Farewell Chief

Over the course of my years as a pastor, I have collected the stories of a lot of wonderful people. 31 years ago, I officiated at a wedding held in the church we were serving at the time in Boise, Idaho. I had known the groom since he started high school. He had been active in our congregation’s youth group. Prior to the wedding, I had been driving a van load of youth to a youth event in Oregon when he told me that it was his first time to travel out of his home state. Later, when we flew together to Hawaii for a regional youth event, I was with him for his first trip in an airplane. When he was a senior in high school, he skipped a few too many classes to graduate with his class. During the summer that followed, members of the church youth group took turns checking on him every morning to make sure that he got up and went to summer school so that he could full his graduation requirements. Through the years, the members of that youth group have been close to each other and supported each other through a lot of major life events. Weddings, births of children, and other major life events have been times when I have heard the news. A member of that group had a very difficult birth of twins, one of whom died after a long struggle. The youth group supported her and her husband through that time. When my wife had a close brush with death, the group rallied to offer prayers and support for us even though we had been gone from that church for over 20 years. When a member of the group suffered a stroke while skiing, the group rallied once again to offer support as she journeyed through hospitalization, rehabilitation, and an eventual return home.

Toward the end of next month, I’ll be with members of that youth group once again for a celebration of the anniversary of the couple of that wedding. There will be a party at their home, which is a surprise for the bride. They’ll be set up for a renewal of their vows that will include guests and attendants from their wedding, and I’ll officiate over zoom as we reenact and remember the proposal and the wedding ceremony. I’m really looking forward to the event and reconnecting with the members of that youth group. And if one of you, dear readers, has figured out who this couple is by now, I’m swearing you to secrecy. I know that the bride doesn’t read my journal. Please don’t spoil the surprise.

Not every bit of news of the people I have known is an occasion for joy, however. I remember the wedding of another couple that occurred not long after I began serving our congregation in Rapid City, South Dakota. He was a firefighter. She was a teacher. They had a very clear image of how they wanted their wedding to be. They were a delight to work with because each time I presented them with options they were really good at making decisions together. Like the members of that Boise, Idaho youth group, I got to follow them as they went through their lives together. I was honored to baptize their daughter and then a son. The son was a bit of a scare for us all. He ended up in the pediatric intensive care unit for a while after his birth. When we first met him, he was equipped with a monitor because he would occasionally quit breathing and a prompt response was required. I love carrying infants around the church fellowship hall during the coffee hour after worship and I’ve done it for a lot of young ones. I would carry their son, with the monitor slung over my shoulder around the fellowship hall introducing him to the folks in the church, keeping my eyes constantly focused on the various nurses, doctors, emergency medical technicians, and other first responders in the room so that I would have immediate help should he need assistance while I was holding him. Fortunately for him and for me, he kept breathing all of the time I held him. He grew up into an energetic and enthusiastic carrot-topped young man.

Once, after church, we discovered that their children had been left in the building when the parents had left in two different vehicles. I called their father on his cell phone and asked him, “Where are your kids?” He said, “They’re with their mother.” I replied, “Maybe you should call her.” Within 10 minutes both parents’ cars came rushing into the church parking lot. Each parent has been convinced that the children were with the other parent. No harm was done. The children hadn’t had enough time to be upset or worried. We laughed about that story from that time on.

The groom became the Chief of Fire Operations at the fire department and then the Deputy Fire Chief of the entire fire department. From there he became Acting Fire Chief and finally Fire Chief. I kept his cell phone number in my phone and he was always available for consultation about church and fire department events. When the Covid pandemic forced a sudden re-thinking of church activities, he was a well-educated and informed consultant.

We both retired the same month. He after 25 years of service to the fire department. Me after 42 years as a pastor, the last 25 of which had been in a church in that same town. We talked about our coming retirements during the months preceding the event. Part of his motivation for retiring early was that his brother had suffered a near-fatal heart attack and he promised himself that he would take time for his family before it was too late. I could relate because my wife had had a similar frightening event that brought us to the ICU.

Yesterday, we read the post of the Rapid City Fire Department about the death of the former fire Chief. The news came as a shock. It also triggered a flood of memories. He had lived a heroic and meaningful life. But he leaves his widow and children too soon. His daughter is a senior in high school this year. Our expressions of shock and grief to them are part of what I’m sure has become a flood of sympathy and support. Their journey of grief will be a really tough road for them. I pray that they, like me, will experience the powerful and healing rush of memories. I know they have many, many wonderful ones. I know I will be telling stories of his life for the rest of mine.

Welcome to Canada

On Monday I was sitting at my desk, correcting a mistaken double entry I had made on a spreadsheet detailing our 2022 housing expenses. Susan was finishing work on our tax return and needed to have accurate numbers for our filing. I heard the familiar ring of my phone’s alert that a text message had arrived. It was from our cellular carrier, so I opened the message to read a text welcoming me to Canada. Susan had received a similar message a day or so earlier. It is a fairly common experience for us - being welcomed to Canada when we have not gone anywhere and we are quite sure that we are on the US side of the border. What happens is that when a particular tower just south of our home experiences a problem, our phones automatically search for the next nearest tower, which is on the other side of the border. Way back in 2006, when we were new to cell phones, we experienced a similar problem in northern Montana as we prepared to cross into Canada for a trip. We were making a few calls to family to avoid having to pay extra costs for international cell phone calls when our phones connected with Canadian towers even though we were still in Montana. The result was a phone bill with high roaming charges.

No such roaming charges are a problem these days. We have a cellular plan that allows us to travel to Canada without incurring extra charges. That’s a good thing because we seem to be able to “go” to Canada without going anywhere. Yesterday I read on the web site of a local newspaper that many other people in our county have experienced problems with our particular cellular provider over the past couple of days. The news report went on to say that technical difficulties have impacted general users and also some first responders’ equipment. The result was that some people were having challenges making calls and accessing the internet.

We experienced no similar problems. Our Internet service is not provided through the cellular network. Our phones seem to connect through the Canadian towers just fine when the other tower is not working. Susan has a heart monitor that uses the cellular system that continues to function normally regardless of where we are. Like cell phone calls to 911 the medical device is handled by the first available carrier regardless of which provider we use for our regular cell phone service. However the local outage of cell phone service did affect other customers of the same provider that we use.

The company assured county officials that the problem would be resolved by the end of the day yesterday and as far as I know it was.

We could switch cell phone providers. We have been customers of the same provider and have had the same cell phones since our cell phone provider was sold to the larger company years ago when we lived in South Dakota. However, we have resisted the offers of the company to continually upgrade our equipment and when we do, we don’t finance the purchase of our phones and so have no contracts binding us to their service. We would be allowed to keep our equipment and our phone numbers with our South Dakota area codes if we were to switch carriers. However, so far we have seen no particular advantage to switching even though we have been told that another company has stronger and more reliable service in our particular neighborhood.

I just like the friendly welcome to Canada that I receive without traveling. It seems to be a situation that is unique to our particular location and moment in history. I’m sure the technology will continue to change. I’m also sure that large corporations providing telecommunications services will continue to be bought and sold, changing their names and the services they provide on a fairly regular basis. It has been less than three years since we moved out here and already we’ve had two different companies providing our Internet service.

When our cell phones become so old that they need to be replaced the new ones will undoubtedly be more capable and the quality of our communications will be even greater than they now are.

I’m old school enough that I can remember when long distance calls were expensive enough that we thought twice before dialing someone in a different state. When we went to graduate school in Chicago, we were paying 11 cents per minute for out of state calls on our land line and we used an egg timer to keep from talking too long when we called home to talk to family in Montana. These days my only thought when calling our daughter in South Carolina is what time it might be three time zones to the east. I don’t worry about the cost, because it doesn’t cost me anything to call her. We talk to friends in Australia over the internet without incurring extra charges for our video calls. The times have changed.

I keep thinking how much my father would have enjoyed these small portable devices we carry in our pockets that have more computing power than the technology carried on the rocket capsules that took astronauts to the moon. One of the advantages to being old school is that I am amazed at technological advances that our grandchildren take for granted. They have never known a world without internet connected portable devices. Even though their access to the Internet is restricted because of their ages, they assume that everyone has the capability to connect and that they can talk to people in distant places without any problems. I don’t think they find it at all strange that we receive messages welcoming us to Canada when we have gone nowhere. I know they didn’t understand my joke about the wind being so strong that it blew the boundary line south of our house for a while.

They are, of course, completely used to having a grandpa who is so old school that his jokes are way beyond dad jokes. They smile politely and nod even when what I say makes no sense whatsoever. I really am a lucky guy, who enjoys a little trip to Canada every now and then.

A fish story

A few years ago, after having a small amount of skin removed and my arm carefully and professionally sewn up by a dermatologist, I decided to give up wearing short-sleeved shirts. It seemed like a small price to pay to avoid further run-ins with squamous cell carcinoma. It turned out that much of the problem stemmed from my early days of living on the river with my brothers, dressed in t shirts and cutoff jeans all summer long. Despite the long-sleeved shirts and the fact that I virtually never wear short pants, I had to have another squamous cell lesion removed from the calf of my leg. The two procedures have netted me with the need for examinations by a dermatologist every six months and I’ve got an appointment in a couple of days for that regular visit. The condition is not life-threatening, but the lesions can be very aggressive, so early detection is the key to keeping the condition in check.

During the time following the first discovery of a lesion, which was inside the elbow of my left arm, probably not helped by years of driving with that elbow outside of the car, that I discovered what are called “fishing guide shirts.” The shirts are lightweight, have plenty of vents so they breathe well, are equipped with plenty of pockets, and have sleeves that can be rolled up and secured when you aren’t being exposed to sun. I obtained my first one in Japan, when I simply did not pack enough shirts. It was during the summer, in very hot weather, and my daughter took me to the BX on their base where I selected the shirt. I enjoyed it so much, I went back and bought another at the end of that trip,

Upon my return, my sister presented me with another. She had gone to an event that was promoting wind energy in our home county and the shirt was part of a door prize that she won. It didn’t fit her and wasn’t her style, but I really enjoyed it. It is a very expensive brand that I would not purchase on my own. I’m prone to cheap knock offs. The shirt, however, has the logical of the International Fly Fisher’s Association above the left pocket. I don’t mind the logo nor the conversation it inspires because I have been a fly fisher during periods of my life. I donated my fly-tying equipment to the church rummage sale a few years ago and even got rid of my poles and other equipment before we moved from South Dakota, but I did enjoy fly fishing for many years before I decided that I really wasn’t very good at it.

I learned that I wasn’t among the best fishermen early in my life. My youngest brother and I would head out to the river together. One of us would cross the river at our place and we’d fish our way downstream about two miles to the confluence of our river and the Yellowstone River. Then we’d switch sides and fish our way back up. Generally, at the halfway point, as we were crossing the river, we’d have to switch creels because my brother had caught his limit. Then we’d fish our way back home, during which time I wouldn’t catch any fish and he’d catch enough to have us both limited out by the time we got home. The fish would be cleaned and added to the freezer for a summer fish fry and we’d repeat the process a day or so later.

I love to eat fish and I like the idea of being a bit self-sufficient when it comes to gathering food, but I’d get pretty hungry if I was solely dependent upon my ability to catch fish. Still, I have had some very memorable fishing adventures, including landing a 28-pound steelhead on a north Idaho river one November. I brought a second monster fish to the boat that same day, but it was a native fish and our license only allowed the harvesting of hatchery fish, so it was released. Landing those two fish left me absolutely tired that evening and my arms ached for a couple of days afterward.

But I have never had that super competitive drive that you find in some fishermen. So Monday’s conviction of two competitors in last year’s Lake Erie Walleye Trail tournament makes no sense whatsoever to me. The two fishermen pleaded guilty of cheating and unlawful ownership of wild animals. They have had their fishing licenses suspended for three years and the younger of the pair was forced to forfeit ownership of his $100,000 fishing boat. OK, so I also don’t understand how someone could be enticed to spend $100,000 on a fishing boat, but that’s another subject entirely. I like boats, but there are limits.

Here’s the story that unfolded in the courtroom: tournament director Jason Fisher suspected that something was fishy about the fish that the two men brought in for judging. When they approached the scales, the weight to beat was 16.89 pounds. Their fish topped the scales at 33.91 pounds. A tournament official sliced open the fish and extracted lead balls and filets of other fish stuffed inside the entered fish. The five fish entered by the pair were confiscated by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, along with the boat and their fishing equipment as evidence for their trial. In addition to the loss of the boat and suspension of their fishing licenses, the pair faced trial at which they pleaded guilty. Sentencing for the criminal portion of the charges is set for May 11. Prosecutors are expected to recommend six months probation, but they could be sentenced for additional charges, including attempted grand theft. The prize offered for the tournament was $28,000.

Admittedly, a $28,000 prize is a large sum. Perhaps the pair was planning to use some of the winnings to pay off that expensive boat. However, the math doesn’t work out. Just earning back their investment with tournament winnings seems unlikely, especially since their cheating wasn’t that sophisticated. Why did they cheat? And why did they do so in such a clumsy fashion?

The article I read about the cheating scandal doesn’t say if one of the cheaters had a brother who was also entered in the same tournament.


Over the span of my career, I took a lot of hand-written notes. I had a pocket notebook that I carried when I made suicide response calls. In the notebook, I recorded important information such as the names and contact information of survivors, the name of the victim, notes for my colleagues, and other information. When I met with people to plan special services such as baptisms, funerals, and weddings, I took notes that later would inform the services that I crafted and led. I developed an interview technique for grieving families that helped me repeat some of the important things they told me about their loved one in the service honoring that person’s memory. I jotted notes about the books I read and the research I did. I took minutes at meetings, made lists of tasks to be accomplished, and kept lists of books I wanted to read.

I became a collector of notebooks and padfolios. I still have a stack of half-sheet pads in my study that I use to jot notes when I am participating in meetings. I was slow to obtain a tablet computer and when I did, one of the features that attracted me was that the one I chose has a pen device with which I can keep hand-written notes on the device. During the last few years of my ministry, I used the tablet computer to record hand-written notes when planning services for the church. Over the years, I learned to take notes with a laptop computer, and I used it to take meeting minutes, but it seemed too intrusive when I was visiting with people in more intimate settings such as visiting with grieving people. Somehow the tablet with its pen was a more suitable way to take notes.

I have a kind of hybrid note-taking style. Sometimes I print using block letters. Sometimes I write in cursive. Often I will mix both writing styles in the same sentence.

Here is the thing: I can read my own handwriting. When I go back over my notes, I have no trouble remembering the mood of a meeting or the content of the notes I took. One the last three years, I have worked to clean out old files. I have come across hand-written notes that are decades old and I can still read them and understand their meaning.

I don’t think that my penmanship is particularly neat. In fact, I have a clear memory of when my penmanship took a turn when I was in the fifth grade. Like other people my age, I went to school in a time when penmanship was a subject. We spent school time practicing drawing loops and scrolls and imitating the letters in our penmanship books, matching stroke for stroke until we produces lines of perfectly shaped letters. However, when I entered the fifth grade, I noticed something particularly interesting. My father had partners in an airplane that he operated. One partner was a doctor. Another was a dentist. I admired those adult men, who were educated, articulate, and talented in multiple ways. They were successful in their careers and they were promoters of aviation. I wanted to be like them when I grew up. And all of them had horrible handwriting. I remember studying their signatures, trying to make out individual letters that spelled their names. I copied my father’s signature and crafted my own signature - the one I use today for all legal documents - from the way my father wrote his name. I came to the conclusion that creative, intelligent, and educated men didn’t bother with perfect penmanship - they adopted their own style. I worked on adopting my own style. And my grades in penmanship plummeted. I remember a teacher writing on a paper, “You used to have beautiful handwriting. What happened?”

Nonetheless, the change came late enough in my life that I had already learned to write well enough that I could read my handwriting.

Times change. Our children grew up with access to computers at least from their teenage years. We bought computers for both of our children as high school graduation gifts that they took with them when they went off to college. They developed keyboarding skills and conduct much of their business using computers. They are proficient with a wide variety of electronic communications. I can’t make out our son’s signature at all. I guess I can discern the capital I of his first name, but that is the only letter I can make out. He can hand-write notes that I can read, and I can read the notes he writes in a greeting card, but some of his other writing is illegible to me. This has not affected his career. He is very good and very successful at what he does.

Eileen Page, a handwriting consultant from Massachusetts, who specializes in forensic forgery and suspicious signatures, wrote, “I’m finding now signatures are becoming almost logos and more designs and symbolic than actual letters.” She goes on to say that any lingering reverence for neat penmanship, especially cursive, may have more to do with nostalgia than with practicality.

In 2010, cursive writing was dropped from the common core standards for public education in the United States. Children are no longer required to learn that style of writing in school. There was some controversy over that change in the standards, but it has persisted in schools across the United States since that time. Today’s high school seniors have not been required to learn cursive writing, nor have they had to learn how to read cursive.

