Saturday, September 20, 2008

Mennonite Grocery Sandal Scandal

I shop for groceries at as many as five places: The local Weis Market, a modern, typical grocery store; the local Super Walmart for a few items that are crazy expensive elsewhere; the Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays and the Flea Market on Thursdays for fresh and often local produce; and the nearby Mennonite grocery store where nearly everything is amazingly inexpensive.

I call it the Mennonite grocery store because every woman I’ve seen working there wears traditional Mennonite dresses and bonnets. Mennonites are not far removed from the Amish, and the similarities apparently appeal to the local Amish population: there’s a hitching rail in the parking lot, and on most Wednesdays several Amish buggies pull up and their riders step out to shop.

On a particular Wednesday, the Amish shoppers arrived wearing what I imagined was their most formal attire: the men wore dark pants, button shirts, jackets, leather dress shoes, and black hats—altogether natty. The women wore dark dresses and heavy bonnets.

I, on the other hand, had chosen an old tee shirt, shorts, and sandals (without socks). Oh, the scandal!

At first, I paid no thought to my attire; I dress this way often, as do many of my fellow Americans. But then, at the end of the “oops, we backed a truck over it cereal” aisle (there’s a reason things are inexpensive in the Mennonite grocery store), I noticed a young Amish boy in his dress finest pointing at my feet with one hand, and trying to hide a laugh with his other hand.

I wasn’t mortified; but I was suddenly very self-conscious. Do Amish, I wondered, have a dress code against sandals? Do my bare ankles offend? How fortunate for me that the adults showed restraint about my apparently tasteless foot gear!

I stewed about this for months; I even took to wearing socks and shoes on my Wednesday shopping trips.

In time, I came to believe that my sandals hadn’t been scandalous in the first place. Many patrons of the Mennonite grocery store wear sandals without socks… and there’s no doubt: if you live in the United States, you’re going to see a lot of naked ankles. So, I’m back to wearing sandals on my Wednesday shopping trips.

Still, I wonder: whatever could that Amish boy have found so funny about my feet?

My Feet

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Rural Moonglow

Here’s something I enjoy a few times every month or so: moonglow. It occurred to me recently, that moonglow might be a completely unknown phenomenon to someone who lives in the city. Sure, city dwellers see the moon, but they also see the light from thousands of electric-powered lights; except during a power outage, there’s never a time when the moon lights up a city. Often in the countryside, the moon provides the only light.

To appreciate moonglow, it helps first to appreciate darkness. On an overcast night, when the moon is down—or when the clouds are particularly thick, it can be very dark indeed. In the city, I never wandered into a place even vaguely as dark. These nights aren’t light-free; in a small town, there is always light bouncing off the clouds, and your eyes adjust so you can make out shapes in the darkness.

However, get rid of the clouds and the moon, and the world becomes impressively dark—still not so dark that your eyes won’t adjust, but dark enough that you can’t make out textures and changes in surfaces. Is there someplace you can experience this level of darkness without fleeing the city? Maybe in a windowless room with the lights off, but with a dim frame of light leaking in around the door. If there’s digital equipment throwing off blue, red, green, or orange light, you’ve got it too bright for comparison.

When I first step out into a night so dark, I step slowly, and feel for the stairs with my feet. Even after five minutes, I can’t make out shapes along the side of the road; looking into the distance, I might be able to make out a tree, a tree line, or a house against the sky—but the darkness has almost no texture at all where I happen to be walking.

In contrast, it’s astonishing how bright the night can be when lighted by a full moon. Holding a book or a newspaper, with 20/20 vision, you can read by moonlight. It can be bright enough not only to see shapes, but to make out colors—though barely. Once your eyes adjust to the moonlight, you can walk and play outdoors reasonably effectively without other light sources. And on a clear, moonlit night when the land is covered in snow? Wow!

This isn’t some amazing discovery, but it seems worth mentioning for people who have never experienced it. Take a trip some time: go where there is no concentration of streetlights, cars, and porch lights—far from a city. Find a secluded road or path and walk it at night not just once, but on several nights. See what it’s like moonless (walk cautiously), and compare it with another night when the moon is up—and maybe even full.

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Also, please visit my blogs about growing your own vegetables and fruit: Your Small Kitchen Garden and Your Home Kitchen Garden

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Small Town Values

I enjoy the comedy of John Stewart on the Daily Show, and was quite amused on Friday by his piece on small town values. (Follow this link if you want to see it.) Ignoring the political focus of the segment, I imagined myself trying to answer the question, “What, exactly, are small town values?” It’s a challenging exercise.

Uniquely Small Town Values?

The only value I can think of that may be uniquely small town is that of preferring to live in a small town. After that, it seems you can find any “small town value” in every community… and you can find just about any “value” imaginable in a small town.

Lewisburg, for example, has people who value education, who value religion, who value family, who value friends, who value health, who value stuff, who value freedom, who value their careers, who value community, who value sports, and who value TV shows. There are folks here who value their own interpretations of right and good to the degree that they expect everyone to share those interpretations. Other folks value diversity so much that they won’t express a position on either side of an issue. In short, there is absolutely nothing that makes “small town values” any different from what nearly every American would refer to as “values.”

If you want to politicize the notion of small town values, consider that there are Christian-raised, small-town, family-loving folk who are drug addicts, pregnant but not married, divorced, kleptomaniacs, rude, war-mongering, hateful, and all kinds of less-than-perfect. You can find a whole bunch of similar folks living in cities. I believe that neither small-town- nor urban-America would claim these as their values.

And Your Values?

While I haven’t been able to pin down what makes values “small town,” I have noticed a significant difference in how people relate to their values. My acquaintances in the city were never shy to reveal their points of view… but they also rarely injected moral, religious, or political commentary into a conversation. In small town USA—at least in the small town USA I know—for many people, religiousness is almost a calling card; sometime during a first meeting, it’s common to be asked what church you attend.

So, based on my experiences, I can add a second value to my short list of small town values: making sure other folks know what you value.

Across the US, our core values as basically the same. We differ in interpretation, in expression, in policy, and in behavior… but ask us what we value, and the answers will be boringly consistent. No group, organization, region, city, or town has a lock on values… Go ahead: ask anyone.

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Also, please visit my blogs about growing your own vegetables and fruit: Your Small Kitchen Garden and Your Home Kitchen Garden

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sinking of the White Pearl

A week has passed since the event, but it’s still fresh in my mind as if it happened only minutes ago: my son went down with his pirate ship, the White Pearl. (No worries. He came back up. This story is not a tragedy.) About five weeks back, my son’s friend invited my son to participate in Sunbury’s upcoming Cardboard Boat Regatta. Roughly, the rules require that boats entered in the regatta be made entirely of cardboard. Though they can be held together at the seams with duct tape, the boat cannot be covered entirely with duct tape. After that, only glue, caulk, and paint are allowed.

