An old dog learning new tricks.

Most people who learn how to play an instrument do so when they are young. Instead of doing it at the beginning of my life, I’ve decided to take lessons at the age of 58. What I’ve found most interesting is the reaction I get from friends when I tell them I’m trying to learn how to play the piano.

Some just look at me funny. Others are very supportive. Very few are neutral about my latest attempt at learning something new. I simply tell the doubters that I find it refreshing to tilt at a windmill every now and then.

My grandfather is one of my inspirations. He started taking electric organ lessons in his late 50s, early 60s. His goal was to be able to play Alley Cat, one of his favorite songs. I remember watching him playing it with a big smile on his face. Just thinking back to those private times of sitting next to him while he played puts a similar grin on my face.

One of my sisters didn’t learn to play a guitar until she was in  her 40s. She now plays every week with other musics just for fun. They get together and enjoy the time they have together.

My goals are simple. I don’t plan to perform in recitals or in public.  I just want to be able to play a few Christmas songs by next December. Nothing fancy. Ode to Joy, Jingle Bells and the like will do. Being able to play Happy Birthday for my wife come September would be nice.

So to those who think you can’t teach an old dog a new trick, I say: “Ha!” This old  man plans to make a point to learn something new every day.


Pelicans in a small town

Pelicans have attracted a lot of attention in my small Northern Illinois town. They started showing up about two years ago. As a result, people here have taken a break from talking about sports, politics and the weather to admire these majestic birds.


They gather just below the local dam that supports the local hydraulic power plant. Sometimes there appears to be a large flotilla of them just bouncing in the waves as they wait for a fish to go by. Saw one turn his head sideways, the quickly plunged half its body under water. Just as fast it was back up right with a fish tail sticking out of the bulging pouch.


Later I learned that pelicans will work together when it is time to feed. They will get in a long line on the water and flap their wings to force the fish into shallower water where they can more easily catch them.


Watching them land is an amazing experience. They glide in with webbed feet out to greet the water as they slide onto the surface. I remember watching several of them come in for a landing with two small children. The boy and girl oohed and aahed the way people do while watching fireworks.


Since just watching them was not enough to satisfy my curiosity, I did a quick search. Turns out we’ve attracted the American White Pelican. They can weigh around 30 pounds and their wingspans can reach nine feet. They fly in groups called squadrons, which sounds much more impressive than flocks.


They migrate along the Mississippi River and the town I live in is located on the far Eastern edge of their flight path. They head North in Spring and South in the Fall. Eventually they’ll leave our small town and the local coffee house and restaurants will be filled with talk about the weather, sports and politics. While listening, I will silently hope to see the pelicans return next Fall.


Could only happen in small town

A get-well card came in the mail this past Saturday. Nothing unusual about getting a card from friends, but this one was different. The envelope’s address had my name, the street, city and state. What it didn’t have was my house number. Yet, it arrived just a day after my friend had placed it in a mailbox. My wife found it funny. For me, it brought back memories.

I’ve lived in a large metropolitan area with several million people and in town with a population of only 1,500. Both have their advantages, but I find smaller villages more suited to my lifestyle.

Currently I live in a small rural community in northern Illinois with about 15,000 residents. When the local high school has a sporting or scholastic team do well, a large percentage of the town’s residents turns out to celebrate. During summer nights, children are allowed to play outside until the streetlights come on. Some people even leave their backdoors unlocked while they are away at work.

Fewer people live in small towns today compared to a generation ago. Most of us only get a glimpse of what rural American life is like through Norman Rockwell’s art or during broadcasts of presidential primary races farm states like Iowa and Indiana. Of course there is a reason for the change. Big cities generally have more and better paying jobs than smaller ones.

As a young boy I remember sprinting home to confess to my mother that I had broken someone’s window. Even though I only had to run just two block, I barely reached my mother in time to confess before the phone started to ring. The caller was a woman who was unhappy about the baseball that had gone through her garage window.

Living in places such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles have many advantages. When picking which movie to see, you not only get to choose the time, but also the theater. Where I live, we don’t even have a cinema. When it comes to picking a restaurant, metropolitan areas have small towns beat, hands down.

Despite all of its drawbacks, I still prefer living in a smaller community. Where else could I receive a get well card with an incomplete address?


Gaining a new perspective on disabilities

A recent tumble on ice has given me a chance to learn what it is like to have a disability. Have to admit, the experience has been educational.

About a week ago, I fell on my right knee after slipping on ice. X-rays revealed that I had cracked my kneecap. As a result, I am now in a full leg brace for the next six to eight weeks.

For the past week, I have had to rely on others to do simple things, such as get in and out of cars, put on socks and shoes. Even using the toilet has become a humbling experience. I have the advantage of knowing that I will eventually get past this and be able to do all the things I used to take for granted. For people with life-long disabilities, the need for help with daily activities will never end.

I know someone who has been a wheelchair all of his life. He usually has a quick joke and a smile whenever I see him. I’ve never heard him complain, but now I have a better understanding about what his life must be like. Imagine what it must have been like before businesses and public buildings were required to be handicap accessible. I now appreciate the large bathroom stalls with handrails, and sidewalk ramps that make getting around easier.  

Looking back on 29 years of marriage

In less than two weeks my wife and I will celebrate our 29th wedding anniversary. At a time when it seems like we hear more about marriages failing than succeeding, it is nice to reflect back on our life together. We’ve experienced some highs and lows, but what makes me smile the most are the little things. We had only been married for a few months when I discovered one workday morning that I had no more underwear in the assigned drawer. Not knowing what had happened, I asked my new bride if she had moved them.

“I threw them out,” she replied. “They were way past their prime.”

“You threw them all out?”

“No just the really horrible ones.”

She did have a point. I was in my late 20s and I some of the ones that were now gone were pairs I had worn since I was in high school. Still, here I was getting ready for work and I was missing one of the first item of clothing I would normally put on. The term, “going commando” had not yet become part of our vocabulary.

“So what am I supposed to wear?”

“Either your swimsuit or one of your jogging shorts should work.”

I immediately knew that she had already thought about what I could wear. I was glad my jogging shorts and swimsuit had not been tossed. At time we were living in an apartment. I can imagine what the neighbors were thinking as they listened to us shout back and forth about my underwear.

Even though it has been nearly 30 years since I learned she had no problem throwing my clothes away if she deemed them ratty, I was reminded about the morning early in our morning this past week. I went to my drawer and found I had several new pairs that she had bought to replace some that were now missing. It made me smile.

Another person might have simply told me to go out and buy new ones and get rid of the old ones. Not her. Over the years she would also throwaway ties she didn’t like, socks with holes in them and other items. The reason this makes me smile is because it is one of the little things she does that might seem strange to others. She has somehow managed to be both endearing and annoying in a way that just makes me love her all the more. Yes, we celebrate major accomplishments and milestones. Yet, it is the little things that make her special to me.

Way too many warning labels

Recent articles about the hazard of texting while walking have been popping up in the news lately. Seems that people are so busy staying in touch through texting that they forget where they are strolling and fall or bump into something.

The solution to ending such accidents is to stop, text, hit send and continue on your way. I suppose we could insist that a warning label be placed on phones about the danger. We already have them on a variety of products about how to not use them.

My wife brought this to my attention the other day. A grocery store bag sported a warning about how one should not place it over your head because it could cause asphyxiation. Really? Have we become a society that requires such messages? The answer is yes, we have.

Warnings are showing up on products you would never have thought would need them. A friend told me that wheelbarrow tires now have them to make sure we know they are not to be used on the highway. Really? Has there been a rash of people pushing wheelbarrows down highways that I have somehow missed?

Strollers now have warnings that remind parents to make sure they remove the child before folding. One would think that a parent would notice how difficult it would be to collapse one with someone still inside.

We all know the reason for such labels. We’ve become such a lawsuit happy nation that lawyers are telling clients to put warnings on everything from McDonald’s coffee cups to stove tops. Some of you might remember how a customer sued the fast-food chain after they spilled hot coffee on their lap. I admit that I have at time spilled hot beverages on my lap and ties, but I never thought about suing anyone. If I got mad, it was at myself for being so clumsy.

I guess warning are here to stay. Maybe the next one should say something about how reading labels while walking can be hazardous to your health. 

Remember POW/MIA on Friday

Friday, Sept. 20, will be National POW/MIA Recognition Day in the United States. The event is on every third Friday in September.

For most people, this will simply be another Friday. The last day of the work week. For families who still don’t know what happened to loved ones lost during war time, it is a sober occasion. It is also a time to make the rest of us aware that there are still soldiers who still have not returned home.

As a reporter for a daily newspaper, I was able to cover an event organized by veterans to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Even though the Vietnam War ended several decades before, I met people who still had no idea if their soldier was still alive or not. They came because they still cared and wanted to make sure others could see how important it was to them that they finally learn what happened to their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers.

The number of soldiers who are still unaccounted for is startling. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, we still don’t know what happened to more than 1,640 members of our armed forces who went missing during the Vietnam War. There are still more than 73,000 missing from World War II and more than 7,900 from the Korean War. When you include those who are missing from the cold war and the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars, there are more than 83,300 who are still missing in action or prisoners of war.

The ceremony I attended was in Dixon, Illinois and it was a few weeks before Christmas. A table covered with a white table cloth was set for four to represent the personnel from the army, marines, navy and air force. Candles were handed out and lit. We all sang “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Tears easily flowed from my eyes as I scanned the faces of those attending who were there to remember someone who had never returned.

Even though it has been more than 10 years since I covered the event, I can still see the yearning in the faces of those who simply wanted to know what happened to their family member. The pain and yearning to understand hit me so hard that I could feel what they were going through. I wish them peace and hope that someday they will learn the truth.

If you have a family member who is still missing in action, may God’s peace be with you. I just want you to know that I will never forget.