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What’s Love Got to do with it?

Throughout time the idea of love has confounded psychologists, philosophers, romantics and skeptics.   What is love?  Is it, like Tina Turner claims, “a second hand emotion?”    Is love, pure as Paul claims in Corinthians:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.

We live in a society where the divorce rate is over 50%, where the idea of love is brandished around in greeting cards and songs, but little understood.  I’m thinking about this after a three month process of breaking up with someone after 16 years, going through a divorce, moving to a much smaller apartment, and making decisions involving kids and the future.

Lest anyone feel sorry for me, the process was amicable, the right course of action, mutually agreed upon, and we remain friends.  That adds poignancy to the question, however.  At some point in our discussions we had to deal with the question that maybe being able to not hate the other person and just co-exist was as good as it gets.   “There are lots of miserable people staying together,” one of us said.   Perhaps the idea of love is deceptive.

We still decided to separate – the lack of a deep relationship had yielded stagnation and wasn’t good for the kids.  We realized that mutual annoyances and distance/disagreements were casting a pall over the household that was bad for everyone.   Yet once we did think we loved each other.   Did we?  Was it an illusion?

Romantic love is often separated from other forms of love.   I have a love of life, a love of humanity, a deep love for my children.   Parental love is unconditional, romantic love tends not to be.   Love of others, life and humanity is almost always filled with conditions – I love my fellow human until the bastard cuts me off in traffic.  We’ll profess love for others and the sanctity of life until there’s  a war and then people even rejoice over dead civilians.

Romantic love is said to have stages.   For about four months we enjoy the “halo effect,” a sense that the other is the best thing that ever came into our lives, not noticing the faults and channeling our desire for love and connection into a belief it’s there.   What we don’t know about the other, we fill in with our imagination of what an ideal should be.   And with each side trying to impress the other, both play the part of the other’s ideal, reinforcing the halo.

Then reality bites.   People spend more time together, they let their true selves show.    Soon disappointment sets in, resentment over differences, and walls are built.  Love becomes conditional, the other needs to change how they behave, or if they don’t, their habits irritate.   At that point love can go two directions.   It can fade due to the building of walls and hidden resentments, or the couple can try make it work.  The important question: how do you make it work?   How do you know if love is fading due to choices made in the relationship, or some kind of deep incompatibility?

I think the answer is to let go of fear and embrace acceptance.   That doesn’t mean it will work, but one will learn more quickly if there is real incompatibility and be able to avoid falling into a delusion.

Fear prevents us from showing our true selves to others.  Early on, we’re afraid perhaps of losing the other.   So we hide things, don’t admit true feelings, push aside annoyances, hide bad habits, and aren’t fully honest.   We’re afraid the other will judge us for our past, and thus we might rationalize not opening up by saying the past doesn’t matter, rather than discussing ones’ full self and experiences.   Fear causes us to create an image for our lover or mate, and not be true to ourselves.

The mirror image of fear is not accepting the other for who he or she is.   That lack of acceptance, of course, creates incentive for the other to hide part of themselves.    Love requires accepting the other person as they are.   If love is there both people will change in some ways and in fact grow together over time.  That can’t happen without acceptance.   Without acceptance walls form and people will grow apart rather than together.

To be sure, this kind of ‘unconditional love’ isn’t possible for all couples.   But if they are open, honest, and accepting, they can find out early that it just isn’t right for them to be together and they won’t fall into the trap of fooling themselves by thinking it’s good and then wondering what went wrong.   They can recognize early the reality of their incompatibility and not let it destroy their ability to be just friends.    And if they find out that they really do fit and “get” each other, they can build a path to a long term loving relationship.

Or that’s my theory.   Obviously, I haven’t made it a reality.    I’m trying to learn from my mistakes and not let go of the belief that true long term love is possible.

My blog posts may reflect more on my personal situation rather than politics in coming weeks because with all this going on politics has seemed rather boring.   I’m really doing fine – it’s emotional at times, and I stopped blogging for awhile just to handle all the change.   But life is about change, and our quality of life reflects how we respond to change.


Live Every Moment

Live every moment
Love every day
Because before you know it
Your precious time slips away
Kevin Cronin, REO Speedwagen

Back in college I wrote a poem “Now Lasts Forever.”  I was intrigued by the idea that it is always now.    Time is an elusive concept.   Physicists tell us that time and space are really two parts of the same thing.    Photons — those particles of light illuminating the world — do not experience time, only speed.   For them now is literally all they experience.   That seems incomprehensible but we’re really in the same boat.   We experience now, even though the world changes around us.   My best definition of time is change – you know time has passed when things change.   Now lasts forever, change is constant.

I’ve argued before that it’s important to ‘live awake,’ to see beyond the kind of fog that society and culture can impose as we go through the day doing what we are supposed to do, caught up in various little battles and problems.   Angry at the traffic jam, snapping at the kids, fretting about work.   It’s easy to get caught up in that kind of parade of emotional noise, exhausted at the end of the day from the constant push and pull — or as a line in a different song puts it “overwhelmed by everything but wanting more so much!”

Live that way and days can pass in apparent meaninglessness.  Every battle or issue that arouses emotions and causes frustration gets forgotten, replaced by others that distract one from really living.   Then at some point it ends, and for most of us everything we’ve worried about and focused upon is forgotten faster than we  think possible.   Even those who make it to the history books do it in a caricatured manner.   People remember some deeds and details, but most of the daily concerns and activities are lost.   Now has changed, that past is gone completely.   We perceive left over traces in memory and artifacts, but little more.

