Thursday, September 24, 2020


            This week I encountered a confluence of ideas:

·      Constantin Stanislavski, the founder of “method” acting, on desire as central to our human         condition,

·      Aristotle on telos, the purpose or end or goal inherent in a person or thing, and

·      a video celebrating Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year, sent to me by Rabbi Peter Rubinstein (“Best wishes for great 5781. (It either traces back to creation, or when Jews discovered Chinese food.”)) Here’s a link to the video:


            Is desire the driving force of character? Stanislavski thought so. He felt that desire is central to our human condition, whether or not we truly understand what we want. For this reason, desire is the key to great acting and great dramatic writing. Perhaps, but Is desire really central to our human condition? And can introspection lead you to understand your deepest desires? Can an analysis of your actual behavior – the choices you make – lead to an understanding of your deep desires, your central self? By the way, Stanislavski felt that the key to any relationship is to understand what the other person wants, and that strikes me as a useful insight. But what do we think of people who are driven by desire – a word that, unfortunately, brings to my Puritan-laced mind some negative connotations? On the other hand, sometimes it’s desire that gets me up in the morning.


            The concept of telos suggests another perspective. The term, as defined by Aristotle, means the full potential of a plant or animal – what it was made for. Trees, for example, seem to be made to grow, produce fruit/nuts/flowers, provide shade, and reproduce. Thus, these are all elements of trees' telos. That’s well enough for trees, but what about people? Do we all, as a species, have the same telos? Aristotle says our human telos is happiness (eudaimonia), which seems, if I may take issue with the world’s greatest philosopher, not very helpful. Yes, other goals (wealth, health, pleasure, generosity, service) are all means to the end of happiness, but really, “happiness,” unless the translation from Greek is lame, seems a bit shallow. And does my life have the same telos as others of my species, say, Donald Trump? Not to get too political, but is his inherent purpose or end or goal the same as mine? I beg to differ. I don’t see “happiness,” as we usually use the word, as a worthwhile telos. Sorry, but we can do better.


            As an American, with our probably unhealthy devotion to individuality, I choose to believe that we each have our own telos – the “best self” or “full potential” of which we are capable. We may have more than one: Kim as wife, Kim as mother, Kim as artist, as homemaker, as sage, to mention a few. These are, I suppose, all “desires,” and all ways to achieve Aristotle’s happiness. I suspect that Stanislavski’s “desire” or “want” often may be more an obstacle than a means to fulfilling our telos, which might be why it often leads to good drama, and we approach, and perhaps discover, our telos through conflict with our wants and desires. For some people, however, their wants and desires are their simple core. Desire often wins.


            This brings me to Yom Kippur, a holy day that I, as a goy, can only observe superficially from the outside. Peter’s video presents the Jewish New Year as an opportunity to make choices to help us commit to our full potential, our telos. The video uses the term “reset,” with encouragement to “wake up” (visually done in Starbucks green!) to your purpose, that which “cries out for your service.” What really strikes me is the invitation to make an active choice, something that an apple tree does not do when fulfilling its telos. And then there is a sense of joy, expressed through the music, associated with awakening and choosing. The video also presents the warmth and support from being part of a community making these choices. Happy New Year! Compare this with what I usually see associated with the arrival of the New Year – staying up late, drinking, kissing somebody, then watching football on television while starting to dump your resolutions. 


            This is the place in my essay where I should probably offer wise advice. Sorry – I’m not there yet. I welcome any advice you can offer. Perhaps the answer has to do with small daily moments rather than anything as grand and sweeping as telos. Maybe “wake up” is the most worthwhile goal.


            Kim “wants” rocks. From time to time I “wake up” to her desire and choose, as my telos, to help her achieve her eudaimonia (happiness) by driving to a local excavator to pick out a few for our yard. Then, after lunch, we found a few Petoskey stones on our beach. Then I took a brief nap, followed this afternoon by some reheated coffee – eudaimonia!


Thursday, September 17, 2020

Meanwhile . . .

    I wrote last week about Kim's current experiences with pain and fatigue. At the same time, the pandemic rages, along with the western wildfires, a hurricane, and political ugliness. Meanwhile, we realize every day what we see here while sheltering in place. Sunrises are especially significant, but only if you are paying attention. Get out there and look.

