Gaga for Van Gogh

Quick, who’s your favorite artist?

I’m going to go out on a paintbrush – I mean a limb – and guess you said, “Vincent van Gogh.” I don’t have anything to back up this assumption except the fact that half the people I know seem to be gaga for Van Gogh, and I proudly count myself among them.

I don’t know what it is about the Dutch post-impressionist that draws people in. It may be the simple fact that his work is so easily recognizable. He was the first artist whose paintings I could identify as a child (at least that’s what my older sister tells me: “You’d look through Mom’s art books and point out every one of his works, yelling ‘Van Gogh! Van Gogh!’”). Or maybe it’s the colors – the rich blues and vibrant oranges, complementary colors that seem to quiver and shake off the canvas in works like “Starry Night,” “Café Terrace at Night,” and “Wheatfield with Crows.” Yet, even the calmer hued works like “Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries” and “Bedroom in Arles” evoke emotion. They take me back to my younger days, living on the New England coast and living in a tiny Boston apartment. “The Potato Eaters” speaks to me about the sad hopelessness of poverty. Every masterpiece – the thick paint, swirling brush strokes, and the subject matter – come together to transport the viewer to a time, a place, and a feeling that’s unmistakably Van Gogh.

I loved Van Gogh – and other artists too – so much that I majored in fine art in high school and at my first college, with a concentration in animation my last two years. When I bought my home here on the Springs’s northwest side, I had the inside painted white throughout, like the Van Gogh Museum, and hung the master’s prints on every wall. Over the years, I caught glimpses of his work at various museums: Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, New York’s Met and Guggenheim museums, Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, and closer to home at the Denver Art Museum. In 2003, I finally visited Amsterdam and enjoyed tours of that city’s museums: the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum, the Rembrandt House Museum, the Anne Frank House, and of course, the Van Gogh Museum.

Last week I attended a virtual demonstration by local artist and Bemis instructor Dena Peterson. Dena was an artist for the live action and animation film “Loving Vincent.” I saw the movie downtown when it was released in 2017, and fell in love with the film, and with Van Gogh – again. The images were breathtaking, the work involved – a combination of oil painting and animation technology – mindboggling. It took first place in the Best Animated Feature Film category at the 30th European Film Awards and was nominated for an Oscar here in the States. What I liked most about that film wasn’t the art or the technology, though; it was the story, and the writers’ treatment of Van Gogh. They gave him a dignity that, to me, had been sorely lacking among the masses. The court of public opinion can be cruel, and many people’s focus was not on the genius of his work, but on his mental struggles with love and with life. In “Loving Vincent,” the writers, the artists, and maybe the technologists too, seemed to love this man and his work, just like I did. Their shared admiration and compassion shone through in every frame. Sometimes it’s just nice to spend time with people who love something as much as you do.

The Van Gogh Museum is temporarily closed but you can view the collection online at Van Gogh Museum Collection. View the film “Loving Vincent” on Hulu or for a small fee on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other streaming services. Sign up for a painting class with Dena Peterson on the Bemis Art School website. And don’t miss the large-scale exhibits Van Gogh Alive and Immersive Van Gogh Experience coming to Denver this summer and fall, your chance to wander in, around, and through the works of your favorite artist. I hope to see you there. Because sometimes, it’s just nice to spend time with people who love something as much as I do.

This blog first appeared as a column in the April 26, 2021 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Vincent van Gogh’s “Noon: Rest from Work” is in Amsterdam, but you can make your own Van Gogh experience with a virtual visit to the Van Gogh Museum or to one of Denver’s large-scale, immersive Van Gogh installations.

Lessons in the Field

Using a GPS receiver to get around in the backcountry is a skill most avid hikers take time to master. I learned on the fly, out of necessity rather than desire. Ten years ago, when one of my publishers asked that I include waypoints, tracks, and maps in my next book, I had to pony up the money for a pricey global positioning system device. If you’ve never used one, a handheld GPS is a gadget that receives data from 24 satellites that orbit earth. Then it translates that data into information about the receiver’s location. If a person carrying a GPS can pick up data from 3 satellites, they’ll know where they are on Earth’s surface. Four satellites, and they’ll get 3-dimensional information, such as their altitude, or elevation above sea level. You can see why a GPS is so valuable to backcountry travelers. Still, I wasn’t happy about this new demand on my wallet – or my time. A map and compass were cheap and easy to use. A GPS wasn’t cheap, and it wasn’t intuitive either.

