Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

I have always hated New Years Eve and New Years Day.  As a child it meant the end of the holidays and back to school.  As an adult it still means the end of the holidays and back to work (and school in different periods of my life—which really sucked).  It has always been a very depressing holiday for me, and still is.  Poor old Happiness (see previous post) is going to spend a lonely evening tonight and not much attention paid to him tomorrow either. 

Google does not share my gloom, they have a clever masthead going today.

One of the things I used to absolutely despise as a child was that damned Auld Lang Syne, and Guy Lombardo’s version of it specifically.  You can hear a good rendition of it on YouTube, Auld Lang Syne by Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians.  There are several other videos on YouTube featuring Guy “conducting” his band.  They are rather humorous.  For the most part, good old Guy does an in place dance with his back to the band and the baton is often pointing at the floor.  From what I could see, Guy could have left the room and the band would have done fine without him.  Much of my distaste for Guy Lombardo’s Auld Lang Syne is generational.  My parents were into big band music and had various records by Glenn Miller and others of the era.  I hated that genre of music as a child.  Oddly I was not all that big of a rock and roll fan either, but I detested big band music and hated to the core of my being Guy Lombardo’s Auld Lang Syne. It was the theme song to the END OF THE HOLIDAYS AND BACK TO SCHOOL.  Nothing to celebrate in my opinion.

I can’t say that I am too keen on the lyrics of Auld Lang Syne:

Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind ?
Should old acquaintance be forgot, and old lang syne ?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.


We two have run about the slopes, and picked the daisies fine ;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot, since auld lang syne.


We two have paddled in the stream, from morning sun till dine† ;
But seas between us broad have roared since auld lang syne.


And there’s a hand my trusty friend ! And give us a hand o’ thine !
And we’ll take a right good-will draught, for auld lang syne.


(Auld lang syne means roughly for old time’s sake.) 

So have I grown up?  Not really, I still find New Years to be very depressing, and I dislike Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve.  I despise the Time’s Square scenes and that dumb lighted ball with all the technical descriptions—like I care how many light bulbs it has, how heavy it is, or how fast it moves.  The end of the holidays are upon us and people are making a big deal about some stupid lighted ball dropping—as though time would stop if the damned thing got hung up.  I hate the party hats, horns, depictions of the old year carrying the scythe, and baby new year in diapers and a top hat.  So it turns out that I am a New Year’s Scrooge…”if I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with Happy New Years on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with the stem of a martini glass through his heart.”

I am changing, painfully slowly, but I have come to have a vague appreciation for the reason of the festivities, beyond an excuse to get drunk, even though I can not cotton to a celebration of the end of Christmas, the return to work, and dismal old January with its Pittsburgh shit weather. 

The beginning of this new found albeit weak appreciation can be attributed to oddly enough Auld Lang Syne—a newer rendition of it by Mannheim Steamroller.  You can hear it here:  YouTube  Mannheim Steamroller Auld Lang Syne.  What I find a bit strange is that the new version has given me an appreciation for Guy Lombardo’s version—well a feint appreciation.  It still inspires the memory of the dread for the return to school.  Again, why are we celebrating? 

When I listen to the Mannheim Steamroller version, I get this weird Déjà vu when the choral part begins.  In my imagination I am transported to a large hall in a Scottish castle in World War II.  The room is only lit by candles and there is a large crowd of elegantly dressed women and men in British uniforms.  My guess is that it is New Years Eve of 1940.  The war is not going well.  Everyone is standing singing the chorus to Auld Lang Syne and although their faces betray the weariness of the war, there is hope in their eyes.  Very weird, it is like I was there.  Maybe something I seen in a movie as a child.  

Another reason for my new found “appreciation” for New Years is that 2011 promises to something of a momentous year for me.  I plan to retire in May.  My wife and I were at the financial planner yesterday.  We got her blessing and what appears  to be a good long range plan for financial viability.  I should be ecstatic, yet I find myself oddly gloomy regarding the whole enterprise.  It is without a doubt time to leave work.  I will be glad to be out of that rat race.  However, retirement is something of a threshold to an era in which I really do not want to participate.  I find myself at the doorway of old age and retirement strikes me as the official ribbon cutting ceremony of the final chapters of a story that is guaranteed not to have a happy ending. 

So I have a dim appreciation for the celebration of New Years.  But…well, I just don’t know.  Can old dogs learn new tricks? 

It’s New Years!  I am going to retire!  Happiness is calling, but I feel a genuine reluctance to pull out that comfortable chair.


Image:  Google

Lyrics:, Auld Lang Syne

Thursday, December 30, 2010

When Happiness Calls...

I have a thing for sayings that exude some elemental truth or moral.  Recently, my wife was watching TV and I heard something to the effect of

“When happiness calls, pull out a comfortable chair and ask it to stay a while.” 

That is probably not the precise wording but it captures the idea.  Unfortunately, it sort of slipped in one ear and then spun around the rings of Saturn for a while, and then flew off and landed in the dim light beside the ebbing fire of my conscience.  Where did it come from?  I have no idea.  My wife thinks it may have been from her soap opera, but she is not sure either.  So there it is, a lovely quote, and I don’t know to whom I should give credit. 

“When happiness calls, pull out a comfortable chair and ask it to stay a while.”  I have not always done this.  In fact I have seldom applied this bit of pith to my personal life. 

An odd thing happened to me in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001.  I slept very well each night for about six weeks after the tragedy.  For the first time since I had turned 40, I slept the night through with no late night wakings, worries, or fitful dreams.  At the time, I found this puzzling and frankly somewhat frightening.  Why in the world would this harrowing act of terror promote sound sleeping?  I took no comfort in the horrific events of 9-11.  The world is falling apart and I am getting a good night’s sleep!  What the hell is wrong with me?  Something truly terrible occurred.  Many people died, many people lost loved ones, and many people would be scarred for life from the trauma or grief of the day.  I felt the range of emotions that the day engendered…fear, horror, anger, grief, a tremendous sense of loss, and even pride in the heroism of the emergency responders and certainly the passengers of flight 93. 

I found it troubling, with all of these truly dreadful events, why am I sleeping better?  Then it occurred to me, I am sleeping better because 9-11 put the world in perspective for me.  For a brief period, the importance of my personal world of “critical paths, customer need dates, equipment failures, billings, personal career development goals, dock dates, audits, software incompatibilities, quality control infractions, and tuition payments” got blown out of the water by something huge and frightening, and something that was beyond my control.  My Soul was giving thanks for having made it relatively unscathed through a day in which so many had died, and so many would grieve.  However, as so often in life, my taking stock lasted for about six weeks and then the mundane worries gradually seeped back into my awareness.  

So it occurs to me now, that happiness has been sitting on my couch, comfortable but bored while I live my life of self induced distraughts, epic corporate inspired “the sky is falling” crises of the moment, and an endless litany of injustices of so little importance that it is laughable…junk mail, red lights, speed traps, office gossip, aches and pains, lousy weather and the impending grave.  Mean while happiness is sitting twiddling its thumbs hoping that maybe I will notice the blessings…adequate income, roof over my head, marriage to a wonderful and kind woman, and food in my belly.  It is sad to think that it takes something horrific like 9-11, to make me see old happiness sitting off on the side of the room playing solitaire and hoping for a brief moment of recognition and communion. 

The grave is out there waiting for all of us.  Rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, famous or unknown our fate is the same:  take a ride in a fancy black Cadillac station wagon, have some words mumbled over us, be lowered into a six foot hole, and eventually be forgotten.  There is nothing you can do about it.  But you can decide to make the most of what remains, so when happiness calls…choose wisely.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Traditions

It occurred to me that although my wife and I do not have the iron-clad TRADITIONS for the holidays that some people do, we do have our traditions—little things not written in stone but things that are done every year without fail—well except when there are failures. 

One tradition, I go outside late on Christmas Eve and listen to the near-by Interstate.  When we were younger it would be perfectly quiet.  Not a car or truck on it.  I went out last night and listened, little traffic compared to usual, yet a steady stream of a single cars spaced often enough to obliterate the silence.  This morning I went out at 6:30 and listened.  I did get about a half of a minute of silence and then a few 10 to 15 second intervals in the 4 or 5 minutes that I stood in the cold listening to the Interstate.  In all fairness however it does occur to me that my Interstate listening of yore was probably done more like 2:30 or 3:00 AM after all the toys had been assembled and placed under the tree in exhaustion.

Another tradition we have is to go to Candlelight Service at my wife’s small Presbyterian Church.  True to tradition we sang Silent Night by candlelight, except me, also true to tradition.  I can’t sing because I have a huge lump in my throat and I am desperately fighting back tears.  Something about the simple beauty of a handful of simple people, in a simple old coal miner's church, singing a simple song to off key organ music played by a simple woman who really does not know how to play, expressing their simple faith in the simple birth of the simple child of their simple God.  None of it is very complicated and none of it is fancy.  Very simple.  Perhaps not as quite as simple and ordinary as the events that took place 2,000 years ago, but by comparison to the grand cathedrals and the mega-churches of today…quite simple indeed.  

