Thursday, June 30, 2011

All over the World

Today we set off for Heidelberg, for some singing at the cathedral, some shopping and sightseeing time  and dinner together (140 of us) at a restaurant in the shadow of the cathedral.
The cathedral, we found out, was originally built to house the library for the University of Heidelberg about six hundred years ago in the rear part. The front part was a cemetery! Eventually it became a classic Gothic cathedral and for a while housed both Protestant and Catholic congregations using a divider down the middle of the church, which became totally Protestant in the early twentieth century.
We listened to the cathedral organist play Bach's "Toccata and Fugue," and experienced the three-second reverberation as we sang several of the anthems we did the previous night.
Then we were off on our own, sampling the restuarants and visiting the shops and sights.  A number of people rode the "funicular" to the Heidelberg Castle, explored the area and enjoyed the panorama of the city below us.
We went to a restaurant where we crammed inside.  I started to experience claustrophobia from the number of people crammed into the room and the level of noise. As it happened, they ran out of seats inside and we had to sit outside where we had a not-so-good meal in the company of Joe Martin's wife Sue, her mother and a friendl Both ladies had been teachers and, being from Dayton, knew a ton about aviation history.
The streets of the old city of Heidelberg are a combination of pedistrian walks with cars and trucks allowed.  I can see trucks for deliveries, but cars?  Sitting outside at the resturant for dinner it was sometimes unnerving to have a car pass a foot or so away. Mercifully they drove slowly and the Germans do have a reputation for being good drivers.
We got back on the bus about 8:30. and set off for the hotel.  In spite of the different language and medieval setting, it occurred to me that  tourism and shopping have gotten to be much the same no matter where we are.
And so to France tomorrow and our first concert in an American military cemetery,

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Down to the River

We started out today with a cruise on the Rhine River during which we saw about twenty castles and ruins of castles, numerous cargo boats, and vineyards running up nearly 45 degree slopes. Lunch was schnitzel so I feel like I have had traditional German food.
Then we went to theFaith Baptist Church in Kaiserslautern where we had a three-hour plus rehearsal  including instruments.  I thought we were for the most part well-prepared. 
The church served a meal of chicken and rice with lemon sauce and watermelon (which I don't like BTW) but it was nice of them to feed all 140 of us.
The concert went well with a webcast so that we heard from people in the States about it. It should be available soon at the church's website.
I was thinking that we went down to the river all day long.  We went down to the literal Rhine river with its history, commerce and natural beauty.  We went to the church which is part of the long-flowing river of Christianity and we drew on the deep river of American song. Not a bad day's work, that.
Tomorrow we go to Heidelberg to sing at the Cathedral and do a little shopping. I hope I can post this today since the internet here is, to put it charitably, sporadic.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The (Mostly) Friendly Skies

Well, here we are in Kaiserslautern, Germany, after about a thirty-hour day, or so it seemed.
We got to the airport the recommended three hours early, and I have to tell you that United Airlines has to do a better job with international checkins.  First of all, it's not clear which line you get in.  We started to get in one in the front of the terminal but asked and were told we needed to go around to the rear.  There was a line about 1000 feet long but it seemed to be moving quickly so we joined it, meeting up with people from the Chorale as we looped back and forth.  When it became our turn, we had to use the automatic checkin which entailed scanning our passports. The agent snapped at Becky for not knowing where to scan the document.  We also noticed several other United agents fussing at people.  I know it's a busy time for them when all the international flights seem to go out at once, but don't you think they would know that by now and put on a few more agents...or at least some good-humored ones? Makes sense to me.

Anyhow, her document was accepted and the screen asked her if anyone were travelling with her.  That would be me so I scanned my passport and the machine printed out a boarding pass.B  ecky didn't did get one, so we had to find a (non fire-breathing) agent.  We did so and she fixed us both up with a boarding pass and we were on our way. Becky set off the detector at security with her hip replacement so she was patted down.  Turns out she was supposed to tell them before she went through the detector and they would have put her through the infamous scanner.  This was a big secret, but she walked through the detector and then they had to pat her down.  I stood there and stared at the procedure, but she took it with good humor.

We got to the gate where there were a number of our people there. Waiting for a flight is a whole lot more fun if you're doing it with people you know. One couple came up to the gate as boarding was beginning.  They had spent an hour and 45 minutes trying to check in.  The same thing happened to the man as happened to Becky except he couldn't get the attention of an agent. Finally they asked for other passengers on Flight 916 and then they got their passes.  Come on, United, you gotta do better.

The flight was fairly uncomfortable, since we were crammed into steerage.  The seats made my hips and knees hurt so I couldn't sleep.They did keep feeding us which helped.  The flight landed and we made our way through customs and retrieved our luggage.

We met up with the leaders at the Meeting Point (that's what it's called) in the Frankfurt Airport, loaded on a bus and were off to...Worms?  This was a surprise side trip, probably to occupy us until we could check into the hotel.  We found Worms to be interesting and historic with some beautiful very old churches. We also found we couldn't figure out the menus in the restaurants but finally we found one that had a picture menu we could point to.  Then it was back to the bus and on to our hotel in Kaiserslautern.

There we took naps, freshened up (it was very hot here today with little air conditioning), had a big (if slow) traditional German dinner together of thousands of carbohydrates on the plate. We then had a short orientation meeting about what to expect (answer:anything) and rehearsed the music for an hour or so. Then it was time to relax and prepare for tomorrow, which will being a cruise on the Rhine, a loooong rehearsal, and our first concert in town. Stay tuned to see if we melt from the heat.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Leaving, On a Jet Plane

This afternoon we leave with 30 or so other members of the Manassas Chorale to join about 80 other choral singers in Germany and France for a week of touring and concerts.  We will do concerts in Kaiserslautern and Heidelberg and then travel to the American Cemetery in Lorraine where we will sing,  and on to Paris for a little sightseeing and then to the American Cemetery in Normandy for a concert on July 4.  We return on July 5.

I was thinking about the last time I was in France, about 45 years ago.  I was part of a semester abroad program which consisted of six weeks' language training in Tours, France, and the rest of the time in Paris.  The thirty or so of us in the program were on our own to find our housing and meals.  All we had to do was to attend a seminar each week hosted by a professor on sabbatical and write a paper (in French). I later became good friends with the professor who had limited vision so that he had to have everything read to him.  I was one of his readers when we returned to the U.S. He was also a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist who could see a conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in Little Red Riding Hood. After a while we made fun of him.  When he asked what a story was about, someone would say, "The conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat" and we would all chortle. That was a sign of our immaturity.  He was an brilliant and kind man.  When I read to him he would ask me what I thought a passage meant.  One time I said, "It's about the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat." He looked down and said, "Cut the bullsh*t and tell me what you think."  After that I did. I learned a great deal from him--our reading sessions were more like tutorials.

Anyhow, near the end of August, 1966, I found myself on board an Air France Boeing 707, the Chateau de Chenonceau. It was my first airplane flight and it was a good one. I still have the menu for the meal here some place.  No doubt I'll find it some day.

Going back to France makes me think of all the changes that have occurred in the past 45 years. I finished two degrees, bought three houses (not all at once), got married, taught school for 32 years, helped raise two children. Not a bad life, that.

I'll be interested to see how much Europe has changed.  I know I've lost a lot of my French, but we'll see. When I was in Paris there were about eight Metro lines.  Today there are about sixteen with four express lines running through the city. And you know? I can hardly wait to get back. I'll try to update this every daya nd let you know how it is going. Au revoir for now.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Summer Windows

The room where I write these posts is the reclaimed bedroom of our older daughter Amy who has been gone from the house since 1999.  We called it "Amy's old bedroom" for years and have switched over to calling it "the computer room" since that's where our main computer is located. It's on the second floor of our three-level house, which has a walk-out basement so that computer room is about thirty feet in the air. In the summer, what is mostly visible from the two windows are oak trees, which fill the windows with green.

I spend a lot of time in this room, writing and scoring SAT essays eight times during the school year. I especially enjoy it during the summer. I bring up some tower fans from the basement to draw cool air from the main level. It's a comfortable and airy place to write. Nacho the cat likes to lie in the open window facing the street especially when the sun streams in. Cats are no fools.

I think of a couple of poems when I'm in this room.  One is "The Writer" by contemporary poet Richard Wilbur who not incidentally was my freshman composition teacher if you can believe that. The poem is about his daughter writing with a typewriter in an upper room. It begins:

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story. 
It's a graceful and thoughtful poem. If you want to read the rest, and I would recommend you do so, it's available at

The other poem the computer room puts me in mind of is the well-known English major favorite "The Garden" by Andrew Marvell.  In the piece, the poet describes his garden and experiences a kind of seventeenth century out-of-body experience as he is overwhelmed by the beauty and power of the garden:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find ;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas ;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

That's just part of the poem: the rest is available at

So, for today, a little poetry and a wish that you have your own "green retreat" and spend some time there soon.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

This Wheel's on Fire

Like most working class lads, I spent some time in my teens fooling with cars. I wasn't very sophisticated about it, sticking with oil changes, shock replacements, radiator flushes and the like. I did replace a muffler and exhaust line once, and decided that would be the last time I did that. Some people I know did much more with cars--my brother and a friend completely rebuilt an engine.  I'm not sure that it ran afterwards, but they did it.

Then, of course, cars changed.  They became computerized and fuel-injected.  I think most of these changes (except for thinner sheet metal and the dreaded "doughnut" spare) were for the better, although the gentle art of manipulating a manual choke is long lost. (Ask your grandmomma.)  On the whole, cars are safer, more environmentally sound and more sophisticated than back in the day. I know, they don't have the soul of your '59 El Dorado, but they are better in so many ways. You just can't work on them like you used to.

Changing tires is something that can still be done, especially by fathers shortly after Father's Day, so when my daughter Amy told me she had picked up a screw in the tire of her Mazda I told her to bring it over, take one of the other cars we have, and I would put the doughnut on and we would get the stricken tire to the shop to have it plugged. Or so I thought.

I jacked the car up with the world's worst emergency jack (the metal kept deforming as more weight piled on it), took off the lug nuts and tried to pull the tire off.  I say tried because, unlike any of the perhaps 100 tires I have changed, the tire didn't budge.  It seemed frozen to the hub. In fact it was frozen to the hub. I pulled on it for a while and then I pushed on it.  I stuck my legs under the car and kicked the tire from the inside. I sprayed WD-40 on it and waited for that to work.  I pounded the assembly with a rubber mallet.Nothing seemed to help.

After an hour and a couple of skinned knuckles, I gave up.  I told Amy she would have to call AAA and have them use their expertise.

I was telling my dad about the stuck tire and he said, not entirely humorously, "Get a bigger hammer." When the AAA tow truck showed up, the driver couldn't get it off either. He said, "I need a bigger hammer."  Then another two truck showed up and this driver got it off with a bigger hammer and a block of wood.

