A Visitor

February 26th, 2020

When you are thinking about committing to a lifetime with another person, and working out which qualities will be harmonious with a long relationship, you could do a lot worse than looking for a good pie maker. Many, if not most of life’s travails can be buffered or eliminated by that first forkful of warm flaky crust sandwiched around some recently molten sugared fruit. If the blues are so bad that pie fresh from the oven doesn’t perk you up, then I’m afraid I’ve run out of advice for you.

If you’ve been convinced, and nothing but the best pie-maker in the world is good enough for you, then I have some bad news. She’s already taken and lives in the same country house that I do. If there is an art to good pie, then Alice is Michelangelo.

I can prove it to you by telling you a story about a recent visitor. The other day, Alice told me she heard something unusual in the wall. I do pride myself in listening to the house and understanding the meaning of its creaks and groans. I listened with her, and hearing nothing, told her it was likely the pipes running from the water jacket in the woodstove up to the storage tank in the bathroom. I sort of forgot about it until the next morning.

Alice had made a crumb cake and left it on the kitchen counter covered in tin foil. I’m usually the first downstairs each morning, and when I came down, I noticed the foil was askew, and that a tiny bit of the topping was missing. I chalked this up to someone forgetting to close the foil before bed the night before, and moved on with my day. This must have been on a Friday, because that is the day Alice sets aside to make our weekend pie.

We’re both trying to cut down on sweets, and have found that cold turkey works poorly for us. So we allow ourselves desserts only on the weekends, hence the Friday pie.

We both had a delicious slice warm from the oven before bed that night, and as is our habit, we left the pie on the kitchen counter with a dinner plate inverted over the top. When I came down Saturday morning, this is what I found:

The plate was pushed off, and the crust was tasted lustily. The picture does not show it, but there were small footprints on the counter where a creature that had had its feet in the filling was scampering away. My first thought was a red squirrel, a consistent and destructive nemesis. I went out to the shop and dusted off my live traps, and set them Saturday night. Sunday morning brought no results. But during the day on Sunday, while both of us were in the dining room, I noticed some movement in the corner of the kitchen floor by the dishwasher:

We both stood very still and observed as our visitor walked out into the kitchen brimming with curiosity about the pie givers across the room from him. Here is a closeup of the same picture:

I’m afraid I didn’t get very good pictures because although we were very interested in this little weasel, he got bored with us very quickly. He was kind enough to show off the black tip on his tail, and then he vanished back into the corner of the kitchen. This quick view was the last we saw of him. We have changed our habits about leaving covered food on the kitchen counter, and also disabled our mouse trap just in case the little guy might accidentally get himself caught.

We both felt honored by this visit, and hopeful he’ll come back again to say hello. Not only is he a beautiful creature, but I admire his taste in pie.

Reef Lessons

February 3rd, 2020

Alice and I were lucky enough to get away for a while this past Christmas. We took a cruise ship in the Western Caribbean, where we were able to spend some quality time on the beautiful tropical beaches there. One seldom hears complaints about the sandy beaches in the tropics. Until recently, I did not know that the sand on those beaches is comprised mostly of parrotfish poop.

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According to my snorkeling guide in Belize, there are about 80 species of parrotfish world wide, and in the reefs of Belize are found around 20 of them. Parrotfish are identified by their parrot-like mouths. They make their living by cleaning algae off the coral. As coral declines, algae can invade them, causing the coral to get sicker. Parrot Fish have strong beaks that can pry up these sick sections of coral, which they chew and swallow in order to extract the nutritious algae. They then excrete the inedible parts. One large parrotfish can excrete 200# of sand per year. Multiply that by all the parrotfish in the world, and give them the millions of years they’ve been munching and pooping, and voila, you have sandy beaches.

Although I tried several times, I was unable to get a positive view of a parrotfish. My guide explained my trouble was due to my shark-like behavior. He told me that during high tide some sharks come a long way up into the coral, and looking for a meal, they can get into the shallows by turning on their sides and churning their tail fin. When my guide pointed out a parrotfish for me to look at, I looked where he was pointing and dove under water churning my fins. This behavior reminded the parrotfish of a shark attack, and they quickly scattered before I could spot them. I was not too disappointed though, because there are lots of youtubes of parrotfish available.

I tried to imagine an old parrotfish swimming around the reef looking down at the sand. It seems possible to me that one determined fish could create many hundreds of pounds of sand. Sand is his legacy. I wonder what the legacy of humans will be once we’ve been around for a while. What is our collective legacy and what will be our individual legacy? As I swim around and observe the flotsam in my wake, will any of it settle to the bottom and merge with the other flotsam? Will I manage to get out of the way when sharks swim sideways during high tide? Will I wear my teeth down chewing up the coral while sucking out the algae?

Moon Dog

December 6th, 2019

For the several months that have gone by since we lost Franco, I’ve managed to maintain my morning walks. I still think about him and even talk to him on these walks. I still miss him a great deal, but not as badly as I once did. Now the walks are more joyful… a good-habit legacy of the years he and I had together.

Most evenings I also get out for a walk. This winter has been such a great one that I eagerly anticipate my evening walks. Tonight I was treated with a special event… a Moon Dog. This is a circular light around the moon that is quite rare in my experience. In order for a Moon Dog to form, the moon has to be close to full, and there have to be enough high ice crystals in the atmosphere to do their magic with the moon’s light. Tonight the moon was high enough in the sky during my walk that the Moon Dog was a complete circle around the moon.

I did try to take a picture of it, but it came out as a tiny white dot on a black background.

I’ve been thinking about good habits. One of them is owning a dog. Some others are eating right and exercising. These walks I take are enjoyable in their own right, but are also good for me. It gets me out into the real world, where the events of the seasons play out in technicolor for anyone interested in observing. It is unusual for me to encounter a car on our road while I’m walking, which is a plus as far as I’m concerned. I can be alone with my own thoughts as my heart rate ramps up to match my exertion.

One of the purposes of my blog is to extol the virtues of living in the country. Having a beautiful safe place to walk is surely one of the many. Some evenings I am even treated to coyote and/or wolf howling. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The Cork Came Out of the Bottle

November 2nd, 2019

Around 2 years ago, I bought a ShelterLogic ™ portable storage building. My old storage building was falling apart, so I reasoned it was time to replace it with something temporary until I can get my pole building built.

Well, one thing led to another, and I didn’t get the portable building put up. Last fall I ran into troubles with my bulldozer, to the point that I was reluctant to start it. I needed the dozer, because the place where the portable building was to go had a pretty good sized spruce tree right in the way. With the dozer, I can push the tree so the roots pop up a bit, then back up and hook the bucket under the roots, and lift up. I’ve unrooted some pretty big trees that way with my little dozer.

So the portable building sat in its box until this past week. With the dozer finally repaired and reliably running, I went to work on the tree. In about 5 minutes I had it pushed over and chained to the back of the dozer. I then dragged the tree to the edge of a ravine I use for disposing of these things, and pushed it in. After 2 years of waiting, the impediment to my progress was out of the way, and I could proceed.

Step one was to do a rough leveling of the footprint of the new structure. I then made 2 trips to town with the farm truck and got enough gravel for a decent floor. This got shoveled and raked until I had a pretty decent spot for the building.

Then I opened the relatively small box containing the building. Inside was the vinyl cover for the structure, and below that about a thousand pieces of steel tubing, many with legible numbers stamped on them. Included was a multi page instruction sheet with very few words written on it. I’d guessing this saves money that would otherwise go to translators.

I did my best to sort through the various pipes, then started putting the thing together. I will say that despite a few typos in the instructions, the steps were pretty clear. After about a day’s work, I had the 4 frames up and hooked together, and the end walls up.

The days being short and cold this time of year, I called it a day and went inside to warm up. The following day I got the main cover on and tightened up.

At the same time I bought the portable building, I also bought a plastic shelving unit. This was hauled out to the new building and zip tied onto one of the supports. Then I started the process of moving things out of the old building and into the new one. The biggest challenge was the riding mower and rototiller. They are used to resting all winter, and when I tried to start them, they just laughed at me. So I had to attach a block heater to their oil pans one by one, and eventually coaxed them back to life for one more trip this year.

I’m sure more things will find their way into this space, but for now I’m happy to report that the important things each have a space for the winter. I’d still like to put in some temporary supports for the ceiling before the snow load gets too heavy.

This has been yet another of those projects that are not that hard to get done, but that had one or more roadblocks to success. Once the roadblock was removed, the project progressed quickly. Now on to the next one.

Doing Hard Things

October 26th, 2019

Nosing around on YouTube the other day, I came across Patti Smith singing at the 2016 Nobel awards in Stockholm. If you haven’t seen this video, I strongly recommend watching it:

What I admire about Patti is her poise when her memory failed her. She just stopped, hit the reset button, and started in again at a familiar place, and pulled the performance off with aplomb. She had the audience in the palm of her hand by the end.