My son’s friend designed a boat that resembled the great ships of old-time pirates. Together my son and his friend cut cardboard, glued it together, caulked seams, painted, and created special decorative touches. There was a mast, a skull-and-crossbones flag, a crow’s nest, and a bowsprit. There were pirate costumes, a toy parrot on a shoulder, a baby doll with a pirate’s hat in the crow’s nest, and the ship’s name: The White Pearl painted on its bow.

baby on board

At the regatta, there were dozens of clever boat designs: one shaped like a dragon, another like a hammerhead shark, a truck with wheels, a small car, a gondola, something called Alien Invasion, and even the Titanic II (which looked more like a river barge or a rectangular canoe than an ocean liner).

There were three divisions: Adults-only, mixed adults and children, and children-only. During the race of the mixed division, I learned that moms and their teenaged sons should not build and race cardboard boat together. She yelled, “J stroke! J stroke!” He yelled, “I’m trying.” She yelled, “Sweep! Sweep!” He yelled, “Shut up!” Neither looked happy, though their boat stayed afloat through the whole race.

Then there was the White Pearl. Two good friends, dressed (roughly) as pirates, set the boat in the water. My son’s friend in front, my son in back, gently climbed into the great ship. My son, however, could not get his right leg into the boat—with each attempt, the boat listed hard to the port side (left)… and then the starter’s horn sounded.

The mass of boats surged forward as the crew of the White Pearl paddled. With each stroke, the great ship listed more to port. After, perhaps, five or six strokes, the great ship’s mast fell, and only seconds later the spine of the White Pearl cracked… she hadn’t even cleared the end of the dock.

The stalwart pirates managed to save the baby, as they dragged sixty pounds of soggy cardboard out of the river. The whole mess went into a nearby dumpster. But, when prizes were awarded, my son and his friend received notice for Best Sinking! Knowing the deadly sins, I try not to feel pride, but on this day my soul is weak. I so hope they enter next year’s cardboard boat regatta.

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Also, please visit my blogs about growing your own vegetables and fruit: Your Small Kitchen Garden and Your Home Kitchen Garden

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Country Wedding

This past weekend, my wife and I attended the wedding of one of her friends. In my experience, it was an uncommon event: it was held at a farmer’s produce store outside of town.

I’ve attended, perhaps, twenty weddings. Most were held in churches, followed by drives to country clubs or hotels or other places that could hold crowds for meals and dancing. Only three weddings I’ve attended were outdoors and independent of churches. Those were the most enjoyable, excepting, of course, my own wedding which, though it was in a church, made all weddings pale in comparison. (My wife might read this blog entry. You get my drift.)

This weekend’s wedding was absolutely delightful! The farm market—Ard’s—has evolved in the twelve years we’ve lived here from a simple produce store with a deli counter into a produce store with a restaurant and family-friendly attractions. These include a rope maze, a gunny sack slide, various playground items, a goat pen, and a corn maze that opens when the corn is tall enough.

We’ve gone to Ard’s for their annual customer appreciation days (a small carnival), to choose Christmas trees, and to ride a hay wagon out to a pumpkin patch where we harvested our jack-o-lantern candidates. Ard’s seems very successful, and I’m sure some of that success comes from these extra bits they provide for the community.

For the wedding ceremony, there were rows of benches on the lawn behind the building—adjacent to an open-air dining area (under cover) that wraps around the back corner. Sitting on these benches put the goat enclosure immediately to our right; we could see the goats wandering up and down a ramp that leads to a feeding station about 20 feet over our heads.

During the ceremony, a rooster crowed three times, and then strutted between the guests and the wedding party. The service was simple and pleasant, and afterward we walked to the dining area where we had a buffet dinner service before guests (especially the youngsters) headed out to play volleyball, to explore the corn maze, and otherwise to enjoy the farm market’s recreational facilities.

As the bride’s brother spun up some tunes and got the dancing started, I enjoyed the goats, visited the rooster, and watched patrons of the store come and go. It was such a pleasant time in such a remarkable place. Imagining that the choice of this venue must represent the tastes and sensibilities of my wife’s friend and new husband, I must conclude: my wife has good taste in people.

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Also, please visit my blog about growing your own vegetables and fruit: Your Small Kitchen Garden

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


While at the Mennonite grocery store today, I did quite a bit of shameless people-watching:

There was a heavy old woman who I saw only from the rear as she selected a cart outside the store, pushed it in front of the entrance door, and stopped there to read the specials listing—blocking my way for several seconds (very unhealthy seconds for a former Bostonian). When finally she started walking, it was with a slow limp, so I felt not only impatient, but also guilty about being impatient.

There was a late-middle-aged mother with her twenty-something son. He seemed nervous and awkward. She also seemed nervous. She was helping with his grocery shopping, and they were carrying on as if they’d both gotten their first own apartment and they were stocking the larder for the very first time.

There was a very pleasant young-looking older gentleman with a full head of white hair. We did a little shuffle dance in front of the deli counter as I bounced from end-to-end selecting lunch meat and cheeses while he held position awaiting service. We chuckled together several times.

There was a young couple who seemed exasperated with each other as he repeatedly asked her whether she wanted the item he held. Later I saw him pushing the cart alone and dropping in items; she was nowhere near.

There was a woman only a little older than I, dressed modestly and meticulously. She smiled warmly each time we passed, and she filled her cart with supplies for pickling and making jams, jellies, and preserves. I guessed she ran a tight and very happy Mennonite household.

The moment that made all this so memorable was the one that took place between an impossibly old couple. She sat in a wheelchair, and he somehow pushed her around, though looking frail enough to qualify himself for a wheelchair. Estimating forward from my dad’s 88 years, these folks must both have been in their late 90s.

He doted over her, including her in every moment of their shopping trip. At the tomato bin, he leaned in for a tomato and held it close so she could reject it, sending him back for another to judge.

I thought hard about the idle inattention that is so common among married couples: how easy it would be to leave the wife home—or simply to push her along while loading the cart to your own whim. To see this couple completely involved both with their chore, and with each other, infused me with hope for the long-term health of my marriage. Wouldn’t it be sweet to reach 90 with my wife, and still find ways to spend quality time with her?

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Friday, August 8, 2008

West End Fair

It is so intensely fair season in central Pennsylvania. Every small town, every county, and every fire station…as well as some farm stores, a hospital or two, and bunches of churches, sponsor fairs, festivals, or carnivals. With some of these events running for a day, others for a weekend, and still others for an entire week, it’s impossible to patronize all of them. For that matter, smaller fairs and carnivals seriously resemble each other. Unless you absolutely can’t live without fried dough, you can quickly overdose on fair season.

This past week was about the Union County West End Fair which runs for a week at the western end of Union County. Last night, my daughter and I headed out to enjoy the county fair atmosphere.

