Thursday, June 28, 2018


            I was not always as good a cook as I am now. Don’t believe me? Here are a few examples from my past:

·     Shortly after my divorce I decided to be creative on my son’s birthday. At a local restaurant I’d eaten what they called a “mud pie,” which I think featured chocolate pudding, or maybe ice cream, along with some exotic ingredients. So I decided to make Jeff a mud pie. I had no idea how to do it, but I thought a trip to the grocery store would give me some inspiration. It didn’t. We had not yet been blessed by google, so I approached a competent-looking woman near the ice cream and asked her, “Do you know how to make a mud pie? I want to make one for my son’s birthday, but I don’t know how.” After a long pause, she shook her head and said, “You get some dirt, and you get some water . . ..” I thanked her and quickly walked away.
·     When my sons visited me at my apartment, on non-pizza nights I would cook. Most of the time I prepared what we came to describe as “The Yellow Meal”: mac and cheese (courtesy of Kraft) corn and applesauce. Sometimes I’d substitute Rice-a-Roni for the mac. And sometimes, to vary the color scheme, I’d fix carrot sticks. The meal was generally a success, largely because I told them that if they didn’t like it, they’d get The Green Meal. They never asked what it was.
·      I decided to use my cooking skills to aid my courtship of Kim. When we first started dating I decided to prepare trout almandine. This time I had a recipe, but it was not detailed enough. I looked up “saute” in the dictionary, so I was OK there. I’d purchased the almonds, but closer inspection of the recipe indicated that they had to be sliced. Slicing them turned out to be a slow and painful process with my not very sharp kitchen knife. I later explained to Kim that the unusual taste was probably blood from my fingers. She explained that stores sell blanched slivered almonds. Blanched?
·      I had a similar experience when I chose to prepare beef stew for Kim. She gave me some tips about browning the meat before dumping it into the pot, but then she retired to the living room to see what I’d come up with. The recipe mentioned something about adding “a clove of garlic,” but I did not know what a “clove” was, so just to be sure, I dumped in the lemon-sized thing I’d purchased. About 45 minutes later Kim wandered into the kitchen, perhaps drawn there by the smell. She was able to scoop out the pulpy mass before my garlic stew was totally inedible.
·     After a few of my cooking adventures, I learned to add a step at the beginning of some of the few recipes I used: “Turn off smoke alarm.”

            Kim is convinced that my kitchen struggles are deliberate – that my dangerous incompetence is designed to get me out of kitchen work. Not so! My incompetence is real! It was Kim who encouraged me to work as a Starbucks barista, explaining to my manager that I am “kitchen challenged,” and barista work might help with the problem. It has, for I am now in charge of making coffee and, when I can get the espresso machine to work, cappuccino. 
            But that’s not all! I can peel carrots and potatoes, and I can shave cabbage to make coleslaw. I fill glasses with water when I set the table, and I’m a whiz on the toaster. When Kim is having sore back days (sorer than usual, that is – her back is always sore), I will remove heavy items from the oven. On occasion I am asked to use my most impressive kitchen skill – reaching things on high shelves. And when Kim is working on a particularly complex meal and I ask if I can help, she often answers, “Yes, by staying out of my way.” We do what we can.
            Meanwhile, Kim is trying to train me to cook in the event that she dies before I do. She suggests that I learn to cook five easy meals (perhaps a nod to Jack Nicholson in “Five Easy Pieces”). Five seems a bit unrealistic at this point, but I think I can do it if Kim is standing next to me.

Thursday, June 21, 2018


            I worked as a volunteer writer for the Transplant Games of America and World Transplant Games, interviewing competitors who had received organ transplants. The stories were posted daily on a website hosted by the University of Michigan, and everyone I met had a life-and-death story. I remember most vividly watching a woman meet the recipient of the heart of her daughter, dead from a traffic accident. She leaned over and listened to the heart beating, tears streaming from her eyes. I was linked to both women, and the daughter, and I always will be. I still tear up when telling that story from 13 years ago. (These games, by the way, still take place annually.)

            More recently, Kim and I volunteered at Paynes Prairie State Park in Gainesville, answering questions about the bison and sandhill cranes while advising visitors not to pose their children next to the alligators. It was rewarding to be part of the park as we learned and taught.  Volunteering also meant an opportunity for Kim to take photos.

Turtle Surfing on Paynes Prairie

These guys were everywhere!

We did this for three years, stopping when we found ourselves assigned to the cash register at the Visitor Center.

