Saturday, September 30, 2006

Marriage Secrets

“Our highly-trained staff create memorable teambuilding experiences through a variety of challenges involving poles, cables, platforms and ropes 12-40 feet above the ground.”

It sounded like fun to me and Julie agreed. This morning we will participate in a Couples Challenge Course. This afternoon we’re going to a resort near Phoenix. Temperatures are predicted to be 98-104 degrees so the swimming will be welcomed. We have a DVD for tonight, good books and plans for a fun weekend.

I read in 31 Secrets of Happily Married Couples that happily married couples have just as many problems as unhappily married couples. A difference between the two groups is that happily married couples have more good experiences. It’s simple accounting. Put five good experiences into the marriage account, take out one for a disagreement and four good experiences are left. The account isn’t overdrawn.

It’s so simple. Why didn’t I know this in my first marriage?

Friday, September 29, 2006

A Short and Unfinished History

I’m not proud of it but it happened. It’s a part of me and my history.

I have not the honor but the distinction of being the only student in my senior high school class who failed all eight mandatory book reports and the senior term paper. Other than myself, I don’t think any student failed even one of these.

The school required all seniors to take the state regents scholarship test. Based on my score, I received a full scholarship to any school in the state. After winners were announced, the senior English teacher individually congratulated each student with personalized words of praise. I was the last student he addressed and I still remember his words verbatim: “Well, congratulations anyway.” That was it. No other words. I wasn’t offended. We both knew I was irresponsible, lazy, unmotivated and somewhat rebellious.

The highest grade I remember receiving on a written paper is C. In my sophomore year, I developed a short-lived period of motivation. I still feel a slight sense of frustration when I think of turning in work that merited something better but receiving yet another C grade. I know it was my fault. I had classified myself and disappointed the instructors and they saw me as a C student. I have myself to blame.

During my first year of college I had the shock of receiving an A minus on my first paper. It was an eye-opener. I had begun to believe that outside the subjects of math and science I didn’t have the ability to do better work.

The transformation wasn’t instantaneous. My grades continued to drop. I got one or two failing grades and one morning didn’t get out of bed to go to class. I enlisted in the Army, got out four years later and worked two years before re-enrolling in college. On my second attempt I was a straight A student. What made the difference? Two children!

Education was no longer something to be endured. It was serious work. It was my job. I always sat first row left or first row right to make sure I could see, hear, get hand outs, ask questions and be known by the instructors. On my second attempt at college, I had no scholarships. I had to work enough to take care of my family and pay cash for my school expenses. I still get a sense of pleasure out of knowing that I completed two years of college and three years of graduate school without incurring debt.

After I finished my education and in spite of A grades, I didn’t feel like a good writer and didn’t enjoy it. For twenty-five years I avoided writing whenever possible. Over a year ago I started blogging with reservation. I disliked writing. It’s hard work.

I don’t understand it. Something has changed. I find writing enjoyable. I like it. I wonder why?

The future is inviting. I wonder what new hobbies and interests may grab me. If I can learn to like writing then anything is possible.

Thursday, September 28, 2006


Let's take an intermission from anger, politics and unpleasantness and enjoy a good memory

We stepped into the night and a minor problem.

We were camped in Caprock Canyon and had ridden the motorcycle into Amarillo to see a movie. The sky had been blue so we had no rain gear with us but that wasn’t the problem. Caprock Canyon has seven low water crossings and we were camped passed the sixth crossing. There was no way we could get to our campsite until the next day.

We found a motel, bought toothbrush and tooth paste from a vending machine, hung wet clothes to dry and watched late night TV. We slept late on Sunday morning knowing it would take time for the water to subside and the park crew to clear the crossings. After a leisurely breakfast we rode back to the Canyon. At the gate we learned the crew was finishing up the last crossing. “Perfect” I thought. “We don’t have to cross the last one.”

The first crossing had an inch or two of water as did the second crossing. The third crossing hadn’t been cleaned. There appeared to be two or three inches of chocolate colored water flowing over the road. Not liking the looks of it but wanting to get to our campsite, I decided to give it a try.

As a precaution against splashing muddy water, Julie wrapped her legs around my waist and I held my feet above the water and started to cross at a prudent speed.

