Punting in Cambridge To Celebrate Special Occasions

When my son’s British fiancé told us we were celebrating their engagement by going punting in Cambridge, I imagined kicking the pigskin around a ballpark. But the English don’t play American football. Then I thought it must have something to do with rugby, as her brother-in-law is an avid rugby man.

Well, what a surprise! Punting has nothing to do with playing ball on a pitch (field), but instead involves a boat on a river.

Imagine skimming across the water in a “punt.” Picture a Venetian gondola that is shaped like a flat-bottomed, mini-barge.

In Cambridge punting along River Cam leads you past the famous colleges of the University of Cambridge. Founded as far back as 800 years ago, each contains its own history, architecture and stories.

The punt, dating back to medieval times, allowed navigation in shallow water areas. Until recently commercial fishermen used punts to work the fens of East Anglia. In 1870 punting for pleasure began, becoming more common in the 1900s and today is considered a part of the Cambridge experience.

A person navigates by standing on the till (known as the deck) at the back, not paddling, but poling. It looks easy. It’s not. Imagine trying to propel a dozen hefty passengers forward by pushing off the river bottom with a pole vault stick.

Poles, usually made of spruce 12-16 feet long, have a shoe, a rounded lump of metal on one end in the shape of swallow’s tail. Without a rudder, the punt is difficult to steer and the pole can get stuck in the river bottom.

Our next dilemma was who was going to pole the punt?

I assumed David would guide us down the River Cam, but sidelined by a rugby injury, he couldn’t even bend his knee enough to climb into the boat.

Fortunately Larissa and her sister, Charlotte, had the foresight to barter for tickets that included a guide. From the Quayside Punting Station near Magdalene Bridge, we clambered into the low seats of the punt.

Like a modern day Huck Finn, a handsome, young man in khakis and a white shirt stood in the stern grasping his pole. In the voice of a great orator, he recounted the history and legends surrounding the colleges of Cambridge during our 45-minute ride up one side of the Cam and then down the other.

“The Backs refers to a one-mile stretch past the rear sides of some of England’s most prestigious and oldest universities,” our guide said. “A few of the famous colleges, which we will be passing include Trinity College, founded by King Henry VIII in 1546; Trinity Hall, where scientist Stephen Hawking studied; and St. Johns College, which was attended by poet William Wordsworth.”

Along the riverbank people dined at outdoor cafes, college co-eds lounged on lush lawns under weeping willows and boatloads of tourists drank beer celebrating the arrival of spring. A carnival like atmosphere prevailed. Punting was like being in an amusement park on bumper boat ride and sure enough another boat slammed into our side, jarring my back.

While the skilled college guides maneuvered between boats, amateur punters spun in circles and crashed into other vessels.

“On your right is St. John’s,” our guide said, “one of the oldest and most celebrated colleges in Cambridge.”

As we passed under the city’s famous Bridge of Sighs, named after the one in Venice, the scene felt surreal.

When we opened champagne and raised our glasses to Nic and Larissa, I thought, what are the odds of small town girl from Illinois marrying a French boy from Normandy and raising a Franco-American son who’s falls in love with a beautiful English/Irish-Ukrainian girl.

How extraordinary the fate uniting our families as we celebrate toasting to their future by punting in Cambridge.

Are you a pitcher or a saver?

pitcher or a saver?Were we were born with a genetic propensity to be a pitcher or a saver, a hoarder or a heaver? Some people like my sister never let unnecessary items accumulate; others like me have trouble throwing away anything.

While spring cleaning, I finally parted with possessions that had been with me for most of my European life like a bottle of Chanel perfume that I received as a gift in 1979, my first year in France. With my Multiple Chemical Sensitivity I could never wear it, but every time I saw that bottle I was reminded of the kindness of strangers, those Parisians, who first welcomed me to their homeland.

I no longer have storage space for my coffee cup – gifts from family, pitcher or a saver?friends and students – an eclectic collection of ISU, UWSP, Manchester, London, and my all time favorite a cream-colored cup imprinted with a pitcher or a saver?sketch of the United Methodist Church, my dad designed. Some cups mean too much to me to use, so they decorate my mantel like the one with a photo of a former basketball team.

I also save baseball caps from every major sporting event I ever attended and every team I loved. Ditto for those team logo t-shirts.

