Friday, May 26, 2006

A time to reflect




Memorial Day approaches – a holiday left relatively unsullied by commercialism and which still holds much of its original intent.  And amidst the picnics and family gatherings and working in the garden I hope you’ll take a moment to remember those who have served and who still serve this great country – and no matter your politics, offer your thanks in your own way for the freedoms they secured and help to preserve for us all.





But also at this time of reflection, I like to take the time to look at life and upon the journey so far.


I love the picture above.  Its far from one of my best and I hope one day to capture that image the way I see it in my mind’s eye, but it speaks to me in many ways and – if you’ll permit – I’ll share a few of those with you.


The view is at the entrance to a National Park, less than 10 minutes from home.  It doesn’t take one’s breath away or make one feel infinitesimally small in the scheme of the universe like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, but it is filled with nature and life and small pleasures at every turn and I love to visit and walk and learn and ponder.  And my favorite time of day to visit is when the light is right to cast this reflection.


To me, reflections are a metaphor for life – a yin and a yang, what is and what might be, the real and the imagined.  Sometimes the reflection is almost an exact mirror image of the reality, and virtually indistinguishable from it – re-affirming where we are and where we want to be.  Other times the reflection is slightly off-focus – a hazy dream that helps us to see and feel and imagine in a new and different way.  Sometimes the reflection is blurred almost to the point of being unrecognizable, perhaps reminding us of where we’ve lost our way and when a course correction may be in order.  And most disconcerting is when we confuse the reflection for the reality – and find that we are traveling a path that is upside down and backwards from what we intended.


None of the above viewpoints is really better or worse than the others.  Some make us feel good while others make us question – but all can make us think.  And when we think, we learn – and when we learn, we grow.


The next time you see a reflection – be it a graceful arch duplicated in shimmering water or a mirror’s honest view of the face you present to the world – take a look at what that reflection tells you about yourself and your life, where you are and where you wish to be – and then, perhaps, dare to plan the course ahead.

Monday, May 22, 2006

A different sort of Mother's Day



I realize that this entry is less then timely, but I had not intended to write about a day where I felt no right to intrude.  Instead, I offered silent thoughts and prayers and thanks to the spirits of my mother and grandmother and sent private wishes to friends.


But this past week, my path has been crossed by the celebration of new life too many times to ignore - and there must have been a reason that my camera was nearby in each instance.


It began early in the week.  It had been raining for what seemed an eternity and my mood and my outlook matched the cool and unrelenting grey of the sky.  Everything I touched seemed to crumble in my hands and I was feeling incapable of accomplishing anything positive.  And then I looked up and glanced out the window.  Not ten feet away – on the fringe of the treeline that separates my small slice of heaven from civilization -was a new mother deer, resting upon the cool grass and watching over her two baby fawns.  They could not have been two days old – perhaps born on Mother’s Day itself - tiny and wobbly on the spindliest of legs, portions of their fur a bit matted, perhaps still from birth. 


In quiet awe, I watched from the window as she tended to them endlessly, fretting over tiny details and always casting a watchful eye when one tried to stumble about, tentatively exploring this strange and wonderful new world.  Be it love or instinct or a combination of the two, she was as doting a young mother as any being released from the hospital that day with her own bundle of new life cradled safely in her arms.






Next came the opportunity to watch the preparation for life, as a quiet and patient – but ever watchful – mother robin sat proudly upon her nest, awaiting the new adventure soon to begin.  I sat quietly, carefully observing as she positioned and repositioned herself just so in order to warm and protect what will soon be her young.  Each quick movement or unusual sound caught her attention, and it was evident that she wished to fly from her perch to safety in the nearby woods on many occasions.  But the instinct was strong and she stayed her ground in each case, knowing that young lives depended upon her warmth in order for them to enter this world.






