Innovation All The Way

J.J. Richardson – an unknown name to me until recently –  must have had a most creative mind. He saw something, knew something, thought something, did something that took innovative imagination to a level unfathomable by me. I have no idea what he did with most of his life. Really, I know little to nothing about him. He lived and died way before my time, and I am sure – like all humans – he had his fair share of successes and failures, ups and downs, positives and negatives.

Though I have never met him and know only a thimble-full about him, what I do know is quite amazing. In fact, as odd as it may seem, I enjoy thinking about his invention, wondering exactly how he came up with it, and pondering just how and when it leapt off the list of innovative devices and into mainstream America. For sometime in 1863, J.J. Richardson invented a tool that I – even with my lack of skills and abilities in all things mechanical – use on a regular basis: the ratcheting socket wrench.

There are many times – with my not so nimble skills – that I reach for the ratcheting socket wrench to solve my woes when working on projects that involve nuts and bolts. It’s a great device – sturdy, dependable, simple, useful. It’s a go-to tool with little to no fanfare – a standard in today’s toolboxes.

Each time I hold the wrench, I wonder about its development. Was Mr. Richardson a home tinkerer who sought solutions to his individual challenges or was he an inventor who set out to improve the functionality of the world way beyond himself? When did he finish his invention?  Did he know that he invented something for the ages? Did he even consider that someone like me would be using his invention 150+ years later?  When he finished developing it, did he celebrate?

And finally, was there a moment when he smiled that smile that combines confidence, hope, panic, fear, and glee all in one?

Innovation is an interesting beast.  And I have been lucky enough to live during a time of significant innovation. I would be remise if I didn’t mention the high-tech innovations of my time: the internet, computers, cellphones, the rocket ship, email, texting, wifi, the digital camera.  But, I would be even more remise if I didn’t consider the lesser innovations that may have had equal impact on my life with less notoriety: plastic paint buckets with pourable spouts, self-rising flour, perma-press clothes, contact lenses, power washers.

Innovation isn’t only an interesting beast because it has made my life easier.  My interest in innovation stems from something much different.  Though I am 57 years into it, I am still looking for my role and responsibility with innovation. My search has been on for many years.  It is the quest of my life time, a chase that is worth the effort because it is simply fun. I am looking for something that most likely has no end.  With that said . . .

I am almost certain, though not positive yet, that my role with innovation doesn’t sit on the inventor side.  Not sure.  I  have high hopes that one day in the future I will join J.J. Richardson or Tim Burners-Lee or Ruth R. Benerito and invent whatever it is that sets a new course for the world at large, but I don’t think that is the focus of my talents.  I know several folks who are set to do so – youngsters, much younger than I with brilliant minds, and I am banking on their abilities to do so.

I am almost certain, though not positive yet, that my role with innovation doesn’t sit on the inventor-patron side.  Not sure. I have high hopes that one day in the future, I will join the Scientific American Patent Agency or Berkshire Hathaway or Eli Lilly or NCSA and underwrite whoever it is who is inventing the next greatest innovation that reverses whatever tide needs to be reversed and rights whatever wrong needs to be righted. I know several folks and groups of folks who are set to do so, not necessarily young, but certainly those with financial wherewithal,  and I am banking on their desire to do so.

For me, I am certain, actually fairly positive already, that I do have a role with innovation – a significant one, a necessary one, one that I enjoy and find myself entwined monthly, weekly, if not daily. It is within this area of innovation that I have high hopes that my talents fit.  My slot doesn’t exactly call for me to have that brilliant mind nor does it require finances beyond my means and dreams.  It does, however, require action and continued attention on my part.

I think my role is to encourage, to mentor, to be enthused.  My role is to do the fancy-pants-dance when others share their innovative thoughts and ideas with me.  My role is to be genuinely thrilled and supportive as I listen to whatever out-of-the-box idea I hear.  My role is to say yes-yes-yes when everyone else around the most brilliant mind may be saying no-no-no.  It is also my role to help those on the go with innovation navigate whatever waters they find challenging.

On the surface, my role may seem slight.  But I have witnessed all too many times the demise of tremendous innovation due to lack of that spiritual support that helps to move crazy great ideas beyond conceptualization.  I am a firm believer that everyone needs to hear that their ideas are worthy, more importantly they need to be shielded from hearing that their ideas are unworthy.

