Sunday, April 24, 2011

The New Green

There is one week at the beginning of spring when the New Green emerges. The leaves are the brightest green there is. This is the week at my house.

On a somehwat related subject, I gotta love the whole Earth Day thing, now expanded to Earth Week. Perhaps soon we will come to our senses and expand it to ALL YEAR! Now this is not to say that I am the most retentive conservationist in the land. Far from it. But I did grow up with one of the most unnervingly cheap skinflints of all time, my Dad.

I'm not just talking about "CLOSE THE REFRIGERATOR!, TURN THE TV/LIGHTS/WHATEVER OFF!" (apparently the TV was worth 500 watts) although consumption of electricity was at the top of his list. It was the more subtle things. Like saving EVERYTHING, because "you just never know when you'll need it."

A Wheelwright.
Most Probably Not My Great-Grandfather.

I think it came mostly from growing up in the depression and "never having two nickels to rub together", or "a pot to pee in". My Dad was born in Philadelphia in 1927, an only child. His father was a furniture maker in Germany who had his own business and never had to lay anyone off. Before that they were wheelwrights. And after moving to the US in 1925, he was making apple crates for 2 cents each. Welcome to America.

We didn't have air conditioning growing up, but we had a dense canopy of trees. My Dad swore this made it 10-15 degrees cooler in the summer and that was probably true. But he used to hang strips of toilet paper from the doorways so he could monitor the flow of air throughout the house. Summer or winter.

And there were other, more bizarre experiments going on all the time. I recall going to the Izaak Walton League shooting range and raking down the bunkers for waste bullets, later melting them down in the fireplace and casting new ones. So the basic principles of conservation were ingrained in me. My Dad had a saying hanging in his shop:

"Use it up, throw it out. Make it do, or do without."

One Small Corner of my Dad's Actual Shop, that was like 1,500 SF of this.

The entire basement was paneled in 1x12 tongue & grooved knotty pine that was made from the JFK Inaugural Stands. My Dad went down right after inauguration and got like 1 billion board feet of the stuff. Each one was run through 8 operations on the Shop Smith Mark V.

More Machines During the Great Cleansing. Note Handmade Pine Panels.

I had plans to become an architect. Perhaps because our house was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (albeit bought from Sears plans and modified by my Dad), and because I enjoyed watching my parents finish the basement. I wanted to build affordable, energy efficient houses. In high school I built a model home that had a sunken fireplace, recirculating geothermal heat in the cork floors, solar panels and fresnel lenses in the front soffit to melt ice on the walkway, and sustainable materials for the walls and roof. That was 1975.

I never built those houses. But I have managed to finish 3 basements with help from my friends. I know how to work with my hands. I had a Shop Smith once. I bike and walk when I can, save tiny parts and restore bicycles for a hobby. I used to make up bedtime stories for my son about zachwert - the value of things - and of experience.

The point is that we must hand down the stewardship of our environment, the things of value, the truth and beauty in ideas that is the essence of quality - and pay it forward. Do your part to make an impression on the New Green. GO EARTH!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Tortoise and the Hare

When I played little league baseball I used to sleep over at my friend's house a lot in the summer because the games were right up the street. His Dad was a little off-beat, but I have always remembered his parting remarks as he went to his daily toil at the wheel:
"See you later, Danny, I'm going to the race today!"..."What race Dad?"
The human race! Wanna come?"
Ok. Maybe you had to be there. Like 30 times.
My kids love it too. A real knee-slapper.

Who's the Jackwagon now?

So yesterday I "competed" in the 2nd of five 5k races I've signed up for this year. Following increasingly disappointing times (like, since the year 2000), I thought that if I committed to doing all 5 I might even train for them. Hah. I even found a training program called "From Couch to 5k" but so far I've only managed to pick up the pace to the refrigerator and back.

Anyway, it also seemed like a great opportunity to demonstrate my Commitment to Continuous Improvement. My first run gave me just the opportunity that CCI is built on. A REALLY bad baseline. In the face of a howling 45 mph wind on the mighty Potomac, I crushed the first mile and never felt better. Then at the turn I realized: DAMN IT, Jim! I'll be going back in a headwind! I ran sideways to cut down drag. I kept my elbows in to my sides. But despite all my efforts, I had to break down and walk.
More than once.

And then. I was passed by my uber-nemesis: the old guy in the red running uniform. Oh I've been owned by worse - 10 year olds, Moms in strollers, even women whose leggings were set on fire from the friction. That no longer bothers me. It's the geezer. It seems like he's at EVERY race I run. I first saw him in 1998 and he must have been 70 then. I was 40. You could tell he had a lifetime of running behind him already. He even runs with kind of a limp. Probably arthritis. And he CRUSHED me.

"Curse You, Red Baron!"
He's wearing down though. I could see Father Time was starting to win. And that cold windy day I thought "This is the day." I had him. Until the turn.
I started thinking about moving to another state.

Yesterday I set a different goal: Finish without stopping. Pace yourself I said - not having run in over a month. And I was able to accomplish my goal. My time was a little better and I'm able to set a meaningful time to reach next race. Over time I've learned in all the races I've run that going out too quickly means certain death, slow and painful at that.

And then I realized the same principle could be applied to all aspects of life. You have to regulate your pace; find the one that's right for you. And if the race is close, you will likely have some reserve left in the tank. And there's NOTHING more satisfying than overtaking someone at the tape. Even if you're sneaking up on them and they can't hear you over the squeaking wheels of their trailing oxygen tank.

