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Dancing in the Sky

March 16th, 2009

It was so warm out this weekend that it felt like the middle of spring.  We’re not there yet of course, after seeing the low 20’s last week.  Many trees and shrubs have begun to leaf out, and hopefully everything hangs in there as winter gives way and the days grow longer.  Will we have another hard freeze?  I hope not… with luck we may actually have a little fruit from our small orchard this year.

Meanwhile I’ve enjoyed watching some of our avian friends returning, including several juvenile Red-tailed Hawks.  

red-tailed-hawks

I remember writing two years ago that I worked with raptors quite a few years back.  I worked alone as a biological research technician in a southern swamp for a few splendid seasons… big words for someone who ran through fields and forests gathering data. 

It was a great job, with some key prerequsites, like being okay wading through waist deep water with snakes drooping from branches above looking down at you.  For me it was an amazing experience though- I saw the natural world first hand and thought about what I wanted to do with my life.  It was quiet yet engaging work, and afforded time to watch the unfolding rhythms of nature as the seasons changed. 

In this case my charter was to follow a nesting pair of hawks around most of the day for three overlapping seasons.  Using radio tracking equipment I could tell when they were flying or sitting, and then go find them to observe what they were doing.  Sometimes I would climb trees adjacent to their nest and watch them feed other critters to their young fledglings, witnessing the stark realities of nature each day.  I remember seeing otters in the wild for the first time in my life.  While abundant in Missouri now, they were rarely seen in those days. 

One time I was canoeing down a swampy canal in the middle of the bottomland forest, peacefully watching those snakes glide off branches into the water.  And then while feeling totally relaxed, a loud “Smack-splash!!!” from a beaver’s tail and I nearly jumped out of the canoe.  The beaver non-chalantly climbed up on the bank and sat there licking it’s fur and watching me glide by.  How I wish I had taken a camera along on so many of those days.

On another warm, early spring afternoon in that watery place I watched in amazement as a pair of bald eagles performed incredible aerial maneuvers in preparation for the mating season.  It was like nothing I had seen before- I was enthralled, watching them zooming, climbing and diving towards each other with talons extended, and then doing quick snap-rolls as they passed while their talons touched briefly.  

I had dreamed for years as a youngster of learning to fly, and not just anywhere… watching the eagles was incredible and at the time seemed like a vision or a sign to pursue those dreams.  Through a series of fortunate events, I then met someone and took a job as a graduate assistant at the University of Missouri, studying and teaching biology.   There I was, barely out of college, teaching science labs to over a hundred undergraduates.   That was a wonderful, humbling experience in itself, and as lifetimes go I ended up meeting someone else and fumbling furiously towards my dreams to fly. 

I ended up spending the next 20 years traveling around world, flying off aircraft carriers for much of it, and seeing places and things I would never have believed.  I haven’t written or talked about it much because it was a different chapter of my life.  In some ways it’s almost like a movie that I saw long ago, and wonder about at times.  Parts of it are difficult to share, and others better left unsaid.  I enjoyed most of it, especially the sights and sounds of lives and places I didn’t really understand.   It fulfilled a desire for service and I loved the flying immensely- in many ways it was hard to let go.  Flight became an extension of an earthly life- literally to see new horizons in a given day.  Much more, but with that said I think I’ve been looking for a way to share some thoughts about those days or places, and maybe where I’ve held back at times.  I’m not really sure yet.   But when I might write about something far away, you’ll have some idea of how I got there.   Now we’re here, on a new journey for the past few years and it’s a chance to explore a whole new set of dreams.

I was thinking of that day long ago watching the eagles when I saw a pair of Red-tailed Hawks last week.  They perform similar flight maneuvers and I watched as a juvenile pair circled high above the pond calling to each other.    Here’s a fuzzy picture of one several hundred yards in the air as it dropped towards another hawk. 

red-tailed-hawk-behavior

They too extended talons and flew at each other, but it wasn’t quite as dramatic as that day with the eagles long ago.  Still it is something to watch and I can only wonder why they seem to love dancing in the sky?  Are they showing what good hunters they are with legs and talons thrust out aggressively, kind of “showing their stuff”  to their possible mate?  

Their flying antics continued for about five minutes, with shrieks and cries, and then all at once they separated and headed back over the woodlands towards their nesting site.   One of them dipped quickly toward the treetops, wings tucked and whispering quietly as it flew past me just a few meters away. 

red-tailed-hawk-juvenile

Birds, and raptors especially, have always been part of my life.  I’ve watched and studied them since my school days and there’s a connection with flight that I’ve felt closely through the years.   I loved the change that flying provided too- a physical change of perspective as well as a mental shift.  You can be sitting on the ground, shrouded in fog and drizzling rain… and a minute or two later you burst forth through clouds into a shimmering sky,  with sunlit mountains of white all around. 

Isn’t life often the same?   Stretches of rain and gray at times, and then days filled with light and promise where we embrace our surroundings, finding it a sheer joy to be alive.   We’ve all lived lived through such challenges and bright days.  And I believe we have a great deal of choice regarding whether it’s the gray skies or the sunlight we see the most.  It’s neither the weather or our eyes that really tell us so.

