small kindnesses

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It has been a helluva day. Nothing horrible happened, but it was one of those days that just ground away at me. It happens. Pecked to death by ducks seems to be an appropriate metaphor. I just felt raw.

When I got home I walked Dog 3.0, which helped.  Dogs can certainly change your perspective on life.  The most important thing is whatever smell rises from the intersection of grass and tree trunk.  Dogs live in the olfactory present.  I was less raw but certainly not ready to break out in song.

I sat on the porch in the ancient blue recliner that was old when we got it.  It has been the resting place of many a dog butt. It’s comfy.  Then the doorbell rang.  I was annoyed. I got up and walked to the door, determined to be gruff with the patchouli-drenched Greenpeace canvasser who was undoubtedly lurking on the stoop.

It wasn’t a Greenpeacer.  It was a couple of kids. No one was wearing a Girl Scout uniform, just street clothes.

I swallowed my grumpy and opened the door. Two kids from the church behind me introduced themselves and told me that their summer program was starting up next week, and they wanted to teach the kids that it is better to give than receive. They didn’t ask for any money. They didn’t ask for anything.

They just asked if they could perform an act of service for me this summer. They suggested washing my truck (it needs it so they’re perceptive), weeding (ditto), helping with household tasks.  “We just want to give service.”

2014-06-11 19.09.55I am reluctant to accept help since there are so many folks who need it more than I do, but I agreed that sometime this summer, I would love for them to wash my truck.  They took notes and said they would contact me later this summer.  I can drive through the car wash, but this will allow some kids to get soapy and make someone happy.

As they left, the young woman, maybe 14 or 15, turned around and said, “Sir, can I pray for you about anything?”


Irrespective of your faith (or lack of it), it’s a pretty powerful thing to have a stranger want to pray for you for anything. Whether prayer “works” or not (it does for me) you have to accept that it’s a small, thoughtful kindness. Perhaps she recognized my weariness after a long, raw day.  Even if she didn’t, it didn’t seem forced or that it was part of a script.

Someone asking if they could pray for me is a question I hadn’t heard in a while. Frankly, it so caught me off guard that I felt genuine human compassion for some suffering unknown to her. I was a little verklempt.  Neither of us said anything. I thought about it. I had an idea.

“You can pray that my work might be a little easier.”

She smiled and said “I can do that. I’ll do it tonight and tomorrow, and after that if I remember.”

I think I’m a little less raw now.

Respectfully submitted,


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Is this heaven?

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I’m sitting in our teardrop camper in the middle of a muddy field that is masquerading as a campground.  The downpour of a few hours ago didn’t help, and both the camper and truck are covered in splatters of a certain light tan clay that is so common here in Northeastern Iowa.


I lost the rear mud flaps to the truck on icebergs left by the snowplows past winter, so there’s a little more spray than usual.  Actually, a lot more.  It looks like someone took a drywall texture gun and packed it with this same tan clay and let his five year-old loose with it.

That said, I’m not complaining. I’ve been parked here in full view of the road, a scant hundred yards away. Two vehicles have passed in the last hour; a car (while sedan similarly decorated as mine) and a tractor pulling a grain drill. The river burbles through the little window, a soothing sound.


Today I paddled the Yellow River.  It has been on my list for a while, and I finally scheduled myself off for a few days mid-week so I could have some peace and quiet.  I get precious little time alone, and it is so nice to be alone with my thoughts.

You know, Iowa gets a bad rap. Sophisticated people from the coasts look down in wonder as they fly from concrete jungle to another. They wonder “Just who lives down there? Why would they want to live in such a sleepy little town?  I mean, how do they survive without Thai food?”

For the record, I grew up around these people, and I am somewhat schizoid about them, simultaneously feeling sorry for them while wondering if their parents had regrets after seeing what they created. They’re sorry little creatures, all form and no substance.  In other words, Anti-Iowan.


Iowa is a lovely, lovely place.  The people are down-to-earth and kind, the sort of folks who strike up casual conversations over a piece of pie, should you sit at the counter at a diner. The old folks are awesome, strong and wiry, weathered with countless summers of picking corn and milking cows. They’re the salt of the earth, and I like them all. *


Swallows are swirling around the teardrop, buzzing and clicking as they scoop up early, tender insects.  It won’t get dark for a few more hours but I feel cozy in here.  The teardrop is almost cheating: I paddle all day and here I lay after a nice dinner of curry and local cheese and crackers, on a really comfortable mattress, between 400 count cotton sheets.  Mary Chapin Carpenter sings back-up to a couple of wrens in a honeysuckle bush a few feet from my window.


And I haven’t even paddled the Upper Iowa yet. That’s tomorrow.  This is bliss.

