A Railroad Trail

Three hundred yards behind the house where I grew up was a railroad track. Now its a beautiful bike trail.

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The railroad tracks provided an important hub of activity of my childhood. It was a small, rather insignificant line which traveled from Butler PA to Freeport and beyond, but as a young boy, it was as if Commodore Vanderbilt himself had named this line the most important one in the world. The rambunctious young country kids would hang out at the tracks, putting our ear on the steel rails as we tried to listen for the vibration from an oncoming locomotive. I always felt like a Cheerokee warrior when I did that, trying to hear the rumbling of the cowboy posse coming my way. When it did arrive, we would stand on the side banks signaling for the engine to blow its whistle and throwing stones at the freight cars. The best part, however, was when the caboose arrived, we would yell and scream and, invariably, an engineer would poke his head out of the back and throw us candy. Yeah, it was the greatest thing in the world. And it kept getting better.

One summer we heard that Conrail had purchased our tracks. I had no idea what that meant only that Conrail was, at the time, the largest railroad company in the world. That proved the importance of my little track. The largest company in the world ran freight behind my house. I spent hours there. Picking berries along the route. Putting pennies on the track to be amazed at how the train flattened them into smooth oval metal charms. I would use the rails as balancing beams and see how far I could walk on them without touching down. There were certain parts of the tracks which entered the “cliff” sections. We always joshed with each other about how not to get caught in these sections when the train approached or we would have to cling on the rocks hoping the train wouldn’t ever suck us under its weight. It was a real fear of mine. Of course, nothing so dramatic ever happened, but the perceived danger heightened the wonderfulness of it all. Here’s one of those “cliffs”. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I could have figured something out.

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After I went off to college, the line eventually shut down. Years later the tracks were removed and the community was in an uproar as to what would happen to the railroad land. Of course land owners who buttressed up against the tracks wanted it to revert to them. But the community leaders had different plans and they went about creating a bicycling trail. There were lawsuits and many obstacles along the way, but what they have created is a beautiful long bike trail through the charming and beautiful Pennsylvania countryside. Someone got this one right. Now this narrow strip of land is creating new memories for families and kids which will last for another generation.

There’s nothing quite as awesome as a railroad. But a bike trail isn’t a far off second.

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The trees in the background hide the elevated railroad tracks/trail which were built to cut the valley in two.

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A view from the trail. That’s my childhood house nestled between the branches.

 

 

 

 

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Sally, Where are you?

I’ve been rummaging through boxes of old mementos, and I came across a letter from a former student of mine. Here name was Sally. That’s not her real name. She’s Chinese from Dalian where I spent the summer of 1993. I remember her well. She taught me to play Chinese chess, which I have since forgotten. She had a bubbly personality and was a pleasure to chat with. When I left China, we exchanged a few letters and as time would have it, the summer of 1993 faded from our memories. The letters stopped as our lives continued in new directions. But I still remember Sally. Here’s the short letter she wrote to me that I found today:

“Mark, how are you? I’m eagerly to hear from you. I’m too busy to write to you. I have a lot word to talk with you, about my new work. So I write another letter to you. Post a book you’d like to read. ‘Selected Stories of Lu Hsun” and a very traditional Chinese disc. I hope you like it. Ok. God with you!”

Sally  93.02.09

Thank you, Sally. I wish I remembered your Chinese name and knew how to find you, but I don’t. I wonder where you are now. I wonder where your English language skills have taken you. You must be forty years old now with a family. Do you encourage your kids to learn English? Did you stay in Dalian? Have you had a happy life?

People come and go in one’s life. Sally is one who has gone. But I still remember her and I wish that the years have treated her well and that the brief moment I was her teacher in the summer of 1993 played a small role in her being able to accomplish her dreams.

God with you, Sally.

 

Endings Affirm Meaning

An ending knows what it does. It also knows what it means.

An ending forces one to divorce the beautiful. It brutally parts the ways with an uncomfortable finality. An ending sees the past clearly. Perhaps too clearly for comfort. And that is why an ending brings tears, regrets, wishes, and what-might-have-beens.

But an ending knows what it does. And it knows what it means.

If it means a lot. If it hurts beyond what you want to admit, you can be assured of one thing: it was good.

