Thursday, January 23, 2014

Music Appreciation: Chopin

I never wanted a TV here in the shack but I always wanted a good sound system. I’ve loved listening to recorded music since my sister’s 45’s in the 1950’s, then the big sound from the Telefunken cabinet stereo (our family’s first) my brother brought home from Germany when he got out of the army, to the sound of WLS Top 40 hits from the tiny transistor radio in my bedroom, and to countless systems and formats I’ve owned since then. While building the shack I strung wire for ear high speakers through the studs in the wall, put a sub woofer in the corner, and hooked them all up to a CD player, an FM tuner, and a turntable with a USB port.

But when I got down to serious writing I found music with lyrics distracting. So for most of the day, when I’m working up to my goal of two thousand words, I play instrumental music, saving the lyrical music for pure listening. That shortened my playlist.

I’ve turned more and more to classical music. I actually don’t know much about it, but I know what I like. And I like much of it, and most of the composers I’ve found, Chopin for one. Which, by the way, is pronounced Show pan. Show as in movie show, pan as in frying pan. Show pan. You would only know it was pronounced that way by being lucky enough to hear the name spoken while at the same time seeing it in print. His written name alone would leave you convinced he was Chop-in, pronounced like the slangy verb in the phrase “Choppin’ wood.” Pronouncing it so would fall into the realm of being an honest mistake, don’t you think?

As a farm kid growing up I learned such words primarily while reading alone. As a result, I was prone to honest mispronunciations. At ISU as a nineteen year old I distinctly remember being thrilled at finding myself in the apartment, for the first time, of a very pretty music major, a violinist. She invited me up after I attended one of her chamber music concerts. It was one of the first times I’d heard live classical music. She asked me to pick something to play out of her record collection while she fixed us drinks. She returned to the room with a bottle of wine and two stemmed glasses in her hand, which I thought was positively exotic because of the fancy glasses and also because the bottle had a cork and was neither Boone’s farm, Ripple, nor Bali Hai.

“Did you find something?” she asked.

“Yeah, I did.” I said, pulling an album up out of the many in the wooden crate. “How about this guy, Chop in?”

She laughed. Not just a giggle, a pretty big laugh. “He’s not Chop in. He’s Show pan. SHOW PAN.”

I felt like such a farmer. I might as well have had cow shit on my shoes and alfalfa hay in my hair. And while my musical faux pas didn’t ruin the evening, I sure never forgot show pan.

Forty three years later I bought a Chopin CD for a quarter at the last day of Treasures and Trash, the giant rummage sale the local women’s club has every year in our church It’s a non-descript recording made by Sony in 1994, part of its Infinity Digital series, featuring the piano playing of two Russian pianists Vladimir Shakin and Eva Smirnova. It’s titled The Romantic Piano-Chopin: Mazurkas, Nocturnes, Polonaises. Not an attention grabbing title, and likely not a big seller.

Fredric Chopin himself was something of a snob from what I gather at Wikipedia. One of those child prodigies who never worked or lived, for that matter, outside the world of high toned music, he was born in Poland, later becoming a French citizen. He hung around with the likes of Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann, moving around Europe writing music for, and playing, piano. Chopin was all about pianos, one at a time, occasionally two. At no time does his history suggest he ever once milked a cow or shucked corn.

Musicologists estimate Fredric Chopin performed only about thirty concerts in his short lifetime, preferring the solon rather than concert halls. That’s another way of saying he liked to perform privately in apartments and houses for friends and supporters rather than playing for the wider public. He lived only thirty nine years, from 1810 to 1849. Fredric (I bet he didn’t like to be called Fred) was not what you would call a robust guy. In fact, he was sick most of his life with tuberculosis. Good thing he was a composer and piano player. He would have made a lousy lumberjack.

