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.


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.


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.

Never a dull moment riding in the mountains

The day wasn’t expected to be ideal for riding, but the storms weren’t expected until mid-afternoon.

Bicycling in the mountains requires respect for late afternoon storms. So I headed out at 9:20 a.m. hoping to get in a couple of good climbs by lunch time. It was about 55 degrees, mostly cloudy and windless.

Starting from our home south of downtown Evergreen , Colo. means the first two miles test only your courage as it’s two miles downhill on bumpy roads with traffic the last mile. But then comes the gentle climb along Upper Bear Creek, with gorgeous homes along it.

The climbing turns serious up Witter Gulch, but the hail storm that started at about 8600 ft. elevation and lasted almost until I reached the top at over 9,000 feet made it that much more challenging. The hail was about 1/4-inch in diameter but fortunately wasn’t too heavy.

At the top, I thought about taking a picture of the cloud enshrouded vista, but then thunder struck. What I heard in that clap was Mother Nature telling me “Get the hell off that mountain now.”

On the descent it drizzled so I had to keep feathering the brakes and taking the few switchbacks along Squaw Pass Rd. as its known carefully. Even though the temperature had dropped to the mid-40’s, the arm warmers and wind vest kept my core warm, even if my bare legs were a tad chilly.

I had planned to head south on Rt. 74 and then do one more climb up Stagecoach Rd., thinking the rain would stop at the lower elevation. But when it didn’t I decided to call it a day. Which meant holding on while I descended back into town. Normally, that drop is fun, but the road has deteriorated greatly the last two years and I had to scan for potholes all the way down, again scrubbing speed in case I hit one.

That left only the 1-3% climb up Cub Creek and the the dirt Mesa and Hermosa Roads until I got home.

Wiping the bike down I started to shiver, hoping that my numb fingers would thaw and that hypothermia wouldn’t set in.

The last time I got caught in a hail storm I couldn’t stop shivering for nearly an hour afterward. I took a hot shower, and still shivering, I looked up how to treat hypothermia. Apparently the last thing you should do is take a hot shower as the shock to the system can cause a heart attack.

But this time wasn’t so bad. The shower felt great. I lingered there awhile.

Click here for Strava data

One of those moments as a father I will always remember

I have been riding my bike pretty seriously for the past year. I qualified to participate in the National Senior Games for the 40 km road race. So I set up a training program for myself where I try to have the right number of hard days, easy days and rest days. Sometimes it’s a little boring. Intervals based on my heart rate, practicing sprints, going on my own to stick to the program instead of riding with my friends is, yes, a little compulsive.

But in more than 40 years of riding, I had never raced until last year, so qualifying for the national race was pretty cool.

Unfortunately, it is the senior games. Which, to qualify, means you must be a senior. Which means you sometimes get confused. Which I did. Sometime last year I registered for something I thought was the national race but obviously wasn’t. Still, throughout the winter and spring I received emails from the Games, telling me of the hotels I could book and the sights I could see while in Minneapolis, so I thought all was copacetic.

As the time approached, however, I wasn’t receiving the kinds of emails I thought I would about the specific event. So yesterday I decided to call to just make sure I was registered. They had no record of me and I was weeks passed the registration deadline. The guy in registration said he’d talk to a couple of higher ups, but later called back and said they couldn’t make an exception. My flight and hotel were booked, but I had nowhere to go.

No sooner I had hung up the phone, my oldest daughter called. She asked, as she always does, “How you doing, Dad?” I told her, “Not so good” and my tale of stupidity. She sympathized and commiserated a bit before we went on to other subjects.

Today, she called. “I have some good news for you,” she said. “You can register for the Games. Here’s the woman to call and her phone number.” Kate took it upon herself to write them and ask that they make an exception and allow me to register. “I told them you just had a senior moment!”

