Tuesday, July 31, 2007

the latest

I made this cane specifically to take to my daughter's wedding. I wanted something a little fancier and maybe a bit more formal for the occasion.

The handle is oak. The stacked cubes are maple, walnut and oak. The transition piece between the cubes and shaft is aspen. The shaft is oak with a stripe of pine running the length of the shaft on two sides. I stained it all dark for a more formal look.

As with all the canes I've made, this one is fit specifically to my length and hand. This has already become one of my favorites.

Friday, July 27, 2007


I’ve never been so glad to see the rain. I’m sitting here at the cottage in central Wisconsin, looking out the window and enjoying seeing and hearing the rainfall. It’s been a long time since we’ve had any significant showers. Consequently most of the state has been suffering drought conditions for the past month.

Here at the lake we can measure the severity of the drought just by looking at our pier and seeing the high water line on the stanchions and comparing that to the water level. Right now the lake has been the lowest in the 16 years we’ve been coming here. It is not a deep lake to begin with, so losing nearly 3 feet of depth is a near catastrophe. My pier extends 40 feet into the lake and at the farthest reach the water is only 2 inches deep. We can’t even get into our kayaks from the pier since they need more than 2 inches of water to float.

The lack of rain in this area, and of course in other parts of the state, is the main topic of conversation everywhere you go. Everyone is concerned not only about the farm crops, but also the tourist industry which suffers when lake levels fall. Our lake has been in the past a favorite fishing venue for sportsmen and a well used recreational area for waterskiers and waverunners. But in the past month the fishermen have stopped coming around and the water is too shallow to allow motorboats to get their motors working. On the one hand the quiet is wonderful, but on the other hand the local economy is taking a big hit this season.

The falling lake levels—ours is not the only one suffering—are certainly a result of the rainfall shortage, but there are other factors at work too. This part of the state is heavily agricultural and farms regularly irrigate their crops. Many of the corn fields and soybean fields have giant irrigation sprinklers that suck hundreds of thousands of gallons of water from the water table on a regular basis. Their deep wells siphon off water that helps to replenish the lakes and keep local home wells functioning. The state granted irrigation licenses to the farmers in the past couple years without doing a thorough study of the potential consequences. Now that the irrigation has been going on for awhile those consequences are all too evident. Local wells are drying up and lake levels are falling.

While I don’t advocate a stop to crop irrigation, I do think there has to be some better oversight and closer regulation of the irrigation practices. I can understand the argument that food crops take precedence over other needs, but much of the corn crop from this area is grown to feed the growing ethanol industry, which is not yet a proven economical fuel alternative. Allowing unregulated irrigation of that crop seems to be catering to a private entrepreneurial special interest at the expense of tourism and recreational interests.

Also being affected by drying up lakes are the property values of the homes on those lakes. With falling property values comes a falling tax base which affects everyone in the communities that rely on those taxes for public services.

And while I am not overly worried about the current water levels—historically lake levels fluctuate on a regular schedule spread over 7-8 years—I do think that more attention needs to be paid to the use of such a valuable resource as our lakes and rivers and the regulatory process that controls them. Left unsaid are the concerns about the quality of that water. That’s a discussion for another time.

So until a change in the longterm weather, I will sit here and enjoy the splattering sound of raindrops against the window and be thankful for everydrop.

Sunday, July 22, 2007


There is a theory going around that if you want something—a new car, a house, anything tangible—or want something to happen, you need only to visualize it and it will eventually come to pass. Great theory. I don’t know how effective it is at producing the big things like that house or car, but the little things that make life more pleasant are readily attainable in my experience.

For instance, every morning as I edge into consciousness, I visualize a pot of freshly brewed coffee awaiting me in the kitchen and it is always there. Amazing. I often visualize reaching into the dresser drawer and being able to pull out clean socks and underwear and it never fails to happen. I like having a clean and orderly house and all I have to do is visualize it and the house is clean and spotless. Whenever I look in the refrigerator there is always a can of beer there just as I visualized it and most of my favorite foods always seem to be stacked neatly in the cupboards and pantry just as I picture them. I frequently visualize an extra twenty bucks in my wallet and I always find it there just as I imagined it. Somehow the gas tank is always full in my truck just as I hope it will be. I visualize the bills all being paid on time and, lo and behold, it happens just like that. Incredible.

