Back in Illinois

The plaque over our back door reads:

“Que Dieu bénisse notre maison et ceux qui en franchissent le seuil.”

God bless our house and everyone who enters it.

Got up about eight in the morning. Slept like a log. Been doing wash to clean ‘California’ out of Mikey’s clothing! We have pretty much put everything away, he has his technology up and running.

Last night was amazing and crazy. The last several hours of the trip were really a pain as we re-entered the Chicago area. It began to snow just as the sun set and the road became wet. The visibility was awful and it was hard to determine how icy it really was. I was driving again and luckily, after about an hour of that nastiness, it got dry as we did our final hour of the drive.

We enjoyed the warm reception we got once home. The baby was there and we quickly emptied the car. It was a great stroke of luck we had purchased six large rubbermaid type plastic containers which made it easier to unpack. The dinner of warm pot roast, mashed potatoes, gravy, salad, and fresh bread made our return even better. We quickly got everything in order as the dinner was finalized. It all began with Samantha giving us big hugs and making the return even more special.

The best part was the coffee after dinner. One odd note to our travels on Interstate Route 40 which parallels the famous Route 66 is that good coffee is non-existent in our eyes. Laughter would often ensue as “Dad” would ask the restaurant people about the coffee being served. Usually, the server would have pretty much no clue about what I was getting at. Although Starbucks is decidedly not my favorite, as I feel they burn their beans, we would have enjoyed some as a safe coffee haven in the storm. Starbucks was pretty much non-existent along the route and any other good coffee houses as well. We did resort to using the instant coffee from Starbucks to “fortify” the coffee we were drinking, but idiot me would often forget it in the hotel room. Note to self, take the one cup coffee makers we purchase from Bodum for ourselves and the boys since it takes up little space but makes a decent cup of coffee.

Today we will take the car back to O’Hare, which was not the original location of the return. Since we changed our original plans of return to Sunday, we have to go there, That is no biggie!

The entire trip was about 2100 miles or so… It was amazing! I feel so sorry for those who have not seen the beauty of the ride, it is worth it and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Essentially the plan for us was to drive during the entire daytime, leaving at dawn and finishing up around sunset.

Mikey is up, it is about ten o’clock and Mary Kay is preparing waffles in the kitchen. We are attempting to ‘normalize’ and that is a good thing. It is pretty much going to be a day of rest.

Oh, and did I tell you that we finally figured out that the Superbowl is next week?

I wonder what kind of mischief I shall be able to get in today?

In the car, Day Four of Travels for Mikey

last pic from trip, none in OK but this one is from MO in the Ozarks!

We are in the car traveling along toward St. Louis. It is somewhat cold and now a bit windy. We just dined on barbecue in Rolla. Great pork sandwiches!

I am doing this on my iPhone, a geeky first for me. Obviously my driving stint was earlier!

It has already been an interesting day so far. I was recorded during the night by my son to see if I snore (unbeknownst to me); the result is a wheezy whistle. Breakfast was served at Kimmy’s Diner by the lovely Vietnamese émigrée who told us her life story. Between the Oklahoma/Missouri border to just north of Springfield, a quite religious area, we noticed no less than five “Adult Book Stores!” While at lunch I noticed I received a Facebook “proposition” from a comely young lady. I seriously think she must have sent it to the wrong person! What was she thinking? Then I get several lovely messages from friends in France. Follow that with the news that Samantha can count to ten in French and English. Despite my countin for her in French she has not even done it for me. Papi is ecstatic! What a day!

Sun is now hiding behind clouds for the first time in days. We are scheduled to arrive around seven this evening. I cannot wait!

I know I shall need to proof this as it is hard to scroll back and the self-correction elements are driving me crazy!

Travels for Mikey, Days One and Two

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Add this experience to my list of odd travels in my recent past: a trip to California to move my youngest back to the Midwest. On Wednesday of this week, I flew out of Midway using a ticket we had purchased for Mikey from Southwest Airlines for his return flight. The ticket had been put in cold storage when Mikey revealed to us that he was in need of help and was remaining with us. The ticket was easily redone to accommodate two of us (at less than the cost for Mikey!), so off I set with one of my sons.