Journeys Through Life

March 2nd, 2009

Time to catch up after a busy weekend- and it has been a cold few days!  The signs of spring continue to surprise me… this morning a red-winged blackbird had joined the gathering of birds at the feeder, returning to its summer breeding site near the pond after a winter somewhere else.  Technically they are listed as year-round residents in our region, but all I know is that by October-November they are gone, and don’t return until March.  I wonder where the blackbird has been and how far the journey was.  It could be just down the street for all I know, but I suspect the southern wetlands of Missouri and Arkansas provide more comfortable winter accomodations. 

The chores are piling up and now it seems spring is coming almost too fast.  Ornamental grasses sure are beautiful to look at but not much fun to cut back!  I need to come up with a better approach- I straddled this big clump between my legs and used a little chainsaw to cut through the heavy stalks.  

Cutting ornamental grasses

We’re almost out of wood completely after such a cold winter.  But that’s a good thing- I don’t like to keep old wood around because it attracts too many critters that live in or around woodpiles.   The next few months will be time to remove several dead trees on the property and to begin the wood-cutting cycle once again.  Of course we’re still thinking about what to put in the garden, and that’s kind of exciting.  If we were really on the ball we’d be planting starts from seeds… haven’t done that very successfully before.  Do you buy starts or seeds each year?  Somehow I like wandering around the garden center looking at little plants, but maybe we’ll try to plant some seeds this week indoors too.

*****

Over the weekend we had our annual cub scout birthday banquet and ceremony for the kids- they received their advancement badges and other awards, and performed some really cute skits.  Makes for a long day, but seeing the excitement and pride in their eyes is so worth it.  We did have one young scout drop out last week and I was disappointed.  He was new and only made a few meetings.  He didn’t really spend enough time participating to have a rounded view of the activities we do, most of which involve character development and learning practical things.   We also play games and have craft projects, and the kids usually love it. 

His mom wrote me an email and said he just wasn’t comfortable and she was disappointed too.   As the den leader, that gave me a little pause for reflection on how to work with the kids in a more constructive or well-rounded fashion.  We started off with about 6 kids last year and now have 10 scouts participating.  I understand people are different, but I wish I knew what I could have done to help him enjoy the experience more.

I also find myself thinking about how we close off opportunities in our lives for one reason or another.  Looking back I’m sure I did that at times when younger, and probably still do it without realizing it.  We put so much “in the moment” especially where emotions are concerned, and if not careful our perceptions are colored in ways that really may not be accurate. 

What if you never knew that green or fall-colored leaves existed? 

Reflections on Fox Haven pond

When we make decisions based on those short-term perceptions or emotions, we may be doing so without seeing what’s really going on.  Sure that could be a good thing at times, keeping us out of trouble or on the right path as we trust ourselves and our intuition.   But are we semi-rational creatures subject to changes in our emotions that affect our experience each day?  Or are we emotional beings that use intelligence and rational thought to help navigate through life?  Depends upon the person perhaps, but certainly a little of both. 

More often I think we miss embracing the fullness of life, especially when we are personally or physically challenged, and we have that little voice inside that knows we’d like to do something, yet we keep making excuses… but, except, I can’t, if only, I wish, I don’t know how, maybe…  and we hold ourselves back.  

I was fortunate as a youngster to have a wonderful family that supported many opportunties to explore and grow.  I also had many incredible experiences and met other people who challenged me in ways that proved very helpful.  At some point in my life I realized there were few absolutes or real answers, and that Emerson had it right when he said that, “Nothing at all will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be removed…”     

So between the fear, the misgivings and the uncertainty, I began to question and seek what it really was that I wanted in life.  All I knew was that some things make you come alive in thought, vision and experience and we are not on this earth forever.  All I know is we can be active creators of our experience- we can be whatever we want to be in our lives!  And that questioning and exploration has been the seed to every aspect of growth… coupled with a willingness to learn of course.   It’s not a journey that ever really has a destination.  Just when you think, “I’m here! I finally made it…” life will surprise you and present some new challenge or opportunity.

The older I get I find myself both more and less certain about many convictions once held.  I feel humbled by so many things, and thankful for so many more.   I walk outside and breath the cool, fresh air of the morning, and hear the birds sing.  It’s a new day,  and regardless of the challenges that exist I feel such an enormous sense of appreciation.  

Cub Scouts

I watched our son fixing his bowl of cereal this morning, and running around feeding the animals.  Is there a pride greater than that of a parent for a child?  I don’t really know.  He carried the flag through the audience before the cub scout ceremony started this weekend.  It was his first time to do that- and afterwards I asked if he enjoyed it.  He said, “Uhuh…”  and I asked if he was proud of himself, “Uhuh….” and I told him we were proud of him.  I asked what he was thinking about while carrying the flag, and he said, “Umm… like 250 people were watching me!”   I laughed, understanding the feeling.  “But you did it, didn’t you?”  And he smiled.

Searching for Tocqueville

February 20th, 2009

And now, for something completely different, a reading recommendation.

