10 Really Good Things

We shouldn’t want a lot of things in this life. Consumerism’s bad for the soul. All the spiritual masters agree: materialism bad, minimalism good.

So if you can find a few really good things, it can save you a lot of money and energy casting about for other things you don’t really need. If managed right, quality can trump quantity. I’ll take 10 A+ things over 500 B- things. So with apologies to Oprah, layered upon her apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein, I have a few Favorite Things too, and, for the benefit of all mankind, here they are:

1. The “Boonie” or “Bora Bora” or “explorer” or “trail” or “sun” hat (Mine’s by Columbia). There’s no getting around it: I’m going bald. I also live at 30 degrees of latitude, same as Cairo, which means I simply have to wear a hat most of the time I’m outside. So I’m quickly getting acquainted with the pros and cons of our myriad hat choices, and this is the one that just about has it all. Baseball hats are well and good and have their role to play, but of course they do nothing for the ears, neck, and temples. If I don’t want to spend the next four decades having dermatologists cut fascinating and novel cellular structures off my ears and neck, there’s no real option other than the wide-brimmed hat.

This hat weighs about three ounces and can be abused in an infinite number of ways only to spring back and ask for more. You can wear it in a pool. When it gets saturated, it will look a little like you’re wearing the shell of a taco salad, but throw it on a sidewalk for 20 minutes and it regains its shape and rigidity. You can cram it in a backpack or fold it twice and stick it in a pocket, and it comes right back to life when you need it. If that weren’t enough reason to fall head-over-heels in love, it’s got a vent that runs around the crown to let the heat off your noggin. And when you go inside and pop it off the back of your head, it collapses completely flat so you can sit back in your chair. The only time it doesn’t work is in cold weather, but that’s not often here at the 30th parallel.

2. The Yankee Screwdriver. Oh man, oh man, do I love my Yankee screwdriver. Its exquisite design represents, to me, the height of pre-power tool technology. For those who have never used one, it’s essentially a self-turning screwdriver that will run a screw in merely by a well-focused push of the handle and, after flipping a switch, can unscrew by pushing as well. The very fact that it does NOT require power is the thing that makes me reach for it constantly when building things or just doing odd jobs around the house. I inherited mine from my grandfather’s tool chest, but it’s not nostalgia or my fetish for the low-tech that makes it the apple of my eye. It’s that it gets the job done. No noise, no hunting for an outlet or cursing a dead battery pack. It gets the nod incalculably more than the half-dozen cordless drills I’ve succumbed to during my adult life. According to one write-up:

The first spiral ratchet screwdrivers were produced in 1898 by North Brothers in the U.S.A. The name Yankee was soon adopted as a description of all spiral ratchet screwdrivers, although none managed to attain the same level of performance and quality of the original Yankee by Stanley, Yankee was truly the first cordless power tool and remains a very worthy competitor for workshop, building site, or production line.

I love you, Yankee screwdriver!


3. Gretsch Historic Series Guitar – My axe. It’s a big guitar, so my 6’1″ frame comes in handy. It’s got a nice rich tone that sounds like what I imagine a cello with guitar strings might sound like. I’ve played almost every day for about 10 years. Mine’s identical to the one pictured below, with a deep “tobacco sunburst” finish and a sweet little cut-away that lets me play the occasional high note. It’s also got that distinct, triangular “French” sound hole that gives it a different look. I will say that the electronics have been less than stellar, but on the whole it’s a lovely instrument.


4. Cap Lights. I’ve bought and lost a lot of flashlights in my life. But after a few camping trips with these $5 headlamps that clip onto the bill of a cap, I’ll not be going back to the hand-held flashlight anytime soon. Of that you can be sure, my friend. And I didn’t expect to use them as much as I do just around the house, but if I’m up on a ladder installing a light fixture, ceiling fan, in a dark garage looking at our circuit breaker, searching under the bed for a stuffed toy for a tearful toddler, I just put on my “magic cap,” click the light, and I’m hands-free and good to go. When I started buying these, they were almost all white light, but now they come in red, which is great for preserving your night vision, as well as green and blue. These colored ones have the added uses of helping keep track of my kids on camping trips. I assign a different color to each of them and know exactly who is where around camp … unless they switch hats.