We visited a pavilion of exhibits that had been submitted for judging. These included baked goods; fresh vegetables; canned fruits and vegetables; crocheted and knitted clothing, blankets, and rugs; photos; paintings; paper crafts; sculptures; scrap books; flower arrangements; and antiques (yes, if you have an old stove-top coffee percolator, it might win a blue ribbon at a county fair).

Other pavilions held rabbits, pigs, sheep, cows, and goats. Off beyond the pavilions was a track designed for the tractor pull. Here’s a niche sport: Hook your tractor to a heavy weight, and pull the weight as far as you can on a soft dirt track. The trick is to keep the tractor’s wheels turning without letting them lose their grip on the track. From time-to-time a tractor pulls a wheelie as it approaches a stall.

Just off the fair’s midway, a large open-air stage faced three rows of bleachers and several dozen lawn chairs. A talented bluegrass and country band played for about 90 minutes, with a second set scheduled to start 90 minutes later. My daughter and I watched a few heats at the tractor pull, shared a funnel cake while we listened to the band, and left the fair after about two hours.

The music was quite good, and the rabbits and goats were especially cute. The pigs, cows, and sheep were also entertaining. Still, the high point for me was dinner I had at a friend’s sausage truck—Gunzy’s Hot Sausage.

My friend--a school teacher—has been working the sausage truck with his family since he was a kid. This was the first time I’ve seen the truck. It is actually a large trailer whose sides fold out to create an enormous restaurant at the fair. The sausage is a perfect mix of hot and sweet, and I’d have been satisfied if the entire fair was no more than my friend’s sausage truck.

Still, I had a relaxing evening with my daughter doing something “different.” We won’t be going to a lot of county fairs and firemen’s carnivals, but I’m sure we’ll find a few things to entertain us at the fairs we do visit.

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Sunday, August 3, 2008

News from the Countryside

On Thursday of this past week, the prominent headline on the front page of our local paper read, “BEAR RUNS WILD IN TOWN.” This newspaper, the Daily Item, originates from Sunbury, a town about 10 miles south of Lewisburg. The paper covers the central Susquehanna Valley, including such places as Selinsgrove, Milton, Mifflinburg, Middleburg, Northumberland, Danville, Elysburg, Warrior Run, and dozens of other small towns.

Of course, the Daily Item also offers news from Pennsylvania cities, from other states (when the stories seem juicy enough), and from around the world. But for all these sources, the prominent headline was about a bear wandering around downtown Lewisburg. It inspired me to dig through our pile of “waiting to be recycled” newspapers. Here are prominent headlines:

Thursday, July 24: Want 60% better mileage?
Friday, July 25: Park hit by blackout
Sunday, July 27: Woman saved teen’s life
Monday, July 28: Goodbye, produce aisle
Tuesday, July 29: Doctor sees poverty’s toll
Wednesday, July 30: Constable reform sought
Thursday, July 31: BEAR RUNS WILD IN TOWN
Friday, August 1: Without pact, airport closes
Saturday, August 2: Bailout offer on table

There were other headlines each day, but these were the ones accompanied by color photos. In ten days (couldn’t find July 26’s paper), our headlines told about a man who built a hydrogen generator to improve his car’s gas mileage, about a blackout at an amusement park, about a woman pulling a kid from a wrecked car, about buying crop shares to reduce your grocery expenses, about a medical doctor’s experience as a volunteer in Zambia, about a desperate need to provide better oversight of constables throughout Pennsylvania, about a bear, about a local airport closing because of financial trouble… and then about a bailout offer to keep the airport running.

The point? These were big stories for our community. We have wilder and crazier news weeks, but they are few and far between. One appealing aspect of rural living is that most of our exciting headlines wouldn’t fall anywhere near the front page of a city newspaper (well, a bear grazing in central park or on the Boston Common might get a mention). We get to make our own excitement; the community rarely forces it upon us.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

A Recital and Religion

A few weeks ago, my oldest son participated in his annual piano recital. His teacher organizes her students into recitals from their earliest lessons—in fact, this year a kid who had had only one or two lessons participated: he bowed to the audience.

As always, the recital was at a nursing home. This provides a change of routine for residents who choose to attend. There was a piano in the dining room, and members of the audience pulled chairs back from the tables and turned them toward the front. There was a decent turnout of residents who occupied the forward rows while parents of piano and voice students sat every which where around the room.

While listening to the performers, I couldn’t help but notice that the four-seat dining table in front of me had a tent card on it printed with three dinner blessings. One was titled Protestant, another was titled Roman Catholic, and the other was titled Jewish.

First of all: I’m certain that by the time you move into a nursing home, you’re going to know a blessing appropriate to your religious affiliation. I puzzled over this for a bit, and decided that the intent of the card was, perhaps, to promote understanding—a Jew could see the blessing of a Catholic or Protestant, a Catholic could see blessings of Jews and Protestants, and a Protestant could see blessings of Catholics and Jews. Sharing insights into faith, I believe, shows good moral fiber.

Then, I wondered: How rigid are these religions? The Catholic blessing on the tent card was familiar, but the Jewish and Protestant blessings were news to me. It’s hard to believe that Catholics everywhere say this particular blessing before dining… but maybe they all do. With Judaism having so many branches, it’s even harder to believe that there is one proper dinner blessing for all of them. Most certainly, the blessing labeled Protestant is arbitrary: even if it originated from a Protestant church, there are so many dozens of Protestant religions that no one dinner blessing could satisfy all of them. What’s more, the very designation of Protestant suggests a follower would question the validity of one blessing over the validity of any other; a good protestant wouldn’t let a nursing home administrator dictate how to give thanks at dinner.

Finally, I thought: Is this all there is? No Hindu prayer? No Islamic prayer? No Native American prayer? Nothing Buddhist, Confucius, Tao, or Zen? Of course not; not in Lewisburg. Prayers on the tables were as underrepresented as the religions of the world are in our community.

Anyway, the prayer tent cards really challenged me. There were also name cards at each seat, so apparently the same people eat in the nursing home dining room meal-after-meal. With that understanding, and all my musing about the specific prayers, I came full circle back to “first of all…” I’m not about to enter a nursing home, but I know how to pray before a meal. If I last long enough to check into a nursing home, it’ll be one that doesn’t have semi-eclectic prayer cards on the dining tables.

Oh. I enjoyed the recital.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Farmers' Market

What a wet shopping day! Since I took over cooking for the household back in December, I’ve done the grocery shopping on Wednesdays. Yesterday, it happened to be raining quite hard during my excursion.

My shopping trip usually includes visits to a Mennonite grocery store, to the Lewisburg Farmers’ Market, to the nearly adjacent recycling center, and to Weis Market, the local branch of a typical grocery chain that originates in Pennsylvania. My favorite stop by far is the Lewisburg Farmers’ Market.

