Friday, June 26, 2009

On Top of the World

Another glimpse of life at Sonlight Camp:

(Also taken on our Tuesday hike to Alberta Peak. Note the subtle advertising for Habitat for Humanity.)


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sonlight Camp

Youth; depth; rest:

Sonlight Camp.

(Photo from a hike to Alberta Peak on the Continental Divide, 23 June.)


Monday, June 22, 2009

In From the Wild

I tell visitors that although she barks up a storm upon their arrival, Sadie is really a harmless dog. Then I find her in the living room one day:

I think that's a yak femur, but I could be wrong. It's been a long time since my biology degree. Where she got one in Harpursville, I don't know. She's tougher and smarter than I thought.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Harvesting Honeydos

Misuse of the word "we" has a long history in the English language. Within popular discourse, it is most frequently identified in "the royal We," as in the Elizabethan "We are not amused." However the abuse of this communal pronoun has trickled down from the aristocracy to the conversation of the commoner. Here's one recent example of this grammar-gone-wrong from our life together. Sara said to me one day, while we stood in our oversized bathroom-slash-laundry room, "We should put up clotheslines in here, so that we can hang our cloth diapers to dry in the winter, and not use so much propane in the dryer."

And by "we should put up clotheslines," she meant "you should put up clotheslines." Where's my seventh-grade English teacher when I need backup?

So I set about the honey-do--for I thought in spite of the pronoun abuse it was a grand idea--to invent a clothesline system that would maximize our use of space in the bathroom.

I reclaimed some hardwood plywood for wall mounts:
I measured the area over our washer and dryer and in front of the boiler. . .
. . . and, because babies go through a lot of diapers, over the sink, too:
I put in the wall mounts, with pegs that will allow us to remove the lines easily:
I measured and drilled the braces that will anchor the lines:
Then I hung the lies on the braces:
And now we're ready to hang dry at any time of year!
Here's less than half a load of baby laundry. These lines will be getting their workout:

Now we're one step more energy efficient; and we don't have to buy drapes for the bathroom.

After finishing "our" project, I have observed that Sara's second use of the first person plural pronoun--"so that we can hang diapers to dry"--was no grammatical error.

Strange that.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Sawyers

A few weeks ago, Krissy (my sister-in-law) came out to visit. Really, she came out to see Gwendolyn, as Sara and I are simply necessary accoutrements to the center-ring attraction of our daughter. But I recruited her to help with some milling; I thought it would increase the value of her time with Gwendolyn, if she had to work for it a little bit.

Recall that we had ten hemlocks and a white pine cut down two months ago; the gentleman who did that work left us with his portable saw mill. Here's how it works:

The beast itself. Notice the engine and saw blade (plus a new sharp one, hanging on the muffler) all mounted on a rolling unit that slides down parallel tracks:

Here's Krissy, the new intrepid sawyer, ready to get to work (even in the 65-degree weather that chilled her Phoenix bones):
Here we are, setting the runners to roll a log onto the mill:
Here Krissy shows her Truberg side, letting the Estonian lumberjack come out as she handles the log roller. I feel like we should have been singing some Baltic lumberjack songs while we worked:
Up and over, being careful not to catch any feet under the massive totem:
And down the runners:
Et voila! One eight-foot log delivered onto the mill:
Mill blades are designed to cut wood, not silicates or rocks. So to keep the blade from dulling, we brushed the dirt out from the grooves in the bark. (The log had been dragged along the ground to get it up to the mill.)
Next we make sure that the dogs holding the log in place are ready for the first run. (Note well, however, that we didn't use all the dogs. The ASPCA will be happy to know that Sadie did not even break a sweat.)
With a glance down the log, we make sure the first cut will fall where we want it to, and won't hit any of the dogs:
We make a final adjustment to the mill (Krissy had to endure the exhaust for this one):
Ready, set, mill!
The new blade slices through the first course like butter:
With one side cut, we roll the log ninety degrees for the second cut:
One last push to get it flush on the dogs:

Oops! In the process of squaring it up, we slid the log too far down the mill. Here we are trying to press it back into place (though ultimately we needed to employ a lever to get enough mechanical advantage):
Ratcheting up the unit for the next course:
And the final product: eight-foot 1x10s perfect for treehouse flooring:
Thanks, Krissy! Next time, 2x4s for our garden shed!


