Wide Awake and Feeling Mortal
The second sign came at one of my son’s Bantam hockey tournaments, when I found myself engaged in a spirited conversation about blues music and swing dancing with a lovely single lady. As I was looking for a segue to say, “How about a cup of coffee?”, Calvin’s defensive line-mate crashed the party like a hip-check into the boards:
“Hey, Grandma, thanks for coming to our game,” as he gave her a hearty hug.
The first sign was far more emasculating.
Calvin and Paige screamed, “Higher, Daddy!” as I pushed them on the swing set at St. Paul’s Elementary school. I was darn near decapitated by my pendulous preschooler as I was distracted by Lee Iacocca’s latest temple to the soccer mom rolling slowly down Fremont Street.
“Boy,” I thought, “that Champagne-colored Dodge Grand Caravan is a sweet looking ride.”
The very notion that the thought took enough form to earn quotation marks haunts me to this day. For this F-250 and jon boat redneck to have conceived such a notion is a foreshadowing.
There are those who will say that birth anniversaries are “just another day”. Others require a ticker-tape parade and the University of Wisconsin marching band for turning 32. A card and a cake make everyone feel good. On a sliding scale, I trend toward the former.
"Rock Bottom, population 1…" - Robbie Fulks
Thursday, March 3, 2005. I found myself living in a broken-down rental house on South Main Street, displaced from the home I had planned to retire in. Fortunate, in the sense that I had a roof over my head and two healthy kids. Frustrated to the point that the very next lawyer, family court commissioner or judge who told me this was a "family redefined" would have found themselves in lateral recumbency. Not so much knocked out, but with their "consciousness redefined".
I was running on vapor when my friend Jen escorted me into the Tyranena Brewing Company. The first sign was a small fleet of Euro SUVs with Illinois plates in the parking lot on a Thursday night. I was met at the door by a cadre of amigos from Chicago, the staff of the clinic and half the town of Lake Mills. There were the obligatory “Over the Hill” cards, black T-shirts and Rogaine. However, the notion that Doreen would go to the effort to make snacks, dredge up old connections and reunite the Rhinos was reaffirming to a battered soul.
These days the fence post leans a titch, so that as I swing open the gate to my sixth decade, it drags in the dirt just a bit. Either the milestones are getting heavier or my declining blood testosterone, commensurate muscle loss and degenerative joint disease just make them feel that way.
Fifty years, by my way of thinking, is closer to the grave than the cradle, but you ain’t done yet. By the time I run the next tank of diesel fuel through the work truck, I’ll be there.
My friend Gary asked if I had any reflections.
In 1880 the French artist Rodin created his iconic masterpiece Le Penseur. The image of deep thought and philosophy has since been that of a giant, naked, muscular guy carved in stone, sitting on “the can” with his chin in his hand. Were I captured in a similar pose, the image would be far less flattering. Not to mention, the sitting and thinking would shortly be followed by lying down and Rapid Eye Movement sleep. My Wisconsin 2015 “Thinker” is looking through the windshield of a ¾ ton Ram, en route to a down cow, on the business end of a snow shovel, or with right arm investigating the many wonders that can be found in a dairy cow’s rectum.
"Doctor my eyes…" - Jackson Brown
I have progressed gradually through stages of near-sightedness and denial. Initially, I could crane my neck and turn my head until I found the sweet-spot in my no-line bifocals where I could bring words into focus. Initially, I refused to look over the glasses, and then I tried not to be caught doing it. Now I try and convince myself it looks “sophisticated”, like Bing Crosby in a sweater vest next to a fireplace.
First I cursed Wiley and Darby Conley. Their microscopic scribbles in Non Sequitur and Get Fuzzy look like Rorschach Blots to an old guy trying to shovel two bowls of Corn Flakes by 5:00AM.
Hoping a confession will set me free; some mornings I will take the glasses off and sit them on the counter next to the Tropicana. I’ve so far resisted the sliding bar in the corner of my screen that enlarges print as big as subtitles at the Highway 18 drive-in. The effects of myopia and astigmatism are inevitable consequences of aging. At age 50, the images in our rearview mirror should be exactly the right size.
“I wake up in the morning and I know it’ll be good, if I stick out my elbows and I don’t bump wood.” - Bill "The Hammer" Kirchen
The east side of Decatur was appropriately dubbed “Dog Patch USA,” and we traded goods and services based on a “pickup truck economy.” It started with a 1970 piss-yellow Chevy half-ton, with a 350 4-barrel and “three on the tree.” Dad and I hauled firewood for the concrete guy who helped finish our driveway, and a dining room set for the painter who swirled our ceiling.
