The painful truth of reality

By Bruce Stambaugh

The scene seemed a little surreal if not downright incongruous. If it didn’t hurt so much, I might have been laughing. You can if you want.

Even though it was still early April, outside it was like summer, warm, sunny, and balmy. But I wasn’t able to enjoy it.

Instead, I was forced to remain inside. I sat in my favorite overstuffed chair, television remote control by my side, heating pad on my back, and chunk of ice on my left foot. As my friend Steve would say, “Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”

Don’t get me wrong. I am not seeking sympathy for my ills, mostly because I probably wouldn’t deserve any. A little common sense might have prevented my mostly self-inflicted problems. But man that I am, I was either too stubborn or too proud or both to pay attention to the messages my body was sending me.

Maybe that was the real issue. The signals were just too simple to heed. Or perhaps I subconsciously heard them and tried to deny the obvious. My 20th century Baby Boomer brain was trapped inside my 21st century grandfatherly body.

Because I didn’t listen or didn’t believe what my body was telling me, I kept my usual pace when I shouldn’t have. I just wasn’t careful. I shoveled too much snow. I lifted too many heavy items too many times. I strayed from my exercise routine.

Finally, the consequences of my actions caught up to me. And there I sat warming my back, while freezing my foot, and surfing the channels like I was on a safari.

If there was an upside to this conundrum, it was that I had no choice but to come to terms with my physical situation. I realized that I simply had to accept the fact that I am aging, and that I must take better care of myself if I ever wanted to someday achieve my dream of driving the staff at the local nursing home absolutely crazy.

I recalled a conversation from Mitch Albom’s book “Have a Little Faith.” When quizzing his elderly rabbi about his advanced age, the rabbi wisely replied, “It’s not being old that is the problem. It’s getting old.”

I couldn’t agree more. If I want to get old, that is older than I am now, I have to take better care of myself daily. I also have to accept life’s realities and parcel out any physical work I do.

I have to look in the mirror and tell myself everyday that I need to get real if I want to enjoy whatever number of days I have left. I hope they are many, but there are no guarantees.
I don’t want to sound morbid about this. I just want to be honest with myself and with where I am at this point in my life.

Sitting there in the chair I also realized that it could be a whole lot worse. My situation pales in comparison to individuals and peoples in the world who suffer unimaginable hardships far beyond my temporary inconveniences.

Unlike my icy hot circumstance, no amount of rehab or exercise could rescue them from their agonizing plights. They could not extricate themselves from the inflictive pain of their illnesses or poverty or servitude. I could.

If I didn’t want to continue the folly of warming my back and icing my foot simultaneously, I had an easy out. I simply needed to slow down and listen to my body.

There is only one traffic cop that can make that happen. That’s me.

It’s no joke: April 1 used to be New Year’s Day

By Bruce Stambaugh

If there was one day I dreaded each school year of my three decades in education, it was April 1st, better known as April Fools Day.

The students, and even a few of the teachers, were merciless with their inane April Fools jokes. I was relieved if April 1st happened to fall on a weekend.

But five times out of seven, it did not. As teacher then principal, I was forced to endure the school-wide silliness. I gave a little more slack to the younger children who dared approach the principal to try to trick him. I did my best to play along.

I remember fondly their coy smiles with their giddy calls of “your shoe’s untied.” I always took the bait, waited for the giggles and moved on down the hall until the next juvenile ambush.

It was harder for me to tolerate the older students who tried unsuccessfully to be more sophisticated with their trickery. I didn’t have much patience with students who released the distracted teacher’s pet garter snake in the room or for those who put tacks on teachers’ seats.

I wondered who in the world ever invented such a silly day. After all these years, I decided to quit wondering and investigate.

My do diligence was a thorough if not speedy search on Google. The results didn’t really lead to any definite conclusions, other than to surmise that the antics of the crazy day likely got started way back when the Gregorian calendar was introduced. This major change, which had to make health care reform seem simple, revamped the annual calendar in the entire civilized world.

The King of France, Charles IX, instituted the switch in 1564. Foremost was beginning the New Year on January 1st instead of on April 1st. Problem was 16th century communications were not what they are today. Of course, given the state of the current Twittering world, that may have been a good thing.

Word of the calendar change took several months, even years, to make its way around Europe and beyond. Not surprisingly, there were those who resisted the change, and instead preferred to maintain the status quo, which included celebrating a new year beginning March 25 and culminating on April 1. Just imagine New Year’s Eve lasting eight days. Sounds a lot like Mardi Gras to me.