Cap light

5. Backpacking Hammocks This will require a whole post soon enough. For now suffice it to say that I’ve spent a few nights now in a hammock whilst camping, both in the frontcountry and in the backyard, and I’m in no hurry to get back to my cot or even my air mattress. I got started hammock camping by ordering three of these 1-pound beauties (seen below) from Grand Trunk for my boys and myself. We’ve had a blast just hanging them around the backyard in what we call “jungle camp.” I recently graduated to a “double” (the Amazonas model from Byer of Maine, found at Academy $44) but it’s the same concept, just a little more room. Next is mastering mosquito netting for warm-weather outings and fashioning an “underquilt” for cold. All hammocks rule, but these ultralight silnylon options are the only way to fly for camping from here on out. There’s a whole subculture of “hanging” of which I knew nothing before my research into hammock camping, and after a little while in one, I can see why.


6. The White Mountain Ice Cream Freezer. It’s pretty simple. I love ice cream, and I love not having to find an outlet, and I like to watch my boys vie for who gets the next turn at the crank. And White Mountain is just about the only company still making the elegant and ingenious hand-crank freezer.


7. Cargo Shorts For thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, humanity has struggled to perfect an article of clothing that just gets the job done. Not too hot, not too skimpy, don’t have to sit on your wallet, won’t lose your cell phone (okay that last one is fairly recent). At some point, I assume within the last half century, someone thought of cargo shorts, and the search was over. I do believe if I didn’t work in an office, I would wear cargo shorts exclusively, every day of my life. Good thing I don’t play golf. Per Wikipedia: “Because of their lowbrow appearance, they are prohibited at some golf courses and restaurants.” Lowbrow indeed!


8. Sweet Leaf Mint & Honey Tea. I sure hope there’s something healthy about tea because I drink a lot of it, a whole lot. Hot mostly, but lots of the iced stuff from April to October. I don’t know if the Sweet Leaf company puts crack in their brew or just what, but this Mint & Honey concoction is simply the nectar of the gods. I’m also supporting the local Austin economy, so if I did harbor any guilt over it, there’s another out. (Sweet Leaf, you may ship lifetime supply to Avrel Seale, 102–…..)


9. The Gerber Gator Machete Jr. It’s a machete, but it’s small enough to pass for a really huge Bowie knife; flip it over — carefully — and it’s also a saw (hence the “gator” teeth). I use it to clear vines, nandina and other invasives out of the backyard but I also use it for tree work instead of loppers. I use it as a hatchet during backcountry camping, and also as a spade to dig cat holes and smother camp fires. And because it’s shorter than a regular machete it’s light enough to make the trip. For those of you keeping score at home, it takes the place of a 1. knife, 2. a saw, 3. a hatchet, and 4. a spade. You can find them at Academy.


10. The Saltine. Per Wikipedia:

“In 1876, F.L. Sommer & Company of St. Joseph, Missouri started using baking soda to leaven its wafer thin cracker. Initially called the Premium Soda Cracker and later “Saltines” because of the baking salt component, the invention quickly became popular and Sommer’s business quadrupled within four years. That company merged with other companies to form American Biscuit Company in 1890 and then after further mergers became part of Nabisco in 1898.”

It proved a revolutionary invention if you ask this proud cracker consumer. It’s a tasty vehicle for any other foodstuff, be it picante sauce (per Austin’s old-school El Patio Restaurant), peanut butter and jelly, bean dip, guacamole, Cheez Whiz, and on and on. Ain’t nothin wrong with using one to just skim a little butter off a stick or out of a tub either, I sez. You can crush a few into chili, chowder, or any soup for a little extra sumpin-sumpin, or you can break out the rolling pin and pulverize them into a tasty breading for frying fish, still my favorite comfort-food seafood option. Saltines keep delivering right down to the atomic level. But the Saltine’s charms are hardly limited to the yeoman’s service it renders to other foods; I’ll eat them straight out of the sleeve, drink be damned, and I’ll love every puffy, perforated one. Thank you, Mr. Sommer. Thank you.


