Friday, November 18, 2011



"Never say never." My mother often said this to us. A seeming contradiction, we took it to mean we should keep our outlook free of arbitrary roadblocks, and refrain from embracing absolute limitations. If you knew my mother, you would know she is all about possibilities.

Another phrase she said frequently was, "don't put labels on people." The list of wise things mom said (and still says) to her children wasn't terribly long, but it was consistent, intelligent, and heartfelt. She taught us that labels were useless both to ourselves and to those being labeled. While a label might seem handy for categorizing someone or some group of people, it is wholly wrong in mom's view. First of all it is a limitation. Having labeled someone according to a stereotype or other unseeing metric, one would be prone to shelve further review, effectively ending the path to understanding. Describing someone by easy tags relating to their height, weight, age, race, and so on, leads nowhere if you want to know the person. For mom it is a mandate to seek the person, to assume that they have merit, that they deserve to be treated with dignity.

Mom knew that we would encounter situations where we would be led to follow the crowd, where we might emulate others who took easily to labels and categories, usually with unkind and unenlightened results. This was so anathema to the person who is my mother, she virtually campaigned against any brand of thoughtlessness our entire childhood. This she could creditably do, because she herself modeled kindness, consideration, and respect. When my siblings and I get together, it's not uncommon for us to recite some of the sayings we heard regularly in our childhood:

"don't be ugly." (meaning: don't have an 'ugly' or unkind temperament. Nothing to do with appearance.)
"be a second miler."
"put yourself in their shoes."
"find a need and fill it."
"no man is an island."
"hate what they do, don't hate them."

You will recognize most of these sayings; my mother doesn't claim to have authored them. But her parents, and especially her beloved grandmothers, tried to live according to these principles. Mom seems to have had a drive to take it a step further, making it a point to use her voice and her actions against injustice. To preempt behavior that too often is the order of the day. Whatever moral compass a young heart or mind might already have, mom took her task seriously and sought to grow and reinforce what is good and right.

Increasingly, it seems our societies have undergone a cultural laxity that discourages civil restraint, that is apathetic about speaking up for justice, that finds plenty of excuses for turning a blind eye to unkindness or worse, brutality. This should distress anyone who is paying attention. Mom is a keen observer, and pays attention to things like this.

Sometimes I find myself apologizing for comparing someone's outlook to mom's. (another favorite phrase of hers is "don't compare.") It seems somehow unfair to hold someone up to the uncanny sensibility she models. She herself is not comfortable getting attention for her humanism. Anonymous action suits her better. Kindness and fellow feeling drives her. Her outlook, however, includes a solid expectation of accountability, not just "warm fuzzies." That we should all pay active homage to this process of civility.

To be led by someone like this woman I'm speaking about, is not to feel inadequate or chastised. Instead, the pure power of her optimism and overflowing positivity makes you feel that "all things are possible," another phrase she says often. The ability to spread joy and yes, sometimes even moments of giddy silliness, is a trait mom is known for.

How fortunate we are to be her children. If I am only half the positive force for good that she has always been, that would be saying something.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Twin Lakes

August in Colorado is one of the best times to get up to a higher altitude. The hot temperatures on the front range and lower valleys feel too warm to a Coloradan, even if it isn't as humid as the midwest states, or as blazing hot as nearby desert states. Record temperatures this year make that more true than ever. Going from 6,000 feet in elevation to over 9,000 feet for a getaway, is worth a ten degree drop or more in temperature.

On the way to Independance Pass, highway 82 rolls past a tiny town, hardly recognizable as such. Two lakes in view are joined by a narrow neck, like an hourglass, and collect the snowmelt from surrounding peaks, with some that are over 4,600 meters high. (Mt. Elbert, the highest in Colorado, measures some 14,400 feet by the latest geological surveys.) The town of Twin Lakes rests there, mostly unchanged from its early days in the late 1800's.

A couple of dozen buildings are clustered along a few dirt streets, many boarded up but still showing the care builders used in their construction. A charming white clapboard schoolhouse sits at the end of dirt lane, the imagined voices of long-ago schoolchildren seem hard to hear now. A couple of lodgings are open, a general store, an art gallery, and a gas pump that seems to work. Historic buildings are marked with for sale signs.