I later learned on a Mazda owners' forum that the steel of the wheel often bonds to the some other kind of metal in the hub.  Either that or the wheel rusted to the hub. Since it's oxidation, it a very slow fire, hence the title of today's post.

So, Mazda owners, you might want to check your tires or have them checked. It would be better to be sure they're able to be removed than to find out on a dark roadside that they're not coming loose. I would also replace the emergency jack with one that doesn't look like it was made in Santa's Tin Toy Shop. In this case,  I thought I knew a little about cars, but as with most everything else, I still have a lot to learn.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Vote Early and Often

I know there are people who are annoyed by spam in their email inboxes.  Heaven knows, there's a lot of it, but it doesn't bother me that much.  If I don't recognize the sender, I delete it.  It's easy and painless and doesn't take that much time.

That said, I'm not sure why I get some emails that I do.  Somehow I ended up on a list for Major League Baseball, which is all right since I like baseball, but they do send a lot of messages.  I got one the other day urging me to vote in the All-Star balloting. I thought, why not, maybe I can vote for some Nationals.  I logged on to the voting site, picked out all the Nationals on the ballot, and voted for them.  Then a window popped up: "Thank you for voting!  You can vote up to 25 times for each email address!"

I hadn't expected this.  I know there are some places in the country where people say about elections that they should vote "early and often," but I never had such a chance. My mother told me that before and during World War II the area in Tennessee where she was from was controlled by a political machine which used political machine tactics including multiple votes and intimidation of voters to control offices.  When the vets came back from World War II they were having none of that and made sure no one voted more than they were supposed to and that no one was intimidated.  I'm sure they felt they had just fought a war to guarantee free and democratic elections and that's how it was going to be. Another achievement of the Greatest Generation.

So, anyhow, I voted 25 times for the boys and then checked the leaders. Not a National to be seen, and the top runners had vote totals in the millions. I felt a little funny voting more than once, but not having any of my candidates in the top ten seemed like a kind of cosmic justice. We'll have to wait and see how it all turns out.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Everything Old Is New Again

Yep, it says here that someone has figured out a way to connect a manual typewriter to a computer, Ipad, smart phone, smart refrigerator (saw an ad for one with internet browsing capabilities--wonder if it tells you when the salad dressing needs to be thrown out) or what have you.  It's called a "USB Typewriter" and you can read all about it at It's a kit requiring the electronic skill of a rocket scientist as nearly as I can tell that allows the connection of the manual typewriter to a "USB device" which sounds like a form of birth control but isn't. The guy who invented it says this about it:

"The USBTypewriter™ is a new and groundbreaking innovation in the field of obsolescence.  Lovers of the look, feel, and quality of old fashioned manual typewriters can now use them as keyboards for any USB-capable computer, such as a PC, Mac, or even iPad!  The modification is easy to install, it involves no messy wiring, and does not change the outward appearance of the typewriter (except for the usb adapter itself, which is mounted in the rear of the machine).  So the end result is a retro-style USB keyboard that not only looks great, but feels great to use."

I like his feel for oxymoron,  and the demo video features the sweet sound of keys clattering and the return bell ringing. (Those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, ask your momma.) You can install the kit on your own typewriter, or you can buy one that's ready to go for about $850.

I would like to say, Only in America.  I am in awe of Jack Zylkin, not only for his technological prowess but also for coupling a form of technology with the machine that replaced it. It would be like pulling a car with a horse or putting piston engines on a 747 (that idea wouldn't fly, ar, ar) or retrofitting a microwave with a heating element. In the case of the USB Typewriter, there's a certain aesthetic experience to be gained.  Looking at a horse's rear end from your infinitely adjustable leather driver's seat would never be an aesthetic experience unless you were smitten by horses.  And their rear ends.

I remember our first typewriter that my dad brought home when I was about ten.  It was a giant Underwood that I could barely lift, but I immediately set to work making a newsletter for the neighborhood. I used it to hunt and peck papers for school. When I went to college I bought a reconditioned Royal portable that I still have. It's entirely made of metal which I think is amazing.  We later on bought an electric SC that Becky mostly used, and I used the IBM Selectric at church to do the church newsletter for a while.  I thought the Selectric was the ultimate writing machine.  Then computers came along.

I have to say that I would not like to go back to using a typewriter to write with. When computers came along I taught myself to type but I am still really bad at it.  I remember wrestling with correction fluid or using that horrid erasable typing paper and  running out of space for a footnote and having to retype the entire page. (By the way, the word processer killed the footnote and gave us the endnote. I don't think anyone mourned for a second, not even the MLA. It also put an end to the typing pool but I'll leave that one to the sociologists to comment on.) And computers can do so much more than the humble typewriter, USB or not. I'm sure, in fact, that one could be set up so that the keys click and a return bell rings with a hard return.

So, while I salute the inventor of the USB Typewriter, I don't think I will be using one any time soon.There have been too many erasures and strikeovers to go back. While I have a hate/hate relationship with my computer printer, it's still better than having to use Corrasable Bond.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Bill Keane, Phone Home

Dan's note: This is like the "Family Circus" putatively done by one of the cartoon kids except this guest posting is by adult children and it's thoughtful rather than cute. 

Post this on your blog tomorrow and no one gets hurt!

Your regularly scheduled Dan Verner blog entry has been hijacked by his two daughters today.  We find this only fair since it's Father's Day, and especially because he taught us how to write and/or be hilarious.

