I Spoke Too Soon

I’d like to apologize sincerely to all those inconvenienced by the weather Friday and today. After all, I caused it. All it took was one mention of how warm and dry the winter has been and how I’m looking forward to getting an early start on cycling and this happens:

I Spoke Too Soon - 1

Yeah, that was all me.

I Spoke Too Soon - 4

And that’s where the bikes live.

I know what you’re thinking: “But you love cross-country skiing as much as cycling, if not more. Wax up your skis and get out there.” [Of course my cross-country skis use wax for grip instead of those fish-scale patterns on the bottom. If you’re surprised by that, you’ve learned nothing from these essays.] Well, it’s not that simple.  Right now, there are four inches of dry powder outside with nothing but dead grass (and rocks and tree roots) underneath. Without a base of older snow, the skis go right down to Mother Earth, and there is a reason you don’t see this sport in the summertime. So, yes, there is snow, but it would ruin my day to try and ski on it.

But that’s all right, because I have embraced the precipitation and the mud that will result from its eventual thaw. I have a new project in my life, and it came from a most unlikely source: sporting scandal. It seems that…someone just got caught cheating in a bike race. [Try to contain your surprise.] This time, the performance enhancement came from a motor inside the frame instead of from drugs inside the athlete.

Now, permit me a small digression here. I’m shocked by the shock so many people in the cycling world are expressing. They are so angry that there is a call for a mandatory lifetime ban from the sport for any rider and mechanic involved in using a motor. Riders who have had their victories stripped away because they tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs routinely claim to be clean and re-join the peloton. When they win again, broadcasters praise them for [allegedly] realizing their errors and setting a better example by reforming their ways. But Femke Van den Driessche might as well be projected on a telescreen for the next Two Minutes Hate.


And drugs are better than motors?

Anyway, I was less interested in the cheating than in the event in which it occurred- cyclocross. I know this is the hot new trendy thing among people looking to buy still another bike, but I remembered reading about cyclocross decades ago in Greg LeMond’s Complete Book of Cycling.


[Why did nobody think aerodynamic handlebars were “mechanical doping” in 1989?]

Cyclocross began as a way for European riders to keep fit in the winter months. They would put tires with a little more traction on their regular bikes and ride through cow pastures or along wooded trails. When they came to unrideable sections like rivers or steep muddy hills, they had no choice but to dismount and carry their bikes across or over. Doesn’t that sound perfect for a curmudgeon? “Son, when I was your age, we didn’t have these fancy mountain bikes with all their granny gears. We ran up the hills. And we were thankful!”


[Real men.]

 Because riders could not go anywhere near as fast as they could on the road, and because they had to run for significant stretches, it was much easier to keep warm and stay happy.

Now, as my hero Bike Snob NYC recommends, I have a metal bike whose configuration I can change around any time I like and try out new stuff. Remember it?


Because I built light, strong, tubular wheels for it, I can simply put knobby, slightly-wider cyclocross tires on it and give a new (to me) sport a try. The fenders will need to come off so the knobs don’t rub, but they will find their way onto whatever I ride on the road in the rain.

Tell me this doesn’t look like a blast.

Not a doper or a piece of carbon fiber in sight.


Hobbies and Such

Last Sunday,  the weather forecast indicated the temperature would reach the mid-to-upper 50s. AND IT DID. I could not pass up the opportunity, so on the last day of January I went for my first bike ride of the year. I know what some of you are saying. It has been such a mild winter that you never stopped riding. Plus you have your “smart” blue-tooth toe heaters in your new graphite shoes, so you’ve leveraged the performance parameters by uploading your blood flow numbers from the monitor in your crank to the heads-up display in your sunglasses, which indicated it was all right to keep pedaling.

