Saturday, March 9, 2024

Back in The High Life Again

It's high time I checked in with you. 

The big event I have not mentioned in these pages happened back on August 30, 2020. At about 10 PM that evening, I was standing in the parking lot of the local Smart & Final, watching Wifey returning the cart as I stood by the Sienna waiting to get in, when I suddenly blacked out, fell backwards, and hit the back of my head square against the concrete.

Why did that happen? No one really knows, but I strongly suspect that it was a reaction to a continued heavy dose of several blood pressure medications that were being administered to get my heart to calm down after years of pumping as hard as it could to get blood through my tiny little faulty aorta. I think my heart simply stopped beating; the therapy had worked all too well. 

I plan to relate that experience, and my long recovery, later on, but for now let me discuss a few more things from that day, then skip to right now. The impact got my heart started again, but I sustained a brain injury which very nearly killed me. I was not expected to last the night. but—spoiler alert—I did, quite well. My marbles may have been thoroughly jumbled, but they were all still there.

The overall main story arc for me since then is the continuing recovery of my brain from The Big Koonk. It's taken a lot longer than I expected. It mostly subsided to the background for some time, probably since the beginning of last year, and during that time I had little awareness of the passing of time. I was more or less constantly in the moment, and looking back at that period now I can't reliably place anything accurately on the timeline. My head would poke above the water from time to time, only to submerge again.

In November, suddenly my head popped up for air with my awareness of time restored, and I found that I was actually able to write cogently again for the first time since the accident. Determined not to slip down again, I seized upon the opportunity to flog my brain back into something closer to normal working order.

Since then it's been a bit of a rollercoaster ride, up and down, but gradually upwards. I'd go through periods of differing ability sets. One week my voice came halfway back, and I could sing again, a little. Then that subsided, and I went through a week of not being able to remember the names of actors in films. Then that would go away and I'd find myself reaching for words that were suddenly not there. Then I went through a period where my sense of smell came back partially. That went away too.

I soon recalled that the last of the neurologists I consulted, the only one who was actually communicative and did an MRI of my brain, more or less told me that this would be happening at a certain point. It was evidence of the brain working to restore internal communications among the various processing centers, passing around roadblocks to find new routes. Thus did I enter the final stretch of my recovery.

While this was highly encouraging, it was also pretty disorienting. The harder I tried to gain control of the process, the more I descended into ineffectuality. I found I had no option but just to ride the rollercoaster and take each day as it came.

Then, several weeks ago, a subtle change occurred. To put it simply, I had reached a certain equilibrium in my brain function. I found myself able to think rationally at a constant, if still somewhat diminished, level. A growing list of seemingly insurmountable problems I suddenly found myself solving, one by one, with increasing ease. 

There is no real improvement in my sensory deficits at this point (no sense of smell, little sense of taste, loss of singing voice), and there are still some loose wires in my memory. But my brain is now working in concert in terms of sentience, and that is the important thing. I am now within shouting distance of being myself again, after a long time of having to portray a credible simulation of myself to family and friends. Now I know what the members of the Monkees had to do for their TV show. Oh yeah, and Jack Benny in his professional life (you realize that he really wasn't an egotistical skinflint and lousy musician, right?).

A few nights ago I was at a local bar listening to some of the very best improvisational jazz I have ever heard, real postgraduate stuff, and I actually seemed to feel my brain improving as I listened. I then remembered that music is the carrier frequency of my thoughts, and those synapses need re-connecting too. The music was absent from my brain for a long time.

So where does this all leave me now? Well, I still need to address my sensory deficits, which my experience indicates are not permanent, but will require some proactive effort to banish. But that will have to wait until the dust settles completely, and I have a better idea of what I have to work with. I'm not quite done healing.

But I am close, and that's great! The comeback is becoming fun. I have a rare chance to become a better, more effectual person than I was, and at my age that's a nice place to be. I plan to take full advantage of it.

Friday, April 24, 2020

The Big Algorithm

As I have mentioned in these pages, I collect old records, of the type commonly known as “78s,” and I enjoy restoring them digitally, removing the noise and making them sound as originally intended (or as close to it as possible). It is in fact my favorite pastime, but about four years ago I more or less stopped working on 78s, because I was growing increasingly dissatisfied with my results.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was an early sign of my heart condition. My declining circulation diminished my aural acuity, and rising blood pressure introduced tinnitus (the perception of noise that isn’t actually occurring), which I didn’t really notice because of my diminished aural acuity.

I did continue to work on restoring the occasional LP and the like, because restoration of this kind of thing is usually a comparatively trivial matter, and I hoped it would serve to keep my skills from deteriorating completely.

After my operation, my blood pressure increased temporarily when I was taken off blood thinners, and then I was able to hear the tinnitus, because thanks to the new valve my aural acuity had greatly improved. In fact, it got to the point that I could eventually tell what was happening with my blood pressure by the loudness of the tinnitus. 

This annoying but useful condition soon showed me that my blood pressure would rise whenever I ate anything with any salt in it at all. I found different things to eat, and in early February of this year my blood pressure finally returned to normal healthy levels. The tinnitus was now pretty much gone.

February was a pretty wet month hereabouts, and one of the rainy-day projects I set for myself was to clean up the “Current Projects” sound-file folder on my computer—something I had never done in twenty years at the activity. Believe me, there were very few projects that still had any currency!

