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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Chicken Marsala

Just so you know, I make the best Chicken Marsala. My brother Paul thinks so. And I’m now convinced. I, of course, use mushrooms. And I don’t like mushrooms, though I’m coming around. Just as long as they’re on Chicken (or Veal) Marsala. That’s all you need to know.

Be nice to Kristen. It’s all she asks.

I’ve got to unsubscribe from the Tampa Bay Times. It’s a good paper, but the problem is Karla reads it cover to cover. It’s fine that she keeps up on the news. That’s one of the reason I fell in love with her. As my father once said, somewhat amazed but not surprisingly given his chauvinism, “She knows things.”

But she reads everything, including all the announcements of upcoming events. And because she’s now retired and looking for something to do, she wants to go to all of them.

So Pride Week, we went. Actually, I was able to beg off a party and then the parade, but she wanted to go to the festival on Sunday. She said it was billed as an art show. It was a festival, all right, with plenty of edibles, though nothing you would call a cuisine. The art, alas, was trinkets and trash. But we got out on our bikes and strode through the sauna that was a Florida summer afternoon.

The one event I dreaded, however, was the Friday night screening of “Lady Valor, the Kristen Beck Story.” Beck is an ex-Navy Seal transgender. I was not looking forward to the movie, much less the reception with Beck beforehand. I successfully dawdled before we left, retrieving my glasses and then my wallet and then something that would get me through the evening. Once we got there, I found a reason to go back out to the car, so that by the time I set foot in FreeFall Theatre, the movie was about to begin.

I found sympathy with Beck’s mother who told her, “Why can’t you be sort of normal, like just being gay?” I know I’m not alone in this. There are plenty of guys who find transgenders just a little far a reach. Our youngest daughter is gay, so I’ve gotten passed that a long time ago. And my liberal politics help a lot. Intellectually, at least, I’m cool with transgenders.

But not really. It’s like dining formally and not knowing which fork to use. I’m just not comfortable. There’s potential for a hell of a lot of faux pas’s. And Beck’s appearance was not what I expected. She didn’t look feminine. Rather, she looked and sounded like a guy in drag—and not very convincing at it.

The movie was pretty good at first, though like many documentaries, a little too long. (Hell, most movies are too long for me!) Yet, I couldn’t help feeling sympathy for her. She apparently (because the documentary was a bit unclear of some key points) came out while working at the Pentagon. Safe to say, that’s a tough audience for a debut. She recognizes that she made some mistakes by not helping people come to grips with her journey. She suffered mightily as she not so much peeled off the layers from Chris to Kristen but ripped the scab off.

With two kids from her previous marriage cut off from her, her mother not accepting her, and the continuous hate mail, often from ex-Seals or military gung-ho types, she was alone and lonely.

But there were a few who stuck by her. Ex-Seals. Beck worked with a couple of them in various consulting assignments. She can still rip the bullseye out of a target. She is a woman. She is tough. And the ex-Seals still were there for her. Certainly not all. But how many good friends do you need?

She spoke to the audience after the movie. She is not particularly eloquent or concise, but she drove home a point: She would like everyone to accept her and understand what she’s going through, but she’s OK with folks just being nice to her.

As I listened to her speak, I began to think, hell, I can be nice to her. That in fact is pretty easy. She is a bit spiritual and new age, what we called in my generation a hippie: Peace and Love!

Yes, I could be nice to her. There was nothing not to like about her. If the Seals could do it, I could. After all, it’s about the only thing the Seals do that I can, too.

We left before we had a chance to talk to her one on one afterwards. I was OK with that.

At the festival on Sunday, I met another transgender, someone Karla had hung out with at the parade. We talked briefly. I tried not to stare at her head, which was half shaved and with hair on the other side down to her shoulder. I barely said more than, “Nice to meet you.” But I made it through without thinking, I don’t understand this. I was nice to her.

That is a step forward for me, and enough for now, thanks to Kristen.

Happy? Birthday

My mother would have turned 96 today, if she were alive. But if she were alive, she would not be happy about it. She was rarely happy about anything.

I am always a little envious when people pay tribute to their mother’s on Facebook. The publicStella age 10 maybe accolades my mother would have loved. Public perception was big with her. She always was bragging on us kids.

