My One-time Tour

Equus Run

My one-time tour for Bluegrass visitors included a stop at Equus Run Vineyards.

I put on a tour operator hat this week, and while it wasn’t a perfect fit, the experience was enormously gratifying.

When a conference for public relations professionals in the travel and tourism industry scheduled a landing in Lexington, Ky., I knew I had to be part of it. I’m the PR guy for the LEX-based National Tour Association, which is composed of people from tour operator companies and the places that tour groups travel to.

Like anybody, I’ve organized a group to meet for dinner. But tour operators orchestrate complex trips. Along with those dinner reservations, they’d also book air and hotel reservations for the group, plus transportation and a week full of activities.

I know what our members do, of course. I read and write about it all the time. But until this week, I didn’t know how they feel.

I joined PRSA, the organization holding the Lexington conference, so I could attend the event and become a more complete PR professional. (Note: It got me up to about 7 percent complete.) But I also wanted to use the opportunity to repay a friend from New Orleans, where my association held our big convention earlier this year. Tara orchestrated a parade of local media to cover our event, and she also starred in a seminar I led that would have bombed without her.

I promised Tara that when she came to Kentucky, I would introduce her to my home

Shaun (in blue) answers questions as visitors emerged from a horse barn.

Shaun (in blue) answers questions as visitors emerged from a horse barn.

state. The guy I called to fulfill my promise was Shaun Washington, tour guide extraordinaire. He knows the Thoroughbred industry, has incredible access to the farms and is a natural storyteller.

As long as I had a tour guide and a comfy van, I figured I would include more visitors. It was my first PRSA event, though, and I didn’t know anybody. So, like a tour operator forming a group, I had to do some marketing. I sent out a few emails to conference attendees from cities where my association will soon hold events. I gave them plenty of notice and promised them a good time and a great tour. No response. Oh, and it’s free, I added. Still … no replies.

As we got closer to the conference dates, I asked mutual friends to assure my invitees that I was not Random Man luring innocent victims into a van. Most of the mutual friends played along, I guess, as a few conference-goers emailed that they would possibly join the group. Of course, after they arrived in Lexington and had bacon and eggs beside me in the morning (and Bourbon in the evening), they realized I was legit. And they told a few of their friends. I told them all to gather in the hotel lobby at 5:15.

I began worrying at, oh, 12:15. I hadn’t been as nervous since my wedding day. What if nobody comes? What if word spread and everybody comes? What if Shaun doesn’t come? These people were nearly strangers, but I felt an enormous sense of responsibility. I had promised a great tour … what if I couldn’t deliver?

Shaun showed, of course, and he delivered a fantastic experience to the sixteen folks who risked joining the Random-Man Tour. As we cruised beside lush Bluegrass fields, my guests listened to Shaun’s tales. At KatieRich Farm they swooned over the foals and mares Shaun enticed to meet us at the plank fences. Many of them took their first sip of Bourbon from a chilled bottle I brought along. (I took cups, too, BTW.) We were close to Midway, Ky., and when we worked in a visit to Equus Run Vineyards, the smiles just multiplied.

Including a smile of my own. I am never happier than when I make others happier, and with the help of Shaun and Equus Run, I hit the happy jackpot. When the tour concluded, Tara and my new friends expressed their true appreciation for the land and lives that make this part of Kentucky a special place. They enjoyed their authentic experience.

I was filled with pride of place, but also, I felt the immense satisfaction that comes with meeting new people and enriching their lives. It must be like that for tour operators every day. And as much as I enjoyed the warmth of success, I don’t think I could tolerate the chills of uncertainty that lead up to it.

I am enthralled with the group tour experience and more appreciative than ever of the people who work to cultivate and orchestrate travel experiences. Sign me up for the next tour … just don’t expect me to lead it.

Kentucky Across a Chest

It starts with the word across their chests.