Still, I did find over three dozen 78-restoration projects that I had abandoned in frustration over the previous nine years (which indicates just when my hearing problems began). I decided to try to finish them, and discovered to my great joy that I was miraculously now several orders of magnitude better at the task than I had ever been before. 

I can only conclude that, like Demosthenes and his pebbles or a sprinter running with leg weights, the process of attempting to work through my temporary hearing impediment over those nine years somehow strengthened my abilities and honed my skills. Or, it was a miracle. Either way, I was elated. What used to take me days or even weeks was now taking just hours, and my restorations were noticeably better than ever: less noise, and a livelier sound.

Over the course of the next four weeks I completed all my abandoned projects with resounding success. At the same time, I fully re-engaged with the whole record-collecting thing, cleaning and cataloguing all the incoming records that had piled up since months before my operation, and playing them for Wifey in the evenings. 

This was a doubly-fortunate development, because at about this time it became evident that Wifey and I would be spending the next month or so in relative isolation. It looked like the perfect opportunity to indulge my favorite pastime in a big way, and also to take care of some long-deferred interior home-improvement tasks. Goodness knows that I had little else to distract me, because the weather was perversely bad for spring hereabouts, and I couldn’t go about my usual springtime duties of renovating the yard.

Soon thereafter, an odd distortion began to materialize in the sound of the records as I played them: a hard echo that sounded only once. It was a bit distracting, but I didn’t let it bother me, because it didn’t show up in the digital transfers of records I was making.

And then, one literally and figuratively dark day, it did, and all the transfers I made that day were worthless. Now I was bothered, mightily, because my triumphant return to my favorite pastime was dead in the water. My very next task was finding the source of that distortion.

* * *

At this point in the story, I should mention that during my banking career, one of my main tasks was the monthly auditing of all the branch asset and liability accounts. These audit activities may sound boring, and I certainly found them so when first I was assigned them. So boring, in fact, that I tackled them hard so that I could get them behind me as quickly as possible. I tend to address my most dreary tasks first, because I crave happy endings.

I was soon rewarded for my efforts. It wasn’t very long before I began to see patterns in the kinds of errors I found. For example, a difference of an amount divisible by 9 was virtually always caused by the switching of two numbers in a figure, e.g., 15.49 instead of 14.59. And, since banking seems to attract the dyslexic, this happened with remarkable frequency.

This indicated that when I discovered a difference divisible by 9 it was quite justifiable to assume that switched numbers were the cause. I could thus omit the laborious search for needles in a haystack that was the standard audit process, and confine my search to locating this specific kind of error, cutting the time spent from several hours to several minutes. And there were other patterns that offered similar savings of time and effort.

At that point, I actually began to enjoy the work, because it had ceased to be pure, rote drudgery, and had become instead an exercise in deduction. Suddenly I was Sherlock Holmes, and every out-of-balance condition became an opportunity to hone my sleuthing skills. 

Certainly there were instances where I did have to make a full audit to find the error, and in these cases, it is true, my method ended up taking longer than going directly to a full audit,  but as I gained in experience, these instances became increasingly rare. With time, I developed an algorithm that yielded a solution unfailingly with a minimum of time and effort. I can state with pride that never once in my career did I allow a penny to go astray. I never left behind any unsolved cases.

This talent served me well in my banking career, and in my life in general, because I naturally began to apply this sort of algorithm to every little mystery I encountered. Whenever a problem cropped up in any area, say an inoperative electrical circuit or a stuck window or a suddenly-unfriendly friend, I would apply the same sort of algorithm. I would assess the situation, prioritize my investigation in order of probability, then start investigating. 

Thus, when the distortion appeared in my transfer setup, I naturally approached it in the same way that has been so successful for me in the past.

* * *

My setup for transfers is a turntable connected to a switch box that also has a cassette deck connected to it (allowing me to transfer cassette recordings as well). The switch box then goes to an analog processor that serves to recover latent sound in the recording. From there, one output goes to the digital recorder, and the other to a high-quality amplifier, dedicated to this purpose, and then to a big old pair of speakers handed down from my Grandpa Kesling. 

I began my investigation by considering the facts already in evidence, which were a bit confusing: at first, the distortion did not appear in the digital transfer, and then it did. I decided to disregard that for the present, and proceeded with the situation as it then was, because I was eager to find the problem and solve it as quickly as possible so I could get back to restoring records.

This meant that the problem was occurring somewhere between the record and the digital recorder, and thus the source was one of three things: the turntable, the switch box or the processor box. The easiest of these to check was the turntable, so I switched over to the cassette deck and played a cassette. The distortion affected the cassette, which eliminated the turntable as the source. 

From there, I went on down the chain. I disconnected the turntable from the switch box and connected it directly to the processor box. The distortion was still there.

At this point, I began to grow quite concerned, because the processor box is the single most expensive component in my system. It’s a professional unit, and pro electronics are always prodigally costly. Now, Wifey kindly said to me, “Well, let’s just buy a new one.” But when I checked to see what the current price was, I discovered that the box is not made any more. 

I then girded my loins and set about the grim business of confirming the passing of my dear processor box. I took it out of the chain, connecting the switch box directly to the amplifier.

To my great relief, and my utter consternation, the distortion was still there! I had seemingly eliminated every possible source of the distortion, and it was nonetheless still there. Out of leads to follow for the moment, I put the matter completely aside for several days as I awaited the arrival of further inspiration.

It eventually came when I remembered that my turntable did in fact have internal electronics: a switchable onboard pre-amplifier. Turntable preamps used to be built into all home stereo amplifiers, back when everyone had a turntable, but over the past twenty years or so they have begun to disappear. 

