Herding Cats…and other seemingly useless skills

So I went to my oldest grandson’s first ever school music program this week. I know it doesn’t sound like a big deal, but as a retired music teacher whose late wife was also a music teacher, it was a HUGE deal! Our daughter and I both took the time to make sure my late wife was there for Rhett….she wore a necklace formed with my wife’s thumbprint, while I wore a peacock necktie that I have worn for all important family gatherings since she passed – she loved peacocks, and rather than mourning colors for her funeral, we stressed bright colors with peacock shades. The kids found this tie on Amazon, and I wore it as we celebrated her life that day and every special family moment since. We told Rhett that Nana was an elementary music teacher and that she would be there watching him.

Understand that I also taught elementary music – for the longest three years of my life! I just never seemed to be able to relate to the little ones the way I saw others do it. And when presenting them for a performance, well, it was like herding cats! Which is probably why my wife was so good at it (she was a cat person…I am a dog person). I mean REALLY good at it. Yes, I know I’m not exactly objective, but I always felt – and told her so a number of times – that she was the greatest elementary music teacher I had ever seen. She could elicit participation, musicality, and unity from these masses of kids that I just couldn’t believe! She had an innate ability to take a herd of cats and produce a Rossini “Duetto buffo di due gatti” every single time! Not literally, of course, but I should have known decades ago after we first met and she wanted to do that duet with me as undergrads that cat music would somehow be involved for the rest of our lives!

Rhett’s concert took me back to those days. The kids coming on stage each immediately struggled with their attention….so many lights….so many people…Hi Mommy! The show was the thing, though….the kids and their director marshalled their way through the music, choreography, and instruments with a showmanship that belied their years. I know my wife was beaming as she watched. This is what she so desperately wanted to live for!

Two days after the concert, I did a bit of showmanship myself. I managed to ride 64.5 miles to earn the STRAVA Gran Fondo badge for the 20th consecutive month…a considerable feat for someone who spends the winter months entirely in Michigan – AKA Elsa’s Playground! I have earned so many badges/digital trophies this year (I’ll recap in a couple of weeks when 2019 is at an end), that I fear they may be losing their meaning. Seriously, what (or who) am I doing it for? My children don’t really ride. My grandkids have no clue about STRAVA, or what the accomplishments mean in real life. My friends have badges of their own. Although most of theirs are for drinking on UnTappd!

When my wife was still with us, I used to think – and openly admit – that I was doing these things to show off for my girl, much like a high school boy! She had never seen me as a competitive athlete. Early on, we would go to the gym and she would admire the free weightlifting I would do, but she never got to cheer me on from the sidelines or grandstands. When I coached football, wrestling, basketball, baseball, volleyball, etc. for the different schools I worked for she was always there, but it wasn’t the same. Later, some of my favorite memories were when she would greet me at the end of a grueling, long distance ride by throwing her arms around me and saying “I’m so proud of you!” God I miss that! It is a deep need in the human psyche to be noticed…to be appreciated…to feel accomplished. I know EXACTLY when that particular gene in me was triggered.

In 1967, just a few weeks shy of my 7th birthday, I was pushed off a porch onto a broken Pepsi bottle that proceeded to slice through my knee…the damage was extensive and required three layers of stitches – literally hundreds of stitches – months in a cast, and extensive physical therapy and rehab. Fortunately we had a fantastic surgeon in my hometown at the time, and although he wasn’t sure I would ever again be able to walk normally, he proscribed a regimen of treatment and oversaw my recovery. That is when it started. I remember my mother sitting by my bedside reading “The Little Engine That Could” every night. She also bought me a musical teddy bear to hug when the pain or the doubts became too strong. I still have them both. I also have the intense need to prove to myself, and others, that I am the embodiment of that little engine.

