Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A GOOD DAY –

Today was a good day.

I learned something. I needed a word in Spanish meaning way more than funny. My trusty old Latin American Spanish/English dictionary's definitions for uproarious, hilarious, a scream and half a dozen other terms fell short of the task. I Googled it. Finally, my ten-minute search paid off; I found just the adjective I needed: arrasador. (Its primary meaning is destructive or devastating.)

          For those four glorious minutes, 
          my spirit took wing.

I gave something. Today's the day I visit one of my two hospice patients. This one, to my great delight, has actually "graduated" from the program's six-month life-expectancy window, deciding, at age 91, that he was no longer a dying man. Now he's an active, curious, creative person with a mischievous sense of humor who not only creates digital art, but teaches art to his fellow care center residents. He inspires me.

I experienced wonder. In fact it happened twice before I'd finished breakfast. I was looking out my Minneapolis window at Nature all decked out in fresh white. I thought of how exotic the colors of a Caribbean reef or the deepest Amazon forest are to me, and imagined someone who'd never before seen snow finding this sight every bit as breathtaking. It struck me that, even for one who's seen snow all my life, this was indeed that kind of glorious moment. I just hadn't realized it before.


Just then, on the radio, they played Gershwin's Fanfare for the Common Man. I'd just started my cereal. I stopped chewing, put down my spoon and just listened. I let those sounds, the soaring and the sublime, transport me. For those four glorious minutes, my spirit took wing.

Yes, it was a good day. But such days are not uncommon for me; I seek them out...or should I say they seek me out?

What makes a good day for you?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Color of Snow


Up here in Minnesota we don't take snow for granted; some winters—including the current snow-challenged season—our winter landscape ranges from one tone of gray to another. It's then that we appreciate how much color snow brings to the winter palette. Remember: white is not the absence of color; it's the presence of all colors.

How many colors do you see in snow?

Our eyes do a funny thing with color. We tend to perceive it only in comparison with its surroundings. Since there's seldom anything more "white" in our view than fresh snow, we think of it as all white, pure white. But if you could tear out a swatch of that "white" and paste it down next to some other apparent whites, all their distinct hues would be obvious. (I deal with shades of white and black in my 12/9/10 post, Black & White – And Other Shades of Gray.)

I've done this exercise on paper, and I do it in my mind's eye all the time, so I know what to look for. Today, for example, the fresh snow on gabled roofs across the street is tinged with lilac—reflecting the influences of a patchy blue of sky, a dab of brick red from adjacent walls, and perhaps a muting hint of cloud gray.

The sun's last rays still caught the top of the next ridge, like a great golden-glowing knife slicing through thick charcoal.

I've seen snow tinted every imaginable color: pinks, blues, golds, even greens. Perhaps the most memorable example caught my eye several years ago on a cross-country ski trip on the North Shore of Lake Superior. We'd been skiing all afternoon. The conditions were perfect; the biggest challenge was the sun's blinding glare off of the fresh snow. Later, as the sun nestled into the horizon, the cold and the gray wrapped somberly around us. Nearing the trailhead, we turned to cross the top of one last ridge, and there, a half mile off to our right, the sun's last rays still caught the top of the next ridge, like a great golden-glowing knife slicing through thick charcoal.

Now that I'm attuned to the colors of snow, I can't help seeing them. In fact, I'm thinking, snow without color must be very rare indeed. If one were ever to behold it, possessed of its full complement of color and light—in other words, perfectly white—I suspect it might be a profound, even disturbing, sight, the eye's equivalent, perhaps, to the ear's perception of absolute silence.

Where was the most colorful snow you've ever seen?

Saturday, January 9, 2016

WHY DIDN’T THE DONALD DUCK? – How Trump Got Blindsided by Nature Deficit Disorder

Over the past six-plus months since Donald Trump announced his candidacy, my feelings about the man have turned from dismissal, to mild amusement, to curiosity, and eventually to a growing concern.

