Sunday, December 30, 2007

Hair Restoration

On a mid-December Friday afternoon, I spent some time addressing envelopes for Christmas cards. I sat on a stool at the kitchen counter so I could listen to SIRIUS radio’s “Underground Garage” channel. (I haven’t yet figured out how to broadcast the signal throughout the rest of the house.) After the deejay identified the artists and titles of the previous group of songs, I heard, most unexpectedly, the a cappella strains of the Cowsills.

She ask him why
why I'm a hairy guy

The Cowsills, a family musical group more bubblegum than rock’n’roll, seemed a very odd choice for a SIRIUS music channel that emphasizes the no-frills basics of rock music. At first, I considered changing channels, but, curiously, I sat still gave the song my full attention.

I'm hairy noon and nighty-night night
My hair is a fright
I'm hairy high and low
But don't ask me why
cuz he don't know

Hair”, of course, is the once infamous musical that premiered off-Broadway in late October 1967. The Cowsills’ version of the title song became a big hit during the summer of 1969, at a time when every other song on radio stations’ top 40 charts seemed to be a cover from “Hair” or Laura Nyro. Since had stopped listening to AM radio by the late 60s, I managed to avoid the Cowsills’ aural assault for the most part. The other day, though, I treated the song like a precious historical artifact. I have to admit being quite surprised to discover how listenable it has become – at least to me.

It's not for lack of bread
Like the Grateful Dead

This type of SURPRISE!! insertion into a playlist is another example of the indefatigable sense of rock and pop music history consistently demonstrated by the deejays on Little Steven’s Underground Garage. All hail!

Gimme a head with hair
Long, beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming,
Streaming, flaxen, waxen…

Saturday, December 29, 2007

George Will is on Drugs

Can you believe this nonsense?

First of all, the column -- published in the 12/24/2007 Warren Times Observer -- is blessed with the absurd headline, "The '70s Show".

In a political season that has become a 70s show, a Richard Nixon revival infects both parties' primaries. Even Spiro Agnew -- Nixon's Nixon -- is being reprised.

Hillary Clinton attacks Barack Obama by recycling a slogan Nixon used in 1960 against John Kennedy: "Experience Counts". But is it prudent of her to invite remembrances of things past?

"Remembrances of things past"?????!!!!!!

As any Martian would say, "Who is this idiot?"

Think about it. What percentage of us remembers this slogan?
a. 100%
b. 10%
c. 1%
d. .1%
e. .01%
f. .001%
g. .0001%
h. .00001%

As of this post, the current U.S. population is 303,131,103. (You'll find that we've grown when you click on this link.) I'd guess the correct answer is (h).


No wonder the Cubs are such losers. (The first one in the tan box.)

Do Not Open Until Christmas (2008)

[Click on red x.
the plate is
square, not

A few weekends ago, JoAnna and Eddie and I ate dinner at one of our favorite Madison restaurants – the Peppermill. JoAnna’s salad was served on a rectangular glass plate with a cobalt blue border, which made for a very attractive presentation.

“I wouldn’t mind having a set of dishes like this,” she remarked. “And I could use them for setting up some of my desserts on Bastille Day.”

This major social event of the year seems to factor into a lot of our decisions.

I didn’t give her comment much thought at the time. For the past few days, though, it has threatened to become all that I think about.

On Tuesday before Christmas, I visited a variety of stores where I thought this item might be in stock, even though a prior search of various websites didn’t offer much promise.

The Century House specializes in pricey Scandinavian furniture, gifts, and accessories. In fact, I thought I remembered seeing this type of plate in stock there. Wrong. I had recovered a false memory.

Macy’s in Hilldale Mall used to be Marshall Fields in a space first occupied by Gimbel’s when this shopping center opened in 1962. I found the right shape but not the right material. Macy’s specializes in “Fine China” dinnerware.

Orange Tree Imports is a specialty shop that stocks a variety of gourmet cookware and cutlery. I achieved the same result here as I did at Macy’s in much less time. The cramped-for-space store has very little dinnerware displayed on its overstocked shelves.

The following day, I continued my search.

After a promising search of Target’s website last night, I came away empty-handed today after a visit to their east-side Madison store.

Gordman’s, a department store based in Omaha (of all places), features aggressively discounted brand-name products. Their stores have a no-frills yet funky and hip arrangement of merchandise. I found a lot of Fiesta ware knock-offs here but not much else among the small display of dinnerware.

Bed Bath & Beyond. They stock the clear, rectangular version.

Linens & Things. I don’t what came first: the chicken (Linen & Things) or the egg (Bed Bath & Beyond). In the Madison area, it was the egg. Unfortunately, neither the chicken nor the egg were at all helpful to me. The two chains seem to order their merchandise from the same vendors. More skilful shoppers than I can probably tell the difference.

The Bombay Company. As I walked back to the car, the name registered as a result of an Internet search I did yesterday using the words “glass dinnerware rectangular”. Here’s what I learned about them.

The Bombay Company, Bombay Outlet and Bombay KIDS websites have discontinued online operations. We would like to thank you, our loyal online customers, for your business over the past years and apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

Actually, it appears to be worse than this announcement lets on. Bombay’s “bricks-and-mortar” operations also seem to be going under, as evidence by the GOING OUT OF BUSINESS banner I saw draped across the front windows of its Greenway Station store in Middleton. Greenway Center, a “lifestyle shopping center” which opened to much fanfare in the fall of 2003, has struggled to hold onto some of its tenants. The loss of Galyan’s, an upscale sporting goods store, complete with multi-level climbing wall, was bought out by Dick’s Sporting Goods less than a year after it opened. It’s subsequent closing – Dick’s already had an anchor presence at nearby West Towne Mall – provided the first punch to Greenway’s gut. The closing of an Oshkosh B’Gosh kids clothing store kept Greenway staggering on its feet, though it now seems to be regaining its balance with the addition of Marshall’s and (the possibly glass-plate-worthy) World Market. And according to a 6/22/2007 news release, Bath & Body Works will join the retail mix in March 2008.

Oh, by the way, I spent less than a minute making a circuit of Bombay’s surprisingly small store interior. As a result, I wondered how the business had survived as long as it did.

I had high hopes for World Market, more out of desperation than for any logical reasons. JoAnna and I always shop here to buy wine for our annual Bastille Day parties. The store certainly offers a colorful array of funky dinnerware – but not the plate of my dreams.

