Thursday, November 29, 2012

How lovely are thy branches

Back in the good old days, when our kids were young and I had not yet become old enough to know better, a favorite holiday tradition of ours was the yearly hunt for our family Christmas tree.
That sounds harmless enough, I know. But looking back at it, I wonder how close we came to permanently scarring those young lads as we pursued an annual quest that easily managed to make the hunts for Excalibur, Moby Dick and The Holy Grail seem as simple as a visit to the grocery store in search of something as rare as canned peaches.
We would spend hours trudging through the deep, cold, snowy woods, endlessly bickering over life-and-death details like height, fullness, color and species. The boys and I would start the day filled with Christmas spirit and boundless enthusiasm, only to be driven into the kind of chilly exhaustion more often experienced by those hardy folks who climb Mount Everest without oxygen or compete in dog sled races near the Arctic Circle.
She, on the other hand, never gave up until she found the perfect tree. It had to be big--massive, in fact--in order to just brush the eleven-and-a-half-foot ceilings in the front room of our big old house.  The color had to be just right, and at least one side needed to be without bare spots, holes and other obvious flaws.  Once it was finally chosen, I would be dispatched underneath the tree where, saw in hand, I would wriggle through the snowy slush and do my best to cut it down without incident.
That's where things always got tough.
Biology, botany, ecology, dendrology and a whole host of other sciences I know nothing about all dictate that a big tree requires a big trunk to keep entire forests from toppling over at the first light breeze.
(sawing sounds)
She: How's it going under there?
(more sawing sounds)
Me: I can't feel my fingers.
Once it was finally felled, it was then my job to drag the prickly leviathan out of the forest, pay for it, precariously lash it to the top of the car or jam it into the cargo space of our much-maligned baby-blue mini-van, and head for home. Mom and the boys would sing carols and chat excitedly about how good the tree was going to look.
I, on the other hand, would already be pondering the words that have haunted dads ever since Joseph dragged a palm tree into the manger.
"How am I ever going to fit this big sucker into a stand?"
You see, that's the ultimate question for those of us who are married or otherwise attached to ardent big-tree fans. And even if you managed to jam a huge, peculiarly shaped trunk into a poorly engineered, way-too-flimsy, four-legged contraption, what absolute miracle of physics would enable an oversized evergreen to actually stand upright without resorting to a sensible, but forbidden, solution like leaning it against a wall or wiring it to a doorknob? Every year, I would anxiously wander the aisles of hardware stores and Christmas shops, desperately seeking the monolithic, extra-heavy-duty stand I dreamed of. At holiday gatherings, when wives and girlfriends would ooh and aah over each other's tree-decorating skills, guys in the know would look low and close, and ask the essential question:
"Where'd you get that stand?"
As expected, once we got our tree home, I would discover, right off, that the base of the thing was about twice as big as it needed to be to fit into my latest red-and-green support system.
Warming to the task, I would fire up my trusty chainsaw and start whittling away at the poor pine as it rested on our front porch. Caught up in an extreme level of noise and sap-lust, I'd soon forget I had an audience until I'd look up and see my wife and our sons looking through the window at me and the object of my Christmastime fury, shocked, wide-eyed and worried as if they'd unexpectedly come home early from school and caught me dismembering the neighbors' cat in my basement workshop.
Eventually, I'd get the darn thing into the stand, whereupon phase two would begin. Guys in the know already know the drill:
She: Move it to the right.
No, MY right.
Now back.
No, not that far.
You're tipping it!
Don't tip it!
Now back.
Now forward.
Does that look straight?
Me: How would I know? I'm lying under the tree.
Our sons finally aged out of the tree-getting process, and when our last live-cut tree dropped all its needles in the week before Christmas, we became confirmed fake-tree fanciers.
At least for a while.
We're spending Christmas in North Carolina this year, and she decided maybe we should let our youngest grandsons share in that old tradition. It was small-business Saturday when we all went to the Justice Tree Farm, a multi-generational, family-owned-and-operated place that is a fine example of the very best things about small businesses. The Justice family has, I discovered, upgraded things quite a bit since the last time I visited a cut-your-own place and was sent staggering into the deep, dark woods to fend for myself.
