A walk in the woods


I don’t recall ever seeing a red-bellied woodpecker on my daily four-mile hike through Foster Park. But there he was today, between my path and the woods along the river. Seeing that bird drew my attention to others along the way, not only sparrows but also quite a few robins.

I soon forgot about keeping up my usual pace and began wondering what the heck robins were doing this far north in Indiana. I don’t believe I ever noticed robins this late in the season.

If robins have been venturing this far north in the Midwest, this late in the year, what’s the meaning of the ancient expression from these parts in the spring – “first robin”?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t have that much interest to conduct a computer search on the subject. My guess is that robins hang around these days until the weather turns much colder.

Until yesterday, it had been unseasonably warm here. Now I don’t necessarily attribute that to global warming, although I’m sure the climate scientists haven’t made up this stuff.

(There’s lots more evidence of global warming than evidence for the existence of God. But that’s for another blog entry.)

But here we are, just days before Christmas, and we’ve yet to see the first snow. Maybe flakes fell during the night. Right now, it’s cloudy enough and cold enough to snow.

What I did notice on my walk through the park this morning – besides the woodpecker- was fewer walkers. Did I miss them because I headed out too early? Or did the cold snap scare them off?

I’m too addicted to this morning walking routine to let cold weather stop me. I’ll go out if it’s zero or even below. Of course, I have clothes for the cold. If there’s a bit of snow or ice on the pavement, I’ll strap my spikes on my shoes.

Now if the snow is five or six inches deep, I’ll shovel the driveway and head for a walk at the mall on the city’s north side. It’s a good thing I usually can walk in the park through the winter. I would really miss the outdoors.

Also, I find exercising at a gym to be too boring to tempt me to join that alternative. In any case, I believe my daily walk, push-ups and other exercises are keeping me fit and alive at age 77. Moreover, my routine does wonders for my mood.

Most of the time, if I’m not downright happy, I’m quite content. I suppose I’m as content as that woodpecker that greeted me in the park this morning.

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Young believer makes his wish

Ottawa, ON - November 17, 2007-Santa Claus waves to the kids at the  Annual firefighter Help Santa toy parade  in Ottawa, Saturday, November 17, 2007  Photo by Jean Levac, The Ottawa Citizen, Canwest News Services (For Ottawa Citizen story by ???, CITY) ASSIGNMENT NUMBER 87308
Ottawa, ON – November 17, 2007-Santa Claus waves to the kids at the Annual firefighter Help Santa toy parade in Ottawa, Saturday, November 17, 2007.   Photo by Jean Levac, The Ottawa Citizen, Canwest News Services

It didn’t make any sense that Santa would show up at a store front on Clinton Street in Defiance, Ohio.

But I was young enough to still believe. Sort of. Like the other kids who had been in line ahead of me, I climbed on this fat guy’s lap and informed him that I wanted an electric train like the one in the B.F. Goodrich window.

I didn’t pull on his beard to see if it were the real thing. My parents raised me to be respectful of my elders. Indeed, I noticed that the beard appeared to be growing out of Santa’s face. I was right. Maybe his old gentleman was not just a fat guy dressed up in a red suit.

I must have been old enough to be in school that year, so let’s say seven or eight. I had walked by myself from school, down Clinton Street. I don’t know if Mom and Dad suspected that I was becoming a Santa skeptic. In any case, they pretended that I was still a believer.

I’m sure I let them know about my visit with the “jolly old elf.” More important, I’m sure I shared with them what I told him I wanted for Christmas. Grownups would have called that covering your bets.

I didn’t teach my own children to believe in Santa Claus. When they were just kids, I suppose I worried how learning the truth would teach them not to trust people.

I’m not sure I was right. I’m sure I’m not the only person who played lots of make-believe games as a child. As an only child, I readily invented brothers and other playmates. In fact, I created an entire roster for my team at 602 Jefferson Avenue.

My favorite radio show in those days was called “Let’s Pretend.” It richly fed my imagination. At some point it occurred to me that Santa was just another make-believe character whose magic brought joy to lots of children. It doesn’t follow that those children grow up to become skeptics.

In my case, I spent eight years in theological schools long before I doubted the existence of a spiritual world. It had nothing to do with learning that Santa was make-believe.

Even with my perspective on religious belief these days, I find the season magical. Christmas not only prompts people to give to charities. It seems to stir people to be friendlier.

Its not as if they don’t want some stranger who really is Santa to think they’ve been naughty. Rather, the season draws us closer to family and friends. The season reminds us that it’s better to give than to receive. I’m not alone to love that feeling. More blessed?
Sure it is.

It turns out that Christmas isn’t so much about make-believe characters. It’s not “Let’s Pretend” time. It’s not even about buying and receiving gifts. It’s not even so much about religion, although anyone can love the birth stories of Matthew and Luke.

I think the way we celebrate this season mainly is about our common humanity. Unlike any other time, we reach out to others and they reach out to us.

