Friday, December 12, 2008


I'm mostly a steady, law-abiding guy. Never been to prison, never even come close. I'm one of the few out there driving a vehicle who actually pay attention to those signs on the side of the road. You know -- those signs with the numbers? "Speed limits," I think they're called. I'm just not a wild and crazy guy.

Aging can certainly have a mellowing effect, but really, I've just never been one of those guys who needs to find out how far he can stretch the law before it snaps. It just doesn't give me a thrill.

I do, however, seem to have a capacity for a rather scary level of intensity. Recently I looked at a photo of myself from freshman year of high school -- a cross-country team photo. I couldn't help but notice the quiet intensity in the eyes of that scrawny kid. It was as if, sitting too long in one place, I just might burn a hole through the mantle of the earth. With that capability I'd make a splendid arch-criminal. But that would be rude and I don't like being rude.

Still, some things do stir me deeply and, where some would cross the line, I go and jump the fence.

Waves do that to me. I simply love to paddle in them. Sometimes -- as in Dick Silberman's photo above -- they are a manageable challenge; other times they're just too much. On those really big days, while some twenty-mile-per-hour-over-the-speed-limit-driver would look at the waves and say "Whoa!" -- I'd calmly and intently think, "I'm going in."

While amid them I'd notice my knees literally shaking, and after a brief glorious display of my talent, I'd find my ego and I, dumped and pummeled on the beach.

The waves are sending me a message, it seems. We have that special line of communication -- not entirely reliable, but eventually something gets through to me. And I accept that sometimes I just need to stay on shore and admire from a safe distance. Sometimes I need to be just a fan.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


... in the wide open spaces on the eastern edge of metropolitan Milwaukee. On this particular day in November, there was no escaping it. We were three -- Doug, Sherri and I -- and gray was all around us. All hint of summer was long blown away by the cold wind; and in the void of summer gone comes the sense of foreboding and something forbidden. All is more serious. So many things can hurt you.

In the summertime lake -- at least in my all too wild imagination -- I see more color, hear gentle sounds, and feel a general sense of lightness in the water and in the air. But with November come more days of gray, and one doesn't even think to go looking for gentleness.

The summertime lake is like a grand benevolent kindergarten teacher, cheerfuly maintaining a graceful order, seeing to it that all -- all the sailboats, fishermen, and kayaks -- are happy and courteous. Everywhere is finger-painting and children's chatter. But by November, the kindergarten teacher is long gone, and in her place is a hard-drinking, unemployed, ne'er-do-well brother-in-law. With him, you step carefully, come well prepared and expect the worst.

On this day, Doug, Sherri and I had the lake almost to ourselves. To the south, along the breakwall, there were a few duckhunters on the water. In the main harbor, near the USS Freedom, there were several small nimble law-enforcement boats skittering about, maintaining a protective perimeter around the newly commissioned warship.

That is to say, except for Doug, Sherri and I, everyone out there was well-armed and on a mission. This is the lake in November.

On this day the waves were moderate -- some over our heads, but not too steep nor with much spilling -- easily manageable by skilled, experienced paddlers. Yet there's enough power in each wave to not let us forget that the lake could let loose with one itty-bitty "ka-CHOO!" and we'd all be scrambling to stay upright. On days like this you cut the nonsense and leave it onshore. That's one of the things I love about late autumn paddling -- being out there in the wilds of metropolitan Milwaukee with two friends whose skills I know and trust, and who feel the same way about me. On this particular day, there was no better place to be.