Peter Pan protested that he would not grow up. In the island of Neverland, he and Wendy could live a never-ending adventure filled with pirates, fairies and crocodiles, and they…
Peter Pan protested that he would not grow up. In the island of Neverland, he and Wendy could live a never-ending adventure filled with pirates, fairies and crocodiles, and they could fly.
As a grandfather, I’ve rediscovered my inner boy, that eternal Peter Pan that never really left me but was hidden from my vision for a while. I become Peter again when I’m building a cave out of couch cushions with my grandkids. Venomous snakes hunt across the jungle floor (the living room) in search of prey. A pterodactyl (me) swoops down and darkens the sky, talons reaching towards the mouth of the cave as the helpless little ones scream with laughter.
Childhood is indeed a magical place, but as parents and grandparents we know all too well that it doesn’t last forever.
When I was very little, I remember my dad would hold me up and rub my face against the stubble of his early morning beard, the sandpaper-like feel of it making me giggle. Then one day when I was older, he picked me up and was about to do what he’d always done, but I stopped him and said, “I don’t like that anymore.” He looked very sad. At the time I didn’t understand why.
But I do now.
As a grandpa, I’m experiencing time with a sense of increasing acceleration.
My eldest grandson is now 9, and the time between when I held that baby boy and the long-limbed seemingly pre-teen he is today, the one who is able to tackle me to the floor quite effectively, passed in the blink of a crocodile’s eye. And with this rapid passage of time I’ve become more aware than ever of the little changes I see in my grandkids, the moments I see them emerging from Neverland, sometimes in small steps, other times in giant leaps.
There’s great joy in seeing them progress upward in life (and all of them very tall, like me). Yet I feel an almost indescribable sadness when I see them leaving their own childhoods behind. A sadness that the magic I have witnessed—and rediscovered—is fleeting.
It’s one thing to experience this as a parent. As a grandpa, the emotions are all the more poignant because I know this is my last rodeo.
Each step that I see them take into adulthood has an air of personal finality for me because I know I will only see this once. And may not live long enough to see them have children of their own. This is it.
I recently had one of these joy/sadness moments on a Sunday morning. My son came over with his two girls to hang out and eat too many bagels, one of our favorite weekend activities.
Like most grandparents, my wife I read a lot to our grandkids. Whether it’s Goodnight Moon, or searching once again for the elusive rainbow elephant, we’re always reaching for another book. No matter what’s going on, or which grandchild is with us, we’ll ask if they’d like to read a book, and another, and another.
On this particular Sunday, I was in the living room with our youngest granddaughter, not yet 2 years old. She’s a very bright girl, cute and always fearlessly active (rock walls? Yes!) and highly focused on building Magna-Tile structures or whatever toy is before her. I was sitting in my leather chair, enjoying watching her bustle about. The sun was shining through multiple windows, filling the room with a bright, warm feeling. She was snapping Legos together, quietly figuring out what pieces would fit.
Then she looked up at me with her big brown eyes, picked up a book and held it toward me, and asked, “Would you like to read a book?”
I was startled. This very young girl, still in diapers and barely beyond infancy, had just formed a complete sentence, and the look on her face was suddenly so grown-up, so girl versus baby, that the joy/sadness of the moment struck me with full force. The part of me that was in the room then, fully present with my granddaughter, replied, “Yes, I would love to read a book.”
The other part of me, this boy inside who never, ever wanted to grow up, was flying with Wendy hand in hand through the night sky, the wind in my hair, heading home.
Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.
Editors note: Earlier in March, the New York Times ran a story that mentioned the Good Grandpa blog. I really didn’t know what to expect before the story ran….
Editors note: Earlier in March, the New York Times ran a story that mentioned the Good Grandpa blog. I really didn’t know what to expect before the story ran. When you start a blog like this, it’s a lot like talking in an empty room. If you stick with it, eventually more people enter the room and join the conversation. With the Times piece, a lot of people joined the conversation all at once. This has been both wonderful and humbling. After 9 years as a grandpa I discovered how little I really knew about the wide range of different life experiences that other grandfathers live on a daily basis. My own life is one tiny sliver of a vast galaxy that is still unfolding. The guest story I’m posting here, submitted by a grandfather in Pennsylvania, will illuminate this galaxy with a level of persevering love I could only aspire to. I hope that after you read what Dr. Lipes has shared you will take a minute to post a comment and answer the question he’s asked in the title of his story.
Can an ill Grandpa be a Good Grandpa?
By Jan Lipes, MD
It’s not difficult at all to read stories about the “good” grandfathers. Or hear such stories told at the dinner table, at family gatherings or on the benches in the park. Good grandfathers abound everywhere.
These legions of seasoned warriors think of grandparenting as the best job they ever had; they keep pinching themselves to make sure it’s not all some kind of fantastic dream. They are astounded to see the world through eyes that have only been inspecting it for three or four years.
Grandpas are touched, they are invigorated by eyes that regard them as fountains of wisdom. They can’t wait to descend to the floor with their little colleagues, down to the railroad tracks on which little gaily painted locomotives and dining cars circle endlessly in an infinite loop that simultaneously goes nowhere and everywhere. They love the rough and tumble of tossing a little body through space at the swimming pool or at the beach and catching it in a grand gesture.
Grandpas can’t wait to be over-generous in gift giving and consider it one of their main jobs to spoil their grandchildren by granting them every wish under the sun. They positively jump at the chance to babysit. The miraculous opportunity opens up before them in which they themselves have the chance to be children once again, to see the world anew through the eyes of little ones.These stories, told by the able-bodied, the inhabitants of the domain of the well, are inspiring to read.
But what about the stories of those grandfathers who don’t dwell in the “kingdom of the well,” but rather inhabit “the kingdom of the sick,” as Susan Sontag proposed. What of us?
