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In late spring, Linda and I returned from a vacation in Scotland and England.  Our vacation was spent in a large part, hiking.  We hiked footpaths, many of which are centuries old, throughout England and Scotland.  These footpaths are fantastic ways to see the countryside, visit with others, and experience little, out of the way places.  These footpaths are unique compared to what is available in Iowa and for that matter probably anywhere else in the United States.  They crisscross all parts of the country and what would puzzle the American way of thinking and for the hiker, is that most of the footpaths are on private property.  We hiked farmland, walked next to farm buildings, homes and among herds of sheep and cows.  We hiked through private timber, pastures and cropped fields.  We crossed streams on narrow bridges and in some cases walked on stones placed in the shallow water centuries ago.

In pastures with herds of sheep, Linda and I could walk next to stones placed in circles older than Stonehenge.  There are fences to separate the cows and sheep with clever gates for hikers and travelers to move from field to field while leaving the animals in their friendly confines.  Many of these footpaths were once the roads that went from village to village.  One of the footpaths we hiked was called the Coffin Trail that linked the villages of Ambleside and Grasmere in the Lake District of England.  It has this name because St. Oswald’s Church was located in Grasmere and until 1821 the village of Ambleside did not have a church.  Prior to 1821, when a friend or relative died in or near Ambleside they would be carried in their coffin to Grasmere where the church was located.  Along this trail there remains large flat stones that were once used to sit the coffin so that those carrying the deceased could rest.  While the original purpose of these centuries old footpaths has changed, they continue to be traveled on extensively today by local citizens and visitors.  Sharing, showing respect for each other, an expectation of togetherness was evident in the heritage of these footpaths and when we hiked these trails these feelings and ideas were felt by us.

The footpaths invited us to explore.  For me these footpaths are symbols of the paths we all take alone and with others throughout our life.  Which way to turn?  Move forward or retreat and look for another way?  Is there enjoyment on the paths being taken?  Decisions to be made.  Paths I take on my own and those with Linda and others.  Much like the information gathered in day to day life to help shape and move forward down our footpaths, there are small books to read and maps to follow with explanations on how to navigate the walks.  So, while we hiked we read, discussed our options, at times disagreed and had to compromise and in the end we moved down the path , the direction we would take.

While in England Linda and I visited with our friends Alan and Joan who live in the suburbs of London.  Alan and I have known each other for more than 47 years which is the longest friendship that I have had with anyone in my lifetime.  I met him in September 1964 when he visited my aunt in the United States.  I invited Alan to my school and he was very accommodating and came to my English class.  1964, remember the Beatles?   Well, I had this young Englishman in my classroom and this was my opportunity to score big on the popularity scene.  I thought I had found a less traveled footpath to popularity.  It did not work exceptionally well, however my English teacher told me that Alan’s presence saved my grade.  Popularity can be a fleeting moment in time when one is a teenager but that passing grade is there forever.  Thanks again big guy!  Alan carried on this tradition with visits to both of my son’s school many years later.  I guess in this case for Alan, some footpaths you just have to stay the course.  It was wonderful seeing Alan and Joan, their children and their children.  Wow, these are some awesome footpaths we have traveled over the years.  We had many great conversations, philosophical discussions, cycling stories and many laughs.  Several houses down from where Alan and Joan live, a sign with an arrow reads, “public footpath”.  What more could I have expected?

For as long as I can remember I have been interested in the footpaths that are less traveled.  When I was a child there were adults who mistook my questioning of how things were done.  I was a “why?” child.  Adults at times saw me as troublesome because of choices I would sometimes make that did not fit their norm.  I was told that I was a dreamer and that I should instead, be satisfied.  They must have thought that I was not a happy child, but I was very happy and excited in the belief that there was more than what I had seen, felt, or was told was in front of me.  For as long as I can remember I have looked for the opportunity to do things a little different.  When I have traveled less conventional footpaths I have been surprised at what I have discovered and what I have learned.  If I ever start doubting why I should take a less traveled path I remind myself of how I met Linda.  I was hitchhiking.  Linda picked me up, we fell in love, we got married and we had two sons.  This path has continued with a daughter in law, a grand daughter, more family and our son’s friends.  Where would I be if I had not taken that unconventional footpath?  My life would have certainly been different.  What I do know is that I am very happy.  There are so many more paths for me to discover.  I believe I am going to leave my hiking boots on.  It seems to work for me.

