Thursday, May 31, 2012

But, will I need a sweater?

I have been dressing myself for several years now, though I readily admit I still require some assistance and direction from my personal fashion advisor from time to time. But mostly, I seem perfectly capable of avoiding mixing stripes and plaid, and very often I manage to wear socks from the same approximate family of colors.
But when it comes time to pack, all bets are off.
Me: Will I need a sweater?
She: It's summer. It's hot. Probably not.
It wasn't always like this. Once upon a time, I used to travel on business, sometimes for a week or two at a time, even. And I'd manage--all by myself--to quickly and efficiently cram everything I'd need for a long stretch of hotel living in a good-sized carry-on bag and never miss a trick. Or a sock, either.
Now, apparently, I just have too much time to think about it, resulting in unconscionable gaffs like the time a couple of years ago when I found myself ready to camp out in Vermont in October without a pair of long pants or warm socks to my name. Luckily, my primary clothier, Goodwill, exists in the northeast, too, so I was soon warmer and readier for what turned into a wet, cold few days.
But usually, underpacking isn't the problem. Often, it's just the opposite.
Our back-and-forth trips between Illinois and North Carolina have seen me struggle to organize my own personal luggage into a manageable pile, not to mention the other stuff we find essential for our cross-county wanderings.
Our camping box is a fine case in point.
It started out as a time-and-space-saving way to tidily combine and carry virtually everything we'd need to camp out at a moment's notice in a single, large plastic tub. I envisioned a highly flexible traveling lifestyle that would allow us to stop and sleep under the stars in the little red tent whenever the spirit moved us.
Me: Here's a beautiful spot.
She: Golly, honey, I wish we could go camping, right here in this beautiful spot you've discovered for us.
Me: Never fear, dear. I have everything we need in this trusty camping box.
She: My hero.
...And so on.
But instead, the real scenario generally goes something like this:
Me: Here's a nice spot.
She: Did you remember the tent this time?
Me: I'll be right back.
The sheer volume of camping accoutrements I attempt to stuff in that box virtually guarantees that something will be left behind, smashed to smithereens along the way or, at the very least, lightly coated in peanut butter after the jar opens in transit.
But even if I wasn't trying to recreate the life, times and trappings of Daniel Boone in a polyethylene box, I'd still have to deal with the fact that whenever I travel from one spot to another, I have to try and remember if I'm going to have anything to wear once I reach point B.
It's kind of like that movie, "50 First Dates," where the heroine awakes every morning with her mental slate wiped perfectly clean. Because despite the fact that I know darn well there's gotta be an ample supply of my favored t-shirt-and-shorts ensembles waiting for me in Galva, I just can't quite remember a thing about them, or if they even really exist.
So, in a paranoid paroxysm of panicked overpacking, I will probably gather and transport my entire summertime wardrobe back to the midwest, just in case.
That leaves just one important question as I pack and prepare for this latest homeward jaunt. I know it's been unseasonably warm in Illinois this spring. I know I'll be heading back here before the seasons change again. But still, I wonder.
Will I need a sweater?
I'm absolutely sure there are piles of those waiting for me, too.
But, you see, I just can't quite remember.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Time to see what I've been missing

I found a shell last night.
After a long day of errands and general running around, we took a few minutes for a twilight beachwalk, a brisk two-miler down to the fishing pier that night-lights our southern view and back. The new-moon tide was high, with white-capped rollers racing nearly to dunes and beach-house stairways, forcing us to sidestep and dash away from time to time to avoid a thigh-high soaking.
I nearly stepped on it. I nearly kicked it away, thinking it was just a rock or a time-roughed oyster shell.
Instead, I picked it up.
There, nestled in my hand, was a near-perfect nautilus shell.
They're hard to come by, as the grinding surf generally destroys their delicate, chambered beauty, reducing them to shattered pieces before they can make their way to shore. It was, in fact, the first whole one I've seen outside of gift shop displays and maritime museum collections.
"Good," I thought. "I'll take it home."
Because home is where we're heading.
You know, the one in Galva.
But this is a hard place to leave.
The 26-mile spit of sand known as Topsail Island continues to be blessedly unknown to purveyors of things like fast food, name-brand lodging and miniature golf. The beach in front of our shabby-chic shoreline digs is nearly deserted, day after day, except for a few slow-walking beachcombers, solitary fishermen, happy, surf-playing kids, and, of course, us. The really good spring/summer weather is fully upon us, with the water finally warm enough for even chicken-hearted grandpa to take the plunge when a surf-saoked grandson insists.
