Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What's Your 20?

This year I gave myself the goal to read twenty books. It was a challenge. I would not call myself a reader. Not a reader reader. I'm like a 90 second a pager, depending on the page. A Christmas Carol took longer, the Prydain Chronicles took less.

Twenty books was a stretch but not entirely unattainable. It turned out to be just right (I finished last night). And let me tell you, if I could encourage you to try something in 2009, it would be to go for 20 yourself. If 20 is too many, try 12. Start somewhere. I promise the endeavor will be one of the most worthwhile things you do next year.

My list contained everything from a children's series to Pulitzer prize winners, a healthy dose of pop fiction, nonfiction, some in betweeners (The Sign and the Seal), a few old, and several new. It included the surprise number one book of the year The Shack. It also included a few duds. I love Tom Clancy but Teeth of the Tiger, beyond the perplexing amount of typos, is not his best.

My favorite? There were a lot of good ones. By far the best, however, was Marylinne Robinson's Gilead. It is a masterpiece. The language alone gave me chills. The story made me cry (sad and happy tears). And the message has continued to linger.

So What's Your 20? What is on my list for 2009? I'm up for suggestions. I have gotten a headstart on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (it's like 650 freaking pages), next in line is American Lion (the biography of Andrew Jackson), after that something light.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Lightning Strikes Twice

You may remember that last year we put Anna rose through the torture of sitting on Santa Claus' lap. Well, against better judgement, we decided to give it another go...
Before we go there, here is last year's photo.

This year, I was bound and determined for a smile. We talked up the encounter for weeks. A-Ro would just stare at us and say, "No!" "Come on, Santa's nice." "Santa's not nice. I don't like Santa." We nodded, but didn't heed her warning.
Resorting to bribery I told A-Ro that if she didn't cry that Daddy would give her french fries, ice cream, and a merry-go-round ride. She brightened, "French Fries?" I really thought we had a chance. Then she pointed at me, "You sit on his lap, first." "I'm not sitting on his lap," I said. Lia looked at me. "Tell you what, I'll give Santa a hug. How about that?" "First?"asked Anna Rose. "First," I said. It seemed to work.
I walked up to Santa. "Hey!" I called, then under my breath, "Don't think I'm weird but I need to hug you." He kind of patted me and reached for my daughter. In that split second, it was over.

Two years, to screams of terror. You would think we would learn our lesson. But no. Oh no. Oh yes. Don't you fret. We'll be back next year!

Thursday, November 06, 2008

a philadelphia story

I have spent the last couple weeks analyzing the complete transformation that has taken place in my psyche ever since Brad Lidge threw that slider in the top of the ninth to seal the World Series for the Philadelphia Phillies.

I have been a Phillies fan since I can remember. I lost my first tooth at a Phils/Mets game. I went to dozens of games after I got my license. Heck, when they tore down the Vet, me and my friends went down and "purchased" some seats. I have two mounted in my basement.

Really, like most Philadelphians, I'm not just a Phillies fan; I'm a Philadelphia sports fan. I care. I care deeply. My dad started me early. I was actually born on September 24th because he and the doctor were rapt by the television set, watching the Eagles beat the Cowboys on Monday Night Football (13-10). We went 7-7 that year, second to last in our division.
And so the years go round: the Flyers and Sixers seasons into the Phillies, all the way through the Eagles. And I realize we, Philadelphians, are not the only ones accustomed to losing. There are planty of other towns, cities, regions that have gone on similar if not longer droughts than the one we in Philadelphia just weathered. And I don't want to assume to speak for you, but at least for us who grew up in Philadelphia, losing has done some serious things to our minds, hearts, and souls.

To name a few: (1) Philadelphians hate New York teams. Not New Yorkers, just New York teams. We don't hate the people of New York, that is unless they are rooting. Then, we hate them. The thing is, we won't admit this, we have too much pride, but Philadelphia, let's face it, really can't compete with its neighbor to the north. We have such an inferiority complex it isn't funny.

(2) Philadelphians really believe in Murphy's Law. I know I do. Sooner or later something bad is going to happen. You hope this year will be different, but deep down you have little confidence that anything but disappoint will be waiting for you at the end of the season. If there is a way to lose, Philadelphia will find it. No matter how good the Eagles look games 1-16, their last game will be a loss. We were up 3 games to 1 this year in the World Series, and there was no Philadelphian who was 100% confident we were going to pull it off. If Tampa Bay couldn't stop us, the weather would. I was still sweating it two outs in the ninth with an 0-2 count. Again, this belief has its non-sport connotation. I, personally, never expect things to work out the way I want them to. If something good happens to me, I'm keeping an eye out to see where the next shoe will drop. There is always a dark lining around every silver lining. It's just the way we Philadelphians see it.

