Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Active Waiting

We don't often enjoy waiting.

Waiting for transit, waiting at a light, waiting in a waiting room.

Yet sometimes we manage to turn waiting into a relaxing pastime.

We recently stopped by Wabasca AB on our travels south to visit family.

It was a beautiful day.

We spent one afternoon watching the kids idly casting a line into the unknown, waiting for the faintest twitch on the rod.

Eventually it came, the bite and the excitement, the line buzzing out as a nine pounder took the lure.

Not bad for an afternoon of practicing patience.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Going where no kitchen has gone before

Three weeks in Cordova isn't a lot of time.  Not when you're remodeling a basement room into a functioning kitchen suite.  But with perseverance, some help, and a whole lot of work, amazing things can happen.

We relocated temporarily back to Cordova from Anchorage while Theresa was studying for her board exam and I could do some house maintenance for a friend.  This is one of those times when you feel good about being able to bless someone that has spent her whole life giving to her community; in service, support, or encouragement.  But this time grace comes not from her giving, but from receiving.

Too often we have trouble with the receiving part.  We can make it on our own.  We don't need help.  We're fine.

But the truth is in being able to live with both hands open - one to give, and one to receive.  If either hand becomes clenched, then our lives become unbalanced; either from only taking what society has to offer and giving nothing back, or from giving and never being able to receive.

Both take work.

Both have their reward.

Both define community.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Those Golden Hills

A short drive north from Anchorage puts you in the Talkeetna Mountains.  These rugged, granite peaks jut viciously into the air proclaiming their dominance over the landscape, inspiring awe and reverence to anyone that ventures into their valleys.  We drove up into Hatcher Pass this past week and spent a few days in the majestic beauty of this area of Alaska.

Robert Lee Hatcher staked the first gold claim in this valley in 1906, and the next thirty five years saw his claim develop into a booming mining consortium that at its peak mined 34,416 ounces of gold in one year with over two hundred men blasting away miles and miles of tunnels into the rock.

The remains of the Independence Mine is mostly in ruins, but some of the buildings have been restored as a heritage site.  An interpretive trail winds through the rubble giving a brief, unique glimpse into the lives of families that lived in these hills prior to World War Two.

Children played and taught themselves to ski in the surrounding hills after a day of learning in the small schoolhouse that was incorporated into the mining camp.

The sawyers found time to make them toys in between milling timbers for cribbing in the mine shafts.

And the men cycled routinely through the underground, blasting, pounding, and loading their ore into buckets and hoppers in search of the flakes of gold that swept them all into this forlorn, isolated valley in the far north.

Today the hills are silent with only a placard or two adorning the rusty old equipment remaining as a witness to the vibrant, thriving community that once found its future in this valley.

As we drive away, the image of an Atlas Imperial inline 8 cylinder diesel generator, producing 275 hp at 514 rpm tugs at my mind.

I would like to have heard it run.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Trying to be French

There is nothing better to soothe and quieten my soul than the repetitive staccato of the pattering rain falling softly from the mist outside my window.  It's a day of gentleness, peacefulness, and contentment.  A day to put my feet up and grab a good book.

If there is but one fault in our family, it is in our obsession with books.  Our kids read books voraciously; we pack them out of our public library by the bagful.  I, in moments of weakness, order them online through half.com or paperback swap.  And at $0.50 per softcover, the local Salvation Army Thrift Store has contributed many times to a rapacious library that I know I can't possibly consume or contain within my lifetime.

Still doesn't change the obsession.  There is something about written thought, preserved on paper, that lures me over and over into a longing to embark on another literary journey.  And without doubt, I have many of such journeys progressing at any one time - all so compelling, all so inviting.  To wander through worlds of stories, ideas, places - each page opening up new avenues and streets I didn't even know were there.  Who can resist such a call?