First off, you don't have to. Cut your own, that is.
While I was welcome to borrow one of their hand saws once we had made our selection, they indicated they'd be happy to cut it for me.
"I think grandpa should cut it down," said grandma, thinking, I guess, that seeing the old man crawling through the brush like a wounded gopher would somehow enhance the holiday experience for the little guys.  My rescue came in the form of a winding little train-like contraption, pulled behind a small tractor, with just enough room left in the trailing cars for grandma and her two little elves.
"All aboard the Christmas tree express," cried the driver merrily.
"Yeah, whatever," I muttered. "Quick, where's that kid with the chainsaw?"
Not only did the helpful tree guys cut, bale and securely attach the tree to the roof of our car, but I was happy in the knowledge that the smallish, beach-house-size tree was in no way too big for the sleek, sturdy, modern-day tree stand I had discovered and purchased at a local big-box store the day before.
When we got the tree home to our beach place, I found I was right. The tree was not too big.
Instead, it was too small.
I searched high and low for the shims and other small hunks of wood needed to jam the skinny, crooked trunk of the tree into the massive, too-big stand. Once I did, grandma was ready with her phase two instructions, while two little boys stood poised with armloads of shiny balls and glittering pine cones, plus a precious collection of just-right shells, sand dollars and sea stars.
"Move it to the right. No, MY right. Now back. No, not that far. You're tipping it! Don't tip it! Now back. Now forward."
I looked up at her from where I lay, under the tree.
"Does that look straight?" she asked.
I smiled. She smiled back. We had been there before.
"Close enough," I said.
Close enough for Christmas.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Something else to be thankful for

As I've mentioned about a zillion times before, television is not a major part of our existence when we're residing on a narrow island off the North Carolina coast. While there is a tiny, 13-inch model down in the bedroom occupied by my wife's bachelor brother when he visits, we generally forego watching it ourselves, preferring the glorious sights provided by the Atlantic Ocean just across the winding, two-lane blacktop that fronts our place, or the equally interesting views in and around the intracoastal waterway that borders our backyard.
But since we arrived back here a few days ago, a nor'easter just up the coast has kept skies steely gray, while buffeting us with chilly, gusty winds and cold rain. We've read, cooked, cleaned and restlessly walked from window to window, hoping for a break in the relentless weather.
Finally, we decided we'd try watching a little TV.
Cheapskate that I am, I've steadfastly refused to install cable or a satellite dish, so the options are fairly limited. On a good day, the rabbit ears we hooked up can be turned and twisted--just like in the good old days--to pick up a meager handful of semi-local stations, though the only one that seems to come in on a dependable basis is the feed from UNC-TV, the university sponsored public television system that operates all but one of the PBS stations in the state.
Not all bad, since we tend to like a lot of the programming they offer, though I do wish they'd consider carrying Chicago Bears games (when they win) and the NCIS re-runs I watch incessantly when I'm at home in Illinois.
We just happened to be downstairs trying to catch a strong signal the other night when we stumbled upon a two-part documentary that caught our attention.
It was called, "The Dust Bowl."
It's by Ken Burns, who also produced historic epics like "The Civil War," "Baseball," "Jazz," "The War," "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," and "Prohibition."
"The Dust Bowl" tells the story of the environmental catastrophe that, throughout the 1930s, destroyed the farmlands of the Great Plains, turned prairies into deserts, and unleashed a pattern of massive, deadly dust storms that--to many--seemed to announce the end of the world. It was, in fact, the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history, happening, as fate would have it, in the midst of another now-famous people-problem, the Great Depression.
But here's the thing:
Hardly anyone remembers it.
