Friday, April 30, 2010

Honor Thy Father

My early morning devotional reading triggered memories of my father. The reading spoke to the value of memorized Bible verses in helping one through hard times. The woman author had memorized a number of bible verses in her childhood Sunday School classes. She has been thankful that they have comforted her during stressful times in her life.

When I was no more than five or six my mother was hospitalized with mental illness. At the time it was a mysterious event for a child and certainly disconcerting. However, I was blessed with a grandmother that doted on me and more importantly my father really stepped up to care for me. I particularly remember him teaching me the 23rd Psalm. This Psalm is firmly embedded in my mind and has been a comfort to me in my most trying times. Especially when I was recovering from two different cancer related surgeries.

My father could be described mostly as a gentle giant who could be extremely forceful if aroused by some real or perceived injustice. He led a tough life as a farmer in the days of minimum mechanization. My grandfather and his father died when he was seventeen. Dad became the lead person on the farm to care for my grandmother and Uncle Ben who was described as "slow". Meaning he had limited mental and social skills. His sister Ruth and brother John had already left the farm for other jobs. My dad cared for grandma Rehkugler until she died as well as Uncle Ben. At the death of Grandma Rehkugler he discovered there was no will and he was required to buy out the other heirs share of the estate so he could operate the farm. An injustice that mars the family history even today. However, our family pulled together and became successful fruit, vegetable and crop growers.

By today's standards my dad passed away too early at age 68. He had vices that were not favorable to his health which included smoking and a diet of excess of fats. The vigorous exercise of farming mitigated some of this. I am truly sure he loved me, although he never would have spoken those words to me. However, he was always proud of me and my accomplishments and lived to see me be the first in our family to go off to college and even to complete advanced degrees and become an academic.
So I honor my father and the things he taught me. To work hard, be kind to your neighbors and to rise above the hard knocks of life. May my children so honor me at my passing.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Technology Cycles - The Plow

I have been working on the Rau Model Plow Collection for over a year and rather intensely for the last few days. The collection traces the development of the plow from antiquity to about 1875. The early plows were essentially pointed wooden sticks that created a furrow in the soil. This worked well in the Nile delta where flooding routinely brought in fertile soil. And this worked well in the arid irrigated regions as well. However, in the higher rainfall regions this approach did not work as well and thus the plow became more sophisticated to be able to tear through grasses and sod. So this brings me to reflect on what I saw the last few days as I drove to campus. The cornfields that I passed on Rte 13 were being planted using a limited tillage approach. No plowing to turn the soil over. Simply a pointed tine ripping up the soil and creating a seedbed for the corn. There we are - back to the approach used by the Egyptians about 5000 years ago. What goes around comes around. Amazing!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Bygone Agricultural Machinery

At least three of us at lunch today had grown up on farms in the 1930's, 1940's and 1950's. We all personally experienced the change from animal powered agriculture to tractor powered machines. Dr. "Murf" Murphy was the senior member of our group who grew up in Kansas in 20's and 30's. He left the farm for college in 1932. At 95 he is still active as a plant breeding expert and as mentally sharp as a youngster. He recalled driving a brace of six horses to operate a 14 foot wide grain header. The crop was stacked to dry out and then was threshed with a steam engine powered thresher with a 40 inch intake throat.

My other lunch partner Dr. "Bill" Tomek is an economist who grew up on a farm in Nebraska. He too recalled the day of horses. He especially remembered how difficult it was to harness a team of horses when he was a youth. He left the farm to become a nationally acclaimed agricultural economist who still teaches a course at Cornell.

There were still horses on the farm I grew up on into the early 40's. We did have an old Fordson tractor with steel wheels in the late 30's and I well remember the first John Deere "B" tractor we bought about 1941. It was a great thrill to sit in front of my dad and steer the new tractor down the road when I was six. Our horses continued to be used pulling a riding cultivator and occasionally for plowing. I could almost manage driving the team and holding the walk behind plow when I was 10. The horses eventually died and we were then an all tractor farm operation by the mid 40's. In the mid 40's we still harvested wheat and oats with a McCormick binder. I learned to stack the sheaves of grain in the field and then to pitch the bundles onto a wagon to take to the barn. We later threshed the grain when the local thresher man brought his rig to our barn. He powered the thresher by belt power form an old steel wheeled Hart-Parr tractor.

