There are many ways to keep warm in winter

Some of us can never understand why so many young people put on summery clothes during the cold of winter. Former Daily Globe editor Ray Crippen broached the topic earlier this month in his delightful weekly column.
I am one of those who, until now, often went out into the cold underdressed. It wasn’t out of fashion sense. It was, instead, due to a lack of attention to detail. But now, in my middle age, I am paying more attention to detail.
Baby, it’s cold outside. At my age, freezing temperatures creep into the bones like never before. The cold is harder to shrug off these days. Shivering is easier.
Until now, I’d only pull on my long underwear on the coldest of winter days, just to shovel my driveway. But today I’m wearing my long underwear at work. It’s amazing how comfortable long underwear can be — even when there’s no snow to shovel.
Warmth is a thought that enters my brain more often than it used to, and it’s probably going to rest there until winter passes. Let’s see: It’s the middle of January. That means one more month of hard winter before we’ll get over the hump.
Warmth. It’s a beautiful word.
There are many ways to achieve warmth, of course, even indoors in winter. Last weekend, for instance, my wife Sandy and I spent part of Saturday at the home of my daughter Laura and her young family in Lakefield on the occasion of a sleepover. It was, of course, a madhouse with three young boys — Laura’s Tyson (age 4), and her sister Kari’s Jake (5) and Nixon (2). But before bedtime, Laura and her husband Nathan inserted a children’s movie in the DVD player and prepared a batch of popcorn.
So Tyson sat on Sandy’s lap while Nixon sat on mine, and Jake scooted up next to me on my right hip. Nixon is notorious for being a mama’s boy, but with mama away he stayed on my lap for at least an hour, fiddling with his Transformer toy and talking to me intermittently in a language I could not quite make out.
But who cares? He sat on my lap. He stayed. Eureka! Jake sat in his spot for the same duration, and allowed me to wrap my right arm around him in a comfortable grandpa snuggle. They should have taken a picture.
Warmth? You bet. That kind of grandpa warmth is even better than long underwear.

Bowl me over, baby

This week’s Pigskin Pick-em will be the last one of the season, and it looks as though we will have a new champion.
Sports columnist Les Knutson owns a 105-65 pick-em record. Yours truly, who won the thing last year, is 101-69. Managing editor Ryan McGaughey is 94-76. And sports reporter Zach Hacker is 91-79. Barring a big surprise, that’s going to be the order of the finish.
Picking the games is never as easy as it might seem. National Football League contests have been especially hard on us this year. I don’t know how many times all four of us went with the “obvious” choice only to see that team beaten.
Next year, I think we might want to have an extra picker. I think it might be Zach’s dog, Homer. Zach thinks that he might have Homer pick winners according to which of two food dishes he favors (one labeled “Vikings” or the other labeled “Packers,” for instance) and Homer may do as well as the rest of us.
Judging from the job Zach did this year, however, he may want Homer to pick for him, too.
This week, of course, presents a smorgasbord of great football for the football fanatics in your life. New Year’s Day kicked off with the bowl games that really count, and with this weekend comes the first round of the NFL playoffs.
I’ve got football on my mind (not that I ever needed an excuse). More specifically, I’ve been thinking about college bowl games.
When I was still in high school I remember writing a humorous column for the school newspaper (I don’t know if it was really humorous, but that’s what I attempted, anyway) about the proliferation of bowl games that had already taken place in the 1970s. Nowadays, the proliferation has become even more extreme.
My point was, originally, that there were getting to be too many bowl games. I think today, however, the absurdity is not actually the amount of bowl games that are out there, but the name changes. It was OK to have the Peach Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, the Orange Bowl, and what-not, but now because of corporations horning in it’s the Chick-fil-a Peach Bowl, the Vizio Fiesta Bowl and the Capital One Orange Bowl.
Here are a few others: The RL Carriers New Orleans Bowl, Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Raycom Media Camellia Bowl and the Duck Commander Independence Bowl. I could go on and on.
The other day, Zach and I were musing about the bowl situation and he came up with another one. It derives from a story I brought to the Daily Globe newsroom recently about my 4-year-old grandson Tyson coming to our house one afternoon with a McDonald’s Kid Meal and a sack of chicken nuggets in his hand. “Chicken nuggets, baby! Chicken nuggets, baby!” he repeated to us.
We had no idea where he got the phrase. So naturally, we laughed.
Zach says the next bowl should be the Chicken Nuggets Baby Bowl, and he wants the Minnesota West Bluejays college team and the Southwest Huskerz summer amateur team to play in it.
Why not? It makes just as much sense as the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl.