A failed tradition?  At the same church and the same Candlelight Service up to a few years ago, I would listen to the previous organist sing Ave Maria.  She could sing as well as play the organ.  The hairs stood on the back of my neck and unabashed tears rolled down my cheeks.  She was Catholic and she appeared without fail to play at the Presbyterian Church every Sunday and Christmas Eve.  She died of breast cancer several years ago and with her died one of my personal traditions.  My tradition, listening to Ave Maria,  was a small thing compared to the totality in the loss of this woman, but how does one quantify the loss of beauty?  A simple woman with a very beautiful voice.

Another tradition, after church we ride around for about a half hour and look at Christmas lights and then come home and snack on the Christmas cookies, cheese and crackers, and veggies from a vegetable tray all prepared by my wife, and listen to Christmas music on our tinny sounding boom box*.  Quite beautiful.  Well last night due to complex family dynamics we took the spread to my son’s house, and due to complex family dynamics, it was not quite the same. 

*The boom box itself is a Christmas tradition, it only gets used during the Christmas season.

Today my wife will do another Christmas tradition…work her ass off preparing a meal for the entire family at her mother’s house.  Although in a failure of tradition that I am going to enjoy, it will not be a traditional Christmas ham dinner.  This year she pre-made lasagna rolls, and all she has to do is heat them up in the oven.  It will allow her more time to enjoy the family.  Mmmmmm!   I am going to eat like a king for Christmas this year, but there has been some grumbling from the traditionalists who traditionally sit back and watch my wife slave away in the kitchen.  Too bad, a new Christmas tradition—lasagna rolls served with a side dish of grumbling.  Any one who does not like it is perfectly welcome to prepare the traditional Christmas ham dinner…my wife says that she will sit down and eat it without complaint.  I am not holding my breath waiting for ham.  So lasagna rolls it will be…my mouth is watering just thinking about it.  To hell with tradition I say. 
Our Junky Tree

Tomorrow will be another tradition, one which I refuse to allow failure.  The day after Christmas, Boxing Day they call it in England.  We will go no where, have no one over, just my wife and I enjoying a quiet peaceful day together with no complex family dynamics, no ruffled feathers, no hurt feelings in any quarters, and for my wife, no damned work.  After two weeks of killing herself in preparation for Christmas, she deserves a simple day off.  Just she, me, and the kitty cats sitting around the tree, our tree...the one that my wife over decorates with too many simple home made ornaments, and too many colored lights.  Our tree, the one that some of our more sophisticated relatives have called junky, the simple tree that, as with my wife, a simple woman, I love to the depths of my being.

Merry Christmas to all, God bless us, everyone!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus

The following is the text of Francis Church's editorial regarding Santa Claus. It was copied from Newseaum, Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus

Eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York's Sun, and the quick response was printed as an unsigned editorial Sept. 21, 1897. The work of veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church has since become history's most reprinted newspaper editorial, appearing in part or whole in dozens of languages in books, movies, and other editorials, and on posters and stamps.

  "DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
"Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
"Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
"Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?


VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

To learn more about Virginia O'Hanlon and Francis Church, see:

Wikipedia, Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus


Text:  Newseum, Yes Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus

Images: Note Click On Images To See Full Size

Crazy, Santa Wallpaper

Wikipedia, Clipping Original Editorial

New Editor In Blogger

I was snooping around in the dashboard this morning and found out that there is a new improved editor for Blogger.  I did not know that, nor am I sure how one finds these things out.  I just ran across it by accident.

Here is an overview describing the new editor:

New Editor Overview

Here are some of the things you can do with the new editor:

Bullet Lists
  • Item 1
  • Item 2
  • Item 3
Numbered Lists
  1. Item 1
  2. Item 2
  3. Item 3

    Change Fonts:  Arial, Courier, Georgia, Helvetica, Times, Trebuchet, Verdana

    Change Font Size:  Smallest, Small, Normal, Large, Largest

    They still have BOLD, ITALICS, UNDERLINE but have also added STRIKE THROUGH

    You can change your TEXT COLOR.  and add highlighting of various colors

    And it also has a on borred spell checker that highlights misssspellings while you are in the editor but not when you pubblish the post. (I had to highlight borred and misssspellings to show the effect, but it still didn't show up on the published version)

    There is also an alignment tool that gives you one click


    right alignment

    Or full margin to margin alignment that will need a lot of typing to demonstrate.  Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.  The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog's back.  Four score and seven years ago, I did not bother to learn the Gettysburg Address and I still don't know it so perhaps I should try the Constitution of the United States, We the people have the right not to know that either by heart so maybe I will just give up and hope that the margin to margin alignment will be adequately demonstrated  by this stupid paragraph.

    There is something called insert a jump break EDIT which I just figured out what it does.  If you see "Read More" below click on it to see the remainder of this post.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010

    The Lunar Eclipse

    Well yesterday was a big day for astronomical phenomena, the first time since 2009 that we had a winter solstice and the first time in a long time that we had a lunar eclipse on the day of the solstice. Depending on who you want to believe the last time there was a lunar eclipse on the winter solstice was 1638 (US Naval Observatory), or 1544 (Starhawk, The Wiccan). Other than being an interesting fact in the newspaper, I am not sure what the relative importance of a lunar eclipse falling on the same day as the winter solstice holds. As far as I know it is the only time it has ever happened on December 22, 2010 so is that not some notable factoid of relative rarity as well?

    The timing of this event presented a problem for me. It started around 1:30 AM and reached full coverage at 3:17 AM. OK, I am on vacation so I could stay up and watch it. But why? I have seen these things before several times. Of course never on the winter solstice. Well none the less I was hoping for cloud cover and then I could sleep with no guilt of missing one of nature's rarer displays. I went out about 11:15 PM. Crap! The moon was visible, only some high cirrus clouds in the way. Not sure which way to go, I read for a while and got really tired. It was about 12:30. Great! Some lake effect clouds moved in and the moon was totally obscured! I went to bed guilt free bargaining with myself that if I woke up, I would look at it then.

    Two AM, I woke up! Of course I would wake up. The bedroom window at the head of bed is oriented to the world that allows seeing the full moon in the winter. I look out, crap, I could see the moon partially obscured by the shadow. So I got up, put on my clothes and went outside. More lake effect cloud cover. Totally gone! So I stood outside freezing my ass off for 15 minutes. The moon barely peeked through the clouds once for a few seconds. It was still very murky and I decided to go back to bed. In bed but now well awake from the cold in my bones, I thought well I will take a look every now and again from the bed. About 10 to 3, I look out and Wow! I can really see it, I can even see the red on it this time. I put on my clothes and go back outside, as I look up at the moon I can see another batch of lake effect clouds heading for the moon. About 30 seconds later the moon was gone again. So I gave it another 5 minutes of ass freezing vigil with minor murky peaks and then decided to hell with it. I went back to bed and about every 5 minutes pulled open the drape and had a peek. I never saw it totally obscured, there was always a sliver of light when I did see it, but for the most part I saw nothing but clouds. I would almost drift off to sleep and then guilt myself into looking again. Four thirty was the last time I remember looking at the clock.

    Well it was rather disappointing, but still better than any of my life long attempts to see the Perseid meteor showers, and for the most part, I watched it while laying in bed!

    To be honest though, I would have preferred to have just slept through it.

    You can see some neat photos of the eclipse here:

    Washington Post, Photo Gallery

    Here is Starhawk's commentary in the Washington Post:

    Washington Post, On Faith, Out of darkness, light: Solstice and the lunar eclipse

    Image: The lunar eclipse taken from Orlando Florida. This is what I was supposed to see.

    Wikipedia, 12-21-2010 Lunar Eclipse Orland FL.

    Oh one other notable event--well of minor notability, Undercover Christmas was on TV again last night so I sat through it with a note book in hand and got the forgiveness quote more or less accurately this time. Tyne Daly's character Ann speaking to her son the FBI agent regarding the relationship between he and his father:

    “I don’t think that forgiveness is earned. It is given. The only way this will ever end is when one of you decides to forgive the other out of generosity. When you want that more than to be right.”

    Navigating The Finite, Forgiveness...Earned or Given?

    Sunday, December 19, 2010

    The Dark Days Before Christmas

    My wife’s maternal grandparents were born and raised in Scotland. They immigrated to the United States as young adults prior to World War I. My wife’s grandmother always referred to the days prior to Christmas as the Dark Days Before Christmas. There is a good reason for that, Scotland is in the northern latitudes. The latitude of Edinburgh, Scotland 55°56′58″N which rounds out to a nice even 56 degrees north. That is about 10.5 degrees or roughly 750 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Childs play compared to Murmansk, Russia which is located at almost 69º north and well on the other side of the Arctic Circle. But none the less Edinburgh is up there at almost the same latitude as Juneau Alaska. Ok I am cheating here, Juneau is located on the southern tail of Alaska bordering British Columbia, but you have to admit it sounds impressive.

