That Fragile Ego

September 17th, 2017

It has become increasingly clear to me lately that the image I have of myself is intrinsically bound up in the tools I control. This fact is clearest when things break, and the repair is not simple.

What are humans really? We don’t see well, nor can we smell well. We have no claws or decent teeth for defending ourselves. Our protective fur has worn off many thousands of years ago. We have hands with thumbs, and brains big enough to control those thumbs. But more than anything, our brains have developed to allow us to work together in groups. That is our strength, and the secret to our success.

The tools I control, be they metal, electronic, or some combination, were not designed or made by me. I control them because smart people cooperated to design and manufacture them, and have made a profit by making them available to me. I have access to many more tools than I can possibly use. Modern man, it seems, has the job to envelop himself in a cocoon of tools of his choosing, and keep them operating. That is the persona I project more than any other I can think of.

Lately, I’ve had a string of bad luck with my stuff. Things have been breaking, and I have not been able to figure out how to fix them. My life is such that without them, I function poorly if at all. And that gives someone a lot of power over me (the generic me.)

I’m fortunate to have enough money for my needs. But what does that mean? During mid-November, 2008, Zimbabwe’s inflation rate was 79.6 billion percent. It could be argued that regardless of how much money you had at the beginning of that month, it wouldn’t be enough to assist you by the end. There were people in charge in Zimbabwe that made decisions that caused this inflation. These people had tremendous power over their countrymen.

Back to my string of bad luck. As things I depended on started going wrong, and I was powerless to fix them, I began to feel differently. I was less confident. I was less likely to try new things. I took stock of the things I had that were working, and cherished them. That is until I examined the roots of why they were still working. I reasoned that it would not be difficult for someone with more power than me to pull the plug on those things too.

Pictures I saw of the people coping with hurricane Irma brought this into focus for me. They looked dazed. You shouldn’t have to walk hip deep in water to cross the road. Your home should be air conditioned. You should be able to call or text whoever you want whenever you want. You should be able to jump into your car and drive wherever you need to go. But they couldn’t.

The Irma affected people had their egos bruised like mine, albeit on a much larger scale. What happens to us when events conspire to make us question the foundations we cherish? In my experience, as soon as things start working reliably again, we depend on them just as we did before, and as our confidence builds back up, we scour the network for newer, better, and more powerful tools, to allow us to do whatever it is we are doing faster and better.

Perhaps that explains my fragile ego lately. I own some property from which I can cut wood to heat my home, and produce lumber for building materials. I grow food in the gardens, and know how to preserve and store it. I think I’ve been skeptical of “the system” all my life, but have clearly been seduced by it. I learned a long time ago I can’t just live in a tipi and hunt buffalo. The tools I am so skeptical about are part of me, and I’d better get used to it.

Did it Happen?

September 3rd, 2017

We had a wedding here about 4 weeks ago. It was an event we’d been planning and preparing for all summer. It was a rainy summer too, but the clouds parted and we had perfect weather. In thinking back, I can’t think of anything I’d change about it.

The wedding ceremony was in our front yard by the pond closest to the road. The reception which followed, was held on a spit of land between our two ponds. I’d long wanted to do something with this piece of land, but have never gotten around to it. This summer, I leveled a 40×60 section of it with my bulldozer and planted grass seed. The grass had to be an acceptable lawn by the time the crew arrived to put up the tent for the reception. And what a tent it was!

Trucks with tables, chairs and the big tent arrived, and crews swarmed over the site. Soon the caterer arrived and provided food and drink. By the time the guests started to arrive, the whole thing we’d planned had to fly on its own, because we were all so busy enjoying the event. The meal was great, the cake fabulous (complete with cake toppers sculpted by Steve!) We had about 10 groups of folks that camped in tents on our property. It was like a small city.

We laughed and cried, ate and partied until we were exhausted. The next morning we had to get up early and be sure the tables were folded, chairs stacked on their stands, table cloths folded, and table centerpieces put away in their respective boxes. We were just finishing up when the people came to take down the tent and carry it away. We were so intensely busy we didn’t have much time to internalize the whole thing.

