Nurturing the Next Great Generation

Tag: GoodGrandpa

Beyond American division: Love for grandchildren may be the one thing we all agree on.

Like so many Americans I was completely horrified by the storming of our nation’s capital on January 6th. This, I thought, was the modern-day equivalent of the sacking of Rome…

Like so many Americans I was completely horrified by the storming of our nation’s capital on January 6th.

This, I thought, was the modern-day equivalent of the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths. The end of the American empire, at our own hands, no less. The people throwing fire extinguishers at the capitol police wore red, white and blue outfits. All for the purpose of Making America Great Again, as if this violence was a return to our better days. I absolutely hated the rioters, and still do.

But if I am to be truly honest with myself, I’d admit that not everyone there that day was a violent extremist rioter.

There were moms and dads pushing their kids in strollers. They, too, wore red, white and blue outfits. It was like they were at some kind of picnic, a patriotic event. And why would they think they were not? The President of the United States had told them the election was being stolen and it was up to them to do something about it.

Since that day I’ve done a lot of thinking about the deep divisions in American society and what can be done about it. On issue after issue we Americans are at each others’ throats trying to strangle some sense into the idiots who hold an opposing view.

And all the while these issues have been boiling over, with people shouting on Fox News or CNN, our tribal echo chambers of conservative and liberal media, I’ve been writing for this blog about grandparenting. The purpose of Good Grandpa remains to help nurture the next great generation. It occurs to me that this mission sounds rather lofty, but it’s vague on how to actually get the job done. How do we as grandparents help our kids raise a generation of Americans who can far surpass even “the greatest generation” that Tom Brokaw wrote about in his book; my parents’ generation that lived through the depression and won World War II?

That’s a tall order, isn’t it?

So, here’s a specific thing we can do. Whether we are Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, we can introduce our grandchildren to an extremely important three-word phrase: “I respectfully disagree.”

Try saying that out loud. Let it roll around in your mind. Have you heard anyone say this on cable TV in the last 20 years? No, because ratings are based on conflict, not respectful disagreement.

Just because a Republican doesn’t agree with me doesn’t make them a bad person, and visa versa. If we can get our grandchildren, the 5 and 12 year olds, to take this one guiding principle to heart, it’s something they will bring with them into their adult lives, into the workplace, and into politics. Our grandchildren can be a unifying force, a common American ground.

Instead of a million man or woman march on Washington with people screaming at each other with bullhorns, let’s have a million toddler stroll, with grandparents leading the way as we bring the kids together to celebrate just that. Being together.

If you look at the news you see constant talk of red states and blue states. I frankly think it’s BS. Whether someone is from Kansas or Vermont, if they have grandkids they have something absolutely wonderful in common. These kids are the future, which means they have the potential to be the America they we all have wished for, those better angels of our nature that Lincoln spoke of.

Feel free to disagree—respectfully—but I think we can do this. What say you?

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Fostering the Best Future for our Daughters & Granddaughters

In Walter Isaacson’s wonderful book, The Code Breaker, he describes the life and work of Jennifer Doudna, a scientist credited with the creation of CRISPR gene editing technology. If you…

In Walter Isaacson’s wonderful book, The Code Breaker, he describes the life and work of Jennifer Doudna, a scientist credited with the creation of CRISPR gene editing technology.

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.

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Custom hiking boots to get this grandpa on the trails again.

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.

That’s when I discovered Leahy Custom Hiking Boots, a boot maker based in the little town of Felton, California.

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.

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The Passage of Time (a meditation in words)

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!”

(That’s a Star Trek Next Generation reference, in case you’re not a total geek like me).

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:

February 2014

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.

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Dear 26-Year-Old Us

Last week my wife was cleaning out an old cabinet and came across a photo taken of us on our honeymoon in London in 1985. I’d always liked this picture…

Last week my wife was cleaning out an old cabinet and came across a photo taken of us on our honeymoon in London in 1985. I’d always liked this picture and thought it had been lost, so seeing it again was a bit like finding ourselves the way we were back then. But not so long ago, really, in terms of years.