It appeared that my Christmas gift idea was turning into a bad dream.

As Christmas quickly approached and I was still no closer to my goal, I was tempted to wrap a picture of the plate and be done with it. (JoAnna did something similar for me for Father’s Day last year. She clipped a picture of an outdoor fireplace from a Menard’s advertising flyer and enclosed it with my card. We never did buy the dang thing, as I didn’t think we’d have enough opportunities to use it. That's one way to save money.)

In a happy turn of events, I had much better luck during my annual Christmas shopping trip to Talbot’s. JoAnna never shops here herself, as she’s partial to Jones Wear, a brand well-represented at both Penney’s and the Boston Store at West Towne, but she’s always pleasantly surprised with my choices. This year I bought a gray pinstripe jacket suitable for work or casual wear. It’s not the item I’d visualized for her. JoAnna already has an abundance of conservative blacks and grays in her wardrobe, but Talbot’s color palette this season is limited. Too many shades of brown and green, neither of which is particularly flattering to her. She looks great in reds and pinks and purples – it’s the French in her – but the style in these colors looked frumpy with their oversized buttons and large pockets. But then I probably wouldn’t recognize a woman’s fashion statement even if it screamed at me in the face.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Longest Christmas Letter Ever, Part 6

A Thanksgiving Trip to Pennsylvania

For me, the anticipation has always been an equally important part of a trip. Throughout grade school and junior high, I replayed previous road trips and previewed the upcoming ones weeks in advance. Now that I’m approaching retirement age, I find that my anticipation has become even more extensive.

Four months ago, JoAnna and the boys and I decided that a Thanksgiving visit to Warren was in order. For the first time since both boys were in grade school, we had an opportunity to make this road tip. No basketball games. No work commitments.

Clock tower topped by a statue of "Justice",
Warren County Court House. Constructed 1876-77
at a cost of $97,435.

We still hedged our bets, though.

“Are you still going to be here for Thanksgiving?” Mom would ask during our occasional phone conversations.

“We’re still planning on it,” I’d reply, not giving her the definitive “yes” I’m sure she wanted to hear.

Apartment building directly across the street from the Court House. Warren has a very rich architectural history, and
although this building is not particularly significant, it's always held a fascination for me.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, the night before an early departure on a family trip to visit relatives in Rockford, Illinois, or Springfield, Massachusetts, found me tossing and turning. I’d be afraid that by falling asleep, we’d get a delayed start. Either everyone else would follow my lead, or Mom wouldn’t be able to rouse me out of a deep sleep. Once I fell asleep, though, the electrical charge of anticipation kept me on a cycle of restlessness until the 5 a.m. wake-up time at which I had set my clock radio.

Andy with his Grandma Nelson, cooking and baking.
She experienced great joy in preparing Thanksgiving dinner for her entire family, the first time we've all been together for this holiday in at least 10 years.

On the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving, JoAnna and I stayed up reading until 10:30, by which time our bedroom lights have usually been off for a half hour. Five and a half hours later, we were both wide awake and ready to roll. Unlike my childhood years, these hours had passed while I was in a deep and peaceful slumber.

Eddie and Andy in front of
Grandma's fireplace. The oil painting in the background is a scene of the Bay of Naples in Italy that Auntie Barbara purchased while she was stationed in Naples during her Navy stint in the mid-1970s.

Less than a month before his 17th birthday, Eddie passed his driver’s test on the second try. Had he approached driving with the same enthusiasm as his dad, he would have, first of all, obtained his license months ago, and, secondly, jumped into the driver’s seat right after we finished packing the car. But Eddie has never shown more than a perfunctory interest in driving. There’s no obvious thrill in it for him. It’s not a rite of passage as it was for me, the first big step in moving toward adulthood and independence.

The overlook at Washington Park
provides a dramatic panorama of Warren. When we moved here in August 1957, I remember seeing a billboard with the message: "Welcome to Warren, Home of 15,000 Friendly People." Its population has since declined to less than 10,000. Still a beautiful place!

view of Warren provided the backdrop for a 1992 family Christmas picture. In high school, friends and I would tie a toboggon to the end of someone's car and have the driver barrel down the narrow, curvy, snow-covered access road.

In other words, I backed the car out of the driveway as we started the first leg of the trip – a dogleg to Milwaukee, where we found Andy waiting for us in Gretchen’s car.

The view looks timeless from here but Warren has changed in many ways -- and not just in the shrinking. A new shopping center,
Warren Commons, anchored by a mammoth Wal-Mart recently opened. (Strictly speaking, it's located in North Warren.)

Seen in the background, Downtown Warren -- or "overtown" as we used to refer to it -- still has most of its storefronts
occupied,though the business mix has changed to include much less retail. The stores of my youth -- Kresge's, Murphys, Printz's, Levinson Brothers -- are long gone.

Driving through Chicago has always been Dad duty in our family. The main reason for this tradition is my discomfort with JoAnna’s driving. She doesn’t observe the one-car-length-for-every-ten-miles-per-hour rule. Of course, that puts her in the majority of drivers. For me, though, it’s wearying constantly stepping on an imaginary brake pedal or averting my eyes from the perilously close bumper of the car in front of us.

This latest run through Chicago turned out to one of our worst. Nevertheless, I held onto my optimism until the point where the Edens and Kennedy expressways merge.

“Maybe a lot of commuters will decide to take an extra day off,” I offered hopefully three or four times during the two days before we left. “But that will probably be more than made up for by all the travelers on the road,” I always added.

Regretfully, this was the only effort at a group portrait during our visit. Larry, Andy, Barb, Mom (cutting JoAnna's birthday cake -- we're celebrating early), Eddie, & JoAnna. Dale and Kim are out of the frame.

And indeed it was.

We proceeded at a crawl for a painful 45 minutes. I managed to squeeze our way to the left-hand lane and into the “express” flow of traffic. It probably reduced our view of Chicago’s gray-draped skyline by 15 minutes.

As we reached and happily exceeded the speed limit on the Dan Ryan Expressway, an insistent rain started to fall as if on cue. We simply switched from one driving headache to another. Smeary windshield. Plentiful road spray. Reduced visibility.

The opening of Mom's first letter to us after Thanksgiving.

Dear Paul & JoAnna,

Not much on TV right now so I'll start a letter even tho there isn't much to write about.