Thursday, September 10, 2020


            We don’t mean to complain here, for who wants to hear someone else’s complaining, and as many of you know, pain is a frequent side effect of Not Dying. But the last several months have had a lot to do with pain. Not the normal and expected pain – the corn on my foot, the sore muscles after strenuous landscaping, the injured finger. No, Kim’s pain is different. It’s chronic, and it’s pervasive – involving virtually every joint in her body, plus some non-joint areas such as her shins. Pain pills don’t touch it, though they do, sometimes, help her sleep. We suspect that the pain is a side effect of the Zometa she takes to prevent her bones from losing calcium, a side effect of her cancer medication.


            Those of you who know Kim, either in person or through these writings, know her fighting spirit. She does not complain. She does not like to talk about her pain, and I’m sure she does not want me to write about it here. Kim works through the pain, daily, to get the job done. The job is often her taking care of me and our home – cooking, cleaning, gardening, and more. That work, plus her handling her camera and her ongoing artwork making cards, nests, frames, all involve her hands. All of this work has added another source of pain - De Quervain's tenosynovitis, which some of you may know “as a painful condition affecting the tendons on the thumb side of your wrist. If you have de Quervain's, it will probably hurt when you turn your wrist, grasp anything or make a fist.” Kim has surgery scheduled for her left hand and wrist next week. Her right hand, a little less painful, will be dealt with in the near future. The pain in her knees and feet bother her, with the prospect of compromised mobility, but it’s her struggles with her hands that are most upsetting.


            All of which brings me to an appreciation of Kim’s hands. The poem below is written about a grandfather, and I’m not yet able to write a similar one about Kim, and perhaps I never will be ready, but the appreciation is the same.


                                    by Jack Ridl

My grandfather grew up holding rags,
pounding his fist into the pocket
of a ball glove, gripping a plumb line
for his father who built what anyone
needed. At sixteen, wanting to work on
his own, he lied about his age
and for forty-nine years carried his lunch
to the assembly line where he stood
tightening bolts on air brake after
air brake along the monotonous belt.
I once asked him how he did that all
those years. He looked at me, said,
"I don't understand. It was only
eight hours a day," then closed
his fists. Every night after dinner
and a pilsner, he worked some more.
In the summer, he'd turn the clay,
grow tomatoes, turnips, peas,
and potatoes behind borders
of bluebells and English daisies,
and marigolds to keep away the rabbits.
When the weather turned to frost,
he went to the basement where,
until the seeds came in March,
he made perfect picture frames, each
glistening with layers of sweet shellac.
His hands were never bored. Even
in his last years, arthritis locking every
knuckle, he sat in the kitchen carving
wooden houses you could set on a shelf,
one after another, each one different.


            Kim has amazing hands – and not just when she touches me. I watch her work the dough when she is making scones, or when she is loosening the roots of a plant before we place it into the soil, or when she is weaving twigs, grasses and lichen into a nest, or when she works a Q-tip to clean the mold out of a sink drain, or when she deftly works the dials and buttons on her camera – sometimes a struggle, but still . . .. And now she may cry out when rearranging her pillow on the couch, or lifting a pan out of the dishwater, or opening a drawer. Sometimes I hear her pain from another room, and this creates an echoing pain in me.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Stringer’s Thrasher

I neglected to mention in last week's post an additional meaning for the word "stringer" (thanks, Rex). I wrote the article below for Bird Watcher's Digest, where I worked briefly as a Stringer.

Stringer’s Thrasher

Kim and I drove from Gainesville to St. George Island in Florida’s Panhandle, stopping at four state parks along the way. We were excited to discover a new species of bird at Ochlockonee River State Park: a woodpecker that appeared to be a cross between a Red-headed and a Cockaded. As we were leaving the park we discussed how we would like it named. “Stringer’s Woodpecker”?

We showed our photograph to a ranger, who promised to show it to the park naturalist.

He phoned a few hours later to tell us it was an immature Red-headed Woodpecker – common in the area. This was a downer, but we were cheered knowing we had been famous for two hours, if only to ourselves and the ranger.