Could a candidate with such incredible lack of character and judgement, such a narcissistic raison d’être, really be appealing to so many Republican voters? Is it even remotely possible he might actually win and turn the U.S. Presidency into a reality show?

A KINDER, GENTLER RESPONSE
I asked myself Is this ridiculous guy really to be feared? Is my fear any better placed than the kind he's been sowing in his rants about race, immigration and gender identity? And then it dawned on me: There must be a kinder, gentler—and perhaps ultimately more effective—response than fear.

I think I’ve found that more-compassionate response: Donald Trump, the poor man, is quite ill.

Of course Trump and his organization don’t want us to know this; he’s been hiding his condition—one we’re only now discovering has been there, eating away at him, for decades. But, to those accustomed to spotting this illness, there have been signs.

      Donald Trump has never once experienced 
      anything bigger or more awe-inspiring than 
      himself.

HEALTHY IS AS HEALTHY DOES
Have you noticed that the man has never appeared in public with a real sun tan? Under the fake bronzing, the $5,000-dollar suit and the $50 toupee, do you see those chubby little cheeks and that soft, doughy body? Those oddly uncoordinated movements—the flailing hands and wagging finger; the kissy, sneery contractions of his facial muscles?

Then there’s the obvious emotional deficit, evidenced by Trump’s child-like outbursts, alternating between playground mocking and name-calling, ridicule and rage. The man lacks self control; he demands constant, instant gratification; and he's possessed by fear. No wonder he can’t help blurting out the first angry thing that comes to his challenged mind.



AN EMPTY COCOON
How has it gotten this bad? For starters, the poor guy was born and raised in New York City, surrounded by nothing more inspiring than buildings and pavement. He’s never climbed a tree, hiked up a hill or paddled a canoe. Never just sat and played with a pebble or a stick. Doesn’t know how air, earth, water and living things move and interact.

He’s never experienced Nature teaching him, providing for him or showing him the way. That may explain why he’s so incredibly self-obsessed, chasing the illusion that he, not the earth—not life—is the center of it all. Like other sufferers of his ailment, he’s stuck in a kind of personal hell, a place packed with symbols of wealth and fame, but utterly devoid of substance.

         His ailment is one medical research 
         has shown to affect many “reality” stars.


Donald Trump has never once experienced anything bigger or more awe-inspiring than himself. He’s been deprived of that priceless perspective—the sense of being both important and insignificant at the same time—most kids develop from the simplest interactions with Nature. The only context in which Donald knows how things really work is the cocoon of artificial beauty and worth he himself has created.

A VICTIM OF HIS OWN FAME
Trump wouldn’t know a robin from a road-runner. Of course, it's not his fault, since he never had the experiences every kid needs to grow up a complete, healthy human being. He's never frolicked in a leaf pile, dug in the soil or dammed a street gutter after it rains. Never been curious. Never built a tree house and learned all those essential lessons about how things work—saws, nails, pulleys…gravity—and how pieces and spaces fit together in the real world. 

With such a malnourished childhood, it’s a wonder Trump ever achieved any measure of success. But his ailment is one medical research has shown to affect many “reality” stars. To a person, they compensate for their lack of personal virtues by surrounding themselves with empty symbols of wealth and rationalizing that everyone and everything else on earth was created to adore them.

Reality? These poor souls couldn't be further from it.


But we must not blame the victims; it’s not their fault they’ve never had a chance to be humbled by Nature—never gotten lost in the woods, had to build a fire or live off of the land by their own wits and will. Never sat in awe of a mountain, storm or waterfall.
              Donald Trump is the poster child 
              for Nature Deficit Disorder. 

MEET HYPONATUROSIS DEBILIS
So what is this disease that’s consuming the most pitiful reality star of them all? It's called hyponaturosis debilis, or, more commonly, Nature Deficit Disorder. First identified in 2005 by journalist and author Richard Louv, the disease, stemming from a chronic deficiency of vitamin N—regular exposure to Nature—attacks nearly all aspects of its victims' health—physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual.

