Saturday, July 30, 2016

BALKING THE WALK – How I’ve Let My Devotion to Nature Get "Screened" Out

I write about Nature all the time—about its countless wonders, small and large; its wise counsel in ways of patience and knowing; and its many coincidences with my brand of spirituality. I promote closer connections with Nature for everyone, especially children.

But I’m a hypocrite.

I actually don’t spend as much time outdoors as it may seem. Too often, I fall victim to the very temptation I urge others to resist: the lazy cosmopolitanism, the false presence, afforded by digital technology’s instant “connections” with people, places and information.

It started, I’m afraid, with the publication of my first book, Under the Wild Ginger; my publisher told me I had to put myself out there and promote, if not actual sales, at least a point of view that would attract like-minded readers.

              Cyberspace is a wily seductress.

But cyberspace is a wily seductress. At first the allure was something like the one I felt as a boy when, no longer fooled by that old tin-cans-and-string ruse, my fondest wish was for a real walkie- talkie. Or later when I’d spend hours with my ear pressed against the speaker of our tabletop Emerson radio, fine-tuning among the stronger signals and static for distant stations. This communicating beyond the range of my own, unelaborated ear and voice struck me as nothing short of mystical.
ILLUSTRATION: Quint Buchholz

There’s a certain boundless freedom in sending and receiving messages over untold expanses, across geographic, political and cultural boundaries. The same kind I experience during my favorite, recurring dream: being able to fly. It feels like the very essence of spiritual connection, a magical oneness with time and space and all of creation—not to mention its striking awe and envy into every onlooker.

CLAIMING MY VISION

Well, blaming the medium for its abuse is a pretty poor excuse. What first brought this line of reflection to mind for me was my wife’s and my annual sojourn in a lovely seaside town in Guerrero Mexico. Last March, the nice little TV in our villa never once blinked on.

Sure, we spent some time on our devices most days, doing some necessary work, keeping in touch with loved ones, sharing a few photos. But those times were quite limited. And, even when our minds may have been in cyberspace, physically we were still in direct contact with Nature during all our waking hours.

Even inside our villa, where there’s no wall separating us from the view over Zihuatanejo bay, delicious warm breezes waft in day and night, carrying the sounds and smells of the neighborhood and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Critters—ants, butterflies, geckos, bats and the occasional tarantula—become our constant companions. And our relationships with our Mexican friends seldom abide the quick phone call, email, or—God forbid—text. No, more folks there take the time to come calling, to spend a few minutes exchanging pleasantries and just being…well...nice.


         It’s not really the physical walls that are 
         holding me back. It’s the virtual ones.

How quickly such wonders soak into one’s skin; by the end of our stay, we were already taking this sustained communion with Nature, including these unhurried visits with people, for granted. But now, with the singular clarity of hindsight, I know why this annual month in the tropics is so restorative in so many ways.

It’s exactly what I’ve been letting slip away, bit by bit, in my life here in the “real” world: the close presence of Nature in my life every day. Paying attention, not just to a little screen, but to the countless small wonders playing out around me in real time and real space.

Now, I realize it might prove impractical here in Minnesota to remove one side of our urban townhouse and let in the air, light (and mosquitos). And winter…well, come on, this is Minnesota! But I’m thinking it’s not really the physical walls that are holding me back. It’s the virtual ones. I’ve been allowing others—content developers, marketers, fellow screen addicts…whomever—to limit what I can experience, to steer the direction and extent of my vision.

This is not what I want. Is it what you want? Don’t we have our own vision, an outlook which belongs to no one but us? Shouldn’t we be the ones deciding what will surprise and delight us, who will become our next good friend, and, in the thick of this surreal presidential election, what and whom we should fear?

       I must make time for the cure before I 
       can recover the time spent on the disease.

SEEING GENEROUSLY
Now that summer’s just beginning to yield to fall, I aim to reclaim my birthright—the birthright of every human being—my connection, my belonging, to Nature. And the way to start is to, as I like to put it, get off the screen and into the scene. Like surmounting any bad habit, this will require being thoughtful and deliberate, more disciplined in how I spend my time.

What makes it hard is that I must make time for the cure before I can recover the time spent on the disease. For example, if I’m to take a walk every morning, I’ll have to let go of the time I’m wasting on television or the Internet the night before. Or I may have to re-prioritize the short list of friends I correspond with most often, adding Nature to that inner circle.


And I most certainly will have to change my point of view. I must learn to use all my senses, not just taking in the wisdom and beauty of Nature, but giving something to the transaction too. I call it seeing generously.  It’s a mindset in which we stop trying to impose our will and way on Nature and life, instead vesting in them the power to have their way with us.