I’m envious of my “friends” affection for their moms. Be sure, she was not a bad mom. In fact, in many ways she was the perfect mom of the 50’s and 60’s. She was always there when we scrapped a knee. Dinner was on the table like clockwork. She saw to it that we went to school and insisted we do well. She provided the basics impeccably.

But that warmth, that kind word or little affection that could make all right with the world was rarely there. I’ve often wondered why.

Why have I never seen a picture of my mom as a child where she was smiling? Admittedly, the sample size is small. Conversely, friends will see a picture of my mother in her later years and comment on the bright, broad smile. But that smile masked a certain sadness. My image is more of the long face with doleful eyes.

Mom didn’t talk about her childhood much. Never did I hear anything that would suggest dark secret of abuse. I knew both of her parents. While my grandfather was a quiet but seemingly gentle man. My grandmother, who lived until I was in my 40’s, was not phlegmatic but didn’t seem to allow much to bother her and was pleasant to talk to. She certainly did not seem the worrier my mother was.

But worried my mom did. So I come to it honestly.

But people change.

My wife also has few pictures of her as a child sporting a broad smile. As a teenager, she was almost brooding. She admits to being quiet, introspective, introverted and perhaps a little lacking in confidence. Yet, when I met Karla in her late 20’s, she was hardly Pollyannish, but certainly seemed to enjoy life. And over time she often displays a playful, silly side and has for many years, to the point where I can’t fathom her as brooding—ever. And she is the eternal optimist.

I was never the eternal optimist, and perhaps never will be. But I have changed, due directly to Karla’s influence. How can you brood when someone breaks out into a jiggly dance for absolutely no reason at all, if not just to make me smile. And of course, her optimism has been well placed. For all my concern as the kids were growing up, today they seem happy, no more neurotic than me and definitely not in jail.

Meanwhile, we’re “living the dream” in St. Pete and can transport it to Colorado when it’s too hot to dream in Florida. We ride bikes to very nice restaurants, walk along the water, or picnic by it as we did on Memorial Day without a long drive and a packed station wagon.

I want for nothing and worry for not much more. There’s little reason not to smile.

Sometimes it takes a while, but maybe the best lessons you get from parents are those you finally emphatically and willfully unlearn.

So it’s your birthday, Mom. Be happy.

The National Games

After the National Senior Games, I can say that as a bicycle racer, I am, like Garrison Keillor’s mythical children of Lake Wobegone, above average. Nothing more.

In three races, I came in above the midpoint in all three races, barely in one case.

I had no business being in the 5k time trial. In fact, I was arrogant to ride it, with my endurance frame road bike. I placed 20th out of 41 riders. It was an insult to the riders who train for the time trial, buy special TT bikes, wheels, handlebars and helmets, and race often. With a time of 9:20, I was nearly 90 seconds behind the winner. Still, I finished with that taste in my mouth that I describe as blood in my lungs but is probably neither blood nor in my lungs, but it does make me feel that I gave it my all. As does the cough that starts immediately after finishing and which I still have a few days later. I averaged 265 weighted watts. I was disappointed, but unless I buy a TT bike and train on it, I think that’ll be my last TT race.

1 - Before the 40K (003)In the 20k road race, I finished with the leaders, number 10 out of 41 riders. I was with the lead group going into the last turn, but as often happens in turns, I got spit out the back. I can corner tightly, but I think I don’t trust my tires, afraid they’ll slide out from under me. My weighted power average was 233 watts. Being in the top ten in one of the races was my minimum goal, so I finished that day feeling, if not good, not embarrassed.

But good enough that I thought I had a chance to compete in the 40k. Yet, the day I reconnoitered the course, I was intimidated by a 0.8 mile, 2.5% grade hill. While I made it up the one time in the 20k race, the 40k required three ascents. The first I made with the lead group. The second time around, I struggled. My legs cranked as best I could. Then that sinking feeling commences as I see the wheels in front pull farther ahead and I’m powerless, literally, to do anything about it. It’s not that my legs are tired or hurt. They simply have no power. They are too weak to hurt. They turn, but the bikes stays still, seemingly not to move at all. By the time I reached the top, the group of 14 riders was too far ahead. They were within sight for a while. Then they were gone.

I looked around as I crested the hill and found no one behind me. The other 20+ riders had fallen off the pace. Could I keep them away? For the next 14 miles I did, save one who caught me near the end of the penultimate loop and then promptly announced he was abandoning the race. I placed 15th of 35 who finished. (Several either abandoned or were pulled so the organizers could start the next race on time.) My weighted average power was 215 watts. I was nearly five and half minutes behind the leader.

Despite these middling performances, I saw glimmers of hope. Keeping the rest of the pack at bay was cool. I blocked out the riders in front of me and pretended those behind were trying to catch my breakaway. Staying with the big boys until the end of the 20k was nice. A perhaps pathetic positive was knowing that I will move up to the 70-74 age group next year. Maybe they will be kinder to me. (My time would have placed me third in that group.)

But usually I tend to focus on what went wrong. I lose speed in corners. Need to fix that. I need to lose weight. Ten fewer pounds and I might have made it up that hill. Getting closer to the front at the end of the race gives me a chance to compete for a podium spot. Being at the back doesn’t.

And I look at the guys who beat me. They’re old men with wrinkly skin and thinning gray hair!

Maybe, too, I need to train smarter. By that I mean not harder, but even more systematically and perhaps a little easier. In the weeks leading up to the Games, I had some tough weeks. The production of endorphins and their impact on me are undeniable, so it’s hard for me not to go hard. At the end of a tough workout, I feel accomplished and energized, even if I need a nap later in the day.

I would have liked better results. In the days before the races, I visualized my hanging on to the end, positioning myself just on the outside of a wheel toward the front and then sprinting for the finish. I even allowed to see myself raising my arms in victory. But still, the vision of that hill kept intruding. It looked steeper than 2.5%. I felt heavier than 190 lbs. I could visualize my legs giving way. And as it turned out, I witnessed the power of negative thinking, something I’ve struggled with all my life, mitigated only by 32 years of being with the most relentlessly positive woman in the world.

As a kid I rarely competed in sports. I ran track for a year in high school, but that’s the sport for non-athletes, the guys who could claim to compete only with themselves. Or perhaps for those who weren’t coordinated enough to play any real sport. I didn’t play football except in the touch variety in the streets. My mother, who never took chances, didn’t want me to play so I wouldn’t get hurt. I let her be my excuse for not wanting to compete. Same with baseball. I couldn’t hit a curve ball and didn’t want to learn in public. As a young adult, I ran a lot, but always training, never racing. In competition, only one guy could win; the rest were losers.

As we were driving home from Birmingham, I was fresh off my disappointment of not staying with the lead group in the 40k, the fast guys, the big boys. Yet, I felt oddly satisfied at the same time. Perhaps it was because I competed and lost and survived to tell about it.

So I am not the national champion and there are no photos of me standing on the podium with my arms raised in triumph. But then, I’m staring 70 in the face, and I race bicycles, for God’s sake. And…I’m above average. I’ll take it.

A Veteran Who Wouldn’t Be Worked Up Over Veterans Day

Today is Veterans Day, when everyone posts on Facebook pictures of their family’s veterans and all the commenters thank them for their service.

I posted a picture of my dad, Frank, when he was in the army in World War II. (Or as Donald Trump might say, “World War eye eye.”) I mentioned that he was one of six brothers in the war and that all were deployed overseas at the same time.

If Dad were alive and knew anything about Facebook, he might have told me to remove the post. He was not a fan of the army. In fact, he had a dim view of the military and its demands on the national budget. (I posted it mostly because Veteran’s Day is also the anniversary of Dad’s death.)

He did not enlist. In 1942 four of his brothers were already in the service. He, being the oldest, was still at home with his brother Wilbur, or Jack as he was commonly called. My dad had worked from the time he was about 12, as his dad was laid off at age 50 and never worked again, though I’m not sure if that was laziness or a medical issue. Jack worked, too, of course.

Then Jack received his draft notice. He and my dad went to the recruiting office. Dad told them that Jack made more money than he did, so if they wouldn’t mind, would they take him and let Jack stay home to provide for his parents? They said sure. Dad joined, and then a few weeks later, they drafted Jack.

That’s only one reason my dad didn’t like the armed services. Even though he actually saw little action, he didn’t like the atmosphere and wasn’t a big rah-rah guy who flew the flag when it wasn’t needed.

