Thursday, August 5, 2021

FLASH IN THE PAN – A Taste for Nature’s Ephemera

My one-hundred-pound Pacific sailfish is finally tiring. It leans away from the pull of my line, its whole being perpendicular to my will. At this point, it’s like trying to reel in a four-by-eight sheet of plywood sideways.

I lug it closer to the side of the panga and the gloved hand of my guide. He grabs the sandpapery bill, and for one magical moment an iridescent, yet improbably deep, indigo blue floods the creature’s unfurled sail. 


By the time the skipper hoists the fish up on the gunwale for a quick picture, the color is gone, as if drained back down into the fish’s body, leaving just flat, dead gray.* Just that fast and the magic has vanished. Even though we’ll release the beautiful creature, I’m sad.

BREACH OF CONTACT
That experience has me thinking about how many other of Nature’s wonders are fleeting. Either you see them at first blush…or you don’t. Or, in some cases you don’t even know where to look.

That’s what it was like when Sally and I sailed aboard the Searcher, a 20-passenger cruise boat that plies the waters around the Baja Peninsula for ten days of high-quality whale encounters. Many times during that cruise, we found ourselves in places where whales were surfacing or breaching all around us.

I’d glimpse motion in my peripheral vision, but by the time I could turn my eyes, the leaping leviathan was back in the water and all I’d see was the splash. Alas, the languid slo-mo we’re used to seeing on Nat Geo’s or Discovery’s glorious whale segments was not an option.

Trying to photograph a breach was even harder. I spent hours fixing my lens on a random patch of ocean, hoping that would be where the next whale would eventually explode out of the water.

       Your odds may be slim, but if you don’t try,
      the odds are zero.


WHACK-A-MOLE
So, is there anything one can do to improve the odds of actually witnessing more of Nature’s ephemeral wonders?

Like any long shot, your odds may be slim, but one thing’s for sure. If you don’t try, the odds are zero. So the first tip is simply to put yourself out there. Go places where amazing stuff is likely to happen.

I’m reading a book, Phenomenal, by Leigh Ann Henion, a travel writer who devoted several years of her life to pursuing some of the world’s most elusive natural phenomena: the aurora borealis in northern Sweden, volcanic eruptions in Hawai’i, the massing of monarch butterflies in Michoacan, Mexico, the annual wildebeest migration in Tanzania, and Catatumbo lightening, whose spectacular show explodes over Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo around 150 nights a year.


Though I find such a quest quite appealing, one needn’t venture to the ends of the earth to find precious, short-lived wonders.

A snowflake alighted on your bare hand, a streaking meteor, the wink of a firefly, a bolt of lightning, or the materialization of a cloud out of clear, blue sky.

Sometimes these wonders surprise you. Or maybe you’re looking for them, but they keep popping up, like a round of whack-a-mole, just out of sight. But you keep trying, and, even though your odds are no better the next time, chances over your lifetime do improve.

SPOTTED LEOPARD
The second tip I’d offer makes a subtle distinction. Lifetimes of education and culture have instilled in many of us a kind of tunnel vision. We’re used to looking for specific things in specific places.

But in the realm of wonder spotting, the trick is to broaden that view. While you might not, at first, be able to see the happening or the critter itself, the effect it has on its surroundings just might give it away.

For example, I’m canoeing in a murky, six-inch-deep backwater. I can’t see the hulking, five- to ten-pound carp darting here and there as my canoe disturbs their affairs. But if I open up my focus, what I can see are the fish’s wakes subtly mounding the water’s surface like so many torpedo trails.


Or, let’s say I’m trying to spot a leopard in Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve. If I’m looking just for a large, tawny, dappled cat, I’ll most likely look in vain. But when I take the specifics of color and pattern out of the equation and simply look for a break in the normal pattern of low tree branches, by God, there it is.

The other tip I offer for witnessing more of Nature’s flashes in the pan involves attitude. There’s a big difference between hoping for wonder and expecting it. I love former Nat. Geo. photographer Dewitt Jones’s turn of a phrase: “You gotta believe it to see it.”

 A little humility makes one so much more powerful.

THE EPIPHANY OF OUR AGE
I suppose all of this offers a valuable lesson on the impermanence of just about anything in life. Of life itself.

In fact, if we’re able to step back from our narrow presumptions, diffuse our focus and view things in the context of everything else, of eternal time and fathomless space, the importance of our own existence diminishes. Only then can we experience true wonder. Only then can we see that from the Universe’s perspective we ourselves are the ephemeral curiosities.

