Commencing to Address

Well, another school year has come to an end and once again I was not invited to give a commencement address.

Yep. As hard as it may be to imagine–and despite all of the time and effort I have spent crafting the perfect message to deliver to all of those impressionable young minds—once again, scores of high school and college students across the country will have attended ceremonies and received their diplomas without having heard a word of wisdom from yours truly.

I am not alone in having been overlooked by graduation planning committees. In truth, not one of my friends or family members has been asked to speak at a graduation ceremony.

Still, it hurts.

And it saddens me to think not only of my own misfortune, but also of what all those young people are missing. Because if I were to deliver a commencement address, you can bet it would not be some run of the mill presentation on long journeys that begin with single steps, guiding lights at the end of long tunnels, or being a force for change—blah, blah, blah.

No. The commencement address I would give would be of a more practical nature, and would focus on possibly the single most important theme of the moment.

Here is an excerpt:

Ladies and gentlemen

As you leave here today with your hopes and heads high and your futures as bright as the mind of the person speaking to you today, I want you to remember one thing:

Use the damn directional signals on your car. Now and forever. For both turning AND for changing lanes.

Most of you are new enough to the driving world that you probably still use them. But at some point, thanks to the poor example set by far too many of your elders, you will stop using them, and then people like me are going to hate you.

The damn things exist for a reason, people, and it has nothing to do with decoration. They serve to improve safety—just like your headlights, taillights, and brake lights.

I know, I know. Brake lights come on automatically when you apply the brakes—thank goodness. And the folks who refuse to use their signal lights probably wouldn’t use their brake lights either if they had to turn a knob or flip a switch before slowing down or stopping. Unless and until they were rear-ended by a middle-aged blonde in an SUV, of course.

So use the damn things. Today and every day. As if your life depends on it—because it may.

The knob or switch that controls your turning signals may seem like optional—or even recreational—equipment. Especially since so few people on the road use them, it may be easy to write the suckers off as accessories. But believe me, turning signals are both important and useful. They suggest to people around you where you intend to go, so folks aren’t surprised when you suddenly move into the lane 3 inches in front of them. They also tell the drivers in the cars around you that the reason you are coming to a grinding halt in front of them is because you want to turn, so they aren’t left to wonder if there is an animal crossing the road or if you simply stopped to take a selfie, and so they’ll know whether to slow down themselves or simply go around you.

It will be tempting to stop using your signal lights. Especially with so many a$$h0le$ out there weaving in and out the lanes around you at warp speed without using their signals to declare their intentions, you may wonder why you should bother. And given all the people who suddenly and without explanation slow down in front of you, you may feel an urge to displace your anger by showing the same lack of courtesy to other drivers. But don’t let them corrupt you. You are better than that.

In an ideal world your signal lights, like your brake lights, would come on automatically the moment you decide to turn or change lanes. But until they build a car that can read your mind—or until Stephen Hawking’s facial movement recognition software becomes standard equipment on all new vehicles and your car can be programmed to turn on your signal lights as you check your mirrors and blind spots—it’s going to be up to you to use your signal lights—and check your %$#@* blind spots.

As you can see, it’s a real winner. It’s just a shame it won’t be heard.




Wisconsin: What’s not to like? (Okay, so there is ONE thing.)

In case you’re new to my corner of the Internet and/or haven’t been following this column for the past three years, the Jarhead and I are relative newcomers to Wisconsin. We moved here in 2009 after relocating about every two or three years for the past twenty-four.

That’s not hyperbole. Take a look at my resume if you don’t believe me. Based on how many jobs I’ve had and in how many states, it would not be unreasonable to wonder if I have a problem with authority or commitment. Or if we’re on the run from the law. Or in the Witness Protection Program.

It’s tempting to think I’m exaggerating. Especially, it seems, for folks who have lived in the same town their entire lives. To them (or you, if you’re among them) the idea of having lived in more than ten dwellings in eight states is daunting if not unfathomable. In fact, the very thought of moving to another HOUSE makes many of them weak in the knees—never mind moving to another city, state or country. So when they find out just how many times we’ve packed and unpacked our stuff and how many homes we’ve had to buy and sell, they tend to get short of breath and start having heart palpitations.

It only gets worse when they find out that we’ve never spent more than one day touring homes before buying one of them, and have always bought one of the first six we’ve seen. Because most of these folks will have looked at between 30 and 60 homes before deciding to buy their first, and those we’ve met who would like to find a different one will already have spent years looking before finally pulling the trigger or giving up the hunt.