Thus, all turntables now come with internal preamps so that they can simply be plugged into any standard line-level input. While it seemed impossible that the preamp could be the source of the distortion, I decided for the sake of thoroughness to check it anyway.

Fortunately, I do have a high-quality stand-alone phono preamp. I connected it between the turntable and the processor box, and switched off my current turntable’s internal preamp. Then, I fired up the system and played a record. No sound came through the speakers. The stand-alone preamp could not possibly have simply stopped working, but I just could not figure out what the problem was.

Well, there was only one logical conclusion to derive from this: I was trying too hard. I was missing something. There were other steps I could take at this point, but the most prudent step was away from this whole mess to get some perspective. I had to get back on my good foot with my algorithm.

I switched the turntable’s inboard preamp back on and reconnected everything the old way so that we could at least listen to records, and then I turned my attention to some of the million other things that needed doing.

* * *

A few days later, on a nice sunny day when Wifey was working from home, we sat down to lunch in the den, and she said in an enthusiastic voice, “Why don’t we listen to a few records?” So I put on a record.

The distortion was gone! Gone with the wind!

I thought back to the early days of our marriage, when the toaster or can opener stopped working and Wifey would say to me, “Try unplugging it and plugging it back in again.” I would smile at her indulgently, try her fix, and it would never work, because of course it didn’t.

Soon thereafter, toasters and can openers and pretty much everything came with computers in them, and the first suggestion in the troubleshooting section of all their instruction manuals was, “Try unplugging it and plugging it back in again.”

I just sat there for a minute, completely paralyzed by the arbitrariness of it all. I struggled mightily to trace a logical path through all that had happened. I thought to myself, “So disconnecting the internal preamp and then reconnecting it fixed the problem, did it? Huh. Well … okay. I guess the preamp switch must’ve been dirty, and turning it off and then back on again cleared the dirt. A simple dirty switch caused that weird distortion. It figures it would be something stupid like that.”

No, wait—it didn’t figure at all. It didn’t make sense. Nothing about this whole mess made any sense to me. First the distortion didn’t affect the transfers, then it did, and then the turntable wasn’t the source, and then it was? I just couldn’t accept it.

Because of this, I had no confidence that the distortion was truly banished. I fully expected it to reappear just as capriciously as it had disappeared. A deus ex machina may be acceptable in a story, but I had never encountered one in real life, and was not about to accept it now. It didn’t fit my algorithm.

While I resolved to get back to restoring records for as long as the distortion stayed away, my heart was not in that resolution, and I spent the next few fleeting days of sunny weather catching up a bit on the yard work. The exercise cleared my terribly fogged mind considerably, and finding myself in a mood to write, I resumed work on a project I had started back during my recent restoration work that was related to it.

So records and restoration were on my mind just the other night as I was surfing the Net doing some technical research. I was reading about turnover frequencies and electronic circuits and time constants when I heard a voice that sounded a lot like my own say, softly, “The dimmer.” And then, if I am not very much mistaken, I heard the ding of a little bell, but I couldn’t swear to it.

My mind is like that. It is exceedingly slow, but it is just as stubborn. In retrospect, I know what happened. While consciously I had disengaged from contemplation of the distortion matter, subconsciously I was still flogging the old algorithm. 

Free to work without interference from me, my mind went to work dredging the muddy bottoms of its many fetid swamps, seeking a clue as to what was really happening with my transfer setup. When it at last unearthed that clue, it floated to the top of my conscious mind like the answer on the underside of a Magic 8 Ball.

It was the dimmer I had installed on the overhead light circuit in the den in mid-March, just as I finished my successful run of restorations. It’s a very nice electronic unit, designed to work with modern LED bulbs yet presenting the appearance of an old-fashioned pushbutton light switch.

Immediately, I ran downstairs, turned on the light in the den, adjusted the dimmer to halfway, and played a record. The distortion was still gone. I turned the dimmer all the way down and all the way up. I turned the light on and off. The distortion did not return. Blasted evil distortion! Where are you when I need you?

It was like when you have some annoying problem with your car, say the steering makes a frightening clunk when you turn the wheel all the way to the right, and you take it in to the mechanic and he can’t find any problem at all.

But no matter. I was, and still am, convinced the dimmer was the cause of the problem. Sure, I have no proof of that at this point, but who cares? I mean, it has to be the source. To paraphrase Nick Charles in the dénouement of The Thin Man, it has to be the way things happened, because it’s the only way any of this makes sense.

First of all, the distortion first appeared after the installation of the dimmer. Second of all, as well as the dimmer works most of the time, it has shown some occasional instability, causing the LED bulbs to strobe. Third, I am told that dimmers can readily cause interference in nearby electronic circuits, even if they appear to be working correctly.

Moving to the next level of proof, I recalled that at every time when I encountered the distortion, the overhead light was on because the weather was bad, and when I first noticed that the noise was gone, it was a sunny day, and the light was off.

At this point in my investigation, I had a large number of data points—a large body of evidence, both circumstantial and direct—that all aligned one way: that the dimmer was the source of the distortion.

My investigation was done. Beyond a reasonable doubt, the deus ex machina was the dimmer. And the fact that it was a deus ex machina was a huge red flag that I utterly failed to notice.