But, seriously, there have been plenty of opportunities for all sorts of outdoor recreation this winter. It’s just that they are not the usual ones. It has made me observe the way I engage in my hobbies, and I can describe it best as “streaky.” I seem to concentrate on one particular pastime for a while, and as long as I get to do that thing, I don’t get cranky or impatient with life. Then, suddenly, I feel like doing something else for a while, and I concentrate just as hard on that. While I’m doing it, I think to myself, “Hey, I’d forgotten how much I enjoy this.” I suppose it keeps me fresh.

You may remember that I was a competitive cyclist when I was younger, but for about the last five years, I was all about tennis. I decided to make practice time count, and actually teamed up with some hitting partners who would work on skills with me rather than want to play for points all the time. I learned to string my own racquets so that I could experiment with different types, gauges, and tensions of string. I even joined a club so that I would face different levels of competition. It was thoroughly satisfying, and I hardly thought about cycling.

Then, my wife’s youngest daughter graduated from high school. Being an avowed Anglophile, she wanted a three-speed bicycle with a basket to ride to class. While there were some new, retro-type models out there, we knew she wanted an actual vintage machine, so we searched classifieds and ordered her one. When it arrived, I started putting it together, and began again to smell the unique bouquet of road grit, leather, old rubber, and 3-in-1 oil that is peculiar to vintage bicycles. I felt the grunge under my fingernails, and it felt good. I realized how much I missed riding, and I have not picked up a tennis racquet since.

Last summer, I rode nearly every day. For the first time since I was in college, cycling became the activity I needed to feel as though my day was complete. My wife began to notice that, no matter what we were doing, I was checking my watch to calculate if we could make it home in time for a ride. We incorporated bicycles into lots of activities, like touring historic homes and visiting our favorite tea importer, but more often than not I wound up handing her the keys to my truck and riding the extra thirty miles home.

Then one day, I was done. I wasn’t burned out or injured, but I’d had enough. As fall progressed and the nights began earlier, all I could think about was setting up my telescope and searching for galaxies I had never seen before. In the same way that I had looked forward to a bike ride every day in the summer, now I planned my time to avoid the moon and made sure I had time for naps in the afternoon if my targets were going to keep me up until all hours. I did not even crave the exercise I was no longer getting, because my mind was completely wrapped up in astronomy.

I wrote in a previous post about following the Mets through the playoffs, but to get an accurate view of how that happened, picture someone sitting in pitch darkness in the yard with the radio tuned to a ball game in the background, staring through a telescope at tiny, faint patches of light whose photons began their journey toward me before human beings even existed on the Earth. For me, that’s a perfect evening.

On one hand, the mildness of this past winter made stargazing more comfortable than in most winters. Lots of my archived sketchbooks and log pages are smeared from the tears the wind has forced from my eyes. On the other hand, mild winters tend to be cloudy, and lately there have not been many opportunities to see stars. I was just beginning to feel cabin fever coming on when I received word of an estate sale arranged by the antiques dealer down the street. So last Saturday, as I browsed through the re-homing of someone’s worldly possessions, I came across a work stand that holds bicycles while you work on them. I purchased it for a song, brought it home, tinkered with my brakes, swapped some pedals between bikes, and suddenly I wanted to take a ride. And that’s what began on Sunday.

I wonder how long this streak will last.

Ad Astra per Aspera- Chapter One

In Which I Find the Object of My Search, Only to Wonder if it was Better Not to

     As I ascended the slight grade on the sun-dappled forest path, I had a hard time believing I was finally here.


For twenty years, I had looked forward to this day, seeking relevant volumes in dusty used bookstores, poring over topographic maps, driving through this place while trying to look nonchalant. No Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings, no Indiana Jones in an Amazon jungle, had ever felt more anticipation than I did that August morning. The fact that I was probably trespassing only added to my tension, and I have never been one to break rules, but a slight tingle of thrill drove me onward.

As I rounded a bend, a clearing materialized before me, and at the far end, the object of my quest gleamed white like some long-forgotten temple. Millbrook School Observatory, at last.


