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Tuesday, January 27, 2015  |   Madison, WI: 27.0° F  
MADLAND: A group blog about life in Madison, Wisconsin
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Citizen Dave: Single-tasking and the steadiness of life on an island
There are a lot of things that are great about this work.
Credit:Dianne Cieslewicz

There's a lot to be said for routine.

I just got back from two weeks as a "lighthouse keeper" at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. This was my third year on Sand Island and my fourth year volunteering for the National Park Service. I started doing this in the summer of 2011 after losing my job and while I was waiting for the next one to start.

I put "lighthouse keeper" in quotes because that's the romantic name for what I do. What I really do is give tours of the lighthouse. The light itself is solar powered and on an automatic timer. It doesn't need me. (I have written about previous experiences there in 2012 and 2013.)

This year, for the first time, I had company as my wife Dianne joined me. I explained before we left that she needed to recognize my status as a veteran keeper, and that she must take my instructions without question. Two-thirds of this worked out perfectly. She did acknowledge that I was a veteran and I did give instructions.

There are a lot of things that are great about this work. You get exercise, as it's a two-mile walk each way from the ranger cottage to the lighthouse. You get to spend your days in a beautiful old building with lots of great stories to tell. You meet interesting and happy people -- one of our visitors was a violinist with a symphony orchestra. You get to learn all kinds of interesting stuff about lighthouses, lighthouse keepers and their families, nature, geology, Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands.

But what I've really come to appreciate is the steady sameness of experience -- fourteen days in a row with pretty much exactly the same routine.

First thing in the morning, you raise the flag at the dock. Take the weather readings. Do the "morning island roundup" on the radio, during which you get the weather forecast from the park's central office in Bayfield and report the readings you've taken on your island. Clean the privies (not as bad as it sounds.) Post the weather forecast for the kayakers and other boaters. Pack your lunch in your knapsack and walk the two miles up to the lighthouse. Open it up, raise the flag, and wait for business.

When not giving tours, you can read up on the lighthouse or about other local history topics, or maybe a novel. (I read The Light Between the Oceans which is about, what else, a lighthouse). At about 3 p.m., you take down the flag, close up the building and head home down the same two-mile wooded trail. Shower, have a cocktail on the dock and make dinner. Read all evening and maybe look at the stars. (There's no TV or radio.) Record the day's activities in the logbook. Go to bed early. Repeat it all the next day.

Even the weather is pretty much the same each day in August. The gales of November haven't yet started to blow. Most days are clear, sunny and about 72 degrees, though we did get more rain and more bugs than usual this year. But that only accounted for about four of our 14 days out on the island.

Here's the really unusual thing: Sand Island is one of the last places on earth with bad cell phone service. In fact this year our smart phones didn't work at all. No phone calls in or out, no email, no web searches and, until we figured out that we could get newspapers on our Kindles, no news. It was wonderful. If I hadn't told everyone back home that I'd be staying in touch from the lighthouse, it would have been totally wonderful. I had some stuff to catch up on when I returned home, but there were no major crises.

Being unplugged like this would drive some folks crazy. But I've found that I have no great desire to be in the center of the action or to live a fast-paced life. I did that for awhile. I enjoyed it well enough, but I think I like this better. Quiet, steady routine is almost unheard of in modern American culture, and where it exists it isn't much valued. But it's why I go to Sand Island.

Maybe we need a new movement in this country. Call it "single-tasking." Just concentrate on one thing at a time. Check it off your list. Move on to the next thing. Have a cocktail. Just one. Go to bed early. Repeat the next day.

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