I never ponder the depth of my attachment to Kentucky basketball until the end of the season. Whether I’m soaring with a national championship or sludging through the mire of what could have been, I’ll pause to ask myself, “Why am I so wrapped up in this team’s success?”

It starts with the word across their chests. The school’s players represent more than the school; they represent my home state. They carry the banner for Kentucky, and I, too, am Kentucky. I have degrees from both UK and Transylvania, and while my heart belongs to the people and experience of Transy, my soul belongs to Kentucky.

My love for Kentucky basketball is a legacy passed down from my father and a community of Kentuckians. For many in the commonwealth, our basketball heritage is our shared pride. Outsiders often say Kentucky fans cleave to basketball because there’s little else that’s positive in a state beset by poverty. I’m not blind to the difficulties of my Bluegrass brethren, but my life has been extraordinarily fulfilling, and yet I still attach myself to the fortunes of our basketball team.

And Kentucky’s recurring success buoys my devotion. Decades of loss and frustration would likely lead me to a lesser level of dedication. (Kentucky football comes to mind.) But I can’t say that for sure, because I’ve never had to live too long between successful seasons, whether it’s an SEC championship or a run at the national title.

Am I a rabid fan—a Kentucky crazy? I’m not. Oh sure, I’ve dabbled in the irrational: When Louisville beat UK in the 1983 NCAA Elite Eight, I gave away the TV I had watched the game on (after first vowing to throw it off an upstairs balcony). Granted, it wasn’t a great TV, and a friend in our watch party didn’t own a TV at the time, so it almost made sense. But really, the whole episode was little more than a public display of my allegiance to the Cats.

I no longer wrap my identity around the success and failure of our boys in blue, nor do I wrap on a black armband after a March loss. (Yeah, I did that, too.) But I have not divested myself of a deep-seated dedication to Kentucky basketball. Especially at tournament time. During each game I yell. I curse. I pace. I fall down to my knees. When we win, I am elated. When we lose, I am crushed.

But I’ll be ready for next year. I’ll follow every step of the journey toward a championship. And if we reach the Final Four, I’ll wear my favorite sweatshirt.

It’s the one with KENTUCKY across my chest.

KentuckyChest

Still (not) Crazy

I am not crazy. And if anyone tells you different, it’s just semantics.

I’ve never been crazy, and yet I love “Still Crazy After All These Years.” It’s not a song I truly identify with—because I’m not crazy, remember—but it’s a song that latches on to me. And it hangs heavy. And sweet. Bittersweet, maybe.

The song was not a huge hit for Paul Simon. It peaked at No. 40 in late May 1976—right at the time I was finishing high school. “Still Crazy” didn’t grab me until later, though. Maybe it took a few years to sink in.

Along the way—after all these years, I guess—the song has become part of my soundtrack. One of my lifesongs.

I love the instrumentation. The mellow tones of the electric piano have a pulsing, almost haunting vibe. In the single, the flute and strings float around during the bridge to the point where you almost lose the sense of the song, and then the saxophone rides in, dynamic and soaring. In this version, the sax solo verges on spiritual.

There’s an old Saturday Night Live show with Paul performing “Still Crazy” (not in the turkey suit). I can’t find the video, but I can still see the SNL bass player in a final jam, walking the song home. I love it.

It was watching Paul sing “Still Crazy” on SNL40, the reunion show, that inspired me to examine my relationship with the song. Paul’s voice is weaker, naturally, but it doesn’t diminish the song’s nostalgic intensity. It’s a sort of performance art. With his hands, he tosses off a line here and there, he directs, he cajoles, and he ten-finger stabs an imaginary keyboard.

I don’t know enough about writing music to understand how chords and keys are chosen, but I know the progressions and changes in this song strike a chord within me. Inside me. Paul gives insight into the song’s composition in this session with Dick Cavett.

That’s the music. But what about the lyrics? They speak of several scenes: encountering an old girlfriend, a late-night soul-search, and a late-life listlessness—or restlessness. And there’s an introspective verse about being steadfast and solitary. But nothing about those thoughts or actions sound crazy.

