Saturday, December 31, 2011

Race Street

I walked downtown today. It was a leisurely walk of about three and a half hours, the maximum duration of pavement pounding that my poor feet can stand. I had stowed my digital camera in my shirt pocket in hopes of taking a photograph worthy of comment in my blog, but for mile after mile I saw nothing eye-catching, just leafless trees and patches of dirty snow in front of shops and houses. As I approached downtown, I passed the ritzy (i.e, fashionable, high-dollar, imposing, historic) mansions, built for Denver "old money", situated across the boulevard from the Denver Country Club and its private golf course. The ritzy mansions were on side streets fronted by two huge cement planters, one on each side of the street. I have seen similar planters positioned outside government office buildings in Washington, D.C. as a bulwark against suicide truck bombers. I decided to stop and photograph a planter. [See above. Note my well-proportioned, fedora-topped shadow. If your eyes are keen, you'll also note that the planter bears the street name "Race", which will shortly be revealed as a touch of irony.]

Ah, but I am getting ahead of myself. Let me back up minute or so in the account.

Before walking past the ritzy mansions, I had to cross a busy intersection. As I waited for the signal to walk, an African-American lady of late middle age came up beside me. The walk signal appeared and I hurried across the intersection, hopping blithely over stripes of slush. The lady trailed behind. Then, when I stopped to photograph the planter, she caught up and passed me. After taking the photograph, I was on the move again and quickly overtook her. The lady stepped to the side, gave me a dirty look, and said, "You go on ahead of me. I don't trust you. Why are you taking pictures of people's homes?" [The dialogue here is verbatim to the best of my recollection.]

Me: "I'm not. I took a picture of one of the planters."

She turned and scrutinized the planters. She shook her head. "That's just stupid. Haven't you ever seen a planter before? Where are you from, anyway?"

Me: "Iowa, originally."

This reply appeared to satisfy her, even though there must surely be planters in Iowa. She continued, "I used to work for the airlines and went to Iowa now and then. Lots of farms there. They're having trouble with the Sudanese in Iowa now."

I said that I didn't know about the Sudanese, but I noted that Iowa had sponsored the settlement of Vietnamese refugees back in 1975.

She waved away the Vietnamese and launched into a lecture about black men not wanting to work with their hands. "After all those years of working with their hands for nothing – slavery, you know – they don't want any more of that. They don't want to be farmers in Iowa."

Me (quietly skeptical about her assertion that black men didn't want to work with their hands, as I had worked with black mechanics, electronics technicians, etc.): "Anyway, it's nearly impossible to start farming in Iowa unless you inherit the land. Land goes for $2000 an acre. [Note: I was badly mistaken about this. See below.]

Her: "You're expletive-ing me!"

Me: "No, it's true. Only the biggest farming operations or big corporations can afford these land prices."

Her: "I'm from Mississippi. Prudential was buying up lots of cotton land down there."

Me: "Yeah, it's all about speculation now. They're crowding out the small operator. To buy a little farm of 200 acres in Iowa would require $400,000 cash for the land itself, to say nothing of a tractor and the other equipment."

She pointed to the nearest mansion. "You could buy one of these houses for that much."

The cheapest mansion in the neighborhood would run you a cool million, I thought. But there was no point in quibbling.

She brought up how people are suffering in Detroit.

Me: "Yeah, they are. Unfortunately, industry isn't coming back to Detroit any time soon. Detroit will need to shrink. They might even have to bulldoze the vacant areas."

Her (offended): "Why do you say that?"

Me (scrambling to explain): "Detroit can't afford to run water, sewer, fire department coverage, and other services out to the farthest suburbs if hardly anybody is living there."

From her expression, it was clear that she had sized me up. I was just one more old, cold-hearted white man. She said, "I'm going down this street now." She turned onto the side street without saying goodbye. She passed the cement planter and headed down the row of ritzy mansions.

I kept walking toward downtown.


Farm land prices were slowly trending up during most of the twentieth century. Then the average cost of Iowa farm land shot up to $2000 an acre in 1981 as a result of serious inflation. Paul Volcker slammed the brakes on inflation; and land prices subsided to the historical trend, taking until 2002 to regain the previous high of $2000 an acre. Since then, foolish political subsidies for ethanol and wicked changes to the commodity futures markets have caused drastic distortion in Iowa land prices. Now Iowa is in the throes of a speculative bubble in farm land, as shown in the following figure from the Iowa State University (Go Cyclones!) extension office.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Mediterranean Currents

Over my Christmas break I have been reading a history of the Mediterranean Sea. The book, recommended by the Economist magazine in their best-of-2011 list, is The Great Sea by David Abulafia. It's a pleasant enough holiday diversion although I suspect that I'll have only the vaguest recollection of what I've read after a week or so. All the stories of the Phoenician, Greek, Carthaginian, Etruscan, and Roman sailors will soon wash out of my mind like sea foam driven by the hot winds of the African scirocco. This is an admission of a weak memory rather than an indictment of Mr. Abulafia's prose.

One bit of knowledge about sea currents, however, will stick with me. In his introduction, Mr. Abulafia explained that the Atlantic Ocean supplies the lion's share of the Mediterranean's water loss from evaporation. The steady inflow of cold Atlantic Ocean water through the Straits of Gibraltar greatly exceeds the outflow of warmer, saltier Mediterranean water. What, a question? That perplexed look on your face shows that you are wondering how there could be both an inflow and an outflow of water simultaneously. The answer is that saltier water is heavier water. The saltier Mediterranean outflow hugs the sea bottom while the opposing Atlantic inflow rides above it on the surface.

The average velocity of the surface current through the Straits of Gibraltar is about 3.5 miles per hour or slightly greater than the average current velocity of the Mississippi River at New Orleans. In olden times it was quite a chore to buck such a strong current from the west in rowing or sailing out from the Mediterranean into the Atlantic. Contrariwise, the Atlantic inflow was a boon for the Vikings rowing down from Norway. They could drift through the Straits of Gibraltar, leaning on their oars and enjoying the scenery, and then arrive at Italy rested, refreshed, and ready for a traditional Norse-style rampage.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Christmas Tonic

The Christmas festivities have come to a satisfying conclusion at my household. Both sons and my daughter-in-law joined me this year for an unconventional holiday time. We forsook the traditional Christmas turkey dinner in favor of a meal at a Jewish deli, where we ate dill pickle wedges as appetizers and then feasted on great heaps of corned beef, pastrami, egg salad, and turkey on rye. In the interest of having my family fully experience New York Jewish cuisine, I ordered a can of Doctor Brown's Cel-Ray celery tonic and persuaded each of them to try a sip. Their unanimous opinion was that a sip was more than ample.

