The Next Big Thing

February 21st, 2018

If you are like me, you’ve noticed your attention towards Amazon.com ™ increasing as the years go by. What started with a couple of orders per year has morphed into over a hundred for us in 2017. Amazon Prime ™ is so darned convenient, prices are good, and the selection is astronomical.

If you share my concern for the environment, and if you see the increasing trend of online ordering as I do, one major flaw in that system becomes glaringly obvious; the waste. Retail packaging is designed to intrigue a customer with some room on the credit card that is strolling down the retail isles. Catchy packaging can make the difference between small and large sales. But if the customer is strolling down e-isles instead, I would argue the flashy packaging is mostly irrelevant.

Once the e-order is placed, your item, securely bundled in it’s irrelevant plastic, will be put inside another box along with some packing material to keep it from wobbling enroute. The ratio of disposable packaging to useful product is surprisingly high.

So here is the next big thing — reusable packaging. Industry will standardize on certain sizes for product containers. These containers will be able to have a label slapped on them, and will ship safely as they are. When the customer receives their item, the empty package will be broken down and placed on the porch. The next time the UPS truck stops by, there will be an off-load and an on-load. The packaging will be returned to the manufacturer for cleaning and reuse.

Then we can go to work cleaning the plastic gunk out of the oceans without us throwing our hands in the air. The rate we are creating and disposing of this useless one-use packaging will go down to zero. And some cleaver entrepreneur will be fortunate enough to design and sell this packaging system to the world, and get very rich in the process.

Wouldn’t have believed it

February 15th, 2018

Our little 2007 Pontiac Vibe is a good car for us. Besides being just the right size for 2 people, the hatchback allows for a versatile array of gear hauling, including the crate for our 90# German Shepherd. We have also modified the Vibe with a front attachment that allows us to tow it behind the RV. This car works out so well for us that I started looking around for a replacement in case the miles pile up to the point we have to retire it.

It turns out that Pontiac no longer exists, but the car this is based on, the Toyota Matrix, is still made. It is getting harder to find manual transmissions however. So I broadened my search to see if we might be able to buy a winter car, and store the Vibe away with the RV each winter. This should cut the miles the Vibe drives each year thereby extending its life.

While I was doing all this research, my elderly parents were reaching the point that they could no longer drive. They happened to have a car they no longer needed. My brother took the car (a 2010 Cadillac CTS) to the local Cadillac dealer, and they determined that since it had 80,000 miles on it, and needed some work, that it wasn’t worth very much money. None of us siblings were interested in the car, and we were a whiskers breath away from accepting their offer. Then my brother mentioned in passing, “…it is all wheel drive.”

“Hmm,” I thought to myself.

As I was growing up, Cadillac made cars that I felt could have doubled as aircraft carriers. They kind of lumbered down the road. They had a lot of room inside, and a huge trunk, but I wouldn’t have characterized them as nimble, or good in the snow. Also, Cadillac’s cost a LOT of money… more than my budget. Perhaps it is snooty of me, but I also felt that people that drove them were trying to make it clear that they were pretty special folks… not the sort of message I try to convey in my life.

All wheel drive though. Hmm. To make a long story short, Alice and I decided to buy this car from our parents and drive it in the winter. And for the umpteenth time in my life, I learned I was wrong. This car is great in the snow. It is low to the ground, so you wouldn’t want to plow through snow drifts with it. But if the snow is not too deep, this car performs nearly as well as any 4-wheel drive I’ve owned.

One plus we discovered on a trip a few weeks ago that was unanticipated, was the excellent brakes. We live in white tail deer country, and on a recent trip to Escanaba, we were driving along after dark when 2 deer sauntered across the road in front of us. I had to stab the brakes. That car stopped right now. We were seriously lucky we had our seat belts on or the G forces would have tossed us forward. We missed the deer by a wide margin, and I accelerated away from the incident with a new respect. This is a well engineered car that is good in the snow, accelerates well, gets surprisingly good gas mileage, and oh yes, it has heated seats.

Stuff

February 4th, 2018

I watched George Carlin’s routine on “Stuff” the other day. If you haven’t seen it, I’d recommend doing a youtube search for it. Much of his work makes you laugh, but it also makes you think, and my thought was, “this winter…” during which there is bound to be some down time, “I will go through all my stuff!” If I see stuff I no longer need, I’ll make other arrangements with it. If it is junk, I’ll throw it out. If it is still useful, I’ll take it to St. Vincent’s ™ or the ReStore ™.

“How’s he doing?” You are thinking to yourself.

“Poorly,” is my answer.