No wonder some philosophers see the human condition as one of suffering and pain.   Wanting and yearning, desiring and struggling for something utterly unobtainable – a world that makes us happy.   When you depend on the world for happiness and contentment, the world will always disappoint.     Especially modern humans, stripped of the meaning community, faith and tradition provided in the past, face tremendous psychological difficulties coping with trying to make sense of this world and ones’ place within it.

The answer, it seems to me, is to take now seriously.   It is now.   Always.   Now lasts forever.  Change flows through the now.   It’s not that time is passing, now is simply changing form.    It’s not that we’re aging and gaining wisdom, we’re simply changing along with the world around us.

That lends perspective.   Why let ourselves be tied down by daily drudgery?   The reason things seem frustrating and boring is we create temporal cages.    We see time as well defined and important, and thus in any battle or fight the stakes are high.

What I try to do is appreciate the now whenever it occurs to me to do so.    When I put my six year old to bed he wants me to lay there and cuddle him.   The part of me wanting to build temporal cages thinks “I have to grade papers, I want to read a book, I don’t feel tired, he’ll keep me in here a half hour, he should fall asleep on his own…would my dad lay with me and cuddle…fat chance…”   If I do that my mind gets caught up in drifting, thinking about what I could be doing and the time passing.

But if I look in his eyes, hug him, look around the room and think of its beauty and how it will change, I appreciate being with my six year old son in his bedroom with the moon light flowing in, his soft skin against mine, or his little feet kicking my back, and it’s bliss.   I’m appreciating and living this moment, keeping my mind from wanting to leap out of the now.   After all, fretting about what one could be doing accomplishes nothing yet keeps one from appreciating what one is doing.

Walking downstairs through the rec room to my office I look at the wall colors.   What a beautiful house!   Where others might see a messy room, I see toys that someday will just be memories.   It’s here now, I’m in a point of time that has great joy if I let myself simply experience.    When I read student participation in discussion board for my on line course I realize I’m part of their education, they’re learning, taking time to write at something I constructed (this course and its structure) and we’re engaged in a real learning relationship.   It’s not “damn, I have to grade,” but WOW, I get to read these ideas and respond.   How cool is that?

Focusing on now is also helpful when one is irritated.  If I think, say, my son was treated unfairly in some situation I could fantasize everything from law suits to angry confrontations.   Those won’t happen, I’d just be wasting energy due to my own lack of satisfaction with the situation.   So instead I pause.  Look around.  The beauty of the place where I am at, the things around me, the joy inherent in this moment.    Last weekend skiing I had to go up the T-bar with my six year old.  One time towards the end of the day my legs and shoulders were in pain and the ride was excruciating.  I was dwelling on my poor aging aching body then suddenly thought…wow, Dana and I are going up the T-bar together, that is so great…look at the snow, the trees, the sunlight, this is such a beautiful place, so magical.   And it was – as I engaged in that celebration of the moment the pain didn’t disappear, but it didn’t register.

We joked and laughed going up the mountain.   That laugh.   So delightful.   Today after school Dana comes out and it’s the first really cold day this year, about 10 degrees Fahrenheit.   He takes off his jacket, “wow, it’s really hot out here,” he says.  (Note: I take full responsibility for that kind of behavior, he’s acting like me in that sort of instance.)    I try to get him to put his coat on but to no avail — though he does move quickly to the car.   Other parents might struggle and get mad “how can you take your coat off, you’ll catch your death of cold, get your coat on NOW!”   I just smile and watch the stubborn and independent little guy run to the car laughing.   The moment is beautiful.

The more I manage to appreciate each moment as it goes by, the better I feel, the more I find life truly beautiful and wondrous, the more magic seems to occur.    Monday was trash and recycling day.   We recycle monthly, so I had a whole bunch of Christmas boxes I got ready to go Sunday night.  I usually leave things up there Sunday nights but it was raining – and freezing rain is not a friend to things left outside.   So I knew I had to wake up Monday early.

I did – at 7:41.  The rest of the house was asleep.   The recycling people come early and I was afraid I’d missed them.  I rushed to the garage still wearing my lounging around the house pants and headed up to the road.   It’s about a quarter mile up to get to where I have to leave the stuff.   The recycling truck is there.  I get out, “glad I caught you,” I say as I hand the guy my broken down boxes.   He smiles, takes the stuff and I head back.

But as I do I have a huge smile on my face.  What a moment.  I woke up just in time!   Can that really be coincidence?   And I got the maximum sleep possible without missing it!   The air is crisp, the sky clear, and the world full of magic and beauty.   Living in the moment works.


Geothermal Update

The heat exchange unit, which sends warm or cold air to the attic where a fan then sends it through the house

Last June I blogged about our installation of a geothermal heating and cooling system in our house.  (The link is to one of the final blogs, go earlier in the week to see the process).   Now seven months later it’s time for an update.

It is winter.   You can’t tell by looking out the window because we are barren of snow.  That is exceedingly rare for December 30th and has destroyed my plans to spend the week skiing with the boys here in town.    We did get a two inch snowfall on December 23rd that melted on December 26th.   Maine without a white Christmas would have been an abomination!

So far the geothermal system gets a mixed review.  It does a quick, reasonably silent and comfortable job heating and cooling.   It’s nice that air doesn’t blast out of the ducts; it’s even hard to tell when the system is running.    As expected, there isn’t a lot of heat being pushed to the basement, so while we keep the upstairs at a comfortable 68 when we’re around, the basement is usually a good five or six degrees cooler.   We do have a space heater we use sparingly (and we could turn on the oil heat if we really wanted the basement toasty).

We don’t seem to be saving as much money as we hoped to.   We haven’t seen any help from our desuperheater, designed to provide hot water.    I expected better from something called a ‘desuperheater.’   It is supposed to augment our boiler, which now is used only for hot water and back up heat.   The goal was to burn 15% of the oil we used to, but it’s more like 30% –  which is pretty much what hot water costs anyway!   The boiler acts as if the desuperheater isn’t there.

To install it we not only had to deepen our well from 360 feet to 840, but dig up the front lawn to connect a second pipe for returning the water. The well provides both domestic water and geothermal.

I plan to increase the temperature of the water sent from the geothermal unit to the hot water supply.   I originally set it to 125 instead of 150 out of fear that water too hot would burn the kids.   I think the water sent would mix with cooler water so I’ll experiment with that.  If the kids start suffering 2nd degree burns I’ll turn the temperature back down.

The other issue is electricity.   Unfortunately our electric bills haven’t been consistent.   Despite the new use of ‘smart meters,’ a device which sends information on usage to the company so CMP can lay off meter readers, we seem to be getting a lot of estimated bills or wild fluctuations from month to month.

The total cost of the system was nearly $40,000, though we do get a third of it back in tax credits (thanks, Uncle Sam!), making the final cost about $28,000.   To pay it back in 10 years we’d need a savings of $2800 a year (I didn’t even need a calculator for that one!).    Last year we paid $4500 for heating oil.   This year we’re likely going to pay about $1200.    That puts us at a savings of $3300 before the electric bill.   The electric bill used to be about $120 a month.   For people outside Maine that sounds like a lot, but we have expensive electricity in Maine — even the Governor complains about that!

In summer the cooling didn’t increase the cost much, but last month’s bill spiked.   If that continues (one month is hard to go by with electric bills, you have to average them out), we could be looking at $500 more for the three  coldest months, and  probably about $700 more for the rest of the year.   Even that is suspect because we had two dehumidifiers pumping water out of the year non-stop this summer since my wife got concerned that there is too much mold in the basement air.   I thought it added character to the atmosphere but her sinuses disagreed.

If those figures are accurate that would mean the additional electricity would cost about $1200, or $100 a month on average.   That would make our savings $2100 for the year.   If we can’t improve on that it will take the system as much as 15 years to pay for itself.

So far the system has only malfunctioned once, and Jeff Gagnon Heating and Plumbing was there early the next day to fix what was a minor problem (free of charge, of course, as it is under warranty).   I gotta love Maine — we weren’t able to be home when they could stop by, so we just left the house unlocked.   That’s typical here.   During that time it was nice to have oil heat back up.   We also had a 13 hour power outage in mid-autumn which also required us to use oil.   We have a generator, but it’s not powerful enough to start the geothermal system.   The electrician who worked on the installation just laughed heartily when I pointed to my generator and asked if it would be enough to keep the geothermal going.

Despite that, I still do not regret installing the system.   My wife – a CPA much more in tune with money issues than a dreamy academic like me – isn’t so sure.    But if oil prices sky rocket, the payback time could decrease quickly.  Looking at headlines from Iran, Syria, and the Mideast I find it a bit comforting not to be relying completely on oil.

We have heat going down to the basement through three upstairs closets; so far it's providing minimal but valuable help

I also really like having air conditioning in the summer.   You don’t need it in Maine, but if you’re going to entertain guests, cook indoors, or be comfortable on those hot weeks (and we seem to be getting more of them), it is very pleasant.   We couldn’t have had central air without duct work being done anyway, and that was a chunk of the cost.    We would never have gotten central air for that reason and a few window units would have been a pain.   There is real value to having a cooling system!

Finally, I’m not yet convinced about the cost.   I need more data about the cost of electricity over a full year, and I hope to get the desuperheater to provide more relief heating water.

So the unit works well, we get good heat, and I’m happy with it.   We don’t seem to be saving as much as we hoped for, and the basement stays chillier than the upstairs.   Nonetheless seven months in I’m still glad we did this!   My wife tells me that even if I get a major midlife crisis I’d better be happy with my Ford Fusion for at least another decade — this was my expensive toy of choice.   I can live with that!


Wii Skills

I am an “older father.”   In my twenties I split time between grad school and a job in Washington DC, finally becoming ABD at age 29.  ABD = All But Dissertation, it’s a point in graduate school where everything is complete for earning the Ph.D. except this nasty 300 + page bit of original research.  Until I finished my doctorate at age 35 I picked up teaching gigs wherever I could, at the University of Minnesota (where I was doing my Ph.D. work), St. Olaf College and Carleton College (both of Northfield, MN).

All this kept me busy and earning enough money to have an active social life, and I cherish those grad school years as some of the best in my life.  I had enough money to enjoy myself (even while living in tiny studio apartments near downtown Minneapolis), surrounded with colleagues in the same boat, and not feeling much in the way of life stress.   Basketball every Saturday at 10:00 AM, Friday happy hours, exploring the world of political science, teaching my first classes — I loved those days.