Yes, I am a subject of that latter kingdom. My entrance fee was a pair of legs that won’t walk for me, necessitating a wheelchair for thirty plus years, and a formerly dominant right arm that became non-functional. What of me, and those like me? Unable to indulge in those joyful interactions with my grandchildren that the “well” dwellers do, how can I experience the joy and wonder of my grandchildren?
Well, fellow Grandpas, there’s good news.
If you’re looking for some fun and meaningful things to do with your grandkids and you’re as disabled as I am, remember the Japanese saying; every defect has a hidden treasure. So how do we, the ill, find this hidden treasure? As with most issues in a disabled life, adaptation is the key to the treasure hunt. Adaptation not only ensures the survival of the species, it ensures our survival in the face of daunting challenges.
Jan giving one of his grandkids a ride.
Kids love rides in amusement parks. If you’re living the wheelchair life like me, consider yourself lucky as you needn’t drive all the way to Coney Island for the rides; you are the ride! Kids love it when they can hitch a lift on your lap or hang onto the back of your chair while all of you go speeding down the road shouting some nonsense at the top of your lungs.
Kids love checkers, cards, blocks, silly putty, pick up sticks and all manner of table games. Can’t hold a deck of cards in your hand? Adapt by getting a simple card holder. There are all sorts of simple gadgets like that which enable you to manipulate the baubles that kids love.
Museums of all kinds—from aquariums to art institutions—are great for touring with a kid on your lap. Your little wheelchair cabal offers a great opportunity for intimate chats about the things you encounter. And an added benefit is when your grandchild gets “tired.” You now adapt by becoming an Uber driver!
Dr. Lipes at a railroad museum with family.
Picasso said all children are artistic geniuses until they reach the age of seven. Well, you don’t have to stop there. Art is endlessly varied both in the finished product and the methods by which to create. Can’t use a brush? Adapt. Use your teeth, your palm, your clumsy fingers. The kids don’t care what you use but they care deeply that you are sharing the creative process with them.
Some disabled folks are embarrassed by what other people think about what they are doing or how they’re doing it. Adapt! Lose your ego! Who cares what they think, and besides, for all you know, they are regarding you with admiration!
I like to speak to school kids about disability and show off all the fancy maneuvers I can perform with my chair. The kids will crowd you with their curiosity.
It’s no secret that kids love to be read to. As a disabled grandpa, don’t abandon this oldie but goodie. There are all sorts of book holders that let you read with one hand and some that are hands-free. Seek these out; adapt!
Can’t use that old curveball pitch you used to be so good at in a game of catch or whiffle ball? Adapt to a slow, underhand style. The kids will probably get more hits anyway.
Jan playing with the grandkids.
Our barriers and obstacles are hard to bear, they are exasperating. But they must not rob you of your life with your grandchildren just because you are disabled. Adaptation is the key to unlocking their magical world.
Publisher’s Note: This lovely post was written by my daughter, Abigail Moore. As a grandfather, it’s wonderful for me to see that even though my father is no longer with…
Publisher’s Note: This lovely post was written by my daughter, Abigail Moore. As a grandfather, it’s wonderful for me to see that even though my father is no longer with us, his voracious mind is a legacy that continues through the generations.
When my parents broached the subject of organizing my paternal grandfather’s books I immediately volunteered for the task.
They were preparing for a long-anticipated flooring project, replacing the tired, stained, and occasionally smelly carpet in the primary bedroom. This sanctuary had previously been my grandfather Bill’s office, where he spent countless hours in his retirement puzzling over society’s ills and compulsively stocking his bookshelves with annotated and dog-eared volumes on a wide range of topics.
Grandpa Bill cut a formidable figure, running daily up and down the steep driveway of his house in the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont in a very small pair of shorts. This was the only time I ever saw him out of his customary button down shirt and belted khaki slacks, a formal uniform that he wore around the house, attending to his intellectual pursuits in his upstairs sanctuary.
All the grandchildren spoke in whispers about the day when they would come of age, and be summoned to meet with him in his office.
This ritual entailed discussing the evils of nuclear war, his time in the Navy during WWII, and his ongoing goal of ensuring world peace for future generations. My memory of my own conference centers around trying intently to avoid staring too hard at his eyebrows, which wriggled across his forehead like salt-and-pepper caterpillars, and general tween awkwardness and angst about having to discuss such a serious topic with my distinguished and somewhat aloof grandfather. Additionally, the graphic visuals of nuclear war were not for the faint of heart and needed to be approached with a certain degree of serious intellectualism.
In his twilight years, lost to the fog of dementia secondary to Parkinson’s, the office became an alarming representation of his mental decline.
Towering stacks of books covered every surface, some with hundreds of index cards protruding from pages inked with his favorite quotes and ideas. The room had an odor: unwashed clothes, faint traces of urine, and the musky scent of a neglected used bookstore or library. Piles of ladybug and house fly carcasses littered the windowsills and lazy skeins of cobwebs and dust fluttered in invisible breezes. I generally skirted the space, for fear of being drawn into a conversation in this claustrophobic and messy sanctuary that he refused to let anyone clean.
After his eventual passage from the mortal plain, his office and library remained as a concrete legacy of his obsessive quest for answers and information. When they took ownership of the house, my parents toiled for days to transform the space into a bedroom, but left the majority of his books on the expansive shelves. This was the library of a ghost whose presence continued to loom large over the years.
As a person who finds tremendous satisfaction in bringing order to chaos, likely as a coping mechanism for life-long anxiety, the prospect of systematically organizing the books was exciting to me.
We embarked on the project during the final days of February break, with everyone pitching in throughout a two-day sorting, purging, and cleaning extravaganza. Even my two boys, eight and six, dove into the task with uncharacteristic zeal. Brandishing dust rags and a vacuum they meticulously scrubbed and sorted with me for hours, occasionally finding treasures that they pored over together on the floor, heads touching.
The concrete result of this daunting and dirty experience was a bedroom filled with stacks upon stacks of hundreds of newly dusted books organized by subject.