Then, as quickly as it started, it was over. One by one folks packed up and left until it was just Alice and me.

I distinctly remember the day after everyone had left. I walked out to the back field and surveyed the area. It was like the thing never happened. Where there had been a tent was a field of grass with some wood chips. There was barely a shred of evidence on that lawn. I found one cigarette butt, and a green bean. The porta-potties were gone, as were the camper’s tents. I looked in vain for something to indicate that this thing had taken place, and really couldn’t find much.

At that point, my mind started playing tricks on me. Had it happened at all? How hard would be for someone to hypnotize me into just thinking it had happened? We had pictures, a green bean, and great memories of the event.

In the literature of the world, there are stories about creatures with supernatural powers that like to tease us mortals. They mess with our minds and trick us into thinking our wallet is full of money, but when we wake up there is nothing except a handful of leaves. Just when we’re convinced that the whole thing was a dream, a large denomination bill is found in among the pile of leaves. I can sure understand where these international authors came up with the idea for these creatures. I wonder if one of them is lurking between our two ponds?

Habits

September 2nd, 2017

I was sitting in the bathroom the other day when I felt something on my neck. With well practiced efficiency, I grabbed the wood tick between the nails on my thumb and forefinger, placed him in the center of a piece of toilet paper, wadded it up, tossed it in the toilet, and flushed it away. This required no thought on my part, as it is a ritual that is performed many times each year during tick season.

That event made me think about habits, and I clearly remembered my aversion to habits during my teen years. In my family structure, all decisions were made for me, and often, it seemed, as a show that what I wanted or needed didn’t matter as much as the fact that I was under control. I rebelled, as I did so many times when I was pushed. I decided that habits were a curse. That being free to do as I pleased when I pleased was the goal, and I avoided habits as much as possible. In my early adulthood, no longer under the parental yoke, my days were unencumbered by habit and routine as much as possible.

Somewhat later in my adult life, a friend of mine told me he had once worked as a draftsman. He said he noticed two strategies among his colleagues. Some used a drafting tool, and left it on the table. They repeated this throughout the day. By the end of the day, all their tools were in layers on their table. My friend observed that they sometimes struggled to find what they needed in the mess. The other type opened a drawer, pulled out a tool, used it, opened the drawer again, and put it back. Every time. My friend observed that these people spent almost no time looking for anything. My friend decided to copy the later group.

It is lucky we are not granted the ability to see in the future. If my teen-aged self would have seen what a habit infested senior citizen I would become, I might not have made it to adulthood. My slippers always sit in the same place by my bed. The contents of the bedside table do not vary. I can reach into my drawer and know exactly what is in there, and where each thing is. My pajamas are either on, or hanging on the hook on my closet door.

And the tools in my workshop? I’ll bet you could name a tool in my workshop, blindfold me, and that I could make a pretty good stab at walking up and putting my hand on or near that tool. To this day I believe the effort to keep things neat and organised is well worth the effort. Out here in the country, we can’t depend on a Lowes ™ being open 7 days a week for supplies and tools. I have to have a stock of tools, pipe fittings, wire, lumber, and many other things so I can cobble together what I need without jumping into the truck. And I’ve gotten pretty good at it too. The struggle is to make sure things that are no longer useful don’t hang around. Getting rid of a formerly useful tool or a potentially useful 2×4 is not in my nature, but I’m working on it.

Slow and Steady

May 21st, 2017

A pretty good sized creek crosses our road through a culvert. We fondly call it the Watson Creek (get it? Think DNA) When we first moved here over 40 years ago, the county road commission was kind of letting things go on this road, hoping they might be able to abandon it as they had several other local uninhabited roads. When it became clear we were here to stay, our local road crew dug up the small old concrete culvert that contained the Watson Creek, and installed a large corrugated metal one. This culvert has served us well all the years we’ve lived here.

