The Minutes That Last a Lifetime

Sometimes we gain perspective on life in unexpected ways. Awhile ago, I was taking care of some business in our small town when the woman behind the counter stared at me for a moment. I said, “Hi” to her, then she recognized me. “Oh, I remember you. You bought my grandparents house.” I nodded, “Yes, we did.” It had been several months since we last talked and every time we did she would share a memory of time spent in the house with her grandparents.

“I have so many good memories in that house,” she said to me. Then she told me how she used to go to her grandparents house after elementary school until her parents picked her up. She recalled how she would sit with her grandfather in a rocking chair and listen to music on a record player that sat on a shelf in the living room. I told her I knew exactly which shelf — “the one that’s deeper than the others and has an outlet in it.” She verified that was indeed the shelf. When I returned home I smiled when I saw the shelf now filled with our family photos.

A few weeks later our granddaughter stayed with us for a few days. She is a very active toddler, but in the morning she likes to sit with grandma or grandpa and snuggle for a bit. It was one of those mornings, as she sat with me on the rocking chair, that I noticed we were sitting by the deep shelf with the outlet. I immediately thought of the memory shared with me a few weeks before from the woman who did the same thing as a kid with her grandfather in that very spot.

There was something about that moment, the realization that history was repeating itself, that gave me the long view of life. With my granddaughter snuggled close looking up at me with a smile, I wondered what she would remember about her time with her grandparents in their home. It made me contemplate how the simplest moments in life can be the most cherished memories.

In the course of our busy lives it is easy to get distracted with the necessities of life. There are jobs to attend to, meals to plan, cleaning to be done, maintenance to complete and lots of other required tasks. Yet we can’t lose sight of the truly important moments that require our full attention. It may be a moment that only lasts a few minutes, but it could be a memory that lasts a lifetime.


Mourning a Lost Future

When you’ve lived more than a half century, you find that you’ve attended many funerals along the way. Over that time I’ve listened to many eulogies and shed many tears over the death of friends and family. Out of all of those eulogies, one in particular has stuck with me.

Years ago I went to a memorial service a coworker held for his wife. After a long illness, his wife finally succumbed to her disease. I will never forget the eulogy he delivered for the woman he dearly loved and missed. He said that he grieved the loss of her, particularly their future as a couple. He explained how he would miss her companionship and all the future time together that will never be. He shared about the good times they had together and how there would be no more days spent with her. He brought the whole room to tears.

But then he pivoted his remarks to point us to the past and what it held for all of us. “It’s hard to look back and be grateful for what we did have; to be content with the years we had together,” he said. “I wanted more time together; so much more time. I will always want more, but I am so grateful for what we did have and forever grateful for that.”

These are the words that have stuck with me. It seems I always want more out of life, but can I be content with what I have instead of looking at what I don’t have and what the future might bring? Can I be content with this moment — content with making the most of this moment; content with this day and what it brings? It seems natural to want more out of life, but perhaps appreciating what we have already is enough. It is something I’m still working on years later.

Perspective · The Next Half Century

The Post Pandemic Era

Yesterday, I caught myself saying for the first time, “That was pre-pandemic.” I was remembering something my wife and I did before the Stay-at-Home orders were put in place in early March. It was the stark reality of the dividing line between life as we knew it and the new normal we now face. It was a moment of coming to grips with the fact that we could not go back to our old life.

Pre-pandemic life meant regular trips out of town to see friends and family. We stayed in hotels, ate at restaurants and shopped in stores without a worry about infectious diseases. My wife and I went to festivals and enjoyed the tapestry of packed crowds, the sights and sounds. In my job, I regularly attended events where I freely mingled with people in crowded venues. Without a second thought, I shook hands with associates in business meetings. We did all this without face masks, gloves, plastic shields and six feet separating us.

In the pre-pandemic world we took for granted how delicately interwoven we are as a society. We did not understand how fragile our systems are for putting food on our table; how dependent we are on things like manufacturing for supplying what we need at a moments notice; how our lives depend on people dedicating their lives to the medical profession. In this pre-pandemic world our heroes looked different than they do today.

Post-pandemic, any human encounter could mean contracting a potentially deadly contagion. It brings with it the revelation of how much we depend on human interaction for daily life. The new heroes are the ones who continue their pre-pandemic jobs in a post-pandemic world — the ones who everyday face the very real danger of catching this dangerous contagion. Medical professionals, delivery people, grocery store workers, trash haulers and so many more are now the ones we recognize as providing the necessities for daily life.

Right now it seems impossible to think we could live in a post-pandemic world without a greater appreciation for the simple things in life — even life itself. As we struggle to define our new normal, I know I now have a greater appreciation for a roll of toilet paper in my bathroom; a jug of milk in my fridge; deliveries to my door; and perhaps most of all, a simple hug.

