Thursday, April 26, 2018


            I think it started when I was in high school. I would borrow the family station wagon for an evening with friends, detouring traffic. The first stop would be a place where there was road construction, complete with Detour signs and sawhorses with blinking lights. We would throw them into the back of the car and set them up again to detour traffic into the driveways of our friends. Funny, right! And what could go wrong? The entertainment came to an end when, within a week, we were chased (half-heartedly) by the local police, and at a Christmas party be asked by some parents if I wanted to put some blinking lights on the tree.

            I suspended this kind of activity when I was in college – too busy studying, playing sports, and I can’t remember what else. There was a good effort from some classmates when Walker Hall, a large neo-Gothic building, was being demolished to make way for the Robert Frost Library. Somebody, somehow, arranged the large stones into a replica of Stonehenge, though Professor Sale complained that it was not lined up properly for the Spring Equinox. And then there was the Chapel Dash, won by the person who could leave breakfast at Valentine Hall last and still make it on time to our required-but-non-religious chapel service. I rented a gorilla suit to harass the runners, but a bad case of poison ivy quashed my plans.

            I continued my efforts in this vein when teaching high school in Ann Arbor, though at this point I was in a position of authority. Students, led by Sarah, asked me to sponsor the Armadillo Club. We researched armadillos and gave presentations at our meetings. (They cross rivers by holding their breath while walking across the bottoms, and they may carry leprosy and are therefore useful in research.) We had a University of Michigan professor give a talk, and we watched a video of armadillo races. Kim designed t-shirts and stationary with our logo and motto: “Tough on the outside, tender on the inside.” Why armadillos? It was the 70s. The Armadillo Club, by school policy, had to have a Mission Statement. Our mission: To be the largest club in the school. We managed to defeat the Ski Club by declaring that every student in school was a member, and they had to petition us to leave the club. We knew we achieved our goal when we pretty much emptied the school for the outdoor yearbook photo. The Armadillo Club ended after one year when Sarah graduated.

            A couple of years later some students and I started the Apathy Club. I’d heard colleagues complain that high school seniors were apathetic. One of our rules – our only rule, come to think of it – was that if you came to an Apathy Club meeting, you were kicked out of the club. Our idea for the yearbook photo was a shot of an empty room, but the photographer lost interest and didn’t show up. The Apathy Club did not last very long.

            The A.P. Pep Rally, however, had a run of 5 or 6 years. Huron High School had a lot of students take and do well on Advanced Placement Exams, so I thought we should celebrate our efforts with a pep rally, mocking the football pep rallies. Instead of a marching band we had a girl with a violin and a guy with a flute. Isabel, our A.P. French teacher, held forth with great enthusiasm in a language few could understand. A girl recited pi from memory for a minute or so. A chorus of A.P. Chemistry students chanted Avogadro’s Number. I led a cheer encouraging students to “Think Good!” A parent complained to our Principal that one of the school’s teachers was using incorrect grammar. Our Assistant Principal suggested to the A.P. leadership that the Pep Rally might explain why Huron High School did so well on the tests. 

            What’s the point? A large part of the pleasure, I confess, derives from being on the inside of the joke. This gives me a feeling of power, perhaps missing in what passes for my Real Life. But there is more to it than that.

            It’s is a form of theater. In my first year of teaching, I was assigned to teach “drama,” and to me that meant giving students and awareness and appreciation of audience – just as it is with any writing. So I assigned them to perform “happenings,” improvised street dramas that, for my students, involved such things as clown suit, a pig on a leash, and a telephone cord connected to a girl’s navel. (My Principal’s response after a newspaper photo: “Very creative. Don’t do it again.”) My efforts were a lot like happenings. I was creating a form of theater as distinct from the Real Life going on around me. And in that theater, I was a character as well as author.

            Real Life these days involves cancer, aging and mortality. In the face of that, Kim and I are staging a drama, or at least a happening, that involves building our home on the lake, planning for our life there, signing up to do a butterfly survey, and taking an Audubon trip to the Upper Peninsula to photograph warblers. We like the element of defiance involved. Yesterday Kim asked how my balance is, thinking we should probably get a paddleboard for our summer fun, and we are talking about the rocks we will move to create a courtyard. And the audience for this drama? I suppose this blog creates an audience of sorts, but our real audience is ourselves as we watch ourselves appreciate each day. And the awareness of looming Real Life makes the drama, and the defiance, even sweeter.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Wonderful Peeps


       Kim's photographs typically reveal here love and appreciation of the natural world - birds, butterflies, landscapes, skies and water. But once in a while her artistic eye goes to people, many of them strangers.

Kim reminds us that there are so many cool people in the world, waiting to be seen and appreciated.

This free spirit was dancing across the sand at Estero Beach, Florida.

