Monday, November 15, 2010

Impressions of China, Part 4 of 4

There and Back

I was surprised about the route for the flight to Beijing. I assumed we’d be heading north-west to get to China. That’s the way Sarah’s flights to China have gone. Instead we went pretty much due north, over the northern part of Greenland, over the North Pole, and then south through western Siberia to Beijing. As we approached the North Pole, the ice seemed to go on forever. With global warming, I’m sure there’s less ice than there used to be, but I don’t think you could describe the top of the world as open-water!

We came back the route that I thought we’d use to fly over. We left Beijing about 7:00 PM China time, hit the international date line about 12:00 Midnight (12:00 Noon Eastern Daylight Saving Time) and promptly went back to yesterday. A little before 1:00 AM (China) 1:00 PM (EDST) we hit Alaska and watched a beautiful sunrise. Alas, yesterday only had six hours of daylight. The sun went down as we hit the eastern border of Ohio around 6:00 AM/PM – an hour before we left …yesterday(?)…it boggles the mind!

I said it was an adventure. It was. An adventure in perspective.

Perspective in knowing that the world is a bigger place. Not just intellectual knowing but visceral knowing. There are a lot more people on the planet who are different from us, as Americans, than are the same. There’s a lot more going on in the world than US-centric news.

Perspective in knowing that people are people. The people we met were gracious and caring hosts with the same concerns in life as we have -- family, housing, careers, retirement and future.

Perspective in knowing what an historical infant we are. China’s civilization goes back 5,000 years and encompasses over 20 dynasties -- many which lasted several hundred years. At age 234, the US, in comparison to China, is just getting started. With that perspective, a little thought on issues from the perspective of millennium (versus milliseconds) may bode us well as we seek to perpetuate our young democratic dynasty. With any luck, we'll broaden our time horizon as we deal with the issues of the day. Here’s hoping for a successful first millennium for the infant USA!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Impressions of China, Part 3 of 4


Chinese are builders. I never really thought of them that way, but it was apparent in the three cities we visited. Beijing from the air looks like New York City times ten. It goes on forever! Shanghai must be one of the most modern cities on the planet. It seems to have been almost completely redone over the last twenty years with impressive sky scrapers and beautiful parks. And even Harbin is in a building boom.

But China is a land of contrasts. Some of the older apartment buildings in Beijing and Harbin look like tenements with deteriorating facades. They remind me of the “modern” buildings I saw in East Germany in 1981 – built fast, but not necessarily built well. And I’m not sure that electrical or plumbing codes have caught on universally. Electrical wires seem to be draped low and in random ways across buildings and intersections in parts of Beijing. Even in new construction, the plumbing seems a little delicate. I’m not sure why it won’t handle toilet paper or sure that it’s vented properly.

Finally, the country villages we saw in our travels look to have changed very little over the last several hundred years.

The Environment

From the air, many of the forests appear to have been planted like rows of corn. We did get to visit a forested mountain that didn’t seem that way. Again, it was a study in contrasts.

The path was paved in flagstone, but beside the first 1,000 feet or so were excavated trenches about 6 feet wide and four feet deep, that originated in the latrine. Much of the trail was lined with discarded trash. I don’t think the Chinese have heard about “pack it in, pack it out,” or “leave the camp better than you found it” or “take only memories and leave only footprints.” Littering is not a faux pas in China – there’s always someone, at least in the cities, to pick it up and sweep the streets with ancient looking brooms in the morning.

Once we got up the trail, we noticed a lot of yelling in the mountain. Another Chinese tradition. After climbing (well walking on the stone-paved sidewalk) the mountain for a while we ran into a woman selling drinks and renting hammock time. We saw an unpaved trail that went straight up the mountain that looked inviting. On both sides up this trail were Buddhist payer flags strung in the trees at chest level. They were a smaller version of the plastic flag strings used here to announce sales on used car lots.

The vendor woman warned us not to go up that trail (which was as wide as a one-lane road and straight as a mid-west highway) because we might get lost. We went anyway.

It was interesting that we went off the paved trail and up the mountain while the Chinese stayed on the stone-paved trail. Kind of an east/west metaphor. We were alone on this trail for the rest of the afternoon.

Later that week I read in the China Daily that there had been an increase in rescues over the National Day holiday. Unlike here where rescues involve getting someone out of an avalanche, or off a mountain peak, the Chinese rescues were just helping out people who were lost in the woods. The article encouraged people not to go into the forest without a trained guide.