It was great having you home. I enjoyed your company so much. You can be proud of Andy & Eddie -- they are great sons. You've done a good job of raising them.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Longest Christmas Letter Ever, Part 5

A Trip to Chicago

Sunday, October 28

We left the house at 8:30 Friday morning, bound for Chicago via Milwaukee and Waukegan – not to mention two other locations before we even left the Madison area. We ended up driving through the Isthmus at a time – post-morning rush hour – when the streets, even those in the University area, are lightly traveled.

“I don’t think I’ve ever crossed State Street without encountering stop-and-go traffic,” I noted.

During the drive to Milwaukee, we ran into some rain – just a mist, actually, only enough to keep the wipers on intermittent periodically.

We made a pit stop in Hartland, both to relieve ourselves and to insure that we’d have to visit the bathroom in Andy’s apartment. Eddie and I drank our mochas in near record time. My excuse? It tastes better when hot.

Andy called us just before we entered the coffee shop. We gave him an estimated time of arrival – the same 11 o’clock that we had initially agreed upon.

Although Gretchen’s travel bag was with Andy, we still had to pick her up at her dorm on the UWM campus.

“You see those dorms over there?” Andy asked, pointing in the direction of two 15-story high-rises.

We couldn’t have missed them.

“60% of the students who live there leave on the weekends,” he added.

Even with a student body of more than 10,000, UWM is considered to be primarily a commuter school. The weekends are usually quiet on campus. The most popular options for those sticking around are the house parties where illegal beverages – at least for the majority of revelers – are eagerly consumed in considerable quantities. Andy and Gretchen don’t make a habit of attending these drinking fests, but Andy, of course, is not always the innocent bystander.

From Milwaukee, we made great time until we reached the Wisconsin-Illinois state line, where road construction brought us to a halt for five minutes. Even with this delay, we still had plenty of time to spare before the METRA train left the Waukegan station for Chicago.

I used some of the extra time to find a parking space for the two+ days that the Matrix would be left behind. Doing so made me a little nervous, but the four parking lots in the immediate vicinity of the stations are all designated for commuter use. Overnight parking is permissible, of course. It was just a matter of leaving enough receipts on the dashboards during our absence. Total tab: $6. We’d have spent five or six times that amount for hotel parking in Chicago. In addition, we eliminate the hassle of downtown gridlock.

By train, it took us one hour and 20 minutes, give or take, to make the trip to the Ogilvie Transportation Center, just west of the Loop. Had we continued the trip by car, we could have shaved at least a half hour off our arrival time, but I’ll take the additional stress-free time any day.

Shortly after leaving the well-worn Waukegan area, the train passes through the upscale North Shore suburbs: Lake Bluff, Lake Forest, Highland Park, Glencoe, Winnetka, Kenilworth, Wilmette. The nicest neighborhoods – those where the McAllister family in Home Alone were supposed to have lived – are not within view of the tracks, but the homes and other buildings we saw, most of them situated along tree-shaded streets, look comfortable enough. What was most amazing to me along this route, though, was the lack of fall colors. The mostly green leaves on the trees made it look more like early September than late October – great weather to take in a game at Wrigley Field.

Oh….one other thing about the parking situation that I neglected to mention before. I dropped off the others, and our luggage, in front of the station, since I had to drive to a remote area to find a parking space. When I clicked the “lock” button on the keyless access system, nothing happened.

“Uh-oh,” I said aloud.

The doors locked manually; I double-checked all of them, including the hatchback, to be sure. I was then able to unlock the doors with the remote device but still couldn’t lock them. This minor incident, worthy of being shrugged off, still gave me a weird feeling as I walked away.

The train pulled Chicago’s Ogilvie Transportation Center right on schedule at 2:38 p.m. Once we reached the street level, JoAnna wondered how we were going to get to our hotel.

“Should we take a cab or a bus?” she asked.

“Let’s go over this way,” I instructed the group, ignoring her question.

Earlier in the week, I had researched the downtown Chicago bus routes, trying to determining the most direct way to go. We found a bus stop at the nearest corner.

“When does the next bus arrive?” JoAnna asked.

I fished out the schedule I had printed and guessed that we were probably ten minutes away from the next bus.

“Let’s start walking,” I suggested.

And walk we did….all the way to our hotel, the Embassy Suites… covering a mile and a half in the process. The boys and I carried our duffel bags on shoulder straps, and JoAnna pulled her little suitcase on wheels. After a few blocks, Gretchen complained about the weight of her duffel bag, but Eddie gallantly volunteered to carry it for her. Andy already seemed to be weighted down – probably because of the 12 or so t-shirts he brought along to maintain his fresh, layered look. It took us about a half offer to cover this congested ground, but we all felt invigorated by the bustle and noise of downtown Chicago. And the walk was a bit of an adventure in itself. It provided us with a mini-course in urban architecture.

Our 16th-floor room provided a birds-eye’s view of Columbus Drive looking south. JoAnna, of course, looked through this window from a “safe” distance. She hates looking down from a substantial height. And to her, anything more than a couple of stories is substantial.

We stayed in our suite long enough to drop off our luggage and determine the weekend’s sleeping arrangements. A couch in a 14 x 12 sitting room folds out into a double bed, but an upholstered chair, glass end table, small entertainment center, and rectangular wood table with 4 matching chairs provided no room for a rollaway bed. (The hotel doesn’t offer them anyway.) The slightly larger bedroom contains a king-size bed, two nightstands, an armoire that houses a second TV, and vanity. Between the two rooms is a small area where a microwave, refrigerator, and another sink are located.

JoAnna and I more than made up for the walk we didn’t take on Friday morning. From our hotel the five of us took a 15-minute stroll to Millennium Park, a public space that has become one of Chicago’s most popular, must-see tourist attractions.

Two storytelling events took place on Friday evening, one for families and much scarier offerings for teens and adults. When JoAnna suggested that we attend, the boys offered up a unified, vociferous protest.

Food was a priority at the time, and the events didn’t start for another two-and-a-half hours. As we crossed Michigan Avenue, I pointed to a neon sign on a nearby building.

“What about Pizano’s?” I asked.

