Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sam Thinks He Can . . .Modernize His Annual Holiday Letter (v.2)

Note: From 1992-1998 and 2004-2006, I wrote and distributed a holiday letter chronicling the exploits of the Stern Family and their animals. This year, I wrote a much shorter than usual version with the understanding that the juicy stuff would be on my blog. The hard copy distributed as the 2007 Stern Family Holiday Letter appears below this blog entry. Thanks for reading. PLEASE leave comments. It's the only way to get me to stop or to encourage me, depending on your point of view.
Have a great holiday and 2008!

As promised, and with all due respect to Paul Harvey, here’s the rest of the story, with graphics. As I write this, the sun is setting over the fresh snow. The horses are coming in for their evening meal. Five of them will spend the night in the barn. Six will stay outside. Deb is enjoying Phil’s company as she gets the animals settled for the evening. He’s home for a few days and I am thankful to have the family together.

2007 started with a snore. After a co-worker observed me unintentionally sleeping at my desk, and Deb observed me constantly awaking during a nap on a drive home from South Dakota, I was persuaded to undergo a sleep study. As instructed, I brought my own pillow. Some genius decided that by bringing a pillow from home, I'd be able to ignore the wires, patches, machinery, strange surroundings, anxiety and strict instructions to fall asleep that go along with the pillow. Then, when I thought it couldn't get worse, a nurse came into the room after I'd been tossing and turning for a few hours, strapped a mask over my nose and tells me, “Here, this should help.” Ground Control to Major Tom: Unh uh.

As a result of my study, the doctors confirmed I had sleep apnea, that I was waking up 70 times an hour, that my oxygen levels were dropping to dangerous levels and that I was losing brain cells. The last observation set off a light in my head (apparently dimmer than it had once been) and I acquiesced in the suggested remedy. I now play Jacque Cousteau at night when I go to sleep and wear a breathing contraption that, all kidding aside, seems to have solved the problem, eliminated my snoring and keeps the big dog off the bed.

Thankfully, once the apnea was dealt with, other than Deb being put out of commission for a couple of weeks this Fall when she was thrown from a horse and hurt her shoulder, we all enjoyed a healthy year.

I made my first pilgrimage to Las Vegas in years with a client in February. The photographs of the Strip were taken from my room at the Bellagio. We had a great time, made greater by the realization that the hotel was comping our rooms and meals, and I managed to survive the four days on a limited gambling budget, returning home with $40 more than I left with and bearing gifts. The highlight of the trip was winning a large payout on a “Green Acres” nickel slot machine, complete with caricatures of Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor. Given my move to Meadow Breeze Farm, I HAD to play the machine and was rewarded for my efforts. Temporarily, anyway. The other highlight was a day spent with cousin Susan Feigon and her significant other, Ric Kral, who live in Henderson. Susan has her own business placing domestic help with folks who can afford it and is never at a loss for a good “Upstairs, Downstairs” story. With names redacted, of course.

Deb joined me in Florida in early March to experience the Little Everglades Steeplechase, described in my December 13th “Sam Thinks He Can . . .Take Decent Snapshots” blog. Our friend Allison Butash graciously agreed to look after the horses, dogs and cats for the four days we were gone. Allison keeps her own horse at a nearby barn and was experienced in the needs of horses. However, she refers to her four days at Meadow Breeze as “equine boot camp”, having gotten a true sense of just how much work is actually involved in the care of livestock. Allison’s unwitting graciousness allowed Deb and me to be away together for more than one night for the first time in three years. We spent the first night near Sarasota. We had dinner on St. Armand’s Circle, fulfilling a goal I had set in 1979 and in 1986 when I had last visited Sarasota sans Deb. We also managed to engage in Deb’s favorite activity that doesn’t include horses, i.e., sitting on the beach reading. Not so much for me but I did manage to find a nearby bar that was a suitable alternative.

