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.

Reef Lessons

February 3rd, 2020

Alice and I were lucky enough to get away for a while this past Christmas. We took a cruise ship in the Western Caribbean, where we were able to spend some quality time on the beautiful tropical beaches there. One seldom hears complaints about the sandy beaches in the tropics. Until recently, I did not know that the sand on those beaches is comprised mostly of parrotfish poop.

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According to my snorkeling guide in Belize, there are about 80 species of parrotfish world wide, and in the reefs of Belize are found around 20 of them. Parrotfish are identified by their parrot-like mouths. They make their living by cleaning algae off the coral. As coral declines, algae can invade them, causing the coral to get sicker. Parrot Fish have strong beaks that can pry up these sick sections of coral, which they chew and swallow in order to extract the nutritious algae. They then excrete the inedible parts. One large parrotfish can excrete 200# of sand per year. Multiply that by all the parrotfish in the world, and give them the millions of years they’ve been munching and pooping, and voila, you have sandy beaches.

Although I tried several times, I was unable to get a positive view of a parrotfish. My guide explained my trouble was due to my shark-like behavior. He told me that during high tide some sharks come a long way up into the coral, and looking for a meal, they can get into the shallows by turning on their sides and churning their tail fin. When my guide pointed out a parrotfish for me to look at, I looked where he was pointing and dove under water churning my fins. This behavior reminded the parrotfish of a shark attack, and they quickly scattered before I could spot them. I was not too disappointed though, because there are lots of youtubes of parrotfish available.

I tried to imagine an old parrotfish swimming around the reef looking down at the sand. It seems possible to me that one determined fish could create many hundreds of pounds of sand. Sand is his legacy. I wonder what the legacy of humans will be once we’ve been around for a while. What is our collective legacy and what will be our individual legacy? As I swim around and observe the flotsam in my wake, will any of it settle to the bottom and merge with the other flotsam? Will I manage to get out of the way when sharks swim sideways during high tide? Will I wear my teeth down chewing up the coral while sucking out the algae?

Moon Dog

December 6th, 2019

For the several months that have gone by since we lost Franco, I’ve managed to maintain my morning walks. I still think about him and even talk to him on these walks. I still miss him a great deal, but not as badly as I once did. Now the walks are more joyful… a good-habit legacy of the years he and I had together.

Most evenings I also get out for a walk. This winter has been such a great one that I eagerly anticipate my evening walks. Tonight I was treated with a special event… a Moon Dog. This is a circular light around the moon that is quite rare in my experience. In order for a Moon Dog to form, the moon has to be close to full, and there have to be enough high ice crystals in the atmosphere to do their magic with the moon’s light. Tonight the moon was high enough in the sky during my walk that the Moon Dog was a complete circle around the moon.

I did try to take a picture of it, but it came out as a tiny white dot on a black background.

I’ve been thinking about good habits. One of them is owning a dog. Some others are eating right and exercising. These walks I take are enjoyable in their own right, but are also good for me. It gets me out into the real world, where the events of the seasons play out in technicolor for anyone interested in observing. It is unusual for me to encounter a car on our road while I’m walking, which is a plus as far as I’m concerned. I can be alone with my own thoughts as my heart rate ramps up to match my exertion.

One of the purposes of my blog is to extol the virtues of living in the country. Having a beautiful safe place to walk is surely one of the many. Some evenings I am even treated to coyote and/or wolf howling. It doesn’t get much better than that.