Friday, November 25, 2011

My Taste in Decor and Its Remedy

A previous owner of my townhouse installed this opulent mirror in the downstairs bathroom. The frame is a grand baroque woodcarving, painted gold with accents of crimson. I fancy that it's patterned after some antique French design. Splendid, you surely think. Why, the Comte de Monte-Cristo himself would have been proud to frequent a bathroom with such a fine mirror. When I decided to buy the townhouse, my mind warmed to the idea of furnishing it as a miniature Versailles appartement, the sort of accommodations appropriate for a liveried manservant of the palace.

My younger son was appalled by this idea, as his taste in decor runs toward the simple, functional style of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, which had its heyday in the early 1900s. This style eschewed Victorian adornment and was characterized by furniture with clean geometric lines and an honest wood finish that showed off the grain. To display the structural craftsmanship, the furniture's mortise and tenon joinery was exposed for all to admire.

And so, once I signed the mortgage papers for the townhouse, it was time to furnish it. My son and I hauled all my old raggedy furniture to the Goodwill center and then went shopping for new stuff. We searched through a dozen furniture stores and evaluated countless sofas, loveseats, chairs, and recliners for style, workmanship, and comfort. We examined all manner of lamps and end tables and throw rugs. My son didn't press any of his interior design opinions on me. He merely made offhand comments about quality of materials and workmanship. But somehow I kept drifting farther and farther away from my goal of antique French finery.

When all of my purchases were finally delivered to my new living room, I realized that I had furnished the room according to the style popular in 1918. Two Stickley chairs of the Morris design dominated the floor space. They had oak frames carefully stained to bring out the grain; and their mortise and tenon joinery was nicely done. The chairs had deep cushions of brown leather (a welcome comfort to a tired doughboy home from the Great War). The living room was lit by the warm glow of an Edison bulb overhead and a second Edison bulb in a glass container (an antique vacuum vessel adapted by my son) that was placed on a wooden end table of clean geometric lines.

Evidently, my son has mastered the art of subtle persuasion.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Night Light

Tonight I walked around the nearby park and admired the Christmas lights. The fountains at the south end of the park were lit with subsurface lamps, giving the water jets the appearance of molten silver. The lights on the boulevard trees looked like constellations being sprayed from the earth.

My pictures fail to do justice to what I saw. This is partly due to my faulty camera technique, I admit. But the main problem is that the camera can't capture the beauty that my nearsightedness bestows on light shining in the darkness. To my eyes, light becomes soft and diffuse and almost seems to have heft. I see the bright, little bulbs in the trees not as dazzling points of light but as glowing balls, like incandescent apples.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Limp to the Library

I strained my right foot several days ago and have hobbled around ever since. Even after some slow, careful stretches this morning, my heel and ankle remained stiff and tender. When I stood up, pain shot from my heel to the sole of my foot.

Nevertheless, a man can't sit at home all day. I resolved to take my customary Saturday afternoon walk to the library, a round trip of about three miles. I would take it easy, of course. No running, no skipping, just a gentle stroll on the level sidewalk. The mild exercise would surely warm and loosen the sore foot, I reasoned.

I was mistaken. After I had walked about a mile, my bum ankle locked up on me. My right leg might as well have been a hockey stick. I could only move by slipping my right foot forward and then hopping ahead with my left foot. Slip and hop, slip and hop, slippity-hoppity all the way to the library and back. My pace was slow but my exertion was tremendous. I arrived back home sweating and panting.

I have spent the remainder of the day alternating between the seated position and the prone position.

The Crumbling Wall

I was out for a stroll last week and spotted this damaged wall. A six-foot section at the bottom of the wall appeared to have crumbled away.

The sight put me in a bad mood. It was an eyesore. Somebody was clearly to blame for this. My mind boiled over with accusing questions. Had some careless or intoxicated driver overshot the parking space and smashed into the wall? Had the wall contractor bungled the wall's design? Had the contractor skimped on the cement in order to cut costs and thereby weakened the wall's structural integrity? Were the contractor's laborers a crew of illegals from Mexico, accustomed to adobe clay instead of concrete?

As I approached the wall, I viewed the damage from a different angle.

All right, the wall was intact. My eyes had been fooled by a heap of dirty snow. Regardless of this reality, I still felt a lingering grudge against the hypothetical bad driver, the hypothetical crooked contractor, and the hypothetical incompetent laborers.

Apparently, I have pent up aggravation and am primed to discharge my ire against any perceived target. I shall have to make a determined effort to relax and sweeten my disposition.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Keeping the creative flame alive

While returning from my walk along the reservoir yesterday, I saw this worker with two flamethrowers. I maintained a respectful distance as I snapped his photograph. From my youth it has been my policy never to annoy a man holding flamethrowers.

As I approached, I looked more closely at the flamethrowers and judged them unimpressive. A faint wisp of yellow flame flickered at each of the nozzles. Two high-powered hair driers would have worked just as well.

After returning home and conducting a brief internet search, I found a technical explanation for the worker's actions. He was heating the white strip of thermoplastic that formed the traffic arrow at his feet, bonding it to the blacktop beneath.

I suppose there are maintenance advantages to using thermoplastic road markers rather than simply painting lines and arrows on the blacktop; but, all the same, I hope the practice doesn't catch on. Road painting may be a humble art, but the creation of a straight line or a well-proportioned turn arrow must surely give the worker more satisfaction that cooking a strip of plastic with wheezy flamethrowers.

My Sunday of Slavic Melancholy

My Sunday of Slavic melancholy began with a brief interlude of contentment at the Dazbog coffee house, where I enjoyed a latte and one of their breakfast pierogi, which are dumplings stuffed with potatoes, sausage, and cheese, cuisine dear to the heart of the Slavic people. (Dazbog is the name of a god in Slavic mythology, possibly a solar deity.) Afterwards I took a stroll to the nearby reservoir.

I was plunged into melancholy, a deep Slavic melancholy, upon seeing the grass and bushes surrounding the reservoir gone so dry and brown, decaying, the residue of the blasted hopes and withered dreams of summer, dead plants still clinging to the parched soil, dead and sad and pointless, like faded brown teeth in the jaw of a skull exhumed from an unmarked grave. I walked on, humming a Slavic song in a minor key. I pondered the miseries of life as only a Slav can ponder. Woe to the man, I thought, who, after a life spent scratching out a tiresome living with all its anxiety, arbitrary and unrealistic schedules, struggles with scoundrels and incompetents at all levels of the corporate organization, and disappointments in recognition and advancement, reaches the autumn of his career and finds the long struggle to have been largely in vain, with his every accomplishment forgotten or misattributed to others, having only a skimpy retirement annuity to show for decades of honest and capable service. Woe! Woe and despair!