Respectfully submitted,


* Unless you’re from California, New York City or Florida.  In that case, Iowa is full of corn and pig farts. The people here are dim-witted, hirsute, clumsy, drooling troglodytes, and that’s just the women. The men are even more coarse and slow, dressing only in dirty overalls, shirt optional. Those who may have heard of phở mispronounce it. They speak an unintelligible variety of English that makes Cajun sound like the King’s Speech. They may or may not eat human flesh. Do not come to Iowa.

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As I wrote this a few years ago, I was sitting against a stone wall in Mineral Point, Wisconsin.  It seemed a nice thing to post on Easter.  -DB


Laudato sie, mi Signore cum tucte le tue creature,
spetialmente messor lo frate Sole, lo qual è iorno, et allumini noi per lui.
Et ellu è bellu e radiante cum grande splendore:
de Te, Altissimo, porta significatione.

Praised be to You, my Lord, with all your creatures,
Especially our brother, Sir Sun, and You illuminate us through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor:
Of you, Most High, he bears your likeness.

This early 13th century poem by St. Francis of Assisi was written in medieval Italian, the oldest known poem written in the vernacular of the time. It has a sweet ancient sound, a lovely cadence with little latinisms creeping in.

I’m leaning agains a stone wall as I scribble this down on a school notebook, using a Ticonderoga N. 2 pencil. The stone wall is over 100 years old, and the sun has been warming it for tens of thousands of days.  Seems like Brother Sun and Cousin Limestone have something going. Brother Sun is illuminating, and it feels great.


Saint Francis of Assisi was quite the guy.  Catholic or not, you have to admire the guy for his ability to bring the Divine down here to earth where we mere mortals can taste it.  Brother Sun and I have been friends now for over five decades.

I’m on a bit of a quest today.  I’m roaming the back roads of southwestern Wisconsin in search of, well, I don’t really know.  Photographs?  If I find a nice image, that would be okay, but it certainly isn’t necessary.  A nice stream to paddle?  That would be nice, but it’s pretty cold out.   How about some peace and quiet?  That sounds great.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per sor’Acqua,
la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta.

 Be praised, my Lord,  for Sister Water:
She is dear and useful, humble, precious and pure.

I cross numerous rivers and streams, some barely large enough to float a canoe if you didn’t care much about the bottom of it.  Little towns, little churches, and little cemeteries.  I love little cemeteries.

One of my favorite things about Wisconsin is the relative stability of the population.  In other words, the names on the headstones in the cemetery are the same as the ones in the local phone book.


It has long been a habit of mine to walk around old country cemeteries, looking at the stones that were carved before the days of computer graphics and laser etching.  The workmanship varies from place to place and stone to stone.

Sometimes it’s evident that a local craftsman was employed, and the work is meticulous but somewhat Spartan.  Sometimes you can tell that a local craftsman was a master artist and stonecutter, with beautiful carvings of flowers, lambs, and my favorite, a finger pointing straight up, as if to say “Why seek Ye the living among the dead?”

Laudato si mi Signore, per sora nostra Morte corporale,
da la quale nullu homo uiuente pò skappare:
guai a quelli ke morrano ne le peccata mortali;
beati quelli ke trouarà ne le Tue sanctissime uoluntati,
ka la morte secunda no ‘l farrà male.

Be praised, my Lord, for our Sister Death,
From whom no living person can escape:
Woe to them who die in mortal sin;
Blessed are they who find themselves doing your holy will,
Because for them the second death will do them no evil. 

I like the contemplative feeling of these old, hallowed places.  Usually there are no more than a few dozen stones, sometimes fewer, seldom more. The languages of the stones are a testament to the variety of people who settled this area, and often you’ll find a stone in Welsh or German.  You can see stories in the stones, like the young mother of 22 or 23 buried next to an infant who died a few hours later.

Where was the father?  Did he pull up stakes and leave the place, grief-stricken and unable to bear to live in the place that robbed him of his wife and child?  No one can tell, and no one will, but it certainly reminds you of the fragility of life a century ago.  The settlers of this place certainly were – the birth and death dates were plainly spelled out, and though the elements had softened the letters, the words were still plainly visible:

born June 4, 1857, died February 18, 1879
Age 21 years, 9 mos., 15 days

Where life is precious, it isn’t measured in years, or decades.  It is measured in days, in moments, and each moment that passes is lost, gone forever.  Our ancestors knew this, and to that end marked their final resting places with the most permanent material they could find and with words that reaffirmed they knew the value of life.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per frate Focu,
per lo quale ennallumini la nocte:
ed ello è bello et iucundo et robustoso et forte.

Be praised my Lord,  for Brother Fire,
By which the night is lit,
And he is beautiful and delightful and powerful and strong.