Finally, as the week drew near its close came the final indelible image – and the decision to add this entry.  I was near the mouth of a major river channel, where powerful pleasure craft jockeyed for position with 1000 foot long ore carriers to be the first to reach open water - tall buildings and massive lift bridges framing the scene.  Yet over the drone of the massive ship’s engines and even over the soul-rattling sound of the ship’s air horn and the bridge’s warning bells could be heard a much smaller but insistent sound that forced one to turn and observe.  Over the crest and then down a small grassy hill near the edge of the water came a no-nonsense Canada Goose, herding three small goslings.  Noisily, she called and scolded and prodded her seemingly reluctant offspring to stay together and continue moving in the direction she had set – and obediently and a bit dazedly they complied.  Along the narrow walkway they proceeded – and all the people in her path wordlessly parted and cleared the way.  As the sidewalk faded to gravel and then to rocks leading down to the water, she led her babies in – and a small crowd gathered silently to watch this tiny family make its way to its next destination, mom leading fearlessly - her head held high.






In all the world,there is no love quite so pure as a mother’s love.  Albeit belatedly:  to all who have blessed this world with children - tended them, taught them, nurtured them and loved them, thank you - and God bless you.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Something Strange (and Wonderful)


(This concludes a series of entries described in ‘Something I’ve Made’, which appears below.  For those who have slogged through this overload of verbiage over these past several days, thank you for your endurance and your patience). 



If you’ve read previous entries in this series, you will know that I’ve played fast and loose with the ‘rules’ of this particular assignment – and today I’ll break perhaps the most fundamental of those rules, for the ‘picture’ to illustrate this final tale will solely be a recollection of my own mind’s eye – and an attempt to re-create those images for you using only words.


Some of you who have known me for awhile may remember the story I am about to relate.  Some of the words may even be familiar, for I freely admit to plagiarizing my own old outgoing correspondence to craft this entry, but rather than post a humorous image of something odd found around the house, I’m choosing to tell you about a night when nature and imagination and the occasional gift to see things beyond the mundane came together to create a set of experiences which will remain with me for the rest of my days.  So then – the tale of the winter fireflies:



In January of 2005, I celebrated a ‘significant’ birthday.  Rather than have an ordinary party, I decided that the best way to celebrate life to date and to contemplate life yet to come was to rent a cabin at a nearby State Park for a weekend and then invite my closest friends to share the weekend with me.  To my surprise and delight, each found a way around his busy schedule and life’s demands to join me.  It was not the first time many of us had shared a weekend adventure, but I will always be grateful to them for taking that time to celebrate with me.


One of the traditions when my friends and I get together for a weekend away has always been a midnight walk.  These take place regardless of time of year or weather - and experiences shared and discussions held during these times have cemented some of my deepest friendships.   There's something about being alone in nature, usually far away from everything and very late at night, which helps one focus, cast the worries of the world aside, drop pretenses and egos and simply speak the words of the heart.

That Saturday night was very crisp and cold.  The moon was only a day or two past full and cast paths of silver light throughout the barren trees and across the virgin snow.  Three of us set out and walked for about a half hour, talking about how lives have changed in the years we have known each other but that friendships - real friendships - endure.

After a time, the others grew tired and cold and returned to the cabin, but there was something calling me to linger awhile in the pristine beauty of the moment.  I took a different trail and emerged back on the main road, feeling exhilarated but still seeing and hearing nothing out of the ordinary.  Then I turned a corner - and suddenly knew what I was there to see.

Now I am blessed to live on a property that brings nature literally to my doorstep.  In the warm nights of summertime, I love to turn off all the interior and exterior lights and sit on the deck, peering down into the valley below.  As my eyes adjust to the darkness, the night becomes alive with the glow of fireflies - thousands of brilliant, momentary flashes of light in a silent natural fireworks show.

But this night, I was stunned to have that same experience in the cold and dead of frigid winter!  As I walked along that road, the woods became alive with tiny winking lights wherever I looked.  My jaw dropped as I tried to comprehend what I was seeing - and in awe of the stunning beauty of the scene.  

Slowly came the realization that moisture on the limbs of the trees and bushes had turned to intricate crystals of ice and, as I walked, the moon's reflection off each caused the eye to see only flashes of light.  I stopped - and half the 'fireflies' froze in place.   It was as if the world had stopped, that time stood still and that I alone had witnessed this cosmic event, there in the silence of the forest.  I took a step or two and the fireflies winked on and off again.  Stopped - and again felt suspended in time and space.   For at least half an hour, I continued in this wonderland of light and magic until finally the lights of the cabins ahead dimmed the glow of this gift of nature.

