Communicating with your hands

… and facial expressions! A talented friend of mine started offering online lessons in American Sign Language (ASL), and so far we’ve covered basic signs (e.g., please, thank you, how do you sign…?), the manual alphabet, and how to express basic needs (e.g., hunger, thirst, sleepiness). I have dim memories of learning some ASL in high school, and it seems that the alphabet, at least, stuck with me. It’s great to learn a bunch of new vocabulary. (The image at right shows the sign for “learn”.)

I don’t know if or when I’ll get to put ASL into practice, but regardless I’m enjoying puzzling through a new kind of grammar and the… hm… performance aspect of signing. It’s not just about moving your hands; the aspects of eye contact and facial expression are also necessary, and even though it’s mostly intuitive so far, it’s new/foreign to have to think consciously about what expression goes with the sign :) I get the sense that the expressions are much more vivid and large than they are when I’m speaking English. (I’m sure it becomes natural over time.)

Some other ideas I found valuable that we’ve covered so far:

  • Sign language has its own grammar, and notably it is not a literal reproduction of English with hand signs (I’ve encountered this concept before and it continues to fascinate me. It makes sense to me that what would be natural and efficient in spoken language might be quite different in signed language).
  • Signs have three parts: hand shape, hand position, and motion.
  • We are encouraged to fingerspell words as units, so instead of thinking/spelling “b” “o” “o” “k”, you do better to think sign-b-sign-o-sign-o-sign-k as a unit. This sounds similar to what you’d like to achieve with any foreign language: blending units into chunks to make communication more natural.

I’m looking forward to next week’s lessons!

How to sharpen a push reel mower

I have a lawn mower (reel mower) that is purely mechanical: you push it and as it moves it spins five curved blades that chop up the grass. It has no engine and uses no gas or electricity. Mowing the lawn with it is a nice exercise: you push it along and it makes a quiet snick-snick-snick sound as it cuts the grass. I’m very fond of it!

Yet over the years the blades grow dull. I figured I’d need to take it to a sharpening service, but then I found this Instructable that shows you how to sharpen a reel mower yourself. It’s quite clever *and* easy to do! You use the mower to “lap” its own curved blades, meaning to sharpen and align them by running them backwards against the fixed blade (“bed knife”). As advertised, this was straightforward: I swapped the gears on the two wheels, adjusted the bed knife (this was actually the trickiest part for me), smeared on “grinding compound” (I ordered this Permatex compound for just $4!), and then pushed the mower around for a while with its blades grinding each other smooth/sharp. In this process I also got to study just how the mower works (I love decoding machines) and to admire the built-in ingenuity and simplicity of it.


At least, that’s what it was supposed to do. After I’d pushed it for a while, I felt the blades with my finger. They had turned shiny (see picture at right), but didn’t feel sharp. I decided to give it a try. I swapped the gears back, readjusted the bed knife, and took my mower out to the lawn. And whoa! It cut the grass WAY BETTER than it had for a long time. In fact it cut it much shorter than before – I think with dull blades it was bending the grass over and cutting it longer. I had *wondered* why I had to leave the mower on the lowest height to get anything reasonable. Now I can set it to a higher (correct) setting and get the desired grass height. Very satisfying!

Madrones on my estate

My new house in Oregon is located within the “Madrone Estates”. That’s right, I apparently now own an Estate! Ha ha!

I assumed that “Madrone” probably referred to the last name of the person who established the neighborhood, or something like that. But then I discovered that instead it refers to the madrone tree – a lovely native tree that’s all over my property! Its fancy latin name is arbutus menzeiseii, and it is easily recognized by the dramatic red peeling bark. (The beautiful picture to the right is not mine but it gives a good idea what they look like. Are they not gorgeous?)

Apparently in the spring they bear bell-shaped flowers – something to look forward to as the months roll by!

A wooly bear in my yard

I was raking up a ton of leaves that had fallen in my yard when I discovered a little ball of brown and black amongst the leaves. I repositioned him in a tree and took a picture:

I did some sleuthing and found that this is a wooly bear caterpillar (they roll into a ball when disturbed). They transform into the beautiful Isabella tiger moth.