I got cold just sitting on the ground, reading stones in the shade of large cottonwood trees.  I found a small area off the side of the road, built a small fire, and warmed myself from the outside in as my water boiled for something else to warm me from the inside out.   Brother Fire is a good friend of mine, and has been for years. I return home from a camping trip and the first thing my wife does is to smell my hair (what’s left of it, anyway) for signs of wood smoke.  Brother Fire gives me delight indeed. Brother Fire is one of my best friends.


I contemplated the flames and warmed my hands, still thinking I could find my river and get in a few strokes before dark.  I stretched out the Gazetteer and looked for streams or rivers that looked like they needed a good paddling.  I was only a few miles from the Platte River, where it runs into the Mississippi near Potosi.  That would be my next destination.

I finished the hot chocolate, thankful to Brother Chocolate for the much-needed calories.  I doused my small fire with a water bottle, cleaned up the mess and got back into the truck, my mission now selected.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per frate Uento
et per aere et nubilo et sereno et onne tempo,
per lo quale, a le Tue creature dài sustentamento.

Be praised my Lord, for Brother Wind
and for air and clouds and for all weather.
by which you sustain your creatures.

Brother Wind.  Now there’s a relative I really wasn’t anxious to see at the reunion.  Brother Wind had been AWOL most of the day, and I was making hay out of the cloudless sky and warm sun, which when the wind wasn’t blowing, was almost too hot on my skin.  A quick check in the rear-view mirror showed that Brother Sun had given my face something to remember the day, and Brother Wind would surely finish the job if given the opportunity.

I found a put-in across the river from a farm, whose watchdog was not happy about my intrusion.  I loaded up the canoe as quickly as I could and launched into the current, paddling upstream first because I am both a realist and a Calvinist.  You gotta suffer for your free ride back to the car. Besides, Murphy the Lawgiver told me that if you paddle downstream first, you will find Sister Water running swifter and the Brother Wind in your face if you try to paddle back upstream.

It felt good to be in the water, the boat moving well into a slight breeze.  Brother Wind stayed home, but his little sibling Sister Breeze gave the cattails and reeds along the shore just a hint of movement.  I paddled for a while until I noticed the sun starting to disappear behind the hills, which happens fairly early this time of year.  In the open areas you can see two hours more sun than down in the valleys, and it was time to find a place with more warmth.  The paddle back to the car was easy, with the help of the current I was back in no time and the boat loaded up.  The mud from the shores of the Platte was dark and murky, and it felt soft like baby powder when it dried on the bottom of the hull.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora Luna e le stelle:
in celu l’ài formate clarite et pretiose et belle.

Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Moon and the stars,
In heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful. 

No stars, but Sister Moon is out early.  A nice crescent, thin and bright against the cloudless blue.  It is a blessing to see the moon on a day like today. It’s a reminder that night comes early and a lot of the sounds we’re accustomed to hearing in the woods are silent, the frogs deep in the mud, the birds south, except for the red-breasted nuthatches honking at each other.  The cold seeps into your bones, reminding you that without Sister Oak and Cousin Hickory, the house is cold and dreary. 

Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora nostra matre Terra,
la quale ne sustenta et gouerna,
et produce diuersi fructi con coloriti fior et herba.

Be praised, my Lord, for our sister, Mother Earth,
Who sustains us and rules us,
And produces diverse fruits with colorful flowers and grasses.

 Mother Earth was good to me today.  The flowers are gone, mostly, but we found some glorious grasses and the last of the red currants and bittersweet along the road, their cheerful red even brighter against the dun-colored grasses, which couldn’t decide between gray and brown. It’s not in the poem, but Mother Earth is also a soft, brown bed, in whom we bury each other and cover each other with a sweet blanket of sod, and hopefully a few colorful flowers too. I like to think of Mother Earth as giving us a nice, cool hug when we finally go the way of all flesh.

Wisconsin breeds the sort of people who like a deep taproot, one that goes deep and reaches the water.  Let others move to the big cities, to the fast-paced coasts, where life runs at a speed that reminds us of hamsters on an exercise wheel.  Leave me behind, halfway between the coasts, insulated by prairies from the hectic pace of the big and noisy.

My taproot was cut when I was nineteen and I took off from home in California (big and noisy par excellence) and set off for Italy, never to return to California.  I was without home, without place for several years, until I met a young Wisconsin woman who had a very deep root system and invited me to grow alongside her.

It wasn’t a hard choice.  As I visited with her family and traveled the back roads between Belmont, Rewey,  Arthur, Mineral Point, and Platteville, I fell in love with the land around me, which only deepened my love for my wife. After twenty three years, I have put down a very thick, deep taproot that is impervious to any sort of drought.  I have found my place. It’s here

Laudate et benedicete mi Signore et rengratiate
e seruiteli cum grande humilitate.

Praise and bless my Lord and thank him
And serve him with great humility.

