Wednesday, October 30, 2019


I often carry my camera on my daily dog walk to help me get out of my head and pay attention to the physical world. From my home street, I take a public sidewalk 600 feet or so along Highway 20, a busy four-lane highway. As the sidewalk gives way to the parking lot of Harbor Freight, a ramp smooths the transition.

That ramp is largely due to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990) which recognized the need for public infrastructure to provide accommodations for those who would otherwise be excluded from the use of public facilities, even those privately owned. It also set standards for new construction. Changes in the law were no doubt crucial, but they were accompanied by changes in our mindset---if you ever make friends with someone in a wheelchair, you'll never see curbs the same again. The ADA greatly improved the odds of making such a friend.

This summer, a new VA clinic opened in part of what had been the K-Mart, once the anchor of the shopping center before becoming a hulking dead weight as it closed. As the east corner of the building was repurposed, the old garden center and an older and never-used-in-my-time auto shop were demolished. Newly built interior walls divided the space into offices for the VA. Near the old auto shop, a new ramp led to a side door equipped with a passcard reader. A new parking area hugged the side.

As I strolled, I pondered the disconnect that seems to dominate the U.S. currently. Can we no longer love someone we disagree with? Have we lost our ability to care for someone less fortunate than ourselves? And as I walked, the VA parking lot began to bug me.
Note how the ramp leads from the door to a crosswalk to... a curb.

To be fair to the VA, quite a few parking spots are handicap-accessible. But the curb seems to say, ""Park elsewhere, if you're disabled." It's almost arrogant, unwelcoming. And so unnecessary. Why not put a smooth transition to the crosswalk, maybe even at asphalt-level and wide enough to easily clear of snow?

I can only assume that the VA and the contractor who built the parking lot were not communicating very well. Did the contractor even think about the disabled veterans who might use the space? I bet if the contractor had a son in a wheelchair, he might have questioned the curb design.

I believe that on some level, the contractor would be ashamed if confronted with the way he constructed the curb. But if made ashamed, he'd probably resort to excuses, "There's plenty of other places to park," or "I was just doing what I was paid to do." Shaming him won't make things better. Introducing him to some of the people the VA serves, welcoming him like a family member, might.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Grading Papers

Most of my students know that I hate grading papers.  To force myself to do it in a timely fashion, I promise them that I will have their tests graded b the following Monday or they all make an A.  So far, I haven't had to do that---but I've ruined some Sunday nights.  However, occasionally grading has its interesting points.  Take a look at the female student's drawing below.  By the point in the semester when this test was given, I knew her well enough to know she wasn't trying to tweak me.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Just As I Am

On Friday night, I was invited to read an essay I wrote for the Dubuque Area Writers Guild's Gallery 2019.  Each year, the release of the Gallery marks the opening of Dubuquefest.  The Gallery is now in its 41st year.  The piece I read, Just As I Am, is about my experiences growing up Baptist in the rural South and is available [here.]

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Tidying Up

I installed a bidet,
a derriere depilator,
a rectal reamer,
an anal laver. 

My wife turned it on
just to see it work,
standing up,
pressure-washing the wall.

The life-changing magic
of tidying up.
KonMari my ass!

Friday, January 18, 2019

Little War on the Prairie

My younger daughter, Tess, started college this fall at Gustavus Adolphus, just north of Mankato, Minnesota. In my mind, Mankato had nothing to distinguish it from other small Midwestern cities. About 100,000 people live in the metropolitan area, some attending Minnesota State University, the summer home until recently of the training camp for the Minnesota Vikings.
Mankato is also the location of Sibley Park, named for Minnesota’s first governor. I generally think nothing of things named for old white guys, having grown up in the South where Robert E Lee is everywhere, having caught Mardi Gras beads along Jefferson Davis Parkway in New Orleans, and while in high school having been given Senator Jesse Helms’ When Free Men Shall Stand, though I never read it.
So a park named after an old governor meant nothing.

I love public radio—The Moth Radio Hour, Snap Judgment, and This American Life are favorites. I recently began downloading episodes to my mp3 player for listening during my morning walks with Harold, my dog. Today, I turned on Little War on the Prairie, an episode from November 23, 2012. John Biewen, who tells the story, grew up in Mankato, ignorant during his youth of the events of the war between the Dakota and European settlers that took place in 1862. The podcast is his story of educating himself, and it worth your time.

