Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Path


            Kim and I are building a path. The construction of our cottage has just about stopped, for a variety of reasons – can’t get a painter, builder’s vacations, his working three other jobs instead of ours, bad weather in April, etc., etc. Our builder removed the crumbling concrete steps down to the lake in April as part of a drainage plan. He has not replaced them, and now he suggests we might find someone else to build new stairs. We probably should have paid more attention to the name of the builder’s company: “Godot Construction.” We are still waiting. (English major joke – sorry.)

            The steep hill is too much for Kim’s fragile post-surgical back, so for a couple of weeks we used our neighbor’s stairs, but they are returning from California any day now. A landscaper, Mona, suggested we build a switchback path down the hill. She said the two of us could do it in maybe half a day. Mona was mistaken.

            She said we could just turn over an inch or so of dirt, wind down the hill, throw on some shredded cedar, and we would have our switchback path. Mona did not know how Kim does things.

            Under that inch or so of dirt are roots that go down about a foot – crown vetch, Virginia creeper, yucca, plus wandering roots from the pine, oak, birch and maple on the hillside. We turn over one shovelful at a time, shake the dirt off the roots the best we can, and put them in yard bags. We have filled more than twenty bags to haul up the hill to the car. We also hauled rocks down to dig into the sides of the path to keep the whole thing from sliding into the lake. Some of the rocks we turned into steps to keep us from sliding into the lake. We are adding cedar mulch and tramping it down. 



            There is a pleasure in doing what we are doing. With construction not progressing, we are pleased to be doing something constructive where we can see our progress. Kim uses her engineering/artistic brain to design the rockwork and steps where we need them, and she provides quality control. I’m pretty much responsible for grunt-work with the shovel, rocks and heavy bags, and I try, unsuccessfully, to keep Kim from overdoing it. Together, we are making something happen. The house has been unchanged for weeks, but the path has grown.

            Part of our pleasure is in connecting to our future home. We are breathing our air, and our sweat is going into our soil – especially when the temperature reaches the mid-90s. Our path works its way under our fingernails, and our mosquitoes are sampling our blood.

            There is a discredited theory about labyrinths in the Middle Ages. For those unable to take a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, some cathedrals laid out a labyrinth on the floor, and pilgrims would trace the labyrinthian path to achieve a Lite version of whatever holy state that the real pilgrimages were supposed to generate. Working on our switchback path generates a similar holy state – if you take the term “holy” loosely. Of course, Kim and I do not walk on our knees as our Medieval predecessors did, though we do stagger from time to time. And we do not pray as we work – at least, not verbally. Wikipedia defines prayer as “an invocation or act that seeks to activate a rapport with an object of worship.” Our act of constructing our path is certainly creating a rapport with our land – the dirt, rocks, plants, air and cedar to connect the lake with our home-to-be at the head of the path. Feels holy to us.






            

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Introduction to Birdwatching

        
             First of all, you don’t call it “birdwatching.” That’s something old people used to do. Old people doing it now call it “birding.” Even if you don’t like turning a simple noun into a hybrid called a “verbal noun,” birding is what those serious people with spotting scopes and checklists are doing.

            Let’s keep it simple. On Saturday, after a couple of hours of moving rocks, dirt and weeds as we landscaped a path from our cottage to the lake in 98 degree heat, Kim and I went birding. (She was actually butterflying, and no, this did not involve competitive swimming.) Here are two things we saw.
Indigo Bunting


Blue Angel

Only one of them is a bird. The other is part of the Blue Angels team entertaining the National Cherry Festival crowd here in Traverse City. Here’s how to tell the difference:

·     Sound: The airplane is much louder than the bird. Loudness may be a big part of the appeal of the Blue Angels, and I agree that the roar is impressive. The sound of the Indigo Bunting is a big part of its appeal, too, and it’s relatively loud for a bird, but not even close to a Blue Angel. My field guide describes the Indigo Bunting’s song thus: “Song a high, sharp urgent warble with most phrases repeated ti ti whee whee zeere zeere.” I don’t have a guide to Blue Angels, so the best I can do is “RRRROOOOOOAAAARRR!!!!”

·     Markings: If it has numbers and letters on it, most likely it’s not a bird – unless it has been tagged so birders and researchers can track its movements.

