Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thoughts on An Ordinary Man

Happiness, too, is inevitable.
-Camus, Rusesabagina

Evil comes
in power
in anger
in ease
in misguided neighbors
in difficult loyalties
in the shoddy quiet of despair.

He is a friendly man.
All souls are his guests.

Over cognac
over Bordeaux
over chilled beer
over the fragile fence
he considers the threats and offers.

Listening intently,
with great respect,
(refilling the glass)
he declines.

The messenger departs,

As the threats escalate

he works the little black book
of a lifetime's cognac guests:
Admonishing, pleading, demanding
one more concession of decency
one more grain of salvation
from any available soul.

Only this small thing
which you can do,
which you will always regret not doing, my good friend,
to spare my guests.

One more reprieve won
seventy days into the horror
and though he does not yet know it,
only six more to go.

A thousand souls and more
draw water from his well.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Home again, home again, jiggity jig

We are home.

Ernie walked down to his dad's house this morning.  Arrived with a shirt full of ground-fallen apples he collected on the way.  Like me, they marvel at seeing him strolling along, hands full of autumn bounty instead of crutches.  We had coffee and tea together, and gave them some pecans from Texas.

Still feeling grateful for all the people who've helped, shared the struggle, and otherwise been part of these amazing months full of hope, sweat, and grace.

Among the stories from our recent southern adventures that I haven't posted yet, Ernie competed in the Southwest Valor Games, and had the best time of the day in the 200-meter kayak race. 

The medalists in Ernie's class

Ernie circling back to cheer for his 2nd place competitor

They took lots of measurements of him walking in his old and new braces on Thursday.  Painful, but productive.  We're sort of hoping that the studies they're doing require calling him back for a follow-up, because it would be wonderful to see these folks again, and to cheer on the latest crop of intrepid participants on their road to recovery.

Pressure readings, timed measurements,
and some photo and video of the devices and his gait.
On Friday, coincidentally as a sort of graduation for us, they had a big patriotic event in San Marcos, with schoolkids, police and sherriffs' departments along with three biker clubs of veterans, and a big community-sponsored barbecue at a local airfield, following which they sent any willing wounded warriors up to skydive out of a small airplane.  Ernie liked it so much he sent me up for the final run of the day, too.

Ernie and Kimberly, and their tandem jumpers, going out to the plane.
The plane (flyby on its way to landing after a drop)

People landing who may even be Ernie and Jo
Erica, whole and grinning, back on the ground
Person landing who is very likely Erica
I don't know if you'll be able to view the video above, but it shows Ernie paddling like mad in one of the kayaks.  He's hoping to keep competing, and I am looking forward to being out on the water more as he practices.

For my next trick, though, it's past time to get our Builder's Guide out on the market.  I'm uploading the draft files to, and recruiting people to help spread the word as soon as I get our Kickstarter approved for launch.  Apparently these things go better if you pre-sell a bunch before the Kickstarter... and I'm not sure if I can promote or organize that heavily without delaying the Kickstarter itself. 

First step is to vacuum the sand out of our good camera, and/or find a local videographer, and get the campaign application finalized and submitted.  While it's processing sounds like the best time to add frosting, pre-sell, or other hoopla.

Anyone eager to fill the role of videographer, and maybe gets some gorgeous fall footage of the Okanogan in the process?

Much love, and many thanks,
Erica and Ernie

Saturday, October 11, 2014

IDEO in action

Ernie's first flight without crutches or wheelchair, returning to San Antonio for the final few weeks of training and fitting with his new IDEO brace.

Kayaks for practice

On the San Antonio at moonrise
Erica trying a racing kayak (tippy!)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Paddling in the sun

Ernie's getting comfortable in the racing kayak

Olympic kayaker Ben Kvanli lives in San Marcos (where the weather is suitable for boating all year round).  On Mondays he helps out at the Center for the Intrepid, coaching injured service members and veterans on kayaks and float-boards in their little swimming pool.    On Thursdays he invites veterans and a whole flotilla of experienced paddlers along on various river paddling trips - from shooting man-made rapids to exploring big broad reaches like this one near Austin.

Ben's back yard drops off to a convenient landing on the San Marcos river.  Ben's in-laws live in the area too. His lovely wife teaches third grade, and they are getting ready to start a family.  (Seems kind of like an alternate-universe version of what our life might have been like, except for them being very different people and very much themselves. Despite our lovely experiences here, I don't see Arctic Ernie voluntarily moving to Texas full-time.)

If we do "make it" back to where Ernie has the luxury of boating on a daily basis, we also hope to give back like they do.  I'd love to have weekly outings where kids, families, veterans, people of all kind can come together on the water.