So I’m off to Minneapolis, hoping first and foremost to finish the race, as we say, rubber side down. It’s not a course that plays to my strengths. It’s 15 90-degree turns per lap and I think there are 15 laps. So I’ll be racing with many other seniors subject to senior moments at each turn. But just to be there because of my daughter’s thoughtfulness and determination to make things happen, as she has done throughout her life, will make whatever result sweet.

I called her back to let her know I was set to go and how much I appreciated what she had done for me. I got her voice mail. But my message was probably incomprehensible through the blubbering tears. I’m one lucky guy.

Criminalizing Politics

Virginia is sinking as scandals envelop it. We all know about former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, convicted of corruption.

Lesser known outside the state is the story about how one Democratic state senator resigned at a crucial time. It was during debate in the legislature about expanding Medicaid. Republicans, who hold a majority in the House of Delegates, were opposed, but a one-vote Democratic majority in the Senate (the crucial lieutenant governor’s tie breaker) provided a pathway to approve the expansion.

Then a Democratic senator, Phil Puckett, abruptly resigned, flipping control of the Senate to the GOP. It was soon revealed that the Republicans in the House had offered him a plush state government position and were prepared to release a hold they had maintained on approval of a judicial appointment for the senator’s daughter. Federal officials are investigating whether these offers constituted corruption.

Yesterday, it was revealed an aide to the Democratic governor had then counter-offered the senator a different job for the daughter. Even some Republicans thought things had gone too far.

“This is the danger of criminalizing ordinary politics,” said Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun).

Criminalizing ordinary politics. Many of us thought we already had, and if we hadn’t formally, ordinary politics today does seem criminal.


Taimi Leavelle,1918-2014

From my vantage point, she was the best—the best damn mother-in-law a guy could have. She didn’t try to tell me what to do, how to raise my kids or even how to cook.

But Taimi made a lasting imprint on my daughters, one, quite literally. Our older daughter, Kate, has tattooed on her rib cage Sisu, which she learned from her grandmother. Sisu, in Finnish, translates as determination, bravery and resilience.

Taimi was determined early on to lead a different life than her parents, dairy farmers who never left the town where virtually everyone spoke their language. Palisade, Minnesota, has fewer than 200 people today, probably as many as they did in 1918 when Taimi was born. The farm was on the Mississippi River, so far north that you could walk across it and keep your knees dry. Taimi thought there was more.

Taimi was brave enough to go to war. After finishing nursing school, she became a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and administered to the wounded in a California hospital. It was there, she dated an officer she met while he was recovering. Returning to the front, he asked a new friend who was also recovering from his war wounds, Jim Leavelle, to watch over his girl. “Take care of her,” he told Jim, which he did—for the next 75 years.

Because she was an officer and Jim an enlisted man, she had to give up her commission to marry the poor itinerant farmer, who lacked her education and edge but shared her determination and resilience.

They moved to Dallas. She continued her nursing career while he tried to find himself. Perhaps it was that experience that led to her to instill in her daughters the notion that they should always be able to provide for themselves. Never be at the mercy of a man. For 50 years she raised a family and worked. Jim soon found his niche as a police officer and then a homicide detective. They both worked shifts. When one worked, the other was home. He retired, became a polygraph examiner and then a security guard. She continued to minister the sick, addicted, and insane.

Not surprisingly, her daughters followed her lead, one as a teacher, the other in business. Tanya’s  children were the hundreds, maybe thousands, she influenced. Karla, my wife, instilled in our two daughters the same ethic. Take care of yourself. Value yourself. Be determined and brave and when you fail, and you will, get back up.

All the while, Taimi Trast from Palisade lived life to the fullest. Her humor was renowned. Her honesty, legendary. When Kate was visiting recently, she told her grandma that she needed to get dressed.

“I don’t want to get dressed,” Taimi said.

“You have to get dressed. Put on your underwear.”

“I don’t want to put on underwear.”

“If you don’t, I won’t make you coffee.”

Kate thought she now had leverage, and walked into another room. When she came back, Taimi had her underwear on—her head.