Nature Deficit Disorder nearly always develops during childhood, and most often affects children whose parents—or whose life situation—fails to afford them the whole-person nourishment offered by playing and exploring freely out of doors.

Typical adult symptoms include: flabbiness, lack of coordination, pasty complexion and a range of psychological manifestations: exaggerated sense of self worth, over-the-top competitiveness, obsession with the accoutrements of wealth, fame and power, and frequent loss of touch with reality.

Also present are paranoia, a poorly-developed sense of spatial and time perspective, and a contingent symptom known as the alabori syndrome—the illusion that self-reliance means what you can get others to do for you.

At last, it's all so clear. How could I have held Donald Trump accountable for his aberrant values, attitudes and behavior all this time? My God, the poor guy is the poster child for Nature Deficit Disorder.


_________________________________________________________________

DOES KICKING A GOLF BALL COUNT?
Okay, now I’ve heard that the patient does love to play golf. So why hasn’t that exposure to Nature served to mitigate the disease? Because, like the spoiled child who hides the pill under his tongue till his mom leaves the room and then spits it out, he’s become adept at shielding himself from any real connection with Nature.

Do you really believe Trump, consumed as he is in self-promotion and deal-making, is aware in the slightest of the wonders dwelling in the woods and creek along the 11th fairway at Trump National Palm Beach?  And do you think Donald Trump walks more than the requisite four steps from his little cart to his ball and back? Okay, maybe five when, as he’s known to do, he subtly kicks his ball to a better lie.
__________________________________________________________________

     Vitamin N, unlike the treatments for 
     many diseases, is foolproof, readily available 
     and free of charge.

BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY
So what’s to be done? First of all, let poor Donald Trump be our motivation to double down on what’s become a worldwide epidemic of this tragic disease. We must be vigilant in spotting the symptoms of Nature Deficit Disorder—in our own children and grandchildren, and in ourselves—and intervene quickly. Vitamin N, unlike the treatments for many diseases, is foolproof, readily available and free of charge.

And what of those who, like Trump, have suffered so long that they’re already deeply, irreversibly scarred by Nature Deficit Disorder? First, we must be compassionate. Try to understand the pain Trump must be feeling. When he mouths off, let us simply nod, smile and act as if we actually cared; that can bring some measure of comfort.

But in cases this advanced, even that measured response risks contagion, resulting in still more victims gradually turning inward, disconnecting from real life and all things naturally beautiful, healthy and true. To minimize the risk, Nature therapy practitioners advise wearing an eye mask and ear plugs whenever there's the slightest chance of being exposed to anything Trump.

I'm not a therapist, but I recommend nose plugs too.

Monday, December 14, 2015

IT IS WHAT IT ISN'T – Does a Vacuum Really Suck?

      In Nature, as in life, we can see more if we notice not just things, but 
      the spaces between things; not just sounds, but the silences they frame.
      Far from empty, these inhalations in the song of creation are what 

      make each note so clear, so sweet.
       From Under the Wild Ginger – A Simple Guide to the Wisdom of Wonder, by Jeffrey Willius
 
INTO THE VOID
When is the absence of something more powerful than its presence? It's not a trick question. In fact, Nature provides many answers: the colossal explosion of a lightning bolt; the swirling core of a vortex; the mind-boggling power of a cosmic black hole.

I’ve written occasionally here about the interplay between positive and negative space. As I’ve tried to capture in that quote from my book, Under the Wild Ginger, it can have a profound effect on how we see the world and life.

It’s knowing the whale’s down there without even seeing it. It’s the void, the potential, in the human experience an entrepreneur or inventor sees and then fills. It’s the hurtful implication of a friend’s hesitation when you ask them what they think of something you’re just nuts about.

