Friday, December 16, 2011

Mr. Stubblebine's Horse

(I wrote this story several years ago about s small moment in time where the lives of my mother and the Stubblebine family intersected. I was supposed to play music last night with a Stubblebine descendant. Unfortunately she could not make it, but running into that name made me go and dig out this story to re-publish it.)

In 1942, my mother Mildred Sheeler Hall was a 16 year old high school student living in West Philadelphia. Her mother, Ida Evelyn Sheeler, had died in 1931 when Mildred was five years old, and Mildred knew her only through the memories of her Spring City cousins, the Sheelers and the Cooks. After her mother's death, Mildred's family had moved to Orlando, Florida, where they lived across the street from a municipal park and riding academy. Mildred learned to ride horses while living in Florida, and after her father died in 1940, she had returned to the Philadelphia area to live with her aunt, Mildred Mae Sheeler, near Rittenhouse Square in the city. After school and on weekends, she would go to the Fairmount Stables in West Philadelphia to ride horses.

Her Aunt Edie Cook knew of Mildred's love for horses. Edie, the daughter of Francis Cook, a Spring City pharmacist, had occasion to talk to Mr. Stubblebine, who ran the real estate agency next door to the Cook pharmacy in Spring City. Mr. Stubblebine had a horse that he was very proud of. Edie asked whether her niece could ride it some time, and Mr. Stubblebine extended the invitation to her to come out and ride his beautiful horse. Edie then passed along the invitation to Mildred to come out to Spring City and ride Mr. Stubblebine's horse.

Mildred was a good judge of horses, having ridden both good and bad ones in her time in Florida and at the Fairmount Stables. Her expectations were low on the weekend when she went out to Spring City to meet Edie and go see the horse.
They went to Mr. Stubblebine's house and then out to the barn, and Mr. Stubblebine brought out a magnificent horse. Mildred couldn't believe her good fortune, to be permitted to ride this beautiful animal, nor the generosity of Mr. Stubblebine to entrust this proud possession to her. He saddled the horse, and then had it pose for Mildred to take several pictures. She then mounted the horse and rode around the barn area to get the feel of the horse. Once she and the horse had gotten comfortable with each other, and Mr. Stubblebine had gotten comfortable that this young girl knew what she was doing, she asked if she could take the horse out through the fields to nearby Zion Lutheran Church cemetery. Mr. Stubblebine said that would be fine, and so off went Mildred astride this magnificent horse.

Mildred's mother, Ida Evelyn Sheeler, was buried in the cemetery at Zion, along with Ida's mother, Ella Mae Cook Sheeler, and Ida's sister, Doris Sheeler. Ella Mae and Doris had died within a year of each other in 1912-13 from tuberculosis, the same disease that had taken away Ida in 1931. Mildred had never been to her mother's grave. She rode the horse methodically up and down the rows of gravestones at Zion Cemetery for an hour or so, but she never found her mother's grave.

Years later, in 1984, I went to Zion Cemetery on the same mission, to try to find the grave of my grandmother, Ida Evelyn Sheeler. Instead of a horse, I rode my trusty Schwinn 10 speed bike. I didn't know of Mildred's ride many years before. I simply did what she must have done - started at one end and worked my way up and down, row by row, though the cemetery. I was more fortunate than the young Mildred;

I found the Sheeler family grave about midway up the one field that I had started in, and pulled out a notebook and described where I had found it. When I returned home that day, I called my mother and told her that I had found her Sheeler family's grave sites, and she and I returned several weeks later so that I could show the graves to her. That is the only time she had been at her mother's gravesite.

As I write this, it is now May of 2005. My mother, in her eightieth year has been diagnosed with cancer, and I have been visiting her to go through her old family pictures and stir up these old memories. When we came to the series of four unmarked photos which my mother immediately identified as "Mr. Stubblebine's horse", my siblings and I all laughed that she recalled this horse and the peculiar name of its owner, sixty five years later. She can look at pictures of the various horses that she rode in the 30's and 40's and remember their names and some of their attributes.

I wouldn't have remembered this name for very long, but coincidentally within a couple of days, as I was searching on the Internet for what had become of Spring City High School, I came across the name Stubblebine in connection with Spring City, and I followed the link to a Stubblebine genealogy site that mentioned several Stubblebines in Spring City. Two likely candidates stand out: Harvey Stubblebine (b. 1900, d. 1964) and his brother Everett (b. 1901, d. 1978), who both were born and died in Spring City.
The report of Everett's marriage noted that he had just completed a course in real estate law, so it seems that he is most likely the Mr. Stubblebine who owned the magnificent horse. Unfortunately, his back is turned to us in the surviving pictures (see attached), and so the identity is a mystery to us, at this distance, but it may well be that his descendants may recognize this side of him.

