Thursday, May 16, 2019

Plans


            We read this in our local weekly newspaper: “Stefan Popa believes everything happens for a reason. And, the 17-year-old says, many of the good things that have happened to him came about with little or no planning. So, he has learned to minimize his expectations and make the most of life as it unfolds day by day.”

            I’ve never liked what’s implied by “everything happens for a reason,” for it implies a rational God scripting our lives with some sort of purpose in His or Her mind. Nope, I don’t think it works that way, especially considering the horrible suffering in the world. But what does work, sometimes, is this: Something bad happens, and we try to make the best of it. This outcome, to my way of thinking, is not the reason that the bad thing happened.

            The obvious example is Kim’s cancer, which we have used to enrich our appreciation of every morning that we wake up on the right side of the dirt to see what the sunrise is doing to the lake this day. In the process, it enriches our appreciation of each other. I say this knowing that this week Kim goes in for her round of blood tests, CT-scans and bone scans, followed by Friday’s appointment with her oncologist. I hope we don’t have to make the best of bad news.

            Let’s look at a much smaller example. I am a creature of habit, which Kim points out to me from time to time. Most mornings I get up before Kim, reheat leftover coffee from yesterday (called, for some reason in Kim’s family’s past, “sudu”), set the breakfast table (not at all the same as cooking breakfast), and check the morning news on my computer. Harmless enough. And after dinner and dishes, I watch the evening news and then try to find a good movie for Kim and me on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Evening movie time means “off duty” – no more vacuuming, organizing stuff for out garage sale, watering our newly planted trees and wildflowers, etc.

            Our routine was recently broken by a problem with our new television: the images on the screen would break into four compressed vertical versions of what was supposed to be one image. Sometimes it would fix itself after a while, sometimes not. I called Best Buy’s Geek Squad out to the house. They spent three hours installing a new “brain” for the television, but as they were packing up to leave, the television reverted to it’s four-layer image. And so they had to order a new part that they can’t install for a week, which means – gasp! – that I would have to change my after-dinner routine. I skipped the news, and we found that we could watch 20-30 minutes of a movie before the tv screen did its 4-slice thing. I countered by streaming old movies, figuring that we already knew the endings, so we watched about half of  Bonnie and Clyde, in two half-hour chunks, before abandoning it so we did not have to watch them get (spoiler alert!) shot. And we enjoyed half of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in three chunks, not needing to see the ending. We watched all of Fargodespite the four squeezed verticals. Kim appreciated the way the landscapes looked when arranged that way.

            What do we do in the evenings with the tv off? I read. Kim works on her day’s photos, including the newly arrived orioles and hummingbirds, and this evening, an indigo bunting. One night, after two days of moving five tons of field stones and ten yards of wood chips to build a path to our house, we went to bed at 9 o’clock. Some evenings we sit on the porch, sip our drinks, and talk about landscaping plans, our son’s wedding plans, plans for the trip to Traverse City for medical stuff followed by a return visit to a woods filled with wildflowers. These are plans. But as 17-year-old Stefan learned, lots of good stuff happens with little or no planning, or despite his planning. So he makes the most of life as it unfolds day by day.

            Still, we make plans. I see no contradiction between making plans and making the most of the unexpected. The operant word here is “make”: “to bring into existence by shaping or changing material, combining parts, etc.” That’s what we do. We make.



Thursday, May 9, 2019

Squirrel Feeder


            Anyone who is paying attention knows that today’s world is filled with challenges. Global warming threatens the natural world and human civilization itself. Tornadoes and flooding abound. Plastics in various forms are pervading our water, the air we breathe, and the food we eat. We have measles and the opioid epidemic. Plane crashes. North Korea is testing missiles, ISIS is active, and hatred seems to be worldwide, including in our nation’s capital. With all these challenges (and more) looming, I have decided to focus on one that is more or less under my control: how to keep squirrels out of our bird feeders.

            The problem is complex. We want to feed the birds, and we also want to preserve our trees – from which the squirrels can easily drop onto our feeders. We also want to give Kim clear shots to photograph birds on the trees, so the feeders can’t block the trees our woodpeckers are picturesquely destroying. Kim does not like to photograph birds on the feeders, as that compromises the look and feel of “nature photography.”