However, a secondary consequence was a great deal of hilarity, discussion, and ultimately reflection about what these books represented about the passions and personality of someone long deceased. After immersing myself in the books for several hours, patterns emerged. Here was a person who had purchased, and hung on to, no less than five copies of On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler Ross.
A preoccupation with long life, health, nutrition, self-diagnosis of illness, and stress was evident from a massive collection of books on these topics (medical texts on Urology: The Complete Series). Poetry, world-religions, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and classic works of fiction were predictable components of his library.
Non-fiction books about WWII and the devastation of nuclear warfare represented his time in the service, and his life-long guilt about his role in the Pacific Theater. A surprising number of tomes centered on gender, feminism, sexuality, and aggression in men (3 heavily dog-eared copies of Demonic Males by Dale Peterson and Richard Wrangham).
Here was a man who read The Joy of Sex (volumes 1 and 2) as well as Masters and Johnson (his one bookmark in the Joy of Sex Volume 2: How to avoid mischief makers in a threesome).
He appeared to be deeply interested in democracy, liberalism, and the emergent role of technology and its changing influence on society and culture. He was similarly passionate about evolution, anthropology, sociology, and psychology.
He had a comprehensive collection of works by B.F. Skinner and Maslow. His lifelong friendship with scientist E.O. Wilson was reflected in having multiple copies of his entire collection of published books. One of these featured my grandfather in the dedication, and further digging turned up the original proof of the book that Bill had annotated to share his comments/thoughts with the author himself. At times, I could not fathom how he could have slogged through countless ponderous tomes of economics, government, and comparative philosophy of leadership.
My grandmother, Janet, was evident in aged and crumbling pamphlets with knitting patterns, instructions for metallurgy, and gardening texts.
These were interspersed with books on other crafts that had a more direct impact on my childhood. I had vivid flashbacks to her teaching me how to make baskets one humid summer, and when she presented me with multicultural doll clothes for my American Girl doll (including a burka, which I mistakenly thought for many years was a very sophisticated beekeeping uniform).
There were literary clues to other aspects of their relationship, revealing an unsurprising truth about his reliance on the written word to solve real world, interpersonal challenges (Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin by Ashley Montague; Choice Points: Essays on the Emotional Problems of Living with People, by John C. Glidewell).
Ultimately, I could not help but feel that I spent the better part of two days becoming reacquainted with someone who I had not seen in more than ten years (or twenty, if you consider the devastation of his dementia).
Flipping through the pages, and categorizing the collection, was a more intimate experience with my grandfather than I can recall having during his mortal life. As a person who loves books, and voraciously collects them and categorizes them in my own home, I wonder whether these will find permanence after my own death. In an increasingly digital world, there is a certain magic to a physical discovery of lost words, musings written in a margin, obscure and strange index cards tucked between dusty pages (“The leather coat was a strangler”). These forgotten and newly rediscovered remembrances made me laugh, sneeze, and ultimately wonder, “What the hell was Grandpa thinking?”
When my kids were little, it seemed like my wife and I were constantly and frantically juggling daycare and illness. There’s no pleasant way to put this, but let’s just…
When my kids were little, it seemed like my wife and I were constantly and frantically juggling daycare and illness.
There’s no pleasant way to put this, but let’s just say there was a lot of vomit involved. This was of course in the 1980s, when the concept of “remote work” was a euphemism for simply not working. So we got very good at making bargains with each other.
“If you stay home him with him today, I’ll stay home tomorrow.”
“If you stay home with her, you can sleep late on Saturday.”
Flash forward to this year when our daughter, the mother of our two grandsons (8 and 6), called to let us know her nanny had given two weeks’ notice.
Our daughter had interviews lined up with a few nanny options, but nobody great had taken the position yet. A few weeks after that, with no nanny on board, we grandparents kicked into gear to help.
First, my son-in-law’s parents stayed with them for a week, dropping the kids off for the morning school bus, picking them up in the afternoon, taking them to lessons, sports practices, and on and on.
Then it was our turn. My wife and I packed up our laptops and headed off, picking up where the other grandparents had left off, kind of like a marathon race with senior citizens running and passing off the baton, except the baton was lunch boxes and backpacks or the bag for swim practice or soccer shin guards or, wait, there was something else, oh forget it the school bus is coming!
In short, the mad dash of our child rearing years comes back full bore, quickly morphing out of memory to a very present and urgent reality.
And here’s the thing: I loved every minute of it. One day one our youngest grandson couldn’t go to school because of a lingering cough. I let me clients know I was going to be in meetings all day and not available for calls. This was true, but I omitted the fact that my meetings were with my grandson.
We visited a graveyard nearby my daughter’s house and played the game of finding the oldest date etched in stone.
Then we went for a long walk by the ocean on a treelined road, the fall leaves showing red and yellow and orange, the sun bright.
I took him to Shake Shack for lunch and we kept talking over hotdogs and burgers.
When we got back to the house, my grandson wrote with invisible ink in his diary, played with dinosaurs, and watched My Little Pony.
Out of all the packed days I’ve had at work over the past 30 years, this was one of my most productive and enjoyable. I’m confident that if I live to be 99, chances are I won’t look back on that day and wish I’d spent it making more money.
It turns out there’s evidence that babysitting grandchildren, at least periodically babysitting them versus full time, has been shown to help grandparents live longer. The researchers don’t know why that’s the case, but the data backs it up.
I have my own theory and it’s pretty simple: Helping our kids with the grandkids renews our sense of purpose.
We like knowing that we’re needed and loved. Just as important, being with our grandkids—even if they have hacking coughs—is a recipe for joy. And joy is a very healthy thing, not just for us grandparents but for everyone.
The next day, my grandson was feeling much better and went off to school with his older brother. My wife and I waved to them as the school bus drove off, then we want back to our other jobs.
In April I posted about ordering a pair of custom boots with the goal of hiking again. This is the second part of the story, and—spoiler alert—there is a happy…
In April I posted about ordering a pair of custom boots with the goal of hiking again. This is the second part of the story, and—spoiler alert—there is a happy ending.