Christmas without the tinsel

Sandy and I were sitting in our family room last Friday night with our middle daughter Kari. Mike and Kari’s two boys, Jake and Nixon, played nearby with the tub of toys they’d dumped into the middle of the room.
The television was on, showing a “Toy Story” movie for the kids, who seemed much more interested in interacting together at our feet. The lights were low, and although Christmas wasn’t going to arrive until almost two more weeks, we could feel it all around us.
Kari felt it the most. “Mom, dad, why don’t you have your decorations up?”
I chuckled a little. Sandy answered her. “Well, I guess since we’re having our family Christmas this year with you in Mankato, dad and I decided we didn’t need very many decorations.”
Kari was a little sad. “You guys always taught us to love Christmas. OK, it’s your house. It’s just feels a little strange that you haven’t decorated like you always used to,” she said.
She’s right, we’ve always been prolific Christmas decorators. We always had a big tree (artificial, admittedly) and we decorated it profusely with colorful blue and red balls (sometimes silver, sometimes gold) that we collected over many years. We took down our wall hangings and picture frames from all over the house and replaced them with Christmas-related themes. It was a big production. It involved packing lots of things away in boxes and bringing them downstairs, and carrying up lots of other boxes filled with reminders of the holiday.
We carefully set up the Nativity scene — sometimes two Nativity scenes, in prominent locations. When the kids were little, we hung a large December calendar with pouches and a little cloth mouse that the kids moved, each day, to the correct date so they could see for themselves how near Christmas Day was coming.
But this year we didn’t bother. We had become a little lazy. All we had to show for the coming of Christmas in 2014 was the little ceramic tree in front of our bay window. The big tree was still in our basement, unadorned.
Sandy put Kari’s mind at ease. “You know how we’ve always loved Christmas,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful how you’ve always looked forward to Christmas so much. It shows that we taught you well how to celebrate it.”
Kari agreed.
As they talked, I thought to myself how sweet it is that Kari now has our mouse calendar at her house. For several years now, she has brought it out of hiding at the beginning of every December and hung it on a wall in her own living room. And today, Jake and Nixon take turns advancing the little mouse closer to Dec. 25.

Those crazy dreams, and what they can become

Ray Charles once said, “Dreams, if they’re any good, are always a little bit crazy.”
Dreamer that I am, it wasn’t long after I began writing short stories that the dreams kicked in. I imagined that I would become a nationally-known author, invited as a guest on public television shows, maybe even have one of my books made into a movie.
It’s fun to dream big, knowing, of course, that dreams like that don’t really come true for people like me, a regular schmo raised in small-town Allendorf, Iowa, a normal guy with balding head and a slightly pronounced middle-aged pouch — a person people pass by on the street without even noticing.
But a funny thing happened to me, as some of you might already be aware of. One of my stories, “The Genuine One,” has been picked up by a national publishing company and is about to be made available nationwide. Just when I had become satisfied with the idea that the only people who’d read my books would be family and friends, my mind has been beset again with crazy dreams. That is, who will play the main character when the movie comes out?
Now that the word’s out, I’ve been asked by several people how I come up with story ideas, how long it takes me to write a book, and whether I have the entire book put together in my head before I type it on the page, or whether I make it up as I go.
I think there are many ways to write a story – as many ways as there are writers. Personally, I develop the theme in my head before I begin to write. I have a distinct path where I want the story to go. I jot down ideas about the beginning, the middle, and end and file them in a folder. By the time I’m less than halfway through the book, I have a folder filled with little scraps of paper indicating major and minor plot twists that I want to pursue. Writing a complete story, then, can resemble piecing together a puzzle.
It can be maddening just coming up with a good story. I can’t remember how many times I came up with an idea one day, and dismissed it the next. I have also begun writing a story only to abandon the project because I didn’t like the theme any more.
Since beginning my story-writing escapades five years ago, however, I’ve managed to write five books that I’m still pleased with. One of them, at least, was thought marketable enough by a publishing company that they told me they’d like to produce, distribute and publicize it with their own money. That, I can tell you, is both exciting and humbling at the same time.
Readers, I hope that you can join me at the Daily Globe on Friday, Dec. 12, for my book signing event, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. I don’t want to be presumptuous and promise you’ll love the book, although I sincerely hope you do.