The crossing was probably forty feet wide As soon as the rear tire entered the water I felt the front tire settle into about seven inches of silt. We’re not talking about mud or clay. We’re talking about silt just slightly coarser than flour. I knew the silt was there. That’s what the park crew removed with a front end loader. I expected it but I didn’t expect it to be that deep.

The rear tire slipped slightly to the right as the front tire bogged down. “I can catch this” I thought. I planted my left foot with intentions of stopping, having a quick board meeting with Julie and crossing the stream with wet feet.

I’m assuming you’ve heard the saying “slicker than snot on a doorknob”. That phrase applies to the situation. My left foot continued left and the rear tire continued right. No, problem! I tightened every muscle below my waist. “I can hold this!”

I have seen ballerinas stand on the toes of one foot and point the other foot toward the ceiling. I’ve seen cheerleaders do a flip and land with legs spread and the insides of their thighs touching the ground. I’ve wanted to try many things in life but neither of these held an attraction. I can handle pain but I don’t go looking for it.

My left foot continued north and the rear wheel continued south. I tightened my leg muscles more. At this point, things were happening quickly. Given more time, I would have done the math: several hundred pounds of motorcycle plus Julie’s 120-something pounds plus my 200-plus pounds equals about a thousand pounds. Subtract that from the amount of weight that one aging scrawny left leg can hold and ……As I said, things were happening more quickly than I could do the math.

I wish someone had recorded it on video -- chocolate spray rising into the air, the wave created by my left shoulder parting the water, the look on my face as I kissed my left knee, the pain as parts of my anatomy tried to decide which leg to follow.

Did I mention that Julie had closed the shield on her helmet? She raised the shield and I gazed into her clean smiling face. I raised my head from the stream and she laughed at me as mud dripped from my beard and I looked like a chocolate Easter rabbit sans ears.

She walked the rest of the way and I rode without incident. The pain wasn’t that bad. I was bruised from the back of my left knee up to – well, up all the way. It was a beautiful mottled blue, green, purple and black mural.

We washed ourselves then we washed each other. We washed the motorcycle and laughed. Two years later I took the motorcycle in for service and when I picked it up the mechanic mentioned the mud behind some parts he had removed temporarily. I’m still finding mud and it always brings a smile to my face.

I enjoy experiences, fun times and good memories. When I feel a little blue or get frustrated by something, I take a break and remember good times. I count this spill among my good memories.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Angry Post

The notice included the word “aggression” and that caught my interest. The University’s office of Employee Assistance and Wellness was offering the opportunity to participate in a men’s group that would meet for ten weeks. Aggression was listed as one of the possible subjects.

Why am I interested in a discussion of aggression? I’m interested because I feel it strongly. I don’t like what’s happening in the US. I’m angry. I'm a male and I have agressive instincts.

No one is torturing me but when prisoners are tortured then I take it personally. I’m not trying to escape justice and can’t understand why anyone would suggest that a person should be exempt from prosecution for crimes committed. I believe in honesty and get angry when politicians distort the truth.

I took a happiness inventory recently and scored higher than seventy-some percent of others with whom my results were compared. I feel fortunate. I own my place debt free, have an excellent marriage, am healthy, have a good job, make a decent salary, am in the process of going to an eleven month work contract, wake up each day with a sense of hope and feel optimistic about my personal future. I’m happy in my personal life but that’s no refuge from dishonesty or escape from social responsibility.

During a discussion among the men’s group the leader summarized my feelings as powerlessness. He’s right. I feel powerless. I can’t change things.

Tonight is the fourth meeting of the men’s group. I’ll hear profanity, honesty, pain, fear, hope and other emotions. I’ll leave the meeting feeling better because I’ll know there are others who struggle with the same things. The world won’t be different. The war will not end. Torturing will continue. Freedoms will continue to vanish and species will become extinct but I’ll feel a little better for a little while.

Strange! Some people choose alcohol, others chose some drug and I choose talking and writing but none of them solve the problems and end the injustice.

What’s the path to a real solution? I wish I knew!

I'm no longer proud to be an American. I feel guilty by association and that makes me more angry.

There's something worse than anger -- apathy. I prefer the feelings of shame and anger.

