Tuesday, May 19, 2015

JUST A STONE’S THROW – Where Kids, Nature and Physics Coalesce

When’s the last time you skipped a stone?

It’s such an iconic image of youth, such a quintessential point of connection between a kid—or an adult’s inner kid—and Nature. It doesn’t matter if you live near that sweet swimmin’-hole pond from a Norman Rockwell illustration or down the street from a drainage canal you wouldn’t set foot in.


Rich or poor, from the sticks or the city, anywhere from Abilene to Zanzibar, any able-bodied person can do it. If there was a pond in Eden, I suspect Adam and Eve did it. All it takes is a stretch of still water and a few reasonably flat stones.

Do you remember who taught you how to do skip stones? Selecting the perfect stone*; the proper grip and body position; a nice, low release point; the finger roll and follow-through. Perhaps, like me, you were in awe of your coach’s skill, her effortless tosses hopping four…five…ten times before sliding, then settling into the water.

The first few times you try it, you may as well be tossing a brick. Soon you get a skip or two, but then…kerplunk. Eventually you get it, and you remember for the rest of your days how very satisfying it was—your first multi-skipper.


     …and, finally, the two elements’ graceful 
     surrender to each other, the water reclaiming 
     the thing it’s spent a thousand years shaping.

SURRENDER
There’s something so utterly serene about skipping stones. First, it puts you outdoors, next the water. Most people feel free, calm, happy when they’re near the water.

And the activity itself is so enchanting and sensual as to border on the transcendental: the interplay between solid and liquid, hard and soft, rounded and flat; the sense of flight as the stone’s weight is denied by water’s little slaps from below; the tiptoeing ripple footprints, often tracing a graceful arc; the dwindling rhythm of ever-shorter hops; and, finally, the two elements’ graceful surrender to each other—to gravity—the water reclaiming the thing it’s spent a thousand years shaping.

PLAY, PLACE, PEACE
Have we lost touch with such primal Nature play, such a simple union with the elements? Have our notions of time and place and priorities been so transfigured by the omnipresent allure of instant-information and virtual-recreation technology that we’re forgetting how fundamentally healthy, educational, and peaceful—not to mention how fun—a direct interaction with Nature is, with no man-made device timing it, simplifying it, interpreting it for us?

Whether it’s skipping stones, digging a hole or building a fairy house of sticks and leaves, it’s the innate, elegant simplicity of pure Nature play that teaches human beings—of any age—not just priceless lessons in physics, coordination, spatial awareness, creativity and esthetics, but a deep sense of place.

               You’ve returned to the essential 
               elements of your birthright

For there, next to that pond, or river…or drainage canal, you interact with Nature in the same way the stone and the water do. You arrive light-spirited, spinning ‘round to take it all in. In your excitement, you run; then, perhaps something you see or hear slows you to a jog, then a stroll. At last you are still, and it all surrounds you, absorbs you...and you surrender to it, sinking into its soothing embrace.

The subtle footprints you left along the gravely shore soon vanish, but deep inside, the impressions last for a lifetime. For you’ve returned to the essential elements of your birthright—a small piece of the earth itself, and the clear, life-sustaining liquid that once quenched and warmed and supported you; that cleansed you, buoyed you; that together, in time, will once again absorb you.



                  ---------------------  More On Skipping  ---------------------
I have no claim to any special skipping techniques. But sometimes, after finding my rhythm and laying down a few ten-skippers, I raise the bar for myself and any competitors with some added challenges. I've been known to brag that I can skip any rock at least once, as long as it's small enough to throw. And I back up my claim… okay... maybe a third of the time.

What are some of the tricks and style elements you’ve brought to the sport of stone skipping? Do you have a favorite beach or shore for doing it? Favorite memories? We’d love it if you’d share them in a comment here.


And please, if you're ever stuck for something to do with kids / grandkids, head for the nearest rocky shore and pass on the art, the ancient tradition, of skipping stones. But for you, it may be lost.

* THE PHYSICS OF SKIPPING STONES

STONE-SKIPPING RECORDS


Friday, May 8, 2015

AS IF FOR THE FIRST TIME – Water

Water is the quintessential liquid. We learn about it in utero—how it feels, how it moves, supports, soothes and quiets.

