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Yesterday in Tucson

An experiment in documenting my 2022 sabbatical, focusing on slice-of-life details.

July 21

Yesterday a new telephone pole went up outside our house. And then I wondered about Uber, and how it is still losing millions of dollars after 10 years in operation and has only a vague business plan for making money by “monetizing user data,” and I wondered

July 20

I spent a couple hours yesterday somewhere between “playing” and “practicing” piano, most of it enjoyable. With more time on my hands (!) these days, I practice somewhat regularly, and nearly every time I sit down I can spot elements of improvement: less reliance on looking at the keys, better ability to compress the music into pattern heuristics, better coordination, better precision. But often after practicing, I have a sense of improvement that was too incremental.

Yes, we hold ourselves to unrealistic standards. We measure ourselves against a YouTube of humans with extraordinary talent, obsessive dedication, and years of practice. I heartily accept that I have none of these traits when it comes to piano, and I also dig Oliver Burkeman’s recent post about choosing the right counterfactual to compare ourselves to. And yet: even when I choose my younger piano-playing self as my counterfactual, even then I’m left with a sense of earthworm velocity.

I mention this not to vent dissatisfaction, but because I find it a fascinating phenomenon within this condition we call being human. One thing that helps explain it to me is to recognize that complicated tasks usually require a carefully coordinated execution of multiple skills. In the case of piano, there’s the skill of knowing – no, feeling – where the keys are without looking. There’s the rub-your-head-pat-your tummy of left and right hand. There’s the ability to read music, and read it with your eyes a bar ahead of the beat. For bagpipe, there’s the bag, the fingering, the repertoire of embellishments, the encyclopedic knowledge of songs, and the ability to memorize long tunes that feature many repetitions.

If any one of these multiple skills isn’t in place, the entire endeavor falls. Our brains are not good at doing multiple things at once – research indicates we simply cannot multitask, full stop – so it is a kind of miracle that we can play piano or bagpipe or perform in realtime any complicated, multi-skilled process. This recognition is also useful for improvement: focus on the skills in isolation, one at a time.

So maybe this is my cue to replace that gauche, if percipient, bromide about how one goes about eating an elephant (the answer: one bite at a time).

How do you play piano? Answer: One note at a time.

Here’s my recent recording of the Allemande from Bach’s English Suite No.3.

And here – not that it’s my counterfactual! – is Murray Perahia’s version.

July 19

Side view of a decorated recreational vehicle

A sagging RV sits on the side of the road a few houses down from ours. Its tires are flat and the front left bumper is cracked. One windshield wiper hangs askew like a broken branch. When it’s windy the side door flaps open, mouth agape, baffling at its own decrepitude.

This is a non-working vehicle. It has been there for months. But something is happening to this RV that I can’t quite explain.

Two days ago it wasn’t like this, but now the RV is decorated, if you can call it that. The side door is bordered with fake flowers. It is draped with an evangelical t-shirt proclaiming “It’s Harvest Time!” while another shirt with mundane advertising hangs on the door knob. A chair has been placed against the door, and on that chair is an assemblage that looks like Banksy’s version of a shrine: clay statuettes evoking Franciscans, another bunch of flowers, a paper cut-out reading “WELCOME”.

If it were just that I’d be content to call it an odd manifestation of Porch Deco. But there’s more. An apparently new tire, with shining rims, rests against one of the flat tires. Underneath the chassis are a cluster of brightly colored gift bags full of something I can’t quite make out, like presents under a Christmas tree. A bike is chained to the side of the RV. A note on the door reads:

I Am Me…. Who I am is the best part of me. Limitation is POWER….Be a work of ART & A portrait of your devine [sic] beauty. REFLECT & Let your HEART lead you. I am no longer a burden to my own shadows. Let your SUNSHINE break thru. I invite myself forward to RE-START.

Hand-written note

Hand-written note

Another note on the windshield reads:

Under No Circumstances will The Vehicle BE touched or Any items underneath Unless Authorized By Tenant!! GAME ON.

Game on? Something is going on here and I have no idea what it is but I am delighted by the fact that whatever it is does not match any of the labels that exist in my version of reality. It is too irreverent to be a shrine or a memorial. It is too haphazard to be an art installation. It is too mysterious (what are those gift bags?!) to have any simple explanation.

Maybe I’ll get up the courage to ask our neighbor about this. Maybe there will be an acceptably straightforward explanation that involves neurodivergence or substance recovery. But for now I’m happy to soak in the enigma. Game on.

July 18

An open can of B&M brand brown bread

It’s a rare event for me these days to discover a new food, especially a new American food, but Emily and I did just that a few weeks ago at the supermarket down the street. Nestled in the baking supply section, standing out like an odd uncle in a family photograph, a large tin can peered out among the typical fare of baking mixes. Its label announced a brand I’d never heard of, B&M, and its contents were called out in large, bland lettering: Brown Bread.

Bread…in a can? Our curiosity was piqued! So we did what any reasonable person would do and purchased this large can of forlorn bread. Yesterday I opened it up for a taste test. I had to take both ends of the can get the bread out, and when the loaf slid out it retained the crenelated edges of its container, just like canned cranberry sauce.

The Wikipedia article on brown bread explains that it originated during the Irish famine of the mid 19th century as food for the poor, but the distinctly American canned and steamed variant came about in New England.

New England style brown bread, I discovered, has a bran muffin consistency, not quite as dense as a fruit cake, and with a pleasantly moist consistency and a hint of sweet. I’d read a rather unflattering blog post about the food, so I didn’t have high hopes. But I actually really liked it. If you like bran muffins, you’ll probably like brown bread.

July 17

Yesterday, thanks to suggestions from Hannah and Dad Fullmer, I listened, with both ears, to two music albums.

Dick Cathcart’s tribute album to the music of Bix Biederbecke, Bix MCMLIX (Dad’s recommendation) is a joyful mashup of the embellishments of Dixieland and big band bravado. Even as I enjoyed playing and listening to jazz, I was long-guilty of admitting that jazz did kind of all sound the same. But then I learned that you just need to listen to the right thing. Like hearing Cathcart play with repetition in this phrase from “Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider.” Or how he stubbornly dances around the resolution chord at the end of “Missisippi Mud”. Or how he sneaks Harry James-worthy runs of notes into an otherwise molasses-slow “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.”

Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood (Hannah’s recommendation) was completely new to me, though it’s considered the fourth greatest concept album by Classic Rock. It’s also considered a seminal example of neo-progressive rock; if you’re not sure what that is (I wasn’t), here’s Wikipedia’s summary:

Neo-progressive rock (or simply “neo-prog”) is characterized by deeply emotional content, often delivered via dramatic lyrics and a generous use of imagery and theatricality on-stage. The music is mostly the product of careful composition, relying less heavily on improvised jamming. The subgenre relies very much on clean, melodic and emotional electric guitar solos, combined with keyboards.

I enjoyed a number of things from the album, from the wide-ranging and complex emotions the various tracks conveyed – enigma, nostalgia, and morning-workout euphoria – to the wide-ranging orchestration and tempos, like in a song like “Heart of Lothian” that begins with a piano-driven ballad in 4/4 that shifts into an unusual 7/8 (try counting the seven-beat measures here if you dare!) and then to a slow, soaring, 4/4 anagnorisis.

July 16

With the temperature outside peaking at a sizzling 107 and my brain working on Day 2 of a caffeine withdrawal headache, I spent yesterday inside, deeply inside: in meditation.

After morning chores (a swim at the city pool, walks for both of the dogs, tending the goats and chickens, making breakfast) I started at 8:36 a.m. with breath-counting, which I find to be pretty accessible since counting breaths is easy and it effectively quiets the noisy mind.

After an hour of that, I moved onto sensory-awareness (i.e., focus on the sounds, sights and smells around you and the feelings in various parts of your body). I think of it as a gym workout for sense perception, and beneficial to brain health like a jog is to cardiovascular health: having more perceptual control spawns more salient brain input which leads to better brain recognition, differentiation, and memory.

I then did an hour of yoga with my favorite YouTube teacher, Tim, who I think is based in Newport Beach.

I then took a lunch break and delivered water bottles to folks on the street.

After lunch I did an hour of analytical meditation, which involves thinking about a problem or a topic in a focused way. Sanjay Gupta describes his experience doing analytical meditation under the guidance of the Dalai Lama as placing a problem in a large, clear bubble:

The problem was now directly in front of me, floating weightlessly. In my mind, I could rotate it, spin it, or flip it upside down. It was an exercise to develop hyperfocus. As the bubble was rising, it was also disentangling itself from other attachments, such as subjective emotional considerations. I could visualize it as the problem isolated itself and came into a clear view.

Then followed an hour of gratitude meditation. When faced with the task, I found to my surprise and delight that it was not at all difficult to consume an hour listing things I was grateful for.