Talk about a waste of time. I mean, as much as I love looking at houses on HGTV, I do NOT want to spend days, much less years looking for a place to live. Find me five to ten options, and I am happy to look, compare, and then choose from among them the one that suits me best. Just as I don’t need to see every head of broccoli in the grocery store in order to choose one to cook for dinner, neither do I need to see every house on the market—today, tomorrow, and next week, month or year—in order pick one to live in for the next few years or so.

In fact, never the type to do things half-way (or the easy way, for that matter) we bought our current home—a Midcentury Eyesore, to be exact—before the old one even sold, and started contributing to the local economy by purchasing the tools and materials we would need to fix it up way before we understood everything that needed fixing. In short, we went all in. And we’ve never regretted it.

And why would we? Wisconsin is wonderful. The people here are the most personable in the country.

By that I don’t mean Wisconsinites are nice. Minnesotans are nice. We’ll smile at you and open doors for you, and insist that you take the last of whatever’s available at the sample stand at Cub Foods (which counts as nice EVEN if we know there’s something fresh coming out of the toaster oven in 90 seconds, by the way.) But as many have observed, our niceness seems rather deliberate—as if we want you to like us, if only in passing, or we’re hoping it will stop you from killing or maiming us.

But Wisconsinites aren’t just nice. They’re not necessarily even all that polite. They’re actually very direct and honest which is refreshing—if somewhat disconcerting—to someone who is accustomed to indirect speech and habitual courtesy. More importantly, they’re warm and personable—as if they are really glad to see you.

But it isn’t just the people and their warmth that makes Wisconsin great. Or the cheese. There is also the scenery, the parks, the pace—which is perfectly situated right around brisk but never reaches frantic—and the fresh, clean air. And it probably doesn’t hurt that Milwaukee, Madison, and most of our relatives are close enough to visit but not close enough to see every day.

In fact, about the only downside to living in Wisconsin is having to deal with some really lousy drivers. I say this because among these warm and personable people dwell some of the most confounding operators of motorized vehicles I have encountered in my life. Chief among my complaints in this regard are those who underutilize their directional signals; those who turn right or left or go straight from the wrong lane; and those who can’t seem to fully grasp the purpose of a passing lane.

Of these, the underuse of turning signals is the least infuriating. Sure, it’s frustrating when the driver in front of you starts to brake for apparently no reason when you’re going 55 on an open road—especially in broad daylight—and continues braking past four or five possible turns before simultaneously putting on his or her signal and executing a left. But it’s not as bad as getting into the left lane behind a sedan whose driver decides only after the light has turned green that he/she would like to turn right, forcing you to sit idle as he/she waits for traffic to clear so he or she can switch lanes while kicking yourself for taking that route in the first flipping place. And while it can be annoying to sit at a stop sign waiting for a vehicle coming from the left to pass only to have it suddenly, and—again—without signaling—turn onto the very same street you are on; this pales in comparison to almost being fatally injured because a driver chose to come straight through an intersection from an oncoming lane that is designated for left turns only.

Most confounding of all, however, are the drivers who view passing lanes—those rare and beautiful features of the rural landscape that were designed, I’m sure, to preserve the collective sanity by making it possible for one to overtake slower drivers on single lane roads without risking life and limb—as their own personal race tracks. On virtually every trip I’ve made between southeastern Minnesota and the Fox River Valley I have become an unwitting competitor in a drag race against someone who had been driving sub-50mph for the better part of the previous hour.

Maybe that’s why they’re so friendly in person; they’re making up for that fact that, behind the wheel, they’re dangerous.

It bears mention here that not all Wisconsinites are bad drivers, and even those who are don’t count among the world’s worst. Having lived on both coasts and in Italy, I can attest that this distinction belongs to suburban Philadelphians. Technically, suburban Neapolitans are just as bad, but they’re sexier with it. Like leather and miniature cars, vehicular incompetence just looks better on Italians.

A significant difference—besides the languages—between bad drivers in here and those near Philly and Naples is that you expect Neapolitans and Philadelphians to be bad drivers. Around Philly—where some have raised rudeness to an art form—bad driving is but one aspect of a general lack of courtesy. I won’t pretend to understand this since Philly is supposed to be the City of Brotherly Love, but it goes a long way toward explaining why someone will cut you off and flip you the bird for being in the way in the first place.

In the case of Naples, bad driving is also an aspect of the general approach to life. Although they are not a rude people, Neapolitans are impatient and intensely competitive, and this translates into what looks like rudeness to Americans (especially Minnesotan-Americans.) Not wanting to wait their turn, they will cut in front of you not only on the road but also in line at the store—and attack you verbally if you attempt to stop them or return the favor.