            Trial-and-error seems like the best approach. I tried to outthink our squirrels, with no success. How big is a squirrel’s brain, anyway? And how many of them have college degrees? So having failed at analyzing the geometry of feeders-trees-camera-squirrels, I have ended up moving our feeders about two dozen times. Doing so involves partially unloading the feeders, unscrewing the pole from the ground, checking the view from the porch that Kim has converted to a heated photographer’s blind, screwing the pole into the recently unfrozen dirt, getting it perfectly vertical, reloading the seeds, and then retreating to watch how the squirrels deal with the new placement.

            We have tried other approaches than feeder relocation. We attached metal skirts to prevent squirrels from climbing up the poles, and this is a success, but this does not help prevent their leaping or parachuting from above.

Waiting to leap down onto the feeder

Success! or Failure!
            
            At one of our previous homes we tried getting birdseed with pepper in it that the birds didn’t notice or mind, and that worked for a few days until the squirrels became rather fond of it. Then I got a slingshot to fire pebbles at them, but I never came close to hitting one, and I feared collateral damage to the neighborhood.

            We had a neighbor in Gainesville who devised a good method of squirrel-proofing his feeders. He was a professor of electrical engineering, and he wired his feeder so he could throw a switch from his kitchen window to send a shock to the feeder. He was successful, I think, but it struck me as a bit sadistic. I believe his wife made him put a stop to it.

Eating an apple
            
            I suppose I need to once again apply a lesson I learned as a goalie on a not very good ice hockey team: You can’t stop them all. Some friends who visited recently looked out the window at our squirrels and commented, “They look well-fed!” I tried to argue that they were pregnant.

            Meanwhile, though, it’s been 24 hours since I last relocated the feeders, and no squirrels have made it to the buffet. I’m embarrassed by how much pleasure I get from watching them try and fail. Of course, at Kim’s suggestion I have thrown a handful of peanuts onto the ground, as a bribe or peace offering, so there are few attempts. Success!

            I wonder when the bears will show up. Kim can hardly wait to get a picture.

            Shit! Another one made it up again. Back to work . . ..

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Old People


            I was buying groceries and had to phone Kim. “I forgot the grocery list. It’s on the kitchen counter – could you read it to me?”

            “It’s not there. Did you remember sandwich bread?”

            “Wait a minute – the list is here in my pocket.”

            Does this ever happen to you? A bit more often than it used to?

*          *          *

            About twenty years ago I wrote a poem about old people who Kim and I observed. Here are some excerpts: 

Old Women / Old Men

Was your Aunt Vivian really brilliant?
She forgets who I am, what state she
lives in, how old she is. She puts signs
in her window: “Help!
I’m being held prisoner!
Call the police!”

Or there’s Ted’s bald mother
scaring children with sudden
outbursts of applause. She
apologizes for being old, tells
the lady who cleans her that
the pay better be good.
Nights, amazed, she rages against
the locked door of her room.

Eugene, freshly retired, his cataracts
surgically cured, gives this advice:
“Get all the money you can. Forget
what they tell you about family and friends.
They all go away. Stuff every dime into
an IRA. I did, and I’m a happy man.”
And he strides up the aisles of Kroger’s,
loading boxes, bottles and bags into his cart,
then disappears into the frozen food section.

But there’s that guy at the home
whenever we pick up Aunt Vivian. He’s
always in the living room. He rises
from his chair as we enter, gets halfway
up, forgets what he’s doing or why,
starts to sit, remembers, rises, pauses,
forgets. He’ll sway half out of the chair
for an hour, his eyes stunned open
to what he can’t quite believe.

            Is that what it’s like? Prisoners? A locked door? Frozen food? Halfway to somewhere? But there’s also this from the poem:

But that woman at the garage sale,
trim in shorts and hiking boots, tan,
tight-skinned, white hair thick and curly.
She spoke German to her grandchildren,
telling them they did not need more toys.
You said, “See?” I said, “German.”

Kim, of course, has some German ancestry.

            Is old age something that happens to you? Is it something you choose? Are you ridiculous if it happens to you but you do not choose to accept it?

            The examples above to the contrary, the answer to the question of how to be old is not multiple choice. It’s an essay exam. And I prefer, here, the definition of “essay” as “an effort to perform or accomplish something; attempt.”

            One of the things I learned in English 1,2 in college is that there is no formula for a good essay. Writing, in essays, is an act of exploration. And so we attempt to come up with a good way to be old, in some form or another. Either sit or get out of that chair.

*          *          *


            “Kim – do you want an afternoon cup of coffee?”

            “I’d love one.”

