Friday, June 19, 2009

Richard's Request

If you asked me how I was doing right now I suppose I would make it sound like I was pretty busy and overwhelmed with work. And that's true.

It's easy to claim that opportunity is a double edged sword.

And yet, I have felt many times today that giddy pleasure that is juggling many different claims on my time.

It is a fine thing

This evening I was saying goodbye to two of my favorite clients. One of whom is Richard and I am so tired I cannot remember his wife's name. Her wit is so delightful that, despite my attempt to discover her name, I cannot. Perhaps I will remember it soon, before I am done with this post/chapter.

Richard called me yesterday to fix a bathroom fan he has. And while for most folks I might remind them that I do not fancy myself a handyman, he is such a wonderful guy that I would make time for him any afternoon... after work.

It's not that he doesn't pay the full price... it's just what I do not want to do. But he and his wife are worth the trouble.

I love to kid with Richard's wife, who met me (and thereafter introduced me to her husband, who does the vast majority of the talking) in my garden. She told me, "You like to do things the hard way." And since the vast majority of her life reflects deeply her sensitivity to this in others I can't help but mess with her head along the same lines.

They are, perhaps, in their middle seventies. And it was such a pleasure to leave them tonight, despite their brilliance in gardening and many other things they do well, having succeeded in what they found impossible. Not because I love showing them what I can do. They used to do it as well.

But rather the odd sensation of letting them know, that I know, that it is the cruelty of life that I can still do it, with pleasure.

My youth is cruel. I can bend backwards and see what they need a hand on a flashlight to do.

Richard, a justifiably proud man, could not believe I simply climbed a ladder, found a hole, and placed a screw to finish a job that had stymied him for hours.

My pleasure was in the grumpiness I caused in him until I started teasing his indomitable wife about whatever came to my mind. I cannot remember the details other than my comment to her:

"Didn't you tell me, when we first met, that I sure do make things difficult in my garden."

As I left I saw the exasperation (and delight) of a mature woman, and the secret smile of her husband that I might do to his wife what marriage makes somewhat difficult after decades of assumptions.

They are lovely people (and added many things to a list that I would refuse, did I not so love the substance of their selves.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My Mom Always Said She Liked A Good Yarn

I've been thinking for a few weeks about some of the things I talked to Jim Sr. about on our trip to New York. It was an interesting talk, and yet, I don't mean to make it sound like something earth shattering happened. Just interesting.

It rarely occurs to me how isolated from the professional community we all are. And yet, we are. Aside from academic journals, and hiring experts to care for us or or property, your average person uses the work of an Engineer, rather than talking to her or him. Well, I had never really thought about this much until Jim Sr (for now on, Jim) started asking me what I thought about various different things. I think his ears perked up while we had worked a few years back, when I'd ask him what he knew about the origins of two by fours and stick construction. I had learned that balloon frame construction (balloon frame, is stick frame, but stick frame is not always balloon frame. Both use two by xxxxxx (four, six, eight and twelve) though what the standard for a two by four is (in terms of true dimension) remained in flux through most of the second half of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth. It is crazy fun to learn when the standards for different western countries stabilized for fasteners, such as screws, nuts and bolts. You don't work construction very long before you are stymied by what had until recently seemed a nearly philosophical question, "What is this screw?" I didn't, for example, "get" machine screws, in all their glory, until this year. Now I understand their problems and solutions to their problems, and what is fixable and what is not when fastening metals (at least the most common ones in your house.) It saves a lot of time and money to fix something with the proper screw, properly fastened, rather then repurchase the part, or God forbid, entire apparatus, due to the fact that you'd rather go to the store, and let their inventory do the knowing for you.

So Jim seemed kinda intrigued that I was interested in the history of the philosophy of construction, and the same for construction materials. His interest was more along the lines of, "Who are you?" then "Yeah, I love that stuff." He seems to see homebuilding as a kind of burden, that men who want only the best above their heads engage in. But in fact, he is more properly understood as a freakishly germanic type Scandinavian (Swedish) who can't sit still due to the pathetic consequences of entropy. Trees fall down for him into lumber, for if they do not they shall surely rot to mold. That's putting it a bit extreme, but then I have spent a bit of time with him. When he isn't interested in something he acts like your average person and feigns an interest that lasts a minute or two. But when he is even slightly interested in something he gives it his focus, and it is a pleasure to hear him talk about it.

In New York, Jim merely needed my help. I haven't the foggiest idea why. But it was a surprise to be discussing electric vehicles with him, and Amory Lovins, Green Architecture guy par excellance.

He actually asked me if I knew who Amory Lovins was. I told him what I wrote on that post last month about the Chevy Volt and my more than decade long romance with the fuel cell. Jim, having run a coal fired electric plant (and the sewage treatment, and trash services for forty thousand souls) had met Mr. Lovins. Truthfully that wouldn't be very hard to do. But it was nice to talk to someone who knew so much more about Mr. Lovins than I. Usually people could care less.

But then our conversation really took a turn that I didn't expect. It's something I have been thinking a lot about. Also, of course, I haven't had much time to write. The work I do, however, fosters an hour here, and an hour there for speculation. Sometimes I write down a question. And as you often hear people say (and I used to not believe this, but I was wrong) the answer sort of comes to you without your thinking hard about it. Or, you remember, without referencing your note, to find out about some thing. Like capacitors... but more on those later.

Jim's surprising opinion, about two hours into our eight hour conversation, was that the Chevy Volt was something of a bad idea. He wouldn't completely like me to put it that way, since his opinion was more nuanced over the course of our conversation, but there were points along the way where his case was explicit, and he said as much, "a bad idea."

It was probably somewhat new for the both of us to be talking to someone who was as interested in really opinionated pessimism as the hopeful optimism that seems to have replaced last decades patriotism for the "ism" of our time. So, with a circle having been made for whatever "ism's" were necessary, we cast our lots.

Jim's basic problem with the Volt had a pretty interesting and compelling argument.

Take two mechanical animals. Call them Animal "C" and Animal "DC."

Now Animal C has a long list of components that create power to move the animal and its riders. Among these are a gasoline engine (over 150 parts), an alternator, a cooling apparatus, a transmission (hundreds of parts), a big tank to hold fuel, and a relatively robust fuel delivery, and exhaust handling system. And a linebackers frame in which all these things can be held safely together.