The few locals seem to know how to divide their lives between this place and jobs elsewhere that keep them solvent. Most know how to do more than one job, whether it's maintaining summer lodgings, cooking for a weekend barbecue concession, or helping park an empty sheriff's car along the highway to slow down lead-footed drivers. There is no thronging crowd, no lighted intersection, no real restaurant anymore. One log-sided hotel is empty, though it was open as recently as 12 months ago. Seems there are a succession of brave or foolhardy attempts to make a go of it in this place that only sees traffic for some five months of the year. But you can find a few tiny cabins to rent, even a collection of rooms in an attractive and well cared for lodge.

The most excitement seen here lately was the brief appearance of a professional bicycle race, with seasoned European pros tackling the high altitude terrain of Colorado.

It seems fitting that this dignified yet quirky little town only has a small purchase on this grand piece of landscape. The mountains around have endured even longer, the town fits in perspective rather well somehow.

-photos by the author

Sunday, May 29, 2011


People and their Environments

When I go to places that are different from my regular environment, I tend to take in the little details. Details that have a very local translation, that make sense perhaps only in the locale where I find them. When I see such a detail, I ask myself "why does this exist?" I'm the curious sort who likes to know.

I pay great attention to culture and language. The things I see may indeed make up a culture, they may inform local customs, but I'm not thinking on that level when I notice them. These details often describe canny local responses to the physical environment. Local wisdom can have many sources, going back through time, even to different locations from the past, with migrating people bringing their wisdom with them. I'm quite fascinated by the way a physical environment bends and shapes a direct human response, in small and practical ways.

I remember the first time I picked up a glass salt shaker in a place with a humid climate. I was taken aback at what I at first thought were maggots trapped within it. But these were just grains of uncooked rice, placed in the shaker along with the salt to absorb extra moisture. A funny thing was, some of the local people I talked to didn't know why the rice was there. "We've always done that..." was the answer. Anyway, even though it may be familiar to many, I'd never seen rice in a salt shaker. This simple trick for absorbing moisture impressed me. It was right, on so many fronts. Cheap. Clean. Edible, yet helpfully too big to pour through the salt shaker's holes, and seems to really work to keep the salt from clumping in a humid climate.

If forces that shape a particular response are infrequent, and not often in the minds of the local populace, these forces can fail to exert a lasting or logical response from locals. Maybe by this I mean "hundred year" events. These fade from consciousness in spite of the stories that older people in a community may have told. We often hear about a periodically recurring force, arriving to wreak havoc on an inexplicably surprised community. Volcanoes, tsunamis, landslides, things like these. Recently in Japan these stories were lifesavers for communities that knew to seek high ground right after an earthquake. (I'm afraid people in Japan may be feeling forgotten by now. World news churns through stories if events were only stories.)

Part of me (the part that forgets I am not immune to similar behavior) is somehow incredulous that any community could fail to honor those forces with due respect, as evidenced by poor choices in cooperating with those powerful forces. But human nature seems to have a short memory. The exigencies of daily living and survival, or perhaps a certain hubris from thinking one knows well enough, seem to over-ride lasting ability to learn from history.

I remember being in a beach house on the northern coast of California during an earthquake strong enough to wake our sleeping group of vacationers. I was surprised by the group's indifference to my suggestion to take our imminent bike ride in the nearby foothills, rather than along the coast.

My suggestion had nothing to do with irrational fear, and everything to do with not being ignorant of the risk. It's true I may have been the only one present who had personally seen a place that had suffered a significant tsunami. As students of history have seen, a certain healthy fatalism is at play in the best of communities. Carrying on in spite of risk, can be a factor in identifying a thriving community. It was dismaying however, to be faced with friends who light-heartedly discounted the broadcast radio warnings. Only luck in the form of seismic vagaries, an event that equaled a "miss" that day, kept our path free of trouble.

A different detail involved rows of older houses in a North American town that dated to sometime around or just before the turn of the recent century. After being around these neighborhoods, it dawned on me that these single family houses were almost universally equipped with two grand front doorways. One at sidewalk level, almost always appearing disused. The second one, seemingly the only one that saw use, a half-story above the first. These somewhat grand houses stand out because of their attractive and prominent staircases that lead from the upper doorway, straight down to the sidewalk.

Before I knew the reason for this architectural oddity, I wondered if a party of talented staircase builders had come to town, offering their services to susceptible homeowners some time after the original construction had taken place. Although attractive, the staircases and their upper entrances seemed superfluous to what I was sure had been their original designs.