Leahy Custom Boots’ fitting process was incredibly thorough, with multiple steps: tape measuring, tracing, pressure assessment, a foam impression, creating a fiberglass mold, followed by visual observation of how I walked.
All of this, or course, was just the first phase of the fitting process. In August, Kevin Leahy shipped me a pair of “trial boots.” These were not fully finished but were sturdy enough to wear for a month to assess the fit. Not only could I determine where the boots fit well and what needed adjustment, but once the boots were shipped back to Kevin he could analyze the wear. With his 40 years of experience, Kevin could see subtle things mere mortals could not, like markings on the soles that revealed my unique walking gait and pronation.
My trial boots were made as an interim step to help further refine the fit of the finished boots.
I wore the boots on a short hike up Mt. Pisgah overlooking Lake Willoughby near my home in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom (NEK). Getting out on the trail for the first time felt like I’d been let out of jail. I ascended to Pulpit Rock, an outcropping that affords a breathtaking view of the lake and surrounding mountains. It would indeed be a fine place to give a sermon, except for the two-thousand-foot cliff at the edge, so the only attendees in church would be hawks and butterflies.
By the time I got home that day I fully appreciated why wearing the trial boots mattered.
I’d developed a blister on my small left toe. I sent the boots back to Kevin with photos and a note about the blister. He emailed back: “Point taken!”
Over the summer I mostly went barefoot. I literally had no shoes that fit me that didn’t cause discomfort or pain, at least for longer walks.
When the finished boots arrived in October I did a silent prayer: “Oh please, God, let them fit!”
I took the enormous (size 16 wide) boots out of the box and was immediately impressed with how heavy and solid they were. Inserting my feet and lacing up felt a bit like strapping into a glove, sturdy and supple at the same time.
Kevin advised me to break the boots in gradually over a month. Each day I’ve taken longer and longer walks, and with each step the boots have grown even more comfortable.
They are, in a word, fantastic.
For about four years my poor wife, Nancy, has gone for long walks without me, often lamenting, “I miss walking with you.” But last week we went for a hike together around Walden Pond in Concord. The fall foliage was near peak, the air brisk, the sky a Maxfield Parish blue.
When I ordered the boots in April I was thinking primarily about what they could do for ME: get me out on the trail again, enjoy the woods, see the broad beautiful world from the mountaintops. As I held Nancy’s hand along the Walden path, I came to realize what the boots did for US.
On Kevin’s website he describes his early years as an apprentice with a German alpine boot maker in the 1970s. The skills Kevin learned have been passed down for generations.
I hope that some young apprentice has a chance to learn from Kevin and carry on this tradition.
If you want to experience the difference that custom boots can make, check out Kevin’s work. You’ll need to be patient. It can take six months or longer to get them made. And you’ll need to spend a lot more than you would for off the rack boots. But they’re worth it.
In November of 2021 I started experiencing sharp pains on the right side of my groin, a feeling of being stabbed by an invisible force. My doctor ordered up a…
In November of 2021 I started experiencing sharp pains on the right side of my groin, a feeling of being stabbed by an invisible force.
My doctor ordered up a series of scans to “rule out anything bad,” as he put it. When the ultrasound and CAT scan results came back the doctor reported there were no signs of anything that would cause the pain. And yet it kept getting worse. I’ve always turned to swimming and yoga to get through physical issues, but after 20 minutes swimming laps, or a yoga session, I was in so much pain I was literally curled up in a fetal position on the floor, in tears.
I went back to my doctor. “Something’s really wrong,” I said.
He replied that the medical world doesn’t really understand pain. To get me through the agony, he prescribed a drug called gabapentin, a neural pain blocker that doesn’t totally remove pain, but dulls it. I found it also dulled my sense of reality, sending me into a moody dark blue underworld nightmare of drowsiness and depression. That plus opioid painkillers was turning me into a zombie. I started lying in bed a lot more (the only time I wasn’t in as much pain), or taking very long hot baths.
This went on for about four months. Increasingly desperate, I began checking out resources for chronic pain management, including a residential clinic in Florida run by a leading hospital system. I’d have to go and stay in a facility for a month, taking classes in meditation which, combined with drugs, could help me at least survive without going out of my mind.
All of this was also very hard on my wife. She was deeply worried about my trajectory, and at one point asked what she would do if I died.
But she kept seeking answers and never stopped asking questions. “Is it possible,” she asked one day, “that the pain has something to do with the hernia surgeries you’ve had?”
I put this question to my doctor, who suggested I reach out to the surgeon who had done two hernia repairs on me over the past two years. Three weeks later I was in the surgeon’s office. This was in April of 2022. He took one look at the CAT scan done in December of 2021 (the one my doctor told me was totally fine) and said, to my complete astonishment, “You have a hernia in your groin, on the right side. An inguinal hernia.”
I exclaimed, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
I had the hernia repaired in the middle of May, just prior to coming back to our place in Northern Vermont near the shores of Lake Willoughby.
The lake is in the heart of a corner of Vermont called the Northeast Kingdom, a name coined by Governor George D. Aiken in 1949. The name stuck, although many people in these parts have shortened it to “the Kingdom.” One might wonder who the king is. The answer is anybody and everybody, from the Amish who sell amazing baked goods on Saturdays, to the guys who work at the dump, to the woman who runs the Museum of Everyday Life, to the workers at the Pick & Shovel – a hardware store with the tagline, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”
At the South end of the lake are two mountains, Pisgah and Hor, which used to be one before a glacier long ago cleaved them in two. Today, the mountains face each other on opposite sides of the water with steep rock cliffs, like an old couple on their country porch with nothing more to say.
The glacier may be gone, but the cold remains.
