Archive for February, 2015

Wires

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

“I JUST HATE THIS!” Alice said in a loud clear voice to whoever happened to be in hearing range (possibly including up to half the population of the UP of Michigan.) This would have been about 25 years ago when we were commuting to and from home in a small Chevy S10 pickup we’d inherited from her Dad. It was 4 wheel drive, and we chose to take this vehicle when the weather was bad, or when logistics dictated it (our other car was being serviced, for example.)

The pickup worked out well for us at the time, but as Steve was getting bigger, and we were attempting to carry things like band instruments, bookbags, and other miscellaneous gear, the three of us were packed into that little pickup like sardines. Alice stood it as long as she could, and then told the world all about it. Shortly after this event, the wheels started in motion, and we traded in the pickup for a brand new Dodge Caravan with seating for 7. Its front-wheel drive was pretty good in the snow, and there was plenty of room for all of us, our gear, and allowed us to haul boy scouts to camp year after year. It was a good move, precipitated by Alice speaking in capital letters.

Fast forward to about a week ago. Alice, who spends quite a bit of time on her little Samsung Chromebook using Netflix with her headphones on, needed to shut things down and do something like answer the phone. Her headphones were plugged in to one side of the little laptop, and the power cord (for charging the internal battery) was plugged in on the other side. Disentangling herself quickly and with style was not an option, and as she was working through this puzzle, she said, “I HATE THESE WIRES!”

wirelessI guess everyone is entitled to hate one thing or another every 25 years, so I went to work in my own quiet way. I’d heard about the wireless protocol bluetooth, but never used it for anything. I’d also heard there were bluetooth headphones, which hopefully allowed one to listen to Netflix with headphones, with no wires.

I did some research, and found a used pair of Sony bluetooth headphones on eBay which I won and had shipped. Never having “paired” a computer with a bluetooth device before, it took some head scratching and the watching of a youtube video, but I finally got it to work. The next challenge was marketing this to Alice. If the solution was more complicated than the problem (this occurs frequently with my solutions,) then it would have been back to the wires. Fortunately, the headphones and computer did their job, and after being shown how things work once, there has been nary a raised voice coming from the Chromebook corner of the house.

Yet Another “It’s Cold Outside” Story

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

On my daily visit to facebook, I’ve been seeing lots of posts about the weather. We’ve been in a cold snap now for several weeks, and you can tell folks are getting tired of it. There have been a lot of pictures of car dashboard thermometers showing below zero readings, for example, with some text that says, “Brrr!” Comments below the posts usually contain one or more from someone in warmer climes suggesting their superiority for their geographical choices. They start getting a little “samey” after a while, and I swore I’d not add to this literary glut.

That said, I’d just like to suggest that it is really cold outside. Alice and I went for a very nice snowshoe trek at our neighbor’s place yesterday, and had a great time. The weather had turned, and it was in the teens above zero with little wind and slight overcast. Folks were actually peeling off their heavy parkas once they got going along the trail. However, last night and today we were right back to below zero with some strong winds.

Franco and I did our usual after-supper walk this evening, and the first thing I noticed was the squeak my boots made on the road. The sound the snow makes when it is really cold outside is unmistakable. Then I got to wondering what I would do if I got stuck out there without a warm place to retreat to. This kind of cold is no joke. Skin exposed to this weather would start to freeze in a short time.

If I had the gear to build a fire, that would be a priority. As the character in Jack London’s short story, To Build a Fire learned the hard way, don’t build your fire under a spruce tree loaded with snow, because when the tree sheds its load of snow, a cheerful life-saving fire can go out completely. Once I was satisfied the fire was self sufficient for a while, I’d hunt up some small balsam fir trees, and begin tearing off branches. This tree gives up its branches easily if you know the trick to snapping them off. I would make as big a pile of these branches as I could. I’d then kick the snow away from an area near the branch pile, and layer these branches into the hole, making sure that the pile is longer than I am tall. I’d want about 4′ thick of these branches.

I’d then pile a lot of snow on top of the branch pile, and then shinny inside the middle, where I’d wait out the night, hopefully avoiding freezing.

