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.

Second Impressions of St. Pete

Home is where you make it, and it’s beginning to feel like home here in the tropics.

We’re doing an OK job of finding new things to do, though not all of them fun. Karla decided we needed to ride paddle boards, those things that look like oversized surf boards. And believe me, they’re no easier to stand on without the waves. I can say that even though I’ve never tried to surf. After about 20 minutes of frustration in a fairly calm Gulf, I gave up and sat on the beach to let my chest burn to a crisp. It was one of the adventures we had while Kate was here a couple of weekends ago. Another was Kate and I going on our first bike ride together. I had the “Wannabees,” a group from the St. Pete Bike Club that helps mentor new folks to the sport, take us out. She kept up pretty well. The next day she and I went out alone and she had a much harder time keeping a slower pace. After about 15 miles, we were just a few blocks from home when she mentioned she heard a thumping as she rode. She had a flat—for how long I don’t know.

We showed her thbirchwood-SPe town, including having a drink at the Canopy, a bar atop The Birchwood on Beach Drive. Very happening place. And plenty of the women there could have been my daughter and a few at least close to my age. Well not really close but on the north side of 35. Didn’t matter. At a certain age we become invisible to any woman under 40, maybe 50.

All Politics is LocalSP pier
I have not carried out my threat to get involved with politics here. The biggest issue in town now is what to do with our aging pier. This competes with most tired of tourist attractions, a 1970s era idea that doesn’t have much to offer except little Mom and Pop shops selling trinkets and memories, overpriced food and plenty of vantage points to see pelicans posing with tourists or dolphins passing through the bay. The city council had this great idea to replace it with …ta-da…the Lens.

LensI’m not sure what it’s supposed to be, other than a more modern looking pier. It may have at one time been nothing more than what the critics called “a sidewalk to nowhere.” In response, the designers have added a restaurant, snack shack, an amphitheater and something we don’t really need here—more fishing spots. In any case, it’s the hot topic here and will impact the mayoral primary August 19. The current mayor seems to be back peddling furiously his earlier support of it. But the problem now is that they’ve closed the current pier without a clear plan for what follows. The old pier apparently has structural problems that are more expensive to fix than replacing it. Which, come to think of it, is true of a lot of things these days, including old people.

And of course the Trayvon Martin murder is a hot topic, with George Zimmerman having a lot of supporters. This is Fla. after all, where folks seem to be competing with Texans for who has the quickest draw. The Stand Your Ground law, otherwise known as Shoot First and Ask Questions Later Law, passed with bi-partisan enthusiasm and few are re-thinking that vote. And then there’s Gov. Scott, the Tea Party favorite who has been trying to impersonate George McGovern (or at least a Floridian vision of him) given his sorry poll numbers and the lurking of former Republican, former Independent and probably temporary Democrat Charlie Crist who will likely run again Scott next year.

And then there’s this: Seems the local energy company, since bought by Duke Power, conned the legislature into having customers pay in advance for a nuclear power plant that Duke is now abandoning. The power company gets to keep the money. Customers don’t get any refund, as many critics feared when the gift law was passed. This guy is mad as hell and he isn’t going to take it anymore: (It’s refreshing to have columnists who aren’t looking to impress you with their erudition [see George Will].)  In other words, the Florida legislature is in the tank like all other pols. Do I really want to be part of all that? I may restrict my volunteering to working a soup kitchen. The patrons at least have a modicum of dignity.

Rest of the Crew
Zack has also visited us. He has moved from Duluth to Decatur, increasing his commute by about an hour in trade for a small house instead of an apartment. He and Chelsea seem to like it. They just repossessed Lexie, their dog, from two weeks at an Atlanta dog whisperer compound where she presumably was cured of her separation anxiety. That was plan, but after the first night when they were able to leave her for 25 minutes in a crate without her inflicting damage on herself, they have refused to give us an update. That does not bode well.

Hunter still works to pay for her rugby addiction. She made the regional “sevens” team. The chief benefit of that game is there are eight less players on the other side to harm you. Next stop, national team tryouts. She’ll also be in Orlando in Oct. to play in a national and international “touch” rugby tournament. I guess that’s like flag football but with more beer.

Kate’s documentary on the Kennedy assassination is going well. The network (Military Channel) is thrilled with the rough cut. She hopes to wrap up production in mid-September and then head out to Hollywood, though she’s working connections on another possible documentary that might keep her in DC and another opportunity for a reality series that might have her travelling the world to capture drug deals on video. That cannot turn out well.

Like father, like daughter
kate in erAnd her bike riding has not turned out well so far. She bought a bike recently. Yeah, she crashed landed going down a hill and broke her collarbone. But look at it this way: She’ll get a new helmet out of it! It’s really unfortunate in several ways. One, we were planning to ride together starting Saturday at the beach we go to every year. Two, she’d been training hard for a Sept. 8 triathlon and was feeling really good about it. Three, she just bought the bike, which was a big deal because she’s always had a negative experience with bikes. This, of course, can’t help. The most surprising thing, however, was Karla of all people responding to Kate saying she might not ride again, that it was like falling off your horse (something Karla knows about) Kate needed to get back on as soon as she can.

I learned that lesson last winter. Karla didn’t have anyone to ski with one day. I hadn’t skied in a couple of years since I broke a vertebra on the slopes. Frankly, I was scared to do it again. But not wanting her to be by herself, I said I would go, thinking at the very least I’d win points. Turned out I had fun. We stuck to the greens and an occasional blue, and I even fell once or twice, but at a slower speed than I once would have. I do hope Kate will ride again.

The Washington Post is not delivered here. The New York Times is. Yes, I have left the paper I’ve known since 1970, just before, apparently, it was to leave me. Bezos has a bigger mouthpiece. I read where some think he bought it for a tax write-off. I understand that most of us, upon learning we could legitimately deduct something from our taxes, would. But when you have $250 billion, let’s hope it wasn’t, at least, his principal reason.

