Stress buster

I know that I am the epitome of calm and equanimity. Yet here are a few things I do to reduce stress:

  • A well-worn phrase that someone said to me continues to work pretty well: ‘This too shall pass.’ Whatever it is — a gigantic pain in the butt, or a gigantic moment of joy — all of it will pass, letting in the next experience. Just go with the flow and let it happen.
  • One word: chocolate. Need I say more? So get on it right away.
  • Exercise. I find that much of my stress transmits itself in verbal form, because we are most of us encased in a web of words all the time. I find that taking a walk, and imagining that I am floating over all the stuff of the day, provides relief. Walk, dance, cavort, whatever floats your boat.
  • Sometimes as I walk, I take bad photos of nature to take my mind off stuff. There are hundreds and hundreds of these on my phone’s hard drive.
  • Sometimes I have to remind myself of times when I was stressed about some event — like, for instance, preparing for a visit from the kids; trying to make everybody happy — turns out to be groundless. My kids like me anyway, who’d thunk it?

Miriam, my mom (1917-2008)

Mom passed away in the night of September 25, 2008, after living a rather unhappy four years confined to a wheelchair, unable to sit up on her own, and basically unable to do the things she loved to do.  I start with this note of sadness not to look on the dark side, but the opposite:  I wanted to show that the last years, though not happy for her, were the exception.

For most of her life Mom was a busy, energetic, opinionated and practical woman.  Miriam was the friend who drove people at her condo to the doctor, who took walks, and on those walks routinely found four-leaf clover along the Cape Rail Trail that adjoined the condo property.

When I was a kid we wanted a dog.  Dad said absolutely not to the idea of a dog, but as you can see, young Freckles quickly learned to schmooze Dad so that they were inseparable.  

Daily care of Freckles, however, fell to Mom.  She was the one who went looking for him when he ran off, and she would scold him like one of us kids.  “Fre-e-e-e-eckles!  Come home right this minute!!” She would clap her hands sharply so that the dog could hear it. When the dog slunk guiltily up the driveway, he knew from Mom’s voice that he had screwed up.  “I know he’s been in someone’s garbage, I can smell it on his breath!”  Freckles would hang his head and wait for her to forgive him.

There was no mistaking Mom when she was mad at us, and over the years, we gave her reason to get upset, as well as sprout gray hairs.  Mom was the one who lost the most sleep over my scrape with the law at age 13, and Mom was the one who was home with us 100 percent of the time while Dad traveled to clients as part of his job as a dyestuffs salesman.  But in the family hierarchy, Mom put herself clearly in the position of the supporting spouse, as women tended to do in the sixties.  She stayed in the background while Dad held forth at the dinner table, and in fact did this so well that we never gave it a second thought.  None of us noticed that she was there, in the background, until Dad would say something inaccurate in telling a story.  “Kenneth, that was in Orleans, not Truro!” Dad, being Dad, took it as criticism.  But in time, I learned that this was just Mom’s style. She told it the way she saw it.  After Dad died, in 2001, I would go up to the Cape to visit, and we would have a quiet supper together.  And it truly was quiet, for she had so little to say, having spent over half a century correcting, amplifying, interjecting.  With Dad gone, she had to learn a whole new conversational style.

One funny thing about trying to document someone like my mom is that it’s hard to find a good picture of her.  Why? Because in our busy family life, Mom took all the pictures! The snapshot at the top of this article is of Miriam and Dad admiring infant Joan, their first-born and my oldest sister. I happen to think this is one of the most beautiful pictures of Mom, showing her in her prime as a young mother.

Mom grew up in West Redding, Connecticut, and enjoyed the special benefits of living life in the country.  Once, on a visit to the old house, she pointed out the place where, many years earlier,  she had slid down a slope in the snow, dressed in her Sunday best.  There is also a tale about the joy ride that her baby brother Howard took her on in the family car.  The story goes that in his excitement to be driving, he managed to run it into a ditch.  Looking at the vehicle stuck in the ditch, Miriam made a split-second decision:  she told Howard they would tell the authorities (and their mother) that she had been behind the wheel, because Howard, at the time, was too young to drive and would have gotten in bigger trouble than his big sister.  Howard would later write that tale into Mom’s memory book which we kids put together for her 80th birthday.