As tears fall, they fall for one reason: there was once something worth crying for. The absence of tears doesn’t necessitate happiness. It could just as well mean that bland life has nothing to awaken the emotions within you. Likewise, the presence of tears does not necessitate pain or loss. It could just as well mean a realization of blessing which is no more. A thankful cry which pronounces growth and understanding. A thankful  heart which acknowledges the shifting of time painting the past in static form slightly out of reach.

But they are nothing to be feared. Endings, that is. Should be embraced. Every tear, every wish, every desire, every difficult step it takes to walk away should be embraced. It is better to walk away from happiness than to run away from adversity. The happiness will sit forever on your heart with memories and experiences that push you one step further in your walk.

I’m thankful for the endings in my life. This is how I know I’m alive. This is how I know that meaning exists. When living in the absence of that which you love, you understand how real the love really was.

 

 

Intersection of Meaning

I snapped this in Georgetown, Penang a while back. I suppose I was just be nostalgic. But what a meeting of forces.

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Kapitan is on Pitt Street.

Two of the best. One one street. Amazing.

Okay, explanation needed. Pitt – as in William Pitt – as in Pittsburgh, the city near and dear to me, a mere 25 miles from where I grew up. I have been a Pirates fan since 1976 when I discovered them on the radio at the age of 9. I’ve never looked back since. Modern Pittsburgh has grown into a wonderful city. I love going to PNC park in the summers whenever I get a chance.

So to find Pitt Street as the location of the famed Kapitan, wow! The stars have aligned. Kapitan is regarded as one of the best, if not best, Indian restaurant in Penang – and Penang has many wonderful Indian restaurants. Crispy chewy naan bread (mine with butter and garlic) to dip in chicken tikka butter masala. Or hey, why not some briyani rice. You can’t go wrong and you’ll walk away with a tone of flavorful overtones which will last a long time.

Two important impressions in my life – one on the palate – one on my memory and heart. And here they are together in the place where I’ve lived for eleven years.

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The Reason is Now Clear

In this article “Mom is Shamed for Cake Slice in Kid’s Lunch,” I have begun to understand why the heavens didn’t want me to raise my kids in the United States. It would not have been pretty.

And unfortunately, this article isn’t an outlier. There are (regrettably) way too many instances of schools telling parents what they can and can’t do that I’m sure I know the reason why I needed to be overseas.

You want other examples?  How about the mother who was chastised for sending her daughter to school with a lunch consisting over a turkey sandwich, chips, a banana, and juice. She was promptly told that her lunch wasn’t healthy enough and was given chicken nuggets to supplement. I wish I was making this up, but I’m not.

Then there was the school which prohibited all students from walking to school, regardless of how close they lived to the school. All students had to be dropped off in a car–even those who lived next door.

And don’t get me started on the “sexual surveys” given out to children as young as six years old in a Los Angeles school district.

It’s articles like these that reinforces why it was I was meant to raise my kids overseas. Because I wouldn’t have been able to take it. I’m a mild-mannered kind of guy, but these …  these are my pet peeves. These I would make a stand against. These I would gladly fight, and like I said, it wouldn’t have been pretty.

I would have sent my kids to school with nothing but chocolate cake for an entire week.

I would have walked my kid to school everyday to force a showdown with the principal.

I  would have left out the banana and sent two bags of chips.

Yes, it’s a good thing for everyone involved that I raised my kids overseas. You know why? Because I got to raise them the way that I saw fit. I got to give them treats when I wanted to. I was able to give them permission to leave the house on their own. Shocking!  Actually, when in Vietnam, our kids used to wake up before us, unlock the front door, and walk down to a little street stall to order breakfast by themselves while their derelict parents slept. It was awesome!  They loved it too. (as did our neighbors)

I  wonder what the school food police would have said about my lunches back in the day. I had two standards: bologna and ketchup on white bread or peanut butter and jelly. My friend brought a PBJ, pringles, and a Twinkie every  day! Every day! I was beyond jealous. He had such good parents.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but in my mind, parenting belongs in the realm of parents. Let schools actually try to teach them about random things like math, English, history, and science.

I’ve never been threatened with arrest, and it’s probably because I raised my kids overseas. The heavens knew what they were doing.

What’s the Future of Complication Like?

I’ve been thinking about my recent blog post The Good Old Less Complicated Days and started wondering about my kids: will they look back upon the 2010s as the “Good Old Less Complicated Days?”