After giving up on the complicated instructions, I hit the trail to learn on my own, pushing buttons and making a lot of mistakes until I finally figured it out. But like every self-taught skill, my knowledge was limited to “what I need to know to get the job done.” I knew how to use my GPS to get where I wanted to go and find my way back without getting lost. I also knew how to make and take waypoints, routes, and tracks, and turn all that data into topographical maps that a publisher could put in a book. But I didn’t use all the menus, and that bothered me. Every time I clicked through them, I’d think, “I wonder what this thing does?” Then I’d remember I was supposed to be working, not playing with my GPS, and I’d get back to hiking, writing, and map-making. But those mysterious menus beckoned, and I wanted to know what else I could do with my GPS.

Knowing I’d never take the time to learn it all on my own, after a decade of wondering about all those menus, I finally signed up for a field course with local retailer REI. And last week I packed up some water, snacks, sunscreen, and my GPS, and headed over to Cheyenne Mountain State Park for my first formal course, “Introduction to GPS Navigation Class – Level 1.”

Matt Hickethier, a senior instructor with REI, was waiting for me in the Limekiln parking lot. More students showed up: Steve, Stewart, Alexa, and Kelly. There were releases to sign, hand sanitizer to use, and disposable masks and nitrile gloves for anyone who hadn’t brought their own. After a short round of introductions, Matt, a former Marine with land navigation and orienteering experience far beyond Colorado’s mountains and parklands, gave us a crash course in GPS basics: how they work, what all those menus mean, and his recommended settings. He had us create waypoints manually and then follow them on a short cross-country hike. Then he explained the UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) system, an alternative to the topographical maps created by the United States Geographical Survey (USGS) back in 1984. Instead of using a compass with the UTM map, we used a clear plastic grid reader. We made UTM route points, built a route, and went on another hike, following the route we’d created.

I could have gotten along for another decade with what I’d known, but all this new knowledge is going to save me a lot of time and could get me out of some unfortunate situations in the backcountry. I learned how to share routes and waypoints with other hikers wirelessly, whereas before, I’d been emailing them to people. I learned how to create a route, which is similar to what I had been doing, but instead of bringing up numbered waypoints one at a time to follow, the GPS route function brings them up automatically. I also learned how to manually enter and edit GPS latitude and longitude or UTM eastings and northings in the field, which will come in handy if I don’t upload them to my device from my computer ahead of time. I also learned how to take a screenshot of the device, instead of taking a picture of it with my camera, which I tend to do at every trailhead and summit. Finally, I learned that the GPS can help me find the most direct route along roads or trails, a feature I wouldn’t typically use, but that could come in handy if I ever got really lost.

REI has other courses on their roster and according to Matt, you can also get individualized classes for more in-depth instruction. I signed up for a couple more classes this year – map and compass navigation, which I’ve been doing for a couple of decades, and Wilderness First Aid, even though I was a certified EMT years ago and have taken this particular course twice before.

Ten years ago, I wasn’t eager to learn how to use a GPS receiver. My trusty map and compass had served me well for years. Last week, I was cynical about how much more there was to know about the technology. A four-hour field course was like a big slice of humble pie that will save me a lot of time on the trail. And a reminder that no matter how much I think I know, there’s always more to learn.

This blog first appeared as a column in the April 13, 2021 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Columnist Susan Joy Paul joins students Steve, Kelly, and Alexa, and instructor Matt in a GPS field session at Cheyenne Mountain State Park. [Photo courtesy of Stewart M. Green]

Vaccination Pride

Vaccinations have been around for as long as I can remember. When I was very young, the older kids had tell-tale scars on their shoulders from the smallpox vaccine. By the time it was my turn, they were giving those shots on the hip. You had to pull down the side of your pants to get it, and I’m pretty sure I cried. They stopped giving the smallpox vaccines in the 1970s, after the disease was eliminated thanks to a worldwide vaccination effort led by the World Health Organization. But before it was eradicated, smallpox killed millions of people. I didn’t know any of that when I got my shot. All I knew was that getting my vaccination, as much as it hurt, made me feel like one of the big kids – even without the cool shoulder scar.

Over the years, my sisters and I had a variety of viruses: measles, mumps, and chicken pox. We had more shots too. By the time my own children were born, there was the MMR shot. Since then, I haven’t even thought about shots. No cool scars. No vaccination pride.

But suddenly, vaccinations are back. A spike in flu shots led to a nearly nonexistent flu season. Sure, masks, social distancing, and far less travel likely contributed to the dramatic drop in cases, but let’s give flu shots some credit too.