In a day and age when Hurricane Katrina, The Deepwater Horizon oil spill and SuperStorm Sandy fill nearly everyone's consciousness, we have all but forgotten an agonizing, drawn-out, cataclysmic event that left over half a million Americans homeless, with over 2.5 million residents of the southwestern plains states eventually leaving for homes and work in other parts of the country. Some statistics indicate that over 7,000 people died during the dust bowl, quite a few from "dust pneumonia" caused by the overwhelming, pervasive dust storms that raged through the region, while malnutrition was a factor in other deaths.
Economic depression coupled with extended drought, extremely high temperatures, poor agricultural practices and the resulting wind erosion all contributed to making the Dust Bowl. With wheat prices falling due to poor economic conditions, farmers planted even more in an effort to survive. They covered the prairie with wheat in place of the natural drought-resistant grasses and left any unused fields bare.
Then it got hot. It got dry. It got windy.
The resulting dust storms--called "black blizzards"--killed what remained of the crop and made the land nearly uninhabitable. Eventually, the government enacted aid programs to help, with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal  providing jobs and other kinds of aid, plus helping farmers learn better ways of growing crops while protecting the soil.
And then, in 1939, God got involved, too.
It rained.
There's no doubt that the story of The Dust Bowl should make us think about our response to troubling economic conditions, our effect on the natural world around us, and our responsibility to it, as well as the place of government in regulating what we do.  Most of us worry--a lot--about the economy, and the disasters--manmade and otherwise--that sometimes strike.  In addition, we often disagree as to whether our government is the right choice to help us through it all. But the value of history is that it teaches us, and, hopefully, helps us remember important lessons from our shared past.
So remember.
It could be worse. It has been worse.
I, for one, am most thankful that it's not.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Farewell, old friend

It was a tough decision.
I knew she felt kind of sorry about it, because I overheard her talking to a friend on the phone one day.
"You hate to say goodbye to a part of your family," she said. "But with the mess and everything, it's just time to pull the plug."
Yep, she felt bad.
I did, too. But mostly I was just glad she wasn't talking about me.
What she was referring to was the giant 60-foot evergreen tree that has grown near our big old house for as long as I can remember. It was a behemoth when we moved in nearly 25 years ago, and has grown and grown and grown ever since.
It was one of the first things I liked about the house when we first looked at it.
"Look, the place even comes with a Christmas tree," I said.
Of course, this house means a lot more to me than high ceilings, square footage and a big tree in the front yard. It is, in fact, the house where my mother grew up.  it became a part of my family’s history when my immigrant grandfather came to town in 1909, looking for a chance to open his own business and start a new life for his growing family. He rented a room in this house, then eventually bought the place and set about turning it into a home. It was originally built in the 1860s by Peter Larson, whose wife was the daughter of Olof Johnson, the Bishop Hill trustee who named Galva. When gramps bought it, he thought it it was already in need of a facelift and some improvements, so he added a garage topped with an upstairs addition, expanded the kitchen, and changed the appearance of the front from Victorian to something a little more modern-looking for the time, with a wrap-around porch, columns and a gently sloping overhanging roof.
My mother and her two brothers grew up in the house as part of an extended family that included her parents and various aunts and uncles. My grandfather’s business thrived, the family became a solid, well-liked part of the community, and life was good.
The stock market crash of 1929 created a ripple effect that had severe consequences throughout the county, even in small towns like Galva. Chief among them was a lack of what would now be called "cash flow." Very quickly, my grandfather's successful business was deeply in debt. My mother would later tell me that he was unable to bring himself to press the neighbors and friends who owed him money, as he knew they were unable to pay him. The end result was that his business failed and my grandparents were eventually forced to leave their home and adopted hometown.
For over fifty years, the house was occupied by other families until, in the mid-80’s, it went on the market just about the time we were looking for a larger, better-located home for our young family. I thought, at first, that it might remind me too much of what became a sad chapter in my family’s life. But, we chose to make it our own, thinking, correctly, that it could also become a symbol for the wonderful way life sometimes works out. It was a great place to raise our two sons, and a place our grandchildren always seem glad to visit.
But then there was the tree.