Animal DC, however, has an electric motor (with around ten, or less, moving parts), no alternator (which is itself a motor run backwards), no cooling apparatus, or radiator, in many cases no transmission (and certainly no complex transmission, electric motors distribute power on a gentle, rather humane, curve), no tank to hold fuel (though a somewhat equivalent tank to hold much heavier batteries), and relatively thick cables, that none the less are light as a feather compared to fuel delivery and exhaust handling systems. And a quarterbacks frame (at least one from a few decades ago) to hold this considerably smaller number of components together.

You have already guessed which Animal is the gasoline car (Animal "C" for carbon) and which Animal is the electric, ahem, "vehicle", (Animal "DC" for direct current.) Good guess.

But here's something interesting: what would you have if you added an electric motor to Animal C? If you answered a Hybrid, you'd be on to my game. In fact, it would have to have four, I believe, but you get my drift. A Hybrid, is Animal C, primarily, with some electric motors (on top of that gasoline engine and it's huge entourage of weight and complexity.)

Now none of this is Earth shattering news. We all know this already. A Hybrid is a step in the right direction. It's a half electric car. With half the benefits of an electric right? Sure it is.

The problem is that no one can conveniently explain to Jim why, from an Electrical engineers perspective, all the extra infrastructure and complexity of a gasoline powered animal isn't that much more argument for the simplicity, and especially the efficiency and low cost of an all electric animal. All that extra machining and trouble that go into an Engine, and all the extra weight in the apparatus's of it's entourage, it has been argued, by the choices the car makers make, don't outweigh the batteries and motor of the most basic electric car. Jim, an electrical engineer, thinks something is Rotten at Volvo (whoops, I forgot, Volvo is made in Sweden. Something is Rotten at a neighbor of Volvo's home country! Much clearer.) And I cannot figure out whether I agree with him.

What he doesn't like about the volt is that it is continuing the tradition of more complexity and expense, that Detroit (meaning all automakers, here) seems to view as a great idea.

Now, when I first began arguing with Jim about this, I really had a lot of counter arguments (and to a great extent still do. I hate rolling over.) However, Jim had an ace up his sleeve, actually a couple. He had ordered some of his engineering staff at the electric utility he ran, to procure two electric motors and all the things needed to install them in two trucks. He had done this around 1990, nine years or so before he retired, just before 2000. Those trucks ran for fifteen years on lead acid batteries. The parts to change them over from typical gasoline powered S-10's to electric S-10's were available as conversion kits, from some nationally distributed outfits. Once the kits were in the possession of Jim's employees(!!), the lucky saps got to work putting them into the trucks, and removing the extraneous (now) entourage of the the modern internal combustion powered truck.

I could go on and on, but the bottom line was that the trucks performed rather flawlessly with almost no breakdown, or issues of usage on our typical roads and highways, for fifteen years. S-10's with lead acid batteries. Over a decade ago. Simple machines, with simple power, delivering it in one of the oldest set ups in western culture's industrial history: DC motor, from lead acid battery, direct to powertrain, direct to wheels. No transmission.

"No regenerative brakes." I said, with finality, and amusement.

"No, we added those eventually," said Jim with a chuckle. There were some things this kid didn't know about.

No kidding.

This is just a small part of our conversation. I also happen to love the subject of municipal waste, and environmental impacts, and abuses by the environmentalist movement, that may set us back as a culture. Jim, who clearly has been on a lifelong journey of change in his points of view about many things, would not claim a movement or side upon which he stands. He did tell hilarious stories about his electric utility being sued for many different things. One of them: the water from the cooling towers of the utility were warming up the river the plant had drawn them from, when returned to the river. Did this damage the ecosystem, forcing someone to sue to save the rivers fishes? No. The utility was sued by a guy who claimed he could no longer walk his dog across the river, that now, never froze in winter.

The dog walker won. The publicly owned, community, utility lost. Rough rough.

In response to this public flogging for canine abuse, Jim created one of the first completely insular, zero fluids back to the river, power plants. To this day, the power plant only discharges an extremely negligible amount. For example, were you to walk a grasshopper....

Instead the power plant, smack in the middle of Jamestown (Lucille Ball's home town), heats many of the buildings adjacent to it, and does other interesting stuff with the heat that it produces as "waste" when burning coal.

Jim, and the community board that oversaw the plant with him, automated the plant with fully electric, and automatic, or servo controlled, computerized systems decades ago. Before the costly conversion, the system employed a few thousand pneumatic devices, attached to many thousand valves, for control of the plant. Needless to say, pneumatic sensors exist, and have existed a long time, with the dials and pressure switches, ect. that are so familiar to anyone who has looked at old factories. But sensitive switches, tied into a computerized system with dynamic control over a broad range of choices, pressures, and feedback; all tied into databases with exquisite routines and information collection... yeah, pneumatic switching does not do that.

And lastly, I have loved reading about trash since 1993, when I finished a People magazine at Goshen College's Library, the cover of which read, "River Phoenix, dead at ##." I put the magazine back where it belonged and returned to my chair, to rest my eyes on a new book I had found in the new book section. And so it was that at nineteen I first read, Rubbish: the anthropology of trash at Fresh Kills Landfill. Fresh Kills is a landfill in New York. Which borough? I don't know. I thought some end of Staten Island, but that doesn't sound right? Then again it's out of commission. Though they did open it for the debris from ground zero. I remember being rather surprised. Let me find out for a minute where Fresh Kills is. Wikipedia say's Staten Island. I was afraid of that. Now how am I going to prove I didn't look it up first?

Apparently there are all these plans to turn the country's largest toxic compost pile into something really nice for the kids. I mentioned this to a woman I used to work with from New York, and she rolled her eyes, "Yeah, more grass, less jobs."