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Faucet Fascination

Gwendolyn loves bathtime, and especially that shiny thing that spews out warm water. Bonus: it has a hard edge for chewing on!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Benedict Us

(The photos here depict the transformation of one end of our screened-in porch into a "pellet shed," where the three tons of wood pellets required for a winter are stored.)

The Order of Saint Benedict seeks peace through prayer and work. The Prologue to the Rule of Saint Benedict says, "Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving father's advice, that by the labor or obedience you may return to him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience." By this phrase we may understand that there is a holy obedience in work, and there is a nefarious disobedience in the failure to work. Labor is good.

I work in a profession where many, if not most, of my tasks are cerebral. My hands and feet do the work of getting me to the chair and typing (or web surfing), but on a daily basis I use only a small fraction of their physical capacity. They are underused, subjected by my choice of profession to a certain enforced sloth, a subtle disobedience to the purposes for which they were created.

Refreshment of purpose, then, comes from the chores that I must do at home. Keeping a house and physical property requires that my hands and feet, and all of the seven hundred muscles in my body, use their gifts and talents. The projects do require thought and figuring, but the most redeeming part of them is the physical labor.

In work we discover that we need to pray. We humans are physical beings: our existence is wrapped up in our physicality. If we were not physical, we would not be who we are. Our thoughts, dreams, goals, perception of time, and understandings of God are led by the fact that we are beings in three-space. Labor, physical labor, by its nature requires us to engage three-space and therefore requires us to come to terms with who we are.

I have to get my hands dirty when I work. I need to exert force, break a sweat, and get splinters. I move sawhorses, lay out boards, paint them, and wait for the unhurried progress of moisture evaporating. I thrust a shovel into the turf and wrench against stones that have been there since long before I was born. My teeth scratch against the end of screws, the metal for which was scraped from under mountains and coated with distilled soil. My hand grips handles that were doubly or triply refined from subterranean pools of petroleum. I measure (twice on the better days) and cut the long-dead skeletons of towering pines.

To work the soil, the wood, and the metal of this earth is to be confronted with the question, Why am I working? Every task I undertake contributes in the short term to a re-ordering of the world, and contributes in the long term to a breakdown of the world. I will have a pellet shed this year; but it will decay with the rest of the house, and many trees, pounds of earth, and plant and animal material were harvested and refined to provide my tools and supplies. I become aware that I need to consume in order to survive: to get food, heat, and shelter.

Yet this is not selfish work, for others depend on my labor. Our household needs heat in order to keep me, my wife, and my new daughter warm. Our lives depend on such work. So it is a labor of love. Yet it also differs from the gratuitous labor of gifts; this work comes in strokes of obedience, obedience to the love that commands sustenance for others. I have been placed in relationship with others for a lifetime, and to love them means to work for their welfare. It means less TV and more sawing; less reading and more nailing; less sleeping and more hefting.

But I cannot do it all; I cannot provide it all, no matter how much or how hard I work. So I must pray. I must seek the source of all provision, whose work is sufficient to provide what we need. Prayer becomes a labor of love, as well: an appeal to the one who loves first, so that those I love with labor will have all that my labor cannot give. I become obedient to the deficiencies of my three-space self: I who cannot see the future; I who can only do one thing at a time; and I who cannot grow but only construct.

Labor and obedience; labor in obedience; labor obedient to love. To labor as an act of loving obedience is to seek peace in this world: a real, three-space, human peace. I will find not the peace of my design--for that would be a different kind of work--but an indirect peace that comes from the discipline of labor. Here could be the genius of Saint Benedict: not that he discovered how to work, how to obey, or how to make peace, but that he understood some relationship between the three.