A little humility makes one so much more powerful.

And that, in this era pitting political leaders’ outsized egos and wimpy backbones against a global pandemic, troubling threats to democracy and impending climate catastrophe, just might prove the epiphany of our age.

* A sailfish’s color is caused not by contact with the air, but by a reaction to stress by the fish’s nervous system. The sail’s spectacular color returns soon after the fish is released.


Sunday, July 25, 2021

LAST LEGS – Giving My All to Walking Tall

On the self-consciousness scale of one to ten, I’m about a six. It’s far from an obsession, but it does enter my mind now and then: How do I look or sound—or smell, for that matter—to others?

But the list of things I’m self-conscious about has seldom included how I walk. Until about my fifties, that is. That’s when putting one foot nicely in front of the other started becoming something I could no longer take for granted.

MY ACHING BACK
I was a jock all the way through college and beyond. In high school, I’d played football for a leathery ex-Marine coach who labeled a sniveling coward anyone who shied from blocking or tackling head-first.


When I was a junior in college, I was in a bad car accident. Most of the damage involved having my face pushed in, but I always wondered if any musculoskeletal after-effects might show up.

Then there was about 20 years of ice hockey. Oh, and flipping 60- to 80-pound canoes up and down from my shoulders—something I’ve kept doing into my mid-seventies.

So, though I suspect none of these factors by itself resulted in significant impairment, together, I’m afraid they stirred up a perfect storm of damage to my poor spine.

TILT!
I’ll never forget the day, about six years ago, when my orthopedic surgeon at Mayo showed me that CT scan of my spine. It wasn’t just a bit worse for wear; it looked like the backbone of someone who’d just jumped off a cliff…and landed on his tail bone.

The surgery alleviated the worst of my referred-pain symptoms, but it could not fix what decades of degeneration had wrought. Alas, the 15-degree sideways S-curve in my spine remains.

Crumbling discs, narrowing nerve pathways, bone-on-bone abrasion. By rights, I should be a cripple…but I’m determined not to look like it. So, of course, I’ve  grown quite conscious of trying to stand straight, walk tall, and not limp.

By the time I knew what was happening I’d already lost the battle between dexterity and gravity.

RUDE AWAKENING
Now that I’m in my mid-seventies, my screwy spine is just part of my posture problem. There’s also the inevitable wear and tear of aging on one’s bones and muscles. Not to mention balance, that precious asset whose denigration is a dead giveaway for old folks and drunks.

(I sometimes wonder, if I ever got pulled over on suspicion of DWI, would I be able to walk the straight line—even if I hadn’t touched a drop? I doubt it.)

That reminds me, I’ve recently had a couple of sobering falls. One time I unknowingly stepped off a curb, and by the time I knew what was happening I’d already lost the battle between dexterity and gravity. 

 
FLATTENING THE CURVE
A few years ago, my wife Sally started pointing out that I slouch. Ever since, I’ve made an effort to suck in my gut, rock my hips forward and pull my shoulders back.

Doing so actually feels pretty good. At first, the resident pain in my lower back eases and I feel younger, stronger. I imagine that Sally’s not seeing me as a stooped old man. After a few minutes, though, it starts to feel like a lot of work. I let go of the effort…and of my short-lived fantasy.

     Every time I pretend the curve’s still there,
     it’s like trying to bend a two-by-four.


I’ve come to realize why standing straight is so hard for me: When most folks rock their hips forward to stand straighter, they’re actually flattening out the smalls of their backs—those inward curves most people have just above their butts.

But after my lumbar spinal fusion I no longer have a small of the back. That surgery, by fusing together the three vertebra central to the lumbar spine, flattened out the curve and rendered it more or less rigid. So every time I pretend the curve’s still there, it’s like trying to bend a two-by-four—one anchored, by the way, by four three-inch titanium screws.

LITTLE BIG MAN
Walking tall is about more than appearances or pride; it’s also a survival strategy.

Some years ago, my friend Silverio and I spent a very late night in a bar on Garibaldi Square, one of Mexico City’s seediest attractions, notorious not just for its glut of mariachi bands, but for its rogues gallery of thieves, beggars and drunks.

As we’re stumbling out of the place in the wee hours, a group of four or five wiry young men approach and start harassing us. All five-foot-eight of Silverio puffs out his chest, swaggers right up to the punks and gets in their faces.

They backed off, opting to look for someone less formidable.