Fortunately, I am only part Slav and could not retain this dark brooding for long. I returned home, had a bowl of Dreyer's fat-free frozen yogurt, and felt much better about life.

(Truth be told, today's descent into dark Slavic melancholy was a merely a reaction to reading too much 19th-century Russian literature. My actual Slavic relatives are very cheerful folks.)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Key to Sound Slumber

My slumber has been fitful lately. I wake in the middle of night and have trouble getting back to sleep. Relaxation exercises have not helped; neither have the usual nostrums of warm milk or a baby aspirin before bedtime.

Fortunately, Russian literature has provided the key to diagnosing my sleep problem. This evening I was reading Nikolai Gogol's classic novel Dead Souls. Gogol describes his picaresque hero Chichikov taking his rest: "Having eaten the lightest of suppers, consisting only of a suckling pig, he immediately undressed and, climbing in under his blanket, fell into fast, sound slumber, fell into that marvelous slumber which is known only to those fortunate beings who are bothered neither by hemorrhoids, nor fleas, nor overdeveloped mental faculties."

I am free of hemorrhoids. My mental faculties are mediocre and growing dimmer by the year. Therefore, I fear that my bedclothes may be the habitation of fleas. It's time to do laundry.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Jackhammer Quip

Today at my office building, workmen were removing a concrete slab in the shipping area. The racket of a jackhammer went on for hours. Somebody quipped, "It sounds like a russian-built woodpecker."

Saturday, October 15, 2011

An Autumn Walk

Today the weather was perfect for a long walk. I decided to take a twelve-mile hike to the used bookstores at the edge of downtown. Objective: to purchase a volume of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories. (To avoid keeping the reader in a state of tingling suspense, I will right now declare my good fortune in finding a compilation of fifty-one of the Father Brown stories, gathered from the volumes published from 1911 to 1936.)

All along my route I marveled at the autumn colors of the leaves, beginning with the maroon trees near my townhouse (see above). I saw leaf colors ranging from deep maroon, to red, to burnt-orange, to yellow, to yellow-green, to the original green. The beauty was a treat for the eyes.

I needed this beauty to offset a subsequent eyesore: a shirtless old man on a bicycle. He was suffering from a not uncommon condition in testosterone-depleted old men called gynecomastia (old man breasts). But no, I misspeak. The old man did not suffer. All of the suffering was experienced by us onlookers. The old man himself was merrily pedaling along, enjoying the warm sunshine on his budding appendages.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Hypertension Breakthrough Retraction

Flush with success from Tuesday morning's seeming breakthrough in hypertension reduction (the hot pepper cure), I was subsequently disappointed to find that the effect was fleeting and could not be reproduced, even with an exact replay of the Monday night conditions.

On Tuesday and Wednesday night, ample leftovers of fajita filling and lettuce/tomato/cucumber salad allowed me to recreate my Monday night supper. Each night I took my customary evening stroll and went to bed at my customary time of 10:00 p.m. Then, when I awoke, I hurried downstairs to measure my blood pressure, full of hope. On Wednesday morning my blood pressure remained at its typical a-bit-too-high level. This morning the same disheartening level appeared again. The hot pepper cure has failed me. Tuesday morning's healthy reduction in blood pressure was a fluke, a false hope.

Now what will I do with the bag of medicinal jalapeƱos I bought Tuesday night?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Hypertension Breakthrough

After slowly freeing myself from my ineffective blood pressure medicine without physician's supervision (to the dismay of my friend the emergency room nurse, who mordantly jokes about saving me a spot in the stroke treatment center), I have been faithfully, even obsessively, exercising and watching my diet. My blood pressure has eased to a moderate pre-hypertensive level, not optimal yet but well below the danger zone. I had expected to continue a gradual descent to the "normal" reading of 120/80 over the coming months. However, upon taking a blood pressure measurement this morning, I found that I had made a surprising descent all the way to "normal" overnight.

What caused such a significant reduction in blood pressure? The previous night had been typical of my routine, with one notable exception: my younger son and I had made chicken fajitas and added some very hot Hatch chiles.

I checked the internet to discover whether hot peppers or their active ingredient capsaicin are known to reduce blood pressure. I found this blurb on the Scientific American website: Rats with high blood pressure benefited from a long-term diet rich in capsaicin, which gives the heat to hot peppers and starts a chemical sequence that relaxes blood vessels.

Perhaps I am more ratlike than I had thought.

Musicians in the house

Last week musicians occupied my house. It began harmlessly. On Monday my younger son and I invited a guitarist to dinner. On Tuesday two other musicians came to dinner. On Wednesday I came home from work to find six musicians rehearsing rock music in my basement. Nipping this progression in the bud, I didn't feed them dinner. On Thursday their numbers shrank to two, and by Sunday the house was free of musicians.

My younger son maintains that the influx and subsequent outflux of musicians was according to plan. The band he had performed with in college was reuniting to perform at the reception following the lead guitarist's wedding. Rehearsals were scheduled in stages, he said. This may be so. All the same, I have found that prudence urges restraint in feeding either pigeons or musicians. They tend to flock around a food source.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Problem with Modern Fairy Tales

A week before their Fall semester began at the University, Jeremy and his sister Alice flew out to see their grandpa. Grandpa picked them up at the airport and then drove them to his little retirement condominium. After sleeping accommodations had been sorted out -- Alice on the fold-out sofa in the living room and Jeremy on an inflatable mattress in the study -- they all went out to Grandpa's favorite Thai restaurant for dinner.

When they returned to the condominium, Alice sprawled on the sofa and went dramatically limp. "It's been a long day. I'm totally fried," she said.

"I'm sure you are," replied Grandpa. "We should get ready for bed. I keep forgetting that two-hour time zone difference."

Alice straightened up. She said, "Grandpa, you remember those fairy tales you told us when we were young? About the spellbound princesses? The brave knights in shining armor?"

"The fierce dragons and wily sorcerers?" added Jeremy.

"Yes, I suppose that I remember a few of them," said Grandpa. "But you two are much too sophisticated now for those old-fashioned fairy tales."

"You could update them, couldn't you?" said Alice. "You know, translate them to modern times."

Grandpa looked skeptical but said, "Well, I'll give it a try." He sat next to Alice on the sofa. Jeremy took a seat on Grandpa's recliner.