However, that isn’t conducive to long term relationships and starting a family.   A few go that route in grad school, but it’s rough, and the job market tends to separate people.  I waited until I got a full time tenure track job and didn’t have kids until after I turned 40.  It allowed me to travel, enjoy my youth, and have an extended period of adult time with lots of freedom and limited responsibility (as well as limited income).

Becoming a father in my 40s has been a great experience.  It forces me to stay in shape (when my youngest graduates from high school I’ll be 63 — I want to still ski and play tennis with him!), keep up on how not just college students but also school age kids are living, and feel younger than I really am.

Yet I realize how different the world is.   We were in a hotel in New Hampshire the other night and Ryan, 8, asked in a frustrated voice, “dad, I can’t figure out how to pause this TV.”

“It’s not a DVR, it doesn’t pause,” I explained.   He thought that very odd.   The idea of not having a trove of recorded DVR “events” to watch — Avatar the Last Airbender, Adventure Time, Star Wars Clone Wars, iCarly, etc. — seems odd.   In fact Dana (5) had trouble accepting that a show he wanted to watch, Ben 10, could not be watched yet because it wasn’t on until later.   “Can’t you just go there (on the guide) and click it?”

“Not yet,” I replied, realizing that in a few years that probably would no longer be a barrier.

Where they really amaze me is with video games.   Now, I admit, I am not into video games.   As a teen I did play pac man and donkey kong, but most of the time I found myself bored by them.   My dad and youngest sister would spend hours with the Atari playing missile command and other such games, I’d get bored after five minutes.   I’m that way with puzzles, rubrics cubes and anything like that — if it gets frustrating and doesn’t offer any real benefit (I mean, so what if I have a cube with every side the same color, what the hell does that give me?) and takes time, then I’m outta there.   I’ve played the Wii a few times, but have the same reaction.  I’d rather write a blog entry.

Ryan and Dana, however, are already Wii experts.   My five year old son is better than me on just about every Wii game, and he can’t even read the directions.   He navigates by trying various buttons and figuring out which get him what he wants.  He watches his older brother and then picks it up.  He can spend hours with Wii Lego Star Wars, calling me over “dad, look, I have a ghost yoda,” and laugh at the fun things his characters can do.  It’s often not what a serious player would be doing, but he gets his kicks.

On Monday night, though, we had a Wii disaster.   Ryan got a game “Zelda the Desert Princess,” where some character named Link is battling various creatures in various habitats.  The music and graphics are pretty good, but I have no clue what the game’s about.    He’s been spending hours on it.   We’ve had talks about ‘screen time’ and figuring out ways to get him to put more variety in his activities (hmmm, sort of like how my mom didn’t want me watching TV all the time), but between Pokemon on his DSI or Zelda on Wii, he becomes obsessed.

Monday I heard him crying loudly in the other room.   Imagining that he fell down the stairs, hit his head on something hard (I mean, he takes pain pretty well, so this loud cry had to be serious) I ran in.   He was in the easy chair clearly in distress.  “I accidently erased almost all my Zelda progress,” he told me, “230 hours.”  (That shocked me, but I guess play hours are not literal hours but reflect progress on levels…or that’s his story and he’s sticking to it.)   To his credit he got over it quickly.   I had to pry him away from the Wii for awhile, but later let him go back, I could tell that he needed to make some Zelda practice before he could be at peace — and he did, he seemed to enjoy redoing the old levels.

Lest I create the impression the boys are tied to video games, they’ve actually had an active outdoor summer — Ryan has a great tan.   But it’s Wii skills and other technological advances that show me just how different their world is than mine was.   If I don’t know an answer to a question, Ryan’s first response is “google it.”     If the store doesn’t have something he wants, he says “go on line and buy it.”    In the world of our children all information, all products, all entertainment and communication with friends is all available right now.   He’s not old enough for facebook or texting yet, but I’m sure that’ll come.

Still, at the end of the day, as I put the kids to bed, hug them, tell a story and tuck them in, I realize that for all the differences, at base parenthood is still the same.  I may not have the Wii skills, but to be there for them, build a relationship of mutual trust and be close to them is what matters.    And when Dana calls me “Scott,” and Ryan calls me “Dude,” that’s OK.    This isn’t 1968.   But I not only love my kids, but also like them and feel extremely close to them.   What more can one want?


Worth $50,000

For the last eight years we’ve had a constant family expense that is about to come to an end:  day care.  Two children starting at three months of age, up until Kindergarten cost just about $50,000 over the eight year period.   The oldest was done a few years ago (I’m not including cost of summer camps or after school activities), the youngest will be done in a couple weeks.

When we first started sending the oldest to day care, I was a bit uncertain if this was best.   The conventional wisdom is that it’s better for the children to be at home, with a mother or a father.   Boy, was I wrong!

Don’t get me wrong — we have fun with the kids, and I enjoy playing and teaching them things.   But isolating individual children with one parent is, I believe, unnatural.   Think about it.   Through most of human history communities survived through hard work by men and women.   Children were raised by families, but when work was being done they were most often playing together being watched by women whose job it was to care for children in the community.   Other women had to sew, cook, or whatever it was that women did in that particular tribe or culture.  Life for humans in much of history was communal, people didn’t isolate themselves into nuclear family units.   Since we don’t have extended family in the area, staying home with either of us would have been isolating.

When I pick up Dana (youngest son) he’s usually got mud all over him (in summer), laughing, running around with his friends there, not really wanting to leave.   There is no way I could provide him that much fun — not only do I have to work, clean house, and take care of errands, but I’m not a five year old.   He’s socializing, dealing with peers, and learning.

To be sure, I did plan to remove him earlier this summer to selfishly do more stuff with the boys.    Our geothermal installation required me to pick up extra income (I’ve got another blog post on that coming soon) so I am teaching two on line courses and doing a program review.   I hope by early August to be done and then have a few weeks of family time before school starts.

It does matter what kind of child care facility you choose.   We’re lucky to be at a university with an outstanding Early Childhood Education program and a nationally certified day care center.   Not only are they on campus (so I can stop by or see the kids outside playing) but there are so many student workers (many earning credit) that the kids get lots of attention.   We decided that a center rather than a private home was best (it better offers a true communal setting), and were careful in choosing where to send them.

Both kids learned to walk early (9 months) in part because they saw other kids walking and were trying to keep up.   They’ve had science experiments, hikes to a pond, a little work shop with hammer, nails and woods (and safety goggles), and loads of books.   They’ve raised catepillars into butterflies, caught frogs, dressed up in customs, played little musical instruments, had field trips to the library, and built cities with blocks and toy cars.   Days were filled with social play, mud, sand, and lots of laughter.   In winter they played in the snow, pulled each other on sleds, and built snowmen and snow castles.   Neither child went in with difficulty or expressed a desire not to go — it was fun.

With Dana starting kindergarten in September that era — and that expense — will be gone.   But it was worth it.    There is no way I could have given them the quality of experience and learning they received, even if I’d quit my job and stayed home.   Not everyone can afford such an expense — that averages out to about $6,000 a year, but at its peak it was around $8,000 when both were going.   Some parents can’t stand the idea of other people “raising” their children.   We made a point to have quality evenings and weekends, and I feel as close a relationship to my sons as I can imagine anyone feeling.   While understandable, the fear that others will “raise” the kids is unwarranted.

So parents out there — don’t feel pressure to quit your job or think you’re somehow doing something wrong if you have to send your children to day care.   Take time to pick out a good one — stop by and be involved — and make sure the non-work time gets filled with quality interactions.   But day care is the natural way children were raised, it’s how they learn to interact with others, problem solve, and develop autonomous identities.  It’s not that parents can’t do this on their own — with siblings, an extended family and lots of friends, it’s certainly possible.    But as I reflect on the last eight years and recall that I had a bit of guilt and uncertainty when we had to send the kids to day care, I realize in retrospect that I was way off base.    It was good for our careers to keep working, good for the kids to learn and grow, and definitely worth the cost!


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Giving in to Voice Recognition

For the last 38 years I’ve kept a journal.   It started back when I was thirteen, paused when I hit 15, and started “for good” at age 16.   Up through 1985 it was pen and paper, then I started to use word processing.

From 1985 to 1989 I used a word processing program called “Paper Clip” with my Commodore 64, which I had hooked up to both a printer and an old black and white TV as a monitor.  I still have that old computer, disk drive and “Paper Clip” program.   I believe I have the old floppy disks (the 5+ inch variety), but I have no clue if it would be possible to transfer those files to Word.

Last summer I started the task of typing up my old journals.   I am a fast typist.  In 7th grade I took typing and had homeroom in the typing room so I practiced a lot.   Back at Patrick Henry Junior High in Sioux Falls in 1973 I was one of only three guys in my typing class.   The reason the girls outnumbered us 10 to 1 was because typing just wasn’t a skill boys were expected to learn.   Most guys took more shop courses (wood working, metals, drafting, etc.) while the girls took things like typing.   You see, guys would likely end up in an office with a dictating machine, while the girls would be the secretaries who would have to type up the work.   Why would a boy want to develop typing skills?   A male secretary would be, well, weird.

I’d love to say I enlightened enough to oppose sexual discrimination back in the 8th grade, but the truth is I loved to write even back then.    I wanted to type.   I was going to be a journalist, preferably a sports writer.  My hero was Sid Hartman, an insider for the Minneapolis Tribune (now the StarTribune) who wrote daily columns about the goings on inside the Twins, Vikings, Gophers and North Stars (the hockey team of that era) club houses.   I could imagine myself following sports for a living.   So I learned to type, and I was one of the fastest in the class — my typing teacher was thrilled to have a boy learn to type and be so good!   In junior high, otherwise lost years for me academically, typing was my best subject.

I remember writing about the Ali-Foreman fight, various football games, and handing my “column” (I’d get to school early so I could write) to friends and have them comment and often argue about my effusive praise of Fran Tarkenton or prediction that Bert Blyleven would be a superstar.    I learned and wrote on an Underwood manual typewriter, and still remember those drills to strengthen the little fingers, slapping the carriage return bar, and making sure that I didn’t type past the little mark representing the one inch bottom margin.

By college I had my own Royal Electric typewriter (I still have it, though I have no idea if I could get a ribbon for it), and for long papers I would go into my dad’s office to use his secretary’s IBM selectric.  That was a sweet machine, and I fantasized about owning a Selectric.  It had a backspace button that automatically whited out a mistake — and if you backspaced ten or so times, it would remember which letters to white out.   It was sleek and easy to type on.   I hit 100 WPM with no errors at one point.

Of course, I never bought a Selectric.  Shortly after college the technology revolution brought the PC age, and at age 25 I got my Commodore 64.   That’s also when I shifted to typing my journals.

Last summer I started retyping my old journals, getting 1973 to 1975 complete.   But as I look at the stacks of paper representing journals between 1975 and 1989 and consider the aches and pains of constant typing, I realize that I lack the time to quickly type them all up.   I’m also not sure my hands and wrists could take it.   So today I went on line and ordered voice recognition software.