So many of us are reluctant to speak or perform publicly for fear that something might happen to us like it did for Patti. That we’ll be humiliated publicly, which seems to be a great fear many of us share. I would argue that I watched this YouTube over and over precisely because of her momentary failure. Rather than thinking less of her, I admired her all the more.

It seems that I’ve lately done several hard things… things I’d just as soon have avoided, but managed to get through them, and once done, they strengthened me rather than weakened me. None have been easy, but all have been worth the effort. An example is my recently speaking at a dear friend’s memorial service. Public speaking is not a fearful thing for me, but on this occasion, I was shaking in my boots. I was feeling so emotional that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get the words out, thereby not doing my job at honoring my late friend.

The speech went fine, and all the worrying was for nothing. I did challenge my thinking by getting up and standing at the podium however. And for me that was the plus. I think we all build pictures of the world in our minds, and filter experiences through that picture. If they don’t belong, we discard them. If experiences fit with our world picture, we welcome them in. This is probably healthy to a point, because allowing the world into our brains unfiltered would likely overwhelm us. My feeling is that we do need to challenge that world picture from time to time. And when it proves inadequate, it needs to be adjusted. It is easy to be lazy and stagnate, and hard to continue updating the model.

There is an arrogance we need to overcome. That picture we’ve made of the world required a lot of work, and we can believe it is perfect the way it is. But just imagine one of the crucial components of that picture, and further imagine a time in your life when that component was not part of your picture. Had you not have been open to embracing it, you might have lived your life without it. We need to stay open to new things that help us make sense of the world, while being careful to reject the poison. With the world changing so rapidly, keeping the model up to date is a full time job.

Fall Chores

October 18th, 2019

Summer and Winter are reasonably stable seasons out here. But Spring and Fall… now there are seasons of flux. In the Spring, I’m often out and about getting things ready for the coming growing season. And in the Fall, I’m putting it all away for another season.

We’ve had rain on and off quite a bit lately, but in-between, I’ve managed to get most of the Fall chores accomplished. In the picture above, I’m in the final stages of removing the big dock in our back pond. To do this, I bring a pipe wrench out to the pond, and launch myself into the pond in our small aluminum skiff. I go from pipe-to-pipe in the boat, first pulling the pin that holds the dock up, then using the pipe wrench to unscrew the pipe auger from the pond mud. Once the pipe is clear, I pull it up and insert the pin in its winter position. I do this six times until the dock is held only by one small pipe on shore.

I then wrap a nylon strap around the end of the dock, lift it off the shore pipe, and scoot it over to the side. I hook the whole thing up to my pickup and slowly drive the whole contraption out of the water onto dry land where it will wait for next Spring’s launch.

I have a similar process for my much smaller “watering dock” in the other pond. Getting these two docks out of the water is one of my most physically demanding Fall chores. Others include cleaning the chimneys, and removing the cover from the greenhouse. I still have the greenhouse cover left to do, and am waiting for just the right weather. The cover has to be dry, and the wind has to be calm when that big chore is attempted. The cover itself is 24′ x 120′, and it can turn into a very big sail if the wind decides to come up.

While I was out and about working on putting things away, I spent a few moments at the site of the reception tent for our son Steve’s wedding. It was a big job to get that site cleaned up, grass planted and watered, and ready for the big event. Since then, I’ve kept the area mowed, and I enjoy walking out there and standing in the center, lost in my thoughts about that lovely wedding day.

Fall, with its unpredictable weather, beautiful colors, and air of inevitability, seems like a good time to reflect on my good fortune. Living in such a beautiful place, with the luxury of all this water, the ability to grow a lot of our own food, and with such great friends and neighbors, makes me grateful for all the good things in life. Without family, these things wouldn’t mean much, but I also happen to be blessed with a wonderful family too.


October 13th, 2019

Some nights I wake up in the middle and can not easily go back to sleep. So I’ll often get up and crack a book. The other night I was nearing the end of Brian Greene’s “The Elegant Universe.” I was downstairs in my recliner, tablet on my lap, and slogging away at yet another few pages. This book was not light reading for me. I often only made it a couple of pages before I had to put it down and do something else for a while.

This night I was wide awake, and the literary juices were flowing pretty well. I got through quite a bit of the book when I had a revelation. Gosh, these things don’t happen very often, but when they do, they sure do perk a person up.

“The Elegant Universe” attempts to explain string theory to physics novices such as myself. The author goes to a lot of trouble talking about the math involved, and the fact that the 3 dimensions we are used to dealing with in our daily lives are joined by 7 more in string theory. While math exists to explore these additional dimensions, we are helpless when we try to visualize more than the normal three. On and on Brian Greene would work through the concepts that were barely at the edge of my comprehension.

A couple of concepts finally made sense to me that night. First, that black holes, as far as we know, have only a few attributes, and once they are known, black holes with the same attributes are identical to each other. Second, there is no size requirement for a black hole. All that is required is for matter to be packed densely enough. And third, I made the intuitive leap that we are living inside a black hole. That our universe is a string in a larger universe, and that the many strings that make up our universe are all universes in themselves. That when a black hole forms, the matter in contains compresses to the point where it tears the fabric of space/time into a new dimension where a new universe is created. Whew!

After that I was able to fall asleep, and by morning, the revelation adrenaline that had pumped through my veins that night had settled down somewhat.

My mind veered away from black holes and towards system 1 and 2 thinking. That concept came from a previous book I’d read called, “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. He suggests that we humans prepare a model of the world (system 1) which we hold in our brains, and when a decision needs to be made, we consult the model. This requires a minimal amount of energy. When we determine our model is not sufficient, we have to up the energy our brain uses, and “learn” something new (system 2). We are better at this when we are young, but pretty pathetic at it as we get older. We dislike spending the energy, so we live our lives inside our system 1 model, and avoid situations when we have to learn new things.

Slogging my way through “The Elegant Universe” made me realize why it was so difficult to get through very many pages of the book at a time. And it also made me understand where the revelation came from. Unless we make the considerable effort to learn new things, insights will escape us, because all the insights from the system 1 world model we’ve constructed have all been worked out. But if we make the necessary effort to exercise the system 2 side of our brains, the revelations should follow.

With knowledge doubling every 12 months or so, it can get discouraging enough that we just throw up our hands and say forget it. Let’s just live inside the comfortable model we’ve built up over our lives. Or we can keep going, especially in the fields that interest us. I vote for keeping going.

Tonight’s Walk

September 25th, 2019

As is my habit, I went for a walk after supper tonight. Even though the days are getting noticeably shorter, I decided to splurge and hike back to the maple syrup operation. Once I made that commitment, I realized it couldn’t be a long walk, because I’d failed to bring along my headlamp.

It is still warm enough in late September for me to go on walks without shoes. All too soon, shoes and boots will be required, but for now, I exchange the little cold for the much appreciated sensation of feeling the earth beneath my feet.

As I was walking, I started doing the math, and decided I must have made this hike at least 500 times since I started on the maple project 10 years ago. One constant for the vast majority of these walks has been the company of our dog Franco. He was just a puppy when he started hiking out with me. Tonight Franco didn’t join me.

Late Monday afternoon, after a full day helping me mow the lawn and chasing the wheelbarrow around the yard, Franco faltered and had to lay down to catch his breath. I sat with him in the sunshine for an hour or so. He tried to get up after that, but only made it about 10 steps before he fell over on his side. We brought his crate outside, lifted him in, and dragged it inside the house, where we put it in his special corner. He and I sat there for another hour or so while he fought for his breath, until, at last, he gave up the battle and lay still.

Watching my loyal friend reach his end with his typical dignity provided me with a life lesson I’m still digesting. I tell myself he had a very good life. He was with us from the day we brought him home from Wisconsin at about 8 weeks old, until this past Monday. He could run, swim, and get drinks out of the pond, but his favorite of all was chasing his ball/stick. He almost always had something in his mouth which he’d drop near me, then back up and watch expectantly. Up until the end, he would play this game for about as long as I held out.

Life goes on, this too shall pass, time heals all wounds; all these things wind around one’s mind when an important mooring line parts. They sound trite, but are nonetheless true. For now, I know I am wiser to have cared so deeply for another creature and sat by his side when he left. I plan to take many more walks and think about all these things.

What I Miss From Work

August 21st, 2019

One consequence of working at Michigan Tech and living 20 miles away in Elo, has been, I didn’t get to know many of my neighbors. Our social circle was pretty centered in the MTU community. That began to change when I retired, and has steadily improved as I’ve become more involved in the local community through the fire department.

My neighbor on Lake Avenue is a good example. We now regularly share a breakfast table in downtown Tapiola on Monday mornings. As we’ve gotten to know each other, some good stories have emerged. He was blessed with the gift of music from an early age, and was also blessed with parents that nurtured his capabilities. He was one of the few children that didn’t need to be coerced into practicing the piano… he played because he loved it.

He has been fortunate to be able to follow his avocation through his work and for his own pleasure throughout his long life. But like so many of us, the tsunami of technology washed over and around him, and many of the modern tools available to musicians and composers were beyond his technical capabilities.

If I say so, one thing I was pretty good at throughout my career as an IT professional at MTU, was my ability to understand the computing needs of a wide range of people, and bridge the gap for them so they could become more productive with the help of computing technology. My greatest satisfaction was to get folks up to speed and self sufficient with computers. I can credit myself with many converts to the computer realm over my decades at Michigan Tech.

My neighbor had a large traditional upright piano in his house that he wasn’t using. He came up with the idea of donating the big heavy piano to the high school music program, and replacing it with a smaller used electronic keyboard. As luck would have it, this keyboard was pretty old, but new enough to have MIDI in and out. I decided to dust off my old skill set, and see if I could do some gap-bridging again. I ordered the necessary cable and some MIDI recording software, hooked everything together, and… it didn’t work. After explaining how easy and wonderful this new technology would be, I had to admit I was stumped. I came back several times, tried everything I could think of, and still nothing. As a last ditch effort, I ordered a new cable. Success!

The next challenge was to learn the recording software well enough to teach my pupil, and get him to the point that he could use the tools to compose a piece. I figured if he could get one under his belt, he’d be hooked, and my work would be mostly done. Well, today the stars aligned, and we put a piece together. It had 4 acoustic channels chosen by my friend, and even a singing part. And it came out great! As the pieces started coming together, I felt a lump growing in my throat. Just as the computer has helped me do the writing that I enjoy, my friend may now be able to commit his musical ideas onto a MIDI file so the rest of us can enjoy them too.

What else do I miss about work? Frankly, not very much 🙂

A Straight Back

August 9th, 2019

Earlier this summer, Alice and I made a trip to the Grand Canyon. This trip was timed to be after maple syrup and before the gardens. We were barely able to shoehorn it in this year, but we did it. The purpose of this trip, like the one in 2018, was to say goodbye. The 2018 trip was to say goodbye to my Dad, who passed away in early April 2018. Mom died in November of 2018, so this was her trip.

This year Alice came along, and we followed a routine for the days we were there. After an early breakfast in our hotel in Tusyan, we drove in to the park and spent the morning hiking and sightseeing. Then there was lunch at the Maswik Lodge Cafeteria, and back to the hotel for a rest. Then we’d ride the Tusyan bus back to the park for several more hours of visiting, some supper again at the Maswik, then we’d catch the bus back to the hotel.

On two of our mornings, we headed up to a part of the park called Desert View, that I’d seldom visited before. On one of my hikes with Brother Gerry, we had the Desert View Watchtower in view up on the rim for much of our hike along the river. But I hadn’t really visited the area much until this trip.

The watchtower was designed by Mary Colter, who had built many iconic structures in the Grand Canyon and other national parks. As part of our visit, we learned a little about this remarkable woman and her beautiful work; all done during a time when architecture was traditionally a man’s profession.

soaking in the art with a straight back

The watchtower is a 3 story structure with stairways leading up to each floor. My favorite floor was the first floor, and I was lucky enough to often have the place to myself. The other tourists would walk up to the first floor, shown in the above picture, look around a bit, and then immediately climb up to the next two floors. Once done, they’d often climb down and back out into the sunshine. This left me a lot of time to sit on the bench and soak in the artwork.

I have to admit that I’ve often thought that Native American traditional artwork looked kind of childish. There was no real perspective or shading to denote depth. But during my hours sitting and contemplating the work, I came to a much different conclusion. Let’s say I wanted to celebrate the marriage of a beloved daughter to a fine capable man. Or that I wanted to permanently chronicle a bumper crop of corn and squash that would feed my family with some to spare. I am an ancient Native American without access to brushes, paints, canvas, or other tools that we now take for granted. My responsibility was to find pigments in the materials close at hand, find a suitable wall to accept my work, and then allow my heart to sing on that rock wall. What would I come up with?

The answer is I would not have come up with anything as wonderful as what I saw at Desert View. Granted these were not ancient paintings, but were executed by Native American artists in the 1930s. They were based on traditional Hopi works.

As I sat quietly and allowed my mind to settle down, the work came alive for me. The wonder of the stars, the comfort of a good harvest, and numerous symbols whose meanings were not clear to me, but contributed to the stories living and breathing on this circular space.

I don’t know if I’ll be fortunate enough to return to the Grand Canyon National Park, but if I do, Mary Colter’s Desert View Watchtower will be near the top of my list for another visit.