And now, with the Covid-19 shot, vaccination pride is back too. I can tell you who among my friends has had one, and who’s had two. I know where and when they had their shots. I know all this about a lot of strangers, too, because they’re all posting about it on social media. At first, people were actually posting photos of their Covid cards online, until they realized these cards sometimes had personal info printed on them. So now it’s mostly photos of people getting their shots or simply exclaiming, “I got my shot!”

I know the feeling. A couple of weeks ago I got an email saying it was my turn. Apparently, breaking my arm last fall got me into the UC Health system and they had me on a list. All I had to do was pick a date and location. Could it really be that simple? I showed up at the big building on Pikes Peak Avenue at the appointed time and stood in a long line with a bunch of other folks. We chatted about the past year, what we’d been through and what we were hoping for in the coming months. For many, it was our first in-person social interaction in more than a year. People were happy to be there. Happy and proud, like we were doing something for ourselves, but also for each other. Like it was our civic duty. That felt good. The line moved quickly and before I knew it, I was in a booth. Those medical people sure knew what they were doing because I didn’t feel a thing. This time, I didn’t cry.

A few days ago, I went for a hike up in Jefferson County. The snowy trail was boot-packed for the first few miles, thanks to hikers who’d visited the area since the last big snowfall. But two miles and 1,000 feet below the summit, the packed trail disappeared. Determined to make it to the top, I slogged on, breaking trail through the heavy knee-deep snow. Approaching the final trail junction, I was hopeful that someone else had come up by another route and broken trail for the last mile, but no luck. With nine switchbacks to go, I trudged on. Minutes later, a woman fell in behind me.

“Hey, did you follow my tracks?” I asked her.

“Nope,” she said, “I broke trail from the other route.”

“Wow, good for you,” I said, “My trail disappeared at 8,700 feet.”

“Yep,” she said, “Mine too, and I’m 71 years old.”

That stopped me in my tracks. “You must have had your Covid shot,” I said, jokingly. She laughed and said she’d had two Moderna shots.

“Well that explains it,” I said, “I got my first Pfizer this week. So I guess we’re both just full of pith and vinegar, eh?” Except I didn’t say pith.

“Yeah, guess we are.”

She hiked behind me for a while longer, the trail climbing steeply, the snow growing deeper. Then she decided to turn around. “I need to get back,” she said, “But I appreciate you breaking trail up here.” Sure, I told her, any time. Have a safe hike out.

She pulled down her mask and smiled. “Things are going to get better, you know,” she said. Then she was gone. I kept going, on and up to the summit. I felt good and strong. And proud. Like one of the big kids, again.

This blog first appeared as a column in the March 30, 2021 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Getting Back into the Swing of Things

Recovering from an injury can take weeks or months. But even after the bruises disappear, the bones mend, and the cast is off, scars can linger. Not visible scars, but those mental ones that make you question whether you’re truly healed. Like a big question mark in your head that asks: “Is it safe to test that joint, that muscle, that bone?”

That’s how I’ve felt the past couple of months. Since breaking my arm in a hiking accident last fall, I’ve been spending a lot more time at home and less time on the trail. It’s not a matter of physical fitness. I’ve been lifting weights since the cast came off in November, and even worked up the courage to start doing pushups again. I’ve been out hiking, too, and am finally convinced I can navigate a trail without falling on my arm. That might sound ridiculous, but the fear of re-injuring myself has really messed with my head.

So when my friend Eric emailed me last week to see if I’d like to go ice climbing with him and a few of his friends, I had to give the idea some serious thought. I hadn’t climbed anything since my accident – not a crag or a mountain, and certainly not a frozen waterfall. That question mark quickly reared its ugly head and asked, “Is it safe to test that joint, that muscle, that bone? Especially hanging off a wall of ice by the pointy ends of a couple pairs of ice tools and crampons?” Maybe, maybe not. But there was just one way to find out. So despite my trepidation, I dug out my winter climbing gear, sharpened my crampons, and packed up my helmet, harness, belay device, personal anchor system, ice tools, eye protection, and a flask of hot cocoa. And at 6 am, I showed up to climb.

I first learned how to ice climb in 2006 with the Colorado Mountain Club. Eric had been one of my instructors. Since that first trip to Silver Cascade in North Cheyenne Cañon, I’d climbed a few other places around the state – Ouray and Lincoln Falls – but I was far from expert. I wasn’t even a lead climber, which meant I’d be relying on someone else to set up the anchors and ropes.

