Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Friday, November 4, 2011

This is the Story of Roger Alan Cushing

"We all — in the end — die in the middle of a story. Of many stories." - Mona Simpson, from her eulogy of her brother Steve Jobs

Roger was born on April 5, 1961 here in Loveland at the “old” hospital that was just 2 blocks around the corner from where Art and Sarah and Roger’s 2 brothers and 2 sisters lived. Roger lived in Loveland through the 12th grade, where he was known as “Little Cush,” since he was always following an older Cushing sibling. After graduating from Campion Academy, Roger took a year off to follow his first passion: skiing. He bummed around the slopes for a year before packing up for a year at Union College in Lincoln, NE. He then received an associate’s degree in computer science from Aims College in Greeley. Roger moved to Boulder where he eventually got into the computer industry. He was very industrious and invested wisely– he was a landlord with several properties in the north Denver area. Roger was married to his long-time best friend, Mary Ann Fernandez, just this last July. Roger died in a tragic accident October 29, 2011.

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But that is not the story of Roger. There is so much more to tell about our Brother, our Husband, our Son, our Uncle. We want you to get a glimpse of how special and good and kind-hearted this man was. He was loved by his wife; he was adored his nieces and nephews; he was sought-after by his friends and family; he was respected by his colleagues… He is mourned and missed by all of us.

Those of you who knew Roger, know two things about him: first that he tended to be late……………….. and second that he likes to tell a good story. Or, more correctly, he likes to tell a LONG story.

If you knew Roj, then you knew that an agreed-upon arrival time was more of a conceptual thing than it was an actual point in space and time. Yet, Roger was NOT a procrastinator – he was the opposite, he did everything NOW. He wasn’t late because he slept too long. He was late because he had to make one more call; send one more email; read one more article; clip one more coupon. He wanted to experience it all. See more, do more, be more. He soaked up life like a sponge and enjoyed it all. And, he always wanted to share that life with others…

Roger loved to tell a story, and he often carried his own visual aids to emphasize whatever point he was making at that time. Armed with his manila folder full of clippings and notes, cartoons, coupons and articles, he would start in on his spiel almost before you had a chance to say hello. He always believed that his enthusiasm for a topic was so inarguably infectious that he could CONVINCE you to be a willing participant in whatever newest process or gadget he was telling you about.

There are a lot of stories that were relayed around the family circle this week. …the time Stan and Ron thought it would be fun to put the air compressor gun in Roger’s mouth and watch his cheeks puff out. Not realizing that his nose was full from having the measles, they were the ones who got the surprise when his sinuses ended up splattered over their hands. …the time Roger lit an open gas can on fire, lucky that the can was full so it didn’t explode. …the time that Dad was washing his motorcycle and set down the hose, only to turn around to find it in Roger’s hands, hosing down his tricycle – just like Dad.

Roger loved a silly story – from Dilbert to Ren & Stimpy, Dr. Seuss to Monty Python. (“What’s on the Telly?” “Looks like a penguin to me!”) Roger laughed at the little things and believed so much in the power of a positive attitude and his god-given right to have fun that he would often exhort us with, “Everybody Laugh! Ha-HAaaa!” He loved a good joke, and a bad joke was often even better! He loved to make horse grins and lizard necks. Every day with Roger was fun!

His free-wheeling antics endeared him to the kids, but sometimes grated on the old fuddy-duddies. One year at the Cushing Christmas Gift Exchange, in a house particularly full of kids and chaos, Roger gave every kid a Screaming Monkey. This obnoxious fur-ball emitted a hideous scream when you stretched back his elastic arms and launched him across the room, driving most of the adults out into the cold for some peace and quiet, and driving the kids into a hilarious frenzy.

When she was young, Lisa liked to line up all her dolls in chairs with Roger in the middle and play school – her, the teacher; Roger, the student. She worked tirelessly with Roger to improve his penmanship. Her lack of success in this area may be one of the reasons that Roger went into computer science – he figured typing was a better way to be understood.
Roger, on the other hand, was a great teacher. He LOVED to be the tutor. He was especially good at teaching skiing and snowboarding, patiently stressing the salient points and giving positive reinforcement all the way. He had a knack for pointing out the perfect skiing tip for each person that would turn their day around, dramatically improving their performance and enhancing their enjoyment of the day. He never made anyone feel criticized, just encouraged.

He taught several of us how to ski and several more how to ski better. He was patient and rarely made fun of our lack of skiing skills except to shout out, “Yard Sale!” if you had the misfortune to fall where he could see you; and you had to be careful to not sit on the slope waiting for him to catch up unless you want to be buried by a Roger-lanche.
He sky-dived high above the earth, and scuba-dived below the sea. He snow skied in the winter and jet-skied in the summer. He was fun-loving and adventure-seeking. But he never wanted to go alone. He always wanted to make you want to come too, and sometimes didn’t understand why you weren’t as excited about it as he was.

Roger would talk your ear off when he had a story to tell. He was the king of sidebars, related stories and “too much information.” But he really did know everything. He professed to not read books, but his knowledge was deep and wide. He would argue his point until you would either agree with him… or just give up and go along with him. Yet somehow, he neglected to tell any of us the story of saving Daniella’s life. We never knew the story of how he took in a run-away fellow student. We didn’t know how he gave a tenant a second chance. He went around his noble business quietly, never looking for a pat on the back. He did what he did because he was a good man who did the right thing. Now those stories are coming out and we’re so proud of him.