I wrote to Joe Stubblebine, the keeper of this very thorough Stubblebine genealogy web site, and he suggested that I write out my mother's story and send it along with the pictures that we had. I was glad to do so. The story is not one of action or adventure; simply a slice of life from this time, a brief intersection between the Stubblebines and the Sheelers of Spring City, a thread in the tapestry of life. I am glad to share it with the Stubblebine family and friends.

Contributed in August 2005 by Douglas P. Humes

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Smokers Unite – you have nothing to lose but your chains!

What is the stupidest thing you’ve ever done in life? For me, there is a variety to choose from. But in the Top 5 has to be the decision to smoke cigarettes, a mistake made with that first one in 7th grade, and then repeated approximately 20 times a year, 365 days a year, for over thirty years. I quit a hundred times during that period, but only the final one ever lasted any significant time. But that final quit, in 2001, has been the life changer. I don’t miss it, and I don’t kid myself about its virtues. It is a powerful addiction to a drug, and like any addiction, it whispers lies into your ears about how much you need it. I could not quit until I approached it not as “giving up” something that I liked, but quitting an addiction to something I hated.

About six years later, having lived through a number of deaths of contemporaries, I began to wrestle with that issue of mortality. I always thought that some day I would have to pay for my 30+ years of smoking. And I wondered whether there was anything proactive that I could do. Through a client that arranges for clinical trials of cancer drugs, I became aware of that whole world of clinical trials, and so I went searching in the public data base for clinical trials of lung cancer. And I found what I was looking for: a clinical trial for the early detection of lung cancer. I signed up for it.

The common wisdom on lung cancer is that once it is noticeable enough to detect, it is too late in the process to offer much in the way of treatment. (And of course there are exceptions to that rule – exceptions who I know by name and who are disease free years later). But that is the basic state of the art with lung cancer: if they could catch it earlier, then they might have more treatment options. The clinical trial I signed up for is seeking to do just that – it is exploring whether there are perhaps biological markers that may indicate why lung cancer starts to grow in certain people but not others.

How do they gather this information? First, they start with the study group most likely to get lung cancer – heavy smokers and former heavy smokers. They bring us in one by one, and first ask a battery of questions on lifestyle and family history. They test our lung capacity now to establish a base line. Take blood samples. And sputum samples. And then do a CT scan of our lungs. The scans are reviewed and then we are sent a report, with a nifty CD containing our lung scans (see photo above for one little slice). They tell us where we are today. If there is no apparent disease or progression, we are told simply to come back in a couple of years and they will look at it all again. If they see disease, then you are sent to your own medical providers for treatment. The study is not a treatment study, but an information study.

We are all adding our data to the data base. Over time, some of us will be diagnosed with lung cancer. When they have a larger enough study and history, then researchers will be looking for biological markers that may differentiate the cancer patients from the rest. And if they can find those markers, then in the future they can perhaps select people with those markers for earlier treatment.

My latest visit was two weeks ago. The location of the study is at NYU Medical Center in Manhattan, in a big medical complex a few blocks south of the Untied Nations near the East River. I am situational friendly with Ellen and Jacquie, the nurses who are working on the study. We repeat the sampling and questions from the original visit. Chat about our lives. This year Ellen said “we want to make a good effort on the sputum sample this year.” She laughed when she said it; I asked “why?” She said that in a colon cancer study they think they may have found a marker in sputum. So she repeated “they’re really pushing the sputum.” I did my best, in a telephone booth contraption breathing a saline inhalant that irritates the lungs, and was finally able to deliver a small sample into a plastic dish with a lid. I apologized for it, and she said “No, that is actually a nice one. I’ve become an expert on sputum!” It was all done in a light hearted way.

After the visit, I met my wife waiting in the lobby, and off we went to see the rest of New York. Each time I have gone, we have turned the visit into a night or a weekend in New York. We walked a bit, had a nice dinner, and saw Spiderman on Broadway. We stayed overnight, and then made our way home the next day. The visit and the participation in the study is something that I look forward to. I am being proactive. I am contributing to the greater good. I am having a great weekend with my wife. And two weeks later I get my report, with a new CD with the newest scans and the older ones as well. And so far, it has always been good news.

More good news. Participation is free. I think they put through a claim if your insurance covers some of the items, but otherwise, you get these diagnostic services for free because you are participating in a study. Of course there is no such thing as “free”; someone is funding the study. Ellen indicated that they have funding to last for at least another five years. I asked her if they are still enrolling new participants. She said yes, indeed. That’s where you, the reader, come in. If you are a current or former heavy smoker, and are willing to get yourself up to New York once every year or two, then this is a good reason to do so. And if you are not that smoker, but know of loved ones who are, you may want to let them know about this study.