After 30 years, I find myself continually nourished by this place, and look forward to continuing the exploration, on foot, by canoe, and occasionally, in an old cemetery.  I do think I serve, sometimes with and sometimes without humility, when I take friends and other various and sundry people on the rivers and streams of this Driftless Area, the southwestern part of the state of Wisconsin where the glaciers just couldn’t quite reach.

That’s my place. Good luck rooting me out.

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flying the friendly skies

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I’m sitting in the United Club, ensconced in a comfy chair with two outlets, one for each electronic device that accompanies me on my business trips. I’m off to DC for a board meeting, just an overnighter, so I’m traveling light.

An empty seat in an exit row. Seriously?

I don’t fly enough to hate it, but I fly enough that I don’t like it. Still, as I walk through the Cathedral of Travel that is Chicago O’Hare, I do my best to wear a Buddhist half-smile and pass it along to anyone not staring at their smartphones or talking to themselves. I walk the length of two terminals, and I get one smile from a Hispanic woman who stops me to ask the time in a thick Spanish accent. I look at my watch and without thinking about it I say ocho y media. “I mean, eight thir…” but she says gracias, with a warm half-smile.

It’s easy to wear a full-smile as I descend the escalator to the United Club, the bastion of business travelers, a quiet little sanctuary.  I wear less of a smile when I learn my membership card expired last November.  I hope for some leniency from the woman at the counter, but her smile is a little icy as she slides the card back to me.  “Or,” she says, “You can renew your membership…”  So I renew.  The smile thaws just a bit but retains a respectful chill.  Take a lesson from my Hispanic friend, I say to myself.

Ducati luggage.  I bet it rolls really fast.

I actually enjoyed the 45 minute flight to ORD.  ORD may seem a strange name for the airport for a major American city.  Why not CHI?  I mean, Los Angeles is LOS.  Atlanta ATL.  ORD is ORD because before it was one of the busiest airports in the world, it was an orchard.

As I waddle down the aisle of my CRJ700, computer bag in one hand and my socks and underwear in the other, a beautiful African-American woman struggles to put 105% of carry-on into 100% of overhead bin.  She’s dressed to the tens, not the nines, and despite her considerable heels she’s just short enough to make stowing luggage a ponderous task.  Behind her stands a stereotype in Dockers, a blue blazer and light blue shirt, no tie, loafers. He looks noticeably irritated, shifting his weight back and forth as if that’s going to speed the process.  I wonder why he doesn’t offer to help.  I mean, this guy’s six-foot plus and a gentle nudge from below would considerably speed up the process.  I really want to reach around him to help her,  accidentally clocking him in the jaw as I do so, but she receives help from a fellow passenger behind her.  I pray that he’s not sitting next to me.  My prayer is answered.

On any plane you find a nice cross section of society.  Sure, it’s dominated by business folks, but you still see the Grammas on their way to see grandkids, quiet young women on their way back from visiting friends, and jolly golfers in golf sweaters and golf pants talking in golf voices, heading for warmer climes down south.  But my favorites are the families on their way someplace for vacation, especially of there are two kids about six and four.  Clearly they’re going to Disney World.

Dad is wearing a Badger’s cap and Cabela’s fleece.  He looks to be a dairy farmer, but farmer or no he’s a big dude in his thirties with a scruffy goatee, and my guess is he knows how to work with his hands.  He sits next to his six year-old, an energetic boy with a bowl haircut who appears to have spent some time in the Bouncy Castle at the State Fair last summer and just kept on going.  If he had been on an airplane before, you wouldn’t know it.  He is enthused by everything, including Sky Mall with its array of expensive, absolute crap.  Solar-powered garden gnomes?  Gimme a break.  “Daddy, look at this!”  Daddy offers a conciliatory hmmph. In his mind he’s thinking I wouldn’t buy that shit with someone else’s money, let alone my own.  I’m leaning more and more toward farmer.

His son peppers him with questions about everything.  He doesn’t know a lot and says so when he doesn’t.  Still, his son is awed at his omniscience.  “What’s that one, Daddy?”  “Oh, that’s a generator that helps start the engines.”  “What’s that one?”  “That one there holds fuel.”  He says fuel, not gas, so I move my mental needle a notch toward farmer or maybe trucker.  A flight departs across the grass strip that separates the taxiway from the runway. “Where’s that plane going?”  “I dunno.”

He talks with a Wisconsin accent, identified as much by its volume as its distinctive, drawn-out vowels and the pronunciation of th as somewhere between th and d.  You get up to da UP (Upper Peninsula of Michigan) and the th disappears entirely.  Oh, yah, dat dere’s a nice walleye, you betcha.  I don’t necessarily have a Wisconsin accent after 30 years in the Midwest, but certain speech patterns have inserted themselves into my lexicon.  I caught myself a few days ago saying to my wife, “You want some help with that er no?”  Er no is pretty damn Wisconsin. I’m totally okay with that, y’know.

