The year 2021 had a dark start. By its close, the COVID-19 pandemic had swept across the world, bringing death, societal and economic disruption, and primal angst. In this country, a bitter presidential campaign period had ended in bitter disputes about the legitimacy of the outcome. By the end of 2021, the pandemic has not been conquered but has been controlled at least to the extent that people in my orbit, mostly, go about as they had before it. That may change. The outcome of the presidential election is still disputed by some, but the situation is not flaring out into open violence.
For me, the year 2021 had some marked hiccoughs that were at times overwhelming in combination. These are all now past.
Saints be praised!
It is a time of peace and content for me. The hectic days of summer and its aftermath are past. The bit of land that I am blessed to own is prepared for winter, or as close enough as makes no difference. I am in good health, warm, with ample provision for my modest material wants.
I have been happy with very humble, ordinary activities: sorting through tasks put off, finishing, fixing, discarding; tidying and cleaning; cooking some staple recipe, with half an ear on the radio, half an ear to random points and events somewhere far off in the galaxy; maybe doing things that I was going to do something about, some day.
I find it curious that anti-vaxxers and abortion advocates are generally on opposite poles of the political spectrum, but both use the same argument in full righteousness: "It's my body and my right to decide."
Church bells were one of the earliest means of mass communication. Besides marking the hours, they rang for special occasions like religious services, weddings, and funerals, as well as providing alerts for unusual events such as fires or invasions. The messages were of necessity simple ones, delivered from accepted authories in homogeneous communities. As recently as the time of World War II, the Government silenced church bells across England, reserving them only to alert in the event of an enemy invasion.
In the mid-1440s, Gutenberg's innovation of movable type enabled the beginning of broad reliable communication of complex information and non-orthodox views. Over the next two centuries, the press became firmly established and had become a potent enough force that authorities created laws to license it, leading John Milton to argue against such regulation. Freedom of the press was an early tenet of English and American culture. However, as Bill Keller, former Executive Editor of the New York Times sagely observed, freedom of the press was all well and good as long as you were one of those who could afford printing and publishing operations – more latterly termed the "elite media."
In our day, of course, ordinary citizens have instantaneous access to information from an enormous range of sources through the internet, and may easily send messages across the world to anyone interested through social media. Let's call these modern channels micromedia, for lack of a better term.
Just as the signals of bells echoed their cast and the values of the established churches, and the messages of printed news followed the needs of production and the world views of the usually well-enfranchised owners, so the messages of modern micromedia reflect biases inherent in its nature.
Because its doors are wide open to authors outside of the establishment, the micromedia forum lends itself to antiestablishment views.
With a lack of defined leadership, people are prone to herd instincts. At the moment, a trending Google search is "giant blackhead removal dr pimple popper." On the top of Facebook's current list is "$456,000 Squid Game in Real Life." The worldwide leader on Twitter is Flamengo, the Brazilian sports club. Remarkably, the list of trending topics across these three systems has relatively small overlap. (At the same time, the New York Times is headlining, "New Coronavirus Variant Puts Nations on Alert.")
Together, the low entry threshold of micromedia and its lack of official leadership are conducive to populist viewpoints.
The number of messages that could be conveyed by church bells was short and pre-determined, with no place for innovation. The printing press enabled creation of complex and pluralistic messages, but the elaborate and demanding process of production was conducive to forethought and deliberation in preparation of content. Micromedia posts may be spontaneous and easy… with scarce restrictions on allowable content, requirements for quality, or particular premium for depth of thought or adeptness of style.
One wonders what John Milton would have made of today's information streams.
A few months ago, I found reasonably persuasive evidence that I was suffering from a vitamin D deficiency, and that it was dragging down my daily life significantly in a few ways. On July 30, I began taking a daily supplement, which is inexpensive and readily available.
I am lucky. I was able to think about and figure out such a thing for myself, though it did take a fair amount of research and thought. Vitamin D, unfortunately, is most often below the horizon of the health care system.
Although there are different ideas about what level of vitamin D is sufficient, the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency is widely reported to be high, especially in various sizable risk groups, among them the elderly and those with dark skin. It is curious that a recent study of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), widely accepted as authoritative, concludes that "the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of screening for vitamin D deficiency in asymptomatic adults."
