Going Back, Moving Forward

This summer we traveled West for a vacation with our granddaughter, visiting family in the town where I grew up. I knew much had changed in the area over the forty-some years since I moved out of state and I was curious to see what still remained and what I could remember of certain places. Our visit took us to Virginia City, Lake Tahoe, Pyramid Lake, and even a day trip over to San Francisco. Indeed much had changed but the overall contours and places had stayed remarkably similar to what I remembered.

In 1970 Reno was a bustling, medium-sized town of 101,000. The growth rate seems to have peeked at 5.1 percent in 1973, perhaps a boom ushered in by Californians fleeing their state. Not at all strange, those fleeing Californians are blamed for many of Reno’s ills (traffic? rising housing costs? You bet!). That rapid growth implied a steady influx of people pursuing jobs and new homes, bringing changes to the quiet urban landscape I remembered. 

Over the intervening years, Reno’s growth rate would slowly drop, peaking once more, at 3.9% in 1993. Since then the rate has steadily fallen. Population stands at 514,000 today, roughly 3 1/2 times what it was when I graduated high school, now with a yearly growth rate just under 2 percent a year. 

Reno Historical Growth from Macrotrends.net retrieved 2021/08/02

For contrast, Loudoun County where I live, has an estimated population of 429,570 with a growth rate of 1.90% in the past year according to the most recent United States census data. Yet we are ranked (and folks complain!) as one of the fastest growing counties in America. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.

Loudoun County ranks 20th out of 3,142 US counties in growth according to the website https://siteselection.com/issues/2018/may/loudoun-county-10-ways-loudoun-county-virginia-is-no-1.cfm

My family had moved five times during the years I lived in the Washoe Valley region. This summer’s journey began with a drive past our first home in Sparks where we had moved in 1953. Our home, like so many others at the time, was part of a tract subdivision and we were the first ones to occupy it. All the homes looked alike, street after street of small, one story buildings. My parents built the one-car garage and to this day, few of the remaining homes have a garage. But the passage of time and the region’s droughts have been unkind. The house still stands almost 70 years after it was built but appears old and unpainted, the grassy front yard and many of its neighbors’ having been replaced by dirt patches, weeds, and brush. 

We quickly drove on to visit my first elementary school, the painted  cinderblock walls of which still stand out in my memory. The school appeared much as I had remembered it and I was encouraged to see children playing on the playground equipment. The church I had attended growing up, First United Methodist Church, still stands and looks to have expanded over the past half century. That was encouraging too.

We drove past the elementary school and also the first house we lived in after we moved from Sparks to Reno. Roger Corbett Elementary School is located across the street from my high school and it was great to see how well kept they both appeared. The house where we had lived, not so much. 

Perhaps due to the high cost of land and the scarcity of available property “close in” (short commute), many of the older communities and subdivisions here in Northern Virginia are experiencing a second life. Smaller homes are being remodeled and enlarged, or in some cases replaced all together. The area’s mature landscaping contributes to the livability of older neighborhoods and we quite often find people wanting to move in, rather than out, of these neighborhoods. 

In Reno the opposite seems to have taken place. While the shortage of water has had a great effect on landscaping in general, the introduction of xeriscaping has altered much of what I remembered homes and yards looked like. And all the new, much larger homes have been built farther and farther away from the areas I grew up in leaving the older communities appearing…smaller. It’s as if all the two-story homes are located up in the hills surrounding Reno while the bungalows and craftsman homes, the mid century modern and Spanish-revival homes were left behind in the valley. 

Yet there has been an incredible revival in the closer-in areas just beyond the Downtown core. The new area of Midtown is now a bustling community of galleries, restaurants, vintage shops and breweries and cafes, many decorated “to the nines” in a vibrant landscape of murals. 

Quite a few of the stores and even regional shopping malls that I grew up with have closed or are now being replaced with mixed use development. I was surprised to see so many of the large hotel casinos (not—too big to fail) have closed and many of them still stand empty. But some of them have been repurposed bringing new life to struggling areas. One such where we stopped for lunch, the former Riverside Hotel on the Truckee River, is now a building housing artists’ apartments and studios. The six story brick building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, originally built in 1927. Unfortunately many of the other historic buildings in Reno’s downtown have been destroyed, replaced by larger hotel casinos or apartment buildings. 