It is with this in mind that I am so profoundly confounded by some of the drivers in Wisconsin. Given how genuinely warm and friendly they are in person, I’m at a loss to explain the utter lack of sense, awareness and courtesy they show behind the wheel. It’s positively fascinating—in a circus side show, or Unsolved Mysteries kind of way.

Still, if being surrounded by bad drivers is the price you pay to live here, I can accept that—although apparently not quietly.

Road Trippin’ 2015

For the second time in two years, I set aside my fears and phobias this month, and agreed to accompany the Jarhead on week-long adventure to parts heretofore unknown to us. Although this trip did not involve Canada or the Rockies—unless you count flyovers—like our 2013 journey, it did carry an element of risk to mind, body, and soul.

But nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say. So rather than sitting at home waiting for death to find me in the pool, in the tub, or at my desk, I crossed my fingers, tossed my hiking boots into a suitcase—along with enough clothes to impress both Ginger AND Mrs. Howell—and headed north to Alaska by way of Minnesota.

To be fair, much of the trip was not unknown to us, as it began with a six hour car ride from Oshkosh to Minneapolis. If you think 6 hours is an excessive amount of time drive a distance that would ordinarily take only 4 ½, you would be correct and can therefore cancel any plans to have your head examined. If instead of your own mental wellbeing you were concerned with our driving and/or navigational skills, it should ease your mind to learn that we took the scenic route.

Yep, for reasons known only to him, the Jarhead decided he wanted to take his time and travel to the Twin Cities by way of Tomah, La Crosse, and Rochester. Although he will deny it, I suspect he chose I-90 over I-94 for the simple fact that he has travelled the I-94 route—back and forth—twice since Memorial Day and simply wanted a change of pace.

As long as we were taking the circuitous route, we decided to drop in on a good friend of mine whose house stands but a mile or two off of the highway between Rochester and Minneapolis. As I expected, we caught her a bit off guard, but as it had been months since we had seen each other, I felt it would be worth surprising her even if she was already in her pajamas. And, oh, how I would love to provide a photo of that moment she warily opened her front door! But since I don’t want that visit to be the LAST time she speaks to me, you’ll just have to imagine how shocked she was to find us on her porch. (Sorry, T. Lo!)

From there we continued on our trip to Minneapolis where, the next morning, we took an unforgettable trip down memory lane on our way to the airport. This seemed a fitting way to begin our journey since the Jarhead and I recently celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary, and because apart from Oshkosh, the longest we have lived in any one location over the course of our three decades together was the three and a half years we spent in the Twin Cities.

We started this segment of our trip with a drive by Lake Nokomis. Lake Nokomis figures prominently in our lives since it is where my friend LaVon and I used to spend hours walking and, later, pushing babies in strollers. Although it is also where my mother’s relatives used to hold their family reunions when I was a kid, it is probably better known to my immediate family as the place where El Noble learned to ride a two wheeler in April of 1991, and where he subsequently found himself up to his chest in ice-cold water about a half an hour later.

From Lake Nokomis, we continued north toward Lake Street. Along the way, we spent twenty minutes looking for the duplex where we lived for about a year—since neither of us could recall the address—and another ten discussing what was different about it and why it had taken us so long to find it. We also paid a visit to the four-unit brownstone we lived in before moving to the duplex, and the building next door where LaVon lived when we first moved there. These two were much easier to find owing to the fact that we remembered they were situated on 11th Avenue somewhere between Powderhorn Park and 38th street.

After another discussion about the changes we observed to the two structures and the neighborhood, we continued north to Lake Street and followed it east toward St. Paul in search of the big old Victorian whose second floor we occupied when the Princess was conceived. As was the case with our first two former dwellings, we had to circle the neighborhood a few times because we couldn’t recall the street address.

Although it still took us longer to find it than we expected, the task was made easier by the fact that we knew it was located at the corner of its block on Marshall Avenue, a few blocks west of Snelling. Even with that much intel, we still missed it the first two times we passed it and, due to the volume of traffic in the area, did not have the chance to get a good look. Thus, we could neither assess nor admire it as we discussed all of the memories we had of the place. Even without the benefit of the visual aid, however, we had a pretty good laugh recalling the time El Noble came to us crying after discovering that, unlike his friends who lived downstairs, he was not African American.

Having visited our fourth Twin Cities residence only six or so years ago—and lacking the time to travel there and back before we needed to be at the airport—we decided to forego a drive to Windom Gables and headed for the highway. From there, it would be a short drive to the terminal, an even shorter walk to security, followed by a LONG walk to the gate, and an even longer flight—to Anchorage…

Birthday Boy

Twenty-seven years ago today, in a place that no longer exists, a bouncing baby boy was born. That place was the naval hospital at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina, and the boy was my son, whom readers know as El Noble. The naval hospital has long since been demolished and rebuilt in a different location on board MCAS Cherry Point. El Noble has not been rebuilt, but thanks to his father’s occupation, he has been relocated roughly 15 times.