Alyssa: Even though I thought "human beings" were "human beans" until I was about eight years old.  Dan Verner would probably find human beans tasty...on biscuits.  He has pretty diverse culinary tastes, even though he does not like gum, or milk, or watermelon.   Mmmmm, watermelon.

Amy: Nom nom nom. That is something Dan Verner might say, in regards to sammiches (also known as sandwiches, for those of you who don't speak LOLspeak). And for those of you wondering what LOLspeak is, I'm not really sure myself, except it's this made-up language that people put on funny pictures of cats they then put on the internet. Dan is one of the only sixty-somethings I know who has adopted LOLspeak and embraces it as his own. Whether or not that's right or appropriate is another matter, but it clearly shows 1) he's at ease with computers and not afraid to try things out and 2) he's funny and 3) he's young at heart.

Alyssa: Speaking of LOL Cats, our dad calls us "the kittehs."  I would say that this is because he loves kitties, as evidence by the fact that he wakes up at 4 a.m. to feed Nacho, his dilute tortiseshell cat.  She's a good companion for him, because she's cute, smart, protective and completely neurotic.  I suspect that he adopted her after Amy and I had both moved out of the house, because he was so used to dealing with slightly difficult young ladies for over twenty years at that point.  (Thanks for not killing us during our teen years, dad!)  He also calls us "the squirrels."  I think that has more to do with "squirrels" rhyming with "girls," and not because squirrels are his arch nemesis--he hates that they eat the bird food out of the feeder.  But I think if squirrels are the only nemesis you can come up with, you're doing pretty well at life.  Our dad has an appreciation for (or at least a tolerance of) most people and things.

Amy: In terms of tolerance of children (girls, squirrels, kittehs, whatever), our dad tolerated us pretty well every summer when we were home with him. He did things to help us all pass the time, like take us to the library and the mall, where we'd visit Cinnabon. And early-morning swimming lessons. I'm not sure how much I actually learned at those lessons, since the only memories I have of the them is that they were really, really early; the water was really, really cold, and my dad made us listen to something really, really boring on the radio as we drove to and from Stonewall Park Pool. Later I'd learn it was the Oliver North hearings, and in retrospect the hearings were important (I guess), but I'm still convinced they were really, really boring. So, I suppose our dad taught us it's important to be well-informed, to learn to swim, to go to the library and be well-read, and to value Cinnabon as one of the food groups.

Alyssa: We were often tortured with really boring things on the radio, such as National... Public... Radio... (which must be said as slowly as possible) and A Prarie Home Companion (hosted by Garrison Keillor, who is MY nemesis).  The older I get, though, the more I find myself listening to things like NPR or WTOP, and then calling or e-mailing my dad to discuss current events.  I enjoy that we can discuss South Park and the Federal Debt Ceiling in the same conversation, and that he has insightful things to say about both.  We still haven't figured out why he hasn't been on Jeopardy! yet, because he'd probably give Ken Jennings a run for his money.  He will tell you that he wouldn't do well with certain categories, like "celebrities" or "potent potables," although I feel confident that while he's taught Amy and me about pretty much every other category of life, we could give him a crash course in both.  No wonder he's so proud of us.

Amy: Well, I'm not sure how many times I've had an insightful conversation with Dan Verner about the federal debt ceiling, because I'm not really sure that I know what it is. (OK, now that I thought about it, I do recall seeing something on the Daily Show about it. It's the amount of money the US can borrow at any one time. Which, for some reason, the US can raise when it needs more money. Hmm.) But he has always been supportive of me when I talk to him about teaching, meetings, testing, school principals (Hi, Cindy! Love you!), co-workers, paperwork, grading, and the like. Even though he's been retired for years now, he still remembers what it's like and is quick with a "Principals are morons, schedule too many pointless meetings, and forget what it's like to be in the classroom" if I need a word of support. (Hi again, Cindy! You're not a moron at all! That's just me speaking hypothetically!) I guess when you spend 32 years in the classroom, it's hard to forget.

Alyssa: Outside of teaching, which is a noble profession pursued by my father and sister (but not me--I would kill someone, quite possibly the principal, even though I don't know you, Cindy) our father really has always supported us.  He was pretty patient with me when we I was five  and would hide my dress shoes in an attempt to get out of church, he was understanding when I was fifteen and wanted to put blonde streaks in my hair (I remember him telling less understanding people "it's not drugs, it's not pregnancy, it's HAIR), and he was a great listener during the second half of my twenties, when everything that possibly could go wrong did go wrong.  A lot of things that he's taught me--give people the benefit of the doubt, make educated decisions, be patient, have a sense of humor, and, when in doubt, eat a biscuit--have really shaped who I am and made me a better and less hungry person.  I consider myself extremely lucky to have him as a dad.  Happy Father's Day, Dan Verner!

Amy: Don't think I could say it any better, so I echo Alyssa's sentiments, except for the hair part. Somehow I've made it to 33 without ever coloring my hair. I let Alyssa take that on.

