Monday, December 29, 2008

A writing milestone

I hadn't even noticed it in the stack of mail that accumulated while I was gone for a few days at Christmas. It was an afterthought in the pile of Christmas cards and catalogs, and when I first saw it I thought it was a newsletter from the foundation set up by Robert Rogers after his wife and four children were killed in that flash flood on the Kansas Turnpike in 2003.

But when I opened it up tonight, I noticed it was the quarterly report on how the book we co-wrote, "Into the Deep," was doing on the sales charts. Oh, and there was a check, too.

My first-ever royalty check.


Considering most books that are published never recoup their advances, I couldn't help but smile. It was humbling and exhilarating at the same time.

It's a modest sum by virtually any measure, but I'm still thrilled. As any author, actor or musician will tell you, a royalty check is a milestone moment.

I joked with Robert some time ago that I wasn't counting on much more from my first royalty check than the ability to buy a milkshake with it. I think I can afford a decent bottle of wine instead.

It'll be a moment to savor.....and also a moment to remember Melissa, Makenah, Zachary, Nicholas and Alenah --- as well as Al Larsen, who died in the flood as he went from car to car hoping to rescue stranded motorists.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sights and sounds of a family Christmas

Our "official'' family Christmas was smaller this year than in most years past, with only a couple of my siblings and their extended families joining Mom and I out at the farm this year.

But it still offered a bevy of delightful memories.

Jameson, my 3-year-old great-nephew, was convinced every present under the tree had his name on it.

"I hope he has help distributing the presents, or they'll all end up in the same place," I told my goddaughter Rachel as we waited for everyone to settle in for the opening of gifts on Saturday afternoon.

The presents duly distributed, I did what I do every Christmas: sat back and watched everyone else open their presents.

"Dinosaurs! I got dinosaurs!" Jameson shouted, holding up an Allosaurus and Stegosaurus, battery powered beasts that roar and have movable legs.

He was also thrilled with the dinosaur movies he got for Christmas, and I'm sure they're the first thing he watched once he got home. The homemade pajamas? Um, not so much. But they sure looked like they'll keep him nice and warm the rest of this winter, and a few winters still to come.

I could relate to his enthusiasm about dinosaurs, though. I was fascinated by them as a boy, too...and that interest didn't wane even into adulthood. When my girlfriend, Karla, and I went to Salt Lake City to visit her sister, I figured out a way to swing by the Dinosaur National Monument on the way back, pestering the curators with questions as closing time bore down on us.

Gillian, at 7 months old the newest member of our family, was most fascinated by the wrapping paper her presents came in. Oh, and that other baby she kept the mirror she was given as a gift. Darned if that other baby didn't look just like her! She also is the spitting image of her mother, my niece Stacey, at the same age.

I don't remember Stacey chatting as much as Gillian does. Gillian just loves to talk, even if it's still baby babble and no intelligible words have formed yet. It makes me smile, because it's a sure sign she's content.

When I was little, we saved Christmas wrapping paper as if it were made of money - no surprise, really, when you consider my parents were stretching their dollars as tightly as they could so they could keep eight kids clothed and fed. Later on, as more of us left the nest, they didn't feel the need to be as cautious --- so the grand finale of our gift exchange was usually a blizzard of "snowballs" made from the remnants of the wrapping paper. This year's version was merely a few flurries.

We didn't take our usual walk along the farm paths and fields after the big holiday feast - perhaps because it was so cold and windy out and also because a couple of my siblings were eager to dive into a round of Nertz. That card game, sort of like solitaire on steroids, has been a family passion ever since I was little. We usually pair up in teams of two, though one person can handle both duties - the pile of 13 cards and the main pile from which the player turns over three cards at a time just as in solitaire. I think we played until supper time, losing track of the score along the way. Mom was right in the middle of it, which was probably the best part of all.

After supper, I set up Mom's new Netflix account, a modest gift from her children that will allow her the joy of seeing movies from decades past that she always wanted to but never did because she was too busy raising a bushel-basket full of kids and there never seemed to be money around to catch those films in the theater.

She'd be the first to say, however, that the presents which mean the most to her are the presence.....of her large and often boisterous family.

I can only second that emotion.

Friday, December 26, 2008

A nighttime drive through the country

With rain and snow in the Saturday morning forecast, I decided to come out to central Kansas Friday night to avoid the possibility of hazardous driving conditions. Of course, that meant driving at night on an unseasonably warm - and awfully windy - night, which offers its own challenges....chief among them deer stirred by the warm weather and semi-trailer trucks wobbling in the howling winds.

I prayed a rosary as I started out, something I like to do for any trip of consequence. It calms me and helps clear my mind for the drive. The last red wisps of sunset were glazing the western horizon as I left Wichita, and before long I was reminded how dark it gets in the rural areas at night - especially, it seems, on winter nights.

