Who you calling a scaredy-cat?

20170914_184941Don’t let the photo fool you. I had the hard job.

My friend Greg just wanted to ride his bike in the mountains for the week. But when he saw Karla and I arguing about whether the TV antenna had to go on the roof, he forcefully stepped in. She was convinced we didn’t need to and didn’t want me up on the roof. I’d like to think it was because she loved me so much that she could bear the thought of anything happening to me. But Greg and I finally convinced her that on the roof was the only place we’d get good reception.

And yes, in what our president and most of his supporters would describe as the greatest country in the world, our infrastructure is so bad that a half million-dollar home in an affluent town has few options for television service. The one available is satellite but it’s costly and not efficient when you only live here part-time. There is no cable and the only internet service is 1.5Mbps download DSL. On par with dial-up. No cable and the alternative microwave service is limited by tower space, which is currently full and not signing up new customers.

So we are on the roof installing an antenna to get the major channels to supplement HBO, Netflix and other services we subscribe to. We just have to realize that with 1.5mbps download speeds, streaming a movie is a solitary affair. No multi-tasking allowed.

We’ll “we” are not on the roof, but Karla and Greg are. But like I said, I have the hard job of running the automatic channel scanning function on the TV to see what stations I get as they re-positioned the antenna. Back and forth I went scanning and re-scanning. It took a minute or two for each scan while those two just sat there on the roof waiting for my report, doing nothing.

As you can see, Greg apparently has no problems with height, as he leans over the edge to attach the cable to the soffit. And Karla is connecting the antenna. We literally had hand-to-hand combat to see who would get on the roof. She beat me. OK, I let her beat me. Heights are not my thing.

When we visited the Vatican years ago, we took the kids to the cupola atop St. Peters. They admired the view while I clung to the back wall as my shins sweated. Yes, shins can sweat all by themselves. All it takes is an intense fear of falling off the edge of anything more than six feet off the ground.

When we lived in Virginia, cleaning the gutters was a joint effort. I held the ladder and Karla climbed up to clean them out. The ones on the front of the house were hardest. They weren’t any higher or more difficult to get to, but they were in full view of the street where neighbors marveled at either my ability to get my wife to do the hard work or my cowardice. I think I know which.

Once in awhile I was brave, as when I installed Christmas lights on the upstairs dormers. They were high above terra firmer, maybe as much as 10 feet! The roof was steep, so I would lay the ladder along rooftop and gingerly climb it. It was like crossing the Grand Canyon on a rope bridge. I dare not look down, knowing that I would not likely survive the fall. I would die of a heart attack at the mere sight of the ground.

So here we are, my friend and my wife on the roof, while I hit “set up,” “antenna,” “channel scan,” “start.” It was tough work, but someone had to do it.

Our first bike trip and a visit “home”

If this piece becomes incoherent, I’ll blame it on fatigue. Today will likely be a 24-hour endurance trek. Up before 6 a.m. in Vienna, we fly to Frankfurt. After a two-and-a-half hour layover, we head for Denver. A two-hour train ride from the airport, another 20-minute drive home and our bodies will think it’s 2 a.m.

Fatigue is the recurring theme of this two-week vacation. Neither Karla, Paul or I slept well on the flight over. I hesitated to take Ambien and regretted it. But we muddled through the day and then slept 10 hours that night. Three days walking about Prague and a six-plus hour car trip to my ancestral home, six days biking in Czechia, Germany and Austria and another two days exploring Vienna has left us exhausted but wiser.

It seems that we yearn to “sleep in our own bed” not because we tire of the new experiences and exotic sites but that we cram them into every day. Next time, we’ve vowed to build in a few down days. We’ll sleep late, linger at cafes, take naps and eat light.

And no standing. That is most exhausting to me. My back and legs ache. After the walking tour of the Schünbrunn Palace, I knelt in front of a bench, lay my torso on the seat, and had Karla apply pressure to the back of my shoulder. I was a spectacle to passing tourists. A couple even offered help or inquired if I was OK.  I can bike all day, am OK walking, but can’t stand to stand.

Prague could never live up to my expectations but it’s beautiful with friendly people and most important, cheap beer. A full liter stein is less than $4. The Vltava River runs through the town crossed by many bridges. Fortunately, we were a mile or so south of the famous Charles Bridge. On one side is the tourist center of the town and the nearby old Jewish Center. Crowded and noisy, I’d never stay there.


Paul and I with a fourth and third cousin in the home town of our great great great grandfather.

The trip to Wiehe, Germany, where we suspected our great great grandfather John was born was the highlight of this first portion of the trip. I’ve written more about it here: http://bit.ly/Wiehe.

The German highways are not unregulated race courses. But the drivers do not suffer fools, which are those who linger in the left lane. The max speed limit I saw was 130 kph, though many drivers exceeded that by 20-30 kph when passing. If you are in the left lane they will tailgate at a distance of a few feet until you move over, which happened to me when I was passing someone but at a much slower speed than the car that suddenly appeared from behind. Everyone does pull over. No one stays in the left lane. If only American drivers were so considerate.

Throughout our trip, drivers seemed far better than Americans. They drove fast, even in the city. But if you so much as approached a designated crosswalk, they will stop on a dime. Fines for not doing so can reach hundreds of Euros or Czech crowns. Motorists, walkers and the many cyclists seem to co-exist well. Pedestrians and bike riders alike patiently wait for the crossing signals

Prague’s buildings, spared bombing during World War II, are beautiful though many are defaced with graffiti. I heard no complaints about that, though it’s prevalent. We couldn’t tell if it was gang-related, though everyone assured us that the city is safe. Many of the streets are cobblestones with unusually wide seams between them that seemed to be regularly cleaned out. No dirt or debris built up between the stones. The seams were a half-inch wide and at least that deep. Almost all the sidewalks were mosaics of smaller stones about 2-inch square, sometimes aligned in intricate patterns and almost always with a clear delineation by stone pattern of street from sidewalk.

The tourist highlights were the palace and the Jewish quarters tour. The former is now a blur. I can’t seem to remember the particulars of opulence and its occupants. The Jewish quarters was another matter. The Jews suffered the usual oppression in Czechia for centuries. Walled in, the could not live elsewhere and had to wear yellow hats when they ventured outside the ghetto. In the early part of the 20th century (I believe), the entire neighborhood was razed, but not before one guy built a complete model of it. We visited four synagogues, one of which I think is the oldest operating one in the world.

The bike trip itself was not ideal, but we had a great time. We had one day of a steady rain that cut short the ride considerably. The day before was also a bit wet. And it was not a week of hard riding. I rode ahead a couple of times to get in 5-10 kilometers at a decent pace, but the rest of the time I smelled the daisies with the rest of the group. And that was OK. Virtually all the rides were on bike paths and the scenery was gorgeous. We covered no more than 35 miles in a day with two rest stops and a lunch. But it could have gone south. See: http://bit.ly/Kebike.

More important, it was a great group of people. All were Americans, all in their 60’s, save one older couple and a daughter traveling with her mother. Vermont Bike Tours seems to be a class act. The 4-star hotels and places where we ate as a group were well appointed and good food. The tour guides were very professional and shepherded us without hovering. We spent two nights each in Czeny Krumlov in Czechia, Passau in Germany and the Wachau Valley in Austria. Each town was picturesque and easy to navigate. We met at least one couple, from Houston, who I think we’ll see again as his father lives in Bradenton.

Two days in Vienna was plenty. Nice town with a rich history but lacks charm. Unlike Prague, it suffered heavy bombing in WWII.

Key to this trip was learning we could vacation for two weeks comfortably. We’ll probably try a longer trip in the future. Maybe cycling will be part of it. I think Karla’s experience with an e-bike may mean we can do something a little more challenging next time. But I’m OK with what we had.

I still think a month in Tuscany or Provence or somewhere in Bavaria with day trips, perhaps again to Wiehe and certainly to central Italy where my mother’s family is from, is a definite goal. But with plenty of down time.



Getting “chicked” by your wife

This bike trip from Prague to Vienna was not without risk, especially to my marriage.

Karla agreed to give it a try and even became enthusiastic as the departure approached. We picked one that was supposed to be easy. In St. Pete, we ride to restaurants, theatres and museums on our bikes, where it is pancake flat. And she had ridden a 20-mile ride with my bike club. She wasn’t worried.

Unfortunately, we went to Colorado in early July, and Karla was not about to ride in the mountains. So she did not, as the Vermont Bicycle Tour folks recommended, “train.” But that 20-mile ride convinced her she could handle this. Karla never lacks confidence, no matter how misplaced it occasionally may seem.

When we signed up for the trip, Karla declined the offer of an electric bike. My brother Paul, however, grabbed one as he had suffered a knee injury after we registered for the trip. They told him it would be much easier to switch to a regular bike from the e-bike rather than vice versa, as there was a limited supply.

The first day we rode just 8 miles to test the bikes and determine any needed fit adjustments. The route had one hill. Karla had to walk it. Paul motored up fine. But she didn’t panic; this was an “easy” biking vacation.

That night we were talking about the trip with some of our fellow travelers, and one of them mentioned that the trip was actually rated “easy to moderate.” Karla looked at me with a sightrly piqued expression. “You didn’t say anything about ‘moderate.’”

Yesterday, Karla walked up a couple of hills. The fine line between a challenge and a disaster might be breached. I tried pushing her up the hills, and I always stayed with her. Misrepresenting the ride was one thing. “Abandonment” would have found its way into the divorce papers.

One of guides, Peter, had mentioned earlier in the trip that there was an extra e-bike on the trailer. At lunch he suggested to Karla she might want to try it for the afternoon ride. Paul was loving his. After a couple of hills, Karla did not hesitate to accept the offer.

It took less than 60 seconds for her to realize this was a game changer. She had a big smile on her face. Early in the afternoon ride, I rode ahead to shoot a quick video of her and Paul coming down a hill. There they came. The two smiling e-bikers. After shooting the video clip, I mounted my bike to catch them.

I pedal. I pedaled harder. I hammered as best I could. They were nowhere in sight, I’m sure they were still smiling.

Finally, after a mile or two, I caught them. How quickly they forget. The thought of easing up for me never occurred to Karla.

Today, the e-bike proved invaluable but not just because of hills. It was 20 degrees cooler with a steady drizzle. We took a train to what proved to be, despite the weather, a beautiful national forest near the border of the Czech Republic – or as it is more recently known, Czechia, and Germany. We put on our layers and rain jackets. Fortunately, the guides had installed fenders on the road bikes, which meant that our backs didn’t get any wetter, if that was possible.

Karla and I were the last to leave the parking lot. Almost immediately, it started to rain harder. Karla became the mare who knew that she was headed back to the barn. We were on a bike path with only the occasional train track crossing to slow us down. I soon realized I was getting a workout. At the first hill, my heart rate was elevated. I stood on the pedals or downshifted to spin a high cadence—anything to stay close.

We caught a few riders, announced “on the left,” waved them goodbye. A little while later, the next group was in sight. Again, we paid our respects in passing and motored on. Another hill and I was at risk of getting dropped. Karla was sitting upright, pedaling an even cadence and pulling away, but she was not smiling. I dug deep. Fortunately, she had trouble with the map bag and had to stop. I caught her and then began to try to hold her wheel. It rained harder.

We made it to the mid-ride lunch stop. We settled in to what was described as a typical Bavarian beer garden, though obviously we huddled inside. Everyone grabbed a bowl of soup.

After lunch, Philip, the other guide, gave us our options. We could go on the rest of the ride, though he allowed that it was still raining and likely to get harder. And we would be on main roads with lots of traffic. Or we could shuttle to our hotel in Passau, which he described as a picturesque little town with lots of beer gardens. We could take warm showers and maybe a nap. Clearly, he was selling that option hard. We all opted for door number two.

And I avoided the ignominy of getting “chicked” by the broad on the e-bike.

She now wants to buy an e-bike for Colorado and ride with me on the hills. I think she’s getting this “chicked” thing. It’s her revenge for this “moderate” trip.

A trip home

For the past 45 years, I’ve from time to time researched my family’s history, not that it’s historic in any way. And it’s not so much that family roots bind me to something larger. In many ways, it’s about the hunt, the sleuthing to fill in history’s holes. I like the research, the discovery of information, the eureka moment when the past is crystal clear and personal.

It often comes by accident. My brother Rich found a random number on a document and on a hunch plugged it into a patent search engine. Up popped a patent my great great grandfather, John Griendling, received for an adjustable barber chair in the 1870’s. A few years ago another accident led me to an extraordinary yesterday.

Sites like Ancestry.com have made it much easier to conduct genealogical research. They review the original documents and write up the information in a digital record that is easily searched. But the original documents can provide extraordinary insights.

In the early part of the 20th century, census takers had come to the home of John’s daughter. John had immigrated to the U.S. in 1844 with a knapsack and a claim to be a cabinet maker. But Germany is a big place and proved to be a blockade to more research. During censuses of a still immigrant country, the government wanted to know where your parents were from. I had seen on previous censuses “Germany.” But on this particular one, the census taker made a correction that opened the door to yesterday’s extraordinary events.

I can imagine the conversation he had with Leina, my ancestor. “Where was your father from?”

“Wiehe,” she said

“I never heard of that country.”

“It’s a town in Germany.”

“Oh. That’s what I want, the country not the town.”

wiehe street

“Main” street in Wiehe, Germany

So he crossed out Wiehe and wrote in Germany. He didn’t erase it or obliterate it, but put a single line through it. Meaning I could see it on that photographed census sheet. Of course, I immediately looked up Wiehe and found that it was a hamlet in the Saxony area of Germany. I knew John had renounced his allegiance to the King of Saxony to become an American citizen. Was this his hometown?

As Karla and I had always wanted to see Prague, and I had convinced her to try a biking vacation, we selected a Vermont Bicycle Tour itinerary from Prague to Vienna. We spent a few days prior to visit Prague, and since Wiehe was less than four hours away by car, I decided to visit Wiehe.

I wrote the mayor and the head of the tiny historical society of Wiehe. They responded and invited me to visit them when I came to town.

We awoke early yesterday, plugged in Wiehe to the GPS and took a road trip. We got lost where the GPS failed us. We made a stupid decision to go to a McDonald’s on the way. It was on the other side of the road, and we discovered too late that we couldn’t return to the highway in the direction we were headed without backtracking several miles. And then within 5 km, the main road to Wiehe was closed for re-pavement. We had to drive what appeared to be an ox cart trail to come in from the other direction. We arrived about noon.

I had spent a sleepless night worrying about all the things that could go wrong with a once in a lifetime visit for which I only had a few hours to spare. Would we get lost? (Yes.) And when we arrived, would we receive a perfunctory welcome and not much insight into the family’s history?

Frau Dagmar Dittmar, burgermeister for Wiehe, was stout and loud and warm and gracious. But she spoke not a word of English. She got on the phone as we waited in her office and summoned the welcoming party: the town historian; the former pastor of the only church in town; a former English teacher who by her own admission was unqualified for the job—and two Gründlings, a woman of 74 and one of her nieces.

The history chief held in his hands a family tree chart. The former pastor, a long-handwritten piece of paper. They had done their homework. They had a portion of the family tree I was unaware of and a list of Gründlings born from about 1810 to 1854, among them August Gotthold Andreas Gründling, my great great grandfather, born in Wiehe April 29, 1811. (The earliest citing of my ancestor was on the ship manifest where he was referred to as Gotthold; he changed it to John by the 1860 census.) His godfather was another Gründling from Dresden, obviously a relation and now another avenue of investigation.

grundling home

The Grundling home in Wiehe, Germany

We spent an hour trying to communicate (the English teacher was right about her qualifications). Google Translate was cumbersome. But the excitement on both sides was palpable. Especially me. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

They had obviously worked hard to make our visit productive. Their hospitality, though, was most appreciated. They walked us through the town. The old schoolhouse was now a museum. The church is big but modest, spruced up by plywood facades and painted walls. They took us to 77 Leopold–von-Ranke-Sraβe, the Gründling homestead. They seemed as happy to see us as we were them. They felt honored by our visit. We felt overwhelmed by their warmth. They made it feel like home.

All because of a clerical mistake.



Modesty trumps view

The view from our bedroom has been partially obscured, a victim of modesty.

view from bedroomI tried to assure Karla that people driving by house on that side were not looking into our bedroom. There is so little traffic on our dead end road, and I had yet to see any car stopping to get a better look at the goings on in our bedroom. Besides, I think they’d like what they see, and I’m enough of an exhibitionist and pretty proud of what I have to offer.

But Karla wasn’t convinced, so she went down to the road and had me to go to the bedroom and assume various positions on the bed, though I assured her that we hadn’t used most of them in years. But she could plainly see me in all my contortions. So she was adamant about getting a shade.

Now when I turned to the east to watch the sunrise over Kinney Peak to the right and Bear Mountain to the left, I miss the pine trees at the lower elevation just across the road.

But I guess that’s nothing compared to what our neighbors will miss.

We are a liberal country. But will we pay for it?

We are a liberal country. Socially, regarding the big issues of the day, the cultural right is constantly losing.

Gay marriage is hardly an issue anymore, despite the holdouts who try to resurrect the issue with deafeningly silent Americans. The fight over bathroom usage is a pitiful last stand.

Marijuana is widely accepted, too. In fact, people aren’t asking to be gay, but they are demanding legal weed.

Most folks seem blasé about interracial couples. They accept abortion as a right. And even Catholics support contraception.