His wife appear to be of Norweigan stock, thick blond hair that’s not from a bottle, pulled back in a pony tail as thick as a broomstick.  She has a pretty face, wearing just a little mascara so her eyelashes will show. She’s sturdily built, the kind of woman who milks 100 cows before 7:00 and can weed a big garden. She’d be considered overweight by some standards, but I think she’s lovely.  If Kate Upton is the Ferrari, this woman is a Ford F-250 with a Cummins diesel and dualies in the back. Not as glamorous, but a hell of a lot more useful in all but a few circumstances.

She’s patient and tender with her four year-old, who’s a little more squirmy and less self-contained than her brother.  She says “Say, it’s 80 degrees in Florida and twenty degrees in Canada. Where do you want to go, sweetie?”


I love this little girl.

The guy sitting next to me is on his way to a conference and sales meeting.  He works for a large feed and pet food company, one who’s product I have used for twenty years.  He smiles and says, “Well, I do cat food. The wet food in the three ounce cans.”  The ones that cost a buck an ounce.  That’s more than a medium-grade prosciutto.  Yikes.  I’d never done the math before.

My wife knows that censoring my thoughts as they travel from Broca’s area to my mouth is not my strong suit.  I lean over and say “Well, thank god for those women who own six cats.”  He smiles wanly and says, “Amen to that.”  Even though he agrees, I fear I have promulgated a stereotype and I wish I hadn’t said that, not so much for him as for me. Chalk one up for Team Insensitive Jerk.

In two hours I’ll be on other flight to DCA, Ronald Reagan International Airport, from which I take the shuttle to the metro yellow line to the red line to my hotel, eight blocks from the stop. Tonight I have dinner with some really nice, smart people from the Outdoor Industry Association, of which I am a member of the board of directors.  Part of me looks forward to this.  Part of me wishes I could share a burger with the family going to Florida just to hear them talk and watch them parent.

Respectfully submitted,


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 6:00 AM flights test the ability of the most zealous Buddhist to maintain a semblance of neutrality.  No one wants to be there; most everyone on that flight would rather take the 8:10 AM flight.  But that flight usually costs $200 more, and is always sold out anyway.  So you get up at the crack of night and drive to the airport in the first, purple light of the morning.

The cool thing about driving down these normally busy roads is that you get them to yourself.  You also tend to see more because you’re not distracted by the pulsing brake lights of the Buick Regal in front of you.  There are no other cars, just you and the morning.

My friend Jodie Marc was on his way to the airport to fly back to Toronto.  A canoe paddle builder and master canoeist, he had spent a few days teaching canoeing classes at my shop.  The Canadian style of teaching is not well-known in the United States, and it is always fun to see what happens when a student realizes they are really, truly in control of their boat.  But I digress.

Jodie Marc and I were driving to the airport at 5:15 AM.   It was the beginning of summer, and it was light enough to drive without headlights, but we drove with them anyway.  We chatted about the weekend, the students, and Canadian food, why Canadians put gravy on perfectly good French fries, etc.  I learned about Tim Horton, the Canadian Ambassador to the United States.

Suddenly a strange creature lumbered in front of the truck, weaving back and forth like a drunken wind-up toy.  I slammed on the brakes and threw it into park, and both Jodie and I jumped out of the car to investigate.  We didn’t bother to pull over, but we did bother to put on the hazard flashers.


What we discovered was a pathetic looking creature.  It was a baby raccoon, its head firmly lodged in a peanut butter jar.*  Through the translucent but brownish-tinted plastic we could see terrified eyes and more than a hint of exhaustion.   As he tried to climb the curb he hit it over and over with his jar, and he looked shell-shocked, as if he had been crossing back and forth across the street for hours, trying to escape his oily prison.   His ears were catching behind the rim of the jar, and there was no way for him to pull it off.  He needed help.

 Jodie tried to grab him but he hissed and scratched as I looked for some work gloves in the back of the truck.  We found none, so Jodie took off his sweatshirt, protected his hands, and lunged.  Screams filled the peanut butter jar.  You’d think we were trying to shove his head into the jar, not pull it out.  I tried to grab the jar and pull but Jodie was getting the worst of the little claws.  So we tried Plan B.  Jodie swooped down like a dancer, grabbed the jar and continued to spin in a circle, the centrifugal force keeping the raccoon kit away from his hands.  After three or four spins, Jodie flicked his wrist a little, like a shot putter, and out spun the little raccoon, rolling across the grass.  He sat up, looked at us, and I have never seen a more pathetic looking creature.  His head was brown and matted with dried Jif, and it would take a lot of maternal care to restore his head to something that resembled a raccoon again.