I had decided to start with the file cabinet in the basement. For most of our married life, I’ve kept all the bank statements, credit card statements, receipts from purchases, bills, etc. Each category had it’s hanging folder bursting with stuff. My criteria was going to be, if it is older than 7 years, out it goes. Still, I made myself look at it before I tossed it.

It took me an afternoon to get through the top drawer in the file cabinet. I generated a good sized box of paper that no longer fit my 7 year criterium. Why 7 years? I think it has to do with the biblical story of the 7th son of the 7th son, indicating a rare individual. Can you imagine what the mother and grandmother of this rare individual must have looked like? Seven sons in the household, with some assorted daughters sprinkled in for good measure? Those poor women must have been wrecks!

This big box sat in the entry way on the table for some time. These documents had sensitive information in them, like the account numbers from banks that have changed names several times since I closed the accounts out. Still, they couldn’t just go into the recycling, so I determined that I’d burn them in the outside burner barrel. I put this off for a while, for a pretty good reason. The old burner barrel is something I walk past all summer, but in the winter, slogging out there is not something to be taken lightly. Besides getting my body out there, I also had to get the box of papers, something to light them with, and a dry place to put the box. Once I figured all that out, I had to sweep out all the snow from the barrel, drop some paper in the bottom, and then get a fire going.

Once it started to burn (“Are you sure about this,” Jiminy Cricket whispered in my ear) I dropped a few papers at a time into the fire so things would burn completely. It took some number of hours to get the job done. I now have one drawer of my 4-drawer file cabinet mostly empty. And that, my friends, is about the extent of my project to go through my stuff. Except one further project.

The other day I used the last of the bar of soap on the bathroom sink. I started to unwrap a fresh bar, and stopped mid-wrap. You see, for years now, when we finish a bar of soap, we put the left over soap chips in a coffee can under the bathroom sink. There were a lot of soap chips in there. When I queried my brain about a plan for the chips, very little came back to me. So I embarked on a plan to make new bars of soap out of these soap chips, thereby converting some more of my stuff into something useful.

I emptied the contents of the coffee can into the top of a double boiler, put it in it’s water filled mate on the back of the stove, and then did something else for a while. When a project like this is on the back burner (ha!) it is useful to leave the room for a while. Otherwise, your sense of smell might just adapt. As the structure of hundreds of old soap chips were changing due to the heat under them, the house did not smell great. Alice, bless her long suffering heart, wrinkled her nose, but said nothing as the hours slipped by. I added some water and stirred the mess until it started getting kind of sticky, and then spooned the slop into some old soap dishes we’ve accumulated over the years (more stuff!)

The results are interesting. As you can see from the picture, bar one of three is not beautiful. If your nose were nearby, you’d also think the bar smells interesting. The mixture of decades of soap made a bar that looks a lot like congealed puke, and smells like a freshly opened can of locker room disinfectant. The bar is a little too big in my hands, and it surely does not lather like a freshly opened bar of Ivory ™. But it does work, and I feel a little sense of pride every time I use it.

I now understand a little better why we have so much stuff. The pleasure I took from converting some useless stuff into a marginally useful thing was small compared to the pleasure you get when you decide you need something, choose what you want, bring it home, and put it someplace where you’ll find it when you need it. All the trouble of actually putting something to use that has been sitting around for decades provides a smaller amount of pleasure, at least to me. So the stuff piles up. Winter is more than half over, and I haven’t put a dent in my stuff yet. Maybe if I watch George Carlin one more time, I’ll feel better about it.

Mongo Feeder

January 31st, 2018

If you’re gathering statistics on the number of smiles/laughs generated (SLG) by non-humans in the Soldan household, Franco the German Shepherd wins. We did get a smile this morning from an unidentified mouse that moved a lot of Franco’s dog food from his dish to the cupboard where we keep the granulated sugar. The little guy piled it right against the door, so it spilled out when the door was opened. Franco ate it thinking it was some sort of bonus. It was actually his all along, and the potential loss could be considered a punishment for not guarding his food dish effectively.

In terms of SLGs per gram of body weight, I’d have to go with the Chickadees and Nuthatches that populate the little forest just west of our house each winter. They fly up to the feeders strung from the tree branches, seize a sunflower seed, and then fly someplace private where they can open their prize and swallow the insides. A Chickadee’s body weight is such that, it can land on a zip tie (one of natures natural building blocks, right along side of duct tape) sticking out of a bird feeder, and barely bend it. A zip tie is not designed to be sturdy when cantilevered out past a bird feeder, but these little guys do not fear landing on them, grabbing a seed, and then flying off.

