When the Splurge Is Worth It

Most Americans are not wealthy, unless compared to the millions of people who live in less-developed countries around the world. Although there is a vast household income spectrum in this country, most of us have limits on our discretionary spending. We have to make choices, especially about our wants as opposed to our needs. Some folks are truly prudent and seek savings that other families pass up: driving small, fuel-efficient vehicles; eating at home or taking lunch to work; shopping around for insurance; or even selecting generic products over name brands. Americans are among the most consumer-driven individuals on the planet. We love our stuff! We crave gadgets, electronics, toys, and a whole host of disposable products. We will spend hard-earned money on the most useless objects to occupy the limited time we have away from our jobs. The latest obsession that comes to mind is the fidget spinner, ranging in price on the low end from $3 to $10, but going well over $400 for the designer models. Millions have been sold across the country in 2017 (and in other countries as well). What is the function of this incredible device? It spins. That’s it. Oh, and it is branded as a remedy for everything from boredom to Attention Deficit Disorder.

I have absolutely no issues with what people choose to buy with their money, as long as they are paying their own way and taking proper care of their dependents. I certainly do my part when it comes to blowing money on the absurd too. However, as I look back over the decades, I regret a few times that I didn’t make certain choices that would have afforded me with lifetime experiences and memories. One example that comes to mind was during the summer of 1984 when I was studying abroad in England. Pop music has been an important influence in shaping my world view since I was a child. Some of the lyricists and musicians from the 1970s had the effect on me that poets and painters have on others with more sophisticated taste than my own. I was and shall always be a huge fan of the music of Elton John and his long-time collaborator, Bernie Taupin. That summer in 1984, Elton John was on his “Breaking Hearts” tour and played a concert at Wembley Stadium in London. As a graduate student who depended on the sacrifices of my parents and the funds from two grants, I was on a tight budget. Still, I could have found a way to purchase a ticket, but I didn’t. There would be plenty of other opportunities to see Elton John in concert, especially in the states, but it would not have been the same. That chance came and went but left its mark on me.

Since that summer in 1984, I have made countless spending decisions — most were fairly routine but some were certainly significant. I am thankful to have more discretionary income now than I did as a graduate student! My wife and I love to travel, and even though some trips can get a bit pricey, I never regret the money we spend this way because of the incredible experiences we share during our journeys. In recent years, I have taken advantage of opportunities to attend concerts with family and friends because I never want to miss out like I did that summer so many years ago. My older son and I saw Bob Dylan a couple of years ago — who knows how much longer this musical icon will be around? We also saw Pearl Jam in the band’s hometown of Seattle a few years earlier. I understood about 2% of the lyrics that Eddie Vedder sang, which is absolutely irrelevant. My son is a huge fan of the band and the whole grunge movement, and I was so glad we could take the trip.

My wife tells a proverbial story from several years ago when she was stressing over the decision to spend extra money on a wonderful hotel for a trip we were planning to Rome. She asked the opinion of a good friend and mentor, who wisely said, “Five years from now you won’t remember how much you spent on the hotel, but the two of you will never forget the experience of staying at that place.” She was such a wise woman, and we followed her advice with absolutely no regrets. In that same spirit, we have attended several concerts in recent years and have seen some incredible shows, including Fleetwood Mac and Earth, Wind & Fire. In 2012, The Rolling Stones announced that they were coming to Newark, New Jersey and to New York City for a 50th anniversary limited tour. Thinking that the band might be announcing their retirement, we jumped at the opportunity to see them. We bought plane and hotel tickets and made it a long weekend in NYC, which was expensive. Do we remember how expensive now? No. Will we ever forget the moment Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Charlie Watts walked out on that Prudential Center stage? Can’t imagine. Of course, we couldn’t have known then that the Stones would end up touring several cities in the U.S. the next year and are still making appearances around the world. Again, no regrets.