From one generation to another

Even while I placed the item in the cardboard box and wrapped it in duct tape, I second-guessed myself.
Did I really want to part with my dad’s World War II mortar shell? It wasn’t that I didn’t want Clay to have it; it was just that dad’s war mementos are excruciatingly hard to part with no matter what the reason.
My father, an infantryman in World War II, died in October of 1990. Ever since then, as his only child, I’d been the keeper of his WWII things. They are quite possibly my most prized possessions, because they remind me of the service dad rendered in The Great War — but mostly because they remind me of dad.
His life is in that trunk. It contains the small black German mortar he brought with him from the war in Europe. There is the plate off a stricken Japanese war ship from his service in the Aleutian Islands. There are American and German war-time knives, a Nazi armband, photographs, a pencil drawing of dad sketched by a German POW at the camp dad was stationed at after the war ended. He had paper money and coins saved from France, Belgium and other countries he saw while fighting in Europe. The trunk contained non-war trinkets, too, like old pocket watches handed down from dad’s father and grandfather. Besides the war stuff, I placed other things in that trunk that remind me of him — letters sent home to his family from his WWII days, items from his amateur baseball days before the war.
I had known about those war things since my earliest of days. Dad used to show them to me from time, then after a few minutes of wide eyes and lots of questions, back they went under lock and key.
Recently I opened the trunk and picked up dad’s heavy mortar shell — the kind it was his job to lob, himself, from the American side. The inside of the shell was hollowed out, but it’s still heavy. As I held it in my hand, I thought that this might be a good time to pass it along to my grandson Clay.
Clay, at 12, is my oldest grandson. His middle name is Robert. My dad’s name was Robert. The fact that Clay has dad’s name as part of his own has always had an effect on me that I can’t quite put into words. I wanted to name my own son Robert, in tribute to dad, but God chose instead to bless me with three daughters. My oldest daughter, Shannon, thought enough of her grandpa, herself, to grace Clay with that middle name.
So I thought this might be a good time to connect Clay with the great-grandfather he’s named for. I put the mortar shell in the little box and went to the Internet where I found a Wikipedia description, with pictures, of the mortar dad carried with him in the Army, and the shell that it came from it. The shell photo looks exactly like the one I held in my hand — yellow, with thin red lines and tailfins.
After having applied the duct tape, I set the box down and wondered if I should — or could — give it up just now. I finally decided to go ahead with it, convincing myself that Clay Robert is old enough to appreciate it and sensitive enough to cherish it if only for the fact that it once belonged to the great-grandfather whose name he carries. We all own things that mean more to us than they otherwise would because of the story behind them. But we can’t hold onto them forever. Dad couldn’t. And neither can I.
I brought the box to Clay when he was in the middle of something else. I favored the casual approach. I didn’t want to make too much of a big deal about it. As he opened the box I just told him that I wanted him to have that mortar shell, and that every time he looked it at he should think of his great-grandfather and feel proud to carry his name. Clay read the Wikipedia article with great interest. The other piece of paper — a little note I wrote to him to explain that he’s becoming quite a young man now — I asked him to read at another time after I left.
Today, that mortar shell has a special place in Clay’s bedroom. I think I did the right thing. I think Clay’s great-grandfather would have been proud to see it there.