“Don’t jump off the tail-gate, those knees have to last you a lifetime,” Dad, the heavy equipment operator spoke from experience. It’s not that I didn’t believe him; I just had to figure things out for myself.
I swore I wasn’t going to run like an old man. Rubber Tingley overboots, coveralls and all, I can still turn on the “afterburners” and keep a heifer from getting around a gate. Thing is, I look like a constipated Herman Munster with hip dysplasia en route to an outhouse.
It could have been good fortune, fate, or determination, but right up until the last time my son asked if I’d throw batting practice, I was able to shag his pop-ups all over the infield behind Cambridge middle school.
One of Jake Untz’s cows the size of an aircraft carrier prolapsed her uterus under a stall divider. Jake was flyin’ solo as Chuck was shaking hands and making decisions for the Milk Marketing Board in Kansas City. A 200-pound man versus an 1800lb cow? No challenge. Once I was able to dig a hole in the sand, I had enough strength to wedge myself between the cow’s shoulder and the wall, heave her into position and restore her to proper anatomical configuration.
Inspired by the gymnasts in the 2012 summer Olympics, I attempted a back flip with a half-twist off three bales while loading hay from wagon to trailer. I didn’t “stick” the landing, manifest by blood dripping from a gravel gash on my forehead and two hyper-extended wrists. I finished the load with one hand and ratchet strapped it down. Anxiety overrode my aversion to self-diagnosis; I was two weeks away from a bike trip across Texas. We drove straight to the clinic. Radiographs failed to find a fracture, yet to this day I have cattle-prod-electric pains in my left hand if I curl my left wrist. Typing this story renders my fingers numb. A right-handed palpator of cows, I have yet to miss a herd check.
Two crunchy shoulders have prevented me from military pressing more than 100lbs for 10 years now. Thankfully, there are precious few occasions that require the average dairy vet to lift cattle over his head.
The body has always kept me just out of contention for People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive”, but it has yet to fail me. Every now and then, you’ll catch me strolling up the hill out back. I come to a complete stop, look skyward and cross myself, mouthing a silent "thank you" to whatever un-seen entity may have a part in my functional durability.
“When you comin’ home, Dad? I don’t know when, we’ll get together then yeah, you know we’ll have a good time then…” - Harry Chapin
Parenting at 50 is precarious. I find myself firmly in the grips of P.O.A.D.S. (pubertal offspring acquired dementia syndrome), the disease that affects every parent when their kids are between 15 and 25. Those so afflicted find themselves capable of writing checks, cooking meals, and fixing things. We can recite our credit card number, expiration date and secret three digit number, on command. It will be several more years before I know enough to find my way to work without a trail of breadcrumbs. Based on the raised eyebrows, silence and scowls I get every time I speak to my kids, I haven’t been cool for years.
For their first 15 years, you try and bank some cred. The work day was never too long to play catch when you got home. The lumbar was never too creaky for an “uppy” so she could see the clowns in the Town and Country Days parade. My neck never got sore until she asked to get down. Seinfeld and Friends would wait until The Giving Tree, Clifford or James Herriot’s Collection of Children’s Stories had been read for the 135th time for the duration of “footy pajamas.” There was no bike ride, beer or band that took precedence over being in the stands for every win, loss or draw of their hockey careers. The thought of missing Paige’s sprint the length of the rink and diving save that preserved a tie is the priceless event straight out of the credit card commercials. As is the malt at Michael’s in silence, after the one that got through.
Hypocalcemias, dystocias, lacerations and obstructions keep gas in the tank and milk in the fridge. You bank goodwill with clients and develop your options with colleagues, so that when the Christmas Band Concert and awards ceremony come around, you can turn the cell-phone off. By the time they’re making their own decisions, you hope they are able to build the same set of priorities that was demonstrated to you as a kid.
My own understanding took decades.
“Keep the boss-man eating steak and he’ll keep you eating hamburger. When the boss goes to eatin’ hamburger, you go hungry.” - William E. Stork
Wall Street crashed September 29, 2008. The nation struggled hard for the next four years. Politicians tell us the recession ended in 2012. The single mother with a Bachelor’s degree upselling donuts behind the counter at the Kwik Trip has a different story to tell. The technicians at Lake Mills Veterinary Clinic worked harder, longer and smarter than ever, without hope for a raise in pay; hoping to keep our nostrils out of the water and collections off our doorstep.
The 10 o’clock news made daily comparisons to the ‘80s. What I recall about the '80s is that I never went hungry or cold. My dad was a heavy equipment operator. When highways, hotels and library construction came to a screeching halt, operator became painter, welder, fixer and fabricator. When there wasn’t steel to be set or a hole to be dug, he carried an F-250 full of grease guns, sockets, and ratchets the size of Fred Flintstone’s dinosaur bones. He’d tear something down, build something up or fix it.