Happy Father's Day!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Worse Than Flying

I think we all know the security drill with flying by now. Have your ID. Take off your coat.  Take off your shoes. Have liquids in containers of no more than 3.4 ounces or less, in a quart-size Zip-Loc bag. Take all metal objects out of your pockets and place them on the belt. Raise your arms or prepare to be patted down. Keep smiling. Actually, if these things keep us safe I'm all right with them.  Heck, they can even strip search me (if they really want to see what I look like, although I don't know why they should). However, I've found an event that is even more restrictive than the TSA about what attenders can bring in, and that's the U.S. Open currently going on at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda. Just consider their list of prohibited items (straight from the Open website): "cell phones (including any cell phones with photographic
capabilities), PDAs and/or other portable e-mail devices, noise producing electronic devices (including MP3 players), cameras and/or camcorders(other than Monday through Wednesday for personal non-commercial photographic use only and without their cases),  bags larger than 8”W x 8”H x 8”D in their natural state, cases and/or covers (such as chair or umbrella covers), signs, posters and/or banners, televisions and/or radios unless provided by the USGA, food and/or beverages, containers and/or coolers, pets (other than service animals), lawn and/or folding armchairs, bicycles, ladders and/or step stools or other similar items, metal-spiked golf shoes, weapons (regardless of permit, including but not limited to firearms or knives) and other items deemed unlawful or dangerous by the USGA and/or championship security personnel, in their sole discretion."

Well. I have a couple of observations about this list. The first is that the USGA needs to learn the difference between a proper noun and what we used to call an improper noun. In the original document, everything was capitalized whether it needed it or not. I don't like to be snarky about grammar but in this case I will. Also, it seems to me that people who attend golf tournaments are a fairly docile lot, kind of like the crowd at Wolf trap (but without the picnic baskets).  It's not like the Vandals have shown up at Congressional demanding to let in.  Now that would be a distraction.
That said, I'm sure there are reasons for these prohibitions.  I'm sure that someone somewhere some time tried to bring in a ladder to a golf tournament for a better view. My wife played for a wedding where the photographer hauled around a ladder during the ceremony. It had his name on it in case anyone wanted to make sure that no one they knew hired him for a wedding. 

I suppose that the list makes me sad. It seems that we have come to the point where we can no longer trust each other to be sensible and well-comported.  When I was teaching, my students complained about restrictive rules. I told them the best way to do away with such rules was to exercise self-control, thinking of the greater good and demonstrate that they could act in a civilized manner. Otherwise, there are rules and lists. It makes me sad that they are perhaps regrettably necessary, but somehow I think most of us are better people than that.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Third Doors and Alarums in the Night

No, this is not me weighing in on the recent Sarah Palin/Paul Revere contretemps. I know better than that. Rather, it's about my Mystery Machine, the 2002 Chevrolet S-10 my father gave me. I've found it's more vehicle than we need (we have access to four) so I want to sell it, but it's been interesting to have it around. A few years ago when our kitchen was being renovated one of the fellows doing the work got something out of his truck. It had four doors, which seemed like a useful feature, so I told him that I wished my truck had four doors.  He said, "You have three."  I said, "I do?" since I only saw two.  He walked over to it, opened the driver's side door and then opened...the third door. I never knew it was there. What a surprise.

Then, the other evening, we were coming back from something about 10 PM. I was carrying something we had bought and apparently struck the truck key fob.  It started flashing its headlights and sounding the horn.  Somehow I had set off the burglar alarm I didn't know I had. Yet another surprise.  I eventually figured out how to turn it off, although I don't have any idea how to set it.  Maybe I'll learn before I sell it.

We had another surprise about the same time when we picked up Becky's Avalon which had a "check engine" problem.  When she turned off the ignition, the car beeped five times.  We had never heard it do this in the eight years we've had the car. So, I checked the owner's manual for a hint as to what the chimes meant.  They didn't sound like the seat belt or headlight warnings. Finally I noticed the sound was coming from the radio. I got the manual out for that and found that the sound was a warning to remember to remove the face plate as an anti-theft measure.  The radio had never done this since it had been installed.  I figured that when the shop did the work on the car they disconnected the battery.  When they re-connected it the radio reset itself to a default configuration which included arming the alarm. I dug through the manual, found the disarm procedure, pressed buttons for about five minutes and disabled that bad boy.

All this goes to show, I suppose, that sometimes we don't know as much about familiar things as we think we do.  There are surprises waiting around every corner, and I think that is a good thing.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Let My Little Light Shine: Going Solar

In our neighborhood, almost every house has a gas lantern out in front.  Most of these lanterns either have been converted to electricity or turned off: We were one of the last  houses with a working gas lantern. Or it did until about a month ago when it quit working. That's not too bad for an appliance (I suppose that's what you'd call it) that is 43 years old. Anyhow, I found out that it would cost about $300 to have it fixed  or to have it converted to electricity (I do not mess with gas or electricity).  I also found out that the darned thing burned $9.00 worth of gas a month as it sat there merrily chewing through cubic foot upon cubic foot of gas 24/7/365.

Then I stumbled on another alternative and that is solar. I could get a solar-powered lantern head that would go right on the existing pole and cost about $100. I have to say that I have thought solar-powered whatevers were very cool for a long time, from the solar-powered water heaters to arrays that power the entire house, but think that they are not quite ready for widespread use. This is my English major opinion about a complex scientific and technical issue, but I think the technology needs more time, just like a real electric car. (Prius owners, please do not throw batteries at me.) But a solar-powered lantern seemed different. The  one I got has 18 LED bulbs (and eight rechargeable AA batteries) and seemed promising.  Besides, an operating cost of $0.00 appealed to me.