I’ve done things that might fit some colloquial definitions of crazy without being clinically insane. I constantly play for laughs. I take “You’re crazy, Bob” as a compliment. And while I’ve been clever and bold, I’ve also been obnoxious and cutting. I’ve shown poor judgment. I’ve been lazy. I’ve been overserved and irresponsible. But I haven’t been insane.

And still this song speaks to me, and here’s why: I don’t hear Simon sing crazy and think insane. I hear crazy and think longing. (Heck, he says “longing.”) I hear still crazy and think still searching. And I am, too.

I’m still searching. Still learning. Still yearning. After all—that’s right—after all these years.

I don’t worry about doing “some damage one fine day.” But I want to do something in my life that counts. Something that helps. Something that matters … to a jury of my peers. I’m still yearning for that.

I’m sentimental. I’m nostalgic and wistful. I might even be restless. But I am not crazy. And it’s not crazy to be touched by a tune and moved by the music of an electric piano. It’s a lifesong, and it’s part of who I am.

How to Win the War on Christmas

Just for fun, let’s assume I didn’t alienate my entire audience with my denunciation of “White Christmas” in a previous blog. (Also just for fun, let’s assume I have an audience.)

While we’re on the topic of Christmas, I’d like to propose a solution to the War on Christmas. This is a bit tricky, as I don’t buy that there really is such a thing, war-wise. I celebrate Christmas, and I don’t feel the least bit threatened by those who don’t celebrate the holiday. Hey, it’s not like they were going to get me anything anyway.

Others feel differently, though, and they fume and feud in public skirmishes. This article traces the history of the WOC from Henry Ford and the John Birch Society to one Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News host who rallies the troops every holiday season.

For the past decade, a major battle has been waged over words used in seasonal greetings. Years ago corporate leaders of retail stores, thinking that some non-Christian customers might feel alienated when wished a merry Christmas, instructed employees to instead say, “Happy holidays.” I don’t know if any customers had actually complained about hearing “Merry Christmas,” but when zillions of dollars are on the line, the corporate guys probably figured, “Why take the risk? Let’s keep it generic.”

Here’s why: A backlash of alienation and outrage came from the other end of the spiritual spectrum. Apparently, many Christians want to be regularly reminded that their “team” is still No. 1 in this country, and a greeting of “happy holidays” became equivalent to “Welcome to hell. Satan will be with you shortly.”

So “happy holidays” became fightin’ words in the WOC. Oh sure, there are tussles over nativity scenes in public squares and school parties in homerooms, but the yuletide greeting controversy is more widespread; it sparks up every time someone utters “holidays” and not “Christmas.”

I understand the struggle. I do. Throughout my work history, I’ve sat on plenty of team-building committees that feel the pain of planning Christmas/holiday celebrations for a work community made up of various faiths and traditions. We try to figure out how we can be festive but considerate. We want to celebrate a season that is rooted in Christian faith without stepping on non-Christian toes.

This consideration for non-Christians smacks of “political correctness,” thought by many to be an overreach of concern for other people’s feelings. (Wait. PC is supposed to be a bad thing, and that makes it sound decent—almost, well, Christian.) But for me, it boils down to this: Once you’re aware that you’re doing or saying something that offends, alienates, or insults people, how can you keep doing or saying it?

Oh, I know there are people who are overly touchy. But if reasonable people are offended, aren’t we being unreasonable if we persist in being offensive?

So that’s the challenge for all of us, whether we’re team-building committee members or store greeters or regular hey-howya-doin’ people. And while I can’t solve the office party issue, I think I can engineer a truce in the fight over season’s greetings.

Just say, “Merry X.”

For those who don’t celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, but rather, as a cultural milestone, “Merry X” would be innocuous. It’d be, like, fill in the blank. As in algebra class, they can simply solve for X. It’s … whatever.

