Fake News (Part 1)

January 18th, 2017

Here is a fake news article:

You People Are Too Light!

Statistics gathered for the 2010 census declared that about 1/3 of adults in Houghton County, Michigan, need to gain some weight. Local physicians have been hounding their patients to no avail:

“I told Dean he needs to spend more time on the couch with his remote in one hand and the other hand inside a bag of potato chips. But he insists of biking winter, spring, summer, and fall. He only eats low fat, and just laughs at me when I tell him a good full bodied beer before bed would help him sleep better.”

“But Doc, if I have a headache in the morning, I may not be able to do my 3 mile treadmill before my flax and oatmeal hot breakfast.”

Local doctors are exasperated and some claim they may seek other professions due the stress of seeing such healthy people for their annual physicals.

Now for the real news:

Over 1/3 of all adults in Houghton County, Michigan are obese. Of the top 10 causes of death in the United States, 6 have a component in obesity. Unless you smoke, probably the best thing you can do for your health is to lose weight.

But how? Weight gain/loss is a factor of two things, exercise and diet. I grew up in a suburb, and can attest to the lack of physical exercise available. You drive everywhere you go. When you are too cold, you turn up the thermostat. You buy your groceries at the market. Entertainment is delivered to your home.

Life here in the country is a bit different. During the summer we are outside a lot working in gardens, cutting, splitting, and stacking firewood for the next winter’s heat, cutting grass, walking, and all manner of physical activities (yes, those activities include swatting mosquitoes.) Winter sees snow to be moved, firewood to be carried, roofs to be shoveled, ashes to be dumped, and dogs to be walked. If we owned farm animals, the physical chores would increase.

Come spring, the most physical season of all, maple syrup time arrives. Much of it is on snowshoes in the early part of the year. Some years the snow leaves early and the walking is easier, but some years there is snow to the end. There are buckets to empty into the storage barrel, firewood to carry, specific gravity to be tested, and finished product to be carried out of the woods.

I’m suggesting a couple of things. The old model of factories surrounded by suburbs is rapidly becoming outmoded. Many jobs can be done from home. Homes could be spread out such that some acreage would be available. Firewood could be grown and harvested sustainably. Food could be grown in gardens and a few farm animals could round out much of a family’s diet.

Like a lot of people, I’d sure rather just stay inside and rest all day. But when there are outside chores to be done, I’ve found that once I’m outside, one thing leads to another and pretty soon my heart rate is up. I get addicted to the flavor of our own squash, green beans, dried tomatoes, and garden onions. Besides the flavor, there is the satisfaction of knowing we’ve done a lot of it by ourselves.

Humans are smart. We can do a better job designing the communities we live in. Some communities are already bike and pedestrian friendlier. Let’s figure out a way to live that encourages us to get outside and sweat a little. It would probably do most of us some good… except for Dean.

Jump Start

January 13th, 2017

We just got home from a very nice 5 day visit with Steve and John in West Virginia. We flew from our local airport to Pittsburgh, rented a car, and drove about 1 1/2 hours to their place. I’ve rented a lot of cars, so know most of the drill when it comes to the questions they will ask.

“Do you want additional insurance?”


“Would you like us to fill the car up with gas for you, it is only $40?”

“No thanks, I’ll bring it back full.”

“Would you like to rent a GPS?”

“No, we brought our own.”

As the clerk went down her list, I had the feeling she wished I’d be answering differently. I think they earn bonus money when they sign you up for these unnecessary options. By the end of our interaction, she was not at all friendly or helpful. Sometimes that is the way it goes.

Our drive down was uneventful, and we had a very nice visit. What had seemed like a pretty long holiday when we planned the trip ended very quickly. Our flight home from Pittsburgh was to leave a little after 7:00 am, so we set our alarm for 3:00, got up and going with well practiced efficiency. (Hint: if you’d like to consult with an expert in packing up and getting ready for a trip, contact Alice.)

We left extra time because of our background travelling the roads in the unpredictable UP of Michigan weather. Although it was pitch dark this time of the morning, the roads were clear and dry and we made good time. At about 5:00 am, about 10 miles from the airport, we spotted what looked like an open gas station, so we pulled off to gas up. I made a mistake coming off the interstate, and wound up driving away from the gas station. Our GPS, as they will do, was yelling helpful suggestions about how I could get back on the interstate. I was trying to find a place to turn around, and none were presenting themselves. In the middle of all that, it started to rain, and it took me a minute to find the wipers on this rental car. I was getting rattled.

We did turn around and get the GPS turned off. We found an open gas station in a pretty seedy setting. As I pulled in, a fellow at the pump next to mine looked up and stared at me. Thanks to the little arrow next to the gas indicator on the instrument panel, I realized I was on the wrong side, so swung around and parked at the pump. As I was filling up, the fellow next to me walked over and very politely asked if I could give him a jump.

If you are like me, you like to get to the airport plenty early, get rid of the checked baggage, go through security, and find the correct gate. Once that has been done, little can conspire to keep you from your destination. The last thing I wanted was to get sidetracked in a stressful time. I told the guy this was a rental and I wasn’t even sure how to open the hood (true.) He seemed close to panic but was very polite and quiet. He explained, almost in a whisper, that the people in the cashier station said they could not help him. I walked up to the cashier to get my receipt for the gas, and determined that the people in the booth were probably not capable of jumping a car. By the time I got back to our car, I’d made up my mind.

“Let me just open my hood to see what side the battery is on,” I told him. Once I figured it out, I pulled the car around to face my new friend’s car. He had a cheap set of jumper cables. He hooked up his end and I hooked up mine. He tried to start his car. Nothing but sparks.

One quick word to the wise. When a car battery is completely discharged and you put a lot of current through it, it can explode unexpectedly. It doesn’t go off like a bomb, but pieces of plastic and drops of battery acid can fly around. It is preferable to stand aside as the driver is cranking his engine.

He tried several times but all we got was sparks and smoke. A sure sign this poor fellow had very dirty battery cables. The clock was ticking. My friend was sweating bullets. I walked up to the car and tried finding a better ground connection in the engine compartment. No good. I tried pinching the jumper cable clamps with my hand and rotating them on the battery terminal to clean off the gunk and come up with a better connection. Nothing, nothing, then vroom! “Yay!” I said. My shy friend, whose car was now running, was grinning. “Thank-you,” he said over and over. “You are most welcome,” I told him as I removed his cables and closed the hood. We were on the road a few minutes later, none the worse for the wear.

We made it to the airport with time to spare, got checked in with only the normal amount of hassle, and found our gate. As we were relaxing, we looked at each other and felt like our troubles were over. And they nearly were. An ice storm in Chicago delayed our arrival home by 3 hours, but we met some very nice people as a result of the delay. I hope our new friend didn’t shut his car off the next time he filled up with gas.

Fire Watching

January 6th, 2017

This morning, while attempting to get through my morning chores, I caught myself just sitting and staring… probably for a pretty long time. When I came to, I felt like I’d awoken from a trance.

It was below zero outside when we got up this morning, so my first order of business was to get the fires going. I started with the kitchen stove, and soon had the cedar kindling cheerfully crackling. Then I moved on to the big Jotul stove that sits in the center of the livingroom. We usually don’t run the big Jotul unless the temperature is below the mid 20s. It had a fire all last night, but there were just a few coals left, so I had to split up some kindling and some hardwood into small slabs, and pile them criss-cross on top of the coals. Then I did something else for a few moments. When I returned, I blew on the coals, and the flames erupted. That is when I zoned out.

The big Jotul has a glass door which, while not perfectly transparent, does allow a view of the fire. And what a view it is. Ever since I can remember, I’ve enjoyed watching fires. But when the house is cold and your feet are close to the fire, there is something extra special about just sitting and staring at the flames. When I recovered from my trance, I wondered how far back on my ancestral tree we have been doing just what I was doing, watching the flames.

You’ll notice I was not alone at the hearth. I think if anything, Franco likes the fire more than I do. Tonight his head was almost touching the stove. I felt him just to be sure he hadn’t burned his brains out, but he just whapped his tail a couple of times to tell me all was well.

I wonder if anyone has patented fire therapy? I would think that watching a fire, especially when it is cold outside, would be a cure for any and all known maladies.

Moving While You’re Young

January 1st, 2017

I forget the exact number, but in the first year or two we were married, Alice and I moved many times. We were dandelion seeds bouncing over the terrain, looking for a place to put down roots. In 1975 I got accepted for an undergraduate program at Michigan Tech, so we moved to the Copper Country. We knew Alice’s parents, who had recently retired to nearby Pelkie, but were completely on our own when it came to people our own age.

I had a fortuitous encounter while doing my laundry at a laundromat in Hancock. It was shortly after we arrived, and I was busy with soap, quarters, and shuffling damp loads from here to there. A guy about my age walked in who turned out to be the facility’s mechanic, and started working on one of the machines. We were pretty much alone in that big place, so we started talking. It was Ken Steiner.

Ken knew who Buckminster Fuller was, understood about tipis, yurts, natural foods, living in the country, The Whole Earth Catalog, etc. I came away from that encounter feeling like we’ll be ok here… that there are kindred souls.

And we were ok. After I received a couple of undistinguished degrees, we both wound up with careers at MTU that lasted as long as we both wanted. We found enough acreage within commute distance from MTU so we could both work on our dream of life in the country, while maintaining our jobs and raising our son.

Ken and I had sparse contact in the intervening years. Ken got into food service and was very good at it. Like me, he found a community outlet in volunteer work at Little Brothers. Ken did way more than I did, but we both wound up as lead chefs at our respective meal sites. Ken played the blues harmonica; a skill I admired him for.

Ken learned about his heart problems a few months ago. This culminated in an open heart surgery in Marquette that would save his life. He went through the surgery with the grace of a dancer. He posted pictures on Facebook of a tired man that was well and truly on the mend. This morning we learned he lost that battle. I miss you Ken. You showed me there was fertile soil in the neighborhood for a misfit like me. My roots run grateful and deep, thanks in part to a helping hand from you early on.

Repair – Within Limits

December 29th, 2016

It is no surprise to anyone that knows me when I admit I am a sentimental slob. I am fiercely loyal to all the creatures in my life, but it goes beyond that. Some of the most memorable times in my life are the trips I’ve taken, especially backpacking trips. In the backpacking world, your body is your most valuable asset, followed closely behind by your gear. If your gear lets you down, the trip can quickly deteriorate from something pleasant to pure torture. I expend a great deal of effort finding the right gear, figuring out how it works, and taking good care of it.

The daypack pictured on the left was purchased more than 20 years ago. While it isn’t the pack I’ve used to haul all my gear on my backpacking trips, it has been my constant companion up to and after the trailhead. It has been sent back to Kelty ™ several times to be repaired, and at least twice to fix the shoulder strap. Half the weight from that strap is transferred to the backpack in a seam near the bottom. The seam started to fail on one side. I tried to fix it with my speedy stitcher, but it didn’t hold. I tried to explain to Kelty that they needed to use strong thread to fix that seam, they ignored my advice, used whatever black thread that happened to be in their machine at the time, and it broke again almost immediately.

