My #OptOutside Black Friday

sketch of me wearing lots of layersWhen my beautiful wife and her two oldest daughters left the house to go shopping at 6:30am on Black Friday, I layered up in active wear and rode my mountain bike toward the woods. I wanted to be like a model on the REI Co-op web site doing exciting outdoor things while the rest of the world was at the mall. I left my sleeping kids in the care of their sleeping 15-year-old brother.

A Chance Encounter

Sketch of a buck eating leavesI rode up the bluff on the Vista trail. It was 37 degrees and the trails were hard and clear of snow. I stopped half way up to shed some layers. As I packed my jacket in my jersey pocket, I looked around at the beautiful, brown forest. I was surprised to find a buck, about 10 yards from me, crunching dried leaves off a downed tree. I said out loud, “Oh yeah, it’s hunting season. You’re not like all angry and in rut, are you?”

He replied, “No, it’s cool. I’m just chillin’ in the park enjoying those, ‘No Firearms On City Property’ signs.”

No Firearms on City Property

I told him I thought that was a good idea. I wished him a good day and continued my climb.

The Route

When I reached the top of the bluff, I rode the Quarry Connector trail to Stinky’s, then Bob and Twister. I ruminated about the deer’s concern for gun safety, and I hoped my vintage orange cycling jersey would be enough to alert any lost hunters to the presence of a human when they heard something moving through the woods.

Adventure Boy Lives His #OptOutside Dream

I planned to finish my ride with a break by the pump track, but it was windy and cold on the very top of the ridge. I got back on my bike and rode down through the prairie to the pines at the beginning of Stinky’s. The wind sneaked through the trees searching for me. I found a place that made a good wind break and sat on the ground to eat my first breakfast. (It was my first, because I would have to indulge in another breakfast when I got home to my sleeping kids.)

Sketch of me eating a sandwich and drinking coffee

Adventure Boy at home in the woods

I pulled from my backpack a peanut butter sandwich and a Kleen Kanteen thermos (which I had stolen from my 19-year-old) full of hot coffee. I sat on the ground dining and telling myself I was the most adventurous, rugged cowboy in town… maybe in the world. It was a most excellent time. I wish every breakfast could be just like it.

Here ends the good part of the story. I made it down off the bluff safely, and got home to enjoy eggs and toast with my Ruthie. (Edward slept until noon.)

Looking For Work

I really think I would benefit from a job in which I go on long mountain bike rides and drink coffee in the woods. If you know anyone hiring for that, please let me know in the comments below.

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Riding with local powerbrokers

I went on a 64-mile bike ride last Saturday with the local B-Team. Our plan was to start a few minutes after the A-Team and pick up their stragglers as we went.

About 20 minutes into the ride, we caught two old guys on a climb. As we rode the next 40 miles, the two old guys proved to be strong riders, pushing the pace on the flats. I learned that one of the old guys was Steve O’Mally, LaCrosse County Adminstrator. I bet you wish your county administrator were as fit as ours.

Steve O'Mally, Mark Brum cycling

Mark Brum, Steve O’Mally, Michelle Ericsson and Gary Terbeest bringing it home in the Lions Ride For Sight. Where is JP the Locomotive? He is back on the horizon pulling two riders up to the lead peloton. Try not to notice that I was in the wrong lane to take this photo.

Steve O'Mally's keens cycling sandals

What’s cooler than being the cycling county administrator? Riding 64 miles in Keens cycling sandals.

I spent the whole ride hoping Mark Brum and JP Ericsson would not notice that I carefully avoided taking the lead or breaking the wind. I think I was only out of their protective draft for 400 yards of the 64 miles.

Mark Brum Cycling

I believe there is none on the road with a better riding form than Mark Brum. He is smooth, always in just the right cadence and never bobs or looks strained. But he doesn’t do Strava, so he’s not perfect.

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The 2017 Hale Family Christmas Letter

The family photo

I have endeavored to write an orderly account for you, most excellent reader, of the Hale family and their impact on the author of this letter, because, like everything else, this family and this letter are all about me. Let’s be real.