"Come on, I told her, it'll be nice." I was kidding. But who knows the answer, really. My buddy Daniel, was from Sheepshead Bay, in Brooklyn. His parents class consciousness and urban exhaustion, despite their relatively decent income (his father worked in one of the World Trade Center buildings, and Daniel had interned there with his father as well.) seemed to me a function of the difference between my childhood (people living homogeneously, pretending that to be a shame) and Daniel's (people living cosmopolitan, and feeling at times ashamed at their real feelings.) I love reading how the fishing is going on websites devoted to the pier at Sheepshead Bay. And Google Earthing it is no big pain in my ass. No. Coney Island is right off the Bay. And some seriously interesting, historically relevant seafood restaurants. One just went out of business, again. Daniel told me about it originally, but then I read about it and saw it, where else, on the Food Network. Then I read in the Metro section of the Times that it had finally collapsed from the palsy of our fisheries. I bet there's one little fish out there somewhere.

So given some of what I just said, above, certainly not all of it, since I've seem to have forgotten what I was actually meaning to say. Jim was a bit fun to ask questions about trash. After reading Rubbish, I scouted around for the last fifteen years for books likely to have Rubbish in their Bibliographies (I have a stinky suspicion it may one day be in one of mine.) There are many, many examples. All of them worth a glance. And I have spent a handful of nights, at the Herman Well's Library (former Main) at IU burning the midnight oil, enthralled with the story of municipal trash. Also at bookstores.

Garbageland comes to mind, I don't remember the authors. And other books that talk about the policy of recycling, trash, polymers and construction wastes... you name it. I even read a great book by an apologist for the container industry. I picked the book up do to an egotistical desire on my part to see if Indiana's own Ball Company (now not located in Indiana, but still producing containers. They make a lot of plastic containers, and your occasional beer can for an "Import" beer brewed domestically after the batch of Bud's all done. Look on the side of the can. "The Ball Corporation." Jarhead's no longer.)

That apologist for the container industry mentioned The Ball Corporation. I don't remember why. I was already a bit of a sucker for the difference between an analytic approach to environmental problems, and what I more typically see, which is a sort of imprinting of a frustration in losing one sort of religion, for the necessarily even more humanist endeavor of the environmentalist. It shouldn't surprise the person surmising such a cynical thing that the born again Lefty for the trees ain't doing the math. This doesn't obviate being a lefty (I am one.) It's a little sad, none the less. Should you bring up math. At the sit in. Don't. Be happy.

The apologist, to my delectation, with full prejudice, and loads of math, did a little experiment in sustainability. He broke down the numbers of a single unit of a fast food store, like a McDonalds. You know: straw: one ounce; hamburger wrapper: half ounce; small cup: one ounce... on and on. From "utensil implements" to "glassware equivalents" (yes, they rhyme: blame him, he's the container industry apologist, not I.) And so, by checking into the total waste per customer (which common sense says a fast food restaurant produces a lot of) our hero, the apologist for the container industry comes up with a figure like: 18 ounces per customer. Now, he continues, imagine that there are 1000 customers a day. That's eighteen thousand ounces per day, every day of the year (give and take.) God, I love this stuff (meanwhile at the sit-in I am singing kum by ah, off key. Great song.)

Even a dolt like myself can figure out that eighteen thousand ounces divided by sixteen equals 1125 pounds. That's a lot of trash.

But wait!

How much trash would it have been if every table had been set and serviced with real glassware and serviceware, as opposed to their equivalents. And then how many pounds of water, at what force per minute would be required to clean all of the dishes that resulted. And how many napkins washed. And how many man hours tallied. And how much waste, off the plates, as opposed in your hand, when your teeth reach the end of the burrito or Big Mac.

I worked at McDonald's for at least two years. A half a ton of trash was not my favorite part of the job. Fermenting high fructose ketchup being the particularly memorable smell. However, I have also worked at a full service restaurant, a steakhouse. And a bakery (with throwaway everything for the customers.) And a sandwich shop, ect. ect. ect.

Seemingly greener, less convenient restaurants... slower restaurants, make huge claims. They should... it is almost impossible for them to compete for your dollar.

So they save the world with your patronage, or at least must claim to, or else attempt the impossible against the Dollar Menu's of the world. This usually requires a wink from a thoughtful, and forgiving customer. For most of us know--- the task of doing right by the world is nearly impossible. Eight out of ten business attempts will fail. And the other two be the ugly stepchildren of the multinationals. And risk being reminded at their next board meeting that they are not meeting financials, ect. Or simply pay the rent, with what they had wanted to pay a local farmer.

The apologist for the container industry will forever have my thanks for showing me what making a difference really means. You cannot want the best. You cannot mean well. You cannot be scandalized by the mechanisms of the multinationals. You must reconfigure the claims that got you here in the first place. Do I really intend, in business, to be quantifiably better, on all the metrics available for my claims? Or can I be happy to sit my people down, and ask them, "Which will it be, Glory, or a Story?"

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Liam Presents His Parents

Some of my posts today were already mostly written. I have been interrupted by life a bunch with the writing. That is good. I haven't had the discipline to get up early and say something. So whenever I can I write something and save it, but don't "publish" it till I have more time and energy to edit it to something not completely embarrassing. About once a week I'll be in an extremely transgressive mood, and save but not publish something so sarcastic and ranting that I'm embarrassed to even have it on my computer. I never erase these. They will live forever as testaments to my fickle and explosive nature. Markers of the puerile beginnings of one man. Sort of like a little black diary.

Alas, you're thinking. Andy, your little black book should be bigger. There is wisdom in that, for sure.

I've been reading my sister and brother in law's blog, Life With Liam. Man, I cannot tell you what a gift they are providing me. Their personalities seem so alive in their writing. Liam and even his sister, Claire, come so alive, in the words of their parents. Both Angie and Gary write, roughly alternating, when they are inspired to say something. This activity of blogging is so interesting, in the ways in which it differs from a phone call, a letter, or really, any form of metacommunication out there. On a somewhat different subject, but similar point, I remember my brother, Geoff, six years ago put a huge List Serve (collection of emails around a particular subject, something like an old school Internet bulletin board, I guess.) from the website Beer, Beer and More Beer on a CD for me. I didn't have an Internet connection in my house in Elletsville. So I took the CD, which my brother had written in a file language that could be read as if it were on the internet by the Explorer application in my computer.