We flew into Ontario and Super Shuttled to Redlands where we quickly took up our hotel room and headed to Hertz to pick up the rental car we had arranged.

In researching rentals, we found out that there is a huge difference between renting at the airport and renting from a municipality when it comes to taking a car from one point and leaving it off at another. The price of renting from the airport was literally twice that of the one we got!

Car procured, off to visit Mikey’s friends/colleagues to get some of his items and the keys to the warehouse. Luckily, I was provided with a list from Mikey and was able to go down the list and make sure we had all the important items. That was important as although helpful, they had a very lackadaisical California type attitude about things. This was especially funny since they are not California natives. It wasn’t easy but I finally got everything from Mikey’s list.

The warehouse was living hell. We had asked Mike’s colleagues to get his papers and important things. Apparently, in doing so, it was literally ransacked. In order to find what we needed, we had to clean/organize the whole scene. We actually did so in less than two hours. We had purchased six large plastic containers from Wal-Mart and packed them carefully. We threw out a lot of stuff that was pretty unusable.

After cleaning out the warehouse, I went to return the keys to the guys. I finished up the list of things I needed from them. That was comparable to pulling teeth in some respects despite their desire to help me out. Although they knew I was coming, they hadn’t detached things, set them aside, or anything, Despite e-mails, texts, etc., nothing was really ready for us. The oddest was when I asked about Mikey’s speakers, they said they knew nothing about them. I looked down and said, “Aren’t those speakers his?” They responded, “Oh, those? We guess so.”

So, this morning, Thursday, at 7:00 am, we departed Redlands. I am writing this as we drive on my iPad in the car. I am actually taking a rest from driving, unusual as that is.

We are already nearing Flagstaff, Arizona and can see its peaks in the distance. There is snow on the ground in places and I may have to pull out the winter jacket I brought, my wool Pendleton shirt has sufficed until now.

Last night we took some time to get online with Mikey’s Mac and figured out that we would get in a quick hike or so in the Petrified Forest of Arizona. The nearest city with hotels that we can deal with are in, would you believe, Gallup, New Mexico. So, away we go…more later!

Okay, it is later. We ended up getting to the Petrified Forest and had a nice walk and drive through the park. We then drove the last hour or so to the town of Gallup, New Mexico. We had “Yelped” with the Yelp app to see about where to have dinner. After reading reviews, we stopped in a place that got high recs and even one where a guy was going to go one hundred miles out of his way to eat there. It turned out to be totally true. Everything from food to service was above and beyond. So, if you are ever in Gallup, go to the Badlands Grill!

Resting up. We have decided to land in Tulsa tomorrow. Never been to Oklahoma, this could be interesting.

Ilsa, the Canadian Masseuse

I had said that I was going to read the Sunday paper, and once again I got waylaid.   My memories, since I mentioned Stratford, started flowing.  I thought about my second massage experience.

I seem prone to encounter some of the world’s most interesting people and I managed to do that when in Stratford, Ontario a few years ago.

For years, idiot that I am capable of being, I was totally against having a massage.  After my first experience at a bed and breakfast in Wisconsin, I realized that once again I was mistaken about something.  I will say that at least I did follow my own personal family tenet of “never saying never,” something I have told my boys incessantly. It seems that it is, as superstition will have it, not a good idea to say “never” for it seems to come back and hit you in the face.  So I didn’t say never to massage and I did try it and I did like it.  After my first one I thought to myself, “What took me so long?”

So here we were in Stratford on vacation, I think it may have been our first year there and Mary Kay suggested a massage.  I thought it was a great idea.  My experience ended up being on e of those iconic story moments that just keeps getting retold.