The locals say that July and August are just two months of bad sledding, and they’re only half kidding. It’s not uncommon to get howling snowstorms in late May or September. The lake, fed by innumerable mountain streams, never really gets to a temperature most people would call warm. It’s usually just plain cold, a deep five-mile-long expanse of frigid blue water that’s eyed warily by paddleboarders carefully calibrating their balance.
And so, with post-surgical bandages still stuck to my abdomen, I found myself on the shores of the lake on a frosty raw day in May. I waded slowly into the 47-degree water, with each inch of water bringing numbness to my feet and legs as I walked in deeper, coming to a stop after the water was just above where the hernia had been repaired.
In an instant all discomfort was cooled—or frozen—into submission. It was blissful.
I stared out at the green mountains and the dark lake all around me. I felt the cold wind on my skin. I said to myself, I’m going to be ok. I’m going to be great, actually. I’m going to return to swimming and become strong and healthy again, bit by bit. I’m going to be there for my four grandchildren.
I returned to the lake each day to submerge myself as far as possible into the freezing waters. It was a brief yet total respite from all discomfort, and with each passing week I went a little deeper, a little farther.
Once I got the go-ahead from the surgeon to fully immerse myself in the water, I started swimming. This was early June, with water temperatures still in the low 50s. The water and air were so cold that I’d get some level of hypothermia every time I ventured out, with shivering that only subsided after a mug of hot tea consumed next to a roaring fire. I found, though, that there is a switch in my mind that I can flip to ignore the cold, and embrace it at the same time. The first step is to acknowledge that it’s there. The next step is simply to dive in and go as fast as possible, surging ahead through an early morning flat calm or tempestuous afternoon waves.
Being aware of the cold and fully present in the moment opened up a vista of sight and feeling I had not experienced before.
When swimming underwater during heavy rain, for example, the pelting droplets hitting the water’s surface above resemble a scintillating meteor shower. It’s breathtaking.
By the end of June I was swimming about a half mile each day. The sharp pain I’d been experiencing before the surgery had vanished. The surgical site had healed completely. Just as important, my mind was starting to heal. I couldn’t tell how much of my improved mental state was due to the anti-anxiety medication, or if it was due to the absence of pain. Or maybe just being in the water again, moving, surrounded by lake and sky and mountains was bringing me home to myself, the normalcy I had so long wished for.
Along the path of my return journey to wellness I’ve had companions. They are called Loons, common to this part of New England in the summer months.
Loons are common to New England and frequent visitors to Willoughby Lake.
Loons look a lot like ducks, but they are different. For starters, loons are very good at diving deep to catch fish. When I’m swimming along, one eye under water and the other above, I’ll spot a loon pop up to the surface, or dive down. Unlike most wildlife, they seem completely unconcerned with being close to people. Sometimes they’ll fish within a few feet of me, almost as if they’re joining me for my daily exercise.
The most distinctive thing about loons is their sound. Ducks quack. Eagles screek. Birds chirp. But loons make a long, sonorous aria that rises and falls like a wave; it’s haunting and lovely. Living near the lake means always hearing the loons. Late at night in those periods of wakefulness at 3 am the loons can be heard, often several at once. When I’m swimming their music is closer and more intimate.
In my family, we joke about who our spirit animal is. I’ve always said mine was a groundhog, probably because I’ve had to rid my basement of them several times. They want to live in my house as much as I do.
It’s the loon, though, that may actually be my sprit animal.
We have this lake in common, this amazingly beautiful lake. We return to it again and again for our nourishment and health. The cold does not faze us; in fact, it’s part of the lure that pulls us in as we splash and dive. And, of course, we both sing on a regular basis.
Today, I am strong and healthy as September arrives and the cold air returns. The nightmare I experienced is in the past. And yet I know it’s inevitable that some other health problem will occur in time. That’s ok. Now I know where I can go to heal, and who will swim alongside me.
If you or a loved one benefited from the COVID vaccine developed at astonishing speed, you can thank Jennifer. CRISPR allowed scientists to rapidly edit the RNA used in the vaccine, and millions of lives were saved in the process.
What really struck me about Doudna’s story, however, was how this Nobel-winning scientist was strongly discouraged from pursuing a career in science. Her high school guidance counselor advised her that “science is for men.” Fortunately for Doudna—and all of us—she didn’t listen.
As a grandfather I think of Doudna when I see my daughter and granddaughters. As grandparents, how can we help them live in a world where nobody, ever, under any circumstances, tries to confine them within boundaries fabricated by men?
I grew up in a traditional male dominated household.
My dad, a chemical engineer and executive with Polaroid, walked in the door at 6:30 pm every weeknight with the expectation that mom would have dinner on the table for all the males: my dad, me and four older brothers. And she did. These days people would say she was a “stay at home mom.” In the 1960s that’s just the way it was.
To my mom, having four sons in a row was a blessing and a curse. She loved us all but really longed to have at least one girl in the family mix. Just one daughter to make dresses for, or perhaps commiserate with about the male-run world. After giving birth to my older brothers mom tried one last time to have a girl, but then I was born and those hopes were dashed. She gave up and bought a girl Labrador Retriever puppy and tied a pink ribbon around its neck. Her name was Holly (apparently this would have been my name if I’d been a girl). To get the full story of Holly and the puppies she would eventually give birth to, you can read my book, The Willoughby Chronicles.
You might wonder, how did a busy exec like my dad commuting home in heavy traffic from Cambridge, Massachusetts, manage to walk in exactly at 6:30 each night?
Because he always stopped at the library, then left there at 6:25 to get to our house on time for dinner. He could have arrived some days at 6 or earlier and helped out, but somehow that thought didn’t enter his mind.
My mom was a smart, creative woman. Her frustration with her lot grew as the 70s and the womens’ rights movement progressed. I often heard her say, wistfully, that she could have done something with her life. In truth, raising five of us—each one gigantic and constantly ravenous—was certainly the most demanding job in the Page household. There was no leisurely stopping off at the library for mom. The vats of baked ziti needed to be cooked for the boys. Or a million other thankless tasks completed.