The premise of my post was this: our modern world has become so complicated that I sometimes wonder if life before gadgets and computers was actually better. At the very least, I wish we could visit the past every once in a while, but honestly, I’m too addicted to my technology. Grrrr. At least I admit it.

What prompted such nostalgia was a weekend of doing taxes, college admission documents, Obamacare health issues, and documents for my new job. It was all overwhelmingly complicated and I started to think if this is the kind of society we really wanted to create.

But what really got my noggin exploding was the possible thought that my kids, some thirty years in the future, might look back at the 2010s and wish for “The Good Old Less Complicated Days?”

Will they wish for the tax code of 2017?  Will they long for the student loan and FAFSA processes of today?  Will they wax fondling about Obamacare’s easy navigation compared to what President 2047 institutes?  Will they harbor longings of love and fond feelings for the bureaucratic red tape of the Obama and Trump years?

Seriously. Computers and gadgets are supposed to make our lives easier, but I’m not sure it’s working out so well.

My solace is that my kids have actually experienced simple life at its finest. They all grew up for a good part of their childhood in Vietnam.  This is the Vietnam before shopping malls and cell phones and Internet. My kids road bikes, played rubber band games with their neighbor friends, played Vietnamese hopscotch, and walked out into the evening street to eat snails with their classmates. They didn’t once post a snail picture for Instagram. The Vietnam they grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s was indeed analogous to my own childhood. Not that anything between the two were remotely alike, but they were simple. And my kids are better for it. I’m sure of it.

But one day I might have grand kids. Oh my, those poor people.

I’ll leave you with a couple photos of my kids in Vietnam. And yes, I get the irony of this post.

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My kids with their adorable friends. Life was simpler then.

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Need further proof? Our street had water buffalo!  Yes, actual water buffalo! Life was simple. (That was our house on the left.)

The Good Old Less Complicated Days

My brain feels like it just experienced a two hour session as a tackle dummy, and no, it has nothing to do with having just watched the Oscars or network TV. It has to do with modern life. Silly old modern life. The kind of lives we lead in this day and age are insane, are they not? Life continually piles on us a minutia of important “necessities” which eventually buries you in a blanket of wet snow. You don’t even know you have a foot of cold stuff on your shoulders until its too late. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to the good old less complicated days?

What have I been doing to that makes me scoff at our modern life?  Taxes.

Yes, I just completed my taxes. I even used an online service which charges way too much, but the ease of use makes it too tempting to complete it any other way. And even with the aid of the Internet and an online service that knows all the ins and outs, I still walk away with a brain full of mush. (I realize some of it might have been there before the taxes, but still …)

We all know how complicated the wizards of Washington have made tax filing,  but if that was the extent of the mind-boggling complications of the modern world, then maybe I could accept it. But it’s not even close.

I’m also working with my son this weekend to complete college documents. We’ve already sunk enough time into the FAFSA. Now we have to do something called verification. I guess we seem shady for some reason. Okay, let’s verify these documents. Hmmm, in order to do this, it reverts back to taxes. What do you know?  I need my 2015 tax returns. Okay, they’re on some digital storage that I have. Here they are. Wait. What’s the password?  Oh, if I forget the password, I can make a new one. Delightful. Let’s login to email.

As if taxes and colleges weren’t enough this weekend, I’ll be moving to my new job in 5.5 months, so it’s time to get cracking. Employment documents. Transcripts. Passport numbers. Addresses and phone numbers of every place I’ll be over the next 5 months.

We modern travelers are surrounded by documents, numbers, and complicated tasks, made easier, yet actually more complicated by our computers. They are amazing at complicating simplification.

So on days like this, I long for the good old uncomplicated days. Example: I remember as a boy, putting on my blue jeans and a t-shirt and going over to our friend’s farm. I would run ahead of the wagon and tractor, gathering into stacks newly formed hay balls, and then throwing them on the wagon and stacking them in unique and creative ways. We’d unload them in the barn, and then the farmer’s mother would call us in for a huge spread of meat, potatoes, bread, home-made root beer, and a variety of pies and cakes. Not one of us checked our cell phones all day. Not one of us worried about tax forms or documents or numbers, except for how many slices of pie we would eat.

I sometimes miss the simplicity of old-fashioned hard work out in the sun. You do your job, then it’s done. There aren’t twenty emails to answer when I got home.

Life back then wasn’t perfect. But it was simpler. I think all of us modern folks could use a little simplification in our lives.