the wind and i just come and go

Category: Uncategorized

It’s all in a name, isn’t it?



The little window dressing on my truck gives the name of my business, “Art in Wood”, the website address, and my phone number.   Seemed simple enough.  Just maybe the biggest customer/patron I haven’t met yet will go to my website, or call me, or better yet, approach me.  It’s a small business.  Really small.  I’ve worn out several careers, and finally get to walk across my driveway to work, and fool around with wood in my shop finally built for the purpose.  It’s like I planned it that way, which I did.  Wood is amazingly versatile and every tree has a story to tell – some bigger than others.

jones saw

This tale is about how we chose our words, and the fact that we need to keep in mind that what we think about a word or a sentence may strike someone else in a completely different way.  In order to do that, we need to humble ourselves just a little bit.  Get out of the box and turn it over a few times – maybe see what someone else is thinking.

So, it’s a beautiful late summer day, and I stop at the gas station that I frequently patronized in my “last” career because it is unique and there are people there that I like.  Not just any old gas station, but they call themselves a General Store.  Part grocery, part clothing store, coffee stop, clean bathrooms, old pictures, Ice Cream – and a ZOO!  Park my truck, and ease on in for an ice cream cone and some chatter.  When I come out come out a few minutes later, there’s a very tired looking tradesman’s truck, with a very tired, bearded, tradesman half in and half out of the driver’s door.  He doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.  His eyes follow me and I acknowledge him with my standard “how’s your day goin’?” Blows right past my trite greeting:

“You ART?”

“No, I’m John”

“Well, who’s Art?” He jabs his head at the sign in my truck window.

Laughing now, “No, No, that’s my business, it’s what I do – I make things out of wood and call them art.”

“Ugh” he actually looked disappointed.

He was holding a scrap of wood that looked a lot like a whuppin’ stick about an inch and a quarter thick two inches wide and two feet long.  Dirty, but substantial – looked like something that had been torn out of something.  Used wood always piques my interest.

“You probably know a lot about wood, then.”

“More than most, probably – I read a lot”

“Wondering if you can tell me something about this wood.  Doing an addition for some city folks that want me to match the flooring in the old farm house they just bought.”

Ah, now it fits.  I’m thinking these “city folk” aren’t sure of what they have here with their contractor.  Guys like this always surprise me with what they are able to do, even when they bite off more than what it seems they can chew.

He hands me the wood.  I take out my pocket knife and scrape off some of the crud from what was once a wonderful piece of white oak.  “When was the house built, late 1800’s?” I was immediately taken back to the home of the Koeppler brothers a little more than a stone’s throw away from where we were standing.  Spent a lot of time there as a kid, listening to their stories about the history of the farm and their family.

“Guessin’ so”

One end of the board is fresh sawn clean and square.  The grain is super tight – a telltale message from the early 1800’s for oak grown in the upper Midwest and Lower Canada.

“White oak, see this grain, and how close the growth rings are?  The wider the rings the better the growing season – this one went through tough times didn’t grow much in these years” I’m pointing to the growth rings.  There was a mini – ice age in the 1800’s.  People say that it snowed on the Fourth of July one year.  Winters were super cold and summers cool enough that farmers couldn’t get crops to grow.  Caused an economic depression in the 1830’s”

“How can I match it?” (spare me the history, boy)

“You can’t, but if you take it to a sawyer and tell them what you are trying to do, they can come pretty close.   Saw it so the grain looks closer than it is.  It’s in how they saw the log.  White oak is hard to come by right now, but if you push a little, they’ll do what you want. You want some tight grained white oak that was harvested around here. Then just tell them how you want it cut.  Make sure the moisture content is below 10 per cent.”

He stuck out his grimy hand, enclosed in a grimier leather driver’s glove.  We shook.

“You sure know a lot about wood, Art!”

I gave him my card.  Call me if you don’t find what you need.  I can hook you up.

Looking at the business card he said, “I mean John – thanks a lot for taking the time!”

