Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Mandates, Objectives, and Staying Relevant

On April 5th 2012, at around 1500 (3PM), I handed my laptop in to IT, turned my company cell-phone off for the first time ever other than when flying, walked out the door, and made the two hour drive home from work for the last time.

It was a Thursday and I had just retired.

Funny though - I can't remember what day or date I started my working career. I suppose, since I had no idea what was truly in store for me back then, (Oh what a naive fool! wanting so badly to be a grownup.) I didn't realize how momentous a day it actually was.

I'm not even sure anymore if my first paying job, other than assigned household chores which had to be completed before I got my allowance, was the one where I was a live-in maintenance go-fer at a Jewish summer camp, (Yep, even though technically classified as a Goy, which meant I could do things Orthodox Jews, the primary inhabitants of the camp, could not on certain days, I still had to eat kosher. But living in a dorm with - well - a bunch of other damn fool kids masquerading as camp workers, also gave me my first opportunity to get stinking drunk! - - Never drank Boones Farm Strawberry Hill again!!)

or if my first job was the one where I was a 'counselor' at a summer day camp where one of my duties was handling the ragtag, and sometimes downright scary, assortment of horses loaned to the camp for the summer. Handling which included riding them bareback from the old broken-down bus where the tack was stored up by the main building back down to the corral at the bottom of the property. (Some of those horses had no business being around people let alone kids! I got thrown a few times and rode a horse right down to the ground once when he got the bit in his teeth then tried to make a right-angle turn at speed with me stuck to his back like a tick!)

Anyway, regardless of what day it was, I started working in the late 60's and it wasn't long before mandates, objectives and staying relevant were a constant part of my life.

Then I retired.

Where my mandates, essentially a detailed job description, used to be anywhere from 6 to a dozen paragraph long bullet points, my new mandate is much simpler: 1) Pay the bills 2) Maintain the property 3) Be retired.

I used to sit down every 6 to 12 months with my boss(es) and plot out my objectives, specific actions and goals designed to meet my mandate. Now I guess if I had to create a list of objectives (Which I don't because I don't have a boss anymore! OK, who's laughing? Is that my bos - I mean my wi - -, Oh hell you don't have to laugh so hard about it!) it would read something like; 1) Finish up all those little projects around the property (Damn! I think I'd have to fail myself on that one.) 2) Enjoy retirement (Maybe too much of #2 is why I'm failing #1. . .)

The staying relevant part hasn't been so clear. In the world of high tech where the 'cutting edge' lifespan of a new technology or innovation is measured in months rather than years, staying relevant was hard work! I figure during the last 20 years of my career I spent a good 60% of my time doing research and attending industry conferences. (Do you know that there are over a hundred technical news outlets on the web, and not all of them in English? And don't get me started on the number of papers churned out each year by research labs and universities!)

If I were to think about it, which I haven't been but I am now, how to stay relevant in retirement is a bit of a puzzle.

I mean I could keep up with the latest in the tech world like I used to, but I don't want to; you know, been there, done that and all that crap.

The closest thing I have to a grandkid is my daughter's Wiemaraner, and she lives in Japan, so instead of having to keep up with all the new kid-craze electronics and whatever kind of math they've decided to teach this decade in the ongoing effort to make Grandparents feel stupid, all I have to worry about is the latest ball tossing technique, you know, just in case I get a visit. (I've seen those ball-on-a-stick things where you don't actually have to touch a slobbery ball to toss it, but I think I might be a bit old school; you know, low tech, because grandparents don't mind granddog's spit.)

I suppose I could count moving from a flip to a smartphone several years ago as a staying-relevant achievement, but really, what's the big deal? It's not like I'm on social media and addicted to the thing. Truth is I switched so I could have access to the various cheap gas and free campsite apps and half the time I forget to turn the damn thing on, which, I suppose, is why a charge will last me so long. . .

Oh Oh, I know!!! Maybe I could count all the university lecture courses I've been listening to on CD while on the road towards staying relevant. After all, I know more today about Shakespeare, history, both modern and ancient, photography, classic literature, and geology than I ever did in school. But then again, I find learning things to be fun (Hey, I've never claimed to be normal!!) so maybe that shouldn't count.

Truth is, I hadn't thought at all about mandates, objectives and staying relevant for years, pretty much ever since I walked away with my last paycheck, but now, after pondering the relevance dilemma for several days I've come to the conclusion that in retirement my new staying relevant is to not stay relevant.