So there they are, my top 10 things. Share a few of yours in Comments.

Baha’i Life

One common symbol of the Baha’i Faith is the nine-pointed star. In this graphic, I have used the star to outline some of the major themes of the faith. The points of the star represent things we are asked to do in order to practice our faith. The recesses between the points stand for things from which we should abstain. As I built this model, I began to notice that in many instances refraining from a certain thing will help in carrying out something that is enjoined. In those cases I have arranged the “don’t” across the star from the “do,” as if pushing in on one side pokes the point out on the other. To some extent, this works all the way around for each point and recess. This is my own invention and not an official document of a Baha’i institution. I use this graphic as the outline for a one-hour talk that I occasionally give — “How to be a Star” — and post it here in hopes you’ll find it useful. Thanks!

Baha’i Faith 101 Infographic

Three weeks ago, I set out to create the most insane infographic in the world about the Baha’i Faith. This is what I came up with…

Baha'i Faith 101 Infographic

I tried to squeeze as much information and as many ideas as I could into a 36″ x 24″ poster-sized document. Hopefully when you click through to the image, you’ll be able to zoom in and out in order to read it a region at a time. Next step is seeing how it prints at poster size. Alla’u’abha!

Baha’i-Gregorian Calendar Wheel

Baha'i-Gregorian Calendar Wheel

One of the challenges of being a Baha’i is living by two calendars.

Like the founders of most great religions, the Bab and Baha’u’llah established a new calendar. The Baha’i year begins on the first day of spring (logically) and consists of 19 months of 19 days each, with an “intercalary period” or four or five days (depending on leap year) to realign the Baha’i year with the solar year.

Of course, we still have to live and function in Western society, which operates on the Gregorian calendar, starting on a more-or-less random day in the middle of winter, and consisting of 12 months of between 28 and 31 days.

A few years ago I resolved to create a single, circular calendar that shows both. The calendar has a pointer at the top and turns on its axle so that you can just give the wheel a little nudge everyday to bring the current day to the pointer at the top. You’re welcome to use this graphic to create your own. Here’s how I did mine:

I created the file in Adobe Illustrator by first creating a 365-point star, and then drawing concentric circles and lines to denote the two sets of months. On the Baha’i layer, I noted all 19 months as well as all Baha’i Holy Days and seasons such as Ridvan and the Fast.

Then I converted to a jpeg, took the file to Kinko’s, and had them print it on an 11 x 17″ transparency. (Even though the jpeg fills the background with white, if you’re printing on a transparency, the white will read as clear, so you don’t need a vector file.) Using a dinner plate as a template and an exacto knife, I cut the excess transparency away from the calendar design.

Then I went to a crafts store and bought a blank, wooden clock face that had a pre-drilled hole in the middle. I stained the wood, then brushed on a coat of polyurethane. While the poly was still wet, I laid the transparency on the wheel and rubbed out the bubbles the best I could.

Lastly, I custom built the pointer assembly by cutting segments of wood about the dimensions of a yard stick. I connected the wheel to the pointer assembly using a domed hex bolt tightened loosely to allow the wheel to spin. A hole at the top of the back strip allows the wheel to be hung on a wall, and a spacer between the back strip and the pointer in the front — slightly deeper than the depth of the  wheel — prevents the pointer from binding against the wheel (see center photo below).

I made about three prototypes (one shown below). If I had the patience to spend weeks experimenting with finishes and adhesives, I probably could have gotten a lot more professional do on it, but I was happy to have realized my little dream.  Feel free to use the graphic in other ways and you’ll probably get superior results. If you do, take a picture and post it below. Alla’u’abha!