It didn’t appear to be a chain, and when we checked a menu posted next to the entrance, we found the prices to be extremely reasonable. Best of all, since it was just 4:30 – none of us had eaten lunch – we were immediately seated at a table. While the rest of the group opted for pizza, I selected an entrée called Robert’s Special: Mostaccioli sautéed lightly in fresh garlic, butter and olive oil, tossed with a spicy Italian sausage and finished off with parmesan cheese and parsley. Both Andy and Eddie eyed with envy the huge bowl I was served.

“That’s what I should have ordered,” Eddie lamented, his eyes still focused on the bowl.

Even though pizza received uniform rave reviews – JoAnna was particularly impressed with the pastry-like crust – I didn’t sample a piece. The boys and I had already shared a spinach-and-artichoke dip appetizer, and I wanted to save the remaining portion of my stomach for the main course. Try as I might, I couldn’t finish it, but the boys made sure there was nothing left over to take back to our hotel.

The total bill came to $79, including 2 drafts of Blue Moon (currently my favorite brand of beer) and 2 glasses of wine. We’d have been hard-pressed to find a better bargain in Madison.

On the way back to our hotel, we walked an 8-block stretch of Michigan Avenue. The sidewalks were thronged with people – a mix of locals (primarily) with a sizeable number of tourists. It was easy to tell the difference.

Would I want to live in this kind of constantly over-stimulated atmosphere? I asked myself.

Surprisingly, the answer was not a resounding “no”. Of course, to live in any of the condos in downtown Chicago requires a level of wealth that JoAnna and I will never achieve.

On Saturday we focused on attention on three of Chicago’s best-known museums.

First stop: The Art Institute, just a half-hour walk from our hotel.

I thought Andy, not exactly in the best of shape not much more than a year out of high school, might suggest alternative, less taxing, transportation., but he offered no objections from the start.

We arrived at the museum at five minutes before its scheduled opening (10:00 a.m.) and were entertained by a middle-aged black man – possibly homeless, although his appearance and clothing didn’t look all that dirty and shabby – exhorting people in line to buy some type of brochure for $1. He cradled a stack of 20 or so in his left arm.

“Otherwise, you will be subjected to listening to my bad jokes,” he warned us.


What is Beethoven’s favorite fruit?

Banana-na-na. (The punch line was sung to the opening notes of Beethoven’s 9th symphony.)

Sidelight: We encountered quite a few homeless men – but no women – throughout the weekend. They use the same method of panhandling, as though sanctioned by the city. They stand on a corner or against a building and shake a 16-ounce paper cup that contains enough coins to make a loud jingle. I suppose they hope it’s enough to shake lose the feelings of compassion of those walking by.

With JoAnna leading the way, we first headed for the Impressionism galleries on the second level of the museum.

“Why are we going up here first?” Eddie asked, clearly frustrated.

The Art Institute owns a substantial collection of paintings by Monet, JoAnna’s favorite artist. The most dramatic painting we saw in this area, though, was by Gustave Caillebotte.

I’d previously seen reproductions of it but didn’t realize it’s such a monumental work.

During our 2½-hour visit, we meandered through most of the galleries. The American Art wing is undergoing a renovation, so most of the painting exhibited there are in storage, although a small, representative sampling are on display elsewhere. I was particularly interested in finding the paintings of a group of mid-19th century landscape artists: Frederick Church, Albert Bierstadt, and George Inness.

We walked through Grant Park ato reach the Field Museum of Natural History, which has been in its present location since 1921. It first opened its doors in 1893 as the Columbian Museum of Chicago as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was held in Jackson Park, five miles to the south, at what was then the edge of the city. The Museum is best known for Sue, the largest, most complete, and best preserved, Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. As soon as we purchased our tickets and walked into the huge main gallery, Eddie made a beeline for this towering exhibit as though it were 1998.

With the Field Museum closing at 3:00, due to a special event taking place in the main gallery, the nearby Shedd Aquarium received lots of spillover from those who midafternoon itinerary included a visit to the Field. We waited in line for more than 15 minutes before inching our way to the ticket counter. The Shedd’s special exhibits featured close-up looks at lizards and Caribbean reefs. We also managed to catch the final dolphin show in the Oceanarium, a glass-enclosed Pacific Northwest habitat that provides a panoramic view of Lake Michigan.

The general exhibits, the same fish tanks that I first studied in 1960, still make up the core of the Shedd’s program. These areas of the museums were thronged with visitors, many of them parents with small, frequently fussing children. One of these young’uns kept shrieking for her daddy, who acted as though the kid didn’t exist. We tried as best we could to keep our distance from this family.

As a result of my research, we took a CTA bus back to the hotel. At $2 apiece, a taxi would probably have been about the same cost – and much quicker.

The Embassy Suites provides a breakfast buffet for its guest in its spacious, well-lit atrium It’s possible to waddle away extremely well-fed, if not gorged. Every item imaginable is available, including cooked-to-order omelets. JoAnna and I – up and out of the room before the boys and Gretchen – settled for selections from the various warming pans: scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and hash browns, french toast.

On Saturday, for convenience sake, we ate lunch at the Field Museum’s cafeteria, which is outsourced to the Corner Bakery Café, a Texas-based chain. The food was much better than we anticipated and held us over nicely until a late dinner.

Andy insisted we eat at the ESPN Zone, a sports bar/restaurant which allows the cable channel to extend its reach into its sports fans’ pockets. It seems to be working. Andy called for reservations during an early evening rest break. In fact, he had to make numerous efforts to reach a live person. Eventually, he was told that the restaurant doesn’t take them – and that there was a one-hour wait for a table. When we arrived, we learned that the wait time had doubled. Much to his disappointment, the rest of us agreed to move on. JoAnna recalled a nearby restaurant at which she had eaten during one of her “girlfriend” trips to Chicago: The Rock Bottom, a brewpub/restaurant. The wait here was a reasonable half hour, and the large, noisy bar area provided dozens to large-screen TVs to keep current on the progress of the Red Sox-Rockies World Series game and the Ohio State-Penn State football Big 10 match-up. Red Sox and Buckeye fans predominated.

The food was good, if not spectacular. My Texas Fire Steak – I suppose you could call it my birthday meal – tasted a little bland. Based on the description -- seasoned with crazy pepper and served sizzling with our smokin’ jalapeño butter – I expected the need to have a tall glass of ice water always at hand.