I then did an hour of non-judgmental thought observation, sometimes referred to as thought labeling. This technique, like analytical meditation, was something a younger me who had an oversimplified understanding of meditation as “emptying your mind to achieve enlightenment” would have thought antithetical to meditation. Older me has found tangible value in the technique. I use it to identify processes occurring in pre-conscious thought, like how my brain will get stuck on the repetition of a phrase, or will invent a hypothetical future conversation with someone, or relive a memory but change some detail, or jump to a seemingly unrelated idea. Being able to give a name to the process – and then to hypothesize why my brain moved here or there – gives me just enough distance from the thought process to not take it at face value.

After evening farm chores, I spent the rest of the day in samadhi meditation, the empty-mind practice that is the Kleenex or Xerox of meditation.

Depending on your perspective, you’ll be relieved or dismayed to hear that I did not depart to a different plane of existence. But at the end of the day I did feel as if the cotton balls had been removed from my ears and better prescription glasses set before my eyes. And I lingered in the uncommon combination of relaxation and energization.

July 15

Yesterday I spent the entirety of an hour talking to myself.

I had this idea that I might be able to learn something about the mechanics of thought – how our internal narrator gets transmogrified into comprehensible speech – if I were to create a set of circumstances we don’t really encounter: (1) I would talk without topic or organizing narrative, (2) I would talk at a length beyond which a typical thread of thought endures, and (3) I would talk to myself (rather than communicate to another).

I divided the hour into two thirty-minute segments. During the first half I attempted to verbalize a grammatically correct oration of utter nonsense. The second half was more traditional self-reflection narration.

The result? That first half hour of random speech sounds like a mix between Allen Ginsberg and Marlon Brando’s apparently improvised speech at the end of Apocalypse Now. It provided about as much insight into my psyche as a Rhorshach test (i.e., no insight!), but I did come up with some ideas about that process of transmogrification.

I recorded it and used transcription software to convert it into text format, and then used some software to analyze those 30 minutes of nonsense:

Hifalutin goals of linguistic insight aside, I invite you to chuckle at this epic Mad Lib, the last ten minutes of my rambling nonsense:

Triest rests on the balms of underprivileged moccasins, whitening their etiolated forefingers among the fetal galvanization of helpful barnacles, trusting not their hand-wringing solace, but rather the sinewy silicon separatism of anarcho-Marxism wrapped in Peter Rabbit’s butterflies, under the aegis of rods and stems of xylem and phloem, of the four elements that separate permutations and perambulations that trick the trickster, the goat upon the hill, the fellow who does not see his eyes in front of him, who believes the hope that a filibuster can rule things beyond Mordor, who find the Dark Knight and all the slaughter of tiny reticulating diatoms who modify their transgressions in a widening gyre of resentment, who parse the untold poems of William Blake among the whetstone and divine improbable dreams of waking in gesticulating hairiness, feeling under the possibility of truisms the tautology of amplification, of androgynous ampersands, bloviating, crustulating, like so many crenelated disentanglements whose elephants festoon great hairy iguanas, and jump, Kalamazoo, longing for mongoose nomenclatures opening pores, quickening robots stuckening treacle under valuable waxing yesterday’s Zoroastrianism, who feel among underwhelmed mass, the slowly withering hope that there are no other lines among the folds of our greatest works, a diminishing possibility of sines and cosines and tangents extricating themselves from the brambles of our shared ice cream stands, the great metaphor of the 20th century, one that reaches into history’s grab bag and pulls out, not a white rabbit, but something far more sinister, something that titillates the wild horses that ran, Andalusian, across galaxies beyond our gaze, whose telescopes coward and twisted at the reality that they could not see, whose songs were empty and whose hearts were full, who helped unmitigate all the deciduous filigrees of under massive sperm whales, whose eyes sunk in their thoughts beyond all reaches of communicability and went through the floor down into the crust of consciousness, into the steady tick-tock of papers rustled, bones pulled apart, a friend among a friend who feel on their despotism, some small portion of truth, wisdom, guidance, philosophy, rectangles, billowing clouds of magical realism, helping unfold the tangled mystery that beyond our hopeful handwringing does, in fact, hold some detail of mastery, a four-legged wing upon which we rest our laurels, where truth and justice and the myriad walkways of helpfulness do not perambulate among things that we cannot see, but instead pull heartily at the hopes and the dismay of every page that we look upon and construct an unusual braille, something which tugs and tugs and fits together like worms amongst the soil, and help us understand that all in the darkness is in fact, a twisted vision of gratitude, and the tortoise that crawls slowly across the desert wending its marsupial brain underneath all hell makes a vision that we all share when we close our fingers upon the gun that holds no more meaning than isolated thunderstorms seen and not heard in the distance of many antelope valleys.

July 14

Yesterday I submitted code changes for community review on some open source software. I’d mentioned in July 4th’s Yesterday in Tucson that I’m spending part of my time off from work doing, well, work, because I want to give back and want to rekindle a curiosity in my appointed metier. But this too: I am coding-while-vacationing because I genuinely like it.

The thing that distinguishes open source software from proprietary software is that the code is visible to anyone and everyone, as is the process of creating and maintaining it.

So, in the spirit of one of my sabbatical goals – namely, to explore things I wouldn’t normally encounter – I invite you to take a brief tour of the Wide World of Open Source. Don’t worry! You don’t have to write any code, or even understand it, you just get to be a fly on the wall for something you probably haven’t seen before.

Tour Stop 1: Open source software needs people to write and review code. I happen to be a people; here is my user profile for Drupal software: The landing page lists components I’ve contributed to, and the “Posts” tab lists comments I’ve made.

Tour Stop 2: Software changes need clearly defined tasks. The task I worked on yesterday is for overhauling the Google Programmable Search module to be compatible with changes Google recently made. Here is the task description: The page starts with a summary of what needs to be done. A comment thread follows, where the architecture of the plan is hashed out. The most recent comment at the bottom of the page, which I made yesterday, includes the actual proposed code changes, and a narrative summary of what I did and what I suggest others review. Another neat feature shown in that comment is automated testing: when we introduce code changes we also write code to test those changes to ensure it’s working as intended and that subsequent changes don’t break things. The proposed code changes passed our tests!

I changed the task status to “Needs Review,” so the next step is for someone else to kick the tires. They’ll suggest changes and I or someone else can make those edits. Once everything looks good, someone will mark the issue as “Reviewed and Tested by the Community,” and then it is up to an authorized group of people to apply the proposed code changes to the codebase, which other developers can then use.

Tour Stop 3: If you’re really adventurous and want to look at the code itself, you can click on any of the folders or files shown in

This completes Take Your Family To Work Day :)

July 13

Eight cans of refried beans. A twelve pound bag of short-grain brown rice. Four honeynut squash. A full canister of oatmeal. A family pack of frozen tilapia fillets. Two jars of pimiento stuffed olives. Two cans of organic coconut milk. An almost empty jar of coconut oil. Four 11-ounce containers of coconut water.

A brigade of tea, a regiment of coffee.

Lima beans from Napa, California. V8 Juice. Ramen. Diced tomatoes. Potatoes. Carrots. Ranch-seasoned sunflower seeds. Chia seed. Pistachios.

Mustard. Peanut butter. Breadcrumbs. Molasses. Apple cider vinegar. Metamucil.

A steady supply of goat milk.

A garden of herbs.

Eight cans of turkey & pea dog food.

This non-exhaustive list of food we have on hand is my starting point for fantasy role-playing the food apocalypse. While Emily is away visiting Wisconsin I am going to pretend that the world’s food supply has suddenly collapsed and I must live what we have.

I know this sounds like something normal people just don’t do. But bear with me! My goal is not to see how long the food will last – I’m pretty sure it would last for the two weeks Emily is away. Nor is it to skill-build for a real food apocalypse, which I don’t think is coming, at least not any time soon. And it isn’t a pleasure-in-suffering thing; that would feel wrong because it would be predicated on my privilege of living in a rich nation with dependable access to food. Plus I have no desire to eat dog food.

Rather, my goals are to:

  1. Use up things that have been sitting on our shelves to make room for new yummy things.
  2. Make some creative, tasty food concoctions with the materials at hand.
  3. Be more aware of the food I consume and, therefore, the food I pass over.
  4. Be more mindful about the food I have dependable access to, rather than taking it for granted.

That coconut milk has been sitting on the shelf for awhile, the potatoes are begging for use, and we’ve got a twelve pound bag of rice. Today looks to be bright and sunny, so I may stew up a Massaman curry in our solar cooker with green onions and coriander from our garden, peanut butter, lime juice, carrots, and dashes of cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg.

July 12

Inside a long rectangular cardboard box decorated in the retro-futurism of swooping lines and NASA-inspired fonts (think Isaac Asimov and Tron) lays a single sheaf of paper cut to the same long rectangle as the cardboard box. This paper is not the Owner’s Explanation and Operating Manual. It carries this inscription:

A Message to the Citizens of Earth:

The Space Traders Federation presents SPACE WHEEL – released from Space Customs and made available to you by our earthwide distributors. SPACE WHEEL has already delighted the populations of innumerable planets. Its farsighted engineering represents a major victory in the never ending battle against the forces of friction, gravity, and entropy. What was accepted only in astrophysical quark theory is now a reeling reality. Launching SPACE WHEEL onto its curvilinear path will create the effortless motion of winding up by running down. Sit back and observe. Give it space to take its time.

