Friday, September 23, 2016

STANDING TALL – How I (with considerable help) Conquered Chronic Back Pain

This post is about my recent spine surgery (posterior lumbar 3-4 decompression and fusion) at the Mayo Clinic—aided by guided self-hypnosis—and my miraculous recovery to date.

One Man's Wonder is about seeing and celebrating small wonders. Still, once in a great while, I’m inspired by what seems a really, really big wonder. One of them has just happened to—and in—me. But as I’ve pondered how best to write about it, I realize that even this great miracle was, after all, simply a confluence of many small ones.

        Turning away from that battering-ram 
        impact was tantamount to cowardice.

NOT A CHICKEN
At the exclusive private school I attended from sixth to twelfth grade, American-style football was mandatory. That’s right, unless one had a very good excuse, every boy in the junior-high grades had to play full-contact football.

I didn’t love the sport, but I continued playing it through high school simply because most of my friends did. Indeed, it was a way to belong and in some ways a welcome personal challenge. But most of all I suppose it was simply a right of passage.

My high school coach was a little bulldog of a man, a rough-around-the-edges ex-Marine who I suspect was hired by the school’s well-meaning leadership to counter the softening effects of our otherwise mollycoddled lives.

PHOTO: ImageSourceInternational

To prove to Coach Rasmussen that we weren’t “chicken” or, still worse, what he called a bunch of “snot-nosed pantywaists sipping parfaits by the country club pool,” we were expected to block and tackle ferociously, always leading with our heads. Turning away from that battering-ram impact was tantamount to cowardice.

This and, to be fair, some genetic factors—was the beginning of the end for my poor spine.

         This was the spine of a crippled person.

EXHAUSTING THE POSSIBILITIES
Flash forward to April, 2015. It was then, after decades of increasingly limiting back problems—stiffness, pain, crippling muscle spasms—that whatever was amiss in my spine started sending intense pain signals to my left hip and groin.

It had been coming on gradually over several years, but now I could no longer walk or even stand for more than a few minutes. So I finally decided I had to do something about it.

When I first saw the MRIs, I thought they must have gotten them switched with someone else's. This spine curved where it shouldn't—side to side—and didn't curve where it should—the normal front-and-back curve of the "small of the back" was now stovepipe straight. Some of these vertebrae didn't even sit squarely one atop the next, as if someone had attempted to pull one out of the stack, Jenga-wise.

No, this was the spine of a crippled person.

While confirming that it was indeed my spine, Dr. W, the first orthopedist I saw, wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. He insisting we do something about my back pain, even though I kept reminding him that the worst of my pain was coming from my hip and groin.

As if to prove me wrong, he sent me off to several weeks of physical therapy. It did not help. (Even so, I did learn from this orthopedist that all of these futile attempts to avoid surgery were hoops I'd have to jump through anyway in order for my health insurance to ultimately pay for it.)

There happens to be a real Chinese acupuncturist right upstairs from my office/studio, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to try that. Based on my brother’s recent success with acupuncture, I really thought it would work. The guy even sent electrical currents through the needles into my muscles and nerves. But, alas, after several weeks of treatments with no effect on my symptoms, I called it quits, feeling guilty that I’d let my very earnest, optimistic practitioner down.

A WINNING SEASON
So back to the orthopedist I went, and this time he suggested an epidural, the injection of cortisone directly into my spine right where he seemed to think my pain was originating. A week or so later, when I told him I’d gotten no relief from my hip pain, he looked shocked. “Hip pain!” he exclaimed. “An epidural can’t do anything for hip pain; we did that for your back pain.”

Goodbye orthopedist number one.

My second-opinion orthopedist, Dr. X, was younger, better looking…and a far better listener. He took one look at my images and pointed right to the problem: spinal stenosis; the nerve passageway through which my spinal nerve bundle * passes (at lumbar vertebrae three and four) had closed in, compressing the nerves that lead to my left hip and groin. Thus the “referred” pain I was feeling there; this made total sense.


I suppose I should have jumped at the chance to have Dr. X do the surgery he recommended to fix this. But I figured I still only had a .500 record with my medical opinions; not quite high enough for a winning season. So, since what is arguably the country’s finest medical center, the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, is just 80 miles south of my home—and, as luck would have it, they are in my HMO’s network—I decided to get a third opinion.

      Like some desperate little starlet trying to 

      break into pictures, I took what I could get.
 
MAYO…OR MAYO NOT

Note to anyone considering getting an appointment at the Mayo Clinic: Do not, as I foolishly did, try to simply book it through the “Make An Appointment” link on Mayo’s web site. Get your primary physician to refer you!

I don’t know what had possessed me—I suppose it was part of my effort to own my own cure—but I ended up spending several hours on the phone with Mayo’s gatekeepers. We even got down to such minutiae as an awkward little fall I’d taken while water-skiing the previous summer, and since then an occasional popping or snapping sensation in my left knee when I walk—completely unrelated to my longstanding back problems and hip pain.

PHOTO: entrepreneur.com

Though polite enough, the triage interviewers were far from encouraging. In fact, when I commented to one on how long the call was running, she replied, “Well, we want to make very sure that we have all the information we can get before denying a patient an appointment.” In disbelief I repeated her words back to her. She was quite apologetic…but it wasn’t the last time I’d hear words to that effect.

At least a week later, just as I’d all but given up on Mayo, I got a call. Turns out the orthopedic team had put their heads together to discuss my case. And they’d decided that Dr. Y would see me…about my knee.

Like some desperate little starlet trying to break into pictures, I took what I could get, figuring that once I was in I could re-direct them to my real problem.

As luck would have it, though, a few days later I got the call I’d been hoping for in the first place. Apparently, they’d taken another look at my plea, and Dr. Z, a lumbar spine surgeon, agreed to see me. Voilá, orthopedist number three.

        He’d open up the hole in my vertebra 
        which had closed in around the nerve 
        bundle and was causing my hip pain.

STAR-STRUCK
I suppose there's a good reason why the Mayo Clinic spends so much time on triage. Thousands of people from all over the world want to go there. But once I was in—I knew because I was given my “Mayo number,” which from then on I carried around with me like a badge of honor—everything changed. I felt like I’d just been accepted into some exclusive, high-priced club.

Mayo is indeed an amazing, historic, bustling international community. One can see it just walking around the campus. The whole place just reeks of excellence. A sea of patients—folks obviously of many cultures and walks of life—hobble or are wheeled around, indoors and out. Medical and support staff, appearing nearly as international themselves, hustle around efficiently.

A large, colorful, fluid installation by famed glass artist Dale Chihuly and music from a live pianist reduce the huge Gonda Building lobby to a congenial, human scale. (By the way, the rest of the Mayo's art collection, which adorns nearly every public space in every building, is nothing short of magnificent.)

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

NUTS & BOLTS
Dr. Z—actually Dr. Brett A. Freedman—collected and reviewed all the diagnostic reports and images I’d amassed to date and then scheduled me for two days of back-to-back diagnostic and information-gathering appointments in Rochester. Then I met with him and heard his evaluation and proposal.

He confirmed orthopedist number two’s diagnosis of spinal stenosis and recommended a posterior lumbar 3-4 decompression and fusion. In other words, he’d open up the hole in my vertebra which had closed in around the nerve bundle and was causing my hip pain. Then, to stabilize the site, he’d take a bone graft from my right hip, grind it up, mix it with some “cadaver bone” and use that amalgam to fill the space between vertebrae three and four.

Finally, he’d install four two-and-a-half-inch-long screws to hold the whole new bone assembly in place and let the fusion solidify.

      My mental and spiritual leap of faith 
      just took on a sobering financial dimension.

MEDI(doesn’t)CARE
PHOTO: Jeangagnon.com
Meanwhile, I’d been doing my best to ensure that, whatever I ended up doing, my insurance would cover it. After a half dozen phone calls to Mayo and Health Partners (HP), my HMO, I found myself in buck-passing’s proverbial revolving door. HP insisted I get written prior authorization for the surgery from Mayo. Mayo, citing the fact that Medicare, not HP, would be the primary payer, refused. And both informed me that Medicare won’t even talk to them, much less me, about whether they’ll cover anything.

The breakthrough came when, at my insistence, Mayo finally conceded that, if I demanded it, they’d have to provide the prior authorization. I did; they did; and at least Health Partners was happy.

I never did hear word one from Medicare, but a week later I got a letter from HP approving coverage—with the notable caveat: “Health Partners will pay if and only if Medicare pays.” My mental and spiritual leap of faith just took on a sobering financial dimension. **

        It said I could expect to suffer at least 
        two weeks of the worst pain I’ve ever felt.

THIS IS GOING TO HURT!
Dr. Freedman was, on the one hand, brutally honest about the possible down side of the proposed surgery. The first thing that stood out for me on his information sheet was that only two of three patients could expect at least a 50 percent reduction of their symptoms. Hm-m-m, not exactly the kind of odds I’d risk more than a few bucks on in Vegas.

Secondly, it said there is no cure for general back pain. Even though my referred hip pain might be reduced or even eliminated, chances are I’d continue to experience some degree of back discomfort.

Finally, it said that, following surgery, I could expect to suffer at least two weeks of the worst pain I’ve ever felt. Are you kidding me? Why would he even say this? Wishing not to rile someone who might soon hold my life in his hands, I decided he must have had a good reason.

PHOTO: hanqiu.com

BEATING THE ODDS
On the other hand, Dr. Freedman’s obvious enthusiasm about my case was quite encouraging. His carefully worded suggestion was that, because of my positive attitude and generally good physical condition, I would be an excellent candidate for the surgery. I took this to mean that my odds might be a good deal better than those noted in the official “party line.”

So, considering those self-enhanced odds—countered by any number of articles out there in cyberspace relating horror stories from various spine surgeries—I had a weighty decision to make: either I keep living with about a five-minute window for any kind of standing or walking activity, or I go for it, with the prospect of at least moderate relief and a somewhat more active, adventurous lifestyle for the ten to twenty years I hope to have left.

I decided the benefits far outweighed the risks, and scheduled the procedure for August 16.

In the intervening weeks I did my homework. I added to the considerable research I’d already done on my condition and various treatments; I looked for still more alternatives to surgery; I checked out Dr. Freedman’s credentials and experience; and I began to prepare myself physically and mentally for the operation and the likely months-long recovery.

     I pictured my skin, muscle and bone...
     wise enough to know the difference between 
     violation and benevolent intervention.

YOU ARE GETTING VERY SLEEPY
A friend and long-time office neighbor is a psychologist and world-renowned expert on something called alert hypnosis. When I told him of my plans, he loaned me a CD program called Smooth Surgery, Rapid Recovery: A Systematic Approach, by a respected colleague of his, Dr. Carol Ginandes, a health psychologist affiliated with Boston’s McLean Hospital and Harvard University.

What a sweet gesture, I thought. But really, I’m going to hypnotize myself to affect the outcome of my spine surgery? Ri-i-ight. In the introduction, Dr. Ginandes’s voice reminded me of that old Saturday Night Live skit involving two women with comically understated voices conducting a local public radio lifestyle talk show. I chuckled out loud…but I was not deterred.

In fact, I found myself anxious to get back to the program and listen to the next part, “Pre-op 1.” And, as I continued opening myself up to the experience, I soon started really buying into the calming reassurances and positive imagery Dr. Ginandes was breathing into my head. Before long, I felt them all but tangibly relaxing my body and nudging aside any fears creeping into my mind.

PHOTO: Pixabay

       I asked God not just for Dr. Freedman’s 
       skill and alertness, but for his creativity.

First, she suggested I create a kind of on-demand happy place, a focus which, along with awareness of my breathing, would serve as an instant mental and spiritual refuge whenever I needed it. All I had to do was give myself a simple physical cue—in my case, just touching together the tips of my right thumb and index finger.

Once I’d retreated to my little haven, I allowed Dr. G.’s soothing voice to lead me through a kind of virtual tour of my surgery and my intentions for my body’s response to it. I pictured my skin, muscle and bone yielding easily to the intrusion, wise enough to know the difference between violation and benevolent intervention.

I allowed every twist and knot of my apprehension to be undone by the knowing hand of faith—in my surgeon, in his O.R. team, in the Mayo Clinic, in the power of loving support from my family and friends...and in myself.

I also prayed—actually, for a pantheist like me, not all that different a process from the self-hypnosis. Only later would I realize how apropos it was that I asked God not just for Dr. Freedman’s skill and alertness, but for his creativity.

PHOTO: thelettcenter.com

DIALING IN MY FOCUS
Even as my inner resolve and confidence solidified, I still experienced some anxiety about the operation. After all, it was still risky, with a chance that, after a whole lot of pain and immobility, I’d see no improvement—or even a setback—in my symptoms.

A couple of my friends and relatives still had their doubts. In their efforts to help me and, understandably, to address their own fears, they’d come across some studies, articles and anecdotal information that suggested certain types of back surgery have proven ineffective, short-lived or even counter-productive for patients. I suppose it was an indication of my own lingering doubts that I took these well-meaning gestures, at least at first, as betrayals.

Working through those feelings, I did end up addressing my loved ones’ concerns and reading the articles. I found, to my great relief, that none of them applied to my situation, nor to the specific type of surgery I’d be undergoing.

Once I’d cleared this hurdle, though, what little was left of my open-mindedness needed to close. This was going to take pure commitment and faith. So I adopted a kind of tunnel vision, tuning out any further doubts and focusing exclusively on the positive imagery instilled by my hypnosis sessions.

              I wondered with a little smile

              if I'd been abducted by aliens.

ABDUCTED BY ALIENS
The day of my surgery finally came. Sally and I walked from our Rochester hotel to St. Mary’s Hospital—I wanted one last chance to experience the pain that had been gaining on me these past few years…and to say goodbye to it forever.

ILLUSTRATION: paranormalmingle.com
Pre-op preparations seemed to go smoothly. I was in a good place—certain of my decision, confident of success and, okay, still a little nervous. At about noon they wheeled me into the operating room, which was so full of masked characters, high-tech monitoring equipment and out-of-this-world batteries of lights that I couldn't help wondering with a little smile if I’d been abducted by aliens.

I asked the engaging anesthesiologist if I could see Dr. Freedman before I got knocked out. (I’ve decided I like to make eye contact with surgeons just before they cut me open.) He said yes and sent word to have someone let him know. We waited nearly fifteen minutes for Dr. F. to show up, but show up he did, and within seconds I, confidently, was off to oblivion.

SEVEN HOURS LATER
Next thing I knew, fuzzy yet familiar images began to materialize. Sally and my brother, Dan, were there, and went with me down what seemed a long tunnel to my hospital room. It was awfully quiet;  they told me it was 9:30 PM. Wow, I thought, I’d gone into prep. at about noon! That must have been one long surgery!

Of course, one never quite knows what to think of one’s pain level right after surgery. You’re still under the dwindling effects of the heavy sedation, and from there you transition seamlessly to the oxycodon, which still doesn’t let you really know how you feel.

But almost immediately, I thought of my left hip and groin, and, at least for now, I didn’t think I felt any pain at all in that area. As for the rest of me, I definitely knew I’d had major surgery; the three incisions in my lower back hurt enough to make me very grateful indeed for the oxycodon and super-tylenol.

   What he had found of my spine turned out 
   to be even more of a mess than he’d expected.

Next morning, Dr. Freedman came to check up on me. He apologized profusely for having been a bit late to the surgery suite—unexpected complications with another patient, apparently. And he apologized for the length of my surgery, which ended taking nearly seven hours.

What he had found of my spine turned out to be even more of a mess than he’d expected from my images. He explained the process, which involved a few additional, spur-of-the-moment fixes. (This was where I was glad I’d prayed for not just his skill, but his creativity.)

He told me he’d accomplished what he’d set out to do…and then some, and then pulled out the two x-rays taken after he was done. There was my still-rickety spine—not exactly that of the mediocre athlete I once was—but with L-3 and 4 looking better aligned and with metal rods and four huge screws holding them together.


AHEAD OF THE CURVE
So I had my surgeon’s account of the operation’s immediate success, but still no logical way of knowing how my recovery would go, especially whether or not the actual fusion would “take.” Intuitively, though, I already felt quite certain that, based on my mental and spiritual preparation, I would recover, in my hypnotist Dr. Ginandes’s words, “quickly and well.”

This hunch turned out to be a good one indeed. On day one, instead of trying a few tentative steps in my room, I was walking around the whole recovery ward. On day two, instead of trying out the three steps up the P.T. department’s simulated staircase, I was taking full flights up the real staircase. Instead of five days in the hospital, I went home on day three.

Back at home, instead of weaning myself off of the powerful oxycodon over several weeks, I was off of it after one. At the same time, instead of the expected limitation to short walks for several weeks, I was going a mile or more around the neighborhood. And by the end of week two I was driving.


LETTING GO THE GRABBER
After three weeks, I returned to Rochester for my first post-op visit with Dr. Freedman. It was all I could do not to throw my arms around the man and embrace him. He asked a few questions, watched me walk around the room on my toes and then on my heels, and pronounced that I was recovering beautifully.

Not only was the hip and groin pain I’d been enduring for years completely gone, but the ongoing back pain Dr. Freedman had cautioned me I might have to live with was also all but gone.

It’s been a little over a month now since my surgery. I continue to walk every day—sometimes several times a day. I’m finding it easier by the day to do the things that had so harshly reminded me, at first, what my back had been through—like getting in and out of my car. I’m sleeping much better. And I’m just about ready to put away my grabber, that fabulous device that allows you to pick stuff up off the floor without bending over.

        Now that I’ve emerged from that long, 
        dark tunnel, it feels like I’ve been reborn.

HOPE
I have gone through a life-changing experience. It has been coming on for many, many years—in fact, since that very first head-on tackle goaded by Coach Rasmussen. And now that I’ve emerged from that long, dark tunnel, it feels like I’ve been reborn. I no longer take for granted those death-by-a-thousand-cuts hurts my genes, a ton of abuse and lots of time have inflicted on my back.

ILLUSTRATION: beliefnet.com

Instead, I celebrate each and every step I take. I think about the thousands of people out there who suffer the same symptoms I did, and feel a deep sense of gratitude for having found a way out of their grip. I want those poor folks to know that, at least from this wonder-man’s point of view, there is hope.

If you’re one of them, or know someone who is—or if you’re just curious about this type of back surgery or the surgery-prep. hypnosis program I used—I’d welcome your questions and comments either here or by email: jeff@willius.com. Please put the word “fusion” in the subject line of your email.

* The human spinal cord ends between the first and second lumbar vertebrae, below which its continuation is referred to as the nerve bundle or cauda equina.

** Exactly one month after my surgery I received my statement from the Mayo Clinic. Other than the births of my children, it seemed the finest gift I’ve ever received. Total charges: $106,830.53. Insurance claims paid: $106,815.53. Balance due from patient (my co-pay): $15. I feel just a bit guilty that my abhorrence at the excesses of this country’s out-of-whack health care system just got bought off so easily.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

NUTS FOR HORSE CHESTNUTS

(Many thanks to my friend Jane Stephenson for the inspiration to write this post.)


As I ponder this pod of horse chestnut conkers encountered on my walk the other day, I’m struck first by the beauty—the contrast between leather-tough, spiny casing, velvety lining and waxy-smooth seeds*; the way the seeds nestle into their cozy little compartments; the pod’s elegant seams allowing it to unzip into perfect thirds.

And then there are those colors—toasty amber, fresh-lemon yellow and my favorite, that gorgeous shade of deep, reddish brown—a color so distinctive that, whether gracing a horse, a garment, a car or anything else, it can be called nothing but chestnut.

       One or two might first catch the eye 
       of someone who’s made room in his day 
        for delight.

THE UNIVERSAL CYCLE OF LIFE
Even more fascinating is the process by which these handsome little quads have gestated, grown and finally prepared to propagate. How similar it is to mammalian reproduction. For it too involves ovaries, eggs, sperm and then this pod—though not called a uterus, it acts just like one.

First it stretches to accommodate the new life growing within. Then, when some chemical signal tells it it is time, a combination of the seeds’ growth and their receptacle’s contraction pops them out.

As with all life, the world will have its way with them. Most will be eaten by squirrels, bats or insects. One or two might first catch the eye of someone who’s made room in his day for delight.

And a very few, exactly as allocated in Nature’s accounting of such things, will be carried and buried or just settle into soil, where they will start the whole miraculous cycle all over again.  

* The poisonous, nut-like fruit of the horse chestnut tree is, at least botanically, not considered a nut, but a seed. The pods most often contain from one to three seeds each. The one I picked up, with four seeds, is quite a rare find.

PHOTO: Wikipedia

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