Monday and Other Gifts

I am the early riser around our house. I am used to the quiet of just me and the dog, as I do my morning disciplines (or not), eat breakfast, read the daily comics (and just enough news to keep me reasonably abreast but not too depressed), walk the dog, etc.

A few times a year, I wake to find Nancy already up. And whatever it was that got her up early usually has her wired for activity. Yesterday was one of those. I woke to lights on all over the house. She had unloaded, reloaded, and started the dishwasher; scrubbed the kitchen counters; attended the laundry. She was on a tidying and organizing mission that took her from room to room, moving stuff from where it was to where it should be. And she had just discovered water coming from under the fridge. Did I mention it was a Monday?

And then, against expectations, I was gifted—graced with a pause, a reset, a take-a-deep-breath-and-count-to-ten. Against expectations, I didn’t lash out (and only turned sullen for a minute). The water problem was not serious. Nancy sensed that I needed some quiet time and confined her tidying to one part of the house while I made a pot of coffee and retreated to a writing corner with my mug and journal.

My new year seems full of graces and gifts. The projects and tasks on my plate excite me with their challenges; it is a gift to enjoy my work. My family and I are healthy and happy; it is a gift. Nancy and I are scheming and dreaming about the future; it is a gift. Today we scrapped our separate plans and spent much of the day together, taking trash to the dump, searching for my lost keys—the kinds of things old married folks do for excitement. It was a gift.

Customer service has a bad reputation, yet I have had two recent customer service experiences that left me satisfied, even more than satisfied. It was a gift, and I extend kudos to Sears and Home Depot.

It is a gift, I think, when we see and accept the gifts all around us. My Monday was a gift. I hope yours was, too.

Turducken Trees and Other Thoughts on the Season

I am told there is a dish called turducken—a chicken stuffed into a duck stuffed into a turkey. The name came to mind when shopping for a new artificial Christmas tree. That industry seems to think it a good idea to combine multiple types of foliage in one tree—mixing tips of white pine, fir, spruce—a frucepine? We were almost forced to buy one.

We put up an artificial tree, largely because of allergies. I could extol other virtues, but you have heard all the arguments and have come down on one side or the other. I am not here to change your mind. We have reaped a quarter-century of use out of just two such trees.

Last year, when we plugged our tree in and noted the large dark section where yet another string of lights had failed, we felt it was time to buy a new tree. That’s when we discovered turducken trees. And no other choices.

We had hoped to upgrade to LED lighting, but the price was too steep, so we hauled home the least ugly of the incandescent-lit turduckens and unpacked our treasure. It was a day of thrill upon thrill. Somehow, the lights had been strung on this tree with the branches in the upright (folded for storage) position. There was not enough slack in the wiring to allow the branches to unfold. We re-boxed the turducken (mostly turkey at this point) and used part of the refund to buy yet another supplemental string of lights to stuff into the dark places on our old tree. We’d make it last one more year.

Fast forward to last weekend. An even larger dark section greeted us this year. Again, the question, Is this the year? Again, the trip to Home Depot. We found the turducken fad still alive and well. But, this year there is choice. And the price of LEDs has fallen. We scored a new, LED-lit, mono-species, fake tree. Sometimes, it pays to wait a year.

Waiting. That’s what we do in Advent. Liturgically, that is part of what the season tries to teach us. Wait. Anticipate. Long for. With faith and patience. But it is a hard lesson, one never fully learned.

We went to visit my mother recently. At a coffee stop, I was watching the baristas—how fast they worked, how they juggled to keep the inside line and the drive-through moving! I was grateful to not have their job, their stress. At the same time, I realized that I was also getting restless, slightly irritated—Why is this taking so long? Waiting. It will take a few more Advents for me to learn that lesson.

During our visit, Nancy’s Advent word-of-the-day site served up “Be.” To be, not to act, is another take on the waiting that Advent requires of us. Just be present and attentive. It is a lesson especially appropriate to visits with Mother. There is not much to be said, not much to be done. We sit together, sometimes just reading, napping, or watching the birds outside her window.

This weekend, Nancy and I are dog-sitting. Like our Mona, the “grand-dog,” Wonton, was rescued from the pound. He’d ended up there after the previous owners were caught up in a drug bust. He’s a big, exuberant sweetie. He’s missing his folks. Like our Mona, he needs his loving cup topped up often. A nap on my lap is just the ticket. So here we sit, 70-pound Wonton snoring on my lap and Mona napping beside Nancy. These dogs can teach us a thing or two about Advent.

P.S.—I took the old tree outside and extracted the supplemental strings we had added over the years as the originals failed. Four strings, all still working, totaling 300 lights.

… There is a Season …

Last night we had our first killing frost—a full month later than normal. I had harvested the last of the zinnias yesterday, enough for two small bunches on the kitchen windowsill.

Not only has this been an unusually warm fall, but an extremely dry summer and fall. Only in the past week have a few brilliantly colored trees caught my eye. In my nearly 40 years in East Tennessee, this is just the second time I have seen the haze of wildfire smoke as a regional phenomenon.

I have been thinking about seasons. Although late—and less than visually spectacular—fall is here, and winter will come. The holiday season is upon us, and I am mulling the Thanksgiving Day menu.

But it’s more than the annual calendar that draws my attention. I am acutely aware of the seasons of the human life-cycle. Change is all around me.

This spring, we sold my mother’s house; she is in a nursing home. A few months later, our youngest son moved out on his own. Now, Nancy is helping her parents prepare for a move from large house to small apartment.

Of perhaps less significance, but still somehow looming large in my consciousness, are other changes. We will have six around our Thanksgiving dinner table this week; we have cycled through large family gatherings to just the two of us and now back to a family event. Last fall, Nancy’s artistic energy was directed toward the visual; this year, her music. Last fall, major gardening tasks drove me; this year, my shop is calling. Everywhere, I hear The Byrds singing, “Turn, turn, turn …”

I was doing some baking this afternoon, and had set my computer’s music into an autoplay mode. In the midst of my musing about seasons, I was serenaded by Jennifer Nicely singing Tom Waits’ “You Can Never Hold Back Spring.” Not for the first time, the double meaning hit me. We cannot hold onto our springtimes. Nor can we prevent spring coming again.

Knotty Problems

My father-in-law asked me to repair some woodpecker damage on his house, which then led Nancy to expect me to repair the woodpecker damage I was trying to ignore on our own house. Ok, but not from a ladder.

I have a mixed tolerance for heights. I have comfortably rappelled from 100’ cliffs, a cherry-picker bucket, and a catwalk above the old Charlotte Coliseum (the first one). I have (not quite so comfortably) assembled, worked from, and disassembled multi-story scaffolding for the masonry outfit that employed me three summers in my late teens. None of the above held anything like the panic I feel on a 24’ extension ladder. On one recent task, my essential tremor, no doubt exacerbated by my nervousness, so shook my hand that I could not get the drill/driver bit anywhere near the target screw head. Nancy had to climb the ladder to do the job for me. Add in the number of friends and acquaintances injured by falls from ladders (one just days ago), plus the particular site difficulties below these woodpecker holes, and watch me head for the rental store. Scaffolding is cheap.

Both jobs are done now, and the scaffolding returned. I am relieved. This particular scaffolding experience was not without its nervous moments, and I am wondering if my tolerance for heights is declining with age. Am I ready to hire out future jobs? A more robust ladder (mine is a bottom of the line 200 pound rating) would not dance quite so wildly as I climbed, and might give a greater measure of confidence. But is this the point where I begin to think about the role of discretion in valor? Am I done with heights?


We had loaded the scaffolding into the truck for the return to the rental store, and I was tying everything in, when Nancy said, “You need to teach me that knot.”

The trucker’s hitch. It is a rare month when I do not find more than one use for the trucker’s hitch.