Once we’re out, our relationship with water broadens. We soon become aware that it has to go into our bodies—and come out again. We're bathed in it. We play with it; we splash it, squirt it, slide on it and jump into it, among other amusements.

Eventually we’re taught how water’s a vital part of every living thing. We study how it seeps, drips, pours, wicks and transforms to vapor and ice. We discover that it dissolves and brews. We find, often the hard way, that it can also hurt us—burning, freezing, choking, knocking the wind out of us.

    What other substance can bathe an infant’s 
    head…and carve the Grand Canyon?

THE RIGHT STUFF

Even as we learn of its properties, water, like the air we breathe, is so ubiquitous that it’s difficult to pull back and truly see it. But if we can pretend we’re observing it for the very first time, we begin to appreciate what an utter miracle this clear, quicksilver fluid really is.

When’s the last time you put your busy-ness on hold and took a moment to think about this substance that gives us such utility, such fun, such beauty, such…well…life? Do you appreciate it not just for what it does for us, but for its sheer beauty: its transparency; the way it coats and shines some surfaces, and beads up on others; how surface tension’s invisible skin stretches over it; its lyrical fall and flow?

Water has a capricious relationship with other elements. With light, it can bend like a prism, absorb like a sponge or reflect like a mirror. With air, it respirates aquatic plants and fish, yet suffocates terrestrial organisms. With earth, it provides the nectar of life for nearly 300,000 species of plants. As a mist, it cools, while as humidity it turns up the heat index. Yes, the stuff can even vanish into thin air!

What other substance can both render a Winslow Homer masterpiece and torture a suspected terrorist? Transform itself into the exquisite intricacy of a snowflake and the Titanic mass of an iceberg? Bathe an infant’s head…and carve the Grand Canyon?

      I wonder if and how our attitudes toward 
      water will change in the coming years.

RIVERS WITH NO MOUTHS

I could go on extolling water’s virtues and the wonder of seeing it anew, but I want to know how and where you most appreciate it. How do you value it—that is to say, how do you act on the knowledge that water—at least clean water—is  proving an ever-scarcer and more coveted resource?

As rivers get sucked dry before they can even reach their mouths, and as the largest sources of the world’s fresh water continue melting into the sea, I can’t help but wonder if and how our attitudes toward it will change in the coming years.

I leave you with a visual appreciation of this magnificent, life-giving, ever-present yet ever-abused liquid. These images only begin to demonstrate how much more there is to ponder, but I must stop here. I’m thirsty.




Sunday, May 3, 2015

THE FLAVORS OF FATE

In my continuing efforts to demystify the spirituality of awareness, I often find myself at what might be described as the back door of Buddhism. That is, I embrace ideas associated with Buddhism, but without paying the price of constant study and discipline.

One such theft is of the idea that happiness hinges on detaching oneself from expectations—those uniquely human constructs built on the past and future, but having nothing to do with the present moment.

That said, detachment does imply faith. Yes, you most certainly have plans and goals; yes, you apply yourself to the task at hand. But beyond that you believe the universe will steer you to exactly the outcome it—and you for that matter—needs.


MM-M-M-M, MENINGITIS!
An old friend of mine applied this tenet in his encounter, many years ago now, with cocci meningitis, a fungal infection of the lining of the brain. It was thought at the time to be a terminal diagnosis.

Walter—an aspiring Buddhist by the way—tried just about every alternative, new-age treatment you can think of. He meditated. He hung out with crystals. He traveled afar and dug deep within for answers. (The first thing one spiritual/medical guru, in Texas, asked him was, “So, Walter, why did you decide to get sick?”)

I’ll never forget when Walter announced to our men’s group that he’d come to a place of peace with the disease, come what may. As he put it, “It’s like ice cream; if having cocci meningitis is vanilla, then not having it is chocolate. Either way, life is delicious.”

Walter, twenty-plus years later, is still with us.

The trick is to handle these events the best we can, not let them handle us.

A GREATER REALITY
We all face events and decisions every day in which we vest the outcome with a value—from how the barista makes our latte in the morning, to whether the house we just bought is really as good a deal as we think it is, to coping with illness, even death.