If working with earth is "grounding," playing in the water seems to help get things flowing again.  Issues work themselves out - trust, confidence, body movement.  You start to regain a sense of rhythm, balance, and choice.  Staying balanced above your boat is a matter of constant adjustment, which soon becomes unconscious.

Yulia, my adventure buddy
(second time in a kayak, ever - first time solo.  Brave girl.)

(Watching my adventure-buddy Yulia learning to handle her boat solo reminded me that it's definitely an acquired art!  The first few times for anyone, you're usually nervous, which means most people tense up awkwardly, which of course means you have more difficulty balancing and tend to over-compensate with jerky movements.  The water will teach you fairly quickly just how useless such anxiety really is.  The more you tense up, the worse things go.  The more you relax, and learn to make smooth, powerful gestures in tune with your surroundings, the more freedom and success you experience.  Julia is a fast learner, and is starting to smile as we poke around and explore the river.) 

Once you can trust your balance and your boat, it's hard to beat the feeling of being buoyed up and supported, and the freedom and speed of gliding along as fast as you care to go.   Even if you stop paddling, the boat keeps going - there's a relationship, an elasticity, between the effort you put in and the return that rewards you.
Wading birds don't leave a river
just because it is full of plastic trash...
it's not like they can go to the fish market instead.
Our landing zone, and more lush greenery

We saw fishing birds, heard something (bats?) overhead going under the bridge decks.  I paddled along with Yulia for a while, then she and her husband Jon had some quality time while I poked around looking for wildlife.   Ernie and Ben had started chatting while they paddled and just glided off into the distance, easily leaving the rest of us behind.

It reminded me how far I've come from some of the early adventures with the Portland skin-on-frame crowd.  During one trip on the Willamette, our boat-provider started racing upstream with some of the other guys, and I felt like I was being left behind and tried to keep up.  For half-a-dozen strokes I was gaining speed and almost keeping up, and then I dumped the boat as hard as I've ever dumped a boat.  I got out, found my paddle, and got one arm around the partially-swamped boat and started towing it toward the nearest dock, which happened to be the OMSI one by the submarine.  The last little paddler in the group followed me, not sure what she could do to help (being even less experienced in water rescue than I was).  I was almost all the way to the dock before the speedy guys up ahead noticed that we were not following, and eventually came back over to see if we were OK.  Ernie was not along on that trip, since he'd already dumped the boat they had for him a couple of times starting out, and it just wasn't working well enough to be worth struggling with.  Those kinds of experiences tended to make me feel like I was not doing so well - and I definitely did not feel like I could trust or count on the more advanced paddlers in that particular group.

But in Texas, I was reminded that struggling to keep up with experienced whitewater and blue-water (open ocean) kayakers is pretty intensive training.  I started out by just asking for the open boats (the ones that you can't get stuck in if you flip them, recommended for novices), because I have never learned to Eskimo-roll, and I've always thought that was a prerequisite to being a "real" kayaker.
On the second trip out, Ben needed to swap an over-ambitious veteran into an easier boat, and asked Ernie if he thought I could handle being in a closed boat.  Ernie replied "sure," and seemed to think I could handle most any boat he had available.  By the end of our time together, I tried one of the racing kayaks, and seemed impressed when I handled it without dumping even once.  Apparently, dumping your boat is a normal part of learning to kayak.

The occasional bath doesn't seem to bother Ernie, or stop him from training, except that he gets frustrated if he can't help dumping the boat when he's trying to practice something else.  The IDEO doesn't fit in the boats, so it's all dependent on his ability to compensate and balance for that injured leg.  And whether he's wet or dry certainly doesn't affect my respect for Ernie's athletic abilities. 

I still think I should try to learn eskimo-rolls at some point, and I am still intimidated by them. (I never did learn to swim fast enough for crawl-stroke breathing to work out for me; I have a hard time trusting myself enough to perform precision maneuvers underwater that have to be completed before I can breathe again.) But as long as I get to keep my head above water while I swim, or stay on top of the boat, I'm having fun.

I tend not to want to stop when we're out here on the water.  Eventually you might get hungry, but we usually grab some drinks and snacks on the way out, and stay perfectly content for as long as the day may last.

Monday, September 8, 2014

IDEO progress

Ernie's new brace
 So this is what Ernie's new brace looks like.
He is not only walking without crutches after 8 years on them .... he is having important quality-of-life experiences like putting dishes away, taking out the trash, carrying food and coffee around.  (And other fun stuff, below.)

There's still a lot of leg-elevation time between activities. Swelling, dings and dents, etc. 