Today's modern agriculture relies on a whole array of machines to enable the extraordinary productivity of our food supply industry. As a nation we are indeed fortunate to have a low cost food economy that requires a small percentage of our population to supply our needs. This has allowed the three of us to become academics and others in our society to pursue a plethora of other pursuits.

The agriculture sector success is a good model for many aspects of our national economy. Isn't it interesting that the Agriculture Committee of our Congress is writing the finance system regulations. Long ago the agriculture sector learned how to deal in commodity futures and the equivalent of derivatives. I guess we are not such rubes after all.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Friendship Glue

I attended an interesting lecture today on the Calculus of Friendship by Dr. Stephen Strogatz. He described and commented on his long time friendship with his high school calculus teacher Mr. Joffray who is now 81 and in failing health. Over thirty years they have carried on an exchange of letters primarily focused on their mutual love of mathematics. Dr. Strogatz has chronicled their friendship in a recently published book, “The Calculus of Friendship: What a Teacher and a Student Learned about Life While Corresponding About Math” . This is a touching story of evolving from a strictly math focused exchange to a more human calculus of a relationship connecting on a deeper personal level.

His lecture has caused me to reflect on the major element that goes into forming a friendship. I guess it would mostly be a shared common interest. Perhaps this common interest is the glue that brings people together and holds them in relationship over time. I know that I have several friends from the geezer skiing community who lead quite different lives than I do, but we have a common bond friendship that starts with the ski experience. And as time goes on this friendship expands to include other shared experiences. The same kind of phenomenon seems to work in my faith community friends. The friendship starts with this common bond and then evolves into other things. Most of my friendships are much shorter term than the 30 year length that Dr. Strogatz talks about. So each of us has our own story and each of us has our own unique life history.

In a closing thought, I expect that having a successful marriage in the long term not only depends on a fundamental love of one other but also is assured by a glue of true friendship.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Breakfast With Geezers

When I was living in Fayetteville I routinely went to breakfast almost every Wednesday morning with a group of men from our church. The ROMEOS - retired older men eating out -. There was and is a tradition of going to a variety of local eateries rather than any fast food chains. In any community you will find non-chain restaurants serving up great breakfasts with entertaining servers. Most of the lady servers that have waited on our group learned our breakfast preferences and would be surprised when we ordered something new. Today I met with my old friends at Hullar's in Fayetteville and sure enough our waitress remembered my preferences even though I hadn't been there in several months.

It was good to see old friends and engage in the banter that accompanies our meetings. Most of them are SU fans and alumni, so I have to defend Cornell all by myself. Regrettably in the last two Cornell-SU lacrosse games Cornell has had heart breaking losses. I tell them I am proud of the our team of course and not so gently remind them that we are a no scholarship athletic program! This is an eclectic group of people. Background ranges from clergy to mechanic to carpenter to engineer and many blue collar folks. We all share a common goal of a good breakfast, good conversation and the proper enjoyment of retirement hobbies and activities.
I consider it a privilege to associate with them.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Competition and Concentration

I always enjoy playing tennis with my Russian friend Viktor. He has good strokes and normally is a very formidable opponent. We often split sets and go to tie breakers. Both of us are entered in the singles group in the Senior Games in June. However, Viktor is a year younger so he will be playing in a younger bracket this year. In another year we will be in the same bracket for a while.

Our sets today were interesting. Our first set was a see-saw battle for a while but I was able to dominate in the latter stages. In the second set some other players came to the adjacent court and were briefly in conversation. Their presence was disturbing to Viktor and broke his concentration that he was unfortunately never able to recover. The result was that I was able to win the second set easily.

This all leads me to comment on the range of concentration abilities of people. I have been blessed with the ability to focus my concentration on a task to the exclusion of any surrounding distractions. This includes tennis, writing, crossword puzzle solving, and dealing with engineering, construction or mathematics problems. This ability is both a blessing and a curse. There are times that you need to be aware of what is around you for your own safety.
More than once while I have been engaged in a cross word puzzle my wife has said something that I should have heard. Fortunately she tolerates this short coming.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Practicing Compassionate Criticism

After being retired for about 14 years today I had the opportunity to participate in a final oral Ph.D. exam for a student that is completing his research thesis. I have been a minor committee member for his studies for the last several years for his minor in Biological and Environmental Engineering. One of the privileges of Emeritus Professors is to continue to serve as an academic advisor if the subject of the thesis is appropriate to ones expertise. This is a stimulating volunteer activity that utilizes the accumulated wisdom of senior faculty.

