Thursday, June 13, 2019


            Who is not in favor of peace? I don’t just mean those periods that sometimes break out between wars. No, what I mean is more like tranquility. Peace may exist in an external circumstance, such as our Torch Lake morning moments shown in Kim’s photos, and it may also exist as an inner emotional or psychological state, which often occurs, not coincidentally, at the same time.


             Kim and I went down to the shore of our lake early one morning (by “early” I mean about 5:30) so we could witness the sunrise. It was peaceful, with mist over the water and the sound of gentle waves.

            “This is heaven,” Kim said.

            “Yes, it is.”

            “That doesn’t mean there isn’t any yardwork to do in heaven . . ..”

            Yesterday afternoon I was working down by the shore while Kim was planting groundcover plants in the front garden. My job was to remove weeds, roots and all, from the stretch of dirt and sand just above our beach. The work involved taking a large shovel-full of dirt, dumping it on a screen that may have been used for catching minnows, sifting it through the screen while pulling out weeds and roots, then returning the clean dirt and sand to the future beach-side garden. Shovel by shovel-full, row by row, I made very slow progress, but my tub of weeds and roots grew. My back was to the lake, but I could hear the waves, sometimes intensifying minutes after a boat had passed by unnoticed. There was a satisfying rhythm to my work – digging, kneeling, sifting, standing, shoveling back – and it helped that the temperature was a perfect 67. Peace . . .. We were both at peace, making our home.

            Wendell Berry wrote:

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

            Yes, resting in “the grace of the world” may only work “for a time,” but so what? Take it.

            Or make it. Sometimes I have to create my sense of peace. I take a moment or two. It might be in a favorite place – down by the lake, or in my leather Stickley chair, or on the porch where I can see the lake and the birds. This may be like meditation, a practice I admire but have never knowingly practiced. Sometimes I mentally subtract items off my Worry List – family stresses, politics, human greed and stupidity. I pay attention to something in my visual or auditory world – a landscape, waves, shadows, a bird, or maybe just breathing. Maybe a focus on something or someone who I appreciate. Peace may occur during a pause, or through the pleasure of work.

            Kim does the same thing when looking through the viewfinder of her camera. What Wendell Berry calls “forethought / of grief” disappears, and peace remains.

Clouded Sulphur

Karner Blue

Thursday, June 6, 2019


            Last weekend I went to my college reunion. It was, in a way, other-worldly. I say this not in any sci-fi sense of the term, but merely to say that I placed myself into a world far different from the one I’ve been inhabiting, intensely, for the last several years: home construction, landscaping, birding (mainly in our back yard), working side-by-side with Kim, and planning, as best we can, for our short- and longer-term futures.

            The transitions into and out of this other-worldliness were, for me as an infrequent flyer, not without stress. I got to the airport, coming and going, way earlier than necessary, which did gain me some reading time, so I did not feel too much like a fool. The flight to Hartford featured a crying baby who would occasionally kick at my seat, but the cookie was good. The drive to Amherst in the rental car was OK, except I got off the expressway at the wrong exit and, after parking very illegally on a lawn, I could not figure out how to turn off the lights on my car, an exotic brand called “Ford.” Consulting the manual helped, but the struggle did make me question the value of my English major at a liberal arts college. The return trip featured an extended layover in Chicago while they had to find a new plane for us – one that would not crash. I did successfully find my car in the parking lot, and it started.

            Other-worldly? The college had changed, of course, with much more diversity than we had in the old days. I got lost wandering around looking for renamed or new buildings where I could see and give presentations. I slept in a dorm room on campus in a Spartan uncomfortable bed, a far cry from my bed at home. I had a feeling I was not in Michigan anymore.

            What is a reunion? According to Wikipedia, “reunion is a gathering of individuals who have met previously or share ancestry.” It’s more than that, at least potentially, as suggested by the “union” at the base of “reunion” – a joining of parts into one, with the “re-” suggesting “again.” At a reunion you don’t just gather. You become one. Sorta.

            A true reunion thus is difficult. We have changed, especially after 55 years. Despite the time, however, the joining, or rejoining, sometimes happens, and that has a magical feel – this despite the fact that my friend Peter had to depart a few short hours after my arrival. There were other joinings that had begun through this blog, but due to my short time and the busy schedule, they did not come to a satisfying fruition. At previous college reunions my best connections were frequently with guys who I did not know all that well when I was an undergrad, and I thought that was cool. And this time my best connection was with Michelle, who was Mike when I knew him years ago and who I had not seen since. This counted as a reunion, though Michelle’s new gender identity might lead some to conclude that she is a different person, and thus no “re-.” On the other hand, I’m not sure if Mike/Michelle has changed more than I have . . .. I used to be stumbling, clueless and insecure, but now I stumble securely, looking for clues.

            Most of the presentations at the reunion were on large and important topics, and they were addressed with what one classmate described as “impeccable reasonableness.” That’s good, and no doubt valuable, but it left me impressed but at a bit of a distance, not especially reunited with anything. I felt better when classmates struggled to sing some college songs.