As the sun was setting in St. George Island State Park we pulled into a parking lot and, after our afternoon sand flea experience, decided not to hike through the brush. Kim spotted a bird that looked to me like our Northern Mockingbird, though a bit smaller. In retrospect, the colors and markings were entirely different - but I’m the kind of birder to whom all sparrows look pretty much alike. We followed our usual practice: take a photograph to check against our birding Bibles.

My guess was immature Mockingbird. Kim, not as lazy as me, actually looked it up, and she found it – a Sage Thrasher. One problem: according to the books, Sage Thrashers aren’t found in Florida. I privately dismissed the possibility, but Kim, who tends to believe her own eyes over what she is told in a book, said we should contact Rex, our local birding guru.

I emailed Rex our photo of the Stringer’s Woodpecker and our St. George Island bird, suggesting it might be a Sage Thrasher, but also mentioning my immature Northern Mockingbird.

Rex confirmed the Red-headed Woodpecker but was excited (“That’s a major find!”) by the Sage Thrasher. A series of emails made us more and more specific about where we saw it. Which parking lot? Which side? Which railing? He mentioned how rare this bird was in Florida, and he offered to post it on one of the Florida birding listserves that birdgeeks follow.

Rex warned us: The word “stringer” has a meaning in British birding jargon. A website put it this way: “Stringer: A birder who has built up a reputation in birding circles for identifying birds incorrectly, in particular with regard to claims of rarities.” 

Rex’s posting mentioned Kim Stringer’s name, and we started to enjoy our fame. Then we read the following:Rex - do you really expect us to believe this Sage Thrasher report? Most stringers do not wish to insinuate they are lying to us, and make every attempt to sound legitimate . . .. But Kim Stringer?? Posted on Hogwash Flickr account?? Are you serious??”

Fortunately, our sighting was rare enough that birders flocked [sorry] to St. George Island, and a non-stringer confirmed our bird.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Why Do They Say . . .?

            As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a word person, fascinated by the English language. With that in mind, I have strung together some of my favorite explanations of words and phrases. When I say “favorite,” that does not mean that they are all true. Those of you inclined to research can figure out how true some of these explanations are. But as we know from the political world, truth is a slippery concept.

Joseph Hooker was a Civil War general who fought for the Union. His primary claim to fame was being defeated by General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. Hooker was known as a hard-drinking ladies’ man, and his headquarters famous for parties and gambling. The women who attended these parties were known as “Hooker’s girls,” and eventually, “hookers.”

Cuppa Joe
“Cuppa Joe” is a frequently use phrase for a cup of coffee. The phrase originated when Joseph Daniels, Secretary of the U.S. Navy, abolished the officers’ wine mess, thus making coffee the strongest drink available on ships. Thus a cup of coffee was called, probably not too fondly, a “cuppa joe.” A coffee shop in Traverse City is called Cuppa Joe, but the people working there do not seem interested when some old guy wants to explain the origin of the phrase.

Some think our phrase “to take a crap” comes from the name, Thomas Crapper, an English plumber and businessman who was very successful in perfecting the water closet (nice term!) by inventing the floating ball-cock and the U-bend trap. He had his name on many of his products, and it is said the American soldiers in England during World I saw his name on the plumbing and said they were “going to the crapper.” The problem with this explanation is that the word appeared in English when Crapper was just ten years old, and there is a better (more likely true) explanation. But I prefer the Thomas Crapper version. Either that, or he was drawn to the plumbing profession because of his name.

The word “trump” is a shortened form of “trumpet,” a tube-like wind instrument. A trump is also a playing card which is elevated above its usual rank in trick-taking games. The trick-taking trump got its name when bombastic card-players would have a trumpet fanfare played whenever they took a trick using a trump card. To trump now refers to any sort of action that automatically prevails over all others, regardless of its merit if it were not thus elevated. Tah-dah!

This term goes back to the dining habits of peasants in the Middle Ages. Furniture was sparse in Medieval England. Bedding was a high priority, and seating was usually on plain benches, if not on the floor itself. If there were one chair, it was given to the person in authority in the household, not because it was comfortable, but because it signified that authority. Thus we have people who “chair” a meeting, and we have the position of Chairman of the Board, the “board” being the plank set across the knees of dining people, who were, in fact, “boarding.”

