Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Letter 2012

Christmas Card 2012 from John, Nan and Scout

Christmas 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Last year at this time, we were facing the prospect of a non-white Christmas, and winter continued mostly snowless, for one of the worst ski seasons in memory. This year looks to be more promising: we have had two pretty good snowfalls already. As a neighbor said to Nan and me as we walked Scout past his house this morning following last night’s accumulation, “It’s good to see the wet.”

Scout with antlers in front of our Christmas treeAfter the season’s first snowfall last weekend, Nan and I ventured up icy roads to the Colorado National Monument for this year’s card photo. Scout couldn’t join us because dogs are not allowed, so we dressed him up in antlers for the letter photo instead. Yes, that is a cane in Nan’s right hand. She underwent bilateral hip replacement surgery on October 26 and has been making a remarkable recovery. Osteoarthritis and thirty-five years of running had used up all her cartilage, leaving her in constant pain. She should not run anymore, but she may now look forward to a future of other activities, like swimming and cycling, free of hip pain. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Nan’s sister Monica for her tireless, hands-on assistance in the weeks following Nan’s surgery.

The year started for us in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, where we celebrated New Year’s Eve with local friends at the island’s all-night fiesta. We have vacationed there almost a dozen times now, but this was our first winter trip. It was chilly and windy, definitely not beach weather, and we were happy to have brought our fleece jackets. We went back again in September for a week of perfect weather, lazing on the beach, finding new things to see and do, and checking out the island’s many marinas for a future sailing trip from Savannah. Our friends Mike and Erika from Aspen joined us for a day from their vacation in Playa del Carmen, and we saw all the sights from a rented golf cart.

In April, my family held a reunion of sorts in Savannah. Mom and Dad hosted sister Jane, her husband Josh, their twins Max and Ben, sister Susan, Nan and me for golf, downtown tours, Tybee Island beach time and long, memorable dinners. Missing were Susan’s husband John, their kids Kirsten and Peter, and brother Stuart and his girlfriend Mayumi. Stuart has not visited the mainland from Hawaii for at least five years, but we’re all hoping to visit him there sometime, maybe for Dad’s eightieth birthday in June.

Nan enjoyed a few quick trips home to Manitowoc this year for family time with her mother, her sister Amy, and other members of the Mullins clan. In May, she helped celebrate her mother’s eighty-ninth birthday and sister Monica’s fiftieth.

Summer in Grand Junction was the hottest on record, with many days above a hundred degrees. Even with his cool “puppy cut,” Scout refused his afternoon walks after scorching his paws on the hot asphalt. Nan and I braved the heat most weekends for bad golf at our local public courses, and I finally hit a hole in one after fifty years of trying, witnessed officially by Nan and our friends Kevin and Lesley.

After many years of writing these Christmas letters, I regret to tell you that this is the last one we will be printing and mailing. Like Newsweek magazine, we are going completely digital in the New Year. If we have your email address, we will send you an electronic version at this time next year. If not, please look for the letter on my blog at whisperingjesse.blogspot.com. In case you don’t already have them, our email addresses are johnallenlichty@gmail.com and nanlichty@hotmail.com.

Wishing you and yours a wonderful, wet holiday season and a peaceful, prosperous New Year!


Monday, December 24, 2012

The Shins at Belly Up in Aspen

Poster outside Belly Up in Aspen for the Shins show on December 14, 2012
Nan and I were up in Aspen last weekend to see the Shins play at the Belly Up nightclub. I have been a fan of their distinctive music since I first heard "New Slang" on the soundtrack of the 2004 movie, "Garden State", starring Zach Braff and Natalie Portman. Over the next several months, I listened to the band's first two albums, "Oh, Inverted World" and "Chutes Too Narrow" almost non-stop.

Two years later, in 2006, my sister Jane and I traveled to Chicago from an August family reunion in Milwaukee to see the Shins play at Lollapalooza in Grant Park. It was heartwarming to see tens of thousands of other fans as crazy about the band as I was, and we were all treated to new songs off their then-upcoming album, "Wincing the Night Away".

The Shins didn't put out another album for several years after that. Band leader James Mercer, partnering with Danger Mouse as Broken Bells, released an excellent self-titled album in 2010, and I assumed that the Shins were no more. But then earlier this year, I saw that the Shins would be the musical guests on the March 11 broadcast of Saturday Night Live. I tuned in and was surprised to see James Mercer surrounded by an all-new band. The distinctive sound was still there, though, and I was impressed enough by the songs they performed to get their new album, "Port of Morrow".