We’ve had an unusually wet spring this year, and the culvert is starting to show its age. Erosion is starting to set in on the edges of the embankment. If much more road crumbles into this creek, we could become stranded in that direction. So I decided to act.

Franco and I walk on this road daily; usually after supper. And I find my part of the walk is more enjoyable if I have a project. Over the years, I’ve hunted for road copper, and fixed deep ruts with rocks I gather along the way.

My assessment of this problem is the rushing water from the outflow of the culvert is washing away enough of the dirt at the base of the culvert to cause the banks to slip. What is needed is a rock base to disperse the power of the running water. So our evening walks now include a hunt for suitable rocks. I can only carry a few rocks each time, which I dutifully toss into the pool of water below the road bed. But even just a few each day can start to add up, as you can see in the picture. It can be discouraging when your hard earned rock just disappears in the pool, but I know it might stop the next rock from rolling too far, and after a hundred days or so, we’ll have a nice little pile of boulders down there just daring the road to wash away.

New Light

May 14th, 2017

I just turned 65 last week, so I’ve lived a long life. And if there is one thing that has been constant most of my life, it has to do with light. When you turn on the light switch, and the light does not come on, you get to roll up your manly sleeves and fix that problem, by unscrewing the light bulb, inserting a new one, and yelling, “Try it now!” Then, trying hard not to be smug, slapping your hands together and thinking, “Well, I fixed that problem.”

This week I saw an end to those days. I installed some new light fixtures in the basement when one of the two died irrevocably. No new bulb, because those bulbs are no longer made. I was an early adopter of screw in florescent bulbs, but unlike their offspring, these were round bulbs and came with a custom made deflector. I looked around in town last week for a replacement, couldn’t find what I wanted, so ordered the fixtures you see in the picture from Amazon. The thing weighs only a few ounces, and those little yellow squares you see are the “bulbs.” They give off more light than the previous fixtures for a fraction of the power.

And you never replace the bulbs. There are no bulbs to replace. The LEDs that give off the light are rated for 50,000 hours. By the time these bad boys wear out, there’ll undoubtedly be a replacement that will make these fellows look old and obsolete.

My major concern with these new fixtures, is how will flex my male prowess at fixing things? Will I be required to actually know something about the thing I have to fix? If so, I fear I’m in for a rude awakening. It won’t be the first time, and it probably won’t be the last.

The Secret

May 9th, 2017

While I’m boiling maple syrup my thoughts wander. It is sort of like having a good think while driving, except the consequences of failure are less, so the thoughts can be deeper. On this occasion I was thinking about my life, and about the many good parts of it. I wondered if there was a pattern that I could share with others, especially those early in their life’s journey, so they too might have a shot at such a good ride.

I was reminded of a memorial service I had recently attended. This being held in a Lutheran church, there was a meal after the service. Alice and I happened to sit across the table from an old colleague from the university, Randy Freisinger. Randy was a professor in the humanities department, and although he and I had only crossed paths a couple of times in the 22 years I worked at MTU, we’d developed a friendship. We hadn’t seen each other in probably 12 years, but the reunion conversation sparked into high gear very quickly.

Somehow the conversation turned to the volunteer work I do at the fire department in Tapiola. Randy asked me if that wasn’t the fire department that was right next to the Tapiola ball diamond, and I said yes it was. Randy explained that he’d played slow-pitch softball there many times over the years and had fond memories of the place. In fact, he said, he’d even written a poem about it. In the poem, he named it the Alston ball field, but only because the words worked better. Between you and me, he told me, the poem is about the Tapiola ball field.

It seemed that after that interaction, several more such interactions occurred. One a phone call from a long lost friend and colleague in Santa Fe, New Mexico, one a chance encounter at the hardware store, several others on facebook and email. I realized after these chance encounters that my life had been enriched because of the caliber of the people I had shared it with. And that is where the advice comes in.