If I don’t mind, does it matter?

“Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter,” said baseball great Satchel Paige.
Paige, who was born in 1906 and lived until 1982, was one of the sport’s all-time great pitchers. He was also a quote machine that rivaled the best of them, and he often waxed eloquent about aging.
He also said, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”
I had another birthday last weekend. I’ve reached the point where I’ve had so many birthdays, in fact, that I don’t automatically remember how old I am. When I was young, like 8 or 9, I had instant recall. I knew my exact age as well as I knew my name. But now that I’m 58, I have to think for a few seconds so that I’m not a year or two off the mark. Let’s see, I was born in November of 1956. This is now 2014. That would mean I’m … 58.
Fifty-eight?
These days, my sons-in-law refer to me as “old man.” I take it as a sign of respect, but I must confess I’m beginning to act the part. My knees buckle sometimes when I climb the stairs. I fall asleep on the recliner sometimes when I’m watching NFL football on television — something I never used to do — and my kids tell me I shouldn’t lift heavy objects.
This old man’s birthday isn’t celebrated like it once was. I spent my 58th birthday on Sunday the way I prefer — watching two NFL football games in the afternoon, and another one at night. And, yes, I napped a little bit. The day before, my wife Sandy and I drove to Mankato to see the kids and grandkids. My oldest granddaughter, Mia, has her birthday on the 10th, and since mine is on the ninth, we celebrate them together. If our birthdays weren’t so close together, no one would make a fuss over mine. And that would have suited me just fine.
Before I know it, I’ll be 60. My family just might do something a little special for the big six-oh, and I guess I’d be OK with that. When I turned 30, my wife surprised me one night while I was working at the Daily Globe. She had hired someone to dress up in a Grim Reaper costume and show up at work. The not-so-subtle message was that I wasn’t young any more, and that mortality looms.
That was when I turned 30.
There was no Grim Reaper this year, and I suspect there won’t be one for me when 30 doubles to 60.
It was funny when I was 30. But it’s not quite so funny any more.
With apologies to Satchel.

Fighting cynicism in an election year

An off-year presidential election is just around the corner, and can’t you feel the excitement?
Neither can I. But it’s obligatory that voters be encouraged to vote, to do their civic duty, and that they be reminded that the most important thing a citizen can do for his country is to fill out a ballot.
Well, yes. I’m as patriotic as the next guy. I have to differ somewhat with the aforementioned stress on “the act” of voting, however. I’d say the most important task of a voter in a democratic country is to be informed about the candidates. When you’re informed and then you vote, ah, that’s when the act is truly special. Those voters who are uninformed can just as well stay at home, if you ask me.
I guess I am a bit cynical, to be honest. I am reminded of a recent national poll where 58 percent of voters said this country is “going to hell in a handbasket.” It got a lot of attention for a couple of days, and without a doubt the hell-in-a-handbasket assessment puts an exclamation point on the typical majority response that we’re pointing in the wrong direction.
Things are pretty bad, I think. And it makes me wonder about those small fractions of voters who think the country is going quite well. Where are they getting their information from?
You’ve got to be regularly tuned into the news programs these days not to miss the crises we are lurching to and from almost daily. New bad news stories are coming at us so fast that we’ve hardly got enough time to pay attention to each one before it’s replaced with a new one. Let’s see: the IRS scandal is replaced by the immigration controversies, immigration is pushed out of view by the Veterans Administration scandal, the VA scandal is replaced by the Ukraine/Russia dustup, and that’s old news when the Secret Service scandals hit the fan, and that’s not so important anymore when the ISIS problem surfaces, and now that’s eased out of the way by the Ebola crisis. I know I haven’t mentioned Benghazi, the botched health care reform rollout and a few other downers that made the headlines at one time or another, but there’s so much bad news we don’t take the time to dwell on any one of them for long.
You can’t blame everything on politicians, however, or any one political party. But many of us are taking that route, and all it does is make us so demoralized that we tend to believe we’re past the point of recovery.
We tell ourselves that neither the Democrats nor Republicans offer any real hope. That’s defeatism, and Americans always have and always should be an optimistic people. Fact is, Democrats and Republicans have very different views on governance, and it behooves us to take that into consideration in times like these.
I say we should inform ourselves and vote. It still beats defeatism. By a longshot.