We also get the Tampa Bay Times, formerly the St. Petersburg Times.  It’s owned by the Poynter Institute, a reputable owner, for sure. And the paper does a nice job of covering the local scene. And they do what I think The Post should start doing—run AP stories about politics. Every time the House of Representatives passes a bill that is just for show, The Post wastes its dwindling resources writing a story about it. The Tampa Bay Times runs an AP story, if anything, and saves its resources for local stuff. Meanwhile, I’ve come to appreciate how the NY Times writes more in depth than The Post about issues, deeply enough that you can learn something besides that Congress is dysfunctional.

I think I can say that St. Pete is definitely a better climate than DC, except that I’m told DC has had a beautiful summer this year. Here we still have a breeze and almost daily rain showers. It’s 9:30 p.m., dark and gray outside. We’ve had rumbling thunder and rain today. It’s like living in a warm sponge.

Another evening in the new ‘hood.

Where Did We Go Wrong?

You are beside yourself when they’re born.  You love watching them grow, even when they’re next to impossible teenagers.  You’re there to cheer their achievements and console them in their disappointments.  You spend countless hours watching them compete in sports.  You guide their life choices as best you can.   You give them everything.  You have such high hopes, and when they go off to college, you think they’ve made it.  They’ve found their way.  But what do they do?

They become rugby players.

Now I’ll admit to some hypocrisy here.  I once played the game.  Well, not exactly. I went to the first practices, one spring about 35 years ago, where it was all conditioning.  As a runner, I sprinted uphill first.  These rugby guys lacked my lung power.  Then lithe, I left those lugs in the lurch. 

Alas, lung power isn’t what makes a great rugger.  You need to be a little crazy.  No, a lot crazy, and not only appreciate, but enjoy pain.  We started to scrimmage.  What made me think I wanted to play a game where they hit each other without benefit of helmets, shoulder pads and commonsense?  Getting hit – or worse trying to hit someone weighing 75 lbs. more than you coming at full speed and with a demonic look in his eye – was bad enough.  But then being on the bottom of a pile not only crushed but suffocated?  No, it wasn’t worth the camaraderie later.  I returned, broken and battered, to the loneliness of the long distance runner.

But there my wife and I were this spring on fields in western Pennsylvania watching our middle child, Hunter, putting her surgically repaired shoulder into some 200-pounder and getting crushed, while we wondered where we went wrong?

Lady ruggers are, well, first, they’re not ladies. Ladies don’t play a game where key features are “scrums,” “rucks” and “mauls.” At the half of one match, as a team came off, the bits of conversation I heard as they passed by would not be called lady like.

“Did you see the shit that ass hole was doing?” queried one dainty damsel.

“I just punched her fuckin’ face,” demurred another. 

No, they’re not ladies.

But they certainly like each other.  Yes, women rugby teams are comprised of a number of lesbians.  Which is fine for the men’s team members, waiting for their match and cheering from they sidelines .  Although judging from the guys’ comments, which they being ruggers, were more like grunts, I wasn’t sure if they found the ladies sexy or cute — like watching puppies play, compared to the men’s dog fight. 

But absent the sexual intrigue, it was just like watching our daughter when she played basketball or soccer.  And she made us proud when she scored on the team’s first possession.  But it wasn’t a goal.  It was a try. 

(For the uninitiated and (un)unwashed, the term “try” comes from the early rugby rules, when putting the ball down over the goal scored no points.  It merely gave you the opportunity to try to kick it through the goal posts for a score.  I’m not sure when the rules changed so that the scoring was more like American football.  But I’m pretty sure I know why:  to completely confound newcomers as to why they use such an understated term for several points, more than for the kick afterward. I’m not even sure how many points a try gets you.  Then again, you’ll recall I never got passed the conditioning.)

The rules are mystifying.  Being a college club team, it must have a chaperone. For Hunter’s team it’s a woman who looks like she could have played the game herself.  Might even still.  I asked her about the rules, and she claimed ignorance.  She’s been the chaperone for many years, she said, but still didn’t know most of the rules.  Must be a good paying job to completely dissolve your sense of the least bit of curiosity.

In any case, it was a glorious day.  Brisk, but sunny.  Hunter did well, and she survived.  This was the third trip we planned to see her play.  The first one we drove in a pouring rain to Philadelphia, my home town, where both physically and mentally, most of the guys are qualified to play.  And about 40 percent of the gals, too.  When we arrived, one girl was on her knees in the middle of the mud puddle that once was a rugby field.  It was Hunter with her first separated shoulder.  Yes, there is a reason I had to number it.  I did mention it was surgically repaired?  The second trip was canceled when in a scrimmage where they were short players, she tried to tackle a 210 lb. guy who volunteered to fill in.  (Guys don’t care if it’s gay ass or not, they’ll volunteer for the chance to grab it – and it’s within the rules!)  Separation number 2.  So at least the day was successful for what it was not followed by — a trip to the emergency room.

Her shoulder repaired, she’s still at it and considering joining one of the local amateur teams to keep playing when she graduates next year.  We saw another game this month.  They lost, but it was successful in that she suffered only a broken nose.  Surgery was less painful and there’s no physical therapy involved.  How do you exercise a nose?

Because rugby matches must be followed by much more beer than I can hold these days, we bypass the post-match celebrations.  Hunter has found her first community of friends she truly trusts.  They play hard, both during and after the match.  Some of her teammates have traveled abroad as missionaries and have inspired Hunter to consider the Peace Corp or Teach for America.  Her grades are good.  She’s only been arrested once.  Maybe we did good after all.

Then why does she play rugby?