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I love to shovel snow.  No, I’m serious.  I really enjoy it.  My goal has always been to get the driveway and sidewalk completely clean after a snowfall.  So I start by removing as much snow as possible.  Then I take a metal scraper out and run it over any places where the snow has been pressed down, whether by feet or car tires or whatever.  Once that’s done, I bevel the snow on the edge of the driveway so it’s all nice and even.  It takes a while, but the results are worth it.

I write all that as though it still happens.  It doesn’t.  I’m no longer allowed to shovel snow.  The surgeon that fixed my back last October put shoveling at the top of the list of no-nos.  So now the neighbors tackle it with their snow blowers or my wife takes care of it.  I watch from inside the house.

The Sahara Desert is the largest desert in the world.  Well, technically it’s not because scientists consider the Arctic and Antarctica to be larger deserts.  I don’t know how they’re deserts, but there are a ton of things I don’t know.  Anyways, the Sahara is about as large as the continental United States, and it’s one of the hottest places on earth, with an average temperature approaching 90°F.  If ever there was a place that it wouldn’t snow, it would be in these vast three-and-a-half million North African square miles.

Oh, but it has snowed in the Sahara.  In January of 2012, the desert got snow.  But it’s pretty rare.  In fact, in my digging around, I could only find two instances when snowfall was recorded:  last year and February 18, 1979.

That first snowfall took Algerians by complete surprise, even though it lasted but half an hour.  And it probably snarled traffic and closed schools, despite the fact that it was gone before sundown.  The really good thing is that the sand trucks probably didn’t have far to go to fill up.  I wonder if the kids knew to have a snowball fight, or make a snowman, or snow angels…I hope so.

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I’ve watched a couple of shows about panning for gold.  Not those “reality” programs (which probably aren’t real at all), but documentary-style shows where a guy will detail his methods of searching for that most precious and elusive of elements.  I’ve talked about Dick Proenneke on a couple of occasions, and during his stay in Alaska, he often panned for gold, using it to purchase some of the staples he needed in the wilderness.  And then there’s Johnny Horton’s famous song North to Alaska, from which I’ve learned the best locations to search (“where the river is winding, big nuggets they’re finding…“).

So while I’ve never searched for gold (much to the chagrin of my grandmother), I feel I’m more knowledgeable about the process than, well, maybe a two-year-old goat living on a farm in Scranton, IA.

Anyways, I don’t know how big the nuggets were that Sam McCord found (he’s the guy in the song North to Alaska), but they likely paled in comparison to the one found by a couple of prospectors in the opposite hemisphere on February 5, 1869.  John Deason and Richard Oates found what became known as the Welcome Stranger nugget in Victoria, Australia.  Resting just below the surface near a tree, this chunk of gold weighed in at an astonishing 241 pounds.  Yeah, pounds.  After it was fully trimmed out and refined, it still weighed nearly 157 pounds.  That’s one big piece of gold.  And to date, it’s the largest single chunk of gold ever found.

I just checked and, while prices fluctuate, the current price of gold is $1675.80…an ounce.  And 157 pounds is 2512 ounces.  So if I do the math, that totals out to $4,164,393.60.  I don’t know the world in which you live, but in my world, that’s a retirement number.  Deason and Oates were paid $15,000 (give or take) for Welcome Stranger, which seems rather meager, even by 19th-century standards.

North to Alaska…yeah, right.

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It’s been nearly two weeks again!  Yikes!  But I’ve got another excuse.  Here goes…

The back trouble I’ve been fighting has taken a more serious turn.  Last week, the pain just wouldn’t go away, even with a couple trips to the chiropractor, who usually fixes me right up.  So we went to clinic and got some stronger medicine, which helped my back a lot.  The next day, I felt much better…until I got into the shower.  After three or four minutes, I could hardly stand up.  I grimaced through and dragged myself back to bed.  An MRI on Friday revealed the bad news:  a badly herniated disk in my lower back is pinching a nerve that runs down my leg.

It’s most uncomfortable except when I’m laying on my right side in bed with my legs curled up…which is where I’ve spent about 90% of my time since last Tuesday.  We meet with an orthopedic surgeon tomorrow morning, and surgery is almost certain.  But if it will get things fixed so I can work from the office (instead of curled up – any idea of how hard it is to type?!?) and get back on my bike again, then I’m okay with it.

Well, it’s either that or “the dog ate my homework.”