The Shins in concert at Belly Up in Aspen on December 14, 2012
The band line-up in the poster outside Belly Up looked the same as the one from SNL, but when the band took the stage, guitarist/vocalist Jessica Dobson was not with the band. There was very little patter between songs, and no explanations were offered. My impression was that James Mercer is the Shins regardless of who is playing with him, and this was made evident by the line-up that night playing a wide variety of Shins songs from the entire repertoire rather than simply focusing on songs off the new album. It was a show to promote the Shins, not just "Port of Morrow".

The music that night is a blur for me now, just a continuous stream of songs I know by heart, punctuated by favorites "New Slang", "Sleeping Lessons", and the final encore song, "One by One All Day", which I found myself singing for days afterward.

Go see the Shins if you ever get a chance. As Zach Braff's character Andrew says to Natalie Portman's Sam as he slips the headphones over her head, "You gotta hear this one song. It'll change your life, I swear."

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Failure is not an option

"Failure is not an option" Apollo 13 postcard
Where I work, we have a postcard on the wall of the conference room that was sent to us from the Kennedy Space Center by an employee's husband a few years ago. It shows the Apollo 13 mission patch next to the mission motto, "Failure is not an option." The postcard hangs as a reminder that our work is important, that we must not fail. But more often, when I look at it, as I do frequently during long meetings, I think of the Apollo 13 astronauts, James Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise, and how close we came to losing them back in April 1970 after an explosion aboard their spacecraft.

When the motto was decided on, the people at NASA must have been thinking specifically of the importance of the mission's success as only the third manned trip to the moon. They could not have foreseen that the motto would take on an entirely different meaning: Failure to bring the astronauts home alive is not an option.

The tremendous effort and ingenuity that went into saving the astronauts' lives are an inspiration to me every day that virtually anything is possible if we set our minds to it.

Now it's back to work...

Thursday, December 6, 2012

John's Chili Recipe

Back in the early 1980s, I found a chili recipe in the "Good Morning!" section of the Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper that was so easy to follow that even I, a cooking-challenged bachelor at the time, could not screw it up. Over the years, I have modified it, adding some ingredients, like jalapeno peppers, and leaving out others, like the twelve-ounce can of American beer called for in the original recipe, until I think my chili is pretty darn good and plenty hot:


1 standard size package of lean ground beef (or a finely cubed sirloin steak if you like Texas style)
1 large white or yellow onion
1 large green pepper
12 fresh jalapeno peppers (or fewer if you don't like your chili too hot)
4 plum tomatoes
1 15-oz. can of Hunt’s Tomato Sauce
2 8-oz. cans of Mexican pre-cooked pinto beans (or equivalent reconstituted dry pinto beans)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon garlic flakes (or chopped fresh garlic)
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon paprika
½ 4.5-oz. container of chili powder (McCormick or other)


1.  Finely dice the onion, green pepper and jalapeno peppers. Be sure to remove the seeds and insides of the peppers. Use a spoon with the jalapeno peppers to avoid acid burns!
2.   In a large stew pot on medium heat, pour in the olive oil and sprinkle in the garlic. Sautee for a few minutes.
3.   Turn heat up to medium high. Add in the ground beef and then use a wooden spoon to chop it up finely and mix it in with the olive oil and garlic. Add salt and pepper if desired.
4.   When the ground beef begins to brown, add in the onions. Sautee until the onions start to become clear and the ground beef is completely browned.
5.   Turn the heat back down to medium. Add in the green pepper and jalapeno peppers. Mix thoroughly. Cover pot and let simmer while next contents are prepared.
6.   Dice the tomatoes. Drain and rinse the canned pinto beans.
7.   Stir the pot thoroughly and add in the tomatoes.
8.   Stir thoroughly and add in the tomato sauce.
9.   Stir thoroughly and add in the pinto beans.
10. Stir thoroughly and then cover for 10-15 minutes.
11. Slowly blend in cumin, paprika and chili powder.
12. Turn heat to simmer and let chili simmer for at least one hour, stirring occasionally.
13. Turn off heat and serve, or let chili cool to room temperature and then refrigerate for later.

The beans absorb the flavors and the peppers mellow a little over time, so the chili is best served a day or so after preparation. It microwaves well and is really good served with flour tortillas, shredded cheese and sour cream. Enjoy!