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Growing up there was not an abundance of candy in our home but when Easter came our parents filled our baskets with chocolate, jellybeans and marshmallow treats.  Visits to grandparents and aunts and uncles on Easter weekend brought a bounty of sweets; it was truly a candypalooza.  I have four siblings; two sisters who are younger and are within four years of my age, and a brother and sister who are much younger than I am.  Because of the age difference any memories of Easter and mouth watering candy can only be referenced to my oldest sisters and myself.  The three of us gathered our candy and with baskets filled, I for one began the ritual of eating a piece, then another and another.  I hardly had time to swallow and with induced chipmunk cheeks now filled with marshmallow and jelly beans I was out of control.  On a sugar high I hovered over my sisters who were calculating, processing and devising a plan to make their candy last and last and last.  I kept eating.  They would line each piece of candy in rows in their baskets.  I kept chewing.  They would hold, study and admire like pieces of art, boxes with hollowed out chocolate bunnies.  I kept dreaming.  My sisters thought these bunnies were too cute to eat so they would keep them in their room until the hot summer months would force our mother to toss them out.  Having watched my sisters behaviors, to what must have been for them an overwhelming candy experience, I decided I would help them out by helping myself.  With my candy gone and with desires for more, I began eating jelly beans and bits of chocolate from their baskets.  Because the candy was in rows this at first presented a challenge but then I used a similar technique, an illusion that I used when Mother made Indiana fudge.  The pan of fudge would be partially eaten and instead of cutting out a piece I would cut a sliver straight across the entire pan and no one would know the difference.  I loved mother’s chocolate chip cookies and one was never enough so I would remove all the cookies from the jar and then strategically place them back in the container in a loose manner by tipping and gently placing them so that there was a visual depth of those remaining.  Applying these techniques to the rows and rows of candy that were in front of me, I would eat and then place each piece that remained further apart.  The next challenge for me was, how could I eat the hollowed out chocolate bunnies?  Unlike today, boxes were not sealed so the bunny could easily be removed and then placed back in their decorative container.  Each chocolate bunny sat in a plastic mold that revealed only the front one half of the candy piece so I devised a plan; eat the back of each hollowed out bunny and then simply place them back in the package where they would remain until our mother would throw them out during the summer months.  Although hollow, the chocolate was still thick so by using a knife I could slice off the back without cracking or breaking the front part of the bunny.  It worked and no one was the wiser until I confessed many years later to them of my sweet misdeeds.

Recently I have learned that one of my sisters likes bunnies made of concrete, metal and porcelain.  Did my behavior as a child affect her adult desires for bunnies?  No one can slice and eat a bunny made of these materials.  I wonder why she chooses to have bunnies in the garden when toads, frogs and dragonflies are available?  I have observed in my other sister no disturbing signs that I can attribute to my wily childhood ways but I am waiting for the other shoe to drop.  When will bunnies appear in her garden, doorstep or on a shelf.  Horrified, I am wondering if my childhood behavior has shaped their thought processes?  Concerned over how my behavior may have altered their behavior, last year at Easter I sent both of them a solid chocolate Easter bunny, attempting to atone for my youthful thievery.

I have got to get a grip, a hold on my chocolate desires for other people’s sweets.  I thought the days of old were well behind me.  I never took my children’s candy.  Then recently my wife Linda, and I were visiting our son Tate and our daughter in law Tammie, and she asked if we would like a fudgesicle.  I eagerly replied yes and then expounded on how much I enjoyed the Schwann’s fudgesicles as they are large and rich in flavor.  I stated with great exuberance that they are like those I remembered as a child.  During this conversation Tammie began to wonder and then asked how I knew so much about these fudgesicles.  I confessed that I knew all about this taste treat because during previous visits, after everyone had gone to bed, I watched television and treated myself to a fudgesicle, sometimes two.  She began to laugh so hard and then all four of us laughed as she explained with great relief that she thought she had been eating all of them.  She thought she was out of control, when all along it was me.  My old behaviors were resurfacing and it was affecting, once again those I love.  I have got to stop this madness, although tempting, I must, I will control myself.  Oh, what’s under these papers that Linda has on our desk?  Mmmm, Dove peanutbutter and chocolate candies in an open sack.  I wonder?

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Meat and Cheese Patch

Ryan and I were fixing a sandwich when he slapped a meat and cheese sticker on the sleeve of the sweatshirt that I was wearing.  For us it was a spontaneous goofing around response to just being happy that we were all together at Tate and Tammie’s home.  Because of this happy feeling I did not want to remove the sticker so it has remained for the winter and spring months.  I like it, so I have been thinking about the word “cool” since December 24th when I began wearing this meat and cheese sticker. Let me just say that what is cool to one is not always cool to another.