All of those things really happen in my life so I know the visualization theory really works. Of course, Mary likes to point out that she has a lot to do with all those things happening, but I think she just wants to debunk the theory and take all the credit. Still, she does get up before me each morning so I suppose she could be making coffee. And she spends a lot of time in the basement with her washer and dryer so maybe she is producing those clean clothes from the dirty ones I shove down the laundry chute. And it does seem like every time she passes through a room she is dusting or vacuuming along the way. And I have to admit that she frequently arrives home carrying bags filled with all those foods I like to consume. For a long time I thought those dollar bills in my wallet were breeding and turning into twenties until she pointed out that she raised my allowance. It has occurred to me that whenever she drives my truck it ends up back home with more gas in it than when she left. As for all those bills being paid, I thought the utility company was giving us freebies until I spotted her writing out checks payable to them.

Coincidence? Maybe. I still like the visualization theory. After all, I did visualize having a wife who would take good care of me and look what happened.

Monday, July 16, 2007

our new best friends

We had an interesting experience the other day here at the lake. Early in the evening a car pulled into the driveway, an unfamiliar car, with four people in it. Strangers. But not for long.

Our little cottage at the lake was built back in the 60’s and has had several owners. The man who built it was an electrician by trade, and by my reckoning, not a very good one. I have since rewired the place so that all the outlets work and the switches actually turn on the lights. But that’s neither here nor there. He was just the first one here. He sold the place to a family with young children sometime in the seventies. That family in turn sold it in the late 80’s to a builder who bought it with the intention of remodeling and then flipping it for a nice profit. That’s where we entered the picture. He made his profit off of us back in 1991. It’s the family with young children who occupied this space in the seventies that brings us back to the car filled with four people that pulled into the driveway that evening.

When those four young adults got out of the car they were all smiles and reassurances that they were friendly and didn’t mean to intrude on our solitude. The two women in the group quickly explained in a rush of nostalgia that they had grown up here in the summers when their family owned the place. They were sisters who were visiting each other and had the urge to visit their old cottage and reminisce about the good old days. They were very gregarious, polite and friendly. We took to them immediately. The two men with them were also polite, but far more reticent and quiet. The women did the talking. Isn’t too unusual is it?

When they first stepped out of the car the group dynamic was not readily discernible. I couldn’t quite tell who was with whom and what the relationships were. Who was married to whom, or not. Friends or spouses? Not that it really mattered. But you know how you get curious when you meet new people and want to know who’s who.

After a few minutes standing out in the driveway getting acquainted, we invited them to look around and renew their memories while we updated them on the history of the little cottage. They were filled with wonder at the changes to the place as well as to the changes all along the road to the cottages and houses they remembered from their childhood. Some of their memories were at odds with each other. They couldn’t agree if the porch then served as a bedroom or if they had always stayed in the back bedroom. They remembered playing in the wooded lot next door that now has a house on it. They remembered differently about the lake and the fun they had on it.

We were thoroughly enjoying their stories. After a while the two guys loosened up a bit and started joining in the conversation. When they asked about all the artwork on display (mine) and all the wonderful photographs on the walls (Carrie’s), we got to talking about our two children as parents need little encouragement to do. When we mentioned that our daughter Carrie was a veterinarian, wide eyed surprise played across all four faces. It turns out that one of the sisters and one of the guys were both vets. Now we had a lot in common and the conversation took a whole new twist. It turns out that all four of them were graduates of the University of Wisconsin, as we are. The other sister is a psychologist and the other guy is a physical therapist. The psychologist and the physical therapist are married and live in Florida and were visiting the vet sister. The two vets have been a couple for 17 years though they remain unmarried, and share a clinical practice in a nearby city. It turns out they weren’t as young as we initially thought, all of them hovering on both sides of 40.

We talked with them for nearly an hour and a half that evening. We laughed and got along as if we had been friends for years. The conversation and laughter got so raucous at times that the neighbors were wondering about the party we were having. I can’t remember ever meeting four people for the first time and, after such a short time, feeling like we were the best of friends. It was dark by the time they left (the sisters were insisting on going to the A&W in town and getting a root beer float, just as they had when they were kids here on warm summer nights).

