A Different World

October 2nd, 2021

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t thank my lucky stars for living where I live. The natural world around us is balm for my soul. The seasons keep me on my toes. The birds, insects, and other critters are constant reminders that I share the planet with a vast and fascinating diversity of creatures. I’ve done some traveling, including one trip that involved driving a rental car in Los Angeles rush hour traffic. I always enjoy seeing new things, but am also always eager to get back home and see what’s changed while I was away.

This summer Alice and I decided to tackle some projects around the house that have needed to be done for a long time. When we were more ambulatory, having the laundry facilities in the basement, kitchen on the first floor, and bedrooms and bathroom on the second floor was just fine with us. Using the stairs multiple times each day kept us in shape. As the decades went by though, we’ve become concerned about the real possibilities of a serious fall on the stairs. The home system that had served us so well for so long was reaching the end of its useful life.

So we embarked on an ambitious project. We’d build on an 8′ x 12′ addition to the first floor of our house. In it we’d put a bathroom and laundry facilities. We’d then move our upstairs bedroom downstairs, and have most of the essentials on one floor. We had the great good fortune to know a father/son contractor team that had time in their schedules to do the building. “I can pour the footings and basement floor,” I offered. “I have a cement mixer.” I was looked at with a mixture of skepticism and amusement, and was told to have at it. “Uh oh.”

I was also lucky enough to have a neighbor that was a wizard with his mini excavator. It took some doing to get him out here because his services are in constant demand. But eventually he came out with his machine and dug the hole. We’d decided to make the foundation the same depth as the part of the house it was attached to, so we were putting a full basement under our little addition. The hole was dug with all the numerous problems attending such events. Then I went to work producing the trench in the bottom of the hole that would become the base for the addition’s footings.

I had things just about where I wanted them so I could start setting forms when we had a big rainstorm overnight. The next morning when I looked into the pit, I almost cried. My lovely trench was covered up on two sides by cave-ins. This was wet sticky clay, which I knew from experience would require serious effort to remove. I was again lucky enough to know of two brothers in their 20s that were looking for work and were stupid enough to say yes. We spent several days in the pit bailing water and shoveling out clay:

The cave-in

Eventually the weather moderated, the pit dried out, and with the help of two wonderful neighbors, the footings were poured.

Footings done. The door is installed so the block layers can escape the fortress they build

Contractors then came out to lay the block, then my neighbors came back to help pour the basement floor. It all came out beautifully.

As a result of all this activity, I was responsible for making sure the materials necessary to get the job done were chosen and trucked to the site. The other worlds I’m referring to in the title are the places one has to go in order to make these arrangements. The cement block factory with big trucks, fork lifts, and noisy machinery, and gravel pits. For someone whose hearing is compromised by overly loud birds chirping, these places represent the antithesis of our rural hideaway. But they are important. If you don’t have good gravel around the drain-tile of your foundation, leaks will happen and frost heaving can occur. If you have too few or the wrong kind of cement blocks, the foundation wall could be weak. And on and on. As I drive through the country and see miles of suburbs with rows and rows of houses, all of which have footings, drain-tile, and crushed rock doing the same job for them as for me, I wonder at the magnitude of the effect we are having on the planet so we can live in comfortable homes.

The addition as of late July

Now when I see big trucks rumbling down the road with loads of gravel, I can no longer feel superior. I too am a willing consumer of the technology, and very well understand the necessity of the work they do. Without them buildings would fall down and roads would crumble. And I have to admit that when I pay my $35 for a pickup load of gravel, I get a thrill every time the end loader comes rumbling up. It has a bucket big enough to bury my 3/4 ton pickup and me with it. The operator scoops up some gravel in a tiny corner of his bucket, and shakes it into my truck, which transforms from tall and proud to squatting down on all her springs. The sound it makes and the rush of wind makes me appreciate the power we’ve been able to harness to make our lives better.

Oh Wow!

September 20th, 2021

Last night I woke up around 3:00 and had trouble going back to sleep. I did what I often do… I grabbed my tablet and resumed reading my current book. This one is called, The Cosmic Landscape by Leonard Susskind. This is not the kind of book you have trouble putting down even if you are sleepy, so it seemed perfect for some reading while the mind was trying to settle down.

