A Study in Contrasts

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I took the bike for a spin around the block tonight for about an hour and a half. What I love about biking is the immense amount of variety seen, felt, and experienced. One bike ride can take you through many different socio-economic zones, hilly topography followed by long periods of relative flatness, varying ecosystems, alternating periods of sun and clouds, wild swings in the weather, and sometimes seemingly wholly different planets!

Get in a big 50-100 mile loop and you’ve got yourself immense variation and subtle differences that are impossible to be adequately felt within the confines of your car.

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Followed the Lester River to Lake Superior, and today the ice looked a like it has for many months. Just a week ago, however, there were large patches of bright blue water, bright white icebergs floating about that gave a North Atlantic type feeling, and I even saw a small flock of young ducklings floating on one of the ice floes (which was surprising). The ice is always sure to change every day this time of year. It was a bit glum down there today at 37 degrees and a very stiff breeze, but I’m constantly fascinated by the changes from day to day in the ice pack as it blows in and out, shifts, etc.

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Spring Ahead Through Simplicity

When the phone rang today my son picked it up in bewilderment as if it was some futuristic communications device from Star Trek, listened intently for a second, and said, “Huh?”

This is in contrast to our neighbor’s children, who answer the phone crisply and flawlessly, as if they were auditioning for a part as an executive secretary, “Hello, this is Kate.” Then they proceed to communicate intelligently into the device and actually carry on a conversation with an adult.

Yes, the Gilmore’s seem to have fallen down on the job when it comes to training on technology, even if it is just 20th century technology, such as the modern zipper. We’ll re-double our efforts in this area, but I must say that I am proud to be among just 6.9% of Americans, as reported by the National Journal at the end of last year, who only have a landline and no cell phone. Can you believe so few of us fall into this antiquated category?

I prefer things that are real and come out of the earth, such as sticks, potatoes, and clean water. Kids can find all kinds of things to do with things that weren’t manufactured and shrink wrapped in plastic. Just this past weekend my son and a friend must have moved 2,000 pounds of snow in a herculean effort to dig a massive fort that spans most of our yard, contains ramparts over 4 feet high that are defended with well-placed sticks arranged in a stockade-like formation, and is complete with a large drainage ditch to keep the copious amounts of water moving out of there. When did Angry Birds or the Candy Crush Saga ever produce such satisfaction compared with something created with one’s own two hands? No column of mine is ever complete without a rant against video games!

Our lovely cedar tree is also open for business now, and contains the finest tree climbing opportunity on this side of the street.
Old or young, big or small, the finest things in life are the simple, and the season of spring invites a return to simplicity and new beginnings. The first week of warm weather since the sinking of the Titanic has me ruminating and savoring such things.

Over here we celebrated the first day of spring by having a huge bonfire, and inviting neighbors located within a literal stone’s throw of our house. There was nothing fancy at all, but who doesn’t love the simple perfection of a roaring fire? It transfixes even the most jaded among us, and brings people together around the warmth it brings.

The old fashioned act of grilling, over wood or charcoal, has the same effect. Our spirits are lifted, and camaraderie is renewed by these simple acts that have been cherished and affirmed over centuries and millennia. During these warm days ahead take the time to shut off your computers and do something real like play with sticks, even if that means starting a small communal fire with them, or plan to dig a hole to plant some potatoes. Sit outside in your front yard and take in the ambient sounds of the neighborhood and serenading calls of robins that have returned en masse.

As the snow melts and water covers the land one might also be thankful to live in a place where we are blessed with such an abundance of this life sustaining resource that so much of the world lacks. One way to do this is to participate in the Come Unity 6k run or walk on May 3rd. The race will be held on the Lakewalk along the shore of the greatest lake there is, and the hope is that enough funds will be raised through this simple event to drill one well in an impoverished community that currently lacks access to clean water. According to the organization’s website, comeunitynow.org, the widespread lack of access to clean water kills children worldwide at the rate of a jumbo jet crashing every four hours. Most Duluthians can agree that clean water should be a birthright, and something that everyone can take for granted just like us.  (BLOG READERS WOULD HAVE DIFFERENT OPTIONS WHEREVER YOU ARE. FIND SOMETHING FUN, SIMPLE, PURPOSEFUL, AND JUST DO IT!)

