Thursday, December 5, 2019

Mac ‘n’ Cheese

Mac ‘n’ Cheese

            Here’s a little-known fact about Thanksgiving: The week before the celebrated “first Thanksgiving,” the Native Americans served the Pilgrims a quiet meal of macaroni and cheese, with coleslaw on the side. Turkey was not served until the following week. Historians do not mention this because they have no way to explain how the Native Americans came up with cheese. Deer cheese? The macaroni, of course, came from macaroni bushes that used to be abundant in Massachusetts. But that’s another story.

            Kim and I honored that mac ‘n’ cheese non-tradition with our Thanksgiving non-feast. And where some see Thanksgiving as a family gathering, commemorating a peaceful pause before centuries of invasion and genocide, our meal was just the two of us, with candles. Kim was thankful that she did not have to prepare the multi-course feast that she, with the help of family, has prepared every year. I was thankful that Kim was teaching me her mac ‘n’ cheese secrets in hope that I would actually learn them. It’s a tradition that we may continue, depending . . ..

            Family? Either they were too far away, too broke, or conflicted with other scheduled events. No matter. We saw Scott and Shariee the day after (for chili, which the natives had served invaders in other parts of the country – another historical lacuna), and more family will be here over the Christmas holidays, if not for Christmas itself. Family gatherings are complicated these days, with divorces and extensive travel requirements.

            Thanksgiving, however it is celebrated, can be a welcome pause. Thanks – giving. Usually this is taken to mean a giving of thanks. Perhaps it’s to God, if you are so inclined, or perhaps to or for specific people. It’s not unusual to go around the dinner table with each person proclaiming what he or she is thankful for.

            But there’s another way to understand Thanksgiving, more along the lines of thanks à giving. If you are thankful for your life, what better response is there than giving? Time. Money. Junk you didn’t sell in your garage sale. A compliment. Help. (Here is where I am not going to list the thanks à givings Kim and I have done, which subverts the nobility of the gesture. I see it as quiet deposits in the karma bank.)

            So, mac ‘n’ cheese, coleslaw, candles, and orange kiss-me cake for dessert. Then, some giving. Life is good.


Thursday, November 28, 2019

Dark Secrets

I am happily not part of the dating world, but I can imagine that, on a first date, one question that needs to be asked and answered is this: What is one of your dark secrets?

OK, maybe not on a first date. Most likely, it will be the last date.

Oh – you don’t have any dark secrets? That suggests that you are keeping them secret from yourself.

No, I am not going to reveal my dark secrets here. Did you really think I would?

Once revealed, they are no longer secrets, and so they lose much of their power.

Our dark secrets are a mark of our precious individuality, our self – outposts in the soup of our relationships at work, at home and at play. As such, we need them.

What does a dark secret sound like?

·      I pick my nose.
·      I had an abortion – two of them.
·      I watch porn.
·      I had an affair.
·      I am having an affair.
·      I wish I were dead.
·      I ate the last cookies.
·      I see more than you think I do.
·      I was involved in a hit-and-run.
·      I don’t know who I am.
·      I have a beast inside me.
·      My heart is made of brain tissue.
·      I am not here.

You get the idea. What are your dark secrets?

Thursday, November 21, 2019


            What is it about woodpeckers? I’ve written before about woodpecker tongues (, but that’s not what makes them so appealing. Is it simply Woody? Maybe it’s something about the swagger of the larger ones, the Pileated Woodpeckers, with their size and boldness and the fierce way they attack a rotting tree. Or maybe it’s just the way they seem to enjoy beating their heads against hunks of wood – something that we can, some days, only envy.

            We have five different species of woodpeckers here:

The smallest and cutest are the Downies.

Hairy Woodpeckers, somewhat larger, don’t actually have any hair, though the small feathers on their legs, heads, upper mandibles and along their backs sorta look like hair. (We do, indeed, live in a post-truth world!)

