Category Archives: Peter’s Stuff

Things Peter is doing, interested in, or otherwise feels like posting

Anyone Interested?

UPDATE:

To the handful of people who were interested in this, it has fallen victim to the whims of fortune and my current lack of motivation.  It’ll be a while before I can afford the up-front costs to get this printed.  Sorry for the teaser.  You probably didn’t really want one anyway, but I appreciate the thought.

Just finished putting together a “book” of the poetry I’ve written.  You can download a crummy low-resolution version of it at the following link:  Low resolution proof of “Doc Johnson’s Magic Mix”

I’m thinking of getting a handful actually printed and bound, but I don’t have the money at the moment to print enough to hand out.  If you are interested in having a copy and are willing to blow up to $20 on it, leave a comment with your contact info and I’ll see if I can get enough interest to make it viable.

Inch Deep

Once fed by melting white snow
Tumbling quickly with great energy
Living rock yielded to the potent push
As it carved deeper and built strength
Life's elements careening down stream

Then dreadfully harnessed and tapped
To suit the intent of designers
Pounding and frothing for naught
As twist upon turn changed the course
Sapping the potential and power

Till an inch deep and two miles wide
Sluggishly creeping along the way
Stagnantly pooling, nearly halting
Releasing what was suspended
All is lost by expanding too wide

Story Time: Doctor Destructo

Sitting around my parent’s house over the Thanksgiving holiday, my siblings and I started doing what we generally do on the rare occasions when we get together — we started telling stories from when we were younger.  That got me to thinking that many of the earlier stories haven’t been written down anywhere and might be lost if I didn’t change that fact.  Either that, or they would be told incorrectly by my siblings (almost certainly in a way that minimizes their roles).  So, after encouragement by Liz, I’ve decided to write down a few of them that came up in the most recent story-telling session.  In thinking about the things that we talked about, there was a common theme to many of them: I had a destructive streak in my younger years.

The Tonka Truck Incident

When I was quite young my parents had set aside a small section of the yard just off the end of the driveway as a “digging pit” where we kids were allowed to dig.  Nominally, the plan was to let us dig out a pit that my parents could then fill in with sand to make a sandbox, but for a rather long time we stuck to playing in the dirt.  To complete the fun, my parents built a small playhouse out of old shipping pallets on the end of the driveway immediately adjacent to the pit.  We spent countless hours getting dirty and generally enjoying the liberty of unstructured play.

While the construction of the playhouse was a fine example of environmentally friendly re-purposing of items that would have otherwise been thrown away, the more significant reasons for the choice of materials were economic.  With a gaggle of kids to take care of, our family didn’t have much extra money at the end of the month to use for things like toys.  For the most part, we made due with what we had or could find.  Given this context, it should be apparent that it was a big deal when both my brother Tolon and I received brand-new and very large Tonka dump-trucks for Christmas.  These were extravagant gifts.

Given the nature of these toy trucks, you would think that we would have cherished and taken good care of them.  You would think…  However, not long after we had received these fine specimens my friend Justin and I got a rather unfortunate bright idea.  We had been using these trucks to help with our “excavation” in the digging pit, and decided we wanted to see just how tough these awesome machines were.   All around the pit were large rocks that we had dug out of the hole, and these proffered a possible means to test the mettle of these awesome machines.  We decided to use the rocks to see if the toys trucks could carry the weight.

It didn’t take long to get bored with gently placing rocks into the dump-beds.  No matter how many we tried to pile into them, they just sat there doing nothing.  We clearly needed to do something more to figure out just how tough these things were.  The playhouse offered up a solution:  We could lift the rocks to the top of the playhouse, climb up there, and drop them from that great height (probably about 5 feet).  This method proved somewhat more successful as a few dents and dings began to appear in the otherwise pristine toys, but it just wasn’t satisfying to the logic of a couple of young boys.  We decided to start throwing the rocks as hard as we could from that height to really get them going and thoroughly test the toughness.