Grandpa cleared his throat and began. "Once upon a time there was a businessman. One day--"

"What kind of businessman?" asked Jeremy, who was majoring in accounting. "Corporate management? Finance? Insurance? Real Estate?"

"Does it matter?" replied Grandpa.

"It helps establish character and motivation," said Jeremy.

"Very well. Once upon a time there was a businessman who worked in finance."

Jeremy said, "Corporate finance? Investment banking? Venture capital?"

"All right, we'll say venture capital. Once upon a time there was a venture capitalist."

"Seed money or mezzanine financing?"

Grandpa looked at Jeremy and then at Alice, sighed, and shook his head. He began again. "Once upon a time there was a humble shepherd tending his flocks. One day ..."

Winterizing the Pond

I see that the decorative pond across the street is being prepared for winter. The water is an evil-looking shade of green, nearly as opaque as enamel. Antifreeze, perhaps?

One is reminded of the plague of Egypt wherein the sea was turned to blood. However, for the pond, the chosen bodily fluid appears to be bile.

Friday, September 2, 2011

To Eat, Perchance to Dream

I returned this afternoon from a two-week business trip to the East Coast. The trip was notable for long hours and for lunches and dinners at East Coast restaurants. (Also, I lived through an 5.8 earthquake and a Class 2 hurricane. Neither amounted to much at my inland work location.)

I found eating out a refreshing novelty at first. Dining with my colleagues, I enjoyed cheerful company and had my fill of cheese steak sandwiches, authentic Italian pizza (all right, authentic American pizza made by authentic Italian-Americans), Mongolian barbeque, spicy Indian buffet dishes, overgrown Five Guys double-patty hamburgers, Texas barbeque, and East Coast sports bar fare lightly seasoned with cigarette smoke. But all of these hearty comestibles, save the vegetable-rich Mongolian barbeque, worked unpleasant and paradoxical effects on my constitution: I was rendered sleepy at work but unable to sleep soundly in my hotel bed. Two weeks of this has reduced me to near zombie-tude.

I was given today off to fly home and take care of errands (haircut, bill paying, clothes washing, etc.). Tomorrow I will return to the East Coast for another two-week stint. I plan to seek out salad bars.

Note to thieves: My house will remained occupied by family during my absence.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Indian Wall Hanging

The Indian wall hanging, a colorful and exotic Christmas gift from my younger son, was mounted in the living room today! This was the culmination of six months of preparation.

Scoffers may think six months is a ludicrous duration. Scoffers may point out that most people would buy prefabricated mounting hardware and slap the wall hanging up on the wall in a single afternoon, with enough time left over for a movie or a walk in the park. Scoffers may insinuate that a significant portion of the six months was attributable to some combination of my foot-dragging and incompetence. Well, let the scoffers scoff. In my household, craftsmanship is a process that is allowed to unfold at its own pace, a process to be slowly savored.

In January, my son and I set to work on the design of the rod and mounting brackets. These parts needed to be made of some species of wood that, when stained, would match the color and grain of the Morris chairs in the living room. We settled on white oak for the brackets and cherry for the rod. My son, who judges color with excellent discrimination, selected a red oak wood finish for the stain.

Now, having assembled the raw materials, we needed a pattern for the brackets. I suggested brackets in the shape of violin scrolls. What could be more elegant than the intricate curves of a violin scroll? My son, well aware that he would be performing the hands-on woodworking, quashed this suggestion. His counter-suggestion was that the brackets should match the simple angular pattern of the Indian wall hanging itself. For the sake of household tranquility, I acceded.

At this point the enterprise hit a snag. We had no workbench on which to make the brackets. So, most of February was devoted to the design and construction of an eight-foot workbench in the garage. Mail order of a vise took until April. (See the blog entry from April 17, 2011 for a view of the finished workbench.) With the workbench ready for business, all we lacked were the proper woodworking tools.

At this point, Providence tugged events in unexpected directions. In May my son's violin playing career started to pick up steam. He and his guitarist friend had a gig at a local bar and grill. They played the first half of their set and then took their break. My son found a safe place for his violin at the back of the stage and went outside for a breath of fresh air. When my son returned, the guitarist broke the news that a lady – a very old, very drunk lady – had staggered into a microphone stand at the edge of the stage. Toppling, the microphone was just long enough to reach the back of the stage and smack the violin, knocking its fingerboard free of the neck. My son gathered up the deranged violin and felt sick. Providence seemed to be frowning on him. After his distress subsided, my son improvised a playing technique to compensate for the loose fingerboard and limped through the remainder of the gig.

The following day my son dropped off the violin at the violin repair shop, the shop that had fixed violins and bows for both my sons over the past twenty years. The proprietor's diagnosis was reassuring: a simple glue job, no permanent damage.

It was now that Providence revealed that the violin accident had been the means of delivering an unexpected blessing. The proprietor of the shop surprised my son with a job offer. If my son were willing to learn violin repair, there would be a job for him at the shop. My son eagerly accepted. He rushed home and started searching the Internet for the tools of the violin fix-it trade: chisels, scrapers, files, planes, polishing stones, and shop knives.

A plane for shaping a violin's top and back plates soon arrived in the mail. My son used this plane to shape and smooth the angles of the brackets for the wall hanging. Everything about the timing of these events seemed right and natural.

The rest of the project went quickly. This weekend my son and I applied a coat of stain and a coat of linseed oil to the brackets and rod. And tonight we threaded the rod through the wall hanging's loops, hoisted the wall hanging, and attached its brackets to the living room wall. Success!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Orange Revolution

Today, on my customary Saturday stroll to the library, I was surprised to see orange flowers dominating the flower beds. This oranging was no mere coincidence. Rather, it struck me as clear evidence of unconscious social coordination. Deep sociological forces had influenced the color selection of groups as disparate as the Denver Light Rail Board, Wal-Mart, several apartment complexes, and a dozen private homeowners. I took this as a hopeful trend. Orange is a warm, joyful color. Among color psychologists (a semi-scientific bunch amply represented on the Internet), orange is often associated with sociability and enthusiasm, although it is sometimes derided by the stuffy and self-important as being a frivolous color. I like orange and always find myself cheered and uplifted when I observe an orange flower.

So, let a hundred orange flowers bloom!

(Note: I do not intend any analogies with the Maoist Hundred Flowers Campaign and subsequent crackdown on Chinese intellectuals in the 1950s.)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Collapse of Complex Societies

I'm told that some people, those susceptible to morbid fascinations, delight in a delicious shiver of fear caused by reading horror stories. Not me. I take pains to steer clear of the horror genre. However, I confess my own fascination with a related genre: archaeology.