The span of time is more accurately measured in the changes we’ve been through; raising two children and all the blurred rush that entailed; and most recently, the addition of 4 gregarious and beautiful grandchildren. It wasn’t always easy getting to the present. This made me wish I could reach out to the two of us as we were at 26 and offer some sage advice.

So, here is my letter to the younger us:

Dear Ted and Nancy…

First off, I’d have to say the two of you look great. Nancy, the combination of the long wavy hair and lovely features makes you stunning. Ted, I know that you are insecure about your looks and have never felt 100% comfortable in your skin. Stop worrying.

I want you both to know that you are just at the very beginning of an amazing journey together. It’s going to happen very quickly. Nancy, you may already be pregnant, and a little girl named Abigail will join us in 9 months. And within three years we will have a son, Nicholas, who will complete the picture.

Your early years as a family will sometimes be rocky to say the least.

There will a lot of juggling of work and daycare, which will be made harder by the fact that both your kids will be sick A LOT. Not life-threatening sick, but one cold or stomach bug after the other. You will argue about which of you will stay home to care for the kids when they have a fever. You will strike bargains with each other (like, I’ll stay home today if you let me sleep late on Saturday). You will work it out time and again, and the kids will grow up to be well-balanced and charming people.

When times are tough, and when they are great, try to pause and take stock of where you are and the extraordinary gifts before you. All of it will go by so fast that when you’re older you’ll shake your head in wonder.

I’d love to go back to one of those bad days and give you a hug.

I’d tell you that it’s all going to be ok. That’s not some platitude; it’s the truth.

I wish I could help you pause time once in a while. After you’ve read to the kids in bed and they at last fall asleep, don’t rush out of the room. Take a moment to look at your slumbering Abigail and Nicholas. Experience deeply the sense of peace. Listen to the sound of their breath. Realize that these seconds are incredibly precious and transitory. Someday—despite all the vomit you have to clean up on a regular basis, the tears to soothe, and all the other troubles—you will wish you could be right back here in this moment.

Here’s some advice about your relationship.

It would be nice if you had more regular dates. Find a sitter and go out to dinner at least twice a month. You don’t have to go to a gourmet restaurant. Maybe just have coffee. Take a few minutes to talk. You’ll be the best possible parents if you nurture your relationship to the fullest.

When the kids leave for college and you are alone in your newly empty nest, it’s ok to feel very sad.

Go ahead and bawl your eyes out. So much of your purpose has been centered on raising your girl and boy. The fact that they are now grown up and strong is a sign you did a great job.

This may shock you, but it actually won’t be very long before your kids have kids. Honestly, it will feel like you blinked and suddenly there will be a bunch of grandchildren to hug and read to and make cookies with.The empty nest will be full again before you know it.

Lastly, I’d suggest you extend your honeymoon by at least a few weeks.

Drive not only through the British midlands and Wales, but also to Scotland. Go to the northernmost castle on the coast and feel the wind in your hair (especially you, Ted, because you’re going to lose it by your 40s). A wonderfully rich and busy life with children and grandchildren is before you, but there’s no need to rush ahead. Not today. Slow down and enjoy the view, and each other.

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The Ultimate Christmas Gift Guide for Granddad

It starts with a story. The year was 1975. The place was Lexington, Massachusetts, a big rambling brown-shingled Victorian that was home to the 5 Page brothers — all of…

It starts with a story.

The year was 1975. The place was Lexington, Massachusetts, a big rambling brown-shingled Victorian that was home to the 5 Page brothers — all of us big and rambling in our own way, 6 foot 6 on average.

I was the youngest. When I was little my brothers were the most entertaining thing in the world to me. We’d play murderous games of chess or Monopoly. Fashion dams in the backyard with mud and blow them up with M80 firecrackers. And have loud overlapping conversations at dinner, with mom refereeing as she doled out endless servings of baked ziti from a pot the size of an oil tanker.

Then, one by one, my brothers left for college. By degrees the house lost its boisterous, vibrant and insanely fun atmosphere, replaced by silence.