Our visit began with a side trip to see my kindergarten school and we ended our tour of education facilities with a walk thru the campus of my alma mater, University of Nevada Reno (1974). It was here that the size and scope of change really made an impact on me. The University was founded as a land grant college in 1874; Morril Hall was the first campus building occupied in 1886 and still stands. There were 8,023 students when I graduated in 1974. More than 21,000 students attend now and the university occupies 180 buildings over 290 acres. New buildings sit where before I remembered were only parking lots. Courtyards, walkways, and new intersections abound, as well as multi-level parking garages. A general plan seeks to better integrate the University with the downtown area of Reno just a few blocks to the south of the main campus entrance. Having outlived it’s reputation as the Divorce Capital of the World, the new emphasis on corporate/educational partnerships should help to redefine Reno as more than just a gambling town!

My hometown has changed physically more than I had expected over the past 40+ years; but much of that change has been good for it. I belong to a Facebook Group called “You lived in Reno in the 60s and 70s if you remember …” and there are always posts from people lamenting how much the City has changed. Nostalgia has a way of softening the edges when viewed through those rose-colored granny glasses, I think. I don’t see as well as I used to, and I would agree that you can’t go back to the way things were (thankfully!) But sometimes its nice to turn a corner and see exactly what you had expected would be there, even if its the 7-11 around the corner from where we lived. The indoor shopping mall where I worked while attending college is gone, but the mini mart around the corner from my Dad’s house is still there. Hopefully we will get back out west for another visit before things change too much!

What I Want You to Know

This year, well actually tomorrow, our first granddaughter turns thirteen. I have taken so many pictures of her over the years, many on my iPad or sitting in frames around the house, that I’m having a hard time seeing her as the young woman she is becoming. I see her, but really I see That Little Two-year-old in the ladybug costume at Halloween. Or the child in the pink hoodie and purple straw hat, holding a flower she had just picked from the yard. Sometimes I see the young girl in shorts and a helmet sitting on a pony, unsure if she wants down or to keep on riding. 

Living in such close proximity we’ve had the extraordinary blessing of being able to see her and her sister regularly. Growing up, my grandparents lived in another state. We saw them only occasionally for holidays, or perhaps when they passed thru town pulling their travel trailer behind the big Oldsmobile on their way to my aunt and uncle’s home in Oregon for the summer. Our visits were always brief, the years passed quickly seemingly marked by the exchange of school pictures we sent them annually. 

My wife and son got to meet my grandmother only once. We arrived at my aunt and uncle’s home in time to join in a birthday celebration for Grandma. She was 98 that year and though her eyesight was failing, still her health and spirits were good. The excitement of opening gifts, cake and ice cream, meeting my family and talking more than she was used to must have been taxing on her. She soon retired to her small room to rest. It was the last time we would see her. She died two years later, just days shy of turning 100.

Oh, I love my new hat!

All that to say, what time we had spent with grandparents over the years wasn’t spent in reminiscing or talking about the past. Other than what could be gleaned from a few black and white photos, I know very little about the lives of my grandparents. 

So I was encouraged when my wife Deb picked up a special gift for our granddaughter. It’s in the form of a journal, really a collection of letters that you write, to be opened at a later date. It’s called “Letters to My Grandchild,” with the clever subtitle “A Paper Time Capsule.”

There are twelve prepackaged envelopes in booklet form. Nicely packaged, beautiful graphics and stickers remind one of those special airmail envelopes from generations ago. Clever titles like “The best advice anyone ever gave me,” or “It may surprise you to learn that…” are great topics for discussion starters. There are envelopes that focus on the past (“One positive change I have seen in the world”) and there are ones that allow a glimpse into the future (“My wishes for you are”).

Over a recent weekend getaway, Deb and I sat down to fill them out, each of us writing a short couple of paragraphs to seal up for the future. For one title, “Here is a special story about our family,” we’ve included the story about our drive through Florida during Hurricane Frances-2004. Not one of my better decisions, but the story of a rescue by strangers will hopefully be encouraging to her. 

The teen years can be challenging for everyone—the teen, her parents and siblings, and even grandparents who have a rough time seeing the person of today and not the small child of our memories. It’s important to recognize and see the person standing before us and not the imagined child from the photo albums if we are to be allies and mentors. Watching them grow up, we have been blessed to live in close proximity to our young extended family— Lord knows I can’t see myself pulling a 22 ft. trailer cross country to visit grandchildren!

Living Between the Rocks

The Summer of COVID has brought uncountable change to our lives. Weddings, graduations, reunions, church services, movie theater closings, bars and restaurants pivoting to curbside pickup: our daily routines have been upended in ways too numerous to catalog. While news reports continue to make note of the ever increasing numbers of “test positives”, the shear number of lives lost these past six months has gone past shocking. We become less sensitive, perhaps, to the backbeat of daily reminders of the fragility, and temporal nature of our lives.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

phrase [PHRASE after verb] If you are caught between a rock and a hard place, you are in a difficult situation where you have to choose between two equally unpleasant courses of action.