Living Room
This room, also known as a lounge, sitting room or hall, was distinguished from the parlour, where formal social events took place (parlour – talking), and, importantly, where the recently deceased were laid out before their funeral. In the 1890s the term “living room” was introduced to distinguish it from the room where the deceased were placed. The central importance of the living room yielded, in the 1970s, to larger “family rooms,” thanks to football on large color televisions.

This word occurs only once in print – in the nursery rhyme about Little Miss Muffet. Nobody knows what the word means, though scholarly guesses range from a footstool to a small grassy knoll. But why the word “tuffet”? My guess is that the author was pressed for a rhyme for “Muffet,” so he invented a word. 

The brand name is not, as commonly understood, the name of the family that founded the company. No, when Japanese automakers came up with designs for smaller automobiles, American manufacturers derisively called them “toy autos.” The Japanese saw marketing opportunities and branded their cars as Toyotas. The family that founded the company went so far as to change their family name – a rare occurrence in such a tradition and family-based culture.

A stringer can be many things: a chain onto which fish are clipped or strung; a long horizontal timber connecting upright posts; a side of a staircase that supports the treads and risers; a person who attaches strings, as to a bow. But I prefer a stringer as a freelance journalist. From Wikipedia:
The etymology of the word is uncertain. Newspapers once paid stringers per inch of printed text they generated. The theory given in the Oxford English Dictionary is that a stringer is a person who strings words together, while others use the term because the reporter is "strung along" by a news organization, or kept in a constant state of uncertainty. Another possibility is that, using a sports analogy, the freelance journalist is seen as a "second string", whereas the staff journalist positions are more of the "first string". (This in turn comes from music, where the first string is the premiere violin in the orchestra, the second string is the next most talented player and so on.)
I can certainly relate to the “constant state of uncertainty, as I’ve been doing this blog for six years, and I’m often uncertain whether I can come up with something to write about. I do string words together. And I know I’m a second Stringer because of my older brother, Bob.
bow stringer

            That’s all I have today. If you want to know just how true some of these are, write and ask. Or if you know some interesting word or phrase origin stories, however real, let me know and I will pass them along.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Old Talk: A Guide

            Recently I find myself involved in conversations with old people. This is not always easy, though sometimes it is all too easy. In any case, I thought it would be useful to offer a guide to help you through.

“How are you?” This is usually seen as an invitation to talk about health issues – hip and knee replacement, cancer, allergies, bowel movements and the like. Listen sympathetically, checking your own symptoms against what you are hearing.

“Getting any?” Usually sex is not included in any Senior Seminar – at least among men. (I remember that George Burns said something like, “Having sex when you are eighty is like shooting pool with a rope.”) When the subject does come up (as it were), you will notice a much broader definition of “sex” than you had when you were nineteen.

“You look great.” This usually leads to a discussion of sagging skin, weight gain, hair loss, unusual hair growth, odd things appearing on the skin, lapsed grooming for the socially distant. Best here to combine sympathetic nods, flat-out denial (Don’t say, “You know, you did not look all that great when you were younger.”) with efforts to debase one’s own appearance.

“I can’t do that anymore.” I’m reminded of the old sports truism: “The older I get, the better I was.”  Well, I can’t run a marathon anymore. I can’t solve a Rubik Cube any more. I can’t play be-bop piano any more. You get the idea. This is a good topic for bullet-proof boasting since you are admitting you can no longer do it.

“My fucking computer.” Note that saying “fucking” here is an effort to sound younger than you are. My main suggestion here is Do Not Offer to Help, for offering to help means you are now responsible for the probably failed outcome, and this may be a lifetime commitment.

“China!” I don’t mean the complex geo-political scenario, or the conspiracy theories about the origin of the Coronavirus. Old people use the term as a one-word explanation of shoddily manufactured goods, no matter where they were manufactured.

“I can’t remember the name of the movie, but it’s got that actor – can’t remember his name – who was in another movie we really liked.” This tends to be an Old Person Monologue, not a conversation. Laugh at it.