I know that one day someone will invent an invisibility cloak, a Jetson flying car, a wheelchair that never fails, and a cure for all cancers.  And while these innovations are in progress, I am going to faithfully fulfill my role of being an enthusiast-extraordinaire. After all, it’s my role!

An Innovation from my past.  Some may call it a board with jar lids attached.  I call it the ceiling tool bench organizer.  Simply fill jars with items like nails or screws and attach jars to the appropriate lid.  Voila - organized and stored.

An Innovation from my past. Some may call it a board with jar lids attached. I call it the ceiling tool bench organizer. Simply fill jars with items like nails or screws and attach jars to the appropriate lid. Voila – organized and stored.

We Are Many Parts

As I glanced around the room, I felt that time had finally stood still.  All of us had obviously changed, grown, aged, but none of that change seemed to matter.  It was clear that many years had rolled by us, but somehow we were collectively channeling back to what had been such a glorious time in our lives.  We were chatting, laughing, gabbing, and smiling with each other as if we hadn’t missed a moment, as if we hadn’t aged.

There was plenty of food, lots of drink, and a band that beat all bands.  The weather was stunning, the setting was appropriate, and the cost was a drop-in-the-bucket of what it should or could have been. Our conversations were incredible – bringing forth the best in all of us.  It was an evening for the ages as the 1974 graduating class of St. Thomas Aquinas High School had reconvened in full force to celebrate its fortieth anniversary – in style.

We danced, we drank, and we ate.  More importantly, we talked.  Denise become a grandmother three times over earlier in the day.  Jerry traveled to Italy with his entire family.  D’Anne found a bottle of wine with our high school name on it.  Bought it and brought it, of course.  Viv sang with the band.  Larry had rehabbed a house. We all sat and listened to the stories of our lives, and learned a great deal about the actions and activities that had happened over four decades.

I initially thought that what kept us together was that we graduated from the same place many moons ago.  We all attended a Catholic co-educational high school, with rules out the ying-yang, faculty whose behavior today may have been cause for alarm, classes that challenged us to the bone, and tuition that forced our parents to sacrifice.  It was a tough school, whose primary goal wasn’t to produce students who scored well on standardized tests.  Nor was its main purpose to ensure steady and successful transitions to college and or employment.  As a youngster, I didn’t really know why it existed.

I do now.

St. Thomas Aquinas taught us to care.  I listened to story after story from my classmates about my classmates finding themselves in situations that required caring and self-less attitudes and actions.  Folks volunteering to help newborns and their mothers.  Men and women reaching out and helping relatives in any way possible,  moving moms, dads, aunts, and uncles into their homes if necessary.  Classmates participating in fundraising activities and, in general, looking out for those who can not do so for themselves.

St. Thomas Aquinas taught us to think.  We studied algebra, chemistry, world religions.  But, we learned to problem solve, critically think, innovate.  It wasn’t about ensuring that we would forever and a day be able to remember and use the Pythagorean Theorem.  It  was ensuring that we could and would create a successful life for ourselves and our families.  At the reunion, there were folks who had recently retired, who had started new jobs, opened their own companies, raised successful families, and in general, used their wits to live glorious lives. Everyone had different narratives, but all of them seem to indicate lives worth living and lives lived to the fullest.

St. Thomas Aquinas taught us to be accepting.  And on this one, I was most surprised for the 1970s weren’t necessarily a time where people embraced differences.  In fact, differences were often shunned.  But somehow, the Class of ’74 seemed to have pushed beyond the past.  The 80+ people gathered for the reunion were quite different from each other.  No two characters were alike.  But, we – forty years later – were capitalizing on those who were unique – which was everyone – and details on that which made us different, not on that which made us the same.

Learning to care, learning to think, learning to accept are topics for the ages.

To me, these topics are just as relevant today as they were in 1974.  High school students have an inherent tendency to focus more on self than others.  Placing them in settings where they are forced to put others first does build that first needed foundation for caring.

And teaching students to think is a learning gift – a gem. My high school used quirky and unconventional methods in this area, but they worked.  Classroom days built on the pursuit of learning about learning will build a society of great thinkers.  Class of 1974 – case in point.

Finally, the trilogy is complete when students are taught to accept.  There are so many paths that lead high school students towards the low road of non-acceptance.  It can be a time of either fearing those who are different or fearing being different.  I hope – and pray – that those who are leading learning in today’s American high schools, much like those who did so at my high school, figure out ways to encourage students to becoming people who thrive on the differences in others.