He saw most gestures of patriotism as phony. His view of the military degraded further with the Vietnam War, when he thought, as turned out to be true, that the military brass was lying to the American people about how the war was going. He didn’t dislike the boys on the front lines; he felt for them. And he certainly had nothing against veterans, nor resented their benefits. In fact, to his utter amazement, he received a benefit of about $20 a month for the rest of his life because he was partially disabled: He had acne that may have gotten worse in the army. It reinforced to him the idea that the military didn’t understand priorities and didn’t know what it was doing. It was part of its wasteful spending.

When I was a kid 60 years ago, people didn’t make a big deal of veterans. They all served together—taking six kids from one family wasn’t common but many families had more than one sibling serving. They did it because they had to. That was my dad’s take. Sure, Germany was an existential threat, but he probably would have avoided the service if he could. And veterans, they still put their pants on one leg at a time like most folks.

As a backlash to the misguided disrespect that soldiers received during the Vietnam War, everyone now wants to thank veterans for their service. He probably wouldn’t have a problem with that. But I’m sure he would have bristled at the 7th inning stretches in baseball that now often include a special salute to a small number of veteran guests of honor. Hell, he could never understand why we sing the national anthem before a baseball game.

(People think it was done since Francis Scott Key wrote in it 1814—even before baseball was invented. Maybe it was sung at archery matches. In fact, the Star Spangled Banner tradition at baseball games started in 1918 when the band spontaneously played it, according to one source, as the country was still at war. It didn’t become the national anthem until 1931. And it wasn’t played while football players were on the field until 2009.)

And I’m quite sure he would have railed against the idea that we should take care of our wounded veterans, but it’s all right if poor folks die because they can’t afford to pay for healthcare.

My dad would likely remind us that unlike the veterans of his day, there’s a dwindling number who were conscripted. Most active duty service men and women today volunteered to be in the service. And maybe he would say that a good number of veterans join not because they want to fight to the death in defense of their country. They need a job. And one that gives them three squares a day and a roof over their head is a lot better than they might otherwise have in today’s economy.

We’re all in this together, he might say. That’s great if you choose to join the military. When you’re there, you rarely have to worry about where your next meal is coming from. He’ll gladly pay for that. And he’ll pay for your benefits. But not to the exclusion of the health and welfare needs of all our citizens.

Maybe he would say that. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me.

Trump’s legions

It’s very quiet at our house. Karla and I don’t know what to say to one another. We are devastated and depressed.

There is more than Trump’s victory to be depressed about. It is widely assumed that time and demographics are on the Democrats’ side. The thought is that the shrinking proportions of white voters bodes well for the assembled minorities with somewhat liberal tendencies. But this election proved the impotence of the white voter is still in the future. And it may be a distant future.

After all, our voting turnout is still embarrassingly low. The white working class may be a shrinking subset of voters, but there are a lot them that don’t vote. Trump proved what can happen when they are energized to vote.

And there are still more of them who didn’t vote this year. Over the past three presidential elections a little less than 60% of working class whites voted, 40% did not. That means if a candidate can propel even a small percentage of those non-voter to the polls and win them handily, the rainbow coalition is in danger, even if the Democrat hits his or her numbers..

Which is exactly what Trump may have done. Early estimates are that voter turnout was near a record, up 4.7% over the last presidential race, according to USA Today or was lower than expected, according to unreliable exit polls. So even as that white working class demographic, which is also older, dies off, there are still more non-voters to attract to the polls.

And those angry working class white voters will be with us for a while. As the old ones die off, there will be new ones to take their place, as the underemployed working class continues to grow.

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

Many of my neighbors across my part of town sign up for Nextdoor Neighbor, an app that allows residents to exchange messages–about contractor or doctor recommendations, to report a loss dog, or to offer items for sale–or free.

It’s that last part that got me to thinking: If people have end tables, nightstands and other assorted “stuff,” as George Carlin would say, to give away, maybe some folks have old bikes they’d want to part with.

It’s a hassle to rent bikes for friends who come into town, and I had just cleared a spot in my garage that looked naked. I could easily imagine a few bikes hanging there.

So I posted that I would be happy to re-purpose old bikes folks didn’t want anymore. I immediately got a few responses. In one day I picked up four bikes.

A big beach cruiser had been sitting outside under a shed for years, so the chain was rusted. One was just tuned but the lady said she wanted a racing bike instead. And another woman had two she didn’t ride anymore.