She did stage some occasional token protests, like the time she complained that my dad didn’t always eat the food she had carefully prepared. “That really hurts my feelings,” she said.
Dad apologized and swore in the future he’d always eat her meals. A few days later she served him a sandwich made with cat food (Kal Kan, no less, a slimy odiferous mush). I’m not entirely sure he realized he was eating cat food. It’s possible. In any case he downed the whole sandwich and thanked her for it.
The present and future I want for my daughter and grand girls is one where all career choices are open, all pay is equal, and no high school guidance counselor will ever seek to enforce limits. If women choose to pursue lives where they are raising kids full time, then that direction must be fully respected as well. “Stay at home mom” should never be a pejorative expression.
So, how can we foster the best possible future? Perhaps it starts with how we play with the kids, because the path towards being something starts with imagining it.
We can have bright plastic kitchen play sets with dishes that both the girls and boys can play with. But have a bright plastic science lab right beside it. During playtime, we could ask a boy or girl if they want to make some pasta for dinner. And we can ask if they’d like to edit genes to invent a new vaccine to save humanity. Let them choose their play, just as they choose the future they will inhabit.
Jennifer Doudna was born with many gifts. She’s brilliant, but also lucky to have a forceful personality that helped her push back against her guidance counselor. Not every kid will have this. We have to work harder, wherever we can, to make career and life paths fully accessible to all.
What are ways you can think of to help our kids help their kids, the next great generation, become who they were meant to be? Post a comment to join the conversation.
It was Easter, 1969, a lovely spring day in Lexington, Massachusetts, when my family—mom and dad and my four older brothers, loaded into the station wagon and headed over…
It was Easter, 1969, a lovely spring day in Lexington, Massachusetts, when my family—mom and dad and my four older brothers, loaded into the station wagon and headed over to my grandparents’ house across town for the traditional late afternoon feast of ham, potatoes, peas pies and handfuls of chocolate easter eggs.
I was 10 at the time, while my oldest brother, Calvin, was twenty-one, and Charlie, nineteen. Both draft age for Vietnam. The war seemed far away. Photos taken that day seem inked in pastel hues, all of us in jackets and ties, young and pink-faced.
But the war was not far away, not really. Every night we watched Walter Cronkite on the evening news, and there was always a tally of the men who had died in Vietnam, and often war footage from the dreaded jungles and rice paddies. My parents were very much against the war and were not shy about saying so. Dad of course was no stranger to war, having been divebombed by kamikazes at the battle of Okinawa. He often said war was the stupidest thing he’d ever seen, and Vietnam only confirmed his beliefs. He did his part to serve his country, suffered life-long trauma he did a reasonable job of hiding from the rest of the world, and carried on.
Calvin and Charlie were nervous about the draft; there was a lot of nail biting going on, literally.
Calvin was still a bit on the fence, though, about whether he’d go to Vietnam if his draft number came up. He’d been in ROTC in college and was better prepared than most of his peers to fight. But he also paid close attention to the news and the more he heard the more he believed Vietnam was not winnable, and hence not worth dying for.
And nobody in our family liked Richard Nixon. Mom, who never swore, once shouted at Nixon’s face on the TV, “You’re just a bucket of shit!”
My grandparents, Fred (Gramp) and Harriet (Gram) did however approve of Nixon.
They were Republicans through and through. Even if Nixon had his flaws they would always support the Grand Old Party. Gramp, well into his 70s on that Easter day, had flown a biplane in WWI to help photograph the trenches for intelligence. In WWII he returned to service and rose to the rank of Colonel in the air force. Gramp was six foot three, with an aquiline nose, piercing eyes, and a generally commanding presence. When I worked for him as a teenager to help with chores at his summer rental cottages on the shores of Lake Willoughby in Vermont, he didn’t ask me to do things; I knew they were orders and saying no was not an option.
After we’d gorged ourselves on Gram’s multi-course dinner, we retired to the living room. Somehow the topic of Vietnam came up.
My grandparents never said a word about Vietnam, which is why what Gramp said that day was so astonishing.
While my older, draft-aged brothers and I listened on, Gramp said. “Well, boys, when I went to war the first time, in World War I, they told us it was the war to end all wars. Then came World War II don’t you know, and we had to go back and fight another one. Then there was Korea. And now there’s Vietnam.”
Here he gestured one long hand in the air for emphasis and fixed us with his piercing eyes, “All I can tell you is, it’s always the old men who start wars, and it’s the young men who are sent off to fight them.”
None of us said anything in response, but heads nodded. We knew exactly what Gramp’s opinion of Vietnam was, without him ever having to be explicit or betray his Republican principles.
With war now once again raging in Europe I’m reminded of the truth that Gramp told us that day. Unfortunately, it’s the old men who are in power—one evil old man in particular—and the young men believe they have no choice.
What are your thoughts about war and the power of different generations? How can we create the kind of world where our grandkids will not have to experience war? Post your comment here to join the Good Grandpa conversation.
Hiking was always a big deal in my family growing up. My dad loved to get out on the trail with me and my four brothers, trekking up through the…
Hiking was always a big deal in my family growing up.
My dad loved to get out on the trail with me and my four brothers, trekking up through the thick forests of New England until we rose above the tree line to see the panoramic views. Or no views at all during those rainy-day hikes when staying home was never an option. For dad, being outdoors and moving, breathing hard up the steepest and most rocky slopes, was a balm for his soul. He was one of the many WWII vets who was more traumatized by his war experiences that he ever wanted the world to know about. Every year on Hiroshima Day, August 6th, he’d take us on a hike up Mount Washington and remind us, again, that there was no way to justify the use of atomic weapons on anyone. He’d say, “There’s always a way to rationalize cruelty.” It was a hike and a big lesson all in one. That’s what a good hike can be, at its best.
The love of hiking and walking stayed with me throughout my life, and our two kids learned to love it as well.