The memories are what we bring forward. I recall asking those who lived through the Great Depression what it was like. Even though decades had passed, tears would form in their eyes before they spoke. It was all they needed to say about that time in history. It told me the emotion surrounding this pandemic will remain with us for years to come.

© 2020 CGThelen

Perspective · The Last Half Century

Inspiration from an Empty Tin Can

My dad grew up during the Great Depression in the 1930s where he learned to be resourceful. He was the one who taught me that the simple tin can has far more uses than just holding food. Later I learned an empty can also holds some life lessons.

On our farm when I was a kid, empty cans were put to good use. Flattened cans adorned the occasional rodent hole in the wood siding of our barns. An empty soup can with the bottom cut out wrapped perfectly over a hole in an exhaust pipe on a car or truck. But the predominant use of empty cans on the farm was to store all kinds of things from nails to bolts to spare parts.

For me and my siblings, the best use for a large empty can was for a game of Kick the Can. (If you’ve never heard of this game you can find descriptions of it on the Internet.) It’s amazing how much fun we packed into an empty can, especially when my cousins would visit. The larger the group of kids, the greater the fun.

As an adult I learned another side to the story of the enduring tin can. Early in my writing career, I worked as a copywriter at an ad agency in Cleveland. One day I was given the task of writing a brochure for a coating used to help seal the inside of cans. Until that fateful day, I thought all cans were alike. The brochure featured the resilient, bright golden finish of the coating layered inside the can and it’s superior sealing properties. I wondered if that was the secret to the enduring qualities of the can.

Now when I empty a can I find myself looking inside for that golden finish. It reminds me that there are so many things I take for granted — like the people who make coatings that seal cans so we can store food on our shelves for months; that there is more than one way to look at things; that common household things can provide a lot of fun; that sometimes resilience is not evident until we’re emptied and look inside for that bright golden finish.

© 2020 CGThelen

The predominant use of empty cans on our farm was to store all kinds of things from nails to bolts to spare parts.
Perspective · The Next Half Century

Relative Strangers

I look into the eyes of my ancestors staring back at me from old black and white photos taken long ago. Many of these ancestors are like strangers to me; only names of my great grandparents, great aunts and uncles or distant cousins. It makes me wonder what they would tell me today about this pandemic based on the uncertain times they lived through.

There is little to none recorded history about the lives of many of my ancestors — the trials they faced, their thoughts, experiences or emotions — only a few anecdotal stories. I wish now they had recorded at least some things about their life, especially what it was like to endure such major uncertainty like World War I, the Great Depression, or even the Spanish Flu pandemic. A part of me thinks they, like us now, were so caught up in the urgency of the present it was hard to stop and reflect; hard to stop to record experiences and emotions for future generations.

It is often the hardships, the traumatic things in life that shape us the most. Logging our emotional journey through this current pandemic could be a great benefit now and for future generations. Recording uneasy feelings and daily struggles to cope casts a very human side to our current upended life with its new normal.

Today we have so many tools available to record our experiences, enabling us to create a multimedia cornucopia of this period in history. Whether it’s a short video or thoughts scrawled in a notebook, take some time during the coming weeks and months to capture your reflections on what you are experiencing during this incredible crisis. As you do this, consider how to best preserve this valuable piece of history. Whether you’re recording on a laptop, phone or in the cloud, make a backup copy to keep in your home for safe keeping. Even if it’s only a spiral-bound notebook you write in, scan a backup copy for your archives.

By recording your experience you may offer some reassurance, some guidance, for whatever calamity future generations may face. It will also help you avoid becoming a relative stranger in the future.

© 2020 CGThelen


Life is Cumulative

When you’ve lived more than 50 years, well, you accumulate a lot of stuff. Like rings on a tree, I can go through my attic and count the years by all the stuff stored under the rafters. Albums from the 1970s, furniture from the 1980s, old computers from the 1990s, and Y2K memorabilia from the new millennium. I think it will take another 50 years to get rid of all this stuff that has accompanied me from one move to another.

Indeed, life is cumulative. After five decades, I wonder how many cups of coffee I drank? I started drinking coffee in college so if I figure about 30 years or almost 11,000 days, that’s probably around 20,000 cups of coffee if I figure 1-2 cups a day. If those were 12 ounce cups of coffee, that would be around 320,000 ounces or 2,500 gallons. That’s like drinking a large swimming pool full of coffee. Talk about staying awake for days.

Then I think about how many cups of coffee I drank to keep me awake while I was driving to get somewhere in a certain time. Like the drive from Chicago to Davenport Iowa; the one-day drive from Maryland to Michigan; a straight shot from Michigan to Colorado; or even late night runs to my girl friend’s college. All those miles inside one of the dozen or so cars I’ve owned with many passing the 100,000 mile mark. All told, I’m sure I’ve logged more than a million miles behind the wheel.