We arrived at the “Spa” and I went upstairs (I was first) and met Ilsa.  Ilsa was not particularly tall, not particularly old, not particularly anything out of ordinary.  The thing I did notice was her very heavy northern accent and her muscular, stocky figure of a person.  Honestly, I hope this isn’t being mean, but she looked like the typical “good woman for a plow.” She looked like the person I would never ever challenge to a competition of any physical nature.

So, I get undressed, feeling somewhat uncomfortable since it is only my second massage, and chitchat with Ilsa about life in general.  We went through the usual talk of what to wear under the sheet, my not being sure what was expected and I ended up removing everything.  The atmosphere in the room was pleasant and professional.

Some may be expecting something crazy considering the direction I am going in and frankly, that is not going to come to pass.  The major moment of the whole event was one of the first questions Ilsa put to me as I lay naked under the sheet, “May I touch your bum?”  That set the mode/pace for the rest of the massage and frankly disarmed me completely and put me at ease in an odd way.  I told her that she certainly could; there are a good number of muscles in that region that could certainly benefit from some attention.

Ilsa’s physical stature and status (she was very much in shape) helped her provide me with a great massage and she was totally professional in her role as a masseuse.  That comment of hers literally made me drop any feeling of being uncomfortable, it was just too funny for words, and I was totally putty in her very strong hands.

We talked about all sorts of things during this time, I would say that such conversation is akin to the small talk one has with a hair stylist (hard to believe I remember this, considering my state of being follicularly challenged)  when undergoing that process.  Somehow we got on to the subject of Mary Kay.

We talked about all sorts of things and well, got onto acupuncture which is an art/science that Ilsa practiced.  We talked about living in general, our bodies changing as we age, etc.  We talked a bit about romance, not that Ilsa was hitting on me, but as Mary Kay has reminded me more than once, I don’t ever notice when someone is flirting with me, I seem to be incapable of recognizing it.

Ilsa talked about how acupuncture can do all sorts of things, Mary Kay had had it when she was recovering from a terrible break of her humerus (in the arm) years ago and had issues with the muscles in her other arm that were being overworked.  She talked about the benefits of it in all areas including romance…

My massage over, I felt great, I put my clothes back on, thanked Ilsa, went downstairs.

Mary Kay went up, had her massage.  I didn’t hear all that much about it except that she got an added extra, acupuncture…

Thus ends my iconic tale of massage, you may fill in the blanks.

A Christmastime Sunday

TheManger scene with Ali's headless donkey


It is about eight o’clock in the morning and I am awake with my coffee enjoying the silence in the house.  It is hard to believe I slept this late, it doesn’t happen very often.  I have my coffee in hand and am about to get the Sunday paper.  I always used to really enjoy the Sunday paper but I find it harder and harder to read it.  Maybe it is just me but the writing style has changed in such a way that it does not hold my interest.  The advent (nice choice of words considering the time of year) of the Internet seems to have hastened a “demise” of the printed newspaper anyway.  At this point, Mary Kay and I don’t agree, I would actually drop the newspaper subscription and read it with my app on the iPhone or iPad.  Such is life.

Ali hasn’t yet asked to go out, she is still snoozing at the foot of the tree which I just illuminated.  I don’t know if my feeling is justified, but I feel so much safer now that the LED lights are doing the Christmas decorating.  I don’t feel as funny about having the lights on.  It was nice, as well, to only have to string two sets of lights together (although they have numerous LED bulbs) to really light the tree.  Ali, for some reason, really likes to sleep by the tree, which she generally pretends doesn’t exist.  In her puppylike exuberance at the age of ten, she “flashes” by the tree in our living room and either brushes by it or allows her tail to whack it, the result being fallen ornaments.

Ali is also guilty of having done a little Christmas damage yesterday when we had our family Christmas get together and birthday celebration for Mikey.  She had been eyeing the Fisher Price manger set we had bought Samantha.  What originally caught our eye was the border collie it had along with all the other animals.  It is a favorite of Samantha’s as she can press the star on top of it and play “Away in a Manger.” Ali had been eyeing the little animals, thinking they were for her.  I had chastised her for it.  Yesterday she got a hold of the donkey and now he is headless!