Out back, the mockingbird who rules the edge of the intracoastal inlet that borders our yard, hisses and scolds with iron-beaked fury as nesting season begins, while mullet and shrimp fly from the water as we glide our kayaks through the marshy passages. Turtle nesting season is beginning, so my reptile-loving spouse rises early to walk and search and hope for the sight of a succesful "crawl," the term for the laborious process that takes the mammoth creatures from sea to nesting site and back.. Each day begins with glorious ocean dawns and ends with golden sunsets over the sound.
But it's time to go home. For awhile, at least.
And while we're gone, I'll miss the beach, the sunlight, the long, lazy walks and the wondrous sight of my youngest grandsons running and playing in the waves. I'll miss some of the people we've gotten to know, like the ones at the library who greet grandson John at story hour and forgive me for bringing back books filled with sand.  I'll miss the ladies at the pier who taught me the truth about biscuits, and even the guy at the fish market, who never makes me feel silly when I ask a dumb question.
But it's O.K. We'll be back.
And meanwhile, we've missed you, too.
Our recent three-month stay on these sunny shores marks the longest time I've been away from my hometown since the first year we were married, when jobs, grad school and an overwhelming lack of operating capital kept us huddled and happy in our Lake Superior log cabin for an entire Upper Peninsula fall and winter.
I've been missing our big old house and even the myriad of projects and chores that await me.  While I know the lawn has been well-mowed by good neighbor John, I can't help but wonder just how overgrown parts of our backyard gardens have gotten, given our ill-advised proclivity towards the kind of wildflowers and fast-spreading perennials that often require almost-daily attention with hoe, rake and shovel.
I miss the sights and sounds of the town where I grew up, even the rumble of coal trains rolling through in the middle of the night and the siren whistle that blows morning, noon and suppertime.
I wonder if my beloved 1994 IzusuTrooper will startle me by starting again after months of neglect.
Heck, I've even kind of missed the cat called Max, the mean-spirited ankle-biter who, no doubt, awaits me with fish-baited breath and updated dinnertime demands. But most of all, we've missed the friends and neighbors we left behind during this most recent southeastern portion of our bi-coastal living experience. We long to see your faces, hear your stories and renew the friendships that truly make home a place we love to be.
So I know we'll be thrilled to get back to Galva and catch up on everything, while plunging headlong into the life and chores and activities that wait for us every time. We'll make our way to visit the Minnesota crew, too, plus plan visits to people and places, and think and dream about the next time we hit the road again.
It'll be good to see what I've been missing.
And the shell I found last night?
I'll put it where I can see it.
I'll look at it. And remember.
And then I'll miss this place, too.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Some surprising views from the island

"Keep moving," she said.
I was a little taken aback.
We were, you see, just approaching the halfway point of one of our favorite beachwalks, an approximately six-mile round trip that takes us from our secluded beach access in the middle of the northern stretch where we live, all the way to the very tip-top of Topsail Island.  It's a beautiful, interesting route, with views of various beachfronts and vacation homes, fishing boats, sea and bird life, and the New River Inlet, a broad tidal estuary that both separates our island from the off-limit confines of the the U.S. Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune, and provides inland-to-ocean access for commercial fishing boats and sport fishermen alike.
I had been doing my best to keep up with her relentless, cardio-conscious pace, so I was surprised that she complained when I slowed down and veered towards the waterline as we approached the inlet, which is a fine spot to search for the spectacular shells that often roll in near where the ocean currents meet the outbound flow of the river.
"What?" I answered. "I was just looking for shells."
"Didn't you see those swimmers?" she whispered.
"What swimmers?" I replied.
"The ones with no clothes on," she laughed.
Swimmers? No clothes?
In my desire to spot and retrieve large-sized whelks, conchs and other mighty mollusks, I had missed, perhaps, the most interesting view of the day, a buoyant bevy of bare-naked beach babes sunning and playing in the waves nearby.
"I had always heard there were nude beaches around here, but this is the first time I've seen it," she said. 
And I missed it.
We walked on in silence, each, understandably, lost in our own thoughts.
"Put down that telescope," she suddenly hissed, using much the same tone as a western sheriff warning off an armed and dangerous Billy the Kid.
I had brought along my fancy new spyglass, a gift from a visiting brother-and-sister-in-law, in hopes of catching a closer glimpse of the offshore markers the Army Corps of Engineers has placed for the most recent round of dredging needed to keep the inlet open for commercial boat traffic.
"I was just looking at that buoy," I protested.
"Yeah, right. Or maybe that girl," she replied.
But really, folks, it wasn't that I was all that anxious to catch a glimpse of a bunch of sans-suit sunbathers. But I was interested. And curious.
How long had this been going on?
So I did what any red-blooded American boy would do.
I looked it up.
Turns out, the whole subject was kind of hot news a few years ago, when it came to light that neither of the communities on the northern and southern ends of Topsail Island had laws against sunbathing or swimming in the buff on their beaches.
A headline from the Wilmington (NC) Star-News put it this way:
"Women still feel free to drop tops at Topsail Beach," leading off an attention-getting story that revealed that "Topsail Beach, along with three other area beaches, abides by state and federal laws, which do not distinguish between a man’s and woman’s bare chest."
That was news to me. News to just about everybody, I'd say.
Other stories followed, both in newspapers and blog posts, but eventually, the furor died down.
‘We’ve never had a problem with it, actually,’’ said Danny Salese, North Topsail’s police chief. ‘‘It’s very isolated. They find places that are more secluded. We try to divert it to another area, a more secluded area. There’s been only one complaint that I know of since I’ve been here.’’
As laid-back as most Carolinians seems to be, this is, after all, a part of what is often known as the Bible Belt, and a state that recently made international headlines when it approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.  I'm almost positive if there were a sudden upswing in birthday-suit sunbathing at, say, Windmont Park or Lake Calhoun, some folks would get up in arms. I know the male portion of the Star-Courier newsroom would be Johnny on the spot in reporting it.
"That's why they call it Topsail," said one wag in an online chat. "It's where tops sail off."
We've been walking these beaches almost daily for months at a time over the past couple of years, and this was our first sighting of suitless sunbathers. So, chances are, we won't be lucky--or unlucky enough, depending on your point of view--to see it again.
But we both learned a valuable lesson.
She needs to watch out where she takes me on those walks.
And I need to pay more attention.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Because moms are the best of all

From Western Illinois Family Magazine

Anyone who reads my columns in the Kewanee Star-Courier and on my online blog from time to time may have figured out that I can be a bit of a cynic when it comes to certain holidays. While I love those important days and seasons with family, patriotic and religious meaning, like Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Halloween and Independence Day, I am, admittedly, less enthusiastic about those that I feel have been mostly generated and maintained by greeting card companies and candy manufacturers.
But not Mother's Day.
While it's most certainly among those most adored by the aforementioned card-and-chocolate guys, it's also a special day that's most richly deserved by the moms we honor.
Like mine.
It's been over 30 years since my own mother passed away early on a beautiful spring day. And while they're right when they say time heals a lot of wounds, I have not forgotten her.
In fact, I miss her nearly every day.
I miss the fact that she never got to be a grandma to my own kids. I miss the stories she told about her own school days and growing up in Galva.
I miss her meatloaf.
I miss the way she always encouraged me to do the things that would make me happy and fulfilled. I miss the way she lovingly told me when she thought I was wrong.
I miss the way she loved the girl who became my wife.
I miss the things she dared to do.  Like the time there were no volunteers to coach my little league baseball team.  Now, I realize that many wives (including my own) coach kids' sports teams nowadays, but in those days it was pretty well unheard of.  We took a lot of heat from the other kids when they heard she and another mom would be coaching us.  Things quieted down pretty quickly, though, because we were fantastic!  My mom's theory of coaching was everyone plays every position, which made it fun, exciting, a little nerve-racking and highly successful, as we learned to play as a team, no matter who was on the mound, behind the plate or out in right field.
I miss the feel of her hand on my face.
I miss the way she laughed and listened and shared her own memories, like the fateful December day she discovered that her own father was actually Santa Claus.
I miss the way she remembered.
Sometimes, when I least expect it, I think of how much she would have enjoyed all the things we do and think and feel as parents and grandparents ourselves. And I wish I had one more chance to talk with her.
I know what I'd say:
I miss you, mom. Happy Mother's Day.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Because May means graduation day

We got something rather startling in the mail the other day.
It was a handful of graduation announcements, forwarded from our Galva address and delivered in a bunch.
