Slower than Anything

road construction This is a guest post by my brother, Bill Merrill. Thanks Bill!

For most of my life, when I wanted to say how slow something was, I’d use one of the standard phrase “slower than molasses in January.” In recent years, I’ve switched over to “slower than highway construction.” According to our friend the internet, the US federal government currently spends about $40 billion on our roadways each year, an amount that has steadily increased throughout the years, even in current-year dollars. In my own experience, it hardly seems I can drive anywhere in any big city without encountering one construction project or other. (By the way, this was NOT the case in my vacation a couple of months ago in the Benelux countries of Europe.)

It’s not just that progress is so soooo slow on these projects – the average length of a project here seems to be about seven years – but also that there are many times when I drive by the construction site and nothing is happening at all. There is a turn-around on a freeway overpass near my credit union branch that’s been underway for about a year now, and I wonder why it’s not finished yet. Most times lately when I pass the turn-around, construction equipment sits idle, no sign of life anywhere. This can be frustrating, but I try to be mature about things like this, and not let my frustration turn into unproductive, useless anger.

I’m not in the highway construction business, but I had enough indirect contact with it earlier in my professional life that I suspect this kind of situation is a result of scheduling issues, or maybe budgetary considerations. The particular turn-around in question is part of a much larger highway project, so maybe the turn-around is on hold until some connecting piece of the project is finished. And it is certainly not the workers’ fault, so it would be totally unfair to be hostile toward them in any way.

(By the way, turn-arounds are really wonderful things, allowing vehicles going from an access road to its opposite-direction counterpart to avoid waiting through traffic lights! They don’t exist everywhere, but they should!)

Editor’s notes: 1) Colorado does not have those turn-arounds, and we wish they did! 2) Bill took the photo at the road construction site mentioned in this post.


Sketches from Church

This is a guest post by Chris Thomas, for your enjoy­ment. (Thanks Chris!)

A sketch by my friend ArturoI was not planning on going to church today. I was instead going to do my taxes. You know, “Give to Caeser…” and all that business, so skipping seemed biblically justified. But I needed to get a DVD from church, so I texted my friend, Arturo, to ask if he could pick it up for me. He texted back, “Sure,” and then proceeded to send me photos “live” from the first service. I thought it was funny that he was not only texting in church, but also taking candid photos.

Just as I was thinking that this was a new medium for him – he’s usually drawing in his ever-present sketch book – he sent me a photo of this amazing “doodle” (above).

When it popped up on my phone, it grabbed me immediately, like Jesus himself saying, “Chris, get your butt in here!” In an instant, I knew I had to go. No time for a shower, I quickly brushed my teeth, threw on a sweatshirt and sped across town in an attempt to make it to the second service.

I got there late and walked in with my friend, Sheryl, who was also alone. We sat together. After the service, we ran into Linda who has been having a hard time lately and needed a boost. As we shared a much appreciated laugh, TC snuck up behind me, singing “Help Me, Rhonda.” He was raving over a book I had loaned him on Brian Wilson. He’s a fellow music lover so we shared a few moments of giddiness discussing the Beach Boys. Just then, Phil came up and gave my whole little gang a “group hug”. It seemed he needed to give one as much as we all needed to get one.

I can’t tell you much about the sermon, or the service itself for that matter. But as I drove home from church, I knew for sure that Jesus was right – I was supposed to be there today.

Footnote: Arturo is a mutual friend. He has helped me in other ways than by sending me doodles from church – but he has given significant input to my life, nonetheless.


Generation Gaps

This is a guest post by my brother Bill, for your enjoyment. (Thanks Bill!)

the gapLately I’ve been thinking about generation gaps. (From this point on, I’ll refer to them as GGs.) I will turn 57 in a few weeks (the new 52). While I don’t have any children, I do have a group of beloved nephews and nieces, ranging from young children to adults. In my volunteer job, I also work with a bunch of twenty-somethings. I’ve sometimes been reflecting on our differences, and also trying to remember how I viewed the GG when I was on the younger side of it.

