Agriculture, Culture

At The Edge of Cliff and Water

Niagara Escarpment, Wisconsin

Twenty-one months into COVID hibernation, we often wonder when we’ll see our kids again. They reside on the other side of the border, a thin imaginary political line of separation. While thinking of that, it dawned on me that we do share some common geography.

Living near the shore of Lake Michigan, outside of Chicago, we share the same water basin as those kids who live in Toronto, on the shore of Lake Ontario. So while we may be some 600 miles distant, I take some comfort knowing that we drink from the same trough.

Paddle To The Sea

I am reminded of that wonderful book, Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling Clancy Holling. A young boy dreamed one late winter of sending his small carved canoe “Paddle Person” from the melting ice of Lake Nipigon down into the Great Lakes, and ultimately to emerge in the Atlantic. It’s an excellent illustration of our connectedness by way of the water.

Paddle Makes His Trip

Less well known is our connection due to the Niagara Escarpment. As a boy raised in Southern Ontario, I have always taken the escarpment as one of those unique wonders of Canadian geology. The escarpment appears–and I will elaborate on that in a moment–to originate at the Niagara Falls, the escarpment’s namesake. Being some 170 feet high, the Falls are an incredible sight of raw nature, and have attracted millions over the years to view them, and feel the mist on their cheeks. They drain Lake Erie, and feed Lake Ontario. Back to our young boy, his Paddle Person will plummet over those falls in the story.

The Escarpment Starts in Rochester

What any Ontarian knows is the migration of the escarpment west to Halton County where it turns north, moling through the terrain, eventually emerging on the Bruce Peninsula, which forms the western shore of Georgian Bay. At the northern point, Tobermory, the escarpment slips under water and emerges at Manitoulin Island near Georgian’s north shore. For Canadians, myself included, the escarpment ended there.

Upper Level of the Door County Quarry

Imagine my surprise a few years ago when a friend in Green Bay Wisconsin pointed out that the Niagara Escarpment actually formed Green Bay itself, on the northwestern shore of Lake Michigan. Who knew? Our public education system failed to make that clear, decades ago. Let me just add, that as of thirty years ago, living in Toronto, I had no idea even where Green Bay was. My ignorance of Great Lake geography was woeful. The escarpment arcs in a southwesterly direction from Sault Ste. Marie, and forms a ridge that descends as far south as Appleton in northeast Wisconsin.

Potawatomi Park

Only then did I appreciate the true size and dimension of this iconic limestone ridge. As a frequent visitor to Door County, Wisconsin, I marvel at the escarpment’s height and color. Well I should, as The Door owes its existence to the rugged cliff. The county’s maximum height is around 150 feet above Green Bay, close to that of Niagara Falls. At hundreds of sites along its coast, viewers can see the craggy cliffs that jut out of the waters. Inland, the roads nudge up against the towering limestone and dolomite rocks comprising thousands of distinguishable layers of sea floor, exposed to the air after hiding nearly 400 million years underground.

The Caves on Lake Michigan

How did that happen? What made the pre-historic promontory raise its head?

The escarpment’s genesis is a long story told well in a short paragraph. Over a period of some 24 million years, during the Silurian age, an ancient sea was the home of jawed and bony fish and arthropods. They lived, died, and floated to the bottom to be pressed into limestone for the next 400 million years. You can see the remains of these creatures in the cliffs as long flat layers of cream-to-gold colored crumbling rock.

Early May Cherry Blossoms

For your confirmation, the Jurassic period was only 200 million years ago. During the last ice age, some 20,000 years ago, the region surrounding the Great Lakes was submerged under a two-mile thick layer of ice. The weight of the ice pack actually depressed the land beneath it. When the ice melted, the weight was removed, and the land popped back up. The melt water helped dissolve much of the outcropping, and the escarpment was revealed. The process is called post glacial rebounding, and it continues even today.

A New Planting of Grapes

Door County is the beneficiary of this geological epiphany. It is sandwiched between the temperature-moderating waters of Lake Michigan and Green Bay. The 40-mile spit of land is ideal for growing grapes, cherries and apples. The bi-products are wine, pie and cider. This agriculture is very similar to the escarpment in the Niagara Peninsula which also flourishes with similar viticulture and orchards.

Trilliums in Abundance

We visit Door frequently, and as I stand on the shoreline of Lake Michigan, I think that as far away as Ontario may be, the water, and the cliffs connect us. Living in the Great Lakes region is a wonderfully inclusive thing, and the little Paddle Man proves it.

Thanks for reading! I hope that COVID has not prevented you from seeing your family, but hopefully you have mutual reference points, a star, a TV show, a sports team, perhaps a song that brings you closer together.

Paddle-To-The-Sea was written and first published in 1941. Beautifully written and exquisitely illustrated, its ISBN is 0-395-29203-4.

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childhood, Culture, Sports

Scrubbed

It’s an odd word. Historically, ‘scrub’ was a pejorative meant to dismiss people of poor moral content. More recently, it meant to be cleaned whole. And in sports, a match was scrubbed due to some other factor: weather, disqualification, illness, schedule. But for me, Scrub is the game we played as kids in my hometown of Delhi. I was reminded of it as the Yankees and White Sox emerged from the cornfield in Dyersville Iowa last Thursday night.