Here is the background and contact information:

Ellen Eylers, RN, MSN, MPH
Program Coordinator
NYU Lung Cancer Biomarker Center
550 1st Ave, 7N24NBV
New York, NY, 10016
p 212.263.6126
f 212.263.7980

So am I blogging about lung cancer as something that is “right with the world”? I am not. I hate cancer. Despise it. It has taken a lot of love out of my life. So this is the way I fight back. I become proactive. I let everyone know that this study is out there. We together accumulate data, and a lot of smart and talented people review it all, and find better ways to combat our common enemy. We still lose soldiers along the way; but hopefully with enough of us contributing, we eventually win the war. That’s what is right with the world – people devise this study, people fund it, people participate, people administer it, and over time, we find some truth that helps make the world a better place. And we see a lot of Broadway shows in the process.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

If these walls could talk ...

My office is in an old Main Line mansion (known during the day as Casa Mia), built by the Jacobs family in 1926. I have been researching its history, and the history of the family, and writing a monthly article for the community newsletter. Last night I was in my office late, chasing my deadline, and writing a follow up on last month's article about the 21 year old debutante Louise Jacobs and her life in the mid 1930's. And in the midst of that effort, something cool happened. Here's the article:

In June of 1937, the Chicago Tribune noted that “Hubbard Phelps has a new Taylor cub plane and has been seen flying over Watch Hill almost every day. … He will see the Harvard Yale boat races at New London from the air and will have as his guest Miss Louise Gaylord of Honolulu. Miss Gaylord, who is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Gaylord, formerly of Chicago and now of Honolulu will spend a week with Mrs. Phelps at Anchorage.” Watching the dashing Hubbard Phelps from the ground that summer was another Louise, the striking blond 21 year old socialite from Bryn Mawr, Louise Jacobs. And no doubt young Hubbard was watching her back.

In that summer of 1937, Hubbard Phelps was 21 years old, and spending that summer with his family in Watch Hill, an exclusive resort community in Rhode Island. As a history of the town reports,

“By the turn of the 20th century, there were seven sumptuous hotels on the water's edge. Also, at this time the first "summer cottages" were built by a syndicate of Cincinnati industrialists. By 1920, most of the Watch Hill cottages that stand today had been constructed by people from such places as Philadelphia and St. Louis. The seclusion of the resort attracted the rich and famous: Isadora Duncan, Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Mary Pickford, Andrew Mellon and Henry Ford.”

The Phelps were a wealthy and prominent Chicago family. Hubbard’s grandmother, Louise Hadduck de Koven, had been involved with Jane Adams and Hull House, and worked for children’s rights in an era where children were ground up in an urban industrialized society, and she was alive and active at Watch Hill, living until 1953. Hubbard’s father was Mason Phelps, who captained the Yale golf team and was a member of the gold medal winning U.S. golf team at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. He had a career as a professional golfer, and then founded a manufacturing business, the Pheoll Manufacturing Co., and served as president from 1908 until his death in 1945. Young Hubbard Phelps had his father’s genes – in 1935, at age 19, he won the Misquamicut Men's Golf Club championship, the youngest golf champion in history of the Misquamicut Club. He was a pilot as well, and had studied aviation in Oakland, California, and then in 1937 his family had bought him the new Taylor Cub airplane, at a cost of about $1475. Hubbard was young, rich, handsome, a star athlete, a dashing pilot. Hubbard was a “catch”.

It was a small summer community, and everyone knew, or knew of, each of the other families. The Jacobs had been summering there for years as well. Louise Jacobs and Hubbard were the same age – he was born 20 days before her. They had played golf and tennis, and sailed and swum together since they were little children. And Louise Jacobs was young, rich and beautiful as well. She was a “catch” too. While the newspapers were reporting in June that Hubbard was squiring Miss Gaylord from Hawaii, by October of that year, the Chicago Daily Tribune was announcing “Young Phelps is Engaged to Eastern Girl”. The article went on to note:

“Mrs. deKoven Phelps and her sister, Mrs. William McCormick Blair, are in Bryn Mawr, Pa. today for a large dinner party Mr. and Mrs. John Jacobs are giving there to announce the engagement of their daughter, Louise, to Hubbard Phelps, son of Mrs. Phelps of Lake Forest. The wedding is planned for the spring.”

Something clicked between these two young people that summer, or had perhaps been growing for years. In the fall, he returned to Washington DC where he was living, and she returned to Casa Mia with her family. But the relationship had to have been established by the fall, as the families were announcing the engagement at a dinner party on Saturday, October 30, 1937 at Casa Mia.