Also during this walk, I thought about how smart Franco is. Now I don’t know if this is just coincidence, or if this dog does this on purpose, but it happens often enough that I think he is playing a trick on me. When we go for our walks, I’m frequently thinking about things, and enter my own world. I’ll often wake up, look in front of me and not see him. I’ll turn around, and also see no trace of Franco behind me. Fearing that he’d run off, I’ll call him, turn around, and see him 5′ in front me me looking at me with a puzzled, yet patient expression.

What he seems to be an expert at is watching me as he walks just behind me on my right side. When he sees me start to turn (I always turn to the left) he speeds up and positions himself in front of me, stops, and waits for the fun to start as I call for him. I can just imagine him sniggering under his breath and making a mental tick mark for yet another “I got you.” His technique seems to work best in the dark and cold, because with my hat on I don’t hear him walking around me as well as I can in the summertime.

Tough To Gift

Saturday, February 14th, 2015

The people that care enough about me to want to give me a gift share a common problem… I am a hard person to buy gifts for. I don’t collect nick nacks of any sort, and am at a stage in my life where I am trying to get rid of possessions rather than collect them. I do want things, and do buy things, but especially since the advent of Amazon Prime, I pretty much get what I want when I want it.

I know this is hard on the folks in my life around birthday and Christmas time. I try my best to come up with a list of things I’d like, but often fail because I don’t want much.

I bring this up because a gift from my son arrived in the mail the other day that blew my doors off. Alice and I had recently visited New York City, and visited a special place in Central Park, which I wrote about earlier. It turned out that son Steve was staying in New York a few weeks after we left, and brought his camera gear along. He took some (film) pictures of the Bethesda statue that Alice and I visited, printed the one he liked best, and sent it along to me:

bethesda

What made this gift so touching was it came from an understanding of what that place meant to me, and the artwork moved from his soul to mine, like a subway train throwing sparks along the way. Great art touches us in unexpected and indescribable ways. When you’ve been touched you know it. And you’ll likely never be the same again.

Internet Detective

Friday, February 13th, 2015

There are a lot of upsides to us not having a television since the late 70s. One downside is we appear to have missed out on some music. Bands that were big in those years mostly escaped our attention, partly because of lack of TV, but also because we’ve mostly listened to NPR and not commercial radio.

One advantage to all this for me recently has been the discovery of some classic songs. There was apparently some good music in the past 30 years, and what fun it has been to ferret some of it out. I owe thanks to the internet, particularly facebook and youtube to assist in these discoveries.

The process for a recent one started on our vacation aboard a cruise ship. I was walking from one end of the ship to the other one evening, when I came upon a concert by a lone guitar player assisted by a laptop and some other electronics. The guy was pretty good, and as I was walking by, he started on a song that began with some organ music, and the singer coming in with a couple of “woo hoo hoos.” I stood there and listened to the song, which I knew I’d heard before, and couldn’t get it out of my head.

When we got home, I started looking around online to find it. My problem was I assumed the artist was Gordon Lightfoot because the singer’s voice matched Gord’s. I looked and looked online, and even listened to snippets of most of every song Gord had released, but couldn’t find it. I finally gave up on it being a Lightfoot song, and just started typing in the words to the lyrics I could remember. This was a problem, because the singer hadn’t articulated the words very clearly, and my memory of his singing wasn’t perfect. Finally the right clue transferred from my brain to the keyboard, and Google spat out “Walk of Life” by Dire Straits. Woo hoo hoo! Shortly thereafter, Apple got $1.29 of my money when I bought the song and moved it to my iPod.

I have facebook to thank for the second song. Some time ago, someone had posted an instrumental of two guys on cellos, and was a spoof on Victorian theater. The tune was a good one and stuck in my head. Then last night a facebook friend posted another cover for this tune, which was titled “Thunderstruck.” I listened and enjoyed this one too, but it sounded vaguely familiar. I typed Thunderstruck into a search window, and found it was the came tune as the cellists had done, and also found the original AC/DC video of the tune. Cranking up the volume to full with my headphones on produced some pleasurable sensations.

Maybe my enjoyment of this “new” music had mostly to do with having to look around and making the discovery. Whatever it was, it surely was fun, and I’m looking forward to the next one.

Colorado Confluence

Sunday, February 8th, 2015

A news item crossed my computer desktop this afternoon. Sometimes I think I’ve heard it all, and that I’m officially immune to further stupidity in the news. It is a dangerous place to let your mind wander, because something more stupid is always just around the corner.