This Hairy Woodpecker did not do all this damage to the tree, but it helped.

The Pileated, the largest ones, are the models for Woody.

Then we have Red-bellied Woodpeckers, named for the hard-to-see red patch on their belly rather than their distinctive red head (on the males).

The name Red-headed Woodpecker was, presumably, already taken.

The woodpeckers have some cousins in our woods: Northern Flickers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. (“Cousins” is not a biological term here. It’s just a lazy way of speaking. They peck wood.)

Juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Northern Flicker

            You may be wondering what it’s like living in a house made of bark with all these woodpeckers around. Well, it’s pretty cool. They don’t attack the house. We don’t have bugs living in the bark, which was kiln-dried before we put it up. We have left up a number of dead trees, which provide homes for insects and thus dining opportunities for woodpeckers. The trees, when consumed by bugs and mulched by woodpeckers, resettle into the soil to emerge later as new trees. Leaving the trees up is our contribution to the Circle of Life.

            Once in a while we hear the pecking on our bark, and we clap our hands to scare away an occasional Hairy. And we’ve seen a few small holes in the pine window trim. But mostly we hear Nuthatches storing seeds in the bark (to be stolen by Brown Creepers). In the spring, we are told, some woodpeckers will drum on the house to declare territory and attract mates, but that’s about it.

            We watch and Kim photographs woodpeckers from our porch. We hang suet for them and spread stuff called Bark Butter into holes we gouged in a dead tree. We have topped one tree near the house so that when the woodpeckers topple it, our home will be spared. And we anticipate that, sometime this winter, the Pileated, who can really make the chips fly in his search for bugs, will finish taking down a large birch.

Any bets when this tree will fall?

            There’s a lot more to be said about woodpeckers. I do recall reading somewhere that designers of football helmets were studying woodpecker heads. I’ll leave it to the curious to google out answers to your questions, as I am already writing beyond my small field of knowledge. JFGI. And birders, feel free to send in corrections and clarifications.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Small Things

            Lately we have found our lives consumed by small things – and this is good, because so much of the Big News (e.g., climate change, politics, racism, corporate greed) is so discouraging. A few examples:

·      We keep dispensers for hand soap and lotion on the kitchen sink. We recently emptied one and got out a new one (Kim keeps replacements for about everything, which makes me a little nervous). A simple twist, I thought, would unlock the plunger/dispenser thingy on the cap, and we’d be in business. An hour later, I was still struggling with it. I googled the problem and found a guy, and then a woman, also struggling with it, but their solutions did not work for me. Kim finally figured out to get the old plunger that we were throwing away and put it on the new bottle, and we were back in business. I felt really good about getting the problem solved, along with feeling bad about having that as a problem.

·      When we watch the evening news on ABC, which we are doing less frequently, the sound is not synced with the picture, which makes David Muir look even more like a ventriloquist dummy. The Geek Squad can’t fix this, nor can the cable company. It’s clear that this is my responsibility, and I have failed. But given the scope of problems in the world, the small size of the failure is, in a way, reason for happiness. Is this all that I’m worried about? Unless David Muir’s unsynced lips are a sign of the decline of civilization . . ..

·      We are looking for a log to place in our woods so we can hook up a hidden dribble of water to attract the birds. It has to be the right size – about the size of my body – and the ends should be natural, not sawn off. The water will dribble into a rock with a naturally occurring basin. Candidates we have found in the woods are typically too large or too heavy to get to the car, or too rotten. This is a good challenge. It gets us out in the woods.

·      We spent way too much time looking for two Christmas ornaments that we bought at Michael’s and put somewhere. Either I took them down to Kim’s studio or the storage/mechanical room, or I didn’t. We’ve had a number of geezer-freezer experiences like this, perhaps a sign of impending Oldtimer’s Disease. But also: Enjoy the glow of satisfaction when you eventually find the damn things, which we did.