As I sit and write these lines, there is a party below me in Casa Mia. The conversation rises and falls, there is music in the background, and the occasional burst of laughter. It is the sound of people having fun together. And I am imagining that if I go downstairs, I will see the beautiful Louise Jacobs, and the dashing Hubbard Phelps, the center of attention of their proud parents, the two dowager grandmothers, and the gathered brothers of Louise and Hubbard. When I walk through the mansion, I am always imagining what these walls witnessed, and what they would say it they could talk. Tonight, as I finish this piece, I realize that they are talking to me, adding to my mental images of Louise and Hubbard and their families, and telling me what the engagement party sounded like in 1937, as the sounds drift up into John Jacob's old bedroom. Now I am going downstairs, and wondering whether I am going to pass through that wrinkle in time, and end up back in 1937. If you don't hear from me after this, you'll know where I am.

What's right with the world: old haunted houses, wrinkles in time, walls that talk, and an active imagination.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

In praise of the Ten Minute Commute

On this wet and cold day, which generally slows down traffic, causes accidents, and leads to a much longer commute, I made it to the office in the usual time: ten minutes. I pass through two traffic lights, then down one long hill to a turn that is usually backed up - for people headed north. But I head east - and so can use the shoulder to get around the morning backup to my right turn,, and then a long uphill, passing beneath a heavily trafficked interstate that is always jammed. Then I have to make a left against oncoming traffic - sometimes I have to wait as long as a whole minute - but this morning, a kindly oncoming driver flashed his beams at me - "Go ahead buddy, make your turn" - and so I was into the homestretch, down a lane past a school and church and then into the driveway to my workplace. Walking from the parking lot to the building. I heard honking. Not the human variety but the goose variety - and looked up to see one goose sitting atop a chimney on one building, and one goose sitting on top the chimney of another building. Both honking. Perhaps arguing over which chimney will be their spring nest. In ten minutes, I have arrived at my office, with little traffic, little to hold me up, and not even enough time to get the entire news cycle from KYW. And with my peace of mind intact.

Rarely have I had a commute like this. In the past, I have worked in the city, where the commute involved first getting to a station, parking, getting to the train, waiting, riding, then making my way to the office from the train station. That could take an hour on average, and of course much longer with weather conditions interfering with each leg of the journey. In later years, I had a job that was about a full marathon, 26 miles, from home to the office in Kennett Square. But over a road laid out in Colonial times - the old Baltimore Pike - over hills and around curves, past new shopping malls, through many cross streets and traffic lights, and towards the tail end, over the Brandywine Creek. On a good day, a 45 minute commute. And on its worst day, when the Brandywine flooded out of its normal course, and the bridges were all closed, I had to drive to Wilmington to find a bridge across the "creek" that was still open. I saw accidents weekly, and read about fatalities along this stretch several times a year. In snow, with the hills, it could take between one and two hours. It was discouraging to get into the car and realize that I still had this long commute in front of me. It was not a commute on cruise control listening to books on tape. It was work.

With my current commute, I can bike it in nicer weather. I even ran it once, just to try that out. The distance is not bad, 3 miles, but there is a significant hill in each direction, and so running is an option, but low on the list when my middle aged knees have a vote. But it's good to know I could walk home if that ever became necessary.

I view the time that I save through my commute, and the peace of mind of having such an easy one, as a form of pay that I receive in my current job. I am self employed, and in choosing to be self employed, I have chosen also economic uncertainty, which is magnified in times of economic turmoil like we are experiencing now. I have no steady paycheck. No steady benefits. I only eat what I kill, as the saying goes. But I am also paid in two items that so far the government does not tax: time and peace of mind. My commute is invariably ten minutes each way, each day. I never have to drive through Wilmington to get here. I never have to stand in a train station listening for the announcement that the trains are delayed or canceled due to weather conditions. From the front door at home to the car is ten seconds. From the parking lot to the office door is about 90 seconds. The only honking I have ever heard is from geese. I honked back at them this morning, but it was a friendly exchange. I arrive, not stressed out from the commute, but at times oblivious to it. It goes so quickly and painlessly that some days I pull in and don't remember passing through the landscape at all. I find value in that.

Life may change and I may be thrust back onto the wheel of the rat race, but this morning, this cold and rainy morning with people further to the north dealing with March snow flurries and icy roads, with traffic backing up on the interstate, I had a ten minute commute.

What's right with the world? A ten minute commute!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"And the seasons, they go round and round"

A few weeks ago, my wife learned a new trick - took a cutting from one of our forsythia bushes and brought it inside and put it in water. A week later, it was in bloom. A reminder of what is to come. After the rain this weekend, driving to the office yesterday there were whole patches of small white flowers, snowdrops, that were not there the previous day. Today, crocuses shooting out of the ground. I am going out to run at lunch today - and it looks like a two layer day, as opposed to the three and four layer runs of winter. People were talking about watching the Phillies play on Sunday - baseball - on television. A lot of great expectations for this team. Will they ever lose a game all season? In spring training, you can think thoughts like this. Spring is a time of rebirth. A month ago there were eight foot high piles of snow where my office mailbox is. Now, crocuses are coming up. Robins are back. There is some chirping going on in the morning - not a lot yet, but it's starting. How do they all know it's time?

