I begin ever year with a look back at the year just ended to review how it was and to count my blessings before the new year starts. In contrast to some recent years, 2017 was comparatively quiet and with less drama. Nevertheless, there were some notable moments.
2017 was the first full year of working for Massachusetts Citizens for Life as director for community engagement. Most notable for me was the rollout of a brand new website that is more than a website and more of a communications platform. It’s built on the Nationbuilder platform and includes built-in event management, ecommerce donations, mailing lists, and relationship manager. I’m still plumbing the depths of what it can do (as well as its limitations), but I’m happy with the change. Apart from that have been several interesting events that we’ve run, including my first time testifying at a legislative hearing on a proposed bill.It was a bit nerve-wracking and exhausting, but I was generally pleased by how it turned out.
My “other job” at the Star Quest Production Network ended the year on a sad note. SQPN’s founder and primary voice, Fr. Roderick Vonhogen, has decided that he needs to collaborate with people closer to where he lives in the Netherlands and to go in a whole new direction with his his online media ministry and so Trideo and SQPN have split. I’m saddened that I will no longer be working with Fr. Roderick, who I’ve listened to for over a decade and who I’m glad has become a friend, and we’re still working on what SQPN is and will become without him. I’m sure we’ll find out in 2018.
The Fathers Show
While it began in late 2016, Fr. Chip Hines and I really hit our stride with our podcast, “The Fathers Show,” in 2017. It helps that we record the show in person and not over Skype. While a remotely recorded podcast can work and be excellent, there’s something about being in the same room that provides a different experience. Every other week, Fr. Chip comes to my house, we talk about what’s interesting to us as a Catholic dad and a Catholic priest, drink a beer, and have some fun. If you haven’t listened before, I recommend you give it a listen.
Home Repair and Improvement
We had the opportunity to make some much-needed home improvements this year. We started out with new manufactured wood floors to replace the old ones that had begun to move around like a bad version of a sliding puzzle game. In the spring we replaced our ancient furnace/boiler with a brand new and much more efficient one, thanks to a generous rebate program through our local energy collaborative. However, it did mean 48 hours with no hot water or heat and a whole day with no water at all. But now we can run hot baths for our kids without having to boil pots of water on the stove.
We also got our chimney and living room ceiling repaired. The chimney was leaking like a sieve, which caused our living room ceiling to leak and get stained. We finally had the resources for repair work, so we got a professional chimney guy to do the chimney and then had professional interior guys in to replace the ceiling. I’m glad we finally did because they found so much mold in the ceiling that when it was all gone, Melanie had a noticeable difference in her asthma and sinus infections. I’m sorry we didn’t do it sooner.
This summer, when my father-in-law came to visit, he started building Melanie long-desired patio in our backyard. She’s wanted one since we moved into this house 9 years ago and so this summer he bought a gazebo/sun shelter and then flew up to build the patio itself. Unfortunately, he put the shelter up first and tried to build the patio under it, which meant some difficult maneuvering. Then he was only able to get about half done before he had to leave and so I spent several days figuring out how to do what needed to be done. The final product isn’t as level as I’d like, but it’s a great addition to our living space.
However, as we end the year, we have a number of expensive repairs looking at us. One of the elements on the electric gave out and that’s going to cost $170 to repair and the over-the-stove microwave oven has started running when you open the door, which isn’t good at all. That should be about $250 to replace. I’m also worried about the dishwasher again and even the refrigerator, which is getting close to being a decade old.
For summer vacation, we had a kind of last-minute opportunity to get a week at the lake house in Maine we’d been able to get two years ago, this time in June. The first few days it was very hot and then got a little more seasonal (i.e. chillier) the rest of the week, but it was sunny every day except the last. We pretty much just swam every day, hung out, did puzzles, played games, and read. It was a quiet and relaxing week. We did have Melanie’s sister Theresa visiting from Texas at the time and she stayed with us the first couple of days in Maine before Melanie had to drive her back to catch a bus to catch a plane back home.