First a little history about the word cool.  When used in its slang form it is an idiom which is a word used in a different form from the dictionary definition.  It was used in literature in the 1840’s to describe unexcited, calm and dispassionate.  In the 1940’s it was revived in the description of Jazz.  It has remained a popular word to describe restrained, relaxed, laid back, detached, cerebral, stylish and excellent.  It was the key word for the “beat generation” in the 1950’s.  Cool, sometimes spelled, “kewl” remains a very popular word choice for a description of about anything you choose. So I was going for the cool look with my sticker.  So far, although comments are being made, I haven’t seen anyone else going with the look, it just isn’t catching on. I guess to be cool one doesn’t really care if anyone else thinks it is cool.  At least that is my cool point of view.  As for responses I have received, there was last Christmas Eve when Linda and I were leaving a department store.  When we got outside a clerk came running out and said that I had stolen the sweatshirt I was wearing.  Since I am cool I was detached, so I was several steps ahead of Linda which resulted in her having to explain my coolness to the clerk.  Does coolness need an interpreter or should it transcend the need to explain?  Peace be with you. Then there was the lady behind me waiting in line to order at Wendy’s.  She remarked that she noticed that I was wearing a new sweatshirt.  I explained that I was wearing a meat and cheese patch just like those worn by smokers to stop the craving for nicotine.  She had a very puzzled look.  I ordered a salad.  Over the last months I have had many people, all women, some I know and some who are strangers, who have tried to tear the sticker off of my sweatshirt.  I know they are trying to help me, embarrassed for me that I still have the store sticker on my clothing.  The word “sweetie” is often used to get my attention just before they attempt to rip it from my sleeve. As for being called “sweetie”, what happened to dude, man, guy, stud?  Save the use of “sweetie” for the home when they are feeding me creamed cereal, creamed corn and jello.  I can’t take being harmless, it just isn’t cool.

Growing up I watched my grandparents pump rain water into pails.  The rain water had run off the roof of our house, into gutters, then to down spouts and into an underground cement holding area called a cistern.  Once the pails were filled they would carry them, one in each hand along a narrow sidewalk, up three steps and then a short distance to the milk house where they poured the water into a wringer washing machine to wash their clothes.  This did not look cool to me.  My mother used an automatic washing machine so why not grandma?  I was confused because I respected their thoughts and ideas but I also felt like they should modernize.  Never the less they carried the rain water until they were in their 80’s, then they gave in to the automatic washer.  What I didn’t realize at that time was how much they respected and cherished that rain water and the importance of good stewardship towards the earth.  Pumping the rain water was an act of saving the water in the well and the electricity to pump it out of the ground.  They didn’t take for granted what all of us for too long of time have expected, demanded and required;  a never ending supply of fresh good water.  Forty years ago I held a sign and walked through campus with other students to celebrate the first Earth Day.  The sign read something like, “Save Our Planet”.  At that time I didn’t connect the dots with what my grandparents had tried to teach me.  They didn’t hold a sign, that would have been too conventional.  They lived it, and tried to stay ahead of progress.  This year during Earth Day there was discussion about using rainwater for gardening and in our daily living.  Last summer at the Kickapoo Country Fair in LaFarge Wisconsin I saw systems for sale to collect rainwater.  Were my grandparents ahead of their time?  Was the act of water conservation that was used by my grandparents cool?

Be cool

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Do you know what it means when someone says, “the answer is black and white”?  Only one answer or only one way that something can be done.  Really? What is so black and white that there is only one side?  An old saying, “the only sure things are death and taxes”.  If that is true, then everything else must be up for interpretation, custom or habit.  I believe that the human being strives for, or wants to look for the black and white answer.  Seems to me to be a pretty lazy way of looking at life.  I am always suspect of the person, idea or proclamation that suggests that anything is that clear.  I don’t get a lot of comfort out of the thought that anything is that certain.  Life is an adventure and an adventure in living can not be filled with what is believed to have black and white certainty.  I begin each day looking for the grays in my life.  It can be a struggle, and sometimes I think I might just take the day off from doing things a little different, and follow the road most often traveled.  But a well traveled road is like negative thoughts and behavior, it’s easy.  It takes some real effort to follow the road less traveled and to have thoughts and behaviors that are positive.  So I strive to live in the grays and I find these shades to be beautiful.

If I am not willing to lose, to make a mistake, then I can never appreciate the adventure of living.  There is always risks in my adventure but life would be extremely boring and tiring if there were no back roads, alleys or dead ends.  I am reminded of our family vacation in Memphis and seeing the National Civil Rights Museum.  I realize how difficult it is for some to imagine our country before Martin Luther King and others who had a dream, took risks and lived through their adventure.  Seeing that motel was a stark reminder for me of history, and for the future and what living can mean for all of us.