·     Color: Both are blue. Actually, only the male Indigo Buntings are blue – females are brownish. I’m not sure there are any female Blue Angels – it seems like a stereotypical male phenomenon, though times, as the poet says, they are a-changin’. In the Middle Ages, angels were thought to be gender neutral.

·     Flight: Blue Angels fly much faster than Indigo Buntings, which also tend to flap their wings – unlike their airplane counterparts. Also – Indigo Buntings do not leave a visible vapor trail, though Starlings poop on my car from time to time.

Flock of Blue Angels with Vapor Trail
·     Size: Airplanes are typically larger than birds – unless you count drones as airplanes. If drones confuse you, use the other criteria above.

·     Range: Indigo Buntings are found east of the Rockies. Blue Angles are found all across the country, and they have a website where you can find their schedule. Indigo Buntings, being low-tech, don’t have a website. It’s unclear whether they Twitter.

·     DietIndigo Buntings consume small seeds, berries, buds, and insects. Blue Angels consume jet fuel.

            That’s about it. For our next lesson we will help you compare one bird with another. Here’s a preview of one of the birds:

Kim did not take this photo.



Thursday, June 28, 2018

Cooking


            I was not always as good a cook as I am now. Don’t believe me? Here are a few examples from my past:

·     Shortly after my divorce I decided to be creative on my son’s birthday. At a local restaurant I’d eaten what they called a “mud pie,” which I think featured chocolate pudding, or maybe ice cream, along with some exotic ingredients. So I decided to make Jeff a mud pie. I had no idea how to do it, but I thought a trip to the grocery store would give me some inspiration. It didn’t. We had not yet been blessed by google, so I approached a competent-looking woman near the ice cream and asked her, “Do you know how to make a mud pie? I want to make one for my son’s birthday, but I don’t know how.” After a long pause, she shook her head and said, “You get some dirt, and you get some water . . ..” I thanked her and quickly walked away.
·     When my sons visited me at my apartment, on non-pizza nights I would cook. Most of the time I prepared what we came to describe as “The Yellow Meal”: mac and cheese (courtesy of Kraft) corn and applesauce. Sometimes I’d substitute Rice-a-Roni for the mac. And sometimes, to vary the color scheme, I’d fix carrot sticks. The meal was generally a success, largely because I told them that if they didn’t like it, they’d get The Green Meal. They never asked what it was.
·      I decided to use my cooking skills to aid my courtship of Kim. When we first started dating I decided to prepare trout almandine. This time I had a recipe, but it was not detailed enough. I looked up “saute” in the dictionary, so I was OK there. I’d purchased the almonds, but closer inspection of the recipe indicated that they had to be sliced. Slicing them turned out to be a slow and painful process with my not very sharp kitchen knife. I later explained to Kim that the unusual taste was probably blood from my fingers. She explained that stores sell blanched slivered almonds. Blanched?
·      I had a similar experience when I chose to prepare beef stew for Kim. She gave me some tips about browning the meat before dumping it into the pot, but then she retired to the living room to see what I’d come up with. The recipe mentioned something about adding “a clove of garlic,” but I did not know what a “clove” was, so just to be sure, I dumped in the lemon-sized thing I’d purchased. About 45 minutes later Kim wandered into the kitchen, perhaps drawn there by the smell. She was able to scoop out the pulpy mass before my garlic stew was totally inedible.
·     After a few of my cooking adventures, I learned to add a step at the beginning of some of the few recipes I used: “Turn off smoke alarm.”

            Kim is convinced that my kitchen struggles are deliberate – that my dangerous incompetence is designed to get me out of kitchen work. Not so! My incompetence is real! It was Kim who encouraged me to work as a Starbucks barista, explaining to my manager that I am “kitchen challenged,” and barista work might help with the problem. It has, for I am now in charge of making coffee and, when I can get the espresso machine to work, cappuccino. 
            But that’s not all! I can peel carrots and potatoes, and I can shave cabbage to make coleslaw. I fill glasses with water when I set the table, and I’m a whiz on the toaster. When Kim is having sore back days (sorer than usual, that is – her back is always sore), I will remove heavy items from the oven. On occasion I am asked to use my most impressive kitchen skill – reaching things on high shelves. And when Kim is working on a particularly complex meal and I ask if I can help, she often answers, “Yes, by staying out of my way.” We do what we can.
            Meanwhile, Kim is trying to train me to cook in the event that she dies before I do. She suggests that I learn to cook five easy meals (perhaps a nod to Jack Nicholson in “Five Easy Pieces”). Five seems a bit unrealistic at this point, but I think I can do it if Kim is standing next to me.