    So why are there Dark Days Before Christmas in the northern latitudes? Had my wife’s grandmother been born in New Zealand what would she say about the days before Christmas?

    There is a neat website I found that gives sunrise and sunset times for various cities in the world.

    So let’s have a look at the relative sunrise and sunset times, for of course the Paris of Appalachia, and some of the Dunedins scattered about the world on the darkest day before Christmas (for the northern hemisphere)…the winter solstice which will occur on December 21, 2010 at 23:38 (11:38 PM) Greenwich Mean Time or 18:38 (6:38 PM) Eastern Standard Time.

    Click on the image to zoom in on the chart.

    For the Paris of Appalachia, (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) which sits about 40.5º north latitude, we enjoy 9 hours and 17 minutes of daylight and at high noon the sun will be 26.2º off the southern horizon.

    For the original Dùn Èideann (Edinburgh, Scotland) which sits about 56º north latitude, you only will see roughly 7 hours of sunlight, and at high noon the Sun will only climb 10.7º off the southern horizon. For those of us further south, you can visualize this by going outside, face south, hold your closed fist at arms length away from you. Align the bottom of your fist with the southern horizon, the Sun at high noon in Edinburgh will only rise to the top of your fist. Dark Days indeed!

    Now for those of you who live in sunny Dunedin, Florida which sits about 28° north latitude, the Sun will bless you with 10 hours and 22 minutes of glorious light and it will reach 38.6º off the southern horizon.

    Now lets consider Dunedin, in Otago District, New Zealand. You are sitting at roughly 46° southern latitude and you are going to get a whopping 15 hours and 45 minutes of sunlight on our shortest day of the year. The Sun at high noon will be a high in the sky 67.6º off the northern horizon. It is your longest day…the first day of summer in the southern hemisphere.

    Oh oh, what about poor Murmansk, Russia. The Sun will not shine for you at all on this shortest day of the year. At almost 69º northern latitude, you are above the Arctic Circle and at high noon the Sun will still be 1.4º below your southern horizon. Well cheer up, 6 months from now the Sun won’t set so you will make up your light deficit.

    So what about the north and south poles? Well the December solstice is exactly midnight for the north pole and high noon for the south pole. Days and nights last 6 months at the poles.

    So what the hell is going on? Why does Edinburgh Scotland gets less than half the amount of sunlight as Dunedin, New Zealand on the very same day?

    Click on image to view full size.

    Take a look at this diagram from Wikipedia. It shows the Earth at four locations in its orbit around the Sun. Notice the purple line extending from both pole regions. This is the axis of the Earth and it is canted relative to the plane of orbit by about 23.4 degrees. Notice that the axis points in the same direction no matter where in the orbit that the Earth is located. Currently the axis in the northern hemisphere always points to the North Star, Polaris. However due to a phenomenon known as precession, the Earth being a giant gyroscope, the axis will slowly drift away from Polaris and then drift back in a 13,000 year cycle. Because the Earth’s axis is tilted and the axis remains in a stable position during the orbit around the Sun, the sunlight distribution changes from northern hemisphere to the southern and back as each year and the Earth’s orbit about the Sun progresses. This is why we have seasons, and my suspicion is that if it were not for the tilted axis of the Earth, life, or at least life as we know it, may not be possible here.

    Again looking at our diagram, the Earth is now in the far most right position in the diagram. The December solstice, which occurs around December 21, is the winter solstice for the northern hemisphere and summer solstice for the southern hemisphere. Note that the north pole is completely dark and will not be exposed to any sunlight at all during the daily revolution of the Earth. The south pole will have 24 hours of sunlight. The days are short in the northern hemisphere and long in the southern.

    Following counter clockwise along the orbit the Earth, at the top of the diagram is at the March equinox which occurs around March 21. This is the vernal or spring equinox for the northern hemisphere. Although not readily apparent in the diagram, the Sun is directly over the equator and both hemispheres will have 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night.

    Continuing along the orbit to the left side of the diagram, we see the June solstice which occurs around June 21. This is the summer solstice for the northern hemisphere and winter solstice for the southern. Now the days will be long in the northern hemisphere and short in the southern.

    The last position at the bottom of the diagram is the September equinox which is the autumnal or fall equinox for the northern hemisphere. Again both hemispheres have an equal 12 hours of daylight and night.

    The second diagram shows the effect of increased light density in the southern hemisphere and the reduction in the northern during the winter months.

    The winter solstice has a deep psychological importance to human beings. The continual loss of daylight being halted and the days becoming longer has been the cause for celebration among many social groups in history. It is no accident that the birth of Christ, which is historically unknown, is considered December 25. Pagan Rome celebrated Brumalia a month long festival to Roman god of wine and intoxication Bacchus that reached its peak on December 24 and 25 When Rome officially adopted Christianity in the 4th century AD, a celebration of the birth of Christ replaced Brumalia.

    I have a theory, very much unproven, that people retain an ancestral predisposition for a location within their genes. Why are the northern central states so appealing to people of Scandinavian descent? Being of Irish and Scotch ancestry, I believe I have the gloom of the Atlantic Isles' winters embedded in my bones. When the days get shorter in September and October, I do find that I miss the longer hours of daylight. However, when the solstice is bearing down on us, I find that I have a deep and abiding longing for the Dark Days Before Christmas. In the movie, The Christmas Carol with George C. Scott, I love the scenes where Scrooge is walking through the dark foggy and snowy Victorian streets, especially the scene where the horse drawn white hearse mystically disappears into the fog. For reasons that I do not fully understand I find a deep comfort leaving work in the late afternoon to a darkened world often blowing with a fine frozen mist of lake effect snow. Walking to the car through the cold, wintry, gloom has a mystical Soul pervading loneliness, quite Dickens like in character. I love the sight of it, the feeling of it, the loneliness of it…like Scrooge walking home by himself. You can almost sense Marley near by. And yet how lovely to walk through the door into my warm home, beautifully decorated for Christmas, to a loving wife and a hot dinner. It makes me feel like Bob Cratchet. Cold. lonely, wintry gloom is a wonderful thing in small and temporary doses! God bless us, every one!

    Image Credits:

    1. Screen Print of Sunrise & Sunset Spreadsheet, Me, using data from:

    2. Solstices & Equinoxes from:

    Wikipedia, Winter Solstice

    3. Winter Solstice

    Wikipedia, The Seasons

    Edit 12-23-10: It occurs to me that I have several items in the chart above that are not defined. So let me provide definitions for all of the data columns in the above chart.

    Sunrise: is the local time that the Sun will rise in the morning, that is appear above the horizon.

    Sunset: is the local time in which the Sun will set in the evening, that is drop below the horizon.

    Hours of Daylight: How much elapsed time in hours, minutes and seconds between sunrise and sunset.

    Solar Noon: The local time when the Sun reaches the highest point in the sky for the day. This is a function of where the Earth is in its elliptical orbit around the Sun, and where the location is positioned within the time zone. Each time zone is one hour wide and covers ideally the circumference of the Earth divided by 24 at the equator. The actual width at any particular location will be a function of the latitude of the location and at times the political or economic shifts applied to the time zone borders. The closer to the poles that a particular location lies, the more narrow will be the time zone in miles. Boston, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis are all in the Eastern Time Zone but their solar noons will be different. For today the solar noon will occur at 11:43 for Boston, 12:19 for Pittsburgh, and 12:44 for Indianapolis. Yet all three are in the Eastern Time Zone.

    Altitude of Sun: This is the maximum elevation off the horizon measured in degrees that the Sun will attain at solar noon for the day in question. The higher the Sun at solar noon the longer daylight will last.

    Latitude: The position of the location measured in degrees, minutes, and seconds North or South from the equator as indicated on a GPS or sextant.

    Longitude: The position of the location measured in degrees, minutes, and seconds East or West of the 0 Meridian at Greenwich England as measured by a GPS or sextant. Longitude is not a factor in the amount of daylight for any given day but is a factor in when the solar noon will occur.

    EDIT 5-14-2011:  Falling under the category of "There is so much cool stuff on the Internet", I found this web page in response to a search indicated on StatCounter. It gives a better albeit more complicated explanation of the Dark Days of Winter.  Lot of cool stuff on this site. 

    Naval Oceanography Portal, Dark Days of Winter

    EDIT 5-13-2012:  I found these handy diagrams showing the approximate angles between stars.  The measurement is conducted by extending your arm full length.  To measure the approximate angle of height of the sun above the horizon, orient your fist vertically so that your thumb is pointing toward the sun and your little finger is touching the horizon.

    For the elevation of the sun, the bottom object is the horizon.
    Copyright ©2010-2011 by Daniel V. Schroeder 

    Angle estimates using fist and fingers with arm outstretched.
    For elevations from horizon turn fist vertical.
    Copyright ©2010-2011 by Daniel V. Schroeder

    Image Credits:   Daniel V. Schroeder, Understanding Astronomy, Motion of The Stars

    For more information, Schroeder has and excellent explanation of the seasons at:

    Daniel V. Schroeder, Understanding Astronomy, The Sun and Seasons 

    Sunday, December 12, 2010

    Is Manufacturing Becoming Fashionable Again?