The Farmers’ Market is a very long building with vendor tables along the walls, and more tables marking stands along the center of the building. There are stands outside, many along the north side of the building, several more forming a courtyard in front (to the east of the building), and a couple more spilling along the south side of the building. Beyond these outdoor stands is a dirt and gravel parking lot.

The Farmers’ Market is open only on Wednesdays. It draws farmers and vendors from all over central Pennsylvania. Shop there through a year, and you can track the seasons up the east coast as produce arrives from points south months before the same items will ripen here. The best produce at the market, however, is whatever’s in season locally.

We’ve already overdosed on fresh strawberries, and have had no problem with the segue into cherry season (and the overlapping blueberry season). On the vegetable side, we’ve been chowing fresh peas and new potatoes, and we did in a quart of wax beans over the past week. Local peaches are available, though we’re early in peach season, and local sweet corn started appearing at the market a week ago.

The available options will continue to change, but our farmers grow nearly every vegetable and fruit the local climate allows; we’ll see great variety all the way into winter. And, if you think something’s in season but you don’t see it at the market, ask one of the vendors and the item might be available next Wednesday.

The Farmers’ Market is more than a great produce-shop. Inside, there is a stand dedicated to serving hundreds—perhaps thousands of sausage sandwiches each Wednesday. Get to the market early, and the whole building smells like cooking sausage. Get there around lunch time, and a crowd surrounds the stand. Folks buy sandwiches, then chat with fellow shoppers as they lean against the counter. For many, this is the Farmers’ Market experience... who needs produce when you have a sausage sandwich?

At the Farmers’ Market you can buy meat, seafood, candy, cheese, spices, kitchen gadgets, soft pretzels, deep-fried potatoes, antiques, tools, all-for-a-dollar items, soaps, clothing, vacuum cleaner parts, hand-made crafts, and baked goods. The prices are good, and the vendors are usually friendly—even during heavy rain when canopies of the outdoor vendors stream sheets of water through which customers must step to reach the tables. Sure, I got soaked, but still the Farmers’ Market was the high point of my shopping chore.

For the complete City Slipper experience, please visit my web site at

Monday, July 21, 2008

Hay Season

I love hay season. The timing of the season varies from farm-to-farm, but usually the local farmers cut and harvest in late June or early July, and again in September. Much depends on rain. In some seasons, central Pennsylvania farmers may get three cuttings of hay, and in a very dry year, the second cutting can be a great disappointment.

Making hay is a simple task. You begin by having a field of grasses and other plants that your livestock likes to eat. Popular plants include Timothy grass, Orchard grass, Alfalfa, and Clover. When the grasses are mature, but not fully gone to seed, you “mow” the field, cutting the plants close to the ground.

After mowing, you leave the cut plants on the ground to dry… and you might even revisit the field after a few days to flip the clippings so they dry evenly. Before the cut plants dry out completely, you gather them into bales or piles, depending on your preference—or the equipment you have available.

Of course, this is a gross oversimplification of hay-making. A farmer must prepare and plant a hay field; work the cutting, drying, baling, and storing around the weather (drying hay during a rainy month can’t be easy); evaluate when a field must be revitalized (it’s possible to get several years of good hay from a single planting); and deal with the baling equipment.

I have nothing to do with any of this. In fact, the only part of hay-making that makes me love the season is the cutting. Here’s why: when the local farmers cut their hay fields, the smell of onions fills the air. This is because wild onions grow in the hay fields—enough to produce a cloud of sweet onion aroma that hangs over the land for a day or two. This same onion smell can drift off of a freshly cut soy bean or corn field as well… but the harvest for those is still a month or more away.

If I simply craved the smell of onions, I’d go to the kitchen and cut one open. But I love the hay season not for the onion smell itself, but rather because of the smell. I’d never have expected it: a farmer harvests a crop, and the neighborhood smells like onions for a few days. It’s unexpected. It borders on absurd. I love it.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Broadband USA!

Natural gas is available in Lewisburg. Many residents can have it piped to their houses, but I live beyond the reach of the natural gas lines. So, without spending coin for infrastructure updates, I have no choice but to run all my heating systems on electricity.

About a hundred years ago, electricity might not have been an option. Then, there was a movement under way to run electric transmission wires to every home in the United States—being a relatively new convenience, electricity wasn’t available everywhere. Electricity was least available in rural communities: it cost far more per customer to run wires through sparsely-populated areas than it did to run wires through cities. Electric companies needed special motivation to run fifteen miles of cable that would service only three customers.

Today we’re dealing with a new “wiring” challenge: In rural communities, many households do not have affordable broadband access to the Internet. In a city, you might have five or more choices in broadband carriers, and they compete for your business through price wars, discounted installation, and other incentives. In a rural area, there is only one certain broadband option—satellite—and it’s generally crazy expensive compared to more conventional old-fashioned solutions (when they’re available).

I participate in an organization called the Susquehanna Valley Broadband Advisory Committee sponsored by SEDA-COG (the Susquehanna Economic Development Association Council of Governments). The purpose of this committee is to promote the delivery (availability) of affordable broadband internet access to every resident of the rural Pennsylvania area SEDA-COG serves.

There are pockets of houses scattered on remote hillsides throughout central Pennsylvania. Many folks who live in them want high speed internet access, but can’t afford the satellite services. On the other hand, there are still folks who don’t have internet access… and some who do have it will never budge from dial-up.

So, our committee explores the dynamics that drive reliance on the internet. What motivates people to want high-speed access? What motivates people altogether to disregard connectivity? We met yesterday and agreed that local government is a major stumbling block to the spread of broadband access; older government officials have no use for information technology. When they grudgingly accept its use in their organizations, they don’t want to share the benefits—or the information—with other agencies. We also discussed the challenges of employing recent college graduates who take technology for granted: how can traditional companies (and rural PA is rife with traditional companies) work with employees who command tools their managers have never even imagined?

As much as I love the isolation of rural living, I crave the intellectual stimulation you tend to get from working with people in information technology. It’s a boost to spend half a day with this group that is dedicated to advancing the community through IT. I look forward to next month’s meeting.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Tenacious Plant

I take a camera with me nearly every time I leave the house (except, perhaps, for three out of four dog walks). Most times, the camera is a nuisance, hanging on a shoulder or around my neck and flopping in the way when I walk quickly, bend over, carry things, or otherwise do something active. Occasionally, I see something beautiful, odd, or unusual that begs me to capture an image. While it seems more likely I see such sights when I don’t have the camera along, now and then I get lucky and shoot a scene that has “blog entry” written all over it.

In fact, I don’t write enough blog entries to keep up with the photos I’d like to share, so eventually I’ll put together a photo album or a very image-intensive article about some of the lovely sights in the Susquehanna Valley. The photo included with this blog entry is a throwback to my family’s vacation in early June.

The kids and I spent a week at my dad’s lake cottage north of Ithaca, NY on Cayuga Lake, and Stacy joined us for the last two days of the trip. During our stay, I relaxed alone on the boat dock twice, musing about nothing in particular, and trying to capture in pictures the tranquility of the place and the jarring contrasts between that tranquility and the lurking civilized world.

On one boulder that defines the entrance to a wading area along the shore, there was a single small plant growing as certainly as any plant growing in soil. Where the plant meets rock, there is a smear that could be mud, sand, or rotting seaweed deposited by waves during a storm. The smear had landed in a crack that had formed, probably, over dozens of years.

It’s possible the boulder had some small cracks or scratches it received when it broke away from the face of the cliff and fell decades or centuries earlier. Lichens—organisms that are a happy community of fungus and algae working together—might have grown on or near the crack; the chemicals they produced weakened the crack a bit, making the rock a bit porous.

The weakness in the rock captured some water that froze in the winter, expanding the void. The next winter, the crack held slightly more water which did more damage when it froze, and so on. After enough freeze-thaw weathering, there was a cavity deep enough to capture silt, sand, and detritus… and, apparently, a dandelion seed. The seed rooted, the plant emerged, and there it clings, its roots now hastening the erosion of the boulder that is its home.

What are the chances a seed would strike that little smear of soil just so? What are the chances that the smear of soil could hold enough water to keep a plant alive? I guess it’s not so crazy impossible, because only a few feet away on another boulder, another plant grows… and there are more on still other boulders and on the cliff face. Such tenacious plants must be the norm on planet Earth.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Camp Season

Summer camp season is upon us. My oldest son has already completed a week at Susquehanna University’s Wind Ensemble Institute, a sleepover camp at which he spent as many as six hours a day practicing clarinet in preparation for a recital and a concert at week’s end. (The concert was very impressive for an ensemble of mostly high school kids.)

My daughter is away this week as a Girl Scout. She’s participating in a central Pennsylvania camp’s Cables, Carabiners, & Currents program. This involves navigating a system of ropes high above the ground, rock climbing, and white-water rafting—presumably not all at the same time. It sounds like a great week, but we won’t know until she returns; our daughter has never communicated with us from summer camp.

She’ll come home for a day and a half, and then leave to another camp—this one more of an academically focused sleepover camp based at Mansfield University about an hour and a half north of Lewisburg. Then, her brother—my middle child—will go to the Mansfield summer camp. Later, my oldest son will attend a sleepover Boy Scout camp for a week, and then both of my boys will do band camp—a day camp for the high school marching band.

There’s one overwhelming truth I’ve learned from past summer camp seasons: the more kids that are away at camp during a week, the quieter it is around the house. This isn’t a big deal because my office is in the far corner of the basement, and, when at my desk, I’d have no clue if a wild party ensued in the rest of the house. Still, dinners are quieter with two kids than with three, and even quieter with one than with two or three.

Summer camp also reduces the general commotion of shuttling kids to classes and social engagements—but Stacy handles ninety percent or more of the shuttling, so this also isn’t a huge change during the season.

For me, there are two most significant effects of summer camp that are extensions of the quiet and lessened commotion:

1. The cadence of our household changes when one or more child is away at camp; it doesn’t feel quite right. We make decisions based on the tastes of only four or three people rather than on the tastes of five. Movies, foods, board games, excursions… with fewer people, the dynamics are different—not better or worse or easier—just different. For example, with my daughter away, the boys wanted to watch a PG-13 movie every night… we don’t watch a movie every night, so that was odd. And near the end of week two, my oldest son observed that we’d watched a lot of suspense and action flicks (James Bond, The Fugitive, Frequency, so we opted for a comedy (Ferris Bueler’s Day Off).

2. Our kids do just fine at camp… and they’re approaching the age where going away becomes a more permanent condition. Seeing them succeed so handily for a week or two is gratifying; when it’s time to go for good, no doubt they’ll flourish. But each success amplifies the inevitability of their departure. I miss them a bit while they’re at camp, and I’ll miss them a bunch when they head off to college and careers.

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Sunday, July 6, 2008

Independence Day In Lewisburg

Independence Day has given rise to a family tradition at our house: What with the town’s official “End of June” celebration now a week behind us, we invite a bunch of people to party on the Fourth. This year we organized a dish-to-share dinner. We grilled hamburgers and hot dogs and provided various soft drinks. Guests brought salads, casseroles, desserts, and whatever alcoholic drinks they wanted. The party started at 5:00, with the expectation we’d have some fireworks at dark. This meant a solid four-and-a-half hours of conversation, eating, and recreation.

It was interesting to see that the children organized themselves into games they played in the yard—most notably, Capture The Flag. Early, younger adults gravitated to the game tables: table tennis, air hockey, and pocket billiards in the basement. Older adults found comfortable seating and chatted while I fired up the grill.

After we ate, the children returned to games in the yard. The young adults, now, found comfortable seating and chatted while the older adults (well, many of the older adults) took over the game tables. Along the way, there was some Guitar Hero activity in the living room (adults, mostly).

The youngest kids were fading by the time it got dark—some parents took kids home early, but others stayed for the fireworks. Pennsylvania law allows fireworks that spray showers of sparks and make noise. Without a license, you may not set off fireworks that launch exploding shells into the air. So, we had a modest and mildly entertaining selection of firework fountains and spinny/sparky things, along with sparklers for people to wave. Near by, neighbors had a far more impressive selection of firework fountains and aerials—a display that was worth the price of admission.

Several moments will make the event stick with me for some time: We have a good friend from Pakistan who just graduated from Bucknell and is working in Lewisburg. He brought several folks with him who are attending—or have attended—Bucknell. I enjoyed visiting with them and learning (too little) about their experiences. As well, a few of them brought curry dishes as they’d have in their home countries! It stretched the food selections in unusual directions for a traditional Fourth of July meal.

One of our guests offered up a game of table tennis to awe all but the best players. My game isn’t polished, but it isn’t too shabby. However, the mere seven points I won against his 21 made it clear there is a level of table tennis far beyond my experience. He revealed after we played that going pro had been an option for him when he was ten years old.

Finally, another guest stayed at the pool table well after the fireworks. His shooting was decent, and it pleased me to learn that he plays several games—eight ball, nine ball, straight pool, and one pocket. We played a bit of each, and I showed him a few other ones he might try with his friends. I felt a little younger than usual when I shuttled him back to campus at 1:00 in the morning.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Wild Fruit

I track the progression of summer by the free food available in my neighborhood. When strawberries ripen in the meadow across the street—or in my yard if I don’t mow often enough—I know that summer is upon us. The berries are copious, and could provide for many shortcakes but for one problem: these are woodland strawberries, and they don’t have much flavor. In fact, they’re not even juicy.

I Googled woodland strawberry, and found many references that describe these berries as sweet and tasty… apparently, references written by someone who has never eaten Lewisburg’s woodland strawberries. I would describe them as crunchy and bland—something I’d eat as a survivalist, but never if the domesticated equivalent (or nearly any other fruit for that matter) were available.

Shortly after strawberries ripen, black raspberries darken to a deep purple. These grow along hedgerows and in fields beneath low bushes and trees. In early summer, you can tell local black raspberries are ripe when bird droppings in your area are purple rather than white.

I love the flavor of black raspberries, and I pick what I can find in the wild places near my house. I don’t care for crunchy fruit, so I juice the raspberries to make jelly and ice cream. I also mix the juice with other fruits to fill pies or make what I call fruit punch jam. Compared to cultivated, commercial raspberries at $4 per pint, wild berries are like money growing on thorny stalks.

As the black raspberries fade (the best picking lasts about two weeks), ripe blackberries emerge. These grow in nearly the same places as the black raspberries—but they seem to favor open spaces away from the tree line; in a small meadow, black raspberries grow around the edges, and blackberries grow near the middle.

While they look similar to black raspberries, blackberries are bigger and crunchier. They have a distinctive flavor, and even a little blackberry juice mixed with other fruits can overwhelm the other flavors. I like the flavor, but I’d choose black raspberry jelly over blackberry every time.

Blackberries hold on for a solid month, and as they pass their prime, elderberries come into their own. Elderberries grow on tall wooden stalks—tree-like bushes. The ends of the stalks sport white flowers in early summer. These give way to green berries that ripen near mid August into large clusters of deep purple spheres—about the size of tapioca balls. Each ball has a large seed in its center, so elderberries are at least as crunchy as blackberries. Flavor-wise, elderberries appeal to me about as much as woodland strawberries: I’d eat them to avoid starvation in a crisis—as enthusiastically as I’d eat Brussels sprouts.

Autumn fruits don’t grow wild in the neighborhood, so elderberries mark the end of the free food season. Still, it’s awesome to find so many free things to eat so close to my front door. Nature is a terrific provider.

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Celebrating The End Of June

Lewisburg has one of the most amazing end-of-June celebrations you could imagine. Here’s the plan for this year: Wednesday, Sousa in the park. Thursday, Yankee Doodle Dandy at the local movie theatre. Friday, a big band concert on the lawn followed by fireworks. Saturday, a parade followed by concerts on the lawn and picnicking under the trees.

If it sounds suspiciously like a 4th of July celebration, that’s because it’s not really an end-of-June celebration; it just happens to fall at the end of June. Lewisburg celebrates Independence Day a week early—and there’s good thinking behind it:

As a small town, Lewisburg isn’t a big draw for groups that might march in a parade here. Local High School bands tend to march in their hometown parades—and most of those are on the Saturday closest to July 4th. Bands travelling from Philadelphia or farther can find larger audiences on that holiday weekend than they’ll find in Lewisburg, so they aren’t available for the Lewisburg parade.

Move the parade a week before the holiday weekend, and you find a lot of open calendars. Several local high school bands participate, and a respectable assortment of bands comes from afar. In fact, the “week early” strategy has let the Lewisburg 4th of July parade to grow into one of the longest and most robust parades in the area.

With the parade a weekend early, it’s appropriate to hold the rest of the Independence Day celebration early as well. So, the music in the park program on Wednesday featured patriotic tunes as Sousa would have directed them. On Thursday, for a one dollar admission fee, residents could attend a screening of Yankee Doodle Dandy at The Campus Theatre—an art deco building that’s on the National Register of Historic Landmarks.

The fireworks show held yesterday was sponsored by the Allbright Care Center at Riverwoods. For 25 minutes they launched aerials above a soccer field that’s nearly surrounded by tall trees. Through one wall of trees, there are baseball fields where spectators started arriving more than three hours before the launch. A big band style dance band played until dark, and people took up positions with lawn chairs and blankets. It was a generous show—as it is every year.

The parade and picnic are a fine exclamation point for the celebration. (Immediately after the parade, patrons and participants gather on a lawn at Bucknell University where bands play and several vendors sell hot dogs, hamburgers, sausages, and other foods.)

We had packed a cooler and grabbed it from the car on our way from the parade route to the University. There, we met up with several friends and had a pleasant lunch in the shade. It was a fine end-of-June celebration.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Music In The Park

Starting in June of each year, Lewisburg sponsors music in the park. This is one of the great entertainment bargains available anywhere: there’s no charge to attend, and you can take along your own seating and snacks. The park in question is Hufnagel. The music varies.

Hufnagel Park sits in the western third of the downtown business district. It is a narrow block, but quite deep with a creek along one side, and a railroad track along the other. Near Market Street (the main street), there are ornamental plantings and stairs leading down from the sidewalk. A level lawn stretches toward the back of the park where a gazebo sits at the bottom of a modest brick and concrete amphitheatre.

Music in the park happens each Wednesday evening at 7:00. Over the years, we’ve heard performances by the Williamsport Symphony Orchestra, the Lewisburg High School Marching Band, the Susquehanna Valley Chorale, the Penn Central Wind Band, and more. We’ve heard big band music, classical, jazz, pop(s), and folk.

The performances are usually entertaining, if not, then at least technically very good or better. Some draw bigger crowds than others, but they always draw more people than could watch comfortably from the amphitheatre seating. So, the performers usually set up facing the level lawn, (rather than the amphitheatre), and patrons bring chairs and blankets with which they make haphazard patterns across the park.

Perhaps the most popular show each year is Stars, Stripes, and Souza performed by the Penn Central Wind Band. The band plays music that John Sousa’s band would have played—some of his original works, and some written by his contemporaries. I counted about 700 people in the audience this year which seems like a small number until you realize that’s nearly a tenth the population of Lewisburg.

It’s not surprising to find so many Sousa fans in Lewisburg. Many will return for upcoming performances by a brass band, a big band, a symphony band, a trumpet duo, traditional Celtic music, a jazz duo, and the Lewisburg High School marching band—all on the remaining schedule. If you live in Lewisburg, you’re bound to see people you know at these concerts. If you don’t live here, you’re still likely to feel welcome.

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Hunting Dog Swims!

With my wife, Stacy, teaching summer school, I had taken my kids to Ithaca for a week at my dad’s lake house. Stacy finished teaching on Thursday, and went north to join us for that evening, for Friday (summer school runs Monday through Thursday), and for Saturday morning. To the great joy of the kids, Stacy took the dog along.

Cocoa was thrilled to visit the lake cottage. There must have been thousands of new smells there, and she was clearly impressed to stand over a body of water that was larger than her water dish. That’s where the real fun of Cocoa’s visit came in: My daughter decided it was important for Cocoa to discover her natural swimming ability.

As a Chocolate Lab, Cocoa is designed to float and swim easily in cold water. Thing of it is, she didn’t grow up floating and swimming in any water. I insisted that my daughter should coax Cocoa with patience. I’ve never read books on the subject of introducing dogs to swimming, nor have I seen instructional video. But I have seen several dogs who got into the water more quickly than they wanted to, and then refused ever again to swim.

I’d like to tell you that we walked down to the dock, waded into the lake, and Cocoa bobbed in after us, demonstrating her genetically-superior propensity for swimming. Of course, I can’t. We spent the better part of an hour wading into thigh-deep water, encouraging her to follow. Cocoa was obviously anxious to join us, but she pioneered every possible route along the rocks and dock to get near us without actually standing in water.

My oldest son and my daughter both swam into deeper water in hope that being farther away would increase Cocoa’s incentive to swim. This was no small sacrifice: The temperature of Cayuga Lake water in early June can’t be much above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and the days last week were overcast and chilly. For all their efforts, Cocoa remained enthusiastic and dry.

In her defense, the lake shore at my dad’s cottage is very uneven and rocky. The only wading entrances require a final step into water deep enough to touch Cocoa’s stomach. I suspect if she could wade down a gentle incline into the lake, she’d be less timid about the wetness.

My daughter would not abandon her dream. This morning, we were down at the lake again, encouraging Cocoa to join us in the water. After what must have been another hour of calling and cooing and otherwise making fools of ourselves, we finally coaxed her in—first standing in water up to her chest, and then swimming in short half-circles.

I don’t see Cocoa entering Olympic swimming events any time soon—or even retrieving birds from swamps. Still, I’m pretty sure the expression on her face and the bounce in her step when she got out of the lake were the canine equivalent of a fist pump and a high-five.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Art, Craft, or Trade?

Vacationing at my dad’s cottage on the west shore of Cayuga lake, I’m drawn to the dock that provides level access to the water. I love the water—it seems there’s always something happening on, in, or around it, yet it can have a very calming effect. I’ve been to the dock alone a few times during this trip.

Along this section of the lake, rock cliffs climb twenty to thirty feet from the water’s edge. Landowners build cottages above the cliffs where the terrain slopes up through woods and fields. You can drive from the main road down various private drives and access roads to reach lakeside cottages, but from there you’re negotiating steel ladders, elevators, or paths built where water has eroded its own channels down the cliffs. Few properties have actual beach areas. Rather, large strategically-placed rocks might hold soil or pebbles against the cliff face, or heavy pilings driven into the lake floor support boardwalks, docks, and other walkways.

Some years ago, a friend of my dad’s visited from somewhere out west. While he was in the dock area at the lake cottage, he selected and stacked six stones atop one of the large rocks that helps retain the landing area at the bottom of the path down from the cottage. I believe that was the last visit my dad would have with that particular friend.

The stack of stones has some character: It is stark against the backdrop of the lake and skyline, providing yin where there is already plenty of yang. It has me musing: is it art? Is it craft? Was my dad’s friend a stonemason who can’t leave his work behind when he travels?

The stone stack holds my attention mostly because it’s there; I can’t recall any free-standing stone stacks elsewhere in my life.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Down The Gorge

My geology professor in college took our class on a field trip to Robert H Treman State Park just south of Ithaca, NY. Trails within the park run along a large stream that has carved a gorge in which you can identify several examples of geological phenomena we’d studied in class: rotational slump, landslide, bedding planes, rock fracture, plunge pools, freeze-thaw, running-water erosion, sedimentary deposition…

When we’d progressed a few dozen yards down the trail, our professor stopped us and shared what might have been just a good story: The scientist, Louis Agissiz had travelled the world studying geologic features. His exploration had led him to propose that earth had experienced an ice age, and that much of the land we now inhabit was once covered with deep glaciers.

With all his travels to so many amazing landscapes and vistas, when he first turned the corner into the gorge we were about to see, he had exclaimed, “This is the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen.” Truth, or fiction, I wanted to share that moment with my kids. So, this morning we drove from my dad’s lake house to the upper entrance of Robert H Treman State Park and the head of the Enfield Glen trail.

I’ve turned the corner into that gorge about a half dozen times in my life. But you know what? When we made the turn, I was stunned. Few places anywhere have astonished me with their beauty the way I was astonished in that moment. That section of the gorge belongs in a fantasy story—as exotic and breathtaking as any real estate in any popular movie: The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, the Star Wars films, The Quiet Earth—The Enfield Glen trail would fit in any of them without digital retouching.

I could tell that despite my excessive build up to the moment, my kids also were impressed by the natural beauty of the gorge trail. The early part of the trail travels a walkway with stone rails, stairs, and bridges all built by the Civilian Conservation Corp during the depression. Moss has grown on the stonework, and it blends well with the natural rock of the gorge.

After passing several small waterfalls, plunge pools, and sandbars, the trail emerges at the top of a spectacular waterfall that splashes into a lower pool—stairs let you walk alongside the precipitous drop and provide several fine views both downstream toward a wooded valley and upstream along the trail we’d just walked.

On the trail, we encountered a red newt, a garter snake, and some workmen repairing some weather-worn stonework. I don’t envy them wheeling the cement, sand, and tools necessary to complete the maintenance.

If you’re in Ithaca for any reason, do yourself a favor and walk down the lower trail into the Enfield Glen gorge from the upper entrance of Robert H Treman park.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Swamps Are Special

Until about ten days ago, my family was headed to South Carolina for this third week of June to visit my wife’s parents. My wife had offered to teach summer school if the need arose… and it suddenly did; so we postponed the trip. But could we find another week during which all the kids were available for a family trip this summer? Of course not.

So, to salvage any hope of a “family” vacation, I called my dad in Ithaca, and asked whether he could put up with us for the week. The “us” would be me and the kids as my wife’s teaching gig was to start on Monday. Thankfully, my dad accommodated, and we’re here at his cottage on the western shore of Cayuga Lake.

We spent the morning today visiting Cornell University’s Sapsucker Woods bird sanctuary. This is a research facility and observation center built on the bank of a swampy pond. Trails thread through the swamp and surrounding woods, providing various options for visitors who enjoy walking outdoors. We do, so we did.

I’d been to Sapsucker Woods many times as a kid, and have taken my kids there two or three times over the past fifteen years. On each of those visits, the observatory was closed, so we gave up, figuring to walk the trails another time when we also could enjoy the exhibits and views inside. On this visit, the observatory was gone!

I exaggerate. The observatory I’d known as a kid was gone. In its place stood an enormous replacement that far better fit the semi-wilderness setting of the bird sanctuary. For casual visitors, the main feature of this building is a large room with a glass wall facing a pond. On the banks of that pond, and in a small garden to one side, the employees maintain feeders that attract dozens of varieties of birds.

Within the observatory there are spotting scopes that let you get really close to the birds, and there are computers to help identify the birds you see. In about a half hour we saw, perhaps, a dozen types of birds. We also enjoyed the antics of several chipmunks who obviously enjoyed the birdseed as much as the birds did.