Roger loved the mountains, hiking 14’ers in the summer and skiing the trees, knee-deep in powder, in the winter. We stayed close together when hiking, but he would often disappear into the trees as we skied the tamer slopes. We’d stop to rest and wonder where Roger was when we’d hear his familiar, “Koo-Whee!” and see him waiting for us just down the hill at the edge of the trees – grinning from ear-to-ear and usually covered with powder.
Roger’s first passion became his life’s passion and grew into 2 loves on the slopes: One love was racing – man, could he fly! The other love was Mary Ann – he LOVED skiing with her and was so excited about how good she was getting last year. It was hard to get together with Roger on the weekends. In fair weather, he was fixing something at the apartments or helping somebody move. In winter, he skied. We’ll never go skiing again without seeing Roger schussing by in our memories – perfect form, graceful turns; the wind literally singing as it vibrates through his racing poles.

Roger and Mary Ann loved skiing together so much that they wrote their marriage vows in “powder talk.” They were married in a storybook wedding just three months ago. He was the perfect Prince Charming in white tie and tails. So proud, so happy, SO in love. He was absolutely smitten by Mary Ann. She was truly his soul mate and we’ve never seen him happier than these last few months. His nieces told me this week how excited he was to call each of them and personally tell them the whole story of his marriage proposal – the mongo ring, the matching cufflinks, the surprise breakfast with Mom & Dad and his brothers. He was so proud that he kept his tuxedo a secret and looked like the king of the world as he walked down the aisle.

His storybook closed shut just as we were enjoying watching the fun and joy that he was obviously experiencing as he and Mary Ann began to share their home together. This probably wasn’t all that easy since Roger is known to push for his own way and come out on top. But throughout deciding which d├ęcor stays and which goes, Roger’s love for Mary Ann always came out the winner. Mary Ann would say, “I Love You,” and the emphatic, inevitable reply from Roger was, “I Love You More.”

One of Roger’s tenants told us this week, “He was a really great guy. I have tons of respect for him. We had no credit or history and Roger gave us a chance. He was understanding and would do anything he could to help us. He changed our lives; we owe him a lot!” One of the posts on his Facebook page this week said, “Roger and Mary Ann did more for me than anyone will ever know and when I told him that, he didn’t believe me. What a great and humble man.” We hear more stories like this every day.

This last week, another renter was helping Roger cut down some high-up, storm-damaged tree limbs. Roger was up in the tree – about 20 ft – with his chain saw, cutting off the upper branches so that he could cut the whole tree down. He had told his brother, Ron, earlier that day that he planned to take his stress out on that tree. It was the last of the BIG trees on his rental properties and it was a constant danger to the houses and cars and people, and he was “just done with it.”

Somehow, Roger fell out of that tree. We don’t know exactly how or why. No one saw him fall. All we know is that his story ended “in media res.” His story was cut short, with so many possible endings left untold. But for the last 50 years, his was a story that inspired us, and encouraged us, and made us love and laugh, and finally, made us cry.

We are so sad that there are no more chapters to write, but will keep him alive in our memories; our memories of all the stories he had to tell us.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Janis Cushing Foote - Memorial Life Sketch

Janis was a native Coloradoan, born in the Loveland Hospital just around the corner from her parent’s house on April 26th, 1956 – one of five Cushing kids all with birthdays within 31 days of each other. (Different years, of course.) Being the first girl in the family, she became the little doll for Stan and Ron to play with, and later, became the second mother to Lisa and Roger who made all the kids play nice together. (“Fight nice! Don’t fight!” she said.) She was the peacemaker, always acting with love and compromise; she was the caretaker, always showing empathy and compassion – both for her family & friends and for complete strangers. She will be missed by all who knew her.

Janis was a petite and demure redhead, the runt of the litter in stature. But she always stood her ground – stubborn as the rest of her Taurus & Aries siblings – and didn’t take any guff from 3 rowdy brothers and a very confident younger sister. Her Dad, Art, used to say, “There was a little girl / Who had a little curl / Right in the middle of her forehead / And when she was good / She was very, very good / But when she was bad, she was horrid!” In her adult years she stood up for kids who couldn’t stick up for themselves. She adopted the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund as her charity of choice and worked tirelessly to collect donations for this worthy cause. She finagled matching funds from her employer, the Pioneer Seed Company, so that over the years, Janis collected well over $100,000 in donations for the JDRF. Ironically, after working so hard to help find a cure for this disease of the pancreas, her own pancreas succumbed to cancer. Though she fought it bravely, Janis couldn’t win this fight. For her courage and compassion, she was respected and loved by all her friends, co-workers and family.

Janis was a picky eater who , when told to clean her plate, once flung her hated green beans under the counter with such vehemence that they stuck to the wall behind the breakfast bar, only to be found there by Mom days later. Her sweet innocence made it hard to disbelieve her when she said she didn’t know how those beans got plastered on the paneling! Her culinary tastes changed over time though and she grew her own beans (and tomatoes and corn and okra) later in life and I’m pretty sure that none of those garden delights ever ended up staining her kitchen walls. She cooked every meal for her husband Ron, who proudly (and cleverly) claimed that he couldn’t even make a peanut butter & jelly sandwich by himself. I suspect it wasn’t so much “couldn’t” as it was “why should I cook when I have my own June Cleaver to cook for me?” In many ways, she nourished everyone around her.