At the end of the evening, I had hoped that I would have a memorable take-away.  I thought it would have been something more comical, something that may have happened throughout the event that raised eye-brows and caused chuckles.  Perhaps something that involved some kind of excess and the police.  Something to take me back to my high school days – and the moments when we broken the rules just enough to surprise, but not enough to cause concern.

Not the case.  My thanks to all my caring, thoughtful, and accepting classmates from STA 74.

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St. Thomas Aquinas 1974

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Positivity – – -ness

“It’s all in his positivity – ness.”

That is the sentence my son uttered and the word that he used.  And when he did, I did the eye-squint double take.  I certainly know what the word positive means.  And I am fairly skilled with the meanings of the common english suffixes. But when he put them all together, I paused.

Since that moment, I have thought long and hard about it.  Positivity – ness. What does it mean?  What does it mean to me?  What should it mean?

Many days, I find that all types of challenges, problems, dilemmas, tests, trials, and conundrums that are just waiting to be explored, solved, eliminated, completed, deciphered, and overcome.  All too often there seems to be far too few hours in the day to properly address everything that is on my short-term list, never mind everything that is on my long-term list!

In fact though I am embarrassed to admit it – but not too proud to face it – two days ago, though it is not something I do often, I did take a small pile of moments out of my day to stop and complain – about the workload in front of me, the mound of seemingly insolvable problems around me, and the lack of my ability to succeed with any of it.  Keep in mind, that I know that I should not be complaining. I know my world is kind, great, and wonderful. I have family, friends, health, security, and more; but, for some reason I took five and whined.

Today, I remembered my son’s word . . . positivity – ness.  It swirled around my mind for a piece of time, and became a little, silent mantra that I heard most of the afternoon.  Positivity – ness. Positivity – ness.  Positivity – ness.  As crazy-funny as it might sound, that most unusual word – a word that seems to have one too many endings – is one very powerful noun.  And for now, it is becoming one stunning part of my vocabulary.

Most vocabulary words have rather concise definitions.  Though not a genius, I can generally rattle off the meaning of everyday, ordinary words lickety-split, and for words that are more complicated, I can usually find sufficient dictionary definitions that are ten words or less.   However, positivity – ness is neither an ordinary word nor one that can be found in the dictionary.  It was one that was created and developed by my third son, the artist.

What I think he meant by it is only a guess.  However, I have had some practice with such word interpretation.  For this particular word isn’t the first that he has invented.  In fact, he has a fleet of great terms plus a few phrases that he has brought to fruition.  Some of his words have brought howls of laughter, some nods of agreement, others quizzical head shakes, all of them joy in the moment. I have truly grown accustomed to new language additions from this most unlikely source.

Positivity – ness is a term, however, that has done more for me than just increased my language.  Its meaning isn’t simple nor short.  I think when that third son invented it, he knew it was a word to be comprehended and understood after a long period of thought. In fact, I think he expected folks around him to consider its meaning and use it appropriately, kindly, and confidently.

Positivity – ness is what it takes to make it through a day when there is nothing else to consider.  Positivity – ness is knowing that we are all challenged each day, but we are also blessed, and it is the blessings that should be the focal point.  Positivity – ness is learning to enjoy and respect the differences within each other.  Positivity – ness is expecting that we will work to change the world in many ways, every day, all of our days.  Positivity – ness is relying on each other for the strength we need when we can’t muster the strength we need ourselves.

Today, I found positivity – ness in the smile on the face of the guy who nodded his head as I jogged past him on a sidewalk near my home town university.  I heard positivity-ness in the voice of my oldest son as he told me about the birth of a friend’s child, seven pounds, two ounces, healthy.  I felt positivity – ness when my golf partner told me about the joy of helping her daughter move into her first new house.  I learned positivity – ness through all of these events and so many more, too many to list, that occurred in one brief twenty-four hour period.

I think the beauty of the definition of positivity – ness is that it can not exactly be defined.  More importantly, as I use the word – positivity – ness – I need to make sure that I use it well and use it right, while undergoing and valuing that quirky unknown meaning sensation.

The world is a great place, filled with opportunity and possibilities.  I hope that I can use my positivity – ness to reach out to others, to find ways to make the ails of the universe fade away.

What a great word.  What a great day.