But for Christians, “Merry X” would be acknowledging their religion at its very roots. Christmas, of course, means “Christ’s mass.” The reason we sometimes shorten it to “Xmas” is because in the Greek alphabet, X is the symbol for the letter “chi,” which is the first letter in the Greek word for Christ. And in the early days of Christianity, believers used the letter “X” as a secret symbol to indicate their membership in the church. (Back in those days, Christians had real reasons to feel persecuted. Hear what I’m saying?)

So if a store greeter says, “Merry X” to your everyday atheist, he or she can interpret it as “Merry Whatever.” But a Christian who hears “Merry X” can nod in understanding. Smiling. “Yes … Merry X to you, too.” We in the cluuub.

So that’s it—that’s my white flag in the War on Christmas: Merry X. And if you’re feeling especially festive—regardless of religious standing—just say, “Thanks. And happy N-Y.”

Sing we NOW of Christmas?

It’s too early for Christmas music. I’ve been saying that since the day after Halloween, when one local radio station started its all-Christmas-all-the-time format.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Christmas. I like Christmas music. I like singing along with Christmas music. But for shepherds’ sakes! Eight weeks of chipmunks and two front teeth and hokey harmonies and simply haaAaaving a wonderful Christmastime is more that I can stand.

It’s the middle of November, and I’m already sick of half the songs in the list of The Top 20 Christmas Songs You Never Get Sick Of.

Starting Nov. 1, I eliminated “Mixmas” from my radio rotation during drive time. Mixmas is “Mix Radio,” which normally plays hits “from the ’80s, ’90s and today,” and now streams constant Christmas. If my other stations join the chorus while I’m still making my Pilgrim hat, I’ll steer clear of them, too. Eventually I’ll be ready for Christmas music—like, mid-December.

For years I’ve felt guilty about grumbling over the early onset of Christmas songs. The last thing I want to do is fuel the firebrands who shout about the War on Christmas. I’m not for war, but there’s no peace when the radio is blaring “scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago” on Election Day.

So why the Christmas animus? I’ve asked myself. Why the holiday hate?

Hey, it’s not the holiday. It’s the music: too much, too soon.

I listen to the radio when I drive, and like most radio listeners, I tune into certain genres. For me it’s top 40 and oldies. In terms of frequency, I can tolerate hearing a new song three or four times a day on a top 40 station—because it’s new. When a song saturates listeners’ ears, it gets less and less playtime and eventually becomes an oldie. Oldies don’t get played every day because the station has decades of past hits to choose from. Plus, we reached a sort of saturation point with those songs back when we heard them several times a day.

By listening to top 40 and oldies radio, I get a good balance of freshness, familiarity and variety, all within my general genre. But with Christmas music, it’s the worst of all worlds.

The freshness factor falters because radio playlists for Christmas songs are limited to well-established records, including the songs they say we don’t get sick of. Note: The newest of those is more than 30 years old. If you look at Billboard’s Top 100 tunes from last Christmas season, you’ll find that only 38 were performed by artists younger than me. And I’m an oldie.

Radio’s Christmas music also lacks variety, because there are a limited number of holiday songs that make the mix. And the same artists sing so many of them. On Billboard’s top 100 list, “O Holy Night” shows up four times. Three versions of “Last Christmas” makes the list. And out of the hundred hits, Michael Bublé has eight and Frank Sinatra has five.

Then there’s the collapse of genre. Mix Radio will play current(ish) pop artists most of the year, but “Mixmas” gives me the Vince Guaraldi Trio, Jimmy Durante, and The Harry Simeone Chorale. They all made the most recent Christmas Billboard chart, too, you know. These artists never show up on my regular radio stations. In fact, the reason I listen to those stations is because they are devoid of jazz, ’40s guys, and chorales.

And some of those songs—ugh. Would any of us tolerate a tune as ridiculous as “Dominick the Donkey” any other time of year? (It’s from the album, The Very Best of Lou Monte.) But we obviously tolerate it at Christmas: It’s No. 69 on the Top 100. “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” is No. 35. And we’re OK with that?