Janis loved to play dress up and when she got tired of dolling herself up, she’d play with her dolls. When dolling up her dolls got old, she’d put her beautician skills to the test and practice on Art or Stan or Ron – curling their hair and clipping bows and ribbons into the curls to make them pretty. The boys would grudgingly put up with these antics but no pictures were allowed. (Unfortunately, it turns out, now that we’re all grown up, we have the sense of humor and fun that would make those pictures priceless.) She had a great sense of humor – it would be hard not to enjoy a good laugh if you grew up in the Cushing household, a family of wise-crackers and jokers. She used to beg her brother, Ron, to say “parlez vous” – a silly game that irritated everyone not in on the joke, but would send Janis and Lisa into gales of laughter that only ended when someone finally begged, “Stop, before I wet my pants!” Her friends and family loved to get her emails – often with a cartoon or funny picture; often with a long story, punctuated with “awwws” and “sighs” (but NEVER with a capital letter) that would both crack them up and make them shed a tear. She loved to laugh and make others laugh.

Janis went to Platte Valley Academy in Nebraska, and then to Oak Park Academy in Iowa before deciding that boarding school was boring and that living at home was a better option. So, she returned to Loveland and graduated from Campion Academy in 1974. She then went on to nursing school in Iowa to become an RN, a truly fitting vocation for someone who loves to care for others. The Iowa connection must have had some magic for her because she eventually married an Iowan haberdasher, Ron Foote. Janis loved Ron more than anything else in the world and they enjoyed 23 years of marital bliss. You could see their love in the way they held hands and kissed – not caring if someone was looking. They were the perfect couple with the same likes and dislikes, habits and foibles; soul-mates in the truest sense. He liked to be doted on and taken care of, and she lived to do just that. He is lost without her and the rest of us have “holes in our hearts the size of Janis,” as one of her Facebook friends put it.

Janis was just like her own Mom, Sarah – kind, generous, helpful and loving. She was never able to have her own children, but she would’ve made a great mom. Instead, she practiced her mothering skills on her siblings and her husband and her nieces and nephews and her pen pals. To her nieces (Chelsa, Bryn, Mindy, Kendra, Briana & Ksana) and nephews (Chance & Christian) she was always known as Aunt Buggie. To her pen pals – which hailed from literally around the world – she was one of the “Twisted Sisters,” Stephen King fans who conducted book reviews through e-mails and traveled on pilgrimages to Maine to visit the real-life settings of his not-so-real-life novels (and secure an autograph or two.) Connecting with her friends and family was very important to Janis, especially since she lived 2 states away from the old family homestead. She was loved by everyone who knew her, and especially by Ron.

Though physically Janis had a weak heart, her emotional and loving heart was queen sized and beat strongly in all she did. She gave of herself to her husband, treating him like her king and as her best friend; she gave of herself to her family, always helping, always interested in their well-being; she gave of herself to her friends, her co-workers, and her numerous pen pals around the world; and she gave of herself to the kids she never had – her nieces and nephews and grand-nieces and grand-nephews, and to the nameless kids who suffer from diabetes. This Fall her family will honor her charitable passion by joining as a team in the annual JDRF benefit walk. They will keep her spirit alive and know that she walks with them in their hearts.

Janis liked motorcycles and small foreign cars driven smartly and stylishly in road rallies on back roads between the high cornfields of her adopted state. She loved to garden in the sweltering Iowa sun and sent us the most amazing vine-ripened tomatoes and sweet onions and fiery-hot jalapenos through the mail. She loved pigs and had dozens (if not scores) of figurines and stuffed piglets. Her first and favorite pig was named Charles (Ron’s middle name) – a gift from Ron on their first date. She loved to sit by the pool and soak up the sun. She loved reading and eschewed commercial, network TV. I believe that her imagination was far more entertaining than anything that could come out of Hollywood. But, she loved nature and nature shows, so she would often call Dad in the evening to tell him, “Quick, turn on your TV,” to some channel that was showing wildebeests getting chased by lions, or butterflies migrating across the hemispheres. Janis loved Colorado and the mountains, and told me that she always felt closer to God when she could take a drive “uppa-mountain”. When she came to Colorado to visit, she would always set aside time to drive “uppa-mountain,” whether it was to see the wildflowers or the waterfalls or the Aspen or the snow. Janis always felt at home in the mountains – they reenergized her – and they will be her final resting place when her family scatters her ashes in her favorite hiking spot. Her memory will always bring us thoughts of her love and spirituality.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Last Journey

The ambulance and the paramedics came at 5:30. They didn’t have their lights on or their sirens wailing, but their mission was no less important, if not as urgent. They had a precious cargo – my Sister, Janis – to transport from the hospital to the hospice where she would undertake her last journey. I wasn’t there for this gut-wrenching moment, but I can imagine it…

…caring hands, stifled sniffles, low voices, “Are you comfortable?” “Don’t forget your Joe Hill book – do you like it?” The clatter of the gurney. The sobbing of my Mom and Janis’ husband, Ron, as the finality sinks into the flood of their tears. The paperwork is signed; the doors click shut, and the ambulance swings slowly into traffic. My brothers and my Dad hugging as I open the text from Stan that tells me that there is nothing more to do. No more tests to take. Janis is going home, but not to the house she made a home with Ron. She’s going to a home with angels.

At the hospice she’ll be cared for by angels. Angels whose sole purpose is to guide her along her last journey with comfort and love. Angels who know that the travelers they care for are in pain and afraid, and will only be staying a short while as they make their journey to their final home – one with brighter and even more loving angels.

I was with Janis and Ron a couple days ago, hugging her as if I could transfer my strength to her frail body (that traitorous shell that gave up on her beautiful mind and loving heart); hugging Ron as if I could somehow make it better for him – though I knew I couldn’t, I had to try. I held her hand and brought her ice and asked her if she was comfy and sat with her in the early morning hours when the pain meds finally let her sleep. We talked some of better times. But we didn’t talk about THIS time; about why I was there with my wife and my two daughters and my grandson Ethan – the one with diabetes. We didn’t talk about the times to come.