I still get excited about that first snowfall in December - how beautiful it looks when everything is covered in white. Love it when the leaves start changing in the fall and their smell is in the air. And love the first trip down to the beach - Memorial Day - when the sun is out, and the brave and foolish are the first to swim in the ocean, and the rest of us are in beach chairs, just enjoying the sun and sand and surf. I don't know how the seasons change in China or Egypt or Australia or Fiji. But here in Pennsylvania, they come in four distinctive varieties, and it is always a pleasure to welcome in the new one.

What's right with the world? Snowdrops. Two layer days. Spring training, when everyone can dream of winning the pennant. The change of seasons. Painless rebirth.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Old Barn ... New Barn

One night in the summer before 7th grade, my mother sent me to pick up my two sisters at the barn that was about a half mile from our house. You had to walk through an old vacant estate to get there, and she didn't want them walking back through that area alone. My sisters rode horses at this barn, and hung out with their friends there. I complained about the task but then set at it, and showed up at the barn. And there, to my amazement, were a bevy of cute 13 and 14 year old girls - not one guy in sight, except ancient Mr. T, who managed the place. All the girls were in jeans, and all smelled slightly of horse manure, but they were all cuties. Like puppies or kittens ... all cute in their own way. I walked home with my sisters, but then had to tell my buddies in the neighborhood of this discovery of mine.

"How many are there?" "There must be 15 or 20 of them. Really. All cute."

The next day, we all trooped down to the barn to pick up the girls. And pick them up we did. Within weeks we had paired off, my guy friends and my sisters' girl friends, and some were going steady, and the more forward of the group were having make-out sessions up in the hayloft. There were barn parties that fall and winter, including one at a cabin in the woods, and many of us smoked our first cigarettes there. Not a good thing in hindsight, but we were starting to experience the grown up activities.

A year or so after that first encounter, the girls all moved their horses to the New Barn - at the Strawbridge Estate on Mill Road in Radnor. The boys were still hanging out there during that summer. We watched the girls ride more than ride ourselves, but sometimes we would go on trail rides with them, or they would chase us around in the fields on horseback, or we would rile up the cows in the adjoining field, or hang out in other places on the estate while the girls rode. Sometimes we'd hang out in the tack room and shoot the breeze. Occasionally they would get us to muck stalls with them, or move hay bales, or do some of the other work required at the barn. The Strawbridge mansion was vacant then, but we found an open window on the first floor, and so we would go inside, play hide and seek, explore each room, and on at least one occasion we ordered pizza for delivery, and then pretended we were Main Line Blue Bloods when the pizza man came: "Daddy, the pizza man is here" in what passed for a Main Line accent.

After that summer, I think the "boys going to the barn" phase finally ended. The girls continued to ride; some still do. However, while none of the "steadies" lasted that long (and I still have the ID bracelet that I gave to my steady then), those friendships endure. My sisters still stay in touch with the "Barn Girls", and at our annual Turkey Bowl gathering, many of the original group from 7th grade still gather.

Today, I went out out for a run at lunch, in the neighborhood across the street from my office. It's a residential development, and I usually don't go there, but I wanted to change it up today. House after house, a long rolling hill, curved around, I saw a creek running through an open space area behind the homes, and then came to an intersection ... and stopped in my tracks. There on the far hillside, through the trees, was the Strawbridge Mansion. Not a surprise to me - I knew it was still there ... but now I was getting the view from what used to be the fields where we used to hang out. I remembered that when you left the paddock, you crossed over a bridge and a little creek, and the path to the field hugged the hillside along the creek, which flowed down into a larger creek in the meadow. I could see the small creek now, and could imagine the path along it, with the Mansion and the barn in the foreground. It was the only location in the whole run where I could actually see what I used to see here. The little guest house that sat below the mansion, where the boys would hang out and smoke, was gone. The rusty iron fencing - gone. The creek disappeared into a culvert under the road and re-emerged in the backyard of the local MacMansion. It still flowed down and into what was the meadow where the ring was (see photo)... but the ring was gone. The meadow gone. Horses gone. Girls gone. The world of 1968 gone. Except in my head, where all of these memories were suddenly unleashed by the proximity to place. It was a nice visit back to 1968, brought about by the winter view of the mansion visible through the trees. When summer comes, that view disappears. I really hadn't seen that view since 1968.

As I ran back to the office, this rhyme popped into my head:

Curiosity killed the cat.
Some day it may kill me.
But till it does I'll look around
And see what I can see.

It sounds like something by Ogden Nash. Not sure if it's his or mine. But it perfectly described what I was feeling on my run and the spontaneous visit to 1968.

So what's good with the world: sisters ... who have friends who are Babes. Memories that can be stored up for so long, and suddenly unleashed by a sight, or a smell or a song. Breaking up the routine and being rewarded with the unexpected.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Leaving your comfort zone ...