When they pulled out of the driveway we were sad to see them go. We waved to them as they turned the corner.

The really weird part of this story? We don’t know their names. Nor do they know ours. We never actually got around to formal introductions. Our new best friends are strangers.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

new cane

While we were home for a few days from the cottage last week, I got a chance to get back into the workshop for a few hours and finish up the details on another cane. I call this one The Scepter because it reminds me of a formal, officious staff, ornate and ceremonial.

It is surprisingly light and comfortable in my hand despite the ornate look. I will save this one for fancy/shmancy occasions.

I actually have two more canes nearly ready for completion. I just have to have the time at home again to get into the workshop. I’ll have pictures of them in due time.


It seems to be the common practice among young married couples to progress from the nurturing of simple organisms, like plants, to the more complex responsibilities of taking care of a four-legged creature such as a dog or cat, to finally investing their nurturing energies in the most exacting responsibility of all, a human type baby. Jonathan and Katie, married now two years in August, have embarked on the second leg of that nurturing journey. They have acquired a dog.

Allow me to introduce their new family member, my “granddog,” so to speak, hereafter known as Bucky, the Chocolate Lab.

As puppies go, Bucky is a definitely a puppy. At his age of 8 weeks old he is a jumble of floppy uncoordination, given to falling down and falling asleep without apparent provocation. Everything he eats, and he eats everything, makes only a momentary slowdown in his innards before ending up on the floor in generous globs of puppy poo. But he loves to be held and is the friendliest, sweetest, lovingest, cuddliest, cutest little puppy the world has ever seen. At least until your new puppy comes along.

The unspoken truth is that he will be a “little” puppy for only a little while, before growing into a massive bundle of doggy muscle that will be a “big” part of their household. Labs are not small dogs and judging by the size of the paws on this little monster, he is going to be a big boy very soon. Both Jon and Katie seem well tuned into the necessity of proper training for Bucky, so the future looks bright and well in hand.

I really shouldn’t worry that they managed to kill off a few plants in the first nurturing phase, should I?

from Africa

I just received the following email from my daughter, Carrie, who has been in Africa for the past month or so. It is quite entertaining and thought you all would enjoy it as much as I did. I edited out the personal stuff and initialized the names to protect the privacy of the people she mentions, but otherwise this is what she wrote:

.....Our symposium last weekend went really well. We held it a Mokuti, a
lodge/resort right outside the eastern edge of the park (Okaukuejo,
where we usually stay, is in the middle of the park about 2.5 hours
away - Etosha is roughly the size of New Jersey). There were about 65
attendees, & 2.5 days of talks & posters. I presented a poster on the
research I hope to do, which is a bit funny (usually you only present
research results you've got), but I got some good input about
collaring zebras. Nearly all of the talks were good, a mixture of
science & social science research that people have done in the area over
the years, as well as some historical talks by a couple of the
old-timers. I really enjoyed the history talks, as I learned a lot
about the park that I hadn't known before. & I also learned from one
talk that apparently lions, when hunting, tend to have positions they
prefer for the ambush. The speaker likened it to rugby or soccer, &
called his different study lions centers or right or left wingers or
halfbacks. They have a very coordinated system for sneaking up on &
gathering up prey, which often involves their getting into position,
moving around a group of potential prey, then rushing it so the center
can leap up & grab the prey as they try to run away from the wingers.
Anyhow the talks were good, the audience was good, the location was
good. The only real dud of a talk was the last one in which one of
the Ministry members got up & stammered his way through 30 minutes of
telling us that they wanted to establish Namibia as a brand rather
than a country, complete with catch phrases & slogans (Namibia is
"soulful" & "wild" or something inane like that) & everything for the
rich foreign tourists. His most startling leap of logic was when he
said (keep in mind it took him about 10 minutes to spit this out -
afterwards W said that he wanted to leap out of his seat & wind
the man up as his battery seemed to be running quite low) well, maybe
lots of tourism in the park affects biodiversity in a bad way, but
maybe it doesn't, so let's have much more tourism! He basically
advocated building many more roads, lots more campsites & luxury
lodges & basically raping the Etosha pan of its vast wonderful
nothingness by having rich tourists (not from Namibia, of course, as
Namibians can already no longer afford to go to their own national
park) take moonlit walks on the pan & have five course dinners on the
pan's edge. At this point, I pictured the right & left wingers
circling the dinner table at pan's edge, flushing fat Germans toward
the center lioness hiding in the brush. So maybe more tourists
wouldn't hurt biodiversity...