Her father, Joe Stehlik, worked as a local handyman, driving a tractor or performing other odd jobs that local neighbors needed done. Here he appears at the bottom of a ladder while young Miriam picks fruit out of a tree.

But Mom did not have an easy life.  Joe died of cancer when she was ten years old, and she told us that as part of Joe’s funeral arrangements, the coffin was placed in the parlour, as was the custom back in those days.  She had had to quickly run past Joe’s coffin when she went downstairs, which is easy to imagine must have been a vivid memory for her.

Life for Anna and her three kids, Miriam, Ruth and Howard, changed radically when Joe was gone.  Gramma had to take in mending, and their already frugal existence became even more restricted.  Years later, when she and Dad had us kids, we all picked up a lot of that uncertainty and anxiety, which was exacerbated by their experience of living through the Great Depression of 1929 through 1939.  We felt their pessimism and extreme caution in life as odd and unnecessary.  Growing up in post-World War II Ramsey, New Jersey, we had a nice house, a TV (black & white until after Dad had retired), and we went on vacations in the car to faraway places like Lake Willoughby, Vermont.  To Miriam and Kenneth,  our life must have felt luxurious, but that didn’t stop us from complaining that our own lives were so hard.

Here we are in 1960, with Mom presiding over us all, looking slightly off-camera, as if she knew what worries were coming next.

Dad, sweet Dad

April 1 is my dad’s birthday. He would have been 107 today. He used to tell the joke about how how his grandfather would have been considered a remarkable man. Why? Because he would be over a hundred years old. I can hear him telling that on himself, chuckling.

Kenneth E. Leslie, father, salesman, veteran, jokester. He was all of these things.

With infant Joan

That was pretty much Dad’s jokes – familiar, well-worn gimmicks. Repetition was his specialty. He loved the tale of “Silent Cal” Coolidge, our thirtieth President, who supposedly was asked, on leaving church, what the preacher spoke about. “Sin,” he replied. Asked what the preacher said about it, he replied, “He was against it.” We got to be reminded of this tale every Sunday, when my mom dragged the three of us kids to church (Redeemer Lutheran, if you are from Ramsey) while Dad stayed home. Afterward, when we pulled into the driveway, Dad would come up from his garden to greet us. “Well, what did the minister talk about? Did he talk about sin?” (wince) “Was he against it?” (wince) Often he played straight man to his own jokes; it was the only way he could get to tell them.

He was a terrible tease. He grew up with his brothers Wally, Burton and Ernie, who all kidded each other mercilessly. He must have made a life decision at some point always to be the guy who pokes fun at people, or looks for funny things that they do. He and I went on a camping trip together and watched a family in the adjoining campsite, where a guy was sitting in a camp chair, shouting orders to his wife and kids as they struggled to put up the tent. “Look at that guy – the big boss, shouting the orders while everyone else does all the work!” Another example is a family member who didn’t have the best of grammar, who would say stuff like “We was going…” Dad would turn to me, and in an undertone, go “we was!!” Years and years of this helped me become the irritating and satirical genius that I am today.

With Freckles, Ramsey, NJ, about 1957

This came out where his parenting was concerned, in his repeating of the same joke endlessly, or calling attention to something that bugged you. He knew I liked music, so he would say, “Why do people waste time with music? They could be trading on the Stock Market.” Despite his purported dislike of music, he could hum melodies with cornball lyrics, like this little gem, “George Washington Bridge,”  He was actually a very talented guy, for someone who pretended to hate that stuff.  We all heard the story of how Dad played a female part in the school play, at Lowell Textile School, because there were no women.  (Today, Lowell is a full engineering school, and is coed.)

With Aunt Ruth and Uncle Norman, around 1989. That day Derek crawled off the couch and rolled onto the floor.  He survived just fine.

And yet he was the tenderest soul. You couldn’t criticize or make fun of him. That was just how it was. But the plus side of this was that he almost never yelled. He just got upset. And for a dad, he had what I would call a healthy, sensible attitude toward sports, in other words, it wasn’t a religion for him. He enjoyed watching a ball game once in a while, but I never saw the “I DON’T BELIEVE IT!!!!!!” kind of screaming at the tv set. He asked that I try at least one sport in school. I tried two – wrestling and cross country, so in my mind I had met the budget, and it was OK with him. Rather than worry that his son would not be sporty enough, he worried I was going to get killed in junior football, because of my ineptitude in the game. (That’s the subject of another essay.)

