Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Letter 2008

Sailing clipart

Dear Family and Friends,

This has been an eventful year for us. It started out with the worst possible news when our dog Charlie was diagnosed with cancer. He had a tumor in his upper jaw that turned out to be osteosarcoma. We decided not to put him through surgery, which would have been painful and disfiguring, and instead began a course of chemotherapy to slow the metastasis. Even with treatment, it was apparent by the date of his tenth birthday, March 29, that we needed to end his suffering. Charlie passed away peacefully on Sunday, April 6, as we sat on the floor comforting him. He was a wonderful companion and we will miss him always.

Two weeks later we flew to Athens for a trip we had been planning for over a year, to re-create the Odyssey with four other people by sailing a 47-foot sailboat from Troy in Turkey to Ithaca, an island off the west coast of Greece. The combination of starting in Greece and unfavorable sailing weather turned our adventure into more of a direct trip to Turkey and back than the grand tour of the Aegean and Adriatic Seas that Ulysses had undertaken, but he took ten years and we only had two weeks. We did get to see some sights along the way though that were in keeping with the spirit of Ulysses: the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, Kusadasi and the ruins of Ephesus in Turkey, and the Cave of the Nymphs on Ithaca. We ended the trip in Corfu, where it took a few days to get our land legs back. If you’re interested, there’s a fun slideshow of the trip, complete with an authentic Greek soundtrack, on John’s blog at

A week after returning home, John flew out to Washington, DC for an Internet development conference that allowed him to stay with Curt and Meg Haensel and their kids in nearby Falls Church. The last time we got together, Meg was pregnant with Ada, who is now ten years old and has a little brother, Peter, so it had been way too long. It was fun to spend a few days with everybody, getting reacquainted with Curt and Meg, learning about nautiluses from Ada, and trying to keep up with Peter on Guitar Hero. We hope to have them come out to Colorado for skiing or golf sometime soon.

Speaking of golf, we finally got Nan some new clubs and played together quite a bit at Redlands Mesa, the course right up the road. John established his first handicap since junior golf, but it’s not a number he’s proud of. Bad golf lives!

For John’s fiftieth birthday in June, Nan gave him a golden retriever puppy to help ease the sorrow of losing Charlie. Raising young Scout has been a challenge. He is willful and tough-minded, with a cocked-head, what’s-in-it-for-me look in response to most commands. But he is also lovable and affectionate, and a terrific hiking companion, so he has endeared himself to us completely.

Scout was a real trouper when we drove home to Wisconsin in late July. For safety, we kept him in his travel crate, which we dubbed “the space capsule,” for two days of driving in each direction with very little complaint. In addition to spending time with family and friends, Nan in Manitowoc and me in Wauwatosa, highlights of the time at home included a Brewers/Cubs game, the State Fair, Lollapalooza in Chicago, and more bad golf.

In October we returned to Isla Mujeres, Mexico for the fifth time in ten years. It rained every day but then the sun would come out and turn the puddles to steam, so it was hot and humid but otherwise pleasant. We rented an apartment for ten days that was high enough to catch a cool breeze and provide beautiful views of the beach, palm trees and the blue Caribbean. We visited with our friend Juan and his family, and toured the new house he is building. It should be finished by the time we return next September, when we will be renting the same apartment for a month, taking Scout with us, and enrolling in an intensive Spanish class. The laptop and decent Internet access will keep us in touch with family, friends and work. ¡Debe ser una aventura!

A few weeks after our return, Nan went back to Manitowoc again, this time for the wedding of her niece Molly to Brandon and to spend time with her mother and siblings. John stayed home to look after Scout and to follow all the news leading up to the election. We don’t know about you, but we were pleased with the results. It feels like the country is back on track to make progress on issues that are long overdue, like improving the economy and ending the war in Iraq.

Here’s to peaceful, more prosperous days in the coming year for you and yours.

