Memories · The Last Half Century

Instant Ancestors and Fake History

Years ago I was browsing in an antique shop when a saw a large collection of old pictures of people hanging on a wall. A sign posted in the middle of the collection read, “Instant Relatives.”’ I studied the black and white pictures with families and couples posing for the camera. The sign presented an intriguing thought. Afterall, who would know if I adopted the people in the pictures as my ancestors?

Intriguing as it may have been, I did not buy any of those pictures. But it did bring to light a dilemma for me. My kids weren’t around for the first few years of our marriage or when I was dating my wife. I mean, who is going to fact check the details if I embellish our personal history? “Oh no,” I consider how I might reassure my daughter, “Grandma and your aunts and uncles just don’t remember how it really happened.”

Okay, so I didn’t give into temptation and told the truth about our personal history, but I must confess there were times I came close to embellishing certain facts. Like the time when our kids were very young and one asked, “How did you and mom meet?” I recall those precious little eyes staring up at me, wanting to know how we became a couple.

There was a brief moment, a flash of temptation, a slight urge to fabricate an amazing story. At the time I knew this little one had no way to fact check my story. Wikipedia wasn’t a thing then and a dial-up modem was how we accessed the Internet. (If you don’t know what dial-up is, all you need to know is that it was slow, very slow.)

“Well, I was on this expedition in the Amazon rain forest with a Harvard research team and your mom was with a group from Yale conducting an anthropological study on indigenous people,” I considered telling them, but my conscious makes me reconsider. “Too many big words — they’ll never understand,” I told myself.

“Your mom was part of a mountain helicopter rescue team. She swooped in and saved me after I was caught in an avalanche while I was helicopter skiing in the Alps doing advance work for a James Bond film crew,” I considered telling them in a calm and cool voice. “Nah,” I reconsidered, “It would have to be advance work on a kids movie to make it believable.”

“We met on a blind date,” I finally confessed to my daughter. “A friend of ours set us up.” Her face lit up with a pleased look. “Cool,” she smiled. Sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit that our life story is actually more interesting than the people we read about in the news.

Memories · The Next Half Century

Be Careful!

Last week I went on a simple solo hike through the woods to the lake. It was a beautiful, warm summer day with a clear blue sky — the perfect day to commune with nature and be alone with my thoughts. It ended with yet one more accident to add to the list of reasons why my wife worries about me when I take a hike or start a project around the house. It’s just one more injury on a long list of accidents I’ve logged in my more than half century of living.

My trouble began last week when I finished a short 1 1/2 mile hike through the woods. I started to descend a short hill to the beach and the lake. About half way down I felt my feet slip out from under me and a second later I toppled forward into the sand. It would’ve been a soft landing except on the way down a small tree stump caught my right leg and hit hard against my shin. I stood up on the beach, spit the sand out of my mouth and did the first thing any hiker would do — check to make sure no one saw my clumsy move. They didn’t.

Back at home, my wife gasped when I finally showed her my leg. I assured her the swelling was down considerably since I first incurred the injury. It still looked bad enough to appear broken. A quick trip to the emergency room verified it was not broken, but did confirm my leg was infected. I also learned a memory trick to care for my injured leg — R.I.C.E. rest, ice… elevate. I can’t remember what “C” stands for — even memory tricks can’t help my aging brain.

As I rested, iced… and elevated my leg, I remembered some of the more epic injuries in my life — even though I can’t remember the word for “C”. There was the time when I was five that I was hit by a car. I vividly remember being under the car and the huge bruise on my elbow. The fact I don’t remember seeing the car before it hit me tells you I didn’t look both ways before crossing the street to the playground. Fortunately for me it was in a neighborhood and the car was going slow.

When I was six years old, I jumped off a fence into some tall weeds and found a large spike sticking out of a board. It pierced the calf of my leg and required a trip to the emergency room where my wound was promptly stitched up. It also traumatized my sister who asked why I was being such a crybaby when I ran to the house. One look at my bleeding leg oozing skin tissue promptly answered her question.

Then there was the time, when I was around seven years old, I ran into the kitchen full speed and hit the open refrigerator door head on. The old steel door knocked me out cold. I woke up laying flat on my back on the lawn in our backyard. I recall the look of relief on the faces of my siblings and mom as I looked up at them from the ground.