Here at our home in a remote corner of Vermont called the Northeast Kingdom (NEK), nearby Willoughby Lake is surrounded by beautiful mountains with excellent trails: Pisgah, Wheeler, Westmore, Hor – take your pick. They’re not big like the White Mountains or the Rockies, but the trails are great and views of the lake spectacular.
Unfortunately, those trails have been inaccessible to me for three years now. After inadvertently taking an antibiotic that damaged by tendons (sometimes those warning labels on prescriptions turn out to be true), I had to have a foot surgery. While I regained full function in my foot, the surgery made my left foot slightly wider than my right. This would not have been a problem if I had regular feet, but mine are size 16. I tried shopping for every major brand and there is simply no walking shoe or boot that fits me.
Being unable to go for decent walks or hikes during the pandemic was not good for my overall health. As any wellness professional will attest, a sedentary lifestyle is a recipe for disaster.
I made a promise to myself that I would hike mountains not just with my grandchildren, but with great grandchildren. I’m not hiking anything at present and even walking can be painful.
Well, Winston Churchill said it best: “Never surrender!”
I scoured the Web to find a company that could make me a pair of custom hiking boots that would get me back on my feet and above the tree line once again.
Founded and run by Kevin Leahy, the company—and its many positive customer reviews—promised a custom boot like no other. When I read Kevin’s bio I knew I’d found the guy to help me. He’d been apprenticed to a classic boot maker from the Tyrol province of Austria in his early days, and been making custom boots since 1976. The boots shown on the website looked like what you’d see on hikers in the Alps, well-crafted with fine leather.
Kevin’s boots have a classic look.
I immediately emailed Kevin and explained what was going on with my freakish feet. His response was that he’d helped many people with similar challenges—huge feet, small feet, different sized feet. And the feet of people suffering from diabetes or dealing with old war injuries. I ordered my ‘fit kit’ on the spot.
Not long after I received the kit in the mail however, I got an unexpected email from Kevin saying he was going to be visiting a friend on the East Coast, and would I like to meet so he could personally measure my feet?
To me, this was akin to being asked if I’d like to meet the Great Oz. “Sure!” I said.
A few weeks later I met Kevin at the workshop of a colleague of his, Sarah Guerin, in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Sarah, a maker of custom cowboy boots, had connected with Kevin and was eager to learn the secrets of Kevin’s measurement techniques (thank you, Sarah, for hosting the session and taking the photos shown here).
Kevin, 67, welcomed me in and quickly got to work to do a measurement that was far more thorough than anything I have ever experienced. Getting custom boots or shoes made today is a rarity, Kevin explained, but it didn’t used to be. In the early part of the 20th century there were numerous immigrant craftsmen from Europe who practiced the trade, but immigration laws after 1910 greatly reduced their number. At the same time, the mass-manufacture of shoes, pioneered in New England, made cheap but not often perfect fitting shoes the norm. Based on what I’ve seen of Kevin’s skills, I’d say this is a shame. We’ve simply accepted a reality where we’re putting up with foot pain, or simply not walking or hiking at all.
So, sitting in that workshop with Kevin as he set about assessing and measuring my feet, I felt I was going back in time—to a better time—when real fit, comfort and foot health really mattered.
Here is a breakdown of the process.
Step 1: The tracing and imprint.
Kevin tracing my feet.
When I took my shoes off and Kevin looked my irregularly shaped size 16 feet, he said “We’ll definitely be at the upper limits here but we should be fine.” I exhaled, hopeful that this would work.
Kevin started by having me place one foot on a piece of pressure print paper. He had me stand and put my weight on the foot as he traced around it. While the material allowed for the contours of my foot to be traced, it also recorded an imprint on the bottom of my foot that showed darkest where the most weight was applied. Each element of this was another data point that would allow Kevin to perfect the fit.
If all Kevin did was this one thing it would have been more than what all of us have experienced in a shoe store. But it was just the first piece of the foot measurement picture.
Step 2: The foam imprint.
Kevin pressing my feet into the foam.
While I was sitting, Kevin had my raise one foot which he then held and pressed firm into a long plate of foam, leaving an imprint similar to what you’d see if you pushed your foot down into wet sand. When these imprints were complete, I could see each nuanced curve of my feet, including the bunion on the small toe of my left foot that made it impossible to purchase off-the-rack boots.
Here, again, was valuable data to further enhance the perfection of the fit. But as you might have guessed, we had a ways to go. I had let Kevin know in advance about a weak tendon on my right foot. The only way to provide my right foot with enough support is with a high-topped boot that hugs the ankle. That meant another important piece of the puzzle needed to be completed.
Step 3: The fiberglass mold.
Kevin pulling the wet fiberglass over my foot.
As Kevin continued his work, I quizzed him about his early days. After his apprenticeship with the Austrian boot maker, he’d felt hooked to the love of the craft and had kept at it to help all kinds of people enjoy well-made boots. He himself had big feet and knew what it was like to feel foot pain, so this was a real calling for him.
Kevin carefully unwrapped what looked like a white, wet sock. This, he explained, was made of fiberglass, just like what’s used for making a cast.
Unlike a cast, however, in this instance only one layer was required versus a full wrap. Moving quickly so the process could be completed before the fiberglass dried and hardened, he first taped a black strip of paper along the top of my foot and up to the ankle, and over this taped a kind of straw that bulged out. The reason for these two elements became clear only after Keven pulled the wet tube of fiberglass over my toes and up my foot to above the ankle. After a minute to allow this to harden, he used scissors to cut the fiberglass from the toe area to the ankle. Thanks to the strip of paper and straw he’d taped to the foot, he could cut the fiberglass above it without the risk of cutting my foot.
The hardened fiberglass mold.
Kevin held up the hardened fiberglass molds, pointing to the ankle areas and explaining how he’d now have the information he needed to provide full support and a comfortable hiking experience.
I got ready to leave, thanking Kevin profusely, but there was one more important step. And that involved him seeing me take some steps of my own so he could assess my gait and note any irregularities.
