When the Treasure Hunt Goes Awry

I don't think I'm a Grinch. At least not in the sense that I want to steal anyone's Christmas joy or gifts. That claim being made, I do like to hide the gifts from my kids and leave a trail of cryptic clues for them to decode, decipher, and solve to find said presents.

This year it was the newlyweds' turn. When I say newlyweds, I mean my youngest-daughter-and-her-husband-who-have-been-married-for-seven-days newlyweds. And they took to it like hounds on a scent.

Each year I try to “level up” the difficulty rating, which is a challenge for me as well as for the kids. This year's model took about three hours and spanned something like forty-two miles. I think that's not too bad. Eventually I hope to get to the international travel level.

Anyway, back to the story.

In the middle of the hunt, one of the online clues malfunctioned. Actually, I botched it. It seems that in my caution to keep said clue invisible from random browsers, I inadvertently obscured it from everyone else in the world. Maybe the FBI or IRS could have found it with their special cyber-sleuthing stuff. But not so for my kids who were futilely trying to decipher a blank web page.

After they had exhausted every trick they knew or could invent, they finally called for a dad lifeline. Now in our world, the dad lifeline is not permissible. My reason is, they have all the resources in the world at their disposal, so I expect my kids to use them. From the kids' perspective: they want to win the game, so they don't call for help. Thus far they always have won. So that's how I knew something was awry.

The cure was simple enough. I clicked a few things that said stuff like “POST” and “MAKE VISIBLE,” then they reloaded their clue and voilà! An hour and a half later … they returned in victory!

The moral of the story is, always check those tech clues on someone else's computer to make sure they show up properly.

I think the kids enjoyed the challenge. They certainly can process multiple types of codes and cryptic messages. That's a good thing. Otherwise, their Christmas presents would still be out there somewhere awaiting discovery.

The Elusive Golden Threshold

One of our Christmas Eve traditions is to stop preparing for Christmas.

That may seem like an odd thing to most folks. And, in truth, our way of stopping is very energetic. But consider what is going on Christmas Eve, all over the country.
People are frantically racing about making those last minute purchases. They are assembling bikes, swing sets, or any number of things with insufficient instructions. Preparations for a feast are underway in most homes. And everyone is in turmoil facing the impossible deadline of FIVE GOLDEN RINGS! Oh, wait, that's 5am on Christmas Day.

It's as if we've all lost our minds! Gift giving is an awesome way to celebrate the birth of our Savior. But it is only part of the celebration. By January first, many of those gifts will be broken, returned to the store, or forgotten. There is no Golden Threshold volume of gifts that will make the day magical. And there is no satisfaction in rushing about for days preparing for a half hour of ripping paper off of presents.

So we celebrate starting on Christmas Eve. At the chosen time, we quit preparations and anything not done can simply wait. We gather for a special feast … this dad makes Reubens for everyone. Then we have a “Night Before Christmas” poetry contest.

That may sound a bit aggressive, but it is neither a contest, nor is it restricted to poems. I write multiple poems for Christmas Eve each year. Some of the kids also write poems. We have also had Karate demonstrations, photo slide shows, songs written and performed, songs interpreted in sign language, and I'm sure more that I am forgetting at the moment.

There is no scoring or judging. We just share our creative offerings and laugh and share some more. It turns out to be a great time and the memories are priceless.

Maybe I'll get a chance to share some more of our eccentric traditions. Meanwhile, I hope you all have a Merry Christmas.

An Alaskan Christmas Tradition to Avoid

This is as much a calendar reminder as anything.

If you are intending to purchase Boathouse Mouse, or any of my other books as Christmas gifts, it is better to order sooner than later.
If you delay too long, you may need to pay for special postage and handling.
Or, you may get the gifts after Christmas. In Alaska, our gift packages came to us as late as February. It really stretched out the festivities, which never really bothered me. But younger readers may not appreciate that so much.

Order by clicking the links below.

Boathouse Mouse Series

Kingdom of the Falcon Series

Become A Christmas Legend

I don't send Santa a Christmas wish list. Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with being naughty or nice. It's just that I'm pretty satisfied with the stuff I already have.

The trending culture of material gluttony is really sad to me. The notion that more and more and more stuff will make people happy when they are dissatisfied with all they already possess seems so pointless. It's all vanity and grasping at the wind, as King Solomon recorded all those years ago.

But the thing that really amazes me is the self-shopping trend. I overheard a lady talking about spending umpteen hours in line on Black Friday. Her conclusion was that it was worth it because she got the computer she wanted and her husband got the big screen he wanted.

Once upon a time, we shopped for that perfect gift to bless someone else. I guess that era has passed into legend. Only it has not passed! It may have died in our society, but I refuse to let it die in me!