I made my singing debut last night, on a raised stage in front of an audience of about 80 retirees at the Granite Farms Estates community near Media. I was not the star attraction - that honor belonged to my wife, Barb, who has given concerts in this community in the past, and she was accompanied by John Grecia, an amazingly gifted pianist and musician. She did a program of love songs and standards - Gershwin, Kern, Rogers and Hammerstein, and John did an out-of-control "Kitten on the Keys", among other songs. Towards the end, she called me up to do a duet with her. But let me backtrack for a moment about the journey to that point.

Barb and John have worked together many times in the past, the first time being 19 years ago when they were in a production of Music Man together. They are both graduates of music programs at West Chester University. They fill in for each other when they each need backup support - she for her school programs and he for his church choir activities. They are both very musical and very professional. They had a one hour rehearsal last weekend and ran through her list of about 18 songs. I stopped by to rehearse my one song. It has originally been just the first verse of the song, but John said "You can't stop there - the crowd will love this ..." and so we agreed to add in the second verse. I went home and printed it out - Barb said I didn't have to memorize it - just have it up on the music stand.

Last night we rode down together to the venue - set up the gear on the stage, and went into a back room to practice. Watching them rehearse was a marvel. John would improvise the intro, and Barb would come in, sing a few bars, tell him the tempo she wanted, he would make a few notes on his music, and then they would be on to the next song. More of the same thing - just running quickly through the transitions - beginnings, endings, changes in key. I was looking forward to practicing my one song end to end - but we just ran through it the same way - quickly, with a reminder that the turnaround at the end of the first verse is short, and the one at the end of the song is long. And then the MC came in to say "time". I went off to sit with the audience, while they went backstage to be introduced.

Sitting in the crowd, I marveled at how smoothly the two of them worked together, and how the songs came out effortlessly. They are both great musicians, Barb's material was the soundtrack to the lives of the people who she was singing to, she was in great voice, and she nailed her high notes. It reminded me of watching the figure skating pairs at the Olympics - you know the big throws are coming up, here they come, can they do it, here it is .... NAILED IT! Now we can breath again. Till the next one.

And then, it was my turn. I joined them on stage, and brought along my music stand and lyrics that I had left off stage. I told the crowd that I've been told I sing like a lawyer ... and I got a nice laugh. In the first verse, my microphone squawked at me - we didn't do a sound check here - and so I backed off the mike. I survived the experience. I actually enjoyed the experience ... it's a song I have always wanted to sing - and here I was doing so on stage with two gifted musicians. I told them afterwards it was like going out for a test ride in a Ferarri.

So, I left my comfort zone last night. I've performed as part of a group before, but never quite so alone on stage in front of a crowd, and singing. But it was enjoyable to try this out, to fulfill a dream to be the person up there doing it, rather than sitting there and watching it. Barb's daughter recorded the second verse of the song ... and you can view it on YouTube here: Doug's debut.

I am a bit wooden, a bit nervous. I am going to hold on to my day job for now. But last night, I left my comfort zone, and briefly flew to a place that I had never been before. And I enjoyed the view.

What's right with the world: people with talent who make it look effortless; the music of Gershwin and friends still being performed; having a spouse who opens doors for you; and leaving your comfort zone ... in a Ferrarri!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ground Hog's Day ...

Ground Hog's Day is definitely something that's right with the world. Not the movie by that name (although it is a classic), but the actual event held in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. I had always wanted to go to Punxsutawney (derived from Indian word for "town of the sand flies") on that day ... and several years ago the day fell on a Saturday, so Barb and I went off to check it out. Every hotel in the area was booked, so we had to stay at a rest stop motel along Route 80 outside of DuBois. We arrived there late Friday, and went right to bed, because we had read that you need to get to Punxsutawney quite early to get tickets to ride one of the buses that takes you out to Gobbler's Knob, where the festivities are held.

We were up at 3:00 a.m. and on the road shortly afterwards, and picked up company along the way. We arrived in the town in the dark, and had to search for parking. Got our bearings ... found the place selling the bus tickets ... they also stamp you with a groundhog paw stamp. Then off to the lines of school buses - must be every bus in Jefferson County called in for service. The ride to the Knob is not that long - it's a park on a hillside about a mile outside of the town. We arrived at about 4:15 a.m. And were not the first ones there. There were already thousands of people present, bonfires burning, porta potties set up, a snack bar doing a brisk business, and music blaring from a lighted stage at the bottom of a natural amphitheater. Women in colored t-shirts were dancing on the stage - the Groundhog Dancers - they were in motion up until the climax of the morning - the ceremony with Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary. That's his full name. I imagine his friends just call him Phil.