Chopin was picky about his pianos. He was once holed up in a monastery on Majorca, nice Mediterranean island off the coast of Spain, with his lover George Sand. George Sand, the pen name of a French female author born Aurore Dupin, who published under a man’s name, I think, to improve book sales, was something of a bohemian as was Chopin. While on Majorca, Chopin complained that he could not compose properly on any instrument other than a Pleyal piano, which the company eventually shipped to him all the way from Paris. You have to think it’s a lot easier for a mandolin picker or a piccolo piper to prefer one instrument over another, but pianists? If you’re going to traipse all over Europe it would seem best to get used to other people’s instruments. Not Chopin.

Whether it was George Sand, the Pleyal piano, or the good weather his stay on Majorca turned out to be one of his most prolific writing periods. The liner notes to my cheap CD say that Chopin invented the instrumental ballade and that “his music represents the quintessence of the Romantic piano tradition and embodies more fully than any other composer’s the expression and technical characteristics of his instrument.”

Here’s how George Sand described in her own words an episode of Chopin creating music in the presence of she and a friend named Delacroix.

‘Chopin is at the piano, quite oblivious of the fact that anyone is listening. He embarks on a sort of casual improvisation, then stops.

“Go on, go on,” exclaims Delacroix, “That's not the end!”

“It's not even a beginning,” says Chopin. “Nothing will come ... nothing but reflections, shadows, shapes that won't stay fixed. I'm trying to find the right color, but I can't even get the form ...”

“You won't find the one without the other,” says Delacroix, “and both will come together.”

“What if I find nothing but moonlight?”

“Then you will have found the reflection of a reflection.”

The idea seems to please the divine artist. He begins again, without seeming to, so uncertain is the shape. Gradually quiet colors begin to show, corresponding to the suave modulations sounding in our ears. Suddenly the note of blue sings out, and the night is all around us, azure and transparent. Light clouds take on fantastic shapes and fill the sky. They gather about the moon which casts upon them great opalescent discs, and wakes the sleeping colors. We dream of a summer night, and sit there waiting for the song of the nightingale ...’

I hardly know what to say about that. I know nothing about suave modulations and color, let alone identifying notes of blue, opalescent discs, or moonlight in a song. But I do know that Chopin does a couple of things really well. He writes music that goes from fast to slow and loud to soft better than almost anyone. When I listen to his work I end up thinking he waits just the right amount of time between notes. This could be way off base but it strikes me that it is not only the notes that are played in a piece but the spaces in between the notes that make a song really good. When I close my eyes and listen to these piano players performing Chopin’s songs I find myself anticipating the next note, and when it arrives I think it’s exactly the sound that should have been played. It fits with everything else. And the music, just simple piano notes, somehow puts me in touch with how I’m feeling. It’s emotional.

The songs on the CD suffer from bad titles. You’re just never going to have the name of these songs on the tip of your tongue. Take for instance the first song “Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Opus 60.” Come on Fredric. Is that snappy? There are plenty of instrumental songs with names that either roughly describe the music or are at least memorable. Glen Miller has “Moonlight Serenade”, Pat Metheny has “As Fall Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls”, and Chopin has “Polonaise in A-flat Major, Opus 53”? I’d say marketing was not a concern in the early 1800’s. Actually if you heard “Polonaise in A-flat Major, Opus 53” you would probably recognize it. I think I probably heard Liberace play it on the Ed Sullivan Show, where he no doubt pronounced Chopin’s name correctly and I never saw how it was spelled.

On this particular Chopin CD you got your barcarolle, three mazurkas, a polonaise, a berceuse, three more mazurkas, two nocturnes, and you finish off with that famous polonaise previously mentioned. It takes a little research to figure out what is actually coming out of the speakers. A barcarolle is a song named and patterned after the long slow strokes made by a gondolier i.e., person rowing a gondola. A mazurka is a short Polish dance tune, although Chopin insisted his compositions were not pieces to which people should dance, rather they were made for listening. A berceuse is another name for a lullaby. When you listen to it that’s exactly the mood that Chopin creates. And a polonaise (simply the French word for Polish) is another dance in ¾ time “quite close to that of the Swedish semiquaver.” And if you know anything whatsoever about the Swedish semiquaver you’re a better man than I.