Anyway, there I would be, in my room, reading Emails off a CD my brother made for me. It seemed like a milestone, in my life, in a way. Writing and communication in a huge flux. Night after night I enjoyed reading about beer that way, and the silly little conventions groups of people develop when they want to inspire the sensation of community. One night I saw an Email from a guy in Bloomington. So I looked his name up in a phone book and called him. "Your not going to believe how I found you." I told him. He lived six blocks from where I sit today. Can you guess what we did together? We met through Beer, Beer and More Beer. So, we made beer together. My first partial mash I had ever done. The guy wore a white coat in his little brewery. He was a meticulous technician, and had detailed logs of every brew session. I tend to enjoy people like this. Not to the exclusion of others, just as artifacts of nifty architecture in the human neighborhood.

So Angie and Gary's blog, while supposedly about Liam, also happens to be a new way of loving their family, themselves, their kids, and this thing we call life. They reveal their humor, and heartbreak, and passion, and all the while tell you, "I didn't know what to write about." Whoops!

I think most people are completely paralyzed by the notion of getting out there with your ideas and feelings. They want to, just like anyone wants to somehow discover that some number of people have taken a few minutes each day to inspect the contents of your head and heart. It is among the things we live for as people. But most of us find ourselves vaguely contemptible, or as my sister put it, "mere shell(s) of [our] former selves." A blog in this context can seem a vehicle straight to the public gallows, where you can be punished for what nobody yet has discovered.

Oh well. There are gigantic benefits, rather hard to explain to people, in being publicly spanked as I was years ago, for being a very bad boy. I do not appreciate my past behavior, and I am truly not making light of it here, but I have noticed that it seems pretty damn difficult for the most principled folks I know to feel like they are worth listening to. And that is not only a shame (given their actual value to the world) it also means that those with the broadest voice, tend to be the least among us (including, possibly, myself.) This explains somewhat to me why the communication arts world is such a shabby part of the public furniture. Blogging, when done by the likes of my sister and brother in law, seems a remedy to the newspaper, radio and televisions self regard.

When they write an entry that seems to be about my nephew Liam's having a meltdown or something, you can't imagine a better way of someone describing how to be a better steward of love, understanding, and patience. You are literally reading how to be a better person, and laughing with mirth at the humor and heartbreak. You are also feeling the anxiety and discord that our reflexive Western standards of Independence have us all under the thumb of. My sister and her husband cannot pretend that they are always OK. Or that they know just what's going to happen. Their tone (or writing voice) is frequently a sort of Captains Log, on a journey, where no one pretends what's happening isn't within an arena of real danger, and adventure. At times this makes things rather more exciting then some people might think they can afford. At times I think of my Sister and her husband as people who did not necessarily ask (say, God, on their hands and knees) for a large dose of wisdom, mainlined in their warm sticky veins... But here it is, their own personal, interactive experience of what really matters, down close to the bone, every God Damn Day. From what I can tell, of the people I know, this makes people either very sick, or enormously thoughtful. Closed minded people describe it as saintly. That word is rarely a compliment to its receiver.

I don't know much about Angela and Gary. You could write half of Lewis and Clark's journals about getting to their house from where I sit, or if you're really vociferous you could write half of Least Heat Moon's River Horse. Either way, you're hundreds of pages of experiences from Bloomington. Flying to Portland is a magazine article by comparison. Or a blog chapter. It is expensive to leave home, to fly, to entertain oneself or one's family, ect. Until recently I couldn't even really afford a few days at that level of spending, so I am really embarrassed to admit that I truncated what could have been a better relationship with an entire family, until recently, due to a cold economic calculus. Happens all the time they say. My sister doesn't look at it that way, I know (she told me recently.) But, it helps to know the cost of not changing, in case your wondering why I don't think I'm the best Uncle that ever lived.

As Robert Boyer would say it, "There's some things you'll go ninety years and never do." Call it an accident.

So this blog of Angela and Gary's is an opportunity, for all of us. We get to hear the words of two parents who are marked by our culture as stained with a lack of normalcy. And whereas, the typical response of a culture is to turn away from the different and alien experiences of people who can't regurgitate the archetypal babble of an excited parent, with Liam's blog, we can choose to focus more tightly on the basic experience they bring us all on how to love a deserving, important, unique, and wonderful human being. How often have you clicked on a link to learn that? Sometimes, perhaps we have.

Angie and Gary want to know if I wouldn't mind enjoying them every day.

For the love of God, the answer is yes.

A Gift From An Enemy

I have been so busy the last few weeks... today has been incredibly useful, though far from relaxing. A woman at the coffee shop this morning offered me a back rub. I must look pretty beat up. And I am. It's funny how quickly you regain your strength after slower periods in life. While your doing the work and straight after you grunt with every movement you make, not realizing the day is a constant effort. You are completely outside of yourself, focused and abstracted to the last of the length of your personality. Things often aren't funny, or even interesting. Time becomes an anamorphic map, swollen beyond recognition with a meaning that isn't physically representative. It flies, it crawls, it empties your bank accounts and pools at the ankles of the smiling proprietors of the lumber yard. How many songs are written about time? As Chalmer, my farmer friend back in the day, used to say (constantly), "It never ends."

Time don't, that's what.

All of this is, of course, the privilege of the young and healthy. My depressed or dying friends, or fairly old and feeling cornered friends are not necessarily grunting through their day. The lucky ones still get in the zone. Thats surely why Jim Sr. is here a few weeks a month instead of back home. The zone don't happen at home. Though arthritis most definitely does.

We feel our worst when we sit around, wondering what to do. We don't really believe much of anything about the sitters of the world. We wouldn't be caught dead imagining ourselves capable (or admitting a capability) of legitimately living amongst the authentic contemplative monastics or what have you. Even nuns don't have much time for God. That's why we call ourselves worldly. There is a great book, for kids (!?!), called Nuns Hurry! Needless to say, its a bunch of Nun's slaving away. In the Zone. Not even one picture shows a face in contemplative rapture. The author of this Trojan Horse of subtexuality is clearly having a ball, stretching their limber muscles of freedom, given us by the Enlightenment. Between the lines. Between the lines.