My kids, young adults now living thousands of miles away, have no desire to keep old scrapbooks, school awards, sports medals, so why do I save them? Why keep the clay mold of a 5 year olds handprint, odd shaped vases, lumpy hand made pottery, a glazed chicken, and dozens of paintings. Silly me, hanging onto old toys like Playmobil and Beanie Babies for the memories they evoke.

pitcher or a saver?Dozens of picture albums clutter our home with old pages falling apart filled with photos of places I no longer remember and people whose names I have forgotten.

I have good intentions. Every time the urge to organize strikes, I buy another beautiful colored folder that then sits empty on a shelf like a heirloom.

But by far my worst vice of all is an obsession with words. I saved cards from my grade school BFF, sketches from college roommates and letters from grandparents. Books spill off my shelves. I have – yes I counted – 86 binders in shades of red, blue, green, purple and orange filled with half-baked story ideas, travel notes, family research, book drafts and kids’ essays. For a writer, words are the hardest possession to part with.

Call me a hoarder, but I am not materialistic driven to buy, buy, buy and accumulate more goods. It’s just that pitching out sentimental, memory-evoking possessions feels like sacrilege. Out, out, out. Gone the memories.

With the advent of technology and information updated every second – text messaging, Instagram, Snapchat – everything changes so fast, and is forgotten even faster.pitcher or a saver?

Could our brains intentionally be wired this way into pitchers and savers? Some minds are designed to discard and downsize to make room for the next generation, while others like me cling to the past to record our passage in time.

I am like the beekeeper tending the hive, honing the busy nest of our lives, gathering the honey of our collective memories.

Happy Father’s Day Man with Heart

Though a pacemaker helps your heart keep its beat, we know it needs no assistance in applying its love to being the generous, patient, empathetic, thoughtful, guiding, tolerant, worn out ol’ heart we call DAD. Even as your once strong stride has slowed somewhat, you continue to be an energetic guide through troubled times.

Generous. Your giving heart helped finance college education and provided emergency loans that were forgotten. You helped pay for trips – trains, planes, and automobiles – and seemed to have an endless supply of those $20 bills you referred to as “gas money.” Each year, you took the money you got back from your savings and reinvested it into your grandchildren’s savings. And then there were the presents. A cowboy hat, Barbie doll, microscope, basketball, bicycle… You derived greater pleasure in satisfying others’ material desires than your own minimal ones.

Your greatest gift, though, was time. Taking the time to make sure children grew up feeling loved; not just your children, but all children whose path stumbled across yours. You pitched whiffle balls to the whole neighborhood, rebounded basketballs for the entire team, providing support and counsel to students and players alike who didn’t always have another source for it. You welcomed friends to our cabin every summer and ignored the obvious logistical inefficiency of having to ferry them back and forth separately throughout the summer. In fact, you shuttled kids around until we were old enough to drive, at which point you simply taught us to do it for ourselves.

Patient. You spent hours perfecting our jump shot and bit your tongue to keep from yelling at noisy, teenage girls’ « slumber-less » parties in your basement.
When a student cried in practice or acted up in class, instead of cajoling or scolding you listened, easing the pain for generations of adolescents who discovered one adult they could trust.
You read the same storybook to a demanding 4-year-old granddaughter and balanced the same checkbook for an even more demanding 94-year-old father.

Empathetic. You captured emotions and moments of natural stillness in your paintings and then gave them away so that family could be surrounded by elegant reminders of your love.
You’d peek in at your daughters’ tearful talks behind closed doors, asking, « everything okay? »
Your tender heart gives bear hugs, knee pats, neck rubs, and handshakes. Every phone conversation ends with those 3 endearing words, « I love you, » so there is never any room for doubt.

Thoughtful. In a time when men never wrote more than their signatures, you drew home made cards, penned letters and mailed hundreds of manila envelopes filled with sports clipping to your daughter overseas.
You bought fun fruits, chocolate kisses, ice cream cones and other favorite treats for grandkids.

Guiding. You walked the talk by setting an example of self-discipline, perseverance and integrity – values you instilled in the young people you taught and coached. You counseled so many students, athletes, and friends of your kids that you became a « Papa Mac » to dozens.
You taught us how to save pennies as children and budget money as adults. You explained how to read maps, make terrariums, catch fish, shoot baskets, and throw curve balls.

Tolerant. You welcomed everyone of every race; nationality and walk of life into your home believing every human being should be treated equally. You showered everyone from janitors, to waitresses, to secretaries with kindness and good cheer. You respected your children’s choices from college and careers to dates and mates.

Loving. You loved unconditionally. You forgave our embarrassing affirmations of self, like when I wore pants to church as a teen and left the country to play a game as an adult.
You accepted without question when one daughter married a foreigner, the other married a Cornhusker, and the last broke off her first engagement. And if one of us decided to marry a divorced, ex con, you would learn to love him too and be there to help with the rehabilitation.