Lonesome Whistle

Milwaukee_Road_261_prototypeWe grew up on the Chicago, Milwaukee St. Paul & Pacific tracks in Oconomowoc.  South Street.  The house was 90 feet from the tracks.  On a summer morning, eating your cereal, you could watch the sash of the southern kitchen window vibrate itself closed when a train went through.  Sometimes, it took a couple of trains, and someone would just push it open again.  We didn’t know about the free windows you could get if you bought ten, (I guess that deal came later).

I always thought kids looked down on those of us who lived “on the tracks” but,they didn’t know what went on between the sidewalk and those four steel rails that curved into oblivion about 3/4 of a mile down the street.   Oh, we knew where they went, but standing on the tracks, looking west, that bend was the question mark, “where could you go?” what was “out there”.  Standing on the tracks? Yes, Virginia, our parents “let” us stand on the tracks.  We were pathfinders, and football players, and outlaws.  We had tallgrass forts and a football field between the telegraph poles with about a ten degree tilt to the north.  When I was small, we still had steam locomotives.  The Milwaukee Road used steam units well into the fifties for local switching (a siding served Carnation Company as well as Oconomowoc Lumber) and although it was a rare occurrence, there still was the occasional Black monster pulling a full freight billowing the charred coal smoke that left a black dust film on our window sills, our cars, and everything else.

One of the neighbor ladies told us daily that the “railroad police” would arrest us and throw us in jail for ten years if we played on the right of way.  But play we did.  When we weren’t emptying the trash, or doing our paper routes – or some such mundane tasks. So, as I sit at my desk, I think about the lonesome sounding whistle, and how much it has been a part of our lives – yes, both Pam and I grew up on the tracks, she in Hartland, I in Oconomowoc.  Seems I was just looking the wrong direction as my eyes followed the cabooses around the Blaine St. curve.

We married, and lived for a couple of years on Hy. B in Oconomowoc (not near the tracks) then moved to Hartland, where our subdivision homes were within a few hundred feet of the same tracks. From there, we moved to Willowbrook Farm, a handsome, money pit of a “cottage” where, just across the marsh and Hy. JJ, ran the same CM StP & Pacific tracks, and I’m here to tell you that you haven’t heard a train whistle until you’ve laid in bed with the windows open and listen to the wail of the train horn amplified across the heavy air of the thousand acre marsh.  You have to resist the urge to get up and open a door to let the train come through.

We moved again, a temporary spot as we planned, four years without trains, but then to Stone Bank, where, a small farm field away, runs the old Chicago-Northwestern track, now Union Pacific, with its long uphill grade, where you can lay in bed with the windows open and hear the sissy diesel electrics labor up the long grade to the mini-divide, where it is decided whether water runs to Lake Michigan or to the Mississippi, then, having reached the divide, let it roll down hill all the way to bigger cities, where no whistle ordinances and speed limits restrict their fun.

Trains are like dirt under your finger nails – once there, they just never leave you.  To ride on one is still a treat. To watch a hundred car freight is still a wonder (yes, I still try to count cars). Still wondering where they are going, what the are hauling and what the destinations of the AmTrak passengers are.  What do those folks face when they get where they are going?  Reunions?  Mourning?  or just a joyride around America.  That sounds like fun.



Humble Confidence

Source: Humble Confidence

Humble Confidence

It’s amazing how many different kinds of people there are in the world, even my little world, and it’s even more amazing how many different ways those people react to the way the world responds to their talents, qualities, and demonstrated abilities.  I watch for these things, because there are some things that have made me aware of the differences. I’ve spent some time around some pretty big egos, and it is interesting to observe how people handle the success they have.  Sometimes, there are cases of “how far the mighty have fallen” and how those folks handle it, as well. Why do this as an exercise?  I like to just kick back and observe, pick out what I like, and hopefully apply it in my own life.

Though I’ve never been “mighty” I’ve had some less than successful experiences in my life.  I come from pretty humble beginnings, and that’s allowed me to appreciate what I have been able to achieve – or rather, WE because nothing that has been achieved could have been done without the Mother Superior (known to the rest of the world as Mom, or Pam).  As one of those egos once said of her “Now there’s a lady with a presence”.  It’s that “presence” that interests me most.

