Category Archives: History

Finding Life

I’m sure that over the past ten years I’ve mentioned this—at least once or twice, if not more.

We’re having a Thanksgiving potluck at work on Friday. I usually contribute jambalaya, but this time I decided to bake bread—sourdough bread. In the 19th century, during the gold rush, someone discovered that there were microbes in the air near San Francisco that would not only leaven bread, but also give it a crisp crust and a savory almost sour flavor. Sourdough has been popular ever since, to the point that we don’t even realize that it is routinely overpriced.

For a while it was claimed (and maybe even believed) that you could only make sourdough in the climate conditions found in the Bay Area. Fortunately, that’s not true.

I bought a sourdough “kit,” which included dried sourdough starter (which included some of the lactobacilli that make the magic happen), a crock for storing starter, and a book of recipes. That was in 1982, and I’ve kept it going ever since. This has not always been easy, especially with a few deployments taking me out of the home scene.

Nevertheless, the starter has lived long and prospered. Today it was combined with flour and water to make the “sponge,” the first step in making sourdough bread. As I write this, the  lactobacilli should have everything under their control. I have already returned  a cup of sponge to the crock to be the starter for the next batch and carefully placed the crock in the back of the refrigerator.

I’ve added more flour, water , and salt to the mixture, and tomorrow it will be formed into loaves and baked. I will literally “break bread” with my coworkers.

I see sourdough the way I view wine and cheese; it is what it is because we combine living organisms with the hand of man. Wheat is alive, we harvest it, and it dies, but when we add yeast–or better yet, sourdough starter, it lives again and morphs into something new and better. Then we share it, which is another living thing.

I’m told that there’s an old Russian saying, “Where there’s food, their’s life. Where there’s life, there’s hope.” You may not agree with their politics, but you must give Russian philosophers their due.

Pass the bread, wine, and cheese. Share life.

P.S. Most of this was typed one-handed because Alex the parrot claimed the other hand as her perch.

Good Old Virginia Politics

Greetings from post-election Virginia, the state commonwealth where gerrymandering isn’t merely a despicable political ploy, but a lifestyle. But then, when you’re home to the longest continuously running political fiasco legislative body, what do you expect?

Some of us wonder if the English who disappeared from the lost colony of Roanoke did so on purpose. They likely moved in with the Croatoan nation when they found out that these Native Americans did not engage in political campaigns. It can’t be proven, but no one has ever seen a Croatoan political poster, billboard, or campaign button.

I’ve enjoyed several days of not having to listen to negative campaign ads–Alleluia! The weird part is that all of these ads seem to be recorded using the same female announcer. Is she just so angry at the world that her voice is perfect for negative ads? Maybe she’s pissed off because negative political ads are the only type of gigs her agent can get for her? Maybe she’s angry at the world because she wanted to be an actress, but instead, the best she can do is to record negative campaign ads.

I think her friends ought to take her out for a few drinks and help her sort through her feelings; of course, that presumes she has friends, which, given her demeanor, may not be true. Now that I think of it, it may not be a good idea to take her drinking, anyway. She might be even more obnoxious after a couple of skinny margaritas.

In any case, the negative ads are over until the campaigns for the 2018 elections start cranking up.

In a week or two.

In the meantime, the worst I’ll have to listen to are those ads that run every three minutes for the personal injury lawyers as they promise to get the victim every dollar possible from the insurance companies. Less their cut, of course, and after tax, title, fees, and the dealer preparation charge.

Maybe that’s why I listen to so little radio and watch even less television. Give me a book; if I don’t like it, I can take it right back to the library—neither the book nor I any the worse for wear.

(Yes, I know the picture is of Huey Long from Louisiana–but he just so perfectly embodies the spirit of politics, yesterday and today.)

Educational Cause and Effect

I realize that people in general, and Americans in particular, have never been genteel when it comes to discourse. Throughout history we attributed it to our pride in rugged individualism and the Protestant work ethic. Anyone can be president; I can achieve anything I set my mind out to do; we celebrate Edison, Bell, Fulton, because those individuals invented things to change the world.

We claimed territory, as our right under “Manifest Destiny,” without regard to who or what stood in our way. Passenger pigeons? Bison? Native Americans? Forests? These speed bumps were quickly removed.