(3) Philadelphians simultaneously embrace/despise their Sysiphisian role. When the Phillies lost their 10,000th game last year, becoming the first team in history to eclipse the fifth digit, we cheered. There is a part of us that loves getting beat. We are so hard core crazy about our teams, and we hang our hopes on them every preseason even though deep down we know it is only going to end in pain. Ben Franklin coined the saying: "Insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting different results." Only a Philadelphian could come up with that. We have made insanity an art. Philadelphia is the real Washington Generals. We are there for others entertainment. And it is kind of funny. I mean, we're there. But man do we hate it. That is why we boo. It is not because we are mean-spirited. It isn't really the players or the opposing players or the coaches or the refs or Santa or the owners or the GMs or anybody in particular (sometimes it is) but really it is our role. We are men and women accustomed to losing, and we hate it. We want to win so bad we would do anything for the cause. I have put some thought to it (really, I have): I would have seriously given an arm if it would have helped the Phillies win. Fortunately, they didn't need it. But I would have done it. I would still do it for the Eagles. I would do anything for a victory. During the final post game press conference, a reporter asked Charlie Manuel how he felt; he said, "I feel like a winner." Cole Hamels said the same thing. We want to be winners. We are tired of losing. That's why we boo.

But somehow, some way, this time, we won! And now, at least for now, everything has changed - my whole psyche. My inferiority complex, gone! And Murphy's Law, you have been amended: whatever can go wrong, will, but not always. Sometimes even Philadelphia wins.

Monday, November 03, 2008

smoking hot

I don't like to smoke. I didn't even enjoy this particular cigar. But man do I look cool.
(photo by Bobby Milam)

Friday, October 31, 2008

Zion Adventure - Part 3 - Subway

Sorry it has taken me a month to get these Zion blogs out. Our last Zion adventure was a hike called "The Subway." After our trek through the Narrows, our scaling of Angel's Landing, it was hard to believe our third adventure would measure up. In two words, it did. If anything, it was the most exhilarating of them all!

We started before sunrise, dropping our car off at the base of the trail and picking up a shuttle to Wildcat Canyon. Gordon was our driver again. Two other men, retired FBI in their 70s, were hiking the East Rim trim. Gordon said there was another couple he was scheduled to pick up. After waiting ten minutes, a car did show up. They were Germans, and boy did they take their time. The FBI guys were not naturally patient men, and after waiting another fifteen minutes, as the European couple lallygagged, they were past fed up. Gordon stood there, poor man, not knowing what to do. Finally, I went over and figured out what the hang up was. Turns out the couple weren't taking the shuttle. They were kind of freaking out because there was this shuttle of people staring at them! Ha! Poor Gordon was embarrassed. Once he got behind the wheel, he flew. It was terrifying.

He got us to Wildcat Canyon trailhead in less than ten minutes (he had told us it would take twenty). In a second the FBI and Gordon were gone, and it was pristinely silent. Lia and I were off. In a mile and a half the Subway route veers offtrail and follows a series of poorly laid cairns. Our outfitters told us it was easy to get lost. In fact, one of the guides confessed to us that she had never gotten the trail right. We took their advice to heart and proceeded with caution, following the trail description like it was a treasure map. It really did feel like a treasure hunt. And I'm proud to say that Lia and I never had to double back.
The trail itself is nuts! It eventually leads to a crazy downhill scramble that (having to negotiate it with 25lbs of ropes, harnesses, dry suits, a dry bag of junk) was about at my limit of ability. Lia had little difficulty. Once we reached the bottom we hiked to our first "obstacle." A thirty foot angled rappel. It wasn't too bad (though it had the added pressure of being the first rappel of Lia's life!). She did awesome. From there, we had to swim through a series of frigid, narrow, deep pools, the longest about 50 ft around a bend until we reached our second rappel. It was beyond awesome.
We had been forewarned of the iciness of the water and had rented, along with our handy-dandy canyoneering boots, "dry suits" which are basically old costumes from the television series of Star Trek. Unbelievably, they work!
The adventure got better and better. Each rappel was more sweet than the last. The scenery was beyond description. Our third rappel was at Key Hole Falls (I'm pictured above it); it was a waterfall rappel into water, which led into the actual "Subway" section. It's called the "Subway" because for some reason the water had chiseled out a perfect horizontal cylinder out of the canyon wall. I wish our camera could better capture it. You'll just have to go.
The only bummer was that there was no one around. No one was there to witness Lia's rock star talents. But then, as I clipped her into the final rappel, seven people showed up! They were "bottom-uppers" who had hiked to this point, just in time to watch Lia rappel angelically down from the sky! It was the third, and best, rock start moment in three days! Ha!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Zion - Angels Landing Part 2