·      Ever buy something on the internet? Ever experience a problem doing it? We had two recent experiences where we encountered problems, both of which were partially my fault, and the companies stepped up nicely to make things right. I ordered ladders so we could escape from the basement egress windows, but they sent the wrong ladders, and I ordered some high-tech underwear that I had sent to our home address where we don’t receive mail, preferring a PO box because the snowplows would knock down a mailbox. Years ago, I did some work with Tom Cates, a colleague of my brother who specializes in customer loyalty. One thing I learned is that the most important driver of customer loyalty is how the company handles the inevitable screw-ups. Both companies handled them beautifully, and it made me glad. This does not solve the problems of climate change or gerrymandering, but still, it was good.

·      Friendship is not a small thing, but it is played on a small stage, a dining room table or living room in front of a fire. Saturday our neighbor, Joe, stopped by for some of Kim’s bread pudding, and we had a delightful conversation about family, our neighborhood, Joe’s dog (shared custody with his ex-wife in Wisconsin), slippers, CBD oil, health, Joe’s book, etc. Shortly after that we drove an hour to have dinner with Bill and Kate, our new good friends. Basking in the warmth of their beautiful home and hospitality, helped by a bit of wine, the rest of the world temporarily faded. And when we did discuss the larger problems, it was in the glow of shared values. If there are people like Joe, Bill and Kate in the world, plus many others who we count in our circle of friends, both here and in our previous lives, then it’s a cause for celebration.


Fall, you may have noticed, becomes winter. This year it happened in one week.

Mourning Dove with Autumn Leaves

Dark-eyed Junco on Birch

Pileated Woodpecker Felling a Tree

And then:

Downy Woodpecker Fluffed Against the Cold

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Dark-eyed Junco with Newly Found Ornament

Chickadee Catching Snowflakes


Thursday, November 7, 2019

We Buy a Camera

            Cheered by the news that Kim’s various scans do not reveal any new cancer, we decided to buy a new camera. Kim’s unrelenting pain and fatigue make it difficult for her to haul her 500mm lens down the stairs to the lake or out into the woods, so we need a lighter one that still has the reach (that’s the term) of her heavy lens.

            Our reasoning went like this: We did not want to buy a new camera if Kim’s cancer had reappeared, threatening immobility and mortality. After all, if Kim died, she did not want leave me with this new camera to deal with. Despite my reassurances that this problem would not weigh heavily on my worry list, we waited to hear from the oncologist. We used the same reasoning to wait for the scan results before making a May vacation reservation.

            We spent over an hour in the camera store before making our decision – an Olympus camera with a lens and extender that would give the equivalent of a zoom to 600mm. The camera, we were told, is mirrorless – which we take to be a good thing as mirrors are no longer our friends. After a half hour of instructions that we either did not understand or can’t remember, we brought the camera and lenses home. Fortunately, the camera store has a policy that we can try it for a week and then return it if we don’t like it.

            The process of deciding took less than a day. We struggled to get the auto-focus to work, and we learned that the various buttons and dials on the Olympus were totally different from those on our Canons. The manual that came with the camera was too brief to be much help, and the downloaded version is over 200 pages long – and not easy reading if you don’t know all the abbreviations. Just as our new car is a computer with wheels, our cameras are computers with lenses attached, and a new one opens a whole spectrum of ignorance.

            Once we got everything more or less working, Kim took some sample shots to compare with similar shots she took with her Canon equipment. Not even close! The color was off, but more importantly, the images were not sharp. (The plastic film protecting the LCD display screen may have been partially responsible for this.) Kim carefully repacked everything in the original boxes for return on our next trip to Traverse City. The problem may have been us, not the camera gear, but that does not matter. It will be the same faulty us/camera team taking pictures in the future. It took us several years to get Canonized, and despite the good news from the oncologist, we don’t want to spend that much time becoming Olympic.

            Meanwhile, I’m reading reviews of a Sony camera that looks pretty good. Or maybe, with snow on the ground, we'll just wait until spring.