In fourth grade I was walking to get my coat at the end of the school day and I hit my hand on a sharp corner on a table in the back of the classroom. The resulting cut just below my middle finger was deep enough so I could see my knuckle bone. My teacher almost fainted when I showed her the wound. “Go to the office!” She gasped as she held her mouth. I was taken to our family doctor who stitched up the wound. I am right-handed so for a couple weeks I struggled to complete school work with my left hand. I think because my teacher saw my wound, she pitied me and didn’t make me do all the assignments. My classmates were jealous and I slightly embarrassed by the special treatment — but not enough to enjoy less schoolwork.

Years later I found myself in the emergency room again after I opened the radiator cap on the engine in our car. I had let the car cool down, but was surprised by some pressure on the cap. Coolant sprayed on my face. I quickly ran to our bathroom and jumped in the shower fully clothed to rinse my eyes. When my wife heard the shower, she knew it wasn’t good. She took me to the hospital along with our two year-old daughter. The doctor placed a contact lens type thing in my eyes with a small tube attached and proceeded to irrigate my eyes. My daughter stared at me in amazement as water streamed out of my eyes. “Daddy cry,” she said.

There are many more incidents I could share with you, but you’ve already been generous with your time reading this far. Through it all I am thankful none of them was serious enough to be life-changing. I count my blessings. I’m not exactly proud of my long list of injuries, but it does come in handy as a great conversation starter. For some reason when you talk about your injuries it prompts others to chime in with the gory details about their epic injuries. Which reminds me, I just remembered what that “C”* stands for: “Careful” as in “Be Careful!” I think I wrote that on my forehead, but I can’t see it.

* R.I.C.E. stands for: rest, ice, compression, elevation.

Part of the scenic hike I took last week.
Memories · The Last Half Century

GTO, OPEC, MPG and First Love

It was love at first sight. I was a 13-year old boy minding my own business when I spotted her flaunting her beauty. I couldn’t stop myself from staring at her. I was mesmerized by the Pontiac GTO parked in my parent’s driveway with its copper-colored steel body resting on racing slicks with raised white lettering.

A minute later I watched my brother’s friend climb into the car. As the engine roared to life, he turned and waved at me from the open window in his door. He looked so cool in that car. A second later he left in a cloud of dust as he spun the rear tires on our gravel driveway. I watched in awe as he raced down our road and quickly disappeared from sight.

“What a time to be a teenager,” I thought. It was the early 1970s when big engines propelled fast cars with cheap gas. I was living during the heyday of the American muscle car. But I could only admire it from afar. I was too young to have a driver’s license. The next best thing for me was to leaf through the pages of Hot Rod magazine and dream about the day when I would look cool behind the wheel of a GTO. Little did I know my dreams were about to be shattered by something called OPEC.

The OPEC oil embargo of 1973 caused a dramatic rise in gas prices. Soon a 55 mph speed limit was put into effect and suddenly gas mileage became more important than 0-60 mph acceleration times. It caused the death of muscle cars with monster engines and raw horsepower. By the time I graduated from high school, I had traded my GTO dreams for MPG.

I remember driving out of the dealer lot with my Plymouth Horizon into adulthood. It wasn’t exactly the GTO moment I had dreamed about. When I punched the accelerator, I could barely get a chirp out of the tires. It had half the cylinders of that GTO and zero cool factor, but it did get a cool 34 MPG on the highway. I reassured myself I was saving money commuting to college in it as I mourned my dream of owning a GTO. Yet I never dreamed what would happen next.

I now look back on my first car with fondness as I recall taking my wife on dates in it. I vividly remember proposing to her in the front seat right before I dropped her off at her college dorm. It was the car we took on our honeymoon — a three-week, cross-country trip to the Pacific Coast in Washington state. Riding in that car with the love of my life was a dream come true. That’s a dream I’m still living.

Technology · The Last Half Century · The Next Half Century

Future Self Meets Past Self

I was thinking the other day about what it would be like if my future self visited me when I was in my twenties back in the 1980s. I imagined a conversation something like this:

“Hey, I’m your future self from the year 2020.”

“Whoa, dude! What’s up?” (Apologies to Bill and Ted and their “Excellent Adventure.”)

“Do you want to know how your life turns out?”

“Not really. That’s too scary. How about you tell me something else.”

“Okay. In the future we have smart phones.”