“Green,” or just common sense?

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44 years. That’s the answer. The question is a little more drawn out, and should cause one to reflect in one’s soul. The quantitative answer here really isn’t satisfactory, and doesn’t tell the story or address quality of life, etc.

I work hard to integrate an active lifestyle into daily life. On the day this picture was taken we needed 1 pound of butter, 1 quart of creamer, and a jar of pizza sauce. In my mind it makes no sense to drive a car that weighs 3,000 pounds four miles round trip to the grocery store.(yes, our little hybrid that can’t handle the snow too well weighs in at a hefty 1.5 tons). How can that make sense to anybody? So, on this day I emptied the bladder from my Camelbak and jogged the short distance on a convenient trail to the grocery store rather than take the car and potentially get stuck in the snow in our alley at that time. I must admit I did feel a bit weird at the store, but that’s just poppycock in my book. This just makes sense. I’ve spent time in some other countries, such as Haiti and Mexico, and it’s just expected that one walks or trots such distances in these places. Also, as a Christian I think there is an aspect of the soul for consideration that I really don’t have time to break down here. It’s a bit more nebulous and undefined, but it just seems that depending on a car for a trip acquiring 2.5 pounds of merchandise can lead to a hollowing out of one’s soul, even as the mid-section grows. There are many reasons, but over time this sort of mentality breeds laziness, an entitlement mentality when it comes to acquiring “things,” a disconnection from your community and physical environment, and a level of busyness that is wholly unwarranted if you aren’t President of the United States. It also encourages inactivity in our children. Surely I could go on, and eventually I’ll develop this further.

I find that walking, running, or biking for such errands reduces the amount that I acquire out of sheer necessity. Everything purchased requires careful thought and planning, which is always a good thing. Now it just so happens that this is also considered “green.” For some reason there are those in the faith community that would look on anything “green” as foreign, and therefore best to be avoided, like the Wicked Witch of the West…

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However, I find that most green actions, particularly the simplest and therefore cheapest (such as avoiding a car to enjoy life as a pedestrian, taking public transit, consuming less), fit with an ethic involving “voluntary simplicity” and are absolutely compatible with the Christian life and the hard core teachings of Jesus. There’s no question about it. Such actions can be undertaken for a variety of reasons, and they synch in well with a reflective, faith-infused, fulfilling, and joyous lifestyle.

These matters boil down to much more than dollars and cents. Hence, the question doesn’t even apply in the final analysis, but here it is. How many years will it take me to save enough money in gas and car expenses by eschewing the car for simple trips to offset the major medical expenses I experienced after breaking an ankle while jogging the half mile to the pharmacy to pick up medicine for a family member a couple years ago? By choosing a conservative figure of $3.50 in savings each week, on average, it’ll take a demoralizing 44 years for me to save enough to cover the $8000 in medical bills incurred on one invisible icy patch. Man that stinks! Of course, if I had been walking rather than jogging at the time the accident never would have happened. Thus, my own admonishment to not be in such a hurry certainly applies. Also, it’s helpful to be aware that approximately one in three car accidents occur within a mile of home, and 52% occur within five miles (per a survey done by the insurer, Progressive).

Thankfully, the main reasons for doing so aren’t economic in the traditional sense. Staying in better shape while approaching middle age is worth it in and of itself, and that says nothing about being more acquainted with the nooks and crannies of my immediate neighborhood rather than large parking lots in shopping centers devoid of character or life.

If I could do it over again, would I have driven the half mile on that particular day? Yes, absolutely. However, accidents can happen any time, and over years as we develop greater wisdom they become less likely. I believe that avoiding the hermetically sealed car in most occasions can result in more rewarding life experiences,  positive human connections, a higher level of physical fitness, a greater capacity for observation rather than rushing through life, and therefore more wisdom over time and ultimately a happier and more joy-filled life.