Two nights ago when I wrote the original post the emotion, the anger and some profanity came through loud and strong. Above is the revised and sterilized version. Perhaps I should have used the original.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Anger and Discretion

The offense occurred about thirty-six years ago and I no longer remember what it was. It wasn’t important but the lesson I learned was important and has stayed with me.

I was in the Army and two men did something foolish, destructive and insensitive. A vague memory links it to some act of vandalism in the chapel but I could be mistaken. I worked with a First Sergeant who was a small chain-smoking man from Tennessee. When he heard about the offense, he immediately became angry, vented his anger with profanity and ordered another soldier to find the two men involved and tell them he wanted to see them the next morning at 6:30 AM. After the messenger left, he turned to me and another soldier and said, “I’ve learned not to react from anger. If possible, I put things off until I’ve cooled down and can handle them better.”

This memory surfaced last night as I wrote for today. I’ve had an idea for about a month and started writing but I was writing from a perspective of anger. I finished writing but wasn’t satisfied with it and decided to lay it aside until this morning. The sun’s not up yet but in the light of a new day I think it’s best to wait, become more objective, rewrite and use it later.

I wonder if the First Sergeant is still living. If so, he would be about 80 and, of the thousands of soldiers he met, he probably doesn’t remember me but, I remember him. He taught me by example how to handle anger with discretion.

Thanks, Bobby. I hope life has treated you well.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Yellowstone Memories

The background noise of mosquitoes was suddenly shattered by the splash of something crossing the river. I instinctively dropped my book to my chest and looked not toward the noise but toward Julie to see her reaction. “That’s something large!” she said.

We were backpacking in Yellowstone National Park and had camped near the Firehole River. In order to get a backcountry permit we had to watch a video that focused on safety in bear country. I chose not to spend $50 on bear spray but asked Julie’s opinion. She agreed with my decision but asked for my metal cup and tied it with her cup on the outside of her pack to make noise as we hiked to our campsite. That was an indication of some concern on her part.

It was June 21 and the afternoon had been partly cloudy. As we hiked up the Firehole, I felt a sense of elation. A backpacking trip topped my list of things to do. I wasn’t interested in seeing Old Faithful. The lodges held no interest. I wanted to sleep in the backcountry and awaken to a new day some miles from the nearest road.

We arrived at Lonestar Geyser as it was erupting and slowed our pace to watch the steam phase of the eruption. Could it get any better than this? We arrived at our campsite under threatening skies, located the bear pole where we would hoist our food to safety and selected a campsite farther on near a small bend in the river.

We erected the tent and moved back to an area to cook supper. A slight shower had begun but it wasn’t enough to deter millions of mosquitoes. We had anticipated mosquitoes and had nets to protect our exposed necks and faces. Get a spoonful of food, left the net with the free hand, take a bite and pull the net back over the jacket collar.

The rain quit and we explored some geothermal features in the area. Steam rose from bubbling pools and a small warm stream lined with water lilies flowed into the Firehole. Gases escaping from some features made regular rhythmic noises. One emitted a burp-burp-burp-burp sound that reminded me of an old lawnmower trying to start but never quite making it.

The clouds thinned and an unexpected but welcomed sunset spread across the gray evening sky. We retreated to the tent, evicted all living winged creatures and began reading. It was about 9:30 under a golden twilight when we heard the splashing of a large animal crossing the river.

As Julie said “That’s something large” I sat up to look out the mosquito netting on the tent. Was it crossing the river toward us or moving away? It sounded as if it was close. Was it a buffalo? Was it a bear? Perhaps bear spray would have been a good idea. A memory flashed through my mind. Years before, while in Alaska, I had read about a man who backpacked throughout the Artic without a rifle. He said he always carried a knife in order to cut an exit out the back of his tent in case a bear was trying to get in. I didn’t have a knife within reach.

In my mind I saw a large grizzly in full stride moving directly toward us. Honestly, I had mixed emotions. In some ways I hoped it was a bear. That would be a fantastic adventure. Adrenaline rush aside, I thought about Julie and felt a moment of fear for her.