There really is no lesson in any of this for me. I'm not even really looking for one. It's obvious to me that in another life I would have been possibly a far more conventional dude, or a far more uncontrolled disaster. The magic of life I suppose is having chosen different than what you otherwise would have become. Sometimes people tell me to lighten up and be more spontaneous. I don't tell them this, but often times it is obvious that people have made no spontaneous decisions in their life. Acting spontaneous is fairly easy. It's like acting loving. Find some weak, worthless thing and employ your powers. The world is full of studio audience members who will clap on cue. Acting through your instincts is something I can't even imagine, though we all feel them. They make us cry, and cringe, and speak with an authority unknown to the aural and visual world. And yet we often live as if our intellects run the show. Perhaps our intellects are responsible for the world at large. For all its spectacle, that would explain a bit.

My words may seem a bit clinical, and detached. Those attributes, as well as my infamous flat affect have been uttered by many a wise guy and wag. So, fine. I am attempting to understand the outlines of my consciousness without taking myself too seriously. This sort of thing, I'm told all the time, is impossible. I, however, know how low my standards for truth can be, and am comfortable coming to no conclusions, but merely feeling out the outlines. How such intuitive searching is clinical is beyond me. Though it certainly is detached from the Nintendo Wii, which from what I understand, is a wonderful machine to bond through. Sort of Twister for the Facebook set. Cool.

In most ways observing life is more magical for me than observing the (inter-objective) technologies of our life. An old friend of mine used to shake her head and tell another friend of mine (in a fairly kindly way), "What the hell is Andy doing? I saw him staring at this building. I went into a store, and came out, and he was still there. There was nothing on the building. Had I not known him I might have thought he was a crazy person." Her concern was real. And I find it rather brave that she'd inquire about my nature instead of merely coming to the conclusions most of us prefer. I know I've got all kinds of conclusions. What my ex-girlfriend Katherine used to call, "Opinions." Man I'd love to hear her say that word. There is something so wonderful about being mocked by a loving friend.

But there is something even more wonderful, if you have been confused for most of your life about your nature. One day a man comes along. For what ever reason you are a smart ass, and play with his head. His head is not in the business of taking lightly your bad decisions, and he proceeds to rip you a new one. His violence is on the edge of physical. Your memory of the pleasure of such violence makes the world seem very strange. You look beside you and see your friends in a state of shock, their mouths hanging in a manner that a tabloid photographer would love. You wonder if maybe you don't look pretty stupid yourself. So the violent thug continues to mock you with enormous charm and cutting anger. You realize you are deeply embarrassed and hurt, but for whatever reason can't feel anything but intense interest in this crazy man. You come to see, in no time at all, that you have somehow crossed him. You called him, "Buddy," or something. Or you asked him a personal question, which he viewed as beneath the protocol of public discourse. You somehow insulted this walking volcano, and he now is glowing red. Everyone in the room is tensed, and yes, you know you want, just slightly to hurt this man. Though you also feel bad for whatever it is that you did.

As Garisson Keillor might say, "Isn't this a great time for some key lime pie?"

Being a smart ass, and having gained an appreciative bunch of friends otherwise known as community, you discover you can no longer afford to be a person who ever hurts another. This is the first time you have ever thought about or realized this. The truth, and power of your shared pleasure in the world, shines briefly within you. So even more than your dignity, pride and safety you realize something inutterable that separates you from the man you have somehow hurt. You glance at this bolt from the blue and know just what to do (if you are as lucky as me.)

"My burdens obligate me to see you as my friend, sir. And my burdens, sir, are very heavy indeed."

You used to want to be like this. But back then you felt so small. Today you are far less free than back then. But, in the end, it can't be explained. You are simply a fighter no longer. Just a man.

Phantom Whim Syndrome

I am more than a bit of a smart ass, as everyone who knows me experiences pretty much whenever I'm around. I tell myself (actually my loved one's do) this is OK, though it is pretty shady, and insecure. The joker and trickster can be romanticized into charismatic gods, but the final analysis is that they are too weak to live quietly, sentry to the world as it is with them in it.

We like our jokers and tricksters however, just like we like our little dogs that piss on everything. Laughter, and pleasure at each others expense is how we escape from the prison of earnestness the Pilgrims surly would have preferred (publicly.) Me thinks that drawn comic art must have provided some side splitting amusements in such a closed mouth culture. Whereas in our culture today just about everyone is a somewhat activist rebellious advocate for something. And people that aren't, live in Wyoming. Or Indiana, for that.

As I age I come to realize that I must choose my fate. Will I reveal for the remainder of my life my weakness in these parenthetical, editorial, comments? Or will I try to simply await the almost certain inheritance that the level headed vouchsafe. "You'll never change," is almost as popular as the lottery and pays more to boot. But is it true?

I know everything I need to know to live this life. I just hope I give a shit.

Probably Not A Dinner Time Conversation

If you only believe what you actually do is the measure of your character, sometimes, to say the least, you have little evidence of your character. I do a bit from time to time that gives me insight into myself, but for the most part I am lost on the subject.

As everyone knows who is older than twenty three, people love to use bait and switch emotional and behavioral incentives to control you. I'll never forget one of my favorite bosses over the years getting really frustrated with me for being extremely neutral on her effusive compliments. Apparently I had all kinds of "problems with being complimented." Well... anybody who's every loved more than one person in this world eventually realizes that accepting compliments from friends and family is an obligation as well as a sometime pleasure. You are a bit of a jerk when you're the only one giving them out. So, isn't that demonstrative of the role compliments play in the construction of authority? I thought so. So, when a boss, for crying out loud, thought it was important to compliment me every single day effusively, I knew she was exercising her insecurities. I have no obligation to help her with that. My carpentry mentor, Ron, once said to me after I said the word "sorry"------ "You need to do something about that." I didn't have the authority to tell my boss that, and had she really wanted to compliment me, she should have had such authority on offer. I never perform anything well for anyone at all. Not even myself. Any fool can figure out that you are obligated to do the right thing at all times. The illusion of choice is the screwed up thing, and it is spread by most of us, screwed up people, one and all. Good job.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Five Ways To Say I Love You

All of my siblings consistently amaze me.  

This was, of course, easy when we were young.  I lived to be recognized by the most important people in my life, and they were happy to oblige in the manner that came natural in a basically loving family.

In late age, siblings come round to the fact that their concerns are now considered by the television and world at large as economic opportunities.  And, mostly medical ones, should one view the evening news (an old folks demographic arena, if a friend of mine can be trusted.)  