At your young age, you may not be planning your life out, because you are so busy living it. You haven’t had many opportunities to see the effects of good decisions and bad, so you are concentrating on cruising along and having fun. Good for you! If I could get you to slow down a minute and consider one small change in your life, it would be this:

Associate yourself with exceptional people. It is your peers that will do more to point you in a positive direction than any other force. Start with your life mate. I was lucky in that regard, but there is only one of her, and she is already taken. Make a supreme effort to find a partner that will lift you up. Do whatever it takes to win the hand of that person. It is an investment that will pay you the best return of your lifetime.

Once that is done, educate yourself, and expose yourself to educated people. Be friends with folks that seem to “understand.” Folks that know how to think and are willing to lend a helping hand. And you be willing to lend them a helping hand. Forge partnerships with people that impress you. Always being on your guard, however. There is no pain in life like the pain of betrayal. You can find yourself reaching out and becoming vulnerable to another, only to have your faith in them betrayed. Learn from these encounters and grow stronger and more capable, rather than bitter.

Notice how open-ended all this advice is. What does he mean by “educated?” “understand?” “impress?” Good questions, and ones only you can answer. Educated to one person can mean something totally different to another.

The concept is to look at a person in terms of the life they are living and have lived, and decide if you’d like to be wearing similar shoes. If so, cultivate a friendship with that person if possible. And remember that a lot of ground can be covered in good literature. Read and understand, and test your understanding in the real world. Concentrate on actions, not words. The world is full of good talkers. “Talk is cheap” is one of my Dad’s favorite sayings.

Oh yes, the poem. It has been published twice, initially in The Laurel Review and then as part of a chapbook entitled Hand Shadows (GreenTower Press, 1988). The author is my friend Randall R. Freisinger, and his poem is reprinted here with his permission.

Slow-Pitch Tournament, Alston, Michigan
–June 15, 1986

It’s Sunday, mid-June. Somewhere south of White Pine
Borges, Benny Goodman, and Alan Jay Lerner are dying.
Here in Alston even death and metaphysics have turned
more palatable with bratwurst, beer, and near-perfect
weather. A bracket tacked up by concessions
lists thirty teams in double elimination.
Just two–a scrub crew of local oldtimers and
some college kids from a nearby town–
remain for the championship game. Losers gather
to stare at the bracket’s absolute right
tracking logic, yet even loss is half
illusion here when there’s always the next
weekend in L’Anse or Ontonagon.

Out along both foul lines behind snow
fences players and girlfriends or wives
drink Millers and Strohs, complaining,
regretting their losses, but they know
there were plenty of reasons to lose,
and now unstrung muscles and sore arms
don’t much matter, for somehow this milieu–
closed and precisely composed of forgiveness
and second chances–is what they’ve always needed
in a universe. The older players are young
enough still to win and remember.
There’s a jigger of sun after winter
and hundreds of hearts chafing for base
hits or running one-hand catches.
Even two kids whisked away last night
by ambulance after being hit on their motorcycle
by a drunk driver are back stitched
and on crutches, clear proof if any were needed
this brief conjunction of space
and time has dispensed with rules.

Everyone says the leftfielder, who’s five
for five, hides a bag under his loose uniform–
they don’t know, cancer, maybe. They say
he’s a hell of a guy, only twenty-nine,

(No Stanza Break))

a real fighter they say. In the last
of the ninth he slides on his side deep
down the line at the back of the warning
track to end the game. A thin membrane
of silence snaps when he rises, intact,
and no one thinks to stop clapping.

It’s the infinite, fugitive moment
for the young winners, composed they say
mostly of Apostolics, non-drinkers,
but even that is believable here
in the dénouements of final beers and
mosquitoes. A ground crew retrieves bases.
Old, bruised heroes sprawl on car hoods,
drinking, rehearsing plays that did them in,
the ones that by winter will slide
toward myth. They are far from bitter
at the end of this familiar script
which soon takes them home to make love
to their women who all day have grown
steadily, suddenly more beautiful.

Bomb Shelter

March 24th, 2017

Around last Christmastime, there was a classified ad in one of the local papers that read something like this:

“Wanted: nuclear bomb shelter constructed on my property. Must be ready by January 20, 2017.”