I ordered The Cosmic Landscape after watching a YouTube ™ in which Leonard Susskind was interviewed. He had such a clear way of explaining things, and seemed like a pretty nice fellow. So I went to Amazon ™ and bought his book then and there. I’ve been reading it for some time now and am just a bit over half way through. I will admit it has been a bit of a slog now and then, but I’ve hung in there with him, and boy am I glad I did.

My main reason for choosing this book is because it promised to explain string theory. I’d heard this before, but had not yet encountered the writing that explained it to my satisfaction. I’ve long thought that we are multi-dimensional creatures that have evolved with 3 dimensional senses. This gives us the illusion that there are only 3 dimensions, but string theory predicts there are 9 (plus one for time). Thinking about the complexity of moving from 1 dimension (a line) to 2 (a plane) to 3 (a cube), I had trouble wrapping my head around what 4,5,6 dimensions must be like. We believe that a tesseract is the shadow of whatever 4 dimensions looks like, but as near as I have been able to figure out, no other clues of dimension 4 have presented themselves.

Leonard Susskind is an original discoverer of string theory. He has also spent his life as an academic, and it shows in his writing. He has a knack for explaining things, and uses language to keep the reader interested. I’d just made it part way through his chapter on string theory when I was starting to get sleepy. But the content was interesting. He talked about how strong these strings were, and how long they could become. For a string that holds subatomic particles together, it can be long indeed, spanning the entire universe.

I like to think we exist inside bubbles. They are invented and maintained by ourselves, and the purpose for them is to have a model of the universe at hand. Instead of having to figure out any new piece of information that we encounter, we file it inside the model if it fits. If it doesn’t, we often toss it, because it is dangerous to start messing around with our model.

As I was reading the chapter about strings, I could feel some excitement, as though a breakthrough was about to happen. It was almost like pieces of a lance are swirling around in my head, and at some point, the lance assembled itself and pierced my bubble. I had a glimmer of what strings might be and how they work together to stitch our universe together. I had an “Oh Wow!” moment.

I suppose we all get them now and then, but I can say I cherish these moments every time they come along. I get them in the Grand Canyon sometimes, and at art museums. Music sometimes does it for me. It seems to happen when the current model is no longer adequate to explain something, and a hole gets pricked. The light from outside comes shining through for a brief time before the hole heals itself. I wonder if the bubble got a little bigger because of the event, or if it just patches itself and resumes as before. I hope it gets bigger, because that is what I think growth is. If you don’t look at things from a new perspective now and then, you’re doomed to just relive the same series over and over.

I now have another Oh Wow! behind me, and am eagerly anticipating the next. I’ll see you in the 4th dimension.

I Declined

September 7th, 2021

I recently received an invitation to a party commemorating the 50th anniversary of my high school graduating class.  I politely declined.

My time in middle/high school was, for me, the worst episode of my life.  For whatever reason, although I wanted to have friends, I didn’t have any until around my junior year.  I tried hard to make friends, much like an overly zealous puppy, but never seemed to make any breakthroughs.  The niche I managed to fill throughout most of my middle/high school career was as the object of bullying and ridicule.  This was mostly a daily occurrence for me.  I was repeatedly slugged in the arm, and humiliated in front of other students.  I continued to try to hang out with the guys bent on making my life miserable.  They seemed adept at tossing a crumb of friendship my way often enough to keep my hopes up, and then using their power to grind me into the dirt.  The adults running the school, along with my parents, where no help. 

There does appear to be a couple of kinds of people in the world; those that enjoyed their middle/high school careers, made friends, and eagerly anticipate reconnecting with these old friends every so often, and those that would just as soon forget the whole experience, and all the people that worked so hard to build themselves up by trashing the weaker among them.  I throw in my lot with the latter.

I’ve often wondered, what is in it for them?  It must take a lot of time and energy to bully others.  Does the bully get pleasure from the event, even though it is repeated over and over?  I came up with one possible answer, one that surprised me and might surprise you.  Adolescent years are in place to prepare children for navigating the adult world.  That world is populated with people of every personality type.  A fact of life is that throughout one’s existence there will be people with power over you.  How you react when that power is wielded, whether fairly or not, can be a factor in your success in life.  Maybe the people like me, little naïve puppies, need to be hardened up so they can navigate the world of adults; a role the bullies played. 