The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones, 2012

One more example should be enough to make my point here a tad more convincing. The Eagles are a band that helped define the music of our generation. They have a tumultuous history of substance abuse, infighting, breaking up, and reemerging from the ashes. They also created some of the most memorable music of the rock era. Their harmonies were close to perfect, their lyrics spellbinding, and their performances were almost legendary. They have won almost every major Grammy and at least five American Music Awards. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. When the band announced the “History of the Eagles” tour for 2013, we paid an additional fee to grab early tickets and the best seats we could afford. Their concert in Charlotte on November 15, 2013 was truly the best show I have ever seen. The vocals, instrumentation, stage presence, lighting, acoustics, and video production were just outstanding. As a reporter for the Charlotte Observer wrote, “The Eagles didn’t just give fans a typical concert Friday at Time Warner Cable Arena. It gave generations of fans a musical history lesson from its 1971 formation to its 1994 reunion.” As thrilled as we were at the end of that phenomenal evening, it would be just over two years later that we truly appreciated how fortunate we were to have been there. The news on January 18, 2016 of the unexpected death of Glenn Fry, the band’s front man and one of its founders, sent a shudder through the world of popular music. It also drove home to us the realization that, whenever possible, we need to take advantage of every one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that comes along.

The Eagles
The Eagles, 2013

 

A Moment in Time

People travel for a variety of reasons.  Even people who travel for pleasure don’t all have the same agenda.  We may be looking for simple relaxation, thrilling adventure, outdoor recreation, breathtaking scenery, cultural or historical education, stimulating enlightenment, or something altogether different.  Generally, we are looking for an experience that transcends our day-to-day lives.  We seek a opportunity to look at the world with fresh eyes, to be somehow transported if only for a brief time.  And, we really don’t have to be in some romantic or exotic location.  It can happen so unexpectedly, not because of our plans but in spite of them.  It can also happen in an unlikely place — not at all where we anticipated “the magic” would occur.

Several years ago, my wife and I took a trip to San Francisco.  We stayed for about a week at a good friend’s house in Port Richmond, a neighborhood in Richmond, California overlooking the bay.  It was my first time to the west coast, so we acted like true tourists and visited Muir Woods, the wine country, various places in and around the city, and even took a drive down Highway 1 along the Pacific coast and spent the night in Carmel.  It was fabulous.  On one afternoon during our vacation, we met up with a young man who is a family friend who lives in the city.  He took us to some of his favorite hiking spots at Land’s End and other locations around the entrance of the bay.  We came back to the Port Richmond house and settled out on the deck overlooking the bay.  We had a few drinks and took the time to catch up with him as the afternoon drifted towards evening.  We were enjoying each other’s company and the comfortable weather so much that we decided to have pizza delivered instead of going out for dinner.

Sunset over San Francisco Bay
Sunset over San Francisco Bay

We continued to sit on that deck after the pizza was devoured and talked for hours.  As we sipped on drinks, we watched the sun slowly sink behind the top of the distant hills to the west beyond the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge and marveled as the lights of the bridge and its endless stream of vehicles began to glow with evening’s approach.  We talked and laughed about life, our memories, our hopes and fears.  We soaked up the beauty of the bay at nightfall. There was nothing spectacular about the meal, although the setting was certainly enchanting enough.  We were together, enjoying each other’s company, completely immersed in the now — the right then and there.  We had not necessarily planned for the day to end this way.  There was no remarkable event, no famous landmark, no fanfare at all.  Still, it was somehow wonderful, and I knew it would be impossible to replicate.  I took a photograph of the sunset from the deck to commemorate the occasion. Anytime I can stumble upon a moment like that, I get the sense that I have done more than travel.  I have taken a journey.

Playing With Fire

When I was eleven years old, I got burned. At the time it happened, the injuries seemed horrific, although none of the burns probably exceeded the 2nd degree and covered only a small portion of my body: face, chest, one arm and hand. The incident occurred at my cousin’s house, who lived a few blocks from my house with his maternal grandmother, divorced mother, and a younger brother. My two cousins and another younger neighborhood boy were playing early on a Saturday afternoon in my cousin’s backyard. So many adolescents are mesmerized by fire. Perhaps there is some element born and nurtured deep in our evolutionary past that drives us to create fire, master it, and even flirt with its dangers. Fire is one of the key tools that allowed our genus to survive the Stone Age and to eventually dominate all other animals. My cousins and I were certainly not thinking about paleoanthropology on that particular Saturday, even if “shadows of forgotten ancestors” were influencing our actions.

We decided that afternoon it would be great fun to build a bonfire. Keep in mind this was summer in middle Georgia, where temperatures frequently climb to and above 100 degrees F. In evolutionary terms, we were not exhibiting behavior of a species that is the fittest to survive. We began gathering into a pile an impressive collection of pine straw, leaves, and sticks from around the yard, and for good measure we even threw in a few charcoal briquettes we found in a bag in the crawl space under the house. The heap was probably between two and three feet high.  I don’t remember who had the matches nor who lit one and strategically placed it at the bottom edge of the dry fuel mound we had sculpted. I do remember all four of us standing in a circle watching with giddy anticipation as a thin cloud of blueish-gray smoke began drifting up from the pyre. And then nothing happened. At least, nothing discernible happened. The smoke became thinner until it all but disappeared. There was no cracking or popping sound, no flames dancing toward the sky. We were greatly insulted.

I recalled seeing a can of gasoline next to the lawnmower that was just barely tucked under the backside of the house at the edge of the open crawlspace. I had watched my father pour gasoline on charcoal to start fires for grilling. I was aware of its combustible qualities. We could not stand by patiently and hope that fire would grace us with its presence. We had to summon it with the magic of fossil fuel. I remember the gas can was heavy and thus probably near full. I brought it over to our faux alter, opened the top of the tubular spout, grabbed the handle and lifted the can about chest high in front of me, and then bent straight over to pour gas on the pile.

The combustion was instantaneous and violent, shooting hot flames toward my chest and face. Even a smoldering spark when paired with gasoline can at once be transformed into a raging inferno.  Perhaps the “swooshing” sound of the ignition gave my reflexes a nanosecond of time to tightly shut my eyes, but I could not escape the fumes that had already penetrated my shirt, which immediately burst into flames as a I dropped the gas can. One of the boys had enough presence of mind to grab the can and quickly move it away from the mound, which was now engulfed in flames. We had succeeded with building a fire, but at a considerable cost.  I can still remember turning to run in the opposite direction of the burning pile and hearing the characteristic sound of flames whipping up from my shirt, across the right side of my face, and over my shoulder. And, I distinctly remember hearing my own screams. Then I suddenly stopped, reached down to the bottom of my shirt, and ripped it over my head, throwing it to the ground. I had escaped the fire, but not before it had peeled the skin from my right cheek, the middle of my chest, and several patches on my right arm and hand. My eye lashes and brows and much of my hair were singed.  My right ear managed to catch much of the flame’s wrath and later that evening would swell to almost twice its normal size. I ran over to a water spigot, turned it on, and splashed water on my face, which did not have the soothing effect I had hoped for at all.  It stung like hell.

The entire mishap probably lasted ten seconds, fifteen at the most. The little neighborhood boy left immediately, no doubt horrified. My cousins and I went inside the house where their mother, upon seeing my condition, was visibly frightened and probably concerned that she had somehow failed in keeping me safe while I was visiting their house. Of course, she was not at fault. Children are curious and do dangerous things. Most survive; some sadly do not. I was lucky. My cousin’s mother quickly got on the telephone and called my father, who was at home making lunch for himself. Otherwise, he would have been outside on a Saturday and would not have received the call. My mother, sister, and grandmother were not at home at the time.

My father called our pediatrician, who met us at his office to assess the damage. He decided I could forgo the hospital, and he applied ointment and bandages and sent us home. The women of the house were back home by then, waiting with dread to see how badly scarred the accident had left the youngest child and only boy of our extended family. In fact, I still do have at least one scar from the burns, on the inside of my right arm near the armpit. I suspect the scar was the result of skin that didn’t heal smoothly because the bandage could not be secured well enough in that location. The other scars would eventually fade, although some of them on my arm and hand took years to completely disappear. Other mental scars have perhaps never gone away. I was probably too cautious with my sons out of fear that they might suffer a similar calamity, and that may have made me overprotective at times. I hope my fears didn’t inflict too much hardship on their childhood. I am thankful that my brush with fire never made me fearful of it in general.  In fact, I never stopped being drawn to its light, warmth, sounds, and magical qualities. As an adult, I have never lived in a home without a fireplace or outdoor fire pit.  I respect the potential danger of fire, but I will always like playing with it.