That is what we do in Mexico when we stop during our daily walks and cool off in accustomed shady spots. It is what I do when I remember to let life astound me—from those little “floaters” that punctuate my vision from the inside, to whatever horizon the weather defines that day, to the stars on a clear night, to the still-further reach of my imagination.

It is what we all must do if we want to reclaim the sacred bond with Nature that originates deep in our bones and so yearns to be honored once again.


Saturday, July 23, 2016

CAST IN A NEW LIGHT – The Real Reason for the Blue-mination of City Streets

An opinion piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune the the day caught my eye. It's by Paul Bogard, a fellow Minneapolitan, author of The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light.

The piece is Bogard's reaction to a July 17 Strib news article headlined "LED streetlight change puts cities in new (harsher?) light." The essence of his commentary is that the growing embrace of high-color-temperature LED (Light Emitting Diode) technology for street lighting by cities across the U.S.—including his and my home base, Minneapolis/St. Paul—is an ill-considered, shortsighted decision with far-reaching effects on those cities' inhabitants, both human and otherwise.

Click on image to see Madrid street lighting 2011 vs. 2015 – IMAGE: Tech Insider

He cites research by the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization showing that light emitted by the types of LEDs being adopted— those with the bluish-white light of Kelvin color temperatures over 4,000 degrees—compromises human health, causing sleep disorders, confusing circadian rhythms and even increasing risks for some types of cancers.

He makes an equally compelling argument for the adverse effects on non-human nocturnal critters, including 30 percent of vertebrates, 60 percent of invertebrates and insects we depend on for pollination.

All this in the name of safety—one of several LED selling points Bogard refutes.

   Are there really folks who 
   enjoy seeing the view ahead impaled on those 
   slashing swords of ice?

A BUSLOAD OF ALIENS
What Bogard fails to mention is the effect the icy stare of high-Kelvin-color lighting on the human psyche. It would be bad enough if we were choosing it just for city streets. But the soulless glare also emanates from folks' back-yard security lights, lighting in public spaces and transit vehicles, and even from newer LED flashlights.

One evening this past spring, as I drove home from work well after dark, I passed a city bus. The lighting inside it was that cold, bluish color. I imagined myself riding that bus, and, barring an exceptionally friendly conversation with a fellow passenger, how utterly alien it would feel.

And don't get me going on car headlights. Are there really folks who enjoy seeing the view ahead impaled on those slashing swords of ice? I know it's judgmental, but the easiest answer is that, along with the renewed trend toward bigger, "badder" cars and trucks, this is an act of pure aggression. In your face, buddy!

PHOTO: PaulTech Network

Back in my college days I flew quite often back and forth between Minnesota and the East Coast. I witnessed, from the air, the first mass experiments in mercury vapor street lighting, another technology challenged by unfortunate coloring.

In the New York City megalopolis, one city or borough might have been awash in indifferent, blue light; another, separated by just a street, train tracks or river, in much warmer, supposedly color-corrected, but still unnatural-looking pink or yellow. And a few neighborhoods still basked in their good-old, cozy incandescent lights. I remember how those stood out, like islands of humanity in a dead sea. I thought that's where I'd live if I were down there.
 
   The fear has reared its Chicken-Little head 
   in advertising, music, politics, and a seemingly 
   endless series of zombie, dystopian-world novels 
   and films.

US VERSUS THEM
Perhaps it will shed some, well, light on this "blue-mination phenomenon to see it in its larger context.

We’re living in a world the media, along with some shameless, demagogic politicians, has convinced some of us is more dangerous than at any time in memory. Radical Muslims beating down our door; immigrants stealing our jobs and corrupting our culture; cops (or African Americans, if you're on that side of the "war") making a mockery of Amurican justice.

It seems anyone with an outsize ego or a buck to make is trying to capitalize on the amorphous, baseless fear. It's reared its Chicken-Little head in advertising, where folks are portrayed lying, intimidating and stealing—even from loved ones; in music, with aggressive, take-no-prisoners sound and lyrics, in neurotic, polarizing politics, and in a seemingly endless series of zombie, dystopian-world novels and films.

Yep, it’s us versus them or else…or else I guess it doesn't sell.

               Warm light makes us feel close, 
               welcoming and secure.

CANDLES AND CAMPFIRES
Be afraid, be very afraid, they say. Close the borders; keep your daughters home; lock every door…and kick some serious ass with those ruthless blue lights. Call me a wimp; call me old-fashioned. But in an insecure, paranoid world, keeping warm lights burning—like the proverbial home fires and candle in the window—might just go a long way toward salving the savage beast.