So there you have it; Chopin (say show pan): a man and his music. A farm boy review of that madcap Polish/French piano player and song writer from out of the classical past. He’s no Scott Joplin, but he’s worth a listen.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

We're So Smart

In a week that saw a youth shot and killed at a Chicago bus stop reportedly for his cell phone, and two college students drowned in the Chicago river trying to retrieve a dropped cell phone, I’ve concluded we treasure these gadgets way too much. Calling them merely phones, however, understates their importance and value to us. They’re smart, these phones, and have become our link to knowledge and information, everyone we know, and in many ways the world around us. I think they’ve changed us.

I own an I Phone and have set it so that little sounds come from it to alert me to its activity. When I get a text a very short whistle, a single rising note from low pitch to high, like a person’s whistle through teeth and pursed lips, tells me it’s arrived. It’s a tiny sound. When I send a text the reverse whistle, high to low, lasting only part of a second tells me it’s on its way. I get e mails on my phone as well, but only when I log onto the Outlook program. When they come in a sound like an old fashioned typewriter announces their arrival. Voice mail messages arrive with the sound of a now obsolete teletype machine. And finally my one and only ring tone that alerts me to some real telephone caller waiting for me to answer, in person, with my voice, is the sound of muted horns that are used on fox hunts. The play a five note ditty, a half note and four quarter notes I think, that seems to say “tally ho.” I picked these sounds for no particular reason except that I like them, and I think of them as my own. Actually they’re stock sounds among a big list of sounds any I Phone user can choose from.

My wife, who also has an I phone, and I had to coordinate our sounds because at first we found we both had the same alert for incoming texts. When we were together and heard the little rising whistle we thought we both had received a text. It was annoying. She chose to change her incoming text alert to a little bell. Now when we’re alone in the house and we hear the sounds we know which of us is being supplied information via which medium. We get a lot more texts these days than we do phone calls. It’s happened gradually, but it’s a definite trend. It comes I think from people not answering phone calls.

It started with our kids. They never seemed to answer when we called, but they would eventually call us back.

“I see you called this morning,” they would say, calling us in the evening.

“Yeah, why didn’t you answer?” They would always have a reason of some kind, flimsy maybe, until finally my daughter admitted she usually has turned her ringer off.

“I check it often enough that I see when someone calls. I can’t always call back. But if you need something right away text me.” Phone etiquette no longer demands answering immediately via voice.

So we found ourselves texting our kids simply because they respond more quickly. They can text back anywhere, in a meeting, in the bathroom, on the L train. Texting doesn’t bother other people, its private, and you tend to get right to the point. It’s always more direct than a voice call, and shorter. I prefer texting now. I text rather than make a voice call most of the time, to nearly everyone. But then I’ve always preferred writing over talking. That’s why I’ve always loved e mail. But e mail with the kids? Pretty old stuff. If I send them something by e mail I text them to let them know so they check it. An effective way to contact a young person these days? Send a Face Book message. They live on Face Book. To tell the truth, I reside there quite often. No need to message one or a group of people there. You can talk to all your friends at once, along with those people you call friends but barely know.

And it’s not only communicating one to one that makes our smart phones so important to us. They are our guides. Gone are the days of detailed directions for smart phone users. We saw a lot of out of town relatives over the holidays and when they needed to go here or there we gave them old fashioned step by step directions like these we explained to our nephew.

“You take 80 to Route 47. At the top of the ramp go South, which is right, through the sort of North end of the business district, not the downtown you know, the new stuff up by the interstate. Follow that main drag till you go over a bridge. It’s not the Illinois River bridge, it’s more of a viaduct over railroad tracks and stuff. As soon as you’re off the bridge, at the very first right, take that street. Their house is about eight blocks down on the right. You’ll see their white van parked in the driveway. They have a concrete goose dressed up in clothes, probably as Mrs. Santa Claus. The house has a glassed in porch.”

My nephew, patient and politely attentive through the whole explanation, replied by saying

“Thanks but all I need is the street address. My phone tells me where to turn. Just give me the street and number.”