While we were deeply enthralled in this phase of the experiment, and meeting with a large degree of success, my mother came outside and saw what we were up to.  She was horrified.  She was ANGRY!  I couldn’t understand why.  Justin was sent home, and I was in trouble.  By the time we were stopped, both trucks were completely demolished.  Nowhere in the process had it occurred to me that we were in the process of destroying something my mom had scrimped and saved for.  It never crossed my mind that what I was doing was destructive and might be considered an ungrateful and disrespectful act.  Mom still talks about that incident from time to time with a hint of latent exasperation in her voice.  Apparently it was as traumatic for her as her reaction was for me.  For my part, I’m firmly in my mom’s camp as to the awfulness of what I did.  Why she didn’t skin me alive is just a testament to her patience and long-suffering attitude towards some of my more challenging youthful (and later, even my more mature) characteristics.

Bombs Away

One of my more frequent friends when I was young was a kid named Jay Fuel who lived a few houses down the street with his mother and grandparents.  Jay and I had a knack for getting into trouble, and Jay’s grandfather had a knack for scaring the pee out of me.  He was quite intimidating to a kid my size.  We usually played at my house — partly because I was afraid of Jay’s grandpa.  However, in spite of my hesitation, one day we decided to hang out at his house.

Jay’s back-yard, the way I remember it, was full of all kinds of interesting stuff ranging from old toilets and lawnmowers to building materials and toys.  It was a fun place to explore and play, if a little dangerous.  On this particular day we were exploring behind a shrub at the back of the house when we found a bunch of of small glass bottles.  I later found out that these were all empty glass mini-bottles from various types of alcohol — apparently someone in the family was trying to hide their habit by stashing the empties out of sight in the back yard — but at the time, they were just cool looking little bottles.  They were an interesting lot, with lots of green, blue, and clear glass; and we spent time looking at them trying to make up our minds as to how we could best put them to use.  We HAD to find something to do with them.

While considering our options, an entertaining possibility crossed our minds.  This particular house had a basement with a walk-out door in the back, and to make the walk-out basement work the builder had built retaining walls to hold back the grade until the lot sloped downward enough to be below the basement level.  Near the house, these retaining walls were about four feet high and had a concrete slab at their base.  It didn’t take long for one of us to lob a bottle off the retaining wall and see it come down with a satisfying crash onto the slab, shattering into a million pieces in the process.  After this successful experiment, we quickly began an all-out campaign of destruction as one was followed by another, and another, and other, until we had broken all of them — there were a LOT of them.

Looking down on the large spray of razor-sharp glass shards, I must have realized we were going to get into trouble and quickly said good buy to Jay and ran for home.  I’d only just made it home when my mom got a call from Jay’s grandfather.  He wasn’t happy, and I was terrified.  I was turned around, sent back to Jay’s house, and made to apologize to an even more intimidating than usual grandfather.  After that, Jay and I spent a long time cleaning all of that mess up.  I doubt we got it all, and have to assume everyone wore shoes when going out that door for a long time afterward.

A Broken Window

My friend Zak lived just around the block, and I spent lots of time at his house during the summer when we were out of school.  When I was probably ten or so, Zak’s dad built a new shed in the back-yard to store his disassembled Harley and a bunch of other random stuff in.  Given the potential for imagination that this treasure-trove of junk represented, we would often use it as a kind of a club-house.  On one occasion when we were in there, we found a large rubber mallet and one of those small exercise trampolines that were quite popular in the 1980s.  So, what could a couple of mischievous young boys do with a trampoline and a mallet?  The answer is obvious, isn’t it?  Bounce the hammer off of the trampoline!

Not satisfied with simply bouncing the hammer, we decided we needed something to use as a target.  The shed was an obvious target; it was right there, big enough to hit easily, and we didn’t think a little rubber mallet could hurt that big, sturdy, structure.  It didn’t occur to us that the large plate-glass window right in the middle of the wall would be a problem.   After two or three successful throws that resulted in satisfying “thuds” and small dents in the siding, Zak threw the fateful one that hit the shed square in the center of the window.  The result was as you might expect.  Plate glass is no match for a heavy hammer (rubber or not) flying at high-speed. Needless to say, Zak’s dad was none-too happy with the result, and I tried to avoid going over to his house for quite a while after that.