As soon as I recognized the building from photos in fifty-year-old books, part of me wished I hadn’t. This incredible structure, built entirely by the blood, sweat, and tears of high school boys, lay abandoned and neglected in a corner of the campus now given over to the storage of machinery and scraps of lumber, themselves seemingly long-forgotten. A dumpster out in front of this facility? Really? Is that all the respect they can muster for what these young men accomplished?


The small clearing was surrounded by tall trees, which made it difficult to recognize where everything I thought I knew so well was situated. Weren’t some of the photos I had seen taken from this spot? I thought they had been, but where was the concrete patio on which the nice young men in jackets and ties displayed their home-made telescopes? Had this three-foot-high mound of earth always been here? Had the site of the observatory once lauded by Scientific American magazine become a landfill? How had they even seen the sky from here?

I waded through thigh-high weeds, moving ever closer to what had been a center of science, community outreach, and geophysical research a few short decades ago. Vines had overrun and started to penetrate the doors covering the dome’s slit. They seemed to force it open, making it appear rather more vulnerable to the ravages of time than it ought.


The whitewashed finish of the building’s cinder block exterior had crumbled away in places, revealing construction details that should, by right, have remained seamlessly incorporated into the facade.


A blue tarp that had once protected equipment that did not even belong here now hung forlornly in tatters, exposed in its impotence against the elements.


I found myself wishing the school had demolished the observatory years ago, rather than let it be shamed like this.

I approached the door that sat forlornly open, feeling more than ever like an archaeologist about to enter the burial chamber of an ancient monarch. It seemed to invite my approach.


I can see they don’t value this, but will they mind if I do? After all, not having found anything marked as visitors’ parking, I had left my truck on the other side of the campus and walked all the way over here, feeling as conspicuous as a fox among the hens. But nobody seemed to pay me any heed, so after glancing over my shoulder one last time and listening for the sounds of maintenance or security personnel, I ducked inside and entered.

Immediately, my mood improved a bit. There was the student astronomers’ masterpiece, a 12″ reflecting telescope pointed to the south at an angle that meant it could be looking at the rich Milky Way star fields in summer or star birth regions in Orion during winter. The floor was relatively uncluttered, allowing me to examine the scope closely from all angles. Although its paint was flecked and peeling, the instrument gave off a feeling of solidity and dignity, as if it knew its own power.


Cautiously, I reached out a hand and attempted to slew the magnificent structure in right ascension. It complied without a sound, with just the right amount of friction to prevent an observer from overshooting his target. I did the same with the declination axis, pointing the massive framework tube ever-so-slightly more northward, and once again the instrument responded perfectly, almost with pride in the quality of its construction. So far, so good mechanically; what about optically?

I located the knob used to remove the primary mirror’s wooden cover and decided to lift it off. This was really my Rubicon. If anything went wrong now, I could easily be prosecuted for trespassing and destruction of private property. Hang on! This telescope deserves to have someone care about it. My righteous indignation fueled me on.


As I reached for the cover, I became aware of an almost-invisible inscription. What ancient knowledge would its decipherment give me? Raised slightly from the mirror cell’s surface, but painted in the same gloss black, were the words “MILLBROOK SCHOOL FOR BOYS.” I chuckled for a moment, trying to imagine how the makers of this behemoth expected it to go missing and need identification. Then it dawned on me: this was not meant to help recover a stolen telescope. It was written by a group of people feeling pride in their accomplishment, and wanting future generations to know about it.

I removed the cover to reveal a slightly tarnished surface, no worse than others I had successfully cleaned in the past, with…a postage stamp stuck to the middle of it?!


Someone has vandalized…no; wait a minute. The stamp, I realized, had once been a reference mark for the collimation of the mirror in the optical train. While it’s customary to place a tiny magic marker spot on the center of your mirror for this purpose, I had never seen one an inch by three quarters in size. Still, as long as it was smaller than the portion of the mirror shadowed by the telescope’s secondary mirror, it was no problem.