Those who refused to honor January 1 as the beginning of the New Year and instead continued to use the April 1 demarcation became known as April Fools for their obstinacy and resistance to change. As the lore goes, April 1 was dubbed April Fools Day for those who clung to their old ways.

Those poor fools, excuse the pun, who refused to accept the new calendar were sent off on ridiculous errands and were made the butt of practical jokes, like sticking signs on their backs that said “kick me.” It reminded me of those good old school days.

Perhaps because it took so long for the new calendar to be accepted, the practice of nonsense on April 1st became an annual event. The silliness gradually found its way to both the British and French colonies in America.

Apparently traditions, whether good or bad, die hard. Students have been pestering teachers and principals, and probably parents, ever since. With that in mind, you just might want to check your seat today before you sit down.

39 years is a long time

By Bruce Stambaugh

My wife and I will soon celebrate our 39th wedding anniversary.

I could be mean and say that 39 years seems like a really long time. It has been, but in a good way. Not that our marriage has been all peaches and cream and full of roses. There have been a few thorns along the way. But I won’t presume to tell my wife’s side of the story.

Let’s just say we are both human. And I recognize I that I have not always been the easiest person to live with. But I do my best to make it interesting.

As I look back over all those years, there are a lot of stories to be told, and then there are some that will never be told. Perhaps the most intriguing is how we met.

The short answer to that is that I chased Neva around a three-acre field filled with tender cucumber plants. We were on a mission/study trip in Kentucky with the youth from my church. The group’s assignment was to hoe the weeds in the field. Once Neva realized I was hoeing faster to catch up to her, she increased her weed eradication, too.

I just took that as sign that she liked me. You know how women can play hard to get. Well, I must have been right about her feelings because nine days after we had met we were engaged. You read correctly. Nine days. And if you thought that was fast, we married just nine months later without the shotgun. I was 23, she 21, both much too young.

We made sure we told our children not to repeat such foolishness in their own romantic adventures. That bit of advice probably wasn’t necessary. I think they saw the silliness in our story more than we did.

Regardless, facts are facts, and love is love. We’re still married after all those years. Of course, we have made our share of mistakes and misstatements. But rather than dwell on details, we’ve each managed to find forgiveness time after time.

As I recalled those 39 years, certain instances came to mind as if they had happened yesterday. The wedding day was one of those recollections.

The thing I remember foremost was just how scared I was. It wasn’t that I was having second thoughts. I was so out of it I’m not sure I was having any thoughts at all, and I hadn’t even had a bachelor’s party.

Thing is, I thought I was calm until an uncle made a sarcastic comment about how nice it was that the farmer across the road from the rural church had spread liquid sunshine on his field. I had to ask what he meant.

My uncle couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed the pungent manure odor. I’m not sure I smelled it even after he had said something.

I remember that most of my fourth grade class came in Paul Rohr’s refurbished school bus. During the ceremony they were the quietest they had been all year.

I remember that it took so long for the greeting line to end that people were leaving the reception before the bride and groom arrived. I also remember accidentally stepping on my wife’s wedding dress as we exited the church, and her finger wagging in my face. I knew I was a goner right then and there.

Somehow, we have made it this far, two houses, two children, both grown and happily married, and three grandchildren later.

Through good times and bad times, in sickness and in health, at work and at play, we have tangoed together for 39 years. Here’s hoping year number 40 will be the best one of all.

Turning thoughts into actions

By Bruce Stambaugh

I don’t know about you, but I do a lot of thinking while I’m shoveling snow. Given the amazing amounts of snow that have fallen this winter, my brain is about as strained as my back.

With two feet of snow on the ground, the most logical thought was obvious. Where would I put it all? The sidewalk already looked like the Grand Canyon, and the piles that lined the cement parking pad and limestone driveway were even higher.

As I shoveled my way around the house, making access to bird feeders easier, I realized my thinking strayed far from my physical task. My thoughts were so meandering that I absent-mindedly pitched the snow upwind.

Even with that rude awakening, my mind continued to wander. Is this a symptom of cabin fever or old age or am I just a typical man? Since I am not really expecting answers, we’ll go with all of the above.

I found Mourning Dove feathers in a couple of places. I wondered what predator dined on this prevalent and apparently delectable bird. Was it an owl, a hawk, a cat? I brushed the feathers aside and kept shoveling.