And the conservatives’ current bete noir, immigration? By a margin of 60-32, Americans think “immigration helps the United States more than it hurts it.”

These conservative rallying cries had—and still have in some cases—liberals quaking just a few years ago.

But we’re also a liberal country when it comes to our views about government’s role in our lives. We want an involved government (see question 10). Fifty seven percent of Americans say “Government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people.” That’s a higher percentage than at any time since 1995 when the pollster began asking that question. We want government to address our concerns. Most recently we’ve seen that with healthcare. Obamacare may have been unpopular when many folks saw it as a socialist invention by an uppity black president. But once they signed up and the GOP tried to take it away, its popularity soared.

As surveys have shown, we want government involved and we want it to spend money making our lives better.

So why, then, does the GOP dominate our elected offices? It controls all of the federal government and by far most state houses and legislatures. And more important, how can we get people to vote their economic, social and cultural interests?

First, we need to address the fact that we like to think of ourselves as “conservative.” But what does that mean. The political observer Ruy Teixeira calls it “symbolic conservativism, honoring tradition, distrusting novelty, embracing the conservative label.” Somehow, conservative means you’re “more American.” This seemed to percolate during the 60’s when young folks were anti-establishment, didn’t trust anyone over 30 and questioned authority. As the pace of change quickens, many, especially those insulated from cultural changes in their cloistered rural communities, fear that change may mean an end to their lifestyle.

Fear of change and of the “other” can blind voters to their economic self-interests, especially if the “others” are convenient excuses for their own failings. No one likes to think they can’t measure up, so blame immigrants or blacks for wasting tax dollars that could be spent creating jobs for you.

Hypocrisy doesn’t bother a lot of people anymore. You can say get government out of our lives but embrace politicians injecting your mores and morals into others’ lives. Think abortion. And you can blame blacks for being wards of the state while you cash your check for a bogus disability. You earned it because government cost you your job; “they” are lazy.

Many voters find the process of deciding who best to elect too cumbersome. It’s easier to be a one issue voter. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t prioritize the issues. But if gun rights is your thing, voting for someone who will take away your health care, move your job overseas and support corporate greed over worker pay makes sense, or at least is rational. And if you’re a bigot, that’s the only issue you care about.

But what may be the biggest obstacle to enticing people to vote for the liberal agenda they want is taxes. They want infrastructure spending, but don’t want to raise taxes, even on the rich, because they think the government will eventually come after their pay check. Everyone wants more spending on schools, healthcare, opioid addiction, police, fire, and environmental protection but doesn’t want their taxes raised. Ask them how we should pay for it and 99% of the time, they say, “There’s enough waste in the budget to pay for all these things.” Or they say cut programs they don’t benefit from to pay for their priorities.

Here’s where a coordinated campaign of connecting traditional American values to progressive policies can change votes. You can’t change bigots; you can’t overcome fear of change. And one issue voters have a right to their myopia. We all have core principles we will not abandon. But people can be educated and placated about taxes.

First, we need to be clear about the impact of taxes on individuals. Here’s where the media could help. Too often, costs of new programs are described in the aggregate, not the individual cost. A $700-billion dollar program can’t avoid sticking its hand in your pocket. But if a new withholding tax for single payer healthcare would cost a family making $70,000 annually $2,000 a year in taxes but save them $10,000 in insurance premiums, I think a lot of folks would say sign me up. If you’re clear that people making less than $50,000 would pay no new taxes for an infrastructure program but those making more than $200,000 would pay more, you have a fighting chance of garnering enough votes to get elected on that platform, again with a clear vision of what the achievable metrics would be.

Remember that FDR explained the arcane issue of new bank regulations to voters listening to his fireside chats and found they responded by returning their money to the banks and saving the economy. Communication was far simpler back then, of course, but we have more ways of reaching people these days, which translates to more opportunities to sell your vision.

But a foundation must be built before we can get people to vote for the liberal programs they say they want. That is the vision upon which programs are built. Connect the dots from the Founding Fathers’ principles, our historical greatness in fostering equality, our sense of fairness and our history of shared responsibility to the programs you want to implement. We need to remind people that the government is not the enemy. Government is us.

Liberals need to be not only the grown-ups, but the optimists. And we need to not make the perfect the enemy of the good. That some Bernie Sanders supporters could not vote for Hillary Clinton and instead wasted their vote on a third-party candidate was self-destructive, not only to the goal of electing liberals but to the very idea of informed discourse and compromise that moves the ball forward.

We have always progressed to liberal ideas—Social Security, Medicare, welfare for the poor, Obamacare. And few want to turn back. But voters need to see liberalism as the way we preserve and promote conservative ideals.

Wet summer

Colorado is supposed to be a respite from the Tampa Bay summers. This morning I awoke at 7:00 to 46 degrees and sunny skies. Because the house has radiant heat, which is slow to warm, it doesn’t make sense to turn on the furnace because it will be warm in a couple of hours. So I wrap my hands around a cup of coffee, read the latest news online, and wait for the temps to hit at least 60 before I ride.

I waited until about 9:30 and put on arm warmers and an under layer. It warmed up nicely during the two-hour ride. Shortly after returning, thunder, and for the rest of the afternoon it rained, sometimes hard; sometimes you could feel it but hardly see it. At 3:30 it was 58 degrees and wet.

We’ve had a good bit of rain since we arrived in early July. We needed it. In the past few weeks the signs around town went from high risk of fires—and even a fire ban—to “low risk.”

The meadow is still green when last year it was brown by now.

Most days I can get in a ride if I want as the rain usually doesn’t start until afternoon, though yesterday it rained all day. Still, it’s often wet and too cool to sit out on the deck.

I’m not complaining, but 90 degrees and humid is looking pretty good right now.

Pine Lake, Minnesota, 2017

We spouses at family reunions, especially when we‘ve only met the people once some 26 years ago, are often looking around the room for something to distract us from conversations that have no context for us.


Main St., Palisade, MN

We were in Aitkin, Minnesota, this weekend, commemorating the life of Irja Guinella Howe, nee Trast. She and my wife Karla’s mother Taimi were sisters. Irja outlived all her siblings, as many as a dozen when you count the ones who couldn’t survive the rough childhood on the dairy farm in nearby Palisade, a village then and now of just over 100 people. It was founded by migrating Finns who discovered that the flat terrain with rich soil and mosquitoes as large as starlings was much like their homeland. The entire town was a cooperative, a brand of socialism that they brought with them.

We gathered at Pine Lake, just south of Aitken, where the Howe family with all their cousins and the Leavelle/Trast clan would gather most summers. Taimi, with Karla, her sister Tanya and brother Jimmy, would drive from Dallas to Palisade, visit the grandparents and then settle into the Pine Lake cabin to find entertainment in the pre-digital era.

I listened to the stories, many like those we’ve all experienced with our cousins. When the cousins were young and went to the lake, there was simply too much undeveloped brain power and mischievousness for even a bevy of adults to manage. If no one drowns, all can be forgiven and laughed about decades later.

Karla had her own tales, like walking from the grandparents’ house, which was on the Mississippi River where it’s only about 30 yards wide and knee deep, to town to spend the 50 cents that was burning a hole in her pocket. Sometimes on the way back, the mailman would pull alongside and ask her if she wanted a ride home. He knew where everyone lived in town, even the visiting relatives. Today that act would get him arrested. Then, Karla accepted without hesitation.

Then there was the time Karla developed sharp stomach pains. The local doctor said it might be her appendix. Taimi, a nurse, wasn’t convinced, but said if she was to have them removed, it would be by a doctor at home. So off they went. Taimi drove straight through, a nearly 1,100-mile trip, before the interstate system and without air conditioning. As they crossed the Red River, Taimi commented, “We’ll, we’re in Texas. Almost home.” Karla’s pains ceased. Turned out, being a Daddy’s girl, she was just homesick.


Karla by the Mississippi River on her grandparents’ farm in Palisade, MN

The old farmhouse and barn were razed long ago. The sauna, a staple of Finnish families, had collapsed. We examined it and took a brick that formed the floor to bring back. The Mississippi looked exactly as it did 60 years ago, Karla said.

As the others traded stories I tried to remember everyone’s name. They came from all over. Irja’s four children settled in Detroit, rural Wisconsin, the west coast of Australia and Ulm, Germany. The German boys live in Germany, Switzerland and Bangkok. And they had children who spoke several languages. You needed a scorecard and Google Translate.

At first on Friday, it was overwhelming. I wondered if they really wanted me there. I was another mouth to feed and a fish out of water they tried valiantly to include and save from boredom. The second generation at least I knew by name and vaguely remembered meeting them all those years ago. They third generation were all kids back then. And they now had children of their own, some of whom didn’t speak English—or more likely pretended not to so they wouldn’t need to talk to silly adults who tried to engage them.

As I listened to Irja’s three boys, Gary, Mike and Dan, and daughter Jenny talk, they had obviously processed their grief about their mom. She had died a year ago, and having lived a century, most of it in good health and indomitable spirit, there was little regret. She had expressed a readiness to join her beloved Clark who had died nearly 30 years ago.


Pine Lake, south of Aitken, MN

What they were having a tougher time processing was knowing that they would never again see the farmstead in Palisade, as the cousin who had inherited it was now 75 and ready to settle in San Antonio. They would likely never return to Pine Lake. They would never gather along its shores, watch the summer sunset and listen to the loons standing guard.

Saturday began with the memorial service. A couple of family members sang songs, one of which was “Everything Must Change,” a 1974 tune first recorded by Quincy Jones. It seemed fitting. The pastor at the small white clapboard chapel did his best to keep it upbeat with a few well-worn but appreciated jokes. One of the German boys, who had served as both video documentarian of the weekend and the chief cook and bottle washer, presented a video of his grandmother. It was a loving tribute to a woman who loved life and laughed often. The last section featured her speaking, singing and laughing on camera and finally as the group left whatever event he was recording, she looked at the camera, waved, and said, “Auf wiedersehen.”

A few us of went to the nearby cemetery where Clark lay. They had dug a small hole for Irja’s urn. Prayers were said. She was laid to rest and covered with dirt. I’m not religious, but rituals serve their purpose. They validate our journey from dust to dust and comfort those who carbon atoms are still fighting to survive.

We went back to the cabin, and poured whiskey, beer and wine. The sun had a few hours left, but it wouldn’t be enough. This would almost certainly be their last sunset at the lake, or in Minnesota, period.

But they had a plan. They would meet to celebrate milestone birthdays of two of the third generation, number 40 for one and for the oldest of that generation, a 50th. They wouldn’t have Pine Lake. They wouldn’t see the land where their mother’s parents saw Finland. But they would meet where maybe they could plant a flag that would hold a similar special meaning, Rottnest Island off Perth, Australia, where Gary settled and his three daughters live nearby. If that didn’t work, maybe the next year it would be Ulm.


Pine Lake, south of Aitken, MN

I found myself warmed by this family. I loved seeing how important this place was to them, but also how their time together validated the ties that bind. Karla is part of that family, I’m not, yet I gained much. Before we left, I thanked them and told them how much I enjoyed seeing them bond again.

Not everything must change. Some things will endure.

Altitude training may not be all it’s cracked up to be

My friends in St. Pete expect me to return in top shape after a couple of months at altitude. But it didn’t really happen last year, my first extended adventure riding at seven, eight, nine thousand feet and above. In fact, when I first returned I was exhausted after a relatively easy ride. The Florida air felt like a brick wall, or at least a gel I had to plow through. It took about a week to get back normal sea level riding.

So I decided to research the issue as I returned to the hills this month. When I started with a few Google search terms, most of what I found was what you would expect. At altitude your heart beats faster. (I also learned that blood pressure increases, though it returns to normal after a few weeks.)

Yet, I’ve noticed when I ride at altitude my heart rate rarely reaches beyond 145 beats per minute (bpm) for sustained efforts. (My max heart rate is about 175 bpm.) One hundred fifty beats per minute feels like I would not explode so much as fall over as my legs crumbled and I gasp for air. Even at a heart rate of 125 bpm, my breathing is fast.

Turns out that may be normal. At extremely high altitudes, researchers found that maximal heart rate decreases as much as 30 bpm. While your resting heart rate is faster, and climbing stairs can put you out of breath, you can’t get the ticker pumping as fast during hard exercise.

That seems logical because at altitude, the thin air makes it more difficult to get the oxygen you need to work hard. The heart simply doesn’t have much to work with.

But heart rate is less important since I bought a power meter. I brought it with me to the mountains. But again, at certain power levels I felt I was working harder than I do at sea level in St. Pete.  Additional research led me to several articles that suggested that power levels need to be adjusted downward to coincide with the grater exertion you experience in thin air.

The most widely cited study suggested a formula: Percentage of power held at altitude = -1.12(altitude in km)^2 – 1.90(altitude in km) + 99.9. For example, at an altitude of 2.286 km (a little lower than where I live), power zones need to be about 89.7% of what they are at sea level. My functional threshold power (FTP) would drop from 210 watts to 188 watts, and the zones based on the FTP by the same percentage.

But training at lower power levels has consequences, according to exercise physiologists Ben Griffin and Michael Chiovitti.

The issue here is that the cyclist may in fact de-train due to never actually training at the physiological level of their [anaerobic threshold]. So when this cyclist returns to sea-level after altitude exposure and tries to ride the AT @ 300W it is going to feel extraordinarily hard as they have never actually pushed 300W since prior to going to altitude.

Maybe this is why I was exhausted the first week back in St. Pete last year.

I also found that “altitude training” is not the simply a weeks-long vacation in the mountains riding your bike. There are three basic varieties of altitude training:

  1. Train high, live high, which is what I do and what I think most pro teams do.
  2. Train high, live low, which literally means ride your bike at altitudes and then come down from on high to spend the rest of your day.
  3. Train low, live high, the exact opposite of #2 and a seemingly the preferred method these days.

The idea behind train high and live low is that training at altitude increases red blood cells, or the amount of hemoglobin, but you recover better at lower levels. Train low, live high advocates say simply living at altitude increases your red blood cells but you must train at higher power outputs. More on the three methods here.

Few of us can live high and train low or vice versa. Even those of us who can spend time at altitude must make a commitment as it takes at least three to four weeks to get any benefit from altitude training. Pro racer Michael Rogers says it takes at least a week to acclimate. Virtually his entire first week was easy (for him) riding.

But given that living and riding at 7,000 feet and above as I do here for a few months may actually hurt me when I return to sea level, what training methods can mitigate the loss of power (in spite of increase red blood cells)? Acclaimed trainer Joe Friel has a couple of strategies. The first is shorter intervals with longer recovery periods.

Something on the order of work intervals of two minutes or less followed by two minutes or more of recovery intervals will allow you keep power and pace high. The intensity of these two-minute-or-shorter work intervals needs to be above anaerobic/lactate/functional threshold. Ten to thirty minutes of total high intensity time within a workout, depending on the intensity, your fitness and your purpose, is probably about all you need two to three times a week.

Secondly, Friel says, is to give yourself a break and return to lower levels to recover your sea legs.

At altitude there is a loss of muscular fitness since the workouts can’t be as intense as at sea level. Coming back down for a few days (perhaps as much as two weeks) allows this muscular fitness to be re-established by higher-intensity training.

I can’t do that, so I’ll need to pay t20170715_120523he price when I get back to my flat land habitat. So, St. Pete friends, don’t expect much. Riding the hills may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. But it sure is pretty!

The day the Garmin died

This just goes to show you. If you observe the golden rule, pay it all forward, and stop beating your wife, good things will happen.

My Garmin died the other day. For those of you unfamiliar with a it, a Garmin cyclocomputer records everything about your bike ride: speed, distance, time, heart rate, power wattage, cadence and all manner of averages and maximums. Without it, you can’t record your ride on Strava, the ride app. (Well, you can, but the phone app provides limited data.) And if it doesn’t appear on Strava, as they say, it didn’t happen.

Saturday morning the screen froze. The problem seemed to be the “enter” button wasn’t working. Which meant I couldn’t even factory reset it. I had to ride without it. Which meant, I couldn’t know whether I was having a good time. Very disconcerting.

Being the weekend, I couldn’t even call Garmin support after the ride. They’re closed. What are those guys thinking? You would think, cyclists being a generally neurotic bunch, they’d have a 24-hour hotline to prevent us from hurting ourselves in these situations.

I stared at the frozen screen. It couldn’t stay that way, I thought. It would certainly drain the battery. By Sunday morning, it did. But the “enter” button did not have that familiar soft click to it. I was able to power it up, though that took hours, leaving me in a distressed state of fear, uncertainty and doubt while it rejuvenated itself. Yet, even after it was fully charged, the “enter” button still didn’t work. So I really couldn’t do much. It was still an expensive paperweight, a light one at that.

On Sunday’s ride, still no data. How much power was I generating? What was my cadence? Was my heart still beating? Same thing this morning. I would occasionally ask they guy riding next to me, “How fast we going?” He was cruel, “Slow,” he said.

Coming back to the house and my paperweight, I tried one more time. I powered it up. I was contemplating opening the back. My technical abilities are minimal. Which is to say, none. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if I got the back off. So I tried the enter button one more time.

It worked! The click is back! I could change screens. I could see averages, maximums, wattage, heart beats. I was alive! I took it for a test ride, and it worked flawlessly.

Maybe this is temporary. Maybe it’s just playing with me. But I didn’t do a thing but hope and pray. And my Garmin is back.

Maybe being such a kind and wonderful guy pays dividends. Even my friends assure me that’s not the case. Maybe it was just dumb luck.