Finally, as we left Beijing, the air quality was hazardous – the lowest level on China’s five point air quality measurement scale. I don’t remember all the scale descriptors, but I was struck by China Daily reporting that China’s goal was not for the top category, but for the second category -- “Fairly Good.” Seems like low aspirations coming from a place that aspires to clean air and water.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Impressions of China, Part 2 of 4


Chinese people eat better than we do. Less fat, let sugar, less refined foods. Not many baked products. They find things like our cookies too sweet. We think of corn as a vegetable. They put an ear of corn on a stick and eat it like cotton candy. Given the sugar in corn, I think they’re right.

Meals are generally slower than here. Maybe it was my skill level, but I found eating with chop sticks slowed me down enough that I could say “chur bao le” (I’m full) and really mean it. That’s a lot different from my normal mode of inhaling my food while I’m doing something else. And if you know the right places to go (generally a crowded very noisy place), you can eat extremely reasonably.

In Harbin the last night we were there, we picked up the tab for dinner for six. We had six or so dishes to share. The tab? About $12. Big spenders, huh! Of course that was the extreme. Things cost a lot more in Shanghai and Beijing. But the experience of eating out – store-front noodle shop, street vendor, street kitchen, etc. – doesn’t seem to be out of reach for locals.

Finally, the food is pretty good and recognizable – but not like the Chinese food we eat here. For example, rice is usually what you eat when you’re done eating and not always served with the main dishes. It’s used to top off the tank. If you stick to main dishes like chicken and pork, vegetables, you can survive. I must admit, I didn’t try the stinky tofu that was cooked about every ten feet outside in Harbin. I stayed away from the pigs knuckles and donkey meat (at least I think I did), too. And, I never realized how much I appreciated coffee,until I couldn't get it! But all in all, I found the cooking to my liking.

People We Met

In addition to bonding with people in crowded shopping areas, and seeing the 2010 Shanghai Expo with 447,000 close friends, we spent time and shared meals with Chinese friends of Sarah’s and a day with a Chinese tour guide. I can’t say that eleven or so people are representative of the 1.3 billion population but I was surprised by the apparent openness of the folks I met. Our tour guide pointed out the Cultural Revolution’s students destruction of a Ming dynasty’s emperor’s tomb. A graduate economics student, said “he didn’t agree with China’s national leadership” and speculated that China’s economic growth was in a bubble. People didn’t hesitate to ask us about health care or retirement in America or complain about the affordability of housing in the Chinese cities. While we avoided topics such as Tiananmen Square, it felt like a more open society than I expected. The Internet is probably responsible for much of this. The graduate student told us that there are back doors to western media. He’s a fan of the BBC, for example.

The people of the Northeast Forestry University were gracious hosts. In our honor, we had two banquets with faculty and staff of the university, a trip to the mountains with a barbeque, and finally an escort to the tiger park, where Mr. Yang, in spite our protestation, picked up the admission tab. We were treated like celebrities, which made me realize that fame is not what it’s cracked up to be. It’s good to have the freedom anonymity offers. No command appointments, no endless ceremonial toasts and freedom to come and go as you please. We appreciated the events scheduled for us, but it made the “off” time precious.

One thing about the Chinese is that they have pride in their roots. As far as I can tell, things got started over there about 4,000 years ago with the Xia dynasty. It’s quite a contrast with history of Europeans in America that goes back 400 years, but when I tried to make that point to a Chinese, I was quickly told that Chinese civilization goes back 5,000 years.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Impressions of China, Part 1 of 4

Monday night, October 11th, 11:00 PM, after 30 hours of travel, we arrived home from our two-week visit to China. It wasn’t a vacation, it was an adventure. We explored the Forbidden City, climbed the Great Wall, conquered the Shanghai Expo, climbed a mountain (well, half-way), communed with 800 tigers, smelled different smells, ate different food, risked our lives taking taxis and risked our lives again crossing streets. Oh, and we saw a lot of people who didn’t look or talk like us. Here are some things I noticed.


We didn’t drive in China, but we took twenty or thirty cab rides. The challenge for me is that these were small vehicles. My feet fit into the back seat floor well like tight fitting shoes. This made getting in and out of cabs interesting – not quick or pretty.

Speaking of tight fits, we were driven to the tiger park by our hosts at the university. Mr. Yang was certain that his car would fit six. It was a small Chinese-brand SUV (a Great Wall). I was in the front seat and four women were in the back. Let me just say that Mr.Yang didn’t factor in the greater foundation of wisdom of the mature American woman in his occupancy calculations. Four women were wedged into the back seat like my shoes in the cab, but only by alternating two sitting on the seat edge.