Look, I know it’s just me. I know people gush about Christmas music on the radio the day after they haul their jack-o-lantern to the brush pile. I understand that these songs conjure up misty mistletoe memories. They do for me, too, but I can’t sustain the yuletide mood for two months.

If I haven’t lost you already, I will now, because the Christmas song I get most sick of is No. 1 on the list of songs we don’t grow sick of: “White Christmas.” I can’t stand it. By the time those women take over with their 1942 harmonies, I have changed the channel. I know songs like “White Christmas” are standards, but they’re stale.

It’s probably not the arrangement that scrooges me; it’s the accumulated exposure. I’ve heard that song 5,000 times—literally: 50-plus years, 100 times each Christmas season. I’ve reached my saturation point.

My favorite (regular) song of all time is “Dancing in the Moonlight,” from 1974. I hear it maybe once a week, and that’s OK. I’ve heard it enough times in the past 40 years that I need only an occasional reminder of how excellent it is. Play it for me four times a day for two straight months, and it’s no longer a song I want to hear. I’ll be saturated.

You know, if we waited until mid-December to play Christmas music, we could trot the songs out, play them for a couple of weeks, and enjoy them. I really am a Christmas guy:
• I actually liked “White Christmas”—the first 3,000 times.
• I dig me some Vince Guaraldi jazz from Charlie Brown—when Christmas is in sight.
• And I don’t mind hearing “Do You Hear What I Hear?” from Whitney or Carrie—once a day.

But when the same Christmas songs get jammed into my ears over and over beginning two months before December 25, it makes me tired of Christmas before the big day arrives. I don’t want that. I want Christmas to be fresh.

So can we hold off? Can we wait? Can we start playing “Christmastime is Here” when Christmastime, is, you know, here? If we could, it’d be a regular “Holly, Jolly Christmas.” That’s by Burl Ives, you know; No. 10 on Billboard’s list. … Burl Ives—dude must’ve been like Pharrell … back in his day.

Which was, um, 1962.

Leaves Fall

It’s not often that I take thoughtful walks, but the other day I found myself enjoying a crisp fall afternoon, walking and thinking. When I reached the Elkhorn Creek at my property’s edge, I stopped walking, but I kept thinking. And watching.

I watched leaves fall into the creek. No revelation of nature, there, just a routine autumnal occurrence. But I kept watching those leaves as they drifted down from an old sycamore tree. What the yellow-brown leaves lacked in fall color, they made up for in size. Big old leaves drifted down, zig-zagging into the Elkhorn, where they floated like little boats.

Some of them landed in the middle of the creek, immediately joining a downstream flow that hustled them around the bend and out of sight within two minutes. Others landed closer to the creek bank, where they swirled around for a bit before getting caught up by the current, and then they floated, well, gently down the stream.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily.

But not all the leaves joined the main stream. Some drifted instead into little pools that were formed by branches or rocks—tiny coves of still water, where new fallen leaves joined others that were already stuck there. Those leaves weren’t going anywhere.

I don’t typically draw cues from nature and try to turn them into greater truths, but as I watched those leaves fall, I couldn’t help but to wonder about the random nature of life. Those leaves that fell into the current were transported downstream without missing a beat. They didn’t know how lucky they were to be dropped into the main stream—the mainstream—where they advanced with a majority of the others.

The leaves that landed near the bank, though, took a different journey. Some were able to eventually catch a current and avoid being trapped in dead-end pools. But others were unable to escape the motionless water. They weren’t bad leaves—not misshapen or leaky. They were just unlucky.

Some leaves are lucky, and others are unlucky. It’s simple. Sheesh, it’s just leaves falling from a tree. Just random destiny, right?

On the other hand, it could be that God or Mother Nature was up there pulling strings, deciding which leaves entered the mainstream and which were left to rot in the shallows. That could make a guy feel like there’s plan—that leaf life isn’t so random, so uncontrolled.