There's a reason human beings soften in candlelight, turn to song round the campfire, and take amazing, glowing photos is that precious light just before dusk. Warm light makes us feel close, welcoming and secure. Feelings I do not fear.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

BAD DOG! – And Other Things to Say When Training a Bear

With the recent anniversary of the death of my amazing friend, Babak (Armi) Armajani, I’m reminded of the many wilderness canoe trips he and I shared in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. Among our countless adventures, a few provided stories that are especially memorable. This is one of them.

                                                *          *          *

We were several days out on trail, paddling down a long, narrow lake toward our next portage. It was about 4:30—plenty of daylight left, but we always tried to claim a campsite early. According to the map, there were several on this side of the lake, but we’d already seen one other paddling group, so we grabbed the first decent site we came to.

Over the years, the various tasks of setting up camp had settled into a comfortable yet efficient routine for us. Some of us start unpacking tents and cooking gear; others venture out in the forest for firewood; and a couple of guys start looking for the perfect tree from which to hang the food pack overnight, out of reach of bears.

Now, any one of us could have hung the food pack, but Armi, well, this was one of his many specialties; he fancied himself a food pack virtuoso. First off, it had to be just the right tree—the best ones are a ways off from the cooking area and tents, and have one rather isolated, horizontal limb, about 15 above the ground. A rock with a strong rope attached is thrown over the limb at least six feet away from the trunk. One end of the line is tied to the pack; the other end pulled to lift the pack up at least ten feet and then tied off on a nearby tree.

PHOTO: bwca.com

That’s about as far as most folks’ thinking about food pack hanging went. But Armi felt he understood bears; he thought like a bear. So he would ply his art one step further. There had to be a complicated way, after the pack was hoisted, to tie off the rope. Like a special knot; like wrapping it around two adjacent trees instead of the customary one; or adding a dummy rope to cut even the cleverest bear’s chances of untying our pack to 50/50.

While Armi and I perfected the apparatus, our cohorts were busy pitching the tents, cutting and piling the firewood and collecting water from the lake. Before long, our personal gear was in the tents and dinner was on. All was good.

      Someone—or some thing—was emerging 
      from the lake and coming ashore just 25 
      yards from our tents.

ROUND ONE

About an hour after we’d hoisted the food pack and turned in—just as my exhaustion was finally starting to get the better of my discomfort—I heard a curious sound coming from down at the landing. Water splashing…dripping…the being noisily shaken off. Someone—or some thing—was emerging from the lake and coming ashore just 25 yards from our tents.

I knew right away it was a bear. A few seconds later I heard it snuffling around over where the food pack was. I felt around for my flashlight and slipped out of the tent as quietly as I could. Armi had beat me to it. He grabbed the frying pan and a big spoon from the cook kit; I, a mug and a plate; and we ventured out to meet our adversary.


By this time everyone was up and “armed,” right on our heels. The rather large black bear was standing up on its hind legs right under our food pack, intent on smells seeping through the canvas that I’m sure conjured a bear smorgasbord. We unleashed a cacophony of aluminum-on-aluminum percussion, and the 500-pound animal, barely bothered, turned, considered us for a moment, and then ambled back down to the landing and swam away.

            If that bear thought it had gotten 
            the better of us, it didn’t know Armi.

SHOO-SHOO REDUX
Ten minutes later, back in our sleeping bags and just coming down off the adrenaline high, we heard, from the next campsite down the shore a few hundred yards, a familiar dull-metallic clanking and shouts of “Shoo!” and “Hey, get out of here!” We all hoped those poor folks couldn't hear our laughter.

PHOTO: 10Viral.net
But we weren't out of the woods; ten minutes later, incredibly, the determined bear was back with us. This time, though, it seemed to have learned a new trick. For instead of standing frustrated under our food pack, it knew to follow the rope down to where we'd tied it off—twice—and started clawing at the knots. Smart bear.

But if that bear thought it had gotten the better of us, it didn’t know Armi. This time, amid everyone else’s impassioned arm-waving and clanking of pots and pans, he’d evidently had enough. He took a couple of bold steps toward the intruder, which turned toward him and roared. Armi, undeterred, raised his right hand and, shaking his index finger at the massive carnivore, shouted at the top of his lungs, “Bad dog!  BAD DOG!!

At this—no lie—the bear turned in shame and slunk away toward the water. We never saw it again.

Thanks for the memories, Armi!

Monday, June 6, 2016

DOGGIES AND DUNGEONS – A Brush With Harry Potter Illustrator Mary GrandPré

A few years back, when I still had my graphic designer’s shingle out, one of my clients was a humane society organization. I was writing, designing and producing marketing communications materials for their capital campaign.

As often happened with my clients, the project eventually grew from simply creating a printed campaign “case statement” to encompass a range of other communications tools, including a comprehensive communications plan.