By the time we returned to our hotel – it was close to 10:00 – we were all ready for bed. All that walking – to and within our various destinations, had done us in. Andy had developed a case of crotch rot by the late afternoon, which caused him to walk funny on the way to and from the Rock Bottom. Not showing any sympathy, we all gave him a rough time – in the spirit of family teasing, of course. We told him he should pull up his pants.

“It’s probably the sagging that causing the chafing,” JoAnna noted.

Surprisingly, he actually followed through on her suggestion.

This morning we had originally planned to visit the Adler Planetarium, but we didn’t get an early enough start. On Sundays a train leaves for Waukegan every two hours, and we had selected a 12:35 departure time. Had we arrived at the Planetarium right at its 9:00 a.m. opening, we’d have been OK, but by 10:10, Andy and Gretchen were still eating breakfast in the atrium. We thought we might be able to catch the 10:35 train, but our cab didn’t get us to the station until 10:40.

What to do for two hours?

Well, first of all, we didn’t want to carry our luggage around. We were directed to the Union Station, two blocks south, where the Amtrak trains arrive and depart, to find temporary storage lockers.

With the Sears Tower nearby, we decided to visit the Skydeck – everyone except JoAnna, that is. She preferred to remain on terra firma. During the hour it took the rest of us to buy our tickets, view a 10-minute movie on the building’s construction, ride a fast-paced elevator to the 103rd floor, and take in the expansive views on a picture-perfect day, JoAnna passed the time by reading a book in a small park across the street. By the time we boarded the train to Waukegan, we had ten minutes to spare.

All in all, a most enjoyable trip, one that I’m sure the boys will always remember very fondly.

The Longest Christmas Letter Ever, Part 4

Andy heads off to college.

Wednesday, August 29

I’m experiencing a sense of emptiness right now – an almost achy feeling inside. Andy is all moved – though not yet organized, I would guess – into his apartment in Milwaukee. Once we remove the air mattress from his (former) bedroom later this evening, I think it might be difficult to deal with this unfurnished space for awhile. Actually, Andy left behind a variety of odds and ends, including all of the stuff he attached to or hung on his walls, his trophy collection dating back to kindergarten soccer, and, in the closet, nearly a dozen long-sleeve shirts that he figured he wouldn’t need for another month or two. It’ll take some work on our part to get the room into an unfurnished condition, and by that time I probably won’t be feeling quite so maudlin.

Yesterday during my lunch hour I went shopping for Andy at Target. I bought him toiletries, for the most part: shaving cream, razors, deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste, and a toothbrush. Body wash had been on my list, but while checking for brand names, I found three full plastic containers in his bedroom. I also got him a storage box – small shoebox size – in which I placed envelopes, a book of stamps, pens, mechanical pencils, a flash drive for his laptop, and a piece of paper with a few addresses on it.

“I think Grandma Nelson would like to get a letter from me,” he’s said to me more than once.

“I think she’d be thrilled to hear from you,” I assured him.

You’ll have to let us know what kind of correspondent Andy is. Nowadays kids don’t even use email anymore; they “text”, i.e., send messages via their increasingly sophisticated cell phones. Back in my college days, having one dial phone to share among four or five roommates was a big deal.

Last night Andy wanted to go shopping for school supplies. We went to Shopko as he had a few other items on his errand list: a collapsible mesh laundry bag and a desk. The laundry bag was in stock but only in a pink-and-purple color combination suitable for tween girls. The few “assembly-required” desks we found were ones that included a towering hutch, which Andy doesn’t need. In this computerized age, it’s almost impossible to find a desk in a standard style. With the proliferation of laptops, though, you’d think we’d come full circle. Andy doesn’t need all the options – sliding tray to place a keyboard, for example – that a computer desk offers.

Shopko’s paltry selection of school supplies convinced us that a visit to Office Max was in order. Andy’s needs were limited to notebooks, binders, and filler paper, so I survived this shopping trip without taking a big hit to my bank balance.

I had originally planned to take off the entire day to help Andy get the last of his furnishings and other belongings to his apartment. When I took a closer look at my work schedule, though, I realized I had a carved-in-stone commitment – an 11:00 a.m. meeting with two other representatives of the Wisconsin Library Association and State Representative John Townsend to discuss legislation to authorize the formation of public library districts. This particular issue has been on our legislative agenda for nearly ten years – and, obviously, we made very little headway in the interim.

As it turned out, I didn’t need the entire day for Andy. In fact, I didn’t even need the whole afternoon. I left the state capitol at 11:45 and reached his apartment at 1:10. He and Jack carried the dresser to the second floor, although this time Andy pulled out all of the drawers before they did so. Andy showed off his nearly organized closet, a project he had just finished prior to my arrival. (With the Saturn filled with boxes and bags, he left Middleton at 9:00.)

We went grocery shopping at a nearby Pick ‘n’ Save, which is under the same ownership as Copps. Good thing! With my discount card, we saved over $30. Andy stocked up on loads of pasta (canned, boxed, cellophaned, and foil-pouched). At least he’s given up on Ramen noodles. Even he was floored by the sodium count. Other purchases included the standard college student fare: cereal, milk, bread, peanut butter, jelly, and granola bars.

“This should last me for awhile,” he noted.

“I sure hope so!” I returned. “You better not go through $140 worth of groceries in a few days.”

St. Paul wedding

Saturday, September 8

No football crisis or panic attacks this weekend. All three of us had Eddie’s varsity reserve game – time and place – deeply branded into our brains: 9:00 a.m. at Otto Breitenbach Stadium, Sun Prairie vs. Middleton.

I dropped off Eddie at the high school at 8:00, and JoAnna and I arrived just in time for the start of the game. Eddie played right tackle on most of the offensive plays during the first half. He looked good out there, knowing exactly where to move and making all of his blocks. The two Sun Prairie defenders who sacked Middleton’s quarterback found openings on the left side of the line.

Eddie probably played as much during the second half, but we weren’t there to watch. JoAnna and I had a four-hour road trip on our schedule. Destination: St. Paul, Minnesota. We wanted to arrive at our motel by 2:00 so we’d have sufficient time to get ready for the 4 o’clock wedding of Paul Weller and Elissa Green.

Our trip encountered a slight delay, however, right at the start.

“Did I turn off the burners under the griddle?” I asked JoAnna just a few minutes after we left the high school parking lot. I had made pancakes for breakfast.

“You would have to say that,” she groaned.

