Top of Piedmont: To Watch, Listen and Ponder — Then Write!

October 2012Monthly Archives


When parents see their kids walk out the door in the morning, they are focused on the practical stuff of the day – Do they have lunch money, are they dressed for the weather and what’s the plan after school?  Underlying these thoughts is the primary one – safety.

Safety with little kids is a lot easier to deal with than older kids.  As the infant moves toward greater independence the precious knick-knack from Aunt Jen moves off the lower shelf to the top of the chest of drawers. Electric cords are tucked under the sofa away from gnawing teeth, and the buttons and dials of the stereo are elevated to a greater height where a random twist won’t destroy the speakers.  Fish tanks also need confinement.  We don’t want the fish traumatized by having a seven month-old join them for a swim.

Kids get a little older and mobile and more safety education begins.  Remember that fire truck you saw go by the house?  Well suppose your eighteen month-old decided it would be fun to return to the scene of the most recent fire without consultation.  He is well equipped with a back-pack of stuffed toys, but the hike downtown to the fire station shouldn’t have to include a 9-1-1 call on a lost child!

Bike riding also creates enough of its own hazards.  Getting the balancing act down is an accomplishment ranking right up there with walking. Why worry about braking?  The end of the block serves as a good limit if the corner can be turned at high speed.  If it doesn’t work, hopefully the worst outcome is a skinned leg.

Going off to school is risky in a different kind of way.  There are physical risks, but sometimes the emotional ones for a kindergartner are more front-and-center. Adjusting to the little boy on the next rug pushing, or the girl with the long blonde hair saying, “Your stupid !” takes some training in ignoring and assertion of  your own rights.  Because someone says you’re dumb doesn’t make it so.

Increasing maturity brings increased risk; that’s how insurance companies make and lose money.  Just ask any parent who has a kid driving.  Even with an old car it’s at least a $60 a month bump – Oops, I didn’t say bump.

Once putting the car into gear and acceleration and braking are figured out, there’s a better understanding of how important stopping is. Paying attention is always being tested.  In this climate, marginal road conditions lead to an occasional ditch or displaced mailbox.

It is the role of the parent to worry; hopefully not all the time.  Teaching our kids to be safe remains one of the more difficult tasks of parenting.  We all hope the consequences of various types of learning experiences are not too dear.  We do after all want to see what they will do when their children take off down the road on their two wheelers.

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”

There are many interpretations of the meaning of Dylan Thomas’ iconic poem. A Google search will give you boat-loads of interpretation.  For most it means fighting to the last against decline and dissolution. Rage is one approach, acceptance might be another.

Consider the man who takes on projects. There was a time when the thought of adding a whole new floor to a house was child’s play. If there wasn’t a plan, it could at least be roughed in. Lifting a roof rafter without hydraulic assistance? No problem. If the rafter didn’t fit the way it was supposed to, get a hammer. If it still didn’t fit, get a bigger hammer. The finish work came later.

There’s a reason why you don’t see many senior citizens shingling. It’s hard, demanding work, requiring a limber, supple body with flexible joints. The old guy pointing here and there from the lawn is either the supervisor or the homeowner who dreams of skittering up and down the ladder with a seventy pound bundle of shingles slung over his shoulder: ain’t gonna happen anymore baby. He’d be lucky to get thirty pounds up the ladder!

Then there are the physical consequences of working on a project. For those of us with restricted blood flow bequeathed by our genetics; between aspirin, Plavix and fish oil, a mere brushing of a two by four against an arm or leg leaves a rainbow of colors. Questions asked by a nurse at the clinic take on a whole new meaning when they see a black and blue arm, leg or torso. “Do you feel safe at home?”

“Yeah . . .  Except for the damage I inflict on myself!”

Getting ready for winter’s onslaughts used to mean warming yourself by dropping a tree in the woods, cutting to stove length, splitting and stacking for drying and then stoking the fire as temperatures drop. Even with the luxury of having someone deliver wood cut and split, it still needs to be stacked and the occasional piece chopped again when it’s a little too big. These efforts in a tattered body mean more “face time” with a Monster Maul. This is not done rapidly. It might take a week and repeated trips to the hot tub interepersed with forays to the medicine cabinet for Advil.  Those tired of the effort and mess now hit a button on a remote and let the gas do the work.

With all the projects set before the average homeowner, other additions to winter preparation include raking, cleaning gutters, washing windows, hanging bikes and pulling, covering and winterizing boats.  Yanking docks out is a whole other chaper. With not a lot of chimney sweeps around, a clean sweep needs doing so the house doesn’t go up in flames some cold night. Sometimes “The Home” with all the other seniors looks inviting.

I am not the man I used to be. But then I ask, “Was I ever the man I used to be?” The past looks richer in the dusk than in sunrise.


We interact with a variety of media. The platforms for delivery change daily.  Fiber optics gives us 500 to 1000 choices every night. That is frightening.  Short of watching old Sci-Fi movies and the Weather Channel, having more Oprah-like clones, Dancing with this or that celeb of the moment (Who ARE these people?) and Crystal Cathedrals, strikes fear in my heart. High tech voyeurism and salvation hawked by silicone-borne ministers who want money instead of saving the soul, casts a shadow over the need for redemption.  We all need to be saved, but by illuminated glass pathways or cell signals?

