Letter From Home “New Perch” 6/19/20

James and I could never have known a year ago how important it would be to finalize the purchasing of the rest of our home and then commence on the restoration, refurbishing, and updating that took place through the fall.  We were ecstatic that the pieces all fell into place last summer with the sale, and the electricians and folks with skills were available to make the needed changes.  The pandemic which struck this winter and has carried through into the heat of June means the additional space is of utmost importance.

I never had a treehouse as a child, and would not necessarily term the second-floor balcony as such.  However, being up among the nearby trees, green leaves, and strong branches does give me a sense of what many a child might have called a playhouse. The birds which dart about and land on the wooden sides of the balcony, while chirping incessantly does give a feeling of being in ‘their territory’. From time to time a hawk will arrive on one of the large branches of a terrace tree looking for lunch.  Sparrow type birds are always enjoying pecking around in the rain gutters, and orioles have nested somewhere near as they are always flitting about.

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A year ago the balcony was in dire need of repair and refurbishing. Following power washing and some replacements, we applied wood preservative. The two coats of white primer followed by two coats of New England Blue gave it that look and feel that was truly required.  In the previous summers we had sat on the lawn and participated with all those who pass by our corner lot, but with the virus about, and too few people adhering to the advice of medical professionals, we have moved our ‘outdoor space’ to the new balcony.  Still with a view of the lake and ample sun means that we have adapted to a new normal.

And there are new pleasures.

Today the catalpa tree is in full bloom on one end of the balcony. The humidity and closeness of the air allowed for the perfumed aroma of the blooms to hang and linger about.  I do not recall another season of these blooms to have been as fragrant, or as remarkable, as this one.  In part, that is due to being so much closer to the blooms and also having a truly humid day to hold the aroma around the house.  I noted even the neighbors were enjoying the scented blooms as they sat and talked.

Of those who live in my area, and that I chat with, not one has taken to eating restaurant food or getting caught up with the gleeful delusion that many of our fellow Madisonians seem too willing to be caught up in.  We know that the pandemic of 1918 was followed by 1919.  There were three serious blows at that time from the virus.  We are not even finished with the first round in the nation as I write this post.

Therefore it is incumbent upon those who decide to be safe to find places where life can continue.  And when that spot is found smiles will follow.

I write with the afternoon smile still on my face.

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Letter From Home “Togetherness” 6/3/20

Anna, the oldest woman in our neighborhood lives kitty-corner to us, remaining the quiet and reserved person I have known her to be since moving into our home.  She has lived her roughly 90 years in this area, and still speaking fluent Greek, refers to James and me with our Greek names.  Her husband, from an arranged marriage as done in ‘the old country’, just calls us “the boys”.  That homey expression always sounds comforting, and also seems to fit with my inner kid who has never grown up.

Anna was weeding her always bright and cheerful front garden beds as I mowed this week. Seeing her bent over pulling the weeds as the scent of freshly cut grass wafted about made me smile.  And think back over the decades to dad mowing back home at the same time mom would be making her flower beds free of weeds; looking good for the folks who drove up and down our country road in Hancock.

Sam and Anna have the type of marriage Paul Harvey would have given notice to on his radio broadcasts years ago. Strong, durable, based on common connections and a lifetime of shared memories.  As my mower was turned and headed back down the terrace James came into view, wearing thick gloves as he removed a few wayward rose shoots that had ventured off from the main plant.  His five-gallon pail was full of all sorts of weeds and clippings.   As I mowed, listened to music, and took in the sights while turning up one way on the lawn and terrace and then down another, I am sure a smile crossed my face.  No one could see it as I wore a mask.  But this is the life I always wanted.

In my late teenage years, and with firmer understanding in my early twenties, I knew I wanted a stable relationship, a home life that reflected parts of what I knew growing up, and a shared experience with someone who was truly interesting.  Unlike my siblings, I had many years for a dating life.  My brother got married soon after high school and my sister at age 25. They both moved within miles of the family home.  I sensed their resentment about my being free; following my dreams and moving away from the rural area of our youth.