Positivity - ness from the artist. 2014

Positivity – ness from the artist. 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Man of Few Words

Recently, my little brother, Rich, and I entered into an interesting partnership.  And during the time we were considering whether to do so, both Rich and I consulted with our father. And in comparing notes, my brother and I found that we were both asked the same questions:

“Do you trust him?” my father asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Do you love him?”

“Yes,” I replied again.

“Then do it,” he said, “Everything else will work out fine.”

In this conversation, my dad was brief and to the point. If the time elapsed was more than one minute, I will be shocked.  My pop only had two questions – one about trust and the other about love.  Never having been a man of many words and certainly never having been a touchy-feeling type guy, he assumed that the two question eight-word piece of advice was enough and it would be all that I would need.  And odd as it may sound, it was.

But it was only odd to me. Clearly, it was not odd to him.  For, as I sat next to my dad listening to those two questions and watching him deliver that very brief message, it became strangely clear that this wasn’t the only time that he had used this advice.

Throughout the next several weeks, as my brother and I cinched our partnership (keeping our dad apprised of the smaller subsequent decisions and choices we were making), my dad began opening up about the times that those two poignant questions guided him.

Should he marry my mother – the love of his life – and the love of ours? Yes.  Should he take a risk and move his family to a great new frontier called Florissant? Yes.  Should he listen to the advice from his father and take a job with a company formerly called Union Electric – now Ameren UE?  Yes.  Should he, himself, enter into all types of adventures and mis-adventures with his own brother, Bud – his dearest and lifelong best friend? Yes.

With love in his back pocket and trust at his side, he had no fear of his decisions.  He just didn’t. He still doesn’t. The outcome of his decisions may not always have been as planned, may not always have been perfect, and may have led down new and unexpected paths, but with love and trust, he always felt that his decisions were . . . correct . . . right . . . just.  Where some may have fear, he had confidence.  And at the moment he was asking me his two greatest questions, he wanted me to be confident, to have no fear.

When my father asked me if I trusted my brother, he made the term . . . the idea . . . seem so simple. He didn’t want frivolous conversation from me.  He didn’t want a lengthy discussion on trust, the origins of trust, and the positive benefits of trust.  He wasn’t planning on spending hours and days introducing the concept of trust and pondering its definition with me.  He wanted me to answer his question with a brief but confident yes or no.  He really didn’t want me to discuss the degree to which I trusted my brother or any reasons why I should or should not trust him or the dangers of doing so.  In fact, I think he was hoping that I wouldn’t speak, rather simply move my head yes or no – preferably yes, which I did.

When he asked me if I loved my baby brother, the same premise applied.  Yes or no.  Did I love him?  My pop didn’t want to know the details that could have been attached to that question.  He didn’t want to know any challenges surrounding it.  In fact, I think that had I begun some type of discussion when my pop asked that question, he may have given me the awe-inspiring, dad-blaster ‘no time for talking’ look – the look that fathers use to pretty much stop space and time – in order to refocus me.  He just wanted me to give him that one word answer, again with confidence – which was yes.

In less than one minute, with eight words in two questions, my pop did it again.  It was masterful advice in the blink of an eye.  He didn’t say it this way, but I definitely heard: Trust those you love . . . and love those you trust . . . everything beyond will fall in place.

His confidence in knowing that if I had trust and if I had love, then I should have no fear was moving.  And my dad has been right.  My brother and I are having the time of our lives – and couldn’t be happier with our decision.

I know that I, like my father, will keep those two questions handy.  And as I face complicated, challenging decisions in the future, I know that – like him – I will hope that those eight words give me the same type of guidance that they have done for my dad.

But I do have to chuckle.How in the world am I ever going to meet that standard!  Heck, 1000 words isn’t always enough for me to convey whatever it is that I want to convey. Well . . . at least I have a target!

Dad

Dad

The View From Above

I work on a college campus, and I love it.

Though my days can be somewhat varied, most of the time there is a carefully plotted out routine to what I do. There are countless committee meetings, reams of email, tons of telephone conversations, numerous one-on-one discussions, lots of small decisions, and large decisions, significant time working with students – faculty – staff on problems, concerns, challenges. . . and the list goes on and on.

It’s normal, average college work and it’s what I do everyday.