    After reading The Paris of Appalachia I have come across several articles indicating that manufacturing may be making a come back. Below are the links for the various articles.

    The first article is the same article that I added to my post "The Paris of Appalachia." It discusses how Henry Ford had built a local manufacturing plant in Pittsburgh and the advantages that plant had incurred to the local community. The author uses a term that resonates with me the "industrial middle class". Ask 95% of Americans what class they are in and you will probably hear the answer "middle class". I can assure you that the members of middle class in the half million dollar homes that are springing up in my township are not in the same middle class that the people I work with claim to belong. My own opinion on this is that I have never considered myself a member of the middle class, but rather somewhat upper tier low class otherwise known as blue collar or working class. Well now I can join the middle class, the "industrial middle class".

    The Daily Reckoning, "The Rise and Fall of The American Middle Class"

    The next article is near and dear to my heart. I used to work for the second largest electrical manufacturer in the US. It was right behind GE. Some time during the 1980s it decided that there was far more money to be had in finance than in stodgy old manufacturing. In the mid 90's it was swimming in debt and began selling off profitable manufacturing divisions to build up cash. By the late 90s it ceased to exist...frittered away by financial dunces who all rode off into the sunset with their golden parachutes. My former corporation was visionary...ahead of its time. Read what the CEO of General Electric has to say about finance divisions and manufacturing.

    The New York Times "G.E. Goes With What It Knows: Making Stuff"

    The next article talks about manufacturing that is still going on in the US and centers on nearby Butler, Pennsylvania. One aspect that is discussed in this article that struck me is that our tendency to want to create engineering shops and leave the manufacturing to off shore may be mistaken. At some point the manufacturing centers develop a synergy among themselves and wonder "what are we paying the folks across the ocean for?" The article also suggest that for manufacturing to survive in the US, American society will have to develop a positive attitude toward it.

    The Atlantic "Is There a Future for 'Made in America'?"

    The last article is another near and dear to my heart because I believe it to be true. While not on manufacturing per se, I have included it because I think a good bit of the fall of manufacturing can be attributed to the greed indicated in this article. I don't believe that Wall Street serves the American public very well, and this article agrees.

    New Yorker "What Good Is Wall Street?"

    What is the purpose of a corporation? I believe the primary purpose of a corporation is to provide goods and services to society with a reasonable profit to its owners. I believe in recent years, America has lost sight of that purpose, that the purpose of the corporation has become to make maximum profits for the owners with as small of an expenditure on goods and services and the labor to produce it as possible. What is important? Human beings need shelter, food and water, medical care, and public safety. I also believe they need love and purpose. Money is convenience, a medium of exchange, it is not a good or a service. I have never seen in any of my readings on anthropology where excessive profit and celebrity were basic needs of human beings. How important is money, profit, or celebrity? Next time you are hungry, try eating a 5 dollar bill.


    A big thank you to Christopher Briem's excellent blog on Pittsburgh, Null Space for referring to the Daily Reckoning and Atlantic articles.

    Saturday, December 11, 2010

    Is The Paris of Appalachia The Most Livable City?

    So what is the most livable city in the US? Without making a huge study in the methods of measure and what is being defined, it appears as though it just depends on who you ask.

    If you ask Forbes Magazine, the good old Paris of Appalachia is indeed number one!

    But wait in an answer sure to please the Old Baguette, if you ask CNN/Money Magazine, Eden Prairie MN is number 1, and the Paris of Appalachia doesn't even make the top 100.

    If you ask Most, it is Denver and no place in Pennsylvania or Minnesota makes the top 13.

    If you ask Mercer which ranks world cities, Pittsburgh does not make the top 50 on the quality of living, but ranks 13th in the world for an "eco-city" rating.

    "*Eco-City Ranking 2010 includes the following criteria: Water availability, water potability, waste removal, sewage, air pollution and traffic congestion."

    I agree on the potability. I have been drinking the Allegheny River for most of my life. I like the taste of the Allegheny. I have stopped at various springs out in the country, stood in line while people filled their jugs, and the water was completely tasteless--hated it, like drinking liquid air. I believe it to be the high levels of mine acid in the Allegheny that provides the distinctive flavor. It is also pleasantly hard and the soap just rinses off with no difficulty. What the Allegheny may be doing to my innards is hard to say, but I do like the taste of it.

    So we have tasty water, great working sewers, and surprisingly for the "Smoky City" clean air. According to Forbes the employment prospects are great. So why are we losing population? Why are there no immigrants? Maybe its the pot holes or the lousy baseball team.

    Wednesday, December 8, 2010

    Lake Erie Is Falling On Paris

    Yes you read that correctly Lake Erie is falling on Paris...well the Paris of Appalachia anyhow. Lake effect snow. I have been watching the radar now for about 3 days and it always looks exactly the same, winds from the northwest blowing across Lake Erie and dumping snow on the areas south east of the lake. Even the weird patch of snow-freezing rain-rain south of Long Island has been in the same place for days. It is like the radar broke down so they just keep showing the same image from 3 days ago.

    This is pretty much an annual event in December. For we Parisians Of Appalachia, lake effect snow is somewhat of a nuisance but certainly not the ordeal for which the Mistake On The Lake (old Steeler fan term for Cleveland--not a fan I see nothing particularly mistaken about Cleveland) or Buffalo must contend. Being on the very south eastern reach of the lake effect snows, we will receive on the order of an inch or two a day verses an inch or two hour for the snow belts. What amazes me is the persistence of the winds that drives lake effect snow. The winds can remain precise in their path for days, resulting in weird bands of places with heavy snow fall bordered by places with little or no snow. The effect is much more dramatic in the snow belts on the lee side of the lakes, but we get it down here as well.

    There seems to be a tendency for strong low pressure systems to park their asses over Labrador, gain strength, and sit and twirl in a counter clockwise direction. It then creates these remarkably persistent strong winds which cross the lakes from the northwest. Looking at the Current Systems map, note the two low pressure systems one east of St Johns, Newfoundland, and the other in far northern Quebec. Due to the fact that I am still waiting for my degree in meteorology to come from that off shore university that you have never heard of, I am not quite sure which of these two system is the source although I suspect it is a combination of both.

    Incredibly it turns out that lake effect snow requires a number of factors or it does not happen. I read about this in Wikipedia and I was surprised at what it takes to get lake effect snow. The simple version, strong winds, cold air and a warm lake. That warm lake is relative to the air temperature, no one is swimming in Lake Erie right now. The more complex answer which involves a lot of 50 cent words can be found here:

    Wikipedia, Lake Effect Snow

    What I did find interesting is that there is an altitude component to this. The air needs to be 13 Celsius degrees cooler than the lake at altitude of roughly 4,900 feet. Apparently that altitude is the ideal barometric pressure for the formation of the snow. A lot can go wrong and the snow won't form--what a pity. So the fact that we get so damned much of it seems to indicate that much does go right for the creation of lake effect snow.

    There is an old adage about Pittsburgh, "if you hate winter, you will hate Pittsburgh, but if you like winter, you will hate Pittsburgh." We get a lot of what a friend from Georgia calls "typical Pittsburgh shit weather" half rain, half snow, snow on the ground from mid-November to early March but not enough to make a snow man. It is usually over cast all winter long and it turns out that much of the cloud cover is lake effect clouds. It seems that we who live close to the Great Lakes are more likely to suffer from S.A.D.--seasonal affective disorder, a name seeming contrived to fit the acronym. It is very prominent in Russia and the common cure is vodka. There is some sort of fancy light that you can sit under that is supposed to counter the affect. My own cure for S.A.D. is to insist that we leave the Christmas tree up all winter. It doesn't come down until Easter, and I find that it cheers me up. I am not sure what it does for my wife who earlier in our life together would want me to bring the boxes down from the attic in mid-January. I always found some half assed excuse and would put it off. Finally one year she became insistent and I refused claiming that I suffered from S.A.D. and wanted the tree up. She seemed to accept that in the odd way that people who have been married for a long time will know what battles not to fight. Some time around the vernal equinox, I will forget to turn the lights on the tree for a couple of days and she then states with some authority that the boxes are coming down this weekend.

    One advantage that we shovelers of Lake Erie have over the other Great Lakes is that Lake Erie, due to its shallow depth, will eventually freeze over. No more lake effect snow, although the clouds persist at least here in Pittsburgh.

    Pittsburgh is blessed with a lack of natural disasters. We don't, for the most part, have tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts, extremes of heat and cold, horrendous rains, mud slides, floods, fires, Santa Anna winds, or earth quakes. If we do have an occasional event, it is usually very moderate compared to Oklahoma City, New Orleans, or Los Angeles. I suppose in payment for our blessed lack of natural disasters, what we do have is a whole bunch of mediocrity. Pittsburgh shit weather in the winter, and not a lot of nice days in the summer. It is usually uncomfortably warm and humid in the summer but not excessively so. I suppose one could say that Pittsburgh is a rather dreary place but not a particularly dangerous place.