Which really boils down to a big load of nothing, so why have I chosen to blabber on about it now?? (Actually, more to the point, why are you still reading!!) Because a few days ago something reminded me about 'staying relevant'. I can't remember what it was now; but that's irrelevant. . . 


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Gear Review: Wagan FRED's

FRED = Flashing Roadside Emergency Disk

Since it's trademarked, I suspect that only Wagan, the company that builds the ones I have, is allowed to use this term but it gets the point across.

Because I've harped on the theme more than once on these pages, some of you may know that I'm a whatif'er. In this case, what if I get a flat or otherwise breakdown and can't get off the road any farther than the shoulder?

For years, in addition to a high-vis vest, I've carried the standard emergency reflective triangles, moving the red plastic box from old vehicle to new vehicle several times. (The vests are cheap and I've heard that some of them lose some of their reflective quality over time so I just replace those.) Fortunately I have never actually had to use my triangles, (The last time I had to do an actual road-side tire change was on my little Toyota pickup some 30 years ago, before I became a whatif'er. Just goes to show, being prepared often helps prevent needing to be prepared!) but I faithfully carried them along none-the-less.

Until a few years ago that is. That's when I came across the Wagan FRED's.

I was out on the road, coming down a hill somewhere in the daylight and easily saw flashing red lights about a mile ahead. There was so much flashing I figured there must be quite a wreck up there in front of me and I moved over to the left and slowed down, but it turned out to simply be a broken-down flatbed tractor-trailer on the shoulder.

I wasn't the only one impressed by how visible he was, the chatter on the CB from other truckers was pretty heavy as they commented on it as well. 

Later I did a little research and eventually ended up with my own set of FRED's to replace those reflective triangles.

Each one of these little battery powered LED dynamos has a white work-light mode (The three LED's on the front.) that can be used as a flashlight and something like 9 different red modes (The ring of red LED's around the edge.) from steady to wig-wag to chasing in circles and even an SOS mode.


The back of each unit, which is held securely in place with machine screws, no fragile plastic tabs here, has a little hook/stand, similar to a picture frame, that can be pulled out to prop the disk up or hook it on something. I haven't tried propping one up along a roadside but wouldn't be surprised if the blasts of passing trucks knocked it over, but the red LED's are also highly visible when the disk is laying flat, on either the front or back side, it doesn't matter.

The back also has a magnet in it and the first time I saw one of these the driver had just stuck it on the outside back corner of his trailer. The whole thing about setting the traditional triangles out starting some distance back from the disabled vehicle is because they can't be seen until your headlights are close enough to reflect at night or your eyes are close enough to see the triangle during the day, so the extra distance is needed. These little disks can be seen much farther than that, day or night.

I've decided that if I need to deploy them I'll just stick a couple up high directly on the back of the van and, especially helpful if I have to work on the road side of the vehicle, hook the third in the back of my high-vis vest collar.

The back of the disk has a gasket to keep the weather and other crap out of the innards,

and a couple alignment tabs that also act as pry-points for getting the back off. Speaking of getting the back off, the gasket is tight so don't expect to use a fingernail to pry the back loose (After removing the screws of course!) it's going to take something stronger than that so save yourself the pain and ruined manicure!

At $40 for a set of three plus carry-case, the FRED's cost about twice what three triangles in a case would, but there are some points (Beyond the greatly improved visibility.) that made the extra cost worthwhile for me.

To start with is size. As you can see, three FRED's take up one heck of a lot less space than three triangles. In fact, pre-FRED, I had to store the triangles under the gaucho along with other oversized stuff.

What you can't see in the photo is the difference in weight. In order to ensure they don't fall over, which, unlike the disks, would render them virtually invisible, the triangles are heavily weighted and my set of three comes in at 17.5 lbs compared to the 1.2 lbs for the set of FRED's. (With batteries.)

And the FRED's are more versatile than the triangles. I said I haven't had to actually use them in a roadside situation yet, but I have thrown a couple up on top of the fence posts to help land the UPS man in the dark. As he approached from the one direction the flashing red lights made the location of our gate visible from two hill-tops away, from the other direction he could see them from a mile away. (A literal mile, not the figurative mile!)

One thing I have discovered, which I'm pretty sure is not a desirable design feature, is that if I leave the batteries installed for about 6 months some unseen parasitic load will suck the juice right out of them. So now I store the batteries and machine screws in the carry-case separate from the disks and only assemble the things when I'm actually using them. An annoyance but one I can live with. (According to the Wagan web site, this is an issue that has been fixed on the current model.)

