Monday, April 6, 2020

THE BANE OF BREATHING – Should Twenty Feet Be the New Six Feet?

As the reputed “wonder man,” I reflect here on the rewards of noticing and celebrating life’s many small wonders. It’s a pretty easy gig when I’m feeling safe and secure; not so easy when the world is in turmoil and many of us fear for our lives.
Nonetheless, I’ve always preached that wonder lives virtually anywhere—indoors as well as out, in arctic cold and Saharan heat, all around us…and even within us.
It also exists in the ominous black tunnel of the worst imaginable crisis. In something as simple and taken-for-granted as a breath. Except that in this tunnel that breath could be deadly.

                                                       ~  //  ~  //  ~

I’m getting pretty good at paranoia. Not so much when life is normal, but for sure now that we’re facing a pandemic.

So, during these days of social distancing, I’m keeping a keener eye than ever on how people are behaving. And for the most part, I’m impressed with how thoughtful my fellow Minneapolitans are being, not just hugging their edge of the sidewalk, but swinging wide onto the lawns and boulevards. A generous interpretation of the CDC’s and NIH’s six-foot guideline.

PHOTO: New York Times

So how did they come up with that number, six feet? The answer suggests a question: What is it that those epidemiologists do? I mean what is their job? My guess is that they walk a fine line between recommending what they know people should do and what they figure people actually will do. Set the number too low and it won’t help; too high and folks might not feel like complying…or even believe you.
             How could we have let all those poor suckers
             believe that six feet of distancing was enough?
             It should have been twenty.

The epidemiologists’ goal, after all, is not to save everyone from exposure to COVID 19; it is to save the greatest percentage of us as is reasonably possible, given all the variables, including human nature. Perhaps they’ve decided that six feet is a measure most of us can understand. It’s all about “droplets,” they say.

As I observe my fellow human beings exhibiting a range of compliance from 0% to about 300%, it’s got me thinking a lot about those realities. That thinking, informed certainly by history, tells me it’s quite likely that, sometime well after the corona virus has gone back into hiding, we’ll all learn the truth about social distancing.

Palm-to-forehead, we’ll lament God, how could they have let all those poor suckers believe that six feet of distancing was enough? It should have been twelve…
or twenty.

It might come down to the definition of what is meant by a “droplet.” Current wisdom says COVID 19 is spread primarily by droplets of saliva or mucus expelled by a cough or sneeze. Subject to gravity, they supposedly fall to the ground before traveling six feet from an infected person.

But consider this: droplets aren’t the only liquid specks coming out of a person’s mouth. Normal exhaled breath is basically vapor, which is, after all, nothing more than still-smaller droplets. And this vapor, like other aerosols, disperses into the air, which can carry it considerably farther.

        To me you’re not average and very few of you are Joes. 

In a study of how flu viruses are propelled, environmental health researchers at the University of Maryland found that droplet dispersal does indeed happen not just through coughs or sneezes, but also in the vapor produced in normal breathing. MARYLAND STUDY

And then there’s wind.

Air moves. So I figured if I walk past a heavily-breathing runner or biker somewhere along East River Parkway at that officially-suggested six-foot distance, and there happens to be a breeze coming my way—even the air wake generated by that person’s movement—their breath could easily be on me, swirling around my head, in a matter of seconds.

And there’s the chink in my six-foot armor.

Further supporting my paranoia, an MIT researcher suggests the corona virus may be able to waft up to 27 feet from an infected person’s mouth—though this conclusion apparently has not yet been rigorously tested. MIT RESEARCH

          Consider double-arms length distancing as you might
          the filter used to remove lead from your drinking water.

So here’s what I’m asking of my loved ones: Please, please be careful out there. Use more caution than’s being asked of the average Joe. Because to me you’re not average and very few of you are Joes.

Keep in mind the illustrations above showing just how widely, and quickly, a human breath disperses. Think of that as you approach others—and be aware of which direction the wind is coming from.

Consider double-arms length distancing as you might the filter used to remove lead from your drinking water; if a filter fine enough to remove the 85 percent of it that's deemed safe by people who don’t even know you, wouldn’t 90 or 100 percent be much better?

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

INFECTIOUS SMILES – As If For the First Time

Many of you know of my occasional column here on OMW, As If For the First Time. It’s about noticing and celebrating the simplest, most ubiquitous small wonders in one’s life. Experiences so commonplace, perhaps so repetitious, that
we may no longer even notice them.

A hot shower, the sun, water, an autumn leaf, eating an orange or strawberry—it’s
a fresh look at things like this, seen from different points of view and employing as many of one’s senses as possible.

                 I think about them for an extra few seconds,
                 just long enough for wonder and gratitude to
                 come into sharper focus.