Ali is a firm believer in consistency so she is a bit out of it in the hubbub chez Koerner.  Mikey’s arrival, which should have had her going crazy as he is one of her favorite people, had her snubbing him for the most part.  Yesterday, Samantha’s snack which was on a coffee table in the family room attracted Ali’s attention.  Ali will normally not pay any attention to that as she knows it is off limits, but yesterday she came close to checking it out.  So we have to keep a better eye on her.  Her predecessor, Freckles, was known to pop up on the counter and just plain old remove entire roasts if you weren’t looking.  The odd thing was that she would do it and there would be no mess, no evidence of the struggle to get the household “prey.”  I remember fondly that pork chop on my plate, some neighborhood fracas called me outside and in the interim my dinner disappeared!  With Ali, that just doesn’t happen.  I guess she feels we aren’t paying her enough attention at the moment.

My original intent this morning was to write a quick blurb and get on with my business.  It strikes me funny how sometimes the memories and stories just flow out out a person like water from a spigot.  And like that water, you need to deal with it immediately or it will evaporate away.  Good thing I was using my keyboard to note it.

We are going downtown with dear friends today to see “A White Christmas,” a play currently being done in the loop.  It should be a great time, we always have the most amazingly fun time with Tony and CC.  They are intelligent, personable, have great life stories, put up with the antics of the Koerners, and are delightful to be with as they don’t have any particular agenda and make these excursions so delightful.  We have even been traveling with them on  a yearly basis to Stratford, Ontario for the Shakespeare Festival, which is always  an amazing trip.  Not only are the plays very entertaining and thought provoking, the restaurant forays, the occasional shopping and sightseeing are also enjoyable.  So Mary Kay, Tony, CC, and I shall drive downtown and enjoy a play and the winter wonderland sights of the city today and it should be a good time.

Off to the kitchen to make more coffee, get the newspaper either by walking outside or seeing if the canine wonder shall perform today.  Sundays are not good performance days for her as the paper is usually too large, but my first glance at the paper makes me think that it actually might be possible as it looks miniscule!

Bud and Gladys and Eagle River

Bud with (from left to right) Richie, Mikey, Christian


Each year, we send out fewer and fewer Christmas cards.  One we always have sent out with great joy is to our favorite North Woods people:  Bud (who departed this world in 2004) and Gladys.  Just after Thanksgiving, I sent out the cards.  The other day, however, I received a sad Christmas card from Eagle River from the children of Bud and Gladys informing us that Gladys passed away last February after a long, courageous bout with cancer.  Thus ends an era for our family and a great one at that.  Bud and Gladys, caretakers for an Eagle River compound, would seem to most to be the least likely candidates to be of great influence to a family from the northern suburbs of Illinois.  Nothing could be further from the truth. After a brief explanation of the vacation spot, I will attempt to explain why.

 In 1989, our family started a tradition of a summer vacation that is iconic for the Koerners.  We found out about Gino the upholstery guy who had a place in Highland Park from our neighbor down the street.  Gino is one of those outdoor guys who had just the type of place to rent for a vacation that was just our style: a summer house on a private lake in Eagle River, Wisconsin.  The lake was a good size, but not too big and only had the over 100 year old house that we usually stayed in, a smaller cabin within walking distance which was available for rental, Gino’s newer cabin (which wasn’t there when we initially went), and, way across the lake on the other side, a trailer supposedly owned by a Chicago policeman who never seemed to show up.  Gino owns about 75% of the land surrounding the lake, which generally made for a very private family vacation. 

The beauty of it is that the minute we would drive up the long half mile or so drive, we would immediately begin to relax.  The kitchen of the house is somewhat primitive, but has a stove and a refrigerator and is supplied with dishes, silverware, pots and pans, and the house is able to sleep about ten or so.  There is only one bathroom, but that never seemed to bother us.   It has a small porch on the back entryway and a large one facing the lake.  Both are screened in. 