As the years went by and the seam got weaker, I began to baby the pack for fear the seam would fail completely. Neither the pack nor I were happy with this situation. Enter Google. I typed in “backpack repair” and found Rainy Pass Repair in Washington State. These folks specialize on backpack repair, and once I sent them a picture of the pack along with a detailed description of what I wanted, we began an email conversation that convinced me this job would finally get done correctly. The cost, however, would be a few more dollars than I’d originally thought. No, a lot more dollars; about 200 of them as a matter of fact. The original bid was about $40 plus shipping. Once it was in their hands, they gave it a good going over and found several other seams that were weak or broken. So I kept saying go ahead, and go ahead they did. I got my old buddy back almost as good as new, and I supported an organization that feels, like I do, that good quality gear deserves some expert care now and then.

Which brings me to my Carhartt ™ jacket. Talk about some gear that has been with me on my adventures! This jacket is my constant outdoor companion for 6 months of the year. When I pick it up and toss it around my shoulders to go outside, two entities mesh into one. The thought, “I can’t do that job right now because I might get dirty,” never crosses my mind. As the years have rolled by, various abrasions have opened up to the point that I was getting afraid I’d hook the jacket on something and cause an injury. Looking at the extent of the damage, I decided that its useful life had ended, so I asked for and received a replacement for Christmas. Fortunately, the hood from the old jacket snapped right on to the new one.

This new jacket is stiff, of uniform color, and as yet does not conform to my torso. That will change over the years I’m sure. I kept my old jacket around so I could get one last picture of it for this post, but after today, it will live out the rest of its existence in a landfill somewhere. Makes me feel like I’m abandoning an old friend.

Bridge Burning

December 2nd, 2016

I think one of the most important habits I developed early on is tongue-biting. I get into tense situations with people just like anybody does, and am sometimes tempted to destroy these people with my great intellect(ha!) I call this “bridge burning,” because, in my experience, once a person is insulted, especially publicly, they will likely associate hard feelings with the insulter for a good long time. I’ve been tempted to relax this prohibition on occasion, with the rationale that I’ll never see this person again, so why not just let ‘er rip? Then, sometime later, that person has been reinserted into my life, and in a position where they could help or hurt me. Had I have burned this bridge, the outcome of that later interaction could have been much different.

Alongside this habit of mine lurks a couple of character traits. I do not tolerate betrayal well, and I hate to waste things. Which I think partly explains the disdain I have for junk mail. Whenever I’m asked, I always say do not add me to any catalog or other paper mailing lists. ALWAYS. Yet I get a lot of junk mail. When a piece shows up, I do whatever I can to get my mailing preferences changed so I’ve seen the last of it. And living in a world of forests, I’ve seen the aftermath of hardwood pulp logging, the kind of logging necessary to produce the glossy paper that is often used in junk mail. It is not pretty my friends. Particularly up in the Keweenaw where the harsh weather coupled with thin topsoil makes trees grow very slowly. I’ll be driving past a place that was once a thriving forest ecosystem, and see what looks like a bomb has gone off. Perhaps the logger was able to make his monthly payment plus a few dollars as a result of this day’s work, but the aftermath will take decades to heal.

With all this in mind, you can imagine how I may have felt the other day when I opened the mailbox and found a junk letter from the SETI Institute. I support these folks annually because they produce a podcast I really like called, “Big Picture Science.” It seems that they misinterpreted my wishes when I started sending an annual donation, and started a mail campaign to get me to up the ante. The first time a letter arrived, I sent an email asking to be removed from their list. I don’t recall getting a reply. A few weeks later, another envelope arrived. My blood pressure went up.

I came inside, sat in front of the computer, and composed a somewhat snotty email saying that if the junk didn’t stop, I’d reluctantly rescind my annual donation commitment. Now we aren’t talking about big bucks here, and knowing how under-staffed some of these non-profits can be, I really didn’t know whether I could expect to receive a reply from them. Within an hour or so, to my surprise, the Senior Astronomer and host of the podcast emailed me telling me he was working to get to the bottom of this problem. My blood pressure declined about 10 points. I was eventually directed to the person in the organization who is responsible for fund raising; a woman named Anne Dimock.

Anne sent me a lovely email saying she was sorry for the confusion, and had coded my membership record so I would no longer receive any further mail from them. Problem solved! Her last sentence said she’d seen a reference to my blog in the email I’d sent to her, and that as an ex-Minnesotan, enjoyed reading it. My blood pressure declined again as a smile spread across my face.

We exchanged a few more emails, and learned that we shared an appreciation of Garrison Keillor’s work, and that each of us had interacted with him in interesting ways. Then she told me, “…I too am a writer.” She went on to explain she’d convinced Garrison to write the cover blurb for her book, “Humble Pie: Musings on What Lies Beneath the Crust”. I wound up reading the introduction to her book on Amazon, and buying her book for my tablet.

So, SETI sent unwanted mail to my address. Rather than burning a bridge, I wrote an only semi-snotty email to these folks. As the situation developed, I made a connection with a very nice person that I wouldn’t have otherwise. And I’ve already learned an important lesson from the forward to her book: if someone goes to the trouble to make you a pie from scratch, NEVER scoop out the insides in order to avoid eating the crust. Never!

Rusty Milk Can

November 22nd, 2016

If you looking to hire a decorator for your home, you probably don’t want me. I believe I could probably get good at it if someone could explain it to me. I’m sure folks have tried over the years, so maybe I’m just one of those that will never get it. I accept that flaw in my character.

I was thinking about this today as I was scrolling through the Black Friday Deals on Amazon. I bought my Fire tablet this way last year, and saved $15 on a $50 purchase, so thought I’d give it another look this year. I came across a section that was called something like “Farmhouse Kickshaws.” In this section were such items as rusty galvanized milk cans, tables made of weathered barn lumber, and a block-and-tackle with some frayed sisal rope that was incorrectly rigged. The prices for these things, which seem to lie in abundance in the refuse piles around here, were pretty surprising.

I wondered what sort of customer pays for a rusty milk can, pays to have it shipped, and once it arrives, what is done with it? Is it proudly displayed next to the block-and-tackle? Does a red and white checked table cloth go over the barn lumber table? I honestly don’t get it.

My design for a kitchen would involve having the best kitchen tools I could find be handy and ready to be used. It would involve a work triangle size and shape suitable for the number of people that will likely be working in it. There would be counter tops that would look nice and be easy to clean when the meal is prepared. If I had to lift something heavy in the kitchen, I guess I’d have to jump on the computer and order that block-and-tackle. I’d take the time to rig it correctly first.

Rubber Neck

November 19th, 2016

Alice, Franco and I just returned from a 5-day trip yesterday. We were all tired but happy with the trip. Gee it is always great to be back home with the food we like, the comfortable furniture, the snug house with the woodstove crackling. Just as we were falling asleep the power went out and stayed out for several hours. With the stove packed with firewood, we didn’t have the worries others do in these circumstances.

On the way home yesterday, the GPS had us bypass Munising and Marquette by taking M94. This is a familiar road to us because it is the route we took to scout camp when Steve was in scouting. I like these two lane roads a lot better than the divided highways they have downstate. I do a lot of “rubber necking” on those roads. There are often yards that have projects of interest, and I only get a moment to look things over and determine if the place is interesting. I almost always come away from these drives with something new I’ve learned.

suburbContrast the M94 bypass to a walk Franco and I took near the complex where both my parents live (a very nice facility for seniors.) By cutting across a field, we found ourselves walking down a sidewalk of a suburban street just adjacent to my parents’ place. I didn’t get many ideas walking down that sidewalk.

There was very little activity while we were there. No kids on bikes, or adults raking leaves. I saw one cable truck, and a water softener truck while we were there, but no other human activity. Every lawn was the same length, every mailbox identical, and the houses on this street looked pretty similar too. Possibly there was something of interest in the back yards, but Franco and I thought our curiosity might be misinterpreted if we poked around in these people’s back yards, so we cut our walk short and headed back.

I guess that is one of the reasons why I like living in the neighborhood I do. It seems like most every house has a pile of dirt somewhere, or some lumber, a piece of equipment parked and ready to go to work, or a half finished tree fort. I’m not suggesting the folks on the suburban street don’t work, but I do believe their connection to the earth is different than ours. A tree fort is something you’d buy at Lowe’s and pay someone to put up, not a pile of rough sawn lumber and a dream.

Want Friends? Get a Dog

November 18th, 2016

Alice and I just returned from a 6-day trip downstate to visit my family. This trip came up suddenly… only 90 minutes elapsed from the time we decided to leave until we pulled out of the garage. Franco, as always, was delighted to leap up into his crate in the back of the car, and to settle in without a peep… until we stop the car. Then he’ll loudly announce that he is up for anything as long as we go with him.

Having a dog along gives one access to places normally denied to non dog owners. Dogs need to be walked, and big dogs like Franco often clearly express to their human where the next best smell is located. I do not mind this because Franco deserves to use his nose during our rare and all too short stops.

francoOne of the best features about owning a German Shepherd is other German Shepherd owners. I’ll be walking Franco and folks will come up to me that would have normally just walked by, and strike up a conversation about dogs. They’ll scratch Franco, which he really likes, and tell story after story about their dog. If Franco is really lucky, they’ll throw a stick or ball for him while we’re talking. I am not making this up. It happened over and over this trip. I got to meet and swap stories with folks from all walks of life, and walked away smiling and enriched by the contact. I also find myself doing it with people walking their dogs too. When I see a dog owner that obviously likes their dog, I know I’ll find a connection there, and I know that starting a conversation with that person will be as easy as saying, “What a pretty dog!”

Why Do You Do It?

November 9th, 2016

We have had the longest nicest fall weather I can remember in the 40 years we have lived up here. By this time of year at this latitude, by rights we should have snow on the ground. Instead we’ve had several 60 degree days in a row. It is pleasant to work outside this time of year without mittens on.

The other day I came in the house from working on the sawmill. I was full of sawdust (although I have learned the habit of vigorously shaking my sweatshirt before coming inside) tired, and probably a little grumpy. Alice, picking up on my mood as anyone who has been by my side for all of these 40 years, asked me, “Why do you do it? Why do you saw up these logs?”

She went on to explain her confusion. “You’ve worked hard, saved, and are retired. You don’t need the money, so why do you spend these nice days out there on that (dirty) sawmill?” I remember making some sort of a flippant answer to her questions, but they did stick with me. “Why DO I do it?”

pinebridgeMy thoughts went up to the bridge at the Michigan Nature Association sanctuary, the Estivant Pines, that I’m currently building. It is coming along, and will be a nice addition to the sanctuary when it is done. I think of it as my art. Then I got thinking about the process of making art. No matter what sort of art, there are lots of tedious details that all need to be brought together with the artist’s skill and persistence, to create the final product. Does every artist enjoy every step of their craft? I doubt it. The eye is always on the final product, but it could also be argued that attention to the details focuses energy into the final product.

So when I see a cedar log on my pile, I see a series of steps. Putting the forks on the dozer, lifting a forkload of logs onto the sawmill rack, rolling them one-by-one onto the sawmill bed, creating as little waste as possible in the slab pile, and then watching the lovely boards peel off. Then there is the shoveling the sawdust, cutting, splitting and stacking the slabs, drying the lumber, and transporting it up north. But when the pieces that were cut so meticulously back home are assembled and actually start to resemble the bridge that I formed in my mind’s eye; the satisfaction is hard to describe.

Every road we travel, trail we hike, and bridge we cross was the work of an artist that took care of the details, took pride in their work, and came up with a functional finished product. It is my hope that readers of this story will cross my bridge in the pines someday and appreciate the care and pleasure that were expended that took this project from a mental image, to cedar logs, to lumber, and into a beautiful bridge.