If asked the question, “How do you evaluate your current mental state?”, I’d have to say my mental state is good.  I am confident, feel capable, have taken good care of myself, and feel the work I do is appreciated within my community.  Every person alive was given a set of genes, over which he or she had no control, usually a set of parents, again outside their control, and a cohort of peers.  Each of these has a strong effect on the shaping of a person’s character.  Although my middle/high school years were miserable, like it or not, they did contribute to my development.  And assuming I am content with where I am in life, can I honestly say that the character shaping events that led to today’s Ted were bad?  Unnecessary? 

Any one person’s life is a complicated jumble.  Throw into the mix other people who may be your social subordinates, equals, or superiors, and the complications climb up the chart.  The challenge appears to be, embrace your life’s experiences, because they made you who you are, and try to be a mentor to others if at all possible.  Perhaps the greatest gift you can give to someone is an example.

Perseverance

February 20th, 2021

Is it socially acceptable for a grown man to shed tears when a rover successfully lands on Mars? Reasonable or not, that is what happened. Since that historic landing, I’ve been probing my own mind to try to understand why I cried. I came up with a few ideas.

First of all, the past 4 years have been very hard on me. I am trained as a scientist, and believe that the scientific method is the best way we have of discovering the truth. And if that belief is a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, then I would give a 9+ to the notion that if one is armed with the truth, one has a much better shot at success in life. For the last 4 years, that whole system seemed upside down. It seemed that anyone with a catchy opinion could post it on social media, and that opinion could compete successfully with the facts brought forth by competent scientists.

Of the last 4 years though, the final one just about did me in. Epidemiologists have long understood how Corona Viruses spread, and how best we can slow and eventually stop the spread in a low-tech way. A simple face mask and social distancing can and does slow virus transmission almost to a stop. For some reason, though, reasonable people saw these two simple solutions as weakness and a threat to their freedom, and as a result many refused to be careful. The result has been the United States, with some of the greatest minds in the world, and unparalleled resources, has had very high transmission and death rates, and a lingering pandemic. It seems the best we can hope for is a quick rollout of vaccine to grant immunity to sufficient numbers of people that the virus’ transmission rate will drop low enough that it will become scarce enough for us to return to normal.

Knowing all this, I’ve felt that a consistent message from our elected leaders could have made a large difference in our transmission and death rates. Unfortunately, the message was, what appeared to me, the opposite of rational. This method of thinking and action is so counterintuitive to me that I constructed a shell to keep out the constant barrage of bad news. I kept a peephole in that shell, hoping for some good news through the avalanche of bad, but even that peephole started to close off.

Then we had the inauguration of a president that believes in science. We had confirmation of people to advise him that are competent in their fields, rather than unconditionally loyal to their boss. The peephole started cracking open.

The Mars rover Perseverance has been planned and under construction for some years. Her launch had to happen during the pandemic, because the alignment of our two planets was favorable for the trip during that time. Had it not been able to launch then, a long delay would have ensued before another window opened. Somehow, with so many things shut down, the launch happened 7 months ago, culminating in a recent successful landing on Mars. The rover package entered the Mars atmosphere at more than 20,000 miles per hour. It’s heat shield endured severe punishment as the little craft sank toward the planet. As it was streaking across the sky, tiny rockets were orienting the craft towards a safe place to land, all the while going slower and slower. At the correct moment, a huge parachute opened which further slowed the decent. Then the chute was cut free and a sky crane fired its rockets and lowered the rover to the surface of Mars on tethers. Once on the ground, the tethers were severed, and the sky crane flew away so as to not damage the rover. Oh yes, since it takes a radio signal several minutes to reach Earth from Mars, and then several more minutes back to Mars from Earth, the system had to do all this autonomously.

When the touchdown happened and word of the success reached JPL, the room erupted in cheers (albeit masked cheers). That was when my shell cracked open and the tears started to flow. Just look what we can do when we trust experts. When we work together. Imagine what we could do?

Missed a Minus Sign

February 14th, 2021

I started as a student at Michigan Tech in 1976, finished being a student in 1982, went to work for them in 1984, and retired 22 years later. That was a lot of time spent around campus. Mid-winter MTU has a unique tradition: Winter Carnival. Some weeks before the event, student groups are given a theme, and they plan and execute ice sculptures, some small and some epic. I never participated in the making of an ice sculpture, and rarely walked around to see them, unless I happened to be on my way somewhere across campus. But one ice sculpture still sticks in my mind after all these years.

There were two categories of sculptures; the ones I described above, and the “one nighters,” where the participants couldn’t start their sculptures until a certain time in the afternoon the day before winter carnival officially started, and had to be done the next morning. The one I remember best was a one nighter.

There were only 3 objects in this sculpture. One a pharaoh on his throne, one an engineer prostrate before the pharaoh, and one a pyramid. The pyramid caught your eye first, because it had its point in the ground. The pyramid was upside down. The caption on the piece had the engineer say, “Forgive me oh pharaoh, I missed a minus sign.”

This great memory came flooding back the other morning. I still try to walk twice each day, which is a habit I’ve held onto since our dog Franco died in September of 2019. Our dogs loved and deserved their morning and late afternoon walks, and I benefited from them too. The main difference now is there is no dog, just me.

I typically just throw on my Muck Boots ™, Carhartt ™ jacket, hat and mittens, and do my morning mile in my pajama bottoms. This works well for me for much of the winter, but I’ve found if the temperature is much below the 20s F, that my thighs get cold enough that they start stinging. Those pajama bottoms just don’t hold in much heat. So before I suit up for my morning walk in the winter, I check the temperature.

In the old days, this was done by looking at a glass tube filled with mercury. Our modern thermometer is a digital one with a transmitter outside that feeds the temperature in to the device. When the temperature is in the single digits below zero, the minus sign is large and obvious; right next to the digit. But when the temperature gets into the double digits below zero, the minus sign changes to a less obvious part of the screen.

So once I had the wood stove fires going the other morning, I looked over at the screen to see the temperature. It was 12. I concluded it was cold enough for me to break out the Sorels, Canada Goose Jacket, but not cold enough for long underwear and wool pants. Pajama bottoms were good enough for me! Head, hands, and torso were all adequately warm on the walk, but the pajama pants were surely not working as well as they should have. I should have been fine at 12 degrees, unless of course, like the poor engineer in the ice sculpture, I missed a minus sign.

A Spare House

August 31st, 2020

In the world of breakfasts, there is one clear winner for me. POEC, or hash brown potatoes, plenty of onions, eggs, and Cholula ™. This favorite breakfast of mine is so far in the favorite column that I have to ration it. If I have POEC one morning, I make myself have some sort of cereal the next morning. Otherwise I would weigh many more pounds than would be healthy for me. On oatmeal mornings, I resign myself to the fact that I’ll likely be hungry again by 10:30. That is ok though, because today’s mediocre breakfast in an investment in the potential for a great breakfast tomorrow. I’ve learned I can wait for a day if I need to.

Living the rural life has its drawbacks. One is the reliability of the electrical grid. Our provider is the Rural Electrification Association, or REA. We fondly joke with one another that REA really stands for Repair Every Afternoon 🙂 We pay some of the highest rates for electricity in the country, and for good reason. The densely (in every sense of the word) packed one mile section of the road we live on has exactly 3 houses on it. This means the REA has to maintain a mile of poles and wires for 3 customers. It amazes me that they are able to pull this off at all.

The other morning dawned bright in terms of breakfast prospects, but overcast in terms of the weather. Then it began to rain hard. I do like the rain, even when it causes me to have to readjust my work outside sometimes. This morning’s rain brought with it a power outage. I was just getting organized to put together a POEC breakfast when the lights went out. It dawned on me in a horrified realization that I depended on electricity for my cherished and hard won breakfast. Nooooooo! Power outages can take hours to turn around, and I was poised to make my breakfast right now.

As I contemplated the horror of a cereal morning, I realized I had a spare house, and one that was particularly designed to be self sustaining in situations just like this one. Our motorhome. Hope rose in my soul. We can yet pull this one off. I gathered my ingredients and utensils, and slipped out the door. I did notice a puzzled look on Alice’s face, but there was no time to explain. The clock was ticking, and my stomach was demanding relief.

Once out there, putting the breakfast together on our propane stove top was a snap. After all, I’ve been practicing this particular chore for some decades now. After disappearing out the door with odds and ends, I reappeared about 20 minutes later with a skillet of piping hot POEC. Sometimes when you have to work for something the results taste all the sweeter.

Last night during another stormy time, the power went out yet again. The sauna was lit and I was darned if I was going to miss that weekly ritual. So I got myself ready and entered our lovely attached sauna room. After sweating for a while, I started wishing I had some water to throw on the rocks, but also to rinse off the sweat pouring off my body. What to do? Aha, the spare house to the rescue. Walking outside without the benefit of clothes (not as unusual as one might think in this neighborhood), I carried the sauna bucket into the RV, turned on the pump, and filled up with lovely clean water. The steam for that sauna was especially sweet, although the shower at the end was a bit on the cold side. Still, it was once again the spare house to the rescue. I think everyone should have one.

Grace

June 25th, 2020

Most every morning, rain or shine, I slip a fleece over the shoulders of my pajamas and take a 1 mile hike down the road. It is one of the best parts of my day. I started this habit when the dogs were with us, because they too seem intoxicated with the magic of the morning (they also hadn’t peed all night).

Just a few mornings ago I was on my walk when a coyote crossed the road perhaps 75′ in front if me. The coyote was trotting on its toe tips as they are wont to do. It looked my direction, and briefly galloped, and was gone. The whole event was over in an eye blink. I imagine the coyote told its compatriots about the ungainly creature seen that morning. But the story I have to tell is of amazing grace. I’m told they can trot all day like that and just chew up the miles. I could meander for a while, but would soon need a sip of iced tea to keep the furnace running.

Besides being dancers, they can also sing, and we are often treated to their music, especially in the evenings.

The world of humans seems more polarized now than I remember it being. It will likely get worse before it gets better. I don’t see humans as right or wrong in their thinking, just different. Somehow switches get set in our brains, and heaven and earth need to be moved before those switches can be adjusted. So it is in nature. Some creatures have grace oozing our their ears, and some of us are clumsy. We all have a combination of skills that seem to get us through our complicated lives.

Not Much is Wasted

June 25th, 2020

Earlier this spring, we were hitting the garden hard. After tilling the soil until it is as much like chocolate cake mix as we can make it, the next step is planting. I remember it was pretty warm and sunny outside, which makes it really hot in the greenhouse. I was working on squash. I have a lot of earth sculpting to do to make the squash hills. Down on my knees in the dirt, I produced hill after hill. Besides being hot and dirty, the mosquitoes were feasting. Yet, gardening is one of the more satisfying things I do.

I got so warm that I decided to take a break and have a sit on the watering dock with my feet in the cool water. The pond minnows are curious little creatures, and if you don’t make any quick movements, they’ll wiggle over to your feet and check you out. They’ll even take a tickly little nip now and then. A mosquito landed on my leg, and it fell into the water after a good swat. Instantly, one of the little bugs that fly in arcs just over the surface of the pond grabbed it and flew away. I don’t think more than a few seconds had elapsed. Intrigued, I waited for another mosquito to land (it wasn’t a long wait) and swatted her into the pond. One of the arc flies made a quick grab, but missed. As the bug circled around for another try, a minnow arose from the deep and swallowed the mosquito. This was literally happening in just seconds.

It kind of makes me feel a little guilty about my wasteful life. If I had to compete with the bugs and minnows, I think I’d weigh a lot less.

Thank-you President Trump

May 14th, 2020

I recently read a piece on Facebook that helped my understanding of myself. It was written by Nate White, originally published on Quora, and was an answer to the question, “Why do some British people not like Donald Trump?” If you haven’t read it, a quick internet search will put it on your screen. It is short and quite funny.

As I read through the piece, there was a picture of President Trump embedded in it, and I found myself scrolling my screen so I could read to the bottom of the text that preceded the picture, and then quickly scrolling past the picture so I wouldn’t have to look at it. It is that bad for me. Pictures of this man honestly turn my stomach.

A half dozen paragraphs in, I came across this sentence, “And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully.” When that sentence smacked me between the eyes, I finally understood what it is that has always made President Trump repulsive to me. Nat White nailed it… a bully.