I looked out and stared directly into the eyes of a startled elk! Three elk were crossing the river about 100 yards opposite the tent and were moving away from us. It may not have been a bear but it was an exhilarating sight.

I never have trouble falling asleep when camping so it wasn’t long before I drifted into sleep while listening to the sounds of the river and distant thermal vents. Some time later, I began to feel pain. It was a pain that wouldn’t go away. The temperature had dropped and I didn’t want to leave my sleeping bag but the pain kept growing. When I was young I could sleep all night without being beckoned by the call of nature but I’m no longer young.

I crawled out of the tent into a surreal world. Everything was covered with heavy dew that reflected star light like jewels. The sky was clear and thousands upon thousands of stars seemed more crisp and more numerous than I remembered them as a young boy with good eyesight. The trees were black and silhouetted against the glow of the Milky Way and seemed to lean out and be distorted as if seen through a fisheye lens. The trees were pointed and were holding the heavens above them in some form of exultation. I was wearing only shorts and the damp cold air added to the shock to my senses.

Throughout my life I’ve had several memorable experiences like this. I treasure experiences where the beauty around me was literally breath taking and overwhelming – experiences that make my chest swell as if it is so full of joy that it will burst. There was a snowy day in my early teens when I was tracking a deer through a winter paradise. There was an October day in Kentucky’s Bernheim Forest when the gold, orange and yellow of the trees seemed unbelievable against the perfect deep blue of the sky. There was a Sunday afternoon when I was fishing on the west side of the island beside my house on the Green River and a light rain made the world perfect and clean and healthy. There was a fall day on the back side of the farm when I was cutting firewood and felt so alive and grateful to be standing in the midst of a pasture of yellow and purple flowers. On this night in Yellowstone, these and other memories moved aside and welcomed this new pinnacle memory and I became richer

It’s for experiences and memories that I welcome rain and mosquitoes and muscles fatigued by carrying a pack. I don’t consider myself to be a religious man but I feel a sense of gratitude for the wealth of memories that I’ve acquired and the experiences that make me feel blessed. (June 21, 2006)

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Great Grandfather

Great grandfather, what did you do when the climate was changing and people were dying in Iraq and the evil ones controlled the government and freedom was being eroded and multinational corporations were making serfs of all humans?

What did I do? I was looking for a space.

A space?

Yes, a space. You see, for hundreds of thousands of dollars we had purchased software from this huge corporation. The software contained errors and, because the corporation didn’t provide good customer service, it was my job to fix the problems. I was looking for a space. Here, let me show you.

ID: 12345
Name: John Doe
Career: Undergraduate

Do you see the space? The 1 should be over the J but it’s not. It’s one space to the right too far. I spent hours searching through thousands of lines of an old language called Cobol looking for that darned space.

But, great grandfather, how did that make the world better?

Better? Well, maybe it didn’t make it better but it made it neater. Everyone said my job was important and they insisted that I remove that offending space.

Great grandfather, when species were going extinct and freedoms were being taken away and religious people were killing one another, did you feel good about your job and what you did?

That’s two questions. Did I feel good about my job? I felt OK about my job. I tried to be honest and thorough and a good worker. Did I feel good about what I did? Um..? What did I do? What could I have done?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Morning in June

The pick color had evaporated from the mountains and the early morning sun was bleaching the peaks and turning the lingering snow white. The lake was void of a breeze and was starting the day as a mirror that reflected the Tetons and magnified their grandeur. An occasional splash from a jumping fish added exclamation to the songs of the birds. I passed a father with his son and daughter as I left the edge of the lake and climbed a rise to look down upon the lake and the reflected image of the mountains. As I distanced myself from the family, I turned onto another trail and found the solitude I sought.

There’s something sacred about mornings. The early light hasn’t been corrupted and holds promise of a day rich with discoveries and unanticipated pleasures. I walked along the shore with camera ready and extra batteries in my pocket but the thought of taking photos seemed obscene. A camera can retain some details better than my memory but it can’t capture the crisp feeling of the air, the sound of my labored breath as I made my way up rises, the sudden rustle in the leaves, the frantic movement of a squirrel that realized it was stranded on a log extending into the water, the smell of the damp undergrowth and the feel of being grateful to be alive and alone in a world of fantastic beauty.

