Archive for January, 2014

Money is Overrated

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

When someone asks me what my favorite site on the internet is, I don’t hesitate to tell them, TED.com. If you haven’t visited, I encourage it. The talks I’ve watched there have changed my life.

I don’t recall who it was, but someone on Facebook pointed me to the url, The top 20 TED talks. One problem with TED is there is so much out there that you can miss a good talk if you don’t happen to click on it. I’ve been working my way through the list and have enjoyed each talk so far. Today’s talk was Dan Gilbert: The surprising science of happiness.

A scenario Dan painted during the talk (spoiler alert!) was, given the choice, where long term happiness is the goal, which would you rather have happen to you, winning the lottery, or becoming a quadriplegic? The choice is obvious, right? Yet when these two groups are interviewed a year after the event, both registered about the same level of happiness. How can that be? If I’ve piqued your interest, I strongly recommend you watch Dan Gilbert’s excellent talk.

This all got me to thinking about money and happiness. Again, it is a no-brainer when the question is asked, who is happiest, someone with lots of money, or someone with little money. Again, the results might surprise you. This question reminded me of an article I read back in 1979 in The CoEvolution Quarterly. The article, called “The Four Illusions of Money” suggested that money and happiness aren’t synonymous at all. I’ve never forgotten that article, and like to believe it helped Alice and I design and implement the life we live and love.

Here is my hope. If you are young and plotting out the course of your life, take a few moments to watch the TED talk and read the article, and give them both some serious thought. It is my belief that the principles in these pieces can help you avoid some of the serious pitfalls of life. If you are not young, look these pieces over anyway.

I’d like to close this post with my favorite quote from the musical, Hello Dolly.

“The difference between a little money and no money at all is enormous, and can shatter the world! And the difference between a little money and an enormous amount of money is very slight…”

Farewell Pete Seeger

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

peteListening to the news in bed this morning, a short piece said that Pete Seeger had died at age 94. I guess we all had to admit that this day was coming, but as years turned to decades and this remarkable man kept singing, speaking, and nudging us into better people, we wondered if this fellow hadn’t somehow stumbled onto the secret of immortality. Perhaps he did.

I fell back asleep, and when I got up, all three fires needed attention. This took over an hour for some reason (cold chimneys?) Once I was sure the smoke was all going up the chimneys, I did my exercises, then started on breakfast. It was 11:00 by now, and as I was dicing the onions and peeling the potatoes, I switched on the kitchen radio.

As luck was have it, Tom Ashbrook, host of NPR’s On Point is also a Pete Seeger fan, and he devoted the last half of today’s show to his life. Tom had interviewed Pete 10 years ago, and replayed much of that show from 11:00 – 12:00 today.

Now I am a creature of habit. I make my breakfast, sit down in front of the computer, and browse as I’m eating. Today was different. With tears streaming down my face, I brought a chair into the kitchen and ate my breakfast enveloped by this good man’s thoughts, words, songs, and wisdom.

If I could have a few private words with Pete, I think I’d thank him for:

encouraging me to buy a banjo, and do my best to learn to play it.

providing a model for how a good man can make a difference in the world.

teaching me the power behind music.

making sense of the saying, “if you can speak you can sing; if you can walk you can dance.”

showing by example that decency is a better model for a man than mean spiritedness.

teaching me that the world is of full of mean people, but that being mean back to them puts you in the boxing ring with them without any gloves, with cataracts, and with kitten muscles. Being nice changes the whole dynamic where everyone wins.

My advice for people searching for a way in this crazy life is: find yourself a model and do your best to live up to their example. I bid my model Pete Seeger farewell. Your life touched many lives including mine. If I can share a tiny fraction of the goodness I absorbed from your life, it will have been worth it.

Ashes

Saturday, January 25th, 2014

ashesOnce a week or so, I have to empty the ashes from the stoves. If I can get to the gardens, I often dump the ashes there, in order to give the nutrients to the garden soil. This time of year it is hard to get to the gardens, so I often carry the ashes to a hillside where the cat litter is also dumped.

When I dump the ashes in the garden, I like to walk in Z patterns as I’m shaking the ashes out of the bucket, in order to evenly distribute them. This picture was taken on a very windy cold day. I slogged through the snow to the place I’m pretty sure the garden was, and realized I’d be unable to easily walk my normal Z. As I gave the ashes their first tip, I realized that the Zs were not needed, because the wind distributed the ashes for me. The heavy stuff dropped near my feet, and the finer stuff may have made it to the next county. The contrast and shading in the snow looked so pretty to me, I braved finger frostbite, pulled out the camera, and took the shot.

Have I mentioned that it is cold and snowy here?