Weighing in at 10 pounds, 3 ounces, El Noble was the second largest baby born at that facility that month. Surpassed only by the 11 pound, 2 ounce toddler born the day before him, nearly everyone predicted he would become a football player. As is his habit, he went his own way and opted instead to play soccer, baseball, and tennis.

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Given his precociousness, his choice of sports, and his nomadic lifestyle, one might say that El Noble has always been a man on the move. Before he was old enough to ride a bike, my dad and two brothers chipped in and bought him a battery powered Jeep for his birthday in 1989.

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That Jeep was a great source of pleasure to him before it was stolen from our garage a year or so later. It was also a great source of pain to his sister, Princess Primrose, who—although she never saw it in person—to this day feels cheated for having never had a battery powered Jeep of her own.

Later on, El Noble would fill the hole left in his heart by the stolen battery powered Jeep by purchasing a used gas powered Jeep with money he saved working summers for one of the uncles who gave him the first Jeep. His sister, meanwhile, attempted to fill the hole left in her heart by her lack of a battery powered Jeep by purchasing a used convertible with money she saved working at Fleet Farm, but she’s still not over it.

In between his first and second cars, El Noble kept himself very busy. In addition to youth and high school sports, he amused himself by scaring me to half to death. In truth, the terror I felt was almost always a self-inflicted wound, as I was the one who allowed and often encouraged him to spread his wings. It was I, for example, who in April of 1992 agreed to let my friend LaVon teach him to ride a bike by ripping off his training wheels with her bare hands and pushing him repeatedly along the path that surrounds Lake Nokomis.

Don’t ask me why I agreed to this. My only defense is that I was pregnant with the Princess at the time, and wasn’t thinking clearly. Especially when Von laughingly asked, as he neared the boat ramp several yards ahead of us after having mastered the task of remaining upright on two wheels, “Wouldn’t it be funny if he lost control when he hit that boat ramp and rolled headfirst into the lake?” For instead of kicking her in the shins or running—okay, waddling fast—to catch up to and prevent my first born child from plunging into the ice cold waters of Lake Nokomis, I laughed right along with her. That is, until he hit the boat ramp, lost control, and rolled headfirst into the lake. As per her promise, LaVon went in after him. She also gave him her dry jacket and happily absorbed all the vitriol he unleashed upon her for laughing at his misfortune.

It was also a self-inflicted wound when I agreed to let him run one of the confidence courses at Quantico. Like any good and crazy mother, I went along and watched with bated breath as the boy climbed and jumped over wood, metal, and cement obstacles with only sand or asphalt to cushion his fall. His dad was there to catch him this time, thankfully, but in truth, the only one who needed help and encouragement to get through the ordeal was me.

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You might think I would have learned from those experiences what my heart could and could not take. But no.

Which is why, in 1995, I let him go white water rafting on the Arkansas River with LaVon and her husband. (It bears mention here that LaVon tends to figure prominently in many of El Noble’s adventures. I can’t go into all of them now since various statutes of limitations may not have expired, but the next time you see him, feel free to ask what it’s like to outrun the police to avoid a speeding ticket, or how one should handle being questioned by federal marshals at a national landmark.)

At any rate, believing the distraction of a baby and three preschoolers would keep me too busy to worry about El Noble, I stayed back at the campsite with the Jarhead and the Princess, and agreed to keep LaVon’s two daughters and infant son safe and warm while she took my child down a raging river in what was basically a giant flat balloon. He came back to camp alive and in one piece, despite having been bounced out of the raft a time or two. By all accounts, he had the time of his life—which is what it’s all about—or so I keep telling myself.

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There was talk back then about him becoming a Navy SEAL or working as a search and rescue helicopter pilot. That was on top of him getting a driver’s license and a real Jeep—and going to homecomings and proms. That was when I stopped listening and started drinking heavily.

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I’m kidding of course. But it would be a lie to say I wasn’t relieved when he got into the hospitality business and later became a real estate agent. And it’s fitting that he is making a career out of helping people buy and sell homes. He has enough experience at moving to qualify as an expert, and has watched us buy and sell enough properties to know how to handle almost anything that comes his way.

That’s not to say I’ve stopped worrying about him. Especially when words like kayaking, skydiving, and motorcycle come out of his mouth, my heart just wants to stop.

But he’s 27 now. Today, in fact. So it’s probably time to cut the apron strings.

Shame I’ve hidden all the scissors.