            Kim and I are not up for traveling much anymore. Like Thoreau, we will travel by paying closer attention to what we see, hear, smell, taste and feel - here at our Bark House and in our immediate surroundings. As a new feature of the blog, every week we will include a few photos, and/or perhaps some writing. As Thoreau said, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”

Thursday, October 31, 2019


            I’ve written before about my favorite season, fall, (, but now it’s different. The last few weeks have been focused on preparations for winter, which here in northern Michigan can be a long season. We have hauled the kayak and beach chairs up from the lake, applied netting and chemicals on plants vulnerable to hungry deer, put away birdbaths, gathered seeds from the garden flowers, checked the furnace, removed screens from the windows, etc. I stared at the pine needles coating our roof and decided that no, I will hire someone else to go up and deal with them. And we have also looked ahead to work that will be done when winter finally leaves: new stairs off the decks, some exterior painting and staining, a couple more trees, possibly a dock and a pergola.

            All of this occurs in the context of waiting for medical news. Yes, we are planning for next summer, and we are planting trees with a view to how they will look ten or twenty years from now. But on Friday, Kim went in for her round of blood tests, CT-scans, bone scans and X-Rays, all designed to look for her cancer’s inevitable (?!) return. This leads to a whole series of “what if” meditations that we can’t quite abandon, especially in the context of Kim’s ongoing pain and fatigue and the several falls she has taken during the last two months, usually while gardening or hauling her camera.

            We learn the results of all those scans today, Thursday, a few hours after I post this blog entry.

            The author William Saroyan, dying of cancer, famously said, “Everyone has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”

            Now what, indeed. Kim continues to rise, most mornings, to celebrate the arrival of another day by photographing the sunrise (now, fortunately, after 8 a.m.). 

We pause to taste the applesauce Kim made from our neighbor Karen’s apples. We gather pine cones for a large wreath Kim will make to attach to the garage. We hug, avoiding the sorest spots on her back. We research lighter cameras and lenses so Kim can move more easily down the steps to photograph birds on the lake. 

           We continue the daily rhythms of our lives. Kim washed our garage windows on Saturday while I tried to track down a missing FedEx shipment. Laundry. Vacuuming. Shopping for groceries. Cooking (by Kim). I dry the dishes she washes, unless she is too exhausted and needs to lie down.

            Fall, as a season, is associated with mortality, as the name implies, but it’s usually associated with a cyclical pattern leading to spring and rebirth. To my way of thinking, however, mortality, on the individual level, is a bit more final than that, though if reincarnation or heaven are in the cards, I’ll accept them. Fall can mean so many things, going back, I suppose, to Adam’s biblical Fall, mirrored by Kim’s recent fall in the garden amid the yellowing leaves. But fall also sharpens our appreciation, and sunrises mark beginnings:

From Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73:

This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Thursday, October 24, 2019


            I decided, for this blog, to combine readers’ responses to Pet Peeves and Small Acts of Kindness. These may be two sides of the same coin, or there may be two coins involved. What many of the entries have in common is our desire to be seen and acknowledged as human beings. For example, when I pause in my car for a pedestrian at a crosswalk, his wave of thanks for not running him over acknowledges my humanity. I wave back. 

Pet Peeves

My pet peeve is that my dog absolutely adores my wife and barely tolerates my presence. 😎

Others include "twisty things" that are put on everything from bread loaves to  tech accessories, and plastic packaging like used on razor blades that you need a skill saw to open, but the worst and most annoying are robo calls from nearly everyone, including posers allegedly from the social security administration who announce that my number has been tagged for a fraudulent transaction and if I don’t call back I will be arrested within 24 hours. I've gotten that call about 6 times but I have yet to be arrested.   

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I have two, and one is absolutely the phone tree situation ... if I ever go insane and kill someone, it'll be over the phone tree that doesn't have the option I need - or when suddenly after 13 minutes on hold the call just drops.