Anyhow, the symposium was also good for meeting people, putting names
to faces & such. W & his wife J were there, of course, as
were most of my labmates from Berkeley, even a couple who have already
left the lab for postdocs. I also met a couple of my "labmates" that
I'd never met before - W is also on the faculty at the University
of Pretoria in South Africa, so he has a couple of grad students
there. C & C were very nice & fun & I wish that they were in
Berkeley as they were a natural addition to our already sprawling,
loud, ridiculous lab group. We tend to forget that they're on our lab
email list, & so they told us of receiving many emails exhorting them
to please clean up their damn dishes in the sink, or to stop stealing
the forks, or please who is buying more sugar for the tea. I told
them they must retaliate by sending emails to the entire lab telling
everyone that there is tasty cake to be had next door, or berating all
of us for forgetting to pick up the mail.

So then I came back here & did tons more lab work & tried to help
S (the first year in our lab who just arrived here) learn how to
do other lab procedures without breaking things (S is 22 & seems
to have reverted to clumsy adolescence since he arrived, as everyday
he breaks at least one important thing - he broke the truck clutch
learning to drive stick, broke the truck window, broke some kitchen
implements, put nonsterile lab things into sterile lab things, broke
the bottom end off of a beer bottle just by looking at it, dropped a
case of beer in Werner's living room, & last night broke then spilled
a bottle of Tobasco sauce all over his pants). Of course, I stepped
on my own glasses & broke the arm off, (I had to have Jeremy send me
my old ones with H), broke my flip flops, broke two kitchen bowls,
& broke the pepper grinder, so I suppose I can't talk.

I've had help with my lab work from M, whom I think I told you
about. She's a student at the Namibian Polytech University & finished
her associates degree (or the equivalent, a certificate in
Conservation Bio) last year, is taking this year to do internships in
the lab & field (as is the norm), & is starting the last two years
toward her B.Tech. in February. She's excellent & has helped me a
lot. She just takes great initiative without being told to do
anything, & catches on very quickly. Plus, she's funny & we have some
interesting conversations. W is keen on keeping her with us if we
can - she has to do an eight month field research project for her
B.Tech (sounds more like a masters to me than a bachelors), & he
really wants to get her to do it here, & to maybe even do a masters
with him later. He's very good about that, making connections,
finding students, getting people together. Oh, yes, W was here
until a couple of days ago, after the conference, supposedly to talk
with me, H, & S about our research here. Of course, when
W is in a game park, what he really wants to do is go on game
drives & take pictures of animals, so it was a bit difficult to pin
him down. But I did one afternoon & had a two hour discussion with
him, Wr, & Wl about my research, which was very good. W
is pretty fun to have in the field, as he gets very excited about
everything he sees. He also likes to socialize with everyone here, so
we ended up having three braais last week (which I think also
contributed to my getting sick, as I haven't had any down time in
weeks now). I suggested having a fourth of July braai, so we did that
as well, & we cooked hamburgers & beans for everyone & made dishes
with marshmallows in them as all good Americans should on the fourth
of July, & Sh even dug up two sparklers for me from somewhere in
his garage. At the end of the night, M shifted the fire wood a
bit, & we were treated to an amazing display of fireworks from the
wood. None of us could understand where it was coming from - sap,
maybe? But the wood sent out fountains of sparks high into the air,
like Roman candles, & would occasionally spit out bits that would fly
to the sides of the fire pit then explode into cascading lights & send
M screaming. This went on for about 10 minutes. It was amazing!
So we Americans got our fireworks display as well, & we all agreed
that they were some of the most beautiful ones we've ever seen.