One of the needs that plan suggested was an evocative graphic—perhaps a piece of commissioned art—that would go beyond the rather dry bricks-and-mortar case and tap into prospective donors’ deep emotional attachment to animals. Given the competitive nature of the Twin Cities area’s philanthropic “marketplace,” it would have to be something really special.

To assert the art’s value, we would reserve its use for special donor appeals and recognitions, among them presenting a high-quality, limited-edition giclée print—perhaps signed by the artist—in appreciation of major gifts and pledges.

         Instead of the polite refusal for which
         I’d steeled myself, she began asking 
         a few questions.

LONG TIME NO SEE
It was up to me to find the artist. Indeed, I’d had many occasions to commission talented photographers and illustrators for my work with clients over the years.
But I felt strongly that in this case talent alone would not do.

I recalled a local Minneapolis illustrator whose work, many years ago, had been represented by one of the artists’ reps who called on me. Mary GrandPré’s portfolio had long since disappeared from the reps’ books; I heard she’d moved away and hit it big with a plum assignment: illustrating all the Harry Potter books.

Nothing ventured, I figured, and set about to track Mary down. It took a while, but I found her; she lived in Sarasota and, fortunately, had not (yet) had reason to delist her phone number.

To my delight, Mary got my voicemail and returned the call. She could not have been nicer. And, instead of the polite refusal for which I’d steeled myself, she began asking a few questions about me, my client and the project.

Turns out Ms. GrandPré is a huge fan of humane animal organizations, having found her own beautiful, aging yellow lab, Chopper, at one. When I described my client’s work and the campaign’s goals, Mary agreed to work with me—pro bono.

Mary GrandPré

A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
Our first hurdle was Mary’s trying to find the time; she’d just started on Rowlings’ next title in the Harry Potter series and would be swamped for months.

I’m so glad my client was patient, because the project was beset by one stumbling block after another. After she finished with the Potter book, Mary encountered several overwhelming personal challenges, including a major, life-saving surgery and adopting a child from China.

    A ragtag band of companion animals emerges 
    from a dark, threatening forest to catch sight 
    of the welcoming lights of home.

But we both stuck with it; I was walking a fine line between compassion and coercion. I’d already sent her my rough concept of how I wanted the composition to look. True to her word, a few months later she returned a full-poster-sized charcoal sketch. I tweaked that and, after a couple more halting rounds back and forth, it was done.

It had taken well over a year, but I know Mary and I are both proud of the finished product. Rendered in arrestingly deep, rich pastels, a ragtag band of companion animals, lost at night, emerges from a dark, threatening forest to catch sight, just over the next hill, of the welcoming lights of home.

Faithful Friends – Keeping the Promise ©2006 Mary GrandPré

POIGNANT PASTELS
When it was all over, I learned of yet another emotional hurdle Mary had faced. She explained that the beautiful golden lab leading the other animals in her illustration was modeled on her beloved Chopper, who’d died as she was working on the project.

A signed giclée, with a personal note from Mary, hangs in my office. The original, whose return GrandPré has refused, is preserved in my archives—its powdery pastels far more fragile than my memories.
For more information, or to engage Mary GrandPré, visit her website, http://www.marygrandpre.com/

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY – Where Expectation Meets Chance

I feel my sinker bouncing along the rocky bottom ten feet below my canoe. I visualize the glob of squirmy night crawler trailing a foot or so behind.

The St. Croix River is a fisherman’s dream. With over 20 species of fish, you
never know what you’ll reel in. Here, at this particular narrowing of a meandering slough, I expect to find sheepshead—or freshwater drum—and maybe the occasional channel catfish or smallmouth black bass.

My line starts moving. I open my bale and let a few coils of line spill off. Closing the bale, I draw up the slack and, feeling some solid resistance, start reeling. This
is no sheepshead. You can tell, by both the sheer resistance and the rhythm of its movements, roughly how big a fish is. And this one is big.

     My quarry’s runs are not the anxious dashes 
     of a bass or a small pike…or a sheepshead; 
     they’re more resolute than panicked.

The clarity of the St. Croix’s water varies, from its normal Lipton-tea brown—it is, indeed, a brew of tannins steeped from plant material in wetlands near the river’s source—to a high- or stagnant-water soup of roiled mud, leaves and algae. Today, I’m having the tea.

I’m fishing with eight-pound-test monofilament, so I have to be careful; this guy feels like he could challenge that. Check my drag—loose enough to let him run; tight enough to tire him out. Oh, no…I forgot about the anchor rope! Keep him away!