Here are three stories and observations to expound on my perspective.

When the Beatles debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show in America, they caused a huge stir on both sides of the GG. I sometimes wonder what ol’ Ed thought as the foursome performed to that screaming studio audience. I’m sure his reaction is well documented, but I’ve never gotten around to reading about it. Maybe he thought, “Wow, this is really awful stuff! I hate this so-called ‘rock ‘n’ roll,’ but I’m gonna LOVE the ratings for this show, and the news we’re making!” In any case, when I feel irritation or other negative emotions about today’s popular music (especially hip-hop, which is I do not like), I usually also think, “My reaction is probably the same as the older generation’s reaction to rock ‘n’ roll back when it was getting big.”

My “baby sister” is twelve years younger than I. Her next oldest sibling is seven years older. When she was going through high school, all three of us (her older siblings) were gone to college and/or starting our adult lives. My dad was in his sixties then, and while there was love, there was also a lot of friction over dating, ear-piercings, and other issues. I’ve always felt that the pair of them had TWO GGs to deal with, or maybe a double-wide GG, since my dad was so much older than her. (I don’t think my mom factored into the situation as much, possibly because she was nine years younger than my dad.)

Here are a few things that annoy me about “the younger generation” today: the backward ball caps, the smartphones attached to their ears or thumbs (and the need to use the gadgets seemingly every couple of minutes), their “need for speed” on the freeways, the style of pants worn by young men… (I could go on.) Then there are more serious things, such as the fear I have that their ability to communicate normally with fellow humans has been reduced by electronic devices. Plus there are things I just don’t understand or “get” – many of the texting acronyms, the constantly new social networking sites/apps that keep popping up (what is Vine?), etc. Of course, when I look at this list, I see a few that could have described ME when I was young (ex., need for speed).

If I could go back in time and give advice to my younger self, there are many things I’d recommend, especially being more tolerant and respectful of my elders, because one day, I would be on the other side of the GG divide! Sadly, my younger self probably would have been pretty scornful of such advice.

Photo taken in Alaska by Travis S. Creative Commons licensed.


A starter home

This is a guest post by my good friend Johanna Fenton. Happy New Year to all!

The house which we just moved into was advertised as a “starter” home. I felt slightly offended, because we had fallen in love with the place but by no means would it be a “starter” home for us. We hope it’s a “finisher” home, meaning, we hope to stay here a really long time.

There are several different ways of counting how many times one moves. There are different measurements … like, do you count the time we moved to Dallas for 3 months? Or do you only measure the major moves … entire household in all?

By different counts we’ve moved upwards to 16 times down to 7 times, depending on how you define a “move.” That’s in the last 10 years.

And I realized for the first time that Jesus never upgraded from the time he was born in a manger in a the little town of Bethlehem. A song I like by Rich Mullins goes:

Birds have nests / Foxes have dens / But the hope of the whole world rests on the shoulders of a homeless man

Jesus had a starter home – a manger. And he had a finisher home – at home with his Father God.

Anyway, I’d like to say that a lot has happened in 16 or 7 moves. I’ve gone from “moving up” to “moving down,” far enough to fall in love with the quirky, dated elements of our “new” “starter” home. Here are a few … these are different shelf papers in our kitchen cabinets. Plus, you’ll see some lovely wallpaper. 🙂

It’s the shiny bits of life that catch you.


The way to cope with traffic – and life

construction and traffic

This is a guest post by my brother Bill.

Last week I drove from San Antonio up to Austin and back to attend a music show. On the way up, there was a 45-minute delay due to construction. At three consecutive points along the access road to the freeway, the entrance ramps were closed. Traffic slowed to a crawl and I thought, “Couldn’t they have done these one at a time instead of all at once?” I began to get frustrated, but then did as I usually do in traffic jams. I thought about the words of the Serenity Prayer’s opening stanza. It was a reminder not to get stressed out over something I could not control. This actually works for me, as I normally do not get anxious in a traffic jam unless it’s going to make me very late for a scheduled event. In this case I had the extra time.