            And now we are volunteering in Northern Michigan, doing official monitoring for the Michigan Butterfly Network. In this role we walk a prescribed path at a prescribed rate, noting butterflies that we see. Let me correct that – only Kim can see the butterflies, for my role is “scribe.” For the survey to work from year to year, we use a strictly controlled procedure to more accurately measure changes. I have written previously about how we monitored butterflies at Leonard Preserve in Southeast Michigan. Now we are doing it at the Grass River Natural Area. So far we have not seen many butterflies on this route, but that doesn’t matter, for we are outside, walking together on a beautiful path, and we are part of the Michigan Butterfly Network.

            We are also volunteering with the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, monitoring two Conservancy properties. We mainly go for walks in places where we would probably go anyway, taking photos of birds, plants, butterflies and dragonflies, looking up the ones we can’t readily identify, and then passing the information along to Angie at the Conservancy. 

European Skipper - smaller than you can imagine

Our woods has an incredible variety of plant life, which we document as best we can. This photo includes a Twin Flower.
             It’s good to feel that we are contributing something – to be contributors. It’s also good to NOT be thinking about health issues or delays in the construction of our cottage. As Kim says, “You are forced to see, and that connects you deeply to that specific place.” And again, it’s good to be outside, walking together on a beautiful path. When we take a break from volunteering we do exactly the same thing on other paths where we are not volunteering.

Little Wood Satyr

            The dictionaries I’ve checked mention altruism in their definitions of volunteering. As volunteers know, it’s not so simple. Volunteering involves stepping up to your full humanity to engage with the larger world. Being a witness – to butterflies, bison, or a beating heart – gives us that kind of engagement – call it religious if you will – and that’s a great pleasure. And how can we not feel blessed when this week’s volunteering brought us these:

Scarlet Tanager

Indigo Bunting

Thursday, June 14, 2018


            When I was teaching I often ended the year with a 3-week seminar on ethics. I used moral or ethical dilemmas as starting points, and my emphasis was not on the “solution” to each dilemma, but rather on how that solution was reached. Was it from an authority, perhaps directly from God, or indirectly through what God said to trusted sources, such as we find in the Bibleor the Koran? If it’s directly from God, there might be a problem if God tells someone to shoot up an elementary school. How do we know that God didn’t, in fact, tell the shooter to do that? How can we rely on anyone’s version of what God said to them?
            Do we determine what is ethical based on how our actions would make us feel? Is it all subjective? Evil makes you feel bad – unless you are a sociopath.
            Are ethics simply the customs and norms of a society? If so, then the Nazis were ethical, as were slaveholders.
            We also looked at Utilitarianism, which holds that the most ethical choice is the one that will produce the greatest good, or in some versions, the greatest happiness, for the greatest number.Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, described utility as the sum of all pleasure that results from an action, minus the suffering of anyone involved in the action.Do the math. But what if it makes thousands of people VERY happy to kill one innocent child? Or in one of my dilemmas: Imagine that a terrorist has planted a bomb in a packed Michigan Stadium. It’s due to go off in 10 minutes, and you have captured him and are trying to get him to talk. Your team of psychologists tells you that the only way to get him to reveal the location of the bomb is to torture his wife and child in front of him. Setting aside questions about the efficacy of torture, is it ethical to do so? Weigh those tortures against, say, 50,000 lives and countless injuries, plus the suffering of friends and families of the victims. It is not, I submit, an easy call. Do the math. Students were creative in coming up with ways to fake or simulate the torture to accomplish the goal. I suggested getting someone else to do the torturing and leaving the room.
            I don’t think my Ethics mini-course made my students more ethical, but I do hope it made them humbly uncertain when confronting situations where ethics comes into play.
            And now, as an antidote to uncertainty, let me simplify things by telling you what is ethical and what is not:
·     Be kind to one another. bEllen DeGeneres has popularized this by saying it at the end of every show. Anyone have a better suggestion?
·     Don’t use people.  Emmanuel Kant wrote about the Categorical Imperative, a way of evaluating our actions, not in terms of their consequences (as Utilitarianism does), but on the basis of what reason tells us (tells Kant, actually) is ethical. I don’t understand most of it, but I do understand the word “imperative”: Our ethical sense nudges us to act– we feel that nudge. Kant went on to say, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” 
·     Don’t be an asshole.
·     Be the person your dog thinks you are. This might be OK if you don’t mind bumper-sticker ethics, but do you really know what your dog thinks of you. Kim and I were watching a guy throw his frisbee to his dog, who would repeatedly bring it back to him. After the last throw, however, the dog took a dump in the frisbee while staring at his master.
·     Do unto others as you would have others do onto you.  In practice, this does not seem to mean allothers, because that would make war immoral.
·     Floss.
·     Don’t fuck up the planet. Ethics does not only deal with our actions toward other people. Or you can think of our ecosystem as a person – after all, if a corporation is a person . . .. (I saw a bumper-sticker that said, “I’ll believe a corporation is a person when Texas executes one.”)
·     Do a good deed every day.  I learned this one in the Boy Scouts before my struggles with the Morse Code forced me to leave. I try to get my good deed out of the way early in the day.
·     Don’t let anyone take your guns away.
·     Try, however briefly, to see the world from someone else’s point of view. Kim taught me this: Nobody gets up in the morning intending to be an asshole. 
·     Walk in a good way. We learned this at a talk by a Native American tribal elder here in northern Michigan. He emphasized looking back each day to evaluate how well you lived it. I like his word “walk” – its slowness, its deliberation.
·     Remember your anniversary.
·     Encourage people around you to be ethical.  Doing so will most likely benefit you.