Members of the pine and spruce families grow pretty quickly, so it was probably planted after mom's family left the place. But as long as I can remember, it's been a part of the look of the property when seen from the street that divides our yard from beautiful Wiley Park. We cut and gather fronds and branches at Christmastime and used it as a landmark when we gave directions to where we lived.
"It's the big tan house with the white columns and the giant tree in front."
Problem was, it grew too much.
From what was probably just a pretty little tree that served to add some interest to the northwest corner of the house, it grew both up and out until its middle branches overhung the porch roof and the entire thing loomed over our home, leaving us to wonder and worry about what would happen it it ever fell. It kept our lawn, roof and gutters clogged with needles, while serving no real useful purpose other than as a veritable interstate highway for the neighborhood squirrels.
Finally, we decided it had to go.
It was, of course, way too much of a job for me, but It was a pretty slick project for Galva's Ron Modesto, "the tree guy," who spent the morning and part of the afternoon trimming off all its branches before efficiently sectioning off and felling a towering trunk that finally measured over thirty inches across at its base...a pretty big Christmas tree, indeed.
I confess, I had some mixed feelings while he did his work, wondering if maybe we had been too hasty in deciding to cut the tree down. I know neither of my sons were entirely happy when they heard the news, remembering the tree as an often-interesting element in their front yard ballgames and an everpresent part of the home they grew up in.
But mostly, I wondered if I was going to miss it.
It has, after all, always been there. For as long as we've lived in this house, that tree was there to greet me, whether I was coming home after a long day and drive back when I commuted to Peoria, or now, when we arrive at the place we love after time spent traveling and visiting friends, family, kids and grandkids.
Yes, I think I will miss the sight of that big tree. But I know I'll get over it.
After all, we're still here.
And so are the memories.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The six billion dollar man

Good morning, America.
By now, we've elected a president.
At least, I hope so.
I'm writing this on Tuesday morning--election day--with the radio news recounting complicated voting processes in the blacked-out Northeast and all-too-familar irregularities reported elsewhere. But I'm hoping we got it done. I'm hoping we got it done right.
I'm glad it's over.
It's been a remarkably unpleasant election cycle, with an unceasing barrage of criticism, allegations, innuendo and outright nonsense.  It seems a shame that in a time and place when advanced communications can allow us to share information, ideas, hopes and beliefs, we, instead, choose to use those wondrous capabilities to spread negative thoughts, ill-founded slander and intentional disinformation.  The result?  Instead of being better informed, we are often more thoroughly confused, and generally less convinced either way.
That's a shame.
But, to me, the bigger shame is the way all that stuff is delivered and the cost of that delivery.
I'm talking about election reform.
Mostly, I'm talking about the money.
I find certain aspects of our election process, like the outmoded electoral college, the continuing threat of vote fraud, and the inexplicable ongoing struggle for universal voting rights outrageous, repugnant and downright demeaning to each and every citizen. But it is the amount of money that's been spent by each party and many candidates that truly amazes and frustrates me this year.
In an election year where the economy is a key issue for many, how can anyone possibly rally around a system that saw our two major-party candidates spend more than six billion dollars on their campaigns?
Six billion dollars.
That's $6,000,000,000, folks.
Nine zeros.
What for?
Across the country, Americans suffered through more than one million presidential TV spots, most of them negative, and many of them intentionally untrue and/or misleading. Even some of our local candidates got into the big-money action, with a reported 9.2 million dollars spent on the 17th congressional district race between Bobby Schilling and Cheri Bustos.
Here's what I think:
We're intelligent enough to figure things out on our own.
I continue to believe we're good and smart enough to make our decisions without being subjected to billions of dollars worth of bunk from people who often seem more interested in bullying us or frightening us into voting their way rather than simply telling the truth about who they are and what they believe in.  I think it's time for a new era of civility and frank discussion. I think there's got to be a better way to find out what our candidates and their parties truly believe in, instead of only hearing--over and over again--about what, and who, they're against.
But instead, the growing trend in this record-setting year has been to relentlessly try to pound us into some kind of submission via the airwaves, the internet and every other possible communications venue.