We settled our differences by swordfights or pistol duels. Our politicians—those we elected to represent us—settled arguments by shouting, spreading lies, and even bludgeoning one another with walking sticks in the very halls of Congress.

Not much has changed. Today, if you disrespect me, there’s today’s version of a duel—I drive 60 miles per hour through the neighborhood blasting away and hope that you are one of the people I hit. It doesn’t matter that: a) the bullet most likely will hit someone other than the intended target, and b) there’s a high likelihood that one (or more) of the gazillion security cameras will catch me and be used to send me away for twenty-five-to-life.

Today, there’s a lot of shouting, with nobody listening. It’s far more important that I get my position clearly stated—”I’m right and you’re not only wrong, but also an idiot—not to mention that your mother was ugly and you have terrible taste in clothes!”

Although I just clearly stated my position (the paragraph above, you buffoon!) you can’t tell me what it is. I can’t either, but that doesn’t matter, does it? The fact remains that I’m right and you’re wrong.

[Okay, let’s all take a deep breath, grab a cold one—if you like, and smoke ’em if you got ’em—assuming you can afford to pay eight dollars a pack.]

A theory—presented for you to think about and challenge in a professional, factual manner. Perhaps, when we began to focus on standardized testing, the school systems were forced to teach the correct answers, not how to arrive at a correct answer. What to think, not how to think. Ideas are no longer the raw material used for thinking; they are pre-packaged and ready to serve. No human interaction required.

There are parallels—in a world in which our youth do not know how to interact with others except via social media, we no longer teach etiquette or how to write a letter. They are not taught to introduce their friends to their parents or when a thank you note is appropriate. Civility is at the bottom of the required skills list.

Teachers didn’t make the rules and probably dislike them more than anyone although they have to abide by them.

But we all can teach. What if each of us added the following to our more contentious discussions:

  1. “Why?”
  2. “Tell me more.”
  3. “How would you solve it?”

Then listen—actively, intensively listen.

This just might prove interesting.

Spreadsheets

If you’re reading this, you probably have at least a basic understanding of computers—whoa! Don’t leave! Bear with me for a minute.

I used to communicate with others on NetZero dialup and write articles on a DOS (that’s disk operating system—pre-Windows for you youngsters) word processor. The first spreadsheet program I recall was Lotus 1-2-3, once a powerhouse, but now an answer to some stupid question on Jeopardy. We’re so used to spreadsheets that we have no appreciation as to why they were the first “killer apps.”

No, really! That’s how it was done!

Prior to the 1980s, complex production was tracked on the manual equivalent of spreadsheets. Seriously. We’re talking about blackboards (yes, real chalk boards—not whiteboards; you never got a buzz from chalk dust, just a nasty cough). Businesses would have huge blackboards mounted on the walls and/or wheeled stands—not one blackboard, mind you, but many. The blackboards were set up with grids, and if a change occurred in one variable, the person tracking it would go from blackboard to blackboard, updating the appropriate sections.

Maybe it’s easier with an example. If chairs usually cost $10, but the price changed to $12 and the company had orders for 15 rather than the usual 10, the human Excel operator would go to the place on the blackboard where chair costs were written and change it from $10 to $12. He (the male to female ratio of geeks was even worse back then) would then go to the place where quantity was tracked and change the 10 to 15; it could be the next blackboard or one in a different room. Next, he’d replace $100 (10 chairs at $10 each) with $180 (15 chairs at $12 each). A small mistake (is that 180 or 160? I can’t read my own handwriting) in one part of the blackboard jungle would cascade throughout, and might take days to correct.

Today, almost every computer seems to have Microsoft Office, which includes Excel, an extremely powerful program. I’m told that over 80 percent of Excel users are only able to utilize about 5 percent of its capabilities, but still are able to accomplish almost everything they want to do.

All that on one screen with no chalk dust.

My Life in Guitars (Part 4) More Desert

I do not have a “solo” picture of the next guitar that adopted me, because a few years ago, one of my co-workers was looking for a decent guitar. Somehow, we came to a deal that pleased us both (and lest you think I took advantage of him, he’s frugal to a fault, and describes himself as ADHD, obsessive-compulsive, and Aspberger’s syndrome; all probably true, but he’s a great guy and you just gotta love people like that). At this point, he’s probably far outpaced me on playing, but that’s better for the guitar).