Born the fifth of six children to a lower middle class family in the 1960’s, and growing up in a town that was one of the wealthiest per capita in the State of Michigan, the pressures and expectations for my future were intense. I didn’t have the right name….the right genes…the right looks…the right clothes…I didn’t have a chance to excel because of physical, financial, and mental limitations according to my peers, church, and most of the town. But, in the words of Morales from “A Chorus Line,” I dug right down to the bottom of my soul! I became a starter in football and wrestling, a state champion powerlifter, earned the leading roles in musicals and straight plays, and headed off to college on scholarships….all the while with taunts still ringing in my ears….and my face and soul burning with the heat of shame and rage.

I’ve been fortunate and driven all of my life. My education has been obtained at the very best academic institutions in the world. During those years my wife and I struggled to keep food on the table, a roof over our head, and our children’s heads held high. I can’t begin to tell you the number of different jobs I have held over the years…factory work, dairy farming, short order cook, chef, newspaper reporter/photographer/editor, business owner, nurse, ICU EKG technician, just to name a few outside of my life in the arts as well as education. Throughout, I knew, because of those days in 1967, that I could overcome any obstacle, rise to any challenge. I once convinced a newspaper editor to hire me as a reporter/photographer based on writing samples, knowledge of sports, educational background, and by telling him I knew all about 35mm photography and personally owned a Pentax SLR camera. I didn’t…own that camera or even had any knowledge of photography…but I knew I needed that job because I had a three year old, a one year old and another on the way. I went to the public library, checked out every book they had on the subject, went to Sears and spent the last $100 we had in the world on a Pentax camera (much to the chagrin of my mother in law, and the frustration of my wife). I had that job for two years! Won a few Press Association awards and met/interviewed some fantastic people as I worked my way up from a beat reporter to Assistant Editor!

My students all became familiar with our stories of struggles as we started out. I wanted them to know that it was possible for them to also overcome their obstacles. I wanted them to know that with the right determination, preparation, and dedication that they too could have the things they wanted out of life. Mostly, I wanted them, my children, and my wife to know that the human mind and body are amazing things. I wanted them to understand that life is too short to be limited by others expectations of you, let alone your own expectations of yourself! My wife, of course, got used to this and applied her own acquired set of skills and thirst for learning to our needs and goals. She took a tiny bit of sewing knowledge passed on to her from her relatives and used it to create incredible things for us…dresses, coats and blankets for our girls, fabric covers that turned basic three ring binders into fancy trapper keepers that were the envy of their classmates…and even a new canvas and windows for an old used pop up camper that we rehabbed!

One of my most gratifying moments came four years ago during my first RAGBRAI tour. I am not a terribly fast rider, but I was averaging about 20 mph pretty consistently that year on the flats. Pretty good for an old amateur. Mostly, I could maintain this speed for much longer distances than many younger than myself. I was riding along one afternoon about 40 miles into the ride when a pace line of younger men came up beside me averaging about 22-23 mph. I fell in at the end of the line and rode with them for a couple of miles when one of the group dropped back and informed me that I was welcome to join them, but I had to take my turn at the front “If you think you can handle it, old man” he said in a condescending voice that took me right back to high school. I glared at him and said, “I would, but I don’t think you all could keep up.” He literally laughed out loud and shouted to the group “Hey guys, the old man says he is willing to lead but we need to keep up with him!” My psyche and my legs snapped to the task! I entered another zone and averaged about 28-30 mph for the next several miles, shredding the pace line and leaving them in my dust. There was a set of train tracks in the next town where my wife was waiting for me with an ice cold beverage. While we sat there, the group finally arrived, panting heavily. “That is some acceleration you have in those legs, buddy!” the young would-be Lance Armstrong said, shaking his head and limping off. My wife beamed with pride…she loved my legs! She also laughed at me and said “Showing off because you got challenged again, huh?”