That Christmas of ’75 all my brothers had been gone, and I—a gangly teenager—missed them as if they’d been appendages removed. Calvin, Charlie, Nick and John. How could so much energy simply vanish?

By Christmas eve they had returned, most of them sporting beards. There was an ice storm overnight, and in the morning bright sunshine lit up the ice-crusted branches with an electric brilliance. We’d been warned that this would be an extremely lean year financially, yet many presents where stacked under the tree. My dad was a senior executive with Polaroid, but paying college tuition for multiple sons simultaneously had seriously strained the family bank account.

So, amidst the joyful, jocular cacophony, the shoulder hitting, the verbal jousts of hilarious wit, we band of brothers opened our presents.

And do you know what was inside every one? Absolutely nothing. My parents had gone to the trouble of wrapping up 5 lovely boxes and marking each with a Christmas tag, and inside each was a lone index card taped to the bottom with a note written in dad’s block letter handwriting. Mine read “TED, WE OWE YOU ONE NEW GAME OF MONOPOLY. My brothers all had similar I.O.U’s. This became engrained in my memory as the I.O.U. Christmas.

Here’s the thing: this was my absolute favorite all-time Christmas. No contest. I was with my brothers again, at last. The silence had been banished, the greatest show on Earth—5 brothers juggling laughter and stories and eating and throwing things—had returned to town, and I was happy beyond measure.

So, you may guess what this granddad wants for Christmas in 2021.

NOT this digital picture frame.

 

NOT this magnifying lamp for reading. (My eyes are just fine, thank you).


NOT this mug. Seriously.

Truthfully I don’t want any THING nearly as much as I want to be with all my grandchildren at once. Fortunately, that is in fact what I’ll be getting.

There will be mayhem. The eldest will give the younger ones piggyback rides all around the house. The newest will walk, haltingly, from table to table and do her best to knock whatever she can grasp onto the floor. We will sing Christmas Carols. We will gather around the dinner table, with turkey and gravy and stuffing and all the other very yummiest things. The grandkids will tell stories and jokes, one upping each other, and taking great delight in each others’ company, and in ours. They will be the newest and best greatest show on Earth, and the entirety of my gift wishes all wrapped into one.

Merry Christmas!

 

Author’s note: In actually I’m not a total Scrooge when it comes to giving and receiving presents, but as I related in New York Magazine’s Strategist blog I think the best gifts for grandparents entail experiences we can share with our grandkids. We already have a lot of things.

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Rediscovering Halloween

When our two kids were little and we first took them out trick or treating, I recall sensing the ghosts of my own childhood Halloween memories bubbling up in the…

When our two kids were little and we first took them out trick or treating, I recall sensing the ghosts of my own childhood Halloween memories bubbling up in the witches’ cauldron of my mind. Carving pumpkins into grinning, candle-gleaming jack-o-lanterns. Navigating through spooky garlands of cobwebs to a neighbors door, shouts of “trick or treat!” and of course the pillow cases full of candy. But when our two kids grew up and went off to college, the magic of Halloween left as well.

At best we’d have a bowl of candy at the ready for the few kids who trekked to our far end of the street, or—when even less enthused—we’d leave the bowl on the steps. Sad!

That has changed.

Our four grandchildren have brought about the great rediscovering of Halloween. Like little bats swooping through the night, our grandchildren have dived into Halloween with total glee and brought us along for the ride.

This Halloween we tagged along with my son’s family. One granddaughter, age 3, was a bee, the 7-month-old a ladybug, and my son a beekeeper (complete with professional beekeeper’s hat and long leather gloves). For the bee, this was her first real Halloween experience, old enough to fully appreciate the three-headed Cerberus of costumes, candy and ghoulish decorations.

The night was cold but not freezing, and dark as only late October nights can feel after the brightness of summer has faded and knowing that winter is fast approaching.