            The coffee pot was not sitting in the coffee maker as it should be. I looked on the counter next to it, on other kitchen counters, and in the sink. I looked on the porch where we sometimes drink coffee. I found it in the refrigerator. How did it get there?

            We did not ask, though I was concerned by how quickly I found it. Kim’s response when I told her where it was: “I’m surprised there was room in there.”

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Notes on Secrets


            I get daily emails advertising books for me to download onto my Kindle. Many of the blurbs use the word “secret.” Someone finds a diary that reveals grandma’s secret. A husband dies, and his wife learns about his secret life. A detective learns the secrets in a small town. Or the way to get wealthy or healthy is (or was) a secret, now revealed. I guess the word “secret” sells books.

            This makes me wonder about secrets. What is the big appeal? It may be that knowing a secret makes you part of “The In Crowd,” a status you never attained in high school. The word “secret,” as most of you know, comes from a Latin word meaning to separate or distinguish, derived from words meaning “sift apart.” Does that help? Secrets are not part of general knowledge, and secrets separate us, sifting out the ignorant. Revealing secrets, making them no longer secret, brings us together – unless the secrets are repulsive enough to further separate us. The widow who learns her dead husband was having an affair does not feel much closer to him – or does she?

********

            When Kim was working at the high school where I taught (and where we met – another story), she set up a get-acquainted game to help our large staff know one another. Each week a staff member would list five statements about himself or herself, one of which was false. The trick was to guess the false one, but the fun was in getting to know a “secret side” of a person, though the person was probably not keeping it secret on purpose. So, for example, I might say:

1.    I tried out for Survivorand almost made it on the show.
2.    I have hammer toes.
3.    I once owned a seahorse named Byron.
4.    My brother doesn’t read my blog.
5.    I once earned professorial praise on a paper in my English 1,2 class in college.

Which statement is false? (My classmates will know the answer.)

            See how it works? Give it a try. If you’d like to share your statements, email them to me.

********

            Kim sometimes asks me to tell her about my secret life – something I find very difficult. Why so difficult? I’m not telling . . .. Besides, Kim usually knows what I’m thinking before I do. 
            
            Every New Year I have the same resolution: Be more open. Express my feelings spontaneously – not just in writing. But if I did that, I might accidentally reveal a secret. No – my lid is screwed on pretty tight. This may simply be that I was raised in the buttoned-down ‘50s with a somewhat distant Canadian father as a role model. Excuses, excuses . . .. My secrets run so deep that I don’t even know them. I don’t have any secrets.

            OK, but if I did have secrets, what would they be? No, I don’t watch porn. Don’t cheat on our taxes. I’m not working on a secret novel. Never had an affair. I’ve already confessed that I watch The Bachelor, so that’s not a secret.

********

            To tell the truth, I do have three secrets.


            

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Garage Door Mystery


            Yesterday our garage door started opening and shutting every few minutes. Jesus, who I’d hired to help me with some yard work, pointed it out to me with a look of puzzled concern. I doubted what he told me until it happened while I was standing next to him.

            My first thought was that Kim was playing with the remote that we keep in the coat closet so we can open the doors from the house. I had no theory as to why Kim might play with the remote, but I figured it was better than her raking wet leaves or moving rocks around using her repaired but sore back. She might have been doing it just to mess with me – she enjoys doing that – but not Jesus, who she had just met. I thought briefly about asking her if she were playing with the remote, but I thought better of it.

            I then checked to see if something was blocking the door that would cause it to pop open instead of crushing a squirrel or precious antique we were preparing for our garage sale. No, nothing there, and besides, that would not explain why the door would suddenly open after sitting closed for three minutes, or spontaneously close itself.

            “I know,” I told Kim, “I bet Karen has her remote in her purse, and it’s bumping against something.” Karen and Ted, our neighbors, had been parking in our garage for a couple of weeks while a bathtub was waiting in their garage. Kim told me that they had returned the remote a couple of days ago. I was doubtful because I didn’t remember that, and because I did not want to abandon a perfectly logical theory.

            I went inside and checked the extra remotes (the garage doors came with about six) that I stored in one of my Junk Drawers. I saw that one of them was lying button down, which might somehow be activating the doors, so I turned it over: problem solved?

            Nope – the door opened itself again.

            We had given a door opener to Scott, but he was several hundred miles away, and though the openers have pretty good range . . ..