John, Nan and Scout
Christmas Card 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Importance of Travel

There was an excellent article in yesterday's Parade magazine, the glossy supplement in the Sunday Denver Post: "Because global issues matter now more than ever... Here's How America Can Maintain Its Edge" by Simon Winchester. I was familiar with Mr. Winchester from having read a copy of his book, Krakatoa, which he gave to my wife Nan when she met him a few years ago in Aspen, so I had a personal interest in reading what he had to say.

Mr. Winchester begins by relating the story of how he followed a bucketful of excavated iron ore from Western Australia to a Japanese refinery, where it was processed into steel before being sent to a factory outside Tokyo to be used as material in the manufacture of a Toyota Corolla, which was then shipped to Seattle and transported to a car dealer in San Francisco, where Mr. Winchester purchased it and accompanied it back across the Pacific Ocean to Western Australia to show to the man who had excavated the iron ore in the first place. "I guess we are all linked," the man said. "Even if we never think we are."

Mr. Winchester then points out that despite widespread globalization of the kind detailed in his example, many Americans are largely ignorant of the world outside their own borders. Only thirty percent have passports and only ten percent can speak a second language. He argues that "To fully appreciate that we are all passengers on the same vast planet, it's essential to go and see the intricacies of humankind for yourself." And he backs up his argument with this quote from Mark Twain: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." He ends the article on a hopeful note by encouraging the reader to get themselves a passport and "embark on [their] own journey toward greater awareness."

Nan and I have been fortunate to travel extensively in the last few years, meeting and befriending people everywhere we go. There is no more life-affirming experience than to be a part of the lives of people from other countries and cultures, even if only for a short time, and to realize that once you get past the superficial differences of language, dress and custom, we are all very much the same. We all share the same need for love and friendship, the same desire to find meaning in our lives, and the same hope for a better future.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Miami in January

As I mentioned in the recent "Wild Iris" post, Paul Caouette and his wife Honey have invited Nan and me to join them when they go to Miami to work on their boat next month. I have decided to take them up on their inviation, but Nan is going to go home to Wisconsin instead.

During a phone conversation a few weeks ago, Paul and I talked about Wild Iris, his 1977 Valiant 40, and the work that needs to be done to prepare her for their anticipated trans-Atlantic passage in May. The older Valiants do not have self-tailing winches as standard equipment, so Paul would like to replace them some day, but in the meantime, one of them needs to be rebuilt. In an email exchange, Paul mentioned that he also needs to reinstall his anchor roller after a recent anchoring mishap in the Bahamas.

These are just two items on an endless list of tasks that need to be done between now and May. I think it's probably impossible to be overly prepared for a trip across the Atlantic. With only two landfalls, in Bermuda and the Azores, between Miami and Spain, there is little room for error, whether in judgment or in equipment failure. So I don't envy Paul and Honey their preparations, but I am more than happy to help them in any way I can in exchange for the opportunity to spend some time on a Valiant 40, the boat of my dreams. And if we can get the sails back from repairs, maybe we'll even be able to take Wild Iris out for a sail.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

See it while you can

In thinking about Sam, I am reminded of a conversation we had a couple of months ago about plans for future trips. He was getting excited about the upcoming ski season and his plans to go helicopter skiing in January with a group of friends up in British Columbia. I told him about a dream I had to join the Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. guides ( for a combination climb of Kilimanjaro and wildlife safari in Tanzania. I wanted to maybe try to go in 2010, before the mountain's snowcap had melted away entirely.

Sam said, "People used to talk about places they wanted to see during their lifetimes. Now they talk about seeing those places before they're gone."

In these uncertain times, with world climate change, terrorism and economic crisis, Sam makes a very good point. I only regret that he is no longer alive to share in the adventures, while we still can.

We miss you, Sam

I found out this morning in an email message at work that the coroner's report had come back with the results from the investigation into the cause of my friend Sam's death. He died of natural causes related to a gastrointestinal bleed.