Today I am just taking it easy & will walk into the office later to
send these emails. I might go by the waterhole later to see if the
elephants come in. Lately these two enormous breeding herds have been
coming to the waterhole in the late afternoon, big old cows & bulls,
subadults, juveniles, & little baby elephants that look just like
Dumbo & have little skinny trunks & big ears. I watched them one
Sunday evening in the sunset, & it must have been bath night because
several of them waded into the waterhole & submersed themselves my
rolling over sideways. Some of them even took water & sprayed it over
their backs in the stereotypical elephant fountain that you never
think elephants actually make. But apparently they do - I saw it.
The mothers had to nudge their calves into the water, to force them to
bathe (which I suppose is always the way). Then they all came out, &
grabbed trunkfuls of dust & threw it over their wet backs. To get
their bellies, they kicked dust up with their feet. The littlest ones
gave up on that method & just flopped to the ground & rolled. At one
point I couldn't even see elephants for all the dust in the air. &
then they decided that they were all clean & dusted & watered & gave
each other some subsonic signal & walked away. All the tourists here
go gaga whenever they see lions lazing about near the roads - they
stop their vehicles in big jumbles & will watch for hours as lions
just lie there, sleeping & farting, looking like the laziest, mangiest
creatures you can imagine. Lions do nothing but sleep, fart, & have
sex for 10 seconds at a time before going back to sleeping & farting.
Whereas elephants actually DO things & interact & talk to each other &
fight & play & have squabbles & discussions. But lions always get
first billing, which I will never understand. Not that elephants
don't fart as well, but they do so with much more aplomb.....

That's my elephant watching and lion bashing girl, up to her ears in interesting experiences. What a wondrous life she leads while I sit here and enjoy her replay of those times. Hope you all enjoyed her words as much as I did.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

oops, I did it again

Let me set the scene. All during the school year Mary is very fastidious about her professional appearance. She has her hair done professionally once a week, sometimes twice. It makes her feel good about herself. But once the school year ends and summer has arrived, she loosens up a bit on the hair grooming and pushes the professional aside and “does” her own hair.

As usual, she steadfastly seeks my opinion about her effectiveness as a hairstylist. In my defense, I have repeatedly asked her not to seek an opinion from me since I don’t want to “step in it” if you know what I mean. But no, she has this insatiable desire to bait me, knowing that I can’t control my baser instincts.

“How does my hair look,” she asks in all innocence. “I did it myself instead of having Tina do it.”

“Looks great.” I reply without really looking. My answer would be the same even if I was blind.

“Do you think it looks ok brushed back like this?” She is forcing me to look.

“Sure. It looks fine to me.”

A reasonably intelligent man who has been married to the same woman for 38 years and knows how she thinks and reacts to any circumstance or utterance by that man would have stopped right there. But anyone who knows me knows that “reasonable intelligence,” when applied to my role in this marriage, is pushing the envelope. So I plunged ahead without engaging my brain before the words escaped.

“It nearly covers that bald spot when you do that.” Oops. I did it again.

No, she does not have a bald spot. Her hair looks very nice even when she takes care of it herself. I just can’t seem to resist adding the extra little quip instead of shutting down when all is still well in the household. I may never learn. Maybe I don’t want to. Maybe I have a short circuit in my brain that only allows the stupid stuff out. Maybe I should get a tongue-ectomy.

She stormed from the room uttering threats about kicking my cane aside and nudging me headfirst down the stairs. She was kidding. I think.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


When we first bought this little cottage on the lake shore, we never envisioned it as anything but a getaway from the hectic daily schedule that ruled our lives as it does so many others. The kids were still young enough to relish the water activities and the tromps in the nearby woods. It has been a family treasure for 16 years now.
Over the years we’ve remodeled and changed the surroundings a bit, but it still serves the same function as before. We still consider it our getaway.

The kids don’t get here as often anymore since they are grown and have their own adult lives to contend with. But when they do manage to get here for a few days, the memories ring loudly, the laughter is raucous, and the walls absorb new memories to add to the old. I only wish it happened more often.

Now I find myself most often communicating with those two kids of mine by more remote means than sitting next to them in front of a bonfire on one of these warm and congenial summer nights. I never envisioned a world where I could sit on the deck here at our cottage in central Wisconsin and communicate with my daughter, who is currently in Africa doing researchy veterinarian type things with big wild animals, via something called the internet. It is indeed a brave new world that allows such miracles to happen.

While I sit here tapping away on my miraculous laptop, I think how incredibly lucky I am to have the means to reach out to my kids and share another day with them even though they are far away. The world really is getting smaller and I, for one, am pleased by that.