I just finished reading Joseph A. Tainter's 1988 shiver-inducing The Collapse of Complex Societies, a doleful tome with a surprise twist. Tainter starts with four foundational concepts in developing his thesis that societies become vulnerable to collapse as additional societal complexity produces less and less marginal benefit. He writes:

"Four concepts lead to understanding collapse, the first three of which are the underpinnings of the fourth. These are:

1. human societies are problem-solving organizations;
2. sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
3. increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and
4. investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns."

Tainter supports his thesis with examples of declining marginal returns (as observed in 1988) in agriculture and resource production, sociopolitical control and specialization, and medicine.

Oh, one could make the counter argument that recent advances in computing and communications continue to provide a lot of productivity bang for the research buck; but, all in all, Tainter seems to be on firm ground here. And Tainter's comments about sociopolitical organizations seemed especially apt:

"Sociopolitical organizations constantly encounter problems that require increased investment merely to preserve the status quo. This investment comes in such forms as increasing size of bureaucracies, increasing specialization of bureaucracies, cumulative organization solutions, increasing costs of legitimizing activities, and increasing costs of internal control and external defense. All of these must be borne by levying greater costs on the support population, often to no increased advantage. As the number and costliness of organization investments increase, the proportion of a society's budget available for investment in future economic growth must decline."

Very simply put, societies increase in complexity to solve ever more difficult problems, and this complexity becomes increasingly costly over time. At some point, the complexity produces nearly as many headaches as the problems it is intended to solve.

To illustrate his thesis, Tainter takes the reader through a careful analysis of the Roman Empire and its progression of declining marginal returns. Rome got off to a promising start in the third century B.C. There were many rich lands to conquer. But the early joys of pillaging led to the later aggravations of bureaucracy. As Tainter writes:

"Once the accumulated surpluses of conquered nations have been appropriated, a conqueror must thereafter incur costs to administer, garrison, and defend the province. And when the accumulated surpluses have been spent, this must be paid for out of yearly income. Costs rise and benefits decline. For a one-time infusion of wealth from each conquered province, Rome had to undertake administrative and military responsibilities that lasted centuries. For Rome, the costs of administering some provinces (such as Spain and Macedonia) exceeded their revenues. And although he was probably exaggerating, Cicero complained in 66 B.C. that, of all Roman conquests, only Asia yielded a surplus."

In the book's final chapter, Tainter summarized the two factors that make a society liable to collapse:

"First, as the marginal return on investment in complexity declines, a society invests ever more heavily in a strategy that yields proportionately less. Excess productive capacity and accumulated surpluses may be allocated to current operating needs."

"Secondly, declining marginal returns make complexity an overall less attractive strategy, so that parts of a society perceive increasing advantage to a policy of separation or disintegration. When the marginal cost of investment in complexity becomes noticeably too high, various segments increase passive or active resistance, or overtly attempt to break away."

Here, at the end the book, I expected Tainter to conclude with a jeremiad concerning America and its increasingly complex society. I expected the usual comparisons between America's current challenges and the Western Roman Empire's final throes. However, wily Professor Tainter fooled me. The first 213 pages of his book were just an elaborate, scholarly set up for three pages of surprise twist, starting with this zinger:

"Collapse today is neither an option nor an immediate threat. Any nation vulnerable to collapse will have to pursue one of three options: (1) absorption by a neighbor or some larger state; (2) economic support by a dominant power; or (3) payment by the support population of whatever costs are needed to continue complexity, however detrimental the marginal return. A nation today can no longer unilaterally collapse; for if any national government disintegrates, its population and territory will be absorbed by some other."

Tainter's punch line:

"Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole. Competitors who evolve as peers collapse in like manner."

A slow-motion, universal collapse. Doomed nations, like exhausted prisoners on a chain gang, stumbling and dragging each other down.

Feel that shiver of fear?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Living in the living room

For the past two days my living room was a recording studio, cluttered with microphones and cords and recording electronics, resounding with soaring vocals supported by the bright, clean notes of acoustic guitar and fiddle, a room by turns a roadhouse for honkytonk blues and a chapel for love songs, a room that was a sweatshop of the arts, figuratively in terms of the concentrated artistic effort and literally in terms of the heat (the air conditioner was shut off to prevent fan noise from marring the recordings), a sanctuary for free creative expression, with neither fans nor critics present to inhibit the music making (at night I discreetly betook myself to the basement to watch 1940s film noir movies on muted volume) -- in short, for the past two days my living room was a place where a lot of living went on.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Victim of the Surveillance State

I am writing this blog entry in a troubled mood of hot outrage and cold paranoia.

Today I opened a letter from the City of Aurora and found that Aurora was accusing me of the crime of "Failure to Obey Signal Light." Aurora asserted that I had run a light that had been red for 0.3 seconds. The letter provided a link to evidence on the Aurora surveillance website, which displayed crime scene photographs and a video, all allegedly taken by robot surveillance cameras (the pride of Aurora's new revenue generation technology).

Analyzing the images, I instantly had suspicions that the evidence had been doctored. Yes, the photographs were taken at a time and a location consistent with my usual morning travel to work. And yes, it was clearly my old Volvo and its license plate shown in the photographs taken from the rear. However, a photograph taken from the front, a close-up view of the driver, was a forgery, a clever cut-and-paste job. The fellow behind the wheel resembled me, down to the details of my glasses and my faded WalMart-brand shirt; but the forger had made a subtle Photoshop error and had inserted a stretched image of my face into the photograph, making me look fatter and older than in real life.

I plan to pay the traffic fine without protest. When you live in a surveillance state, it's best to keep Big Brother from knowing you are wise to his deceptions.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Home, Home on the Rocket Range

This morning I witnessed the maiden flight of a friend's rocket.

The Northern Colorado Rocketry Club was hosting a weekend launch fest, and rocketeers flocked to the remote prairie launch site at the Pawnee National Grassland to blast holes in the sky. Most of the rockets were skinny little things, mere overgrown darts.

My friend's rocket, won at a charity auction, was a comparative behemoth. After assembly, it looked like this.

The man who had donated the rocket for the auction arrived to make sure the launch went smoothly. Last week he had shown my friend how to mix the chemicals for the solid fuel motors. Now the man had come to tutor my friend on rocket assembly.

They set up a work table (shown below) and got busy. At the upper right you can see the purple nose cone and a small portion of the green fabric of the main parachute. To the left of these is the metal housing for the rocket motors. Next to the housing are two cylindrical rocket motors, a short one on its end and a long one beside it, each consisting of dark propellant wrapped in tan cardboard. A hole runs down the center of the motor, permitting uniform combustion along the motor's entire length. This center hole is a clever refinement that never occurred to me when I was making crude gunpowder rockets (structurally equivalent to leaky pipe bombs) during my elementary school days back in Iowa. The tangle of cord is the line for the drogue parachute.