The buses continued to arrive and depart for the next several hours, bringing thousands more to the Knob. On the stage, there was as variety of entertainment - game shows with audience participation, rock anthems and dancing, shooting of t shirts high up into the air to land in the crowd, several wedding proposals (both accepted), the introduction of dignitaries and guests, and fireworks simulcast to music. People were roaming around dressed up in a variety of costumes and headgear that reflect their take on what the well dressed groundhog fan should wear on this occasion. Lots of weird fur and funny hats. Mirth was in the air. The snack bar was serving hot dogs, coffee, hot chocolate. Somewhat bizarre to be standing on a hillside in the middle of Pennsylvania in 29 degrees at 6:00 a.m. in February, eating hot dogs with sauerkraut and watching fireworks (bursting above the clouds - and so more of a colorful glow than the summer version), while listening to Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. And that's the charm of the whole event.

At about 7:00 a.m., the Inner Circle arrives - about twenty men in top hats and black suits. They are the Inner Circle of the Punxsutawney Groundhog's Club, the group that takes care of and nurtures both Phil and the annual event. They go through a lot of hocus pocus and finally at 7:25 a.m., they pull Phil out of a tree stump on stage, talk to him in Groundhogese, listen to what he says, and then announce whether he has seen his shadow or not. If there is no shadow, then spring is near. If he sees his shadow, then it is 6 more weeks of winter. Then they broadcast Bill Murray's heartwarming speech from the end of the movie, and then everyone goes in peace.

The buses are still running - but you are in a crowd of 35,000 people - and so most of us simply walked back into town. It's about a mile, down hill, and it gets your feet moving, and by the time you get to town, you can feel your toes again. The town is quintessential Pennsylvania small town, but with a local twist. There are statues of groundhogs everywhere, that theme is everywhere. There is a large central square, and they have ice carvings, wood carvings, benches - and of course what are they carving? Groundhogs. There is a gift shop that sells the largest variety of groundhog themed chotchka in the world. But we found that most of the energy of the day was left up on the Knob. We thought the town might fill up with events and such, but it was pretty quiet. We went back to our motel and took a nap.

We returned to Punx for the night's activities - but there weren't any to speak of. I think the action was the night before. There were some rowdy drunks in the bar of the local hotel, but we walked the streets for a few hours and did not see too many other people in our travels. We did see Phil's home - he has a place built for him in the town library, and a window allows him to see out to the town square, and also allows visitors to see him. He wasn't there when we were - he had done his duty for the day and so perhaps they gave him the rest of the day off. We went back up to the Knob, by car this time, and it was hard to believe that this township park was the scene of all of that madness just hours before. The stage was still there, with the artificial tree stump where Phil was displayed. And you could see the small "waiting room" below it where they kept Phil until it was time for his prediction. And I thought "what must Phil have been thinking, hearing all of that noise outside, four hours of rock anthems, and then being pulled out into the cold, and held up in the air before thousands of screaming humans?" I imagine it was "This ain't gonna end well".

They rolled up the sidewalk at about 6:00 p.m. and we took that as our cue to leave. Had dinner at a diner in DuBois. The next day, we took the long way home, via Indiana, Pennsylvania, and visited the Jimmy Stewart Museum. It was actually enjoyable - he had quite an interesting life, and his home town remembers him lovingly in this museum. Then the long ride home. We filmed a lot of our trip - and now, three years later, I finally strung it all together and hope to get it posted up to YouTube. If you like sitting through someone else's home movies (and who doesn't?) then you will love this version. But actually, it gives a nice tour of the events of that day. I'll post a link when I overcome the last of my tech obstacles and get it posted.

But back to Punxsutawney for a moment, to close with the speech that Bill Murray gave at the end of the movie Groundhog Day:

“When Chekhov saw the long winter ... he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope.

Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life.

But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney...

and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts...

I couldn't imagine a better fate ... than a long and lustrous winter.”

From Punxsutawney,
it's Doug Humes.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Not just another bedroom community

Newtown Township is hosting their twice a year book sale next week at the meeting room at the Township Building adjacent to the library. The sale includes not only books, but videos, CDs, audio books, and games & puzzles. I drove over yesterday to drop off a few boxes of books. The books are kept in one volunteer's garage until a few days before the event. The Township sends workers over to load the boxes of donated books and bring them to the sale site. Volunteers then sort through them and separate them into paperbacks, hard bound books, and the other categories, and then a further sort by subject matter: fiction, history, how to, etc. They will be open for business there from February 1-5. Go to the Library's website for more details.