What are you talking about? How can a phone get smart?” My 1980s clueless, land line phone self asks.

“It’s a touchscreen phone that lets you use apps, take pictures, text and surf the Internet.”

“You can surf with your phone in the future? Wow, that must be a pretty big phone.”

“No. You surf the Internet with it.”

“What’s the Internet?”

“Well it’s this global network that let’s you connect with other people around the world.”

“Oh, like making a phone call?”

“Well, you can still do that, but you can also use social media.”

“Social media? In the future the government takes over the media?”

“No, it’s nothing like that. You use online platforms like Facebook to communicate.”

“Facebook? Why would you use a book instead of a phone to talk to people?”

“No, its online social media.”

“The future sounds very strange,” my 1980s self remarks.

“Maybe it’s better if I just leave and wait for you to catch up with me in a few decades. It might be easier to learn this stuff as you go.”

“Yeah, it sounds very complicated. Maybe the world will all make more sense in a few decades.”

“Well…” my future self hesitates.

“Well what?” My past self says with concern.

“Yeah sure, everything will make a lot more sense in a few decades,” my future self responds with a fake smile.

“Well, that’s good to hear,” my 1980s self says. “Things are pretty confusing now. I’m still trying to figure out how to record TV shows with my VCR.”

“Good luck with that,” my future self remarks before he leaves. “See you later, much later.”

“Later dude!” My past self replies as he plays an air guitar.

Current Musings · Technology

Not Everyone Wants an Intro

I have this thing about movie and television show introductions. I think they’re pointless. In a movie theater it seems intros drag on so long that my popcorn is gone before the movie starts. (Maybe that is by design. 🤔) Do I really need to see a bunch of flying production company logos or clips from the show before I watch the show? It’s like someone sitting down with you to tell you a story, but first they play dramatic music, tell you the names of production companies and producers, and tell you parts of the story before they start. “Can we just get to the story already!”

If I added up all the time I’ve spent watching movie and TV intros in the last half century, I’m guessing it would add up to a year of my life. What would we all do with an extra year added to our life — or all those minutes each day not watching introductions in front of news shows, sitcoms or movies. This is why I became so excited the other day when a show I was streaming actually gave me the option to skip the intro.

I sat down to watch the Apple original show “Home” and was shocked to see a “Skip Intro” button appear on the lower right corner of the screen. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen this button on any program. “At last, someone gets it!” I almost shouted. Someone finally understood not everyone wants to watch the intro, particularly when watching several episodes in one sitting. And they actually made it easy so I didn’t have to try to fast forward to the show. One quick click on the remote and I skipped the intro. This is a radical concept.

If you grew up watching television in the era before video recorders, you had no choice but to watch the introduction. With the advent of the VCR, for the first time you could fast forward past the intro on videos. There was some guess work in getting to the correct point in the movie or show, but for the first time the viewer had control. Now with streaming services, it is so much easier to get to the story without having to first watch flying logos and credits. Maybe others are doing what Apple offers — the “skip intro” button — but I have yet to see it. None-the-less, this should be the industry standard. After all, at my age, I can’t afford to waste any more time watching intros.

The “Skip Intro” button on the Apple Original series “Home”. Quick and easy. One click and you’re into the show.
Poems · The Next Half Century

The Distant Ring of Hope

So many fallen

An invisible force

Young and old

Taken from us

No family nearby

Last breathe taken

Loved ones mourn

Out of reach

Death takes its toll

Virus or not

They die without

human touch

Everyday life

Under attack

Locked within

Personal space

Familiar faces

On a screen

Close at hand

Yet so far away

Trees turn green

Thunder claps loud

Spring flowers bloom

Time presses on

Yet memories remain

Of this mournful time

Solemn faces

Upon our minds

Unseen enemy

Still lurks out there

Distant scared faces

Hidden behind masks

Faded thoughts

Of earlier times

Embracing loved ones

Laughing together

Can we ever return

To that innocent time

Of warm embraces

Unhindered social times

In the silent streets

The barren rooms

The empty halls

I hear a distant sound

In this horrific time

This historic time

I still hear the ring

From bells of hope

© 2020 CGThelen

This poem was written as I reflected on the U.S. reaching nearly 100,000 deaths from COVID-19.