The drogue parachute is deployed as the rocket reaches apogee. ('Apogee' is derived from the Greek words signifying the farthest point off the Earth, the point where the awe-struck observer exclaims "Gee, that's really high!") Unfurled, the gold and purple drogue was about the size of a newspaper page.

After the drogue and its cord were stowed in the rocket, it was time to pack the motor. First the long motor was gently stuffed into its metal housing.

Then the housing was inserted into the rocket.

Finally, the nozzle, a black metal fixture shaped like a stack of three hollow hockey pucks, was clamped into the very bottom of the rocket.

The rocket was now launch ready.

My friend slid the rocket onto its guide pole on the pad. He hooked up the ignition wires.

Mission Control huddled to determine who got to push the launch button.

The crowd went silent. Every eye was on the pad. Mission Control said, "Ready on the pad. We have continuity. Three! Two! One!"

Owing to sluggish reflexes, I missed snapping the photograph of the rocket's ascent. The picture shows the portion of sky that the rocket has just passed through.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

My Time Travel Plans

Lately I have been thinking of myself as a time machine. Though not a particularly versatile time machine, I admit. I lack a reverse gear; and my forward travel is limited to the standard rate of time, rather like a log raft drifting down the Mississippi River. All the same, I am happy to be making steady progress toward my desired temporal destinations. Here is a small sampling of my itinerary.

Dec 21, 2012 - End date of the Mayan Calendar
I wish to visit this date and see the conclusion of the current 5125-year-long cycle of the Mayan Long Count calendar. Various people (sensationalists, mostly) have predicted a global cataclysm. I plan to arrive at the solstice and see if the cataclysm occurs.

2020 - China's fragmenting and decline
George Friedman, whose STRATFOR company provides analysis and forecasting of the geopolitical scene, has predicted that by 2020 China will have clearly failed to integrate its dynamic economy with its third-world political and banking structures. The era of Chinese unraveling should provide a fascinating stop on my time tour.

2022 - Peak rate of US retirement
The baby boomers had their peak birthrate in 1957. Therefore, their retirement rate should peak 65 years later in 2022. I will be in my early 70s and will have a personal interest in the demographic situation.

April 13, 2029 - First approach by the killer asteroid Apophis
The 25-million ton, 820 foot-wide asteroid 9942 Apophis, named after the Egyptian god of darkness and destruction, will whiz by the Earth in 2029. The asteroid should get extensive news coverage (especially if it foils the astronomers' calculations and actually hits the Earth). This promises to be a rewarding spectacle for the weary time traveler. If Apophis misses the target, it will get another toss in 2036.

2029 - Successful reverse engineering of the human brain
Ray Kurzweil, brilliant inventor and sometime crackpot concerning health issues, has predicted that all aspects of the human brain - including emotions, curiosity, and personality quirks - will have been understood and simulated by 2029. I plan to show up in 2029 and see how all this pans out. Perhaps I can purchase a companion for my declining years, either a perky but scatter-brained model from Microsoft or else an elegant but snooty model from Apple.

2035 - Flight of an all-electric airliner
The European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) plans to have an airliner powered by lithium-ion batteries by 2035. It will be well worth the extensive time travel to see this exciting technology, even if the time machine (i.e., my own self) is getting a bit rickety by then. How wonderful to buzz through the clouds on an electric plane!

2042 - Non-Hispanic whites become a minority of the US population
With decades of increasing Hispanic immigration in store for the US, the non-Hispanic whites (my crowd) will dip below 50% by 2042, never to regain majority status. If I pace myself, I may be able to stretch out my time travel long enough to visit this tumultuous era. By then it should be easy to get first-rate corn tortillas in grocery stores.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


While wandering around the aisles of a local flea market, I noticed this sign painted on the wall.

I am willing to believe that the ants are the most credit worthy creatures of the entire insect world. Their diligence and probity is proverbial: "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise!" Nevertheless, leery of financial transactions with insects (I, whilst a lad, having been snookered out of my lunch money by a glib seventeen-year locust), I declined the opportunity of obtaining an IOU from an ant.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Parboiled Foot

Last Wednesday I parboiled my foot.

This is not the beginning of a surrealist short story, but rather the account of a kitchen accident I suffered while making spaghetti. As I was carrying the pot to the sink in order to pour off the steaming water, I bobbled the lid, over-corrected spectacularly, and doused my right foot with about a cup of boiling water. Considerable yelling and hopping ensued.

Parboiling, a cooking technique useful in loosening potato skins, is similarly effective when applied to the human foot. The skin loosens from the foot and puffs up in a broad blister. (In cannibal circles, the foot would now be considered ready for a dash of tarragon and a turn on the grill.)

As a result of my injury, my program for Memorial Day weekend has included lots of sitting, interspersed for variety's sake with short periods of limping.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Extreme Cutlery

One of the joys of living with a craftsman is having tools pay a visit to the breakfast table.

This sturdy family of four English made chisels and their strapping cousin, the long-handled gouge, came calling yesterday, wearing stylish caps of beeswax. The tools looked rather like a place setting for a hearty meal of beef-smoked brisket of prime mesquite, served with a side salad of mixed evergreens and cream of cottonwood soup.

The Fiddler's Father at the Concert

Several weeks ago I attended a performance by my younger son and his guitarist friend at a local folk music center. The two had been toiling in my basement writing and rehearsing songs for weeks; now it was time to dazzle the world with their blues, ballads, and rock and roll.

Having heard fragments of their raw material in preliminary arrangements, I had grown curious to hear the finished product. And so, on concert night I bestirred myself and went early to the folk music center to get a good seat, preferably an aisle seat a few rows back from the stage, a location offering the optimal combination of leg stretch comfort and a clear view of the performers.

I arrived at the little concert hall just as the man acting as stage manager, a gray-haired free spirit about my age (too old to be groovy, too young to give it all up), threw the doors open. A whisper to the ticket girl that my son was playing and she waved me in. I sped up the aisle to the fourth row's outside chair, a chair offering prime leg room and an unobstructed view of the stage and its two padded bar stools, soon to be the perches of the two performers. I sat myself down and looked back at the concert hall filling with students, the guitarist's extended family, and the usual menagerie of old folkies that delight in hearing live music played in an intimate hall.

I felt a tap on my shoulder. The stage manager leaned down and inquired if I was the fiddler's father.

