A Tribute to My Grandmother

Years ago, I spoke at the memorial service for my maternal grandmother, Gene Wenzel. A few days before, I was sitting on a park bench with a yellow legal pad on my lap and a ballpoint pen in my hand trying to write what I would say. At first, I was drawing blanks, stuck in what I felt I was “expected” to say.

Suddenly, letting go of the “shoulds,” I flashed on the word “spirit.” I had recently learned that the Latin root for spirit was spirare which means “to breathe.” I started writing down all the words I could think of that had “spirit” in them. Among these were “inspire” (to draw in air), “respire” (to inhale and exhale), and “expire” (the last breath).

Another of these words was “conspire.”

Up until then, I’d always seen this word as negative, used to describe people plotting to do something bad. But it really just means to breathe together. And there is something magical and mysterious about that.

When we are in the same place we are conspiring, breathing together. But it’s even more than that. We are sharing air, me breathing in some of what you’ve exhaled and you breathing in some of what I’ve exhaled. We are conspiring, literally. What was once inside you goes inside me, and what was once inside me goes inside you. This was a profound realization for me.

Where do I stop and you begin?

This became the basis of my memorial to my grandmother, the conspiracies that took place throughout her life and the one taking place right there in the church among those of us who had come together to celebrate and acknowledge her life.

A conspiracy. And what a lovely one.

It’s a kind of conspiracy that you are reading this story that I wrote. And if you are moved by it in any way, you likely found inspiration in it.

That’s all part of our common humanity.

“This is Not a Date!”

It’s September, 1990 and I’ve just left a job that was eroding my soul. For several months I had shunned social interactions, so drained was I by the challenges of this job.

In the hopes of re-energizing, I called up my friend Bruce to see if he was planning to go to Bumbershoot, the annual music festival at the Seattle Center that takes place every year over Labor Day Weekend. Nick Lowe was scheduled to perform and both Bruce and I are longtime Nick Lowe fans. It would be fun to hang out with a friend.

That, at least, was my cover story.

You see, I had also been invited to attend a wedding later that month and I knew Bruce was sharing a house with Melinda. Maybe she’d like to go to the wedding with me…

“Sorry, Andy,” Bruce told me, “I won’t be in town for Bumbershoot. But let me put Melinda on the phone.”

And within minutes, not only had Melinda agreed to go to the wedding, she was interested in seeing Nick Lowe!

So here we were, the two of us, Melinda and me, walking from the Seattle Center to where I had parked my car, the concert being over. We could have stayed to see some other performers, and did in fact linger for a few minutes to hear part of Leon Redbone’s set.

Still, I was trying to be sensitive to what Melinda might want to do, including parting ways.

As we walked, making small talk, she casually made reference to her fairly new interest in horseback riding.

Turns out Melinda knew I had connections at Longacres, the racetrack just outside of Seattle, that allowed me access to where the horses were stabled. Since she’d taken up riding, she was interested in seeing thoroughbreds in training.

I asked if she’d like to head down there some time, to which her face lit up and she said, “When can we go?”

I said, “How about now?”

I think she suddenly recognized her enthusiasm to see the horses may have gotten the better of her. She’d already agreed to go to the wedding with me, we had just been to a concert together, and now she had accepted my offer to spontaneously head down to the racetrack.

Clearly, she needed to halt any ideas I might be having about this situation involving some kind of romantic activity.

“This is not a date,” she said, the tone of her voice supporting the clarity of her words.

“Um, okay,” or something equally eloquent was my response.

Of course, we were married less than four months later on December 31st, meaning today is our 30th anniversary. In those 30 years, we’ve raised two kids to adulthood, started a school, lived in France for a year, and spent pretty much every day together.

Occasionally, I’ll ask her if we’ve had a date yet.

Yes, Virginia, I Believe in Santa Claus

I believe in Santa Claus. And I believe it is my belief in him that makes him real.

When my daughters, Chloe and Ella, were young, they believed in him as an actual living, breathing entity, as I did when I was a kid. As we grew up, my daughters and I, we came to believe in him as something that is true in our hearts.

In other words, our belief in Santa Claus is not in a logical truth. Logical truths are those things that are strictly true in our heads. They can be proven scientifically. Believing in Santa is a feeling thing, something completely human that taps into the profound. Again, this is something that’s true in our hearts, the same place our intuition resides.

Each Christmas Eve when the girls were kids, we’d track Santa on the NORAD Tracks Santa website. As an adult, the fact that NORAD, the organization that monitors the airspace above the United States and Canada for safety purposes, associates itself with Santa Claus touched me. Still does, actually.

To really understand a logical or “head” truth, just consider the purpose of NORAD for a minute and all the scientific reality that goes with it. I long imagined the person (or people) who conceptualized the NORAD tracks Santa concept. Was it a bored engineer who recognized his (or her) connection to childhood, their “heart” truth, was slipping away?

It turns out there is quite a story to how the whole thing got started, some of it legend (true to the heart) and some of it fact (true to the head).

That my kids would get so excited to watch Santa moving around the world tapped into something deep within me that believes in the wonder of childhood and wanting to keep it sacred.

A piece of advice I’ve long given parents is to help their children hold onto to their childhoods as long as they can. In other words, parents, I encourage you to resist any urges, from your children and those you sometimes feel, to have your kids grow up too fast.

Now picture my two young daughters and me on Christmas Eve. Each hour, amidst the dinner preparations and excitement of arriving family, we’d reload the NORAD site to see where Santa has visited. And picture their excitement in going to bed, knowing that Santa is approaching our home, knowing that in the morning they will discover the presents he has left them.

NORAD and Santa together is the perfect blend of a head truth uniting with a heart truth. I’m interested in recognizing other such combinations. I’ve read that the way you can tell if you’re well-matched with a life partner is by confirming your love is both logical and emotional, that you’ll get into trouble down the line when it’s just one or the other, or a huge imbalance.

Can you think of some other combinations of head and heart truths? If so, share them in the comments section below, please.

I think it might be most engaging to start with the emotional truth of something, like a child’s wonder for Santa Claus, and then seeing if you can connect it to some kind of logical truth, like NORAD.

So after reading this, where do you stand on the question? Do you believe in Santa Claus?