My quarry’s runs are not the anxious dashes of a bass or a small pike…or a sheepshead; they’re more resolute than panicked. But in the next few minutes I gradually gain line. I should be seeing something of my mystery catch by now; he’s got to be only a few feet away. Remember, if he’s a smart old pike, he’ll lull you into complacence and then, just when you think you can finally grab him, he’ll use the side of the canoe for leverage and bolt.

As I strain my eyes to make out a form in the dark water, the fish makes one last powerful run…right for that anchor rope. It takes all of two seconds. One loop around the raspy nylon cord, and he’s gone. I’m left numb, my river monster’s species and size left to my imagination.


THE WHOLE ENCHILADA
It doesn’t take the expectation of catching a huge fish to get me out there in that slough. But I’ll tell you, losing one sure is a powerful incentive for going back. Now I know it’s there, that now-legendary-in-my-own-mind leviathan, and after the adrenaline dissipates I’m left not with anger or regret, just gratitude for the experience…and dreams of another chance.

Why doesn’t it work like this for other disappointments in our lives? Why, when our expectations are not met, do we so often experience such loss? And why do we feel such ownership in those perfect outcomes in the first place?

I’ve had my share of these figurative ones that got away. Sports aspirations; an invention; a book; marriages. I don’t know about you, but when something I really, really want doesn’t end up going my way, I often experience it as a defeat, as reason to doubt myself. Rather than celebrate the significant degree of success I was able to achieve, I feel like a failure for there being no more.

     We spend our whole lives learning that it’s 
     not the fishing but the catching that matters.

So why can’t I just look at those disappointments as I did losing that big fish? Not as proofs of the impossible, but suggestions of the possible. As endeavors entirely valid and rewarding simply for the challenge and beauty of the effort. 

In western culture, it seems we spend our whole lives learning that it’s not the fishing but the catching that matters. Immersed as we are in opportunity, competition and relative wealth, we’re taught to dream big and settle for nothing less than the whole enchilada.

IF ONLY...
But such expectation is not good for us. For one thing, it’s the kiss of death for wonder. You set out to catch the big one and eight of ten times you’ll be utterly skunked; the other one-point-nine-nine times, only seriously disappointed. And disappointment and wonder do not play nicely together.

But if you paddle out there simply for the joy of propelling yourself across still waters, for the closeness to wild, yet kindred, creatures, for the mystical process of communicating with mysterious beings in a dark, cold, liquid world through a nearly invisible filament—then nothing can disappoint you. Since you’re expecting nothing but the journey, everything that happens—or doesn’t—ends up a delight.

Whatever twists and turns fate may hand us, life’s simply too short to jump from one expectation-to-disappointment nosedive to the next. So my reflection, my self-examination, continues. If, every day, I can replace just one “If only…” with
a “Wasn’t that amazing?” I am on my way.

For it is, indeed, not the catching, but the fishing that keeps me coming back.


            “Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that 

              it is not the fish they are after.” HENRY DAVID THOREAU

Friday, May 13, 2016

SHORT, BLACK AND GERMAN – The Dogs I Have Loved

SABER THE SECOND OF HAWTHORNE
The dog I grew up with was not exactly the stuff of an active, outdoorsy, towhead boy’s dreams. You know, the hearty, exuberant Old Yeller type. No, Saber was a dachshund—his pedigree proclaimed him Saber the Second of Hawthorne.

PHOTO: MyDachshunds.info

Now I’ve never met a dog I didn’t love, but in Saber’s case I also hated him. I know it wasn’t entirely his fault; my mom had a way of making our family pets kind of neurotic. He was fidgety, paranoid and, well, just didn’t have a very good grasp of who or what he was. And he smelled, all the time, as if he had just eaten rotten fish.

The smell was the easy part; I could always hold my breath…or, even better, just keep my distance. But what I couldn’t escape was the slurping.

Saber slept in my room, in a little bed over in the corner by the radiator. Every night just after lights out he’d start licking himself. Which was fine…for the first few minutes. But it went on and on and on, this slow, syrupy slopping.

I was a pretty mellow kid, but this sound tapped into some kind of deep-seated rage. At first, just barking No! at him would do the trick. But each night I’d have to increase the volume and frequency of my rebukes.

Then it got to the point where the little bastard just ignored me. That’s when I started reaching down to the floor for one of my slippers and just winging it at the sound.

Though I’m pretty sure it wasn’t from a concussion, I don’t remember exactly when or how Saber passed on. (I hope he ended up in a place where he could mop his privates to his little heart’s content.) I’m sure his passing left more of a void for my mom than it did for me; she never had to listen to that infernal slurping.

LADY
My second dog was everything Saber the Second of Hawthorne was not.

When I was a lad, we spent summers at my parents’ summer home about an hour north of the Twin Cities on the lovely St. Croix River. Those halcyon days found me—after my chores were done—playing in the corn and alfalfa fields, hiking up in the hills, catching frogs along Lawrence Creek, swimming down at the river, or fishing.