By the time I returned to the cabin, the others had retired for the evening.  I sat by the small gas fireplace for an hour, lost in thought and replaying the scene in my head – absorbing again and again the lesson that there is beauty all around us in this world, if only we take the time to let it find us.

Monday, May 8, 2006

Something received as a gift



(This continues a series of entries explained below in ‘Something I’ve Made’.  Please bear with me – its almost over!)



****  Suicidal robin update:  fingers, toes and eyes crossed as I write this, but the covering has been off the windows for a week now and our feathered friend has not returned to rejoin the battle.  Let’s all hope he’s found a less-injurious pastime – and thank you for your best wishes on his behalf!  ****




Selecting the subject of this entry was a difficult choice to make.  Over the years – and also very recently – I’ve received gifts that have touched me and will always be remembered.  All had something in common – there was thought put into the gift, it was unique and tailored to something important to me – and it was obvious that it came from the heart and found a way to capture friendship or affection in a very special way.  Its also funny in that none of the gifts that sprung to mind for inclusion here were particularly expensive – but their value to me will always be priceless.




Several years ago, I underwent a career crisis of sorts.  I was the facility manager of a large research center for a major company – a highly visible location along an interstate highway that we had always taken pride in maintaining to peak degree.  Despite inevitable annual budget cuts, I always asked my staff for ways to remove the hidden costs and not just to take the easy way out.  They knew that I would always start from the standpoint that people were our best and brightest resource and that jobs would always be protected to the greatest extent possible – and perhaps as a result they always forwarded ideas that were cutting edge, creative and effective.  


Then one day, my boss retired – and was replaced by a man from another part of the world who had built his reputation as a ruthless cost cutter.  My fears were confirmed in one of our first meetings, when I was told my operating budget – already pared by almost 33% over the previous few years – would be cut by another arbitrary 25%, simply as a ‘statement’.  When I protested, I was immediately offered solutions that would decimate my staff and almost immediately place the building in a steady state of decline.


Several weeks before this, I had received a call from someone within the company I’d known for many years – offering me an opportunity to join his staff and build an entirely new department.  At the time I was happy in my role and turned him down, but after that meeting and a night to think it over I called him back and asked if the offer still stood.  When it did, I swallowed hard and accepted, then informed my new boss that I had saved him the amount of my salary and benefits by accepting another position at the headquarters facility.  He barely looked up – and I knew that I’d made the right decision.


Some might say that I bailed out on those who counted on me, but the reality was that the person in my job was about to begin overseeing a dismantling of everything I’d worked to build and I simply didn’t have the heart to do that – and my departure and the resulting savings ultimately saved a few of their jobs.



I had hosted a small get-together at the house for my direct staff and had held a farewell breakfast for the entire department in order to express my thanks to each and all who had made things such a pleasure for me over so many years - and thought that would be the extent of my goodbyes.  But on my final day, one of my supervisors came in and told me that there was a problem in the cafeteria and that I was needed immediately.  When I arrived upstairs, the room was filled with balloons and virtually everyone in the facility – and I’ll freely admit to a lump in my throat and a tear in the corner of my eye.


As part of the festivities, I was presented with the gift depicted above.  If you have read my entries here, you know that I am a fan of baseball.  But I also have made a hobby of collecting autographs of players – always on an official Major League ball.  So instead of a simple card, I was presented with this wonderful memento – one which still graces a place of honor on my shelf today.  The center ball is signed by my staff.  The other two contain signatures of people I knew and liked, worked with or even feuded with over the years – but all of which took the time to place their signature in blue ink on something they knew would touch me, then and now.


So many times – especially in the cold world of corporate life – people come and go from our lives with hardly a note of passing.  I always tried to treat each person with respect as an individual even when there were business differences between us – and many times felt that those efforts were either unnoticed or unappreciated as everyone scurried to the next meeting or assignment.   But when it came time to say goodbye, the defensive shields lowered and the light inside emerged – and all the work and all the effort seemed all the more worthwhile.


Sometimes we have the chance to say goodbye, and to use that occasion to reveal to someone what we feel for them in our hearts.  But many times, that occasion never arrives - and a chapter closes with all the words unsaid.  That day reinforced for me the need to take the time to let those we like – and those we love – know how we feel, for we never know when that opportunity will be gone.

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Something with a pig on it (!)