We woke up from camping to a windy and chilly world. It was hard to believe that it was over 90 degrees the day before and would be 90 degrees again later that day. I was wearing all my clothes and trying to get my camp stove started to percolate some coffee.

Of all the adventures we had planned to endeavor, Angels Landing was the one Lia was most freaked out about. "It really is not that bad," I told her. I had done the hike a couple years ago with my friend Tim. "The trail is never narrower than a sidewalk. So what if there are 1,000 foot drops on both sides. Besides, they put in chains for you to hang from."

She didn't seem to be soothed.

We broke camp and headed over to the shuttle, which took us to the grotto stop; we then crossed the river (by bridge this time) and started up the trail. Angels Landing is five or six miles total. An elevation gain of about 1,600 feet. It is paved most of the way, snaking up marvelously from the canyon floor. One section is called Walter's Wiggle!

Reaching the ridge, we passed the point where most people cash it in. Lia bravely showcased the sign before heading on. She was a champ. Other than the moment when I pointed out the view on our left, and she quickly instructed me that she had no interest whatsoever in taking in any views beautiful or not until she was safely sitting on top - I couldn't tell at all that she was scared. Uncharacteristically, I kept my mouth shut and snapped some photos so that Lia could see later what she missed.

The only other time I noticed that she was the slightest bit nervous was when we did get to the top she sat smack down in the middle of this group of people, as if to say, "If I'm going down, you're going down with me." Eventually, she realized the ground underneath her was secure, and she began enjoying herself. The view truly is spectacular. 360 degrees of canyon.
Surprisingly, Lia flew down. I couldn't keep up. It was like conquering the summit conquered something inside her. It lifted her anxiety completely. I finally caught her just as we were getting to the spot most people stop, just in time to witness her second rock star moment of the trip. People were ooing and aahing. One lady innocently asked if she was pregnant. Lia nodded. "20 weeks," I added. Folks were seriously impressed. So was I.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Zion - Part 1 - the Narrows

Last week, Lia and I embarked on an incredible adventure. We traveled to the Southwest corner of Utah and spent a week exploring Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. It was a long anticipated vacation; we hadn't spent a week, just the two of us, since the summer after our first year of marriage (August 2001). We were overdue. Especially considering the fact that Lia is due again in February with a boy! This trip was our "Baby Moon" or "Moon Baby" according to Lia who said she read the term in a book: a vacation one takes before the birth of a child. Needless to say, we were excited, excited and anxious - we (or I) had planned an action-rich week, one that would stretch and challenge and hopefully provide a few memorable experiences of the positive variety. Our expectations were high and, as it turned out, exceeded in every way. The following series of entries will be a snapshot chronicle of the adventure...

Adventure 1 was a two day hike through "The Narrows," the world's longest slot canyon, 16 miles top to bottom, my sources tell me. Gordon was our shuttleman. I stiffed him on the tip because I left my wallet in the car. Fortunately, he was our shuttleman for our 3rd adventure so I got to make it up to him.

As it turned out, The Narrows thru-hike was a perfect introduction to Zion National Park. We began in this field of wild flowers, a tiny stream serving as our sole trail description. It was hard to imagine such a small thing could cut a 1,000 foot trench into the earth. Soon enough there was nothing to imagine - the proof was chiseled almost out of sight on both sides of us.

We ate lunch on some slickrock outcroppings. Tuna-bagel sandwich. Lesson learned: don't pack tuna. We had bought "family size" (it should have been called "small army size"). It served as lunch and dinner. And it's a good thing that we were not in bear country because it stunk! We would have been goners for sure.

We spent half the time wading. If the water wasn't so low, we would have waded even more. We crossed that river so many times I wouldn't have been able to keep count. The trail continued to grow "narrower." Soon we were completely bracketed by impossibly high cliffs. I think I said "woah" more times in these two days than on all others combined.