All of a sudden, I was back in archaeologist mode. Stamps change. If I could find out when this particular specimen was issued, I would have an earliest limit on when someone had last maintained the observatory’s equipment. On further inspection, it was in the denomination of 32 cents, and carried an illustration of a man with a glorious Victorian mustache, in a military band uniform, playing a trumpet. Across the bottom near the perforations was the inscription, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Sousa. 32 cents. That should not be hard to track down.

I replaced the mirror cover and in doing so noticed the crudely-bent metal strips and cardboard spacers holding the mirror in place.


I could not imagine that Neale Howard, the science teacher who had inspired the creation of this observatory, would stand for such shoddy workmanship. After all, his students had machined every metal part of the tube themselves. What could account for this deviation from his usual standards? I glanced at the eyepiece end of the telescope and observed that the secondary, directing the light to the eyepiece at the side of the tube, was a mirror.


That’s strange. Didn’t Howard’s book specify that a prism was a better choice in this particular configuration? Something was afoot. People had tampered with this telescope!

Feeling appalled, I next examined the clock drive mechanism. I don’t remember being able to see the drive gear from his pictures. And what’s with these twist-on plastic connectors?


When I had first found that the mount’s bearings were in good shape and the mirror was cleanable without needing re-aluminizing, my mind immediately leapt to thoughts of Millbrook Observatory’s glorious re-opening. How many people had been introduced to the wonders of the universe through this instrument? Why could this not continue? Now, seeing some of the other problems, including the infestation of the sun-warmed dome by wasps and hornets, I wasn’t so sure.


Two decades after my quest to see Millbrook Observatory had begun, I had finally accomplished that objective. But, like all scientific and historic investigations, mine had left me with many more questions than answers.


I retreated down the forest path still hoping not to be discovered.  As I walked back to my truck, I reflected on my life in amateur astronomy. It had begun in the days of robotic planetary probes, led to an unsuccessful attempt to make astronomy my career, driven me to create my own equipment, and revealed to me the educational oasis that was and is Millbrook. Its history was meaningful to me because of my particular interests and hobbies, but the more I learned about it, the more I realized it was a paradigm of how education should happen. America needed Millbrook as much as, or more than, I did.

I knew my involvement with this place had just begun.

Handmade is Not Just For Hipsters

A while ago, I wrote about how I needed to replace a damaged wheel on my bicycle, and in doing so went completely off the rails and re-built my wheelset as tubulars. Wheel2

New Wheels3

As I think back on this, I realize it may come across as decidedly hipster: doing something in a completely unorthodox and old-fashioned way simply because I can, and then using modern mass-communication methods to tell the world about it. I suppose in that sense it was, but I always think of hipsters as people who fully embrace the modern world and then decide to go backward just to prove they know better than everyone else. And then use modern mass-communication methods to tell the world about it.

I, for one, have never embraced the modern world. I’m not Going Gently Into That Good 21st Century.


(Dylan Thomas reading this.)

I have never been modern, so I’m not choosing to undo progress I’ve already made.

Every time I write one of these essays, I am wracked with guilt that it’s so easy to get my ideas out there. I certainly have not earned the right to be heard by convincing a publisher to back me, the way a Thomas Paine did, for example. “So what?” you’re saying. “That’s just semantic. Admit what you really are.” Well, maybe, but I hope to convince you that I often make objects because a suitable commercial version does not exist, and sometimes what I make can actually be better than what I can buy.

Ever since I was nine years old and Voyager arrived at Jupiter, sending back its stunning close-up images, I have been an avid amateur astronomer. My father had received the iconic Criterion RV-6 Dynascope for his high school graduation, and it was the first instrument through which I looked at celestial objects.


Still, I wanted my own telescope, and I devoured every book I could find in our local library about telescopes and how they worked. I was not a hipster; I just had no money to buy one. In my mind, it was easy: I’ll just ask my eye doctor for spare lenses he’s not using


(Dr. Steven J. Tishler remembering me.)

and glue them onto a cardboard roll from paper towels.

This plan never came to fruition.

Mostly I used binoculars for stargazing, and I’m glad I did, because it taught me to find objects in the wide expanse of the sky and really study them to see what I could see. When I finally began working at a summer job (more on that in the future), I did not spend money on a car or driving. I gave in and bought myself a tiny Tasco refractor on a flimsy tripod with a useless finder scope. You know the kind: they appear in every department store around Christmas and have done more to frustrate and discourage generations of would-be astronomers than all the cloudy nights in history. But I’m glad for this, too, because it taught me the importance of a solid mount (more important than first-class optics) and the limitations of a small aperture.

Before I went off to college, I once again gave in and bought a much larger telescope, an Odyssey 10″ Dobsonian.


(That’s mine, third from the top.)

“Come on,” I can hear you saying. “I though this was about building things by hand.” Be patient, dear reader. The critical connection is coming shortly.

For a whole bunch of reasons that still haunt me, I had to leave the Odyssey behind at college. [That was shorter than you expected, eh?] But now that I was no  longer under my parents’ roof, I did not have to listen to their fears that making things was, at best, disappointing and, at worst, dangerous. (!) Thanks to Al Gore and his new-fangled Internet, I found THE BEST STORE ON EARTH, Surplus Shack. Now called Surplus Shed, it sells surplus optics, electronics, and all sorts of other goodies for do-it-yourselfers. [If you’re ever in east-central Pennsylvania on a Saturday, stop in and say hello. It’s one of my top five favorite places I’ve ever visited.] I bought a 4 1/2″ diameter overhead projector lens from them and actually made a telescope out of PVC pipe for myself at the age of 27.

The nearly-two-decade wait is not the point.  I surmised before I bought the lens, and had this confirmed by its performance, that it was designed to do far more than what I was asking it to do as a telescope objective lens. It performed as well as multi-element telescopes costing hundreds of dollars. So I was only a little disheartened when I ruined it.

Yes, my parents did have somewhat of a point. I was attempting to disassemble the whole thing to give the optical elements a thorough cleaning when one of them jammed sideways in the metal housing. Before I could free it, a chunk extending a third of the way across the lens had broken off, rendering the whole thing useless. But [wait for it] I’m glad this happened, because it taught me about how to handle complex systems of lenses, and it made me re-visit Surplus Shack, where I found this beauty:


Look at the size of that thing.


(Those are inches, not centimeters.)

It contains a series of lenses extending all the way to the rear, making its weight 19 pounds.


Because of its mass, I needed to build a sturdy mount, so I made a sawhorse minus one set of legs with a 4×4 as the main axis, and iron pipe fittings to support the scope.


The lens was made by Perkin-Elmer for the aerial reconnaissance camera on the F-4 Phantom, and probably originally cost you, the taxpayers, tens of thousands of dollars. No lens made by any commercial telescope manufacturer was ever made to that kind of standard. That flange bolted it into place under the wing or the fuselage. Who knows- this lens may have taken the photo that alerted President Kennedy that there were Soviet missiles in Cuba.


I painted it green because I have always wanted a green telescope. The focal length is so short (18″) that I simply bolted a focuser and eyepiece onto the back. It needed no tube. For ten years, this


was my porthole into space. It guided me through two successful Messier marathons, showed me minute details on Mars during its oppositions, and spied objects it really should not have been able to, like the Veil Nebula in Cygnus.  So why is it sitting on my library table now?