This comes down to saying, we're not sure whether (or not) it would be worthwhile to screen all adults in the country: therefore we will not screen anyone, unless already identified from pre-screening as suffering from a possible deficiency. The phrasing "asymptomatic adults" rather than "adults at low risk" is unfortunate. It creates, needlessly and unintentionally, a system that is designed to fail the needs of very broad sections of the populaton. This USPSTF guideline has been the subject of some controversy. The less well-known guidelines of the Endocrine Society are more balanced than those of the USPSTF.
For me, the results have borne out the theory. For a long while, my daily run took 55 minutes. A year ago, that had risen to 70, and an enjoyable routine had turned to a dreaded chore. Now, the time is down to 56 minutes and the activity is welcome. – And some bruises and sprains that I had come to regard as probably chronic went away within a few weeks. – And a distracting red and itchy skin rash on my back that started a couple of years ago seems, deo volente, as if it may be resolving.
For a number of years, I have clearly wanted to paint (as an artist, that is) but, despite much effort, have made no progress.
It is not a question of avoiding the activity because I don't know how to do it. I am not without technical ability in drawing, pigments, and color relationships. Rather, it is a matter of not being able to figure out where I want to head. It doesn't take me far to say, I will now create a beautiful painting, if I have no more specific notion about what it might be. When I have talked with other painters about the uncertainty, they have consistently reacted incredulously and advised, as if the solution should be readily obvious even to the meanest intelligence, "Paint!" That hasn't worked. Trying it for quite a while has only left me feeling more confused, and moving from confidence to diffidence – which is evident in the finished work.
I will see if I can make a strength out of a weakness: to paint an identical subject in a number of very different ways. This is consistent with my belief that art, at its best, is not a matter of just copying, but of creating.
Right now, I am playing with the vocabulary used in illuminated manuscripts, in particular in the Book of Kells. This is feeling very productive. If the medieval monks had only very naive notions of perspective and proportion, and rudimentary materials to work with, they managed quite well at getting their message across with what they had, and in the process creating rich and inviting work.
Well, stay tuned. We'll see if the achievement comes up to the concept.
Art shows, like many other events tending toward crowds, have been put on hold for a while. Two of the significant annual art exhibits and sales in my area, the Ipswich Art Show and the Crane Estate Art Show, were held virtually last autumn. A third, of the Ipswich East End Artists, was cancelled. This year, all three are back, though with somewhat altered formats.
I enjoy the Ipswich Art Show quite a bit. It is an unpretentious community event, but manages to attract a level of art at least as high as snootier juried shows. It's also a good chance to rub shoulders with neighbors, be they humble or mighty. For such occasions, I look for materials of common interest. I have found that animals are crowd-pleasers, reaching even to young children, who are not practiced at art appreciation. Another audience that is typically hard to reach is ordinary adult males, particularly blue-collar workers – but I have found that there are few of these folks who haven't, one time or another, tried to do some kind of stonework. So, I selected a pair of stone snowy owls to show. One was pretty realistic to cartoon-ish, providing something easy to relate to; another was quite abstract, catering to my belief that art should not just be a matter of copying, but of creating. And indeed a number of people came up to me at the end of the show to say how much they'd liked the owls, and a couple to report that their children did as well.
The Crane Art Show is tonier, a juried event significant on the North Shore artistic and social calendars. Its usual catered grand soirée will be downsized quite a bit, though there will still be an evening opening. After some head-scratching, I decided to exhibit a few pieces that simply haven't been shown before. The taste may be a little abstract for the modal visitor, but I may be surprised.
The East End Artists are a very small group, with Ground Zero a mile or so toward my sunrise. I know and like a few of them, and have a painting of one member in my living room. I am hesitant to say that one artist is better than another, but if I heard someone say that she is the best painter in Ipswich, I would not object. Typically, the group's annual show is an affair of a weekend, with the members often present. This year, it will go on for a month. I am looking forward to and curious about it.
This blog has had few entries for much of the year.
When the weather broke last March far enough that I could routinely work outside, I set out to accomplish a list of open-air projects that seemed largish but not unrealistic. Between one thing and another, for the next six months I felt overwhelmed, though not defeated. At this point, I've accomplished my self-appointed tasks, or come as close as makes no difference. It was an unpredictable conjunction of a few circumstances, I believe, that elevated the level of activity beyond any that I would have budgeted.
The scope of the taks was hardly unprecedented. I had built 215 feet of fence last summer, and set out to complete that side with another 185 feet this year. Each year I plant grass in a portion of my yard that was previously wild (or, more accurately, overgrown with invastive species), a routine I continued this year, with somewhat more soil preparation needed than usual. I worked on two stone pieces, consistent with previous effort – except that I broke my own rules about size in undertaking one that I could barely lift when it was done. A mistake! That made for a lot of extra effort, not particularly in the work of carving, but in the mechanics of moving the stone around. Typically, the weight of the raw stone is two to three times that of the finished product. I have winches and levers and hoists, but these work slowly and there is still a certain amount of grunt work involved.
The weather was certainly an issue. Of course, every summer has some rainy days and at least a couple of weeks of very hot days. This summer, the rainfall was the most I've experienced in my life, and the dry days were often ones of torrid heat, not ideal for protracted outdoor work. Living things grew apace: mowing the lawn once a week wasn't enough, even in July and August, and weeds that would normally grow six feet in a summmer grew ten. The time available for the collective outdoor tasks was short and so became intense. I worked on the hot days when pretty much everyone else gave up the effort, but in honesty afterwards I had little energy left for other things.
And then there was a bizarre success of machine failures, from yard equipment to shop tools to the home vacuum cleaner to my Mac computer. The coincidence of lawn tractor dying twice at a time of unusual need for it is obviously unfortunate. Other things I managed to take in my stride, but took up attention to address. For instance, I had problems with Adobe Creative Cloud, finally resolved with the help of technical support – but they felt that my computer was unaccountably slow and needed an upgrade of memory from 8 GB to 16 GB. So it was. I took it to Apple, but they could not identify the problem and advised that it was not possible to upgrade the memory. OK, so time to buy a new one, even though this one is not at all old. I made a purchase of a new Mac online – except that my bank's fraud detection software rejected the purchase because it was outside of my normal spending pattern. (Do you purchase computers every few days?) Moreover, they froze my checking account entirely, without bothering to inform me. I used to be able to get banking transactions of unusual size preapproved, but now that the bank has subcontracted monitoring to a third party, I can't do that. But Apple is set up only for electronic purchases. So, I have the same computer. I've found that the best approach for the slowing is simply to quit all software overnight and reopen in the morning. Meanwhile, I don't know what I would do if I really had to get a new computer. – The point of all of this is that, as you will be able to understand, each step of the process consumed attention and time, even those that were false starts.
I completed my stonework in time for the fall Ipswich Art Show. The lawn has finally slowed its growth and is currently mowed. The new sections of grass I started are thriving, thanks to all the rain.
I feel much more relaxed and ready for indoor activities. I have made good progress toward the next version of this website, which I started thinking about in January. I have much more time now for my piano, enabling me to solve problems I haven't before. I'm having fun making sketches following models from illuminated manuscripts and Celtic figures. There's much pruning to be done outdoors, but that will be much easier after a hard freeze lays down the softer annual growth. So, I feel like a gentleman of leisure, although one whose house is cluttered with leftover odds and ends calling for weeding and organization.
About three weeks ago, I got my lawn tractor back from thorough service, and so crossed that problem off of my list. After consideration, the verdict was that it was basically in good condition, so the maintenance made better economic sense than replacement.
About a week ago, it once again refused to start. This time the refusal was total, suggesting an electrical failure, beyond the service it had just received. I recognized the situation as a rather freakish occurence. Still, I was not pleased. The lawn has been needing an unprecedented level of attention, what with the record rains of July, now continuing into August – and a hurricane headed in this direction. I've been busy, and even the process of getting someone else to service the equipment ends up taking appreciable time. Meanwhile, the option of cutting the grass with a push mower is a tedious one.
In the event, I did the second round of service myself. I have no patience with machine repair, but that was the most expedient course. After following many false leads, I found that the problem was that a bolt holding the main cables onto one of the battery terminals had corroded all the way through. This was fairly obvious once I found it, but the problem is not listed in any of the relevant trouble-shooting manuals I have found.