Restoring My Soul

Sometime in February while I was scrolling through Facebook, someone posted a short video of himself playing his guitar.  In the message that accompanied the video, he mentioned that he was on a solo retreat in a cabin.  It had never occurred to me until then that a weekend of solitude and reflection could be so attractive.  A wise scholar and friend recently observed that, like she and her husband, my wife and I are “well married.”  It’s a phrase that we had not used before but now fully embrace.  We are indeed well married.  We have been together nine years and married for eight of them.  We enjoy each other’s company.  We like working at the same place, coming home for lunch together and having dinner together, either at home or at a restaurant.  We love to travel; we love to hike; we love working on projects; we enjoy our time at home, especially our evenings and weekends.  My wife has some friends and colleagues that she will occasionally meet for lunch or dinner, and sometimes she makes it an overnight trip.  It is good and healthy for her to stay connected to these people because they have been so important in her life and her profession.  Sadly, there are more such connections in other parts of the country where she has previously lived, and it is difficult to see them regularly, but she makes an effort to do so when possible.

I have a good friend who lives not too far away from us – someone that I have been close to for over twenty years now.  We see each other about once a year or so, and I enjoy catching up with him.  We also stay in touch by phone, texts, and Facebook.  I don’t have as many good friends as my wife does, that is, people I have maintained a close relationship with through the years.  As gregarious as I probably appear to colleagues and acquaintances, the truth is I am a bit shy around people I don’t know, unless I am speaking to groups professionally or performing music.  I was in a band for ten years, so I’m sure there are folks who would scoff at the idea of my being bashful in any shape or form.  There are times, and only for brief periods, when I truly cherish being alone.

When I saw that Facebook video post, I began to think about what it would be like to have a solo weekend, something I have not done in decades.  I started thinking about what I would do for 36-48 hours away from my bride, my sons, my job, our home – away from anyone I know.  I could read, write, study, play music, think . . . and think some more.  I was a bit nervous about pitching this idea to my wife, because the last thing I wanted her to think was that I don’t adore her company.  This woman who clearly loves me unconditionally thought the idea was marvelous and whole-heartedly supported my decision to find a cabin in the mountains for an early spring mini-sabbatical.  Now, as I write this blog entry, it is Saturday afternoon.  I am looking out the window of my retreat cabin in the high country of North Carolina less than a mile from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I arrived yesterday afternoon, checked in with the inn keeper in town, drove a few miles to my cabin, settled in quickly, poured a glass of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey and headed to the front lawn to relax in a comfortable chair and take in the view.  I followed the inn keeper’s recommendation for dinner at a local bistro, which was an excellent choice. I bought just enough provisions at the grocery store to keep me satisfied for 24 hours, and then I came back to the cabin and sipped more whiskey.  A storm came through last night and dusted the surrounding hillsides with snow, just enough to make it pretty but not so much to make it a nuisance.  I got up a little before 8:00, put on the coffee, and started reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a novel I read many years ago and have mostly forgotten.  I have been reading news and op-ed pieces from the New York Times.  I have had a fire in the fireplace for the last couple of hours, and I have played songs on my guitar that I haven’t attempted in years.  I don’t intend to leave the cabin until heading out for dinner this evening.  I am enjoying a full earth’s rotation of intense relaxation.

Relaxing by the fire
Relaxing by the fire

Just now, as I sat down to reflect on this opportunity and record it, I was reminded with great humility and appreciation of just how fortunate I am.  When people from my past ask me if I’m happy, I usually reply, “I’m the luckiest guy I’ve ever met.”  I am lucky to have a wife who ignores my inadequacies, my rough edges, my occasional crudity, and loves me with a devotion that is almost frightening.  It is also a gift to love her more than I have ever loved another woman.  I am lucky that my sons seem to be stable and healthy in spite of great tragedy and loss they have endured.  I am lucky to have extended family who may not always understand me and perhaps even worry about me, but who also love me deeply and take joy in my happiness. I am lucky to have been raised by parents and grandparents who encouraged creativity, loved to laugh, believed in the virtue of hard work, and exhibited rock-solid faith in their God and their church.  While not having the advantages afforded by a higher formal education, my parents made the necessary sacrifices to ensure that I received the advanced degrees I desired and that have opened up so many possibilities for me through the years.  I have had some incredibly inspiring teachers.