We don’t always know the street and number. We know how to get there. But that’s no longer necessary for smart phone users. Neither do they need phone books, maps, encyclopedias, dictionaries, the Physician’s Desk Reference, newspapers, magazines, books, flash lights, cameras, or watches. You name it and it’s available on your smart phone. You can look up anything at anytime from anywhere by using your smart phone. The format may not be convenient. You may prefer to look something up on your computer screen or tablet, because it’s easier to view, but you can get anything on your smart phone, especially when it is connected to Wi Fi.

Last spring we had a big party with young couples in attendance and their kids. Those that didn’t bring kids brought dogs, and some both, but that’s another story. So a five year old is in my kitchen, sitting at the counter flipping his finger over the screen of his I Pad while I’m making coffee.

“Mr. McClure?” he asked politely.


“Does your house have Wi Fi?”

“Yes it does.”

“May I have your password?”

His digital experience (I have no idea what he was doing or why he wanted to be connected) and his life in general was, I guess, going to be enhanced in some way if he was connected to the internet. So I gave him my password. There is no reason not to give those you know, especially a cute five year old boy, access to the internet in your house. Understand that at five he knew independently how to log on to my network, plug in the password, connect and go on his merry digital way. It blew me away. I don’t know why. He’s grown up with the internet while I’m still catching on.

Actually I’m no less hooked than that five year old. My smart phone is with me constantly, except when it is charging, which is every night. That puts it within my reach every waking hour. I think I’m not unlike a lot of people. It’s my most useful tool, and most used. Without it I feel out of touch.

I visited my doctor this week and he and I had something fairly important to discuss about my health. I like this physician because he talks to me directly and personally. We were sitting across from each other in the little exam room, discussing something private, trying together to solve a sort of riddle posed by my aging body. He was asking me about symptoms and I was answering as carefully and accurately as I possibly could. At one point he said

“There’s a reason you need to watch out for this you know. There’s a possibility this could…”

And as the word “could” came out of his mouth a short rising whistle, not a second long, went off in the little exam room, interrupting the conversation.

“Is that your phone?” I asked.

“Yes, the damn thing. I swear I’m going to throw it away. That means I got an e mail.”

“I have the same sound. It could mean I got a text.” We both checked our phones. He had gotten an e mail. We finished our conversation. I’m going to be OK by the way.

“You can’t throw that phone away doc,” I said when we had finished with our anatomy discussion. “You have to respond when people need you, and now you can be reached all the time.”

“Yeah, but I hate it for that very reason.”

“Look, I keep my phone on all the time too even though I’m retired and don’t even have to respond anymore. I choose to. It could be my kids, my wife, one of my friends, someone else in my family. They stay in touch with me and I do the same. It’s the way we live now.”

“Yeah, but it’s sad in a way isn’t it?”

“It is. But it’s also good. I’ve never been in touch with so many people nor communicated better or more often. I think it makes us closer. It’s a trade off, I admit, but I choose frequent contact.”

“I know,” he said. “But it can still be a giant pain.”

He tapped an order for a medication into the laptop in the room and e mailed it to my pharmacy. He also wrote an order for a simple diagnostic test and e mailed that off to another part of the organization.

“You can go to the lower floor and get that test done right now before you leave if you like. They have my order already.”

That was never easier. I read the results of my blood tests now on line via e mail, not that I know what they mean. This same outfit sends me e mail reminders of appointments. My credit union sends me a text when my account goes below a level I determine. I can send a text back which prompts yet another text with my last few transactions. The world as we know it is not going digital, it’s already there. The train has left the station. We’re plugged in. And if you’re not plugged in now with via a smart phone, I predict you soon will be.

You are either reading this blog through a link in an e mail or as a link in a Face Book post. The device you are using could be your smart phone. But whatever device you use please stay in touch. You can comment on the Face Book post which brought you the blog link. If you received this piece via e mail you can close the blog link and simply reply to the e mail. Or you can comment on my blog itself in the comment section. However you communicate I’d love to hear from you. It’s easy. Have a good weekend.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Four Days from the Shack Journal

Monday, January 6, 2014: Some January 6th in Illinois may have been colder than January 6, 2014. It most likely was, given how long the earth has been around, which scientists armed with radiometric age dating gadgets say is 4.54 billion years old plus or minus .05 billion years. Fundamental Christian theologians armed with bibles they believe are divinely inspired and literally true say the earth is 6,244 years old. The bible centered folks don’t go much for plus or minus as a concept. As you can see there is a whole lot of difference between those two estimates. But neither of them matter particularly in this discussion given that we’ve only been keeping accurate and organized records of daily air temperature for 120 years or so. That is a drop in a bucket geologically. Hardly a drop even. For the very short record the coldest temperature in Illinois since they’ve been keeping records was recorded in Congerville in 1999 when it was -36. Nice little town, Congerville. It’s close to Danvers and Goodfield, in case you can’t place it.

So to be accurate January 6th has not been this cold since they have been keeping records. It was pretty cold in 1970, 44 years ago, but not this cold. On that day it was -12. I’m sure that was one of the nights I toted the car battery from my 63 Ford Galaxy V-8 into our college apartment by the railroad tracks on Hovey Avenue in Normal, Illinois so I might have a chance at starting my car in the morning. Today it is --17 and still going down. And there’s that wind to deal with. I have been burning wood like a bastard in the shack since 6:30 a.m. and have only gotten the inside temperature up to 51 degrees. Snow, tracked in hours earlier, is still not melting on the floor.

Speaking of snow I ignored it as long as I could. From the time it started piling up on Saturday night till Sunday night about 9:00 p.m. I simply walked through it. Then I realized if my daughter and her boyfriend were going to get their car off my driveway and back to Chicago we would have to shovel it. We made a skinny path to the street that I later widened. Glad they were here to help me.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014: It’s pretty gorgeous this morning. We have ten inches of snow, at least, maybe a foot. It is piled on the tops of the bare deciduous tree limbs, not melting, pure white against the dark bark. Our neighborhood has pines, behind me a blue spruce and a balsam, some others I can’t identify through the ravine. Snow packs the needles and weighs them down, making their green more striking and their shape more stately. The sky is clear and the sun bright. I filled the feeder with black oil sunflower seeds and the birds are mobbing it. Must be the only food around. The cardinals are out in force, along with the blue jays and wood peckers. I don’t know how they make it, or where they go at night. But it’s good to see them.

It’s quiet out here. Schools are closed, along with lots of businesses, and there is little traffic. Salt won’t melt ice when it’s this cold. Caton Road, the street in front of my house, is snow packed and almost polished slick. I got the Buick out and went to the store, looking to buy some salmon. The fish case was empty. Truck didn’t come in they said. No hamburger either. I settled on a nice skirt steak and we made fajitas, heavy on the peppers and onions, served with rice, beans and tortillas. The Mexican market on Madison was open and we got some good chorizo to flavor everything up. We stopped at Herman’s, our favorite liquor store, to stock up on provisions there as well. In this weather you can’t be too careful. The roads could drift shut at any time and then where would you be?

I went to church to clear the sidewalks and steps. My friend Steve Malinsky and I worked together. I ran the snow blower and he scooped. I love running the snow blower. I pretend I’m back on the farm driving the tractor. The church’s snow blower is a powerful beast that walked through that deep snow like it was nothing.

It was still below zero and during the forty five minutes or so we worked I got cold. I was wearing leather “chopper” mittens with thick wool inserts made in Bemidji, Minnesota. I thought my fingers would never get cold in those things but they did. My feel stayed pretty warm, with thick wool socks, my regular shoes and five buckle rubber boots. However, my moustache froze stiff. It was hard to smile. When we finished Steve and I stood in the alley and talked a while, but not long. Sub zero temperature limits outdoor conversations.

Wednesday January 8, 2014: I’m going through a lot of wood. I came out early, about 6:00 a.m., which is an hour and a half before sunrise. As I started a fire in the stove and estimated the wood supply that remained in the stack below the stove I figured I’d be good until 9:00 or so. But just as the sun was rising, close to 7:30, I was back outside at the wood pile filling a bucket and a milk crate with more wood. The cold just doesn’t let up. I have both pine and oak in my wood pile. The oak burns hotter. I keep the air intake wide open so the stove really cooks.

I’m doing some different writing this week. I’m part of a group, I Care International, which is going to Trujillo, Honduras in February to conduct eye exams, dispense glasses, and do cataract and other eye surgeries. Forty five volunteers will donate their time and pay their own expenses to make the ten day trip. This year we’re having trouble getting donations of supplies. We need eye drops like artificial tears and diabetic testing stuff; the little finger prickers called lancets and the test strips you put in the monitors. Companies seem to have tightened up on donations. Bill, my friend in Chicago, has a contact at a big retail drug store and we’re putting together a short proposal for their foundation. My job is to briefly summarize the history, purpose, and mission of the organization. I’m writing a one pager to go on top of his more specific proposal. I Care International has been around for 25 years and conducted 71 such missions. It’s hard to capture that on one page.

My other job this week is to write no more than five hundred words on child abuse for an annual report by a statewide outfit on the statistical state of the state for children. They want short narratives preceding each section of numbers. It’s harder for me to write 500 words than it is to write 2,000. Heck I’m at 1,156 right now and what have I said exactly? So that’s what I’m doing out here. Burning wood, writing, and listening to music. I listen to music without words when I write because lyrics are distracting. I’ve got Chopin on right now. I’m glad I’ve gotten to know that guy. I might write a review of his stuff one day as an update.

I’m looking forward to choir practice. We haven’t sung since Christmas Eve and I miss both my choir friends and just plain singing.

Thursday, January 9, 2014: They’re talking about it warming up and snowing again. I really have too much to do to shovel more snow. In addition to the I Care proposal and the 500 word deal for the statewide outfit I have to write the weekly piece for my blog. I thought one of the other pieces I was writing this week might serve as an update but I’m not sure they do. So I’ll crank out one more. It will be nice to get back to the normal and the novel. It’s been quite a week.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Inside the Shack

Two of my nephews came to visit over Christmas. Their Mom, my sister in law, told me a while ago they wanted to drop by to see us and visit the shack, but I knew their schedule was busy on their short visit back home. I was pleasantly surprised when they pulled in the driveway. I hadn’t seen either of the brothers in a while. Both of them have a lot going on.

Jim, an engineer living in Manila (the Philippines) is starting his own company there with the hopes of attracting overseas firms wishing to outsource projects. His brother Tim is a graphic artist and stand up doghouse bass player living, working, and playing honky-tonk joints in Austin, Texas. They came with their sons, both three. The great nephews had a good time playing in the yard on the tire swing and in the snow, while their Dads and I were in the shack having a Christmas drink. We kept an eye on them through the shack window. I got out the better Bushmills whiskey for my nephews, the single malt stuff old enough to drive that I keep tucked away. It tasted so good we had another. Tim was at the house and had seen the shack when it was halfway built but Jim had not.

“I’ve seen the outside of the shack on line,” Jim said. “But I always wanted to see what the inside looked like.”

Both Jim and Tim read this blog. I forget who’s reading this thing. By reading regularly they feel as if they knew what I was doing. But they wanted to know more about the shack. It’s a small place you know, 121 square feet, but they were curious as to where I got the idea for the design, how it was all working out, the insulation, the wood stove. As we talked they kept looking around and asking me about things they saw. Tim spied a little black and white framed photo on the wall.

“Is that Dylan?” Tim asked.

“Yeah. I snuck a cell phone picture of a picture in the Rock and Roll hall of fame.”

“How about that mask up there?” Jim asked looking up at the peak of the rafters. “Looks like a blue eyed devil.”

“It is. Dean and I bought it at the market in Chichicastenango in the Guatemalan highlands. We were there on an I Care mission.”

“And that blue circle thing up there?” He pointed to the opposite gable end.

“A gift from Kerem, Moe’s old boyfriend from Turkey. I forget the name of it. It keeps away the evil eye.” Kerem helped a lot while I was building the shack.

“Is it working?”

“So far.”

“And how about that picture?” They stepped closer to a little black and white on the wall.

“That’s the original shack. Two Australians and I built it on the Pacific coast of Ecuador, on land that no one seemed to claim, outside a little town called Sua. Hacked out a little clearing in the jungle on the edge of a cliff looking over the ocean. I lived there about three months. See? It had stick half walls on the bottom and plastic you could roll and unroll on the top half, with a plastic roof covered by palm leaves. So close to the equator down there you didn’t need much shelter, more a place to get out of the sun.”

“Lots of bugs?” Tim asked.

“Yeah. We each slept under full mosquito nets. And rats. We hung our food up at night with a coconut shell as a baffle on the rope so the boogers couldn’t get to it. Small inconveniences for such a beautiful place though. Went into town about every five days for supplies. Had to time the trip with the tides or the beach would be gone and you’d be washed against the cliffs and the rocks. We ate papayas off the trees. Closest I ever got to completely free living.”

“Uncle Dave,” Jim said. “I keep thinking you’re going to write that story about Scotland but I haven’t seen it on the blog.”

“What story?”

“About working with the Irishmen. You got a job through some people and they paid you cash? You were just out in the countryside and there was no safety or anything? They didn’t even know your name?”

“Did you read that or was it something I told you?”

“You told us at our house in Level Acres.” When I met Tim and Jim they were little kids living in a split level house in a nice subdivision near Geneseo before their Mom and Dad moved to a bigger place in the country. “I don’t know if you told us in particular or whether you were telling the grown-ups and we just listened. But I never forgot that. It was quite a story. You remember it Tim?”

“Yeah. They called you Yankee.”

“That they did,” I said. “Why do you think you both remembered that story?”

“I think because I’d heard of people doing things like that, I mean I was somehow aware of backpacking and hitch hiking, I’d seen it on TV or something, but I’d never really met someone who did it. And there you were. And you were a regular person.” Jim said.

“Yeah,” Tim said. “I mean we knew people that traveled with their job, or took foreign vacations. Our Dad traveled to Europe for work back then. But to quit work, to go places for that long, not knowing what was going to happen, to just improvise. That was brand new. And because you did it we knew it could be done.”

“Yeah, and it sounded so cool to us as kids,” Jim said. “Heck it still sounds cool.”

“I don’t know that I’ve written that down,” I said.

“Well, maybe you should.”

“You know Uncle Dave, we didn’t know that story you wrote about Dad working on the railroad in LaSalle till we read it in your blog. He never told us. Now we know.” Tim said. When I wrote a story their Dad Tom told me about burning down a freight car, I never thought I’d be communicating something new to his family.

“Yeah, you might be right. Maybe I should write that story about Scotland. But do you think you like it because you know me and we’re part of the same family? Or would you like it just as much if it was written by someone you don’t know?”

“I don’t know,” Tim said. “How did your other readers, the ones that don’t know Dad, like the railroad story?”

“They liked it. I had good feedback on that piece.”

My great nephews Kyle and Lex, Tim and Jim’s sons, interrupted our conversation by bursting through the shack door, simultaneously reporting on an altercation, airing grievances as it were, related to someone pushing someone else down in the snow. It wasn’t clear from their account of the incident exactly what occurred or who was at fault. To remedy the situation their Dads took their sons in their arms and held them on their laps. They needed to warm up anyway. It was nice and warm by the woodstove. The fight didn’t last long. Jim was still looking around the shack.

“And what about that hammer?” He was looking at an old tack hammer I have hanging on a nail by the stained glass windows, which we’d discussed earlier, custom made by a friend of mine especially for the shack.

“Uh, I’m afraid that’s just an old hammer. Not everything in here has a story.”

“You should make one up.”

Catching up on old relationships is the best part of the holidays. I realized I’d known those brothers, my nephews, for over 34 years. I’d watch them become men. If I can stretch this out I have a chance to see their sons grow up too.

It came time for them to go and we said our goodbyes. “Don’t stay away so long next time. And bring your boys back to see their Great Uncle when you come.”

“We will. Keep the stories coming,” they said.

“I’ll try.”

E mail, Skype, and Face Book are great but nothing beats a real visit.