Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Eve and Cats

Happy New Year
You'll have one - or not -  whether I want you to or not.  It's not up to me.  I issue that more as a non-denominational prayer on your behalf than as a command, but if making it a command gives you some kind of intellectual permission to have a happy new year, then take it as such and get cracking.

We only think about it being a new year because we keep track of time.  We watch seconds, minutes, hours become days, weeks, and ultimately a year.  None of it really breaks down correctly though.

There's 365.2564 days in a year.  That's after some rounding.  That's a really inconvenient number.  To make up for it, we add a day every four years.  That gets us close to right...but.  That .0064 left over starts to become an issue, so in a year divisible by 100, we don't have a leap year.  "But wait!" says you.  "2000 was a leap year!"  Correct.  Because in a year divisible by 400, the previous rule is skipped and we do have a leap year.  It all comes out in the wash, of course.

Interesting but not really a big deal.  Before the advent of personal timekeeping devices, people didn't have to be any more punctual than "before lunch" or "before dinner."  They lived their lives by the length of the daylight.  I recently read a fascinating book called Artificial Sunshine that explored the history of domestic and commercial lighting, really interesting stuff.  You could break the family budget trying to stay up late during the winter.

So more about the New Year.  Since we have to have a new calendar, we call it a new year.  Is it really new?  Not by any means.  People will continue to fight wars and make love, have babies and die.  Just like last year.  Only the names will change, a few of the details will be different, many will be much the same.  The only one that really changes and has a significant effect on us, the everyday people, is the date we write on checks.

I sit at this conglomeration of electronic bits and spring-loaded switches (that's the keyboard) and have to reach way forward over the cat.  She sits on me, grumble-grumbles when I shift and digs in if I move too much.  It's a love-hate relationship.  I love cats and their "Go to hell" attitude.   But I hate the fact that she stays put, obligating me to not cause her any discomfort.  It's a little ridiculous.  She's lounging luxuriously but my legs are going to sleep and my back is creaking and stiff. But the cat's independent nature is appealing just the same.

"Come here, kitty," you say.
"Not likely," responds the cat.  If you're lucky.  She might be rude and say something unprintable.

Let's be real, if she says anything I'll be printing it in large letters, and calling the papers.

Focus!  Back on point.  Okay.  But the resentful independence is coupled with a deliberate preference, too.  You might make demands and the cat resists, but when she chooses she comes to you.  And if she tends to choose to come to you and be with you, you can't help but feel a little honored.  This animal won't do as I ask, but when given her preference, she chooses me.  That means I'm wanted, wanted by someone who is really quite stubborn and picky.  Okay, it's a little backwards but I can accept that.

That doesn't mean I don't get tired of being stiff and sore-backed reaching all the way to the keyboard over her.  "Get off!"

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Upon Finding

So what's up with the name?  "Upon Finding," what's the message there?

Well, some of you may or may not know that I like to write.  Really, seriously, enjoy it.  Some of what I write is in my opinion pretty good, some is not too bad, and a fair portion is just rambling.  That last bit I delete.

I like to write stories, but stories are difficult.  It's a job to conceive a story that has a plot, characters, development and ultimately some kind of conclusion.  The development part isn't too hard but the conclusion can sometimes leave me just baffled.  What had I been planning for these people?  Lord knows.  It all got lost.

So I had had an incompletely formed idea for a story, the idea never got completely fleshed out but the idea for what I would call it stuck with me: "Upon Finding."  It reverberated in my head, like the perfectly pitched hum that you can make that just feels right, makes your teeth buzz and your vision blur: reverberated.  What did it mean?  How did it relate to this story idea or that set of characters?  When it all boiled down, it didn't.  It's a name.

But - and right here is the moment I'm going to describe - it did continue to resonate with life in general.  You wander into a situation with a set of preconceived notions, suppositions and unfounded impressions, which are all promptly held up against the template of reality and subsequently altered, improved, or discarded.  You have changed your mind upon finding out how wrong you were.  You have chosen a new course upon finding you weren't headed where you really wanted to go.

Upon Finding is the "Aha!" moment of day-to-day life.  Not just the Aha of correcting missteps, but also the Aha of "wow, look at how amazing these crocuses look against the snow" and "it's been three weeks since I last gnawed my nails, look how great they look."  Upon Finding is sliding a finger under the blinkers of habit and getting a glimpse of something beyond what you usually spend so much time - and so little thought - staring at.

