Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Little Snow

    The snow is falling.  The sky is filled with flakes the size of silver dollars.  The kids are running ahead of me, trying to catch the flakes with their tongues.  A snowball fight breaks out between the three of us as we near our house.  The gray sky is fading to night.  We shake off the snow dust as we enter of the door.  All of our shoes are piled in the hallway.  The giggles fade and it is time for homework.  The house becomes quiet.  I sit awaiting the finished products of math and writing.   Outside the window the snow mesmerizes me.  I catch myself thinking of my mom and dad.  I talked with "Grandpa" earlier today, just checking in.  We talked of the weather, the snow, hunting, and the farm and woods.  It will be a few days before I can return to the farm.  By then the snow will probably be gone.  I wish I could be there today, to sit in the field and listen to the snow pile up across the landscape.  It makes such a delicate noise as it quietly crashes through the trees.  The tiny crunch of the snow as each flake lands on another.  Even now looking out the window, the snow hides the boring, everyday neighborhood.  It paints the city pure again, if only for a little while.  My thoughts are cut short by an overzealous plow truck scraping the white coating from the street.  I move to ready myself for work and check homework.  As I enter the room looking for finished assignments, I catch two kids peering out their windows, hypnotized by the falling flakes.  I do not question their inattention, I am guilty of the same thing.   

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Opening Day

    I am driving home, lost.  Behind me is a trailer loaded with an ATV, camoed and ready to hunt.  The trees blur by and the snow flurries glisten in the headlights.  A disorienting fog sometimes obscures the road until I drive through it and realize that it is actually smoke from the wood stoves exhaling from the hunting cabins alongside the road.  Trucks pass me.  All of them laden with the same cargo as me but  traveling in the opposite direction.  That is when I realize I am driving to our home in the city, but I am lost.
     I know how to get to our house.  I know the directions.  Yet, I feel lost, that I truly am traveling in the wrong direction.  Before I left the woods, I began to feel it, as I heard the echoing booms of rifles being sighted in.  The feeling grew as our dirt road turned into a main artery of travel for strange license plates and ATV's.  The disoriented feeling became almost oppressive as I drove through the wood stove smoke, it's acrid smell stinging my psyche as well as my nostrils.  The air in the car became heavy as we passed the trucks traveling in the opposite direction, heavy with coolers and ATV's and anticipation of the coming morning.  I felt as if I were trying to move underwater, my lungs tightening, as the small cabins lit by lanterns and generators blurred by, their driveways overflowing with trucks and hunters and excitement.
     I am lost on this road, driving away from opening day to go to work, to a job that rarely shows any acknowledgement of achievement, of value, of worth.  Most of my coworkers are not interested in the work, only how to get out of it.  The bosses look to lean on the employees that share a dedicated work ethic, but it is a thankless dedication, rewarded with more work and less understanding for absence.  It does not allow for family or for the soul of an employee, just the grind.  And so I am lost.
     My children in the backseat shoot questions at me as they hunt for their own answers.  They are curious to know why they see children in some of the cabins we pass by.  They want to know the reason behind the kids in the parking lot of the grocery store, decked out in camo, smiling ear to ear, nearly vibrating with excitement.  As we drive and discuss the sights outside our windows, it dawns on me, they understand what is happening in the woods.  They do not understand why they can not be a part of it.  They can not comprehend why their school does not recognize the importance of opening day.  My kids want to know why their school does not understand the importance of tradition, of family, of camaraderie, of lessons of life and death and the life cycle.  They wonder why participating in the food chain is frowned upon by the teachers.  I try to explain that it is partly the fault of the same people that wish to abolish community service from the school system.  Partial blame lies with the people that do not believe that character and integrity and responsibility should be taught in the classroom.  Political correctness always wins out.  The backseat falls silent.  They do not, can not, fully understand.  To them, the whole thing is black and white.  And so I am lost, searching for the answers.
     In the end, I must shoulder the blame.  I am traveling in the wrong direction because I choose to appease my work stresses and willingly avoid using sick time for these important days, days I will not get back.  I am at fault for not allowing my children to have this day in a classroom of a different sort, for not rocking the boat, for not standing by my values.  It is my own fault that I am lost.  I know the way but still choose to drive in the opposite direction.  I truly am lost.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Farm's Foundation

Thoughts from a Hunting Journal
(Part IX)
     In 2004, on the Internet, Tara found a realtor with some property listings.  We called Grandma and Grandpa (Ma and Pa Fearon) and scheduled a viewing.  Grandpa did the fieldwork and the day after Christmas we trucked through the snow to see the hundred acres with two ponds, an 1800-square-foot double wide, barn and hunting cabin.  By April 2005, Grandma and Grandpa were moved in and the next chapter was about to be written.  My fledgling family was but three and one and the whole world was ahead of us.  The old farm was in desperate need of rejuvenation.  We hoped we were up to the task.  We set about cleaning out the old cabin and building bunk beds.  We laid gravel, fixed the fire pit, and began the never ending task of sprucing up.  The flurry of activities was quite similar to a beehive or an ant hill.  There were old ATV and logging trails that needed to be reclaimed.  All the wood from clearing those trails needed to be split.  Trail cams were put out to find treestand hot spots.  Those hot spots needed to be cleared, ladderstands ordered, built and raised.  Grandpa bought a John Deere tractor and began altering the landscape.  It was, and still is, some of the most satisfying work I've ever done (and some of the greatest memories I have made).  I feel whole, complete, working outside on my piece of earth.  People come and go but the woods are always there for me and, hopefully, will be there for my family long after I am gone.
(With the holidays upon us, it is that time already, to put my hunting journal and the memories it contains back on the shelf.  It is time  to attend to the Thanksgiving bird and be with family.  It is time to be in the woods, to be quiet and listen to the world around me.  It is time to make more tales that need to be written in my hunting journal so they are always remembered.  I hope that everyone makes memories during this special time of year and takes a moment to remember some of the people or places that have been memorable upon their path.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Back to the Beginning

Thoughts from a Hunting Journal
(Part VIII)
     Before our new farm, and during those Tioga years, we still chased birds in Jersey and deer in upstate NY.  Pheasant hunting will always be the same, with different characters coming and going.  Stress Mt., NY will always be a source of stories.  The ice years, the years of short sleeves, building sheds in snow squalls, ATV riding in the dark, three-legged deer, Tara seeing and shooting at her first buck, Tony killing his first (a five-point), my first turkeys, night stalking Dad's doe, losing my handmade hunting knife inside Dad's five-pointer, tornadoes in the valley and the epic adventure that followed that twister, the Port-a-John with a view, and my wedding on the mountain.  Some great dreams were hatched back then and some of my greatest memories were made.  That mountain was magic and every moment there was special.  Apex Trucking and the boys from work invaded a couple of times, and still talk about those misadventures.  Memorial Day and Labor Day were weekends that were planned for all year long.  The hunting seasons were more like Christmas.  Once the small house was put in place and the deck built, the kids watched us hunt from the sliding door.  The snow flew, the wind howled, the kids (Madison mostly) pressed their noses to the windows, and we hunted.
     As the memories mounted on top of that hill, our family grew, our dreams grew bigger, and our search for a new, larger tract of land began.  Who would have known?  In hindsight it was clear it was coming.  But with that one resonating shot at Tioga, as the cow elk fell, so did alot of our plans.  With that elk, crumpled at the edge of the fence line, the last shot was fired on our days and trips to Tioga.  After that hunt the taxidermist and butcher we had befriended five years earlier hastily, almost sloppily, churned our efforts into groceries.  He turned our capes over to a new "friend" taxidermist that quickly proceeded to go out of business and take our possessions with him.  Chester and Danny, who always wanted receipts for the groceries and were allergic to sweat and effort, faded from the scene.  Drew, the smoking machine and bane of scent control, lasted long enough to see a bear and then "poof".  Steve M. got old and tired and cranky.  He called it quits when I traded my $70 NJ license and two pheasants for $80 and a 12 bird guided hunt in PA.  Jason, my brother, lingers on the fringe.  He pops in on rare occasions to pretend and play at hunting and fishing, and then he's gone again.  Dusan, isolated and lonely, drank himself into staying home.  Tony and Patty lasted the longest.  His dream of having a real hunting cabin on the opposite side of the property in the valley was one of the reasons we liked our new place.  His dream, however, did not consist of cutting and splitting firewood for that cabin.  In his dream, the trees alongside the trail to that cabin grew away from the trail and policed their own branches.  To all of them, treestands hung themselves and firing lanes simply appeared in the woods, trail cameras walk themselves to scouting areas.  The best part of hunting (and owning a hunting property), the preparation and anticipation, was not part of the picture.  And so, everyone got married, got cold, got old, and lost sight of the most important hunting/fishing/outdoor element: family.
     None of us truly parted ways even though there is a chasm separating us.  There's still times that we get together, all or some of us, and pretend play at hunting as if we were 10 again with sticks as guns.  We'll spend a day or two, have a beer, relive old days gone by, tell the same tales over and over again, laugh and say our good-byes.  In some ways it is quite tragic.  In others, I guess it is the natural way of things.  And so the story of Stress Mt. fades into history and the story of our PA place, Triple F Farm, begins.

Monday, November 19, 2012


Thoughts from a Hunting Journal 
(Part VII)
     These early days also saw the beginning of our annual Tioga trip.  A three hour drive that ended at a high fence hunting preserve.  Let the debate rage over high fence, "canned" hunts but it has always served us well to kick off the coming hunting season and introduce a new hunter to the sport.  The first trip was a 50th birthday present for my father.  He went with my mother and a Colt Python hunting pistol in .357.  It was originally scheduled for a Russian boar mainly for meat for a bar-b-cue but it turned into a nice trophy ram.
      The following year found the family back again.  This time Mom, Dad, and Tara (my new bride).  All going for something.  Mom quickly put down a nice meat hog, followed by Tara's first kill ever, a ram.  Dad ended the day with a red stag that was previously wounded in a rutting fight with another deer.  The day-long hunt was our first attempt at videotaping the hunt and it went surprisingly well.  That first stalk and kill lit the fire of the hunt in Tara that would fuel the future direction of our family; not our current family but the one Tara and I were about to start. The next year brought a new addition to our family, my first daughter.  Madison arrived three short months before our annual trip to Tioga.  I trucked that little peanut in a backpack through the rocky landscape in search of an animal.  That hunt ended with a hog that put more than 100 pounds of meat in the freezer.
      Through five years of visiting Tioga, we, as a family, collected some fine trophy mounts but more importantly some great memories.  The "rustic" hunting lodge, the quiet nights with our new babies, the table talk with other visiting hunters discussing chicken leg bones and tall tales of yesteryear; all forming a foundation for a grander picture of life.  Madison accompanied us everywhere.  Hunting camp would truly become a family affair.  Along with boars and rams and goats, Tara would put a buffalo in the freezer.  Our final trip to Tioga would be in 2005.  By then my second daughter had already been to Tioga and trucked up and down the hills in a backpack.  On her second trip to Tioga, Bailey sat in Grandpa's pick-up bed and watched her mother stalk a cow elk.  Our final preserve hunt ended with a beautiful off-hand shot from Tara's 20 gauge Mossberg. 
      And with that shot, our humble family hunting beginnings ended.  The final tally: four boar, two rams, two goats, a Jacob's ram, a red stag, a buffalo, and a cow elk.  The freezer was full, my novice wife was acquainted with some of the rigors of hunting and road trips, and our new farm was awaiting our return.  Our hunting and outdoor tradition and future seemed well-established and ready to blossom.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Stress Mountain

Thoughts from a Hunting Journal
(Part VI)
     In the beginning there were no trails, just field.  There were no bathrooms, just a shovel.  There were no showers, just a creek.  We set up camp under the sun in the middle of the field.  We built a fire pit and mowed out a campsite.  We bought pick-up loads of firewood and trucked them four hours to camp.  Months passed as we camped each weekend and carved out ATV trails that moved our camp out of the middle of that field and into a more sheltered "upper" campsite.
      The first deer season found only my dad and I freezing in the sleet and snow, hunkered down in little spots we had found.  The freezing rain coated us like popsicles.  By lunch time we both had a pretty thick crust of ice coating our hunting jackets and we couldn't move without crunching and cracking.  Lunch was peanut butter and jelly as we found solace in the capped back of Dad's two-wheel-drive S-10.  We spent the night 30 minutes away in a Holiday Inn that smelled like an ashtray with the vent fan squeaking away all night.
      That next spring found us building homemade tree stands at pinch points throughout the property.  The ATV trails were expanded and a campsite was put in the valley.  I met what would be my wife and she quickly put in for her Hunter Education card.  Our first bid at property management was in full swing.  A place in the woods was being built, established, grown.  It would be the fertile ground that gave root some great memories.  It would be a family gathering place.  It would be Stress Mountain.
     With opening day of deer rifle season right around the corner, it is time to once again open the hunting journal and blow the dust off the old deer camp stories.  The next couple of installments to the Gravel Road will continue the "Thoughts from a Hunting Journal" series and allow the fond memories made pursuing wild game to have their day.  Thanks for traveling along with me.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Fields of Fall

    I did not spend Veteran's Day with my father as is my tradition.  The day happened to fall on a Monday, a week after election day.  The kids needed to be in school, work needed us back to the grind.  However, the week prior was Fall Recess for the kids and we had taken vacation to be off with the kids.  Our vacation would be spent at the farm, hunting and preparing for the coming winter season.  It's not as glamorous as it sounds but it is a stress reliever, away from the regular grind of petty dramas at my workplace.  It is fresh air and smelling the wet earth, surrounded by clucking chickens and nibbling goats.  It is dirt roads and wooded trails and the smell of woodsmoke.  Most times it is just chores with a beer or two and showing the kids how to drive a tractor or an ATV, or maybe how to change a tire or the oil.  It is a slow-down-and-enjoy-a-slow-cooked-dinner vacation.
       But this time, the kids wanted at least one day if not two to pursue their new hobby, geocaching.  It is a game of treasure hunting using a GPS and downloaded coordinates.  Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, as well as other outdoor-oriented groups and people, both hide and try to discover hidden caches strewn about the world.  Most are hidden in plain sight in local parks and points of interest.  The old caches are usually hidden on some hiking trail off in the woods leading to a scenic overlook or a particularly nice campsite.  Near our farm there are some harder, more remote caches to search for.  These are usually a good hike with an old ammo can at the end of the trail filled with little knick-knacks to trade.  It is a great excuse to get out and go for a walk, and an even better excuse to get Mom and Grandpa to take a break from the everyday chores around the homestead.
       We disguised our mission to Grandpa as a small game hunting trip over on the state game lands.  Mom thought we were going for a short walk in the woods.  Neither knew we were going after an antique cache placed ten years ago about a mile off the old dirt road running through a local hunting grounds.  For me, it was a two-pronged mission, enjoy the day out with the family hiking and being able to carry my favorite single-shot shotgun in the hopes of kicking up a stray pheasant or dashing rabbit with my dad.  The kids loved the idea of fitting two activities into one trip and they hopped into their hiking boots and filled the truck before I could fill a water bottle.  The road was muddy and lonely and perfect.  We caught a glimpse of a six-point buck as we bounced down the trail.  The excitement grew in the backseat.
        When we finally piled out of the truck, the morning fog still had not burnt off and the frost was heavy on the tall grass.  The air made the skin feel alive, with a little bite against the cheeks.  We explored the woods.  The kids initially walked timidly among the wooded trails, cautiously stepping through the grass, expecting something, anything to burst out at any moment.  Half a morning later we were within 500 yards of our goal, according to the kid holding the GPS, and it was all up hill.  My wife, holding her burning back (still toughing out a couple of herniated discs), tied her jacket about her waist, put her head down, and leaned into the mountain, not to be denied and not allowing her children to see her quit.  My oldest set a good pace up through the fields, Grandpa in tow.  My little one kept her mom company, enjoying being out in the hunting woods.  I climbed through the briars and methodically worked the inside edge of the field's woodrow, hoping to flush a bird toward the group, increasing the excitement.
        Leaving the fields and entering the bordering hardwoods, as we neared our final destination, the trees began to exhibit the wrath of the recent weather.  Hurricane Sandy left a path of twisted blow-downs.  The higher we climbed the more the woods looked like a big pile of pick-up-sticks.  The last yards were a hard won battle to the coordinates.  And then, nothing.  We couldn't find the cache, described as a large ammo can hidden at the base of tree in the middle of the pile.  We searched.  We dug.  We moved leaves.  We organized a true grid search.  We sat stunned, out of breath, on a log and sipped water.  We prepared to hike back down the mountain.  I would not quit.  I would not leave without one more good look.  And right there, under an old blow down was our goal.  It was partially buried by run off from the recent storms, looking like a pirate's treasure lost in the woods.  Grandpa grabbed an improvised rock shovel and extracted the can from its hidey hole.  There were smiles and laughter.  We signed the log inside the box, noting that we had been there, left a little memento and stuffed the box back under the tree.
        The hike back to the truck was a bit faster, downhill.  Grandpa was able to force a grouse out into the fall sky.  Everyone enjoyed the sun as we flowed down through the giant field, pointing out deer sign and bear scat to each other.  Veteran's day, for me, came a little early.  I guess nowadays you have to make your own holidays.  And it looks as if a new tradition has been made from an old one.  We hope to do this again next year.  Maybe we will visit this old box every year now.  It gave us more than the little treasures hidden inside.  Before we even opened that box it had given us a little bit of woods magic, if you believe in that sort of thing.  By the end it had given us a perfect fall day.  That box in the woods will hold our memories and in our memories will be an old ammo can.  An ammo can in the woods for a replacement Veteran's Day spent with a veteran surrounded with family.  It sounds almost too perfect.  Maybe there really is such a thing as woods magic.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Forgotten Day

It should be right behind the Fourth of July. It should be held in higher regard than all the rest. There is no reason for it to be forgotten. Parades and ceremonies and fireworks simply are not enough. This is a day to truly be thankful, a day that should be met with football and giant dinners and family gatherings. It is the one day that should never be taken for granted. Today is Veteran's Day.
The company I work for, like most companies theses days, does not recognize today as a day worthy of remembrance. It is a normal Friday. The union, as willing to accept dues as they are to concede recognized holidays, does not consider today a day worth fighting for. I wear the American flag stitched upon my work clothes, but can not recognize the heroes of this country without a sick day. The men and women who have fought and sacrificed for my rights and freedoms are not worthy of a day of recognition according to many, my company, it's customers, Local 807, and most of the rest of country included. The beginning of Summer is more important. The "unofficial" end of Summer is more important. A fictitious fat man in a red suit is more important. Watching a giant ball descend a pole while partying with friends is much more important. The veterans of this country are not as important as these things. However, without them we would not celebrate such frivolous matters.
For many years, I hunted with my father on Veteran's Day. We used to meet in the morning and drive to the Delaware Water Gap and walk the fields there in search of small game, pheasants and squirrels mostly. We never mentioned that it was a holiday. We just walked the woods together. Spending time together was enough, no hoopla. As my parents left New Jersey to reside in the slower pace of Pennsylvania, my father and I still made plans to meet on Veteran's Day to walk the same fields. Times have changed since those youthful hunts. The holiday calendar at work has grown lean on what is considered an important or allowable day off. I, at one time, resorted to sick days to keep the tradition of hunting with my dad on Veteran's Day going. Recently, I have used seniority and vacation to ensure that this day is spent with family.
My father is a disabled veteran of the Vietnam Conflict. He carries many scars of all kinds with him. There were years when those scars took their toll not only on him. I lost some years to those scars, too. The loss was of time and chances to make memories and I refuse to allow that to ever happen again. My children take pride in the fact that their grandfather was a soldier and fought for this country. I will not allow them to lose the opportunity to make memories of time spent with their grandfather. They proudly celebrate this day knowing they are, in some small part, connected to it. It is his day and he should have it. He has surely earned it and continues to earn it, everyday.
My story is only one of thousands, perhaps millions by now. My experiences of the effect of war and the cost of politics and freedom are merely a blade of grass in a meadow of such experiences. All of those stories deserve a place, a day of recognition, a moment to reflect and remember, and a small word of thanks. These stories are attached to lives, to families. They can not be allowed to fade from the memory of a nation. They have sacrificed for every American. They have earned their day.
Who wants to be the one that takes their day away? Who wants to be the one that allows their memories to fade? Who wants to be the one that keeps their stories from being told?

It will not be me. Mine is but a small inconvenience compared to their scarifices. It will not be me.

The above passage was written a year ago.  I intended to put new words to paper today but could not say it better than this.  I did not wish to just rehash old words, so I present it here in its original form.  I am contemplating reposting it annually so as not to forget the most important holiday.  For now, just know, that I will not forget the day and I hope anyone that reads this will not either.  We take too much for granted today without wondering at the price.  Our veterans know that price and should not be forgotten.

Friday, November 9, 2012


    It is amazing how fast the time goes when the time clock is not holding it for ransom.  Without the watchful company eye, time seems to slide right by.  I have been unplugged for five days now, no phone to interrupt the hours, no routine to follow, no daily drama, no truck drivers acting like teenage girls.  After all these years and all the projected stereotypes, who would have thought that at the root of it all truck drivers are merely burly, bearded mean grrrls, ripping each other apart behind turned backs while smiling face to face, drama and PMS, tit-for-tat keeping score, and always trying to get what the other has just because.  It is not the work that is grinding, it is the people and personalities that make it a grind.
     To re-energize, I needed to escape for a while, to shut down, to unplug.  And what better way to do that but with a week in the woods.  I have escaped Sandy, the dreadful hurricane that tore through NJ, and made it to the farm.  Two and a half hours away, I can not hear the complaining from discomfort.  I can only hear the purring of the generator as life continues on without power, a commonplace event.  I can not hear the phone ring, only the song of the birds as I sit in a treestand, not hunting so much as just enjoying watching the woods thrive in front of me, listening to the rustle of the wind through the dry leaves, catching a glimpse of a red-tailed hawk swooping in, securing dinner in it's razor-sharp talons.  The only snippet of news I see is donations of food and clothes made by people from other states being shipped to the unfortunate souls along the Jersey shore.
      In order to leave the everyday completely behind, a trip to upstate NY was in order.  It is a different world completely from the "big city" that I left behind.  Hillside after hillside, we pass the farms neatly cleared of hay, and the interspersed woodlot colored in auburn hues.  We visit Fly Creek Cider Mill to try all the samples laid out through the store.  There are salsas and dips, chips and pretzel sticks, apple cider and apple pie, peanut butter and apple butter and pumpkin butter.  We spend an hour or two sampling everything and filling our carts with favorites that we will bring home for the rest of football season (or should I say snacking season).  Lunch is the next order of business, as if snacking during shopping were not enough.  And the Brewery Ommegang, with its Belgian cafe, tempts us to stop, not just for the crepes and croques but also the Hennepin and the BPA.  You can not call yourself a beer drinker without visiting this hidden gem of a brewery. (During Christmas, the festivities are not to be missed and the rest of the year is filled with other festivals and concerts.  The brewery is more than beer and a worthwhile roadside destination.)
         To keep the non-beer lovers awake, I drive a little further down the road (with a full belly) to the Rustic Ridge Winery.  It is a fledgling vineyard, getting help from established Finger Lakes wineries.  The original tastings are limited, supplemented by offerings from the partner wineries, but the farm views and setting are quaint and help us reminisce of the days we spent in the area on our own piece of land not too far down the road.  We tried to stop at Butternuts, another farm turned brewery that recently started distributing in the city, but they have limited public hours and the working staff did not show any interest in sharing their time or products with sightseers that visit during the week.   The youngest of our group grows restless with all the adult beverages and silly talk of beautiful scenery and rolling hills.  The smells and tastes of the cafe have long since worn off and even the car snacks we bought at the cider mill have grown uninteresting.  I make a few stops along the ride to find a couple of geocaches for the kids to stretch their legs.  Keeping their GPS beeping keeps the kids smiling and while they watch the GPS for the next stop keeps the miles rolling beneath the truck.
           Beer and wine, crackers and wursts, dips and mixes, leaves and fields, miles and miles is just what I needed.  Time in a tree watching the sky change color, watching the birds flit by, watching the wind change the landscape is what was in order.  My only disappointments are that winter storm Athena did not grace us with fresh powder to cause reason to stoke the fireplace and that time has slipped by and my five days of being unplugged has ended.  For these last five days, I have felt nearly human again.  I have met my family again and realized how much I miss them during the other 50 weeks.  Sometimes it is too easy to get tangled in the web of workplace, petty drama and daily grind and forget the great big playground of the world around us.  Get outside and play, even if just for a couple of days.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Society of Selfishness

   I do not prescribe to the notion that I must be "connected" at all times.  An ongoing struggle at work, for me, is the fact I do not enjoy carrying a cell phone.  Having a constant electronic leash is not appealing.  Most of the calls I receive away from the time clock are not good news or congratulations for a job well done or a message saying that the persons now working can handle their jobs.  No, the calls are usually problems that others refuse to handle or possible shortcomings that need to be brought to light immediately or just an available ear that needs to be shouted in at that exact moment.  Is it an attempt to monopolize a worker's time or is it an unawareness to the fact that for some the universe revolves around things other than themselves (most likely a family not their own)?  Most of the problems that need resolution have originated through the actions of other's that also share the belief of the self-centered universe.  I suppose that there lies the root of the issue; the collision of multiple self-centered universes.
     My recent election to Girl Scout camp cook (and all the responsibilities that go with that title chronicled in an earlier post) serves as a prime example.  I had used a vacation day at work, submitted nearly six months in advance in order to allow for plenty of pre-planning to alleviate problems due to my absence.  A slew of reminders throughout the prior work weeks were publicized and the days leading up to my single day of volunteerism were filled with discussions of shift coverage.  The knowledge of my dedication to volunteerism is widespread, easily not a secret, yet somehow the person assigned to cover my work responsibilities did not get the memo and decided that "illness" would over take him on that exact day without any type of notification prior (including a call during the day) to the start of the shift.  The problem quickly became mine, my electronic leash ringing hatefully, as I cooked for 30 Girl Scouts.  The ill employee could not be reached and there would be no interruption to his sickness or comment on his interest in "covering the job" and the added responsibility for the day.  Two self-centered universes collided, a worker unwilling to shoulder a load and a job searching for the available ear, and the only one found was volunteering for a community group.  (Do not be alarmed, as the "ill" employee made a full recovery by the following Monday without the need for any medical intervention.)
      Perhaps it was my own universe that suffered from this inconvenience but it also seems that my universe was the only one giving back some time to others.  Which brings us to another example of this growing society of selfishness.  My daughter, while moving ahead in her school career, has reached double digits in age and a grade in which the work is harder, the computations more complex, and the classroom more accelerated.  Her class, as a whole, was saddled with the extra assignment of completing several hours of community service.  This was an assignment that she was excited about.  She loves her participation in Scouting, embraces helping her grandmother out at the local senior center, raises her voice for a different senior center every holiday season as she carols for the elderly, carries bags of her outgrown clothes to shelters and homes of those less-fortunate than her, and even adopts a family for Christmas, especially enjoying picking out a few choice things for her adopted counter-part.  Yet her excitement of further community endeavors was short-lived as she was given notice by her teacher that mandatory school-based community service projects were to be suspended because some parents felt that it did not contribute to their child's education and held no real value.  My daughter was confused, "How can community service, helping others, have no value?"  Her teacher has had no answer and her parents fight not to expose her to too much cynicism at once (her father already suffers from an overabundance of it and needs not callous his child unnecessarily).  Several self-centered universes combined to collide with the school's policy and create an atmosphere where a student does not need to give back to his/her community but only take care of themselves (and their perceived college applications, even if they are only 5th graders).  The students are now educated in selfishness and new self-centered universes have been born.  I am happy to see that my situation will be perpetuated by future generations.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Breaking Camp

    I was recently elected to the enviable position of Girl Scout camp cook.  I would take on the responsibility of preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner for nearly 30 Girl Scouts and 6 leaders/chaperones.  It is a great honor and privilege to be included in such an undertaking, crafting meals for picky eaters and the children.  My menu needed to be fast to make and serve, hearty and delicious, with food to spare for wayward parents that would not leave or were too lost for the journey home.  My menu consisted of pancakes for breakfast, followed by grilled cheese, peanut butter and jelly (grilled or plain), and hot dogs for lunch, and pasta (with red sauce, with butter, with butter and garlic) with chicken nuggets (plain or parmigiana) for dinner.  Our second breakfast would be Dunkin Donuts fresh from the store bought early before anyone was awake.  I tried to keep the meals simple, quick to fix but flavorful.  It was hard pleasing some adults and some of the kids, but overall, most bellies were satisfied.
      If my job had only ended there, my weekend in the wilds of northwestern NJ would have been a relaxing two days of reading and enjoying the fall foliage.  However, my job description was mysteriously expanded to cover nature trail guide, PR photography, music coordinator, ball field monitor, lakefront advisor, and lost parent/logistics recovery specialist.  Not to say that I found any of these job titles daunting, and they did add to the enjoyment and rapid passing of the hours, but I had to sacrifice some quality time with the fresh, quiet air of the woods accompanied by a book.  The tasks given to me were quickly, happily dispensed with and smiles were the best currency.
     For my incredible work ethic and superior skills in the handling of any situation, I was rewarded the bunk bed of honor.  It was located in a cabin down the road a piece, away from the Scouts, through the dark woods, away from the light of the camp fire, nicely perched atop a squeaky old spring, attached to a rickety wooden bunk, squeezed into a drab room with two other bunks.  It was an oasis, away from the rollicking ten-year-olds that refused to sleep and moms growing ever grumpier from the same lack of sleep.  I was able to envelope myself in silence and enjoy my outdoor literature in the dark outdoors.  I felt like a kid at camp again, reading by headlamp in a bed that cut through the quiet with piercing squeaks with every move.  I tried so hard not to make a sound and wake my room mate across the hall (another volunteer and high school classmate-turned father).
      These two days were crammed full of ropes courses, archery, nature hikes, rock skipping at the lake, campfires and bug juice, dump cakes, tug of wars, and woolly buggers.  The only electronics allowed were GPS units for a little geocaching, a secret a few scouts shared with some other, interested scouts.  The lack of phones and Ipods dismayed some, proving to a small degree the importance we, as adults and a society, place on always being connected, but most of the kids were not effected and returned to being kids, playing, screaming, running around, breathing the outside air.  In the end, the weekend was well worth the planning and hard work.  The smiles were huge and the laughter echoed through the woods.  My job is to nitpick the minuses to improve the next experience but it is also to savor the positives, for they far outweigh the others and are much more memorable.  The kids broke camp, cleaned the floors and packed their bags.  Their parents retrieved them on time (an unforeseen miracle) and the cabin and woods once again were silent.  Hopefully, they are awaiting our return next year. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Oh Sandy (Irene the Redux?)

 "Each home we visited swore to make preparations in the future and to invest in some sort of preparedness and emergency strategy. And, as the thunder rolls and I watch the clouds unfold, I wonder if it was merely talk or a true wake-up call. As the rain slowly peters out, I must dress for work. These thoughts will be revisited, as surely as the waters will yet again rise but for now the story is not newsworthy and will shortly be forgotten."

     It seems like years ago when those words were written.  It can not be only a year ago.  Last time was the storm of a lifetime, never to be seen again.  Last time was an event not seen in 100 years and not to be seen for another 100.  And, yet, the wind pounded the side of my house.  The rain stung like cold little needles flung from the clouds.  The popping transformers seemed real enough.  The rising, rushing water looked real, too.  The wiped out beach towns do not seem real but the news says the pictures are true.  The darkness, I can attest, cloaking the Big City and surrounding suburbs was tangible.  The loss of life and property are truly, presently setting in.  But the whines and cries of the frivolous are loudest.      
       Those that had the ways and the time and the knowledge to prepare but smugly sat by, stating that it will never happen again, or it can not happen to me, those are the loudest cries of outrage at the state, the police, the neighbors for having prepared or having power.  They shiver in a cold home of their own making and wait for help not out of necessity but out of weakness borne of laziness, complacency.  They had the means for preparation, learning from the storm of a year ago and blindly went about their daily life, knowing some one else would care for them and when that care did not come fast enough they howled.
        My heart goes out to those that lost everything.  The brutality of Nature displayed on our TV screens sometimes visits us more intimately.  We can not stop the forces of the Earth that carry us through this life.  And so I feel for those left homeless, without anything.  Yet, for the most part, they are the ones carrying on, picking up the pieces and rebuilding, vowing not to be broken by the events but to grow stronger.  For those that can not care for themselves, that truly need a hand, the elderly, the sick, the very young, we as a community must look out for them, prop them on our shoulders and carry them through.  I will happily share with those in need, sacrifice clothing, donate food, go out of my way, but I cringe at the whines of those able-bodied that are inconvenienced at their own hand.
         To complain of no heat when your neighbors huddle beside a fire made from the remnants of their home, to cry of no power when your neighbor has no clothes but what they currently wear, to shudder at the thought of living without a phone for a few hours while others try to fathom living without a loved one lost to the wind.  The voices heard during this crisis were not the people ravaged by the storm stripped of everything, they were the voices of those that sat comfortably (but cold) inside their homes with cellphones charged ready to complain of their discomfort while doing nothing to fix it.
         The trains will run again, the gas pumps will be full, the electric will once more flow freely through the power lines, and life will return to normal.  And while the strong rebuild, others will once again look for shoulders to carry them through the storm and ears to listen to their tales of woe.

"Each home we visited swore to make preparations in the future and to invest in some sort of preparedness and emergency strategy. And, as the thunder rolls and I watch the clouds unfold, I wonder if it was merely talk or a true wake-up call. As the rain slowly peters out, I must dress for work. These thoughts will be revisited, as surely as the waters will yet again rise but for now the story is not newsworthy and will shortly be forgotten."

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

October Morning

    The air has changed.  It has a crispness to it now.  Sweatshirts are beginning to creep into the sun.  The leaves are turning red, yellow, orange.  Some are caught by the wind and littering the landscape in a kaleidoscope of color.  Apples are big and bold on the branch, ripe for the picking.  The back roads that lead to the orchards are clogged with city folk looking to take some apples, and a little bit of country air, home with them.  Pumpkins sit upon the roadside on wagons or in bins waiting to be carved into Jack-o-lanterns.  There might even be a pie baking somewhere, sprinkled with nutmeg and cinnamon.  Cider, or hard cider depending on the nip in the air, fills the cooler and the fridge.  Autumn has arrived.
       I enjoy the Fall.  The color, the coolness, the smell of woodsmoke in the air.  Football season is in full swing, complete with cheese platters and snacks galore.  Peeling apples in the cool afternoon, filling the house with the aroma of apple pies baking, of applesauce bubbling on the stove, and of plain old baked apples filled with butter and cinnamon cooling on the sill.  The sun tries to chase the slight chill from the afternoon air and is kept at bay with a mouthful of ice cold cider.  But apples are not the only fruit to shine.  Recipes for pies made of pumpkins are being honed for the upcoming holidays.  Other orange-skinned mammoths are being nurtured out in the patch to finish their growth into perfect carvers.  The snaggled-tooth designs are already waiting in the minds of the kids for the day we cut the vines and bring the pumpkins to the house.
       The opening of hunting seasons has come.  There is small game and birds, archery deer, and the promise of fall turkey and bear yet to come.  The deer have begun to don their winter coats.  The turkeys are foraging heavy for the coming winter.  And the bear travel far and wide while fattening themselves for the den.  The woods seem alive and so do I as I move among the trees.  There is much to look forward to, to dream about.
        My head is filled with all these thoughts as the breeze brushes the curtains aside and forces me deeper under the covers.  The steel grey of an October morning is fighting its way under my eyelids.  And then I hear it, breaking the morning silence, cutting through the sleepy haze under the covers...a turkey yelp....and then another.  A cluck here, a cut there, and then another yelp.  What a glorious racket.  I spring from the bed, quickly dress and run down the hall to wake my youngest daughter.  She has been haunting me for the opportunity to go hunting and although it is Sunday, and hunting is not allowed, this is a great chance to get close to some wildlife.  She jumps from her bed straight into her clothes and somehow has a turkey call in hand as if she had been sleeping with it. 
         We have barely made it off the porch when we spot the birds pilfering the last of the blueberries from the garden.  The flock breaks up, some flying one way while others sprint the other.  We arrive at the scene of the crime and begin talking turkey.  Within five minutes a group of stragglers sneak by only 15 feet from our seats on a garden rock.  They spot us and wander away and we reposition ourselves in the nook of a maple stump between the little group and the rest of the flock.  The better part of the next hour is spent listening to turkeys answer my daughter's "practice calls" and waving to neighbors as they drive by with weird looks on their faces.  I'm not sure if it was because it was Sunday or because turkey season doesn't open for another month, or because we were dressed in some combination of camo and pajamas, but their looks were strange.
         The early morning's frost and the chilly breeze coming off the creek finally turned my daughter's hands into quivering little icicles.  We brushed off our damp rear ends and headed back for the warmth of the house.  A few steps into our journey and turkeys were busting all over the place.  As we opened the door the smell of bacon and cornbread led us right to the table.  My wife had already assembled a "hunter's" breakfast for us and our bellies would not be denied.  There is something magical about the Fall, about sitting on a stump with your child in the chill morning air with the excitement of discovery thick in the air.  There is magic in the beat of a turkey's wings and the yelp that cuts the wind.  Magic is bacon and eggs and cornbread and applesauce and pumpkin pie.  The falling leaves hide it sometimes but the trees hold the magic of the season.  The magic escapes when you lift the lid on the carving pumpkin and fills the room, spooky cobwebs and all.
        Do not waste the autumnal magic sitting in front of the computer screen.  Power down, X out, and get outside.  Fill your lungs with cool air.  The woods are alive as are the farmers markets and roadside pumpkin stands.  Enjoy it before the white stuff dumps from the heavens and new magic fills the day.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Farewell to Summer

    The summer season has been gone for a couple of days now.  The heat seems to be fading.  The air conditioner has retreated to its place in storage as the nights have grown sweatshirt chilly.  The sun no longer bakes the sidewalk as we follow it to the schoolyard gates.  The ringing of the school bell serves to reinforce that summer is truly over.  My house has grown quiet now, for a few hours, as the kids resume their studies in the classrooms.  The cool breeze rustling the curtains and carrying the laughter of the kids in the playground during recess gives me pause and a time to recall the memories made this past season.
      Our summer began with a trip to DC to celebrate with 250,000 Girl Scouts the 100th anniversary of the organization.  The kids were able to spend quality time with their grandparents, doing chores on the farm, helping Grandma (and the seniors) at the county's Senior Center, and swimming in their new pool, filled with icy spring water.  The county fair is always a highlight, especially the 4H and livestock displays, although nowadays the trend seems to be moving away from the grassroots and agriculture, mason jars and hayrides and replacing them with carnival rides and boardwalk games complete with hawkers.  The summer nights were filled with old-fashioned ice cream windows, dripping cones and fireflies.  The croaking of the bullfrogs sang to us as the grill glowed into the summer evenings.  The hay was put up early this year, leaving time for some relaxation, and completing some other chores usually not thought about until cooler times.
       This summer my kids discovered geocaching, an ingenious way of getting them outside.  It is a treasure hunt of sorts, using a GPS, some coordinates obtained from the computer, and some hiking.  Throughout the country are hidden little treasure boxes, caches, holding a log book to sign in and some trinkets to trade.  By now, they are well versed in the usage of a GPS (Dad loves this aspect), acquiring and applying coordinates (another great aspect), and observing their surroundings for things that seem out of place (wow, 3 for 3).  They can not wait to get outside, to go hiking (or caching), and explore new places.  With school in full swing, homework is done immediately in the hopes of having some daylight left to get out and look for a new little treasure. 
       Summer's last hurrah was a road trip to Elysburg, PA and the amusement park in the woods.  Knoebels is always a highlight, a rabbit hole in the woods, where old-timey rides go to live forever in their past glory.  The admission is free, the paths are shaded, the crowds easily tolerable, and the smiles long.  The kids brought one of their friends (and her family) this year.  We laughed and ran from ride to ride.  The day was shortened by storms but not before we boarded the roller coaster one last time.  We have ridden roller coasters before.  We have ridden the Twister before.  But we have never ridden in a storm before.  The young man controlling the ride sent us on our way with an ominous warning that we were on the log flume and that at the top of the ride it looked as if the skies were about to burst.  As the clickety-clack of the climbing coaster brought us to the peak of the ride, the clouds unleashed their cargo.  The heavens opened and the wind howled.  We were pelted by raindrops the size of quarters and it came at us sideways, held captive by the wind.  Our clothes were quickly saturated but our smiles could not be wiped clean.  We all laughed, almost maniacally, into the face of the storm.  The booming thunder punctuated our ride and the operator ended our ride with a "Thank you for riding the washer machine" and that was exactly what a ride inside a washing machine would be like, loud, soaking, swirling.
         The summer has ended now.  The memories held close, both in our minds and some caught forever through the eye of a lens.  The coming cooler weather holds more adventures but for now we must say farewell to Summer.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"The Right Thing To Do"

    I have been raised to do the right thing.  From young I have been taught, by both example and discipline, to carry myself a certain way.  Please and thank you, a question deserves a response, look people in the eye when they are talking to you are all important blocks in the solid foundation of a growing boy.  A solid handshake that when necessary acts as a guarantee to fulfill the words that were spoken and those words should carry the weight of a legal document.  Honesty, not only to add the weight to the words, but in the path of life chosen.  Lying was a highly punishable offense growing up, tantamount to thievery, a sacrilege that could be met with stoning.  Always meet your commitments, especially if it is an inconvenience, those were usually the most important ones, that had the most importance to and impact on the people around you.  Never walk away from obligations whether it be a team sport, a delegated assignment, a promise to a friend, or a family member in need.  You should always leave things better than you found them and you should give more than you take.  It is never a hand-out but a hand-up, even to strangers because there are always those that need it more than we do.  Above and beyond is the norm not the exception and quitting was, is, and never will be an option.
      This is the foundation of my life.  Perhaps most of it reeks of cliche, especially now, reading the words as I write them but they are my life.  They are the terms on which I live.  This is how I have met my wife and built a family, first through giving and promises upheld and then through honesty and commitment.  This is how a loving farm has been built, hand-in-hand with family with care and hard work.  "An honest day's pay for an honest day's work" has led me to this place in life and I am thankful.  I have the things I do because of the foundation my parent's helped me build through the years by both hugs and the belt when needed.  My wife keeps me along that path now much the same way and we raise our children on the same strong ground.  And, my friends are my friends because of this. 
     However, as of late, I have become aware, perhaps because of age, either of me or my kids, that the circle of friends has dwindled, that the immediate world around me, for the most part, no longer shares my ideals.  At times, I feel as if my kindness, my patience, my willingness to bend, to give is mistaken for weakness, for a trait worth exploiting.  What I had perceived as friends for years are no longer present, some caught up in the never-ending pursuit of "things" or "status" or, perhaps, just the mindless pursuit that keeps them insulated from the life they have created.  Some have been entangled in a web of their own creation, untruths so deep they do not know how to climb out.  Others have found the commitment to honesty too high, as their selfish goals became apparent.  And still others have reached their goals and our usefulness to them has run out. They have taken what they needed and do not intend to give back and so they move on.  I have shared many years and great memories with most of these people.  They are forever woven into the fabric of my life.  I do not begrudge them their pursuits, I was not raised that way.  Though I do harbor, some days, frustration with some, as we have shared so much and some are so close, that I do not understand their choices or the paths they follow.  I can not change them but I can stand firm on my foundation and know that I will still be here when, and if, they return.
    Sometimes I wonder if I have set my expectations of others too high, if I have doomed my children to a fate similar to mine, a small circle of family and friends.  But then I look at the people that are still by my side, the true friendships I have, the family I share holidays and memories and years with, the partner in life that holds my hand, and I know that I am on the right path.  It may be less traveled but it is the one I should be on.  It is the one I will put my children on and hope they do not stray.  And I know they will not because I have seen it with the family of my closest friends.  I have lived it.  My parents still live it to this day.  From strong roots grow strong trees, this is more than a cliche, it is life.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Gettysburg -- Ghosts and Growlers

    This summer's adventures, so far, have had fireworks, good food and friends, and several road trips.  The latest one being a family reunion in Gettysburg, PA.  This was the first reunion for my wife's side of the family.  Several relatives drove cross-country from the West and Midwest.  Most came from various towns throughout New Jersey.  We all met at a KOA campground near the historic Gettysburg battlefield.  Luckily for the kids, my wife and I had scouted the campground last year, so they had already experienced the enormity of the battlefield and heard the tales of soldiers on both sides of the war and toured the old farm homes turned rustic inns.  Our weekend trip this time around consisted more of old family stories and meeting long, lost relatives that seemed more like strangers.
      My wife spent the day catching up while the kids valiantly fought boredom.  The older kids of the other families (mostly teenagers) graciously played campground games with my kids, keeping them busy while the adults tried to fit years of living into a few short hours.  There were plenty of the older generation represented, grandmothers and great-aunts, some who had never met before.  The teenagers and twenty-somethings were more than happy to participate in a road trip to see parts of history and share their own family's history.  The middle generation, the 30's and 40's, the growing families of younger children, 'tweens, and even some teens, was disappointingly absent.  They all were too consumed in their own universes to take the time to make the trip and possibly the sole chance to see and meet family from across the country.  My wife was especially disappointed that the kids did not get the chance to see some of their unknown or little-visited cousins.  I think she wanted some more interaction with family her own age to recount old family legends.  She, however, found great joy in her time with her westerly relations.
       The reward for being a good husband and minding my P's and Q's was a stop at the local brewery.  I had looked forward to stopping at Appalachian Brewing since our visit last year.  It is one of life's little pleasures to return home from the road with a fresh gallon of quality crafted beer.  Three varieties were enough to keep the cooler partly full (I was secretly planning on passing a few other breweries on the way home, so a partly filled cooler was mandatory.) 
       Down the road from the brewery is the "main strip" of Gettysburg, a short run of craft, souvenir, and period clothing stores with a few "ghost-hunting" tourist traps sprinkled in.  The kids would never allow us a trip to Gettysburg without stopping at Gettysburg Paranormal.  They love ghost-hunting and they love to be scared silly, even if it's not right at that moment.  Last year, they enjoyed a family-friendly adventure through the outskirts of the battlefield with a Paranormal guide, Cori.  She was a wonderfully informative guide filled with old Civil War legends and a knack for keeping the kids interested.  Unfortunately, she was already booked for the evening and the kids really wanted to try something a little more intense.  So we made a reservation for the the night-time, adult tour and GPA made an exception for our kids to participate because of their prior experience.  Some of the teens from the reunion joined in and the ghost hunt was on.  Without getting into details, some kids bailed out halfway through due to eerie feelings and chills and our kids needed "some air" at the last room (In their defense, creepy mannequins in a dark room dressed like Civil War soldiers hidden in bushes was a little unsettling even to the adults).  In the light of the following morning, tears of fright and scary goose bumps were replaced by smiles and timid requests to return next year to be scared again.
        The road home led us through Amish country, and we were able to catch plenty of glimpses of horses and buggies.  The farmland was therapeutic, ever-flowing waves of green across the landscape.  We somehow needed gas right outside Lancaster and the Lancaster Brewing Company seemed the logical stop for lunch.  Their food was excellent but their beer sampler was a little extreme for road trippers (14 5oz. glasses of everything they make seems a little excessive in the middle of a three hour tour).  The wife and kids voted on six of the best sounding brews to sample and the food followed shortly thereafter.  The Turkey Hill Experience was a roadside attraction the kids begged to see and it gave me time to peruse the map and local attractions brochures.  The two lane brought us past more farms, more buggies, and, mysteriously, another brewery, Rumspringa.  What a quaint little place, very airy, rustic and filled with beer worth a return trip, a gem of sorts among the crop fields.
        We were all happy to have our own beds underneath us by the day's end but a new reunion, a couple of years off, is already in the works.  Hopefully, this time, everyone can make the effort, take the time, to visit.  But, if not, I'm sure a brewery or three will mysteriously pop up along the route along with some ghosts of time gone by.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Spanish Flair

    For Macy's spectacular fireworks display on the Hudson River, we had decided to go the more extravagant route and dip into the bank account.  We secured reservations to a restaurant offering VIP parking and seating right on the riverfront for the 4th of July.  The kids excitement was not only contagious but well worth the effort.  The day might have been blistering hot but the warm summer breeze as the sun faded on the water was comforting.  We were able to drive right down to the waterfront with the windows open, soaking in the sights and sounds of the city electric.  The kids were bouncing from window to window in the back seat as we were waved through each successive road block and check point.  The roads were empty of traffic as we cleared the final barricade and headed for the valet stand.
    We needed to arrive nearly an hour ahead of our reservation to ensure passage through the multiple checkpoints and building traffic for the anticipated fireworks.  No one seemed to mind, however.  And once we left the car behind, the hour of waiting for our reservation time to come seemed to only be part of the adventure.  The kids spent their time watching all the boats bobbing on the river, jockeying for the best spot on the water.  It was like a giant floating city of partying and BBQ.  The NYFD was well represented on the water and their firefighting ships were putting on quite a display in their own right, blasting multi-colored water in every direction.  Somewhere above us music drifted through the summer air and added to the atmosphere.  Our table time was a distant thought when it arrived.
      Our outside, riverfront dining was exceptional.  We watched formations of helicopters fly over head as we sipped sangria at our table.  The kids experimented with lobster ceviche and picadillo as the last rays of the day turned the river a magical purple hue.  Our main course was brought to the table in spectacular fashion, as the NY skyline shimmered with fiery blasts.  Sparks and booms filled the night sky and paella, arroz imperial, and sole del alma filled our table.  Each forkful was celebrated with its own bursting spectacle.   Taste buds exploded with flavor and new found favorites as eyes were filled with the wonder of fire in the sky.  As a dad, I had captured lightning in a bottle, and an unforgettable dining experience, an event not soon to be replicated, boyfriends beware.  The crowd began to dwindle as dessert arrived.  Plates were traded or placed in the middle of the table so all the selections could be sampled by everyone.  Trio of flan was hard to come by as my oldest somehow hid it away.  An enormous helping of tres leches bested my little one, ensuring a taste for everyone.  Churros were an afterthought, a dessert after dessert, to be nibbled on as I enjoyed a cafe con leche basking in the success of this special evening.
         The ride home was quiet, everyone sleeping with full bellies.  I creeped home in the waning traffic, smiling the whole way. Son Cubano was a the perfect restaurant on the perfect day.  In the end I silently thanked my Spanish friends for the spattering of phrases that impressed both my waiter and my family and for the experiences they have opened my children to.

Big Thanks

....to Verizon for finally getting my internet service back, or was it just the weather cooling off slightly to allow the infrastructure to resume working?  (THe favorite excuse of Verizon, service that does not operate during heat waves.) Either way I have been backlogged long enough.  The words will now continue to flow.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Capitol

    In keeping with the current trend, this past weekend was spent celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Girl Scouting.  This event called for a road trip to our nation's capitol.  It also called for a crowd of 250,000 scouts.  The whole thing truly put into perspective the scope of Girl Scouts.  My children witnessed first-hand the reach of the organization as they looked out upon the sea of Girl Scouts spread across the National Mall from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  A visit to DC is a trip every family should undertake at least once.  A picture in front of the White House, a stop in front of the Capitol Building, and a walk down the streets our government walks on nearly every day is something to remember.  The Smithsonian Museums (Air & Space being a favorite), the FBI, the Pentagon are all worth the ride.  Within ten blocks, a family can visit Lincoln, the Wall, the WWII Memorial, the Washington Monument, and a whole slew of others.  This particular weekend was even more special because of all the Girl Scouts.
    In keeping with the current trend, the bad must come with the good. Some will complain about the heat, the lack of water, the lack of talent.  Someday people will take responsibility for themselves.  The homeless situation was a little overwhelming but I feel it was a strong lesson for my kids, an important hypocrisy for them to see.  Some "troop leaders" allowed their scouts to cool themselves in the fountains of the memorials, to my entire family's disbelief (Ignorance is still alive and well).  The scales, however, were overwhelmingly tipped toward the side of good.  The crowd was pleasant.  Everyone we passed along the way was smiling and ready with a happy hello.  Again, swaps were the currency and led to many a great conversation under one monument or another.  My kids beamed with pride as they told the story of their swap's creation.  They buzzed with excitement to hear from where each group we encountered traveled from, so many places, faces, people.
    The Girl Scouts must have a secret Beer Badge because the dining room of the Capitol City Brewing Company was overflowing with them as we washed the heat of the day away with some frosty mugs of local brew.  The food wasn't bad either and I would recommend both to anyone visiting DC.  Our trip was a complete success.  The kids saw the vastness of the Girl Scouts and the kindness of many that participate.  They learned of some of the opportunities available to them and that the world is a great big playground.  We visited all these interesting places gathered within walking distance of each other, each filled with stories and questions and answers.  And the seed of wanderlust has been planted and will, hopefully, forever flourish within them.

A Bittersweet, Chocolaty World

   Let me get the negative side out of the way immediately.  Girl Scouts is about working together, community, values, "doing the right thing", empowering young girls and helping them grow into strong young women, and nurturing confidence through journeys and adventures.  With that said, the experience I had two weeks ago with the local Junior Girl Scouts was full of mixed emotions.  The troop was involved in one of the first out of state camping trips in recent history, and their destination was Hersheypark in Hershey, PA for the 20th Annual Camporee celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Girl Scouting.  That's a pretty big to-do!  The trip had been planned for months.  The paperwork was daunting.  The chasing down all the folks for their papers, money, information even more so.  But a month before the trip, all was calm and only the packing was left to take care of.  My packing consisted of ensuring there was camping gear for more than just my family.  I needed to bring enough for several groups (this was a family trip so everyone could participate).  Now for the rant.
     I was disappointed to see so many parents not willing to participate in the "camping" (I use quotes because sleeping in a tent within the confines of a well-manicured campground with clean bathrooms and porta-potties every 25 yards and a well-stocked general store is not true camping.  However, for many that had never experienced the outdoors, this was a great start.).  Some of the campers apparently received a memo explaining the benefits of concierge camping with tents that magically appear without effort of set up.  The non-campers, nearly half the troop, "camped" at local hotels and made little effort to rendezvous at the campground or even meet within the amusement park for even the slightest hint of solidarity.  That was even before the rains came.  Once the clouds opened up, some of the campers scattered, running for the shelter of the local lodging.  Without a thought, they left their fellow scouts to tough out the storm on their own.  I guess part of scouting is the life lesson of  "every man for himself" during hard times.
     The sunny part of my rainy experience was watching the scouts that were left behind scamper through the raindrops, constantly smiling, helping other troops from around the country set up their campsites.  I was quite proud to see how happily they aided other families try to get situated as the day's light waned.  Their spirits were not dampened by the cancellation of Friday's bonfire, as they sang and played games inside their giant mess tent, giggling all the while.  A couple of cracks from the sky as the thunder boomed kept the excitement in the trip as their energy finally gave way to sleep.
    Saturday brought sunny skies and broad smiles.  The handful of scouts that emerged from the tents were electric.  A short walk to the dining pavilion found not only breakfast but new friends as the girls formed a loose circle and played sing-along games.  Scouts from other troops shyly joined in and our troop started to see what a camporee was about.  They hesitantly traded swaps, little, hand-crafted reminders of the people they meet during their trip.  And then it was time for roller coasters and thrill rides.  The day at the park was a blur of screams, laughter, loops, and turns.  There were s'mores and hot dogs, ice cream and popcorn.  The park was wonderful but the ghost of separation always lingered as we saw other troops in matching shirts, en masse, running from ride to ride. Sunday was chocolate.  After a flag ceremony and more swaps and pictures (with the hopes of being involved in Hershey PR for next year even the separate, non-campers wanted to be involved), it was all about the Hershey factory and how much candy the kids could talk us into bringing home. The road trip ended at Waffle House with swirling clouds and hail and nature show the kids still talk about.
     I learned alot during my adventure.  I learned that prima-donnas will always be just that, and they will miss out, even if they don't think so.  I learned that some people never do grow up, some for the best, some not so much.  I learned that offering to lend a hand sometimes really means doing all the work.  I learned that kids don't melt in the rain but sometimes adults do.  I learned that a beer is nowhere near as important as smiles and laughter and the happiness of children.  I learned that swaps are the currency of memories.  I watched a parent with a bad back sleep in a tent to ensure her child didn't miss out.  I saw a grandmother laugh at the weather to make sure her grand-daughter had a great time.  I learned that you will never please everyone but those few that you can reach will remember it for a long time.  I learned that we live in a bittersweet, chocolaty world.  You have to take the bad with the good, the sweet and the not-so-sweet.  I learned that chocolate melts in the rain but it still tastes so good as you lick it off your fingers.

(In the end, the kids wound up having an incredible time.  Their memories will be filled with the joy of the day and the experiences they had.  I have always ensured that my jaded and cynical observations of the world never make it to my children's ears.  They have their whole lives ahead of them to grow callouses.)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sore Muscles

   The days were warm this past weekend, air-conditioning warm.  The bugs were enjoying a break from the rain, and the moist ground was more than willing to give up even more bugs than usual.  The grass seemed to have sprouted overnight and it looks as if hay season will be here tomorrow.  The landscape has swallowed much of what was visible only days ago.  And even though we can no longer see it, we know it is there, the dilapidated old house that is our neighbor.  The owners have abandoned it to foreclosure, the renters or squatters or what-have-you's have even packed up and left.  The building has long passed unlivable. 
    It is not the building we have become interested in, however.  It is the quiet half-acre adjoining it.  It is actually the old home's yard, a separate parcel of land lost to taxes.  We acquired it from a local man that had mistakenly bought it at auction and had no need for it.  It will soon serve as access to our pasture and as a watering hole for our horses.  All this after reclaiming the land, cutting back the trees, removing the old fence posts, fighting with the old barbed wire, and brush hogging the weed choked field.  Memorial Day weekend, three days away from work and the city, would be the perfect time to take on such a task.
     Initially, my father and I fought our way through the tall grass, surveyed the topography, and formulated a plan of attack.  He would mow down the grass while I chainsawed my way through the tangle of pines sitting beside the small spring we planned to use as a water source for the pasture.  With plenty of sweat and wood chips flying, the branches piled up quickly.  The forks on the tractor carried them away as I moved on to battling the barbed wire.  The old strands were matted in clumps of grass that hadn't seen a good mowing (or even grazing) in forever.  My hands and calves and jeans bear the marks of that battle.  My gloves have been reduced to tatters.  The fence poles followed shortly after, pulled one by one out of the ground.  The steep lay of the land does not easily lend itself to tractors and other machinery, so much of the work is done with sheer brawn.
    By the end of the third day, the land is cleared and ready.  It awaits the new fence, the new water trough, the trot of new animals upon it.  It is nearly complete.  Another weekend of sweat is all that is needed to reclaim this once forgotten parcel.  My muscles are sore, to be sure.  I am tired.  Yet, the sweat and soreness are comforting as I look at the work that has been accomplished.  In the end, it is my family's land and they enjoy their time here.  The soreness will fade, my body all the better because of it, but their smiles and the legacy of the land will not.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Views from the Courtroom

    I was told it was an honor and extremely important task, participating in the judiciary process, a civic duty to be embraced.   I now know why a person is sent a summons demanding involvement.  I realize why they threaten jail time for skipping out.  If they truly wished happy volunteerism, they would at the least provide parking and maybe a few comfortable chairs.
    I am sitting here on what seems to be the oldest benches from the oldest courthouse in the country.  They were originally built to seat arrested people awaiting their trial.  They are hard, bolted to the floor too close to one another, and promote only the finest posture.  Around the perimeter of the room are several library cubicles for the people that need to continue their work with laptop or pen and pad,  and apparently the current judiciary feels twenty of these is just about the right amount to create enough hostility over seating arrangements without escalating into physical blows.  After five hours, the administrators have tried to quell the boredom with a videotape of some obscure 90's movie shown on a single 26" TV suspended in such a fashion to face only one side of the room and adding to the seating arrangement hostilities.  The room itself is sparse, could use a tad more than just paint (it probably hasn't seen refreshing of any sort since about '64), and somewhat dismal.  There are a couple of books to fight over, some outdated magazines, and, of course, a person could use their phone until the battery dies.
     The administrators are pleasant enough, going even so far as to apologize for the $5-a-day compensation not covering the $12 parking fee.  They are more than happy to help guide you through the process or answer any questions.  They are kind enough to inform everyone present that their compensation will be processed on "Payroll Friday" and mailed to us within 2-3 weeks.  The manager even pre-apologizes for butchering your name before you are given your assignment.
     I am currently participating in the new jury duty system.  It is a system in which, if you are lucky enough to escape the big room's boredom (the bullpen), and find your courtroom, the fun really begins.  The excitement builds when the county sheriff tries to politely shoehorn 100 people into 75 seats.  It grows when all cell phones need to be powered down or forfeited.  By the time the judge enters the room, the excitement is at a fever pitch.  The excuses for not participating in the judicial process fly at an alarming rate.  The classics come out first: disabilities (not being able hear being popular, especially while listening to music on one's phone), no comprendo coming in a close second (especially comical when answering all the questions asked in English), and financial hardship (really funny when proposed by the unemployed of the group saying it interferes with the job search).  Then the really creative ones start dropping: "I'm a radical", "I'm a militant", "All cops are honest", "All defendants are guilty and should get life", "My daughter's sister's cousin is pregnant and I have to watch their dog", and so on.  The final trick, for the hardcore, is the honesty approach: "You're the judge that sentenced my little brother last year" or "He looks like the guy that raped my sister."  The jury pool shrinks considerably and then the lawyers throw out all the most stern-looking or forthright-looking citizens.  Anyone with an honest job usually finds themselves back on the Fourth Floor.
    And so it is that I find myself returned to the "Bullpen" watching the clock creep along toward the final bell of my final day of jury duty for the next couple of years.  I have learned much.  I have learned that when faced with adversity (or just really dirty bathrooms) a person can hold his bladder for nearly 10 hours.  I have learned a new argument against the minority conviction rate (more minorities were excused from service purely on language and reading, or the claim that they could not communicate in the courtroom only outside of it, than anyone else).  This seemed truly odd to me, seeing as the demographic pool seemed to side away from predominantly white, the jury box did not, solely due to minority unwillingness to participate. I have seen enough to know exactly why trials take weeks and seem to drag forever, and jurors are able to write books during the process.  Lastly, I have found a place perhaps more horrifying than the DMV.

Monday, May 21, 2012


   It is quite a dreary day.  The rain is hitting hard against the window.  I can see the puddles dancing as the drops endlessly pelt them.  The sky is cool and grey, not a ray of sun to be seen.  I am preparing to pick the kids up from school as I peer out the window for the most accurate weather forecast.  I can see the other parents running as if they can beat the drops or weave between them.  There appears to be a parade of umbrellas battling to fit through the playground gate.  I remove two oilskin cowboy hats from their hooks in the hallway and begin my harrowing journey down the never ending block to the school.  The kids love to don these hats and pretend to fight their way home on some epic, rain swept adventure.  As I feel the rain on my face I remember earlier days of marching younger daughters down this same block to kindergarten and pre-k, shooing them out of the puddles as they giggled.  When my oldest attended school but her sister did not, the little one used to love skipping through the puddles and filling her boots with water outside her sister's classroom.  To this day neither one likes to give up the outside playground for the cramped quarters inside the school during inclement weather.  Both would rather experience the weather, question the comings and goings of clouds or snowflakes or raindrops.  They stand defiantly outside their classroom doors, daring their classmates to brave the elements alongside them.
      I really hope my children never lose that wonder.  I hope they never learn that fear.  The fear of wet jeans or wet socks, the fear of messy, damp hair, the fear of wet hands from playing outside with wet toys.  I hope that they always remember that a little rain on the skin does not melt them but washes away worries.  There is nothing like the freedom of playing in the puddles of a spring rain.  I still marvel at how much fun a puddle can be. Too many times too many people forget what it is to be young, to be carefree, to give in to the giggles, and that those giggles can bring rays of sun on the dreariest of days.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

April Showers

    You may have been wondering where April went.  Well April was full of showers, and it poured...hard.  The previous month was busy.  It had doctors' appointments, back surgeries, physical therapy, and plenty of discomfort.  It also had some outsourcing.  My wife's job was moved to South America and we endured all the good stuff that goes with the loss of employment.  (Big thanks to Big Government.)  It was a rainy season, to say the least.
     But May has turned those storms into wildflowers.  Our job search was painful but more than successful.  The back pain is nearly gone and there is a return to better days, chockful of activities.  Our steps have grown quicker and lighter, our hearts lighter.  We have weathered the rain together, as a family and the sun is now, finally, beginning to shine through the clouds.  I'm still an ornery SOB but I'm smiling a little more each day.  And the adventures can be delayed but the road can not be denied.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Awards Ceremonies

    I used a sick day a few nights ago.  I felt it was more important to attend an awards ceremony for the local Girl Scouts.  Missing a day (or night) of work is a small thing compared to disappointing two little girls.  They might not see me, I usually occupy a back corner to avoid adult interaction, but they always know when I am there. 
    The thing that struck me on this particular night was the lack of girls.  I have attended this ceremony for the last several years and there had always been a great showing.  Some of the troops have close to 50 girls, some even top 70, some are smaller (10), but combined there are 150 girls, with parents the room should be tight, at least 300 people, I would guess.  This night did not even get near those numbers.  There were rows of chairs empty.  The Scout leader cut right to the heart of it.  "Please leave a couple of extra seats for girls that might be coming.  It is raining and hopefully the games will be postponed.  Thank you."
     As always, I started thinking.  If they handed out trophies for the number one team tonight the room would be overflowing.  Instead they were handing out acknowledgements for visiting lonely senior citizens during the holidays.  They were passing out badges for gathering cans for the food pantry.  They were applauding each other for helping each other gain confidence as they conquered a 40 foot wall during rock climbing.  They were celebrating the passing of a friend, a scout, a person with more than 50 years of touching the lives of young women.  There were other awards, other acknowledgements, for years served, for projects completed, for other lives touched, like the home schooled Girl Scout in Missouri that the troop adopted.  She simply asked to share experiences because time with doctors and at the hospital with her sick brother did not allow for a lot of social activities.  
     I realize that trophies for coming in first are memorable.  I sadly concede that a ball game played in the darkening drizzle of a Monday night is more pressing than nurturing community, charity, caring, and helping others, and recognizing the sacrifices, however small, that are made by a group of school girls.  It was a dark, damp night.  But it is also a dark, cold time we live in.  Maybe I am a bit more pessimistic than most, but this was a sad statement of what is more important to most people and the priorities we teach our children.  Our role models are million dollar prima donnas that are burnt out and used up by 40 getting paid to play kid games, serious kid games that callously leave most behind, broken.  Our role models are not strong women that bucked the system and taught the world that they were just as capable in the outdoors as men and could give back to their community at the same time.  Perhaps I missed something but I doubt it.  And I used a sick day to make sure I didn't miss a thing. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Too Much Concrete

      I heard this the other day and it stuck with me, "That's what's wrong with this country, too much concrete."  It seemed fitting that we were only a day away from making the trip into the mountains to visit Grandma and Grandpa.  It had been a long week, a longer month, and the trip always sets all four of us at ease, a kind of "breath of fresh air" to blow away the stress and unwind a little.  During the drive, we, as a family, have time to reconnect, talk about our misadventures during the week past, discuss upcoming events, and make plans for things that we would like to do after everything else is done.  It also allows us to ready ourselves for the week's worth of farm chores we will try to accomplish in just 24 hours.  Sometimes we can pull it off.  Other times we simply sit and relax.  And so it is with this weekend, a nice mix of doing some simple, quick chores to check off the to-do list sprinkled with rocking chair sitting.
     A lot of the stress-free atmosphere has to do with the lack of concrete.  The feel of the damp grass beneath bare feet tickles not only the soles but the soul.  The fragrant wildflowers fill the air and the lungs with life.  The bubbling of the creek as its water rushes over the rocks fills the ears and drowns out the white noise of the cityscape left behind (my ears seem almost superhuman without the throbbing pulse of city living constantly drumming in my head).  With the city's haze left behind, everything seems clearer.
       On Saturday, my daughter began her wildlife checklist for the weekend, a test to see how many different kinds of animals she can see during the weekend.  My test was merely to see how sparse I could make the concrete that surrounds us all week.  The world obliged us both, and in a single day.  We always spy plenty of birds (eagles, turkey buzzards, and a variety of songbirds), squirrels, chipmunks, deer, and groundhogs.  But this day would allow even more possibilities.  A stop at our local farmer to buy some fresh butter and milk brought cows, farm dogs, and pigs.  It also brought that wonderful pound of fresh butter sold by the crock on the side of the road that comes with a down-to-earth conversation with the folks that make it.  The only concrete here is in the foundations of the barn and home on the land, and the road that passes by them.
       When we pull off that road and on to the 4 miles of gravel that lead to our driveway, we spot beaver and geese making their homes in a local pond.  We wave to our horses out in the pasture and call to our goats as the "Baaaaaaaaa" at our truck's approach.  Roxy, our chocolate lab, meets the truck in the driveway, awaiting our little daughter's emergence from the passenger door.  The concrete has disappeared and with it the need for shoes.  Pants get rolled up to dip toes into the pond and dip the net into the water in awkward attempts to catch newts.  Water guns appear as if by magic and wet everything in sight, triggered by children's laughter, or is that the other way around, I am not quite sure.
        A break in the action is the perfect spot for a snack, a quiet interlude on the deck munching on fruit and veggies, some chips and dip, interrupted by "accidental" water gun discharges and fits of laughter.  My wife has brought a bucket of dandelion heads to the table, recruiting fingers to help pluck the petals, preparing for a try at making dandelion wine.  The weedy flowers grow here like a yellow carpet, (no handful of weeds sneaking between concrete cracks).  That is when we are visited by our chickens.  Instead of noisily chasing bugs in the garden, however, they are frantically dodging here and there.  This chaotic dance reaches a crescendo as one chicken breaks from the flock and heads for the pond and a mangy fox leaps out of the high grass at the pond's edge.  Grandpa was already in motion as the fox made her dash for the tiring chicken.  The shotgun went off and the fox slumped.  Grandpa dashed for the chicken coop as my daughters came running out of the house with their Crickett .22.  They would dispatch the writhing fox as Grandpa cleared the perimeter and put the chickens away to unwind from the excitement.
          With a full day of chores and checklists complete, my wife laid out a feast for grumbling stomachs.  Homemade on Saturday night is the only way to reflect on the day.  Grandpa and I retire to the comfort of the couch to catch a bit of the baseball game.  Beer in hand, my muscles untangle and my mind drifts.  The evening eases away, Grandma and the kids retire to the big bed to read and sneak candy and giggle.  My wife curls up under the covers as the night's chill creeps through the window with her own book.  As the moon brings light to the choir of spring peepers,  Grandpa and I are contentedly pretending to watch the game between eyelid tests.  The quiet is shattered by the dog, hair-raised, growling at the door.  She is spooked by the intruders outside.  We spring from the couch and pile out the door all at once, dog, Grandpa, and I, ready to defend our homestead.  The intruder cloaked in black gives out a growl and heads for the trees.  The bear cub stares at us in bewilderment, highlighted by the spotlight in Grandpa's hands.  Momma bear voices her discontent and wanders back into the woods, cubs in tow.  Our animal checklist is complete for today.
          The lack of concrete does not mean a lack of action.  It does, however, mean the action is different.  The life lessons are different.  The attitude different.  The people different.  The view is different and will continue.....