When someone mentions “disasters” and “1985” in the same sentence, my mind’s eye immediately sees those barfalicious parachute pants, break-dancing, and those glasses girls wore that looked like they were upside down.  It doesn’t get a lot worse than that.  But those are fashion disasters.  And though the carnage from them was great, I suppose it pales in comparison to a real disaster.

A disaster like, say, the one that hit Mexico City on this day.

The sun had just come up over Mexico’s capital on September 19, 1985, when the calm was replaced by a violent shaking.  Some 220 miles offshore, a strong 8.0 earthquake had rattled itself into existence.  Now your mind immediately jump to the giant quake that hit Japan in March of last year.  That earthquake did very little damage.  The massive tsunami that followed shortly after, however, was a completely different story.  But tsunamis were not the issue in Mexico City.

So now you might think that, due to the distance from the quake (actually quakes, as this particular temblor was a two-headed beast), Mexico might avoid serious trouble.  But, unfortunately, that was also not the case.

The earthquake occurred in an area that’s known for stronger seismic activity, as there are a couple of tectonic plates that conflict with each other.  I have an earthquake app on my smartphone, and this region sees small-to-moderate quakes pretty regularly.  But in 1985, it had been a while since there was a “relieving of the pressure” in this particular place, so the pent-up stresses were released all at once rather than gradually over a series of smaller quakes.

But the real culprit was Mexico City itself, or rather, it’s location.  The city, one of the world’s largest, sits in the Valley of Mexico.  Hundreds of years ago, the area was a large lake.  The Aztecs built their capital (then called Tenochtitlan) on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco.  Over time, the city grew.  Then there was a change of ownership when the Spanish came calling, but still the city grew.  It outgrew the island, so over time, the lake was drained for more infrastructure.

I’m no geologist, but I would guess that lake beds don’t make good foundations, because while it may be dry on top, there’s likely still a lot of moisture underneath.  The soils below Mexico City were volcanic clay…with a high water content.  When the shock waves from the quake hit, those soils actually made the shaking worse.  And of course, those soils also settle, which causes buildings on top of them to become very unstable.   That’s what happened in Mexico City.

Hundreds of buildings completely collapsed and thousands more were heavily damaged.  In addition, the shifting landscape tore up roads and wreaked havoc on underground water, sewer, and gas lines.  Sections of the city were completely devastated.  The number of deaths varies widely depending on the source, but ranges run from 10,000 to more than four times that number.

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I enjoy riding my bike to and from work, so in my world, it’s always best when the early morning hours (4:00-7:00am) are dry.  The same holds true for the ride home (2:00pm-5:00pm).  It doesn’t actually take me three hours to make each ride.  In fact, 45-50 minutes is usually enough.  It’s just that, for the trails to be mostly dry, rain needs to stop about two hours before I ride.

Of late, however, central Iowa has been starved for rain.  We had rain on Friday, but it amounted to a measly two-tenths of an inch.  Other than that, we’ve had no serious rainfall in nearly a month.  And our exceptionally mild winter and spring meant less rain as well.  So while us cyclists have been living it up, farmers are starting to worry.  We drove an hour north earlier today and visited my folks and grandmother.  When we left, it was raining in sheets and the storm was heading straight south.  We raced home to close windows, only to have the storms fizzle to nothing.

So I continue to put water on the lawn every couple of days (and water is really expensive here) and pray for rain in the meantime.  Even if it meant I couldn’t ride my bike to work a morning or two, I’d welcome the precipitation.  Two or three days of steady rain would simply be awesome…even a one- or two-inch deluge would be better than nothing.

Speaking of that, Montreal knows a thing about deluges.

On July 14, 1987, the residents of the Island of Montreal awoke to weather more typical of Iowa.  Warm, moist air and hazy sunshine promised yet another in a string of unseasonably hot and humid days.  But as us midwesterners know all too well, high heat and high humidity are two key ingredients needed to spawn thunderstorms.  The other is some form of “destabilizer”, which usually takes the form of cooler air above.  Since heat rises, it displaces the cooler air, causing the turbulence necessary to roughen the weather up a bit.

Or, in the case of Montreal that day, roughen it up quite a bit.  Starting around lunchtime, a series of four severe thunderstorms made their way across the area.  And by the time the mid-afternoon doldrums hit at 3:00pm, the storms were over.  But in their wake…

In the two hours the storms trained across Montreal, they dumped nearly four inches of rain, with some areas reporting higher amounts.  The sewer system, which wasn’t designed to handle these kinds of downpours, was overwhelmed.  In addition, widespread power outages from lightning strikes took down the sewer pumping systems.