Universal regards, The Space Traders Federation

Yesterday I spent some time sorting through my three plastic storage bins of personal history. One bin is labelled “Peace Corps,” another “Academia,” and the last – where the SPACE WHEEL was lurking – is the catch-all “Mark Historical.”

I don’t recall when I came into possession of the SPACE WHEEL and have only a vague recollection of having played with it. Actually, “played” may be the wrong verb; you kind of just watch it. The toy, itself, appears to me now as I assume it did when I was a kid: a cleverly designed, mildly brain-tickling illusion of perpetual motion. And because of this I assume that for most kids with a SPACE WHEEL, by the time its battery had lost its charge the toy had also lost its novelty and had become another object taking up…space…an object that no longer sparked joy, that inexorably went the way of thrift stores, swap meets, white elephants, landfills.

But my adult brain is tickled by that message, from the Space Traders Federation.

Sure, the cynic can call it a page out of the Children’s Toy Marketing Playbook: embed a mythology around a clever but – let’s be honest – one-trick-pony gadget. But contemplating the message as an adult, I think that, marketing or not, it worked. The message, which must have been genuinely delightful for someone to compose, transforms the SPACE WHEEL into more than its mechanism. It invokes the possibility – the imminent presence – of further frontiers technological and sociological. It is an invitation to imagination.

And it stands in contrast to how I assume most kids toys are packaged today, as solely functional packaging for the toy per se. As such, it evokes a time quite different from now, where children’s toys were not an inventory of big-box-store homogeneity and cheapest-to-mass-produce-wins business decisions. Indeed, the now-defunct company that made the SPACE WHEEL, Andrews Manufacturing Co., appears to have been a small operation in Eugene, Oregon (its Operating Manual includes an address to which you can send requests for replacement parts, $4.00 for a rotor, $3.00 for a set of tracks; it also apparently held the trademark for “TOP SECRET” until 1988).

That’s probably rose-colored thinking…or nostalgia-colored thinking? But it appears I’m not alone: SPACE WHEELs in good condition with original packaging sell on eBay for $150.00.

July 10

For no particular reason, I spent a fair part of Saturday reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I hadn’t read it since high school, though I recall very much enjoying it at the time, marvelling at the author’s vision of a future that achieved social stability through fabricated happiness; in comparison, George Orwell’s totalitarian dystopia 1984, which I’d also enjoyed, had seemed somewhat more…obvious.

But high school me lacked the historical reference points to think about literature in relation to when it was published. Transition to today’s trivia question: When was Brave New World written?

I knew confidently that 1984 was published in 1948, an easy to remember two-digit reversal, and contextually right when Stalin was hitting his stride. But I had only a vague guess about Brave New World.

Brave New World was written in 1931. This fact made me have a greater appreciation for the book’s literary techniques (it feels almost cinematic) and for its vision that feels quite contemporary. I guess that’s why it’s a classic!

When I first read Brave New World in high school, I must have commented on my enjoyment of it, because my English teacher suggested I try Huxley’s Island. As with so many things, I started but didn’t finish it. Now, I suppose, is the time to give it another chance. To paraphrase Huxley paraphrasing Churchill, never has there been so much to gain from so many books in so little time!

July 9

At around noon yesterday I set down the library copy of the 2018 Best American Essays and checked the time on my Fitbit. The waiting room where I sat, which two hours ago had held around ten people, was now empty except for me. For what must have been the twentieth time, I turned my head and mulled the promotional poster on the wall next to me. With simpleton language and smiling faces it depicted a couldn’t-be-easier five-step process. The third step was captured in a single, all uppercase word, followed by an exclamation point: LASERS!

As I turned back to my book, I heard a noise from the other side of the waiting room. There, walking toward me, was Emily, now wearing dark sunglasses and a smile just like those on the poster.

Emily had emerged triumphant from LASIK surgery, something she’d been contemplating since returning from Peace Corps. The consult we’d done prior to the surgery had made the whole process of lasering one’s eyeballs seem banal, like hip replacement surgery now seems to me after hearing Mom & Dad Palese’s experience. The procedure had indeed taken only a few minutes. And recovery was going to be quick.

Emily’s LASIK equivalent of ice cream after tonsils was a prescription to go straight home and sleep for the next four or five hours, a task she dutifully performed. By the time she got up, the minor irritation from the procedure was mostly gone, and her unassisted vision was almost as good as when she’d worn glasses, with the expectation that it will continue to clarify in the coming days.

July 8

Heliatos solar water heating kit

A few hours after I’d arrived home from camping yesterday, a package arrived at our gate, one I’d been eagerly anticipating. Contained in two, two-foot square flat boxes and a third smaller but cubic box was our very own Heliatos Standard Solar Water Heater Kit, a so-easy-your-goat-could-assemble-it set of parts for retrofitting an existing water heater tank with solar heating. It’s not techno-trousers, but it does feel pretty transcendent to get all the hot water you need for “free” from the environment, discounting the materials cost, and discounting the pillar of human knowledge that undergird being able to manufacture something so simultaneously efficient, inexpensive, and mass-produceable. It also feels like in Arizona, a place where we’ve got heat to spare, it’s just the sensible thing to do.

I hope by tomorrow we’ll have it fully installed. If it works as designed, we think we can discontinue our natural gas service!

July 7

Camping at General Hitchcock Campground

I found myself dozing off last night as dusk was trading in for dark. I’d spent early twilight reading the 2018 Best American Essays anthology, and as my eyes grew heavier with the weight of literature I set aside the book and lay on my back to watch the sky darken to night. And right about then I was nudged alert by a unusual sound.

whip-rrrrr-WIT! whip-rrrrr-WIT!

The distinctive call of the night-foraging whip-poor-will, which I heard periodically last night, is explained by the fact that I was camping halfway up Mount Lemmon – 6,000 feet above sea level – at a campground nestled among chaparral oak and smaller conifers. Having spent the day atop the 8,000-foot mountain roaming beneath gentle seventy-degree pine-dappled shade and laying on my back on shaded granite promontories, as the temperatures began to fall in the late afternoon – the night’s low at Summerhaven was forecast to be mid-fifties – I drove two-thousand feet lower to General Hitchcock Campground where the night’s low was going to be mid-sixties.

All in all, it was a temperate, peaceful night – perhaps it would have been less peaceful if the area’s given namesake was Alfred Hitchcock – and it was a tempered, relaxing trip. And I even learned something: all my life I’ve been pronouncing “whip-poor-will” wrong: it should be “whip-poor-WILL,” not “WHIP-poor-will.”

No? Have a listen!

July 6

This past Sunday Emily and I stopped by a Goodwill, where I bought a two-dollar paperback copy of Chimanda Ngoze Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah. Reading the first few chapters yesterday, I’m enjoying subtle moments of wisdom, like this one which reminded me how we’re always making choices about where we pin “normal” on our internal map of social decorum:

“He did not boast, either, or speak about the things he owned, which made people assume he owned much more than he did. Even his closest friend, Okwudiba, often told him how humble he was and it irked him slightly, because he wished Okwudiba would see that to call him humble was to make rudeness normal.”

July 5


Because there are always, always, Things-capital-T to do, Emily and I began our Fourth of July with, yes, work: Emily with her myriad assessments and coordinations and logistico-administrative infrastructure, me with my software side projects and spackling of cracked bedroom drywall.

But because life is like a box of unexpected particles burst from the Large Hadron Collider, our Fourth of July proceeded to feature nothing less than :::::::a bobcat:::::::

It goes like this: after we’d retired the trappings of appointed metiers and had confronted a nominal holi-day with flagging energy, we threw propriety to the wind and picked up drive-thru Starbucks caramel cold-brew and BlackJack “Good Deal” square pan pizza and drove over the freeway onramp at Prince Road past the vehicle emissions testing center to the Sweetwater Wetlands water reclamation facility, which was pleasantly devoid of other Fourth-of-Julyers, and ate pizza and drank cold-brew while watching ducks munch on duckweed and a solitary and apparently misanthropic turtle plunge into pond at our approach, and a river rat of some sort (nutria?) disappear among the cattails…and just as we were completing a last lap round the pond, we spotted something on the path ahead that looked…from a distance…like an oddly-shaped coyote, or a pretentious stray dog but which, upon approach – it was coming toward us, it was really coming toward us! – we fast realized was, in fact, a full-grown bobcat, mouth ajar, oversized paws plodding insouciant along the riverbank, cat eyes scanning cattails for prey, and I tell you now it came within five feet of us, close enough to kick (though of course we didn’t), and so – because propriety had been thrown to the wind – we followed this rarified predator as it made its way crouching, calculating, along the pondbank for twenty minutes until it vanished among the cattails on this singular Fourth of July.