Many years ago, I bought a canoe from River Sports in Knoxville. They would not let me off the lot until I had demonstrated that I could tie the canoe safely onto my car. And “safely” meant multiple trucker’s hitches, tightly cinched down. That was, I believe, one of the more useful half-hours of my life.

I realize that knot-tying has gone out of fashion, as hardware substitutes for rope and knot. But hardware does not deliver the satisfaction of a well-tied tautline hitch or a bowline. Or a trucker’s hitch. If you know them, you are in select company.

Ah, the bowline! In my early twenties, I was privileged to be an Assistant Scoutmaster in a very active and rigorous troop. My own scouting days had been spent in a less-than-rigorous troop, and these kids taught me a lot. Including the bowline.

The bowline is a troublesome knot. It begins with a loop, and then you enter the loop, either from the back or the front, depending on which way you flipped the loop. To this day, I usually require more than one try to get it right. There is a mnemonic, “the squirrel comes out of the hole, around the tree, and back down into the hole,” that frankly never helped me one bit.

But, if you need to tie a bowline around your chest, as my climbing/rappelling young Scout charges often did, that’s a quick and simple, one-handed task. In the knot-tying relays, our troop always won. While the other troops were standing still, trying to figure out which way the squirrel was to come out of the hole, our boys were tying the bowline on the run, and our second leg of the relay was underway before the competition got the squirrel back into the hole.

I never learned splicing, and probably won’t. But my latest rope purchase came with some knot-tying instructions, including some I am not familiar with. Those instructions are here somewhere in my piling system. When they re-surface, I intend to learn some more knots.


Here’s one for the “If we can put a man on the moon …” category.

I am waiting for delivery of a replacement debit card. It has been in the mail for five business days. The bank will not get worried until two weeks have elapsed.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not a cheap shot at the postal service or government efficiency. Those guys work against great odds, including Congress and you and me. However, during this same interval, the same postal service both returned a disk to Netflix and delivered my next one. Two way service in three business days.

And it is not just the postal service. The bank took more than a week to get that card out the door and into the mail. My last electronic funds transfer took three days. Them’s mighty slow electrons, my friend.

Reminds me of when I worked for a well-known high-tech firm that did, among other things, large complex computer systems. Payday was one week after the end of the pay period. In order to get the payroll out in time, they required timecards two days BEFORE  the end of the time period. If your projected two days turned up surprises, you then filed an amended timecard on the first day of the next time period.

Apparently, that company is not alone. My all-time favorite Dilbert cartoon has him complaining about just that phenomenon, having to turn in his timecard before the end of the period. When the harassed secretary asks him how long he is going to continue bothering her, he replies, “According to my timecard, ten more minutes.”

Further Encounters …

Somehow, the following story seems a continuation of this earlier post.

Greetings from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority arrived in our mailbox the other day. The addressee shares my last name, but the first name was not a match. Still, I opened it.

It appears that someone pulling a trailer with Tennessee plates recently ran a toll booth on the NJ Turnpike. An automated camera snapped a photo of the back of the trailer and its license plate, then the communication between the great states of New Jersey and Tennessee associated our address and this not-quite-right name with the offending vehicle. Not-Quite-Right-Name owes the Turnpike Authority the unpaid $6 toll plus a $50 fine. I do not own—nor have ever owned—that trailer or one remotely resembling it. I have not been in New Jersey in years.

The form letter lists three ways to protest: phone, website, or mail (by completing a section on the back of the form and returning it). Since I had a question about what the form asked, I tried the phone option first. After getting lost in phone menu hell, where no option fit my situation, I hung up and tried the web. But the website claimed the “violation number” I’d entered did not match anything in its system. I rechecked that I had faithfully copied the number from the form letter and was rejected again. So I went back to the phone.

This time, I found the place in the phone menu from which entering “0” connected me to another human being. This representative of the Turnpike Authority checked my number, and stated that, as this was a first violation, she could waive the $50 fine if I promptly paid the $6 toll. I declined, explaining that no one of that name lives at this address and that no one at this address owns or has ever owned the vehicle in question. She remarked that I should have marked the envelope “return to sender” instead of opening it.

