Monday, September 29, 2014

That Bleepin’ Beepin’

Please listen to this sound and see if you can identify it. Or, if your mouse finger is exhausted, just imagine it: four brief, electronic beeps. You hear them constantly.

If you guessed it’s the sound of my microwave letting me know my chocolate is hot, you’re right! Nice going.

But maybe you figured it’s the sound of our washing machine letting us know the cycle is finished and we can move the wet clothes to the dryer. Or maybe you thought it is the sound of the dryer telling us that the current load is dry and the clothes can be taken out to make room for the next load from the washing machine, which will make the same sound when it’s done. And you’d be right! And right!

Or maybe you thought the oven is telling us it has preheated, or that the self-cleaning is done, and you know what? You’d be right!

You’re really good at this.

When I hear that sound, I have no idea what it is. You know what makes a sound I can identify? Our cell phones. Because cell phones have let you customize sounds since way back before my wife’s current phone was engineered.

(My wife hates new phones. She likes the one she’s used to. She has a clamshell from about 1996 that still does what she wants to do with a phone – talk on it – perfectly well. It makes sounds that are unlike any other sounds my phone our our home or our cars make. We never have to ask, “What was that?” when her phone rings. Of course, the downside is that every time she pulls the thing out of her purse even complete strangers look at me like I’m Michael Vick or Ray Rice and ask, “Why won’t you let your wife have a modern phone?”)

I’m sorry, where was I?

When I get a voice call on my iPhone, it plays the lead riff from Stairway to Heaven. I like it so much that I often let Jimmy finish before I answer. Hate to interrupt a masterpiece. 

No matter how hard I try, I cannot convince our microwave oven to play Led Zeppelin when it’s done. Heck, I can’t even get our microwave oven to play Meatloaf.

Instead, it beeps. Precisely like the oven and the clothes dryer. And the message waiting indicator on the answering machine. Same pitch, same number of beeps at the same frequency.

Maybe you guessed the answering machine. Yep, you win.

Today I drove my wife’s Prius for the first time in a long while. When I put it in reverse, I knew instantly that I was backing up because it started beeping. You see, studies show that Prius drivers can’t tell when they’re moving backward, so Toyota had to add that beeper to warn them. Apparently, they don’t notice that things in front of them are getting farther away instead of closer, I don’t know.

It wasn’t a big deal for Toyota to add the beeper, because apparently every product manufacturer on the face of the earth uses the same beeper component from a factory in China because they can get them for like, ten for a nickel.

Now, when the Prius beeped, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t the clothes dryer, though it might’ve been a warning that I left the lights on. It sounds exactly the same. This beep, when in a car, means that there is something you should be aware of, but you really have no clue what that might be or how urgent it might be. Maybe you’re backing up or maybe the engine just fell out of the car. 

Same sound.

The problem I had with the Prius beep is that my Lexus beeps in exactly the same way, but not when I am merely backing up. (Apparently, Lexus Hybrid drivers can tell when they’re moving backward.) The Lexus does beep, however, when someone is approaching perpendicular to me as I back up, in an effort to warn me that I am about to back out in front of someone. So, when I’m driving one of our cars in reverse, the beeping either lets me know that “reverse” means “backwards”, or that I am about to be struck by an approaching vehicle or pedestrian in one of the rear quarter panels, depending on which car I'm in.

Same sound.

Our European-brand dishwasher beeps in exactly the same way when it finishes. I don’t know why.

Europeans aren’t into the “dry the dishes” thing, it not being eco-friendly, so the beep doesn’t signal the dishes are dry. It means, “I’m through washing the dishes but they are still too hot to handle and besides, they’re still pretty wet so don’t do anything for a while. Oh, you might want to turn off this meaningless beeper, because I will keep beeping until I drive you insane if you don’t.”

Good to know.

So, if you guessed that sound was a backing Prius, endangered Lexus or meaningless message from a European dishwasher, you’d be right!

Except that it might have also been the smoke detectors. Smoke detectors are easily distinguishable by their volume, even though they make the same damned beep, but there are usually more than one and finding the one that’s beeping can be a challenge.  They say, “There may be a fire somewhere in the house. Just try and find it.”

Smoke detector manufacturers created an insidious version of the ubiquitous, "generic product beep" to indicate when the battery is dying. It’s loud enough to be heard, but just barely. And it’s beep is so brief that it is nearly impossible to find. We finally settled on the strategy of standing by each smoke alarm for several minutes until we hear the beep, like a hiding ghost, from somewhere else in the house. Then we mark this one off the list.

We have maybe 6 or 8 smoke alarms. I can change the batteries in all of them in less time than it takes to find the one that’s beeping because it actually needs a new battery.