Current Musings

The Mysterious Attraction of Sunsets

I sit on the beach and watch as the sun sinks low toward the horizon. Already the water glistens as it reflects the brilliant white light. I am here on the shores of Lake Michigan watching yet another sunset. What is it about the sunset that draws us to this daily event?

In more than a half century of living, I have been blessed to see hundreds and hundreds of sunsets. I never grow tired of them — never grow tired of watching the sun sink below the horizon in a fantastic array of oranges, yellows and reds. I am forever in awe of the afterglow after the sun has set, with its shades of pink, violet and purple cast upon a canopy of lingering clouds. I am always amazed as the water turns to liquid gold as if the sun is melting into the lake water.

Through most of my life I have been fortunate to have had wide open places to watch the sun set below the horizon. As a kid I would pause my work, whether from the seat of a tractor, the top of a silo or among the cows in the pasture, to watch the sun set amongst the open fields that surrounded our farm. When I was older I would have to settle for seeing the sun sink behind the tops of buildings or homes, then wait for the afterglow to light up the sky above. Vacations to Lake Michigan also meant beautiful, unhindered vistas of the sunset unless the horizon was socked in by clouds. Over the years I’ve learned sunsets are more enjoyable when shared with others.

I have no answer to what draws us to watch the sunset. Perhaps it is the symmetry of the day; the ending of another day and the hope of tomorrow. It might be the quiet peace we find in a moment of solitude as we watch the daylight fade into a spectacular display of colors. Whatever it might be, I cannot escape feeling blessed every time I view this incredible part of God’s creation; incredibly thankful that I have been given another day.

© 2020 CGThelen

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

Current Musings

Finding Fresh Dirt in My Life

If you dig deep into my history, you will find a lot of dirt. After all, I grew up on a farm where we made our living off the land — the dirt of the fields. Because of that experience, there is something about springtime and putting my bare hands into the soil that is soothing to my soul.

With the tired gray sky and cold giving way to warmer temperatures here in the Midwest, I grabbed hold of my shovel and made my way to the brown and rotted remains of last year’s garden. The worn, wood handle felt familiar in my hands as I pressed the metal blade into the soil and turned it — burying the old and revealing the new, fresh soil underneath. Shovel full, by shovel full, I tilled the small garden patch until there was only a plot of fresh soil devoid of the old, rotted plants from last year.

As I raked the soil to break up the clumps of dirt, I looked on in anticipation of the greenery that would cover the black dirt in the next few weeks. With seeds in hand, I made a trench with a garden trowel and slipped each seed from my hand into the open trench. The soil felt warm to the touch as I covered the trench with my bare hand, then firmly packed the soil with my palm.

For a moment I could feel the hope of spring as I compressed the soil. The warmth of spring would soon germinate new life, new hope. Soon shoots will poke through the packed soil and rise up into full grown plants, turning this black square of dirt into a green patch of hope filled with the promise of fresh produce. Such a reassuring feeling from the touch of fresh dirt.

© 2020 CGThelen

Artifacts from the dirt in my life from left to right: rotary hoe disk from a tractor implement on the farm where I grew up; the shovel I have used for years to till my small garden; disk from our six-row planter on the farm.

When Phones Stayed at Home

Phones are an interesting device. During this time of COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders, they provide a vital link to our family and friends. Video chat, texting and even talking give us the next best thing to being with someone. Our phones have become a vital link to information and people around the world. It’s hard for me to remember when phones, not people, were under a stay-at-home order.

It seems so long ago, but then again it was a long time ago when I was still in grade school. In those days the phone was a fixture in the home. You could never lose your phone because it was tethered to a land line. Our phone sat on its own little table like a piece of art in the dining room in full view of everyone. Which also made it difficult to have a private conversation. That made it rough being a teenager.

When my older sisters received a call from a boyfriend, us younger siblings just couldn’t help but want to listen in. What saved them from embarrassment was the long cord on the phone that allowed them to take it into a closet for privacy. Of course that privacy was often enforced by my mom guarding the closet door to keep us away while she listened in.

In those days when you left home you left the phone behind. We didn’t even have an answering machine so no one could leave a message when they called while we were gone. When we did answer the phone, no one wondered about our location because the phone and it’s number were tied to the house.

Now it seems phones are connected to people no matter where they are located — which for many of us now means being homebound. Which makes me grateful we are able to connect with people with our phones in ways that were not possible a few decades ago.

© 2020 CGThelen