Enjoy your grays that make up your adventure in living.

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Get Over It

Franklin Roosevelt in his first inaugural address said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.  I’m sure there was plenty to fear for people with the country in a deep depression yet he offered a challenge to everyone to look beyond those thoughts and beliefs.  Fear can be a clue that stops us from doing something very stupid or fear is imagined and it can just stop us from doing.  For all of us fear can be very debilitating.

The day after the Wilco concert I stopped at HyVee after working at the Copper Beech all day.  I was very tired after not getting home until 2:00 am and I pulled in to the parking lot where there were no cars and fell immediately to sleep.  I left the engine was on and the music was loud but I kept sleeping.  Suddenly I woke up and I grabbed the wheel and started turning right then left and slamming on the brakes because there was a van that parked in front of me.  I thought I had gone to sleep while driving and was about to have a head on crash.  Now that was fear, imagined.

When I was a young child I had a very bad experience in a dentist chair.  When I lost my baby teeth the roots remained and they had to be removed.  The dentist did this without the use of a local anesthetic.  My mother later reported to me that while I was in the chair screaming a neighboring dentist came into the office and asked what was going on?  I remember as a child feeling guilty that I was so happy when I learned that he had suddenly died.

I was assured  that our next dentist, Doctor Boardway, was going to be a great improvement because he shot water of all things, on the tooth while drilling.  I was told that this practice was to relieve a lot of the pain because it would keep the tooth cool.  It didn’t work and his little magic act at the end, when he turned a penny in to a dime did nothing for me either.  I was so glad when I was eighteen because I told my parents that I was no longer going to the dentist.  I didn’t have a lot of for sight and although I was invincible for about seven years, I returned to the dentist when Linda and I worked in the boys group home in Waterloo.  The boys had to go so I was coaxed into going once again, something quietly said about being a role model.  Because of my seven year absence I had a dozen cavities and plenty of opportunities to be that role model.  I sat in that chair with my hands gripped tight to the chairs arms and struggled through it.  After 25 years I was finally introduced to a local anesthetic while drilling but the damage was done and I could only rationalize my fear.

Getting married, having children, sitting in court rooms making recommendations that affected others lives was nothing compared to sitting in that dentist chair.  I felt as though I had no control over myself.  It was a very weird feeling when faced with the thoughts and memories of my childhood dentists.  My new dentist was great but I struggled for the next fifteen years with fears from the pain of many years earlier.  Even after my nineteen crowns I continued to make excuses so I could cancel my appointments.  Always hoping I would have an emergency at work so I wouldn’t have to sit in the chair.  I always made sure I had an emergency and the appointment would have to be rescheduled.  I had a practice of always having to cancel once before I could gather myself together to go and sit in that chair.  This was the only control that I felt I possessed.  Finally, I just quit going.  Linda reminded me many times that I needed to go to the dentist but I would not listen and I eventually told her that I did not need her reminders.  She got the hint and before I knew it twenty years had lapsed without a visit to the dentist.  Except there was the one time when I had to have a tooth removed that had broken off at the base after biting down on a bone at Carrie’s graduation.  I realized then that pain can overcome fear, but what a choice.  Those years were not carefree because I knew in the back of my mind I was one day going to have to see a dentist.  With each passing year I was feeling more of a prisoner of my own fears.  Last year when I was in the hospital Linda gave me a mint and I broke another tooth.  I didn’t tell her about the breakage, but while laying in the hospital bed, knowing what I had gone through and what was still ahead I told Linda that I was going to a dentist when I was discharged.

After my discharge from the hospital I had thought many times about what I had told Linda and with my one year anniversary of my hospital stay quickly arriving I needed to take action.  I had decided that I could not go back to my old dentist, although he was no longer there I couldn’t go back in to that office as I was embarrassed.  I needed a fresh start so I looked in the yellow pages and there was an add that read, “dentist for cowards”.  I felt like it was speaking to me so I nervously called and made an appointment, kept it and hey, I have returned for my regular appointments.  I did have a tooth ache where it broke off and I took Tylenol and had to watch what I ate until I will was sporting a new crown, my twentieth, and yes I had one cavity. I sat relaxed and I don’t even know if there were arms on the chair.