    Every so often Pittsburgh wins some sort of Most Livable City rating. I am not sure who decides this, but I am almost dead certain that they don't live here.

    EDIT 12-14-10
    Here is this morning's radar map. The two tendrils coming off Lake Erie into Western Pennsylvania have been constant for the past 24 hours. There is evidence on the one wind stream up in Lake Huron.

    Image Credits:

    1. & 4. Screen print of radar. Current Radar, Binghampton NY

    2. Canadian Current Systems.

    The Weather Network

    3. Warm moisture rising to 850 mbar to create lake effect snow.

    Wikipedia, Lake Derived Snow

    Wednesday, December 1, 2010

    The Paris of Appalachia

    It is hard to believe that The Paris of Appalachia was not written by a native born Pittsburgher. Brian O'Neill is a born again Pittsburgher having grew up in Long Island and received his education at Syracuse University. Perhaps that is his strength for Pittsburgh is his adopted love and not a forced love from being born in the family. As such, O'Neill wears neither the rose colored or dung tinged glasses that most of us native born Pittsburghers seem to maintain about our city. Nor is he afraid to call a spade a spade.

    I must confess that what attracted me to the book was the title, reminiscent of reading that Saigon had been known one time as the Paris of Indochina. Being the Paris of anything would seem complimentary, but apparently the Paris of Appalachia is nothing to brag about. Friends tried to convince him to use another title, but O'Neill makes a good point in stating that if it were the "Paris of the Rockies" people would be enamored with the title.

    The Paris of Appalachia" is a charming book written by a very charming man. O'Neill is not offensive in his criticisms and he gives a balanced view of all sides of an argument. Much of the book is anecdotes of bar conversations, the charms of Beech Street on the North Side, and making pierogies in a church. But the real meat of the book starts in the last 35 pages of the book. O'Neill describes how Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are locked into a system of self governing duchies that makes the Holy Roman Empire appear like an epitome of bureaucratic efficiency in comparison. Allegheny County has more police chiefs than the state of Montana. Pittsburgh is strangling from a lack of a tax base and we the suburban residents are happy to let it continue to writhe in pain. Oh we don't mind driving into the city to work our jobs, obtain our university degrees, get our operations and advanced medical care, or go watch a game, hear a symphony, visit a museum or zoo, or watch a play but good God don't expect us to toss a dime to the city in the way of taxes. The older I get the more dismayed I become with my fellow human beings exaggerated sense of penury regarding taxes. We demand the services of good government. We want Pittsburgh's streets and many bridges to be in good shape, plowed and salted in the winter, safe to walk on at all times, but we don't want to have to pay for it.

    O'Neill also brings to light how the metropolitan Pittsburgh area is steadily losing population and there is very little new blood in the form of immigrants. Why is that? The one area that I felt the book was lacking is an earnest discussion on job opportunities in Pittsburgh. This is unfortunate because I think O'Neill could bring an honest cleared eyed discussion on the future of employment in the Pittsburgh region. O'Neill states that Pittsburgh is not a mid-western city nor is it an eastern city. Personally I don't feel that it is necessarily an Appalachian city either, what ever that may be, at least not in spirit. To me, Pittsburgh is firmly entrenched in the Rust Belt, not so much a geographical location as an economic one. Why is the population shrinking? Why don't immigrants come to Pittsburgh? Because there are no damn jobs here, that's why. If you want to sustain a population provide jobs, the people will come.

    I remember the first time I drove down to Homestead and saw the mill gone, completely leveled. All that remained were a series of commemorative smoke stacks. I almost cried. Oh the damn mill was ugly as hell, but it did employ a lot of people.

    I used to work for the second largest electrical manufacturer in the United States. It was based in Pittsburgh. When I started in 1976 this corporation had 130,000 employees world wide and 172 operating divisions. That company no longer exists. It was frittered away by poor management decisions. I work in the same building making the same equipment but for a tiny company based in New Jersey. I am one of the lucky ones, most of the 130,000 noted above didn't do so well. When being chided by our corporate masters for not making our numbers, I joke with the engineers in our group that we used to be a pimple on a giant's ass, but now we are a boil on a midget's ass and they take far more notice of us.

    Part of the problem is that I have manufacturing in my genes, my mother welded LSTs, my father worked in a factory. We make things, not service things. So I look at the world with glasses spattered with machine chips and weld spall. I grew up within a half a mile of a railroad that serviced the steel mills on the Monongahela River. Every 20 minutes a heavily loaded freight train would go throbbing by taking iron ore from Lake Erie to the mills and slag back out. Today that train runs maybe twice a day.

    The mills are mostly gone. The research centers that used to dot the suburban Pittsburgh country side are mostly gone or severely reduced in scope. We are now a service economy. Pittsburgh hopes to replace the mills with education, and it's hospitals. The trouble with that concept is that the education institutions and the hospitals were here when the mills were here, we always have been a center for education and medical care. When the mills were here, no one noticed. Now that they are gone, Pittsburgh is going to become a center for education and medical care. Fine but I don't see any more jobs being developed

    I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and 1960s. Pittsburgh was the 12th largest city in the US in 1950. It was the third largest corporate headquarters in the nation. Pittsburgh mattered back then. Today society doesn't want to manufacture things, we want to be a service economy. No nasty stinking mills. Let's do education, medical care, casinos, financial services (hasn't that been a blast magically make something out of nothing). Leave the manufacturing to China and India.

    A service economy strikes me as giant whore house. At the end of the day when we all get done diddling each other, we will want to get into our cars drive home to our houses, make dinner on stove, have a beer out of the refrigerator, and wash our clothes in a washing machine all powered by a power plant. All things that were once made in Pittsburgh or with Pittsburgh steel. I don't think the service economy has been particularly kind to Pittsburgh and I don't think that Pittsburgh much matters any longer. We are frittering ourselves away--just like my former employer did--chasing dreams of double digit profits in financial markets when they were an electrical manufacturing company with a world class engineering corps and run by financial dunces. There might be a lesson in that for the United States. In 1950 Pittsburgh mattered, now it doesn't.  Is the US following the same trajectory?

    EDIT 12-2-2010: Reading the above after a night's sleep, my analysis of the economic future Pittsburgh seems too negative. Indeed I wear those dung tinged glasses, no wait, rust tinted glasses. So I went to the Wikipedia article on Pittsburgh and read all these glowing claims of how Pittsburgh survived the loss of its industrial base. It had to be written by some one far more optimistic than I am. Pittsburgh will survive but it is not done shrinking. Again, why is the population decreasing? Why are the immigrants not coming to Pittsburgh?

    EDIT 12-5-2010: Here is an interesting article I saw over at Null Space. It appears as though Mr. King was reading my mind. I like his use of the term "industrial middle class". All of America is in the "middle class" and when I look to see how some of the middle class lives, it is decided different than how I live. So I am in the disappearing "industrial middle class."

    The Daily Reckoning, The Rise and Fall of the American Middle Class

    Image Credits:

    1. Cover image and for more information on Brian O'Neill's wonderful book:

    The Paris of Appalachia Website

    2. The Holy Allegheny Empire...Well Allegheny County

    USGW Archives, Allegheny County

    Sunday, November 28, 2010

    Forgiveness. . . Earned or Given?

    One of the many flaws in my character is my penchant for watching sappy, made for TV Christmas movies. Yes, I know they are poorly scripted, predictable, cheap to make, and cheap to watch, but never-the-less I like watching them, even the crappy ones that I have seen before.

    Last night's selection was Undercover Christmas. It was very sappy, predictable, and cheap. It did have one great moment. Tyne Daly trying to repair the relationship between her FBI agent son and her judge and judgmental husband says something to the effect of "Forgiveness is not earned, it is given." There was more to the line than that but I can't remember beyond what I wrote above. Today I did a Google search in hopes of finding the quote. I didn't find the quote from the movie. I did find a number of quotes, one of which is the exact opposite:

    “Forgiveness is not given; it is earned. And once earned, it cannot be withheld."

    All the quotes that I looked at portrayed forgiveness in a number of different lights.

    Forgive but don't forget.

    You can't forgive if you don't forget.

    Men never forgive but will forget...women will forgive but never forget. . . .

    On and on it went with many contradictions.

    So I ask two things of my faithful readers...both of you.

    1) If you know the quote I am looking for please put it in a comment.

    2) Tell me your thoughts on forgiveness. Is forgiveness earned or is it given?

    EDIT 12-22-10 The movie was on again last night, so I watched it again with note book in hand. Good thing I like sappy Christmas movies. Here is a closer rendition to what was actually said:

    “I don’t think that forgiveness is earned. It is given. The only way this will ever end is when one of you decides to forgive the other out of generosity. When you want that more than to be right.”