To balance his satirical side, he had the softest heart of anyone I have ever met. When his kid brother, Ernie, died of a massive heart attack at age 43, he wept openly in front of the whole family. He never hid tears, and that was a powerful, positive lesson for me. It was OK to cry! Later I learned that many men grew up otherwise. He loved poetry, and would quote his favorites from time to time. (“Hardly a man is now alive…”) Some poems triggered something tender in him, such as Frost’s The Death of the Hired Hand. He frequently quoted this line, and you could hear the emotion in his voice:

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,  
They have to take you in.

He loved plants, which to my young, teenaged mind was boring, but today I’m grateful that on some level, I must have been listening. I can’t tell how often I have looked at a rhododendrons (his favorite – he belonged to the American Rhododendron Society) and been grateful that he taught me so much about plants. It’s as if the knowledge came alive when I became an adult. I don’t know how many people I have told that the name refers to the reddish colored bark (‘rhodo’ = red, ‘dendron’ = branch).    I suppose I’ve picked up Dad’s habit of endlessly repeating stuff. Of course you can ask my sons, Derek and Ian, about that. They can tell you just how repetitious their dad is.

With Sue, at Derek’s christening, 1988

Dad had a wonderful talent for understanding people, and would share insights about people we both observed. He once took me on a couple of his regular sales calls, and coached me on how to shake a person’s hand: look them in the eye, and shake firmly, giving them a good smile. He would continually lecture me about the importance of enthusiasm. Again, in my youth I rolled my eyes, but today, I benefit from Dad’s talks. He talked about his work as a seller of dyestuff, how proud he was that he had loyal customers who would buy from him rather than a competitor who offered a lower price. His customers, he said, depended on him always to tell the truth, and not try and do a big sell job on them.

He had a curious habit of self-limitation. For example, he claimed that he could never hear a conversation if there was any other competing noise at all. Sometimes, when my mom would turn on a little soft music on the radio, he would stride over and snap it off. Occasionally, in the middle of a discussion in which I was trying to explain something to him, he would shake his head, say, “ I don’t follow you, I’m in a fog.” He also struggled to remember things, always reinforcing the difficulty by mentioning how difficult it was.  I found his methodical, plodding style bothersome, so to spark things up a bit I would walk around the house flipping a knife in my hand, over and over. I actually got pretty good at knife-flipping.

While I was a teenager, he and I would go camping up to Lake George, and enjoy the ice-cold water, the fresh air, and the fishing. The first year we went, he rented a boat and motor. We set out from a little inlet at a placed called Hulett’s Landing. We loaded the boat to the gills with gear, got in, and he said, “I’ll steer us out of the inlet, and then you can try running the boat.”  Immediately the boat roared toward the rocks along the inlet, and he panicked, turning the rudder sharply, and around in a big circle we went, barely missing the rocks.  Finally, he managed to slow it down and get it under control.  “Why don’t you take it over right now,” he said, a sheepish look on his face.

With Sue, at Derek’s christening

The very core of my relationship to Dad was that we could talk about stuff. He and I would go on fishing trips on the Delaware, at a placed called Pond Eddy, where the water sort of swirled lazily around in a circle, rather than rushing in a powerful current. It was the perfect spot to fish for bass, and it was the perfect time for us to talk.  So often his stories dealt with some admission of weakness or insecurity.  That was Dad 101: the truth is a golden ideal, to be sought out at all costs. Even to his own detriment. When offered a job in management, he took it against his better judgement, and found himself in a strange, new world. He described his frustration, shuffling papers on his desk, dealing with a new-fangled idea called Marketing that he just didn’t understand.

Dad, sweet Dad, I so loved those conversations. They were golden. Thank you for all that you did.

Here in Dublin

This is Patrice, waving hello from our “splurge” hotel right by ChristChurch Cathedral in the center of Dublin.  The bells have been ringing for hours, and we understand that Friday evening is sometimes the time for practice … it’s quite a’pealing!

