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Upcoming Site Update

29th October 2008

Within the next week (perhaps in the next day or so) I will be updating this website. If all goes well, this will affect none of you. However, there is the possibility that I might somehow screw up the RSS feeds. If you follow this website on an RSS reader and don’t get a new post by the end of next week . . . that will mean I somehow managed to not port the feed smoothly. In that case, you will need to delete the feed from your reader, and come back to this website and pick it back up.

But I hope I don’t make any mistakes, and everything upgrades smoothly, and nobody will need to do anything.

101 Years Ago: An Economic History Lesson

24th October 2008

While not a direct parallel, the comparison one could draw between the panic of October 1907 (101 years ago) and the current economic crises are too good to pass up. The most obvious comparison,is that greed was the root cause both then and now. Some things never change.

Consider the following:

The Panic of 1907 was a financial crisis that occurred in the United States when its stock market fell close to 50 percent from its peak the previous year. Primary causes of the run included a retraction of market liquidity by a number of New York City banks, a loss of confidence among depositors, and the absence of a statutory lender of last resort. The crisis occurred after the failure of an attempt in October 1907 to corner the market on stock of the United Copper Company. When this bid failed, banks that had lent money to the cornering scheme suffered runs which later spread to affiliated banks and trusts, leading a week later to the downfall of the Knickerbocker Trust Company—New York City’s third-largest trust. The collapse of the Knickerbocker spread fear throughout the city’s trusts as regional banks withdrew reserves from New York City banks. The panic would have deepened if not for the intervention of financier J.P. Morgan, who pledged large sums of his own money, and convinced other New York bankers to do the same, to shore up the banking system. By November the contagion had largely ended. The following year, Senator Nelson W. Aldrich established and chaired a commission to investigate the crisis and propose future solutions, leading to the creation of the Federal Reserve System.

That is just a short summary. Given the present financial crises, I suggest that all of you not already familiar with the panic of 1907 to go to the Wikipedia article and engage in a short history lesson. We are currently witnessing history in the making, and at such times it is always good to have a sense of history.

I will leave you with a last bit. After the crises of 1907 was over, congress held investigations into the matter. At that time:

Although suffering ill health, J.P. Morgan testified before the Pujo Committee and faced several days of questioning from Samuel Untermyer. Untermyer and Morgan’s famous exchange on the fundamentally psychological nature of banking—that it is an industry built on trust—is often quoted in business articles:

Untermyer: Is not commercial credit based primarily upon money or property?
Morgan: No, sir. The first thing is character.
Untermyer: Before money or property?
Morgan: Before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it … a man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom

And what do we see today? History repeating itself.

Digital Dust

22nd October 2008

Sitting on my desk is a collection of old diskettes, about to be thrown out. But they are also a philosophical muse.

They are 3.5″ plastic diskettes. I remember the day when computers used 5.25″ diskettes. They were called floppy disks then, because they were floppy. They had a certain sense of importance about them–large black squares, thin like wafers, which you inserted into the computer. You flipped down the lever, and then listened as the drive ground and whined as it read the data. Back in the old days, accessing data was more tactile. Using a computer was a more physical experience.

I was about six when our family was given its first computer. It was a Sanyo. It had no internal hard drive–it required a floppy disk to boot up, or do anything. It had a little monitor with green characters on the screen. I think it had something like three games, which to a six-year-old was the most important feature. But when the games became boring you could just go to the command prompt and type on the blank screen like you were some adult, writing something important.

That was my introduction to computers. Over the years we went from one computer to the next, following the advance of technology. I saw our first computer with an internal hard drive (40 megabytes!) and in which we installed a sound card so we could get real sound. The choice of games was expanding. Exciting horizons were opening up. 3.5″ diskettes arrived, and I saw the dawn of the Windows operating system. I was somewhat belatedly (1997) introduced to e-mail and then the internet.

Technology continues to advance, faster and faster, it seems. I have now been personal witness to twenty years of it–some twenty years since that first Sanyo computer came into the house. Now I have a stack of old 3.5″ disks I’m about to throw out, and they make me reflective on those twenty years.

By appearances I am a tech geek, and there is some truth to it. Having cut my teeth on the DOS command prompts, I have traveled through years of several Windows operating systems to arrive at the point where I am now running my second iteraton of Linux, where there is plenty that would immobilize the average window user with terror, including the occasional Linux command line activity. I have repaired, disassembled, and built various computers. I am comfortable building websites, and have dabbled in setting up Apache and MYSQL servers. I am enough of a geek to appear to have some strange mystic knowledge of computers.

But in some ways I am not a tech geek. My attitude toward computers and technology is ambivalent. I am conflicted. In fact, in recent years I have come to realize I have a downright anti-technology streak that seems to grow stronger as I age. I have a love-hate relationship with technology, knowing first hand the great usefulness of digital tools while at the same time knowing their costs. I find myself trying to get rid of the cost while holding on to the benefits. That is impossible, and the more the world goes forward, the more I find myself wanting to go backward.

The 3.5″ diskettes in front of me tell a story.

I don’t remember how old I was when I saw the advertisement. I think I was around thirteen, perhaps fourteen. It was an advertisement for a computer game creation system. By that time there had been a computer in our house for some seven or eight years, and computer games of some form for just as long. As I had grown older I had become increasingly enamored with computer games. Yes, they were fun to play, but as I grew cognizant of computer games, and the elements that went into making them, the more I began thinking about how I would make them. Computer games became more than an object of fun–they were an opportunity for creativity.

When I saw the advertisement for the computer game creation system it was like a dream come true. My desire of becoming a game creator was suddenly and miraculously within my grasp. Except that, for a boy of very limited funds, the price of the software was exceedingly high. I longed for it, saved for it, could not afford it, until finally (with the help of another similarly infatuated sibling if I remember right) I had the money to purchase the long desired software.

So began my first concerted effort at doing something with real seriousness. I had sunk nearly all my life’s savings into this thing, and I threw myself into the work of game creating with zeal and determination. What I didn’t have in understanding I tried to make up in effort. Oh, the hours I spent slaving in front of the computer, punching pixels (as the parlance goes) to create the graphics for my imagined worlds. For that is what this was really about. These were my imagined worlds, my stories, come to the technological age where they would be brought to life for everyone to see. No longer was I limited to words that would evoke images in the minds of my listeners, no longer was I limited to static pictures drawn on a piece of paper. I could bring worlds to life with action and sound that would powerfully draw the audience in. They were heady dreams, those days.

And nothing more than dreams they were, as it became clear. It also became clear that my real desire was not to create games as such, but to use them to create a story. What I really wanted was to tell a story, my story and was trying to use the medium of a game to do that.

I started small with my game creation, first becoming accustomed to the software I had purchased and exploring its possibilities. My first games were very rudimentary–simple and short attempts. But as I became more confident my vision and desire expanded. I began pushing myself and the software further. The length of time required to complete my games grew longer and longer, and as I reached ever higher into my dream of stories I began to reach beyond what one person could do, or what my software was meant to do. The truth finally came crashing down upon me. What I really wanted to do in creating a game, I couldn’t do by myself. What I really wanted to do, my game creation software couldn’t do. And, even short of what I wanted to do, what I was straining myself to accomplish was such a great labor that it would take me months and months if not years to accomplish–and still be far short of what I was reaching for.

I don’t recall exactly when this realization began, and it took some time for the truth to become fully and finally fixed in my mind. To truly create games requires working with other people. Game creation, of the true sort, is done by teams and committees. How a game will develop is controlled by companies and . . . and the nature of a game isn’t the product of one person’s vision. The appeal for me in creating a game was found in the expression of my thoughts and my ideas. You don’t write a story by committee. You don’t create a painting by consensus. When I recognized what computer game creation really was–a team and company product in slavery to profit and public want, I realized I was not interested one little bit. What I wanted to accomplish couldn’t be found there.

So I stopped. The diskettes now sitting in front of me are the history from those years. I poured hours and hours of creative effort into those games. There are files upon files of digital artwork I created for those games–all of it contained on these disks. It is a record of creative effort and energy, and it is gone. It is effectively garbage, so much digital dust waiting to be swept away. Why? Because the record of digital media is the most ephemeral of all records, so uncertain as to be no record at all. The passing of years has corrupted many of the disks so they are not even readable. But even if they remained uncorrupted, in a few years I won’t even have a computer with a drive capable of reading the disks. As it is, I already don’t have software capable of reading the content on the disks, if they weren’t corrupted. The game creation system was DOS based–now I am in Linux. Most of the pictures I created were in a digital format now long lost and completely unreadable. Two years or more of my creative efforts have vanished. The labeled disks in front of me are all that remains in mute testimony to what was, and now is lost.

One could draw many morals from that story, but one for present application is the impermanence of digital technology and the implications of that impermanence. That is one reason I do not like digital technology. It is needy, untrustworthy, and fickle. You are dependent on the whims of others for design, maintenance, and usability. Digital technology is useful–oh, so very useful!–but at the price of freedom and independence. It is a price I find myself increasingly aware of and reluctant to pay.

The idea of digital technology taking away freedom might appear to many as an oxymoron. For those who skim by on the surface of digital technology, the crueler edge may be little noticed. But stop and consider for a moment. For example, compare a typewriter with a computer. A manual typewriter is a wonderful thing. You press a key and the letter appears on your sheet of paper. But in comparison, a computer with a word processor program is almost indescribably more convenient and useful. You can copy and paste text in an instant. You can print out multiple copies in minutes if not seconds. And there is that wonderful thing called a spell checker. As a writer I am most acutely aware of the great advantages of the modern word processor. So, then, what is there not to like about a computer?

The first answer comes when the power goes out. The manual typewriter keeps on working, but the computer is useless. We might reconcile ourselves to that one weakness, but it is only the beginning. This becomes apparent if we ask, “Will you be able to access the files on that computer in ten years?” I have been writing for a little over ten years and the computer I started with is long gone. More than that, the file format used by my word processor ten years ago can’t even be read by my present computer. There doesn’t need to be some catastrophic failure of modern life to make my past work inaccessible to me–the mere advancement of time and technology will render the old unusable. Digital technology is a self-devouring beast that never ceases to hunger. The only reason I haven’t lost what I have written ten years ago is if I (a) printed it out, or (b) converted the files to a readable format by my most recent computer and transferred the files. The first solution is effectively a retreat to the materiality of a manual typewriter, for once writing is printed out it loses all the advantage of being digital. The second solution is no solution at all because in the end every file that is converted will need to be converted yet again in another five or ten years.

The grave never says enough, and neither does digital technology. The due technology demands is the eternal upgrade. I am forever required to upgrade my computer, upgrade my software, and upgrade my files. What was promised to give me freedom has shackled me to its care. If I give the required service to the beast of digital technology, a life of ease and convenience is before me–my every piece of writing is easily accessible. But if I fail to perform my duty, my writing will slide into oblivion, lost forever. So I find myself a slave, held hostage by the very thing that is supposed to serve me. My computer is a ticking time bomb, into which I feed increasingly more of my creative work so that I am increasingly held hostage. The processes of upgrading becomes more laborsome as the heap of files increases, the cost of failure more anxiously avoided.

There are many things which are digital in today’s world–we have digital pictures, sound, and writing. Each faces the danger of oblivion, but as a writer what stands in the forefront for me is the contrast between digital writing and the physical word. If I write a book and have it printed, the resulting product is useful to me and requires nothing from me. I can leave the book on a shelf for a year, ten years, or a hundred years and it will still be readable. I can take it anywhere, and it will still be readable. The book doesn’t require electricity, technology, or money, to be read. It doesn’t require maintenance or upgrades. It sits there on the shelf, waiting to serve me at no cost, requiring no effort for its upkeep. By contrast, a digital file needs a computer, software, and electricity to simply be accessible. All of those things require money. And for the file to remain accessible, continual maintenance is required. Digital writing is searchable, modifiable, and easily disseminated–but the cost for those abilities is real, and lasts only so long as you serve the beast. Falter in your labor and what you have will become only so much digital dust.

In my life there is a constant tension between the digital and physical. I am not willing to give up the advantages digital technology gives me in writing, but neither am I willing to surrender to a living in the moment where all I have written before is quickly lost in the obsolescence of time, so that what was written is forgotten, never to be recalled and reflected upon. I use the digital technology because it is too useful to give up, but I love the written word because it demands nothing of me and I need not fear I will lose what I have created with the passing of ten years–like I have the contents of those stacks of diskettes.

Local Harvest, Local Meat

10th September 2008

Are you interested in local foods, both vegetables and meats? I have two links for you, with a hat tip to Rick at Caerwyn Farm and Spirits for bringing them to my attention.

The first link is for the website Localharvest.org. It is a directory of places where you can get local harvest, or submit yourself as a place offering local harvest. My quick check indicates it could be very useful. Found local grown beef and lamb in a snap. Fascinating site for anyone interested in local farming.

And on the subject of local meat, read this article about buying beef local and in bulk. I suspect the facts can vary quite a bit from location to location, but the article can at least get you thinking.

700 Ft

10th September 2008

For all of my faithful readers . . . here is a video. I have never posted a video before, but this one is different. I took it. You are invited to take a journey with me, down a very long and very steep hill. As best as could be determined from a topographical map, the entire drop in elevation was about 700 ft. The really steep part of the drop doesn’t come until after the 2 min. mark, so be patient.

This ride was not my normal route taken three times a week, but nonetheless you should note that I did pedal all the way up the hill without stopping. Not that it was easy, but I did it. Also, on the descent it should be noted that I didn’t use my breaks at all until near the end, at the last sharp turn.

Am I insane? Maybe.

Cuil

9th August 2008

There is a new search engine on the block. It is called Cuil. Check it out.

The vibes are that they think Google is ripe for toppling and they would like to be the ones to do it. Join the club.

I have not subjected Cuil to vigorous testing, but it is my sense from limited experimentation that the engine is currently not a Google killer, nor is it really positioned to be a direct competitor. Google’s strength is in raw searching–Cuil seems more geared toward subject browsing. A search on a general subject in Cuil (such as “civil war history”) will not only get you search results, but also sub categories which can be browsed and explored. That is great for subject browsing. Cuil could make writing a high school paper a snap. It would also be very useful for someone browsing for material to read on a general subject.

But Cuil falls short of Google’s skill in relevance for raw searching power, and coming up with good results for obscure searching. As an example of raw searching, recently (as of this writing) there has been a flap over the company Sitemeter because of a bug in their software. A search of Google on the term “sitemeter” comes up with hits prominently displaying this recent fact. A similar search does not bring up this info so prominently (if at all) on Cuil. Then, as an example of obscure searching, a search for “ancient babylonian calendars” on Google comes up with plenty of good solid hits. The same search on Cuil brings up a first page of results which most are spam! The difference in results is stark. Clearly, Google’s methodology is still far better at eliminating spam on obscure search terms.

Cuil is yet young, so this problem may pass with maturity. Already they have started on a good path by following Google’s clean and simple style of presentation. Further, Cuil’s three column presentation of search results strikes me as visually pleasing and possible more helpful for searching.

What some people will find very appealing about Cuil is the search engine’s privacy policy, which is an obvious jab at Google, and like companies.

Amazon Warehouse

7th August 2008

Something new from Amazon: Warehousedeals.com

What it is: “Open-box, Refurbished, and slightly damaged merchandise from Amazon.com at huge discounts.”

The selection of goods is (currently) very limited, and the size of the discount varies quite a bit. Nonetheless, for the deal hunter there can be some really good deals.

Hints of The Book Publishing Future

5th August 2008

The book publishing industry is changing, and everyone thinks they know where it is going. Amazon is banking on the Kindle, other people have their own ideas.

The Futurist has an article on The 21st Century Writer which explores some views on the future of publishing and writing.

Meanwhile, Lulu.com has made a deal with Borders. See Reuters and The New Observer. It will be interesting to see if the Lulu-Borders deal goes anywhere, since that touches on the direction I think the writing-publishing industry should go.

SS St. Louis: Voyage of the Damned

3rd August 2008

St. Havana Portal

Doomed

You probably have not heard of the voyage of the SS St. Louis. It took place on the eve of WW II and was a sordid piece of history for all countries involved.

It started out thus:

The German propaganda ministry and the Nazi party conceived of a propaganda exercise which would demonstrate that Germany was not alone in its territorial, exclusionary hostility towards Jews as a permanent minority within the political economy of their state. The German propagandists wanted to demonstrate that the “civilized” world agreed with their assertion that Jews constituted a continuing “hidden-hand” of influence on national and economic affairs. They wanted to demonstrate that no other Western country or people would receive Jews as refugees. Firstly it would appear that the Nazis were allowing the Jewish refugees a new life in Havana.

The Nazis were aware of rising western antisemitism and correctly surmised that these Jews, traveling on tourist visas (not immigrant visas, which none of the potential host countries would likely have issued to them), would not be able to visit Cuba as tourists when in fact they were political/social refugees; who, for whatever reason, had been forcibly removed from Germany, their home country. Furthermore, having been refused entry into Cuba and other Atlantic nations, the plight of the refugees would force the world to admit that there was, as the Nazis characterized it, a “Jewish problem” that Germany, for all to see, was trying to resolve “humanely.”

With not one of the countries of the Northern Atlantic basin allowing the Jewish passengers entry, those countries would be in no position in the future to morally object when Germany dealt with its problem Jewish population.

With the stage set, the voyage unfolded:

The St. Louis sailed out of Hamburg into the Atlantic Ocean in May 1939 carrying one non-Jewish and 936 (mainly German) Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Nazi persecution just before World War II.

However, on the ship’s arrival in Cuba, the passengers were refused either tourist entry (which in theory was valid for their tourist visas) or political asylum (which was not the stated purpose for which the tourist visas had been issued) by the Cuban government under Federico Laredo Brú. This prompted a near mutiny. Two people attempted suicide and dozens more threatened to do the same. However, 29 of the refugees were able to disembark at Havana.

On 4 June 1939, the St. Louis was also refused permission to unload on orders of President Roosevelt as the ship waited in the Caribbean Sea between Florida and Cuba. Initially, Roosevelt showed limited willingness to take in some of those on board despite the Immigration Act of 1924, but vehement opposition came from Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, and from Southern Democrats—some of whom went so far as to threaten to withhold their support of Roosevelt in the 1940 Presidential election if this occurred.

The St. Louis then tried to enter Canada but was denied as well.

The ship sailed for Europe, first stopping in the United Kingdom, where 288 of the passengers disembarked and were thus spared from the Holocaust. The remaining 619 passengers disembarked at Antwerp; 224 were accepted into France, 214 into Belgium and 181 into the Netherlands, safe from Hitler’s persecution until the German invasions of these countries.

Nobody comes off looking good. Roosevelt shows himself to be a man of such backbone, sacrificing the refugees for his own political expediency. And all of the countries show themselves to be so generous in taking on the refugees. All the passengers on the ship would have been a pittance for any one country to take on.

In the end, it is estimated that between 227 and 254 of the passengers ended up dying during WWII.

Full wikipedia article here.

SS ST Louis

SS St. Louis

Anvils on Amazon

1st August 2008

Want an anvil? You can get one at Amazon. Check it out Grizzly G8148 100 lb. Anvil.

Not too long ago I was wondering if it was still possible to buy anvils, and presumed it was not possible. Come to find out that not only is it possible but you can get it through Amazon. High-tech and low-tech have come together.

I want an anvil.

Hat tip aSeamstress here.

No Going Back

30th July 2008

On the 4th of July, the extended family held a gathering at an RV campground in Pennsylvania. A pavilion was rented, food contributions lined up, and then the day arrived.

As it happened, I had been to the RV campground many years ago. Many years ago Grandma and Grandpa had a camper at the campground, and for two or so summers they took grandchildren to visit. I remember the dirt paths, the swimming pool, the creek, and the waterfalls. Now, over a decade later, I find myself returning. The journey there seems so familiar, and yet vague, as I make the last few turns. Then the campground is in sight, and the memories come back.

Everything looks the same at the campground, and yet it is not. A few years ago a massive flood swept through the area, scouring out the creek, eating out embankments, washing up boulders, and knocking over trees. Much escaped the water’s ravages, but some things did not. And more than the land has suffered the ravages of time.

It has been nearly two years since I began caring for my grandfather, and watching him succumb to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. A decade more at least since I last visited the campground. Those many years ago Grandpa could walk. He could run, he could ride a bike. I have a memory of a summer day, Grandpa seated straddling a bike, sitting under the shade of a vacant pavilion. Now I pull the car up to a pavilion teeming with relatives, and get the wheelchair out of the trunk. I help Grandpa into the chair, and take him to the party. We have arrived late, because Grandpa can’t stay long.

Alzheimer’s drives its victims to their knees–figuratively and literally–as inch by inch, day by day, the battle is lost. Before, Grandpa staggered and stumbled as he tried to walk. Now he crawls aimlessly about on the floor unless I push him in the wheelchair or carry him, feeling so light and empty, in my arms.

Before he struggled to get to the bathroom in time and use the toilet properly. Now I change his diaper and give him a laxative to make sure he does go.

Before he couldn’t remember the last time he had taken a shower, and struggled to shave himself. Now I bathe him, and shave him, and dress him.

Before I cut up his food so he could feed himself. Now that fails, too. His hands shake and jerk clumsily as he tries to bring the spoon to his mouth. He grabs imaginary implements and food and wonders why nothing reaches his mouth. His mind wanders as he plays with the folds in his clothes, the food in front of him forgotten. It is a battle to eat, and one he is slowly losing, but which he desperately wishes to fight alone.

He is parked in front of the picnic table and I take a plate to the food buffet, looking for things he can eat. He does well enough for the meal, but his energy begins to fail with dessert. He consents to allow someone else to feed him the chocolate cream pie–some things he wants more than his dignity, or independence.

After the meal, I go to the falls again. Last time Grandpa ran on ahead, racing. This time, I go without him, following the path among the trees. The falls are still there, much the same. Perhaps they seem smaller than before, less threatening and less majestic. Time will sometimes do that. Still, the water cascades down, loud and uncaring, as if it thinks to drown out the world’s sorrows.

The days pass for Grandpa as a lonely vigil on the couch. Sometimes he sleeps a little while, but more often he looks at magazines, looking at the pictures and wondering what they mean, reading the words and wondering what they say, or else just sitting on the couch lost in his own thoughts. His world has shrunk so that if you are not right beside him, you are not there at all. He calls out, only to sometimes startle when you answer, or appear beside him.

Nights are the lost time. In darkness, nothing has meaning. He wakes in the darkness and speaks, “Mom. Mom? Are you there Mom? Mom. Answer me. Mom? I can’t see. Mom?” I hear his words, lying in the dark, but no answer I give is answer enough. He crawls about the room in the darkness like a blind man, but more than blind because nothing has meaning. He is lost in the bedroom, lost in the night, lost in his own mind, beyond the reach of any help to bring him back, until exhaustion takes him.

The end is coming. Slowly, perhaps, but inexorably, as every little loss brings one step closer the final defeat. But perhaps the battle should not be considered as lost. Maybe it is better to say that the battle is won, day by day, as with love he is helped to the end, with what dignity and grace can be mustered. If it is how we live that matters, then each day can be taken up in daily victory, or given up in daily defeat.

I leave the falls, the roar of the water quickly fading away behind me. Back at the gathering, soon Grandpa wants to leave. Two hours is all he can take. So we leave. I drive the rutted dirt path, taking it to the highway, and then home.

Ten years have passed. It feels like nothing has changed, and yet everything has. And there is no going back.

Durian: A Matter of Taste

29th July 2008

The durian is “the fruit of trees from the genus Durio belonging to the Malvaceae, a large family which includes hibiscus, okra, cotton, mallows, and linden trees” So begins the wikipedia article. Blah, blah, blah, who cares. Right?

Well, sometimes the peculiar hides right in plain sight. Further on in the article, there was some very interesting commentary on the taste of the durian. You see, the durian has a “distinctive” smell and taste. In favour, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace rapturously puts it this way,

The five cells are silky-white within, and are filled with a mass of firm, cream-coloured pulp, containing about three seeds each. This pulp is the edible part, and its consistence and flavour are indescribable. A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes. Then there is a rich glutinous smoothness in the pulp which nothing else possesses, but which adds to its delicacy. It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy; yet it wants neither of these qualities, for it is in itself perfect. It produces no nausea or other bad effect, and the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat Durians is a new sensation worth a voyage to the East to experience. … as producing a food of the most exquisite flavour it is unsurpassed.

Others, however, are of a different opinion.

British novelist Anthony Burgess declares that consuming durian is “like eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory.” That is positively mild compared to the opinion given by others. Travel and food writer Richard Sterling warns that “… its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away.” Still more, according to the wikipedia article, “Other comparisons have been made with the civet, sewage, stale vomit, skunk spray and used surgical swabs.”

Ugh.

Want to try some durian?

CSA Farms

7th June 2008

CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Farming are an interesting concept. Basically, instead of just buying whatever they want from a farmer, people buy a seasonal “share” and get a fixed percentage of whatever the farmer produces. There are some variations, but the general idea is that it relieves farmers from dealing with fickle customers and the vagaries of farming. Instead of having to deal with supply and demand issues, the farmer has fixed demand (because he is selling fixed shares) and the customer carries the burden of supply issues. If there is a bad harvest, everyone gets and equal share of the bad harvest.

It is an interesting hybrid. In a sense, the farmer becomes simply the labor for his customers, who are “share farming” and thus dealing with all the real life difficulties of farming–too much harvest of one thing, too little of another. By spreading the risk across a stable customer base, this allows small-time farmers to survive.

For more information, read the wikipedia article, check out this example farm, and for more reading, see this Google search.

Farming The Government Way

27th May 2008

An AP article on May 15th caught my attention. The title said: House approves $290B farm bill.

What really caught my attention was the line which said,

almost $30 billion would go to farmers to idle their land

Stop a moment to consider. That is $30 billion paid out to farmers so they will not produce food. (See here.)

When is the last time you went to the grocery store? Did you notice food prices had plunged dramatically, perhaps grain products costing half of what they cost a few months ago? Wasn’t it apparent that we have a massive over-supply of food and we need to start producing less food?

No?

Maybe that is just some delusional world occupied by politicians and special interest groups.

Maybe when you last went to the grocery store you saw the found prices continually climbing. Maybe your food budget is being increasingly pinched by high prices, and you wish somebody would start producing more food so prices would go down.

That would be the reasonable, intelligent, thing to do, right?

Instead, your illustrious government is spending your money to pay farmers to produce less food so the food prices will be higher. Your government is spending your money so that you will have to spend even more money to purchase your food.

That is your government working for you.

Now if only the government would start paying all of us to work less and stop being productive.

The American farm industry is screwed up. The scary thing is, a lot of countries are more screwed up than us.

Smithsonian, Holy Grail, Earthquake Wedding

27th May 2008

A few things for the curious.

Did you know the Smithsonian Magazine had a website? They do, and it has a lot of content. If you have enjoyed reading the magazine, you might want to check the site out.

Search for the Holy Grail, end up dead. The Telegraph had an interesting article on a real search for the Holy Grail during the time of Nazi Germany. No, his name wasn’t Indiana Jones.

Picture This: Wedding photographs during earthquake.

WordPress Geeky-ness

29th April 2008

From the same website as I mentioned in my last post, here is another tip: How to download your WordPress install on your local computer and get the permalinks to work.

It’s nifty to know how to edited a database.

How to Add “StumbleUpon” and More

27th April 2008

For some time I have wondered how one went about adding a “Stumble This” link to blog posts. However, I didn’t wonder enough to take the time to look it up. Then I recently stumble upon (ha ha) some directions. As it happens, the website also has directions for implementing a few other services as well.

Thanks to Herselfwebtools for these clear and concise instructions.

Steve Jobs on The Media

6th April 2008

Who would have thought such a hip person as Steve Jobs would have such a dim view of human media consumption? Well, okay, who would have thought he’d admit to such a thing.

From Wikiquote:

When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth. — Steve Jobs

Loners

10th March 2008

Poking around the internet I came across this: Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto

I was on some writer’s blog, and if I remember correctly they felt the book spoke for them. I consider myself something of a loner (not severely so, but leaning in that direction) and so the book piqued my curiosity. If I had more free time I would crack the book open to see what it is all about. I admit I found some of the reviews on Amazon a bit amusing in their apparent relief to discover an acceptance for (or justification of) their lonerism. Personally I was never so insecure in my personality to need affirmation on this subject.

I have no idea if the book offers any insightful thoughts. Maybe you can check it out for me.

****

As an unrelated tid-bit, I was recently sucked into browsing on Flickr. I generally try to avoid the website as, at best, it seems to be a waste of time. Not to say you can’t find a lot of really good photos–because you can–but even then . . . it really is rather a waste of time.

Anyhow, I ended up browsing the “Beautiful Mountains” pool. Needless to say, there are a lot of really beautiful mountain pictures. In an attempt to redeem my wasted time, I will point you all toward two I thought stood out from the many beautiful photos I saw.

I think the sky in this one is fantastic in its moodiness. Too bad there isn’t a larger version.

This one is larger, and may induce a sense of vertigo. Either you will want to fling yourself off, or will be afraid that it might happen. I think the photo is so cool.

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As a final note, it came to my attention that, as a result of a mistake on my part, readers who keep up on my blog via e-mail notification were not notified about two recent posts I wrote. Perhaps you e-mail readers found them anyhow. For those who didn’t, they were:

Interesterified Fat and Prenatal Urination

and,

Photos Round 2

For Control Freak Geeks There is CVS

1st March 2008

For anyone non-technical, this article will make your eyes glaze over. The author has accomplished the feat of keeping track of all that he does with the Concurrent Version System (CVS). Even I do not have a good grasp of the precise details of exactly how one uses CVS or similar software, but I was recently looking Subversion, an attempted replacement for CVS, while investigating doing something like the author of the linked article did. My present conclusion is that the work required is not worth it at this point in my life.

But I certainly sympathize with the writer’s mentality, and admire his accomplishment. Being able to keep track of every change you’ve ever made in a file is a control freak geeks dream come true.

Interesterified Fat and Prenatal Urination

24th February 2008

What do interesterified fat and prenatal urination have in common? Nothing, except I learned something new about both of them recently. It would be very interesting if they had something more in common than that. As it is, I found what I learned about both to be both educational and interesting. Perhaps you will also find it so.

Interesterified Fat

When I came home from my Tuesday bike ride Grandma asked me what interesterified meant. Except, she pronounced it “Interest-er-fied.” I had no idea if it was even really a word and asked her where she had seen it. She then showed me the ingredient list on the back of the saltine crackers box where it said, “Contains one or more of the following oils: interesterified soybean, canola, palm.” I was stumped, having never seen the word before, but made my best guess at the word’s meaning. Not satisfied with that, I went to look up the meaning on the internet. And what is where my education began.

According to Wikipedia:

Interesterified fats are oils that have been chemically modified (e.g., turning soybean oil into interesterified soybean oil). This is done in order to make them more solid, less liable to go rancid and more stable for applications such as deep frying. The interesterification process is used as an alternative to partial hydrogenation, which results in trans fats. However, research indicates that interesterified fats may pose health risks, some greater in magnitude than trans fats.

Wisegeek has a good short piece on interesterified fats, which is well worth the read. It begins:

When scientific studies exposed the inherent dangers to public health in trans fats, many processed food manufacturers scrambled to find a suitable replacement. They needed to find a form of fat which would still provide the extended shelf life of partially-hydrogenated oils, but did not contain trans fatty acids. One solution arrived in the form of interesterified fat, a fully hydrogenated product with many of the same characteristics as trans fat, but closer to saturated fat chemically. Interesterified fat is produced through a process called interesterification, which rearranges the molecular structure of fatty plant oils.

It goes on to say that, “The problem with interesterified fat for consumers is that in many ways the cure is worse than the disease. If you would like to know more, you can finish read the Wisegeek article, and even look through a Google search on interesterified.

After all that, you can start looking for interesterified fats in the products you buy. You’ll find flaky crackers tend to either have partially hydrogenated oil or interesterified oil. I haven’t looked at other products.

Prenatal Urination

The discovery of prenatal urination came about because I was discussing with my sister the difficulties someone we knew was having with their pregnancy. A particular problem was a low level of amniotic fluid. Amniotic fluid, in case you didn’t know, “is the watery liquid surrounding and cushioning a growing fetus within the amnion. It allows the fetus to move freely without the walls of the uterus being too tight against its body. Buoyancy is also provided” (see Wikipedia).

This much I knew. But my sister, in looking up the causes and possible effects of this problem, pointed out to me what amniotic fluid is. That is, “Amniotic fluid is primarily produced by the mother until 16 weeks of gestation” but after that point, “In the late stages of gestation much of the amniotic fluid consists of foetal urine.” Thus low amniotic fluid “can be caused by infection, kidney dysfunction or malformation” in the unborn infant, as the child, in effect, is not filling their mother’s womb with enough urine.

There is a mental picture for you.

Which is all to say the pressing question of, “Do babies pee before they are born?” has been answered. If someone asks, now you can tell them.

But as to where that urine goes . . . well, people might not want to know. Expectant mothers may not care to know that they are walking around with a belly full of baby pee.

Photos Round 2

10th February 2008

Long time readers of this website will perhaps remember my previous attempt to add a photo section to this website. I called it an experiment. As such, it failed.

It failed primarily from lack of time. If I had been willing, or able, to take more time to upload random (or selected) photos from my everyday life . . . well then, we would have photos. But presently my free time is rather limited, and I must prioritize what is most important. Uploading photos to this website came too low on the list of priorities to ever become a reality.

Hence the lack of photos.

When my life situation changes, I may take another attempt at photo-journaling. But, for the present, I have realized that I must take a different approach.

So, undaunted by my failures, or unable to learn from my mistakes, I am attempting something a little different this year. I have decided to try what I have before only wished to create–that is, a true photo blog.

The idea was to create something more artistic, professional, and consistent than the general freewheeling existence of this website. The problem was, how would I do that if I couldn’t manage the informal photo dumping on this website?

One of the central problems, I realized, is that I can’t, (or don’t,) specifically set aside time for website work. Postings are thus left to the whim of my inclination, and availability of free time. And, if I’m not lacking in one I’m usually lacking in the other. I came to the conclusion that if I tried to undertake the project of consistently uploading photos throughout the year, such a venture was doomed to failure.

The solution was to not even attempt to upload photos throughout the year.

In November of 2006 I received a digital camera of my very own for my birthday. Since that time I have been erratically taking photos and saving them on my hard drive. Come January of 2008 I realized I would have, roughly speaking, a year’s collection of photos. I could cull a year of photos for blogging from that. Then, using the nifty feature of the WordPress software where I can post-date my entries so that they appear at a different time than actually written, I saw I could assemble an entire year’s worth of photo blogging for 2008 in a few days. Thus, instead of setting aside time on a regular basis, I could set aside a few days for an the entire year of photo posting.

Before Jan. 1st rolled around I had completed the first three months. I am now in the process of setting up the rest of the year. I figure that in this way I can share some of the best of my photography from last year throughout this year.

The basic idea was to present one photo every other day, but I have discovered that sometimes I have several photos that are very similar, all of which I think are worth sharing. I have posted the similar photos over several days, but I am inclined to more often post the several similar photos on the same day, which breaks the one photo every other day format–but I’ve decided to not be too much of a stickler.

I have struggled against becoming too bogged down in making things perfect, or caught up in amusing myself. On occasion I have digitally altered some of my photos for amusement/interest. However, it can become rather distracting and time consuming to play around with all the plugins to my photo editing program, so I have tried to avoid it, except on rare occasions. So far I have also studiously avoided offering commentary on my photos as writing a comment immediately doubles (or more) the time required to post.

The photo blog is of a somewhat more professional nature, so I set it up over at my professional website. Anyone who is interested in seeing the photos should go to http://glimmers.creative-vapors.com. Those interested in keeping tabs on my photography can check back every other day for a new picture, or subscribe to the RSS feed at the website and receive notification when photos are added.

Feedback is welcome. I hope you enjoy.

Jacques Barzun on Teaching

10th January 2008

A quote on learning, and teaching:

The truth is, when all is said and done, one does not teach a subject, one teaches a student how to learn it.

Jacques Barzun “Reasons to De-Test the Schools,” New York Times (1988-10-11), later published in Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning (1991)

One can take that observation too far, but most people today fail to understand it enough. At the risk of over-simplifying, the failure to understand what Barzun has articulated is the failure of modern education.

Exploding Whales

6th January 2008

Apparently, in some places explosives are used to dispose of dead whales.

If explosive charges will be used, the most common procedure today is to tow the whale out to see and then use whatever charges necessary to sink or disintegrate the whale. But back in November 1970 the Oregon Department of Transportation had a dead beached whale on their hands. Finding burying it impractical, they deemed blowing the dead whale to smithereens with half a ton of dynamite the best solution. One can detect a certain male type of thinking behind such reasoning.

The results were predictable. “The explosion caused large pieces of blubber to land some distance away from the beach, resulting in a smashed car. The explosion disintegrated only some of the whale, most of which remained on the beach for the Oregon Highway Division workers to clear away.

Lest you think things can’t get any weirder, some dead whale explode naturally.

A second whale explosion occurred on January 26, 2004, in Tainan City, Taiwan. In this incident, a buildup of gas inside a decomposing sperm whale, measuring 17 m (55 ft 9 in) long and weighing 50 tons, caused it to burst. The older bull whale had died after becoming beached on the southwestern coast of Taiwan, and it had taken more than 13 hours, three large cranes, and 50 workers to shift the beached sperm whale onto the back of a truck.

While the whale was being moved Taiwan News reported that “a large crowd of more than 600 local Yunlin residents and curiosity seekers, along with vendors selling snack food and hot drinks, braved the cold temperature and chilly wind to watch workmen try to haul away the dead marine leviathan”

The result:

The explosion was reported to have splattered blood and whale entrails over surrounding shop-fronts, bystanders, and cars. BBC News Online interviewed an unnamed Taiwanese local who said, “What a stinking mess. This blood and other stuff that blew out on the road is disgusting, and the smell is really awful.”

Also, in another incident, “A stranded whale in Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, also decayed until it exploded. Locals say that its blubber ‘hung in the trees for weeks.’

The moral of this story? Be very careful of dead whales. You never know when one might explode.

For further reading, and a disgusting picture from the Taiwan incident, head on over to Wikipedia.

Banana Polish

3rd January 2008

Need to polish your shoes? Use a banana peel. They say it works.

http://www.wikihow.com/Polish-Shoes-With-a-Banana

I think it is funny, but I’m not sure I believe a banana peel is really equivalent to shoe polish. Whatever properties a banana peel shares with shoe polish, a banana doesn’t have everything that shoe polish does.

If you give it a try you can let me know how effective it is.

A Coin, A Ring

27th December 2007

How to make a ring from a quarter:

http://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Ring-from-a-Silver-Coin

One can get very technical and make rings by smelting metal, pouring it into molds, and all sorts of other highly technical stuff. Which is all very neat, but requires a lot of effort, skill, and tools. The advantage, and coolness, of using a quarter is its simplicity.

I want to do something like that one day.

P.S. While a pre 1964 quarter is probably the cheapest way to get a silver coin, a quick search on the internet will find you a way to purchase a silver round (coin) that is purer than a quarter, and not that expensive. Personally, I’d say if you’re going to go through all the effort you might as well go for the higher expense and get a peice of qualty silver round.

Digital History: Presenting The Past on The Web

9th December 2007

A while ago I stumbled across this website:

http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/

It is a book presented as a website. As they say,

This book provides a plainspoken and thorough introduction to the web for historians—teachers and students, archivists and museum curators, professors as well as amateur enthusiasts—who wish to produce online historical work, or to build upon and improve the projects they have already started in this important new medium.It begins with an overview of the different genres of history websites, surveying a range of digital history work that has been created since the beginning of the web. The book then takes the reader step-by-step through planning a project, understanding the technologies involved and how to choose the appropriate ones, designing a site that is both easy-to-use and scholarly, digitizing materials in a way that makes them web-friendly while preserving their historical integrity, and how to reach and respond to an intended audience effectively. It also explores the repercussions of copyright law and fair use for scholars in a digital age, and examines more cutting-edge web techniques involving interactivity, such as sites that use the medium to solicit and collect historical artifacts. Finally, the book provides basic guidance on insuring that the digital history the reader creates will not disappear in a few years.

The website is very nicely done. In spite of their efforts I think the book is a bit nerdy. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be interesting. For example, the section on text: http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/designing/2.php

Old Autumn Essay

23rd November 2007

I had meant to write an essay this autumn titled “Fall Cometh” or something like that. It was to be a descriptive essay about the fall weather, much like I have written essays about the Spring. But I haven’t written it yet. Maybe I will still write it, even though it would be late.

In the mean time, I found an old descriptive essay I wrote several years ago. In lieu of the essay I had wanted to write this fall, you can read this essay.

Early Autumn, Late Afternoon

23rd November 2007

[Note: This week I was doing cleanup and going through my old pads of note paper. On one pad, stuck in among some other writing, I found this short descriptive essay. It had no date attached and I can't recall exactly what year I wrote it. It was probably about four years ago, and I don't think it ever saw the light of day, until now. Looking at what I had written, I didn't find it as good as I would have liked. It lacked a certain smooth flow, and as a descriptive essay it didn't quite fully invoke the panorama of an autumn day with as much force as it could. Nonetheless, even being less than a perfect essay it still managed an evocative touch and brought back to my mind the day I had written it. I always enjoy the ability of writing to bring things into the mind's eye, so I touched it up and decided to share this peice of old writing.]

Right now, it is one of those glorious late afternoons in the early autumn.

People will sometimes ask, “What is the country like?” This is the country life, I would say to them, and show them this day. Country living is the golden sunshine, the fading light of autumn that sings of relaxation. Like the end of a long day of work so autumn is the end of summer, the season speaking of ends, and rest.

On the hillside the leaves are just beginning to color, the first frost having not yet come, this being a warm year. The air is not hot, but not cold either, a temperature almost unfelt, leaving the senses to dwell on other things.

Sitting in the easy chair on the porch, I can see the final pink and purple Asters in front of the porch. The garden is beginning to die back up on the hill. The corn is long gone, drying out in yellowish brown stalks. The squash is almost finished and the tomatoes are hurrying in. Too bad most of the apple blossoms were killed this spring by a late frost. Otherwise we would now have a wonderful harvest of apples. As it is, there are only a few apples hanging on the tress, red and delicious, reminders of what we are missing.

The entire scene lies below a blue sky dotted with those proverbial fluffy white clouds. Near the porch the bugs buzz and tweet in their continual racket. The cat lies stretched out on the porch, dozing pleasantly. The only annoyance is the flies which seem to be particularly enjoying the warm September.

The air is clear, and not cold yet, but there is that hint of ending for those who can sense it. There are the sings of seasonal change everywhere. Sometimes it can seem sad as to think about the passing of summer. But other times it is beautiful and peaceful. There is rest in the end of things, some beauty in its completion. And in this late autumn afternoon, I see that.

The Price of Milk and More

10th November 2007

The price of milk has gone up dramatically. It has risen by $1.00 in the last few months, and nearly half a dollar in the last week. What is going on?

Also, sundry strange and weird things happened to me.

Read all about it here.

The Price of Milk

9th November 2007

I guess you could call it a sign of the times we live in–the economic times we live in, I mean. I don’t carefully follow the price of all groceries when I do my weekly shopping, but I do keep a regular eye on the price of a gallon of milk. The recent trend has been instructive.

Not too very long ago–probably a few months–the price of milk was $1.86. It had hovered at about that price for some time. Then, at that point several months ago, the price of milk began to go up. Sharply. In the space of those few months the price of milk went from $1.86 to about $2.89.

That was last week.

This week I went into the store and saw the posted price: $3.25. It was enough to stop a person in their tracks. An increase in the price of milk by $1.00 in a few months is alarming. A jump in price of nearly fifty cents in a week? Unbelievable. I don’t know how anyone can look at a price change like that and not think that something very, very bad is happening. If this trend continues, the price of milk will have easily doubled in the space of a year.

Talk about inflationary pressure.

If I owned a few acres and saw food prices acting up I’d really think about pulling the shovel to start growing my own food, and buying a cow for my own milk. That kind of volatility in food prices raises the specter of not being able to afford to eat.

This observation on the price of milk does need to be tempered a bit. Of all food stuff, milk pricing (at present) appears most volatile, and the first of all grocery goods to show an increase in price. I have not seen the same surge in the price of most other goods. For example, while beef has been on an upward trend, I haven’t seen any near doubling in price.

Yet.

But it would be unwise to take comfort in the mantra, “It’s just something about milk,” and think the pricing surge is a problem limited only to milk. While it is true that there is jiggering going on with milk production, the price increase can’t be brushed aside as simply nothing more than the result of poor governmental regulation of farms, or poor farmer choices. While that may account for some price increase, the truth is that milk is a leading indicator. It is a short term commodity, and reflects the increase in cost of materials more quickly than other products.

Let me explain. In a simplified expression of the milk production cycle, the cow eats grain and then produces milk. The milk is transported to the store where is it bought and consumed by us. Milk doesn’t have a long shelf life, so you’re drinking what was produced not that long ago. If the price of grain (which the cow eats) goes up, then the price of your milk will shortly go up as well. If the cost of gas goes up (which is used to transport the milk) the cost of your milk will go up.

By contrast, a can of beans doesn’t reflect an increase in the cost of materials as quickly. When you buy a can of beans from the store, you are most likely eating last years beans. They have been produced and canned last year, and now are just sitting around waiting to be eaten. The cost of gas to run the farm tractors last year was part of the cost to produce that can of beans. If the price of gas suddenly jumps the price of your can of beans isn’t going to jump as much because the present cost of gas isn’t affecting how much it cost to produce the beans, only how much it cost to recently transport them to the store.

The point of what I am saying is this: the cost of milk more closely follows the present economic situation. Most other food goods lag behind, but the price of milk will give you a good idea what direction the price of everything else is going, and what kind of increase we are looking at. So just because your hamburger hasn’t doubled in price yet, don’t think you can rest easy.

Exactly how the price increases affect different food products only time will tell, and I’m not an economist who could guess. I will say that it does appear that cattle and poultry products look set to be most heavily affected. Firstly, because large amounts of corn (which is used to feed both cattle and poultry) are being diverted from animal feed to ethanol production. The shortage of corn has made the price for corn go up, and when the corn feed of the cow or chicken goes up, the cow and chicken products (meat, milk, eggs) go up as well. On top of this goes the added cost of farming and transporting with higher gas prices. With meat, milk, cheese, butter, and eggs all set to go up, and drastically so, what are we to do?

Eat beans.

As a final note I will say that the one week spike of nearly fifty cents in the price of milk may be something of an anomaly. That particular store was Aldi’s, which is a budget grocery store, and the particular one I shop at is on the small side. I suspect they were unwilling or unable to cushion the rising milk price by disbursing some of the higher expense into other products. Next week the price of milk may very well be re-calibrated somewhat, but I’m sure it will still be higher than a few weeks ago, and even a few weeks ago the price of milk was already dramatically up.

For the record, I didn’t buy the milk at that price. Before I went out shopping I checked the sales flier for Price Chopper, another local grocery store, and saw that they were having a sale on milk. Very interesting coincidence, yes? This week the normal price for milk was $3.09 for a gallon and the sale price was $2.59. I bought the sale milk for some very hefty savings. Now, Price Chopper milk is normally more expensive than Aldi’s milk–and the $3.09 was higher than Aldi’s last week price of $2.89. In this case I simply think that Price Chopper was able to cushion the sudden rise in milk prices better, and decided to add on a milk sale to draw more consumers. I wouldn’t be surprised if next week, or within the next few weeks, the milk price at Aldi’s drops slightly and rises slightly at Price Chopper so that Aldi’s milk is again a few cents cheaper.

The end result?

Milk will still be up, way up.

I think the next twelve months will be economically very interesting, and I don’t mean that in a good way. I just hope you’re not living on a really tight grocery budget.

[For any really picky people out there, I may not have gotten all the milk prices correct down to the very cent. I'm working from memory.]

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Having pontificated on such doom and gloom, I will finish with two mildly weird and anecdotal stories from my life.

Story One:

After getting that great deal on milk at Price Chopper, I was in the parking lot loading groceries into the car when I noticed an elderly lady headed in my direction, crossing from the CVS, and presumably heading toward the Price Chopper on the other side of me. People cross parking lots all the time, so my first instinct was to dismiss her from my mind. But something struck me as a little off. The back of my car was parked close to the front of another car, which didn’t leave much space to get through, and in any case people generally walk in the parking lot aisle, (not between the cars,) and will generally move to avoid someone loading stuff into their vehicle. Instead, this elderly lady was looking directly at me, and heading right toward me.

I keep loading my groceries, figuring I’m either just imagining it or else she just thinks I look funny, and in either case I’m not going to make an awkward situation by staring back. By that time she is practically upon me, and is still heading directly for me, and looking at me in that direct way that indicates someone who wishes to speak with you. So I turn around to ask her if there is anything I can do for her, supposing that perhaps she is in some type of distress and she was looking for me to give her aid.

Before I could open my mouth she warmly said, “So, how many children do you have?”

Uhhh . . . Brain freeze. Nothing like a question totally and completely out of the blue that you are in no way expecting. My first inclination is to ask back, “What made you ask that question?” Instead, I guess that the question was spurred by the amount of groceries I was putting into the trunk. So I say, “No. I don’t have any kids. I live with my ailing grandparents. I’m buying groceries for them. I buy all the groceries for the week at once, and Grandpa likes his desserts.” I figure that is enough of an explanation for the amount.

“Oh, that’s so very nice. God bless you,” she says, and continues on toward the grocery store.

It was a very odd encounter. The old lady seemed very kind and friendly, if rather nosy for asking such a question, so I didn’t think I just had a run-in with a stalker or child snatcher. But it did make me wonder if there was something about me that would spark such a question. After all, I was only buying a week’s worth of groceries for me, Grandma, and Grandpa. It wasn’t that many groceries. I could have been a young man with a wife or girlfriend and no kids, or some bachelor loading up on groceries for a weekend of partying with my friends. What would inspire someone to walk up to a complete stranger (a man no less!) and ask him how many little ones he has, when he doesn’t have a single kid with him?

I dunno. Maybe I exude some kind of domesticated fatherly charm that says I just must have several little tykes running about back home along with a lovely wife? I suppose that is better than exuding some kind of dangerous and deranged aura. Certainly, I’ve readily been mistaken as the father of my siblings–some of whom are no more than a few years younger than myself. I had always figured that had more to do with my facial hair, a feature that in the eyes of some people apparently adds twenty years to my real age. But this was the first time I was asked how many children I had when no children–young or old–were present.

Life is a little strange sometimes.

Story Two:

Talk about life being a little strange.

Every few weeks Grandma writes me out a check to cover groceries and other miscellaneous expenses. I then go to her bank and cash the check. This saves Grandma from being required to go out to the bank and withdrawing the money herself. So it was that last week found me waiting in line at the bank.

When my turn finally came I stepped up to one of the tellers with check and driver’s license (for ID purposes) and slid them across the counter. The teller picked them up and without so much as a pause looked at me and said, “You probably don’t remember me, but I know you from way back.”

Talk about unexpected. I am generally very bad at remembering names, but I’m generally pretty good at remembering faces, and this young lady sitting behind the counter was coming up as a complete blank. At that point my mind was working very fast, trying to flip through the faces of every young woman with whom I had even remotely come into contact, and still I didn’t have even a glimmer. I had an idea things were about to get very awkward. My feeling was along the lines of, “Lady, I don’t know who you think I am, but you’ve made a mistake. I can probably count all the young ladies that I know on one hand, and two of them are my sisters. I can probably count all the young ladies that might possibly remotely know my name on my other hand, and you’re not one of them. I don’t know who you are, and you’ve made a mistake. You don’t know me.”

Instead of being so blunt, I decided to get to the bottom of this by the process of elimination, so I asked, “From when do you know me?”

“I’m A.J.” she said, “And your parents used to go to the same church as my parents.”

Well, if we were talking about way back that was at least feasible, but it would have to be back to when I was six or under. In other words, A.J. was right–that long ago I wouldn’t know her, and I still wasn’t sure she really knew me.

So I asked, “What church?”

She gave the location of the church (which didn’t help the memories of the six year old me) and then mentioned another family that I still do know. At that point I became a little amazed and perplexed, because–as my family had indisputably gone to that church–it seemed the young teller did indeed know me from waaaay back. We’re talking twenty years ago. I was a little boy of about five years old then. How anyone can recognize a boy of five years of age in the man twenty years later after only 30 seconds of looking at his driver’s license is beyond me.

But, having been duly identified, I was obligated to exchange pleasantries with this complete stranger who knew me. A.J. tried to jog my memory by saying how her family had taken us to the zoo, but with no success. I do have memories from that time in my life, but apparently not of her family, or those events–or at least I wasn’t as good at adding twenty years to my memories and placing them with the young lady sitting in front of me. So it ended in the slightly awkward exchanges of:

“And so how are you?”

“Oh, I’m married and I have two kids now. And what are you doing these days?”

“Taking care of my grandparents. And I write when I can.”

So I departed, wondering at the strangeness of life and trying to fix A.J.’s name in my mind so on the next occasion I might ask my Mom exactly who was that woman?

Mom did remember them, and they did indeed take us to the zoo. After searching through her memory Mom said A.J. was probably five or seven years older than me, meaning she was ten or twelve years old at the time we knew them, which made me feel a little better about the fact that she remembered me so well, and I not her at all. Even so, I find it a little flabbergasting that she could recognize me after looking at my driver’s license for only thirty seconds and so smoothly introduce herself. When I expressed that surprise to A.J., she said, “Well, you do have an unusual name.” True, but I don’t know as I would remember the unusual name of some little boy or girl I knew when I was twelve–especially not twenty years later. And if somehow I did remember their name, and even somehow thought the person standing in front of me twenty years later might be the same person–I don’t think I would ever dare introduce myself.

I guess the world has all types of people, including those with such good memories, and such outgoing dispositions that they can smoothly introduce themselves to someone they last saw as a five-year-old kid.

Fatal Mushrooms and More

9th October 2007

What do fatal mushrooms, the IBM 305 RAMAC, and saving the world all have in common? My latest post over in the Odd Bag.

Read it all here.

Three Bits From Around The Web

9th October 2007

Here are two things, not of sufficent worth to rate a post by themselves. The last is something that could make a very long post, but which I don’t have the time at present:

Fatal Mushroom

If you promise to never, ever, eat a wild mushroom, you don’t need to read this article. Go here to read about Amanita phalloides, the poisonious mushroom that is responsible for the majority of fatal mushroom poisonings worldwide. It is estimated that 30 grams (1 oz), or half a cap, of this mushroom is enough to kill a human.

For The Geeks

As a follow-up to my note on the ENAIC, here is the wikipedia article on the IBM 305 RAMAC, the first commercial computer that used a moving head hard disk drive (magnetic disk storage) for secondary storage. Just so geeky, man.

Save The World

This is a follow-up to my post on Able Archer. Stanislave Petrov saved the world from nuclear annhilation. His reward? He was given a reprimand. His once-promising Soviet military career was permanently ruined. He took early retirement and suffered a nervous breakdown. But never fear, on May 21, 2004, the San Francisco-based Association of World Citizens gave Colonel Petrov its World Citizen Award along with a trophy and US$1000 in recognition of the part he played in averting a catastrophe.

So in the end he was award one thounsand dollars for saving the world. Who ever knew it came so cheap.

More seriously, it is chilling to read of what happend:

Stanislav Petrov, a Strategic Rocket Forces lieutenant colonel, was the officer on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow on September 26, 1983. Petrov’s responsibilities included observing the satellite early warning network and notifying his superiors of any impending nuclear missile attack against the Soviet Union. In the event of such an attack, the Soviet Union’s strategy was an immediate nuclear counter-attack against the United States, specified in the doctrine of mutual assured destruction.

At 00:40, the bunker’s computers reported that an intercontinental ballistic missile was heading toward the Soviet Union from the US. Petrov considered the detection a computer error, since a United States first-strike nuclear attack would hypothetically involve hundreds of simultaneous missile launches to disable any Soviet means for a counterattack. Furthermore, the satellite system’s reliability had been questioned in the past. Petrov dismissed the warning as a false alarm, though accounts of the event differ as to whether he notified his superiors or not after he concluded that the computer detections were false and that no missile had been launched. Later, the computers identified four additional missiles in the air, all directed towards the Soviet Union. Petrov again suspected that the computer system was malfunctioning, despite having no other source of information to confirm his suspicions. The Soviet Union’s land radar was incapable of detecting missiles beyond the horizon, and waiting for it to positively identify the threat would limit the Soviet Union’s response time to minutes.

Had Petrov reported incoming American missiles, his superiors might have launched an assault against the United States, precipitating a corresponding nuclear response from the United States. Petrov declared the system’s indications a false alarm. Later, it was apparent that he was right: no missiles were approaching and the computer detection system was malfunctioning. It was subsequently determined that the false alarms had been created by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellites’ Molniya orbits, an error later corrected with cross-reference to a geostationary satellite.

Petrov later indicated the influences in this decision included: that he had been told a US strike would be all-out, so that five missiles seemed an illogical start; that the launch detection system was new and, in his view, not yet wholly trustworthy; and that ground radars were still failing to pick up any corroborative evidence, even after minutes of delay.

We came that close to all going up in a bright flash.

The lessons one could take from this are multitude, but I’ll leave you ponder them yourself.

Read the rest of the Wikipedia article here.

The Pig

6th October 2007

This morning I went on a bicycle ride.

I met a pig.

Really, I did.

Read all about it, here.

This Little Piggy

6th October 2007

Pig and Dog

Happy piggy, concerned responsible dog

One of the fun things about taking bicycle rides is you never know what you will come across. Sometimes you might see turkey vultures, other times . . . a pig.

Yes, this little piggy went to market. At least, he started that direction before he was sidetracked by the tasty leaves in the neighbor’s yard.

This was one of those double-take moments. As I approached the first thing I noticed was the van stopped in the rode. Then the dog. Then the–what? Big hairy over-sized thing. The pig? It took that second for me to realize what I was seeing and for one wild fraction of a second I thought there was some wild boar loose before reason thought better of such a wild (but appealing) idea.

Then I thought, “Cool. A pig. Somebody’s pig got loose and their dog tracked it down.”

By that time I had rode on past. In the next second I realized that the somebody whose pig was on the loose might need help capturing it. So I braked and swung the bike around and pedaled back to the idling van.

“Is that your pig?” I asked.

The old man rolled down his window. “No,” he said. “I just saw it and stopped.”

“Well, somebody has a pig on the loose,” I said.

“One very happy pig,” the man said, and drove away.

He was right. The fat little porker looked very . . . content. Blissful, in some charmingly ignorant sort of way. The dog, who obviously was much more intelligent and responsible and knew the pig belonged to its owner and was not where it ought to be, was standing guard in a solemn sort of way. It seemed to be willing the pig to get back where it belonged, but the pig continued to waddled about on the yard, eating leaves, wrinkling its nose in a pleased sort of way and rubbing its back against the mailbox post with a satisfied expression.

Neither of the animals seemed the least perturb by my presence. The dog even came up and sniffed me in a friendly greeting, almost as if asking me if I could do something.

By this time I realized I had a loose pig on my hands with nobody around to claim it. I didn’t feel I could rightly turn around and leave without making a good faith effort to inform somebody. I suspected the pig–by its domesticated demeanor–hadn’t traveled very far and likely belonged to some house nearby. But which one? It was 10:00 AM Saturday morning. If I went ringing the wrong bell I could be potentially waking up the wrong person to tell them a pig was on the loose. I could see how that would play out:

“Pig? What pig? There is no pig around these parts! Get away from here, you creep!”

Or something like that. I don’t care to ring anybody’s doorbell at any time, but especially not at 10:00 AM Saturday morning to ask them if they have a pig on the loose. But there was the pig to think of, who was clearly too stupid to care about traffic on the road, or much of anything else. So I tried to take an educated guess. I first started toward the house across the street, but a brief inspection didn’t show any outdoor structure to hold a pig, and the house was rather dingy . . . the king of place where if your rung the bell you might be waking up some hairy man who had a really bad hang-over from hitting the bars Friday night. Before I went knocking on that door I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a neighbor who owned the piggy.

The next house up the street was well kept and had some type of shed out back that maybe could house a pig. The house didn’t look like the sort of place people would live who kept a pig, but then if I was wrong I’d probably be kicking some middle class couple out of a relaxing morning in bed, not somebody who might let the dogs loose on me. One needs to thinkg about these sort of things, you know.

Faced with the uncertainty, I decided to go ring the middle-class people’s door. If they didn’t own the pig maybe they would know which neighbor did and save me from knocking on another wrong door.

I rung the bell. I rung it again. Either nobody was home, or else they were hoping the hairy bicyclist on the front step would go away before they called the cops. So I left and went back to the dingy house. Bracing myself, I crossed the uncut lawn and climb the porch. There was a big cheap table set up on the porch with various odds and ends scattered about. The front door was open ajar and inside I could see junk stacked along the walls.

“Well, here it goes,” I thought, and knocked on the screen door.

The curtain twitched.

“Ya?”

“Um, do you have a pig?”

“Ya.”

“Did you know it was loose?”

“Ya.”

The answers were clipped and short. For all the information they contained the hidden speaker could be hostile, suspicious, retarded, or terrified.

“Well, okay,” I said, and started to leave. I had done my duty. I wasn’t going to stick around and wait for someone to start shooting.

“Thank you,” the disembodied voice called after me, perhaps deciding that I really had only come to relay some helpful information, not launch into a tirade.

I left, and who knows if I will see the pig again.

I liked the piggy, which is strange, because, while I like animals in general, I haven’t had any particular affection for any pigs I’ve met before. But this one looked cute and funny in the stupid sort of way that I find so appealing–the same kind of stupid as ducks. The kind of stupid that makes me want to say, “Ha, ha! Look at that stupid little fellow! I want one! He looks so dumb and happy!”

Maybe you understand. Maybe you don’t.

The Pig

Very naughty (but happy) little piggy

Warming Up For The Holocaust

9th September 2007

Before the Holocaust, there was Action T4. The dead were not so many, but the death just as horrible. Some people protested, but soon the flames of the Holocaust would burn even higher than this.

To read more about the Nazi program called Action T4, go here.

Action T4: Let Us Now Kill The Children

9th September 2007

Action T4, what could that possibly mean?

Action T4 (German: Aktion T4) was a program in Nazi Germany officially between 1939 and 1941, during which the regime of Adolf Hitler systematically killed between 75,000 to 250,000 people who had intellectual or physical disabilities. Performed unofficially after 1941, the killing became less systematic.

As it is so aptly put,

The T4 program developed from the Nazi Party’s policy of “racial hygiene,” the belief that the German people needed to be “cleansed” of “racially unsound” elements, which included people with disabilities. The program set important precedents for the later Holocaust of the Jews of Europe: the historian Ian Kershaw has called it “a vital step in the descent into modern barbarism.”

Hitler, you see, was a man of enlightened thinking, and understood that,

He who is bodily and mentally not sound and deserving may not perpetuate this misfortune in the bodies of his children. The völkische [racial] state has to perform the most gigantic rearing-task here. One day, however, it will appear as a deed greater than the most victorious wars of our present bourgeois era.

Read the entire article on Action T4 at Wikipedia here.

The entire murderous activity is horrible, but the slaughter of children feels espeically so.

In May 1939, when Hitler had already determined to attack Poland in the summer or autumn of that year, the parents of a severely deformed child born near Leipzig wrote to Hitler seeking his permission for their child to be put to death. Hitler approved this, and authorized the creation of the Reich Committee for the Scientific Registering of Serious Hereditary and Congenital Illnesses (Reichsausschuss zur wissenschaftlichen Erfassung erb- und anlagebedingter schwerer Leiden), headed by Karl Brandt, his personal physician, and administered by Herbert Linden of the Interior Ministry and an SS officer, Viktor Brack. Brandt and Bouhler were authorized to approve applications to put children in similar circumstances to death.

This precedent was used to establish a program of killing children with severe disabilities from which the guardian consent element soon disappeared. From August the Interior Ministry required doctors and midwives to report all cases of newborns with severe disabilities. Those to be killed were “all children under three years of age in whom any of the following ‘serious hereditary diseases’ were ‘suspected’: idiocy and mongolism (especially when associated with blindness and deafness); microcephaly; hydrocephaly; malformations of all kinds, especially of limbs, head, and spinal column; and paralysis, including spastic conditions.” The reports were assessed by a panel of medical experts, of whom three were required to give their approval before a child could be killed.

Various methods of deception were used to gain consent – particularly in Catholic areas where parents were generally uncooperative. Parents were told that their children were being sent to “Special Sections” for children where they would receive improved care. The children sent to these centres were kept for “assessment” for a few weeks and then killed by lethal injection, their deaths recorded as “pneumonia”. Autopsies were usually performed, and brain samples were taken to be used for medical research. This apparently helped to ease the consciences of many of those involved, since it gave them the feeling that the children had not died in vain and that the whole program had a genuine medical purpose.

Once war broke out in September 1939, the program became less rigorous in its process of assessment and approval. It expanded to include older children and adolescents. The conditions covered also expanded and came to include “various borderline or limited impairments in children of different ages, culminating in the killing of those designated as juvenile delinquents. Jewish children could be placed in the net primarily because they were Jewish; and at one of the institutions, a special department was set up for ‘minor Jewish-Aryan half-breeds’”. At the same time increased pressure was placed on parents to agree to their children being sent away. Many parents suspected what was really happening, especially when it became apparent that institutions for children with disabilities were being systematically cleared out, and refused consent. They were threatened that they would lose custody of all their children, and if that did not suffice the parents themselves could be threatened with call-up for “labour duty.” By 1941 more than 5,000 children had been killed.

One hopes (though I doubt it is true) that everyone who has passed through an American school knows about Hitler’s killing of the Jews in the Holocaust. Far fewer people are aware of the Nazi program to kill the physically and mentally disabled. This is unfortunate, as I think this activity by the Nazi’s is at least as relevant, if not more so, to today’s society.

For Computer Nerds

8th September 2007

Near the beginning of computer history there was ENIAC. If you are interested in what computers were like in the good ol’ days, continue reading here.

From ENIAC to PC

8th September 2007

This is only for those who have a little bit of computer geek hidden deep inside themselves.

ENIAC stands for Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer and it was, “was the first large-scale, electronic, digital computer capable of being reprogrammed to solve a full range of computing problems, although earlier computers had been built with some of these properties.” This according to Wikipedia. You can read the full article here.

What I find particularly interesting is how far computers have come, and where they had to start. Making and using computers back in the good ol’ days was a lot of work. The ENIAC,

was massive compared to modern PC standards. It contained 17,468 vacuum tubes, 7,200 crystal diodes, 1,500 relays, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and around 5 million hand-soldered joints. It weighed 30 short tons (27 t), was roughly 8 feet (2.4 m) by 3 feet (0.9 m) by 100 feet (30 m), took up 1800 square feet (167 m²), and consumed 150 kW of power.

For reference,

As of 2004, a chip of silicon measuring 0.02 inches (0.5 mm) square holds the same capacity as the ENIAC, which occupied a large room.

About The Moravians

31st August 2007

Are you familiar with the Moravians?

If not, and you are curious to learn a little more church history, continue reading here.

The Moravians

31st August 2007

A little follow-up for those historically inclined.

In a previous post I wrote about the proto-protestants and Jan Hus as one of them. The followers of Jan Hus were initially called Hussites, but as time progressed there was strife and splits among them.

The Moravians were the result of such strife:

A contingent of Hus’s followers struck a deal with Rome that allowed them to realise most of their doctrinal goals, while recognising the authority of the Roman Catholic Church; these were called the Utraquists. The remaining Hussites continued to operate outside Roman Catholicism and, within fifty years of Hus’s death, had become independently organized as the ‘Bohemian Brethren’ or Unity of the Brethren. This group maintained Hussite theology (which would later lean towards Lutheran teachings), while maintaining the historic episcopate, even during their persecution. Bohemian Brethren’s Church had been founded in Kunvald, Bohemia, in 1457.

The Moravians were some of the earliest Protestants, rebelling against the authority of Rome more than a hundred years before Martin Luther.

That was way back then, you might say, but what about more recent times?

Well, eventually Moravian missionaries came to America.

The Moravians later found a home in Pennsylvania, where the charter of the colony provided religious freedom. The towns of Bethlehem, Nazareth, Emmaus, and Lititz, Pennsylvania, were founded as Moravian communities. Later, colonies were also founded in North Carolina, where Moravians led by Bishop August Gottlieb Spangenberg purchased 98,985 acres from John Carteret, 2nd Earl Granville. This large tract of land was named die Wachau, or Wachovia, after one of Zinzendorf’s ancestral estates on the Danube River in Austria. Other early settlements included Bethabara (1753), Bethania (1759) and Salem (now Winston-Salem) (1766).

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, emerged as the headquarters of the northern church, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, became the headquarters of the southern church. The Moravian denomination persists in America to this day, with congregations in 18 states; presently, the highest concentrations of Moravians exist in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The denomination is organized into four provinces in North America: Northern, Southern, Alaska, and Labrador. There are also congregations in three Canadian provinces, as well as about 40 Moravian congregations in England.

The Moravians are a small denomination, but they certainly left their mark on Pennsylvania.

The Geese, Part 2

28th August 2007

Who knew those cute little goslings would grow up to produce all that poop?

Well, I did.

Who knew you’d have to shovel geese poop off your driveway as you tried to sell your house?

Someone else had to.

Wild geese and suburban life don’t mix.

Read the entire post here.

Those Darn Geese

28th August 2007

Remember those neighborhood geese I wrote about previously? They have made themselves unwelcome.

I have watched with some amusement as the neighborhood has soured to the geese. I wonder how many of the local residents saw where things were headed when the geese took up residence. I’m not surprised at how it has turned out, but I think if other residents had possessed more foresight they wouldn’t have been so complacent when the geese first arrived. When the geese first moved in everyone probably thought they were a fascinating, and perhaps even cute, curiosity. But a flock of geese doesn’t really fit in with refined suburban life.

Geese eat a lot of grass. They poop in equally prodigious quantities. Geese are poop machines. They wander across your lawn, chomping on your grass with their front end and firing of green went volleys with their back end. I, having raised geese, am quite familiar with this. The other local residents were probably shocked and appalled by the invasion of manure. Just about anything else would probably have been suffered with some amount of forbearance, but among the denizens of civilized life poop in your lawn and on your driveway is an unforgivable sin.

The first to begin souring toward the geese was probably the owner of the pond. The geese, of course, enjoyed his pond. But when they got out to enjoy the grass of his spacious lawn they pooped all over his lawn and driveway. He suffered the poop invasion the worst. I’m sure he didn’t appreciate it in the beginning when the geese pooped all over his lawn, but perhaps because he had such a large lawn he thought he could put up with it. But I’m sure he really didn’t like it when they started pooping on his driveway. And it became unbearable when he decided to put his house up for sale and the geese were pooping all over everything. Geese poop doesn’t increase resale value.

It was with a mixture of amusement and sympathy that I watched him shovel the geese poop off his driveway, and attempt to evict the geese by throwing rocks at them in the pond and sending his dog in swimming after them. In the good old days one blast from a shotgun would have sent the geese out of there never to come back. But you’re not allowed to fire a gun inside the town limits, so Mr. Homeowner was left to futilely toss stones at the geese and have them swim round in circles and mock him for his impotence. No doubt passing traffic thought he was the most cruel and barbaric of men for harassing the geese. Everyone thinks you should be nice to geese–until they start pooping in your back yard.

Not content with one yard, the geese expanded their grazing grounds. They had no problem with crossing the street for what they saw as better grass. Now there were more people chasing geese out of their yards. And, since if the geese weren’t in one yard they were in another, it became some overgrown version of hot-potato where everyone tried to get the geese to stay in someone else’s yard. The geese were unperturbed. They would stroll away only to come strolling back later.

And strolling was what they did. They strolled through yards as if they owned the place, and meandered across the road as if the world would stop for them. Which it did. Some people seemed to take pleasure in stopping their cars and watching the geese slowly cross the street. Others did not, and their numbers increased as the geese began to make a habit out of sauntering across the road as if they expected traffic to stop until they were good and ready to reach the other side. There was a marked increase in impatient horn honking, and cars forcing the geese out of the road. I am actually a little surprised no geese ended up as roadside debris, but I guess motorist irritation was not such that they were willing to risk damaging their nice cars. The geese are too stupid to realize how lucky they were.

Geese Road

They own the road

In the end the pond owner did manage to sell his house and the geese have become less of a problem to the refined citizens of this locale. Not because the stone throwing, shouting, geese chasing, or horn honking has terrified the geese into leaving. No, they still come around. But I think with the new generation of geese grown to adulthood the flock has become much larger and they found their grazing grounds a little small.

Summer is waning late and they are preparing to head south and until then the flock often splits up smaller groups for more distributed foraging. Rather than the entire group taking up the pond there usually is only one of the geese families hanging about, and they often will move on after a few hours. The new owners of the pond at first valiantly attempted to keep the geese away, (standing guard all one evening and shouting to chase them away any time the geese flew in to land,) but now seem to have given up, and only chase them off the driveway and back into the pond. With the goslings grown and the geese now flying to forage over a greatly expanded domain the local residents have been delivered from the need of chasing geese off their lawns. Only rarely do the geese stick around long enough to cross the road and interrupt traffic.

Perhaps everyone thinks they have survived the worst and their geese troubles are over. But with a little more thought they might rest uneasy. I wonder what will happen when the geese come back next year to hatch more offspring. Can anyone say, “Double the trouble?”

We’ll see.

When The NYT Catches Your Attention

21st August 2007

I am not a faithful reader of The New York Times. However, if something catches my eye on Google News I can end up browsing their website. Recently I ended up at the New York Times website by that method, and came across several articles of interest.

Three articles, to be precise: The Politics of God, Lobes of Steel, and Seeing Corporate Fingerprints in Wikipedia Edits.

Continue reading here.

Religion, Science, and Technology at The NYT

21st August 2007

I am not a faithful reader of The New York Times. However, if something catches my eye on Google News I can end up browsing their website. Recently I ended up at the New York Times website by that method, and came across several articles of interest.

The Politics of God

This article caught my attention. It is written from a secular point of view, but breaks from traditional liberal interpretation of religion, and fundamentalist religion in particular. The traditional liberal view is that if everyone were educated and well fed, then fundamentalism (and perhaps even religion altogether) will die out. Mark Lilla, while holding to the liberal ethos, directly contradicts these assumptions.

A short quote:

This was the house that liberal theology built, and throughout the 19th century it looked secure. It wasn’t, and for reasons worth pondering. Liberal theology had begun in hope that the moral truths of biblical faith might be intellectually reconciled with, and not just accommodated to, the realities of modern political life. Yet the liberal deity turned out to be a stillborn God, unable to inspire genuine conviction among a younger generation seeking ultimate truth. For what did the new Protestantism offer the soul of one seeking union with his creator? It prescribed a catechism of moral commonplaces and historical optimism about bourgeois life, spiced with deep pessimism about the possibility of altering that life. It preached good citizenship and national pride, economic good sense and the proper length of a gentleman’s beard. But it was too ashamed to proclaim the message found on every page of the Gospels: that you must change your life. And what did the new Judaism bring to a young Jew seeking a connection with the traditional faith of his people? It taught him to appreciate the ethical message at the core of all biblical faith and passed over in genteel silence the fearsome God of the prophets, his covenant with the Jewish people and the demanding laws he gave them. Above all, it taught a young Jew that his first obligation was to seek common ground with Christianity and find acceptance in the one nation, Germany, whose highest cultural ideals matched those of Judaism, properly understood. To the decisive questions — “Why be a Christian?” and “Why be a Jew?” — liberal theology offered no answer at all.

By the turn of the 20th century, the liberal house was tottering, and after the First World War it collapsed. It was not just the barbarity of trench warfare, the senseless slaughter, the sight of burned-out towns and maimed soldiers that made a theology extolling “modern civilization” contemptible. It was that so many liberal theologians had hastened the insane rush to war, confident that God’s hand was guiding history. In August 1914, Adolf von Harnack, the most respected liberal Protestant scholar of the age, helped Kaiser Wilhelm II draft an address to the nation laying out German military aims. Others signed an infamous pro-war petition defending the sacredness of German militarism. Astonishingly, even Hermann Cohen joined the chorus, writing an open letter to American Jews asking for support, on the grounds that “next to his fatherland, every Western Jew must recognize, revere and love Germany as the motherland of his modern religiosity.” Young Protestant and Jewish thinkers were outraged when they saw what their revered teachers had done, and they began to look elsewhere.

The entire article is long, but worth reading. You can find it here.

Lobes of Steel

Scientists have suspected for decades that exercise, particularly regular aerobic exercise, can affect the brain. But they could only speculate as to how. Now an expanding body of research shows that exercise can improve the performance of the brain by boosting memory and cognitive processing speed. Exercise can, in fact, create a stronger, faster brain.

I was not surprised to read this. Exercise is good for you. But when I read articles like this I think of all sorts of exercise jokes–like how my bicycling habit is all about making myself smarter.

Read the rest of the article here.

Seeing Corporate Fingerprints in Wikipedia Edits

Wikipedia is very popular. In some circles it is much reviled. And some people think to use it for mischief or propaganda.

Dozens of similar examples of insider editing came to light last week through WikiScanner, a new Web site that traces the source of millions of changes to Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia that anyone can edit.

The site, wikiscanner.virgil.gr, created by a computer science graduate student, cross-references an edited entry on Wikipedia with the owner of the computer network where the change originated, using the Internet protocol address of the editor’s network. The address information was already available on Wikipedia, but the new site makes it much easier to connect those numbers with the names of network owners.

Since Wired News first wrote about WikiScanner last week, Internet users have spotted plenty of interesting changes to Wikipedia by people at nonprofit groups and government entities like the Central Intelligence Agency. Many of the most obviously self-interested edits have come from corporate networks.

I’m not surprised. This wikiscanner only proves what those with even half a brain already knew could happen, and knew surely was already happening. For those haters of wikipedia this is surely all the proof they feel they will ever need that encyclopedic work should remain the sole purview of encyclopedic experts. I disagree. I think there is a place for both the public and private work, and I think both have different weaknesses. Putting unquestioning confidence in wikipedia is foolish, but so is putting such confidence in some supposed encyclopedic authority. If you think you have a perfect and unbiased source of news and information, I have some beachfront property I’d like to sell you in Kansas. Otherwise, this is an opportunity to remember to be careful about what you read.

Read the rest of the article here.

Noticing Small Dramas

15th August 2007

There is that saying, “Stop and smell the roses,” but even if some of us do slow down and enjoy the flowers occasionally, how many of us stop to notice the little dramas in life? I mean the very small dramas in life. So caught up in our hustle, we don’t notice the birds, bees, or bugs toiling, living, and dying. But if you do stop to look, to really look, sometimes you see things that are interesting and even strange. Sometimes you see things that make you wonder.

Continue reading Small Dramas here.

Small Dramas

15th August 2007

There is that saying, “Stop and smell the roses,” but even if some of us do slow down and enjoy the flowers occasionally, how many of us stop to notice the little dramas in life? I mean the very small dramas in life. So caught up in our hustle, we don’t notice the birds, bees, or bugs toiling, living, and dying. But if you do stop to look, to really look, sometimes you see things that are interesting and even strange. Sometimes you see things that make you wonder.

I was walking up the steps to the back deck when I noticed a katydid(*). I had my camera with me, and my first thought was to get a close-up picture of a katydid. The initial fleeting impression was of a live katydid, but as I stooped closer that impression changed. Dead. The poor fellow had expired.

katydid on step

Stricken Katydid

At this point the mundane observation of a katydid sitting on a step turned into something more. A little drama, a small mystery. How did he(or she) get here, and how did he die? My first thought was that someone had squashed him, but a close examination revealed no smashed body parts. In fact, the katydid seemed quite whole and intact and appeared as if he had simply collapsed.

A continuing examination revealed more facts, and mystery. The ailment of the katydid clearly had something to do with the liquid seeping out of its mouth. A rather gruesome way to go. Was it something the katydid had ate, or had it been infected with some horrible parasite that had burst open inside it and was slowly digesting the katydid’s insides? Or was the material seeping out of its mouth actually something on the steps it had stopped to eat, only to find itself caught or sickened?

Ant and Katydid

Hungry Ant

As if this weren’t enough, I soon discovered the katydid wasn’t quite dead, not yet. A lone ant had discovered the ailing katydid and was futilely trying to haul the creature off to its ant hive for devouring. As the ant tugged at the katydid’s leg the katydid waved a small leg feebly, as if to say, “Go away and leave me in peace.” But the katydid was so far gone as to be unable to move any more then one small leg. It’s body was slouched and unmoving, so the ant kept at its attempted efforts.

I suppose someone might come up with some great analogy for all of this–the dying katydid and the single small ant trying to haul him off as a meal. Perhaps something about the shortness of life, or the suddenness of death. But I just wondered what the katydid had eaten, or if whatever it had was catching. It’s not every day you see a katydid collapsed, internal juices leaking out of its mouth.

Katydid Dying

Ug. Looking right at you

—-
(*)This story wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that at the time I thought I was looking at a grasshopper, not a katydid. But as it happened, two days after I took my pictures of the dying katydid aSeamstress had a picture of a katydid on her blog, seeking identification of the bug. Those more knowledgeable than myself identified it as a katydid and thus I was educated. In some quick googling I tried to determine how one distinguishes a katydid from a grasshopper and what species my dying katydid was. On one website it was mentioned that katydid’s can be distinguished by the great length of their antennae–I’m not sure if this is the only or most correct method of distinguishing. And as to exactly which species this is . . . good luck. There are a lot of varieties of katydids, and in my quick googling I didn’t find one that looked exactly like mine. If anyone has more information, I’d appreciate hearing it.

Here are three links on katydids:

1# Wikipedia article
2# Whatsthatbug.com
3# North American Katydids

Photos: Park and Flowers

25th July 2007

I posted a few photos from Sunday and Tuesday. For those interested:

Photos from 7/22/07 and 7/24/07.

You can look at the full size images.

Photos From 7/22/07 and 7/24/07

25th July 2007

On Sunday we went to a family reunion.

Park Reunion

A moss covered tree at the park caught my attention.

Moss Tree Moss on Tree

Tuesday evening I took these photos. Unfortuntely, a bug in the first photo ruins what would have otherwise been a great picture.

Yellow Flower With Bug Yellow Flower at Evening

Whimsical Book Website

19th July 2007

They say to stand out one must be original. They say to advertise well one must be original. They say to sell one must be original.

Perhaps I should take a lesson from Miranda July, the author of No One Belongs Here More Than You. She decided to create the website for her book on the top of her refrigerator. When that didn’t work out so well she switched to her stove. That is one way of being original.

Don’t understand? Check out the website yourself, here.

Whimsical, amusing . . . but I don’t think that will work for me. Besides, now it’s already been done. I’ll have to think up some other way of getting the word out for my writing.

As a final note, I haven’t read Ms. July’s book. I don’t even have any idea what the book is about. I suppose that means the website does leave something to be desired. I guess nobody is perfect.

Update Summary 07-17-07

17th July 2007

This update summary has been tardy, but . . . most recent additions as such:

Interesting fact: Did you know you could polish with olive oil? Read more here.

Filed under The Odd Bag.

What do Ebert and Lichtenberg have in common? Maybe nothing, but find a quote from each here.

Filed under The Odd Bag.

Ever heard of proto-protestants? Read up on your history here.

Filed under The Odd Bag.

Proto-Protestants

10th July 2007

You know of the Protestants, but what about the Proto-Protestants?

A little education in church history for you. “Proto-Protestants is a term used to describe Christian people and movements before the Protestant Reformation who, in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church, expressed views identical or very similar to those held by main Protestant reformers and movements.” In other words, Luther and that crowd didn’t appear in a vacuum, being the first with a new idea. To me it seems a little artifical to use Luther as the division between Proto-Protestants and Protestants but I suppose that is the nature of people with their categories–everyone must fit into neat little boxes.

Probably the one Proto-Protestant that most people are familiar with (at least so far as recognizing the name) is John Wycliffe.

More obscure is Jan Hus who was burned at the stake.

Read more on Proto-Protestants here at Wikipedia.

Ebert and Lichtenberg, Entertainment and Truth

7th July 2007

From the field of entertainment:

The day after Columbine, I was interviewed… The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that… The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song … The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous…”

– Roger Ebert

From Wikiquote.

I find it extremely distasteful how the news media (or should I say entertainment industry) handles such events. But I also find irony in Ebert’s reply, as he (perhaps conciously) plays the same game. Blame violent movies, blame news programs. The source of such evil must be something outside our own dark hearts.

And somehow, this seems to also fit:

It is almost impossible to bear the torch of truth through a crowd without singeing somebody’s beard.

– Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

From Wikiquote.

Polished With Olive Oil

7th July 2007

I knew olive oil was versatile, but who would have thought it could serve as furniture polish?

Find out how to make furniture polish from olive oil here at WikHow.

I confess to still being a little concerned about the olive oil polish going rancid on the furniture. But the multitude of uses for olive oil does appeal to me.

Update Summary 07-05-07

5th July 2007

We have a photo theme today, folks.

If you’d like to see some nice photo blogs, head over here.

Filed under The Odd Bag.

To read the introduction of my the new, less than wonderful, Photos section, go here.

Filed under Letters.

To see the first posted photos “Study in Siberian Irises” go here. More pictures to come in the future. And maybe I’ll get the full-size image links working.

Filed under Photos.

Never Simple

5th July 2007

I have added a photo section to the silverwarethief website. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I desire to create a true photo blog. But this addition to the silverwarethief website is not that. I’m not entirely sure what this addition to the silverwarethief domain is . . . an experiment, I guess, as are all things on this website.

Apparently, I like to make things complicated for myself. Being something of a perfectionist I wanted this website addition to be perfect, but not knowing exactly how I wanted it to function, that was hard. You can’t really combine an artistic photo blog and a general photo dumping location. I finally decided this would be a photo dumping location where the sublime and mundane would mix. But I didn’t want to simply dump the photos, I wanted to organize them. Which led to my nemesis and obsession–organizing. How should I organize my photos? Under what categories? The questions and considerations multiplied, and no perfect filing system came to me. So that is still an experimentation in progress.

Then, as if all of these problems weren’t enough, there came the technical difficulties. For some reason (which I might know why, but not yet how to fix) the links to my full size images go 404 when the content is most certainly there. Perplexity and aggravation. I think it has something to do with how WordPress is handling things, but haven’t had the free time to investigate and resolve the issue.

Rather than waiting until I make the time to resolve the technical issues and find equanimity in my artistic vision, I’ve decided to unveil the new photo section now. Take a trip on over and enjoy the Siberian Irises. Just remember the links to the full size images don’t work. And things may change.

As is the case with everything around here.

Study in Siberian Irises

22nd June 2007

Siberian Irises at evening.

Siberian Iris

Siberian Iris

Siberian Iris

Siberian Iris

Photo Blogs

21st June 2007

There is a certain artistic quality about photo blogs which I aspire to create myself, sometime. With the written word the presentation doesn’t seem to matter quite as much. But with a photo blog the size and presentation of the photo greatly impacts ones enjoyment.

I want to create a photo blog like this. The design is pleasing, the photos well done. (Hat tip: Brer Licky.)

Another interesting photo blog is this one. The conceit of two different people each posting a photo is interesting. The design isn’t bad (I favor spartan photo blogs like the two referenced) but I definitely notice the pictures in this blog having less impact than the previous because the photos are so much smaller.

Update Summary 06-12-07

12th June 2007

We have a nature theme today, folks.

If you’d like to read about the kinder aspects of nature, like geese and turtles, you can read a nice little post here.

Filed under Letters.

If you’re interested in learning about more violent out-bursts in nature, discover a vulcanic eruption more deadily than Pompeii by reading here.

File under The Odd Bag.

Geese and a Turtle

12th June 2007

Wild geese reproduce at a prolific rate. I have read about how wild Canadian geese populations have become a problem in some areas, their numbers have grown so large.

We don’t have that problem in this neighborhood.

Yet.

But, watching the wild geese that live in this area, I see how it does happen in other areas.

Geese Grazing

Geese Grazing

Directly across the street is a large pond which serves as the summer residence for a flock of Canadian geese. When they came back this spring I would say it was a small flock. I did no official count, but the number of geese was approximately thirteen. Apparently, they promptly began the process of making sure another generation would follow as by early May I saw little goslings in tow behind parents swimming around the pond.

The speed with which the geese hatched goslings was surprising (they must have started sitting in early April when the weather was still far from entirely pleasant), but even more surprising was the number they had hatched. These aren’t domesticated animals. These are wild creatures living by their wits. One might think the strain of self-sufficiency would keep the reproduction rate somewhat lower than domesticated animals, but the number of young produced by this flock of wild geese was better than anything I’ve personally seen among domesticated geese.

Of the thirteen geese, ten of them matched up to form five pairs. The remaining three were either all male, all female, or not romantically inclined, I presume. I didn’t perform a precise count of goslings, but a close visual estimate showed that two of the pairs had produced five goslings each, two pairs had produced four goslings each, and the last pair had produced three goslings. Thus, if nobody perishes over the summer the departing flock will have grown from thirteen to thirty-four! Even allowing for a few deaths, the possibility for exponential growth is staggering.

The practical part of me sees some interesting opportunities. The geese are self-sufficient and eco-friendly, as they eat only grass. Further, they reproduce in large amounts yet are effectively no cost to raise. Ergo, there seems a great opportunity here to take up low cost geese farming or, if more philanthropically inclined, deal with some world hunger. There are geese flocks all over the United States that are reproducing at a vigorous rate. Some judicious thinning of those thousands of flocks ought to provide meat for many meals.

That is the practical side. But I’m not a very practical guy.

The other side of me thinks the goslings look awful cute trundling around out on the grassy banks of the pond. So I just watch them, and marvel at how fast they grow.

Geese Resting

Goslings Resting

The geese are not the only wildlife that appreciates the pond. One day I was down in the garage and happened to glance out the window and saw down the street a dark . . . thing crossing the road. My first thought was, Whoa, that is the largest lizard I’ve ever seen! Then my mind made a little better sense of what I was seeing and I realized it was a snapping turtle crossing the road.