    Friday, November 26, 2010

    Black Friday

    Today, seemingly—I don’t know the real percentage nor care, the majority of the population of the United States is involved in the fine art of saving money, or on the flip side of the coin, helping those fine citizens to save money. Ahhh, where else other than the United States can you save money by spending money! A casual look at the TV ads and one would be tempted to believe that the stores are paying you to shop. I gladly relinquish my role in this festival to others. You can have my parking spot, my place in the lines waiting for the doors to open at 3 AM, my share of the cornucopia to be had, and my share of the savings. I am simply not interested in saving money in this fashion.

    Black Friday. I remember first hearing the term only a couple of years ago—could that be right? Thinking it to be indicative of something terrible like Black Monday, I asked my wife what is Black Friday and why are the ads on TV bubbling about it. Black Mondays—any of the 14 which Wikipedia lists—certainly would not engender the mood to spend money. My wife explained that the day after Thanksgiving is the busiest shopping day of the year, the opening day of the Christmas shopping season, the day that the store’s balance sheets will hopefully move into the Black.

    I like Wikipedia's explanation better:
    The day's name originated in Philadelphia, where it originally was used to describe the heavy and disruptive pedestrian and vehicle traffic which would occur on the day after Thanksgiving. Use of the term began by 1966 and began to see broader use outside Philadelphia around 1975. Later an alternative explanation began to be offered: that "Black Friday" indicates the period during which retailers are turning a profit, or "in the black."
    Again according to Wikipedia our friends across the pond in the UK have their own and more interesting version for Black Friday:
    Black Friday is the last Friday before Christmas.

    In the United Kingdom, Black Friday is traditionally the most popular night for office Christmas parties. As a result it has gained a reputation as one of the busiest nights of the year for restaurants, public houses, and, as a result, the emergency services.
    Heavy and disruptive pedestrian and vehicle traffic certainly is cause for the day to be considered “Black” to me, and ergo a day to be avoided. But even that pales to the mental image that pops into my head when I hear the term Black Friday. Always one to wallow in the darker side, when I hear the term Black Friday a visual memory from my youth pops into my head. I see the cross on the altar covered with a black veil during the Good Friday service at the Lutheran Church. Odd, we wouldn’t have the one Black Friday without the other.

    I do have my own version of Black Friday. Despising crowds and shopping in general, I have never participated in the Black Friday festivities. Generally the day after Thanksgiving is a quiet day given to reflection and relaxation. Back when I used to keep an active journal, I would often write some post-Thanksgiving tome. I was doing so 15 years ago. It was an especially Black time for me. A month prior, my wife’s father had died and I was slated to be laid off from my job in January. So I was sitting in the same exact spot that I am sitting now staring into my computer screen and typing a rather dark entry into my journal regarding the grief for my father-in-law, the sadness that I felt for my wife and mother-in-law, and my fears for the future. If I could have extended my gaze through screen and the wall of my house I would have seen a young woman and her toddler daughter dying. From my front yard, I can see the exact spot where they died in a head-on collision about four and a half miles south east of my home.

    I had no idea at the time. I didn't know about the accident until several years later when I saw two crosses on the road marking the spot. In one of those odd things that one pursues without knowing why, I searched the newspaper’s website and learned of the accident. The woman and child had died on the day after Thanksgiving at the same time of day that I was making my journal entry. From the obituary I learned the cemetery and found the woman’s and child’s graves. Going through some weird middle mid-life crises at the time with the reality of death, this woman and her child became an icon of the senselessness of death to me. As the story went, the child distracted the woman for instant and she crossed over the center line into the path of a large truck. A tragic and needless loss of life.

    As I mentioned I was grappling with the reality of death at the time. For several years in the late 90s, I would on occasion kick around cemeteries, read the inscriptions on the head stones, stop and wonder about the person, their life and passions, what was important to them, how did they die…trying to make sense of this fleeting period of consciousness that we call life. Once while I was at the cemetery, the woman's husband came to visit the graves. I knew him from the family photo on the grave stone. I was about 50 yards away and feigned interest in a grave before me. He spent about 10 minutes. Near enough to watch him without being obtrusive, I could see that he was talking to his wife and child. He then said some prayers and left flowers and a small stuffed toy bear on the grave and departed. He was a handsome young man in his early 30s—much too young to be visiting a dead wife and daughter. I wept for him, although truth be known, I believe he was more at peace with the loss of his wife and daughter than I was. Or was he? He had been living real grief with an empty home for several years. I was living a self imposed vicarious grief for people that I did not know--a hobby by comparison. I went home to a live and loving wife and son.

    I am not sure that I learned anything from my contemplations of death. It still seems senseless to me. I don’t fear it now like I did when I was very young. Nor did I particularly fear death when I spent my year or so of grieving for this woman and walking through cemeteries. I was trying to understand death. I tried to come to terms with the finiteness of our lives by walking among the dead. I don’t think I succeeded. I still don’t understand why we must die. Oh of course, we must die to make room for the next generation. That makes sense. But it is a cold fact—like World War II ended in 1945 or the largest state of the union is Alaska. It does not really tell me why we must die and, indeed, be so damned aware of the fact.

    So, while the rest of America seeks the Black Friday bargains, I stare through my computer screen to a point in space and time four and half miles away and 15 years ago and wonder why did this woman and her child die?

    Black Friday indeed!

    EDIT 11-28-2010: Interesting commentary on Black Friday:

    Washington Post, Guest Voices, "Black Friday is the high feast day of our thing-centered cult-ure" By Carson Weber

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010

    Trust and Doubt and Bittersweet

    I saw a bumper sticker this evening..."Trust those who seek the truth. Doubt those who find it." To which I would add that your level of doubt should be directly proportional to the enthusiasm in which one tries to convince you of their truth.

    I am finding that my possibly last business trip is somewhat a bittersweet affair. I knew that I would miss the people, but I find that I keep looking about the lab, the facilities, even the product I am here to test and thinking "geez, I am never going to see this again." Some of it, the miserable or scary parts, I am not going to miss, but still I find an attachment to this place that is somewhat surprising.

    I have worked at this place probably on the order of 25 times in the last 15 years. It is an interesting lab in a great location, right on the water on the Chesapeake Bay. One could not ask for a more scenic place to work.

    I find myself walking about in the lab and looking at various artifacts of the place and feeling a sadness. I am sure that I'll get over it, but it was a bit surprising.

    You can read all of my retirement related posts at:

    Saturday, November 13, 2010

    John Jerome

    Blogging can take one in some different directions. I posted a couple chapters from a book that I tried to write, never finished, and never did anything with. Looking at those old chapters reminded me of one of the books that I had read 20 years ago that had inspired me to write, Stonework by John Jerome. It has been a long time since I read the book and I can't remember much of it, but it was an accounting of rebuilding old stone walls on his farm in New England, perhaps a Zen and the Art of Wall Building (minus the Greek philosophy BS). The labor of the wall was a framework around which Jerome built the remainder of the book which had little to do with walls and much to do with broad observations of life, the natural world, and a philosophy for making a better life through simplicity. Stonework was one of those books that inspired course corrections in the navigation of my life. If nothing else, it inspired within me a deep desire to write.

    Looking at my old chapters, prompted me to have a look on Amazon for Jerome's books. I found immediately On Turning Sixty-Five, Notes From The Field. Although I have several years until I arrive at that age, my recent decision to retire from work and approaching the magic age of 62 seemed close enough. Since I made the choice to retire, which is about 89.33% finalized, I have been in something of a mental tizzy. I have not been able to sit and read a book or even finish a magazine article. My head seems a swirling mass of worries and concerns. Jerome had provided direction in my life once before, the midlife crises part of my life, perhaps he could do it again as I step across the threshold of the merely middle aged to the elderly.

    I am not aging with grace. I despise what I have seen of old age from my parents and my entry into it is not promising. So I thought Jerome's book just may be the ticket. I have read the first few chapters and the magic of Jerome is definitely apparent. He has a clarity of thought and calls a spade a spade or a god damned shovel as the situation demands. Minor profanities pepper his writing as they do mine, we talk each other's language, although Jerome is far more grounded in reality and does not share my dreamy romantic bullshit.

    So I have been enjoying Jerome's book, and this morning I decided to see if he has a web page or blog. I was shocked to find out that he had died of lung cancer in 2002, two years after On Turning Sixty-Five was published. I was not expecting that. John Jerome was into fitness, healthy living, and a healthy attitude. Although I have only read one of his books and a few chapters of a second, I felt that I lost a personal friend...eight years ago. Last night I read Jerome discussing his brother's death from cancer, and this morning I discover two years later he succumbed to it himself.

    I, in some fashion, feel that emotion which Paul Olum said of Richard can he be dead? I seek solace from a man's words only to find out that he died two years after writing them. He was not supposed to have died. I was supposed to find a website and read some bit of stoney wisdom, not an obituary. There are times when I feel that death cheats us and John Jerome is such a loss.