Labor, obedience, peace. With every breath I must crumble the world; but with my hands I may obey the needs of those I have been given to love, and may build peace. Every pellet shed, every garden bed, every shade of red is a step toward peace. And I discover that which I cannot do with labor, and am driven to prayer.


Life Lessons

Every time I carry my daughter around in public, someone asks, “Does she have Daddy wrapped around her finger yet?” It never fails. If societies have genes, then apparently ours has a genetic predisposition for fathers spoiling their daughters. You can imagine, then, how I might fear that by the time she’s sixteen—it will be a “sweet sixteen,” I’m sure—Gwendolyn will be spoiled rotten. (“Daddy, can I have the keys to the car?” “But you just wrecked the third one this year!” Batting eyelashes. “Please, Daddy?”)


In order to prevent fostering a prima donna nightmare, I think it’s wise to make sure that Gwendolyn gets exposed to some suffering along the way. Good, honest, normal suffering, mind you. Nothing cruel, just the kind that teaches patience and endurance. And there’s no opportunity to teach patience like air travel across the country.

Here are some of the “teachable moments” to which I made sure Gwendolyn got exposed on this, her first day of air travel ever. In case you’re curious how to prevent spoilage—ask me in fifteen years if this has worked—here’s what to do.

  1. Start with an obscenely early wake-up. To make our 6:00am flight, we had to get up at 3:30. That’s before the dairy farmers. Ugh. Gwendolyn woke, all smiles, and with bags under her eyes. That’s my girl.
  2. Order fog for the runway. We boarded the plane at 5:55 am, and sat on the tarmac for three and a half hours. That’s right: we could have flown to Denver in the time it took us to take off for D.C.
  3. Spend four hours in a cabin you can’t stand up in. Hey, we know she’s gonna be tall. Might as well get her used to hitting her head on “overhead” compartments.
  4. Take a route with two connections. That’s three flights and six opportunities for delay. One delay and your whole schedule’s shot. Get used to it, my jet-setting love.
  5. Make a connection in Dulles International airport. No training in patience is complete without having to wait for the “mobile lounges” that shuttle you between terminals, in one of the worst-designed airports ever. No pedestrian options here.
  6. Haggle with customer service. After arriving in Dulles too late to get our original connection, we discovered that we had been “bumped” to the third available flight to Denver. Did they miss the two earlier flights?
  7. Do a diaper change on an airplane toilet. Unlike our changing tables at home, they don’t put guardrails on airplane toilets. (The second time in, I realized they do put changing tables in, though. Oops.)
  8. Schedule wicked turbulence over the Rockies. Actually, Gwendolyn had much less difficulty with this than her father did. Apparently turbulence is like God bouncing you on his knee; once you outgrow that, perhaps turbulence becomes a little less fun.

Except for a twenty-minute meltdown over Kansas, Gwendolyn actually handled the trials of travel with exceptional poise and grace. (And the meltdown probably would not have happened if she had napped. But with a 747 full of people waiting to give you attention, who can nap?)

We saved more advanced training scenarios for later travels, like The DIA/O’Hare Sprint and The Overnight Snowstorm. Baby steps, after all. Baby steps.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Vivus Interruptus

Veteran parents told me, before Gwendolyn was born, that having a child soaked up all the free time one used to have. They told me, in fact, that they found they could not complete a full sentence without being interrupted by some matter pertaining to their child. I used to roll my eyes at this--internally, of course--but now I know what they mea


My father was a surgeon. He did his residency at the College of Medicine in Cincinnati, Ohio, around the time that I was coming into the world. He studied under one W. A. Altemeier, about whom all the brief wisps of information I get say that he was a brilliant, demanding, medically famous, and personally ferocious man. (He doesn't show up in Wikipedia, so I haven't heard of him.)

As I brushed through the first layer on my great dig through Dad's stuff, I found this photo in a frame:

Here Dr. William Steward Halsted performs the first surgery in an amphitheatre (perhaps at Johns Hopkins?) in 1904. Halsted was the great American guru of surgical medicine at the beginning of the 20th century. The fact that my Dad had this photo framed, with a cheat-sheet marking the names of all those present in the picture taped to the back, testifies not only to his love of history but also to his passion for ground-breaking surgery.