Some people I talked to were not impressed with outdoor solar lights, finding them weak and not durable. I took off the gas lantern (some serious metal there), put the one I bought onto the pole in front of our house and waited while it charged for a couple of days. I thought about the guy who put a full solar electricity system on his house and was bragging about it to a neighbor who said, "What do you do when it rains?" (Use the batteries?)  I also thought about the International Space Station which has huge solar arrays, but then I remembered that it doesn't rain in space. (Pretty good observation for an English major, I think.)

Since the lantern has a light sensor that turns it on at dusk, I had to wait for dark to fall to switch it on. Shazam! It threw a respectable light which perfectly filled in the dark space along the sidewalk that the porch light didn't reach. The light was whiter than an incandescent, but it is better to light a single solar lantern than curse the darkness.  Whatever that means.

So, in a small way, I feel like I've gone solar. We'll see how it works out. I have to add cleaning the solar panels on top of the lantern to my maintenance tasks. I'd like to hear about anyone else's experience with solar power. There's a lot of free sunlight out there waiting to be harvested, even if we don't live in space.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Anti-Bucket List

I'm sure most everyone has heard of the idea of a bucket list, a list of things you want to do before you die, or "kick the bucket." A phrase like this is bound to have uncertain origins, and this one certainly does.  One theory is that people who were being hanged, short of a gallows, were made to stand on a bucket which was then kicked out from under them. Another idea is that "bucket" is an old word for a wooden beam (it's used this way in Shakespeare) from which pigs who were being slaughtered were hung.  When the animal struggled it was likely to kick the bucket (beam). Yet another explanation holds that when a person was dying in the Middle Ages a bucket of holy water was placed at their feet so visitors could sprinkle them with it.  In this process the bucket was almost certain to be kicked. And a final surmise is that it came from a children's game in which the object was to kick the bucket (and fall down dead, apparently).

The phrase has been used for a recent movie with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman and also for a sermon series at our church--spiritual qualities to develop before we die. I would say that most people have an idea, if not a list, of things they want to do and most of that involves travel. For example, I would like to visit Australia and New Zealand.  I believe Australia has the most venomous species of any continent so I would have to be careful. I would also like to meet Gordon Lightfoot and establish a foundation to encourage young people to major in English.  See?  It's easy to come up with three or four or a dozen things you'd like to do in this life. I'm game for most anything, and I think a lot of people are.

But I am also working on an anti-bucket list, which is a tally of things I never want to do.  The list is presently short, possibly because I am open to most things (except watching The Sound of Music again (sorry everyone) or eating liver (yuck) so it was hard to come up with a very long anti-bucket list, so here it is in all its two-item glory:

1. Number one on my anti-bucket list (as indicated by the number one to the left) is to never go to Chuck E. Cheese. Now I like children and I like pizza but from what I've heard this place combines the two at eardrum shattering noise levels. And I'm told the pizza is not good.  Avoid.

2. The second item is to never go to Las Vegas.  I don't care if Celine Dion is there, it's not worth it.I don't gamble (because I'm cheap) so there's no attraction there.  I also understand that food is expensive and there is smoking everywhere. No, thanks. There are some obvious places never to go, like Afghanistan and Myanmar, but I'm holding this list to higher standards and not noting the obvious.

So there's my anti-bucket list. I'll keep trying to add to it.  I'd be interested in what's on yours. Maybe I could use some of your ideas. Let me know in the "Comments" section.

Monday, June 13, 2011

What I Like

The list would be long, so I won't put down everything, but I have been thinking about some small ordinary things that I enjoy.

The alarm on my Nokia cell phone. I don't know what it's called, but it's a happy little tune that makes it a pleasure to wake up.  And for me that's saying a lot!

Chuck Bell, the weatherman on WRC-TV (Channel 4).  Chuck's relaxed, sincere manner and loopy humor make any forecast easier to take. He is so cool.

Our daughters' conversations. Whether it's live or on Facebook, they come up with some of the funniest and most insightful exchanges I've ever heard.  And I'm not just saying that to get a big expensive present for Father's Day.

The almost continual conversation about ideas and people I have had with my wife Becky for nearly 39 years now. It's the best.

The New Yorker magazine.  Great articles, great writing, and one of the few magazines that still runs cartoons.  Even if some of them don't make any sense.

The Washington Post newspaper. Yes, I know it's liberal but then so am I. Always full of ideas, insight and information. It has a surprising local touch for an international newspaper.

Crossword puzzles and jigsaw puzzles. Stimulation for the mind and soul.  I learn a new word every time I do a good crossword.

Choral groups.  I'm a member of three of them , and choral groups are great, whether we're learning the music or listening to another group. Nothing like SATB harmony.  How sweet the sound!

Vintage acoustic guitars. They're works of art, really. It's amazing that something fifty years old sounds better than the day it was created. One of my happiest acquisitions was a 1964 Gibson B45-12n twelve-string.  They don't make 'em like that any more.

Nationals baseball games on the radio. I find I prefer listening to them to watching them. It's a warm comfortable feeling to follow the play-by-play, even when we lose. Even when the new guy uses baseball slang I've never heard. "Inside-out curve ball"--huh?

So, to quote someone else, these are a few of my favorite things.  I hope you can think of a few of your own. Happy Monday, everyone!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Lighting a Lantern in the Daylight

I think it's interesting that there is sort of a curbside giveaway going on, at least in this area. I've talked to people who didn't want the bother of transporting a sofa or a washing machine so they put it on the curb and, with or without a sign, the item disappears in short order. It's a win-win: someone gets a free whatever and someone is rid of something they don't want.