Ernie says everybody has seen him sitting around with his leg up, so here are some pictures of the fun stuff we've enjoyed over the past month.

This visiting therapy dog,
I'm told, is a Great Pyranees. 
Is this what they all look like in Texas? 
You'd have to see a highland Great Pyranees,
in all its wooly glory,
to fully appreciate the amount of shedding implied.
Here's a breed standard Great Pyranees,
still not as shaggy as the Highland working dogs I've seen.

This is what cows look like in Texas.
Ernie's second kayak outing

Erica trying the climbing tower as well.

Challenge course climbing - the knee
still doesn't bend as much as he'd like,
but that doesn't stop him.

Top of the climbing tower: nice view.
Zipline.  Just because.

Exploring Mission San Jose over the weekend.
We'll be going almost straight from here to Missoula, MT for the Innovators' Gathering.  There's one ticket left as of yesterday. 

I'll post more pictures of the 1700's Mission architecture we explored over the weekend, along with a longer video, next post.

-Erica and Ernie

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ernie walking, video

Ernie walking around and enjoying one of the restored walls in the Mission San Jose.  It may not load fast for those of us with mountain-grown Internet, but here's a short video.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A new IDEO

Picture: inside Ernie's lower leg:
Just returned from a trip to San Antonio to check out a new type of leg brace for Ernie.

As most readers know, Ernie was hit by a car in 2006, and has mostly been on crutches since then.  The damage was considerable (a compound crush injury at about 40 mph), and most of the expected healing has already happened. Latest X-rays show more bone healing, but Ernie still has shards of fused bone from the original accident and new growth, and very painful sensations of movement in the break area.  Problems with pain, mobility, and circulation continue, and in some cases have worsened despite ongoing care.

The leg brace he currently uses allows him to walk and weight-bear with only one crutch, meaning he can carry a cup of coffee or do some mobile work.  But the brace is designed to support by compression, meaning it cuts off circulation return from his leg.  Circulation return is already not great; further restrictions cause a lot of pain, and a buildup of blood and fluid below the brace cuff.  This limits the useful hours in the current brace to one or two a day, with several hours of foot elevation for recovery.  And there are certain things he just can't do easily in the brace, like rotate his foot into the passenger seat of a car.  This brace is a pretty standard approach for an injury like Ernie's, with instability in both ankle and knee.
current brace-
exterior carbon-fiber
cut back from skin graft.

Current brace-
interior side cut back (bone spurs).
Current brace
(Laces up like a corset.)

Mock-up for new brace:
hinged top allows easier entry and removal,
plus more rigid, firm-tissue support. 
Clear plastic behind contoured wings
will be replaced with carbon-fiber flex rods.
The new type of brace is designed for athletic movement; it's extensively used in the Return to Run program for active service members rehabilitating with a brace or prosthetic.  The IDEO uses carbon-fiber elements to provide some spring function, which can be tailored to specific activities like walking and running, cycling, or rowing. They offload the weight using molded supports fitting around hard tissue near the knee, with better results for circulation and force transfer.  Similar to how a prosthetic attaches to an amputated limb.
The foot-plate is full length, limiting kneeling postures, but that hasn't been an option for Ernie for years anyway.

IDEO w/ clip-on knee support
( from
Above, Ernie is trying on a thermal-plastic mock up.  The actual brace will look more like this:
IDEO brace

Fitting the template.
The Center for the Intrepid, which produces these braces and a number of excellent prosthetics, is impressive.  Nice facility, super-dedicated staff, participants who like Ernie are basically unstoppable (not immortal, just don't see any excuse to quit).  Many return to active service with their new limbs or braces.  For the past year the center has also been helping service veterans for whom this technology was not available at the time of their injury.

The CFI serves a lot of people any given week, usually over 100, with multiple appointments for each.  Most fittings and adjustments are done during morning and afternoon walk-in hours, where the head prosthetist and several assistants work with anyone whose brace needs adjustment.  We  met a Road to Recovery cyclist trying out a cycling-adapted IDEO brace, some guys who'd cracked theirs over the weekend playing soccer on a basketball court, and other folks getting specific adjustments for fit, stability, hot spots, and other issues.  Every brace is custom-fit and altered as needed to fit the particular injury and range of desired motion.  Most participants leave with their custom brace and a duplicate, so that broken braces can be sent back for repairs without interrupting normal activity.

The VA is picking up most of the medical costs, and the CFI coordinator helped us connect with the Fisher House and the Bob Woodruff Foundation to alleviate some of the other costs of the trip.  Both are good places to donate frequent-flyer miles if you have some that might expire.