I have lived almost 56 years with few significant health challenges.  I have some modest talents and skills that are fulfilling to me and that I have been able to share with others.  My wife and I have a standard of living that is not enjoyed by a large majority of the world’s population.  We are grateful, even though we know our generosity does not extend as far as it should.  My career path has presented me with so many memorable encounters and experiences, and I know how rare that privilege is.  Lastly, we have the resources that make it possible for me to rent a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains to be self-indulgent for a weekend and to contemplate the precious gift of a good life that I’m sure I don’t deserve but for which I am eternally grateful.  And to my bride, the love of my life: thank you for giving me this place and time.

Letting It Go

Sometime around 1970, my father received an invitation from his uncle to take our family to a house that he and his family owned on the outskirts of the small town of Blue Ridge in the north Georgia mountains.  We all fell in love with the area and began taking short vacations there, along with my mother’s sister’s family, including the cousins that my sister and I grew up with.  Soon thereafter, my great uncle helped my parents find a small vacant house for sale located just a few blocks from the quaint downtown of Blue Ridge.  Dating back to the turn of the century, the house had been vacant for years and was in rather rough shape, but my father was an electrician by trade and a very good carpenter.  With his uncle’s help, Dad was able to make the little house habitable again.

Typical of my father’s utilitarian style, the house was restored with very baseline interior finishes: pine sheet paneling, unpainted molding, and linoleum square tile partially covered in large carpet pieces salvaged from our primary home.  My mother, her mother, and her sister all tried to do what they could to add some charm to the interior on a very limited budget.  Dad filled the three main rooms with furniture that friends and family had thrown out, making the minor repairs necessary to make them functional.  The rooms served as living quarters and bedrooms, with enough beds and pull-out sofas to sleep up to fourteen people.  He added a second bathroom, purchased the lowest-end appliances for the kitchen, and installed space heaters discarded by our home church.  He added a propane tank behind the house that he found for free — a tank designed to be buried in the ground with the typical metal column rising from the middle to enclose and provide access to the meter and valves.  Of course, he mounted the tank above ground.  I joke here about my father’s minimalist approach with this vacation house affectionately, with the full realization that purchasing and maintaining a second home was an amazing accomplishment for a lower-middle-class family like ours.  If nothing else, Dad was remarkably resourceful.

Mountain Vacation House
Family Mountain Vacation House

Over the course of the next forty years, my parents shared the use of this vacation home with extended family and close friends.  My sister and I and my sons, my cousins, and now my wife all have wonderful memories of such happy, peaceful times spent at this little sanctuary.  As my parents’ generation aged, they could no longer maintain the place, so the responsibility was left to my sister and me.  Now, the house belongs to my wife and me, and my sister and my cousins still take a vacation or two every year to the house, as do we.

Regrettably, I was not blessed with my father’s skills.  My wife and I have done some painting, and family members have graciously chipped in to do some minor repairs, but we have also spent quite a bit of money in recent years trying to keep the house from collapsing.  Due to poor foundations, settling, and just general old age, the house has become even less “tight” than it was in the past.  It has suffered from damage from ground hogs in the crawl space beneath and other rodents in the walls and ceilings.  Mice started to find their way inside several years ago, but the most disturbing invasion was evidenced this past fall when my wife and I found a three-foot-long snake skin that had been left behind in the kitchen.  In a state of temporary despair, I sat on the edge of one of the beds and told my wife, “I’m done.”  She wasn’t exactly sure what I meant!  We had a lengthy discussion and came to the difficult decision to finally give up on attempting to salvage the unsalvageable.  We are going to demolish the house and build something new in its place.

