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.