Because I’m an adult and, as such, I can revisit my childhood dreams. Back when I was in grammar school and dreaming of one day making telescopes, I obtained a catalogue from the A. Jaegers Optical Corporation.  Check out the 6″ lenses on page 39. The version here is from the 1960s, so mine was probably twenty years later. I think the 6″ cost $275 then. That was so far out of my reach as a ten-year-old that they might as well have said a million dollars. I never even said, “Someday…”

But someday arrived nonetheless. A few years ago, Surplus Shed acquired all of the remaining Jaegers back stock long after the latter had gone out of business. [Did I mention Surplus Shed is the BEST STORE ON EARTH?] Now I could own the lens I had always craved but never dared hope for. I bought it, and this


is the telescope I built from it. All of the structural parts are made from PVC plumbing pipe because it is relatively inexpensive, easy to cut and work, and incredibly durable.

So, is it better than commercially-available 6″ telescopes? Well, if you read any discussions of Jaegers lenses on line, most people say they are sub-par, and even cheap 6″ lenses from China outperform them today. Indeed, when I first used this telescope, I was somewhat disappointed by the image quality. In my mind, I blamed the astonishing views my Perkin-Elmer lens had given for spoiling me. But still, a 6″ lens collects almost twice as much light as a 4 1/2″, and this scope yielded 2 2/3 as much magnification with any given eyepiece, so I wanted to see how much performance I could tease out of it.

I began to think about the parameters that were within my control. One was the steadiness of the mount, but mine was solid as a rock because my previous telescope had weighed so much. Another was collimation, the adjustment of the optical elements to be precisely aligned with each other. A third was the amount of atmospheric moisture condensing on the 28 1/4 square inches of glass my lens presented to the sky. I had nothing to lose, so I thought and designed, drilled some holes, and made the tilt of the lens adjustable with three spring-loaded bolts mounted around its edge.


If you look closely, you can also see a ring of electrical-taped resistors between the lens and the plastic. The parts cost me less than $2 for this, as I had pulled the orange plug off of some other ruined appliance  in the past. [I’m glad I tend to save things. Did I ever mention that I’m the world’s cheapest human being?] Inside a dew shield made from a disposable paper paint bucket, this 50 ohms of resistance creates just enough heat to keep the lens frost-free and crystal clear in just about any conditions.

Now, these features are great to have, but so far they are not uncommon, only much cheaper than if I had bought an adjustable lens cell and dew heater. These improved the image, but I still was not satisfied. I realized that there was one more optical element that might need adjusting, and that was the star diagonal.

Rather than look straight up through a refracting telescope, most people prefer to insert a prism or mirror into the optical train to place the eyepiece at a comfortable angle. The result is seeing up by looking down, pacing the observer in much the same position that you remember from the microscopes in your high school biology class. My mirror diagonal was an inexpensive one because I had not thought carefully enough about it when I built my telescope.


The housing containing the mirror is thin plastic, and , stupidly, I would sometimes point the whole telescope by pulling or pushing on this part. This meant that it was not only wildly out-of -alignment, but also aligned differently depending on how I had handled it.

I managed to bring it into approximate collimation by shimming the housing with bits of card stock,


But I was not pleased by this solution. “Maybe I can make something better,” I thought. Returning to the drawing board and then to my local home improvement store for more PVC, I eventually designed and made my own collimatable diagonal mirror. [Just see how easy that is to find among commercial products.]


The front end of the wooden dowel is cut to a 45 degree angle, and the mirror cemented to it. I can precisely adjust the tilt via the three white screws around the outside.

The result? This was the missing piece of the puzzle. I am never disappointed by what I see through the eyepiece. Because I made so many of the components myself, with the advantage of hindsight regarding previous projects (and mistakes), I now have exactly what I want.

Actually, I have exactly what I have wanted since the Jimmy Carter was president.

How Far Can My Addenda Take Me?

If my last couple of posts have made you wonder whether I’m always for change and innovation, fear not. Let me tell you about


Some Things I Don’t Do Because They Do Not Make My Life Better

(By no means a comprehensive list.)