I’ve spent alot of time in public service, mostly small potatoes stuff, but met alot of people – smart people who know a lot of good stuff.  Same with my insurance career, working with and for a couple of former Governors of the State of Wisconsin, not to mention the company officers, a few of whom I had a close relationship with for many years, and remain in contact with ten years after my departure from “the company”.  I’ve had some pretty impressive clients, too, and by treating them like regular people, was able to learn a great deal.  So what’s the takeaway?

I want to keep meeting new people and renewing old friendships.  It is so great to reconnect with old friends who – just maybe, you should have been better friends with back in “the day”.  Some – not so much.  I really have a hard time with false humility, self deprecation bores me: People who have a hard time handling compliments for real accomplishments, and try to pretend it’s nothing.  Same with people who accomplish pretty average things and make like it’s a big deal.  I’m looking for some quiet confidence.  Maybe we could call it confident humility.  I want to find people who have set goals for themselves, worked hard to achieve them, and are content to celebrate alone with a fist pump and/or just a big YES! and a grin.  Not to go out looking for praise, but  when it comes, the ability to take it straight up, and just say thank you.   It’s best when the accomplishments are planned and hard won; the praise genuinely unexpected.  Thank you – a couple of my favorite words.


People Design Their Lives Around Unverifiable Ideas Masquerading as Absolute Truth

Source: People Design Their Lives Around Unverifiable Ideas Masquerading as Absolute Truth


When a freshman undergraduate at Wisconsin State University – Oshkosh, I was required to read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden for an American Literature class. The copy that we had to buy also contained Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience”. Since this was the fall of 1968, and it was Oshkosh, where the first semester was truncated by racial demonstrations and administrative and police over-reaction, the assignment was not without its sense of timing. Over the next few years, I would become pretty good at the Civil Disobedience part, but the theme and text of Walden has stayed with me. Not that I managed to simplify my life; I wanted other things too, but the trade offs were always between the simple life, and the “other” life I wanted: home, family and “stuff”.

The last 45 years have been pretty good. Home(s)- check. Family, (special wife, three great daughters and now their families, complete with fine sons-in-law, and 8 grandkids, as well) check. Respect (great job and career, community service) check. And stuff, check, check, check. Nearing permanent retirement, I never imagined I would “quit” working, but now even modest job related headaches have me wondering – “why?” I find myself thinking about the simple life – a chair (the shack at Walden pond had three – one for sitting, one for company and a third for society), a table, a cup, a bowl and a spoon. Perhaps a rug on the floor – that should be enough. Perhaps I could go and buy some artists paints and a few brushes to paint a picture of “my” Walden, whatever form that takes. Of course, I could not buy the chairs and table, I would have to make those, and I would need at least some of my tools.

I think about my time of relaxation and leisure, as my mind races. Books I have not read, ideas I have not written about, places I have not been. A pond needs a boat. I have always wanted to build one, and a friend just gave me the forms to use in building a boat that I have always dreamed of – it is a simple one, pondworthy and true, a Rangely guide boat – called a “pulling boat” for it’s man powered oars. I see the Mother Superior in the “sport” seat reading her book, with me in the guide seat, rowing – on Moose Lake perhaps, or Golden Lake – or Walden Pond. I will build it. I will need time, and a place to loft it, my friend has a big shed, and if I stay out of his way, maybe I could do it there. And, it will take more of my tools.

I still want simpler, quieter, easier. We’ve worked hard, been through alot, The boat might just be the last big project. It fits the simple life – Jeff says no motor. But a 2 1/2 would be nice, just in case I get tired, or we get caught in the rain. We wouldn’t want the Mother Superior’s book to get wet.

rangely guideboat

rangely guideboat, built by Jeff Trapp, Madison and Manitowish Waters, WI

Look again!

Junior high was pretty intense. Sometimes it all runs together, but alot of lessons were learned in those two years, as well as the year we spent in no man’s land, our freshman year, which was the last year of the old high school, and the year before they split us into two “campuses” north and south – in the same building. Sheer genius. One of those lessons has stayed with me, and surfaced numerous times as an explanation for part of the reason Iyam who Iyam!