Flooding became a serious problem, particularly for lower lying roads.  Thousands of people became stranded in their cars, as the waters quickly rose. The Décarie Expressway (shown above) became a car-clogged river, with motorists scrambling for rescue as the waters inundated their vehicles.

I have the distinct feeling that, had I been in Montreal at the time, even the two-hour gap between the storms and my commute wouldn’t have allowed me to ride my bike home.  Of course, one of my co-workers has a boat…

Send some of that rain our way!!

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I’ve got Google to thank for today’s super-brief piece.  If you’ve been to their site, you’ve seen the little bit of homage they paid to Gideon Sundback.  Born on April 24, 1880, this Swedish-born son of farmers emigrated to the United States in the early 1900s as an engineer and is responsible for one of the most important inventions of the 20th century.

It has helped keep countless garments together when they otherwise would have separated, causing great embarrassment to the owners.  It has helped millions of small children more quickly learn to dress themselves, much to the relief of their sometimes harried and exasperated parents.

It’s the zipper.

Thanks, Mr. Sundback, for a remarkable feat of engineering.

And Happy Birthday!!

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Maybe you’re a fan of Rowan Atkinson because he’s a car nut that has owned a McLaren F1 (one of the world’s rarest and fastest cars).  It could be that you know the man or grew up with him in England.  Or did one of the television shows in which he starred, like The Thin Blue Line or the darker Black Adder series, grab your attention?  He’s been in the movies Rat Race and Johnny English – and maybe others as well – so that might be your hook.  He’s published articles in Car and Evo, two well-known British car magazines (and ones which I always seem to leaf through at the Barnes and Noble magazine stand), maybe that’s your thing.

And maybe you still have no idea who Rowan Atkinson is.  Ok…he was born on January 6, 1955 and if you like birthdays, there’s always that.

But that’s you.  What about me?  Well, it could be a couple of those.  I’ve seen a couple episodes of The Thin Blue Line and Black Adder.  I love cars.  I own the movie Johnny English.  For me, however, it pretty much comes down to two words.

Mr. Bean.

Now maybe you know what I’m talking about.

Mr. Bean is sort of a one-man sketch comedy created and played by Atkinson.  He plays all kinds of characters, but generally it’s a socially inept guy, a kid in a grown-up’s body, who continually gets himself into zany situations, and then tries to extricate himself in the most oddball fashion.  The sketches feature little or no dialogue – and what little there is comes in a goofy low-register voice – but it would be completely superfluous anyways.  Atkinson is a master of facial gestures and his different looks and gazes pretty much tell the story.

And I think the stories are simply hilarious.

There’s one where he goes to the beach and has to put on his swimming trunks.  But he’s not alone and doesn’t want to go all the way back to his car.  His solution left me in stitches.  Speaking of swimming trunks, another sketch has him at the pool, trying to garner enough bravery to jump off the high diving board.  Yet another has him with his girlfriend at a slasher movie…that’s not how you eat popcorn!!

And throughout the sketches, there are these returning idiosyncrasies.  Mr. Bean walks with hands slightly askew, doing a little dance of their own.  There’s that blue three-wheeled car that often shows up, only to be turned on its side.  And of course, Mr. Bean himself always drives a Mini…and drives it very poorly.  There’s the girlfriend that makes occasional appearances, but Mr. Bean just doesn’t know how to act properly with a lady.  And there’s his stuffed teddy bear.

I have to say that the “beach” sketch is one of the better 3-minute escapes you’ll find, and all of them are really funny in their own fashion.  But my favorites are Mr. Bean’s lunch break when he makes a sandwich (“just popped out for lunch!”) and the Christmas episode.  The latter features a hysterical “play time” scene in the store, and another with him conducting the Salvation Army band in God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen…that alone is worth the purchase of the video.

I could go on and on, but suffice to say that you should watch a couple of sketches and see for yourself.

Happy Birthday, Mr. B…uh…Rowan Atkinson!!

Recommended Viewing:  Watch Mr. Bean in action.
Our son just bought a new TV…so did Mr. Bean. Watch him set it up.
Mr. Bean at the beach.
The funniest lunch break.
Christmas, Mr. Bean style.

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