As I write this, I see the Christmas tree all lighted up in the corner of the living. The wreaths pick up that theme on the front door and over the mantle. The miniature Santas and Father Christmases that preside over it all join to make this such a special time.

Throughout the year, we may often feel otherwise. But these days we know the truth. We are not alone. “Joy to the World” – we are not alone.

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From realms on high


Christmas_tree_at_nightJust seconds after the dismissal bell rang, I grabbed my coat and headed for Clinton Street downtown.

Ten minutes later – at most – I found myself in the B.F. Goodrich store to watch the electric train chug around the track set up in the window display.

Bored with that after a while, I’d then head for the Firestone store across the street to examine their Christmas displays. In warmer weather, I would spend half an hour looking at the fly rods.

Now it was Christmas and within days of the annual vacation. I had different wishes one year after another. By age 12, I had lost interest in trains. Now it was shotguns.

So by this time, I’d head north for the big hardware store close to the river bridge. I wouldn’t tarry at Firestone. I’d hasten to the big hardware store. I don’t recall that name.

This store had a huge display of rifles and shotguns. My passion in that department was a 20-gauge single-shot Winchester. Every late fall I had joined Dad and his friends to tromp through muddy fields east of Defiance. But without a gun, my role was to retrieve any pheasant or rabbit somebody had shot.

My dream was the 20-gauge and joining the hunt as a full-fledge member of the hunting party.

I don’t recall that Dad and I discussed my dream. Somehow, though, he knew my heart’s desire. What I do recall is shopping with him to buy Mom a Christmas gift. That found us in a furniture store on Clinton Street and buying a lazy Susan style coffee table.

I’m wondering now if most other people have a bunch of memories about this time of year. For me it’s not just the wishes for presents. It’s shopping for just the right tree, which Dad and I did together. It’s the caroling with other kids from church or the neighborhood.

The beautifully decorated tree that nearly reaches the ceiling in our living room went up the day after Thanksgiving. I didn’t have any big job with that, only carting in the boxed-up branches of the artificial tree and half dozen cartons of decorations.

Wife Toni got the lights and colorful bulbs on the branches. As always, an angel sits on top, fully in charge of whatever festivities lie ahead for the season.

One of the FM stations plays Christmas music through the holiday weeks . Tonight, I hope to remember to turn on the stereo. But before the 25th of the month, we’ll be celebrating son John’s birthday and that of Cynthia, his fiancé.

I’m not sure why I seem to have more vivid memories of this time of year than any other. Despite my share of ups and downs during my 77 years, I still enjoy the season more than any other. It remains a very special time.

It makes exercising more fun. And I’m betting all those miles hiking means I’ll stay healthy to celebrate Christmas lots more years. That’s my hope anyway. The meals, of course, never fail to be great.

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What’s so great about Christmas?


Christmas_tree_at_nightBoy, that was fast. One day we’re gathered at sister-in-law Patti’s for Thanksgiving, the next day Tanya and her boyfriend Brandon were setting up our artificial Christmas tree. So we’ll enjoy the fully-decorated tree for most of a month. Actually, more than a month. We don’t take down the tree until after New Year’s Day.

Charles Dickens wouldn’t recognize the way we celebrate Christmas. At our house, we’ve got wooden, painted Santas on the mantle where eight decorated yet still empty stockings hang. Five Santas sit on the piano. Of course, this isn’t the 19th Century. We do things the modern way.

Even before Kroger’s had sold the first turkey for Thanksgiving, the store had decorations and special treats out on the shelves for Christmas. I may be one of the few Americans who doesn’t mind stores and shopping malls getting a jump on the big holiday. Christmas may not be all about money. But it’s partly about money. In fact, holiday spending accounts for a huge chunk of annual spending for most American families.

That’s all right, too. The spending not only means profits for companies and investors. It represents thousands of jobs all over the country. Complain if you will about stores getting a jump start on Christmas shopping even before the Thanksgiving turkey is sold. But celebrate the creation of jobs. It means a great deal for those households that will have money to spend for presents under the tree.

I love our family traditions. After Thanksgiving dinner, we draw names to see what family member we’ll buy a present for. We’ve done this for years. We set a dollar limit so that the exchange isn’t a financial hardship. Nobody has his or her feelings hurt if you decide the sweater you got on Christmas Day isn’t quite your style and you exchange it for a different style.

We host a Christmas Eve dinner for our immediate family. We might attend a service at our Unitarian church in the neighborhood. Some years Christmas Day we celebrate at sister-in-law Vicki’s some 40 miles west of Fort Wayne. This year the gathering will again star Rod and Cassandra’s two small children, Conner and Chloe and Aunt Patti’s 4-year-old granddaughter Mayzi.

Over the holidays, some family members will celebrate the coming of the Christ child and attend a church service. Those who aren’t particularly religious will still join in singing carols. At our house, with a huge hill in the backyard, we’ll help children sled, providing we get a decent snow covering.