I’ve challenged myself to get out and walk the neighborhood these last few months of summer. The road back from my knee surgery has been a slow one, and I’m reconciled to the thought that I will likely never run a 10 kilometer race again. But I hope to gradually build up to walking six miles a day.

The last visit with my surgeon, I proudly reported that I was up to walking 3-4 miles during the week, in one half to three quarter mile increments. Chest puffed out, I was pretty proud of my accomplishment. I had set a goal of eventually walking a mile, and finally I achieved it. 

But that larger goal still lies before me. Like some great rock in the distance, the challenge of moving towards it motivates me to continue.  If I could walk one mile, would it be possible to increase that to maybe, one and a half? Perhaps even…two miles? 

I’ve been living between these two rocks: behind me, the misplaced fear of slow deterioration, ahead the unachievable goal of remembered youthful accomplishment. However, I’m finding exploring our new neighborhood at my admittedly slower pace, has given me a greater appreciation for the world around me and my place in it.

Along the walking paths in our neighborhood we continue to find painted rocks, small stones of encouragement left for walkers to discover. My granddaughter and I have left a few of our own creations as well. 

There seemed to be more rocks discovered during the first few weeks of our quarantine. Lately, not so many, perhaps a jewel-toned design or a smiley face left in the notch of a tree, but now usually nothing on my daily walk. 

This past week I found three, likely by the same artist, rock-solid encouragement as we walk the path before us. “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Those are trustworthy rocks. 

Home Made

John Landis Mason invented the Mason Jar on November 30, 1858. In 1884, Ball Corporation began manufacturing glass home-canning jars, the product that established Ball as a household name and licensed Mason’s design.

I didn’t grow up in a household where we canned fruits and vegetables. Living in the suburbs, our garden only had a few tomato plants, a few green vegetables and the occasional zucchini plant. It was our small version of a Victory Garden but it never produced much more than we could eat that summer.

However, my Dad’s sister and her family always had a huge garden and they canned as much as possible. Back during the late 50’s and on into the 60s, I remember visiting the cousins “on the ranch”  and helping pick blackberries, cherries, apples, and a variety of smaller vegetables that they would preserve. I have great memories of helping cook apples for apple butter, making watermelon pickles, and helping prepare the jars and lids for canning. It was a lot of work and the large country kitchen was full of small helpers, my cousins and I each with an assigned task.

I think it was that sense of sharing in a generations-old activity that encouraged me to try canning with my granddaughter. 

What is America’s favorite flavor? According to data based on the U.S. Census data and Simmons National Consumer Survey (NHCS), 163.97 million Americans consumed strawberry jams, jellies and preserves in 2019. So strawberry jam was on our list to try.

Nearly 128 million consumed grape jams or jellies. Raspberry, blackberry, and apricot round out the top five flavors, though considerably farther behind (50; 38; and 33 million). So we bought fresh strawberries from the market and a gallon jug of Welch’s grape juice to make strawberry jam and grape jelly. 

If you haven’t tried your hand at home made preserves, it’s surprising how much time is involved in preparing utensils, boiling water, sterilizing bottles and lids, cutting up fruit, measuring sugar and many other little tasks. While I got our little production underway, Cadence cut up the strawberries we had purchased.

Our assembly line worked pretty smoothly, the kitchen was filled with the smell of ripe strawberries, and the introduction to an element of frontier living went better than I could have hoped. We’ve got enough bottled preserves to last us through the winter, and though we never did make the pickles I had promised her, there is still time to try this summer.

While searching online for recipes and where to purchase mason jars, I was really surprised to see the many creative uses for mason jars that people have been inspired to share. The website freshpreserving in particular, had a lot of fun DIY projects for jars. The locking ring and lid are particular features of the mason jar. However, the website masonjars marketplace has an array of accessories to replace the traditional lid with pour spout lids, dispensor pumps, or spray tops to make reusable glass storage ware.

The wedding industry doesn’t seem to have slowed down in their love of rustic, DIY presentation and the mason jar has a proud position at the table as well as in lighting and other creative uses. And whatever your style, Etsy has it covered with over 51,000 entries alone for “mason jar decor.” That’s a pretty good heritage for John Mason and his glass container patent for the “Improvement In Screw-Neck Bottles.” It was the first hermetically re-sealable glass jar (US 22186A). His improvements, coupled with a rubber washer, transformed the capabilities of the home canning industry and solidified Mason’s place in history. (masonjars.com/history)

Mason jar wine glasses, a little bit country.
Wedding decor with firefly lighting and themed drink ware.
Rustic mason jar bird feeder.

Summer Projects

As any parent knows, the summer vacation time between the end of school and the Labor Day weekend can be a challenge. For students who are experiencing a breath of freedom (no more teachers, no more books!) the summer weeks stretch out ahead in full, unscheduled promise. For parents however, each day brings the challenge of organizing activities, educational or entertaining, and making the most of each opportunity. But this year, summer camps and weekend outings, trips to the zoo or King’s Dominion, have all been changed. 

As grandparents of a tween (twelve going on twenty) this summer has brought even greater challenges than usual. Our vacation plans for Florida were canceled early in the aftermath of Covid-19 shutdowns. Still, we have been blessed with great weather and outdoor venues are beginning to return to a degree of normalcy, even if that means 50% occupancy and social distancing. 

Yet each day stands before us demanding answers, hours to be filled, adventures to be planned whether large or small.

And that is what brought us to painting rocks for the neighborhood. The past several weeks we have spotted painted rocks hidden among the tree trunks and leaves along our walking path. Well, we have smooth river rocks in the garden; a wide assortment of acrylic paints in my studio; plenty of time to add our own creations to the neighborhood collection. Let’s do this.

The best outcome of all? The project took a couple of days to complete. We had to first paint our rocks with white, then a background color. Then decide on patterns and designs. Our project culminated in a walk thru the woods to distribute our creations. It’s a small act of charity, the opportunity to serve others in a creative way; I’m hoping that these little seeds will slowly take root and flourish. 

Our summer vacation plans may have been changed in unexpected ways. But the endless possibilities still remain.

Fear of Falling

46 years ago I walked across the grass to receive my college diploma with a degree in Fine Arts. After four years of drawing, painting, and sculpting nearly every day, I was anxious to explore a career in making art. And then one job lead to another, and time passed. I’ve since retired from a career in communications (my minor in English helped with that) and graphic arts. 

painting outdoors
My granddaughter enjoying a little painting time outdoors.

But somewhere through those years I put my brushes and paints down. Except for a few years as a scenic painter for our church’s Easter productions, I haven’t painted on canvas at all. Scenic painting lead to decorative painting, but still nothing with the same scale and intent as what I had set out to accomplish 40 something years earlier. 

This week, with the closing of AC Moore crafts stores, I picked up a few canvases at 40% off. The shelves had been picked clean of their paints so I had to stock up elsewhere. Random thought: prices on acrylics have risen ALOT in 40 years. But now I’m ready to start again.

A friend online posted a bit of encouragement. I responded that I was hoping to “catch it again.” Nature or nurture? Training or talent? If you let the lightning out of the bottle, can you catch it again? I suppose that uncertainty has partially been the reason I haven’t been more prolific as an artist. At some point though, you have to overcome your (very real) fear of falling if you want to walk again, let alone create. My granddaughter has admonished me several times, “ You have to face your fears, Papa.”

Challenge accepted.

Painting with jar of paintbrushes
Something old, something new. It’s time to create.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Papa Takes a Trip to Hot Topic

Today we took our granddaughter out for a little pre-Christmas shopping. If we were lucky enough to find something she liked, well then, bonus. If not, it was time well spent with someone we love and don’t see that often.

How do you think these look?

Our “final destination” was AC Moore, a regional arts and crafts supply store that was featuring “everything must go” sale prices. It seemed like a good opportunity to pick up art supplies for Christmas gifts. But first: a trip to Hot Topic.

Hot Topic stores have been around for years, since 1989 to be exact. Wikipedia describes them as

a retail chain specializing in counterculture-related clothing and accessories, as well as licensed music. The stores are aimed towards an audience interested in rock music and video gaming, and most of their audience ranges from teens to young adults.

I don’t think I’ve been in a Hot Topic store for at least 20 years, possibly even longer. So it felt a bit like venturing into foreign territory, vaguely familiar but still unsettling to someone who knows nothing about the rock music or video-gaming culture. But here I was being towed in by a pre-teen wearing a Hero Academie hoodie and furry cat ears. We fit right in. 30 minutes later we walked out with our purchases and a new appreciation for a world I’m just beginning to explore.

One final note: my niece commented online that her grandfather never would have taken her to Hot Topic. So I’m one up on my Dad after all, though I’m still glad I ventured out with my own 12-year old cultural interpreter.