 With North Cheyenne Canyon Road closed, we had to take Gold Camp Road to meet up with the other climbers. Per COVID protocol, everyone drove separately and arrived masked up, which was not only safer but warmer too, given the temperature – a brisk 17 degrees at the Powell Trailhead. Eric’s friends, it turned out, were all Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) hike leaders, ice and rock climbing instructors, and backcountry ski and mountaineering instructors. Needless to say, I didn’t have to worry about how we were going to get the ropes to the top of the ice wall. Between Eric and his friends Scott, Tony, Matt, and Mike, they had it covered. All I had to do was hike roughly a mile down the road and up the trail to Silver Cascade Falls. And climb.

No one minds masking up when it’s 17 degrees. I got outside for COVID-conscious
climbing with trip leaders, rock and ice climbing instructors, and backcountry ski
and mountaineering instructors from the Colorado Mountain Club, from left to right:
Scott Kime, Eric Hunter, Tony Eichstadt, Matt Von Thun, and Mike Cromwell.

Being with a group of capable climbers for my first outing did a lot to put my mind at ease. Roped up, on belay, and clutching my ice tools firmly in my gloved hands, I sunk the right tool cleanly into the ice. No pain – great. My left swing didn’t go as well. Ironically, that’s my “good arm,” but apparently, it’s not as coordinated as my “bad arm” because the pick glanced off the surface and skittered sideways. I tried again and this time, the left pick landed. Then I kicked my feet, sticking the crampons firmly into the ice, and slowly made my way up the wall: swing, swing, kick, kick, swing, swing, kick, kick. I didn’t make it to the top of the climb – not because of my arm, but because my calves were screaming. Climbing has a way of reminding you of all the muscles in your body that don’t get used enough. I asked Matt to lower me to the ground so I could rest a bit before the next climb.

Eric Hunter points out the ice climbing line.

I got in a couple more climbs that day, and though I didn’t make it to the tippy top of any of them, getting back out there and into the swing of things made the whole trip worth it. I’m hoping to get out again this season, but in the meantime, I’ll be working on my calf raises, seated calf raises, and anything else I can do to get those lazy soleus and gastrocnemius muscles in shape.

With the warm weather of springtime, the ice is melting fast, but you can still get in some ice climbing around Colorado’s Pikes Peak region. If you’re new to the sport, hire a local service like Front Range Climbing to take you out. They’ll provide all the gear and a guide to set up the ropes, give you some initial training, and keep you safe. Or consider a Colorado Mountain Club membership, which gives you access to affordable courses including ice climbing, and instructor-led trips to climbing destinations around the state. If you have the skills but are missing the gear, check out Mountain Chalet for ice tool, crampon, and boot rentals.

Of course, you may have some mental scars and a big question mark asking, “Can I do this?” If that’s all that’s holding you back, think of me, my weak calves, and my broken arm. You may not get to the tippy top, but just getting back into the swing of things is worth the trip.

This blog first appeared as a column in the March 9, 2021 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Four months after breaking my arm, I was
lucky to get out with a capable group of
climbers, including Colorado Mountain
Club ice climbing instructor Tony Eichstadt
(in red shirt).

Ghosts in Our Midsts

Halloween was months ago, but I’ve been thinking about ghosts a lot lately. It all started after watching the Netflix series “Surviving Death.” In case you missed it, each of the six hour-long episodes explores a different aspect of life after death: people coming back to life after they were technically dead; mediums who communicate with the dead; seeing, hearing, and smelling signs of those who have passed; and my favorite, reincarnation.

Ghosts have always fascinated me. When I was a kid living in an apartment in San Jose, I had a handkerchief that I fashioned into a little white ghost. His name was Willy, and I liked to drop him through the upstairs floor register and onto my unsuspecting sisters’ heads as they walked below. At my grandmother’s farmhouse in Connecticut, I used to disappear into the attic to read her piles of comic books. Casper the Friendly Ghost was one of my favorites! I actually dreamed about riding on a broom with Wendy the Witch. The feeling of gliding weightlessly through the air was something I’ll never forget, even though it was many decades ago and all in my imagination.

Anyway, back to “Surviving Death.” Some sequences seemed like pure baloney – like the medium who channels many different voices of people who have passed. But others were so believable, I’m having trouble deciding whether there is something to this whole surviving death thing. Like the doctor who drowned in her kayak – and survived to describe what she saw next from her vantage point above the river. Or the toddlers who have vivid memories of lives past. Some sequences could be explained away, like seeing or hearing relatives that have passed. The people didn’t appear to be making this stuff up, but who’s to say their minds aren’t playing tricks on them? Mine plays tricks on me all the time. It convinces me that I have much more time on Earth than is likely – more time to do all those things I want to do, see those people I want to see, and make up for all those past mistakes.

Right there between the medium segments and the reincarnation segments were the “signs” segments, where someone who’s passed sends a message to the living. The signs can be subtle, like a flickering light, or they can be more overt, like the appearance of a bird or a butterfly. If you watch these episodes, be warned: when I watched part of one, something fell off my mantle and onto the floor. The next time, a piece of paper fell off my counter, and the third time, my electric toothbrush turned itself on. Yeah, I know – these are all coincidences, but they still freaked me out just a little bit.

If you’re beginning to question my sanity or gullibility, I have to tell you that I’ve heard stories from other people about similar experiences. A friend of mine’s oldest son had memories of a past life when he was a little kid. His ex-wife used to see the ghost of a small child at her past job, and her co-workers saw the same ghost. When I was a teenager dabbling in the Black Arts (as bored high-schoolers are prone to do), I had a couple of terrifying experiences that I hesitate to put in writing, lest I reawaken the evil spirits and invite them back into my currently calm and quiet life. I’ll save those stories for another column.

So, I have reasons for being on the spiritual fence about all this, and I’m going to explore it further on my own. I got a book on mediumship, which is mostly about meditation, but it’s a start. And I’ve been thinking about reincarnation and the signs I’d like to send back to the people I outlive. Projecting my spirit into my childhood puppet, Willy the Ghost, would be fun – until one of my smart-aleck kids blew their nose into the poor little hanky. I’m thinking more along the lines of a raven. That way, I could fly like Wendy and Casper and visit all the places I didn’t get to while I was alive. I mentioned this to my best friend the other day. Later that day we went for a hike and a raven flew overhead. It had something wriggling in its beak – it looked like a mouse – so I may tweak my afterlife persona to be a vegan raven.

 In the meantime, I’m stuck here on Earth with the rest of you, imagining what will happen to me after I die, and looking around for signs of my parents, grandparents, and the many friends I’ve lost over the years. I’m going to take a cue from those mind tricks and use my time on Earth to do more of the things I want to do, see more people I want to see, and try to make up for all my past mistakes. But I’m going to take a few moments each day to meditate, too – and maybe get some signs, real or imagined. The way I see it, taking a little time to communicate with the dead does no harm, even if no one’s listening. But if someone is, and I’m ignoring them, well, that’s a scary thought. Some might say scarier than eating a live rodent – or having a handkerchief ghost dropped on your head.

This blog first appeared as a column in the February 9, 2021 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Buh-Bye, 2020…It’s Been Real

Ah, 2020; what can I say about you? You came in so pretty, looking smart in your January duds, and I happily swiped right. By mid-February, things between us were going so well, you had me thinking long-term. I was so hopeful. Unlike the typical flash in the pan relationships, I saw a future with you. Then sometime in March, that shiny-new-year glow began to fade, and your uglier side revealed itself. You didn’t want me dressing up, going out, or seeing other people. Pretty soon, you didn’t even want me to leave the house. No shopping or dining out. No going to the gym, or drinks at the bar, and definitely no parties.

You were so bad for my health, 2020. So much stress, and with no release, I turned to comfort foods. With no reason to dress up, the sweat pants made it easy, too. Those elastic waistbands are so forgiving. And don’t even get me started on the masks.

The worst part, 2020, is how much you seemed to enjoy scaring the crap out of me. You made me worry about my health, my family, and my livelihood. You made me question my friendships. You made me question my country. I had to take a hard look at this place and the people in it and decide if we were still that beautiful melting pot we professed to be. Were we still that country of unlimited possibilities, fueled by a rainbow of beliefs, backgrounds, and cultures, and open to all people – men, women, young, old, gay, straight, trans, black, brown, and white? And were we still stronger together, not in spite of our differences, but because of them? You made me wonder whether we had ever been that country. Were we the land of the free, the home of the brave? Or were we a country of frightened bigots imprisoned in our own minds, close-minded and staunchly protective of our own dogma at the expense of the liberties of others? Would science, critical thinking, and free will save us, 2020, or were we and our democracy destined to self-destruct, suffering a slow death by crazy conspiracies and propaganda?

Yeah, 2020, you are not who I thought you were at all. And I’m trying to figure out if there’s anything good to say about you – anything positive that I’ll take away from our relationship. It’s hard because really, you’ve been awful. But you haven’t beaten me, 2020. So far, I’ve survived you. And looking back, I realize the 2020 I fell for back in January wasn’t real. That 2020 was a phony. As the months passed and I got to know the real you, I dealt with it. You showed me the truth about yourself and a lot of other things, and I dealt with that too. You showed me what mattered, and I saw it more clearly. And you showed me that I’m a lot tougher than I thought I was. I’ve learned my lesson; we’ve all learned a lot of lessons. And we’re going to be better. So while I’m grateful for all of that, please don’t hold your breath for a thank you. Or maybe you should…for a long, long time.

This is usually the time when I say, “It’s not you, it’s me.” But that would be a lie. Because this time it’s not me at all. It’s you, and it’s over. Like we used to say in high school, “It’s been real, and it’s been fun, but it hasn’t been real fun.” I know you’ll be around through the end of the year, and I can deal with that. No one should be alone for the holidays. But when the clock strikes twelve on New Year’s Eve, you need to hit the road. And like we also used to say in high school, “Don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you.” Because 365 days (er, 366, because Leap Year) of 2020 has been all I can handle, and it’s time for you to pack your bags and move on.

This blog first appeared as a column in the December 22, 2020 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

‘Twas the Night before Thanksgiving

Twas the night before Thanksgiving, when all through the town

Not a creature was stirring, due to lock down.

The masks were all hung by the front door with care,

In hopes that the food delivery soon would be there.

The children were nestled in front of their screens,

Mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds.

And Mom in her sweatpants and Dad in his jeans,

Counted the days until a vaccine.

When out in the yard there arose such a crash,

I thought it was bears back in my trash.

I put down my beer and paused the TV,

Then headed out front to see what I could see.

A Dominos sign on a green Subaru,

Lit up the yard in red, white, and blue.

I donned my mask and went for some cash,

When the next thing I knew, GrubHub and DoorDash,

Pulled up in front with more bags of treats,

And if that wasn’t enough, here came UberEats.

The noise, it appeared, as I stood there with my money,

Came from the pizza guy, who had tripped over a bunny.

Yet despite his shrieks, was so lively and quick,

He had saved the pizza – wow, what a trick!

We’d all ordered food from different restaurant deals,

And wound up with a delightful seven course meal.

Now! Tacos, burritos, chalupas, and nachos,

On pizza, sub sandwiches, on corn, on potatoes.

To the top of the porch, the drivers they came,

I paid them all soundly, and yes, knew them by name.

Then I grabbed all the bags and pulled them inside,

Threw them down on the floor, with a whoop and a cry.

Like dry leaves that before a wild hurricane loom,

French fries and tortilla chips flew through the room.

Cell phones were abandoned, COVID forgotten,

‘Cause there’s nothing like food, especially when it’s hot’n

Fresh, delivered to your door, to bring a family together

In any situation, any time, any weather.

Especially when someone else cooks it and brings it all over,

And I don’t have to clean up or deal with left-overs.

So as thrilled as I am with the coming Thanksgiving,

I’m happier still with the blessings I’m given.

Like the people who show up to cook every day

And the drivers who bring all those goodies my way.

Despite all the letdowns of this year, 2020,

Let’s be grateful for pizza, of which there’s been plenty.

And as we head into the homestretch of this godawful virus,

Focus on what brings us together and doesn’t divide us.

In the end, we’re going to be pandemic survivors,

In the meantime, remember to tip all your drivers.

From the top of the porch, now call out this greeting:

Happy Thanksgiving to all, and to all, happy good eating!

This blog first appeared as a column in the November 24, 2020 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Thrown for a Loop

It’s been that kind of year. Everything was going well until boom – well, you know. A lot of things fell apart. Not because of anything you or I did. We were all doing just fine – fantastic, in fact.

The family was great. Healthy, happy, doing well in school and in their careers. Our jobs had really taken off too. We were getting ahead, paying down debt, and padding our savings and retirement funds. And our health – well, we were working out every day, at the gym and on the trail. Eating right, too. Why, back in February, I was getting into position to reach around and give myself a big old pat on the back for doing everything right. It had taken me long enough, but all that hard work and common sense had finally paid off and life was brilliant.

Then March happened, and April, and it was all downhill from there. Lots of bumps on that path to paradise I thought I had built. But I just kept chugging along, worked it out. Realized things were going to be different, but they didn’t have to be awful.

A couple of Fridays ago I was on a different path. I took the day off to hike the Venable-Comanche Loop down in the Sangre de Cristo Range near Westcliffe. There’s a waterfall and lots of lakes, and the trees down there are just stunning right now. It’s a hefty hike – nearly thirteen miles and well over 4,000 feet of elevation with all the side trips to the lakes and falls.

I like midweek hikes because I usually have the trails to myself. I like the peace and quiet. Of course, I spend a lot of time planning and figuring everything out so I don’t get off track. I make a map of the area and mark every trail junction and stream crossing. And I carry a compass, GPS, headlamps, and lots of spare batteries. Then I pack up my cameras, sandwiches, snacks, and drinks and head out at the crack of dawn for an early start.

As usual, the hike went as planned. I stayed on track and made it to Venable Falls and Venable Lakes. Turned onto the Comanche Trail southeast of Venable Pass and carefully made my way across Phantom Terrace, a section of trail high above Venable Basin that gets your attention with its narrow, rocky path and extreme exposure. The 35 mph winds were a terror, but soon enough, I rounded the saddle between Spring Mountain and Comanche Peak and was on the descent. At 12,700 feet up, I had 3,660 feet and less than six miles to go, and it was all downhill. My last destination before the trailhead, Comanche Lakes, glistened ahead in the afternoon sun. Worst case, I calculated, I’d be out in three hours. Plenty of daylight – no problem. All my planning, plus the hard work and common sense, was paying off.

Then I was rolling. I forced myself to stop and sit up. Something was horribly wrong. Pain in my side, my arm. My butt. What happened? Deep breaths, in and out, as I cleared my head, calmed myself down. Assessed the damage. I’d landed hard on the camera I had slung over my shoulder, probably bruised some ribs. My arm was worse, though. Broken, probably. The pain in my left butt cheek made no sense because I’d fallen to the right. But I couldn’t remember a thing – not tripping, not falling, not even hitting the ground. I still had my pack on and looked around for my trekking poles. Nowhere. Turned my head and saw the trail eighteen feet above me. And my poles.

The descent took a lot longer than I’d planned. Hiking down that rocky trail with just one trekking pole was slow. Worrying about my arm, which I’d tucked into my camera strap, a makeshift sling, slowed me down too. The last couple hours, I was in pitch dark, but I chugged along, got out, and drove home.

The arm’s broken – two bones, the radius and the ulna. Not sure about the ribs. The urgent care people took X-rays and gave me a splint and a real sling. And I’m on the orthopedic doc’s waiting list.

I put two and two together and figured I must have been hit with something, probably a rock off the east side of Spring Mountain. Falling fast, it hit me hard enough to knock the poles out of my hands, send me down that slope, and leave a baseball-size bruise on my left side.

And once again, I’m having to adjust. I miss the use of my dominant right hand, but I’m teaching my left hand to do all sorts of things. Like work a mouse, unscrew a cap, and butter a piece of toast. Small bottles like eye drops can be opened with my teeth, and larger ones like spices and condiments get squeezed between my knees, their caps untwisted with my healthy, yet uncoordinated left hand. And just as soon as the splint comes off (I’m not counting on a cast, with an average two-and-a-half-week wait for the doctor), I’m going to reach around and pat myself on the back for surviving yet another rock on this crazy 2020 road to paradise.

I’m still smiling, and even though it hurts to laugh, I do it anyway. The universe has an odd sense of humor, a strange way of testing me, of testing all of us. But no matter how many rocks it throws our way, if we keep chugging along, we’ll come out fine. In the meantime, I’m focused on what’s going right. Like my amazing left hand and all it can do. And the fact that my butt took that rock, and not my head. And how typing is still possible in a splint with a little practice. It’s going to be different, but it doesn’t have to be awful.

This blog first appeared as a column in the October 28, 2020 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

The Venable-Comanche Loop at 12,740′. Not a bad place to break your arm as far as views go, but a long way from the car.

A Spot of Tea

Tea has a special place in my heart. When I was a kid, the kettle was always on in our house. Mom never drank coffee or alcohol, or touched cigarettes, but she sipped cups of hot tea all day long. My sisters and I drank it too. Later on in life, I figured out that Mom probably kept us full of tea so we wouldn’t notice we were hungry. Don’t get me wrong – she fed us three times a day. But the portions were small and there was no money for snacks. A quart of orange juice had to be split six ways and last a week. A steak was the size of a small saucer, cut in six pieces. Usually as tough as leather, too, because Mom wasn’t the best cook. But she sure could brew a pot of tea.

We had black tea only. No green tea, spiced tea, or – heaven forbid – herbal tea in our house. Just good old orange pekoe and pekoe cut black tea, in flow-through tea bags. My mother liked hers piping hot. “Bring it to a rolling boil,” she’d say, emphasizing the “rolling” for effect – and to make sure you didn’t misunderstand her. No tepid tea for Mom. She added a lot of sugar and just a drop of milk. Just enough milk, some would say, to tick you off because it hardly seemed worth the effort to get the container out of the fridge. “Let’s just sit and be quiet,” Mom would say. Then she’d stir like crazy and bang the spoon on the rim.

Anything that happened was a reason to boil water for tea. Done with the breakfast dishes? Let’s have a cup of tea. Finished the laundry? Time for a tea break. Someone at the door? Put the kettle on and invite them in. Then let’s all settle in for a long conversation and a hot cup of tea, or two, or three.

Tea is one of the few habits I’ve kept over the years. I still drink it every day, piping hot, like Mom did. No microwave tea for me. I don’t add a lot of sugar though, just a little Splenda and a touch of soy creamer. I do sneak in a green tea bag alongside the black one, but only for the catechins. I let the green bag steep for a minute and take it out and leave the black one in. That way, I get all the antioxidants and that rich black tea flavor. None of that mossy green tea taste for me.

These days, the experts say black tea is good for you as long as you don’t overdo it. Six cups a day was probably a lot for me as a kid because of all the caffeine, but no one knew any better back then. I drink it now because it’s a habit. I drink it for the health benefits. And I drink it because putting the kettle on reminds me to stop what I’m doing every now and then and take a moment for a cup of tea. I sit and be quiet, like my mother did. And sometimes, just for fun, I stir it like crazy and bang the spoon on the rim.

This blog first appeared as a column in the October 14, 2020 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Tips for a Lovely Haircut

Getting a haircut is typically a mundane task. I drop in, wait a bit, and sit patiently while the stylist takes an inch off the length and trims the bangs. No shampoo, no blow-dry. Pay the nice lady and add a five-dollar tip.

But when you haven’t stepped foot in a salon since March because of a pandemic, a haircut is pretty exciting. It’s a chance to see other people outside the grocery store, have a quiet conversation, and come away with a drastic difference in your look. So when it started raining on my way to a hike last week, and I decided to salvage the time with a haircut, I was amped. My hair was long and getting kind of stringy and spider webby (the post-menopausal women know what I’m talking about) and my bangs, which I’ve been trimming myself, resembled broken twigs. I popped into the nearest strip mall salon, hoping for a short wait.

There was a kiosk with hand sanitizer and a sign-in sheet at the door, and the chairs and tables were turned upside down. It looked like they didn’t want anyone sitting down, or even entering the place.

“I’m sorry, do I need an appointment?” I asked. “Yes,” said a young woman, “but we can get you in – just sign the log with your contact information. She’ll be just another minute and then we can take you.” She motioned to another woman who was finishing up a cut on a middle-aged man and sure enough, as I looked up from the log, he was standing at the cash register to pay for his cut.

The young workers wore masks, but the man’s mask was wrapped around his neck and he was leaning over the counter talking loudly into the cashier’s face. I’d seen this behavior other places, before the mask mandate: customers ahead of me at the grocery store with no mask, leaning over the counter into the cashier’s face and talking at full volume, as if to say, “I’m not wearing a mask and you can’t make me.” I’ve never said anything to them about how they’re contaminating the air for the rest of us – including the cashier – because I’ve seen the videos where people go ballistic over mask use. Instead, I wait until it’s my turn at the counter, then I thank the cashier for being at work so that people like me can still shop for groceries. Sometimes I apologize for the jerk in front of me. Sometimes the cashier’s eyes fill with tears.

With the mask mandate now in place, I wondered why the hair salon women hadn’t requested the man pull up his mask, but that’s when I noticed the sidearm. The guy had a holster hanging off his hip with a handgun sticking out. I turned away to face the wall. I did not want to make eye contact with him for fear I’d say something I’d regret. He whined and moaned for a bit because they couldn’t take anything bigger than a twenty, then he finally paid with a card. And he left.

I blurted out what they were probably all thinking, which I can’t write here because it would not be printed. The women burst out laughing – a release of nervous energy.

“We didn’t notice the gun at first,” the one who had cut his hair said, “and I wanted to ask him to wear his mask, but I was afraid.”

“We didn’t know how he’d react,” said the other woman. Now I knew why they let me in without an appointment – they wanted someone else there in the shop. Not that I could do anything, but maybe he’d behave a little better with more people around.

This time, I got three inches off the length and a nice even trim on the bangs. No shampoo, no blow-dry, but a pleasant conversation with a lovely young woman. I paid the nice lady and added a five-dollar tip. I should have given her more.

This blog first appeared as a column in the September 8, 2020 Gazette Woodmen Edition.