There are no bright city lights to pierce the darkness, only pinholes offered by distant stars. My preferred route to the family farm steers me clear of Hutchinson so that I can save time. At night, Hutchinson glows like a dome in the distance, almost like a hovering spaceship of civilization in the cosmos.

I couldn't help but think of outer space as I drove. Wisps of fog clung to the ground in strands, and they'd rush past my car like swooping ghosts. With little but the nighttime sky in front of me I imagined being the captain of a federation starship penetrating the outer bands of a distant galaxy as I pushed west on Trail West Road in Reno County.

It was only a little after 7 p.m. when I reached Partridge, a speck on the map just south of U.S. 50, but already the town was bedding down for the night. Few lights flickered in the town, and I imagined its residents settling in on a quiet Friday night, still basking in the holiday spirit. I found myself reflecting on how every home in a small town seems more important to its neighbors than in a big city, if for no other reason than because there are so few of them.

I expected more traffic on U.S. 50 between Hutchinson and Stafford, but there wasn't much. Noting the signs reporting that Macksville and St. John were coming up, my thoughts turned to Tim Buckman, the law enforcement officer who was killed on this very road not too many miles west of where I was at the moment. He was driving to Macksville on the night of May 4, 2007, to warn them of an approaching tornado when he was blindsided by a second tornado and blown into a field on the north side of the highway.

Ever since then, I haven't been able to make the turn from U.S. 50 onto U.S. 281 without reflecting on how close tornadoes came to decimating the nearby towns of Belpre, Macksville and St. John on the same night an EF5 obliterated Greensburg. Those towns would have been hit late at night, when folks were bedding down for the night - a mood not unlike what I was sensing on my drive tonight.

My thoughts then turned to our family Christmas gathering on Saturday. Several - though not all, by any means - of us will be there...though it's still hard to believe Dad won't be part of it. This will be our third Christmas without him, but I'm still amazed at how fresh losing him feels at times. I grasp completely what those who have suffered similar losses told me for years: You never really get over it, you just figure out how to deal with it over time.

Holidays are natural milestone moments, when families and loved ones gather to celebrate. Inevitably, such times reveal how lives are changing: New additions through marriages and births, aching losses through such events as deaths, divorces or break-ups. It's easy - perhaps human nature - to focus more on the losses or what we don't have that we'd like to. But I know that's not what the child born in Bethlehem would want us to do.

The last few miles into Larned went quickly, perhaps because I found myself watching keenly for any deer that might dart in front of me. Thankfully, the hotel hadn't mangled my reservation, and now it's me who's settling in for the night.

Morning will be here soon enough.


A quiet Christmas at my sister's house in rural Reno County, a day to tackle laundry and then a trip out to the farm for our "official" family Christmas on Saturday. I've got a week off now - well, a bit more than that, really, since I don't return to work 'til early January - and it comes at a good time.

I could use the time to relax, recharge and tackle a few tasks that have needed my attention. I'll also try to offer a few posts that have been germinating but I haven't had time to harvest. (How's that for a full farming analogy? Heh)

May the holidays be filled with delightful times with those you love.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Oh, those holiday letters!

Holiday letters are one of those topics about which there seems to be no middle ground. Either you love 'em or you hate 'em.

I used to hate them, but as I got older and busier I recognized their place. Friends move away and you don't get to visit with them the way you once did. Life gets busier. One Christmas, not wanting to develop writer's cramp trying to share how my year had gone for each name on my Christmas card list, I broke down and wrote a holiday letter.

People responded to it so well that I did it again the next year...and the year after that. I've been doing it now for more than 15 years.

But holiday letters are tricky. One old schoolmate who received a holiday letter several years ago told me "Congratulations on being so successful" in a tone that belied her words. I guess she thought I was bragging, when all I meant to do was share what had happened in the past year.

I think holiday letters should have a hearty helping of humor in them, though some years it can be more challenging to inject smiles than others - such as 2006 when my dad died and even this year, with so many people facing layoffs and other challenges.

I don't know. Maybe I'm one of those rare souls who falls in the middle on holiday letters. If you want to send one, great. If you don't, that's fine, too. But I'll always read it, because I care about the people who sent it.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Growing pains

When I heard that African-Americans had been ostracized by white acquaintances in Wichita and around the country after Barack Obama won the Nov. 4 election, I was surprised and disappointed.

I shouldn’t have been, if history is any indication.

There’s an old saying that the armies went home after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in April of 1865, but the Civil War didn’t end for another 100 years.

Despite the Emancipation Proclamation, former slaves and their descendants endured a society that continued to enslave them through discrimination, legislation and intimidation.