* * *

It all seems so silly in retrospect, doesn’t it, all that drama over a simple problem? Actually, it gets even sillier: the reason why my outboard phono preamp didn’t work when I connected it was that I neglected to connect its power cord. For what it’s worth, I did figure that out myself a few days later, but sheesh

That level of bovine stupidity serves to reveal my state of mind at the time. The world outside our door was falling apart. Now, that I could deal with, because I knew that the world would in good time fall back together again. 

Nevertheless, all the disruption in our normal routine brought about by the situation proved to be such a distraction that the further disruption brought about by the sudden, capricious appearance of the distortion in my transfer setup utterly blew my mind. It was just one thing too many for me. It’s always that last tiny little straw that breaks the camel’s back.

And so, I blundered my way through what should have been a simple, straightforward investigation, eventually working myself up into a state where I was so frustrated, confused and just plain mad at the world in general that I simply lost my nerve. And thus was a noble mind o’erthrown.

I then abandoned my algorithm, my old faithful friend, like a cat leaving a sinking shelf, and proceeded to follow any wild chimera that came into my mind, just to give it something to keep chewing away upon. Dr. Thorndyke would be disappointed in me.

John Thorndyke, you see, is the main character in a wonderful series of detective mysteries written by the British author R. Austin Freeman between 1907 and 1942. Dr. Thorndyke, in fact and fiction one of the first forensic scientists, had his own algorithm, and that was to seek out and document every fact he could find before beginning to form any conclusions regarding a case.

Thorndyke was constantly exhorting Jervis, his colleague and frequent amanuensis (i.e., what Dr. Watson was to Sherlock Holmes), that one must always conduct an investigation with an open mind, scrupulously avoiding the forming of any premature assumptions. “One can never determine the relevance of a clue until all the clues have been collected,” he liked to say. 

In this light, Thorndyke would have applauded my taking the time to check the operation of the internal preamp, in the name of collecting all available evidence. He would then, however, gently point out that I had begun the investigation with the mistaken assumption that the source had to be something in my transfer setup. 

Absent that assumption, I might well have realized that the probable source was something outside the setup the minute that the distortion, which at first did not occur in the transfers, suddenly did. It was when I chose to disregard this seemingly inexplicable change in the situation, simply because it was inconvenient, that I went astray.

Ironically, this is the very same mistake that Jervis always makes when he tries to solve the case for himself (as Thorndyke always exhorts him to do). He always boxes himself in by starting his investigations with unconscious and unjustified assumptions, which leads him to disregard crucial data. And every time, I say, “Come on, Jervis. You’re an intelligent, educated man. Learn from your mistakes already!”

Well, all I can do now is to send forth my humble apologies to you, Jervis, and to you as well, Dr. Thorndyke, and strive to follow my own advice. And with that, it’s back to restoring records, with my algorithm, and my assumptions, restored to their proper places.

* * *

“I could have told you it was that stupid thing on the wall, but I assumed you knew.”

Saturday, December 7, 2019


It grieves me profoundly to have to tell you all that our beloved Rosalie passed away, suddenly and utterly without warning, on October 17. Just that previous Monday, after exhaustive testing, she was given a resoundingly and unambiguously clean bill of health.

All else I can say at the this time is that, by all the evidence, she passed away suddenly, with a merciful lack of distress–on her part, at least.

We, all of us here, are diminished by her absence.

God willing, I will be able to give her a proper eulogy, one she richly deserves, in the new year. For now I hope one anecdote will suffice.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, I was sitting upstairs at my computer when I felt the ephemeral tickle of the passage of a long-haired cat on my ankle. I said, "Hi, Simon."

Simon replied with a meow—from the bedroom, across the foyer, 20 feet away.

I am decidedly not a mystical, metaphysical person, but by that very same token I take as good evidence that which I experience directly through my senses.

And my senses combined with my logic tell me that who I felt on my ankle that Saturday was Rosalie.

It's a great comfort to know that she's still here.

Sunday, September 15, 2019


I have happy news!

Several weeks ago, Wifey and I went to the Pasadena Humane Society and adopted a kitten.

We have named him Stu, after Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.'s character on 77 Sunset Strip, Stu Bailey.

Stu was born on June 9, 2019, which makes him fourteen weeks old today.

More—lots more—about Stu later.

Thursday, June 13, 2019


I have very sad news.

Our dear Benny passed at 4:07 AM Monday morning, June 10, of a stroke. It was unexpected, although he was under treatment for hyperthyroidism, and that condition without a doubt is what led to the stroke.

Benny was loved by all who knew him, even those professing a dislike of cats, because he managed to exemplify all the dogly virtues—loyalty, sense of duty, friendliness, affectionateness—while still being 100 per cent cat. He greeted all visitors with a purr and a smile, and if his initial overtures were accepted, he got on their lap, nuzzled them affectionately, and then sat down and amped up his purr to fill the room and move the heart.

All succumbed to Benny’s open, friendly welcome. He was not pushy with them, but he was irresistible nonetheless. People just naturally started petting him; Benny would accept the affection, and return it in kind.

One of my sisters-in-law visits us every year, and she always has pointedly made a good long lap session with Benny a central feature of her visits. And she’s not the only one to have done this. Benny had a fan in all who knew him.

Benny came to us as an adult. He joined our family on September 2, 2010. Based upon his appearance and neighborhood reports, we judged him to be one year old, and officially fixed his birthdate accordingly, but it seems apparent now that he must have been older (although he never showed it). Adam, then seven months old, vetted Benny in fifteen minutes, and from that moment on they were brothers under the fur. I have never witnessed a closer relationship between two cats.

* * *

All cats have an inner Big Cat in them. Simon’s Big Cat, for example, is a lion, as was Adam’s before him. Benny’s Big Cat was a panther. You could see that come out when he was outside. He was sleek, his coat was smooth and it shone in the sun, and his every movement bespoke the panther within.

But he was a kind panther. Benny was an outdoor cat by nature. We rescued him from the outside. He kept appearing in the yard of Lydia’s mom Frances, thin as a rail, for weeks. He was wonderfully sweet, and seemed to make a point of visiting Lydia whenever she was there.

As the weeks passed, she noticed with concern that he was getting thinner and thinner. Lydia asked all around the neighborhood, and everyone said he'd been present for some months, and belonged to no one. So, after verifying this, we took him in.

We soon realized that the reason that he was so thin was because, while he had the big-cat killing instinct, when it came right down to it he had too much love in his heart to administer the fait accompli. I witnessed this just last Friday.

Benny was a sun-worshipper, and he needed to be outside regularly to be happy, so we put him on a harness and a leash and put him outside in the back yard most every non-rainy day.

Pasadena has a deplorable problem with wild coyotes roaming the streets freely, so we always monitored Benny's outside sojourns to keep him safe. Last Friday, I watched him catch a winsome little mouse, and ran out frantically to save the mouse's life.

Benny came up to me, looked into my eyes, then placed the mouse at my feet. The mouse just lay there. While I was touched by the tribute Benny was paying me, I was quite distressed for the mouse.

Then Benny looked down at the mouse, and nudged it with his paw. The mouse squeaked, got up, and scurried away. Benny could not bring himself to kill the mouse, God bless him.

Benny, last Friday, just after he paroled the mouse.

* * *

There is no comfort that I have ever found in a passing. It is the worst part of life. I'd gladly exchange years of my own life to see any of my dear departed before me for one more blessed minute.

But if there is any way to consider the manner of Benny’s passing that might lessen the pain a bit, it is that up to his last day he was happy and vital and keeping on. He went outside, and he played, and he sat on my lap as he loved to do, and he purred up a storm. He made all his days count. He set a good example for us all.

When his time came, he went with dignity, surrounded by those who knew and loved him best.

Benny was a manifest daily presence of God’s love in our lives from the first day to the last, and he will live forever in our hearts. Benny is at the right hand of God now. No, come to think of it, he’s in God’s lap, purring up a storm. And to his right is his pal Adam.

I'll write more about Benny when I can.

* * *

September 2, 2009 (?) - June 10, 2019

Thursday, May 2, 2019

They Took My Web Site Away

One of the minor disasters that transpired unnoticed during the time of my surgery and the early recovery phase was that my ISP unceremoniously terminated its free Web page support. As a result, the Farm House Journal is currently offline.

To review, the Farm House Journal (FHJ) is the precursor of, and companion to, this blog. I started it in 1999 with no comprehensive plan in mind, and so by the time I approached the end of Chapter IV, in early 2011, it was a chaotic mess, both textually and in terms of Web design.

From chapter to chapter, I would alternate between a present-tense journalistic style and a past-tense narrative style. The page layout also kept changing, sometimes within chapters, and navigation was awkward. Worst of all, I kept falling farther and farther behind in the story.

By the time I started Chapter IV, I had finally figured out what I wanted the FHJ to be, and I resolved to go back and re-write the first three chapters, but I was still clueless regarding how to fix the navigation, and in the event I was far too busy to undertake such a job at the time, because I had at last begun the exterior restoration in earnest.

And so, I started this blog, just to get a fresh start with current events while I figured out how to get the FHJ back on track. Added benefits were much easier and quicker posting, plus the ability to post video. After going on to complete Chapter IV, I just left the Web site to languish, while linking to it from here occasionally.

Once I realized that the FHJ was offline, I at first resolved to get it back up as soon as possible with a new hosting service. When I reviewed it, however, I quickly changed my mind, because aside from its textual and navigational problems, its Web design is fully twenty years out of date.

I created the site at a time when people were still using dial-up modems and CRT monitors with a 4:3 aspect ratio and at best 1280 by 1024 resolution. Moreover, the Web browsers used at the time varied wildly regarding how they interpreted HTML. I thus kept things as simple as possible, so the site would load quickly, with a consistent appearance across all platforms.

The situation now is quite different. Today’s high-resolution, widescreen displays render my 1999 design almost unreadable, with tiny fonts and long, long lines of text. The site is even less readable on cell phones and tablets.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

On the other hand, today's HTML gives one far more control over presentation, with fairly uniform look and feel across all platforms, and virtually everyone is using the latest version of their preferred browser. And by “virtually everyone,” I mean everyone but you, Nik.

And so, the FHJ will remain offline for the time being, while I take this golden opportunity to re-write and redesign it, and redirect the links to it from here. Of course, before I do this, I must learn how to code a modern Web site. This process is likely to take some time.

Please bear with me while I work to get the FHJ back online, and remember in the meantime not to click on any links that go to it. That way lies madness.

* * *

"Non legit illud. Non nimis longum esset."

Friday, April 12, 2019

Trip to El Rancho Grande

Last weekend, we took the pups up to the Rancho to meet with the Hughes Net guy so he could re-align the dish with the satellite. Our satellite connections are our only real ties to the outside world in that remote location, where over-the-air TV signals are non-existent and even mighty Verizon does not reach consistently. Well, we do have a wired telephone line there for emergencies, but who uses land lines anymore on a regular basis except for phone spammers?