As Melanie and I get older, we have more and more of those little health issues that seem to crop up and I get to look forward to turning 50 next year and getting some, um, invasive tests at my next annual physical. Otherwise, everybody was pretty healthy. Okay, Lucy did have to get a couple of stitches for a nasty gash above her eye right before our lake house vacation and Melanie did have to ask for a suture removal kit from the doctor because we weren’t going to be anywhere near a doctor’s office when they needed to be remove and Melanie did accidentally cut the ends too short so it was near impossible to pull the stitches out with tweezers, but eventually we did and it was all good.
At least we didn’t have any hospital stays in 2017. In fact, everything was going pretty well until December when we caught the plague. The week before flying to Texas (more on that in second), the kids starting getting fevers and coughs. The worst of it came and went the beginning of the week, but the effects lingered into our trip to Texas and then continued to linger when we came back. Anthony and I had the most terrible coughing fits and it was hard to do anything about them as we rushed to get ready for Christmas in one week. Finally, both Anthony and I separately got to see doctors and get some medication that seem to help. That’s when we got the stomach bug from hell. For a period of about 12 hours, four of the five kids were all sick, throwing up over and over. Poor Melanie was up all night, cleaning up vomit, washing load after load of towels, sheets, and clothes. But as we head into the new year, we seem to be better.
Also, while it falls under the topic of health, the fact that Isabella got prescription glasses for the first time isn’t really an ailment. Bella’s new glasses were indeed one of the best things to happen for her this year because she was having so much trouble reading signs and seeing other things that were readily legible to everyone else.
As for the kids themselves, they’re all growing up nicely. Isabella, turning 12 in spring 2018, is almost my height now and acting more and more mature. She’s also a book devourer. We got her a Kindle for her birthday and she’s constantly reading new books and re-reading old books and always has her nose stuck in some book.
Sophia is also maturing and while it’s easy to overlook given Bella’s growth spurt, Sophia is getting tall too. She’s not as much of a book worm as Bella, but she does love her books too. She’s just more measured in how she reads them, very disciplined in a chapter a day at bed time, for instance. Ben and Anthony joined Cub Scouts (which means I did too) and we’re all so very excited about this new experience. I’m especially happy to have them meet other boys and interact with other men in order to develop some socialization skills. I’m also reminded of how well they behave compared to the other boys their age. Lucia is turning 5, but she’s still so wee that it’s easy to forget how old she is … that is until she opens her mouth and says something so very precocious. She’s still very easygoing and mature for her age.
An important milestone this year was Ben’s First Communion. He was so very solemn and excited by it. He’s definitely a “still waters run deep” kind of guy. In fact, after the First Communion, he decided all on his own that he wanted to keep wearing his suit and tie every week. And even now that he’s outgrown his jacket, he still insists on a tie every Sunday. So proud of him.
We took a number of field trips this year, as usual, but because of my work situation I was unable to join them on as many. There were a couple of trips to the Museum of Science; some trips to the Museum of Fine Arts (including one I was able to go on that started with a punctured tire on the van and an unexpected stop to replace it); Battleship Cove (where Lucia almost fell headfirst down a ladder to what would have certainly been a serious injury, but miraculously caught her foot on something); a one-woman play about the only female Colonial soldier, Deborah Sampson; an owl biologist at the local library; a performance of “Merchant of Venice” for Shakespeare in the Park; exploration of life in a salt marsh in Duxbury Beach; a lesson in local geology while exploring colonial-era stone farm fences in Rhode Island; several other nature walks in Plymouth looking at aquatic creatures and fungi and more; and a couple of hands-on art workshops for kids at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art.
And while it wasn’t exactly a field trip, we did have a lot of excitement surrounding the solar eclipse this summer, which was only partial where we live. Nevertheless, we made some eclipse viewers out of some cereal boxes and had a lot of fun watching the crescent shape form in the shadow.
In mid-December, we visited Austin, Texas again for the first time in five years., since Melanie’s brother’s wedding. It’s just very expensive to fly all 7 of us (and at that Melanie’s parents generously paid for our flights), even with a discount airline, it makes sense for her family to fly up and visit. However, neither of her brothers have managed to come up and she hadn’t seen them in five years. But the real reason for going down was to celebrate Melanie’s parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. We had a great time visiting and managed to get out almost every day to enjoy the mostly good weather and visit the sites.
We went to the famed Zilker Park one day and rode on the Zilker Zephyr a scaled-down train. We visited the Bullock Museum of Texas History, which was a real unexpected hit, very well done, and included a neat History of Computer Games exhibit that I geeked out over. Another day we went to the University of Texas Blanton art museum, which was small, but had some very nice art from the medieval and renaissance eras. I wasn’t as thrilled with the modern art. And of course, I went to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi with my mother-in-law on opening day.
Then there was the food. Our tradition upon arrival in Austin is always to go to Taqueria Guadalajara Arandas, near Melanie’s parents’ house, for some amazing, simple Tex Mex. We got Tex Mex several times, including at Chuys near the park. After the Texas museum, went to a Greek restaurant that was very good (but didn’t have avgolemono soup and acted like they never heard of it?). Before the Blanton art museum, we stopped at Top Notch, Melanie’s favorite drive-in burger place from childhood that indeed had some mighty fine burgers. After their anniversary Mass, Melanie’s parents got the most amazing takeout barbecue from Ruby’s BBQ. One day we went out for great ice cream with mix-ins from Amy’s Ice Cream. And on the second-to-last day, I got my wish and was able to try an In-n-Out Burger Double-Double Animal-Style.
It was indeed a great trip and I hope it’s not five years before we go back again.
As usual, a new year saw some new technology showing up. I’ve managed to get myself on a yearly upgrade program with my iPhone and this year I dithered between getting an iPhone 8 Plus or an iPhone X to replace my iPhone 7 Plus. I knew I’d be fine with the 8 Plus and wondered if the higher price of the X was worth it. Finally, I figured out a way to get the X without paying too much more and decided to go for it. I have not regretted it. Face ID is a revelation, almost like not having a password at all. I don’t even have to think about it most of the time. And the photos and video are amazing, even better than the already great 7 Plus camera. The speed of the phone is great too, as is the beautiful display. I’m happy with my phone.
The other big piece of technology this year was the purchase of an iMac 27” Retina 5K. This was a purchase by SQPN, the podcast network I work for as executive director, as I’ll be doing more and more audio editing and other heavy lifting work in the new year. This is an amazing machine, so very fast with lots of RAM and a big hard drive. After a couple of years using a MacBook Pro as my primary machine, it was great to have that freedom and elbow room again. Of course, you can never have too much monitor space so I supplemented the built-in 27” screen with a second 27” monitor to sit next to it. It’s not quite twice as much desktop since the second screen is not 4K, but it’s still great to be able to get all my windows viewable at once.
Another tech addition this year was my new Synology DS-216+II. I had another older Synology network-attached storage (NAS) unit serving as a big place to store all my big or rarely used files, but it wasn’t quite fast enough. The beauty of a NAS is that it is itself a computer and can run programs. One that I use is Plex, which is a media server. I like to rip my DVDs and Blu-Ray discs and store them on the NAS so that we can watch them whenever we want without having to fiddle with discs and boxes and such. It also works as a personal cloud storage for holding stuff that’s too sensitive or too big to keep in the cloud. I also use it as a backup server, backing up my computer, but then also storing a backup offsite on Amazon AWS Glacial storage. And it does several other things for me as well. The nice thing about the new NAS is that it has a much better CPU and more RAM so it’s much faster at nearly everything. For instance, it transcodes movies so fast that it doesn’t stutter when playing them back on my AppleTX any more.
I almost forgot that my Apple Watch Series 1 was also 2017 purchase. For a long time I didn’t jump on the bandwagon because I needed to see that it could be more useful than simply taking my iPhone out of my pocket. When Watch OS 3 came out along with the newer faster Series 1 and 2 watches, I saw that it was finally time. It’s been great having the watch this past year. Not only does it provide cool fitness tracking and prompts but it gives me access to notifications and reminders at a glance, including marking as complete; I can take phone calls if my phone is in the other room; it gives me access to my two-factor authentication system on my wrist; it lets me record a note for myself; it keeps me informed of messages without the intrusiveness of pulling out my phone to look at it; and more. I liked it so much and Melanie was so intrigued by it that I gave her one for her birthday. And it has become my normally tech agnostic wife’s most favored gadget.
I managed to meet my Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 35 books this year, although most of the books were not heavy reading of any sort. I think I’ll keep the goal at the same level because reading a book every 10 days seems like my limit. Here is my complete list of books read and here at my favorites:
There were also the usual new installments in favored book series, as well Star Trek and Star Wars books.
Podcasts and YouTube
Podcasts continue to be an important part of my life, but I realize my podcasts habits really haven’t changed and I’m still listening to the same list of podcasts I listened to last year.
There were a couple of additions though. My good friend Patrick Coffin has gone independent and has a wonderful interview-based show, The Patrick Coffin Show, which includes everyone from White House advisers to former FBI agents to Hollywood stars to academics on the front lines of the culture wars. With his blend of humor and insightfulness, Patrick always elicits a great interview from his A-list of guests.
The other addition is also a new show, OSV On-The-Go. This is a short format weekly show hosted by Greg Willits that offers to-the-point commentary and information on a Catholic topic, like How to Celebrate Christmas as a Catholic or How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice.
Movies and TV
Obviously, Star Wars: The Last Jedi was my most anticipated movie of 2017, but some others made my list of top movies, including Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2, Moana (a surprise addition), Wonder Woman, Logan, and Spider-Man: Homecoming. There were also plenty of others I saw that were from previous years that I’m only now catching up on via Netflix DVD and streaming and all the other new releases that I couldn’t get to the theater to see and haven’t watched on streaming yet.
As for TV, some of my favorite new shows are SEAL Team, S.W.A.T., The Good Place, The Orville, and Star Trek: Discovery.
For several years, food TV personality Alton Brown has had a seres of traveling culinary comedy shows that I kept seeing him talk about and other people rave about. Last spring, I saw that he was coming to Boston in October and Melanie agreed that I should get us a pair of tickets as a birthday present for me. We were able to go for a rare night out, including dinner and then the show. The seats were nosebleed, high above the stage of the Wang Theatre in tiny seats and a very, very hot atmosphere, but no matter: The Eat Your Science Tour was a very fun evening of jokes, audience participation and food-related hijinks. Melanie had a great time. I hope to be able to see him again the next time he has another show come through town.
Our Extended Family
We continued to welcome Melanie’s family to visit us throughout the year. Because we don’t have a lot of room they usually come one at a time, although this Fall, Melanie’s dad and sister came together in order to do some foliage tourism together.
But the visits began in June, which is a good time for Texans to visit because it’s getting super-hot there while our weather is just getting nice. Theresa came up for about 10 days, part of which included the aforementioned few days at the lake house in Maine, as well as Ben’s First Communion in early June on Pentecost Sunday.
The a couple of weeks later, Melanie’s mom flew in on the Fourth of July to stay for a couple of weeks, including being here for Ben’s birthday. And then in August, Melanie’s dad came for a couple of weeks, which included the gazebo and patio work I mentioned earlier. Finally, in October, Theresa and my father-in-law came back to visit and do some day trips up to New Hampshire and Vermont to see the changing of the leaves.
We also had some sad moments in 2017 with extended family. My dad’s wife, Mary Ellen, died after a long battle with a degenerative disease. My 85-year-old dad had been taking care of her for years, with the help of my half-sisters, and while they were very loving and heroic, I could see the toll it took on all of them. That was in the spring. This fall, my dad fell coming out of church one Sunday, breaking his leg badly and was hospitalized. Things were touch and go for a while, but eventually he was able to recover without surgery, including a stint in rehab. The upside is that after he was discharged, he didn’t move back to his house that’s some distance away from his older kids, but moved into my brother Bernie’s house, where he’s close by.
I end as I usually do by looking ahead and behind. Like I said, we have some expensive home improvement ahead, but we’re also working on getting solar panels installed, which should bring down our electricity costs. There are big changes at SQPN, which have to get sorted out to see what the future holds there, but I’m hopeful. I’m sure there will be plenty else that is unexpected as well.
But what I’m hopeful for is that 2018 continues to see us healthy and living together in a home full of faith and joy and love.