The rules of driving in China are that there are no rules. Driving in China means blow your horn constantly, don’t worry about lane markings, stop lights, intersections, pedestrians or other vehicles (including bicycles, scooters, jitneys or fire engines). Never make eye contact with anyone. Driving on sidewalks is fine. If there are four lanes marked, that means six or seven “columns” of vehicles, if you define columns as twisting, weaving, snake-like processions. An exit ramp for a freeway can also be an entrance ramp if you want it to be.

Think about that guy here who weaves in and out of traffic on a busy highway using cars like flags on a down-hill ski course. Now slow down traffic to a couple of miles per hour on a congested (super saturated) highway with everyone using everybody else as flags to mark weaving points and you come close to the picture. Too many cars, too much construction and too many people crossing willy-nilly.

You would think that cars would look like they have all been in demolition derbies, but they don’t. And you would think there would be tremendous road rage, but there isn’t. There must be something outside the normal sensory world to make it all work (if you can call the horrendous grid-lock working).

And how do you cross a street? Don’t! If you must cross, locate an international crossing guard (a local citizen), as my daughter says, and stay as close to him or her as you can as you cross. NEVER play chicken with a driver. You will lose. NEVER assume the driver will stop. He won’t. I saw the fear in the eyes of a local Harbin pedestrian trying to cross the road in front of our (for once) speeding cab. He tried to cross but ultimately retreated, eyes as big as saucers, as our cab barreled through the intersection, speed and direction unabated.

All in all driving in China was a hair-raising experience (unfortunately for me, not literally). You have to trust that your driver wants to survive as much as you do – kind of like when you get on an airplane. I know that I was happy after our last cab drive that we were done with that part of the adventure and had survived.

The irony in all of this is that centrally controlled China looks like anarchy on pavement, while the land of the free looks regimented. I will never complain (well at least for a few weeks) about a good old USA rush hour traffic jam, where everybody just waits patiently in line for things to move.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Just a Number

This time next week, I’ll officially be 60. Officially, I say, because, I’ve mentally been 60 the whole year I’ve chronologically been 59. No use procrastinating.

Turning 60 is no big deal. “It’s just a number,” they say. But if it’s just a number, why do most of the new books on my bookshelf deal with living the “second half of life.” (There’s a euphemism for you.)

And in case the number didn’t get my attention, over the last few months I’ve seen two contemporaries of mine leave the planet. First, a college mate died of a brain tumor, and then, a business associate of my vintage died from complications on what was supposed to be minor surgery. (I don’t think there’s any such thing as minor surgery for the patient, just for the surgeon.)

This phase of life is different and I’m reading to find a roadmap. I don’t have the roadmap but I do see some sign posts.

First, I know that sometime this decade I’ll hang up my day-job spurs. I haven’t figured out if that means I’ll forever end working. There’s something in me that admires the stories of the 90-something attorney or business owner who still goes to work every day. On the other-hand, there’s something in me that tells me that going to work every day is not the purpose of life and these guys just don’t have a clue.

Until recently I’ve been driven in my work. I had a boss tell me when I was 40 that he just didn’t know why I was so driven. I don’t know either. For most of my working life, though, I’ve had clear targets for achievement and contribution. It was important, for some reason, to set and reach these external goals. Through focus, tenacity and luck I did what I set out to do. The question is “so what?” And, “now what?”

Questions like these are sign posts for this stage of life. From reading, I know that the quest is no longer about achievement but about meaning. It’s a nice problem to have, all things being considered.

I recently, read Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, and Martha Beck’s Steering by Starlight. As is my habit, I had a couple of books going simultaneously. This can sometimes get stuff from one book scrambled into the other. Most of the time, this synergy works for me. It can be problematic, though, as when I was simultaneously reading biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Jack Benny. Turns out Lincoln didn’t really spend that much time in Waukegan.

One road marker to meaning is Tolle’s observation that we are not our thoughts or our feelings. We don’t think, our mind thinks us -- similar to the way our lungs breathe us without conscious effort. If we can observe ourselves thinking and feeling, who is it that is doing the observing? Tolle’s contention that is we are the observer.

Both Tolle and Beck then talk about discovering purpose and meaning in life by getting quiet and listening to this inner voice – remembering who you are. Both remind us to be present in the moment. The past is over and the future unknowable. The present moment is the only true reality. I write this because I need this reminder.

Up to now, I’ve thought a lot and thought that thinking is who I am. But, with Tolle’s insight, I can see I’m missing the point. Through thinking, planning and doing, I’m forgetting to be a human being (versus a human doing). Heavy. (As we used to say in the late ‘60s of prior century.)