"The French have a word for this.  When someone goes for a walk with no particular destination in mind, willing to go wherever the wind blows him, that person is a flâneur.  He saunters.  He strolls.  He takes a right out of his apartment building one day, having taken a left yesterday.  He walks until the smell of fresh bread leads him to make his first turn, down a side street with a bakery.  He continues his walk with a fresh Danish in his hand, until a jogger passes him with a sleek gray dog on a leash.  The jogger turns right at the next light so the flâneur does too, going about half a block before he finds himself in front of a stamp and coin store that has always intrigued him.

"Since he is a flâneur he has time to go in.  When he comes back out, he knows that Bhutan, of all places, is known for its postage stamps, which include Walt Disney characters as well as commemorative issues featuring the British royal family.  After that, he chooses his turns based on the associations with the names of the streets, ending up on one he has walked many times before.  This time however, the window boxes in front of one house are full of of freshly planted red geraniums.  He knows the smell so well that he does not know if he is really smelling them or only imagining that he is smelling them.  Either way, life is good for this flâneur.  Because he is going no place in particular, he does not miss a thing.  Plus, this pleasure is affordable.  So far this morning has cost him $1.49, the price of a cherry Danish."  (p. 81 Taylor, Barbara B.  An Altar in the World.  2009 HarperCollins)

Books do that for me.  So today is such a day to embrace the call of the flâneur; pick up that used tome and wander unfettered to see where it will lead.  

Call it a tincture for the soul.

The spattering drizzle is waiting.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

It all starts (and ends) with the teeth

I've started a new project in the shop.  It's been nice to have the use of a workbench and garage while we were staying in this house, but since our time in Anchorage is coming to a close and we have no firm destination in view after we leave the city, I began to explore ideas for a bench that could be fairly compact; part storage, part work area, part saw bench.....

Ideas come prolifically once you start looking.  And the final push popped into place when I saw Ron Herman's sawbench in the August issue of Popular Woodworking magazine.  A sawbench you could sit on, carve on, saw on, build on.... it wasn't a long leap from there and my new mini bench was born.

Of course, new projects are always worth diversions into unfamiliar territory and it's the first time I threw the ruler away and simply drew the plans with a pair of dividers.  Using 3:5 and 1:3 ratios I worked up something I liked and managed to incorporate a till into the top for my saws.  And with the addition of a few holes in the sides and top, I might even manage to sneak a few dogs and holdfasts in there as well.  Using my kneecap measurement for the height, I soon had all the calculations plugged into place for a materials list. 

After a trip to the box store for some 2X4X96 fir the work began in earnest.  I would like to build this one as simply and traditionally as possible, and will be planing 1 inch stock to edge glue for the sides and ripping 1/2 inch stuff for the till.  The laminated part of the bench beside the till will be 1.5 X 3 inch sections face glued to add a little heft to the top.

Digging up an old handsaw that has rattled in my toolbox for years then got me struggling with the obscure notions of fleam, rake and set.  It's an old saw, and I definitely need the practice learning to sharpen one.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Good Day to be in the Meadow

I went out today looking for a chocolate lily.  It's been blooming everywhere but as yet I haven't photographed it this year.  We had a good rain overnight and the grass was glistening with water drops.  It was a good day for a walk in the meadow.

A good day to try to process some thoughts banging around in my head.

Global Inequality.

It's obvious - I live in a wealthy country.  But the extent of the wealth becomes obscene when measured against the average annual global income.  $9000.00.  That's it.  Average out everyone's income around the world for a whole year and that's what you get.  I'm no Milanovic, and there are all kinds of words and formulas like PPP's (the average income does increase to $11,000 in PPP's) and Gini's that are way beyond me, but I understand enough of it to have that bother me.

Well, to borrow from a well known 12 step program, "Make a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves" is right close to the top.  A good place to start.

OK, I was born in a wealthy country.  I was a sick kid; intussusception requiring surgery within weeks of my birth, adhesion's in my early twenties requiring further surgery, and cancer landing me back in surgery at age 27.  All provided and cared for by the Canadian Health Care system.  A geographical roll of the dice that landed in my favor.

Education?  No problem.  I even had the intellectual capacity to shirk my way through most of my physics and chemistry.  Actually squandered the opportunity - just did enough to make it through.