Why did the turtle cross the road? To get to the pond.

I raced to grab my camera and ran out of the house, barefoot, to get pictures.

Turtle Side

Snapping Turtle

I think turtles are cool. The bigger they are, the better. They appeal to the little boy in me that likes anything with armor, spikes, or any such gear. They have a majestic, ancient, and crusty air. They look to me like the last remaining dinosaurs. The turtle I found was not the biggest turtle I’ve ever seen, but with the serrated edge of his shell and the spikes on his tail he did look like a little dinosaur.

Crabby Turtle

Crabby Turtle

He was also shy and rather crabby. As soon as I started to approach he went into a defensive posture, pulling back into his shell. But, whenever I touched him, he would scramble to turn around to face me, looking for any opportunity where he might bite. A snapping turtle’s bite is not pleasant.

If you’re less than adventuresome, the first sight of a large snapping turtle will have you scared to enter streams or ponds ever again. Just imagine one of those boys going for your toes.

Worse Than Pompeii

30th May 2007

1902 eruption of Mount Pelee

1902 eruption of Mount Pelée

You’ve probably heard of the destruction of Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, but have you read about the eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902 and the destruction of Saint Pierre?

Probably not.

Do you know which caused greater loss of life? If you said the destruction of Pompeii you would be wrong.

The destruction of Pompeii has always occupied the place in my mind as the vulcanic eruption which caused the greatest loss of human life in recorded history. Not necessarily the vulcano of greatest explosive force, but certainly the greatest loss of human life. Perhaps this only shows how ignorant I am, but I was recently educated by reading about the destructionf of Saint Pierre in the eruption of Mount Pelée.

Mount Pelee Refugees

Evacuees

It is estimated that “the population of Pompeii range from 10,000 to 20,000, whilst Herculaneum [the other town destroyed in Vesuvius's eruption] is thought to have had a population of about 5,000.” If we presume that is the number of casualties, it still falls short of the 26,000 to 36,000 casualties that accompanied the eruption of Mount Pelée.

More than just the massive casualties, the eruption of Mount Pelée is documented in much greater detail than that of Vesuvius in 79 AD (no real big surprise there), and it makes for some gripping reading. If you want to read the entire article, go here. The main blast is recounted as such:

The main eruption, on May 8, 1902, on the Ascension Day, destroyed the town of Saint-Pierre, about 4 miles south of the peak.

In the morning, people were observing the fireworks the mountain was showing off. The night shift telegraph operator was sending the reports of the volcano’s activity, to the operator at Fort-de-France, claiming no significant new developments; his last transmission was “Allez”, handing over the line to the remote operator. It was 7:52; the next second the telegraph line went dead. A cable repair ship had the city in direct view; the upper mountainside ripped open and a dense black cloud shot out horizontally. A second black cloud rolled upwards, forming a gigantic mushroom cloud and darkening the sky in 50 miles radius. The initial speed of both clouds was later calculated to over 670 kilometers per hour.

The horizontal pyroclastic cloud was hugging the ground, speeding down towards the city of Saint Pierre, appearing black and heavy, glowing hot from the inside. In under a minute it reached the city, instantly igniting everything combustible it came in contact with, covering the entire city.

A rush of wind followed, this time towards the mountain. Then came a half-hour downpour of muddy rain mixed with ashes. For the next several hours, all communication with the city was severed. Nobody knew what was happening, nor who had authority over the island, as the governor was unreachable and his status unknown. Some survivors were picked from the sea; mostly badly burned sailors, who had been blown into the sea by the blast and then clung for hours to floating debris.

A warship arrived towards the shore at about 12:30, but the heat prevented landing until about 3 PM. The city burned for several more days.

The area devastated by the pyroclastic cloud covered about 8 square miles, with the city of St. Pierre taking its brunt.

The cloud consisted of superheated steam and volcanic gases and dust, with temperatures reaching over 1000 °C.

Saint Pierre had a population of some ~30,000, which was swelled by refugees from the minor explosions and mud flows first emitted by the volcano. There were pitifully few survivors: Ludger Sylbaris, a prisoner held in an underground cell in the town’s jail (later pardoned), and Léon Compere-Léandre, a man who lived at the edge of the city. Some sources also list Havivra Da Ifrile, a little girl. One woman, a housemaid, also survived the pyroclastic flow but perished soon after; the only thing she remembered from the event was sudden heat.

Update Summary 05-21-07

21st May 2007

The New Yorker hasn’t interviewed me, so I got aSeamstress to do it instead.

Gripping in-depth interview right here.

Filed under Letters.

The Interview

21st May 2007

As done by aSeamstress.

1.What is the best piece of advice that you’ve ever been given?

The best advice was from my Dad. Rather than being a piece of advice he has given on one particular occasion it has been his general exhortation to me in life. Distilled down to a pithy saying, it would be something like, “Don’t worry about what people think, concern yourself with what God thinks. Don’t try to please people or win their approval. Seek to please God and have His approval.”

I believe that is good advice, and try to live accordingly.

2.If you could relive any moment in your life, what would it be?

None. While I have many fond memories of times past, I have no desire to go back and experience them again. I look forward and see what is ahead as better. I would rather go forward and experience the better things awaiting.

3.Do you have any weird habits?

Many.

The problem with asking that question is that I’m not very cognizant of how weird my various habits are. I asked my family and got a very long list. If they were pare them down, a short list might include:

–I sing a lot. I sing in the shower, while cooking, while cleaning, and while driving the car (so long as I am alone). Basically any time when my brain is not deeply engaged and I’m not physically exerting myself so much that I don’t have any spare breath. However I seem incapable of remembering all the lyrics to any song, so I end up singing one or two lines of various songs over and over and over again. Then I will sometimes get bored with singing that one line the right way, so I will start singing it loudly, badly out of tune, or mutilate the lyrics.

–I go out biking three times a week . . . no matter what the weather: torrential downpour, snow, or twenty-degrees below zero.

–I twirl and tug on my beard when thinking or daydreaming. This is something of a bad habit as if I get really engaged in thinking I’ll twirl and tug just about every hair on my face until it is all rather frayed and the roots are sore.

–I’m a light sleeper, sensitive to noise and light. Often I will wear ear-plugs and put something over my eyes so it is “properly” quiet and dark.

–I think chickens and ducks are nutty, and I end up acting like a nut around them. I end up speaking in a high pitched girly voice and acting crazy (like a chicken, in my mind)–all sorts of things no intelligent and self respecting person would do.

–I often think to myself, or carrying on an internal conversation with myself, and I will smile or shake my head in response to those unheard things (perhaps giving this visible reaction at a socially inappropriate time). This provokes the reaction of “What??? Why are you smiling?” And I usually say, “Oh, nothing. Just my thoughts.”

–Related to the above, I have been told that I act very weird when I am writing.

I carry on an dialog with myself while writing, which consists in whispering what I am writing while I type, shaking my head as I deliberate (if I’m not satisfied), grinning, chuckling (if I am pleased), and turning away from the computer screen to staring intently off into space while contemplating some inner scene or thought (people have claimed that it looks like I am staring right through them). I will then sometimes get up and start pacing around the room (especially if I’m having a brain over-load, or am trying to sort thoughts out).

Thus I might write a few sentences while whispering to myself, then get up and walk in a circle, shaking my head, occasionally smiling or muttering to myself, then sit down again and write a few more sentences, then stare off into space before getting up and repeating the process all over again.

Apparently this can be very weird for someone watching.

Obviously a lot of my neurosis involves writing.

4.Name a book that you’re currently reading, and in twenty words or less, describe your thoughts about it. (actually, I’m kidding about the twenty words or less part you can make it as long as you want)

This question comes at a bad time as at this very minute I’m kind of between reading material. While waiting in doctor’s offices, etc. I’ve been reading Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual, but that is basically a manual, so it doesn’t really count. And I’m also reading a new novel to my Grandpa that my Uncle dropped off, but I don’t think that counts either.

So, I’ll answer the question by writing briefly about what I recently read, and what I am going to start reading.

I recently finished reading Joshua Harris’s three books I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Boy Meets Girl, and Not Even A Hint. I was initially very leery of these books as they were packaged as “popular” and I find popular books often severely lacking in substance. Once I flipped through the books I saw they weren’t so bad as I feared. As I had already thought about the matters covered in the books and come to my own conclusions I didn’t feel a strong compulsion to read them immediately, but recently I did finally get around to them.

I would say I am largely in the same ball-park as Joshua Harris on the matters covered. I do have some criticisms of what he says in certain places. Distilled down in essence, it is that he fails to fully grasp the truth of desiring (and putting into practice) the reality of living for God in obedience to Christ in every aspect of life. And as much as Joshua Harris does grasp it, he is inconsistent in applying it.

For reading next . . . I recently bought the entire back issue collection of Searching Together Magazine. I am interested in reading them all, but will start with the Spring-Autumn 2003 Edition, Women in the Body of Christ: Functioning Priests or “Silent” Partners? because the subject with is one I have been pondering and seeking to solidify some of my own thoughts in writing, so having someone else to react to would be good.

5.If a vending machine stole your money, what would your initial reaction be?

“I knew it!”

I expect vending machines to steal my money. I expect it so much that I find it difficult to be surprised when it happens. When I stick my money in the slot I already half expect that I’m flushing my money down the drain. There is a certain wrathful self-righteous smugness when the filthy machine does exactly what I expect.

Now its your turn to play if you wish!

Leave me a comment saying, “Interview me.” I will respond by asking you five questions. I get to pick the questions, and I will message or comment you with them and these directions. Just update your blog with the answers to the questions and include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.

2 Responses to The Interview

  1. Bethany says:

    I’ve always unintentionally found myself engaging in many internal conversations as well. Daphne du Maurier expressed that sort of scenario brilliantly, I thought. I was smiling throughout that scene in “Rebecca,” because it sounded so, so familiar.

  2. Rundy says:

    I think there is a whole group of people who engage in this activity and think nothing of it. Then there are the other people who don’t and might consider such activity a sign that you don’t have all your marbels.

    It would be interesting to consider why some people engage in internal conversations and some don’t. Does it signal a particular way of thinking? A particular type of personality?

Comments are closed.

Update Summary 05-15-07

15th May 2007

The vultures circle while Søren Kierkegaard and Jean de La Bruyère opine on life.

I had a turkey vulture sighting recently. You can read about it, and see a few pictures, here.

Filed in Letters.

For those interested in fine words of wisdom from the sages:

Søren Kierkegaard on choices, here.

Jean de La Bruyère on the nature of life, here.

Both filed in The Odd Bag.

Vultures Waiting

15th May 2007

One Vulture

One Vulture

I did a double-take. I had just set out on my bike ride and wasn’t even a half mile from the house when I passed the old burned out house and the abandoned barn. As my gaze slid across the barn I half registered something different. Strange shapes–almost like huge bird statues–wait, there is nothing like that on the barn roof. That is when I did the double take. What looked like huge bird statues?

Huge birds, of course. With my second look I realized three turkey vultures were perched on top of the barn. The sight was particularly arresting because the birds were holding the horaltic pose (standing in a spread winged stance) which made them appear brooding and almost threatening.

My first reaction was, “Hey, that’s cool!” My second reaction was, “I wish I had brought my camera.”

Horaltic Pose

Horaltic pose

I decided I would just hope they were still on the barn roof when I came back, and rode on. As I rode I realized they surely wouldn’t still be there by the time I finished my bike ride so if I didn’t go back and get my camera now I wouldn’t get any pictures. Oh well, I thought, and continued riding. Then I got to the top of the next hill and decided, no, I didn want pictures bad enough to turn around and get my camera now.

So I did. The birds weren’t poised as dramatically by the time I got back and at first they weren’t even holding the horaltic pose. I hung around for a bit and they went back to their dramatic stance. I snapped what pictures I could, but without a powerful zoom lens for my camera I couldn’t get very good photographs.

Nonetheless, it was very cool for the vultures which are normally only seen at a distance in the sky to come down and pose on a barn roof. No doubt if there was a more superstitious lot, it would have been taken as a very bad omen indeed.

Three Vultures

Søren Kierkegaard on Choices

14th May 2007

A philosopher says,

I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.
– Søren Kierkegaard in Either/Or

Trust a philosopher to give you helpful advice.

I have heard a more pithy version of this statement. I wonder if the pithy saying has Kierkegaard to thank, or if Kierkegaard was simply restating a common observation.

Quote found via wikiquote of the day. See more of Kierkegaard at Wikiquote here.

Life According to Jean de La Bruyère

14th May 2007

It is said,

Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think.
– Jean de La Bruyère

I must be a well rounded individual, because for me life is a tragic comedy.

This quote via Wikipedia’s Wikiquote.

Update Summary 05-13-07

13th May 2007

Sights, Sounds, and Smells of Spring

One of the many good things about spring is that without it, and without the absence imposed by fall and winter, we flawed mortals might fail to appreciate the beauties around us. So much of the wonder of spring is found in the return of what was absent. Would the appearance of new leaves and fresh grass be so wonderful to our small minds if they hadn’t been absent?

Filed in Letters.

Continue reading entry here.

The Horror of Minamata

Ever heard of Minamata? There is a little bit of sordid human history that perhaps you’d rather not know, and probably should.

Filed in The Odd Bag.

Read entry here.

The Horror of Minamata

13th May 2007

Tomokos Hand

Minamata: The horror.

Some things tell more about the human race than is comfortably faced. In popular modern culture Hitler is equated with ultimate evil. Many try to make Hitler a unique anomaly and avoid the truth of what Hitler’s person and deeds says about the entire human race. They forget there were many “Hitlers” before Hitler, and there have been many since.

What is worst about the Minamata horror is not the disease itself, (terrible as that is,) but the callous and complete disregard for human life demonstrated by the perpetrators of the problem. Knowing full well the suffering and death that resulted from their actions,

Chisso duly installed a Cyclator purification system on 19 December 1959, and opened it with a special ceremony. Chisso’s president Kiichi Yoshioka dared to drink a glass of water supposedly treated through the Cyclator to demonstrate that it was safe. In fact, the wastewater from the acetaldehyde plant, which the company knew still contained mercury and led to Minamata disease when fed to cats, was not treated through the Cyclator at the time. The stunt was an outright deception. Testimony at a later Niigata Minamata disease trial proved that Chisso knew the Cyclator to be completely ineffective: “…the purification tank was installed as a social solution and did nothing to remove organic mercury.”

Such is a demonstration of moral vacuum.

For a more information the reader is directed to Wikipedia’s article on Minamata disease.

Sights, Sounds, and Smells of Spring

13th May 2007

Sights

One of the many good things about spring is that without it, and without the absence imposed by fall and winter, we flawed mortals might fail to appreciate the beauties around us. So much of the wonder of spring is found in the return of what was absent. Would the appearance of new leaves and fresh grass be so wonderful to our small minds if they hadn’t been absent?

The first greening of the grass is like the first sight, the heralding, of spring with that glimpse of brilliant green that soon grows to carpet the earth everywhere. Then the trees, warmed by the fresh sunlight and rain, begin to unfold their leaves until even the last late trees have unfurled their finery and it is as if the last of spring has completed its work and summer has arrived. It is as the greenery of new life comes that I feel a long dormant pleasure and realize how much I have missed it all.

With spring many flowers bloom. Memorable for me in this part of the country are the snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, forsythia, irises, juneberry, apples, and lilacs. Each is beautiful in its own right, each marks another splash of color and life in the canvas of nature. Perhaps closest to my heart are apple blossoms. There is something exquisitely lovely about walking through an apple orchard in full bloom. It defies description. You must be there to fully understand and appreciate. There is the brilliant white beauty and gentle fragrance when the apples are in full bloom, and there is an almost sad and meditative beauty as the flowers fade and the white petals fall like some other-worldly snow to carpet the green ground.

If apple blossoms are my favorite flower of spring, lilacs (to me) are the closing flower of spring. It feels as if spring has ended and summer has come when the lilacs are gone.

Yet unmentioned is the flower I find iconic for spring: the dandelion. Driving through the country during springtime, I can see entire fields of them. They are far from the most beautiful flower, they are not dainty or exquisite . . . but there is some simple cheery vigor about dandelions which speaks to me about the heart of spring. And there is some wild and unvarnished beauty to a field turned bright yellow by the endless profusion of dandelions.

Sounds

Sounds affect me in a different way than sights. In a sense this may seem like an obvious statement because you hear sounds while you see sights. But I mean sounds touch my emotions differently. It is a subtle distinction of impression which I’m not sure I fully grasp or can adequately articulate. In general I would say sight and sound touch emotions from different avenues. Speaking in particular about spring, while I find the sights of spring invigorating I often find the sounds of spring to induce reflection and a quiet pleasantness.

The morning time symphony of spring is carried out by the birds. They start very early, before dawn, and continue until the morning wanes toward midday. Their calls, twittering and chattering, interweaves with the sunlight to brighten the day and spur one on to action. It is as if all together they say, “Busy, busy, busy,” and “Happy, happy, happy.”

One of the most pleasing sounds in spring, for me, are the peepers. Peepers are small frogs which emit a distinctive peeping mating call. If birds are the musical orchestra of the morning then these little frogs are the maestros of the evening. As evening falls with its coolness and darkness begins to creep in the peepers take up their call. It is . . . an unearthly ambiance. It is strangely pleasant, like the melody of night itself. Perhaps as such some people would find it slightly creepy, (and it does have a certain resemblance to the “scary music” sound that is played in dark spooky scenes in some movies), but for me it is the type of sound which sets my mind free to wander the paths of ethereal lands. Not only is it a sound to have wafting through a slightly opened window as one goes to sleep, but it is a sound for sitting on the porch after dark and thinking quiet thoughts as the night wanes late.

Then there are the geese. A pond sits directly across the street from my grandparents house, which a number of geese frequent. In the cooler hours of evening the geese seem most active in flying about. I will be accused of using bad English in saying this, but I find something painterly in hearing geese flying low overhead, their, “Honk, honk, honk,” echoing slightly in the cooling evening air, followed by several splashes as they come in to land on the water. Painterly, because the sounds evoke the images of wildlife paintings in my mind, especially paintings of marshes in the evening, with geese. If the birds and peepers are almost frenetic in their energy, there is something more stately and steady about the sounds of geese, as if they are the sentinels and watchmen over this domain, watchmen who give their final benediction to the dimming world as they head to seal the day with a final baptismal splash.

Smells

Smell is the most subtle of senses touched by spring. In spring there is the sweet fragrance of flowers, which is perhaps the first thing many think of. But my thoughts are drawn to subtler scents. In winter the sun is low and weak, giving little light and even less warmth. Because of that I would say the first smell of spring comes when the sun rises high enough, and shines strong enough, to create the particular aroma of bedsheets warmed by sunlight pouring through the window. Is there any smell more homely and inviting than that?

Then there is the smell of fresh air, so undefinable and yet something we all recognize on that first day after a long winter when we open a window and that smell, so deliciously fresh, wafts into the house for the first time after so many months. It is an aroma which reinvigorates a person and truly freshens a house. If sickness hangs on the stale air of winter, then the air of spring brings health and life on its wings.

And we can’t forget the smell of rain. It comes on the wind, a harbinger of the storm, and strikes the senses with a particular almost tang. That is a unique smell that I always wonder how it is created, and so strongly, to come even before the storm has reached. No flower has an aroma with such reach.

After the rain has fallen there is the rich pungent smell of wetness, the earthy odor of damp dirt and things growing.

As a fitting conclusion, we can’t forget the smell of fresh cut grass. Like so many things, it is best enjoyed in the early morning or in the closing of evening. To step outside and see the glisten of fresh dew on the cut grass and smell the sweet fragrance speaks of a day full of possibilities and work that can be done. To sit on the porch and smell that same fragrance in the dying light speaks of work done, a good day spent and the last hours of a day to be enjoyed in relaxation.

Spring is here, and it is a thing to be enjoyed with all the senses.

Silverware Thief 4.0

7th May 2007

The long wait is now over. Silverware Thief 4.0 is here and in a day or two all traffic to http://homefront.silverwarethief.com will be redirecting to www.silverwarethief.com. You can go there and check out the new site now, if you want. But before you do, and before I get into the gritty details of the website changes, I have two important technical messages for my readers regarding this upgrade.

1. Important information for e-mail subscribers: I am switching my e-mail notification software. I have been very pleased with the e-mail notification software I am currently using, and I regret the need to change, but I have decided the change is necessary because of limitations in the current program. If you wish to maintain your e-mail subscription, take note. I am switching my e-mail subscription handling to Feedblitz. In a day or two I am going to import my current subscriber list to that program. For the transfer of the subscription to take place make sure you will receive any e-mail message from feedblitz@mail.feedblitz.com. If you have any spam filtering in place on your e-mail account you may need to add that address to your whitelist or address book. Further, be on the lookout for the message from FeedBlitz advising you that the subscription change has taken place.

If you have decided that you no longer wish to subscribe, please only un-subscribe using the link provided in the Feeblitz e-mail, not by using your ISP’s spam or abuse button. Thank you.

I apologize for any inconvenience this might cause. Hopefully it will go smoothly.

2. Important information for RSS feed subscribers: If you are subscribed to the RSS or Atom feed for http://homefront.silverwarethief.com your subscription should roll-over when the sub-domain is rolled over into the main domain. Possibly previously read posts will show up as unread, but otherwise there shouldn’t be any problem. However, you may wish to resubscribe by going to www.silverwarethief.com and subscribing to the RSS feed offered there. If everything works right, this is not required but, as I will explain later, there is a reason you might want to do this anyhow.

If either my e-mail subscribers or my RSS subscribers have any difficulty, you can e-mail me and I will try to assist you.

That is all for the important messages. If you’d like to know more about what is up, what’s happening, and what’s ahead, then continue reading.

****

On April 2, 2003 this website was brought into the world with my first post. That was Silverware Thief 1.0 (as I call it now) and I’ve been going at it ever since. In late January or February 2004 I implemented my first real design (previously the site has sported a very spartan layout) at which the fork made its appearance. This design was bland but nonetheless was my first distinctive design and I still find something appealing in its simplicity. That was Silverware Thief 2.0. At the end of March-beginning of April 2005 I upgraded my site back-end software from MoveableType 3.15 to WordPress 1.4 and also unveiled a new design–a more sophisticated appearance with the black and white silverware and pen photograph header. That was Silverware Thief 3.0.

Which brings us now to May 2007 and Silverware Thief 4.0. (The astute reader will notice that I mis-spoke in my previous entry when I said this would be Silverware Thief 3.0). I’ve upgraded to the WordPress 2.1 series for back-end website management and refined and tweaked my previous design, the primary visual change being from a two column layout to a three column presentation. But the biggest advancement, by far, is going to be in website content.

Back in the early days I was unsure of my larger goal for this domain and so I tucked my first experiment away into the corner under the sub-domain homefront.silverwarethief.com. Having now ruminated over the matter for four years, I’ve finally decided to do something with the larger domain as a whole. Silverwarethief.com is my personal website and as such is intrinsically experimental, sometimes messy, and perhaps a bit quirky. It is a place where I try new things, learn, and perhaps apply some of that hard-earned knowledge to my professional website, Creative-Vapors.com.

As this is my personal website, I decided to expand it to encompass more of my interests. I’ve plucked my Letters From A Silverware Thief out from its back corner and made it part of a larger website showcasing a more diverse supply of things Rundy. Presently, there are two central parts of this new website, with more to follow. There is:

1. Letters From A Silverware Thief. Long-time readers are familiar with this large collection of essay-like writing. This particular portion of the website is expected to continue as before–ie., with the same lack of frequency in writing–the one modification being that some of the entries will now have photographs to add more interest to the writing.

2. The Odd Bag Is the closest thing on this website to a traditional blog (falling short perhaps only in that I don’t update it consistently). This section concerns itself primarily with things other than my own writing. The Odd Bag chronicles what catches my interest, whether it be a bit of history, a quote, an interesting website, or anything else. It is in essence the opposite of Letters From A Silverware Thief. I already have a bit of content in this section, so long time readers are encouraged to check it out and get a feel for what it will be like. Those who enjoy my writing may find the interesting tidbits of The Odd Bag to be very dull, in which case you will know to avoid that section in the future. Others among you may find it more entertaining.

In the near future I intend to add a section devoted to my photography. Initially I had experimented with using Flickr but while there are great opportunities to be discovered by others on the Flickr website I was unhappy with the limitations on free accounts and am too much of a penny pincher to pay the yearly subscription price when my own web host now has more than enough space to host all my photographs. None of the other free accounts I looked at satisfied me entirely, either, so I’m going to attempt photo sharing and cataloging on my own. Being something of a control freak, this appeals to a certain part of me anyhow.

I am playing around with the idea of adding another section to this site after photos, but that is further out and may not occur.

So, take a look around. Explore the website afresh. If something strikes you, or if you find a bug, let me know.

Finally, some of you may be wondering why the change in e-mail subscription software, and why I would suggest RSS subscribers re-subscribe. The answer is that because of how the new Silverware Thief website is constructed the old methods risk flooding the reader with excessive posts. Previously, I posted an occasional letter on Letters From A Silverware Thief and people would get it either in their RSS feed reader or as an e-mail. That was nice and good. But now that Silverwarethief.com is tracking more stuff it is possible for too much stuff to be sent out. Suppose I post one tidbit at The Odd Bag and then uploaded fifteen photos to my (not yet existent) photos section. If I filed my photos in individual posts, there would be a total of sixteen RSS entries coming up in your reader or sixteen e-mails hitting your inbox. While not my intention, the effect would be similar to spamming.

The solution I devised is that I have a custom feed linked on the sidebar for Silverwarethief.com which broadcasts only the RSS feed for the category “Site Update.” The Feedblitz e-mail program picks up this one feed and re-sends it as an e-mail summary. Thus, no matter how many entries I post in a day, I write one summarizing post and file it under “Site Update” and readers who are subscribed to the RSS feed on the homepage will get one nice little post telling them how much new content is available, not a dozen notices.

The complete RSS feed still exists, it just isn’t explicitly linked to on the website. Anyone who wishes to continue pulling in the raw RSS feed for the entire site is welcome to do it, but I’ve warned you what the results may be. As far as the new e-mail subscription program is concerned, I don’t feel it sends out as nice an e-mail as the latest iteration of my previous e-mail subscription program, but Feedblitz could do what I wanted, and my old program couldn’t . . . so e-mail subscribers will have to suffer with it. Trust me, it is better than getting sixteen e-mails informing you in detail where I am filing my photos on the website.

The past four years writing on this site have been fun for me, and I’m looking forward to more creative work ahead. I hope you will join me.

The Three Hundred and Thirty Five Year War

29th April 2007

And you thought the hundred year war was long. From wikipedia:

The Three Hundred and Thirty Five Years’ War (1651–1986) was a war between the Netherlands and the Isles of Scilly (located off the southwest coast of the United Kingdom). It is said to have been extended by the lack of a peace treaty for 335 years without a single shot being fired, which would make it one of the world’s longest wars and the war with the fewest casualties.

Then there is the issue of whether it is a legitimate war or not, but I’ll let you read the article.

Pictures From The Past

24th April 2007

I found two interesting blog devoted to posting history. The first is Shorpy which labels itself “the 100-year-old photo blog.” I have wanted, and toyed with the idea of doing something like this myself–posting historical material within a blog format. People of today spend so much time blogging, why not give history a voice in this new medium? If you like old photography, you’ll like Shorpy.com.

As an example of what you can find there, I found this particular image arresting. Sometimes an image can say so much more than we can articulate in words, and to me this is one of those times.

The other site is GhostCowboy. It has a good dose of old photography, but it is also sprinkled with writing (it seems primarily newspaper articles) from the bygone era. It can make for fascinating (and gruesome) reading, if one finds life from that time period interesting. A recent post reads:

Ohio Democrat / November 1, 1883

MINERAL RIDGE, O., Oct. 27. — A terrific gas explosion, which fatally injured Dr. A. J. Leitch, a prominent physician and President of the School Board, and seriously injured several others, occurred Friday. Workmen struck a rich vein of gas, and many spectators came to see it. Dr. Leitch very foolishly, and against the remonstrance of the bystanders, rolled a newspaper around a stone, lighted the paper, and threw it down the well, a distance of fifty feet. A tremendous explosion occurred, which shook the earth and blew the bricks and trappings to splinters. Dr. Leitch, who stood at the mouth of the well, was hurled about fifteen feet in the air with terrific force, and was horribly mangled. Both eyes were blown out, and his hair and nearly all his whiskers were scorched off. It is feared his lungs are affected. He lies in a critical condition, with little hopes of his recovery. Several others were seriously burned and injured by pieces of timber.

Changes For The Better, Soon

21st April 2007

As regular readers are aware, I discovered last month that I had been hacked in February. As best I can determine, the method was simple and affected area limited. Before the hack I had been running an outdated version of the software WordPress (very bad me). Taking an advantage of a vulnerability in the older version of software, this hacker managed to gain access to the uploading feature of the WordPress software I had installed. He then promptly filled up all of my server disk space with his files so that I was hosting his stuff for him.

Once I noticed all the strange incoming traffic on my stats I realized I had been hacked and quickly moved to resolve the issue. I deleted all the offending content and upgraded my WordPress software so that it wouldn’t be repeated. However, my hosting company said that to be completely certain everything was resolved I really ought to scrub my entire account and re-upload from scratch.

While I really don’t think anything the hacker did to my account escaped deletion in my cleanup, I realize the advice to do a complete wipe is considered standard. Since it had come to this I figured, (as the saying goes,) if life gives you lemons make lemonade. It was time to do something I had considered doing for some time. If I was going to wipe my account and re-upload all my stuff, I might as well go all the way and move to greener pastures.

There were several reasons for doing so, that had been piling up over time:

–I wanted more freedom than my present hosting account offered.

–I wanted more space than my current hosting account offered.

–I had a routing problem with my current account that made it often difficult to access my website or upload content.

If I was going to be re-uploading my content, now was the perfect time to solve these problems as well. So I looked around for a hosting company that would satisfy my needs. I settled on Dreamhost as being a company that fit my particular needs at a reasonable price.

A while back I decided I wanted to expand the scope of my Silverware Thief website to give me freedom to deversify what I shared. After I get the new design ironed out I will roll the content of this sub-domain over into the larger structure. More on that when the time comes. For the present, in the coming week I am going to roll over this site, as is, onto my new host. If all goes well this website should be down for only a short while and when it comes back up it shouldn’t look any different.

Later, whenever I manage to finish it, I’ll be unveiling the new design. I’ll call it Silverware Thief 3.0. You’re allowed to wait with baited breath.

Book Review: Heidi

16th April 2007

The best children’s books are those that can be enjoyed by people of all ages. Heidi, by Johanna Spyri, is that type of book.

I have vivid memories from my childhood of listening to Heidi as a book on tape. More recently, in the past month I read the book to my grandfather as his bedtime story for several weeks. He enjoyed the story, and I discovered that after all these years I still enjoyed it, too.

As a child, the trials and experiences of the children in the story struck close to my heart. I saw the story from their perspective, and related to it as if I were living through the story myself. As an adult I find myself appreciating the story with a broader perspective. There is, of course, the detachment that comes with age, but with that distance more of the story comes into focus. In the narrow child-like association with the central children everything else faded into the background. Now I can appreciate the rest of the story and what the author said in little ways, even in the unsaid bits of the story which an adult can understand and which bring new enjoyment to a story they saw gladly, if a little less richly, as a child.

In my childhood relating to Heidi the adults in the story were always foreign and impersonal forces that might help, hinder, or be a danger. But they didn’t have lives, sorrows, and joys. The most they might have was anger against the children (which was to be avoided), or else pleasure in what the children did (which was good). As an adult I think perhaps those alien adults in the story are what I enjoy most about Heidi. The Grandfather, who as a child struck me as mostly a scary authoritarian figure, takes on greater depth because as an adult I begin to understand and sympathize with, the untold story of the grandfather. Though his story runs in the background, as it were, an adult reader realizes Heidi is as much about the grandfather as the little girl, and the trials and experiences of the grandfather are those which an adult can understand so well and relate to.

That is what makes Heidi such a good children’s book. For the child there is a story they can enjoy and relate to, and for the adult there is another story. Things which fade out of the child’s picture come into focus to tell a richer and more nuanced tale. A good story is, in some way, about life. And a good children’s book speaks about life both on the level children can understand as true, and on the level adults can appreciate as true. For a child the story is about Heidi, Peter, and Klara. For an adult there is greater appreciation for what the author reveals about their character, but even more for those adults the story is as much about the grandfather, the blind grandmother, the doctor, and those other adult characters who live through the story. For the child those characters are alien, but the adult reading Heidi can sympathize with their joys and sorrows, and what the author is saying about the nature of people through their strengths and weakness, failures and successes.

For a young child the story of Heidi is the story of an adventure. For an adult it is a story about sorrow. It is a story about sorrow giving way to joy, about loss and regret overcome by peace and redemption. As such it is a story an adult can read to a child and both of them enjoy.

Another aspect of Heidi which struck me with particular force was the author’s descriptive ability and in particular her description of life on the Swiss Alps. The author’s personal experience with, and passionate love for, that life shines through in her writing and struck a chord with me. I have never been to the Alps, but I love country life, and the type of hill country where I grew up. We raised goats for a while, so the author’s description of the joys of mountain life and raising goats brought out the reaction of, “Yes, that is what I love, too. Yes, that is what it is like,” and in the same manner Mrs. Spyri’s description of city life and her dislike of it echoed my own feelings.

There are many vivid descriptions, but I will share only two. The first is one of many descriptions of the Alm, this time taken from when Heidi returns after having been taken away from her Grandfather:

“Good night,” was all the answer Heidi gave, as she resumed her climb up the Alm with her bundle on her arm. The evening sun lighted the green slopes, and, up above, the great snow field gleamed in the distance.

Every few steps Heidi had to stop and turn about, for the highest peak lay behind her. The red glow of sunset fell on the grass at her feet. Everything was even more beautiful than she had remembered. The pinnacles flamed up to heaven, the white snow field glowed, and rosy-red clouds drifted across the sky. Heidi stood in all this beauty, and happy tears rolled down her cheeks. Folding her hands she looked up to heaven, giving thanks to the good God who had brought her home again.

Not until the light about her began to fade, could Heidi tear herself away from the spot (Heidi, p. 128).

The second passage describes the first night when Klara the city girl comes to visit Heidi:

Of all the wonders of the Alm, the best for Klara came at the end of the day, when she lay in the big soft bed, up in the hayloft, next to Heidi, and looked through the round opening into the starry heavens.

“Oh, Heidi,” she breathed, “it’s like driving in a high open carriage, right through the sky. I wouldn’t have missed this for anything–not for anything in the whole, whole world.”

[. . .]

Klara, however, lay awake for a long, long time in this wonderful bedroom under the stars. In all of her life she had scarcely seen the stars at all, for she never went out of the house at night, and the heavy house curtains were always drawn long before the starts shone above Frankfort. So now Klara could not look enough at the shimmering heavens–until her eyes closed of their own accord (Heidi, p. 192-193).

For those who would like more, you can read the entire story of Heidi online at Wikipedia, (however, it is a slightly different translation than the Scholastic Apple Classics which I quoted from here,) or else find it at Project Gutenberg where there are even audio versions you can download and listen to. There is also a brief biography of Johanna Spyri at Wikipedia.

First Chess-Playing Machine

9th April 2007

Before Deep Blue, someone else was beating the chess players of the world over two hundred years earlier. Okay, so it wasn’t really a computer, but people thought it was. From wikipedia:

The Turk was a famous hoax that purported to be a chess-playing machine. Constructed and unveiled in 1770 by the Hungarian baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, the mechanism appeared to be able to play a strong game of chess against a human opponent, as well as perform the knight’s tour, a puzzle that requires the player to move a knight to occupy every square of a chess board once and only once. Publicly promoted as an automaton and given its common name based on its appearance, the Turk was a mechanical illusion that allowed a human chess master to hide inside and operate the machine. With a skilled operator, the Turk won most of the games played. The apparatus was demonstrated around Europe and the United States of America for over 80 years until its destruction in 1854, playing and defeating many challengers including statesmen such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.

For more information, see the complete article in Wikipedia.

The Pithy Greek

8th April 2007

It seems that if you look you can find plenty of long dead Greeks with pithy sayings. Recently Aeschylus came to my attention. As best I understand it, his quotes are taken from his plays. In one he writes,

It is in the character of very few men to honor without envy a friend who has prospered.

And in another,

For somehow this is tyranny’s disease, to trust no friends.

And in yet another play,

I would far rather be ignorant than knowledgeable of evil.

Perhaps a favorite is,

A great ox stands on my tongue.

Anyone who has struggled with saying something knows all about that.

Find a collection of Asechylus quotes at Wikiquote.

A Tale of Two Bikes

7th April 2007

I ride my bike three times a week, every week, all year. I don’t even stop for the winter. It is my way of getting some fresh air and exercise. I enjoy the outdoors, and three weekly trips is my minimum time for enjoying nature.

Unless I’m going on one of my occasional extended jaunts, my normal route is a short distance in the vicinity of 7-8 miles. Weekly that doesn’t added up to too many miles, but over the course of the year I log probably over 1,200 miles. That will wear on a bike. Especially the winter months. Water, salt, and sand are the worst enemies of a bike.

The last bike I bought was a Wal-Mart special. If I remember right it was on sale and what might have been an original price of around $110 was knocked down to maybe the $80-$90 range. I bought it back in February 2004. It served me faithfully, if not without its faults, for three years. I treated it brutally and used it relentlessly. I put some repairs into it, and after the last brake replacement I figured I had pretty nearly put as much money back into the bike as it had initially cost. Soon a very expensive part would fail, so the next time my brakes expired or my derailleur finally gave up the ghost, I would get a new bike rather than invest in more repairs.

As it happened my brakes and derailleur expired at nearly the same time. I squeezed every last bit of life I could out of both, but finally the brakes were completely shot and there wasn’t a single gear I could still ride up a hill in and not have the chain pop (something that drives me out of mind). My bike had lasted three years, and it was time to get that new one.

First I went to the local bike shop. I don’t have vast amounts of disposable income, and I knew what quality mountain bikes are running for, but I decided to take a look. First bike my eyes rested on: $799. Disk brakes, the whole nine yards. Yow-wow, slick stuff. I talked with one of the salesmen and he said that with the hydraulics there had to be at least $200 worth in the brakes by themselves.

Clunk. That’s me falling over. With parts at that price we’re just about competing with a car brake job.

So, after looking around the shop and admiring all of the nice bikes in stock I went down to Wal-Mart and bought a bike for $60.

The new bike is from the same exact line as my previous, a RoadMaster SX, so I knew what performance and quality to expect. In other words, nothing astounding, but sufficient. As an added bonus, the latest model had some feature improvements. My old RoadMaster had what I will call a Y handle bar and the clamp joint that held the handlebar to the stem did not have the gripping power to keep the handlebar from rotating when I applied strong downward pressure (like when going over a bump). Since the handle was a Y there was strong torque pressure and the handlebar would eventually rotate down. This made for an uncomfortable handlebar position. The new model Roadmaster has a straight T handlebar so there won’t be the torque pressure or a rotating handlebar. Further, there are what I call “spur grips” added on, which allows me to switch my hand grip to the vertical position. Both of these features means I will have a more comfortable ride, with less problems with my hands going numb.

On top of all this, the price of the latest model is less than I paid for my previous RoadMaster.

I took the new RoadMaster out for the first ride today. It was a little strange having a bike that worked properly. I’m sure I’ll get used to it quickly. And hopefully it will serve me well for three years until the miles, salt, and water take their toil and another bike must take its place.

If I get wildly rich maybe I’ll think about buying that $799 bike. But not in this lifetime.

Jack London on Inspiration

1st April 2007

Jack London was a writer, among other things. I guess he knew what working on a story was like.

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. – Jack London

Ever Heard of The Finnish Civil War?

31st March 2007

I find history an interesting subject. Unfortunately I don’t read as much of it as I would like, but I try to do a little bit here and there. As an added bonus, sometimes it is a bit of history that just might be a little obscure. Have you heard of the Finnish Civil War?

The Finnish Civil War was a part of the national and social turmoil caused by World War I in Europe. The war was fought from January 27, 1918 to May 15, 1918, between the forces called the “Reds” led by the People’s Deputation of Finland under the control of the Finnish Social Democrats, and the forces called the “Whites”, led by the Senate of Vaasa representing the Senate of Finland formed by the bourgeois parties. The defeat in World War I and the February and October revolutions in 1917 caused a total collapse of the Russian Empire; and the destruction of the mother country resulted in a corresponding breakdown of Finnish society during 1917. As there were no generally accepted police and army forces to keep order in Finland after March 1917, the left and right began building security groups of their own, leading to the emergence of two independent armed military troops, the White and Red Guards. The Whites were the victors in the war that followed. The Civil War remains the most controversial and emotionally loaded event in the history of modern Finland. Approximately 37,000 people died during the conflict, including casualties at the war fronts, and deaths from political terror campaigns and high prison camp mortality. The turmoil destroyed the economy, split the political apparatus, and divided the Finnish nation for many years.

From Wikipedia. For the rest of the article, go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finnish_Civil_War.

And now you know something you probably didn’t before.

Early Pruning

18th March 2007

Pruning the apple trees is a rite of spring. In past years I had a tendency to get started late and finish in a somewhat hurried splurge of activity–tinged with a bit of panic that perhaps I wouldn’t get it done in time. This year I had to take a different approach.

Since I’m no longer living at home, I don’t have seven days out of every week in which I can choose when and how long to prune. I’m only home on Sundays, and Sunday afternoon is really the only time I have of that day free to prune. That means instead of having thirty days in a month when I can choose to prune, I have four or five. And that is assuming every Sunday afternoon is actually free and the weather is of acceptable quality.

I could, of course, have not pruned the apple trees at all. The world would not have ground to a halt, the universe would not have come crashing down. Or, I could have tried to get someone else to do the pruning. But, while pruning is sometimes uncomfortable work, I enjoy it. I enjoy molding the trees to my vision, and shaping them as I see best. So I didn’t want to give up my spring ritual, and besides, nobody else in the household has been trained, and Dad is now too old. The options were either leave the trees unpruned, let someone else attempt to butcher them, or do it myself.

I chose the last option.

I realized early on that I couldn’t take my normal lax approach. There would be no last minute rush to get the trees pruned before they bloomed (a painfully far too late approach). No, I would have to get started early–very early.

I figured three afternoons per tree, which made for a total of nine weekends. Further, I conceded that such an estimate was optimistic–presuming weather each weekend was acceptable and I had free time every weekend. So perhaps a more reasonable estimate would be a total of twelve weeks.

Three months.

Oh, dear. That meant I had to start as early as possible. As in, the first weekend where I wouldn’t freeze to death if I climbed up into a tree and sat there for several hours. And so February found me trudging out in the snow to begin my labor.

While straining from the uppermost branch of a tree to reach the farthest out twig for pruning, stressing joints and limbs and putting oneself on the verge of falling out of the tree is never fun, on the whole sitting up on an apple tree on a sunny and fresh spring day is a wonderful activity in my book. Sitting bundled up in an apple tree in the middle of February slowly freezing solid while you strain to reach that furthest out twig comes in much further down in my book of fun activities. It may be sunny, but numbing hands and freezing knees detracts from the enjoyment, and in the back of your mind you’re thinking, “I wonder when I can go inside. Work faster, faster, and maybe we’ll get done sooner. Boy, I’m getting cold. I wonder when I can go inside . . .”

I keep saying I’ll do a little bit more, I need to get more done. I’ll do just a few more branches . . . and then I finally go inside and realize that I’m a little more chilled to the bone than I realized.

There are other difficulties, too. The ground under our apple trees isn’t level or even, so working from a ladder is somewhat hazardous to begin with. Now I simply cannot do some of the pruning until the snow cover leaves the ground. I have had to limit myself to perching in the higher branches and doing that pruning which cares not how much snow is on the ground . . . and content myself with the thought that if I do fall out of the tree there are six inches of snow to cushion my fall.

It is now the middle of March and I’m probably between a third and halfway done. It hasn’t gone as fast as I had hoped, but is probably on track for the three month completion date. Right now I work with snow on the ground, but at my speed I’ll be racing to complete the finishing touches before the trees break out in bloom. It’s a little hard to believe when you’re sitting up in the tree out in the cold–you’re tempted to think that you can put this off to the next weekend when it won’t be so miserable . . . but then you do the math and realize that far from being able to take a break you must work faster.

However, the unpleasant chill fails to dim my satisfaction in the work. I am still learning how to prune better, still bringing my trees a little closer to that apple tree ideal. Some time before last year’s pruning the whole idea of not having a tree competing against itself finally clicked in a way it hadn’t before. Before I was always making sure that limbs didn’t cross, didn’t rub, and were growing in the proper direction (none straight up or straight down, for example). All of that was well and good, but it failed to take into account how the different branches and different limbs related to each other. A limb which is shaded out by another limb will be inefficient, unproductive, and inclined to grow in a poor manner. If one branch is completely shading another branch, one of them must go. If one branch is mostly shading another branch, it must go.

In a way I was pruning the apple trees like any other tree–making sure there was no physical weakness or deformity. But an apple tree has a very particular shape–or, I should say, it should if properly shaped by the orchardist–and this shape is very much an expression of the needs of the apples which the tree will produce. In simply making sure no branches were crossing or growing in a weak manner, I was still letting too many branches flourish. Working under this generous standard I was cultivating thick bunches of branches. Perhaps they didn’t rub against each other, or cross, or grow out at odd angles, but these compacted bunches of branches were shading each other out. I had twice as many limbs working half as efficiently as they should.

Yes, I’m a slow learner. Last year it finally clicked–instead of each limb forming a bunch of branches in something like a closed fist each limb need to spread out like a spreading hand. And each limb needed to spread out in its own space catching its own bit of sunlight as best it could. Where one limb interfered with the sunlight of another limb, that interference had to be done away with as much as possible.

I came to that realization last year and began implementation. It required serious branch thinning, and while I didn’t go as far as needed last year I saw a big improvement by what I did. This year I am following up and I expect by the time I finish pruning this spring my trees will pretty much find themselves hewed to the proper line. There is a satisfaction to setting trees right and proper that perhaps only someone who works with trees can fully appreciate.

Set Right

18th March 2007

I think we survived through the software upgrade. If my e-mail subscribers get this, it means I managed to successfully re-enable the functionality.

Maybe at some later date I will go into greater detail about the what and how of the hack, and my further thoughts.

For the present everything is good again.

I’ve Been Hacked

15th March 2007

Dear Readers,

My site has been hacked. This does not affect any of you readers, should you be concerned about that. The hack apparently came through a weakness in my blogging software, so I must install an updated version. If all goes well I will be able to reimport all my writing and my email subscribers and nothing will change for you.

However, things could go wrong to one degree or another, so please check back. If my import of e-mail subscribers fails you may have to resubscribe if you follow my writing that way.

For the present I have some work to do . . .

I hope your day is going better than mine.

Mickey Spillane on Writing

10th March 2007

What Mickey Spillane says about writing Mysteries really applies to all writing. Words for a fiction writer to remember:

Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it’s a letdown, they won’t buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.

Quote courtesy Wikiquote.

101 Best Websites for Writers

8th March 2007

Here is the Writer’s Digest 2006 101 best websites for writers.

Here is what seems to be a slightly different list. Not sure what the distinction is. Perhaps the currently updated list?

Maybe at a later date I will post some that I personally think are worth mentioning. You can find previous year’s listings of best sites by going here.

PDF of Tolkien Essay

7th March 2007

You can get a PDF of the Tolkien essay On Fairy Stories here. This is something I want to read, need to read, but haven’t read yet.

Online History of Anabaptists

6th March 2007

Online book about the Anabaptists here. It is Called Secert of the Strength.

Unfortunately, as seems to be the sad fact with most books offered online, the quality leaves much to be desired. It is quite the impediment to reading.

Quoting Leó Szilárd

2nd March 2007

The joys of democracy. Courtesy of wikipedia:

Even if we accept, as the basic tenet of true democracy, that one moron is equal to one genius, is it necessary to go a further step and hold that two morons are better than one genius? — Leó Szilárd

You can read more on Leó Szilárd here and here.

Able Archer: The Brink of Nuclear War

1st March 2007

Interesting (and chilling) article on Wikipedia about Able Archer 83. A snippet:

Able Archer 83 was a ten-day NATO exercise starting on November 2, 1983 that spanned the continent of Europe and simulated a coordinated nuclear release. It incorporated a new, unique format of coded communication, radio silences, participation by heads of state, and a simulated DEFCON 1 nuclear alert. The realistic nature of the exercise, coupled with deteriorating relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and the anticipated arrival of “super-stealth” Pershing II nuclear missiles in Europe, led some in the USSR to believe that Able Archer 83 was a genuine nuclear strike. In response, the Soviets readied their nuclear forces and placed air units in East Germany and Poland on alert. This relatively obscure incident is considered by many historians to be the closest the world has come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Highslid JS – JavaScript thumbnail viewer

28th February 2007

This is a very slick little program that was brought to my attention. It allows you to look at a larger copy of an image just by clicking on it in the webpage. Very slick, but right now I don’t think I can justify any practical use. Can add a nice interactive element to a page. Find it here: http://vikjavev.no/highslide/

For WordPress related, go here:
http://projects.jesseheap.com/all-projects/wordpress-highslide-js-plugin/

Firefox Developer Plugin (CSS)

27th February 2007

Firefox CSS developer plugin. Great looking tool. Find it here: https://addons.mozilla.org/firefox/60/

Related link: Lorelle’s “The Secret of Successful Editing of WordPress Themes

The Book is Here

24th February 2007

Some of my readers have already read The Stuttering Bard of York, but to those who have not, and to the world in general, I introduce Ben and his companions for your enjoyment.

If I were a slick advertiser I would try to convince you all that The Stuttering Bard of York is exactly the type of story you want to read. I would try to persuade you that since you are reading (and presumably enjoy) this website then you’ll surely want my novel.

But I’m not a slick advertiser. So I’m saying you might enjoy The Stuttering Bard of York, and you might not. Everyone has different tastes in fiction, an in the end it’s for you to decide. I’m going to give you an idea what the story is like, and what it is about, and if it sounds like it strikes your interest you can check it out.

The Stuttering Bard of York, as the title suggests, is a work of fantasy humor. If you’re not much inclined to read fantasy you’re not going to be much inclined to read the novel. And if you’re not much inclined to humorous reading you’ll probably not be interested, either. You still with me? Well, even if you enjoy a humorous novel the humor in this story may not be your type of humor. Some people enjoy sophisticated humor, other people prefer wry humor. I call the humor in The Stuttering Bard of York juvenile. Yes, juvenile. There may be a dash of wry humor, and possibly a hint of sophistication (maybe), but primarily you will find the sort of thing a thirteen-year-old boy would be laughing himself silly over. If there is a thirteen-year-old boy or girl living down inside you then you will probably enjoy The Stuttering Bard of York. Otherwise the adventure will likely strike you as stupid, silly, pointless . . . or something along those lines. And that’s okay with me. I’m a diverse and versatile writer . . . not everything I write is for everybody.

Still not sure? I have a website where you can go and check the story out. I am starting to upload the chapters so you can read them online, and if you want to read it all right away you can download a PDF version of the book and read it on your computer for free. Then, if you want (or if you’re already sure), you can go order a copy from Amazon.

If you do read The Stuttering Bard of York and enjoy the story, the best thing you can do for me is spread the word. I can’t emphasize enough, the best way for a story to become successful is by word-of-mouth. Pass along a link to the website, pass along a PDF copy of the book. Write a review on your blog, or on Amazon.com.

Finally, if you read The Stuttering Bard of York I would love to hear what you thought of it. A writer likes to get feedback, so send your comments (and even criticisms) my way.

So, here is the write up for the novel, followed by an excerpt from the interior:

****

An Unlikely Adventurer . . .

Ben Transom is a simple farmer who sings off-key to his horse and wishes he were a bard. But when a goblin raid from the Shiddow Mountains destroys Ben’s simple life, he is sent to petition the king for justice and is thrown into an adventure greater than he every dreamed.

Along the way, Ben meets the warrior-princess Jess and the pacifist wizard Ernie. Soon they learn that the evil wizard Rimmah has enslaved Jess’s parents and seeks to conquer the entire kingdom of Tarn, and Ben finds himself caught up in events more dangerous than he ever imagined.

Although Ben has a weak understanding of economics and public restrooms, it is his kind and honest nature that keeps the band together despite goblins, rogues, and creatures far more foul that Rimmah sends their way. He is just a simple farmer, but he soon discovers that both the princess and the wizard are depending on him to get them to the city of Galdoron and attempt a daring rescue of the king and queen.

Inside The Book . . .

Ernie hunched over his horse, leaning forward, staff under his arm, riding for all he was worth. But the wizard wasn’t a very good rider, so Ben and Jess caught up quickly. Ernie gave them both a quick wide-eyed glance and said, “There wasn’t a rumble, was there?”

“There was,” Ben said.

“Faster,” Ernie muttered, and gave his horse another kick.

“What is it, wizard?” Jess shouted. “In the king’s name, you tell us what is coming!”

“It might be—possibly—perhaps—” Another rumble came from behind them, louder. “That is to say, almost certainly,” Ernie said, hastily, “a bikalis.”

“What’s a bikalis?” Jess yelled over the beat of the horses’ hooves.

“Can we outrun it?” Ben asked.

“The bikalis is a terrible creature. Its blood burns like acid, its spittle is deadly poison, and its scream strikes utter terror in the heart of every man and beast!” Ernie sounded utterly terrified already. His white-knuckled grip clung to the reins of his horse. “It’s never been outrun before, but I’m trying for a first.”

There came another rumble, now clearly a distant bestial roar, closer.

“It’s no use,” Jess said. “The thing is gaining fast. It’ll be here in a few minutes. We’ll have to stand and fight.”

“Has that ever turned out well? I distinctly advise against that unless you’re immortal or have a full dozen wizards to aid you in battle,” Ernie said shrilly. “But if you would string out behind me so the bikalis slows to eat both of you first I’d be much obliged!”

****

Go to the book website here.

Order the book from Amazon here.

Firefox Searchlet-Bookmarklet Plugins

21st February 2007

The link to this site was sent along to me. It is a list of Searchlet-Bookmarklet Plugins for Firefox. My attention was directed to the CSS Documentation plugin in particular. It could be a good plugin for web designers who can’t remember all the properties of CSS elements. (Raise your hand.)

Speakeasy Internet Speed Test

20th February 2007

This is an interesting little gadget. Try out the Speakeasy Internet Speed Test.

I’m currently running Ubuntu Linux on a 500mhz with a wireless internet card.

My results for the connection to NYC is:

–4872 kbps download speed.
–365 kbps upload speed.

My results for the connection to Seattle Washington is:

–4752 kbps download speed.
–364 kbps upload speed.

I didn’t try any more of the servers. It’s interesting to note that my results from NYC and Seattle Washington are pretty comparible.

Quoting François-René de Chateaubriand

19th February 2007

This seems a bit like a flippant saying to me. Nonetheless, (perhaps with some self-depreciating humor,) I sometimes think it well applies to my life:

“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”
– François-René de Chateaubriand

Courtesy Wikipedia quote of the day

GDP Joke

18th February 2007

This was sent along to me. A bit of economics humor:

I took this out of an article I was reading……

For it is not hard to understand that, given a fixed quantity of energy consumed, if the GDP figure is inflated, the per-unit-GDP energy consumption is lowered. And there are many tricks local officials use to inflate the GDP figures. A popular joke among Chinese officials about how GDP is “generated” is very revealing in this regard.

The joke goes like this: A rich man and a poor man are taking a walk together. The rich man sees a pile of animal dung on the road and wants to make a fool of the poor man. So he says, “If you eat that dung, I’ll give you a million yuan.” The poor man thinks to himself, “Hell, this will make me a millionaire right away.” So he eats the dung and feels rich.

They continue to walk and then the poor man sees another pile of dung on the road. Trying to tease the rich man, he says, “If you eat that one, I’ll give you back the 1 million yuan.” Deeply regretting losing the million yuan so easily, the rich man decides to get it back. So he eats the dung.

The two men looked at each other, both thinking the same thing: What did we gain by doing this? They could not answer the question, so they went to see a local government official. After hearing the story, the official became very excited, saying: “You guys just generated 2 million yuan in GDP!

Instiki

17th February 2007

This looks like a useful program. Instiki is a light weight wiki program. It doesn’t look like it is very refined, but I like the fact that it is OS independent.

I might be able to use something like this to organize some of my wriiting material.

True Story: Headless Chicken Alive!

11th February 2007

Faithful readers know that I have kept chickens, and they would make a somewhat regular appearance in my writing, along with all the other barnyard mischief. But since I moved away from home to take care of my Grandfather the chickens have been left behind. There will be no more funny chicken stories in the foreseeable future. So I thought I’d give all you readers one last story for the road.

This story is about chickens, (or a chicken as it may be,) but it isn’t about mine. I don’t remember where I first learned of this story, but it stuck in my mind sufficiently so that not long ago I was able to look it up on the Internet to gross out and horrify a female cousin of mine. Now you can be grossed out, horrified, or just plain fascinated by the story of Mike The Headless Chicken.

The short story is this: Mike is a chicken. Mike had his head chopped off. Mike kept on living.

That’s the short story. If you’re not too squeamish you can read a longer version of the story here.

The official website for Mike is here. Obviously some people know how to make money out of this.

To see some pictures of Mike, go here. It’s a headless living and breathing chicken, so if you have problems with that, don’t go look.

And if you really want to research this story, go browse the Google search results here.

There, I have educated you. That is one chicken story that should stay with you for the rest of your life.

Going It Alone, My Way

28th January 2007

At least some of my readers are aware that I have been working on novel length fiction. I have been working for years, actually. And I say “novel length fiction” rather than a novel, because it has been the plural over the years. There have been times when I felt as if nothing would ever see the light of day. But I persevered over the many years with a dogged determination and, at long last, something has reached the light of day.

It has been a long and unique journey between the there of when it all started to the now when something has finally reached the light and air of public reading. To reach the there and then of way back we must roll back to the fall of my fifteenth year when I started writing what would become my first completed piece of novel length fiction. It wasn’t the first story I ever wrote, or told, but it was the beginning of the first novel length fiction which I finished some many, many months later.

At that juncture of completion I decided that story should not be published and so I set aside the many months of work and began another story. If the first novel took long to write, the second took longer–much longer. Double the time, triple the suffering.

Suffer, suffer. The life of a writer is all about suffering, didn’t you know. But those years spent beating words like a smith were years of learning, too. Year passed to year and on at least one occasion I came close to quitting, giving up on that story as a failure (though in writing there is no complete failure if you learned something from the writing). In the end I persevered and that story was completed also.

But it hasn’t seen the light of day, not yet. You see, a funny thing happened along the way. As I was writing this long novel I wearied, in a way, of the story I labored so long at and I began to see all the folly and silliness in me and the story. That was a good thing, both because it made me stop taking myself so seriously and stop being quite so burdened with my writing, but also because it gave me another story.

In the middle of writing this long story another story came to me. It was, you might say, a parable of that first story, and a parable of me. The first was long, this was short. The first had (some) airs of gravity, and certainly some grimness. The second was all folly and air, a lampoon of all the other thought to be.

Strangely, or perhaps not so, that second story was easy to write. It flowed out so easy, and it was finished, and then the big story was finished, too.

The novels were finished, but our tale doesn’t end here. Because, once you’ve finished a story it still hasn’t seen the light of day–not yet. It still must get out to the readers, the story must still take wing and fly out to the reader, soaring through the imaginations yet waiting.

So I submitted both stories for publication. For someone who doesn’t like forms, rules, and all that other rigid stuff that is part of the professional world, it was a taxing experience. And, in the end, for naught.

The rejections came back, with not a word as to why. There could be a million reasons why. Was the writing not good enough, or did I simply not know how–or where–to sell myself?

It was a time of choices and decisions. Did the rejections mean my two stories weren’t good enough and that I should put them aside and start on yet another new story? No, I decided. My stories weren’t the best ever written, true. My stories wouldn’t make millions of dollars for anyone, true. But I believed they were stories that some people, somewhere, would like to read.

Then should I find someone else to sell me and my writing, or should I go on alone? Onward alone, I decided. Perhaps it wasn’t the wisest decision if one is thinking about riches and fame, but it was my decision. The reasons I could give are myriad, but the simple answer I would give a stranger on the street is, “I decided I could pursue riches and fame, or happiness, and I chose the latter.”

With the developments of recent technology self-publishing has become much easier and (I think) much more likely of success. If the year was 1807 or 1907 or even 1987 and I was rejected at traditional publishing venues my only choices would have been to get an agent or start anew. I simply don’t have the money or the ability to successfully self-publish through traditional means. Self-publishing with all the advantages and conveniences of modern technology has been hard enough, and it remains to be seen if I will be successful.

My first foray into this field was not with my own writing, and it was a beginning which prepared me to venture on my own self-publishing. But there was much more I would need to learn. There is much more to know, and do, if you intend to be released into the big world of big stores through major distributors. ISBN, EAN, CIP . . . the acronyms were enough to send my head whirling, not to mention everything I had to read and all the processes I had to figure out and follow.

But I overcame, or at least managed. The printing company was selected, the book was put together and the cover made (both with great anxiety) and at last the galley copy came back and everything was ready. The book was ready for launch.

Because of time and money constraints I couldn’t self-publish two books at once. I hope to eventually have both of these very different books released, but for the present I had to choose one, and I chose the shorter and light-hearted. It is called The Stuttering Bard of York, and very soon, dear reader, I will be introducing the story to you.

Ten years after the writing venture began, after many twists and turns, a book has finally reached the light of day. Stick around, and you’ll get a chance to read it.

Full Circle

31st December 2006

It’s strange how life can travel in full circles. The years roll past and what once was is now reversed.

When I was growing up my grandparents had a camper in a summer RV camp in Pennsylvania. For a few summers around the time I was 12 they invited us three oldest boys for a week’s vacation. It was a time of swimming in the park pool, eating meals outside at the picnic bench behind the camper and playing board games.

Grandpa wasn’t a socializer and was a homebody so he didn’t care for these vacations. Why go live in a tiny trailer for a week when your own home was good enough? It was all foolishness to him—swimming in the pool or playing board games. He hung in the background most of the time, or disappeared entirely, so I have no recollection of what he did most of those summer days. But a few memories stand out in my mind.

I’m not sure why this first memory stays with me so clearly. I am a worrier, and as a child I was an obsessive worrier. The incident was one of probably a thousand like it that have passed in my life, but I think this one stuck in my memory because I realized I was worrying in a foolishly obsessive and excessive manner. The self-recognition of my own foolishness made the memory stick.

The time was before we left to go down to the RV camp. Grandma was loading the car and doing other preparations before it was time to leave. While Grandma kept herself occupied, Grandpa decided to take a walk in the woods until Grandma was ready to leave. We three boys decided to tag along.

Almost as soon as we left I began obsessing and worrying.

“How much time do we have?”

“When should we go back?”

“What if Grandma is waiting for us?”

“What if we don’t hear when Grandma calls us?”

“Maybe it’s time we go back.”

I’m sure I wearied Grandpa, and as he answered everyone one of my questions and not-so-subtle suggestions even I realized I was being unreasonable. Didn’t I trust my own grandfather? Was I really afraid that Grandma might leave without us? If I was in such a hurry to get back, why on earth did I go on the walk in the first place? I recognized my foolish childishness but in spite of it I couldn’t shake the nagging thought the Grandma could have called for us to come back to the house and we didn’t hear and we really ought to go hurrying back.

Finally Grandpa gave in to my pestering and we turned around and went back. Of course Grandma hadn’t called for us.

My worrying habits were always with me. While at the RV camp Grandpa told me that if a high wind came when the camper canopy was extended the wind could rip the canopy right off the trailer. If any of us boys woke up in the middle of the night when a windy storm was coming we were instructed to wake him up so we could close the canopy.

Wind ripping the canopy off the trailer—scary thought. Warning Grandpa before it happened—big responsibility. So I obsessed over that thought when I was lying in bed at night. How would I know when it was a bad enough storm to wake Grandpa? What would happen if I woke him and it wasn’t really necessary? What would happen if I didn’t wake him when it was necessary? What happened if I accidentally slept through such a storm and didn’t get the chance to wake him?

Well, that night we had terrific thunderstorm. The lightning flashed in brilliant white, and the thunder crashed like an artillery barrage raining in all around us. And the rain beat down on the roof by the bucket-fulls. It sounded like a storm to end all storms, but any mature person listening realized that for all the crashing and booming and drumming rain, the rain was coming basically straight down, and there was very little wind and not much reason to go out in the middle of the night and get completely soaking wet. But all I could think of was the violent storm going on outside, and my moral duty to save the trailer from permanent damage.

I scrambled out of bed and nervously hurried to the back of the trailer, pounding on the bedroom door.

“Grandpa! Grandpa!” I called. “There is a storm! It’s—”

“Yes, I can hear it,” he said (as if who couldn’t with it booming loud enough to rattle the windows). “Go back to bed. Don’t worry about it.”

So I went back to bed, feeling relieved that I had done my duty. And when we all got up in the morning the canopy was still attached to the trailer.

Grandpa is a reticent fellow. I’m sure in part he simply doesn’t have as much to say as that outgoing and vivacious person you know, but there is also a part to his silence and stillness that speaks of a shield and defense. If you do not speak and do not act you cannot say or do something that will leave you open to emotional wounding, humiliation, or regret.

Growing up I never really saw much into Grandpa’s life. He was that smiling and laughing Grandpa who was always happy to see his grandchildren coming to visit. He would read you a story, or make peanut butter brittle, or maybe go on a walk and you could come along, but that was as deep as it went, and the older you became the more you realized that most of Grandpa was hiding behind that wrinkled face—stories and thoughts locked up behind those watery blue eyes.

Sometimes, a little more of Grandpa would show through, brief flashes of a larger man. We went for a walk once at the RV camp with Grandpa. There was a waterfall on the creek that ran beside the camp and he was taking us to look at it. I don’t remember how the conversation went, but Grandpa must have been in a playful mood. Somehow we got onto the topic of running and I guess it got around to Grandpa and running—and how he couldn’t.

“What, you think I can’t run? You think I’m too old? I’ll show you!”

And next thing I knew we had a race, and Grandpa had taken off running down the forest trail.

We were flabbergasted. At first we tried to give chase but we were so surprised, amazed, and amused that it was hard to not stop and watch him and just laugh for the fun of it all. Grandpa was racing us. He was already in his mid-sixties but for that brief moment the years fell away and we saw a much younger man, a different man sprinting down the trail ahead of us, light on his feet, finishing with a quick leap over a branch laying across the trail.

I think that was the only time I have ever seen my Grandfather run, the only time I have ever seen him so fully take leave of all care and thought and act like someone who truly remembered what it was to be a boy once.

The years have swung past now, the summers flashing by like moments of bright light in the quickly spinning orb of life. After a few years Grandma and Grandpa took their camper out of the RV park and the summer trips stopped. The years have passed, one to another, and I’ve grown up, becoming, perhaps, a little less of a worrier. And Grandpa . . . well, the years have ground at Grandpa, too. They haven’t strengthened him in the vigors of life, when the dew of youth is still fresh and the tests of time form one into a strong and capable young man. That was a long time ago. Time has ground youth and health from him. The years have ground him fine and thin, and now they are grinding him right away.

Once Grandpa drove me and my siblings around, as Grandma and Grandpa would take the extra kids that couldn’t fit in my Dad’s car to the family gatherings. Now I take Grandpa to family gatherings.

Once I followed Grandpa on walks in the woods and worried about being away from home too long. Now I take Grandpa out of the house and he worries and wants to go home as soon as we’ve gotten there.

Once I worried about the weather, and things that didn’t need to be worried about. Now Grandpa stands at the window and looks at the gray sky, the rain, or the snow, and frets and worries and struggles with the unease that hangs over him, an unease that no rational thought can chase away and which remains to pick at the back of his mind.

Today is the last day of December, the day when the old year gives way to the new. My Grandfather was born this day, many years ago. He turns 79 today. He has Alzheimer’s, and it is grinding him away.

Grandpa isn’t much of a talker, and it is as if he struggles to show affection. You know it is there, you can see it in him, and the way it comes out in backward ways of words that say “I love you,” without being so embarrassing as to actually say it. I don’t recall Grandpa ever directly commenting on how my father raised us, or ever really directly complimenting me any further than perhaps a rare “You’re a good lad,” that might escape as if by accident. But it wasn’t because you didn’t know, it was because, for Grandpa, you didn’t say those sort of things. But you knew those things anyhow because when you were little his face lit up with a smile when you came to visit and he would read a story when you asked, pop out his false teeth at you to surprise and maybe even scare you, and then hug you goodbye when it was time to leave. And you knew what he thought (at least generally) when you got older and he got older because it was then when he needed help that he asked you for the help—the help with the roofing project and the help with the moving project.

He didn’t talk much, but he made things. He was a man of his hands, and Grandma and Grandpa’s house was filled with the things he made. There were the model airplanes that hung from the ceiling, made from metal soda cans. There was the life sized, and life-like, Indian that Grandpa made. There was the bright red canoe that you could actually ride in the pond with. And there were the many little wooden figures that he carved that stood about the house, and the paintings and drawings that I never knew he did until I was much older because he was ashamed of them and hid them away.

Grandpa was what you might call a folk artist and a tinkerer, a man who grew up as one of ten kids in the heart of the depression. He would draw and paint, carve, whittle, and build whatever came to his fancy—and none of it was good enough to him; even if others wanted to buy it, he was ashamed to sell what he had made. He could tune a piano, and play it some, a mandolin, too, and even sing, I’ve been told.

I saw the Indian standing in Grandma and Grandpa’s house, the canoe ,too, and other various carvings standing on shelves around the house, but is only now that I am old that I can begin to appreciate how much I didn’t see, and never will see. And now those hands are stilled forever. Hands which could once carve an Indian’s face or tune a piano are now stilled. Those hands which once controlled the sharp tools of the woodworker now struggle to use a light switch or button his shirt. The things he knew and the things he learned have left him. His tools now sit on shelves and in boxes and bins in the basement and barn, unused, and the last remaining drawings and carvings of his sit in corners of the house like forgotten markers of a fading past. The mandolin given to him for Christmas a few years ago is hidden under his bed at his request to be kept safe, now probably forgotten as he lays on that bed in the restless sleep of night.

He doesn’t talk much about his Alzheimer’s and when I first came to be with him and care for him I wondered if he knew. But he has let enough words slip so that I know that he knows. He has let enough words slip so I can guess—like a faint shadow—some of what slips through his mind in the long hours of the day.

He curses himself when he stumbles and cannot walk, struggles when he cannot work a light switch or faucet. He remembers that he could. He knows he could, and he struggles, determined to do what he once could, but it is a struggle that he cannot win. It is a thing painful to think about, a thing you try to put from your mind because otherwise it will break your heart as you daily watch him lose his fight—as you see ever more clearly what he had, what he has lost, what he still has and is daily losing. You feel the urge the laugh with a bitter-sad laugh because the echo in your mind is a cry when he acts the fool because he had forgotten how, and calls himself a stupid filthy man because he pisses on the floor, spills his coffee, and can’t always remember how to dress himself.

The days are hard, but worse for him, the nights. Restless nights and with each one he seems anxious for the dawn. One morning Grandma came into the kitchen as I was helping Grandpa with his morning routine.

“How was last night, Papa?” she said.

“Terrible.”

“Well,” she said, leaning over to give him a kiss. “Maybe the next one will be better.”

“Awww, shit,” he said. “You know that isn’t so. The next one is going to be worst than the last, and the next and the next and the next after that . . .” Then he trails off before continuing, as if to himself, (and perhaps only I heard it) “I never thought I would, but I’m scared.”

I hold out my arms now, ready to catch him when he totters and falls. I tuck him into bed at night and give him a goodnight kiss. He is losing his life one bit at a time. He knows it, and I know it. He is scared, and I am sad.

Grippen Hill And Beyond

19th November 2006

I enjoy taking long bicycle rides. But I very rarely take them because the responsibilities of life get in the way. It is a frivolity of time that I can’t justify and so rarely indulge. Usually once a year (I wish it were more) I find myself on my bike heading to parts unknown.

Since I recently moved to live with my grandparents, my familiar routes have been left behind and whole new roads opened before me. I have little time where I might waste afternoons away trekking over these new back hills, but one day in early October I did.

A bit by accident.

It was supposed to be a little exploratory ride, nothing too long. But it (ahem) ended up as something more.

My grandparents live on the edge of a city. A city is the last place I want to ride, so I always turn my bike toward the country and ride out toward the back roads and the wild blue yonder. I like to ride hill country better than flat land (which I consider boring). My grandparents live at the edge of New York state, close to the Pennsylvania border, just shy of the Endless Mountains Region, so once I get out into the country there is excellent riding territory.

If you don’t like riding steep back roads you might not agree.

In early October when the trees were at their peak color I decided to go out for a Tuesday morning ride to take some fall pictures of the countryside. On a previous ride I had gone up Grippen Hill (which presents a beautiful view at the top) and I wanted to return–this time armed with a camera. It’s a steep ride up to the top–over 1 and 1/2 miles–and at the top you can look down at the deep valley and rolling forested land. My intention was to ride up to the top of Grippen Hill, take pictures of the glorious flaming fall colors, then ride down the other side and circle back around to home.

I didn’t check a map before I left.

The trip started out interesting. At the top of Grippen Hill I was taking pictures when a driver coming from the opposite direction stopped and told me there was a small black bear on the road ahead. I thought it would be cool to have a picture of the bear. But the bear wasn’t waiting around for me . . . he was gone when I got there.

Speaking about bears . . . when I get on one of my adventuresome bike rides I fall prey to what I call “The bear went over the mountain” syndrome. Which, of course, goes as such “The bear went over the mountain to see what he could see”–which is pretty well summarizes me out on a ride. I always want to know what is over the next hill. This can be very maddening for someone else on the ride if they’re getting tired and just want to get the ride over while I’m up ahead saying, “Let’s just go over this hill. Just one more!”

Thus the stage was set. I went down the other side of Grippen Hill and when it hit a T intersection I dutifully turned left to begin circling around back home. Onward and downward I went, and after having gone up over 1 and 1/2 miles I had a lot of down to go. Then back up I began to go again. Being the stubborn sort of fellow I had decided that when I turned left from Grippen Hill I was going to continue straight until I came out on the main road that ran parallel to my grandparents’ house. I would then turn left again once I reached that road and continue homeward. It was the route I had decided upon (though I didn’t know exactly where it would lead) and I was determined to follow it. So I ignored all sorts of turns on my left that I knew would take me home. I was going to follow this road straight out to wherever it would go. I wanted to see where this road would go.

I realized my chosen route wouldn’t get me home as directly as I had anticipated when I passed a sign saying I had crossed the Pennsylvania state line. A bit surprised to discover I had entered a different state, I remained determined to follow the road I was on to its end. And I was all the more curious to see where that might be.

On and on I went. I was beginning to think my chosen path was taking a good deal longer to reconnect with the main road I had intended to reach, and perhaps it was time to start considering taking the next left toward home. It was a while before I found another turn. Pennsylvania hill country is less inhabited and there isn’t another turn every mile. In fact, it can be several miles before you have another chance at a turn. As it turned out I came to another T intersection and had to make a choice anyhow.

What had started out as a short ride had turned into something much longer. Not just a long ride over steep hill country, but a long ride with only a bagel for breakfast (I can’t eat a lot before leaving on a ride) and now it was pushing on lunch time. That didn’t really bother me. My big concern was Grandma. She had been taking a nap when I left on my ride and I figured that when she woke up she would be able to determine that I had left on my ride. But she would have no idea where I had gone, or when I would be back. When what was supposed to have been about an hour ride began to stretch into something much more, I began to envision Grandma sitting at home worrying over me. So I began to get worried for Grandma, and to feel guilty that I had gone off adventuring without assuring everybody (or anybody) that they didn’t need to worry about me in the slightest. So I felt a strong compulsion to get home as soon as possible, which ruined the fun of the wandering ride, a bit. It’s hard to feel like you haven’t a care in the world whilst riding through the brilliant fall colors of the countryside when in the back of your mind you are thinking, “I wonder how bad Grandma is worrying . . . now.”

Fretting aside, it was a wonderful ride. I would love to live in that part of Pennslyvania. Hill after rolling hill, farms in the valleys, forested slopes rising above, all the land sparsely inhabited. The roads grew progressively worse until I was riding a rutted dirt track through the trees. A brilliant fall day. Good exercise, wonderful weather, wonderful land.

There are more steep hills where I live now than back at the old home place. I don’t think the steepest are more steep than the worst back home, but there are a greater number of them, and they are usually larger hills, and they have a nasty tendency to have a sharp turn in the road halfway down the hill. I actually get uneasy going down some of the hills here in the new country, as they are steep for such a long period of time, and, as I said, have a tendency to develop a sudden switchback turn. This causes me to contemplate brake failure, or something similar, which would lead to a very gruesome accident.

While on the Penn-New York border I hit one steep hill after another and the road went up so sharply and for such a length that my already exerted legs muscles began cramping. Rather than taking a break and waiting for them to recover, I hopped off the bike and walked up the hill. As one who steadfastly refuses to walk hills it was a humbling moment, but as there wasn’t another hill so severe I didn’t have to do it again for the rest of the ride.

A switchback turn did, however, finally get the better of me.

Taking a tight turn down a very steep hill is a dicey proposition to begin with, but with a cleanly paved surface (and no other traffic on the road) I handle it well enough through a mixture of braking and maneuvering. The situation is many times more difficult when there is loose gravel on a paved surface (one of my greatest fears in a tight turn down a steep hill), or if I am traveling downhill on an unpaved road.

On a dirt or gravel road braking ability is greatly reduced. Past a certain point–going down a dirt road that is sufficiently steep–there comes a time your speed becomes such that you can’t stop without wiping out. The amount of friction required to halt forward momentum can’t be achieved while maintaining normal contact between your bike tires and the road. The idea of fish-tailing or skidding downhill makes me decidedly uneasy and I generally try to apply my brakes as judiciously as I can to moderate my descent . . . but running in the back of my mind is the thought, What are you going to do if you must stop?

And then it happened. I was plunging down a dirt road, applying the brakes enough so that I’m going fast, but not out-of-control, when the switchback turn appears in front of me. I see it, and in that second realize I can’t stop and can’t slow enough to take the turn successfully. In that split-second I have the choice of either slamming on my brakes and taking whatever happens when I start skidding wildly out of control, or I can try a more managed crash at the turn. I opt for the latter, probably out of a faint and wild hope that I actually will somehow manage to take the turn.

I started braking as hard as I could without going into a skid, cutting my speed as I approach the corner. I pulled to the inner side of the turn and as I hit the corner I squeezed my brakes the rest of the way, locking my rear tire. The rear of my bike fish-tailed out swinging me into the turn and I skidded sideways all of the way across the road. By the time I reached the other side of the road my speed was cut sufficiently that when I hit the grass bank on the other side of the road and came to a sudden stop I let the bike go down and landed on my feet, checking any more forward momentum and avoiding tumbling down into the field beyond.

It was a very nice landing, considering it all happened in some two seconds, and I had contemplated plastering myself across the road in a bloody mess, or destroying my bike in the ditch. Instead I checked the camera to make sure it was all right, picked up the bike, hopped back on, and started off again, thinking, “Wheee. I hope there isn’t another one of those turns or I might not make it back home.”

I did make it home in time for a late lunch, and Grandma wasn’t even worried. I ended up with a lot of nice pictures and a pleasant (if exciting) trip. What had started out as a little jaunt ended up as a bike ride of over 22 miles.

The Next Great Adventure

15th October 2006

Life can change suddenly. Sometimes, it does. On September 24th mine did.

My grandfather has Alzheimer’s. Grandpa P was only officially diagnosed within the past year, but certainly has been suffering with the early effects of the disease for much longer. Within the past year or so the disease has finally advanced to the point that it had a noticeable effect on his daily life, and then it reached the offical diagnosis.

Once Grandpa’s condition became clear we were forced to consider what plans we should make for the future. Grandpa was becoming increasingly unable to take care of himself, and Grandma wouldn’t be able to take care of him indefinitely. They would eventually–sooner or later–need help. We talked about what we would do at that time and came to the agreement that when Grandma and Grandpa needed more help I was the one best suited to move in with them and provide the additional help they needed.

But we didn’t know how soon Grandma would need help. In a month? Two months? Six months? Or a year?

And that is where the suddenly comes into this story.

I think Grandma wanted to be able to take care of Grandpa until she was physically incapable–that is, until someone was needed to physically help Grandpa around and perform other labors that she physically couldn’t do. But sometimes we can’t do everything we would like, and by the middle of September Grandma realized she was mentally exhausted and couldn’t take care of Grandpa alone anymore.

Arlan has been living with Grandma and Grandpa P ever since he went to college. He has provided them with general assistance, but while in college–and now that he is out of college and employed–he couldn’t (and can’t) provide the full time assistance that Grandma needed. So on Sunday September 24th he came home with the message, “Grandma needs you now.”

So I packed my clothes and computer (the things I use on a daily basis) and left with Arlan that night.

Such is the beginning of the next great adventure.

It has been several weeks now and I am beginning to settle in. It will be several months, I think, before I am truly settled in, but at least by this point I have learned the basic necessities of daily life so that every moment is no longer a “new experience” where I must figure out how to deal with it. I now know how to use the electic can opener (trickier than I expected) and the dishwasher (I still think cleaning dishes by hand gets the dishes cleaner, and I would argue it is faster).

In this change my situation has been turned on its head. Before I lived with all my brothers and sisters in a large rural family. Now I’m living with two grandparents, one brother, and a cousin on the edge of a city. Before dinner required ten pounds of potatoes. Now dinner requires maybe two pounds of potatoes. Before the nearest small town store was ten minutes away, the nearest chain grocery store was twenty minutes away, and downtown thirty or so minutes away. Now the nearest chain grocery store might be three minutes away, and downtown ten minutes, or less.

Life has also changed in many more subtle ways, but the most mundane are often the ones that strike most forcefully. In the beginning I always thought the amount of food I was preparing for supper wasn’t enough. There was too little meat. There was too little potatoes. Then, much to my surprise, such a small amount was actually more than plenty. But of course. I eat one piece of chicken. Everyone else in this house eats only one piece of chicken. That means we only need five, not fifteen. I needed to keep doing the math to reassure myself that the meals were not about to come up woefully short.

There is the struggle of adjusting my thinking to the new environment, but there is also the struggle of adjusting the environment to me. Neither of these adjustments has been made completely yet. In matters of adjusting my environment, both me and the people around me must give a little. Growing up in a large family, I was accustomed to structure. Grandma and Grandpa, by contrast, were used to a much less structured environment. So I have added, and intend to add even more, structure to life at Grandma and Grandpa’s while at the same time I have accepted that there won’t be as much structure as I am accustomed to back home.

In my own personal life I am still seeking my own new balance. I am a person who normally lives on a schedule. Certain things happened certain days, and certain things at certain times in each day. This type of structure in my life keeps me focused so that I don’t feel as if I am floundering around, lost, and with no idea of where I am going or what I am trying to accomplish each day. It also kept me accountable to myself because if I had a schedule I knew when I was supposed to be doing what, and if I wasn’t doing it. I lost my old daily schedule when my life changed and I’m still trying to get my new schedule together. I have a general schedule thrown together, but it takes time to figure out exactly how much time should be spent on each task required during the day, and when it is most efficient to do each job. I’m not there yet. While I wish I were, I realize that by any reasonable measure I am doing well enough.

But what, one might ask, do I think of all this change?

I consider it a great honor to be able to help people when they are in need, and particularly in great need. So I am glad to have this opportunity to help my grandparents. But mixed with this is something else, another feeling that springs from the knowledge of why my help is needed. One could say the mortal pall hangs over all of this life, but it stands with particularly visiblity in my present situation. Alzheimer’s at the end is a fatal disease and though it won’t kill Grandpa today or tomorrow there is a very real way in which I feel called to a very long death watch. It’s not something thought about in every moment of every day, but it is a reality that informs everything. It’s not something that we really talk about, but we all know–even Grandpa–that I have come because he is growing increasingly unable to take care of himself. I have come to help him, yes, but then another voice echoes in the silence that I have come to watch him slowly die, his dignity and his mind stripped from him by inches, day by day. Grandpa knows it. I know it. We all know it. It is like that monster that lives in the house with us, which nobody wants to talk about, but sometimes we do, a little.

Work Through Your Hunger

23rd September 2006

Painted in Three Days

Last weekend Titi, Lachlan, and I helped an aunt and uncle paint the exterior of their house. They had moved north some time ago, and the paint job was in preparation for selling the house. It was a long drive to the work site for everyone involved so it meant sleeping over with friends and relatives in the area.

The job came up somewhat suddenly and it was an interruption for all of our normal schedules, so we all wanted to get the job done as quickly as possible. My uncle had other obligations and so could only help us part of one afternoon. As the person with the most experience with these sort of things (which might not be saying a lot) I was in charge.

In the end, with a team of four workers we managed to scrape and paint the house and two sides of the garage in three days. It was only one coat of paint, the house wasn’t large, and it was three very full days, but we did it. Hard work was key to completion, but careful planning of the work flow was also vital. This is where my penchant (or maybe obsession) with efficiency came in use. You shouldn’t paint outside very early in the morning, or late in the day, because of moisture issues (we ended up painting later in the day than was wise). Thus if you can’t paint very early or late and you want to make the most efficient use of time you must try to do as much scraping as possible early and late in the day, and fit the painting in-between. Also, it is best not to paint in full sun, so the side of the house that has full sun is best painted when it is cloudy, or before the sun has risen to its full height. And if you are going to paint later than is wise, it is a good idea to paint parts of the house that are at least somewhat shielded from moisture . . . like a porch. And you need to make sure the parts you want to paint first are scraped first, and you must always remember that you’re going to paint from the top down. Further, when some people are shorter than others they are not as fit for certain parts of the paint job, and when some people are not so great with heights they are not so good for certain parts of the paint job. And if you have a limited selection of ladders you must make sure you have the right ladders free for the right tasks. Lastly, when you are painting the trim a different color from the walls it is best to have separate brushes for each part of the job, so one needs to keep track of which brushes will be used for what painting each day.

All of this may make it seem like a hopelessly complicated task, and if you’ve never painted before and actually manage to think of all these discrete facts and you are trying to accomplish the job quickly, it may feel hopelessly complicated. But if you have painted before, the various aspects of painting seem to flow logically and naturally from one another, and if you are at least decent at keeping the various parts of a job in your head at once (a skill necessary if you are going to undertake any type of even moderately skilled physical labor), then it’s not so difficult. So for me it wasn’t so dire as it might sound. In the end the most irritating snag was the fact that we probably had a few less brushes in play than was optimal, meaning we had to wash out some brushes for reuse with a different color.

That we managed to finish the entire job in three days is, I think, a testament to the fact that the work flow went pretty well. The division of labor ended up with Lachlan and I doing all the high work and Titi and Aunt M. doing all the lower work. This was not only because Lachlan and I were the tallest and strongest, but also because I judged we were safest on the ladders. It doesn’t matter how tall or strong you are if you can’t keep yourself on a ladder.

Titi and Lachlan are accustomed to working with me, and to the ways of physical labor in general. For Aunt M. it was a new experience. I felt a little sorry for her. Working 12 hours is . . . well, work, but if you’ve never painted and scraped that long before in your life it is particularly hard. Working that long requires a different rhythm, a different mindset, and endurance. The first day we didn’t really have enough lunch packed so by mid afternoon we were all feeling hungry. M. said, “You must all have a different metabolism than me, because I’m hungry.”

“Oh, we’re hungry too,” we said. “But you just learn to work through it.”

“Work through it?” she fairly gaped.

“Yeah. You get used to it.”

“I’ve never done that before,” she said, but since we were going to do it, she was determined to as well. She was bemused to discover she worked all the way to 8:00 PM and by the time she finally sat down for supper she actually wasn’t very hungry. Something that we took as so matter-of-fact struck her as so novel (and just about shocking) that it became the running joke of the entire project. “You guys are teaching me all sorts of things,” she would say, “Like how to work through your hunger.”

How Not to Fall

If you do enough painting you learn there are some parts that are much worse than others, certain parts of the job that you come to loathe. Working on a ladder for hours on end is never fun. Scraping paint while standing on a ladder puts particular stress on your body. By the end of the first day the front of my thighs were tight and stiff from bracing myself on the ladder while scraping. But above all other things, the worst part of painting is working on soffits. Soffits, being the underside of the roof overhang, are always high, and always awkward to reach. And they always have little corners and crannies that need painting. Painting over your head is the most un-fun way to paint, and I loathe soffits. On this paint job I spread the suffering around by giving Lachlan some of the soffit work. But I still had the most fun part. Call it the ultimate soffit work: I had to paint the two dormers.

Standing on a ladder doesn’t bother me. Standing on a ladder and leaning far out to one side bothers me. But I am bothered even more when I am up on a steep roof with my hands full of a paint brush and a bucket of paint. I have done a fair amount of roofing in my life, and am generally pretty comfortable on a roof in that circumstance. However, when roofing you always have at least one hand free should it ever be needed. By contrast, when I was lying on my back with a bucket of paint in one hand and a brush in the other I felt lacking in control of the situation. Especially since the dormers were very close to the edge of the roof, and it was a longer fall than I wanted to take down to the ground.

I have done a number of things other people would not have done because I felt that in spite of the risks I felt sufficiently in control of the situation. Climbing up on the roof to paint with both of my hands full felt like a gray area to me. One slip of a foot and I would be taking a swan dive. If my feet didn’t slip I would be okay . . . not happy, but okay. In this state of unease I decided I didn’t trust my shoes, so I went up barefoot. I’m not certain that bare feet have better gripping power than a pair of good soft-soled shoes, but one thing is sure: you have a lot better idea how good your traction is if your feet are bare, and I wanted to know exactly how well I was staying on that roof.

In the end, I didn’t fall off the roof and I did paint both dormers. I wasn’t exactly happy doing it–especially when I had to reach waaaay out to get the farthest corners–but it was done, and looked pretty good from the ground. And since asphalt shingles are like sandpaper my big-toes were very sore by the time I finished. And I wore a hole through the back pocket of my pants from sliding around on my butt. But I didn’t fall off, which I keep telling myself is something I’m going to do one of these days.