I had a contractor grade wheelbarrow that a mason left when he redid our front porch about ten years ago.  I reminded him and called him a number of times about the 'barrow but he never came and picked it up.I eventually covered it and offered it to several people I know, but no one was interested. I didn't need it--I have spent more than my share of time behind a wheelbarrow. A week or so ago I decided to clean up the back yard where the wheelbarrow lay in a corner, covered by plastic. I put the wheelbarrow by the curb with a sign that read, "Free--please take."  I expected it would disappear quickly like the things left out by people I talked to.  It wasn't new--the pan was caked with concrete and rusted through here and there--but the wheel and frame were in good shape.

It might have been that my sign folded over in the wind, but no one picked it up the first day. Or the second. I began to feel like an anti-Diogenes, the cynic philosopher who went searching with a lit lantern in the daytime trying to find an honest person. (Who said a minor in philosophy would never be useful?)  My problem was the people passing by were too honest. No one would take a wheelbarrow sitting by the curb. Not that we haven't had things stolen. Someone took the bed liner out of my truck this past year.  The police said it could have been worse--thieves also were stealing catalytic converters. We have also had the fog lamp insert from Becky's Avalon stolen and the license plate year sticker off the car. But it looked like no one wanted a wheelbarrow.

On the third day, I made sure the sign was secure and visible and put the wheelbarrow out. By mid-morning, it was gone.  The curbside market had worked.

It's good to know that I can leave things out and they won't be taken, although I'm not about to leave power tools lying around outside or park my 1964 Gibson B-45-12 by the curb just to see what will happen. I believe most people are honest, but I also believe in not creating tempting situations.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Everbody Do Xfinity

I don't change much in my life.  We have lived in the same house since 1988, gone to the same church since 1970 and drive cars at least ten years old if not older. I taught at the same high school my entire career and otherwise don't change much or easily. What we have is comfortable and familiar and that's how I like it.

With computers and telephones and television service, there is always pressure to update to the latest (and generally more expensive) technology.  I probably should have gotten one of those digital conversion boxes and used an external antenna, but that would have involved a change from cable. When Verizon, our telephone company and DSL provider, offered fiber optic internet service they called Fios (indeed pushed it, calling me every other day to see if I wanted it. I told them I would let them know), I put it off until I was ready. I became ready when they offered it for the same price as DSL. The upgrade was done by a technician and the service has been great (I know this is not true for everyone). Then they started calling me about converting my cable service to Fios as well.  I told them I would let them know.

We have had Comcast cable for quite a while and I wasn't ready to switch to their digital service, Xfinity. We don't watch that much television, but I do admit an attraction to shows like Animal Police on the Animal Network (or whatever it's called).  Then channels began disappearing, replaced by a screen saying that they were now digital and we had to upgrade to--guess what?-- Xfinity. I finally gave in an ordered the self-install kit, expecting the worst.

The upgrade came in a big box containing four smaller boxes, one for each of our sets. I took them out and found there was one large converter and three smaller ones. I put the large one on the big set in the studio (naming it the Mother Ship) and the smaller converters on the smaller set.  The instructions didn't say, but I supposed that the big converter used a wireless signal to broadcast to the smaller converters.  I set everything up and activated the service online. It all worked! Everything, that is, except the one set I forgot to turn on for the activation.  I called the number on the screen and was connected to one of those robotic voices that never work well, except this one did. "She" diagnosed the problem and after a series of strange electronic noises activated the inactive set. Pretty impressive.

The last step was to program the remote controls which used the procedure that anyone who has set up a universal remote is familiar with.  Punch some buttons, put in the code for that brand of television and see if the remote will turn off the set. Repeat with another code when it doesn't.  Repeat some more. I managed to get all the remotes working except for the one in our bedroom on a set that must be about twenty years old.  I finally called the service line and got a real person.  When I described my problem, he asked how old the set was. When I told him, he said that was most likely the problem--the set was too old to recognize the code. I could use the old remote to turn it on and off and the new one to change channels and set the volume. I kept fiddling with the Xfinity remote until I accidentally found out that if I pressed the Return key and then Power, the set would turn on or off.

All in all, the changeover wasn't bad, taking about two hours on a Saturday afternoon. Now we have about 200 channels we won't watch.  Like I said, I don't like change.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Everywhere a Sign

Becky and I were coming back from something last evening, and there beside the railroad tracks was a billboard sized sign for Geico Insurance showing my favorite ad character, the gekko. Nothing unusual in that, but the caption said something to the effect that Geico was in Gainesville. The sign is in Manassas and Gainesville is about seven miles away. It's sort of disconcerting, as if we had been suddenly transported seven miles west.

There are all kinds of crazy signs if you watch for them.  Another favorite local sign of mine is the one at the exit to the local Costco parking lot, near the loading dock. It says, "Attention drivers--be sure the fork lift operator is out of your truck."  You just know that at least one fork lift operator had an unplanned trip to Ohio at some point. As is the case with most of these signs, someone must have tried it.

We were in Atlanta a few years ago and visited the Georgia Aquarium. On the list of prohibited items posted at the front door was "fishing tackle."  I asked a guard if people really tried to bring in fishing gear.  He said, "Oh, sir, they try to bring in everything." I can see someone going home exclaiming, "Hey Betty Lou, I caught me a three-hundred pound grouper!"

Some of these I have had experience with or know someone who has. Most cardboard windshield sun shade have a legend,  "Warning: Do Not Drive With Sun Shield in Place." I have to confess that I have moved cars a few feet with the sunshield in place.  Not a good idea, I know. Some irons have labels, "Do not attempt to iron clothes while wearing them." We know a woman, otherwise sensible, who ironed her skirt while wearing it. Second degree burns.  She knew as soon as the iron touched the fabric that this was a bad idea. My dad bought a cordless electric razor the included the warning: "Do not use under water." Like I said, somewhere, some time, someone has tried that.

I read about some others. On a Magic 8 Ball: Not advised for use as a home pregnancy test. (Too bad--it would save messing with urine.) A roll of Life Savers included these words: Not for use as a flotation device. (Do ya think?) On a disposable razor: Do not use this product during an earthquake. (Ow! Ow! Ow!) And on children's alphabet blocks: Letters may be used to construct words, phrases and sentences that may be deemed offensive.(The same is true of the alphabet in general.)

Our favorite sign, though, was posted in a store in Key West.  It said, "Unattended children will be given an expresso and a puppy."  I think that is warning enough.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tool Time

It seems that most of the women I know, including those I am most closely related to, are engaged in a continuing round of jewelry parties.  The jewelry is quite nice and they seem to enjoy the parties. It seems that the economy is being kept afloat (such as it is) by people buying and selling jewelry.  Not a bad idea, that. Keeps everyone entertained and keeps the cash flowing.

I think that if someone wanted to make a lot of money they could have cordless power tool parties for the guys. I am not a very skilled handyperson, but I do enjoy a good cordless power tool.  And I have accumulated a lot of them.

Normally when I work on a project I pull out the tools I think I'll need and then have to go back until I have dozens of tools to use. Each project is an opportunity to acquire more tools because, after all, you can't do the job without the right tools.  When a group from our church rehabbed a townshouse, I had to buy a compound cut miter saw since we were putting in a lot of trim. I also got an air compressor and pneumatic hammer to nail the trim.  Good stuff.  Last summer when I replaced all our flat panel interior doors with six-panel versions, I had to have a power planer and a router to do the job.  The power planer was necessary because the new doors were about 1/4 inch too long and that's a hard cut to make with a circular saw.  I am really terrible at chiseling out mortises, hence the router.  I did manage to take some of the end of my left index finger off with the planer...on the last cut of the last door.  The hand surgeon who treated me also gave me a little lecture about being older and having slower reaction times.  I think inattention have more to do with it than reaction times, but we old folk are troubled by both.

As I finished each of about the last four projects I piled the tools on my four foot by two foot workbench in the basement thinking I would organize them some day.  Eventually it got to the point I couldn't find anything, so I started sorting one afternoon and put each type of tool into a box: woodworking tools, metalworking tools, cutting tools, glues, nails, screws, and so forth.  It didn't take nearly as long as I thought, and now I can find things. The smaller pieces I still have to sort, but that will come.

I worked on several projects with my friend Jay Jones, a fine fellow who passed away a couple of years ago. I miss Jay and the stories he told.  He seemed to have a tool for every purpose and could find it.  He put all the tools he thought he would need for a particular job into a box and took that to the work site.  I was trying to use several toolboxes to carry mine, but I have since adopted Jay's system. It works like a charm and I think of him every time I fill a box with tools.

Monday, June 6, 2011


Now, normally I am in favor of minding my own business and hope that other people mind theirs, but there’s one exception that I just can’t resist, and that’s eavesdropping on people in public places. If someone is having an animated or interesting conversation I try to position myself near them so I can hear every word and participate vicariously in the exchange. I have to report, though, that only about 10-15% of such conversations are worth listening to: the rest would suck your brain right out of your skull if you listened to them for long. You know the kind—usually done at high volume, usually into a cell phone and usually about the most inconsequential matters anyone could think of: “Yes, well, I told her I would be over this afternoon, but honestly I don’t think I’m going to make it because I have so much to do and anyhow when I show up she just talks about absolutely nothing for hours on end and I can’t get a word in edgewise so…”  Here’s an idea: stop having inane conversations and you’ll have time to go listen to your friend.

Eavesdropping is possibly a backformation of eavesdrop, the portion of a house where rainwater will drip off. A person who surreptitiously stands at the windows to overhear is known as an eavesdropper. That makes a lot of sense, particularly in close-packed medieval cities where the houses were right on the streets. The French are more direct about the term, saying ecouter aux portes, or listen at the doors. Makes sense to me. That explanation is a lot better than the one for the expression "raining cats and dogs" which supposedly came from the habit of cats and dogs climbing up into the eaves of houses to sleep. When rain came the cat and dogs would jump out of the eaves and so it looked like it was raining cats and dogs as well as rain. I think this is a silly explanation since no self-respecting cat or dog would go to that much trouble to find a place to sleep.  Usually they look for some place that is warm, dry and easy to reach--qualities house eave are notably lacking.

It used to be a lot easier to eavesdrop in the days of party lines when three or four families shared a telephone line. Each household had a distinctive ring (ours was two shorts and a long) and all you had to do to listen in on a conversation was pick up the receiver.  Maybe this is where I got into the habit of eavesdropping. I can blame it on Ma Bell.

Sometimes, though, a good eavesdropping opportunity doesn't pay off.  I was in a store the other day when I heard a rather agitated woman ask a clerk to speak to the manager.  Bingo!  I sidled up to them, pretending to look at some merchandise. I was all ears.  When the manager came up I expected a good listen, but all the woman wanted to do was ask something about the store's inventory.  Apparently her default expression and manner was one of agitation.  So it didn't work out that time, but sometimes it does, and it's the best free entertainment around.