We found our campsite around 5pm. It was already beginning to get dark. We set up camp, ate dinner, and enjoyed the last bit of light down by the river. We had quite a laugh at the expense of my feet. Peeling off the canyoneering boots and neoprene socks we had rented, I was introduced to one of the most frightening sights of my life. My skin was this crazy stale purple color, and it hung hideously in wrinkles from my bones. It reminded me of Emperor Palpatine's skin in Star Wars, at least what I imagine his feet looking like based on his face.

We were fast asleep by 8pm. The next morning we ate peanut butter bagels (much better than tuna, though Lia had been a bit (way) extreme in her apportioning) and lamented the lack of coffee. We had decided not to bring my peculator on the two day hike because we didn't want to have to take dumps (they give you these foily bags to poop in and make you carry it out). However, our plans were spoiled by gastro-colic reflex from the humongous glops of peanut butter. The poop bags worked great until one exploded as I was cinching it down to my pack. Still things were ok. I simply put one bag in the other, and it was fine, until the second exploded when, while I was wading, chest high, I slipped, throwing my bag to safety but having it land directly down on poop bag two. I'm pretty sure people could smell us before they saw us.

Speaking of people, the first day, we saw a grand total of three. The next, we didn't see any until about 11am or so when the bottom-uppers began trickling upstream. Frankly, it was kind of weird seeing them. We had grown accustomed to having the canyon to ourselves.

What a beginning! What a blast! And amazingly we came out unscathed. Lia did have one plunge, but the pool was so deep she didn't hit any rocks; only her wrist (and the camera she was holding) remained dry.

Adventure 1 compete. If it had been the only thing we did all week, it would have been well worth the trip...but there was much more to come...(by the way, to give you some perspective, in the picture below, you can just barely see me, climbing the bottom of the rock!)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Apple Festival 2008

Growing up, my best friend and I used to eat what we called "Fat Apples." Starting in late summer, we'd be sitting around and one of us would get the hankering. We'd get on our cool sneaks and jog through yards until we got to the trees. There was an orchard about a mile from his house. We'd go up and pick the largest one we could find and try to eat it as we walked home. These were "fat" apples mind you. Easily over a pound each. Over two dollars of apple by yesteryear standards. That's why we stole them. I loved every bite.

Another friend of mine introduced me to hard core leave no trace apple eating. That was a brand new thing for me: taking on an apple down to the seeds, putting the seeds in your pocket, walking them off the trail. I usually found a fertile spot and planted them. I only eat apples this way when I'm camping.

Currently, I probably average five apples a week. It dominates my fruit intake. And over the years, I guess I have become a kind of connoisseur. For those of you in the know, you will agree that of the grocery store variety Gala apples are the best, followed by Fuji. When my future wife and I were dating, I interviewed her once on her apple taste. She told me, straight-faced, that Red Delicious were her favorite. It still ranks as the only thing I have changed about her in nine years.

Our town puts on an apple festival each year at Bethabara Park. It is a great time. It's more than the apples. It's the old-timey games, the bluegrass music, the atmosphere in general. Anna Rose loves the horses. Mommy loves the cider. I love the apples. I love it all, really. One of the local vendors turned me on to his Jonagold's, a cross between a Golden Delicious and a Jonathon. Man, was it good. I've been eating them all week.

All this apple stuff has gotten me reminiscent. More than any fruit, the apple has shaped me - my understanding of a balanced diet, my compulsive drive to acquire massive amounts of fluoride, my love of all things crispy. I love them. I really do. Sharing it with Lia and Anna Rose, friends like the Andersons, Briggs, Murphees, and Williams at the Apple Festival makes it all the more tasty. Thanks y'all for coming with us. I can't wait for next year!

Thursday, September 11, 2008


I should have picked up on it when Lia decided to take the morning off work just because the night before Anna Rose sort of kind of had a little bit of a running nose. But I didn't. I wasn't expecting it. Tomorrow was no big deal.

There are other days. You know, the big ones, like dropping them off at college, or their wedding. But the first day of preschool? Come on. To fall to pieces over that! To become such an emotional wreck you can't do anything but blubber for an hour! Over preschool! I was seriously unprepared. I was unprepared on many fronts.

No one warned me that it would be this hard: this first tangible experience of handing over. I waited with bated breath to hear how she did. The first thing I wanted to know was if she cried. The second was if she wanted to be held the whole time. The third was whether she had fun. Yes.

But Ms. Tana also told me that "She did awesome." So I have to believe that it was the right decision. Preschool will mold and shape her in ways that I can't. I have to believe that. And it is true. But it doesn't make the letting go any easier.