Bicycle Charlie was a familiar sight in Saline, Michigan. He camped out on a piece of property he owned (there's a story there), and he made his way around town on his bicycle. Bicycle Charlie died a couple of years ago.

Kim took this photo from our car when we were in Titusville. The man has a story, but we don't know what it is.
What are we to make of the little notebook on the sidewalk?

We met this guy at a coffee shop, maybe in North Carolina, and Kim thought he looked pretty cool. Kim sent him the photo, and he replied by giving Kim one of her best nicknames, "Gram with a Cam."

Solitude - St.Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida's Panhandle

Solitude - Alligator Lake, which is not in Michigan

A new father out fishing with his wife and baby.

When we traveled back and forth between Florida and Michigan, we would sometimes get off the Interstate, either to see a park or distillery or just for the change of pace. In South Carolina we stopped for what we thought was an historical museum and instead found a barbershop. (The barber chair itself might count as historical.) The five guys inside were mainly just enjoying each other's company, but they agreed to pose for some barbering action shots I'd heard a TED Talk about how places like this are where guys come to share medical advice because they trust their long relationship with their barbers. We stopped by again six months later to give them prints of the photos Kim took.

Our Reilly

The technique Kim used in this photo is called "creative blur": slow shutter speed and move the camera on purpose.
The term "creative blur" also describes what it sometimes feels like to live with an artist.

Those could be your shoes, or mine . . ..

Thursday, April 12, 2018


            Kim and I have been married almost 29 years, and during that period we have moved 9 times, with #10 due in May or June when we hope our new cottage will become our home. That sounds like a lot, and it is a lot.

            Why do it?

            If left to my own devices, I probably would never move. But Kim is an artist, and she craves change. One way she expresses her creative energy is in creating our home, an art that involves, in her case anyway, much more than the old-fashioned term “homemaker” suggests. I suspect that if she does not feed that craving by creating homes, she will feed it by dumping me.

            Don’t get me wrong here. Though I probably would never move, I am always glad, and grateful to Kim, when we do. Sometimes I just need a boot or a nudge to get me going, much the way Kim has to get me out the door to go birding or exploring. I love it, but my general stability of character brings with it some inertia. As in, “inert,” which my dictionary defines as “having no inherent power of action, motion or resistance.” My lack of resistance serves me well, though, because I benefit from going along with Kim’s creative energy and direction.

            Why move? I looked out the window at the fresh snowfall this morning. The world was transformed. OK, so it wasn’t transformed all that much since we had nearly a foot of snow two days ago, but still – it looked fresh and new, and that was exciting, and the suddenness of the transformation was part of the thrill. (Gradual transformations, such as getting old, are not so thrilling.) My excitement dimmed a bit when I scraped snow off of my car and got some up my sleeve, but my main point remains: transformations can be energizing, and moving usually means a dramatic transformation.

            The kind of move that we have experienced, and are anticipating, is a bit like rebooting a computer. While I admit that I don’t really understand what happens when a computer reboots, Wikipedia tells me it means: “To cause a computer to execute its boot process, effectively resetting the computer and causing the operating system to reload, especially after a system failure.” I’m not aware of any “system failure,” unless you count cancer, but I do like the idea of reloading the operating system, which I take to mean our deepest values and the activities that go with them. We love living in our condo here in the old asylum – and it has been an asylum – but Who We Are involves stepping out the door into the woods, working in the garden or whatever landscape we come up with, seeing and photographing our birds and butterflies, and watching the light change during the day. On our last visit to the construction site we saw coyote tracks in the snow, and we know we have a resident fox.

            And we will enjoy the energizing – though probably exhausting – process of rebooting: getting our stuff out of storage, arranging our furniture, setting up office and studio spaces, placing all the kitchen gear, creating new patterns routines: reloading our operating systems.

            I think of what Woody Allen said in Annie Hall: “A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.” Kim and I may be a lot of things, but one thing we are notis a dead shark.

Thursday, April 5, 2018


“Best wishes for a joyful and meaningful holiday weekend, whichever one you celebrate.”
--Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein, in an email

            To this non-religious observer, Easter Sunday and Passover share a spirit of renewal, of re-emergence. No coincidence, I suspect, that these holidays occur in Spring, when the earth is renewing itself. It was time for another renewal, and Kim and I got into the spirit of Passover, Easter and Spring by liberating ourselves from our condo and our homebuilding concerns to drive north to Mackinaw City to photograph the blue ice. Spring apparently did not get the Renewal Memo – high of 25 on Easter, with 8-12 inches of snow in the forecast for Tuesday. This may be because Sunday was also April Fool’s Day, a holiday of sorts.

For you non-Michiganders, this is the Mackinac Bridge, joining the Lower and Upper Peninsulas.
For you Floridians, this is ice.