Helen in graduation regalia and Ed take a selfie

My most beautifulest daughter graduated from high school this year. She seldom accompanies me on long bike rides, but is always ready to take a selfie with her Dad.

Helen is the best kid we have. Unlike the other Hale children, she responds normally to stimuli, like another human saying “Hello.” She graduated from high school this year and is now attending the most prestigious public college in Wisconsin. She visits me in my office between classes and even acknowledges me when she sees me in the hallway. Helen balances college, homework, a landscaping career and supervising a room full of kids in the church nursery, all the while leading an active social life. I would like to say that she is at the top of her class, but how would I know that? She is an adult and I am just an employee of the college she attends. It would be impossible for me to know. But she is probably doing very well. She has the blood of the great Edward Hale coursing through her veins.

Claire under sheer yellow fabric

Drama, beauty, chai tea. That about sums up Claire.

Claire told me I cannot tell you she has a negative attitude. Neither can I discuss swimming. Remember the friend you had in high school who would say, “Well, I bombed that test”? Then, you find out that that friend got the highest score on the test. That is Claire. She sucks at everything. I mean, if you consider high test scores, varsity athletics and the production of beautiful art to be sucking, then she is the worst. Claire’s only redeeming quality is that she enjoys taking her father out for coffee a couple times a week.

Edward Erdmann, Edward Hale, and the younger Edward Hale in the Black Hills

Several men named Edward took a hike in the Black Hills of South Dakota together. There was no cycling involved, but thankfully that younger Edward was wearing a cycling t-shirt. (I think it goes without saying that I have the best hair.)

Edward plays the drums. He went to Florida with the school band. He did a little balcony jumping and littering. He did not buy me a souvenir. Edward grows luscious, long, curly hair in a school with a “No Distracting Hair” policy. He lives in constant fear. Edward does a lot of homework and watches a lot of useless YouTube videos. Edward’s only redeeming quality is that he enjoys riding and racing mountain bikes. Some wonder if he rides faster than his dad, but I think it is stupid even to consider such a possibility.

Ed, Ruthie and Nikole take a selfie at a race course.

Try not to fixate on that beautiful, blue, Merino Wool, long-sleeved jersey from New Zealand. Also notice the beautiful women next to it. 11-year-old Ruthie is fresh off the Nordic Mountain race course. I cannot remember how she did, but I am sure she dominated in true Hale form.

I am trying to think of how to describe Ruthie without using the word, “sneaky,” or the phrase “selective hearing.” Ruthie is, um, “focused.” Ruthie reads a lot. Ruthie disappears when work is to be done. She is easy to find, though. You just follow the sound of her little sisters yelling, “Ruthie, stop it!” Ruthie is an upperclassman at her little Catholic school. She plays violin and is picking up percussion. We hope one day she will be that hip, well-rounded chick who runs from the orchestra pit, to sit behind the drum set in the jazz band. Ruthie’s most redeeming quality is that she rides and races mountain bikes. Ruthie is more willing than her brother to ride in adverse conditions,telling me she will go to the world championships someday. If she does not win, she will steal the first-place trophy.

Bethany and Ed in a selfie at a bike race course

Knowing that the way to her father’s heart is through cycling, Bethany volunteered to help set up the muddy race course at Seeley, Wisconsin. And I think she might have been the most focused and diligent volunteer present.

Bethany is easily the best Hale kid after Helen. She is beautiful, with big, brown eyes and curly hair. Her disposition is predominantly positive. She arrives at her obligations on-time. She has a clean desk. I think Bethany might not be related to me. Bethany plays the violin. (She stinks, which is a nice bit of humble in an otherwise perfect kid.) Oh, and though she reads very well, she has never returned a library book on-time, and constantly maintains a huge fine balance.

Lydia in purple hoodie

A beautiful photo of my youngest, taken by my beautiful wife. That slouching man in the background wearing the red jacket is not me. I never slouch and I have big muscles.

Lydia is milking the whole “baby of the family” thing for all its worth. She responds to directives and questions with grunts and dirty looks. She has learned that obedience is a suggestion rather than a requirement. Though she is as big as her older sister, she still needs help getting dressed and pouring her milk. On the positive side, Lydia reads well and, in class projects, she writes fictional stories about her happy home life. She has distinguished herself as a kid who fills the world with pretty works of art.