The answer comes from knowing that this is a river town. A large river runs through the downtown, rising and falling to nature's beat. At yearly intervals, it overflows its banks to varying degrees, sometimes overtaking the works of man, even some designed to keep it at bay. Early native populations seemed to know and respect this, and their occupancy was largely seasonal, lacking any vulnerable structural permanence. They were said to have warned the newcomers to the area, questioning their plans to build grand structures within reach of a large and capricious river. But their advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears. It's true that hordes of of newcomers came swiftly to this river town, encumbered by visions of eastern towns and architecture. In the Gold Rush fever of the time, rapid ascension from rags to riches likely lent an extra fervor to remaking their new environment in the image of the one they'd left behind. Verbatim. Without first learning the local 'vernacular.' The way I understand it, following at least one inundation, the original entrances were abandoned, and new doorways and staircases elevated these already-built homes above the flood line.

Going from the new western world to the old world of Europe, I've noticed details in architecture that are not the stuff of brochures. In both old and more recent domestic buildings, you can find details that are interesting once you really see them. Have you ever noticed the superior and robust shutters over both old and new habitations in Europe?

I've always admired these well made covers over windows in hotels and private homes. On short acquaintance I never got the impression that crime was rampant everywhere I saw these awesome shutters. I couldn't easily assign coastal weather forces to the inland farm houses of the Veneto. I would have to investigate local wisdom for the answer to this extraordinary shutter craftsmanship. (There is, of course, the Mistral for wind in France, and the Scirocco in Italy.) Over a variety of styles, there I observed a high quality level, such as cleverly machined latches, thick wood or metal surfaces, and serious techniques of installation. It would take a lot to get past these shutters. They aren't permanently attached beside the windows in the absurd way you sometimes see in the new world, with the ridiculous trick of tacking up pairs of shutters that wouldn't be wide enough to cover the accompanying window if they were swung shut. Most all European shutters I've seen, open and close with some precision and show signs that they regularly do so. There is a large adoption of shutters like this, for houses both humble and grand.

My line of thought reached the conclusion that these shutters bear witness to the harshness of war. War not long removed from local consciousness. Sure, they'd protect against a winter storm, a vagrant or thief. But their hefty presence seemed to speak of more than that. In the end, though, I admire the craftsmanship, and the architectural honesty they bring.

After an especially destructive weather pattern in our midwestern states this spring, it occurs to me that even such robust shutters would be defenseless against something like a mile-wide tornado. As I wrap up this entry about locations, and the details of local response, I can't help but think that one compelling response, would be to locate elsewhere. Surely easier said than done. Time will tell if that does become an eventual response. But as our environment throws curves at us in places around the globe, where to go becomes interesting. I think that story's been told before.

At least in the case of soggy salt, the remedy is easy enough. Just add rice.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Saturday, March 12, 2011


The Nihon no Kokki, the flag of Japan, has been tragically dragged well below half-staff, if not dragged out to sea, by March 11, 2011's incomprehensible devastation. The 8.9 magnitude earthquake and following tsunami has wiped so much of the landscape aside, like the grotesque arm of a very unfunny Godzilla. That iconic monster from Japan's pop culture library probably came to be partly from the very real and vivid forces of nature that Japan for so long has known too well. Typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis.

   As a child watching that monster, I was torn between comic disbelief at its jerky stop-action movements, and a gut level fear of the idea that such a terror could roam a landscape. Arcing power lines, toppling buildings, crumbling mountains, even wielding atomic breath and radiation. Yet when the show ended, the world away from the television was still right side up; the terror was only a product of theatrics and imagination. One could wish this were so this week-- that the science-fiction, now fact, could be made unreal.

  I've long had an admiration for Japan's people and culture.  I've never been there, but I grew up on Pacific islands with asian classmates, many of whom were straddling two worlds of language and culture. When I would leave school for the afternoon, it meant a couple of hours of recreation before tackling some modest homework.  For many of my friends, however, it meant even more school hours, where they learned the language of their parents and preserved genteel customs and rituals of a rich civilization. Being around the Japanese culture meant opportunities to enjoy different foods, elaborate tea ceremonies, meeting elegant elders who bowed graciously and had a humility rarely seen. I was exposed to various high arts; from woodworking, to paper and printmaking, the cultivation of bonsai, raising esteemed carp or "koi," and the succinct art of Haiku poetry. The physical grace and discipline of Judo martial arts. These things are  just a very small part of their artful civilization.