We were there to see the ice formations that pile up where Lake Michigan flows into Lake Huron.

A lot of the ice is blue. Why is it blue? Because that's what color it is.

We we were drawn to the dramatic angles.

Here's how we got these photos.


Think of the forces involved in piling up these masses.

We witnessed a dramatic winter sky - almost as if the sky had been Photoshopped.

At times the sky was momentarily darkened by snow clouds. says, "Blue ice isn't actually blue, it just appears that way . . .." Whatever.

No, this was not our Christmas Tree, or Easter Tree.

Snow Bunting, photographed near the base of the bridge.

But seriously . . .

       George Leshkevich, physical scientist emeritus at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, explains that blue ice happens "because of three processes. One is that water absorbs other colors of the spectrum, the second is the lack of bubbles in the ice, the third is the ice thickness and density. And they're all factors in what causes this phenomenon." Through the process of selective absorption, the water absorbs blue wavelengths, and the lack of bubbles in the ice allows the wavelength to penetrate further. Light reflected from the ice then appears blue.

Phil Allen, with a Ph.D. in solid state physics, commented:

     My apologies to George Leshkevich. To a solid-state physicist, the blue-ness of ice is a very interesting phenomenon. We solid-state people think of ice as an “insulator” – meaning that it doesn’t conduct electricity. Like NaCl salt, or SiOquartz, most good insulators have a big “gap” in the optical spectrum. This is a range of wavelengths or frequencies where basically nothing happens – visible light is not absorbed. Visible light is (not just for us) in the “middle” of the spectrum, between infrared (low frequencies) and ultraviolet (high frequencies). Most matter absorbs light well if it is ultraviolet (electrons absorb light and move to higher energy levels) or infrared (molecular vibrations absorb light and heat up the material). It is no accident that our eyes and brains use the “visible” part of the spectrum – this is the range where light travels most freely. “Dyes” in our clothing and our retinas are designed to absorb efficiently in the visible range where ice, salt, glass, water, air, etc. don’t absorb much.
     Here is what’s unusual. Ice (H2O), because of the lightweight hydrogen atoms, has higher frequency molecular vibrations than most matter. It absorbs infrared light efficiently, and at frequencies closer to visible than most matter. These vibrations “resonate” with light when the light frequency is about 5 times lower than the frequencies of visible light. But just like sound waves in musical instruments, higher “harmonics” of these molecular resonances can also be excited by light. It turns out that the 4th harmonic of the strong high frequency molecular resonances in ice (also in water vapor and liquid) is weakly absorbed by light at the low frequency (red) end of the visible spectrum. So when visible light travels through ice (or water), it gets depleted of red. This happens only over significant distances, like a foot or more. When visible (“white”) light gets depleted of red, it is bluish.
     The reason this is interesting to people like me is that it’s a weak effect, one that we normally don’t think about. The color of matter (an important issue for people like me) has, for most matter, nothing to do with molecular vibrations. Therefore it is quite a surprise when we learn that it happens for ice (and water).
     There is a wonderful article by Braun (a chemist at Dartmouth) and Smirnov in the Journal of Chemical Education, "Why is Water Blue." There are so many plausible but incorrect explanations, that they decided a proof of this “4th harmonic” explanation would have some value. They did it by purchasing a tank of “heavy water” where the H (hydrogen) atoms are replaced by D (deuterium, twice as heavy). This moves the resonances to lower frequency where the 4th harmonic is in the invisible infrared. Heavy water isn’t blue.
-- Phil Allen, Stony Brook, April 5, 2018

PS – So now you should ask, why is the sky blue? And why red at sunset? It’s a totally different story, explained by John Strutt (later known as Lord Rayleigh) in 1871. The story above for ice and water comes from 20th century research.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Crispy Around the Edges

            You may have noticed – probably not – that people in your family use some sort of catch-phrase that reinforces a shared experience, or even shared values. If you haven’t noticed it, then start noticing it now.

            I’ll give you a few examples that Kim and I share.

“crispy around the edges”
            Our friend Charmaine came up with this one. She was describing exactly how she likes her eggs to be fried to enhance the full sensuality of her eggsperience. Sometimes it’s these little details that most enrich an experience. One of Kim’s favorites is getting into a bed with freshly ironed sheets. (Youngsters reading this should ask parents or grandparents what “freshly ironed” means.) Kim and I use the phrase to describe our enjoyment of any small sensual detail. We might say (never have said it, but we might) that a piece of music, or a good haircut, is “crispy around the edges.” Thanks, Charmaine.