Do you ever wonder the Why of things?  I do that a lot…

Why?

For example…

Why must our government subsidize- no, in fact reward- poor financial behavior by giving millions of taxpayer dollars to many of those who probably can’t afford their mortgage anyway? Or to the banks who propped up those mortgages?  Okay, we’re all in this together.  My neighbor’s foreclosure affects my financial life too.  But why not offer financial incentives to those who are financially responsible?

Why does the FCC need to hire 4,000 callcenter workers to explain how to receive digital television signals, and yet we expect our citizens to raise children, drive cars and take out enormous mortgages all by themselves?

Why do some people think it’s a good idea to place a device in my car that monitors how many miles I drive, and tax me on each of those  thousands of miles each year commuting across rural America for work, travel or tourism and for such needs as to buy groceries and take my children to school, church, cub scouts and sporting activities?

Why do some people want to restrict free-speech and use national government control to regulate radio content?

Why do some of the most evil people in the world seemingly have more rights and privileges than millions of victims of such evil people?

*******

So many questions.   I find myself recently thinking about what might be the evolutionary path for this Great Republic we call America over the next several decades.  Opposing views and ideologies will always be present in in our political discourse, and yet I wonder if there really isn’t a quiet revolution of some nature taking place?

In considering my many questions, I happened upon an inciteful recent essay by Christopher Oleson, Senior Fellow at the Westchester Institute, who begins by examining that very question:

“Aristotle, in the fifth book of his Politics, noted that political revolutions sometimes take place unobserved due to the fact that they occur over a long period of time through slow incremental changes in the constitution of a political community. This happens, he noted, œthrough gradual relaxation of the principles ordering a community such that œeven a small change can be a cause of revolution. For when they give up one of the details of the constitution, afterwards they also make another slightly bigger change more readily, until they alter the whole system. Thus, in the end, there comes into being a noticeably different political order without any outward subversion of the official system of government.”

Mirroring my own feelings, he goes on to describe and contrast viewpoints written by Alexis de Tocqueville from Democracy in America.

“Rereading Tocqueville™s magisterial account of the American democratic experiment recalled this [Aristotle’s] passage to me, for after having put down Democracy in America, I could not quite shake the feeling that something like what Aristotle was describing must have taken place with respect to our own political institutions.” (Emphasis mine)

Maybe this does not seem very engaging, or too extreme to consider in some way.  But I would offer to you that indeed this is exactly the question we should be asking ourselves right now, especially considering our individual political views and ideologies.   The heart of my own yearning for understanding involves precisely what Mr. Oleson has centered upon: The consquence and long-term ramifications of the evolution away from local, or small government, and the migration to a larger national or central government.  Oleson continues by describing what Tocqueville cited as crucial:

“Tocqueville™s America looked somewhat different, and this difference, he argued, was a crucial bulwark of American liberty. I am referring to the importance of the reality of local government if the people are to be authentically free and self-governing. Tocqueville referred to local government as œthat fertile germ of free institutions. œThe strength of free peoples, he wrote, œresides in the local community. Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they put it within the people™s reach; they teach people to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it.

As Oleson further describes the local experience of freedom, I find myself very much wondering how America today has moved so far, so fast, from the roots of our liberty:

“In other words, the experience of local and participatory self-government, of citizens of a local community governing and ordering their own affairs in matters truly significant to their common good, is the seedbed of a free society. It is the primary place where a free people exercise their liberty, form socially significant associations, and deliberate together so as to rule themselves in accord with what they think it means to live well.”

It is frustrating, nay, disillusioning to me to see the centralization of democratic power in the national government, and the centralization of media control happening with the major media organizations and communications structures.  The internet has certainly helped foster individual retention of expression, and yet I think we have lost something along the way of the nation’s ideals and founding principles.  I fear a loss of real and ideological liberty, and our understanding of what freedom is, to the continuing detriment of what this nation will become many years from now.   Oleson continues by describing Tocqueville’s understanding of democratic politics of that era:

“This is the meaning, for Tocqueville, of free and participatory democratic politics. And it was precisely because he saw Americans living this kind of local and substantive political life, first in their townships and then in their individual states, that Tocqueville came to regard the citizens of the United States as a genuinely free, self-governing people, and not the passive subjects of a distant, bureaucratic, and centralized power.”

Looking at our personal situation, we live in a rural area, with a vibrant small town serving the needs of the community.  It’s not too far to travel and find more diverse metropolitan pursuits, but we enjoy living where we do, as well as the sense of community and local structures that exist to serve people’s needs.   And yet I find the above passage striking in that we have often assummed our heritage as Americans exists on a similar basis across the nation when in fact it is less and less so.  Oleson also describes a greater fractioning of liberty, where Tocqueville wrote from personal experience how freedoms may erode over time.  

“Tocqueville saw this dynamic at work in the dangerous version of democracy that had taken shape in his own beloved France and warned that it was unfortunately the perennial temptation of every democratic nation.  If not vigilantly resisted, he foresaw the emergence of a novel form of benevolent, democratic despotism, œan immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing [its citizens] enjoyment and watching over their fate.  That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentleIt gladly works for their happiness but wants to be sole agent and judge of it.  It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritancesThus it daily makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rarer, restricts the activity of free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties

Such a vision may seem too surreal or practically extreme on the basis of our individual lifetimes and day-to-day experience.  After all, we seek good!  We want a better country, cleaner air and water, safer streets, financial security, a more peaceful world… we only want what is best, right? To make the world a better place? 

And yet how if not for the action of creeping, extreme and misguided despotism did the horrendous events leading to the Holocaust unfold?   And we don’t even see it!  How do millions perish in Darfur and millions more starve across Africa in recent years under the watchful eyes of the United Nations?   How is the world today being shaped by a desire for social equality?  How are countless millions infected and die of malaria in Africa each year when we have great means to combat it, yet do not for fear of the social environmental consequences of pesticide use?  How do the terms “social justice” or “economic justice” fit into the constructs of a free, democratic Republic based on the rule of law? 

So many questions.  Through the last century- more recently the last decade, we find ourselves struggling through dueling paradigms, a move toward a more European model of social order, contrasted with a struggle for the very roots of the Great Republic itself.   Today we continue searching to define the kind of nation we will be generations hence.   Personally I find myself struggling to understand why people do not yearn more for independence and freedom, but rather seem to embrace government control and sponsorship of the ideas and actions we should be handling at a more personal or local level.  I do not believe that only government can support long term structural equality.   Big (centralized) government has failed and continues to fail, critically, at the individual level.  And it is the individual level at which all else begins.   Oleson describes what, for me, is the chief concern:

“Tocqueville himself was not unaware of the centralizing drift inherent in democratic peoples whose passion for equality outstrips their love of freedom and thus continually increases the centralization of state power. The problem with such centralization is that it robs people of their freedom, saps them of their capacity for self-rule, and reduces them to passive and needy subjects of a vast bureaucracy.” (Emphasis mine)

A centralizing drift… have we not seen that taking place these past years, especially the past few months, and in terms of the financial tumult taking place?  Is this a temporary occurence, or some quasi-permanent shift in the political and socio-economic landscape?  Is it inevitable?

Oleson concludes by considering the political changes we’ve seen and wonders what Tocqueville may have to offer in light of “…the commitments we have lost, and the threat we face now in a looming, omnicompetent nanny state.”

I don’t think we’re quite there yet.  Looming is a good word however, and we’re going a lot faster in that direction than I ever imagined.  Personally I don’t like it, and yet there’s nowhere on earth I would rather live.  It’s true- I’ve seen most of it.  Okay, a very large part of it.  Freedom and the rule of law simply do not exist across the world as it does in America.  Nor do many other things.  Of course for some of you that may be a good thing.  I kind of like the 2nd Amendment for example, but it scares the heck out of folks in some other countries.  I’ll admit America’s not perfect, no nation is.  But I believe it’s the best thing going.

I don’t expect that I may ever find satisfactory answers to my questions.  But I’ll keep asking them.   In addition to asking ‘why’, perhaps it’s time to consider Mr. Oleson’s thoughts toward reading Tocqueville once again.

*******

And as for rewarding poor financial behavior?  Seems pretty simple to my son’s second grade teacher.  She’s got this neat little box in the front of the room.  It’s called the treasure box, and it’s filled with lots of neat little doo-dads that little kids like and, if they do well, they get to pick from each week.  It provides an external reward or stimulus to help motivate young kids to behave and accomplish tasks, especially for those who haven’t developed their intrinsic motivational skills as yet.  Ideally, we hope our kids will grow up and learn right from wrong, how to do things for themselves, to make healthy choices, and because they want to achieve, grow, etc.  Hopefully they grow up to become productive, contributing citizens of our society.  But should we reward their poor choices and behaviors?  No. 

I’m not going to debate the merits of using a treasure box in a classroom to motivate kids, especially since I can hardly imagine what it’s like to be an elementary teacher these days.   But I do like the second grade teacher’s rules…  You don’t go to the treasure box unless you get your work done each week, and you behave properly within the classroom.   Seems to me America’s treasure box is being emptied for a lot of the wrong reasons.

Moments at Home

February 9th, 2009

Sometimes I forget to share the quiet life we lead on this modest page.  But then again, that may be a good thing because it means we are staying busy.  The weekend turned wonderfully warm, as is today, and we accomplished some chores that were long awaiting our interest.   Okay, maybe interest is too strong a word, but at least our care.  

The ice has almost completely melted from the pond, giving way to waves and ripples in the breeze.  I never tire of watching the water.  It speaks to something within, I know not what.  And reminds me of the sea that I spent much of my life upon in years past.  I often wonder how long we’ll be here, and where we might go next.  For myself I hope it is somewhere with a view, and perhaps to share the borders between land and water- maybe the sea again.   For now I feel privileged to share nature’s beauty here in this place we call home. 

As the ice melted this morning a curious bullseye remained floating in the middle of the pond.  If I thought I could reach it I may have thrown a rock. ( Oh! I just saw a bee fly by the porch window… )

Ice bullseye on the pond 

Wandering along the treeline the other day I found some long forgotten fence wire protruding from a large white oak tree.  Pablo writes of such things often, finding them hidden throughout his woodlands.  I was surprised not to notice this one before, and hopefully the tree will continue to grow despite the wounds of time.   Maybe I’ll take a set of wire cutters to remove most of it, yet put a tag on the end.  A woodcutter many years hence might be injured trying to cut the wood if encountering the metal wire with a chainsaw. 

Fence wire protruding from tree

It makes me wonder who put the fencewire there so long ago, and how big the tree was at the time.   I think of the years of my life in terms of the tree’s life, and I feel humbled.   And it makes me think of what interesting times we live in.  The strong warm breezes and sunshine of today will soon give way to thunderstorms and rain.  But the sun will come out again. 

The weather so often feels like a reflection of our lives, or vice versa, and the tumult we see across the globe.  I know it’s only because now we can know so much, so quickly- instead of the small, insulated world outside our door, we see of so many other human events taking place.  I think of the tragedy of the fires in Australia right now, wishing I could help, and of other events on a smaller scale. 

I’ve traveled to many of these places and somehow even though I’ve spent months coursing across the vast Pacific and other oceans, I know that the moments unfolding far, far away are no different than the moments that unfold outside my window…   At its essence, “there” is no different than “here.”   But we humanize, or dehumanize the moment as the case may be.  And I’m very thankful that I’m “here.”

And so we look to home and taking care of life around us.  Often it is all we can, or should, do.   Today, I’ll continue working on that long, unfolding list of projects and humble doings.   And try to enjoy the peace of the world as it is now, here, in this place.   I hear the song of a male cardinal near the treetop saying “I’m here! Lets make this tree our home! It’s almost time for spring!”  And in the distance a redtail hawk soars and calls with the same yearning. 

It will soon be cold again.  But that’s okay, because winter is slowly giving way and I can already feel spring coming.  It always comes.
 

Frozen Ice Circles on the Pond

January 15th, 2009

The cold has arrived, waking this morning to sub-zero temperatures.  Our friends to the north must really be in the grip of this Arctic blast of air- we don’t usually see it this cold in winter.  The kids are totally bundled up for school, and don’t get to play outside in this weather.  Because of the wind chill, quite a few school districts have cancelled classes today.   This makes 20-30 degrees F seem almost balmy by comparison!  I remember as a kid we used to play outside in the snow all day long no matter how cold it was.  If we got a little wet, we’d come in for a change of clothes and some hot chocolate- but then right back outside!  We even went snow camping and backpacking in winter when I was in high school.   I spent some time flying around the Alaskan peninsula in winter years ago too.  That was really cold- we’d wear special suits in case something happened, but to most folks up there this is just a way of life. 

The pond ice has been interesting this week- it almost looks like we’ve had alien visitors making circles in the ice.  I’ve wondered before about why these circles form- any guesses?  Only thing I can think of is that there are warmer upwelling currents of water somehow.    This first picture was from yesterday afternoon.

Frozen circles in the pond ice

This morning they are even more frozen looking, and wider in many areas.  While I was gazing at the pond I heard several sharp hollow sounding expansion noises from the ice- “k-k-eeowp!” is the closest I can think of for how it sounded, but I was amazed how loud they were. I imagine the folks way up north and along the Great Lakes hear such noises all the time.

Ice circles frozen in the pond

I can’t help but wonder how the plants, trees and bees will do in this cold?  It’s part of nature’s cycle to be sure, and if we’re lucky- maybe some of those ticks and chiggers won’t hatch next year!?  I tried to help the bees out last week by putting a foam insulated sheet just under the lid, but above the inner cover.  I cut a hole in it for ventilation- but I had noticed a little moisture under the top wood/metal cover, and moisture is not good for bees.  The bees are so snuggly warm inside their hive that condensation can form just under the top wood/metal cover due to much colder outside air.  Hopefully with a little extra insulation on top of their hive, there won’t be such a cold/warm contrast at the top, and it will prevent condensation from taking place.

Spent some time in the barn this morning and got a fire going just to see how it would affect the inside temperatures.  The outdoor air was around 0-5 degrees F, and after a couple hours the barn showed just above 32 degrees inside.   Still kind of chilly- the stove would probably have to run all day to make much difference, especially since it’s just a metal, uninsulated building.  So I’ll just use it during those times when the outdoor temperature is between about 25 degrees and 40 degrees- and then the stove should warm up the inside of the barn nicely. I hope you are staying warm!

On a personal note, I didn’t write yesterday but it was my Dad’s birthday- he passed away four years ago and I seem to think of these special days more now than I ever did before.  We had a lovely dinner with the young boy’s “Memaw” to celebrate the day, and it was a lot of fun. 

Timeless Reflections, Welcome Thoughts

January 1st, 2009

It’s the dawn of a new day, and a new year.  Amazing how our lives evolve to a seeming time warp of past memories.  One day we look around and wonder, “What happened?!”  And thus it has ever been.  With the transition to a new year I always find myself in a reflective, perhaps pensive mood.  We are reminded of so much, and at times we struggle to understand the change in our lives, or even the passing of the year.

Last night the young boy stayed up for his first new year’s celebration.  Celebration is an optimistic word at best, but we all said farewell to the year gone by and toasted the arrival of the new year.  Considering that we usually fell asleep early the past few years, last night was a big event!  But as we counted down the minutes and seconds, the boy didn’t want 2008 to end.  He didn’t know why really, he just knew that we were saying goodbye to something, letting it go and moving on.  And those transitions are hard sometimes.  

Earlier in the day we said farewell to “Brownie” the goldfish.  Brownie was a gift to him five years ago at Christmas.  He awoke that day long ago with all the fervor of a three-year old, running down the hall shouting “Santa brought me fish!”   It was so cute.  And after starting with three, we now have one large, seven-inch goldfish left.  They grow big in five years. Brownie was a Black Moor- those bulbous, puffy eyed black colored goldfish.  Only Brownie became orange over the years presumably because of the food we gave him.  He looked like an orange ball with fins, and was a really nice fish.  But sometime last year his swim bladders stopped working right and he spent a few hours each day upside down swimming around.  He didn’t seem to mind, and swam upright otherwise.  But yesterday he was struggling on the bottom of the tank, and I knew it was his time.  Still I tried to resuscitate him, pushing him back and forth, coaxing him to live…  but shortly after he gave two big yawning gasps, a flick of the fins, and then he was gone.   I’ve never had a fish die in my hands before, it was very strange. 

Reflections in a winter pond

We took Brownie to the pond outdoors, the grounds were frozen and hard.  Besides we decided, fish live in the pond and that should be a good resting place for them too.   The boy cried and my heart was heavy as we said farewell, remembering our goodbyes to his Bepaw, my father, and a pet cat Sparky in recent years too.   So many memories- reflections of years past, the pace of change and the path of our lives.

Letting go can be hard, especially for those we love.  Even the symbolic change that a calendar represents holds meaning for us, created by man to lend astronomical reality to the measurement of our lives.  Today is really no different from yesterday, except that it is new, and we’re alive in the present.  And with our reflections come welcome thoughts of hope and promise.  It’s a day, the first day of the year, to make the best of ourselves, and continue making those memories we will cherish years from now. 

Benumbed, Biting and Bitter

December 22nd, 2008

Cold that is.  Other fitting synonyms might include glacial and piercing.  Saw 3 degrees this morning, and we’ll go below zero tonight.  Okay, not as cold as you guys are seeing up north, but it’s pretty darn cold for around here!  I’m not sure I could tell the difference between 10 degrees either way- it’s just cold.  The northwest has a huge snowstorm, and the northeast is getting one too.  If it’s going to be this cold I’d like to see some of that snow, but it doesn’t look like we will.  So how does this fit into the whole global warming schema?  Beats me, but right or wrong, I’m sure there’s a rationale for it somewhere. 

I can’t remember the pond being frozen so much in December, but it sure is neat with the reflections.  I wonder what the little circles or rough spots are scattered around the surface? 

Frozen pond reflections in Missouri

The news mentioned that if we get a few more “hundredths” of an inch of moisture this week, it may become the official wettest year in recorded history for Missouri.  That and December may be the coldest month on record in decades.   Isn’t it amazing how the birds and other wildlife can handle the cold?  I topped off the feeders today and they gathered around to enjoy the buffet. 

The windows on the porch were frosted this morning too- first time I’ve seen that really.  And I was looking out at the garden, thinking about topdressing and some clean up, more thoughts of spring creeping in.  Then I took a quick walk around outside, smiling at the futility of such thoughts with the hard “crunch” of frozen ground.  What better way to celebrate the beginning of winter? 

Frosty windows in sub-zero cold

Change Happens, What Do You Do?

December 18th, 2008

Did you ever have the feeling that the things you are really good at are no longer useful?  Or at least less useful?  I’ve been thinking about that lately.  Take spelling for example. You know, spelling words correctly?  I was always a great speller, and memorized words very easily.  But what good is that now?!  Okay, when I write here I don’t have to check spelling very often.  But it’s not a skill that gets you anywhere… nowadays we have “spell checkers” so whether you know how to spell or not really doesn’t matter.  I don’t use ’em, and if I make a mistake here it’s usually because I hit the wrong key.  But dang… I’ve been outdone by technology. 

And typing?  I guess that’s still useful when writing- I can type pretty fast.  But there are voice translators now… you can just talk into a microphone and the text shows up on the screen.  Of course I can’t type worth a darn on little cell phones or a mobile PDA.  Texting?  Okay I can do that.  It’s kind of a pain.  I’m all thumbs.

Oh, and how about knowing where you are?  Some folks are directionally challenged, but in a strange way I’ve always had an amazing built-in compass.  I know where I am, how to get somewhere, and which way is north, south, etc, at any moment in time no matter where I am.  It’s pretty handy when I’m out in the woods in the middle of nowhere, or cruising a tangle of suburban streets.  I may not know an exact address, but I can always find my way around. 

But these days it seems like a pretty marginal skill.  Everyone’s got a Garmin GPS or onboard nav system in the car.  Put an address in there and it’s like being on autopilot.  You can follow the directions of the GPS-thingy, and not have a freakin’ clue where you are.  It’s magic.  My brother and I once drove from the Black Forest in Germany all through the Bavarian Alps… at night, and simply followed “The Voice.”  

Garmin navigating across the Mackinac Bridge

And I can’t complain- we got one and took it on a trip around Lake Michigan.  We found places that we wouldn’t have even known about without the Garmin, and it made the trip both easier and a lot more fun. 

I used to be really good at tuning up an engine, and fixing mechanical things.  I guess it’s still a handy skill with lawnmowers and such, but I can’t do anything with cars and trucks anymore.  They’re all a mass of wires and computers under the hood these days!

And fixing things just isn’t the same anymore anyway.  It’s usually cheaper to throw something away and buy a new one.  We live in a disposable society, and that seems a shame.  If we take care of things, they used to last.  These days they aren’t meant to last it seems.  But I still like trying to make them last… and squeezing every last drop of utility out of them. 

I’ll waste too much time trying to make something work rather than throw it away and get a new one.  One time I “fixed” a $500 CD stereo… it wouldn’t play CD’s anymore.  I took it apart and adjusted and cleaned all the components really well.  Worked like a charm after that.  I was very proud of myself… but these days that same stereo system costs about $50 at the big box store.   Okay it’s a little old.  But it still works!

Oh, and I did fix our bread maker.  One of those neat machines that makes bread?  That we don’t hardly ever use?  A little kneading paddle stopped working.  My stubborn side made me take the whole thing apart one day after it sat on the shelf for three years… I found a nut had worked loose and the bearing was slipping.  That’s all.  Tightened it up, back together and it works like a charm too.   We still don’t use it, but we can if we want to.

Hey but I’m certainly not stubborn enough to take apart a sewing machine pedal and swap electronic components… I heard a guy named Ron did that recently.  If I can find the link to his site I’ll put it up here… :)  But I was stubborn enough to try and fix an old trimline phone in the barn. You know, one from 30 years ago with a really long cord attached to it?  Sentimental reasons… never mind.

But society is evolving.  We have not only become more mobile, but a lot more social.  Just think of this blog.  There’s a lot of folks reading my wandering thoughts who I’ll never know… but we’re all interacting and I’m sharing this aspect of our lives with a bunch of people.  It is pretty cool.  And there’s a few others I think of as friends that I’ve met only through this form of communication, and I really have no idea who they are.  We’re never really “out of touch” in our life anymore.  Between the internet, email and cell phones… we can almost always talk to people half a world away. 

There was a time I remember being at sea, not having a phone or any ability to communicate beyond writing letters.  Letters that took three weeks to get to someone half way around the world.  And to get a response from them took another three weeks.  You could have an argument that took almost a month and a half… on paper!   It’s weird to even think of such times anymore.  We’ve seen decades of change, especially rapid over the last 15+ years, and it’s still changing fast.  It can be hard to keep up with at times.

Clouds in the sky go by 

Did you see the Wall-E movie?  It’s pretty cute, and makes you think about the future.  At one point there’s this self-contained tourist spaceship that was lost centuries ago, and there’s still people living on it that have “evolved” as humans who don’t actually do anything.  They ride around all day on these automated, floating lounge chairs, sucking on milk shakes…. in space.  They’ve become “weight challenged” and look like big ‘ole chubby dudes with short legs.  Pretty funny.   And sad… it worries me to think we’re on that path somehow.  People these days might grow up thinking they don’t have to actually do much of anything.   They’ll either buy something, have someone (something?) do it for them, or throw it away. 

I hope it doesn’t come to that.  I hope we will always value the human endeavor… our collective experience, knowledge, skills and lessons learned.  I’m a Boomer, part of that enormous generation that’s influencing public policy in so many ways these days.  But I’m kind of near the end of that group so I have a lot of crossover between the generations. 

As much as I lament how technological change seems to make basic living skills less relevant at times, I must also admit that those same changes have made our lives a lot easier.   And a lot better in myriad ways, not the least of which includes life-saving advances in healthcare.  

I’m thankful for the reliability of our vehicles, heating and cooling systems and so many of the other basic things we take for granted each day.  In fact I love technology and all the cool things we can do, and there are aspects of my life that exist solely because of the advances in technology… I can only acknowledge it all with gratitude.  And if we need help with something, it’s usually pretty easy to find someone that can help us with it, at least for a price.

I guess I have to admit that I’m getting older. Changes happens, and we can run from it, or embrace it.  I’ve always enjoyed change, and adapted willingly, embracing the wonders of life as it unfolds.  But it isn’t always easy.  I’ve reached that point where I’m finally seeing the wide gradients of change in my life, and it’s kind of humbling.  