Step 4: Observation of ‘normal’ walking.
Me impersonating a runway model. Seeing my gait provided important information for Kevin to perfect the fit.
Kevin asked me to put on my shoes and walk so he could observe my overall gait and note anything unusual that might further inform the creation of my boots. There was a 10-foot walkway outside the workshop. I felt a bit like a runway model—a six-foot six model with gigantic feet—as I did my best to walk normally. Kevin and Sarah looked at me thoughtfully.
“See his shoulders are a little stooped when he walks,” Keven said to Sarah. “You have to look not just at the feet but the whole person and the gait. That matters for the boot.” (I noted this and straightened my shoulders for the next pass.)
“See how his right foot is pronating,” Kevin said, “with the extra ankle support we’ll help prevent that.”
While the in-person boot fit measurement and analysis was done for that day, I learned there was going to be one more important step.
Step 5: The trial boot.
Before Kevin makes the actual boots, he makes a kind of temporary trial boot that customers are asked to wear for a few weeks. There’s a leather insole in the trial boots that over time becomes imprinted by the pressure of the foot. By seeing these pressure points made under real-world use conditions, Kevin can assess if he’s on track with the boots he’s creating, or if he needs to make minor adjustments. Only once the customer sends the boots back to Kevin for this final analysis is he able to make the actual boots.
Given the demand for Kevin’s boots there is a five to six month waiting period. I hope to have my boots by September 2022, and I’ve already started planning my fall hikes up the mountains around Lake Willoughby. The custom boots made by Leahy boots are not cheap, but they will likely last a lifetime. And, for me, being able to hike again—especially with my kids and grandkids—is priceless.
I’ll post an update later this year. In the meantime, check out Kevin’s website to learn more. I’m sure he’d be happy to answer your questions and help you get the kind of boots you’ve wanted but could never find.
When you get to be sixty-two like me, or somewhere in this neck of the woods, you’re used to hearing things like, “Where does the time go?” Or, when we…
When you get to be sixty-two like me, or somewhere in this neck of the woods, you’re used to hearing things like, “Where does the time go?” Or, when we talk about our four grandchildren, “They’re growing up so fast!” My wife and I have a weird sense of time these days, with different recollections of when things in the past happened.
We’ll be thinking about when something occurred (a kid going off to college or whatever) and one of us will say, “It was the year we had the house painted. Twelve years ago.”
“That wasn’t twelve years ago!” the other says, “That was twenty years ago!”
“Was it? Oh yea, you’re right.”
It’s not that we’re losing our minds. It’s that the ship we are traveling on through time experiences warp speed without us every exclaiming “Make it so!”
So, sometimes we don’t notice when a decade whips past. And yet the most recent stretch of time during the pandemic has felt like two of the very longest years ever. Have you ever noticed that really, really good movies that are three hours long seem like they’re over in an hour, while terrible ninety-minute movies last an eternity? Our perception of time is all relative to our experiences. Life is just another story we just happen to be living.
I am writing this from our farm in the far reaches of Vermont in a place called the Northeast Kingdom. The locals joke that July and August are two months of bad sledding. It’s one of those funny/not funny jokes because winter here is in fact interminable, with snow not uncommon in May. Often, nothing seems to change for many days in a row. We look out the window most mornings in March to see snow falling.
Yet when I really pay attention, I can see spring trying to rise up and find me.
Last week I went on one of my daily walks through the woods, along a rushing brook, and there in front of me was something startling: a bright green fern sprouting up and out in all directions. I found it strikingly beautiful, perhaps because it was in the middle of a very cold forest full of ice and snow. In a few weeks, or maybe a month, the lilacs along our deck will extend their limbs as if stretching for the first time after their long sleep.
Seeing these snapshots within my life’s story is like a time stamp, a reminder that this is not really one big blur going past — not if we take the time to pause and look.
I think of this when I see my grandchildren, in person or on Instagram,….
…My eldest grandchild, a seven year old boy now, in a picture where his arms are so long he looks like a teenager. He’s perched on my shoulders, smiling from ear to ear, on top of the world.
I see this same boy holding my three-year old granddaughter’s hand as they walk through the halls of an aquarium surrounded my luminescent fish. Cousins and buddies already! Wow.
I see my youngest granddaughter, barely one year old, saying my daughter’s name for the first time, “Ab-i-gail!”
I see my youngest grandson, age five, helping my daughter chop vegetables, dressed in his Ninja costume and using what appears to be a Samurai blade.
I hear the sound of a grandson laughing as I launch him like a rocket off my shoulders while standing in Lake Willoughby in August, and see him flailing through space before splashing down; as soon as he’s surfaced he’s shouting, “Do that again! Higher!”
Experiencing these moments fully, examining them as the jewels they truly are, doesn’t slow the rushing time of life’s narrative—because, as I said, good stories do seem to go by faster—but added together they create a mosaic that transcends a ticking clock. The picture is grand and breathtaking.
And while I’m working every mental muscle to see the NOW, I’m also looking back on occasion because that helps put the present in context. This blog has helped me tell stories that have formed a kind of time capsule, for my readers and for myself. Today I read again the very first post I wrote. Here it is:
Today my daughter Abigail shared the news that I am the grandfather of a heartbeat.
The ultrasound image was pasted into a Valentine’s card
A black and white Rorschach, with one tiny hand reaching up as if to say, “Hello.”
The boulder of energy that struck my chest was both kind and playful
It whispered of future walks in a Vermont meadow
Me holding my grandchild’s hands up as she takes toddling steps through the tall grass
His gleeful laughter at how new and thrilling it is to be alive
Smeared peas and Cheerios soggy with milk on a highchair tray
And sitting together by the brook, staring in wonder and silence
At water spiders darting here and there.
What are things you are experiencing now that form your own story and colorful mosaic? If you’re a grandparent, how do these experiences enrich your life? Please feel free to share your thoughts through posting a comment.