“Now give me my damn coffee.”

Kate also experienced her honestly. Once Kate came to visit, and as she walked into the door, Taimi was in another room. “Who’s here?” she asked.

“It’s your favorite grandchild,” Kate said.

Taimi entered the room and looked straight at Kate and said, “No, Hunter is my favorite grandchild.”

When Hunter was just a few months old and in daycare, Jim and Taimi lived nearby. Occasionally, we’d get a call from her to let us know that she picked up Hunter “because she needs her down time,” Taimi said. To this day, Hunter needs her downtime, but Taimi knew then.

And Kate must have learned something from her grandma early on. When she was about five years old, she had a t-shirt that read simply, “No Guts, No Glory.”

For more than 90 years, Taimi retained her phenomenal physical vitality. I would tell her she looked great. “I feel great,” she would say, “and I can still dance a gig.” And then she would.

But her mind began to escape. She would repeat herself.

“Where are my glasses, Jim?”

“Now where do you go to school, Zack?” even though our son had graduated two years earlier.

But she knew what dementia was; she’d seen plenty of it. And she didn’t let it bother her. It was a process she would endure, bravely, resiliently. She would laugh about it. It was life. And she would live it.

Rest in peace, dear mother-in-law. Thanks. Someday I hope to tell my grandkids about you and teach them about sisu. But if I’m gone by then, I’m sure my daughters will.

Shaved Legs

I shaved my legs for the first time the other day. Cyclists do that. I don’t know why. I don’t think they know why.

I couldn’t come up with a good reason to do it. But I couldn’t come up with a good reason not to. Hell, at 66, I’m too close to the end of the road only to reach it and say, “I cycled for 50 years and never shaved my legs.”

The reasons all have a patina of truth.

It makes massages easier. For who? My masseuse said it makes no difference to her.

It makes road rash easier to treat and promotes healing. I can see the point. No sticky hair to gum things up. But whereas pro racers crash, suffer massive strawberries and then get up and immediately ride another 80 miles, I crash and break several old, brittle bones. I’m laid up so long the strawberries are long gone before I get back on the bike.

The ladies like shaved legs. At my age, there are no ladies left, only broads, and they take anything that’s still walking at 66. They don’t care whether the guy’s walker is hairy or not.

Others say, it’s just tradition and you’re not taken seriously unless you shave. That’s attractive to me, since no one now takes me seriously.

But the best reason is that shaved legs make you faster by reducing aerodynamic drag. Are you kidding me? Losing the extra 20 pounds I’m dragging around would be far more effective for me.

But Specialized engineers beg to differ. Over 40 kilometers, one of their subjects saved 82 seconds. That’s huge for a racer. For me, not so much. My riding buddies’ coffee will still be cold by the time I make it back to our sidewalk cafe.

But hey, makes you faster is good enough for me. I’m sticking to that story–unless my wife vetoes it. But then, why does she shave her legs?

The Big ‘Mo. R.I.P.

satchAlso known as Satch, his full name was Satchmo. No particular connection to the first one, but I like to think of both our Satchmo and Louis Armstrong as gentle giants. Certainly, Big ‘Mo was. When he would encounter a small dog who would be afraid of ‘Mo’s 90 lbs. of muscle, Satch would lie down to get as low as he could so the small dog wouldn’t feel threaten. And often he would roll over on his back to submit himself to some 10 lb. toy dog.

Not that he couldn’t defend himself if needed or if his adopted brother Duke would get into a scrap, Satch was there with him, but somewhat reluctantly so. Mostly, he just wanted to love on you and be loved in return, which he was.

Satch was mostly boxer but we suspect with a touch of Bull Mastiff, which infused his gentle spirit. Like most boxers he couldn’t comprehend his size or strength. He would often come up to you sitting in a chair and put his front paws and then his chest in your lap—a 90 lb. lap dog—while his hind legs held up the rest of him. And yes he would occasionally see if he could get his entire body up there.