  1. Buy new “improved” sporting goods every year. Whether they golf, play tennis, or ride bicycles, some people seem eternally hopeful that the next new tweak of equipment will be just the thing that makes them great. I disagree. It’s my responsibility to improve my forehand or my top sprint speed. I mean, are you playing against me, or are our racquets battling it out? Are you racing me or my bike? Who gets the trophy, me or my Ben Hogan clubs? I think Olympic sailing has it right: everyone competes in identical craft, so the winner is the best sailor, not the sailor with the fastest boat. I think sporting goods manufacturers are like politicians. They need you to think they are taking care of your problems so you will continue to send them money, but if your problems ever went away, you would not need them any more. If acquiring equipment makes you happy, keep doing it. Just don’t call yourself an athlete.
  2. Carry a device that lets people contact me when I want to be alone (which is all the time). I do not want to pretend to Laugh Out Loud at pictures of overpriced restaurant hamburgers posted by “friends.” I have no need to show the world distorted close-ups of my face in front of the places I visit. These tasks were created by the devices. They did not exist before the cellular telephone. You are not making your life more efficient by quickly doing something that you did not do at all in the past. Just eat your food and let me enjoy mine.
  3. Read books that require batteries. Does this one really need an explanation? How much must you be a slave to change for its own sake to complicate reading with electronics?
  4. Make a single cup of weak coffee from a plastic pod, made from petroleum, that winds up in a landfill.
  5. Drink water out of plastic bottles, made from petroleum, that wind up in landfills. No one who does #4 or #5 can claim to be concerned about the environment.
  6. Computerize the telescopes I make. For me, the fun of stargazing comes from the tracking down of distant galaxies using my map reading skills. I enjoy the challenge of seeing objects that are on the limits of my vision. I do not want to reduce astronomy to “checking off” of some master list objects that a computer showed me. Why is that any different from looking at pictures of objects on line? How could you be sure some graphic designer did not create images of fictional galaxies and put them on line to fool you? I enjoy becoming familiar with the cosmos, getting in touch with our ancestors who knew their way around the sky. I know what I’m seeing is real.

It seems that everything in our society is about shortcuts. This makes people feel helpless and causes them to rely on people and machines that “know better.” For me, the process is always more important than the product. I wish more people approached life that way.

Addendum to the Alternate Holidays Theme

Last time, I talked about how our family moved the celebration of Thanksgiving to focus on the essence of togetherness and family. Today, I’ll tell you how we approach Christmas to emphasize thoughtfulness and caring.

When we first got married, my wife and I were both struggling to get out from under difficult economic circumstances. At the same time, we were committed to making Christmas a special time for the new family we had created. She and I shared a passion for making things, and she had raised her daughters to value this, too. In addition, we enjoyed flea marketing as a family activity. Even though we called all of our destinations “junk stores,” we did not mean anything negative by it. Every one of us wanted to keep caring for objects that had brought someone else joy, but for whatever reason were no longer needed or used.

We made a rule: all presents given at Christmas had to be hand-made or pre-owned.

Before you have us committed to a mental health facility,


consider the effects this creates. It requires everyone to take a step back and really think about the other people. What do they value? What do they do? What will they use? It promotes self-awareness and reflection. What can I find or create that they will enjoy? How can I make them happy by my efforts? Best of all it frees us from the tyranny of the American planned-obscelescence industry. Where can I find meaningful presents that aren’t the new trendy electronic gimmicks? 

Of course, electronics can still be a part of our gift-giving. Once, I made my wife’s daughter a guitar amplifier out of simple components from Radio Shack housed in a cracker box.


(And now, a moment of silence for the passing of a great resource.)

Sometimes, I have made things to help people make other things. On different occasions, I have given my wife a vacuum-forming machine, a custom fountain pen made on the lathe, and a combination yarn winder and swift.


Sometimes I have found cast-off items that help people carry out the activities they love. My wife’s scientific daughter has gotten an antique binocular microscope that I had to disassemble and clean to make it usable, an old high-school triple-beam balance, and her own small portable telescope.