Well, I'm back in the lawn-mowing business again. I hope that with my tractor re-repaired and my fence done, I will have time for broader and finer aspects of my life.
Last summer, I built about 200 feet of fence in the rear of my yard. It was a bunch of work, especially because the material needed to be carried 300-500 feet by hand, and it was miserably hot much of the time, but I did it. This year, one of the summer projects was to complete the fencing along that border. I figured it would be easier, 185 feet of it and a much shorter distanct to move materials.
I finished it off yesterday. A couple of people expressed wonder and doubt at my taking on such a project. I will say, Whew! By itself, it was manageable, but in combination with other tasks and a very unusual weather period, it was almost overwhelming for a while.
It has been the rainiest July on record in this area. That has been a very good thing, by just about all counts. In recent years, water levels have been so low that residents were discouraged from flushing their toilets. There is an incredible burst of green all around, enabled by the unusual combination of water and warmth.
On the other side of the coin, I plan for a few rainy days in any period, but I had scheduled activities more suitable for a near-typical number of dry days. I have been working on the rough phases of two pieces of stonework, a very dusty activity that would be unthinkable indoors. I had planned to finish the second half of 400 feet of fence along the northeast side of my property. That could be put off, but I did the first half last summer, and it is a good time to be doing such things since the property next door is changing hands, with a lot of construction activity going on. Then there is the regular activity of moving the lawn, ordinarily once or maybe twice in July, but now a chore demanding weekly attention. My lawn tractor chose this moment to die. I have had it serviced, but not before mowing for an interval with a push mower, a possible but energetic task.
Well, everything that needs to get done, will get done.
I purchased my current vacuum cleaner about twenty years ago, about at the same time as my house. It has stood me in good stead. Some number of years ago, the cord retractor stopped working almost entirely. I would have liked to leave it off for repair, since I eschew such mechanical tasks, but by that time the only service mode for such Kenmore appliances was to call into an automated voice recognition system and make an appointment for a repairman to come to my home. Automated voice recognition systems have been, in my experience, even more painful than machine repair, and the cost associated with a home service call seemed likely to approach what the appliance was worth. So, I tried the disassemble, clean and reassemble approach, with good success. After a while, the cord retractor gave out again, this time in a final way.
Twenty years' service is more than enough to get out of an appliance, so my first thought was to replace it. Initial research indicated that the replacement cost would be some $500. If I decided to switch brands and upgrade to a comparable Miele, that would take me above $1,000. That's more than I spend on anything without thinking about it, and there were some reports that the Miele vaccums died early and unexpectedly. That is the way of things electronic.
So, I ordered a replacement part for $75. Curiously, the same part fits nearly all Kenmore canister vaccuums, with some quirks in details. After some frustration with fit and associated muttering, I got the part installed and the machine reassembled. (The insides of vacuum cleaners get very dusty, you will not be surprised to hear.) Now, it works fine.
After some more shopping around, I found that the machine I purchased originally was far in excess of what I need for my floors, which have no carpet. Indeed, I could get a very serviceable model for around $200. If I had realized that at the start, I would not have spent $75 for a repair part. Oh, well, I now have a functioning vacuum cleaner – everybody should have one! – and if I have futher issues, I know how I'll proceed.
Last year, I cut down a hedge that had grown 10 to 12 feet horizontally, and dug out the stumps, which was no small task. I didn't manage to dispose of the stumps and prepare the ground for new use then, but managed to this spring.
The local town has water shortages nearly every summer, phasing in restrictions on outside water use as the season advances. This year, we've been fortunate enough to get at least a few inches of timely rain. I work to conserve water, using overall about half of my expected share. Getting growing things started is next to impossible without strategic use of water, so I will make short-term use of the resouce for long enough to get a new area of lawn established.
My favorite sight, of all times of the year, is the evanescence of colored buds on the trees, a pointillist haze of color that lasts for a few days.
Nobody I have met dislikes spring, even people who love winter.
T.S. Eliot wrote, April is the cruellest month. He was right, though in a different way from what he had in mind. The number of accumulated chores is amazing, between winter's damage and the phenomenal burst of growth that happens mainly in a few weeks. I recognize that the number of things I need to to is beyond what I will ever be able to manage, but I'll get enough of them done that what gets left behind will be fine.