Went on to fly helicopters for a while.  Did OK.  But a shop teacher told me a long time ago that I had gifted hands.  It's easy for me to tackle things that are mechanical or equipment related.  It comes naturally.

The genetic dice roll if you will.

All a gift.

According to the UC Atlas of Global Inequality someone born in Burundi wouldn't quite have the luck of the draw that I did.  First off, with a mortality rate of children under five reaching close to 20%, even the healthy kids have a lousy shot at the deck.  Not to mention a kid with stomach problems like I had.  I wouldn't have stood a chance of surviving.  And education?  Let's just say with the current illiteracy rate close to 50%, I won't be expecting to see any popping up in my blog audience stats anytime soon.


It makes me wish there was no currency in the world.

No corporations or corruption.

No capitalism.

No consumerism.

It all feels pretty ugly.

Not much I can do about that poor chap in Burundi though.  But the scope of inequality within our borders is just as disturbing.  I'll go back to my native country for a few statistics.  According to Hennessey's Index for February 2011, one child in ten lives in poverty.  1 in 4 if you're aboriginal.  This is in Canada!  The average compensation of the top 100 CEO's for the same year - $6.6 million.  And trust me, the picture in the United States is no better. 

I feel pretty helpless about that.  What can I do?

I guess it starts with awareness.

Then follow with my feelings of entitlement.  If it's all a gift, what can I cling to with a closed fist?


I found my chocolate lily.  But I'm too late.  The season to consider them appears to be over.

There's something strangely disturbing in that.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Photo Study of Seldovia

I'll let the pictures speak for me.  It was a wonderful weekend in a beautiful town.

Canoe Jousting
A Wooden Boat and Water - ahhhh, Tranquility
Chainsaw Carving
Church Bells
Coffee House
??? - Only time will tell

Monday, June 27, 2011

There's a Moose in my Meadow

The ongoing quest for photographs of the animals in our yard continues and this weekend it paid off.  He came sauntering into the meadow in front of the house from the north, leisurely ripping large mouthfuls of grass as he went.

 Then, directly in front of the front door to the garage, he stopped, finding a particularly delicious patch of foliage.  I grabbed my camera and slithered out of the door, keeping an old wooden barrel between me and him, praying he wouldn't spook and leave me naught for my efforts.

He saw me, but found me uninteresting and continued to munch while I was able to watch and snap to my hearts content.

This one I just caught passing through.  He wasn't nearly as interested in sticking around, and I wasn't about to try and entice him to change his mind.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Backyard Mekani King

Our daily transportation is a 1999 Suzuki Grand Vitara.  It had oodles of miles on her when we bought it, but it had been maintained well and seemed to have some life left so we paid the $3500 asking price. It has proven itself to be dependable over the past 3 years we've owned it and we have no complaints.

That's not to say it hasn't needed some maintenance.  In all respects, the work I've done to it has been fairly routine stuff, but living up in the skirting hills of Anchorage these past two years has really beat up the front suspension.  And with nearly 235,000 miles on her, she's covered a lot of ground.  So with a quick call to an auto parts mail order store I soon had both lower A frame members sitting on my garage floor waiting to be installed.

This weekend I had the time to get it done.  I blocked the frame solidly and got the front wheels off.  Auto maintenance isn't that difficult provided you proceed in a logical order, think your way through the process and have access to written manuals or online material for those times you get stuck.  This particular job would require a few specialized tools that you really couldn't do without - a ball joint separator or pickle fork and a coil spring compressor.  Also good to have along was a large hammer, pry bar, and lubrication, both for the backyard mechanic as well as for all those coroded frame bolts.  Good wrenches and sockets go without saying.

Having the front hub removed allowed me to see the part in its entirety.  The worn piece was the ball joint circled in the picture above.  It's a round ball encased within the cast A frame lower suspension arm and on this car isn't replaceable - unless you replace the entire arm.  But some finessing with some jacks, pry bars, and finally the hammer, I got it done.

