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.

Clenched Teeth

February 20th, 2017

Alice and I made a get-away trip to Chicago last week. We stayed downtown within walking distance of the Chicago Art Institute for 3 nights. This is approximately the same time of year we went last time, and it really works out well for us. The art institute is never empty, but it is far less crowded this time of the year, and especially so during the week. We got there early enough that if we knew exactly where we wanted to go, we could have a substantial amount of time all alone in some of the galleries.

I really enjoy these trips to the art museum. Steve Jobs said you should try, “…to expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then bring those things into what you’re doing.” The Chicago Art Institute is a good place to expose yourself to the best things humans have done.

As I wandered around trying to absorb everything, I found my shoulders getting tight and my teeth clenching. There is so much, and so deep, that after a while my brain goes into overload. That said, I often find that the things I remember best from the visit are from the times when I’m just on the edge of exhaustion.

Besides visiting the art institute, it is good for us to visit a major metropolitan area now and then. The diversity of people, lifestyles, food, clothing, and habits are refreshing. We live in a small enough community that we all get to know each other pretty well, and the surprises are limited. Back in Chicago, I was walking towards the back of the museum gift shop when John Lennon’s “Imagine” came on the shop’s sound system. I was grooving to it as I was walking when I saw one of the clerks dancing to the music. I smiled and struck up a conversation and learned she was born in Scotland, and raised in Uganda and Kenya before coming to the US. Her use of the language was excellent, and she was very knowledgeable about her topics. It made me grateful I’d stopped and smiled and said hello.

We are so fortunate to be able to live in a place where we can stretch out and cherish the natural world, but after only a 7 hour drive, engage with one of the world’s great cities. And now that we are retired we have the time to do it now and then. I’m already thinking about what I’d like to see next time.

Good Joints

February 6th, 2017

About a week ago, I stopped postponing a trip I’ve been wanting to make, got the bus ticket online, cajoled my surprised wife into dropping me off at Michigan Tech at 10:30 pm, and settled in on a very cold bench in a Plexiglas shelter on campus. The bus was scheduled to leave at 11:02 pm, so I had plenty of time to sit and think about things.

A young male walked up to the shelter after I was there for a few minutes, and asked me if this was the right place for the bus, and what time I thought it might arrive. He was smoking a cigarette while we talked. After the pleasantries, he asked me if I’d watch his duffel bag for a few minutes. I said sure and he walked away. He was gone for quite a while. I was thinking I might like to walk around a bit myself, but I had to stay and watch his luggage for him.

He did come back in plenty of time for the bus. My efforts to engage him in a conversation led to fairly short answers. He had a cigarette going most of the time we sat together. His speech was quiet and slurred enough that I had to listen carefully to be sure I understood what he was saying. He sat on the bench next to me, got out his smart phone, and scrolled around silently while we waited. I did glance over once and looked at his face. He had the look of someone that has smoked a lot, and I doubt he was 20 years old. Since it is a habit of mine to look for stories, I spun one for this young man.

The story I made up was this young man wanted to be cool and starting to smoke when he was young. He quickly and firmly became addicted. There were probably other drugs in his repertoire. He looked lithe and slender, but his posture indicated to me that he did not exercise methodically.

As someone in his mid 60s who has become limited physically due to bad knees, I secretly envied the young joints this young man possessed. I really wished I could have had a conversation with him about choices he was making, but in the couple of minutes left before the bus came, I decided not to start anything. If he would have listened to me, I’d have said a few things:

“I firmly believe your body is your most important possession. And just like any piece of equipment, it needs good care if it is going to last. You have your whole life ahead of you, are an adult, and the decisions you make today will ripple through the rest of your life. Especially decisions that might result in addiction.

Be skeptical of any bad habits you observe in other people that can lead to addiction. Make an honest assessment of your potential for addiction, and the higher the potential, the more careful you should be.

On the other side of that coin, look around at your friends for examples of positive habits. While not as addictive as some chemicals, good habits will serve you well once you get them under your belt. Here are a few to chew on:

eat good food,
drink lots of water,
read and/or experience something that challenges you every day,
cultivate friendships with people you admire, and be a good friend to these folks,
get enough sleep to keep yourself healthy,
make being active outdoors an important part of your life,
choose your life-mate carefully, and cherish that person,
establish an exercise regimen that both keeps you fit and looking good.”

Not very exciting I’ll admit, but if you make an effort to lift yourself up instead of corroding those good joints, yours might just last longer than mine.

Fake News (Part 2)

January 22nd, 2017

The 2016 maple syrup season was unique, in that life intervened at the end of it, forcing us to shut down more sloppily than other years. I like to get things cleaned and put away soon after the last tap is pulled, so I’ll be ready for the next season. I did get my buckets and lids in the basement early on, but unfortunately they sat until today.

I’d been playing a phycological game with myself for the past many months.

“Tomorrow”

“Come on Ted, how bad can it be?”

“etc”

The more I tend to put things off, the bigger the wall becomes keeping me from getting started. So they sat and waited, patiently, in the basement, mocking me each time I walked by. And once I put my Muck Boots ™ on (the floor in the basement is cold this time of year) ran the water, and started working, the job was completed in a couple of hours. I had to scrub harder due to the elapsed time, but that was my punishment.

I have a couple of habits when I’m doing relatively mindless repetitive tasks. Franco helps with the first one… he brings his rubber ring over, lays is on the ground hopefully in front of me, and stares at it with a slow tail wag. I kick the ring for him numerous times during the session, and to date, I’ve never managed to tire him out.

The second habit is to grab my Bluetooth speaker, pair it with my iPod, and listen to some podcasts while working. For a guy that can typically only manage one thing at a time, I sometimes surprise myself by keeping these three juggling balls in the air at once.

The project was moving along well. My rubber gloves kept a reasonable seal. I changed my water/chlorine bleach washing solution often, and the clean buckets gleamed as the finished stacks grew. I was listening to “This American Life ™ when an episode came on titled, Tell Me I’m Fat.

I listened to this podcast with great interest, since I’d just written a piece in my blog about the obesity epidemic. What I heard changed my opinion about the previous piece I wrote, and made me hope I hadn’t offended anyone with the ideas I’d expressed. The point I’d tried to make was that many of us are overweight because our bodies had evolved needing more exercise than many of us currently get. I still believe this to be true, but I regretted the edge the piece had to it… that overweight people were the way they were because of some fault of their own. It was not what I meant to say, but I’m afraid it may have came through in the piece.

A couple of things struck me about the This American Life ™ episode. One statistic stuck in my mind, “Fewer than 1 in 100 obese people get thin and keep it off, according to one recent study, which tracked over a quarter million people for nine years.” A woman was interviewed for the program was in that group of people that have kept the weight off. She explained that phentermine (an amphetamine-like drug) had helped her with the original weight loss, and that she still took them “…for a few months at a time a year, or sometimes it feels like half of the year.” So among the few that have kept the weight off, the price at least one of them must pay is a long term addiction to drugs.

I finished the episode confused and unhappy. And I felt determined to share a belief about psychological well being. Try to start each day with a goal of something doable that you hope to accomplish. End each day by taking a look at what you’ve accomplished, and pat yourself on the back. “Good job, tomorrow is another day.” We all have things we could improve in our lives. Some of our problems are obvious, some not, but everyone has room for improvement. These things happen in numerous small steps. Be your best cheerleader for the steps you make in the right direction, and never quit trying to make that next right step.