There are many famous and important documents that are written in cursive. The original Declaration of Independence was written in cursive, as were other important historical documents. I assume that since cursive writing is no longer part of the core curricula in public schools, reading cursive is becoming a lost art as well.

The invention of the typewriter and the printing press were probably decried as the end of handwriting, as are the technological advances of today’s computers. We receive many notes and letters, including holiday greetings, via electronic communication without any handwritten notes, including signatures. Legal documents can be electronically signed using computer generated signatures.

However, I had the Palmer Method drilled into me at an early age. Despite my somewhat unique writing style, I can still write a neat cursive sentence. These days, I practice a bit more. I hand write notes and cards to our grandchildren. I print for them, but as they grow older, I plan to switch to cursive. It might just teach them how to read an old document some day.

The rhythm of life

In the summer of 2008, our congregation participated in a summer camp that was held on the grounds of Bridger UCC. The congregation was served by Pastor Byron Buffalo, a lay pastor who worked tirelessly to develop programs to support the entire community. Among those programs was a horse ministry that taught participants traditional Lakota values through the teaching of horse training and riding. The summer camp was planned to bring together youth from South Dakota’s cities and towns with reservation youth for a wide variety of shared activities, including sleeping in traditional Lakota tipis, Lakota crafts and games, using bows to shoot arrows at targets, traditional foods, and drumming. The project was funded in part by a Genesis Grant from the United Church of Christ. Although the project eventually gained the Lakota name Wawoohola, when we started planning the venture it had a working title of “Drumming Together.”

The use of drums in traditional indigenous communities is common around the world, with the possible exception of Australia, where there appear to be no drums in traditional culture. There the use of click sticks is the common percussive instrument. Among the tribes of the North American prairies, drums have long been a part of the expression of religion and culture. As part of the process, a large drum, fashioned out of a cottonwood trunk and fitted with heads made of buffalo hide lashed with sinew, and hand painted by a Rapid City Lakota artist, was purchased and used for the camp. The drum sticks were fashioned from straight pieces of cottonwood with covers of elk hide stuffed with buffalo fur on the ends.

One evening a few of the elders of the community gathered to tell the story of the Fool Soldier Society to the participants. They taught the youth a few hand games. As the evening continued, some of the local people tried to encourage the elders to sing. At first the response was that their throats were not up to it, but after a while they gathered the youth around the drum. One of the elders began to speak about the rhythms of the body and the rhythm of the drum. He started by having the youth beat a breath rhythm, hitting the drum in unison at a pace of about one beat every four seconds, or 15 beats a minute. At first the youth had trouble hitting the drum at such a slow pace, but they soon fell into a steady rhythm. As they did, I noticed that we had begun to breath in rhythm with the drum and with each other.

Next we were taught to beat the drum in a heart rhythm which is a beat per second or about 60 per minute. We were taught to place one hand on our heart while we held the stick in the other and beat the rhythm of our heartbeat - two beats, a pause, two more, a pause - thump thump, thump thump, thump thump. To this rhythm, a couple of lines of a song were taught. I don’t know the psychology or physiology of synchronizing heartbeats, but it certainly seemed to me that my heart was keeping time with the drum.

There were many other lessons that I learned at Wawoohola Camp, but the rhythms of breathing and heartbeat have remained with me. I have refined my skill at estimating the speed of music, being able to come up with a fairly accurate estimate of musical tempo ranging from 60 beats per minute to about 120 beats peer minute. This skill has been very useful to me in singing and sight reading music with my trumpet, the piano, or handbells.

However, a few years ago, my doctor made me aware that my heart rhythm wasn’t always as regular as it had once been. I had developed premature contractions that would occur spontaneously and throw off the regular rhythm. As a result, I was put on a common beta blocker medication that relaxes blood vessels. Its common use is to lower blood pressure and improve blood flow. As such it helps the heart to regulate its rhythm. Because I was not, at the time, suffering from high blood pressure, my initial experience with the drug was that it slowed my heart rhythm significantly. At times my pulse rate dipped way below the usual. My doctor was amazed that I didn’t feel light-headed or dizzy. Slowly, however, my body adjusted to the medicine. My resting heart rate returned to a speed that was just a bit slower than the usual 60 beats per minute. After about a year, I got used to the effect and even regained my skill at estimating the temp of music. 100 beats per minute was just a bit slower than double my resting heart rate. As I adjusted to the medicine, I was even able to have the dosage decreased to an absolute minimum.

Then, less than a month ago, I developed atrial flutter. Suddenly, I couldn’t count on my heart to keep an even rhythm. The pace of my heartbeat would go very high and dip very low. My doctors responded with an immediate change in the type and dosage of my beta blocker. Instead of a slow-acting medicine, I was placed on a fast-acting one, taking doses twice a day at a much higher rate than previously. I also was put on a blood thinner to decrease the likelihood of blood clots and stroke. Two weeks after I first noticed the condition, I underwent a heart ablation procedure that addressed the flutter. It has not returned.

I have, however, become obsessive about my heart rate, checking it multiple times each day, sometimes multiple times each hour. I have received prompt and excellent medical care and my heart seems to be behaving correctly. I will continue to have regular follow-ups with an electrophysiologist, and my family physician, and my medications will be adjusted as needed.

I keep remembering the experiences with the drum during the Wawoohola Camp. I listen to the regular tick of the antique clock in my study with my hand on my heart, wondering if I might be able to synchronize the rhythm. So far, I haven’t been successful, but I am learning as my body adjusts to the realities of aging. I know that there is a connection between my heart and my spirit. I’ve sensed that connection in the past. I’m learning to lift my spirit with new rhythms and perhaps even with a new song.

The lessons of the elders continue to teach me as I too become and elder. Just because I may not yet be ready to sing does not mean that there is not yet more music to come. My heart is learning to sing once again.

Northern Lights

Our house is very nearly oriented to the compass. The front door of the house faces south and the back door faces north. Our neighborhood is fairly tight, with the houses pretty close together. As a result, we don’t have a view of much to the north other than the houses of our neighbors. However, on a clear day we can see mountains in Canada from our bedroom window.

The key phrase there is “on a clear day.” We live in a coastal area, with a fair amount of low-lying clouds and fog on many days. Last night, for example, there were rain showers all around and even though it was clear where we were, looking to the north what we saw was mostly clouds.

There is another phenomenon that is a part of where we live. About 35 miles to the north lies the 3rd largest city in Canada, Vancouver, British Columbia, with over 2.6 million people in its metro area. That means that there is a lot of light pollution to our immediate north. When the clouds are low, the lights of the city reflect and there is often a glow in the sky that makes it more difficult to see the stars than was the case in other places where we have lived. When it is clear, the light pollution extends up into the sky even higher and I can barely make out the stars of the two dippers.

That means that our house is a fairly poor place from which to view the Northern Lights. The last few nights have offered a dazzling display of the Lights all across North America. Reports of pink, purple and green streaking across the sky have been recognized as far south as California and Arizona. Our friends in Western South Dakota have posted some beautiful pictures of the aurora.

The event was categorized as a “severe geomagnetic storm” and received the second highest rating in strength, a G4. The strongest would be a G5. A less severe storm continues this weekend. Bill Murtagh, program coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Space Weather and Prediction Center told the BBC, “We got more of an impact than we expected.”

The Internet is full of dazzling photos of the phenomena. Several eruptions on the sun released high energy particles that collided with the Earth’s atmosphere. When these clouds of particles and magnetic fields from the sun encounter the earth’s magnetic fields, the particles interact with the earth’s upper atmosphere and the lights are the result. I saw pictures taken from Phoenix and Spokane. The lights were visible in Los Angeles.

So far, we haven’t seen anything. Neighbors to the east have reported some brilliant displays, however. I suppose that we ought to get in the car in the middle of the night and head out to see what we can see, but it is hard to get motivated to leave the warmth of our house in the middle of the night.

We are currently approaching a point in the solar cycle where more eruptions on the sun will occur. Scientists call this place in that cycle solar maximum. So far it has been aurora minimum here along birch bay on the coast.

I have fond memories of watching the Northern Lights while riding in the car after dark. One evening when we were children, I was mesmerized by the lights as we drove south from my uncle’s farm heading toward home. It was very dark as winter nights can be, but the sky was clear and the stars were stunning out the back window of my parents’ car. I was watching the stars when I first notices the beginnings of a display. Green lights streaked through the sky, growing more and more intense. My father could see the lights in the rear view mirror of the car and commented on them. Later, when I had become an adult, the lights were a much appreciated sight as I drove home from meetings in North Dakota. I learned to look carefully northward whenever driving on winter nights, just in case I might see them. On several occasions, I was granted the treat of the beautiful sight. I know from those experiences that the lights can extend upward high into the sky, so the houses near ours and even low lying clouds to the North should not be blocking the lights. I think that the bigger problem is all the light from such a large city.

I plan to keep checking each evening, however. The coming years are forecast to see even more intense solar activity. Chances of seeing the lights, especially in a northern location right next to the Canadian border, should be very good. More frequent high level solar storms are on the way. I know what I’m looking to see. Patience may be part of the key, but I suspect that heading east to a place that is a little more remote might be the ticket. A short drive should be all that it takes. Just north of us is an almost straight east-west highway that goes for quite a while straight toward the Cascade Mountains. I suspect that it would be a good place from which to see the lights. The promise of a display should be enough to lure me from the comfort of home one evening.

Not last night, however. It is Sunday morning, and I have responsibilities at church today. Even though this should, in theory, be a good time to take a peek, sky watching will have to wait for another night when I have fewer responsibilities the next morning. After all, part of the joy of watching the Northern Lights is the surprise of seeing something you didn’t expect to see. There is no guarantee that you’ll be at the right place at the right time to see the display. We’ve gotten so used to looking at pictures on the Internet, we’ve lost that sense of surprise and awe.

The awe, however, is the reason to look to the skies. The surprise will come in its own time.

The price of clothing

When I was a kid, we had a pair of school shoes and a pair of dress shoes. Our dress shoes were worn to church on Sunday mornings and we lined them up on Saturday evening to be polished. Later, when we were older, we got the job of polishing our own shoes. In the summer, in anticipation of new shoes for the following school year, we were allowed to wear our school shoes as river shoes, meaning we were allowed to get them wet. The large rocks that covered the bottom of the river near our place made it nearly impossible to wade barefoot. shoes protected our feet enough for us to stand in the river for short amounts of time. In the seventh grade, we got a pair of gym shoes, reserved for gym class and extra-curricular sports only. One year, I was allowed to get a pair of cowboy boots for my dress shoes. When I moved to Chicago for graduate school, a new pair of boots moved with me. From that point on, I mostly wore cowboy boots for dress and later as a pastor, I often wore boots as my everyday shoes as I dressed up to go to the office most days.

I remember a family camp when I was about 12 during which there was an optional backpack trip that involved two nights camping in the mountains. The leader of the hike stated that no one would be allowed to go on the hike unless they had boots. I made the hike in a pair of borrowed cowboy boots that were definitely less comfortable than my everyday tennis shoes.

Over the years, I have had several pairs of comfortable hiking boots and I currently own a very nice pair that keep my feet warm in the winter and protected when hiking in rough terrain.

When I entered my sixties, I found that cowboy boots made my feet hurt and I decided not to wear them every day. I continued to wear them on occasions when I wore suits, but these days I find them to be quite uncomfortable and have obtained other shoes to wear with my suits, though I don’t wear suits too often. Most days I wear a pear of comfortable walking shoes that look a bit like running shoes but have deeper tread, more like a hiking boot. When a pair becomes worn, they are demoted to rougher duty such as mowing the lawn or working at the farm and a new pair takes their place.

Not long ago, I ordered a pair of shoes from a source where I had obtained shoes that fit well in the past. They were a brand that I have previously worn. However, when the shoes arrived, they were too small. I returned them and ordered a larger size. When the second pair arrived and were too small, I was frustrated. I decided to order from another source and no sooner has I made that order than I found another pair that seemed attractive to me. I decided that I would get both pairs and keep the one that I liked the best. Somehow I ended up keeping both pairs and I wear one for Sundays and one for everyday, a bit like I used to do when I was a child. The church we now serve is very informal and though I do dress up a bit on Sundays, if I were to wear a suit and tie, I’d be the only one in the church wearing one, so I am quite a bit more casual than I used to be.

As a result, I have been feeling a bit guilty about the number of pairs of shoes I own. I clearly have more than a lot of other people, and perhaps more than I owned at any other point in my life. I don’t really need the number of pairs that I have. My dear wife, who is sensible and frugal, does not own as many pairs as I do. Whatever jokes others make about women and shoes simply don’t apply in our household.

However, there is an article in the New York Times that makes whatever obsession with shoes I’ve developed in my old age pale by comparison. The article is about the “secondhand trade in upmarket men’s wear.” I didn’t even know that there was a secondhand trade in upmarket men’s wear. I assumed that second hand clothing, available at rummage sales and thrift stores was simply a bargain way of obtaining clothing. The article tells about people who sell used clothing at parties, often given in their homes. One 32-year-old “has become the go-to for rare Chrome Hearts, recent-season Louis Vuitton statement pieces and phrased vintage dirtbag T-shirts, building a business that he says has annual revenue in the low seven figures.”

I’m guessing from the article, and from the reported annual revenues, “vintage dirtbag T-shirts,” are going somewhere considerably north of 50 cents, the price for which I used to get t-shirts at the church rummage sale. And the t-shirts I got were in much better shape than “vintage dirtbag.” Those only sold when the buck-a-bag sale was held during the last hour of the rummage sale.

I’m no expert on fashion. I didn’t even know that Chrome Hearts existed before reading the article. One pair of Chrome Hearts was described as “heavyweight black leather cargo pants with exaggerated pockets and built-to-last hardware.” Those sound like they might make a good pair of work pants, though leather can be a bit uncomfortable, especially when it is hot outside. However, these Chrome Hearts pants were listed for sale at $20,000.

I may be feeling guilty for the amount of money I spent on shoes, but I didn’t invest the price of a car in a pair of pants. I still don’t know what a “Louis Vuitton statement piece” is, but I’m pretty sure I’m not interested in buying one. I’m not even going to be in the market for a new pair of shoes for a long time now.

Meanwhile at Starbucks

Before European settlement, the area where we live was roughly within the territory of the Lummi people. Our little bay wasn’t a place of a settlement of indigenous people, but it was a place that was visited regularly to harvest shellfish from the shallow waters of the bay. The lives of the natives in this part of the country were quite a bit different from those of the plains tribes we came to know during our years in South Dakota, as was the process of settlement unique in this region. We still have a lot to learn about the traditional people who have occupied this part of the world since time immemorial.

Northwest tribes developed ocean-going canoes in many different sizes, from small craft for one or two people to boats as large as 60 feet in length paddled by 10 or more paddlers. Traditional boats were formed from a single log, typically red cedar, but sometimes Sitka spruce. As the boats were carved from the log, the wood was steamed and spread to make an elegant shape that could carve through ocean waves.

The boats allowed people to travel across the Salish sea to visit friends and neighbors who lived on the various islands. On a clear day we can see the mountains of Vancouver Island to the west from our bay. Indigenous people were able to paddle their canoes back and forth across the Strait of Georgia. There were significant communities of people living on many of the Islands in the Strait. On the northeast edge of the Island the We Wai Kai Nation was located near what is now the town of Campbell River. They had communities on Quadra Island as well as Vancouver Island. These days there are about 1,200 members of the WE Wai Kai Nation. Like many indigenous nations, tribal members struggle with high unemployment rates, low access to health care, and a wide variety of other social issues.

On Monday there was a special ceremony in the We Wai Nation. Dressed in traditional regalia, women from the nation performed the Tłalkwała or Ladies Dance, while other members huddled for the K'amk'amxwaliła, or Eagle Down Blessing Ceremony. There was traditional drumming and singing as well as the more modern phenomenon of a ground-breaking ceremony with tribal and local governmental officials joining with members of a private corporation in turning spadefuls of dirt in an open lot.

The ceremonies were held to bless the construction of a new building that will house a Starbucks cafe. It isn’t something that has been seen very much in the past. The business is a new partnership between Starbucks of Canada and the We Wai Kai Nation that is aimed at providing jobs in the Nation, helping the tribe to become more self reliant. One assumes that the venture will also generate income for Starbucks corporation. Unlike other fast food businesses, Starbucks does not enter into franchising agreements, but rather licenses businesses. The licensing process gives the company more control over their stores and allows the chain to maintain a world-wide consistency of the products sold under their name.

Meanwhile, across the Strait and a bit south of our town, in Bellingham, Starbucks restaurants have been facing strikes, picketing, and other actions by employees who are organizing unions and demanding better treatment of workers. On Wednesday dozens of Starbucks retail workers from the region gathered outside of Starbucks’ corporate headquarters for a rally in advance of yesterday’s shareholders meeting. Starbucks employees, who are referred to by the corporation as “partners,” complain about a recent shift in corporate culture that has, among other things seen the hours of employees cut, forcing many to take second jobs to support their families. When employee hours drop below a certain threshold, that employee is no longer eligible for benefits. Employees argue that the corporation is cutting employment hours specifically to avoid paying the promised benefits.