Apparitions of fairies, Samurai warriors, vampires and Frankenstein monsters—and one parent in full Elvis Presley tight white leather with sequins garb repeating “Thank you very much”—appeared out of the dark, briefly illuminated by jittery flashlights.

Our grand girl bee buzzed up the steps of a house, apparently not scared by the bloody head of a monster in a bowl of Reese’s peanut butter cups, or a life-sized ghost wafting beneath a maple tree. We carried our youngest grand girl, our ladybug, who snuggled close and stared at all this with a look of wonder; she was at a loss for words, only partly because she didn’t know any yet.

After an hour the bee’s candy bag was filling up with M&Ms, Mars Bars, Three Musketeers, Charleston Chews, gummy bears, you name it. When I was a kid, I ate these treats by the bucket. As a grandpa, I avoided them. Devouring candy was not part of the diet plan and I imagined my yoga and swimming workouts of the previous week evaporating in a cloud of white sugar.

And then a curious thing happened.

We walked up to one of the last spooky houses we saw that evening, the bee rang the bell and shouted “trick or treat!” and a mom held out a basket of candy.

But not just any candy. They were Snickers. I took one.

Later that night, with unhurried deliberation, I unwrapped the fun-sized Snickers and ate it. This was no ordinary Snickers. Its caramel peanut chocolaty goodness was the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten in my entire life. All my past Halloweens and the entire vast volume of candy I consumed as a child were condensed into that one little Snickers bar. In that moment, I grew bee wings of my own and rose off the ground, hovering, before slowly and with some reluctance returning to earth.

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Thoughts on Life and Mortality While Seeing Double at Walden Pond

I first experienced double vision in 2019 during an intensely stressful period at work around the holidays. I had a weird virus of some kind (back when the term virus…

I first experienced double vision in 2019 during an intensely stressful period at work around the holidays.

I had a weird virus of some kind (back when the term virus had far tamer connotations than today), and my entire body broke out in a horrible itchy rash. Days later, while driving, I saw with alarm that the sidewalk on the right side of the road was now at an angle across the middle of the road. An eye specialist soon found the culprit: the 6th cranial nerve behind my left eye had gone on vacation, perhaps because of the virus. This particular nerve is in charge of the lateral movement of the eye, so while I had—and still have—two perfectly healthy eyes, they don’t look in the same direction. My primary doctor emailed nonchalantly, “We rarely know what causes it, and it usually goes away.”

He was right. While I was deeply alarmed that my vision had gone to hell, within about three months I was fully back to normal. I thought all that was behind me.

I was wrong.

On a sunny September day a few weeks ago I started seeing double again. The angle of the roadway was all off, and with the Picasso-like modernism of my multiple vision came a sudden torrent of sheer panic. I put on my reading glasses and looked at my computer screen, and there, too, was double vision. Doing my work as a writer was doubly hard if not impossible. Worst of all, the bizarre vision made me dizzy and nauseous.

My eye doctor confirmed that my 6th cranial nerve was not working properly. And this time I am being referred to a neurologist. In the absence of high blood pressure or diabetes, both of which can cause sudden vision changes, I did not fit the profile of those with double vision.

Doctors are by nature wary of telling patients all the things that can actually be wrong.

They don’t want us to freak out. That’s what the Internet is for. The WebMD site indicates that the 6th cranial nerve can have problems due to things like a brain tumor, stroke, or MS. Of course, the site also explained, it usually goes away within a few months. The neurologist will no doubt have me get a brain scan to check for these things.

And in the meantime, life goes on. I see my body as a ship carrying me through time and space. At any given moment there might be one or more things wrong (a sore tendon in my foot, for example). Like Scotty on Star Trek, I’m dispatched to fix the problem, and I’m usually pleased to report back—in a Scottish brogue—that it won’t be easy but it will get done. It has to.

So the repairs keep happening while I’m hurtling at warp speed through life, working with clients, spending time with my wife and (most important for both of us) being with our four grandchildren.

Fear stalks anyone who hears the word “brain tumor.” But, I’ve told myself, this is what we all sign up for when we are born.

Our little newborn baby hands are too small to hold the pen on the contract that must be initialed as soon as we emerge from the womb, but the contract is binding nevertheless. It states unequivocally that we must accept with grace the good and the bad, the joy and the pain, the love and heartache.

I have a friend who lost a young son to a brain tumor. It was and is horribly sad. He was far too young to be taken from this world. I, on the other hand, am 62. If my number is up (and to be clear, I don’t believe it is), I can have no complaints. How many men get to enjoy being with not just one, but four grandchildren? As my dad used to say, “This is all grace.” There is no alternative to keeping calm and carrying on.

And so it was that within days of meeting with the eye specialist I found myself at fabled Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.

I started a regimen back in the spring that entailed mile-long swims four or five days a week. Thanks to swimming and dietary changes I have lost twenty-five pounds since June, and I wasn’t about to stop for anything.

The air was cool—about 60 degrees—the leafy trees along the water’s edge were just beginning to turn red, yellow and orange. I took off the glasses I use that blocks the vision of my left eye so I can see straight with my right eye, and put on my swimming goggles.

Goggles themselves are rarely clear, so putting them on and seeing the familiar blur of the water-splotched plastic lenses was calming, like a visual white noise that partly obscured the reality of my double vision. I jumped forward into the cold water and swam hard and fast, thrusting my arms forward and back, the shock of the cold gradually easing as the exercise warmed me and the waters washed over and around and under me, propelled forward with the knowledge of my potential doom chasing behind, or perhaps it was simply the joy of being in my element again, doing something regular and healthy in defiance of my dysfunctional cranial nerve and the fear of the insidious brain tumor strangling it unseen inside by skull.

My hands pounded in the water, pulling back again and again until I needed a rest, and there in the center of the one-mile long pond I switched from the crawl stroke to the less strenuous sidestroke. Doing the sidestroke, you float on your side, one eye in the water, the other above, coordinating arms reaching and pulling while scissoring the legs.

On my side, the edge of the pond came into starker view.

A painting of fall leaves seen laterally, with the blue sky above and the dark pond below. And with my cranial nerve on sabbatical, the scene was repeated one over the other.

Henry David Thoreau famously spent a year camped beside the pond when writing his seminal work, Walden. As he once wrote in his journal, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”

There in my double pond on that day, I saw my life.

Not a “life flashing before your eyes” vision but more of a meditation on this whole experience. I think if Thoreau were alive today he’d be one of the people on the beach with his iPhone turned off, or better yet left in the car. When we are really alone with our uninterrupted thoughts we see more clearly. The noise of everyday life is a distraction. Seeing a double shoreline, I knew then, was weird but ok at the same time. I told God that if this is what he wanted me to experience, I was “all in.” I would see both shores and their myriad fall colors. Because accepting whatever comes and letting it flow through my body and mind like the cool waters around me was a way to acknowledge that the pain and anxiety and beauty were inseparable and inevitable.

It’s the contrast between the dark sadness and vivid, beautiful happiness that makes all the good things in life so much better.

Intermingled with my prayer, I saw a memory (captured in my mind like a perfect photo) of my two grandsons, age 7 and 5, running across the beach at our place in Vermont. In the background was the deep blue lake and evergreen mountains, and the boys were looking up excitedly at the sky because an eagle was there not more than fifty yards overhead flying north, and they shouted “the eagle!”

In that memory was the awareness that life is just as finite as this second. The perfect alignment of eagle, grandsons, a glorious summer day. Here, now.

Chances are, the neurologist will find nothing alarming in my brain scan. My 6th cranial nerve will tire of its extended vacation and come back to work with renewed vigor. My perfect vision will return. Or it might return for the most part but I’ll need to wear glasses like most people.

But no matter what happens, I hope I can learn from Mr. Thoreau. I’ll keep swimming right up until the pond freezes over (I have a wetsuit, after all). And if I learn very well, then I will know that it’s not about what I look at that matters, but what I really and truly see.

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The Mouse Autopsy: How Grandparents Can Nurture the Next Great Generation.