Later I had a second opportunity to use the Serenity Prayer. I was heading to the (new-to-me) concert venue, trying to locate it using the Maps app that came with my new iPhone. Maps turned out to be very ineffective, giving wrong directions and distances. Again, contemplating the ideas in the Serenity Prayer, I was able to calm down somewhat, although not as well as during the traffic jam. This time there was a risk I would miss the start of the concert. (Fortunately I did not, as it began 20 minutes late.)

The concepts in the Serenity Prayer are simple yet profound. Regardless of one’s religious preferences, they can have value. Here is the opening stanza.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.


Tastes good, like a cigarette should

This is a guest post by my brother Bill. I also lived under that anti-commercials paradigm – so it’s ironic that my work involves marketing and advertising. But I do use the remote to mute commercials, the vast majority of the time.

Old TV setGrowing up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, we kids knew there was a condition in our home for watching TV. Our dad had a firm rule that the commercials had to be turned down! As this was before the invention of remote control devices and “Mute” buttons, it involved jumping up from your seat as soon as a commercial break started, running to the TV set and turning the volume knob counterclockwise all the way. Then the whole process would be repeated in reverse once the show was back on. He did this because he wanted to spare us (and the adults) from the experience of having commercial jingles running in our heads (or humming them around the house). In those days, most commercials contained a jingle (song) written specifically for the product, and they were indeed quite catchy. A few must have snuck through from those infrequent times when commercials weren’t turned down – to this day, I can sing you the opening bars of “Wouldn’t you really rather have a Buick?” or “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” (Yes, cigarette commercials were allowed on TV for part of that time.)

Thinking about all of this made me wonder when exactly jingles went away, as they are very rare now. A television viewer from that era would be put off by what we see today … commercials now to involve a lot of action/motion and quick cuts. (I could do with fewer quick cuts, myself.)

Photo is a modified version of a Flikr photo by theterrifictc.


The Poison Pill

This short story is a guest post by my brother Bill, for your holiday reading pleasure. (Thanks Bill!)

It’s a little dark in the context of your optimistic beginning-of-a-new-year moods, but I still think it’s entertaining.

castleOnce there was a cruel and clever king. He lived in a large castle on a high hilltop, overlooking a beautiful green valley and a lake. In those days, a dragon took up residence in the kingdom. The dragon let it be known that he would destroy all the villages one by one unless he was given a beautiful virgin to eat. When the King heard this, he grew angry and turned red in the face. He bellowed, “We do not negotiate with terrorists!” (The King liked to refer to himself using the royal “We.”) He refused to meet the dragon’s demands.

To show his contempt for the dragon and disdain for the serfs, the King made his courtiers put on a comedic play where a dragon ate a whole village. The role of the dragon was played by the largest and fattest noble. Each time he “ate” a villager, he let out a loud, convincing belch. Sitting next to the King, his only child, the lovely (and virginal) Sesbeth, did not laugh. She was as kind as her father was cruel. Sesbeth loved the people of the kingdom, and they loved her. Despite all of that, her father treasured Sesbeth more than all else in the world. In his cold, cruel heart, he had a soft spot for his daughter.

Not having received his tribute of a lovely virgin, one bright morning the dragon flew over the village of Mossfelk, breathing flames and burning everything to the ground. Upon hearing this, the King stubbornly refused to change his stance. “No negotiating!” he shouted again, although perhaps with a bit less conviction. Over the next few days the dragon destroyed two more villages, Humpert and Rosehearth.

Now the King began to worry. If all his villages were destroyed, where would he get his annual tribute of gold? Who would harvest the food that spread across his dinner table? He summoned his court wizard, the ancient and wise Albrey. The King told Albrey of a plan he had devised and required the mage to fashion a doppelganger for Sesbeth. The faux Sesbeth would be exactly like her in every way except one. She would be ensorcelled with a powerful spell that would instantly destroy her killer.