For me, these little half mile trips especially rule out the automobile. The thought of driving doesn’t even cross my mind. Eventually your mind and body adapt, and you’re ultimately better for it. Even when the local hardware store is closing in five minutes, I’m able to hop on the bike and get their nearly as fast as by car. Perhaps more importantly, I return home with only the $8 item I needed rather than $150 in extra stuff because it feels like you need more when going to those big box stores.  The greatest satisfaction, and one that simmers below the surface and I genuinely don’t wish to convey any self-righteousness here, is a knowledge that our car is not an absolute necessity.

Cheers and God speed!

Tapping a Renewable Resource in Your Neighborhood

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Like most people, our tendency will naturally be to hole up for an extended period of time this time of year, and have less and less contact with our neighbors or even fellow humans in general. Our house, being rather small, cramped, and frequently untidy, will often feel like a less than ideal place to entertain. Additionally, the prospect of entertaining an entire family with multiple children can seem daunting given the lack of space and also a dearth of toys and diversions compared to some households. Thus, the center of gravity trends toward the solitary unless we break out our anti-gravity boots and jet packs to push out.

25 feet from the back door is plenty, and the effort and planning can be minimal. Last night, to celebrate the first full day of spring, we enjoyed our 2nd annual Stone’s Throw Party. It is an incredible opportunity to enjoy life together, even in adversity. This winter has been a long one for everyone, and old Jack Frost didn’t disappoint yesterday. It snowed 8 inches of wet and heavy snow throughout the day, and didn’t stop until shortly before the party. Thus I was forced to shovel and build the structure of our bonfire immediately prior to the festivities. I feared not being able to get it lit, so we used plenty of scrap cedar, which readily takes to fire…

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I was worried about safety issues, given the deep snow in the yard. 10 kids playing in the yard after school took care of that, however, by packing it all down by all their frenetic activity. It seems such an event is possible in almost any weather, save rain. While it was pleasantly warm at around freezing this time around, last year the mercury had dipped below zero when we had at New Year’s Eve. Here’s a pic of some of the kids from last year’s since I didn’t get a good one of them this time. They were so active last night!

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The contrast with the fire pit was striking this time around compared to last year. Due to the snow depth it left a 2 foot deep crater this year, and looked like a small asteroid had pock marked the yard in a perfect circle roughly the diameter of a Christmas tree. Four families disposed of their Xmas trees this way, and the resulting flames and sparks were spectacular as the pyrotechnics soared 15+ feet into the air and induced a little bit of fear into all of us in our small yard.

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At an event like this we can easily have a dozen or so kids, so we limit the dance card to the immediate neighborhood, which includes peeps within literal stone’s throw of our house. If I can get throw a stone and hit their yard, they’re invited. This helps to keep planning and expectations to a minimum, which in turn means it can actually happen. Otherwise we tend to put such ideas off and not actually implement them.

The dozen or so kids here last night were incredibly active last night with boundless energy and reckless abandonment. Their favorite play land was the mound of snow that reached to the top of the six foot high fence in the back, and allowed them to climb over it and slide down into the unplowed alley like happy penguins. They also learned they could climb onto the neighbor’s garage roof from this same pile, which beckons the endless tension of letting them play and turning a blind eye to some risky activity versus my natural tendency to micro-manage the fun and spontaneity away.

As we wait for summer, I’m reminded of Monday nights and the cool refreshing goodness that the ice cream truck brings. The kids are so wild about it that all of us wind up paying double the cost for ice cream, while also waiting for hours (often after a normal bedtime) for the King of Creams truck to arrive around the corner with its catchy music that attracts children in a manner similar to methods employed by the Pied Piper. This year, instead of whining about the hours and hours of building anticipation from the kids, I think we’ll wheel our charcoal grill and picnic table to the front yard and try and make an event of it each week. We’ll often have 20 kids or more getting ice cream on our block, and the excitement rivals the Super Bowl for the kids. Seriously. Rather than fight the system we may as well make an event out of it, and enjoy ourselves methinks. With such expectations, living in a neighborhood can be fun and rewarding.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

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Today all traces of snow and ice melted from every nook and cranny of the Little Library in front of my home. This is the first time it has been so completely visible since the end of November. With fewer pedestrians to be concerned with, the books have been somewhat neglected over the winter.

The small box of treasures appears unwrapped and fresh out of the box like a shiny new toy with the remaining snow as a backdrop. The gently curved roof is reminiscent of a quaint English cottage, and there is a plentiful supply of reclaimed redwood that provides ample highlight.