We experienced warm welcome for veterans and military families everywhere we went locally.  Lots of very young, very athletic service members keeping their chins up as they adapt to a new range of activity.  We met some folks at the Fisher House whose family were in the BAMC's world-class burn ward as well.  Not what you'd prefer to have in common with people, a life-altering injury and all the uncertainties that go with recovery, but heartwarming to have the mutual support.

Lizard with a pink throat.
Flowering tree- crepe myrtle?
The BAMC Fisher House dorm mother decided Ernie is her "Crocodile Dundee."  (Was it the all-weather Dorfman hat, the fishing vest with pockets upon pockets, or the stubbly chin?)

While we did not manage to cook up a lizard on a stick for her during this visit, we enjoyed exploring the Southern flora and fauna between appointments.

 This is just what we saw between the CFI and hospital on a daily basis.  There are a lot of other on-campus gardens, the river walk, and the historic Mission Trail to explore on our next visit.
Mystery bird -
acts & sounds kinda like a crow or jay,
size between the two, black/brown feathers.
 No matter how pretty, however, we're just as happy to be home for a few weeks before returning to start the training and customization process.   Ernie doesn't care for the muggy heat, but it beats being on fire, and also beats slick ice when you're learning a whole new range of motion.

We are looking forward to seeing what these guys can do for / with Ernie.  It does not sound like they are going to be satisfied with "better" if they can achieve "good" or "excellent."  And they have a whole bank of Ernie's favorite type of rowing machines.

both Ernie and the cats are glad he's home.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Innovators Gathering in Montana

So for this year's Rocket Mass Heaters workshop in Montana, our friend Paul is launching the Innovators' Gathering.

He asked us to nominate 4 remarkable innovators who've done neat things with rocket mass heaters.  These 4 people will be invited to attend the entire event as guests.

Things start with our tried-and-true, cob-style rocket mass heater workshop Sept. 19-21.   Then from the 22nd through 26th, we have a "Pyronaut's Laboratory" where all 4 (or 6, or 7, depending how you count us) get to play and innovate. Paul's providing workshop space, materials, and inviting his crew and other interested folks to serve as "minions." We anticipate the challenge and inspiration of working alongside other innovators may lead us in some unexpected new directions.

If this sounds like a wonderful time to you, well, come!  Tickets are still available to be a student for the weekend workshop, or if you have prior rocket experience you might just want to sign on as a "minion" during the week-long Pyronautics Laboratory session.  There's a combined rate to be there for the whole thing.

We had a hard time narrowing the field down.  There are at least a dozen people we know doing good work in this space, and that's not counting the ones we don't know about. 

We thought about who we'd like to meet.  Who has done something uniquely interesting - or fulfilled a frequent request in a particularly robust way.  When people ask us for something we haven't done yet, who do we send them to?

We tried to balance different talents and personalities for creative ferment.  The "who we'd like to meet" category tended to favor people from further away; those who might not consider attending if they had to cover both travel and ticket costs. 

And of course, those who publish their results on YouTube, or spend time on the (or ProBoards) forums, are most likely to catch our attention in the first place.  We also paid attention to the suggestions people made from our mailing list.

Finally we picked an A list and a B list, and started contacting people.

We are extremely excited that most of A-list said "yes," they plan to attend.  Here, in alpha order, are the 4 confirmed guests:

Tim Barker:
A long-time permie from Australia and New Zealand, Tim built the most robust rocket water-heater that we've seen.  The design uses minimal parts, no electronics, yet safely controls water temperature and vents off steam pressure, and allows students and interns to produce their own hot water for showers with minimal instruction or experience. 

You can see Geoff Lawton explain the water-heater setup here on YouTube; Tim has also written up the project, and answers questions, in.
this article at
It's not his first rocket rodeo, neither. Tim's work seems like interesting hybrids of rocket mass heater (J-style) firebox, but with a flexibility more customary with rocket cookstove fans.  Here's a rocket-powered oven:

Peter van den Berg:
A masonry heater scientist, Peter has been testing subtle refinements to the rocket mass heaters' firebox, getting the performance and emissions tuned-in to run from start to finish without a puff of smoke.  He also designed a cast-refractory firebox using these improvements for the DragonHeater folks.  Peter is a regular contributor on both the ProBoards and forums.  We hope he will be able to bring his Test-O Meter and other toys.
A sample PeterBerg post from Proboards -

Chris McClellan:
A bit of a dark horse from Ohio, we got to meet Chris in 2012 and have heard updates from mutual friends at the Strawbale Studio and privately.  Chris has been playing with small-scale heater hybrids like his woodstove-mass-heaters for smaller spaces and portable locations (like a school bus).  Chris is also very active with Mother Earth News, and print-on-demand resources for natural building; he has a depth of knowledge about who's doing what in the natural building world that leads to very interesting hybrid projects using reclaimed or conventional materials alongside robust natural building methods.
Woodstove mass heater ("It works ... sort of.")
8" rocket mass heater  (with reclaimed cast-refractory components, below)
Bus stove with bum warmer

Matt Walker:
One of the relative locals, Matt was the first person to publicly solve the flame-viewing window ... and the second as well, with two different heaters using different materials, and featuring a mini-oven and a modified cooktop vent.  He's also submitted a variation called "Walker stoves" to efficient wood-heating competition, and posted about other experiments on YouTube and the forums. ,

This get-together is going to be a memorable lot of fun.


In other news:
- Ernie will be going to San Antonio shortly to be fitted for a new, dynamic leg brace that might put him literally back in the running this fall.  We are trying not to get our hopes up too much, as there will still be pain and circulation issues to manage, but we hope that the brace will be in good working order by September and allow Ernie more hours on his feet.

- The Carleton Complex (wildland fire) is burning along Hwy 97 about an hour south of us, yet so far westerly winds are keeping our days almost smoke-free.  We are checking the InciWeb periodically for updates:
I'm not yet fully trained as a firefighter for our local volunteer fire department, so we're just trying to stay informed, and replace worry with action whenever we think of something useful to do: weed-whacking, tidy up the clutter around the house, etc.  Right now the local weather remains clear, breezy, with only a hint of smoke to the south south-west (spectacular sunsets and moon-rises).  The biggest impact on a daily level is that I'm milking goats for a neighbor who has been deployed "on resource" with one of our local water-tender trucks.

- The irrigation well is back on line (last winter's hard freeze damaged the well itself, but the repairs didn't take long once we got the right folks on the job).  Running water, hot showers, and plenty of water for the garden.

- Strawberries, cherries, and peas are in season up here, and tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, and various berries down in the valley.  I got to play "substitute farmer" last week, trying to keep up with Leaping Sheep's abundant production for almost a week while the owners took a family trip.  This week I've been milking goats and braiding garlic.  Very country!

the smoke ascending, it seem to reach the sky

The clouds of smoke over the wildfires to the south of us are making their own weather.  Heat from the fire drives convection currents upwards, making the classic "caulflower" shapes in the smoke (same as cumulous clouds, except dirtier).

("I saw the smoke ascending, it seemed to reach the sky/
.. till all my strength had left me, and all my courage too" are lines from Texas Rangers, performed by Tex Ritter among others, lyrics have been attributed to Richard Shindell or .  Though in the case of wild fires, the conclusion "you'd better stay at home" will only help if your home is someplace green and humid, far away.  Wild fires and the extreme weather that's increased their ferocity in recent years are far more implacable than the fiercest warrior; wars are avoidable, but even if we gave up all our combustion-driven toys and spark-producing tools, we'd still be facing lightning-lit fires across these Western landscapes in dry summer weather.)

Smoke column with lenticular cloud
In this image you can see a "lenticular cloud," sometimes called a mountain cloud or lens cloud, the little bent wisp above the main cloud.  This type of cloud is formed when air is forced upward (usually as it passes over a mountain rainge), causing little droplets of water or crystals of ice to form in the bands of air.  I believe it's because the air gets chilled, and the pressure drops, as it's forced upward - if there was almost enough moisture to make a cloud, and you change the conditions to make it a little easier to form a cloud, then you get a little cloud where those conditions are different.  You will often see similar lens-clouds hovering over mountains like UFOs.
This is looking south from the parking lot at the grocery store.  I ran into our current fire chief, and he said he thought those kinds of clouds only formed way high up in the atmosphere - meaning this smoke column is getting really tall.

Smoke column with drift smoke
Still seeing the smoke column growing this evening, over larger hills, on my way home.  There are also bands of 'drift smoke,' which has cooled enough to sink but is not ready to fall out of the sky yet, lower down.  Drifting smoke can stay in the air for days or weeks, making it hard to see what's going on with the fire (or anything else), and making a lot of people nervous so the fire department gets more false alerts.

(Of course, fire fighters would much rather get a false alert than sit on our hands while you wait for the fire to get big enough to be sure.... but it would be even better for everyone if we had some nice, gentle rain to wash the smoke out of the sky, leaving us a clear field of view and better chances of controlling any remaining fires.)

While all this is going on, our little rural fire department is sending a truck or two to help with the efforts on the big fires.  I'm babysitting Karen's goats, while she's off running with the fire crews.  Lots of goat milk!  Lots of curious noses!