And, back across the Strait, on the We Wai Nation, there is a an expectation that the new Starbucks, owned by the Nation and licensed to operate by Starbucks will provide the jobs with benefits that are needed to boost the economy of the community. At least some of the Starbucks employees in our community are wondering whether or not those promised benefits will ever be given to those hopeful of the jobs at the new cafe.

There are many challenges in the meeting of corporate and tribal cultures. Many businesses are designed expressly to draw profits from local communities to benefit corporate shareholders. Corporate executives argue that both local communities and the corporation benefit from partnerships that stimulate the local economy while benefitting corporate shareholders. On the We Wai Nation, the hope is that the new store will benefit from tourists from outside the community spending their money for signature drinks, thus spending more money on their visits. That excess money will be shared between the tribe and the corporation. it remains to be seen, however, whether the money destined to benefit the corporation and tribe will really come from outside sources or whether the primary customers of the cafe will be local people and the net result of the partnership will be the extraction of wealth from the community instead of the addition of beneficial employment.

There is always a balance in programs designed for economic improvement of communities. We struggled with that balance during the years I lived in South Dakota and was active in our local Habitat for Humanity affiliate. Not every attempt at providing indigenous home ownership succeeded. Banking rules required that Habitat for Humanity Mortgages be consistent, meaning that private ownership of the land beneath the house was required for the mortgage to be issued. The interest-free loans were subject to the same rules as bank loans. This meant that land that once had been communally owned passed into individual ownership and in some cases was sold and the net result was that the tribe lost control of traditional land.

We won’t get to Campbell River very often. Going there requires a border crossing and a ferry ride to the Island. However, when we do, I’ll try to spend a few dollars at the We Wai Nation Starbucks. I’m hoping that the project succeeds for the people of the community.

On my desktop

When I was in high school, my parents bought a small desk for me. It was, I’m pretty sure, an inexpensive piece. It was metal, had a single file drawer, a pencil drawer, and another drawer. I took that desk to college with me after my freshman year and kept it with me through graduate school and a couple of moves after we graduated. I don’t remember what happened to that desk, but at some point we decided that we didn’t need it any longer and found a new home for it. After we moved to South Dakota, my sister was going through a move and she had an oak library table that had belonged to our mother. I picked up that table on a visit and have used it as my desk ever since. It is very sold and has only own drawer. I’ve got that drawer stuffed so full that it hardly opens. There are business cards, pairs of shoelaces, paper clips, rulers, highlighters, pens, keychains, and a couple of pocket knives. There are scissors and rulers and bandaids and tweezers. There are probably a lot more things in that drawer that I’ve forgotten that I own. I’m not too good with drawers. I tend to stuff them full of things when I am trying to clean. This table works as a desk for me precisely because it doesn’t have a bunch of drawers to stuff full of more junk.

However, the top of my table is strewn with papers of all kinds. When I get on a roll and clean it off, I discover a few books that can be put back on the shelves, a few receipts and papers that need to be filed, a couple of letters that I need to answer, and a whole lot of paper that needs to be recycled. I’m pretty sure that there are at least four or five letters on my desk from worthy charities whose objectives align with my values, but to which I have not donated, and probably will not donate at this time. I’m not sure why I keep such things, except that sometimes I think I might decided to make a gift. The causes that we support are mostly different ones. We’re careful about planning our gifts to the church and other causes that are most important to us. But we also make a few small gifts to other causes from time to time. My mother was a generous donor to a variety of causes and she lived with us in Rapid City at the end of her life. Somehow a few of those causes followed our move away from Rapid City and send appeals to her name at our new address, even though we moved a second time after we retired. Some of our friends have lost our address, but the fundraisers seem to have no trouble following us from house to house even though my mother has been gone for a dozen years now.

On top of my desk is an oak shelf that I built to hold my computer monitor. The shelf had that single purpose. It was designed to just be a place to raise a computer monitor to eye level. That’s all. But there is a pitch pipe on that shelf because I don’t know where else one might put a pitch pipe and I seem to want to have one from time to time. Then there is a truly impressive pile of address labels. I use a few labels from time to time, but nowhere near as many as arrive in the mail. It seems that sending address labels is a favorite tactic of fund-raisers. I’ve got address labels from the Arbor Day Foundation, the National Parks Conservation Association, Seattle Children’s Hospital, the National Wildlife Federation, the ASPCA, Ducks Unlimited, St. Jude Hospital and a whole bunch of other charities. Each of these causes is convinced that their mission is worthy and that I should be delighted to make a donation. And I have to admit that there are a lot of causes that are doing a lot of good in the world. In terms of total dollars, we have donated far more to the church than any other cause over the span of our lives. And I don’t have any address labels from the church, nor do I want the church to be in the business of sending out address labels, or tote bags, or coffee mugs, or pens, or flashlights, or any of the other “gifts” that come from charitable organizations.

The truth is that I am completely capable of writing my return address on an envelope in a legible manner. I didn’t need to spend a few minutes searching through all of my return address labels to find one with a bee on it to put on the envelope sending my apiary registration form to the Washington State Agriculture Department. I’m pretty sure that no one noticed the artistry of my effort.

One thing about moving is that it gave me an excuse to get rid of address labels that had old addresses printed on them. It didn’t take long living at our new address label to have the labels coming to this address at a rate much higher than I consume the labels. I’m not sure what there is about a sheet of stickers that gets me to keep them around other than the simple fact that most of the rest of the contents of the appeal letter can go into the recycling bin and the stickers, with their coated paper backing, cannot be recycled and have to go into the trash. We try very hard not to contribute too much to the landfill, but there are some things that simply cannot be composted or recycled. I don’t know what the half life of a sheet of return address labels printed on sticker paper is, but I suspect it is fairly long.

So my desk is far from orderly. I know I need to clean it. It would only take a little while to sort out everything on it, I’m sure. On the other hand, I probably would just make a new pile of address labels and not throw any of them out. You never know when I might want one with an apple, or a cat, or an ice cream cone. I might need butterflies or rabbits or chicks for Easter greetings. I know there were some with turtles on them somewhere.

I probably should apologize to my children and grandchildren who will one day have to go through the things I failed to sort. They will probably find a lot of address labels.

A vampiric crisis

Please note: If you read yesterday’s journal post, it turned out that I was overly dramatic in my writing. I went through the procedure without a hitch yesterday. I am extremely grateful for my wife who was with me throughout the day; our son, who rose very early, accompanied us, drove us home, and supported both of us; our daughter who kept in touch by text message and sent her love and prayers; friends, colleagues, and family who prayed, supported and sent best wishes; a very competent and professional electrophysicist/cardiologiest and the entire cardiac care team at University of Washington Northwestern Hospital. I experienced no pain and was discharged in time to grab lunch on the way home and spend the evening at home resting. All is well.

And now for a rather neat segue, if I do say so myself:

Part of he preparation for the procedure was that I was to have nothing to eat or drink during the 12 hours prior to the procedure except for a small sip of water to take a couple of very small pills. Normally I have easily accessible veins. I was a regular blood donor for many years and there is a bit of scar tissue that shows right where my vein lies on the left side of my body. However, after 12 hours with no water consumption, I was slightly dehydrated when I arrived at the hospital. When the nurse came to insert the IV for the procedure, she had trouble locating the vein in my arm. What used to happen in such a situation is that the nurse would make an educated guess and when the needle failed to hit the right space, would probe slightly, a process that hurts quite a bit. However, yesterday, the nurse summoned an infusion specialist who arrived with a very neat ultrasound machine with a small sensor who used the machine to map the vein beneath the skin, make a single poke and insert the catheter perfectly. It was a fascinating process with only a very slight amount of temporary pain.

When the human body suffers from a lack of hydration, it undergoes all kinds of changes including the shrinking of blood vessels to aid in circulation of a slightly decreased blood supply and to protect vessels from injury. Other living things, such as plants, also react dramatically to a lack of water.

Recently a United Nations report warned of a looming global water crisis and an “immanent risk” of shortages due to overconsumption and climate change. The impact of drought in several areas of he world has already led to water shortages, decreased agricultural production, prolonged battles over water rights, and a large amount of suffering. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said water, "humanity's lifeblood", is being drained by "unsustainable water use, pollution and unchecked global warming.” Richard Connor, the lead author of the report, said that about 10% of the global population “currently lives in areas that are [experiencing] high or critical water stress.” The report goes on to state that global warming will increase seasonal water shortages around the world in both areas that currently have abundant water and those already strained.

It is a very serious report, and one not to be taken lightly. As I noted, the lack of water can do some very strange things to human bodies. However, the writers of the report did, at least at one point, become at least as overly dramatic with their use of language as I was when I wrote yesterday’s journal entry. It says that the world is “blindly traveling a dangerous path” of “vampiric over consumption and overdevelopment.” Wow! Vampiric!

According to Wiktionary, the definition of vampiric is an adjective which means “having the traits of a vampire.” So, I guess, according to the UN report, the world’s looming water crisis is like a mythical creature that subsists by feeding on the vital essence of the living. I guess that it means that the crisis is of mythical proportions.

I’m a theologian. I’ve been called to interpret myth from time to time. But I confess I’m having trouble seeing how the reference to a mythical creature in the context of a serious report of a looming global crisis is helpful. This isn’t make believe, folks. It isn’t pretend. Real people are dying for a lack of water. More will die in the years to come. The direct result of the overconsumption of water can be catastrophic. We have already seen the near draining of Lakes Mead and Powell in the American Southwest due, in part, to the thirst for green golf courses in places where overpopulation already threatens fragile environments. Similar drought conditions have drained reservoirs all around the world, from Morocco to Afghanistan, from Angola to Brazil, from Burkina Faso to Chile, and in many other areas of the world. An estimated 55 million people are already directly affected by droughts every year according to the World Health Organization. Droughts are the most serious threat to livestock and crops worldwide. Water scarcity impacts 40 percent of the world’s population. About 700 million people are at risk of being displaced due to drought by 2030. If you know anything about immigration and the world’s current refugee crisis, you can imagine how devastating it will be to add 700 million more displaced people over the next 7 years.

All of the fancy ultrasound machines in all of the luxurious speciality hospitals of the world will be insufficient to respond to this crisis. We can all help simply by reducing our consumption of this precious fluid. Inspired by what seemed to me to be excessive whining by a certain group of politicians led by one very visible individual prone to irrational rants about toilets, we recently had a low-water, dual flush toilet installed in our house. It works beautifully and it is very satisfying to hear the short flush and very short water run to refill the tank. It is just one small thing we’ve done to reduce our consumption of water. There are many, many more things we can do. The first thing is to raise our awareness.

I guess one step in the process was to have a UN report send me to my dictionaries by using the world “vampiric.”

A Bump in the Road

On July 16, 2007, I began to publish my journal as a web log. Blogging was becoming very popular. I had been journaling off and on for years but had taken up the practice freshly during a sabbatical the year before. I reasoned that a daily writing regimen might help me become a better writer, and I have long held visions of becoming a writer. My original vision was to publish a photograph and a personal essay each day.  I did not know at the time that the essays would become a habit and then an obsession. Shortly after I began publishing my journal entries, I came upon the formula of a 1,000-word essay, recalling the quote that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
After several years, I found that I wasn’t taking enough photographs to support the publication of a picture every day. Often, to find a picture that matched my topic of the day, I would have to use stock photos or photos by other photographers previously published. Eventually, I dropped the practice of placing a photograph every day. I still publish photos from time to time, but most days I simply write the essay.
Since that first entry, I have not missed a single day of writing an essay. You can access all those essays from this web site if you are persistent. Here is a link to the first year’s essays. This link will connect you to my journal archives. Like I say, the habit has become an obsession.
There have been times when I was unable to publish. I continued to write every day, but when I don’t have access to the Internet, I may have to wait to publish to the Internet. However, I have written an essay every day since 2007. That’s nearly 16 years of essays. It is a lot of words! I don’t know if my writing skills have increased, but my production has been substantial.
However, it is possible that I may miss writing tomorrow. It won’t be a permanent suspension, just a day off. At 4:30 local time this morning, I leave for the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle where I will undergo an outpatient procedure. According to the doctors the procedure is routine, and I should be home in time for dinner. It is, however, an entirely new experience for me and I have a bit of anxiety. So, I have decided to give myself the luxury of taking a day off tomorrow if I feel like I don’t have enough energy.
What is going on isn’t a secret, but I am not much at being the center of attention or of complaining about my health in my journal. I have been blessed with wonderful health. And my anxiety has less to do with myself and the procedure than with some memories of experiences we had in 2019 when my wife faced serious heart issues.
The story is simple. Two weeks ago, while at a school function with our granddaughters, my smartwatch alarmed that my pulse rate was very high. I checked repeatedly throughout the evening, and it was very irregular. I called the after-hours number of our family practice clinic when I got home, and it turned out that my doctor was on call that evening. She arranged for me to come to the office the next day for an EKG and a cardiac consultation. The diagnosis was atrial flutter. It is a condition like, but not the same as the atrial fibrillation that sent Susan to the hospital for an extended stay in 2019. Two days later, I was in the exam room with an electrophysiologist who recommended a “routine” ablation. The procedure is to thread a catheter with a camera and an electronic probe through an artery into the upper chamber of the heart. A brief electrical signal is aimed at a few nerve endings to stop the heart from receiving excess messages about beating. Normal rhythm is thus restored, and the patient goes on with a normal life without the need for additional medications.
It may be routine for the doctor, but it isn’t routine for me.
However, I am being treated in our region’s most advanced cardiac care center with some of the best trained and best supported physicians and surgeons in the country. And I get to sleep through the whole procedure. The day will be more challenging for my wife and children, who have to wait while the procedure is taking place. I know. I waited while she had a more complex ablation procedure a short while ago.

I have a couple of observations about the day that is about to unfold. I am awed and amazed at the technology that has been developed in recent years to enable such a procedure. Fiber optics, micro cameras and tiny instruments that allow the doctor to “see” inside of an artery and perform microsurgery inside of a beating human heart simply did not exist a short while ago. The ability of doctors to perform lifesaving and life-enhancing procedures is truly amazing.

In addition, I am aware that such a procedure is a luxury of a very small segment of the human population who have access to incredible health insurance. The amount of resources that will be invested in this single procedure exceeds our ability to pay by a significant amount. In our society, senior citizens are the biggest spenders on health care. I am grateful for the decades when our church employers paid health insurance premiums that far exceeded our consumption of health care. I am grateful for medicare and the power of the federal government to pay for expensive healthcare costs. But I also don’t want to have the fact that I receive care to mean that others are denied the care they need, and I know that in our society there are others who cannot obtain basic health care services.

I know I am aging. I don’t expect to get out of this life without a few challenges and bumps in the road. I know that there could well be sickness and pain in my future. I don’t ask for an exemption. But today is not that day. It is a day to receive the care that is offered and be grateful to live in this time of such advanced care.

I have no intention of quitting writing at this point.

Still learning about our new home

When we moved to South Dakota, our city was a regional hub. It was the second-largest city in the state and the largest city within 350 miles in any direction. Our regional hospital served an area with a radius of roughly 250 miles. We were well aware of the impact of our city before moving there because we had previously lived in a small North Dakota town that was 175 miles from Rapid City and we used to drive those 175 miles each way for orthopedic care for our son and to shop for certain items that weren’t available in our town. Population centers are few and far between in the Dakotas.

Our situation here is very different. Here we live in a small unincorporated settlement with a population of under 10,000 people. Our community has a lot of vacationers and second-home owners during the summer, but we don’t feel very crowded at all. Our location, however is close to two very large cities. Seattle is about 100 miles south of us. The Seattle metro area is home to over 4 million people. And just 35 miles in the other direction is Vancouver, British Columbia with a metro area housing over 2 1/2 million people. Living in a vacation area so close to major metro areas means that some of those people come to our town when they are on vacation.

When we first moved to this area, the Canadian border was closed to nonessential travel. That meant that the usual tourists from Vancouver weren’t coming to our community. Many of the vacation homes and rental properties were vacant. Some of the area restaurants were struggling and had decreased hours of operation. Some of the small shops weren’t open every day. Last summer, however, the border was open and we really noticed the influx of tourists. It seemed to us that about half of the cars parked alongside the beach sported British Columbia license plates.

It has been quite a bit calmer over the winter. We like the empty beaches and the lack of traffic. Our South Dakota home was near tourist attractions and we were used to the gigantic influx of non-natives during the annual motorcycle rally when there were more guests than local residents for a week each August. But the variation in the number of people is even more dramatic here.