Any gay person fully understands why we move away from rural communities. Let us count the reasons!  But for me, there was also the need to be caught up with new ideas and able to experience exciting opportunities that only a large metropolitan area provides.  For instance, John Dean of Watergate fame never visited my hometown.

By the time I met James I was secure with who I was and ready for the life I have known for the past twenty years.  We had our anniversary during the shelter in place orders as the pandemic continued.  We discussed the years that passed, my hairline that slipped away, and in so doing underscored why laughter is an essential ingredient in any lasting relationship, and why mutual priorities about life are key to decades of togetherness.

As gay teens, we were not sure the lives we wanted to live were attainable.  There was nothing to suggest for him in Maine, or me in Wisconsin, that it would be acceptable or even safe to live authentically.  So much has changed in recent decades, and from a historical point of view, it happened in a short time—though for me it never felt fast.  That desire for family life, the front lawn, neighbors, and just ‘being ordinary’ was so real and strong that now having it means we do not take it for granted.

I took the turns back and forth with the mower while scanning James, our home, the lady across the street, and meshed that all with the memories, dreams, and unknowns from over the years. When all is said and done, at the end of the day, there is nothing more meaningful or delightful than togetherness.

Letter From Home “Making It Through” 5/2/20

The past few months have been a historic stretch for the world.  As I write this blog post we are nearing 65,000 deaths in the United States from COVID-19. Though we get up each day and know we have lived months of this crisis, there also at times are fleeting sensations that at some point we will just wake up from this nightmare. This can not possibly be real!  Others seem in denial and tell us that in time we all will just get back to normal.

We are not going to wake up from this, as if from a horrible dream, nor will we revert to living our lives as if this was last May.  Everything is different and will be for years.  Just as we can no longer, following 9/11, saunter into an airport and watch planes land with our loved ones on board, so there will be massive changes to how we live our lives as a result of this pandemic.

The weight of this crisis is overwhelming.  The misery and trauma from emergency rooms where nurses took video for national newscasts, to the refrigerated storage trucks that held an ever-growing number of corpses gripped us all.  We witnessed the implosion of the economy with statewide mandated shutdowns where tens-of-millions of workers were left stranded from their next paycheck.

I am by nature a very upbeat person, one that looks for a way to see how things can work out.  When hearing news of someone being sick I always ask about the appetite of the one under the weather and point out that having a desire for this-or-that food item is a good sign. When things are a bit more difficult, due to illness, I make the recommendation for a potato soup as it is perfectly suited for such times.  I just always have a need to let others know there is a reason to smile.  It is part of my DNA.

But there was no way to self-apply that same mental uplift for me over the past weeks.  Being a news junkie I had to keep up to date on events, had to check on the latest headlines countless times over the course of a day.  But I was not able to turn my feelings into energetic walks of the type we would normally engage in at the end of each day.  There was no lawn to mow or holes to dig for a tree or new plant.  I was mostly taking in the images and awful news reports and having no way to release my emotions which ranged from sadness to outright anger at how the national government failed our citizens.

It was then I made a determined effort to pull myself away from the news for the bulk of each afternoon, and instead put my attention into the life and times of Winston Churchill.  I juggled two books about his incredible life and also his masterful touch during the pulling of his nation together during the 50-plus day bombing by Germany.  The horrors of the bombing might seem an odd tonic in an attempt to lighten the stress of COVID-19, but I knew that Churchill prevailed.  That was what mattered the most to me.

There is no way to write about the man and not have countless stories that provide a fascinating view of his multi-dimensional persona.  In both (The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson and Churchill: Walking With Destiny by Andrew Roberts) the authors left this reader laughing, such as when Churchill goes up on a roof to watch an air battle and took a seat on a chimney.  With a cigar in his mouth, he was watching and learning.  Soon, however, someone came up to ask if he might move as he had sealed the chimney and smoke was backing up into the building.