The steeplechase was once again an extraordinary event. Kevin and Andie Campbell, working this year with son Mike, have successfully promoted the event to the point that it earns enough to contribute to several local charities without additional generosity from Bob and Sharon Blanchard. 16,000 fans attended the event. I was working, shooting more than 1,000 images over the course of the day. Deb had a marvelous time, paying particular attention, from behind the jumps, to the construction of the hurdles and the way the jockeys and horses approached each one. From her eventing point of view, that was the interesting point of view. 15,999 other spectators watched as the horses approached rather than receded. I’m looking forward to my third year as event photographer and being back down in Dade City, Florida in early March.

Spring brought college graduation celebrations in Duluth and Madison. By a stroke of fortunate scheduling, the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin held their graduation ceremonies a week apart, enabling our attendance at both. By an even more fortunate happenstance, Minnesota was scheduled first, thereby allowing Phil to graduate before his sister. Phil’s Van Wilder approach to college served him well and allowed him to befriend the entire student body of several graduating classes over the years. However, Phil’s successful pursuit of a teaching degree led him to want admission to the real world in order to continue his work with school children. Coach Phil, whose 8th grade girl’s basketball team won the Duluth city championship, must now be content with “Legend” status as he roams the corridors of Fitger’s Inn.

Ellie’s graduation carried bittersweet connotations as it meant breaking up the “roomies”. Technology being what it is, Ellie is never really not in a position to share everything but wardrobe with Caroline, Kelly and Stephanie. Somehow, though, the four seniors epitomized the joys and relative carefree nature of college life. Deb and I had a great time watching our baby march with her class. I, of course, watched through a camera lens. By now, I’m used to watching my children’s accomplishments through a lens. My modified vision was rewarded by capturing the “face in the crowd” shot I had imagined beforehand when thinking about the signature moment of my own graduation from UCLA captured by my father.

Ellie moved back to the farm in the summer. She spent the Fall at the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Community Technical College taking science courses to round out her résumé. As I write this, Ellie is working on her essays to apply to nursing school. Hopefully, from our perspective, she will find a suitable school close to home in Minnesota. However, “more vibrant” surroundings seem to have her attention.

Deb enjoyed a full summer of equestrian activities. Except for a brief hiatus after getting tossed from Bacio and hurting her shoulder, there was, knock wood, no downtime recovering from a horse-related accident. Unfortunately, Super Trouper disappointed in competition and Deb began the process of replacing him after nearly 7 years of training.
I hope I’m missed half as much when I’m gone. I’m fairly certain it won’t take two guys to take up the slack, especially if new companions Beso and Oliver Twist hang around for the next 25 years.

My summer was not particularly eventful. I spent it dealing with issues at work brought on by idiot bureaucrats at the Minnesota Department of Human Services. The old adage about fighting city hall is particularly meaningful when the opponent is the State. I’m looking forward to having the treatment center exonerated in 2008 and expect to hold the idiots accountable. The other old adage, “La vendetta è un piatto da gustare freddo”, is also particularly meaningful.

Both Deb and I took time away from the farm over the summer. She joined Phil in South Dakota for ten days in June and July to help in the family fireworks business. Ellie also made the trek so I took care of things while the boss was away. I spent Labor Day weekend in the woods outside Bayfield, Wisconsin with friend Jim Tierney at the Baystock Music Festival. This was the festival's 27th year. Jim was one of the three founders of the event and we arrived like the Rolling Stones on tour in a 35' RV. Parking it on the wooded campsite was exciting, especially since I turned down an offer of a shot of whiskey to give me the courage to try. I ended up acting as event photographer and memorialized every band and performer and many of the 500+ happy campers over three days of music.

Life on the farm proves more enjoyable as time goes by. I’m probably just getting older and more appreciative of the slower pace. I’m also continuously amazed at the “stuff” we need now that we didn’t need in Minnetonka. This year’s wow purchase was a manure spreader (found on Craig’s List of all places). It’s basically a wooden wagon that, but for it’s intended use, would be fun for the kids to get pulled around in. There’s a belt drive that moves the loaded you-know-what out the back when engaged. I found the contraption fairly clever and symbolic of the 180 degree turnabout from living in the suburbs where you walked around the yard with a shovel picking up after the animals.