Six billion dollars. Can you imagine the good, valuable, important things that kind of money could be spent on?
According to data from the Federal Election Commission, that translates to over $30 spent every second during the election cycle by the Romney and Obama campaigns.
I think they oughta know better.
We should, too.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

You don't know what I know

Actually, I don't know much.
Or, at least, the things I do know are things most everybody else knows, too. This lamentable fact has been made clear to me over the years by a whole host of friends and acquaintances, co-workers, my kids and, from time to time, even my beloved spouse. Even my youngest grandsons have started to catch on, occasionally responding to some of my more outlandish utterances with puzzled, doubting looks that seem to say,
"Gee, grandpa, really?"
But I'm learning.
It all started when I saw a Facebook post awhile back that referred to someone as a "bboy."
After deciding it wasn't just an accidental bit of miss-typing, I did an internet search that reveled that bboy is urban slang for someone who knows how to break dance.
Wow. Who knew? Not me, that's for sure.
But it made me wonder just how much other valuable information there was waiting for me via the wonderful world of cyberspace.
So I looked.
Right off, I discovered a veritable treasure trove of all-important instructions and facts that will, I think,  make my life richer and more productive in the years to come.  Like how to trick people into thinking I'm sexy, how to open a coconut, and how to feed a snake frozen food.
But there's more. The World Wide Web also offers instructions on how to remove a tick, how to make a giraffe out of plastic bags, and how to survive a party where you don’t know anyone (Step 3: find the bathroom.)
It was an enormous relief to discover there was a way to wiggle my small toe separately from the rest of my toes and how to communicate with my cat (Hi, Max.)
And thanks to the information superhighway, I now know how remove the steering wheel from a tractor, how to make LEGO blocks out of vegetables, how to improve my sense of smell, and how to begin a happy career as a people watcher. Moreover, I now have the knowledge I need to start my own country (I'm thinking about it), make people think I'm immortal (not immoral), manage hay fever as a Buddhist (?), and meet new people without being creepy (at last!).
Great stuff, huh? And along with the above-mentioned "how to's," I discovered a rich world of just-plain facts that had somehow eluded me until now.
For instance, I learned there are 18 different animal shapes in the Animal Crackers cookie zoo, and that slugs have four noses.
Did you realize that the Mona Lisa has no eyebrows?
And did you know that over 2,500 left-handed people a year are killed from using products made for right-handers, or that the longest recorded flight of a chicken is 13 seconds? My online search also informed me that feet have 500,000 sweat glands and can produce more than a pint of sweat a day, that the first toilet ever seen on television was on “Leave It to Beaver,” and that the dot over the letter “i” is called a tittle.
A tittle?
Some of my new-found know-how includes interesting details on certain laws that are, apparently, still on the books in different parts of the country, information which should prove invaluable to an ardent traveler like me.
For instance, it's illegal to drink beer out of a bucket while you're sitting on a curb in St. Louis, and it is forbidden to imitate an animal in Miami. Alaska law says that you can't look at a moose from an airplane, while in my adopted part-time state of North Carolina, it is illegal for a rabbit to race down the street. As a confirmed road warrior, I was glad to learn that birds have the right of way on public highways in Utah, and Illinois drivers are required to use the steering wheel while piloting a car Additionally, it is against the law to drive a car while sleeping in Tennessee, and New York forbids blind people to drive at all.  My spouse will be interested to learn that California law prohibits a woman from driving a car in a housecoat, while In Memphis, Tennessee, a woman is not to drive a car unless a man warns approaching motorists or pedestrians by walking in front of the car that is being driven.
Sorry, honey. Please don't run me over.
But there was one law I discovered that seems entirely applicable in these final days of the divisive 2012 general election season we've all endured:
In Virginia, the Code of 1930 has a statute which prohibits corrupt practices or bribery by any person other than political candidates.
It's Tuesday morning as I write this column, with news about the hybrid superstorm called Sandy still ongoing. It is barely enough to say that those affected by this massive natural disaster deserve our thoughts, our assistance and our prayers.
That's a fact.