The beeps are generally helpful, I suppose. Anytime I hear one, I know that it is not a cell phone and therefore it must be a smoke alarm, oven, dishwasher, clothes washer, clothes dryer, computer, iPad, answering machine, Prius in reverse, Lexus in harm’s way or microwave oven. And I know that it is signaling either something totally meaningless or something deadly urgent.

There is something, I should add, somewhere in our home that beeps from time to time and that we have never been able to identify. Then it just stops. For days. Hope it’s not important.

What I’m asking of manufacturers of any kind of product, I suppose, is would it freakin’ kill you to use a beeper that’s a little different than every other one on the planet?

Gotta run now. Something’s beeping somewhere.

Could be important. Maybe not.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pullet Laureate

I met a nice family over in Carrboro last week.

Carrboro is a separate town, but no one knows for sure where Chapel Hill ends and Carrboro starts. It starts roughly over there by the car wash. In fact, no one at the car wash knows which fire department they should call if the place ever catches on fire, but they don't worry about it a lot because, well, it's a car wash. 

When business is slow, they sit on the bench out front, watch cars drive from Carrboro into Chapel Hill and vice versa, though they're never really sure when the car has actually made the transition ("Reckon that red Chevy is in Chapel Hill, yet? How 'bout that blue hybrid?"), and cogitate on the fire department question.

Anyway, this family I met raises chickens in their backyard ― it's a "thang" over there in Carrboro. The town council approved it. 

Carrboro is serious about raising chickens. Every year they have a big parade and select a Pullet Laureate.

You can't raise chickens in Chapel Hill. In fact, if it isn't free range and certifiably organic, you're not even supposed to eat one here. That's why we eat in Carrboro a lot. People eat fried chicken over there every day of the week and never ask to see the chicken's papers.

Back to my story, though, this family I met realized that when school starts they will need help with the chickens, so they were looking around for someone to come by once or twice a day and check to see that they have plenty of feed and water. A family from Chechnya had recently moved into the neighborhood and they have a 15-year old son who said he'd love a part-time job. They hired the kid on the spot and now claim to be the only family in North Carolina with a Chechen chicken checker.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Jake and Dinah

My grandfather loved fiercely.

Being loved fiercely is a blessing and a curse. It brings tremendous comfort and security and, at times, it smothers until you push back, fiercely, and scream, if only in your head.

Grandpa ran a sawmill in my earliest memories. He picked me up on his way to work many mornings and I would spend much of the day playing in the woods or meeting workers like "Uncle Albert", who apparently had no last name and was probably someone's uncle, though not mine.

Uncle Albert ran the mill, a giant, spinning saw blade taller than me at age five and rotated by a strap looped around the blade axle at one end and the power take-off of a regular farm tractor at the other. I was too young to notice the make of the tractor, but it was red, so I'm guessing maybe it was an International Harvester Farmall.

I think some Massey-Fergusons were red, too, so maybe it wasn't a Farmall. Theoretically, someone might have painted any brand tractor red, but painting a tractor is not something that would ever occur to most country folk. The tractor they used to pull logs was a gray Ford. That, I remember.

A saw mill smells like fresh cut wood, but also like tractor exhaust, and the gasoline and oil from large chain saws and sweat. Mostly, saw mills are loud. When the saw is not cutting, there is the ever-present sound of a tractor running nearby and the sound of chain saws cutting trees in the woods and occasionally the crack of a tree trunk, like a rifle shot, as it breaks off and hinges to the ground. All of this is drowned out by the high-pitched squeal of the saw when a log is being cut.
You will have no doubt noticed that tree trunks are round and boards are rectangular. Trimming one into the other leaves behind scraps called "slabs". Grandpa's saw mill had enormous piles of slabs (enormous at least to a five-year old) and I often sat on them to watch the show.

My Dad and two uncles worked at the mill from time to time. Grandpa had the Ford tractor to pull felled trees from the woods to the mill but he used a mule named Old George to pull logs from places where the tractor couldn't go. They’d hook George to the log and follow along beside it holding long, leather traces and yelling “gee” and “haw” to guide the mule right and left.

(I once asked a country boy how he got the bruise on his head and he responded, “I gee’d when I should'a hawed.”)

One might imagine that having a five-year old wander around a saw mill with giant saw blades, tractors, mules, chain saws galore and falling trees would be dangerous, and it was, but not more so than riding around in my grandfather's white Rambler, standing unconstrained by seat belts next to him on the front bench seat, my left arm around his shoulder and sucking on my right thumb as we drove down mostly unpaved roads.

The car rides weren't as dangerous as they might sound. We didn't have child car seats, seat belts or air bags, but every time his foot touched the brake, his right arm flew up to stop me from falling forward. Plus, I had my arm around his neck. I doubt I have ever, in my life, felt more safe.