Despite the claims on the web site, (9 hours) my own testing shows a fresh set of batteries will last more like 6 hours in the double flashing mode. Six hours for LED's doesn't seem very long, especially when I've had LED flashlights run 20 hours or more on a set of batteries, but these LED's are incredibly bright and that takes power. Hopefully 6 hours will be long enough because hours spent stuck roadside are incredibly long, almost as long as sitting in the middle seat crammed between two oversized Americans on a plane! But I carry extra batteries just in case. . .

Instead of buried under the gaucho like the triangles were, the FRED's now ride in an easily accessible compartment just inside the sliding side door, along with my water hose, tool bag and tire plug kit.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Guest in the Well-house

There's no city water where we live, not even rural water (Small county owned or licensed water districts that supply piped water to a surprisingly large number of rural areas around here.) so we have a well.

The path from the main barn down to the tractor barn, mowed once a month whether it needs it or not in order to exercise the riding mower we used to use on our in-town one acre property, passes by the back of the well-house and is a trip I take several times a week.

The bump-out on the back of the well-house covers the actual well-head and can be lifted off if we need to get at the pump, which is some 360 feet down a 380 foot well. (The water level is at about 260 feet when the aquifer is well charged.) Deep wells are a fact of life when you live on some of the highest elevations in the county. The white blossoms in the lower left are wild blackberry and this time of year I make note of where the concentrations of flowers are, because in a little more than a month the berries will be ready for eatin' but they're not nearly as easily seen.

On this trip I was temporarily held up because the path was occupied by a Texas Rat Snake. Full grown these guys are 5 to 6 feet in length, and this one was full grown.

Though not poisonous the TRS is a grumpy snake and they can be a bit aggressive at times. (They like to get their tails into some dried grass or dead leaves and shake it which, believe me, will make you take notice if you're lolly-gagging along without paying attention!) But, as in the vast, and I can't reiterate enough how vast, majority of human - snake encounters, this guy just wanted to get out of my way. In fact he was so flustered it took him several tries to find the hole between the block foundation and the siding that would let him slip safely into the well-house.

The bump-out over the well-head is there through the openings on the far side of this shot, a piece of the well-head itself is just visible to the left of the pressure tank.

I grabbed my camera and peeked into the well-house but the TRS was out of sight. They are very good climbers so he might have been hugging the top of the bump-out, or maybe he was curled up under the pressure tank.

No worries either way, he's welcome to stay. It cuts down on rodent-chewed wires and shredded insulation.

A few days later we encountered each other again. This time I was able to run back and get my camera before he disappeared on me.

Classic Texas Rat Snake patterning.

The belly is pale and unmarked but you'll have to take my word on that since this guy is apparently very modest and just ignored my 'roll over and show me request', even though I asked very nicely.

It was clear from his milky looking eye that this guy was about ready to shed his skin,

and sure enough, today I spotted the old skin. (Wouldn't it be cool if we could rub our nose on something hard, like maybe the bathroom door-jam, to get it started, then wiggle right out of our old skin as we walk into the bedroom with a fresh, young look? Oh wait! I think we call that a chemical peel and I'll bet it costs a whole lot of money. . .)


What he left behind, however temporary since shed skins usually don't stay intact very long, is a complete record of what he used to be, (Used to be because he's just a little bigger now.) from the numerous diamond-shaped scales on his back that let him flex without cracking,

to the big belly scales that protect his underside from the ravages of - well - slithering,

And in this case, even the head scales and eye coverings survived the shedding process, which doesn't happen all the time since the head is where the shedding begins and it can be a tough process to get started.

At any-rate, this guy is all fresh, clear-eyed and good to go for three to six more months before he does it all over again.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Souping up the Toad

Some of you may remember me adding a Toad to The Van a few months ago.

Well since then I have had her (the Toad) in the shop for a few snazzy modifications.

Truth is, my first serious outing with her showed that she was a little on the uncouth side. A lot like riding a quick stepping, hard-edged donkey that had my teeth chattering and legs flopping.

The photo above shows the original setup. A no-frills bike straight out of the box with the addition of a cable lock for hobbling and helmet for crashing. The pack, hiding there in the clutter of the background behind the rear wheel, rode on my back, all 20 lbs. of it.

Like you would expect from donkey, she did the job, but without the least hint of comfort. So I set about turning her into a mule. Stubborn, toothy and ready to throw me at any oportunity, but also able to shoulder the load and do it with a modicum of comfort.

The first thing to address was the seat.

After many years, two new rear tires, one new set of chains and a few thousand road miles in my younger days (5632 miles according to the odometer.) The BikeE is now pretty much permanently mounted on a fixture that turns it into a stationary bike

This was my last serious ride. A recumbent by BikeE (A great bike, but they went out of business due to quality control issues after growing to the point of outsourcing manufacturing to China.) Downside is she's a good road bike but not so good, OK, pretty bad, on the trail. She's also a real pain to fit securely onto a carrier. (I had my brother build a custom carrier for me to make it work but it was vehicle specific and that vehicle is long gone.)

Seat comparison. Though frankly there is no comparison. Take it from someone who's been on both.

One of the recumbent's greatest assets is the seat. (Get it? Seat - asset?!) It's like riding in a recliner. A stark contrast to the factory offering on the new Toad!

I mean I'm pretty open to adventure and new experiences, but damn! No dinner, no movie, not even a quiet walk under the stars first! That seat just jumped out of some dark alley and violated me without so much as a 'by your leave'!!!

 So it was off to the big-box for a $30 cruiser seat.

I know, I know, putting a cruiser seat on a mountain bike is like putting pink boots on a cowboy. Well too bad. The Toad's just going to have to grow a thick skin because this seat romances me instead of the near rape of the original.

In part because of the high-tech urethane suspension.

I'm also all about simplicity in my life. For instance, instead of moving little things like first aid kit, fire starter, compass, etc from pack to life-jacket and back to pack when switching from hiking to kayaking to hiking, I keep each fully stocked with their own dedicated gear, ready to pull down off the shelf and go with a minimum of fuss.

Along those lines, in order to keep from having to remember to stuff things like tire tools and patches in my pockets when taking to the Toad I added a seat wedge so all that stuff, including a dedicated bungee, is right there all the time.

But second only to the seat in significance, was adding a rear carrier to the bike (Another $30 investment at the big box store.) so I could get the monkey - I mean the pack - off my back.

I could have tried one of the new carriers that cantilevers off a single clamp on the seat-post for about the same price but I went old school because that way the weight of the pack is transferred directly down to the rear axle. Besides, according to the packaging, my 20 lb pack maxed out the capacity of both styles of carrier and the old-school version just looks better able to deal with any excess stresses.

Now  I just throw the pack on the carrier, clip the handy carabiner that's always attached to the pack's carry loop around the front strut of the carrier so the pack stays put there all neatly tucked up under the seat,

strap it down with my handy-dandy adjustable bungee (An invention right up there with sliced bread.) and I'm ready for a semi-civilized trip to the trail-head.

Even with the customization I still only have about $220 invested in the Toad. She's not flashy and won't compete with the big boys that can cost 5 times that, but, though I'll be pissed, I won't be devastated if someone decides they deserve her more than me and walks off with her.

In the meantime, she and I have plans so let's roll those wheels. . .

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Incredible Ordinary

Back in December I wrote a post where, in part, I expounded on my thoughts of how, in our fast-food, instant gratification, constant need for more, society, the promise of the spectacular tends to overshadow the 'ordinary'.

One afternoon in February I was miles from the nearest person, sitting in the shade on a downed log doing - well - pretty much nothing except being there, when the spectacular nature of the ordinary slapped me up-side the head once again.

It was a stick. An ordinary, every day, run of the mill, don't give it a first, let alone a second, glance, old, dead, dried up stick laying there almost between my feet.

Don't ask what made me pick it up. I don't really know, beyond that being something I'm inclined to do.

 Closer inspection of the underside rewarded me with an extraordinarily complex little world all to itself. The intricately delicate whorls of a grey-green fungus that reminded me of coral swaying in the currents, or ribbon dancers painting impossibly complex and ephemeral patterns in the air. And with the perfect artistic touch of accent, an equally stunning and complex plant/flower/horn structure painted with a shade of gold so warm it looked like I could tip it into my hand and have it flow between my fingers.

This is a really bad image but unfortunately I arrogantly rushed the macro I took and didn't notice until many miles and a few days later that it was unusable, so this is a cropped blowup of a section of the previous photo.
All in something that would fit on my thumbnail with plenty of room left over for one or two more.

The spectacular is around me everyday and I hope I continue to take the time to marvel at it.