Alice and I are not big travelers, but we do enjoy getting away now and then. On a recent trip, we visited Escanaba for an EMS conference, then spent 2 days in Milwaukee visiting my parents, and finished up with 3 days in Chicago visiting the Art Institute and pigging out on Chipotle. During our summer trips in the motorhome, we bring Franco, who is happy as long as the RV is moving down the road. In the winter, it isn’t as practical to bring him, so we usually board him. The Chickadees have to depend on the kindness of our neighbors. I have 3 sunflower seed feeders up, and they last about 1 1/2 days. This means that our little SLG per gram winners run out of food unless our neighbors stop by and fill the feeders. We hate to ask them, and a better solution was needed.

I use mostly tube feeders for my birds. Bigger birds tend to leave them alone because the feed hole is so close to the perch that they have to do gymnastics to get any seeds. Squirrels can get to them, and until we found the good quality plastic globes to protect them, we lost a lot of seeds to the squirrels. So I had this idea to capitalize on the tube feeder concept, but make it big enough to last several days during our winter trips.

I thought about tubes, and found that I had a chunk of (unused) 4″ plastic sewer pipe. It seemed like the tube part of the big feeder was solved, and all I had to do was figure out how to meter the seeds out without them all falling on the ground at once, and how to hang the thing in the tree. Enter Google ™. I appear not to be the only one looking for a squirrel-proof large feeder for small birds. The design I found was on the “instructables ™” site, although I’m sure there are many others out there. I added a couple of windows about 6″ up from the bottom so I could see when the seeds are running low without taking the whole thing down. For perches for the little birds, the author specified tie wraps, Which I have to admit I was skeptical of. His logic was sound, however. A sturdy perch gave a resourceful squirrel an avenue to attack the seed tube. So I used tie wraps.

The resulting feeder was finished, filled, and hung just before our January trip. The results were good, although I do see quite a few unopened seeds on the ground below the feeder. The blue-jays, squirrels, and Juncos seem not to mind cleaning these up. Our little Chickadees flit on and off the feeder all day, generating a smile whenever we see them.

Snowflakes

January 12th, 2018

Click here for 25k movie

We humans live most of our lives indoors. If Alice and I wanted to improve our inside experiences, we’d probably not live where we are. A second rate apartment on 5th Avenue in New York contains more luxury that we could ever hope to achieve in our humble home, no matter how hard we worked at it. We understand and acknowledge this. But the outsides…

Our two German Shepherds have done something for me that I can’t imagine anything else doing… they’ve gotten me outside at times of the day that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Tonight, for instance. Franco needed his evening walk, so I dutifully donned boots, jacket, mitts, and hat, and headed out the door. Oh yes, it was 8:00 and long dark this time of year, so I also put on my headlamp.

I would not have known that the perfect snow was falling had it not been for Franco’s bladder. I don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I were to suggest that I have to be careful about getting too interested in the snowflakes tumbling into the beam of my headlamp. With my head tilted back so I’m looking straight up, I fear that if I let myself go, I could lose my vertical orientation and tumble to the ground. There is nothing in my life experiences that seems even remotely like these snowflakes on a perfect evening. The movie I’ve added to this post gives a small idea what it’s like, but really, I wish I could take you all outside on a night like this, strap on a headlamp, and allow you to behold the wonders of a snow fall.

The Glade

January 11th, 2018

I was waiting in line at Econo Foods the other day. The fellow in front of me put down a $20 and ordered some Powerball and Mega tickets. He got $4 change. It is entirely possible I was reading something into this, but I pretty firmly believe that I saw this fellow smiling with anticipation when the clerk handed him his tickets.

The news lately has had a story each night about how high the powerball and mega-millions jackpots were. One article I saw said the odds of any one ticket being a winner were about 300 million to one. To give you a sense of proportion, the odds of any one of us being killed by a meteorite are estimated to be 1 in 1.6 million. Yet when we read a story about someone buying the winning ticket at a 7-11 ™ somewhere in rural Florida, we can just imagine ourselves in the story. All our troubles would be over!

As I was walking Franco the other day, I snapped the picture at the top of this post. It is a row of trees I planted some decades ago. My idea was to separate the pond from the road with a screen of trees. Each of the little guys I planted came from somewhere on our property. They were dug by me with a shovel, hauled to their new home in the wheelbarrow, planted, and given their first drink of pond water. They were watered regularly during the dry years, but their roots are now deep enough they can go it alone.

The story of me planting these trees is not as interesting as the powerball winner in Florida, but I would suggest it is more true to life. So many of us want to write a best selling novel, a hit song, star in a high grossing movie, or yes, win the powerball. Few of us will be able to enjoy any of these fantasies, but it doesn’t stop us from dreaming.