One mid-July morning I opened our twangy-springed screen door and found a dog—a young black Labrador mix—curled up on the stoop’s dewy floorboards. She was pretty scrawny, her coat matted with burrs and spots of blood where she’d been cut by thorns or who knows what. Her floppy underside and extended nipples told me she’d recently had pups. (I never did find out what happened to those pups.)

She looked up at me hopefully, pleadingly, and it was love at first sight. We asked around, ran a notice in the local weekly, and waited. With good food, a safe place to sleep and lots of affection, her body soon filled out and the wounds healed. I named her Lady. And, despite my parents’ admonitions, I prayed no one would claim her.

No one did. And Lady and I became partners in crime for one of the most wonderful summers of my life. We played and explored to our hearts’ content, inseparable.

          While my thoughts those days went 
          no further than the present moment, 
          my parents, I’m sure, were agonizing 
          over the inevitable.

I trained her, well enough to make her a welcome house mate, but apparently not to inhibit her wild instincts; she still managed to find dead, moldering carcasses to roll in—snakes, birds, fish…to her they were all like the finest perfume. And she got grounded for a week after killing one of our neighbors’ geese.

But Lady was a good dog…the best dog.

PHOTO: ChickenSmoothie.com

While my thoughts those days went no further than the present moment, my parents were agonizing over the inevitable: come late August, when we moved back into the confines of the city and our fragile, antiquarian mansion with its small yard, what would we do with Lady?

Their decision struck me blind with grief and anger. Lady, they insisted, would move to Rolla, Missouri to live with my sister, who had a bigger yard and a more forgiving house. She lived there for some years, and then returned to Minneapolis where she spent the rest of her life. My sister and her family were very good to her.

I understood the wisdom of my parents’ decision—more so as I aged and became a parent myself—but deep inside my boyish heart I’ve never forgiven them.

POOH BEAR
After college, between starting architecture school, the serious threat of being shipped off to Vietnam, and scrounging for borrowed and rented housing, there was no room in my life for a dog.

But in the early 70s, even though by that time I was married and had a baby (a human one), I felt I’d been too long without a dog. We’d moved from Minnesota to New England where I was teaching and coaching at Vermont Academy, a private boarding school nestled between ski slopes and trout streams in Saxtons River, Vermont.

It was an emotionally tough time, what with the demands of my new family, my being largely unprepared to be a teacher, classrooms full of partially-wasted students who’d been stuck there against their wills, and one campus group vowing to kill me for reporting a few of their friends for doing drugs in their dorm room.

I was out of my element in so many ways. I desperately needed some sense of control in my life, a relationship that would be easy and fun. So I went to the local humane society. I wasn’t sure what I wanted…until I saw him. The sweetest little thing, all squiggly with excitement and love. And, wouldn’t you know it, another black lab.

        I hope he had a good life—with a wiser, 
        more considerate master than I.

Ah, yes, little Pooh Bear. What I was thinking?!! I didn’t even know if dogs were allowed in our in-dorm faculty apartments. Besides, with a wife, a baby and a demanding schedule, I wasn’t sure how I’d keep him from waking us up at night, or even where I’d find the time to care for and train yet another new member of the family.

Furthermore, Pooh Bear was not house-broken—not even close. For the first few weeks, I kept him, secretly, in a closet in my art classroom/studio. Every night I’d cover the floor with several layers of newspaper, put him out to do his business and then nestle him into his blanket in the corner. The cries and scratching began even before I could close the door. I tried not to listen.


Next morning, every morning, before classes, I’d open that door to find the poor little guy jumping out of his skin with excitement…and covered—along with the now-paperless floor and the walls up as high as he could reach standing on his hind legs—in shit. Pooh Bear, indeed. Potty training him alone was going to be tough; I didn’t even know where to start.

Things did not improve, so, alas, shamefully admitting defeat, I returned Pooh Bear to the shelter, hoping against hope that I’d not irreparably traumatized him. I hope he had a good life—with a wiser, more considerate master than I.

BOSSY BESSIE
I don’t know if that whole Pooh Bear debacle had anything to do with it, but in 1976, now back in Minnesota with two kids, my first marriage ended in divorce. I was ashamed for not having had what it took to be a good enough husband and father to keep our family together.

Deeply mourning the loss of my kids (their mom wasted no time in whisking them back to her happy place, New England) I could barely put one foot in front of the other.

I needed therapy…the kind I knew only a certain breed of dog could administer. So I headed once again for the humane society. It took a few visits, but eventually my stars aligned with those of the third black lab mix in my life, Bess.

