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Why Did I Change?

Saturday, 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.

Halloween Through the Ages

Thursday, October 26th, 2017

A recent facebook post reminded Alice and me how busy we might have been this time of the year, 25-30 years ago. Halloween was Steve’s favorite holiday. For him, I don’t think it was so much the candy, but instead the opportunity to come up with a distinctive costume, and then show it off. He started off like most other children, donning a costume made of cloth and mask. One of the earliest we can remember was made possible by Grandma and Grandpa… Steve was an authentic Laplander:

The next year, it was to be a witch:

Then we started getting creative. Steve was always front and center in the design of these unorthodox costumes. I made the structural parts work, and when I told him something would just not work, he was cool about it and we revised until the possible just peeked around the corner. The following year he decided that a mailbox would suit him. Oh, the mailbox had to have a door that opened, a slot for seeing through, and a flag:

Steve had an unusually large vocabulary throughout his school years. One of his nicknames was “walking dictionary.” He filed that idea away until an October rolled around. We enlisted Alice’s sewing skills this time:

The next year Steve decided to be a lamp. It was mostly a sewing project, because in addition to a lampshade, complete with gold tassels, he wanted a sleek gold pedestal for his body. The lamp needed to have a working light with a switch that he controlled from inside. Alice worked so hard on this project that we forgot to take many pictures of it. This is the only one we could find:

Our most ambitious project of all followed. Steve decided to be a pop can. We surveyed various cans, and settled on Pepsi for its distinctiveness, and also the relative simplicity of the graphics. We bought a can, drained the contents, and cut the can apart and laid it flat. We then inscribed a precise grid on the can in pencil. Then we got some cloth, and thumb tacked it down to a wooden frame. We then installed thumb tacks at precise locations all along the frame, and wound string on the tacks to produce a grid on the cloth. Starting with cell 1A, we painted what was in the square on the flattened pop can. We enlisted the help of the neighbors to complete this project. My job was to make the frame out of thin, bendable, strips of cedar. Steve insisted on a pop top, and a cardboard cutout simulating a geyser of pop. The results were pretty cool:

The Fuel Stop From Hell

Tuesday, October 24th, 2017

Alice, Franco and I recently returned from a 10-day RV trip. Part was spent visiting my parents in Milwaukee, but most was on the road to and from Kentucky. Make no mistake about one thing… an RV is a truck, and a big truck at that. We “dingy” tow our car behind the RV when we travel as well. Dingy towing means you install a special steel frame on the front of the car, and attach it to a tripod steel towing bar which plugs into the trailer hitch socket in the back of the RV. The car rides behind the RV with all 4 wheels on the ground. There is an important caveat to this method of towing… you can’t back up. You must unhook your car before you can safely back up.

So our 29′ RV is really a big truck, with the added bonus that it can not be easily backed up.

I’d enjoy stationing myself on the side of the road sometime near a gas station off a major highway. I’d like to watch the faces of RVers who are also dingy towers. As they are pulling up to the gas station, I’d enjoy watching them during the 1 or 2 seconds they have to assess the fueling station facility before they decide to pull in or go past. Because once you pull in, there is no backing out.

I should also mention that large truck stops are golden for diesel burning RVs. Semi trucks (who can back up) are given great islands for fueling. They have a lot of real estate on both sides of the pumps. Using this real estate, the trucker can line up properly with the pump, and add diesel fuel to tanks on both sides simultaneously. They can then pull out and turn whichever way they want to resume their trip, or park for a while. Diesel burning RVs can use these same facilities and seldom seem to have any difficulties. These truck stops also have gas pumps, but these are often designed for cars, who are the main customers. So they need to be scrutinized before they are used by gas burning RVers.

On our recent trip, we had several great fuel stops, and one bad one. The attached picture shows the best fuel stop we had. It was a Krist ™ gas station in Crystal Falls Michigan. We had had to pass up several gas stations before stopping at this one, and I’m glad we did. Look at the nice approach they gave us, and the easy exit. No hassle. I would have spent $10 per gallon of gas to use this place.

Our bad fuel stop was earlier the same day. We chose an exit because there were several big chain truck stops advertised. The one we chose had a terrible approach, requiring an almost 90 degree turn to line up along side the pump. The exit had plenty of room, however, so we decided to chance it. The place turned out to be quite busy with cars filling up also. I aimed for the pump at the end of the island, made my turn, and realized that I did not have enough room to complete the turn without running into the pylon protecting the gas pump. Alice got out and directed me, but we determined we’d missed it by an inch or so.

There were lots of other folks trying to use this pump island, so I had to move quickly. I started by unhooking the safety chains and the electrical cord between the two vehicles. Then went to work on the tow bar. Because I’d made such a tight turn with the RV, the pins on the tow bar would not budge. I had to start the car, and with it still hooked up, let out the clutch just enough to move the car forward and turn the wheels just enough to relieve the tension. Then with the clock ticking, I pulled on the pins and got the bar unhooked. Alice drove the car to a parking spot while I backed the RV up, straightened it up, and pulled up to the gas pump. After filling up, we pulled out onto the road and started the process of reconnecting the RV and car.

As I looked down the road, there was no easy place visible to turn around. This could also trap us, but we continued hooking everything up as the cars and big trucks drove past us. After we were again road worthy, I walked Franco down the road a ways, and found a driveway that was perfect for our turnaround. We piled back into the RV, and with a full tank of gas, brought it around. It turns out we exited the “enter only” driveway, which seemed to irritate a trucker trying to enter, but so be it. We were so happy to be back on the road after the fuel stop from hell, that one disgruntled trucker couldn’t bring us down.