Watching those leaves fall, though … it just seemed so natural. Some leaves were lucky and others were lost.

I Love Reunions

There are two types of people in the world: those who attend reunions and those who avoid them.

I’ve always been an attender, you know. I love ’em. I go to college reunions, but I especially like my Woodford County High School reunions. There’s one this weekend, and I’m going.

A reunion is appealing on the most basic level because it’s a party, and there’s food and drink and music. And friends are there—people I’ve known for a long, long time.

Here’s where it gets puzzling, though. You can’t really say your reunion is packed with your best friends, can you? That’s probably because you’ve drifted apart from many of your buddies from back in the day, or maybe your closest friends from high school are reunion avoiders. The friends you see at reunions, then, might not be your best-ever friends. That’s how it is for me, anyway.

So why do I get such a good feeling about the people I reunite with?

It’s not because we’ve got so much in common. We likely went to different colleges (or not at all), moved to different towns or states, work in different fields, and hold different religious and political values. Sure, we shared the same high school 30 or 40 years ago, but we now lead lives apart. If I were lifetime besties with the folks I see at reunions, we’d get together more often than once every five years, right?

But we did share the same high school. I mean, we walked the same halls, we went to the same ballgames, and we cruised the same (lame) hot spots on weekends. You know, growing up in a Kentucky county with a single high school guaranteed us a set of shared experiences, even if our homes and families were quite different.

So even if we’re not everyday buddies, there’s something there. Something that runs deep and true.

When I go to the reunion this weekend, I won’t see the guys in my core group of buddies—not all of them, anyway. Instead, I’ll see three people from my home room, two from Ms. Cox’s advanced chemistry class, eight people I was in band with, a girl I took out a couple of times, and several girls I wanted to take out but was too chicken to ask.

And here’s the thing: When I talk to these folks, we’re going to help each other remember things we had both forgotten. Some memories are funny and some are painful—after all, we were teenagers navigating a transformative period. By talking to them, I’ll be reminded of people and experiences that helped mold me into the person I am today. And not only will they round out my memory of high school, see, they will round out … me.

At reunions, I have been reminded of my youth. I have been reminded of the person I was. Of the person I wanted to be. Of the person I became.

Hands down, the best thing I ever experienced at a reunion was getting to know Robbie. He

robbie

Robbie at our 10-year reunion, 1986

and I shared the same graduation year—1976—but little else. We didn’t have a single class together. His friends were ball players; mine were musicians. He was an athlete who started at quarterback and also excelled in basketball and baseball. He was one of the most popular guys in school, and I didn’t know him, not even a little bit.

 

It drove me crazy, mostly because he was adored by the girls, and I—even though I sat first chair trombone for four years (first chair!)—was not.

I didn’t know him, but I was always pretty sure he was a dumb jock. I didn’t know him, but I was pretty sure those girls made a big mistake.

Then I got to know Robbie. At a reunion. I can’t tell you how it happened, but we found ourselves in the same corner of a room or at the same table, and we started talking. We damn near had to introduce ourselves; that’s how separate our high school lives were.

And I’ll be damned if I didn’t like him. Robbie and I talked for a long time, and I discovered he was insightful and funny and a dang good guy. No wonder the girls liked him. In that one evening, my decades-long impression of Robbie was changed forever. And with it, my belief in the unfairness of high school hierarchy.

Don’t get me wrong. High school society is still wack. I mean, it’s owned and operated by teenagers. But because I went to that reunion and became friends with the Robbie I never knew as a teenager, I became a better adult. And at the next reunion five years later, we continued our conversation, comparing notes about our lives and our time in high school.

But Robbie won’t be at the reunion this weekend. He died a few years ago. I’ll miss him, believe me, and I’ll miss others who ran out of life before they became old men and women. I won’t dwell on it, though. I’ll be having such a good time comparing notes with other folks and rounding out other memories, I won’t let Robbie’s absence weigh me down. But there’ll be a moment or two.