Ed takes a selfie with Jack the dog

Jack likes this photo because it hides his great, soft girth.

Jack is my emotional support animal. He is not good for much of anything else. He sheds, he snores and food falls out of his loose, floppy lips when he eats. Though I invite him, he refuses to sit on my lap. But, he does greet me with great enthusiasm every morning when I swing my legs out of bed and every time I return home. I pet him and scratch him and thank him that dog owners are statistically more likely to be happy and live a long life. Then I look at his big, square, fat head and think, “I bet a chihuahua would do the same thing.”

Nikole takes a selfie with Bethany

Nikole looking pretty at a June Dairy Breakfast in Bangor, Wisconsin. Check out the farmer in the background who wishes he had some sunglasses.

Nikole, how do I enumerate the positive qualities in a benevolent homemaker living among cavemen? The woman does it all. She feeds an army. She herds cats. She overlooks the most slovenly breadwinner the world has ever known, all the while getting fitter, smarter and more talented in the arts of sewing, knitting, cooking and battlefield first-aid. Nikole attends Bible Study Fellowship, a secret society of Jesus Freaks, and a prayer group for women with good-looking husbands. A recent hip injury has stalled Nikole’s Olympic distance running hopes for this year. Instead, she has taken to going on slow walks with a man and his dog.

I have not changed, though I am much older than last year. I don’t do much. I eat a lot of sugar and drink coffee like a fish drinks water. While other men are building additions on their homes, I am sketching flowers in my journal. My main goal in life is to be more fit. I want to ride my bike like a 20-year-old. I spend all my time exercising or thinking about exercising, mostly thinking. Sometimes I force one of my offspring to accompany me in my activity. But I only have a couple offspring who are game for that. If I did not have a great job that lets me teach a couple classes between sessions of push-ups and planks in my office, I would be completely and utterly void of value. I can fry an egg, though. I am good for that. I still don’t have a fatbike.

At this time of year, let’s not dwell on how awesome the Hales are. Let’s think instead ­­of how awesome God is for coming to earth as a little baby. Let’s celebrate his birth. And eat lots of frosted cookies.

God Bless You!

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Why I love the high school mountain bike racing season

Ed being served pancakes by a butler

This is my impression of the trials I endure as a coach for the La Crosse Area Mountain Bike Team.

The National Interscholastic Cycling Association high school mountain bike racing season just came to an end. I was one of a dozen coaches for the La Crosse Area team, and the season was very good to me. I was forced to ride my bike consistently, and leave the house occasionally to travel to races and camp in a tent.

Recently, I was at Paul and Jenny Fisher’s house, eating chili and apple crisp, when the subject of conversation turned to mountain biking. Jenny asked me, “Eddie, how do they get you to camp out, when you hate camping?”

In perfect harmony, Nikole and I said, “It’s not really camping.”

I went on, “When we arrive at the race course, I ride around the course a couple times with some of the racers. While I’m riding, someone else sets up the tent. Then a bunch of parents cook a meal.”

She said, “Oh yeah, cooking is the hardest part of camping.”

I agreed, “Yeah. Then we sit around a camp fire and talk smart. Then I sleep in my down sleeping bag. In the morning, a bunch of parents make a hot breakfast. I eat, then ride around the course a couple more times with some of the racers warming up. Then I cheer for the kids in the races. Then I eat a lunch that someone else makes.”

Mr. Fisher said, “Wait! You mean you basically eat, sleep and ride your bike?”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “Mr. Hale, you’re a genius.”

Yes. Yes I am.

But I acknowledge that it is the work of all the other coaches and parents that makes my race weekends so wonderfully happy. I am truly thankful for all that they do.

Noteworthy Peeps:

Josh Shively, our head coach and possibly the nicest man you will ever meet.

Mary Luebke, one of our food czars and taker of excellent photographs.

Dan Speckeen, a very happy coach who also organizes food, cooks a mean pancake, shows up early to claim campsites and likes coffee.