            This comes from a movie, “Fried Green Tomatoes,” one of many chick-flicks I enjoy. The character played by Kathy Bates identifies herself as Towanda when she rams the car of two insolent teenagers who took her parking place. The Urban Dictionary says the word is used to express extreme excitement while doing something crazy, but I prefer to see Towanda as a woman warrior. Kim uses the word when she makes a successful power move, usually involving unscrewing a lid. We are saving Wonder Woman references for her strength in battling cancer – she wore her Wonder Woman bracelet through her radiation treatment. Towanda has more to do with using her very human powers by summoning and then channeling the mythical primitive strength that all women share.

            Kim and I, with our friend Sue, were enjoying a week of classes at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. One evening we attended a poetry reading. The poems were OK in a rather conventional way, and the poet was a woman who read with a balance of dignity and emotion that I, perhaps unfairly, associate with the South. But there was just one thing: Her poems frequently used the word “celebration,” which the poet consistently mispronounced as “ceberration.” By the third utterance of the word, none of us could look at each other because we knew our laughter would disrupt the reading. There might have been ten or twelve “ceberrations” celebrated in those poems. The three of us gasped with relief when we emerged into the mountain air, and ever since then Kim and I look for opportunities to share a ceberration, often including a beverage. Using the word enriches each event by layering it with some history.

“but good”
            This comes from a joke that I think I first heard from Kim’s dad: Some guys went hunting for a week, and nobody wanted the job of cook. Finally, one of them agreed to cook, but he said, “If there are any complaints, I’m quitting.” After a few days, he was tired of cooking, so he went into the woods, gathered some dried moose shit, and stirred it into the pancake batter. One of his buddies took a big bite and said, “God, this tastes like moose shit – but good!”

“just the way we like it”
            “But good” is a variation of a story we heard another couple tell. John and Barb are both photographers, and as I remember their story, one of them fell and hurt a hip or shoulder but still had to climb up on horse to get to where they were going. “It was difficult,” John said, and they both said together, “just the way we like it.” I was touched by their only half-joking sharing of this stoic phrase. It’s not the same as “but good” because there is no self-serving lie involved, but rather an appreciation of a difficult accomplishment. Kim and I have incorporated this phrase.

            This is the title of one of our favorite movies. It refers to the wisdom that an Indian cabdriver imparts to one of his passengers: Be continuously grateful and stubbornly optimistic, setting aside self-doubts. Critics have called this superficial and na├»ve, but so, what? Kim and I find occasions to say it, even when, like “just the way we like it,” we say it with a touch of irony.

“good enough for who it’s for”
            Kim and I are not perfectionists – especially me. (Being a goalie on a weak ice hockey team at the same time I spent four years in college with only one A helps me acknowledge my shortcomings.) And sometimes Kim and I just have to accept that something – a meal, a cleaning job, some weeding – is, while not perfect, good enough for us. The saying has some amusing variations: “close enough for government work,” “true enough for journalism” (I coined that one), and one of my favorites that deals with writer’s block:

            A writer complained to his publisher that he was stuck with writer’s block. The publisher said, “It’s no accident that ‘perfectionism’ rhymes with ‘procrastination.’”
            “But they don’t rhyme!”
            “BUT IT’S CLOSE ENOUGH!”

            That’s how I avoid writer’s block: I lower my standards. Some of my readers may have noticed this. But I usually try to make a paragraph or two crispy around the edges.

Comment from Charmaine Stangl:
We enjoyed this immensely.  I was honored to have a phrase on your list and like the idea of expanding my use of "crispy around the edges" for numerous situations when something is just right.  Here are a couple of our family catch phrases you might enjoy.  The first one involves a story.  When Amber and Kate were about three and seven years my brother sent them identical (almost) little jewelry boxes via my mother when she came for a visit.  They opened their gifts and seemed delighted with the sparkly, silver boxes lined in red velvet.  A little later Kate took a nap.  Amber scrupulously examined each box to make sure that they were, indeed, identical.  She discovered a tiny raised spot on the bottom of hers which was not on Kate's.  This troubled her greatly.  My mother and I decided that it was  important to make a discriminating seven year old happy so we switched the boxes.  To our surprise and dismay, the first thing Kate did when she got up from her nap was to scrutinize her box like Sherlock Holmes.  She burst into tears and blubbered, "Mine didn't have a pimp on it!"  Seeing her devastation, at least we had the decency to not burst into laughter.  I don't remember how we resolved it, but we later concluded that a pimp must be something between a bump and a pimple.  After that we've always said, "Be sure it doesn't have a pimp on it,"  when we're making a careful selection. 

From John Bayerl:
Your “but good” joke is a variation of one I tell about lumberjacks and a cook who makes moose turd pie. A lumberjack takes a bite of the pie and exclaims: “Eh!  Dat’s moose turd pie—ain’t bad though.”

One of our favorite expressions is “is it bread yet?” while waiting for something to happen. Taken from waiting for bread dough to rise.