After a few seconds he rambled off, a little dehydrated but probably none the worse for wear, hoping to find his mother.  We jumped back in the car and resumed out airport shuttle.  The whole thing might have taken two minutes.

A few months later Jodie and I were visiting on the phone.  He is a Sunday School teacher at his small  church, and loves to teach the children using stories, which is, after all, the best way to teach children, or adults for that matter.  Jodie told them the story of the peanut butter jar and the raccoon kit.

He told that we get our heads stuck in peanut butter jars all the time.  Maybe we’re greedy, like the raccoon kit, sticking our noses where they don’t belong.  Maybe we’re foolish, taking advice from others who tell us that sticking our heads in jars is a load of laughs.  As silly and pathetic  as the raccoon appeared to us, I am sure we appear just as pathetic to each other sometimes.  And just like the raccoon, we need someone to grab us, hold us down and swing us around while we scream bloody murder until our head pops out of the jar and we run off covered in peanut butter, cursing the person who helped us get unstuck.

I’ve had several people in my life grab me by the peanut butter jar and give me a spin, and I’m thankful for them.  One of them is my wife, who I adore more than a raccoon adores peanut butter.

Which is to say, quite a lot.

*Google “raccoon head stuck in jar.”  This is not an isolated incident.
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the real work is within

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I have a couple of projects sitting on the back burner.  Recently I felt like moving one to the front burner would be helpful.  I am designing a new paddle from a friend’s paddle company.  We’ve been talking about it for over a year now, and he sent me a few rough cut blanks a month ago. They’ve been leaning against a corner of my shop, waiting for a time when I would feel good about starting the process.

I was a little impulsive last night and decided to go take a look at the blanks, sketch on them a little, maybe start the process of removing all the wood that isn’t paddle.  It’s not that hard once you have the right shape in your brain.  You just have to be mindful.


I took the first blank, sketched a few lines on it, cut away some big chunks and started with my bowyer’s drawknife.  I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing, I was just hogging out wood to get a rough shape.  The bowyer’s knife is an effective tool and I scraped and pulled for ten or fifteen minutes.

When I came back to myself I realized I had taken off way too much wood on one side of the grip.  That blank, for all intents and purposes, was kindling. I had taken a piece of black willow and instead of liberating the potential paddle from its encasement, I had defiled it.  I felt like a surgeon who kept cutting after the tumor had been excised, except in this case, there would be no dramatic consequences and no malpractice lawsuit.

Still, I felt like crap. It wasn’t that I had ruined a good piece of wood, that was just annoying.  What really bothered me was my complete lack of mindfulness as I cranked away at the wood like it was an annoyance, a barrier to my real goal of getting out the pattern-making rasp and fine-shaping the grip.  I was totally in the future. I was nowhere near the present.  As a result, I didn’t get to carve that grip into what I wanted to.  I was thinking about tying my shoes and didn’t even have my socks on yet.

The good news is that my friend Ed knows how I think and because he’s a good guy, sent me three different blanks.  I am still kicking myself for trashing one of them, but it was a good lesson, and it forced me to calm down, focus, and get busy on the second blank.

2014-04-01 20.08.03

This time, I was mindful.

A little slower with the drawknife, a little slower with the plane, a little slower with the rasp.  Sanded with 120 to show flaws and imperfections.  Here’s the outcome of the first shaping.  We’re symmetrical, pretty clean, and ready to proceed (carefully) with the spokeshaves and rasps.

It was a good thing this happened.  It reminded me of how easy it is to lose the way.

It also reminded me of the words of a mentor who I never met.  Don Fogg was the mentor of my blacksmithing mentor, Larry Cooper.  His website (no longer online) was so impactful I downloaded it before he took it down for good.

“The work is to reach beyond ourselves, to let go of what is safe and stretch. The more we conquer our little self, the stronger and clearer we become. For me, making things with my hands has provided a way to see the process…There are pitfalls to this approach though, and the most obvious is that we identify ourselves with our work, failing to remember that the real work is within. Others have a tendency to identify you with the work that you do as well. The way that others respond to you can have a huge effect on how you perceive yourself, it is another form of feedback and is very powerful. Knowing yourself is the best shield against the assaults of the world.”

 Thank you for the reminder, Don.

Respectfully submitted,



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the importance of play

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“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
- Plato

“If you receive the world, the Tao will never leave you,
 and you will be like a little child.
The greatest wisdom seems childish.”

– Tao Te Ching

Last week was a particularly hectic one.  The shop puts on a consumer paddlesports show called Canoecopia.  Basically, we bring over 20,000 people to Madison and provide them with the opportunity to buy a lot of gear from us.  It’s cool, but it’s exhausting.