So what does it all mean as I begin my 7th (yikes!) decade on the planet? I think it means that I’m on a different road, now. I’m off the traffic–clogged fast lane of the super highway and on the slow, scenic, forgotten country road. It’s being present and remembering who you were (and are) before you joined the rush hour commute. That’s the metaphor for this phase of life.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Metaphor For Our Times

I’ve been obsessed with the Gulf oil spill. Maybe because it’s a metaphor for our times – uncontained, a proliferation of problems and a constant stream of bad news.

At some level, my implicit belief is that once the spill is contained and the clean-up started, the collective psychological cloud we’ve been living under will evaporate as well. Spirits will soar, the economy will mend, employers will hire, wars will cease, the sky will turn blue and we’ll all live happily ever after. That’s my dream anyway.

Well, the well is capped, due to be fatally injured by the static kill on Monday, August 2nd, and put to death by the bottom kill on Saturday, August 7th.

Hooray! I feel better.

But even with the well capped and killed, Afghanistan lingers on, North Korea is nuts and unemployment persists. Still, the economy is slowly getting better and, somehow, I think a little good news from the Gulf can only improve the collective humor and instill a degree of optimism about the future.

With a little more good news, we should be able to break out of this economic blue funk and return to our characteristic euphoria. Here’s hoping we do so soon, but this time it’s rational euphoria -- tempered by memory of economic bubbles.

I have a glimmer of hope that things will take a turn for the better in the fall.

And I hope that I’m right.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Adventures in Wood

Here's a look at my my latest adventures in woodworking.

First, an "inside out" vase made out of arariba wood . Notice that it's hollow. What you can't see is there's only a one-inch hole in the top. It's my second attempt at one of these and it almost didn't make it. I was a tad too aggressive with the inside diameter and thought it would blow up on me.

It's not perfect, but it's not bad for a second attempt either. (It's not crooked -- the uncredited photographer was.)

My next adventure was to use my new electric chainsaw to reduce a 3+ foot apple wood tree trunk, imported from Vermont by my son-in-law and daughter, to turning blanks. It was quite a surprise.

I first cut off an interesting burl from the trunk. The surprise was that there was a hollow tube where, I assume, a branch used to be. The branch was long gone but the tree grew around it.

I was still able to get some nice blanks from it. Here are seven of the eight. And the wood was in fine shape. I only had to trim about a half inch off both ends of the log to get to the non-checked portion.

Looks like some nice material for future bowls!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Spewing Oil

Today, the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico will spew another 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of oil into the sea. That’s around 500,000 to 800,000 gallons. And it may get worse before it gets better. It makes me feel bad for refueling my car.

In the 4.6 billion years of the planet, until we came along, no living being could make such a colossal mess of things. And in the brief 250,000 years or so humankind has been around, it’s only been the last 100 that we’ve been able to do such a bang up job of it.

Sure we could wipe out species, cause erosion and pollute air and water -- but not on such a grand scale. Since the early 1900’s we’ve learned how to create global warming, how to destroy the planet with nuclear weapons and now, how to drown it in oil that was safely at rest miles under a mile deep ocean floor. That’s progress.

Part of the problem is that we under-estimate risk until after the fact. We’re wired to be optimistic. We’re just so darn hopeful. But, as my glassblowing partner used to say to me, “hope is not a plan.”

How in the world did we allow deep-ocean drilling without thinking about and preparing for the consequences of things going wrong? It seems crazy in hindsight. It’s certainly taken the wind out of the recent campaign chant, “drill baby drill.”

Even though we’re wired to take risks, we’re also wired to be adaptable. We’re good at fixing things after they’re broken. When the space shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986 because we were playing Russian roulette with o-rings, we took a step back to review and remediate risks. Things went pretty well since then (with the notable exception of The Columbia in 2003 when we again gambled, this time with the integrity of the thermal protection system.)

Can we prevent future oil catastrophes? Can we neutralize global warming? Can we put the nuclear genie back in the bottle? Can we kick the gambling addiction?

Sometimes you have to have hope to start a plan. I hope we’re planning now and hope it’s not too late for this fragile, minuscule marble in space we call home.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I am an Earthling

I was watching Jill Tarter, director of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute's Center for SETI Research, in her 2009 TED talk this morning and it made me realize that when I complete demographic information, for the race question, I should check “other” and write “Earthling.”

Several things led me to this conclusion. First, Astronomer Tarter showed a series of images illustrating the infinitesimal real estate planet Earth represents in the universe. Second, she mentioned that human-kind has only been around for the last couple of hundred thousand years of a 4.56 billion year old planet. And, as she points out, we are neither the purpose of nor the pinnacle of evolving life. We just think we are. (Kind of arrogant isn’t it – especially, to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, since we just got here.) Instead of being the point of evolution, I think we’re just a darn-lucky life form.