White Sox and Yankees emerge from the magic corn in Dyersville, Iowa

There are whole libraries devoted to baseball, so I won’t try to start another, but Scrub was a derivative of the game that frankly was a lot more fun than nine against nine players. What made it attractive was the balance of a strict empirical order of play versus wild random luck. You could be at bat, and a moment later, lost in right field.

Scrub used the same diamond as regular baseball. Our school had two diamonds, and any recess in the spring would find them full, playing this all-inclusive game.There were no teams. Everyone was welcome. Players were positioned by how quickly they responded to the invitation to play.

“Who wants to play Scrub?” This invitation was announced usually by the guy who brought the bat and ball.

Immediately, all involved named their positions as they were sequenced: first batter, second batter, third batter, catcher, pitcher, and so on out to left field. You had to be quick to get high up in the order. And there could be numerous players. That is, the outfield could have ten fielders, who were numbered as such.

The play of the game was initiated by the pitcher who as always, trying to strike out the batter. But failing that, a fly ball was an option to be caught out, and the interchange between fielders and basemen was the other avenue to get the batter out. And here, the numbers worked against the outed batter. They went to the very end of the line, maybe as far back as tenth fielder, while everyone else moved up a notch. So it was that everyone had a chance to play every position. What better way to sharpen one’s skills?

The beauty of this game however was the introduction of pure, wild random luck. If the batter popped up a fly, and it was caught, that catcher traded places with the batter, thus skipping to the head of the line. Catching a fly in Scrub was like winning a lottery, albeit a very small one.

An additional merit of Scrub, absent any team requirements, is that no one suffered the ignominy of being the last chosen for a team. I think that’s why I enjoyed Scrub so much.

There may be some baseball allegories in life: ‘striking out’, ‘getting a walk’, ‘popping up’, ‘a home run’ for example but Scrub was a receptacle for all of these. You could be on top one moment, and out in left field the next, and before you knew it, right up to bat again.

Thanks for reading and sharing! I hope you had the opportunity to watch the “Field of Dreams” game the other night. Apart from the crowds who came onto the field, and then invited to walk through the corn, it was an eye opener too: what kind of corn grows nearly twelve feet high??

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Agriculture, Wildlife

Fence Wars

The pandemic is winding down, sort of. Despite the restrictions put upon us, I decided early in the spring, that this would be the summer of the flower garden. How much trouble can you get in, if you never leave the yard, right?

A fine summer garden, suitable for replication!

To that end, I retrieved pictures of a magnificent Door County Wisconsin garden that I wanted to replicate. Taking this photo in hand to a local nursery, I sought the help of a smiling lady who would identify and select the flowers I wanted to grow. She enjoyed my enthusiasm as I racked up the charges. She joyfully counted up the zinnia, rudbeckia, sweet potato vine, coleus, ageratum, gladiolus, alyssum and countless pots of geraniums. I was envisioning a floral presentation which would turn the heads of any passers by.

While I trailed behind her among the rows of flowering flats of annuals, I couldn’t help noticing the abundant displays of leafy, shade-loving plants as well. Perfect for the crabapple-covered berm in our front yard! So I loaded up on some plants blessed with strange and exotic names like hosta, lilies, caladium, coral bells, heartleaf, and lungwort, and pushed a crowded steel buggy back to the cash register. It was without doubt, the most expensive impulse I had enjoyed in a long time. And the flowers would pay that all off.

The Shastas delivered a mountain of white.

I won’t bore you with the earnest labors which followed, turning over the earth in our front, side and back gardens, pulling out the weeds and dead roots from prior year’s efforts. But count on it, the ground was mightily disturbed, and by the end of two weekends, I had planted all the greenery, laid down some delicious fertilizer, and watered.

And waited.

The summer of the flower garden was off to an auspicious start. Every day through May and June I walked the perimeters, pulling out weeds, and smiling as blooms started to appear. Meanwhile, the perennials were covering for any spot not in bloom, so I watched as the shasta daisies blew up into a mountain of white, our bed of roses went wild all at once in multiple colors, evening primrose, sweet william, even our hollyhocks rocketed to new heights outside the fence. The day lilies lining our hedge delivered a marching brass band of orange trumpets. There was no end to the diverse display of blooms, and my dream of the summer flower garden was being fulfilled.

Day Lilies on parade.

The dream was not mine alone however.

On an early morning stroll through the zinnia patch, I was stunned to find that five of the thirteen plants had been felled like prime pulp wood. The perpetrator left no footprints, but in a brazen attack on our sovereignty, had chewed through the stalks at knee height, bringing them to the ground where they were then masticated into shredded greens. Gadzooks!

Zinnias trimmed and cut.

I scratched my head at this, and then went to the side garden where the full Door County display had been planned. Calamity again. Three more zinnias, which are the tall variety and much counted on for color, had been trimmed and toppled. But adding to that injury, the same dastardly villain had also chowed down on the sweet potato vine. The vine, when mature, provides a brilliant light green, or a dark purple outpouring to the garden, knee high. It was at this time, lower than a coalminer’s boot.

I recalled a short discussion at the nursery: “Do deer or rabbits like sweet potato vine?” The helpful lady replied, “Well, they are a vegetable, you know.”

Baby bunnies: “Don’t leave the nest!”

Galvanized by these assaults I quickly looked for our asiatic lilies and their brilliant orange blossoms. There they were, in shreds like forlorn tears, fallen from their completely denuded and decapitated stems.