I recognized all of the the volunteers. I have worked with them all on various township events. I spoke with the woman whose garage is the permanent home of the used book collection prior to sale. She has been involved in the library for as long as I have lived here, and is also involved in other community affairs and events. My wife and I occasionally attend a local church where we know the choir director, and we see our library volunteer there as well. She is a person who is involved in the world, not just passing through it. We talked about how we see the same faces at our different events - the same volunteers. I told her that is why I was drawn to the local historical society; because I ended up meeting all of the people who make a difference in the community: the organizers of the 4th of July parade, the people behind the historic sign project in Newtown, the people who volunteer on Election Day, who support the fire department, who put on Heritage Day and the Fall Festival, who run the school tours, who attend the Township meetings, and serve on various boards and committees in the community. I told her that at one time I saw all of these people together in one room and thought "what would happen to the township if a bomb went off in this room?" She said "then we'd be just another bedroom community."

I asked as well what happens to the "leftovers" after the sale. First, the library takes selected items to put on their $1 cart at the entranceway. A second non-profit organization takes selected books to sell and raise money for women in need. A third non-profit then agrees to take the balance. And then the library starts collecting books for the next sale in August.

The Township Library is a public charity, and so gifts of money or property to the Library are permitted as charitable deductions on your federal income tax returns. The Library will give you a receipt - but they do not list all of the property that you gave them, or value it. It is up to you to decide what the value is. The IRS regulations (see Publication 526) state the basic rule that "If you contribute property to a qualified organization, the amount of your charitable contribution is generally the fair market value of the property at the time of the contribution." There are certain record-keeping requirements as well. You need to have a written acknowledgement of the gift from the qualified organization, and then you must list each item, and your calculation of fair market value. At higher contribution levels, more detail is required. I have in the past used a basic Excel spreadsheet for clothing donations. I suppose I can use the same form for the books. But do I make a list of every book in every box? In theory I suppose you need to do so. I have not given it much thought - my main mission was simply to get these boxes of books out of the house. The charitable deduction is icing on the cake. If you are not abusing your deductions, but giving an honest estimate based on some logical method, then I am counting on the IRS not to audit me on this basis alone, and to look at my spreadsheet and agree that I have met my burden of proof.

Public libraries, community volunteers, charitable deductions, and cheap books and CD's, all things to be thankful for today.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A funny thing happened on the way to the office ...

My commute to my office is ten minutes. Today, it took me past the post office, where I stopped to mail letters. Two Girl Scouts and their moms had set up a table and were selling Girl Scout cookies. I had money in my pocket, they had cookies, and so we made an exchange. I support their cause - scouting and the values it instills - while they cater to my weakness - cookies.

When I left, I stopped at the traffic light. Today is the coldest day of the year so far, 17 degrees with a wind chill below 10. At the traffic light were college students, Penn State students, standing in the cold and holding donation cans. "Canning" in their parlance. I was a Penn State student; my son is a current Penn State student. I know this drill. They are raising money for The Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Children's Hospital, to benefit the fight against pediatric cancer. The fundraising ends with the annual event now known as THON.

THON started at Penn State the same year that I did, 1973, when it was known as the IFC Dance Marathon - and at that time the "marathon" part of it got more attention than the fundraising part. But with each year, as it raised more and more money, its fame spread. In 1992, THON raised more than one million dollars in a year for the first time. Last year THON raised over $8 million, of which about $7.5 million went to the Four Diamonds Fund. Today, it is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. Since 1977, THON has raised more than $69 million. And who is this mysterious IFC that started and continues to be one of the primary organizers of the event? The Interfraternity Council - the fraternities and sororities at Penn State. Many other groups now participate and contribute - but the beating heart of the effort has been "frat boys" and "sorority girls". $69,000,000.00 for pediatric cancer. Not bad for "frat boys" and "sorority girls".

The visit to the post office and the traffic stop each left me financially lighter but feeling good about the world I was passing through. As I pulled into my office lot, I navigated past two runners, running on the coldest day of the year. No sitting at home complaining for them. They are out taking inventory of what they've got inside, and developing the qualities that can deal face to face with adversity in life.

In my ten minute drive to the office, I encountered all of these wonderful people, out making a difference in the world. You can be one of them too. Buy the cookies. Fill the cans. Donate online to THON (see DONATE NOW at the website). Take inventory of yourself and exercise all of those things that we each have inside us that contribute to the common good.

Our Capacity for Wonder

In the summer 2003, NASA launched two dune buggies aimed towards Mars. They both landed successfully in January 2004, and began tooling around on their scheduled 3 month missions. They are still there 7 years later. Spirit stopped communicating in March 2010, but NASA has not given up hope; Opportunity is still moving around, taking photos, analyzing samples, sending back data. Meanwhile, in 2005, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched towards Mars as well, and now continues to circle the planet, sending back data and taking photos, including a recent one showing Opportunity at the edge of a crater it is studying.

In elementary school in the 60's, we brought in TV's and watched every single manned launch. Now, these amazing feats of technology are taken for granted. But sometimes we need to be reminded of the amazing things we can accomplish - and we need to look at pictures of the surface of Mars, and exercise our sense of wonder.