Life zips by. It comes and it goes, and that’s a fact. So if I can catch a kernel of insight from a classmate at the reunion this weekend, I’m going to grab it. Those kernels won’t be around forever. Neither will those classmates. And neither will I.

I love reunions.

Missed You Will Be

I’ve been thinking about words of sympathy. I read a daily dose of them, see, because I’m one of the lucky 134 million Americans who hold a Facebook account.

Facebook users are highly sympathetic, but I don’t know if their words always match their actual level of concern. Maybe they do. I’m willing to accept that writing “Prayers” in response to posts about friends’ troubles is shorthand for an expression of deeper sorrow or more complicated compassion. That said, when you write “Prayers” for the loss of a parent and the loss of car keys, we have to wonder how much praying is really going on.

But my main gripe about expressions of grief is that sympathizers so often use the passive voice instead of the active voice. A quick reminder: In the active voice, the subject performs the action: The boy wrecked his four-wheeler. In the passive voice, the subject isn’t taking a direct action: The four-wheeler was wrecked by the boy.

(And hey, that boy damn well better be wearing a helmet.)

You can see that the active voice is more straightforward; it better expresses what’s happening.
• Eric Clapton didn’t sing, “The sheriff was shot by me.” He said, “I shot the sheriff.”
• Frankie Valli crooned, “My eyes adored you,” not “You were adored by my eyes.”
• The Stylistics sang “Betcha by golly, wow,” not “Wow-wee … um … Well, you get my point.

Now, there are times when the passive voice is preferred, such as when the performer is not known: The plastic forks were taken. Another appropriate time to use the passive voice is when the writer wishes to be vague or impersonal. Unfortunately, that’s the context in which so many sympathy expressers place themselves—just when they’re making a very personal statement.

When I am deeply grieved by the death of someone, I try to remember to say or write, “I’ll miss him.” Right? It’s a straightforward expression of my feelings. But I often hear or read people say, “She will be missed.” Or when a colleague leaves the workplace, the farewell card is filled with a similar phrase: “You will be missed.”

What if you went to visitation at a funeral home, and when it came your turn to speak to a friend whose wife had died, you said, “She will be missed.” And what if the grieving widower said, “She will? By whom? Do you have, like, a list? Oh, you mean by you? Do you mean you will miss her?”

Grieving widowers never say that, so don’t worry. But by removing yourself from the statement, you are also removing yourself from the sentiment. You’re saying the deceased will be missed by unnamed individuals or by the population at large or by … what are you saying?

Look, maybe you really do want to take yourself out of the picture. Maybe you won’t miss the guy. But if you will, own it. And say it with words: “I’ll miss him.”

Burial at Sea(t)

“My plate’s pretty full right now.”

You probably hear or say a variation of that phrase every day, and I say it myself sometimes. We’re not at the China Buffet when we say it, of course. We’re likely talking to someone who has just asked us to take on a project for work or church or community or school or whatever. It’s not that we don’t want to do it; it’s just that our plate is already full of projects for work and church and community and school and whatever.

And while I might say that my plate is full, that’s not the truth. What I mean is my seat is full. My chair at the table in our breakfast room is the repository for all the stuff I need to deal with: bills to be paid, mail to be handled, receipts to be filed, magazines to be read, and items to be stored.

This system was created by my wife, who has a knack—and a need—for neatness. At some point Mary Beth must have dropped off my daily mail on the table in front of my seat, probably after finding the mail-sorter-thingy already filled with bills to be paid, mail to be … you get the picture. After a few days of mail piled up, she must have asked me to go through my stuff, and I possibly/probably moved it from the table to the seat. Out of sight, don’t you know. After a while, Mary Beth just started adding to the stack of stuff on the chair.

So my system has come to this: Periodically I’ll stand by the chair and sort through the stack-o-crap and see if there is anything that requires urgent action. Naturally, the non-urgent stuff just stays on the stack. You might be asking—as my wife does with increasing intensity—why I don’t just handle these items as they come in. Just pay the bill, read the article, file the receipt, etc.

That’s like asking the manager of a restaurant why you have to wait for your food: If they’d simply cook it right after you ordered it, you’d be fed and gone much sooner. But like the kitchen at a popular restaurant, I get a little backed up.

You should see me sit in the damned thing. On any given day the seat could be loaded with three newspapers, a legal pad with notes from Wednesday’s meeting, a pack of light bulbs I need to return to Kroger (wrong size), and forty-three pieces of mail, so I have to perch my butt on about an inch and a half of wood. One day soon, the chair will flip forward and dump all that stuff on top of me. I’ll be buried beneath my backlog.

If you’d like to discuss this situation in person, feel free to stop by the house and come on in. Oh, don’t sit there, though.

Sailing from Stockholm

We left Stockholm under overcast skies, slipping beside one island after another—thousands of them. I could have viewed the archipelago through the wall of windows in our cabin but chose to go on deck for a more organic look.

Another cruise ship loomed into view, coming up quickly from the other side of a large island to our starboard. I hoped we would edge ahead and beat this boat to the spot where the shipping lanes converged, but I saw right away that the ship of strangers was moving faster than we were and would soon draw clear and assume the lead. I decided it was likely pre-arranged by the harbormaster (or whoever serves as sea traffic controller), and when I looked aft I saw yet another cruise ship in line behind us.

Three sea behemoths, taking thousands and thousands of one-day visitors away from Sweden, where only 90 minutes before we had filled the cobblestone streets of the capital city. And I do mean we had filled them, as we had filled the alleyways of Tallin, Estonia, the day before and crammed into the churches and palaces of St. Petersburg, Russia, the day before that.

For the hundredth time during this voyage, I thought about the citizens of the Baltic burgs we besieged. Did our dollars and euros and kroner outweigh our enormous imposition? At each port our ship bullied into the harbor and belched up legions of tourists into the city, where we shuffled and jostled our way into every prescribed place. We photographed every statue and bauble, often unsure of their significance, while we interacted with the locals only to ask how much, which train, and where oh where is the water closet? But not in their language, unless the more learned of us knew it, or the more daring of us attempted—and butchered—it.

Yet we made a difference, right? The onslaught of tourists bought up crafts and geegaws, fine linen and plastic, and we ensured jobs for guides and drivers, servers and barkeeps, clerks and costumed greeters. We came, we saw, we consumed.
But did we connect?

I thought about all that as our great ship departed the final port of our spectacular vacation, gliding between the islands dotting Sweden’s outer banks. A brief shower drove me inside for cover, but as soon as the rain let up, I went back on deck. I stared at the houses build near the shorelines of each isle. Through my binoculars, I studied the homes, the cars, and the pontoon boats.

Then I noticed people. Some alone and some in small groups, they had come outside to watch the parade of floating hotels lumber past. They probably stared at the same parade every week, or perhaps every day of their limited summer. Were they glad we came? Glad we were leaving? Sorry they hadn’t connected?

I saw a bald man who had strolled twenty yards from his house to get a better view. I waved, but he didn’t see me—or he chose not to respond. Three islands later I hailed a man and woman on the deck of their sailboat. But our massive ship offered a feast of details, and they overlooked me.

I watched how the wake of the ship in front of us reached each shore just as we passed it. Lapping the rocks, bouncing the little boats, and rocking the docks to which they were tethered. Then I saw one dock with a half dozen people. Not together, really, but apart. Individuals. They appeared to be waiting for a ferry.

I focused my binoculars on one of them, an older woman with a red patterned scarf on her head and a canvas bag in her hand. As I looked at her, she looked at my ship. I had already passed her when I raised my arm. I waved. And she waved back.

We connected.

Written July 1, 2014, aboard the Norwegian Star