Thursday, June 21, 2018

Volunteering


            I worked as a volunteer writer for the Transplant Games of America and World Transplant Games, interviewing competitors who had received organ transplants. The stories were posted daily on a website hosted by the University of Michigan, and everyone I met had a life-and-death story. I remember most vividly watching a woman meet the recipient of the heart of her daughter, dead from a traffic accident. She leaned over and listened to the heart beating, tears streaming from her eyes. I was linked to both women, and the daughter, and I always will be. I still tear up when telling that story from 13 years ago. (These games, by the way, still take place annually.)

            More recently, Kim and I volunteered at Paynes Prairie State Park in Gainesville, answering questions about the bison and sandhill cranes while advising visitors not to pose their children next to the alligators. It was rewarding to be part of the park as we learned and taught.  Volunteering also meant an opportunity for Kim to take photos.

Turtle Surfing on Paynes Prairie


These guys were everywhere!

We did this for three years, stopping when we found ourselves assigned to the cash register at the Visitor Center.

            And now we are volunteering in Northern Michigan, doing official monitoring for the Michigan Butterfly Network. In this role we walk a prescribed path at a prescribed rate, noting butterflies that we see. Let me correct that – only Kim can see the butterflies, for my role is “scribe.” For the survey to work from year to year, we use a strictly controlled procedure to more accurately measure changes. I have written previously about how we monitored butterflies at Leonard Preserve in Southeast Michigan. Now we are doing it at the Grass River Natural Area. So far we have not seen many butterflies on this route, but that doesn’t matter, for we are outside, walking together on a beautiful path, and we are part of the Michigan Butterfly Network.

            We are also volunteering with the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, monitoring two Conservancy properties. We mainly go for walks in places where we would probably go anyway, taking photos of birds, plants, butterflies and dragonflies, looking up the ones we can’t readily identify, and then passing the information along to Angie at the Conservancy. 
PHOTOS

European Skipper - smaller than you can imagine


Our woods has an incredible variety of plant life, which we document as best we can. This photo includes a Twin Flower.
         
             It’s good to feel that we are contributing something – to be contributors. It’s also good to NOT be thinking about health issues or delays in the construction of our cottage. As Kim says, “You are forced to see, and that connects you deeply to that specific place.” And again, it’s good to be outside, walking together on a beautiful path. When we take a break from volunteering we do exactly the same thing on other paths where we are not volunteering.

Little Wood Satyr

            The dictionaries I’ve checked mention altruism in their definitions of volunteering. As volunteers know, it’s not so simple. Volunteering involves stepping up to your full humanity to engage with the larger world. Being a witness – to butterflies, bison, or a beating heart – gives us that kind of engagement – call it religious if you will – and that’s a great pleasure. And how can we not feel blessed when this week’s volunteering brought us these:

Scarlet Tanager

Indigo Bunting

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Ethics


            When I was teaching I often ended the year with a 3-week seminar on ethics. I used moral or ethical dilemmas as starting points, and my emphasis was not on the “solution” to each dilemma, but rather on how that solution was reached. Was it from an authority, perhaps directly from God, or indirectly through what God said to trusted sources, such as we find in the Bibleor the Koran? If it’s directly from God, there might be a problem if God tells someone to shoot up an elementary school. How do we know that God didn’t, in fact, tell the shooter to do that? How can we rely on anyone’s version of what God said to them?
            Do we determine what is ethical based on how our actions would make us feel? Is it all subjective? Evil makes you feel bad – unless you are a sociopath.
            Are ethics simply the customs and norms of a society? If so, then the Nazis were ethical, as were slaveholders.
            We also looked at Utilitarianism, which holds that the most ethical choice is the one that will produce the greatest good, or in some versions, the greatest happiness, for the greatest number.Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, described utility as the sum of all pleasure that results from an action, minus the suffering of anyone involved in the action.Do the math. But what if it makes thousands of people VERY happy to kill one innocent child? Or in one of my dilemmas: Imagine that a terrorist has planted a bomb in a packed Michigan Stadium. It’s due to go off in 10 minutes, and you have captured him and are trying to get him to talk. Your team of psychologists tells you that the only way to get him to reveal the location of the bomb is to torture his wife and child in front of him. Setting aside questions about the efficacy of torture, is it ethical to do so? Weigh those tortures against, say, 50,000 lives and countless injuries, plus the suffering of friends and families of the victims. It is not, I submit, an easy call. Do the math. Students were creative in coming up with ways to fake or simulate the torture to accomplish the goal. I suggested getting someone else to do the torturing and leaving the room.
            I don’t think my Ethics mini-course made my students more ethical, but I do hope it made them humbly uncertain when confronting situations where ethics comes into play.
             