A thesis defense is truly a challenging experience for the student. Especially if the examining committee takes an aggressive stance with the questioning and critique. I trust that the graduate committee I served on today was thorough in evaluating the success of the research and at the same time provided for civil discourse as we explored the strengths of the work as well as the areas needing improvement. Our work today also took advantage of the latest technology to engage a colleague in Denmark in our discussions. He had originally planned to be physically present at the exam, but the eruption of the Icelandic volcano caused a cancellation of his flights to the United States.

To the relief of the student, he was passed. However, as is often the case, the final thesis will be improved from the suggestions and directions developed during the examination. Both additions and corrections will take place before the final submission of the thesis for the degree. We all wish him well as he continues in his career. Relatively newly married and also a father he causes me to recall my raw early days of my academic career. It is such a relief to pass the Ph.D. hurdle. However, it is only a beginning and there will be many hours and days and years of effort to continue to be successful. Best wishes for the next 50 years young man.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Original Geezers

Today I rediscovered the original geezers. In the Bible in Genesis Chapter 5 there is a description of the descendants of Adam. Yes, Adam was the original geezer. He lived to the age of 930. Seth, his son didn't fare so well because he died at the age of 912. Seth's son Enosh only made it to 905. Kenan, Seth's son then reversed the trend and died at 910. But Mahalalel, son of Kenan only made it to 895. Jared the next in line of descendants died at 962. His son Enoch was in such favor with God that he took him at the tender age of 365. However, I am sure that you may have heard the expression, " as old as Methusaleh". Well Enoch's son Methusaleh made it to 969. His son Lamech only made it to 777. And finally along comes Noah.

Noah was one busy geezer! Some time before the flood between the time he was 500 to 600 years old he built the ark and gathered up all the beasts to go into the ark. And when he was 600 years old he entered the ark with his family and the beasts. He also got to live a long and productive life after he disembarked. He lived 350 years after the flood and died at the age of 950.

For your information the cut off time now for geezers is a max of 120 years. At least according to the bible. All of this leads me to comment on how we all have a yearning to understand our origins. I have a new neighbor who is moving in this week. We met today and had a long conversation about a number of things. As we explored our mutual life experiences he revealed that he never knew his father. Whoever his father was, he was never part of his life. I could tell that this was a painful part of his life experience. I could sense that because of that, he really appreciates family and is obviously dedicated to his young family and wife. I guess what I can do for him is illustrate how he can become a geezer with the joy of extended family that he may not have had as he grew up. I look forward to being his pseudo father if that is what this neighbor can do.

Transitions - they are always happening.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Compassionate Criticism

The normal daily game of the academic world is intellectual jousting. Any gathering of academics will be full of intellectual spark and challenges to ideas and proposals presented. My lunch with several colleagues today was full of interesting repartee and exploration of ideas. It was a very congenial gathering with respect for others opinions and a synergistic exchange. If ideas were criticized it was done in a respectful and gentle manner. Don't get me wrong, the criticism could be strong.

This leads me to thinking about the critical behavior of senior faculty of the university. As I have matured I have learned to couch my criticism in terms that focus on the idea rather than on the person. Unfortunately, I have been at presentations where the critics have challenged the speaker in such a way to personally attack the person. And I have been on the receiving end of that kind of criticism over my career as well. In an open forum I believe that we should focus on mutually respectful discourse. The presenter should be prepared and understand the audience as well as the subject to be presented. This respect should include visuals that are readable and clear and appropriately illustrative of the points to be made. In turn the critics can make their points in a constructive manner. My dear wife has taught me that there are non-confrontational ways to make your point and for this I am grateful.

I have noticed that some senior people tend toward using the the sharp end of a stick approach to making a point. However, I also find that equally intellectually sharp senior individuals have developed the skills of what I will call "Compassionate Criticism". I hope I am a member of that latter group.

Monday, April 12, 2010


April is a birthday month for many of the males in our extended family. Son Colin, Grandson Carson, Son-in-law Terry and I all have birthdays between April 8 and April 13. Mine was on April 11 with a lot of celebration with the more or less locally present children/step-children and their extended family units. Youngest daughter Yo reminded me that upon her 25th birthday in September I will have lived over three of her lifetimes. It is amazing how rapidly the years go by as one moves through geezerhood. Somewhere I learned that happiness peaks at around age 65. I am pleased to observed that my happiness index certainly has been quite high for a long time.