“We’d better check.” I said resignedly.

Otherwise, we would have agonized over this alleged oversight until Eddie returned home from his game. (He’s on his own this weekend until late Sunday afternoon.)

Even though I had no recollection of doing so, the burners were off. I took advantage of this unscheduled stop and grabbed a white t-shirt from one of my dresser drawers. It was the only item of clothing I’d forgotten to pack.

Sunday, September 9

We arrived at our motel – a Fairfield Inn, one of four options that had been listed on Paul and Elissa’s wedding website – right on schedule. Our overnight location, as it turns out, was somewhat distant from downtown St. Paul, the site of the reception. I think the motels were chosen on the ability to reserve blocks of rooms for the wedding guests. I had considered looking into a downtown hotel, but that convenience would have doubled our expense for what was, in essence, just a place to sleep. (Plus there was the added cost of parking.) The Fairfield’s utilitarian offerings served us just fine.

The wedding took place at Hamline United Methodist Church, just across the street from the Hamline University campus. The Gothic-style church is an impressive stone structure made of blocks of Bedford limestone in a cruciform design. It was constructed in the late 1920s. Since we arrived more than 30 minutes before the start of the ceremony, we were able to mingle outside with the wedding party and Weller family. The photographer took a series of pictures of the group arranged in front of the heavy wooden doors at the main entrance.

It seemed to take Ken Weller a second or two to register who I was, but that brief moment of confusion was probably attributable to being preoccupied with the day’s big event. He introduced us to Susan, his second wife, who is very personable. Although I hadn’t seen Ken in more than 20 years, he looks much the same. He’s still thin, talks a mile a minute, and hasn’t turned gray or gone bald.

We had a chance to talk with Carolyn and Jim as soon as we entered the church. Carolyn looked radiant in a lavender skirt (floor-length with a long slit up the left side) and shell with a matching tweed jacket with almost squared-off shoulders. Jim looked dapper in a dark suit, which accentuated his white head of hair.

An usher seated us behind Tom, Mim, and Carole. Just when I was about to ask “Where’s Arland?”, JoAnna pointed out his name in the program, under the heading of MINISTER. I should have been able to guess this on my own.

The 35-minute ceremony was enhanced with music provided by Twin Cities Bronze, a handbell ensemble.

Immediately after the ceremony, while waiting for the bride and groom to make their departure appearance, we talked with the Swansons.

“Were you able to get to your cabin much this summer?” I asked them at one point.

“It hasn’t been a very good summer for that,” Linda replied somewhat cryptically.

“We’ll be going there next weekend after Linda’s last chemo treatment,” Roland added.

“Oh my god, we didn’t know about this,” I exclaimed.

Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer in May and will finish up her treatments this week. You wouldn’t know it from the way she looks and acts – the same funny and vivacious person as ever. I did note a change, though, when they took their seats in the one of the family pews at one minute before 4:00. (Punctuality has never been their strong suit.)

Linda’s colored her hair, I assumed. No more salt and pepper.

Turns out the new hairdo, however, is a wig.

Lindsay, now a very stunning young woman, is dating a Middleton High School graduate, class of 2002. Ross is a UW-Madison graduate who met Lindsay through friends who attended the University of Minnesota. He just started a job with Lever Brothers – Geographic Account Manager, I think he said) in New York City.

The wedding reception was held at the Elements Café on the top floor of the Science Museum of Minnesota. The 6th floor perch and glass walls provide a panoramic view of the Mississippi River and downtown St. Paul. The Nelson cousins – Carole, Mim, Roland, and me – and their spouses were seated together. Why break up such a nicely matched set?

After the dinner, a band tore through a selection of rock and soul classics that occasionally produced gridlock on the small dance floor. For JoAnna and me, it was the first time we shook our booty in I don’t know how long. And we had a blast – and worked up quite a sweat in the process. Fortunately, a rooftop terrace off the reception hall provided a welcome place to cool down – and get a more immediate view of the city lights. Not to mention Linda’s bare head. After the band’s first set, she took off her wig for a half hour to help her cool down.

The Bride and Groom

Roland's new do

Wisconsin 41, The Citadel 31

Sunday, September 16

Yesterday provided us with a football doubleheader.

Roberta and Lester invited JoAnna and me to join them for the Wisconsin game against The Citadel. (A couple in their group of season ticketholders weren’t using theirs.) Then JoAnna received an offer for a second pair of tickets in a different part of the stadium. She bought these for Andy and Gretchen and slipped them into his birthday card. Of course, she let Andy know about this beforehand so he could plan his weekend accordingly.

Our game day started with a 9:30 brunch hosted by Roberta and Lester at their beautiful home in the University Heights neighborhood. Andy and Gretchen joined us. Lester prepared the best Spanish omelets I’ve ever eaten. Although the air was still a little cool, we ate on their secluded patio. (Most of their back yard is hilly, undeveloped slope.) Both Roberta and Lester know Gretchen’s grandmother, who was a member of the Madison City Council years ago – and one of its most conservative ones. This political dichotomy between Andy’s and Gretchen’s families caused them no end of surprised amusement.

The brunch provided us with two advantages: free parking in Roberta and Lester’s driveway and a leisurely, 10-minute walk to attend the 11:00 a.m. game.

JoAnna and I had seats on the 45-yard line about 30 rows up from the field, which provided us with an excellent perspective for what was predicted to be a Badger blowout. Wisconsin was a 35-point favorite. That large of a spread seemed to put the defensive secondary in a lackadaisical frame of mind during the first half of the game. For the most part, they were unable to stop The Citadel’s built-for-speed-and-quickness offense. Fortunately, Wisconsin’s offense was able to move the ball equally as well as its opponent. The score was 21-21 at the half. The team departed for the locker room to a smattering of boos.

Bret Bielema, Wisconsin’s second-year coach, must have given his team a butt-kickin’ talking to between halves because his players found the answers to their first-half problems. The Badgers completely dominated the third quarter, scoring 17 unanswered points, and then added another touchdown less than a minute into the fourth quarter for good measure. With a 45-21 lead, Bielema went to his bench while The Citadel’s coach kept his starters on the field. As a result, they scored 10 points to narrow the margin of victory, which will likely cause sportswriters to ponder the possibly inflated value of Wisconsin’s current #7 ranking.