Observing Human Nature

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

I’ve written before about the differences in riding the bus on my trips vs. driving. When you drive, you’re in the driver’s seat. You control when you leave, when you stop to eat and how long, and as long as nothing breaks down, you control when you arrive. Not so when riding the bus. You leave when they say you do, and wait until they tell you it is ok to board.

When I travel, I think I’m a little obsessive about wanting to be early. When I visit my parents in Lansing, I arrive at the Lansing station, which also happens to be the hub for the Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA) city buses. From there I can jump on a city bus that takes me to within a few miles of their home, so they don’t need to pick me up downtown. Likewise, on the homeward leg of my journey, I ride the CATA bus to the station, where I wait for the Indian Trails bus to take me home. I’m often at the bus station an hour or more early, as was the case on this recent trip.

In my normal life, I seem to spend very little time watching people interact. I think this is because I’m usually busy interacting myself, since I know most of the people I associate with. At the bus station, though, I’m an anonymous lump, able to read my book with my radar dish spinning nonstop.

I sat in the waiting room one seat away from an attractive young woman who, as it turned out, was waiting for the bus to Detroit. She was busy with her phone or whatever else she was privately doing, while I was busy reading my book. A nice looking young man approached her and started making small talk. This young fellow was pretty good at ice breaking and getting “in” with her. After a few minutes of standing and chatting her up, he sat down next to her, which also put him next to me.

I remember from my anthropology class how various cultures use courtship rituals to ensure each potential partner will be a viable mate in the difficult and complicated enterprise of building a home and raising a family. I’d not thought about the things people say in these circumstances, and how they relate to this assurance that, “I will be a good mate.”

Some of the things I heard were:

“I work out of the area doing road maintenance. I am a flagman.”

translation: I work hard and would be a good provider

When some of his buddies walked over and teased him:

“I’m popular here.”

translation: I can effectively navigate the social waters to the benefit of our family.

“I want to tell you so you don’t think I’m hiding something. I have a child with a woman here in Lansing, and I make these trips to visit her. I come several times a year and bring presents.”

translation: I’m fertile. I take responsibility for my actions.

This young woman didn’t seem particularly concerned about this young man’s attention (perhaps she was used to situations like it.) She didn’t seem to encourage or discourage him; answering his questions but not offering much else but answers. At one point after he had been gone for a while, he sat down between us and said, “What are you thinking about?”

“Nothing.”

“You are always thinking about something, so what are you thinking about right now?”

This seemed to me like an attempt to test whether he was making any progress with her. If he asked her something a little intimate, and she balked at answering, he applied the tiniest bit of pressure to see how she’d react. She offered him nothing, and he let it drop.

When her bus came, she got on it without looking back or saying a word. A few minutes later I observed him in the back of the station laughing and jiving with his friends. If he was disappointed, he sure didn’t show it. My guess is if you put out lots of these feelers, it costs not much effort, but the rewards can be great. So you do it, learn from it, and get better and better at it. The ones that are successful at it are the ones that pass their genes along.

Well Well

Monday, January 20th, 2014

I recently returned from a trip downstate to visit family, and to attend the annual meeting of the Michigan Maple Syrup Association (MMSA) in Clare. Getting away in the winter is not without its challenges. Keeping house and home going requires experienced and capable caretaking. This became clear to me when I got a call 2 days into my trip.

“The pipes are frozen,” said my long suffering, experienced, and capable wife.

We have a routine in place for such an occurrence. Heat tapes have been permanently installed on the pipes most likely to freeze, and these are controlled by a switch in the kitchen. I asked if the heat tapes had been switched on.

“Yes, about 4 hours ago.”

Hmmmm. It can take an hour or so for the pipes to thaw when the heat tapes are turned on, but never in my recollection had it taken 4 hours. As we talked things over on the phone, it became clear to me that what was wrong with the water was not related to frozen pipes. We prevailed upon our generous and knowledgeable neighbor to stop by after work and look the situation over.

“Your pump is blowing fuses,” was the verdict.

Shoot. Being without water for several days is more than I wanted to put Alice through. I began the process of cancelling my trip to Clare, and my attending of the annual meeting of the MMSA. In the meantime, we’d asked a local well driller to come out and look our situation over. As I was packing up to catch the bus home a couple of days early, he called and told me that he’d gotten things working again. He’d replaced the capacitor, the fuses, and by opening and closing the pump shutoff, managed to run water and get the pump to come on and off several times. I asked Alice if she was comfortable with things as they stood, and she said yes. So I un-cancelled my cancelled plans.