I thought about my friend, Jose, a coffee farmer who lived near San Marcos, Honduras where I visit occasionally. Jose, a tall, quiet, generous man, was killed recently in an accident while trimming a tree on his farm.

Jose was such a hard worker, a family man, dedicated to representing his little community the best he knew how. I’ll never forget the day I rode in the cab of his old, dented pickup truck, up the switch-backed, bumpy, one lane road to his two acre stand of vibrant coffee bushes growing on a steep mountain slope.

Though Jose knew no English, and I little Spanish, his non-verbal communication oozed hospitality. He turned our small group loose on those poor coffee plants and enjoyed the show, his welcoming smile continually flashing.

Several cardinals took flight as I rounded the house to the backyard. I had interrupted their lunch of cracked corn and oil sunflower seeds.

I thought about the Sunday morning service at the little church we attended while vacationing in Florida. I had already enjoyed some local birding opportunities, but never expected to be able to do so while at church.

The service was held in a room with large windows that faced a broad stream that met the Gulf a mile away. The faithful pastor had his back to what was happening outside.

While he preached, Black and White Warblers and Phoebes played in the banyan trees, live oaks and palms. Beyond the lush banks, Buffleheads scurried through the stream’s shallow water. Snowy Egrets and Black-crowned Night Herons waded, too.

I had just about completed my shoveling when I thought about my new friend, Fritz. He and his family had survived the catastrophic earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and had miraculously found their way to our little corner of the world in Ohio’s Amish country.

I remembered Fritz staring straight ahead while he related his harrowing story as if he were reliving each horrific moment. All I could do was listen. I felt for Fritz and his family. They had lost everything, including close relatives.

Amid the natural beauty around me, in Sarasota, in the mountains of Honduras, even in ravaged Haiti, my contemplative jigsaw puzzle reminded that life wasn’t always pretty. My efforts resulted in much more than snow removal.

Long after this deep snow has melted, opportunities to help others in need will abound. That conclusion doesn’t take much thought.

Winter is for the birds

Female Cardinal

By Bruce Stambaugh

I am of the opinion that winter is for the birds. I mean that literally.

Watching the backyard birds enjoy the variety of foodstuffs at the feeders is my winter’s entertainment. The various kinds of feeders are stocked with an assortment of options for the birds to devour, and are placed for safe access by the birds and convenient observation by me.

In the feeding frenzy, the birds put on quite a show.

Several kinds of birds enjoy the spoils of the tube feeder filled with sunflower hearts. The feeder hangs in front of the kitchen window and can accommodate six birds at a time, if all goes well. However, just like people, birds get greedy and guard their territory, even though there is plenty for everybody.

The American Goldfinches seem to be the best behaved, often feeding in families around the feeder’s cardinal ring. It’s named that so that cardinals can enjoy the seeds, too. Cardinals normally prefer a flat surface or the ground for feeding. But occasionally the bright red males and reddish tinged olive females will take advantage of their namesake.

Despite their bright coloration and moderate size, cardinals tend to be skittish creatures and fly off at the first hint of trouble. A few of the cardinals prefer the cracked corn that is spread at the base of the sugar maple. But so does the feisty Song Sparrow, which easily scares off the bigger bird. Using its clawed feet, the Song Sparrow jump kicks at the seed, even though it wouldn’t have to. Hereditary habits are hard to change.

Other sparrows show their faces as well, especially if the ground is snow-covered. The pretty Tree Sparrow, with its distinctive yellow bottom bill, joins the feast along with the showy White-crowned Sparrow. The latter is one of the few species that sings in the winter. Their beautiful tune can warm even the coldest day.

The real fun begins when the acrobatic nuthatches, Chickadees and Tufted Titmice arrive, which they often do simultaneously. I am fortunate to have both White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches, a first for me, coming to the feeders. They are the only birds that move headfirst down the trunk of a tree.

These birds take full advantage of the menu offered at the feeders. If the black oil sunflower seeds aren’t available, they might enjoy some extra protein that the suet provides. Or they might savor a hulled peanut.

All these birds give way when the bully Blue Jays appear. They loudly announce their arrival, and scatter the other birds with their arrogant intrusion. The jays gulp down a gullet full of seeds before flying off with their meal.

An even bossier bird is the Red-bellied Woodpecker. It wants to dine alone while partaking of the smorgasbord offerings, especially enjoying the peanuts. But they can be finicky, too. The next trip in the same bird may hit the ear corn.