(This continues a series of entries explained below in ‘Something I’ve Made’)



I never thought it would come to this in a public forum, but I will simply state for any eyes which care to read that I am not a pig person.  I don’t dislike them, but I’ve never had an affinity for them either - so put me solidly in the category of pig-neutral or pig-ambivalent, whichever you prefer.


For this reason, my searches for something on-topic proved fruitless and I was moments away from running to the local grocery and buying a pound of bacon to photograph when something clicked in my head and I remembered a t-shirt stored well in the back of the closet.  As you can see from the date, its been there for awhile and, as you can also see, its been worn very infrequently, if ever.


I was invited to this party by a friend who was an acquaintance of the founders.  Legend has it that this event was founded in the late 70s by a group of students at I believe the University of Pittsburgh.  They made it an annual event and continued the tradition well past graduation and through marriages and families.  By the time I was invited, it was a three day festival, held at one of the organizer’s family cabins along the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania.  And for those who wonder, ICAC stands for ‘Iron City Athletic Club’, Iron City being the (cheap) beer of choice of the founders while still on a student’s income and Athletic Club having no discernable relevance whatsoever, from anything I saw.



But this entry – like most things in life - isn’t about the resolution of the quest, its about the journey itself.  As I combed my memory banks for anything that might be in my possession that contained an image of a pig, my thoughts took me back to my youth – and then to my father’s attic to explore the artifacts from that era which might still exist.


There I found old story books, instantly familiar for their well-worn pages – and the remembered feelings and sights and smells of my mother and grandmother as they read to me.  There were no images of pigs, but I no longer cared as I allowed the simple comforts of youth to descend upon me for a few precious moments on the cool attic floor.


Next I found some of my mother’s own childhood books – two ‘Big Little’ books to be accurate.  One was a Li’l Abner tale, the other Little Miss Muffet – still no pigs, but wonderful, warm images of my mother as a carefree and happy little girl to fill my senses for a time.


Finally, I found the box of ‘Disneykins’ from my youth.  These were small plastic figures, usually sold in sets of cartoon characters and children’s stories.  Although jumbled together, each piece – despite the fragility of its construction – was intact, cared-for and appreciated even when my hands were considerably smaller and perhaps less cautious than today.  There was the Yogi Bear series, the Flintstones, Captain Hook and Peter Pan, Mickey and Daffy and Donald – but no Porky to be found.  But by then – eyes closed now -  I was again seated at my grandmother’s kitchen table, carefully grouping and displaying my little plastic treasures and crafting adventures for them – and the lack of a pig was the furthest thing from my mind.


I came back down from the attic empty handed – but with a head spinning in sweet memories and warm remembrances, and a heart full of people I can no longer touch but who will always be with me.  Pig or no pig, it was a wonderful day.

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Something Unique



(This continues a series of entries explained below in ‘Something I’ve Made’.  If you read that first installment, you’ll know I’m jumping around a bit in the order of the assignment - but rules are made to be broken after all….)




I would have liked this entry to be about a pair of cast metal ewers that sit proudly by the fireplace in my Great Room.  They are heavy and solid yet delicate in their fine detail, and they have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember – first gracing my parent’s home and now my own.  But unfortunately, I know so little about them that their story cannot be told – and all those who could tell it took it with them when they departed this earth.  I know that they were hand-crafted by a relative - a great or perhaps even great-great Grandfather if I recall correctly - but the circumstances of their creation are now lost to the ages and there is no proud family history of great forgers or decorative iron-workers upon which to fall back, so they will need to remain ‘only’ a delight to the eye and a physical link to a relative who shall remain forever faceless and nameless despite the beauty of this physical reminder of his existence.




But instead my subject will be a relic of an industrial past that was at least partially intertwined with my own life and working career for many years.  I’ll tell you a little more about my working life in the entry revolving around a ‘gift received’ in a day or two, but suffice to say that the very effective doorstop pictured above is a link to a simpler time when ingenuity solved many challenges at low cost, and time was not so much of the essence as it always seems today.


This is a miniature version of a ‘ball mill’ - used to grind paint pigment to a uniform size.  Coarse granules of colored pigments were placed in this vessel, along with a number of the ceramic balls and other shaped objects pictured here.  The lid was clamped down tightly and the mill was placed on a set of mechanically-driven rollers that spun for hours and hours – slowly letting the ceramics grind the pigment to a size acceptable for use in making quality paints and other coatings for any variety of industrial and consumer uses.