There are two ways for me to rejuvenate; to sleep, or to play.  After some sleep, I found myself loading canoes on my truck, just nine hours after we broke down the show.  I was joined by a brother from another mother, Pete from Sawyer Paddles and Oars, and a sister from another mother, Denise, who is on my list of Top Ten Women.  I probably shout write about that list someday.


Pete, a.k.a. Pedro Loco, is an interesting dude.  Former President of Breedlove Guitars, Pete plays and thinks a lot.  How can you not love a guy who writes his company mission statement in crayon?  I like spending time with him because of the way we feed off each other’s brains, but mostly I enjoy his company because he plays.


Our destination the day after Canoecopia is often Badfish Creek.  It’s just a half-hour south of Madison and we usually put in at Cookesville, an old town with a lovely little general store (ca. 1846) that first installed indoor plumbing in 2011.  It was sadly closed otherwise we would have gorged on Amish-made pies and other goodies.

Instead, we put in and started our paddle.  The water was low so we scraped here and there, but we didn’t mind as we soaked in the 50-degree warmth and sunshine the first in ages. Redtailed Hawks, Sandhill Cranes, a Bald Eagle, turkeys and countless deer were just some of the treats we experienced as we busted ice shelves along the banks of the creek.  I started to get red cheeks from the sun.  Awesome. Then we came around the corner and there it was: a snowman, Packer hat and all.  Seriously?

After this winter worthy of Yellowknife, NWT, I hate snowpeople irrespective of gender. Their day is done, good night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy melting puddle of rest.  To see a snowman is to be reminded that it’s March, and it snowed five inches last Tuesday. I strongly suggested we sacrifice the snowman to the river gods.

Pete was smarter.  “Why don’t we put her in the canoe?”  Gender is a fairly flexible concept with Homo nixiens as we were fresh out of carrots.  We slid our canoes unto the bank and began the tedious task of transferring the snowperson (already suffering from solar leprosy) to the stern seat of the canoe, plus making a companion for her.


We tried to move them into the water for a picture, of course, and of course, the leprous snowpeople lost their heads.  Undeterred, we starting building again, this time standing in the icy water in our boots, building them in place so they wouldn’t collapse.  We added counterweights to keep the canoe upright, tied off the bow and shoved the boat into the river for the photo op.


The lipstick on Ballena (women can paddle stern too) was sourced from a sanguine rivulet on my left ring finger.  Pulling up grass for hair sliced me unknowingly, at least until I started packing snow around Homer’s butt (the bow paddler) and it was tinged with pink.  Leprosy took Ballena’s lips off before I could finish.

After a few Clif bars we dumped the snow bastards unceremoniously into the river, relishing in their poor fortune.  We did save the hat, squeezed it out and tied it to the canoe’s rear carrying thwart to dry.  Pete took the hat home to use in other impromptu sessions of whimsy.  We enjoyed three pleasant hours on the water, just the three of us.

Selfies are easier with a Sawyer Stingray LT paddle.

Selfies are easier with a Sawyer Stingray LT paddle.

Driving home with Pete (the long way since we both care for the road less traveled), I thought about how fun it was to be goofy. Now I tend to do silly things so it’s nice to be validated once in a while. I think Wife 1.4.1 is used to it by now.  I mean, why shouldn’t a guy in his early 50s slide down a handrail at a subway station in DC? Because I might fall and bump my head?  Sprain an ankle?  Why not have some fun?

I spent the first half of my life caring too much about what people would think about me. Now I have ceased to care so much what people think when they see a middle-aged bald guy trying to send himself into orbit on a playground swing.  Advantage One of being over 50: I no longer give a damn what people think.  This attitude adjustment allows me, a natural introvert, to do goofy things, to fail spectacularly at some of them, and occasionally succeed just as spectacularly.

If it weren’t for play, I wouldn’t be hanging it out there so much.  Play is important.  Heck, there’s even a National Institute for it.  Play teaches you to take chances, to risk appearing looking like a dork when you dance, to step up to an open mike because, as my mantra says, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”  Play teaches you to be fearless, to try new things, to make snowpersons in your canoe and take pictures of it.  No reason, just because it would be fun, or at least interesting.

The benefit of play brings you a Potentially Amazing Experience (PAE). True, the time I joined a jam band on stage in front of 500 or so of my peers at a trade show could have been a Potentially Embarrassing Experience (PEE), but you know, what’s the worst thing that can happen?  I’ve had PEEs. It wasn’t so bad, but I’ve had even more PAEs.

Thank you, Pete, for the time in the sandbox.

Respectfully submitted,


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it’s not me, it’s you

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Dear Amy,

Yes, I was researching for a Brooks Saddle for my new Trek 520, and I know that you know everything I type in my browser.  The All-Seeing Eye, y’know.  Annuit Coeptis and all that.  If you were a person, you’d be a stalker.