            And now, as an antidote to uncertainty, let me simplify things by telling you what is ethical and what is not:
·     Be kind to one another. bEllen DeGeneres has popularized this by saying it at the end of every show. Anyone have a better suggestion?
·     Don’t use people.  Emmanuel Kant wrote about the Categorical Imperative, a way of evaluating our actions, not in terms of their consequences (as Utilitarianism does), but on the basis of what reason tells us (tells Kant, actually) is ethical. I don’t understand most of it, but I do understand the word “imperative”: Our ethical sense nudges us to act– we feel that nudge. Kant went on to say, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” 
·     Don’t be an asshole.
·     Be the person your dog thinks you are. This might be OK if you don’t mind bumper-sticker ethics, but do you really know what your dog thinks of you. Kim and I were watching a guy throw his frisbee to his dog, who would repeatedly bring it back to him. After the last throw, however, the dog took a dump in the frisbee while staring at his master.
·     Do unto others as you would have others do onto you.  In practice, this does not seem to mean allothers, because that would make war immoral.
·     Floss.
·     Don’t fuck up the planet. Ethics does not only deal with our actions toward other people. Or you can think of our ecosystem as a person – after all, if a corporation is a person . . .. (I saw a bumper-sticker that said, “I’ll believe a corporation is a person when Texas executes one.”)
·     Do a good deed every day.  I learned this one in the Boy Scouts before my struggles with the Morse Code forced me to leave. I try to get my good deed out of the way early in the day.
·     Don’t let anyone take your guns away.
·     Try, however briefly, to see the world from someone else’s point of view. Kim taught me this: Nobody gets up in the morning intending to be an asshole. 
·     Walk in a good way. We learned this at a talk by a Native American tribal elder here in northern Michigan. He emphasized looking back each day to evaluate how well you lived it. I like his word “walk” – its slowness, its deliberation.
·     Remember your anniversary.
·     Encourage people around you to be ethical.  Doing so will most likely benefit you.

            The trick is to pull all of this together into a coherent philosophical position that helps you know what to do. Maybe Ellen got it right: Be kind to one another. I’m not sure how kindness helps resolve the torture/mass killing dilemma – that’s why it’s a dilemma – but it’s a starting point.


NOTE: All of Kim’s tests, scans, X-rays, etc. were good. Injury time continues . . ..


Doug Reilly wrote:

Reading Ethics reminded me of something I wrote for myself decades ago and have always kept somewhere on my desk. The rainbow photo is added because one of my hobbies is chasing Rainbows, Halos, and Glories. I’ve taken slide shows of these phenomena to our local schools and even showed them to attendees at some of our international safeguards courses. This has given me the nickname, Rainbow Man.

You mention the Golden Rule in your essay; I’d add that every faith or philosophy I know has its own version. Sure, the words may be different, but the meaning is the same.

Nice work, as usual, doug

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Thursday, June 7, 2018

Two Flights

I wrote this poem about 30 years ago after learning about monarch migration:

Monarchs

Aloft with monarch
            butterflies heading
to Mexico   dense
                        sheets of velvet
crowd me orange
            black    the wings
soft and heavy
            brushing my flesh
no butterfly cries
                        but repeated wingthuds
            and creaking joints
patches of wingdust
                        perfuming the air

My flock surges
                        faster than clouds
            wings and startling
wings    heads wisely
                                    small   all eyes
and tongue   brown
                                    shriveled trunks
they
            tolerate my heavy
                        pink laboring flight
they conceal me
                        we become
                                      a butterflycloud
huge as a lake

                        When I start
to tumble    unthinking
                                    wings pummel me
            aloft      is it
the rustle lifting
                        me or vibrations
of color above
                        the invisible earth

Larvae fed only
            on milkweed soured
                        us to the taste
of birds

                 Each
abandoned chrysalis shiny
                        greengold speckled
            dried in sun
to blow away
                        as wind-dust

Seventeen mariopa trees
            await us


            When I read this in class, a student (who knew) asked me, “Were you going through a divorce when you wrote this?”
            “Yes.”
            “So maybe you felt a lot of support when you were going through all the changes?”
            I’d never thought of those changes as having any bearing on the poem. I hope that student went on to teach English.