Whether it's the inescapable laws of physics or the often-less-clearly defined rules of human dynamics, seeing and appreciating the spaces between is one of the great little secrets of being truly aware and in the moment. And it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. At least in western society, most of us are raised and educated quite literally. We’re taught to see what’s there, and completely miss what’s not.

            To twist the old axiom a bit, 
            you have to believe it to see it.

NATURE THE TEACHER
Allowing existence to something most people would say isn’t there takes a little practice. What’s perhaps most difficult for many folks is the irony that, the harder you try to do this, the less likely you are to succeed.

My best teacher has been Nature, with a dash of faith, instilled by my parents, thrown in. If you can simply BE in Nature—no agenda, no schedule, no expectation, just pure, simple presence—Nature will eventually show you both what is and what exists right next to that, behind it...even in the space it now occupies, but once didn’t.


Sounds a bit metaphysical, a little new-agey, right? That’s where the faith comes in. To twist an old axiom a bit, you have to believe it to see it. And how does one unaccustomed to it come by that faith? It helps if you want to—something I’m not sure many millennials do, addicted as they seem to be, to all the predigested information and virtual experiences available to them at the tap of an icon.

The other key to hearing the inhalations of Nature's song lies in what I like to call seeing generously. It’s the attitude, the belief, that truly seeing—even what may not seem at first to be there—is more like giving than receiving. Far from the competitive, materialistic fervor our culture seems to believe drives our economy and makes us all happy, it is not an act of acquisition. It’s an act of surrender.


              So how do you embrace what's left 
              of life's sweet spaces and silences?

AWKWARD SILENCES
We live in a culture that does not easily abide empty spaces and times. We find even the briefest silences awkward, filling them with "ahs" or "ums" or silly small talk. We allow others to dictate our schedules—not just bosses or clients, but loved ones who, with the best of intentions, pounce on what's left of our "free" time as if we could not say no—and too often we do not.

And don't get me going on all those silly little screens that spoon-feed us information, entertainment and advertising wherever we go, whatever the time, and which we find so hard to turn off.

So how do you embrace what's left of life's sweet spaces and silences? By staying in your seat a few minutes, still listening, after the concert is over? Watching the way the brook flows between two rocks? Finding your deepest inner space and letting it merge with infinity? Can you think of other ways?


Thursday, December 3, 2015

CUBA – Orchids of Soroa

(You can find some of my Cuba posts on my travel blog, El Viajero Contento.)

It’s November 11, and I’m heading a couple of hours southwest of Havana to Artemisa Province and the tiny spa/resort village of Soroa. It will be a relief to claw my way out of the gritty, claustrophobic street-canyons of Old Town Havana for some peace and fresh air.

I hook up with my Spanish school compañeros, Meg, Suzanne and Charles, in the tiny plaza in front of La Floridita—reputedly Hemingway’s bar of choice whenever he craved a daiquiri´. There we meet our driver for the day, Lazaro, along with his pride and joy, his nicely restored 1956 Chevy Bel Air.


(Lazaro finished medical school, but hasn’t yet found a job. What’s more, at a doctor’s salary of 1,060 Cuban national pesos—about $40 usd—a month, he didn’t seem to mind driving tourists around for $75 a day!)

Turning north off the Autopista Este-Oeste (Route 4), we wind our way up a long, narrow valley to El Salto Park, where we pick up the climbing trail up to El Mirador (Overlook) de Soroa. It’s a hot, sweaty climb, but the rewards along the way—flora, fauna and even the rocks’ and trees’ amazing forms, colors and patterns—are well worth the effort.


After the beautiful half-hour trek we’re looking out over a broad sweep of the lush hills and plains of Pinar del Rio—and down on the backs of soaring vultures.


Once we’re back down, Meg and Suzanne decide to pay the three-peso (CUC) admission to cool off under the wispy, 20-meter salto (waterfall) while I play with some of the amazing touch-me-not plants (Mimosa Pudica) that furl up when brushed with a finger.