It was as if culture picked up the fight when the Confederate army laid down its arms. Jim Crow laws and the KKK were cruel rebuttals to any claims that the “War Between the States” was actually about states’ rights. If slavery wasn’t the primary issue, why did so many work so hard for so long to forge new chains in place of the ones that Lincoln had cast off?

America has shed forever any notions of a “ceiling” for minorities with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. That’s an important milestone for a nation that has long claimed – but too often not lived up to – the belief that “all men are created equal.” The fact that Hillary Clinton was Obama’s stiffest opponent in the primary race should shatter any gender barriers as well.

It’s a sign that this still-young nation is indeed growing up.

But the “punishment” African-Americans have endured following the election shows we aren’t there yet.

Consider them growing pains for a nation making important strides.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Finger horde

I am one of 8 children of Marvin and Helen Finger. Once upon a time, large families weren't all that unusual. But now when I tell people how many siblings I have, it's not uncommon to get a look as if I'd just told them I'd teleported here from Neptune.

Here's a shot of the eight of us on the front porch of the family home, taken four years ago. We're eight distinct personalities, and we've gone into very different professions.

But bring us together, and we're a force to be reckoned with. I remember when we converged on Kansas City for my twin brother's wedding in the early '90s, others at the hotel that served as our base of operations would get this look on their faces like, "Who are those people?" Not so much because we were out of control...more because we had so much energy and enthusiasm.

I saw some of that at Branson last summer when we had our family's "annual meeting" gathering at the timeshare our parents purchased out there. It can be a source of pride...or consternation....depending on what we're up to.

But that's family for you.

And in case you're wondering, my twin brother is the guy on the far left with the mustache and white T-shirt.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A puppy in the middle of the street

I was returning home from running a few errands one afternoon last week when I turned onto a residential street not far from where I live.

A puppy was wandering around in the middle of the street, perhaps bored, perhaps curious about something, perhaps clueless about where it really was. I am not an expert on dog breeds, but it looked like a terrier.

I thought about how many drivers would have believed it was a pitbull and as a result cared not a whit about whether they hit the dog or not. But I also thought about another animal that got loose in a roadway on a December morning many years ago now.

Her name was Frosty Flyer, and she was a perhaps the finest racing quarterhorse Dad ever raised. She showed remarkable promise in training and in a few races, but hated starting chutes and was eventually brought home to be a brood mare. With her blood lines and pedigree, we hoped she would deliver several quality foals. She was pretty high-strung, but I loved to watch her run.

With several horses to feed and tend, we leased a wheat field across the state highway from our homestead for the animals to graze. They loved nibbling on the winter wheat, and one of our chores during the day was to lead the horses over and back, watching for breaks in the traffic so the animals could cross safely.

Horses are very bright - so bright they belong in any conversation about the smartest animals on the planet. We kept the horses that grazed on the wheat in a pen north of our long sheep shed. A day or two before Christmas, we had to work in that area with a tractor. I opened the fence and Dad drove the tractor inside the area.

Flyer and another horse spotted the opening and bolted, intent on savoring more of that succulent winter wheat across the highway. There was no way to close the opening quickly. They ran west from the pen to the driveway and darted north out of view.

Seconds later I heard brakes squealing and a sickening thud. Flyer had been hit by a pickup pulling....a horse trailer. The driver later told us that Flyer had started across the road, hesitated as if she realized she shouldn't be doing that, and was heading back toward the driveway and safety when she was hit. Her injuries were so severe she couldn't be saved. I still remember her struggling to get up, unable to do so because of a shattered leg.

Dad did the only thing he could.

Devastated, I walked into the shed and wept - in part because I was convinced it was my fault, and in part because we'd just lost perhaps our best horse.

"It wasn't your fault," Dad said when he found me. "There wasn't anything you could have done."

I'm sure he was right....but that holiday was stained - for me, at least - by Flyer's death. The celebrations of the season were tempered by our loss.

I thought of Flyer as I watched that puppy frolicking carelessly in the street. It looked well-fed and cared for, its coat clean and shiny. Someone obviously loved that puppy very much.

I slowed my car to a crawl as I neared and passed the pup. I didn't want someone else to go through what I did years ago, with Christmas knocking on the door.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A heart-tugging moment

On Thanksgiving morning, I was outside talking with my twin brother and brother-in-law when Ed, one of my older brothers, came around the corner next to the machine shop.

Thanks to the flat-topped hat and gray sweatshirt he had on - which Dad liked to wear - I did a doubletake. He looked so much like Dad it was chilling.

Later that morning, my sister Trish said she and Mom had the same reaction when they saw him. We lost Dad two years ago, yet for just a heart-quickening moment they both thought he had walked through the door.

"I cried," Mom told me later. "I couldn't help it."

I don't blame her one bit.