It struck me that I had sown my own misfortunes. Back in April, while weeding around one of our hundreds of clumps of narcissus, I spied a small brown furry animal. It was a baby rabbit. Following his mother’s instructions, he was frozen in place, waiting for me to go away. But I didn’t. Looking around, I discovered that this little fellow had disobeyed a greater instruction: “Do not leave the nest!” Indeed, there was a nest, burrowed under the side of one of our roses. It was beautifully made with a soft bedding of warm, sun-soaked leaves, and at that moment, home to three more baby bunnies.

Then, I made the worst error possible. I informed my wife who is an ardent bunny lover, that we had a tiny family of four in our rose garden. After settling her down, and dampening those motherly instincts, I promised to leave the small nursery to itself. Cute little fellows, they were smaller than my fist, and had tiny bunny ears. How could I possibly harm even a whisker on their adorable heads?

The wiley bunny: hungry and crafty.

We watched for them constantly, and after a couple of days, they had fled. Occasionally they would pop their heads out from under the back deck, or play a hopscotch game beside the yew hedge. We were entertained as they rolled in the sand–where there used to be a healthy lawn–and laughed as they nibbled on blades of grass.

So I was reconciled to a hands-off policy vis-a-vis the bunnies. As it turned out, one day a gorgeous red fox was skirting around the backyard. Foxes are quite extraordinary. They have sharp, well defined facial features which telegraph high intelligence. And their tail, it floats behind like a giant white-tipped bronze scarf in the wind. But most importantly, though sadly, they love rabbit. From that day on, the bunnies no longer frolicked in the yard. Except for one, whom I suspect is the same one that wandered from his nest as an infant. And he was now the numero uno in our backyard.

I thanked the fox under my breath, and explained to my wife about the circle of life and other esoteric philosophies about food chains, karma and rabbit ragout, which by the way is highly over-rated. We had rabbit once in a Montreal restaurant, and I nearly dislocated my jaw because of its rubbery texture.

Trimmed, just like McQueen would do it.

The fox disappeared from our yard, and I saw that my best defense against further intrusions was a fence. I retrieved a sturdy green plastic net fence from the garage, and staked it up around the zinnias. I likewise circled the sweet potato vine in the vain hope it would recover. Returning to discuss my “wall” strategy, I was reminded of my promise.

“You won’t hurt the bunnies.”

“Nope. I am just cordoning off the area. We will co-exist.”

“Good, because they have a right to be here. And I like them.”

“No problem. We’re good.” I smiled and pursed my lips.

Maybe the bunny can read!

Next morning I returned to the garden to view the zinnias. Two more were down. But not eaten. Just snipped off at knee height and abandoned, with the blooms lying on the ground as if their necks were broken.

“What the hell?” I searched again for tracks. I found none. But looking closely, I found a small trap door had been incised through the green fence. Ankle high, the door was opened from the bottom, hinged at the top, and its sides neatly snipped off. “Crap!” I couldn’t believe it. The rodent had cut his way in, like Steve McQueen in the Great Escape. To his credit, he mischievously decided not to eat the flower, but just to kill it, to vex me.

Doubling down, I placed bricks against the hole. “That’ll do it, mister. I am onto you now.”

A perfect 3×5 incision.

Next morning, I couldn’t get out to the garden fast enough, and to my dismay, another hole appeared in the fence. And he had cut through three giant marigolds. Rabbits don’t like marigolds. They smell, and they leave orange stains like Cheetos. Still the bunny had struck again.

“Do you know what he’s done now?” I challenged my wife. She responded defensively, “You need to share. They’re hungry too, you know. I think they’re cute.” The fact is I kind of admired the little varmint. The bricks had only egged him on. “I gotta get a better fence!”

ACE Hardware had just the thing– a black plastic, tight mesh fence, 30″ high. I brought it home, and wrapped it around the original green fence. “There. That’ll show ya.” I mumbled to myself. Our summer of the flower garden was getting off to a rocky start, but I felt that there was still time to bring it across the finish line in full bloom. Mind you, the garden was taking on the appearance of a prison yard.

Enjoying a mid-day snack.

Next morning, I stared out the living room window, wondering if I should even take the regular patrol. “What the hell, may as well.” So out to the yard I went, and carefully navigated among the geraniums to get to the prized zinnias. Almost with silent admiration, I gasped, “Two more down! How the heck did he do that??” I should point out that these zinnias are the “cut and come again” variety, according to the little plastic bookmark that comes with each pot. It dawned on me that perhaps the rabbit could read.

Looking closer, I found a section of the new fence where it did not cover the old green one. And there, like the open door to a rabbit smorgasbord was a perfectly carved opening. The bunny had precisely cut a 3″ x 5″ entrance, leaving no sloppy trim, no hanging flaps. A tech school grad could not have done better. I actually think he preferred the new material.

The surprise of this latest violation was that he had cut down no new flowers. I suspect he wanted to leave them for a later meal. But I am off to ACE again, this time, for a steel fence, and perhaps a 12-volt battery.

My plans for the magnificent summer of the flower garden continue, but I now admit that I have a hidden partner in the operation.

Thanks for reading and sharing! I hope you have better luck with your summer garden!

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Culture, Economics, Science

Getting Charged Ain’t Easy

The nation is getting its head around all-electric powered cars by 2035. It sparked me -haha- to wonder if electric cars really generate a carbon footprint smaller than gas-driven cars. My research confirmed it: in a “well-to-wheel” comparison, an electric car generates about one-third the level of carbon compared to the gas guzzler. So case closed on that.