That’s what happens when you start looking back at all those years. You start wondering what it all adds up to. “Where have all the years gone?” You ask yourself as you recall so many things that have come and gone. My wife and I visit places where we lived 10, 20 or 30 years ago and nothing is as it was when we lived there. Everything has changed. The movie theater where we went on our first date is gone. Even our first apartment is gone.

All those years ago, when I tried to envision what my life would be like decades later, I never thought my life would be like it is today. I remember as kids in the 1970s, we once figured out how old we would be in the year 2000. “Wow!” I thought. “That’s really old.” Now, from the perspective of being in my 50s, it seems young. I have lived past the half century mark and I feel very blessed despite some very difficult years. If my life were a swimming pool that I’ve been filling all my life, I would have to say it is now overflowing with blessings.

© 2020, CGThelen



The Lost Art of Map Folding

When you look back from the vantage point of a half century, you start to wonder why some skills learned at a young age are no longer needed. Take the fine art of folding a map. Now be honest, when was the last time you folded a map back into its compact stowed position? Okay, when was the last time you used a paper map? Odds are you’ve recently done more Oragami than map folding.

For me it was today. I couldn’t get the right street map online so I whipped out the paper city map from a drawer. I spread it across my desk and presto! I pinpointed the street in seconds. When I went to refold the map it suddenly hit me how long it had been since I folded a map. The skill quickly returned as I effortlessly returned it to its former compacted state.

It started me thinking if map folding is becoming a lost art. My father taught me the fine art of reading a map on trips and then the proper way to fold it back up. As a kid I marveled at the technique as I watched my father perform the ancient art in front of me. I was quite pleased when I could repeat the task in front of him. I wondered what other skills had quietly slipped into obscurity without me noticing it?

I took a moment to consider skills I picked up years ago that I no longer use — like copying music from an album to a cassette tape, or starting a car by using a choke. I contemplated when I had stopped using these skills. Like so many things in life, change can be so subtle that we don’t even recognize it until well after it has happened.

© 2020, CGThelen



When Dreams Take Flight

747 NoseWhen I was kid in the early 1970s, I bought a Boeing 747 jet. True story. It all happened so fast. There I was innocently eating my breakfast when I noticed a picture on the back of the cereal box showing the new 747 jet with PanAm markings and an offer to own it. I became obsessed with that jet. I had to have one. It was as simple as that.

So even before the cereal was gone, I snipped out the order form on the side of the box and mailed it with a dime taped to the back for shipping. In those days, three to four weeks for delivery was typical. It seemed like forever before a package addressed to me finally showed up in our mail box. I tore open the padded shipping envelope and spotted the plastic nose of a 747 peering back at me.

Inside the house I emptied the contents of the envelope on the kitchen table. That’s when I learned the meaning of the phrase, “some assembly required.” Fortunately the pieces all snapped together in quick fashion. I stuck the Pan Am stickers to the tail of the jet and admired the plane in the palm of my hand. I was now the proud owner of a 747 with the distinct “bump” on the forward part of the plane for the cockpit and first class seating.

The coolest thing about this jet was that it had a string attached the fuselage that allowed me to fly it. Outside I took the jet on its maiden voyage. As I spun the jet around in a circle with the string tether, I watched it fly up and down. I dreamed of the day when I would fly on a real 747. That dream came true some years later.

In December of 1988, my wife and I flew on a Pan Am 747 to England to attend my brother-in-law’s wedding. For the return trip, we were booked on Pan Am flight 103. As things turned out, the wedding was held on the same day that a terrorist bomb blew up Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie Scotland. I recall the horror of seeing news clips showing plane pieces scattered over the Scottish countryside and a small village. The most striking image to me was a picture of the nose of the 747 peering out of the envelope of a foggy Scottish field.

The next day we went to the airport to return home. With the bombing scarcely 24 hours old, everyone was tense. We boarded a Pan Am 747 for the flight home — Flight 103. It seemed strange to be flying on the same numbered flight that had been blown out of the sky the previous day. I expected we would take the same flight path on our way back to the U.S. We lifted off from Heathrow airport and took to the sky. In my childhood dreams about flying on a 747 there was never fear, only the excitement of taking to the air in something way bigger than myself.

The moment the 747 touched down in the U.S. everyone onboard applauded. We had arrived safely home. We exited the plane and headed toward the gate area to the baggage claim. I hesitated for a moment and stopped to look through the window at the 747 parked on the tarmac. I no longer felt the same excitement in seeing the nose of that jet like I did when I first spotted it in the envelope as a kid.

Sometimes I think about “what if’s” — as in what if my brother-in-law had scheduled the wedding a day sooner. I think of my adult daughter and our granddaughter and recall that my wife was pregnant at the time with our first child. If the wedding had been a day sooner, chances are we would’ve been on that Pan Am flight blown out of the sky. It’s a sobering reminder that life is fragile.

© 2020, CGThelen