Several of us have had apocalyptic fears since the last election. A piece in the New Yorker a while back (1/30/2017) talked about wealthy people building or purchasing high-end subterranean bunkers complete with food, water, and facilities, designed to allow those that can afford it to ride out the apocalypse in style, comfort, and safety. Many of my local friends believe their deer rifles will be a valuable tool if civilization hiccups.

In the same New Yorker article, Stewart Brand, former editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, and one guy I credit for helping me find my way in a very chaotic world in my younger years, suggested that hiding out in defendable enclaves until civilization sorts things out is escapism. He suggests that the civilized world has “chugged along” through a financial crisis, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, and health crisis such as Ebola.

I like Brand’s tactic. I see strength in community. Strength in knowing your neighbors, knowing they’ll help you just as you have helped or will help them. I like the idea that I am not roaming around trying to take things from those better prepared than I was, but instead actively attempting to keep things “chugging along” by cooperating.

Why We Build Castles

March 10th, 2017

In our family room, we have this table that allegedly came with our house. The story goes that the carpenter that built our house in the 1920s (for $800!) was asked by Alice’s grandparents, to make them a table. He had some nice clear pine lying around, and knocked together this table. It has a hinged folding leaf that stays in place with a pair of hidden sliding 2x2s. Underneath the table are places where the children, including Alice’s Dad, supposedly scribbled with pencils.

This table has almost everything. It was built by a man who apparently believed so strongly in socialism (a Red Finn) that he eventually emigrated to Russia. It was used by Alice’s Grandparents, Dad, Aunts, and Uncles, and shows traces of their growing up (even an old wad of gum!) It was given to us by the member of the family that had stored it until we fixed up the house and could be returned to its rightful location.

This table is also one you would probably walk right past at a garage sale if it had a tag for $5 on it. Lots of sentimental value, but not much of a table when you get right down to it. When our family is gone from the planet, this table will probably follow us to a landfill in short order.

But what if that family had had some Jed Clampett luck and discovered a million dollar lode of silver on their property? The table would have probably been tossed out by them long ago, and replaced with a birdseye maple table with matching cushioned chairs. Other valuable pieces would have followed because heck, we can afford it! These pieces were too good not to take care of, so a bigger house was necessary. And when that house filled up, an addition was built or a new one sought. If the money holds up, a castle, full of historical pieces, stands where the little house once stood.

And so it goes. Our everyday stuff is run through the wringer, worn, patched, sold or scrapped. The expensive stuff needs to be polished, kept at the right humidity, and sold at Sotheby’s when the family has no further use for it.

I do enjoy visiting museums where these amazing pieces are on display. I’m most interested in the skill the craftsmen had to conceive, carve, and join these pieces often without the use of any power tools. But I also get a lot of satisfaction working on a puzzle on our plain pine table, thinking about our ancestors sitting around it, shooting spitwads, making faces, and doing what children have always done. The stories that table could tell…

We’re Better Than This

March 1st, 2017

After last November’s election, I sat in shock for some time. After the shock wore off and I could start to think again, I puzzled over the results. I believe in our democracy, in that when we vote, the tallies are accurate. The man in the white house received the majority of electoral votes. “How could this have happened,” I asked myself. “We’re better than this.”

Then it came to me.. we are NOT better than this. This is what we are. There is nothing and no one to blame. This is how we voted, and for 4 years or until impeachment, this man is our president. Period. I decided I needed to find my solace elsewhere, and I found a slice of it in the work of H. L. Mencken. Mr Mencken died when I was 4 years old, not allowing much of an overlap, but his writing; oh my goodness…

I found his book, “A Mencken Chrestomathy” on Abe Books ™ for a couple of bucks. I brought it with me to the doctor’s office this morning, and cracked chapter 1 while I was waiting for the doctor. I’m guessing it may be a little strange to some, but while I sat alone in the examination room, I laughed loud and long; this on the first few pages of the lengthy tome. Mr. Mencken, you and I are going to get along fine, and I think with your help, I’m going to weather the next few years.

Mencken, in talking about life on planet Earth, pays special attention to his lifelong object of satire, the human species, when he writes, “Of all animals, indeed, he seems the least capable of arriving at accurate judgments in the matters that most desperately affect his welfare. Try to imagine a rat, in the realm of rat ideas, arriving at a notion as violently in contempt of plausibility as the notion, say, of Swedenborgianism, or that of homeopathy, or that of infant damnation, or that of mental telepathy. Man’s natural instinct, in fact, is never toward what is sound and true; it is toward what is specious and false. Let any great nation of modern times be confronted by two conflicting propositions, the one grounded upon the utmost probability and reasonableness and the other upon the most glaring error, and it will almost invariably embrace the latter. It is so in politics, which consists wholly of a succession of unintelligent crazes, many of them so idiotic that they exist only as battle-cries and shibboleths and are not reducible to logical statement at all.” (H. L. Mencken, “A Mencken Chrestomathy”, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, 1982)

This on page 7 of some 600+ pages of Mencken’s choice of the best of his writing. I think for the next few weeks, I’ll be on the couch with Mr. Mencken. If you happen to be in the next room and hear laughter, don’t worry, it is only me, becoming regrounded.

U. S. Capitol

February 24th, 2017

The first congressional district of Michigan has a new congressperson, Jack Bergman. I began to receive an e-newsletter from his office shortly after he was sworn in. In the first one, I saw, among other things, a “survey” which seemed biased in favor of right wing issues. So I printed out the newsletter, and in the white space left on the front and back, I wrote, with pen and ink, a response to that survey, suggesting that it wouldn’t gauge the true sentiment of Congressman Bergman’s constituency. This was put in a paper envelope and mailed to Washington. No response.

The second e-newsletter I received talked about the Affordable Care Act, which I am passionate about. Again, I penned and mailed my thoughts. Again no reply… until this morning.

It was a little after 10:00, and I had just finished giving Franco his medicine, food, and water. I was slicing some onions for one of my favorite breakfasts; taters and eggs, when the phone rang. The caller id said, “U. S. Capitol.”

The caller asked if this was Ted. Yes it was. He then identified himself as Gabe Hisem from Congressman Bergman’s office in Washington. I turned off the burner and sat down at the table. Gabe was responding to my letter!

He said he appreciated my letter and wondered if there were any issues I’d like to discuss with their office. Hoo Boy, yes there were. I started with the survey. I told him I had experience with surveys during my professional life at the university, and that the survey they published seemed designed to reinforce a right wing agenda. He explained the survey was a carry-over from Congressman Bergman’s predecessor, Dan Benishek. I thought it looked familiar 🙂

Next we talked about a town hall meeting in the copper country. Gabe said their office was aware we were interested in a town hall meeting, and that they are doing their best to schedule one in the near future. I pressed him, but that was the most I was able to get.

“However,” he said, “there are two upcoming phone townhalls planned for next month.” My ears perked up. March 7th and 30th at 7:00 pm the congressman’s office will host a conference call format where constituents can call in and express their views directly. Gabe asked me for my name and phone number, and said I’d be contacted as the dates grew nearer with the phone number to dial and code so I could participate. Score!

We also talked extensively about the Affordable Care Act. I requested and received contact information from this young man, who is a resident of the Traverse City area, BTW. If you’d like to call and express your views and/or request a slot in the town hall meetings in March, dial (202) 225-4735. Anyone should be able to help you, but when I call next, I’ll ask for Gabe. He explained that 11-1 is usually their busiest time, and that Fridays are usually quietest. There are times when all 4 lines are busy, though, so don’t give up if you receive a busy signal.

We may not make an impact on the thinking of our new congressman, but at least he won’t be able to say he isn’t hearing anything from his constituents. When I was in high school I remember learning how a representative democracy is supposed to work. Occasionally, it appears that it does.