The Navajo nation, owners of the land overlooking the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers, is about to sign a deal with a group called the Developers Confluence Partners to build a 420 acre attraction on this site. It will include a theater, restaurants, an RV park, and tram system to take tourists down to the river. There is, of course, dissension among the tribal members. The tribal president sees this as an opportunity for jobs for his people, who have high suicide rates and very low per capita income. Other members of the tribe see this place as sacred and the attraction as a defilement of the area.

I further learned that the Hopi and Navajo tribes dispute ownership of the land, which has put in place something called “The Bennett Freeze,” which allows no native development on the 1.6 million acres until the dispute is settled, causing further economic hardship.

This is a complicated problem, but it is not without a solution more reasonable than destroying a pristine section of the Arizona desert. Our native american brothers have been poorly treated by us. The conservative solution to the problems of poverty have been tested in their lives for decades now, and it would seem that the experiment should be declared settled. Conservatives seem to believe that if poverty is punished with more poverty, then those being punished will pull themselves up by their bootstraps and improve their lot in life. Progressives seem to believe that once a people are beaten down, it becomes less and less likely they’ll see a way out of their dilemma, and the cycle will only repeat. They believe punishment is not needed to get these people the resources they need; a helping hand is.

Wouldn’t it be interesting of we, the people of this country offered this helping hand? If we were to see to it that the children of this community were to receive adequate housing, resources, and educational opportunities? If this silly Bennett Freeze were negotiated away in good faith by both tribes and the federal government? If we were to put the required effort towards community development in this reservation similar to the efforts we’re recently made to destabilize the countries of Iraq and Afghanistan? It strikes me as a matter of priorities. A short term solution for the poverty stricken Navajo might be to turn one of the only economically valuable natural resources on their reservation into a theme park for a small percentage of the profits, or we could recognize the wrong we’ve done to these people and put our considerable energy into making things right.

Reasonable?

Sunday, February 8th, 2015

“Can I ask you a reasonable question?” I asked Alice the other day.

“I guess,” she answered skeptically.

Skepticism was probably justified in this situation. Were I to die today, a top contender for my epitaph probably wouldn’t be, “he asked reasonable questions.” Plus, when a potential question is prefaced like that, one can kind of worry a bit, it you know what I mean.

Undaunted, I plowed ahead.

“Why is a pair of shoelaces tied together and hanging on the towel rack in the bathroom?”

In my mind, this was a reasonable question. This particular item had been dangling in the bathroom, presumably drying, for some weeks now… possibly months. If the intent of having them hang there was for them to dry, then by any measure in nature, they should not be as dry as they were ever going to be.

“Oh yes, those are the laces I use to tie the towels onto the refrigerator, and I forgot about them,” she fessed up.

Surely the 1/4″ of space these things were taking up in the bathroom was not worth making an issue about, but I think they point out how different people are wired. I, you see, am wired to see clutter. Alice is wired to see dirt. When I walk in from a project, and some detritus from outside falls off of me, it doesn’t seem too important in the scheme of things. But if a letter sits unopened on the dining room table for several days, my mind starts swirling:

“Isn’t she curious what’s in there?” “What if I need to solder something on that table someday… will there be room?” “If something isn’t done soon, that letter will still be there next month!” And so on.

I am not impervious to dirt. As I’m walking by, if a large clump of dog hair presents itself, I’ll often scoop it up and toss it into the woodstove. I don’t see that clump of dog hair as a sign that I need to get the vacuum cleaner out though. I wonder if I’d even know how to turn the darn thing on.

Travel As Much As You Can

Friday, February 6th, 2015

Alice and I recently returned from a two week trip with a complex suite of emotions. Things like, “whew it is good to be home,” and “wow it was good to get away,” to “let’s roll up our sleeves and get back to the projects we left on hold,” to “it is going to take a while to digest all these experiences.”

We feel fortunate to be living where we want to live, and leading the life we do. But it is still important to spread your wings now and then. As Jane Goodall said, “Travel as much as you can. It’s an automatic eye-opener. If you can’t afford it, do it virtually.”

I can think of three times our eyes were opened… when incidents presented themselves that we wished could have lasted longer. Interestingly, two of them involved New York City cab drivers.