So there I was, tearing at my beard because there's not enough hair on my scalp to tear out, painfully grinding the gears of my brain trying to wrestle something to life to go with this great name!  This title that for some reason wouldn't go away.  But nothing worked.  It didn't really suggest an episode, a life, a conflict.  It suggests a comma.

That's right.  A comma.  Just the briefest pause where a moment's thought becomes realization.  Realization becomes the formation of new suppositions, impressions and notions, hopefully ones more in line with reality, more attuned to the people and actions at hand.

I am in a constant state of reevaluation, of reexamining how I am aligned with the world around me - not whether I'm lined up with magnetic north (at this moment, about north-by-northwest) but if I am interacting with people the way I want to.  I'm not terribly outgoing (in my judgment), not gregarious, not a "joiner."  In fact, sitting down and producing this with the specific intent of putting it out there for anyone to see is about as gregarious a thing as I have ever done.

Today was a good day.  There are some days I don't think I'm really worth what I'm paid, for instance...and then on the way home I got a call that there was no hot water in one of the buildings I tend.  Turned around, diagnosed the problem and found that it was an unrepairable part.  But Aha!  I have a dead part similar to this left over from a previous repair - and it's broken the other way.  Pull the good from that one, attach to the good from this one, and the hot water is back in action 


and maybe  I am worth something after all.  Upon finding that I have knowledge others don't, skills others don't, a willingness to dig in and keep going, it's okay to be paid for what I do.  So really, "Upon Finding" couldn't be any story I could write.  I can only tell it to you as I live it.  It's about me, you, and that "fifth note" of a good barbershop quartet, us.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Players, and Pizza

From time to time I'll start talking about people I care about.  I choose not to name any of them, for the sake of their privacy.  I have Son #1, Son #2, and Sweetie.  These are my immediate family.  There's also the In-Laws, who live locally, and Mumndad, my own parents who live out of state.  That's about as specific as I care to get at this time.  When "privacy" is an evening news buzzword, I'll not be the one that abbreviates anybody else's.

Now that that's done, here's tonight's menu at Leifer's house: pizza.  Sweetie just got done hauling a couple of really excellent pies out of the oven, and I've been looking forward to them all day.

Why tell you?  Simple: pizza is one of those things you can eat every day* and not get tired of it.  Breakfast?  There's a pizza for that.  Lunch, dinner, etc.

Not up for the same old thing every night?  Try a Greek pizza.  Add in some feta, use lamb instead of sausage.  Yowzah.  Totally veggie pizza, chicken pizza, Tex-Mex.  There's so many options the mind boggles.

Tonight's pie featured the winnings of a visit to the olive bar at the grocery store.  I love olives.  I luuurves olives.  I didn't used to, and the red pimiento bit in the middle is just gross.  But I've gotten older and my tastes have evolved, and there are olives stuffed with all kinds of things besides pimiento.  Not to mention there's so much more out there than just green or black olives.  So my pizza had some serious olive presence, plus some pickled garlic, plenty of onions.  I've got a big love for onions too, but I'm on pizzas right now.

I think there might have been meat on there, too.  I'm not sure, and frankly not concerned.  A good pizza is just that - a good pizza.  If you enjoyed the experience and there wasn't meat on it, it was already good, right?  Modern American tastes have become very meat-centered, and that's not good for us in general.  God gave us these sharp teeth up front for eating meat, but then He gave you a bunch more flat, sturdy teeth for grinding up plants.  I figure the ratio of meat teeth to plant teeth represents a good, healthy ratio of meat to plants in our own diets.  Your mileage may vary.

Hmm.  That idea bears a little more research, methinks.  I've held it as a rule of thumb but never really looked into it. 

So that's dinner at the Leifer's house.  Sweetie usually makes the crust too, but it was a big day, so we bought a ready-made one this evening instead.  Weigh in in the comments, tell us what makes a fine pizza.

*Please take note!  "Every day" means "this day, then the next day, and the next, etc."  "Everyday" means pedestrian, mundane, the kind of thing you would see every day.  Get it?

Monday, December 27, 2010


I fantasize about building a house from straw bales.  Strawbale construction is still kind of a fringe practice but it's gaining recognition in all regions as proven, reliable technology.  The materials are cheap and construction can  (but don't expect that it will) be less expensive than conventional construction.  If you're going into it, know that you will probably wind up providing a lot of the labor on your own.  And that's okay too - not many people get to say they actually built their own home, as in really built it.