One of our junior high teachers found a book that was a collection of essays and short stories. I remember it clearly, if not the title. It was a blue book with clouds on the cover. Honestly, I think it was a little over our heads, but he insisted that we each pick one of the entries and write about what it meant to us. I was close to last, so the picking was slim. My “selection” was an essay by Samuel Scudder (who I had never heard of) about his experience as a student of the great Harvard Paleontologist of the 1800’s, Louis Agassiz (who I had never heard of). The essay was grinding to read, because I just had no interest at the time in rocks and fossils. I read it over and over, trying to find something that related to my life or how I could apply Agassiz’s intensity to my life.

Schiller’s focus was on his observations of a specimen that he thought was thorough and complete. His examination by Agassiz consisted of relating those observations to the great teacher one on one, in an oral test. Agassiz shrugged off his detailed description with the challenge to “look again!” Schiller repeated this process over and over until Agassiz finally accepted his observations.

For some reason, that challenge has always stuck with me. Whether I am looking for an item that most closely fits a function I “need”, a principle or idea that where more clarity is needed, or a product or concept for a customer, I think I have the reputation of being relentless until I find the answer that is “just right”. In my woodworking, my approach has become more and more exacting, whether it is a piece of hardware that gives a client the function needed, one more cycle of finishing that gives a certain glow or protection level. It helps me learn, develop and be better. I am sure Agassiz would look at my results and often tell me to “look again!” but for me, I am satisfied that I must do a little more, and make the extra effort, because “good enough” mostly just isn’t.

A Friend II

Sneaking quietly into the backdoor of my life, my friend throws words at me, sending my thoughts careening off in other directions.  But I listen.  They come from a life of pain, and joy, and hardship, laughter and tears that we can understand. The wisdom comes from hard won victories, and sad losses.  Grounded in a faith and power that few know.   I know my friend, but yet I don’t.  When I think about a person sometimes in my idle time, I try to focus in one word descriptions:

















against the wind . . . all of my life!

against the wind2 I grew up in the “Lake Country” of central Waukesha County, WI.  The area is known for a couple of things: Lakes and houses around the lakes and in the general area that reflect the effect of money.  As in cash, and lots of it.  Armour, Pabst, Valentine, Bush, Eschweiler, and many more  – are part of the history of the area. Country clubs, yacht clubs, there was a lot of recreation that generated a flow of cash.   Sailing regattas that attracted folks from other states.  As kids who lived in the old Merchants Plat addition of Oconomowoc, a neighborhood of 40′ lots with railroad track frontage, our entertainment from this was to go down the street and figure out how many different states we could count license plates from.  To us, they were just the people who made our narrow streets narrower and blocked our driveways on Sunday mornings with their station wagons and trailers.

For me, living a block from Lac La Belle, a 2700 acre gem of a lake that encroaches right into the city of Oconomowoc, it could have been a mile away, except for a couple of things.  I love to fish, and I love boats of all kinds.  Our old steel rowboat, part of my dad’s inheritance from his father was our entre’ to the world of Lac La Belle.  We didn’t use it much, and I think Dad eventually sold it for scrap one time when things were tight.

As a subset of the boats, I was particularly fascinated by sailboats, and the almost obsessive passion that their owners exhibited in getting to the lake, getting the boat in the water and getting after it.  Their basic principle was foreign to me, being a kid with a passion for the internal combustion engine, on the one hand, it seemed to be much ado about nothing, but there was one thing about it that even my trusty Encyclopedia Britannica could get me to understand: sailing against the wind.  In the winter, the crazies came out – the iceboaters.  This complicated things further.  With a 20 mile an hour wind, they could go from one end of the lake to the other in what seemed like less than a minute, hitting speeds of 85 -100 miles an hour.  But they could come back pretty fast too, again, against the wind.

The situation at home dictated that I would never really be accepted in the “inner circle” of Oconomowoc’s sail boaters, water skiers and lake people, so I became something of a contrarian.  Never let it be said that I was not willing to pick up an idea and turn it over and look at the soft underbelly.   I’ve always been willing to look at another opinion, or an idea that someone else may have  or even take the side of the obvious underdog – just because.

A friend

Long lost


a soul

laid bare




we slip