The typist in me has been resisting that, the same way I resist texting.   I don’t have that many skills in life, but typing is one of them!   To be sure, most of my writing will still be done via keyboard.    I think through my fingers.   To me typing is the process of writing, I don’t do well with a pen and paper, or by talking it.   I could never create blog entries with voice recognition software, my fingers on the keyboard are integral to the creative process.  But copying already written material?  Yeah, I can see just reading it aloud.

I also have “dream journals” to copy.   These were made from 1986 to 1990 and contain thousands of dreams.   I would become what I called “dream aware” (I’ve since learned the official term is lucid dreaming) and then do experiments, waking up to jot down the ideas I’d type up (on my Commodore 64) the next morning.

I’m not sure how well voice recognition will work, if I find that I’ll use it more often than expected, or end up hating it — I’ll blog the result when that happens.  And who knows — maybe I’ll balance giving in to this new technology with a purchase down the line of an old Underwood manual typewriter.   I’m sure my fingers (especially the pinkies) have gotten lazy and soft being used to these sensitive PC keyboards.   My fingers could use a good workout!


Changing Habits

My garage is full of chemicals.  I can kill wasps, ants, and weeds.   I can kill weeds but keep the grass alive.  I can weed and feed, I can fertilize, I can clean.   I can clean grease, stains, and various surfaces of my car.

I have spent most of my life under the illusion that most of these materials sold to make life easier are relatively safe.   I know you shouldn’t mix various cleaning materials, with some you should wear gloves (something I’ve generally neglected to do), and that too much could be bad.   Yet certainly the companies that make all these things for home and garden have tested them out.   And even if the market couldn’t prevent dangerous items from being made available, government regulations must focus on safety.

I’ve been using speed stick deodorant, Nivea shaving cream and moisturizer, Pantene shampoo and conditioner, and the kids have enjoyed yummy smelling colorful soaps, and plastic tub toys.   We’ve been cooking with no stick pans, and drinking sodas from plastic bottles, even if they’ve been sitting in the car on hot days.   It’s just life.   We don’t smoke, we try to have healthy habits, but plastics, chemicals and additives are ubiquitous.    The idea I should have a lush green lawn not marred by clover and crab grass seems normal.   Everybody, save a few old hippies, lives this way.

I’ve now come to the realization that how we live with chemicals is analogous to how the Romans lived with lead poisoning.   We’re poisoning ourselves and our children (look how autism and ADHD rates have skyrocketed) by injecting massive amounts of under tested chemicals in every aspect of our lives.    I’m not sure how much poison we’re getting.   People still live long, but chemicals seem to play a role in making us fatter and creating expensive health problems.    Rates of cancer are up, so are a variety of other health problems.    Moreover, the generation now in their 20s and 30s are far more affected by these chemicals than people my age, since widespread usage really got going in the 80s and 90s.   We may not know the real impact for quite some time.

This creates a perfect storm.   There is a danger that seems obvious, but it can’t be verified with certainty, and the exact impact is unknown.   Moreover, studies can always be criticized (and a very well oiled chemical industry lobbying machine responds to everything) and it may be decades before we know for sure just what the impact of all this is.   Humans tend to ignore issues like that — if the problems aren’t obvious, why bother?

That’s been me for years.   I’ve known the chemicals in our lives are dangerous and under tested.   I’ve had suspicions that my use of them was probably not all that wise.   But those have been fleeting thoughts at the back of my head.   They haven’t been strong enough to get me to actually dig into the science and think about changing my ways.   There are classes to teach, kids to take care of, things to do.   So it’s grab what’s at Walmart and whether in cleaning or lawn care, take the easy route.

In May I read What’s Gotten Into Us by McKay Jenkins, a book that gave an excellent and well supported overview of the scope of the problem, showing clearly how little we know, how studies are often hidden and attacked, and just how powerful the chemical lobby is in the US.   In the EU there are far stricter regulations (so I’m going to keep using my made in Germany Nivea skin care products), here the burden of proof is not on the chemical companies to prove their products are safe, but for others to give definitive proof that there are dangers.

My wife read the book as well, and was convinced.    She replaced most of our household cleaning and personal hygiene materials with Seventh Generation, Tom’s of Maine, or Burt’s Bees.   I went along with it, figuring that at the very least this is the kind of thing that companies will pay attention to — if the market shifted towards low chemical alternatives businesses would have to follow.   But I was still skeptical.   The thing about books with a mission — and Jenkins’ clearly is convinced of his argument and has a desire to open peoples’ eyes — is that they are prone to overstatement.   The book cited science, but the author is not a scientist.   So I’ve been investigating further.

But the more I read the more convinced I am that not only is there a lot of uncertainty on what these chemicals are doing to us, but that the massive increase in chemical use and our exposure, especially children, is by definition extremely risky.     Chemicals are powerful, they have side effects that often aren’t understood.    The websites and blogs criticizing those concerned about chemicals tend to have weak arguments.   They either deride/ridicue “anti-chemical” folk for being too alarmist and blaming things on chemicals that might be caused by something else.

Both of those points may be true, but that doesn’t lead to the conclusion that chemicals aren’t a problem.   Same for the statement that ‘just because it’s not natural doesn’t make it bad.’   That’s true.  But it doesn’t mean they are good or harmless either.  Defenders of chemical usage rest on the arguments that: a) they are beneficial in helping us achieve our goals; and b) studies haven’t definitively shown the specific harm being done.   Most of the evidence against chemicals is circumstantial.