In the same envelope, taped to the back of the frame, is a letter from the late great W. A. Altemeier. The letter thanks my Dad for photos he took of a case involving hemolytic streptococcal gangrene, and declares that Altemeier intends to use them in his next surgical textbook. The survival of this letter--a commonplace thank-you typed on university letterhead--suggests to me that perhaps my Dad wanted to be a part of that kind of ground-breaking medicine.

With the Halsted photo is an article snipped from the 1986 American College of Surgeons Bulletin. It describes Dr. Halsted's surgical accomplishments (including perfection of the radical mastectomy and the innovation of latex gloves), but also illuminates some of his personal struggles (like addiction to cocaine then morphine, and his gradual withdrawal from non-professional relationships). I think my Dad saved this article because it contained a copy of the 1904 photograph. Yet perhaps inadvertently he saved a snapshot of the ambiguous legacy of passion-driven geniuses: they sacrifice health and love in one lifetime for an art and a name that will last many lifetimes.

I am struck now, in a new minor chord, by the stories from my dad's life that suggest he may have made some of the same sacrifice. He was divorced twice, suffered a nervous breakdown early in his career, left ambiguous relationships with his children, and died too young. But he taught several generations of physicians, was adored by his co-workers, and has a memorial in a wing of Muhlenberg hospital. I do not know whether my father was a genius like Altemeier or Halsted. But I suspect he was no stranger to the great tension between professional passion and the everyday relationships of love and family.


Sunday, June 07, 2009

At Last, the Headboard!

After all that verbage (see May entry entitled Redemption), I didn't show you what the headboard looks like on our bed. Here it is, with unadorned comforter:

And here it is with pillows, ready for use:

I took these pictures four weeks ago, and I don't think the bed has been made since. Hm.

A New Song

Maybe it's the Welsh in me; or maybe it's the Spirit. Either way, every interaction with my daughter is an opportunity to sing a new song whose words, melody, and sometimes harmony arise right on the spot. And what good is life if it doesn't produce new songs every day?

Here's a selection from the ones I recall (or of which I sing a variation on a regular basis):
The Good Morning Song, often sung to an arrangement of The Animaniacs theme melody;
The Cutie Patootie Song;
The Bathtime Song, often to the tune of Dean Martin's You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You;
The Chocolate Cake Song, a shameless theft of Bill Cosby's stand-up hymn;
Ooh! Aah! a jazz ensemble of sounds inspired by bodily functions;
Gwendolyn Hope, a fugue inspired by the theme song of Winnie the Pooh cartoons;
and one of my personal favorites,
Oh, Gwendolyn Cry, sung by Emrys Marley and the Wailer, usually when we've gone way past naptime or bedtime.

Here's to the songs that arise from day-to-day living!

What's the Deal with Dairy?

Dairy products are not necessary for life; witness Asian cultures which have little or no dairy content in their diet. Furthermore, dairy is expensive in terms of cost or labor to produce. This combination makes dairy a luxury. Yet dairy farmers cannot set the prices on their goods; instead, after they have delivered the fresh milk, they are given a payment based upon how much the creameries received for their products. We thus violate the laws of free market economies to get milk more cheaply, and in the process make it more difficult for dairy farmers to survive without reducing wages and sacrificing opportunities for advancement and well-being. We endanger dairy farmers' welfare in order to get a cheap luxury.

Doesn't that constitute oppression?


Saturday, June 06, 2009

Sara's Writing

So I've taken on a new challenge to excercise my brain and have begun to write for on random things I know a little bit about: gardening, laundry, budgets and cooking. I'll keep the list on the right up to date with recent articles I've written or you can click here for my profile which includes a list of my articles. If it interests you, please click on over and check it out!

We Are Well

Life is full. Garden is growing. Gwen is growing. We are well.