The first was on the ride from LaGuardia Airport to our hotel near Central Park. We struck up a conversation with the driver, and eventually asked him what his nationality was. He suggested we look at his name, which was displayed inside the cab, and then tell him where he was from. It sounded a little weird, but I did take a look. The ID card said:

Sonam Sherpa

“Nepal?” I asked. Thumbs up was his reply. We spent the rest of that enjoyable cab ride talking about his country, and especially about a guided trek with him should we ever happen to find ourselves in that part of the world.

The second was a ride from near the Metropolitan Museum of Art back to our hotel. We’d arrived in New York around mid day, and after checking in to the hotel, decided to spend the rest of the day at the Met. We wound up walking there because we couldn’t figure out how to get there otherwise, and partly to get some exercise after sitting in airports and aircraft all day. We spent several enjoyable hours at the Met, until I looked at Alice and said, “I just hit a wall.” I was suddenly so tired I just couldn’t go on. Alice, being tired too, helped get us reattached to our jackets and out the door. We started stumbling back to the hotel, which was a bit of a walk. I was on autopilot barely looking at the crossing lights at the street corners.

Suddenly, Alice darted out into the road, made a gesture, and a beautiful site appeared before us, an empty cab with a smiling driver at the wheel. We stumbled into the welcoming warmth of his cab, and learned he was from Burkina Faso in Sub-Saharan Africa. Again, we learned about his country, especially the educational system, and how he was working to help his sister through college, and hopefully to get his children educated as well. Once again, we hated to leave the cab after such an interesting interlude.

Our eyes were opened once again towards the tail end of our cruise. Throughout the cruise, we ate almost all our meals in the buffet on deck 15 of the ship. We climbed the stairs from our room on deck 8 almost every time, rationalizing that we might just work off some of the soft serve ice cream cones we were becoming addicted to.

indonesiaThe buffet operated with largely young foreign workers. One would smile at us as we walked in, and spray our hands with what they called, “washy washy.” It was our responsibly to rub this Purell(tm)-like substance all over our hands to minimize the transmission of germs to our fellow passengers. Our tables were cleared by others that wandered about the place. It seemed that sometimes as the last bite of food was leaving our plate, it was being whisked away by a smiling staff person.

This particular day, the dining room was quite full, and we found a table just as some other people were leaving it. The young man that came over to clear it so we could eat there told us he was from Indonesia. I asked him which island, and it seemed to please him that one passenger knew Indonesia was an archipelago, and was taking an interest. “Sumatra,” he told us.

Somehow, the discussion turned to the recent tsunami, which he said he had experienced. “Did you lose your home?” I asked him. “Yes, and my sister,” he answered without wavering. My eyes instantly filled with tears at the raw courage of this man. He had experienced what few of us, thankfully, will ever experience. Chance had found him away from home on higher ground when the disaster struck his country, and I can only imagine the horror he experienced as he attempted to travel back home to the devastation and death that awaited him. I never got his name, but my heart went out to him that day. My dishes were being cleared by a real hero.

So, thank-you Jane Goodall for the excellent advice to travel with my eyes open. Good stories are to be found wherever you happen to be, and we learned that different approaches to life are just that… different; not necessarily better or worse. If we are to get along on this planet, we need to take the time to understand and celebrate each other, rather than assume different means inadequate.

Angels In America

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

I think when it comes to movie watching, demographers would have to make a special category for me. For one thing, we haven’t owned and have seldom watched television for many decades now, so my ability to watch the tube is limited. When we travel, I do try to flip through the channels, but often give up because nothing of interest is on. When it comes to movies, we do get DVDs in the mail from Netflix to watch on the computer, but I often only watch the first 5-10 minutes of them before I get bored and go do something else.

That said, when I find a movie I like, I tend to watch it over and over. One of my all time favorite movies is “Angels in America.” It is a long movie too, and I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve watched it.

Because of this, I had a couple of goals when we traveled to New York City several weeks ago. I wanted to ride the subway, visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and see the fountain in Central Part that surrounds the statue of Bethesda. If you’ve watched Angels, you know that this place in Central Park plays an important part in the movie.