It was a phenomenally lovely day there.

The skies were that startlingly deep blue that comes at high altitude, the snow was all gone, and the plants were full of swelling buds.

The pups held their usual jamboree.

As I’ve mentioned, life in a cold-winter environment is brand-new to me, and I was amazed to see that the grass was already greening up. That is, except for in the back.

This is all quite dead because we haven’t had any irrigation in the back since 2017. We’ll be fixing that this year. For now, it’s just that much less to mow.

Another task we had was to turn the water back on to the house. We had to turn it off earlier when the water-softener valve blew out; our plumber up there fixed the leak, but didn’t turn the water back on because he couldn’t get inside the house to check for further leaks.

Of course, when we turned the water back on we did find a leak, but fortunately it was outside the house, and just a trickle, so we were at least able to use the plumbing while we were there.

The third, and most important, task was to replace our flag. The stars and stripes is in abundant evidence in the Mountain Communities.

Another house in our neighborhood.

El Rancho Grande is no exception. One of the things I really liked about the place when we first saw it was the big flagpole in front, with a light that keeps the flag illuminated at night, as per proper flag etiquette. I’ve always wanted such a setup.

We put up a brand-new flag when we moved in, and were surprised to see how quickly it became damaged. We replaced that with a more substantial one. That one got utterly, and shamefully, shredded over the hard winter. So this time we got the most durable flag we could find.

We hope this one will last longer, but if it doesn’t, we’ll just get a bigger one next time. If that doesn’t help, then I guess we’ll have to put a flag order on autoship.

Our neighbor to the west keeps peacocks, and have recently built a pen for them. We love the peacocks; they are beautiful, and full of personality. I couldn’t manage to get a good photo of the pen, because the sun was a bit behind it and I didn’t want to distress them by using the flash, but here’s a bad one.

The peacocks sound like chickens speaking with a foreign accent.

Oh, and while we were up there, I made sure to get a better photo of the Barn.

This will give you a better idea of how big it is, although I didn’t have the right lens with me to give you an accurate idea of just how deep it is. The first owner used to restore Packards in there, and he told me he could fit seven of those big cars, with enough room to work on them all.

You can’t see all the features here, but you can see the nice wood stove, the lumber storage rack behind it, and at the back an attached storage shed. You can also see, in the storage shelves along the left side, a great deal of spare maintenance items for the house.

I’m tempted to remove the dropped ceiling and its attendant support columns, but while this will make the Barn a more inviting space, it will also make it harder to heat in winter. So we’ll see.

* * *

“What this place needs is something to herd, like maybe some big, fluffy llamas!”

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Big Time at The Farm House

My 60th birthday was the Friday before last, and on the next day we had a big party with lots of cousins and friends. I was humbled by the large turnout. Everyone that could be here was here, many coming from a considerable distance. The party was, in effect, the coming-out for the new me. Everyone was pretty worried about me during the long run-up to the surgery, and this was their opportunity to see that I came out okay. As I said, I’m humbled, and grateful.

The following is a brief recap of the proceedings. I’m not going to identify anyone by name, because I didn’t ask permission, and I don’t want to violate anyone’s privacy.

* * *

The interior of the Farm House is still years from being completely restored, and I worry that the unpainted walls and age-dulled woodwork are a bit off-putting for guests. But Wifey did a great deal to spiff up the place and make it more inviting, and I noted that whereas previously people tended to congregate in the kitchen (the only finished room in the house besides the downstairs bath) during parties, this time they distributed themselves throughout all the available rooms and in the gazebo outside (which just got a new canopy and some swell, if dim, color-changing LED lights).

The pups were of necessity banished to the Lounge for most of the proceedings with plenty of treats, and most of the cats absented themselves, but Benny, our goodwill ambassador, was right in the thick of things. He even hung out with the gazebo folk outside for a while, on a short leash because his stomach had been upset and I didn't want him noshing on yard debris.

One of Wifey’s big projects was the completion of the window treatments in the parlor. Window treatments in the Farm House: wow!

Now, lets hope the curtains survive the Pet Division. The sheer panels were under attack from the cats the minute they were up; Wifey was able to repair the damage, but it looks like the sheers will have to be kept pushed back.

I received a great number of very thoughtful gifts, but I must say that my favorite gift came from this guy.

He’s my littlest cousin, and when he came in and saw me, he ran up and gave me a big hug. That made me very happy. We’re really looking forward to watching him grow up; he’s definite MVP material. Here he is with his parents (on the left); they’re doing a great job.

Oh, look, there’s Benny on our friend’s lap, keeping a close eye on the little one. And you can see another recent improvement, a rug. Rugs are a risky proposition in the Farm House; what with all our pets, they never seem to last long. But this is a new type of rug, really more of a tapestry that can be removed from its backing and machine-washed. We have high hopes for it, especially since the pets really seem to appreciate it and have treated it uncommonly well (so far).

The kitchen was the most popular room early on:

Then, it was cake time, and the dining room became the center of activity:

Wait, let’s get in closer on that Happy Birthday sign:

I bet this is the first time such a high number has been used with this sign.

The party eventually ended up in the den, which suited Benny just fine. He wanted to watch the Angels game.

It was a fantastic day, a definite milestone on my way back. It’s a great thing to feel better at 60 than I did at 50, and it’s really icing on the cake to spend the day surrounded by loved ones.

I had so much fun that it’s taken me over a week to recover.

* * *

"Now that the festivities have concluded, how's about whipping up some dinner for my friend and me?
It would be a shame if something happened to your nice new rug."

Friday, March 29, 2019

Our Universe Is Expanding

Wifey and I are a formidable team. We’ve tangled with malefactors more than a few times, and with very few exceptions we’ve always come out on top.

So it was with the two skirmishes with the City that occurred in rapid succession in 2017. Nevertheless, we were left quite angry by the experience. We were fed up with our being repeatedly put on the defensive by an overweening bureaucracy, and by the prospect of its possibly happening again.

And so, as much as we love the Farm House, we began to feel the need to establish a foothold somewhere else, in case the City really began to put on the heat.

We had in mind a place far enough away to provide a significantly different environment, but close enough to be suitable for day trips. We wanted a place large enough for us all to be able to stretch our legs, but modest enough to be affordable.

Early in June 2017, we began to look for such a place. Miraculously, by the ides of June we had found it, and by the end of September it was ours.

You’ll be hearing all about the place in due course, so I’ll just provide a sketch of the place here. It’s on one and five-sixteenths of an acre 5500 feet up, on the slopes of Mt. Piños in the San Emigidio Mountains. It is within the boundaries of the Los Padres National Forest, just inside Kern County, 82 miles from the Farm House.

The house is a fairly large, rambling affair, built by the original owner (from whom we purchased it). He started with an A-frame kit cabin, and over the course of the next forty years kept adding rooms periodically. It is solidly, if quirkily, built.

The camera is at eye level here.

The place is indelibly imprinted with the lively personality of the man who built it, about whom you will hear much more in the coming months. He is a remarkable man, energetic and full of whimsy, evidence of which one is liable to find in unexpected places.

He has his own unique way of doing things.

My favorite aspect of the construction is a 1000-square-foot second garage, known as “the Barn,” although it doesn’t look anything like a barn. It is in fact just a very long garage. But what a garage! Its possibilities as a work space, and as a play space, are virtually unlimited. I mean, we could hold a barn dance in there!

The house is bordered on the north and west by a vast meadow that requires a small tractor to mow. Happily, the house came with one, and a nice snowblower as well. Beyond the north meadow is a forested area that slopes down to a creek on the northern border of the property.

The back yard overlooks the Cuddy Valley, which for a long time was cattle country. Even now, cattle graze there during the temperate months of the year.

And speaking of climate, the summers there are much like those in Pasadena, although it is generally somewhat cooler up there. The winters, on the other hand, are much colder. It is liable to snow there at any time from early November to early May.

We christened the place El Rancho Grande, after the song of the same name. For reference, here’s Bing’s hit version of the song:

The name occurred to both Wifey and me simultaneously. It just seems to fit.

[April 2, 2020: I have updated the above link, the first of which had succumbed to a DMCA takedown order. Interestingly, the Foursome, the vocal group assisting Bing here, got its start with Smith Ballew's excellent touring band in the early Thirties, although they never recorded with him. Ballew is my main collecting interest, but I hadn't previously noted the connection.

And since I'm here revising and extending my remarks, let me add that the words of this song reflect exactly how we feel about the place.]

For Wifey, El Rancho Grande was just what the doctor ordered. From the first, she positively thrived up there. She would always leave the place feeling renewed in body and spirit.

My reaction to the place was quite the opposite. Although I fell in love with the place at first sight, once the place was ours the name we had given it began to take on for me an ironic and sinister meaning.

As it happened, the acronym of the name, ERG, is also the name of a unit of work or energy. I soon discovered that the place was so large and complex that it required a considerable amount of work to maintain. The scope of the work grew exponentially in my mind once I realized that I knew virtually nothing about the particular maintenance needs of a place situated in a snowy winter environment.

I would thus get to work the second we arrived at the place, but ten minutes later I found myself completely drained of energy and gasping for breath, done for the day. After a few weeks of this, I figured out that I was experiencing altitude sickness up there. I had never gotten it before unless I was up above 10,000 feet, and even then the symptoms were mild and of brief duration.

I began resting for a half-hour after arrival at El Rancho Grande before I did anything else, and that worked for a time. But it caused me some concern nonetheless, and when in time the altitude sickness worsened, both Wifey and I knew something was wrong with me.

This led us to seek out a new doctor, the one who quickly and accurately diagnosed my heart condition.

Thus, while El Rancho Grande was for Wifey just what the doctor ordered, for me it was just what ordered the doctor.

As 2018 wore on, I eventually had to give up the idea of doing any work up at ERG for the time being, and after mid-July I had to stay away completely for a time. We tried again in mid-November, but it was too soon.

After my encouraging physical in early February, we felt that it was safe to try again.  And so, the next Saturday, we went up there. It was a nice sunny day, but there was a blanket of snow on the ground.

That, however, diminished no one’s spirits.

Everything was beautiful,

and a grand time was had by all.

Oh, and the altitude sickness was completely absent. At last, El Rancho Grande is just what the doctor ordered for me as well, because she has ordered me to get plenty of exercise.

* * *

You all are now brought more or less up to date regarding Otis, Wifey & Co. There are still a few blank spaces to fill regarding past events, which I will do as soon as I fill them in for myself, but for the most part I will now be returning to current business.

"Uh. . . hello?"

Oh, wait. I just remembered one small event I failed to mention. On February 4, 2018, Wifey let the dogs out in the morning, as usual, and instead of their going about their business, they made a beeline to the north side of the house and set up an enormous din.

Wifey ran out, and saw the dogs gathered around the base of the big Eastern oak alongside the driveway. She followed their gaze upward and saw a raccoon in the tree.

There is nothing very odd about raccoons in our trees at night, but we haven’t had one there in the daytime since we moved in. Apparently, the raccoon had fallen asleep up there, and failed to wake up in time to get to a dog-free zone.

Although we brought the dogs right back in, and kept them in all day, that poor raccoon stayed there until it was good and dark, although after a while he relaxed and made himself comfortable.

Okay, now it’s back to current business.

* * *

"Thank you."

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Civics Lesson, Part 2

One day in June 2017, we received a certified letter from our good friend, Robespierre Corday. We didn’t need to open it to know that it was another code violation. Our postman advised us he had been delivering many such letters that day on our block, all from the same source.

This code violation concerned our driveway approach. That’s the civil-engineer term for the ramp that gets you from the street, across the parkway and sidewalk, to your driveway. They considered it substandard.

This approach was probably installed when they subdivided the neighborhood in 1911, or not long after. It was originally six feet wide, and was designed to accommodate vehicles weighing a ton or so at the most. It’s only about two inches thick. At some point, it was widened to eight feet, as you can see along the right side. 

Okay, they had a point. The approach had been disintegrating ever since concrete trucks crossed it repeatedly during the heavy construction phase, and since our contractor bailed early, they never got around to fixing it. As we discovered later, the roots of the big pine tree had something to do with the damage as well.

We called Corday, who as before was sincerely sorry to have to cite us, but they had received a complaint and had to investigate it. We didn’t tell him that the postman had outed him, and that we knew that he had gone up and down our block and noted everything citable.

In this part of town, you can’t get a policeman to come unless a violent crime is in progress, but you get to know the code compliance officers by name. Of course, the compliance officers never seem to notice the City’s own code violations, which are legion.

It would in fact have been imprudent for us to tell him that we knew the truth of the matter. No need to get his back up. Not that you can’t fight City Hall, but this fight would be so messy and expensive that any victory would be a Pyrrhic one. Forget it, Otis; it’s Pasadena.

Besides, we did clearly need a new approach. This citation at least had a valid basis, irrespective of its origin. And so, we immediately set out to correct the violation with all due speed.

The first contractor we auditioned was a referral from a landscape-architect friend, so we knew that he was qualified to do the work. He gave us a quote that did not include the acquisition of permits, advising us that it was considerably cheaper for us to get them.

He didn't know, as we were soon to learn, that as of 2017 the City requires that the contractor obtain the permits. Because, you know, the City just hates to deal with actual taxpayers face-to-face. Plus, contractors are such generous campaign donors. In Pasadena, you can represent yourself in court, but not at the planning office.

In any event, the quote was so insanely high that it was clear that the contractor did not want the job. So we got more quotes, and chose one that seemed the most qualified. They set up an initial meeting with the Public Works inspector, who has charge of such work.

Now, the City is supposed to vet the contractor to ensure he is qualified to perform the work in the City. That is their justification for requiring the contractor to obtain the permits; this is supposed to protect the homeowner, ensuring that the work is done professionally and ethically, in a timely manner.

But the City, ever disingenuous, doesn’t really bother to vet the contractor. They just send the inspector out. The contractor and a few of his men arrived early for the meeting, and were already demolishing the old approach before I even knew they were there.

I considered myself fully prepared to deal with the inspector. I was already quite familiar with the particular code requirements for new driveway approaches in Bungalow Heaven, having discussed them at length with the head of the Cultural Heritage Commission in the early days of the heavy construction phase.

The design of our new driveway approach had to match the appearance of the original. The curb on each side must curve at the same level to meet the sidewalk, the ramp must be divided into roughly-equilateral rectangles, and the surface of the concrete must be washed when still wet to blend in with the weathered appearance of the existing century-old concrete work. This was precisely what we wanted, so I expected no controversy in the matter.

In the event, when the inspector arrived he got right to business, and dictated in no uncertain terms an approach thoroughly modern in appearance. When I brought up, gently, the particular requirements for our nieghborhood, he emphatically disagreed, stating flatly that every new approach in the City must be constructed precisely as he described.

What followed next was the most intense hour of negotiation I have yet endured. Now, we do happen to have a professional negotiator in our household, but I am decidedly not that person. Nevertheless, I had the facts of the matter at hand, and my cause was righteous, so I jumped right in with both feet.

Happily, I kept my righteous anger well in check, and the inspector was a reasonable man, so in the end I got just what I and the Commission wanted. By the time our negotiation was completed, so was the demolition of the old approach, and the meeting ended with cordiality all around. The contractor departed with the promise that he’d get started in a day or two.

Now, you all just know that he didn’t, right? Well, you are correct. I won’t sport with your patience by giving you a blow-by-blow account of the next few months. Let it suffice to say that the contractor was in fact not approved by the City, for the simple reason that he was apparently not certified by the State to do concrete work.

And for all that time, getting in and out of our driveway was something of an expedition.

After this photo was taken, I re-graded the approach, taking out the rocks and adding some dirt from our ample supply in the back yard, because the tires on Wifey’s car are expensive.

We did eventually get the work done to our satisfaction:

It’s a luxurious ten feet wide (the inspector had wanted twelve!), and it’s six inches thick, strong enough to take concrete trucks. Plus, it’s a huge upgrade in appearance.

So once again, all’s well that ends well, and it’s now a lot less of an adventure to get in and out of the driveway.

* * *