But why the attraction to straw bales?  Insulation.  A typical bale is good for about R-24, the same as two thicknesses of what you'd find in  a typical frame wall.  That's pretty good, and undoubtedly better than what's in my own walls.  So I'd draw floor plans based on straw bales: a large rectangle or square, with a somewhat smaller shape inside it - the difference between the outside and inside walls.

But that was before I heard about the new Big Square Balers.  You're familiar with the modern round bales, the 900-1800lb cylinders of hay that dot the countrysides.  They're convenient for the machine to make, but that's where the convenience ends.  They don't stack well, don't handle well, and waste precious space if you try to store them under cover.  Curves vs. corners.  Big Square Balers make, well, Big Square Bales.  I mean, huge.  The bales are about two-and-a-half by three-and-a-half by EIGHT FEET.  A wall of those, three units high, is high enough to live under.  Four units and it's downright luxurious (and cooler in summer).  And when it comes time to move them they stack securely, like the Jolly Green Giant's own Legos.

Do a little math and that comes up to a wall rated at about R-60.  If it performs at anything like that level, that's crazy good.  That's turn-off-the-furnace good, waste heat from the refrigerator and TV are sufficient to keep the space comfortable.  Insulate the roof and floor to similar levels, it's like living in a Thermos.  "Heat bill?  What's that?"

Nobody in this area is making those big square bales.  But if they do, I may start shopping for a piece of vacant land to stack a few of them on.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Spies Like Us

"Spies Like Us" was a dreadful Chevy Chase vehicle that featured, fortunately, Dan Aykroyd, Russians, a mobile missile platform and a rock. Chase and Aykroyd were spies. Terrible spies who, somehow, got the job of being spies and by the end of the movie were deciding world policy without consulting the rules very much.

Facebook is asking you for your profile. They're asking you to spy on yourself, to give up information in return for the arbitrary, negligible goods facebook offers. Do you want the Flair "application?" Notice I put application in quotes, but not Flair. Flair is in widely-recognized use in this context and doesn't really need to be set apart, but application usually refers to a piece of software that is productive in nature - a set of instructions that, once in use, will make your computer do something that you needed to get done. But before you can download the Flair application, you have to give Facebook permission to dig into your profile.

Why would I do that? What good is it? And if I want another application, will I have to permit that application to also dig through my profile? Does it hope to find something different there?

The only possible motive I can see for doing this, searching through my profile, is marketing. Targeted marketing works, so a profile that I write about myself is going to allow them to really home in on my interests, advertise exactly the junk I can be convinced I "need" and sell sell sell until I blow every disposable dime on it. Ain't gonna happen, facebook.

There are many ways to subvert this system, and when it comes to systems I do enjoy being subversive. For starters, they don't check facts much. If you give your description as a 98 year old woman with five asthmatic cats and really go out for naked hang gliding, well, facebook kinda just has to go along with that. They don't have much leverage to check that out. So if you checked all those boxes while you are in fact a 24 year old male couch potato with no pets or physical hobbies, you can cheerfully ignore all the peculiar invitations that facebook sends your way. But they're still going to come.

And now that facebook has a hold of these bits of information about me, I can be rewarded for my candor with a Piece of Flair: a button. Not just any button, an imaginary button! It exists here and nowhere else. But to get it, I've surrendered something very real. Even if the reality contains falsehoods I've bartered away my privacy. Not a lot, but a finite part. It's really been traded and is now an open book for facebook. "I sold my privacy and all I got was this lousy pretend button."

I actually entered a few truths on my profile. I really do dig old tractors, and woodworking. Nothing interesting has crossed my screen yet, but I'm sure it's on its way. It'll be here.

When it does, I may take up hang gliding. Or at least that's what facebook will think.

NOTE: the above is a missive I posted on my facebook page about a year ago - maybe longer, I'm not sure.  My opinion toward facebook hasn't changed significantly since then, and neither has facebook's activity.  If you want to fire up one of their so-called "applications," you still have to permit its data-gathering in your profile.  Granted I've since then discovered how to go into my privacy page and disallow all the peeking at my info, but it can't be stopped as long as you're using the application.  So, I don't use them.

That's it from me this evening.  It was a beautiful Christmas with snow on the ground.  Big dinner with family, romping with dogs, bantering with kids.  For your sake, I hope yours was similar.