Before, I didn't know what to think. Part of me thought that Sam had given up hope after his recent misfortunes and decided to end his life. And that made me angry, that he didn't reach out to his friends and family for support. Another part of me thought that maybe he had some genuine health issues that caused his death. And that made me sad, that he didn't seek medical attention before it was too late. Now that we know what happened, the sadness has overtaken the anger and I am grieving his loss.

For a glimpse of the character who was Sam, take a look at this video of him juggling tangerines at our IT department's retreat last year. We miss you, Sam.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


Sam on Castleabra Peak in September 2006I found out last week that a good friend of mine had died suddenly. Sam was just 33 years old. The shock of it is still reverberating in my mind. I can't stop thinking about him and wondering what happened.

Sam started working in the IT Department at Aspen Valley Hospital almost three years ago, at about the same time that I was rehired after a two-year hiatus. Despite our seventeen-year age difference, we had much in common--skiing, mountaineering and a love of movies--so we quickly became friends.

In September 2006, the two of us backpacked up into the Conundrum Valley south of Aspen and set up camp at the hot springs there. The next day we summited Castleabra, a 13,803-foot peak that is one of the hundred highest in Colorado. After climbing all fifty-four of Colorado's "14ers," which is another thing we had in common, Sam was on a mission to climb the rest of what are oddly referred to as the "Century Peaks." That's Sam sitting on top of Castleabra, with Castle Peak (14,265 feet) behind him. (Click the image for a 1280 x 960 version.) The original plan called for us to also try to knock off Conundrum Peak, which is out of view to the left of Castle Peak, but high winds and clouds forced us back down to camp, where we soaked our tired bodies in the hot springs while drinking cold beers. It was a memorable trip, but it was the only one we ever took together.

We did ski together quite a bit though, and Sam always wanted to ski the most difficult terrain he could find. Whenever we skied at Aspen Highlands, he had to "hike the Bowl" and leap the cornices at the top, slicing down the incredibly steep gut at speeds that were just "ridonculous"--one of Sam's favorite expressions. He entered the annual extreme skiing competition at Snowmass the past two years and just missed making the final day's cutoff last year.

So how could a young man possessed of such abundant energy and fearlessness be struck down in his prime? Nobody seems to know. Most of his friends didn't find out that he had died until more than a week after it happened, me included.

Nan and I had loose plans to meet Sam and a girlfriend at the Coldplay concert in Denver or at the hotel where we were all staying, but we didn't see them. Nan checked at the front desk on our last morning and found out that he had canceled his reservation. I could have called Sam but I didn't. The two of us had had an unresolved argument the Friday before and I was letting him stew. I figured, if we run into him, fine. Otherwise, no big deal. But then we returned home and there was still no word. Then it was Thanksgiving and we were up in Aspen to spend it with friends. When we got home the next day, I checked my work email and read the notice of Sam's death from my boss. That explained the absence and the silence.

Later reports estimated that Sam had died on the Wednesday before the Friday, November 21, Coldplay concert. His roommate found him that weekend when he returned from being out of town. There was no sign of violence or evidence of suicide, just Sam dead in his bed. I understand that an autopsy was performed but the results have not been made public.

In his own way, Sam was a troubled individual. His parents divorced when he was young and he claimed that it completely screwed up his life. He could be difficult to deal with at times, swinging quickly from great exuberance to deep depression. "Hot and cold running Sam," I sometimes said. He had recently been seeing a psychiatrist and taking an anti-depressant to help control his emotions, but his spirits took a decidedly negative turn when he was fired in mid-October after the final straw in a series of blow-ups with fellow employees. Failing to find suitable employment right away only deepened his depression.

But Sam was in high spirits the last time I saw him, when he invited me over to his place for pizza and beer, and to watch the Election returns on his huge TV. Barack Obama's campaign had energized Sam's interest in politics and with too much time on his hands, he had become a serious news junkie. When Ohio went to Obama and we knew he was going to win, we cheered and high-fived like our team had just scored a touchdown. He was in a great mood then, like the future was still as bright as ever, and that is the way I will remember him.