I have received incredible sweaters and socks, books about my hobbies, a final project from Industrial Arts class, a lettering guide for mechanical drawing, a custom-finished storage cabinet for my fountain pens…I could go on all day. I treasure them all, and I always will.

Everyone has heard that it’s the thought that counts. Nowhere is that more apparent than in our house.

Go Your Own Way

Because I’m such a confirmed curmudgeon, people always assume I’m against every innovation and change in the way things happen. Not true. However, in order for me to embrace a change, I need to be convinced that the new way helps me do what I already need to do, and do it better or more pleasantly than I could before.

Here’s an example: twenty years ago, I completely embraced the pay-at-the-pump concept of buying gasoline. I was willing to drive miles out of my way to a station that allowed me to use a debit card (no chance of getting in trouble by spending money I don’t have yet) at the pump, rather than going inside and having to talk to someone. By eliminating unwanted human interaction, that technology has made my life better.

It didn’t stop with gasoline, either. Paying at the pump made me realize how much I hated carrying cash and having coins rattle in my pocket. Now I simply don’t spend money if currency comes into play. I can’t remember the last time I had cash in my wallet. (It took me years to see the hideous redesign of U.S. money. But I care less than I wold have when I was young. I simply never use the stuff.)




Here’s another: my wife and I were among the first of what are commonly known as “cord cutters.” More than a decade ago, we realized that we paid a princely sum for cable television each month, and we had hundreds of channels coming into our house, but nothing we wanted to see was ever on. Perversely, we felt obligated to look for programs to watch because we didn’t want to waste what we paid to the cable company. We lost whole evenings scrolling through the channel guide (admit it: you have, too), and we’ll never get that time back.

When we finally cancelled our subscription, this was such an unusual phenomenon that the cable guy could not believe it; even when he was on our doorstep collecting our boxes, he kept offering price reductions and extended contracts to keep us captive. I had to tell him five times that we were really sure what we were doing.

We began streaming our programming through a dedicated computer connected to our television and stereo.


(The box that started it all.)

You see- we don’t fear technology, but we make it work for us rather than the other way around. All these years later, we cannot imagine having to watch something when the network decided it’s on and having to sit through commercials, or not being able to pause and refresh our martinis. Sure, the cable companies have since caught up by offering video recording capability and allowing you to skip commercials. But we figured out how to do it first because it made our lives better.

So, what made me think of all this now? The way we do holidays, like the Thanksgiving that has just passed. Like our electronics, our holidays exist to serve us, rather than our serving them.

Early last week, one of my wife’s co-workers asked her if she was “ready for the holidays.” For a moment, my wife did not understand the question because holiday stress is so far from our experience. Before we ever met, we had both realized how sick we were of racing around fulfilling perceived obligations when we should have been relaxing and enjoying time spent with the people closest to us. When we first moved into our house, we decided to be the hosts of Thanksgiving and Christmas so we could avoid the travel and the commotion of dropping by a gathering only to rush out to the next appointment.

This was a good start, but it still meant her daughters (and whatever boyfriends/husbands were in tow) could only stay for part of the day. The solution? Move the day. There’s nothing magical about the fourth Thursday in November. Turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes taste just as good on Friday or Saturday!


I guarantee we use more butter than you do.

Only now, our loved ones get their obligations out of the way when society demands, then spend “our” Thanksgiving relaxing with appetizers, cocktails, a roaring fire, an old-time radio show, a puzzle, a walk with the dogs, a meal, a James Bond movie (we don’t call it “Family Bonding” for nothing), a nap, some stargazing, or WHATEVER ANYBODY WANTS TO DO. No pressure. No expectations. But real thanksgiving for what we value. Now, everyone who has experienced our version can’t wait for it.

Some people have actually said to us that our holiday “doesn’t count” because it doesn’t happen when the [retail] calendar decrees.


All I can say is, I’ll think about you from my comfy couch while you’re standing in line to buy some gadget that’s already obsolete. And, trust me, I’ll be giving thanks.