I told her I loved her and to be strong, but I didn’t tell her much else and I’m terrified I failed her in that regard. I should have told her to be brave. I should have told her how she has blessed so many lives with her kindness and love. I should have told her that the angels are waiting for her because she deserves to live with them. I should have and I could have. But I didn’t. Maybe I can do it here where my voice doesn’t crack and betray me like her body has betrayed her.

The multiverse has a twisted sense of humor – cutting her down with cancer of the pancreas when she has done so much to help others with malfunctioning pancreases. Every year, Janis raised money for the Juvenile Diabetes Relief Fund. Every year, we donated to her account and cheered her on as her goals were reached and then blown away. Then, we joined her fight in earnest in 2009 when Ethan was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. She raised thousands and thousands of dollars before that, though, for the benefit of kids she didn’t even know. That was how she loved others; that was how she earned her wings.

We were close as kids. Janis is two years younger than I in a family of 5 kids. She used to call me Nonald-dee-dee-&-Nonald-dee-dah. An excruciatingly silly name that typifies our family’s silly sense of humor. I put napkin rings on my face and said “par le vouz” in a Peewee Herman voice that would send her into gales of laughter. “Say par le vouz,” she’d squeal along with our sister Lisa, “say par le vouz.” Over and over and over, and I would oblige because I loved to hear her shriek with laughter. She cuddled up to me on the couch as we watched TV or listened to Beethoven’s 5th. She put curlers in my hair that was Beatle-cut in those days.

We’ve always been close, though we grew apart a bit in our teens as our separate misdeeds and escapades got us both expelled from Campion Academy. We finished up our high-school education in separate states and started lives of our own. I dropped out of school; she went to nursing school because she loved to care for others.

Janis also loved pigs; she had a room full of them – stuffed pigs, flying pigs, pig-urines, pictures of pigs, books of pigs. It seemed like we gave her a pig-something for every birthday and every Christmas for years. Yet, somehow my daughters grew up calling her Buggy. Today, I can’t seem to remember how that term of endearment got started, but it’s stuck. A few years back, we started giving her Lady Bug paraphernalia and stopped gifting pig-aphernalia. Chelsa and Bryn loved their Aunt Buggy.

She married Ron Foote and moved to Des Moines. They were the perfect couple – Ron was old school and liked to be taken care of; Janis loved to take care of people. They both liked fast cars and NPR. They’re touch-y and feel-y and you could always sense the love when Janis and Ron were around – big smiles and tender caresses with never a harsh word between them.

It was sometimes confusing to talk to Janis when her husband and I were both Rons. She started calling me Bro-Ron and him My-Ron (which of course got morphed – jokingly – into Mo-Ron.) I stayed with her and her-Ron when my business took me to Iowa. The perfect hostess, Janis always had the pig-room perfectly made up with a basket of towels and toiletries for my stay placed on the pig duvet. It was a quiet, homey house with always a cat, but never a kid.

But Janis would have made a terrific mom, just like our real Mom, if she could have. But, since she couldn’t, Janis mothered us other kids. Always the peacemaker. Never the instigator. Always ready with a hug and kind word. Never a negative thought about someone else. Always thinking of others first. She mothered her-Ron, too. He loved it, and she lived for him, but he was not her only friend.

Janis has a world-wide network of girlfriends, fellow book-a-philes who share her love for Stephen King and Terry Pratchett. She turned me on to SKs world of wonder and horror. I turned her on to TP’s zany alternate multi-verse. Her many “Sisters” are praying for her now and hoping her journey takes her to her own special place; takes her to a world of magic and angels. She’ll fit right in.

As I wrote this homage this morning, my Mom & Dad and my brothers, Stan & Roger, called on the speaker phone to say that her journey was over. Janis, our angel, died this morning in the arms of her loving husband and soul-mate, Ron. I hate it that she’s left us, but I am so glad that she is no longer hurting. It will take a long time before her Rons, and the rest of her friends and family, stop hurting like we are now.

I’ll be back in Iowa next weekend to see you, Janis, one final time. Our journeys have now taken us on separate paths. On your journey through life, I know that your path was good. You were kind and generous and loving and special. Though this last journey was not so kind to you, or to us that remain, it did take you mercifully away from your pain and to your final destination, and we are thankful for that.

Good-bye dear sister. You earned your wings. I’m sure they will fit you well. We love you very much!

Friday, October 1, 2010

After the Boys of Summer Have Gone

On Labor Day – the last REAL day of summer in most young boys’ minds – I went swimming with my grandsons, Ethan & Cade. Ethan is seven; smart and sensitive, he has juvenile diabetes but takes it like a man; he loves skateboarding and has been my BFF since he was born. Cade’s 3 – going on 6 – energetic, talkative, rough-and-tumble; so tow-headed and dimpled cute that he can just give you a look and you are wrapped around his finger. We swam and splashed until the boys’ mom said, too soon, that it was time to go. We pretended we didn’t hear her at first, but, like Old Man Winter, Mom can’t be put off forever and we dragged ourselves out of the pool and out of summer. It was time for summer to go too.

Ah, the extraordinaryness of an early September pool day! Clear sky so blue your eyes water; the sun glowing like your own personal space heater in the dry and cool 80° air; a brisk breeze just begging you to launch a kite, lay in the grass and name the clouds on their lazy journey East. But the breeze kept us in the perfect-temperature water – just cool enough for a summer day and just warm enough to keep you in the pool and out of the goose-bumping wind.