This was a research-sized mill – the baby brother of massive tanks that were used in actual production for many years in the first half of the last century.  I found it one day in a heaping pile of trash stacked outside an old storage room at work.  While it obviously no longer served a useful purpose, it was a part of the history of the industry and I couldn’t see simply relegating it to a landfill. 


I consulted with some of the ‘old-timers’ and listened to their stories of howthese were used and – even better – what work life and life in general were like in those times, and then cleaned my new-found treasure up and put it to alternative but still productive use as a combination doorstop / conversation starter in my office.  For as long as it resided there, it always seemed to bring a small sense of peace and a reminder of simpler times – and that gift alone made its rescue and salvage well worth the effort.

Monday, May 1, 2006

Something I've Made


The next few entries in this Journal will be a bit different from most you’ve seen before.  As always, they will be my words and photos, but the idea for the entries has originated from an outside source.  My friend Nikki - Bedazzled - has ‘tagged’ me and several others to play a game that combines photos with the stories behind them – all of which are to be posted in that person’s Journal for all to see, ridicule and comment upon (okay, part of that was editorializing on my part to prepare you for what you will ultimately see and read here).


The assignment appeared simple at the outset – until it came time to select the actual subjects, of course.  Here are the photos / stories I’ve been asked to provide:


Something I’ve made

Something I’ve received as a gift

Something strange

Something with a pig on/in it (of all things)

Something unique


Now there’s a reason why the word ‘Rambling’ appears in the title of this Journal – because I am a man of many words (although master of few).  And in order for me to tell the stories behind these pictures, it will take more space than a single entry – or the patience of any reader – would safely permit.  So I will begin this quest with ‘Something I’ve Made’ and attempt to follow with additional postings each day or so until the job is complete -  or until too many of you cry ‘uncle’……





When gifts and talents were handed out on the day I was born, I was fortunate enough to be blessed with a few. What I was not blessed with, however, was the ability to draw or craft or otherwise use my hands to create things of beauty or meaning.   When I ‘make’ something, it is for a purpose – something to complete a utilitarian task and usually something specialized (or crazy) enough that it couldn’t be purchased outright.  Many of my ‘creations’, therefore, are Goldbergian in nature, not meant to impress but simply to meet a real or perceived need.


I freely admit that the above does not look like much – and indeed it was one of my less-fanciful projects - but its purpose was rather unique and offers a bit of insight into what makes me tick, so I have chosen it to fulfill this portion of the ‘assignment’.


My home is ranch style, with a full basement that is unfinished.  Upon move-in, when it came time to settle on a location for the all-important cat box, the most logical location appeared to be under the stairs – a small, enclosed space that was both accessible and out-of-the way at the same time.  Pippin – thankfully - appeared to approve and the location became his.


Now I know that the quality of cats’ eyesight, especially in low light, is legendary - but I still felt bad that the poor little guy would have to make his way down the stairs and use the box in near total darkness after sundown and I just felt he deserved better than that.  So off to the home improvement store I went, with a vague idea of what I wanted but no plan further than that.


I came home with the contraption you see pictured here – designed to illuminate driveways or backyards whenever a car drove in or someone walked through, by sensing motion and turning on the light for a prescribed time period before re-setting.  I found a nearby electrical line and tapped-in, mounting the unit such that anyone passing nearby would activate the sensor and provide about five minutes of light to this small area.  I programmed the sensitivity at its lowest setting in hopes that even a stealthy grey feline would activate it and then waited to see if this crazy idea would work.  Soon thereafter, Pippin appeared, entered the enclosed space and viola! the light came on.   In typical feline indifference, he never displayed any reaction to this small addition – and in my heart I know it was probably never necessary at all - but he was a special part of my life and I hope that somehow he knew that itmeant I cared.


If you’ve read elsewhere in this Journal, you know that Pippin passed away of natural causes last summer – and that hardly a day goes by when there isn’t something that reminds me of him and brings a smile.  This past January, the light bulb in this fixture finally burnt-out.  Even though it serves no purpose now (if it ever did), I replaced it – in simple reminder of a friend no longer physically present, but always alive in my heart.