We were still over in the desert. Emboldened by our Christmas concert, the USO coordinators, apparently desperate for entertainment, asked us (or maybe Rubin begged them) to do another performance around Valentine’s Day. I was on a roll, and since I knew that if I ordered a new guitar, the shipping line would say, “Thank you for you service,” I found a black Epiphone electric—complete with case. I got online, grabbed my credit card, and lo, another miracle occurred.

The Epiphone Limited Edition Les Paul Special Electric Guitar was a pretty decent guitar for being modestly ($150) priced. They still sell the same guitar today, so obviously, there’s something good about it if it still sells for the same price 12 years later. I loved it, and thought that the guitar would magically make me a better musician. However, there were two other guitarists in the group (not counting the bassist) who were far more talented than I. I’m not talking, “You’re good—he’s better.” I’m talking, “Stick with the acoustic, Nowak, and back away from the microphone, please.” Nevertheless, we had a great time playing typical garage-band covers from the Beatles, the Eagles, and other influential musicians from my youth. Unfortunately, that was my last time playing rock and roll with anyone. I miss it, but since I get up for work before 5:00 AM, staying up past 8:00 PM is just not in the cards.

Been in the desert with a band with no name

So, here’s the only picture I have of that particular Epiphone–our Valentine’s Day concert at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. I’m the short intense looking dude (never could remember lyrics) on the left.

However, as you will see in a forthcoming episode, the reason I was willing to part with it was because my wife orchestrated my getting another Epiphone as a Fathers’ Day gift.

WARNING: More guitars to come, which is why my wife got me a tee-shirt that showed rows of guitars with the caption, “So many guitars, so little time.”

My Life in Guitars (Part 3) – the Desert

I’d been quite happy with my Peavey Predator, so although I looked—and occasionally drooled, I didn’t seriously plan to buy another guitar. I became a geo-bachelor in Oakland, California, and had my Peavey, but no amplifier. In my teeny-tiny one room apartment, I could hear my playing well enough to keep my sanity.

Then I got the word that as a reservist, I was being recalled and would soon be in Southeast Asia. Obviously, the military pretty much dictated what would go on the plane, so the word was—mail yourself the survival gear you’d need in a plastic footlocker, with the fiberglass reinforced packing tape in every direction. Contents included books, electronic games, civilian clothes (sometimes referred to as “mufti”), and, in my case, a small ham radio station. If the footlocker was shattered, the tape would keep everything together.

What? No guitar?

No guitar. I did not want my Peavey damaged, and, besides, the military exchange system was there to take our money and send us whatever we desired. I’d just order a new guitar once I got there.

I did.

The order was cancelled.

I placed a second order with AAFES (Army and Air Force Exchange System)—the store for our men in women in uniform who are deployed.

Cancelled again.

I called the AAFES command—I mean, why be a senior officer if you can’t call the military’s retail headquarters? As a civilian I can call Radio Shack headquarters—never mind.

When military are deployed their mail is routed through a system to an FPO (fleet post office) or an APO (Army post office) so that mail to overseas bases is treated—and costs—like it’s within the continental United States. However, AAFES claimed they didn’t ship to APOs or FPOs.

Huh? Isn’t that why the Military Exchange System exists?

I suspect that items like musical instruments are “drop-shipped” from the manufacturer directly to the customer. If the manufacturer was not located in the USA, then it couldn’t be sent as US mail to a US APO/FPO address. (Damn bean counters!)

Fortunately, I realized that the horse was dead, so I should stop whipping it, and went over its head, straight to . . . . . .

eBay!

Peavey Acoustic

I found a nice used acoustic guitar in the “Buy it now” section. I even talked with the seller (if you could dial back to a US base via the military system, you could then use your prepaid WalMart 5 cents-per-minute account to make a prepaid call elsewhere within the US). The seller was a nice guy who told me that he had changed out the bridge from white to black for a customer who changed his mind. Did I want it changed back?

No—just send it to me.

The vendor was either Music 123 or Musicians’ Friend—it doesn’t matter, they’re all part of the Guitar World now. The neat part was that for deployed military (you know, those with the dreaded APO and FPO addresses), these vendors, replaced the shipping cost with “Thank you for your service.” (To this day, they’re still my primary source for anything and everything musical—thanks, folks!)

For my new guitar, oddly enough I had picked a Peavey acoustic (imagine that). It arrived in short order in perfect condition. When I was “home” I tried to practice regularly and I also played at church. St. Augustine said that “He who sings, prays twice.” If you sing at a service at which I’m playing guitar, your prayers are probably worth a hundred-fold. On the other hand, one could always count dealing with my playing as penance.

After Mass one evening, Rubin, a fellow officer, approached me and asked if I wanted to play in a Beatles band. I laughed and pointed out my general (if not total) lack of talent, but Rubin (and I’m spelling his name the way I THINK he spelled it) said, “No problem, it was just for fun.” I thought about it, and figured that at the very least I’d get free guitar lessons out of the deal, so I agreed.

We didn’t get a lot of USO activity at our location, and what little we did always happened when I was on the road. There was a fair amount of excitement when a women’s volleyball team stopped by (so I hear) and Charlie Daniels performed, after which he autographed the guitar of one of the other Beatle band members. He had a black guitar with a mother-of-pearl Statue of Liberty inlay on the fretboard that had been custom made when he was stationed in Korea. Charlie signed it with a bold silver marker of some kind. The final result couldn’t have been more awesome.

But I digress, although I’m digressing about guitars, so it’s okay.

Just before Christmas, after weeks of rehearsing in a warehouse, WE became the USO show and did about 30 minutes of Beatles music for a crowd of fifty or so (after all, there was not much else to do if you weren’t on duty). However, a good time was had by all, and I had my 30 minutes of fame.

Next—a different guitar for an encore presentation.

My Life in Guitars

People describe their lives using various benchmarks. I’ve decided that the best way to describe my life is in terms of the guitars I’ve owned and played. Now remember, I am of limited talent when it comes to playing, but unlimited enthusiasm and enjoyment when it comes to guitars.

Alas, I have no pictures of my first guitar. Back in grade school, I told my parents that I wanted to take guitar lessons, so they went to the music store around the corner. The teacher said that I was too small to play standard guitar, so I needed to learn Hawaiian guitar. My father found a used electric, and to keep it from sliding off my lap we cut up one of my grandfather’s old fedoras and glued the felt to the back. After a couple of years, I lost interest (a typical childhood reaction to any music lessons) and I’m sure that guitar ended up in the local classified ads.

A few years later, while still in grade school, I used the money I had earned by mowing lawns and shoveling show ($1.00 per job was the going rate back then) and ordered, by mail, a Sears Silvertone guitar. I tried, unsuccessfully, to teach myself. Apparently, Silvertones of that time period did not have a metal truss in the neck, so according to “the experts” the neck eventually warped until it folded the guitar in half. I neither recall that happening to mine nor whatever happened to it; I probably traded it for a radio.

During high school I learned clarinet, then played tenor saxophone in marching band and bassoon in concert band. However, at least I now had some music training ang theory to draw on.

When my first, last, and only book was published, I used the proceeds to buy a blonde Squier by Fender electric. I lived in Northern Ohio at the time, and most of my hobby material was in the basement. Apparently, the basement was cold enough that the finish cracked—not the guitar, merely the finish. During a move several years later, I decided that it belonged in the garage sale, not the move. Movers charge by weight for a reason; if you’re doing the move yourself, you can fully appreciate their position. Advil and liniment can represent a significant expense.

Eterna by Yamaha

Now, skipping ahead about five years, after moving to Louisiana, I used to get catalogs from a company called Damark that sold closeouts and overstocked items. I purchased an Eterna-by Yamaha six-string acoustic guitar from them. The price was right (I think) and it played okay, although nothing to write home about—although this is the first guitar that I do have a picture of. In the Louisiana spirit, I picked out a guitar strap with chili peppers on it.

I still play that guitar and use it as the guitar I take outside to plink on while I have food on the grill. It’s good enough to play, and humble enough to accompany me when I cook. Besides the chili pepper guitar strap, you may notice an electronic tuner on the headstock (I love those things!) and a Cool® guitar pick. I lack feeling in some of my fingers, and these picks have a sandpapery feel where the blue is, so I don’t lose my grip on them.

The Yamaha Eterna was the one and only guitar for nearly ten years, after which I began to run amuck.

Next blog—my first Peavey.