Boxers look fierce, but they are not aggressive. Our daughter Kate tells the story of when a drunk college kid broke into her apartment. Satch heard the broken glass and immediately started—whining. He wasn’t about to confront the spooks in the night, though in a real danger, I know he would have fought to the death for any of us.

Kate, her sister Hunter and Zack regularly broke my rule that dogs not be allowed in the bed. Whenever they could they gladly relinquished most of their bed to Satch and sometimes Duke, too.

When we rescued Satch, then ironically named Sugar Ray—again, he was not a fighter, he was a bit timid, thin and didn’t know how to climb stairs. He bulked up, learned about stairs and spent his life giving our family lots of love, though he wasn’t much for kisses. That was fortunate if you’ve ever seen a boxer with a long slobber drooling for his lips.

But like many boxers, he succumbed to cancer yesterday. We were able to relieve his misery with all three kids connected by Skype to say goodbye. He was one great dog. So long, Satch.

Ever Have a Bike Fall Off Your Car?

My wife and I went on one of our monthly treks to see our new home state, the lovely pancake flat and sandy Florida. This past weekend included Sanibel Island near Fort Myers and the summer homes of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. (Quick: What invention first made Edison a rich man? The phonograph? The light bulb? Nope, it was the Universal Stock Printer in 1871. Wall St. investors loved its synchronized printing of the same info. at the same time. He made the equivalent of $500,000 on it.)

Sanibel Island was a disappointment, only because we didn’t get to see its main attractions, a preserve that has a five mile bike path through it and the lighthouse, which was closed for repairs. We were hoping to see our first crocodile or alligator or whatever they have down here that we didn’t in Virginia. But the road was closed for construction and not expected to re-open until Oct. 1. It was apparently a federal project that the greeter at the Chamber of Commerce visitors center derided as evidence that the federal government is slow. Never mind that his little community was making big bucks off the preserve. He couldn’t resist the opportunity to bash the feds, something a lot of Floridians like to do.

We had taken our bikes with us, so we just rode along the bike path for a little while until we decided that all there was to see other than the beach were condos. So we left for the mansion tours. (Actually, they weren’t mansions at all. Certainly nice homes but they looked like outhouses compared to the John and Mable Ringling estate in Sarasota.) I should say that what we saw of the beach was nice as far as beaches go. But alas, it had a lot of sand and water, making it a dubious pleasure at best.

After dinner in another very forgettable tourist stop, Punta Gorda, we headed home over Interstate 75. All of sudden, Karla, who is driving, says “My God, the bikes!” I thought she had just seen a motorcyclist go down. “The bikes fell off the car,” she said. I looked back but couldn’t see them. I imagined them a steel pretzel and hoped that no one ran over them causing drivers to lose control. No, we were dragging them along the highway at 70 mph.

We have one of those bike racks that attached to the trunk of the car. I use it usually once a year for our annual trip to the North Carolina beach (also with way too much sand and water). For years I tied the bikes down with a half dozen bungee cords and then tied the rack’s straps around the bikes as an added precaution. This time I used only two bungee cords, and after our Sanibel Island ride I didn’t tie the straps around them. However, when we went to dinner, I tied a lock around the bikes and the rack, figuring that most bike thefts are ones of opportunity and the lock would complicate things a little.

That lock is what kept the bikes dangling off our trunk as if we were two just married cyclists headed for our honeymoon. Now, how much damage can one do to a bike using it as a road sweeper at the barely sub-sonic speed Karla drives? Well, damn little, as it turns out. These were our mountain bikes, both heavyweight Mongooses thasaddlet are at least 15 years old. Both have a few scratches on them but I could not find any new damage to the frames. When I got home, they both rode fine. In fact, the only visible damage was to my saddle, which apparently served as the sled that dragged along the ground.

Chalk one up for dumb (really dumb) luck.