It'll need a new alignment, but the front end should be good for another quarter million miles.  Wonder where those miles will lead us.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Fractured Component of Compassion

Marcus Borg writes in "The Heart of Christianity;"

"The practice of compassion means both charity and justice.  The distinction between the two is important.  About a hundred years ago, a Christian activist and author named Vida Scudder listed three ways that Christians can respond to a growing awareness of human suffering: direct philanthropy, social reform, and social transformation.  Direct philanthropy means giving directly to those who are suffering, social reform means creating and supporting organizations for their care, and social transformation is about justice - changing society so that the structures do not privilege some and cause suffering for others.

The first two are about charity, the third about justice.  All three are important. Charity is always good and will always be necessary, but historically Christians have been long on the first two and short on the third.  One reason is that charity never offends; a passion for justice always does.  To paraphrase Roman Catholic bishop Don Helder Camera from Brazil: 'When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint; when I asked why there were so many poor, they called me a communist.'" (p. 201, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003)

Today I'm continuing to work at banding my wooden bucket that I started so long ago.  The willow is now much more pliable, and it's actually becoming a strong, tight band around the staves as the willow dries and shrinks.  The willow is split, and only one half is used for the band.  Riving the wood is a traditional method of splitting the wood along the grain, and larger logs would be done using a froe, or a handled wedge that could be inserted into the split and worked along the branch, prying it sideways to split the wood along its length.  These I simply get started with my knife, and then the thin willow splits easily by hand, adjusting the pressure between my fingers to steer the split down the center of the wood.

Pondering Borg's evaluation of the unbalanced nature between charity and justice, I would add that there can be no justice and therefore no meaningful charity if there is no initial separation from the system that capitulates to the injustice.  By changing the way I live, I am no longer manipulated by a society that is offering something I no longer want.  The control over me is lost.  A society that promotes personal gain and independence as the key to happiness is powerless to promote justice, but when I no longer believe that money is the road to happiness, that my pursuit of stuff will bring me peace - then I can understand that my charity needs to become something other than a check written to a benevolent organization, or a bag of toys dropped off at a goodwill center.  Then I can understand the value of relationship with my neighbor, my friend, my world.  My compassion then becomes a new perspective, a new way.

Having split the wood, the bark is now stripped off the outside, leaving a white, smooth, half moon cross-section to wrap around the bucket.  After measuring the length, the ends are notched to lock together to form a circle.  The band can then be slid onto the bucket, and after a day or two of drying, the shrinkage produces a ring that can't be moved.  It's an amazingly simple process, but very effective nonetheless.

An example of this insidious societal influence is in a conversation I had some time ago with a friend that wouldn't answer my direct inquiry into a personal financial issue.  "I can't tell you that; it will change how you think of me."  That blew me away.  First, I think he believed that should I know what he had, it would make me envious and even possibly judgmental of him.  He assumed we valued the same stuff.  Secondly, and possibly even more disturbing to me, was his understanding that we would no longer be able to maintain a good friendship if we shared our secrets.  If I really knew him, I wouldn't like him.

He may very well have been reacting from experience.  Perhaps the last time he shared with someone he got burned.  I understand that, but it's sad.  It's a classic mutation of our society that births the idea that the more we have and the less we invite others into honest relationship the happier we will be.  A life lived with an open hand is definitely one of risk, and there will be pain, but the alternative leads to believing that life simply means money, and compassion is handing a portion of our cash to our kids or our underprivileged.  While this belief allows us to remain unfettered and maintain our distance from those not like us, it robs them and us of the other half of the equation, which is relationship.

It also effectively hinders any justice.

Gandhi has apparently said,  "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."   If this be true, then our own personal transformation,  be it social or spiritual, must first precede the justice we wish to see in society. By ignoring societies definition of success, by no longer hearing the siren call of self confirmation by trying to find ourselves in others or by accepting them solely on our own terms, we begin to see those around us as "a surprise we gladly accept."  (p.32, Jurgen Moltmann, The Passion For Life, Fortress Press, 1978). Then our compassion can ultimately become, through meaningful relationship, a celebration of humanity that can bring about the justice that makes our charity work.

Kinda like some shrinkage around a coopered barrel.

