Thursday, August 9, 2018

Remembering Television

            One of the pleasures of preparing last week’s blog, and this week’s, is briefly remembering enjoyable experiences. So what if they involve sitting in front of the boob tube instead of a book? It’s similar to the pleasure of looking through a scrapbook, or looking at Kim’s photos of our travels. And some day, to rereading blog entries. It’s a sign of our aging that we are remembering experiences instead of, you know, having them. Fortunately, we are doing both – witness our home design and construction (more or less underway again) and our volunteering for the Land Conservancy.

            Another sign of our aging is our forgetting. Our readers responded with a number of tv favorites that should have been on our original list, except I temporarily forgot about them. (When I was teaching film in high school I would ask my students, “What’s the most forgettable movie you’ve ever seen?”) Thanks for the reboot.

            Here are the responses received to date:

Doug Reilly: MASH  Told myself several times to put this on my list. Forgot to do it.

Smokey Stover: Saturday Night Live Hey Smokey – this was on my list! Did you forget you read it there?

John Bayerl: “We like Monk.  Also, as a guilty pleasure, we watch Hallmark Christmas movies. Their sheer predictability and that one moment that brings tears is worth the unchanging plot lines.”  True that.

Rex Rowan: “In last week's blog you asked for suggestions for a miniseries to watch on Netflix. I recommend ‘The Same Sky,’ a look at life in East and West Germany in 1974. Actually it may be a six-episode-per-season series rather than a miniseries, because some of the stories were left hanging, and another season is in the offing. Still, it's extremely good. Another European production, this one humorous rather than dramatic, is ‘A Very Secret Service,’ now in its second season. It's more like a typical series, though: 12 episodes per season.

Sue Johnson: Watch "Suits."i We binge watched all 7 seasons on Amazon Prime and loved them. Friends are now watching and report they are addictively binge watching also. Enjoy!  Just what I needed - another addiction.

Charmaine Stangl: “Here are a few superb series I don't think you mentioned. The Newsroom, West Wing, The Office, Breaking Bad (close to Shakespearean at times), and Better Call Saul. For sheer absurd hilarity try Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  At its best Curb Your Enthusiasm is wonderful. It's great to have an escape.”  Again, thanks for catching my oversights, especially Breaking Bad. Just added Curb to my Netflix list.

Rex: “Under Sitcom: Arrested Development, The Office (British), The Office (American), New Girl, The Grinder, Parks and Recreation, Better Off Ted. Under Cop Drama: True Detective (Season One), The Unusuals. You left out science fiction: Firefly. I should add that two of these series were cancelled much too early, so that there are only 14 episodes of Firefly (plus a followup theatrical film, Serenity), and only 10 episodes of The Unusuals. Both of these, as well as the British version of The Office (13 episodes, no more were intended) are in effect mini-series.” We’ve seen none of these except an occasional The Office (American). Where have we been?

Kim and David: Here are a few that we remembered since last week’s post: Have Gun, Will Travel, The Little House on the Prairie, All in the Family, Roots (1977 version – 2016 version too graphic for us), Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Mork and Mindy, The Honeymooners.

We thought of some others during the week, but I forgot what they were.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Best in Television

            My readers are no doubt wondering about my all-time television favorites. No? Here’s our list anyway.  These are mostly mine, as Kim never watched much tv. Be advised, though, that my senior memory means I have neglected some that should be on the list. 

Taxi (because of Andy Kaufman and Christopher Lloyd)

Other Comedy
Monty Python

Cop Drama
Hill Street Blues

Dramatic Series
This Is Us

Medical Drama
St. Elsewhere

Sporting Event(s)
World Cup
NCAA Football

Food Show
Julia Child

Home Show
This Old House

Talk Show
The View

Late Night Television
Johnny Carson
Saturday Night Live (John Belushi era – can’t stay up late enough to watch any more)

Nurse Jackie (binged during Kim’s surgery recovery)
Six Feet Under
In Treatment

Political Discussion

Guilty Pleasure
The Bachelor/Bachelorette – I’ve blogged previously about what I’ve learned from the shows.

Reality TV
American Idol
So You Think You Can Dance (My Native American name is “Dances with Difficulty.”)
Survivor (I tried out for this show and made it to a filmed interview. Wrote a piece about my experience, but CBS lawyers threatened me with $5 million fine unless I destroyed all copies. Let me know if you’d like to see it. We don’t watch it any more.)