Mathematical calulation of heat loss and gain for my house matches simple direct experience: in the winter, the basement is cold and it's cold right next to the windows. In the summer, it gets very hot when direct sunlight streams through the windows.
To make a long story short, insulating the basement would not be easy because for generations plumbers and electricians have run their exposed pipes and wires along the corner between the ceiling and the walls, creating a thick obstacle course.
Shades for the windows are another matter. In the 1970s, Cambridge Alternative Power near me sold insulating shades, quilts that fit onto metal tracks and provided very good sealage against air movement. They were designed more to prevent heat loss than heat gain. I can't find such things at this time. Inexpensive window shades provide very good protection against heat gain. It seems that it might be a trivial task, in our electronic age, to have shades driven by motors, with temperature and light sensors to raise and lower them at appropriate times. But I have not been able to find such a product.
A year ago, I set out to replace and supplement the shades that I had. At the crucial moment, COVID came along. The world was in a panic. I put off many ordinary things, including buying window shades. (In retrospect, the purchase was a trivial matter that I could easily have done then, but that wasn't apparent at the time.) Recently, I got around to completing the planned purchase. The simple variety are working very well at lessening undesired heat gain, and they're not bad at reducing unwantd heat loss, either, even if there is no seal around the edges.
As today's media is headlining the March 2021 one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic – surely an oxymoron if ever I've heard of one! – I received a vaccination.
Why did I receive one, when others haven't? Partly, it's a matter of my fitting into the defined vulnerability classes, partly it's a matter of enfrancishement. Having worked in a health care system, I have ties, in this case just dumb electronics rather than personal. I received an email inviting me for an immunization. For my sake and the sake of people around me, I promptly accepted the invitation.
Vaccinations are not magic. It's rather like having an umbrella in a rainstorm: the umbrella won't keep your feet from getting wet, but it's far better than nothing. And if it's a stadium-sized umbrella, it protects others along with you.
It feels encouraging. I have escaped any significant personal effect of the virus, but a year without seeing people's faces or having ordinary social contact is a while.
The pandemic has created odd shortages. In a way, the shortage of cleaners is understandable, as an instinct – but in practice not highly effective, since COVID transmission seems to occur far more through air-borne droplets that by surface contacts. The cleaning instinct has resulted in shortages of all kinds of cleaners, particularly in spray format.
I have been unable to find shower spray, which is not so particular a cleaner, but something that helps the soap run down off of the shower walls. After a while, I improvised my own, using household ammonia – of which there is no shortage! – and a little laundry detergent, added to water in a spray bottle. It works just as well as the commercial shower spray. In fact, it is a very good cleaner for all kinds of things.
This has led me to think about all the different kinds of cleaners there are. In my bathroom, I find that my needs are perfectly well taken care of with three items for personal care – toothpaste, body soap, and shampoo – and my homemade spray mixture. In the kitchen, I can do well with a slightly larger handful: dishwasher tablets, liquid detergent, Bon Ami (for cleaning of white things with an oxidizer), Barkeeper's Friend (for cleaning metals with a slightly acid agent), and my homemade mixture. It is truly amazing to look at all the other cleaners I have been doped into buying, which add no practical value to the fundamentals enumerated here.
I have loved the Mall in Washington, where I grew up. The space is large, clean and inviting. Its pristineness leaves visitors (with rare exeptions) on their best behavior. Buildings such as the National Gallery of Art are open and free; you simply walk in the door and wander through, at your pleasure.
I was much saddened at recent events, just as I was at the burning of Notre-Dame de Paris – the difference being that the Cathedral event was an accident. Things won't be the same afterwards. After a few years, I imagine, the climate of D.C. will revert toward where it was until recently, but an irreversible loss of virginity has occurred.
After thinking it over for the last year, I have decided that this website is due for a makeover. Partly, that is because my life has evolved over the last six years since I started it. Partly, it is because techology has evolved, in some ways that will be of advantage to me, in others that won't, but in any case ineluctably. I do believe it will become much easier to maintain.
It will take me a while. First, I want to think about the structure and big parts, considering which have been most used and useful. Then, there will be the technical matter of executing the plan, which will be no small feat. I expect it will take me some months.
© 2023 Paul Nordberg