Later, I asked Silverio about the incident. He explained that, growing up in that close-quarters city of 20-million, he’d learned the hard way that stature is about more than height; it’s also about attitude, the way you carry that height.

To this day, when I take our dog, Sylvia, out for her last walk before bed each night, believe it or not I find myself channeling Silverio, aware of exactly what the way I walk says about me and my vulnerability.

        Like my dancer alter ego, I’ll hobble
        as if no one’s watching.


HOBBLING WITH GRACE
Especially to us humans, a spine fit for walking also means freedom. It’s hard to imagine losing that elemental ability to go wherever we want, whenever we want, under our own power.

But lose it we will. Aging and physics assure it. In the meantime, I plan to fight the inevitable at every turn. Can’t walk so well? I suppose I’ll get a brace or use a walker. Still can’t walk? There’s always a wheelchair. (My mom got around pretty well in one till she was 100.)

And what about the self-consciousness? I guess I’m counting on its waning at the same rate as my abilities. Like my dancer alter ego, I’ll learn to hobble as if no one’s watching.

Something I now know that I didn’t when I started writing this post: Consciousness—of others, of Nature, of joy—is just too precious to waste any more of it on how I walk.

“Look outside and you will see yourself. Look inside and you will
find yourself.”
  ~ DREW GERALD

Sunday, June 20, 2021

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT - Tip #117

DABBLE IN DAPPLED SUNLIGHT





 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Precious sunlight’s the medium. Foliage becomes both stencil and lens. Separate leaves cast their own shapes; the spaces between, that of the sun.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

A MILE IN MY OWN SHOES – The Ways of Wanderlust

It’s silly I know, but one of the ways my Latin American travel/adventure trips move from crazy notion to harebrained scheme to actual occurrence is that I envision one of my favorite pairs of shoes stepping down the streets or trails of that distant place. Oh…and I’m in the shoes.

For Puebla, Mexico, it was my then-brand-new Keen ultra-lite sandals. In Buenos Aires, it was the Merrell Encore clogs. Havana saw me mostly in my Ecco Yucatan sandals. And now, for my upcoming fall trip to Oaxaca, it will be my new, buttery-soft Birchbury leather sneakers.


Why does it take footwear to lead me to such places? I suppose it’s like any other serious intention in life; to make room for adventure in a future that may not be ready for it, or thinks it’s already scripted for something else, it helps to imagine oneself there. The rest of the plan then starts falling into place around that image.

The shoes get me to that place of my imagining in a way that simply Googling the place cannot. More than just reading someone’s description or looking at photos, they seem to put me there physically. I can actually feel it, my connection with the ground.


FEEL THE YEARN
I remember reading Thomas Mann’s novella, Tonio Kröger, when I was in high school. Mann used the distant sound of the Posthorn to represent the siren song of Tonio’s wanderlust.

There’s nothing as powerful as a dream. For some, like Tonio, it’s just a hazy, unsettling yearning; for others it’s more like a prayer. I see it as simply committing my wishes to the wise ways of the Universe. And, since my Higher Power wants me to be happy, it makes space in the future for the fulfillment of those wishes and then enlists my own intentions, planning and a bit of elbow grease to make them happen.

You see, I have this hunger to keep expanding the realm of my being. To learn new things, meet new people, behold ever-more-stirring expressions of Nature’s beauty, get out of my egocentric, way-too-busy self and closer to the ideal of oneness with everything.

Nothing better satisfies that yearning than travel. (And travel, specifically to Hispanophone places, also lets me pursue my late-in-life quest to get reasonably fluent in Spanish.)

            My wanderlust exerts the same pull
            that being a homebody does, but in
            a different direction.


DIFFERENT STROKES
I realize that, for many, life’s less about opening new realms than deepening the ones they already occupy. That’s fine. I actually envy you homebodies, for your ability to happily grow where you’re planted. And for the strength of your commitments to a beloved place and the people you make sure frequent it.


I suppose I could say my wanderlust exerts the same kind of pull that being a homebody does, but in a different direction. To be honest, though, I feel a bit guilty about how selfish it is. I try to salve the guilt by recalling how many other worthy endeavors demand a choice between familiarity and exploration.

Wanderluster. Full-nester. Aren’t they really like introvert and extrovert, where one is better than the other only for certain purposes. Shouldn’t it be possible to be some of both, to balance the two?

How does one do that? As my mother used to say, when you’re torn between two valid paths, sometimes you just have to follow your nose…

…and, I would add, your shoes.