"It can't be that time already!" I exclaimed to my wife.
"Well, it's May, you know," she replied, displaying the intellectual superiority and keen powers of observation that will probably someday land her a spot as an FBI profiler or a private eye.
All I know is that time sure flies.
Many of this year's Kewanee High School grads are well remembered as a lively roomful of third graders by my retired-teacher spouse. She, for one, is amazed at how quickly the years between eight and eighteen can pass, as she recalls kids who were then working on tough stuff like button-buttoning and zipper-unsticking and other important parts of the elementary curriculum, who now sit poised on the edge of adulthood and a whole new set of decisions, directions and days to remember.
The time I spent covering sports for the Star Courier gave me a chance to know and observe a whole crop of kids who amazed me with their ability to gracefully balance lives filled to the brim with athletics, homework, other after-school activities and part-time jobs.
And we both fondly remember the soon-to-be grads who were part of the last Confirmation class we taught at St. John's Church in Galva, a busy bunch of mostly eight-grade students who sometimes challenged every article of faith we attempted to share, resulting in even greater conviction and understanding for us, and even some of them, I hope.
Our daily looks at the e-edition of The Star Courier, Facebook and the online Galva News website this year have revealed some wonderful results from the efforts made by teachers and parents and the kids themselves.
Many of them have now grown to become students and athletes and workers and real people in their own right. 
And that's a good thing, all by itself.
And whether they now go on to college or work or even start families of their own, I wish them well. Very well, indeed.
But there's one more thing.
One more graduation, in fact.
Our older son, Colin, claimed he wanted to be a filmmaker when he graduated from high school some fifteen years ago. It wasn't an obvious choice back then, as Galva has rarely been described as a hotbed for world-renowned cinematographers. But that's what he wanted, so we stood back and watched.
Then something happened.
It's called life.
We weren't surprised that Colin, who was always a hard worker, would choose to find employment while in school. For one thing, we told him to. And, after all, he was the young man who, while in high school, simultaneously held down jobs at a local hardware store and a downtown restaurant, with a spot of lifeguarding at three different swimming holes on the side. 
He started working nearly full time in restaurants while in college, and soon was truly embarked on a career as a chef that has seen him succeed in a wide range of culinary arts, ranging from fine dining bistros to trendy grills to Thai cuisine. 
Then life got even livelier.
He fell in love. 
He got married. 
And he began a new life as a husband, father and an important breadwinner while his smart,  beautiful, ambitious wife worked to earn a PhD in sociology and criminology.
I hope he was always happy with who he was and what he was doing. I know we were proud of the responsible, caring man he had become.
Just one thing, though.
He never finished that film degree.
It was not until his wife, Geri, received her degree and got that all-important first teaching job at Minnesota State University in Moorhead, just across the raging Red River of the North from Fargo, that opportunity knocked again.
With her encouragement (and partly thanks to an all-important tuition waiver for the families of faculty members) he got back at it. He rearranged his work schedule to a grueling before-dawn-unil-early-afternoon shift and became a full-time student. It had to be tough, as none of his other job/family/life commitments went away, but he did it with a stellar college career that has seen him receive academic honors and be chosen to present his work at conferences, film festivals and other venues. 
We received a copy of the program from a recent student academic conference in the mail from his proud spouse the other day. I thumbed through the pages until I came the most special one, right between those highlighting a budding biologist and an anxious astronomer.
There was a picture of my son Colin, along with a bio describing him and the work he would be presenting at the conference. It started like this:
"Colin Sloan is not your average student. He is married and a father of two. He spends his mornings slaving away over a hot stove, cooking up some of Fargo's finest luncheons at the HoDo (the Hotel Donaldson, an upscale boutique hotel with a well-regarded gourmet restaurant), then he spends his afternoons working toward the completion of his film studies degree at MSUM, WHICH HE WILL GRADUATE WITH IN MAY."
By the way, those are my capital letters right there at the end.
I don't know if Colin will be the next Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee. Heck, I don't even know if he'll ever get to work in the film industry at all, a field so crowded and competitive that whole movies have been made regarding that well-known frustrating fact.
But I do know this.
I know that he has--with slight delays for the aforementioned work, love, marriage and fatherhood--done what he always said he wanted to do.
And that's a good thing, all by itself.
So, congratulations, dear son. We're proud of you.