As a kid I can recall one surly neighbor, and one time Dad being out of work. He was laid off in the morning. Rather than the Unemployment Office, he went to the Sherwin Williams. Eight hours after being laid off, he was on a 20-foot extension ladder scraping, priming, and painting Barney Carter’s house.
When there wasn’t time to shower before a band concert or honor society induction, Dad would sneak into the back row in chambray work shirt, Levi’s, and Red Wings.
“Son, there’s some things you just won’t understand until you have kids of your own,” every parent has prognosticated. Well, top dead center, old man. In the meantime you cling to a few words from your daughter that come around less often than a leap year, “Daddy, you just never give up do you?”
Deep in the grips of my affliction with POADS, it might be a good time to circle back and give the old man his due.
“Bill, which direction isn’t important. Just pick one and go like hell.” - Stanley Curtis, Ph.D. (mentor to Temple Grandin)
In a story titled “Mary Christmas”, I wrote about a farm client and friend: “…the thought that he would have to stand again was the only thing that kept him from falling to the packed snow and gravel and curling up like a fetus”. My writing genre is “Creative Nonfiction,” which is not to say we don’t hide behind a character and get autobiographical on occasion.
I consider myself a hard-core commitment guy, but"'til death do us part” was not to be. By ruling of the Jefferson County Family Court. As a parent, I feel like I’m steering a 1975 Oldsmobile Delta 88… from the bumper.
One option is to continue to live in anguish. Twenty years has effectively scrubbed away the patina of insecurity, endocrinology and expectations that surely factored in what is now a clearly misguided choice.
Equally true is that and every other misstep I’ve committed have rendered me unequivocally stronger. And, thanks to that lapse, there are two young adults who are without question kind, beautiful, and bound to contribute. Though, on last sighting, the youngest could really use a haircut.
Don Hermann has lost his brother in a truck accident, diabetes took both legs, and his wife left him. The man does not rattle easily. On August 3, 2014, Don did a “General Lee” into our parking lot, shaken to the core. He pulled up to the clinic, his best friend writhing in pain in the passenger seat of his pickup. Otto had launched from the loading gate of a delivery truck and levered his tibia fibula under the support chain, resulting in a heinous comminuted fracture. I triaged him in the parking lot, sedated and gave him some Torbugesic. I gave Don directions to the Veterinary Emergency Service. Dr. Dana King and her technicians applied 4-cross pins and external fixators. Twelve weeks later, Otto was chasing chickens and running with the ATV.
We celebrated Otto’s return to the starting lineup, but not without a twinge of regret that I do not possess the surgical chops to skip the trip to the referral surgeon.
We spend a lot of time torturing ourselves over what we think we should be. I declare 50 years old is the time we allow ourselves to get right with our weaknesses… and to shore up our strengths.
I have a voice, but can’t sing like Roy Orbison.
I have two legs, and I'm two years younger than Michael Jordan. I’ve stood in the tunnel of The United Center close enough to “his airness” to foul him. With MJ in his $1200 Wingtips, and BS in his $150 Red Wings, he’s got less than an inch on me. Yet, I couldn’t dunk a basketball with a bucket truck.
I have two hands and a DVM behind my name. I’m gonna get good with the idea that I’m not God’s gift to a scalpel.
“I don’t wanna work, I just want to bang on my drums all day…” - Todd Rundgren.
“You can’t beat a man at his own trade,” Dad would try and defuse my frustration. Truer words have never been spoken, but I’m working on an algorithm to get right with the acceptable sub-contracting of my more marginal skills.
“Son, I’d need a right arm with three elbows and an eyeball on a string,” my dad lightly quipped. Curious because not only did he not swear (a habit he admirably broke cold-turkey), but also there was no reference to the engineer who “wouldn’t know a 11/16th deep-well socket from a golf tee,” whose design required an ASE certified master mechanic and a Yoga guru to accomplish basic maintenance on his 2008 Liberty.
He was referring to the drain plug for the oil pan on his new Jeep. He was 78 years old and it marked the first time in 64 years that he didn’t change the oil and grease his own vehicle, every 1500 miles. That, friends, is the tree this apple did not fall far from.
I will stand down from anything that involves automotive electronics, fuel injection or alignment.
Kim Riege turned our remodeled bathroom into a work of art in six hours for $200. I haven’t touched a paintbrush since, and I’m at peace with that.
It was rumored that Sam Walton mowed his own grass until the day he died. I’m pretty sure that’s what it’ll take to get me out of the seat of my Ransome’s ZTR, or the John Deere 2520 my dad pre-inherited me. For that matter, I’d be happy to be buried there.