So, if you want to be a living legend in a culture that is self-absorbed, here are a few ideas.

1)  Forget the dollar value. Buy gifts for the people on your list that will add value to their life. Other than your budget limit, the dollar amount is irrelevant. If twenty bucks gets your kid something that makes their life better, go for it. If it is a hundred dollar item for another kid and they squabble over the dollar value, you should have raised your kids better. (That was tactful.)

2) Look out. There are lots of people out there that could benefit tremendously from a boost. I'm not talking about the guy on the busy corner with a cardboard sign. My experience is most of those folks are faking it or just want drugs. (Don't believe me, offer one a job.)
I'm talking about the marginally-employed person at the local grocery store, or the cart shepherd at the big box store, or the cleaner at your work place, or the barista that makes your coffee for you.
These folks are all over the place. Some are working their way up. Others are working at their capacity. They may not be very marketable, but they are your neighbor.
A gift card can go a long way with some people.

3) Give time. For many people, material needs are not the issue. Some folks just need someone to spend a little time with them. This may look like an elderly person living alone or it could be the new people in town that don't have anyone to be with during all the Christmas fun stuff. Use your imagination.

These are not difficult things to do. The main thing is to decide to do something. Then do it.



Therefore we must be normal!

My family has been accused of being normal from time to time. I don't recall anyone actually making that accusation of me personally. At our house normal equals dull and that is an insult.

I understand that people who use that term on us do so in innocence. They see us as a family with all adult kids excitedly doing things together. The automatic association is with some iconic 1950's family television show. Hence the association with normal. That is forgivable.

Please allow me to set the record straight.

On Christmas Eve, when normal people are out in droves getting gifts for that hard to buy for person on their list, we are home having Reuben sandwiches and competing in our annual Night Before Christmas poetry contest!

There is deep meaning and symbolism associated with the Reubens. First they are yummy! Second, we like them. Third, it is a fairly easy, fun way to feed a big group without spending a lot of time. Okay, so maybe deep and symbolic were overstatements. We do Reubens because they are fun and easy.

The Night Before Christmas poetry contest, however, is, well, is not really deep either. In fact, it's not a contest at all. And it doesn't have to be poems. We simply set that time as the end of preparation and the beginning of celebrating the birth of our Savior.

I started this tradition several years back, because it was far too easy to fill up all our time with cooking, and baking, and putzing about with random, endless preparations. No more! When the Reubens hit the skillet, the Eagles gather like … well, like vultures. (Now, there's a lovely metaphor!) It is like the bell at the beginning of the prize fight, the shot to start a race, the lines being thrown from the dock to launch the ship … Well, you get the picture.

After we feast on Reuben sandwiches, we crowd into the living room and share our poetic creations. Some of which are not poems at all. Rumor has it, this year will include a fire poi show. (outdoors, of course) Take that on the nose, Normal!

So, for clarity I am including a submission of mine from a couple of years back.

Bethlehem Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas in Bethlehem town, the villagers were clueless to what was going down

Too busy to reach out, unwitting decline, they missed their own meeting with the Divine

That town was abustle with relatives aplenty, the homes were all full the Inns held too many

The town square was packed with travelers from afar, 'Cause for taxes a census was forced by Caesar

The travelers and towns folks with great consternation, were oppressed by the Roman army occupation

Yet one traveler was troubled beyond all the others, a pregnant young girl far from midwife or mother

They'd traveled too far all the lodgings were proffered, a cave hewn from stone was best they were offered

A shelter for cattle 'cause all else was taken, there history was made and creation was shaken

The Word became flesh, reaching out to His own, redemption was offered from God's Holy Throne

Eternal life freely to all has been given, the humble receive, repenting, are forgiven

Some history repeats it is said by the wise, tonight looks like it could be one of those times

Tis the night before Christmas in this little town, so many are clueless to what's going down

Too busy to reach out, unwitting decline, they missed their own meeting with the Divine

- RV Hodge   2012


Soup with chopsticks! Where's the hidden camera?

Ahh, yes! That … was part of our Christmas in Japan.

The memory gate is opened and my emotions are suddenly flooded. They come like waves, one after the other, crashing into my mind and overwhelming my senses. We were in Japan: Okinawa, Japan, to be precise. And the trip was everything and more than we had ever expected. It was two years ago, and we were in Okinawa for eighteen days of adventure with the family!

As Hodge adventures rank, it was fairly low key, in that we did not intentionally plan anything that would put us at imminent risk of life or limb. As our travel experiences go, it was nothing short of amazing.

In our time there, we tried all manner of unfamiliar foods, eating at local establishments where English was not spoken and the menu was semi-mysterious. Then came the Udon Noodle Soup place.

Chopsticks for eating soup looked like a great way to prank Americans. Seriously, the operation looked impossible. But a quick look around the room revealed many locals happily eating their soup with chopsticks. It's no wonder they don't have a problem with their weight there.

My wife wisely ceded defeat and grabbed a spoon. I, on the other hand, stubbornly used the chopsticks. It was war from the beginning. Chopsticks make perfect soup stir sticks. I pretended to be getting the upper hand while chasing the little bits around the bowl. Microscopic quantities made it to my mouth. It smelled wonderful … maddeningly wonderful. I suddenly realized what the great krill-eating whales must feel like. Satisfaction seemed impossible.

My kids, between jokes about my skill level, offered that it would be okay to use a spoon. I must have looked pathetic. I don't normally growl at my food, but that seemed like an appropriate response. I think that part did not happen out loud, otherwise the normally very polite Japanese people may have responded with alarm.

With each frustrating technique attempt, the bowl crept closer to my face. Then at last I had a breakthrough. The victory was mine! With each sortie of those thin bamboo sticks I got flavor, texture, and volume! That soup tasted every bit as wonderful as it smelled. I mentally rode in the victory parade and with each successful scoop came another metaphorical shower of ticker tape confetti! That lasted about five bites.

Then, daughter Rochelle, who lived in Okinawa at the time, indicated a table near ours. She glibly pointed out that I was doing it just like one of the locals. My pleasure was checked only barely by the laughter of the kids. I was indeed using the same technique as the girl at that table. She was about four. I happily pointed out that she had a four year head start on me and I had already caught up!

Our Okinawa Christmas was indeed a wonderful experience. It flew by too fast as all pleasures tend to do, but each experience left us with great memories.

I pity people who have carbon copy Christmas experiences. We do have a few traditions that we repeat, but sharing the joy of different and sometimes surprising experiences really creates awesome memories for our family.

This year, who knows what surprise adventure may be lurking under the tree …

That Tacky Star

It's been nearly thirty years running that we have topped our Christmas tree with a hand-made aluminum foil star. It has seen better days.

It was hand made by me our first Christmas in our own cabin in Alaska. Our old star had suddenly become obsolete. The design was so inadequate that it required electricity to light up … and we did not have electricity. We did not have indoor plumbing either. For that matter, we didn't have much. We would have been considered poor by any standards, but we were so, so far from poverty.

While it is true we had very little of this world's “goods,” we had enough to eat and firewood for the stove, and we had our loving little family. Doesn't that just sound cliché?

Sorry, schmaltz may sell, but I don't do it. The real story is we had all of the above, and a huge sense of adventure. Actually I had a huge sense of adventure. And it was following that dream of adventure that led us to that point.

I had been “going to Alaska” since second grade. In my defense, I promised my wife adventure when she signed up to marry me. She probably got a lot more than she bargained for.

So there, in our tiny cabin that would have never made it into a Norman Rockwell painting, I cut out a star from the cardboard backer in a spiral notebook and wrapped it with aluminum foil. It was simple and crude, but it worked, and the foil reflected the lamplight very nicely. We were poor in money, but fabulously rich in imagination, and we were surrounded by adventure. It was not a vacation, it was real life.

In our real life, it seemed that there was always something going wrong and we would have to overcome the circumstances, sometimes at way below zero temperature. But we did overcome and years later we relish those experiences of long past.

Which brings us back to the tacky star. It is symbolic of so much more than I can share here. It is a small token of our life of adventure in Alaska. It is a testimony that being broke could not stop us from celebrating the birth of Christ. In fact, it may have helped. It is a reminder of times when we had so little, which in turn, reminds us to appreciate what we have now. And it faithfully sits on top of the tree, reflecting the lights around it.

It is sufficient, and we are pleased with sufficient.

Wolves, and bears, and Christmas socks, oh my!

Long, long ago in a cabin, located in a valley deep in the north woods, where the streams freeze solid and the air stands still, lived a family of wolves. We ate our meals voraciously, ripping the oatmeal from the bowls like …

No, not wolves, not really, more like bears. No, not bears either. I'm not sure what we were. We were not normal. We clearly shared characteristics with those animal clans, but we didn't fit in with them either. Our family has just always been different.

By my early teen years, I had discovered that I did not really “need” anything for Christmas. Yet, my parents wanted to get me something cool. Socks were perpetually at the top of my wish list, which, it turns out, is not normal behavior.

I first became aware of our differentness one year when I was about ten. That was a few years before we had moved to the cold north woods of Minnesota.

We, as a family, voted to forgo Christmas gifts for our family and help a family in need. I don't know how my mom found out about that family; she was a secret agent I think. I'm pretty sure that family did not speak English.

We, my siblings and I, were beside ourselves with elation to pick gifts for the “needy” kids. We had no clue we were a poor family ourselves. We labored over choices between multiple small toys versus one larger toy. We knew there was a budget to live within and we had to make the money stretch. As kids, we really had no clue how the parents knew when the magic stream of money from Dad's wallet would suddenly stop, but somehow they knew.

Some of that money also needed to go for blankets and candles for the poor family. Their electricity had been shut off and they needed some lights. And food was included in the must get list as well. All that seemed like an annoying way to inhibit good toy purchasing, but we understood it had to be done.

Then came Christmas Eve when we made the delivery. Anticipation of something is often half the fun and that event was no exception. The Buick station wagon was stuffed to a delightfully uncomfortable level and we set out for the poor side of town. Our normally raucous behavior (remember, we were like a pack of wolves) was intensified by the deep emotion that can only be received by giving.

Then it happened. We pulled up slowly to the tiny, dilapidated house that bore the number we were looking for. It was dark and somber. We became still and silent.

Mom went and knocked at the door. Slowly a large family emerged. They were self-conscious, probably even embarrassed. We were subdued by their discomfort. Slowly we began to hand gifts across the little fence and the packages of blankets, which I had resented, felt priceless. The candles became light to their darkness. And the oh-so important toys … were received with subtle delight!

We left in somber silence. Oddly, I don't remember any tears, but there were undoubtedly plenty.

The next morning, Christmas Day, we awoke to find presents under the tree! What? We thought we were not doing gifts this year! There were fewer than normal, to be sure, but I was confused. It took me until I had kids to get it.

When school reconvened and my friends told about their Christmas, I was shocked by how much stuff they had gotten and did not appreciate. Had I changed? Or was I finally aware that we were not normal? I had never felt like I fit in, and at that moment, I knew I never would.

At fifty something, I still don't feel like I fit in. I'm totally okay with that.

More fun than a box of … just pass the box, please.

It's Christmas time and most parents in America will spend far more on toys for their kids than the children actually care for. Kids generally want something to stimulate their imagination and … they want frequent affirmation of inherent value. If you understand that, you can skip directly to the test.

I am not a psychologist, or any -ist for that matter, but I have always been a people watcher. And kids are simply smaller, more honest, versions of people. If you don't get that, go to a park and listen to what the kids say. You will hear, “Watch me mommy! Watch me daddy!”

What does that have to do with Christmas shopping? First off, I am a big fan of blessing my kids, who are now all adults, with cool gifts. So, this is not a Scrooge post. But, there is no value in overloading children with a giant pile of stuff on Christmas morning.

So, parents, you should thoughtfully choose a few gifts and stick with your decisions. Ignore the advertising: it is designed to take your money, not give you joy. Then, be sure to wrap those gifts in big boxes. The boxes are critical, because they will become the star of the show. There is not a lot that can compete with a few good boxes.

Remember the boxes!

You see, a cardboard box is actually a portal into another place and time. This is one of those little-known laws of physics that has been kept as a deep secret. But your kids will know. They will crawl around in those caverns and end up in places like Narnia, or Middle Earth, or the Wild West, or … the options are endless! If you want to ignite a child's imagination, skip the electronics and get them a big box. Books are good too, by the way. But be sure to include the big box.

If you want to earn the Parent of the Lifetime award, crawl into that box with the kids and tell them a story from long ago or far away. You could even read them Curious George. That will do nicely for the imagination, and affirm their inherent value far more than if you purchased a Toy-R-Us franchise!

I think my kids have outgrown the box era, but my granddaughter is a year old. Now, I need a box large enough for a stiff old man to crawl into …

They're Everywhere!

I've seen them running amok in the wind!
I've seen them ram peacefully resting automobiles without provocation!
I've seen them in ditches and roadside bogs!
I've even seen people steal them!
Shopping carts are everywhere and when they escape the safety of the store, anything goes. I think they are not too smart.

There is a special class of person that gathers those errant carts. They are the Cart Shepherds!

Some people are cruel to them. Most people take Cart Shepherds for granted … until there is a shopping cart shortage. Their job has no educational or vocational skill requirements, hence the pay is minimal. It is an often-scoffed first job for teens. Working in the elements day in and day out, personal hygiene is a lesser priority. Often the job is filled by a person with a disability, and for some, that is their version of the American Dream.

As essential as the job is, Cart Shepherds have no social value.

I suspect if the birth of the Messiah was announced tonight, the angel Gabriel would be sent to visit Cart Shepherds! They are hard working, under appreciated, taken for granted, and socially scorned. That is exactly the kind of people God invited to that first Christmas.

One of my favorite parts about the Christmas narrative in the Bible is when the birth of Christ is announced to the shepherds. Like our modern day Cart Shepherds, those folks were considered socially inconsequential. Obviously, God viewed them vastly differently than society did.

So I am wondering: What would happen if I viewed Cart Shepherds the same way God does?