The main thing that made me realize that I was an Earthling, though, was not these facts – our minuscule significance in the scheme of space, time and life forms – but the facts in conjunction with a quote cited from President Obama’s inaugural address. I heard it said in the address, but it went by too fast then for me to grasp the significance:

…we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself…

Isn’t it time that we realized how fortunate we are -- how fragile we are? Isn't it time for all Earthlings to unite and perpetuate life in harmony with the universe of which we are part and parcel. Better that than to go the way of planet Krypton.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Now that I’m a certified MBTI practitioner, I’m hungry for deeper knowledge about type theory. So, consistent with my type preference, I threw myself into the task --reading one book on the topic Sunday and starting another one Monday night. Eventually, I had to go to bed, though, without finishing the book. So, I got up at 4:00 AM the next morning and finished it.

I had just finished the book when Marcia woke up. I greeted her with a question. “This is the 30th isn’t it?” True to my “N” preference, I’m not keen on details.

“Yes it is,” she said.

“OK, then, happy 36th anniversary. I just found out we’re not compatible.”

Consistent with her “S” preference she simply asked, “Who gets the house?”

In Gifts Differing, Isabel Myers cites that 77% of married couples were alike on two or more preferences. Marcia and I would be in the 23% minority of couples with one or no preference alike.

This explains a lot – especially about our conversations. For example, true to my type, when I’m telling a story, I’m metaphorical and exaggerate in service of making the point. True to Marcia’s type, I can only get a couple of sentences in before we have to verify facts.

Funny it took 40 years to figure this out.

So, even though we're incompatible, I don’t think either of us will be moving out anytime soon. We’ll just be a little more enlightened for the next 40 years together.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Civilization and Freedom

We’ve come a long way in the last 500 years since Columbus arrived. Then the height of civilization was about eating – not just having enough to eat but avoiding being eaten. And not just avoiding being dinner for Caribbean natives but, back at home in lean harvest years, avoiding being dinner for hungry Spanish farmers. (Can you tell I’ve just finished reading a book about Columbus’ voyages?)

Now the height of civilization is about access to health care. The US is Johnny come lately to this advance in civilization compared to the rest of the industrialized world. Nobody now seems to disagree that it’s important for a society to provide health care for its citizens. It’s just that we don’t want to pay for it.

Sunday night Marcia and I stayed up to watch the circus of the House of Representatives pass the bill that will lead to health care for virtually all US citizens in 2014. Only those who elect not to be covered and illegal immigrants will be excluded.

Will it cost more? Probably. And in distributing this cost, oxen will be gored. But in the long run, it’s the right thing to do -- for civilization and for freedom.

Ironically, mandated health insurance gives us freedom. Career and life decisions now frequently rest on the availability of health insurance. People are incarcerated in professions, jobs and firms due to the availability of health insurance where they are and the absence of it where they want to be.

When we were building our house, one partner of a two-man timber framing firm left the partnership and returned to a prior profession and employer because he needed health insurance. How many couples have a spouse working just for the health insurance? How many people continue work beyond the point of productivity or job satisfaction just for access to health insurance? Worse, how many people just starting out in life and career play Russian roulette by not purchasing health insurance in the mistaken belief that they don’t need it?

Early in my career as an HR professional, I saw an individual exceed the one million dollar lifetime maximum coverage and, absent the benevolence of the company, subject to financial ruin. It’s not as hard to do as you may think. I’ve seen at least one HR director lose her job because the health insurance plan exceeded the budget. I’ve seen health insurance plans cost go up more than 100% in a single year (based on a few high claims). I’ve struggled with the on-going shell game of shifting cost to employees, providers and other employers in an effort to preserve medical coverage for employees in the face of spiraling costs.

So, I celebrate the passage of the health care bill. I believe, as we avoid emergency room medicine, as we focus on prevention, as we have universal access to care, medical cost will stabilize – maybe not for everyone but for society as a whole. And the freedom from making life decisions based on the availability of health insurance coverage will pay big dividends through fostering entrepreneurship, creativity and, in general, a better quality of life for 30 or 40 million people.

Welcome to the next step in civilization, America. Welcome to health care freedom. Maybe 500 years from now, the notion of holes in the availability health care, will be as primitive and uncivilized as is the notion of cannibalism for us today.

Let’s hope so.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Now I get it...

According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), I am now “near elderly.” Up to now, I was, perhaps, maturing, but still in my prime. Middle aged. Ok, maybe late middle aged, but still in the middle of the pack.