I still feel an inkling of impotency when I have the folks at Steve’s Car and Truck Service change my oil, filters or bolt a set of mud-flaps onto the fender. I’m not yet to the point I can farm out a chunk of my heritage, whilst mountain biking, or chasing little white dimpled balls around a manicured cow pasture.
For every skill I realize I do not have, or has eroded, my respect and appreciation of those who I am dependent upon grows incrementally.
Age 50 seems a most excellent time to get right with who we are. It is a time to give ourselves a break for what we are not, or what we feel we should be.
As a cradle Catholic you have eight years of CCD classes and confessions ringing in your ears. As a result of being raised in the likeness of Bill and Ann Stork, the notion that you didn’t exhaust every ATP to affect your own outcome is not worthy of mention.
When a friend finds themselves in bad way and pulling out, you want yourself be impenetrable, universally supportive, and brick-shithouse strong. Instead, you allow the notion that your vision of the future is in serious danger of going off the rails to render you selfish. Your girl moved out. Calvin is getting a B in AP physics. Your hip hurts a little. You further torture yourself, like a Mike Tyson sparring partner, because you know Pete. Pete’s wife is battling cancer, and his son has mitochondrial storage disease, needing to be fed through a tube. Pete has three herniated disks in his back and drags his left leg.
Just because there are others who have it worse does not preclude us from feeling weak, vulnerable and depressed. Even if I can’t keep my mind there, I find it incredibly liberating to give myself permission to feel the way I do, instead of punishing myself for not feeling the way I think I should.
At the same time, we do not live in a vacuum and are obliged to control our outward demeanor and avoid the effects on those we serve, those we lead, and those for whom we are an example and those who support us personally and professionally.
“Bill, depression is not a bad thing. It’s the pain that motivates you to take action. When it paralyzes you, then it’s a problem.” - Dr. Ed Fischer
I call myself a cradle Catholic who has backed into Buddhism. On occasion we have all found ourselves lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut. We maniacally search like a beagle on scent for an “out”. Just a word of assurance that a lover can’t speak would square us up like Popeye in a spinach patch.
With age comes the experience that there is no quick fix. From the perspective of every emotional state, we have access to a unique set of thoughts that will give way to new-found strength. There is no glory in martyrdom; we can allow ourselves to take a break. First, perhaps, for the duration of one song; then maybe an album side. Eventally, a whole concert. Depression is like a trip to the DMV: you’re going to be there awhile; see what you can get done while you’re waiting for your number to be called.
In time we come to realize the low times don’t last forever, and are followed by compensatory highs. Repeat.
William E. Stork once eloquently stated, “Don’t sit on your dead ass and tell me what I’m doing wrong; show me how to do it right.” Don’t criticize, demonstrate.
Coaches and mentors offer constructive criticism. Sadly, there are some whose only hope for strength and validation is to take some of yours.
"Ignore the source and the intent, and search for the validity." - William C. Stork
Attila the Hun might say, “You talk with food in your mouth, walk like an oaf, and doubly identify the topic of sentences.” If so, then close your mouth, stand up straight, and don’t tell me, “I saw Gray, he…”
I’m pretty sure 50 years is a point at which we are supposed to check the score.
While true objectivity is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, we do know that the denominator is not the dinero. The cars we drive and the label on our lapel matter not. We get closer to knowing if we’ve earned the oxygen we’ve consumed, when we ask what have we accomplished and whom have we helped.
Regrettably, there is no ante mortem assessment of our earthly influence. I have been profoundly affected by two Sunday afternoons. In April 1999, I sat wedged between a small army of vagrants and professors at the Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia. In August 2010, I sweltered in a silent line of mourners leading into the Lake Mills Moravian Church that stretched for nearly 10 hours. If I can earn a eulogy on par with, if the sum total of the sentiment has a fraction of the substance of, and if mourners have even a few of the same words to say to Paige and Calvin as at the funerals of The Amazing Dick Bass and Brian Krull, I will have achieved some measure of success.
When I talk too long, Sheila drops her chin and half squints her left eye. That translates to: "bullet points". If the friends who have helped me celebrate this birthday, my colleagues, clients, kids and the woman by my side are any sort of indicator…I’m doing ok.
"And when the victor holds your hand up to the great unknown, still you’ve got to go to sleep alone." - Joe Ely
If we are honest with ourselves, employ every available resource and make the best decision we have the strength for, there can be no room for regret. As Kishan Khemani so concisely pontificated, “Do the right thing”.
I’ll start by going fishing with Dad, and making a pilgrimage to Atlanta.