From this unhelpful start, we finally got to my question. The form has a place for me to indicate that I do not own the vehicle in question. But it also asks that I provide a copy of the vehicle’s registration. Huh? She was less puzzled than I as to how I would access the registration of a vehicle I do not own.

I have returned the form, sans registration copy, disavowing both the vehicle and the name. I suspect I have not heard the last of this.

If we start having unexplained lane closures on the Solway Bridge, I’ll be thinking New Jersey.

The Xylo

In our post about the car search, I mentioned that Nancy recently bought a nearly 100-year-old xylophone. It was her first e-bay purchase, so an adventure in more ways than one. She is now the proud owner of a Deagan 844 “Drummer’s Special,” manufactured sometime between 1917 and 1929—three octaves (C5 to C8), Honduran rosewood bars, plated resonators. (Deagan introduced the 844 in 1915, with pitch A=435. They switched to A=440 in 1917. Nancy’s instrument is stamped A-440, so is a 1917 or later model.)

The xylo needs some work. The felts on which the bars rest have lost most of their cushioning ability, there is a century’s worth of dirt, rust and grime to be cleaned up, and the rear frame rail that supports the incidental bars arrived broken. But, the important parts—the bars and resonators—are in good shape. All the musicians who have heard it praise its acoustics. (The photo shows the instrument without its resonators, temporarily mounted on a Z-stand. The colored stickies are place markers for a complicated passage from Shostakovich’s “Polka of the Golden Age” that she is working on for the next concert.)

Nancy's xylo without resonators
Nancy’s xylo without resonators

We have decided to build an entirely new frame. Applying a temporary fix to the broken rail revealed more weak areas in the original frame. Nancy’s goal is to have a high-quality instrument to support her band and orchestral activities, not a meticulously restored antique. And, while Deagan built the “Drummer’s Special” series with portability in mind, we are hoping to improve on that aspect. We are playing with several design concepts, but are not far enough along to publish anything yet. Stay tuned.

While you wait, check out SuperMediocre, a blog/website that follows a father and his middle school son as they construct, from scratch, a concert-grade xylo for the son. That quest involves digging into the math and physics of tuning wooden bars, a number of empirical experiments to verify/refine what was learned, and the actual shaping and tuning of 44 Honduran rosewood bars. Lots of hard work. Lots of father/son interaction. Lots of the joy of learning and doing. To get the full story, you need to start at the beginning, which in blog format means going to the bottom of the stack and reading up towards the top. It’s worth the effort.

Love Cars, Hate Buying

We have been looking at cars. Nancy’s beloved Audi wagon is 14 years and 210 thousand miles old, and it seems prudent to begin thinking about its replacement. We’ve had a lot of cars, it seems, but when one is meeting our needs, we hold onto it for a long time. We bought this one used, have had it ten years, and are responsible for more than three-quarters of those miles.

In many ways, it is still meeting our needs. Its seats are the only ones in which Nancy could sit for long periods without discomfort, and that includes other vehicles, sofas, and a long series of office chairs. The station wagon configuration has worked for us, too. The Audi routinely transports band instruments and gardening tools; frequently is pressed into service for the dog, bales of pine straw, and pots of perennials; did yeoman’s service when we emptied Mother’s house before selling it; and has on occasion hauled 300-pound rocks for Nancy’s ornamental garden.

But her hauling needs are growing. Nancy is playing mallets and miscellaneous percussion for two community bands, a community orchestra, and a church ensemble. She started small—one band and a borrowed set of student practice bells (glockenspiel). Then she bought a full-size set of orchestra bells, and started joining other groups. That means her 35-pound instrument has to be loaded into and out of the car six to ten times a week, along with its X-stand, a music stand, mallets, sheet music, and the hand cart we use to roll it to and from the car. But wait!—as the infomercials say—that’s not all. For one group, she also plays bass drum. For two others, xylophone. The drum and xylophone belong to their respective bands and normally reside at the practice sites. But, as concerts near, they, too, get carried around in Nancy’s car.

For now, the Audi wagon is just barely big enough, if we are content to be constantly reconfiguring: seats up, seats down; cargo mat in (for dirty gardening work), mat out (for musical instruments and other “clean” uses). But Nancy recently bought her own xylophone—a fine 100-year-old instrument. It needs some refurbishment, but once we get it fixed up, I suspect she will be taking it back and forth to practices and concerts. This one has resonators, and will require a more substantial stand than does the borrowed one. I am sure we could fit everything into the Audi, with a few more contortions. But the inconveniences are mounting.

So, there is our dilemma. We are looking for luxury car seats and utility van roominess. SUVs don’t quite do the trick. Nancy wants to sit down into a seat, not climb up to it. And the loading heights are fearsome. Remember that 35-pound set of bells? The xylophone with its resonators will be as heavy—and larger with a much larger stand. Utility vans and the boxes-on-wheels that have come out in recent years are, well, Spartan. Full-size wagons have mostly gone out of production, and would, in any case, not solve the space problem. Minivans come close, but the seats are somewhat higher than she finds comfortable, and surprisingly, do not offer passenger-side 8-way adjustability. With all the motors on modern minivans, for side doors and lift gates and so on, why not two more, so the front passenger could adjust the height and tilt of the seat bottom?

I have been wondering if one vehicle can do what Nancy needs. Should we consider two—a stripped down box for local hauls (music, gardening) and a conventional car for long trips and general transportation? I am not ready to give up the open bed of my pickup; we have too many needs for mulch and gravel. Half our carport is already taken with a 280-Z whose fix-up is on hold while our son works to get established in another town. So that would mean four vehicles sitting at a two-person household.


I have been reading online reviews, studying Consumer Reports, looking at ads. The starting point of all the advice assumes you at least know the type of vehicle you want—a small pickup, a mid-sized sedan, a large SUV. It is hard enough, from such a starting point, to choose the models and options and to decide whether to buy new or used. The latter is a hard choice. I have an unhappy history with cars purchased new. I have done that twice, and twice had financial reverses force me to trade down. I like the idea of buying a three or four year old car and letting someone else absorb the initial depreciation. That’s the only way we ended up in the Audi. Yet, the electronic safety features on today’s new cars seem too good to pass up, so we’ll at least consider taking the new car plunge again.

But first, we have to get to first base. We have to settle on a type of car.


We learned early on that if you want dimensions, you have to measure them yourself. The only thing the sales staff or literature know is volume. Nancy’s instruments have length, width, height—as do most things you put into a vehicle. I crack to a salesman that volume only matters if I am a party planner with a load of balloons.

We are, perhaps, not typical car shoppers. Waltzing in with tape measure and notepad in hand, we are not interested in a test drive or a list of features or the JD Power ratings.  “Do you want to look at the engine?” No, thanks. We assume it has one.

We ask how the rear seats can be collapsed or removed, then put them through their paces. Is there a way these tracks, these lugs, can be covered? How smooth and level is the resulting deck? Can we slide an instrument case in without catching on some hardware?

Mercifully, we draw salesmen who are intrigued and amused. Only one, out of more than a dozen, tries the high pressure tactics. He’s young, still has lots to learn.


It is done. Nancy’s new ride is a minivan. After more than a month of “maybe this, maybe that,” the choices and tradeoffs and preferences seemed all at once to pull us to a convergence. With end-of-season incentives, we could get a new car for the price of a two-year-old one. We did end up with the same color as the Audi.

Gone are those luxo Audi seats, the leather still supple and un-cracked after all the years and miles. Weighed against 210 thousand miles, the trade-in value of the whole car was not even close to four figures. We’d have given that much to transplant the seats to the new minivan. “It will void your warranty,” is the salesman’s dry response. As if I’d seriously considered taking a welder’s torch to a brand new car. (Nancy says her heart leapt when I mentioned the idea.)