After the game, Andy and Gretchen got lost trying to negotiate the hilly, curvilinear streets back to Roberta and Lester’s house. Andy called JoAnna three times – cell phone to cell phone – to ask for directions. After the third call, I walked the two blocks to rescue them. It didn’t help that JoAnna had provided them with wrong directions after their second call.

In the second half of our football doubleheader, a 4:30 starting time, Middleton thrashed Beloit Memorial by a score of 40-0. Within the past ten years, Beloit used to be a Big 8 powerhouse, but their program has quickly gone south. Last year, they lost all but one of the games. So far this season, they are winless, by huge margins, in their first three games.

Monday, September 3

On Sunday my painting project was delayed as I had to wait for Eddie to get out of bed. He needed to make the color choice. At Ace Hardware, he made an exceptionally quick decision.

“You don’t understand the rules. We’re supposed to agonize over what color to choose for at least 15 minutes,” I teased.

He picked a shade of medium blue dubbed “Lazy Sunday.” I’ll try to remember to enclose the color sample.

Eddie helped me tape the woodwork. (I had washed the walls while he was still sleeping.) Then he left me on my own, to which I had no objections. I enjoy painting a room in solitude. Maybe I should say “by myself” instead, since I spent the afternoon enjoying a Savoy Brown marathon – the band’s musically and commercially productive early 1970s phase of tis career: Raw Sienna, Looking In, Street Corner Talking, Hellbound Train. Unfortunately, the group seems to have become just a footnote in musical history.

Sunday, October 7.

Andy will no longer be relegated to sleeping on the floor during his visits home. JoAnna and I bought a futon yesterday. We were able to bring home the mattress, a cover, and the drawers that fit under the frame, but we had to wait until today to pick up the frame itself. The asphalt leading to a storage warehouse was being resealed and was off limits for 24 hours.
The woman who waited on us seemed very knowledgeable about her store’s specialty. (Futons are all they sell.) She asked us about the size of the room where it was going, other furniture in the room, how often it would be used, and who would most likely be sleeping on it. Once we answered all her questions, she steered us toward their mid-priced product – and a frame without arms. Otherwise, she felt that Andy wouldn’t find the futon a comfortable place to sleep.

Although the frame came boxed, it took less than a half hour for JoAnna and me put it together. We had an initial small disagreement as to where to place the futon, but I won this argument.

“There’s not enough room for both the dresser and desk along this wall,” I pointed out, referring to the wall that separates the two bedrooms on the west side of the house.

The frame is made of natural wood, with matching drawers, which are on wheels for easy access.

Now our extra room is fully ready for occupancy. Occasional occupancy, that is.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Longest Christmas Letter Ever, Part 3

We bought new furniture for the living room. Getting the couch into the house proved to be a challenge.

Saturday, May 19

A couple of months ago, I provided a progress report on our home and yard maintenance. At the rate that JoAnna and I are now going, we’ll be able to cross everything off the list by the end of the summer – or go broke trying.
This morning we visited Steinhafel’s furniture store. Just about 30 feet inside the main entrance, we found a sofa, chair, and ottoman combination to our liking. One of the sales associates – isn’t that the term most stores use nowadays? – must have seen our “we’re-here-to-buy” aura and immediately approached us. Within minutes, we were looking at fabric samples. We weren’t interested in the plain fabric of the floor model.

Just to be sure, JoAnna and I walked around the store’s immense space of interconnected showrooms. Our alternatives basically boiled down to three:

Traditional. Light fabrics with bold, bright, flowered or striped patterns. Definitely not for us.

Leather. We’re not fans of this style either, particularly after the cats turned our faux leather chairs (now discarded) into their personal porta-potties.

Recreational. Massive puffy units with an abundance of cup holders. (Designed for the home theater crowd, or people who’d rather spend time in their SUVs.)

Our first choice looked even better after we had finished our circuit.

To complete the transformation, we added a coffee table and end table to the package. Since the furniture is a custom order, it won’t be delivered until mid-to-late July. That’s OK, as it gives us time to complete two related projects.

We stopped at Mautz to look at paint samples. JoAnna wants to extend the kitchen’s gold-and-blue color scheme into the living room. With the fabric samples from Steinhafel’s in hand, and a consultation with one of the “sales associates” – somehow I don’t think Mautz is into this terminology” – we walked away with two promising color swatches: Baguette (the lighter side of gold) and Still Water (a deep blue-green). The ceiling will be painted a neutral color.

Final stop: Carpets Plus.

Stu, the “sales associate” who guided us through the selection process for the family room carpet, showed us samples of Berber and similar carpets. JoAnna and I ended up agreeing on the style and color (Champagne Bubbly – how much time do they spend thinking up these names?) that we had tentatively agreed on last month.

And just what is Champagne Bubbly? you are no doubt asking yourselves.

It’s hard to describe. Somewhere between neutral and tan. (OK, so I’m not being very helpful here.)

Wednesday, June 27

It was the thought that couldn’t be expressed.
What if we can’t get the couch into the house? I remember asking myself within the past week.

The front entrance doesn’t provide straight-ahead access. Any large object, such as our 6' x 9' bookcase, needs to be carefully angled through the doorway. The doors leading from the garage through the hallway into the kitchen provide more direct access but are narrower. That’s the route we used to move the old couch and love seat out of the house.

One of the delivery men attempted to carry the upholstered chair into the house on his own. He needed his partner, though as he tried to turn the corner just inside the door. It took some careful maneuvering even with the two of them working together.

The way the second guy studied the front entrance, moving his hands around as if to take measurements, I sensed a self-fulfilling prophecy coming to pass. The men struggled mightily to squeeze the couch through the doorway – and we have scratches on the doorframe to prove it. They then discovered, pretty much right from the start, that going through the garage wasn’t going to work.

The problem was with the legs. Although covered by a skirt, they extend five inches from the bottom of the couch itself. And they aren’t removable. I guess what we selected is designed for a grander home – or at least one with a bigger front door.

While I was on the phone – leaving a message for the woman who sold us the furniture and conferring with an extremely disappointed JoAnna – the men tried once again to bring it through the front door. From my angle, they looked as though they were going to succeed, but they only managed to add a few more scratches.

Since neither JoAnna nor I were thinking very clearly, we had them take the couch back to the warehouse. I checked the “did not fit” box on the delivery form. Obviously, this is a common occurrence.