But then again, we always were.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


It was a happy surprise when our youngest grandson, John Patrick, agreed to take something to show and tell at the pre-school he attends. Young John is often the quiet type, so much so that his first "report card" from St. Anne's was a trifle dismal. Not because he doesn't know things like colors, shapes and some basic number facts, but because he steadfastly refused to share that knowledge--or any information at all--during the first couple months of school.  
This is in sharp contrast to his older brother, Cyrus, a bright, talkative little guy who is often so much like a miniature attorney-at-law that we sometimes expect him to say, "Your honor, I object" when we serve peanut butter without jelly, and demand a sidebar when it's time for bed.
But over time, mostly due to the kind ministrations of his teachers at the happy little school they've both attended, he's opened up a bit.
Of course, grandma has had something to do with it, too.
Having devoted her entire worklife to early childhood education, she is a dogged devotee of every opportunity to learn something. That's unlike yours truly, whose whole recollection of my own early school days consists of memories of a giant wooden shoe with laces we were supposed to learn to tie, plus a daily attempt at learning to skip in a large circle without falling down.
Suffice it to say, I now mostly wear slip-on clogs. And if you've ever seen me dance, you know how the skipping thing went.
So, most of the time, it goes something like this:
She: Boys, let's count all the grains of sand on the beach today. And can you spell "pelican?"
Me: You really know how to suck the fun out of everything, don't you?
...and so on.
She's even convinced me to show up at John's school every Friday, with trusty guitar in hand, to lead a restless group of four-year-olds in song. John seems glad enough to see me, I guess. But I'm pretty sure I've spied a certain look on his face that seems almost sympathetic as he watches me strumming a few sappy, kid-friendly folk tunes.
"She got you, too, eh grandpa?"
But she's right to do the things she does, because her steadfast determination is starting to pay off, as kindergartner Cyrus is making some real strides towards learning to read, while closemouthed John has shown some willingness to speak up from time to time, though his reply to too much questioning continues to be a shrug and three simple words.
"I don't know."
...even if he does.
Grandma saw a chance to take advantage of his newfound semi-verbosity just the other day, when a chat with his teacher revealed the theme for that week's show and tell activity.
Now, admittedly, we haven't got much out here at our shabby-chic beach place.
No TV, no video games, not much furniture and very little in the way of junk food or other things that kids like when they come to visit.
But we've got ocean stuff.
Our garage is jam-packed with beach chairs, umbrellas, boogie boards, air mattresses, frisbees, beach balls, buckets and shovels, plus an unending selection of little army guys, dinosaurs, trucks, cars and other material just waiting to be buried, lost, found and enjoyed.
And that's just the garage.
Inside the house itself, nearly every available flat surface features a myriad of shells, rocks and bits of coral and other treasures that we've found in our almost-daily walks along the shore.
Show and tell? Oceans?
We got you covered, kid.
While I would have probably been content to turn him loose with a bag full of miscellaneous sea matter, grandma had something better in mind. Out of all the collections we've gathered, possibly the most interesting resides in an old glass fishbowl. It's the round type, but instead of housing an endlessly circling goldfish, it's a dry, sandy terrarium containing a variety of special finds, including whelk and skate egg cases, some nice examples of olive, scallop, whelk and angel wing shells, some sea glass and--the prize of all prizes--a perfectly preserved sea horse that she found lying on the shore one day.  We dropped it off at school the day before he was to show and share it, thinking it was a little too fragile to put in the hands of a four-year-old who never walks when he can run.
Then we waited for the news.
He was his usual silent self when we picked him up after school. He was mostly interested in finding out if we were going back to the beach house so he could splash in the sun-warmed tide pools and dig a few holes in the sand.
Finally, I had to ask.
"So John," I queried. "How was show and tell?"
"Good," he smiled.
"Did you show everybody grandma's shells and the sea horse?" I asked.
He smiled again.
"Well," I pressed. "Did they like grandma's sea horse?"
Another smile.
"I don't know," he shrugged. 
"Can we go to McDonald's before we go to the beach?"
For a minute, I was kinda disappointed. I mean, here we had made an extra effort and given him some genuine treasures to share, along with a chance to really shine in school. And all he was thinking about was a happy meal and the fun he would have with us on the beach that afternoon.
Then I glanced at grandma.
Pure bliss shown on her face as she listened to his voice and looked at his smiling face.
And I realized that while we did, indeed, give the boy some treasures to share, the real treasure--for us, at least--is the boy himself.