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.



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.

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.