But what troubles me is the generally held notion that we will just plug our car into an outlet every night, and be ready to drive by daylight. Where is the electricity coming from? That is a thornier question, and it doesn’t appear to have a satisfactory answer yet.

Here are some numbers worth knowing. 

  1. The US annual consumption of electricity in 2020 was 3,800 Twh. A ‘Twh” is a terrawatt hour. Because I know you really want to get into this, a terawatt is one trillion watts. That’s with 12 zeros.
  2. The US annual production of electricity for the same year was 4,009 Twh. 

Understanding these two numbers, you see we have a margin, say, a surplus of 209 Twh. Just for fun, that’s 209,000,000,000,000 watts.

What is interesting though is that the US also sells and buys electricity during the year, based on peak demands and capacity levels. But net, we imported 47 Twh last year. So we did not actually have enough to go around, based on our own production capacity.

Not having enough is generally a foreign concept in America, but there you have it.

So: will we have enough electricity for the car in our garage come 2035? That troubles me. Here’s why.

In 2016, American automobile mileage was 3.22 trillion miles. We are “trillionaires” for everything, it seems. Assuming that electric cars replace all the gas guzzlers, and that we still drive the same distance, happily guilt-free of carbon fears, will we have enough electricity?

I am not so sure. Tesla’s 2018 Model 3 has a commendable “mileage” rating of 26Kwh. That is, it can drive 100 miles using only 26 kilowatt hours of electricity. This is the best there is, today, beating out the Chev Volt, VW Golf, and BMW i3. By the way, 26Kwh is the equivalent of burning a 40-watt light bulb over your stove for 27 days. Doesn’t seem so bad, really.

But the total mileage of 3.22 trillion divided by Tesla’s 26Kwh/100 miles will require a total of 837Twh of electricity. That’s additional energy over what we use today. And we only have a margin of 200Kwh.

We do get one break. By shutting down the unnecessary gasoline refineries, we will save 47Twh. So our actual new requirement for electrical power is only 790Twh. That’s 790,000,000,000,000 watts.

Meanwhile, the State of California is enduring periodic black outs. Why? Because in the effort to be a good environmental steward, they have been closing their coal and nuclear power generating stations in favor of wind turbines, solar and hydro-electric power, aka, power dams.  Unfortunately, when there is no wind, no sun, and no water, there is no power. Local cynics refer to the disruptions as ‘Green Outs”. 

It turns out that the engineers in public and private sectors have been noodling on this. Some of the more common solutions are wind turbines. Did you know that today there already 67,000 turbines thrumming the winds in America?  And solar panels? There are 2,500 such farms today.  Of 80,000 dams in the country, some 2,400 are hydro-electric power generators.

These solutions generally fall under the heading “renewable energy” sources. In total, renewable energy supplies 20% of all the power generated in the US.

There is another solution which is being developed, and that is the reversible battery charger. It allows for energy to flow both ways from your electric car. You might plug it in for one night last week to charge for six hours, and then you left your car undriven, and cooling in the garage for several days. During that time, if you have a permit, the power company may take electricity back from your car to top up the grid. You would get a credit, and maybe an empty battery, but you would be a good person.

The lack of surplus electrical energy is not top of mind for many right now, but as we approach the next decade, the subject will arise much more frequently. Stay tuned, and as usual, turn out the lights upon leaving.

Thanks for reading and sharing! Will you get an electric car? Will you get the charger too?

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Sports

Nailing It: Mind Over Matter

Young Phil

A younger Phil Mickelson engages the gallery

Phil Mickelson is not new to golf, but Sunday’s performance at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course revealed a new player that few of us have seen before. He seemingly shed a skin, and reappeared as, no, not a younger person, but ironically, as an older person playing a young person’s game. How did he manage to abandon the old “Lefty”, and become the new sheriff in town?

I am not a golf zealot. I love the game, and occasionally have actually landed a drive on a fairway as opposed to the much more inviting rough edges. I don’t follow golfers, record statistics, recount games or ponder golf equipment. But I do get enjoyment in watching professionals pit their best against the elements: wind, gravity, foliage, water, crowds, blimps, cameras and second doubts.

Walks Alone

He walks alone from pin to tee.

Watching Mickelson at the PGA Championship this past weekend was like staring up at Nik Wallenda hike across a tightrope 40 stories up in Chicago. Actually, the comparison is not a fair one, in that it was always a certainty that the high-rise circus performer would do it okay. Not so much for the 50-year-old golfer who has for 30 years soared, spun, fallen, struggled and recovered while collecting a den full of trophies. He is a gallery favorite in the PGA, but not necessarily a sure winner.

Still, there he was for four straight days the uncontested leader, the number one performer among a field of 157 competitors. At nearly 51 years, he was also the oldest of the pack, surrounded by 20- and 30-somethings, and having his way. How? What became of our young, adventuresome, risk-taking, wavy-haired, reckless, canny, plum lucky player who smiled and winced his way through golf’s grassy treacherous gauntlet, game after game?

 

Enbrel Phil

A pitchman for Enbrel, relieving the painful grip of arthritis.

Remember, this is a golfer who is, or certainly was, a pitchman for a psoriatic arthritis medication. We used to watch him smiling, nimbly making sandwiches with previously pained hands. A golfer’s grip is everything you know.