Finally, we walked the trail that circled the pond outside the observatory window. Much of the trail passes through forest, but eventually you get very close to some of the swampy end of the pond. Today was a great day to be there.

From a small spit of dirt that went right to the swamp’s edge, we saw many frog eyes poking above the water. We also saw frogs and turtles sitting on logs that had fallen into the swamp. While we were enjoying the turtles, a doe stepped out of the trees about halfway across the swamp and walked out into the water. She nibbled leaves as she casually made her way across the swamp, and eventually disappeared into the trees on the other side. Later on the path, we watched geese waddle from puddle to puddle, and enjoyed the water lilies that were in full bloom.

We’re very lucky that institutions invest in trails and other facilities to make swamps accessible. I imagine there are many more swamp walks in store for my family.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

What Makes Golf Great

Discussions abound about what makes golf great: the history of the game, the challenge, golf course design, player personalities, character of the players, camaraderie with your playing partners… Some commentators wax poetic. Others speak with reverence, describing certain courses as “hallowed ground.”

Great friendships grow around golf. Generally, you meet other golfers when one of your buddies invites one of his or her buddies to play with you. Over time, your circle of available playmates can grow quite large. But beyond this obvious mechanism, golf is an amazing random matchmaker.

I’m not talking about traditional arranged marriage matchmaking. Rather, I’m referring to how golf can create situations that throw strangers together, occasionally resulting in great friendships. Here’s how it works:

Especially on municipal golf courses, but also on many public courses, single players or two friends might arrive hoping to play. In the interest of accommodating the most possible players, the golf course management pairs these people with other pairs or singles to create a foursome. As it takes about four hours to play a round of golf, this group of strangers has plenty of time to get acquainted.

Generally, people get along well because they’re all there to play golf; they have something in common. In most cases, they finish the round and never again see the people they met that day. However, now and again, the strangers hit it off, and lifelong friendships take root. Of course, if you regularly play at a particular golf course, you’re likely to get paired repeatedly with other players who also play there often. This gives friendship more opportunity to get started, and for a lot of golfers it’s the whole point of joining a club.

I’ve had three great relationships that started through this kind of blind draw. I met my buddy Heber, who lives in Lewisburg, when we played together because we’d each gone to the course alone one day—much of my social circle in Lewisburg grew out of that friendship. I played many rounds over the course of three seasons with Bucknell’s women’s club champion because our abilities were well matched, and we tended to play well against each other.

Then there’s my buddy Roger who was a single paired with a twosome he didn’t know at a public course in Connecticut. On my way back to Pennsylvania from a consulting job in Connecticut, I stopped at this golf course and was put in with them. I can’t remember many rounds where I’ve enjoyed the company more. (On a later trip through Connecticut, Roger and I played a round together and discussed Non-Overlapping Magisteria… a topic we’d learned of independently, and one that I’d never expect to arise in a random social encounter.)

Roger has joined me, Heber, and a childhood friend of mine for a few golf vacations since then, and I try to schedule my trips to Boston so we can visit or even play a round on my way through. Twice I’ve invited myself to Roger’s place for weekends of golf at his home course. And, while I don’t get many visitors in rural Pennsylvania, he has made the trip twice—he’s here now… and that’s what inspired the topic: golf’s tendency to make great friends out of strangers is part of what makes the game great.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Bridge To Nowhere

I’d just taken the left branch at a fork in the road, when I glanced across a large field to my right and noticed what resembled a stonework aqueduct. Curious, I continued along the field, looking for a route toward the stonework, but none became apparent—until I turned around and went back to the fork. Driving along the right branch of the fork, I could tell I was nearing the unusual structure… but I might never have seen it at all if I’d taken this road in the first place.

I caught a few glimpses of the stonework through trees out the left side of my car… then came to what looked like an old rail bed from which the tracks had been removed—the road I was travelling ran across it. I stopped at this rail bed, and walked along it toward the stonework which I now assumed had been a railroad bridge.

The path was straight, but not well-worn. There was lots of poison ivy. If you’re going to walk along unfamiliar woodland trails, it’s important to know how to recognize poison ivy… I've included a photo here to help.


Only forty yards from the road, I came to what looked like a railroad bridge, but without railroad tracks. The path continued from there, but was severely overgrown. I poked around on the bridge for a while, admiring what I could see of the bridge support: a series of stone and concrete arches that let a small stream flow under it. Today, the stream flowed through only two arches, but I could see that on wetter days, the additional arches would let the adjacent farmer’s field drain quickly. The concrete was well-aged and leeching lime. As out-of-place as the whole thing seemed, it inspired musings about lost civilizations—about a bygone era.

Pennsylvania participates in the “Rails-To-Trails” program; they use public funds to convert retired rail beds into hiking trails. There’s a web site where maps guide you to converted trails—and even identify unconverted but deserted rail beds should you wish to explore them.

The converted rail bed I explored today doesn’t appear on that web site. Still, it looks as though someone intended it for hikers. I hope people making the walk notice the bridge supports and step off the trail to take it all in.

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Friday, June 6, 2008

Fat-Head Flowers

When I was young, there were peonies in my parents’ yard. The extent of my fascination with those peonies was related to ants: as the flower buds developed and then blossomed, little ants crawled around on them. Each spring, I’d watch for a minute or two, and then find something interesting to do.

I must have liked those ants because when I finally moved into my home in rural America, I requested that peonies be among the flowers my wife added to our yard (in our division of outdoor domains, my wife handles decorative plantings, and I do the food-producing ones—oh, yeah, and the lawn).

In the nine or so years we’ve had peonies here, I don’t recall seeing ants on them. That puzzles me, because there were always ants on my parents’ peonies. That said, peonies are fine flowers. For those who don’t know peonies, the blossoms are quite large, resembling carnations, but fuller with bigger and looser petals. They are more elegant than carnations, but they last for only a few days—whether “live” on the plant, or cut and placed in a vase. Peony flowers grow on the ends of leafy, stalks that are dark green with hints of purple—and quite long… which is a little puzzling.

You see, I’ve yet to grow peonies that support their own blossoms. Those long stalks get tall and then bend under their own weight. They bend more as buds develop on them, and when the flowers pop out, the stalks bow to the ground.

My dad had some metal hoops that stood on 18-inch stakes. He’d install them around his stands of peonies, and the fat-headed stalks would remain upright. I once drove stakes near our peonies, and stretched twine to support the stalks… but it wasn’t an impressive display, so now I let them grow as they will. Beautiful as they are, they insist on falling over.

I’m suspicious of peonies: It seems unlikely that nature would create such a bone-headed plant. Humans probably bred peonies to grow this way… and peonies are so embarrassed about it that they bow their heads to the ground as if awaiting the executioner’s axe. We do them a favor when we cut them and display them in a vase.

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