Our parents are holding their own for the most part. Deb’s presence is needed more often in South Dakota as Ken and Georgia rely on her for support as they deal with the challenges of aging. My dad and his significant other, Sandy, purchased a lot in Yuma, Arizona and put up a manufactured home on the site. Dad, now officially retired, spent much of October, November and December in Yuma, overseeing the finishing work on the construction. He and Sandy plan on spending future winters in Yuma and summers in Minnesota. Dad’s in good health and works out daily when in town in the fitness center of his Eden Prairie apartment. Unfortunately, so do several Vikings football players. I’ve decided that the reason the Vikings have had such a tough time since Dad moved to Eden Prairie is because the players sharing a gym with Dad, who used to work out for hours, now take the position, “Irv’s done; I’ve had enough”.

In October, I drove to Chicago to visit my Aunt Marion and Uncle Norman Glicksberg on the occasion of Uncle Norman’s 80th birthday. Besides enjoying the time with cousins on my mother’s side of the family, I had the opportunity to spend time with former D.C. roommate Norm Shapiro and his wife, Lilli, and with former law school classmate Mike Tepper and his wife Laura. Mike had me show him how to load photographs onto his computer and then burn a CD. This would not be remarkable except that Mike has represented, and now works with, CDW founder Michael Krazny. It’s a classic example of the cobbler’s kids going barefoot.

The Stern family also had a great family reunion in November when nephew Elliott had his Bar Mitzvah. Jordan and his family flew in from Connecticut. Susan and Ric left the heat of Las Vegas for the cold of Minnesota. Aunt Bunny Levitus came in from Florida. Elliott was magnificent, making us all incredibly proud. It is apparent that Harlan and Amy have instilled a deep sense of Judaism in Elliott and not just for the Bar Mitzvah. I was given the honor of chanting from the Torah and got through it with the help of Hazzan Mitchell Kowitz. Dad kvelled as all but one of his grandchildren were assembled in St. Paul for the event and it was great to see how well they all got along. This was, in part, aided by Ellie’s observation that 6 of the 8 cousins were of age and they all went out together after services Friday night.

No Stern Holiday Letter would be complete without an update on the menagerie. Isn't it cute that I used to think it important to report on the menagerie when it consisted of a dog, a couple of cats, a horse and a snake? While saying goodbye to Super Trouper was traumatic, we are happy to report that the rest of the critters are doing fine. Besides acquiring horses Beso and Oliver Twist, Ellie's friend Liz Lund delivered Johnny Cash, an adorable female kitten, to join Jasmine, Peanut Butter and Monkey in the thus far successful quest to keep the mice from overrunning Meadow Breeze Farm. The cats share the barn with horses Rick, Gigi, Bacio fka Bucky, Beso and Oliver. Canines Shorty and C.J. still feel like they've won the lottery, enjoying their rural surroundings while chasing deer, horses and the occasional skunk through the pastures. Equine boot camp duty also requires caring for loved ones entrusted to us: Winsome, Namir, Josh, Frankie, Red, Kostar and Viska. The latter two are Icelandic horses whom I call to in what Danish friend Peter Porta would refer to as my "Scandahoovian" accent. It's quite the crowd, but it helps define the experience of farm living.

Finally, I started blogging in November. If you read my other blogs, including the archived one (dated November 11) on my dear departed friend and mentor, Louis Meyers, you’ll get a sense of what starts going through your mind when you're drinking well water. I don't know if it's any good. I don't have a large readership. But it's been a nice release and about the time my "blog guilt" gets bad, I seem to find something else to say.

I’d better quit before I throw in another adage. We wish you a happy and healthy 2008 and encourage you to drop by Meadow Breeze Farm when you’re in the area. If the weather’s right, I’ll show you how to operate the manure spreader.

P.S. Finally made it to A Prairie Home Companion, courtesy of friend Becky Schlegel, who performed that night. Of course I had a camera:


Chas Leck said...

Sam, I really enjoyed your modernized, electronic, on-line holiday letter. Congratulations of the accomplishment. It was great to get to know more about you and your family.
Chas Leck

Peter said...

Are you going to modernize another letter this year?