Adopt-a-Bucket List

Tuesday, October 24th, 2017

My mother-in-law, Faye, has been gone for nearly 30 years. I still remember her beautiful smile, and how much she loved her grandson. I also remember her telling me several times how she would have liked to have gone to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky. I seem to recall suggesting that she look for a bus trip that would take her down there. Her husband, Bill, seemed to want to have nothing to do with making that trip, and Faye often said it was “no fun to go alone.” So that was that. Faye died and she never was able to fulfill her dream.

I have a habit of bringing my Google ™ calendar up frequently, and looking for gaps. Days are filled in with this or that meeting, but especially near the end of the month, gaps can appear that are asking for adventure. This month we took advantage. We try not to miss an opportunity to visit my parents, who are 92 and 90 years old, and currently living near my sister in Milwaukee. So the first leg of the trip would be to drive the RV while towing our car to Milwaukee, which is plenty of mileage for a pair of 60 somethings and a dog. But where to go after that? The gap in the calendar was up to 2 weeks long. We decided to honor Faye and drive down to Kentucky and visit Mammoth Caves.

As a surprise to Alice, I found a picture of her Mom on my computer and downloaded it to my phone. When, after a long day on the road, I saw the sign announcing the entrance to Mammoth Cave National Park, I pulled off.

“Why are we stopping here?” she asked me.

“I’d like to get a picture,” I told her.

I pulled out my phone and found the picture and showed it to her. We both had wet eyes when I took the shot. Faye had perhaps not been able to make the trip during her lifetime, but we felt good about honoring her on this one.

We stayed at the park campground. No electricity or water hookups, but great proximity to the visitor’s center. One of the rules at this campground was pets may not be left unattended. We understood the importance of this rule, so Alice and I took turns doing cave tours. One of us stayed behind with Franco, while the other took the tours. We stayed 4 nights and did all the tours we felt were within our capability. I do have to admit I took my phone out several times during my time underground, and brought up Faye’s picture to show her the inside of the caves. I felt her wonderful spirit each time I did it.

As I think back, I wonder if I couldn’t have done more to make the trip to Mammoth Caves possible for her. Had we have been at a different stage in our lives, I think we might have. At the time when she would have been able to do the trip, we didn’t have much extra money, had full time careers, and a son to raise. Still, after seeing the place with my own eyes, I do wish I’d have been able to facilitate the trip for her. I think she would have loved it.

Might Want To Rethink It

Sunday, October 1st, 2017

Safety First! That’s my motto. Hearing protection, eye protection, steel toed boots, chainsaw chaps, I have them all and use them religiously. I did enough damage to my ears during the rock and roll & fireworks part of my life that my hearing gets extra special care now. I’m a believer.

A couple of changes lately have made me examine my routine. My eyes have changed such that bifocals don’t help that much, and I take my glasses off several times each day. I set them down and do whatever I have to do. Sometimes I put them back on, and sometimes I forget. Most of the time, if I forget, I can think back to what I was doing, and locate them easily. With increasing frequency however, I have trouble locating them. Perhaps I’m more easily frustrated than I used to be, because when I have to stop what I’m doing and look around for my stupid glasses, I get upset. I decided it was time for a solution.

I looked around online for some sort of way I could keep my glasses attached to myself and not have them on. I figured we’d evolved technologically since the days when a loop of string went behind the head, and little rubber feet attached to the stems of the glasses. Surely we must have, because I’m not the only one with this problem. If we have evolved beyond those days, my research did not uncover anything interesting. So I wound up buying one of the old fashioned eyeglass holders, and tried it out.

They worked pretty well to a point. I could take my glasses off and they’d land on my chest, ready when I needed them the next time. I did notice when they were on my chest attached to the lanyard that the glasses made a shelf that caught a surprising variety of things. Also, the glasses lanyard often fouled with my hearing protectors, causing some grumbling and untangling. It was not a perfect setup, but I was working with it and felt I might be on to something, at least until this morning.

This morning, it was cool enough in the house that I decided to start a small fire in the kitchen stove. I could use the fire to fry our breakfast pancakes, and it would heat up some of our water to boot. I got the layer of wadded up paper established in the firebox, some kindling, and was ready to put the hardwood on top prior to lighting the whole thing off. I have gone through this procedure many thousands of times.

The piece of wood I selected was too big, so I grabbed my little 4# sledge and small splitting maul, put on my hearing protectors, and went to work. Note that my glasses were attached via lanyard and dangling on my chest. I got 3 or 4 good hits in, and the wedge end of the hammer was sinking in nicely when something smacked me in the face… hard!

I stopped and felt my nose. Blood. I assumed that the firewood had split and one piece had bounced up into my face, but the intact piece was lying on the floor. My glasses were lying on the floor. I picked them up, went inside and cleaned myself up a little. Then I noticed that one end of the eyeglass lanyard had come loose. Aha.

While I was swinging my hammer, the glasses must have bobbed out into the range of my 4# sledge, gotten tangled up in the sledge on its downward swing, and diverted the hammer to my right cheek. Ouch. I have a pretty good bruise going at this point, and my cheek is really puffing out. The eyeglass lanyard has been removed and the whole process is in rethink mode. I think I’d rather lose a pair of glasses now and then than hit myself in the face with a sledge hammer.

That Fragile Ego

Sunday, 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?

Sunday, 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?


Saturday, 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

Sunday, 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

Sunday, 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.