July 4

I recall hearing a radio interview a number of years back with Esa-Pekka Salonen, then the director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. At one point the interviewer asked the consummate conductor what he listened to in his free time. The response: Easy Listening.

As it approaches two months into my hiatus from software development at The University of Texas at Austin, I have begun to feel the…liberty to move back into doing some software development work, in part because I want to contribute to the open source communities whose software made my job at UT possible, and in part because I want to explore what my “work” feels like when I’m not “working.”

Yesterday I spent a fair amount of time writing open source code, retrofitting a rather pedestrian bit of logic that allows people to embed site-specific Google search results in web pages. The work that needed to be done wasn’t glamorous, and it wasn’t particularly impactful, but the community had identified code changes that should be made, and I knew how to make them.

Yesterday, “working” while I wasn’t “working,” I found that I could take my time. I didn’t have in the back of my mind the impulse to monitoring incoming emails or the urge to finish the current task so I could move to the next, and I didn’t have any kind of spectre of the panopticon, benevolent or otherwise, peering over my shoulder evaluating my work. And taking time with the work made the space, as my thoughts worked through the lines of code, to be a bit more reflective, curious, contemplative, about the whys and wherefores of the implementation. Food for thought, certainly.

So: will I be spending a good part of the rest of my time off “working while not working”? Oh no, I have far too much Easy Listening to do!

July 3

If yesterday’s yesterday labelled me a plumber, then today’s yesterday I was a pool boy and furniture restorer.

One of our favorite weekend pastimes in Tucson is driving through neighborhoods due for Brush and Bulky pickup to scavenge items that could have a second life. Part of what makes it a lovely hobby, besides the fact that the items are free and people are happy to see things taken, separate from scratching the shopper’s itch and tickling the hunter-gatherer toes, not counting the fact that it keeps a few things out of the landfill while simultaneously adding function to our household, is that it’s a year-round event and we get to see new neighborhoods.

Yesterday we wandered into an enigmatically unpaved residential neighborhood where we found a discarded pool cover sporting that ubiquitous blue bubble-wrap aesthetic. The cover was tattered in places but had enough usable material for our five-foot diameter stock tank pool. I made quick work of cutting it into a circle to sit atop of the water; hopefully it can keep the water cleaner and prevent mosquitos while still allowing inflow into the tank from our rain gutters.

We also snagged a butcher’s block style wooden cart with a bit of weathering to it but with promise. After an hour’s worth of sanding, ten minutes’ tightening of bolts, and a sheen of linseed oil, the cart was satisfactorily usable again. I was momentarily tickled by the idea of depositing the renovated cart back at the doorstep of the home that discarded it – whoever said entropy was inevitable? – but we wouldn’t have been able to find the original owner if we’d wanted to.

July 2

Copper pipe with hose bib

Yesterday I was a plumber.

For going on, oh, more than a year, we’ve had an Only Very Slightly Drippy spigot in the backyard, and for a few months our kitchen faucet has been Rather Uncooperative (it’ll stay dry but you’ve got to twist its arm at just the right angle).

I’d been putting off the backyard spigot since it required shutting off the water to the house to join copper pipe at a juncture that didn’t leave much room for error, and if I were unable to sweat the pipes together we’d’ve had to leave the water off until we could get a real plumber to fix my handiwork. I’d delayed fixing the kitchen faucet because the mechanisms of modern indoor plumbing are so complicated they may very well have onboard computers (our faucet is a single-handle deal, so it has a special cartridge that is responsible for mixing hot and cold water).

In this case it was a story of all’s well that ends well: I found a replacement cartridge for the kitchen faucet, which was far more expensive than I thought it should be but far less expensive than a new faucet, and after a few feint-disengage attacks of the outdoor water line and an ingenious hack suggested by Emily, I successfully sweated the copper pipe.

And only then did I exclaim, in a paradox of self-congratulatory relief, “See?! We didn’t need to hire a plumber for that!”

July 1

Around noon on a day in Tucson where the temperature and humidity were pretty closely aligned with that of Madison, Wisconsin, I biked to the Joel D. Valdez Main Library downtown. Outside someone was collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that would make it easier for people to vote by mail. Inside was the usual thrum of Tucsonan library visitors, summer-liberated teens enjoying their ration of self-determination and literacy-minded parents toting wide-eyed children, and that quintessentially characteristic public library patron nestled in a corner carrel of the reference section, absorbed in a massive tome with fine print and few pictures.

I checked out two books, the 2018 Best American Essays collection and Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success which, 81 pages in, has resonances with Christopher Hedges’ diagnosis of our societal moment, though it gazes from a somewhat different ideological vantage.

In the evening Emily and I took a walk through the Sweetwater Wetlands where gray clouds hung about the mountains coquettishly and an officious bullfrog chirped at Emily for taking its picture, and where the portent of societal sclerosis receded into the bulrushes like just another natural process.

June 30

Shoes on a granite rock A little before eight yesterday morning I drove into the Coronado National Forest and up Mount Lemmon. My first stop was Rose Canyon Lake campground which was only sparsely populated with a few RVs and campers, it being a Wednesday. For an hour I sat by the lake watching the dragonflies helicopter above the water and the tadpoles lounge in it and a man and his dog play catch on the far shore. Then I wandered off the path a few hundred steps and found a right-sized granite hoodoo which I curled up underneath and felt the warmth of seventy-degree breeze in the cool of the shade. It took me another hour to realize that the situation would be much improved if I took off my shoes. I heard jays and woodpeckers and hawks and from the ridge a quarter mile away I heard hikers speaking in breezy late morning hiking voices.

A tree trunk at Marshall Gulch Around lunchtime I drove to Marshall Gulch, at the far end of Summerhaven. The skies were darkening and I hesitated for a moment before setting off on the trail, restrained by some subconscious instinct about avoiding getting rained on. Not far into the trail I found a cozy fallen tree trunk near the trickling creek away from the trail and lay down gazing up at the sky. Over the next couple hours a gentle shower ebbed and flowed from above and I watched the raindrops falling from the oak leaves above me like a baseball player watching pitches whiz by.

Sunset Trail at Mount Lemmon I spent the afternoon at Sunset Trail, a road less traveled but with an expansive view of mountain ridges extending south, and as daylight diminished I watched the greens fading on the pines and felt with my fingertips the rough edges of the stone I sat on, and I was alone, alone but with my thoughts, a little while longer.

June 28

Yesterday, which happened to be a Monday, I woke up, walked Bantay, walked Lincoln, walked myself, meditated for an hour and a half, potted some cuttings from our well-established quail bush, worked for awhile on a software development project, updated our monthly expenditure spreadsheet, ate some leftover pasta with homemade alfredo sauce, worked for awhile on my apothecary cabinet woodworking project, watered some plants in the backyard while letting the goat graze, and went to bed early, so many things – mundane things, but things nonetheless – I wouldn’t have done on a workday Monday. Yay!

June 27

Plants decorating an outdoor shower

If Emily and I could agree on just one thing (we actually agree on many things!), it would be that one of the most consistently enjoyable tweaks we’ve made to Riverview Ranch (working title) is the outdoor shower.

Doubling as a plant nursery, the six-by-seven foot space shelters shelves of potted plants which are shaded by a vine roof of cat’s claw and passion flower sunning themselves on ocotillo bones.

Yesterday we did a mini renovation, adding more shelf space and making the existing shelves more accessible. Emily used the opportunity to harvest new cuttings from the monstera deliciosa and to wean some of the more established inhabitants from the nursery for transplantation.

If ever a cable network greenlights a show titled “The Real Outdoor Showers of Southern Arizona,” we’ll be ready!

June 26

Who among the authors of English literature that you personally have read would you consider the “greatest”?

The literary critic’s answer, of course, is Shakespeare or James Joyce. Yesterday I spent a fair part of the day reading both, alternating between Romeo and Juliet and Dubliners.

Before going on I should acknowledge I have never been particularly admiring of either writer, and that’s coming from someone with a degree in English literature! My recollection of reading Romeo and Juliet in high school is of muddling just long enough through the iambic pentameter to get the gist of what that Elizabethan English meant. Shakespeare’s language seemed annoyingly hifalutin, the plot was painfully predictable, and the characters had about as much depth as Donald Duck. When I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) as an undergrad, the modernist literary techniques were new to me, and therefore Joyce’s reputation made sense. But Dubliners (1906) felt wholly conventional, not particularly profound, and the whole symbolism of the Irish identity stuff seemed a little…contrived.

But yesterday, although it had not been my express goal, I did find a new appreciation for both Romeo and Juliet and Dubliners. More surprising: I enjoyed them. Instead of reading Shakespeare for profound ideas or delicate plot pacing or the bewildering contradictions of human character, I read for how he expressed the common in an uncommon or novel way. I took the time first to “get it,” and then think about how he said it. Take Romeo, speaking to (!) the burial chamber where Juliet is lying, as he forces its door. Shakespeare personifies death through anthropomorphizing the tomb itself, a very visceral visual:

Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death, Gorged with the dearest morsel of the earth, Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open, And in despite I’ll cram thee with more food.