I just hope when I do I land softly.

I Remember

12th September 2006

Note: The following piece was written shortly after the events of September 11th, 2001. This website was not in existence then, and I am republishing the essay here, five years later. The tone of writing reflects the time in which it was written, and I felt it might form an interesting pair with my retrospective published yesterday.

During a visit to New York City when I was young I was taken up to the top of the World Trade towers. At the top you could see for miles. It was a wonderful day, clear and bright. The air was cool and pleasant and I remember being surprised at how gentle the breeze was. I had thought that at half a mile up in the sky the wind would be stronger, something more threatening.

They didn’t let you go out to the edge on the top of the tower, but a few stories down on the observation deck you could press your face against the glass and stare at the city below. Peering down, you had the smallest hint of how high up you were. The world below was so far away it looked unreal. Cars were smaller than matchboxes. They looked about as big as the end of your thumb. Could you really be that high up? Why wasn’t the building swaying like the top of a tall tree? You peered through the glass at the silent world below and wondered. How high was half a mile, really? How could the building stand up? Why didn’t it fall over like the tower of dominoes you built? What would happen if the glass you were leaning against broke and you went tumbling out?

It’s all gone now. Gone. And that is hard for my adult mind to grasp.

The twin towers were huge. You could see them like glittering spires across the water when riding into Manhattan on the subway. When you stood at the base of them and looked up you weren’t sure if you were seeing the top, it was so far away. They’re nothing more than piles of rubble now. Twisted metal and shattered cement.

There are those first reactions to skyscrapers: How do they stay up? Why don’t they blow over? Why don’t they fall over? What would happen if they did fall? What would happen if there were an earthquake, or a tornado, a hurricane? What would happen if there was a fire? If a plane crashed into them? Morbid questions it might seem, but questions that children ask, and adults think. Skyscrapers force the questions on us until the answers and assurances are repeated, a chant that dulls our minds to the skyscraper’s rebellion against gravity.

When the towers came down it was as if a part of our adult world had collapsed. We couldn’t believe they were coming down. Why not? I puzzle over my own reaction. Was it really unbelievable, impossible? The slimmest chance? Or was there really a big chance all along and we simply came up with statistics to tell us otherwise? I don’t know. Certainly all the assurances that they would stay up, that they were strong, and safe, were torn down. All the surety, the rationality of planes never crashing into buildings, never bringing them down, was destroyed. But what does all this mean?

Were we trying to hide from the truth? When children ask all those silly questions about tall buildings, are they really silly, or do we call them silly because we were trying to hide from the truth of their words? Are there other “silly” or “dumb” questions that we are denying? “From the mouth of babes . . .” Yet, what difference does it make if the questions are good questions? Should that make us change anything? Or should we simply realize the truth of our world: It isn’t safe. It isn’t sure. And continue to live as before, but with a realization of the fragility and preciousness of our lives–exactly how fleeting they are?

People talk about rebuilding–about returning to normal–but is that a good thing? I’m not speaking of the physical, I mean our minds. People say our world has been changed forever–is that bad? People talk about how we will never be able to return to how the world was and yet in the same breath they seek to build some new security, some new surety. Isn’t that going back to saying the towers will never fall, nobody and nothing can take them down? Should we say and do something else, a different attitude to life, or our surety about things?

I don’t have the answers. I still struggle with my own thoughts. I wonder and puzzle over our shock, and our surprise. It was a horrible, terrible thing, yes. But does that obscure one of the things revealed in this tragedy? Why was it a surprise, why was it hard to believe?

That Day, September 11th

11th September 2006

Five years later . . .

Where Were You?

I missed the bus. It’s strange how the small things stick in your mind. Since we live out in the country I rode in with my Dad to where he worked and picked up the bus there for the rest of the trip in to college. September 11th was only a few days into the college semester, and I hadn’t picked up yet how the bus driver worked. I was at the last stop on the line long before the bus was supposed to arrive, but I learned on September 11th that if the bus is running early he swings by the last stop on the line early and finds someplace else to wait for junction to tell him to start back. If you want to make sure you catch the bus, you must wait at the second to last stop.

But I didn’t know that then, so I waited at the last stop on the line and missed the bus. On the morning of September 11th, 2001 I was standing at the bus stop feeling slightly annoyed that the bus driver did not come by the last stop like he was supposed to, on time. I was feeling annoyed while hijackers were piloting planes on the way to their fiery doom.

The next bus arrived a little after 8 A.M. A normal sunny fall morning. Except not, but I didn’t know that then. It takes about an hour to get from the end of the line to the junction and from the junction to the other end of the line at the college. I was riding in to college while the first plane slammed into the north World Trade Center tower. The bus reached the student union on campus about a quarter after nine. About fifteen minutes ago the second plane had smashed into the south world trade center tower.

Class started at 10:05 A.M. sharp, and I liked to get to class a little early, so I figured I only had enough time to use the bathroom before heading across campus to my classroom. I walked through the student union and everything looked normal. When I walked back through the union on the way to class I noticed they were setting up a TV in the main lounge, which I thought was odd. I wondered if they were setting up for some event. I left, hurrying because I didn’t want to be late for my class.

I should stop here and mention that while this is an “upstate” college it is part of the SUNY network (State University of New York) and a lot of students here come from New York City. What was unfolding almost two hundred miles away had a very personal aspect to many of the students.

I arrived at the classroom at about 10:00 A.M. Far away, the first tower was crashing down to the ground. When I entered the classroom I immediately noticed that something was different. Everyone was clustered around and everyone seemed agitated, an uneasiness in the air, a lot of people talking. The first thing I heard on entering the room was the teacher, Mr. Brucie, saying how the air pressure up that high could suck stuff out of the windows.

I asked what was going on, but at this point what people knew was garbled and some of it wrong. I was told that something had happened, apparently a plane or planes had crashed into the World Trade Center, there was a bomb, a bomb threat at the Capitol Hill Mall, or a shooting or something. A lot of confusion, a lot of fear, but among it all, one thing was clear. A plane or planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. Mr. Brucie was trying to keep everything calm, saying we didn’t yet know what had happened and that a lot of information is wrong in circumstances like this. But I think his thoughts were racing on ahead, imagining what this meant in the larger picture. Being older, and having seen and experienced something of the world, his thoughts took in the more long-term repercussions. While he tried to put on a calming demeanor for the students, he made the prescient remark that, “This is the start of something big. The United States has been attacked, and this is going to change your world.”

There was no class, just people talking. Mr. Brucie asked if anyone had anyone working in or near the world trade center. At least one girl’s father worked in or right next to the towers. Maybe fifteen minutes into the class period Mr. Brucie suggested that students with relatives in the area might want to step out of the room and call home on their cellphones to make sure everyone was all right. A small cluster of students left the room. They returned a few minutes later saying they couldn’t get through. At about this time the second tower was crashing to the ground.

I was impatient to leave and get some real news. I had seen and heard nothing all morning and everything in the class room was simply talk and speculation with no real information. The class was supposed to last until 11:30 A.M. but there was no class and Mr. Brucie let us out early, around 11:00. I now knew why staff had been setting up a TV in the student lobby and I hurried back across campus. There was a crowd of students there already.

The first thing I saw on the TV was a screen of smoke and an announcer saying that was all that was left of the towers. “Really?” I said, turning to the student that stood beside me. “They really came down?”

“Yeah. I guess so,” he mumbled.

Then they replayed a clip of the towers coming down, and I saw.

Sometime later I managed to tear myself away and get in the long line to use the pay phones and call home. Home already knew what had happened. I went back to watching the TV, watching it happen over and over again until I had to leave to take the bus.

It was all the same events after that, watched over and over again. Different pictures, different perspectives–always the same things. Planes exploding. Fire and smoke. People plunging to their deaths. And buildings coming down . . . down . . . down.

What About Your Inbox?

9th September 2006

This past week there was an article in the Wall Street Journal about people and their e-mail inboxes. People, the article said, fall into two categories: those who throw everything out, and those who keep everything. It wasn’t a particularly new or unique subject, or take on the matter, but it was still fascinating as yet another reminder of the perennial question: Are you a hoarder or a thrower-outer? Of course just about everyone is passionate about the folly of the other side, so it makes for juicy reading.

The question, on close inspection, is not as simple as we all (from our various positions) like to make out. One example of how the issue of e-mail is not so simple is that really one finds three categories: (1) Those who horde everything in their e-mail inbox (2) those who throw everything out once read, and (3) Those who throw some stuff out and file the rest.

I find it interesting to think about the whole e-mail inbox issue because it can function as a stand-in for our larger lives, and how we approach them. In regards to both e-mail and life in general I find myself between the place that appeals to me and the place that I loathe. In the middle, never completely satisfied.

The coldly rational part of me is greatly in favor of throwing things out. The coldly rational part of me favors honing life down to the cleanest efficiency of activity. We only have so many hours in a day, and so many days in a life, so why waste any. The emotional part of me is in favor of saving that which has emotional value . . . whether it be sentimental (however slightly so) or issues of self-confidence (can’t throw away that bit of information–I might need it!).

I try to keep my inbox clean. In my mind the inbox is for those things which you have not yet read, or must deal with shortly. It’s an inbox. To me every item in the inbox is a reminder of something I must deal with and have failed to deal with, and so is a minor irritant until it is dealt with, deleted, or filed. I don’t understand how people can open up their e-mail client and see 1,203 things they haven’t dealt with staring back at them. The answer is that most people who have that many e-mails in their inbox don’t view it as a place to put things that must be dealt with shortly. To them the inbox is simply a dumping ground where everything goes.

Which is better–to delete your e-mail or save it? The WSJ was (perhaps playfully) stirring up this question again with the view that there is no one answer. But my answer is that technically, from the perspective of time efficiency, computers have become so fast, disk space so plentiful, and search features so effective that one would be using your time most efficiently if you simply read your email and let it roll down the stack of the inbox. That is the cold hard fact of the digital world. Those who leave their inbox overflowing may go away justified.

But, as I said, what really interests me about the “e-mail in your inbox” debate is how it can function as a stand-in for larger aspects of our life and attitudes. A person may let their inbox heap up with years of useless material with no ill effect, but one cannot do the same outside the digital realm. Google can’t search the stack of papers on your desk, or through the junk on your floor. While not everyone who leaves their inbox untended is a complete organizational wreck in the rest of their lives, everyone who is an organizational wreck in the rest of their lives is a slob in their inbox. And, while not everyone who keeps the rest of their life organized keeps their inbox organized, those people who studiously keep their inbox organized are also always those who keep the rest of their lives organized.

While I concede that in the narrow matter of e-mail it is no more efficient to file or delete, I believe the activity is a good discipline and good habit reinforcement for the rest of the areas of your life. If you can’t delete all those ancient e-mail tech newsletters that are now long out of date, how are you going to throw out all those old magazines that are long out of date? Sorting through email and deleting that which should be deleted, and properly filing that which should be filed is a good and easy lesson for applying the same to the rest of your life.

Our Reforming Toilet

5th September 2006

Our toilet reformed. To properly appreciate this news, you must read the previous post here.

Have you read that entry? Okay, good. Now you know exactly how vile, how utterly evil, our toilet is (or was). A perfectly new toilet that failed to function properly and now for several years has failed to function properly. How we came to loathe the toilet. It never flushed properly. The weak among us would use a plunger every time we wanted water to actually go down the toilet. The rest of us would play a dangerous game of chicken with the toilet, hissing “Flush, flush, flush! Flush, you abomination!” As we watched the water lazily swirl higher and higher until (most of the time) it would finally surrender at the last possible moment and Woooosh tons of water would go down the tube. Water saving it was not.

Not only was this toilet vexing, but its obstinacy was perplexing. We had installed the toilet properly; why, why, was it in a state of perpetual not working? (Now is the time when you break the plunger over you head and hop around the bathroom gritting your teeth and going, “Nnngh! Nnngh! Nnngh!”)

So most of the readership doesn’t care, but for posterity, for the historical record, I am today noting that our toilet has reformed. It is now a good toilet. It is now a regular toilet. It now works.

The solution came all by itself when Evan was cleaning the toilet. Over the years the toilet has been cleaned many times before, including by me, and if Evan was doing something magically special only he knows. He says he was simply scrubbing very vigorously at the large hole at the base of the bowl where water is supposed to shoot out (my toilet vocabulary fails me). He said black stuff then came pouring out. After that the toilet flushed. Properly.

It was with much amazement that we all over the course of that day and the next flushed the toilet and discovered that yes, indeed, the toilet flushed like any natural toilet and continued to flush properly. Water came shooting out of the hole sending everything down the chute in a right quick and proper manner.

Clearly the water pipe was in some way blocked. Not 100% I suspect, but enough so that the water only sluggishly came out and didn’t do its job properly. So . . . the next question that sprang to all our minds was “When did this obstruction occur?” Certain people around here think that on initial installation the toilet was working 100% properly and sometime shortly thereafter it became plugged by someone’s . . . byproducts.

I don’t think so. While sometimes the toilet seemed to work somewhat better than other times, I never, ever, remember the toilet working as well as it does now. Second, I find it extremely difficult to believe that some organic human byproduct could keep the toilet so thoroughly crippled for three years. I suspect some manufacturing issue, or something like that. Some kind of deposit within the toilet which shouldn’t have been there at the time of purchase and which has festered for these long years. I dearly wish Evan had given a general announcement when the black stuff came out so I could have analyzed it. Unfortunately he didn’t know the black cloud heralded a new age in toilet flushing, and so he flushed it all down with no further notations.

The exact nature of the obstruction will probably forever remain a hotly disputed subject, but one thing we can all agree on is that the toilet works properly now. I think we are all slightly holding our breath, wondering if the toilet will go back to its old villainous ways. But it has been several days now and it continues to behave. Rejoice all ye peoples, rejoice.

(And you can use our bathroom now.)

Hauling Feed

4th September 2006

In this modernizing world there are still bastions of days-gone-by. One such bastion exists in Berkshire in the feed store next to the railroad tracks.

When I was growing up there was an old Agway down by our railroad tracks. We would pass it on the way to the library and there would always be the enticing smell of grain drifting around outside. If you went inside there was the aroma of feed store, that mingling smell of grain, tools, and innumerable other things that all combined together to make the feed store smell. To me as a little kid it smelled of oldness, a steeped age that held a hint of mystery.

The Agway eventually closed, falling prey to the dying agricultural industry. It was replaced, in a different part of town, down on Main Street, by a store for the modern age–a hardware store that carried brand-name animal feed for your small time needs. It is a useful and friendly small town store but it is very up on the modern age.

Once we moved out of town and into the countryside and began raising animals, the new hardware store was the closest place to get feed. The agricultural industry has died out so much in this area there aren’t a lot of places to get feed, so it is pretty much the local store or nothing. Then, about three years ago, a neighbor friend told me about a feed store in Berkshire. Now it is a half hour drive out to Berkshire so it isn’t exactly close, but the price per 100 lbs. was about six dollars less than at the local town hardware store. Buy enough feed, and the savings would be worth it.

Out to Berkshire I went. The trip is something like “over the hill and through the woods to Grandma’s house” with a rather steep descent into Richford. It isn’t an unpleasant drive to take on occasion, though I try to get enough feed to make the trip only every three or four months. Once you’re through Richford, Berkshire is a few miles beyond. It is one of those small towns which seems to consist almost entirely of a main street. If you turn down a side street and drive two houses you find yourself back out in the country again. The feed store is down one such street. It sits next to the railroad track. If you cross the track you’re back out in the countryside.

The side street always feels like it comes up suddenly so I pick it out in advance by the hay elevators sitting next to the road. Across from the intersection there is a house that says Berkshire Public Library. I am curious about public libraries but I find this one slightly intimidating to a stranger. It is a little worn (perhaps someone might say run-down) and it looks like it is perpetually closed. The sight of the building makes me think that too few people go to the library out here.

The feed store is some family run operation. I can’t remember the name of the store because there is no sign out front and every time I call to make sure they have enough feed in stock the phone is answered with such a hasty salutation that the store name is gone before I’ve even heard it properly. It is the sort of place where you don’t need to know the name anyhow. It’s the feed store in Berkshire, open 9-5 on weekdays, and till noon on Saturday. Closed on Sunday.

The store looks as if it is from the bygone era when Agway was in its heyday. The place is anything but modern. It has the high front dock, the wood worn and uneven. It seems like there is always some old farmer sitting out on the dock simply watching the world go by, and sometimes there is a whole crowd of people swapping stories and talking about the weather.

You have to cut through the feed storage area to enter the small office/store. There is an ancient wooden desk darkened and scarred with age at which all transactions take place. Various farming odds and ends for sale are hung up around the narrow room. There is a battered couch for sitting on, and an old heater stove of some type. The store owner and manager is an aging man, rail thin and scruffy, who seems to smoke almost incessantly. When there isn’t a crowd out talking on the porch they are crammed together inside the small store eating food that someone brought or else simply jawing. Your bill is calculated out by hand on a scrap of paper, then written up with a pencil on your receipt. They take cash or check, no credit cards.

It is the strangest little operation, and most strange, I think, because when you go there you realize fifty years ago this wasn’t strange, it was the way of life. When you go to the Berkshire feed store you realize you are stopping in at a bit of history, and when you leave you wonder how much longer it will be around.

The Savior in Underpants

31st August 2006

“Rundy, something’s got one of the chickens.”

“Huh?” I sat up in bed to see Titi standing in the doorway.

“Something is in the chicken house. I can hear one of the chicken’s screaming.”

“Oh.” My first thought was to turn over in bed and forget about it. The chicken must be a goner, the animal will probably be gone, and I don’t feel like getting out of bed.

“Rundy, something has got a chicken!”

The diligent part of my brain finally kicks in.

“All right, all right. I’m coming!” If I get out there fast maybe I’ll catch the culprit.

I scramble downstairs without dressing, grab the .22 rifle and the clip. Some people still haven’t gone to bed yet and come wandering around to see what all the excitement is about. “I need a flashlight,” I tell them. “And I need someone to hold the flashlight!”

Evan finds a flashlight, and is nominated to accompany me.

It is dark outside and now the chicken house is silent. There is a bit of nerves as one wonders exactly what we are going to find, some animal suddenly appearing in the light. Raccoon, opossum, skunk, coyote? The flashlight gives out a thin beam of light which leaves most of the chicken yard in darkness. The chicken house door hangs open. Did the animal already leave, or is it in there feasting on something?

I quickly discover that you can’t have someone else hold the flashlight for you when you’re looking for something in the dark you’re supposed to be shooting. Invariably the other person shines the flashlight where you’re not looking. Inconvenient as it is, I end up taking the flashlight from Evan so I can enter the chicken house and see where I am going, and what corners I want to check for some hiding animal.

I’m feeling under-prepared. When going out into the night to deal with an unknown wild animal one prefers to be fully dressed, with very sturdy boots and a very powerful light. I’m barefoot and in my underwear and the flashlight momentarily flickers out while I’m entering the chicken house. It comes back on, but just about the worse thing I can think of at that moment is being caught in the cramped chicken house in my underwear in the dark with some animal. Stupid flashlight, I think.

An inspection from the doorway shows all the chickens sitting undisturbed on their roosts. No feathers on the ground, no blood, no mangled bodies. Either the thing . . . the animal . . . has made a quick escape or it is hiding in one of the chicken hutches. If it is something in a chicken hutch it probably is an opossum raiding eggs. But I really don’t want to play peek-around-the-corner with some opossum.

I stand in the entrance listening, undecided. Then I hear a faint scrape and rustle and I know there is something in there. About that time I remember that a miniature banty hen was sitting on a nest of eggs underneath the chicken hutches. Opossum comes looking for eggs and finds chicken sitting on nest. Now I understood what had happened, and it was time to add a little surprise to the proceedings.

Easing my way to the right, I crouched down for a view underneath the hutches. I’m just about down on the floor before I finally catch sight of the hairy body. Then I see the luminescent eyes staring back at me. Opossums are very stupid. When they feel threatened they will play dead, and often they don’t feel threatened when they should. This was one of those occasions. Mr. Opossum was just caught red-handed raiding a chicken nest–he doesn’t play dead, and he doesn’t make a break for it. He simply stands there and stares out at me.

Which is a good thing, because when you have a pathetically weak flashlight it’s very hard to aim a rifle in the dark. Holding the rifle with one hand doesn’t help, but the real problem is getting the flashlight so that it shines on the target and on both ends of your barrel so you can line up both ends of the sight.

My first shot missed. The opossum merely shuffled his feet a bit. Like I said, not the brightest bulb in the package. I aimed more carefully the second time, making sure I had everything lined up right in the middle of his forehead before I plugged him.

The impact flipped him over onto his side. It was a fatal shot, I’m sure, but I plugged him a few more times just to hurry him along. When rousted out of bed by attempted egg stealing and chicken murder I’m not particularly lenient.

I cleaned up the corpse the next day, surprised to find the banty still alive, and now back on the nest. Unfortunately, I don’t think she is going to hatch anything. I think she was off the nest for hours after the attack, and she has been sitting erratically since.

When I went back to bed after killing the opossum and unloading the .22 Dad stuck his head in the bedroom and said, “So what is this blog post going to be? The Savior in Underpants?”

Today’s title is for him.

The Drama of Being Lost

20th August 2006

The Araucana chicks are growing up. They are at the teenage stage: Independent, looking like slightly miniature chickens–not quite there, but getting there. They have their bright intelligent eyes, sleek bodies, and quick agile feet.

It is interesting how each batch of chickens turn out differently. There is, of course, the wide variety in feather coloring which I always enjoy. I like the many variations on the golden brown color with the occasional darker, or lighter. The rooster this time is mostly white with touches of darker feathers. He will look interesting when fully mature. He is going to look something the opposite of our current black rooster, who also looks like a beauty. Whether he has a similar personality remains to be seen.

Chickens have a certain amount of inherent personality. Some are more intelligent than others, some are more calm, and some are more friendly. Two chickens can go through the same experience and they turn out radically different. However, environment and experience both have a powerful influence on chickens. For example, depending on how much they are handled chickens can be more or less friendly. Not that handling is the only influence, but it is a major one.

I have taught previous batches of chicks to fly from their early holding pen toward the gate to the chicken yard–but this isn’t something everyone learns. The last batch of Araucana chickens I raised two years ago turned out very friendly. Unfortunately, the Araucanas of this year are not friendly. It is much more fun if they are always eager to see you, but the Araucanas this year are shy and timid. I hope as they get older they will warm up to me more, but I am resigned to the fact that they will probably never be as friendly as the current chickens.

It is always fun to watch the chicks grow up. When they are very little and first let out into the chicken yard to run around they are no taller (and sometimes shorter) than the grass they are running through. The world is huge, unexplored, and scary. Being curious, inattentive, and caught up in their own little world, the chicks constantly get “lost.” It is repeated over and over again: A chick sees some bug or other item of interest and goes trotting off in one direction, not realizing the other chicks are going in a different direction. Little Mr. Alone goes five feet before losing interest, at which point he stops and realizes he is alone. Five feet might seem like not very far, but when a little midget is only about two inches tall and all his friends are about two inches tall at that height the line of sight is pretty short. The ensuing drama is almost Shakespearean:

“Eeek!” The chick says. “I’m lost! Help! Where did everyone go? Why did they leave me? Come back! Come back!”

The chick is standing there in the grass emoting on his early life crisis in loud tones while a few feet away the rest of the chicks are poking around through the grass, perfectly oblivious. Eventually the lost chick will begin to wander about, craning his neck and peeping out “Help! Help! I’m lost!” until he wanders those three feet and catches sight of his friends again. Then with a “Hooray! I’ve been found! I’m safe!” he goes hopping in ecstatic leaps to rejoin his friends.

Then, two minutes later, someone else is lost.

“Heeeellp! I’m lost!” The peeping call of distress chirps out again . . . and again. The terror of being lost and the joy of being reunited–the drama plays itself over again and again every day in early summer. Life for a little chick is full of excitement.

We don’t have electricity going out to the chicken house, and when the chicks are very little they need to go back under the heat light for the night. Invariably, I want to put them to bed before they are ready to go to bed. So (invariably) I end up chasing around little chicks, saying, “It’s time to go to bed!” while they zip around on their little legs and go, “Waaaaah! I don’t wanna go to bed!” Okay, so they don’t know I am going to put them to bed, they just know I’m trying to catch them, and they don’t want to be caught. It’s close enough.

The frustration level mounts as the chicks grow increasingly sly about evading capture. They haven’t a chance out in the open, but they quickly learned if they hid in the middle of the lilac bush as soon as you tried to climb in after them they would pop out the opposite side of the bush, and if you went around, they would pop back in. They could look at you with their taunting eyes and there was nothing you could do unless you had someone else to wait on the other side of the lilac bush. Even more devious was when they learned to hide underneath the chicken house. It is almost impossible for a adult to crawl under the chicken house, and once you do squeeze under there you can’t possibly catch them. So you sit on your knees and peer under the chicken house, glaring furiously at them. Fortunately they are skittish enough that if you get a long stick and wave it wildly under the chicken coop they leave their cover. But as soon as you give chase again they quickly try to double back. It is a game of wits and quick reaction. By the end of it neither of us find it much like a game.

Once the chicks are ready to go to bed they don’t run away. I usually don’t wait for them to be ready, but if I happen to be busy or delayed and so they are not put to be when I usually want to put them to bed the chicks eventually begin to congregate and complain about how they want to go to bed. Yes indeed. “I don’t wanna go to bed” now becomes, “I wanna go be bed. What is taking so long?”

The ungrateful wretches never learn how to say thank you, but it is pleasing to see how happy they are when they get back to their nice warm pen which is full of food and water. But they grow up fast. Soon they are no longer so short and nobody gets lost any more. Then soon they are grown up enough that they don’t need the heat lamps anymore, and nobody gets put back to bed. The first several nights when they don’t get to go back to their “baby” pen there is a lot of sniveling and loud complaining. They get over the trauma after a few days, and then they don’t need me any more. Or so they think.

Pringles?

19th August 2006

Twice this summer I have house-sat (or, more precisely, dog-sat) for my uncle. His family doesn’t like sending their dogs to the kennel when they go on vacation and it is a way for me to earn a bit of money. People who hear of this say, “Oh, so you get a vacation too” but it isn’t, unless you consider going to a different house and doing exactly the same things you do at your house a vacation. The most you can say is that it removes me from the daily activities of life so I have less interruptions of my work.

If my house sitting isn’t a vacation by the definition of “do no work,” it is a departure from my normal life. Instead of living in a rowdy, run-down, rural house I spend a week living alone in a empty, modern, suburban house. Instead of a diet consisting largely of homemade foods, I have an array of modern life set before me. In some ways it is a cultural experience.

The Food

Alone in a house and trying to get work done, food is a primary excuse for distraction. If I am not so busy working that I don’t want to stop to eat, then I don’t want to work and I am busy poking around in cupboards and freezers for something “good” to eat as a distraction and delaying tactic. Thus in the course of this summer I have sampled some of the culinary fare of modern America.

When all is said and done, I prefer my normal diet. Pringles potato chips seem to be of ubiquitous fame, and some childish part of me has always wanted to try some. At last my chance had come–tube container after tube container faced me, but I ended up less than impressed. After eating a few chips I couldn’t understand how Pringles was in business, much less so famous, and had no interest in eating any more. Their taste struck me as “dead.”

In general the pre-packaged food fell into three categories: too salty, too sweet, and too fatty. Pop-tarts are kinda gross–it’s like a sugar cookie. Power bars are like tasteless somewhat sweet bits of nothing. Their granola-like nature nowhere compares to the homemade granola I am accustomed to eating for breakfast. Potato chips (except Pringles!) and similar salted fare (especially Cheeze-Zit types) can be extremely addictive in momentary splurges, but I found they made me feel perpetually over-salted, and thirsty.

For the time of my sojourn I indulge in various forms of fatty, sweet, and salty foods but at the end of it all I was ready to go back to my own food. There was no lasting allure. Give me my homemade granola, and homemade bread.

Well, okay, my one weakness was dairy products. There was this one brand of ice cream in the house which I could perpetually eat too much, and I never seemed to tire of knocking back a fudgesicle or two. But the all-time killer was yogurt. There was a large tub of vanilla yogurt which more than anything else was not too sweet, salty, or fatty. It was delicious in every way. I found it was absolutely fantastic to take slices of cantaloupe melon and dunk them into the vanilla yogurt before consuming. I could have eaten an entire cantaloupe that way. By an extreme act of self-restraint I made the cantaloupe last several days. On the day when the last slice of cantaloupe disappeared I saw I still had half a tub of yogurt left. It called to me. “What the heck,” I thought. I got a spoon, sat down, and ate the entire half tub in a few minutes. I don’t know how many “servings” that was, but it was more than an person ought to eat in one sitting. I think it might have–ahem–affected my digestive tract. But that is one thing I could see myself doing again . . . and again . . . and again. You can keep all your potato chips, pop-tarts, and power bars. I’ll take the yogurt.

That Suburban Life

The suburban life fascinates me. Not in the sense that I wish to live it–I don’t. But I find myself staring. I could stand on the curb and stare and stare with some strange little smile on my face. Suburbia is like some psychotic faux reality. Everything. Is. So. Perfect. At least, that is how it appears. On the surface. The perfection of neat and new houses with their perfect lawns, perfect driveways, perfect flower gardens, perfect cars, and . . . well, whatever else you might see. But I look and I see this vivid manifestation of the neurotic desire deep in all of us to have life completely under our control. Here in suburbia the neurosis is proudly on display. We revel in building up our delusions with a cheap veneer. Victory has been achieved–the organic has been made synthetic–at least, if one looks are the careful lawns, careful bushes, and careful trees it seems so. Nothing is ugly . . . but then, neither is anything truly beautiful.

The reality is that the world overflows its boundaries and defies control. Suburbia pushes the visible manifestations of “real life” to the boundaries where we only venture out in our pretty cars with air-conditioning. That way, life doesn’t intrude with all of it’s uncontrollable reality. But here at home the lawn isn’t manicured, or edged. And beyond that ragged lawn the field of weeds spreads on until the forest rises in an untamed wall. The driveway is just washed out rocks, the cars are a little bit rusty and obviously haven’t been washed in a while. The house is in a continual state of being repaired, and the remains of various projects lay around everywhere. Messy. Out of control.

But I see life.

To me, suburban life is dead. It, in effect, tells us all the lies we want to hear, and want to believe: That life is certain, that life is under control, and that life isn’t (in some part) ugly. You take away all the messy, you take away all of the unfinished-still-working-on-it. Take away the I’m-going-somewhere-but-haven’t-got-there-yet, take away the doing-something . . . when you take all that away you’ve taken away the life. You’ve taken away the fun. Uniformity and control come at a cost. That price some people will gladly pay. For me such a life would start out funny: “Look at the game we’re playing. It’s called ‘House.’” Only to grow wearying: “If I see another manicured lawn that looks like the last lawn, or another house that looks like the last house, I am going to scream!” Finally to a depressing slow strangulation of death: there is no meaning, no comfort, and no hope in riding in your nice new cars, to your nice new houses, so you can use your nice new stuff.

But apparently that is the American Dream.

Summer Things

9th August 2006

Last Friday was the opening day for a local festival. I am the sort of person who normally spends his time huddled in a dark corner whispering to himself and staring at the flickering light of his monitor. As far as social interaction, you could shovel a meal under the door and I’d pretty much be happy. Suffice to say, I don’t make it a habit of going to festivals. The idea of crowds and noise is decidedly unappealing. And who would want to spend good money so you could spend several hours facing a lot of noise and crowds? Not me.

But I was given the tickets for the entire family and there would be a large hot-air balloon launch and fireworks afterward. All this would have failed to move me but I thought of little kids who hadn’t seen a hot-air balloon launch, or a fireworks show up close. So, feeling twinges of guilt, I figured I ought to bestir myself and take the younger kids so that they could have the experience and some memories from it.

We went, and I endured it. The big disappointment was that the balloons did not launch. Too much wind, they said (after the fact). As a result we spent several hours standing around watching various balloons inflate (and getting hopeful) only for nothing to happen and the younger kids to begin to get completely bored out of their minds. Then all the balloons deflated and . . . nothing. What a bust.

The evening was saved from total disaster by the fireworks. The little boys enjoyed them so that, at least, was something. The fireworks show lasted probably no more than eight minutes. It was nice enough, but I couldn’t help be struck by how backwater it marked us. Fifteen minutes of merely nice fireworks and it was billed as the greatest display in the county all year. Yeah, that’s saying something all right. But I like being that backwater. It means the crowds actually weren’t that crushing at the festival, and traffic on the road wasn’t really out of the ordinary. You could never say that about a large city festival.

***

Sunday I made ice cream for Lachlan’s birthday. Homemade ice cream is like the quintessence of summer. It tastes soooo good, but I am lazy and otherwise preoccupied most of the time so it doesn’t get made as often as it might. I am getting much better at the freezing process. I still think we have some learning as far as making the mixture. There are so many variations of flavors you have to make it more often to refine what is best.

As I am a man who doesn’t believe in skimping on the good stuff we make an almost (but I say not) obscene amount of ice cream. I bought two six quart ice cream machines and we use them both for a total of twelve quarts. We eat it until nearly bursting (and nearly sick, too).

Banana is an all time favorite. Blueberry is also good, and strawberry. We haven’t gone into a really expansive list of flavors, yet, but next I want to try butter almond or butter pecan. There are two basic recipes; one starts with an egg and flour custard-like base, the other method uses rennet tablets as the thickener. The rennet tablet methods seems to be much less well known. The egg custard method seems to give superior texture but since for most flavors that I like (such as butter almond and butter pecan) I prefer a more ice-milk texture, I favor the rennet tablet method slightly. However, if you are considering taking up ice cream making, the custard method gives much easier results, and it seems the majority of people prefer its more creamy texture, so I would suggest starting with the custard method and then if you would like to experiment more, try the rennet tablet method.

Preferences in Futility

4th August 2006

We all have our preferences in futility. I have at various times made different forms of this observation, but today it struck me again as I watched my Mom weed her flower garden. I wouldn’t do that, I thought. It wasn’t because I thought weeding was too hard–weeding is easy. It wasn’t because I hate weeding–weeding is okay, and I actually enjoy the appearance of a weeded garden.

The futility of weeding is what gets to me. You spend a lot of time weeding a garden and a week later you need to do it all over again. And again. And again. It’s like running in place and never getting anywhere, or building castles in the sand only to have the tide destroy them. My reaction is, “I have only so many hours in the day and if a garden is not going to stay weeded for a good long time, I’m not going to weed it.” This is why I work better with vines and trees. The repetitive maintenance activity is seasonal, not every week.

But I’m not some high-minded person who thinks he abstains from such ridiculous things as futile activity. I know I simply prefer other forms of futility. Like (ahem) spending weeks and months and years writing something and then deciding it isn’t good enough and so shoving it into a darkened corner where no one will see it. Or writing something one day, and deleting it the next because it didn’t work. Countless hours of work vanish without anyone having seen or enjoyed it. Nothing like such occasions to make your life feel as if it is disappearing without a trace. At least when you weed a garden people can enjoy it’s appearance for a few days.

The writing life sometimes feels like nine-tenths futility, but somehow I enjoy it to some degree or another, most of the time. It is most decidedly not fun when working on a particularly hard draft and day after day you find yourself writing material which will only end up getting thrown out. It is those days that you feel like simply staring at the clock on your desk and watching the hands tick round because writing something won’t accomplish anything more.

Most of the time I delude myself with the vague thought that all of my writing is propelling me forward–either to a more refined product that will actually be completed or if this writing gets deleted the process at least, in some infinitesimal way, made me a better writer. Yeah, that’s what you got to tell yourself. Otherwise it starts feeling like an act of insanity.

Futility is a matter of taste. Which futility tastes good going down? Maybe for you it is weeding a garden over and over again. Or maybe you are like me and somehow enjoy writing even though at least half of what you write gets deleted and written all over again. To each his own.

Flood Cleanup

30th July 2006

Prologue: The Flooding of Other Places

Everyone knows about Hurricane Katrina. The devastation that storm wrought remains etched in national memory. Disasters of such scale capture our attention, but it is easy to forget that not only New Orleans suffered from Hurricane Katrina, or that many people suffer elsewhere at other times from flooding. The disaster of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans was gripping but the fact that others suffer from floods more obscure makes the suffering no less. They are the countless small stories that are never heard.

This is just such a small story.

It began the last week in June. It didn’t start with a named storm; some hurricane crashing into land with all its fury. It arrived as torrential rainstorms from the west, drenching the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York. Inches upon inches of rain fell, triggering massive runoff and flash floods. The rivers spilled past flood stage, past the highest flood levels in a hundred years, until on Wednesday the 28th of June, the rivers crested.

I watched the pictures appear online. It felt like some eery echo of New Orleans happening nearly in my back yard. Water came over the flood wall in Binghamton. Entire streets were under water. People were rescued by helicopter. These were the kind of disasters that happened far away, not nearby.

This disaster felt immediate because it happened to places I knew and traveled, but at the same time it felt distant because the water didn’t come flooding into my house. I only knew of it; nobody I personally knew lost possessions and livelihood. There was the shock of seeing waters pouring over the flood walls I knew, and as a child had wondered what would happen if the river went over those walls, but after staring at enough pictures the shock begins to fade and the nearness of the occurrence began to settle down into the abstract something happening to somebody.

Except the massive flooding of the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York wasn’t far away. It was very near. About the middle of July the flooding had begun to slip toward the back of my mind when Cathy G called. It was one of those “friend of a friend” occasions: Her daughters’ piano teacher knew of a church that was running a relief operation to help those affected by the flooding. They were organizing teams of volunteers who would go out and help residents clean up after the flooding. In the initial days after the flood there had been a surge of volunteers but now the help was beginning to dry up and there was still a lot of work to do. Was I interested in helping?

My initial reaction was along the lines of “It’s been nearly two weeks. Are you sure it hasn’t been mostly cleaned up already?”

I am glad to help those who truly need help. If it is someone I know, or someone who is known by someone I know, I feel reasonably confident that the person in question actually needs help and things will be organized enough that help can be accomplished. But when it is removed to “a church that a friend’s daughters’ piano teacher knows” . . . I get uneasy. I sense the strong possibility of a debacle . . . both in the service end (nothing is organized and nobody knows what to do) and the served end (a bunch of freeloaders, or those who are in need don’t get help). I don’t care to waste my time on what is touted as a noble cause but is really a lost cause.

I was assured the church had everything well organized and there were still people truly in need of help. So I decided I ought to at least check it out.

That was where my part of the story began.

Memories

I had intended to write an orderly account of what happened, but it didn’t work. The events are too recent and fresh in my mind and they are all jumbled together, trying to get out. Everything feels important, everything wants to be said, and in all the clamor any over-arching structure disintegrates. Maybe when time lends thoughts some distance I could pick through the facts and chose a few to form a story, but I don’t want the telling to wait until the events are no longer fresh. I can retell it later, if I wish. For now, what follows is a montage . . . a disorganized wash of thoughts and events thrown together. Perhaps it will have meaning to you.

Some observations:

  • Contrary to my fears, the church relief effort was very well organized. They had been going at it for at least two weeks by the time I arrived so it might have been skill born from experience. Or else they had a gifted person in charge. Maybe both. In any case, supplies for cleanup were plentiful and organized. Those needing help were entered into a spreadsheet and tracked for what needed to be done, and what was already done. Volunteer help signed in and out and was sent to the work sites by the dispatch desk. The church kitchen provided lunch and dinner to flood victims and the volunteers. There was a lot of donated equipment, as well as donated food. Food was plentiful, if about cafeteria quality.
  • The base support at the church was very gracious and professional. When I came in with “my” crew I told the dispatch desk to assign us to whoever most needed help. I told them to give us the hard jobs that nobody else would do. The ladies at the dispatch desk took me at my word and did just that. We came back almost every day exhausted and plastered with mud. The dispatch ladies worked hard to line up for us the worst jobs and the people who really needed help. There was good communication and teamwork, not to mention good humor from a core staff that had been at it for over two weeks.
  • I had a great crew. The size of my crew fluctuated from day to day but consisted of family, friends, and friends of friends. Most of them weren’t very big, strong, or experienced but they put their heart into it and did work that greatly impressed both the church staff and the flood victims we helped. A special thanks to all who were willing to work with me . . . I tend to expect it from my family, but Cassandra, JoHanna, and Matthias G, along with Mary, Esther, Courtney and a bunch of other girl friends of the G’s whom I wasn’t properly introduced to all did a lot of very nasty and gross work that I told them to do, and did it willingly, which is saying a lot.
  • I was often mistaken as the father of my crew. This was very funny (for us). Apparently people had difficulty making sense of us and grasped what seemed most logical to them. I was clearly in charge, so all these younger people had to be my children because why else would they work with me (the logic must have been something like that). Placing me as the father was the best they could make of the situation, but for us it made for giggling absurdities. Titi is only four years younger than me but one lady kept referring to me as her father until Titi informed her (to the dear lady’s complete mortification) that, “Actually, he is my brother.” I’m only going on twenty-five, but this one lady was not alone . . . everyone seemed ready to double my age and make me the father of a group of adolescents and young adults. Do I look that old? Act that old? Or was it the best sense that they could make of the situation was me as a very youthful looking middle-aged man? To save people confusion and embarrassment we took to introducing ourselves by saying, “We’re all siblings and these are our friends.” People still had trouble believing it. Is that because it is hard to believe so many young people would have such initiative by themselves?
  • We did a lot of nasty, foul, work. I’m not sure gross is a strong enough adjective. Hideous might better fit. We worked on places that had sat for three weeks since being flooded which gave things plenty of time to . . . ripen. Words and pictures can’t properly or fully describe the sensory assault. You had to have been there to fully understand. I wouldn’t call the experiences traumatic (perhaps others would) but some experiences were very vivid and made such an impression we may carry them to the grave.
  • It was hard work. Hard not only in respect to the physical labor, but hard because of the often unpleasant nature. I have a background in hard physical work and unpleasant jobs but for others in my crew I think this was something of a “baptism by fire” which they took very well, though as the days progressed the exhaustion grew. People would end up staring stupidly at walls and would need to be told what to do. Some people admitted to dreaming about the work. Two people dreamed they were covered with mud and a third dreamed she was pulling up old carpet only to wake up and find she was pulling her sheets.
  • I felt sorry for Titi because I worked her very hard. When I was the only adult male on the crew she had to fulfill the position as my help. Anything I couldn’t carry alone she carried with me. I tried to take the brunt of the weight and the work but still it fell heavy on her.
  • The flood water went high. One person told me that where the river was normally 50 yards wide it became a mile wide. There was a surreal feeling to standing on a street where the river was nowhere in sight and seeing the old water line stain halfway up the hedge across the street. It boggled the mind. These were people never supposed to be flooded, people who “didn’t need flood insurance” because they weren’t on a flood plain.
  • Water is a powerful force. There are pictures of very dramatic damage, like the gorge cut through I-88 by a raging creek. Where we worked we saw cars that had been lifted up and moved, and sheds that had been turned over onto their roofs like some giant playing with toys. Garages collapsed, the side of buildings gave way like they had been hit with a bomb, and part of the foundation of the house next to one we worked in had caved in. In some ways the actual flooding was like your “perfect nightmare” because the water came up very rapidly during the middle of the night. Some people barely escaped.
  • It can be hard to grasp the enormity of what some people lost. When you live in a ranch house and the water comes up chest height into the house most of your earthly posessions are destroyed by the water. Once everything that has been damaged and destroyed is removed, you’re left with the shell of a house. It is like starting over.

Such are some of the memories from those days. But some things seem better told in order. Each day we worked could have its own essay, but below are a few chronological highlights:

  • Day 1: Tuesday, July 18th, 2006. My crew that day was Titi, Cadie, JoHanna G, and Matthias G. We were sent to help an 85-year-old widow who I will call Marion. After she learned what we could do she confessed that when she first pulled in the driveway she had thought, “Why did they send me a bunch of girls? Nothing is going to get done.” Later, I joked to Titi that I had made all the girls into men. When Marion showed me around she said, “That counter needs to come out, but you’ll need some men to help you. The furniture in the basement will have to wait until you have a crew of men. The pool table can’t be moved . . .” And so on. But we did everything, all those things I would need a bunch of “men” to do, and even those that “couldn’t be done.”

    Part of the reason we did what “couldn’t be done” is because Marion used the measurement of a petite 85-year-old woman. To her the dishwasher needed a dolly to move. To me it was a light piece of plastic junk that I picked up and carried outside and tossed on the trash heap. I said to Titi, “Let’s move this counter.” “She can’t pick that up,” Marion said. Then, “My God,” as me and Titi easily picked up the counter. Things that Marion thought hard were easy, but that didn’t mean everything was easy. Some things were done only because of my determination (some would call it insanity).

    The soaked couches and other furniture that was supposed to take a crew of men Titi and I carried. I tried to carry most of the weight because it was only moderate work for me, but the task was still at Titi’s limit. She stumbled at the garbage heap while we were carrying one piece of furniture and smashed her hand bad enough to lose all feeling for several minutes and most of her strength in that hand for the rest of the day.

    After the furniture there came a large chunk of concrete. As best I could tell the device was concrete logs that went in a fake fireplace. The three cement logs were one piece and together probably weighed up toward 250 lbs. That was something I almost didn’t get out of the basement. For a second I wondered if I could lift it, then it was lifted and I wondered if I was going to drop it. There was no way two people could carry the cement object so I carried it alone . . . somehow I made it up the stairs and to the garbage heap. The amount of strength required left me so drained I almost couldn’t stand upright afterward, and it took me nearly five minutes to regain my breath.

    This is to say that after all this I decided it was time to move the ancient upright freezer out of the basement. Nobody on the crew was exactly fresh, but in any case I knew Titi wouldn’t be able to handle the other end of the freezer by herself–ever. Undeterred, I decided to get inventive. I took a very long strap and hook, securely strapped the freezer and told my entire crew to get at the top of the stairs and pull while I carried up the bottom of the freezer. It would have been a brilliant success except the top of the freezer caught in the stairwell at the top of the stairs. Everyone pulling on the strap could only exert brute directional force while what the freezer needed was a slight adjustment to get unstuck. Titi couldn’t get it unstuck. This was an occasion when I felt bad for Titi. If something went wrong everyone holding the strap could simply let go . . . which is exactly why I had everyone except myself pulling on the strap. Titi was safe, but she was in the position of feeling some responsibility for my safety. If we didn’t get the freezer unstuck we would have to attempt to lower it back down the stairs. With me supporting the weight of the freezer and walking backward this was, shall we say, far from optimal. There were several frantic moments as we tried to get ourselves out of the situation. I wasn’t desperate under the weight of the freezer but it wasn’t getting any lighter. Both me and Titi were beginning to sweat quite heavily, struggling with the dead weight and silently looking at each other with the expression of what are we going to do? My great concern was everyone pulling on the strap. I had a good feel for my own condition and knew I wasn’t in immediate danger of giving way but I didn’t know how everyone holding onto the strap felt. My dread was that everyone holding the strap would suddenly cry out “I can’t hold any more!” and all the weight of the freezer would come bearing down on me.

    As it happened, we were rescued by two old men. While we were cleaning out the basement two retired NYSEG linemen were installing a fresh electrical panel in the basement. They came up the stairs behind me and offered to hold the freezer so I could scramble up over the freezer and get the top unstuck. Great idea . . . except both men were over seventy. Both had once been husky men and they still looked to be in good health and strength, but what if appearances were deceiving? “Are you sure you can hold the freezer?” I said. I was holding the weight fairly comfortably and wasn’t at all certain I wanted to surrender it to unknown hands. “Sure, sure,” they said. “Are you really certain?” I said. I had visions of me releasing the weight and then everyone flying down the stairs as the old men’s backs gave way. “We can do it,” they said. “You just go on up over and get it unstuck.”

    In the end it seemed there was no choice but to hope they were still as hardy as they looked. I gingerly released the weight of the freezer into their arms and then scrambled quickly up over it. Once I was up with the strap I easily got the freezer unstuck and we pulled it the rest of the way out of the house.

    Next I broke down a pool table in the basement that Marion thought was never coming out. The top of the pool table was made out of a huge slab of slate and was, to say the least, heavy. I smashed up the slate top and broke up the base and carted everything out. Next we cut up the muddy and wet carpet and hauled it out and finally took out all the paneling in the basement. There was a very large heap of trash in the yard when we finished.

  • Day 2: Wednesday, July 19th, 2006. My crew that day was Titi, Lachlan, Cadie, Cassandra G, JoHanna G, and Matthias G. We were sent to work on a basement that hadn’t been touched since the flood. From our volunteer work I learned that a finished basement (one that has been made into habitable living space) is much more unpleasant to clean then a basement which is bare concrete. The basement on day one had its muddy filthy carpet. The basement in day two had a suspended ceiling that had soaked up water and collapsed in mush on the floor. Basement one smelled like old river water and sewage. Basement two smelled like rotting ceiling panel and a sickly sweet and nauseating smell of liquor stored in a cabinet. The back of the basement was filled–heaped so as to be impassable–with junk. Toys, clothes, equipment–all of it was jumbled in the back room and soaked with water.

    There was also a freezer in the basement. We didn’t take this one out. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I knew we couldn’t. It was bigger and heavier than the previous freezer, so big we would have to take out the door frame at the top of the stairs to get it to squeeze out. But the real killer was the stairs. They were bare wood and with all of us trudging up and down the stairs they became slicked with mud. Very slick. I almost went sailing down the stairs several times carrying smaller items . . . struggling on mud slicked stairs with a very large freezer was out of the question. I’m not so mad as I might sometimes seem.

  • Day 3: Thursday, July 20th, 2006. My crew that day consisted of Teman, Titi, Lachlan, Cadie, Collin, Evan, Cassandra G, JoHanna G, and Matthias G. Counting me, we were up to a team of ten. In the morning, dispatch sent us to tear up flooring in a house. We were a whirlwind of activity that I think overwhelmed the homeowner. With ten of us there was somebody working on the floor in just about every part of the house. We blew in around 9:00 AM and back out at 12:00 with all the flooring stripped out.

    That afternoon we were sent out to a second location. This was another place that hadn’t been touched in the three weeks since the flood. This turned out to be the least pleasant job for me. Not because of the smell–the place had moldered for three weeks but it was no worse than the previous jobs. There were a number of things that contributed to my unpleasent feeling. Partly it was because this was the third day of work and I becoming exhausted. Partly it was because I wasn’t feeling good. And partly it was the situation.

    We were sent out to help an older (retired) brother and sister who owned three cottages along the riverside. They had just come back from a vacation and so only now were getting around to cleaning out their three houses. This rubbed me a bit the wrong way. I had come out to help people really in need, not people who left on vacation and only now were getting back to clean out their three houses down by the river. Further, the house they had us working on was a tiny little cottage of such pathetic construction one suspected wiser heads would simply bulldoze the structure. It clearly wasn’t some place for living in year round which put it much lower on the “need to get done” list.

    Finally, the attitude of the people we helped grated slightly. They were profusely grateful for how we emptied out the contents and then completely gutted the walls and carpet out of the back rooms of the cottage. Several times they thanked and praised us for our work, but . . . but halfway through the afternoon they came over and asked if we could come back and help them tomorrow. On the one hand it was a very logical request; we were a great team and if they wanted to get their three houses cleaned out in good time we were the perfect people to do it. But as I think Cassandra said and I agree, the request seemed greedy. Sure, cleaning out three houses is too much for two retired people. But we were helping for free, and what about all the other people who needed help, who only had one house that they needed to live in? We should forgo helping others so we could come back another day and continue helping them clean out their three houses? Much as anyone in that situation would want as much help as they could get, a more unselfish person would have considered that there were many other people in greater need than themselves and wouldn’t even have considered hogging the best help. It was also slightly offending that at the end of the day they insisted on giving us money. They said they meant it only as a thank you gift for the work–something to buy supper for the crew. I am sure they were expressing their thankfulness as best they knew how but $60 for supper for a crew of ten doesn’t really cut it. The gesture came off as them being cheap and as cheapening our hard work. We told them that if they wanted to give someone money they should give it to the church organizing the relief work. They said, “You give it to the church.” So we did. But that job left a bad taste in my mouth.

    Other engagements kept us from working the rest of the week and it was just as well. Physical issues were beginning to catch up with me. The previous week I had pulled a small muscle related to my shoulder and neck. It had been slowly getting better and I had ignored it for the first two days of work, but the condition was getting subtly worse until Thursday morning the situation took a noticeable turn for the worse. Three days of moving furniture and ripping up carpet had taken its toll. The shoulder was very tight, and I had difficulty turning my head to look. It was a small muscle not directly involved in large lifting or related activity so I worked all Thursday continuing to try to ignore the discomfort. However, my body tried to compensate, the muscles around the strained one tightening to protect the injury. By the end of the day everything in the shoulder had tightened up so badly that the injured muscle had worked itself into a knot and would spasm very painfully if I moved the wrong way.

    That night the tightness grew worse. By the middle of the night I found I couldn’t move my right arm independently without triggering a spasm painful enough to nearly take my breath away. My right arm was effectively dead. To roll over in bed I had to use my left hand to hold my right arm against my body and slowly roll over. Even then I had to will the spasming muscle to relax. I didn’t get much sleep that night.

    When morning finally arrived I staggered out of bed. Downstairs, I soaked a washcloth in the hottest tap water and applied it repeatedly to my shoulder trying to get the muscle to relax. It did, somewhat, and over the course of the weekend I continued to use heat, some ibuprofen, and careful exercise to loosen up the muscle.

  • Day 4: Monday, July 24th, 2006. A man called Greg is the overall coordinator of relief effort organized by the church. A man I will call John called up Greg and said, “Greg, I really need help here. I’ve been working on my house for three weeks and it seems like I’m getting nowhere. I need help.” “Okay,” Greg said. “I’ll send out the army.” “The army?” John said. “Yeah,” Greg said. “The army.”

    Monday morning I showed up with Titi, Lachlan, Cadie, Collin, Evan, Justin, Cassandra G, JoHanna G, and Matthias G.

    The situation with the house was the furtherest along that we had seen–the floors and walls were already stripped. The next job was power washing and scrubbing. The problem in this case was more psychological. The residents were a middle-aged couple that had bought the house only three months ago. They had just moved into their newly purchased house with almost everything still packed in the moving boxes when the flooding came. John said that when they saw the house flooded they sat on the side of the road and cried.

    The blow of having just moved, and having the new house so badly damaged was a struggle with hopelessness and despair. Their dreams were dashed and all their hopes of a new life drowned. When we arrived he asked, “What should we do?” and that sense of despondency gripped him. Every task now felt like an impossible task. The job of fixing the house had come to feel like one with no end. What he needed most of all was someone to tell him that the job could be finished, and to show him that the job could be finished. I tried to help, not only by getting him the next step along in the cleanup process but also by conveying a practical upbeat attitude and pointing out simple and straightforward solutions to the immediate problems he faced.

  • Day 5: Tuesday, July 25th, 2006. This was the day of the big crew. The G family had friends from their church coming in to help so along with my usual complement of Titi, Lachlan, Cadie, Collin, Evan, Justin, Cassandra G, JoHanna G, and Matthias G there were some eight other girls (young women) joining my team. We were sent to yet another house that hadn’t been touched since the flooding. In this case the house belonged to an older woman whose husband was in the hospital . . . based upon circumstantial evidence I surmised the husband was dying of lung cancer.

    Our crew of 18 descended on the house. It’s a little . . . odd how callously one can gut out the possessions of someone else. A certain amount of unthinking-ness is necessary to work effectively, but if one stops and thinks it feels almost surreal to go to some stranger’s house and begin ripping out the remains of their lives and putting it at the curb. Everything is stripped of its value, but everything once had value. It all meant something to someone once, but now you automatically rip off doors, tear down walls, destroy furniture and equipment in casual haste because it must be done. We ripped away the past of people’s lives in an instant. One day the house was full of their sodden possessions, the next day nothing but gutted walls. They told us to do it, it had to be done, but I know it hurt every person deep down. Some people would wander around, poking through everything we had pulled out, their thoughts known only to themselves. One lady started crying when the front loaders came and to remove the garbage heap that had once been her possessions.

    The house of day five had not been touched at all. The refrigerator was still filled with the food that had festered for three weeks. That, as it turned out, was not the worst smell or the most disgusting sight. I learned something that day. I learned that if you take a bag of cat food, soak it in river water, and then let it ferment for three weeks . . . do you know what it smells like? It smells indistinguishable from cat diarrhea. A bag full of ripe raw cat diarrhea. You have to smell such a thing to really comprehend.

    And at this point I must confess that I am a very wicked man. You see there was an older fellow not part of our group who was also at the house moving out larger furniture. Lachlan and I were working in the back room moving out the refrigerator when we discovered the cat food/manufactured cat poop. The reek was so powerful that Lachlan struggled to breathe. Then the other man comes back to see if he can give us a hand. I tell him we’re handling it just fine, and point out the bad smell. At this point we haven’t figured out that it is actually rotten cat food and the reeking smear up the side of the refrigerator looks like a long plastered gob of cat poop.

    “Boy,” the man says. “That does smell bad. Boy. Should do something about that. Boy . . .” He trundles away a little breathlessly and comes back with a shovel. I’m living with the smell and just waiting for Lachlan to get back from hosing off his pants (he got the stinking stuff all over himself as we were trying to wrestle the refrigerator out of the back room). The man, however, having smelled and seen the apparent cat poop on the refrigerator feels duty bound to remedy the situation. I don’t bother to tell him I think there is no remedy. The man advances toward the side of the refrigerator with his shovel extended like a weapon, ready to do battle. He makes a fumbling stab at the gob of “cat poop” but the stench overpowers him. He scrabbles rather blindly at the “cat poop” while gagging with very noisy dry heaves. He retreats weakly only to make another gallant effort, bent double with dry heaves while he scrapes blindly at the side of the refrigerator.

    Me? I’m standing there laughing. Yes, I must be a very wicked man to laugh, but it was funny, and still is funny to me. There was something so gloriously absurd about the whole thing. It was so comical to see this rotund man futilely trying to attack a gob of poop and being overcome, reduced to a retreat in dry heaves. I laughed about it for the rest of the day. I still laugh when I remember it. Sometimes life comes together in such a way it seems like a grand comedy.

    But lest someone think I’m only good for laughing, I was the person who cleaned up the entire big mess of the stinking, reeking, cat food bag. Shovel full after shovel full of cat diarrhea. Hmmmmm. (But I didn’t have dry heaves.)

    That evening when I was in line to get supper at the church Greg came up to stand beside me. “So, Rundy,” he said. “Are you coming back tomorrow?” “We weren’t planning on it,” I said. From previous conversations I knew he had been trying to line up a house for us that desperately needed to be done but hadn’t been able to get the owner to agree. “Ohhh!” Greg grimaced at my response. “Darn! You know that lady with the house that really needs to be done? Well, I just got her to agree to be there tomorrow and I thought that if you possibly . . . not that I want you to feel any pressure, but it’s just that you and your crew are so good I thought . . .” “I’ll talk to the crew,” I said.

    Over some food I talked privately with the crew. We had worked five full days of hard labor and the exhaustion was beginning to really drag on us all. We were ready to call it quits and rest. But Greg had explained that the house was really bad. “The lady is a little . . . eccentric,” Greg said. “She kept a lot of cats. She’s having a lot of difficulty facing up to what happened.” Since Greg had basically come out and asked us to do the job, we felt a bit duty bound. Finally we decided that as something of a last hurrah we would do it.

  • Day 6: Wednesday, July 26th, 2006. The crew was Titi, Cadie, Collin, Evan, Justin, Cassandra G, JoHanna G, Matthias G, and three G friends: Mary, Esther, and Courtney. With the warning that the lady was “Eccentric” and “Kept a lot of cats” I had an inkling of what we would face . . . but only an inkling.

    Reader, there are not words or pictures to adequately express what we faced. I can only say this:

    The house was full of cat poop. Cat poop sat in heaps along the walls of the living room, mounded in front of the door. Cat poop covered the entire bedroom floor in a sheet. Cat poop soaked in flood water grew fungus, white as snow. Cat poop everywhere so you couldn’t walk without it clumping on your shoes. Flies were everywhere. The air was full of them. The stinking mixture of smells: cat poop, cat piss, and cat hair made it difficult to breath. The vileness was almost overwhelming.

    I have had to deal with some very disgusting things. I’m not sure if this was worse than burying a rotting sheep corpse, but I think it was at least equal. The rest of my crew . . . every one of them deserves credit for tackling that job and succeeding. It was vile, vile, vile . . . but we did it. A house full of garbage and cat poop, and we cleaned it all out. They did things some people would never do.

    We found a cat skeleton in the den. We found another somewhat more recently dead cat atop a heap of garbage. We found the bones of another cat leg amidst the garbage. Then we found another dead cat in a laundry basket. It felt like a mad house.

    We cleaned everything out. Dead cats, furniture, garbage, and poop. Then I sliced up the stinking, cat piss smelling, soaked carpets (with maggots underneath) and we hauled them out. The town department sent front loaders and dump trucks to take away the junk we hauled out. All the junk we threw out that day filled four dump trucks. The lady saved probably another dump truck’s worth. We hauled a lot of stuff out of the house.

    It was a grim job but there were little flashes of humor. At lunch we were back at the church and one of the ladies asked how it was going. “Well,” I dead-panned, “I smell like cat piss.” The unexpected answer to her conventional question started her laughing and laughing. I didn’t mind at all. I laughed at a man with dry heaves over “cat poop.” Sometimes, you have to laugh.

Such are some fragments from those days. These hastily scrawled words can’t really grasp the full depth of what happened those days . . . the experiences . . . the sights and smells . . . the shattered lives and the struggle to rebuild. It doesn’t really capture the people and their pathos, their very human needs and the struggle of the work. But maybe this will give you something.

To Complain, Or Not

14th June 2006

Early summer is the time when I pass from the state of “getting behind” into the state of “being behind.” It is a time when there are a lot of beautiful things I might take joy in, but instead find myself wallowing in guilt or despair over unaccomplished goals. Nobody knows how to ruin a good summer like one’s own self.

My great point of irritation is my unplanted corn. It should have been planted two weeks ago, but one event led to another and it still isn’t planted now. My laziness, or incompetent time management is to blame somewhere. This case symbolizes all of my self-criticism where sources of grumbling and complaining are ever before me. It is easy to let this kind of attitude grow and consume oneself. Summer becomes one long litany of “I didn’t get this done, and I didn’t get that done,” all misery and complaining until it comes that one looks back on summer with deep dissatisfaction instead of happiness. Summer becomes one long whine of “I didn’t get that done” and all enjoyment is lost.

This calls for a right perspective, something I have difficulty with. I have a schedule, and I want life to follow my schedule, and my nose gets bent out of shape when it doesn’t. I didn’t get my corn planted when I want to. I think I’ll throw a snit.

Sometimes we need to tell ourselves, “So what?” Is that truly important? Should that really be consuming your thoughts and your emotions? What difference does it make if the corn is planted two weeks late? What difference does it make if the corn is not planted at all? Who said you must plant corn? Will the world end if you don’t plant corn? And why should you even be in a bad mood and grumble and complain because the corn isn’t planted? What is this saying about you?

Thus I am offically telling myself to shut up and shape up. All these things are fleeting and without importance. They do not deserve to have me dwell on them in displeasure. I am a fool to ruin all the good things I could be enjoying now by grumbling about the unimportant things that aren’t going as I wish.

So, for some good things:

–Late in May we were hit with a hot dry spell. This worried me as I had visions of us scorching our way through summer. Any idea of a garden would be finished before it even began. But with June the hot weather broke and we recieved a good dousing of rain. The ground is now well saturated and the weather cool. The gardeners among us are happy.

–I am amazed by how green everything looks when the trees leaf out. After all winter it feels like I am a stranger seeing it for the first time again. My wonder is fresh again as I look at the picture of hills covered with green trees. We become deadened to it so quickly and forget the beauty of it like some common thing.

–The wild strawberries are in season. I knew in some distant way that it was time, but I first saw them when I went up the hill to do some chain-sawing on Monday. For me wild strawberries are like a memory of childhood. When I was a boy I could sit up in the field eating wild strawberries crawling from one place to another, always finding more. There could be a bunch of us up in the field, picking berries and hollering out to each other that there were lots at our spot and they were really good, everyone trying to find the best and the most berries. Sometimes we would try to band together and pick enough wild strawberries to actually make something with them. I think we might have managed, once or twice.

Sitting out under the wide blue sky and bright sun with the wild strawberries was like a picture of summer itself.

Wild strawberries are also a memory of childhood because they call back a time when there weren’t the responsibilites and obligations of an adult. That was the time when one could spend an afternoon crawling about in the field picking tiny berries and eating them without a greater concern in the world. Now I hardly get a chance to taste more than a few before they are here and gone while I hustle about. But the call of childhood memories is still strong. As I walked up along the tree line I had to fight the urge to stop, put down the chain saw, take off my gloves, and start crawling about eating berries. Everywhere I went it seemed I saw more and more, making it hard to concentrate on the work.

Sometimes I think more people need to experience hunting wild strawberries. Sure, it’s not great excitement. It isn’t the rush and clamor of life that so many people are accustomed to. But it is good to stop on occasion and enjoy the quiet and the small hidden treasures in life.

Mow The Field, Mind The Blueberries

13th June 2006

Sometimes, it’s better not to think about certain things. Sometimes it’s better to pretend you didn’t see, to not think about it. Sometimes one might wonder how their can be such moral quandaries about mowing a field.

We have a back field of about five acres that runs up the hill to the edge of the woods. I try to mow the field with the DR Brush Mower every year to keep the field from going back to scrub. Normally I mow in the fall when other work around the house is at a minimum, but last year I was working on a house renovation project in the fall. Rather than let all the nasty scrub in the field get another free year to grow I decided I should mow the field this spring.

I mowed the field over the course of mid- and late May. I discovered that mowing in spring when everything is coming alive is much more psychologically difficult than mowing in fall when everything is dead. You see, it would be so much easier if I were just some blase suburbanite who thought everything “out back” was just so much to be casually mowed down. But no. I have at least a bit of a discerning eye and so I discover myself in the uncomfortable position of only wanting to mow some things down.

The problem with wanting to save “some” things in the field is that the gardener half of me turns “some” into a few more, then into more, then a lot . . . while the logical and laboring side of me is screaming “Will you just shut up! We’re trying to mow this stupid field. If you want to mow around every third cotton-pickin’ plant we’ll wear ourselves out and never get done.” Driving the DR Brush Mower in a straight line is pretty easy. Carefully mowing around things you want to save isn’t.

Every time I mow the field I end up engaged in some type of bi-polar war where half of me is trying to look at everything I might mow so that I can stop and avoid anything that might be “good” or “interesting,” while the other half of me is fuming that I am being stupid and I should just mow the field, not turn it into a wild/cultivated garden of 5 acres! In the end I reach some type of middle ground where I save some things and so assuage my conscience somewhat, while at the same time feeling stupid for being so impractical that I saved even so much.

During the fall this was easier. When things are died back it’s a little harder to see different plants, and what might be interesting or unusual. When I first mowed the field there were a lot of wild apple trees. I mowed down many of them, but to appease my conscience I engaged in a very labor intensive exercise of moving many of them into a neat orchard up on one hill. This was a very stupid activity because they were wild apple trees and thus it was probable their apples wouldn’t taste good and further the trees were large enough that it was unlikely they could be successfully moved. This latter point has proven true, and most of them have died so I wasted a lot of time and effort moving trees so I wouldn’t feel guilty mowing down other trees.

After the apple tree episode there was the issue of wild blueberries. Our field is dotted with clusters of wild low bush blueberries. The berries taste good. The brush mower, which cuts at 4 inches, would brutally scalp these plants. So . . . mow them all down, save them all, or save only some? The practical part of my mind said mow the field and forget the blueberry plants. They serve no necessary function. The other part of me said wild blueberry bushes are heirlooms and produce a wonderful tasting fruit and I should save every last one. I eventually bargained myself to the position where I saved the larger patches but the very small patches I mowed over and reasoned it away to myself.

That was when I mowed in the fall and nothing actually had any fruit on it. This May I mowed when the blueberries and the strawberries were in full bloom. Now every blueberry bush could hold up its promise of fruit and say, “See? Do you really want to mow over me?” And what about the strawberries? And what about the blackberries? And what about currants? What about honeysuckle? And what about those other flowering things?

Stop. Stop. If I give everyone a free pass from being mowed I might as well take the mower home and forget about having a field. I had to draw the line somewhere. What about blackberries? I stood behind the running DR Brush Mower and looked at the patch of blackberry canes that had sprouted up in the field. I love blackberries. I could see in front of me the beginnings of a very large blackberry patch. But a brambly blackberry thicket was the very antithesis of a field. Was I going to have a blackberry patch or a field? One or the other.

Hard choice. I finally decided my mandate was keeping the field, not cultivating wild blackberries, and thus duly plunged forward. With every mowed down cane it was, “There goes blackberry pies! There goes blackberry jam!” Drive fast and don’t think about it.

Then what about strawberries? The field was covered with strawberry flowers. Some of the flowers were cut off when I mowed, while others were low enough that they escaped. Since approximately half the flowers survived when I mowed over them, I convinced myself mowing them was an acceptable “thinning.”

Finally, the blueberries. I found my previous decision to mow some and save others impossible. It seemed every blueberry bush I saw was laden with flowers promising a great blueberry harvest. Would I dare to mow any of them down? No, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Wild low bush blueberries are not the thorny brambly thicket of wild blackberries. The blueberry bushes were like a low ground cover and I was willing to have a whole field of them, especially when they promised a harvest.

Unfortunately, there were a lot of blueberry patches. They popped up everywhere, sprawling across the field and making me take large detours. Round one patch I would go, and then round another. Pulling the DR Brush Mower around in a turn is many times harder than letting it continue forward and by the time I reached the top of the field it felt like I was doing nothing but driving around in circles, simply mowing the little bits of grass and weeds in between the large blueberry patches. And I was exhausted. Instead of field mower I should just call myself blueberry cultivator.

The idea of tending wild blueberries brought up interesting questions. The most pressing (as I continued to carefully mow around every darn patch) was whether mowing over the wild bushes every few years was like pruning and would actually encourage better fruit production. I sure wished I knew because if true I would have mowed over a third of the patches right then and saved myself a lot of shoulder strain.

I also wondered what the different colored blueberry bushes meant. As I was carefully watching the field for every possible blueberry patch I noticed the plants had distinctly different characteristics. Some bushes had almost reddish leaves, others had dark green leaves, and still others had light green leaves. Then some of the bushes were very close to the ground while others were closer to knee height. Were all those differences merely indicative of plant health (if so, which could I guiltlessly mow down under the verdict of “unhealthy plant”?) or were all these variations a sign that I have a vast collection of different plant types? In that case I was obligated to save all of this disparate botanical treasure. In the end I peered at them all, wondered, and saved them all whilst fuming at my stupidity. (Why am I spending so much effort saving all these plants? They’re just plants!)

And what of the honeysuckle and currants you ask? Don’t ask. Sacrifices must be made for the greater good. The white and purple flower went beneath the churning blades of the mower and only pulp came out. I winced. I felt guilty. But I did it.

The field is mowed. I told everyone they had better really love the blueberries this year after all the work I went through to save them. And I told myself I have to come up with a better way of dealing with the blueberries. Driving my giant mowing machine around every little patch is fanatical and something I can’t keep up long term. The problem with compulsive behavior is that it’s so hard to escape.

Pardon Me While I Step On Your Head

3rd June 2006

‘Tis the season for chicks. That means early morning runs down to the post office to pick up a box of peeping fuzz-balls that the mail ladies are eager to unload.

This year I was actually prepared. When you place an order for chicks the company tells you the week they will arrive so it’s not like their coming is a surprise . . . yet somehow it seems every year I am running around the morning they arrive, trying to get the pen set up, and supplies gathered. So mark it on the calendar. This is one year I got everything ready ahead of time.

This year we got new layers and meat chickens. In more technical terms that means I ordered Araucana hens (chicks) from Murray McMurray and Cornish Giants (chicks) from Moyer’s Chicks. The idea was to have them both arrive at the same time, but I couldn’t get the two companies to deliver the same week, so the Cornish Giant chicks came the middle of May, and the Araucana’s came at the very end of May.

The Cornish Giants are amazing examples of selective breeding. They have been bred to put on weight at an astounding rate. These birds are truly bred to gain weight, and will reach ideal weight in 6-8 weeks (depending on the weight of bird you want). Compared to “normal” chickens this is a staggering gain in mass. They practically grow before your very eyes.

I only have one pen for holding chicks while they must stay under heat lamps, which is why I wanted both batches of chicks to arrive at the same time. Instead, this week I was faced with the dubious proposition of putting the little balls of Araucana fuzz in with the now two-week-old and already very large Cornish Giants. Conventional wisdom says you shouldn’t mix chicks in this way, for a number of reasons, foremost that they might not get along. In other years I had mixed chicks and ducklings (another no-no) with mixed success. Nobody got sick, and they go along okay, (some squabbles, the worst being when the ducks wanted to eat chick toes,) but in spite of being a great multi-cultural experience the situation was less then ideal. So it was with some hesitation that I mixed the two batches of chicks.

I have been letting the Cornish Giants out into the regular chicken yard during the day, so it was only in the evening when I brought them back in that they got to meet their new friends. I find chickens an endless source of amusement, and this was another one of those occasions. Chickens are very sensitive and aware about territory. They have their “territory” that they roam during the day, and they have various “safe” places, in particular the place they go to bed at night. Invasion and alteration of such things can be very upsetting. Soon as I put the first Cornish Giant back in the pen the Araucanas and the Cornish Giants realized there was someone else in their home.

There was the simultaneous reaction of “Whoa! Who is the weirdo over there! And what is he doing in my home?” The Cornish Giants stood and peered, vaguely freaked out by the home invasion. The smaller (tiny in comparison) Araucanas crowded in a corner, frightened.

The Cornish Giants were practical. After a short observation they decided, “Weirdos are not hostile,” and so went over to the feed dishes and started to stuff themselves without another thought. Life is simple, don’t you know. The Araucanas weren’t so sure about the whole deal but a few were preternaturally brave and so came out to mix with the giants, somehow managing to avoid being trampled (in two weeks’ time the Cornish Giants were already 6 to 8 times larger).

Once the initial fear was overcome, the next question on everyone’s mind was whether the other group of chicks were actually something good to eat. If something isn’t an enemy, it might be something to eat. Such is chicken reasoning. I knew this was the next step, and this was what concerned me. If everyone could agree they weren’t enemies, and nobody was good to eat, everyone would be okay. The bigger Cornish Giants were the real concern, but after pecking at what seemed a few tasty looking spots on the smaller Araucanas they decided they weren’t edible, and in fact they were downright boring, and so the Cornish Giants took to ignoring the smaller chicks.

Most of the Araucanas remained somewhat intimidated by their larger brethren and so were satisfied with the same conclusion. However, there were a few exceptionally brave and curious Araucana chicks who would get right in the middle of the Cornish Giants, doing the equivalent of saying, “Watcha doin’? Is that good? Can I have some? What’s so interesting?” while the Cornish Giants stuffed their face.

Then when everyone was settling down for bed, a few Araucana chicks became fascinated with the Cornish Giants’ eyelids. Up-down, up-down, went the Cornish Giant’s eyelids as he lazily drifted toward sleep. “Hey, look at that,” an Araucana would say. “That little moving thing looks like a tasty bug. I wonder if I could eat it.” Up-down, goes the eye-lid, and chomp goes the little chick, biting the tender lip of the tasty looking eye-lid. “Ow!” Says the Cornish Giant, dragged back from the edge of blissful sleep.

The peck-the-lid-because-it-might-be-tasty incident happened over and over again. The little chicks didn’t seem to understand the blinking morsel wasn’t actually something to eat, and the lazy big chicks seemed incapable of realizing that when a little chick was staring intently at your eyelid and salivating it wasn’t a good idea to keep blinking lazily at him/her.

It’s been several days now, and it seems they’ve finally outgrown their “peck-the-eyelid” habits and everyone is getting along pretty good, though space is getting cramped.

****

All chickens are very communal, but chicks especially so. This is demonstrated at night when they all sprawl out together under the warmth of the heat lamp. They look very cute when they do this, often stretching out their necks to rest a head across the back of the nearest companion like a nice comfortable pillow. They look like the pictures of peace, comfort, and exhaustion. But before such a picture becomes too idealized, one of the chicks stands up and says, “Boy, I need a drink,” or, “Gee, I could use a late night snack,” and so trots across all his dozing neighbors without so much as a “Coming through” as he heads off in search of a bite to eat. What follows is some version of “Roll Over” as several chicks squawk at having their heads stepped on and get up, only to step on someone else. Once everyone finally gets settled down again someone else decides they need to get up for a late night drink and the whole process starts over again. I sit watching them sometimes, and wonder how anyone gets a decent night’s sleep.

A Resolution to Felonious Activity

27th May 2006

Faithful readers will recall a recent post about a wild animal raiding the chicken yard. In that previous post I said,

If it is a fox I think the layout of the chicken yard leaves me with the only choice of hoping there is such a ruckus the next time he comes that I catch him in the act. I don’t think I can catch him with a trap. If it is an opossum, I think I might have a plan. When the human sized chicken house door is shut there is a small opening in the bottom of the door for the chickens to enter and exit through. This also creates the point of entry for the opossum. Opossums are nowhere near as bright as foxes, so I’m hoping if I put a trap on the inside of the door the opossum with enter the chicken house expecting to raid the nests and find himself trapped.

Well, it took me awhile to get around to setting up the trap. It was always one more thing to do in a busy day and it would easily slip from my mind . . . until I came out one morning out found the nests full of broken eggs. Twice, recently, I forgot to collect the eggs in the evening and the next morning I went out and discovered broken egg after broken egg. On occasion a hen will “go bad” and start breaking and eating eggs. But they do it during the day. They don’t slip off their roost at the stroke of midnight and pilfer the nests. No, I was almost 100% certain someone else was raiding the nests.

Criminal activity. To come out two mornings and find the nests desecrated finally spurred me to action. I made sure I remembered to take the wire cage and set it up in the entrance to the chicken house.

The day before yesterday I baited the trap with dinner scraps. No catch. Then last night I baited the trap with two eggs. I figured if our little felon liked eggs so much it might make a more tempting target. And if nobody showed up I could just take the eggs inside with no mess.

But somebody did show up. This morning I went out to feed the chickens and the trap was triggered. I peered through the crack in the door and saw the face of an opossum staring back. Caught. Caught red-handed with two eggs. Well, where two eggs had been. He ate the evidence.

Guilty of plundering chicken nests, and suspect in the death of a duck. I got the gun.

Case closed. No prisoners.

Say What?

26th May 2006

Speak Art: Babble on Babble

This morning while I ate breakfast I flipped through an issue of Garden Design magazine. It’s too hoity-toity for my taste but the magazine was nearby and what are you going to do–stare at the table while you eat your granola?

While flipping through the magazine I came across a short blurb with an accompanying picture of upright rusty sheets of metal. The blurb informed the reader that this October “strikingly handsome outdoor metal sculptures” would be on exhibit at a “gas-station-turned-industrial-chic-garden-emporium.” Industrial-chic-garden-emporium? See, I told you it was too hoity-toity for me.

One of the owners of the emporium states that the artist’s work is, “modernist but artful and organic [. . .] It’s steel, but he makes it into a playful thing.” So this picture of rusty slabs of metal is handsome. And further, metal is organic and playful?

Then the artist himself tells us, “Sculpting in iron is both a physical and mental engagement, a strange relationship between love and hate, depression and elation.”

That was what really got me. The more I thought about the blurb the more ridiculous the whole thing sounded. But that artist’s statement is the epitome of nonsensical babble which seems especially pervasive in art, politics, and business. There are all those business leaders who go on about how, “We must improve productivity to increase the beneficial curve for further expanded business opportunities,” or the politicians who speak about, “Doing good to all citizens so that all citizens might be able to do more good, so that more good might be done to all humankind.” Yes. Quite so. And the artist says, “Sculpting in iron is both a physical and mental engagement, a strange relationship between love and hate, depression and elation.”

Everybody seems to say these things. This disease, I say, is “The-Emperor-Has-No-Clothes” syndrome. This babble sounds important and deeply meaningful and everyone wants to be important and deeply meaningful so they say these things. Who wants to be the fool? everyone who hears these things doesn’t want to appear such an idiot as to not grasp important and meaningful things, so when they hear this type of babbling nonsense they nod their heads sagely and perpetuate the myth. Who was the original wordsmith who came along and sold us these invisible garments?

In the end, the joke is on all of us. Shallow thinking, and/or a craven desire to appear elitist is laid bare for all to see. In the very act of trying to hide our insecurity we strip away everything that covers it. Now if only we could all be embarrassed for walking around naked and start saying more sensible things.

Honestly. A physical and mental engagement? So exactly what activities do we not engage our mental capacities? Did this artist stop to think before he said that? And this strange relationship between love and hate, depression and elation. How unoriginal. How embarrassing. Every artist cries “Angst! Angst! Angst! Oh, the emotion of creating my work!” To a degree it is true–the creation of art has its up and downs, difficulty and success. But every two-bit artist pontificates on how his work wrestles with the deep issues of love and hate, depression and elation. Yes, pile on the adjectives. Scream nakedly to the world, “See! My work is important! My work is deep!”

The emperor has no clothes.

Certainly some artists deal with the subject of love and hate. But we shouldn’t take those weighty and dramatic terms and slap them on whatever we do with the deluded idea that they give us weight and importance and deepness. You cheapen the terms, yes, but in the end what you really do is cheapen yourself, showing yourself to be an unoriginal, lazy, and insecure clod who babbles the same self-important hot air that the next artist down the street also babbles.

Be original. You may not be great. You may not be famous. And you may not be rich. But at least you can be original.

A Second Look At Artist Statements

To be fair, the previously mentioned metal sculptor may have not wanted to say something as silly as what came out. I can attest that when someone asks me a question usually every intelligent answer flies out of my mind and I end up either babbling, or grunting a few monosyllables. So maybe this artist was asked to define his art and he was caught on the spot. Maybe his jaw flapped for a few seconds, and then he blurted out all the adjectives that came to mind on short notice. I could sympathize with that.

Someone asks me, “What’s your story about?”

Short answer: “Revenge.” But of course that is stupid because there are thousands of books on revenge and saying a book is about revenge is about the same as saying it’s about the strange relationship between love and hate, depression and elation. So sometimes I will gesticulate vaguely and say, “It’s about . . . see . . . in the story . . .” and just stutter around in circles until the questioner nods, really having no idea but now wishing I would stop.

So a lot of artists make fools of themselves. I sympathize with those who do so accidentally and unwillingly. Those who craft such ludicrous statements in advance, carefully piling on love, hate, joy, and triumph until their artistic statement is ready to come crashing down under the weight the words . . . those people need to be told they have no clothes on and whoever told them using such words gave their work importance and meaning simply duped them with a shallow fallacy.

But I will also say the problem isn’t only with the artist. Often the question asked is a foolish and shallow question, and so it gets a foolish and shallow answer.

Do you ask someone, “What is the meaning of your life?” No, because not only do we recognize that we as people are not capable of complete self-interpretation but also because the very framing of the question implies a desire for a simple answer. Most of us do not believe that the reality of a person’s existence can be reduced to a one sentence, easily digestible factoid. So most of us realize that asking a person, “What is the meaning of your life?” is a question the person cannot answer.

Asking someone about the “meaning” of their art in general, or the meaning of, say, some book they wrote in particular, runs into a similar problem. An artist’s work is expressive of the artist and if an artist is not able to fully know and interpret the self, the artist can’t fully articulate the meaning of his art. He may understand what he set out to do, but he does not fully grasp what his creation says about himself because he does not fully grasp himself.

Further, asking for an “artist statement” or some such is a foolish question because if an artist’s work can be reduced to a statement, why do all the work for the art? Is an artist such a fool that he will spend hours working on something, the meaning of which he could just as easily convey in a few sentences? And if the meaning of something can’t be conveyed in a few sentences, then aren’t those few sentences just babbling nonsense?

Thus we have another root of why there are so many silly artistic statements. People want to think they have grasped and understood something without actually taking the time to understand. The artist who obliges them will only make a fool out of himself and his work.

So is the choice either not having an artist’s statement or forever intoning, “My work is about love and hate, depression and elation”? Is the conclusion that we should eliminate artist’s statements?

Maybe. I would say that some artists should not have statements, that for them a statement only reduces their work and themselves. A person should feel under no obligation to make a fool of themselves and a mockery of their work. If your work already says all that you can say and the best way you can say it, why pretend you have more to say, or something else you can say more clearly? If someone asks, “What does it mean?” what shame is there in saying, “My work says what it means.” Some ideas are too complex to be reduced and if any are interested they must take the effort to grasp the idea as it is.

But I am not entirely against artistic statements. I think some people are gifted in being able to give a statement that would be helpful in understanding the art. This would not be an artistic statement as people presently think of them: a reduction, a simplification, an easy to swallow I-don’t-have-the-time bite. No, I think a useful artistic statement is one that is like poetry–layered, complex, and full of meaning. A useful artist’s statement would be for those who are really interested, not for those who can’t be bothered. An artist’s statement tells us something about the artist and as such it functions as a interpretive prism through which one might look at all the rest of the art and so perceive more deeply or fully. To someone interested in greater understanding of both art and artist, the statement would be key to greater understanding. In a sense, then, the artist’s statement would itself be a work of art.

In that spirit, here is an artistic statement for me. Let the reader beware:

I picked my nose while I thought
(and it felt pretty good)
when out came a booger.
(The strangest thing is, some people liked it.)

And, in closing, one wonders how a stupid little blurb in a magazine over breakfast could cause all this thought. Was there something in my granola?

A Call From The Past

21st May 2006

Back in my childhood my family spent a few years living in a small town trailer park. Every week Mom, with little kids in tow, would troop down to the local library. It was a small town with a small library which was really a converted house. Small as it was to an adult, to my child’s mind it was plenty big with mysterious places and strange rooms. The only safe and familiar place was the children’s section with its little round plastic table and plastic chairs. I was always fascinated by the carved wooden chairs and table that were out in the main room where the grown-ups sat. The wooden bookshelves for adults were a source of awe–solemn places where large books with strange small print resided. Me, I was always sitting in the children’s section pulling out large picture books and taking as many home as Mom said I could. And I would look at the carved ornate chairs that the librarians and patrons sat in, talking together, and I would imagine things about the carved wooden designs. I always imagined stories about those chairs, they seemed so old and full of history.

Every week there was story hour at the library, and when summer came movies with cookies afterward. The movies were always fun, for the excitement of something different and the chance to have a cookie with juice afterward as much as the actual show. I don’t remember going to story hour often. Perhaps after a few times I found the stories too boring, but more likely, being shy, I found it too intimidating and not worth the risk of being out of sight of Mom. Better to be all alone in the children’s section picking out books and looking at pictures. My younger brother Arlan always went and seem to have a grand time.

There were two librarians. To my mind, one was the “offical” librarian called Mary Lou who seemed to always sit behind the desk and check out your books. As she was the official law-bearing librarian, the authoritative book stamper, she was viewed with some timidity as any abuse of the books would be (one imagined) answerable to her wrath.

The second librarian was Mrs. Sinclair, an elderly, stout, and white-haired lady who loved children. She was always involved in story hour and the summer movies. When she wasn’t dancing the hokey-pokey with little kids at story hour she was sitting at the big wooden table in the main room talking and laughing with adult library patrons. Since Mrs. Sinclair was always laughing, and didn’t act like a stern librarian, she wasn’t as scary. But I avoided her. She would talk to you and ask questions, and tell jokes, and I was shy and I didn’t like answering questions and I usually didn’t get the joke. (A problem I still have.) So I would try to scurry to the children’s section without being caught by her attention and then being stuck mumbling in front of a bunch of adults and trying to figure out if something was a joke. Once safely in the children’s section I could watch and listen as Mrs. Sinclair laughed and talked with the adults. I don’t think I understood much, but it was all fascinating.

One day Mom blabbed that it was my birthday and that day I couldn’t escape Mrs. Sinclair’s attention. “Oh! So it’s your birthday! How old are you?”

Trapped. Caught in the center of attention. I mumbled something about my age, unable to ignore the fact that several adults were looking at me. “Well!” Mrs. Sinclair said. “I guess that means you need your birthday spanking!” So, in jest, she gave me six spanks for my age. She was a great big jovial librarian, but I probably was never more embarrassed in my childhood.

Arlan was completely unlike me. He would dance the hokey-pokey with Mrs. Sinclair. He was glad to be the center of attention. He didn’t mind talking with Mrs. Sinclair in front of a bunch of adults.

With her white curly hair Mrs. Sinclair seemed ancient to my child’s mind. Around the time we finally moved out of the trailer park and into the country, Mrs. Sinclair retired. We went to the retirement party for her but a different library was now closer and so both the retired Mrs. Sinclair and the old library slipped into the past.

That was some fifteen years ago. A few days ago the phone rang and it was Mrs. Sinclair. She had just seen a recent column Arlan had written for the local newspaper. She had recognized him, and had begun to reminisce about the past, remembering how cute Arlan was, and what a great smile he had. It had been fifteen years, but she still recongized Arlan and remembered and decided to call and see how things were going.

It was a complete surprise, like a call from the past. Staggering that someone should recognize and remember. Yet, if I can remember the white-haired librarian who would do the hokey-pokey, why can’t the white-haired librarian remember the little boys who came trooping in the library faithfully every week?

Only in small town libraries, maybe.

Zipping Away

6th May 2006

Haven Kimmel is a gifted writer. I was introduced to her writing several years ago with the childhood memoir, A Girl Named Zippy. That first rousing (and hilarious) success has been followed by the sequel She Got up Off the Couch. The sequel follows the adventures of Kimmel’s mother, and her entire family, as much as her own growing up experience. Sequels are often where writers die. Or, at least where their stunning initial writing is shown to be an accidental blip, the second a flawed and halting piece like any mortal would produce. But there are exceptions, and Haven Kimmel is one of them. She Got Up Off the Couch flows seamlessly from A Girl Name Zippy. It is as if they were two halves of one book.

I read some books and I think, I could write that, or even I could write better than that. So from time to time when I read a book of essays I feel the urge to take up writing essay books on my life. Then I read someone like Haven Kimmel and I think I wish I could write like that! Kimmel has the gift of catching life as it is. Or, at least, as you remembered it.

Kimmel’s prose is deft, vivid, and full of gritty life. Her writing shines with the knack of seeing life through the eyes of a child and the logic of the world from that view. It isn’t preachy and it isn’t mawkish. It is life from the view of an over-active and opinionated little girl. Most of the more serious things are either under-stated, or left un-stated for the reader to see without being directly told. But foremost is laughing at life with all of its absurdities, quirks, and trials.

Each chapter can stand alone as a slice-of-life essay, but together they form an arc of story. They contain the mundane, and the timeless truths of childhood. (Like getting an object stuck up your nose, something one of my own brothers was famous for doing.) Reading the book made me want to share the stories, wandering around the house saying, “Listen to this one. This is a good one. It’s funny.” A portion of one such would be the following:

We kept a fifty-pound bag of dog food on the back porch, and one evening my dad reached in with the dog’s pan, and a rat ran up his arm. Dad threw the pan so hard it broke the light fixture above the door, and in trying to shake the rat off, spun himself around in a circle and smacked his face against the door frame. There wasn’t just one rat, either, there were three, which I believe qualifies as a pod of rats, and the two who had not assaulted my dad became agitated and began to eat their way frantically through the waxy paper of the dog food bag. Dad took off running in the wrong direction, and ended up sprawled over the old wringer washer. All of this happened in just a few terrible seconds, and then he was back in the house, battered and wild-eyed.

At this point I am nearly laughing my head off, and it got better. Half of what made it so funny was the story closely (or closely enough) followed events that have happened around here. I have my rat stories that I will tell someday. In the meantime, I enjoyed Haven Kimmel’s stories in A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch.

Leafing Out

3rd May 2006

We are on the cusp. We balance for this one moment–these few short days–at the place of middle spring.

The grass has greened, but the trees have not yet burst into full leaf. It is fascinating to look at the hillside and see how different varieties progress. In some places bare wooden branches stick up, rimmed with the red of buds. I think these are red maples, so called because of their red buds at spring. Other trees on the hillside provide a sprinkle of pale green, not yet leafed out, but prepared and ready, almost there. The poplars seem especially eager to leaf out, as well as some other varieties of maples. The ragged emptiness of winter branches is almost gone and the vigor of new spring life sits just on edge, ready to burst forth. It is life barely contained.

The early spring flowers have bloomed, snow drops and crocuses long gone, forsythia gone, the daffodils going. The hillside for this brief moment in spring is marked with the brilliant white highlights of juneberry trees. The profusion of their whiteness is almost startling set against the barrenness of the rest of the hillside. It is as if snow has returned to settle on a few trees. This, too, passes quickly. The accents of color that seem most striking in evening have already begun to fade, most of the flowers gone, the rest going. I’m sorry I never got up to the woods to appreciate them more in person.

Spring goes faster than I do. Spring is always rushing from one fleeting show to another, the petals of one bunch of flowers having scarcely come to rest on the ground before the next are bursting out.

There is more to come. In a few weeks the lilacs and apple trees will be in blossom, their fragrance matching their color. The trees will be in leaf, the hillside becoming a carpet of green. But not yet. We savor the coming, while spring has still not run all of its rushing course.

As is the nature of every year, spring will run its course quickly, summer going no slower in the parade of things growing and flowering. It is all like sitting down for a show where time seems to speed up (or vanish all together) so that it seems like you’ve no sooner sat down to enjoy then it is over and you are rising to your feet saying, “What? It’s done? I thought we just got started.” And then winter has arrived.

But for today it is middle spring, and I favor all of April and May for their many blossoming flowers, greening grass, leafing trees, and singing birds. I love the time of year when the weather is fair, the breeze cool, and the mosquitoes not yet here. It is a time when rains fall pleasantly, the ground is not baked hard, nor the days muggy and oppressive (not to mention the nights). We are in middle spring. Enjoy it while you can.

Then I look out the window and think, “Boy, the lawn needs mowing.”

Murder and Mayhem

2nd May 2006

The prowler has struck again.

Very, very interesting. It’s been almost exactly a year since the last attack . . .

A few mornings ago Titi asked me if all the ducks were still alive. “They were making a terrible racket last night,” she said. “It sounded like something was after them.”

At the time I was in a hurry, and whatever had happened last night was now a done deal, so I said, “They could be off laying eggs” (because I had seen both males, but not both females) and continued on with my business.

The matter slipped from my mind until the afternoon when Owen came to me and said, “Rundy, I think one of the female ducks is dead. She’s been lying in an awkward position all day.”

“Probably,” I said, and gave an inward groan.

There wasn’t much doubt in my mind that the one female Owen had seen was dead. The question was, were both females dead? I had seen neither of them when I went out for the morning feeding.

The one female was dead, sprawled on the ground. It had no bloody wound, or even a large amount of feathers missing. It had either been choked to death, or had its neck broken. I looked around the chicken yard for the other female duck, but all I found was a scattering of feathers. One of the male ducks limped, and the other had a patch of feathers missing from one wing. No sign of the murderous attacker.

My guess is that it was the same attacker as last summer that we never managed to catch. I suspect it is a fox. If it had been a coyote I think the ducks would have been killed more quickly, and in a more bloody fashion. The absence of large tearing wounds on the dead duck indicated (to me) that it had been an animal with a smaller jaw. It’s almost impossible the attacker was a skunk, because there was no remaining smell. An opossum or raccoon is possible, but I would think both animals would be inclined to go after smaller prey.

I went back inside and told the girls that if they ever heard the ducks screaming bloody murder in the middle of the night again to wake me up so I could do something about it. Then I began plotting revenge against the nameless assailant of my ducks.

I suspected that whatever attacked the ducks has also been getting in the chicken house and eating eggs. In the morning any egg I find is usually destroyed. This would tend the attacker (in my mind) to being an opossum, except since the second female duck was taken away I felt the evidence still leaned toward a fox (supposedly they carry their prey away). In any case, I either had two criminals getting into the chicken yard, or a doubly guilty one.

Traps everywhere, was my first angry inclination. Board the chickens up in their house, put a trap in front of the door. Put the ducks in a pen and put traps all around the pen. I called up a friend and asked to borrow his collection of traps. Whatever it was, the creature would be sorry for ever messing with me.

It was too late that night for me to set up the traps, but I figured the creature wouldn’t be back that night anyhow, since it had just carried off an entire duck to eat.

Then I discovered the creature hadn’t actually carried off the second female duck. The second female duck returned after dark, coming up to the chicken fence to be let back in. A survivor from last year’s attack, and now a survivor again. When the assault had commenced she must have flown over the fence to who knows where and then stayed put throughout the rest of the night, and all the next day. She must have been in a state of utter shock or terror. Most creatures that get dispersed during the night will try to come back at daylight. She waited until dark.

In the following days, after the initial edge of my anger wore off, I began to question the wisdom of my trapping method. Last year I had laid out traps and caught nothing. If I locked up the chickens and ducks and laid traps even more aggressively I faced the prospect of having the animals locked up for a long time, and still not catching anything. I could be dealing with an itinerant monster that came by only once a year, or else a very crafty animal.

My suspicion has been confirmed in that several days have passed and the ducks haven’t been assaulted again. If this is a fox, I think he’s a crafty fellow. If it is an opossum, I’m beginning to suspect the opossum is coming only to steal eggs out of the chicken house and simply attacks the ducks on occasion for amusement, with no interest in eating them at all. It seems highly odd that since the second female duck actually escaped (and wasn’t taken) that the first dead female was also left. This makes me suspect it is an opossum that has filled itself on eggs and is only interested in having ducks run, scream, and die.

If it is a fox I think the layout of the chicken yard leaves me with the only choice of hoping there is such a ruckus the next time he comes that I catch him in the act. I don’t think I can catch him with a trap. If it is an opossum, I think I might have a plan. When the human sized chicken house door is shut there is a small opening in the bottom of the door for the chickens to enter and exit through. This also creates the point of entry for the opossum. Opossums are nowhere near as bright as foxes, so I’m hoping if I put a trap on the inside of the door the opossum with enter the chicken house expecting to raid the nests and find himself trapped.

Meantime, the ducks are completely shell-shocked. The female spends her time hiding listlessly. I haven’t seen her eat yet. The males wander about, their normal routine completely destroyed. Where before they were a little band now they are a scattered collection waiting for the end.

If I catch the culprit, I intend to give the creature no mercy.

Three Observations

29th April 2006

Unrelated observations:

1. Why do all modern hand pumps have plastic nozzle heads?

In the good old days the nozzle was metal and fit easily on the valve stem. The modern plastic versions go on the tire valve steam with difficulty, and they are more prone to malfunction, or not working at all. The genius who thought up this modification must have never been required to use his plastic nozzle heads to pump up a tire. The frustration level is nearly astronomical as one tries to wrestle the nozzle into a properly fitted seal.

2. Why are faucets constructed with tiny parts that you can easily drop down the drain when working on them?

This is always one of those problems that you can see coming miles away, and yet seem unable to avoid. The little bit will of course spring out of your hand, hit the sink bowl, and go down the drain. Well, okay, you could avoid that if you stopped up the drain.

Our kitchen faucet has a nearly microscopic set-screw that is used to hold the handle in place. The engineer who designed the faucet probably considered himself brilliant to have discovered a method for using such a tiny screw. I wonder why he had to use such a doggone small screw. Every time I take it out I’m sure I’m going to lose it, and, of course, without the screw the faucet is nearly unusable.

3. Chickens are like dogs. They’re both interested in the food you have.

We have a particularly naughty hen who spends most of every day outside the fence. She wanders about all day, poking around in search of nice tidbits to eat. Today Mom walked passed the hen, peeling an orange on her way to the compost bin. The hen trundle by, not giving Mom a second glance–until she realized Mom had something in her hand. Then the hen stopped, took a second look, and then hurried after Mom. She was as good as saying, “Please? Can I have some? Please?” Soon as the orange peels hit the compost heap the hen was in after them. I suspect she was slighly disappointed.

Redirected

25th April 2006

Months ago I upgraded my website software. Recently it came to my attention that the archives to the old iteration of my website were still in existence and web search engines were still directing people to this defunct version of my site. To recitify the situation I deleted this old shadow of my website and have redirected all of that traffic here.

If you clicked on a search engine link and this was not what you expected to fine, you have my deep apologies. The material you were looking for is still on my website and you should be able to find it using the search feature in the upper left of the web page.

Hopefully the search engines will be updated very shortly and this will no longer happen.

To my regular readers: Carry on! Nothing should change for you.

Riches and Fame are Mine . . .

24th April 2006

I am a man who enjoys irony, and the absurd. I’ve been laughing at myself a lot recently.

Have you ever imagined the least likely thing that could happen to you, and then it came true? What about something so beyond your imagining that you couldn’t even dream of it happening?

I’m not talking about winning the lottery. That wouldn’t be absurd enough.

Let’s say you’re male like me. You’re a writer, and when you’re not writing you’re puttering around with your computer, tending chickens, pruning apples trees, digging a garden, or mowing the back field. You have no interest in being famous, the idea of being the center of attention ranks as one of the things you don’t want to contemplate, and the idea of using the sewing machine makes you slightly ill. All you wanted was to be a quiet writer, publishing novels in peace.

Now say you were that person, like me. What would you think if someone came up to you five years ago and said you would become a celebrity of the quilting world, and would write a quilting book?

Ridiculous! Absurd, you would say. I’m writing adventure novels, not how-to quilting books. I’m an introverted writer–what gives you the insane idea that I’m going to be a celebrity of the quilting world?

Then what if this ridiculous and absurd thing happened?

Well, it did. To me.

The Quilt

I have a neighbor, Marilyn B, who is (to put it delicately) old enough to be my grandmother. I have helped her by mowing her lawn, shoveling her driveway, and giving her computer related assistance. Nothing very unusual in that.

But Marilyn B is a quilter. More precisely, she creates art quilts. This is apparently the next big thing in the quilting world. They are hip, the new wave in art, and all that good stuff. Her claim to renown is realistic portrait quilts. Over the years I have grown to be something of a fixture in Marilyn’s life, and so, having finished making portrait quilts of her entire family, she decided to do me next.

I graciously allowed her to take a picture of me. Painless. Quick. Harmless.

That was last year. Come the end of 2005 and the Rundy quilt was just beginning to make the rounds with the real showings to get underway in 2006. Anyone who knows anything about quilting knows there are big shows everywhere in which quilters submit their work to be judged in various categories. If you didn’t know that before, now you do. Years ago Marilyn’s first quilt, My Parents made something of a splash and she has been submitting her work to the quilting shows ever since. Just about all her quilts win something, and some have won multiple awards.

When the Rundy quilt was finished (it is very weird having a quilt named after you) all of Marilyn’s friends said it was her best work yet. You can see it for yourself, here. Thus began the merciless teasing which Marilyn has heaped upon me. “They love you,” she says. “They think you’re like Brad Pitt. You’re the next Tom Cruise. You’re that hunky cowboy.” And so on. A rabid crowd of middle-aged and elderly ladies. Scary stuff. How do I get myself into these kind of things?

How much of this talk is truth and how much of it is fiction I haven’t entirely been able to figure out. People will say a lot of things in jest, and I don’t put it past Marilyn to . . . embellish whatever is said. The first gig the Rundy quilt was shown at Marilyn got me to come along for the setting up process under the guise of needing help. When we set up there weren’t very many people present, and the middle-aged and elderly ladies that were there acted like very normal people and didn’t do anything embarrassing when they saw the quilt. I vacated the premises before the real crowds showed up, so I don’t know if I was just lucky. It would make Marilyn’s day if someone told me to my face that I looked like Brad Pitt. I think I would die of mortification.

The first show the Rundy quilt entered (Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center, Auburn, NY) it didn’t win. However, the local Syracuse TV station was so impressed by the quilt they featured it prominently when they gave coverage of the show. The report ended with the newsman gushing over how the quilt was made entirely with fabric and no paint. (Most people cannot believe Marilyn only uses fabric and thread). This was rumblings of things to come, though thankfully the reporter was male, and he didn’t say I was a hunk, or looked like Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, et al. He did call me the Northeast Cowboy, which I suppose I will take before Brad Pitt any day.

That was December 2005. I made it on Syracuse TV. A little bit of fame.

Next the Rundy quilt went to the Indiana Heritage Quilt Show in Bloomington, IN. It won 3rd Prize in the “Professional Category” (whatever that is). I think Marilyn won $200.

The next show was down in Lancaster, PA. To hear Marilyn tell it, this Lancaster show is one of THE BIGGEST quilt shows in the US. I guess she ranked it somewhere around the third most important show. (Please, no quilters kill me if I got its importance a little off.) At Lancaster the Rundy quilt won best of show. Meaning, the quilt was not only best in its category, it was judged best over all the quilts in every category. If you’re a non-quilter like me, that doesn’t really mean a lot. The fact that the prize money was $2,000 dollars means a little more to me, and probably you.

The next show, which is even BIGGER (I guess the second biggest show in the US), is in Paduca, KY. It just started this week. They called Marilyn last night to say the Rundy quilt had won first place (in whatever category it was entered). This won Marilyn an additional prize of $1,500. So, in the space of a month, my likeness has won Marilyn $3,500.

Yow wow.

The awards ceremony for Paduca is going to be broadcast as live video on the web at QNNTV.com if curiosity has got the better of you. It starts 6:30 PM EDT. Marilyn was dying to go so she could prance on the stage and receive her award, but it cost too much. I don’t know if the Rundy is going to make an appearance or not, but the fame and glory my likeness has gained, I tell you.

The next show I think the Rundy quilt is scheduled for is down in Houston, TX in August. I guess this is THE BIG ONE. Who knows if Marilyn will win anything, but if she does I’ll have made something of a sweep of the big quilting shows.

Further, Marilyn had the Rundy quilt appraised and it was valued at $10,000. Yowza, am I worth something, or what?

Of course saying that “I” am worth something, or that “I” won at those shows is all in jest. That fact that the quilt has won so much has nothing to do with the fact that I was the subject and everything to do with Marilyn’s ability with fabric and thread. The great artists of the past did not become great because of their subjects but rather because of their own phenomenal ability with the medium in which they worked. The fact that the quilt receives such acclaim has nothing to do with how much I look (or don’t look) like your favored movie star, and everything to do with the fact that people gasp at what Marilyn has done.

Nonetheless, it is funny that my likeness has become the vehicle for her present fame. This quilt has now won more prestigious awards than any of her quilts yet, and if she does win down in Huston this summer I suppose she will be vaulted into the preeminent ranks of art quilters. And all because of me (cough, cough). I mow her lawn, shovel her driveway, help her with her computer, and vault her into fame and glory. All in a day’s work, Marilyn.

So what’s it like to be famous, someone might ask. Not much. Since I avoid going to the quilting shows and quilting guilds like the plague I haven’t experienced much, which is just fine by me. I’m very happy for Marilyn, but it’s hard for me to get excited about any praise because it is all about quilting, not something that I am interested in. If it were about me, that would be worse because then it would be about my appearance, and that sad and shallow fixation consumes far too many people.

It’s weird, mostly. A little bemusing. A little stupid. A bit like an out-of-body experience. Sometimes Marilyn will drag me to her computer to see the latests jubilation by her various fans at the latest win by the Rundy quilt and how good the Rundy quilt is, and how much they like it. I feel like I’m looking on myself in the third person, or, that some weird quilt has taken over my name. Who is this “Rundy” they are talking about? Not me. It is an unleashed monster that is me, but not me. A thing that has stolen my name and is now running about the world. A strange reflection of me that stares back out of frozen time.

Marilyn swears that when she croaks I will inherit the Rundy quilt. Then I will have my immortalized youth hanging on some wall, a piece for contemplation as I grow old. A reminder that life can be really strange.

The Book

My existence as a famous quilt is absurd. Writing a quilting book is the depths of irony.

I know nothing about quilting. Back in my days of schooling I was required to learn how to use a sewing machine. As little as I learned I’ve forgotten most, and I don’t know if I could thread a bobbin now. But as much as I loathe sewing (it seemed like the threads were always getting tangled up in the most horrible way), Marilyn dislikes writing in equal measure.

But Marilyn wanted to have an instructional book detailing her quilting method. She teaches a lot of people in person and online at QuiltUniversity. Her students would ask her if she had a book to sell, and, equally important, having a book on your method is a mark of prestige in the quilting world. Somehow (and the details are a bit fuzzy now) Marilyn learned of my writing ability and asked if I would be willing to help her. Being a helpful sort of guy, I agreed.

Marilyn wanted someone to ghost-write her book so she didn’t have to waste a moment on something so annoying as writing. That wasn’t going to happen. I could function as editor, agent, flogger, and all around stalwart assistant, but I couldn’t lift the knowledge from her brain and magically place it on the page. It had to be a joint process.

What followed was a very long and painful process. I can’t remember exactly when we started, but we worked on the book for at least two years. Progress was slow because it always took back seat to Marilyn’s quilting. In the end Marilyn basically gave me a dump of all her teaching material she had been using in her various classes and I stitched it together and smoothed it out into the form of a book. Editor . . . translator . . . transcriber . . . all three. Some time last year we had hammered together a draft. I donned my Agent hat and put together a proposal and began submitting the document to various publishing houses. We received some polite responses and one that seemed like a done deal until it fell through at the last minute (so close that we were told we would go into contract negotiations before the editor had to withdraw the offer).

Once all publishing house possibilities seemed exhausted Marilyn decided to go the self-publishing route. So I had to find a suitable self-publishing company, determine submission specs, and then help Marilyn format her book. It all came to a rushing completion when the Rundy quilt started to make the big splash and Marilyn decided she needed to get her book out there now to capitalize on her new-found publicity.

As a result I was up to 1:30 Monday night (I guess it was actually 1:30 Tuesday morning) last week, and generally worked a very long and grueling week putting together her book.

Whew. Creating this book was an experience. Much as I tried to avoid it, all too often I was thrust into the decision making process. Marilyn dubbed me the “expert.” No doubt compared to her I was/am an expert, but book knowledge doesn’t make anyone an expert and I was putting together her book and submitting it to publishing houses before I had ever submitted any of my writing. I was plowing all new ground. Her book was the guinea pig of my experience. And now, like a baby cast upon the waters, my first book bursts out into the world.

And it isn’t even my book.

And it’s about quilting.

I’m supposed to be a writer, not an editor/transcriber/agent/book designer. I’m supposed to be writing adventure books, not books about quilting! What is more different than an action-adventure sci-fi novel than a how-to book about quilting? And yet somehow I got from there to here. While my two novels are currently making the rounds of rejection at the publishing houses the book on quilting which I edited and helped assembled is about to go out to fame and glory. (Well, maybe not exactly that.)

To a degree it is frustrating that the two books of my own that I’ve spent years laboring over have not met with instantaneous success, but mostly it is funny. Ironically funny. And I do admit that I learned a lot putting this book together with Marilyn. It was a worthwhile learning experience, and we are splitting the profits from the book 50-50.

The quilt of Rundy making Marilyn famous so that the book Rundy helped her put together can sell and perhaps make her more famous. Fame is just dripping off me.

Seriously, it remains to be seen how well the book sells. I hope the quilt and the book make Marilyn famous. She can have it. She values and enjoys fame, not me. But I wouldn’t mind it if my books were published sometime. However, that may not be. If there is a lesson in this it is that life can be much stranger than we imagine.

If any of you readers are sometime sewers, quilters, or are simply curious about this book, it is called Portraits for Fabric Lovers, and you can find out more about it (and purchase a copy if you like) right here.

With A Crackle

6th April 2006

I find computer repair sometimes frustrating, but almost always a challenge. Since I enjoy a challenge there is usually some vague way in which I enjoy fixing (or fighting) computer problems, even if I am half frustrated at the time. But often I am reminded why I don’t do this for a living.

In one word: Accidents.

“Oops” is one of those often-used words in my vocabulary. It seems like it comes up in one form or another no matter what I’m doing . . . writing . . . construction projects . . . fixing computers. I’ve found that before I undertake anything I had best stop and ask myself, “Can you stand messing this up?” If the answer is no, then I’d better not do it, because half of the things I do I flub to one degree or another.

So, if I have an accident with my computer equipment it might rate an “Argh!” or “Darn!” or “I’m so stupid!” but I get over it and life goes on. But if it is someone else’s computer . . . I envision the very worst and that involves my mental collapse when I realize my latest “Oops” has just fried someone’s entire electronic possessions.

No, I don’t think so. I’ll stick with putzing around with my electronic gadgetry. And should I ever start to think differently, something will always come along to remind me of this fact.

Saturday I was up at my grandparents’ helping Grandpa O with computer issues.

I should back up and say a few weeks ago Lachlan and I helped Grandpa O build a new computer from scratch. That was a pretty cool experience, minus the stress and nail biting when we couldn’t get the processor fan mounted (rightly) on the chip. That was the “Oops” incident on that occasion, but we got the computer together, installed linux, and . . . everything worked. Yay and all that, now I want to build myself a computer!

Anyhow, a few weeks later Grandpa informed me that his new computer wasn’t working. It was dead in the water. He left it running one day and returned to find it off, and was not able to turn it back on. Ah. One of those problems which is either cataclysmic failure of the highest degree, or just a little problem that can be easily fixed. Time to start trouble-shooting.

I arrived at their apartment and found the new computer in his office unplugged. Grandpa said when it was plugged in and he tried to turn it on nothing happened. As any tech knows, the first step is to re-try anything the customer tried, because often the customer didn’t do something right. I suspected that probably either the power cord was bad, or the power supply in the computer had gone bad, but I was going to start at the beginning and try the initial setup. If that didn’t work I intended to replace the old power cord with one I brought and see if that would resolve the problem.

With Grandpa watching I plugged his computer back into his power cord and pressed the power button on the front of the computer. What happened next is something I hope never happens again when I turn a computer on. The computer gave a very loud electric crackle and sparks shot out the back of the power supply, followed by a very hot electric burning smell.

Thirty seconds working on the computer, Rundy, and you’ve already blown it to kingdom come. I looked at Grandpa. He looked at me. “Well,” I said. “That wasn’t good.”

Something was clearly wrong. Very wrong. Power supply, power cord with a short, or something else? And, in the back of my mind, I wondered if there was any computer left to fix. With a crackle and flash of electricity I imagined the motherboard could now be so much fused junk, the hard drives smoking ruins. I hoped the power supply had absorbed all the surge and the rest of the computer remained in untouched bliss . . . at times like these you learn to supress your worst fears and just work.

I took the power cord that I brought and plugged it into a different wall outlet (got to think of every possibility) and then plugged in the computer. Grandpa and I were both nervous. If, by any chance, the computer was not already totally fried and if the power supply was the problem, switching power cords would not remove the problem and therefore if I turned the computer back on the computer would get a power surge that might just fry all the innards . . . if they weren’t all fried already. Grandpa suggested unplugging the motherboard before turning on the power supply again. This seemed like a good idea to me (and it was, from one perspective) but when I tried to turn the power supply on nothing happened. At the time I figured this meant the power supply was the offending piece of equipment, but later that day I realized that when nothing was plugged into the power supply it probably wouldn’t have come on anyhow. But at this point I took this as evidence that the power supply was the evil piece of equipment. So I pulled the power supply out of Grandpa’s old computer and put it into his new computer. I turned the computer on . . . and it worked. No fried computer today folks. Get out of jail for free.

By this point I realized that since the original power supply wasn’t actually plugged into any device when we tested it on my new cord we didn’t have conclusive proof that the power supply was the offending part. It was still possible that the power cord had a short and the power supply had simply blown out sparks in spectacular fashion because of the shorting cord. Possible. I mentioned the fact to Grandpa, but he looked at me and after a short pause we both decided that if testing the power supply meant plugging it into a motherboard (and thus risking the motherboard’s life and health) we would just assume the power supply was bad and get a new one for the old computer.

So we went out shopping. Grandpa wanted to put in several additional case fans into his new computer as well as getting a power supply so he could have his old computer up and running along with his new computer. A stop at his local computer parts store brought us a new power supply but they didn’t stock case fans. So we went to RadioShack. RadioShack carried a limited supply of fans but they were expensive and they weren’t of the right type. So no fans. Grandpa decided to skip the additional fans and we returned to the apartment to put together his old computer.

The old computer had two hard drives, one with Linux installed, the other with Win98 installed. These were both old hard drives that hadn’t been the primary drives when the computer was last used (the old primary drive was now in his new computer). At present the computer was attempting to boot to Linux (unsuccessfully) and Grandpa claimed that his Win98 install wasn’t showing up on the bootloader (I didn’t get a chance to double-check that). So he wanted me to switch drives so the Win98 drive was master. Easy enough, I thought. I’ve switched hard drives plenty of times.

But no. The cable that daisy-chained the two hard drives together was an old cable. In modern times all manufacturers have been smart enough to make it so you can’t plug the IDE cables into the hard drives incorrectly. Not on the old cables. Now, I knew that the hard drive wouldn’t be recognized if the IDE cable was installed incorrectly but I had a vague thought that no permanent harm would be done if I made a mistake. In any case, I thought if I didn’t get anything confused and had stuff plugged in right . . .

To make a long story short, somewhere along the line I got things screwed up. And, it seems, I trashed both old hard drives. In any case, it came to the point that no matter how I plugged in the cables, or how I set the drive jumpers, the BIOS wouldn’t recognize either of them. Now I talked to Lachlan (Younger brother #2, taking a course for computer A+ certification) after I got home and he agreed that it can be very difficult to figure out how to plug in an IDE cable that is not properly marked. He confessed that he had plugged some devices in incorrectly during his class. He said sometimes you could just switch the plug around and then everything worked. Other times . . . he said he thought he had trashed some drives. So I guess I am in good company. But that didn’t make me feel much better in the end, and no better at the time when I sat in front of Grandpa’s old computer and realized I’d just killed both of his old hard drives.

The sense of mortification and stupidity. Try to fix something Rundy, and you break it irreparably.

And that is why I don’t want to go into this for a job. Grandpa was very good natured about it. After all, I got his new computer working, and it was free help, and the drives were old. So I didn’t feel required to throw myself off a cliff on that occasion, but what if I was supposed to be the “professional” earning big bucks to fix someone’s computer? What then?

Lachlan is going to take his A+ certification test shortly. Arlan (younger brother #1) recently decided he wanted A+ certification for expanded job opportunities, and he just passed his certification test. That surprised me a bit because he has done less work with computers than me. (But he is very good at taking tests.) I think, wow, if Arlan can pass the test with such little preparation, not even taking a course, maybe I could too. Computer jobs pay well . . .

Yeah, but remember those two dead hard drives?

I think I’ll stick to playing around with my computers. I don’t care to go confessing that I just killed someone’s expensive computers. I don’t care for the visions of smoke pouring out of corporate servers and someone screaming at me, “You’re in charge! What do we do? The company is going down!”

Wouldn’t happen, you say? Yeah, well you probably didn’t think sparks could shoot out the back of your computer either.

Things can happen in the computer world. I know. And I think I’ll just stick to fiddling around with my own computer.

Interesting bit of historical family trivia:

Way back in the early days of home PCs we inherited an old AT&T server which had a big math co-processor (back when there was a separate chip called a math co-processor). For some reason we finally decided that we wanted to get rid of the AT&T box (It was huge . . . a 386 of some type). Someone (Dad, specifically, since I was too young and timid at the time) got the brilliant idea of trying to save the math co-processor out of the AT&T box and putting it into another computer.

I vividly remember us extracting the chip with a pair of pliers. I think I vividly remember because I was sure something would go horribly wrong. Things didn’t exactly go smoothly. Once we got it extracted, we straightened out the pins (yeah, it was in pretty stiff and came out a little rough) and we inserted the chip into the math co-processor slot in the new–I mean equally old–other computer that we were keeping.

Amazingly enough, the thing actually seemed to work.

At least, that’s what I remember.

It’s weird how some things that shouldn’t be successful actually work. And it’s amazing how tough those old computers were built. They were like tanks.

Captivity

5th April 2006

What They Say

A philosophical muse today.

Jill Carroll, a reporter held captive by insurgents in Iraq, was released several days ago. The news media has been full of it, so unless you somehow avoid all news of current events, you know this. As a story of hope fulfilled it is touching. The threat of death is gone, like a passing shadow, and life shines out again like a new dawn. Whose heart wouldn’t lift up?

“[. . .] she reveled in the small wonders of her freedom.

‘I finally feel like I am alive again. I feel so good,’ Carroll said Sunday.

On Saturday evening, Carroll was savoring her freedom.

During her captivity, she says she was moved several times. But she was always held in rooms where she couldn’t see outside. At one point, she could see strands of sunlight entering her ‘cave,’ and that buoyed her spirits.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, during the flight Sunday, her nose was often pressed against the window. She marveled at the expanse of blue and what it represented. ‘Talk about freedom: here we are right above the clouds, we’re in the sky – when I was so far away from it. It’s wonderful,’ she said.

But all this talk of freedom and life has caused me to ponder a bit. Talk about freedom, Jill says. Well, how about we talk about captivity and death.

Captive. Free. Read through the stories on this event, those words appear again and again. People read the story of Jill Carroll and they read a story of liberation, of freedom, of life. It is a story so touching because people read in it the success, the conclusion, which our innermost person longs for: that true freedom of escape from death. We want to rejoice in her freedom ever so much as we want to be free.

The Philosophical Question

Imagine that Jill Carroll’s captors were all-powerful killers. If they had opened the door to her prison and said, “Go. Go wherever you want. We have decided to kill you, but not today. You may leave, but you can’t escape us, and when the day we have decided to kill you arrives, you will die.”

If that were true, would Jill Carroll’s release be freedom? In truth, would it be any release at all? If someone could kill you whenever they wanted, no matter how far you fled, and if they would kill you when their whim so decided–would you be free?

Superficially, when some people think about captivity their mind fixes on the idea of restraint, as if being locked in a room was the essence of captivity. But if we look at captivity close enough we begin to see it is really about control, and while restraint is part of the idea of control, in our self-centered minds the most important matter of control is our life and death. We are in captivity when someone else has the power of life and death over us. Captivity comes to stand for death, and freedom for life. As Jill Carroll said herself on being released, “I finally feel like I am alive again.” In being delivered from captivity it was as if she had been delivered back from death.

The Captivity of Death

If captivity finds its essence in the power of death, who is not held in captivity? We will all die, and we know not the hour or the means. We don’t have some all-powerful Iraqi insurgent standing over us telling us he will kill us someday. Instead, there is Death itself as it were, opening the very door of the womb and whispering as we come out, “Go. Go wherever you want. I have decided to kill you, but not today. You may leave, but you can’t escape, and when the day I have decided to kill you arrives, you will die.”

I have used the imagery of death as opening the doorway to life, but now consider the idea of death as being a door.

In our first example death is a locked door which we cannot open. This would be another way of describing the circumstance I have already outlined previously. Again, in this instance we can easily see how death holds us captive. Death is a locked doorway on further life. It is The End. As someone locked into a room is captive, so in this example are we captive to death.

In our second example death is a door which has no lock. An example would be the Hindu belief in reincarnation. In this construction death is not contrasted to life, or End to Beginning. Instead, death becomes part of life, the End no longer end but part of the endless Beginning as we walk the circle of life, stepping through the doorway of death many times as we begin to make another circle.

For our third example death is a locked door as in the first example, but this time someone Other has a key. By having the key this Other has power over the door of death. When this Other locks the door, it is locked and none can go through, and for whomever he unlocks the door they can go through. Now if the Other made copies of his key and gave it to some, the door of death would no longer have power over those who had copies of the key. Death would not have power over these people, not because they were more powerful than the door of death, but because the Other who did have power over death released them from captivity.

Let’s consider these three possibilities. The first example of the locked door stands for the belief that death is the end. By this view we cannot escape death and we cannot overpower death. In the end death is the locked door on our life that cuts us short and holds us all captive. The second example declares that we are all free because death binds no one. Death, in this case, is unrestricted passage. While at first glance these two views seem to be complete opposites, they have a common assumption: Death means the same to all and there is no one with power over death. According to the first view, we are all captives. According to the second view, we are all free but in both cases there is no one with the power to change the status quo.

Then there is the third view. According to the third view we all start out in the same condition (without keys to the door of death), but the situation is fundamentally different because there is one who has power over the door of death. As some are given keys by the Other, the death door functions as a tool of the Other to separate. In the previous two examples death was something that bound us all together in either freedom or captivity. Here, in contrast, death is a place of separation where humanity is divided into the captive and the free. Those who are given keys pass through the doorway of death unto continuing life, while those without keys do not. In the previous two examples the door of death was an ultimate impersonal force. In this third example death is subject to a Personal Will–the Other.

What They Saw

When Jill Carroll was released everyone loudly rejoiced at what they saw. But what did they see? Was Jill Carroll a symbol for a deluded and impossible hope wishing that we might escape from our captor Death?

If we are truly free can we ever be truly captive? And if we are captive to death, how can we ever be truly free?

Is Jill Carroll captive or free? And what are we?

The MLAC says . . .

28th March 2006

Today I wandered over to Project Gutenberg and happened to see under Latest News:

March 4, 2006: Which book should every adult read before they die? That is the question the British Museum, Libraries and Archives Council (MLAC) asked librarians. According to The Guardian, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee received the most votes, followed by the Bible (ca. 150), The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1955) by JRR Tolkien, 1984 (1949) by George Orwell, A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens, Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë, Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929, in German as Im Westen nichts Neues) by Erich Maria Remarque, His Dark Materials trilogy (2000) by Phillip Pullman and Birdsong (1993) by Sebastian Faulks.

Interesting. The list is telling. My first thought on reading this was that the British nature of the respondents was evident. Secondly, that present fads are evident in the selection (they didn’t really rate the books by the their timelessness). Third, the collection also evidences the fact that librarians were answering this survey, not your average well-read reader who is suggesting to his more illiterate countrymen what books they ought to read before they start pushing up grass.

I am puzzled that To Kill a Mockingbird received the most votes. The number one book every adult should read before they die is a work of fiction that has only been around for a little less than fifty years? That’s quite a recommendation. The juxtaposition of the Bible with To Kill a Mockingbird seems almost absurd. The cultural, historical, and religious impact of the Bible towers above works of fiction from 1960, even if one doesn’t accept the inspired nature of the Bible.

Then I notice that the Bible is the only non-fiction book on the list. Maybe they consider it fiction. Why all the fiction? I love fiction literature. I have read far more fiction in my life than non-fiction. But as I grow older and more mature I see greater worth in certain factual books. Most fiction and most non-fiction is worthless, but at this point in my life I think the top ten books every adult should read would all be non-fiction, and I doubt I have read most of those books at this point in my life. Of course fiction is more fun to read, but we’re talking about worth here, not enjoyment. We’re talking about personal advancement, education, and enrichment, not pleasure. At least, I would be if I were talking about the top ten books everyone should read before they die.

So this list officially stinks, in my book. I have nothing against fiction. In fact, I am a writer of fiction. Further, all these books may be a great sampling of fiction. But these books making the top ten that every adult should read? I beg to differ. How well read are these British librarians, anyhow?

I think this list was heavily influenced by present popular culture, which only reinforces my conclusion that this highly subjective list stinks. Popular culture is not the measure of lasting worth. To me the two most striking inclusions which shout “Popular Culture” are The Lord of The Rings by JRR Tolkien and His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman. Both of these are genre fiction and neither of them are momentous enough to make the top 10 books to read before you die.

I both read and write fantasy and as The Lord of The Rings is basically the founding stone of modern fantasy I would say any fantasy reader ought to read the series. Any non-fantasy reader who is interested in knowing where the genre all began should read the book. But if you have no interest in fantasy fiction I can tell you with confidence you won’t be missing anything in your life. The Lord of The Rings may be the best fantasy book ever written, but the best fantasy book ever written doesn’t make the top ten books everyone should read. Where are our priorities in life? I suspect the sole reason The Lord of The Rings came in at third (which is almost as staggering as To Kill A Mockingbird coming in first) is because the author is British, and the series has been made into a staggeringly profitable movie franchise. I doubt the librarians would confess to this, but it must have been a subconscious influence.

Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is even more undeserving. That choice probably reflects “hip” influences above all others. I have read the books. I know they are considered a darling of the British, and the English speaking elite in general, probably mostly because the series is hostile to Christianity and religion in general. From a purely fictional book standard the first book in the series was good. The two following books in the series got progressively worse as the anti-religious rhetoric heated up, and the writing went steeply downhill in the last book. So the series is of mediocre quality, but above all it’s a children’s book series. Honestly. Should we fall off our chairs laughing at British librarians? Ostensibly they’re picking the top ten books we should all read before we die and a children’s fantasy trilogy makes it onto the list? Why not include Harry Potter? Harry Potter may not smack of elitism like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, but it’s better written.

Most of the rest of the books read like a slice from a high school or college English class. But one still must cry, “A Christmas Carol? What kind of lasting impact is that supposed to have?”

Remember to Reload

16th March 2006

Last Tuesday . . .

I glanced out the bathroom window while washing my hands, and saw it. Something was moving in the chicken yard. This caught my attention. A lump of something moved in the chicken yard where there should be no something. The mottled colored shape blended in with the dirt, so I looked again to be sure. No doubt. There was a something out there. Another look, and I finally convinced myself that the thing–creature–was either a groundhog or an opossum.

Whatever it was, the thing was acting weird. It seemed to dig futilely at the ground, perhaps struggling with something, and then it would occasionally wander aimlessly in a circle, only to return to pawing at the ground. After observing it for a bit I could tell it was an opossum because of how it moved.

Great. Just great. If it had been a ground hog the activity might have passed for only a little odd. Might. But opossums are nocturnal animals and for one to be out in late morning meant I had a very sick animal on my hands. Possibly–probably, even–rabid.

My first experience with rabies came years ago, not long after we moved out to the country. I was young–it might have been our first summer here. It was evening and I was playing inside with Arlan and Titi. Dad was outside mowing the lawn. Our play was interrupted by a commotion. Dad was yelling “Get in the house!” And he came charging in the front door, hurried upstairs, and came running back downstairs with a rifle. (A .22, though I don’t think my mind registered any more than that it was a gun.)

This observation was enough to make my young heart start pounding. Deep, or perhaps not so deep, in the psyche of every little kid is the fear of some danger lurking out there that might threaten home, health, and family. If Dad comes charging into the house telling everyone to get inside and then comes thundering back downstairs with a gunit immediately becomes a four-alarm siren.

I learned, with a mixture of thrill and horror, that there was a rabid raccoon outside. Everyone rushed to the front door to peer outside and see what would happen.

A raccoon was crossing the yard, completely unaffected by the lawn mower. Completely unaffected, it seemed, by anything. No healthy and natural raccoon would be trundling across the lawn in broad daylight where a lawn mower roared away. I don’t think I had ever seen a raccoon in person before, and there was something sinister and threatening in that strange hairy creature crossing the grass. I found it difficult to breathe, my young heart racing in my chest, as Dad hurried into position for shooting.

Crack! Crack! Crack! Each shot followed in quick succession. The raccoon was still moving after the first, but by the third or fourth it was down for good. I saw blood erupt up as one of the bullets struck.

A rabid raccoon. The first assault from the wild. The incident made quite an impression on me, as some fourteen years later I still remember it vividly. I wasn’t precisely panicked since Dad was there and had a gun and so seemed in control. But it was a vivid demonstration of what could be out there.

Dad got latex gloves and a box and brought the dead raccoon up into the woods. For some time afterward that part of the woods was avoided with a great sense of dread and horror. To see the box up in the woods was frightening enough, and one had to circle a great distance away, feeling as if something horrible might happen if one came too close. (Who knew if one might be able to contract rabies from the slowly decomposing box? Or maybe even the air around the box?)

And so now, well over a decade later, I am looking out the bathroom window watching an opossum wander around in circles on the patches of snow, digging at the ground. My first fleeting thought–that first reaction on realization–was to just leave it. The creature was obviously pretty far gone, and I didn’t want to bother with it. If I killed it I would have to dispose of the body, and it would all be time taken away from my writing. Easier to just leave it. But then responsibility made itself heard. I couldn’t just leave a probably rabid opossum wandering around the chicken yard. No, it was time for me to take up the role of great defender of the homestead. So, with an inward sigh of resignation, I went to get the .22.

What followed was a comedy of errors.

I fetched the .22 but, of course, it wasn’t at present loaded. I needed the clip. So I went looking in all the places I thought the ammunition clip ought to be, and I couldn’t find it. I spent about ten minutes looking. (Good thing the opossum wasn’t attacking the chickens, or I could have lost the entire flock while hunting around the house for the rifle clip.) Finally I gave up and called Dad at work to ask him where the clip was located.

Clip finally found, I went outside, loaded the .22 and went looking for the opossum. The opossum was still in about the same place as I had seen him last, seemingly pawing at a patch of snow. At that point I considered how close I wanted to get before firing. The closer I was, the higher the accuracy, but if the opossum noticed me it could take off in one direction or another, which could make the situation much more difficult. Where the opossum was presently loitering, I had a clear shot and there wasn’t anything sensitive nearby that might be struck.

I stopped at what I hoped would be a good distance and took aim.

My first two shots missed, though I doubt by very much. The opossum looked up, seeming vaguely puzzled. Great, I thought. Missed twice. I deserved it if the creature started wandering away. Steadying the rifle, I took more careful aim and fired for a third time.

I think I hit the opossum dead center. The reaction was instantaneous and dramatic. The creature did a complete flip in mid-air, landing sprawled on the ground. I steadied the rifle for another shot, pulled the trigger . . . and the rifle clicked empty.

I pulled the trigger again and still nothing. I didn’t want to believe it. Better if the gun had jammed, but I felt sure it hadn’t. I felt suddenly very certain what had just transpired, as if I was living out a bad comedy. Ejecting the clip, I saw what I already knew. The clip was empty. The .22 clip could hold a lot more than three rounds. Dad hadn’t reloaded it since shooting at a rat some time ago.

By this time the opossum had managed to climb back to its feet and was making an unsteady retreat. I could have hit it several more times . . . if I had a loaded clip. But I didn’t. I was standing there with an empty clip in one hand like a poleaxed idiot. There was no choice but to go back inside and refill the clip. By the time I had the clip refilled and was back outside with the gun loaded the opossum was, of course, gone.

Yes, anything that could go wrong would. I had hoped the creature would have only managed to stagger a few feet before collapsing, but after a careful investigation it became clear that wasn’t the case. There was a fair amount of blood on the snow but no sign of the opossum. The paw prints and the blood marks showed the opossum had exited under the chicken fence via the drainage ditch. I cautiously investigated through the weeds beyond the chicken fence (with no desire to stumble upon a rabid and wounded opossum). Outside the chicken yard there was no sign of the opossum. I suspected he could have climbed into a culvert under the road (I wasn’t going to stick my head in there and check), or simply crossed the road and made it far enough onto someone else’s property so I could no longer see him. Wherever he went, I suspected he hadn’t gotten too very far and wouldn’t live much longer.

A bit disgusted with the whole farce, I unloaded the rifle and went back inside.

The moral of this story is, if you’re going to have a clip ready for use, make sure it is fully loaded. There are few things worse than running out of ammunition when your clip should still be three-quarters full. What if you’re facing a rampaging bear? (Okay, so don’t face a rampaging bear with a .22.)

Also, in personal application, I need to practice with the .22 so I can hit on the first, second, and third shots. Sometimes you don’t get three tries.

But that will have to wait until spring or summer.

All You Ever Wanted to Know About Falling

7th March 2006

Have you ever dreamed of falling? Maybe you’ve dreamed that you’re up in the sky rushing toward the ground, the air whistling past. Or else you’ve dreamed that you’re falling from a high building, or off a cliff. Or maybe you’re one of those slightly morbid people who has spent some of his waking hours wondering about falling from a great height.

After all, what is it really like?

The Wall Street Journal, that bastion of knowledge, has furthered my understanding of this subject and I thought to share my enlightenment. I am referring in particular to a front page article from February 27th, 2006. The headline summarizes: “A French Daredevil Hopes to Live to Tell Tale of 25-Mile Jump.”

Apparently Michel Fournier has decided life is no longer worth living. Well, he didn’t put it that way, but who else would sell his house and devote all his money to making the world’s longest plunge? He lives in poverty now because he apparently doesn’t intend to live after making his jump.

Now you might say, “Oh, sky divers are leaping out of airplanes all the time. How is this any different?” Because compared to this, sky divers are wimps. Twenty-five miles up is the edge of space.

The previous record which Mr. Fournier wishes to break is held by Colonel Joe Kittinger. He ascended in a balloon to 19 miles, wearing a space suit. When Col. Kittinger leaped he quickly accelerated to 714 miles an hour, becoming the first person to break the sound barrier without a vehicle. There you have it. Add that to your list of nightmares: hurtling toward the ground so fast you break the sound barrier.

Not just anyone plunging toward the earth can break the sound barrier on their fall. You have to jump from such a distance that atmospheric drag is low enough. According to this website about regular sky diving, “A person has a terminal velocity of about 200 mph when balled up and about 125 mph with arms and feet fully extended to catch the wind.”

I told you regular sky divers are wimps.

Jumping from some 20 miles up requires a space suit because of the thin atmosphere, but that’s not it. As the WSJ says, “Belly-flopping from the edge of space isn’t just an incredibly long parachute ride.” Yes, folks, you are risking life and limb. The higher you go, the better it gets. Above 40,000 feet the atmosphere is so thin unprotected people lose consciousness in around 12 seconds. Even if you could breathe (say, you had a handy oxygen canister) nitrogen bubbles may form in your blood and soft tissues if you haven’t breathed pure oxygen for several hours before making the plunge.

But wait. If you jump unprotected above 50,000 feet the saliva boils off your tongue and body parts begin swelling. Your lungs may hemorrhage as they and your skull fill with liquid. Eww. Saliva boiling off your tongue? If you’re morbid like me you wonder how they find these things out. Who was the poor chap who had the saliva boil off his tongue?

I don’t know about saliva boiling off the tongue, but on the way up for his historic jump Col. Kittinger’s right glove broke causing his exposed hand to balloon. (Ouch.) Two years later a Soviet officer died from pressure sickness in a similar attempt when his face mask cracked. Then an American sky diver died from decompression trying to beat the record in 1966.

You get the picture. At 25-miles up you have more time to watch your life flash before your eyes, but that won’t do you much good if your eyeballs have exploded out of your head. For myself, I think I’ll stick to the night time dreams where I know how to fly.

If you’d like to be prepared, just in case, I suggest you check out this guide for surviving free fall. You never can be too prepared, right?

Back . . . Bellyaching (And Being Dumb)

8th October 2005

Apparently it has been too long since I was last on my computer.

For reasons I will explain (later, not today) it has been about two months since I was last on my computer. During that time I have lived the hobo’s existence on the computer of others–while spending most of my time doing other, non-computer things. But, at last, life has been brought close enough to normal that I recently dug my computer out of storage.

It was supposed to be a simple and easy thing, that comforting return to the familiar and normal life. The computer went into storage working, so it was supposed to come out of storage working. And it would have, mostly, except I was tired, it had been a long time since I used my computer, and I wasn’t thinking.

I brought computer and monitor upstairs and plugged everything into what I thought were the right places. Then I turned my computer on . . . and I got nothing. More precisely, I saw nothing. Now, looking back, I can tell you that I had forgotten I had two places I could plug a monitor into on my computer. Most computers have only one place to plug in your monitor. I, however, had an original motherboard built-in video connection . . . that was (as best I can figure) bad . . . and a installed video card that I had been using.

Well, two months had elapsed, with a lot of work occurring in that time, and I forgot this little tidbit of information. When I leaned over the back of the computer I saw the monitor plug slot and I plugged the monitor in without further thought. Thus began my self-induced troubles.

For some reason after the computer finished booting my Linux OS somehow managed to make the monitor work in a less than fully functional way. I could see my desktop on the screen but it was at the wrong resolution and not working properly. Even so, I could see that I had a message saying my computer BIOS battery was dead. That was no big surprise since since the computer had been without power for nearly two months. But it was a red herring because I thought all my problems might be traced back to a bad BIOS battery.

What followed was the typical trouble-shooting that any computer hobbyist is all too familiar with. First a second monitor is brought in. When that didn’t resolve the monitor trouble a new 3V lithium battery was found for the BIOS. (Being me, I managed to snap one of the holding tabs for the battery case when I replaced it.) When that didn’t resolve the problem, a old video card was dug up and stuck into the computer. With the monitor plugged into this video card the monitor now came on as soon as the computer was booted up. At this point I finally re-learned what I had already known before: the built-in video was not working properly. Alas, but I still had not recalled, or noticed, that I already had a video card installed.

I didn’t discover the previously installed video card until the next day. If my brain had been fully functioning then I would have went, “Ah, now I remember–this is the video card I was using” and all would have been well. Instead I thought, “Hmmm, this must be some video card I installed awhile ago and it didn’t work so I just left it there because I was too lazy to pull it back out.” And then I proceeded to pull the said video card out, unwittingly further breaking my computer on myself.

It was only after I spent a good amount of time (hours) trying to make the video card I had scrounged up work that the depths of my mind began stirring. A glimmer became a burst of light and I remembered. Nothing was broken except what I broke. I was simply breaking things as fast as I was trying to fix them, and if I only went back and set everything as it was before I had touched it, everything would work just fine.

So . . . I did that, it worked, and I felt . . . well, stupid. At moments like this, when perhaps nearly eight hours total have been spent in the futility of idiocy, one struggles to see the bright side of things. I say, well, now I know more about Linux because in those hours of struggling to make video cards work I learned about files like XF86Config-4. And, in learning about this file I actually discovered the solution to a different long-running problem I was having with my Linux display. It turned into a worthwhile learning experience.

Worth hours of time fiddling around with self-made problems?

Oh hush.

Summer Blue

29th July 2005

I am the butt of some jokes around here because I say things taste like colors. Actually, sometimes I describe certain tastes as locations or experiences. Like, I say certain seafood tastes like the black dark rotting bottom of the ocean. A description of a taste which some people consider revolting. Certainly not a normal taste, I agree, but I actually don’t dislike the food I describe that way. I find it different . . . peculiar. It is as if when one eats the clams, or whatever, you’re taken to that far-off dark watery place and are tasting it. Not good or bad, exactly, but I wouldn’t want to visit there very often.

The reason for me being the butt of jokes, of course, is because many people don’t understand how something can taste like a color, or a location. How, they ask, can something taste green? Spinach tastes like spinach, fish tastes like fish, and beans taste like beans.

Well, maybe for some people.

While I don’t mind in the slightest being the butt of jokes about tasting brown and yellow things, when I consider the matter I’m surprised most people don’t taste things like I do. Perhaps it is a peculiarity in me, but maybe other people are simply inattentive about what they taste and so simply taste nothing. I somehow doubt that, but it’s an interesting question.

The best way I could explain it to you is that tasting, for me, is associative. What do I mean? Well, let’s take something a lot of people do on occasion with smelling. Mostly when people smell a rose they say it smells like a rose or if they smell car exhaust they say it smells like car exhaust. But, with most people they have a few distinctive smells–or some combination of smells–that will remind them of something else or they will say smells like something else. Someone might smell some particular smell and they will say, “Oh! That smells like Grandma’s house when I was little,” and for that one moment they will be little again, standing in Grandma’s kitchen. Or, someone will smell something and they say, “That smells like summer in the evening time!” and for a moment they will be transported to the summer evening when the crickets are calling and you’re sitting out on the back porch watching the fireflies wink on and off.

Now, a few sticklers will say that grass smells like grass, and flowers smell like flowers, and so on. But most people recognize that there are certain smells that to them are associative–the smell isn’t just a smell, it brings a whole range of sensations that make it a memory, and an experience, more than just a smell.

Why do people find it so odd to apply the same principle to taste? Because most people do. If you taste something and exclaim, “Oh! That tastes just like Grandma’s kitchen!” most people will either look at you funny or laugh and ask if you ate Grandma’s kitchen floor when you were a child. They don’t understand how taste can be associative. Few people do.

Maybe it is because few people stop when they are eating and ask themselves, “What does this taste like?” They simply shovel food in their mouths and only think “It’s tastes like it tastes” without stopping to consider the experience of the taste.

I think I am more associative in my tasting than most people. It’s not like–as some people like to joke about me–that everything tastes like a color, or some particular location. More distinctive foods will get a more distinctive taste association from me. Some foods even I will say taste simply like what they are. But I find that most things, if I stop and think about their taste long enough, are a composite of tastes that can be described. Ground beef, and any dish that contains ground beef, I find has a particular brown flavor. If the ground beef happens to be a burned hamburger the brown taste has become black, but most times ground beef remains a brown, and so adds a brown flavor to whatever dish it is in.

A more sophisticated example would be eating Wheaties for breakfast. I like Wheaties. Eating them there are many subtle flavors combining in the whole of the eating experience. You have the milk which tastes: cool, white, smooth, (creamy or thin depending on whether it is skim or not). The Wheaties adds the taste: dry, crunchy, light brown, dash of honey, and cereal box. (I find a lot of cereals if you consider the taste hard enough have a hint of cereal box taste. If this is very faint it doesn’t bother me. However, I’m not sure what gives me this impression of cereal box taste. I don’t know if it is simply the taste of the grain, or perhaps I can detect the BHT or something.) Thus eating a bowl of Wheaties is a complex taste experience, which I find very pleasing. If someone was going to tease me and ask what my Wheaties tasted like this morning I would say, “Brown,” because brown is the prevailing taste of Wheaties, a rather pleasant shade of brown.

Sometimes the taste association is comparative. For example, I once compared two brands of milk. One I liked, the other I didn’t. The one I liked I would have called white, sweet, smooth, and clear. The one I didn’t like I would have said had a hint of bitter, off taste, cow taste, like the milk tank hadn’t been cleaned out and that the milk had sloshed around in the tank too much. (Now I’m verbing my taste!)

My tendency for associative taste (as I call it) I think is a product of my personality, not a difference in my taste buds. Most people will just say something tastes bitter, sweet, salty, or whatever minor combination. But I think, on reflection, that when I taste something my mind tends to say, “What does this taste, like?” Not, “This tastes salty” or “this tastes sweet” (though some things to me do have these more simple tastes) but I think “this tastes like” and my mind grasps associative things which express the impulses the taste brings to me, much like a smell might make you think of your childhood backyard.

This brings us to summer blue. It is currently the blueberry season in this area. I love the taste of a good blueberry. There is this place just over the hill from us which is a U-pick blueberry operation where the berries are sold fairly cheap. We pick lots to bring home, and eat a fair amount while we’re picking as well. There are several varieties at this place (I haven’t figured out exactly how many) and each variety has a distinct taste. Some kinds are okay, a few not so good, but there are a few types–maybe one or two–which are wonderful.

To me blueberry picking is a picture of summer. Somehow, it compresses all of summer down into one little occasion. All that is good and pleasant about summer can be summed up in the words, “Picking and eating blueberries.” And a good blueberry tastes blue. Sweet, pure, blue. Blue like the cool morning sky in summer. Blue like high up on the mountains. Summer blue.

That is what a good blueberry tastes like.

Moonlight, Bright

25th July 2005

By living in the city, with its smog, lights, and noise, people miss many things in the natural world. I admit I loathe living in the city with the same passion that I love the empty land of back roads. So, I am biased. Sometimes, I think those city dwellers can’t even dream of the things they miss, caught up in the hustle and bustle and glaring lights of their manufactured existence.

“Oh,” they might say. “Like what?”

Like the night.

An answer like that will only get you the strangest looks.

It seems the darkness of night is something to be escaped in the city. It is a frightening thing, a thing to be banished with street lights, front porch lights, and motion sensing lights. Night is danger. Hide from the night.

I don’t doubt that, with all the violent crime in cities, this is a very prudent way of living. And I suppose it is a habit of living that is hard to break. People who come in from the city say, “How can you go outside without a light? Don’t you need a flashlight?” And, “I couldn’t stand living out here. There aren’t any street lights. Aren’t you afraid to have no street lights?”

But–though it may shock all you city dwellers to hear this–it isn’t like that in the country. You don’t need to think about robbery and violence. You can go out walking in the cool darkness of the summer nights and hear the night bugs chirrup. You can walk or just sit out in the darkness and think, relaxing in the stillness of the world at rest.

People always talk about how dark the night is but in the country night is rarely so dark that one cannot see. Yes, if you are out in a stormy rain-drenched night it is pitch dark, but on any normal night the light of the stars shows the shape of the world to the eye accustomed to the dim reality. It isn’t an inability to see, it is seeing differently.

And sometimes . . . sometimes . . . the night becomes an occasion of breathtaking beauty.

A few nights ago there was a full summer moon. I came downstairs in the middle of the night to use the bathroom (I leave the lights off whenever possible because I find it more comfortable to navigate in the dark) and happened to glance out the front door. The moon hung low over the trees and pale light poured through the windows.

It was–perhaps you won’t understand–a painfully beautiful sight. It didn’t look like night outside–it looked like a different kind of day, as if the sun had turned to silver. The entire sky was a pale silver sheen, seeming to blaze with a cool light. The light was so clear and bright the trees cast shadows across the lawn. The cars, the grass, the rocky driveway were all clear in that otherwordly light.

I just looked. I could have–I am almost certain–sat down on the porch and read by the moonlight. Dark? It wasn’t dark–it was a second day. A day cool, clear, and quiet. A secret day that nobody saw, everyone sleeping away until the sun rose and chased this quiet silver day away.

I wish I had taken a picture. I didn’t. I don’t know if a photograph could have captured the silver light and the strange moon shadows cast by the trees. But if it did–if I had–then maybe you could have seen what the city dwellers miss.

The night holds a strange beauty for those who see it.

Death Stalks The Night

3rd May 2005

Last week as I walked through the chicken yard I noticed one of the male ducks was missing. We had two males and two females. For the last several weeks the females have been sitting on eggs, leaving the two males to form a forlorn bachelor’s club. But the club had become one.

I noticed the male duck was alone, immediately realized something was wrong with the picture, and wondered exactly when I had begun seeing only one male duck. Was this the first time, or had I seen only one duck on previous days and simply failed to register the oddity?

No firm answer to that question. I quickly went about the chicken yard looking for the second male duck on the chance he had somehow decided to go off alone. I didn’t think he had, and my search turned up no duck. I then searched outside the fence, more looking for the remains of a duck body than the actual living and quacking thing.

I found nothing. No duck, not even the hint of a few feathers. From all that I could find the duck had vanished without a trace. Either (a) the duck had decided that life was better elsewhere and had left or (b) the duck had been dragged off by some creature. Since the duck had a mate sitting on a nest it was highly unlikely he had left of his own free will.

This meant we had a nighttime security breach. Something was getting inside the fence and what got in once would likely (unfortunately) get in again. Word was spread round the house for people to be alert and Teman and I determined that if we heard the ducks making a racket at night we would go out and check.

A few nights later I awoke to hear a duck quacking hysterically. Shaking myself out of my befuddled state, I decide I must go down and check. As I’m climbing out of bed Teman whispers from across the room that he has already gone out to check. He said the ducks were agitated but he couldn’t find anything out there after them.

Okay. I’m a little bit annoyed. The duck is making a lot of noise. If an animal is going to act like that it ought to have a good reason. Well, I’ll still go down and use the bathroom.

Once downstairs I can hear the duck better. Ducks–unlike chickens–don’t have the right tonal pitch to ever vocalize what can be called screaming. But what I heard was a female duck expressing pure terror in her incessant quacks.

Something was not right. Teman had said he found nothing, but something was more than a little not right. Teman isn’t known for being observant, or having it all together when he first wakes up, so even though he said he had found nothing it was possible there was something.

If nothing else I might be able to shut the duck up.

So, I fetched a pair of rubber barn boots and a big flashlight and went outside in nothing more than boots, underwear, and flashlight.

I hadn’t turned on any lights in the house before leaving. It was dark and cold outside. With the one female duck crying bloody murder as best she could it felt like the creepy atmosphere to some horror movie. The light of my flashlight swings around and I find the terrorized female duck. She is standing along, seemingly immobilized with fear, calling out again and again.

Only one duck. She is supposed to be on her nest and besides, Teman said there had been two ducks when he went out a short time ago. Maybe the second duck is just a little distance away. I think this to myself, but I also know that he would be standing right beside the female duck if he could. His absence meant that almost surely if I found him he would be incapacitated–perhaps dismembered.

Searching for the unknown in the dark with a flashlight is not pleasant. A flashlight limits your range of vision to a small circle and things–unpleasant and unexpected things–can appear with a suddenness like playing hide-and-seek in the dark and having someone jump out and shout “boo!” Except in this case I am looking for a probably blood-spattered carnivore–I still don’t know how big or how deranged–and a likely dead and perhaps mutilated duck. I face all of this in my rubber boots and underwear.

Age has hardened me somewhat against the shock of certain discoveries. This night, in some twisted way, was an echo of over ten years ago. Back when I was about ten we had two Pekin ducks. They were a male and female pair. As the first fowl I had ever cared for I had a lot of affection for them. That cold clear spring morning I stepped outside expecting I would feed the ducks. It was a wonderful day–until I walked around into the back yard and discovered the male Pekin dead, ripped open in the most savage manner.

That was a shock. A sight so unexpected, so out of joint with with the bright morning. The memory of that discovery remains burned in my mind. I remember the crisp cold, the light snow on the ground–and how it dusted the corpse of the male Pekin duck, his chest ripped open, his sightless eye staring at me.

It was the shock, I think, more than anything else that made me cry when I went back inside and told everyone else.

Now, over ten years later, it is ducks again. Except, this time I’ve come a little earlier into the scene. It’s dark. Instead of finding a cold, dead corpse in the early light of morning I had the chance of finding a warm, dead corpse in the middle of the night.

In the next sweep of the flashlight I found the second duck. The body lay in a shallow puddle of water. Okay, dead, I silently told myself. Yes, dead. You expected that. Now go see how he died.

Braced to find a dead duck, I was now prepared to discover by what means he had died.

I entered the chicken yard and walked over to the duck. I didn’t see any mark on the body, but the upper neck and the head were bent at an odd and grotesque manner. Dead, I thought. Then the duck struggled to rise, it’s head and mouth moving feebly in what I can only describe as a revolting manner. It looked wrong. All wrong.

One duck down, one duck terrified, one duck still missing. It was below freezing outside and in my state of undress I was starting to get cold. I decided to get Teman out of bed. Back inside I pulled on some clothes and told Teman what I had found.

With both of us outside we went looking for the last female duck. We found her far down in the bottom of the chicken yard in the weeds on the other side of the drainage ditch. She was bedraggled, sopping wet, and traumatized. Whereas the first female was in loud hysterics the second stood silent as we shone our flashlights on her. When I went to fetch her she only crawled into a corner.

The first female had finally stopped her quacking and we brought the second back to unite them. The male was still struggling feebly in the puddle of water and I pulled him out to keep him from drowning in the half inch of water. After that there wasn’t much to do. The attacker was gone–having injured the male duck and plundered one of the nests. The battle was over for the night.

That was two nights ago. At the time I was certain the male duck had received a mortal wound. Much to my surprise, he seems to be recovering. For the first day he spent all his time laying on the ground like something dead . . . occasionally dragging himself from one short distance on the lawn to another. If someone came by he simply blinked at them. Today he has traveled back to the water in the drainage ditch and is hanging out with the female duck who has lost her eggs. They are a traumatized pair. The male still doesn’t like to hold up his head. How much he remains crippled for life only time will tell. Dad suggested the duck suffered not a broken neck but rather a bite on the neck. I suppose such a wound might better explain the initial incapacitation but the now somewhat speedy recovery.

Yesterday I had a neighbor with traps come over. We repaired the damaged portion of the fence and set the traps. We also found some scattered feathers from the missing male duck . . . the only sign of his end. The possible culprit responsible for these assaults ranges from opossum, skunk, raccoon to fox or coyote. All live in the area and all are capable. I hope that whatever attacked the ducks will be caught. If it is, the creature is dead meat.

The Prodigal Returns

3rd May 2005

Indeed the prodigal has returned. (Go here to read about when she left.) Our long lost turkey has come back. Sort of.

It might just be weekly visitation rights, or something. She hasn’t really explained herself.

Her first reappearance since leaving last June came about two weeks ago. It was Tuesday morning. I was inside, just back from my bike ride. Titi came downstairs and said, “Hey Rundy, the turkey is back and she wants to be let inside the fence!”

I said, “Well, why don’t you go out and let her in.” But Titi didn’t have her shoes on, so I went.

The turkey was out standing by the apple tree, a place she often found herself when she used to fly out of the chicken fence and then wanted to get back in but couldn’t figure out how. She was extremely agitated. She looked in at the chicken yard, all her feather puffed out and was growling “Brrrk . . . Brrrk . . . Brrrk”

The chickens were ignoring her. I’m not sure if they simply didn’t notice or figured she wasn’t their concern. (Few of the chickens we presently have were adult residents of the barnyard wen the turkey left.) How quickly they would learn otherwise.

I called out, “Hey Tur-key, Tur-key, Tur-key! What are you doing?”

She did not seem surprised or unnerved by my presence. I thought that after having been gone for a year she might have gone wild and skittish. But no. She acted as if I were an expected part of the picture and it was those strange interlopers in her chicken yard that were the problem.

I asked her if she wanted to go inside and went to the gate to open it. All the chickens came running, (expecting a handout, as always) and the turkey came around to enter the chicken yard just as she used to a year ago. It was like she hadn’t forgotten the routine a bit and remembered it just as if she had never left.

A turkey strutting through the gate, chest out, feathers bristling, was not what the chickens expected to greet them. The turkey advanced, growling “Brrrk-Brrrk” in threatening tones and asking who wanted to fight. The chickens quickly decided there were all sorts of other interesting things and kind of meandered hastily out of the turkey’s way.

The turkey wasn’t satisfied with this. When she first came into the chicken yard those years ago as a small bedraggled chick she was at the bottom of the pecking order. Once grown into her full height (at which time she towered over the chickens) she gradually gained the cool respect of a weirdo that must be recognized as an equal. Now she was back, and not seeing her old boss around (she previously always deferred to the now deceased rooster) she decided to show everyone that she was in charge.

The hens had no intention of challenging her. She was some weird freak that came strutting through the gate when they were expecting some goodie handout. Their best solution was to try to pretend she didn’t exist and as that became untenable they took to hiding behind the rooster and/or panicking.

When the turkey previously lived with the chickens she was always exceptionally protective. I haven’t had the opportunity to observe wild turkeys in general to know where this is typical of the females as a whole or if “our” turkey is unusual, perhaps figuring she must be protective because the chickens are small and, ergo, not yet adults. Having now returned, she quickly decided the hens would not contest her–they were the flock. But she immediately picked up on the fact that the two roosters of the yard were the only ones that might contest her dominance and authority.

The black rooster (otherwise sometimes referred to as the “nice” rooster, or “friendly” rooster) is the rooster in charge of the chicken yard. He watches over the flock, shows the hens all the good food, and generally thinks of himself as Big Stuff. The second rooster is red and generally keeps himself out of everyone’s way. He is a sniveling self-centered coward, and has been one from the start. It’s all in the breeding, I guess.

A rooster that considers himself Big Stuff can be a pain. Roosters that get themselves in the position of dominance will either (a) consider it their duty to fight humans, (b) affect an air of indifference and pretend that humans don’t exist or at least are no threat to their royal authority, or (c) be friendly. Roosters that take path (a) tend not to live very long. Most dominant roosters end up in position (b). Rare is the rooster that manages position (c)–being both Big Stuff and friendly.

As it happens, our black rooster is just such a bird. For being a bird monarch of absolute rule he is a pretty easy-going guy. He seems to take immense pride in being the “food finder” and actually doesn’t put much vigor into chasing the red rooster. He takes his job very seriously. I consider him an all around goofy guy. He considers me one of those great food sources, and that is perhaps the sole reason he is so chummy with me. Every time I make an appearance he comes hurrying over and begins his long “Bruu-kuk-kuk-kuk” explanation that heeerrree comes food. He keeps following me along, almost getting under foot as he calls every hen. Then, more often than not, food is produced and dumped in the dishes. Voila! I simply make him look great.

The black rooster doesn’t like to fight unless necessary and doesn’t carry it on any more than he must. I think if he were a testosterone laden freak rooster all thoughts of self-preservation would be banished from his mind and he would attack everyone and anything. But he isn’t, and as it is, his more mellow nature makes him inclined to realize that certain dangers come with combat and he really prefers not to risk himself unless he must.

But a king must defend his country and a rooster must defend his flock (within reason!). The turkey’s sudden morning appearance had become a rather uncomfortable threat to his authority.

As the turkey sized up the opposition the red rooster made a hasty unconditional capitulation and fled from the field of battle, seeking out a good place to hide. Hens began to panic. The field of battle vacated in haste, most of the hens taking refuge around the black rooster. If hens could go “eek” they would have all been saying “Eeek! Eeek! What is that big thing? Save us! Save us! Drive it off!”

The rooster, for his part, really did not like the look of things. This turkey looked like a rather large and slavering beast and the rooster was just a nice, easy-going kind of guy. If he could have quaked he would have. Instead he tried to act concerned and reassuring whilst also trying to conceal his thoughts of a hasty retreat. He really wanted to run and hide like cowardly red but duty called him in the other direction . . .

The rooster was out-weighed by his opponent but what he didn’t know is that the turkey is really a rather big coward. True, she is excellent at puffing herself up and appearing like a deranged maniac, but if anyone has the bravery to stand against her fearsome appearance and sudden charge she will suddenly break at the last moment and get all weak. But the black rooster didn’t know that.

I, of course, am standing outside the fence and grinning like a fool as I watch the melodrama unfold.

When the turkey first advanced, the black rooster went into a slow retreat clearing his throat and making equivocal sounds. He signaled he was willing to not contest her position. If the turkey had been willing to leave it at that she could have won. But she wanted complete surrender. The rooster did not want to fight, he really did not want to fight this creature that was bigger than him, but he could not make abject surrender without at least an attempt at resistance. When the turkey finally came on in her charge he countered with an attack-retreat–that is, he leaped in an attack move and then leaped away in case she would attempt to dismember him. What a surprise–and relief!–when he found that not only was he not dismembered but at his terrified attack the turkey leaped back so that the first engagement ended in retreat from both parties.

The rooster was far more shaken by the encounter than the turkey, but he had a lot more on the line. The turkey kept circling and threatening–making the rooster ever more panicky–but at each charge he would screw up what little charge he had and counter with his own feint. The turkey pushed the rooster right to his breaking point, but under duress he was a quick study. It did not escape his notice that the turkey was unable to follow through with an attack when he countered. After being driven to the raw edge of terror by the first several sallies he began to grow more bold.

At that point the turkey lost the fight. She wasn’t going to attack if he actually was going to defend and so she gave up in effect saying, “Poohy. Okay, you can be in charge and I’ll be in second command.” The rooster was only too willing to agree to that as he had been willing to surrender to second position when the turkey first challenged him. A little bit of bravery saved him a lot of dignity.

So, for the rest of the day the turkey hung out. The black rooster felt much relieved, the chickens felt weirded out, and the turkey acted as if she had never been away before. She thought it rather weird that the chicken house was moved, but otherwise she hung out in all her old places and acted as if a year gone was nothing odd.

Evening came and the chickens went to bed. The turkey peered in the chicken house but decided she didn’t want to sleep there (I think the turkey always considered it too crowded). So, she flew back up onto the top of the chicken house roof, the flew over the fence and walked off into an evening.

A week later she was back again. She arrived in the morning, hung out for the day, and then left. The reason for these two visits remains a mystery. Why after an entire year of absence has she come back? And why does she only visit for a day and then leave in the evening? (It almost sounds like some mysterious fairy tale!) But I have no idea. I am curious to see if it continues, or if these visits are the end of the matter.

Back Home

12th April 2005

On Monday Titi and I returned from a week away. The 4th saw us going down to New Jersey to help our Grandma and Grandpa O prepare for moving at the end of May. That’s a long time away, you might say. But they have a lot of preparing they need to do. For a week we helped clean and fix things. It was not exactly an adventure as fixing things and cleaning up are two things I do fairly often, but it was a change in scenery and a change in schedule.

In the process of cleaning and fixing as many things as we could in one short week I think we exhausted Grandma and Grandpa. And nearly ate them out of house and home. I suppose both of those are side effects of working from breakfast to supper. You eat a lot and exhaust anyone who is trying to keep up. (Not to mention exhausting yourself.) I think our pace caused Grandma some distress as she feared we would overwork ourselves and . . . do something. This was a source of mild amusement to me. Her questioning was like an echo of almost ten years ago when, at the age of fourteen I was hired to help repair a basement. My job was to haul up five gallon buckets loaded down with chunks of cement. Teman and I worked at it for eight hours each day. The foreman of the job was so concerned by our unrelenting pace that he pulled us aside at one point and told us not to work so hard or we would hurt ourselves. Now . . . at twenty-three someone is concerned that working steadily at minor house repairs would somehow push me over the brink. One is tired after working eight hours on various projects around the house . . . but that is nothing compared to the exhaustion of hauling concrete rubble all day.

The night before we left for NJ it rained heavily. All rivers were flooded and there was a mudslide near home. All this had no effect on our travel . . . but it almost did. The Delaware river came within a few feet of flooding the highway down near the Penn.-NJ border. That would have been interesting.

Things Noticed

In the winter it is like time has stood still. You can leave for a week in January (or a month) and when you come back everything can look just as it had before you left: all snow. But in spring it is as if time has sped up. You’re away for a week and flowers that were just poking their leaves out of the ground are now in bloom.

What I noticed most was the grass had greened. When we left a week ago everything was a dry barren brown. We came back and the chicken yard had turned a fresh green. Hard to believe less than a month ago there was still snow lying thick on the ground. Fresh green grass is so beautiful.

Another thing I noticed on returning home was the quiet. Well, not the silence exactly, but the change in ambiance. Down in NJ (near NYC) there is always the sound of vehicles and, at frequent intervals, the wail of sirens. Up here as I watch the sun set behind the western hill there is the cool quiet air and the coo of morning doves. At night dogs bark into the stillness.

The Farm

Both of the female ducks are trying to sit on nests. This is the first attempt for both of them and I think they won’t be successful. I think they started too early in the year. Then there is also the problem of skunks, raccoons, and opossums who would like to eat the eggs. The ducks tried to hide their nests away but I think for true success they would need a marsh or a large pond with a island in the middle. Nesting on the banks of our drainage ditch is not exactly safe from any pillaging beasts.

The male ducks are bored without their honeys around. They sit in the water and . . . wait.

***

Spring is really here, with all of the projects that it entails. The apple trees need to be pruned. It really would be nice if I could clean out around the blueberry bushes this year, prune them, and maybe even mulch around them. I don’t know if that will be anything more than a dream. Since we learned of a U-pick blueberry place just over the hill where we can pick all the berries we could use for the price of $.80 per pound it is a little hard to feel motivated to keep up our own patch. It’s so much easier just to jaunt on down the street and pick them. So much less work. And Teman so far has been willing to pay for as many as we can pick.

I would like to put walls onto Teman’s cart so I could haul manure in it, if I ever got around to such a thing.

***

The past week has been brilliantly clear and warm for April. The sky looks like a pure clear blueness that stretches on forever. It looks fresh, healthy, and new. We live in a valley that runs north to south. The house faces east and I consider both of these features to be excellent for enjoying sunrise and sunset. In the morning the sun rises behind the house, lighting up the hill rising across the valley with the first rays of the new day. Then with evening the sun sets behind the hill across from the house giving us a full view of the sunset. As evening gives way to night the hill becomes a looming shadow, the last faint light of the sky forming a backdrop.

When the sun rises the line of illumination works its way down the far hill, creeping along like the cover of night being pulled back. Then, as the sun sets the shadow of night creeps in the same direction, the golden illuminated ground receding like the blanket of night returning. Perhaps a very dull fact of nature to some people but I don’t tire of watching.

I’m glad to be home.

And I’m glad spring has come.

The New System

5th April 2005

Not that any of my non-tech readers care, but the system switch is complete. Previously I was using Movabletype 3.15. Now I am using WordPress 1.5. Perhaps you non-techie types have noticed the new visual design.

Why the switch? Several reasons. Functionally, Movabletype is a very useful system. It has served me well for many months since the time when I first started this site. However, several things came together which made me decide it was time to move on.

Ever since the new licensing that was rolled out with Movabletype 3 I knew MT was not the system that would take me into the future. (If you were or are an MT user chances are you know what I’m talking about. For anyone else, it isn’t important enough to explain.) While under the new licensing scheme my current site (of a single not for profit blog) is acceptable, the new license pretty well capped any experimentation I might be inclined to undertake. I understand the desire of the Movabletype team to make money from their labor, but I don’t have a lot of money to spend, and on principle I don’t like people telling me what I may and may not do. So . . . for some time since the new licensing came out I continued to use MT, but I knew that wasn’t where my future lay.

But the straw that really broke the camels back is when a security patch to the MT system broke the e-mail notification feature. No one on my notification list received the e-mail when I updated the site. MT was now half broken. As best I can tell this happened sometime in February so if you’re one of the readers that subscribed via the e-mail notification feature . . . now you know about how much you’ve missed.

Upgrading the system was not too much of a hassle. The hardest thing was finding the time. And being careful so I didn’t screw up. Everything seems to have gone smoothly. The import from MT went well. My biggest concern was the migration. I didn’t (don’t) want to loose any users because of the switch. I hope I did the RSS redirect right. I hope the new e-mail notificaiton system works right.

I think I did it all right. I hope. I’m not sure. RSS is still in the testing stage. Good news is that the new e-mail notification system seems to be much better.

The new visual design still has some rought spots. I’m not sure if it will be my permanent design. It was put together in haste. Comments are welcome. It’s something I’ll be tweaking with in the months to come.
The switch to the new system is complete.t

Important Update Notice

29th March 2005

I am about to switch this site over to using WordPress 1.5. If all goes well this should not affect site access. However, there is the possibility that those readers who are accessing the RSS feed may not pick up the WordPress issued RSS feed. On the chance of this possibility all RSS readers are advised to come in a few days to http://homefront.silverwarethief.com and check to make sure any new posts are coming up in your RSS reader. If this site shows posts that are not in your RSS reader you will know that your reader is not picking up the WordPress issued RSS feed.

If that does happen (and I hope it does not!) you should be able to pick up the feed from the link on http://homefront.silverwarethief.com. If you have any problems with the site during this transition please feel free to contact me.

At the present I will leave you all in the hopes that when I return it will be after a successful transition.

To that hope, this is the last post using MovableType 3.15

Edit: The first version of this post was written in MT 3.15. If you are seeing this text, you are viewing the WordPress installation. It seems all has gone well. There is still work to do. A longer post later.

Spring Rain

28th March 2005

Since last time I wrote it snowed. Another good six inches on top of what we already had. Today it’s raining. Melting snow and rain–water is everywhere. Mud is everywhere too.

It’s a mess.

It’s spring.

The land around here is clay. With snow still covering about half of the ground, much of it is frozen clay. This combined effect causes most of the water to run along the surface of the ground rather than seeping away, out of sight. Water gathering, running down hill, combining, all has a cumulative watershed effect. Drainage ditches are filled to bursting. Springs have sprouted up everywhere. Water is simply running downhill in a mad rush of gravity.

Sometimes the land seems almost convulsed with the arrival of spring. Frozen sections of ground bulge upward while those sections of the earth that have defrosted sink downward, giving the land a uneven, hummocky appearance. Water cuts channels through the softened sections of earth, depositing dirt in new locations. Springs of water vomit up dirt, leaving heaps in the middle of the lawn.

Forced through frozen clay, the water table–and water pressure–has risen almost as far as it can go. The ground is saturated. Out in the side yard an old sink hole that first showed itself over five years ago is making a reappearance. The ground is soft beneath my boots and then starts to give. I stomp and find that I can sink into the earth almost up to my knee. I withdraw my foot and see water sitting in the hole, nearly to the surface of the grass.. I jump up and down on the ground and the water sloshes in the hole. The ground is being eaten away from beneath by some subterranean stream. The earth is honeycombed . . . I don’t know how much more will give away.

Across the driveway to the south a particularly strong spring has appeared. The ground bulges upward like a miniature volcano and from the top spouts a geyser of water that is 1-2 inches tall, splashing down through the lawn. A stream continues to run through the driveway.

At times like these I am both amazed and thankful for how little the water seriously affects our living. The water table, it would seem, has nearly reached the surface of the ground but our basement remains (relatively) dry. Our well is artesian so there is a pipe in the basement which overflows, the water running through a drainage ditch to outside. A manageable thing. Looking outside one would expect that on opening the basement door one would find water lapping at the top steps.

Also, I am very glad that we finally moved the chicken house last year. (Long story–I’ll have to tell it sometime.) The chicken house is in a new location, on proper cement piers. The old location . . . well, the ducks have made it into their mud hole. The place is a mess of mud and standing water, that, if you told someone a building used to stand there, they would laugh at the idea.

It’s Cold, It’s Raining, and There is Nothing Good to Eat

Speaking of the chickens, they are quite fed up with winter. Chicken boredom has set in. They want something fun to do. They want fresh bugs and fresh grass to eat. They wander off to every far corner of the chicken yard, scratching through the weeds, searching for something, anything, besides their boring old feed. They stand around and watch it rain and look miserable. It is the time of year when chickens start thinking about flying over the fence. Last week one hen continued to fly over the fence, stubbornly, every time after she was put back. There will only be more disgruntled inhabitants as the snow continues to melt.

In contrasts to the chickens, the ducks are having a grand old time. The more water the merrier. The more mud the merrier. They root through every stream and every puddle until everything has been churned to mud. And then chuckle and quack to each other about how wonderful this all is.

Water is fickle around here. Today we are nearly drowning in all of it, but come midsummer it seeps away and the once sopping heavy clay becomes dry and cracked hardpan. No mercy.

In Other News

Teman bought a trailer for his jeep. I am already thinking up many uses for his trailer and jeep. Mostly they involve driving to the store to pick up supplies for all sorts of building projects. But I am dreaming up other uses, too. So nice of him to buy a trailer for me to use. (Ha ha.)

So far I have avoided any catastrophes with the trailer. Backing it up takes a bit of skill. I’ve found that I do just fine when not under stress. If I am under stress, have an audience, or must hurry . . . then I am a moving disaster. Of course, when must we do most of the backing up? When we have all the time in the world or when people want to get by and you’re trying to back up past a car?

Yeah, and the trailer is made from welded angle iron so if I hit anything I hit it good. No rubber bumper here. Needless to say I have the desire to put this useful piece of equipment to work warring with my foreboding that if I don’t stay well away from the trailer there is an accident waiting in my future.

Morning Ride In March

11th March 2005

The proverbial (and over used) saying is that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. In truth March is a fickle beast and comes in as it wishes and goes out as it wishes. Some years you might have the bliss of March both coming and going like a lamb . . . other years March is the raging lion all month long. I think the one thing that can be safely said for March is that it is a fickle month.

However it shall leave, March has come in this year like a lion. Snow and more snow. Wind and cold. And more snow. Had enough? March is still not half over yet. March is fickle, but perhaps the second thing this month is known for is the number of people who finally crack and go insane from the length and madness of winter. By March a person is inclined to believe that they deserve spring and are inclined to grow increasingly irrational and unreasonable when this supposed right is thwarted.

It is true. By March just about any reasonable person is ready for spring. Warm weather. Green things. But the fickleness of March does not bother me as much as some people. Mentally, I feel worse heading into winter. Then the days are growing shorter, it’s getting dark earlier and light later and we have months and months of cold miserable weather ahead. And besides, everything I intended to finish before winter wasn’t done. With March, it is the opposite. The days are growing longer, it’s getting warmer, and the wonderful spring and summer are just over the horizon. I can make all sorts of wonderful idyllic plans about what I will accomplish in the coming seasons. Optimism abounds.

From this perspective, March and April are good months. They are the months in which you can dream and appreciate that which is not here. By the time May and June come, reality is colliding with all of those daydreams.

So, when the snow comes pouring down in March and the temperature is still hovering around zero (Fahrenheit) I am inclined to simply laugh. Why not go out in bare feet and shout up at the sky, “Snow! Snow all you want! It won’t keep spring from coming! It’s coming and when it does you’re all going to melt! Hear me!” I haven’t done that. But maybe I am slightly mad to think about things that way.

Tuesday morning was one of those March mornings. I look out the window in preparation for my early morning bicycle ride and I see the snow coming down thick, kind of coming down sideways because of the wind. That is enough to elicit a groan. Sub-zero temperatures have their own problems, but there is a particular annoyance and discomfort in snow and wind. The snow is constantly thrown in your face when riding a bicycle and a strong head wind–as any bicycler can tell you–is a killer. When there is a brutal head wind it can feel like you are pedaling with all your strength and going practically nowhere.

The wind, thankfully, was not that bad Tuesday morning. The snow, however, was the worse, I think, I’ve ever experienced when riding. When there is just a bit of snow falling I only need squint a little or look down slightly (or turn my head slightly to one side) so the blowing flakes do not strike me directly in the eyes. The heavier the snow the more I must squint, and look down or to the side. Tuesday morning it was snowing with vigor and blowing as well.

The combined circumstances made it nearly impossible to see where I was going. If I looked directly down at the front tire of my bicycle I could see but, obviously, seeing the front tire of your bike is not seeing where you’re going. If I looked sideways I could also see, but watching the world pass by was not the same as seeing where I was going. Looking directly ahead I had to close my eyes entirely as I would get blasted with snow. I discovered the only way I could minimally see where I was going was if I cocked my head to one side, shut one eye entirely, and squinted the other eye almost shut. Then, if I squinted from the protection of my shielding face I could see the snow swirling expanse of the road ahead.

Snow plastering up one side of my head, barely able to see–this was how my ride progressed. There was little traffic, and the road had not been plowed so at times the way ahead was a sheet of empty whiteness. There was no line down the middle. There was just a flat white stretch and blowing snow. It was easy to imagine how in a true blizzard a person could easily wander off the road and become lost.

When I finally got home the ride felt invigorating. It is the peculiar nature of things. Relentlessly battered with snow and wind you come inside to the warm air that feels so much more deliciously warm after having survived the howling outdoors. The snow begins to melt off and you feel very much awake and alive and ready to face the day. It is March, and it is a happy thought to know things can only get better than this.

Other Things

A most satisfactory occurrence on my Tuesday ride was a resolution of sorts to a continuing war I was carrying on with a particular dog. A bicycle ride in the country always has the potential for dog problems. Most dogs are no problem–either because they are good natured or obedient enough not to harass people using the road–or because their owners are wise enough to keep their nasty dogs restrained. However, cover enough country roads are you will come across that unrestrained problem. In my normal routine I cover a consistent route and face a consistent dog population. Most of the “problems” are restrained. There are some that are not restrained and cause no problem. Then . . . then there are the problems. One dog, while not nasty is, a nuisance as he likes to run and get in the way. With some sharp words and a bit of physical persuasion I taught this dog that I did not care to be chased for the entire length of my ride. Now he only gets in the way when I am passing his property, a fact I bear with in as much humor as I can scrape together, as the dog is stupid and inconsiderate but not ill-natured.

The second problem is Stalker. This is no jest. It was the name ineffectually screeched after this black dog as it chased and harassed me. There are few things which disgust me more about human-animal interactions than owners/masters who demonstrates their complete inability to control their animal. This Stalker was a problem I watched develop. It was first a little black puppy that ran out into the road after me, an occasion which might make one think, “Aw, how sweet.” The dog, I’m sure, is completely sweet and good natured to its owner and friends but this Stalker was not taught that dogs never chase someone on a bicycle.

Stalker is a coward and he loves to chase. Perhaps his little cowardly heart gets a thrill when he imagines that person pedaling on a bicycle is fleeing from him in fear. Many problem dogs will learn their place (or at least keep their distance) after I’ve given them a dark glare or else kicked them good. Stalker ignored my stare. He always came after me with such glee, circling around, coming as close he dared, wishing he had the gall to actually bite me.

The dog would not take the hint. Not once, not another time. Finally, I began kicking him when he came swooping in for his harassing runs. Then he bit me.

At that point the war went into full escalation. Stalker was a coward. Any time I stopped my bike and dismounted (thus removing my disadvantage) he took flight as fast as his legs could carry him. But he was always back the next time I pedaled past, and he was always ready and eager to harass and threaten–until I dismounted. He was becoming a real spot of unpleasantness in my morning ride and after having bit me Stalker was on the course of either standing down from his activity or heading toward serious injury or death.

Stalker only came close enough for combat when I was moving. Thus I could only land ineffective kicks while in motion. If I stopped he backed out of foot range. If I dismounted and gave chase, he fled. My first thought was to devise a method of inflicting pain while I was in motion. To this end I cut a length of stick slightly longer than my forearm and fastened a metal head on one end, further attaching a length of rope with two large metal nuts attached to the end. This was my “rod of correction.” Unfortunately the theory did not work out so well in practice. On first engagement Stalker came in fast from the front but then cut quick to the left of my moving bicycle which rendered it effectively impossible for me to hit him (I’m right handed). At this point his was in the position to make harassing passes from behind which would be hard to counter.

At this point I was angry. I brought the bicycle to a stop, turned around, and simple threw the stick at him. I threw hard, but anger rather decreases accuracy and it landed between his feet, the stick cracking at the impact. Stalker was rather startled. I wasn’t finished. I turned around and rode to retrieve the stick (Stalker getting out of the way) and I threw it at him again. By this time he was starting to get an inkling and when I retrieved the stick a third time (now split in two) Stalker decided to high tail it out of there. I made another pass in front of the house, daring him to come down and have another go–but he declined.

That was the end of my rod of correction but I knew dear Stalker had not learned his lesson. My last engagement made me realize effectively fighting the dog while in motion on the bike would be difficult as Stalker was much more maneuverable and could basically choose whichever approach he wanted. So my thinking switched to ranged attack.

Next ride out I took two steel 1 1/4 lb weights tucked in my coat pockets. On the next assault from Stalker I would simply stop, aim, and let him discover what being hit by 1 1/4 lbs of steel felt like. And so on Tuesday morning I met him. He saw me well in advance and came running out to meet me, at which point I pulled out one weight–and Stalker promptly turned and leaped for safety, plowing into a snow bank. On my return trip I passed Stalker’s place again, weight in hand. The dog stood in the driveway and simply watched me, uttering not a sound.

I am not sure if in Stalker’s cowardly brain he somehow finally realized he had stepped across the line or if some calculating part of him recognized a load of steel for exactly what it was and knew better than to try anything. He still doesn’t have good long term memory, or is hoping that I will forget to bring my weapon. On Thursday he came out again, but I simply held up the weight and he shut up and withdrew.

Additionally

Our driveway is turning into a frozen river. Recalling events of last year I remember that at times of extreme wetness a spring would appear above our driveway, bubbling up fresh cold water. (We have a high water table and very heavy clay soil which makes surface water a big problem.) This little spring disappears in dry weather, but is causing our current trouble. Surface snow melt can create a small ice problem on the driveway, but we are having water problems when the temperature is below freezing. This can only be caused by subsurface water coming up–and then freezing.

The extent of the problem is amazing. The flow of water is such that even when the temperature is down near zero (Fahrenheit) there will still be pockets of soft ice and water on the driveway. The water keeps coming, spreading and freezing. As ice dams the water up it spreads further and piles higher. In a day it can reach an inch in thickness.

The smooth surface is impassible for a vehicle so the ice is broken up and removed. Next morning–there it is again! Another sheet of ice covering the driveway and this time the frozen water has piled up so high it is covering the bottom step!

Salting is a joke, and even removing the ice is an exercise in futility. The water freezes again, on the driveway, on the road. At this point we are just trying to create an uneven ice surface (break up the ice and let it refreeze) so that vehicles can climb the surface of ice that seems determined to remain until spring truly arrives.

The solution would be to dig a drainage ditch under the driveway. Yeah, that would be nice. If we had the money.

Brains, The Internet, and Me

17th February 2005

Note: Is it clear to all my readers that when I supply a link to some external site I am neither endorsing the site content nor implying that I have examined all of the content at the website? From time to time I may link to external sources for various reasons which does not necessarily imply agreement.

The Double-Edged Sword

The advent of the word-processor was a blessing to writers. Writing and editing became exponentially easier and faster. The Internet, by contrast, has been a very mixed blessing. Finding information has become easier to a fantastic degree. One can sit holed away in some remote location and still reach out across the world searching out whatever knowledge one might need to inform one’s writing. Yet what a double-edged sword. The very thing that allows us to remain seated in front of our computer and leave that very isolation to plunge into the wash of information and raw happenings is the same thing which robs writers of the very isolation and lack of distraction that is necessary for work. Thus the paradox of having a tool (the Internet) which has amazing potential for increased productivity and an even greater potential for destroying productive work.

It is terrible. I wonder if my productivity has actually gone down since broadband Internet access was hooked up to my computer. It is so convenient, and has allowed me to do many things I could not have otherwise done, but none of those “things” happened to be increasing how much writing I produced in one day. Sometimes–when I catch myself having (amazingly!) wasted away hours of time when I was “just going to check a few things,”–I darkly contemplate pulling the plug out of the back of my computer and returning to the empty land where there is only me and my writing.

I haven’t, not yet. Either because I realize the benefits outweigh the costs or because I’m too weak. I dream of what I imagine as the ultimate setup: One computer which is nothing but a bare-bones writing shell–in essence an updated “typewriter” on which I can do nothing but write. Then, another computer which has all the amenities of modern life which will remain shut off until all daily writing is completed. Unfortunately, right now I don’t even have the space for a second computer.

My diligence, or lack thereof, is usually in proportion to how I am feeling about my writing. If I’m feeling really bummed there is a powerful urge to go to news.google.com and see if there is any interesting news from around the world. Then, if there isn’t anything interesting (usually there is something), I start thinking about checking my bookmarks. Just a quick check. Yes, there are a mountain of distractions in which to drown all writing sorrows.

Recently I’ve been about as diligent as I can–short of my ultimate two computer set up (see above). After being such a good boy and reaching the end of my novel draft I decided to go easy on myself. During my break from working on the novel I figured I could relax and allow myself to waste a bit of time browsing on the Internet.

Browsing

Self-control and focus are commodities of great value in the vast jungle of the Internet. Rightly is browsing the Internet called “browsing.” If one does not exercise the greatest degree of control one can end up clicking along from link to link to link, reading all sorts of vaguely interesting things which have absolutely no life applicability–and in the end one comes out of the stupor wondering how one reached the page they were at, and–what exactly did I get on the Internet for anyhow?

Browsing the Internet is often fascinating–the greatest collection of trivia and personal anecdote every created. It is also a mind killer. My brain kicks into complete data reception mode. I go from reading one document to another, to yet another, and more information is coming in than my mind can properly consider and digest. When reading a book I will often stop and mark my place with a finger and think about what I’ve read. The glowing computer screen “transfixes” me into staring at what I’m reading, simply pouring the data in–faster, faster, faster: there is another interesting link, another, and another. Read faster.

It is, frankly, exhausting. By the time I can pull myself away I feel flushed out–spent. My brain no longer up to any kind of work.

In the short term I am good for nothing after such an info over-load from prolonged Internet browsing and as such it is amazingly disruptive. But there are benefits. One: if I managed to avoid reading mindless trivia and disputations over unimportant and meaningless facts (blogs, and blog comments are an endless supply of such–a great sucking vortex from which I must flee screaming unless I want to become entrapped), then the flood of information ingested may actually have a little bit of use. Second: if the above is true than often the information gleaned from my browsing can be very thought provoking. This is good. However, it does bring us back to the whole issue of disruption because it seems that almost invariably all this thought provoking is provoking me down a dozen different lines of thought–none of which are related to what I really ought to be applying my intellect and efforts.

Also, the Internet makes me feel stupid. When I start going about browsing over various (and usually unrelated) topics the vast immensity of all the information out there begins to feel overwhelming. This person knows so much more about that topic. And the next person knows so much about something else. I know so little. I’m so stupid. How can I write a novel if I’m not an expert on this thing, or an expert on that thing?

The division between necessary research and obsession can quickly become blurred, along with the distinction between adequate knowledge and expertise. Sometimes, especially when trying to write, ignorance is bliss. Or, at least, necessary to avoid the frozen state of indecision and self-doubt.

It’s a delicate balance between being ignorant and being deluged.

The Brain

In some of my recent digital wanderings I found myself at the blog of Bob Parsons, president and founder of Godaddy.com, an Internet domain registrar. On the blog there was a post that dealt, in part, with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). PSTD is a fascinating subject in its own right, but in a comment on the post I found something else that caught my interest. In the comment Dr. Robert Mantell wrote:

Have you ever noticed that when talking to some people, often they have to first sort of quickly shift their eyes up or down, or look here or look there, maybe off to one corner or the other, or toward their left or right, as if they’re “looking” for the necessary information before they can respond to you? In many ways, our neurology is not organized all that differently from how a computer is organized. After all, computer information processing was originally modeled after how the human brain seems to process information. When accessing certain kinds of information, we sometimes have to move our eyes to one location or another as if to “access” the desired information, much like how you have to move the cursor on your computer screen to one location or another before you can double-click to open up that particular file. The fact is, certain eye pattern movements are correlated with certain types of information (visual, auditory and kinesthetic) and also, certain types of memories. For example, generally speaking, people tend to look up, either to their right or their left, to access visual forms of information, either mental constructions or visual memories. Similarly, we tend to look directly off to our left or right when accessing auditory information (things we’ve heard before, or how things might sound), and we tend to look down, one way or the other, when accessing feelings. Have you noticed that most people tend to have their eyes down when they’re really in their feelings, either feeling sad or depressed? Because certain memories have certain specific eye patterns associated with them, if you can get a client to access a particularly traumatic memory

Draft Finished

15th February 2005

Last week I reached the end of my novel draft.

Reached doesn’t quite describe the sensation. I dragged myself across the finish line. I hacked my way out of the impenetrable jungle. I walked around the world.

When one starts writing a novel length story the fact that what lays ahead is as uncharted and unknown as a blank page affords a certain buffer from reality. The writer can imagine that the story won’t be too difficult, or too long. In contrast, when the writer works on revisions the hard truth of reality has sunken in. If the previous draft was a rambling mess that very rambling mess lies ahead. There is nobody else to clean up the mess. Every problem of the previous draft stares you in the face–every literary wart and blemish to weigh you down with the multitude of your failings and incompetence.

Some people say working with the blank white page is hard. It is. But I find trying to beat the stupidity of my own past writing into something readable can be worse. It is certainly more intimidating.

I’ve gone through several revisions of this novel, and of the novel before. The stack of paper sitting beside the computer is familiar sight. When starting the process of revising the old draft and creating the new I have one rule: Don’t think. Don’t think about how many months this is going to take you. Don’t think about how today you only finished four pages which out of six hundred is less than .01 of how much work you must do. Don’t think about all the horrible pieces of writing that lay ahead that you must somehow figure out how you’re going to fix. To sit there and stare at the screen–or the stack of paper–and think about these things is to invite despair.

When faced with beginning a revision it is easier to find something–anything–to do instead. You can’t wait for the mood to strike–when is there ever a mood when you want to go and look over all the bad and embarrassing things you’ve ever written? No, the only way it is done is to put your head down, and start. It is like pulling a heavy load or going on a long journey. You focus on the next step, one step after another, until finally, almost in surprise–you step over the finish line months later.

It is then that you look up in wonder, amazed that you actually reached this point. It seems like a time to celebrate but the journey (really) isn’t over and besides, I’m always exhausted by the time I reach the end of a draft. For me there is always the urge to escape–to go and do something besides writing. Something besides looking at what I’ve written.

Stats

Fishermen talk about their catch, hunter’s talk about the deer they bagged, but with me it’s the draft I finished. How big was the draft? Let me tell you. When I typed the last word on the last page I had:

702 Pages
58 Chapters
353,115 Words

All of that information is useless in telling you whether the writing is any good. And, all but the word count is meaningless as far as novel size because I could write each chapter only a page long if I wanted (but obviously I didn’t). In fact, except to a fellow writer, all that information is completely useless.

People say to me, “Um . . . that’s nice. Er . . . is that big?”

Of course I give them some nice polite answer (which I’ll give you in a little bit) but what I want to say is “That’s beside the point! Don’t you understand–702 pages! I wrote 702 pages!” (Trying to get them to feel the agony of writing every one of them.) “I finished it! I finished it! I actually finished it! Can you believe it?” At which point anyone would be making a hasty exit.

The success of completing a novel draft can never be satisfactorily shared. To me those draft figures are a compression of months of labor. A few succinct words that express (as well as anything can) the pain and suffering I’ve been through. To anyone else it’s statistics.

Is It Big?

Yeah, it’s big.

How big? As a comparison I’ll use J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and The Order of The Phoenix.” Most people are familiar with the size of that book. That novel was about 280,000 words. That means “Order of The Phoenix” is only 4/5 as big as my current draft.

Nobody in their right mind would write a novel that big for their first published work. It is agreed among reasonable people that such an act is Insanity with a capital I. I didn’t plan it that way. I just wrote. Both long and short stories may be good–and bad. It is not length that makes a story good, but rather the story told.

That is an abstract truth. And I tell myself my story is great so I needn’t worry.

But here are two hard truths: (1) A larger book costs more to print so an editor is going to look very hard at such a high production cost. That’s life. (2) Writing such a large story takes a lot of time. My novel is large enough to easily be divided into three novels. That means in the time it takes me to revise my draft once, I could have revised a shorter novel three times. That means I could have sent a shorter novel off to a publisher three times as fast.

Thinking like that is a good way to feel glum. Which I do feel sometimes. But mostly I try not to think about it. It might be a story that is good enough to publish. I certainly feel that it will be, once I’m finished. More to the point at hand, all the past (six?) drafts are now just that–the past. There is, I tell myself, only one more draft before I send it off to the publisher. Hooray, I’m dead. I’ve jokingly told Teman (and others) that after this experience writing a normal size novel will feel easy.

Finished

When I finish a draft I give myself a break. Not a “Let’s go to Florida” break–if I was going to go somewhere Florida would be somewhere near the bottom of the list–but rather a week or two (or three) spent working on something besides that thing which has consumed so much of my life for so long. It can either be writing something different (like I’m doing now) or doing something entirely different than writing. I need distance so I can come back refreshed, and with a new perspective.

I’m not actually “finished” with this draft. I reached the end, but before I commit the words to paper I must fix certain portions. (Don’t ask.) I hope it won’t take too long. But again, I’m dreading the stack of paper that will greet me when the draft is printed. Double spaced my 702 pages will expand to nearly 1,400 pages.

No, don’t think about that. Think about how this is the last draft. Think about how after this draft you will be done. Not about how long it will take you to wade through 1,400 pages.

Well, let’s see. If I did ten pages a day then it would–

No, no.

Winter

1st February 2005

Some things are done almost without thinking. Feeling the chill in the air when getting out of bed in the dark, trying to judge what it says about the temperature outside. Checking the windows first thing in the morning to see how much they are frosted over. Completely covered with frost means it was a very cold night. Below zero (Fahrenheit) for certain.

Thursday morning I scrambled out of bed to shut off the alarm in the darkness. Immediately my half-conscious mind began: It was cold, much colder than normal in the bedroom. Bad, I thought, mind still foggy with sleep. It was Thursday, a bicycle morning. That was enough for an inward groan. Around zero is all right for a bicycle ride, but anything lower is . . . difficult. I dressed hurriedly, feeling the chill sucking away my heat. Passing the hall window on the way downstairs I glanced out, trying to gauge how much frost covered the window. Cold, yes, but nothing to indicate any reason the house would be so much colder than any other morning.

Downstairs I stood blinking in the kitchen light and my first thought was–this is really cold. Unnaturally cold. And–something is wrong. This is far too cold for the house. It feels frigid. A quick look at the thermometer in the kitchen and I see we’re down to 54 degrees. There is a repair truck in the driveway. Yes, voices in the basement. Just great. It’s 14 degrees below zero and we’ve no heat. Inside temperature is dropping fast.

Oh no. Are the pipes frozen? I see a big pot on the stove, boiling furiously, and decide that water must have been drawn. The pipes are still okay. I quickly find my rubber boots, pull on my coat, and head down into the basement. If the furnace has a big problem we could have real trouble. It’s 14 below zero and with dawn the temperature will only plunge further. Not the first thing I want to be considering on waking up.

Dad and the repair man are in the basement. The lights are on, the kerosene heater is burning. Still cold in the basement. Everything is cold. I’m still not feeling entirely awake and quite rushed in thinking so many things so quickly after waking up, but I ask the repair man what the problem is.

“Seems it was a blown fuse.”

Dad must have seen my blank look (we have a circuit breaker, not a fuse box,) because he says, “Someone wired in a fuse on the line in between the furnace and the breaker box. It must have blown sometime in the night.”

Why, I ask. Nobody knows. The repair man finishes reassemblying the furnace and the furnace comes on. A simple fix. We’ve heat again, but it’ll be awhile before the house regains its warmth.

Such is the excitement of winter life. In the cold dark heart of winter that is January and February life sometimes seems governed by, and to consist of, watching the temperature readout for outdoors. How cold is it? How cold will it get? Will it get warm out today? How cold will it get tonight? Strange how the important things sometimes seem to dwindle to small point. The thermometer is one of those new-fangled things that has a remote sensor that can read both the inside and outside temperature to a tenth of a degree. Typical for the limitations of modern technology, it always gives out somewhere around negative 21 Fahrenheit. After that we’re left guessing exactly how cold it has become.

It is coldest at dawn. How many people realize this? It is true. Sitting around the table, the windows blank with the pre-dawn dark we watch the temperature plunge as morning approaches. In the last hour before the sun climbs over the horizon the temperature can drop as much as ten degrees. After the sun comes over the horizon the temperature rebounds just as fast, but for that short time just before dawn winter is at its most brutal. It is also the time when I go on my morning bicycle ride.

Riding in The Winter

There is no good reason for why I go riding in such miserable weather. There isn’t even a rational reason. Maybe it is for the same reason that men go exploring the north pole–I am looking about the same by the time I come back from my sub-zero morning rides.

I could offer several different answers, but no single one really explains such an act totally devoid of common sense. I could say I do it because I like to see the horrified and unbelieving expressions that I get. I could say I do it because I don’t want to give in to the cold weather. I do it every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday for the rest of the year, why should I stop now? Maybe it’s my little bit of recklessness in a stultifying and boring life of sitting in front of a computer and just typing.

It is both not so bad as you think, and worse than you probably imagine. That is, if done right, taking a bicycle ride in -20 weather is survivable . . . even bearable with the right equipment. It’s different . . . and in a different sort of way–fun. But also it is very wearying. It is, frankly, a challenge, and perhaps that is the best way of explaining why I do it. Take a bicycle ride in such insanely cold weather is a challenge and I like a challenge.

It is challenge to out-survive winter. By the time the cold weather finally breaks I am mentally exhausted from facing the early morning chill. Every day, subtly, grinds at my will to persevere. Honestly, I make life worse for myself–mostly because I am cheap. Any reasonable person who considers bicycling out in subzero weather would probably buy themselves some special gear–I haven’t, not yet. I am certain to get soft in my old age, so I doubt such a boast is going to last much longer. Already I bought myself a decent pair of gloves and boot socks. But otherwise I wear a regular, rather tattered, winter coat (no sweater), and two pairs of sweat pants. I also wear a head band to keep my ears warm.

The key, of course, is to keep working. If you stand still out in the frigid sub-zero cold you will freeze to death. Keep pedaling and you might just keep warm. I figure -20 is about as far as I dare safely go without buying any special gear. But at that temperature I ought to wear two pairs of sweat pants, long underwear, and two pairs of underwear. Sweat pants are very bad at keeping out the wind.

A common question is frostbite. Answer: It can happen, you bet. Don’t do what I’m doing unless you know what you’re doing. You dress wrong and you can freeze fast, and bad. That said, it’s not a foregone conclusion that if you’re out in sub-zero weather you will freeze. I do not wear any covering on my face and has never been frost bit (yet) and I don’t intend to let it. Much to the amazement of most people, my face is the part of me which causes the least trouble. My nose doesn’t freeze, even if all my nose hairs do, and not my cheeks. I get a healthy crust of ice on my facial hair, but that is insulating.

It is important to understand that wind is more dangerous than cold. It is hard to bike in a stiff wind, but it is also more uncomfortable–savage, I would say–to try and bicycle in anything near sub-zero temperatures. Below zero–forget about it.

This is my third winter bicycling. I find it fascinating how my body interacts and fights with the weather. It is a war between my metabolism and the weather and there is a rhythm to the battle. At a certain point in my ride I will reach a point of perfection–a short period of time where I feel perfect. It is as if the cold can’t touch me. I feel great. It is as if one might say “What is the big deal about riding in this weather? I feel great!” Most of the rest of the time, some part of my body is in the process of freezing, or unfreezing.

With my current attire anything above zero is pretty good, so long as there is no wind. Anything down to -10 isn’t too bad. I loathe going out in weather below -15 and will actually delay my ride if I think I can get the temperature up slightly. Down around -20 makes me start thinking of Jack London’s short story “To Build A Fire” (see http://mbhs.bergtraum.k12.ny.us/cybereng/shorts/firelndn.html for Jack London’s excellent rendition of what it is like to be in the very cold. I hope I am never where it is that cold.) At -20 the weather begins to feel downright savage. Warmth is sucked away in an instant. I can go from warm to freezing so fast it is hard to notice the difference.

But, most of the time it isn’t too bad. It’s different. At -10 I am out in a world that somehow seems strangely different, clear, pale, and empty. The world is silent in the deep morning chill, a silent and almost alien landscape.

Winter Comes

8th November 2004

We had our first snow today. October was amazingly warm and mild for October around here. There were few mornings where it was cold enough to frost. It was September weather all throughout October and was enough to make one wonder if this was a portent of the winter to come.

Then November arrived. It seemed almost as soon as November came the wind arrived. Bitter, gusting, strong wind. A cold wind that heralded winter. There was cold rain, and hail. Then, this morning, large white flakes came floating thickly down.

What started as a gentle snow shower this morning quickly turned quite miserable. The wind returned with a vengeance, whipping about so much that when I looked out the window from my writing it seemed as if the first snow storm of the year was trying to make itself into a blizzard.

What a change from October. Now I wonder if the slowness in the onset of chill weather only means it is going to be more savage for the rest of the winter. Last winter was brutal enough. I don’t want any more brutal early morning bike rides, or any time spent unfreezing water pipes.

I hope this is just fickle November weather.

After raging through this morning the snow storm finally moved on and a bit of sunshine has poked through. It’s that weak later fall-early winter sunlight that is weak and bleak and does nothing to diminish the chill of the wind that howls outside.

The chickens were quite miserable. I’m reminded that I need to put a latch on the chicken house door so that it will stay shut. Then I’m reminded that I need to build an add-on to the chicken house so the chickens have someplace to eat out of the snow and wind during the most bitter parts of the winter.

Days like these are only reminders that winter is coming on fast, and half the things I intended on doing before it arrived haven’t even been started. Most annoying is that one must face up to the fact that half of them won’t even get done.

They Call Me Animal

18th October 2004

This past Saturday I picked up a new name. I’ve been called a lot of things in life, and now I’ve been called an animal.

It all came as a result of a job I was working. I was asked to dig a ditch by a lady I shall call SB. Initially the plan was for Lachlan and me to both work but it came about that Lachlan no longer could. Also, the gentlemen neighbor of SB–who I shall call JS–wanted me to clean out his gutters for him. I had worked for both of these people before, which was good for me because I had an idea what kind of customers they were.

Anyhow, Saturday morning I went to a job that was initially planned for two. I hoped that I still might get done in a timely manner (hope springs eternal) because I didn’t think it would be a difficult ditch to dig. And the gutter cleaning on top of that was nothing. My biggest wish was that it wouldn’t pour rain all day. I can dig in the rain, but I don’t like to, and I especially don’t like to as the weather grows increasingly chilly in the fall. I warned SB and JS that if it absolutely poured rain the job would be called off. On the chance of light rain I brought a raincoat.

Since I had been to the house before my estimation of the job difficulty was not too far off. I had remembered that where I was digging there had been a previous ditch (maybe put in ten years ago) that was full of gravel that had, over time, become throughly mixed with dirt. However, I had not remembered that the old ditch went only half as far as the new ditch, and the pipe in the old ditch–which I had to dig down to–was buried twice as deep as I had expected.

So, I had about ninety feet of ditch to dig. Ninety feet to dig, lay pipe, and fill back in, then hopefully clean gutters. I also had to remove two shrubs that were in the way of where the extended ditch would lead. As the project unfolded I realized it would take a little more time than I had hoped.

I arrived on site at 8:30 AM and began work promptly.

I didn’t stop working until 5:45 PM. The only break I took was 15 minutes for lunch. Minus the fifteen minutes to inhale my food, I worked 9 hours without stop. Without stop. I emphasize this because it goes a long way to explaining (if anyone should ask) how I managed to dig a ninety foot ditch all by myself, lay pipe, and refill three quarters of the ditch, and then clean gutters. I didn’t work with maniacal speed because you can’t work with that kind of speed and expect to keep it up all day. I simply worked steadily, and without stopping. No leaning on the shovel, no taking a breather. I was always either shoveling dirt, or mattocking more dirt loose.

The old section of ditch that I was re-digging was twice as deep as I expected, but it was–as I had expected–much easier to dig than a fresh ditch in rocky clay soil. This meant I could make (relatively) fast progress. While working in the old ditch I was digging up to about my knees or middle thighs but at least I could keep moving along. I ended up with quite the heap of old gravel along side the ditch.

While I worked there was a constant stream of observers. SB would come out at regular interverals to check on me and see if there was anything I needed/wanted (Do you want to take a break? Do you need to warm up? Do you need to cool down?) and JS had stuff going on at his house that kept a constant stream of people walking past my work area.

In the early part of the day the comments were like:

“Found the pipe yet?”

“Moving right along, I see.”

“Doing good work.”

As the day progressed and the ditch progressed the comments shifted ever so slightly.

“Wow, I mean, he’s really doing a good job.”

“I’ve never seen someone work that hard before, and I’m a hard worker.”

One tries to be gracious at such times, even though ditch digging doesn’t feel very glamorous, or amazing. But one comment made me grin. It was first voiced by SB’s brother when he stopped in. He looked at my work, shook his head and said, “You’re like an animal, man.” It was not the last time I heard the comment. Later in the day JS stopped, looked at the length of ditch with dirt and gravel heaped on the side and said, “Geez, you work like an animal.”

I guess this falls into the category of dubious compliment. My name is The Animal. But what kind? An ox, a donkey? I think it is funny, and take it as a compliment, but I can’t help but feel that there is also an imputed pejorative–suggested insanity, madness, and foolishness are also contained in the comment.

The biggest compliment, I suppose, is how people are always coming back with more work. But I find that a very double edged thing. Cleaning the gutters for JS was the third job I did for him. First I dug a ditch in the back of his property, then I dug a bunch of 36 inch deep holes in 90 degree (Fahrenheit) weather so he could put in a deck. He was so impressed that he promptly recommended us and got us another job digging a ditch. This 90 foot ditch for SB was the second job I did for her, and she wanted to know if I would be willing to do some work in the basement.

Flattering, to be sure, but I used this latest job to let them know I was getting out of the business. Yes, indeed, after a good deal of thinking I’ve decided to spend less time digging ditches and more time writing. Different people take this news with varying degrees of acceptance. Some just nod their head politely. JS expressed more dismay. “What!” he said. “Why? You’re still young.” I think he was imagining how much work I could do for him because next he said, “You have a younger brother, right? He works like you, right? Works real hard?” To which I assured, yes, he works real hard. And yes, I hope he will be taking over the business from me.

Lachlan is less than enthralled by this idea. He has greater plans than ditch digging for his life as well, and he doesn’t seem able to “get into the groove” of the labor–a mode of work where your mind slips into the twilight zone of the present, where the entire day slips by in the work of the moment. If you can’t stop thinking about how much working you’re doing, how hard it is, and how much there is left you will go insane. Lachlan can’t get into this state, not really, but he doesn’t really favor the alternative methods of temporary money earning until his dream comes around.

I do leave him a bit of a name to live up to. But he is bigger than me, if not so much of an animal. He should manage if he doesn’t decide stocking grocery shelves is more to his liking.

My Hat

6th September 2004

This summer I bought myself a new hat.

I’m not usually a clothes-buying person, much less hat-buying. Part of this is because clothes cost money, and I don’t have a lot of disposable income. But even if I had cash laying around waiting to be spent, I’m just not one of those people who worries about wearing the latest style. My motto could be “If it works, use it.” I will shamelessly take clothes that other people are discarding. In some ways I find it appalling that so many good jeans–without any holes–can be discarded. I will save more jeans than I could possibly wear because the ones I am wearing will (eventually) wear out, and who wants to let some perfectly usable jeans slip by when sometime in the future I could use them? It makes my little frugal heart gleeful to take in a haul of jeans–to think of how much money I saved! Who cares if most of the jeans are a little big around the middle–that’s what belts are for–or if they’re a little long–just hem them up.

Hats, similarly, are something I take because another has discarded. Whether it is a wool winter hat or a baseball cap, there is always something for me to save from the trash. Over the years these hats have served me well, but recently I began to realize that I could do better. A baseball cap serves its purpose, but it leaves the ears and the neck unprotected. Without sunblock the unprotected ears and neck end up quite burned from the summer sun.

Previously, I had waged a continual battle against sunburn by applying sunblock to the exposed areas. This worked–when I remembered and when I made time to apply the sunblock. Invariably, sometimes I wouldn’t and then I would end up very burned, which is not comfortable. Also, I very much dislike wearing sunblock. Sunblock is slimy and applying it feels something like rubbing butter onto my arms. It leaves me feeling in need of a shower. The sunblock I put on my neck is always the worst. When I sweat it runs down my back.

For years I’ve been stuck in the cycle of applying sunblock, then not applying and getting burned. I wanted some way out of this, and I saw my answer in a Duluth Trading Company catalog. They sell all sorts of nifty things, most of which are far too expensive for me to do anything but dream about, but one hat in particular caught my eye. It was a wide brim hat with a mesh top that could, supposedly, be crushed and it would still return to its original shape. Light, cool, and “indestructible”, this hat looked like the perfect solution to my problem.

The one snag was that it was a little pricey for someone who does not willingly purchase any type of clothing, hat or otherwise. But I thought about wearing sunblock all summer, and I thought about getting sunburned. Then I decided to consider it a worthy long-term investment.

The hat arrived at the beginning of this summer and I’ve had plenty of time to test it out. Over all, it has been an excellent investment. The wide, full brim offers plentiful shade and excellent sun protection. One small problem is that the size I purchased is slightly too big, so the brim settles a little low on my head. This is better than the hat being a little too small, and most of the time it is no trouble at all. The only time it begins to bother me is when I need to do a lot of looking up–a situation where it does begin to feel as if it is riding down in my vision. One other occasional problem is that the hat, with its wide brim, is an air trap. This can be nice if the goal is to keep cooler air trapped down near your head. However, sometimes when I start working really hard, I find that I’m giving off so much heat the hat ends up being something like a smothering blanket trapping my own stifling heat close to my body. I’ve found myself taking my hat off to allow some fresh air to circulate around my face and head.

The purchase was a good investment, but it has brought me no closer to mainstream society. Very few people wear a wide brim hat and going out into public sporting a hat with a 3-inch brim attracts looks and comments. I look strange, certainly. Goofy, even. I sort of think of it as nerdy in an outdoor way. Office nerds wear pocket protectors–outdoor nerds wear huge, wide-brim hats. When not stared at, or mistaken for Amish on the loose, there is always some envy. It seems that if the reaction is not “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that hat!” then it is “Hey! Cool! Where did you get a hat like that!”

Teman bought the exact same hat at the same time as me, and Lachlan received one for his birthday as well. Arlan joked that it was becoming the standard uniform. One person with a large hat can be glossed over, or written off as an anomaly. But a whole bunch wearing huge hats . . . people would begin to wonder. The mischievous part of me thinks everyone in the family ought to get one just so we can have a laugh seeing people trying to figure out why all of us are wearing such big hats.

(One note in conclusion: Apparently Duluth has switched manufacturers for the hat I purchased. I feel that the new hat is of inferior quality to the one I have, though it still probably serves its purpose well enough. The newer version is more grey in color rather than the straw color of mine, and it is also less rigid in shape.)

Collecting Spiders

26th August 2004

If you have arachnophobia you don’t want to read this.

We live out in the country, so naturally there is a large selection of bugs and critters showing up in the course of everyday life. You can either fight this invasion of nature, live with it, or enjoy it.

I do the last.

In fact, I have a collection of spiders in our bathroom.

It all started somewhat by accident.

In our house “bugs” (to be unscientific) fall into three categories: those that are killed at every opportunity, those that are tolerated, and those which have some favorable sanction. Flies are the preeminent example of a bug that is killed at every opportunity. Laybugs are tolerated. They make a mess when they all eventually die in the window frames, but what are you going to do? You can either spend your time trying to deal with them all while they are alive, or else just vacuum them all up once they die naturally. Besides, outside, ladybugs perform a helpful function in keeping down certain pest bugs, so the gardener in me is not inclined to look on them unfavorably.

Spiders are in the last category of having some favorable sanction. They eat flies, so in our continual summer war against the flies, spiders are something of an unofficial ally. Besides, they are fascinating, if you’ve ever stopped to study them.

Anyhow, for years our primary spider company was various generations of daddy-long-legs which would live and die in various corners of the house. Once nature had run its course, or the webs started collecting noticeable dust, it was time to take a broom and clean up the debris and let things start over from scratch. But, this year new arachnoid inhabitants moved into the bathroom. These were big, strong, black spiders. These were spiders straight out of the nightmares of arachnophobia.

The first two spiders of this new strain initially moved into the window, between the glass and the storm window. However, life was good to them; the bug population this year has been robust, and they got plenty of catches. They began to migrate out of the window and into the bathroom proper. These were big, hairy creatures, and you couldn’t well miss them. I, actually, would keep an eye out for them when I went into the bathroom to see where they had recently moved to. They tended to stay in the vicinity of a light, but they would travel surprisingly far distances, sometimes being found in a web at one end of the bathroom, only to move back to the other.

I think the first two spiders were a male and female . . . this is based on the conjecture that eggs were laid and now we have more spiders in the bathroom. The original daddy-long-legs are starting to be crowded out by this big hairy breed. I feel like sometime I will have to put a stop to all of this, but at the moment I am fascinated, and wondering exactly how many generations of spiders I can get going at once. As best I can tell, the two original spiders are still around, and a few of the baby spiders have stuck around since they hatched, and seem to be growing up. I’m wondering how much longer the previous generation will live. I was surprised they did not die after laying the eggs, but the fur on one seems to have changed color, and I’m guessing he/she won’t be around much longer.

However, even after the first generation dies, there is still the question of what the offspring will do. How much multiplication can we have before the bathroom window can’t supply enough bugs? And how fast will these baby spiders grow?

I really will have to kick them all out come fall. The webs will need to be cleaned up, and I’m also sensitive to the fact that this little interest of mine is not exactly . . . er . . . socially acceptable. I mean, it could be a source of awkwardness with guests. It’s one thing if I told someone that I had a collection of spiders. It is another thing entirely to holler as they head toward the bathroom, “Don’t mind the spiders! They won’t bite!” They are not exactly discreet, being large, hairy, black, and right in front of the window, which is next to the sink and in clear view of the toilet. I think they are interesting, and have taken pictures of them . . . but even I would feel a bit embarrassed if some guest was too revolted (or afraid) to use the bathroom because they didn’t like Charlotte or Shelob living in front of the window.

So . . . they will have to go eventually, and if anyone reading this has been in the bathroom in the mean time and was quite terrified, you have my apologies.

I actually don’t like sweeping up spider webs that are still in use. They are just spiders, but somehow it feels a bit cruel to destroy all the hard work of a spider. I pity spiders a little bit because they are these ferocious little creatures that are trying to defend their little domain in a big world they are helpless against. Spiders can fight each other for control of a web. They will face off and twang threads of the web. Whoever gives the more furious shaking of the web wins . . . sometimes I’ve even seen a bit of grappling between spiders, but I think they prefer to settle the matter just by seeing who is the mightier web shaker. In a similar manner, I’ve bumped spider webs and seen the spider run out and do the equivalent of going “Aaaarrrrrghhhhh!” and start shaking the web with all its might to frighten off this encroachment of its domain. I see this, and feel a little bad about sweeping up such a warrior like so much detritus.

I suppose I have strange sympathies.

Mountain in The Way

22nd August 2004

Summer is a hard time for writing. There are always things to take me away from my writing, but in the summer there seems to be an exceptional number of distractions. The weather outdoors is a constant lure (when it is sunny) to go outside and enjoy the moment instead of sitting in front of the monitor and trying to be inspired. On top of this goofing off there is always work coming up at the least convenient time. With these constant interruptions my schedule goes to pieces, and when my schedule goes to pieces, my writing . . . well, it dies.

Some people (very few I think) are able to sit down and write whenever they have a spare moment. Perhaps you’ve heard one of those success stories where someone worked long hours at a day job and wrote whenever they could squeeze in a moment, and by this means completed their best-selling novel. Much as I wish I could finish a best-selling novel in my spare time, it doesn’t work for me, and it doesn’t work for most other people. Those who do manage it–and yes, some do–most of them end up taking a very long time to complete their novel. The rest . . . well, their work never sees the light of day.

I’m desperately trying to avoid that heap of work that never sees the light of day, but this summer has been very frustrating. “You cannot serve two masters . . .” the saying goes, and in a similar manner I’ve increasingly felt the strain of trying to be two things at once: both manual laborer, and writer. It doesn’t work, at least, as far as making a consistent and successful income. Either you fail at one, or at the other. If you start turning down money making jobs, the work goes elsewhere. If you take the jobs, no writing gets done. The two are opposing forces, and they constantly tear at me. It seems to grow worse with every year. Invariably, so far, the manual labor has won out. I get paid immediately, and, well, I get paid. On the other hand, that day I spent writing when I could have been out digging the ditch, I earn nothing. Writing is long term, with no guarantees. Digging a ditch is immediate, with immediate payment. I much prefer and desire to write, but cold logic, and a sense of responsibility, makes me hesitate from turning my back on what is profitable, for a dream.

But some day I have to. If I’m not brave enough and determined enough to pursue the writing, I should have given up both writing and ditch digging and gone to college for a degree in web design, programming, or something else that earns a respectable living. To do everything halfway is to do nothing well.

When is a difficult question. As this summer heads towards its closing I want to swear that this was the last summer I’ll go traipsing around digging ditches. But hasty words are easily spoken. The responsible part of me says I should wait and think before I make any decision. But then the other part of me says I’m not getting any younger and what real good reason do I have for not devoting all my energy to writing. Fear of failure?

The final answer to that question is for another day. The path of this summer has already been set. When a labor job came up, I went and did it. My writing suffered, and I was left with the niggling wonder if the money in hand was worth the words never written.

The problems with interrupted writing are cumulative. Half of the difficulty in the writing process is the sheer effort of making oneself sit down and begin writing. A fixed schedule reinforces good habits and gets my mind into the rhythm of preparing for, and actually doing, writing. A fixed schedule makes writing not a debatable issue. Some days I don’t feel much like I can, or want, to write, but with the schedule there I sit down and do it. When the schedule is interrupted, this reinforcing structure is blown away. If my schedule is set for writing in the morning and someone calls up for me to help them lay drain pipe it doesn’t matter if I have four free hours that evening. By that time I am tired, unmotivated, and have other things warring for my attention. I might as well go climb a mountain on a whim.

It takes only a small bump to throw a day’s writing off track. An interruption of an hour or two at just the right spot is enough to get me out of my fixed rut of labor. Then, when the schedule of one day is broken, and then the schedule of the next day is broken, this schedule begins to feel like something that is negotiable. Something like, “Well, I didn’t manage yesterday, or the day before, so what differences does it really matter if I go and do this other (really, really) necessary thing?” So, then, even in the days in between jobs I find myself doing things other than writing.

The longer I am away from the writing the more frustrated I am about getting back to work. But, at the same time, the longer I am away the more dread I have about going back. The longer I am away from the writing the more my thoughts become lost. Where I was going with the passage becomes vague. The motivation of characters loses its vividness. Writing is almost like a second skin, or the sneakers that you wear all the time. If you’re away for a long time you come back and the skin feels strange or the shoe feels hard and stiff and not like your own. A day away from writing is a minor bump. Two days is a little bigger bump. But when one day leads to another day, to yet another day . . . after several weeks it can seem like a mountain has reared up, towering ahead. My own writing can take on some threatening quality. How can I pick up from where I’ve left off? I’ve forgotten things, surely I’ve forgotten! Everything is so complex. I can’t pick it back up, I just can’t!

By the end of July I felt like I was in that situation. I had left off my writing just as I was opening a new complex section of my book. When I had headed into it I had a lot of momentum behind me. I was into my world, I knew where things were going . . . and then the real world intervened. Day after day passed. The writing grew cold. More and more I desired to get back, ever looking forward to when the other work would be done, but at the same time my dread, and feelings of inability grew. I had left off at what felt like the worse time. How could I possible get back into the groove?

Perhaps ironically, the solution came in the form of another job. An uncle of mine was going away for a week on vacation with his family. They had two dogs and he really didn’t want to send them away to a kennel, so he asked me if I would be willing to stay at his house and watch the dogs. I would be paid, but more important in my mind at that time, I would be in an empty house. Away from all of my usual distractions. Away from all the things I might say I “needed” to do, things that would delay returning to writing. In that empty house it would be just me and my writing.

It wasn’t easy. When I went up to my uncle’s I printed out the last several chapters I had written. In the first few days I was there I just re-read what I’d written. I read to get back into the story, to get back up to speed, to see that my story was actually working, and regain my momentum. Then I couldn’t stop there. I had to sit down in front of the computer, and pick up from that last sentence I had trailed off so many weeks before. It is so easy to say I can’t do this, to look at the last hanging sentence and say I don’t know where to go from here, I’ve forgotten half of my thoughts, and my notes don’t make sense anymore. But at least by this time I was in familiar territory. A writer always must battle with that little voice that says “I can’t.” Having sat down and re-read what I had already written, I knew where I was coming from–I just had to write where I would go.

So I wrote. It would be nice to say I got oodles and oodles of writing done. I didn’t. No sudden and amazing powers of writing came on me. I did stay up very late some nights writing, but in the end I only got a good amount done, nothing more. The important thing was that by the end of the week I had myself going again. My thoughts were stirred up. I was looking ahead, I was planning. I had scaled to the top of the mountain. I was no longer looking at a dreadful wall of rock in front of me but instead looking out ahead over a vast panorama of what was coming.

I would like to say that everything has been smooth sailing since then. It hasn’t. Interruptions still come. And, in fact, I have another job this Friday tearing down a retaining wall and building a new one. But at least in August I’ve done a little better fighting back against the forces of disruption. I haven’t had a perfect week in August, but I’ve kept myself from leaving the writing behind. I figure if I manage to hold everything together until the end of August I should be able to settle into a good solid schedule for writing.

Then there leaves the question of next year. May . . . June . . . July . . . August . . . how much writing lost in those months laboring away for money? How many drainage lines swallowed up written words? Is it worth it? It was once. But maybe not anymore. I ponder the question, wondering what decision I should make.

Whatever my decision, most important for the present is the writing of today.

Double-Header

21st July 2004

This past 4th of July weekend we had two family gatherings to attend. Traveling, as a large family, to make two different gatherings in the space of two days is a bit of insanity but I guess we were motivated by a bit of guilt. The one gathering was on the way back from the other so couldn’t you just come . . . ?

So we came. Weather was good, the trip went fine . . . Mom probably swears she will never do something like that again. I was not under all of the stress of being “in charge” and being an efficient sort of guy I kind of admire the ability to fit the social obligation of two family reunions into one weekend. All that said, I admit I don’t look for a repeat either. By the time the first family gathering is over you’re so stone tired it’s hard to enjoy the second day. One side of the family ends up getting you in zombie mode.

?Saturday was the gathering on my Mom’s side of the family. We had about a 2 1/2 hour trip ahead of us but with all the hustle and bustle of packing we managed to avoid leaving too late. (It helps if you plan to leave early.) Once everyone was packed–”Everyone have your tooth brush?”–we set out in caravan style.

We require three standard size vehicles to take everyone. In case any communication is required between vehicles we take along walkie-talkies. This is useful–for confirming what exit we’re taking, or if the next turn is the right one–but even so I can’t escape a slight sense of ridiculousness. Walkie-talkies? Why the fancy gadgets? Come on, people, we’re just going on a few hour’s car trip, not exploring the unknown wilderness. But, silly as it might sometimes seem, the walkie-talkies do sometimes serve a purpose. The rest of the time they are used for inane inter-car conversation. “Did you see that hill over there? What do you think of the river?”

I’m not a great conversationalist. I can manage “So, what do you think of the weather?” And, “How have things been going for you?” but that is about the limit. For this reason, whenever I go to some type of social gathering I must either (a) be prepared to be bored (b) have a plan for my own entertainment in case nobody else has interesting conversation. One thing I often do is bring a book. If I ever get bored I can find some quiet corner and read. I always have reading I need to do, and it seems that whenever I could be reading I find something else to do. Thus, if I bring a book I won’t be bored–and if for some reason I really truly get so bored I need to find something to do, the book is always there.

A book wasn’t the planned form of Rundy diversion for the Saturday reunion. I was going occupy myself making ice cream.

How I ended up being in charge of making ice-cream for a gathering of about forty people is something of a story in itself.

Last year our six quart ice cream maker finally met its end. The ice cream maker had been looking decrepit for years, but when the ice cream began to take on a salty taste it was decided there was a leak in the canister . . . and that was the end.

Ice cream makers are not cheap, especially when you want a nice large six quart machine. Home made ice cream is a treat, not a necessity, so I knew I wasn’t going to be able to convince anyone to spend

Storms in July

16th July 2004

Thunderstorms seem to be one of those things that people either love or hate. I love thunderstorms. To me they are awe inspiring. Man, with all of his bluster and noise, seems put in his place when the brooding dark mass of storm clouds moves in, lightning flashing, thunder crashing. It is a reminder of exactly how small we are.

Perhaps I am very odd but I also think thunderstorms are creativity inspiring. I guess seeing the clouds move in, with their swirling mass, and the gusts of wind tearing across the valley, followed by pattering drops of rain and rumbling thunder stirs up my mind. It’s as if my thoughts churn with the weather and though I can’t think of having ever had a brilliant idea during a thunderstorm, it always seems like sometime I just might.

The very wildness of thunderstorms frightens some people. There are people who will close all the doors and shut all the windows as if somehow to keep all that is uncontrolled out of their life. I admit I don’t understand the fear of being struck by lightning while inside a house. Actually, I may not be careful enough, even by reasonable standards. Standing on a porch gives only a limited view of the world, so for as long as possible I like to stand out where I have a clear view of the world so I can see the lightning wherever it strikes, and watch the storm approach.

Thunderstorms, with their violence and fury, are most interesting in their approach. It is the approach that has the artistry and drama. It seems to me the best lightning strikes come before the rain. Exactly how the storm will unleash itself is always an unspoken question until the event finally comes.

After a dry period, July has turned wet and stormy. Wednesday a strong and unusual thunderstorm came through. I say unusual because it came from the southwest, whereas most of our storms comes from the north, northwest. This storm was made further peculiar by the fact that it was visibly approaching as a band. Some storms come as towering black infernos that engulf the sky. This storm was a thin dark band that hung low in the sky, not even reaching from one horizon to the next. The closer the storm grew, the lower the clouds seemed to become until it appeared as if the trees on top of the hill were brushing the bottom of the clouds. This was an optical illusion, I think, but the clouds were low, tendrils hanging down like fingers that were groping for the ground. It was quite a sight to watch, and watch I did, wondering what would happen next.

The western edge of the storm was leading slightly, and so it was that as I watched I saw the advancing rain in profile. Often I will see the rain coming on, directly toward me, but it is a rare thing to be so parallel to the front, close enough to actually see the rain falling. It looked like a great gray veil had dropped from the clouds, descending to the ground. I had a few minutes to watch–perhaps fleetingly wish I had a camera ready–and then the eastern side of the storm began to catch up, rain drops spattering down. Then I reluctantly went inside.

When I was outside watching the storm advance I was supposed to be making supper. Not long after I went inside to (belatedly) begin my work the power went out. Supper was chicken that was supposed to cook in the oven–an oven with temperature controls that didn’t work without electricity. The power remained out for forty minutes. My late start on supper was made even later, but I told myself it was actually a good thing that I hadn’t started promptly. If I had, the power would have gone out halfway through cooking the meat.

***

With all the rain I’ve ended up being thoroughly soaked twice in the space of four days. The first time was Monday, when I was in the middle of a job digging a ditch. When the first rain drops began to fall the man I was working for asked me if I wanted to call it quits for the day. I said no, he could go inside but I would keep working. I dislike starting a job and then being forced to stop halfway. Sometimes I suffer for this pig-headedness. The light rain quickly grew heavy, becoming a steady strong downpour. Dirt turned to mud, and I became thoroughly soaked. I didn’t stop working, even when it was suggested several times. I was tempted, but the thought of stopping work, getting in the car and driving away only to have the rain stop a half hour later was unbearable. Besides, after a while I was utterly soaked so what difference did it make any more?

The second time this week I was soaked was on Thursday morning when I went on my bike ride. I left the house when there was just a bit of a wind with a few sprinkles on the air. I hoped the rain would hold off until I finished my ride, but that was not to be. Almost as fast as I left the house behind the rain began to pick up. I steadily grew more and more wet. A quarter of the way through my trip it was clear I would not escape becoming thoroughly sopped.

The unpleasantness of getting soaked is strange if you think about it. We step into a man-made shower and drench ourselves all the time. Completely immersing ourself in water to go swimming is considered a great pleasure. But being rained on is something to avoid. Why?

Twice this week I had an opportunity to think about this question. My conclusion is that it isn’t the rain per se. Clothing is where a lot of the discomfort finds its cause. The texture and feel of wet clothes does not register as natural. If you’ve ever been utterly soaked in jeans and a cotton tee shirt you know the clothing can hold a lot of water. Pants sag wetly, underwear rides up your rear, shoes become heavy and waterlogged, and the shirt slaps damply against your back every time you bend over. Everything feels wrong–besides clinging to you, everything feels as if it is acting under double the normal gravity. This is accentuated with sweat pants, which I was wearing on my bike ride Thursday. Sweat pants can hold a lot of liquid and by the time they are thoroughly soaked they feel like they weigh about twenty pounds. It’s hard to feel comfortable and natural when the pants you’re wearing are sagging so bad they feel ready to fall down around your ankles.

Unfortunately, I could think of no way to use this understanding to help my situation. A full body slicker to keep off the rain would have been nice while I dug the ditch, but I didn’t have that. The other option was digging the ditch without any clothes on, and that wasn’t any more of an option–as successful as it might be in making me feel less waterlogged. I tell myself that at least it wasn’t so unpleasant as working in the cold, or the searing heat. It’s hard to keep that in mind when water is dribbling down your face and back and it feels like your shirt is creeping slowly off your body from the weight of liquid.

Goodbye Turkey

24th June 2004

The wild turkey that, years ago, came as a little chick to live with the chickens–alas, it appears to have finally bid goodbye.

The reason for its recent departure remains a matter of conjecture. Loneliness, heartbreak, or some mixture of the two are the leading theories. Then, there is the possibility that the turkey left for a walk one morning and simply couldn’t find its way home. Whatever the reason, a turkey that has been with us since some three summers ago seems to have bid its final farewell.

Unwittingly, the turkey was the barnyard clown. She will be missed for her antics, and her curious fretful way of looking around. Foremost among her antics was flying out of the chicken yard onto the house roof. Not content to simply hop the fence, she would flap up to the house roof where she would perch, looking around with a peculiar expression, as if she couldn’t remember why she had come up.

Perching on high places was her habit, sometimes abandoned for a time, then taken again with renewed frequency. I always wondered what made her do it. Did she go up high to look for other turkeys or was she unhappy with the roosts inside the chicken coop? Or did she just have some inscrutable urge to go to the highest point?

It was funny to see her up on the roof. She always looked so perplexed. Sometimes when I saw her I would holler up, “Helloooo turkey-turkey-turkey-turkey. What are you doing up there?” She would look around and sometimes give a few “blick-blick-blick” calls, a little hesitant, as if not sure what was going on.

An aside note: The “turkey call” which is traditionally rendered “gobble-gobble-gobble” is, I believe, the sound of turkey toms. If it is considered the universal turkey sound, it is either poorly rendered, or mistaken. Our female turkey always gave more of a piping call that was either something like a sharp nasal “hank-hank-hank” or “blick-blick-blick.” Sometimes, when she was just making a small noise it would be more like “pip-pip.” Her louder calls always seemed plaintive, as if she were sad, not feeling well, or lost. I would call back “Tur-key-tur-key-tur-key” because when I accented the syllables heavily and called very fast it sounded vaguely similar. This call seemed to sometimes perplex her. I was never sure if she thought it might be a returning turkey’s call, of if she just wondered what creature was in the process of dying a very painful death. Whether she ever replied to me is a matter of dispute–did she just happen to call out after me, or was she replying?

Upstairs, you could hear the turkey walking about on the roof. Sometimes she would look in the windows, a event which was always great fun. She would peer in with her big round eyes like a little kid staring in through a store window at some strange and incomprehensible world. For me there was always the big temptation to make all sorts of faces back at her and watch her stare and stare all the more. Eventually, as if she gave up trying to make sense of it all, she would wander on across the porch roof and leave the window behind.

The turkey was always more of a watcher than the chickens. The chickens (especially the hens) are always doing, never looking. The turkey, on the other hand, stared. Being of wild stock I think she was always more nervous about the possibility of predators. Her constant attentiveness might have been mistaken for intelligence but she

The Endless Mountains

24th June 2004

The last weekend in May I went down to the Pennsylvania Endless Mountains region. The purpose of my trip was to care for my uncle’s animals while he and family were away for a wedding over the weekend.

When I go on trips I have two habits. The first is to over-pack. I take more things than I could ever possibly use because “you never know what you might need” and “I want to be prepared.” The second thing I do is inevitably forget something. No matter how hard I over-pack it seems like half of the time I still (with all my excess) manage to forget something important. I have a terrible fear of forgetting to take my wallet when I leave the house and only realizing it after I’ve made a purchase. So, I always feel for my wallet as I pull out of the driveway and so far have managed to avoid forgetting that. The pessimist in me says my fear will still be realized someday because my wallet will be stolen from me and I will only realize it after I’ve finished eating at the restaurant. Until that day, my all-time common thing to forget is my toothbrush. Annoying, but not something that brings the trip to a grinding halt.

Determined not to forget anything, I carefully packed all sorts of supplies, making sure to include my bike and the digital camera. The Endless Mountains region is a beautiful part of Pennsylvania and I intended to spend some of my free time exploring. This was the second time I’ve taken my bike to a distant location . . . both times have been examples to me of why I really need to get myself a bike rack if I want to keep this up. Without a bike rack the only vehicle I can use to carry my bike around is Teman’s jeep. If I put down the back seat my bike can (just) fit. But it is awkward to put the bike in and it takes up most of the back space. Besides, the jeep is a gas hog. Someday I will buy a bike rack.

I almost forgot my toothbrush, but remembered just before leaving.

The trip down went fine. There was no trouble in taking care of the animals. I did forget my sweat pants, which was the first aggravation. Jeans do not rank as one of the top two most comfortable things to ride a bike in. After discovering that little lack of foresight–carefully packing bike and helmet but then forgetting the biking clothes–I figured I had made my quota of forgetting important things in the midst of trying to pack everything. Alas, I wasn’t quite done with myself. When I pulled the bike out of the jeep I discovered the rear tire was a bit soft. This inspired a bit of mental self-kicking. One of the things I had been looking forward to on this trip was taking a bike ride and I blithely packed nothing against the possibility of there being something wrong with my bike. Why, of all times, did my rear bike tire decide to start going soft?

I resolved the quandary by deciding that the tire wasn’t too soft, and I would take the bike out anyhow. If the tire seemed to have a leak, I could turn around and cut my ride short. If it went flat at the furthest point out . . . I would walk home. (If this had actually happened I would have been none too happy, but when frustrated I don’t think very intelligently.) As it turned out this had a fairly happy ending because the tire didn’t go any softer during my ride.

Riding a bike in the Endless Mountains region is something you either like, or loathe, depending on taste. Since I consider hills part and parcel of a enjoyable bike ride it was a good start (in my book) to head out from my Uncle’s place and up a steep hill. For other people it would have been enough for them to turn around and give up. But then, you probably wouldn’t be riding in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania, and most likely you would have long ago given up riding with me.

It was a steep climb, the hill going ever upward. I leaned into the pedaling and kept going. I figured it would be worth it when I reached the top, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Endless Mountains region is not really made up of mountains like the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Hills is a more proper name, but from the top of one of those hills it is easy to understand the name “Endless Mountains.” At the top of the first hill I swung round a bend and came out where a field dropped away on my left, the world spreading out in an unobstructed view. The hills of Pennsylvania rose one after another like green mountains, their tree-covered slopes continuing on and on into the haze-shrouded distance. One of those annoyingly precise people would have said there wasn’t a mountain in sight, but I understood what was meant.

One hill was just the beginning, so I went on down, heading for the next climb. There is a certain rhythm and cadence to biking through hill country. Slow, then fast. Hard, then easy. The slow and hard is the long beat, the fast and easy is the quick beat. A wiser bicyclist will settle into this rhythm, working with it, becoming a part of it so much he doesn’t even think about what he is doing. The rest (invariably those hill haters) say “What, another hill? This is so hard! Why are there so many hills? When will these hills end?” As a result they have no fun because they are thinking about how hard it is, how easy it should be, and how it isn’t any fun.

Going uphill and downhill each have their place. Just as nothing but pedaling uphill would grow wearisome, an endless downhill plunge would also become repetitive. In my experience the hill descent is disappointing because it is over so quickly, and also because it happens so fast. The world flashes by, and you never really get a chance to see the world. At least when you are making the steady crawl to the top of a hill you can look around and take in the scenes.

Sight-seeing is a large part of the enjoyment for me. The exercise is invigorating, the fresh air and sunshine is pleasant, but the greatest fun is seeing ever new bits of the world opening up. Taking a bike ride through a place is a much more intimate experience than whizzing past in a car. You see more things, and you think about them more. You can wonder about the world, and how particular things came to be the way they are. A cemetery, a rock quarry, wet lands–I went by them, pedaling on. I noticed there were a lot of ponds. They were everywhere. It seems people living in Pennsylvania don’t need swimming pools, because there are enough ponds to go around.

Besides the hills and valley, rivers and lakes, I also consider the more civilized aspects of what I pass through. It always interests me to see the type of houses that a location has. The habitation of a place says something about those who live there, both the past, and the present. What I observed on my ride was that there seemed to be three distinct categories of houses. There were old houses, trailers, and the mansions. The old timers, the poor, and the rich where each in their own island, separate from those around them. There are trailers and houses intermixed around where I live, but there are few mansions. The separation was particularly striking as I rode through Pennsylvania because it seemed there were a cluster of trailers at one place, then a stretch of old houses, and further on at the spreading lawns and pastures–behold,

Smoke and Flames

16th June 2004

Yesterday I did my first cook-out for this year. I am happy to report that it did not end in disaster. It was, I think, my most successful solo outdoor cooking exercise to date. I say solo because last year I took part in another grilling “expedition” over my fire that I think ended up even better . . . actually, that time I mostly watched. But hey, it was the outdoor fireplace that I constructed, and I was the one who made the fire, so I get at least some of the credit.

Cooking yesterday was the first time I did steak over a fire. Previously I’ve done spiedies but this is the first time I’ve done marinated steak. Don’t ask me what kind of steak this was. Do I look like a chef or something? All I know was that it was red, thin, and some pieces were a bit tough. I’m sure it was cheap steak (relatively speaking) because with over eight pounds being grilled anything truly succulent surely was too expensive.

Whatever kind of steak it was, it ended up being my easiest cooking experience over the fire yet. First, because I’ve become a little better at making my fires. I’m still no Boy Scout, but I can get a good, even heat going. I don’t even have to obsess over it all afternoon like I used to. Second, since my new and improved fire pit (still to be improved yet even more when I somehow find the time) is a little easier to cook over. Third, the long sheets of meat that made up the steaks were easier to flip and cook than spiedies and other things I’ve done. The thinness of the steaks made them cook quickly. Four, Mom just recently bought me some nice long handled cooking instruments so I can now have a little longer reach. I suppose this particular fact didn’t exactly make me cook better but it saved me from running around the fire yelling “Ow! Ow! It’s too hot!” or being required to wrap my hand in tin foil to deflect the heat so that I could get stubby little tongs close enough.

Practice is definitely making me a better outdoor cook, but I still have a ways to go. I feel more in control of the situation, but when the meat is actually thrown on the grate I still feel that it is something of a gamble. Will the food end up underdone, just right, or overcooked? This adds a certain element of stress, especially when cooking for guests. (Nothing like trying to act like you have everything under control whilst imagining oneself carrying back a blackened plate of once edible stuff.) This time I managed to get pretty close to just right, but I did go a little bit into overdone. Another minor problem this time was I didn’t have the coals perfect so the fire was a bit smokey. This made the meat taste a bit smoked . . . which was good or bad, depending on your taste.

The worst part about cooking outdoors is managing the hectic atmosphere. What I have going is not some wimpy little charcoal fire . . . I get a nice collection of red hot hardwood coals. This makes food cook fast (there are times when I probably had stuff a little too hot) and brings the danger of things burning. Nothing ruins a good mood so well as frantically trying to flip pieces of meat over as you watch them blacken and catch on fire. That didn’t happen this time, but even without dinner igniting there is always the problem of everything needing to be done at once. Usually someone is complaining about things taking too long, and even if nobody else is mumbling about Rundy maybe ruining everything, I’m certainly thinking it. This everything-needs-to-be-done-at-once panic is the first thing I would like to remove from outdoor cooking. I like to be in control and as soon as things start pinwheeling out in pandemonium I get very . . . er . . . snappish. I’ve said that I wouldn’t mind doing more cooking outside if other people took care of all the various other things so that I could just stand in front of the grill and watch over the meat.

I am, certainly, part of my own problem in this regard. I am getting a little better, but yesterday I got myself off to a poor start by getting a late start. I got a little caught up in my writing and by the time I stopped, the afternoon was an hour past when I should have started the fire. That was the first note of panic. I start the fire but since this is the first cook-out of this year I have various maintenance things I need to do. I work and tend the fire at the same time (this is okay because a watched fire doesn’t burn any faster, but there is a bit of stress because I am trying to do several things at once which makes me frazzled).

It’s four o’clock in the afternoon, the fire is going, and I go back in the house. The phone rings. I pick it up.

“Hello, this is Joe,” the person on the other end says. “Your neighbor. Can any of you guys do some haying?”

A little bit of stunned silence on my part. “Right now?”

“No. I’m going up to check it now and ted it. If it’s ready to bail I’ll call back around five to hay at six.”

“Um, okay.” My brain is furiously trying to work in overdrive, and not doing very good. I don’t do very good when put on the spot. “Weelllll . . . . somebody should be able to help you then. When you call back later I should be able to tell you then.” Delay, I think. Get some time to think up an intelligent answer. At least Lachlan can help him.

“Okay,” Joe says, and hangs up.

I have a fire going, I’m supposed to cook supper, and Joe is going to want people to help him hay. At this point things begin to really feel like they’ve gone beyond my comfortable control. In between tending the fire and making the salad for supper I go around trying to figure out who can help Joe hay. On top of everything there is the pressure to get the meat cooked before Joe calls so that those going off to work won’t have to leave starving.

At such times as these I try to be fatalistic. What will be, will be. All I can do is tend the fire and cook the meat as soon as possible. I can’t make things go any faster. But it is a clenched teeth fatalism, mixed with a dash of ire (maybe a bit of fuming) that haying had to be thrown into the middle of my carefully orchestrated dinner plans.

In the end I managed to keep everything together. Supper was finished late, but Joe called late, too. Those of us who had to go off to hay managed to eat just before we left. I cooked the food without ruining it. In all respects events turned out better than they could have, but I’m still hoping it all goes better next time.

[Footnote: For those of you who don't know what a tedder is, you can see what some tedders look like, and what they do, by going here.]

Everything In

10th June 2004

I, at long last, (so it seems,) have everything planted. It always seems I reach this state with less dignity and aplomb than I would like. Later winter and early spring are spent dreaming up all sorts of things that I’ll want to get done and complaining that I can’t do everything. Then, starting sometime around the beginning of May, my wishing starts to come back to haunt me. Things start to pile up and time feels as if it goes into some kind of warp as I hurtle down the roller-coaster of life. In short order I am practically running around like a maniac, going “I got to dig! I got to plant! I got to mulch! I got to mow! I got to prune!” . . . And much, much, more.

It’s not like I sit around all winter doing nothing, so of course the sudden flush of things that clamor for my time must compete with everything that I did before. This clash of priorities catches me right in the middle. I end up doing some things that really don’t need to be done, not doing some things that ought to be done, and generally getting flustered and disgusted with myself.

Let it be noted, however, that I did manage (even with all of my panic and disorder) to get everything into the ground. Not that this should really be a big feat, but for me it feels like one. The corn is planted. The squash is planted. The cucumbers are planted. I can compare this success to my past, or to my ideal of how things ought to be done. Compared to my ideal, I dug the garden and planted things in an atrocious manner. But compared to last year I’m doing good so far, so I’m feeling pretty pleased. Last year I planted my squash in extreme haste and I got my corn in even later than I did this year, and I didn’t dig the ground as well.

Work still needs to be done, most importantly mulching. You see, I have an uncommon method for gardening. There are probably as many methods of gardening as there are people who do it, but my particular technique centers around limited available time, and the fact that there are two aspects of gardening that I do not care for. The first is beating out sod, the second is weeding.

If you are not one of those people who beats the dirt out of the sod when you garden, you probably don’t know what I’m talking about, so I’ll explain. When removing sod to dig a garden a person can either turn the grass under, or slice the sod layer away and remove it to some other location to compost. Removing the sod entirely severely reduces the ability of the grass to grow back but it also removes the most fertile layer of earth. One solution is to beat all the good dirt out of the chunks of grass sod until only the bare roots are left, which is then discarded to compost. In abstract this is a brilliant idea, but in reality the amount of labor required for anything more than the teeniest garden is astronomical.

My father is not known for moderation, so throughout my childhood I was drafted (okay, sometimes I volunteered) for various gardening projects which (Dad being the frugal sort) almost always involved beating sod. Since our gardens were never small, this meant what seemed like an endless field of sod that needed to be beaten out. A job that looked like it would never be completed and, if memory serves me, might never have been.

All these long hours of beating sod in my childhood have left a permanent scar on my psyche and I have sworn off sod beating for the rest of my life. Beating the dirt out of a piece of sod is some of the most boring and futile labor invented. I would rather leave the sod in the garden than spend a minute of my time trying to make it give up the dirt that is clinging to its roots.

The second part of gardening I don’t like to do is weeding. I don’t loathe this so much as beating sod, but it is work that needs to be done over and over again, and I invariably don’t have the time to do it. I can either let some other task suffer while I chop up weeds that will grow back next week, or else I can not weed and instead feel extremely guilty as I watch weeds grow up and choke out my garden.

My gardening experience (and choices) would probably be much easier if I owned all sorts of mechanical equipment that would subtract most of the physical labor from digging and maintaining a garden. If I were rich and famous (or at least had a respectable income) I would have a rototiller and which would simply chop up the sod into oblivion. As it is, I dig my garden with a mattock.

A mattock is similar to a pick, except with a much wider blade. You might have seen a picture of some poor African farmer digging his garden with a mattock. Yes, I live in the United States of America, but I dig my garden like a poor third world African . . . there is some equality in the world. A mattock is a good tool, a useful tool, the best you can have for digging up a lot of earth without something mechanical . . . but compared to a hefty rototiller or a plow it is slow going. Hard, too, if you’re out of shape.

The current strategy I used to garden is this: I first take out the DR. Brush Mower and knock it down to the lowest setting on the mowing deck and scalp away the grass and weeds where I am going to dig. Then, if I am planting corn, I take a mattock and dig up the entire area. I don’t remove the roots of the grass and weeds, I simply break everything up. Then I plant. And afterward I mulch everything heavily. This last step accomplishes three things. It fertilizes the garden, it keeps down the weeds (no weeding), and it helps the soil water retention a lot (no watering). Mulching in the short run is extra work, but in the long run it saves a lot of work. It is a secert of gardening. If there was only one thing I could tell someone they should do in their garden it is this–mulch.

The type of mulch can vary. My preference is some kind of manure mixture. In years past when we still had goats I would take the manure and hay mixture and fork it down between the rows. This worked great to hold in the water and keep down weeds. This year I’m going to use horse manure mixed with sawdust because someone a few streets over has a huge mountain of it they’re trying to get rid of. This is a little risky as sawdust can make the soil too acidic, but nothing ventured nothing gained. I don’t have many other options this year, anyhow.

Corn is very demanding of the soil and the ground around here is mostly clay. I have learned a trick that helps corn grow around here . . . it is technically dangerous for the wellbeing of the plant but I have managed to pull it off without harm. The trick is to spread raw chicken manure in the dirt of the corn rows, or else spread it on top of the corn rows before the corn sprouts. Chicken manure has a very high nitrogen content and it can burn plants. That warning given, I’ve found that spreading it judiciously over the rows or mixing it in the soil gives the corn a much appreciated spike of nitrogen and I consider it better than using some chemical mix.

This year I planted more corn than I did any other year, and I planted it all at once. Last year I planted more corn than the year before that, but tried two staggered plantings. It didn’t work out. I got the first planting in okay, but time got away from me and . . . well, the second planting never produced any harvestable corn. This year I decided that being clever would have to come some other time, and I dug and planted everything all at once.

The amount of digging was more than I wanted to do in one day. Technically, I could do it in six or eight hours, but by drafting Lachlan to help me I managed to get the initial digging completed in something like three hours. Good for me, but he will probably end up having psychological scars about using mattocks. After that I had to hoe out all the rows, plant the corn by hand, and cover the seeds back up. Every step in this process, exercises the lower back. Mattocking exercises a lot more than the lower back, but even after three hours of that I wasn’t feeling too bad. But then I had to spend more time hunched over hoeing out the rows, and even more time after that hunched over dropping the seeds into the rows. I am young, but I’m not invincible. By evening it was difficult to stand erect.

The corn is planted, but I still need to spread the chicken manure and then mulch. This will probably be a full Saturday of work, but with that the corn should be effectively taken care of until harvest time.

***

For the curious, we did get a frost the last day in May. So many warm days in May and then at the very end a cold snap. Both the apple trees and the lilacs were done blossoming so they weren’t hurt. Alas, but my grape vines were coming on with full vigor. The frost was, thankfully, light, so rather than being completely annihilated the grape vines were more like . . . seared.

I’m still not sure of the complete extent of the damage. Some vine portions wilted and leaves died but the real question is what is going to happen to all of the wonderful little grape clusters that were starting to come out. Everything had the appearance of being the first great harvest since I planted my vines and now . . . I might have lost it all. Time will tell.

I should count my blessings.

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When to Make The Big Plunge

25th May 2004

I want to be a writer.

No, I am a writer. What I would very much like is to be a writer who is paid. Not being at that point, and trying to reach that point, is often frustrating.

Mind you, I’m not striving for unimagined wealth. I’m not looking to be one of the richest writers around. What I would like is for writing to cover my bare sustenance. Short of that, I have difficulties.

It is that problem which could be compared to the old question, “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” My equivalent is, “Should I earn money so that I can write, or should I write so that I can earn money?” That might not make a lot of sense, so let me say it this way: When you are a freelance (independent, self-employed, whatever) writer there is no guarantee that what you write will earn money. It is always possible–that dreadful nightmare–that several pieces of writing could be bought, and then nobody would be interested again. It is also very common that a writer can sell some writing, but not enough to earn a living. The alternative is to earn the required money at an outside job and write part time, on the side, or in the few minutes one can scrounge up. The problem with this is that it lessens writing time from anywhere from some to almost non-existent. With less time to write, there is less chance that writing will be able to pay the bills and so less chance that one will ever be able to write for a living.

Thus the self-perpetuating cycle.

The fairy-tale solution is to one day get up in the morning and say, “That’s it. I’m done going to work. From now on I am going to make my living by writing.” This person then sits down and begins writing very hard for weeks on end, lives off savings until money is almost exhausted and then–at the last moment–they make it and earn everything back on their writing.

The most irksome thing about these fairy-tales is that there is a little nugget of truth. There are those few who have gone this route and succeeded. But we all know most have failed and had to go back to the old life, crushed, humiliated. Still, the idea gnaws at the back of the mind, tempting. Whether making the big plunge, or going slowly, every writer that goes full time had to make the final step sometime. The real question isn’t in the grand abstraction, it is in the ever-present “Is this the time for me? Should I tell everyone I’m packing up and moving on to greener pastures, or am I just an impatient and deluded fool?” On the one side tugs caution with all sorts of arguments for the danger. On the other side tugs the impetuous desire which says no one succeeds without trying.

As each year passes, the question of when I should give up outside sources of income grows ever larger. From the day when I was fifteen and decided that what I really wanted to do was write for my living, I’ve wanted the goal realized immediately. From the beginning I recognized that self-sustaining writing couldn’t begin immediately, but in those early youthful years I always dreamed it was much closer than reality has shown. Back then (oh, way back then) I fantasized that I would just waltz through my first novel, send it off to a publisher and that would be it . . . success . . . career started . . . no hard choices.

Life is not as I imagined it at fifteen. Now I am scared to imagine or dream, as if anything I envision must always be too optimistic, and if I say in two years it will be five, and in five years it will then stretch to ten–a dream never realized, always in the future. Naivete has become impatience. Don’t wait for it to happen–make it happen! Thus the whispered thought to just drop every source of income and just write, write, write until the world finally falls onto its knees and gives up in acquiescence to my desire.

I complain because it is easy to do, but I am also almost painfully aware of how easy and pleasant my current situation is in comparison to many others. I am not slaving away in a job that I hate. I’m not burdened down with massive responsibilities or of failing health. I’m not reduced to writing up in a stuffy attic at the middle of the night. Compared to all that I’m living on pleasant street. But I use this very fact as my primary argument for dumping things as they are and striking out. I say to myself, “Things won’t always be this easy and simple in your life. Better to act now, when you still have the option.”

Back in my teen years it was all a joke. Not that I saw it that way then, but looking back it seems that way. Now there is the ever present awareness that the years are slipping by and when will I have anything to show for it? Will I just tread water until something comes and squashes my dreams? Accomplishments in life aren’t instantaneous, but the world, and life, doesn’t just sit around waiting, either. Better, I think, to give it all I’ve got now. If I fail, well then, I’ve failed. Better to fail young. I can pick up the pieces and go on to something else. If I don’t give everything I have now, I might not have the chance later and then it might be with regret that I look back and wonder why I didn’t at least try.

I can give myself all sorts of appealing reasons for proverbially handing in my keys–after all isn’t that what I want to do–but I am not so near-sighted that I don’t realize that there is another side, and another way of looking at the matter. The prime argument that I use for cutting loose is that I may never have another chance like this, but there are other motivations. It does feel like I am approaching the time in my life where I can’t straddle every road. It’s fine to dabble when you’re just growing up, but at some point you have to pick a road and walk it. But is now really that time? Or should I exercise patience for two years? I can make all sorts of reasoned arguments (however reasonable they may be) for saying “enough is enough,” but I also realize that at least part of what is motivating me is pure impatience. I’ve been writing for seven years and have written two novels. At this point part of me simply feels I deserve it. And another part of me is sick of the polite looks people give when I say I am trying to be a writer. When they ask what I’m writing or if I’ve published anything I want to be able to slap a book in their hands and say, “See! I have published something. It is actually a job, you know. It isn’t just a game. It isn’t just a dream!” And, of course, in that same way I want to prove it to myself as well. Have I spent seven years dreaming the dreams of a deluded fool? I don’t think so. Oh no, I don’t think so. Yet . . . there are plenty of crazy people, people out of their minds who do meaningless things and think they are important. Couldn’t I in my own small way be like that?

Frustration goads one to prove it. Yes, we think. We’ll settle this issue once and for all. Clear the decks. No more halfway. I’ll write until I succeed or until I fail. But no more feeding myself along. This monster will have to feed itself.

But neither frustration, impatience, or pride is a good reason. They are facts of life that I will have to struggle with anywhere along the path of writing.

And so I sit here, wondering, and pondering. The idea tantalizes because it is possible to try, if I am willing to make the sacrifices. Am I willing? Could I give up all the other things that I do, and effectively lock myself up in front of my keyboard for those many hours? Work is, indeed, hard work and sacrifices are required.

Sometimes I wonder if I am playing false to myself. The grass is always greener on the other side, they say. In reality would I really prefer that other side, or am I just finding excuses to complain about my current situation? I don’t hate the work that I do for pay. I would rather write than do that work, but there are other things that take up my time that I’m not strictly required to do, but I prefer to see them done. I lead an eclectic life . . . am I willing to give that up?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. But amidst all of the self-doubt there is one thing that I realize is true. In my current path I am earning very little money. For my present and very unique situation that is sufficient but any change in my situation and I will be required to change my money-earning habits. The question is, do I continue on as things stands until events force me to change, or do I change now?

To that I still don’t have an answer. Sooner rather than later is as far as I’ve come today. Not too hasty, I say. Today I say I will work through this summer and then consider the matter. Time will show how my thoughts change as the summer progresses.

Me and Deirdre

24th May 2004

Deirdre is two years old. There is something about this young age that makes parents and relatives of all stripes pull out their video camera as if they might somehow capture or bottle up the moments. I sympathize with the desire, but I think there is nothing like actually living with a two-year-old because half of the enjoyment is interacting. Part of what makes children at this age so endearing is that they have just begun to be able to communicate verbally and the world is still one wide wonder to them. In this short window of time the toddler can verbally convey his exploration of the world, and by this means draw you and I back into that time when the world was still all so new and amazing.

Deirdre is perhaps the most “girlish” girl in the family. We are something of a rough-and-tumble family by nature and we live out in the country where bugs, bees, snakes, and all sorts of other wild things live. All of this has the tendency to dull the more squeamish and feminine traits. Whether because of this, or simply natural inclination, both Titi and Cadie have turned out to be, to various degrees, tomboys. Not so Deirdre; not yet. She started out at a very early age being terrified of flies, and as she has grown up more things have been added to the category of “scary.”

For Deirdre much is a mixture of fright and fascination. She is terrified of being near the grown chickens when standing on her own two feet. But she still likes the chickens . . . sort of. She wants to see the chickens, she thinks the chickens should be petted (at least, if they are good and say inside the chicken fence), but still she cannot put aside the gripping sense of unease which makes her demand to stay up in the safety of someone’s arms.

I think there are two elements that feed into Deirdre’s reactions to animals and bugs. There is the fear of the unknown and fear of the uncontrolled. Deirdre is a very curious little girl, so the fear of the unknown in her is constantly waging war with her incessant curiosity. But the final stop on all of her exploration and experimentation is her fear of the uncontrolled. In her fear of flies, bugs, chickens, and dogs, I see her realization that she really doesn’t know what they will do and she has no control over what they do. So long as all of these different creatures are controlled, everything is okay. But if any bug starts violating her safety space, or if any chicken escapes over the fence, or if any unrestrained dog goes tearing through the lawn–that is a terrifying crisis.

† † †

Being two years old means thinking that you are the center of the world. There is no such thing as varying degrees of importance except how important something is for the toddler. Difference of age is unimportant. So what if I am twenty-two and Deirdre is two–aren’t I still interested in the dolly she is playing with? And a toddler can carry on conversation with an adult. The toddler will make endless observations (or ask endless questions) and you are supposed to respond to each one because of course it is interesting.

For example, today I was reading the Wall Street Journal and on the cover of the section there was a picture of the Linux Penguin mascot. Deirdre comes trundling into the room and stops in front of me, looking at the front of the WSJ section. She smiles, points, and says in a very happy and conversational voice, “Birdie.” And in case I didn’t get the point, she repeats, “Dat, Birdie.”

“Uh-hmmm,” I say, trying to read and interact at the same time. “It’s a penguin.”

“Dat birdie have eyes.”

“Yes, it has eyes, doesn’t it.”

“Dat birdie has nose.” Apparently she found the happy picture of a penguin to be very fascinating.

In conversing with a toddler I’ve learned that what they desire most is (1) acknowledgment–both that they have spoken, and that you understand what they’ve said. Toddlers are exercising their power of speech and they want both the recognition that what they say is important, and that people can actually understand their words. It’s a bonus if you actually make the conversation progress by asking questions or making further observations.

† † †

Deirdre likes to help. She likes to help everyone. There is no age discrimination. She will help Titi and Mom make bread and pie, she will help Justin do the dishes. She helps pot seeds. She helps mop the floor. And she will even help me, if she can find out how. It is harder to help me. I fill the wheel barrow with wood chips and she isn’t even strong enough to lift a shovel so she finds a spoon to spoon up about three chips of wood. By the time she turns around to dump the three chips into the wheelbarrow all of the bits have fallen off, so she must turn around and scoop up three more to try again . . . and again.

I am a creature of habit, and Deirdre is, too. I think much of what I do doesn’t make objective sense to Deirdre, but she recognizes the habitual continuation and that, along with the inherent mysteriousness, justifies the actions. I work on my computer upstairs. Deirdre can’t make any sense out of what I do on the computer, but it seems very important. Sometimes she will ask me if I am going upstairs. Other times she will come up later after me hollering up the stairs to ask if I am up there. Then she sometimes comes up and points at the computer and says, “Rundy get on the computer.”

Throughout the day I normally drink only milk or water, having juice for supper. Because I am drinking milk or water, Deirdre asks for it as well, which is really a bit strange. It is amazing what the power of passive suggestion can do. I don’t ask her if she wants milk or water. I don’t tell her that milk and water taste wonderful. I just drink them with such satisfaction that she must trundle off for her own cup.

† † †

I like being scary. Not utterly terrifying, but pushing the bounds of safety so little munchkins feel deliciously thrilled that they’ve managed to escape whole. I like to push the bounds of imagination. This is how I interact with little kids. I am not very good at patronizing, or anything that feels like patronizing. Some people have the skill of playing at the level of little children . . . I have to bring them to an entirely different level.

When Deirdre was younger I liked to give her the creeps by acting like some scary monster or animal. One thing I would do when she was coming up the stairs was lean over the rail and bark like a dog. I can do a very good loud dog bark and I could make her jump. (I sometimes made Mom jump when she wasn’t expecting it.) I also sometimes would bare my teeth at her, click them sharply, and whisper in a dangerous voice that I had very sharp teeth and I liked to eat little girls.

At first all this was very scary and the little Deirdre would stare at me, trying to figure out what on earth I was doing, and what on earth I was. But she started to figure things out. She began to smile when I would bark at her and she would point and say “Dog. Doggy.” And mom would say, “Is Rundy being a doggy?” By now, at two years, my threatening exclamations have no effect on her. It is our peculiar method of communication. Savage barking down the stairwell is my greeting as she comes climbing up, (as horrified as some stranger might be by the fact). If I lean close to her and whisper in her ear “I have very sharp teeth and I like to eat little girls,” she doesn’t even bat an eye.

We had one ritual which has fallen out of favor as she has grown older. As she would go up stairs to take a nap or come down from her nap she would have Mom stop right at the top of the stairs. Then she would slap the top of the banister with her hands and say in her baby voice “Bwha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ah” as she slapped the wood. I would then have to interrupt my writing and pound the banister even more furiously than her all the while roaring “BWHA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!” It was a contest of ferocity which she always lost, and was always best for her if I managed to be so ferocious that she got just a little bit scared. Eventually even my most furious pounding on the banister and snarling no longer fazed her, and as it dulled, the habit faded away.

I can no longer scare, or even faze her, by acting the animal, so our field of interplay has moved on. Now it is bugs and other things. I like to see how far I can prod her–how much I can make her mind work.

One way I make her mind work is by playing in unusual ways with the toys that she heaps on top of me. A good one was pretending that I ate some very small cuddly stuffed animal that she would give me. This was still in the vein of my big monster image. She would hand me the little stuffed animal making all sorts of cooing sounds about how nice the little thing was. I would take it, look at it, and say, “Should I eat it?”

This was variously met with a blank look (why would anyone eat the nice little animal?) a whispered “No” or perhaps a dubious “yes.” Then, regardless of her answer, I would proclaim “I think I’m going to eat it!” With all sorts of loud and horrible gobbling sounds I would “eat” the little creature, but by slight of hand conceal it behind my back. Then I would burp loudly and proclaim how wonderful it tasted.

This would all perplex Deirdre to no end. I think she couldn’t believe I actually ate the hairy thing, but at the same time it certainly looked like I had. After a short interplay between us she would give up trying to figure it out and hold out her hand and say, “Back.” I would then “regurgitate” the animal and she would hold it in her hands and turn it over, inspecting the stuffed animal. Sometimes she would be so impressed with my feat that she would ask me to do it again . . . and again . . . and again.

In similar ways, as the mood would strike me, I would do various backward and incorrect things with whatever she gave me. Lions would eat the sheep, dogs would fight the tigers . . . basically, at the age of twenty-two I would relive the years of my childhood. It was all very strange to her, sometimes a bit frightening, but always fascinating.

Since the winter has ended we’ve moved on to bugs. It has been interesting to see how her dialogue, as well as her thinking, has matured.

The first “bug experience” was a worm. This was back in early spring when wormies were everywhere. She found them fascinating. When I was out planting my plum trees she came out and watched me. In the heap of dirt beside one hole there was a big fat worm. As I worked she watched that worm intently, and offered the occasional comment.

“Wormy. Dat wormy.”

I could tell she was utterly fascinated by the worm, and at the same time completely revolted by it. For a short while I let her have her little inspection but eventually it became too much for me. I had to get in on the experience. I had to push it to the very limit.

“Do you like the wormy?” I said.

“Wormy.”

“Is it a good wormy?”

“Dat wormy.”

“Would you like to hold the wormy?”

Silence. I’m not sure if she thought that question went better without an answer, or if she disliked the idea so much that she thought it was a rhetorical question with the answer of “No.” Perhaps some small part of her wondered what it would be like to hold that big fat disgusting looking worm, but it was clear the majority of her self was revolted at the idea.

Never mind that. I picked up the worm. “Here,” I said. “You can hold the wormy.”

I turned her hand over and dropped the worm toward her hand. It was at that point her brain kicked back into action. She jerked her hand back so fast the worm managed to miss and land back in the dirt. Then she gave a convulsive, full body, utterly revolted, shudder.

“No!” She back up. “Wormy yucky! Wormy bad! Bad wormy! Yucky!”

“You don’t like the wormy?”

“Bad wormy!”

“But maybe it is a good wormy,” I said. “Maybe the wormy wants to be your friend.”

She would have nothing of it. If she was doubtful and unsure before, her mind was made up, and all my postulations about various possibilities were to no effect. “Bad wormy! Yucky. Scary wormy.”

So I let it go at that. I don’t believe in truly tormenting.

The vocabulary Deirdre used to express herself was primarily with the words of “bad” and “yucky” because they were the words most commonly used with her. “Don’t do that, it’s bad. Don’t stick that in your mouth! It’s yucky!”

More recently, I was cleaning up large stones from the yard so that I could mow. Deirdre was “helping.” As we worked I uncovered large caches of pill bugs and other creepy-crawly things. Deirdre did not panic or run away. She might have even commented on the bugs there, but I noticed that she kept a good foot of distance between her and the wriggling things, so I said, “Would you like to hold the bugs?”

This time she had an answer.

“No.”

“But wouldn’t you like to hold them?” I said in a baiting voice.

“Bugs scary,” she said. Then she walked a little further away and continued, “Bugs scary. Bugs scary and they make me go ‘haaa, haaa’”–here she gave an imitation of herself along with a visual demonstration.

I let that one go at that. Half of what I enjoy is seeing her reaction to my sallies. I suggest something that I know she dislikes or is dubious about for some reason and then I see how she reasons against my various arguments for doing the said thing. This time her reasoning was solid, and more advanced than the worm incident. Now it wasn’t an issue of badness or filth. Her defense was that she didn’t want the bugs because they were scary. It didn’t have anything to do with whether they were nice, wanted to be her friend, or anything else. She thought they were scary.

Fair enough.

Then, just a few days ago we were sitting on the porch and there was a spider nearby.

“See the spider,” I said.

“Spider,” she said.

“Is it a nice spider?”

“Dat spider.”

“Do you want to pet the spider?”

“No.”

“Why not? Maybe it’s a nice spider. Maybe you should eat the spider. It might taste good.”

I’m not sure, but Deirdre might already recognize that I am baiting her with various ludicrous arguments and she just plays along. In any case she answered, “No. It dangerous. Spider dangerous.”

With this final argument she had advanced from bad, to scary, to dangerous. One could say she finally figured out why something was bad and scary. Except, that particular spider was entirely harmless, but at least she argued against my various suggestions with conviction.

Now I am just waiting for a big fat garden snake to come around so I can see what kind of arguments she’ll advance against my suggestions then.

Blooming and Gone

24th May 2004

This May has ended up exceptionally warm. The apple trees did bloom early, but there wasn’t a frost the entire time the apple trees were in bloom, and there hasn’t been one since. That is nice. In fact, that is excellent. To not have all my apple blossoms ruined by frost is one relief. However, there are other problems. I’m not entirely sure of the cause, but I have observed several things about the apple trees this year.

(1) The apple blossoming didn’t appear as heavy as other years.

(2) I didn’t see very many bees around the apple trees when they were in flower.

(3) Now the the blossoms have died away it doesn’t look like very many of the flowers set fruit.

The why for these facts could have several (even a multitude) of causes. Two which occur to me is, first, it might have been a hard winter for the honey bees and so there weren’t many around to pollinate the flowers. Second, the unusually hot and humid weather might have adversely affected the apple flowering. How, I can’t say because I’m not an expert on apple trees but May around here is rarely so hot and humid as the month has turned out this year. Who knows, the blossoms could have contracted some kind of fungus or rot. That is what the paranoid part of me thinks. The paranoid part of me also wonders if I didn’t prune the trees enough and so the shade of the branches contributed to the shade and retained water which in turn would help spur the grow of fungus . . . ah, but I don’t want my thoughts to go there.

But all is not lost. Exactly how skimpy the harvest will be remains to be seen. It is hard to do an estimate of the crop harvest when the new fruit is still smaller than my little finger nail. By my current observations the flower failure varies between trees so where one tree appears to have significant loss another might not be so bad. Also, a bit of flower failure is not problem because an apple tree will often try to overproduce and to get decent size fruit you need to thin the apples anyhow. This is what I tell myself for reassurance, but I am nervous. A bit of fruit loss is no problem, but a glance seems to put the loss for one tree at 10 failed flower to 1 success. That strikes me as alarmingly steep.

Angst over apples aside, I think the latter portion of May is my favorite time of year. The apple trees and the lilac bushes bloom at about the same time and the appearance and fragrance of these flowers is the essence of this season. In the cool of the evening the aroma of the lilac bushes is particularly strong. I like to sit out on the porch in the fading light and savor the mixing evening smells, or else walk down the street with the lilac bushes blooming along the side.

All too quickly the flowers, both apple and lilac, are gone, and their fragrance, too. In a way it seems like the rest of the year is downhill from here.

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Across The River

10th May 2004

The weekend before last I had a chance to take my bike and go exploring.

Exploring is the right word. Previously I wrote about how I enjoy riding in hilly land and discovering what is beyond the horizon and on the other side of every hill. But there is another, slightly different, and somewhat overlapping, aspect. For me the perfect bike ride is not a trip on the highway, main road, or residential area–however hilly they might be. The good bike rides are those that go on the back roads, traveling through the dells and narrow gulleys, passing by the lonely houses and old farms where few live, and not many go. The more strange and full of wilderness a place is, the better.

My recent exploring ended up as one of the best bike rides I’ve ever taken.

We live a few miles distant from a river. The opposite bank rises steeply, covered with trees, a wall that brings the world up short. Most of the opposite bank doesn’t look occupied–a blank wall of trees being all you see–but I recently came to realize that there was a road following much of the railroad track which follows the river valley. Curiosity, of course, pricked me and it went onto the list of places I needed to explore.

It was a beautiful sunny Saturday when I went out for the ride. I crossed the river and then the railroad tracks and started up the narrow road. The steep hill face was on my left, with fallen trees and gullies gouging the earth. On my right was the railroad tracks and beyond that the glittering water of the river.

I kept going. After the first cluster of houses at the intersection with the main road the remaining dwellings quickly spread out, following each other only at a distance. I pedaled on, enjoying the view and marveling at the hill towering directly over me.

Then, abruptly, the road came to an end. Well, not exactly to an end, but the thin narrow strip of the paved road stopped, and what continued on through the trees was a narrow rutted track. The path ahead, disappearing into the trees, looked so tenuous it seemed to deny continuing on for any length.

“Rats,” I said, coming to a stop. Then I noticed there were a few people outside the last house at the end of the line. They appeared to be having some type of garage sale. I knew from the map that the road was supposed to continue to the other side, but the map bases for the topographical maps is quite old. Could the road actually not come out on the other side? I was left waffling as to whether I wanted to bother trying to continue on or just give up and turn back.

“Does the road continue through to the other side?” I asked a lady nearby.

“Yeah,” she said. “It does. But the going gets rough.”

That was all I needed to know. I didn’t care how hard the road was. I had a mountain bike–albeit a very cheap one from Walmart–and all I cared was that the road kept going. This narrow tree encroached path looked like the perfect place for some exploration.

As it turned out, “rough” only began to describe the way ahead. “Vehicularly impassable” would have been a better description. At first it wasn’t too bad. The road began to climb up the side of the hill. The railroad tracks and the river were below, beyond a steep bank. While the way was narrow, it was still passable by car or truck.

Then I came out in a small clearing. At the edge of the clearing there was a small, one room, windowless shack with a sign nailed on the front that said “90 acres for sale. For terms call–” and it gave a phone number. Beyond the shack there was a stream that ran through a gully and cut off the path forward. I got off the bike and did some exploration on foot and discovered that a winding path did ford the stream directly ahead (though it looked dangerous to try and take a four-wheel-drive vehicle across). The other choice was to take a path which swung up behind the cabin and followed the edge of the ravine to who knew where.

A split in the road is always a difficult choice for me. Which way to take? Which way would be more fun and filled with more strange things? Often, I choose the more indirect route, so long as it looks more interesting. This time I thought it would be much more fun to follow the ravine back up the hill than simply ford the stream and continue on directly.

I followed the path upward but it became too steep and overgrown so I eventually had to dismount and walk a distance. Eventually I came to another branch in the path. This time I had the choice of continuing on up, or else going back down in the direction of the original trail. My exploring instinct said go ever further afield. There were so many glorious places I could lose myself. I was now throughly off the beaten track. There was not a house anywhere in sight, not to mention electricity or any other sign of modern civilization. The only marker of humanity I had was the two rutted wheel tracks in front of me.

Reason won out this time. If I kept going ever more afield I would never end up finishing what I had initially set out to do–that is, follow the road that ran parallel to the river–and I don’t like leaving something undone. Telling myself that I could come back some other time and follow all of these other paths, I turned and took the other road which followed the gully back down.

The road pretty much disappeared entirely before I reached the bottom and managed to come back on the original track. I continued on, the road still climbing, the river spreading out ever further below. Trees closed in on every side, bedrock jutting out from the hillside on my right. Trilliums bloomed in white profusion in the thick brown carpet of last year’s leaves. It was quite a sight. I did take the digital camera with me, but of course more often than not I didn’t take pictures (much to my later regret).

I was much enjoying myself, except for one problem. Once deep into the uncivilized land I had to go to the bathroom. And, shall we say delicately, it was number two. Irony of ironies. Perhaps the first time on all my bike riding that I had to go really really bad was the one time I was far away from all amenities. I could not believe it and yet . . . well, one had to believe, if you know what I mean. I began to consider the various . . . possibilities, considering my circumstances and all that, but I was spared. The need passed, and I was allowed to continue on. (Note to self: In the future always bring necessary materials for such a situation. Preparation is the best guard against necessity.)

What goes up must come down, as they say, and after having followed the side of the hill up until I was looking down on the river valley spreading out below, I had my chance to descend once again. It was a hair raising descent. The path was narrow, rutted, steep, and with a long sharp embankment on the right. I am not one of those people who likes to take part in the extreme sport of hurtling at full tilt down an unbeaten path, but I wasn’t exactly going to dismount my bike and walk down the hill I had worked so hard riding up. So I chose the judicious use of brakes and thinking, “Aaaiieeee! Don’t hit the big rocks! Don’t hit the big rocks!”

There were two dangers in hitting a large rock laying in the middle of the path. One, I could go flying and perhaps dash myself to pieces on the rocky trail, or I could go sailing over the embankment to whatever fate awaited below. The other possibility was that I would hit a big rock, land rather unscathed, but completely bend my front tire rim out of shape. Then I would have to kill myself for my own incompetence. So, neither possibility was good.

I made it to the bottom in one piece. But I did have a problem with my bike. In fact, I am sorry that I do not have heaps of filthy lucre that I could by a very good mountain bike with. What I have is a cheap Walmart bike (hey, it fit my budget) and on this bike the front handle bar is attached to the stem via a friction fit collar. Previously I had suffered trouble with my handle bar rotating and coming loose in this collar and so not long before this bike ride I had tightened the clamp down as much as I dared. Well, midway through bouncing and careening down the hill the handle bars rotated once again under the force of my weight. This was not at all helpful for staying on the bike, or conducive to steering. I made it to the bottom all right, but am now mad at my bike, and looking for some jury-rig where I can make the handlebar never move again.

Eventually the road came out of the encroaching trees and became once again a paved pathway which decent civilized people could travel on with their vehicles. I passed through some good river valley farmland being freshly plowed, then crossed back over the river. The rest of the trip home was uneventful.

There is still more exploring to do, and I hope to sometime get other people up there . . . in the hopes that they will enjoy the sights as much as I did. It is amazing what wild places you can find in your own back yard.

The Map

10th May 2004

For my Dad’s last birthday my Mom bought him a topographical map that was custom made with our house in the center of the map. In his youth my father liked to go hiking, and had an interest in maps. I think he still might have a collection of old topographical maps rolled up in a tube someplace. The map Mom bought him is framed and hung in the living room.

In general I am not a map person, but I think this topographical map is fascinating. I’m a visual person, and for all of the fact that maps are something you look at, I don’t find them very helpful or reassuring for a visually oriented person. I can look at a map and “find” a place and so “know” how to get there. But I don’t really know how because I discover that when I am driving in a car everything looks much different and besides which, I can’t keep a map in my head so unless I memorize all the turns I have to keep stopping to look at the map again . . . and again . . . and again. I drive by memory and land marks. I replay past trips in my mind and locate myself by landmarks. This can be very useful when you don’t have maps, but utterly unhelpful when you’re going someplace you’ve never gone before. (In that case I like directions from someone who also travels by landmarks and visual cues.)

The point is, I consider maps a weapon of last resort and usually do not look on them with favor. To my visual mind a topographical map is a little more interesting than a plain street map, but it is still only a map. With precise curving lines the changing terrain is delineated, but you don’t really see the land. You don’t experience it. And if you can’t see the rolling land, the forests, valleys, and rivers, what fun is a technical drawing of some far off place?

A topographical map of someplace I am somewhat familiar with is a different story. It gives you a different perspective from which to look at the world you already know. There are ultra-light aircraft that fly over our house and a part of me always envies the pilots. I wish I could soar up into the air, suspended in the sky where I could look down and see the land as it stretches out below. Up there you see the big picture. In the same way a topographical map gives the big picture. It informs my land bound ideas.

In particular, the topographical map hanging on our living room wall helps me place my bike rides, and understand them better in relation to the land. I like seeing how the roads I ride on are funneled by the land into going this way or that. It is fun to figure out what hill I saw in the distance when I sat on my bike, resting. The topographical map of the area around our house gives a texture and perspective to my biking excursions.

Even better, the map gives me ideas of where to take new bike rides. I find the roads I’ve already taken, and look for new and interesting routes to explore. I am always on the look out for a good place to take a bike ride. Especially now that the winter is over and good weather has returned, I like to leave my normal beaten track and go new places on my Saturday ride.

What makes a good place to take a bike ride? For some people the one criteria is how easy the ride will be . . . they want a road that will take them on a generally flat route. For me, it is the opposite. I seek out rural hilly roads.

To some people this is insanity, but to me it all has to do with the sense of adventure. If you ride on a flat road you can see everything spread out flat before you. It is like being stuck in a time warp. You pedal and pedal and the horizon still stays just as far away. Riding through hill country is different. Much different. Sure, climbing a steep hill might make your lungs feel like they are about to explode, but as you strain toward the crest of the hill it is like you are approaching the very horizon itself–you can see nothing beyond, it is the point where all things end–until you reach the top and a whole new world opens ahead, a world you’ve never seen before. In my very strange way, it is my adventure. I don’t know what is over the horizon, I don’t know what surprises await, or what beautiful sights await.

It takes a certain type of person to enjoy finding the hilliest route possible just so you can see the other side. I am that lone lunatic who went pedaling by your house, loudly singing “The bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain . . . . ooohhhh, and what do you think he saw? He saw the other side of the mountain, he saw the other side of the mountain . . .” Yes, I have actually on occasion sung that song to myself as I biked. It is a good biking song, but in a way it is a double sided joke that I think is funny. To everyone else the song speaks of how dumb it is to go over the the mountain–all you see is the other side. But to me that is exactly the reason to go over the mountain. Or the hill.

It’s been quite some time since anyone has gone on a bike ride with me. In the past I would be on a road, just following it, and the people coming with me would begin to flag out. “Rundy, how about we turn around now,” they would say. “How about we go over that next hill,” I would answer. “I wonder what is on the other side of the next hill. Come on, it’s just another hill. It won’t be that hard.”

I’ve learned that hard is relative. I can strain until my legs burn and my lungs are on fire, I can climb a hill until it feels like my heart will burst–and when I reach the top I will end up leaning over my bike, rasping for breath. But I’ve discovered that once I’ve had a few minutes to rest my heart recovers and my breath returns to normal. Far from my lungs being permanently damaged, they actually feel refreshed and invigorated, like when I was a little kid and would run and run and run with boundless energy. So I’ve discovered that hills are not to be shirked, and if you ride up enough of them it becomes less trouble.

But other people don’t have the same constitution. A difficult hill brings me to my raw edges, but in the end invigorates me. Not so for others.

I like sharing my biking adventures, but the last time I persuaded someone to come along I ended up almost riding said person to the point of puking. This person was Lachlan, and it wasn’t on purpose. I wanted to take him on what I thought was a really cool route (read–it had a really steep hill). I somehow managed to convince him to come along and it started out well enough. He could not keep up with me for the hill ascent (I think he actually had to get off his bike and walk it up the worst of the hill) but I kindly waited for him at the top. I noticed he looked exhausted, but didn’t make much of it since we’d just taken a steep hill. We, or I should say I, went merrily on our way until finally at the top of one hill on the way back Lachlan pulled up behind me and said weakly, “Rundy, we’d better stop for a bit. I think I’m going to puke.”

We stopped and I told Lachlan to sit down and take a breather. After some rest he recovered a bit and we made it home without incident. This experience reminded me that when on a bike ride the condition of everyone must be watched, and that not everyone can handle the same amount of exertion. I can push myself to the point where I feel like I’m about to die, but after a couple of minutes to catch my breath I’m ready to tackle the next big hill with all my zest. Other people . . . well, other people will be feeling ready to puke. Which is a pity, because it isn’t quite the same effect when I come home and say, “Well, see, today was a great bike ride. I went over a hill, there there was this long ride down and I saw this stream. Then I went up this other hill and I could see really far and . . .”

But I seem to have wandered a little astray from the map in the living room. A topographical map shows the hills and valleys in the terrain, and the map of our local area showed me that there were still plenty of steep and interesting hills that I haven’t yet explored. The summer lays ahead of me, and I’ve already studied the map. I plan to see plenty of hills and valleys before the fall is over. Then, when I am home and looking at the map on the wall I can match the pictures in my head with the land I see on the map. Then I will know not only how the land around here lies, but also how it looks.

Pound Cake

7th May 2004

The chickens are laying about a dozen eggs a day right now, and that is far more than we naturally consume in a day. The dozens of eggs start piling up in the refrigerator until room starts getting scarce for all the other necessary things that must be kept cool. It’s then we know that we need to find recipes to use up a lot of eggs.

I get sick of eating straight eggs quickly. My favorite way of using up eggs is in baked goods. An all time winner is pound cake. This is a hefty, filling cake that, with home grown eggs, is exceptional. I love the butter and egg taste.

In tradition a pound cake has a pound of eggs, a pound of butter, and a pound of sugar. In practice, the recipe we use is modified. There is only a half a pound of butter (still very fattening!), but it does use up a lot of eggs.

For anyone else who would like to make themselves some of this diet-busting dessert, the recipe is as follows:

Ingredients

1/2 pound butter
1 2/3 cups sugar
5 eggs
2 cups cake flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or lemon, or almond, or partial portions mixed, depending on the taste you like)

Directions

Preheat the oven to 325 F. Butter and lightly flour a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan. Cream the butter, slowly add the sugar, and beat until light. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating each in well. Stir in the flour, salt, and vanilla and combine well. Spoon into the pan and bake for 1 1/4–1 1/2 hours, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 5 minutes before turning out onto a rack.

The above is for one loaf. We x6 the recipe to make much more at one time. That is thirty eggs.

Spring Things

7th May 2004

This is a dangerous time of year. That might seem like a peculiar thing to say about the fine weather in May, but it is true. This is a dangerous time of year because there is the ever present danger of things being caught in a frost that really should not.

In other words, my apple harvest hangs in the balance.

Actually, there is a lot more than apple blossoms at risk from a frost, but that is the thing nearest and dearest to my heart. Other years we have had a hard frost that killed off all the lilac blossoms. That was sad. Another year we had a frost all the way in June which ravaged our garden. That was depressing.

Around here the month of May is fair game for frost. Unfortunately, around here my apple trees blossom in May and a frost when the apple blossoms are open will destroy any chance at fruit. This makes for some nail biting nights. It feels like some form of gambling. Depending on exactly how warm May is, the apple trees will blossom sometime during the month. Optimally, the first half of May will stay cold and then, miraculously, the second half of the month will be exceptionally warm. In this way the apple trees will blossom late, and be safe from frost. In practice it seems like there is always a warm spell in early May, followed by a cold snap. Sufficient to say, of late we have had less years with an apple harvest than without.

Currently the apple blossoms are on the cusp of opening and I am feeling rather pessimistic. This seems like an early blooming year and if they open sometime around the 12th-13th like I think, it is highly unlikely that they will escape being frosted. All I can do it wait and watch, and wonder why whoever planted the trees didn’t choose a more northern hardy variety

***

The forest is on the verge of leafing out. The early trees have already begun putting out their small leaves, but the maple trees (which constitute the majority on the hillside opposite the house) are still waiting. Soon, very soon, the leaves will explode from their buds, and everything will be green again.

The lawn and fields have already greened up. The grass is growing, and soon we’ll be at the time of year when the grass is growing fastest. I can never keep up with mowing like I ought.

Before any mowing can be done the equipment must be taken out of storage. This isn’t a really big chore, but it can be hard to find the time. For our DR brush mower the spark plug and air filters are supposed to be changed at the beginning of every year. Of course I don’t already have this equipment on hand, so it must be bought . . . which I don’t usually think of until the last minute. Then, this year, I had the blades off for sharpening and I had to put them back on before Lachlan or I could use the mower. Combine this with the lawns needing to be cleaned up from all of the accumulated junk since last fall and I invariably get around to the first mowing long after it should have been done.

This year I made one of those stupid little mistakes that are very embarrassing. When I put the blades back on the mowing deck I put them on wrong side up. This meant that the mower was trying to cut grass using the dull backside of the blade.

Putting a lawn mower blade on backward is like flunking the most basic test of mechanical awareness. It isn’t hard or complicated. I was actually the cause of my own mistake because last year I thought I would be smart and I put a piece of masking tape on each blade, stating which side of the mowing deck it went on, and which side went up. Brilliant, except which direction is up? Is up when the deck is right side up, or is up when the deck is turned over and you are working on it? I meant one thing when I wrote last fall, and I thought I meant the opposite when I put them back on this spring. I didn’t even bother to stop and seriously check, I just blithely “followed” my own directions.

I don’t know how long my incompetence would have gone unnoticed if not for my subconscious. Lachlan mowed before I did and as I was walking around I noticed that his mowing job was very rough. The grass was not cut neatly. This struck me as very odd considering the blades were supposed to have been just sharpened. But I couldn’t make anything of it, so I went back to cleaning up the lawn I was about to mow. My subconcious must have kept working over the problem because some minutes later I stopped what I was doing and thought, “I bet I put the blades on backward. I bet I misunderstood what ‘up’ meant.”

As soon as I thought this I was almost certain it was true. It would be typical of me to leave directions for myself and then misunderstand my own directions. If I think I would be really dumb enough to actually do something, chances are, I did it. So I went and checked, and indeed I had.

It is amazing how much better the mower cuts when the blades are on right.

***

The tree swallows have come back for the summer. It is nice to see them flying around, chittering and scolding. I haven’t seen any barn swallows around yet. I wonder if some will use the same nest as last year.

About the turkey vultures I mentioned a while back; several of them do seem to have moved into the area. I have spotted them several times. Once one of them passed directly over head, my first warning being the huge shadow that swooped across the ground.

Apparently turkey vultures are common down in Pennsylvania. Now that I have become familiar with their appearance I’ve begun to notice them. At first glance, at a distance, it is hard to distinguish between a turkey vulture and a crow because up in the sky distance can be hard to judge. A far away turkey vulture can look about the same size as a nearer crow. However, the turkey vulture does fly slightly differently, and once they are close enough that I can see the underside of their wings, the turkey vulture has a different coloring than crows.

Turkey vulture counting can get a little dangerous. I was driving up from Pennsylvania last month and I thought I saw several turkey vultures circling directly over the highway. I leaned forward, trying to peer up out the windshield to see if there were really so many flying directly overhead. Straining to look up at the sky, I wasn’t paying attention to my driving and I started to drift on the road. So I decided I had to stop my bird watching.

But I think they were turkey vultures.

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Is This The Starter?

27th April 2004

I am not a car mechanic. I will build a chicken house, plant a tree, and disassemble a computer–but cars are not my area of expertise.

There are at least two reasons for this. One is exposure. My father loathes working on cars with a passion and so has avoided it all his life. Thus I haven’t had much opportunity to pick up the skill from watching and helping. The second reason for my lack of expertise with cars is temperament. That is, my worrying nature which assumes if there is a worse case scenario I will probably end up living it. That is, disassembling the engine and then not being able to figure out how to put it back together. Or, losing that last critical screw that is necessary for putting the steering system back together. Or, even worse, putting on new brakes improperly so they fail as I am racing down the highway. I haven’t done any of these things, and I hope I never will. But thinking about them is scary enough. There is fertile ground under the hood of a car for imagining nightmares.

So, I’ve never found out if I have the skill to work with cars. Probably I could, but by inclination and experience I’ve been conditioned to avoid tinkering or replacing the inner guts of a car. I’d rather not be ignorant about cars, but intimidation, lack of motivation, and lack of time do wonders to maintain the status quo.

But sometimes working with cars can’t be avoided. Sometimes I’m given an unwilling lesson in how to become a mechanic. Recently there was one of those times.

It all started when Titi called home. Poor Titi has ended up with, it seems, more than her fair share of car problems. She had gone on a short trip to a neighbor’s house a few miles away and when she got back into the jeep (she was driving Teman’s jeep) it would not start. So she was calling home to ask what she should do.

I couldn’t be of much help, but in situations like these one tries to be helpful. “Are you sure you have it in park? Okay. Are you sure you’re turning the key all the way? All right. And you’re sure it isn’t starting?” No brilliant solutions came to me. Well, I figured, if the car wasn’t starting either the battery went dead since she had left home not much more than fifteen minutes ago or there was some electrical short in the ignition wiring. About all I could say at that point was, “We’ll come down and take a look.”

As it happened Teman was actually home, so we got into the remaining car and drove to the neighbors. After attempting to start the jeep, attempting to jump the jeep, and checking the jeep fuses, we were out of ideas. Teman may have, at this point, wondered aloud about the starter but at this time I did not even know what a starter was. Terrible, I know. I’ve confessed my ignorance. I might have even known at one point, but those things don’t always stick in my mind. Anyhow, Teman wasn’t sure where the starter was, so we couldn’t very well do anything about it. So we all went home until we could consult some more knowledgeable sources.

Consulted authorities agreed that if jumping the jeep did not work then it was a good possibility that the starter was the source of the problem. Having the jeep sitting in the middle of the neighbors’ driveway was a bit embarrassing (don’t mind us as we block your driveway until we can figure out how to fix our jeep) and we were eager to quickly resolve the jeep’s problem. If the problem was the starter we would have to remove the starter that was on the jeep and take it down to a parts store and exchange it for a working starter that we could put back on the jeep. If the starter was the problem this would solve our difficulties. If this starter was an innocent bystander we would have gone through a lot of work for nothing.

Teman and I went back to the jeep with our trusty toolbox full of wrenches, sockets, and ratchets. The first thing we had to do was locate the starter. This came dangerously close to the farce of “How many does it take to change a starter?” I had absolutely no idea what the starter even looked like, and Teman discovered that his manual did not show the starter. We would have been utterly stuck, and the laughing stock of all mechanics and truly manly society (for manly society knows all about cars, don’t you know,) if Teman hadn’t known about where the starter should be, and the brand name that was on the starter. I located the correct brand name on a cylindric piece of equipment and so we decided that we probably had located the starter.

The next step was removing this probable starter. Following Murphy’s Law, and maybe the Law of Car Construction, this particular piece was not easy to access. It was all the way underneath so one had to crawl beneath the car up in the cramped space near the wheel. Of course there was only barely enough space to get the socket with ratchet onto the bolt heads and it was very awkward besides. But, all things considered, it could have been much worse. We could get the ratchet on the bolts, and there were only two bolts we needed to remove.

Starter removed, we brought it home and learned that it was, indeed a starter. So Teman took it to the parts store to get a replacement.

An hour or so later Teman comes home with the same starter he left with. “They said it wasn’t broken,” was his answer. “They have this testing machine. They said there was nothing wrong with it.”

Confounded. If that was true then something else had to be wrong with the jeep. The other possibility was that the spring in the starter (don’t ask me for the technical name) could have become caught and our jostling and removing of the starter allowed it to become unstuck. Or else one tooth in the starter was bad but all the rest were good so the problem was only detected if the vehicle tried to start on that one bad spot.

Since the whole family was supposed to go out the next day we really wanted to fix the jeep as soon as possible . . . not to mention we really didn’t want to leave our dead vehicle sitting in someone else’s driveway. So Teman and I went back in the fading evening light to try and put the starter back on and see if, by some miracle, it might work.

It was getting dark, but we were smart enough to bring flashlights. We managed to put the starter back on without too much difficulty, considering were were laying in the cramped space under the jeep trying to work with flashlights and ratchets. The big issue was, how much should we tighten the bolts? Stripping the bolts that went into (I presume) the engine block was the last thing we wanted to do at the onset of dark. But, tighten the bolts too little and they would work loose and sometime down the road–klunk!–the starter would fall off. That wasn’t appealing either. We tightened the bolts to what I hope was a judicious amount. Then we reconnected the battery. On the off chance that somehow removing the starter and putting it back on would solve all our problems we decided to try and start the jeep again.

It started without a hitch.

Well, okay. That was enough for that night. Figure out the logic, or lack thereof, another time. We went home.

A freak problem, or something more sinister? The fact that removing the starter and putting it back on made the jeep work, along with other factors, cast the weight of suspicion on the starter as somehow being the root of the problem. The jeep started the next several times, but who was to say when it wouldn’t start again? What happened if the next time it didn’t start the jeep was three hours from home? Then it would really be no laughing matter. Thinking along these lines, Teman decided it would probably be a good idea to replace the starter, even though it was working at the present time. A few days after the incident he asked me if I could find the time to remove it for him while he was away at work so he could pick up the old starter when he came home and go get a new one.

I did remove the starter all by myself. Alone, this was the time when I did the one stupid thing. I neglected to remove the starter cables from the battery. I was already lying underneath the jeep and had done a fair amount of ratcheting when this fact occurred to me. “Hmmm,” I thought. “I didn’t disconnect the battery. Maybe I should.” But then I thought, “I really don’t want to climb out from under this jeep again, and I’m already halfway done. There is no point in getting out and disconnecting the battery now.”

Ratchet . . . ratchet . . . snap! “Ack!” Sparks fly. Okay, okay. I clambered out from under the jeep and disconnected the battery. Lesson learned.

Teman came home shortly after I was finished and took away the old starter. He left, then came back later still having only the old starter. This provoked some incredulity on my part.

“Well,” Teman said a bit sheepishly. “They still didn’t find anything wrong with it. They ran it on the machine and two guys listened to it and they couldn’t find anything wrong with it. They even compared it to a new one. So . . .”

I did not give up the opportunity to bust him about not being able to make up his mind whether he wanted a new starter or not. Never mind that I wouldn’t have felt any more confident.

Teman put the starter back on and the jeep, so far, has worked ever since. Very strange and mysterious and all that. I don’t know if any of us will feel safe driving off to far distant places until something definite happens. In the mean time I like to joke that I’ve become a mechanic. I’ve removed a starter–I know things.

Little Things

22nd April 2004

The daffodils are blooming. They are such a bright yellow. The flowers light up the lawn like little droplets of cheery sunlight. They look like they have so much energy it can be envy inducing.

April is racing along toward its conclusion. Spring does go so fast. Next time I turn around it will be the end of May. In this latter portion of April it has become noticeably warmer. Instead of a chill gusty wind it is now a mild pleasant breeze with the amazing fresh smell of spring on the air. We have begun opening windows and allowing the sweet air to filter through the upstairs. The first clean fresh air we’ve had inside since summer ended last year so many months ago.

The chickens are enjoying the sunshine and warmth. Even right now as I look out the upstairs window I see them lying on the grass, sprawled out and taking a lazy snooze. I see them doing it often. Sometimes they lay so limp and still they appear dead, struck down on the spot. I wonder at times if other chickens become concerned because I will see one of them go over to the unmoving one and stare very closely, maybe pecking at the grass near the head of the resting chicken until the bird gets up and moves. Concerned, or else they can’t stand seeing someone else resting so nice and comfortable and they have to ruin it. Could be that.

With plenty of sunshine to enjoy, grass to eat, and yard to explore the egg production is at its peak. Some days I bring in a full dozen, which is more than we can eat by our normal methods. One solution is to have scrambled eggs, hard boiled eggs, and fried eggs at every possible occasion. But I don’t care to eat eggs straight except occasionally. I think the excellency of eggs is shown in baking.

Maybe I can get Titi to make lots of pound cake . . . that uses up eggs.

***

I finished pruning the three big apple trees. A little late, and just in time. As always.

There was less apple tree to prune this year since I had to lop off a major limb from two of the trees because of insect problems last year and the third tree suffered from being smashed by the willow tree when it came down. Less limbs to prune, but in the case of one tree this made my job more difficult because the removed limb was one I stood on to prune branches higher up. I managed by standing (illegally) on the very top of the step ladder.

The good news about the apple tree that was mauled by the willow tree is that it appears to be recovering. It still looks a bit ratty and there are scars that will last for many years to come. However, the tree survived through last year. It hasn’t come down with any deadly infection, and so long as it doesn’t I expect the wounds will heal and the tree will slowly get back to normal. This year will tell a lot. So far I am happy about the prospects.

At pruning time I always wonder what I will do when I get older. Way out on a branch–clutching the very end as I lean out over open space straining with clippers in hand to reach the last twig–I think that if I were the least overweight, out of shape, or plain stiff in the joints I don’t know how I could do it. Most of apple tree pruning is easy. But the very end of those few branches pushes safety, sanity, and physical ability to a realm I am not sure I will always be willing to venture to. Maybe I will surprise myself. Or maybe I will find some amazingly tall step ladder that I can use to reach those branches that are way out and far up.

Then I always wonder what will happen the first time I miscalculate the loading bearing capacity of a branch and end up, finally, taking “the big plunge.” Every year there are a few moments that come close (don’t read that, Mom). The important thing, of course, is to remember in that fleeting moment of horror to land right side up.

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Book Review: Thura’s Diary

22nd April 2004

The book was slim and small. Thura’s Diary: My life in wartime Iraq was the title. With the picture of an Iraqi girl in her late teens or early twenties on the cover my first thought was that this was some publisher trying to do something like a modern Ann Frank rip-off and make some quick and easy money from modern history. At the same time, I was curious. Was this just a few worthless scribbles packaged up for a gullible audience, or was there a real story here? The shortness made me suspect there was little substance, but it also meant it was so short I would quickly find out the truth of the matter. So I took the book from the shelf and checked it out of the library.

It turns out that Thura’s Diary was written by Thura Al-Windawi who was nineteen at the time of the Iraqi War. It is a glimpse into the life of an educated but naive girl in a country at war. The book was better written than I had feared. Shallow as far as insight is concerned, Thura Al-Windawi does manage to sketch the thoughts, fears, and hopes of an Iraqi girl in this frightening time.

I was disappointed by the short length. Being a journal keeper myself I can’t say that I could have done any better in recording events as they occurred but in reading I still can’t help but wish that there was more substance . . . more material. The whole story feels scarcely longer than an extended excerpt one might read in a magazine. Finishing the book, one wishes more had been said.

Like many people I watched the Iraqi War unfold, following the event as it was charted in unprecedented detail by the media. I was interested in Thura’s Diary in learning how it was, on a personal level, for someone close to my own age who experienced it, as it were, from the other side of the video camera. But, in the end, I realized how narrow her story was. Thura Al-Windawi was there, but her story is only the story of a nineteen year old Iraqi girl from a comfortably well-off Shia family. It wasn’t the story of the Kurd or the Sunni, or the young Iraqi man. Her story was real, but it was so little of the complete story. Her fears were real, but I couldn’t help but wonder how well she understood the fears of others. In the book Al-Windawi relates a humorous incident where her father is teasing some younger relatives about being forcibly dragged off to fight. Her father makes the young men so nervous that when a little neighbor girl comes knocking on the door the men all take flight and run to hide in the river. The incident is humorous from this vantage point, but Al-Windawi seems to intellectually acknowledge the danger while not really personally grasping the terror a young Iraqi man would have facing the possibility of being forced to fight in a war.

Though I wished for a deeper and fuller exploration of life through this harrowing time I did sometimes find Thura Al-Windawi’s innocence refreshing. In Thura’s Diary she seems to relate to everyone with openness and a lack of hostility. I had to smile when she related an occasion when she was in Baghdad after it had fallen, and she met some Americans sitting in tanks. She says, “On the way I talked to an American soldier for the first time. He had bright blue eyes and I could tell he felt proud, sitting on top of his tank. I asked him why he was wearing a flak jacket, when the weather was so hot and no one was going to shoot at him now anyway. He told me it was a safety measure, in case someone shot at him from a distance. He seemed to be making fun of me, and his friends were laughing at him because he hadn’t been expecting to meet an Iraqi girl who could speak English.”

What I found most interesting about Thura’s Diary was what it left out. The book is slim, and as much can be read between the lines as read in the actual pages. Al-Windawi relates the events of the Iraqi War and her feelings of terror, uncertainty, and hope. But she rarely divulges her thoughts or relates the thoughts of those around her. What does she and her family think of Saddam Hussein? What do they think of the condition of Iraq under his reign? There is a careful emptiness in the book . . . noticeable, but not surprising, considering much was written while Saddam Hussein was still in power. It is only in the end that a few glimmers of true thoughts begin to show through. Even then I was not sure how much Thura Al-Windawi knew, both about what happened in the recent history of Iraq, and what her own family–her own father–thought. Most revealing was what Al-Windawi related only at the very end of the book, in a postscript about the capture of Saddam Hussein. It is only there that she relates an e-mail from her father where he says that “Even though the regime had only ended recently, Saddam had died in the hearts of many Iraqis long ago.”

Thura’s Diary: My Life in Wartime Iraq
Hardcover: 131 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.77 x 8.80 x 5.62
Publisher: Viking

Book Review: Stolen Lives

22nd April 2004

I first picked up Stolen Lives on impulse. I was at the library counter, checking out books when I saw it sitting displayed on the shelf. Certainly the title was eye catching Stolen Lives: twenty years in a desert jail. Intrigued, I flipped open the cover and read the inside flap. A entire family imprisoned in Morocco . . . held in solitary cells . . . escaped by digging a tunnel with their bare hands. It sounded fascinating. One of my first thoughts was wondering if Teman already knew of the author–Malika Oufkir–and her experience. Teman reads an amazing amount of material and is almost like a walking encyclopedia, especially about history events. If he did, I thought he might be interested in reading her own account of what happened. And if he didn’t already know about th event I thought he would be interested in finding out. I figured that even if I didn’t find the time to read the book someone would. So I took the book and added it to my stack.

As it turned out I did find time to read Stolen Lives. I opened it up that very evening and read the book through in one sitting, staying up far too late in the process. Stolen Lives is an engaging story, maybe more riveting by its almost surreal quality. Author Malika Oufkir was adopted as a young child by the king of Morocco so that Malika would be a playmate for his daughter. She was “adopted” but Malika had living parents and was very closely attached to her mother. It was against Malika’s own will, and for the purpose of political expediency that she was torn away from her mother and brought into the king’s court. The story of her early years away from her mother is heart-breaking for anyone who loves their mother and can remember when they were little and their mother meant all of the world to them. To be suddenly torn away from your mother and told that you can’t see her except on occasion is cruel beyond comprehending. Yet, it happened.

For the rest of her childhood Malika Oufkir was raised in the opulence of the palace life in Morocco. The old king died and his son took the throne and Malika’s true father rose to a very high position. Once Oufkir was of age she chose to return to her own family. But her freedom from the court, and her extravagant living, quickly came to an end. When she was eighteen her father took part in a coup against the king which ended in failure and the death of her father. This event occasioned another abrupt change in her life. Her great luxury and wealth came to an abrupt end. For the crime of Malika Oufkir’s father she, along with all her siblings and mother, were imprisoned.

Stolen Lives follows the experience of the Oufkir family from when they were first held in a remote jail to when they were held for years in small cells, and then their escape. For covering some twenty years the book is relatively short–about 280 pages. Rather than a cohesive plodding story of the entire length of their imprisonment Malika Oufkir moves from one vignette to another, using the particular to embody the whole past years of experience. The account of Stolen Lives dwells more on the emotion of their existence than the historical detail.

The quality of memoir brings the vividness to Stolen Lives but it is also the root of problems in the book. Malika Oufkir authored Stolen Lives with Michele Fitoussi, and it reads like a story told by one person to another. Certain moments are told with bright clarity, but there is also a certain disjointed quality. Events are related by their subjective importance and often one thing will be dwelt on at length while something else that might seem important to the reader is only briefly passed over. In a historical account background is even, setting is explained, and motives examined. Stolen Lives lacked this depth and well rounded quality but is at least partly excused because it is the personal, raw, story of someone who has lived through the very experience being retold.

Two things struck me in particular when reading Stolen Lives. First, I realized that I knew nothing about Morocco. This book was my introduction to the country, its political system, and society. Second, the story of Stolen Lives reminded me how much we are all so unthankful for the lives we have. It is so easy to complain about what we have, to wish things were better or different. We forget and fail to recognize how great a gift it is to simply have health and the ability to walk outside and see the sun. Imagine, or try to, the impoverishment of being filthy, starving, alone, and unable to see anything but the four walls of your cell for year after year. Malika Oufkir was imprisoned at the age of eighteen for a crime she didn’t even commit and did not see civilization again until she was in her late thirties. The entire prime of her life was wiped out, lost. In my own daily struggles that is something to remember, and keep things in perspective.

Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail
Hardcover: 293 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 1.05 x 9.56 x 6.32
Publisher: Talk Miramax Books; (May 16, 2001)
ISBN: 0786868619

My Arbor Day

16th April 2004

My two plum trees arrived yesterday. I have been very pleased with the condition and packing of everything that I’ve bought from St. Lawrence Nurseries. The plants are always well wrapped and in good condition. I can tell a lot of personal work went into packing the plants. So far I’ve bought grape vines, a cherry tree, an apple tree, and now two plum trees from St. Lawrence Nurseries. These plum trees are the largest trees I’ve received from them. They both stood at around five feet with good root systems. A good deal for only $6.50 each.

I never know exactly when my shipment is going to arrive, so every year it feels like the package arrives at the most inconvenient time. I always have something planned for that day. When my plum trees arrived yesterday I actually intended to plant them that very same day. But then I got cold feet. I went to check out the various places I might plant them, and the more I thought the more complicated and dubious the whole procedure felt. Putting in a fruit tree isn’t like planting a garden. You can’t say that next year you want it someplace else. Or that ten years from now you want it someplace else. A fruit tree is permanent until dead. With the weight of “You’d better plant this in exactly the right spot because you’re not going to get another chance” hanging on my mind, I ended up seeing problems with every place I thought of putting the plum trees. The problem with living on a hilly, very wet, narrow piece of property is that there isn’t very much good land for planting. We have fourteen acres but standing in the middle of the property you can throw a stone to either edge. The land is narrow and goes way back.

So I waffled, came up with all sorts of problems, and finally decided I would ask Dad if he had any opinion on where the plum trees should go. I doubted he would have an opinion, but I figured if there was anything stupid with my ideas he might at least see the problems. This put off planting the plum trees, so I stuck them in some water and left it for the next day.

Dad had no opinions and saw no problem with what I suggested. I was neither no better nor no worse off than before. Indecision, indecision. Somehow, it felt like the more I thought about it the harder it was becoming to decide where these plum trees should go. But they had to go somewhere.

Today turned out to be a very nice April day. The weather was sunny, but windy (April has been pretty windy this year), with temperatures in the mid 50 F. range. This afternoon I went outside with a measuring tape and did some more measuring. No great ideas came. So I dragged Mom outside for a second time and picked her mind some more. The two biggest problems I struggled with were the aesthetics of how the trees lined up and how I could satisfy good aesthetics and still leave room for a tractor path running up to the back of the property.

There was no perfect solution that either Mom or I could find. In the end we settled on locations that will, hopefully, look aesthetically pleasing as the trees grow and also leaves space for a tractor path. I was less than entirely pleased but after all my measuring, re-measuring, and looking at things I’d come to the conclusion that the perfect solution I was looking for simply didn’t exist.

Once the agony of deciding on locations was settled the actual digging of the holes went without a problem. I have a lot of experience digging holes. A strong back and a young body does wonders for digging by manual labor. Going at an easy pace, I managed to dig two holes 36 inches wide and about 24 inches deep, and fill the holes back in, in around two and a half hours. The ground I was working with was not pure clay for the first twelve or so inches and there weren’t too many rocks, so over all it was pretty pleasant work by hole digging standards.

I watered and mulched the two plum trees and they look pretty spiffy now, planted out in the back yard. So long as nothing terrible happens to them (think deer and rabbits) they should do very well, I think. Looking into the future, the real question is whether I will actually ever get any fruit from these plum trees. It is possible that late spring frosts will always kill the blossoms and I will end up having put years of work into two plum trees that will flower wonderfully but never produce a piece of fruit.

Well, we don’t think about that too much right now. It was a calculated risk that I decided to take and at this point hope springs eternal. Besides, I had fun planting them, and I know I will enjoy taking care of them. It is better to look at it in these short terms.

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Grafting Amateur

6th April 2004

When we moved into this place there were three original apple trees of undetermined origin, a pear tree of also undetermined stock, and a concord grape vine. The three apple trees continue to plug along, producing fruit, or attempting to produce, every year. Harvest from the grape vine has been erratic as well, again due mostly to late frosts in spring and early frosts in fall. Most recently the grape vine was afflicted with black rot. I used this as an excuse to move the grape vine out of its old location, which wasn’t very good in my opinion. In the process of moving the grape vine I managed to get five plantable sections . . . I could have planted more sections, but five was enough to fill up the length where I was planting.

Then there is the pear tree. Of all the original stock on this property the pear tree has been the ultimate problem child. I don’t know what variety it is. Perhaps part of the problem is that the previous owner planted a pear type that isn’t meant to grow in this climate. In any case, this pear tree was small and rather uninspiring to begin with and in the many years that we’ve lived here it produced fruit only once . . . three pears if I remember right. Sometime shortly after that point it contracted either an infestation of some time of bug or else a disease because most of the tree promptly died. But, oddly enough, not all of it. One, and only one, branch of the pear tree remained alive. As a source of amusement, and an object lesson in hope I suppose, I left this sawed-down-one-branch-stump-of-a-pear-tree supported with wire to grow or die as it would.

The pear tree continued to live. Since it was very small I was content to let it struggle away–until now. The pear tree was planted smack up against the concord grape vine, right under the shadow of one of the apple trees (what the previous owners were thinking planting those three so close together I’ve no idea). Now that the concord grape vine was moved, the pear tree was the only thing left in this space I wanted opened up for something more useful. As the pear tree has never really produced a harvest and in its diminished state likely never would there wasn’t any good reason to keep the tree hogging space.

I could have just cut the tree down. But as I considered the idea a thought formed in my mind. Last year the big willow tree fell down and smashed several limbs on one of the apple trees. This past winter rabbits chewed all the bark off the twigs on the lowest limb. This pretty well completely trashed the limb and I had resigned myself to cutting the limb off. Then the idea came to me: why not trim back all the ravaged twigs and graft various small portions of the good pear limb onto the apple tree?

For those of you who are not educated on this sort of thing, grafting pear onto apple is actually possible. You can actually cross graft several different types of fruit trees, but I don’t remember all of them. What inspired this idea in me is an article I read about someone who actually did graft a whole bunch of different fruits onto an apple tree. One limb produced one type of fruit and another limb produced another type, and so on.

I’ve never grafted before. The entire repertoire of my knowledge on this subject consists in what I’ve read and my skill . . . well, my skill is yet to be proved. In theory, and I suppose, in practice (at least once you’ve got the hang of it), the traditional basic fruit tree grafting is pretty easy. It’s done all the time. It’s what the fruit industry is built upon. All the fruit trees that grow the same type of apple are grafted scions. The general ease of this procedure being acknowledged, I think grafting onto a full grown tree is slightly harder, at least because working with a branch that is still attached to a tree is more awkward than working with a small bit of root stock.

No one has ever showed me how to graft and I’ve no real idea of how successful a first attempt generally is. However, I was game to try. The pear tree had to go, and the apple limb would end up sawed off if it wasn’t put to use, so I didn’t have much to lose.

You can buy special knives for grafting and special tape to cover up the graft joint. Then you can also buy stuff to put on the graft joint to help retain the moisture. They say any sharp knife should work and you can use electrician’s tape, so that is what I decided to do.

The first thing I did was sharpen my knife. Once I figured it was sharp enough I took all of my equipment outside to begin work.

It quickly became apparent that what looks pretty easy in the book isn’t quite so easy in reality. Being acquainted with Murphy’s Law I wasn’t surprised but it was still frustrating. There are several different methods you can use to graft but I was sticking to the easiest. In this method you cut both the root stock and the graft material at an angle and then place them together and bind them tight.

I learned a few things pretty quickly. First off, cutting two matching angles isn’t as easy as you might hope. Second, there is a reason you’re told not to use mature wood. Third, there is a right and a wrong way to use a knife when grafting. Take these three all together and yes, one of the first things I did was cut myself.

It happened while I was working on my first graft. I had chosen stock that was too thick and I was having difficulty cutting it and was attempting to correct the angle of my cut. I was holding the knife improperly due to my frustration in trying to get a correct angle to the cut. In the back of my mind I knew it was a very bad idea, but the more impatient part of my mind said I had everything under control and I would be careful and it would be only this once and–oops.

One thing that can be said is, the sharper a knife is the less it hurts when it cuts you. Ever notice that when you hit your finger with a hammer it hurts like all get out but if you accidentally cut yourself with a sharp piece of glass you can give yourself a really bad cut and scarcely notice? In the same manner I wasn’t initially sure if I had cut myself. I felt the blade make fast contact with the back of my finger and my instinctive thought was that, being a sharp blade, I had just cut myself. But it didn’t hurt, and on initial examination it looked as if I had just scraped the surface.

Something didn’t seem quite right so I took a closer look. Further examination showed that I was indeed cut. How badly was the next question. Could I just keep working or had I better go get something to put over the wound? Experience has taught me that for cuts that don’t hit a major artery you can often have a few seconds grace . . . somehow the blood sometimes doesn’t start leaking out right away, especially if it is a very clean cut. With this in mind I looked at the cut on my finger and saw that blood was just starting to come out. I decided it would not just be a few drops and I’d better get a band-aid to stem the flow.

I was down to the front door by the time my finger started bleeding in earnest. In the bathroom I washed off the initial blood, then wiped off more blood with a towel as I dried my finger. Soon as I had my finger dry I slapped on a band-aid. Then I went back out to work.

After cutting myself I recalled to mind the proper method for holding a knife when grafting. You have to hold the blade against your thumb. This gives you much better control and if it ever does slip you don’t end up cutting yourself. It is a little strange, but feels quite natural once you get the hang of it. I didn’t cut myself again, but I continued to bleed as I worked. The blood leaked out from around the band-aid and onto the adjoining finger and onto the tape I was using as well. Eventually it stopped.

The rest of the grafting went without mishap. How successful my efforts were only a few months time will tell. I suspect my chances are something like that of winning the lottery. After all, it was my first attempt. I got the hang of the cutting procedure a little bit but taping the two halves together never felt like it went right. For a successful graft you need the two pieces lined up precisely, and I always found that whenever I did this I ended up having my fingers exactly where I needed to put tape. So, things ended up slipping and I’d try to readjust. I’d tape and then wonder if things were still aligned right under the tape and generally think that I probably ought to laugh at myself.

The material I’ve read said it was good to apply wax to the cut to help retain moisture. After I had everything throughly taped up with electricians tape I wasn’t sure how wax was really going to help retain any more moisture. For a bit I considered just skipping that step, but then I decided to be a good little boy and do everything. Not having a chunk of wax I could melt I decided to make do with the supplies I had on hand. I got the stub of a candle used when the power was out and used that to drip wax onto the taped joints. Sad to say, it ended up looking rather pathetic and I don’t think the dripped wax added anything. Looking at my efforts, I can’t help but think that if a professional grafter came along he would have his laugh of the month looking at what I’ve done.

Most likely my attempt will end in abysmal failure. But it was worth the learning experience if nothing else. And, until the pear grafts shrivel up I can entertain the fantasy that it will actually work and I will have pear wood growing on an apple tree. That would really tickle me.

Yeah, dream on, Rundy.

I will keep you posted. If even one graft takes I’ll count it as a success.

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March is Going Out Like a Lamb

30th March 2004

After the miserable snowy weather in the middle of March the month has made a dramatic turn for the better in these last few days. It started on Sunday the 28th which dawned clear and sunny. The day followed in the steps of the morning and Monday kept up the same and today as well. These have been days when the daytime temperature manages to climb up into the 60s (Fahrenheit).

Spring is here. The snowdrops and crocuses are here and soon they will be gone. The fields are full of dead grass but soon they will be turning green again. The daffodils are coming up, but turn around and they’ll be blooming. Around here spring is the shortest season with the longest list of chores. But with weather like these last three days it is impossible to be discouraged by the long list of things-that-must-be-done. After months of snow it feels like a privilege to be outside working, soaking up the sun and fresh air.

The exquisite weather of the past three days defies description. What is exquisite? Beautiful? Superb? Wonderful? How do they describe a sky of pure unsullied blue with a gentle spring sun shining down and a soft breeze blowing? How do those words describe the sensation of being outside and listening to the birds warble and chitter in the trees after one has been inside for months of bone-chilling cold. Can words do justice to an early morning bike ride through the crisp air, passing along as the first rays of the morning sun touch the tops of the hills? Certainly this weather is beautiful, superb, wonderful, and exquisite all rolled together, but somehow the words still fail to grasp the fullness of the world in this weather. If someone were to say to me “Describe it” I would have to respond “Sorry, if you really want the full experience you have to live it.”

Spring, at this time, rests on the pinnacle of waiting. New life is just coming out and for those who stop to look and see, the world is brimming with potential. Of all times of the year for me this is the most optimistic. The winter is over and spring is just beginning. Walking under the apple trees in May when the blossoms are full and fragrant is more joyful, but now at the end of March and beginning of April the world is full of the yet-to-be. It is a waiting for good things to be unleashed.

It is at this time that the wise gardener prepares for the potential that is about to be unleashed. If I had all the time in the world to do what I ought to do, this would be exceptionally fun for me. As it is, every year is a mixture between enjoying the work and being half panicked and frantic to get everything done in time. I am not, I sometimes must remind myself, a full-time gardener. I can’t simply give up my writing to go frolic out among the grape vines. If I could frolic among the grape vines and dance in the apples trees all day I might not have any trouble getting all the pruning done in a timely manner. As it is I (usually) make myself do work–writing–before play. Okay, often I kind of cut writing short on the really good days but even so some of my pruning runs a little later in the year than it strictly ought.

So far I’ve gotten off to a good start, but that isn’t of much account. Good starts are easy. Good completions aren’t. On Sunday and Monday I completely cut back the ancient Concord grape vine(s) and transplanted them. This was originally one grape vine but the vine was touching the ground in many places and sprouted roots so I ended up transplanting five vines, and I could have done more, but five rooted cuttings was all I had space for. Today I cut back a lilac bush. I haven’t even yet begun to prune the apples trees and I still have all the other variety of grapevines that I need to do a bit of pruning on. As for the blueberry bushes . . . I want Teman to buy a cart/wagon attachment for his jeep so I can haul lots of free horse manure from down the street. This horse manure mixed with saw dust is the perfect mulch to go around the blueberry bushes. Right now, perhaps sadly, the blueberry bushes come about on the bottom of my pruning and tending list.

The plant world is showing the signs of spring, but so is the animal population around here. The wild turkeys in the area seem especially noisy in the springtime. During the day you can hear them gobbling and clucking from somewhere down in the area of the brook. Robins and the other birds make a pleasant racket during the morning. I think tree-lined roads are excellent for taking walks because in the cool of the morning you can walk along beneath the trees through the dappled pattern of shadows and listen to the bird calls coming from above.

The peepers are just beginning to come out from hibernation down by the brook as well. Peeper is the common name of a small frog, so named because of the high pitched “Peep-peep” they make. The frogs only call during the spring, and mostly during the cool of late evening. At the height of the season thousands upon thousands are calling all at once. To someone unfamiliar with the sound I suppose it could come across as strange and even frightening. With the night air full of the calling it is like the high pitched sound track for a horror movie. Someone from the city might wonder what kind of alien is out there in the darkened brush. For me peepers are a pleasant ambiance for the spring evening. After dark it is soothing to sit out on the porch in a nice comfortable chair and just relax, listening to the endless shrill calls.

On Sunday we had a unique and exciting wild animal appearance. Four turkey vultures (info links here, here, and here), which we’ve never seen in this area before, passed through and I was the first to spot them. I was outside working with the grape vines when I spotted a hawk flying low overhead. Watching it, I thought I could detect something grasped in its claws. I wondered if it was carrying some prey it had caught, and watching the hawk I became curious enough to go inside to fetch the binoculars so I could take a better look. Coming back outside with the binoculars I walked down onto the front steps and looked toward the hill opposite the house, trying to relocate the hawk. It was then my eyes lit upon a gigantic bird that was flying low opposite the house. I did a mental double take, something like: Whoa, another hawk. Whoa–that is way too big to be any hawk I’ve seen around here. Way too big. For the briefest stretch of time my mind struggled to grasp what I was seeing. The red tailed hawks around here are commonly seen circling high on the thermal updrafts but they are not exceptionally larger than a crow. Contrast this with a turkey vulture, which according to the bird book has a wing span of six feet! What I saw cruising through the air looked like a behemoth of a bird which on some non-reasoning level almost seemed like some wild prehistoric creature come back to darken the skies once more. On a more rational level my mind was still trying to make sense of what I was seeing. It wasn’t a hawk. It looked dark–a crow? Don’t be ridiculous. It was huge. A heron? Still not big enough, and besides it didn’t have the long legs of a heron. Bald eagle. It had to be a bald eagle. Around here? That didn’t make much sense either. I tried to look at the bird with the binoculars, but they were focused too far out and were no help at all.

I shouted to call other people out to take a look. None of the kids managed to offer any useful suggestions. Evan said they (more than one was now visible) looked a little scary. Other people said they had to be bald eagles. I was flummoxed. I was nearly certain the birds were not bald eagles. In passing I wondered if they were some kind of vulture, but having never seen a vulture in my life, it was a fleeting guess. When Dad finally came out (after much shouting on my part) he said they didn’t look like a bald eagle, and he thought they looked like they had a naked head like a vulture.

Later the bird book was dug up and it was determined for certain that the birds were turkey vultures.

It was amazing to watch the turkey vultures fly. They have huge wings that sweep through the air. Their dark shapes do have a menacing appearance as they glide through the air. The four birds flew past the house and sailed up over the hill, floating on the thermal updraft to the next valley. There were four of them. I don’t know if they were only passing through or checking out for some place to stay. I hope they stay. Since we’ve moved into this area over ten years ago geese and coyotes have both moved back into the area. Another species of wildlife returning would be nice. It would be cool to see the giant birds circling over head, their black wings stretched wide through the blue sky.

Book Review: Web Design on a Shoestring

22nd March 2004

Last night I finished reading Web Design on a Shoestring. The book is a broad overview, or perhaps it might be called an introduction to, web design for designers with a limited budget. Carrie Bickner covers the process from writing a project outline to advice on better and cheaper page coding and even site hosting guidelines. For me Web Design on a Shoestring was one of those rare books that manages to be both enjoyable and educational. Bickner writes with a friendly and easy-to-read style that draws you in and makes subjects like web design and budgets interesting rather than stone-dead boring.

As a hobbyist web designer with an (obviously) limited budget I was interested in seeing how a professional would tackle the problems that I face and what good pointers I could pick up for my own efforts. In reading Web Design on a Shoestring I was at times shamed in my shortcomings, educated as to my ignorance, and inspired to better design.

Bickner’s book excels when used as an overview or introduction to the issues low cost web design. It is a slim volume and as such covers none of the subjects she brings up in great depth. As someone who does not do a lot of paid web design I found her advice on project planning, tracking, and budgeting to be illuminating and helpful and also sufficient for my present circumstances. However, in writing standards-compliant code I felt she gave only the barest of introductions. I was intrigued and had all sorts of questions, but then the matter was left behind. Bickner gives plentiful references to other sources and makes it clear that she does not intend Web Design on a Shoestring to be a one-stop source for all you need to write standards compliant code, but I advise the reader to be well aware that this book really is an introduction to the various issues involved in being a good “shoestring” designer. Buy it as that, and you’ll be happy.

I borrowed Web Design on a Shoestring from my local library but it is a book I feel is vital to my library and consider it only a matter of time before I fork over some of my hard-earned cash for a copy on my shelf. And as I pursue web design with CSS and standards-compliant design I expect I will be looking into some of the other books that Carrie Bickner suggests reading.

The publisher New Riders also deserves kudos for its layout. Among other things, I am an amateur connoisseur of book layout and design. Web Design on a Shoestring has a pleasing layout but I award even higher marks for what some people might call unimportant features, namely, the explanation of the printing code in the beginning of the book as well as listing all the editors involved in the production of the book (copy editor included!), plus the indexer, proofreader, composer, manufacturing coordinator, cover and interior designer, marketing, and publicity manager. A lot of readers probably couldn’t care less but I think everyone who puts work into a project deserves to be acknowledged and I think it speaks well for the New Riders that it does. I also appreciated their openness to feedback. My one complaint is that they didn’t say what type of paper the book was printed on, or the names and the history of the typefaces used. Yes, I am a book geek.

_____
Paperback: 250 pages ; Dimensions (in inches): 0.41 x 9.04 x 7.04
Publisher: New Riders; 1st edition (October 1, 2003)
ISBN: 0735713286

New Site Design

19th March 2004

I’ve had my new site design up for a month or so now. Since no one else has complimented me on my excellent design skills, I decided to do it myself.

“Rundy, your new design looks very professional. I like your layout.”

Actually, I call it new design but it is really the first complete design. For nearly the first year this place had only the rudiments of layout and navigation. This was a source of never-ending embarrassment for me. To imagine people coming to my site and thinking the crude organization was something I actually thought was design . . . it was enough to make me want to hide my head in shame.

Having this site marked up in a halfway decent manner removed one irritant. Creating an about page eliminated a second irritant. It bothered me to no end thinking that someone might come to this site and wonder “Why the name Silverware Thief?” and they would have no place to find the answer. Thus the much needed about page, though I managed to create the link incorrectly so clicking on it anyplace but from the main page will give you a 404 error. Argh, a new irritation. I need to fix that and some other minor site problems, but otherwise I’m pretty happy with how things came out.

Putting together the design for this site was fun. I didn’t do it when I first made this blog (or the months afterward) because of a lack of time, not a lack of desire. When I first put this site up I had to learn a bit about Cascading Style Sheets to modify the original template. Actually redesigning the site to how I wanted it to look required learning much more CSS.

Of course, I learned in classic Rundy style. I tried to figure out things by experimentation and mistakes, eventually being driven to the W3C’s documentation on CSS. Until that point I managed to get myself utterly flummoxed on matters of positioning. The various web browsers I was testing my design on would not all display my layout in the same manner. In my usual fashion I suspected some type of conspiracy, which was partly true. On reading some relevant sections of the W3C documentation on CSS I realized my attempted layout was not the right way to go about things . . . but some of my problems were also caused by certain browsers assuming certain things.

Drop dead, Internet Explorer.

But, after a good deal of head scratching, some reading, and a very lot of experimentation I managed to learn enough to figure out a layout method that worked in all major browsers. Well, for right now. No bets on what developer might break something in future browser releases. For the present it looks good, I think, and it makes me feel tech-savvy when I consider that I did it all without using tables for layout. (I am so easily pleased.)

Learning CSS was an eye-opening experience, and in truth I learned so little of what CSS can do. Compared to messing with table layout, CSS positioning is a breeze. At first it felt obtuse but after getting the hang of it I realize CSS brings sanity to document layout on the web. By using CSS a web designer can work more like he would in traditional print material.

Once I got the hang of working with CSS I couldn’t imagine wanting to go back to wrestling with tables to position my design elements. Table layout is messy and confusing when compared to CSS, once you understand the modulated nature of CSS. The design of this site only served to confirm my thoughts that CSS was the way to go for better and simpler site design.

I like the creative process of site design, and I like learning new things.

Unfortunately, I do web design so erratically I will probably forget half of the useful things I learned designing this site and have to learn them all over again next time. That is a problem with being a hobbyist web designer.

Gotcha

19th March 2004

For those around here who thought they could get through March without any significant snowfall, this week brought a rude surprise. For us who are cynics (or realists, thank you) this was our chance to laugh gleefully and say “I told you so.” There were seven inches of snow when the storm finished, but by this time it’s settled and melted enough that we’re around or under four inches.

The one good thing about March snow is that it won’t be around forever. That is what you say, trying to not think about the buried snow-drops that were blooming but are now thoroughly buried under the blanket of snow.

Another “good” thing about the snow is it can ease the guilt about not doing outside chores. March is already halfway gone and I am beginning to have a list of “ought to do’s” building up in the back of my mind. Now is the time to start pruning the apples trees. And I really ought to prune the grape vines, and maybe move the Concord grapes to a better location than where they currently are. But I really can’t do any of those things when there is snow covering everything, can I?

So I don’t have to feel guilty until the snow melts off. Which doesn’t mean the chores don’t need to be done. Spring moves rapidly, and the wise prepare.

Who said I was wise?

XP in The Countryside

11th March 2004

A Job

Taking a phone call is like going on an adventure. You never know what will happen.

Mom hands the phone to me and says it is someone who says they are a friend of Mrs. B and they have computer trouble.

“Hello?” I take the phone, wondering exactly what this will be. I somehow have the hope that this stranger isn’t going to have a big computer problem . . . just some simple question.

“Hello, Rundy, this is Jean T, a friend of Mrs. B. We’re having some computer trouble over here and Mrs. B highly recommended you. She says you are an expert at these things.”

Few things scare me more than being oversold as an expert, or a genius, at anything. It leaves me with too much to live up to. So I answered that yes I know something about computers, maybe I can help them with their problem, but I’m not an expert.

The problem, it was quickly explained to me, was transferring information from one hard drive to another. The old hard drive in their computer had been making a very bad sound, so a technician had come and replaced the hard drive with a new one. The operating system was supposed to automatically install along with all the programs they originally had on it (the computer was a very new Dell). This left them with all of their personal data stuck on the hard drive that was no longer in their computer. As soon as I began asking Jean T questions she handed the phone over to her husband Bill T.

A few quick questions made the situation pretty clear for me. First, the problem would be very easy for me to fix if I had it right in front of me. Second, there was no way I could walk a technologically illiterate person through the process over the phone. I could just imagine trying to do that: “Well you see, first you need to take off the computer case. Then you need to find your hard drive. See those two wire cables plugged in the back . . .” No, telling them how to do it was out of the question. I would have to show them.

All the while I am talking on the telephone and trying to think of all the necessary questions to ask, I am also trying to think of how I would go about doing this, and whether I’m asking all the questions I should. I have great difficulty talking on the telephone and thinking while I talk on the telephone, so I feel like I am barely keeping my head above water, and only barely keeping up with the conversation. I need to think off the telephone. So I quickly come around to asking for directions to Bill and Jean T’s house.

This brought me to the second thing I loathe doing on the telephone–that is, taking directions. Taking directions over the telephone is a refined and subtle art, an art that I have not mastered. “Okay,” Bill says as I dive for a pad of paper. “You know where the village of Oxford is?”

Trick question, I think. Yes, I know of Oxford’s existence, and I know “generally” where it is, but it will take me five minutes to figure out if I know how to drive there in my head. (Driving directions are normally stored in my head in the form of a visual record of the trip. I am horrible with maps.) Doing a quick memory scan I think I recall driving by a sign for Oxford so I tell Bill yes I know where it is, but I’ve only passed through, so I need detailed directions to his house.

“Okay,” Bill says. “If you’re driving–” I frantically try to write down everything important. Long ago I’ve learned that it is impossible to write down every word someone tells you in directions. You just have to learn what words are important, or you will have the person on the other end repeating everything ten times over. Of course it doesn’t help that only one place out of a hundred has easy directions. The directions to Bill T’s house sound generally not too bad, but his description of taking “a slight turn” and “the road you are on will turn, but you should keep going straight” leaves me a bit nervous. Little half turns, sorta turns, and going straight when the road turns are all things that make me nervous. I absolutely do not like driving situations which are ambiguous. (See my past driving post.) But, I think, everything will be okay. Oxford is not a very big town, and it is on country roads, so I shouldn’t have too much trouble. I get the description of his house, and his address so I can double check the directions on the Internet before I go.

I hang up with the promise that I will be there later in the afternoon. I had already finished my writing for the day and I didn’t see any sense in putting the job off, as much as I don’t like things coming up suddenly. Then I look at the hastily scribbled notes that I took down as Bill T was giving directions in quick succession. It is then I began to have the dawning realization of exactly how badly I thwart all my best efforts at being prepared. In my haste to transcribe the directions I had written “43 Street.” I knew the name of the street wasn’t 43 . . . somehow in my writing I had dropped out the most important bit of information–the name of the street. No problem, is my next thought, I’ll just call Bill back up and ask him for the name of his street again. I’ll feel a bit foolish, but there are worse things. Then I realize that I didn’t ask for Bill’s phone number.

At this point I am feeling really stupid. How am I going to be self-employed if I can’t figure out how to write down the directions to people’s house and remember to ask them for their phone number? As it is, I’ve just finished talking at length with someone and I still don’t know their phone number or where they live. All I have is a bunch of worthless directions on where to turn, along with the cryptic “43 Street, Oxford” and horrible visions of sitting around the house for hours until Bill T calls back up to ask why I haven’t arrived yet. Then I will have the chance to confess that I am so incapable of taking directions that when he gave me directions to his house I wrote down everything but the most important piece of information and I even forgot to ask him for his phone number.

I spend a bit of time mentally flailing myself.

I don’t know what situations my failings will get me into. As it happened in this case I had a recourse which saved me from the humiliation I justly deserved. When Jean T first spoke with me she said she was a friend of Mrs. B. I know that Mrs. B is one of those people not like me. That is, she writes down the addresses and phone numbers of the people she knows. So, if I call Mrs. B she can give me the phone number and the correct street address for Bill and Jean T. Saved!

Mental note to self: Always ask for and write down the phone number and address of everyone you meet. You never know when you might need it.

A Trip

After calling Mrs. B and then looking up directions on the Internet and gathering whatever else I think I might need, I set off for Oxford. One might be inclined to think this was the end of the matter and I safely and easily arrived at Oxford without any further trouble. But such a person does not yet realize that we are talking about me–Rundy. Driving country roads to Oxford ought to be easy, but I can make anything difficult.

I had the driving directions in the car seat beside me, and the little visual images dredged up in my mind from my past forays near or through Oxford. With all this collected together I was on my way. The first hint of trouble was when I came to the first intersection at which I thought I would turn and found things not as I expected. It was, indeed, the intersection I thought it was, and there was a sign for the left turn heading toward Oxford, but the road manifestly did not have the same name as those given in the written instructions I had downloaded from the Internet. At that point I had the option of either sitting at the intersection and trying to puzzle this through, take the turn without thinking about it, or else continue driving straight. True to form, I continued driving straight and immediately decided upon passing the intersection that I should have taken the turn. No big deal. These are country roads. I just continued on until I found a suitable driveway and turned around.

I took the turn but it was most certainly not labeled what the map said it was. This incensed me, as how was any normal person supposed to use directions if the roads didn’t have the proper labels? But, annoyances aside, I was on my way to Oxford.

Unfortunately, my travails were not over. I drove for some miles over the back country roads until I came to another intersection and this one didn’t seem to be anywhere in my directions, and I certainly had never seen it before. So . . . turn left. That sounded like a turn I was supposed to make, and in any case Oxford was probably to the left. I went on, feeling increasingly annoyed, but at the same time thankful this was not Syracuse after dark. There were not a million road choices and if I ever had to turn around I could easily find my way back. The big question at the moment was if I was truly heading toward Oxford or if I should have taken that right turn those miles back?

When I came over the next hill and saw Oxford in the valley below I was pleased to find I had somehow managed to reach the village even thought my directions were actively conspiring against me. I didn’t feel I could trust my directions very well, but on reaching Oxford I saw a street that had a name mentioned in my written directions, so I took it. I came to a light . . . yes, I remember being told to turn at a light. Okay, turn. Maybe this funny split in the road and the little turn ahead was what Bill was talking about. Okay, I see the Great American he mentioned, I must be on the right street. Straight ahead now . . . I still managed to end up driving past Bill and Jean’s house, but I was satisfied that I managed to make all the right turns (somehow) and end up on the right street. Turning around and back-tracking a few houses was nothing.

Before I go any further I will stop this story and say that my directions were not conspiring against me. Any time I get vindictive and self righteous it is a sure sign I am making a fool out of myself. It always happened when I struggled with math, and it seems to always happen with directions. If I loudly proclaim that we must surely take this road, the best odds are that events will prove we should have gone the other way. In this case I was misconstruing the directions–a fact which Mom pointed out to me the next day when I was telling her how bad the directions were.

Yes . . . did I ever tell you I have a hard time understanding maps? A map is the perfect instrument to start me hyper ventilating. A map has all those lines going all over the place, and you can’t tell what anything looks. I wonder who invented maps. They contain so much information that can feel so useless. Standing in the middle of a city looks nothing like all those intersecting lines on a piece of paper.

As it was, I took a map that perhaps wasn’t the clearest and rather than trying to understand the map I simply made it conform with where I thought I ought to go to reach Oxford and ignored all instructions about which road to take. Well, not ignore exactly, I just didn’t read any road signs until I reached the intersection I thought I should take, and then figured there was a grand conspiracy to make that road not have the right name. If I kept road names in my head (instead of simply visual clues like I do) or simply paid attention to road names instead of the landscape I would have realized that the turn I was supposed to have taken was many miles earlier than the turn I actually took.

In my defense the way I took eventually did bring me to Oxford, so it wasn’t like I was entirely wrong. But my way to Oxford involved gallivanting all across the countryside. And as for my directions not matching up with the route I took . . . I apparently don’t know how to follow directions out of a paper bag.

A Computer Headache

When I finally reached Bill and Jean’s house I hoped the worst was over. Computers are something I can handle much better than driving directions. On top of that, this was supposed to be a simple, uncomplicated job.

I come into the house and am told, “Well, things don’t seem to be going like they were supposed to. When the technician left he said the computer was supposed to finish setting itself up and should only take a half hour. It’s been over an hour and a half now and it still has the same message on the screen.”

Uh-oh. I haven’t been there five minutes and already I know the problem is going to be a lot more difficult. I brace myself.

A quick examination of the computer reveals that it is indeed hung. How typical. The Microsoft Windows XP install has a message on the screen saying that the keyboard and mouse have been disabled and the computer should not be restarted under any circumstances. The process, it says, will be completed in 30 minutes. Yeah . . . right. One thing you quickly learn in dealing with computers is a healthy does of skepticism. Don’t trust everything your computer tells you. Verify.

The first thing I had Bill do was call up the technician. Problems with the Windows XP install wasn’t really the field I had been called to deal with and though I thought I could fix the problem somehow, as a general rule I try not to mess with the work of other people.

The technician didn’t have any helpful advice for Bill. He said Dell must have sent a bad hard drive image. We could either call up Dell tech support or else try to install windows XP from the CD we had. The two options didn’t leave us with much choice. Anyone who has gone through tech support knows that it is a form of inhumane torture that ought to be outlawed. We could either wait on the telephone for an hour or longer for someone to possibly be absolutely no help at all, or else I could install Windows XP for myself. There wasn’t much question which option would be chosen.

Installing Windows XP didn’t go easy. The drive image had only halfway finished installing itself but I thought to save time by just choosing the repair/upgrade option from the Windows XP CD. Well, that choked out only half finished and then ever afterward, in Microsoft’s infinite wisdom, it wouldn’t allow me to switch to a fresh install. Instead, it always picked back up on the doomed upgrade/repair. I wasn’t whipped yet, but by that time it was running late so I had to continue the battle the next day.

Windows XP had pretty well locked up the hard drive on itself. I couldn’t do a clean install because it would always pick up on the corrupted install and then hang. And restart would bring me back to the same position. I decided drastic measures were required. Coming back the second day I reinstalled the old hard drive and daisy-chained the new hard drive as a slave device. From the old hard drive I completely reformatted the new hard drive. Then I uninstalled the old hard drive and reinstalled the new hard drive. All this while Bill is sitting and watching me tear out the guts of his computer, plugging and unplugging cables and switching jumpers like some form of computer open heart surgery.

With the new hard drive now completely erased I stuck in the Windows XP CD and went through a (thankfully) trouble free install. At this point I could finally do what I had come to do–that is, put all of Bill and Jean’s personal data onto their new drive. While the old drive had been temporarily reinstalled I had copied their personal information onto a flash card that I had brought. This made copying the data back onto their new hard drive very simple. The actual thing I had been called to do was simple, just like I thought. But getting to that point was a major headache.

This story ends happily because both Bill and Jean were very glad to have their computer running again. Once the computer was indeed working Bill confessed that he hadn’t been sure the thing could be fixed. I suppose after all the dire warning messages, computer hangs, and sights of the insides of his computer hanging out it was quite natural to think the thing was doomed. I was pleased to be able to surprise him in a nice way.

March Did Not Come in Like a Lion

2nd March 2004

In case anyone was wondering, the icicles are gone from my window. I am no longer in prison. I can once again look out at the . . . very white world. Well, hey, things might be changing soon. And in any case, when the sun is shining the reflected light is so blazing bright that looking out the window blinds me so bad I can hardly see the computer screen when I look back. It’s a bit of a distraction when I’m supposed to be writing.

Balmy breezes at the beginning of March. I must be dreaming. The old saying goes “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” Well, March has come in like a lamb. I hope that doesn’t mean it will go out like a lion.

Last night it didn’t go below freezing. Amazing. Spring thaw. Yesterday it nearly reached 60 degrees (Fahrenheit for those none USA readers). And today it actually rained for a bit. Rain! Needless to say the outside world is a soggy mess. There is still plenty of snow on the ground, but now there is also running water all over the place.

The geese are coming back. Somehow, that always seems to be an event filled with hope. For the last several days they have passed overhead honking as they head toward their summer nesting grounds. Yes, they are a sure sign that spring is coming, but we try hard not to get over-exuberant. A thaw doesn’t mean the winter is entirely over. There have been March blizzards before. But it’s hard not to get excited. It’s almost impossible to go outside in the fifty-degree weather and not go crazy thinking about all the things you are going to do as soon as all the blasted snow melts away.

Some of us are handling the spring fever better than others. The little kids have gone outside and played on the swing set so much that they have gotten sunburnt by the early March sun. They are making up for the long months stuck inside. With water everywhere and snow melting they’ve begun spending time outside playing around in the water, too. Wet boots, wet socks . . . everything. Then a certain person, who shall remain unnamed but isn’t me, has been going out and checking the snow depth with a measuring stick to see how long it will be before her snowdrops can sprout and blossom. I guess that counts as something like watching the tea kettle. Me, I’ve just been dreaming up all sorts of projects that I will do when the snow melts. More projects than I can possibly get done, but I can pretend that they are all possible and eminently reasonable.

Mud season has also come. It’s a joke to try and keep anything clean. Nature’s grand joke. The driveway is just one big mud pit and it’s impossible to step outside without getting whatever footwear in use completely muddy. If you have to go in and out repeatedly (like taking things from the car) it’s guaranteed to result in a trail of mud through the house. And we won’t even begin to talk about what little kids track in. You wouldn’t believe the floor was mopped in the morning by the time evening comes around.

Yes, around here we have a long mud season, and, as the joke goes, a very short spring. But after the frigid weather in February, most of us are glad to see a bit of mud. The gentle warm sunshine, the rain, the mud . . . we welcome it all.

The Use of a Hoe

26th February 2004

Over the years I’ve learned to keep half an eye watching for something unusual in the farm yard. I can’t keep track of everything, but in perhaps a subconscious way I scan the farm yard situation when I’m outside, ready for some sign of things gone wrong. Are all the chickens still present? Is everyone happy? Healthy? It’s such a natural act that, much like a mother watching over her children, most of the time I’m not even aware I’m doing it. But sometimes this habit has brought things to my attention, whether it be animals sick, or missing, or something else entirely. So many things can happen that I don’t keep my eyes open for one particular thing, I keep watch for anything.

This past Sunday morning I went outside the feed the chickens. I noticed most of the chickens were outside. They tend to stay inside when there is snow on the ground, but since there was a bit of sunshine and the temperature wasn’t bitter I figured they were waiting outside for me to serve out the feed, so I didn’t take this as anything unusual. I followed the path through the snow up to the door of the chicken coop. I walked up the ramp and opened the door.

There was the little Golden Polish rooster waiting on top of the feed barrel for me, like he always does, and there–there is a hairy body that does not belong in the chicken house. At this point I switched into alarm mode and, within the space of a few seconds, began checking things in very rapid succession. (1) The little Golden Polish rooster was still alive, and though pacing back and forth on the feed barrel lid in what might have been a slightly agitated manner, he did not seem unduly panicked. (2) There were no mess of feathers all over the place, and no dead chickens. (3) This hairy animal had its head stuck in one of the coops. (4) It was either eating an egg or else eating a chicken it had killed. I didn’t think it was a chicken, but I wasn’t about to check for the two Speckled Sussex hens that always wait for me. If one of them was dead, it was too late. (5) More importantly, what exactly was this creature, and was it an immediate danger that I had to take drastic action to stop. (6) My initial reaction was that it was the skunk that had been hanging around last summer and I should get the heck out of the chicken coop before something really stinky happened. (7) Another second of observation told me that it wasn’t a skunk because all of the body was a silvery color. (8) Ergo, it was an opossum. (9) At this point the situation pretty well crystallized for me. I had caught an opossum red-handed in his stealing of eggs. (10) What was I going to do about it? (11) Kill him. (12) At the moment, unless I wanted to attack with my bare hands, I didn’t have anything to kill this thief with. (13) Then get something to kill this creature with, before he escapes to continue his thieving life.

All these thoughts flashed through my mind without me saying anything. I still had not stepped into the chicken coop. Instead, I let the door swing back shut, turned around, and ran back for the house. There were two options for killing the opossum. I could beat him to death with something, or I could shoot him with a 22. For one fleeting moment I thought about using a high powered BB gun (as I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of shooting a 22 inside the chicken coop) but decided that I didn’t feel I had a guaranteed kill with even a high powered BB gun and I didn’t care to have a live and injured opossum leaping around inside the chicken house. I wanted the opossum dead–and fast.

Thoughts are still tumbling fast through my mind. Dad isn’t up yet. The 22 is kept in his bedroom. Do I really want to wake him up just to get the 22 to kill the opossum? In truth, I didn’t want to shoot the opossum with the 22, and I didn’t want to kill it by any other means. I wanted the thieving wretch dead, but I really didn’t want to kill him. Oh, what dilemmas farming puts one into.

Once inside I asked Mom if Dad was awake. She said she thought so. That was good for me. I would ask Dad how I ought to kill the opossum. Abdicating the decision-making process is always easiest. A quick knock on the bedroom door received the response of “Uh?” If Dad had been fully awake, he wasn’t any longer. Ah well. Might as well ask now.

I stuck my head in the room and said in a rush, “An opossum is in the chicken coop. How should I kill it?”

“Uhhhh?” Squinting face looks back at me. “Ohhh. You can shoot it with the 22 or use a stick . . . they’re pretty easy to kill.”

This was about what I expected, and what I thought was probably the best thing to do, but nonetheless I had to steel myself. Using the 22 inside the chicken coop seemed like a bit of a bad idea to me, not to mention something of overkill since the opossum could be killed with a stick. But, as much as I didn’t want to use the 22, I didn’t want to beat the opossum to death with a stick either. You see, I’m effeminate enough to have a deep seated loathing for beating anything to death. Cudgeling feels barbaric and exceptionally violent. Chopping off chicken heads, or shooting an animal, while exceedingly unpleasant, still feels more final, more clean, and a little more detached than taking a blunt instrument and going WHAM-WHAM-WHAM until said creature is thoroughly dead.

There was the strong temptation to decide it was easier to let the opossum go. But I mustered up my determination, told myself it didn’t matter how much it gave me the willies or how gross I thought it was, I had better go out there and beat the opossum to death. If I didn’t he would keep coming back and stealing eggs, and perhaps getting into even worse trouble. (More chicks coming this spring . . . tasty little morsels . . .) So, trying to feel savage and violent, I went downstairs and tried to decide what implement I would use to kill this opossum. My first thought was to use a baseball bat, but that idea was quickly discarded because all our baseball bats are currently buried under the snow. A shovel was another idea, but I wasn’t comfortable with that choice, either. A nice hefty shovel is the perfect tool for killing a woodchuck that has come to destroy the garden, but I was doubtful how well I could wield a shovel at a target that was, last I knew, at about chest height. Better, I thought, to use a nice pointed hoe. It had moderate heft, a nice long handle, and a sharp point that would help guarantee a quick demise of the opossum.

Thus armed, I tromped back out to the chicken coop, trying not to think about what I was going to do, while at the same time run through all the worse case scenarios.

When I arrived back at the chicken house the opossum was still just as I left him, half swung down from the top level of hutches, his head stuck in one of the hutches at the second level. He was in an awkward place for me to hit him, but I didn’t have much time to think about it. I didn’t dare delay lest I lose my nerve, so I took the hoe and swung my first blow with all my strength. I don’t know exactly where the hoe landed, but it rebounded with force and the opossum swung out from the lower hutch, hanging from the top level by one hind leg. Drat. Not instant death. Well, there was no going back at that point. I let him have it again with all my strength, another good WHAM! And again. By the second or third blow the hoe (already partly damaged from last year) broke clean in half. I thought the opossum might be dead by that time, but I also knew they could play dead, so I picked up the half of the hoe that had the metal head and whacked at him some more, while at the same time wondering when I could be sure he was dead. The tip of the hoe got bent, and the opossum stopped moving, and I figured he ought to be dead, and in any case I didn’t want to beat him so much his insides came bursting out. So I decided to call it enough and let him hang there for awhile. With his tongue sticking out I was pretty sure he was dead, but if not, I didn’t think he’d keep hanging there after I left.

I fed the chickens and went back in the house to eat breakfast. The great excitement over, I had some time to do some thinking. A very peculiar point which puzzled me was the fact that the opossum had not dropped down from the chicken hutches when I whacked him. One of my dreadful thoughts had been that if I didn’t kill the creature with one solid blow he would drop to the ground and begin scampering like mad around the cramped inside of the chicken house. Well, it seemed like my first blow hadn’t finished him off entirely, and yet the opossum hadn’t dropped to the ground. And, in fact, even after he was hanging upside down with his tongue sticking out of his mouth looking very dead, he still hadn’t dropped to the ground. This was part of what made me wonder if he was just playing dead. After all, I don’t think dead animals continue to hang on upside down after they are dead.

Perplexing, but what could be the cause of this strange situation? As I thought about it, the various facts began to come together. The opossum had not moved his position in the time between when I first spotted him and when I came back with the hoe. That he had not left the chicken coop was not very surprising, but not changing his position at all was unusual. And still hanging from one foot . . . the logical explanation was that the opossum was stuck. How? There was a small piece of plywood screwed to the front of the hutch to hold the hay in. There was a small space on the side, probably narrow enough for the opossum to slip his leg through, but not wide enough for him to pull his foot out when he wanted to finish climbing down into the next row of hutches. Thinking about it, I realized the opossum had probably never intended to still be in the chicken coop when dawn came around. When the opossum had begun climbing down to make his escape, his foot had caught and he had been too stupid to climb back up to get himself unstuck. So the opossum had just stayed there, waiting. (Opossums are not very smart. That is why they have difficulty finding their way out of dog food bags, and why you see so many of them squashed on the road.)

After I finished breakfast I decided to go back outside with the digital camera and record the event for posterity, and check to make sure the opossum was indeed dead and stuck. The opossum was truly dead and stuck, still hanging upside down from the upper most coup. It looked like I would have to forcibly free the corpse when I was ready to dispose of it. In the mean time, a hen that was trying to get into one of the hutches to lay an egg was freaking out because she wanted to get inside without touching the opossum’s carcass. I took some pictures and left.

At this point I could have just disposed of the opossum, but I was beginning to think about how I could get some type of reward for my labor and the unpleasantness I had suffered through. My first thought was to try and get some little kids to go out and take a look and be thoroughly grossed out. Then I had an even better idea. (Better being relative, of course.) For lunch that day Teman’s friend Israel was coming over for lunch. Israel is a burly weight lifting man who has spent his life living in the city, knows practically nothing about wild animals, and enjoys a good joke. All my morning angst would be worth it, I thought, if I could somehow get Israel unknowingly into the chicken house. Then . . . something might happen. I wasn’t quite sure what, but I hoped it would be something really funny.

I ran the idea past Teman and he was agreeable. After admonishing everyone not to tell Israel what had transpired this morning, there was some general family talk about exactly how we wanted to play the joke on Israel. Should we lure him into the chicken house and then slam the door after him and holler all sorts of horrible warnings, or simply let him walk into the chicken house and wait to see how long it takes him to discover the opossum himself? I was leaning toward letting him discover the opossum for himself. I’m not very good at playing out jokes and usually mess them up if they involve too much input from me. I’m better at simply watching things unfold.

The plan was laid and Israel came over for lunch. After lunch I came up to Israel and said oh-so-nonchalantly, “So, Israel, want to experience the country life? Want to go out and collect eggs?”

Trusting soul that he was, he readily agreed. I gave him an egg carton and ushered him out the door, a crowd of kids following behind. The door to the chicken house was opened and Israel walked in. Everyone else stayed out of the way in case–just in case–Israel came barreling back out. I was mildly surprised, but pleased, that Israel hadn’t noticed the opossum hanging from the chicken hutches as soon as the door was opened. The dead opossum seemed rather obvious to me, but city folk can be pretty unobservant.

The door swung shut behind Israel and we all stood outside, laughing, and listening to his conversation with the chickens, waiting for the moment of realization. We hear, “Hey, hi guys. I’m coming to collect eggs. How ‘re you doin? I’m collecting eggs. I’m collecting eggs, man. Hey Teman, I’m just like a farmer. I’m collecting eggs.” We are all laughing because he still hasn’t noticed the opossum hanging right in front of him, and we’re beginning to wonder if he’s going to collect all the eggs without noticing the dead animal hanging in front of him. Teman comes up the ramp and opens the door to the chicken coop to point the opossum out to him, and that is when Israel finally notices. Alas, after all the build-up of suspense, the actually event was something of a let down.

“Whoa, man! What is that? What is that hairy thing?” No shriek, no shout. A little surprise, nothing more.

So we tell him what it is. He is properly impressed. Not grossed out. Not immensely startled. Drat. He examines the opossum, marvels at its tail, and is done. Well, at least we had a good laugh at his lack of observational skills.

Later, I finished up my duty by disposing of the dead opossum. It was unpleasant, but not so unpleasant as having to kill the creature. I don’t like opossums, living or dead, about as much as I don’t like rats. Frankly, I think opossums pretty much look like oversized rats. With their naked tales and shaggy fur they look like unclean, disease-carrying rodents who probably slobber too much, and eat very disgusting rotting things. With the opossum dead I hoped no more eggs would be stolen, and the garbage bags in the cans out behind the house would no longer be torn up. (Alas, but some other animal must be doing that because since Sunday more garbage bags have been torn open). I am also starting to think that I need to put a door on the chickens little entrance into the chicken house so the coop is secure from all entry at night. On Sunday it was a very stupid opossum would couldn’t figure out how to get his foot unstuck. What if next time it is a fox? I’ll be very sorry if for lack of a little chicken door I lose the entire flock.

***

Finding an opossum in the chicken house is illustrative of why the thoughtful are careful about doing certain things, and why little kids are scared of doing certain things. Wild animals can turn up in all sorts of places. For this reason it is always a good idea to whack a tarp a good many times before pulling hay out from underneath it. Snakes and raccoons love to hide in such warm, safe, cubby holes, and it’s no fun to crawl under the tarp and come face to face with snakes.

Further, little kids can be very timid about going out to the compost pile after dark. You never know what kind of wild animal you might, just might, meet out there. Once, many years ago when us old boys were still little, Arlan found an opossum in the back hallway. It had crawled into an empty dog food bag and couldn’t find its way back out. (Opossums are very stupid.) Of course, when little Arlan looked into the dark back hall and saw the dog food bag moving he nearly wet himself. Dad finished that opossum off by closing the dog food bag and beating the opossum to death with a children’s wooden hockey stick. I think this incident made a big impression on all of us kids who were old enough to remember the incident. There was a certain terror and horror, and confirmation of our fears, that an opossum would be found in our own back hallway after dark. And what a grim end to be beaten to death inside an empty dog food bag with a hockey stick.

Also, along the same lines, I am still, even at this mature age, very leery of sticking my hands into the chicken hutches to collect eggs after dark. In the back of my mind I’m always sure I’m going to take hold of some big fat rat . . . or some other night creature come to steal the eggs. Like an opossum. Even grabbing a chicken who decided to spend the night in a hutch is enough to give me a start.

***

In other unrelated farm news, the snow outside is now so hard that the chickens (and little kids) can walk about outside on top of the snow. The chickens hate getting stuck in snow drifts so they are very leery about venturing out. However, by mid-February the snow has usually hardened up good and the chickens are so sick and tired of being stuck indoors that they finally venture out and discover they can walk on the snow. Now there are little chicken tracks running all over on top of the snow in the chicken yard. There isn’t much to do outside, and nothing to eat, but at least the hens get more sunlight. The egg production has gone up.

I need to buy myself a pair of snow shoes so I can walk on top of the snow.

Some days ago I spotted a hawk sitting in one of the apple trees. I’m not sure if he was thinking about going after a chicken to eat, or if he was examining the rabbit prints that are everywhere and thinking about catching a nice little bunny to eat. The hawk is my friend if he eats the rabbits. He is my enemy if he goes after the chickens. So far no hawk has gone after my grown chickens, but I don’t think it is out of the realm of possibility. Not at all.

Cadie scared the hawk away when she went out for a closer look and I haven’t seen it back since. I think all the wild animals are beginning to feel the pinch for food this late in the winter.

How Many Does It Take to Change a Light Fixture?

16th February 2004

Changing a light fixture is supposed to be one of those simple easy things. How hard can it be? Well, in our defense, it depends on what light fixture you’re trying to replace, and what house you’re working in. In a very old house fixing anything is difficult, and sometimes it can seem downright impossible. Replacing a ceiling light fixture, in our case, falls into that category.

How many people does it take to change a light fixture? Insert your punch-line here. We could be the butt of many jokes, if you find humor in catastrophes. But–honestly–it isn’t an indication of our lack of ability that it takes three men to change a light fixture. It just shows the difficulties of electrical modifications in a house that is older than indoor plumbing.

So, you see, when we set about changing the ceiling fixture in the kitchen a two or so years back, things did not go well at all. One problem followed after another, involving the fact that the wiring had degraded so we were forced to rip a section out and . . . well, by the time we finished installing the new light fixture we had a gaping hole in the kitchen ceiling.

Yeah. Just for changing one light fixture. Talk about a simple little project turning into a big nightmare.

It was for this reason that Dad really didn’t want to replace the dining room ceiling light fixture. If replacing the kitchen light resulted in a huge hole in the kitchen ceiling, who knew what doing the dining room light might bring about?

With this boogey-man of possible catastrophe waiting for the unwary fixer-upper, the dining room went without a ceiling light for many years. We set up a small stand lamp on a book shelf and ate under its meager light, occasionally talking about how someone really ought to replace the dining room light. But it always seemed easier to eat in the bad light than to venture attempting to fix anything.

Then I decided I was sick and tired of eating in the dim light. Dim lighting is depressing. The long winter nights are bad enough–poor lighting can make them miserable. Night after night of this and I finally had enough. I decided I preferred a hole in the ceiling with some good light. Plus, visions of unmitigated disaster don’t cause me to pause like it does Dad. So I asked Dad if he cared if I replaced the dining room light.

He decided it was safer if he did it.

So, today we replaced the dining room light. Viewed against the background of the incident of replacing the kitchen light, today was a pretty good success. We didn’t end up with a gaping hole in the dining room ceiling–we have only a very small hole, that you might not even notice unless you look. (The ceiling plate covers up a lot.)

Does this success mean the project was easy? No. It took three of us three hours to mount the new lamp fixture. Lachlan ran about finding supplies and tools and generally holding things while Dad wired and I helped. Our ceiling has lath laid over with sheet rock–basically one ceiling laid on top of another–and the electrical fixture box is of old design as well. So we spent our time wrestling with a small hole in the ceiling whilst standing on the table. Getting a new-fangled lamp to mount onto old-fangled hardware is a taxing experience. It requires ingenuity and a good deal of trial and error. We took things down and compared them. Then we put stuff back up, and found out that something wouldn’t work. So we took things back down again.

Meanwhile, both Dad and I are waiting with almost breathless dread, expecting something to go terribly wrong. Nothing went terribly wrong. It was with a sense of unbelief that we saw the light work when the circuit was switched on.

The dining room is now well lit, and only now can we truly begin to appreciate how badly lit it was before. It is much more pleasant. My only regret is that we didn’t do this sooner. But who could have known after the kitchen?

A Time to Dream

13th February 2004

Well, it’s that time of year again. It’s time to decide what will be bought for the coming spring. It is time to decide what will be done in this year.

Really, this is the very worst time of year to be making plans. Winter in these climes keeps a person trapped inside for so long that by the time February comes around one is positively delusional with grandiose plans for the coming year. The more weeks that pass with nothing but the four walls of the house to look at the bigger plans become. I try to sit down and make mature and thoughtful purchasing decisions for the coming year, but it is a big joke. In reality, if someone said, “So, why don’t you climb a mountain, build a house, dig a pond, and plant a huge garden, all before the end of spring–” I’d say “Sure! That would be easy!”

Okay, maybe I’d realize the folly of climbing a mountain. Maybe. But somehow every year I do make far more plans for my limited time than I could ever possibly accomplish. I start the spring with all sorts of high hopes, only to have them most cruelly dashed when reality comes crashing down on me. It’s a cycle that happens every year–without fail–and every year I see it coming. And yet, I still fall for it every time. I find it impossible to not be exuberant at the thought of spring. What can I think besides “When all this snow melts off I’ll whip everything into shape”?

I beg to differ with myself. Last year went particularly badly for me and my grand plans. At least, it felt that way. I didn’t manage to do anything on time, and some things I didn’t do at all. Corn was only a partial success. There was no winter squash. I never weeded the blueberries–and on and on. I’m still not sure if I’ve totally forgiven myself for not weeding the blueberries at least once. One might think that I would learn my lesson and decide to plan less into my life. But no, I’m not cutting back this year. Oh, the more rational part of me wants to be a little more reasonable, but that other side of me–the emotional and wild side–just goes on assuring me that somehow this year I’ll manage to get everything done.

Ha. That is verifiably not true. There are only 24 hours in one day, and it is logically impossible to plan 48 hours of things to do in any one day and expect them to get done. Secondly, I’m a writer, not a farmer, and somehow I still imagine that I can get a decent amount of writing done while maintaining an orchard, garden, and blueberry patch, as well as mowing the lawn, mowing the field, and doing other miscellaneous outside chores. It’s a joke to think I can do it all, but when I sit here staring outside at the snow covered world I can imagine that if I only worked hard enough and was productive enough (yeah, like skipping eating and sleeping) I actually could get it all done. Then when I don’t get it all done I consider it a moral failure on my part, and I feel very guilty and depressed.

So it is like a Shakespearean tragedy. (Well, that’s a nice way of putting it, isn’t it?) I try to be stoically resigned and go forward with my eyes wide open–and not spend too much money. When I lay in bed and stare up at the ceiling and think “Gee, you know, it wouldn’t be so very hard to tear off all the sheet rock in this entire house, rewire and insulate, put fresh sheet rock up, spackle, and paint the whole place. You know, that would be fun. I wish we could do that this year–” instead of that I go and buy a plum tree and call myself restrained, mature, and in control. (Then I must run around in a panic trying to plant the plum tree because I didn’t even really have time for that.)

I make promises to myself that I’ll do better this year than I did last year. There is the thinnest veneer of justification for this. I’m planting corn in a different part of the garden so hopefully I won’t have trouble with the soil fertility. I’ll start my squash indoors like I’m supposed to so that it sprouts properly and grows well. I’ll mow everything promptly so nothing gets too high. I’ll prune all the trees on time. I’ll weed and mulch and prune the blueberry bushes–sometime. All thirty or forty of them. I’ll mulch and prune all the grape vines. And, um, yes, I’m going to do all of this in my few hours of spare time because I intend to spend most of my time this year frantically working on my novel.

***

I do want to buy a plum tree. At first the wise, mature, and restrained part of me wasn’t going to buy any trees or grape vines this year–but the resisting became too much.

I like trees of all sorts. And I like grape vines. I like growing them and pruning them, and seeing them produce fruit. But I told myself I was going to do less this year. I wasn’t going to add anything more to what I already have. This year, I said, I’d just take care of what I had. Take better care of what I had.

But then . . . Then I started thinking, “Well, if I’m going to take real good care of the blueberry bushes this year I might as well buy replacement bushes for those that died out years ago.” That wasn’t starting something new, was it? So I dug out the St. Lawrence Nurseries catalog to see how much blueberry bushes coast. Ouch. A quick look told me I could only really afford a few bushes, and I really need to replace a dozen if not more. It felt stupid buying only two so that idea wouldn’t work.

Still . . . was there something else I could buy that wasn’t an apple tree or a grape vine? I thought about trying a dwarf apple tree, but St. Lawrence Nurseries doesn’t sell dwarf apple trees because they aren’t hardy in extreme cold. If I was being reasonable I would have stopped right then. Those were good enough reasons to hold to not buying anything this year. Alas, but I felt like I needed some reward, something instead of refurbishing the complete interior of our house. So my eyes fell on the plum tree selections.

Ah. I like plums. It sure would be nice to grow a plum tree. They say grafted plums have a risk of losing their fruit to late spring frosts (oh great, I’ve enough problem with the apple trees doing that) but the seedling plums are more resistant to the late spring frost and they are cheaper, too.

Yes, it wasn’t long before I convinced myself that I wanted, and was going to, buy a plum tree. But wait, I need two for pollinating. Okay, I’ll buy two plum trees. Now I just need to figure out where I’ll plant them.

***

There are some other gardening related problems that are gnawing at my mind. The snow is currently deep on the ground and that means there isn’t much around that the wild rabbits can eat. The snow is so deep that it reaches up to the lowest branch of one of the fully grown apple trees. The rabbits have availed themselves of this opportunity and stripped the bark off the end of the branch. I think the limb is pretty well ruined, and I’ll have to prune it off come spring. This is very annoying, but I tell myself the branch was so low I was always banging into it when I mowed, and it never really produced fruit anyhow.

Still, the rabbits have my enmity. Their feasting on the apple tree only reminds me that my young apple tree and young cherry tree are in peril of being killed. At present both are protected by a wire cage, but accidents happen . . . in this case I’ll have to make sure an “accident” happens to the two rabbits before it happens to anything I’ve planted.

A second problem is that last year the Concord grape vine contracted black rot. The really wet summer was the cause, I think. What would have been a great harvest last year was pretty well decimated. I made matters worse by not doing anything about the problem so all the shriveled berries that carry black rot spores have fallen to the ground and now wait to unleash themselves this coming year. Yeah, call me stupid. I really really don’t want to use fungicides but I’m not sure what else to do. I’ll be pulling out my hair if this year my new grapes vines put out their first good harvest–and contract black rot so I get nothing. Ug. I would rather incinerate the entire Concord grape patch.

Why can’t gardening decisions be easy?

***

It’s getting near time to order the chicks for this spring. This year the laying hens need to be replaced, so I’m ordering some Araucana hens, along with two roosters. To fill out the order I picked Black Australorps which look like they’ll make good sized birds to eat. Nothing like staring at the Murray McMurray catalog and trying to decide if a chicken looks like a good one to eat. Actually, for the Black Australop I checked the weight listed in the catalog. But for some chicken breeds they only give a general description, which I find annoying because then I am reduced to going by the picture.

I raise the chickens, Teman pays the bills. I like having ducks around, too, but they are a more expensive purchase so they come into the farm yard only every few years. It’s been several years since we’ve had ducks, so I decided to suggest some for this year. I wanted to try a new breed (in the past we’ve only had White Pekins and Khaki Campbells) so I suggested Cayuga or Blue Swedish. Teman was more inclined for the Cayuga, so unless he suddenly feels poor we’ll probably be getting fifteen of them. The Cayuga ducks are named after Lake Cayuga in New York State. They are one of the few duck breeds you can purchase who origin was from within the United States. There is a bit of interesting trivia for you.

Winter Thaw

4th February 2004

Monday, February 2nd was the first real thaw, the first real nice day, since January set in with all of its winter savageness. The sun was out, the sky was blue, the air was clear, and the temperatures inched up in the 40 degree Fahrenheit range. Snow was deep on the ground, but after weeks of frigid temperatures, this felt like a thaw.

Looking at the calendar now I notice with a bit of amusement that the 2nd was Groundhog Day. A southern reader might say “Well, if it was such a nice day and the sun was shining the groundhog must have seen his shadow.” Ha ha. Around here, my friend, we don’t believe in groundhogs. Whether some rodent sees his shadow or not, we know there will always be six more weeks of winter. At least six more weeks of winter. We just try to enjoy the few goods days between now and then.

I first noticed exactly how nice a day Monday had turned into when I went out shortly after noon to feed the chickens. Stepping outside, I was met by bright sunlight and mild air. My first reaction was something along the lines of “Whoa, this is nice.” The pleasantness of the weather immediately lightened my mood and put a smile on my face. I went to feed the chickens, but on the way back to the house I stopped. The day was, I decided, more than just nice. It was wonderful. It was fabulous. Who could have believed the sunshine could be so nice? Exactly how long was it since the last time a sunny warm day like this had come around? Too long.

I stood in the middle of the snow-covered chicken yard and looked over the house to the snow-buried hillside and the blue sky above. Today, I thought, the world was looking beautiful. Everything was so nice, I had to do something. How many days like this would come in February? I just had to be out soaking up this sunshine, running, moving–doing something besides sitting shuttered up in the house like I could any miserable day. It was a persuasive argument I made myself, one I couldn’t resist. It was impossible for me to do anything productive outside, but it sure was a good day for going on a bicycle ride. I sure wanted to go on a nice, long bicycle ride instead of spending the afternoon inside writing.

No sooner thought than decided. I was going to play hooky for the rest of the afternoon, and I wasn’t even going to feel guilty about it. The one bit of justification I did was tell myself this bicycle ride would be instead of my Tuesday morning ride. This reasoning was plenty enough to excuse my dereliction of duty.

Before I left on my bike ride I did some minor maintenance on the bicycle. Winter weather, with all of its snow, salt, and sand, is brutal on a bike. The brake joints were getting stiff, the gears gunked up, and the chain was in need of another oiling. Also, a rasping, grinding sound had started to come from within the crankset (the crankset is what the pedals and the forward gear system are part of). I figured that somehow a bit of sand had managed to get inside the bearings and was grinding around. I hoped the noise would just go away, and I sprayed a liberal amount of DW-40 in the cracks, wishing that it might somehow magically help solve the problem. Bicycle all primed to go, I started out with windbreaker on my back and digital camera strapped to my side.

It didn’t take long for me to realize I had not managed to wish away the rasping, grinding sound from within my crankset. The noise came with every full pedal, a slight, rasping grind which only reminded me too well of a ball bearing set going bad. Drat. But there wasn’t much I could do at the moment. (In fact, I didn’t know anything I could do at all. There weren’t any grease fittings on the bike.) I was determined to not let this sound of perhaps impending doom for my bike spoil the ride. So long as it didn’t get worse and didn’t keep me from pedaling the bicycle, I intended to enjoy myself.

I didn’t want to take just any old bicycle ride on this absolutely fabulous February day. I wanted to do something special–something exciting and new and invigorating. The ticket for that was to do some more background exploring, something I consider a fun adventure, and something I haven’t done in a long time. I already had a distant road picked out that I wanted to find out where it led. Even better, the shortest way to get to this road was to go up B. Hill Road. B. Hill Road takes a one lane bridge across the river and railroad tracks to become a narrow winding road that leads steeply up B. hill to give any traveler a view of the vast spreading vista of rural New York. Last summer I took a round-about route so that I could ride down B. Hill Road and enjoy the sight without having to work through the steep climb. Today it was February and I wanted a challenge, so I decided to ride up the hill.

The trip up the hill started out well enough. I knocked the bicycle into a slightly easier gear and began the climb without much trouble. Once I’d gained enough altitude to have a good view I stopped and took out the camera for some pictures. I continued the ascent and stopped at another good point for more pictures. The world spread on and on, blanketed in snow. It looked peaceful and at rest, waiting for winter to end. However, all was not going well with my bicycle. As anyone who has ridden a bike much knows, starting from a dead stop on a steep hill is hard. On that day I was not finding it so very hard to restart my ascent, but every time I did the bicycle ground alarmingly from within the crankset. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to make it to the top of the hill with a bicycle in one piece. It was beginning to seem like a very bad idea to keep stopping for more pictures, but I persisted out of stubbornness and the desire to not let the cranky old bike ruin my picture taking expedition.

Well, the bicycle got the last laugh. I was starting up from one such picture taking break when the bike ground loudly, then gave a final snap, and broke–simple as that. The crankset always seemed so completely attached to the bicycle. It was the center of the bicycle, the part that always worked. No longer. The guts of the crankset had broken out of place, the forward gears and chain were twisted at an odd angle. The whole mess looked utterly broken, and I was a bit stunned that I had managed to break it so easily.

There would be no more adventuring that day. But my thoughts were already leaping ahead. The bicycle was broken–forget about today, how would I take my thrice weekly bicycle ride? Fixing this bicycle looked like an unrealistic dream–which meant I would have to buy a new bicycle. Double drat.

Back to the present. I was three quarters of the way up B. Hill Road. In the short term I didn’t need the ability to pedal because I could just coast back down the hill. However, once I reached the bottom of the hill I still had three or so miles before I reached home. I wasn’t really looking forward to walking the whole way, but . . . I would deal with that once I got to the bottom of the hill.

As it turned out the bicycle was not so utterly broken as I first thought. The bicycle was not exactly usable but it was not completely unusable. The front gears slopped around whenever I pedaled, making the chain leap from gear to gear wildly, but I could propel the bicycle forward in a slow and stuttering manner. It was something, at least. Enough for me to limp the bicycle home.

Once home I set about trying to figure out if there was any way I might possibly fix the bicycle. I started out not even knowing exactly what had happened, but once I had completely disassembled the crankset the malfunction was evident. One of the ball bearing rings had worn away from all my pedaling and all of the ball bearings had burst out of their container. The ball bearing case was only a thin scrap of metal, utterly useless. Seeing the state of deterioration the ball bearing housing was in, I was surprised I had been able to continue riding the bicycle as long as I had. (And it makes me wonder how unnecessarily hard the riding was.)

When I discovered what the problem was, I had a brief moment of hope in which I thought it might be fixable. It was simply a worn out ball bearing ring–couldn’t I just buy a replacement? I checked the idea out on the Internet. A quick search told me I was only beginning to get a dim glimmer of how naive I was. The bicycle I was looking to fix was a dirt cheap Huffy mountain bike, and this is not the era of the Great Depression when people try to fix everything. Normal bicycle parts stores didn’t sell anything less than the entire crankset, and it seemed the very cheapest crankset they were willing to consider selling cost more than my entire bike. (And we won’t mention the cranksets that were selling for over $200!) Reading between the lines, I was picking up the fact that people aren’t expected to fix dirt cheap bicycles. If something like a ball bearing ring in your crankset goes bad, well, buy a new bicycle.

Thwarted again. I can’t say I was very surprised. Probably every crankset has its own ball bearing rings, and so if I was going to buy a replacement for my bicycle someone would have to store the ball bearing rings for a pathetically cheap bike that only four people in the entire world would ever dream of fixing. Okay, so I can dream, can’t I? At least I didn’t walk up to some bicycle store clerk and ask if I could buy one ball bearing ring for a very cheap Huffy bicycle.

***

Monday wasn’t a single-day fluke of warm weather. The temperature stayed up around freezing on Tuesday, but we got a snow storm, which dumped a fair amount of very wet snow. No big surprise there–this is February after all. But then today turned into another wonderful day. That was a surprise. If possible, today was even better than Monday. The fresh wet snow stuck to all the trees on the hillside and made the world a glittering sight. My excuse for staying outside today was I needed to shovel snow.

The good weather won’t last. Snow is supposed to come late this week, and the weather people are projecting snow next week. These days were the first faint glimmers of spring, but only a southerner would think spring is around the corner.

As another note, I’m still waiting for the icicles to fall away from my upstairs window. I only have a few thin slits where I can look out between the teeth of ice. I think my view is 80% blocked. I thought they might fall down in the warm weather, but no. One thing I’ve been trying to puzzle over is why so many icicles form on this one part of the roof. My guess is that the other side of the house catches the northern wind and most of the snow is blown off that side of the roof, while on this side most of the snow melts, and thus forms icicles.

I think it is a sign of how slow things have become that I actually spend time wondering if my entire view will be blocked by a solid wall of icicles before they fall down.

Hitting The Bottom

30th January 2004

I think we’ve hit the bottom of winter. This is to say I think we’re past the half way mark, not that the worst is over. I certainly hope the worst is over, but sometimes winter gives the worst in the second half. It’s been a pretty tough first half of the winter, so I’m not sure what the weather can do to make things worse. Sitting here at the end of January I like to think that we’re at the bottom and now things must start going up. It’s how I put a smile on my face.

Life has been interesting. The weather has managed a good deal of subzero nights and some windy days as well. Then we’ve had some heavy snow falls, so life around here is becoming exceedingly house-bound. The unpacked snow outside is nearly up to my thighs. Wading is about all you can do, and this means nobody can effectively go outside to play, or get some fresh air and sunshine. Snow sits on the roofs and icicles hang everywhere. The upstairs window I can look out from where I sit at my computer is three-quarters or more blocked with this complete sheet of icicles all fused together. It’s like an ice wall.

At times it seems like the whole world is hunkered down against the snow and biting cold. In the morning I knock the solid ice out of the chicken’s water dish and fill it with hot water so it won’t freeze quite so fast. The chickens only venture out of their coop long enough to eat and drink. Mostly they spend their time inside standing around and looking miserable. They’ve stopped laying eggs, and a flock of starlings has taken up living inside the chicken coop, pooping all over things, and flying out like a whirlwind of feathers whenever I step inside.

Winter in these northern climes is when cabin fever sets in. I don’t think I suffer from this as badly as other people. If you’re outgoing and social, being stuck within the same four walls staring at the same bleak landscape outside can be a depression inducing experience. I, being introverted and a very focused person, can remained fixed on the task with which I am occupying myself, and not look up to consider the world outside, or the length of time it’s been since any pleasant weather has come around. Also it helps that I’ve been outside more than other people, and the cold weather doesn’t bother me as much.

This is not to say that things are exactly easy for me. Rather than being stuck indoors, what bothers me very much is the darkness of winter. The short days and long nights of winter are very grim. Forget about cold temperatures, or heaps of snow, what I find depressing is going out for my morning bike ride when it is still dark out. What is depressing is darkness coming at six in the evening . . . or earlier. The winter solstice is an important marker for me. It means daylight is coming back once again. Unfortunately, daylight at seven does not come for many, many more days. So I just plow ahead, counting off the days until the world is properly lit again.

I’m outside more than other people because I do snow shoveling, and I absolutely refuse to give up my thrice weekly bicycle ride. I don’t find snow shoveling unpleasant, though I usually do feel like I have better things to do with my time. It is a chance to get outside, but when the snow begins to fall too often, or in too large amounts, it begins to feel like an excessive waste of time. We have large drifts on either side of the driveway now.

Riding a bicycle in winter weather can be a miserable experience, but not so miserable as people might think. Cold temperatures are not the worst thing about riding a bicycle in the winter. With moderate bundling up I’ve found that riding a bicycle at zero Fahrenheit is an acceptable experience. Sub-zero is increasingly more uncomfortable, and I haven’t gone out in much lower than -15. What is worst about riding in the winter is when there is snow on the road, or when there is a stiff wind–both of which have happened too often for my liking this winter. Snow makes riding a slippery experience, gums up my chain, and freezes in my gears. Right now I’m stuck in one gear because all the rest have frozen full of ice and snow. I have to bring the bicycle into the house and defrost it and oil the chain. (Salt and sand work terrors on a bicycle.) A stiff cold breeze makes riding hard and unpleasant.

I stick to my bicycle riding no matter what the weather to defy winter, keep some semblance of normality, and get out of the house for a short while. This has made me into something of the local lunatic. I’m not exactly sure what people think when they see me out riding in the snow and freezing weather, but I can almost see their thoughts on their faces when they give me a peculiar look, or shake their heads. Nobody realizes it isn’t really that bad, and it amuses me. I grin very large when I see people giving me the funny stare when I ride by. It’s not every day that people think you are crazy.

Besides shoveling snow and bicycling in all sorts of inclement weather I’ve been accruing hands on experience thawing frozen pipes. Mrs. B, whose husband passed away a year ago, has been having trouble with her pipes freezing and I have been dealing with the problem. It seems like I no sooner fix one problem than another one appears. I’ve defrosted pipes, run heating tape, and insulated pipes, all in an effort to keep the water flowing. Sub-zero temperatures and a biting wind make for a difficult combination. I like to think that, after spending countless hours on my hands and knees in a half basement, I now have the problem licked. Only time, and more cold weather, will show if I’m right.

If freezing pipes weren’t enough problem for Mrs. B ice dams have formed on her roof and water began leaking into her house. So I went over recently to shovel some snow off her roof. In the back of her house there is a pretty steep drop and she was understandably nervous about me going out onto her snowy and icy roof. I’ve shoveled snow off roofs before (in fact, I’m doing more roof shoveling this Saturday) and I know how slippery a shingled roof can be. But I am not ashamed to go crawling around on my hands and knees, or my belly if necessary, to keep from falling off the roof.

I also have a morbid and perhaps flippant sense of humor that I put to good use in such situations. As I was preparing to crawl out the window Mrs. B continued to fret. I turned back and said, “Oh, you can just go back downstairs. You don’t need to worry. If you see me fly by the window you’ll know that I’ve fallen off the roof.” Since the snow on the ground was thigh deep I wasn’t sure how hurt I would be if I did fall off, and I thought the idea of me slipping off the roof with an “AAAIIEEEE!” and then streaking by the downstairs window in transit to land in a snow drift was funny. Mrs. B did not.

Winter drags on, but I remind myself that it must come to an end. I’ve still at least another month of riding my bicycle in the snow. Last year there was still a heavy snow pack in the middle of March, but it melted eventually. Now is the time of year to make great plans of what will be done once the weather has warmed, and savor the fact that right now I don’t need the mow the lawn.

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Rat on the Loose

18th January 2004

The first hint that we had a rat on the loose in the house was the hole in the bathroom wall. I was the first person to notice the hole. There was some irony in the discovery. The room in this house that has most recently been refurbished . . . the best looking room in the house, and a rat decides to chew a hole in the wall. It just figures. On the bright side, the rat chewed the hole through the wall right behind the toilet. It is so well hidden that the first thing I noticed was not the hole itself, but the debris that lay scattered on the floor.

“Hello,” I thought, “Why is there sheet rock debris scattered on the floor behind the toilet?” I bend over for a better look and lo, there is a nice sized hole in the wall. A hole much, much, bigger than any small mouse would need. In fact, I can’t think of ever having a mouse who so brazenly chewed a hole through a wall. I brought this violation of household sanctity to Dad’s attention, agreed with him that rat poison ought to be put out, but didn’t get around to doing anything.

Really, if I’d been on top of things, and a good boy, I would have put out some poison right away. But I didn’t. The next rat hole I found was in the back hallway floor and it was even bigger than the first hole. This, I considered something like my final warning. The rat most certainly was moving in to stay, and if we didn’t want the vile creature to start making holes all through the house, he had to be taken out. So I took all the unopened boxes of poison and placed them in strategic locations around the house. Then there was only to wait.

The effect was by no means instantaneous. Some night after I put the poison out I went down to go to the bathroom and I heard what sounded like the rat scrabbling around in the darkness. Not for the faint of heart. But since he didn’t seem to be scrabbling in my direction, I didn’t feel the need to defend myself. Someone who was very concerned about the rat was Owen. Being a little boy he has a very active imagination. He was sure he could hear the rat crawling around in the wall near his bed. It was possible that he was hearing the rat because we do have an old house with hollow walls. Of course, with him it was also possible he was hearing nothing but the sounds in the night. However, his dear brothers who were close to him in age could not help feeding all sorts of horrible ideas into his head. When he came to me about the concern I told him I was not going to put rat poison in his room, and he didn’t need to worry about it.

The rat mostly left my mind. Initially I was a bit concerned that he would come staggering out into some room, half dead from poison and then flop down on the floor. As the rat did not make an immediate appearance, I hoped he had crawled off to die (preferably) outside, or (probably) in some wall. So long as no more holes began to make mysterious appearances, I was happy.

Then someone did find the rat. He wasn’t quite dead. I don’t remember who was the first person to spot the rat, but it is a good thing this family is pretty laid back about animals. No shrieking fits around here. I guess the unaffected attitude is required if you live out in the country in an old house. The wild things don’t exactly keep at bay. Anyhow, the rat was discovered in the jelly cabinet, hunched up behind three big jars of homemade blackberry jam. Such certainly is the material to send a person dashing through the house screaming “There is a rat in the jelly cabinet! Aaahhhh! There is a huge rat in the jelly cabinet!” Nobody did. But it still wasn’t a pleasant place to find such a creature. It makes your home feel violated, even if the rat is nearly dead.

My first concern on hearing the news was that the rat may have died some time ago, and was in some stage of decomposition. A rotting rat is worse than a just dead rat. Another concern was that he was not yet very dead, and someone would have to finish him off, right there in the jelly cabinet. But since this rat was in the house, and I had already taken care of the last rat which was outside, I decided Dad could dispose of this one. (I know, so mature of me.)

The rat was big. I am always slightly shocked at how much bigger rats are than mice. This rat seemed to be at least ten times bigger than a nice teeny little mouse. He looked vile. He creeped Evan out a bit. Dad shoveled the creature into a garbage bag and threw the rat out.

More rat poison has been put around the house. Dad says where there is one rat there is always more. Usually correct, but I’m hoping that this was a forward scouting rat who hadn’t yet got around to bringing all of his extended family in to live with him. Only time will tell. Hopefully no more will be dying in the jelly cabinet.

January Chill

10th January 2004

They say January is the coldest month of the year around here.

This morning I got up had dropped down to -22 degrees. (That is Fahrenheit folks.) It actually might have been a little colder than -22, but our digital outdoor thermometer doesn’t go any lower. It didn’t get much colder, however, because a short time later it came back up to -21.8. It is still -21.6. Yes, you have to love the precision of those digital thermometers. They tell you precisely how absoloutely freezing cold it is out there.

Since today is Saturday, and there is no real big rush, I decided to put of my morning bicycle ride until things warm up at least a little bit. The coldest it’s been when I’ve gone out on my bicycle ride before was around -15. I really need better socks and better gloves before I go out in weather colder than that.

It is almost amazing how utterly arctic it can feel around here on cold morning. Invariably, when it is a very cold morning it is also a clear morning. As the sun comes up the sky turns from dark to a chilly blue. The blue looks clear, cold, and weak. And when the sun comes up and touches the barren trees on the hillside, the sunlight look weak too. It seems as if the cold is the only thing that has strength, and that is a hidden biting strength. The world almost feels as if it is frozen in time.

From inside it can feel a bit cool to see how the storm windows can frost completely over. From inside can feel nice and cozy. But the furnace turning on and running what seems almost constantly is a reminder of exactly what is being kept at bay outside the house. If you step outside the full chill comes crashing against your body. Your heat is simply sucked away.

The weather is like arctic-lite. We have occassional nights of double-digit chill, but every day when the sun comes up the tempratures will crawl back above zero. It is just a breif taste of the arctic, reminding us of where we don’t want to live.

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The Lord of The Rings – The Movies

4th January 2004

On Christmas Day the interested people in this family went to see The Return of The King at the local movie theater. Our family is not really big on movies, and I would say myself, being a writer, hold certain aspersions toward them. Movies, in this family, are almost not discussed. It is books we talk–and argue–about. However, The Lord of The Rings trilogy was one exception. In the years since this cinematic production first surfaced there has been a fair amount of discussion, angst, and argument over the whole process. We’re not quite geeky about the novels like some people are, but the books are something of a literary benchmark around here, and also a family tradition. The Lord of The Rings was first read to me when I was six or seven years old. I remember the black riders hunting for Frodo with exceptional vividness. As the years have progressed Teman has taken to reading the books to the younger kids.

All three movies are finished and now the cinematic work can stand complete, much like J.R.R Tolkien’s books. But how good are the movies, and how do they compare to the books? Some people consider these two questions to be part of a whole. If the movies were good, then they must have followed the books well. I don’t believe this is so. A movie is not a literal point for point transformation of a novel. By nature of the change in medium, if nothing else, a movie based on a novel is an adaptation. Depending on how a movie is adapted, it may be a good movie and yet not follow the book.

I consider the three movies to have great strengths, based upon their own merits. The three Lord of The Rings movie show an original world brought to life with much imagination. As an exploration of a fantasy world of breathtaking proportions, the movies stand unparalleled. This is praise I can freely give to the movies put together by Peter Jackson and his crew. However, my mind is naturally inclined to more critical thoughts, and I see plenty to criticize in all three movies.

As movies, The Fellowship of The Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of The King, can stand on their own. As representative of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, I cannot come away from the movies without feeling that a travesty was done to the author. Yes, I firmly believe that the movies could have been twice as bad, four times as bad, or even sixteen times as bad. But, the truth of how much Jackson and team accomplished doesn’t blot out how much they didn’t accomplish. I have many complaints, but if I were to try and reduce it all down to one small nugget I would say that Jackson’s movies captured the richness of Tolkien’s world but missed the richness of his characters. I cannot help but be appreciative of the imagination and effort that was put into creating the world of Middle Earth on screen. However, the visual medium of movies is naturally at a disadvantage in portraying complex characters, and this weakness was compounded by the fact that I don’t think a single one of the directors or writers working on the movie was anywhere near a match for Tolkien ability in subtlety or complexity in character creation.

Jackson’s movies are a wonderful romp through a fantasy world. There are clashing swords, wonderful special effects, and great scenery. I think that at least in part Jackson was able to do this because he was not encumbered with some art critic’s necessity of doing something with Tolkien’s work. He wasn’t some intellectual snob who thought to dig something out of Tolkien’s work. Peter Jackson could simply take the vivacity of Tolkien’s ideas, and burst forth with that all across the screen. This was Jackson’s saving grace, but also his weakness. As much as he did not feel moved to force his own intellectual ideas onto Tolkien’s work, neither did he bother to deftly bring out Tolkien’s own ideas. I don’t think most people watch movies for subtle and well crafted ideas–indeed, I would say the movies were a success because they were a good, and at times, corny adventure. But Jackson has only captured half of Tolkien’s genius, and I find the other half sadly lacking in the movies.

A long list of various complaints could be brought up, but, frankly, I don’t think it is of much worth to drag every quibble and complaint out for airing. Anyone familiar with the books is quite aware of numerous places where sections of the novel were cut out, or other material invented. Some additions or subtractions worked all right. Some were crudely done. Others were downright painful, such as the calling of the ents to war. That particular instance might best be called the character assassination of the ents. Can you say cliche? But enough. I don’t intend to go over every outrage, one by one, numerous as they might be. Rather, I will point out a few that illustrate the various aspects in which I feel the movie failed. They are not the only instances of these failures, but they are illuminative.

The action in Tolkien’s novels was exciting, and often it was unique and/or moving because of particular significance. On occasion Jackson managed to portray this to some degree, but in the movies there was a painful tendency to sink into the cliche’s of modern culture, modern movies, and modern action movies. The example I will use is that of the battle for Helms Deep. There were elements of that battle which were done well, but much of it was simple rehashing of classic action sequences. The average pop-corn munching imbecile can enjoy the tried and true action devices, but the various fumblings throughout the battle for Helms Deep I felt were capped off with the whopper at the end. Aragorn rallies King Theoden to ride out with him to face the enemy one last time. So they all mount their horses and charge out, with great fury we presume, down a flight of stairs! This act of stupidity and utter unrealism is enough to nearly elicit an audible groan from me. You cannot charge horses down a flight of stairs. It is painful to watch these horses trotting down the stairs and our supposed ferocious enemies leaping out of the way. The entire battle is reduced to a laughing stock, a farce. Riding out for one final battle is fine, but Tolkien was not a complete ignoramus. Making horses give a grand old charge down a flight of stairs is making him no better than your average action flick.

Throughout the course of the movies various characters were besmirched. Gandalf comes to mind, in his movie creation as a stick wielding head bopper. However, an even more succinct example is Denethor. In Tolkien’s novels Denethor was a complex man of power, will, and subtle shading. In the movie he is a weak, slobbering, piggish fool. He is a babbling idiot, so easily despised. So convenient of a cliche. Yes, he is probably one of those characters that the movie goers so much love to hate. But the Denethor of the movies is nothing but a shadow and a mockery of the burden and struggling man that Tolkien created.

I am a man of vivid imagination, so there were parts of the movie where even Jackson’s phenomenal ability to bring the fantastic to life was not good enough for me. The massing of Mordor’s troops before Minas Tirith was well done, as was the charge of the Rohan. If I wasn’t familiar with Tolkien’s books I would probably have no complaint. However, I do know the books, and the battle I saw on the screen was not nearly so black, so fearsome, or so great, as the battle which I imagined. My fault for having such an active imagination? Maybe. But I’m complaining about how the movie didn’t live up to the book, and that was how I imagined things in the book.

Then there were times when Jackson and crew did not pull scenes off as artfully as they could have been. As far as special effects are concerned, the battle between Eowyn and the Witch King was excellent. As far as being truthful to Tolkien’s story, it was pretty good. That said, the fight was neither so terrifying, or well paced, as it could have been. There should have been a greater darkness and a greater overwhelming terror. In the first movie a good example of this was how all the bugs and icky crawly things came fleeing out of the wood and earth where the black rider rested his hand while sniffing for Frodo. Obviously this exact same device couldn’t have been used in the battle between Eowyn and the Witch King, but as it came across in the movie, the face-off was rather flat. There was no imbuing of the vast and terrible power that Eowyn was facing off against. Also, the dialogue was not spaced well. As the movie goes, Eowyn declares “I am a woman!” only as her coup de grace on the Witch King. In the book this comes a little earlier, and works much better. The Witch King and Eowyn are facing off and the Witch King gives the half taunt/half boast that no man can kill him. It is then Eowyn throws off her helmet and declares she is a woman. That gives the Witch King a little hesitation, and then the battle is met. As far as tension and excitement, this works better.

Such is nit-picking, but the battle between Eowyn and the Witch King was one of the high points in the novels in my opinion. Jackson did well, but it could have been even better.

Perhaps it seems like I complain overly much about the movies. The point of my complaint is not how bad the movies were–for as movies they have much to recommend them–but my complaint is how the movies failed to fully live up to Tolkien. Many people think it is the greatest thing for a novel to be turned into a movie, but my feelings are contrary. Certainly, I fully admit that there is a great allure to written work being brought to life on the big screen. However, I cannot escape thinking about the overwhelming price that is involved. The Lord of The Rings movies were great fun to watch, but as a writer myself I cannot help but noticing, and strongly criticizing, where a movie does injustice to the written work on which it claims to be based.

Done

20th December 2003

Yesterday I printed out the latest draft of my novel. After so many long months of work it feels anti-climatic. It’s the day after, and I’m just sitting here. Where is the swelling music, where is the great victory? It seems rather quiet.

Actually, quietness is about right. I am exhausted, and a bit of rest is needed. I’ve spent hours and hours staring at the monitor, typing, endless words pattering by. Taking a few days to simply put the story out of my mind and occupy myself with something else is a refreshing interlude. This is very much not the end, but only an interlude. What I printed out was a draft, not the final copy. So the wiser part of me will try to rest and recuperate, fortifying myself for the battle ahead. One thing is sure, it won’t be easy.

It isn’t quite correct to say printing out my novel draft was entirely anti-climatic. It was frustrating, and that counts for something.

Currently, my novel is one prologue, forty-seven chapters, and one epilogue long. Double-spaced, this comes out to 1,183 pages long. All previous drafts of this novel were printed out by someone other than myself, but now we have a fancy-dancy networked printer in the house. One thousand one hundred and eighty-three pages comes out to over 17 megabytes of disk space, in Microsoft Word format. (I write using OpenOffice, but save my file in the Word format for cross-computer usability.) Perhaps showing my naivete once again, I thought printing this file would be an easy affair. After all, I reasoned, it is straight text. There is nothing fancy about it. You tell the printer to print, and it prints. When it runs out of paper you load some more in. Repeat this until job is done.

Events did not turn out as I imagined.

My first problem was double-spacing the document. A document for editing is double-spaced, but I write in single space because double-spaced text visually looks wrong to me. Switching the line spacing of my document ended up being easy . . . but doing it was not how I thought it ought to be done, so I ended up banging my head against the computer until I finally surrendered to how it wanted to reformat the document.

Back in the good old days of WordPerfect 5.1 the entire document could be double-spaced from a single global setting. This, apparently, isn’t allowed in either OpenOffice or MS Word. In these word processing programs the line spacing is set by the paragraph. This means that I must select every paragraph that I want to change from single space format so that I can change each of their paragraph format settings. At first thought this might seem like an appalling amount of work, but actually is easy because there is a “Select All” feature under the “Edit” command which allows the entire document to be selected with one click. If I was a docile little fellow I would have left the matter at that. But it struck me as so backwards that you had to select and entire document to change the formatting–no matter how easy–that I had to hunt around searching for some feature that would allow me to change the formatting on the entire document without selecting all the text. I had no success and so was reduced to accepting the world as it is today.

However, in one last ironic twist, I think I managed to garble the whole process up in OpenOffice by changing the line spacing in the default style. This did double space the document, but it also mucked up my chapter headings (not to mention taking a long time to implement the formatting change in all 1,183 pages). At this point my temper was running short. I decided that if I was going to wrestle with formatting issues that took so much time, I would do it on a computer that was faster. So I burned my novel onto a CD and brought it downstairs to Teman’s much faster computer.

Since I had given up trying to make MS Word function as I thought it ought to, formatting the document to double-spaced text was easy. But I promptly found myself facing a new problem. The printer wouldn’t print out my story. This didn’t become immediately evident because first all 17+ megabytes of document were spooled, slowly, out to the printer. Only when it reached the last kilobyte of document did it hang, wait a long time, then say it was having difficulty and would try again. The spooling started over from the beginning and I had to wait again. Two failures later, I decided something was wrong. Thus ensued much fiddling with settings and more waiting as I watched the document spool out, and then fail to print.

Full blown exasperation settled in. I mean, come on, what kind of pathetic world do we live in? What kind of worthless no good pieces of junk are our computers? (No, don’t answer that question.) I’m trying to use a word processing program to print a document out on a business class printer, and the equipment is effectively thumbing its nose at me! Outrage of all outrages.

I take the CD over to the computer which has extra printer software installed on the hopes that somehow (magically) it will help solve the problem. Ha ha. Sarcastic laughter. That computer wouldn’t even recognize my CD. It said my CD was an audio CD. Very funny. It is beginning to feel like some grand farce in which I’ll never get my document printed. Fuming, I go back to Teman’s computer to try something else.

I’ve already determined that I can print one measly page of my novel, so it is clear that the printer doesn’t simply find my writing so revolting that it refuses to print. Logically then, I must figure out exactly how many pages of my novel the printer is willing to print at a time. It won’t print 1,183 pages? Fine, how about 600? I wait for 600 pages to spool out and discover that 600 pages won’t print either. All right. How about 300? I watch as 300 pages spools out to the printer, and no, that doesn’t work either. Great. Then what about 200 pages? Waiting, then finally, yes, 200 pages will print. This is hysterical. I’m reduced to printing out 200 pages at a time. Why? Why me?

Actually, once I figured out how much I could print, the probable reason why became clear. Three hundred pages of an MS Word document took slightly over 4 megabytes of memory. Two hundred pages took slightly over 3 megabytes of memory. Ah, I think, who wants to bet the printer only has 4 megabytes of memory? That would explain the problem.

Explain yes, but I still don’t think it is justified. The designers should have been smart enough to make the printer print as it was accepting the feed from the spool. Assuming that I am right about the cause of the problem, file size should not be the limit of what goes to the printer. A person should not be limited to printing out a document no longer than two hundred pages. The world is much larger than that.

Ranting aside, I did manage to print out my novel draft, once I understood what rules I was operating under. I printed in two-hundred-page segments. This didn’t mean the printing itself took any longer, but it did mean I had to do more babying of the process. And all the time I had spent getting everything to work made the project take the entire afternoon.

So, printing out the novel wasn’t entirely anti-climatic.

Thanksgiving . . . Christmas

7th December 2003

A Quiet Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving passed without much ado. We went to Nate and Sharon’s for a Thanksgiving family gathering. Winter family gatherings are more difficult than summer get-togethers. Being stuck inside with a lot of relatives . . . well, it’s noisy. And, with the number of relatives in the family, it’s really crowded as well. I’m not sure the fire marshal would much approve of so many people in one house.

A great boon of gathering at Nate and Sharon’s house is that they always have plenty to entertain visitors. Their basement is finished very nicely, and they have the whole place stocked with games for kids of every age. Then in the family room there is a TV with surround sound. In general, it seems, everything makes some type of noise. When every computer is playing a game, every TV on, the toys in use, and people talking–all this is enough to drive me to distraction. I suppose I’m rather grinch-ish for not finding the sound of many people having much fun to be music to my ears, but I’m unrepentant.

I think my noticing of the volume level is a sign of my age. A dozen years ago I would have been in the thick of things, the noise nothing more than a distant unnoticed background. I’m an old fogey now . . . sigh.

Well, not too old. There is a big air hockey table in the basement, and this game of physical competition appeals to me. Not to mention slamming the puck across the table. I played a game against Arlan and . . . ahem . . . apparently got a little too involved in the game, lunging across the table to slam the puck like a bullet into the goal. The day after Thanksgiving the muscles along my right side and up my arm were sore from being over stretched. A minor price to pay for going after the puck like a savage, I assure you; I won the game.

There was plenty of pie for dessert. Our tradition is to have a main midday meal and then eat leftovers when people get hungry later in the day. The food is traditional Thanksgiving fare, but the pies are the real draw. I confess I ate the noon meal, but the majority of my eating for the rest of the day was pies. Whenever I felt like a bit more to eat, I went for more pie.

The Days Til Christmas

I’m counting down the days until Christmas.

No, not because I’ve so many presents to buy, so many cards to send out, or because I’m eagerly awaiting the grand celebrations. Presents? Cards? I’m a misanthrope here. Bah on all that holiday cheer. When I was young, I looked forward to the grand party on Christmas day, but age has left me jaded. Sure, it is a nice day, but only a day to be enjoyed when it is here, not one to be waited for with bated breath.

So, if I’m not a bundle of holiday excitement, you’re probably wondering why I’m counting the days until Christmas. The matter, for me, is purely practical. Sometime in the middle of November I set myself the goal of finishing the current draft of my novel by Christmas. With years of writing experience behind me, I’ve learned to dread deadlines. It seems a writing deadline is simply a deadline made to break, and to feel horrible and depressed about breaking. But in November it felt like I was walking in place–I was getting near, but not very near. The end of the novel draft and that last quarter felt like it would take me eternity to finish.

To fight off gloom, and to spur me on, I counted off the number of chapters left that I had to revise and tried to come up with a reasonable number of days to finish all the chapters. Reasonable, of course, being something of a joke, because where writing is involved I don’t seem to have a reasonable bone in my body. The writer in me is a wild dreamer full of mad hopes. Nonetheless, I set myself what I thought was a high bar of accomplishment, but not an unachievable one. I figured that if I could finish a chapter every three days, I would be finished by Christmas. The goal was set. The deadline was marked. And off I went.

Goaded on by the looming deadline I did well until Thanksgiving put a bump in my plans. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of the Thanksgiving week were messed up. But I managed to regain my momentum afterward, and plow forward, not looking back.

Will I make my deadline? I don’t dare venture a guess yet. It’s going to be close. I’ve been working myself without ceasing to keep up. I write each day of the work week until I am unable to write any more. I push and push myself, grinding to the very edge of burnout to get this beast finished. I haven’t stopped to count the pages done in a day. I haven’t gone back to reassess the quality of what I’ve written. All that is for later. Today, tomorrow, and the next day are only writing and getting this thing done.

If my writing here has seemed sparse, this is why. By the time I close out my novel writing for the day, I feel just about cross-eyed. If it was a good day there is a sense of satisfaction at what I’ve completed, but the writing well is near dry. But I am determined. The end is in sight. I’m almost there. A few more chapters. A few more weeks. I can make it if I only try hard enough.

I’m into the last hundred page count down. This is a great psychological success. About six hundred single spaced pages, and now I’m counting up through the five hundreds. Counting off the last pages. The one thing I fear is myself. I find that as a draft of my novel nears there is a danger of two things happening to me.

(1) I get exhausted and feel like those last two chapters are impossible to write. There can come this almost overwhelming sensation that I can’t write the wrap-up that will do justice to all the months and months of work I’ve put into the lead-up story. It feels impossible to finish.

(2) I decide that all my writing stinks. I’m writing along, nearing the conclusion, and it is like I get cold feet. Suddenly I decide everything I’ve written isn’t really that good at all. This leads me to either suffer a profound feeling of despair and an urge to give up, or else the desire to go back and rewrite everything I’ve just written because this draft isn’t ready to be finished.

When the finish line is this near in sight, I’ve learned that the last thing I should do is think. Don’t think. Just write.

Only two weeks and three days left. Christmas is coming.

Don’t Mind The Bugs

23rd November 2003

The Beginning of The End

Butchering was an early November affair this year. The chicks of this spring didn’t fatten up quite as fast as I would have liked, but by early November they were ready to go. Or, I should more rightly say, I was ready for them to go. That is one advantage to buying a whole bunch of male chickens: By the time butchering season comes around the chicks–now roosters–are generally on the path to becoming goons. Goons are not so lovable, and this softens the parting considerably.

The rooster metamorphosis goes something like this: chicky-poos become louts and louts become goons. It isn’t that all roosters are bad. No, there are the very few nice roosters. But the majority of roosters are stupid goons, or mean goons. In the last weeks of their lives my rooster boys were beginning to realize I might be more than their dear sweet caretaker. I was the source of all goodies, but I was also a potential enemy. Their thinking hadn’t really advanced beyond the dim glimmering of potentiality, but their thoughts were starting to vaguely drift in that direction. The bigger and more testosterone laden the developing rooster was, the farther along he was in this thinking. The sign of things to come was visible in the three times some rooster took offense at my actions and attacked me. Twice I was bitten on the hand, once I was charged. None of this surprised me in the least. This is the common growing up of roosters. I’ve seen it many times before, and I saw it developing this time as well. The aggressive action of these strapping young roosters was not only directed against me. These once-comrades were beginning to move on from playful horsing around with each other to determined oppression.

This is all quite typical of roosters. In their little brains there is room for only one master of the harem, and the rest are outcasts. Dominance is only naturally asserted. And, proportionate to how much the roosters think I am a fellow rooster they feel it necessary to find out whether I am boss, or they are. The Partridge Rocks and Speckled Sussex were only beginning the journey down this path. The boldest were beginning to consider challenging me. Their thoughts, however, had not fully developed along these lines. While they considered taking a chunk out of me to be an acceptable experiment, they were shocked–shocked indeed–whenever I remonstrated them for this behavior. The rooster who charged me blew his brain fuses when I gave him a kick in payment for the assault. He never dreamed that dear Rundy would attack him. And another rooster who was mercilessly picking on a fellow I told to knock it off with a swift kick in his rear end. He went shrieking off to hide somewhere in the chicken yard, appalled that I could deal with him in such anger when he was only innocently beating up his brethren.

Yes, indeed, day by day the chicken yard was becoming a seething stew of male hormones. The hens were beginning to get nervous, and the old rooster was starting to realize he had a lot of competition on hand. In general, childhood was at an end. The chums were fading away.

I Think I’ve Found Something Hard

I’ve been butchering chickens for 10+ years and with every year more stories and more experience has piled up. The first years were miserable learning experiences spent out in the bitter cold. Technique has much improved since then, as well as understanding the when and how of the job. With experience we’ve settled progressively into routine, but every year still has its differences. The difference this year was, for the first time ever, we had outside help in butchering.

Ah, you are probably thinking we hired some expert to help. Or, we decide to go in on the job with some local farmer. No, you are wrong. Either of those ideas would have been normal. Around here, things are very un-normal. So, our help consisted in a friend Arlan brought home from college. Yes, you read that sentence right. It wasn’t even that we needed help and had Arlan desperately scrounge up whatever labor he could find. We didn’t need help–this friend simply wanted to help (or wanted the educational experience).

Of course, my first reaction was to make sure this wasn’t all a big joke. It wasn’t. Many people (perhaps most) would be appalled at the idea of having some college-educated sophisticate over for such a barbaric experience as chicken butchering. I, on the other hand, have a taste for the absurd, so this particular genteel hesitation doesn’t hold such sway over me. I was concerned that Sarah (above mentioned college friend) had no idea what she was getting into. But, after the situation was stated plainly and Sarah affirmed that she indeed wanted to take part, I was game. After all, why pass up a chance for free help?

At this point I feel it necessary to interrupt my story and give a little aside to all family members who are reading. I feel it necessary to defend Arlan from some presumption that might spring from incidental facts in this story. No doubt said family members (you know who you are) have noticed that this college friend is a female and so have concluded that Arlan has a “girlfriend.” Indeed, Sarah is female, but the astute reader will note that I only called her Arlan’s friend, not his “girlfriend.” For the honesty of not misrepresenting, or feeding some misrepresentation, of Arlan I have pointed this out. However, I find the idea of bringing home a “girlfriend” for chicken butchering outrageously funny. I’ll admit to having been a little bit tempted to let the assumption go unrefuted, as it would have added greater shock value to this story, and so, in my book, made the events all the more humorous.

Lest it be thought I’ve no sense of family dignity, I will say there was one thing I was uncomfortable, nay, even embarrassed about. You see, our chickens have fleas. This problem first came about a few years ago, as a result, I think, of certain chickens’ unsanitary habits, and we haven’t been able to permanently eradicate the fleas since. (Recently Teman learned from someone that wood ash is the perfect way to get rid of chicken fleas, but my attempt at this cure was thwarted when my ashes were rained on.) When the chickens are killed their carcasses begin to cool, and the fleas then look for the next warmest target–the person plucking or gutting. Thus the “flea ridden carcass.” Though I don’t have the refined sense of delicacy that other people retain, even I felt that giving visitors fleas was both impolite and a little . . . well, coarse. It just doesn’t sound right to say “Come on over and get fleas.” It doesn’t matter that in reality all we’ve done the last two years is take a shower after butchering and that was enough to get rid of them. It is plain embarrassing to tell someone, “Don’t mind the bugs. Just smash the fleas if they start crawling up your arms. You can get most of them, but some always escape.”

Nevertheless, in spite of being told that chicken butchering was going to be a cootie sharing party, Sarah still wanted to help. The question for the audience is this: is she brave, foolish, or just too stubborn to back down? No matter, she was coming, and that meant we got to show off the subtle arts we had refined after so many years. Like, the art of exactly how to hang up the chicken after the head is cut off, the best way to pluck (alas, we don’t have an automatic plucker) and the speediest methods for gutting.

I said before that I’ve a taste for the absurd, and that butchering day was full of such moments. Perhaps absurd is not quite the right word. But it is the closest I can get to describe the strange juxtaposition of explaining the earthy realities of butchering to educated company. It seemed to stand what one normally does with visitors completely on its head. To cultured and polite people I suppose this would be appalling. I found it slightly amusing, and . . . well, a little absurd. That is the best way I can describe sitting around outside, plucking chickens and discussing the finer points of how it is done.

I am the fastest chicken plucker, but I also gut the fastest. We don’t have an automatic plucker, so plucking is always the slowest part of the job. The routine is for me to pluck chickens as fast as I can until we have about half of the birds plucked. Then I start taking the plucked birds inside to gut. I’m no expert (an expert would be someone who did it for a living) but I can have a roaster gutted and ready for freezing in ten minutes. Doing the gutting year after year it becomes such a routine that I forget how macabre the labor is. Sarah helped, and as a learning experience I had her gut one chicken all by herself. Explaining the steps to her, rather than simply automatically doing them, brought back to mind the disgusting nature of what, exactly, I was showing her how to do.

The dialogue (or monologue, I should say) went something like this:

“Okay, here’s the knife. It’s very sharp. First thing you need to do is cut off the feet. It works better if you slice in quick short motions rather than going back and forth. Put pressure on the joint so it splits open.”

She is nervous about accidentally cutting Titi, who is holding the chicken. I have the butchering knife sharpened so that the edge will cut open chicken skin by merely brushing across it. After a little bit of work Sarah gets the hang of it and cuts the feet off.

“Now cut off the tips of the wings. It works better to use the kitchen shears for that.”

I cut through the last joint of the wing in one quick motion, but she doesn’t have as much hand strength. After a bit of work, she manages to finish both wing tips.

“Okay, now you need to cut down through the stomach and around the anus. Be careful not to cut too deep or you’ll split open the guts and that will make a big mess.”

Sarah begins to cut. She is clumsy but does better than I did when I was first starting.

“Good,” I say once she’s finished cutting. “Now reach up in there with your hand until you feel the gizzard, or the heart. Scoop around with your hand, and pull everything out. Just do the best you can, and hope nothing bursts. Otherwise you have a stinking mess.”

The worse part about chicken butchering is the killing. Killing an animal, in my book, is far worse than pulling the guts out of their cold dead carcass. But I’ll admit that the step of reaching inside the chicken and pulling the guts out is probably the grossest step. After years of gutting I’ve become somewhat numb to the revolting nature of gutting. I’ve learned to instinctively breath through my mouth, not my nose, and I cut open the chicken, reach up inside, and pull everything out in one quick motion. I don’t even stop to consider what I’m doing, or what it feels like. However, giving someone else step-by-step instructions on what needs to be done, brings back memories of my first few times. Everything is slimy and sticky with body fluids, and there are all sorts strange and disgusting lumps. You can’t see what is going on in there, so you have to keep shoving your hand further back, going by feel.

At last Sarah said, “I think I feel something hard.”

“That is either the heart or the gizzard. Start scooping back and pull everything toward you.”

She went slowly, and managed to pull all the guts out, along with the heart, without rupturing any intestines.

All that was left was to cut off the neck, pull out the wind pipe and crop, and then get out the lungs.

“To get out the lungs,” I said, “you need to scoop down along the rib cage and peel the lungs out in one piece. Otherwise they make a big mess.” It took me a little while to perfect this when I was first learning how to butcher chickens, but Sarah managed it the first time.

“Good. Now wipe the blood off your hands and rinse the chicken off.”

She had successfully gutted a chicken.

The butchering job, as a whole, went well. There were plenty of bugs, as I feared, but Sarah handled them with good grace. And no, none of the bugs survived through the shower, so friends and relatives need not fear to come visit. Cootie sharing is only at butchering time. You’re safe. If you want some you’ll have to go out and live in the chicken house.

The Cutting Wind, The Blowing Snow

14th November 2003

Winter has arrived. It has come swiftly, suddenly, and with savageness.

October was, over all, a mild month. There was no bitter chill, and even days when the weather was unusually mild. Frost, this fall, came very late. So, as fall gave way toward winter it was mild weather leading into . . . what? Last winter was quite bitter, perhaps the most bitter in ten years. Was this mild fall a sign of a milder winter?

Well, maybe this winter won’t be so brutal as last winter. But mild it does not seem to be, and it is certainly here.

The first ominous signs that winter was indeed finally here to stay came last weekend, when the morning temperatures dropped down into the low double digits. (Fahrenheit, for any non USA readers.) However, early this week things warmed up a bit, making it up past 60 on two days. On Wednesday I was working outside in a long sleeved shirt. The weather was mild, partly sunny . . . nice.

Then Thursday came. I woke up that dark morning to the sound of wind howling outside, shrieking around the house. I go for a bicycle ride on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings. My first thought on hearing the howl of wind was “I hope it isn’t too cold out there.” Then secondly, “That wind is going to make riding tough.” First thing downstairs I check the outside temperature. It’s in the mid twenties. I feel better about that. Wind in the mid twenties isn’t bad. Wind in the single digits is murder. I live in dread of the utter depths of winter when I may end up with mornings well into sub-zero temperatures. That happened last year. That is when biking gets really hard.

With a wind breaker and gloves, I didn’t freeze on my morning ride, but the head wind gave me trouble. It wasn’t a gentle breeze, but rather a gale force wind coming from the West. As I moved from one road to another, wind was alternately plastering me from one side, then the other, next pushing me from behind (that was nice) or gusting full in my face. If you’ve never gone riding a bicycle in the face of a strong head wind, you’ve no idea how much it can slow you down. At times it felt like I was slowed to a crawl, fighting to have any forward momentum at all.

Back home, I came inside most definitely awake, and quite . . . er . . . refreshed. It had been a hard ride, but overall I thought it wasn’t a bad way to start the day.

The wind did not let up as the morning progressed. If anything, it grew fiercer, and the air colder. Snow began to fall, whipping through the air. Around 10:00 AM, the electricity began to flicker. Then it went completely out. This was the first hint that Thursday was not going to be an ordinary day.

The power came back on about an hour later. I hoped there would be no more trouble with the power. I waited a little longer, then decided I could finally sit down and begin writing for the day. A half hour of writing later, the power suddenly cut out again, and I was treated to the horrifying sight of my text sucking of the screen into black oblivion. I have my word processor set to save every fifteen minutes, but fifteen minutes of lost writing is fifteen minutes too much.

So that was that. The wind was howling, and ever howling, the snow was flying, and it didn’t look like I was going to get any writing done. The only thing left to do was make the best of a bad situation and catch up on some reading. That is what I did all afternoon long. The power didn’t come back on for good until around five, and even then it was still flickering and browning out. There was no way I was going to risk losing any more work on the computer so I continued reading, switching from productive reading to entertaining reading. Snow continued to fall, and the wind continued to blow.

It was after six in the evening and utterly dark, when Dad called. He had hit a patch of snow, spun out, and ended up with his car in the ditch. Could we come and push him out? Teman, myself, and Lachlan piled into Teman’s jeep and headed out.

The snow had been falling lightly all afternoon with probably only a total of an inch on the ground. Most of the road didn’t have sticking snow. However, the wind was whipping the snow about, and where the wind was funneled across the road, there was drifting. As we headed out in the jeep we would come to sections of the road where the snow was blowing across in white out conditions. If the snow had been falling heavily, it would have been blizzard conditions.

Dad had more than slid slightly off the road. Coming over the crest of a hill, he had come suddenly upon a patch of road with drifted snow. He began to slide, and then went into a spin. He spun multiple times (enough to die three times over, he said) and ended up with the car straddling a ditch, the back end up on a bank, the front end facing out toward the road. It was a spectacular landing, and a reminder that if something solid had been in the way, or if he had landed in some other position than upright, he could have been dead.

The car had gone off the road hard and fast, but appeared to have landed softly on the grassy bank. One turn signal light had popped out, but there was no other visible damage. However, one of the front tires was hanging over the ditch, and the weight of the car was on the front bumper. We couldn’t get it out.

The section of the road we were on was open, and the wind was cutting, bitter cold, and strong. Sitting in the parked jeep we could feel every gust making the vehicle rock. It was miserable weather to be out fighting with a car over a ditch full of water. After a bit of effort we came to the conclusion we wouldn’t be able to move the car by our own strength. This job needed a tow truck.

It was a long night. We went home and called a tow truck. Then we drove back to the car and waited for the tow truck to show up. When the tow truck finally showed up, the driver had to call for his supervisor because it was a tricky extraction. So we waited for the supervisor. Then, once the supervisor arrived, the car was winched out. Dad drove the car to the local repair shop to have it checked over for any damage. Then we all went home. It was past nine.

Thus winter came in with a bang. Mild and pleasant it is no more.

The wind continued to howl all Thursday night. It has died down some today, but this afternoon it began to snow again. Such a grim change from the warmth and sun of Wednesday. Winter has come, winter is here to stay, and what does this fierce arrival mean?

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On The Road

5th November 2003

This past weekend I did some traveling. I left home Friday evening and came home Saturday night. I went to bed very late Friday night, and got up early Saturday morning. So, I left for a 2 1/2 hour journey home, after dark, alone, tired, and with the beginnings of a headache. As I got into the car I was conscious, in a vague sort of way, that things weren’t stacking up in my favor. During the day the trip home would have seemed like no big deal. Now it seemed like a difficult task, and it felt like such a labor to think about all the turns I would need to make ahead of time.

In general, I am indifferent about traveling. So long as I don’t do too much of it, I don’t mind it. There are plenty of things worse, in my book, than driving a few hours on the highway. That said, I don’t get my thrills out of traveling, either. I’m a home body, and too much traveling begins to really wear. Also, I loathe traveling in the city. Open country or the highway–fine. But the crowded and complex streets of cities–they cause me to stress out.

My journey Saturday night was a 2 1/2 hour trip, mostly on interstate highway 81, heading south. Halfway through my journey I would have to pass through Syracuse. Getting into the car and noting my state of mental exhaustion, I considered that I would have to be very careful if I didn’t want to make a wrong turn and end up wandering on darkened roads, trying to find my way home. Getting home, under normal circumstances, wasn’t hard. This was why I found it noteworthy that contemplating the ride home felt like some laborious chore. Not a good sign.

It’s basically a straight shot home, I told myself. If you can get out of town and onto 81 and then get through Syracuse, you’re home free. There is nothing more for you to get confused on. Remember to get off at the right exit, and you know the rest of the way home like the back of your hand. Hang on to your head, and you’ll get home without any trouble.

Following this advice, I acted with deliberate concentration and made all of the proper turns and reached the highway. Next point in the journey was Syracuse, but that was a good hour away. I had time to pass away as I traveled through the night.

When traveling for long distances, whether in day or night, I have one of two problems: either keeping myself occupied, or keeping myself awake. If I’m not stressing out trying to drive in the city, I find driving rather boring, and mind numbing. This means that if I don’t come up with something to occupy myself, my mind can wander off to thinking or day dreaming. Wandering into thought isn’t a good thing to do while driving, and neither is sleeping.

It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I’ve found that I sing in the car to combat bored day dreaming.. Yes, I am one of those freaks who sings in the car. Alas, but I think I fulfill the caricature of that man riding down the road alone, bellowing at the top of his lungs. I sing loud, like the star of an opera. I don’t sing to the radio. I sing songs that are in my head–either songs that I’ve made up, or the bits of songs that I can actually remember. The key is that they can be sung loudly and with considerable gusto.

Perhaps singing in the car could be considered an edifying and self-improving activity if it made up some coherent whole. Unfortunately, I don’t think I remember all of the words to a single song. For most songs I remember the refrain, and maybe the first verse. Maybe a little more. So I make up for this by singing what I do remember, over and over and over again. Sometimes I get louder and more forceful as I continue to repeat, as if somehow the sheer volume will somehow trigger my mind into remembering how the rest of the song goes.

This is how I started off down the highway toward home: singing bits of song at the top of my lungs. I usually get stuck on one song bit for awhile and sing it with unending repetition until I finally get so sick of hearing myself sound like a broken record that I exert conscious effort to scrounge up something else, anything else, to sing.

For a while I can enjoy my own singing ability. Five minutes of any passenger listening to me belt out the reprise of a song in my best hearty baritone and they will be clawing up the windows to get out, or at least to be put out of their misery. This is why I restrain myself, and only sing under my breath (if at all) when I have passengers. But, even for myself, after a while my repetition starts to annoy, and all the singing can wear out my vocal cords.

I guess it was a sign of my weariness that I gave up singing before I reached Syracuse. It was obvious I needed something to keep my mind on the present, I switched on the radio. I’m not normally a radio person . . . I guess for the weird reason that if I’m not going to be shaking the glass in the windows with my own melodious solo, then I want peace and quiet.

I found something on the radio that I could stand to listen to, and made it to Syracuse without trouble.

Heading into Syracuse, I knew I had tricky driving ahead of me. Passing straight through a city on a highway doesn’t sound like a very difficult thing, but I have a particular problem with Syracuse. As 81 goes through downtown Syracuse it has a lot of merging and splitting off ramps. Unlike the traditional exits where all traffic exits and merges from the right, going through Syracuse there are lanes merging on from both the right and the left. The number of lanes is constantly changing, and you have to keep an eye on what lane you are in so that you don’t accidentally take an exit. During daylight, when properly rested, this is manageable. Not being a frequent driver in the city, there is always the danger I will misread or misunderstand a sign and so take the wrong road.

But, I’ve always had particular trouble in one spot when heading south on 81 through Syracuse. For most of the trip through Syracuse there is a line merging here from the left, and then there from the right. A lane exiting on the right at this point, and one exiting at the left somewhere up ahead. However, there is one point where the road splits in a Y. Two lanes go to the left, and two lanes go to the right. Perhaps you are familiar with this spot if you’ve ever traveled 81 south through Syracuse. Every time, without fail, this spot gives me a brain freeze. In my poor little mind 81 can’t split. A lane might come on at the right, or break away from the right . . . a lane might come on from the left, or break away at the left, but if you stay on the straight and narrow you will stay on 81. This is what my little mind likes to think, but it isn’t the case 100% of the time. The fact that there is an equal split of two lanes going to the left and two lanes going to the right causes me difficulty, but this problem is compounded because 81 is the two right most lanes. In my mind the exits by default are on the right and the main road continues on the left. These factors combine to make me have a brain freeze every time I reach that fork.

There are signs clearly marking which way 81 is going, but somehow my tradition-chained brain can’t believe what I am seeing. There is a split ahead, and 81 is going to the right. My instinct is to react with the conviction that I must be misunderstanding something. For years I’ve managed. I either consulted with a passenger who assured me that yes, we were going to the right, or else double, triple, and quadruple checked the signs before finally believing what I read. However, I’ve mentioned aloud to passengers that “Sometime I’m going to mess up and take the wrong way.” This moment of doubt and confusion has become a long standing tradition. Any time I’m heading through Syracuse on 81 south I know I’m going to reach this split and I know I will have trouble figuring out which direction I’m supposed to take. Unfortunately, I still get confused every time.

Tired, and fighting with the beginnings of a headache as I went through Syracuse last Saturday night, I thought I would be smart. I stuck to the middle of the highway. Lanes merge and break away from both the right and left, but most of it occurs on the right. So when there were four lanes I traveled in the third from the right. That way I didn’t have to deal with the breaking away of the left-most, or right-most lane. Also, I didn’t have to deal with traffic that was merging from the right-most lane. A perfect set-up, I thought. All I needed to do was coast through Syracuse and I would be home.

I knew the split in the highway was coming up. Unfortunately, in my befogged state I had forgotten that the four lanes split equally into two roads, and that I had to be in the two right-most lanes. When the signs came up telling me that I wanted to stay right to remain on 81 south I figured “Yeah, I want to stay out of the left most lane. It is probably going to break away. Most likely the right most lane is going to break away too, so staying where I am is best.” Of course the divide came up very quickly out of the dark, and I was in the wrong lane. Confusion set in. The first half of my mind said “The sign says go right.” Then the second half of my mind quickly said, “No, it’s a trick! You’re reading the sign wrong. Exits always go right. Stick to the left!” If it was daylight and I had more warning, or if I was more awake, I would have had enough time to do my quadruple check and finally come to the right conclusion that I should indeed go left. Unfortunately, I wasn’t thinking quite fast enough to give the issue four considerations before I had to make a decision. Since I wasn’t about to go careening all over the highway as my mind vacillated back and forth in indecision, I stayed in the lane I was in (second to left most) until I could come to a firm decision on the matter.

Alas, it was just as I reached the point of no return that I realized that yes, dummy, you need to be in one of the two right-most lanes. Then I had a split second to decide if I wanted to slam on the breaks and jerk to the right and try to squeak by the cement barrier and go on my merry way. I wasn’t thinking really great, but I was thinking good enough to realize that this kind of thinking was classic text book example of how to end up smashed against the cement dividers, or cause a multi-car pile up. So I continued on down the wrong road, feeling like some sense of prophetic doom had finally been sealed. I had, at long last, taken the wrong road. Now I had to get myself out of the mess.

If you take the wrong exit off a highway out in the good old open country, it is easy to swing around and get back on. The same can’t be said in the city. Heading down the two lane road into Syracuse, I had no idea how easy it would be to get back on. Logically, I told myself, if you get off, you can get back on. But whether that is easy, or self evident, when tired and driving in the dark, is another matter entirely. I came to the end of the road (which was basically an off ramp) I had a choice of turning either left or right, with no clear indication which direction I should go to get back on 81. Great. Turn right, I decided. That at least, was in the direction of home, the direction I wanted to go. I don’t know if I made the right decision. For all I know if I had turned left I would have come upon a ramp to get back up to 81 south.

I turned right and headed straight, trying to keep my eyes peeled for some sign pointing out how to get back on 81 while at the same time not running any lights or stop signs. I did indeed see a sign for 81. It said 81 north. So, the next turn was 81 north. What about 81 south? That was probably a different turn, I told myself. If there is a sign for 81 north, there should be another sign ahead for 81 south. Then, just as I was about to pass the street a second voice piped up in my head “How do you know the ramp for 81 south isn’t right next to 81 north. And if you got on 81 north you could at least simply back track to the next proper exit and turn around there. At least 81 is more familiar than this dark city streets.” I do not appreciate this mental ping-ponging. “Shut up!” I silently told myself. “You can’t be deciding at the last second to take turns. You’ll cause an accident! If I was supposed to take that turn I can always turn around and come back and take it later. For right now continue until you see an 81 south sign.”

I continued on, and a short while later I saw another sign for 81. Much to my consternation, this wasn’t a very helpful sign either. I think I have some kind of mental problem with signs. If there is any way a sign can be misunderstood, I will misunderstand. In this case it was a very big sign at an intersection pointing straight toward where you need to go to reach 81. But, as the sign was situated I couldn’t tell if it was saying that traffic on my street should continue straight, or traffic on the cross street should continue straight. The arrow on the sign was pointing up, and the most literal translation was that 81 was accessible only by ascending into the heavens. My most natural understanding was that it was pointing ahead in the direction I was going. But the sign was positioned on the left hand side of the intersection which inclined me to think it was for the cross traffic, which meant I should turn left. The text on the sign seemed to back this conclusion up. But the arrow . . . that arrow had me stumped. I was sitting there trying to figure out all these deep philosophical and logical issues when the light changed and I had to go.

I think really badly under pressure. I can act under pressure, but not think. So, in haste, I decided it was unwise to take all sorts of questionable turns. The best way to get lost is to take turn after turn in wild hope of getting unlost. Better go straight, I figured, until I had a sure sign. I went through the intersection, and promptly decided that was the stupidest bit of reasoning I had ever heard. Did I think there would be a sign for 81 at every intersection? By this time I had passed under 81 and every inch I drove was another inch away. I was pretty convinced turning left was what I should have done, and it was only perverse contrariness that made me go straight. But there was no choice but to continue on now, at least until I could find some good location to turn around.

After a good many more blocks there was no doubt that I had blown both chances to get back on 81. I should have taken the first right turn or the next left. Now I had to turn around and get back there. But there were no nice parking lots to turn around in, so I had to wait until I reached an intersection, turn left, and then circle the block until I could get back to the main street, heading in the opposite direction. Things were not so simple. Either I was really confused by that point, or it wasn’t a square block because at the intersection which I thought would bring me back into the street I wanted, was clearly not doing that. More frustration. Now I did feel like I was turned around. Leave it to a city to get me all confused. There were too many things to keep track of. I couldn’t watch for signs for 81, watch the traffic lights, count the number of streets I had passed, and remember their names, all at the same time. So, while I could count the number of turns I had taken, I didn’t really know what direction I was going, or what street (by name) I was supposed to get back on.

All of this was not handled so badly as it could have been. On my father’s side of the family there is a strong tendency to not handle “getting lost” very well. Tempers can flare after the first wrong turn, not to mention the third. But I was traveling alone, and perhaps the fact that I didn’t have an audience full of people to witness my idiocy, and the fact that I didn’t have back seat drivers chiming in with my own internal back seat driver allowed me a bit of calm. I was feeling exasperated and stupid, but I didn’t feel like I had run out of tricks yet.

Unlike the proverbial male, I’m not adverse to asking directions. However, I wasn’t going to pull to the side of the street and ask one of hoodlums wandering around on the darkened streets for directions. First decent commercial establishment I found I would stop and ask for directions. Until then, I would carry on trying to make my way back to the 81 signs.

Next left brought me to another street, but it looked no more familiar. A city at night can seem more impenetrable than a forest. At least in the forest you can stop and think. Then up ahead I saw a gas station. Perfect. I hadn’t seen it while heading in the other direction, so it confirmed my belief that I had somehow gotten at least slightly off track. But a gas station was a place to get directions. And, if nobody had any idea where 81 was (yes, I was starting to consider worse case scenarios) then I could see if there was a map in the car that I could try to figure out, or a map at the gas station I could purchase.

I pulled in to the gas station and went inside. Behind the counter were two Indian men in pressed shirts. They exuded such foreignness, sitting politely behind the counter, that my first thought was “I hope they can speak English.” I was much relieved when the man I spoke to did not give me a puzzled look but instead promptly pointed to his left and said with a slight accent, “Go that direction.”

He pointed to a four way intersection, and he seemed to be pointing toward a particular road, but I was not very happy with my success that night. So I repeated, “That direction,” and pointed toward the road I thought he meant.

“Yes. Go some three miles and then there is 81.”

Well. That was simple enough. Simple as it ought to be. But I couldn’t help asking one last time as I turned to leave, “You mean that direction, right?”

“Yes.”

The man probably thought I was thick in the head or something.

I got back in the car and headed “that” direction. The road was certainly leading out of Syracuse, but I was waiting before deciding that I was out of the woods. Who knew what other strange things I could do to myself? Clearly this wasn’t the exit I had got off.

After a few miles I was comforted by first signs telling me that I was on route 11, and then signs for 81 coming up. A sign for Cortland told me I was heading in the right direction, because Cortland is between Syracuse and home. Things were back under control. I had a throbbing headache, and had reached the grade A level of incompetence, but I was out of the city. Even if I somehow couldn’t find 81, I could take route 11 all the way home.

Which is what I almost did. I came upon this turn off road which had a sign on the other side that said 81. So, once again, I was left wondering if the sign was telling me that the turn I was just contemplating would lead me to 81 or that the next road ahead would bring me to 81. I took the turn. Not much longer after that I realized I was not supposed to take the turn, but rather continue on until the next turn. That was what the sign was telling me. Great. Reminding myself that at least I could now see 81 just above me, and I was only a few minutes away from getting on, I turned around and retraced my steps. This time I took the right turn, and got back onto 81. I rejoined 81 some distance beyond where I had exited, because Syracuse was now behind me. But I didn’t care. I was on 81, and it was a straight ride to home.

This story wouldn’t be complete without me mentioning that I almost took the wrong exit for home. I was in such a tired state that I was preparing to take an exit early. Well, you see, the town was near home, and I couldn’t exactly remember which exit number I was supposed to take. I was driving along, mulling over this quandary when the exit came up and I realized the twinkling lights below were most definitely not the ones I was expecting to see. It was then I remembered “Oh yeah, this is an exit early! How could I forget?”

That was the end of my excitements. I made it home, I’m happy to say, without further trouble. I had a splitting headache, but suffered nothing worse than injured pride. One could hope that next time I will remember that when the road splits in Syracuse 81 goes to the right. But I’ve no confidence that I will. Certainly, I’ll remember that the road splits. But, as this story has illustrated, I can reason myself into every wrong turn.

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The Vile Toilet

28th October 2003

I flushed the toilet.

But it didn’t flush.

At first I was unfazed by the toilet’s rapid filling with water. We have a new toilet, but unfortunately it is a disobedient one. Far too often it acts rebellious when asked to flush. Sometimes it will fill threateningly all the way up to the top with water, and then suck everything down as if saying, “Ha ha, scared you, didn’t I?” Then, sometimes it stubbornly refuses to flush, and a person must resort to using a plunger.

This is all very embarrassing when visitors are in the house. The toilet, like some black sheep in the family, is something we don’t want to talk about and yet almost feel as if we should mention. When company heads toward the bathroom there is the temptation to shout out “Don’t mind the toilet if it doesn’t want to flush. It does that all the time!” That seems very crass, and socially awkward. I’ve always imagined the better solution was to hang a sign over the toilet that read something like this: “The toilet you see is a very evil toilet. If it behaves wickedly and refuses to accept your deposit, then assault it with the plunger which is situated on your left, until the toilet is beaten into submission.”

The toilet has caused trouble almost from the day it was installed. From long experience I have come to handle it with a certain long-suffering patience. When it begins to fill ominously with water I glare at it without any panic, and perhaps half the time it will complete the flush at the last second, and I am spared using the plunger. However, as the toilet filled up this most recent time everything did not go sucking down. “Oh argh,” I thought. “It is supper time. I don’t want to deal with this.” But there was no choice, so I took the plunger and went to work.

One plunge and nothing happened. Must be really stuck. I plunged again, very vigorously. Still nothing. There is absolutely no movement. “That’s odd,” I think, and attack it again, plunging repeatedly. There is no success. In fact, it seems stopping up the toilet with concrete could hardly have seized everything up any worse. I am disbelieving, or unwilling to believe, because after months and months of successful plunging I can’t believe it isn’t working. The stupid thing always flushes after a good plunging. It must be calling my bluff. So I try to flush again, hoping, willing, everything to go down with a big whoosh.

No such luck.

Acck! It’s going to over flow!

I leap to frantically plunging again, plunging, plunging, but no success. Water splashes over the floor. Dang. Exactly what I didn’t want. That’s torn it all. I grab some towels and throw them down to stem the tide, then begin plunging again. More water splashes all over the place and still there is no movement in the bowel. I pull the plunger out and the muddy brown water sits there, leaden and still. This can’t be happening. And yet, way back in my mind part of me is laughing away, saying “Yes, it is happening, and what are you going to do about it?”

So I try a third, tentative attempt at flushing, but quickly abandon it when the situation has obviously not improved. More plunging, and rushing around to grab more towels. Plunging again. At last I have towel dams all over the floor with water everywhere and I’ve reached the conclusion that plunging will do absolutely no good. We have a serious plumbing problem. Only the big guns will solve this problem.

At this point the laughter in the back of my mind is bubbling near the surface. I can’t help but realize how very much this is the fulfillment of one of my childhood nightmares. Perhaps most children, when they are first learning how to use the toilet, watch as the water swirls and swirls around before whooshing all down. And as they watch, if they were like me back then, perhaps once or twice they pondered about what would happen if everything didn’t go down but instead reversed direction, filled up, and then vomited all over the place, splashing across the floor. Then I would have to run from the room in panic, with a shrill voice calling out, “I didn’t mean to do it! I didn’t mean to! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I don’t know how I did it! I just tried to flush the toilet! The toilet’s broken! Dad, dad! Help! The toilet’s splashed water all over the floor and what are we going to do?”

The shadows of this thought may have flittered through the dark recess of my mind, buried far beneath my intelligence and maturity, and it was the recognition of this which first started the laughter inside of me. Certainly I am finding something exceedingly funny about walking into the dining room where everyone is happily and blissfully engaged in eating supper and informing them that we have a four siren plumbing problem.

Below carpentry, below electrical work, below painting–plumbing is below all of these things for Dad. I helped plumb and install the toilet and unlike my childish past self, it was no longer a mysterious and dangerous machine. I figured if anyone had some brilliant idea of how to fix the problem I would follow their advice, but otherwise we would dig up the plumbing snake, and Dad would oversee me using it. I had never snaked a toilet before, and though I thought it wasn’t a complex thing, I wasn’t sure.

First thing Dad wanted to do was try his hand at plunging the toilet. I tried to tell him it wouldn’t work, but quite understandably he didn’t want to believe it was anything more than a simple problem. He set to fiercely plunging the toilet, and with no more success than me. Nothing went down, and that meant all the force of his plunging shot backward, vomiting water up over the bowl and onto the floor. He leaped back to avoid being splashed and began plunging again. And again. He tries flushing. Nothing goes. More plunging then. By this time he has pretty well lost his temper, and I am no longer able to control myself and am laughing my head off.

This may seem like very sick humor, to which I must plead guilty. I like to blame my physical humor on having watched The Three Stooges when I was little. Somehow, all sorts of frustrating and painful experiences are viewed through the prism of the ludicrous. Someone else whacking their thumb with a hammer is funny. Halfway falling off the roof is funny. (I actually did this once, and had to lay on the porch roof, where I had landed, and laugh and laugh and laugh.) Trying to plunge the unplungeable toilet is funny. It’s not that I take gleeful pleasure in the frustrations or pains of others, but rather that at the worst of times I see what a farce and a joke life is. By the time Dad took his hand at plunging the toilet I figured everything had got about as bad as it could get. Filthy mess was already all over the floor. There was no graceful saving of the situation. It was a stinking debacle. The worse that could happen now is that we would have to unbolt the toilet and physically remove the obstruction. So what more was there to do besides laugh at the whole situation?

But Dad was not laughing, and I tried to laugh as quietly, and with as much restraint, as I could manage. Eventually, I felt I had to leave him to his plunging and splashing and get a grip on myself. I walked into the dining room, muffling my laughter as best I could. Everyone, of course, wanted to know what I was finding so funny, and Mom wanted to make sure Dad was okay. No, Dad was not hurt, I said, and I tried to explain how toilet filth splashing all over the place was funny. But everyone else was sitting around the dinner table, and none of them comprehended.

After a long string of determined attempts to get the toilet to flush Dad was forced to concede the plunger was not going to solve the problem. A check of the access pipe in the basement showed no blockage down there so the next step was to take the old rusty plumbing snake and try to break up the blockage. The snake was rusty, and hard to use, and the two of us trying to force this rusting thing down the toilet sent me into fits of giggles again. It was like material for some comedy or something. Finally, after much struggle, we got the entire length of the snake down in the toilet. We hauled it all back out again, to find no success. Nothing. (Dad, probably correctly, guessed that the snake had simply double back up on itself.) So Dad found a short length of rubber hose, and tried to force that down the toilet. Still nothing.

We were now plumb out of options. (Excuse the pun.) Filthy inch, by filthy inch, every choice was taken away from us until we were reduced to bailing all of the disgusting material out of the toilet, so we could unbolt the toilet and physically see what the problem was. Indeed, no sooner than the toilet was turned over than it was evident what our problem was. How can I put this delicately? Ah . . . sewage matter was compacted inside the toilet, bulging out from the bottom in one thick mass. The drain pipe was fine and clear, but somehow, some fateful turd (there, I said it) had become lodged, and it is unclear how many loads after it became stuck as well, until it was quite a compacted mess filling up a good section of the pipe. Apparently for a while there was just enough free space for the water to slowly leak through. Enough space until my batch came along.

In the end we had to haul the toilet all the way outside, hook up a hose, and power wash the thing to blast all of the blockage out. Then we mopped up the bathroom, and remounted the toilet. Only after that could I wash up and finally eat my supper. Dad spent a good deal of time afterward going around, spraying everything with disinfectant. Such plumbing jobs makes you want to do that.

Our toilet is now, officially, the most vile contraption. The exit chute isn’t big enough, and the toilet doesn’t have enough vigor in its flush. There are too many bends in the pipe work before everything gets out of the toilet and down the drain. Thus, I feel, with a certain stirring of dread, that it is only a matter of time before this whole escapade is repeated again.

There is no way it can be as funny next time.

Working . . . In The Mud

19th October 2003

Fall is the time when people around here start thinking (sometimes belatedly) about preparing for winter. Last winter K.D., a neighbor living a street over, had problems with her barn pump freezing up. As this fall came around, she thought it was a good idea to figure out what was causing her pump to freeze up, and to fix the problem. So K.D. called up Larry F., who has heavy equipment and does this sort of work. His job was to come up and dig a drainage ditch so K.D. didn’t have so much trouble with water over the winter, and also fix the problem with her pump freezing.

I wouldn’t even have come into the story except some of the digging work had to be done inside the barn, and Larry couldn’t go there with his backhoe. Larry is in his late fifties or early sixties, has a bad knee, a bad back, and perhaps some other bad joints as well. He is also carrying around a sizeable stomach. All things combined, he isn’t in any condition to go around with pick and shovel, digging through compacted wet clay and rocks. This is where I came in.

K.D. called up this Monday, asking for me. She wanted to know if I could come over then, or on Tuesday, to do some ditch digging. I don’t like short notice on jobs, I don’t like taking time away from my writing, and I don’t care for digging ditches, but she said Larry F. was coming over and could I do some digging? First thing I did was see if Lachlan would be willing to do the work. But Lachlan is still of school age, and so has homeschooling to do, not to mention the work he does for people. He doesn’t do ditch digging as well as I do, and he didn’t want to do ditch digging, either. So, after a moment’s pause in which I mustered up my resolution (and resignation), I said I would do it tomorrow.

Tuesday afternoon at one found me over at K.D.’s house, starting the project . . . a project that would end up being one of those “Projects” which has a capital letter. As soon as I arrived I knew there would be trouble. It was one of those jobs where no one knew exactly what was causing the problem, how to fix it, or even all the facts of the case. The problem was that K.D.’s faucet in her barn was freezing up in the winter. The proposed solution was to dig down in the earth and lay some board insulation, wrap the pipe with heating tape and bury everything back up. An unknown factor was exactly where the pipes were underground, and how deep they went. Larry guessed the water was coming in under the back wall of the barn, and that the faucet was only a six foot length of pipe.

It is like some subsection of Murphy’s Law: When someone is uncertain about the problem, guesses about the solution, or assumes about facts in the case, they will always be wrong, wrong, and wrong. Whenever someone says “I guess” or “probably” and then directs me to start digging, I must mentally brace myself for the fact that my work will, somehow, end up being worthless because their “guess” or “probably” turned out wrong. That did end up being the case. By the time the entire project was over we knew that the water line didn’t come in from the back of the barn, and the faucet was on an eight foot, not six, length of pipe. And we couldn’t just put insulation down because I had standing water at one foot depth.

When I reached standing water Larry decided the drain off wasn’t working right. We spent some time trying to clean out what we thought was the drain line (but later turned out not to be). After it became clear we would have to dig up the entire line to get the drain working it had grown late. Larry said he would come back later in the week and dig out the drain line. He left, and I finished digging out a drainage ditch in K.D.’s side shed before going home. I hoped that was the end of the matter for me. Larry was going to come back and dig everything up with his backhoe. I wasn’t need for that. But I had the gnawing suspicion that things would not turn out as planned.

It came as no great surprise when Kim called up Friday afternoon and said Larry was over at her place digging, but he needed help. It was awful short notice, she said, but could I please come down and help? So I did. When I arrived Larry had already dug up most of the drain line. However, he had discovered that the line was not going into the barn the way he had thought, and in fact wasn’t actually going into the barn. Also, he couldn’t dig into the barn the way he had wanted because he didn’t want to bust up the foundation. I would need to dig inside the barn.

Larry is a good natured guy, and having been a physical laborer all his life, knows what ditch digging is like, and was apologetic about needing me to do so much digging by hand, and thankful that I was there to get down in all the muck and water. It was nice to know he wasn’t willy-nilly having me dig through wet clay and rocks completely unaware of how much I had to bust a gut to do it, but his appreciation didn’t make it any easier. The length of ditch inside the barn was some six or seven feet long and by the time I was finished it was about knee deep at the faucet and a little over waist deep where it met up with the foundation. By this point it was again late, so we called off the work again. Larry said if he needed me again he would call. The way he said the “if” it sounded more like, “probably, almost certainly, but since it is so unpleasant to be bent double using a short handled shovel in a narrow deep muddy ditch, I don’t want to say I’m certainly going to need you tomorrow.”

Eight thirty Saturday morning K.D. called and said Larry was going to need me in about half an hour. I ate breakfast and went over to see what more work I was needed for. Thankfully, all I was required to do was minor things like climbing in the ditch to lay some pipe, haul some crushed stone, and fill dirt in where Larry’s backhoe couldn’t reach. After three days and hours of work, the “simple” project of repairing the spigot and digging some drainage ditches was complete.

Applesauce Sunday

11th October 2003

Last Sunday was a day to make applesauce. It is a group effort due to the amount of labor involved in cutting up all the apples, cooking them down to sauce, sending the cooked pulp through the Squeez-o and then canning the applesauce. It becomes something of an all afternoon festival around here.

I like tending apple trees. I like apple pie, and I like apple crumble, and lots of other apple desserts. I also like fresh applesauce. But I don’t really like canning. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it’s because canning has the appearance of being very fussy-fussy. You must heat this up just so, cool in a particular manner, and be careful to do everything right so the jars seal. Though I know it really isn’t so very hard, it looks like such a hassle that I avoid it.

For the applesauce making and canning we split up the work. Laborers are needed to cut up apples, stir the cooking apples, operate the Squeez-o, and can. Each of us gravitates toward a certain job. I mostly chop up apples as fast as I can and operate the Squeez-o. Teman and Titi head the actual canning operation, and everyone else helps out by either cutting up apples, stirring the pots of cooking apples, or helping with the Squeez-o.

It is a hectic scene: The table is littered with cutting boards and overflowing scraps of apples. Containers of applesauce are positioned here and there, along with strainers full of washed apples, and bowls full of chopped apples. There are pots of apples cooking on the stove, and pots of water boiling. So much steam is being emitted by the cooked apples and the water pots that all the kitchen windows have steamed up.

If you’ve ever gone on a canning blitz, you know what it is like.

Teman likes to say “Let’s rock!” And we do. Someone puts on some fast-paced, somewhat rocky music, turns it up just a little loud, and away we go. Soon steam is billowing everywhere, and the delicious smell of fresh hot applesauce is filling the kitchen. As the hours pass and our full tilt pace continues, things get more and more messy. Water from the dripping strainer gets all over the floor to make a muddy mess, and the apple garbage bits eventually overflow from the table and spill onto the floor as well. The constant pouring of hot applesauce from one container to another as we shuffle it around leads to splatters of applesauce over almost every counter and the table.

We, I confess, end up being rather barbaric. I mean, when all of that wonderful smelling applesauce is pouring fresh and steaming out of the Squeez-o, how can you resist not having some? Of course, civilized people don’t stick their fingers into the dish so they can have a “taste.” When we are at our worst there is a kitchen full of people going around scooping fresh applesauce out of the dish and stuffing it in their mouths and saying “Hmmm! Delicious. Excellent. This is sooo good.” And if that isn’t enough, we allow ourselves to have as many bowlfuls as we want when there is a lull in the work, or when all the work is done.

But don’t worry, all of our germs are killed by the canning process. You don’t have to be afraid of eating some applesauce, too.

After all the applesauce is made, and after every jar is put away, there is still one chore left: washing up. Often someone will pick up the chore, but this past Sunday the canning ran very late, so there was very little time to try to wash the dishes before supper. While we were canning, Mom was making roast chicken for supper. Canning went late, and supper was late, too. It was my turn to wash dishes that night, so I got a late start on dish washing because of the late supper, and I had roast chicken and canning dishes to wash.

Don’t worry–I’m a big boy. I handle it. Being philosophical, I say it could have been worse. At least the chicken dishes weren’t burnt or in need of any real scrubbing. There were only a lot of dishes, not a lot of real hard-to-wash dishes. Still, I was very glad when the last dish was done, and there was no table or counter overflowing with more work.

Kafkaesque

5th October 2003

I’ve read Frans Kafka’s The Trial. I don’t care much for Kafka’s writing style so I haven’t gone on to read any more of his works. Though I don’t care for The Trial there is a certain uniqueness about the style in which it was written. Kafka’s method in The Trial is perhaps almost brilliantly representative of what a nightmare feels like: confusing, vague, frustrating, and completely frightening.

Besides being an embodiment of Nightmare, or perhaps precisely because of this, The Trial effectively captures the essence of Institution as that monolithic thing. This idea was an abstract one for me, until, while looking through some legal documents, I was struck by similarities to the world of K in The Trial. At first thought the idea that we live in such a twisted world as the one K inhabits seems ludicrous. But I wonder if we are simply numb and blind to see what is around us.

What do I mean by this? Well, what did K face in The Trial? He faced the mysterious and monolithic Government, the all-powerful and hardly defined thing. He was charged with a crime, but he did not know what that crime was, and when he tried to defend himself he was met by confusion. In a similar way, we spend much of our lives bound in agreements we had no say in, and living under rules and regulations we have no understanding of. With every new lawsuit and with every new corporate lawyer society is becoming bound by a morass of laws which we don’t understand, much less affirm as fair or right.

I could lay out an entire case along this line by using the example of End User License Agreements, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and various other things which have sprung up with the modern computer age. But I will not go into those now, in part because discussing such things in detail is a complex subject, and in part because they were not the issues which made me think in Kafkaesque terms.

I started thinking about how we’re all a bunch of Ks walking around in Kafka’s world when I was recently looking over some banking documents. Late this summer I opened a new bank account and at that time I was handed one of the traditional packets of rules and regulations that exactly how many people actually read? Few, of course, read the tiny print, but I decided to make an effort to be informed, especially since it was my money they had.

I say an effort because their intricately wrought document with its various permutations would confuse and perhaps put to sleep anyone besides a lawyer. Trying to follow every if, and, or, but was a dizzying task. I gave up trying to read every word and understand every sentence, and instead settled for a general understanding of each section. Then I thought, isn’t this a sad state of affairs? What have we come to that we can no longer just put our money in the bank and get a card with five simple rules of business on it? What does it mean when the average educated and intelligent man struggles to understand the laws and regulations under which his money is being governed and controlled?

I learned these important and unhappy things from the banking documents I read:

–I have as few rights as the banks can give me.

–The banks have amassed as many rights to themselves as they can manage. I’m not exactly sure what limitations there are on the bank’s ability to arbitrarily impose new fees, or set up new banking regulations.

–They aren’t required to honor a blinking check I write if it isn’t cashed in one of their banks. Naive little boy that I am, I couldn’t believe I was reading the clause right, and had to get a second opinion. Alas, I was not reading it wrong. The bank may cash a check I write out to someone if it is cashed at a different bank, but if they refuse to do so I can’t hold them liable for dishonoring my check.

This illustrates points one and two: The banks have a lot of power, and I’ve nothing. I don’t see the rightness, or fairness, in the checking regulation at all. If I set up a checking account and put money into it, if the bank accepts me as a checking account customer, they should be required to cash any check I write. It’s my money, isn’t it? I’m the boss, right?

Apparently not. And, much like K who started out so confident of his ability to get justice, only to have his confidence crushed in despair, I’m not convinced I’ve the right to anything besides remaining silent. If I ever accuse the bank of doing something wrong, or failing to fulfill their duty, I’ll simply learn of another law that says I can’t do what I’m doing, or a rule that says the bank can do what its doing.

I suppose I could always hide my money under the mattress.

Frost

3rd October 2003

It would be so nice if frost were one of those predictable things. Garden planning would make great advancements if the effective beginning and end of the growing season were known with the certainty of the yearly appearance of holidays. Unfortunately, the date of the last frost of spring and the first frost of fall are fickle. Deviously so.

When dealing with frost it is always best to be paranoid. In the spring never think it is too late for one more frost to come. And in the fall never think it too early. You laugh? Don’t. Conventional wisdom around here is that frost can come as late as the end of May and as early as the Labor Day holiday at the beginning of September. Yet, conventional wisdom was blown out of the water last year when we had a frost the second week into June. That was a day lacking in humor, unless you appreciate black humor.

I do all of this moaning and groaning more by way of remembrance than any current complaint. Today we had our first fall frost this year. This is late, very late for us, so I’ve no excuse to whine. I don’t think we’ve ever managed to last until October before without a frost. (Somehow, I find this as some sort of recompense for having such a brutally cold winter last year.) For once, every fruit and vegetable has run its course. The garden is done and ready to die away and await next year.

Sometimes frost can sneak up and surprise you, but this time we had good warning. The weather people weren’t just predicting temperatures in the low 40′s or high 30′s (at which time we start taking defensive measures around here), they were predicting a hard freeze. This meant temperatures dropping down into the 20′s. By October most everything is out of the garden, so the only thing that needed saving was the apple harvest. A light frost is supposed to improve the taste of apples. A hard freeze damages the fruit.

Excepting the apple tree that was partly squashed by the fall of the big willow tree, we’ve had a solid, bordering on stellar, apple harvest this year. Having watched the apples go from blossoms to ripe fruit, this was my pride and joy. Letting all the apples end up frozen was not acceptable. So, yesterday afternoon became a last minute scramble to harvest all the apples.

I don’t know what variety of apple our mature trees bear. Two of the three trees bear an apple that is similar to the Northern Spy, but looks a bit different and tastes a little more sour, so I don’t think we have two actual Spy bearing trees. The last mature apple tree is the oldest, and looks rather wizened and decrepit. To my constant surprise it produces well, showing great hardiness. This year it produced better than either of the other trees. I’ve no idea was variety this last tree is. Probably some lost breed, long forgotten. It seems well suited for a colder climate because it flowers slightly later than the other two trees, and produces a late ripening, hardy, fruit. Its fruit has a tendency to remain green, and often times looks a bit ugly, though the apples can get quite large in size. They tend to taste sour, and are very hard, but they make excellent baking apples. Since my preferred way to have apples is in a pie, apple sauce, or any other baked manner, this suits me fine.

The apple picking yesterday certainly could have been worse, but the weather wasn’t optimal. It was commented yesterday that we experienced every type of weather in the space of the day. There was a bit of rain, thunder, sunshine, and a good deal of frozen rain and hail. It was, I suppose, a classic fall day, but all the same a less than pleasant time to be up in apple trees, trying to get all the fruit down.

The earlier ripening trees had dropped about half of their fruit in the past several weeks and we had picked the apples up right along. It was fairly quick progress to finish the first two trees off. However, just as we were starting on the last, oldest–and thus hardest to climb–tree, a frozen rain and thunderstorm moved in.

We saw it come down the valley. It was quite an amazing sight. We were standing at an angle to the front as it came in and it looked like this great sheet of white advancing over the tree-covered hill. The front of the wall billowed forward like some grasping and devouring thing, coming swiftly over the land. We stood, squinting at it and wondering aloud, “Rain? Snow?” And in the end it was a downpour of frozen rain. Lightening flashed and thunder rumbled.

Caught by the weather, and there was still the most heavily laden tree waiting to be picked. I stood, looking at the tree and wavering between going inside and waiting for the storm to blow over and picking through the bad weather. The reasonable side of me said that picking up in a tree during a frozen rain and thunderstorm was not intelligent, or conducive to long life. The piggish side of me said it didn’t care, what were the chances of being struck by lightning anyhow, and why not pick through the storm and get this job done with? So I climbed up in the tree and began picking, feeling a bit guilty, but not so guilty that I got down and called off the operation.

The storm did blow over after a short while, leaving the tree wet. Even with a wind breaker I was a bit damp myself. Apple harvesting is a joyful time for me, but sitting up in a wet tree, being wet, with wet hands that are cold, makes the experiences less joyful. Still, not all of my delight could be extinguished because the apples were so large I was willing to go through a bit of discomfort to have them all safely brought inside.

I don’t know how many bushels total we brought in. We put the apples into old 10 lb. onion bags. We took in something like 24 bags yesterday, and we’ve probably used another half dozen onion bags worth of drops over the past weeks. I don’t know if there is an apple to onion weight equivalent, but if there is then we harvested something like 300 lbs. of apples. (And, I might wonder, how many more apples might have it been if I didn’t have to lop off those limbs this spring? No, I won’t go there.)

A sudden influx of 300 lbs. of apples was not exactly how I wanted to do things, but I have a tendency to not make time for projects, so it is probably best that my hands were forced. However, we now have a heap of apples in the house, waiting to be made into apple sauce and other baked goodies. Titi figures we have enough jars for five afternoons worth of applesauce making. Where am I going to find five afternoons free for making applesauce?

Needless to say, the apples are still heaped in the den, making me feel guilty. Rather than start working on them I wrote this.

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Isabella

23rd September 2003

Contrary to the great hype coming from some quarters, Hurricane Isabella

As The Farm Turns

17th September 2003

My little chicky-poos are growing up. They aren’t even chicky-poos anymore. “Louts” is more the word that comes to mind when I see them gamboling around the chicken yard. They haven’t reached their full weight, but it is already apparent why they’re called heavy breeds. They look a bit like goons in comparison to the Araucana hens.

Eating is the primary concern of every chicken, but this is especially true of my chicks–which, not being chicks any longer, I should call them the Speckled Sussex and Partridge Rocks. They are on the constant lookout for goodie handouts, and will try their hardest to convince you that they are starving. It doesn’t matter if they have feed laying in their feeders and scattered over the ground–the minute they hear someone come out the back door they’ll come charging up to the fence line, crowding together as if their starvation had progressed to such a dire state they were about to start collapsing.

I’m beyond being hoodwinked by these antics, but I can’t help feeling a bit pleased by their eagerness. When I come into the chicken yard the Speckled Sussex and Partridge Rocks, followed by the hens, come sprinting out from the shade under the weeds. If chickens could go “Yahoo!” the Speckled Sussex would. They dash like a football quarter-back heading for a goal and then come to a dead stop in front and all around me. They mill about and get under foot, waiting for some great handout, wanting to be the first to get some, and the one to get the most. To avoid tripping over feathered back ends and stepping on toes, I try to take a big step over the crowd and then run for the chicken house, crowd stampeding behind me.

The Speckled Sussex in particular are not good about getting out of the way. I go up into the chicken coop to get the food and they come up the ramp behind me so that when I open the door to come out they get knocked off. They stand on top of the overturned feeders so I have to knock them off to right everything. They stand in the feeders so that they fall over when I must move the dishes, and they all crowd in the way so I have a hard time filling the troughs. And once all the feed is put out some of them get bored/disappointed with the feed and decide to see if I might be willing to hand out something better.

At this stage in their growth there is a marked difference between the Speckled Sussex and the Partridge Rocks. Not only in size, where the Speckled Sussex seem to have a slight advantage, but also in personality. The Speckled Sussex were raised in the same pen as the Partridge Rocks, and handled in the same manner, but the Speckled Sussex are much more friendly. The Partridge Rocks don’t want me to touch them, but the Speckled Sussex don’t mind at all. The Partridge Rocks avoid me when it’s clear I don’t have a hand-out, but the Speckled Sussex will hang out with me, and will even perch on my lap for a short while.

Some chickens are friendly because they are smart and friendly. I’m afraid I can’t say this about the Speckled Sussex. I haven’t studied them enough to offer a conclusive judgement, but I suspect they are bone stupid and lazy, and that is the real reason they come across as so friendly. The Partridge Rocks seem to spend more time wandering around the chicken yard foraging. The Speckled Sussex spend more time camped out at the key feeding areas, and it takes them a long time to figure out I’m not handing something out. If I squat down on their level at least a few of the Speckled Sussex will gather round. First thing they do is check to see if I’ve something in my hands, but when they are empty they begin to peer at the rest of me, as if wondering if parts of me are edible, or if food will somehow materialize in my presence. If I talk to them in my high chicken talking voice they peer at me very intently, as if trying to understand, and give their deep chiirr-chiirr in return.

I say, “Hi, guys. How are you doing, guys? Are you big and fat? Are you happy?”

They peer, blink, peer again, then go “Chiirr, chiirr, chiirr.”

If I pet them they don’t mind, thought sometimes they seem to wonder what strange thing I’m trying to communicate, or if perhaps I’ve gone mildly insane. They don’t show the same interest in hopping on my lap as they used to in their younger days, but if I pick them up and put them in my lap they will sit there for a short while, until they are bored and decide to see if they can find something good to eat elsewhere. The Partridge Rocks, on the other hand, are convinced I am unintelligible, and dangerous besides, and so they avoid me.

The Speckled Sussex might spend their lives wandering around in a fog of non-comprehension, but I like them anyhow. Whatever causes their good-natured diposition and friendliness, I like it. They seem to remember that I was the one who raised them, and act as if they appreciate my presence. This is much more pleasing than the air of shunning disinterest from the Partridge Rocks. And besides, who wouldn’t like a chicken that seems to try very hard to understand what you’re saying?

****

The chickens have such an easy life, especially the Speckled Sussex and Partridge Rocks. At least the Araucana hens have the chore of laying an egg every day or so. For my meaty boys life is a long vacation. They eat first thing when they get up, and then wander around all day, hunting up other good things to eat and sitting in the shade, enjoying their full crop. When evening comes around they can be seen sitting in the long late shadows, sprawled out in comfort like this place is some resort.

The most tragic thing to occur in their lives was when I switched their feed from growing mash to layer pellets. All the chickens were agreed that the growing mash tasted much better, but I dislike feeding it to them. It is slightly more expensive than layer pellets, but more to the point, the chickens are horribly wasteful when they eat mash. They think mash tastes wonderful, but they prefer to eat only the most excellent bits. Thus, they scatter this fine silt food all over the place so they can pick out the itty-bitty bits of corn they like, and whatever other microscopic bits strike their fancy. Most of the rest of the mash goes to waste, gets rained on, and then begins to ferment.

I don’t know why, but for some reason fermenting, rotting, chicken mash stinks somewhat comparably to raw sewage. By the middle of the summer, it was gag inducing. The stench was as if something had died and was rotting right in front of the chicken house. It was a mucky slimy mess which I was loathe to walk through, and desperate to be done with. Soon as the last of the mash was used up, I switched back to the layer pellets the chickens were eating before the chicks came. Nobody was happy about the switch–except me. The stench has gone away now, and the chickens have short memories. They are eating pellets.

The one chick/chicken that is not looking so wonderful is the special breed. I still haven’t decided if the chicken is a Silver Polish, Crevecoeurs, or Golden Polish. Previously I was leaning against Golden Polish, but now I’m wondering if that is what the guy (I think it is male) is. I would really call his feathering black and brown, but maybe someone would call it golden. In any case, I don’t think he’s silver.

But that’s all beside the point. What I was going to say is that the chicken isn’t looking beautiful. He’s supposed to have a crown of feathers, but either he’s having a bad hair day all year, or else other chickens find his head an interesting pecking object. Rather than looking like a regal king he looks like some electrocuted friar. He only has a ring of feathers around his head, and a bald top. He looks rather bedraggled and doleful.

One thing is really annoying me about this batch of chicks . . . they haven’t caught on to roosting up on the perches. Many of them still sleep in the nesting houses. By this time much of the hay is kicked out. The rest has been throughly trampled down and pooped all over. This means the eggs aren’t laid in nice, neat hay but practically in a pile of manure. I’m grinding my teeth wanting to clean the coops out, but I know it’s wasted effort until the chicks are gone. Anything I do before then is just wasted effort.

About another month before the meaty boys go in the freezer I tell myself.

****

Other bits of farm related news for the mildly curious:

–My little new apple tree was chomped by a deer again. Not so bad as the first time, but it seems I should take up hunting.

–A good apple harvest is coming in on the full grown apple trees. I am very happy. Estatic, maybe.

–Half of my corn produced, the second half I planted later hasn’t, and won’t. Part of the reason might be due to the fact I didn’t mulch or manure it. The corn I did harvest tasted great. The fact that I didn’t get more because of my own failed labor makes me feel bad.

–A good squash harvest is coming in.

–We’re getting tons of cucumbers, due to the plentiful rain. Titi has been making batch after batch of dill pickles. We’ve been eating them almost as fast.

–Grape harvest is a bust, due to the rain, I think. All the concord grapes shriveled up–because of a fungus, maybe. My newer grape vines were attacked by Japanese Beatles, but the beatles didn’t come until later in the summer, so I don’t think the damage was too serious.

–I still haven’t mowed the field or sharpened the chain saw.

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Labor Day Weekend

4th September 2003

As I mentioned in a previous letter, the 4th of July and the adjacent weekend were times for visiting with my father’s side of the family. This Labor Day it was my mother’s side of the family. This gathering was not so big as the July reunions, but it was held at our place.

While my father’s immediate family has stayed in the general New York-Pennslyvania area, my mom’s side of the family has spread out a good deal more. This Labor Day weekend only those who were within a few hours driving distance came: both of my mom’s sisters with their families, and my grandparents with my great-grandmother. All together we made a group of twenty-something, which constitutes a manageable gathering that still rates as a hoopla.

Certainly for us this Labor Day gathering felt like more of a deal than either the reunion on the 4th of July, or the one on the following weekend. This time we were responsible for food preparation, entertainment, and making the place look nice. Delegation helps relieve some of the burden, and not worrying about making this place look wonderful relieves some of the stress. Being male (or just being me), I don’t fret about these things as much as other people do, anyhow. I wanted everything to be as good as possible, and for everyone to enjoy themselves as much as possible, but I figured we would live with any kinks in the plan.

The biggest issue of making this place look nice was actually making this place safe for my great-grandmother. Though some of us around here wish to be neat, and though some of us try to be somewhat organized, the general state of affairs is that we are collectively sloppy. We have things stacked here, and things stacked there, and half-finished projects and unfiled stuff lying all over the place. We all just wander around and step over the various junk, but this doesn’t work when you have a 96-year-old lady coming to visit. So it was general clean-up before Labor Day. The leftover lumber on the porch was moved off. The most obnoxious pieces of leftover sheet rock that was supposedly being saved for the next great project was also moved. The remaining garbage from the roofing project was also taken from the porch. Everything was swept. By the end of clean-up, the front of our house looked halfway (but no more than halfway) respectable.

I was also in charge of cooking the chicken and sausages for the big gathering on Saturday. So long as the weather was good I intended to cook the meat outside over my famous, or infamous, fire pit. (See this letter and this letter if you want to refresh your memory). But rather than repeat my previous experiences I decided to take a go at improving my outdoor culinary endeavors. Mulling the matter over, I thought “Why stick with a measly little fire pit? Wouldn’t it be so much easier, and so much more pleasant if you had a great stone stove which kept the fire raised up to where you could work on it while standing erect?” Yes, a great idea. It would be fabulous.

I started this stone building extravaganza on Friday. If you have ever worked with stone, or ever seen someone work with stone, you know one day is not enough time to build a massive fire stand. The great wall of China was not built in one day. But I am a man who has hope ever springing eternal. And even when my more rational side piped up that I wasn’t going to finish, I figured I could level off whenever I ran out of time, and any improvement I had over the pit would be an improvement indeed.

This fact, at least, was true. I didn’t get anywhere near finishing my wonderfully imagined stone fire holding monolith thingy. I only filled in my initial pit and built up the surrounding walls so the fire could sit at ground level–maybe a foot’s height in stone, maybe a little less. I leveled this off, and it looked pretty decent to me. Sounds like a pathetic amount of work, but consider I had 10-12 linear foot of stone I was laying, and I had to haul the stones from around the property and lay them out myself. Stone work can be fun if you have all the time in the world, but as it was I felt very rushed.

I tell myself all is well that ends well. But I also say I’m going to finish my great stone structure . . . sometime. Yeah, sometime when I’ve lots of time. The small amount of work I’ve already done has given me just a taste of how much more difficult stone laying is the higher you go. One foot isn’t bad at all, but I figure I need to go three feet for a good height, and the higher I go the more tricky it gets. Well, that’s for some other time.

I do think the little I did, changing my fire pit to a fire place, was a great improvement. I seemed to have a much easier time starting my fire. The fire also seemed to burn more evenly. Or else I’m just imagining it all.

Cooking so much food for so many people could have been a very stressful experience, especially considering my smoke blasted, snot nosed experiences of yesterdays. But for the cooking on Saturday I had expert help. Tony, one of my uncles, was once a restaurant proprietor and is a barbecuer. He gave me a hand, but in the end he was so much quicker and on top of things I ended up giving him a hand, and he did most of the work. I don’t know if it was because I had built the fireplace up or because I had help, but somehow I didn’t get myself blasted with smoke this time. It was actually a pretty pleasant experience.

Amazing . . .

The food was cooked well, too. This was due a great deal to the fact that I had help. The more hands there were to turn the sausage and chicken, the fewer pieces were burned. As it was, the chicken was done near excellent, and only a few sausages were burnt. The meat was delicious.

Later in the day there was a marshmallow roast for those interested. When not eating, people were talking, playing cards, or else playing computer games. All around everyone had a good time and plenty to eat.

Blackberries, a Bear, and Bees

26th August 2003

The afternoon of the 17th Titi, Lachlan, Cadie, Collin, Evan, Justin, and myself went picking blackberries. K.D, a friend of ours a street down, has blackberries all over her back hill. She lets us go picking every year. To our amazement, she doesn’t even like blackberries herself.

Some parts of New York State are absolutely picturesque, and the view from K.D’s back hill is just that. After you’ve gone through her goat pasture and climbed over the fence, the mostly overgrown pasture goes up and up. If you look back as you climb you can see a broad valley spreading out below, and the hills ringing it on every side. Somehow, the trees on the hills manage to hide most of the roads and houses, so the land looks almost as uninhabited as the area might have been a hundred years ago.

Once the hill has finished rising it levels out to a large field that covers the top of the hill. From here you can stand and get a view of the sprawling vista. Though there is a road not too far below, and houses not much further beyond, the field on top of that hill feels like it is isolated out in the middle of nowhere. Standing in the middle of that field, it feels as if you are standing on top of the world. I find it a liberating and exhilarating feeling. Peaceful. Quiet. I like to think that when I get rich and famous I’ll be able to convince K.D to sell off the second half of her property so I can build up on top of the hill. (At the same time the other half of my brain is thinking about how outrageously expensive it would be to build way up on top of the hill and why on earth would I want to spend my money doing that?)

The year before last we picked a large amount of blackberries off the hill. If my memory serves me right, we took in a total of 72 cups in one trip. Compared to that, last year was an utter failure. The dry weather last year decimated the crop . . . there were only a few scraggly berries . . . nothing worth picking. This year we were hoping that with all the rain the blackberry crop would be very good. The sight of the first bushes quickly proved us right. The blackberries were large, fat, and plentiful. The initial signs were pointing to an even better harvest than the year of 72 cups.

But there was something else different about this year. As we were starting up the hill K.D called out that we should keep our eyes open for a bear. She said the people over on the other side of the hill had seen one moving through a few days ago.

It’s not every day there is a bear about. They are quite rare around here. Most likely the bear was feasting on the berries. And, most likely, we wouldn’t see hide nor hair of the creature. If the bear wasn’t long gone, the sound of us stamping and tromping up the hill would probably scare it off. Still, being an older brother, I thought it my duty to see how much fear and terror I might be able to milk out of the youngest kids present. Alas, Evan and Justin were too old to show much fear at the prospect of seeing a bear. Perhaps they were able to reason well enough to figure the bear would not stick around, or else they simply figured that big old Rundy would keep them safe. In either case, after a few suggestive jibes I realized I would not get anywhere and so gave the subject up.

Still–I’ll confess–deep down inside me I was hoping to see the bear. I thought it would be pretty neat.

We picked our way up through the field and went on into the woods. Picking blackberries in this house is a semi-competitive event. Somehow, I am the best blackberry picker. I say somehow because I don’t know why I hold this position. I’ve no secret trick or special skill and I’m always somewhat surprised when the picking is done and I’ve the most berries.

It is the unsaid goal of everyone to unseat Rundy from the position of most picked berries. I’ve gone three years without being bested, but they have time yet. Most of them are still young.

Going into the idea of getting the most berries picked is finding the best patch of berries. Nobody hogs a patch to themselves, and nobody leaves a patch unpicked while searching out for a better one, but eyes are always open for the next strategic move. In the field we all generally pick in the same area, but once we get up into the woods the blackberries are spread out all over the place, and the most efficient method of picking is for us to split up on either side of the trail and spread out, picking over as much an area as we can handle.

The general rule is to stay within shouting distance. The blackberries seem to go on forever, the thick patches spread out so that you are leap-frogging from one bunch to another, always going further. A person could wander on all day (so it seems), so we call out with a shout to one another to make sure no one has wandered too far off. If everyone were competent adults who could drive themselves home we could each wander off our own way and come home once our bucket was filled. As it is, we try to keep close enough together to share intelligence and not leave anyone too far behind.

As well as keeping tabs on where everyone else is located, the shouting is also used as an attempt to gauge how well the pickings are elsewhere on the hill. There is slight variation in the quality of picking at different locations, and there are a very few “super” spots, but I think most perceived differences in picking quality are only imagined. I only call out to other people on occasion to see how good their picking is, but I overhear all the shouting from other people. The dialogue is usually something like this:

“Hey!”

“What?”

“How good is it over there on your side of the trail?”

“Pretty good!”

“How good?”

“Well, it’s in patches, but the berries are really big!”

“Oh.”

“What about you?”

“Mine’s good. I can’t pick fast enough.”

Often the description offered by both berry pickers sounds better than the spot at which I am picking, but by now I’m nearly 100% certain that most of the difference is merely pyschological perception. With all the people that have acclaimed their great pickings–either the spots they have aren’t so much better than mine, or else they’re much worse pickers, because they never come back with the heaping buckets I would expect from the luscious patches of berries they were shouting about. So I keep to my patch until it is finished out, and if someone is hollering that they really want more help on their wonderful spot, I’ll move on over there next.

The worse thing for me about picking blackberries is finding the time to do it. The actual picking I find a grand old country kind of thing to do. It is fun and peaceful up on the hill picking. It feels like a time out in the wild–well, out in the woods, at least. There is something pleasant and uncomplicated about moving amongst the trees, walking in and out of the shadows. Only sometimes do I wish other people would stop shouting so much and let me pick in peace and quiet.

I said the worse thing about picking blackerries is finding the time, because I must let something else slide if I am going to give up a weekend afternoon to pick. Lost time being the worst thing about blackberry picking might surprise some of you. What about the thorns, you say. Yes, well, there are a lot of thorns. If you have a delicate constitution it’s best not to go. It doesn’t bother me most of the time. I wear jeans, a long sleeved shirt, and a hat. I still get a couple of bloody scrapes on my legs, and a few on my arms, but mostly it is almost unnoticed scratches on my hands.

As far as thorns go, there are two things I really don’t like. The first is when a thorn sticks me good and deep, straight in, and then breaks off. This hurts, and the thorns can be hard to get out. Second, it annoys me very much when the blackberries are growing so thick that they tower over my head and catch my hat. When the thorns get this vigorous and thick they can bind up my hat and shirt so thoroughly that I feel quite impeded in my berry picking. I must stop what I’m doing and unwind and wrench myself free. This is all very hard on my clothing. My shirt was looking threadbare and my pants quite worn by the time we were finished that day.

This year the picking was going well for everyone. We were making slow progress up the hill because there was so many blackberries to pick, and some people were growing impatient. We usually make a full circuit up the hill and down again, but we were were going so slow some people were afraid we’d run out of time before we completed the trip. I wasn’t worried about this. I thought we had great pickings, and I was filling my bucket up so fast I thought I had a good chance of topping it off before we made it to the halfway point in our journey.

At the quarter mark everyone was called back to the trail so we could uniformly begin the next leg of the trip. From that point on everyone else was eager to quickly go up to the halfway point where they knew there was another good patch. But I found more berries near where we had all gathered. Everyone else hurried up, but I stayed where I was. There weren’t “heaps and heaps of berries,” but I had steady picking, and the berries I picked were big and juicy. The thorns were also exceptionally thick, and this was frustrating me, but the berry size was filling up my bucket quickly, so I found it worth my while to keep fighting away. Everyone else was going up, but I thought it madness to move on when I could still see plenty more good picking. If they were in a hurry, let them hurry, I thought. I would catch up with them once my bucket was full. The bucket was filling up in good time.

I picked away until I heard some very distant shouting. Great, I thought, a bit irritated. Now they’re wondering why I didn’t want to rush along with them. So I kept picking. Let them come back if they wanted me, I decided. Or else they could wait until I had the last bit of my bucket topped off. I wasn’t going to extract myself and tromp the rest of the way up the hill to converse with them.

They came back a little closer and shouted again. I answered them. Titi called out again:

“Rundy, we need to talk!”

“Why!” I shouted back.

“We need to talk!”

“Then come down here!” I called out. I couldn’t figure out why on earth we needed to talk. It sounded like she wanted to call a committee and elect a leader to save us from some dire end. Either something terrible had happened, in which case I wished she would convey the news a little quicker, or else it was nothing important, and for that I didn’t want to be disturbed.

“Some people were stung by a bunch of bees and we need to go down!”

That made me pause. “A bunch of bees” and “stung” was a little too vague. She did not sound utterly panicked, so I quickly assumed that nothing horrible or irreparable had happened. But her damage assessment was none too clear. Except for my judgement of her tone, she could very well have been saying that someone was stung a hundred times, had swollen up terribly, and they had to rush the said person to the hospital immediately.

“Well, come down then,” I said, working on my assumption that since she wasn’t screaming or crying the situation must have been fairly under control.

They came on down. Nobody sounded grieviously hurt, so I continued to hurriedly pick. I had just a few more berries to top of my bucket. Then I extracted myself from the thorns and joined them on the trail.

I got a quick recount of what had happened. They had stumbled upon a nest of ground wasps in amongst the blackberries and Lachlan and Evan both suffered several stings each. Lachlan (16) was clearly doing fine. Evan (10) was looking miserable, but he wasn’t swelling up, so I felt better. I still wanted them home as soon as possible so they could be doctored up, but we did not seem to have a crisis on our hands.

We went down to the van and drove home, a rather glum ending to the trip for most people, as I was the only one to have picked a full bucket. There was no bear. Instead we had found bees, and not made it more than halfway through the trip.

Once we were home, Titi, being something of a statitician, measured the berries that each person had picked. Then she found me and said I had picked 20 cups of black berries out of the total 54, and I had picked 6 cups more than the nearest person. Obviously one person was keeping precise tally. For one more day, and perhaps one more year, I was not humbled by some younger sibling.

Next summer is coming.

Naturally Speaking . . .

17th August 2003

The idea of talking to your computer has been around for decades in science fiction and around five or so years in real life. Ever since the idea of talking to a computer was conceived it was heralded by many as the eventual demise of typing. When voice recognition software came into actual existence in the mid- to late 1990′s some people were ready to sign the death warrant of the keyboard.

As a writer, I’ve a natural interest in this subject. In the past, I thought talking to a computer and having it understand me would be cool and very science-fiction-like. On a more realistic level, I’ve had a deep and abiding suspicion of those people who said the keyboard was passe. I felt they were taking the cool and science-fiction feeling and pretending the game was, in fact, real.

For years I could do nothing more than read about voice recognition software and be alternately curious and derisive. Only recently did I have the chance to try the technology out for myself. What I discovered was both surprising, and also confirming of my initial thoughts.

Perhaps a bit ironically, my first two forays into this new technology involved setting up Dragon’s Naturally Speaking software for two women in their early 70s. I first installed voice recognition software for a neighbor because, though she could type, she expressed herself most naturally when speaking. Since she was working on a book, she complained that it was difficult to write things out by hand–she wanted to explain verbally. So I installed software so she could “write” her book without writing.

My Grandma P was the second person I helped with voice recognition software. She wanted to use this software because she didn’t know how to type, but still wanted to use her computer to communicate. I didn’t actually install Dragon Naturally Speaking for her, but I helped her work through problems using it.

In helping my Grandma and my neighbor I saw that ease of use varied quite a bit between individuals. My neighbor is a very verbal and outgoing person, and she speaks quite clearly. She had a relatively easy time becoming accustomed to using Dragon Naturally Speaking. Beyond getting over the initial learning curve of remembering to turn off the microphone when she didn’t want the program recording her, there was only the problem of learning how to deal with the software’s small errors. (One blooper that sent her into hysterical laughter was when she said the phrase “. . . It takes time to be that” and Dragon translated “. . . It takes time to be fat.” Dragon Naturally Speaking wasn’t perfect, but I thought it did surprisingly well with her voice. Better than I had expected. The program could be taught to compensate for its errors, and my neighbor quickly adapted to talking to her computer.

On the other end of the scale was my Grandma P, who does not speak as clearly, and is not as talkative a person. If computers or typewriters had been available when she was young and she had been taught how to type, I’m sure that would be her preferred method of using a computer. But neither typewriters nor computers were available in her hey-day, and today she feels too old to learn how to type. So she is making a go at trying to talk to her computer.

Success is not coming so easily for Grandma. A good deal of her problem comes from the simple fact that voice recongition technology is not up to the level of the science fiction books. A person can’t walk up to a computer and simply begin babbling at it and expect good word recognition. The software must be trained to recognize each person’s voice. This means my Grandmother has traded the job of learning how to type for the job of teaching a stupid computer program how to listen. This is a lot of work for her–reading off selected passages of text and correcting the program whenever it misunderstands what she is saying. So she skimps on the teaching lessons for the program (and herself) and this makes using Dragon a more frustrating process.

Helping other people use voice recognition software gave me an idea of how the program would work, but in walking people through using the software, I never actually used it myself. I am a curious fellow, and helping other people was not the same thing as using it myself. I can type at speeds of 60+ words per minute–which I call at least as fast as I can think–so there was no pressing need for me to use voice recognition software. Nonetheless, I was curious how well I could use the software and how I would react to it.

Recently when I was over at Grandma P’s I decided to try out her copy of Dragon Naturally Speaking. Going into the test I was aware I had particular problems that I had to overcome. I am a poor speaker. I have a tendency to stutter, and when I’m not stuttering I am speaking too fast. My brain and my mouth simply don’t work together very well–especially when I’m trying to communicate with other people. Short of having a lisp or other physical mouth problem, I figured I was a good difficult test case for today’s voice recognition technology.

The results of my attempt were mixed. To my pleasant surprise, I could make Dragon Naturally Speaking recognize my words with a good degree of accuracy. If I spoke slowly and with clear enunciation, the program had a high degree of accuracy. The high mark of its success, I thought, was when the program correctly interpreted the posessive “Scorceress’s” which I find difficult enough to say, much less consider a program able to understand that it is possesive. Pretty good, I thought.

Good, but the progam could also frustrate me. It wasn’t perfect, and homonyms gave Dragon particular problems. Also, it went no faster, and possibly quite a bit slower, than my own dear typing.

In the end, I was less than enamored. Certainly there will be a place for voice recognition software in the future–it even has a place in the present day. But at this point I still have to laugh when people say it will replace the keyboard. Wonder what I mean? Try to edit a long document using voice commands. How much talking will it take you to shuffle around paragraphs, tighten up sentences, fix tenses, and clarify ideas? Talking your way through a document takes too much time and energy. There are areas where voice recognition software has advantages, but in the area of my writing–essays and novels–I find speaking a distinct disadvantage.

True, part of this may be due to the fact that I am not a very verbal person. But I don’t think that is the entire issue. Writing novels and essays is an inherently different medium than speaking, or casual letter writing. To speak is not the same thing as to write. To try to speak writing will always be awkward. Speech and writing don’t follow the same rhythm. There is a nuanced development and careful crafting to writing which is not present in the same form in speech. Dictating a personal letter can work, because in one sense it is an informal conversation in which only one person is speaking. Dictating an essay or story, which requires critical attention to flow and development, is awkward and frustrating. I, at least, feel a need to look at what I’m writing, to judge it, and to correct it. Writing lives in a different sphere than speaking. I need to see writing, and to manipulate it with my hands. Speech is something that leaves our lips and is gone. Writing is something to be molded until it is perfect, or as near to perfection as it can reach.

A second, less abstract problem with speaking writing is that some writing requires far too much speaking. I can write for hours at a time. Talking for hours on end? I would go hoarse. Resaying a paragraph a half dozen times until I thought it sounded just right? I would go nuts. My hands and my head can work independently–my mouth and my brain cannot. While my hands are putting in corrections that my brain has decided upon, my brain is already working on the next problem.

By the time I finished all my testing, I concluded that voice recognition software was not for me. More than just that, it is folly to call it a replacement for expression through pen or keyboard. Voice recognition will have its place, but I could think of only one place where it might be of use to me. Sometimes I get a whole bunch of ideas crammed into my head, and I just want to let them out. Either they are a bunch of ideas for many different projects, or else they are various distantly related ideas for one story or essay. With everything crammed together in my head I can’t put it down coherently on paper. I want to let the thoughts tumble out, to simply get it down so I can organize it later. This is when turning away from the monitor and simply speaking might work.

Just might. But that is a small use for still expensive software.

Wordsmiths will be using keyboards for a long time to come. That’s my prediction.

First This, Then That

3rd August 2003

Cleaning Up

Not this Saturday, but last Friday and Saturday (July 25 and 26)I cleaned up the debris of the fallen willow tree. I was not looking forward to this project because it would be both mind-numbing and labor intensive. Two or so years ago when I was cleaning up from the big maple tree that died in our front yard, it took me forever to clean it all up. The tree was massive, and every large hunk of wood had to be split into firewood before it could be hauled off. Some of the chunks of the trunk were so utterly massive I could not split them into firewood and was forced to roll/haul them to either the burn pile, or some location on the property where they could make seats or ornamental pieces (such as plant stands). It was all very much a gut busting, sweaty, and prolonged process. Though the willow tree was not nearly so big, I still did not feel like spending any portion of my summer hauling around chunks of wood.

When I am faced with something I don’t want to do, that is the time when I am most inventive. Not inventive for excuses (in my book there are no excuses) but inventive in finding a easier solution to the problem. Sometimes my ideas don’t turn out so well, and sometimes they do. In this case, I struck on a good idea. Teman has a hefty four-wheel-drive jeep. The back seat can be folded down in such a way that the back of the jeep is something like the bed of a small pick-up truck. If I loaded up log chunks in the back, and chained the more ungainly limbs to the back of the jeep, I figured I could save myself a lot of time and energy in hauling up the wood.

In the abstract I think Teman approved of this useful employment of his jeep’s power and four wheel drive. On a more emotional level, I think he was a little nervous about me driving it up in the field, and loading it down with wood. Not that he would admit as much, but he declared that if a hole was put in one of his tires it didn’t really matter too much because the tires really needed to be replaced anyhow. And, would I please pay attention to how much wood I loaded into the back of the jeep because he rathered it wasn’t weighed down so much that the suspension became ruined. But then he would mumble about it not being that big of a deal because after all “It is a beater.”

All his half-spoken fears ended up being for naught because, this once, I didn’t bust anything. The jeep was not overloaded, and everything worked as I had hoped. Over the space of Friday evening and Saturday morning, I hauled most of the willow tree debris up to the burn pile in the field. I say most because the half dozen or so largest chunks of tree trunk were still too bit to lift into the back of the jeep. I must cut them into smaller peices, or else roll them into a pile and burn them in the lawn.

I was glad I managed to finish such a large project in such a small amount of time. The little kids thought the greatest thing was that they got to ride in the jeep in the field, on the way down from the burn pile. If you can remember back to when you were a little kid, then you know how exciting it was to do something new, different, and perhaps a little dangerous. Riding in the jeep felt like all of these to the collection of little boys. Riding in the jeep wasn’t truly dangerous, of course, but it felt somehow greatly adventuresome and somehow a little daring to be riding off the road, out in the tall grass of the field. Knowing how they felt, I humored them, even when their exaggerated “Whooaa!” from the back of the jeep began to get on my nerves.

Out and About

Last Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, I housesat for my uncle Kevin. Farm-sat, is more precise, because the reason I was needed was for the feeding of his three cows, two sheep, two cats, one dog, one bunny, many chickens, and several little fish. Kevin lives between an hour and an hour and a half distant . . . close enough so that I could possibly go down there twice a day to feed his animals, but far enough that such a strategy seemed awkward. I generally don’t like to travel, and don’t sleep as well out of my own bed, but after thinking about it a bit I decided it would work out better for me to spend the few days at Kevin’s house, and save me a lot of travel.

I thought that if I brought my computer along I could do my writing as normal. I dreamed that in the quiet and peace of his empty house I could do tons more writing than normal. That was nothing more than a wild fantasy. I did about as much writing as normal, and that was all. Ideas about great productivity usually turn about to be no more than that–ideas. Between feeding the animals and feeding myself, there wasn’t a real lot more time for writing than I normally had.

Wednesday, on the way home, I stopped in at Grandma and Grandpa P’s to eat supper with them and help Grandma P with computer stuff. I can, somewhat humorously, call my Grandma my star student because I have been a primary force in introducing and acclimating her to the world of computers. She had gone from knowing nothing about computers, to being able to use e-mail, the internet, image manipulation software, and (somewhat erratically) a digital camera. It has been slow progress, and not always easy, but I think pretty good for someone past seventy who for over six decades had not a thing to do with computers. I think she is an example of how it is possible to teach old dogs new tricks. A person is never too old to learn if they are willing.

What I helped Grandma do on Wednesday was set up an Ebay account and put her first items out for auction. She had a lot of antiques and decided to try Ebay as a method of getting rid of them while earning some money.

Setting up the Ebay account was not hard for me to do, but it was a slow process to work through with Grandma. I wanted to make sure she had a chance to read everything, and when she had a question or problem, I did my best to take care of them. I got her through the sign-up process and helped her list two items for auction. By this time it was late; 10:30 PM.

I arrived home after 11:00 PM, not only exhuasted from the lateness of the hour, but also from all the previous nights of sleeping at Kevin’s when I didn’t sleep as well as I normally do. So, the obvious thing to do when being so utterly exhausted is to flop into a chair and pick up a novel and begin reading. Really un-smart, but not so unusual for me. I didn’t get to bed until 1:30 AM, and the lack of sleep this precipitated helped send the rest of my week into a tail-spin. A lack of sleep sucks away motivation, diligence, and concentration. This put me into a bit of a funk for the rest of the week. While I actually did better and got more done than I might have, I didn’t get any more writing done for the rest of the week. This both put me out of sorts, and in a bad mood.

I’ve been using this weekend to try to re-adjust and get back on schedule.

Rain to Make Things Grow

The early part of summer is a time of great angst for gardeners. It is the foundation upon which the rest of the gardening season is built. Screw up then, and the garden is screwed up really good. If nothing is planted, nothing will grow. In middle and late summer if you don’t weed as much as you ought–well, things will survive.

Considering how poorly I did in the early part of this year, my gardening endeavors are going much, much, better than I deserve. The reason for this is the abundance of rain this summer. Rain covers over a multitude of gardening sins. On whole, this summer has been exceptionally wet and cool. This means that even though I didn’t get my cucumbers in until very late they probably will actually still produce. It also means that my corn is growing well (that corn I thought would never grow), my apples tree are bursting with life (even the one chomped by the evil deer) and my grape vines are growing with the vigor of a weed.

Standing at the beginning of August I am at a lull, a point of magnanimity toward all. Everything is growing. Everything is late, I won’t have any winter squash, but it looks like I’ll have a harvest from everything else, and considering the mistakes and hectic confusion of May, June, and July, I feel I’ve come off quite well.

My one source of ever-panging guilt is the blueberry bushes up on the hill. My Dad, with a bit of help from us oldest but then young boys, planted about fifty blueberry bushes. Not all of them have survived through the years, but many of them have. As Dad’s health has declined and Teman has gone off to get a respectable job, I have felt responsible for the blueberry bushes. Most years I’ve managed some kind of token care for them, but this year I’ve done absolutely nothing, and I feel terrible about it. They’ve had no mulch, not even a mowing! They are choked with tall grass, burdock, and sprouting saplings. They have been abused, neglected, and utterly mistreated. I am not worthy of them. (Woe is me!)

Yet, in some great irony, this year the blueberry bushes have produced in more abundance than they have before. Double, if not fourfold over last year’s harvest. The actual reason for this has several causes. While the harvest pleases me, it also gives me a bit of a feeling as if what I do doesn’t matter in the least.

The two main reasons why the blueberries have put out such a good harvest this year is because of the abundent rain and the fact that finally, after so many years, the bushes have reached full maturity. Neither of these things has anything to do with my past or present labor, so I also like to think the care and mulching they have received in previous years has helped contribute to the good harvest. Secretly, I can’t help but think if I took even better care of them the harvest would have been even larger. I seem incapable of being satisfied with what I have.

Somewhat related to the subject of the blueberry bushes, there was a paper wasp nest in the weeds at the base of one of the blueberry bushes. The little kids were in terror of them, and warned everyone to stay far away. Yesterday I went up to pick some berries, and I was stung twice.

With the little kids warning in mind I was keeping a half eye open for the nest, but that wasn’t enough. The wasp nest was hidden by the grass, and most of my attention was focused on the berries so when I heard the telltale buzzzzz I thought vaugely that there must be a lot of flies around. Then I felt the most walloping sting on the back of my hand and my first thought was that I was bit by a big deer fly. I gave a half-outraged, half-pained shout and looked at the back of my hand to see a black and mustard colored wasp stinging me for all he was worth. I was incensed that he was stinging me when I’d done no sort of assualt against him, and tried to brush him away without losing my handful of berries. Then I was stung again, and I decided I’d best forget the berries and get out of there before my body became a mass of stings.

I dropped the berries and made a quick escape. The middle and pointer fingers on my right hand had both been stung and for the first two minutes they hurt like crazy. Then the pain quickly faded to be replaced by throbbing. I went down to the house and plastered the stings with a baking soda and witch hazel mixture and ate a vitamin C. Baking soda and witch hazel work great for bee stings, but I’m not sure it does anything for wasp stings. Bee stings give me more of an itching bite while wasp stings give me more swelling. Both of my fingers swelled up for several hours, but by evening most of it had gone away. Today I have a bit of an itch, and only very minor swelling.

Yesterday evening Dad went up to pick some berries and he also was stung. His anger was such that he stomped on the nest once before fleeing. He went back later to stomp on it several more times, and I’ve been told the wasps won’t be bothering us any more.

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Work, Work, Work . . .

24th July 2003

Haying

Last Sunday was a hay crazy day. Two people wanted help haying, same day, same time. At first Arlan and Lachlan were going to try and do Ingrid W. and Kim D. (who were going in on hay together) as quickly as they could with my help and then go work for Frank the Farmer. Wisely, more wisely than we knew, we decided this was not the best idea. We managed to convince Teman to pitch in and help, and with four people we were able to split the work 50-50. Arlan and Lachlan went to help Frank, Teman and myself went to work for Ingrid and Kim.

This was all very good because it turned out there was no possible way we could have finished off Ingrid and Kim in time for Frank to get any help. This was because of difficulties at Ingrid’s place. Part of the problem was the unloading situation at Ingrid’s (she took most of the hay) was poor. Part of the problem was the baler broke and the machine had to be fixed before the rest of the hay was baled.

The setup was very hard for two people to work in. Teman and I had no elevator to work with, so anyplace the hay had to go in the barn, Teman or I had to move it there by hand. This was made more difficult by the fact that Ingrid no longer had a ramp leading to the upper half of the barn, so there was a ditch that could only be traversed by a thin plank, or else stepped across. All these things came together to make it the hardest haying job I’ve done in a long time.

Unloading hay into Ingrid’s barn went like this: I would throw the hay off the wagon until I had a pile of ten or so bales. Then I would climb out of the wagon and throw the bales across the ditch into the barn. Teman could then take the bales and throw them into the hay mow where he then climbed up and stacked them. In this set up we both had to handle the bales at least twice. On top of this the bales were on the heavy side, and the stringer on the baler wasn’t working properly which made every other bale or so have one bad string. This meant we could only carry and throw many of the bales by the one good string, and we had to do this with considerable care besides.

Work started a little after 2:00 PM. It was slow from the very beginning, but Ingrid helped for the first wagon so it wasn’t too slow. After the first wagon the unloading grew progressively slower as the stack in the mow grew ever higher. The hay was coming from a field at the end of the street, so there was a bit of a delay in the arrival of the wagons, and when the baler broke there was an even longer delay. This meant that the time we were out working ticked on by until it was well into the evening. By then not only was simple exhuastion beginning to wear at us, but hunger was making itself known as well.

The last wagon at Ingrid’s was the hardest, our energy flagging, daylight failing, and our fingers growing very sore from so much handling of the hay bale strings. Then it began to rain and we had to rush down the road to Kim’s to put in the one wagon of hay for her. Only then, at 9:00 PM, could we call it a day and go home for some food.

In all we put away 621 bales of hay . . . not a particularly large amount, but considering we each handled 502 of them about twice each, this made for a physical total of 1,123 bales that we each handled. That is enough.

An important thing to do while haying is drink plenty of water. It is dusty, hard, work. In the middle of a hot day the sweat can be pouring off my body. Working high up in a metal roofed barn (which we weren’t doing this time) is like working in an oven. In my teen years I worked as a stacker way up in the mow of one such building and there were several times I came very close to getting heat stroke–and in the process built up something of a tolerance for working in the heat. The fundamental key to working under these conditions is to drink lots and lots of liquid . . . Preferably very cold water or orange juice, but we drink whatever is provided.

Ingrid provided Pepsi, which she bought especially for us. They were the tall 24 oz. containers. Both Teman and I swigged down one bottle each between wagons (except after one wagon when we drank water). By the time we left Ingrid’s we had each drunk 72 oz of caffeinated Pepsi. I normally don’t drink caffeine or soda. I joked to Teman that I ought to be wired for the rest of the night. The sugar rush of 24 oz of soda hitting my system did give me a quick energy boost after every bottle, but in the long term it didn’t seem to affect me much, either because I was so tired after I was done working, or because I sweated it all out. I sweated so much the color was beginning to bleed out of my jeans.

The Willow Tree Comes Down

This year seems to be a year for storms–from January snow storms that take down huge swaths of pine trees to summer thunderstorms which also take down trees. On the fourth of July there was a violent rainstorm that took out the power in our area for four hours. We weren’t at home then, but this Monday we had another fierce storm. Actually, we had two. The first came in around 6:00 PM and the second about the middle of the night.

The first storm blew over our huge willow tree in the back yard.

Yes, indeed. The towering willow tree that was a fixture of the backyard since before we moved in came down in one swift fall. The fact that it went was no surprise to anyone. The tree was rotting out in the middle and had been leaning severely for the longest time. The only question was when it would fall, and what would it fall on. The tree was so big, and leaning so badly, it was a hazard to cut down, and also a tree we really didn’t want to cut down because it was leaning in the direction of one of our fully grown apple trees.

The tree was leaning, and fell, away from the house, for which we are very glad. The sad part is that it didn’t entirely miss the apple tree. The willow tree rose like a giant over this apple tree and when it came down it did not kindly turn aside. It wasn’t a direct hit, but the glancing blow was enough to smash and maul about a quarter of the top of the apple tree, and one of the main lower limbs was pinned to the ground.

Stepping back and being very cool and analytical, I can say the situation could have been much worse. The apple tree did not take a direct hit from the mega-ton beast and end up squashed flat. The tree was grazed, and as such it will probably survive with some drastic, or maybe not quite so drastic, pruning. That would be the analysis if I were very cool and intelligent about the matter. As it was, when I went out and saw the little green apples scattered everywhere, and the mauled condition of the tree, I wanted to run around in a circle shouting “Why me? Why me?”

The most disturbing damage for the tree was the large swath of bark ripped from the top upper section of the trunk, and the fact that when the willow landed on the lower apple tree limb it feel with such force it lifted some of the apple tree roots from their resting place, creating a huge bulge in the earth.

It all looked very grim for the apple tree, intelligent thoughts disregarded.

Since the willow was still lying on the lower limb of the apple tree, it was important that the willow be cut up as soon as possible. Original plans for Tuesday were thrown aside, and I ended up spending several hours improving my chain saw skills, slicing and dicing up the willow tree.

The willow tree wood was very wet, and this made the saw bind up some, but the wood was also very soft, so over all it cut easy. The thickest cut I had to make was 28 inches–the base of the tree was actually wider but half was rotted away–which is a fair sized diameter, I think. To a skilled saw handler this would have been a “nothing” job. I’m not a suave chainsaw master, so by the end of my labors I felt like I had earned a pair of woodsmen stripes for completing the job.

Now I need to haul all the wood up to the burn pile so I can mow the lawn which really needs mowing.

Is The World Square?

17th July 2003

No, the world is not square. The epicenter of the world these past days was our porch and it is most certainly not square. This makes remodeling difficult.

Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were spent replacing the roof of our side porch. I was helped on-and-off by various other people, but I was “the man” responsible and in charge of this project. I was the one who worked straight through from beginning to end. I was the one who had to make all the decisions and come up with all the solutions. It is nigh impossible to grasp how many decisions must be made and how many solutions reached until the job actually comes to rest on your shoulders. Everything that once seemed so sure is no longer so sure any more.

This was my first roofing project for which I was in charge, so (though it was not an inordinately complex job) I felt some pressure to not screw up. There were mistakes, and there were some near mistakes, but over all I don’t think it turned out too badly. Most of my mistakes were hidden by the new shingles, and that’s all that counts, right?

Looking back at the job, I’d say the easiest part was the shingling. I don’t know if this is ironic or not. It’s logical at least–if you were there.

Before I could apply the new shingles I had to take the old shingles and old boards off. I also had to put a peak in the porch roof over the steps so water from the roof would shed away from the walk below. After that I had to put plywood down, help Dad wire in the fancy new outside light, then, finally, shingle, and last, flash. No one of these steps was particularly hard taken alone, but all combined they were a project, and consumed time. Much time. I started working a little before mid-day on Monday and didn’t finish until about 10:00 PM on Wednesday. On both Tuesday and Wednesday I worked nearly fourteen hours before crashing at the end of the day.

I’ve done plenty of physical labor in my life, but, because I’m either unalterably naive or else filled with eternal springing hope, I’m never sufficiently prepared for the little quirks construction, destruction, and repair jobs bring with them. I always think I’m ready–only to find out I’m not. A minimum of one day must be added to every wide-eyed projection I make.

This is all very bad when there is rain in the forecast, but by working very late Tuesday I managed to throw down the tar paper so the porch managed to escape being soaked . . .

I suppose out in the wonderful world of suburbia where everyone is rich and everything is built right people don’t have so many problems. Out here–a man must work with what he has. “Has” in this case is rafters in the porch that are spaced further apart than is optimal, that weren’t installed straight, and that weren’t the same length. When I laid the first sheet of plywood on the roof and saw one end of the sheet sticking off the roof . . . then I knew the word of the day would be “fudge.”

So fudge I did. Whenever a problem came around I tried to figure out a solution–not the “right solution”, mind you, but any solution that might possibly work. When the carpenter before me didn’t follow the rules of construction it was rather hard for me to change the situation. So I perpetuated it. (And I still feel guilty if I let myself think about it too much).

I am a mostly self-taught/learn-by-watching carpenter. This means I solve problems by sitting down on my butt and scratching my head until a brilliant idea comes. The results from this method are mixed. The finished product works, but often it doesn’t look very professional, and sometimes it looks downright stupid. I can cut a good straight line, and I’m great at marking right angles . . . it’s all the rest of the funny angles that are needed in more complex situations that mess me up. My working mantra is “I’m not a finish carpenter. I only do the rough work.”

If the rafters had been nailed in straight, and if I hadn’t needed to add a peak and help Dad wire–then the job would have been quick. I could have laid the plywood, nailed on shingles, and called it a finished job. Instead, I was up on the roof, trying to figure out how to cut angled rafters and hoping I could conjure up a dormer that looked somewhat like a symmetrical triangle.

Then TF, a professional carpenter by trade who lives on down the street, pulled up into the driveway. He was looking for some boys to help him hay, but was immediately attracted to my project in progress. I was feeling pretty pleased with my dormer, but not so pleased that I wanted a professional carpenter to have a peek. Soon as I saw who had come I felt like plastering a very wide and guilty smile on my face. I hoped he wouldn’t look closely. I hoped he wouldn’t come up.

Instead, TF walked up to stand right below the porch roof. There he stood and gazed up at my construction, commenting on my progress, complimenting me on my initial success, and offering suggestions. The compliments were nice, thought they were general and vague. (Or am I overly suspicious?) The comments were bearable. (He says how much he loves doing this type of work while I think how difficult it is). The suggestions were, of course, insightful, but too late for me. TF suggested a very easy way of cutting the angle rafters I had been laboriously working on . . . and was just finished with. What do I do? Feel sheepish and just a bit stupid. It was all very good advice, but all I dared was timidly say yes, it was excellent advice, I was already past that point, and I was getting along fine, thank you. I didn’t want to offend him, but the last thing I wanted to do was loudly proclaim that I hadn’t done it the way he was suggesting, and that it was very difficult the way I did it, thereby inviting him to come up and half fix my problems, then leave me with instructions on how to finish fixing all my mistakes. There are few things more insulting than not following someone’s explicit directions.

TF left after Arlan and Lachlan agreed to help him with haying. I escaped with no more than a few general pointers and a vague comment that he would “come back to see how I was doing” which almost sounded like a threat. I watched him go and thought “Ack, I’ve got to finish this before he comes back.”

I didn’t finish the project before TF came back, but he didn’t come up on the roof, and I escaped without a grilling about exactly how well I followed his advice. Now that the front piece is on and the shingles are nailed in place the only thing that is visibly wrong with my addition is the trim that I didn’t cut quite right. If you have good eyesight and look carefully you notice. Then it looks stupid. Otherwise it looks fine, so don’t you look!

***

Some people hate roof work. I don’t. Though I love to complain and moan about working on roofs, I can think of jobs that are worse. (Like digging out a basement by hand). As a change of pace it is fine. Roofing is work done out under the sun, and it is nice to be out in the fresh air. I don’t mind the height either. In this I am fortunate, because I loathe being in a position where I am nervous about the height.

When I first climb on a roof I sometimes feel nervous, almost as if I am going to be sucked off the roof, but I quickly grow accustomed. After a few hours I can walk along the peak, or lean over the edge to nail a soffit board, or sit with my legs dangling over the edge–all without being half stiff with terror. I’ve been places my dear mother would probably be horrifed to see me, and Teman has certainly been disapproving on occasion. This isn’t fair, because both of them are much more nervous about high places. I contend that I don’t act reckless. I don’t willingly go into a position where I feel out of balance. That I have a better sense of balance doesn’t make me more foolhardy. Working on heights carries inherent risk (such as carrying a package of shingles up a roof), but I don’t play tricks like “Look, Ma! No hands.”

I don’t loathe roofing, but it isn’t a job I would want to do for a living. Roofing isn’t as physically draining as some jobs I’ve done, but it is one of the worst as far as being physically straining. Fourteen hours up on a roof puts great strain on my feet, knees, and lower back. I’m 21 and fit, and three days of this work is enough for my body. I wouldn’t want to do it five days a week, and I don’t know how “old-timers” do it. This is the type of work that leaves joints weak and stretched, month after month. It feels like my knees would be bad before I reached 30.

A last thought . . . If you are ever in the position of feeding a work crew, please remember that working people need a lot of calories. If you heed this rule you will have your crew’s deepest gratitude. Beef and mashed patatoes with gravy, fried chicken, cookies, ice cream, brownies–every one of those naughty foods. It might not be healthy, but after fourteen hours of grueling labor, it’s what a body craves.

When I’m on a long work stretch such as this I eat a quick lunch and a light supper–or else no supper at all until I’m done for the day. It is only after it is pitch dark at nearly 10:00 PM that I stop for the day and stagger into the house. Then, and only then, can I begin thinking about eating. Such is not the time to eat a light rice salad. It is not the time to consider low fat options. It is time to eat something with calories–lots of them. Tuesday evening I sat down at the kitchen table and served myself up a bowl of ice cream. That was my before bed chaser–a big bowl of ice cream. Wednesday I did even better. I managed to persuade Titi to make a pan of brownies. That night I sat down at 10:00 PM, totally exhuasted, and began to vacantly stuff sugar and butter filled brownies in my mouth, swigging milk all the while. The brownies tasted wonderful, but that wasn’t the only point. Half dead with exhuastion, the taste almost wasn’t registering–the fact that it was food, cram-packed with calories, was the strongest impulse that reached my brain.

It is only after my stomach is filled that I can sit back, relax, and consider it a day well put to rest.

Teaching The Chicks to Roost

12th July 2003

I knew it was time to put the chicks out in the chicken coop when they didn’t think I could get them outside soon enough in the morning, and when they started making it exceedingly difficult for me to put them to bed at night. The rule was, “Fine! If you want to keep jumping out of the bucket when I’m trying to put you to bed, you can go to bed with the grown-ups.”

But the process isn’t this simple. The chicks didn’t want to go to bed when I wanted them to go to bed, but they still wanted to go to their good old comfortable pen. Chicks don’t understand “You’re sleeping in a new place now,” and even when forcibly placed in their new home for the first night, they still don’t get it. It is, at minimum, a several day training process.

If there is one truism about chickens, both big and small, it is that they are creatures of habit. This can make them both easy to manipulate, and difficult to deal with, depending on what you want done. In the case of going to bed in a new place, I can’t explain the idea of changing sleeping places. Shooing them toward the chicken house while saying “Go to bed,” doesn’t cut it. In fact, this only confuses them, because they can’t discern any logical reason why I’m trying to make them go in that direction.

In the beginning there is nothing to do besides physically taking the chicks in hand, putting them in the building, and barring the door. I don’t like going out every night to haul the chicks off to bed, so I try to teach them as quickly as possible. While physically placing the chicks in the pen is the only completely successful method, I try other means–namely, cajoling and calling.

While the current batch of chicks is nowhere near wholly obedient to me (not in your dreams) they are comforted by, and attracted to, my voice. At the end of the day they all gathered up against the side of the fence and sat down in one big crowd, waiting for dear Rundy to take them back to bed. Why not try to show them that Rundy thought a different place was good for bed?

So I climbed into the chicken coop, shut the door, and stuck my head out the little cut out chicken door and started calling the chicks. “Come on chicky-poos. Come to bed. Come to Rundy It’s nighty-night time. Come to this good soft bed.” Mind you, the way of speaking to chickens is not in a commanding tone but in a high sing-songy voice, one any decent manly man would never be caught using, especially with his head stuck out a little chicken door and his butt up in the air. I looked a poster man for the loony house, calling out to the chicken yard “The ding-dongs must go to bed. Come on, chicky-poos. You want to go to bed now, riiight?” At times like these I’m glad the neighbors don’t live too close.

The whole procedure met with only partial success. The first day not too many came running. By the last day maybe somewhere around 75% came, with a little encouragement from other people in the chicken yard. However, it was never completely successful, because all the chicks would stop just outside the door. They would walk up the ramp, and peer in the door, looking at me and the collection of roosting chickens as if to wonder what in the world I was doing in there, and what on earth I expected them to do in there. After endless coaxing I would have to give up and say “Oh, get in here!” and grab them off the ramp.

But success at last. Who knows the mysterious ways in which a chicken brain works? One day not a one of them will think of going into the chicken house for the night, then some little switch is flipped in their collective brains and they think “Gee, it’s time to go to bed,” and instead of walking toward the fence in the direction of their old pen, they walk up into the chicken house.

Last night only one chick was still standing by the fence, acting very lost, so I think they’ve finally caught on. I’m glad, because while chick pampering is a bit amusing, it grows old. I have other things to do with my time.

The whole process came at a bit of a cost to me. I’ve been pooped on a total of three times throughout. Twice I was pooped on because while I was crouched on the floor calling the straggling chicks into the coop the rest of the chicks decided it would be a fine idea to roost on my back. One of the last things to do while settling down for the night is empty your bowels, so I had the pleasure of feeling these warms spots begin to spread across my back. (Don’t you hate it when that happens.)

Minus the danger of being pooped on, it’s fun to have chicks roost on you. It is one of those things to make a person feel big, strong and valuable. I was especially touched by one chick who leaped off from the hutches to my shoulder. He seemed exceptionally happy up there, walking around from one shoulder to the next, making little peep-peep noises, and trying to nuzzle under my hair and chin. Like a little kid exploring things, he picked at me, pulling at my chin hairs, poking at my ear. I let him have fun and explore for awhile, but I eventually had to kick him off so I could leave. Some chicks develop personalities that make them stand out, but I wonder if this particular chick was so friendly because he was the one with the injured leg. I am curious if my tending to his wound gave him a bit of attachment to me. I don’t know . . . much as the idea appeals to me I’ve been around chickens long enough to suspect their long-term memory ability, and their ability to make complex connections. Since relative size and coloring do not necessarily stay exactly the same–and I don’t remember the precise color pattern of the injured chick–I’ll never know for sure.

The chicks are grown up enough at this point that they no longer need me as their defender and protector from the feared things of the wild land. But as they’ve outgrown their need for me as a protector they’ve become more aware of me as their provider. The pre-eminent though in their minds now is that food comes with Rundy. In this way they are growing into the adult chicken mentality (for that is also how the adult chickens view me), but they pursue this idea with more vigor than the adult chickens. The very whump sound of the back door closing, the very appearance of me walking by the chicken fence, will send a stampede of chicks running to gather at the edge of the fence. Any time I come in the chicken yard a crowd will gather, peering up at me hoping, trusting, desiring, a hand out.

Even when they don’t need one.

Other bits of farm news:

–I planted the second half of my corn. I’m not feeling so distraught over the issue of whether the second half of my planting comes up.

–A greater calamity has befallen me. I was so brillant as to mention earlier that I would go ballistic if a deer chomped down on my precious baby apple tree. That nasty deer must be sitting at some computer up in the woods, reading my every entry, because shortly after that post my little tree was ravaged. Stripped most cruelly of branches and leaves.

An outrage. Why don’t they allow machine guns during deer hunting season? The deer population isn’t low enough by half. (I make light of the situation because there is little I can do now that the damage is done to my tree. Laugh and live with it–isn’t that the gardening life?)

Seriously, I think the deer problem around here is espically bad this year. Cynically, and unrealistically, I suspect that the deer can smell a $30 apple tree a mile away. The fully grown apple trees have a massive profusion of new growth (it’s been a great wet year) but the stupid deer had to chomp on my teeny little one. A conspiracy.

If no more deer come and chew on the tree it might just survive. Whoops, shouldn’t have said that.

In case any deer are reading this post they ought to know I might just get a hunting license this year. In fact, if I see one of them standing out in the back yard I might decide being a law abiding citizen ranks very low on my list of important things, and I may just shoot.

–And last in the update department, the Turkey has given up sitting. I’m glad to see her out walking around the chicken yard. She looks a little more tired than usual but she is still her beguiling and dizty self.

Maybe she’ll have better luck next year.

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The Weekend of the 4th

9th July 2003

The 4th of July weekend was busy for me. It was a time of travel and family reunions. Over the course of the three day weekend I attended two family gatherings.

The first gathering was up near Syracuse on the 4th. My Grandpa P’s children (relatives of my father) gather there every 4th of July. My Dad is one of six kids and when they are all gathered together in one place–with husbands, wives, and children–there is quite a crowd. Not everyone showed up this year, but that only meant the crowd was of pleasant size rather than a packed mob.

In The Pool

The house belongs to my uncle Nate and he has a pool out back. Being of neither great social skill or inclination, I spent most of my time in the pool. I enjoy being in the water–if this is any excuse for scarcely talking to my relatives. Not only does being in the water feel pleasant but the underwater world is a whole new world to explore and dwell in. It is a world in which I am not limited to walking about on the earth. It is like a strange new planet where I can fly, and where the sun shines in strange ways through the thick atmosphere.

I love to swim, but it is a strange tale which brings me to this place. You might think that someone who loves to spend so much time underwater would have been an early swimmer who had no fear of water. And it seems only reasonable that if I love the water so much I would be in it nearly every week of the summer. My situation is quite the contrary. There hasn’t been a year in recent memory where I went swimming more than a few times. And early swimmer? No. That is a long story . . .

When I was very young I was enrolled in a learn-how-to-swim class. I don’t think it was my idea–it was probably one of my mother’s good intentions. It ended up a big learning experience in my life, and not one of my greatest joys. As a worry-wort of great ability, and thus a scaredy-cat, I was not set up for an easy experience going into water and learning something new. On top of this was my introverted and socially inept personality. All together I’m afraid I was not one of the greatest kids to teach anything, especially swimming.

At the tender age of six I was not a stunning success in the pool. That is the blunt, very short, rendition. In more detail . . . The memories are a bit fuzzy, but I remember feeling a lot of fear and incompetence. I didn’t particularly like being in a strange pool, and I didn’t care for being around all those weird kids. I didn’t like disappointing the very nice lady who was the swimming instructor, and I was sure that I was the only idiot who would not learn how to swim. I didn’t like being the center of attention when it was my turn to take lessons. I didn’t like all this stuff which seemed so much like attempts at drowning. (We never left the shallow end of the pool, but reason was not the prevailing force at this time.) All in all, I would have been much happier during those lessons if people had just left me in a corner to watch and splash by myself. Swimming, I thought at the time, was a very magical thing that only adults and very able people could do. Me, I was undoubtably incompetent, and if anyone thought they could teach me I would surely drown before they learned of their sad mistake. I only hoped my incompetence would show through early so they wouldn’t think to send me out into water that was above my head. I had no intention of venturing past the sacred line of the shallow end to terror-wraught places where I might plunge like a rock to the bottom of the pool, never to be seen again.

There were these conflicting feelings of desire to please and fear of drowning, but amongst the angst I tried. I really tried. I didn’t like the swimming lessons, and I didn’t think I had the brains or ability to swim, but I wanted to swim, and I wanted to please the instructor. Unfortunately, neither my desire or my effort overcame my fear of imminent drowning.

The dear lady who was the instructor of the class deserved an award for patience. I don’t think I whined much, but fear does make a person incompetent, and I wasn’t very trustful. The most common phrase uttered to me might have been, “I’m right here. If you start to sink I’ll catch you.”

If I remember the class correctly, we started out by simply getting accustomed to being in the water. As the lessons progressed we were taught how to hang onto the side of the pool and kick our feet. Up to this point everything was fine–I was still hanging onto solid ground. Then we were taught how to hold onto one of those float board things and kick. Somewhere along the line she tried to teach us how to float on our backs. This I flunked. Maybe I floated once. “Relax,” she said, and I sank.

Next, as a prelude to learning how to swim under water the instructor tried to teach us to submerge our faces in the water while hanging onto the kick board and kicking. I don’t think I made it beyond this stage.

In one of the old photo albums around here there is a picture of me taking this class. The photo shows me clutching tightly to a red kick board, my body stretched out and taut in the water. The swimming instructor is standing beside me, a look of unwearied patience on her face, ready to intervene if I should sink or somehow come into trouble. I’m supposed to be submerging my head, but all I have under water is my mouth and nose, and by the way my eyes are squeezed shut you would think this much was a great effort. I remember. I thought it was a stunning accomplishment. It felt like I was nearly under three feet of water when I did just this much.

I don’t remember how the class ended. I don’t know if I flunked out or if I continued to struggle with the kick board while everyone else moved on to learning the basic strokes until the class was finished. All I know is I ended the experience with much relief, being none the more able to float, swim, or even think of venturing into the deep end. Other people learned how to swim–I learned how to kick my feet in the water. They learned how to dive into the water. I already knew how to sink.

One could draw many lessons from this little story, but the one you are supposed to draw is that not everyone is ready to learn how to swim at the same time. Perhaps a few years later when I was a little less preoccupied with drowning and more able to understand the principles which enable someone to swim I could have learned. I don’t know. No one ever made the attempt to teach me again. In fact, ever since those few months of swimming lessons there hasn’t been a year where I was in the pool more than a few days in a summer.

But I still wanted to swim. I wanted to go out into the deep end of the pool. I wanted to be free of that lurking fear of deep water. Yes, if you can ever remember that time before you could swim then you remember that gripping fear of somehow ending up in water in which you could not stand. As the years passed and I grew older the grip of fear grew less, and the desire to learn grew stronger.

Still, there was no one to teach me, and in typical despair I thought I would never learn how to swim. Any time I asked someone for help the answers were most unhelpful. “Oh, it’s easy,” they would say. “You just push off and go like this.” Now being able to swim I agree completely, but at the time going “like this” was no help at all. It was the same as trying to learn the doggy paddle in swim lessons. Fast as gravity could pull me down I would plunk to the bottom of the pool and had to stand up, coughing, hacking, and puking water while I tried to clean chlorine from my eyes.

So I taught myself. The learning spanned ten years, but considering how few times I was in the water each year I suppose it wasn’t a great number of “lessons.” There was no set goal, there was no set schedule. I simply experimented in the water until I was comfortable with one thing, and then I advanced on to another. In the early years I worked on learning to be comfortable under water. I learned to have fun going under water–holding my nose with eyes squeezed tight shut–enjoying the strange other world which existed where there was no air. When it became boring just hovering under water I decided to see if I could make myself move. I advanced to trying to kick and swim with one arm while still holding my nose. I found I could do that, but also discovered that it was difficult to swim with only one hand. So I learned to let go of my nose once I was under water and swim my version of the butterfly. I couldn’t go very far, but I certainly could swim under water.

The next step in my self-teaching was figuring out how to swim above water. Until I learned how to swim above water–or come up for air–there was no way I was going out in the deep end, or feeling that I had truly learned how to swim. It would be nice if I could pass on some wonderful piece of advice to all struggling swimmers out there, but, frankly, I don’t quite remember how I learned to do the doggy paddle. Mostly, I had to come to the decision that getting water up my nose was not so very debilitating and then buckle down and experiment. In my mind there is a vague transition from when I would always try and end up going under to the time when I could actually do it. In reality the process took more effort. I kept practicing until I discovered a method of paddling arms and legs so I remained above the surface for up to 10 seconds. This method I tweaked until I could do it 20 seconds, then 30, and finally I could swim the doggy paddle for as long as I had strength.

After growing accustomed to the doggy paddle I moved on to teaching myself other methods of swimming. The worst barrier was broken. I could swim. I was liberated. The deep end of the pool was mine.

I’m still not a good swimmer. I’ve no problem in a backyard pool. I swim down to the bottom and come up. I can swim the length. I am at ease. But I know your normal 8 or 10 foot deep pool is not a very large body of water. My breast stroke is not refined. I’m not sure if I could swim a full lap in an olympic pool without taking a break. (But then, I’ve never had the chance to try.) At this point I think that any further improvement in my swimming skill will require me spending more than two days a summer in the water. I also wouldn’t mind taking a more advanced swimming class so someone can instruct me on improving my form . . . but I don’t see myself finding time for that anytime soon.

Swimming retains some difficulties for me. There are obstacles I must overcome as I struggle with three minor problems. The first irritation I have is that I cannot stand water in my eyes. For years I was like a blind man any time my face was under water. I finally was smart enough to buy myself goggles last year, and I’m sorry I didn’t do it sooner. The goggles opened a whole new world of wonders before my eyes, the world of underwater.

My second problem is that, for about the first dozen times I jump in the water, I will get water up my nose. This is very strange because after I’ve hacked, choked, and gagged until it feels like I’ve blown out all the snot my body could possibly produce . . . only after I’ve suffered to such a degree can I jump in the water and not get water up my nose. This is perplexing. I think that for some reason my body must subconsciously re-adjust to jumping in the water after a certain number of mishaps and only then can I not get water up the nose. It seems an action strangely beyong my conscious control. I can leap into the water thinking “Don’t breath in!” and a small amount of water will still go up where it oughtn’t. This isn’t particularly comfortable, but I take comfort in the fact that I seem to have a very consistent pattern, so I live through all the gagging until my body kicks into gear and I can jump in without water splashing into my cranium.

My third problem is that I don’t float. A lot of people treat such claims with contempt. Certainly every beginning swimmer has wailed the same complaint. But I am not a beginning swimmer, and I tell you, I can’t float. I think I might have been able to float when I was little (if only I stopped being rigid with fear), but I can’t now. Some people would say it is because I am still too tense when I’m in the water. Perhaps. Maybe I’m just a very tense guy. I certainly have many things yet to learn about swimming, but I find such comments bring sarcastic replies to my lips. Like, “Maybe if you gave me a shot of valium and tossed me in the water I would float.”

I don’t sink because I’m afraid. I love being under water. I don’t mind being on the bottom of the pool. I will stand down there and watch the world float by. I can swim up whenever I wish. But I will not–not ever–go up to the surface of the water outside my own volition. If I swim out into the middle of the pool, and then stop swimming, I will promptly sink. There is nothing half-hearted about the process. I can walk across the bottom of the pool, or simply stand there, looking around, until my air begins to run low and I must surface.

I haven’t researched the matter, but from my own conjecture and what other more sympathetic people have said, my guess is that I don’t float either because of my body’s build or else because my body mass is too lean. Certainly I am somewhat peculiar in my condition of not being able to float. People float in varying amounts–I’ve seen this in my own family–but none of my brothers or sisters sink to the bottom of the pool when they stop swimming.

From my own problems and experience learning how to swim, and because of my enjoyment of the water and swimming, I try to share what I have. Last summer I taught Lachlan and Titi the rudiments of swimming. This 4th I taught Cadie. I couldn’t teach Cadie to be proficient in anything in the space of one day, but by the end of the afternoon she could swim across the width of the deep end and jump in. She is still nervous about being in deep water, but it took me ten years to get where she is now.

Reunion in The Hill Country

Friday night we dragged our tired bodies home. Saturday morning those of us who could sleep in, did. (Not me–someone was coughing and I sleep light.) After we had collected ourselves together we set off for another family reunion–this time down in the hill country of Pennslyvania.

The reunion in Syracuse is the coming together of my grandfather and his children, and their children. As I mentioned before, there are six children in the family, so the gathering can be large. However, the reunion in Pennslyvania is among my grandfather and his siblings, children, grandchildren, etc. My grandfather was one of twelve children (not all now living) so when things get multiplied out there is . . . well . . . a real crowd of distantly related people. I have no idea how many people there would be if everyone showed up. I don’t even know how many people did come. I knew hardly anyone there.

Such is the weirdness of many distant relatives. In one respect it is fascinating to be related to so many people, but in another sense it is a bit disconcerting. I am (fairly) closely related to so many people yet know them no better than a stranger. Have you ever been afraid that you would only be known by your relation to someone else? I wandered around, introducing myself as the second son of my father and trying to guess at which people I was related to by blood and which by marriage.

The only reason I went to this reunion is because my grandfather really wanted the whole family to come. Some of his relatives (oh–yes, mine too) were coming from far away to join the reunion for the first time in many years. So I went. A social person would have had a grand time. For me it was okay–not too much different from going to a party full of completely unrelated strangers. True to form, I spoke probably a total of ten minutes worth of conversation.

There was a pond, so I swam. Later in the day I played horse shoes because there was nothing else to do, and learned the names of my father’s closest cousins. Mostly I wandered around. People introduced themselves and asked who I was. Others whispered behind my back as if I was a curiosity piece, discussing who I was. One elderly person mistook me for someone else.

Ahhh yes, reunions.

The real nice thing about the whole experience was the scenery. The reunion site was out in the good old rural hill country of Pennslyvania. Out there family blood is thicker than the earth. Everyone gathered on a huge field on top of a hill out on a dirt road beyond a big corn field. My great uncle Gene previously ran a huge farm in the area. When he went out of farming his children bought up various parcels of the land to keep it in the family. Some of them are still working the land.

The field was on the top of a hill and I could see for miles around. Hill after hill rose in the distance disappearing into a blue haze. The tree-covered hills looked like some strange serene setting from a fairy tale. There were no roads to see, no houses. One hill rose in a perfect cone shape, standing apart from the other hills. I pointed to it and joked that I would build my castle on that hill.

It was deep rural country, and I was impressed very strongly by the sense how it was something beyond the nice neat “rural” of middle New York. The air in that country was rural. The sense of isolation from the big places where things happen permeated the setting. Here was where men in their forties and fifties were still lean and strong from working in the fields. This was where entertainment consisted of throwing horseshoes or shooting skeet. This was where traveling meant taking hair-pin turns down narrow dirt roads.

All very interesting land. If I go again I want to bring my bike so I can ride the back roads, savor the peace, and enjoy the shade of big old trees.

Gardening is a Passion

30th June 2003

Gardening is a passion. Have you ever heard someone say that and wonder what it means? Let me explain.

If you’ll remember one of my past entries I moaned about how I feared voles would eat all my corn seed. In spite of those fears I did plant the corn . . . and waited for it to sprout. Days went by and nothing seemed to happen. This was all feeling sickeningly like the previous year when I lost a lot of corn to the voles, so I dug up a small section of one row in search of seeds. I found no seed, and I did find a vole tunnel. The sight of that new vole tunnel confirmed my worst fears–a dirty little beast had eaten all my corn seed.

I was in a foul mood after that. I put out a trap baited with more corn seed, but no vole showed up. I could do nothing but stew in helplessness and frustration . . . until it came time to mow the lawn. I was driving the DR Brush Mower across the lawn when I noticed the tell tale rustle in the grass which gave away the hasty flight of a vole. My first inclination was to let him get away–in past years I always took speical care to avoid killing the little creatures. But as I drove on by a little thought popped into my mind. “Why on earth are you letting that creature get away. That vile . . . that despicable . . . that thing ate your corn seed. Does that vole deserve anything more than an instant death sentence?

Needless to say, I was of a different mind the second time I came around the lawn and saw the vole rustling through the grass. I turned off my course and deliberately ran the creature over. I had to run it over several time to make sure it was dead. (I didn’t kill it with the mower blades, I simply squashed it.)

The above is an example of gardening passion. Working with farmers I’ve had a few occasions where a mouse would go running by and the farmer would yell “Stomp on it! Stomp on it!” I, of course, wanted to do no such thing. Shooting a mouse, trapping a mouse, or poisoning a mouse are all somewhat gentlemanly methods of murder. Stomping always struck me as too vulgar and gross. I have some inhibition against feeling something living going squish under my feet. That is, until such creature eats my corn seed. So I can understand the farmers perspective, now.

This story wouldn’t be complete without me admitting that the vole was, in the end, somewhat exonerated. Most of my corn did sprout in the end. There are a few thin spots, but overall it came up well enough. All that passion wasted.

Other good news includes the fact that I seem to have overcome the aphid infestation on my cherry tree. This makes me feel very good. No more aphids. At least I’m good for something . . . aphid killing. Alas, but I’ve gone from one success to another crisis. Some vile and despicable deer has chomped off the ends of my cherry tree branches. Not satisfied with this, the said deer has taken to chomping off some branches from my full grown apple trees. This has me incensed. If the deer chomped off the top of my freshly planted baby–my most recent apple tree–I would probably go into an apoplectic fit, have an aneurysm, and die.

Well, maybe not quite that serious. But it feels like that. The fields are ripe with grass and the stinking deer have to come all the way down from the woods and cross the field, just so they can nibble on my trees!

Ahem.

Gardening is one of those things of such emotional extreme. I thought my corn wasn’t going to sprout and so I was very angry. Then my corn sprouted and I was very happy. None of my winter squash or cucumbers sprouted, so I am very sad again. In fact, I feel like I will be in a bad gardening mood for the rest of the year.

I have no more winter squash seed, so that is out of the question for this year. Nobody really cared for cooking it, so I suppose it isn’t a great loss. I still had some cucumber seeds left so I’ve started them indoors and will replant them outside. Maybe we will actually get some cucumbers for pickles. Maybe not.

Enough about the soap opera of my garden. Life in the chicken yard is going better. I’m fully convinced the turkey will not hatch any eggs, and I’ve gotten over it. I just wish she would give up on the futility of sitting. The grown chickens are having a grand old time, though they miss the mash I used to be feeding the chicks. They loved to pig out on the little corn chips. They also loved to sit on top of the chick play pen. This was hysterical to watch. The chick play pen was sitting out in the middle of the chicken yard and in the morning I could see the hens perched around the rim, sitting there and enjoying the day. They looked like some knitting club.

Hens are also particular in their laying habits. Some hens will quietly lay their daily egg like it is nothing more than their duty. Other hens will make it into a hysterical procedure (with much clucking and bwawking) and I don’t know why.

Hens also have various feelings about me taking the eggs out from under them. Normally I try to avoid taking eggs from under hens. I have always figured the hens would find it less mentally disturbing if they were allowed to lay their eggs in supposed secrecy and have them somehow “mysteriously” disappear each day. Sometimes this isn’t possible and they must live through the indignity of me fishing eggs out from under them. Reactions are various and as unique as each chicken’s personality. Some hens glare at me and sit still, trying to pretend it isn’t happening. A few hens will take off, flying from the chicken house in screaming hysterics. Some hens will fight me. Recently I felt bad for one hen that I was taking eggs from because she was fighting me valiantly, and, more than that, she seemed to grow upset as the number of eggs beneath her grew less. She stood up and craned her head, peering between her legs at the emptying nest. This display of consternation and concern made me have pity on her. I left one egg behind so she could shuffle it around beneath her and feel happy again.

The chicks are growing up. Yesterday I decided they were big enough to spend nights in the chicken coop now. This means no more carting them out in the morning. No more little chicky-poos making flying leaps from their pens toward the gate. They still like me, though, and I take some consolation in that. They like eating wild grass seed. I can strip a handful off from the tall grass growing around and squat down and feed it to them out of my hands.

Pretty soon they will get really big and then they won’t be so cute anymore. It’s only been a month and already they are sleeping out with the big chickens. Some of the chicks have already begun having little mini cockfights. (And I’ve noticed some of the chicks have a mean streak). Soon they will grow up into rude and rambunctious roosters and have eyes only for the hens.

Then we eat them.

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