We spent our weekend sitting on the front porch rockers using our iPads to look for house plans.  My wife found a charming cottage plan, and we have taken the first steps toward this big change.  My sister and cousins are understandably saddened by the impending loss of a house that holds so many happy memories for all of us.  So are we.  But, they do understand why this is really our only alternative.  By this time next year, we hope to have a new place for the family to retreat and continue to enjoy the many opportunities for relaxation and entertainment that this area provides.  The town of Blue Ridge has drastically changed from the sleepy (if not dying) little village it was when my parents bought the vacation home so many years ago.  I will save for another post my thoughts about the changes we have seen over the decades in Blue Ridge.

It is never easy to let go of anchors from the past, especially when they are so concretely identified with people we have loved dearly who are no longer with us.  As cliche as it sounds, this vacation house was truly a home to our families and close friends.  We hate to see it go.  We are fortunate to have very good photographic and video-graphic records of the house, happy times, and the people who enriched our lives there.  We look forward to a new, modern structure to enjoy for many years to come, but there is a definite sense of loss as we say goodbye to this special house forever.

Restoring My Soul

My wife and I have fairly stressful jobs, hers much more than mine.  I have mentioned before how much we like to be outdoors when we can, and we look for such opportunities and plan for them when we take vacation trips.  We also enjoy kayaking, and we are fortunate enough to have two Hobie kayaks, which are equipped with peddles so we can use our legs to propel them instead of just paddling.  Our previous home was on a rather large lake, so kayaking was as simple as pulling the boat out of the garage and going across the yard to the water’s edge and taking off.  Now, we don’t get out as much and have to plan for the water outings, but we live in an area with plenty of small lakes close by to explore, and a few very large ones not too far away.  During the warm months of the year, we load the kayaks on our pickup truck and head out to one of the nearby lakes, often after we get off work, just for a couple of hours.

Lake Russell 2
Lake Russell, Habersham County, GA

Being out on the water gives us a chance to slow down, talk, laugh, recall the wonderful times we’ve had together, and make plans for the future.  Some of the places we go are fairly secluded, although there are usually a few people around either fishing or swimming.  She and I typically stay out for about an hour.  We enjoy being together, and while we like to be with family and friends, we also cherish the times we spend with just each other.  We work well together; as we often say, “We’re a good team.”  Beyond the recreation and exercise that this activity provides, I think for both of us it offers an opportunity to reflect on how precious time is, how beautiful the world is, how grateful we are for each other, and how lucky we are to be alive.

Daytona Revisited

Several months back I wrote an entry about my memories of vacations at Daytona Beach, Florida.  I wondered if going back now, in my mid-fifties with my second wife and no kiddies, would provide me with some sense of nostalgia about vacations past.  Oddly enough, an opportunity came out of the blue a few weeks ago for my wife and me to take a long weekend trip to Daytona.  We are fortunate enough at this stage of our lives to be able to afford better accommodations than I could ever have enjoyed in previous decades.  There aren’t any real five-star resorts in Daytona, but there are a few four-star places that are a cut above the rest, and we found a nice one at the small beach community on the south end of the area called Daytona Shores.  In fact, the resort is simply called The Shores, and it was surprisingly comfortable if not luxurious, with several amenities you wouldn’t find elsewhere in Daytona.

My wife had never been to this beach, and she was curious to see my old haunts — the places I have told her about over the years.  Some of the places, like the old apartments and hotels my family stayed in through the years, are no longer there.  They are either replaced by other buildings or remain vacant lots ready for development.  I was wondering if the highly-commercial, dare I say cheesy, atmosphere of Daytona was going to be over the top for her.  Not at all.  She loved it, and we were talking the whole time we were there about how to make long weekend trips work, returning to The Shores. The Boardwalk at Daytona has changed so much over the years, with an outdoor mall, new and extravagant rides, and huge hotels towering over the beach.  However, some of the old arcades that my sons spent many hours and dollars in are still there, dirty and hot and smelly as ever.  And of course, the ancient bandshell is still intact, where we heard a couple of bands playing.  A real blast from the past was going in the salt water taffy store that has been in operation at the same location since before my wife and I were born.  We filled up a plastic bag of taffy and both bought an ice cream cone — it was like tasting memories.

Sunset at Daytona Beach Boardwalk from the pier