            The trick is to pull all of this together into a coherent philosophical position that helps you know what to do. Maybe Ellen got it right: Be kind to one another. I’m not sure how kindness helps resolve the torture/mass killing dilemma – that’s why it’s a dilemma – but it’s a starting point.

NOTE: All of Kim’s tests, scans, X-rays, etc. were good. Injury time continues . . ..

Doug Reilly wrote:

Reading Ethics reminded me of something I wrote for myself decades ago and have always kept somewhere on my desk. The rainbow photo is added because one of my hobbies is chasing Rainbows, Halos, and Glories. I’ve taken slide shows of these phenomena to our local schools and even showed them to attendees at some of our international safeguards courses. This has given me the nickname, Rainbow Man.

You mention the Golden Rule in your essay; I’d add that every faith or philosophy I know has its own version. Sure, the words may be different, but the meaning is the same.

Nice work, as usual, doug


Thursday, June 7, 2018

Two Flights

I wrote this poem about 30 years ago after learning about monarch migration:


Aloft with monarch
            butterflies heading
to Mexico   dense
                        sheets of velvet
crowd me orange
            black    the wings
soft and heavy
            brushing my flesh
no butterfly cries
                        but repeated wingthuds
            and creaking joints
patches of wingdust
                        perfuming the air

My flock surges
                        faster than clouds
            wings and startling
wings    heads wisely
                                    small   all eyes
and tongue   brown
                                    shriveled trunks
            tolerate my heavy
                        pink laboring flight
they conceal me
                        we become
                                      a butterflycloud
huge as a lake

                        When I start
to tumble    unthinking
                                    wings pummel me
            aloft      is it
the rustle lifting
                        me or vibrations
of color above
                        the invisible earth

Larvae fed only
            on milkweed soured
                        us to the taste
of birds

abandoned chrysalis shiny
                        greengold speckled
            dried in sun
to blow away
                        as wind-dust

Seventeen mariopa trees
            await us

            When I read this in class, a student (who knew) asked me, “Were you going through a divorce when you wrote this?”
            “So maybe you felt a lot of support when you were going through all the changes?”
            I’d never thought of those changes as having any bearing on the poem. I hope that student went on to teach English.

                                                             * * * * 

            This poem is more recent. When we lived in Gainesville, our dining room looked out onto the edge of Paynes Prairie State Park. In the poem I imagine a flight that Kim might be imagining:
The Flight

From your seat before the window you
lift from your chair and take flight
over Paynes Prairie – low at first,
skimming the barbed wire fence,
avoiding the still vacant blue bird house,
then gliding free, twisting over the grasses.
Startled egrets cock their heads
to look up, and sandhill cranes, yes,
crane their necks to see and cry their
raucous welcome to you, the newcomer.

You glide on silent wings over ponds
and marshes, the morning mists lifted,
the sun warm and golden, the breeze
strangely still. You lift yourself on soft
powerful wings, pass the stoic kestrel
standing sentinel on a leafless tree as
meadowlarks rise in alarm, gather, scatter,
and reassemble again in the grasses.
A great blue heron approaches and veers
away. You circle toward distant
trees edging the prairie, but no, in a graceful
turn you swerve back toward the house and me,
my coffee frozen inches from my lips, watching,
transfixed, my wife who was suddenly not
at my side eating breakfast. You skim low over
the reeds to check for frogs, then spy the bulls
ambling into the prairie and can’t resist bothering
them into a small stampede. You swoop
through our window, settle into your chair,
smooth your feathers, and nibble your toast.