Thirty years ago we almost lost you when you had a heart attack. With exercise and clean living, faith and family, you recovered. Though your heart may be tired, your lungs weak and your legs weary, you keep fighting to get up and put one foot forward. In doing so, you inspire us to keep on a keeping on.

You have a great heart, Dad.

The best.

Celebrating You on my 60th Birthday

I dream of throwing a big birthday bash bringing together the people from around the globe who have touched my life. Since that is not possible, you are invited to my virtual 60th birthday celebration. The guest of honor is not me but you. You who have stood by me during the hard times. You who have shared my highs and carried me during the lows. You who have given sense to my existence.

Today I am whooping it up for those people who have sustained me at different ages and stages during my past 6 decades.

I raise my glass to my family of birth, my parents and siblings. You have seen me at my worst and loved me unconditionally. You forgave my sharp words, ignored my flaws and overlooked my shortcomings.

Skål, to the nieces, nephews and cousins from coast to coast Oklahoma to Maryland and as far away as Norway who welcome me with open arms just because we shared the same ancestry.

Santé to my family by love, to the Frenchman who helped me transition to coach when injury ended my playing career, who wiped away tears after another health setback, who believed in me always especially when I most doubted myself.

Cheers to my children, who filled my mommy days with joy and adventure and now as young adults bring comfort and companionship. My daughter sensing my despair wraps me in a warm hug. My son seeing discouragement in my eyes offers to walk and talk. Each one reciprocating those simple acts of love that nourish our soul.

Prost to friends scattered across the world, who shared snippets of my life from my Sterling High School classmates, to my Illinois State University teammates and roommates, to my American, British, French, German, Swiss and other friends. To those folks who I may not have seen for years, but whose memory still makes me smile and fills my heart with happiness.

Salud to the members of my international community – colleagues, students, athletes – who taught me so much about tolerance for other cultures and customs. Your enthusiasm for learning fueled my weary soul through dark days of illness where our next lesson, practice, game was the only motivation dragging me out of bed.

Hail to my healthcare professionals specialists from Eagle River to Minong from Minnetonka to Geneva who believed me and kept searching outside the box for answers to help ease my pain.

Cin cin to members of my writing community who share the burning desire to communicate the old fashioned way, word-by-word. And to my faithful readers who give my writing meaning and whose comments offer inspiration.

February 28th may commemorate the date of my birth, but today I raise my glass to you, you who shaped my life. Because of your support, your loyalty, your love, I am still here raising Cain, full of « piss and vinegar » in my 60th year.

Guest Post: Daughter Gives Mom Remedial IT Lessons

Disclaimer: This piece should not be used to judge the state of interpersonal relations in our family. My mom is a wonderful person, and I love and admire her. My parents have been happily married for 32 years, despite the fact they have owned a computer through most of their marriage.

I am not a tech-y person. My friends mocked me for refusing to upgrade to a smartphone until 2014. My approach to my computer woes is to shut it down, restart and cross my fingers that the problem will fix itself. So when I tell you that my mom makes me look like a computer genius, you can see the problem. Usually she asks my dad for help, but since his assistance is accompanied by a lesson in French expletives, I became her IT resource during my last trip home.

I realized she was having problems with Facebook Messenger when Nic’s girlfriend approached me about their communication difficulties: “Pat told Nic that I don’t answer my messages, but I do! She just never answers back”.

I opened Facebook and demonstrated the “complicated” process of clicking the message symbol in the upper right corner of the screen and we discovered that she had dozens of unread messages, dating back to early 2015. If you need to communicate with Mom, I recommend you email instead.

The next issue: Spotify, which I set up for her last time I was home. “It always plays the same songs,” she says, “Show me how to erase those and download new ones.”

“Mom, you didn’t download anything, Spotify is a streaming service. Just make a new playlist.”

Pause. Quizzical stare.

“What’s a playlist?”

Since I wasn’t making progress on the computer, we moved on to the iPhone. Unfortunately, she does not know any of her passwords, or where to find them, so setting up Facebook and Goodreads accounts was challenging. Luckily my dad, foreseeing this problem, installed the password manager, LastPass. Next, she wanted to learn to use the camera, which she grasped quickly. She was chuffed by her ability to take pictures at her retirement party, and indeed she took many. Some were of her finger, and most were too dark, but it was an accomplishment and I was proud of her.

That pride was short-lived, however, because at this party her English department colleagues gave her a Kindle, a thoughtful gift for my mom, who is an avid reader. I just wish they had thrown in a bottle of wine for Dad and I, who had to teach her how to use it. Dad set it up, and Mom browsed Goodreads trying to figure out what book to buy first. Then she screamed: “Help! I don’t know what happened, I was just browsing and suddenly the pages of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ popped up and now it’s stuck”. A lot of things ‘just happen’ on computers when Pat is around. I don’t believe in the occult, but who knows? Maybe she is the victim of a particularly mischievous poltergeist. That would explain how, a few years ago, she received emails about random men after she inadvertently signed up for a Swiss dating site (unless maybe my dad signed her on in hopes that she would find someone else to help her with her computer issues).

Returning to the Kindle saga, since nothing was stuck – she had merely opened a book sample – so I show her how to use the ‘back’ button. But when she opened the sample, a message was sent addressed to ‘Sarah’. My dad, in his haste to set up Kindle to get my mom out of his hair, connected her to someone else’s Amazon account. Surprisingly, once we connected the correct account the Kindle store switched to German (we are in Switzerland after all). Google search revealed that this is a common problem with a less-than-straightforward solution, so we navigated through10 different steps on the Amazon account in French, English, and, German, and managed to reset the country to ‘USA’. But it was too early to celebrate our victory. When trying to re-connect Goodreads after resetting the Kindle, we faced a new challenge: Pat has multiple accounts, and multiple incorrect passwords recorded in LastPass.

When she first joined Goodreads, my dad made her an account for her book, and a personal account. Now this makes perfect sense for someone who wants to use the site for marketing while retaining a second, more private online identity. It makes no sense for someone who already has accounts on a half a dozen other social networking sites and doesn’t know how to use any of them.

Finally, we got the Kindle set up and working. But we still don’t have a book on the thing though – Mom continues browsing and can’t decide what she wants to read.

Pockets Full of Friends Make Every Day Special

Quicks at SLI was so bowled over by well wishes for my birthday that I decided to add an extra day to the calendar in February just to celebrate longer. Having been around for nearly six decades and having moved often I accumulated a lot of acquaintances. Though I hate the impersonal nature of the Internet, it miraculously allows me to reconnect with friends from past lives.

I never carry a purse (too hard on the back) instead I wear pockets. Though I may forget to carry cash or identity papers (Americans struggle to develop the habit of toting passports), I never leave behind valuables. Instead of money, I stash friendships in my pouches and pull out memories of each to help me through tough times.

My pocketbook may be empty, but my pockets are overflowing. And birthdays, as reluctant as we are to have them in midlife, give us a time to reconnect and reflect on the wonderful people in our lives. Those reminders are especially valuable when facing isolation due to pain, loss or health setbacks like I did recently.

We all belong to circles. And we don’t need Google+ to remind us.

neighbourhood's gangGrowing up as one of 4 siblings only 5 years apart, we shared cars, clothes and playmates. When I need a lift, I think of my old neighborhood gang back in the day when it was safe to play outside even after the streetlights came on.

How could I ever forget my college roomies, the family, who happy bdayshared that magical time transitioning from childhood and adulthood when all dreams seemed possible. One of whom sketched cards to pick me up in tough times and made me laugh everyday with her creative zest for life. Or the teammates, who picked off pesky defenders, set up perfect plays and had my back literally every time I drove to the hoop.

Or my international friends from the Land Down Under, to the City of Lights, to Berlin to my peeps here in Geneva. And all those basketball buddies – coaches, teammates, players throughout the decades – whose lives intersected mine in gymnasiums around the globe.

How could I forget my writer friends who reach out through their words? Those women on the Midlife Boulevard whose wisdom helps me navigate the perils of middle age. And to my reader friends that make this blog buzz.

Long ago I pitched my purses, but I keep my homies close by tucked in my hoody. They understand my past growing up on main street in the Heartland.

In my front jacket pocket, I tote new friends; in my back jeans pocket I carry old pals. And in my breast pocket, close to my heart, I hold loved ones who have been with me every step of the way, those sisters and brothers who held me up through tragedy. And triumph.

Thanks for filling my pockets with memories, for touching my life. Your birthday wishes reminded me how blessed I am to be around for another year.

My mom taught me early on that even though every day can’t be my own birthday, each day is a gift. The secret to a happy life is learning to share in other people’s joy. Join in someone else’s celebration. Share the laughter. Spread the love.

Cheers! Here’s to all of you!