Viewers would have to agree that they were watching a reborn player. Mickelson has shed weight. The boyish plumpness that rolled forever beneath his shirt is gone. The curls that used to blossom from beneath his cap have been replaced with a neatly trimmed bang at the back of his head.

Phil Shades

Older, calmer, in his own thoughts.

His face is older, more lined, lacking the baby fat that used to dimple as he smiled. His demeanor has shifted into a stoic look that was unchanged over 72 grueling holes. The camera never captured a smile, a frown, or a coy glance over four days that we saw. Dressed head-to-toe in black for much of the event, he appeared formidable. And he wore impenetrable reflective sun glasses that hid any emotion that might reveal his thoughts. He looked more like an ocean-going sea captain in stormy waters than a hiker surrounded by thousands of adoring fans.

I remarked on this to a golfing friend, who said, “He uses meditation”.

Meditates

The pause that clears the head.

That explained the trance-like poses he took before every shot. Some say you need to visualize what the ball is going to do, and then you make it happen. That is a load of bunker. In golf, once you have hit the ball, its path is entirely, literally, out of your hands, and will be whipped around by wind, vacuums, heat, cold, grass blades, spectator feet and discarded ice cubes.

IMG_4254Clubhouse.jpg

The Ocean Course complete with water, wind and crowds.

Never mind that the Ocean Course is a sandy, windswept collection of swamps, twisting ponds and encroaching bunkers that seem to surround every green and fairway like marauding predators.

In Mickelson’s case, he took that pause to settle his nerves. What was his mantra during those moments? The Lord’s Prayer, The 23rd Psalm, Latin declensions, his locker combination? We won’t know, but physiologically, the long pauses released his mind from the last shot, and possibly washed away his thoughts about the one coming up. More likely, he dreamt for a moment about the best shot he had ever made in similar circumstances. The act of mentally drifting away from the current threat makes it easier to handle it. Without thinking about it, Phil was channeling his own natural “force”.

This conquest was a joy to watch, if even the victor seemed oblivious to it. He strode from pin to tee alone, head down, occasionally giving a thumbs up to the gallery.

The Putt

A simple two-putt to win the game.

On the last hole, as he approached the 18th green, he was swarmed by an uncontrollable gallery, knocking him off balance at one point. If golf ever had a mosh pit, this was it. And after he calmly two-putted his win, he held up his club in a salute, hugged his brother Tim who caddied, and walked alone up to the judge’s station to finish the paperwork.

They say that golf is a lonely game for competitors. Indeed, Mickelson was not tackled or hugged by his wife or children as he finished. They remained at home, and he spoke to them by phone only after filing his card.

Now, a day later, can he lower the shields, and rejoin the other world, that one off the course?

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childhood, Culture, Science

Darwin’s Warning and The Good Old Days

We have come a long way in avoiding the classic dangers so present in our youth. But sometimes I still wonder how we got here. We can laugh today at the hapless winners of Darwin Awards, but that is only because the past three generations have regulated us to observe the principles of Charles Darwin.

I recently toyed with the idea of taking a stab at etching, for the purpose of creating an art print. Etching is the ancient science of scratching an image onto a wax-covered copper plate, and dipping the plate in acid. The plate gets engraved in the process, and when it is inked, the plate is pressed onto a paper which receives the image.

To learn more, I could have Googled the subject, but instead, I turned to the Popular Mechanics Do-It-Yourself Encyclopedia, published by J.J. Little and Ives in 1955.

Popular mechanics Do It Yourself–our small town bible.

In my hometown of Delhi, a small but once influential tobacco-growing community in southern Ontario, the PM DIY Encyclopedia was a bible. Actually, it was a collection of 13 illustrated bibles bound in red and black leatherette, handsomely gold-embossed, and proudly displayed in its own pre-engineered wooden shelf by my father, and countless other DIY-ers at the time. You didn’t have to go far to learn about plumbing, carpentry, automotive repair, sewing machines and gardening when you had these books sitting right there beside the record player.

So I was pleased on picking up volume 4 “EL to GA” and finding the lowdown on etching on page–wait, there are no page numbers–on the pages between “enlargers” and “extension cords”.

Etching– the art and science of engraving metal.

Excited now, I read on. The thoughtfully drawn black and white illustrations showed an enthusiastic, friendly looking craftsman decanting fluid into a tray. Reading more closely, I saw that for etching glass, and/or metal, the active ingredients were tallow, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, potassium chlorate, asphaltum paint, glacial acetic acid, sodium fluoride…and washed up with gasoline, before pouring down the floor drain with plenty of water.

Gadzooks!

I decided some time spent on Youtube was a better idea, and put that off for later.

But thumbing through the book “EL to GA” I was stunned to learn about all the other DIY projects we pursued back in 1955.

“Electroplating With Gold and Silver” was particularly instructive.

Electroplating..all that glitters!

A well-drawn and focused craftsman is mixing up a solution of sodium cyanide and caustic soda in a pitcher of water. When dissolved, the reader is advised that rubber gloves and ventilation are a must, to avoid deadly hydrocyanic acid fumes. To this concoction one adds some copper cyanide. The book says to hook the brew up to a six-volt battery, and dunk the target object in for an hour or so, and voila: a silver-plated stapler, shoe horn, ticket puncher, egg beater–whatever suits your fancy.

