December 19, 2006 (Greeting Card Photos by Michael Wetzel)

Chocolate in the Ascendancy: Aha! Vindication! Chocolate is good for you, more to the point, chocolate is good for me. And not just any chocolate -- not milk chocolate -- but rather that variety I like best: dark chocolate: the spit-sucking, dry-your-mouth-like-a-desiccated-grapefruit kind of rich, deep, smooth-or-chalky chocolate. Madelyn hates it. My kids can leave it. But I'm pretty much addicted. And now several studies show, doctors agree, and all that: certain things contained specifically in dark chocolate, i.e. flavonoids, phenols and antioxidants, have heart healthy benefits; at least if you don't clutter them up with milk.

So there's a whole new marketplace in high-cocoa chocolate bars in a store near you, many naming the percentage of cocoa in the mix: 60%, 70%, 72%, even 85% cocoa. Others mix in a variety of tidbits, the stars from other recent medical studies, like blueberries and almonds. Nestle has made one of my favorite new products: their Dark Crunch Stixx. These have a deep flavor and the snappy crunch (and shape) of a pretzel rod -- a winning combination.

I keep a nice mix of the dark bars in my drawer at work. I'll break a small piece off from each of, say, a Hershey's Special Dark, a Lindt 60%, a Ghirardelli 70% and a Lindt 85% bar. Then I'll nibble each in order; by the time I'm back around to the Special Dark it positively tastes like a sugar cube and I wonder about the name, maybe it should be "Special Light"? And I chuckle to myself.

That Certain Age: There's a thing I've seen my father do for years that I never quite understood. He's mildly near-sighted. He has glasses but generally never wears them for basic activities: eating, walking, driving. He'll only wear them to see details that are at some distance, like for watching TV. If he shifts from TV to reading a book he takes off his glasses, twirling them thoughtlessly by the bent end of one temple. I always figured he took them off as a matter of comfort -- he just preferred not having them on when he didn't need them. Turns out I think I'm wrong about that. Let me back up a little.

Over the past year or two I noticed that things up close weren't so clear, such as text on my computer screen. Maybe it was time for a new monitor? But also some things that were printed small, but clear, like the ingredients on the underside of a bar of chocolate, were completely unintelligible, sometimes it helped to squint, hard. Okay, so my eyes are changing a bit. How about ditching my glasses and getting contacts and then using reading glasses? (I've worn glasses for 34 years, since I was 10; except for one abortive attempt at hard contact lenses when I was 14 -- I found I needed sunglasses outdoors, then I lost one and next I blistered my eyes -- ouch, enough!) I tried the soft lenses this year. They were okay, but it still seems unnatural, in a "not as God intended" kind of way, to touch something to your eyeball. My eyes watered and things up close were even less clear. I punted the contacts again. And bifocals won't work for playing ping pong. Back to Dad. Is it really that simple? When I need to see something close up I can just take my glasses off? Voila. So far, so good. It's like I can see nanotechnology! Cool.

But there's more to this aging thing. In addition to the diminishing eyesight, there's a new perspective. I found myself irritated while listening to an interview on National Public Radio. A woman had just told us she was 38 years old and was now telling us about her first job after graduation and the foolish things she did there "many, many years ago". I'm sorry, you're thirty-eight for chrissakes; you didn't do anything in your adult life "many, many years ago". 'Twas but the blink of an eye, lassie. When you're 98 you may have done things long ago, in another age of civilization, but at present you're just maturing enough to recognize the folly and freedom of youth; and the wisdom of tucking a bit of that youth deep in a pocket to bring along on the rest of life's journey.

The Pitt of Madelyn's Stomach: Nathaniel has been accepted at both the universities he applied to, Auburn and Pittsburgh. He has been granted a partial academic scholarship to Auburn and has been guaranteed admittance to the School of Pharmacy at Pitt. He is currently leaning toward studying pharmacy so Pitt is favored at the moment; the thought of him going that far away is making Madelyn a little queasy. Auburn is in state and only about a 3-hour drive. We'll size up finances after the first of the year. He has the $4500 one-time gift from the Madison Mayor's Scholarship that he won at the end of his Junior year; but college costs are intimidating.

He continues to do well in school, active in clubs like Spanish Honors and Computer. He's also still loving soccer reffing and people keep telling me what a fine young man he is, often enough that I believe them despite the frequent guff I get at home.

Talking 'Bout My Girls: Caralyn is hitting the tween time. True toys have mostly fallen off her Christmas list. Webkinz are currently her speed; kind of a stuffed animal/internet pet. Sometimes she's still a little girl, diving for candy with a friend at a parade; other times she's pondering being too cool for that and experimenting with makeup and gossip; or she's an athlete, running a 5K or a 10-minute mile or playing club soccer. She's in fifth grade this year, but home sick with me today -- and she's a Daddy's girl again.

I'm home with Caralyn because Madelyn is at her new job, a second job. She still does her substitute school nurse gig, but a few weeks ago a new Bruegger's Bagels opened up here in Madison and she's taking the chance to do something different and earn about a dollar more an hour. It's a sad commentary on our culture when putting together deli sandwiches garners a better pay rate than taking care of our sick kids. Otherwise Madelyn continues to run our household and road races. She's often winning the Women's Masters award and is well known to the proprietors of the local Fleet Feet runner's store, both for winning and for volunteering when she doesn't run. I could ramble on and on but the page is full, the screen is a little fuzzy and I hear some rich, dark health food calling my name. Get some for yourself; and let that youth out of your pocket as often as you can.

Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.
-- Chip, Madelyn (, Nathaniel and Caralyn