You were seductive, Amy. Your price was compelling at $135.00.  That’s $15.00 off retail of $150.00!  Generous!  And free shipping too with Amy Prime.

sa102a1But you know, Amy, something didn’t feel right about buying that saddle from you.  I admit that sometimes I have purchased books and other commodities from you.  After Border’s Books crippled the independent booksellers then stupidly went bankrupt (Barnes and Noble will too, I predict, by next summer, after losing $111,000,000 year over year), the only place I can get some books is from you.  So I hold my nose and push the return key.  Sorry, Amy.

In case you don’t know, Amy, Brooks Saddles have been hand-made since 1866.  If you haven’t ridden a bicycle with a Brooks Saddle, you haven’t lived. They’re sculptures as much as saddles.  Sure, they take a gerbil’s lifetime to break in, but when they do…oh, the comfort.  And they last forever.

Amy, I hope you can see why the idea of buying a hand-made item, the epitome of specialty product, from a company whose distribution centers would cause Upton Sinclair to spin in his grave didn’t sit well with me.  I felt, well, like a hypocrite. Especially since I own a specialty retail shop myself.  I’m surprised you didn’t know that about me, Amy.

I looked around in town, but the local guys didn’t have the saddle I wanted (or they were too busy trying to out-bro each other).  I went to the web, and it took me a while, but I finally found a shop that was locally owned and operated that had the saddle on their website. I found the object of my lust at Harris Cyclery in New Weston, Mass, established 1952.  The price was $145.95 plus $7.99 shipping.  $153.94.

Notice, Amy, I paid $18.94 more than I would have paid you. That’s because the guys are Harris Cyclery know what they’re talking about. Thanks to Harris Cyclery, I no longer need to purchase a Brooks B17 saddle.  They took care of me. And because I’m a new customer and told them about this whole transaction (i.e., breaking up with you), they sent me a cool t-shirt. I will wear it proudly. Don’t bother sending me an Amazon shirt, I wouldn’t wear it to muck out a barn.

Please, Amy, you can stop putting ads all over my pages. If you’re smart enough to know that at some point I wanted one, you should be smart enough to know I bought one. From someone else. Who’s not you.  Don’t be the guy with the boom box in Say Anything. I have earplugs.

Leave me alone, Amy, I’m breaking up with you.  I will actively search for new places to buy, even if it costs more.  You can try to lure me back with free shipping, best prices, on-line foot massages and sending me stuff before I know I need it.  Sorry, it won’t work. I have seen past your seductive pricing structure.  That’s all you have.  Price, and occasionally, really funny customer reviews. But for the most part, you’re not the girl for me.

I need a relationship with someone who stands behind their product. People who actually know how it works, even if they have to climb up on a ladder to get it and don’t know the part number. I need stores that don’t purposefully place their distribution centers in an area of high unemployment so they can treat people like stock animals and get away with it. I’m voting with my dollars.  Your dad, Jeff Bezos won’t care if I don’t buy from you, but he might care if a bunch of us (I’m not a fool — you’ve been multi-timing me) decide to go for real instead of just cheap.

The only thing you had going for you, Amy, was that you were twenty bucks cheaper than my new friends at Harris Cycle.  And we all know what they call the person who gives it away cheapest.

Don’t call, don’t write.

Respectfully submitted,


P.S.  Just to prove it’s not a fluke, I placed another order with Harry tonight.  I didn’t even look to see if you had it cheaper.

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i’m not dead…

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…but I am not altogether living…hydrocodone makes me sick but allows me to function why that stupid nerve that comes out of my neck and down my back and through my triceps has its way with me.

That said, life is good.  I’m on this side of the sod, which is more than I can say for a lot of friends and a few dozen people in Oklahoma.

But do you know what would make me feel better?


This. Nürnberg’s finest sausages, three of them, on a bun.  With mustard.  Not ketchup.

Anyone want to finance the opening of a canoe shop in Bavaria?

Respectfully submitted,


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scriptor in absentia

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Yep, I’ve been absent here after quite a while of consistent posts.  There are explanations.

1)  I am writing more for filthy lucre.  As of February 1 I am the paddlesports columnist for Silent Sports Magazine. I have also become a regular contributor for a wonderful website called The Art of Manliness.  No, it’s not about being a Maxim-ogling troglodyte.  Actually, it’s exactly the opposite.

2)  I am writing a book. I have a contract and everything.  7 chapters in, 25 to go.  It is, well, demanding.

Bear in mind that I own a business, hold a fairly time-consuming church calling and I still like to paddle and hang out with my wife, remaining son at home and friends.  Which means the first thing that got cut was recreational writing.

So this isn’t goodbye…just a little hiatus…

Respectfully submitted,


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