And we always have the choice between seeing unexpected consequences as failings or misfortune, and seeing them as simply parts of a greater reality which can be labeled as neither good nor bad. It just is.

The trick is to handle these events the best we can, but not let them handle us. And, once we know we’re doing our best, as Walter did, we let go of the outcome.

It’s incredible how liberating this attitude can be. For it does not suffer fools gladly; useless emotions like disappointment, regret and fear are dismissed before they can utter a word.

This is how I want to live my life. But it’s not easy. Ever since I was three or four, nearly every lesson I’ve been taught, every message absorbed from the culture, every example held up to me, has been about investing all you’ve got in an outcome and never letting go of that expectation.


   It may be an outcome we could never have 
   imagined, one understood only by the boundless 
   wisdom of the universe.

JUJU BEINGS
Perhaps it’s the luxury of being an older, more independent man, but my instincts have been quarreling with all those do-or-die lessons. They're arguing—when they can get a word in edgewise—that the outward pursuit of success, happiness, faith…whatever…is a fool's quest.

Human beings are hard-wired for happiness. So, instead of looking outside ourselves for a certain result or to acquire some special juju, the real answer is to look within. It is a process not of acquisition, but of divesture, shedding all the garbage that has piled up on top of the perfect juju we already have.

So Walter's point—made, admirably, under the direst of circumstances—is well taken. Except that I'd add one thing. If the outcome we would have liked (before our conversion to quasi-Buddhism, of course) is chocolate, and the one we wouldn't is vanilla, there's a third option: a result that is neither—an outcome we could never have imagined, one understood only by the boundless wisdom of the universe.

As I ponder the deliciousness of all three of these possibilities, an odd thought sidles into my consciousness—a craving for ice cream. Not vanilla; not chocolate. Neapolitan.

                                 


Friday, April 17, 2015

BEST NIGHT OF MY LIFE – Boys Alone In the Wilderness

We were barely old enough to go out on dates. Gangly little brats still getting used to our hairy armpits and manly voices. Yet there we were about to embark on one of the greatest adventures of our lives.

I and a couple of my 15-year-old classmates had attended summer camps whose focus was on canoeing and camping. With that modest experience under our belts—and with our parents’ astonishing faith in our abilities and judgement—we planned and executed an eight-day canoe trip in northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). (They did require us to take an industrial-grade first aid class, learning how to deal with the kind of medical challenges most likely to come up on a trip like ours—think broken limbs, knife or hatchet wounds, hypothermia, etc.)

Back, l. to r.: Charlie McMillan, Gordon Brown, Jeff Willius. Front: John McMahon, Todd Otis, Rob Linsmayer

In fact, we were so young that our parents had to drive us the six hours north to our put-in point, and then come back for us a week and a day later. It was a little like having your parents drive you to a movie with a girlfriend, but somehow we knew that this girlfriend (the wilderness) would make it well worth the embarrassment.

I’ll never forget the mix of exultation and dread I felt as the six of us stood there at that landing, our two canoes and gear piled beside us, and watched those two sensible station wagons drive away.

   While the less-impulsive among us weighed the 
   risks and benefits of such an idea, the decision 
   was made.

ON A WISH AND A DARE
There were countless great moments during this, the first of many self-guided, self-outfitted BWCAW canoe trips I would take: lying down after supper on rocks still warm from the afternoon sun and smoking one of my ill-gotten Lucky Strikes; swimming in cold, crystal-clear Kekekabik Lake where we could see fish swimming among the rocks 15 feet below us; providing dinner for the whole crew with a huge pike I caught. But the greatest of the many tales told about this trip is that of our all-night paddle.

One late afternoon, we’d stopped paddling for the day at a wonderful campsite featuring one of the rocky BWCAW’s rare sand beaches. Before tackling the many chores of setting up camp, we took time to let off some steam, staging a mini-“Olympics” along the sandy stretch, with races, broad-jumping, shot-put, discus and javelin events.

I don’t remember whose idea it was, but someone pointed out that tomorrow’s leg of our route wouldn’t involve any portages—unusual in the BWCAW’s intricate web of waterways all interconnected by them. What if, he asked, instead of pitching camp that night, we just keep going? Besides the opportunity for portage-free cruising, another boy added, it promised to be a perfect night for paddling since it had been warm, clear and nearly calm all afternoon.

While the less-impulsive among us weighed the risks and benefits of such an idea, the decision was made.

We threw together an easy dinner from one of our pre-packaged bags of dehydrated ingredients. Over cups of cowboy coffee,* we played “Name That Jingle,” one of us humming or whistling one note at a time of a popular product jingle, and seeing who could guess the brand first.

     I got this strange and wonderful feeling, 
     like how a child might feel entering a deep, 
     dark forest alone, without a path.

By nine, after sunset, our exuberance had started to fade with what was left of daylight. In its place a quiet resolve settled over us. We washed our dinnerware and started loading up the canoes. I got this strange and wonderful feeling, like how a child might feel entering a deep, dark forest alone, without a path.

Flashlights in hand, we put our heads together over the map, once again reviewing our route and setting down a few rules—staying together, how to switch paddling positions, what to do if the weather changed. Finally, after drawing straws (actually sticks) for the two duffer positions,** we stepped in and shoved off into the darkness.

ABOVE ALL, WONDER
As we paddled off, still there was not a cloud in the sky, just a sea of stars and a half moon about to settle into the silhouetted tree line of the far shore.

Once the moon had set, it was is if someone turned up a rheostat on the stars. And the Milky Way—it shone as none of us had ever seen before, stretching across the vast blackness like a shimmering pathway for all those characters conjured in the stars by the Mesopotamians and Greeks 3,000 years ago.

And then, as if that weren’t enough to dazzle a bunch of hot-shot teenage boys, the Northern Lights came on. Like the broad strokes of a cosmic watercolorist, they splashed across the northern half of the night sky, the blues and greens running in vertical streaks before absorbing into the pitch-black canvas.

PHOTO: Jerry MagnuM Porsbjer

For nearly half an hour we drifted silently, spellbound by the incredible spectacle. I lay back onto the small stern deck of my canoe and soaked it all in. Never before, and never since, have I witnessed such a display of Aurora Borealis.

The next hour or so settled into the quiet rhythms of paddling. Dip… pull… feather… swing… dip… The liquid sounds, the mild exertion, the gentle surge and glide—all made for a fine meditation. For the rest of the night, as boys will, we told tall tales, sang camp songs, and challenged and ribbed each other at the slightest vulnerability. We also tried to scare the piss out of each other.

NIGHT HOWLS
I don’t know who started it, but word was that one of the FBI’s ten most-wanted fugitives*** had last been seen up here heading into the Boundary Waters. You know how it goes; we all contributed to the absurdity of the fabrication, yet not one of us, even as we upped the ante, could help but tune in to every sound, every shadow, in the deep woods along the shore.


It started getting cold. Those of us paddling managed to keep warm enough, but my buddy, Gordon, duffing just in front of me, had to wrangle his sleeping bag out of his pack and bundled up in the scant space between gunwales, thwarts and stowed gear. (The plan had been to rotate paddlers as the night went on, but, as it turned out, we never saw a place to safely pull into shore for the change.)

As the chill gradually penetrated, Gordon’s blissful snoring just five feet in front of me began to wear thin. Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t that I envied his sleeping, all snug as a bug like that—I hate duffing, and was glad I hadn’t drawn the short stick—but that snoring...

By about five AM, shivering wracked my body. I put on all the clothes I could dig out of the nearest pack. I paddled harder, trying to keep my arms pressed to my sides to preserve my core body temperature the best I could. I put a fishing line out, hoping that fighting a fish might warm me up...or at least take my mind off of my misery. And still I shuddered. There was nothing for it but to wait for sunrise…and listen to Gordon.



For what seemed like hours we eyed the spreading glow in the eastern sky. A light fog forming over the relatively warm water, though beautiful, only seemed to deepen the chill. And then, finally, a spark of light ignited the treetops, then grew to a ball of fire. As the mist burned off we felt the full effect of the sun’s blessing percolate through our sweatshirts and reach our anxious, goose-bumped skin.

PHOTO: Chris Huber, Daily Republic
As if in celebration of the moment, the fishing rod I’d been trolling with suddenly bent over to the water. Barely able to feel the handle, I reeled in a gorgeous, two-pound smallmouth bass, its golden-bronze sides lit, as if from within, by that precious early sunlight.

I lifted my rod, swung it around and carefully lowered the dripping fish down right to the cacophonous opening of Gordon’s sleeping bag, where it flopped its wet, slimy way right in next to his head.

                                                      //---//---//---//

A Maryland couple has been charged with child neglect for allowing their ten- and six-year-olds to walk home alone from the neighborhood park.

I hold these memories all the dearer in a world, an era, in which human beings’ connections with Nature seem as endangered as the many rare species disappearing on our generation’s watch. In the six decades since my adventure, the circumference around home within which a child is allowed to roam freely, without parental control, has shrunk from miles, to blocks, to yards. Recently, a Maryland couple has been charged with child neglect for allowing their ten- and six-year-olds to walk home alone from the neighborhood park.

Rewind to 1960, an age when, in general, parents had a pretty good handle on raising kids right. And yet, when it came to the out-of-doors, they understood and valued the positive effects it had on children. They understood that, in light of all the benefits, the risks were relatively small. And today, as hard as the sensationalist media, the video game industry and a legal liability industry gone amok try to convince us otherwise, statistics say those risks (of injury, abduction, even getting lost) are no greater than they were back then. 

Now, all that being said, would I allow my own 15-year-old son or daughter to go on an eight-day, unguided canoe trip into the wilderness, some 300 miles from home and miles from any help? To be honest, I’m not sure.

But I’m immensely grateful for the faith our parents placed in me and my buddies. They trusted us, and they trusted in Nature not to throw more at us than we could handle. I only hope I was effusive enough in thanking them for this while they were alive.

                                                      //---//---//---//

* Cowboy coffee is made by just adding an approximate measure of ground coffee to a pot of boiling water, removing it from the heat, waiting until the grounds settle to the bottom, and then carefully pouring the finished brew so as not to disturb the grounds. Its enjoyment hinges on one’s appreciation of occasionally having to chew one’s coffee.

** Considering the optimal efficiency of portaging canoes and gear from lake to lake in one pass, the ideal numbers for a BWCAW canoe trip are two canoes and six paddlers—four of them paddling at any one time; the other two duffing (sitting in the bottom of the canoe along with the stowed gear).

*** Our point of reference at the time would have been someone like James O’Kasick, who, with his two brothers, had just dominated local news with their murderous exploits and partial demise at the hands of police after a dramatic manhunt. (Two of them were shot and killed by police; James tried to take his own life, but survived.)


Monday, April 6, 2015

LOLLING OUT LOUD – Waking Up to Wonder

I seldom loll in bed in the morning. Too many to-dos—and perhaps a few last vestiges of guilt after my last useless-emotions housecleaning. But, once in a great while, I allow myself the great luxury of lying there a while, with no pretense of either getting up nor going back to sleep, and simply being.

I enjoy the sense of my weight, evenly supported from head to toe; of the various spaces I inhabit—the room, the imaginary cube extending from the perimeter of the mattress up to the ceiling, even the amorphous blob of air warmed by my breath.


I study the patterns formed by slats of sunlight sawn by nearly-closed Venetian blinds, and how they warp around forms on the bureau. Specks of dust blink on and off as they drift through the light grid.

I am also present, as perhaps at no other time of the day, with my body. I drift effortlessly on my breathing; bask in the rare absence of nondescript pain; savor the coolness of my feet moving to cooler tracts of sheet. I stretch luxuriantly, appreciating the easing in every muscle, the blood coursing through every capillary in every digit.

I trace figures in the air with my hand, as if I were 
a dancer or choreographer testing the limits of my instrument.

ELBOW GREASE
Image credit *
And this morning I play with the astoundingly complex and elegant mechanics of my right arm. With it flat on the mattress, I put the machinery through a functionality test. Bending at the elbow, I raise the lower part to 90 degrees—vertical—then beyond until, not quite able to touch my shoulder with my thumb, I get to the most acute angle I can reach, about 140 degrees. (I’m aware that, during an athletic life spanning all my school years and continuing far beyond, I’ve exhausted some of these abilities’ best days.)

Back to 90 degrees, I try to find the precise angle
at which the forearm will remain upright, balanced with absolutely no effort on my part. I marvel at the sheer simplicity of a trick I could just as well have pulled off with a big stick.

I explore all the other dimensions of my arm’s amazing range of motion: flexion/extension, adduction/abduction, supination/pronation and all manner of rotation at shoulder, elbow and wrist, right down to the last joint on my pinky finger. Finally, using various combinations of these dexterities, I trace figures in the air with my hand, as if I were a dancer or choreographer testing the limits of my instrument.

Eventually, my delicious dawdling runs its course and I get up, appreciating anew that the human body is a miraculous thing, and so, as I re-discovery occasionally,
is time.

* Image Credit: “Grant 1962 79" by Grant, John Charles Boileau - An atlas of anatomy, / by regions 1962. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grant_1962_79.png#/media/File:Grant_1962_79.png)


Monday, March 30, 2015

COSAS PRECIOSAS II

A few more fleeting impressions as we walked around lovely Zihuatanejo today.

Frangipani flowers. Could these be any more delicious?

Hack & Snack - Coconut Vendor in El Centro

Ceiba (kapoc) tree with mega-thorns

Striking mural just off of Jose Morelos

...and leave the kniving to us!

No, really, Sweetheart, it was her hair!

Hangin' happy

Star Fruit - Andador 3



Thursday, March 26, 2015

COSAS PRECIOSAS – Images of Zihuatanejo

As our month here in Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico draws to an end, we're full of mixed feelings. (I've shared some of them verbally in my previous post, The Price of Paradise.)

We'll miss the nearly overwhelming beauty of this place. Like the view from our villa out over Zihuatanejo Bay and a swath of the vast Pacific. We're a couple of blocks away from the beach, so, unlike the view from an oceanfront hi-rise, we see and hear and smell life going on in the foreground.

Still, those vistas, and those of the Sierra Madre del Sur behind us, are pretty much the long view. Those of you who know me—perhaps through my postings here at One Man's Wonder—know I tend to shy away from the long view.

I like to look for the little things: a detail of something bigger; the one member of the flock or school or swarm that's behaving differently; the shadow of something instead of the thing; something poignant or ironic; colors, shapes and patterns.

So here, in pictures, are a few such impressions of this year's stay in Zihuatanejo.



La Casa Anaranjada - The view at sunrise from Villas San Sebastian



Very Varied Berries - Fruit of an unknown shrub in La Ropa
Hot Tuna - A blushing, blooming nopal, Playa Madera
Stuck On You - "Gum tree" on the canal walk, near Plaza Kyoto
Blaze of Glory - Heliconia Psitacorum in La Noria
Foothold - Rhoeo (Tradescantia Spathacea), on cement wall, La Ropa
Dearly Departed - A poignant remembrance on Paseo del Pescador, Playa Madera


"We Liven Up Your Events"- Sign spotted atop a building in El Centro
Two Ways To Climb - Stairs with ficus just off of Playa Madera
Iguana Hold Your Hand - A resplendent five-foot-plus specimen seen in El Manglar
Old Man & the Sea - Jeff fulfills his dream of launching his own boat in Zihua

Abracadabra - A washed-up magic wand, Playa La Ropa
Yellow Streak - A rare rain brings out the colors of rocks along the Paseo in La Madera
Mutt & La Jefe - A black-and-white pup and her bodyguard along Rio Lerma canal

Anna By Heart - Grandkids sharing the fun at Paty's Marimar on La Ropa
Optimism - Typical Mexican construction, leaving re-bar for future new floors
See, Like This - Skipping stones in the canal outlet at Playa Principal
Los Colores - A lively mural brightens an alley at the south end of Playa La Ropa.
Banana Split - A banana tree stump, reminiscent of African Samburu & Sankara necklaces
Chickens Panicking...Too Late - Fresh pollo in a market on Av. Benito Juarez
What a Croc! - One of the three resident cocodrilos in El Manglar
Why, You Yellow-Bellied... - Great Kiskadee, also spotted in El Manglar

Study In Green - Limonada, the essence of refreshment, Zihuatanejo style
♫Hey-y-y, Macarela - Small fish, big thrill for rookie fisher Julie (w/Capt. Bernie)


Sombra Picada - A breezy afternoon on Pedro Acencio


Tequila Sunset - Adios to this incredible place till el sol comes 'round a few more times