To add insult to injury, EBRI says not only am I near elderly, but at 59 and a half, I’m smack dab in the middle of the 55 – 64 near elderly age group. Not middle aged but mid-near elderly. As Chester A. Riley says, “What a revoltin’ development this is!”

This explains why people keep asking me if I’m retired. Even though the percentage of civilian noninstitutionalized Americans age 55 plus in the workforce is growing since 1975, only 39.4% are still slogging it out. Since this number includes elderly and near elderly, I'm sure the percentage is higher for my fellow near elderly and declines with every year of elderhood. Still, if you’re making the daily commute, unlike 60% of your new buddies, you kind of stick out. More so each year.

Up to now, I’ve never liked the term “Baby Boomer.” But compared to “Civilian Noninstitutionalized Near Elderly,” Baby Boomer is a term of art.

So there goes middle age. Not with a whimper but a bang. I have to admit that I’m a Civilian Noninstitutionalized Near Elderly Baby Boomer. A CNNEBB. Kind grows on you, doesn’t it?

Oh well, at least when I leave the Whippersnapperdom of near elderly and join the real elderly at age 65, I will have had notice. Thank you EBRI and, the likely, Gen Y culprits who came up with this great name. May you all see your near elderly years.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Certain Age

I’ve noticed that when you get to be a certain age, around 55 for me, people start asking you interesting questions.

When I changed employers at that age and let people in my network know my new contact information, one of my contacts asked, “So, is this a real job or are you just coasting to retirement.” Later, after moving to a new job at age 57, one of my former colleagues found me on LinkedIn. His comment, “I thought you’d be retired by now.” Or dead! Last weekend celebrating Chinese New Year with friends of friends (who are retired), I was asked, “So, are you retired?” It’s not the first time I’ve been asked that over the last couple of years.

Sometimes the question comes because we’re hanging around people who are retired or are contemplating retirement in the near future. Sometimes the question comes because Marcia has decided to retire this year. But sometimes the question must arise because I look like I should be retired.

A friend at church was telling me about some experiences with Exploritas – the new name for Elderhostel. When I asked the age for participation (because every time I’ve asked about a senior citizen discount since turning 50, it’s always my current age plus five years), the reply was, “Don’t worry, you’re old enough.” The next step will be for people to start telling me how good I look. Then I’ll know I’m ready for the rest home.

For most of my adult life, I’ve had a drive to work. When, at age 55, the company I was working for was sold, I wasn’t ready to retire – not just financially, but psychologically. I was ready for the next big thing. Like for most my adult life, work was still central. No more.

Although, I’m still not ready to hang up my spurs, lately the concept of working for a living seems surreal. Other than to provide a living, just why do we do work anyway? Why is it so darn important? And why do we (well, why do I), from time to time, get caught up in the exaggerated importance and drama of it all?

Don’t get me wrong, in these economic times, I’m grateful for employment. And I still enjoy what I’m doing for which I’m also grateful. It’s just that work is no longer central.

I’m still not ready to graduate from the employment world – psychologically or financially – so my plan is not to contemplate these questions too deeply for the next seven years. But I can see a transition happening. I can see work become a means to an end versus the end itself it’s been for me until recently. I can see the possibility of meaning beyond meaningful work. And I’m surprised by all of this.

Interesting how we change, isn’t it!

Monday, February 15, 2010

If you don't look too closely...

...these look fine. Here are the finished ten end-grain cutting boards. The one at the top and the one at the bottom you've seen before. They are number one and two, respectively. The ones in the middle are from the batch process when I did eight at once.

Here's a closer (but not too close) look at the family starting from the bottom of the above photo and working toward the top.

As I was making the second round of cuts after the final glue-up, a bearing on my table saw froze and made it go hay-wire. This left saw marks on the final cuts, which attracted glue. The plan was to sand it all away to perfection.

Little did I know how hard it is to sand glue and saw marks off end-grain wood. After six hours of sanding the batch of eight, I threw in the towel. The result was some glue, saw marks and sanding marks on this batch.

I like the resulting patterns and wood combinations -- various combinations of purple heart, rock maple, cherry, sapele and two expensive strips ($24 worth) of asian pear. But close inspection will tell that they were human-made -- by a less than perfect member of the species.

Oh, well they should last a long time, and as they are used and re-sanded (by someone else!), they will just get better.

That's my story, anyway, and I'm sticking to it.

Now, I'm out of the wood business until the back-ordered table saw parts come. I'm ready for a break!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Great Moments In Communication

When there's an historic advance in communications technology, frequently, memorable words are said. For example, not far from here in 1844 the first telegraph message was sent. The message? "What hath God wrought?"