One bike was in great shape but very small and missing a front wheel. I would donate it to the Free Clinic, where our bike club member Patrick Ruta fixes bikes for those who need them to get to work or run errands but can’t afford to buy one.

My "re-purposed" bikes.The other three you see here. One needed a shifter cable. (I learned how to change one of a Shimano Revoshift shifter.) Another needed a rim strip and a tube. One just needed to be cleaned up and lubed.

Last night my wife said, “Let’s take a couple for a spin.” A few blocks away she said, “This is great. Nice ride.” Because I had bought her a new townie bike a few months ago, she said, “Gee, we didn’t need to spend money for a new bike. This is great.”

Sure, I thought. Can you imagine if I had said to her, “I know I have an $8,000 bike, but I’m going to find you a hand-me-down that no one wants”?

No, these bikes are for visitors and for me to ride downtown and not be heart broken if it gets stolen.

You may have noticed that they are all “step-over” frames, what we used to call “girls” bikes. That’s OK. I will proudly ride them anywhere in tribute to my first bike as an adult.

In 1972 when I was working in downtown D.C. I grew tired of the car commute and parking fees, which I really couldn’t afford on my $8,098 annual salary. (Which, however, was good enough to allow me to have my own apartment in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Va., right across the Key Bridge from Georgetown, something today’s kids starting their careers probably can’t afford.) A secretary I worked with said she had this old bike she’d sell me–for $7. It was rusted but serviceable. To further dissuade thieves, I bought a can of orange spray paint and another of yellow. Holding one in each hand, I painted it. It was so hideous (or psychedelic–remember this was the early 70’s) that I figured no one would steal it–and no one did. I rode it down Pennsylvania Ave. and then Constitution Ave. and chained it to a lamp post.

So yeah, it’s a girls bike. You want to make something of it?

Now I’m going to post what I really want to ride in downtown St.Pete: an old steel racing bike with downtube shifters and a look that would dissuade any potential thief. Let me know if you have one.

Long Ago and Far Away

I went to my 50th high school reunion last night. I had no business being there.

I was not a big man on campus. In fact, few could tolerate me, as I recall. Lacking social standing or a hot girlfriend, I tried to be the class cut up, never convinced my classmates were laughing with me and not at me. I hoped at least a couple of the guys I knew would be there.

Just outside the door of the reunion hall were a few classmates, one a woman who was a looker back then—even in the 7th grade when I first met her. “Met” is an imprecise word. Maybe she granted me a “Hi” once or twice. She was quiet back then—at least toward me. As I introduced myself to the people standing with her, I looked at her name tag. (She may still be considered hot to a 68-year old, but our standards are far lower these days; sentient is all that’s required.)

“I remember you,” I said, hoping that with a few sentences I could double the time I had ever spoken to her in my life. I didn’t quite achieve that, or even recognition.

“Right inside you can check in,” was all she said. It was an ominous start.

I had spent the earlier part of the day visiting my mother’s sister, the last remaining of the previous generation, then the two houses where I lived before going to college.

20160604_135413_resized First was the Northeast Philadelphia row home my parents bought when I was one-year old. The neighborhood showed its age and changing dynamic that apparently didn’t include a working understanding of litter, replacing it with a sense that the sidewalk was a large trash can.20160604_143228_resized

The house itself had been remodeled, with vinyl siding on the upper level replacing the faux Tudor look of the home that costs my parents $7,700. They were proud of their home but, being parsimonious, a trait in the Griendling and Patti blood streams, they wanted to pay the home off early. My mother had examined the amortization table and calculated the interest they were paying. So they added a few dollars to the monthly payment of $24. I remember when I first saw their mortgage documents in the mid 1970’s I thought we’d never see 4% interest rates again.

20160604_141201_resizedI walked up the street and then down the back alley where I played all those ball games city kids create—stick ball, half ball, wire ball, hand ball, step ball. I stopped behind my house. A car was parked in front of where the garage was before it was converted into what must be a tiny room.

A man, perhaps in his 20’s, was inside the car so I approached. He rolled down the window. I asked if he lived in my house.

“Uh, yes, sort of,” fumbling with something in his hands.

“I grew up here,” I said.

He perked up. “Really? Cool!” He fumbled with his hands again and looked apologetic. “I’m just rolling joint,” he said.

20160604_142845_resized“That’s OK,” I said. I have a home in Colorado.

He laughed. He may have thought I bought the home so I could freely buy marijuana. We had a connection beyond the row house.