As expected, I am generally busy. I come early and stay late.  Sometimes I stop at noon to eat, but more often, I use the lunch hour to catch up on reading, signing things, thinking.  I find my college activities quite interesting.  But, for those on the outside looking in, the picture might not seem so exciting. Instead, it might be viewed as . . . tedious . . . tiring . . . a little too much of the same old – same old, and not enough of the knock your socks off, type stuff.

Admittedly, I spend most days in my office or in conference rooms.  I listen . . . I talk  . . . I read . . . I jot something down . . . I confer with others. I squint my eyes, looking up just in case an answer to whatever problem being discussed floats through my mind. (Rarely happens, but I look anyways.)

Sometimes the day passes without me ever standing up and moving from behind my office desk to the doorway. The two chairs in front of my desk are like seats on a merry-go-round that bring all kinds of folks into my office to chat. Suddenly, I look up and the day is over. I head home. I eat, sleep, wake up and start the process over again. It’s been this way for many years.

Most of the time.

For this is a college, and I know that college life is full of both the expected and . . . the unexpected.

As was the case on December 5th, 2012.

The sun was shining, the weather was perfect, and I was ready.   I slipped out of my regular work attire and into worn-torn jeans, work boots, and a college sweatshirt.  The faculty in the West Building had invited me, and I jumped at the chance.  I was – flat-out – super excited about the opportunity.  It was as if the world leaned over and tapped me on the shoulder for a great, great adventure.

In a few moments, I met my partner-in-crime.  Joe quickly ran through the must-do rules, and I suited up.  One hard hat. Check. One pair of leather gloves. Check.  One cell phone and one camera. Check, check.  And one safety harness with tons of carabiners. Big time check.  And I stood – at the ready – waiting for more instructions.

Joe looked at me and smiled.  He and I both knew that this day wasn’t going to be the usual.  This day wasn’t going to end with me turning out the office lights, shutting the door, and carrying my shoulder bag out to my nearby car.  This day was going to be different.  It was going to be a memory in the making.  This day was going to be one of those crazy-funny college days.

Our campus is a proud one and like other locations, we are becoming more energy-efficient. We have hundreds of geothermal wells throughout campus and several solar panels perched on building rooftops. We recycle everything, drive energy-efficient college cars, collect dead batteries, drink water from the tap, and turn the lights out when we leave our offices. And, most important for this occasion, we have two brand new wind turbines strategically placed on our college farm.

And I was in luck for It was my turn to climb one of those turbines.

The time came, and Joe started to climb first.  Once he was a healthy distance ahead of me, he peered down, motioned for me to connect my safety latch, and begin.  For just a moment, I hesitated.  I was delightfully excited, but from the bottom rung, it looked like a long way up.  I could hear him telling me to take that first step, but my boot seemed glued to the ground.  It was like my mind said go, but my feet said no.

I glanced up and Joe, who was already about fifty feet ahead of me, glanced down.  He smiled and called out my name one more  – and most likely the last – time. And finally, I started to climb.  What I thought I couldn’t do and wouldn’t ever have the opportunity to do, I began to do.  And it was fun – crazy fun.

One step at a time, one foot at a time, rung by rung, I climbed.  I have no idea how long it took me to reach the top.  I only know that it took me longer than it took Joe.  He coached me through the last trap door and onto the top platform enclosure – where there was just enough room for the two of us to stand.

He opened the top hatch, and from that vantage point, the view was stunning.  Farm fields, nearby highways, barns, lakes, silos, the college buildings, athletic fields – the best word to describe it was magnificent.

Oddly enough the only thing that had really changed was that I was no longer at ground level.  I was seeing the same sights I saw everyday – the same farm fields, the same nearby highways, the same barns, the same lakes, etc., and it was like I was seeing something completely different.

I changed my perspective and everything changed.  Everything. Everything.

Today as usual, I sit at my desk with paperwork and people swirling around me, with a routine that feels safe and comfortable, with my shoulder bag waiting to go home right after I click off the office lights at the end of the day.  But I know that if I take the time to look at my world from a slightly different perspective, I will see something totally different  – something very interesting and exciting.  Just depends on where I am standing.

College is crazy-funny that way.

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I Am A Runner

I am a runner.

A very slow one at all times, but I still call myself a runner. Most days, I put in three to file miles in terms of distance. In fair weather, I run outside. In poor weather, I seek asylum and run inside. Regardless of speed, distance or location, I would describe myself as a fairly consistent year round slow and steady runner.

And until recently, running for me wasn’t a team sport.