The last few days we have noticed a slight uptick in the number of people on the beach. Part of that is probably natural due to a few warmer days. But we have spoken with enough tourists to know that some of the public schools in British Columbia have spring break this week. Families have rented some of the mobile homes and cottages in our town. We spoke with a teacher and her son yesterday who were sitting on the beach despite the cloudy day. The 3 or 4 year old was not affected by the weather at all. He was having a good time digging in the sand and playing with his toys. His shoes and jacket had been shed as he played.

I suppose that we might learn to take advantage of the nearby cities as time passes. There are some wonderful attractions in the cities including zoos, aquariums, museums, art displays, orchestras, ballet companies, and much more. We aren’t much for shopping and the thought of putting up with urban traffic to find a store doesn’t appeal to us, but there are some places in the cities that we would like to visit. Part of the reason we haven’t done too much exploring is that it took quite a bit of energy to get moved and become settled in our new location. Part of the reason is that we are busy with our part-time jobs and our grandchildren. We have found ourselves saying, “When this job is finished,” about our current interim positions. We don’t really know what we will be doing next. There is a bit of an urge to look for a job after we finish our service to our current church, but there is also a sense that we can afford to be selective and that some of the most interesting positions seem to appear without an extensive search. Our two-year employment at First Congregational Church of Bellingham turned up without us going through a search at all. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time. That is part of the ministry: being able to respond to a call when it comes.

We do plan, however, to drive to Seattle tomorrow. It is one of the first trips to Seattle since we moved that doesn’t involve going to Sea-Tac International Airport. The regional hub airport is on the south side of the city and it takes a bit over two hours to get there and can take considerably more time in peak traffic because there is no way to get there without driving through the city. The closest route goes right through downtown Seattle.

Like other things in life, doing something once makes it easier to do it again later. Perhaps we will find a few more reasons to make the journey into Seattle in the months to come.

The more practical urban experience for us might be to visit Vancouver, British Columbia. The wait at the border can be up to a half hour at times, but most of the time it is 15 minutes or less. We could speed that time by obtaining NEXUS permits, which involve a pre-check and allow one to use the express lanes to cross the border. Folks who have reason to cross the border frequently recommend getting the cards. It seems that a lot of Canadians obtain the cards to come to the US for shopping and vacations. Since we aren’t that interested in shopping the exchange rate doesn’t make much of a difference to us unless we were to need to purchase gasoline in Canada, where the price is higher right now.

It has been nearly three years since we moved from South Dakota and there is still much to learn about living in this new home. Adventures await us and we’re the kind of folks who enjoy adventure.

The mystery of spring

When we lived in South Dakota our lawn was bout 1/2 acre. During those 25 years, we never owned a riding lawn mower. We moved in the summer, so we were in our house for 26 summers. For the first 25 we used the same walk-behind lawn mower that I bought the year we moved into the house. The last summer, I bought a new battery-powered electric mower. With either mower it took me about 2 hours to mow the lawn. It was a good bit of exercise for me. Now we have moved to a house on a very small lot. Mowing the lawn takes less than a half hour. The lawn mower I bought in South Dakota is almost overkill for such a small lawn. I’m pretty sure it will last a very long time in this application. I mowed the lawn yesterday morning and commented to Susan when I finished, “Fretting over having to mow the lawn takes longer than mowing the lawn.” Actually, I don’t fret over it much. I have the right tools and it is a small job.

Mowing the lawn really made me feel like spring has arrived. Later in the morning, we met our son and grandchildren to take a look at a cherry blossom festival. The town of Ferndale, where we do quite a bit of shopping, has a grove of cherry trees that are part of that town’s sister city relationship with a Japanese city. In a community center, they also had a large drum from Japan displayed. They had arranged for demonstrations of Samurai armor and weapons presented by members of the Japanese Consulate Office in Seattle. There were activities for the children including simple origami, Japanese calligraphy, Japanese treats, and more. The children enjoyed the displays, presentations and activities. Because we were active in the sister city organization in Rapid City and have a Japanese exchange daughter and have traveled to Japan twice, we enjoyed the experience as well.

However, the cherry trees are not in blossom in Ferndale yet. We have two cherry trees in our back yard and they are not blossoming, either. They are just budding out, so blossoms are a little while away. Still, spring is in the air.

Our grandkids were in the mood for a burger for lunch, and there isn’t a good burger restaurant in Ferndale, so their father decided to drive into Bellingham to go to a good burger joint we know there. We had plans to meet my brother in Bellingham in the afternoon, so we joined them for lunch. High prices aside, the restaurant delivered really good burgers and it turned out to be a really nice meal. We generally have our big meal in the evening, but on occasion being flexible enough to have it at noon means we get in on some pretty good dining.

From there we headed to a nearby coffee shop to meet up with my brother, his wife, and a friend of theirs who played in a soccer tournament last evening. After we got home from that visit, there was time for a walk before we enjoyed a light supper. As we strolled through the birch forest on our way to the beach, the trees were alive with song birds. It not only felt like spring, it sounded like spring. There was a light onshore breeze so the sea air added to the richness of sensation with smells that are distinctive to our coastal location.

Walking in the warm sunlight in my shirtsleeves feels like spring, It sounds like spring, It smells like spring, It looks like spring. And if you imagine biting into a juicy burger surrounded by our grandchildren, it even tasted like spring. OK, I admit that is stretching it a bit. We eat burgers all year around.

Reflecting on yesterday as I write, I am aware of what a rich day yesterday was for our senses. And I am grateful that we have so many wonderful ways to perceive the world around us.

We belong to a poetry group. Our prompt for our meeting on Monday is the opening line of a poem by Mary Oliver:

“Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.”

My reaction to the prompt initially was that the line is nearly perfect. What more could be added other than the poem that Mary Oliver wrote to follow it? And yet the line is worth pondering. I’m no poet, or, at least I identify with what the novelist Jess Walter said in his Whatcom Reads presentation, “I write bad poetry.” I dabble in poetry in part because I enjoy reading poetry so much.

I write essays. Thinking about the experience of spring inspires me to write about the mystery of the change of seasons as the equinox approaches. “Truly we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.” I don’t understand all of the processes of the change of season. I don’t understand all of the processes of my own emotional reactions to the world around me. My life is filled with mysteries, most of which are pleasant as well as meaningful. And yet, I fell an urge to try to express some of that in words. The result, I guess, is that I write about things that I don’t understand. Perhaps I write in order to understand. Except, I don’t really understand.

Mary Oliver’s poem goes on to say, “Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers. Let me keep company always with those who say, ‘Look!’ and taught in astonishment, and bow their heads.” Like Oliver, I don’t need or want the mysteries of life to be fully solved. I am delighted to simply listen to the birds, without having to know all of their names. I am delighted to wait for the cherry blossoms without knowing which day they will appear. I enjoy being surprised by their sudden burst of beauty. I am delighted walking in my shirtsleeves and smelling the ocean breeze, sharing burgers with my grandchildren, or a cup of tea with my brother.

And I bow my head in gratitude for the surprise and joy and love that are parts of my everyday life. I am blessed.

Wings over Washington

I’m not a birder. I don’t keep a list of the birds I have sighted. I own binoculars, but seldom carry them around with me when we go on walks. But I do like to look at and listen to the birds. I enjoy living in a place with a lot of different species of birds. My heart stirs when I see a bald eagle circling over the farm. I took the return of the red-winged blackbirds to the marshy area in our neighborhood as a sure sign of spring. I am awed and stirred by the trumpeter swans that winter in our region. I frequently comment on the sounds of squabbling gulls and flying Canadian geese. I enjoy the visits of song birds to our backyard feeders and delight when the humming birds come to the wisteria in our yard. When we moved to Washington, I received the gift of a new bird book, which is specific to our area. And recently I installed the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s phone app, which not only displays pictures of birds, but plays recordings of their calls to assist in identification.

This weekend serious birders have descended on our area. March is an especially good time to view the birds, as many of our winter birds have not yet departed for the north country and some of our summer birds have returned to the area. This weekend is the Wings over Water birding festival in our community and it attracts birders from around the country for a weekend of birding events, including hikes, tours, art displays, speakers, and more. During last year’s festival, birders spotted 126 species of birds, including a dozen species of ducks.

We notice all different kinds of birds during our daily walks. Sometimes we are challenged to identify them. For example, I simply call seagulls seagulls. Serious birders have identified nine different species of gulls in our area. I don’t know the difference between Anna’s Hummingbird and a Rufous Hummingbird. When we spotted an owl near our home, I knew it was smaller than a great horned owl, so I called it a barn owl. That apparently isn’t accurate, as the owls spotted by the official bird accounts in our region have been Barred Owls and Short-eared Owls.

And when we get to the beach, I can identify just a few of the shore birds. I’ve learned to identify the oystercatchers by their bright orange long beaks and the orange around their eyes. I think I can accurately name Greater Yellowlegs, thought to be honest I call all little gray shorebirds with bright yellow legs Yellowlegs. The shallows are often full of brants and ducks and grebes and loons and cormorants. I know the distinctive call of loons, but don’t know which of the three species found around here I’m looking at.

Last year, we took in some of the Wings over Water events, including a tour through the civic center with its art displays, vendors, and raptor show. The kids made kites at one of the children’s tables and we went outside to join others in flying the simple kites. Our friends joined in a serious birdwatching expedition on a path that we regularly walk. There is a place near the top of a hill where you can gaze across a swampy area to the trees beyond and see a farm outside of the State Park boundaries. If you look carefully, you’re likely to spot one or more of the emus that are raised on the farm. Those birds aren’t native to our area, but they make a good joke for those who take their birding just a little bit too seriously. I doubt that they are recording the emus in their record books.

One of the things that I like about watching birds is that you don’t have to be a serious birder to enjoy the birds that we see. We often comment on the birds we see and the behaviors as we walk. Oystercatchers really do pluck oysters from the water and open the shells with their sharp beaks. The gulls pick up oysters and clams and fly over the rocks or the parking lot and drop the shells so that they break open. There are some gulls who seem to specialize in stealing the contents of the shells from others who have done the work of finding them in the ocean’s edge and flying them up to a height to drop them. There are different kinds of birds that feed in the tidal creeks depending on which way the tide is flowing. Some days, especially when the tide is out, the beaches will be covered with all kinds of birds. Some days, there will only be a few. In the spring and early summer we might count 25 or more Great Blue Herons, and on some days we won’t see any. There is a field we pass on our way to work that sometimes has hundreds of trumpeter swans. One day this week we saw only two and thought that maybe they had started to migrate north, but yesterday there were dozens in that same field again. We don’t know where they go when they are away from the field but still in the area.

I’m told that most of the rooms in the Semiahmoo Resort are booked months in advance of the Wings over the Water weekend. I’m sure that there are plenty of bargain birders who drive the additional 25 miles or so to a lower priced motel in Bellingham as well. I wonder if there are serious birders who, like me, enjoy getting away from the crowds and plan to visit the area on different days, leaving the festival weekends to others. I’m pretty sure that if I were to put a pair of binoculars around my neck on one of our walks, I’d end up striking up a conversation with a serious birder, who might notice from my ignorance about birds that I’m an amateur.

That’s OK by me. The word amateur comes from the word for love. An amateur is one who pursues something for the love of it. I love looking at the birds, even when I don’t know what I’m looking at.

Spring on the farm

The official first day of spring is next week, but it is really starting to feel like spring around here. My plan is to mow the lawn here. We’ve had a few frosty mornings lately, so we’ll probably wait just a bit before getting the dahlia tubers into the ground and planting our lettuce and peas. We’re already thinking of how we want things to look in our small garden areas this summer.

Over at the farm, the cattle have been taken to the butcher. The pastures are starting to green up and the mud is receding. Most of the garden areas have been layered in with straw and manure and mulch, in different ratios depending on what will be planted. The seedlings are ready to move from under the grow lamps out to the greenhouse.

The kids have a reasonable supply of hay left in the barn as a head start for next winter’s feeding, and we’ll see what the summer brings in terms of whether or not they will be able to get a cutting from the pasture before time to buy heifers in the fall. The new chicks for the laying flock are still in the brooder, but are growing well and will be moving to the pullet pen before too long, depending on the weather. The new bee hives have been stained and varnished and the hive stands are set up in the apiary. It’ll be about a month before the new bees arrive, but we need to have everything ready when they arrive.

Some of the berries are mulched in with straw. The raspberries have been pruned, but are waiting for more straw to mulch them in for the growing season. Although there is a good supply of hay in the barn, the farm ran out of straw. They don’t grow grain, so straw has to be hauled from a neighboring farm where the farmer has a custom bailing operation. Much of the hay and straw around here is put up in round bales, but we know a farmer who puts up thousands of square bales of straw and hay each year. Yesterday, I took the pickup over and got a few bales of straw for the berry patch and other garden areas at the farm. It was over 50 degrees and we loaded in our shirtsleeves and then stood around and talked for a while. The farmer’s boys were playing in the yard, enjoying a break from their project of extending their chicken run while their father tossed bales of straw to me in the pickup and we stood around talking about the weather, the price of eggs, the amount of hay and straw yet to be sold, and a variety of other topics. He had already loaded 350 bales of hay for a local feed store, and his one ton truck was piled high with bales ready to be delivered to San Juan Island on the morning ferry today. Tossing 10 bales to me in the pickup was light duty for him and I was a bit surprised at how easily he threw the bales much farther than I could have.

Back at the farm, I unloaded and stacked the bales. The chickens were out in the yard and very curious about my operation, scratching the loose straw around the pickup and hopping up onto the bales in search of seeds or bugs or anything else they might find. Unlike the hay, there are very few seeds in the straw, but the smell was enticing to the chickens. Our granddaughters were home from school and eating a snack at the picnic table as they watched grandpa work. It was a small job and soon finished. The girls reported to me on their plans for building a leprechaun trap for St. Patrick's day morning. I was happy to be outside doing a bit of work, even if it was light duty instead of sitting at my computer sending e-mails or harvesting numbers from last year’s records for the taxes. Susan does our taxes and she had the information she needed to get through the first draft yesterday. We don’t anticipate any surprises this year, which is good news.

I know that there are many good ways to grow up in this world. Children thrive in all kinds of environments. But I feel especially lucky that our grandchildren are growing up on the farm. It is good for them to have space to run and play. They have a first-hand sense of where their food comes from. They have experience with life and death and new life. They have a few chores when they get off the school bus in the afternoon and the days are getting long enough for them to be outside for a few hours between school and dinner time.

I am continually amazed that their father, whom we raised in a house in town away from the chores of raising animals, except pet cats, and away from an orchard or large garden, has acquired the skills of managing a small farming operation on the side of his busy life and long days as a professional. He’s a busy guy and his days are long and his nights are short. Somehow he has grown up to discover the joy of hard work and big projects. He is far more accomplished at home repair than I was at his age. With three females in the family with long hair, he has had to learn how to snake the drain lines without calling a plumber. He knows how to keep the cattle water trough filled in the cold of winter and the garden irrigated in the summer. He keeps the vehicles and the tractor running, making a lot of the repairs himself. He can clean up and head to a city council meeting in suit and tie and come home, slip on muck boots and coveralls and be out in the yard working after dinner.

And somehow, I’ve come to the place in life where I can do the farm chores I enjoy and avoid the ones I don’t. I volunteer to help with childcare on chicken butchering day. I haul hay, but don’t do much weeding in the garden. I putter in the shop, but get a full share of apples and pears and plums and berries from the orchard. And I get to see my grandchildren nearly every day as they grow and change without the responsibility for their day to day care.

I love spring on the farm, but then again, I love all of the seasons of our life. Being the old guy with the pickup is a role that seems to fit.


My father once bought a pickup truck with an interesting negotiating tactic. He did his research about the price of the truck. Then he wrote a check out to the dealer for the amount he was willing to pay. After verbally negotiating price with the dealer for a while he took the check out of his pocket and gave it to the dealer, saying, “Here’s my offer.” The dealer began to explain to him title registration fees, vehicle prep, and a dozen other items that are usually a part of the sale of a vehicle. My father cut him off and said, “It’s simple. Either you can take that check and give me a clear title to the pickup, or you keep your pickup and I’ll keep my check.” The dealer once more tried to explain how he couldn’t sell the pickup for the round number of the check. My father reached for the check and started to rise from his chair. The dealer backed down and figured out how to sell the pickup for the amount of the check.

I never had the courage to try the same tactic. The closest I ever came was when I was at a dealer, hoping to trade my well-used pickup for one that was a lot less-used. At one point in the negotiations, I commented that I didn’t need to know about auction values for used pickups or dealer overhead. I wrote a number on a piece of paper and said, “If I can trade for that amount or less, you’ve got a deal. If not, I’ll keep shopping.” I ended up making the deal for just a few dollars less than the amount I put on the paper, and I left wondering what would have happened if I had written a number a thousand dollars smaller.

I suspect that I have generally paid a bit more for vehicles than the lowest available price. I’m not that good at negotiating. I don’t enjoy the process. I would much prefer that prices were upfront, clear, and exact.