At the end of the MMSA conference, I called home to see how things were going. I learned the water was not working again. Since I couldn’t leave until 8:00 pm that night, we’d just have to wait until I got home to work through this latest problem.

When I got home, I determined the shutoff itself was suspect. Now these devices are fairly uncomplicated. The insides remind one of the Dr. Frankenstein movies where the current is applied to the circuits with old-fashioned knife switches. Besides this switch, there were a couple of fuse receptacles, and a metal box to house the whole contraption.

shutoffThis being the most likely culprit, I drove to town this morning and picked up a new shutoff, and spent a chunk of the afternoon installing it. And I’m happy to report that our well is again producing water to our faucets. Had we have learned our pump was shot, a lot of work would have been involved to plow a road from the driveway into our back yard where the well casing is located. The pump lives 75′ below the surface in the well casing, and getting it out involves an extensive operation even in good weather. Doing a job like this in single digit winter weather is possible, but to be avoided at all costs.

Alice wisely failed to mention until I got home that the track lights above the dining room table also stopped working while I was gone (not wanting to overwhelm me you understand.) In case the problem was a defective dimmer, I picked up a dimmer module in town this morning, and unscrewed the old dimmer switch so I could see what was going on. I looked inside the box and saw one of the wires had somehow came out of its wirenut. About 5 minutes of effort were required to nut the two wires back together, and we now have working lights above our table.

So, inquiring minds want to know. Do these things just wait to happen until I leave for a few days, or do such things routinely happen, and the repair of them is so automatic that I don’t notice? My scientific mind tells me it is just a random series of events, but a part of me believes the house saves these events up until I’m at least 100 miles away.

Cold Snap

Monday, January 6th, 2014

snow1
It is cold, windy, and snowy here. It is so cold that my snow scoop has developed the dread condition: sandpaper bottom!

Here is a bit of background, in case you don’t know about the innovative way we have of moving snow up here. When one shovels snow, it is necessary to lift each shovelful, walk the requisite number of steps, and then toss the snow off the shovel into the pile. But a method exists to avoid the lifting, carrying, and tossing. We call the tool the yooper scoop.

snow3You hold onto the handle with mittened hands, scrape it along the crust of the snow, thereby making the removable snow boil up into the scoop hopper until it is full, then walk the contraption to the dump site, give it a quick push and then pull back quickly. The snow slides out of the scoop, and you then guide the scoop to its next load. It makes the shovel method seem like eating popcorn with chopsticks.

At the beginning of the year, I treat my scoops with silicone spray. This stuff works like magic. The snow won’t stick to the scoop once it is properly siliconed, that is unless it gets very cold outside. The cold weather sometimes makes ice crystals stick to the bottom of the scoop, making the bottom surface like sandpaper. Trying to glide across the snow with it empty is hard enough, but when the scoop is full of snow, you almost need a dog team to move it. And when it is that cold outside, the last thing I have patience for is dragging the scoop when it feels like it is velcroed.

snow2I did my best to wipe the ice crystals off the bottom with my mitten. That, coupled with the friction from the scooping eventually freed the bottom up, and the rest was relatively easy. I do most of my plowing with my trusty Scout, by the way. I have a block heater for it, but even then the Scout complains bitterly when I start it in this weather. This old Scout sure does know how to move snow.

All In Your Perspective

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

mitt2Those of you who know me well all probably agree I am not a fashionable dresser. I tend to choose clothing that is functional, and when I find something I like, I wear it until I have to reluctantly give it up. Today was one of those reluctant transitions for me. My chopper mitts have been with me for a few years now. During the winter they are my companion for months on end. Besides keeping me warm, they also take quite a beating on my behalf.

While we were out getting this year’s christmas tree, it was noticed that my mitts were getting a bit long in the tooth, and a new pair of 2XL moosehide mitts showed up under the tree. Yay! I’ve always believed that the best gifts are the ones you get because someone that cares about you notices and takes action. Then began the struggle of letting go of the old ones and the substitution of the new.

mitt1Well, today was the day. I took the good liners from my old friends, and put them into the new mitts, and wore them outside a couple of times. Where my old ones were stiff, these guys were supple. Where the wind whistled through the old ones, here it bounced off like bullets from kryptonite.

While I was walking the dog after supper tonight, I looked down at my new mitts, and noticed something important was missing. Every skuff, hole, rip, and place where the old leather was paper thin was the result of some project or another. Whether I was tossing wood, throwing the dog’s stick, or handling the chainsaw, these wear marks are the mirror image of the the manual motions that produced them. Maybe that is why I keep wearing things so long. Maybe I like being reminded that I am accomplishing things. That every frayed edge is the result of a passion being resolved. And what a wonderful thing that is.