Albrey immediately set about researching the task, searching through his spellbooks. He also quietly gathered bits and pieces of from the life of Princess Sesbeth, such as one of her neglected childhood dolls, a scarf she no longer wore, and bits of her hair from a used hairbrush. Finally he began creating the doppelganger, working through the night. Just to have a name for his project, he decided to call her Tesh. People in the castle didn’t know what was going on, but they saw mysterious flashes of light and heard rumbling noises, and they wondered.

Finally Albrey was finished. He secretly brought Tesh to the King’s quarters. The King walked slowly around Albrey’s creation, whistling as he admired the result. “She’ll do,” he said. Albrey explained that Tesh could only exist for ten days, at which point she would crumble into nothing. The King called for his Captain of the Guard. He ordered that the most trustworthy and brave guard be brought to him. Moments later, a sturdy guard named Morrt stepped into the King’s chambers. He appeared somewhat nervous but also resolute in his posture as he awaited the King’s orders. The Captain was dismissed, and the King told Morrt what he wanted. Referring to Tesh, he started with “She looks like the Princess, but it’s not her.” Morrt was to take Tesh away under a cloak and hide her in a remote chamber within the castle until she could be taken to the dragon’s den.

Sesbeth awoke the next morning feeling apprehensive. Something was wrong. She couldn’t say what was wrong, but she felt strangely compelled to go to the tallest tower in the castle, and the tower chamber where prisoners were sometimes kept. There, she met Morrt. She urged him to tell her what was going on. At first he resisted, but eventually the Princess’ beauty and gentle nature defeated his fear of the Captain and King, and he told her what he knew.

Not knowing anything about the magical aspects of how Tesh was created or of her hidden nature, Sesbeth was horrified that this lookalike girl would be sacrificed in her place. She quickly decided what she must do.

That afternoon, Morrt rode out. On the horse beside him rode a cloaked figure. The King watched from his window high above the courtyard and gate, finally turning away when they left his view.

Two days passed, including the expected time of the dragon’s next village attack, but no attack came. Indeed, the King’s scouts reported that it appeared the dragon had left the kingdom! Receiving the news, the King rushed through the castle until he found his daughter, eager to celebrate her survival and the success of his scheme.

As he approached Sesbeth, however, he noticed her expression, an odd sort of grim, wide smile. Then she threw her head back and laughed, a loud, guttural cackle. The King immediately knew something was wrong. An instant later, he realized what had happened – the girl who stood before him was not Sesbeth, but rather the wizard’s creation, Tesh. His compassionate daughter must have figured out what was happening and sacrificed herself instead. In his rage and grief, the King drew the jewel encrusted dagger he always wore from the sheath at his belt, and fiercely plunged it deep into Tesh’s chest. Only then did he remember the terrible spell, and his mighty cry was quickly silenced as he and Tesh each disintegrated into twin piles of ashes.


Taking Time

Loveland Pass TrailThis is the very first guest post by Heather, my wife. Yay! (She wrote it back in August.)

It’s 100 degrees this August day in Denver. The school year has started at a time that feels way too early. Our family’s getting cheated out of beautiful days in the mountains, and togetherness around campfires. Summer is not over yet! The narrow window of warm summer mountain days has not closed.

“Busy” has started for everyone but me, and I am alone. What a rare place to find myself. I head rebelliously to the mountains for a hike. I want to see the exotic colors of “the best show of wildflowers in years.” I’m pulled in, determined to soak in the beauty, alone or not. I park and start walking. A short distance later, I leave the forest and the carpet of wildflowers behind and trudge along alpine tundra, passing little springs flowing from melting snowfields. The sun flashes silver and sparkly on an emerald alpine lake. Massive, intimidating and stunningly beautiful peaks surround me on all sides.

I am small in the vast silence. I see how big God is. I speak, but no human hears. My voice and footsteps fall like a tiny drop of rain in the ocean, but the sound reassures me. I’m a little scared. I sit, read, and think, letting a fresh breeze blow away the stale and the stuck in my mind. The sun has moved, the clouds are gathering. It’s time to go back down. Things look different going this direction. I feel invigorated and happy. This heart-pumping day has changed me. Life among mountains always does.