It was that story that left me not only smiling but also adding it to my mental list of other historical tidbits.  And then the idea struck me.

Over the past weeks, some people have used their stay at home orders to try new recipes and let us all watch.  Others have read a poem each day, or told a couple jokes, or introduced us to a new word.  With my need to focus on something new, and others clearly demonstrating how to use social media at this time, and with Winston’s latest smile in mind, it became clear to me.

I made a list of the stories shared with others who dined at our home or sat with us on the lawn. If you have come into this orbit you are sure to hear at least one amusing story from history before leaving.  After my list was made I did a bit of research to round out the story on an event or person.

Then I worked at making the 60-second videos.  It proved to be the tonic I was seeking at this time.  Through much of my life when adrift due to one cause or another, I have always found my anchor to be in a good book…..or a pile of them.  So it was with this project, as the stories all were accumulated from the pages I have turned over the decades.

Mental and emotional healing will take time for us all.  No one can just ‘move forward’.  We all have been impacted in ways that we have yet to grasp.  The medical world has been assaulted and will require funding and efforts to make sure they have counseling for their profession.  Families who lost loved ones will wonder why it happened in the fashion it did,  and workers will need to find ways to work in an environment of masks and self-distancing.

For me, the product of my path forward was in 60-second segments of great historical people doing amusing things that deserve to be told again and again.  The release of these videos will continue weekdays for the duration of Wisconsin’s shutdown order.  An executive order I very much support.

I trust that my readers each find their way to deal with, and heal from, all that has been seen and felt over the past months.

Letter From Home: “Hope” 4/3/20

It goes without saying there need to be moments in each of our personal lives that are truly uplifting in order to sustain us for the pandemic headlines that are simply dreadful.  This morning I awoke to the news from New Orleans, and it rips at the heart.  There are no words to adequately sum up the feelings of seeing so many infected and dying in one of our historic cities.

I ate a late breakfast Thursday, read the papers, had coffee and once fortified with carbohydrates and news of the day took to the lawn to continue springtime work.  Such activity allows my mind to calm down.  With my mp3 player lifting my spirits and putting a sprint in my steps the small tasks of the day were soon accomplished.  James and I had a splendid and productive outing.

In this time of self-distancing, we now call a productive outing escaping to the lawn, flower beds, and area surrounding our home.  It is there that today we saw the exact opposite of what greeted us all when waking and turning on the news.  The new growth, small colorful blooms, rabbits about to give birth, daffodils just hours from showcasing their grandeur, robins tracking worms and carrying off dead grass for home-building, and a sun that rises higher and warms more deeply.  All those things I noted.

But they were more than noted, but rather allowed to really enter my senses and take hold.  I did not just glance at things but stared for a while at new blooms.  I even bent to the ground to find if the scilla had a scent.  They did not but the ground had a moist mulch-like smell.  In this time when it appears that the earth has wobbled on its axis, it seems essential to slow down and take stock of what we are appreciative of and note it.

There is no way to predict what is to happen tomorrow let alone make plans for August or the fall.  The big plans in life are on hold.   Folks wonder now about how to get groceries safely and make sure they have plastic gloves in the car so not to touch the gas nozzle when at the service station.

But even with so much that we are scared by, and stressed over concerning the headlines there is also hope to be seen, if we just look for it.  But once seeing it we also need to take the time to allow it to enter into our being.  The new flower shoots and animal activity give us a lesson that we need to grasp now more than ever before, as we have never in our lifetime lived an event as we are now doing.

But there is always hope.  We may not think we see it right now.  But the blooms that now appear were from plants under crunchy snow only weeks ago, and the rabbits were huddled under bushes trying to make it through bitterly frigid nights.  They are small examples of hope, perhaps.  But they convey a big and important message.

There is hope.  There is always hope for tomorrow.

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Letter From Home “Self-Isolating With Winston Churchill” 3/26/20

All residents of Wisconsin, along with millions around the nation, are finding ways to self-distance and remain safe during this pandemic.  I assume that for some people being in the basement in a workshop, or gathering ingredients from the pantry and baking, or pulling out the sewing machine and starting on a project are perfect ways to be creative while adhering to governmental orders so to curtail the virus.

As for myself, the perfect place for self-distancing can be found on the third floor of our home in a window seat. It is almost as if when this floor was built the dimensions were made specifically for me.  I can sit for long stretches of time with a book in hand and hot coffee in a cup nearby and feel perfectly at home.  Unless there is a vehicle without a muffler, or someone slamming garbage can lids, there is no outside noise to be heard. With no phones upstairs there is no one to call and disturb the peace.

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All my life I have found the reading nooks which have been cocoons of sorts, insulating me from the world noise and the stresses of life. This current spot is also a cocoon from the virus that has spread far too widely, not only in Madison, but around the country.

Sitting under a very large oak tree on the front lawn of my Hancock home, while I was a boy, started my love of finding the right place to read the right book. I discovered Ian Fleming and the adventures of James Bond under that tree back as a boy, and throughout my life I have worked to locate those perfect places for reading whether it was an apartment I was renting, or now the home that James and I own.

The other night as I sat here in this window seat a rather heavy rain was falling on the isthmus. And I again rejoiced in the soothing sounds as the drops hit against the windows and plopped down on the roof. For many years when living in an apartment that sound had been denied to me.  But once we bought the top two floors of this house the sound of my boyhood, when the skies open up, can again can be thoroughly enjoyed.

Today I am reading about Winston Churchill and throughly enjoying his profoundly funny and perfect comedic timing in the delivery of his lines, either when spoken in the House of Commons, in a diary entry. Churchill: Walking With Destiny by Andrew Roberts is simply a brilliant book.  I am reading Chapter 14, the years of the Great Crash and the economic implosion.

Churchhill has told a friend that his sole consolation over the Dardanelles disaster was “that God wished things to be prolonged in order to sicken man-kind of war, and that therefore he had interfered with a project that would have brought the war to a speedier conclusion”. Churchill was deeply involved with that military operation, and it was a colossal failure.  His opining on God’s role in it was really quite wickedly funny.  Churchill also declared that the existence of the Almighty could be deduced by “the existence of Lenin and Trotsky, “for whom a hell is needed”.

The author also describes how on September 21, 1929, when Churchhill is taking a three-month tour of Canada and the United States, he will meet Charlie Chaplin at a large party.  Chaplin was perhaps the most famous actor in the world at the time and despite his support for communism, which he absolutely abhorred, Churchill got on very well with him. It is just yet another example of how Churchhill was not allowing politics to prejudice friendship.

Charlie Chaplin will visit Chartwell, the wonderful home of Churchill in Britain, in 1931. Churchill’s children managed to persuade him to do his boiler hat and walking stick routine. Churchill asked Chaplin what role he was playing next and Chaplin answered Jesus Christ.  Churchill quips, “Have you cleared the rights?”

Winston Churchill often found himself at the center of historic moments throughout his entire life, and so it probably comes as no surprise he will actually be on Wall Street on Black Thursday.  The very next day from directly under his window in the Savoy Plaza Hotel a man will throw himself 15 stories down to the pavement causing as Churchill reported “ a wild commotion and the arrival of the fire brigade”.

We all need to find our sources of strength during this pandemic. We need to find our outlets so we can continue to be challenged with ideas, moved by humor, and filled with optimism. History books often allow for all that to happen and we can do ourselves a great deal of good by stepping back away from the news, from time to time, and entering a world of books.  Learning new things and understanding that there is always a better tomorrow. We can get through this pandemic. Stay safe.

Find your special place and turn the pages.

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Letter From Home “State Street Without People” 3/19/20

I have been watching the oil markets, and local gasoline prices, and decided that late tonight it would be a good time to fill up our car. We have not been driving, as of late, given the pandemic situation, but it goes without saying that having a full tank in the car just in case something happens is a wise move.  In fact, we have not been out and about other than neighborhood walks since Monday afternoon.

As James and I left our driveway and traveled along the streets there was one word that came to mind. Surreal.

There were so few cars on the streets it felt like back home in a small town. Almost all the businesses are shut,  the bars and restaurants dark, one of the large Walgreen stores closed because not so far away there is an even larger one, and that’s the one which remains open for people to do their business.

As we drove along I noticed some service stations had gasoline for $1.87 and I saw even one BP station selling gas for $1.79.  The prices are low but it goes without saying there are not a lot of places to be driving.  Unless you’re going for Sunday type drives.

Which I think will be coming back as people will want to get out and do something and just traveling out into the country and going somewhere might come back into fashion. Something that our parents and grandparents used to do and relish on the weekends back when they were raising families.  There will be no stops for chats with friends or popping in for dinner anywhere but the traveling and sightseeing might just feel good after being homebound.

Just a couple of blocks from our home, as we left our driveway and decided which direction to proceed, I heard the train whistle off in the distance and soon the flashing red lights of the tracks ahead of us were beckoning.  We came to a stop but we could have easily passed in front of the train and made it without any problem.  But why?  We put the window down and listened to the rumble of the train.  It seems quaint, and perhaps old fashioned to say such an event was rather fun.  I put an arm out the window and made the down motion which the conductor saw.  He waved and let a long horn blast out into the foggy night.  About 35 cars passed on the tracks and then I lost count.

After getting our tank full (while wearing plastic gloves and then discarding them) we proceeded up East Washington and around Capitol Square.  I saw exactly two people, both of them were homeless and hunkered down in a position near one of the benches. But other than that there was nothing to be seen.  Every business was dark.  It was desolate looking.

But it was looking down State Street, from the Capitol towards the University of Wisconsin, that stunned me.  There was nothing on the street to be seen. Not a bus,  Not a person, or biker.  The entire street was nothing like I have ever before seen.  

It was surreal.

I know there are countless scenes around the nation which can vie with what we saw tonight, and many more to be racked up as he head into the worst of this pandemic.  But if we can find the train whistle and a friendly conductor we will make it through this time.

Letter From Home “Living History” 3/13/20

Several years ago, a longtime friend from my days in radio broadcasting, reflected how we had witnessed so many truly amazing new stories in our lifetime. Both of us had grown up during the years of Watergate.  Though we were small boys we still had memories of Richard Nixon resigning from the White House.  But in our adult years we had witnessed the Challenger explosion, a traumatic event for the entire nation. Then we recalled the 2000 election which was decided by the United States Supreme Court.

There was President Clinton’s impeachment process, the bombastic 2016 election, the truly bizarre years of Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House, and then his impeachment proceedings.  Now we are experiencing a pandemic, a  virus that is impacting every aspect of society.

As a news junkie, and a politico, I do try to keep up on the world. But for the past 48 hours it has been almost impossible to stay current with the news stories, and now cancellations, regarding all parts of our society.

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers has called for the closing of all state schools.  Dane County  has demanded that any venue with 250 people or more be closed. Broadway shows in downtown Madison have been canceled, and all music venues in the city shuttered for the next number of weeks. To say this is unprecedented would be a most absurd understatement. We are living history.

About a week ago James and I knew with the rate of increase of the coronavirus it would certainly impact the city in which we live. It was then we decided to do, what we call ‘pantry shopping’, a couple-hour spree where  loading up on the essentials occurs.  We do such a trip to a large grocery store about every 8 months, and in so doing,   James, who is nothing short of a chef, has all he needs to create meals from our freezers and shelves. The last thing we desire to do is eat out at a time of such uncertainty.  And to undermine the whole rationale of remaining apart from others so to limit the spread of the virus.  In so doing the effort will aid in not overwhelming our medical communities.

As we joked with other people on social media we had stocked up on coffee, wine, and enough books to last for many weeks. In fact, we had joked perhaps the most important item on our list was to make sure plenty of books were available that would meet our interests.

Two nights ago, when the news started to become rather intense, I selected one of those guilty pleasure reads, and started to turn the pages. The book Sycamore Row, by John Grisham, was the perfect tonic as the news stories were alarming, facts were distressing, and a general mood of deep concern settled over the land.  The fictional account from Ford County, a place made so famous by Grisham, allowed for real escapism.

While most of my reading enjoyment has always been about history I am finding a certain comfort in the fast storytelling of Grisham, knowing that the lawyer at the heart of the story will come out as a winner and successful on the closing pages. It is, after all, good to be assured that Grisham books always end on a high note.

Meanwhile, the historical news story playing out with this pandemic can not be cast with any degree of certainty as to how it ends. There is no way to predict the next news cycle, the duration of the virus, or the devastation that it will leave in its wake.

All we know is that this is a moment in time which will be recorded by historians, read about by future generations, and reflected on long after this event has passed away. How leadership is demonstrated by our government officials, and how we as individuals conduct ourselves during this arduous time in our country will be long recorded and remembered.

Let us do our part to make sure the written accounts of this time cast us in a credible light, as we worked with a unified effort to care for each other.

Letter From Home “Evie’s Step” 1/16/20

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Several years ago a four-old girl was at our home as her mom and younger brother were driven to the emergency room by James.  The boy had scalded his mouth on a hot tea and so while the little guy was being taken care of by a doctor I came up with a way to keep a child content.

By making cookies!

As I was getting mixing bowls and ingredients assembled on the kitchen table the little girl runs into the room and asked me if I had a ladder.

Sure I do, but then with a pause asked her why she needed a ladder.

With seemingly perfect comic timing she said: “Without a ladder, I can not get up on your bed to jump around”.

She clearly had everything thought out.  While the bed is king-size, and surely must have looked like a perfect playground to her mind, I found it just as easy to track her attention to the baking that we were about to undertake.

I thought of that memory this week as I came home from out-patient surgery.  The bed was made by Robert, James’ dad, back when he and his twin sister needed a new place to sleep.  That was also the Christmas where Santa bought the carpenter a router.  With two drawers on each side along with bookshelves, and then a large headboard for more books and space for a radio, it is truly a grand piece of furniture.  There is no doubt as to why a small girl thought jumping upon it would be a great experience.

Several years ago Robert crafted the two beds together as one in Maine.  We had it shipped to Madison.  When moving it into our home, one thing was for certain.  It is so heavy that should the wind-of-the-century blow I plan to rope myself to it with the assurance of not being carried off.  It took a number of local beefed-up college guys from the neighborhood to help carry it in.

But the bed is also higher than most and when one sits upon it there is no way to have your feet touch the floor.   I have joked often that a running start is the best to land in bed.  Before my surgery, I had wondered how to achieve that without pulling on my two incisions.

That is when I thought of Aunt Evie.

To assist with getting in and out of her vehicle, where she was always a passenger, her husband had made a wooden step.  I knew it would be just the right height needed for a few days at our home—and after checking out on-line items knew it would be far more economical, too.  Evie passed away last spring, and so I asked if I could use it.

James thought it needed to be stained a dark color to match the rest of the bedroom and this week it has been used—with much appreciation each time.  Though I have no pain whatsoever from the operation, the ouch factor of soreness is pronounced.  Without the step, I am not sure how I would get up and down from the bed.

But here is the best part of the story.  I very much enjoy having items of memory and nostalgia around me from family.  James has the same type of feelings for such things. Most of the items falling into that category are things to look at and talk about when others are here.  Or just sit back and reflect upon when alone.

But Evie’s step is a utilitarian object which has really made a difference for me.  When this health issue can be seen only in a rearview way we have a special place for her step on the third floor to be used as a plant stand.    I am sure Evie would smile.

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