OK.  Consider this chart:

This rapid and alarming rate of increased obesity corresponds to the rise of chemical additives in food, many of which affect hormones and other aspects of the anatomy that influence fat retention.   Is this circumstantial?   Yes.   The causes of increased obesity are many, despite many links connecting the two (see: The Body Restoration Plan by Dr. Paula Baillie-Hamilton for a good argument on this issue), definitive proof remains elusive.

The same goes for the rapidly growing rates of autism (and other neurological disorders) in children, increases in depression and psychological problems in adults, hyper sensitivity issues, increased allergies, and increased incidences of cancer (even if medical science is much better at curing it).   If I demanded total proof that these chemicals are harmful before deciding not to use them, I could find arguments that cast doubt on every claim of harm made.

But my health is at stake.   The lives and health of my children are at stake.  And the evidence that harm is likely is very persuasive, even if absolute proof is elusive (it was also elusive for cigarette smoking for decades, where another powerful lobby tried to fight making such a connection).  Simply the fact that chemical usage has risen so dramatically is enough to get me to realize it is irrational for me not to be concerned — throw that much new artificial under tested chemicals into our bodies and homes and its clear no one knows exactly what the result will be.

So my habits are changing.   Some changes are gradual, others are instantaneous.   I’ll not try to get a perfect lawn, so no more weed and feed.  I will finish my Speed Stick before using the natural (no aluminum) deodorant.    I’ll try to hit the Farmers’ Market more frequently and buy organic/local as much as possible, but now and then we’ll still get some fast food.   Most importantly I’m going to start thinking about these things, investigating the products we use and the food we eat.   Big agribusiness doesn’t care about us.   Regulators lack staff and the politicians listen to the lobbyists of big money more than they listen to scientists or citizens.     We have to educate ourselves and hope that enough people see the danger that we can have an impact on the market.

Chemicals are everywhere, no matter how much I change at home our world is defined by chemical usage at work, by local governments, stores, and other people.   This is something we have to live with.   But making some different choices at home can’t hurt — and may yield long term benefits.


Geothermal Up and Running!

We won't always keep it this cool in summer, but for the first day running it was nice!

Today was an unusually warm and humid day for Maine in June — upper eighties by late afternoon.   That made it the perfect day to see how well the A/C function on the newly installed and operating system functions.    Unfortunately for the workers they had to work in the heat of the day (finishing in the attic at about 11:00, as the temperature hit 120 there) and couldn’t enjoy the cool air until right before they left.

The desuperheater is supposed to help with hot water, but will compete with the boiler

It was still an intense work day for them.   Any retrofit requires working around the idiosyncrasies of a house not built for geothermal.   Still, they answered all my questions and cleaned up before the left.    One issue is the desuperheater, which sends very hot water directly to the hot water tank when the unit is running.   It can send it at either 125 or 150, though 150 is above the state regulation.  I can set it there, but the installer couldn’t.

The problem is our water was set at 135, meaning that the boiler would still kick on and we’d save little in summer, even when theoretically we should be getting a lot of “free” hot water.  If I set it for 150 that could overcome that, but then there’s danger of severe burns if the kids got under it at its hottest.   I lowered the temperature to about 115 instead, so hopefully that’ll help.   The most efficient way to use the desuperheater is with an electric hot water heater.   In summer it would hardly ever go on, and only sometimes in winter.   If we really want to save we could go that route.

The unit all hooked up and working!

While he was explaining this there was some commotion and cold white “smoke” was coming out of the heat exchange pump.   “I’m stopping it with my hand,” one guy said.   “Move it, you’ll get frostbite,” another responded.  The leader of the crew started to work on it and got everything under control.   Other than that, things went very well!

The pump draws in water from the well, currently about 52 degrees, and takes heat from the house and puts it in the water.  The water is then sent back to the well about five or six degrees warmer.   In essence it refrigerates our house by removing heat rather than injecting cool air — though it feels like the latter as cool air comes from the vents.    In the winter it’s reversed, heat is taken from the water and colder water is sent back to the well (warming up from the earth’s heat as it makes its way back.)

Maintanence on the system is light; this filter has to be cleaned at times. It requires simply turning off the heat pump, shutting water down (domestic water is separate so I only shut down heat pump water), unscrewing, removing, cleaning and returning the filter.

It’s a split level system so heat is sent up from the basement to the attic for distribution.   There are 15 vents upstairs and three downstairs.   Basements stay around 50 anyway, so it doesn’t take as much heat — but we were limited by the inability to do much duct work in the basement.

We'll probably enclose this; the silver pipe leads air from the upstairs fan to the basement, the black ones bring the heat or cold from the basement unit to the attic for distribution. (In Ryan's closet)

The other bit of maintenance is to replace the upstairs filteres every three months.   There are two return vents that suck air out assuring a good flow of air through the house, keeping humidity down as well.   To protect both our air and the duct work, it’s important to filter this.   It’s possible to buy filters you can clean and reuse, though it’s not expensive to just replace them every three months — and our thermostat will remind us when it’s time to replace them.

One of the two return vents sucking air out.