What do we learn from our grandfathers and how do we learn it? This question has been on my mind a lot lately. While my four grandchildren swirl and dash…

What do we learn from our grandfathers and how do we learn it? This question has been on my mind a lot lately. While my four grandchildren swirl and dash around me on these warm summer days by the lake, I know these times together are fleeting. What will I remember of this when I’m older, and what will they remember as adults?

While remembering and sharing stories has become easier thanks to the Internet, it’s still a challenge to create genuinely memorable and wisdom-rich experiences. This is something I’m working on (I know I have a lot to learn). My dad, however, was a born master at creating unforgettable experiences that helped shape my children to become the wonderful people they are today.

I invite you to come back with me to a summer day in 1999.

My wife and I were up at my parents’ house in Northern Vermont with our son and daughter. The house, which dad designed, has 9-foot tall windows overlooking the mountains. Nature is everywhere – and there is a lot of it. This neck of the woods is chock full of every variety of critter, and quite a few of them make it their business to get into the house.

Mice were the bane of my mother’s existence. Mom was a big, tall woman who loved watching Julia Child and cooking up feasts for me and my four older brothers. The sheer volume of food cooked and consumed in the house probably attracted the mice to have their own boisterous family gatherings. Mouse traps and poison were the preferred methods of extermination, yet neither worked well enough to rid the place of scurrying vermin. So when a mouse did meet its end, mom was jubilant. “Got one!” she’d exclaim.

On the day of this story, mom had sent two mice to meet their maker. “Got two!” she said, pointing with two fingers.

My dad, an MIT-educated chemical engineer, had a lifelong fascination with science. At the urging of one of his professors he learned the habit of always asking ‘why?’ So much so that when I was growing up, the word WHY! (always all caps with exclamation point) was taped to every mirror in the house.

Well, dad wanted to know why the two mice had died, but instead of asking mom he enlisted my children to conduct a science experiment. Dad explained to my wide-eyed offspring (13 and 10) that they would perform an autopsy on the mice to ascertain the cause of death. Necks broken in a trap? Poison? Something else?

Dad brought the kids out to the driveway, our de facto laboratory.

There, before my astonished and delighted children, dad stapled the mice to a big board, arms and legs splayed out and belly up. He handed my kids scalpels and told them where to cut. I looked on from a distance, chuckling and shaking my head. In hindsight the scene was like some kind of CSI Vermont episode.

In short order, both mouse stomachs were revealed to be chock full of little pink pellets of mouse poison. This was a real ‘aha’ moment for my kids. While it was just two mice, the forensic process was truly scientific in nature. My kids learned that being curious is the first vital step in discovery. In time, and with enough effort, all the secrets of the world could be revealed.

The lesson stuck.

Many years later, when my daughter spoke at my dad’s memorial service, she credited the mouse autopsy as a key experience that sparked her interest in science, and ultimately inspired her to get her Masters (speech pathology). Every child she teaches is living a more rewarding and capable life because of my daughter’s scientific viewpoint, the demand to ask WHY!, the insatiable hunger to know.

What are experiences you had with your grandparents that stuck with you, and why? What experiences are you creating now? Please share your ideas here so we can learn from each other.

My dad, William (Bill) Page, and the word he sought to teach his children and grandchildren.

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Moving Boulders in the Brook

Author’s note:  This summer as I rejoin my family at Willoughby Farm in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom I’m reminded of my grandfather. Often when I walk down to the shore and…

Author’s note:  This summer as I rejoin my family at Willoughby Farm in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom I’m reminded of my grandfather. Often when I walk down to the shore and hear the rustling brook that runs through the farm to the lake I’m brought back to a sunny day many years ago when I was helping Gramp with a chore that taught me valuable lessons. Here’s a story excerpted from my book, The Willoughby Chronicles.

I’m lying on the beach reading a Hardy Boys book and Chet’s in the middle of a speedboat race. The sun on my back feels great. I’m not quite hot enough to jump in the lake, but I’m getting there.