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell, sent his first telephone message. "Watson, come here, I want you." Not profound, but memorable.

Recently, my wife signed up for Skype. I already had it on my machine. We each have a study at opposite ends of the house, so this offered us a breakthrough in communication technology over our current technology of yelling.

With the eyes of history and the burden of memorable words upon me, I answered the first room to room Skype call in my house. My words? "Hey this is neat...bring me a beer!"


As I said, there's probably more glue than wood in these cutting boards. To see what I mean, here's board #7 in its second (final) glue-up.

It's pretty messy business, but I've gotten a lot neater at it with practice.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

End Grain Cutting Board, Continued

With a big snow storm coming our way, most people run to the store for a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread. I did a store run myself today, not for milk and bread, but for for five gallons of kerosene and a gallon of glue. The kerosene's to fuel my wood shop space heater. The glue's to keep my cutting board production line going. Here's completed number two:

And here's number three in it's first glue up. As you can see by the film on the wood, there's almost as much glue as wood in these things.

Here's number four -- glued up last night:

Here's number five glued up tonight.

Here are six through ten, awaiting clamps to be freed.

It took about 33 board feet of lumber for these ten boards and will probably take a quart of glue. It also produced a lot of expensive sawdust to mill the lumber to spec -- enough to fill a 45 gallon trash bag. And that doesn't even include the sawdust I inhaled!

Monday, January 25, 2010

End Grain Cutting Board

Until two weeks ago, I had no clue that there are different types of cutting boards. The topic just never came up in daily conversation. That all changed a couple of Saturdays ago.

I’ve been thinking about what kind of woodworking project to take on next. Something a little – well, a lot -- less ambitious than the grandfather clock I finished last summer. Something that wouldn’t be more stressful than the day job! So, when one of my fellow woodworkers at the Howard County Woodworking Guild talked during the show and tell part of the program about the end-grain cutting boards he had been making, I was intrigued.

I was too far away to see the actual cutting board and didn’t get to talk to him after the program, so I had to rely on my old friend the Internet to get up to speed. (Funny to think of the Internet as an “old” friend, isn’t it?) I found a site that was most helpful – the Wood Whisperer. Videos #7 part 1 and #7 part 2 explain it all:

Besides telling you how to make one, the Wood Whisperer explained why end grain cutting boards are so much easier on knife edges than flat grain boards. Who would have ever thought that you’d make a project which featured the end grain of wood! On purpose!

Armed with knowledge, the following Saturday I set off to my friendly wood supplier, FreeState Timbers ( to buy some purple heart and rock maple. (I also let him sell me a hunk of Jatobe he had in the scrap pile.) By the next Saturday, I was done. That's the prototype in the picture above.

And, who knows, for once I may even move beyond prototype to make another one! (Pretty likely since I’ve already got the glue-up seasoning in the laundry room.)

Sunday, January 24, 2010


The recent earthquake in Haiti is tragic, to put it mildly. But as America responds, as people give, as our government mobilizes to help, it reminds me of how proud and grateful I can be to be an American. It’s my country at its best – competent and generous.

But my pride in my country is tempered by the ignorance of some like Pat Robertson who say Haiti has been “cursed” by a “pact to the devil.” It’s tempered by the ignorance of some like Rush Limbaugh who encouraged his listeners not to contribute to rescue efforts because they may enhance the President’s political position (ironically, using the disaster to “enhance” his personal fame.)

Maybe there are always lunatics like this in America. Maybe the myth of America as a country that unites in times of trouble is just that – a myth. But somehow, having seen times when the country comes together in times like these, in spite of the lunatic fringe, I can still believe in the myth. I can still be proud of my country at its best.

My hope for the future is more of the best and less of the lunatics.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

For Fun

Marcia's been cleaning out her computer files. Here's something she found from the time we shared one PC.

Written: December 14, 2003

For fun, I sing in a barbershop quartet. I love the harmony and who could beat the camaraderie of four guys getting together to sing, entertain others and forget the worries of their day jobs. That’s what you’d think.

Along with the singing comes interpersonal relations. As a VP of Human Resources, that is my day job. But I think quartet interpersonal dynamics are harder than work.

A quartet is like a marriage except with four people – we’ll really eight if you count the spouses, which you have to. There’s a formula for the geometric increase in paired relationships that gives a glimmer as to the complexity of these dynamics. It’s n*(n-1). So with two people, the number of possible interactions is simply two. With four people the number increases geometrically to 12. And with eight people to 56! But this really understates the problem.