There’s no such thing as an expert

Those of you who follow Pigskin Pick-em in the Daily Globe have no doubt figured out that we’re by no means experts.
“Expert” is a word thrown around far too easily these days. True experts are truly rare, and when it comes to picking the winners of NFL games I assert that there is no such thing as one who truly understands the crap-shoot nature of predicting these things.
Yes, I’m painfully aware that one of our “expert” Pigskin Pick-em panelists, Les Knutson, went 9-1 this week while making good on all four of his NFL selections. So Les had the right to crow on Monday (which, of course, he did). But until he can do it again this week, I’ll assume (at the risk of being called a sourpuss) that he just got lucky.
I don’t know what it is about the NFL, but it seems as if year after year there is hardly any team capable of maintaining consistency. Take the Vikings. One week they start a rookie quarterback against Atlanta and he performs like a Hall of Famer. The next week they rest him and his sore ankle against Green Bay and they completely fall apart. The next week he’s back but he performs like a rookie against the Detroit Lions. And the Lions? They were supposed to have one of the top offenses in the league this year, and their defense was supposed to be lousy. But their offense is poor and their defense is outstanding.
Go figure. Next week it all might flip. As it flips with virtually every other team. Take the New York Giants, who started out this season as if they’d be lucky to win a single game. So after losing their first two, they win three in a row and look good in doing it. So, of course, many of the so-called experts confidently asserted the Giants would beat Philadelphia at Philadelphia Sunday night. They didn’t. They lost 27-0 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score indicated.
The experts on ESPN and those other NFL pick-em shows express confidence each week with their forecasts. The truth is, they don’t know anything more than the rest of us do. They don’t know which team will show up on Sunday. Heck, the teams’ coaches don’t know either. That’s the nature of the league.
When we set up our Daily Globe Pigskin Pick-em feature this year I was half ready to include a fifth picker — somebody’s pet raccoon, perhaps. Or maybe sports reporter Zach Hacker’s dog, Homer. Because throughout the history of NFL prognosticating, animals have done quite well for themselves picking against their more brainy human owners.
I did a little research this week, and animal pickers are out there. There’s “Bonzo the Idiot Monkey,” and a prognosticating gorilla called Kanda the Great. A camel successfully picked six of the last seven Super Bowl winners before dying prior to last February’s Seattle-Denver contest. Somebody picks the NFL games using a cat called Mr. Nuts, who chooses his winners according to which of two litter boxes suits him.
I may someday, perhaps, attempt to trap one of the numerous squirrels that scurry across my lawn and use him as my resident prognosticating genius. At mealtime, I will introduce two cereal bowls in his cage — one with the word “Packers” taped to it and the other with the word “Bears” and let fate determine all my NFL picks in this way. I figure my own Mr. Nuts can be successful at least 50 percent of the time — which is a bit worse than Les, but at least as good as I’m doing by myself right now.

A light shines in the darkness

I have long ago come to the conclusion that ESPN is too big for its own breeches. It needs to be broken up, cut into small pieces. America’s No. 1 sports network carries far too much influence in the sporting world. We need alternatives.
But imagine my surprise the other day when on-air ESPN analyst Keith Olbermann — arguably the most pompous, self-important bore on that pompous, self-important network — went against ESPN’s own grain. Olbermann went off recently on a subject that until now has been sacrosanct. I’m talking, of course, about New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, who has since the beginning of this long baseball season basked in the kind of adulation that not even Mother Teresa would have been worthy of.
Olbermann, like many others among us too timid to point this out, argued on air that Jeter’s long farewell tour has been (to put it mildly) ridiculous. The testimonials, the gifts presented to him at every American League ballpark, the incessant televised career highlights, the breathless what-did-Jeter-have-for-breakfast-this-morning happy-talk — it is all so far over the top that somebody HAD to say something.
Jeter’s celebrated career is almost over now, but I propose that the worship of this baseball god is bizarre even for this country, which is already so obsessed with celebrity it has long ago lost the meaning of proportion.
We have at least one teammate on record that Jeter is the greatest Yankee of all-time. Greater than Ruth? Greater than DiMaggio? Greater than Mantle? Greater than Gehrig, or at least a dozen others that come to mind? Puhleeeze. Even the commissioner, Bud Selig, made remarks about the guy to the effect that baseball will never recover without his sainted presence.
I have never been a fan of Mr. Olbermann. He’s too extreme, too prone to stretching the truth. His previous stint as a political analyst on MSNBC was so absurd, he probably could have been sued for libel about 10 times per week. And, to be fair, Jeter probably isn’t quite as overrated as Olbermann maintains. But he is overrated, and he has especially been overrated by the other ESPN analysts we’re subjected to, who were probably ordered to say all those unsupportable things about him all summer long.
As Olbermann swims against the tide, the rest of ESPN blithely goes along with the story line. The same old company lines — like football coaches working from a playbook — are repeated regularly, not just with Jeter, but with other ESPN favorites.
And, while we’re at it, I do understand that ESPN has a lot of air time to fill throughout the broadcast day, but can’t somebody get them some REAL topics to discuss? Recently, the topic of the day was: Who’s better: Clayton Kershaw or Sandy Koufax?
C’mon. Kershaw is only 26 years old, and already ESPN asks us to rate him against one of the best pitchers of all-time.
What’s next week’s debate going to be about, ESPN: Who had the greater impact on American culture — George Washington or Derek Jeter?

Keep on keeping on, Trojans

When a high school athletic team — or in Worthington’s case most of the autumn slate of sports offerings — finds winning difficult, it can be tough for everybody.
The athletes play to win, and when they rarely win the season becomes long and depressing.
Coaches remind their players that sports is about more than winning, and they are correct. But they want to see their student-athletes shine with the joy of success, and losing is demoralizing the longer it continues.
Parents struggle to stay positive in such an atmosphere. They hold onto hope longer than the typical fan, who is tempted to become jaded, uninterested, or both.
There’s no beating about the bush at this stage. Most of the 2014 Worthington High School fall athletic teams have struggled from the get-go. The football team is 1-3 after being outscored 99-14 in its first two games. The volleyball team is 1-8. The girls soccer team is 1-9. The girls tennis team has yet to win a team meet.
On the plus side, both the boys and the girls cross country teams are having a good year. Cross country doesn’t stress the team aspect in quite the same way as the other sports, but hats off to them. Likewise, the boys soccer team is quite good. It is 5-4 after experiencing some narrow losses to some very good teams, but the team is of comparable ability with the top teams in the section.
Alas, there’s this “negative” side that whispers negative thoughts. We should tell that side to shut up, I think.
I thought about the autumn Trojans the other night as I was watching a public television documentary on the Roosevelts — Theodore and Franklin. Theodore (Teddy) happens to be my favorite president of them all, and one of his many famous quotes testified of the optimism, energy and fearlessness that contributed toward making him one of our greatest leaders.
I believe TR’s words can still encourage every one of us. They remind us that the winner is not necessarily the one whose arms are raised in victory, but the one who strives and does not quit.
Here’s what Roosevelt said:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Fight on, Trojans.