So the sweetness of that early life bond between you and your siblings comes back to haunt you, if you let the defining character of identity define you straight out of the gravity of your siblings grasp. Of course, some siblings simply abuse their family (I have at times) and face what any abuser must.  

The vast majority of us, however, have a more prosaic task when approaching, or experiencing middle age.  

How do I listen?  How do I discover without assumptions?  How do I act like a friend after all these years?

Children have a genius for things that don't include "All these years."  Excepting, one would hope, Paul Simon's "still crazy."

So, nearing middle age, I yearn to learn of a righteous, and more important by far, pleasurable path with my sibs, that does include all these years.

Well... as it's been said before, once again, "the kid's allright."  (Man, does anybody say that in England.  Surely only hipsters. Or no one.)

So, how do you say I love you?

My buddy Robert Boyer has some ideas he received from his daughter Becky.  Becky has a somewhat strange relationship with me since she lives in my town, and I live (a stranger, of sorts) with her Dad.  But, if it's fair, I'll go back to formative experiences to explain why that's OK. 

 Robert was not the favored parent in the Boyer family.  His wife, Cynthia, was. I have mentioned this before, but trust me, it isn't me that is bringing it up.  It seems to be a subject of great interest between me and his children, though, Robert thankfully is less enthusiastic about discussing it.

Nobody frankly faults Robert for this.  He is who he is.  And in most ways, that has been his definition of himself to the world.  

For the clever sap who would like to challenge him in this respect, I feel I should refer you to his dropping out of the most defining experience of the generation of Americans who fought World War Two.  I suspect it is only the people themselves who called themselves conscientious objectors, who believed the term in its entirety, especially at that time in US history.

But... in any case, Cynthia had neither an iron in that fire (due, of course, to her sex, but crucially, also her temperament), nor a strong desire to live mostly amongst her deepest convictions, in her life.  Cynthia sought her purposes and identity in life from the messy world outside her door.  Her husband, she knew all along, would have preferred to have left the door locked.  God knows how they might have lived without a key.

One of the defining memories of Cynthia, whom I never met, as given to me by her son, David, my friend of forty seven, is the nearly constant presence of his mother, in the kitchen, listening on the phone to a "friend" unloading.  Cynthia would utter monosyllabic responses to gushes of feeling from the speaker side of the phone technology.  Her son, David, would, still a small child, climb up on the refrigerator and listen to his mother.  From what I know of him, he has patterned much of his deepest convictions on what he heard.

I need not tell you what that entailed.  

It seems awfully important to us, in the thick of our life, what problems we have.  And the more important we feel, the more the empathic among us listen to.  Until the balance seems scaled to our impossible narcissism.  I know, just this evening I spoke volumes to a friend who called me to simply ask me to go to a movie.  I am fairly sure he did not wish for my (I thought) nuanced analysis.  I ended the conversation with my usual, "I'm babbling, and surely should end this."  Was that an invitation for him to say, "No Andy, this is pure heaven."  I do not know, and surely hope not.  

So Robert Boyer shares with me a number of problems.  We were delighted to find one another.  Both of us coping with problems dissimilar, but legitimate none the less.  Robert has friends wishing they would take more time to love him, given the crucial role he played in their life when they had no one else to turn to.  In the seventies he was an extremely unusual supporter of Gay, Lesbian and Transgender folks.  I have a suspicion that that is one of the things that got him fired from Penn State.  Some large liberal arts institutions could back then claim that their constituency simply could not tolerate a moderate voice on that discussion.  Robert would have laughed at their gravitas.  He didn't fight Hitler, remember?

Robert has his place in this broken world.

So, needless to say, I am willing to spread some of his ideas despite their lesser value in his family, as compared to his unbelievable wife.

The thing that relates to my siblings from Robert, for this discussion, is his relatively consistent refrain of The Five Ways To Say I Love You, which he learned from his daughter, Becky.

The list is simple:

1) Affirmative feedback

2) Quality time

3) non-exploitative touching

4) Acts of kindness

5) Gifting

There are many reasons, if you are human, to appreciate these reminders.  I have known many thugs who would have smiled in memory of the "saints" and "martyrs" who evidenced them.

It is my peculiar privilege to have known these things as a matter of course in my family and friends.  It is my duty and responsibility to find some way to reflect that in my life.  Despite any lack of the same from others.

Of course... I get this stuff all the time from others.  But that will never be the basis for my friendships.  

I try not to tell people this, though sometimes I wish to torture some people.  When truly pushed, to near violence, I will sometimes admit to some that it doesn't matter at all what they think of me.  All that matters is what I think of them.

That this deliciously narcissistic view has some basis in a slightly moral perspective is a constant pleasure to me. Such a perspective is in clear view of anyone interested in the classic narratives of Western Culture, the Bible certainly (mostly New Testament, but not exclusively) and other, probably better reads like Moby Dick, to be sure.  The author of Billy Budd, and the creator such an observer as Ishmael is unlikely to be forgotten, once read, as a humanist in the broadest sense.  

So why do I bring Robert's aphorisms up now?  Everybody knows the elderly have little else to do but instruct.  It is their bully pulpit to sit and await deliverance of their needs while the younger employ what the older cannot to a lesser acclaim, right?  

Well, if you believe that, then you have no need to read this Blog, or this chapter of my life.

I bring this up to bring nuance to the pleasure I find in my siblings way of life.  They have always told me they loved me. But more interesting, now, to the man they have celebrated, is the way they say they love you.

Do they say it five ways?  Probably more.

Let me start with my sister, Angela.

I feel it necessary to give her a chapter of her own.  So read the next one if you will. 

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Strange day.  Spent this morning at the house we're remodeling at Driscoll.  At one point I was dismantling a stairway while climbing the stairs themselves, until their were only risers, the treads falling away into the basement.  At one point a hundred year old joist simply gave way due to the stresses being added to it, when the dismantled stairs no longer tied the floor together.  I had a thin piece of flooring that I was standing on, which I had crossing three joists, but that didn't change the fact that it feels weird and scary to see a floor joist fall twelve feet to the floor, between your legs.  So many things about this job are just crazy.  But nobody is taking risks without being careful, and that isn't always the case in my line of work.  So while it's somewhat crazy, their is a great deal of clear eyed sobriety.  You should hear me constantly reminding myself of various dangers involved throughout the day. I'm sure it drives my coworkers crazy, but I can't help myself.