“Teddy!” It’s Gramp. Oh, shit, I think, he’s found me. I’m 12 and under his employ this summer to help take care of the family’s rental cottages and land by the shores of Willoughby Lake. When I’m needed, I have to help. That’s it. And there’s no point trying to complain with Gramp. A biplane pilot in the First World War, he flew reconnaissance missions to photograph the enemy lines. In the Second World War, by then a full colonel, he helped Eisenhower prepare the Allies for the invasion of Normandy, checking supplies, stocking warehouses, and generally making sure all the i’s were dotted and t’s crossed.

This is a man who knows how to get the job done.

He’s used to having his orders followed. Even now, bent with 70 years of living, Gramp’s presence is commanding. He’s tall, with a prominent nose and sharp eyes shaded by his long-brimmed khaki cap.

“Yes, Gramp?” I say.

“Teddy, there you are. I need your help in the brook.”

Gramp is leaning his weight against a thick steel crowbar longer than he is. I can’t imagine what could be wrong with the brook, but all I can manage to say is, “Sure, Gramp.” I put on an old pair of sneakers and follow him.

The brook is always cold, even on the hottest days of August. Cedar and birch trees lean over the banks and shade the clear water and the tumble of rocks. Some rocks are thick with a cushy green moss, some are polished by the current. On either side of the brook, tucked beneath tall pines, my grandparents have built barn-red cottages with fieldstone fireplaces and views of the lake—rental cottages that have to be cleaned each week in preparation for a new crop of summer tenants. Today, Gramp stands on the bank of the brook and hands the long steel bar down to me. I’m up to my ankles in the freezing water, still wondering what on earth Gramp is up to. He peers down into the water, one hand behind his back. “Now Teddy,” he says, “all we have to do is move that rock over to there.”

“This one?” I ask, pointing the heavy crowbar at a boulder that must be 400 pounds.

“Yes, move it over to there.”

“Why?”

He doesn’t answer. My grandfather must be getting senile; that’s the only explanation. But senile or not, I better do as he says. So I try to lift up one edge of the boulder with my bare hands. It’s like trying to budge a mountain.

“No, no,” Gramp says testily, “use the bar. Get under it.”

I use the bar as a lever, and with much gasping and grunting I move the rock about four inches.

“That’s it, you’re getting it. Keep at it, Teddy, keep at it.”

I grunt more, I push, I heave. Sweat covers every inch of my body except my ankles, which are soaking in ice water. After a half hour or so I manage to shimmy the boulder over to the side of the bank. Finally, I can get back to my book, or maybe take a swim.

“That’s just dandy,” Gramp says. “Wonderful. Just dandy. We’re almost done. Now all we have to do is move that rock there, yes—no, that one right there—yes, we have to move that rock over to there.”

The rock he’s pointing at looks like something out of Stonehenge.

I stare at it for a second, imagining Druids performing ceremonies at its base. My protest is breathy and worthless. “That’s an awfully big rock, Gramp.”

“You can do it,” Gramp says. “Just move it over to there and we’ll be almost done.”

It’s always this way with Gramp, I realize—no matter where you are with a job, even if you’ve just started, you’re almost done. It’s a mental trick you can pull on yourself. But I am not done. I have to move this boulder, and that one, and that one, and that one, and this one, and that one, and my hands are soggy and raw from hauling at the rough, wet rocks; my toes are banged up and spongy; I’m an exhausted, sweaty, mindless mess, and all I have to do is move this other rock over to there, and that will be just dandy and we’ll be almost done.

At long last, after seven hours in the brook, Gramp looks me in the eye and says, “Teddy, there’s no substitute for hard work.”

I smile and look down into the shady water. The current is swift and straight right through the center of the brook. And the banks are lined with sturdy boulders that will prevent erosion of the valuable land. This year the spring floods will do no harm. Gramp adjusts his cap and walks off with the crowbar. “Just dandy,” he says. “Wonderful. We’re all done.”

What are lessons you learned from your grandparents? Please post a comment below with a lesson or two so we can learn from each other and help nurture the next great generation.

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