Now that we’ve had time to think things through, we’ll request that the couch be returned and store it in the garage. And how then to get it into the house? We’ll replace the kitchen window on the driveway side of the house. That will (#1) provide us with the temporary opening and (#2) take care of another home improvement item on our checklist.

The Annual Richard Family Reunion

Saturday, July 28.

I attended my first Richard family reunion 23 years ago, during the first weekend of August. At the time, JoAnna and I had gone out on just one date -- to Jansen’s, a neighborhood bar on the east side of Oshkosh for the Thursday night shrimp boil.

“Do you like shrimp?” I nervously asked her on the previous Monday or Tuesday, tapping a pencil against the wall as we waited for the elevator on the third floor of the Oshkosh Public Library.

Nobody has ever called me a smooth operator.

Fortunately, she said “yes”, and the rest, as they say, is history.

A few days after our first date, JoAnna traveled to a national student government conference in Eugene, Oregon, with a group from UW-Oshkosh. She was away for about a week. I found myself thinking about her a lot. She must have experienced the same sense of yearning. Immediately upon her return, she called to ask if I’d like to accompany her to her family reunion in Two Rivers. I accepted the offer – how quickly, I can’t recall – without considering how my appearance there would play out. I’ve probably shared parts of this story with you before, but my favorite can be attributed to Alice. She thought I had just come along for the ride, as I was the only one in a group of three (a friend of JoAnna’s rode with us) who knew how to drive a borrowed VW bus with a standard transmission. Little did she know that I was soon to become her “favorite” son-in-law.

During the three days of that reunion – Friday night fish fry, Saturday picnic, Sunday brunch – I remember meeting lots of relatives whose names it took me a few more years to remember without prompting.

For this year’s reunion, Andy and Gretchen left Middleton at 8:30 on Thursday evening, after a Strauss family outing at Cheeseburgers in Paradise. (A party of 18.) Shortly after they hit the road, they encountered extremely wet driving conditions. Near Beaver Dam, Andy noted when describing their trip to me the next day, he had to come to a stop as a struck passed them on what was already a nearly blinding rainstorm. West of Sheboygan, the rain again started to fall in sheets, so they ended up at a motel for the night.

Some of this rain actually reached the Madison area. On Thursday night, it serenaded me to sleep. When I awoke Friday morning, the first thing I heard was a gentle patter on the leaves. But I don’t think it had been raining all night.

Eddie and I left at 9 a.m. on Friday and reached Larry and Alice’s house at 11:40. We found most everyone sitting outside. Cyndi was in the kitchen forming hamburger patties for lunch, and Andy was removing a section of bathroom tile. Uncle Albert had put him to work shortly after he and Gretchen arrived. I know he wasn’t expecting this assignment, the first step of a small remodeling project (plastic sheathing on three sides above the tub, shower head installation, curtain rod, towel racks) that Albert and Larry finished up by the end of the afternoon.

JoAnna, the boys, Gretchen, and I spent two hours of the afternoon on a small section of beach by the Lighthouse Inn, where Albert & family are staying this weekend. I would have preferred the much more expansive beach area at Neshotah Park. Out of boredom, I ended up walking across Memorial Drive to the Lester Public Library, where I browsed through some of the books in the local history collection.

The five of us are sharing a room at the Fox Hills Golf Resort and Conference Center in Mishicot, just a few miles from Camp TaPaWingo, the site of the Richard family reunion since about 2000. No suites were available as the sprawling facility is hosting four wedding parties this weekend. (We were probably lucky to get a room there!) We spent the latter half of the afternoon there checking in, unloading the cars, taking a swim in the outdoor pool, and then dressing for dinner. This year’s Friday fish fry was held at the K of C, where it had always taken place in the pre-TaPaWingo days.

It was past 10 o’clock by the time we left the K of C. Too late to play cards at the camp, all of us but Eddie decided. Albert provided him with taxi service for the night. It was nearly 2:30 when JoAnna responded to a soft knock at our door.

Eddie has become Mr. Sociable this week: dinner at Quaker Steak & Lube (all you can eat wings) on Tuesday with a group from the football team, a team party after Wednesday evening’s practice, and Friday night cards until the wee hours.

While everyone else played golf this morning, I explored the downtown Manitowoc area and the neighborhood just to the south. It provided with a great excuse to take an extended walk. I also spent some time on a computer at the Manitowoc Public Library. The attractive, spacious facility opened in 1999, but already the adult nonfiction shelves are groaning under the weight of too many books. In most subject areas, there’s no room to squeeze in a single volume. From my observation, it seems that the library has a no-weeding policy. Not even for multiple copies of yesteryear’s popular titles.

Across the street from the library sits Cooks Corner, which billed itself as the “Nation’s Largest Kitchen Store”. It’s now the “Nation’s Emptiest Kitchen Store”. It seemed to be a popular destination in December, but I supposed it couldn’t sustain that level of business year-round. Sine retail started to relocate to the edges of the city in the 1960s, downtown Manitowoc has struggled to compete. And it’s been more successful than most. Like many other communities of its size, it center-city energy is stoked by locally owned restaurants, gift and other specialty shops (or, more often than not, shoppes), arts and crafts stores, refurbished theaters, and local and county offices.

Sunday, July 29

After Saturday’s lunch, this year’s version of the Richard family reunion could have turned into an indoor card party had not JoAnna come to the rescue. She got everyone outdoors by organizing a bocce tournament. A series of games continued until dusk on a warm, but not oppressive day – perfect summer weather.

On Sunday morning, the Larry Richard family was in charge of breakfast preparations. Cindy and JoAnna made two institutional pan-size frittatas, a baked egg dish that also contained the previous day’s leftovers: chicken, brats, cheese, tomatoes, and buns – all of them cut into bite-size piece, of course. We almost didn’t have enough to serve the 45 members of the family who attended. And those were two huge pans they used.

The days of a simple scrambled egg meal are over.

Alice, Cindy, and JoAnna Richard

Fire marshal Eddie (left) and his handiwork (below)

Front row: Larry, Alice, Al, Cyndi
Back row: Cindy, Paul, JoAnna

Clockwise from top: Shirley, Bud, Alice, Winnie, Larry, Marie, Lucille, Ed

Cindy, Al, JoAnna

The Children of Joseph and Wilhelmina Richard

Shirley, Winnie, Lucille, Larry, Marie