    To better understand John Jerome read the obituaries, especially Bruce McCall's touching piece here:

    In Memory Of John Jerome

    Jerome's Books At Amazon:


    On Turning Sixty-Five

    His other books can be found on Amazon's John Jerome page:

    John Jerome At Amazon

    Image Credit:

    Random House, On Turning Sixty-Five

    Edit 11-14-10: I found this quote from A Writer's Trade, a book Jerome published in the mid 90s about the craft of writing.
    After hearing someone on the radio mention that every word is a metaphor Jerome writes:

    [page 215] Not a terribly original observation, but it struck home: here we are with this capacity for language, the tool with which we've built this incredible civilization. And yet the capacity for language itself specifically freezes us at the symbolic level, permanently divorced from the experience of the real world. We are incurably afloat in a sea of words, of symbolic representation, and can't cut through to the thing itself. It is the Word that makes us so powerful, and that prevents us from seeing the actuality that the Word represents.
    The above quote is from:

    A Reader's Journal, By Bobby Matherne

    You can read all of my retirement related posts at:

    Wednesday, November 10, 2010

    In Praise of Nordic Walking Poles

    I have had my Nordic Walking Poles for week now and have not used them until tonight. Fantastic! My knees and back are shot, complete and total junk, and while I can get around, walking certainly is no pleasure.

    I left work in time to go to a small park nearby. While walking through the parking lot at work I was thinking to myself, this is crazy, my knees are killing me, what the hell do I want to go walking for? I had spent most of the day on my feet on the concrete shop floor. The trip to the car after work was painful. Well I decided to go and try it. What the hell, if my knees and back hurt I could always quit. I drove home got the poles and my walking spikes and headed off to the park.

    One small step for mankind, one huge step for a couch potato! I walked! I enjoyed it. I walked fast. I am not using the poles right, but I ACTUALLY WALKED WITH LITTLE PAIN IN MY KNEES AND BACK! It was fantastic! This is the first time that I have enjoyed walking in a long long time!

    The sky was deep colbalt blue in the deepening twilight and there was a sliver of a very young moon out. The air was clear and pleasantly cool. I crunched through the fall leaves along a wide rushing creek. It was fantastic, like being young again...almost.

    I started sweating! My decrepit knees were moving well enough, that I was getting an aerobic workout! It does not take much at this point, and I have to watch not to over do it until I get conditioned, but this is first time in a very long time where I had to slow down for my heart and lung capacity. Usually I can't walk fast enough due to pain to worry about my heart and lungs. The poles are just wonderful. I climbed about 50 feet up a very steep hill. Did great going up. Coming down was a little shaky at first until I figured how to take small steps and keep the poles positioned in front of me. I would have not attempted this steep hill with out the poles.

    I am not sure how far I walked, but I was out for an hour and moving the whole time! I did have to slow down, but again it was for heart not the the knees. Sitting here writing this, I notice my arms are a bit stiff, but knees and back are no worse than if I had stayed at home. I am tired, pleasantly I went out and did something useful. It is a great feeling.

    Sure some of this is the novelty of it, but pain is pain, and I walked today with those poles in a fashion that I have not for quite some time. It was like being let out of a prison!

    I had never heard of Nordic Walking Poles until the Old Baguette mentioned them in her blog. Thank you, my dear for introducing me to something that just may turn my life around.

    It was certainly good to get outside and take a relatively painlessly walk again. The poles are like having four wheel drive. Again thank you Old Baguette!

    EDIT 11-26-10 Old Baguette, it seems as though some one likes our blog entries:

    Nordic Walking USA

    An unidentified male from Pittsburgh.

    Sunday, November 7, 2010


    About 4 years ago I was on one of my many business trips to Augusta, Georgia. I was working a 12 hour shift at night and had taken up walking along the tow path for the old Augusta Canal after work in the cool early morning hours for exercise. This had been a renewal effort after a long run of ever increasing inactivity. I was starting to feel good again. While I couldn’t maintain my old speeds of better than 4 mph, I was comfortably doing 3 ½ mph and gradually improving. The Augusta Canal is a wonderful place to walk. It is flat, well maintained, and the upper part is wooded. So it offers shade and a beautiful walk. I enjoyed my morning walks and the exercise was making me feel younger, a little more vibrant, a little less like the old man that I was evolving into.

    The Augusta Canal was built in 1845 to provide a water transportation path around the rapids on the Savannah River and to provide water power for mills in the city. During the Civil War the Confederacy built a large gun powder works along the canal. The canal was expanded in 1875 to provide more water for the various mills. Eventually in the 20th century, the mills closed and the need for the canal diminished. Georgia created the Augusta Canal Authority in the mid-1980s to develop recreational usage and preserve the historical aspects of the canal and in 1996 Congress designated the canal as a National Heritage Area. You can read more about the Canal and its history at the Augusta Canal website.

    The Augusta Canal website has a map which you can see here:


    One curiosity with this map is that is has no compass rose. Which way is north? Up is not north on this map. You need to rotate the map about 60 degrees clockwise to get north facing up. When properly oriented I-20 will run south west to north east instead of south to north as the map shows now.

    My canal walks had two different starting points. Driving out Evans To Locks Road, I could park at the head gates (area marked #1 on the map and inset) on the northwest end that feeds the canal from the Savannah River and walk south east to the 2 mile marker and return for a four mile walk. Or I could park at the ball field at Eisenhower Park (area marked #2 on the map and inset) and walk north west to the 2 mile marker for a 3 mile walk or go to the 1 ½ mile marker for a four mile walk.

    The particular walk that I am relating was on a Saturday morning. Due to a problem with our test, I had been late leaving work and the day was starting to heat up already. Being late and with the heat, I decided to just walk the 3 miles so I parked at Eisenhower Park and walked north west from the water company to the 2 mile marker, just a little beyond Interstate 20. Being a Saturday the path had far more walkers than usual. As I approached the 2 mile marker, three young women were coming from the opposite direction doing that speed walking stuff, where one walks like an ostrich and punches with their fists reminiscent of the drive rods on a steam locomotive. It is a geeky looking walk but extremely demanding. The women were in their mid 20s. They obviously enjoyed each other’s company and were, how shall I put this, a bit irritating with their bravado. They were a bit too loud and exuded a yuppie arrogance that I found grating. Reaching the 2 mile marker they cheered and started to punch the air vertically above their heads like some damned NFL player that just carried the ball into the end zone. They then turned around and began walking back to the head gates.

    I was about 50 yards away from the 2 mile marker when they performed this little display of young female hubris, and I thought to myself “the old man is going to pass up this pack of arrogant young female punks!” I will pour on the coal, pass them up and turn around at the 1 ½ mile marker and return for a four mile walk. Well that was the plan.

    So I speed up. I am walking faster than what is comfortable but I have 50 yards to make up. I am starting to breath hard but I am not maxed out. All I have to do is close in that 50 yards and pass them. Hmmm. I am having trouble catching up. So I pour on a little more coal. Now I am uncomfortable. The heat is bothering me and I am breathing real hard. Damn, I think they are slowly pulling away. I seem to have more than 50 yards to make up. Awww, this is bullshit! Damn it. I was walking faster than them when they were in diapers. OK so now I pull out all the stops. I am walking as fast as I can. I can’t run, my back and knees will not tolerate the pounding from even a short run. Besides I am a walker, and damned good walker at that, and I want to pass these arrogant women walking, not running. So I formulate a new plan. I will pass them hopefully appearing to be calm and stop and take picture and let them get by and return to my normal pace. Damn! I still can’t catch them. The 1 ½ mile marker appears. They are still pulling away from me. Damn it, you old fool, try harder. I try but there is no reserve.

    The women disappear around a curve up head. I round the curve a minute later and they are gone. They must be around the next curve. They can’t leave the path, they have the Savannah River on their right and the canal on the left. I walk past the 1 mile marker. I am still going as fast as I can, but I know that I am slowing down. I am breathing as hard as I can and there is something of a wheeze in my breath. It is getting hotter, and I am drenched with sweat. OK, time for a new plan. They will probably slow down in the last half mile for a cool down. I’ll zoom past them, then stop for a picture, let them go by and then collapse on one of the benches that are located in the first half mile. I go wheezing past the ½ mile marker. Still no sight of them. Damn it to hell and back. I keep going as hard as I can but now even if I caught up with them, my sweat drenched wheezing victory would be a parody of my original intentions. I round another bend to a fairly long straight view of the head gates and the zero mile marker. They are gone, probably in their air conditioned cars half way home to a shower and a cool refreshing drink.

    I slow my pace and walk to the head gates. I have long since sweated out my slurp of pre walk Gator Aid. It is getting damned hot, I had worked 13 hours through the night, and drove almost and hour each way to get to and from work. My knees hurt like hell, but not as bad as my back. I am thirsty, extremely thirsty, and my car is 3.5 miles down the canal and probably another quarter mile to the parking lot. You simple minded old bastard, what in the hell is wrong with you?