Around noon I went to help my friend Rick move.  It wasn't a terribly difficult move, as he had done nearly everything, and all I had to do was move a few couches and other large pieces of furniture.  I was with my other friend Ben, and together we cleared the place out, while complaining, of course.  Ben is quite the taskmaster and had somewhat precise feelings on packing a truck.  Since Ben was helping Rick for free, and Rick has a bad back, it was amusing to see Rick's eyes go flinty at me when I was circling Ben with a bit of sarcasm.  I actually managed to keep things lighthearted and not be too exasperated by stopping with the heaviest objects and letting Ben take breaks.  Something to do with his wrists, or whatever.  Ben's a decent guy, and frankly, most people would have hated what we were doing.  

When I was done doing all of that I came home and worked out some details for some jobs I'll be doing next week, and walked around like a zombie in the garden.  I've done very little of anything at home lately due to being out of town and working every day.  I also noticed while helping Rick that my rotator cuff's are sore, but not in a scary way, just an annoying way.  All the more reason to get my ass in gear and have a bunch of thriving businesses one day.  I can't imagine doing work like this for more than a decade or so.  My hands look like a sixty year olds and are punctured all over from endless insults.  I feel enormously strong, and enjoy manual labor a great deal, but sometimes I think about the inevitable arthritis that I'm causing and it makes me sick.  

While writing to a family member David knocked on my door and asked me if I would go with him and his son Noah, and Noah's wife, Dell, to the new Pixar movie, UP.

I declined due to exhaustion, but David is perhaps the only person in the world, save a girlfriend, or maybe my Mom, to actually grovel and insult me into doing things.  So, I fairly quickly consented to the movie.  Of course, we all had a wonderful time.  To top it off, we saw a 3D version.  A fairly quirky technology still.  But Pixar, as usual, seemed aware beyond its years, and just used the 3D as a spice, when it wanted to make a particularly strong impression.  For the most part, it worked OK.  In truth I would rather have watched it without the 3D.  But, it added to the zaniness of the evening.

The movie was good.  In some ways great.  I don't completely trust myself with Pixar movies, because I generally am an extremely sentimental dude.  I love crying (not weeping, just tearing up) due to a sentimental point a movie makes.  Hell, the other day I was crying at something I wrote years ago.  Kind of odd to make yourself cry.

Well, Up is filled to the gills with sentiment, and centers around a character who reminds me enormously of Robert Boyer, but perhaps without Roberts rather pervasive coping skills.  The movie makes a number of gags about aging, one of which is unbelievably ingenious, involving something of a geriatric swordfight.  

Describing the movie, with any specificity is nearly impossible, since the movie sets itself up with a story about the main characters childhood, in which he obsesses about becoming an explorer in the mold of a famous aviator/explorer.  One day he meets another kid with perhaps an even greater appreciation of his hero, and for the next few minutes you watch as the kids turn into adults, then live straight through to the present time, when the main character is not only old, but widowed.  Everything in the movie is colored through the light of that montage, and while its the oldest trick in the book, the main character seems like just about the loveliest person in the world.

How he becomes involved with a boyscout, a gigantic rare tropical bird, and a talking (sort of) dog, is tempting to try to explain, until I realize that it was probably a joke at Pixar, that turned into a movie.  I think it pulled it off, but then, I always say that.  Some people won't agree.

I suppose the most beautiful thing about feeling the way the movie makes you feel is how everything that animates your emotions in the film, is pretty pedestrian human tragedy.  I live with somebody who sighs constantly with the burden of remaining without the love of his life.  He doesn't complain.  But there is a kind of dignified disappointment in some of the looks he gives, and throughout all of the ways he communicates.  

It is strange to think there are hundreds of thousands of people like him.  All of them mean something important to me.  I'm not sure why, and I'm not sure how.  

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Potential Energy (for the ears that hear it)

I was thinking of my Mom today.  Why?  I can't go into it now.  Suffice it to say I think about her a little everyday, just as she thought of me every day throughout my childhood.  And when she moved to New Mexico, and I would visit, during my most turbulent years, she would hold me close, and tell me in a kind, and levelheaded voice, that she sometimes worried about me, and just wanted to know I was safe.  I don't think I ever realized what it was like for my family to not know more about my life, and what my day to day experiences were, in terms of my safety and decision making.  I got something of a glimpse when I finally started dating women whom I loved so much their occasional lapse of safety would drive my awareness of such a love back to my Mom and Dad.  The revelation was a pretty obvious thing for most people.  But not for me.  It hurts when you can't control for a loved ones safety.  

Perhaps (outside of the long story that might have had something to do with it) I was thinking of my Mom because I was feeling the kinds of feelings I know she has always wanted me to.  Standing in the still reasonably comfortable sundappled recesses of a torn up house, the blue sky framed through missing windows and the breeze blowing one hundred and thirty years of dust away from my face, I had wood ester of pine rosin in my nostrils, and a three pound sledge in my hand.  At its most primal, carpentry is beams, cut, and set on other beams.  Nails are in the soul of a structure not only beside the point, but dangerous due to what they can convince you about the fidelity of a building in wood.  America's oldest structures are by definition hundreds of years old, made of beams and posts, and without nails in their bones.  Buildings that require nails have lifespans measured in the cold math of iron oxidation.  Post and beam construction uses pins, tongues, notches, and cabinetry like tricks to join wood. It is perhaps a reflection of the fickle reliability of nails, over long spans of time, that nailed wood is said to be fastened, not joined.  

I work with my friends, and not necessarily because I met them at work.  Lee, I've known for ten years.  The two Jim's I met two years ago, and yes, because of my work, but in many ways, as will be obvious in the next couple days, Jim Sr. and Jim Jr. are friends of mine, far more involved in my life then coworkers in my past could even pretend to be.  

So there I was, knocking floor joists into place, on top of a wall that we built yesterday.  Carrying seventy pound floor joists around and cutting and placing them on top the sill plate of a wall you helped build is far from the teeming world of competing claims that seems the universe I participate in.  Though it can be rather close to some strange meta questions that some coffee shops and bars still encourage in their environment and atmosphere.  