One of the dirt roads we drove a lot was Niles Row Road from the mill into Dawson. Nearing the paved road was the sharpest S-curve I have ever known, running up one of the steepest hills I have ever driven. It straightened and leveled off after only fifty or sixty feet, but it was one of those hills that required shifting the three-speed column shifter into first gear and climbing slowly, while visibility was limited to about a car length by the S-curve.

Standing in the middle of the front bench seat, for me it was the fun part of the drive. Unfortunately, Grandpa's log trucks had to take the same curve and hill to get the cut timbers to the lumber dealer in Dawson.

One day, my Dad drove a load of lumber into town. The old truck had been overloaded a bit and the timbers hung too far off the back, balancing most of the load's weight behind the rear wheels. As Dad started creeping up the steep incline in first gear, the front wheels of the truck slowly rose into the air until the trailing end of the timbers rested on the ground behind the truck like a fat kid had just hopped on the other end of a seesaw. 

Someone got word to my grandfather back at the mill and he drove to the curve to assess the damage. The truck sat at the bottom of the hill with both front wheels three feet off the ground and its grill pointing to the sky.

Dad climbed down from the cab and approached his father-in-law with a sheepish look on his face.

Grandpa just looked at the scene and began to laugh.

I guess because I was the first grandchild, I spent more time with my grandparents than my own parents growing up, even through high school. The concepts of parents and grandparents are intertwined and inseparable in my mind to this day. It isn't something I've ever felt a need to untangle.

Years after the sawmill was shut down and Grandpa became a high school teacher and basketball coach, he planted a garden where the mill once stood. Off to the side at the edge of the woods, I could still see pieces of the old mill and rotting slab piles when I went with him to plant or harvest.

He decided to build a cabin on Niles Row Road and the old dirt track that used to lead out to the mill now connected the cabin with his garden. Niles Row was covered with the shacks of dirt-poor farmers, all of whom Grandpa knew by name. When he moved to town to teach, one of them kept Old George for him.

Some of his friends in town tried to talk him out of building out there.

"That's a nice piece of land," they'd say, "but I wouldn't want to drive past all those shacks every day to get to it."

"I know exactly what you mean," he'd tell them. "I often think how much better Dawson would look if I didn't have to drive by those shacks every day to get to town."

It took many years to complete the cabin. After the concrete block foundation was built, Grandpa drove me out to see it. He lifted me up so I could walk all around the top of the block wall and he explained where the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living room would be. I was too young to envision what he described, but it was fun to balance on the wall with him standing next to me in case I fell (he would always be standing next to me in case I fell). What I remember most is the distinctive smell of new concrete blocks and cement.

About that time, grandpa bought two bird dog pups, Jake and a bitch named Dinah, from the same litter. Dinah disappears in my memory and I have no idea what became of her, but she wasn't around long. Perhaps she ran off, or was hit by a car, but I prefer to think Grandpa gave her away.

Jake was acquired for the purpose of becoming a quail hunting dog. Grandpa loved to hunt quail, but Bobwhite quail were on the wane in Kentucky. They had expanded their range after several warm winters, but the cold finally got them. They can't scratch through snow to find food. The call of a Bobwhite quail is burned into the memory of my childhood.

Dinah was almost solid white but Jake had typical bird dog markings and that typical goofy bird dog personalty. Instead of wagging his tail, he wagged the entire rear half of his body. When we'd go on walks, Jake would stay within sight but run constantly in giant circles to nowhere in particular.

Nonetheless, Jake made a great pet and my grandfather loved him fiercely, as he did everyone in his life. After the cabin was finished (well, mostly finished, aluminum siding didn't cover the tar paper exterior for a couple more years and hardwood floors didn't cover the half-inch gaps in the plank subfloor for a while), Jake would lie on the cabin floor in front of the fireplace on cold nights, though he was mostly an outdoor dog.

When you love someone fiercely, I suppose being over-protective is part of the deal. As I grew, Grandpa worried when I went fishing or swimming. Lord knows I didn't dare tell him I sometimes borrowed Billy's Honda motorcycle to cruise around town.

After I had married and moved away, I flew from Washington to Ocean City in a friend's small plane for a day at the beach. I don't know how he found out about it, but the next time we visited the first thing he said to me was, "Son, I'd appreciate it if you'd stay out of small planes."

(He always called me "son", so I guess maybe the relationship was a bit tangled for him, too.)

Sometimes the cautions made me want to scream. Not that they weren't warranted, mind you.

He taught at my high school, so Grandpa and I went home together every day for lunch. One snowy day as we got up from the table and headed back to school, he warned me that the back stoop was covered with ice. “Careful on those steps, they’re slippery.”