The time wafted by like the breeze that carried the screams and shouts and laughter along with the clean smell of chlorine down the ridge and away into autumn. Just like in the movies, I flashed back on five decades of growing up and misted over with a nostalgia strong enough to bring back the smells of my childhood. Summers smelled like the Ragweed that grows along the ditches and roads of Colorado; it smelled like chlorine and wintergreen locker-room disinfectant; smelled like a light rain – barely more than verga – on a dusty field; like a lake with carp and crappie in the middle and cattails and goose poop on the edges; like freshly laid blacktop and freshly mown grass; sunblock on the nose of the lifeguard you can’t take your eyes off.

I rode my bike a couple-three miles to the Loveland Municipal Pool where baskets cost a dime but the swimming was free. The water was icy cold – I don’t think the pool was ever heated except by the sun. We dove and swam hard off the low board at poolside. Dive in; swim to the edge and clamber out; run-walk around to the ladder to go again – an endless circle that kept us busy till the rest-time whistle blew. We lay blue-lipped in the mile-high wind, our legs shivering and stiff and our toenails scraping on the rough concrete without a towel to soften the scratches. The concrete was blistering, but the lifeguards were even hotter. We goofed off on the middle board, trying to get the lifeguards to notice us. When you’re 12, getting a 17-year old to notice you (in any way you could) was a major accomplishment. Much time was spent (and wasted) in this endeavor, creating silly “dives” and basically trying to impress with a 3-stooges style of adolescent geekiness. Then finally, someone would get double-dared to go off the High Board and the game got serious. The high board was for hot-shot divers and had more people chickening out at the top than people who actually took the fast way down.

We didn’t dive off the high-board – that took more skill than we possessed. But we could pull off a booming cannonball (when I was younger) and a high-splashing can-opener (when I learned it looked cooler, splashed higher and didn’t hurt my butt so bad!) The crowning achievement of the day would be pulling off a can-opener that caused a big enough splash to soak the lifeguard. That always got their attention, though it sometimes got us kicked out too, or at least banished to the baby pool until the next whistle.

We snapped at each other’s legs with towels wound tight. Loud pops that, if carefully aimed, would leave nasty welts and the promise of revenge when you least expect it. The age-old bonding ritual of boys hurting boys. Testosterone just beginning to course through our teenage veins.

So many of the memories of summers are floating on the waters of my hometown. The pool of my childhood lifeguard fantasies is also where I took swimming lessons every year. I was a fish – I loved playing at that old pool; racing in the local swim meets; plunging headfirst (when the lifeguards weren’t looking) down the curving slide; hanging out in the warm water of the kiddie-pool on the cold days when the air temperature was actually lower than the shallow water temperature, heated by the sun and probably, now that I think of it, by the effluence of the littler kids. Yuck!

But as we grew older, the pool wasn’t cool enough and so we took to the irrigation ditches. In our early teens, the ditch was the place where we traded our flip-flops and swimming suits for cut-off jeans and tennis shoes and floated on old inner-tubes to where the fence across the ditch saved us from being sucked down the underground pipe to the lake. We had no fear of that imminent death, but jumped and squealed like little girls when we chased crawdads out from under slimy rocks.

When I got my license, we drove to Chasteen’s Grove on the Big Thompson River where we stood on the dam and jumped off the falls into a rock-lined pool that one of the guys promised didn’t have any hidden boulders under the surface. Luckily he was right, or at least we missed the hidden skull-busters and survived. Later, there were the reservoirs where we partied around campfires and skipped rocks and played music and danced in the moonlight. So much of all my summers revolve around water. Being a mountain boy, though, the river is still my favorite place to be. There is no place as beautiful and restful as the beaver-dammed headwaters of a glacier-fed stream at tree-line.

Last weekend, Marcia and I took the (probably) last hike of the summer. The sky was a piercing blue; the only cloud was a spider-web of moisture the size of a quarter at arm’s length. The river at the trailhead was talking fast as it ran with the melted snow of two nights before—clear and clean. I filled my filter bottle from a small cascade that gurgled into a pool almost big enough for a grown man to sit in after a hot hike. I filed that fact away for later, and took a deep breath of the smell of the water. Icy fresh with a hint of river willow and wet dust. You’d think that there is no water purer than this, yet it’s not the drinkable mountain water of my youth. Giardia – a nasty little anaerobic flagellated protozoan parasite that is carried by Rocky Mountain Goats who, like the littler kids in the pool don’t bother with finding an outhouse up on the high snowy peaks – poisons the water for humans. I was glad I had my water purifier because this is the best-tasting water in the world with or without the flagellated parasites. It’s a leap of faith that my purifier will screen out 99.94% of viruses in the water which means that bacteria stoppage should be even higher. Taking that leap with barely a thought, I drink deeply.

We drank deeply of the day. Hiking a thousand feet and enjoying the lung-popping exercise and the breath-taking view. The sun at 12,000 feet feels amazingly good, even though I know it’s a melanoma waiting for a breach in my sun-screen. As we stopped to catch our breath for about the twentieth time, we marveled that it had been almost 20 years (and 20 pounds) since we last trekked this path with a family group of about 20 people. The trail was dusty except where it crossed a couple of snow-melt seeps—each one bringing that mountain-river smell and lowering my stress level another 38 degrees – coincidentally about the temperature of the water that flows fresh off the snow fields. Life is often breathless and tiresome; it is often dusty and rocky and steep. But it seems to me that life is good by the water.

The pool closed last week – kept open late this year by the record-breaking heat of this long, hot summer. That heat is now fading into nights cool enough to warrant an extra blanket on the bed as we are not ready yet to sleep with the windows closed. The world turns and the cycle moves on. The snows that will eventually feed my rivers are only weeks away from starting to pile on the slopes and fill the high valleys. Ethan and Cade say that they are going to learn to snowboard this winter! So, when the boys of summer are gone, the boys of winter will be riding and schussing the slopes of Loveland Basin and that will bring on a whole other set of memories for this mountain boy…


Author’s note: in researching Giardia, I discovered that I am still another week away from being sure that the little critters didn’t adhere to my stomach lining and are biding their time as they gather their forces; waiting to send me on a 2-week crash diet characterized by gut-wrenching vomiting and explosive diarrhea.

Wish me luck!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

What I was; Who I am; Where I will be…

After a 35-year disappearance, Ron Bates called me a couple of weeks ago. We caught up briefly by phone and then he said he was coming my way; could he stop by on his journey? I told him that I’d been trying to find him for over 20 years – of course he could! He could spend the night and we’d catch up on the years between us. Ron had been my hippy “bud” during five of my wildest young-adult years – my best friend in between my childhood best friend, Alan, and my grown-up best friend, Marcia. Five years of sharing hot-boxed cigarettes behind the school, jumping off waterfalls in the Big Thompson Canyon, chasing every pretty girl we saw, shopping trips to “The Hill” in Boulder, and “stomping” up the sides of mountains in our s---kickers as fast as we could with no regard for obstacles in the way (the goal was a straight line from bottom to top.) Five years living high on life and youth and relatively harmless, but nevertheless illegal, substances. We weren’t thugs – in fact, we were pretty good guys, but we weren’t the kind of guys that stern fathers wanted their sons and daughters hanging out with. “trouble” with a lower-case “t”. We hung with Chicano friends – a politically-correct term in the 70’s. To our amigos, he was Ron Romero; I was Ron Rodriguez, though we never learned to speak Spanish beyond a few choice epithets. Aye Chingao!

He was at the house when I got home; waiting for me in a beat-up pickup that somehow made me feel embarrassed that my pickup was in better shape. We shared a long, almost-comfortable masculine embrace while we laughed and gee-whizzed and slapped each other on the back. We’re grown men now – he more grizzled; me heavier. He’s got dentures; I’ve got the Gout. Two “buds” that have given up both the bud and the Budweisers. He’d been married for a brief 3-year stint; I’d married my best friend and lived happily ever after in middle-class suburbia bliss. He lived off the grid in a cabin with no utilities. I bought a house and contributed to a 401k. He moved from job to job and eventually became a farrier to rich ladies with pampered horses. I took a job washing dishes, ended up in restaurant management and spent pretty much my whole career with one company climbing the corporate ladder. We spent the evening mis-remembering the good ol’ days – telling embellished stories of the time that had passed, and explaining the choices that had led us to our current contrary places in a world we once shared.

They say that there are an infinite number of universes existing side by side, branching off with each of the myriad choices that every man makes throughout his life. In one of those universes, Nixon didn’t end the draft and I made good on my threat to flee to Canada and take my low lottery number with me. In that universe, Ron Romero and I are living with the Inuit – eating blubber and rubbing noses with our native wives under the Northern Lights. In another, Ron wasn’t chased off by the parents of his soul mate – a good friend of my soul mate – and we grow old together on Wisteria Lane while our kids became the kind of best buds that we were for those few carefree years.

Seeing the divergent roads that Romero & I took got me to thinking of the choices I’ve made, the different universes I’ve inhabited along the way and where my choices will eventually take me – what I was; who I am; where I will be…

What I was, was the classic “second child” in a stable and strict family with strong Christian values and two brothers and two sisters and an extended village of cousins and aunts and uncles who loved me and were loved in return. Future issues were only hinted at when I explained to my Mom at an early age, as I drenched my potatoes with ketchup, “I like too much.” Ketchup wasn’t the problem; “too much” was. While I was a loving kid, I was an insolent teen and a rebellious adult whose penchant for “too much” extended to most of my choices. I worked too much, I played too much, I drank too much, I ate too much. I went too far a lot of times. I was a teenage hippy with disdain for “the System” and mistrust for anyone over 30. I didn’t care too much for school; it wasn’t all about me. First I was kicked out; then I dropped out. I was a self-indulgent thrill-seeker who didn’t pay near enough attention to other people and way too much attention to my own little universe. I subscribed to the 60’s maxim: if it feels good, do it.

Thankfully, I do believe that people can change and marrying my best friend was surely the catalyst for mine. Who I am now is a more mature and conventional adaptation of that younger self. Still prone to be a bit rebellious and to lean toward indulging “too much,” but far more prone to figuratively push the plate away. I still take some hedonistic pleasures, though they are more socially acceptable and along the lines of a good cup of coffee, a bowl of Breyer’s natural vanilla, a Stephen King novel, and an early bedtime. I take more pleasure now in other people and their happiness, although I still sometimes act like I’m king of the world. My rise through the kitchens shaped my belief that hard work is the road to success and that searching for either a handout or the “one big deal” is a sure way to spend your life in disappointment and dissatisfaction. I believe I have a duty to share and to teach whatever small tidbits of wisdom I’ve picked up along the way with those that want to be taught. I believe in the power of words to shape reality so I try to be careful about what I say but this is definitely a work in progress. I believe in the sanctity of all life and in showing respect to the world around me, but also believe that Mother Nature is well-equipped to take care of herself in the end, thank-you very much.

As I’ve aged, I believe that the choices I make now are going to dictate where I’ll be in my dotage, and hope that the poor choices I made in another branch of my life don’t figure in too prominently. We live in exciting times. I HATE exciting times. Exciting just means that too many things can go wrong and you never know who’s in charge of that universe-branching. Give me bland and predictable any day. I want to know that my retirement funds will grow. I want to know that I’ll live a healthy, long life surrounded by people I love, but not worry that I’ll outlive my bank account. I want to know where my next meal is coming from. I don’t want to wonder if I should stock up on canned foods and batteries, or if I should buy gold and guns to prepare for the apocalypse. My risk-taking days are behind me. I want to know where the future will take me. I want some surety in my life, but in Exciting Times like these, a sure thing is a rare commodity. I’m pretty sure that it is this human desire to have things work out and the uncertainty that they might not that has given rise to the belief in the Karmic nature of things. We can’t control the future; only the present. So we hope that if we live right today, that tomorrow will pay us back with kindness.

So then, this is the philosophy that I hope will take me to where I’d like to be going—to a happy place, if bland & predictable, where grandkids will ride on my back and beg me to tell them another story; where the “imminent” apocalypse fades away with Glenn Beck and his doomsayer TV show; where the loaves and fishes don’t run out before my time does.

First, I’ll do no harm. I will walk my trail without stepping on others, be they human or animal. I will leave the flower unpicked so that others can smell it and it can spread its seed for future generations to enjoy. Second, I’ll do some good where I can. I’ll give to my favorite charities, even though I know that by giving to one, I’ll end up on eleven more mailing lists. I can’t save the world, but I can help save that fly-covered kid pictured in the junk mail with my name spelled wrong. I’ll be a peacemaker when the tension is high. I’ll teach someone something that will make their road smoother. Third, I’ll love as I’d like to be loved. I’ll try to live the Golden Rule. I’ll give people the benefit of the doubt and try not to judge, lest I be judged and be found wanting. I’ll love my wife, and my family, and their friends, and the people I work with, and tolerate – and even enjoy – the people I see on the streets and at the airport and in the malls and the restaurants.

And finally, I’ll cross my fingers and think positively. I’ll believe that things will always be better; that people will mostly do the right thing; that there’s a light at the end of every tunnel; that love will win out. I’ll believe that wherever I’m going, it’ll be a fabulous journey and a worthy destination. I’ll live my life thinking that every person is special; every place is special; every event is special…as it is.

That special place is where I will be.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Heading Home on the High Plains Highway

Nothing very romantic about being a road warrior. 8 days on the road, living out of a suitcase might sound like an adventure, but the thrill is soon gone. The reality is unpacking in a different hotel every night, trying to turn a sterile (you hope) cubicle into something you can call home for about 7 hours before you pack it all away again. It’s a 12-hour shift sandwiched between a 100-mile drive and a late-night taco before stripping off the you-don’t-want-to-think-about-it bedspread from the sagging mattress that was someone else’s home last night. It all makes a man want to get home. In a hurry. Luckily the work is fun and rewarding and, sometimes, the scenery in between is more than worth the drive.

The work is done and I’m heading home on Highway 81 south out of western Nebraska. It’s a long lonesome highway that morphs into Highway 23 that will take me west into Colorful Colorado. Two lanes of blacktop that lead across the border into Holyoke, Colorado where the speed limit is 60mph but the actual minimum speed is 75 for any vehicle not built to drive between rows of corn.

The road out of North Platte (home of the world’s largest railyard) climbs imperceptibly but steadily towards the high plains of eastern Colorado. Once in the Centennial State, I begin to feel an urgency, like a horse on a long ride that smells water, and I have to fight to keep my right foot from turning into a lead anvil. The air is noticeably thinner, drier and clearer as my eyes are drawn to the sights along the road of my home state. I could go straight west from here and catch I-76 into Denver, but I decide to take the road less traveled and turn south onto 385 – the “High Plains Highway.” Here’s what I saw.

After passing “Blisties” – a curiously-named and as-yet-unexplored roadhouse on the edge of Holyoke, with a flashing neon martini glass that is still lit up in the early morning – it’s a wide open road. 385 is a straight ribbon of macadam where the only traffic is tractors, Ford F-350’s, a few overloaded 18-wheelers sneaking around the weigh stations and me. It’s a road that invites you to break the speed limit if not the sound barrier. A lone buzzard dips his wings in a salute – circling the road ahead as if he’s anticipating my role in an upcoming road-kill incident, but I don’t prep lunch for him today and he soon passes behind me.

Eastern Colorado – the corn is shorter here. So short it droops in shame, perhaps sensing I am judging its growth against the Iowa and Nebraska standards where it’s already above your knees and will be “thigh high by the 4th of July.” Although it’s good to be back in Colorado, the only mountains in sight are on the license plates of passing cars. The High Plains Highway heads straight south, not west, so there won’t be any snow-capped peaks in view for hours. The only hint that you’re not in Kansas anymore is the drier air and a subtle change in the flora. The hills are covered with the familiar tall grass, sage brush and yuccas of home. In mid-June, the yuccas are in full bloom; their banana-like stems of pale yellow-green flowers are the tallest plants on the plains.

Crossing into Yuma County is like bursting onto a moonscape. Small, but bumpity hills of desert brush hint of a different local government as the road turns uneven and is not so well-maintained. The rough road is now noticeably climbing, slowly but inexorably, and finally crests onto the high plains. Prairie grasses that no plow has ever turned over dominate the scenery for miles and miles. The occasional farm struggles to tame the grass, cactus and scrub. Irrigation ditches hand-dug by some long-dead homesteader divert water from a distant river to grow the trees that are so foreign to this biosphere; deep wells feed circular sprinklers so big it takes tractors to move them, creating an oasis that is dependent on ever-contested water rights to survive.

Going south, the air gets hotter and the crops become more varied and grow taller. Although the high plains are almost treeless, it’s very green here. There’s more rain here. It’s far enough from the mountains that the clouds that disperse over the Continental Divide have had time to regroup & coalesce into towering thunderclouds. The storms come almost daily in the summer, dropping the life-giving moisture that passed over the semi-arid Front Range along the Denver metro corridor. It’s a land that’s well-acquainted with hail and tornados (though there’s not a trailer park in sight!)

The road bends East and my stomach flip-flops as I worry about getting home on time. I’ve been away for a week, working my way along the Platte River through Nebraska and though I’m enjoying the drive, I don’t want it to be any longer than it’s already going to be. As we say when hiking a trail, you hate to give up the higher ground, or in this case, the western ground. I yearn to get home – see my baby; breathe the cool, clean, thin air and sit in the shade of trees I’ve planted myself.

A ring of cottonwoods on the side of hill makes me wonder about the ranch they must at one time have sheltered but have now outlived and outlasted. There is no evidence of that civilized past – not even a crumbling foundation, yet there is no way they would grow on this dry hillside without human help. What happened to the people? What happened to the house? Another mile and Prickly Poppies dominate a field supervised by a racing windmill, endlessly pumping water for a dozen angus heifers just chillin’ in the mud.

The road drops precipitously off a ridge into a valley that begat Wray, elevation 3516. I’ve climbed half way from the lowlands of Nebraska to the Mile High City. I take the bypass around Wray and then regret my hurry on the other side when my bladder inquires if there are any rest stops on this lonesome road. There isn’t. But, an uncomfortable 20 miles farther along there’s a turnout with a couple half-dead trees that offer enough privacy for a deserted road like this, and soon I’m lighter and on my way. The road bends west and I strain my eyes looking for the mountains, though I know they are still an hour or more away. A dry stream bed turns into an unexpected canyon with a herd of future steaks lying in the shade of the only trees for miles around. It’s an alien garden of Eden for a half mile – a paradise that these cows deserve given their inevitable fate; then the open plains exert themselves again. The trees are gone and grasshopper oil pumps are the only things that rise above waste level into the sky around here.

An elaborate windbreak hints of high winds and snowdrifts across the road in another season. A full mile of three parallel rows of pines accentuates the otherwise flat countryside. At 60 mph, there are only venetian-blind glimpses of the sprawling complex behind the trees and my mind takes a brief flight of fancy to imagine some horrible Jonestown cult, a serial killer’s hideout, or an evil doctor’s lair. But, when the gleaming white farmhouse pops into view, the horror fantasies melt into the Petticoat Junction reality.

Full road replacement work in the middle of nowhere brings a mild curse to my lips. But I’ve got luck on my side as the one-way escort vehicle starts the 3-car parade going my direction right when I pull up to the sun-burned, Camel-smoking flag girl, who cautiously turns the STOP sign she’s holding to show me the side that warns SLOW. The pilot car leads us through 5 miles of brand new, but one lane and painfully slow highway. Past the construction the blacktop is pot-holed and wash-boarded and a big sign proudly proclaims its ultimate repair thanks to the debt-inducing, but jobs-creating, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Yay big government!?

The next stop sign I hit is Highway 36, a direct route to northern Denver. I decide to keep going south, thinking I’ll head west when I hit I-70 in 30 miles. But I see another flag girl with a stop sign almost immediately. I’m not so lucky at this new stretch of construction, and I’m stopped for way too long. Frustrated, I finally turn around and head back north to jump on 36 towards the mountains. I love the sight-seeing and the freedom of the road less-traveled, but I’ve been driving for 4 hours now with only my thoughts and XM-Radio comedians to keep me company (and awake) and I’m ready to get home. Highway 36 is smooth. Easy to go fast and I catch myself going 80 before I set the cruise control, knowing that a main road brings an easier ride, but also an easier ticket.

There’s a wide spot in the road called “Joe’s.” Judging by the huge Baptist church and cemetery, the Bible store and the marquee advertising nightly prayer meetings, this must indeed be a born-again, God-fearing town. Even the wrecker service is named “Church Towing.” Yet, the only other visible business in town is “Joe’s Liquor Store.” Not sure if that’s a hypocrisy or a necessity.

Yellow Honey-clover stretches along the road for miles. I roll down my window and hang my head out the window, inhaling the scent, my nostrils flaring like a dog. I can hear the bees above the whine of the tires and the growl of the wind. The smell of honey and summer weeds makes my mouth water and my eyes mist over. An entire hillside of yellow stretches to the horizon. It’s everywhere! It’s a weed of course, but it smells like heaven.

An abandoned clapboard farmhouse on a hill makes me wish there was a pull-out so I could take a picture. With all its windows missing, I can see straight through it, the peeling-paint frames highlight the sunlit fields beyond. And then it’s gone. I crest a hill and look in all directions – only one tree as far as I can see, but the green grasses and yellow clover create an amazing lushness to the landscape.

At Bennett, the 2-lane turns to 4-lane and the outline of the mountains come into view. The sight of the Front Range always gives me a thrill. Almost there! The rest of the trip is a combination of interstates and rush-hour traffic and a couple of wind-up-business cell phone calls now that I have reliable service, and the last 50 miles go by quickly.

As I exit off I-25, I sing the words to an old favorite Simon & Garfunkle song. “Home – with my thoughts escaping. Home – where my music’s playing. Home – where my love lies waiting silently for me.” The drive is over. The work week’s done. My beautiful wife pulls into the garage right in front of me. Perfect timing.

I’m home. That’s all that matters.