We’re off to dinner soon, but I just wanted to add some quick impressions of what we’ve experienced since our VERY early Monday morning arrival:

  1. Leaving everything is freeing, exciting, and a bit disorienting.
  2. We have to pace ourselves.  Flying overnight, the time change, walking everywhere, an unfamiliar bed and everything else… leads to fatigue.
  3. It’s great fun to do new things and meet new people.
  4. Getting used to the idea that we have months and months to do whatever we want, enough money saved to do it, and that no one is going to tell us what our agenda should be is kind of mind-boggling.  What do you choose to do when you can do whatever you want?
  5. We’re having a grand time already, but it very much resembles what I used to joke about when my parents traveled–we called theirs “walk and eat” vacations.  Well, that’s what we’re having!
  6. Despite feeling that we have enough cash for the nine-month journey, we’re writing down every penny (or, in this case, Euro) so that we can keep track of it.  We’re going to tell you what we spend to give you an idea of what it actually costs to go around the world.

Look for a “What does it cost?” page, a “Where do you stay” page, and a link to both books by Patrice and musical events for the two of us as we grow this site.  If you have suggestions for where we could sing, be in touch!

The plan is to visit Ireland, Scotland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and Tahiti, with a zip back to California before spending three months in Hawaii…



We are not coming back…


“When are you coming back?”

We’re not.  At least, we don’t think so.

Inspired by a dream we’ve shared since we met, Richard and I sold our house, ditched nearly all our possessions, gave our cars to the kids, and got outta town.

It wasn’t pretty.

But thanks to the kindness of friends who put us up prior to the trip, we had a place to lay our heads while we did many frantic last-minute runs to our 10×10 storage cube, mailed packages one of us (Patrice) had been putting off mailing for years–such as the wedding gifts to my niece who is now a mother of two–and handled not one but two sudden car repairs and mutual dental emergencies.

To those dear friends, we express sincere regret about our surprise late-night arrival when we showed up a day early and caused you to leap out of bed and venture cautiously down from the bedroom to see who the home invaders were.  They were us, and Richard was discovered red-handed, munching dangerously on purloined Wasa Brot!

Mucking out the house, filled with Patrice’s stuff, Richard’s stuff, Patrice’s Dad’s stuff, Richard’s Mom’s stuff, and our respective kids’ stuff, as well as boatloads of books and masses of music, turned out to be a journey of exhaustion leading to despair.  We thought it would never end.

Despite all the chaos and confusion, we eventually got it done.  Like labor, the end of a gargantuan life change like this becomes so painful that you want it over no matter how much it hurts.

And so we took off from West Hartford, Connecticut, home to Richard for six years and Patrice for nearly thirty, and headed for our nine-month trip around the world.  It will all be worth it.  We hope.

So when are we coming back?  We might, but we have no plans to at this point.  Our minds wander to thoughts of Oregon, California, Hawaii, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy… who knows where we’ll end up.






Get ready, on your marks..

First task… move out of our house and get ready for the start of our travels…

Move every blessed possession out of house: accomplished! Every single item was either moved into a 10×10 storage cubicle, loaded into trash bags, donated, or put into our two cars in preparation for the big trip. This project had a special logistical challenge – combining two tasks together, like packing for a long trip, AND moving all your stuff. This has the effect of making me feel at sea (pun intended) and without an anchor. How do you pack for a trip if you home base is scattered in various boxes, bags and open laundry baskets? And this past week I have done more manual labor than I recall ever doing even in my twenties, having assembled and sealed dozens of boxes, loaded same in my car, and made at least 10 runs to the storage facility, wherein I hauled a flatbed cart loaded to the gills up a steep ramp, and pulled it through the labyrinth of hallways which light up as you enter, and arrange the boxes carefully. I tapped reserves I didn’t know I had or needed, then blew through the reserve reserves. As a result I am a bit ragged. After we moved everything, and I mean everything, I suggested we celebrate by having burgers and drinks at Max Burger. We were a sweaty mess, but they liked our money so they let us in.
I think we deserve at least a round of Huzzah’s, what do you say?

The adventure begins

In a little bit less than a month, we step on a plane and fly to Dublin.  In the meantime we have a lot to do, and are busy preparing… for what we will bring but also music that we will perform in Edinburgh at St Marks Church.