It seems that the price paid for a vehicle is in part due to the skill of the purchaser. And if a system in which some people get a better deal than others seems strange, just think of the way airline tickets are sold. Our daughter and son-in-law recently purchased tickets to travel from the east coast to the west coast for a family gathering this summer. After being disappointed with the high prices they were being quoted at various online sites, they began to get creative in their search for tickets. Knowing that the week after this trip they were planning to drive from South Carolina to Washington DC, they got the idea that perhaps tickets might be less expensive if they made the drive first and flew from DC, rather than their home. They were right. The total ticket price difference for them and their son was more than a thousand dollars.

People who fly between two large cities pay less than those who need to depart from or arrive at a city with smaller population. Even so, nearly every seat on any given flight has a different price from every other seat. The pricing structure of airline seats is so confusing that I am convinced that no one, even airline service employees, can explain how it works. It is generated by a series of computer algorithms.

And if you have the mental acuity to explain airline pricing, I’m guessing that you can’t explain health care pricing.

In order to live in our complex, modern society, everyone ends up paying without knowing the reason a price is what it is. We engage in transactions and money changes hands, but a full understanding of the process is beyond us. A lot of very smart people, including some of the bank’s executives, were caught by surprise at the failure of Silicon Valley Bank last week. They thought they understood the complexities of venture capital, uninsured deposits, and cryptocurrencies, but they failed to accurately consider trust. The bank failed, in part, because depositors lost their trust in the bank.

A loss of trust can be expensive. Ask the executives of Credit Suisse Bank, who were forced to borrow 50 billion Swiss franks after their bank lost 24% in value on the stock market. That sparked fears across the banking sector and stocks prices plunged in the banking sector around the world. It remains to be seen how much additional capital will need to be pumped into the banking sector to prevent economic collapse.

We’ve seen it before. It appears that the lessons taught by the 2008 financial crisis have not been learned.

The dollars involved in these banks is completely beyond my understanding. I have never dealt in millions of dollars, let alone billions. The financial crisis I sparked last week involved the distribution of coin banks to raise funds for One Great Hour of Sharing. The tellers at the church are not happy with the anticipated flood of coins that will have to be counted. It could involve hours of extra volunteer time for them. I’m no financial wizard. Then again, I don’t have to be. I certainly handle a lot more money than I did decades ago. I can complain about rising prices with the best of the old geezers at the coffee shop. Well, I could if I hadn’t given up going to the coffee shop because I am unwilling to pay those high prices. It turned out to be an easy decision for me because I’ve given up caffeine on the advice of my doctor.

All money is a product of human imagination. We have decided to participate in an economy that places value on items in search of fair ways to conducting trade. We choose to trust that a plastic debt card will work when we make a purchase at the store and that the funds our computer tell us are in our account are indeed available. I don’t know how my smart watch works, but I use it to make purchases. I’ve decided to trust something that I do not understand.

And, unlike the million- and billion-dollar depositors in Silicon Valley Bank, I’m pretty sure that the federal government isn’t inclined to bail me out if I place my trust in the wrong place.

The longer I live the more convinced I become that the secret to happiness has nothing to do with the amount of money one acquires, but rather in learning to live with less.

Behold the Ides of March!

One of the things about approaching my 70th birthday is that there are certain things about the passage of time that surprise me. Sometimes it seems like time is passing so quickly. Today is our son’s 42nd birthday. It hardly seems possible that our children could be middle-aged. It seems so recently that they were babies. How did 42 years go by so quickly? There are some ways in which my memory isn’t as reliable as it once was, but I remember his birth very clearly. At the time, I didn’t have any memories that were 42 years old. I hadn’t lived long enough to collect them. Since he was born, I’ve stacked up a huge pile of memories about his life. In addition, I’ve been collecting other memories along the way as well.

His son, our oldest grandson, is 12. He’s almost a teenager, and he certainly has the personality of a middle-schooler. When I spend time with him, there’s no mistaking that he has grown and changed a lot since he was born. Being with either of them, or both of them together is a delight for me. They are intelligent, fascinating human beings and I am always learning new things when I am around them. There is no small amount of pride when I see what they are doing and how they are contributing to their community.

There are time that pass more slowly. There were parts of waiting for our son’s birth that seemed to take a long time. The labor before his delivery was especially long for his mother. In the early stages of labor we stayed at home, monitored what was going on, played games, and waited. I knew fairly early in the evening that I wasn’t going to get much sleep that night. I suppose that I dozed a bit in a chair at the hospital that night, but I don’t remember that part of it at all. It was just after noon the following day when he emerged into the world, had his umbilical cord cut, and was wrapped in warm blankets for us to hold him for the first time.

This last Monday, I watched as the forms were constructed for the walls of the largest infrastructure project in the history of the town where our son works. The multi-million dollar project is, in many ways, his. Of course nothing of such a large scale is accomplished by a single individual, but the Mount Vernon Library Commons project has been one of the main focuses of his work for the past 5 years. He has learned the intricacies of city politics, mastered complex funding and financing strategies. Written huge grants that were successfully awarded, developed media campaigns and mastered Internet and social media arenas. He has learned about architecture, structural engineering, bidding, and construction. And all of this has taken place while he has administered a city library with a staff and an expanding arena of services, developed a plan for a family farm, kept livestock, and provided and cared for a growing family.

I couldn’t be more proud.

As I watched multiple cranes working on the project, I marveled at how our lives have brought us to this point. The years have passed quickly for us. We’ve done a fair amount of moving since that North Dakota Sunday - the Ides of March, 1981.

Last night I was doing a bit of sorting in the fireproof box where we store important documents. In the process I ran across copies of our wills and the living powers of attorney for health care decision that we drafted. In my memory those documents are relatively new and fresh. However, the dates on them show that they were executed in December of 2007. How quickly those 15 and a half years have flown. It was July of 2007 when I published my first journal entry on the Internet. I’ve adhered to the discipline of writing an essay every day without missing a single day since. I started publishing them as an experiment. I don’t think I ever thought I’d keep up the daily routine for even a year and now it is a part of my life. I’ve no inclination to stop writing and publishing my journal entries, but it is probably time for us to re-visit and revise our wills. After all, we no longer live in the same state where those documents were executed. And our circumstances have changed considerably.

I suppose that the birthdays of children are always opportunities for parents to reflect on the passage of time. We watch as they learn to roll over and stand and walk, we witness their first words and first days of school. We marvel at their emergence into adulthood. Every day of being a parent is a day of witnessing a miracle. I know that our son and daughter are both capable of presenting us with surprises and new things to learn even though they have become adults and in some ways settled in their lives and families. Watching them never ceases to be fascinating and amazing to me. A birthday is certainly cause for celebration. And now, I have a collection of 42 years of birthday celebration memories, making today an especially rich time to pause and reflect.

The soothsayer’s warning to Caesar, from Shakespeare’s famous play titled with the emperor’s name, has become a bit of a family joke for us. “Beware the Ides of March,” is not an ominous warning of a revolt and the nefarious planning of a crowd out of control. It is, rather, the reminder that each year a date important to us comes around. It was the date that our marriage partnership turned into a family. It was a day of new and wonderful beginnings for us. “Beware!” might not be the best word to express how we feel about the day. “Behold!” might be a far more appropriate term for this day.

Happy pi day

Happy pi day! It is not a holiday that I remember from my childhood years. Nor do I remember anyone mentioning it during the first half of my career. Rapid City, South Dakota, however, where we lived for 25 years is home to South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, which is an engineering school and university students and teachers enjoyed noting March 14 as a special day. I suppose, however, that if you want to get technical, pi time would be more precise than a single day - in reality it would be an infinitely small amount of time. Lets, say, for reasons of practicality, that the actual pi time is 3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937510. Of course the number goes on with plenty of numbers to the right of the decimal point. This particular number simply stops at the first zero, which seems convenient. If you were to write out pi to the millionth place beyond the decimal, you’d have to use nearly 100,000 zeros (99,959 to be precise). All of this can, I suppose be avoided by using the 16th letter of the Greek alphabet, π, instead of trying to write out the number.

In practical terms, when computing the area of a circle, there comes a point when the numbers to the right of the decimal become moot. According to Marc Rayman, Chief Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, interplanetary navigation only requires the use of 3.141592653589793. He goes on to say that there are “no physically realistic calculations scientists ever perform for which it is necessary to include additional decimal points.” However, modern calculators and computers have a pi key that allows for extremely accurate computations. I’m fairly certain that you won’t find many slide rules in engineering universities these days. The students and professors are all using graphing calculators or even more complex portable computers to make their computations since pocket calculators became practical decades ago. A slide rule’s accuracy is dependent on size. A typical slide rule that was about a foot long could calculate accurately to 3 significant digits. I learned to operate a circular slide rule as part of my pilot training and continued to use a manual flight calculator into the early 1990’s before I obtained an electronic flight calculator. A student pilot these days would not know how to use a circular slide rule.

All of this information is essential useless for those who find pi day simply a good excuse to eat some delicious pie. I’m pretty sure that pie, savory or sweet, is the focus of the celebration for quite a few people. The love of sweet and savory treats is, when you think of it, an irrational craving. Our bodies don’t need that kind of food and people often consume too many calories when eating pie, a problem that can lead to obesity and a host of health problems. I guess that might be expected since pi is an irrational number. It cannot be expressed as the simple ratio of any two other numbers.

A traditional pie, baked in the shape of a circle, makes a good teaching tool, if one wants to garner the attention of students. Studying circles and spheres is a big deal if one is talking about exploring space, but pi is not just useful for rocket scientists. Sure, NASA scientists need to use pi to determine the size of a distant planet that can’t be actually seen, but figuring out how to fairly divide a pie among eager students, might drive home the importance of the number more quickly.

For millennia, mathematicians have invested huge amounts of time calculating the digits of pi. When calculating by hand, 500 digits is an incredible achievement. Now that computers are used, the number has been calculated to millions and even trillions. Google developer Emma Haruka Iwao might be the current record holder, having calculated pi to 31 trillion digits (31,415,926,535,897 to be exact). A few other number enthusiasts make a game out of memorizing digits of pi. My sister, when she was working on an engineering degree, managed to memorize a lot of digits, but she came nowhere near the record, which stands at 70,000 digits. I’m fairly certain I’ve never memorized anything anywhere near as long as that. After all, I only have 3.14 memorized, which is sufficient to know which day to challenge colleagues to bring a pie to a staff meeting.

I don’t even have the Greek alphabet memorized, but I do know that the 19th letter of the Greek alphabet is written as a capital T in our alphabet. That being the first letter of my name, makes it easy to remember. Tau is the name assigned to the number that is two times pi, or 6.28. Because many mathematical formulas call for 2π, tau-enthusiasts say tau would provide a more elegant and efficient way to express those formulas. I don’t know of any celebrations, even among engineers, focused on June 28th, however. I guess that there is no immediately obvious homophone for tau that inspires culinary delight. I’ve been trying to come up with some kind of word symbol for the day. However, the best I’ve come up with so far is a simple pun: “Perhaps it is time to throw in the tau and admit that pi day is more popular.” You have to admit that pie is pretty much universally enjoyed by those who get a slice whether it be March 14 or any other day. For the record, I have no objection to serving and eating pie on June 28, either.

I have been trying to use the discipline of the season of Lent to teach myself to eat more intentionally, thinking carefully about what I eat and limiting portions so that I can feel more control over my body weight. Losing a few pounds should help my health and vigor enough to make teaching myself some new tricks about eating a valuable exercise. As a result, I have no plans to consume pie today. A crunchy salad, however, is a rather poor substitute. Maybe I’ll save the salad for tau day.

Fun and games at grandma's house

Life at our son’s farm is a busy affair. Four children aged from 13 months to 12 means that there is always laundry to be done, always dishes to wash, always meals to prepare, and always someone who needs comforting or help. There are new chicks in the brooder, that need to have their water changed a couple of times each day. A 100-year-old farmhouse always has something in need of repair. There are gardens to plant and bushes that need mulch. Both parents have jobs off of the farm that are demanding. Living on the farm means that every trip to the grocery store, school, post office, hardware store, or farm supply store involves driving into town.

In the midst of all of the busyness, opportunities for our son and daughter-in-law to just sit and talk are rare. On rare occasions the grandkids come over to our house for a while so their parents can have a quiet meal together and time to talk. Last evening was one of those occasions. We had finished a congregational meeting at church and were home by about 1:30. After lunch and a walk there was time for a short nap before the children arrived. The baby went with the parents while the three older children bounced into our house.

It seems to grandpa that the 12-year-old is constantly hungry. His sisters are no strangers to snacks, either, so the visit started with a little snack. We try to respect the parents’ food choices and have healthy foods for the children, but I suspect that snacks at grandma and grandpa’s house involve a few more sweets than snacks at home. Our granddaughter had commented earlier in the week that she wanted to bake cookies, and before long all three children were busy with grandma, measuring and adding ingredients to the mixing bowl.

I got the job of placing the cookie sheets in the oven, watching the time, taking them out and removing the cookies to the cooling rack. It is pretty light duty, but it gave me the opportunity to watch the activities. It seemed to me that it has taken a remarkably short time for a generation to pass in our family. It wasn’t long ago that a very similar scene played out with our children and Susan’s mother in the kitchen of grandma’s house. When I watch my wife with our grandchildren, I am filled with wonderful memories of her mother. It certainly seems like she inherited the best qualities of her mother. When I was describing the action to my sister in a phone call, I said, “She’s got a lot of Charlotte in her.”

After supper, the cards came out and soon there was a rousing game of Uno going in the living room. I loaded the dishwasher and started its cycle as I listened to the action. I was remembering a camping trip we took with our children and my mother when our children were young. It rained the whole trip, so the family spent most of the time in the tent. I don’t know how many hands of cards my mom played with our daughter on that trip, but I remember marveling at her patience. I’m not a very good card player. I’m quickly bored with a lot of games, so I notice when another person has patience to keep playing. There are a lot of good values that can be taught and learned about winning and losing graciously, granting a bit of understanding and mercy to one’s opponents, and fair play. It seemed to me as I observed that not only does my wife have a lot of her mother in her, she also has a bit of mine as well.

Savoring all of those memories while enjoying the gift of an evening with our grandchildren was a brief reminder of how precious these days are. I know how quickly they pass. From our perspective, our grandchildren will grow up in the blink of an eye. Turn around and we will be attending graduations and weddings and maybe even meet a great grandchild. It doesn’t take long for another dozen or two years to pass. I remember as a newlywed attending a few 50th wedding anniversaries and thinking to myself how the couples seemed so old and how far we were removed from their experiences. Now we’re planning the celebration of our 50th and we’ve become the old folks at family gatherings.

There are distinct privileges that go along with being the grandparents. We understand well the hard and careful work the parents invest in purchasing good food, preparing healthy meals, watching nutrition while balancing a family budget. But we have the luxury of asking our grandchildren what their favorite foods are and fixing the things that they enjoy. Our grandchildren may not know that pizza and fish sticks and macaroni and cheese are actually rare dishes in our house because we tend to have their favorite meals when they come to visit us. When it is just the two of us, we eat quite a bit like the meals at the farm. When the grandkids come to visit, there are certain indulgences that are part of the luxury of being grandparents. Baking doesn’t occur any more often at our house than at the farm, but baking occurs more often when the grandchildren are visiting, so it seems to them as if there is always something good coming out of the oven at grandma’s place. We are pleased to perpetuate the illusion.

I have never regretted that our careers led us to live in places that were distant from our families of origin. We lived in wonderful places among wonderful people. At the same time, I feel so very fortunate to have the luxury of being able to move to a house just down the road from the farm where our grandchildren live. We must be among the most privileged people in the world. Every visit from our grandchildren seems like a priceless gift.

Besides, the grandkids aren’t the only ones who love pizza and fish sticks and macaroni and cheese. I’m rather fond of the cookies as well.

Setting clocks

My mother had a digital clock with a large display. She liked the clock because it was easy to read even when her eyesight was a bit fuzzy. It was touted as a clock that didn’t need to bet set. The clock has a way of synchronizing with a signal from satellites to always display the correct time. Actually, there are some manual settings that are required in order for the clock to work. First of all, it only works in the four time zones of the lower 48 states of the United States. The user has to select one of those four time zones by moving a switch on the back of the clock. There are only four choices. I guess the manufacturer didn’t feel a need to sell that particular clock in Alaska or Hawaii. Secondly, there is a switch on the back of the clock that has to be moved into our out of daylight savings time as required. I think that the clock is older than the current dates for the changing of clocks, but as it is set up it doesn’t matter when the clocks change as long as the user is aware of the change and remembers to move the switch on the back of the clock.

Since my mother lived in our home at the end of her life and none of my siblings wanted that clock, it is still in our possession. However, it isn’t one of the clocks that we keep on display in our house. It is sitting on a bookshelf where it is mostly ignored. I am thinking of that clock simply because today is the day to change our clocks and I tried unsuccessfully to set that clock before going to bed. I’ll figure out the clock sometime when I have a few minutes to look at it.