            I decided that it made good sense to stand there and stare at the garage doors. Maybe I would detect a clue as to what was up in my universe. Could it be Donald Trump? Hilary Clinton? Could global warming somehow be responsible? A shift in the earth’s magnetic field? Maybe we had a tourist attraction on our hands, like the Mystery Spot in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

            Kim called to me from the house with a somewhat satisfied look on her face. She was holding a garage door remote. Someone had put Karen and Ted’s returned remote into the pocket of my pants before Kim put them in the washing machine, and the remote had been tumbling around in the dryer, bumping the button every once in a while. I like to think that the satisfied look on Kim’s face was caused by her solving the garage door mystery and not by her again confirming my domestic carelessness.

            Today’s project is to install our new video doorbell, complete with motion detector. Who knows what mysteries this will reveal?


Comments:

From Fleda Brown: "It could have been Jesus, though. It’s that time of year, raising and all, you know."

From John Bayerl: "Since it was Jesus who said the door is risen. . .???"

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Green Ice



Spring is a time of year when the world becomes more green. You know – green grass, green leaves, etc. At our home in Northern Michigan this year, it means green ice.

I should note before you ask: Kim did not alter or enhance the color of these photos on her computer. Photoshop allows that kind of color-editing, but none was needed here when she took these pictures.

Early morning mist, looking east

Also early morning, looking south.
Part of the fun is figuring out what is ice, what is water, and what is something else.

The wide crack is where I was sitting in a chair about ten days ago.

Do you recognize what the blue is?

Taken from a neighbor's dock, late afternoon.

See any Petoskey stones?

The next day most of the ice was gone, but what remained was still green.

Sunrise, a day later, with snow in the forecast . . . 

Kim has said that one of the pleasures in living on a lake is that every hour brings us something different. How true. Of course, that's true even if you don't live on a lake, provided you pay attention.

Update for the none of you who asked: the American Tree Sparrow has a white tongue.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Woodpecker Tongues


            Sometimes it’s good to pursue a special interest. For some it’s stamp collecting, though I’m not sure anyone doing that is still alive. Others may devote themselves to historical baseball statistics, or trivia about President Polk, or counting President Trumps weekly factual errors. For me, for a while, it was playing Words With Friends. (Still is, come to think of it . . ..) For Kim it’s photographing butterflies and birds. But lately, she has developed a more specialized interest: photographing the tongues of woodpeckers.

            Do any of you share this interest?

            I didn’t think so.

            Kim says that her photographs of woodpecker tongues are not ready to be shown, that they are mainly for purposes of research. Kim has high standards, but she might respond to pressure . . ..

            Why do we have such weird special interests? Unsurprisingly, I’ve developed several theories.

·     We notice an empty space in our lives, and we grab at something – anything – to fill it up. But no, there is no sense of emergency here. What kind of hole could be filled by a woodpecker’s tongue?

·     We have evolved in a way that makes free-floating curiosity serve our reproductive advantage. Sometimes that curiosity serves us well – think of explorers, medical researchers, inventors of the cell phone. But sometimes that free-floating curiosity attaches itself to something both peculiar and trivial, you know, like butterfly wing design. But sometimes that peculiar triviality may lead to a payoff that benefits us all. Think of Lipitor. Penicillin. Silly Putty. Serendipity doesn’t just happen.

·     Perhaps the pursuit of a special interest is an evasion. You know, when there’s a disagreeable task that you can put off while organizing your collection of Studebaker hubcaps? I’ve been suspected of such an evasion when I researched Netflix in search of movies Kim and I might enjoy. This can take hours, and the payoff is questionable, at best. But it does allow me to avoid cleaning my shower – for a while.

·     Or maybe that being alive on our planet is just so damn interesting, anywhere you look – how can we find anything to be not worthy of our sustained attention. Did you know, for example, that the tongue of a Red-bellied Woodpecker is three times as long as its beak and wraps around the inside of its skull while awaiting use? I didn’t think you knew that. And some woodpecker tongues have backward facing barbs, while others have small brushes on the tip. And this about a woodpecker in China: “In this species of woodpecker, and some others, the tongue is so long that it forks in the throat, goes below the base of the jaw and wraps behind and over the top of the head, where the forked section rejoins and inserts in the bird’s right nostril or around the eye socket.”

·     Apparently (see above) the existence of the internet explains many devotions to special interests.

Incidentally, Kim believes she has evidence of a woodpecker with two tongues. This will be a first . . ..