I like to think the redwood portions of the structure could be 2,000 years old, being that this material was planed from older stock rescued from a former structure on the Bayfront. Back in the day venerable redwoods were logged with impunity, so I like to think that this wood was alive back in the days of the ancient library of Alexandria, Julius Caesar, Jesus Christ, was still firmly established during the Renaissance and the discovery of America, and ultimately felled some time at the beginning of the last century.

This is a tremendous connection to a large swath of the history of human civilization, and it stands peacefully along the sidewalk waiting to brighten the day of an unsuspecting passerby.

Many other such libraries grace the yards of our neighbors throughout town, but they are often hidden behind massive snowbanks that cast the appearance of bulwarks fit to repel hordes of barbarians. Soon these will be washed away to the storm drains, and our yards will be open and full of life.

I dream of grilling in the front yard again. My grill runs on hardwood charcoal, and boasts a chimney that has me quite smitten. The smells that waft out of this chimney are not manmade, and best the chemicals produced for colognes and perfumes any day of the week.

Slowly cooking your meal and casually taking in a pleasantly cool evening with a beverage of choice in hand is more than just a good idea. It’s the right way to live. It hearkens you back to cooking over open fires, and puts one in touch with the rest of the world in a special way. It’s not just about men grunting over meat on the grill, but rather a slowing down of life and an appreciation for the little things that make life sweeter. It helps us opt out of the rat race and pursue a different course.

Truly, anything you can do to slow yourself and your loved ones down is generally worthwhile. Just this past week I was unfortunate enough to be careening down the expressway in the Cities at merely a click or two above the speed limit. On several occasions larger vehicles bullied us and we were bestowed with several obscene gestures.

At first I wondered how so many folks could be that hostile to little old me, and I started to take it personally. Then I realized that I am not of that tribe, nor do I wish to be. A frenetic pace that causes stress to such a degree that a hothead would put an entire family in danger simply because they cannot continue at 80 mph unimpeded is definitely not my idea of the good life. This is a good reminder to me whenever I continue to struggle with my own lack of financial success. Most of us here in Duluth choose another definition for “success.”

I do hope you are enjoying the recent warm spell. Take your time and take care. Stop and smell the roses. Enjoy your neighbors. Read a good book. Slowly cook your food outside in whatever manner suits you. Write the occasional handwritten letter to a good friend. Enjoy life more fully as a pedestrian. Ride your bicycle the two or three miles to your destination and arrive refreshed. Chew your food! All of these things are beneficial, and indeed even beautiful. Such practices will enable you to enjoy life more fully and not pass by the many blessings and even miracles that go unnoticed by our harried brethren.

Bribery. Not Just for Warlords Anymore

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I am not against a little bribery once in a while. Today it was just what the doctor ordered.

T’was a lazy day, and all of else felt like laying around. I didn’t have the energy to pour into a go big or go home event for our family adventure this week (minimum of one per week here). So we hit the golf course just a block from the house. Removing the car from the equation often makes things a whole lot simpler. I had no expectations at all, but this was a wild success, and the perfect use of one of our twenty four hours today.

As we walked up the main easy hill I told the twins I’d pay them each 50 cents if they scaled the steep “mountain” running along the course with me. With several spots of hand over hand type scampering/climbing, and 2-3 feet of snow under us, it was the perfect risk/reward ratio to amp things up a bit and give the kids a sense of accomplishment.

They were good and exhausted at the top, and earned the viewing of a movie later:

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My wife met us at the top of the main hill where the kids ultimately rode the sled down. I’m pleased to report that this old red sled is a cheapie I bought back in college nearly 20 years ago, and has seen some serious use, wear and tear:

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This continues a theme I’ve dealt with since having kids, and that involves the challenge of continually engaging them with a love for the outdoors when there are competing interests involving screen-time. Here’s a column I wrote a couple years ago when they first scaled this peak.

Recently my son asked, “When’s it going to be winter Mom?” She replies, “Um, it already is, Buddy.” “But there’s no snow,” he says.  All she had for that one was, “But there are sticks!”