The reality is that we run very little risk of forgetting daylight savings time. Our watches, cell phones and computers set themselves without any input from us. There are two clocks in the kitchen, one on the microwave oven and the other on the kitchen range that need to be manually set. And our cars are old enough that their clocks also have to be set. Setting the clocks in our cars, however is a very easy task with clearly labeled controls. The car and pickup that we owned before we bought the ones we now have both required me to get the owner’s manual out of the glove compartment to remember how to set the clocks. There were some years when I didn’t get those clocks set for a week or more after the time zone change.

The clock I refer to the most, however, is an antique clock that is prominently displayed on the bookshelves in our front room. It has been in the family since Susan’s great grandfather brought it home from an auction sale on his horse. It has to be wound every evening. If we forget, it will wake us at midnight by failing to chime the correct number. When it is set and running, it doesn’t wake me when it chimes midnight. We adjust to all kinds of sounds in our lives. When we lived in Idaho, the Amtrak train tracks ran right behind our backyard fence. If the train was on time, we could easily sleep through the sound of its passing. If it was late, I woke when it came.

The antique clock has to be set several times per week. It has an adjustment, but I’ve never been able to get it to run consistently to complete accuracy. As it has been running for several months now, it loses about a minute every two or three days. I check it when I wind it against my watch, which is Internet-connected and accurate. When needed I move the hand a minute forward. The clock can be moved forward. The mechanism will not tolerate moving the hands backward. So in the spring, when we change to daylight savings time, all I have to do is move the hands carefully forward one hour. In the fall, the easiest way to set the clock is to stop the pendulum and have it sit for an hour or more without running. Then it can be set to the correct time.

It is a skill that i don’t expect any of my grandchildren to acquire. Unless, that is, one of them becomes the steward of the clock after us. Right now, at least, it doesn’t seem like either of our children have any interest in antique clocks. Since we have two that we inherited from grandparents, they could each have one. However, the clocks remain in our house for now.

Our daughter has a wall clock in her home, but our son and daughter in law rely on their phones to know the time. They don’t have any wall clocks. I think their kitchen range has a clock, but I’m pretty sure that setting it isn’t priority in that busy family. They live modern lives with modern devices and don’t worry about the art of setting clocks. Their devices do a good job of telling them what time it is.

I am a morning person. I like to rise early. As a result, I’m not a big fan of daylight savings time because it means it will be dark when I rise. I’d prefer for it to get dark in the evening. I like to sit outside in the evening and look at the stars on clear nights. I don’t mind it getting dark in the evening. I’m usually tired by then and don’t want to continue many activities. I still have evening meetings from time to time and I don’t enjoy driving home in the dark as much as I once did, but I still prefer morning light. The days here get pretty long in the summer and pretty short in the winter, making the natural light a pretty good indication of the season.

However, we’ve got our clocks set. There is no point in arriving at church late. I hope you remembered to get your clocks set as well. See you in church!

Thinking of fur

For several years now, I have experienced a slight disruption in the rhythm of my heart. “Experienced,” is a bit of an overstatement because I have no awareness of this other than the fact that doctors tell me they can hear it when they listen to my heart. My heart will occasionally contract a bit early, out of the steady rhythm. There are medicines that help to regulate the heart and I take one of them, but from time to time, doctors are interested in observing my heart a bit closer so they order an electrocardiogram. The test involves attaching electrodes on the chest to record the heart’s electrical signals. These signals are then shown as waves on a computer monitor or printer. The test is painless and takes just a few minutes. Electrocardiograms have been around for many years. In the early years of the technology, the electrodes had small clamps on them that pinched the skin. These days the electrodes are clamped to metal pieces attached to the skin with stickers.

I have a bit of a problem with the stickers. The problem is that I have a fair amount of hair on my chest. Usually in order to get the stickers to work, the technician has to shave some of that hair. I don’t mind. The hair grows back quickly. I can’t explain it, but I’m good at growing hair in all sorts of places where I don’t need it. In addition to the hair on my chest, I’ve got longer than usual hair on my arms and legs. I am annoyed by the rate at which hair grows in my ears, requiring trimming more often than than the hair on the top of my head needs to be cut. It is the hair on the top of my head that is a problem. I’m not too good at growing it up there. in fact, there are some large patches of skin on my forehead and on the top of my head where they could attach electrode stickers with no problem.

Compared to most mammals, including other primates, humans are remarkably un-hairy. There are a few other relatively hairless mammals: naked mole rats, rhinos, whales, and elephants. I’m not sure I want to be compared with any of those creatures, but we do have a bit in common with them.

So why do we not have fur like other mammals? Our hominoid ancestors had much more fur than modern humans. There is archaeological evidence that homo erectus and later hominids began to appear with less and less hair during that Pleistocene.

There are several scientific theories that seek to explain our relative lack of fur. One has to do with cooling. As humans started hunting on the open savannah, they began to run for hours to chase their prey, in order to drive the prey to exhaustion. Sophisticated hunting tools appear only later in the fossil record. Running on a hot savannah could have put our early ancestors at risk for overheating, thus the loss of fur to cool the body. Modern scientists note that certain cells can either develop into sweat glands or hair follicles. Less hair resulted in more sweat glands. We can sweat better without fur, so the benefit of losing fur was an increase in our ability to cool our bodies.

This theory doesn’t explain why other apex predators such as large cats, bears, and wolves continue to have fur while we do not. It also does not explain why we haven’t grown back our fur as we have settled into cooler climates and given up endurance running as our primary form of obtaining food.

Another theory is called the ectoparasite hypothesis. Furless apes suffer from fewer parasites. Fewer parasites is a major advantage. Certain species of flies are specialized to land on, live in, and deposit their eggs in fur. These flies carry disease. People with more fur have more parasites. Those with less fur have fewer. This could account for the development of humans with less fur.

A third theory has to do with the development of humans making clothing out of other animals’ fur. Having clothing that can be removed and washed is a real advantage. Human body lice can be removed by removing clothing and washing it.

Darwin believed that human hair loss was the product of natural selection. Basically, our ancestors preferred less hairy mates.

There are probably many other theories about why humans aren’t covered with fur. One of the problems with studying the phenomenon is that the processes that allow bones and other structures to develop into fossils doesn’t work with hair and therefore there is little evidence of hair or fur in the fossil record, making it more difficult to determine exactly where on the evolutionary timescale humans lost their fur.

I’ve learned a few tricks to deal with my own personal fuzziness. When my dermatologist notices a suspicious spot on my skin and takes a biopsy, I make sure to shave the area around that spot before I go in to have the lesion removed. This allows the adhesive tape to stick, and, more importantly, to be removed without pulling out a bunch of hair. I sometimes will shave the crook of my elbows when I know that I will be donating blood or have to have blood drawn for routine medical tests, though these days they have a kind of easily removable elastic tape that they prefer to the old-fashioned hair pulling type. Still, I have no cure for the annoying hair growth in my ears. I try to trim it between haircuts, but I’m not as good as the barber at getting rid of the unwanted hair.

In my particular case, my beard grows a lot faster than my hair. I trim it between trips to the barber, but my hand-eye coordination is limited when using a mirror and I struggle to get it as straight and neat as the barber can. Meanwhile I have less and less hair on the top of my head as each year passes. It is too bad that so far they have no need to attach electrodes up there.

What time is it?

The annual spring ahead into daylight savings time is always a bit of a challenge for churches. Because the official time to change clocks is 2 am on Sunday, it seems that there are always a few church members who forget and show up for worship late. This is a smaller issues these days with all of the smart phone and watches that automatically change at the appropriate time.

At our weekly staff meeting at the church last week, there was confusion about the annual switch. Last year the Sunshine Protection Act was introduced in the United States Senate last year. The bill would have made daylight savings time permanent. The bill passed by a unanimous vote in the Senate, but the House of Representatives failed to act on the bill. So, we all switched back to standard time last November and will switch back to daylight savings Time on Sunday. Well, not all of us - Hawaii and Arizona do not observe daylight savings time. Well, not quite all of Arizona - the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona does observe daylight savings time. It can be a bit of a problem knowing what time it is in Arizona.

To add to the confusion, federal law allows states to unilaterally move to standard time. A move to permanent daylight savings time, however requires approval of Congress. Seventeen states, including Washington, where we live, passed legislation making daylight savings permanent last year. However those changes cannot take place until Congress acts. Proposed bills in an additional 23 states would make the majority of states adopting permanent daylight savings time. However, in keeping with the confusion over time zones, 15 states have bills pending that would make standard time the permanent time.

The result is that it is not easy to know what will come after most of us, except those living in Hawaii and parts of Arizona, switch our clocks this Sunday. The Sunshine Protection Act has been reintroduced in both the US Senate and House of Representatives. If the Act is passed by both chambers and signed by the President, most states would remain on daylight savings time and would no longer need to change clocks. Some states, however, might choose standard time as their permanent time and would change their clocks in November before ceasing the practice.

I am confused enough that I had to look up the details on Axios to write this journal entry.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says that the switch to daylight savings time “carries many health and accident risks and is misaligned with human circadian biology.” Numerous studies have indicated that children have trouble adjusting to the change in sleep schedules. A study in the journal Current Biology predicts that year-round daylight saving time could prevent 36,550 deer deaths, 33 human deaths, 2,054 human injuries and $1.19 billion in collision costs annually.

There certainly seems to be agreement among my friends and colleagues that we’d like to stop changing our clocks. Most of those with whom I speak don’t really care whether we settle on standard time or daylight savings time, but would simply like to abandon the practice of changing our clocks. According to a YouGov poll, more than two-thirds of Americans agree with us about wanting to stop changing clocks. However, there is some disagreement about whether the permanent time should be standard time or daylight savings time. With bills pending in 15 states for standard time and Hawaii and Arizona already opting for standard time, it remains to be seen what effect the Sunshine Protection Act would have in those states. Potentially, people on road trips across the country might have to change their clocks depending on which state they are entering. Of course we already have four time zones in the continental United States plus Alaska Standard Time and Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time, so changing clocks when traveling within the United States already is part of our practice.

I guess things are a bit less confusing. Alaska used to have four time zones in one state, but in 1983 adopted a standard time for most of the state, just one hour behind Pacific Time, except for the far reaches of the Aleutian Islands and St. Lawrence Island.

The bottom line, for the conversation we had at the church office is that we will be springing forward on Sunday and it is unclear whether or not we will have to fall back when November rolls around. You would think with over two-thirds of the citizens of the nation wanting to stop changing time zones, passage of the Sunshine Protection Act in the US congress would be a sure thing. After all the bill passed unanimously in the Senate last year, one of very few bills to get such a vote. The politics of the House simply not acting on the legislation may leave action on the bill on Kevin McCarthy’s desk, and frankly there is no guessing what he will do with all of the compromises and deals he had to make just to get elected Speaker of the House. The answer to whether or not we will fall back seems to be murky at best.

I have rather unusual sleep patterns, and the result is that the change of clocks doesn’t seem to bother me very much. It really doesn’t make much of a difference to me. I am, however, subject to jet lag when we make big trips. Traveling across the US to South Carolina, a trip of four time zones, doesn’t seem to bother me much. On the other hand, our trips to Europe and Japan have resulted in a few days of disrupted sleep patterns for me. I think the politics of time zones is a bit silly and am vaguely amused that the US Congress can take devote so much time and energy in basically doing nothing while there are other issues that deserve immediate action. Addressing the housing crisis would have more benefit than messing with time, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for meaningful legislation on that front either.

Meanwhile the chickens at the farm don’t seem to pay any attention to the clocks. They seem to enjoy sleeping more in the winter and less in the summer. Sunday will be a breeze for them.

Finding a really good doctor

When we moved from South Dakota, one of the challenges was establishing new relationships with doctors, dentist, and other health care professionals. Our first move was to the town of Mount Vernon, where we sought out care givers even though we suspected that we would be moving to a location further north. After we found and purchased our home here in Birch Bay, we continued for a while to drive to Mount Vernon for health care. That practice, however, was less than convenient. From where we now live, it takes about 50 minutes to drive to Mount Vernon. We started over with the search for health care. The city of Bellingham has a wide range of health care providers and is a reasonable distance from our home. We’ve found some providers even closer in Ferndale. Checking with our insurance company for the list of in network providers, we happened upon the Ferndale Family Medicine practice. It is a fairly small physician-owned practice that is linked with a network of family practice facilities. I chose my doctor randomly as a physician who was receiving new patients who was available on a day that was convenient for me. I expected to obtain a referral to a dermatologist from that doctor.

I got lucky in my choice of family physician. It turned out that in addition to her family practice residency, she had completed training for dermatology. She is able to provide my dermatology as well as my general care. I have really appreciated her thoughtfulness and thoroughness. I have to be careful with dermatology because I have had instances of squamous cell carcinoma that have had to be removed. In my second dermatology exam with my new-to-me doctor, she found a spot. A biopsy was performed and I was scheduled for a small out-patient procedure to remove the lesion. She did a beautiful job of removing he cancerous cells and surrounding tissue so that I have had no further problems from that spot.

Not long afterward, I had to have part of a toenail removed. Instead of being referred to a podiatrist, she performed the procedure without a problem and I got immediate relief. Instead of having to work with a group of specialists, I have been able to receive the care I need from a single dedicated individual. My doctor does not work alone, however. So when she is not available, I have access to other physicians for telemedicine and emergency support. The clinic has an emergency care practice that is served by the same physicians as regular visits. The one time I needed to call after hours with a question, my doctor happened to be the “on call” doctor, and I was able to speak with her directly.

Yesterday, I was in the office for a diagnostic procedure and a bit of lab work and I saw my doctor briefly. In the course of the visit, I thanked her for taking time from her busy schedule to squeeze me in without an appointment and she commented that I was lucky because the day before she had delivered a baby and wouldn’t have bene available for me.

I thought to myself, “I’ve found a real old-fashioned family doctor!” She can perform routine exams, dermatology services, out-patient surgeries, and she is qualified and able to provide prenatal care and delivery care. I remember a time when one doctor would provide all of the care a community needed, but I had thought those days were past. I have since found out that there are multiple doctors in the practice who are qualified to provide both family medicine and ob-gyn care and there is another physician in the practice that is receiving advanced training to provide dermatology services to her patients.

I’m often critical of the state of health care in our country. Those of us who have plenty of insurance coverage are able to obtain first-rate care while others cannot find doctors to care for them. Americans spend more on health care than citizens of all other countries, yet our outcomes are worse than many other places in the world. Often physicians limit their practice to specialties, earning large salaries while providing only partial care to their patients. The maze of specialist providers and insurance company limits is confusing and difficult to navigate. Like flying on an airline, different patients are paying different amounts for services. It seems that there is no one in the health care professions who can explain why various procedures cost what they do. Charges seem to be arbitrary and there are many companies who are in the business for the high profits they can extract from care. From insurers to pharmacies, it seems that the high profits from health care cause prices to skyrocket.

In this confusing scenario, however, there are some brilliant and talented physicians who really care about providing care to their patients. There is no question that my doctor could earn a lot more money by specializing in dermatology. She could have avoided the cost of additional special training that she has received. She could work shorter hours and earn more money. But she has chosen the vocation of family medicine, providing general and comprehensive care for her patients. And she is not alone. Despite the problems of contemporary medical practice in the United States, despite the incredibly confusing mess of in network and out of network care providers defined by insurance companies, despite the unconscionable prices of the pharmaceutical industry, there are good people working hard to provide real care to their patients. I have been fortunate to find one of them. It is amazing and humbling to be on the receiving end of such wonderful care.

I suspect that I will be like others I have known. As I age, I will need to consume more medical care than was the case when I was younger. Small problems will need to be addressed before they become big problems. My body has been around for quite a while and there are some signs of wear and tear that weren’t present years ago. Fortunately for me, I’ve found a source of real care expertly delivered. I know that there are others who are not so lucky. I hope that there are young people aspiring to become physicians who are inspired by doctors like the one who serves me. She really is inspirational. Perhaps her dedication is being shared with others. It gives me hope for the future.

International Women's Day

We took our two granddaughters to a story hour at the school last night. Children were invited to gather in the school library. They could wear their pajamas and bring a blanket and stuffed animal if they chose. Three teachers had a program of stories for the children followed by a snack and a bit of free play in the school gym. The program was intended to provide childcare for parents attending the PTA meeting held in another room of the school, but as grandparents, we aren not members of the PTA. The busy lives of our son and daughter-in-law with a farm and two other children to care for meant that it was a good time for us to step in and enjoy the evening with our granddaughters.

Susan volunteers in the girls’ classrooms so she knows some of the teachers. She introduced me to a kindergarten teacher. In our conversation, the teacher remarked that our family has some very wonderful and capable women. She knows our two granddaughters, our daughter-in-law and Susan. I quickly agreed with her. They are each unique and wonderful people with many gifts and talents. I love them dearly and look to them for all kinds of leadership and support.