The Dakota War ended with a mass hanging of 38 Dakota men on December 26, 1862. It was the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
Currently, on the site of the execution is a public library, across Riverfront Drive from the Minnesota River, upon whose banks the 38 bodies were buried in the sand. During the night, the bodies were dug up for use as medical cadavers, including by William Worral Mayo, whose name adorns Minnesota’s famed Mayo Clinic. Mayo dissected Stands on Clouds, then varnished the skeleton and kept it in his home office for his sons to study.
A less-than-two-mile walk along the river from the execution site brings current visitors to Sibley Park. Henry H. Sibley, first governor, was picked by his successor as colonel of the state militia, with the charge of suppressing a Dakota uprising. After leading in multiple battles and capturing more than 1000 Dakota, Sibley appointed the military commission that condemned 303 Dakota men to be hanged. Only the personal evaluations of the cases by President Lincoln reduced the number to 38. A week before the hangings, Sibley wrote the Assistant Secretary of the Interior,
[I]t should be borne in mind that the Military Commission appointed by me were instructed only to satisfy themselves of the voluntary participation of the individual on trial, in the murders or massacres committed, either by voluntary participation of the individual on trial, in the murders or massacres committed, either by his voluntary concession or by other evidence and then to proceed no further. The degree of guilt was not one of the objects to be attained, and indeed it would have been impossible to devote as much time in eliciting details in each of so many hundred cases, as would have been required while the expedition was in the field. Every man who was condemned was sufficiently proven to be a voluntary participant, and no doubt exists in my mind that at least seven-eighths of those sentenced to be hung have been guilty of the most flagrant outrages and many of them concerned in the violation of white women and the murder of children. (Source [here.])
To a Native American, seeing Sibley Park must be similar to an African American driving by Lee Circle. (See [here] and [here.]) The turmoil resulting from the removal of multiple Civil War monuments continues to roil the South as I write this. Similarly, most monuments to the Dakota War memorialize the white soldiers and settlers. (See [here.]). At the end of the Dakota Wars, all Dakota were banished from Minnesota. Few remain to object to a park named for a former enemy.
But a few Dakota have returned. In the current times of intense anger, they are guides to our better selves. Across the road from the public library—the massacre site—Reconciliation Park opened in 1997, with a theme developed by the Dakota of Forgive Everyone Everything.
But forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting.
The philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I first encountered the quotation on a display as I entered Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich, Germany.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Making a Small Plate

I enjoy making small bowls and plates for presents, but learning the process took longer than it needed to.  I've decided to share photos of the steps I go through with some guiding explanations so that anyone else interested can pick things up faster than I did.

I'm going to start with the easiest wood possible to find and work with---a board:
Notice the plastic wrapping.  I got a moderately priced, 4-foot mahogany board on sale at Menards.  Mahogany is a relatively soft wood with a pleasant grain, a good choice for beginning.

After removing the plastic cover, I marked off individual plates, first marking a length equal to the width, and then drawing crossing diagonals.  At the intersection, I used a spring-loaded punch to make a small indentation:

I use that indentation to mark the center of my plate first for marking with a compass:

I then cut the rough shape on a band saw.  I have a cheap 10-inch saw, but for years I simply cut the corners off with my chop saw enough to make the initial turning smoother:

The next step is to center a 2-inch faceplate and attach is with two or four wood screws.  I have a centering tool the same size as my lathe spindle,  shown to the right, center point in the indentation I previously punched holds the faceplate  in place while I put in the crews. Next, I mount the wood and faceplate on my lathe.  Where the screws penetrate the wood will eventually be the middle of the bowl, so the screwholes will be removed as the bowl is formed.

The first cut on the bowl is on what will be the bowl base, creating a spot for an expanding lathe chuck to grip the bottom.  I use calipers with a sharp edge to mark the width of the the chuck's jaws:

I then remove enough wood, about an eighth of an inch, so that the chuck will be able to grip it:

 I then pretty-up the bottom a bit:

To make sure the chuck grips the wood well, I use a chisel I ground as a dovetail to undercut the edge a bit:

While the faceplate is attached, I go ahead and shape the bottom with a bowl gouge, sand it using progressively finer grades of sandpaper held against the spinning plate, then apply butcher-block oil and wax with a cloth held against the spinning plate:

While the plate is still on the lathe, I go ahead and attach the chuck to the bottom:

I then take them off the lathe, remove the screws holding the faceplate, and remount the plate with the chuck now attached to the spindle:

I use a bowl gouge to hog out the middle:

I then use a scraper to smooth and refine the shape:
Once again, I sand and finish with oil and wax.

Once I remove it, I bring it in the house for my wife to admire.  Mahogany is light, and this plate weighed only 44 grams.  I also like to work with walnut, a darker and denser wood:

In the past, I've also work with multiple boards glued together.  That way, you can get beautiful contrasts or a taller bowl.  The process of shaping the bowl is pretty much the same.  The challenge is in the original glue-up, making sure that the boards are flush, with no gaps that will be suddenly exposed as you shape your bowl.

I hope this how-to will prove helpful.  Regardless, have fun and stay safe.  You may have noticed the dust collector in the background of some photos.  It was a great investment. And when I first started, I wore a plastic face-mask to protect me from broken bowl parts that flew across the room when I screwed up.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Lopping Them Off

I recently had a poem entitled "Lopping Them Off" published at Folded Word.  The editors chose a wonderful photo to go with the poem.  Take a look: