheck is coming from, to take that many risks. Heck, I can remember a time when I decided not to go into politics because there's no job security. Looking back, I realize that, sure, you might lose an election, but between lobbying and patronage, those folks are never out of work.

Stupid me.

So why do I bring this up today? This is why:

Yep, it's a lightbulb, and yes, that's an image from this site, which
provides a live Web camera of the light bulb. This isn't just any lightbulb, however. This is one that has burned for more than 100 years in some fire station in Colorado.

OK, so who has time to periodically look at a stinkin' light bulb in Colorado on a daily basis?

Unfortunately it's, ummmmm, me.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The toolbox

My son, Sean, turned 21 a few days ago. I don't know how it happened, but it happened and it beats the alternative of not happenning, which happened -- or didn't -- to my best friend's son a year ago, when he was killed in a one-car crash while driving home early on Sunday morning in Providence, Rhode Island.

I haven't heard from my best friend since and there has never been -- nor will there ever be -- something I can say to ease my friend's pain, even if I were able to make contact. The only thing that bonds fathers... are sons and daughters.

The utter frustration of life is fathers and sons cannot understand each other until it is too late -- or nearly so. My son loves me and I love him and both of us have known it forever, but that didn't stop us from often behaving like, well, fathers and sons.

As he is not yet a father -- thank God -- I thought long and hard about what to give him on the occasion of his 21st birthday. And then his brother, Patrick, called and said he needed to change the light bulbs in his car and didn't know how to do it. "Oh, and all of the lights except for one are burned out, it's night, and I have to drive home," he added. So I gathered some tools, and headed into St. Paul to change his light bulbs. It was there in a dark garage with nowhere near enough tools to do the job that I realized the gift I'd give.

The next night, I went to Sears, bought a toolbox and then -- and you have to understand I want my ashes spread in the hardware department when I die -- raced around to fill it with the right tools to start.

Then I came home and wrote him this letter to put inside:

Dear Sean:

Many years ago -- probably about 16 -- I was trying to get at some water pipe that was frozen below the kitchen at our house in Sheffield. I didn't have the right tools so I just took a hammer and whacked at the cabinet floor covering the pipe. "Mom, Dad's breaking the house," a young child said. That was you, with an early -- yet precise -- assessment of my handyman skills; this, on top of my historical lack of success with tools (See attached).

I don't know when it was that I started getting interested in tools; perhaps it's a "guy thing" that develops sometime, you just don't know when. I was a late bloomer. And since you are like me, this gift will probably mean nothing to you. But someday it will. And just as your grandfather (Papa) gave me my first toolbox, I give this to you, including a few to get you going. Rest assured: you'll need more.

I think tools are a metaphor for life in general. You start out with barely enough to get by and when you try to use what you've got, well, sometimes you end up breaking the house. But you keep at it and you just keep adding more tools. You add more tools first because you might need them someday, and then just because tools are cool.

I give you this with these few words of advice, metaphorical or not:

1) Don't buy cheap, crappy tools. No matter what kind of deal it seems like, no matter how much -- or how little -- you spend, when you get home and open the package, you've got cheap crap. Buy good tools.

2) Don't throw away tools. Find a good home for them instead.

3) Build something someday. It doesn't have to be anything big. It could be an airplane, it could be a birdhouse. Just build it as well as you can and it'll serve as a reminder to all that you were here.

4) Don't be afraid to break the house.

5) If you have a son -- or daughter -- someday, give 'em a toolbox when they turn 21. And then someday later, give him your tools. One at a time, so that when you're gone, they're still building things that remind people that you were here.

That way, when your kid uses a tool you gave him, he'll be reminded that his Dad loved him like there was no tomorrow.

As I love you.


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Lucky 21

My oldest son, Sean, turned 21 today. So today I celebrate his ascension to adulthood and mourn the loss of a damned good tax break.

I wish I had a really great picture to post here, but alas, Sean is one of those people who doesn't like to have his picture taken (pssst.... there's one back in one of the entries in July).

Sean has always been in a hurry. Always. He was born a month early and has been go-go ever since. We lived in White Plains, New York at the time and when my wife said it was "time," off we raced to the hospital. Only it wasn't time, it was too early. So the docs -- we had two great obstetricians -- did what they could to delay his delivery because they weren't sure he'd be fully developed.

So Carolie had to put up with contractions for something like three days. It was a, ummm, interesting time.

I remember the Cardinals and Dodgers were playing in the National League Divisional Series, so Carolie would sleep between contractions and I'd watch the game. But they had a fetal monitor going and it would also show a number that seemed to indicate a contraction was coming.

I thought it was a cool machine, and so a couple of times I'd notice the number on the machine going up, so I'd whack Carolie awake and say, "it says you're having a contraction." I only did that twice.

Eventually Sean was born at 4:36 (or was it 5:36 Eastern Time?). He was colicky and didn't like sleeping much and didn't like us sleeping much either, apparently. Then he had to go back to the hospital for jaundice. Tons of fun, and we thought we were -- as most new parents do -- the first people on the planet ever to have a baby.

We had lunch together today and tonight his friends are taking him out and I'm guessing they'll do some bar hopping because isn't that what you're supposed to do on your 21st birthday?

Alas, I don't want to know. He's an adult now. And I'm not supposed to worry.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

What time is it?

This is my mother, you met her some months ago -- July 4th, to be exact -- a day she considers the last day of summer. She's sitting, I think, on a beach in the Parker River Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island (Newburyport, Mass.) looking at... well, I don't know what she's looking at. Probably nothing.

If I were there, I'd be doing the same thing. Staring at nothing but the water rolling in and rolling back out. Over and over and over again.

Fire is the same way. Light a fire at campsite and you'll sit and look at it burning, doing nothing.

Why? It's hypnosis? Why? Where does it take us when it whisks us from the land of S'mores and boogeyboards?

My mother's favorite time of the day at the beach is around 4 or 5, when people leave it. She's sitting at a beach in October. She thinks summer ends on July 4th.

Wherever we go when we consider fire and water, there's no calendar or clock there.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Life in the wind

This is one of those fall days in Minnesota where you begin to realize what a man feels when taking his dying breath. The sun is warm, the trees are golden, the baseball game is on TV and the air has the faint aroma of fallen leaves spiced with everything good that happened to you when you were young.

Breathe deep and savor it; tomorrow we die. Winter's out there somewhere, moving this way.

And so I raked my suburban lawn today and then knelt into the pile of leaves to gather them into a trash bag...small handfuls at a time, like a man looking for something lost.

For me it's 1967. I was 13 years old with time on my hands. The Red Sox -- the Impossible Dream team -- were playing the Minnesota Twins on the last weekend of the regular season, with a chance -- a poor chance when you think about it, but a chance just the same -- of winning the American League pennant back when it meant something; back when there were 10 teams and no divisions.

I spent much of that last weekend with a glove, a tennis ball, and a radio... listening to the Red Sox game and throwing the ball when Ken Coleman said, "Lonborg winds and throws..." Thump. The ball bounced back and I, now Rico Petrocelli, would field it to end the inning against the dastardly Twins, who were also playing for the pennant.

For the next inning, I moved to the side of the barn just up the street, because it had a tall roof and if you throw the ball just so, it would bounce at the end of the slate roof, and fly back.... back.... back to the five- or six-foot-high stone wall of Mr. Murray's house; the one that protected his prize gladiolas.

It played well the part of Fenway Park's left field wall. And I was now Carl Yastrzemski. Except that Yastrzemski never had to deal with pieces of slate falling from the sky.

And so it went, until the game ended, or the Murrays chased me away from the gladiolas, until finally the Sox beat the Twins, and the team captured the American League pennant.

Eventually the Sox went to the World Series and fell in 7 games to the St. Louis Cardinals and -- though I was a bigger Cleveland Indians fan than a Red Sox fan -- joined the ranks of New Englanders who'd gone before, heartbroken in the fall by a team they followed.

It was many years later -- 2004 to be exact -- when the Red Sox finally won their World Series. "It'll be the worst thing that ever happened to those people, " I said to a friend. "They don't realize that their joy is born from their heartbreak." Take a Red Sox fan's heartbreak away, and you've taken away their soul.

But like fall, Sox heartbreak returns every year. And the true New Englander learns to savor both.

Breathe deep. And find your youth.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The days I always wanted

When my kids were growing up, I didn't really dream of them becoming president of the United States, or changing the world with Nobel prize-winning research (although I've always believed -- and still do -- that either one of these kids could change the world.).

My dream? Having my kids call me in my older years and say, "let's go to a ballgame."

How tough would that be? Every dream can be dashed and I have to admit at times I thought this one would be too. My oldest son had an illness that kept him out of school in the last few years and at times I wondered if he'd be able to survive on his own. The youngest son always seemed to be ready to snap the leash and never look back.

Kids are like that and the moment you realize that they're not going to grow up to be president, you begin to think it'll be a great thing if they just stay out of prison.

Give a parent a brain, an imagination, and the ability to project the future, and they'll screw it up every time. Ask me how I know.

My oldest son moved out and onto his "own" more than a year ago and I spent a few late nights looking to the southwest (he moved to Richfield) sending my "Dad messages" by telepathy. My youngest son moved out not long after graduating high school earlier this year. And just like that, I had myself an empty nest and a telephone that didn't ring, and a bucketload of guilt that when I moved out of my house after high school (and off to college), I didn't go back home or call more often. When you're 18, 40 miles seems like a long way away.

But a funny thing happened, son #1 enrolled himself in community college; him with his 145 I.Q., to get his various computer and networking certifications. And when an internship opened up in the information technology department of Minnesota Public Radio, he applied for it and -- on his own -- got it. I work at MPR, but I had nothing to do with it. And I told him that mentioning my name around MPR is as likely to get a door closed in your face as it is to open one up.

My best day in 30 years in the radio business. The day my son called me from his cubicle and whispered, "I feel like an adult." And in the months since, from what I can tell, he's become a valuable member of MPR. I hope they hire him fulltime sometime.

He stops by the newsroom once or twice a day and I think, "how good is my life?

I also begin to realize why my Dad, a successful insurance agent, tried to get me to take over his business as he neared retirement. For a time I did work with him and I was OK at it, but fathers-and-sons often don't mix well and radio came calling. I'll bet the day I started in his business was one of the best in his career. I'll bet the day I left was not. Kids.

Son #2, currently the youngest EMT and first responder in Minnesota, is also in community college (by the way, community college is simply the best bargain in higher education as near as I can tell) to get higher certifications and become a paramedic and whatever comes after that.

This week, he started with the Allina Health System, operating a unit that transports people to and from hospitals. He stopped by MPR yesterday, in his EMT uniform, parking his unit at the front door and like my other son, looking every bit the young man I dreamed he'd be.

I showed him around the new MPR digs and eventually he and his brother connected and then his brother started showing him around the MPR digs, paying particular attention to the technology that's all around the buidling that he can explain, but which sounds like another language to me.

In minutes the two of them were hopping from place to place as I began to fall back, and watch my two boys in my workplace, one being proud of who he's become, the other becoming prouder. And occasionally I'd stop to introduce son #2 to an MPR exec with the words I love more than any other -- for either boy: "this is my son."

Later, as they left to go grab something to eat together, it was hard for me to remember that these were the same two kids that occasionally tried to kill each other.

Last night the phone rang. It was son #2 asking me if I wanted to have dinner at Mickey's, a famous diner in downtown St. Paul (you may remember it from The Mighty Ducks), that neither one of us has ever been to.

So today, after I finish the newscast on the Current, he'll swing by, we'll grab son #1 and my boys and I will go to dinner.

"At Mickey's," I said to my wife this morning, noting that it's not exactly Kincade's.

"These are the days you always wanted," she said.


Monday, October 02, 2006

Explain this to me

I can't really say I'm a big fan of organized religion anymore. I haven't been to church in a few years, pretty much since my wife left her job as church secretary and started saving the world one by one. But that's not to say I don't believe in God; I just don't think you need a middleman and I see too many churches getting built and too few hungry people being fed. I don't think God gives a rip whether I actually go to church; I think that's something blared by, oddly enough, churches. Go figure.

I don't need someone to help me talk to God. So pardon me for just a second while I hold a side conversation here.

God, what the hell are you doing?

I get the whole "mysterious ways" thing, which -- between you and me -- is code for "beats the heck out of me." I understand the concept of free will. I even understand the George Burns concept when he said in Oh, God!, "I don't worry about the little stuff, kid."

You know what I don't get? I don't get how some creep walks into a school -- and not just a school, God, an Amish school -- and lines young girls up against the blackboard and executes them.

I may be wrong, God, but that's not a "little thing." Where were you?

I watch NASCAR every now and again, God, and I see Jimmy Billy Bob hop out of his souped up car after winning and thanking you for winning the race, so I figure you had something to do with it. So why NASCAR and not little girls?

The fact I'm mad at you at all, it seems to me, ought to be enough to show I believe in you. If I didn't think you existed, I'd just be railing against some jag-off in Pennsylvania. Besides, I watched "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" last night and saw a bunch of volunteers build a house in 56 hours for a a woman with 6 kids in Michigan, who lost her husband last year... although -- now that I think of it -- what's the deal with taking a young man -- a firefighter no less -- on Christmas Eve?

I know you exist, because otherwise it's all just random acts of ... whatever. And coincidence isn't powerful enough to account for me and my wife, not to mention the two kids involved.

But, girls in an Amish school. What was that all about? To make a point? You used to make it with tablets and burning bushes, now it's guns in a school and little girls?

I've seen all the Albert Brooks movies, God, so I know that when I die -- and by the way, I'm staying out of Amish country for awhile -- I have to "defend my life."

But you know what? You've got some 'splaining to do too.

It's enough to make me want to go build someone a house, and stop watching NASCAR.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Wait 'til you see the action figures!

A week or so ago, Minnesota Public Radio hired a fine photographer to snap some "publicity" photos of people who are on the air. Since I'm occasionally on the air, I was on the list.

Now keep in mind, I still have almost all of the business cards MPR gave me 10 years ago, so I don't exactly rip through the outside world, handing out cards and photos. But since they went to the trouble of putting on make-up, well...

Anyway, he took three. One I really liked, but nobody else did. I won't tell you which. You'll just have to vote. The winner replaces that one over on the left there.

But, you know, I look at these and think: I should run for something.

Any openings that you know of?

Here we go:

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Space cowboy

I've always been interested in the space program. When I was a kid, my folks gave me a Panasonic reel-to-reel recorder and I'd stay home (maybe I was faking, I forget) and watch Frank McGee on NBC or Walter Cronkite on CBS broadcast the various Gemini missions and I'd turn down the sound and talk into the thing. I figured I'd end up being an astronaut. I ended up instead being the guy who "talks into the thing." Go figure.

Anyway, here's a story I wrote about an aquaintance of mine, who has built the same kind of plane that I'm building. If you've been following the current Atlantis flight, maybe you've seen him on the TV. His name is Paul Dye. He's the lead flight director for the shuttle.

Now, this picture below is really cool. It was taken from France and, yeah, that's the sun. But check out the spots (click the image for a larger view). Unbelievable.

That's the shuttle on the left, after undocking with the space station on the right.

My mother had a beauty shop in our basement and, of course, it had a sink she'd wash customers' hair in and it had a chair that would lean back. It was a good place to play "spaceshot." So I'd take my brothers football helmet, put Saran wrap around the front and that was my space helmet. Then I'd wear a big heavy red parka and that was my spaceshuit. I'd get in the chair and that was my capsule.

I built a flimsy cardboard "control panel" of a capsule that had a bunch of paper switches that did nothing but light the stick of dynamite I was sitting on. And I'd turn on the tape recorder, on which I'd taped mission control. And then I'd "lift off."

It's a wonder I didn't suffocate.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Just wondering

How many churches do Islamists have to firebomb in order to make their point that the Pope was wrong to have quoted 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus who said everything the criticism of the Prophet Mohammad brought was evil "such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached"?

OK, so may be not everything. Is that the point?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

It could be worse; you could've been born on February 29th

Today was my wife's birthday. She needs a break; bad things tend to happen on her birthday. In 1986, my grandmother died on her birthday. Then in 2001, well, you know. It wasn't a very good time.

We had a nice dinner at the Afton House, but earlier in the day, son Patrick left a frantic message that he pulled into a gas station on his motorcyle last night, took his backpack off and filled up with gas. But when he went in to pay, he forgot to take his backpack with him and when he returned it was gone.

It included all his text books, his homework, his cellphone, his PS2 and a key... an important key; an important master key to one of the facilities where he works part-time.

Things have always gone well for Patrick, so this has given him a punch in the gut and he really doesn't nkow where to start. It's one of those things where you can only take one thing at a time. But he hasn't calmed down enough to start. Maybe tomorrow.

My oldest son Sean, Carolie says, talked to her today and assured her that he and roomate Nick -- who we consider our son too -- will take care of roomate Patrick and "he'll be fine."

Good kids.

Happy birthday, Carolie.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Waiting to exhale

I come from a long line of worriers. Or maybe it's a short line. And maybe it's not "worrying," per se. Maybe it's just the inability to exhale.

I was at a get-together in Minneapolis last night for Minnesota bloggers and was talking to Gary Miller, who is one of the writers at the Kennedy vs. the Machine blog when the subject turned to kids -- my kids, of course -- and when I mentioned that both of my kids are now out of the house, Gary said "it must be nice to sit back and relax and say "yeah, we did a good job" ?

Yes, it must be. Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

I wouldn't know and, frankly, I'd be scared to find out. "Exhaling" is destined to invoke karma. I've done that exhaling thing a couple of times and the results are not pretty. Back in 1986, I remember sitting on the couch in Belmont thinking, "living in Boston, working in radio, there's food in the 'fridge and money in the bank. Ahh, this is living."

A couple of months later, WHDH ran into budget problems and I was on the street. No more of that, even if it gets me a reputation at my current employer of being a pessimist, since they're unable to distinguish the difference between a pessimist and someone who knows disaster is just around the corner. It doesn't mean I think it'll come. It means I don't think it can't. One must not, I figure, tempt the gods with the awesome power of contentment.

In one tortured paradox, I realized the other night that while I always hope the kids will stay in touch, when the phone actually rings and the caller ID indicates it's either Sean or Patrick calling, Carolie and I always have the same reaction. We say "oh,no" out loud.

Carolie and I were both going to go to the pub last night for the bloggers' event, but at the last minute Patrick called and invited her to dinner with him and his ex (I guess) girlfriend, Pam. He called in the afternoon looking for her, too (she was in St. Cloud trying to get the Department of Human Services to get its bureacratic head out of its bureacratic ass), and it sure sounded important that they have dinner together and fast!

This is not normal, I thought. A kid who a few months ago started every sentence with "I'm 18 now..." desperately trying to have dinner with his mother. I could only reach one conclusion: someone's pregnant. But, no, it was just dinner.

Life is good. I guess.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

A good walk not wasted

Click for a larger image.

Patrick and I played what is probably our last golf game of the summer. And perhaps one of the reasons why I'm not particularly good -- which is a kind way of saying I really stink -- at this game is that it was only our second game together this summer; the last being in June when Carolie's dad joined us for 9 holes.

A really great guy by the name of Bob Krupski of Sheffield (Mass.) took me out for my first game back when I lived in the Berkshires. Now, it takes a lot of patience to show someone how to play golf, but Bob was great at it and I really enjoyed the game even though I was pretty much the same golfer then that I am today.

We played, perhaps, a dozen rounds together and I never did break 100. So when we moved to Minnesota, my last words to Bob were, "I'll send you the scorecard when I break 100." Let's just say whatever mail Krup is hauling in from the mailbox, isn't weighted down by a single scorecard from Minnesota.

For some reasons, I prefer the physicians' approach to golf. "Game, heal thyself." I figure that even though I've never taken a lesson, and even though I only play a few times a year, my game will get better. Bulletin: it hasn't.

Patrick and I played up at Keller Golf Course in Maplewood, a fantastic county course that used to host PGA tournaments. Beautiful course. Damn tough course.

But I left the house today thinking, "I shot a 45 over 9 a few weeks ago, I'm putting well, my slice is manageable and this is the day." Golf can do that to you; rip you apart through overconfidence. But the big question is: how on earth can a guy who hasn't broke 100 in 17 years be overconfident?

Well, of course, the problem wasn't overconfidence, underconfidence or somewhereinbetweenconfidence. The problem is I've got no game; none, zip, nada.

Bottom line? Sixty on the front nine. Sixty-five on the back nine for a total of 125 and I might've forgotten a couple of strokes in the process.

I do love being out with my boys, though. Golf's a great game.

The national pasttime

One of Carolie and my favorite pasttimes is taking pictures of people who might not be in their most -- shall we say -- positive light. One of these days, I'll dig out the picture of the "pickle man" from the Fort Worth zoo and post it here.

The technique is when we see someone, I'll stand nearby and Carolie will pretend to be taking a picture of me, but then she zooms in on the other person. Juvenile? Oh, hell, yeah.

We went to the State Fair yesterday and found this guy...

Wish she'd zoomed out just a bit because the effect would've been better, especially since the spouse -- at least I think it was the spouse -- was also fairly passed out. They were at the Leinenkugel's area. The chairs are all oversized and so was this guy. But it doesn't show up well close in.

Update: One of my pals at work -- Julia Schrenkler -- has sent me a little online tool that transforms images. Here it is. It's a good time-waster.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

What's next? An IPod?

Every now and again, I get slapped in the face by the confirmation that I'm changing; swept into a different dimension by technology. No better than the hordes of lemmings who latch onto the latest fad today, only to ditch it tomorrow. In this vein, I am reminded that I am not special.

These little "confirmations" come at odd times and places. The latest one -- and don't read any Brad Pittiness into this -- came on top of a mountain: Bald Mountain near Lake Willoughby in Vermont.

When Carolie and I arrived at the cabin a few weeks ago, I flopped on the couch and started leafing through some old copies of Vermont Life magazine, only to be intrigued by an article on the joys of climbing Bald Mountain, which as it turns out is only a few miles from the cabin. The article indicated the location of the easiest route up the mountain. Being not particularly adroit at mountain climbing or hiking (It's a flesh is weak thing. The spirit gets a pass on this point.), I dutifully recorded the directions and the next day Carolie and I set off on our excursion.

Carolie said her parents and her aunt and uncle made this climb a few years ago and as they're in their '70s, we felt confident that a couple of adroitless 50-somethings could handle the climb. We pranced through the first half mile or so, looking for the elusive pink, fuzzy somethingorother, but eventually the grade steepened and the spirit revealed its ugly side.

"Jesum Crow," I said with increasing frequency (it's a Vermont expression that, trust me, completely fools God when it comes to keeping score.), falling farther behind Carolie who, while huffing a bit, was suddenly reminding me of those mall walkers at the Maplewood Mall, usually featuring a handful of spry 80-year-olds in new jogging outfits, followed by their husbands, toting their oxygen tanks.

Many rest stops and Jesum Crows later -- about 2 hours later -- we emerged at the top of Bald Mountain and while Carolie climbed to the top of an abandoned fire tower, I -- and here comes the "confirmation" -- opened my cellphone to see how many "bars" I could get on the signal indicator.

"Wow," she said as she surveyed the view. "I can see Lake Willoughby from here."

"I've got 3 bars," I said back, desperately trying to think of someone I could call if only to say "I'm on a frickin' mountain in Vermont."

When did this happen? When did I become somehow spiritually connected to a cellphone? I don't use it much, and nobody ever calls me, so why am I suddenly flipping open my cellphone to see if I have a signal? Why am I so much like.... you know...them? I don't even like cellphones, which are only slightly higher on my stupid-o-meter than the people who use them. I vowed never to have one.

Of course, I vowed once -- 1986 if memory serves -- never to own a computer. Look at me now! Something special, eh?

Post script: it turns out that I read the magazine article wrong. The trail we took was not the easiest, according to the magazine. It was the easiest to find. And Carolie's parents and aunt and uncle never made the trek. It was another gentler journey.

I plan on finding that one next time I'm there. I'll call you when I get to the top.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Completing the Circle Tour

I have returned to Minnesota after a two-day drive back from Fitchburg, Massachusetts with a stop overnight in Napoleon, Ohio. My mother told me once she always thought I would be a traveler, but while I live farther away than any of my brothers and sisters, I don't travel that much.

In fact, I still think the concept of being somewhere different for dinner than you were for lunch is pretty cool and whenever I drive across country, I think about those pioneers who said goodbye to their family and headed West. Let me tell you, if you've never driven across half-a-country, you cannot possibly appreciate the reality of their decision to leave, because there was no way they were ever going to see the friends and family they left behind again.

Fortunately, that's no longer a problem and this two-week trip has reinforced the notion of getting off the main thoroughfare. On the way back, I drove down through Southern New York, around Watkins Glen, along the Susquehana and then Allegany Rivers, over Chataqua Lake until I made tracks for Ohio.

This country, really, is unbelievable in terms of what it offers in the way of a view. The things you can see in a short period of time is mind boggling.

You can start in a place like Woodbury, Minnesota and in no time at all...

You can be in Galena Illinois...

Through the cornfields of Indiana (I wanted to stop and watch a cropduster yesterday but the corn was too high to see the horizon!)...

Outside Jacob's Field in Cleveland...

Looking out at the largest mountain in Massachusetts -- Mt. Greylock in the Berkshires... (1,300 miles from Minnesota)

As your wife plays cribbage with her mother in the vanishing twilight...

And then you're a few hundred miles north, on the Canadian border, sitting on the camp deck...

And climbing a mountain (2 hours) and an abandoned fire tower to view Vermont...

You can go from the oldest schoolhouse in Vermont...

To the house you grew up in in Massachusetts.

You can start the day in Boston...

Have lunch along a winding road in Southern upstate New York.

And in a flash you can go from the grime of Gary, Indiana...

And the stench of the huge BP oil refinery...

To an unhurried (really) drive along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago (the interstate was dead stopped, by the way)

One note here. If you're an aviation enthusiast, this particular part of the trip requires you to hold your nose at the unbridled corruption of Mayor Richard Daley, who sent the bulldozers in at midnight to destroy the perfectly lovely lakefront Meigs airport.

And pretty much home again.

I'm going to make the trip again by car soon, I think. But someday -- someday -- by "car" will be in the air and I'll be stopping at places like Burke Lakefront airport in Cleveland and Elmira Airport in New York.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The little room

Since he died in February 2004, nobody has done much in "the little room," the workshop of my father in the barn just down the street from the house he and my mother shared for 60+ years; a house that was built for her by her father by taking down part of the barn.

"Workshop" is perhaps too nice a word. Let's just say it was pretty much where my father spent most of his time since retiring from the insurance business in the early '80s. And its condition was a testament to his ability to try lots of different things while mastering, I'm afraid, few of them (except for vegetable gardening. He was very good at that. My mother says dad "put her to work the day he retired," because she ended up running the vegetable stand). But try he did.

Whenever I come East I try to help my mother do a few things around the house. This year I cleared some brush, repainted a part of the house that was peeling, tried to fix her computer and finally installed a new one. Today when I went to the barn to put the ladders away, the little room beckoned.

There's a little bit of everything in the little room, including a lot of stuff that gives a glimpse into my father's personality. He, apparently, never threw anything away. And just as apparent, he wasn't much for trash cans or cleaning for that matter.

I don't think the reason nobody has touched it in the last two years is because they couldn't bring themselves to face the loss of my dad by doing so; we pretty much get it. I think that the enormity of the job has been too much for most any human. My dad, in effect, left us all one hellacious shitbox. But with nothing else to do today, I cleaned out "the little room." As much I could in one day anyway.

It was here just a few years ago that I picked up a rusty and bent hinge and tossed it in a nearby beat-up trash can. "Hey, what are you doing?" my father said as he fished the hinge out of the trash. "That's a perfectly good hinge. We can do something with that."

What he did with it, I don't know. But I've found plenty of other things just fine: old fishing gear, half-bent wooden frames from windows long past, old oil cans, equally oily rags, pieces of slate, nuts and bolts in old cans that I'm sure he intended to sort out someday, lots of keys that could fit about anything as long as it wasn't made in the last two centuries.

And sawdust. Lots and lots of sawdust. Late in his life, my father decided to take up woodworking with a lathe, which is odd -- and was a little terrifying to the rest of us -- since my dad was pretty well blind by then and the prospect of a rapidly-spinning hunk of wood and my father with a sharp object was sure to lead to tragedy.
He made a few things which appear to be bowls with large cracks in them, and left the sawdust behind. Today, I vacuumed up the sawdust.

My dad's fix-it jobs were legendary. If it got the job done, it was good enough. Beauty of the fix was not a prerequisite and frequently not a result either. I thought of that as I swept out around the cement shower stall base that he put in the basement back in the'60s, and later removed....only to use it for the base of a wood stove he used in the little room.

I also found a fair number of bottlecaps. We didn't have alcohol in our house; my mother forbade it. And so my Dad had a small stash of beer in the "little room," apparently chilled with the small dorm refrigerator my sister had at college in the mid '70s, now rusty but apparently still -- like the hinge -- good for something. As we kids moved into our adult years, the little room became a good place to stand around and have a beer with my father, and talk about things -- "code" I always called it -- while wondering if my mother would suddenly appear and find out he had beer at the barn.

I ended up with about 3 barrels of trash and that was just off the floors. I haven't tackled the workbenches or shelves yet; that'll have to wait until the next time I'm here -- probably in January. There actually are some terrific tools there I'd like to keep, if I could only figure out a place to put it. Barns are cool things.

The little room, I think, was more than just a workshop. It was a refuge for dad -- and no doubt as he used his sharp objects on the whirring hunk of wood, perhaps a place to declare his intolerance for his late-in-life infirmities that caught up to him in 2004.

The barn, the little room, and a lot of these tools and machinery would have been great for building an airplane, and perhaps he'd enjoy helping, although in his later years he didn't sound too sure about flying in an airplane you build yourself. Not as safe, I guess, as a blind man and a spinning lathe.

The irony of discovering possibilities for old things in the little room is not lost on me.

I never did find that damned hinge, though.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Phony patriotism

The great Eastern vacation has moved to the homestead in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. My mother, bless her heart, was just telling me about the neighbors across the street who felt compelled, as well they should, I guess, to fly the American flag. My mother comes from the Greatest Generation, a generation that knew a little something about patriotism and I don't remember our family ever flying the American flag. It didn't have to. My Dad was in World War II and didn't feel compelled to tell you. That's the funny thing about the Greatest Generation; it never did.

But this is the "look at me, I'm a patriot" generation and as long as that means doing everything but actually, you know, signing up for military service, then everyone seems to be on board. Back to the neighbors. They flew a flag to tell you how much they loved it. They flew it at night -- unlighted -- they flew it in bad weather...they flew it until it was in tatters on the pole. Now if you know anything about the American flag, you know that those are three cardinal sins.

Finally, my mother found an ad in the paper for an American flag, taped it to a card, and mailed it to the people across the street who must've gotten the message because they took the flag down.

It's curious that she was just telling us this story because I just stumbled across this picture from Minnesota Public Radio's Web site.

This is our flag-loving congressman from the 6th Congressional District and his patriotic wife. I'm sure they're very nice people. They just happen to have a lot in common with the flag burners I'm sure they hate.

Given that the guy makes our laws -- and is a supporter of a flag amendment so he must know the flag rules -- I shouldn't have to call his attention to US Code Title 4, Section 8d.

The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free. Bunting of blue, white, and red, always arranged with the blue above, the white in the middle, and the red below, should be used for covering a speaker's desk, draping the front of the platform, and for decoration in general.

What we have here is phony patriotism.

Expect a note from my mother.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Shagging golf balls and living forever

I suppose it's time to get back to the business of this column, musings on life from the empty nest.

My wife and I arrived at Newark Pond in Vermont. I think it's more of a lake and any Minnesotan would agree. But in Vermont, I guess, this is a pond, the homestead of my wife's family on her mother's side. A picture will follow but rest assured it's a lovely camp that has risen from a chicken coop in the last century to a self-respecting second-home of the 21st century, except that as I write this, the power has gone off after a wimpy rainstorm moved through. Life is fragile, I guess, in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

Her family has kept a journal of each visit going back to the 1980s and I determined today that the last time we were here sans children (her being pregnant in a 1985 visit does not qualify) was 1983. So this is our first time here without the kids in 23 years, and our first visit here since the death of her Uncle Henry, with whom I would play golf on our semi-yearly basis, an event that would easily be the highlight of my year and that has very little to do with the type of game I played.

His wife, Carolie's Aunt Bev, still won't stay overnight in the camp they have next door, but she and her family were here yesterday and it was great to have a picnic and then sit by the campfire for a spell. I suppose, as my wife says, that it's too hard to be here and not have Henry nearby.

I miss the semi-annual golf game, and I miss Henry's classic Vermont twang and easy nature, but in this spot, I do not feel that he is anywhere but here. Where people go when they die I don't know, but I tend to think they stay right where the place is that define them to others. For me, since I rarely saw him anywhere else, that is this spot and while I look out the window here and see an empty hammock and a closed-up camp next door, I do not feel there is a loss here, unless this spot should somehow itself disappear.

My children, I think, were quite young when they first started coming here for a few days at a time, usually in the middle of whirlwind New England tour in the short time we had available when visiting from Minnesota. We had so many people to see and so little time, we were the hummingbirds of summer vacationers.

There's very little television here and no computer connection and I'm sure they dreaded the thought of such a spot, but just as my wife did when she was a little girl here, they found plenty to occupy themselves on a small spit of grass next to a big, well, pond, surrounded by forests and mountains.

For us, it was hitting golf balls into the lake, then snorkelling to get them, only to hit them in again. Hour after hour, day after day. Often I would row the boat and one boy would jump off the back at the site of a submerged target, the other would patrol on a leaky raft, giddy at the sound a golf ball makes when returned into the equally leaky metal rowboat.

Today, alone, I hit, then retrieved the same golf balls, delighting in the new discoveries and the memories of those days with younger children.

Years ago, we took the kids to the spot where I had the most fun as a kid -- the north shore of Massachusetts and I recall watching my oldest son play in the sand and the water and feeling vaguely as though I was watching myself as a boy.

And today as I searched for each golf ball, I thought of that moment, the moments chasing golf balls with my kids, and all the moments here with Uncle Henry and the moments to come that keep them all alive. Sometime, somewhere, my kids will again hit a golf ball into some body of water somewhere, perhaps with their own kids -- perhaps not. They will dive in and shag them and they will remember this place and that time. They will remember their father and mother, and Uncle Henry, and Aunt Bev, and all the people who defined this place and they will feel as though they are looking back in time, as well they are.

And everyone will thus live forever.

Friday, August 04, 2006


You know how I said I had a feeling I'd break 100 golfing during this trip. Well, I haven't, at least so far. But I came close. Today I went up to Stamford, Vermont, which is just a stone's throw from my in-laws' house (pictures on all of this when I get to a computer with USB). I always like to golf at a 9-hole course there, with a small shack that serves as the clubhouse. The shack, however, is gone, replaced by a beautiful new building with a wrap-around front porch that looks out on the Berkshire mountains, green from a spring -- and now a summer -- full of rain.

My father-in-law, Don Thurston, and I spent the morning after a night of rain trying to read the greens, and succeeded to varying degrees. Apparently the secret to improving my golf game is not to play; the game will correct itself. Why this philosophy has not worked in the previous 20 years, I cannot say, however. But today the drives were straight, if not long enough for me to make caveman sounds. And the putting was excellent and I settled for a 45. Although I choose to project that this would have been a 90 on 18 holes, thus qualifying for my desire to break 100 before my eventual death, I am at heart a Collins and so we consider such things as the liklihood of falling rocks in these projections. Given all of the possible calamities of another 9 holes, we stopped at 9 and chose, instead, to explore the wonders of Sam Adams and a ham and cheese club sandwich, leaving me -- at least for now -- content that I can golf.

New England courses are not like Minnesota courses. There are no houses built around them and they are, if nothing else, a good walk through nature. The greens are also usually slanted -- in some cases steeply -- and diabolical. The trees are mature in both stature and the ability to mock you in there own tree-like way.

When I left New England 14 years ago, I thought my golf game would improve as I left these courses for the flatter, more gentile (I thought) courses of Minnesota. But, alas, my average was over 100 when I lived here, it is over 100 now.

But for one night -- the night when I am sitting in a parked car on a deserted main street, ripping off a closed coffee shops wiFi, I can dream that I am a golfer.

At least until next time.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The road taken

I may never take the interstate highway system again.

I arrived in the Berkshires last night after a two-day drive from Minnesota, learning a lot about what's off the beaten path along the way. OK, so U.S. 20 isn't exactly off the beaten path. In fact, before Mr. Eisenhower built the interstate highway system, it was the beaten path. But it's still full of riches that are robbed from you when you travel, say, I-94 or I-90.

This was actually a tale of two days. On the first day, I took U.S. 61 down along the Mississippi, stopping for breakfast at the Eagle Cafe in Wabasha, where several men were sitting at the counter, talking about "guy" things, I guess: how bad the guy who just left the cafe looks, how little business there is this summer for some guy who's in business, how much foxweed is in the yard this year.

Where Highway 61 crosses into Wisconsin, there is a detour for about 8 miles onto back roads and I couldn't wipe the smile off my face if I wanted to. Around every turn there was another reward, usually a perfect looking barn set against perfect wild flowers. Though the trip was already taking longer than my fellow travelers on I-94, I was seeing something interesting; they weren't.

I made it to Dubuque, fulfilling a long-standing desire to set foot -- or at least four tires -- in Iowa. I stayed only long enough to get on U.S. 20 for the trip East, and about 10 miles into Illinois, discovered what I'm betting is the most adorable town I think I've ever been too.

Galenia, Illinois was once the kind of lead mining and I guess everybody made a buck or three who lived there, because they all built gorgeous Victorian homes in a setting that is straight out of Meet Me in St. Louis. Ulysses S. Grant lived here long enough to work for his father's general store, then went off to war, became a hero, and came home to one of these fine homes, which his neighbors purchased for him.

You know, you can't get neighbors like that anymore.

I stayed on 20 through Chicago, and the South Side of Chicago and found myself passing several spots on the way and thinking, "I should stop." And I should have except that we don't realize how "getthereitis" infects us. I'd made a reservation at a motel in Elkhart, Indiana and I probably shouldn't have. This was supposed to be a trip where I could stop if I wanted to, when I wanted. And I stopped a lot, but nowhere near as I often as I could or should have.

It was well after dark that I made it to Elkhart and I was back on the road the next morning at 8 a.m. (7 if you consider the lost hour of Eastern Time). U.S. 20 was lovely, passing through a delightful Amish community or two, and by a small airport with a lonely Cessna 172 out front.

Again, I thought, "I should stop and go flying with someone for an hour" over the fields of Indiana. But didn't. I thought maybe I could get to the Berkshires, where my wife was, by nightfall. Next time I plan an extra day.

I stopped in Cleveland to visit mecca, a.k.a Jacob's Field, bought some Cleveland Indians junk, and in the process passed the headquarters of the United Church of Christ, where an old friend of mine (from the Berkshires oddly enough) works. No parking spot presented itself, so I kept on driving. Could've and, yeah, should've.

In looking for U.S. 20, I picked up I-90 and decided I was now sufficiently behind schedule so I would stay on it through the incredibly boring ride through Pennsylvania and New York, another 9 hours.

You can't see anything when you drive the interstate because your focus is on the traffic in front of you and behind you. Constantly. It's exhausting.

But the Berkshires today are beautiful as the Berkshires usually are.

On the way back, I'm taking 20 until I find an even more interesting road.

Monday, July 31, 2006

On the road again

I'm heading out in the morning for the road trip back East. I'm planning on taking back roads through most of the trip and have selected the lovely city of Elkhart, Indiana as the lucky city to host me tomorrow night. Mapquest says that's 504 miles from Woodbury.

I'm thinking that's easily doable if I take Highway 61 along the Mississippi down to East Dubuque, Ill. That will allow me to cross into Dubuque so I can say I've been to Iowa. I've never been to Iowa. The U.S. Grant homestead is in Galena, Illinois, so I can pick up U.S. 20 and take that all the way to Elkhart.

Not sure where U.S. 20 goes through Chicago, but I think it's well south of the city. With any luck, I'll be through there by rush hour, and make it to South Bend in time to see the sun setting over "touchdown Jesus."

I'm taking my golf clubs with me. I may stop for a round on the trip there or the trip back. I've never broken 100. I'm feeling this is the year.

I've felt that every year for 20 years.

The Indians aren't in town -- they're actually in Boston -- so I won't be able to stop for a game there. Just as well. Sister Wendy called me from Fenway tonight before the game. I was ready to call her with one out in the 9th tonight and the Tribe leading the "boys of half a summer" 8-6. But then David Ortiz hit a three-run homer and the Red Sox one and I decided to save my cellphone minutes.

In the news

OK, just one more post regarding Oshkosh. Aero News Network today published a story about the BBQ I hosted there.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

BBQ pictures

I didn't get a chance to take any pictures from the big Oshkosh barbecue I hosted during AirVenture. But a few folks did and they're coming in dribs and drabs. I'm posting them here.

They had an accident at Oshkosh today. There was a line of planes taxiing out to take off. An RV (that's the kind of plane I'm building) from Canada was stopped when a warbird with its big prop hit it from behind and sliced it up, killing the passenger. That makes, I think, 3 people who were killed at Oshkosh this year.

By the way, if this sort of airplane stuff and Oshkosh really intersts you -- and if it doesn't, I'm sorry, we'll return to our regular programming shortly -- here's a newsletter I put together every week, which this week features the doings at Oshkosh.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Adios, Oshkosh

The temperatures pushed well into the 90s today, but I headed out to the flight line area anyway, an area of red-hot blacktop. Good thing, though, because the Blue Angels flew by in an unscheduled appearance. They can’t perform here because the “box”, an area of safety around any air show, isn’t big enough. But six F-18s flying in close formation is impressive as all getout anyway. Number 7 has been here all week and joined them on their final pass.

I stopped by to check out the RV-12 airplane again – that’s the one that’ll be available under the new light-sport rules (price yet to be determined and availability “sometime next year” according to Tom Greene) at Van’s Aircraft and introduced myself to one of the volunteer workers there who noted that “a lot of people had a hard time finding the RV BBQ you had.”

This gets me. I had a Web site, Van’s ran a half page column on it in the last newsletter they sent out, it was on Doug Reeve’s excellent Web site, the Yahoogroups list, the RVers list, about 4 other bulletin boards, sent out three individual e-mails, provided printable maps online and a step-by-step guide, and I even provided GPS coordinates accurate to 4 feet. It’s a good thing, I guess it wasn’t the navigation portion of a checkride.

I saw Lauran Paine Jr.’s new RV-8. He’s a retired (I think) airline pilot and regular columnist for Sport Aviation magazine who built parts of it as he traveled around the country for his airline. He’d take a small part, work on it, add it to the other small parts, and one day there was only one part left so he stuck an engine and a propeller on it and there it was. OK, maybe it was a little more than that. A sign on it said “it’s not finished yet but it’s finished enough to get to Oshkosh.” He flew in from Spokane.

I could only last so long in the heat so I made my way to the EAA museum since it’s air conditioned and, besides, I haven’t spent anywhere near enough time there during Oshkosh weeks past. Lots of heroes of various stripes speak there during the week. And I’ve never heard a one of them.

Today I did.

A lot of folks who know me know I have a special spot for the Greatest Generation. Years ago I had the idea of writing a book with interviews of that generation, average people who went off and did special things, like saving the world, then went back home and resumed average lives as if it wasn’t nuthin’. I never did the book, but Tom Brokaw did. He’s famous now and I’m living in a tent in a field in the middle of Wisconsin dairy country. Life is funny like that.

Tex Hill was one of the Flying Tigers. The U.S. wasn’t in the war in China, so it gave money to the Chinese government, and the Chinese then hired a company here to employ and provide warbird pilots.

Let’s review how good the Flying Tigers were. Two-hundred-and-sixty-nine planes went over to China. Only four pilots died in aerial combat with the Japanese. “We were the first guys to defeat the Japs,” Hill noted. The Japanese had been bombing a city called Rangun in Burma when the Tigers, a highly mobile group, arrived. “That was my first experience with war,” he said. “When we landed there were dead people everywhere. The Japanese were bombing the city every day.”

The next day the Japanese bombers came back again. None of them made it back to their bases.

“I was in a dogfight with a guy and I lined him up and I was only a few feet away from him and I could see him and I shot him down,” he said, “and another guy from overhead was coming at me and he put 33 holes in my airplane, but I got around on him and I shot him down,” Hill said.

It was real flying back then. Here at Oshkosh the vendors are hawking fancy instruments with satellite maps that tell you where you are and where you’re going. “We had no navaids,” Hill said. “We had some maps but when they agreed with what was actually there, it was a coincidence. We didn’t get any good maps until we shot down some Japanese.” They navigated their way home by having several listening posts on the ground and as they made their way back from a mission, they’d fire their guns into the ground, and the “listeners” on the ground would hear it and tell them where they were. I’ll bet he could’ve found his way to the RV BBQ.

Back then, the “red Chinese” – as Hill still calls them – were fighting the nationalists, but joined together to fight a common enemy. “They saved an awful lot of our guys,” he said.

“They were such a friendly people. When we stopped that bombing, the people just loved us. And we loved them,” Hill said. On one raid, we got to a field with over 100 bombers and over 100 fighters on it. It was one of those raids where you either lose everybody or you don’t lose anybody. It had to be total surprise. We got right down on the deck, about 50-150 feet, and they hit this airport that was essential to the Japanese. They got 7 fighters off and I shot the first one down and the guy behind me got the other six. Not one guy got one bullet hole in his plane.”

“I don’t know how long I’m supposed to talk,” Hill then said. “As long as you want,” someone in the audience shouted.

Remember Pappy Boyington? The TV series “Black Sheep Squadron,” made him a hero. But not to Tex. “That’s like hitting me with a cattle prod,” he said when asked about him. “Unfortunately the guy had a drinking problem. When you’re drunk you’re not fit for duty. He only flew 6 combat missions while he was over there.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that old Tex is a Republican. “I don’t think any president in this country has the burden this one has. Things are moving so fast,” he said, showing no concern for what we used to call political correctness when he addressed the Islamic movement. “Everywhere those people go, there’s problems. Even the moderates, if they embrace the Quran, there’s no room for anyone else.”

He’s an old man now, there’s not much voice left, and he had to be helped from a wheelchair up the steps to the small stage. When he sat down, 200 people stood up to give him a standing ovation, appearing to applaud not a man, but a generation.

It wasn’t nuthin’.