I felt like I had my hands on a secret, forbidden book– techno-porn is the only way I could describe it.

Now tantalized by this collection of ideas, I thumbed to “Electrical Rotating Contact”.

The electric rotating gizmo..for all ages!

This gem only took half a page, even with the helpful drawing. Mission: to create a spinning brush-style power source that would rotate as some electrical engine drove around it.

The picture tells a thousand words easily. A pole is positioned in the middle of a backyard wading pool. At its top is the ingenious electrical rotating contact which is attached to an electrical cord plugged into the engine of a child’s model boat, floating in the pool. The pole is cleverly hooked up to an extension cord plugged into the house, drawing from the 120-volt line. Two excited kids stand by the pool, gleefully cheering as their model racing boat  circuits the water, leaving them smiling in its frothy wake. One can only imagine the hours of joyful entertainment as the craft orbits the sparky contraption.

The book is filled with helpful suggestions for mixing your own weed killer, building a forge, a blast furnace, and simply maintaining your home coal furnace.

Thinking back, we were, if not fearless, certainly adventurous. In our house, we were frequent users of gunpowder. Simple chemistry would be put to use with benign, parental encouragement, and a helpful smiling assist from the local druggist.

Powering up the acid solution.

A typical exchange was,
“Hi Mr. Taylor! Can I have half a pound of potassium nitrate and another half of sulphur please?”
With a wry smile, his response, “Heheh, okay, and don’t blow yourselves up.”
When I consider that discussion, and our brazen, guileless approach, I should have added, “and a dozen prophylactics too, please.” It would have thrown him off course, I am sure.

Somehow, the ingredients were mixed with a third, which I will omit for current security concerns, and we would enthrall and impress our friends with carefully rolled fireworks, stink bombs and countless rocket duds that never made it off the launch pad.

Through all of these semi-innocent shenanigans, we never paid a serious price, but I am sure that there were others not so lucky. In any event, today, 65 years later, these escapades are pretty much eliminated from the experience of young kids, and I am thankful.

Back then it was just part of growing up. But Darwin was right.

Still, I have to see Volume 3, CO to EL.  I can only imagine.

 

Thanks for reading!  I hope you are thankful for all the precautions and safeguards we now have in place today. Still, you have to wonder how we made it this far.

 

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Culture, Thank You, USPS

The Letter We Didn’t Get

Zoom friends from places near, far, and unreal.

One of the great facilitators during the COVID pandemic and its obstructive lockdowns has been Zoom and FaceTime technology. While we can’t have and hold our distant loved ones, nor sit beside our business associates in a real meeting, we can still stay in video touch. And a plus: who knows where our correspondents actually are, given the virtual backgrounds.

Now we can sympathize with those resolute souls drifting out there on the International Space Station.

But closer to home, our more traditional communications technology has taken yet another hit. Last business quarter, October 1- December 31, 2020, the United States Postal Service delivered only 4,214,093,000 letters. Understand that these are single-piece letters in the three months ending with the nation’s biggest holiday season.

Writing the Thank You Note: A Lost Art

That includes birthday cards, get well cards, condolences, love letters, thank you notes, party invitations, wedding announcements, birth announcements, bridal showers, baby showers, graduations, promotions, retirements, Thanksgiving cards, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa cards, letters to friends and family. It will also include payments to utilities, healthcare companies, credit cards, presidential campaign donations, doctors, lawyers, landlords and landscapers, to name a few.

You may consider 4.2 billion pieces a lot of mail. It is not. In 2012, just 8 years ago, the USPS delivered 6.3 billion single piece letters.  Today’s effort has shrunk by a third since then.

And we can’t point to the monthly billing and statementing habits of utilities and financial houses as the culprit either.  In 2012, for the same period, they mailed 9.9 billion pieces. Eight years later, the 2020 volume only shrank 15%.  Meanwhile, personal letters dropped 33%.

The USPS picks up at your door.

It’s easy to shrug it off as a sign of the changing times. We are happy to resort to email to send our personal messages. Postal mail takes too long.

Except now, in this pandemic we live in a communications desert devoid of real, personal contact. And with time on our hands, there is the opportunity to take pen to paper.  

To wit: last June, we received a post card from an enterprising lady in Kansas who announced her personal goal to write cards to everyone she knew.  She wrote and mailed over 300! We have another friend who makes it a regular effort to mail us a short letter, just to keep the lines open with family news.  We have neighbors only four houses down the street who send a thank you note by mail for the simplest of favors received.

A simple etiquette

Who does that any more?  What kind of forgotten politeness is that? But yet so important when you consider the time and energy taken to practice this simple etiquette. 

Another instance, I released Norfolk Chronicles last July.  In it I wrote a chapter “Will You Write Me?”  Lo and behold I received a number of handwritten letters from my readers, totally unexpected. It struck a nerve.

This lockdown has taken away the traditional time restrictions we used to incorporate in our daily lives. We aren’t commuting.  We aren’t traveling to meetings. We forgo vacations.  Stuck at our home offices with flexible hours, in our pajamas, the time for composing and writing is opened up. And when the USPS will pick up at our door, what’s the obstacle?

747s chilling in the Mojave

Meanwhile, we didn’t get 226,580,000 letters just last quarter. They did not show up. Because we failed to write them.

In real terms, the USPS reported that the quarterly shortfall weighed 1,837 tons. If that weight is too hard to visualize, think of nine empty Boeing 747s lined up on a desert in Nevada. There’s your missing letters.

 

 

 

Thanks for reading! I hope you have a few family friends and neighbors that deserve your written words.  Just as an aside, the USPS did have an astounding quarter delivering parcels. In 2012, they delivered 752 million pieces in the three months leading to Christmas. This past 2020, they topped out at 2 billion-plus.

 

 

 

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Culture, Entertainment, Music

Tom Rush: Concerts and Conquering COVID

“Normal” is something we all want to retrieve. It’s out there somewhere, some day. Mean time, here is a great example of a guy who just won’t quit, despite the continuous obstructions of a COVID lockdown.

Tom Rush is a singer entertainer from the near dark but enlightened ages of the 60s. He has remained musical, entertaining and present even today, despite the virtually complete shut down of group entertainment.

If you are of, or enjoy the 60’s-70’s vintage of coffee house music, Tom Rush is part of your past and hopefully present. We first listened to this bluesy story teller at the Riverboat in Toronto. Hailing from Massachusetts, he made the trip north to hang out with Gord Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Jim Kweskin, Eric Anderson, Richie Havens, James Taylor and Livingston Taylor and a host of other free-range folk singers entertaining small groups in Yorkville, Toronto’s original coffee house district.

While many entertainers went to the big stage, Tom Rush centered himself in small gatherings of a 100 fans or so. He delivered a rich medley of stories and songs that telegraphed heartaches, pains, humor, trains, cowboys, dirty deed doers and other colorful characters. His presence was magnetic, personal, and his shows were always full.

Fast forward 50 years and we find that Tom is still composing, strumming and singing, seemingly unaware he was supposed to retire. Did not get the memo. He has a website and a newsletter, and a regular itinerary up and down the east coast, and occasionally wandering into the Carolinas and the Midwest. The venues remain the same: small crowds sitting at tables tapping their feet and soaking up the vibes.

So what do you do when a pandemic shuts down the tour? Many entertainers escaped to the islands. Others are on their boats. Some have postponed concerts and floated out new dates a year or so into the future. But who knows? Meanwhile, they sit by their phones and wait for a call to get their vaccination.

Tom took a different approach. He went back to his website followers, and invited them to sign up for a weekly concert. Rockport Sundays is just that: a podcast from his kitchen in Rockport Mass. It is available for streaming every Sunday morning. At a measly $10 a month, his fans get a morning wake up call where Rush and his genius accompanist Matt Nakoa perform a song, tell a story, and just tune in for 10 minutes or so. It is a comfortable setting, with Rush maybe shoeless, surrounded by some beautiful guitars, and frequently flanked by Nakoa and his six foot wide keyboard, totally COVID compliant.

The experience is profound. This guy was a folk blues icon when most of his fans were just getting into university. For more than half a century (ouch) he has not let go. In fact he has grown into our present as a constant reminder of where we came from. And the beauty is, it’s current stuff. He sings old songs, tells stories about his many travels and sidekicks, but also unloads new music. Through it all, the website allows for comments, and would you not know it? He responds.

If you like a little bit of kitchen table music and playing, dressed up with a background story, you should check out Rockport Sundays. It is indeed a treat.

It actually feels a bit like normal.

 

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Agriculture, Culture, Thank You

Orange Ya Glad?

As a kid living in the country we enjoyed a seasonal treat sent to us by my grandad who vacationed at Vero Beach every winter. He sent a bushel of citrus fruit packed in green straw for Christmas. Inside we found dozens of oranges and monster grapefruit, tangerines, and strange little kumquats.

The memory comes back to me now as last Friday the USPS delivered a box to our front door. Puzzled, we opened it to find a similar trove of tangelos. Nearly three dozen, unbidden, but happily accepted. It turns out that a distant friend in California went out to his backyard and picked them for us.

Tangelo Box

I say unbidden, because we had no idea he lived in Claremont, California, and that his home was built on 40 acres of grapefruit. He sent these along, perhaps as a thank you for a couple of books which I had sent to him. The return of the tangelos was a happy surprise, but the best was yet to come.

Tangelo 10

We in the north do not grow citrus fruit, or certainly not to eat. I have a few Texas grapefruit plants in a pot taking up the winter sun in the den. They get outside in the summer. These plants will be converted to bonsai. It takes about 25 years, so I am planning on that. But that’s another story.


Tangelo Peel Light

The tangelos are larger than tangerines, but smaller than oranges. At least these were. In fact, they are hybrid of a tangerine and pomelo, a type of grapefruit. They peel like a tangerine, very easily, and are particularly absent of any pips.


Tangelo 3

After reading the friend’s accompanying letter, I learned that he picked these from two trees in his backyard. That in itself is nearly astounding. We are forking out $$1.99 a pound for oranges at the grocery store, and he’s growing them wild over the shed out back.


Tangelo Box 3

He went on to explain that they are easily peeled, but his preferred entree is chilled and then quartered to be eaten like Don Corleone did in The Godfather. Orange smile!

So, waiting no longer, I grabbed one, and literally popping off the skin, sectioned the fruit into segments and stuffed them into my mouth. One bite, and the juice spurted out like a tomato, and the flavor of fresh citrus exploded in my mouth. The tangelo was sweet and tangy, and rich. I could sense thousands of little vitamin Cs all lining up for a march across my tongue.


Tangelo 1

We could not believe our good fortune, or the thoughtfulness of our distant friend who marched his product down to the post office for our pleasure. Paying it forward, we bagged up a dozen for an older couple who lived down the street. At their door I assured them these were a sure complement to any COVID vax they might get, a certain cure for scurvy, and twelve doses of pure delight.

Our task ahead is to finish up the box rapidly while these little gems convert to pure sugar.

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childhood, Culture, Education

The Escape Hatch

As kids we found it was smart to have a safe spot to head to whenever it got a little too hot or too crowded around the house. The public library in Delhi was our escape hatch. This tidy little building with the gabled front porch and rounded windows was the perfect destination. At least in the eyes and minds of our parents. And that worked for us.

Our escape hatch: the library.

The library was in the center of town, nestled beside the fire house, just off Main at Church Street. You could reach it from the farthest reaches of our suburbs in less than five minutes by bike. If you lived anywhere near the school, it was a two, or three-minute walk, and for many of us, we did that by skirting down a path between Quance’s house and Hills’ backyard.

Because of its integrity as a public educational institution, our folks could only nod as we pulled on a jacket at night, and headed out the door, “off to the library”. In reality, those sorties rarely followed the flight plan. Out for a romp? Library. Soap a few windows at Halloween? Library. Need a smoke? Roam the streets? Meet some friends? Hit Chainway? Shoot some pool? Make it to the Dairy Bar? Library-Libray-Library.

We had a willing if unintended accomplice. Mrs. Roberston was the librarian, and on any evening, from 4-9pm she was seated at her desk at the back of this small repository of well-thumbed books, magazines and periodicals. As we strode up the concrete steps, through the door, and into the single room, we would see her studiously sorting through library cards, opening and closing books, stamping dates on cards and filing. All the time she continued a quietly confident narrative with the borrower in front of her. “There you are. I have your number, and we’ll see that book back here in two weeks, all right Philip?”

The card system was possibly our first introduction to institutional control. At some time in our early consciousness, our parents had escorted us into the library, and we were registered with a subscriber number. That was a huge advance forward for many of us who up until then only had our name as an identity. But Mrs. Robertson had carefully recorded all of our details onto a card: address and phone number, to which she assigned each of us with a number. The card went into one of her many wooden boxes. Who knows what that meant to us?

But we could pull a book off a shelf–there was a limit of two–and presenting that to her, she would open to the front pages where an envelope concealed another card. That was entitled with the book’s name. She extracted this 3×5 card, and with the dexterity of telepathist, would quickly, magically recall and inscribe our number onto the card, and rubber stamp it with a date. The little stamper was geared to change by month, date and year. She placed the card into another wooden box. That box was partitioned by little dividers with metal clips segregating groups of cards by date. While the rubber stamp was still wet in her hand, she then stamped a lined slip of paper stuck on the envelope in the book with the same date. Handing the book back to us, she reminded us it was due on the date.

Failure to meet that due date would incur a fine of two cents a day. There was never a time that we visited the library where Mrs. Robertson wasn’t collecting fines. The revenues would clatter into a cash box, and with a quiet, but sternly enunciated warning, she would exhort the tardy miscreant to be more punctual in the future.

For all of the protocols of checking out books, the library itself was a warm, welcoming place. It was a one-room establishment, not larger than most rural schools in size, and was shelved on three sides, with two long oaken tables in the center for study and display. Heavy oak chairs lined the tables. Mrs. Robertson regularly groomed the shelves, straightening books, sequencing by the extraordinary Dewey decimals.

The library was her treasure. The shelves were packed with hard covers, propped up with metal supports. Running her fingers across their spines, each labeled with a number, she could retrieve a subject in seconds. The room was her vault and it whispered volumes while a faint scent of glue and perfume floated in the air. She demanded quiet. She respected the privacy of those who sat at study tables, but would also encourage young readers to try out a title. She was genuinely interested in seeing us pore over these books.

My favourites: Tom Swift, woodcraft, indian lore, and biographies. I alternately scoured the bottoms of oceans and soared through ionospheric clouds in wildly imagined vehicles with Swift. Closer to earth I learned how to build traps and snares, skin beavers and build bows, arrows, and tomahawks with Ben Johnson. I was inspired by Churchill and Eisenhower, all thanks to Mrs. Robertson’s direction. She was “Ginger” to her friends, named for the colour of her wavy hair. Not an imposing figure physically, she had a wonderful command of english, delivered with a brogue of Irish. When she spoke, we listened, and with respect.

I point out the ironclad system that our Mrs. Robertson managed, because it added to the credentials of our purported evening’s activities. How could anything go wrong if we were at the library?

Delhi kids were essentially masters of their small universe. There were no particular boundaries, no warnings about strangers, no admonishments about distant expeditions, no guard rails other than daylight, school hours and meal times. As a result, we were habitually off to the woods, to the dam, to Quances Mill, or in town, roaming the streets and alleys, window shopping and dropping in to the local barber and pool hall for a quick look-see, maybe get a popsicle or a coke if we had money.

But somewhere during our circuit, there was a definite rendezvous at the library. We got a book, had it stamped, and were on our way home.

Thanks for reading and sharing! I have been able to give back to the library. Norfolk County Public Library now contains and lends out volumes of my latest: Norfolk Chronicles, published 2020.

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