Well, this COVID 19 nightmare is really shaking up my sense of what can and can’t be taken for granted anymore. I'm starting to see lots of things as if for the first—or perhaps last—time. By forcing us into our homes, this menace also forced us into ourselves. By confronting us with our own mortality, it’s tapping into a wellspring of awe and gratitude that far too often runs dry.

I don’t know about you, but during these uneasy days I’m finding more and more of my fleeting observations worthy of at least a moment of reflection. So, instead of unconsciously dismissing them in a blur of indifference, I consider them for an extra few seconds, just long enough for awareness to come into sharper focus.

The latest of these little epiphanies came yesterday as I was out walking. It was a pretty gloomy afternoon, a cool, drizzly approximation of November. Still, there were lots of people—and nearly as many dogs—strolling along the bluffs of the Mississippi.

Like the decent, God-fearing Minnesotans we are, everyone was keeping their distance.

Given the shared trauma we’re all going through, I’ve decided that, even if we do have to be a bit paranoid about each other, we can certainly manage a pleasant greeting. So, even as we pass well beyond arm’s length, I like to make eye contact if possible, smile and extend a friendly hello.

At times like this, as in times of war and deprivation, even a mute gesture of connection can be extraordinarily powerful, laden with meaning. How are you doing? I know what you must be going through. Maybe I can’t even imagine.
Fare well.

And thank goodness most folks respond, a few even cracking the distant stare that suggests they’re actually somewhere else like on the phone or absorbed in a podcast. But at least they acknowledge me.

Okay, so call me a narcissist for expecting everyone to notice me. I realize some people wouldn’t do this in the blissful normalcy of life before the C-bug. I'm glad they're doing it now.

After all, during this, one of those rarest of times in history when every single human being on Earth is allied with each other in fighting a common enemy, I would hope we're learning something.

It could—and should—start with our acknowledging our fundamental oneness with our fellow, rather insignificant earthlings and with this, the only habitat we’ll ever share. I’m afraid that if we do not learn at least that, we deserve neither each other nor this beautiful planet we call home.

IMAGE: Pixabay

Social distancing doesn’t mean we can’t look at each other. It doesn’t mean we can't smile—even if we have to force it a bit—and appreciate these simple gestures for the wonders they are. So thank you, even if you’re hurting, for giving a stranger those elemental gifts of a knowing smile and a simple greeting. The connection works both ways.

       One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, 'What if I
never seen this before? What if I knew I would never
       see it again?'
             RACHEL CARSON

Friday, March 27, 2020

SHOOTS – The Terrible, Beautiful Irony of This Spring

Have you been wondering, as have I, what the Universe might be trying to tell us? With this waking-to-a-nightmare pandemic? With our natural environment, even before the C-bug, raging, begging us to let up on our abuse?

What irony. A planet, our precious home, reeling under the effects of our arrogance, our thoughtless excesses; and the same planet reminding us of our utter insignificance. Making it quite clear that it’s not really Mother Earth who’s in danger of extinction; it is us.

You know how I know this? These cool plum-and-green fingers of Spring tell me, reaching, as they will every year, for air, for light, for water. Their fragility belies their power, not just to thrust, slow-motion, through anything in their way, but also to penetrate and somehow calm this piddling mortal’s trembling soul.

Monday, March 2, 2020

OFF TO MEXICO – Yum-m-m!

I'm like a hungry man about to sit down to a hearty four-course meal. That's how I'm feeling on the eve of my 28th trip to Mexico.

As beautiful as Minnesota winters can be, they starve us of sensation. Against this backdrop of bland whites and grays and taupes, we're challenged to find the sustenance of color in detail and nuance—like a rosy cheek or a tenacious freeze-dried crab apple. Smells are served unseasoned, frozen in midair. Sound, too, seems squeezed out of its luscious fullness like dried fruit. Even touch is blunted by layers of nylon (most of it black, it seems), feathers and fleece.

   A Minnesotan would be dragged before
   the neighborhood association for painting his 

   house these vivid shades of pink, blue or gold.

In most of Mexico, including Zihuatanejo, Guerrero where I'm headed, climate and culture collaborate to nourish one with colors, sounds, smells and flavors.

The colors: a Minnesotan would be dragged before the neighborhood association for painting his house these vivid shades of pink, blue or gold. The smells: so often they reveal, where sights may not, the real life that's going on beyond the sphere of one's sanitized tourist experience. The tastes: there's nothing dried or preserved about them; they're fresh and true and sometimes surprising. And the touch, oh, the caress of that soft, warm, delicious air pouring in off the Pacific!

Even the sounds of this place transport me: the haunting, three-note pan-flute plea of the itinerant knife sharpener; the blare of música norteña from passing cars and work sites; the other-worldly rasping of a covey of chachalacas. And behind it all, the soft, sure respiration of the surf.

Maybe it's the warmth that unlocks both stimuli and senses. Belying the laid back, unhurried lifestyle, the sensations of Mexico stir in me a subtle sense of urgency. A mango, for example, just picked from the tree outside our villa door, is such a beautiful form just to look at. But no sooner than it begins to blush with full color you have to eat it or it loses its tang and turns to mush. So many beautiful things are transient.

And Zihuatanejo's a place of seamless flow between indoor and outdoor life. With little notion of that confinement we Minnesotans suffer during winter, you sense everything going on —in El Centro, down at Playa La Ropa out on Zihuatanejo Bay—and want to be a part of it all. But it's okay; anything you do—even nothing at all—feels completely satisfying, thoroughly nourishing of body and spirit.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

THE RISE OF FALL – Cures For Autumn-itis

This time of year has always proven a bit depressing for me. It’s like that mix of low-grade depression and dread one experiences on a Sunday afternoon when a nice weekend’s winding down and another work week looms. I call it Sunday-itis.

Multiply that melancholy and stretch it out over a couple of months, and that’s what I feel each time another summer winds down and five or six months of cold, dark, colorless days descend on our spirits here in the Northland.

But hey, when you get lemons don’t get all sour, right? Make lemonade.

         These are the bluest skies of the year.

So here, without much effort at all, are a few of the wonders of fall which, if I put my mind to it, might help me ease the transition:

LEAVES - As you may know, fallen autumn leaves have recently become the medium of my irrepressible creative bent. (See my work at Shades of Autumn) I look forward to getting out there during those precious few days between when the most desirable leaves drop and when they begin to deteriorate, and collecting those amazing little splashes of color, form and texture.

ACORNS - I love walking through the piles of them that accumulate on the sidewalks around our oak-filled neighborhood. The drier the better. I go out of my way to step along the edges of the sidewalk where the thickest piles provide the most satisfying crunch.

HORSE CHESTNUTS - Popped from their prickly casings, the nuts litter the grass. If you get to them before the squirrels do, pick one up. They’re one of the most aesthetically pleasing objects in Nature. The rich, reddish-brown color—yes, that color is actually called “chestnut”—the silky-smooth texture of the surface; the rounded shapes; even the pleasant heft of one in the hand make them ideal worry stones.

FUNGI - Autumn, especially one following a very wet summer like the one we’ve had here in east-central Minnesota, is prime time for various kinds of fungus. Most of the annual flowers may be history, but these fascinating growths have their own elfin charm and earthy aroma. (I have not hunted for morels, but I should.)


GEESE - On late fall nights, I keep my ears open for what may sound like a crowd of people chattering in the distance. If I look up, I might see the hundred-strong "V" of migrating geese, two thousand feet up, dimly lit against the blackness by ambient earthlight.

WOOD SMOKE - In summer, smoke means a campfire, or someone’s roasting wienies or browning marshmallows for s'mores. In fall, whiffs of smoke smell different somehow. These cooler nights, fire’s heat is for more than cooking. Soon it moves indoors, convening folks round hearth and stove.

THE AIR - Summer air, especially during the dog days of July and August, can feel like a damp blanket. It wraps around you, encloses you—along with a cloud of mosquitoes. Come Fall, though, the blanket lifts, the mozzies expire, and the cooler, drier air does nice things to smells, sounds, and even one’s point of view. These are the bluest skies of the year.

APPLES - The difference between a fresh-picked fall apple and one bought any other time of year is like the difference between rich, freshly-extracted espresso and instant. The balance of sweet and tart, the crisp texture, even the weight of the fruit tells you it’s fresh, bursting with juice. Thank goodness I only have to wait a couple of months after the decline of my other seasonal favorite: nectarines.

SMELLS - In fall the bright, impetuous scents of summer give way to more muted, thoughtful smells: dry leaves, decaying vegetation, fungi and molds, perhaps a savory stew or apple pie steaming in the kitchen.

Which of autumn’s wonders help ease the loss of summer’s long, luxuriant days for you?

Saturday, September 7, 2019

DREAMS IN HINDSIGHT – Magic of Imagining

This morning I was standing in our kitchen, pouring cereal into a bowl. Light streamed in through the generous windows at either end of our modest townhouse, highlighting our decor’s vibrant colors.

I picked up the remote and, from across the house, tuned the stereo to my favorite jazz station.

     There would be music, HD music, not just
     in one room, but filling the entire first level.

As I’m wont to do occasionally, I stepped back mentally, lifting my attention from the fruit I was about to peel to a more universal perspective. And it suddenly became quite clear: in that moment I was living out a very specific dream I’d had some 13 years ago.
Back then, we lived a fine little two-bedroom home in a fine little St. Paul neighborhood. Of course, it had windows on every side, but, typically for the period, the layout was broken up into distinct rooms, limiting one’s sight lines and the flow of light through the interior.

In that house, at that time, someone working in the kitchen might have turned on a table radio, or maybe an iPod, but the stereo was like two rooms away. So, without decent, space-filling music, without a real color concept for the decorating, with all the surfaces kind of old and grimy, that kitchen seemed all but lifeless.

But I could dream…and I did. I remember standing in front of that old kitchen sink one day and imagining the home I’d someday find. I pictured a bright, open space with one living area flowing seamlessly into the next; walls painted the kinds of colors Mexicans use to such delicious effect; art enlivening every unhindered vista.

There would be music, of course, HD music, not just in one room, but filling the entire first level. I wouldn’t have to walk into a different room to turn it on; it would be right there at my fingertips.

Believe it or not, I could even smell the clean, herbal scent of the liquid hand soap I’d have in the kitchen in that ideal place.

        It’s easy to take for granted that whatever
        we want we won’t want for long.

Well, here I was, this erstwhile feast of imagination now spread out for real right in front of me. I love it! Not just that I’d had that moment of envisioning all those years ago, but that I remembered it now so clearly.

It’s too easy—especially for those of us fortunate enough never to have experienced much need—to simply take for granted that whatever we want we won’t want for long. Somehow, it usually just shows up.

But we should acknowledge the power of a universal consciousness—we might call it God, Creator, Great Spirit, Jehovah, Allah, Brahama…whatever—to make that happen. Privileged or not, when we earnestly put our hopes, our intentions, out there and entrust them to the Universe—and are sufficiently open to actually noticing its response—they are indeed most often fulfilled.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

AUTHENTIC, AUSCHMENTIC – When Being Yourself Is Just an Excuse for Being A Jerk

(As a Nature-and-wonder writer, I find most of my inspiration in the natural world. But I must continually remind myself that I am, that all of us homo sapiens are, also part of that world of wonder. We are animals…and at times we act like it. Often in ways that are most admirable, but also at times when we should know better.
The inspiration for this post is the heartache someone I know is experiencing over her estrangement from a very dear friend—one who’s suddenly decided that being kind and considerate is not who she is.)

“Authentic” has taken on a new definition. It used to mean real, without pretense, the genuine article. It had nothing to do with permission or entitlement, aspects today’s meaning seems to have acquired in spades.

Who knows, maybe it’s like the word “truth” in this, the Trump era; it means whatever you want it to mean. Or maybe it’s just some lazy psychiatrists’ attempts to make their patients feel better, even though not a single person the patient knows will actually be the better for it—nor will the patient for that matter.

No, authentic does not mean you can accept a friend’s invitation and then show up with a few of your own friends. It doesn’t allow you to make plans with someone and then just go ahead and do it on your own without telling them. It doesn’t forgive you for failing to communicate.

Do you think you can just do anything you want to, or say anything you damn well please, and then expect everyone else to just suck it up and say “Well, I guess that’s just so-and-so being authentic; that’s just who she is.”?

I don't think so. That’s not the way a thoughtful society works. It’s not the way true friendships work. Nor is it a behavior most of the world’s faith traditions would condone. Not when your “authenticity” comes at the expense of another’s—or a family’s, or a community’s.

       By acting in ways that put others out, by
       saying things that hurt, do you think that’s
       who you really are?

I guess I should be more understanding, since being “authentic” takes on some of the characteristics of an addiction. There’s this little voice somewhere inside that tells you No, you shouldn’t say or do that! But then, denying those better instincts, you do it anyway. That's just the real you, you  rationalize.

I have no problem with folks trying their best to be true to their principles, but c'mon, don’t conflate that with permission to act out your character flaws.

Rarely, a brave friend or loved one will give you some honest feedback. But you’ve become very good at making sure such honesty comes at a price. Sadly, they usually find it’s not worth the effort. They just get used to it and absorb the impact of having to accommodate you.

Or you simply find someone new, be it friend, or counselor, or clergy person, who won’t mind enabling your weakness. Meanwhile, you just keep putting your “authenticity” — translation: needs—first, while imposing on, even hurting, people who should be able to expect more of you.

Do you really think that kind of denial has anything at all
to do with authenticity?

By acting in ways that put others out, by saying things that hurt, do you think
that’s who you really are? Or are you just demanding the right to be mean, angry
or thoughtless?

You really want to be authentic? Open your eyes. Try being more self-aware. Think. Find a way to move beyond whatever pains, problems and privileges in your life you've been nurturing instead of dealing with and moving past. Start acting like a friend, not to mention a member of a kind, cooperative society.