I marvel anew at how different these forms can be. And then there’s this amazing part of its lifecycle:

The banded woolly bear larva emerges from the egg in the fall and overwinters in its caterpillar form, when it literally freezes solid. First its heart stops beating, then its gut freezes, then its blood, followed by the rest of the body. It survives being frozen by producing a cryoprotectant in its tissues. In the spring it thaws. (Wikipedia)

Wow! I’ll have to look for this guy again in the spring. I hope he makes it :) (But maybe he’ll be a moth by then!)

My first air race!

On August 18, I participated in a special event to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the first all-women’s air race in 1929. That historic event featured 20 women pilots (including Amelia Earhart and Louise Thaden) and was a challenging nine-day race from Santa Monica, CA, to Cleveland, OH.

Here in 2019, I gathered along with 13 other pilots to fly the same first leg of the 1929 event, from Santa Monica to San Bernardino, in an event sponsored by the Los Angeles 99s. It’s a distance of about 70 miles. I was flying a Cessna 172 with 160-hp engine – a solid plane but not exactly a racing machine. I’ve been to Santa Monica several times, but I’d only flown to San Bernardino once, three years before. I plotted a route over Dodger Stadium and north along the foothills before turning south at the end for San Bernardino. I picked an altitude of 3500′ since I figured that, for this relatively short flight, any benefit gained by flying at 5500′ would not offset the cost of climbing, especially in this particular plane.

We had a delayed start just getting to Santa Monica due to a lingering marine layer, as often happens this time of year. My co-pilot Tara and I were ready to leave El Monte to fly to Santa Monica and start the race, but we had to sit around obsessively checking weather reports until I judged it safe to proceed. It worked out great – when we reached Santa Monica, the clouds were still there, but just high enough that I could fly my typical altitude and maintain a safe separation. We landed and joined the other pilots prior to the official departure.

Period attire was encouraged, and the other pilots were decked out in flying suits, leather caps, scarves, and goggles. Wow! I didn’t have anything that cool, so I wore a polka-dot dress that could almost pass for 1920s. I will say that flying in a dress is rather inconvenient – I had to flight with my kneeboard to get it positioned 🙂

Departing Santa Monica was a bit of a scrum. Several racing planes had already departed, but the radio traffic on ground control was still very busy with multiple requests for flight following to San Bernardino mixed in with regular Santa Monica traffic. After a long time holding, I finally got to taxi onto the runway to “line up and wait” and then we were off! Tara had the stopwatch to time our departure and landing.

I was able to follow my planned route exactly. I flew a lot faster than I normally do. We were making excellent time, about 130 mph ground speed (I think we were also favored by a tailwind). I monitored the engine temperature and other instruments carefully to ensure I wasn’t stressing the plane. It performed like a champ – I was even able to lean the mixture without it getting too hot. I maintained speed approaching San Bernardino. They instructed us to cross over midfield and enter the left downwind for runway 24. I was eying the runway and debating whether to request a short approach, but then noticed another plane on final and we were cleared #2, so no short approach. I turned in sequence, made a precise short-field landing, and was able to exit on the first taxiway, and when the wheels came to stop, so did the stopwatch! Our time from takeoff to landing was 40 minutes and 34 seconds.

It was fun being welcomed in to the FBO with ground crew directing us with hand signals – that always feels like special treatment. At the FBO, we had a lovely lunch and then were treated to a performance of songs from a musical that was written a while back about that first 1929 race! You can read more about the event in KCRW’s article.

Finally, there was the awards ceremony… during which we were delighted to learn that we received second place! We didn’t have the second-best time overall, but there is some complex handicapping math applied to normalize for different types of planes and engines, and apparently we did very well given the equipment we had. Hooray!

I flew us back to El Monte at a more leisurely pace. It was clear skies and easy flying back. I finished the day with a third superbly executed landing – super gentle and well controlled. It’s one thing to get somewhere quickly, but also important to finesse the landing at the end!

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