Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 18, 2010

2009 Was Fine, Valentine

Our friend Peggy has sent out her annual family newsletter with her Valentines instead of in Dec. for years now. Which gave me the idea to post our last holiday newsletter here, for those who did not get a card from us. So without further ado…

*   *   *

Buon Natale & Glückliches Neues Jahre,                                                                                    

Swiss chocolate kisses and pazzo (crazy) Italian hugs to you this holiday season! Why the exotic greeting? The big highlight of our year was our first-ever trip to Europe together. But before we jump the Big Pond, a bit about last winter and spring. Sue continued in her role at Grayslake North High, conscious of making a unique impact with at least a few students. Like the girl who occasionally came for help with writing on her lunch hour, but stayed to share some of Sue’s emergency stash of peanut butter and crackers. (She said she often couldn’t afford lunch.) Or the Latina girl who tried to hide how smart she is, till Sue privately called her out, challenging her to surprise even herself by fulfilling her potential. Grateful to be truly “seen” by a caring teacher, the conversation was a turning point. She now checks in with Sue in the current school year, and says she’s doing great. 

But not all of the school days went like that. Sue also spent the spring dealing with more transitions, such as the departure of the principal who had hired her. Meanwhile from January to May, I tried the one school population I had not yet worked with: college students. I taught writing at Westwood College (a corporate entity kind of like DeVry.) The experiment went okay, but not well enough for me to stay on. I drive myself a little nuts when I teach, and can’t seem to find a better way to do it. So I’ve been looking for work back in the business world since summer . . .but to no avail.

Which brings us to the big 2+ week trip in June to see Sue’s Aunt Barbara in Switzerland. Graham stayed here with Grandma, hung with his cousins, did great. I did some blogging while I was there, so go online, and I’ll be brief here. (Well, brief for ME, anyway…) We spent time in Zurich, then St. Moritz (high in the Alps, gorgeous). Barbara was a gracious host and guide, fun to travel with as she told cool stories of her own youth and earlier travels. Marcus (my evil twin, not me) lost my credit card atop a 9,000 foot mountain. Then on to Lugano in the Italian sector of Switzerland. Then a bittersweet parting with Aunt Barbara, as we went on to Milan, Umbria (“the Wisconsin of Italy”), and Rome.

Funny story. (NOT!) : To rent a car in Milan, we had no good credit card (replacement Visa sent ahead, Discover not taken). So back at our hotel (in what Sue thought was the red light district), we were rescued by a West-Point Iowa kid, traveling before his first commission. He took a chance, and a few dollars, to scan his card as security on our prepaid auto. But we got out alive. (Didn’t like Milan much anyway.) Later we did get to Florence, and through terrific Tuscany over to the western coastal resort towns, and to Orvieto near our resort/equestrian center home-base in Umbria (famous for its white wines). Our last night in Umbria, had a great broken-English/Italian conversation with the Di Pols, a nice Roman family, at our resort’s restaurant. Our favorite city: St. Francis & Clare’s little Assisi, where there’s still something mystical and authentic, despite the feverish tourism. Rome was great at the back end, though we could’ve used a few more days there. Highlights: the Pantheon, Coliseum, Trevi Fountain,Vatican, (any and all parts…)

The wee one isn’t so wee anymore. Graham’s second grade teacher is the same academically tough but soft-spoken woman he had for kindergarten. He continues to do well, especially in math. Had his first ever piano recital last night — and bless his heart, he seemed too naïve to be nervous about it. He did fine, though provided some comic relief when he stopped mid-song during his second piece to look up the note he’d forgotten. He was a real trooper getting a swine flu inoculation, too. “That hardly hurt at all,” he said, as the sting subsided and he wiped his tears from his eyes. 

Here’s a timely tidbit: Sue shares a birthday (Feb. 17) with Hall of Fame inductee Michael Jordan –he’s just a year older than her. We watched his induction speech with a strange mixture of pride and shame, as he trash-talked other NBA players and didn’t even acknowledge his longsuffering ex-wife (nor many of his championship teammates, for that matter). But then, we all knew Mike never was one to be held accountable. Kids. . . Don’t be “like Mike”. Nor, apparently, like Tiger. In fact, play it safe and keep your distance from any spokesperson for Nike and/or Gatorade. If you really need a hero, that guy Sully who safely landed his plane in the Hudson River is available.

For other heroes, as a family, we’ve become fans of the show “Biggest Loser”. Sue gets all choked up about those people’s complicated lives, while I temporarily set aside my disdain for contrived reality tv. I just enjoy seeing people “grow up”, even as they’re slimming down — two things we also are trying to do, by the way. Except for Graham, who’s still lean and mean. (Well, he’s lean, anyway.)

He’s also teaching us, when we let him: To be patient, to stop and smell the roses, to dance without an ounce of self-consciousness, just ‘cause we’re happy. For instance, he recently found a pawn he’d lost two years ago from my fancy “African jungle” carved stone chess set. Its recovery was like the return of the prodigal son. It cheered me up, quietly helping me learn to forgive and relax. Of course, we still have that stone rhino with the lost horn that Graham broke, on the other side of the chessboard. A reminder that life is not meant to be perfect and painless. (Idealists like Mark need regular reminders of this.)

Not perfect. But some church friends, and cherished members of my men’s spirituality organization, reminded me this year that “Better is the enemy of good”. As in good enough. Maybe great. So look for the good in your life. Thus, here in these darkening days, we present a few good things:

• Chicago Botanical Gardens, and the sturdy, persistent white oaks in our own neighborhood, who I’ve noticed refuse to drop their crisp brown leaves until spring, when green shoots will step up to unceremoniously push their elders aside. • This American Life, Beethoven on the radio, and public radio in general. (Not to mention Cash, Haggard, Emmylou and classic country on a truck radio in rural Wisconsin – plus  free radio in general . . .though that service may be going the way of eight-track tapes and home milk delivery within about a decade.) • A 2009 mostly free of hurricanes, floods, tsunamis and other natural disasters (in the U.S.), so we can catch our breaths and feel a ray of hope. • Our families, which continue to grow and change in fascinating, unexpected ways. • Creative Soul Brothers (and Sisters) of all stripes, both famous and face-to-face. • Chances to be creative ourselves, like developing sacred rituals, and a couple of lay preaching sermons at church for Mark. • Our friends old and new, who continue to re-invent faith and community, in keeping with the Spirit’s leading. (This probably includes you . . . Just letting you know what a blessing you are to us.) • Cookies ‘n’ Cream ice cream and apple pie — made with apples from our own yard.

Speaking of harvesting fruit, our Concord grapes were plentiful in Wisconsin this fall, so I’m presently using them to make my first-ever home-made batch of wine. It still has to ferment awhile . . .kind of like all of us. But when we’re done, you can trust that we (at least me and the faux Merlot) will both have some kick. (And good taste, of course.)

So that does it. I hope I got through this letter without speaking in poor taste. If not, then forgive me. Y’all know I’m a loudmouth, and yet a pussycat at the core. And as life keeps getting more interesting here at our house, we hope it will be the same for you in the coming year.

With much love and affection,

Mark, Sue and Graham

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