Over the next several years, Bess and I grew very attached. At last, I had the time and temperament to really train her and gain her trust. We shared our deepest thoughts—well, my deepest thoughts. We bonded. Her name evolved to Bessie, and then, during my mushiest, most sentimental moments, to Bossy Bessie. Don’t ask.

PHOTO: Pixabay

Bess and I often went back up to the family’s summer place on the St. Croix, where she did exactly what Lady used to do those many years ago: bounding joyfully through the fields; following me—that is, when she wasn’t waylaid by a smell quest; and, yes, anointing herself in eau de rotting flesh.

We even survived a tornado together. It was the classic story: Hot, humid July afternoon, and I’m on the second floor repairing a window. It gets eerily still, and the sun’s swallowed up in dark, kind of greenish clouds. Big rain. Hail. And then the classic deep, rumbling, train-like roar.

Bessie felt it before I did, the vacuum created by the giant sucking vortex bearing down on us. I grabbed the radio and a flashlight, and we ran down to the basement. In less than a minute it was quiet again.

We headed up and poked our heads out the back door. Trees were down; the garage roof was gone; and right next to it, the entire flat, tar-and-gravel roof of the apartment building next door lay across our back yard.

       Anything for love, I rationalized, not 
       yet quite aware that I'd just given up the 
       right dog for the wrong woman.

During the Bess era, I got married again. My new wife was a suburbanite through and through. Fastidious. Clear vision of the lifestyle she expected. And she came with attachments: two kids and a foo-foo little dog named Bibi. She couldn't quite picture perfect little Bibi having any competition in our new, modern, immaculate suburban home. And I…well…I was an idiot.

In the spirit of compromise—I'm still not sure what she gave up as her end of the bargain—I agreed to do with Bess what my parents had done 30 years before with Lady. I found her a nice, loving home on a farm near Red Wing. And Bibi, well, ironically, a few months later the precious little thing was run over by a car.

Driving away from that farm, seeing my sweet Bossy Bessie in the rear view mirror, for what I knew would be the last time, tore my heart out. Anything for love, I rationalized, not yet quite aware that I'd just given up the right dog for the wrong woman.

Against my better judgement, I did go to visit Bess once. It was surreal. Half of me prayed she'd come bounding out to welcome me; the other half hoped she wouldn't. She didn't. No one was home and she was nowhere to be seen. Probably for the best, but my heart ached anew.

SILVER GIRL
It took me nearly as long to recover from my abandoning my best friend as from my second divorce. Eventually, though, I moved on. Bought a sweet little home in the city—which is where I finally realized I belong. Even fell in love again.

Once more, I was with someone who already had her own kids…and dog. But his time I knew that, even if I'd brought a pack of pit bulls to the deal, Sally, the ultimate dog person, would never have dreamt of asking me to give them up.

Maxwell, Sally's miniature schnauzer, was, shall we say, an acquired taste. Grumpy, yippy, paranoid…and not a black lab. Nonetheless, we loved him well for the rest of his life.

Eventually Sally and I got married and, with both of us having put our child-rearing years well behind us, into our lives tottered our second miniature schnauzer, Abby. Well, Sally actually bought her for her son. But Matt was a carefree, socially active young man soon headed off to college; I knew all along Abby was going to be our dog.

PHOTO: Pixabay

Abby was the black-and-silver variety of schnauzer. And on her the “silver” was really silver. I mean it had both the light gray color and nearly the same metallic luster as the precious metal. We came to call her, in our tenderest moments with her, our Silver Girl.

   We never did figure out why she got so excited 
   every time I mentioned the name of then- 
   Minnesota Twin, David Ortiz.

I suppose I could go to great lengths explaining all of Abby’s special qualities, but if you’ve ever had a really good dog, you know them: Her unfailing excitement to see us; the way she looked into our eyes—sometimes angling for a treat; other times just wondering what we were thinking; her keen sense of right and wrong; her amazing vocabulary—in both Dog and English. (We never did figure out why she got so excited every time I mentioned the name of then-Minnesota Twin, David Ortiz.)

The traits that most stand out, though, are those Abby exhibited as she neared the end of her life—the grace with which she moved, even as her body was failing; the loving gaze of those now-cloudy eyes; and her sheer tenacity.

As lovely as such qualities were during those final weeks, the ones they brought out of me were even more unexpected. I never knew how tender and patient I could be until I carried her out to the lawn and held her upright while she piddled; until I cleaned up her increasingly-frequent indoor accidents…without the slightest annoyance; until I held that bony, feeble frame in my arms for the last time, soothing her with soft-spoken praise.


            I knelt beside her, placed my hand 
            on her bony side and knew.

On Abby’s last last night with us, Sally’d had to go to bed because of an early appointment the next morning. Before I joined her, I carried Abby outside to piddle. Then, as I laid her gently into her dark green, pillowy bed, I had a strong feeling that her time was close at hand.

I lay down with my head against her side, listening to her slow, shallow breathing, until I was sure she was asleep. And then, tearfully, I went up to bed.

On her way out early next morning, Sally noticed Abby sleeping in the same place I’d left her. But when I went down two hours later I was apprehensive. There was our sweet Abby, out of her bed, lying in the middle of the floor. I knelt beside her, placed my hand on her bony side and knew. Our Silver Girl was gone.

Maybe it was the fact that she was the one dog I’d known intimately from puppyhood until the day she died, but Abby, of all the fine dogs I’ve loved, was and is the canine love of my life. The mere thought of her still brings tears to my eyes.

It’s been nearly seven years now, and I still don’t know if there will ever be a place in my heart for another dog. But, just recently, I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that Abby, as protective as she was of her space, may finally be ready to move over and make room.

Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring—it was peace. ~ MILAN KUNDERA

Sunday, May 8, 2016

SELF-DRIVING CARS – And Other Collisions With Consciousness

I don't know about you, but I’ve never been able to read a book outdoors. It’s like, okay, here I am, worshiping in the sacred temple of deep woods. So I think I’ll just tune that out, escape to Manhattan and engage in some sexy shenanigans with Eva and Gidean.

What?

      These days folks walk around with their 
      thoughts as far away from the here and now 
      as a gasp of wonder is from a yawn.

The advent of iPads and smart phones has not helped. These days folks walk around—not just in the woods or mountains, at the beach or on the water, but anywhere at all—with their heads down, their thoughts as far away from the here and now as a gasp of wonder is from a yawn.


A HARD BARGAIN
Don’t get me wrong; I’m no Luddite. Technology is amazing. The irony that I'm here every day, urging moderation in the use of the very same media I employ to air that message is not lost on me.

But the key word there is moderation. It’s one thing to break up a long road trip by letting the kids play a video game or watch a movie in the back seat; it’s another to let them arrive at your destination utterly clueless as to the characters, landscapes and happenings they’ve passed along the way—not to mention the goings-on inside the car.

So, back to the progression of technology at the expense of consciousness. We are now very close to seeing the mass marketing of a driver-less car. Aside from the obvious concerns about safety, how might this hasten the already-alarming atrophy of human awareness, curiosity and wonder? Could it further deepen our separation from Nature?

I’ve discussed this with my wife, who’s a fierce advocate of technology. She points out that with no need for drivers or passengers to keep their eyes on the road, the robotic car might actually increase one's ability to enjoy the scenery. But I’m not buyin’ it. My money's on most folks turning to their iToys or laptops, or even—now here’s a quaint notion—reading the newspaper.

    Anyone else find it sad that the only way this 
    new concept of transportation will transport 
    you is from point A to point B?

A PERFECT SYMBIOSIS?
I was going to say we’ll know I’m right when car makers start touting the obsolescence of windows. But that evidence is already old news. In the May 15, 2015 issue of the Atlantic, the article “Why Driverless Cars Don’t Need Windows” (excerpted from author Peter Waymer’s book Future Ride) paints what seems to me a grim, dystopian picture:
 “Daimler doesn't seem to think the passengers will spend much time actually looking out (of windows). Photos from the company emphasize the way that four passengers can sit facing each other, talking, working or playing games, all while ignoring the outside world.” (Anyone else find it sad that the only way this new concept of transportation will transport you is from point A to point B?)


“Daimler sees the car of the future as a ‘digital living space’ that provides ‘a perfect symbiosis of the virtual and the real world.’” (And what part of this would you describe as the “real world?”)
 “The sentimental among us may still choose windows out of nostalgia, but... accountants will flinch at extra costs and almost certainly grow to see windows as an extra expense that breaks too easily and adds too much to the air-conditioning bill.” (I'll tell you what breaks too easily: the human spirit when we allow others to decide what is and what isn't worth looking at.)

     Call me old-fashioned, but I’m going to fight 
     for the right to look out...at the real world.

KEEPING YOUR HEAD DOWN

Might those bean counters someday reach the same visionless conclusion about other vehicles? Trains? Airplanes? How about our homes?

And might we human beings, besides our already-predicted evolution toward bigger eyes, wider butts and longer fingers, eventually transform into so many forward-slumping, nearsighted moles, incapable, any more, of looking up or out
at anything?

What do you think? Are you ready for a windowless world? Not me! Call me old-fashioned, but I’m going to fight for the right to look up and out, whether I’m walking or riding or flying—or just sitting in those deep woods—at the genuine, perfectly beautiful, first-hand miracles of the real world.