We talked a bit and I got the courage to ask the slightly creepy question, “Do you think your parents would mind if I took a peek inside?” He looked skeptical. “My mother wouldn’t mind at all, but she’s not home. My dad is, but he’s kind of weird and we don’t get along.” At least I tried.

I then drove to the South Jersey suburb where we moved when I was 11. 20160604_152347_resizedMy parents had paid off the row home and now could afford a split level on a cul de sac. They paid cash and never had a mortgage again in their lives. That neighborhood had fared a little better. I then drove by the old high school, which, again, looked pretty good for its 60 years.

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It was time to face the music. Would anyone remember me at the reunion? After the ignoble exchange with my past crush, I walked inside and signed in.

“Were you red or blue?” the woman at the registration table asked. Our high school was so overcrowded with other immigrants to suburbia that we had shifts. One went in at 6:45 a.m. and ended at 12:30 p.m. The other started 15 minutes later and was dismissed at 5:45 p.m. One was the red school, the other blue and completely separate. We even played each other in sports.

“I don’t remember. Red I think,” I said. So I got a red star on my ID badge that had my name and my graduation photo. Of course, that photo might not help a lot of folks. It was heavily airbrushed to hide my severe acne. I thought I should dot my face with a red pen to help classmates recall me.

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I pinned on the badge, took a deep breath and waded into the crowd. I was immediately greeted by someone who said, “I know this guy,” though he also squinted as he tried to read my name tag. “You looked just like your picture.” The other guys standing with him agreed. OK. That was a small victory to combat the relative anonymity of my high school years. At least I’m as unremarkable as I was then. As we age, we take anything we can get to remind ourselves that we are immortal.

But even that accomplishment soon was diminished by another’s comment. “You look just like an older version of yourself,” she said. I think that was a compliment.

Then it all came crashing down when another classmate later said, “Everybody thinks you dye your hair.” Great. Now I was unremarkably vainglorious—to “everybody.”

As I circulated I was sensing that this wouldn’t be a total waste of airfare or worst, a reaffirmation of my anonymity. I saw two guys I hung out with in high school, when we mostly drank beer in the woods and sang doo-wap songs. We dubbed ourselves The Four Gottens. Now I knew at least there was someone I could latch on as I was ignored by all the women.

Then the girl who lived across the street from me appeared and recognized me. We smiled and hugged and talked about our families. She introduced me to her husband. I then put my arm around here and looked at him. “I had a crush on your wife in high school,” I confessed. He just grinned, probably mentally boasting of his relative virility to mine. She just smiled awkwardly, probably thinking, “Yeah, I know, and it was awkward then, too.”

A woman and I then caught each other’s eye. Hers flew wide open. Mine looked puzzled I’m sure. I looked at her name tag. I remembered her immediately. She also lived on my block. We never had a thing for each other but we were friends from sixth grade on. I played touch football in the streets with her two older brothers. I learned two of them live in Florida with one in Clearwater. Small world.

As we talked a woman whose name or face triggered no recall walked up and smiled. My neighbor knew her. The woman said to my former neighbor, “Remember, you fixed up Bob and me for the 8th grade dance!” She did? We did? This was awkward. I tried to excuse myself by saying that I couldn’t remember breakfast let alone an 8th grade dance. But she did, and probably wasn’t buying my excuse. It did make me feel good. At least I had at least one date in my pubescent years.

While eating the mystery meat we had for dinner I looked across to the next table and saw a pretty blonde who, thanks probably in part to her hair dresser, looked exactly the same. Our eyes locked and I mouthed her name. She smiled and came over to my table.

Things were definitely looking up now. She was considered one of the most elegant in our class, or at least as elegant as a teenager could be. We talked and then I remembered that even back then, while I was not even remotely in her league, she was always nice to me. She said, “You were pretty shy back then.” I admitted to the charge, thinking that’s what severe acne will do to a boy.

As the night wore on, my courage was improving. I walked around the room looking for anyone who I might recognize and say hello to. I found a few, including a woman or two who were probably as nice to me now as they were back then—if I ever could see it past my facial and self-inflicted emotional scars.

The hall thinned out. I said goodbye and walked by the photos of the 80 members of our combined red and blue class of 500 who’ve since died. At least I made it to the reunion. And walked away feeling good about it.