News Program
60 Minutes

Civilisation (Sir Kenneth Clarke)
Nature (PBS)
Cosmos (Carl Sagan)

Sesame Street
Soupy Sales

            Please email your suggestions for programs or categories to me at or I will make them public in an upcoming post. I’m especially looking for mini-series to watch on Netflix.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Small Changes

Small Changes

            Kim and I are going through a lot of changes. Aside from physical decline associated with aging, we are once again going to move – perhaps by September. And we are also experiencing, through the medium of the news, difficult changes under President Trump. But smaller changes can also have a significant impact on our lives. Here are three examples:


            “Where did you put my dad’s fishing knife?”
            “I gave it back to you.”
            “No, you didn’t.”
            “I’m pretty sure I did. I remember handing it to you.”
            “Where were we?”
            “Right next to the garage. I needed help opening something.”
            “Opening what?”
            “I don’t remember. Maybe a box.”
            “Then where did you put it?
            “I gave it back to you. I know you wouldn’t trust me with your dad’s knife. I remember saying how sharp it was.”
            “So, where did you put it?”
            “Check your purse.”
            “Not there. But I don’t think I had my purse with me yesterday. Or was it the day before yesterday?”
            “I’ll check in the glove compartment. Maybe that’s where you put it. After I handed it to you.”
            “If you find it, you can shove it up your ass.” (Kim didn’t actually say this, but she may have been thinking it.)

            This is the kind of conversation old couples have. Declining memory, or what I like to see as Photoshopped memory, comes with the territory. After having too many of these conversations in the last month or so, Kim and I decided not to have them anymore. Just find the damn knife. I think this was Kim’s idea. Maybe not.


            When my good friend Peter visited a few weeks ago, I noticed that he was not carrying a wallet. He had his various cards wrapped in a fancy rubber band, and his bills were in a money clip. I expressed some admiration for his system, and a week later I received in the mail my own fancy rubber band, complete with a small plaque with my initials engraved. It was time to ditch my wallet.

            I’ve been operating the last few years with a 3-pat check system when I walked out the door: left-front pocket for cell phone, right-front for keys, right-rear for wallet. (I reserved left-rear for miscellaneous items – lens cap, store coupons, Kim’s change, etc.) Three quick pats and it was safe to leave. The system had its drawbacks, both tied to the wallet: Sitting on the wallet in the car gave me an occasional sore back, and an outline of my wallet began to fade into all my dark pants. It was time for a change.

            The first step was to get a money clip. We looked in the gift shops downstairs and saw that the offerings were ugly and cost about $60, which meant the clip would be worth more than the cash they were clipping. I remembered that my dad had a clip shaped like a dollar sign – it was the token my mom carried after Dad died. So, I decided to get one like Dad’s. His was no doubt silver. Mine was stainless steel - $8 on Amazon.

            My new system has its difficulties, some associated with my gradual learning curve. Leaving back pockets empty meant I had three items (keys, cards, clipped bills) in my right front because I did not want to interfere with quick-drawing my cell phone to check for whatever stupid stuff I check for. So I had to learn to do a finger search in my right front pocket, trying not to look like I was entertaining myself.

            Another problem was with the money clip itself. After using it for a week, I pulled it out at the health food store and fumbled with the randomly jammed-in bills, dropping some onto the conveyer belt. I told the clerk I was just getting used to it. He suggested that I practice making change with my wife. Kim did something better, instructing me on the best way to fold my bills into the clip. (As it turns out, jamming them in forcefully is not the best approach.) Sometimes, I confess, that I just push everything into my pocket to sort out later. Another option is to forego cash altogether, thus freeing up 1/3 of my right front pocket.

            I still use the 3-pat system. It’s just that now I’m just patting myself on the right cheek, which is less enjoyable than it sounds.


            I could only think of two. I’m fond of my routines.

This from Doug Reilly:
Your 3-pat comment reminded me of one of my favourite jokes. Actually, when leaving on a foreign trip or leaving a hotel room, I always check, passport, wallet, room key, etc. The joke goes as follows:

A jumbo jet has crashed killing almost everyone. Up front there’s a Catholic priest, alive, who crosses himself in thanks. Then he sees a man way in back who stands up and crosses himself. The priest runs back and embraces the man saying, “this proves Catholicism is the true religion, the only two survivors are Catholic!”

The other man looks at the priest and says, “Vat? I vas yust checking, spectacles, testicles, vallet, cigars!”

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Uncommon Loons

            In a previous post I said that Kim and I moved to Traverse City so we could see and photograph Snowy Owls. This is not entirely true. We also wanted to see and photograph Common Loons. Several times a week Kim drags me out of bed to head for Cedar Lake and our loons.

            What is it about loons? Let’s start with their haunting call. I won’t try to describe it, but you must have a computer if you are reading this, so you can google it. (The expression Kim and I use is JFGI, which stands for “Just google it.”) I’m not sure what the loons are saying to one another – probably it’s a lot like a lot of cell phone conversations: “I’m here – where are you?” But like a lot of human conversations, what’s important is not what you say but how you say it. And loons say it with a haunting unearthly quality. My iBird app describes it this way: “a loud, wailing laugh, also a mournful yodeled ‘oo-AH-ho.’” How can you not love a wailing laugh? How can you not be moved by a mournful yodel? But these are just words. I’ll pause here to give you time to find the loon call and give a listen.