Fil, a friend of mine, shared with me a story he shared with another one of his friends, Tom, as Tom was preparing to give away his daughter to a young man. Fil said that he was told by an older man that when each of his children were born he imagined it was like God had given him a fistfull of balloons. And on each one of those eventful days, like the first day of preschool, he would imagine letting one balloon drift off into the sky. He would do this at each major event all the way up to the last one, the day his child got married. He shared the image really comforted him. Tom listened and thanked Fil for the story. A week later, his daughter was married. A week and a day later, my friend Fil received a call from Tom. He said, "Tell your friend with the balloons that he's full of shit." Amen brother. Amen. It ain't that easy balloon man.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Dash to the Teat...

...was the way Robbie "quadzilla" Mills sold it. Robert "veins of tungsten" Milam, Chris "if I can hike the AT I can do anything" Turner, Michael "power of the Celtic" Hummel, Greg "eye of the hurricane, teeth of the tornado" Amweg, and me were the ones who bought it. In the end, all six of us did it. 30 miles of pure awesome slash pure pain.
The challenge came from two angles. The first being that none of us are bikers. I was the the only one with a road bike (having been loaned it the day before by my father inlaw). Mills and CT had hybrids though CT's back wheel was half flat (or half full depending on how you looked at it). Milam and Hummel had mountain bikes that had at least been sat upon a half-dozen times in the last five years. And Amweg was on his, the one he got in sixth grade, the one he last rode to go yard saling around the neighborhood with Mark Carter in eighth grade. So equipment was an obstacle to overcome. The second was the mountain itself. Getting to the base of the mountain is tough enough - 30 miles of the rolling hills of the Peidmont. But once there, you have a 1,400 feet up a 10% grade to manage. It's two miles of your heart stretching your chest cavity to the breaking point.
...but biking, walking, crawling we all made it, and we have the pictures to prove it! Looking forward to the next thing, bros.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Story Behind the Music

Oh Love That Will Not Let Me Go...George Matheson

O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

Written in five minutes in June of 1881 by George Matheson on the evening of his sister's wedding - a ceremony he was not allowed to attend. He was blind.

Years earlier, Matheson, a promising young theologian, was engaged to be married himself when his eyes gave way. There was no reason behind it; he just started losing his sight. Doctors were at a loss. Learning of her fiance's fate, she broke off the enagement. She told Matheson she could not go through life with a blindman.

Crushed, he poured himself deeper into his studies. He wrote a book, brilliant in places; however, because of his poor eyesight, there were also unmistakeable errors. Critics took him to task. His second dream dashed to pieces.

During this time, his sister had taken care of him. With her help, he was able to take a pastoral position and began speaking to a reported 1,500+ people a week. But she was no longer to be there for him. Even this opportunity was slipping away. And tonight, this night, she was getting married. His family had left him at home.

It was in the midst of this that he wrote these words...O love that will not let me go, I rest me weary soul in thee...O Joy you seek me through the pain I cannot close my heart to thee; I trace the rainbow through the rain, and feel the promise is not vain that morn shall tearless be...

Matheson once wrote that his was “an obstructed life, a circumscribed life…but a life of quenchless hopefulness, a life which has beaten persistently against the cage of circumstance, and which even at the time of abandoned work has said not “Good night” but “Good morning.”

George Matheson now has eyes. He lives in a land of everlasting mornings. I hope to meet him someday. Until then, thank you, sir. Thanks for persevering through trial after trial, for leaving this song and for living with quenchless hope.

To hear and see a recent rendition with Sandra McCracken and Derek Webb go to


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

8 8 0 8

We had a great time celebrating the opening ceremonies! I'm still in awe of the drum and box routines, not to mention the size of that one Iranian's head. That guy could seriously whoop me in any sport. Thanks all for coming!

Special props go to Sean, Christal and Cooper Giese for winning the coveted costume prize. Really, props go to all...Blake and Ashley from Mexico, the Edens representing Australia, Chavis for England, the Mussers for Kenya, as well as Ryan sporting the Tusker shirt, the Ellis's going all out for Germany, Sarah and (blanking on name) as the Jamaicans, Bobby and Debra looking fine for Italy, Ben and Jessica bringing it home for Djibouti, the Millers taking on the Iceland, the Steeles supporting the homeland of the D.R., and the Craigs as the good ole U.S. of A. Lia and I as the hosts were China. After much effort, I never looked quite Asian enough for my satisfaction (though I did enjoy wearing the silk pajamas from Victoria Secret (via Goodwill)). Ha! See you all in four years.