If I could take a young person aside and get them to listen to me for a sentence or two, I’d suggest to them that it is the good habits that you cultivate, and the little things you do and then regularly reinforce in your life that will pay the best dividends. It is tempting to wish upon a star, but planting and watering a little tree will likely pay off better in the long run.

DCW’s Mantra

December 28th, 2017

DCW’s Mantra

One Day at a Time
Stay in the Moment
Do the Next Right Thing
Never Give Up

Some years ago, I attended an Emergency Medical Support (EMS) conference in Marquette. As an EMT, I am required to attend training sessions and submit proof of them when I recertify with the state every 3 years. The keynote speech of this particular conference was given by EMS advocate and emergency physician Dennis Whitehead. Honestly, I remember very little about his talk, but I do remember the second to the last slide in his presentation. It was titled DCW’s Mantra and had only 4 lines of text. He explained that this short list has helped him in his life.

I am not fast with pen and paper, and Dr. Whitehead very fast with his mouth. Before I was able to copy the whole thing in my notebook, he had moved on to his last slide, which said something like, “Thank-you, Questions?” Doc got a deserved standing ovation for his talk that day, and I was left with an incomplete mantra in my notebook. What to do?

After his talk, Doc was quickly surrounded by well-wishers with questions. His laptop on the podium was unguarded. From my seat front row/center, I walked up to the podium, found the back-arrow button on his computer, punched it, and beheld the second to the last slide up on the screen (sometimes it pays to know how to run PowerPoint.) I sat back down, finished copying the mantra, and then hurried to my next class.

When I got home, I transcribed those powerful words onto my computer, printed them out, and posted them on the bulletin board next to my computer screen. They have been there ever since. Not only has this simple wisdom helped me, but I’ve shared with others too. Over the years as other family and friends needed some encouragement, Alice and I have sent the mantra along and received thanks.

Recently one of our dear friends had a medical issue and Alice sent her an email which included the mantra. Her husband transcribed the text onto a sheet of paper and taped it on the closet door along with some artwork from other well wishers. If I were in a hospital bed, that is the sort of thing I’d like to look out and see. It is sometimes hard to know what to do in situations like these, and those few simple words might provide a clue.

I was so pleased with the good that Alice’s email had done, that I searched and found Dr. Whitehead’s email address, and sent him an email explaining how his words had helped in my life and others’ over the years. Here is his response slightly edited:

Hi Ted:

A great pleasure to hear from you. I’ve given many talks over the years to EMS groups and emergency physicians, and I’m always delighted to hear something I once said had “good legs” and helped others. I’m gratified to learn this was one of them.

You made my day. Maybe we’ll run into one another sometime. Happy New Year to you and yours.

Yours,
Dennis

Saying Goodbye

December 15th, 2017

A friend posted a sad one on Facebook the other day. His beloved dog had to be put down. The sadness was just dripping off the few words that went along with the closeup picture of his dog’s face. I felt it in my gut.

I’ve had to say goodbye to 3 pets that way, a dog and two cats. It has been said you can be a dog person or a cat person, but not both. I do like both, but if I had to choose, I’d take the dog every time. I remember the day when I had to day goodbye to our German Shepherd Panzer. The poor old guy couldn’t use his strength to lift up his rear end. The vet and our family decided it was time to end this, so that is what we did. Panzer trusted me to carry him to the table in the clinic, and we looked at each other while the vet was busy finding a vein. I put my hand by his nose, and he sniffed, knew it was me, licked my hand, and was gone.

These are sad thoughts, but important ones. Panzer lived a life that had meaning for his family. We still grieve after 15 years of absence. We’ll all face a day when we can’t get up, and when that next elusive breath will be hard to catch. Did we live a life that meant something to the people around us? The time to think about it is not at the end of your life, but right now. Try to spend every day being a person that will be missed when you are gone.

How I Adjusted

December 2nd, 2017

This morning did not start well. As I was preparing a breakfast for myself, I turned on NPR news, as is my habit. I learned the Senate passed their tax reform bill at about 2:00 this morning with 51 votes. This vote follows on the heels of a affirming vote on a similar bill in the House some weeks ago. We can next expect the two bodies to work together to forge a version of this bill that both can agree with, another vote, and a signature from a willing president.

In a few sentences, I’ve described the process of transferring a large amount of money from the middle class to the wealthiest among us, with the promise that the transfer will spur such tremendous economic growth that the taxes generated will pay for the additional trillion plus deficit spending over 10 years.

This 500 page bill was negotiated in secret by the party in power, and provided to the members of the senate 2 hours before they were to vote. The copy was so poor that parts of the hand written changes were cut off in the photocopying process. It was one of the most shameful examples of our public officials jamming an unpopular bill through that I’ve witnessed in my 65 years.