But for some strange reason the Red Baron was not there yesterday. And I no longer curse him. I recognize him as my worthy opponent on the field of battle. And he is probably not aware that I exist.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Be Cool

Spring has sprung in Virginia. And with spring comes new life, baseball, and hope that springs eternal. The grape hyacinths on my sidewalk have emerged to challenge the wild violets for purple supremacy, soon to be rivaled by the lilac and redbud. But for now, the air fills again with adventures to be had.

I remember my Mom telling me at the age of 70 something, that she would look in the mirror and say "What the hell!?!?" (more or less). She still felt like a youthful 17-year old inside. And I knew all too well what she meant.

For there I was, playing the part of the responsible father, husband and provider on the outside, but just below the surface was the irreverent, irresponsible and largely selfish person of my youth. Tink was the first to figure it out, but she has always been amazingly quick on the uptake of important things. Given the chance, all I really wanted was a holiday from life. And once given the chance, there were a lot of data points indicating I didn't want to come back.

Tink remains quite possibly the best thing that I've come across in this life. She stuck with me in these times at her own peril and I am forever indebted. Because I burned from the inside with a seeminlgly unquenchable fire. I lived with an intensity that burned hot. I kept pushing the envelope, but I valued my marriage and the family we were building, and I relied on her to help keep me in check. Now I realize how uncool that was.

I never wanted to reach a core meltdown mind you, but for some reason I was certainly interested to see how many rods could be safely exposed. Work hard and play hard was my motto. Unfortunately the play hard part included a lot of destructive behaviors. When I reflected on this one day a long time ago with my friend Tony he quipped "Yes, she helped keep you under control, like putting a lid on a burning trash can." I recognized this to be a basic truism, complete with a poignant quality assessment that I never really knew how to address.

For I was stubborn and unwilling and I never wanted to admit there were things I couldn't do. Perhaps, I was afraid of losing my intensity. More probably, I was afraid of losing touch with my youth - after all, you can't fly once that happens, right?

Thankfully one day, I woke up and came to understand my limitations. I am no longer interested in throwing more gasoline on the fire. And I learned that the chains I forge in life are the only restraints to flight. I no longer need containment. The fuel is clean. It's sustainable. And the flame is just as bright, but now it'

"Be brave Michael!"..."I shall strive to Wendy"

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The River's Edge

This morning I rode down to Algonkian Park, along the Potomac about a mile from my home. The day was cool, the sky overcast as rain threatened. I stopped along the trail and sat on a bench for some time, just watching the river run by.

As a child I played and swam in one of its tributaries, Seneca Creek. We lived closer to the creek than I live from the river now. We swam in small pools, and caught crayfish and dragonflies along its banks. We rode the rapids and traveled miles on air mattresses.

In winter there was once a section still enough for ice skating, and when it wasn't cold enough there was the abandoned Mill Pond We would sled to the bottom of the hill and the measure of ride quality was how far across the bridge you came to a stop. And on that bridge I proposed marriage.

I grew up along this river. I've swam and fished and waterskied in its soft cool water. I've crossed the river many times at White's Ferry, aboard the General Jubal A. Early. I've spent many happy days at Great Falls Park and along the C&O Canal. My father's ashes are spread nearby.

Today I watched a small flock of geese flying silently upstream, so near the water their wingtips almost touched. An eagle soared above the treetops. As the river rolled quietly by a fish flailed and broke the surface - and was gone. I thought about the life of the fish beneath the surface.

If he stops swimming, he coasts and life is easy. But the current will carry him through the Great Falls. If he survives, he will eventually be carried to the bay, where he cannot survive in the brackish water. So he must swim to survive, even if he wants to stay in the same, comfortable place. Yet the place never really is the same. The current just flows through.

On the way back, I got caught in the rain. And hail. Wet jeans. Hail was accumulating on my balding pate through the holes in my helmet like a frickin snow cone and I was suffering from brain freeze. As I prepared to curse the heavens, I looked up instead and realized how glad I was to be swimming.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Burning Bushes

Once upon a time 3 young scouts set out to have a weekend camping trip in a nearby field. They pitched their tent, played in the stream, made a bridge and got bored. So off they went to the High's Dairy Store to buy gum and candy.

Yes, they dared to walk along that fateful road, having learned nothing from previous experience. Upon their return, they discovered their peaceful campsite ransacked by another tribe of juvenile barbarians. So it goes.

Time came in the afternoon to make the campfire and it just seemed too difficult to dig through the field grass when one member forgot everything he had been taught and came up with the brilliant idea to simply burn through it. But ho. The grass did not burn straight down in a nice small campfire-sized circle. It spread.

The 3 scouts ran like hell to the stream and back many times but could not control the fire. Tent burned, eggs cooked in their shells, dogs and cats living together. Basically - a catastrophe of biblical proportion. And then the sirens came, and the firefighters and the entire field went up in smoke.
So it goes.

The 3 scouts figured death by parents and/or the authorities would surely come next. How could amends ever be made? And to face the troop and have to tell this tale of total incompetence? But the 3 scouts were as brave as they were stupid. They stood their ground and were prepared to meet their maker as the field's owners came forth with the captain of the firefighters. Perhaps, they soiled themselves in anticipation. It wasn't far off. The owner came forward.

"Thank you boys, for burning off the field. We do it every year." So it goes.