There are at least a dozen other coaches and spouses who work very hard to make the race weekends all they can be for Ed. I am thankful for all of them.

sunrise in the camp site

Morning dawns, and the world says, “Ed, what can I do for you today?” (Dan Speckeen, in the middle of the photo, is one of the food organizers, and the manager of my caffeine needs on race weekends.)

Camping in a farm field

This is a common race weekend campground — tents and campers gathered into “compounds” in an un-mowed farm field. The nearest plumbing is five miles away.

Ruthie racing and smiling

Honestly, this is what it is really all about… seeing Ruthie wearing her race face.

Edward racing

The Hale kid out on the race course.

Ruth standing with some of her racing friends

You should all get your daughters into mountain bike racing. The ladies have a lot of fun. They cheer for each other, even for those on other teams. Nobody sits on the bench. The cheering crowds are just as big for their races as for any of the others. It is a good sport.

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Bikers and Sticks

This post is mostly an excuse to share this drawing of bikers and sticks. Here is the story:

There is this thing in cycling culture, where we point out road hazards to the riders behind us. Image you are riding along and the biker in front of you points at the ground on his right. You would cautiously move a little in the opposite direction and watch as a huge pot hole, or a sharp piece of metal or a dead skunk comes into view on the right side of the road. If you were in a big group of cyclists, you might also point out the hazard to the riders behind you.

Too Many Pointing Fingers

This morning as we headed across the marsh on the bike trail, the riders in front of me began pointing to their left… then their right… and their left again. There was a storm last night, and the trail was littered with broom-handle-sized sticks. Soon, my friends, suffering from finger fatigue, stopped pointing and left us to our own defenses. We were all craning our necks to look ahead and swerving back and forth as we went down the trail. People were bunny hopping. Sticks were snapping. It was mayhem.

As I rode through the carnage, the accompanying illustration and hand lettering, jumped into my head. I follow lots of talented hand-letterers on Instagram, and they often transcribe Bible verses or inspirational quotes. So, I feel slightly less than amazing for sharing a string of words that are nothing more than a quote from my stream of consciousness. But it was fun to draw, so now you have to look at it.

Thanks.

…And another thing

My daughter, Claire, who is a talented illustrator and letterer, told me my illustration is very nice and should be shared. I relish this rare and unsolicited endorsement, and I thought I better obey.

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Feeling conflicted

I went to a graduation ceremony for my beautiful daughter, Helen. The first speaker told me how life is fleeting and I should not waste any time. I thought about how little I have accomplished. I should have a bigger house. I should have more in savings. I should have books in libraries. I should have paintings in museums. I am a total failure.

The next speaker channeled Dr. Suess and told us to try new things. I thought about the golden chain around my neck — the one that binds me to a really good job with excellent benefits and pay. Though I would like to travel the country exchanging doodled portraits and hand-lettered coffee shop signs for food and drink, I think remaining in the employ of the technical college might be a more prudent choice.

Then the last valedictorian spoke and told me to do what I like and not consider money. She told me I should do what makes me happy. But I just want to sit in my garden and draw irises all day. That would make me happy.

sketchbook with a drawing of irises and real irises in the background.

During one magical hour on the weekend of my daughter’s graduation, I sneaked away to draw in our garden. I look forward to next summer when I can steal another hour to sketch flowers. (Feel bad for me. I have a really hard life — sarcasm.)

I will not be attending the graduation ceremonies of my other five children. My delicate emotions cannot handle the conflicting messages. My wayfairing spirit cannot handle the tease.

I would go to the garden now to draw some lady slippers, but I have to prepare a lesson for class. Please, you go draw for me.

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Ode to a key lanyard

The long lanyard at home

Ed walks the halls with his classroom key always at the ready.

I carry a biggish ball of keys with me wherever I go. Finding the right key can be difficult, so I have them grouped onto color coded lanyards. The ugly, teal lanyard is for car keys, because cars are evil smog producers, and deserve an ugly lanyard. The prettier black lanyard is for house keys, because home is a sanctuary (teaming with loud, screaming children). My work key has a special, long, black and yellow lanyard, because when I am rushing to class, I want to be able to find it quickly.

When I get to school, I unhook my work key and leave the huge key planet in my office. I walk the halls with one, light key in my pocket. The long yellow lanyard enjoys hanging from my pocket, and catching on door knobs and hooks.

Here is where the drama starts

On Thursdays, I have to get to work early to open all the computer labs. I always arrive with just enough time to lock my bike and rush into the building, where I find the five really serious students waiting by their classroom doors. Last Thursday, as usual, I rushed to string my cable through my bike wheels and hook the cable on my big u-lock. I fumbled with the massive key ball to find the tiny tubular u-lock key (which lives on the pretty black lanyard with house keys, because home and bikes are both beautiful things.) I locked the big u-lock and turned to rush to the door. But the rushing stopped when the long, yellow and black lanyard, having secretly looped itself around my bike cable, yanked me to a stop.

Ed being yanked to a stop by a hooked lanyard

Oh, the hardships I must endure, as I try to eek out a living

This is where the excitement stops

So I was an extra 40 seconds late, after I went back to the bike rack, fumbled some more with my wad of keys, and released my work key from the bike lock. I thought the experience was just funny enough to illustrate in my journal, and because I took the time to draw it, I am forcing you to hear about it here.

I hope all your lanyards stay where they should be.

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No, You Cannot Keep the Bunny

It all started with a baby bunny.

At the very end of our Easter visit to Grandma and Grandpa’s, Jack the dog flushed two baby bunnies out of a rabbit nest. The kids rescued them and determined to keep them. I forced them, amid much arguing, to place the bunnies back in the nest. We entered the van with tears and sadness.

Ed thinking about a pigeon

An image from my handwritten journal.

On the drive home, I tried to distract. I filled the car with stories of the many wild animals I had brought home — stories that mostly ended in dead or escaped animals. The only animal that ever worked out was a pigeon I found with a broken wing. He thrived in my care, and one day flew away.

I told the kids that later, I owned homing pigeons.

Edward asked, “Why did you get rid of them?”

I told him, “I was a cool teenager. I didn’t have time for them anymore.”

He asked, “How much did you sell them for?”

I told him, “I don’t remember.” That made me think, I wish I would have journaled back then. It would be nice to remember some of those details.

The stupidest decision of my life

I wish I still had those birds.They were an amazing pet. They had the capability of running away in epic fashion — They were birds, for goodness sake! How would you ever get them back once they have flown off. Yet, they seemed to be hard-wired to return to their home coop. I could even take them miles away, and they would find their way back home.

Why didn’t they run?

They did not run, because they loved me. I mean, I bribed them with food and protection. But I choose to think they loved me.

 

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The Hale Family 2016 Year In Review

Editor’s Note: In the past the Hale Christmas letter has leaned too far towards self-depricating humor. This letter is an effort to push the pendulum back toward the center.

Laying on the Awesome, Thick and Strong

One of my kids recently justified her lack of goals by saying, “But, Dad, you always say how we are mediocre in our Christmas letter.” So, I had to explain to that child that “mediocre” is a joke, and the “Awesome” runs deep in the Hale family.

In a former life, Mr. Hale was an intimidating cyclist. Mrs. Hale, in her youth, was a three-sport varsity athlete. Both were straight-A students. Are you feeling the seeds of awe?

The biggest family news is that the local Catholic prep school so desired the presence of the Hale Awesome Train that they offered each of the kids a full-ride scholarship. Now, the formerly pajama-clad home schoolers must rise at the unmerciful hour of 6:30am to prepare for the freezing trip to school. Twice a year Nikole and I are forced to sit through parent-teacher conferences to hear how polite, conscientious, and hard-working our kids are. We just hold up our hands and say, “You don’t have to tell us how awesome they are. It’s genetic.”

Edward by the Aquinas bus

Edward Luke wearing his “Most Awesome 8th-Grader” Medal

Swimming is still the dominant sport in our family, and our kids regularly dominate. When average kids are honing their Xbox skills, the Hale kids are honing their front crawls and flip turns. Helen and Claire both lettered on the high school swim team. Bethany recently qualified for the YMCA State Meet. They are all just getting stronger, more chiseled and… well… awesome. The only un-awesome part of swimming is the constant driving to three different flavors of practice. Sometime after Lydia graduates from high school, we plan to have our first supper together.

Helen

Helen with her birthday cake

The most beautiful 17-year-old in the mid-west. Now she is almost 18.

Helen (17) manages to be awesome on five or six hours of sleep every night. Helen does sports, helps with the school play, and is constantly working on an art project. She hangs out with the church youth group. Helen does well in every school subject, including the very un-artsy subject of math. It is not uncommon for her to be at the table working on an oil painting, and suddenly lean over and say to a sibling, “You gotta use the quadratic formula for that problem.” (What even is that?) I want her to become a professor of mathology, but she has this silly notion that she might go into art. This past summer Helen was a landscaper. She built stone walls. She moved tons of earth with shovel and barrow. She got tan. If Helen could, she would spend all her time painting, drawing and reading books. Helen is my favorite child, because she enjoys going to the coffee shop with me and drinking chai tea. (She drinks the tea. I drink manly coffee.)

Claire

Claire in Festival Foods uniform

Claire getting ready to spread the awesome over Festival Foods. She won’t put the 64-ounce can of beef on top of your bread.

Claire is awesome and thinks all of you who start your paragraphs with something like, “Claire (15)” are lame. So, I will not tell you how old Claire is. Just know that she is somewhere between Helen (17) and Edward (13). She cannot yet drive a car. She is a couple years away from voting. Claire spreads the awesome pretty evenly over her life. She was at the top of the high school swim team. She is number 1 or 2 on the YMCA swim team. Claire enjoys rising before the sun. She showers, eats breakfast, gets beautiful and spends the hour from 6:30-7:30am tapping her foot and saying, “Can we leave for school now?” Though she claims to dislike it, Claire is thriving at high school. She gets excellent grades (except in that stupid class about biology. But who cares about that?). On every third Saturday, Claire works as a bagger at Festival Foods. If Claire were free, she would spend her time reading books, and drawing perfect illustrations of superstars and ballerinas in the margins of her biology notebook.

Edward

Nikole and Edward

This photo was chosen because Claire said Edward looks cute in it. Yes, let the record state that Claire thinks her brother is cute.

Edward (13) is awesome because this year he raced mountain bikes. I need say nothing more. But I will. Edward joined the all-city mountain bike team, training and racing on the ratty, old, used mountain bike his father bought for him. He so distinguished himself that the coach placed him on a loaner Trek Excalibur 6 Hardtail 29er. On the new bike, he quickly rocketed up to the same position he occupied before the new bike… but, man, did he ever look good. Edward made the podium in three of the four mountain bike races and helped the team to place fourth in the state. Edward is awesome in school and gets good grades, but just to keep it real, he gets a C in religion class. If Edward were a free man, he would read books and build Lego creations all day. He hopes to become an engineer and get a job at Lego.

Ruthie

Ruth with her egg drop box.

Having dominated the egg drop competition at school, Ruthie poses with her technology. (That’s right. Three drops from three stories. No sweat.)

Ruthie (10) is awesome because she likes to hang out with her dad. She and I work on social studies homework together. She still likes me to read to her. Ruthie swims on the YMCA team like all the Hale kids. Ruthie began her volleyball career this year — and there are few things more awesome in athletic prowess and volleyball awareness than a fifth-grade volleyball team. (Well, maybe more than a few things.) My greatest hope for Ruthie’s awesomeness is her desire to be on the all-city mountain bike team next year. Before the snow ruined everything, she and I would regularly go on rides in Hixon Forest to train for next year. I can see us now, traveling to mountain bike races together… me consuming coffee and M&Ms in the driver’s seat and her reading out loud to me from the passenger seat. When Ruthie grows up she is going to be a lawyer, “…because they make a lot of money.”

Bethany

Bethany in a kayak

Explorer, Bethany Jane, leaving for a paddle around the lake.

Bethany (8) continues to be awesome in her complete selflessness. She is a sweet child and has so far resisted the Creep training she gets from her siblings. Bethany is responsible. She gets her homework done on time. She, like her sister Claire, enjoys arriving early for school, but unlike her big sister, she does it without the toe tapping and harassment. Bethany cannot spell. When she is not studying for a spelling test, Bethany is playing pretend games with her little sister (that usually involve being clad in swim suits while the wind chill outside is -30°).

Lydia

Bethany with a hen

Farmer girl, Lydia, holding one of her backyard hens.

Lydia (6) is a wildcard. She is very smart, but displays awesome stubbornness. She can read, but she would rather plant her feet, clamp her mouth shut and refuse. Lydia swims competitively, like her older siblings. She plays with her dog. She starts works of art, but seldom finishes them. If Lydia were free, she would play with her dog and move in with her friends across the alley.

The Parental Units

Nikole and Eddie at a lighthouse

Nikole and Eddie celebrated their 20th anniversary in Door County Wisconsin.

Nikole (young) is the same. She runs. She lifts. She rides those silly stationary bikes at the YMCA with the other creatures of the pre-dawn. She cooks for her army platoon. She attends a Bible study. She volunteers at her kids’ schools. She’s, like, awesome. She drives children around a lot. I seldom see her. This fall Nikole went to Uganda with several lady friends to teach women to sew on treadle sewing machines. She also taught the women about human trafficking, hygiene and female things that manly men like me just don’t want to know about.

I am awesome at school, where I teach children to draw with their hands and with computers. I teach them how to build web sites. And the state sends wheel barrows full of cash to my bank. My athletic awesomeness is waning. My only physical activity is walking a very worthless dog every morning. I am sure if I had a few more bicycles, I could find the time to ride them. But my backward-thinking wife believes that seven bikes and a tandem are enough. How could I possibly stay interested with only seven bikes? Not awesome. Because Western Technical College is not big enough to contain my awesomeness, I got a part time job at Duluth Trading Company. No, I am not designing their catalog. I am selling pants and underwear to tradesmen. It is a very fun job. The boss likes nothing better than to see me talking to some old guy about what he does for a living and the proper length of a belt. When I am not teaching or selling extra-extra-extra-large t-shirts, I like to draw. I draw doodles in my journal. And I draw involved illustrations with my classes at school. If I were a free man, I would ride bikes all day and draw dog portraits all night.

Jack the Dog

Jake the dog

Jack hanging at the lake and smelling like a wet dog.

Jack the dog is very consistent. He is very obedient, if you are holding a dog treat. He enjoys running with his mom. He also enjoys mountain biking with his big brother. He really enjoys sleeping.

My editor suggested I include one serious paragraph, and I said, “What do you mean? It’s all serious (except the part about full scholarships to the Catholic school).” So, seriously, we have had a pretty good year. Our little house is still standing. Everyone has at least one bicycle. We are all well fed. We hope your life is ten times more awesome than ours… as if that is even possible. And we hope you have a happy Christmas.

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My Scrape with Death

Me holding a steering wheel and looking terrified

The Build-up

My huge, beautiful, Ford van had loud steering. I took it to my mechanic and he diagnosed it as a failed steering gear box. I said, “At least it is not the rack and pinion.”

The Flashback Scene

You see, my father worked for 30 years at Goodyear. I remember him talking about the great expense involved in a rack and pinion replacement. It sounded like the hip replacement of the car world. When a person’s car was sick, friends would whisper to each other, “I hope it isn’t his rack and pinion.”

Back to the Present

My mechanic said, “That van doesn’t have a rack and pinion. The gear box is its ‘rack and pinion.’ So, my son, you get to experience the great expense you have feared since you owned your first car.” (The last sentence was not spoken, but I know he was thinking it.)

The Boring Part

I had the gear box replaced. Our mechanic is about 10 miles away, so we had trouble finding time to pick up the van. Nikole and I finally had time to pick it up at 5:30am on a Monday.

The Plot Thickens

Driving the van home in the dark, I wondered if there was a little play in the steering wheel. I attributed it to being hypersensitive because of all the money I had just spent. When I drove under a street light, I was surprised to see that, though I was driving straight down the road, the steering wheel was aiming to the right… I mean way to the right. I should have been careening into Lake Onalaska. I decided the mechanic probably forgot to center the wheel.

Later, I made a left turn, and when I straightened the van on the next street, the steering wheel was aiming a little to the left.

Oh Great Brainless One

An intelligent man would have screeched to a halt and run from this possessed vehicle. But, being free of meaningful brain waves, I just kept driving it and wondering.

The Week of Bliss

I called my mechanic and made an appointment to have it looked at the next Friday. I suppose he thought I was a little light on brain waves, or he would have asked me to bring it in right away.

We drove the van all week. Nikole drove it full of little kids and a couple old ladies 50 miles per hour to our Wednesday night church thing. She thought it steered funny.

My Scrape With Death (not really)

On Thursday evening I was driving Edward to the Onalaska YMCA for swim practice. I kept telling him, “This thing is steering really weird.” I turned right and the van hesitated before making the turn. I felt like I had to correct a lot to get it going straight down the next road. (This might be a good time to read the section labeled “Oh Great Brainless One.”)

We drove by my mechanic and I wondered aloud if I should pull in, park, and call Nikole for a ride home. But I didn’t. I dropped him at the Y, and sat in the parking lot wondering what to do. I had dreams of going to Farm Fleet to get chicken food (because I know how to party). But a 65 mile per hour highway lay between me and Farm Fleet. I decided to drive slowly through town to get a cup of coffee and wait for my kid to get done swimming.

I passed the on-ramp to Highway 53, and wondered if I should just chance it. Thinking about how bad that might have been sort of makes me sick. I get the same feeling when I think about the time I almost drowned in Swift Creek.

I got to Panera Bread and pulled into a parking spot. I was not happy with how I was centered between the yellow lines. I inched the van forward and turned the steering wheel to the right. I felt a snap, and the steering wheel became a freewheel. It spun effortlessly as if it were not connected to anything. I rolled down my window and craned my head out to look at the front wheels, and indeed, they did not turn when I spun the steering wheel. I said in my head, “Oh God. What would have happened if this would have broken at 50 miles per hour? Thank you, that it happened in a parking lot.”

A Few Sort of Humorous Parts

I drank coffee in Panera as I waited for the tow truck. I wondered why people were looking at me like some sort of pariah as I swaggered back and forth to the coffee carafe and my table. Finally, I caught my reflection in a window and I was wearing my neon yellow biker jacket. I am sorry. I was layering. I forgot I had it on under my fashionable The North Face coat. I look normal in my neon yellow jacket when I am with 20 of my biker friends on the road, each of us in our own neon jacket. But in Panera, I looked like a freak wearing a street sign.

(Warning: there is a naughty word in this section. Cover the children’s ears) When the tow truck guy arrived, we exchanged the pleasantries usually shared by burly car guys. Then he asked, “What is the problem?”

I said, “It doesn’t steer.”

He asked if he could check it out. He got in, started the engine, and turned the wheel back and forth. He looked at me incredulously (Tow truck guys always do that) and said, “You have steering.”

Rather than give him a lecture on customer service, I just struck a pose like a teen-aged girl, pointed both index fingers at the left front wheel and said, “Yeah, but check it out!”

He stuck his head out the window and turned the steering wheel and said, “Shhhhhit! That sucks.” I agreed in less vulgar terms.

Is It My Mechanic’s Fault?

With mild difficulty, the tow truck guy got my un-steerable van onto his flatbed truck. He delivered it to the mechanic’s now closed shop while I drank coffee and waited for my beautiful wife to come and pick up me and my son.

The next day, I pondered how my mechanic would grovel and apologize for installing a faulty gear box. He would probably offer me free oil changes for life. Then he called and told me it was not the gear box he installed. It was my stupid Pitman Arm.

So, I got to buy a rack and pinion AND a Pitman Arm. My mechanic said that in 30 years of mechanicing, he has never replaced a Pitman Arm. He did not know they could wear out.

So, as usual, I am Mr. Special. The guy who breaks the unbreakable. The guy whose rack and pinion wears out. But at least I’m not the guy who sailed off the road into a cement wall because his steering failed at 65-miles-per-hour.

Soli Deo Gloria!

 

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