                                                             * * * * 

            This poem is more recent. When we lived in Gainesville, our dining room looked out onto the edge of Paynes Prairie State Park. In the poem I imagine a flight that Kim might be imagining:
                      
The Flight

From your seat before the window you
lift from your chair and take flight
over Paynes Prairie – low at first,
skimming the barbed wire fence,
avoiding the still vacant blue bird house,
then gliding free, twisting over the grasses.
Startled egrets cock their heads
to look up, and sandhill cranes, yes,
crane their necks to see and cry their
raucous welcome to you, the newcomer.

You glide on silent wings over ponds
and marshes, the morning mists lifted,
the sun warm and golden, the breeze
strangely still. You lift yourself on soft
powerful wings, pass the stoic kestrel
standing sentinel on a leafless tree as
meadowlarks rise in alarm, gather, scatter,
and reassemble again in the grasses.
A great blue heron approaches and veers
away. You circle toward distant
                                                       
trees edging the prairie, but no, in a graceful
turn you swerve back toward the house and me,
my coffee frozen inches from my lips, watching,
transfixed, my wife who was suddenly not
at my side eating breakfast. You skim low over
the reeds to check for frogs, then spy the bulls
ambling into the prairie and can’t resist bothering
them into a small stampede. You swoop
through our window, settle into your chair,
smooth your feathers, and nibble your toast.


Thursday, May 31, 2018

Injury Time


            In soccer there is a thing called “Injury Time,” where the referee adds a few minutes to the end of the game to allow for time when play stopped for an injured player, though the clock kept running. Injury Time often leads to more intense action on the field. Kim and I feel like we are playing in Injury Time, and we want to make the most of it.

            In the next week or so Kim will have a bunch of tests – CT Scan, bone scan, X-rays, and blood tests - on top of her regular infusions, butt-shots, and chemo. These are all routine, every month or two or three, not because of any new symptoms. But they all hit this week, and it’s hard not to be anxious about what those results might be and what future they might suggest. After all, no matter how well Kim feels (good, except for ongoing back pain and fatigue), her cancer is Stage 4. I’m imagining, and trying not to imagine, further treatment, hospitalization, more pain, tears, and worse: our curtailed lives.

            At the same time, we are going ahead with what we hope will be the last month of home construction, which projects us into a future where we both are healthy and strong. We are going ahead with our very ambitious project AS IF we were younger and not awaiting the return of cancer or whatever surprises will hit us as the years roll over us.
·      I will haul box after box from our storage facility.
·     Kim will unpack everything and put it away.
·      I will move furniture and haul rocks around our yard until it appears that a glacier dropped them there.
·     Kim will pull up weeds, water the wildflower garden and supervise my rockdropping before going in to cook my dinner in our new kitchen.
·     When we relax we will enjoy a cocktail on the deck, looking east and wondering where the sunset is.

            We are playing in Injury Time. Kim’s major surgery was a little more than a year ago, and since the anniversary of that day in March Kim has often pointed out all the cool things we have done that we might have missed out on had she died. Just about every morning we greet each other thinking, and often saying, “We have ourselves another day – a gift!” 

            Yesterday, for example, on the way home from doing some yardwork at our cottage, we pulled off the road to photograph fields and orchards.


We saw that we had pulled into the driveway of a property owned by the local Nature Conservancy. We were both tired, but we decided to explore. The trail went down through a beautiful woods to the shore of Lake Michigan. What we saw along the way, and Kim photographed, shows how a tiny world – these butterflies the size of a fingernail – can be more than enough. Each is a gift. 

Brown Elfin

























Eastern Pine Elfin

            William Blake got it right:

To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Female Summer Azure

Spring Azure

Hoary Elfin

Pink Lady's Slippers

Kim, age 75, suffering from Stage 4 cancer


          Yes, we are playing in Injury Time, and the game is sweeter because of that. We are hoping it lasts for years.

Make a wish . . ..