When I was growing up in Defiance, Ohio, Dad and I would trudge several blocks north on Jefferson toward the library to a corner lot filled with fresh Christmas trees. Once home with a tree that wasn’t too crooked, we’d bring out the ornaments. Then we’d spend the afternoon decorating the tree. Mom would serve us hot chocolate. Our little family would be ready for Christmas.

If the traditions of the season provide a structure and routines, they also serve as memories that can brighten your spirits any time of the coming year. I have to smile when I recall one gathering of Mom and Dad’s friends at 602 Jefferson. That year an old classmate of Dad’s named Bus Day and I played catch with my new football in the living room. Yes, predictably, we knocked over the Christmas tree.

After so many years, I can still picture both sets of grandparents, pretending to be surprised and pleased at the gifts I had given them, no doubt bought with my allowance and earnings selling Grit newspaper in the neighborhood.

Never mind what somebody else thinks of Christmas, what’s wrong with it, whether we’ve lost the true spirit, whether its origins are pagan. To be sure, the celebration has changed through the centuries. Now it’s our era’s turn. Besides, who really can be confident that the Nativity stories have any historical basis?

In this culture, what hasn’t changed is that we treat it as the most special holiday. It brings families together. It nurtures forgiveness. It promotes sharing. The carols are fun to sing, on or off key. Through the years, Christmas creates precious memories that last long after your favorite toys have broken and your sweaters and jackets have been shipped off to the Goodwill. There’s just a lot that’s so great about Christmas.

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What would Mrs. Zesky say?


DeskStudentWell, it’s late August and the school buses are rolling already. When I was growing up in Defiance, Ohio, school started right after Labor Day. But never mind the history lesson. We’re here, with the start of another school year and my thoughts, as always, turn to Mrs. Zesky, my fifth grade teacher in Slocum Elementary.

I can’t imagine what her reaction would be to these schemes to improve schools that politicians and school reformers have dreamed up. But I can testify that the matronly Mrs. Zesky was one of my best teachers. Public school, folks. Counting three college degrees, I studied with lots of fine teachers, Mr. Zimmerman in eighth grade English, Miss Mouser in 11th grade English, T.G. Burks in philosophy, Dr. Willer in American literature. Mr. Feldhaus in Shakespeare. Nobody beat my fifth grade teacher.

Here’s one thing about Mrs. Zesky’s teaching. She gave every student a chance to answer a question. And to ask a question. Every child was treated with respect. No teacher’s pets. She wasn’t pressing her students to meet arbitrary standards established at the Ohio Department of Education. If we had achievement tests, we didn’t cram for them.

We learned American history, watched films about the Founding Fathers and the Civil War.
We learned our math facts. You knew you weren’t going to get out of her class and go on to sixth grade if you hadn’t mastered your math facts.

Bertha Zesky oversaw all this learning in a kindly, friendly manner. She didn’t scold or reprimand or embarrass a student. None whatsoever that I recall. She gave us a break on a regular basis from the nose-to-the-grindstone studying.

I don’t recall the reason that she led us to the empty classroom next door for story time. Anyway, she then read to us about the adventures of animals in the forest. Sammy Squirrel? Reddy Fox? That was 66 years ago so I probably have the characters wrong. What I do remember is that Mrs. Zesky made the characters come alive. It was such a terrific exhibition of the pleasures of reading.

I don’t recall her ever sending a student to the office of the principal. That would have been “Old Lady Lind” we called her. She was also my first grade teacher. Her stern demeanor suggested she probably deserved her nickname. Yet we all did learn to read. In fifth grade, there was more.

I don’t think Mrs. Zesky even made a student sit in the hall just to have some classroom peace. I guess we all behaved because she was so nice to us.

My favorite story came during the Christmas gift exchange. We all drew names of course. Limits were set on spending. To my horror, I drew the name of a girl whose family didn’t see that she came to school with clean hair and dress. To my regret, I suppose I and my classmates shunned her. Getting that name in the gift exchange was a humiliation I didn’t need at age 10. I don’t recall that I was crying. But Mrs. Zesky did call me to her desk to discover my distress.

No problem. Mrs. Zesky needed a name and she would give me her name. The teacher’s name! I had the honor of giving our teacher the Christmas gift. The girl whose name I drew would get a gift from the teacher. How special did that make her feel!

Several lifetimes later, when I was writing editorials for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, I also served on the board of the Education Writers Association. With that group, mostly education reporters, I visited a dozen schools and districts around the country. We heard from experts, political leaders and top school officials in a number of states, plus U.S. secretaries of education.

I suppose I picked up good ideas for editorials from these speakers and school visits. But as I reflect on the lectures and interviews, I can’t think of a thing that would have improved Mrs. Zesky’s teaching. Not a thing. She did it all without having a state senator looking over her shoulder or endless drills in math or science. Thanks, my dear Mrs. Zesky.

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