Decked out in average, normal sporting apparel, wearing the most basic of running shoes, my routine has been to get settled with my IPOD, turn on the most eclectic music playlist, and hit the pavement – all by myself. One and only.

My running routes are those of the most basic sort. I start at my home, swing around the neighborhood in a three to file mile circle, and end up right back in my driveway, sweating and tired, a little while later. Each day, I wave at the same folks, walk up the same hills, listen to the same music, and mutter the same complaints about this sport being too hard, too difficult, too challenging for someone like me.  But each day, off I go.

Most of the thinking I do while running isn’t that earth shaking. I think a lot about how much further I have to go both in time and distance until I am done. (That’s my favorite subject.) Or about what song will follow the one I am already hearing. Or about whether I am swinging my arms too much or holding my hands too high. Odd as it my seem, those types of topics can actually fill up all of the thinking time available throughout a normal run.

But, as average and mundane as my running may seem, for me there has always been something about it that has made me repeat the process each and every day by myself for many, many years. I just like it – start to finish – day to day – month to month – year to year. It’s fun.

Recently, however, I have kinda surprised myself . . . because I have started to participate in organized running. In April of 2012, I participated in the Illinois Half Marathon in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. In October of 2012, I participated in the Rock and Roll Series Half Marathon in St. Louis, Missouri. There were approximately 20,000 participants in April and equally as many in October. I went from me running around my local neighborhood with my little headset and dorky shoes to joining with a big group of folks – all looking much more spiffy and speedy than I – and running around big cities.

And until last night, I really couldn’t figure out why I made such a drastic change. Keep in mind, I don’t think about these things when I run. My understanding on this issue happened while I was sitting in the living room watching late night television.

Last night, I once again watched the movie Miracle – the story of the 1980 U.S.A. Olympic Hockey Team. Like many other people, I remember where I was and who I was with while watching that particular game. I remember the animated announcer Al Michaels asking me if I believed in miracles, and goalie Jim Craig wrapped in the American flag scanning the crowd looking for his father. I can still see the pile of young U.S.A. hockey players on the ice man-hugging in jubilation.

Me? I remember cheering, smiling, and laughing with my family as we watched the Americans celebrate at Lake Placid – which was thousands of miles away from me. It was a great moment – a fun time.

And then it hit me. Why have I suddenly started running with others?  And what is it about running with others that makes it fun?  Well . . .

At the beginning of the half marathon, I stood toe to toe with thousands of other folks waiting to hear the starting bell. Once we did, we trotted off – up and down all kinds of interesting city streets. Lining those streets were crowds of folks cheering, waving signs, clapping, handing us water, and just in general supporting the runners. They rang bells, shouted out words of encouragement, sang songs, and turned long distance running  – which for me had been a solitary sport – into one crazy-fun time.

I laughed along the way, gave out my fair share of fist pumps and high fives, reached out for the finish line and smiled widely at the entirety of my sag-wagon – which consisted of one person – when I did cross it.

And through the whole process – from the years of running alone to becoming  one runner among many and to connecting these moments to a 1980s hockey game, I have learned much.

First, it’s fun having fun with people who are having fun.  It is.

It’s fun to be part of crazy fun moments that make people smile for no other reason than something like running together.  There is something terribly groovy about sharing the times of our lives with others whether it be cheering along with millions of  Americans while watching a winning hockey game on television miles and miles away from the action or participating in a crazy-fun organized run.

It’s also fun to have fun with only one person who is having fun.  It is.

It’s fun to do something alone.  It’s fun to be incognito and smiling for no other reason than running on my own. There is something equally groovy about experiencing the time of my life with only the fanfare of me whether it be eating alone, working alone, sitting alone or running the streets of my neighborhood alone.

Finally, I learned that alone or with others, I like watching Miracle.  It’s just fun.

Stopping For A Photo While Running Alone

                             Stopping For A Photo While Running Alone 

Icicles

As a child, just the sight of icicles meant that my world was about to become very exciting.  Icicles meant winter. . . which meant cold . . . which meant time for action.  But there was always a lingering question.  Would it be cold enough?

Weather forecasting during my childhood wasn’t near as easy as it is today.  In the 60s and 70s, we would check the St. Louis newspaper’s weather bird, repeatedly dial the free weather phone number, turn on the television to watch the five minute 10:00pm weather report, and/or stick our heads outside and look around.  Even then, the long term weather forecast seemed like a guess.