One of the beauties of this form of air conditioning is that it isn’t like the rush of cold air that comes from most central AC systems.   The air flows gently, meaning that the temperature lowers slowly (they measured air coming out was at about 59 degrees, while the return air at that time was at 75).   You don’t have cold air blowing on you, you have to reach up to feel near the vent to tell — but it is effective, the house cooled from 78 to 70 within an hour.

A boring photo, but this is how most vents look. You can dampen them from the key in the middle (or from the attic) to control how much air comes. We have one wall unit downstairs, the rest are all ceiling.

The system is not loud at all.   The heat exchange pump does make noise, but it’s less than what the boiler produces.   The fan in the attic is hardly noticeable.    At least on day one, using the “Cool” mode, it works easily and quietly.    The thermostat is easy to operate.   It can be programmed, and you work from either “cool” or “heat” mode (there is an automatic, but that can switch back and forth and burn a lot of electricity).    We choose to have only one zone to save money, we didn’t see the point of multiple zones, especially if you can dampen the vents individually.

Although this will end my “daily” blogging about the project, I will post periodically about performance and cost — I’ll probably put together a page of posts like I did for the Italy trip.   It’s too early to say if the investment was worth it, or if the system will work as promised.   Yet I was very happy with both Jeff Gagnon Heating and Air Conditioning, and Goodwin Well and Water.   They communicated clearly, did what they said they’d do, were professional, and clearly understood their task (they’re the most experienced at this in the region).   RDM Electric (Ryan Morgan) also did a great job creatively dealing with the electrical needs of the system.

Wow.  I started asking about geothermal possibilities way back in 2007, playing with ideas, but all the time thinking the high initial price tag would keep this theoretical.   At UMF they are now drilling 80 wells for a massive conversion to geothermal for a good chunk of the campus.    For the sake of the economy I hope oil prices drop, but it’s nice not having to worry as much about them in planning next winter’s budget!


The House as a Construction Zone

The party was only starting here -- by 8:30 the trucks were arriving and work getting underway

At one point this morning the electrician’s truck, two Goodwin Well trucks, two Jeff Gagnon heating and AC trucks, a pick up truck from the excavators and a large truck hauling the excavation equipment were all in front of our house.   I had taken the kids to school and had to park up the road a bit — today the construction was in earnest.   Today our yard got torn up, today the house smelled like a construction site, today we got back on well water and are very close to being complete.  Ironically, for the first evening in a week, there are no trucks parked outside the house overnight.

These started popping from the attic at breakfast, which definitely caught Ryan's attention!

Inside the house duct work was all but completed today — maybe one or two vents still need to be hooked up.  The return vents were set (which apparently meant having to work around some tricky wiring).    The electrician also had to be creative — there wasn’t a lot of space, so they had to work around some obstacles.

Connecting the wellhead to the house -- and the drainage pipe is spared!

Outside the excavation work had one important obstacle — the trench we built in 2009!   The path from the well head to the house goes through the trench (which has a pipe going around 3/4 of the house).  It’s not in an important part — it’s near the end on the front side of the house, which had fewer drainage problems.  Still, we wanted to make sure that stayed in tact.  I talked to the excavators, and they found the pipe and dug around it.

The new set up - here the water enters, some going for domestic usage, some to the heat exchange pump

Our old tank - still in great condtion -- anyone want to buy it?

The purpose of the excavation, of course, was to connect the well (and new well pump) to the house.   That took most of the day, but by 5:00 the Goodwin folks had us back on well water, and had connected a brand new pump to a new tank and the heat exchange pump (which is not yet functional).   That means we have a five year old Gould’s pump and a large tank that are still in good shape but not being used.   Maybe we can sell them on E-Bay.

After the excavation - now to reseed our lawn!

The house is a mess.  Construction workers don’t take off shoes, of course, and go in and out of the house often.   Add some mud because water was involved with the well, and then add some smoke from cutting pipe.   It was a busy, hectic day.   Yet the project is on schedule and maybe tomorrow I’ll report that we’re up and running!   Stay tuned!


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Installation Continues…

Some duct work is already up in the attic, though from this angle (holding a camera through the opening and shooting) it's hard to see much detail.

The crew from Jeff Gagnon Heating and Air Conditioning were here shortly after 6:30 AM Tuesday and by 10:30 the attic was getting too hot for them to continue.  They then worked on the set up down stairs, cutting holes for the vents and getting things ready.

One of the closet pipes that will send air down to the basement.

We now can see where our fourteen air vents upstairs (and two return vents) will be located, as well as the four down stairs.   The closet in Ryan’s room has a slightly bigger opening because it will also pipe up the heat to the attic for distribution.   Nothing dramatic today — holes cut in the ceiling, work continuing.

Tomorrow the heat exchange pump may be hooked up to the well and perhaps ready to go! It is located in the basement storage area, near the oil and well tanks

When we got this house four years ago, I didn’t imagine how much work we’d put into it.   A new drainage system in 2009, combined with clearing out some of the back woods for a play area for the kids.  It was a massive undertaking.   More pictures here.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) should be a big day.   Goodwin’s is going to excavate and hook up the well to the house, the electrician is going to get everything wired properly and while they may need to return Thursday to finish up, things are on schedule.  I’m also setting up to chart the costs (electricity, oil used, etc) of energy use this year compared to last year, to see what this actually will save over time.   In that sense it’s an experiment, I’m not really sure what the return will be (and will post updates in my blog).  The house is a mess of course, ladders, plastic covering, and dust everywhere.   Still, the work has been relatively unobtrusive and they’ve been efficient and friendly.    Stay tuned!

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