"To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted."
BILL BRYSON

 

Saturday, February 27, 2021

THE BLINK OF AN EYE – And the Curse of Panception

You know those optical sleights of hand where you have to look at an image in a different way in order to spot the cryptic subject? Then, once you’ve seen it, you can’t not see it?

That’s the way many of life’s small wonders embed themselves in one’s consciousness. Things so elusive at first that they get lost in the surrounding noise—or so commonplace as to become invisible simply for their omnipresence. Like one’s own heartbeat or the muted tapping of fingers on computer keyboards.

Well, I’ve discovered another of these riveting minutiae: eye blinking. 

It was during an interview I recently watched on TV. I probably should have been listening to the dialog, but no, I had to notice the eyes. Turns out the guest blinked hers occasionally—maybe once every five or six seconds. But the host batted his eyes at about three times that rate—like every one to two seconds.

Now I suppose we could debate what accounted for the difference. But that’s not the point. The point is that now I can’t see, or hear…or smell anything but blinking. My God, what if I start obsessing about my own blinkin’ eyes?

I guess it’s just the curse of being what I call a panceptive. You notice everything, even stuff you might wish you hadn’t. A deal with the devil.

Is it worth it? Well, I’m overstating the price of panception just a little. So, attempts at humor aside, of course it’s worth it. Keep your eyes peeled, pay attention, be curious, expect wonder…

…and don’t blink.

   “In the concert of life, are you tuned in to the musicians? To the
     conductor? Perhaps it's the music, taking you far away.
     All that presence asks is that, wherever experience takes you, that's
     where you go—fully, gladly and all the way.”
      
        FROM UNDER THE WILD GINGER – A SIMPLE GUIDE TO THE WISDOM OF WONDER, BY JEFFREY D. WILLIUS


Tuesday, February 16, 2021

BREATHING AS ONE – A Meditation Greenhorn’s Epiphany

Ages ago Sally and I took a community-ed meditation class. About all I remember is something our instructor called a “cleansing breath.” And that I enjoyed some of his guided meditations.

So I’m far from a sophisticated meditator, but with that modest intro I’ve devised my own technique which works just fine. It helps me relax and keep things in perspective during these nightmarish times.

 

I usually start a session by watching the “shape” of my breathing—visualizing it not as two distinct movements—in, stop, out, stop—but as one continuous, elliptical cycle.

Once that rhythm is set I picture the inhalations bringing in good stuff, like positive energy, light, abundance, healing… and the exhalations expelling all the bad stuff: negativity, darkness, scarcity and illness/pain. It’s kind of like a pump…or better a conveyor belt; you grab things you want as it winds in, and dump your trash on it as it heads back out.

     All time, past and future, has swirled together
     into this little present-moment eddy.


A PRESENT-MOMENT EDDY
During this morning’s meditation I experienced something remarkable. I’d just gotten my breathing down when, suddenly, the space it occupied grew from arm’s-length scale to cosmic.

One second, I’m thinking of myself and my own respiration; the next, I have this profound sense that somehow my breath is commingling with other breaths, those of loved ones and ancestors, strangers on the other side of the world, and anyone who’s ever entered this sublime, out-of-body dimension.

I drift off magically through space and time, feeling deeply that everything under creation is connected, in me and of me. And that all time, past and future, has swirled together into this little present-moment eddy.

It’s not that I’ve never had this sense before, but usually it’s been more a fleeting glimpse, not there long enough to make the leap from the  intellectual to the emotional. This time it does though; it feels so powerful, so very real.

Curiously, as my soul soars like this, I’ve never felt more grounded, more centered.

A SILVER LINING
One of my fondest wishes during the pandemic and the other convulsions wracking our poor planet has been that something good will come of it all. Something transformational about how we treat each other and our precious planet.

If it were nothing else, I’d settle for a very deep, broad, cross-cultural sense that we’re all—we and all of Nature’s miracles—connected as one. And a contagion of empathy.


I think that connection is what I experienced this morning. I hope I can let it percolate through me, flavoring not just my rarefied reveries, but all my comings and goings.

And I pray it might find the light of day, too, in you and in everyone, everywhere…and soon.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

THANKS HALF A MILLION!

WOW! Half a million visits!

If I had a nickel for everyone who’s dropped in here at my One Man’s Wonder blog, I’d still be poor. But it’s not about the money; it’s about the sense of connection with people—from 77 countries so far—who share my passion for noticing and celebrating small wonders.

Keep checking out my occasional ramblings, and keep walking in your own ways of wonder.

Many thanks to all!