  The disciplined resilience of the Japanese is astounding, without dispute. Their technological prowess and rich contributions to modern engineering are made more admirable by the commitment to employ such tools to protect and enhance the quality of life for the people, even if at a high economic cost. A cost that many modern societies would refuse to accept. It has made a difference in the degree of survival, but cruelly, nothing in man's technological toolbox could entirely mitigate such a destructive force as we've just seen.

   I'm proud to display Japan's flag, though I'm decidedly not a nationalist. I'm someone who is uneasy at seeing gratuitous displays of national symbols. Symbolism for me speaks more loudly when we remember that we can gather our identities and motivations under something like a flag, yet we do well to do it respectfully, and to cultivate tolerance amidst a sea of nationalistic symbols. Driving around with your country's flag billowing from your truck, is no guarantee of your patriotism. That I display the flag of my own country from my porch during the summer, is also no guarantee. It may sound cliché, but around the world, we are all one. We may not be the same, but a common bond unites us all, whether we fully understand that or not. Today I display Japan's flag for its symbolism of the people now under assault from the trembling earth and the swallowing sea.

  The news coverage is heartbreaking, mesmerizing, chilling.  An older 'Oma,' was seen crying in view of a journalist's camera, "Japan good people. Japan polite people..." --as if to question why or how such a terrible thing could befall the populace of her country.  The adage, "there but for the grace of god, go I," has to loom large for any feeling observer. This is where we can feel our commonality, our ties to one another.  It is heartening to see the global sympathy and efforts to help from far away strangers. The feeling of helplessness and dismay can only be allayed by trying to help.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Car vs Car

Bike contraption next to partial zero emission Subaru wagon

I built a bike car starting last fall, and finished it this January. Where I live, there are quiet, flat streets that lead to a market, a hardware store, bank, and more. An easy thing to bicycle just a few miles, (less than five) and obtain many of the things you need. When it comes to many bags of groceries or icy roads, however, even a dedicated cyclist might pause, thinking that a large load or the risk of falling down on ice is cause to fire up the gasoline engine in the car instead. Perhaps, but this contraption removes some of the need to worry about those things. Plus, it's fun.

Frame construct detail

Center point steering

There is something very pure about a bicycle with only two wheels, an elegant diamond frame, and just the body of a rider propelling themselves in an amazing way along pavement or dirt. The physical arrangement is efficient, balanced, and can be very powerful. In that arrangement the rider outweighs the machine and strength to weight is outstanding.
I think of a jockey and a thoroughbred, harmonious and as fast as the wind.

But with this project, the metaphor of a draft horse is more suitable. Slower, yes. Stronger and more able to carry a load, that was the idea. A strong and steady horse, harnessed to a working mechanical construct. The benefit of a triad of wheels showed its value the first time I glissaded down a snow covered hill. Stable and steady, a fearless way to get around in the winter. (Even with cyclocross experience, there are days when conditions are too hair-raising for two wheels.) There is an open-wheel racing feel to the ride, and being low to the ground amplifies the sensation of putting the miles beneath you--so it isn't necessarily sedate or boring.

I designed the machine myself. It was a process of distilling metrics from the combined need to have good weight distribution while allowing room for cargo (and possibly a future stoker in front), have good ground clearance, and perhaps a canopy for sun and rain at some point. With 30 years of bike mechanic experience I didn't lack for insight and know-how. Yet I was willing to let this be somewhat an experiment, not tied to what others have done. This didn't mean reinventing the wheel, as good foundations are meant to be built upon. But I didn't feel wedded to existing designs. An internal gear rear hub does most of what I need, with eight gears. The possibility to add a front derailleur or even a mid-drivetrain set of auxiliary cogs exists, but I favor simplicity over convoluted chain lines. Time will tell.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Airport Window

I would have taken a photograph, but I was standing in the security line at the airport, with camera buried in bag and sure to look dodgy if I suddenly started photographing seemingly nothing but a window to the tarmac. I wanted those in line around me to see it--it was that arresting-- but wasn't sure they'd appreciate it. So I said nothing while studying its strange beauty.

It was the silhouette of a bird, faint, but unmistakeably that of a bird in flight, with suggested lines impressed on the glass where the bird made what was likely mortal contact. A sudden but fully focused event. I didn't see the impact, only the evidence.