Fiddler's father? The words sounded odd to my ear. Yea, I have lain with a woman and she hath conceived a fiddler. "Yes, I am," I confessed. "I am the fiddler's father."

The stage manager smiled a gracious, free spirited smile. "Come with me, sir. We've got a special seat reserved for you."

There was no way to refuse the unsought and unwanted honor. I followed him to the exposed terrain in front of the stage. Each chair in the front row had a paper sign taped to its seat: "Reserved Seating." I was offered a chair in the center of the row and I took it, expressing as much gratitude as I could muster. Then the stage manager escorted the guitarist's family forward to fill in the chairs around me.

Now it was show time. The stage manager greeted the crowd, said a few words about upcoming events at the folk music center, and then introduced the performers. My son and his friend stepped onto the stage to generous applause. They picked up their instruments and climbed atop the bar stools.

The stage was a foot tall; therefore, my eyes were at the level of my son's shins. He should have worn his dress shoes, I thought, instead of those ratty sneakers.

The situation somehow reminded me of my son's peewee soccer league, years ago, where parents, many of them obnoxious, would scream encouragement or advice from the sidelines. I wondered, will my son feel self-conscious at having me so close? He might fear that I would yell out, "Good harmony, son. You're doing great." Or perhaps warn him, "Don't slouch. Keep your scroll up."

I needn't have worried. My son was oblivious to my presence. Actually, during his most soulful playing, he shut his eyes and appeared to be oblivious to the audience, the concert hall, and possibly even the material world as we know it.

It was a fine concert. You should have been there.

Monday, April 25, 2011

For Use Rather Than Ostentation

I ran across a fine quotation from Edward Gibbon in Bennett Cerf's book of anecdotes, Try and Stop Me, from 1944. (I had to handle the book carefully, because publishers used lighter-weight stock during World War II to conserve paper for the war effort.) The quotation, in Gibbon's elegant eighteenth century prose, reads:

"With the venerable proconsul [Gordian], his son was likewise declared emperor. His manners were less pure, but his character was equally amiable with that of his father. Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations, and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than ostentation."

Something about the last sentence struck me as familiar. Where had I seen a sequence of words like "designed for use rather than ostentation" before? After searching through six books of George Ade's comic fables, I discovered a very similar sequence of words in Ade's Forty Modern Fables [1901], in the fable entitled The Fable of Springfield's Fairest Flower and Lonesome Agnes Who Was Crafty.

Here is the first part of this comic fable:

"SPRINGFIELD had a Girl who was being Courted by a Syndicate. She was the Girl who took First Prize at the Business Men's Carnival. When the Sunday Paper ran a whole Page of Typical Belles she had the Place of Honor.

If a Stranger from some larger Town was there on a Visit and it became necessary to Knock his Eye out and prove to him that Springfield was strictly In It, they took him up to call on Mazie. Mazie never failed to Bowl him over, for she was a Dream of Loveliness when she got into her Glad Raiment. Mazie had large mesmeric Eyes and a Complexion that was like Chaste Marble kissed by the Rosy Flush of Dawn. She carried plenty of Brown Hair that she Built Up by putting Rats under it. When she sat very straight on the edge of the Chair, with the queenly Tilt of the Chin and the Shoulders set back Proudly and the Skirt sort of Whipped Under so as to help the General Outline, she was certainly a Pleasing Object to size up. She did not Fall Down at any Point.

Mazie had such a Rush of Men Callers that the S. R. O. Sign was out almost every Night, and when the Weather permitted she had Overflow Meetings on the Veranda. Right across the Street from Beautiful Mazie there lived a Girl named Agnes, who was Fair to Middling, although she could not Step it Off within twenty Seconds of Mazie's regular Gait. Sometimes when she happened to get the right Combination of Colors and wore a Veil and you did not get too Close, she was not Half Bad, but as soon as she got into the same Picture with Mazie, the Man Charmer, she was faded to a Gray Bleach.

All the plain, everyday XX Springfield Girls, designed for Family Use and not for Exhibition Purposes, used to wish that Mazie would go away somewhere and forget to come back."

Clearly, "designed for Family Use and not for Exhibition Purposes" is equivalent to "designed for use rather than ostentation."

This is the sort of literary connection that amuses me. It is a relatively harmless affliction.

I recommend Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I read it as a young man and look forward to rereading it. I also recommend George Ade's delightful fable collections, especially the earlier ones.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Manly endeavors in woodworking

Several months ago, my younger son and I created a very spacious and sturdy workbench in the garage. He designed it -- the kitchen counter on the top was his idea -- and he performed most of the construction that required actual skill. My major contribution was procurement of tools and materials, although I also performed some significant work with the power saw. All in all, it was the most enjoyable household project that I had done in years. Few things feel as manly as ripping through a 4x8 sheet of plywood with a screaming power saw.

The workbench will be getting lots of use in the coming months. My younger son is preparing himself for a part-time job repairing violins for a master violin maker. The preparation consists of first accumulating woodworking tools (block planes, chisels, wood scrapers, etc.) and then developing his technique with these tools. The bottom photo shows the inaugural pine shavings from my son's practice with a six-inch block plane.

Obligatory Springtime Blossoms Photo

The crab apple trees are in bloom. As I sit on my front porch, it is easy to imagine that I am sitting in a fancy tree house. Thus do boyhood wishes find fulfillment when one is entering one's dotage.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Willows and Asteroids

In the interest of lowering my hypertension below its customary pressure-cooker level, I took a long stroll today along a neighborhood bicycle path. I saw hints of spring. Some of the bushes are starting to bud out. One tall willow (above) had striking yellow-green branches that looked almost luminescent.

The stroll was so restful that I decided to extend it to pay a visit to Apophis, the killer asteroid. I found him hurtling through the vast empyrean beyond the sun. As a rule, Apophis disdains talking with carbon-based life forms, but I persuaded him to make an exception for me.

Wagman: "So, the NASA scientists are calculating that you'll pass close to the Earth during 2029 and then pass by again in 2036."

Apophis: "Let the scientists calculate if it makes them happy. It's too early to tell. There's a lot of stuff pushing and pulling me out here: overlapping gravity wells from The Big Guy himself and all his major planets, attraction by other asteroids that are wiggling around in complicated trajectories, and solar wind. Call it a hunch, but I'm betting on a 2029 impact myself."

Wagman: "This astonishes me! Yet you say this so calmly. Don't you feel anything when you think about a possible impact with the Earth?"

Apophis: "Feel? It's all just astrophysics; I don't take any of this personally. Although, to be honest with you, as I get older I begin to see the benefits of giving up my solitary wandering to settle down with a nice plump planet."