For me fear has to take a back seat to living to ones fullest.  Yet the words fear,  frightened and afraid are such a large part of conversations especially if words describing something new or different are part of the same sentence.  We have our boundaries, self imposed and we hurt ourselves.  We rationalize out of the fear of something new or different yet we know how good we feel when we move that boundary.  When we move from our parents home, marry, interview for that job or promotion, learn something new, when we meet new people, when we go to the dentist.  I’m listening to myself, “Get over it”.

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Recently I visited my mother.  Since we live a little less than 150 miles apart these visits are planned.  They usually include shopping, a trip to the library, a nice lunch, a ritual of an ice cream cone and great conversation which includes historical information.  The ice cream is important because it is my mother’s way of testing fate by consuming a cold treat after she had her heart attack in 2007.  During my last visit we went to our usual grocery store hangout, Barnes Foodland in DeWitt.  I was pushing the cart and helping my mother find the different articles on the list.  She was walking behind me and we were approaching the end of an aisle looking for what else but prune juice.  As we reached the end of the aisle a woman, I’m guessing in her middle thirties, was also going in the same direction.  I’m sure she was not looking for prune juice.  Anyway, the two of us made eye contact, we smiled, and she started to go ahead of me.  At that moment without turning my head I said something to my mother about prunes.  The thirty something woman while smiling said, “pardon me what did you say?”  Since I usually shop with Linda I quickly responded, ” I’m sorry I was speaking to my wife.”  She looked at me, twisted her face like she was in some pain and said, “huh?”  With that, she appeared to me to go quickly went down the aisle and thankfully I did not see her again.  I made sure of it.  Now that was cool, it was smoooooooooooooth.  Fortunately I’m married because with those kind of lines I would be pretty lonely.  A bigger question is how did I get married with conversation like that?

When I was ready to return to my home after my visit with my mother, she gave me my dad’s baseball glove that he used when he played ball in high school.  I thought the glove was long gone but there it was.  I immediately put it on my hand remembering all the great times my dad and I had playing catch in the yard those hot summer nights, throwing the ball until it was dark and sometimes turning the yard light on so that we could play longer.  We would laugh and I think that is when we felt most comfortable sharing our thoughts and ideas with each other.  Sometime he would throw the ball hard and it would sting my hand.  For some affect, I would hop around, waving my arm to try and relieve the pain, all the time laughing and happy to have the attention from my dad.  At times when I threw the ball he also felt the sting through his glove and he would laugh and suggest to me that I had thrown a real stinger.  Since I was the oldest child I am sure he was trying to figure out how to be a dad to this kid who was trying to figure out who he was.  However, by age eighteen laughter and good times was not always the case and we struggled to figure out how we were going to work together on the farm.  By the time I was twenty one there was very little that dad or I could say to each other that we could agree upon and we ended up going our separate way for awhile.  Dad continued to farm with his father and I left for college.  But I believe that old glove and those nights of sharing laughter and ideas, helped to bring us together again.  I wish I could show you the glove.  Maybe you have an old glove.

Have a wonderful day and enjoy every moment, taking nothing for granted about ourselves and those around us.

Music recommendation:  Blue October, Eighteenth Floor Balcony a song he wrote for his child.

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I have written some poetry over the years and with few exceptions have only shared it with my wife, Linda.  Putting my poetry aside, two years ago I began sharing some thoughts and observations in letter form with my daughter-in-law Tammie, and my two sons, Tate and Ryan.  I tried to integrate some of my history and present and past experiences into some stories and ideas to share with them.  I attempted to interject some humor while explaining my thoughts and actions of the past fifty and more years.  In October, 2007 I retired after thirty five years of working with children and families who were having troubles.  Retiring did not mean that I was done communicating.  Instead, it was a whole new venture from only being a verbal open book with my family to writing in book or story form.  I was motivated to write to Tammie, Tate and Ryan because I felt I had things to share that otherwise would be difficult, unusual or awkward to bring up in normal conversation.  These writings have given them the opportunity to understand and in some cases to catch up through these history lessons.  You can figure things out better if you have more information and these stories hopefully eliminate the so called, “inside joke” that if you don’t get it you can’t move ahead.  Writing has also offered to me opportunities to reflect on my life both past and present and where I might go from here.  It underscores the nuance that promotes the love, recognition and importance in my life.  My posts will be versions of what I have already sent to Tammie, Tate and Ryan.

One quick note.  The Awesome Russ thing is one of those inside jokes that I will share with you.  Linda and I gave a card to Tammie and in the card we had each written a line to her and I had used the word awesome.  When we each signed the card, the way the words lined up, it read Awesome Russ.  It got a huge laugh from all of us when Tammie pointed it out.  It got an even bigger laugh from all of us when I chose awesomeruss.com as my blog address.

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