I realized this week with the badges, the goals, the mileage…it isn’t really about showing off. It is about proving to MYSELF that I am still alive…that I am worthwhile…that I can rise to any challenge. As I complete this journey physically alone (mentally and emotionally she is still with me as part of our Abler Soul), I realize that once I stop striving, I will start dying. I’m not out to prove anything to anybody. The only person I have to be better than is the man in the mirror that I saw yesterday. My wife is part of the journey with me, so she knows. My cycling accomplishments do not matter to my children, as they have their own lives to lead…and have frankly probably grown weary of their old man’s exhibitionism on a bicycle. The older I get, the fewer people there are around me that remember those days growing up and what it was like. Very few people understand the stigmatism of growing up with a pigeon-holed future…except our former students in inner city schools. They get it. They aspire to it. They believed without having the scrap book clippings to read. And many of them have responded accordingly – teachers, music therapists, performers, nurses, writers, business consultants and motivational speakers… I am always gratified when one reaches out and says that my wife and I had even a small part of their success, because they, like Morales and we, “reached right down to the bottom” of their souls!

I feel this is one of the critical elements missing in our modern culture. We live in an era where life is watched or observed rather than actively lived. Where knowledge is sought out on the internet, rather than sought out to acquire and retain on our own. Where we too often settle and compromise rather than dig right down and test our mettle. My wife and I built a phenomenal life together that I am grateful for every day. This is not to say that we always got along. Quite the contrary. We brought out the best and worst in each other, but, in my opinion, that is how you grow as individuals and as a couple. She truly made me a better man every day of our marriage by supporting me, pushing me, questioning me…

And that is what I want for Rhett. And Clark. And Theo. I want them to know that they, too, can reach down and dig deep to achieve their dreams. I want them to know that there are so very many things that they can aspire to and enjoy in this life that will captivate them and satisfy their needs – like waving Hi to Mommy on stage at a Kindergarten music program. I want them to know their Nana and Papa did the very most with what they were given and explored ALL of life’s possibilities. In the words of Jacob Boehme in Forty Questions of the Soul, “For it is a young tree grown out of the old root which shall discover what the old tree hath been in its wonders.” Actually, the word Boehme used in his original German text for “discover” was “verklarte,” which could also be construed as “transfigured by.” Yeah….I want their future to be transfigured by the roots of their Nana and Papa in a constant thirst to understand their world and live an active life in it.

I want them to have the knowledge, stamina, and desire to be able to herd cats.

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Forced into retirement at the age of 55 because I was foolish enough to finish a PhD program in an era of teacher bashing and budget cutting, I turned to cycling full time. Until my wife passed away in 2018 from a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Now I navigate the highways of the US on my bikes in search of a good Brew, good times with our grandsons, and in memory of her.

3 thoughts on “Herding Cats…and other seemingly useless skills”

  1. Normally, the guy who takes a pull and tears the group apart earns my contempt. That is not the place to show off; it is the place to work together. Notice I said “normally”. This wasn’t normal. From your story, they had it coming, and I applaud you for giving them what they asked for and deserved. When in my late 30s I was riding with another guy climbing Mt Hamilton in California. A rider in his 70s rode up and chatted with us for a few miles; this was a warmup for his century the next day. After a few miles he rode on, as we couldn’t keep up with him. I turned to the guy next to me and said, “I hope I’m that fast when I’m his age.” After a beat I realized, “I wish I were that fast now.” Now that I’m close to his age, I don’t really care. I’m also a liar.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOVE the last two lines! Yeah…I totally agree about pulling in a pace line. I usually take a double or triple length at front because I ride solo so much, the wind doesn’t affect me as much as others. I use my rear view mirrors to make sure I am no more than a bike length or so out front.


  2. The pace line situation sounds like something Phil would do…or try to do. I agree with you if you font keep striving/pushing for cycling (and other achievements) you will stop living. I’m sure you could always share/compare your riding awards/trophies with Phil. He competes with himself with that a lot. You know me I like to ride in warm weather, not much wind and no hills. 😂😂


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