Old reading, but one of my favorite essays is Emerson’s Self Reliance.  It bothers me not to able to take care of things or accomplish things independently.  I’m still kind of stubborn with making things work… it’s just the way I am.   And basic skills do come in handy around the homefront.   Knowledge and skills can bring security, especially when the most basic of human needs are crucial to survival.  Maybe I’m still running on vestigial fumes of generations past.   I just like knowing how to do things, and it bothers me not to be able to do them.   I know it bothers other people too… especially as we grow older.   And if I lived somewhere that I didn’t have to get to tinker with things, I wouldn’t really know what to do with myself.   One of these days that will change too.  I just hope not too much.

Ramblings and Remembrance

December 7th, 2008

Brrr…. okay, winter seems to have come early this year.  Getting a lot more done inside, but at this rate we’ll be through our woodpile by the end of January.  Which is a good month and half sooner than expected!  That’s okay, just means I’ll need to split a little more on the nice days; most of it is seasoned already as unsplit rounds.   But next year?  We’ll really need to get busy.   The pond has been wavering between ice and open water the past few days.  The boy and the yellow lab are both curious, and sometimes the designs in the ice are fascinating.

Boy and Yellow Lab looking at pond ice

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It’s time again also for the Festival of the Trees!  Mary at A Neotropical Savanna has put together a beautiful theme and collection of shared thoughts relating to the world of trees. 

“This issue of Festival of the Trees comes after a month of autumn color in parts of the northern hemisphere and at the beginning of a month of snow and thoughts of Christmas trees, whether you celebrate it or not. There seems to be something about this time of year that prompts reflection…”

Reflection indeed.  I love reading about the thoughts and creative endeavors of so many others throughout the world.  After all, it’s our shared Nature isn’t it? 

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Time also to wish a hearty Congrats! to all you Oklahoma fans out there for the Big 12 Championship win last night.  We had better hopes for Missouri– and they have been great this season- but the Sooners are almost playing in a different league.  That and the front-end guys on the OK offensive line, I think their height ranges from 6’4″ to 6’8″ with an average weight over 310 pounds!  And that’s college football?!   It’s still fun to see- I enjoy watching a few of the bowl games over the holidays, and catching the spirit of the schools and students.   And lest I forget, Congratulations to Navy on Saturday for their big win over Army.  That’s a game of historical proportions, and many sailors and soldiers watch it all over the world.

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I also send out a hearty Salute to my younger brother, an Army Sergeant Major, returned this week from Iraq and other environs.  Welcome home!

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Speaking of our troops, it is also National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day and we remember the service and sacrifice of so many then and now.   For me the story is unforgettable, as are the lessons it has taught.  But time has a way of fading the memories and trials of generations past.

“You say Pearl Harbor to a lot of the kids today and they ask, ˜Who was she?” Samuel E. Clower

But we lost over 2,400 Americans and almost 1,200 more wounded.  Most of those who were killed died within the first 15 minutes of the attack on the navy ships.  And the long, bloody Pacific War was set to begin. 

“I was looking out to sea at 8 o™clock in the morning and these planes started coming over and I thought, ˜More maneuvers again today on Sunday?™ Jaekel said. œI thought the Air Corps was doing a full attack. They dived and came down and I thought, ˜Oh boy, this looks like it™s real,™ and then I saw meatballs [or Japanese rising sun emblems] on the wing of one [plane] and one of them launched a torpedo. [One plane] came around the channel and it went by where I was and the rear seat guy was pumping shells, shooting at us and I just lied down and tried to crawl up between the ties. [The gunner] was so close that I could see the expression on his face. I didn™t get hit, but the guy right below me was in the phone booth and he got hit and the phone booth just shattered.”    Haile H. œJake Jaekel

And yet the U.S. and Japan have come so far, with a shared vision for world stability and peace, and as staunch allies today.  After spending some time in Japan, I can only embrace our shared history with friendship and respect, and hope that others in the world may look toward peace among nations in the years ahead.   It’s also a fitting weekend to see the nomination for the incoming Veteran’s Affairs Secretary, General Eric Shinseki, as one who will lead public policy administration efforts toward the care of our veterans, and whose own service brings his career- and Japanese-American heritage- full circle.

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Sometimes things never seem to change.  Yet they do of course, and it’s important to find time to appreciate the nuances of life that unfolds around us.  Here the pond’s ice has thawed, been moved by wind and water and then broken apart. At night it freezes again in geometric patterns.

Geometric patterns in the ice

Light and Shadows of Trees

November 26th, 2008

Sometimes the sun and the clouds and the trees and the wind and the water and the shadows and light are just… beautiful.  I was working outside the barn, enjoying the day and busy with my hands and thoughts.  Time for a break and a walk to enjoy some fresh air, watching the sunlight dance on the water.  This isn’t a view that can be seen in the summer.  The leaves are gone from the trees and it’s different now.  Sometimes trees just seem like trees, until we see them in a different light.  And then they come alive, bright and inspiring, or are revealed as shapely shadows.  We get used to things a certain way, and then comes change.  I’m always amazed at what change teaches us.  There’s always another way to see things.  We have much to be thankful for.

 Shadows and Light

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