Who wouldn't be happy when all of the children/step-children - seven in all - made a special point to recognize my 75th birthday. The cards were creative, poignant, funny and each a unique individual expression of affection, appreciation and love. My beloved wife Nancy not only gave me a touching expression of love but also orchestrated a great celebration dinner along with all of her other Sunday activity of teaching and preaching. My celebration did not end on the 11th but continued today as I retrieved cell phone messages from Colin and Tange. Their messages were originating of course from the Sugarbush Ski Are parking lot. Perhaps to chortle about their last day of skiing!!

As I reflect on 75 years of living, I am reminded how much times have changed from 1935. My mother gave birth to me with the assistance of a mid wife in an alcove of a rented farmhouse in Wayne County. I grew up in an old farm house without running water, no central heat and no bathrooms. I was in college before any of the amenities we now take for granted now were added to my boyhood home. Phone and television were also absent for most of my time growing up too. In spite of the lack of material things in my early years there were many happy times too. So perhaps the best thing one can do is to make the very best of the situation you have and continue to enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Threads of Connection

It is amazing how we are all interconnected in some way. Today I learned that a person in our church is the niece of a lady I used to drive on the Senior Citizens Transport in Moravia many years ago. They say we all are only separated in our relationships by a few degrees of separation. It is not unusual in casual conversation with someone you have just met to find a mutual friend or acquaintance.

Not only to we have connection by persons but also by place. We recently learned that our house occupies the land that was once part of a 180 farm in South Cortland owned by a parishioner that my wife visited. The nearby pond was once the farm pond for this holding.

Since we humans are all connected in some way it behooves us to be our brothers/sisters keeper. I am now reading the latest issue from the National Geographic on water. Literally billions of people are without adequate water, let alone potable water. Hygiene under those conditions is literally impossible with the result of rampant diarrheal illnesses. I remember growing up on a farm without running water in the house and the challenges it presented for basic hygiene. Fortunately we did have an adequate amount of water.

In my academic career I had the opportunity to teach students about water supplies, water pumps and domestic sewage systems. I know that many of my students served in the Peace Corps and helped many thousands develop sanitation for their villages. Others worked with the development of low cost hydro turbines for electricity production. Although I never personally served in the Peace Corp or in international development I hope that by the hands of my students some of those in need were helped. Perhaps some small comfort as I muse over the plight of the water and sanitation deprived people of the world.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Brunch Near the Snow

Following a magnificent Easter Service, Nancy and I adjourned to a Sunday Brunch at Hope Lake Lodge at Greek Peak Resort. We could still see vestiges of snow on the slopes in the bright sun of the day. It was an outstanding brunch served in the Acorn Restaurant. Service was splendid and the company equally enjoyable. Although Nancy and I were dining alone we were positioned so all that entered and left the restaurant passed by our table. Numerous people from our church were there who were cordial in their greetings.
Owners Al and Gale Kryger were enjoying a friends and family gathering and also welcomed us to the event.

After this initial visit we will put the Acorn Restaurant on our list of dining choices. We look forward to taking some our out of town visitors there.

We like to think we are active senior people so after some hospital visiting by Nancy and my paper reading we were off to tennis at the high school. We had a competitive set and a some good ball hitting in spite of the full stomachs from brunch. For the record, I am the most senior of the two of us. In fact Nancy barely qualifies as an official retiree. I guess I am the one that plays geezer tennis although we both plan to play in the Senior games in June.

Happy Easter to all who celebrate this day and peace to all humankind.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Busy Transition

I have been so busy since skiing finished last weekend that I almost don't miss being on the slopes. Amazingly Greek Peak plans to be open on Saturday for a day of skiing on two slopes that still have snow. I am not even tempted since we are enjoying 70 plus weather and we were able to enjoy tennis on the outside courts at SUNY Cortland.

Holy Week has kept us busy with two Seder related events at church. Inspiring events melding the Jewish tradition with the Christian beliefs. We Christians after all all are a continuation of the prophesies of the old Testament. It is just that we believe that the Messiah has already come. It is notable that some Jews have continued their traditions and have also embraced Jesus as the Messiah. Whatever our beliefs, I hope we all can join together in attempting to make this a better world.

Looking forward to the Easter celebration. Nancy will be participating in the services and we always finds this the high point of the holy year. Afterwards we have reservations for Brunch at the Acorn restaurant at Greek Peak Hotel and Resort. Maybe Nancy will get to see the great spa they have and admire the hotel decor and architecture.