Spalted birch staves, willow band.  In progress.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Knife for a Gift

This morning I decided it was high time to get myself back into the shop and let my hands get dirty again.  Lately my mind has been doing all the flexing and stretching, and it needs a break.

My sister is planning a visit to Alaska and has expressed some interest in trying her hand at carving while she is with us.  I'm certainly not a qualified teacher, but I am more than willing to assist her in whatever way I can to see what we can create together.  In that regards, while standing at my workbench and staring at a block of wood and a broken sawsall blade, I decided to make her a knife in anticipation of her arrival.

The block was an old piece of cedar and plywood, glued together for some other forgotten project, and looked like it might just fit the bill for a unique handle.

The grinder handled the bulk of shaping the blade, ensuring it kept cool by repeatedly dipping it in water so the temper wasn't lost.

A brief stop at the band saw and the pieces were ready for gluing.

Some sanding and woodburning and the knife was ready for finish.  A brass rod for the rivet and it was ready to hone.

Stropped and razor sharp it will now wait until Edith arrives and claims her new tool.  It's been a good day; I not only enjoyed being back at the bench, but I also hope my handiwork will bring a little pleasure to whatever she chooses to use it for in the future.

Cedar, Okume 4mm ply, tung oil, clear shellac and wax finish

Monday, June 6, 2011


Farewell my father; I pray your final days were gentle,
Your last breath drawn in peace,
your worries, struggles, and yes, anger,
like shackles; at last were shaken from your soul,
like the dust I remember you'd drive from your clothes
when returning from the fields on the farm.
Your time with us is over; the last crop binned and secure,
the equipment parked row on row, never to move again.

It will take me a while to let you go -
there's so much to remember and recall.
Memories of you flicking the visor down moments before
the splattering, sparking welding gun would erupt in your steady hand.
And standing, watching you oil the chains on the shuddering,
shrieking machine as the dry west wind would sweep through the trees
around the yard and you would predict the golden swaths
lying in the fields were dry enough to harvest.

You were a man mystified with mystery if it was not defined;
with ideas or concepts that could not be consigned to straight lines.
You measured all things in life; from spraying and fertilizing,
to mealtimes and magpies and marriages and money.
This too I will have to let go, as I continue to accept
that underneath the strength and structure and solitude,
you were a man that was human; a man that did what he could
to be what he would be; my father. Farewell.

J J Unger, May 13, 1921 - May 31, 2011

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Must Take All

In the home where we have been staying, the phone line and internet connection has been essentially disabled for the past week.  There is such severe interference on the line that voice communication is almost impossible.  The response from a service desk personnel to one of my calls for repair could have been amusing if it hadn't been so frustrating:

"I can hear someone is there but I can't understand what you're saying!"

The phone line needs repair, you goof.

Unfortunately, Alaska Communications Systems, the provider for both our phone line and internet, has a Policy that the account holder, and only the account holder, can order repair work before they can issue a service ticket.

Unfortunately, the account holder is on a boat anchored outside of Puerto Williams, a small isolated city of roughly 2000 people on the Beagle Canal in the far southern tip of Chile.

Unfortunately, the satellite phone the account holder carries for emergency communication ends up dropping the call before the interminable maze of routing messages and holds can be navigated in reaching the ACS service desk.

Unfortunately, the email capability the account holder has through their single sideband radio on their boat isn't acceptable to ACS because it doesn't originate from one of the two email accounts they have on file for the account holder, even though it clearly states and identifies the account holder and that they wish to have the phone line fixed.

It's one of those policies with a huge, bold, capital "P."

To be fair, I suspect the competent folk at the ACS service desk are aware of that.  In my last conversation with them they were actually quite apologetic and conciliatory - he kept answering my questions with the disclaimer: "What I have been told by our business office is..."

In other words, please don't shoot the messenger.

Days like these aren't easy nor fun.  But life's like that.  One day you might find a great treasure at a garage sale, then the next day all you can do is build the box that will help you hold and remember it.

And you must take all.

Western Red Cedar, Tung oil finish