The sun bakes the brown skin on my back. I peer through a knot hole at the water below. The warmth feels good but I’m not here for the sun. I’m here for the water.

I place my palms down on the gnarled wooden surface of the dock and hoist myself to my feet. I quickly look around to assess the situation: Who can I impress? Who should I avoid? Who might I frighten with a sneak attack?

I face the shore and stand on the edge of the dock plank, balancing on the balls of my feet. Hands at my sides I take a deep breath and fling myself into the space beyond the dock.

The water is barely six feet deep so the dive must be shallow. Shallow dives don’t allow for much finesse but as I jump, I sweep my arms outward until they meet above my head just before I hit the water. I feel graceful and superheroic never considering that I may look less so.

The water is cool and murky green. My older siblings won’t swim here and some friends level charges of “runoff” and “swimmer’s ear” but I never believe them. This is my habitat.

With eyes wide open I immediately glide to the sandy bottom. I take massive strokes with my arms, inverting the motion I used in the air moments before. My hands pass in front of my face each time I reposition my arms for a new stroke. I feel all the power and grace my non-athletic body will ever manage. I know I am a better swimmer than my peers and that is a great comfort.

I swim silently, slightly above the sand, with no other thoughts in my head but suppressing my desire for air. Eventually that desire will overpower me but I know I’m one step ahead of my future self. When at last I can take no more, I will begin the ascent to the surface, forced to continue swimming by virtue of my position at the bottom. This, I know, will give me an advantage in future underwater swimming contests, should they ever arise.

But none of that is necessary for this dive because the shore arrives before my air supply dwindles. I take one final stroke and glide into the shallow water where it is no longer possible to hide my awkward body from the world. When I can go no further, I raise my head above the surface, taking care not to stir the water unnecessarily or to make any gasping noises with my first breath.

I linger briefly in the shallow water, feeling my body float effortlessly while my belly rubs slightly against the sand. I revel in the moment. I know I belong here. I long for the rest of my life to be this effortless.

Dedicated to Mary Lou, 2016.08.21

Letter to my Uncle Lorell who is dying

September 3, 2011


Dear Lorell,

When I was a kid there were few things I liked more than going to my uncles’ farms. Being a “city slicker” (as my classmates often called me), the farm was a completely different world to me. When I visited my Uncle Merlin’s farm it was mostly about hanging out with my cousins who were close in age to me, but when I visited your farm, it was always about you and I spending time together. That is a gift that I will always treasure.

One time when I was there “helping” you, we tried to take a dent out of the local rat population. I’ll never forget when you lifted up a piece of plywood (or maybe it was corrugated tin) that was laying behind the big machine shed. The plywood was laying on a small pile of corn and when you lifted it, it revealed several rat “tunnels” and the rats inside them. I was surprised but you were not because you had a gun and started shooting the rats as they scurried away. Guns, rats, tunnels – everything about being on the farm was so cool.

You’ve always been there. You were at Grandma Christensen’s for all those Christmases with the toys in the bedrooms and the money in the envelopes. And you were at Grandma Ring’s for the oyster stew. I remember sitting in that little living room watching Vitas Gerulaitis play tennis and you laughing when I joked that his name sounded like a disease. Harold was there. And my dad. And Gene.

So many memories I have of you and so little time to tell you about them. You kept your golf cart in Grandma Ring’s garage. You drove that giant green Cadillac. You visited me at my first house in Portland. Remember? You got lost and I told you “find the first bridge you see and cross it.” I was so sad to spend what I thought would be our last birthday together three years ago but now I’m so glad that you have had three more years in this world. I’ve never had a birthday where I didn’t think of you. And I never will.

As I sit here with all these thoughts and memories swirling through my head, I’m desperately trying to figure out how to end this note to you in a meaningful way. I suppose that life mostly doesn’t come to an end in a dramatic or meaningful way so perhaps I should just end this by saying that I thank you for your many kindnesses towards me over the last (almost) 45 years and that I think you’ve been a good uncle and a fine man. I also thank you for my double cousins without whom my life would be lesser. I hope that you reach the end of your days peacefully and without regret. And I love you.


Future programmers of America

Future programmers of America
Originally uploaded by rynosoft

This is a picture of my second grade class that appeared in our hometown newspaper, the Riceville Recorder. There were many more of us but I suppose they couldn’t all be in the picture with the newfangled computer they had us using. It was actually a teletype terminal that connected to a “mainframe” computer at Luther College in Decorah, IA (via an acoustic modem hookup). The terminal was kind of mounted on a dolly that let the teachers wheel it all around the school. We played Oregon Trail and a MasterMind knockoff called Bagels.

Bicentennial Money

Bicentennial Money
Originally uploaded by rynosoft

In 1976, I was in third grade when America celebrated her bicentennial. One aspect of that celebration was the minting of special bicentennial coins. Anticipating that such coins would eventually be collectable and worth more than face value, I gave some of each denomination to my mother about 5000 dollar yahoo borrowing and asker her to place them in our safety deposit box at the First National Bank in Riceville. When I was back in Riceville in September, my mother handed me this envelope on which she had inscribed my name 30 years ago and said, “These are yours.” While it was cool to be reminded of something I had completely forgotten about, I was disappointed to find that they are not worth much more than face value.

In defense of our cats

A loyal reader recently wrote:

Your blog said: Sunday night we got one by the cat food

You mean your cats can’t catch these mice??? Do they try?

Yes, it’s true – our cats have been completely ineffective in keeping our house pest free. However, it’s not really their fault. Ming, who is 14 years old, is blind in one eye and nearly deaf. Nietzsche is 15 years old and has arthritis. They are essentially just grumpy, old cats at this point in their lives and definitely no longer mouser material.

When Tina and I got married in New Mexico, Nietzsche was not yet a year old but proved to be an excellent mouser. He caught at least two in the short time that we stayed at Jan and Tom’s house and even left one on our pillow for us one night! Those days are long gone now, but they both enjoyed when I let them check out our most recently trapped mouse this morning. More on that later.

Snow Day

Last night it snowed about an inch. Thomas and Graham went outside for about an hour before bedtime to have a snowball fight and then build a snowman with their friend Ziad. The temperature was about 35° which made the snow perfect – sticky but still soft.

As I watched them cavort in the snow, I remembered the first time my hands got really, really cold. It was probably the first winter on my paper route and my gloves (or mittens) were horribly inadequate. I came home with very cold fingers and my mom had me put them under running water to thaw them out. I remember screaming that the water was too hot and my mom telling me that it was cold water. After that I always wore a pair of snowmobile mittens over another pair of gloves.

Much to our surprise the snow was still on the ground this morning and school as first delayed and then cancelled altogether. Thomas and Graham were outside for quite awhile before their play devolved into a fight. Graham had to come in and stay in his room and Thomas wasn’t far behind.

I decided to stay home, too. I’m going to try to divert attention away from the Wii this afternoon and toward Pinewood Derby cars. The race is on the 21st and we have not even started!

Zero tolerance

Graham’s school has a Zero Tolerance policy for fighting, which will go a long way in explaining his suspension. His referral (at left) describes the incident as:

Student on top of Graham. Witnessed Graham slug student in face.

Evidently, Graham and his friend Garett were playing a game that they had made up. Garett became frustrated with the game and tackled Graham somewhat playfully. Graham asked him to get off but he didn’t so Graham punched him somewhat gently. This is when the teacher pulled them apart and sent them to the principal’s office with a referral.

When Tina received the call from the principal Graham was sobbing uncontrollably. He was afraid of getting in further trouble and ashamed of what had happened. Because of the zero tolerance policy, the principal had no choice but to suspend Graham and Garett from school. She showed a little bit of mercy by suspending them only for the next morning.

The whole incident reminded me of something that happened to me when I was in fifth or sixth grade. My sometime best friend, Gretchen Eastman, had undergone a growth spurt that made her bigger than most of her peers. Kids are cruel and we were no exception as we continually taunted her by calling her “Grape Ape”. Eventually, she grew tired of the name-calling but I was slow to pick up on that fact. One day on the playground she simply decided that she had had enough. When I continued calling her “Grape Ape,” she reared back and decked me right in the face. I don’t recall if I fought back, but I do recall both of us being sent to the principal’s office for the “fight”.

I remember sobbing uncontrollably myself both at the prospect of having been sent to the principal’s office and by the fact that I had my clock cleaned by a girl. It’s hard to say which was more humiliating, but I can tell you that my visits to the principal’s office were rare by that time. I remember that my hands and arms felt very wet from all the tears. I’m not sure what the end result of the fight was, but I’m quite sure that I was not suspended. Our principal (and neighbor), Mr. Harnack, had mercy on us and probably felt that I had undergone punishment enough.

This incident with Graham, much like many other things that happen in my boys’ lives, makes me long for the simplicity of 1970s small-town Iowa.

First election, last election

I still remember the first time I voted. Voting in Riceville was always at City Hall, where there were probably two or three booths. The helpful election volunteer explained the whole process and what I needed to do. There were levers, I remember, and there were two big levers. One you could pull to vote all-Democrat and the other you could pull to vote all-Republican. At the time, I thought that was handy but something I would never use. I scrupulously considered all my options for each race and voted according to my conscience. Something I have done in every election since.

But yesterday was different. Yesterday it seemed like there was a message to be sent and the only way for the intended recipients to hear it would be a massive Democratic victory. So I voted Democrat in every single race that had a Democrat running. Now the message has been sent. Will it be heard and heeded?

How was the message sent? Let me count the ways:

  1. Democrats will now control the U.S. House of Representatives
  2. Democrats are guaranteed at least a tie in the United States Senate, with a very good chance of taking control (depending on how the recount goes in Virginia)
  3. Donald Rumsfeld resigned
  4. Rick Santorum lost
  5. Ted Kennedy won
  6. Democrat Ted Kulongoski won a second term as Oregon governor despite heavy negative campaigning by his opponent in the waning days of the election
  7. 28 states now have Democratic governors
  8. Four out of five U.S. House seats up for election in Oregon went to Democrats
  9. Democrats prevail in 10 of 14 Oregon Senate races and retain control
  10. Democrats win 24 of the 42 available seats and gain control of the Oregon House
  11. Oregon turnout is expected to reach 71 percent when all votes are counted
  12. All but one of the state-wide ballot measures went the way I voted
  13. No local ballot measure I voted against won

There were a few downsides:

  1. Joe Lieberman won his Senate race. Can his vote be counted on?
  2. Same-sex marriage bans were approved in six more states. Either people don’t understand the whole freedom concept, or I’m missing something.
  3. Hillary Clinton won by a large margin possibly encouraging her to run for President in 2008
  4. Harold Ford lost his Senate race in Tennessee but did you see his concession speech? Wow!