The lake is a short distance from the house, just a quick walk down a small slope and some steps. The walkway also leads to the upper level of the boathouse; the steps lead down to the platform dock.  The lake is suitable for boating, swimming (although it is not a sand bottom lake), and fishing.  There is a trail going around the lake through the woods in a very North Woodsy type of setting.  There is usually at least one loon and virtually every type of wildlife imaginable.  Essentially heaven for outdoor boys and during our stays there we had no access to television and rarely listened to the radio.  We would play games in the dining room or in the screened in room over the boathouse and do puzzles and such.

We always felt that the activities we had at this place were ideal to test women for suitability for the Koerner boys when they grew up. Not just anyone could deal being this far from “civilization.”   We always brought lots of books to read, crafts to do, and the like.    

It never seemed to matter what the weather was like, we always had something to do and the things we learned there were amazing.  The sky at night was amazing because the stars were so much brighter and seemingly numerous far from city lights.  I shall never forget the time that I had jogged in Winnetka one day in t-shirt and shorts only to experience snow in Eagle River the same day and the northern lights as well!

As mentioned, we had found out about this wonderful place from our neighbor down the street.  Her extended family used to rent both the large house and the cabin every year and go up and spend time together.  The odd thing, we found out very early on, is that Jan and family knew nothing of the caretaker and his wife.  They were essentially invisible.  They were always there for us, however.

The moment we arrived on scene, when we pulled up in our heavily laden Chevy Celebrity wagon with our kids and supplies, Gladys would show up, sometimes with Bud, sometimes not.  Or she might have been there finishing up the cleaning since we had a habit of getting there early.   I remember seeing her Toyota sedan that she had full of cleaning supplies.  Gladys gave us the “skinny” on what to do, what to avoid and always lots of fishing info.  It turns out that she was the one who really enjoyed fishing although both of them pretty much always knew what was going on in the lake and its surrounding forest..  They knew when there were issues with a snapping turtle who was creating havoc with the ecosystem, if the loon was around, what kinds of fish were being caught in the current year, and if the squirrels were going crazy and being destructive.  Gladys totally ingratiated herself to our family.  She and Bud were good friends to Gino and his wife and always talked about going to the Casino with them and doing other things together.

I need to express here that our family has always searched out people like Bud and Gladys; they fascinate us because they represent experiences and thoughts that we are not always able to connect with where we live.  Their knowledge base is oh so different and oh so enriching to us.  Gladys used to tell us as well about her experiences at the Vilas County Fair with the different things she entered into the competitions. She did all kinds of jellies, sometimes pickles, and the like.  As Mary Kay just stated to me, Gladys had a PhD in life.  When she talked to you, she always made you feel comfortable, respected, and interested.

Bud was a former lumberjack who walked around the land with the command of someone who seemed to know what every blade of grass was doing.  Bud and Gladys were diminutive in size but impressive in their command of their surroundings.  Bud hunted and spoke with great respect for nature and the animals that he killed and he did not just do it for sport.  He did it because of the overabundance of the deer or because there was a beaver that was destroying whole groves of trees to the point of decimating the forest.  He did not take the killing lightly and he explained his philosophy in great detail, as would a teacher, when he spoke to us and the boys.

When things needed attention, we would call Bud and/or Gladys and they would oh so willingly come over and “shoot the breeze” with us and take care of the issues at hand.  I remember fondly the excitement of the boys when either one of the caretakers visited.  We bombarded them with questions about all sorts of things, from the sounds we heard in the evenings to plant life we found on the edge of the paths.

Gladys showed us the wintergreen that grows in the forest and the little Princess Pine plants that she used to tie together to make Christmas wreaths.  There wasn’t a year that we went up that we didn’t learn something new from either of them.