Perhaps my favorite visitors are the Eastern Bluebirds, normally not noted as feeder birds. They do enjoy the brilliant holly berries right from the bush out front, but they also have been seen imbibing at the suet and sunflower feeders.

There are times, though, when the birds just don’t show up at all. It’s then that I know that perched nearby is the neighborhood Cooper’s Hawk, which loves a songbird lunch.

Occasionally I know that the swift hawk has enjoyed my feeders, too, at least indirectly. A pile of House Finch feathers atop the snow provides the proof.

Female Red-bellied Woodpecker

Cleaning out the inbox

By Bruce Stambaugh

I decided to begin this New Year with a clean sweep. I purged my email inbox.

The tidying was long overdue. The languishing emails had piled up into the thousands. Really. At one point I had nearly 4,000 opened and presumably read emails just sitting there. It was high time I did something about it.

Letting those electronic messages accumulate is pretty easy to do. You read it, respond if need be, and go on to the next email. It’s a process that millions of people around the world go through everyday. But I had to wonder if others let their inboxes become as full as mine.

It’s not that I don’t try to make sense of the many electronically generated communications that I receive on a daily basis. I do. I have created several folders in which to tuck the more important ones. Those electronic folders each have a particular purpose according to subject matter. Still, my mailbox remained cluttered.

I needed to rectify the situation, in part because I had actually lost some lingering emails when the mail server inexplicably malfunctioned. Imagine that. I have no idea if what I lost was important or not. They had been received so long ago that I couldn’t remember what was there.

To avoid a repetition of that situation, I decided to embark on my virtual housecleaning. It wasn’t an easy or quick process. In fact, it took me several fits and starts to complete the long overdue task.

I began with the most recent emails and worked backwards. That way my mind would be fresher about the subject matter. If I hadn’t replied and moved the email to the appropriate folder, I deleted it.

The problem was that for some of the legitimate emails, I had only opened them and not thoroughly read them. Before I could decide on each email’s demise, I had to reread it. Go figure.

Other emails required me to take some action that should have been completed long ago. I had to click through to a web page to check an account or open an enewsletter to which I had subscribed.

Some messages were offers, others required information to maintain an account or were simply communications on subjects in which I had an interest. In checking them out, some proved fruitful. Most were deemed useless. Which begs the question: Why didn’t I delete them as they arrived? I would have saved myself so much time.

Indeed, the entire effort took hours over a period of several days. I had good excuses for the irregular spurts of progress. The cyber sorting on my computer kept getting interrupted. New emails, phone calls, daydreaming, meals, naps and coffee breaks, which led to other breaks of necessity, all delayed the expunging considerably. Can you spell procrastination?

Nevertheless, I plodded along until the last forgotten email was either stored or discarded. I was actually embarrassed that I hadn’t replied to some of the rather important ones. I was equally appalled that I had left so much junk just lying around.

If these emails had been pieces of paper scattered about the office or stacked in unsightly piles, my wife would have never put up with it. Wait. Scratch that. Come to think of it, those are next on my list to do, right after I finish reading the email that just came in.

More than ready for a new year

By Bruce Stambaugh

On the last morning of 2009, the entire year seemed to flash before me as my car spun out of control on the icy road. When the car crunched against the utility pole, I was jolted back into reality.

That minor mishap seemed a microcosm of my 2009. I thought of Dickens’ opening line in his classic “A Tale of Two Cities.” Indeed, “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.” In many ways, I would like to forget 2009. Instead, I can’t stop remembering it.

Still, with everything that had happened, 2009 is all a whirl to me. Too many times life seemed to abruptly spin out of control last year, much like my car before it hit the pole.

I do know many more good things happened than bad. Our first granddaughter was born, and Maren is as precious as her name. My wife and I enjoyed spring training in Arizona. We cherished our times with friends at our beloved Lakeside, Ohio and continued to refurbish the little cottage that my folks built on Dad’s favorite fishing lake.

Even so, I still lost all sense of time, which is very uncharacteristic of me. I couldn’t remember if an event occurred the previous day or the previous week. That was a direct consequence of dealing with my father’s extended illness and subsequent death. Of course, I joined other family members in reassuring and tending to our mother, too.

Early in the year, Dad and I spent hours on the road and in doctors’ offices, an agonizing journey through the medical maze that led to the dreaded diagnosis that his cancer had returned.

Dad loved history, sports, family, archeology, hunting and fishing. But more than that, he loved sharing those experiences with others, and hearing their stories, too. Dad was a storyteller extraordinaire. As the designated driver on our trips, I was the beneficiary of tales involving many of those subjects.

Dad loved life and went at it like he did everything else, with reckless abandon. Even at his advanced age, he chose to fight back with radiation, and gave it a valiant effort. There was still so much to learn and share, he reasoned.

After he stopped his torturous treatments in early August, Dad seemed a changed man. He accepted his situation with as much dignity as he could muster, yet carried on hovering over Mom and conversing with whomever he could anytime he could. Though he never taught, Dad was the consummate teacher.

Dad set goals. He aimed to participate in the September 12 Honor Flight from Akron, Ohio to Washington, D.C. and back in one day, and he did. In all of his life’s experiences, Dad ranked that day right behind his 67-year marriage to Mom.

Next up was Thanksgiving, and Dad again defied the odds and joined the family assembled around the traditional meal one more time. He loved family gatherings, making those a priority in his life. Christmas was his next objective.

Sadly, Dad died four days before his favorite holiday. But my siblings and I agreed that that if there was an appropriate time for Dad to die, Christmas was it. From Dad’s enthusiastic viewpoint, everyday was Christmas Day.

On December 31, I scrambled out of my car uninjured. I was thankful that 2009 was ending, even if it did so with a crash. Given the events of 2009, I resolved to live everyday in 2010 with hope and thanksgiving. It’s what Dick Stambaugh would expect.

Contact Bruce Stambaugh at brucestambaugh@gmail.com.

30 Christmas’ on County Road 201

By Bruce Stambaugh

An anniversary of sorts slipped by last month relatively unnoticed. I’m pretty sure Hallmark doesn’t have a card for this one. We have lived in this same modest, utilitarian home on County Road 201 for 30 years. I really didn’t think much about it until we went through our annual tussle with the Christmas tree just a few days after the homey benchmark. We always buy a live tree, which is fitting. The color for a 30th anniversary is green.

This year we selected a lovely Douglas fir raised on a windswept hill on a tree farm in the county south of us. Thanks to the sharp blade of the bow saw, we had our tree in no time. We strapped it to the top of the van for the 20-minute, picturesque ride home. Over the years, we have chosen a variety of evergreen species for our Christmas tree. White and Scotch pine, blue spruce and various firs have all graced our place with their beauty and piney scents.

The first few years, we used balled, live trees, and then planted them once the holidays had concluded. But with the yard deemed full, we went to cut trees. Most were already harvested, but some like this year we sawed ourselves. Both my wife and I grew up with the live Christmas tree tradition. Once married and in our own home, we continued that practice.

Along with that ritual, however, came another unintended and unwanted one. It seemed nearly every year there was some issue that transformed what should be a joyous occasion into a troublesome one. The kind of tree or who had cut it was insignificant. If I had kept a list, which I didn’t, there could quite possibly be 30 different problems in getting the tree set up right. More likely there would be 30 different versions of the same concern. Apparently, stubbornness is impartial to tree species.

Of course, it’s rather easy to blame the string of problems on the trees. They can’t talk back. It’s also hard for men to admit they might be the obstinate ones. Most of the predicaments could be found at the base of the trees. That’s where I tended to work at the annual tree resurrection. Throughout the years I noticed a definite theme to the debacles. Once we had the tree exactly where we wanted it, straight as an arrow, at some point before, during or after the decorating it would fall over.

One year, I think during December’s full moon, the tree toppled two weeks after being erected. I couldn’t blame the kids. They weren’t home. I couldn’t blame the wife. She was fixing supper. I couldn’t blame the dog. He was napping with me. In that particular case, we righted the tree, and in lieu of duct tape, we secured it with thin, clear fishing line. This year I didn’t have to resort to that. The tree fell over as soon as I told my wife it was all right to let it go. She did and it did. After several tries, I finally figured out the problem. The tree trunk was too skinny at the base, which didn’t allow for it to be properly supported by the holder’s four prongs.

Using my best male contemplative skills, I devised a simple but non-festive solution to our problem. I shimmed the tree, and my wife trimmed the tree. And yes, it is still standing. Had the tree not fallen, though, I may have forgotten all about the three-decade watershed of blissful living on County Road 201. Merry Christmas everyone, whether you have a tree or not.

Contact Bruce Stambaugh at brucestambaugh@gmail.com

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