We were able to blend several of these goals together on our trip. We stayed at the Holiday Inn on 57th street. It is possible to walk from the hotel to the Met… I know because we did it a couple of times. But one time we did go through the steps of riding the subway to the museum, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. There is something fascinating for me about mass transit. In your car, you are in your own little bubble, but on the trains, you see life being lived by your fellow travelers in ways that are impossible any other way I know of.

One thing I noticed this trip was that many if not most people had their noses in their smart phones when they were waiting for the train to come. I’ve ridden the subway decades ago too, and remember that in those days, fellow passengers were either reading something, or had mastered the far-away stare. No eye contact was possible, because what passed before the eye just didn’t register, it seemed. Modern folks seemed to be using their wait time on their phones to play games, surf the net, or text their friends. Is this progress? Good question.

sconce betherdaOnce at the Met, we spent part of one day, and most of another viewing that amazing place. Sometimes we had to sit down and just get that far-away stare on our faces to relax from all the input. I clearly remember entering one room that had a lot of brass sculpture in it, including one peculiar wall sconce. It was a realistic human arm holding the light fixture in its hand. This was a bonus for me, because the dream sequence from the Angels movie had a hallway of these sconces holding torches that moved aside as the main character walked past them.

After our day at the Met, we decided to attempt to find the Bethesda statue in the park. There was some daylight when we started, but it quickly faded and we wound up wandering around the park in the dark until we found her. It was a great moment and a culmination of a very nice couple of days in New York City.

Keep a Spare

Sunday, February 1st, 2015

Like many American families, we struggle with our possessions. When something is almost worn out and is replaced, what to do with the old one? So many times, we find a corner in a closet, stick it there, and think, “Someday I might need this.” The item then becomes the owner of its corner of the closet, and years can go by before it is come across, and one wonders, “Why am I keeping all this junk.”

The other day I was getting ready for our two week vacation by getting the dozer started and moving back the snowbanks in the driveways and the mailbox. I plow snow with my trusty International Scout and a Fisher 3-way plow. Since it just pushes, the snowbanks inevitably build up, the driveway narrows, and we find it increasingly difficult to get the cars in and out. Fortunately for us, the dozer is pretty good at moving snow.

dozerI am constantly amazed at the power in hydraulic systems. The hydraulic pump on the dozer is not big, but boy can it make the cylinders on that machine lift and move heavy things. And over the years, the hydraulic system on the dozer has required very little maintenance… until the other day.

I’d plugged the dozer in for several hours to pre-warm the engine, and it started right up. I try to take it easy on the machine, because often the tracks have frozen to the ground, and it is easy to wreck something by gunning it and throwing the clutch in. So I rocked it back and forth until I was pretty sure it was mostly free. Then I drove it over to the first snowbank. The bank was too high… the machine rested on its belly and the tracks just spun on the snow, so I backed up and started using the bucket to dig my way through the snowbank, one scoop at a time.

Things went well at first, but then a hose broke. And not just any hose. It was a hose just to the right of the operating compartment where I was sitting. There are many places along the length of the hose that it could break, as there are many places around the circumference of the hose where the rupture could occur. As luck would have it, the break happened such that I got a “shower” of hydraulic fluid down the front of my jacket and especially in my lap.

I remember staring at the pretty fountain shooting warm fluid onto me for several seconds, before I adjusted the flow of the valve to minimize the bath I was getting. Once that got settled, I probably sat there for a minute contemplating the famous two-word phrase that we unfortunates are sometimes confronted with, “now what?”

I do have to hand it to Alice. I removed my hydraulicy boots, walked into the house, and told her what had happened. In three steps I was across the living room and on my way downstairs to the laundry room, where I systematically stripped off my oil-soaked things, placed them in the laundry tub where they could soak for a bit, and then into the laundry for a cycle of “heavy wash.” Alice worked with me side-by-side, never saying, for example, “why didn’t you replace that old hose years ago?” She just helped with the next task until things were mostly under control. By the time that was taken care of, it was getting too late to fix the hose, so I concentrated on getting my outdoor gear back together.

And here is where it is good to have spares. Winter is no joke up here, and proper winter gear is vital for me to be able to function for any length of time outside. I did have another pair of sorels in reasonable condition, a work coat I’d found on eBay some years ago, an OK pair of mittens, and an acceptable hat. All of these things had served me well over the years, and were still good enough to get me through a couple of days until my normal gear was clean, dry, and ready for the next shower of hydraulic fluid.