        Some orchids are so playful and animated 
        as to conjure characters from a fairy tale.

LABOR OF LOVE
From El Salto we head down the road to the Orquideario Soroa, the largest botanical gardens in Cuba—and, some claim, the second biggest orchid gardens in the world. Built by Spanish lawyer Tomás Felipe Camacho in 1943 in memory of his wife and daughter, the lovely eight-acre grounds feature some 700 orchid species, including many endemic plants. Though Camacho died in 1960, the Orquideario, now supported by the University of Pinar del Río, continues to thrive.

(Admission to the Orquideario costs three pesos (CUC) for a person—plus an additional peso for a camera!)


Our knowledgable guide explains the origins, preferences and significance of each specimen—though I must say I’m distracted by the sheer visual impact of such gorgeous flowers, some so playful and animated in form as to conjure characters from a fairy tale.


Unfortunately, not all orchids bloom at the same time. Alas, Cuba’s splendid national flower, the mariposa (butterfly) orchid, (Hedychium Coronarium), with its intoxicating, gardenia-like fragrance, is among the absentees. But the other amazing orchids of Soroa fill in nicely and will forever decorate the sultry alcoves of my happy place.


Monday, November 30, 2015

POOR, RICH AND RIGHTEOUS – Top 25 Images of Cuba

Cuba is like that weird uncle no one ever sees any more. Once the life of the party—an anything-goes spree destination for well-heeled American socialites, celebrities and the mob—the exotic country just 90 miles south of Key West suddenly became persona non grata.

So close, yet so far away.

While visiting Cuba the first two weeks of November, I was struck by the obvious effects, not just of the half-century US embargo, but of the influences of other countries—especially Russia and China—stepping in as allies. Given such connections, one wonders how the communist government, though providing certain first-world benefits like free health care and education, has managed to deprive so many of its citizens, for so long, of any broader sense of prosperity.

No sooner do the airs of one lively salsa or rhumba band fade than those of another two blocks ahead rise to the ear.

But Cubans count assets other than a high standard of living as it is understood elsewhere in the world. The flavors of their diverse heritage—European, African and Indigenous—blend in a savory stew of cultural energy. A distinct pride of survivorship keeps the great Revolution on low simmer, still evident in folks' erect bearing and in defiant propaganda splashed on walls and billboards. And Cubans are nothing if not resourceful, scrimping, saving and improvising to make do with their limited resources.

ISLAND RHYTHMS
The country's lush, tropical landscapes, from jungle to beach to highland coffee plantation, are breathtakingly beautiful. There's a surprisingly strong sense, even when one is beyond sight of the ocean, of this being an island—something, I suppose, about how the air feels and smells, and how close even a distant thunderstorm seems to loom.

Even gritty La Habana Vieja, old-town Havana, though at first glance a ruin, holds its own charms. Through the structural decay shine glimpses of grander days. Some landlords have managed a bit of restoration, even if it's only a fresh coat of paint. Here and there, vibrant art delights and challenges the eye, and music is everywhere—no sooner do the airs of one lively salsa or rhumba band fade than those of another two blocks ahead rise to the ear.

While a people can hardly be characterized by a tourist's limited impressions, I found the Cubans I met on the streets and in the countryside to be friendly, welcoming, curious…and surprisingly optimistic. Most are excited about the thaw in relations with the US, looking forward to new opportunities and reunions with long-separated family members living there.

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
I can't share all the warm smiles, the welcoming handshakes, the tastes and smells, the music's beat. Those you will have to experience for yourself.* But I can offer a few of the images I captured with my camera. Of the 1,000-plus I snapped, here are my best 25.
* Keep an eye here and on my travel blog, El Viajero Contento, for my upcoming post on how you can spend a couple of amazing weeks in Cuba—legally—for less than $1,500, about a third the price charged by most tour companies.