I shook my head and rolled my eyes.

 “Don’t worry,” I assured him. “I never fall.”

I walked out the back door and immediately fell hard on the concrete, ripping my pants leg and cutting my shin.

“You’d better clean that up and change pants,” he told me calmly, but I was too mad at myself for that.

“I’m fine,” I insisted and I went back to school with a big tear in the front leg of my trousers, blood covering the tear, and a bigger tear in my ego. For the rest of his life, any time he cautioned me against something and I assured him that I would be OK, he’d shrug and say, “I never fall."

He fretted when I graduated from college because I didn't stay and get my masters degree. He was the first college graduate in our family and the first to earn his Masters. He worried that once I started working, I wouldn't return to school. I promised him that I would get mine as soon as possible and I did, though not for ten years.

Grandpa would wake up several times in the night and walk around the house making sure that the lights were still off and the doors all locked from when he had last checked a couple of hours earlier. He was particularly careful to check that the steam iron hadn't replugged itself into the wall. Sometimes he'd wake me tucking in the covers around me because I had thrown them off in my sleep. And that was in high school.

It didn't seem to matter that I had kicked them off because I was hot.

When I visited from college four hours away, he insisted that I call the instant I was back on campus to let him know I had arrived safely. Once I forgot and received a frantic phone call several hours later. "I've been worried sick," he'd tell me.

When Grandpa moved away from Dawson, he didn't have a place to keep Jake. His best friend and cousin, Thomas, agreed to take care of the dog.

Two years later, Grandpa decided he couldn't be away from Jake any longer. He brought Jake home and attached a leash to a dog run in the back yard. We didn't have a pen and he was afraid that Jake, unaccustomed to living in town, might run into traffic.

Jake, the bird dog that never had the chance to live up to that role, was a great pet but a terrible town dog. He dug huge holes, a foot and more deep, all over the backyard under his run. Still, Grandpa loved that dog and when he wasn't walking him, he'd sit in the chair at the end of the kitchen table and stare out the window into the backyard to watch Jake.

My grandfather bought a croquet set and my friends went on a binge. Momentarily distracted from the basketball goal at the end of our driveway where we usually lived morning, noon and night, we played croquet every day for a month or so that summer.

I grew quite angry with my friend, neighbor and classmate, Paul, over those games, probably because he always beat me, but one day I devised a plan to get even. I went to Jake's deepest hole and dug it a little deeper, then dug a tunnel sideways from the bottom. The next time I got a chance to "send" Paul's croquet ball, I aimed for the hole. The ball dropped down it and along the tunnel, completely out of sight.

I began laughing and all my friends came over to stare down into the miniature abyss. To my dismay, Paul began laughing, too.

"Why are you laughing," I asked. "How are you going to get your ball out of that?"

"I don't have to," he explained. "It's your croquet set."

As fall approached, Grandpa sat in his familiar dining room table chair, staring out the back window at Jake, and wondering how he would deal with the coming cooler nights of fall. This shouldn't have been a major problem for Jake, who had always been an outdoor dog, but Grandpa decided to buy a doghouse.

Not just any doghouse would be good enough for Jake, so Grandpa asked someone at the local lumber company to build him one. It was the nicest doghouse I have ever seen.

Grandpa insisted that it be insulated and the outside and inside were covered with a seamless exterior paneling like Masonite.  It had a perfectly-fitted door that was hinged at the top.

Jake would only sleep in that doghouse one night.

Grandpa sat at the window the next morning and noticed that his bird dog hadn't come out of the doghouse. He began to worry, so we walked out to the house, calling to Jake.

That perfectly crafted doghouse had been built airtight, unintentionally, of course.

Maybe the hinged door had stuck closed and Jake couldn't get air. Or maybe Jake had just fallen asleep and didn’t wake up.


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Dirk Cotton is a retired executive of a Fortune 500 technology company. Since retiring in 2005, he has researched and published papers on retirement finance, spoken at retirement industry conferences and events, and regularly posted on retirement finance issues at his blog, The Retirement Cafe. He is currently a Thought Leader at APViewpoint, Advisor Perspectives' online community of  investment advisors and financial planners. He provides retirement planning advice as a fee-only financial planner.

Mr. Cotton holds an undergraduate degree in computer science from the University of Kentucky, an MBA from Marymount University, and a certificate in financial planning from Boston University.

He and his family currently reside in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He loves to spend time with his family, fly fish, shoot sporting clays, attend college baseball games, sail, follow the Wildcats, and write.

Dirk holds a bachelor's degree in computer science from the University of Kentucky, an MBA from Marymount University, and a certificate in financial planning from Boston University.  He attended high school in Elizabethtown, Kentucky.