The other day I got to work, and within four hours helped get the joists over this huge span that a two story empty room pretty much embodies.  I said to the guys, "Why don't we just make a sort of Henry Higgins library.  You know with a second story surrounding walkway, and ladders rolling all over the place."  The only difference between a two story library and what we're doing, is that the library would be somewhat cheaper.  Nothing but wood, and reasonably affordable labor. Right away Mr. Higgins.

Anyhow, in four hours the joists cut the "library" in two, turning our upper class fantasies into the unit of domestic metrics: mere rooms.  We took three quarter inch oriented strand board, that is tongue and groove, and pieced it together and nailed it to the floor joists.  Piece by piece, thirty two square feet at a time, we gobbled the daylight up out of the basement.  

Unceremoniously we placed and nailed the last piece of OSB and immediately began to build walls.  This, because we are insane, involves the simultaneous demolition and construction of a house.  The house, we think, was framed in 1880 in Ash.  Which you can do, even today, if you want your insurance company to politely decline a relationship with you, and your home to effectively be unbuyable, despite its fetching  price determined on the value: $0 dollars.  All those boring stamps and codes you see on lumber relate to it's rigorous inspection by pro's.  Geniuses like me would die a lot more frequently if we had access to "wood" without the stamp.  For good reason, it is mighty hard to come by.  Course, if you're working in a house framed twenty years after the Civil War, perhaps that's different.  I wrote letters and email, and called a number of different organizations two years ago to get the two Jim's more value for their old timbers we pulled from the other unit of the house.  Time after time people seemed shocked when I told them the dimensions and quality of this wood.  Some of it is vaporized by bugs.  But a large amount for mysterious reasons to me, works beneath a chisel, like a tree felled a year ago.  I'm saving more of it this year to make pretty things out of.  I feel it's wasteful to buy new wood only to destroy it while pretending I can sculpt.  But this stuff is on its way to the landfill, where it will live perhaps another three hundred years, slowly turning to the equivalent of peat, amidst the landfills anaerobic inhabitants.  

So, even though a couple of days ago we had just put up the floor joists, and nailed the floor in, none of us thought much of it, or said anything to indicate there was anything to say about it.  It wasn't until I swept some debris off that same floor, three hours later, when the day was ending, that I realized something, and looked around me, dazed by it.  

As soon as human beings make a sturdy surface upon which to stand, that surface becomes a tool, that obviates the components that make up the surface.  It no longer is the pieces in a pile, unable to hold themselves up, or engage in self assembly.  But a unified whole, if not in your mind, then through the claims of your physical environment upon your actions.  Where before were dust motes penetrated by golden beams of sunlight, is now a solid platform of wood, weighing twenty five hundred pounds and levitating, for perhaps another hundred years.  And standing upon it is a bald guy, just after building it.  If you listen carefully you can hear him say, "Hey guys, you seen my hammer?"

I just couldn't believe that I was walking around and arranging my tools on this thing I had hung just that morning.  A strange feeling indeed.  And not a matter of ownership or creation, but rather of the machination of human nature, its embrace of space to craft an arena.  

Another fairly spooky thing about recreating a house that is over a hundred years old, is the slow deconstruction of the work of others.  Occasionally one of us will achieve some small victory in the impossible game we're playing, transferring many tons safely, with large beams of wood in small spaces (where, believe it, the joists do not fit.)  So, our predictive powers being pure human, we celebrate even as we hurtle toward another problem.  But wait... we've done something wrong (this happens every hour of the day, and is one of the ways you know when you'll be done, or go to lunch. Count them... three of them, eat lunch.  Eight or nine, yeah, it ain't only time to go, it's eight or nine reasons to go home.)  Our happy moment, in the sun of victory, suddenly is thrown into the shade of a dark cloud.  We shouldn't have allowed a floors sheathing to penetrate beyond a certain point, but it none the less does.  Therefore we must cut what we cannot, and move what is permanently immobile.  We should have known, but have only just learned...  Some wag in the room says, "Well, what could happen?"  You just look them in the eye, point to the hard work of somebody in 1880, and say, "Don't you think that might be what they were thinking?"

It's actually something of a crazy personal pleasure of mine to read the intentions of the builders of old buildings.  It isn't hard to imagine why.  I wrote an essay on this a few years ago, and the ideas that caused the essay, and the ideas my work today involves have bred an even deeper pleasure.

Intentions of builders is really putting it too broadly.  My interest is in what remains of the builders efforts.  In the poem, at the margin of this blog (for now) called "Waffle Houses," I play with the idea that structures are put together with the food in the bellies of construction workers, so "every building is a ham sandwich, a cup of coffee, and a red delicious."  But while, that is without question touching on the truth, a far deeper, direct, and unabstracted truth follows the bricklayer, as he carries his brick from terra firma up scaffolding to the top of a buildings facade.  As the mason nestles the brick in its bed of mortar, the brick no longer seems heavy to him, he has given it's weight away, and the burden is the building's until earthquake, recking ball, or neglect gives terra firma back, what the mason originally took from her. 

But while the building is standing, someone might walk by it.  Perhaps their name is Andy, and they are limning the structures facade with admiration, or contempt, it does not matter.  For a portion of what passes through Andy's eyes is the building's form and structure, and another aspect of the building is a spectral spirit of the places bricks and mortar.  You see the mason died a few decades ago, but that little trip we took with him above, to bed his gift from the ground to the facade of the building, is a permanent part of the brick.  Not just its posture in the world, which one would hope a mason feels some pride in providing to the brick and the buildings admirers.  But crucially, to the strange Andy's of the world, its desire to one day be reunited with terra firma, like all of us (or at least the things we're made out of.  We might think otherwise.)  The buildings in my town, were all assembled into structures of singing desire.  And the forces that represent a bricks desire for the ground, were given the brick (which, believe me, the building is not experiencing in the abstract) by a person who sweated it, with muscle and bone to the top of the building.  The ATP energy in the cells of that mason gave the brick up there its song.  So if nature is for the eyes that see it, the songlines of the buildings in any town are there for who will hear them.  I wonder if you will ever listen.

Me and my devilishly romantic views!  You should hear the sighs of exhausted pleasure in my friends when they finally realize I am never going to surprise them in a conventional fashion.  The gleam in their eyes and belly laughter at my expense, is a funeral for the strangers we once were.