There was no physical matter left, not even a feather, only lines like white and grey pastel rubbings. The grime of jet exhaust and wind blown debris made up a media perfect for capturing a strange avian graffiti. Like a cave painting, or a fingerprint. It was stunningly beautiful, in greyish tones. The wings were spread in full flight; faint tail feathers fanned out broadly. It is the image you would make if you tried to capture winged flight in a plaster cast or an archaeological rubbing.

Apropos at an airport to have an artful representation of flight. But heart-rending, knowing it was a creature's final act. Not checked by a flinch or a dodge, just full-on transfer of live flight into still life on a glass platen. The bird never saw it coming. But I saw where it had been. My clumsy sketch does no justice at all, but I tried to grab the moment.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Building Lifestyle

This is a project I did a while ago, inspired by the idea to mess around on the water in a self propelled craft. After two months in my shop, I was able to take pleasure in outings on mountain lakes here in the Rocky Mountains. Today it is white with snow outside, so naturally I'm provoked to reflect on seasons past and the summer to come. (I do enjoy being outdoors in the snow, as well, but that's another story.)

The idea of a kayak light enough to put on the water by myself grew in appeal with having a family member spending a huge amount of time training and competing in the sport of rowing.  Myself, after over a decade of racing bicycles, well, I wanted no more of the slavish routine of training and racing. That was fun while it lasted but I've moved on from that mode. 

 I've been a woodworker by trade, and have built a couple of other small boats. When I saw Ross Miller's modern skin kayak idea, I knew I would give it a go. (Ross Miller Designs is out of West Mystic, Connecticut.) This is not a kit; I like to build from scratch. But I'm not averse to learning from others, so I bought blueprints for Mr. Miller's "Egret" kayak. The frame would be out of clear pine, douglas fir, and "lauan" mahogany plywood for the bulkheads.

 One compelling thing about this design is its use of modern materials for the skin or hull of the boat. Using Dacron aircraft fabric, a light and very taut skin can be achieved. After building the wood frame on a strongback, this fabric is attached (glued with special adhesive) at key points and then shrunk with carefully applied heat. A drum-tight creation emerges through this process. It makes a very pleasing sound when you tap your fingers on the deck or the hull; yet I was surprised to note that when moving through the water, there doesn't seem to be any extraneous noise or reverberation. The skin is coated with either marine paint, or epoxy, or in this case, special two-part marine urethane over a base of epoxy.

I snuck out to a mountain reservoir for a test paddle before I had finished with all of the scantlings and deck trim. In later photos you can see pin striping and some cherry and    mahogany cockpit trim.    

In building this, I made some modifications to the design. The original calls for a snug Eskimo style coaming that allows for a sealed spray skirt around the paddler in ocean conditions. However one reason I chose this particular design is that I'd read that its shallow vee-hull has pretty decent secondary stability and it actually isn't that easy to roll. Since I wanted the features of a skin design, coupled with the versatility of a more open cockpit, this overall hull seemed ideal for my mostly flat-water paddling intentions. The 17 foot length looked like it would have some speed. But I wanted more room and easy access to gear for photography and quick launching. Knowing that the uncovered canoe-style cockpit would admit water, I built watertight bulkheads amidships between the paddler's seat and at the footwell. Essentially all of the aft and forward portions of the hull are considered flotation chambers. Even with water in the cockpit, the boat will float. These bulkheads also have sealed round hatches that open to small floored areas with bungee straps for minor stowage.

When the frame was finished, it almost seemed a shame to cover it up. I enjoy the sculptural beauty of the frames of buildings, the ribs and stringers of boats, the skeletal foundations of things. The dirigible bones of this boat, covered in varnish, smelled good and pleased the eye. 

I named her, "Hei Matau," which is supposed to mean "safe passage" in Maori.


Last summer, a highlight was paddling in a high mountain lake (10,000 foot elevation) at the foot of impressive mountains that make up the Continental divide of North America. 

Gliding along in my kayak was a thrill. I had a chance encounter with an aspen-towing beaver, who was nibbling on green leaves even as he moved along, headed toward the west inlet to the lake. The quiet hull had allowed me to get near him without immediate notice. I don't like crowding wildlife, and only belatedly saw his wake in the glassy water. I gave way to this superior water denizen, holding my breath. When he did notice me, he gave the classic "slap" of the tail, and submerged. I'd only ever read about this signal that beavers make in the presence of intruders.  I headed further out into the lake, leaving the creature plenty of room.

-all photos by the author.