The teacher went on to impress me. Along with two other equally capable teachers, she calmed the room full of children, got them to sit quietly and entertained them by reading some of her favorite children’s books. It is a skill that not many people have. I share a time with children in church most weeks, but my responsibility is for a much smaller group of children and usually their parents or grandparents are present in the room. These teachers each proved that they could care for a large room full of children by themselves. Of course, I was prepared to be impressed by the teachers. I had first hand reports of their skills from my wife and granddaughters, who have all reported on the skills of these dedicated professional educators. All of the teachers I met last night are women.

I am part of a family of remarkable women. I have just witnessed the dedicated professionalism of three additional women. I have some very capable women who are colleagues, including the lead pastor of our church, our amazing minister of music, our office administrator who is on top of so many aspects of church life, and our church accountant, whose quiet precision serves the entire church. In addition, I have the privilege of working with incredibly capable and talented volunteer church leaders who are spearheading mission, leading our green team, serving on committees and providing the energy to keep our congregation moving forward.

It is clear that I have much to celebrate today on International Women’s Day. International Women’s Day was first officially celebrated in 1911 and the centennial International Women’s Day was recognized in 2011. The seeds of the celebration, go back even further. In 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter working hours, better pay, and the right to vote. That event was marked by women in the United States each year. In 1910 an International Conference of Working Women met in Copenhagen. 100 women from 17 countries agreed to begin the celebration. The celebration had no fixed date until 1917, when Russian women demanded “bread and peace” with a strike that forced the Tsar to abdicate and the right to vote was granted to women. The date on the Julian calendar, then in use in Russia, was February 23. That was March 8 on the Gregorian calendar. March 8 became the official day of celebration.

The color purple is often associated with International Women’s Day. It signifies justice and dignity. It is one of three colors of International Women’s Day, according to the IWD website. The other colors are Green which symbolizes hope and White which represents purity. Those colors come from an early twentieth century women’s political union in the United Kingdom.
I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to find anything purple in my closet to wear, so I guess I’ll probably go for green today. I intend to greet as many of the women in our home and church as possible with best wishes and thoughts for International Women’s Day.

I have been privileged to work in many settings where the contributions and leadership of women have been recognized. I have the honor to be currently working with a woman who is my boss in an organization that is very careful about pay equity and the recognition of the leadership of women. However, across our society, women still are not afforded equal treatment with men. Women’s pay lags behind that of men in the United States. According to a 2022 poll by the Pew Research Center women earn an average of 82% of what women earn in part time and full time jobs. The gender pay gap has remained constant for at least 20 years in our country. The gap is even wider in certain professions, including professional athletics, computer and technology positions, and corporate management.

This year the United Nations’s theme for International Women’s Day is “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality.” The theme aims to recognize and celebrate the contribution of women and girls are making to technology and online education. Programs will also explore the impact of the digital gender gap. The United Nations estimates that women’s lack of access to the online world will cause a $1.5 trillion loss to gross domestic product of low and middle-income countries by 2025 if dramatic action isn’t taken.

The International Women’s Day website has chosen the theme #EmbraceEquality. Events are planned to “challenge gender stereotypes, call out discrimination, draw attention to bias, and seek out inclusion.”

All around the world, women continue to fight for their rights amid war, violence, and policy challenges. In Afghanistan, the resurgence of the Taliban has hindered advancements in human rights. Women and girls are banned from higher education and from working in most jobs outside the home. In Iran demonstrations against laws requiring women to cover their hair and have their rights denied. More than 500 people have died in demonstrations. Women around the world continue to struggle to make their voices heard, to obtain basic human rights, and to their rightful place in board rooms and political offices.

It is a day worthy of celebration - and a day to make new commitments to uphold the right of all women to fully participate and benefit from the institutions of our society and our world.

Happy mid-March holiday

I don’t know a lot about my ancestors before they arrived on the North American continent. I know that both sides of my family have European roots. My father’s people came from Germany by a complex route, going to Russia before emigrating to the Eastern part of the United States. My mother’s family is mostly from England, with a few Scottish relatives as well. When I was young I had red hair and a temper to match, so often was asked if I was a bit Irish. Once, when I asked my mother about Irish roots in reference to the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, she answered that if I had any Irish ancestors, they wouldn’t have celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, but rather celebrated Orangemen’s Day on July 12 - the day commemorating the Protestant king’s victory over Catholic king James II.

We didn’t make too big of a deal about St. Patrick’s Day in our home when I was growing up. However, I remember being careful to make sure I wore a bit of green on St. Patrick’s Day simply because it was a good way to avoid getting pinched at school. Besides, with a father who was a John Deere machinery dealer, there were plenty of green items in my wardrobe.

When we lived in Chicago, however, St. Patrick’s Day was a big deal. A lot of businesses were closed. They dyed the Chicago River green. There was a big parade down town and the streets of the parade route had new stripes painted on them - with green paint instead of yellow. One year a group of us had just returned from a class trip and I was selected to return the rental car on St. Patrick’s Day. I had forgotten about the holiday, and found myself trapped for a very long time in traffic that simply was not moving. When I boarded the train to go home, it was packed.

One of the leaders of the first church that we served was very Irish and made a big deal out of the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. He and I have become lifelong friends and I try to send him greetings on the holiday each year.

Things are a bit different around here. In Bellingham where we work and go to church, the St. Patrick’s Day parade isn’t even held on March 17. It is held on a Saturday. This year’s parade is set for this weekend on March 11. The parade is dedicated to the fire fighters and police officers of the city. I know there is a long-standing connection between the profession of fire fighting and the Irish, and in Chicago the police force was known to have many Irish officers. Perhaps those service professions have seen more people with Irish descent than others. At any rate around here there is an association between the professions and St. Patrick’s Day.

The web site with information about the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, encourages “family-friendly and nonpolitical groups” to participate. I’ve never attended a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Bellingham and probably won’t attend this year. Saturdays are days when our grandchildren do not go to school and we generally plan family events. Of course the parade is supposed to be family-friendly and it might not be a bad thing to take the children to see, but so far we have no such plans.

The March holiday in our family is our son’s birthday. He was born on the Ides of March and it is a day filled with memories for us as his parents. We’re very proud of him. His birthday lands on Wednesday this week, which is likely a busy work day for him, so we may do a bit of celebrating on another day of the week.

In Shakespeare’s play, Julias Caesar, a soothsayer warns Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March.” The tradition of settling debts on the Ides of March was a Roman custom and it was that day in 44BC that Caesar was stabbed to death at a meeting of the Senate. As many as 60 conspirators, led by Brutus and Cassius, were involved. In Roman times, each month had an ides or idus. It was usually the 15th, though in earlier times it was the date of the full moon each month. The 15th became the ides in March, May, July and October. The other months had their ides on the 13th. The superstitious vibe of the day came only after the assassination of Caesar. It is unlikely that we would even know about traditions around the ides were it not for Shakespeare’s Play.

I suspect that there will be lots of participants in the St. Patrick’s Day parade who won’t be thinking of the Ides of March, especially since the parade will be held before the Ides. Then again, I suspect that there will be plenty of participants who have no Irish heritage. The wearing of the green doesn’t seem to require a test of one’s genetics in order for one to be accepted as a celebrant.

It is likely that I will forget all about the holiday and my choice of clothing. I don’t own many items of clothing that are green these days. And I am unlikely to get pinched. I think that tradition is fading. My granddaughters, however, are likely to be wearing green on March 17. They both have bright green boots and they wear their boots to school most days. There is no shortage of mud at the farm this time of the year and boots are easy to pull on when heading out the door. There are no laces to tie. The girls tend to wear their green boots every day.

However and whenever you celebrate, I hope you have a good day. I’m sending my greetings along early this year just in case your celebration doesn’t land on the 17th. I suspect that by the time the 17th rolls around, I will have at least had the opportunity to eat a slice of birthday cake. I’m looking forward to the celebration.

Space for bees

Rev. Lorenzo Lorraine Langsgtroth was a Congregational minister who lived in the 19th century. He graduated from Yale University in 1831. He served various Congregational churches in Massachusetts for the next 17 years. In 1848 he became the principal of a women’s school in Greenfield, Massachusetts. He died in the pulpit of the Wayne Avenue Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio on October 6, 1895. At the time he was just beginning a sermon on the love of God.

I probably would not have known anything about Rev. Langstroth, however, had it not been for his hobby, which he turned into a full-time vocation when he was around the age of 48. Although he continued to be active in the church and occasionally served as a guest preacher in various congregations, he turned away from the full-time ministry to pursue full-time beekeeping. About six years before he retired from the ministry, he received a patent for the first movable frame beehive in America. At the time of the patent, Langstroth was keeping nearly 100 hives. The ideas behind Langstroth’s hive invention had been discovered and implemented in European hives, but Langstroth brought together both removable frames and a system of keeping precise spaces between the various parts of the hive allowing for the frames to be easily and safely removed without disrupting the bees.

Langstroth hives are the most popular hives among both amateur and commercial beekeepers to this day. They are wooden boxes with frames that hang from the top of the box. The tops of the frames touch leaving space between the lower parts of the frames. Above the tops of the frames there is a wooden inner cover and an outer cover goes over the entire structure. The boxes can be stacked allowing a colony to occupy more than one box. A queen excluder, which is a metal mesh that allows worker bees to pass through it, but has holes too small for the larger queen can be placed between the lower boxes containing the colony and an upper box. The area where the queen cannot go does not have any developing bee eggs or larvae and is used for honey storage only. This makes harvesting of the honey a relatively simple procedure for the beekeeper.

What makes the hive work is the precise spacing between frames and tops. Langstroth didn’t make his own hives. He likely wasn’t a cabinet maker. A Philadelphia cabinetmaker and fellow bee enthusiast, Henry Bourquin, made the first hives to Langstroth’s specifications. What makes the hives work so well is an understanding of the space bees need within a hive. In order to lay eggs the queen needs to be able to move among the hanging honeycomb. In the wild, bees build colonies in empty spaces such as voids in trees or even holes in the ground. Inside the hive they hang honeycomb from the top in strips, leaving space between them. Hives for domestic bees provide that space and Langstroth hives provide frames upon which the bees can build their comb. The frames speed up the process of building the hive for the bees. Making the frames removable allows the beekeeper to inspect the colony and to harvest honey. Beekeepers had made hives with removable frames before Langstroth received his patent. What made his hives unique was the careful and precise spacing between frames. If a space less than 1/4 inch was left between the frames or between the frame and the top, the bees would fill that space with propolis. The propolis is so sticky that it makes separation of frames and even removal of the top of the box nearly impossible. However, if the space was larger than 3/8 of an inch, the bees would fill the space with comb. Leaving a space that was between 1/4 and 3/8 of an inch resulted in all of the comb being built on the frames and the top and frames of the box being removable. Such a box is a Langstroth hive.

I’ve been reading a lot about bee hives recently. Like Langstroth, I made my career as a congregational minister. Like him, I am not a cabinet maker. Like him, I have become fascinated with honey bees in my retirement. Unlike him, I’m a lot older starting as an amateur beekeeper. Fortunately for me, I can take advantage of Langstroth’s discoveries and the experiences of thousands of other beekeepers as I set up my apiary for the arrival of my first bees sometime in mid-April.

Our son’s farm provides the space where I’ll keep my hives. I’m starting with two hives and have no plans to expand. A small apiary will be just fine for a hobby beekeeper. The farm’s orchard, berry plants and flowers will provide plenty of nectar for the bees and the bees will increase the productivity of the farm by helping with pollination of the plants. I should be able to harvest honey. Two hives will produce more honey than our family can consume. I’m not exactly sure what I will do with the surplus. Perhaps I will donate it to a local food bank. Perhaps I will allow my granddaughters to sell it at their stand where they sell surplus eggs from the chickens. Thinking of excess honey is getting way ahead of where I am right now, however. I haven’t even installed bees in my hives. I’m just setting up the hives and getting ready. I’ve ordered bees from established beekeepers who are skilled at dividing colonies and can provide 5-frame nuclear colonies that is already established and can be moved and installed in my hives. Those colonies can be installed because the precision of the Langstroth hive allows frames to be moved between boxes where they will fit with the required 1/4” to 3/8” space.

Throughout my life, I’ve enjoyed many different hobbies. Most of them, such as skiing, flying airplanes, collecting canoes and kayaks, and other hobbies have required that our family spend considerable amounts of money. Beekeeping holds the potential to become a break-even hobby, giving our family more benefit from honey than cost in supplies. Time will tell whether or I will be successful and the venture will pan out.

In the meantime, I have a sense of following a fellow Congregational minister. I’m grateful for Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth and his love of keeping bees.

Watching the moon and tides

I’m beginning to pay a little more attention to the moon. I’ve been aware of the phases of the moon for as long as I can remember. And I know that the moon’s orbit around our planet is elliptical, meaning that it is closer at some times and farther away at others. Although it has been overcast for a couple of days, I know that the moon is nearly full. The full moon is a couple of days from now, so it would appear to be full if I could see it through the clouds. My attention to the moon is heightened by my growing awareness of the tides.

The tidal variation in our little bay is approximately 9 feet, but that varies with the distance between the earth and the moon. 9 feet of variation is enough that Terrell Creek, which empties into the bay a little over a mile from our house, flows both directions, depending on the height of the tides and the time of the day. The creek is nearly flat as it makes its way alongside the shore before making the final turn into the ocean. When the tide is high, the creek flows inland with the tide for all the way to a marshy area three miles from where it empties into the ocean. The water in the creek above the marsh is fresh. The water below the marsh is saltier. Ocean creatures such as shrimp and crabs make their way up the stream, providing excelling fishing for gulls and other birds. The saltwater loosens some of the plants that grow in the marsh, washing them downstream, making our end of the creek a good feeding area for ducks and geese. The result is that the creek is a great place for birdwatching.

Right now the highest tide is occurring around 5:30 am and the lowest around 10:30 pm. These times will get later each day. In between the morning high tide and the evening low tide is another low tide at around 11 am and a high tide around 3:30. The midday high is a couple of feet lower than the early morning one and the midday low is probably about 6 feet higher than the one late in the evening. It sounds a bit complicated when I try to describe it in writing, but it seems pretty natural when we are walking alongside the bay nearly every day and watching the flow in the creek.

There are times when the variation between the low and high that occur midday right now is so much less than the current variation that the bay only sees one high and one low in a 24-hour period. That is fairly rare, and since we mostly walk during daylight hours we aren’t always aware of it unless we are looking at the online tide chart.

Interestingly, the tides are a bit higher than they were thousands of years ago. The orbit of the moon is getting slightly bigger than it used to be. The moon is moving farther away from the earth. The process is known as “lunar recession.” Scientists now have a method for accurately measuring the distance between the moon and the earth. The astronauts of the Apollo missions, placed reflectors on the surface of the moon. Scientists can now aim lasers at those reflectors and measure the amount of time it takes for the light to be reflected back to the earth. Since the speed of the light’s travel is constant they can use that information to accurately measure the distance between the moon and the earth. The moon is currently moving away from the earth at a rate of about 1.5 inches per year. The rate of lunar recession varies over time, but a recent study suggests that around 3.2 billion years ago the moon was about 170,000 miles from earth. Now it is around 238,855 miles. That’s a big difference.

Since the reflector and laser method of measuring the distance between the moon and earth are relatively new, you might wonder how scientists have come to an estimate of the distance between the two bodies over 3 billion years ago. Their clue is that there is geological evidence of the ebb and flow of tides billions of years ago. And tidal variation was smaller billions of years ago. Scientists also can determine from the fossil record that the length of days was also shorter at that time. Those two phenomena are both related to the moon.

The farther the distance between the earth and the moon, the higher the tidal variation. The water on the surface of the earth sloshes with the pull of the moon’s gravity. The farther away the moon the higher the slosh. (You can see that I’m using highly technical terms like slosh here.) The bigger the slosh the more friction the water places on the rotation of the earth. Over billions of years this results in slowing the rate of rotation of the earth. The slower the rotation the longer the day. There was a time when the earth was rotating so fast that the distance between sunrise and sunset was only slightly over 5 hours, giving two sunrises and two sunsets in 24 hours. The rotation rate has slowed to the point where the length of a day is now around 24 hours. And that rate of rotation continues to slow as the moon continues to move farther from the earth. Our days are getting slightly longer with each passing year, though by such a small amount that one would never notice in the span of a lifetime.

The rate at which the rotation of the earth changes is affected by continental drift. The current configuration of the continents on the surface of the planet leaves the distribution of water in the earth’s oceans nearly balance with the spin of the planet. This means that the sloshing is fairly regular. It would be much different if the continents were wider or narrower.

This universe is an incredibly complex system with many interrelated parts. We cannot perceive all of it. But at this phase of my life, I am able to look up to the sky and observe the phases of the moon and walk along the shore and observe the ebb and flow of the tides. It is enough to be fascinating for me and to get me to thinking, which is a good thing.