And instead of seeking in Joyce the Greatest Of All Time subject-verb construction – after all, Joyce published the stories in Dubliners in general readership periodicals of the day – I focused on inhabiting the subtle moments of fin de siècle Dublin life, like the final lines of “Clay,” where diners at a boarding house listen to one of the boarders sing a less-than-perfect rendition of a popular tune:

But no one tried to show her her mistake; and when she had ended her song Joe was very much moved. He said that there was no time like the long ago and no music for him like poor old Balfe, whatever other people might say; and his eyes filled up so much with tears that he could not find what he was looking for and in the end he had to ask his wife to tell him where the corkscrew was.

Now don’t take this as Mark’s unqualified apotheosis of Shakespeare or Joyce. Appreciating Shakespeare took deliberate intention and concentrated effort for me, and mine is an appreciation of language for language’s sake, rather than of Great Literature, if that distinction makes sense. And appreciating Joyce seems to benefit from setting aside the hundred-plus years of English literature that succeeded him.

By Mozart’s era the music of Bach, who had died just six years before Mozart was born, was considered unstylish, a mess of overwrought and tediously labyrinthine counterpoint. I never had to work to like Bach – and maybe that right there is the rub: it feels like there’s something wrong if you have to work to enjoy something, right? So perhaps my real takeaway from yesterday is a new level of understanding ars gratia artis.

June 25

Yesterday morning at Riverview was a bit more harried than the usual weekday morning since Emily had to be out the door after eight for a work meeting, but before we got to the usual farm chores and before Emily went for a morning jog, and before we both tried hastily to grind mesquite pods so Emily could gift mesquite flour to her colleagues, we sat in the front yard under balmy clouds drinking Ethiopian Yrgacheffe coffee, one of my very favorite varieties. (I should note: this dawn indulgence occurred…oh…a day after Emily and I agreed in principle to taper our coffee intake for the summer). Emily did get out the door on time, and did gift mesquite flour to her colleagues – one of whom gifted back Earl Grey tea-infused scones (yum!) – and the goats and chickens were tended to in due course, and I reaffirmed my goal to taper coffee intake.

This morning, Emily and I started our day under balmy skies in the front yard, sipping delicious Yrgacheffe.

June 24

Yesterday I cleaned the bathroom.

After taking out of the room everything not fastened down, I started, as one should, with a thorough dry-cleaning: I dusted the walls, paper-toweled the horizontal surfaces and then swept the floor. I put into the day’s wash the hand towels and curtain, a curtain Mom Palese had sewn for us some years back (thanks again!).

I then followed a cleanest-to-dirtiest strategy for the soap-and-water phase of the operation. First, using two on-their-way-out kitchen sink sponges, I cleaned the faucet, sink, and shower head. I then climbed right into the shower and used lavender-scented S.O.S. steel wool to buff away the thin film that inevitably and inexorably settles on water-weathered bathroom surfaces – the barnacles of the bathroom hull. I cycled through old toothbrush, sponge and cotton swabs (i.e., Q-tips) to degunk (any votes for “degunk” being a real word?) the shower door track. This effectively reintroduced an old problem of the shower doors sliding too easily…but we must make some sacrifices.

Then I took off the toilet lid and toilet seat and cleaned each. It hadn’t been too long since I’d last cleaned the toilet bowl, so that was relatively quick work.

I wiped down the bathroom door, which had collected dust in the ledges of the ersatz wood carvingwork and grime in a four-inch-or-so radius from the faux oil-rubbed bronze handles which, themselves, from years of handshakes now show a shimmer of authentic aluminum. I wiped the cabinet doors on the bathroom vanity – the vanity: one of those rare non-euphemistic words in the bathroom lexicon!

By now the floors were a potpourri of dried soap bubbles and dirt bunnies and drip Pollocks. I sequentially eradicated them using our Shark steam mop. (This is no product placement, but I must say: a steam mop beats any pitch a Swiffer salesperson can make like James T. Kirk beat Kobayashi Maru.)

We have a reclaimed wood ledge at the bathroom window; I wiped that down and gave it a new patina with Murphy Oil Soap.

And then, once again following the dirty-to-clean strategy for the final pass, I shined the mirror, the faucet, the shower head, the bathroom scale – speaking of: why do we call it a bathroom scale? To differentiate it from the kitchen scale? In how many contexts does a normal person face a situation where the type of scale being referenced could ambiguously refer to either the kitchen- or bathroom- variety? Just imagine: “Honey, could you grab me the scale?” “Which one, dear? The one you use to weigh yourself…or the one you use to weigh vegetables?” Why not just call the human-body-weight scale? Is that really such a mouthful? – the baseboards and the trash bin, and then put everything back in its place.

June 23

A bag of mesquite flour

With summer rain hovering – albeit hesitantly – at our doorstep, yesterday seemed like an ideal opportunity for pre-monsoon harvest. During Lincoln’s morning walk I filled a bag with seeds from the cassia bushes along the Santa Cruz River path, bushes which produce an explosion of seed pods this time of year. The varieties, as far as I can discern, are silver cassia (senna artemisioides) and desert cassia (senna nemophila). I scattered the seeds around our property, with the hope that the summer rain would trigger germination.

Later in the afternoon Emily and neighbor Paul and I picked dry pods from the mesquite trees on our properties. This early in the season many of the pods are still green, so isolating the brittle ones was a bit of an Easter egg hunt. Ideally, you want to collect mesquite pods before monsoon rain to avoid rot. Emily then used Paul’s mill to make a mesquite flour. The forecast for the next week’s breakfast includes a strong chance of mesquite waffles!

June 22

Tucson from Sentinel Peak

A few days before our recent trip to California, the axle on my bike broke and I had to replace the wheel (thankfully this occurred after my DIY triathlon). With the bike back in working condition, I went for a recreational ride yesterday, the first since we’d returned from California. That afternoon hung onto a darkening monsoon at the edge of its southern horizon and a strong gust blew from the same direction, but the ground, still not yet quenched with any appreciable amount of summer rain, hung stubbornly to its etiolated pallor. I decided to bike up Sentinel Peak to meet the clouds on their own turf.

All the way up the hill I was buffeted by wind. My imagination fast-forwarded to a scene in an action movie featuring ex-MI6 me hanging onto a scraggly root that jutted out of the rock face of Sentinel Peak while gale forces whipped my torso like a tattered flag. Then imagination switched to the scene of Lieutenant Dan and his shouting match with a hurricane sky, and then to Wilbur Mercer and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep:

His own feet now scraped, sought purchase, among the familiar loose stones; he felt the same old painful, irregular roughness beneath his feet and once again smelled the acrid haze of the sky–not Earth’s sky but that of some place alien, distant, and yet, by means of empathy box, instantly available.

But on the north side of the peak, where the Tucson valley was sideways illuminated by the setting sun, the wind whipped a different color from the bones of the earth. Right where our neighborhood was – I could just make out – an uncommon combination of dust from the Santa Cruz basin (and/or El Rio disc golf course) and that sideways sun created a burst of white, some imperfect summer epiphany.

June 21

While organizing some of my digital records yesterday, I ran across a spreadsheet of vocabulary I’d assembled in my mid-twenties, words I’d encountered in books I was reading at the time. The list contained just over 500 entries, each with a definition and quote from the book. As I perused these old friends I was reminded of a piece of advice given by my high school English teacher when he assigned us The Brothers Karamazov. “Read it again in ten years,” he urged. “It’ll be a different book.”

A vocabulary list isn’t a tome by Dostoevsky (and, full disclosure, I have not re-read The Brothers K), but some of the words on that list, while denotatively unchanged, do have a different color with time.

This exercise also got me wondering if there were a way to estimate our working vocabulary. I didn’t find any really excellent tools, but this one isn’t too much effort, if a bit Brit-English biased: (For the record: the test estimated my receptive vocabulary at 20,300).

June 19

Balancing a full basin of dishwater in my hands, I trundled out the back door a little after 8pm where darkness was settling on the still warm Tucson evening. Emily would be back momentarily, from another goat milking test in Three Points. I bent, tilting the full basin of water onto the bougainvillea plant by our bedroom window. In the darkness, somewhere within the usual splash-slop sound of water hitting dry ground I heard something different: a quick and sudden flip-and-hit, something moving against the soil. The likely suspect hit my adrenal system well before it reached my brain’s language center: diamondback.

Sneak-sneaking back inside the house, I exchanged the empty basin for my phone, and after reinforcing my footwear, I tiptoed back out, shining the phone’s flashlight in a wide champaign around the bougainvillea.

When Emily got a look at it minutes later, she confirmed my impression that it was not, in fact, crotalus atrox. It was a snake, however, and a bit of Sherlock Holmes-ing by Emily located a probable match: the harmless desert nightsnake.

We let snakey friend be last night, duly acknowledging its non-venomous reminder that summer serpent season was upon us.

June 18

On the flipside of the setting sun, twenty-three miles distant as the GPS flies, a cluster of mountains bordered Casa Grande at the juncture of Interstate 8 and 10. From our place on the highway, the mysterious spiral brown haze somewhere vaguely in the distance before those jagged mountains was a real enigma. Smoke? Fog? A haboob? Southern Arizona was on the cusp of monsoon, and as we made our way east returning from a visit to Hollydale Inn, the weather embraced its temperamental adolescence, struggling to decide what it wanted to be.

As we got closer – those twenty-three miles collapse so much more quickly than you expect – the vertical line of haze transformed into a generalized funk, penetrating the sky on all sides of the rental car. In the back seat the dogs panted, quiet, watching the world as it passed, oblique and aloof, outside tinted windows.

Emily’s best guess was that coming storm winds had whipped up a field of desert dust, one that now lingered on the landscape below. As we merged onto I-10, the storm clouds converged, enfilading us on three sides.

And as the sun sank in the rear view mirror, the first rain of monsoon season stippled against our rent windshield.

June 17

Dogs at Newport Beach

Mom and Lincoln at the Airbnb

Before he even got in The Car, Bantay was already definitely very much ready for a Great Adventure at The Beach, something he hadn’t visited since being a Very Little Dog on the other side of the planet. Lincoln was somewhat less sure what all was going on, but she was nevertheless Always Ready.

With the June Gloom of the Southern California morning enshrouding the coast, the dogs launched their leash-bound humans across the Newport Beach sand and into the cool tides. Lincoln courageously chomped fierce waves and conquered many mischievous waters. Bantay maintained vigilant defense of his tender paws from the scurrilous encroaching water line.

Forty minutes later, back at the Airbnb, the dogs got to see the Parents. Bantay received many good neck rubs from Dad. Lincoln was somewhat less sure what to do, but she enthusiastically set to work providing a thorough lick-cleaning of Mom’s face.

It was Another Great Day in the Great Vacation.

June 16

Two palm trees silhouetted in June Gloom gray

I grew up in Southern California at the turn of the twenty-first century, a fin-de-siècle that included ice cream counters at the Thrifty (now Rite-Aid) drug store, the smell of coffee associated with Winchell’s Donuts rather than Starbucks, and elementary school classrooms that did not yet have air conditioning. In my twenties I would occasionally bike the 23 miles along the Santa Ana River basin to Newport Beach and sit in the sand in the sunny afternoon, taking in hot sea breezes, the quiet crash of waves breaking on the shore, the smell of seaweed and salt water.

In the early part of the summers in the morning, a marine layer might roll in from the coast, covering the skies across Orange County with a diffuse gray blanket that slowly burned off and was replaced with a lunch-hour stark summer blue. People called it “June Gloom.”

Yesterday morning, as Emily and I lounged at our AirBnb in West Fullerton, we gazed up into the June Gloom above us where two palm trees were silhouetted in the light gray and listened to migratory parrots jabbering away in their nests hidden in the palm beards.

June 15

Dogs riding in Chevy Trailblazer

Loaded up with four days’ worth of the essentials – coffee, salty snacks, and kibbles – we hit the road in a rented Chevy Trailblazer to visit the Fullmers in Fullerton. The dogs approved of every facet of the trip, from the Car Ride to the Rest Area to the Dog Park in Quartzsite to the Other Rest Area and the New House (Airbnb). Things were shaping up to be another Great Adventure.

June 13

The tune Annie Laurie is, by all objective measures, an unremarkable folk song. I don’t think I’d heard it prior to finding it in the Fireside Book of American Folk Songs during a piano sight reading session, and when I subsequently listened to a few recordings, its prosaic nature was confirmed (the lyrics, by William Douglas of Fingland – not to be confused with Finland – are equally pedestrian). It was, though, apparently immensely popular with the British troops during the Crimean War, which may explain why Russian recordings also crop up (viz., the Soviet Red Army Choir version).

But there was something about the arrangement of Annie Laurie in the Fireside Book that stood out as something not unremarkable, to me at least. Instead of just chalking it up to a “good arrangement,” I tried to identify what made it such. I’ll give two examples of things I pinpointed.

The opening bars stay on the same chord (the “root” or “tonic”), but the bassline moves “up” that chord using what’s called a “6” or “6/3” inversion, which creates a lovely sense of movement, even tension, before resolving to the next, adjacent chord (sidebar for inquiring minds: it’s referred to as a “6” because the root of the chord is six steps from the lowest note, and “6/3” additionally clarifies that the remaining note in the triad is 3 steps from the lowest note)

Sheet music showing 6 and 6/4 inversions

In the following audio file, I play the that part of bassline in isolation, then add the melody:

Later on in the refrain, the chord progression moves into a different key, the dominant chord in the relative minor (i.e., the key of the song is C, the relative minor is A minor, and the dominant chord for A minor is E major), which is not too unusual, but the bassline arpeggiates over what is called an “open fifth,” creating a … well … “open” sound:

Even though I really like that sound, I also tried a variation where the open fifths end in what’s called a “suspension” (two adjacent notes):

So, keeping all that in mind(!), you may now listen to the entire arrangement from the Fireside Book, which I recorded yesterday:

June 12

Yesterday I recorded a sound no one has ever heard.

Or at least I tried to! My goal was to capture a novel sound, and do to it within the following framework:

I had a few ideas that met the criteria above, but ended up recording two. Listen below and see if you can guess the production technique!

June 11

Table with half-painted rocks

With the first gray hints of monsoon rolling in from the east yesterday evening, Emily and I took the dogs on a walk for rocks. This involved leading Bantay and Lincoln – or, actually, letting Bantay lead the rest of us – along the Santa Cruz river path, while equipped with one backpack and two sets of carefully calibrated stonehunter eyes.

In the past couple months Emily has found a creative mental break from work in painting rocks. She’s developed a set of aesthetic templates for creating desert landscapes – mountain ranges, desert skies, and a palette of Sonoran flora and fauna. Yesterday on our walk Emily pointed out the holy grail of stones: a type of river rock that is dark, extremely smooth, and frequently flat, characteristics that make it an ideal canvas.

Here’s a peek into Emily’s lithography workshop.

June 10

Yesterday, on a day where the temperature in Tucson peaked at 107, I completed a triathlon.

With that headline out of the way, let’s get to the asterisks:

Triathloning(?) hadn’t been on my list of leave-of-absence todos, but a week or so ago I noted that I had been exercising pretty regularly the last six months and had logged a fair amount of time at the city pools, so a triathlon didn’t seem out of reach.

Yogi Berra said half the game is ninety percent mental. My addendum: the other half is around eighty percent prep work.

The basic plan: start with the running portion (the hard part, which I completed around 5am), then stretch, rehydrate, and have a cup of coffee. Then bike to the city pool, swim 1500 meters, bike back home, rehydrate once again, and finish off the biking portion. It all went according to plan, and it never felt exhausting; the first ten laps in the pool were probably the hardest section: my body wasn’t used to swimming directly after having exercised that much. The final fifteen laps in the pool were practically relaxing, as was the bike ride home.

Like I said, I wasn’t going for time, but I assume inquiring minds: 3:22, not including breaks. Not George W. Bush-caliber, but not testudinal.

Triathlon splits

Emily even made a finish line at our front gate:

Triathlon finish line

But I’m left with an unresolved question: in a triathlon, you run, you swim, and you bike. But what is the action verb for the whole thing?

June 9

On-edge or flat? Gable or gambrel? Gabion or gravel? Load-bearing or Non load-bearing? These are the questions facing Emily and I as we dig into the…chaff?…kernel?…of building a straw bale guest house on our property.

Yesterday on a trip to Bookmans I found a new book on straw bale construction, written by builders in Tucson, of all places. The book is Build it with Bales: A Step-By-Step Guide to Straw-Bale Construction, and while it has so far prompted more questions than answers, that’s a good thing at this point. More to come soon as we work through our vision for the space…

June 8

“James Brown may have invented funk,” goes the quote, “but Sly Stone perfected it.”

The name “Sly and the Family Stone” was stored in a dog-eared card catalog in my brain, an entry with no cross references and only a vague description: “A band from sometime back in the I’m-not-quite-sure-whens with a name that evokes indie/underground tinged with folksy Mamas and Papas goodtimey somethingorother.” Of course I’d heard their hits – “Everyday People,” “Dance to the Music” – but those were in a separate filing cabinet, in a drawer labelled “As-yet-unclaimed Songs I’ve Heard on the Radio.”

Yesterday I listened to their album “Stand!” which was released in May 1969, the same month as Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” and The Fifth Dimension’s “The Age of Aquarius.”

June 7

Congratulations! You’re the next contestant on “Older or Younger than Mark?” the riveting new gameshow. Win a trip to Beaumont Sur Mer! A new dinette set!

Below is a list of people you’ve probably heard of. Your job: indicate whether you feel the person is – everyone now! – Older or Younger than Mark. [APPLAUSE] Make your guesses before reading past the list.

  1. Jacinda Ardern (current prime minister of New Zealand)
  2. Chelsea Clinton (daughter of Bill & Hillary Clinton)
  3. Macaulay Culkin (actor of “Home Alone” fame)
  4. Kim Kardashian (American socialite and reality TV personality)
  5. Lin-Manuel Miranda (composer/writer of “Hamilton” fame)
  6. Chris Pine (actor; Captain Kirk in Star Trek movie reboot)
  7. Albert Pujols (baseball player)
  8. Venus Williams (tennis player)

Yesterday I read the Wikipedia article for the year 1980, learning much useful Balderdash trivia. For example: Vigdís Finnbogadóttir became President of Iceland, the world’s first democratically directly elected female president. And the ship housing pirate radio station Radio Caroline sunk off the English coast (and no, it’s not a radio station for pirates, but it does have an interesting story).

As you may have guessed, the people in this list all were born in 1980, same as me. But the funny thing is: none of these people feel the same age as me, to me at least. Jacinda Ardern, Macaulay Culkin, Kim Kardashian, and Albert Pujols feel older. Chelsea Clinton, Chris Pine, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Venus Williams? Younger. My initial theory about why – that it has to do with when they rose to prominence relative to my middle twenties, when I became a “real” adult – doesn’t explain why Chelsea Clinton feels younger, or why Jacinda Ardern feels older. Theories welcome!

June 6

Partially finished cabinet, with shelving

Work on a new-and-improved junk drawer has begun!

One of my ideas for my leave of absence has been to build a small cabinet for storing odds and ends. My vision: rows of small drawers with pull handles and labels like those used on card catalogs, with a back-of-the-attic rustic wood finish. And maybe a secret compartment. Something like this apothecary cabinet. Other design ideas welcome!

My additional challenge, beyond the fact that I’ve never done fine woodwork, is that I want to do this without having to buy a bunch of finish carpentry tools and while limiting cost overall. This means instead of using more expensive hardwood I’ll use pine, which I’ll then need to stain. To make up for the absence of precision woodworking tools? Sanding. Lots of sanding.

This past weekend I completed the shelving grid, pictured below. Next are the drawer casings, the challenge there being making them flush-fitting against the grid while still easily openable.

June 5

Truck bed full of produce

For the first time in a good long while, Emily and I picked up fruits and vegetables from Produce on Wheels Without Waste (POWWOW), a group that distributes overflow produce to the community. Yesterday’s selection ($15 for sixty pounds of produce) included regular tomatoes, heirloom cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and watermelon. When we got home, Emily promptly created a tasty gazpacho (it included everything but the watermelon and squash). POWWOW yesterday also had loads of no-longer-human-consumption-grade tomatoes and cantaloupe, which the organizers were happy to let us take. We weren’t the only ones: a couple other folks were picking over this produce for composting or for homestead livestock. Most of the cantaloupe we got went to compost, and the tomatoes to our chickens. Think we’ll get blushing eggs tomorrow?

June 4

Yesterday I took a flight on Blue Origin into zero gravity. Okay, not quite that, but I did spend an hour floating in temperature-controlled salt water in pitch darkness, which kind of felt like being in outer space. This was my first experience in a sensory deprivation tank, something commonly found at wellness centers for the purpose of relaxation and focus.

Overall, I’d rate the experience as…whelming (not underwhelming, not overwhelming). It was quite relaxing, and the sensory reduction did provide a fast track to the brain attention training I’ve been working on.

Stepping out of the tank after that hour, I was met with a flood of sensory input. Color seemed brighter, sound was clearer, the feel of the floor under my feet was somehow novel. It was like being reintroduced to the things our senses pick up on, the things we usually take for granted, the bits and pieces that constitute the world we know. And it was much cheaper than Blue Origin!

June 3

Yesterday featured two adventures by Chef Mark.

Though I’ve long known of the purportedly delicious combination that is chicken and waffles, I’d never tried it. I don’t think I’d tried savory waffles of any sort, come to think of it. So yesterday I whipped up a batch. Into otherwise standard waffle batter went diced onions, bacon bits and black pepper, and on top of the finished waffles, vegan cheddar cheese. The resulting taste was something like biscuits with bacon drippings – tasty! Maybe next time I’ll add a gravy topping.

Shortly after breakfast I set up the solar oven, combining a large can of pinto beans, onions, a cup of rice rice, and a bit of marinated meat I’d picked up at the neighborhood carniceria. I eyeballed the amount of liquid from the canned beans and marinade. It looked just about right for the rice. By noon the liquid at the pot’s edges was actually bubbling, and I could smell the concoction throughout the backyard. An hour later, the rice had absorbed the excess liquid and the slow-cooked meat was tender and moist. Voila: low-effort, ready-to-go filling for burritos.

June 2

Yesterday I got a new credit card.

“Hold that horse!” you say. “The day before it was frugal budgeting. Now you get a credit card?”

Some backstory on this: this happened after talking to my personal climate psychiatrist, who happens to be, uh, me.

Some backstory on that: while fretting over climate anxieties, Emily suggested talking to a professional about it. And I thought: what if I simulate what that talk would go like and see if I can get something out of that?

So I met with me, who reminded me that I’d heard recently about an environmentally-focused credit card that plants trees and doesn’t invest in fossil fuels.

I did some research and concluded the card wasn’t a gimmick: its parent company is fossil-free certified. The founder, Andrei Cherny (who was a former Clinton speechwriter) has a real commitment to the environment. Okay, it does have one gimmick: the card itself is biogradeable!

The way I see it, I can’t avoid using a credit card so I might as well patronize a company that parallels my values. Will it make a difference? Probably not. But my personal climate psychiatrist also reminded me, paraphrasing Samuel Beckett, that if we’re going to fail we might at least fail better.

June 1

Bar chart of monthly expenses

With the month of May coming to a close, Emily and I added the remaining receipts to our monthly expense spreadsheet and surveyed the damage. Since January, we’ve been itemizing and categorizing all our purchases to get a better sense of our budget.

We paid our semiannual auto insurance premium in May, so that drove up the transportation category. But as usual, our heavy hitter was groceries. May proved to be pretty typical, overall. Come to think of it, this itself has been typical. Every month has ended up within 15% of the average. (I think that’s called a low standard deviation?)

Have we learned anything from this exercise? Here’s one thing: more often than not, the month will include one medium-sized, out of the ordinary expense. In January it was new spectacles for Mark. In February it was a new laptop for Emily. In April, a new (used) piano. May: auto insurance. So – if you’ll pardon the cliche – we’ve come to expect the unexpected. Each month, we now anticipate we’ll have one sizable expense we hadn’t anticipated (we distinguish these expenses from larger, less frequent expenses like a new car or a trip, for which we account separately).

Prognostications welcome: what will next month’s “spectacles” be?

May 31

Yesterday I did a bit of cleaning around the house. Because sometimes cleaning is the absolute best thing you can do in a day. Among other odds and ends, I built a new doggy step for the T-R-U-C-K (afternoon rides around El Rio Acres are a near-daily occurrence) and reupholstered the dog bed, which had become shredded by the dogs’ habit of digging at the fabric to get settled in. An old piece of canvas – easily cut to fit with the pair of Gingher scissors Mom Fullmer recently gave us – and a needle and thread did the trick. We’ll see how long it lasts!

May 30

Colored interlocking Tetris pieces

Yesterday I played a game of Tetris…in my mind!

Before you chalk this up as “another crazy idea from the weird mind of Mark,” a bit of explanation: I’d recently heard about multiple studies that had used Tetris to explore the mechanisms of concentration and flow in the brain. At the same time, I’ve been using meditation to explore the mechanisms of thought, and the interaction between what Nobel Prize-winning Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 and System 2.

So I thought: what would happen if I combined Tetris and meditation?! So I did.

Forty minutes later, my brain hadn’t exploded, nor had I undergone a Lt. Barclay transformation of the Nth Degree. Time had flown by, however, as it does in a “flow” state. And the act of concentrating on the Tetris game had been a very effective technique for controlling my thoughts – part of the aim of meditation. It was also an intrinsically enjoyable exercise in spatial memory. Watch out, video game industry!

Below: the actual game of Tetris I played in my head, reconstructed from memory this morning.

May 29

​Idea Number 33 on my sabbatical todo list​ was “​listen, really listen, to a music album straight through.​” I know, I know, but bear with me: ​I​ usually hear music with only part of my head. Music is on in the background while I’m doing something, or something comes up, or my thoughts wander (as thoughts are wont to do).

So yesterday I set aside time to really listen to an album, outsourcing to Emily the daunting job of selecting it. This was no small task. She would have to choose from the massive library Dad Palese had given us a few years back. But it also turned out to be a pretty fun task because Emily got to say hello to old friends – The Tannahill Weavers, the Battlefield Band, Dougie McClean, Antonio Vivaldi. We settled Credence Clearwater Revival, a compilation release titled simply “Creedence Clearwater Revival.”