I had a couple of choices on how to proceed with my day. After enjoying the breakfast that I made, I thought about some advice I gave my son when he went away to college. “Spend as much time as you can with exceptional people.” Some pretty unexceptional people had managed to put a dark slant on my morning, so I became determined to turn that around.

In my youth, my parents, bless them, saw to it we had a World Book encyclopedia in our home. When we had questions about most anything, it was a good place to start. To this day, I am thankful my parents were progressive enough to understand the importance of a purchase like that on a limited household budget. Today, if you can afford the cost of an internet connection, you can do so much better than that encyclopedia of 60 years ago. I’d recently listened to a Freakonomics ™ interview with Larry Summers, so I turned to Youtube ™ and looked up some of his speeches.

I don’t know if his macro-economics distracted me from my depression, or if the message he spoke so eloquently did, but spending an hour and a half with Larry Summers today did the trick. I know, as I’ve probably known all along, that there are lots of smart, capable, and good-hearted people out there that can do the right thing if called upon. I hope that this terrible tide in our political lives will change for the better as it always done in the past. I hope for the day when rational discourse and debate in our lawmaking bodies will replace the vitriol that currently reins.

While I’m waiting for that day to come, I plan to spend some more time learning about and listening to people like Sarah Cheyes. This award winning NPR journalist covered the war in Afganistan until she resigned in 2002, and started a cooperative in Kandahar to help local farmers find an outlet for their produce, thereby giving them an alternative from the opium poppy crops they have found so lucrative. Sarah learned Pashto to better enable her to work with her new neighbors to improve their lives.

I think it is inevitable that we’ll be exposed to villains and heroes in our daily walk through life. And it is probably inevitable that the villains will often make the most noise. When it happens, I’ve decided to seek out the heroes wherever I can find them, and if I can find a clip on Youtube ™ where I can listen to their words and watch their eyes, so much the better. I’m ready to call it a day, and I hope for a better tomorrow.

Why Did I Change?

November 18th, 2017

At a social event today, a friend of a friend asked me a question that sincerely seemed to interest him. “Why did you become a vegetarian?”

The answer to that question is pretty simple. I was about 20 years old, and had been thinking about my diet for quite some time. Then this thing made the news, where consumers were concerned that the price of beef was being manipulated, and suggested a consumer boycott of beef for a week. This sort of thing appealed to my hippie sensibilities, and I joined in.

In those days, I ate a lot of Burger King Whoppers. It was summer, and my travels often took me by the Burger King on Logan St. in Lansing. The window of the van was down, and oh how the smell of those flame broiled chunks of beef used to waft into the Dodge with me. I stuck it out though. When the week was over, I didn’t go back to beef. I’ve been sticking it out for 45 years now.

I’ve been thinking about that conversation all day. The question that wasn’t asked, was why had I remained a vegetarian all these years? No beef, pork, poultry for 45 years? That is a little tougher to answer, but as I walked around with my thoughts today, I did come up with something.

One of my neighbors and good friends raises a pig a year for meat for his family. This little guy has a pretty good life. He has a spacious pen full of clean straw. He can go outside whenever he wants. He has plenty of food and water. And this little guy also has human interaction. When I walked by his pen, he stood on his hind legs with his front legs on the pen wall, and begged to have his ears scratched. He looked as though he enjoyed the process. He seemed to get plenty of this sort of attention from the family that was raising him.

The children in this family understand something better than I ever did. They know where their food comes from. They understand that when their pig has to leave, that he’ll return in paper wrapped packages that go into the freezer. When they have some bacon, they’ll think about their pig.

I am capable of many things, but what this family accomplishes with their farm animals I just could not do. I have not been able to convince myself that my taste for bacon is worth exchanging a life for.

My guess is that my neighbors don’t save much money by raising their yearly pig, compared to what they would pay in a grocery store. That is because pig raising on an industrial scale is much more efficient than it is on the scale of a small farm. That efficiency translates to not much of a life for the pigs, however. Piglets are separated from their mothers very early, and kept in separate pens. Since the outside is full of dangers for them, they are usually kept inside. Their food and water arrives automatically, and their waste removed by conveyor. When the correct weight is achieved, they are shipped off to the slaughter house, and that is that.

So I guess if I would have been asked why I’ve maintained my vegetarian diet all these years, the above would be part of the answer. Surely, I feel, we can consume the food we like without being cruel to the animals that provide it. If all pigs were treated like my neighbor’s is, I still wouldn’t eat meat, but I think I’d feel better about the whole thing.