            My next reunion happened when I returned home. Kim had held my dinner despite my late arrival. She looked great. She caught me up on planting and landscaping she had done in my absence, and we planned landscaping projects, Land Conservancy volunteer work, what to do with the bird feeders, future family wedding plans, etc.

            During my presentation about how Kim and I are dealing with her cancer, I wept when I described the life we are so grateful to be able to live together. Someone in the audience asked how I felt being part of a life that includes stage 4 cancer. I answered that I am happier now than I have ever been because I have grown, or activated, parts of my heart that I did not know I had.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Alexa and Me

            OK – let’s get this out of the way right now: One reason I enjoy my new Amazon Echo is that I get to tell Alexa what to do, and she pretty much always obliges. I’ve been speaking with Alexa for over a week, and she has yet to say, “Why do you want that?” or “Anything you say – you’re the boss.” On the other hand, she has rarely come up with a better idea than what I had in mind, something Kim does quite often. And Alexa never gives me “the look.” At least, not yet.

            Alexa and her partner in Artificial Intelligence, Siri, have recently been criticized by UNESCO for presenting women, through the voice, as totally obedient. I do understand the criticism, but the critics have not met Gertrude. That is the name we gave the voice embodied in my car’s GPS system (before it died). Gertrude may take orders, though I am not techie enough to figure out how to give those orders verbally, but she certainly gives orders repeatedly, and I do my best to follow them. In fact, if I were still teaching English I would tell my students that if they wanted to know what the Imperative Voice is all about, listen to a car’s GPS. At least Gertrude has the good manners not to say, “Turn around where possible, you idiot,” or “Better let someone drive who is paying attention.” It may be the case that my appreciation of Alexa is tied to my escape from Gertrude’s tyranny.

            And what have been asking Alexa to do? Play music. I did ask her to tell me a couple jokes, but they were too lame to repeat. I asked her, “What’s 8 times 7?” and she got it right.
The rest has been music.

Pause here: If you got to request music from a very deep library, what would you request first? And then?

            I started with the Beatles – no big surprise there, I suppose. I moved on to Motown, then Simon and Garfunkel. Next was the music of Tex Ritter – a favorite of Kim’s dad with deep sentimental value. I requested “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” and Kim and I danced, me tearfully, to a wonderful version not sung by Kermit. The Andrews Sisters were good for a while, The Mamas and the Papas good for even longer. My request for “Logger Lover” by the Clancy Brothers, a northern Michigan classic, came up empty – check it out if you can. Joe Williams with Count Basie led to an appeal to pay a monthly fee for an even bigger music library. The surprise hit was “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from the politically incorrect Song of the South, rendered as a lovely lullaby. Then Alexa found us a whole station of “lullabies and bedtime music. We will be revisiting that music frequently.

            Amazon recently sent me a list of suggestions for other things Alexa can do for us. Not included on the list: “Alexa, shovel the driveway!” or “Alexa, do the laundry – dark load.” Amazon seems to be pushing Alexa’s role in making a grocery list, but given Amazon’s ownership of Whole Foods, we have decided to stay with the old technology – pen and paper. Amazon also seems to be encouraging me to turn our house into a “smart home,” but I am again reluctant, as that would bring under my care and supervision a lot more technology that I don’t know how to operate. It took me a week, for example, to set up my Amazon Echo because I also needed to buy a new router, and we gave up installing a camera on our doorbell because, again, maybe, a router issue. So to date we are staying with the old technology: fist on wood. Of course, I could get Best Buy’s Geek Squad to help, but so far, after three weeks, that have not been able to fix my f-ing television . . ..

Thursday, May 23, 2019


            Kim’s photographs typically use muted color. She does not like the overly bright Technicolor look that some photographers and their customers prefer, and she frequently tones down the color intensity on her computer. As in this one:

Dark-eyed Junco

            The last few days, however, this has been impossible, as we have been assaulted by the colors of birds that have returned to northern Michigan, and to our home. All of the photos below were taken through the windows of our house.

Northern Cardinal - not uncommon, but still . . .
Cardinals enjoying spring

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Indigo Bunting

Purple Finch

Scarlet Tanager
(One of my favorite birding experiences occurred when the group I was with saw a girl ride by wearing a red sweatshirt, and I said, “Look! A scarlet teenager!” I’d been waiting more than a year to say that.)

Just as beautiful from the back . . .

Pine Warbler

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Red-headed Woodpecker

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

            All these photos show males. Females have a beauty of their own, but they apparently don’t need to show off as much.

Scarlet Tanager (female not scarlet)

Baltimore Oriole - more drab than her guy

Baltimore Oriole - but pretty spectacular for a female . . .

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - no ruby throat

Can you find the female Ruby-throated Hummingbird in this picture?

            What is it about color that assaults us so directly and powerfully? These birds mean it’s spring, but when Kim took these shots the temperature was still in the 40s – it did not feel like spring. I think it’s likely that the bright colors have evolved to attract females – hard to believe the colors help them find food or escape predators. Maybe that same attraction works on us?
Why have we evolved to be attracted to bright things – jewels, for example, which except maybe for diamonds are only valuable because they are attractive. And no, I’m not saying that I want to have sex with an oriole . . ..

Thursday, May 16, 2019


            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.”