The Giving Tree, Redux

This is a guest post by Elizabeth Howard. Read more about her at the end.

A giving tree, by Elizabeth HowardRemember that book – The Giving Tree – we all read it, or listened to it when we were kids?  About the boy who kept taking and taking from the beautiful, old tree until all that was left was a stump?

Why are we supposed to love this book? Other than it teaches us to FEEL sad, which I suppose isn’t such an awful life lesson to learn.

A Giving Lesson

Lately, I’ve been thinking a great deal more about giving, and what it takes to carve out (pardon the pun) time in each day to do something thoughtful for someone else.

I’ve been thinking about this because in the last two years, I’ve been a living, breathing sponge.

We took in four kids at our house and we needed a LOT of help. We asked and asked for it (that’s what you are supposed to do, right?) and people helped. Of course.

This is not to say I haven’t been putting out. I am a mother after all. I put out all day long, all the time, for the beautiful little needy ones that I am obliged to make full, make happy, make cookies. And most days I do end the day feeling like that generally-happy, but used-up stump.

But I think I am exhausted because I haven’t been giving ENOUGH back. I haven’t spent ENOUGH time doing those little things that take weight off the shoulders of friends, and stangers.

The not doing is what is making me tired.

So I think that Shel Silverstein didn’t quite get The Giving Tree right. It wasn’t the giving up and giving away that made the tree old, used up, and made us readers bummed.

It was knowing what the boy missed out on: not planting another tree for company, not sprinkling his friend with water, or planting the earth around her with bulbs to make her beautiful in the spring.

It’s the giving back that’s missing.

At Let­ters from a Small State, writer Eliz­a­beth Howard exam­ines how we sur­vive and occa­sion­ally thrive in Amer­ica, through the lens of our small­est details. A writer and poet liv­ing in Con­necti­cut with her new fam­ily, she works daily in her own sliv­ers of cre­ative space and time. She also took the photograph.


Living in Alaska

This is a guest post from Barb Moody, who moved to Alaska last year with her husband and three of their four kids. (Their oldest is continuing his college experience in Illinois.) The photo is two of their sons, taken in October 2010.

The learning curve for the Moody’s has been a vertical line since moving to Fairbanks, AK last October. Change is too small of a word to describe what we’ve seen, learned, tasted, felt, smelled, and embraced. Here are a few of the new things in our lives:

A Dry Cold really isn’t bad. Fairbanks is dry, much like Denver, Colorado. When the thermometer dipped below zero (f), which is most of the winter and a few weeks into Spring, we were amazed how “warm” (okay, relatively) it felt. Late fall, temperatures hovers around 0-25. Come December, -20 is the norm. With the occasional warm spell (above zero) we are putting away the coats and just wearing the fleeces. Your body adjusts. Quickly. Now I can’t say the same for other parts of Alaska. Anchorage is on the coast and their cold is icy cold.

Alaskans are crazy for hunting, fishing, skiing, mushing, biking, snow-machining and dogs – mostly out of necessity. Hunting, fishing and gardening are a must because food is so darn expensive. A gallon of milk in Barrow is $11.50! The outdoor activities are a must so you survive the winter – cold and darkness can get you down if you don’t get your endorphins moving.

Alaskans are tough and self-sufficient. I’ll close with a story a gal told me about her first few months up here. She was living in a dry cabin (no plumbing, but heated). She tended bar and after closing she planned to bunk in the bar because she forgot to get heating oil. She mentioned this to some bar patrons. She went home the next day and found her cabin warm and oil in her tank. That night she thanked the regulars, knowing it was their kindness which came to her rescue. They hemmed and hawed yet explained, “If someone’s in need you help, someone will be there because next time it may be you that needs a hand. Always be ready to pay it forward.” But don’t take it for advantage. Alaskans are quick to say, “If you can’t take it, you can leave.” That’s the Alaskan way.