Emily, who was not subject to the the rules of the todo, sat at our dining table painting rocks. I sat on the couch, hands in my lap, feet on the coffee table, trying to “really listen.”

May 28

As part of last year’s Holiday Hobby Swap, Hannah recommended Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. Burkeman’s blog post this week, titled “Against Good Habits”, struck in me a Chord of Resonant Guilt! During my six month leave of absence I have been pursuing good habits…and with a vengeance. Daily exercise, daily reading, daily vitamins. Reading, writing, piano.

The trouble with trying to establish good habits, Burkeman offers, is that it “all too easily gets in the way of just doing the damn thing now.” An example he gives from his own life is how the desire to reach out to old friends got stymied by him trying to architect it into a weekly practice of correspondence. Forsooth! One of the tasks on my leave of absence idea list is “Write letters to old friends.”

How many letters had I written since my leave of absence started? Zero.

So, following Burkeman’s cue, yesterday I wrote two brief emails to old friends, Nick Courage and Michelle Leona Godin. How many more will I write during my leave of absence? I have no idea. But I have written two. And that’s something.

May 27

White book cover with braille printed on the spine, reading "There Plant Eyes" by M. Leona Godin

A five minute bike ride east on Riverview from our home will bring you to the El Rio Community Center and to the El Rio branch public library. This branch has the size, and atmosphere, of two parochial classrooms. The main room is a kaleidoscope of children’s book covers and obsolescing DVDs. Along the far wall is a card catalog that comprises the El Rio branch seed library.

The second room has about two hundred fiction books and a similar number of nonfiction. And that is the entirety of this branch’s adult reading collection. But there is something delightful about this small stock: in one trip you can peruse the book titles of the entire library.

So peruse I did, and checked out The Voltage Effect: How to Make Good Ideas Great and Great Ideas Scale, A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence, and The 1619 Project.

But the nonfiction section also had a surprise waiting for me. Among those two hundred books, I spotted one authored by M. Leona Godin: There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness. Michelle Leona is a friend of mine, someone I’d met while in Brooklyn, shortly before Peace Corps. Not bad for a podunk neighborhood library!

Of course, I also “checked out” seeds for Emily. Extra credit if you can deduce the plant from the Latin names!

May 26

Pictured below, the vegan cheese on its own, and as part of grilled yeast-o-dillas


Cheese is a solid-state derivative of milk created by separating curds from whey through coagulation, a process frequently triggered through the introduction of enzymes such as rennet.

Except when it isn’t. Yesterday, equipped with potatoes, mashed walnuts, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, garlic & onion powder and – the crucial ingredient for the cheesy taste – nutritional yeast, I made a vegan cheese. When I asked for a word to describe the result, my taste test subject/victim, Emily, compared it to a “delicious bean dip,” and after further reflection, placed it in the top three food creations I’ve made, alongside po-boys and falafel.

My kidney bean, cottage cheese and cabbage gelatin mould was not mentioned.

May 25

A couple days ago Emily shared a post from someone in the “Backyard Gardeners” Facebook group who had charted surface temperatures in different parts of her property. Inspired to wonder how the ground temperatures a couple inches down might differ, I sauntered into our back yard yesterday at 2pm – the outdoor thermometer read 95 degrees – with our metal-pronged cooking thermometer. Here’s what I found, two inches down:

What did I ​glean​ from this ​rigorous and ​Highly Scientific exercise, you ask? The soil temperatures ​we​re pretty much what I guessed they’d be!

May 24

Emily and Mark standing beside 'the wedding tree'

Emily had arranged her work day yesterday to conclude early, so just before noon we piled in the truck and headed to Mount Lemmon. This trip has become our wedding anniversary marker, a ritual that includes hiking a trail that starts near the cabins we rented five years ago, off Turkey Run Road. Basking in pine-suffused air and temperatures twenty-five degrees cooler than Tucson, we gazed up a branches dangling with silky tents that brimmed with caterpillars (some Googling suggests they were eastern tent caterpillars). We heard a hoot-hoot we were sure was an owl, but a pair of birders thought it more likely a fantail pigeon. We went further on the trail than previously and discovered a working gondola lift(!), part of Summerhaven’s ski resort.

Sometime since our last visit, new studio-style cabins had appeared on Summerhaven’s main drag, comprising the Mt. Lemmon Hotel, pet friendly and starting at $150 per night. The cabins were cute, but the string of identical units on the main drag did feel vaguely commercial. Maybe next year we’ll find a Summerhaven Walmart!

May 23

Emily spent much of yesterday on the road: a dawn drive to Three Points to serve as a Certified Dairy Goat Technician milk test witness, then to Phoenix with friend Lauren to pick up a mattress from IKEA. I spent the day off-road (at home, that is) drafting a new story. By the time Emily returned from Phoenix around eight, I had just passed 3,200 words. I’d realized the story’s premise was irreparably flawed around the 3,000 word mark – my main character was either an evil genius or a sad sack who couldn’t get a break, and either way the story left you feeling gypped. But it was good exercise. And anyway, Emily had returned bearing IKEA gifts: dinner plates, flower pots, and a replacement frying pan, all of which certainly cost less than 3,000 words. Note to self: what about a story titled “A Good Pan is Hard to Thrift”?

May 21

Yesterday Emily spent the morning conducting eligibility interviews while I shoveled manure. Neither activity, to be clear, should be construed as symbolic of the day that was also our five-year wedding anniversary. In the evening we dined on macaroni blanketed in homemade alfredo sauce. This Monday, we may visit Mount Lemmon, where we were married.

May 20

When Emily told me a couple days ago she would be getting a salary increase, she explained how she was quantifying it by calculating various things it could buy. When she got to “a year’s supply of gasoline,” I realized she had obliged us to watch the 1957 film version of The Pajama Game starring Doris Day and John Raitt. We thusly celebrated Emily’s own seven and a half-cents raise yesterday evening. Watching it brought back childhood memories of the production by Fullerton Children’s Repertory Theatre for me, and I discovered a greater appreciation for the comedic execution of Carol Haney, the actor playing Gladys. Emily enjoyed many of the musical numbers, her favorite being There Once was a Man.

We also agreed the entire workforce of the Sleep Tite Pajama Factory needed a few more “once a year days.”

May 19

Paging through John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday yesterday as I waited for a lane to open at the Quincie Douglas Community Pool, I encountered this passage:

The flame of conception seems to flare and go out, leaving man shaken, and at once happy and afraid. There’s plenty of precedent, of course. Everyone knows Newton’s apple. Charles Darwin said his Origin of Species flashed complete in one second, and he spent the rest of his life backing it up; and the theory of relativity occurred to Einstein in the time it takes to clap your hands. This is the great mystery of the human mind – the inductive leap. Everything falls into place, irrelevancies relate, dissonance becomes harmony, and nonsense wears a crown of meaning. But the clarifying leap springs from the rich soil of confusion, and the leaper is not unfamiliar with pain.

And I thought: scientists are just philosophers who feel compelled to prove their theories. And I thought: that statement somehow simultaneously denigrates philosophers and scientists. And so I thought: philosophers are scientists who simply aren’t concerned with proving their theories.

And I lowered myself into the pool.

May 18

Yesterday, as the temperature in our stock tank pool reached “target refreshing” 87 degrees, I reached 500 names in my Dictionary of People I’ve Known. I originally envisioned this sabbatical project as equal parts mental calisthenics and retrospective journaling, but as the names have accumulated, I’m finding new grist. Where and when in my life have I met the people I know, and why? Who have I met only through knowing someone else? What percent do I consider close friends? What does this say about me? Getting to 500 names was not particularly challenging, but the low-hanging fruit is now picked. I doubt I’ll be able to get to 1,000 solely from memory!

May 17

Yesterday I learned about the year 1960 (reading a Wikipedia article covering a specific year is one of my sabbatical daily to-dos). Before you read further, what comes to mind as most significant about the year 1960?

I would have picked the election of John F. Kennedy as president of the United States.

However, my takeaway after reading the entry for 1960 was that this was “The Year of Africa.” Mail, Togo, Senegal, Madagascar, Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger, the Ivory Coast, Chad, the Central African Republic, the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, and Mauritania all became independent from France, and Somalia, Cyprus, Nigeria and Cameroon from the United Kingdom.

Separately, our neighbor dropped off a trailer’s worth of horse manure yesterday. My horoscope predicts Exercise By Shoveling in the near future.

May 16

Tucson yesterday, being on the warm side, was a good day for indoor activities. Emily napped and played Civilization, and I practiced W.C. Handy’s “St Louis Blues” from The Fireside Book of Favorite American Songs. I biked to the neighborhood carniceria and bought tortillas, pinto beans, white onions, and paleta marinada (in the context of food, the word paleta apparently refers to thin slicing; it’s also the word for “popsicle”!). After an abortive attempt at solar cooking the fixings, I used the stovetop to grill up tasty burritos for dinner. Each burrito cost about $1.25. All in all, it was a pleasant day.

Today we expect to receive a delivery of horse manure from our neighbor. I wonder what else the day has in store!