When icicles appeared, it was most important to know that those icicles would be sticking around for several days – weeks – longer!  For if there was even a remote thought that a hard, down and dirty winter had arrived, the crazy-fun was going to begin.

My mother would stand at the front door with us – peering at the winter sky, thinking . . . pondering.  Isabelle was a petite young thing and a stay-at-home parent to six wild children (with the oldest 15 years older than the youngest), living in a home with one bathroom, in charge of anything and everything related to ensuring that my four brothers, one sister and I reached adulthood respectfully.

She wasn’t one to jump to conclusions quickly.  Rather, she would review the situation carefully, using a squint face which meant that her mind was somehow completing a unique mathematical calculation.  If after looking outside, she turned towards the living room closet, we were golden!  If not, our patience as children would be tested.

Sometime in the winter of 1971, I had just finished a grueling day of toiling at the local ice cream shop. (Yes, once I considered it hard work.  Now I see it as being paid to eat dessert, chat with friends, and occasionally serve food to others.)  Walking home from that job, which was only up the street from my home, I could see my siblings and mother all huddled around the front door.  Isabelle’s two eyes looked like slits as she gazed up at the house guttering.

As most would agree, winter evening weather can create an amazing hushed beauty.  Nothing is better than being outside on a cold, silent, clear, moonlit evening.  It can seem like the earth is on pause, standing still for just a moment.

And this time, my family’s anticipation only added to that beauty.

I walked off the sidewalk, talking the shortcut up my front lawn.  With each step, I heard the crunching of the frozen grass beneath my feet.   Life all around me was below-zero frozen.  And I slyly smiled because I was beginning to understand the scene.

Nearing the front door, I could see what my family could see.  With a brilliant moon in the background on a starry evening at the beginning of winter, there it was . . . a long line of big, perfect, giant, shiny, stoic icicles hanging down from the rooftop of 200 Duquette Lane.  And happy smiles on everyone’s face.

2011February ice storm 045

From that point forward, the person we knew as a traditional hardworking, intentional-driven mom turned into this crazy-funny person.  Bedtime . . . forget it! Homework . . . not tonight! Safety . . . ignore it! Practicality . . . dream on!

She shouted and some of us suited up.  Hats, coats, gloves, scarves, boots – check.  The rest headed for the basement.  Acting like a volunteer firefighting brigade, my siblings unhooked the downstairs washing machine from its water source.  They secured a spray nossel to the backyard hose which was patiently waiting three feet away just for these occasions.  They attached the hose to the now-barren water source, and threaded it out the basement window to my waiting mom.

With all systems a-go, Isabelle gave the on-signal.  Now, all it took was watching, waiting, and spraying.

My mother, in her early to mid-forties, wearing non-waterproof everything, would stand in the dark of the backyard, on such icicle evenings, for hours – with or without the rest of the brigade – holding a cold, wet hose, spreading a thin layer of water on the lawn in order to create one heck-of-a-great time for the family.

The nearest commercial ice-skating rink was both out of sight in terms of distance and  cost.  But, with a little luck and a little elbow grease, the back yard of 200 Duquette Lane could turn into one of the finest skating arenas in the nation.

According to Isabelle, there was an art to freezing the backyard.  First, she would apply a continual fine misting over the grass.  Once the grass was covered, she would remove the spray nossel and use a flooding approach.

By the time she had completed step one, she, herself, looked like a frozen popsicle, with icicles hanging from the ridge of her gloves, coat, body.  We would help as much as possible, but this moment was hers.  It was a time for Isabelle to step out of her responsible mother role and do something so absolutely nutty, that it befuddles me even today.

Throughout the night and into the morning, she would pace the back yard, hose in hand, until every inch was covered in ice.  My father, who left for work before 5:00am each day was a trusty assistant, but could not lead this madness.  It was an Isabelle project all the way.

Upon waking, we would skate the heck out of the back yard – daytime, nighttime, before school, after school.  That crazy-funny ice rink with three giant trees in its middle was a winter treasure beyond belief. We had the time of our lives.

Isabelle?  She really didn’t like to skate, but she watched us like a mom from the nearby kitchen window.  And for as long as the icicles stayed, we felt like the luckiest bunch of kids on the face of the earth.  Who knew that a postage stamp yard in the middle of suburbia Missouri could become such a splendor-land.

Well maybe, only that squinting mother of six who saw icicles as opportunities.