Whatcom Reads

Our County has a wonderful tradition called “Whatcom Reads.” Each year a book is chosen and presented to the county as a book to read during the year. The books are chosen by a volunteer committee that receives nominations from people in the county. During the year there are book groups and opportunities for discussion of the book. At the conclusion of each year’s program there are a series of events, often featuring the author of the book. At one of those events the next year’s read is announced. The program has successfully presented fifteen years of books to read and receives widespread support in the community. Official sponsors include the Whatcom County Library, the library at Western Washington University, Northwest Indian College, Bellingham Technical College, Whatcom Community College as well as a local independent bookstore, Village Books, and the City of Bellingham.

The program does not follow the calendar year. Events surrounding the end of the year of reading and the announcement of next year’s book occur in the spring. Last night we were able to attend the author’s event at the historic Mount Baker Theater. Jess Walter, author of a dozen books including the 2023 Whatcom Reads title, The Cold Millions, spoke to over 500 enthusiastic readers. It was a delightful evening’s entertainment for us. Walter is witty, funny, and entertaining as a speaker. The questions from the audience were thoughtful and challenging and he answered them well, including several amusing stories.

I haven’t been particularly engaged in the Whatcom Reads program, but I am a big fan of Jess Walter and have read several of his books. I enjoyed his historical novel about his home town, Spokane, Washington, sometime during the year and so was prepared for its discussion last night. The novel contains the stories of several characters involved in the rise of the Industrial Workers of the World, the wealthy mine and timber industrialists who fought - often violently - to suppress the union, the law enforcement officers, and several other characters who were part of the history of Spokane. Many of the stories are told from a first person perspective and the reader is allowed to see things from several different perspectives as the book proceeds.

The book is the recipient of multiple awards and has been named best book of the year by dozens of reviews, newspapers, and magazines. The history that it presents is not often taught in schools. Early twentieth century labor activism often is left out of history classes. The struggle was one of income inequality. A few rich owners became more wealthy off of the work of laborers who were not only unfairly compensated, but who also bore unnecessary health risks from unsafe working conditions. When the laborers spoke up they were often jailed, beaten, and otherwise abused for their activism. While the book is an historical novel, it is also a contemporary story as we witness the technological revolution of our time benefitting few at the expense of many.

In addition to my interest in the author and the book that was chosen, I was interested in learning more about the Whatcom Reads program. A brochure available at the event gives a bit of history of the program and contains the list of the fifteen books chosen over the years. I am an avid reader, so I was a bit surprised that I have read only three of the titles on the list. I’m keeping the brochure as a reading list and hope to add several more of the books on the list, as well as next year’s title to my reading in the year to come.

One of my responsibilities in my position as Interim Minister of Faith Formation at Bellingham Congregational Church is to administer the congregation’s program of selecting an annual book for the whole church to read. Without knowing the rich history of the Whatcom Reads program, we had a very successful program in 2022 with the book, Climate Church, Climate World by Jim Antal. We were able to have several groups within the church read and discuss the book. Our adult forum had a session with the author at the conclusion of its discussion of the book and the author keynoted a major event at the church in November. We received 18 suggestions from the congregation for possible books to read together in 2023 and the committee took its time selecting the title. We have been fortunate to already be in contact with this year’s author and have scheduled a time for him to join our Adult Forum in mid-April. The processes of selecting a book, facilitating discussion groups, and planning author events has been joyful work for me and I now understand how much our congregation’s program has been influenced by the Whatcom Reads program.

Since my childhood summers when I would check out as many books as the library would allow and took the books to my treehouse to read one after another, reading has been a major part of my life. More than television or movies, reading has been something for which I have always made time, even when our lives were at their busiest. I have collected books and continue to surround myself with books. In the middle of my academic studies, which required a lot of reading, I was able to pursue reading as a hobby, often having a novel I was reading at the same time as I was responsible for multiple books as part of my formal studies.

I am delighted to add to my reading the titles of Whatcom Reads. I enjoy knowing that there are others in my community who enjoy reading and with whom I have shared the experience of reading the same book. I plan to obtain a copy of the 2024 Whatcom Reads book, Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk, by Sasha Lapointe and read it so that I will be able to discuss it with my friends and participate with my community in an exciting and rewarding program.

Filling up the landfill

A while ago, it was difficult to obtain home testing kits for Covid-19. We worried that we might not have test kits if symptoms developed and were checking a variety of sources to obtain the kits. When we saw available kits, we picked up a few. At the church we stockpiled several kits so that tests were available for singers and other worship leaders. At home we started to keep several kits on hand so that we would have them when needed. Not long afterward, the kits became more widely available. We obtained kits in the mail after requesting them from the post office website. There were free kits available at our public library.

When we had cold symptoms, something that happened several times during the pandemic, we would test ourselves to make sure that we weren’t suffering from Covid.

Recently we were cleaning in our bathroom and I took a look at the collection of test kits in a bathroom cabinet. I noticed that several of the kits had expiration dates that have already passed. What looked like a healthy supply of kits yielded only two boxes, for a total of four tests, that had not passed their expiration dates. We talked about what to do with the expired kits. I did a little quick research on the Internet and found that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not recommend the use of expired kits. There is an increased chance that the kits will indicate a negative result when the virus is present after the expiration of the kits. False positive test results could lead an infected person to inadvertently spread the virus.

A little bit more research, however, led me to discover that the FDA has extended the expiration dates on several brands of tests, including the ones that we have. Despite the dates printed on the test kits, they are considered to be effective months later. You can follow this link for the list of authorized home test kits and the effective expiration dates of individual brands. The bottom line is that it is a complex process to be responsible when it comes to at home testing for the virus.

We have been trying to avoid single-use items. Each week truckloads of trash are hauled away from our neighborhood, headed toward landfills. All of this trash creates problems for the environment. In addition, the consumption of so many items results in using too many of the earth’s resources. Our culture encourages overconsumption and mountains of useful items end up being buried in the ground. Discarding plastics results in more rapid consumption of fossil fuels which are in limited supply and are related to global warming and the climate crisis that is affecting people around the globe.

The covid test kits contain quite a bit of plastic. In addition to the chemical vials, swabs, and other necessary kit components, many brands have plastic packaging. While some plastics can be recycled, there are many plastic items that end up in landfills. Because of the chemicals involved and the fact that they are considered medical waste, none of he items related to the Covid test kits can be recycled.

The pandemic is directly related to a dramatic increase in medical waste across the country. Many face masks are single use and although we do re-use masks, they are designed to be disposed of on a regular basis. Most masks are generally designed for single use. While most of the masks are made of paper products which biodegrade, most have plastic components in the straps and the materials used to bond the straps to the masks.

Hospitals generate mountains of waste. In efforts to prevent the spread of infection, many hospital workers discard multiple pairs of gloves each day. While there are a few systems in place to recycle medical gloves, most hospitals, clinics, dentist offices, and other places where gloves are routinely worn simply dispose of the gloves in garbage that ends up in landfills. Urban areas are encountering increasing problems due to the lack of space for the increasing mountains of garbage.

We try to take advantage of all of the recycling services of which we are aware. In addition to the curbside recycling offered by the company that hauls our trash, we pay an extra fee for another company that specializes in recycling items that the trash collection company cannot. Recycling is important, but recycling alone is insufficient to solve the problems of excess consumption. The real key to living more responsibly is to consume fewer of the earth’s resources in the first place. In our case, the starting point is to be much more careful of what we bring into our house in the first place.

By being careful, we have been able to reduce the amount of garbage we put out to be hauled to the landfill. We no longer need weekly pickup services. Even with every-other week garbage pickup, we generally have the toter provided by the collection service less than half filled. Although our service requires garbage to be bagged, we are able to get by with one or two bags per week. And we are working to reduce that amount.

In the United States, we have a problem with excess consumption of clothing. Fashions dictate ever changing wardrobes and many people discard clothing that is in good shape and could be worn many more times. Clothes are not one of our problems. We don’t pay much attention to fashion and we tend to wear our clothes for many years. Susan is a good seamstress and she can usually repair our clothes when they need mending. With four grandchildren who live nearby she almost always has at least one zipper replacement project waiting.

In the scheme of things, I suppose that discarding expired covid tests is a pretty small thing. Still it seems wasteful. It makes me feel a little guilty for having hoarded so many tests. I probably took more than we needed out of fear of not having a test when we needed one. I’ve still got a lot to learn when it comes to living responsibly in this world of limited resources.

Habitat for Humanity skills

Years ago the secretary at our church and her husband were preparing to build themselves a home. As part of their preparations they volunteered for the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate to learn framing skills. Working on a couple of Habitat house construction projects that were supervised by people who know how to build homes gave them experience and confidence to tackle the home building process. Eventually they were successful in building their dream home.

Over the years Susan and I have talked about building a home, but our busy lives and skill sets never lined up to make that a practical reality. We have been blessed with opportunities to live in homes that others have built. Being homeowners, however, has presented us with many home repair challenges that require us to use some basic construction skills. Like the secretary and her husband, I have learned a great deal by working alongside other construction volunteers working on Habitat for Humanity projects.

One of my mentors in the process was an experienced home builder who helped supervise several Habitat for Humanity projects that our church sponsored. He had great patience with my occasional errors in measurement and lots of tips on how to correct mistakes that were made. I was always grateful for his friendship as well as his practical skills. We were both early risers. He would go to the construction site early, before the other volunteers were due to arrive, and clean up, set out tools, and prepare for the day’s work. I learned to arrive with a thermos of coffee, pour a couple of cups and help push a broom or pick up wood scraps as we talked.

I am not currently volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. I am aware of the local affiliate and I plan to do more volunteering, but the move, a new job, helping on our son’s farm, and spending time with our grandchildren have taken priority for now. Having served as a Habitat for Humanity volunteer, however, still has a positive impact on my life.

Shortly after moving into this house, we noticed that the place where we have our dining table was a bit darker than other places in the house. There is no window in that part of the room and there was no ceiling light fixture. A while ago, we hired an electrician to install a new light fixture. In order to run the wires, he had to cut three small holes in the sheetrock. He told us in advance that he was not able to do the drywall repair and that we would be responsible for doing that work or hiring another worker to complete it. My Habitat for Humanity volunteering skills gave me confidence to make the repairs myself. It took me a bit longer than I expected, and I admit I was slow to start the project in part because I didn’t have a very good plan at first. However, I am pleased with the repairs and the holes were patched, taped, textured and painted to match the wall and ceiling.

Now I have another drywall repair ahead of me. This one is a bit larger. A plumbing leak needed to be addressed and an access hole was made in the ceiling of our living room, which is below an upstairs bathroom. That hole is bigger than the ones made for the electrical work. The plan for the repair, however, is similar. And, since I recently completed the other repair, I have the tools and materials assembled. Usually, any home repair job requires multiple trips to the hardware store, but I think this one can be accomplished with materials that are on hand.

While I am at it, there is a dog door next to our patio sliding door for which we have no need. We do not have a dog, and when my sister’s dog is visiting, we do not want to encourage the dog to discover the dog door as we like to control when the dog comes and goes from the back yard. Repairing the wall through which the dog door is a bigger task, as I will have to do a bit of framing, install sheeting and siding on the outside, insulation and drywall on the inside. I happen to have sufficient siding of the type needed from a project on the farmhouse and most of the rest of the repair can be made with the purchase of a single sheet of 5/8 sheetrock. I’m getting myself psyched up to tackled that project as well.

I am not opposed to hiring workers to help with home repairs, but doing so can become quite a bit of work. In the case of the electrician and plumber, it required multiple phone calls to schedule the work. Then I had to make sure I was at home when the workers arrived and stay home while they worked. With our flexible schedule for our work, this was not a big problem, but my schedule had to be adjusted. The electrical repair required an inspection, which took more scheduling and making sure I was home to give the inspector access. Finding a handy person to make drywall repairs, especially a small project is a real challenge. The professionals whose names I obtained from a local realtor aren’t interested in small repair jobs.

Being a homeowner requires developing do-it-yourself skills. That is part of the genius of the Habitat for Humanity program. Those who will become homeowners are required to obtain sweat equity in their homes by volunteering during the construction process. The volunteering helps them gain construction skills which help them once they become home owners. The training in construction skills occurs for other volunteers as well. There are a lot of people around the world who have learned valuable skills while working to help eliminate poverty housing.

When I am measuring, I remember tips that my Habitat mentor taught me. When I am applying mud and tape, I use tools I bought to work on a Habitat project when I lived in Rapid City. I am by no means a professional, and most repair jobs take me much longer than an experienced worker would need, but I usually get the job done and am pleased with the results. It is just one of the many benefits that Habitat for Humanity has given me. I’m pleased to recommend volunteering to my friends.

Salt on the roads

Since moving up next to the Canadian border, I’ve begun listening to CBC radio. The large broadcast antennas throughout Vancouver, BC, make it easy to pick up a signal all of the places we routinely drive. While we usually don’t listen to the radio when there are two of us in the car, I almost always turn the radio on when I’m driving alone. Of course, I can receive other stations, including American PBS, there is something about CBC that appeals to me. Sometimes I go to the CBC website for local news. They provide good regional coverage and their website operates without a paywall, so I can read all of the articles I want without having to subscribe and have a fee deducted from my credit card. For the most part, I have not succumbed to paywalls even though it means that all I can read of some of my favorite news sources is headlines.

It was from CBC that I learned of self deicing roads. I have already observed that road crews use different techniques here than were employed in Rapid City where we lived for 25 years. Out here road crews are out with salt sprayers before storms. They leave a sticky residue on the surface of the road that seems to last for several days. If we don’t receive any precipitation, the salt dries into white lines on the pavement. Then when snow falls, it turns to slush before it can form ice that adheres to the road surface. It seems to work fairly well when temperatures are relatively warm and less so when it is below 10 degrees. However, weather is mild here and it isn’t below 10 degrees very often.

I don’t know what kind of salt the road crews use around here. Plain old sodium chloride - rock salt - is the most common deicer used on roads. Magnesium chloride and calcium chloride are also used in some places. Both prove to be fairly sticky and cling to the road surface. All of the salting products are highly corrosive, making hem hard on vehicles and infrastructure. The products can also kill vegetation and trees alongside roadways. Runoff from road salt has also been found to threaten the health of freshwater lakes.

There are a few experimental areas where engineers have incorporated salt into the asphalt mix when the road is built or resurfaced. This salt is then released when the road is icy, making a self-salting road. The process is quite a bit more complicated than it sounds on the surface. Careful additives need to be included so that the salt releases only at appropriate temperatures and at an appropriate rate. Another problem with incorporating salt into road mix is that if not done properly, is the substance creating voids in the road that quickly weaken and break up. Imagine potholes filled with highly corrosive chemicals that not only jar your teeth and cause mechanical failures in your car, but also spread corrosives on your car to speed up the formation of rust and cause additional problems.

The American Chemical Society, in its journal ACS Omega, has published a study on a carefully designed road surface material incorporating salt. This study used sodium acetate salt, which is less corrosive. The salt is encapsulated in small polymer spheres that are mixed with asphalt. The polymer capsules have tiny channels that release salt at a veery slow rate, so the roadway will remain ice resistant for at least eight years.

It seems to me that the process might have some positive benefits for Canadians, who presumably know how to drive on slippery roads. I have no solid evidence of this, but am making the assumption based on the amount of snow that falls on Canada, which is more than we get around here. We are already noticing different quirks of Canadian drivers. Alberta drivers tend to dart in and out of traffic and cut you off when driving on the freeway. On two lane roads they seem to wait until there is approaching traffic before passing a vehicle. I wonder if the accident rate in Alberta is higher than other provinces, or if the Alberta drivers we see are from less populated places where they can survive such dangerous behavior. British Columbia Drivers tend to drive precisely six miles per hour faster than the speed limit. That would be ten kilometers and I guess they think it is close enough.

In general local drivers around here don’t seem to have any slippery road skills at all. They seem to drive on slippery pavement the same way that they do on dry pavement. That means that there are lots of cars sliding into the ditch because they are simply going too fast for conditions. It also means that there are plenty of freeway accidents caused by drivers following too close to one another. Having lived most of my life where driving on slippery roads is part of life, I instinctively increase following distances. On the freeway around here, that makes room for another driver to merge into the traffic, forcing me to slow down to create the required space. Without a doubt, the biggest hazard of slippery roads around here is other drivers.

Yesterday morning when we drove to work the roads had about 3 inches of slushy snow on them. We had no trouble driving in our car, which has all wheel drive. I did hear the chatter of the ABS breaks at one intersection when i approached going just a little bit too fast, but I adjusted my driving accordingly. There were several folks who simply stayed off the roads. The schools had a snow day and only one other church employee was in the building when we arrived. Some stayed home all day due to snowy conditions. Still, we had to deal with quite a few drivers who didn’t know how to control their cars and saw a few in the ditch on our way to work.

I suppose that conditions were improved by the salt on the roads, but I’m wondering whether an investment in self-salting asphalt would be worth the cost around here. It doesn’t snow that often, and salt on the road doesn’t do anything to improve driver skills.

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