“How do you get out of a kayak?” This is only one of many related questions about how to do things that used to be easy, even automatic. The challenges may be physical (e.g., the kayak) or mental (e.g., “How do I assemble the Cuisinart?”).

“Where did I put my . . .?” This is not really a conversation starter, for the speaker is asking himself or herself. If it’s a cell phone, just call it on the other cell phone (if you can find it). Similarly, “Where did you put the . . .?” is not really a conversation starter. An accusation is not a question. Tread carefully.

“What?” As your hearing starts to go, you find this one-word question frequently inserted into the conversation. A better and more creative way to handle this is to repeat back what you thought you heard, no matter how ridiculous. Kim and I do this from time to time, and it can be very amusing. Sometimes. So, “This is good wine – could I please have another glass?” becomes “You can take your wine and shove it up your ass.” Or “What a beautiful start to our new day” is heard as “I smell a fart and it makes me want to play.”

            I had some more good ideas for this Guide, but I can’t remember what they are. I jotted them down on a piece of paper, but I can’t find it. If I mentioned them to one of you, please let me know so I can include them.

Thursday, August 13, 2020


            A friend, Rusty, told us that he had found a cure for the Coronavirus. Suspicious, we asked what it was.

            “Gardening,” he said. We instantly understood.

            Kim and I have been doing a lot of gardening this summer, if by “gardening” we include landscaping. When we moved in our yard resembled a lot of post-construction yards – something like a moonscape.

We set to work planting trees, bushes and flowers. We had left intact the half-acre or so of woods that makes up the southern part of our property, and our goal was to gradually extend that woods across our front yard. (New to lake living, we don’t call the lakeside as the “front” – the front is the side that faces the street.) Last summer we spread mulch over the sand and then tossed on loads of leaves and pine needles. It’s getting there, though it will take a few years for the trees to grow.

Our Front Yard

Looking South to the Woods

Garden Area at Southeast Corner of House

            When we started the project, Kim said that one advantage in living in the woods is that we could reduce our gardening, an activity that becomes more difficult as we are getting older. Reduce it? What a joke!

            Empty spaces have become filled with plants that we planted, one at a time, and are now watering and weeding. When I say “we,” I mean that my role is primarily Wheelbarrow Man and Hose Wrangler, with some occasional shovel work when I can wrestle it from Kim’s hands. She is teaching me how to plant a bush, though she doesn’t fully trust me. She has instructed me to let her do the weeding of the flower beds, as I have difficulties distinguishing weeds from flowers. (My usual criterion – if it’s healthy, it’s a weed – is not true often enough.) And sometimes I trample the flowers on the way to the weeds. So, Kim, with her post-surgical back, bends over to do most of the weeding. I weed in the woods, where I can’t do much harm.

             We try to choose native plants that the birds and butterflies like, but the rabbits and deer won't eat.

Orange Daylily



            All of which goes to explain how we are being cured of the Coronavirus – or at least, of our preoccupation with it. While we are gardening, I am not checking my email for the far-too-many updates on the spread of the virus. And after a day of dragging the hose around or spreading the 6 cubic yards of hardwood mulch that arrived, I’m too tired to turn on the evening news to learn that the virus is spreading, politicians have done something outrageous, the weather is getting shittier, planes crash, buildings explode, and our racism appears to be ongoing. It is not especially encouraging to see the staff of a hospital cheering when one elderly patient actually survives and is released. No, gardening cures me of these preoccupations.

            I worked hard as a teacher. After a day of grading student essays, I could see that a stack of papers had moved from the left side of my desk to the right, and there was a new column of letter grades in my grade book. But now, when I work with Kim in the garden, I see this:

   become this:

Bird Girl in the Garden

Planters Hauled out of the Lake

Garden View from our Porch

You see, Rusty was right about his cure. Kim learned the same thing about photography and her other artwork: When you are really concentrating on a project, other problems vanish. Our newly-planted birch trees are under insect attack, the Black-eyed Susans are drooping, and the poppies need water! Tomorrow.

p.s. Randy and Linda, we told you we’d send you pictures of our garden. Here they are.