Early man was liberated from the fear of the dark of night by fire. Dramatizations of this event usually portray it as an accident.  Some not too bright caveman finds a burning stick after a lightning strike and scorching his finger tips, figures out that it can be used in various ways: cooking, warmth and keeping the ravenous saber-tooth at bay.

Fire and light became salvific over the centuries in various ways. Burning sticks, pine tar torches, candles and kerosene lamps held back the night. Now voice activated light switches are safer than that burning stick from the pine tree. The light cast by modern technology still serves to keep at a distance the threat inherent in darkness: the fear goes back a long way.

Over the last thirty years, we have been inundated by vast amounts of information.  We have however been unable to develop a way of sorting out what is of value and what is merely titillating; the strange has become commonplace. Redemption delivered by the Domino drivers of the information highway usually has extra cheese, tastes good, but ends up like Quikcrete in the arteries.

The evangelist preaches deliverance by lightning bolt. Salvation comes by way of distraction from the facts of life with simple answers or by following a rigid party line in the hope that random acts of savagery can somehow be explained away. This cheapens the complexity and diversity of life.  We are not all alike.  We are all different.  The universe is too big for one explanation.

The talk show host on the other hand would have us believe that salvation comes in floodlighting every detail of the messy lives many people live.  Some of our interests in the unusual, perverse or just plain weird grow out of having developed a type of shell against the deluge of information.  Either we take on the onslaught, or we ignore it.  If we choose to engage, the blatant, sensationalized aspects of lives run amuck “enlighten” us.  If we dive into the river of data, we miss those events that have redemptive meaning that are buried in the grind of job, family, traffic snarls and overextended credits cards.

If we have the fire to light a small part of the world, perhaps other lamps switched on in the darkness will help keep the beasts at bay. The light of all our electronic devices will do little to show the way to redemption. Traveling down the electronic highway at light speed with the accelerator stuck provides little opportunity to exit. It’s really in how we drive. To have faith in the predictability of life means that we take charge of the process rather than be a victim: there’s always the off switch.

On the Edge

Maple leaves pirouette to the frost brushed ground in the rising sun.

            Birds rustling through the branches accelerate their golden demise.

Chickadees and Juncos dance on the bird feeders,

            stocking up for the lean time ahead.

They look fat.

Steam on the lake – a cold volcano wisping skyward — ethereal, spirit laced.

            The boat rests in the lagoon.

Give me one last time.

            One last ride.

                        One last Walleye.

One last trip down river to the dam before the sleet stings racing across the lake, ice encasing all!


The evenings have turned cool of late.  The open windows of late summer and early fall are giving way to half opened portals in anticipation of chilling blasts roaring down from the Canada, with high temperatures soaring into the forties.  Stoking up the wood burning stove to take the chill off a house becomes a pleasurable exercise.  Fire’s fascination is always with us.

The Cub Scout wienie roasts, family camping trips or picnics are usually a child’s first encounter with the power of an open flame.  Fire is alive, flickering one instant, roaring into a wind-driven blast  another; one time a benevolent servant,  another moment  an unpredictable fiend who demands respect.

Starting a fire is an art.  Some can do it; others are better off turning up a thermostat on the living room wall.  It requires patience and a willingness to start small with the knowledge that bigger and better things are to come. 

Small pieces of paper offer a good start with wood shavings a better alternative.  Twigs stacked randomly or compulsively banked add more substance to the flame.  Then it is time to add small branches moving from finger, to wrist, to forearm proportion.  With persistence and a little more time, split logs can then be added to fill out the flame’s potential.

A fireplace insert works well when you want to take the chill off on a cool morning.  The stoves have quirks, but by not being terribly worried about efficiency, they will warm a major portion of a house when well stoked. 

I have always had some difficulty getting larger pieces of birch or oak to sit properly inside the steel chamber of a wood burner. For awhile I would grab the ends of the logs and maneuver them into more suitable positions. Occasionally I would lose my grip, and burn the tops of my hands or wrists by accidentally brushing the fire box.  Some large gloves, the type used in steel mills, have all but eliminated this branding.  

Respecting the condition of the wood one uses is essential.  One time camping near Mackinac Island in fog bound conditions, I used what is technically called an “accelerant” to stimulate a campfire’s growth.  The wood we were trying to burn was extremely damp.  Fortunately for me and the rest of my family, the Coleman Lantern fuel I used, while creating a small mushroom cloud, didn’t even sear my beard.

Fire that is used and contained for warmth is a benign force.  It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see how the power of forest fires destroys all before it.  

Fire as we experience it yearly holds another fascination.  We protect the one year old from the danger of the single flame on the birthday cake.  As we get older we run out of space on the frosted surface and protect ourselves from life’s inevitable progress by using candles that represent decades rather than single years.

Fire has utility and fascination for us.  It keeps us alive and warm when nature turns things cool, and reminds us that like the brief flickering of the birthday candle, we best do our living before the flame burns out.

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