Wagman: "The collision would be devastating."

Apophis: "Only to the Earth's surface."

Wagman: "That surface is home to all of humanity. And I have a townhouse and an old Volvo there."

Apophis: "Pity. But like I said, it's astrophysics. What can I do about it?"

Wagman: "Well, I notice that you have some asymmetrical craters."

Apophis: "You're no beauty yourself, but I don't point out your wrinkles and blotches."

Wagman: "No, you misunderstand me. I'm referring to drag. Just like a golf ball's dimples affect drag, you could rotate your craters to adjust your drag going through the solar wind. Generate the right amount of spin, and you could hook or slice your way clear of the Earth.

Apophis: "No thanks. Too much risk of losing control and spending the coming eons madly tumbling head over heels."

Wagman: "Head over heels?"

Apophis: "A figure of speech that I picked up from the radio waves that Earth has been blaring into the solar system for the last eighty years. Hey, I'm making the effort to speak to you in your own vernacular, buster. Spare me the sarcasm.

Wagman: "Sorry."

Apophis: "Anyway, no more time to chat. But I'll see you later."

Wagman: "For a second chat, you mean? I have many questions to ask you."

Apophis: "No, no second chat."

Wagman: "Oh, you mean in 2029."

Apophis: "Bullseye."

Friday, March 18, 2011

Lasting Impressions

I was finishing my master's degree at the University of Wisconsin and had the opportunity to return to Iowa State University, my alma mater, where I had been graduated with a bachelor's degree in engineering. I strolled around the campus and then visited my old dorm. A number of fellows that had been underclassmen when I was a senior were still residing there. As we sat in the television room and chatted about old times, a student who was a stranger to me heard my last name, got off the couch, and went running down the hall yelling, "Wagman's come back." Soon freshmen and sophomores rushed to greet me. I could not account for my celebrity, as I had not made a big splash during my time at the university.

It was explained to me that my name had become infamously linked with a unsportsmanlike tactic during penny-ante poker: the so-called "Wagman move." Allegedly, as a hand was being dealt, I would pick up my cards from the table one by one. If I didn't like what I was seeing, I would knock my final card off the table and declare a misdeal.

I protested to the throng that I had been defamed. They scoffed and jeered.

I returned to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin to complete my master's degree and then left to take a job in industry. I was off to a good start on my career. Yet I was troubled. My humiliation at Iowa State University still weighed on my mind. If Iowa State University remembered me as a miserable card cheat, how might the University of Wisconsin remember me? As a modern day Jack the Ripper?

I decided to buy myself a favorable lasting impression. I saved up two weeks' pay (roughly equal in present day dollars to the value of my current Volvo motorcar) and sent it back to my graduate school colleagues as an endowment for beer and pizza. The following year I repeated the donation.

Microsoft's Bill Gates followed a roughly similar course decades later. Philanthropy is often a bribe offered to History.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Family memories

A week ago I was pleased to receive some genealogical information of my mother's family and learned that my great-great-great-grandfather Vaclava was a blacksmith in a small Czech town south of Prague in the early 1800s. Nothing else is known about him. Time effaces all.

Even the 20th century is fast receding from memory. While I have many memories of my paternal grandfather, a Missouri farmer, only two remain persistently vivid in my mind. The first memory was the time we were walking in the pasture to check on the cows. I must have been about eight. As I recollect, he took his pocket knife and cut off a short piece of wood from a slender sapling. He notched it, pushed back the smooth bark, trimmed a thin slice up to the notch, and then slid the bark back into place. He handed me this handmade whistle and told me to give it a try. I blew on it and sounded a strong, clear note.

The second memory, from about the same era, was the time he read me the macabre poem The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service. (My grandfather's farm was far beyond the reach of radio or television in those days, and fiction – especially Mark Twain's writings – and light poetry were his favorite leisure pastimes. Of course, leisure back then signified something quite different from what we consider leisure today. A Missouri farmer's weekly leisure was concentrated into about an hour on Sunday afternoon.)

Service's 1907 poem had an unusual internal rhyme scheme that still makes me smile fifty years later:

First stanza:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Check it out.

Listen to the mocking bird

Yesterday afternoon was unseasonably warm for late winter. I celebrated by playing guitar on my front porch. I was working out a walking bass arrangement of the 1935 Rodgers and Hart standard Blue Moon, the version that goes:

'Blue moon, you saw me standin' alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own
Blue moon, you knew just what I was there for
You heard me sayin' a prayer for
Someone I really could care for...'

A blue-tinged sparrow, attracted (or possibly annoyed) by my playing, landed on a branch of the crab apple tree sheltering the porch and proceeded to tweet. Unfortunately, the bird was tweeting in the key of A flat, whereas I was playing in the key of C. The discordance was distracting to me. The bird didn't like it either and flew off to a tree beyond the swimming pool.

I resumed my Blue Mooning. But soon the bird returned and made a racket in A flat once again. I held my ground and insisted on the key of C. You can't let a bird push you around. Otherwise, the neighborhood squirrels and rabbits start getting ideas.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Firing up the blog again

It has become apparent to me that I can't maintain a consistent flow of writing blog entries without the discipline of meeting a deadline.

Part of my problem is having to deal with the stress of perpetually having to foil my employer's stratagems aimed at forcing me into retirement. I don't have Michel de Montaigne's freedom from care, as described in the inscription above the bookshelves in his working chamber:

'In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michael de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.’

Alas, no bosom of learned virgins for me! But I suppose that most of my problem in reliably producing blog entries is inherent laziness. As a writer, I am more like a sump pump than an artesian well.

Therefore, I am purposing to average one blog entry per week for 2011 (and also make up for the delinquent weeks in January and February). And if I can't come up with original kernels of insight and delight, I'll fall back on my usual chaff: excerpts from interesting books and articles, my casual observations, and photographs of my environs.

To kick things off, here is a pleasant anecdote from ten years ago, provided by a man who identified himself as Trader Mike on the Motley Fool trading bulletin board:

Some years ago, when the Raiders were playing in Oakland (where they belong, in my opinion), Ken Stabler was their quarterback. Some of us are old enough to remember that. Apparently, as good a quarterback as the Stabler was, the press did not consider him to be a tower of intelligence. Anyway, before one game, some member of the press was in the locker room and quoted the following Jack London verse to Stabler:

"I would rather be ashes than dust.
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time."

When he finished, the now-smug reporter asked Stabler what he thought the verse meant. Stabler didn't even look up from lacing his shoes, but simply replied, "Throw deep".