    I walk back at an abysmally slow pace. I was defeated by three women that didn’t even know that we were in a race. They were 50 yards away from me when they turned around, they had no idea that I was chasing them in some macho bit of old man foolishness. They never looked back and saw me. They were not even trying. They were just taking their Saturday morning walk and enjoying themselves in a spirited manner. In my defeat I start the usual excuses. Hell, they are half your age. They are obviously fit. You did OK for a 57 year old guy. They are almost young enough to be your grand daughters. Can you think of anyone else your age that would have blasted 3.5 miles in this heat?

    By the time I got to my car I was limping from the pain in my knees and back. Limping, hell, I was hobbling. Seven miles was overdoing it. I collapsed in the car, with the air conditioning on full blast, and drank a bottle of pee warm Gator Aid which was not helped by the yellow shade of the sort of lemon-lime flavor.

    So why did I chase these women? I had no intention of saying anything, staring, or making any kind of trouble. All I wanted to do was pass them, and pass them as though it were effortless. Their minor display of bravado had irritated me, yes, but it was not worth this. When it was obvious that I was not going to catch them, why did I persist? At the two mile marker, I was sure that I could catch up to them and pass them. I was always a fast walker. Few people could keep up with me if I decided to pour on the coal. But that was based on old data. I didn’t start walking until my mid 30’s, after my MS attacks. Prior to that I had lived a life of what I called the 4 Cs. Excessive cigars, computers, coffee, and chairs. When I was the same age as those women, I would not have been fool enough to try to chase them, nor would I have been on a walking path in the first place. I knew I was out of shape then. Yet for some reason, I believed that a 57 year old man with multiple sclerosis, bad knees, a bad back, somewhat overweight, was going to pass them up and show them a thing or two. Why?

    Some of it was generational. They were half my age. Some of it was social, they were rowdy and loud (not really, but in my in mind). Some of it is class. Even though I work as an engineer, I am decidedly blue collar. As I chased them, I imagined these women to be college educated professionals, probably making more 4 years out of college than I make after 30 years. I imagined them getting in their Mercedes—Volvo—Lexus and returning to their McMansions to shower and then meeting again somewhere to have some hoity toity lunch served with an expensive wine, while they discussed the grandly important aspects of their lives a little too loudly. I then imagined the obligatory trip to the mall to buy another pair of shoes whose price would exceed the cost of my wife’s and my entire wardrobe…not that a typical person would call our collection of rags a wardrobe. I then imagined them parting their ways to go have expensive dinners with their Robert Pattinson / Brad Pitt look alike professional husbands and then spending the evening at some swank club thunking more money into a bar bill than I spend on groceries for a month. I thought of them to be young, privileged, arrogant, yuppies born with a gold spoon in their mouth. I imagined myself blasting past their youth, their wealth, their privilege, and their hubris in some sort of grand personal triumph—a private triumph for I would never say anything to them but still a triumph. Chalk one up for old, pot bellied, bald, no fancy college, blue collar guys.

    But why did I really do it? Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why did I make a fool of myself—granted only to myself—no one else had a clue why I was huffing and puffing down that tow path. Testosterone! I was feeling my oats a bit that morning. I thought because I was improving my walking that I was invincible. So there is brass tack number 1. Brass tack number 2? I am ashamed of old tack number 2. It is indeed old…as old as our reptilian brains that sits under the seat of our cerebral cortex. They were women. Women who were being a bit mildly cocky (yes, an intentional use of words) and I wanted to bring them down a peg or two. Had they been three young guys I probably would not have noticed because young guys act like that under the best of circumstances, nor would I have been the least bit tempted to chase them and put them in their place. So yep, it was sexist, and thus the source of my shame.

    I pride myself in not being sexist. I believe in equal opportunity, equal pay, equal everything. I will admit that if I was unconscious in burning building I would prefer a burly man to carry me down the ladder, but if I needed brain surgery I think I would look for woman surgeon…better hand control, no macho I can hack harder than the other guy wiping out hunks of memories or functional skills. Yes I think women should be allowed to be fighter pilots if that is what they want, but I pray that they are not shot down over enemy territory. A little sexism busting through? Regrettably yes, but generally men POWs will not be brutally raped by their captors, and while the notion of body bags are horrific to me, the thought of our nation’s daughters returning in such is just totally unacceptable to me. OK, so all is not equal in my mind.

    Don’t get me wrong. Testosterone has its place. It gives life a little spice, it makes your mind a bit sharper, you feel better, you feel a little sexy. All good things but as the second part of my story will reveal testosterone has it’s down side.

    Back in the idling rental car with the air conditioning blasting at Eisenhower Park, I finished a second pee warm bottle of yellow Gator Aid and finally got collected enough to drive back to my motel. I had to shower and eat yet, and be back at work in 6 and half hours. So across from Augusta National Golf Course (of the Masters fame) I made a right on to Washington Road, a 6 lane monstrosity of traffic lights, businesses, strip malls, and restaurants. I got caught at the first traffic light, the first car in the slow lane.

    Dodge Magnum--Even the same color.
    The rental car company gave me a Dodge Magnum. An odd looking station wagon sharing the same platform as a Chrysler 300. The thing looked like a coffin from the back. Some of these Magnums had the famed Chrysler Hemi V-8 sporting up to 425 horse power—an incredible waste of power for a road vehicle (yes I am showing my age). Several times at gas stations, someone would ask me how I liked my Magnum and was it fast? I would then explain that it was a rental and the tiny V-6 in it was slower than my mini-van.

    So here I am, an old guy, who just had my ass whipped by three women that didn’t even know that they whipped my ass, sitting first car at a red light in the slow lane, with a car that could be misinterpreted to be a muscle car when in fact it was a glorified sissy. A BMW pulls up next to me in the fast lane, young guy in his late 20’s. He starts revving up his engine. Waaaaaaaazzzzzzzziiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnggggghhhhhhh!

    He must of floored it, because seldom have I heard an engine wound so tight. He keeps looking over at me and senselessly revving an engine on a car that was probably worth more than my entire estate. I am watching him out of the corner of my eye. Thirty years ago I may have been enough of a horse’s ass to take him on, but not in this sickly Magnum—not even back then. The term asymmetrical conflict comes to mind. The light turns green and he smokes the tires and makes it to the next red light before I have even got up to 20 mph. I drift into the light and he starts his idiotic revving again, looking over at me, as though I am going to take him on in a drag race with this glorified slug. I ignore him, the light turns green and he smokes the tires again but seemingly more in frustration this time. I intentionally pokey along and allow a few cars to get ahead of me for the next light. I remember of thinking, what an idiot…wanting to drag race on a busy road like this. How dangerous!

    How dangerous indeed, but let’s analyze relative danger. Here is a young guy with good reflexes carrying on in a supremely well designed automobile. Dangerous yes, but was it as dangerous as the stunt I had just pulled on the canal tow path. A 57 year old man, somewhat overweight, two weeks into an exercise program after years of inactivity walking at a maximum rate for two miles in the heat. Was that any less dangerous? Hell no, it was decidedly far more dangerous although limited to only a danger to myself. True I wasn’t going to wipe anyone else out with my antics, but would my untimely passing not effect my family? I was an ass, a far bigger ass than this young guy because I should know better.

    So there it is the dark side of testosterone. The stuff that drives aggressive and hyper-competitive behaviors. The hormone of stupid stunts, hemi engines, bar fights, 160 mph BMWs, and heart attacks and strokes in older men. How many lives has it cost over the eons?

    My little story is somewhat entertaining. I enjoy telling it because I do have something of a self deprecating nature. I also like telling it because it contains an elemental truth about men that I am not particularly proud of, but come far to better understand with this particular incident. Men will do stupid things around women. I wasn’t trying to show off or flirt with these women, I was only trying to defeat them—even if only in my own mind. There was nothing to be gained in this victory. Most of my dislike for the behavior of these women was based on about 30 seconds of silliness—a mock victory at reaching the two mile marker that had nothing to do with me, but which I took to be feminine arrogance. Then in the heat and fatigue during my stupid attempt to bring them down a peg or two, I imagined elaborate scenarios about them that had no basis of facts. I simply allowed myself to go out of control.

    The failed attempt at passing the women was something of a mile post for me. It was the event that announced loud and clear that I had entered a new and different phase in my life--perhaps an asymmetrical phase. When you are very young, a child, there are many things that you can not do, but you have every reason to expect that at some point in your life, you will learn or grow into that ability. You are looking at the world with the optimism of hope for a better future. The damned asymmetry comes from the fact that in the twilight years, you lose abilities that you had and there is no reason to expect that you will ever get them back, only the pessimism of the firm understanding that things will get worse. I thought it would be a piece cake passing these women, when in fact it turned out to be an extremely asymmetrical conflict. I was in a losing struggle for my younger self, and they, completely unaware of my distress, were out for a pleasant walk.

    Oh incidentally, all the brouhaha about the map not being orientated properly to north…that is testosterone as well.

    EDIT 8/21/14:  Are you curious about how testosterone functions in the body?   Here is a cool  website the will explain the hormone, how it works, and some of the problems of low testosterone levels: