unsung

St. Patrick gets a lot of attention this time of year.  His Feast Day is March 17th, when many of us claim to be Irish.  We wear the green, march in the parades, run the 5k’s, and drink more than we should.  Over the centuries we’ve built massive cathedrals to Patrick’s name in Dublin and New York City and a dozen other cities around the globe.  But why does Patrick get all the love?  Did you know there are actually three patron saints of Ireland?  I’d like to talk about one of the others – my wife’s namesake Brigid.  Her Feast Day is February 1st.

St. Brigid

Three years ago Brigid and I visited Ireland for the first time.  While we toured the Emerald Isle we made a point of travelling to Kildare – not far from Dublin – to see St. Brigid’s Cathedral.  Kildare is delightful; the quaint Irish town of my mind’s eye.  St. Brigid’s Cathedral is its focal point, just above the town square.  It was constructed a long time ago but it’s still an impressive landmark.  You’ll learn a lot about St. Brigid here.  She had a way with animals (an absolute parallel with my wife), she was a patroness of students, and she was a female superior in the church.  In a nutshell, she knew how to get what she wanted (again, a parallel).

St. Brigid Cathedral

Brigid has fifteen “wishing wells” throughout Ireland; devotional places where the water is said to be holy.  The one we visited had a prayer tree full of ribbons and strips of cloth.  Animals watched us from a nearby pasture.

Let’s go back to Patrick for a moment.  Again, I’m not sure why he gets the spotlight.  Yes he’s a “patron saint” of Ireland (along with Brigid and some guy named Columba) but more specifically?  He’s the patron saint of engineers and paralegals.  That’s it.

Brigid outdid herself in the patron saint department.  She’s the patron saint of (deep breath here): babies, blacksmiths, boatmen, brewers, cattle, chicken farmers, children whose parents are not married, children with abusive fathers, children born into abusive unions, dairymaids, dairy workers, fugitives, infants, mariners, midwives, milk maids, nuns, poets, poor, poultry farmers, poultry raisers, printing presses, sailors, scholars, travelers, and “watermen” (whatever those are).

Maybe Brigid deserves a parade too, huh?  Doesn’t she seem a little unsung?

Patrick made magic with shamrocks and banished a lot of snakes from Ireland.  Brigid performed at least eight miracles, founded several abbeys and monasteries, and built a school of art.  Need I say more?

We have a St. Brigid’s Cross in our house, which legend says protects the home from any sort of harm.  We also have a framed copy of her Blessing, which ensures the roof, walls, windows, doors, and fireplaces are all covered.  We are all about Brigid.

St. Brigid cross

One closing comment.  After returning from Ireland it occurred to me there’s probably a little love for St. David somewhere in the world as well.  With a little research I discovered that St. Dave also has his own cathedral.  It’s on the west coast of Wales in the county of Pembrokeshire.  As the crow flies it’s less than a hundred miles from Brigid’s place in Ireland.

I think our next trip will be to Wales.

connoisseur

I love licorice.  It is hands down my favorite choice from any aisle, bag, box or bin in the candy store.  A lot of people love chocolate and so do I, but it’s not even a close second to licorice in my book.  Furthermore, I have a lifetime of experiences with licorice to where I am a practiced judge when it comes to flavors, textures, and brands.  Red or black, sweet or salty, soft or hard, domestic or imported.  I am a connoisseur of this unique confection.

photo - licorice

I was tastefully (ha) reminded of my licorice obsession this past Christmas.  My son and his wife gave me a Santa’s bag worth of the black and red (and yellow, green, and orange).  There were over twenty flavors, brands and colors in the bag.  For most people this would be a year’s worth of satisfaction.  For me, I’ve made a pretty good dent after just three months.  I’ll probably be looking to replenish my stash sometime this summer.

Licorice has come a long way since my childhood years.  My dad also had an affection (confection?) for licorice and he introduced me to a hard chewy black button known as the “Heide”, from the Henry Heide candy company.  To this day, the Heide is still my favorite licorice.  Years ago Heide was snapped up by a bigger candy manufacturer.  Before they were, I wrote them a letter and expressed my appreciation for their wonderful licorice products.  In return they sent me a generous box of samples and a small book that told the story of their product.  I wonder if companies still make that gesture today when they hear from their satisfied consumers.

Inevitably I get the question “red” or “black”?  Until recently I gave a rather smug answer, saying “black” is the only real licorice by definition.  Then I discovered the product of a small New Zealand company, through my local natural foods store.  Their soft, red raspberry licorice knocked me over; so much so that I sent my dad a bag.  It’s made from organic ingredients local to New Zealand, with a full-bodied fruity taste (no, I’m not talking about wine).  Isn’t it a wonder a product so unique and captivating can travel halfway around the world to the shelves of my local organic grocery?  Life is good.

I have several childhood memories of licorice.  Heide made other licorice-like products, including Jujubes, Jujyfruits, and Red Hot Dollars.  “Switzer’s” was a common brand years ago with a twist product similar to today’s “Twizzlers” or “Red Vines”.  Finally, I know I’ve eaten miles of “shoelaces” – the kind of licorice that some would call edible phone cable.

Here’s a fact that’s probably true of a lot of candies.  A generation or more ago licorice was made with “real” ingredients.  Even inside of the harsh plastic wrapper, you would find some derivative of licorice root in the ingredient list.  Then a really smart food chemist came along and figured out how to imitate for cheaper.  Any connection to real licorice disappeared, at least in this country.  But in the last few years I think we’re getting back to where we belong.  Whole organic foods are becoming the norm.  Even prepared foods, like my New Zealand brand licorice, are made from raw, natural, healthy ingredients.  For that reason, I will continue to be a connoisseur of the world’s brands of true licorice.  The next generation can have their Red Vines.

sensational

The weather is a popular topic this time of year in Colorado.  Snow and frigid temperatures are the norm so everyone like to guess “how many inches of accumulation” or “how many degrees below zero with wind chill” we’ll see with a given storm.  If the snow or the low temps last long enough our moods are affected by what we call “snow fatigue”.  Summer cannot come soon enough.

photo - sensational

Winter weather is a favorite headline on the local news as well.  Last week Colorado had its first major snowstorm of the season and the networks went bananas.  They love to increase your blood pressure with labels like “Breaking News!” and “First Alert Forecast!”  Fully half the stories covered in thirty minutes of news this time of year have to do with the weather.  Which leads me to the following annoying conclusion: the news over-reports the weather.  Their hype would have you believe we’ve never seen the white stuff in Colorado before.  Their forecasts are often more extreme than what Mother Nature delivers.  And the “news” stories they attach to the forecast seem designed to increase worry and stress levels.  This is a perfect example of sensational reporting.

My favorite news stories about the weather involve on-the-spot reporters.  Last week these brave souls went to the grocery stores the night before the storm to see how quickly the shelves were being cleared.  You’d have thought the world was coming to an end.  It was all delivered with a sense of “better get your supplies now”, as if Colorado was about to enter the next Ice Age.  In the end, barely 36 hours later, there was less than a foot of snow and plenty of bread and milk left on the shelves.  I guess we got lucky – again.

I find the weather news entertaining when some junior reporter is elected to stand out on the road to talk about accumulated snowfall.  I get to sit in my pajamas in front of the fireplace at ten at night while this person is huddled on my television screen in several layers of clothing, alone on some dark highway.  To add insult to injury, our news channel leads the story with a split-screen between this reporter and the in-studio weather guy.  And they always go to the in-studio weather guy first.  I can never fully concentrate on his forecast because I’m thinking about Junior out there in the snow and sub-zero temps, waiting for the cue to deliver his little two-minute report.  When they finally get to him his speech is a little slurred and his teeth are chattering and you wonder if his hat or microphone will blow away before he’s done talking.

Admittedly, a good portion of our weather reports are useful.  Forecasters in these parts are good at what they do, especially considering the Rocky Mountains just to the west of us can alter weather patterns on a dime.  There have been times when the forecast calls for snow to start at 2pm, and darned if the snow doesn’t actually start at 2pm.  Or they’ll predict a wind chill temperature within a few degrees of actual.  Now that’s what I call sensational (to use the secondary definition of the word!)

rapacious

Every time I get into my car and go for a drive, I have six friends who always keep me company.  They’re small enough to fit in my front seat.  In fact, they live permanently on my dashboard.  They are my six AM preset buttons.  But here’s my plea: I need more of these little guys; maybe another six.  I am greedy when it comes to my presets.  I am downright rapacious.

rapacious

AM radio and I have a love/hate relationship that is rekindled every time I step into my car.  I love AM radio for its variety of programs and voices, not to mention the up-to-date news/weather/sports.  I love the endless flavors of talk radio: financial advice, political banter, consumer tips, etc.  I can get lost in any of these shows while the world passes by at 65 mph.

The “hate” side of my relationship with AM radio deserves more explanation.  In a nutshell, only a fraction of a given hour of AM radio goes to the program at hand.  The rest of those minutes?  Commercials, promotions, and other blah-blah-blah designed to keep you tuned in instead of choosing another preset.  The moment a program moves from substance to advertisement, one of my other presets cries out, “hey Dave, choose me!  I’m not advertising anything right now!”  Alas, certain times of the day every one of my presets misbehaves and I have no good choice.  They are all in advertisement mode.

One of these days I will endure a single AM preset for a full hour.  I will sit there, stopwatch in hand, and I will stop the timer every time the broadcast moves away from the actual program.  “Click” when a commercial comes on”; “click” when the hosts thank their sponsors; “click” when the government steps in to test the emergency broadcast system.  My guess is my stopwatch will report a measly twenty minutes or less of actual “program”.

Here are some radio habits that really irk me.  Talk show hosts have taken up the baton of advertising.  Instead of a “we’ll be right back” or “stay tuned for these messages”, the host switches gears from one sentence to the very next.  You’re listening to the program and suddenly the same voice is telling you about the best brand of energy-efficient windows for your house.  What?  Or here’s another one.  News show hosts like to tease you about what they’ll tell you later.  They’ll say, “Coming up after the break, how tomorrow’s storm will affect your evening commute”.  Really?  Why not just tell me now?

Candidly, I need to be a little less rapacious about my radio preset buttons.  I need to accept that radio stations require their constant breaks to fund the very programs I want to hear.  But most importantly perhaps I need to remember I have another twelve friends collectively referred to as “FM radio”.  Those presets are all about music instead of talk; surely a better tonic for the soul of this restless driver.

consonance

I belong to a fitness club; one of those national brands where the facility is many floors and many rooms.  It’s so big you sometimes feel like you’ll get lost.

3 - consonance

For the most part I stick to the cardio area because I like the treadmills.  And here’s an interesting observation.  If you choose to work out towards the back of the room you are witness to more than a hundred other machines in front of you: treadmills, steppers, rowers, and cycles, all standing in neat rows and ready to use.  Late on a weekday afternoon when the place is at capacity we have the look and sound of a hive of bees hard at work, each with his or her own task.  We move in different ways and at different speeds, but it’s as if we are working in harmony towards a common goal.  We are in consonance.

Here’s another observation.  Watching others work out can be entertaining.  I am one of those who prefers to keep my eyes and ears open while I huff and puff.  I don’t wear ear buds nor do I bring an iPod.  I don’t get lost in the dozens of televisions (big screens on the wall or small screens on the machines).  Instead, I just observe those around me.  There is an endless variety of behaviors.  Last week I jogged next to a singer.  That was a first.  He was listening to something on his iPod and singing along without a care in the world.  Another day I noticed two women walking side-by-side on the treadmills, lost in conversation with each other.  They were practically turned toward each other as they talked, which made me wonder how they didn’t fall off and whether their mouths or their bodies were getting the better workout.

Invariably I see people staring straight ahead into their little televisions, headphones firmly in place, glazed look in their eyes, lost in some program or music video.  Like my singer friend, the room around them could be on fire and they probably wouldn’t notice.

Inevitably, someone will take a call on their cell phone during a workout.  I’ll give that person about thirty seconds before my body language starts to say “annoyed”.  Anything considered an emergency can be communicated in thirty seconds or less.  Anything that really is an emergency should have the person jumping off their machine and heading out the door.  But most cell phone talk in the gym is worthless, of course.  Do these people prolong their conversations just to make sure the listener knows they are at the gym?

Lastly there are those who simply overdo it.  You know the type.  The super-athlete who cranks up the treadmill so high his legs are a blur and he’s just short of flying off the belt.  The older guy whose breathing is so labored you wonder if he’s about to keel over.  The girl who dresses in bright colors, and you wonder if her slow, deliberate pace on the stair-climber is because she’s tired, or because she simply wants you to notice her.

It used to bother me if someone came to the gym and – like the examples above – showed some indication their workout was not necessarily their first priority.  Now I realize I’m just observing coping mechanisms.  There is a physical component and a mental component to working out, and yes there is sometimes even a social component.  Whatever the ingredients, the unintentional entertainment provided by my “coworkers” is enough to make my workouts faster and more enjoyable.  I thank them for that!

transcendent

Last week I found myself in a cemetery.  That may sound a little ordinary to you, but my experience was anything but ordinary.  In fact, it was a little surreal.

cemetery

To be clear, cemeteries are not a regular habit for me. In fact, I’ve only visited them a handful of times in my life and most have been the “historical” kind.  Last week’s visit was to a small cemetery overlooking the ocean in Pacific Grove, CA, just south of the Monterey area. It’s a beautiful spot: quiet, peaceful, and guarded by dozens of the area’s native cypress trees. I was there to visit the final resting place of my aunt and uncle, who spent several years living in nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea.

On the drive over, I made a mental list of the things you do when you visit a cemetery.  Flowers, words, a few prayers, some contemplation, maybe a photograph for a keepsake.  That’s my “left-brain” mindset in action, by the way.  I always have to take the logical approach instead of just going with the moment.  To further complicate things I’m not really comfortable with cemeteries.  Notice I use the words “final resting place” instead of “grave”.  Or “cemetery” instead of “graveyard”.  On this day I was even conscious of how I dressed.  Apparently I default to the formal, as if I’m visiting someone’s house for the first time.  Which I guess I am in a sense – it’s just a really tight neighborhood.

I stopped in Monterey for the flowers.  The drive then took me through the quaint central shopping area of Pacific Grove before the road rose up to the coastal bluffs to the southwest.  One final right turn and I had reached my destination.  Passing through the front gates I immediately slowed to the posted 5 mph speed limit, then navigated the loop road to where I thought my aunt and uncle were buried.  I parked and started walking, and I probably looked odd trying to find their plot.  I wandered here and there, up and down the rows, not really knowing what to look for or where to look.  I had to keep donning reading glasses to make out the inscriptions.

Finally I found them.  I was happy to see my aunt and uncle were buried side-by-side, off to the edge of the cemetery, in a quieter area and under the guard of one of those cypress trees.  Add in warm breezes, the afternoon sun, and a view of the ocean in the distance (photo) and it’s quite a place to call “home”.

I spent several minutes kneeling and recalling fond memories. It was peaceful, as there were only a few others on the property and the sounds of the nearby neighborhoods seemed appropriately hushed.  I said a final prayer and took a few photos and suddenly it was time to go.

Here is where my experience took an unexpected turn. As I put the car in gear I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.  Emerging from a nearby stand of trees, a single deer stood not ten yards from my car; motionless. He watched me for a few seconds, cocked his head, and walked very slowly across the road in front of me.  Several yards beyond the road, he paused, looked back once, then once again, before casually disappearing up and over a hill.  Gone, as if he had not even been there at all.  It was a moment – an encounter really – that my brain could not immediately process.

My first reaction was to look around and locate all of the other deer on the property (hello again left-brain).  But there were none, not even as I completed the drive around the loop road and exited the property entirely.  Now that I think about it, the people I saw when I entered the cemetery were gone.  Just me.  And a deer.  And my aunt and uncle.

My wife has shared several experiences where an animal makes an unexpected appearance after the loss of a loved one.  Since I’m all about explanations, I never accepted any otherworldly connection.  Now I’m not so sure. When I was talking to my father later about my visit, he asked “did you see any deer?” He went on to explain that deer are seen frequently in the Pacific Grove cemetery, only too happy to munch on all the flowers left behind by visitors.  But my deer was a lot more interested in me than flowers.  I think he was even trying to tell me something.

There are moments in life that go beyond the expected or the ordinary, and then there are moments that completely defy reason.  My moment was one of those – transcendent – even as I continue the search for a logical explanation.

Planed English

Have you ever listened to a friend or family member talk, and you realize you just enjoy listening to them regardless of what they’re talking about? Why does this happen? What gets the credit for your undivided attention? I would venture to say your friend or family member has a personal command of the English language. That is, you are drawn to this person’s unique subset of the hundreds of thousands of words available to them. He or she can string together words in a way that makes you smile or laugh, or even react the particular way they would want you to. They speak with fluency and aptness. They speak with eloquence.

Today’s generation does not speak with eloquence. Thanks to the convenience of email and text, in fact they hardly speak at all. My children have a habit of telling me “they spoke to so and so” and when pressed, I realize they’re referring to texting. The phone calls of my generation have become the texts of theirs. Even email is beginning to take a back seat to instant messaging.

Whatever the medium, today’s conversations have been reduced to a minimum of words, or not even words at all! Incomplete sentences. Acronyms (i.e. LOL). Emoticons. Hashtags. It might as well be its own language. Are we really intent on leaving “Queen’s” English in the rear-view mirror, for something not even qualifying as “plain” English?

Most of what we see and do and experience can be summed up in a few words. My endeavor with this blog is to bring a single, elegant word to the table, back it up with a meaningful moment or story in my life, and send you away thinking how you might use that word more often in your everyday conversations. We all have something to say. But can we say it in a way that captivates and inspires? Can we say it with eloquence?

Join me on this journey, won’t you? Let me show you life in a word.