After exploring two ponds near the lake I found a trail that appeared to head toward the campground where Julie would be waiting with hot coffee, breakfast and a smile.

Life is always good but mornings filled with hope and anticipation are the best. -- June 18, 2006

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Dial 202-456-1414 and ask for George

“Enter your phone number first!”

The customer punched in her phone number and then swiped her debit card. The next customer moved forward and the clerk said “Enter your phone number” and the customer complied and used a debit card.

Why is a phone number required? As I stepped forward holding seven one dollar bills, I asked the clerk why customers were being asked to provide phone numbers to use debit cards. “Oh”, she replied “they are thinking about building another store in town and they want to know if there are enough customers.” I looked at the display on the credit/debit machine and it instructed “Enter Phone Number”. Noticing the cash in my hand, she said the magic words. “You're supposed to enter a phone number even if you pay with cash.”

“On a cold day in hell”, I thought. This doesn’t make sense. This place is automated. They know how many customers come in and when. Each receipt has a timestamp printed on it.

Julie was with me and I think I saw her get a little tense. She’s a constant reminder to be pleasant to clerks – or else. Or else we’ll have ‘The Discussion’ when we get in the car. I always agree with her – “No, they don’t make the rules; yes, they’re just trying to make a living”. But, dammit, who can I complain to? The CEO of this place is probably thousands of miles away. If I can’t speak out then my only choice is to say “Thanks, but I’ll take my business elsewhere.”

Fortunately, as I was pondering how to respond, the clerk added the words that gave me an easy way out. “But, you don’t have to give your phone number if you don’t want to.” I said no, paid and left.

Americans mystify me. Why would anyone want to give a corporation their phone number so they can determine where they live, how much they earn, how they spend their money – all with the intent of selling consumers more, more and more. It makes about as much sense as buying a shirt with a corporate logo imprinted on it. Why would a customer pay to advertise for a business? The business should pay us to wear the shirt with their advertisement.

Most (all?) grocery stores in town have a “club”. Present your “membership” card for a discounted price. Yep, that “membership” card contains enough information to draw a big bull’s eye around my wallet, debit card, check book and credit card.

I thought this was the good old USA. Go into a store with cash, make a choice, pay, say “thank you” and leave. I’m getting the feeling that we’re no longer considered citizens but consumers.

The real issue for me is how to live in this world while protecting my independence, treating clerks with courtesy and respect and maintaining a healthy blood pressure.

I’m ready for the next time someone asks for a phone number. I’m going to give them a smile, a pleasant tone and say “202-456-1414”.

In case you’re wondering, that’s the number for the White House. Let them talk with George.

Oh, and by the way, all of my grocery “membership” cards are fake. They don’t contain my name. When the clerk says “thank you Mr. Nelson” I just smile and get a small sense of satisfaction.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Busy Summer

Where did the summer go? I worked on a few of the items on my list:

• Moved and expanded our solar clothes dryer (aka: clothes line)
• New refrigerator – slightly larger and uses less than half the electricity of the old one
• New high efficiency washer – 14 gallons per load as compared to 50 for the old one
• Rebuilt water trailer
• Graded around the cistern and put in a circular drive
• Relocated and extended fencing around the house
• Painted the house and both out buildings
• Built a stone patio
• Built a stone walkway (almost finished)
• Replaced the guttering on the house
• Moved house guttering to both out-buildings
• Installed rain water harvesting on out-buildings
• Bought another cistern to be used for harvesting rain from the house (not yet installed)
• Bought materials for a grey water system (to be installed)
• Finished some trim work on one out-building
• Built and tested temporary shutters for the house for passive cooling
• Built a deck on the house
• Installed wire fabric to deter burrowing animals
• Tested drip irrigation and a timer
• Built a solar cooker
• Replaced the pressure switch on water pump
• Tested a film on south facing window
• Bought an experimented with an infrared thermometer
• Added more bird feeders
• Installed cages around Russian Sage that were being eaten
• Located and installed a quick disconnect on water tank

The weather is changing, the days are getting shorter and I’m looking forward to returning to this blog and renewing some friendships with fellow bloggers in California, Canada, Australia, the UK, Florida, and other parts of the US.