A quartet forming is like the most complex mating ritual you’d ever see on the nature channel. First, someone stands next to you at chorus rehearsals and checks you out. This is not subtle; you know what’s going on. Next a couple of guys approach you and say, “Hey, let’s get together and sing some tomorrow night at my place. No pressure, no obligation, no commitment, let’s just sing a few for fun.” They know it’s an audition and you know it’s an audition. But neither of you let on you know or that you know that they know.

If you get past the non-audition, audition, then the fun really starts as you work out rehearsal times, agree on music to learn, agree on whether or not to compete and how many and what kind of gigs to do. There’s more time spent talking about clothes than any heterosexual male should ever spend on the topic. There are shoes to buy, outfits to match and even makeup and personal lipstick (for the stage, of course). I never thought I’d hear myself say, “Wait a minute, I have to go into the men’s room and touch up my lipstick.” And I now own more shoes than I ever have in my life.

If all this sounds like an episode of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” it feels like it too. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” as the famous Seinfeld episode goes. (And even though I’m a committed heterosexual, I really do believe that there’s not anything wrong with that.)

Well as the song goes, “breaking up is hard to do.” Try that with eight egos and 56 potential interactions. Why do quartets break up? Sometimes it the interpersonal stuff, but at the bottom line, like couple in a relationship for the sex, quarteters are in it for the music. If one guy can’t blend, signs out of tune, or sings the wrong notes, eventually, he gets voted off the island.

When this happens, it’s traumatic. The first time it happened in my quartet, the rejectee and, the rejecter spokesman, had an ugly altercation in the parking lot of the church where the chorus rehearses. The result was that a 50-year old man got in his car and laid rubber getting out of the parking lot. In the discussion, it became clear that the spokesman was also casting aspersions on a second quartet member. Wham, more rubber and an instant duet from what had minutes before been a quartet.

The second guy came back, we found a new fourth and sang happily (well not all the time) for two years. Then last week, another vote. Although there was no rubber being laid in any parking lot, it was not a peaceful parting of the way. Much stomach lining was consumed over the last week by quartet members and quartet members’ spouses.

So now we're a trio. But you can’t do four-part harmony with three guys (Lord, I wish you could). So we’re again beginning the ritual mating dance. This time, when we find the right guy, we’ll try to negotiate a prenupt. Meanwhile, for fun, I think I’ll spend more time at my day job. The interpersonal dynamics are a lot easier.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


In the quiet of the holidays, I rediscovered a link to TED. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. It’s a forum for wisdom and creativity. I was able to listen to several speakers conveying life’s hard-won wisdom.

From John Wooten, I (re)learned the definition of success, taught to him at his father’s knee sometime in the early 1900’s. Success for him is living your potential. Being the best that you can be, as the Marines say. Life is not a competition with anyone else, but a game of one.

From Dan Pink, I (re)learned that motivation comes from intrinsic not extrinsic rewards. Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose trump monetary incentives for all but the simplest mechanical tasks.

From Steve Jobs I (re)learned the role of passion as a muse and the certainty of our demise as a teacher. He also observed the importance of keeping faith that current challenges, opportunities and actions will all make sense someday. Only by looking back can we connect the dots. Steve is truly an over-achiever. Not many people will get the results he did from this timeless wisdom. But that’s not the point. We can all seek to achieve our potential.

I can’t do justice to the wisdom of the speakers and the examples from their lives that breathe life into their words. You’ll have to experience this for yourself. And I’ll have to remember to come back to learn and relearn -- even when times aren’t so quiet.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

History as Fable

What is history but a fable agreed upon? Napoleon Bonaparte

In his story, Ike’s Decision, in the Winter 2010 edition of America Heritage, Michael Korda says that we see the success of the D-Day invasion as “natural and foreordained.” It was not necessarily so.

History’s that way. Once we know the outcome, it’s hard to see how things could have turned out any other way. We think of history as a straight-line progression of unfolding events -- like reading a book.

The truth is history is not a linear projection. Outcomes and events build on each other but with infinite inflection points:

• What if Washington had lost at Yorktown?
• What if Lee had prevailed at Gettysburg?
• What if D-Day had failed?

Each of these potentially probable outcomes, and a plethora of others like them, would have resulted in a different chain of events than the ones we’ve come to know and view with such certainty.

We hold onto certainty as if it were reality, but it’s not. Events, turning points and outcomes are not pre-ordained and, while they may be driven by some person’s or persons’ focus and determination, turn on unexpected, random, circumstances and actions.

Intellectually, we know this. Emotionally we don’t. The question is what random events now happening will our successors see as “natural and foreordained?” How will the fable of our times be told?