In my junior high and high school days, I was bullied. There were two guys that shouldered the lion’s share of the burden, but there were several others that chipped in when bullying opportunities presented themselves. From the time I arrived at school until I made it home, I did not feel safe. In those days, bullying was in the form of punches and humiliation. It hurt, and it also established dominance. I was pleased to confirm that dominance over me if it would postpone the abuse. I fought back seldom, and shouldered daily humiliation because I felt it was my lot in life.

But one skill I picked up as a result of all this was the ability to spot a bully, Once spotted, I tried to stay out of the way, because bullies always got the best of me. Always.

As the years have gone by for me, I’ve spent some time and effort attempting to decipher this behavior. What is underneath the makeup of a person that they get pleasure from a weaker person’s pain? I had no knowledge of sociopaths in those days. And I have to admit that as the years went by, I encountered that behavior over and over again, and most of the time I was unprepared and shocked when I realized how I’d once again been fooled into trusting someone that took pleasure in the pain my misplaced trust cost me.

With President Trump, I saw the unmistakable signs early in my acquaintance with his persona. The braggadocio, lack of grace and style, and the need to be surrounded by people that publicly adored him, all rubbed me the wrong way. But until recently, I didn’t realize that his mannerisms reminded me of the bullies that took such pleasure in my discomfort all those years ago. Just a look at a picture of him brings back long buried feelings.

Lots of folks wish they were younger, but I wouldn’t want to go back. Sometimes I wonder how I ever made it through those terrible years. I guess when you are in the middle of it all, you develop techniques to avoid the danger, and a good day would be when someone other than me was bullied. For me, forgetting about those times is easier when I don’t have to look at the faces of bullies, so I tend to avoid it. It saves on stomach aches.

A Visitor

February 26th, 2020

When you are thinking about committing to a lifetime with another person, and working out which qualities will be harmonious with a long relationship, you could do a lot worse than looking for a good pie maker. Many, if not most of life’s travails can be buffered or eliminated by that first forkful of warm flaky crust sandwiched around some recently molten sugared fruit. If the blues are so bad that pie fresh from the oven doesn’t perk you up, then I’m afraid I’ve run out of advice for you.

If you’ve been convinced, and nothing but the best pie-maker in the world is good enough for you, then I have some bad news. She’s already taken and lives in the same country house that I do. If there is an art to good pie, then Alice is Michelangelo.

I can prove it to you by telling you a story about a recent visitor. The other day, Alice told me she heard something unusual in the wall. I do pride myself in listening to the house and understanding the meaning of its creaks and groans. I listened with her, and hearing nothing, told her it was likely the pipes running from the water jacket in the woodstove up to the storage tank in the bathroom. I sort of forgot about it until the next morning.

Alice had made a crumb cake and left it on the kitchen counter covered in tin foil. I’m usually the first downstairs each morning, and when I came down, I noticed the foil was askew, and that a tiny bit of the topping was missing. I chalked this up to someone forgetting to close the foil before bed the night before, and moved on with my day. This must have been on a Friday, because that is the day Alice sets aside to make our weekend pie.

We’re both trying to cut down on sweets, and have found that cold turkey works poorly for us. So we allow ourselves desserts only on the weekends, hence the Friday pie.

We both had a delicious slice warm from the oven before bed that night, and as is our habit, we left the pie on the kitchen counter with a dinner plate inverted over the top. When I came down Saturday morning, this is what I found:

The plate was pushed off, and the crust was tasted lustily. The picture does not show it, but there were small footprints on the counter where a creature that had had its feet in the filling was scampering away. My first thought was a red squirrel, a consistent and destructive nemesis. I went out to the shop and dusted off my live traps, and set them Saturday night. Sunday morning brought no results. But during the day on Sunday, while both of us were in the dining room, I noticed some movement in the corner of the kitchen floor by the dishwasher:

We both stood very still and observed as our visitor walked out into the kitchen brimming with curiosity about the pie givers across the room from him. Here is a closeup of the same picture:

I’m afraid I didn’t get very good pictures because although we were very interested in this little weasel, he got bored with us very quickly. He was kind enough to show off the black tip on his tail, and then he vanished back into the corner of the kitchen. This quick view was the last we saw of him. We have changed our habits about leaving covered food on the kitchen counter, and also disabled our mouse trap just in case the little guy might accidentally get himself caught.

We both felt honored by this visit, and hopeful he’ll come back again to say hello. Not only is he a beautiful creature, but I admire his taste in pie.