Those of us with kids know just what a challenge it can be to get our kids to get enough playtime outside under even the best conditions in the winter, but this year it’s really tough. My encouragement to you is to view this as a challenge to be overcome, rather than an obstacle to beat your head into.

I am constantly trying to drive my kids outdoors for exercise, fresh air, and a fresh perspective, but am frequently thwarted in my efforts. I have even sweetened the pot by offering a nickel for every time the kids run up and down the large hill at the nearby golf course. Thus far the kids have each collected on that exactly once.

This past week I added the promise of adventure and exploration to this by taking them up a nearby mountain of rock. This involved hand over hand climbing (scrambling really)  directly up a fairly impressive rocky face. At the top of the mountain they took turns blasting an old boy scout bugle as loud as possible, which must have confused the dog walkers (not to mention the canines) below to no end. Then we experimented with a sling shot, and had a hearty snack.

It was a rousing success; an oasis within an otherwise vast sea of disappointments and frustrations in my efforts to encourage the family to be “outdoorsy.” If anyone should have such a family, it would be me, but I can assure you that this flat out does not come naturally in today’s world of entertainment possibilities.

I am not quitting, however, and neither should you. This is something to fight for, and to celebrate whenever such experiences are successful in bringing us closer together as a family, to creation, and to creator.

In the coming days we’re all going to invade the local used book store, where we’ll collectively scour the shelves for books to add to an adventure library. Often the key is in enlivening the imagination with possibilities for child and grownup alike.  Books like Jack London’s Call of the Wild come to mind, but it can’t stop there. A full battalion of books, fiction and non-fiction, will be necessary. We’ll fill a shelf with books that are page turners that keep the children begging for more, and instill a love for the natural world, adventure, and exploration.

Movies that visually depict men, women, girls, and boys, encountering nature in its sometimes sweet savagery, while surviving and thriving, should be useful as well. Shucks, Gilligan’s Island would even be useful in this regard. It really doesn’t take much to unleash the imagination of children before the trappings of the modern world have spoiled it.

Another tool in the chest is that of involving the kids in planning for upcoming wilderness trips in the summer. We’re already planning for our annual trip to the Porcupine Mountains in the Upper Peninsula, where we’ve rented a backcountry cabin at the mouth of a river emptying into Lake Superior. The kids will need to pack in a few belongings on the three mile hike, so the time to train is now.

I will also be involving them in the procurement of necessary gear and clothing. The gear we have for our kids, in terms of clothing, sleeping bags and whatnot, is woefully inadequate. Well, to heck with the expense (within reason). We’re getting our children properly outfitted this year. The time to get children outside is as soon as possible. “Get ‘em while their young,” as the advertisers say.

The point is that you’ve got to fight fight fight to train your family to not just give lip service to loving the outdoors. Go to the mattresses on this one. Spare no expense. Look around at so many teenagers today, and their flat out addiction to cell phones, video games, the internet, movies, and other forms of media. The stakes are too high.

Encouraged by being the butt of the joke

The craziest thing happened today, and I couldn’t let the irony pass me by. I borrowed my neighbor’s cross country skis, designed for racing, because I wanted to see what a little more speed would be like. Barely anybody was on the Lester Park ski trails late in the day, and I pretty much had the place to myself.

About near the end of my large loop I decided to goof around with a little experimentation of the skating ski style. I’m a 100% classic skier, so I have zero chops for skating. Anyhow, I was flailing all over the place like a drunken sailor in port with my poles and skis literally taking up the entire width of these trails that are as wide as a piston bully. Though I was completely alone, and only engaging this embarrassing activity for approximately four seconds, low and behold I happened to hear, “Whoa, easy there buddy,” as an innocent skier was working to avoid snagging the end of my pole with his eye.

Of course this guy just had to be Cory Salmela, recently back from helping NBC cover the Sochi Olympics, and a former coach of the US Biathlon national team (skiing with guns). Before exchanging pleasantries, I had to call him a rat bastard for catching me in such a sorry state. The timing was just hilarious in this case. To be honest I was a wee bit in the doldrums, and I really believe the good Lord has a sense of humor. We really never can take ourselves too seriously, and especially when we think nobody is looking….