The other is the "no problem" in a restaurant when I say thank you to the (can I say "millennial"?) server for something.  I know I sound like I'm 98 years old, but a "you're welcome" now and then would bring me to tears of gratitude.

[The writer had another great one, but she forbid me to repeat it. If you know her, ask her.]

No wait - there's one more...when people mob the elevator that I and 6 other people are trying to get off of.  I always want to say, "Your mother would be so disappointed in you today..." but I'm far too polite.

So -  there you go, and hey---it was no problem!

                                                            *     *    *

Glop on insides of windshields that defies removal.  Our 2017 Chevy Volt is a heck of a lot better than my first car, a used 1956 Chevy Bel Aire.  So, way to go GM: in 60 years your products became "better."  But..... As the car sits facing the hot sun, "something" seems to emit from something in the car and coat the inside of the windshield with a film that is annoying but not necessarily lethal, to health or driving.  At sunrise or sunset, however, if you are driving directly into the sun, that film makes your windshield close to opaque.  At anything over 5 mph, that "annoying" film transforms to potentially lethal.  Like you can't see the edge of the road, any pedestrian or bicycle on the shoulder, or any oncoming car.  Then you try to wipe or wash the film off, but the best I've been able to do is a smudge, somewhat more transparent.  To boot, the angle of the windshield is such that you can't reach the lower edges of the glass.  Or at least this 77-year old can't reach the lower edge.  The only true remedy we've found is don't drive directly into the sun, ever.

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Top of my list would be phone trees.  I just navigated one the other day vis a vis the California DMV, part of license renewal drill.  I was trying to select an office appointment time in Jan.  Took a LOOOONG time to step through the choices, with frequent backtracking because the *&#$%@ robot couldn’t understand my voice answers (no keypad option there) despite my herculean efforts to speak slowly, with extra enunciation, etc.  Eventually I got to the step of choosing a date only to hear that my desired January dates are more than 90 days hence, thus not yet in the appointment system.  Thanks so much for this info!!!  It doesn’t appear on the DMV website that advises making an appointment, nor in the prior steps in the phone tree.

As for windshield film, I’m in the same club.  Thanks to xxxxx for outing the cause of it.  Nothing keeps the film at bay indefinitely, but a moderate solution of household ammonia in water works tolerably well for me, somewhat better and longer-lasting than products like Windex.  As for reaching the lower edge of the slanted windshield, I think it’s all a plot by automakers to force us ancients into some physical exertion to do this.  Just try to avoid dislocated elbows and shoulders as best you can.

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Your for you’re; me and her went wherever they went, instead of she and I; send a email instead of send an email. Sports announcers. I think it’s because I had Mrs. Custerari as an English teacher in high school. I knew I forgot one of the worst ones...not go lay down, but go lie down!!! Eeeks! Like fingernails on a chalkboard!! 

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I wonder what responses you will get to your call for people's pet peeves.  I expect robo calls would be mentioned by several and put me among them.  I especially dislike the ones that come at 6 p.m. when we are having dinner.  I would love to know if it is worthwhile or possibly dangerous to push the button to be put on the do-not-call list.

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This happens in restaurants. When you take a break from eating, and the server wants to take your plate away. When the server plunks the bill on the table, and says, ”No hurry, take your time.” A waiter’s response when you ask for something, or thank the person for something, “no problem.” Many of my pet peeves take place in restaurants. I think there’s a direct correlation with pet peeves and age.

Our mailman, who probably should retire, delivers our neighbor’s mail to us on a regular basis, and our mail to who knows where. Maybe, he just needs new glasses.

Fliers on our doorknob even when we had a sign up. I took the sign down. Now we get fewer fliers.

Small Acts of Kindness

Outside the door of an academic building, earlier this week, I was ready to enter against the flux of outgoing students.  Starting to nudge slowly through the door, a face caught my eye.  A tall, young African man was facing me from three feet away, waiting patiently.  He gave a happy smile.  His hands, palms and fingers together, were just below his chin, and his elbows pressed on his belly, as in prayer.  I don't know why he was giving this blessing.  It warmed my day.

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Now that I am a hospice nurse, I am treated, in hospital elevators and sometimes the hallways to the treatment soldiers in uniforms get, now that it's become proper to thank a soldier for his/her service.  I know it wasn't always that way, but I see, now that my son is in the USAF, that people are thankful and go out of the way to extend their appreciation.
Anyway, so there I go in my hospice lab coat, and at least 2-4 times every day, I am thanked, sometimes with tears, "for the work you do", and "we couldn't have managed without you" and other similar statements.  I just never knew how much hospice care meant to people.  I can't remember EVER being thanked out in public when I was just a regular nurse.  But people open up to the hospice nurse if they've "been there" with someone they loved, and it's obviously brings up very powerful memories for some of them.
I somehow thought I'd get more of the reaction I got from my previous colleagues and physicians when I told them where I was going - "Oh God - seriously?!  How can you want to do THAT?!" with a look of horror on their faces.  So that's more along the line of what I was expecting to hear.
And this reaction from total strangers has been very moving for me...makes me appreciate the task much more deeply of helping people in such a terribly difficult time.  Makes me try harder, give more, and stay a little bit longer than I have to.

                                                            *     *     *

Something that touched my heart yesterday and also made me smile: I was at a BART station, and a small boy, maybe about 10, got on at the same station I did.  About 10 minutes earlier I'd seen him as he departed his school for the day, and, like most kids, he was half paying attention to his phone and maybe the other half to the world.  We left the train at the same station, and he was slightly ahead of me.  As we headed to the escalator, a woman of 50- or 60-something was also approaching, and she had a hard time walking.  It was clear her cane was needed.  The boy gestured for her to proceed in front of him, but she said no, go ahead.  The boy then again said she should go first, and she did.  I was right behind the boy on the escalator.  On the way down, she turned to him and thanked him, and she said she wanted to tell his mother what a fine boy he was.  A small thing, but I just thought it was wonderful, and it made my day.  Or at least it made my day until I tuned into Rachel Maddow that evening, and reality came roaring back.  A small kindness from both the boy and the woman.

                                                            *     *     *

·      Making cards with my photos and sending them to friends on different occasions
·      Calling friends who live alone, are sick. Calling family members
·      Making chicken soup for sick friends/family
·      Picking up garbage on the street.
·      Watering my disabled neighbor's plants
·      Bringing flowers that I arranged/grew to friends/relatives
·      Cooking a friend/ relative's favorite food
·      Giving a photo I made to a friend/relative
·      Giving a large sum of money to help a friend with medical expenses, buy a car or hire a lawyer for a former student's son who was charged with statutory rape. He got probation for a year

                                                            *     *     *

When I shop at Aldi, where they have you pack your groceries in your own bags, I always purchase several bags that they sell and leave them for others to use. 

                                                            *     *     *

·       put a quarter into an expired meter to avoid a parking ticket
·       bring in the empty trash cans for a neighbor who’s on travel or sick
·       pick up and return a neighbor’s dog who’s wandered away, avoid dogcatcher
·       hold a door open for anyone
·       say thank you when someone holds the door for you
·       hug a friend who you see/sense is depressed or worried
·       smile at everyone you meet or pass; i.e. just smile as often as possible
·       most people will smile back and a smile makes people feel good
·       say yes, when someone asks for help or a favor
·       give more compliments, offer encouragement whenever possible
·       talk to a stranger who’s waiting on line with you

                                                            *     *     *

I have always felt a KIND SMILE of “I see you” can brighten anyone up... As the world turns today...people do not even notice anymore or are even annoyed....Seriously.....BUT IT IS A MUST to keep it going....

            This last example makes my point: We want to be acknowledged as human beings. Sometimes a kind smile is all it takes. Hard for a robo call or phone tree to do that . . ..