The result is a compromise. Most of life is, I suppose. We gave up some creature comforts for hauling capacity. Even the “8-way” adjustability of the driver’s seat promises more than it delivers. The seat-height range is high-higher-highest. Nancy is a long-legged 5’ 7-1/2”, and is barely comfortable at the lowest setting. I read that the “average” adult female in the US is 5’ 4”.

On the plus side are modern cameras and safety systems and other “i-features.” On the plus side is all that room for hauling. On the plus side is the peace of mind that a long trip is not a risk. On the plus side is that new car smell.

Summer Winding Down

“Is it normal for there to be no bird song and no insect buzzing?”

I am hiking to Hen Wallow Falls with West Coast son, who’s visiting this week, and have been conscious of the silence for the last quarter mile. Inwardly, I am reflecting that the older I get, the less I know about more and more.

“I was noticing the lack of birds,” he replies. “I do hear some insects, though.”

They must be masked by my tinnitus.

It is great to spend time with him. Last night we saw Violet at the Clarence Brown Theater. (Highly recommend) Today, this hike in the Smokies. During the week, the dew point has dropped from the high-60s to today’s mid-50s. After weeks of August’s heat-induced doldrums, it is energizing to be outdoors again.

At home, we are waiting for the turtles to hatch. For the third year (non-consecutive), we observed an Eastern box turtle leave the woods and deposit her eggs in the gravel walkway behind our house. Nancy placed an upended milk crate over the spot to mark it and protect from foot traffic and other hazards. Then she marked the calendar. The youngsters should be emerging soon.

School is back in session. Tomorrow is the last of the summer breakfasts to be prepared by our men’s group. One of Nancy’s bands will give its last summer performance on Monday. The black gum in our front yard is busily shedding its summer foliage into our pond.

Summer’s winding down.

Soon I’ll not be able to use the heat as my excuse to stay out of the garden, out of the shop. I’m glad. Some good projects await.

For all its joys, I will not miss summer. I am ready for what comes next.

The Xena Paradox

Inspired to learn that paper wasp faces are as different as snowflakes  (Sheehan & Tibbets, 2008), Nancy set out to identify the frogs who frequent our pond. The first to be studied, and named, was Xena, who has a distinct little swish on her left upper lip. We first introduced Xena as the bold frog, who allowed close encounters rather than diving for the bottom at the slightest approach. Nancy deemed it a female, based on physical characteristics (the size of the tympanum relative to the size of the eye, and its placement along the dorsal lateral ridge). Bold female, warrior princess, Xena. Nancy observed Xena for months. Quiet. No frog calls.

Then we scrutinized the frog fight. “Xena” and a smaller male. “Xena” definitely in command. Woman on top? Warrior princess? Most unladylike behavior for a frog. Typical frog fights are between males.

Amplexis
Calmly This Time

Next day, Xena was submissively sitting underneath the loser of yesterday’s battle. Ladylike again.

For a month now, “Xena” has been emitting male mating calls. There are two calls. The first is very elaborate while the second call is more typical.

Gender Examples
Left to Right: Male, female, Xena.

Male or female? Someone suggested that frogs occasionally change gender. My limited reading does confirm that at least one species has been observed to undergo spontaneous sex change. But I find no reference to that behavior in green frogs. There is evidence that female green frogs emit mating calls, but quietly. Not like this! But there was that long, complicated call. Hmmm.

Do we have two look-alike frogs, one male, one female? If there are two, then both have that bold, I’m-not-afraid-of-you, characteristic. Why do we never see both at the same time?

Can you figure out which frog is Zeno (aka Hercules)?

Nancy has been reviewing her photos and has tentatively concluded that there are two frogs. The identifying mark she has been going on is slightly different  between Xena and what’s-his-name. So we need to name the male. Zeno, of paradox fame, comes to mind. (Okay, technically, we are not dealing with paradox here, just mystery. Grant us just a little bit of artistic license.) Or should we forego alliteration and go with Xena’s partner, Hercules?

Frog-Mystery2