Bud was the first to take my boys and show them how to shoot.  Mary Kay and I had always frowned upon the usage of guns, knowing full well of the abuses that occur in our society with firearms.  We had even decided not to purchase toy guns for the boys, something we tried oh so hard to enforce and finally gave in when one of our older boys ate his morning toast into the shape of a gun and “shot” his brother at the breakfast table.  Bud, very respectfully, took me aside one day and asked if he could show the boys how to shoot, well aware of how I might react.  I was much complimented and told him that I completely trusted him because I knew that he would go about teaching with a full dose of nature and the realities and safety of firearm handling.  He did exactly that and to this day all three of my sons, responsible hunters, will be heard spouting the advice of that great, reserved, wise man of the North Woods.

A few years ago, we were up once again at the compound and Bud, who was ailing once again from a cancer that he had courageously fought off for a time, stopped by to visit.  He made sure to see us that first evening, forcing himself to come over.  Little did we know that evening that that would be our last time with Bud, the next day we discovered that he had passed away during the night.  We were devastated, but thankful that we had had that last moment with him.

Gladys lived a few years beyond Bud.  In the succeeding years, it has been harder and harder for us as a family to get, as we call it, an “Eagle River Fix.”  We always talk about it fondly, we remember the way our dog Freckles used to go crazy with delight up there and how she spent her last year up there trying to fend off our Border collie puppy and even train her in some ways.  We remember the special time when Bud and Gladys and Gino and his wife invited us to have freshly harvested potatoes and homemade sausage.  We also remember the time that Bud and Gladys invited us to their Eagle River home and showed us the antlers from deer Bud had shot and folksy things that Gladys had made by hand.  We remember the year that we were up there with some family friends and experienced the trauma of a major accident in the other family. Upon the return from the hospital days later by me and our friend Gail after overseeing a quick operation in Wausau we experienced a microburst on our way back from getting pizza.  It forced us to leave our car on the driveway and crawl under trees to feed our children.  The next day Bud came, equipped with his chainsaw and took care of the damage. We keep wondering when and if we can get a chance, as a family to visit Eagle River. Although Bud and Gladys are both gone, the knowledge and the wisdom they possessed is in the hands of some unlikely people in the Chicago area.  It is also in the land and the area that they lived in.
We have been touched in a major way and we shall never be the same because of them and the great influence they have had in our lives.

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Go to Hell!

Years ago when we were visiting my mom in Cleveland it was always tough when we were leaving.  My mom, being alone and all since my sister and I left the nest, and I being the offspring who moved away, it was particularly difficult for her. She adored seeing us, cooking all of my favorite things, and seeing the boys and Mary Kay.

One time, she told us this ethnic story of some Hungarians.  Truthfully, I don’t know whether the story is even true or maybe just made up by someone, but I tend to think that it is real.

My mom told us of some Hungarians who were trying oh so hard to learn English and to use the proper expressions at the appropriate times.  We language learners know that there is nothing funnier than situations when people are experimenting with a language and just not managing to do so.  Not that we want to laugh at their mistakes, but it is just funny.  I always implored my students to be oh so careful when using colloquial expressions just for that reason, to be sure that they really understood the usage and the nuances. 

Well, these Hungarians were interested in knowing the proper way to say “goodbye” and they asked some people, supposed friends, to tell them what to say upon taking leave of someone.  They were given an expression and practiced it so their pronunciation was in order and then left.

One day, as they were taking leave of someone, they did the final small talk, were ready to leave and yelled out as they were departing and waving their hands in a goodbye gesture, “Go to Hell!”  They thought they were saying something nice.  Instead they almost got into trouble!

My mom told us the story and we took it in, this all occurring during our visit.  As usual, the day of departure approached and my mom’s eyes started tearing up.  We were all in the car, all five of us, and opened up the windows as we were ready to put the car into gear and yelled out to my mom, “Go to Hell!”  This is particularly funny because not only did my mom start smiling and laughing but there were nosy neighbors on her Parma, Ohio Street who took it in as well and wondered what was going on.  From that moment on, our family  goodbye taking always includes a good “Go to Hell” and a big smile.