It Looked Like a Fireplace

My grandparents lived in a rather small cinder-block house built not long after World War II.  When I was quite young (probably around 8 or so) they decided to expand the roughly 900 square feet in which they had raised their nine children by adding a laundry room on the back of the house.  I remember going over the day they poured the slab and watching as my dad and several of my mom’s brothers helped pour the concrete.   As they worked the concrete, I watched through the sliding-glass doors in the family room, disappointed that I didn’t get to help.  After watching the work for a while, I wandered over to the corner of the room where a wood/coal-burning stove sat on a floor of red brick with bricks on the wall behind the stove.  Grandpa and Grandma kept knickknacks on the shelf formed where the bricks stopped as they went up the walls, and I liked to look at them.

Many other memories based at Grandma and Grandpa’s house involve the family room and the end of the room with the wood-burning stove in particular.  The Christmas tree was always in the other corner on the same end of the room as the stove, and we spent at least part of every Christmas day with Grandma and Grandpa.  I sometimes sat on the fender of the other coal-fired stove in the front-room eating my thanksgiving dinner since there weren’t enough tables and chairs for everyone.  I remember many days sitting near one or the other of those stoves when we went over to visit on cold Sunday nights in the Winter and loving the feel of the warmth radiating off of them.  I have a lot of memories involving those small corners of small rooms.

One memory in particular seems to surface when my brother and I start reminiscing.  We had been visiting Grandpa on a cold day, and he decided to light the fire.  Tolon and I went out the the garage where Grandpa had a bin full of wood scraps and helped carry several into the house and watched as Grandpa used the wood to get the fire started and get some coal burning.  As young boys, Tolon and I were always fascinated with fire.  We got excited as we watched Grandpa light or feed the fires in the stoves.

A day or two later, Tolon and I were playing in the basement at home.  We had a collection of random wood scraps that passed as toys, including a cut-off broom handle.  I don’t really remember, but I’m pretty sure we decided it looked a little bit like a log and that it would burn pretty well.  We also knew that there was a place in the basement that had something to do with fire.  The pilot light in the furnace was clearly visible, and to us it looked something like Grandpa’s stoves.  We decided to feed it with wood and build a fire.  In went the broom handle, and, as expected, it almost instantly caught fire.

At about that time, Tolon pulled the broom-handle out of the furnace fully engulfed in flames.  I don’t remember if it was because someone was coming downstairs, or because we just got spooked, but in either case, we had a flaming stick.  In a panic, Tolon snuffed the flaming torch in the scrap of carpet on the floor in front of the furnace, burning a quarter-sized hole in the carpet without really putting out the fire.  The flames only died out after stomping on them in a panic.  That burned hole was all the evidence required to indict both of us, and it remained there to testify against us for many more years (at least ten).  Tolon claims to this day that it was my idea.  I deny the allegation.

Is it selfish, and is that okay?

If you read these pages, it should be pretty obvious that I like to write.  Why I write is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately, and I’m having difficulty coming to a reasonably believable and simultaneously satisfying answer.  The truth of it is that there are many answers, but when I consider the implications of those answers the results are highly contradictory and/or unsatisfying.

When I started writing, I pretty much wrote for myself.  Writing was a chance to organize my thoughts and either deal with what was on my mind or divert my attention away from it.  At times, writing gave me the outlet and strength I needed to continue when I wasn’t sure I had enough in reserve.  It gave me something to occupy lonely hours sitting in hotel rooms while on business trips.  My writing was then, and continues today, to be predominantly selfish.

As a result of this selfish nature, I find it hard to justify spending much time writing.  There are so many demands on my time that it is impossible to satisfy even a small number of them.  Many, if not most, of those demands are grounded in service to somebody else.  Often family, occasionally friends, and sometimes strangers need help; and this type of service to others generally takes priority over my personal preferences.

I have occasionally tried to convince myself that what I write is of value to others.  To some degree, I view what I write as leaving something of myself for posterity.  Along the way, there were a few times when my longevity was in doubt, and writing gave me comfort knowing that my kids would have at least some insight into my mind if I weren’t around to see them grow.   However, what I write can’t possibly replace the personal experiences and interactions that compete for the time I would otherwise spend writing.  Justifying time writing as a service to posterity is a flimsy argument.

I have also hoped that what I write might find meaning in the heart of any random reader.  I want what I write to be read and enjoyed.  However, almost nobody reads what I write.  Furthermore, doing the things I’d have to do to broaden my audience would poison the well from which I draw while writing.  If I were to try to commercialize what I write, I’d quickly learn to despise it.   Writing for a broader audience doesn’t appear to be a viable justification for the time I spend.

There are a few other things that motivate me to write, but none of them are any more satisfying than those already listed.  In the end, I have to conclude that my time writing is mostly selfish.  I steal it from other worthy causes.  The question I have to wrestle with, then, is whether it’s okay to be selfish so I can fill that particular need within myself, or whether I should just drop this line of effort and let it idle along with so many other projects that await that mythical day when I can spend time on them.

Left undone

An afternoon unallocated
Retreat to the shop, pick something up
"Dad!" -- A call for my help
It can wait... I whisper to myself
As I answer the call of a child

An evening to write -- maybe a chapter
Open the draft and read what I wrote
Memory refreshed, prepared to compose
A knock at the door draws my attention
A neighbor needs help
The story will be there tomorrow I guess

The oil needs changing -- maintenance deferred
A banging noise calls for investigation
It'll only take an afternoon or so
Maybe I should just pay someone else
But I'll find some time I promise myself
Hoping that noise isn't dangerous

More to do than time allows

Time is a teacher, but many of her lessons are about herself.  One lesson time repeatedly and frequently tries to teach me is how fleeting, rare, and precious she is.  It always seems I am putting some project or another on the back burner to wait the day when I’ll finally have enough time to finish what I started.   In fact, as a college kid I would joke about what I would do when all I had was a day job and school was over.  After graduation, I joked about what I’d do when we had enough money so that I could quit my night job and just deal with a regular eight-hour shift.  Before that happened, a kid came into our family and complicated things.  About the time we could afford for me to drop the second job, I entered graduate school and we had a second kid.

Each new evolution saw me introducing slight variations on the theme of “when I have more time” without really changing the status-quo.  It was always a refrain with the same general theme.  However, one time sink was replaced by another (and sometimes two) as school was replaced by work that didn’t respect a time-clock, another kid was added to the mix, older kids got more involved in various activities, and so on.  After a while, I quit joking about what I would do when whatever milestone I was awaiting arrived and I would have more time.  Reality was screaming that I would never really have more time — at least not until my kids were grown, I was retired, and I had somehow lost my enduring interest in a wide diversity of things.  I don’t believe I’ll ever have much “free” time.

At this point in my life, I’ve managed to mostly accept the fact that projects I start may take several orders of magnitude longer than they should.  Even with the best of plans and intentions, something always seems to get in the way and force me to set it aside in order to deal with external pressures or priorities.  The net result is a garage and house full of things waiting on an afternoon or more of unallocated time — a rare event.  Just walking out to the garage to get a tool reminds me of work I’ve started but left undone.  That is an unpleasant experience for me.  I like to finish what I start.

From time to time, Liz will look at one of my projects and ask in a slightly exasperated tone of I’m ever going to finish it.  Earlier in our marriage, this happened much more frequently thanks to Liz’s anti-hoarder tendencies, and occasionally it boiled over into a request to get rid of something.  However, over the years she’s come to understand that I will use the stuff I’m clinging to, and almost always finish a stalled project eventually.  For the most part, she just rolls her eyes and tries not to look too closely when she goes into the garage.  She knows it’s important to my mental health to have projects waiting for me should I have unallocated time.

As a quick example of how long simple projects can take, I recently made a batch of soap.  In spite of the fact that the actual process is fairly quick once you have everything ready, I started it years ago.  The best way to make soap requires a stick blender, so for several years I would look through the small appliance section in every thrift store I came across for a stick blender.  It took probably two years to find one — in a thrift store half way across the nation from home while on a business trip.  I bought it, knowing I wouldn’t be able to use it for quite a while, and threw it in my suitcase.

Much later, I happened into a reasonably large quantity of beef suet that I didn’t really have a better purpose for.  Wanting to use tallow for making soap, I stashed it in the freezer.  It stayed there until one evening I finagled some time, pulled it out, rendered it, and put the now purified tallow back into the freezer where it sat.  It stayed there for a while waiting for me to find time to take the next step.

The lye I used had a similar history.  Thanks to it’s use in making methamphetamine, pure lye is much more difficult to come by than it used to be.  Most of the big box home improvement stores don’t carry it anymore.  However, one day as I was walking through the plumbing section of a small town Texas hardware store looking for something completely unrelated to soap making, I saw a few bottles of pure lye drain opener.  I added it to my cart, knowing that I would need it when I finally got around to making soap.  It sat unused in the garage collecting dust for a long time.

The fat, the blender, and the lye could have been viewed as a hoarders treasure.  Stuff kept just for the sake of having it.  Stuff without a real intended purpose.  Stuff that should be thrown away.  However, these things were acquired with a specific purpose in mind, and maintained for that purpose.  The illusion that they are a hoarder’s treasure, I suppose, comes from the fact that I have had to become comfortable with extended time-lines.   Most of the projects I do for myself have rather long horizons, and were I to demand fixed deadlines or quick turn-around times, I would give up on any and all of it and sink into a pretty dark funk.  There would be no point in keeping anything (not necessarily a bad thing), and no reason to work on long-term projects (a very bad thing).

This long term view does result in a significant amount of clutter, but I am willing to put up with the mess as long as I have a reasonable expectation I will eventually have a chance to finish a project.  I do periodically go through the stack and evaluate the feasibility of ever finishing a given set of projects and get rid of any that aren’t likely to ever bubble their way to the top of the priority stack.  Most of the time, the decision to get rid of them is a good one.  Sometimes I have regretted getting rid of something later when life conspired to shift my priorities.  As a result, I tend to err on the side of caution and have no shortage of productive things to fill unoccupied time.  I’m almost never bored unless it’s at work where my time is not mine.

Because I have so many interests and projects, I constantly wonder how people find enough time to spend it profligately on things like television and mindless entertainment.  I guess I’m just weird, but I simply can’t bring myself to watch time just blow by unused or abused with things that don’t add value to the day.  About the closest I come to wasting my time is organizing my thoughts to write something like this pointless post, plumbing my feelings to write a poem, or taking time to go outside and enjoy the world God made.  Even as “useless” as those things may seem, they are done with a purpose that has value to me.

I suppose in the end, though, that this last thought is the one that provides the best insight into how others justify spending time on things I find pointless.  I suppose the things I find mindless and pointless fill a need for those who participate in them.  While I don’t find anything particularly rewarding or worthwhile in spending a weekend drinking beer and watching two sports teams do what they do, I have to accept the probability that this activity fills a need.  Just not one I recognize.  I’m willing to bet that those who indulge in this kind of diversion also feel like they have too little time, and they probably wonder how I can spend the time I do writing useless drivel.

Final Thoughts

What will you ponder 
When providence calls
And you must answer soon -- 
Passing beyond mortal life
And leaving all else behind

Concern for loved-ones remaining?
Freedom from sorrow and longing?

Fear that there's yet more to come?
Hope for what is yet to come?

Regret for things left undone?
Satisfaction in successes hard won?

Hot anger and spite?
Or calmness and quiet?

 

A Penny For Your Art?

Would you pay a penny for a poet's rhyming words,
That sent your soul up soaring in the heav'ns among the birds?
Or the beauty of the artist who had captured morning's light,
Painting a young mother who has nursed a child all night? 
And don't forget the music that inspires, calms or thrills, 
Took hours and hours of practice just to master simple trills.

So please do not insult us and demean a pricelesswork work,
With worthless bits of copper tossed with pity in your look.
The slighting little tokens meant to ease your inner shame
Are little more than insults to the craftsman and his name.

If it only stirs a pennyworth of joy inside of your heart,
Keep your token payment and in silence please depart.
But if it stirs much more than that - find pleasure in the gift,
That they have bestowed on you to inspire or lift.

Free Range Kids

Not quite feral and yet not tame
Undisturbed by hovering parents
Who watch quietly from a distance
And see the joy of discovery

Mostly free they wander the landscape
Exploring the wonder about them
Touching and tasting and seeing
Excitement in the plainest of things

Pushing limits and boundaries
Taking risks and meeting danger
Taught by nature to judge and adapt
Learning lessons no school could teach