. . . .

            See what I mean? And it’s even better when heard over the water of a lake, especially at night or early in the morning.

They are not fully of this world. They are the Other.

            And loons, as the photos show, have a really cool graphic design with the patterns of black and white, the neck ring, the long razor-sharp beak, and the unreal red eye. I’m not sure why evolution steered the design in this direction, but I’m grateful. Someone is doing quality work.

            There are other cool things about loons. They dive under water to catch fish. For a long time, I thought birds flew through the air, and most do, including loons, but flying under the water? (OK – so it’s swimming – they use their feet – but still . . ..) And I suppose lots of birds dive for fish – we’ve seen Northern Gannets, Common Murres and Atlantic Puffins – but that’s pretty good company. Loons are very clumsy on land – we once saw one waddling to her nest,

 – but I prefer to think of them flying through air (at more than 70 m.p.h.) or shooting through the water.

            What else? When loon chicks are born, the mama birds sometimes carry them on their backs as they swim, and sometimes under their wings. Cute, right?

Feeding time, before they learn to fish.

            Loons are not just cute or haunting or efficient. Sometimes they screw up the same way we do. They need a long runway to take off – from 30 yards up to a quarter mile. Sometimes they get stranded on small ponds or wet highways or parking lots where they mistakenly land when migrating. I have made similar mistakes when driving.

Kim photographed this one stuck in a hospital retention pond in Gainesville. The few we saw in Florida showed these adult non-breeding (winter) colors.

Same loon as above, perhaps amusing himself while awaiting rescue.
            Do loons mate for life? Nope. They have “multiple partners.” I remember seeing in a movie a woman’s complaining to her father about her husband’s infidelity. His response: “If you want fidelity, marry a swan.” Not a loon. But loon partners do hang together, co-parenting until the chicks are on their own.

            Kim and I are volunteering to take part in a project to monitor and photograph Common Loons in the Torch Lake area. Their population is threatened by botulism – a result, most likely, of human intervention in the Great Lakes when we introduced invasive species to disrupt nature’s delicate balance. We messed it up, so we should work to fix it. Loons, like Snowy Owls and northern lights, are emblematic of the North, and all are part of the non-human Other.

Comment from Phil Allen:
I had two memorable experiences with loons.  The first was in Monterrey Bay, 1967 approximately.  I was on a long dock, which gave an amazing view of a loon (am I right?  Are loons found in California?) flying underwater just a foot behind a 10" fish.  The fish was flying full speed, making sudden right angle turns.  The loon was doing exactly the same flying maneuvers, which seemed almost impossible.  The second was more amazing.  My brother owns a beautiful property on Sand Pond in NH, inaccessible by road, and built a nice house there on a granite cliff overlooking the pond.  The pond is about 1 mile across, and has one small island, owned by the state of NH.  I had canoed to it (just a short distance from my brother's house) with two of my kids, maybe aged 6 and 9.  We were walking in the rocky shallows near where our canoe was perched, planning to get back in.  Suddenly 5 or 6 loons flew around the island into view, and landed 30 feet from us.  They looked at us briefly and somehow decided to ignore us.  They formed a circle in the water, flapping wings, rising up vertically, their feet still in the water, and sang loudly some crazy chorus.  This lasted maybe 30 seconds.  Then they paddled away back around the island.  I told this story to Joe Alcock.  Joe was our classmate, but took a year off to live in Patagonia (his parents were in Argentina that year) so Joe graduated in 1965.  He is a wildlife biologist.  He said he had heard that loons do this collective dance sometimes.

Comment from Doug Reilly:
Having spent much time in Maine, I’ve had many experiences with Loons. We’ve canoed and camped on many of the lakes and rivers here. I can’t remember my age when we first vacationed in Maine, but I remember well the eerie call of the Loon, mostly at night. I can’t imitate it, but once you’ve heard it, you will surely recognize it next time. They are more common in the northern woods of Maine, but we’ve seen them in the winter in Boothbay Harbor, and even seen an adult with a chick on its back when canoeing on a nearby lake. They are the oldest of bird species; if I remember correctly, their bones are solid, not hollow like most birds, or the other way around. Here’s quote from the Humane Society:

Intensely private and elusive, more likely heard than seen, common loons are the world's most primitive living birds, dating back 50 million years. The essence of wildness itself, loons capture hearts and imaginations, most powerfully, many would say, with their mysterious calls, which Henry David Thoreau declared nature's "wildest sound."

The Loon is the State Bird of Minnesota, the Provincial Bird of Ontario, and the $ Canadian coin is known as the “Loony.”

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


            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.