Wednesday, January 25, 2023

RED FELT SLIPPERS

Marie (not her real name) is in the bathroom when I arrive for my weekly visit. The door’s open, so I peer cautiously around the door frame. There she is, rocking slowly back and forth in her wheelchair, bumping repeatedly against the full-length mirror on the wall.

I announce my presence and ask if she’d like to come out and have a chat. With her usual positive intonation, she replies, “Oh, my, yes!”

Marie is a nursing home resident I visit as a volunteer. I’ve been seeing her every Thursday morning for over a month now. She’s a lovely person. Bright, sociable, interested in people and the world.

Oh, and she’s 107 years old.

         I explain that I can play virtually any
         music from any era, and ask her what
         she’d like to hear.


Marie needs hearing aids in both ears. But one’s gotten lost, so I have to sit facing her right side and speak quite loudly so she can hear me.

We’ve settled into a nice routine which Marie seems to like: first, we just chat for a while. Then, since I know she used to love reading the newspaper every morning, but now can barely make out the headlines, I read her a few articles from that morning’s Minneapolis Star Tribune.

By that time, after nearly shouting for half an hour, my voice has given out. So from my tote bag full of activity gear I pull out my compact, Bluetooth speaker and open Spotify on my phone. I explain that I can play virtually any music from any era, and ask her what she’d like to hear.

THE LIGHT FANTASTIC
As I’m navigating to a Frank Sinatra playlist, I idly ask her what were some of her favorite pastimes in her prime. Without hesitation she replies, “Dancing!” And then adds, almost under her breath, “…until my injuries put an end to that.”

I decide not to pursue something that must have been so painful for her. But I switch my music selection from Ol’ Blue Eyes to some big band favorites. You know, the Glenn Miller, the Duke Ellington, the Tommy Dorsey. I play it a bit louder than I would for myself.

At first, Marie's staring kind of distantly as the music plays. But then her eyes close and her head nods forward. Well, I figure, I guess I’ve lost her…but that’s okay.

In the Mood ends and Artie Shaw’s Dancing In the Dark starts playing. I happen to lower my eyes to the floor and see that Marie’s feet, adorned in red felt slippers, are moving to the music—one at a time, forward and back, side to side.

When it’s time for me to go I take Marie’s hand in mine, lean down toward her right ear and say “You haven’t lost a step.” I‘m not sure if she knows what I mean, but I detect a little smile that starts in her eyes and spreads like a blush across her face.

You can bet I’ll be dancing with Marie again next week.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

JOY AT FOUR CENTS AN HOUR – A Love Affair Afloat

What’s the best, wisest purchase you’ve ever made?

No sooner did I write that question than I realized the peril of answering it. So let me start like this: Among the best purchases I’ve ever made is…my canoe.

Back in 1976, when I was living in Keene New Hampshire, I found the 13-foot Mansfield Osprey canoe sitting in someone’s back yard, crawling with ants and earwigs, parts of its ash gunwales and cherry ribs rotting. Still, most of the wood-and-fiberglass hull looked intact.

I think I paid the guy $100 for it. I cleaned it up a bit, just stabilizing the rotting areas with some penetrating epoxy resin. It wasn’t pretty and there were a few chunks missing, but that little craft provided many hours of enjoyment for me in southeastern Vermont, where I used it mostly on the Connecticut river and a few local ponds.

I eventually moved back to Minnesota, where I got even more use out of my Osprey, paddling the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers, and several of the Twin Cities’ many beautiful lakes.

MENTAL FLOSS
In 1987, reeling from a painful divorce, I decided my summer project—and my redemption—would be some much-needed maintenance on my canoe and then outfitting both it and myself for a solo canoe trip in northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

In a friend’s small back yard, I put the canoe up on sawhorses and got to work. Keenly aware of the metaphorical significance of what I’d be doing. I removed as much wood rot as I could, soaked the rest in more penetrating resin, and then filled the larger voids with epoxy putty.

I removed and replaced the keel, swapping the mixed bag of rusty screws for new ones of shiny brass. I sealed each screw hole and then the entire length of the keel with clear silicone caulk.

My efforts were more repairs than restoration. The epoxy filler I applied is white, so the areas where I used it are pretty obvious. But those repairs, all of them, have proven rock solid for 35 years and counting.

          The current price: about the cost
          of an average car at the time my Osprey
          was made.


JOY AT FOUR CENTS AN HOUR
I’ve done a little research on the boat. The Mansfield Osprey was originally designed by L.H. Beach in 1954, and manufactured in Vermont by a company called Stowe Canoes, which also produced snow shoes. 

Long after I bought my old Osprey I was Googling the Mansfield name and learned that the Stowe Company had been bought and moved to, of all places, Tennessee, in 1972. The company was renamed Merrimack, after another fine New Hampshire town and river.

At Merrimack’s website, I was delighted to see they were still making the Osprey—nearly identical to my half-century-old craft—and that it was still considered a fine, unique canoe. The price for a new one at that time: nearly $2,000.

I recently checked again and found that Merrimack has since made two more moves, first to South Carolina and, again, just in the past year, to Winona, Minnesota, where the Merrimack name, designs and production methods are still honored—now under the corporate umbrella of the Sanborn Canoe Company.

The current price for a new, 13-foot Osprey: $3,500—about the price of an average car at the time my Osprey was made. While I have no plans to replace it, it’s somehow gratifying to know that if I wanted to, I could save my pennies and buy a brand new one.

It’s an interesting phenomenon, isn’t it? That one can become so attached to something very old, very worn, that it takes on greater value than a brand new version of the same thing that has 35 times the monetary value.

In terms of dollars-and-cents, if I take the price I paid for my little vessel, and divide it by the approximate number of hours I’ve spent enjoying it, I come up with a cost of around four cents per hour for all the paddling, exploring, fishing, photographing and communing with Nature I’ve done in it.


           I feel as safe and as nimble in my
           canoe as I do standing on dry land.


IN MY ELEMENT
The Osprey is not designed as a solo canoe. That is to say, it has both bow and stern seats. So when I paddle alone, my weight causes the bow to rise out of the water, and that makes paddling in any wind nearly impossible.

I simply compensate by filling a five-gallon collapsible water jug with river water and placing it on the floor in the bow.

Once I’m on the water, I experience a deep sense of empowerment and freedom. I can navigate around the tightest turns, through the trickiest currents, and over the roughest bottoms—as long as the water’s three or four inches deep. And if not, I just get out and pull the canoe over the shallows…or portage around them.

I can turn on a dime, and easily move my canoe forward, backward, or sideways in the water. I can paddle silently to sneak up on wildlife. The Osprey’s 39-inch beam makes it really stable, so I can stand up relatively safely to get a better view of what’s ahead, or just to stretch my legs.

After so many years getting to know my beautiful little canoe, I feel as safe and as nimble in her as I do standing on dry land.

It's like I'm paddling a piece of fine wood furniture.

PERKS AND QUIRKS
I’ve paddled and portaged many makes and models of canoes, under a wide range of conditions. Each of them—with a few exceptions—was very good for certain things. The beautiful old wood-and-canvas ones, like the Seligas or Chestnuts, are beautiful and fast, but because they’re relatively narrow and have no keels, they’re quite tippy.

Those old classics also have little quirks, like often leaking a little until the wood gets wet and expands.

The aluminum Grummans and Alumacrafts are workhouses, practically indestructible, great for running rapids. But they’re heavy, not the best choice for trips with lots of portages. And they’re noisy.

The first Kevlar canoes came out in the early 1970s. They’re super light and maneuverable, weighing in about 40 percent lighter than canoes of other materials.

They’re billed as indestructible, but that’s not exactly accurate, since Kevlar, originally developed to replace steel fibers in racing tires, is only strong in certain ways. It can absorb the impact of a bullet, but is easily abraded when the canoe is beached on rocks or gravel.

There’s definitely an esthetic element to the interior of a canoe. It has to do not just with how the vessel looks, but how it feels and sounds. There’s nothing at all warm and fuzzy about stepping barefoot into an aluminum canoe, feeling the cold metal against your feet and hearing the loud metallic clunk as you drop your paddle on the thwart.


Kevlar’s a bit warmer, but it’s quite translucent; from inside, you can easily see the water line through the thin amber skin. And I just find that unnerving.



My Osprey, like the other wood-ribbed classics, feels comfortable, secure and kind of organic, as if I were paddling a piece of fine wooden furniture.

A GUY CAN DREAM
After some 46 years of adventuring—and aging—together, I dearly hope my canoe and I can still enjoy a few more. But the reality is that the Osprey will ultimately weather the aging better than I.

There will come a day when even the relatively light weight of the boat will prove too much for me to handle. What’s more, as the inevitable downsizing of our home occurs, there will be the challenge of where to store it.

That will be a sad day indeed, like losing a good friend.

My fondest wish is that one of my clever, caring grandchildren might figure out a way to keep getting Gramps out there on the water now and then. Because I have a feeling that, even when this old coot can no longer walk so well, he’ll still wield a decent J stroke.

Saturday, January 7, 2023

DEJA BLUES – The Emotional Interplay of Music and Memory

There’s this song I discovered long ago on the Putamayo album, Acoustic Africa. It’s called "Baro," by the Malian singer Habib Koité. I’m sure I liked the song the first time I heard it, but gradually it’s become not just my favorite cut on the album, but one of the dearest pieces of music I know.

Now, when I listen to Baro, the music—the sweet layering of Koité’s silky voice with chorus, guitar, the marimba-like balafon and some gentle percussion—brings me to tears. So what happened since that first time I heard it that has loaded that song with so much emotion?

         It taps into…that dimly-lit corner of my
         consciousness where many nameless,
         placeless scraps of emotion reside.


FROM ROMANCE TO RAP

There are two distinct ways in which music might move me. The first is with its sheer intrinsic beauty. Beauty that resides in the sound itself—the sublime melding of melody, harmony and tempo that, like a beautiful painting or stunning piece of architecture, simply delights my senses.

Reynaldo Hahn’s operatic "L’Heure Exquise" is an example. It calls up no part-
icular emotional association for me, but even the first time I heard it I found it achingly beautiful. 

Even more personal than music’s intrinsic beauty is its evocative power. Its ability to recall moments or periods in the past. Sweetness or sorrow; pleasure or pain; gladness or grief—or any combination of those emotions.

It doesn’t have to be one particular experience or feeling either; sometimes it simply taps into that dimly-lit corner of one’s consciousness where many nameless, placeless scraps of emotional memory reside.

Of course, this kind of appeal is subjective. To one person, the music that recalls emotion might be a gentle, romantic-period pastorale; to another, a tender ballad; to yet another—don’t ask me why—it’s the harsh scolding of gangsta rap.

      John McVie said that song would “make
      grown men weep.” Turns out I’ve become
      one of them.


GROWN MEN WEEP

Often, the appeal grows over time. The first time I heard Christine McVie’s (of Fleetwood Mac) "Songbird," I was below decks on a 32-foot sailboat, crossing North Carolina’s Pimlico Sound in a gale. I was hunched over a plastic bilge bucket, barfing my guts out.

McVie’s ex, John McVie, once said that song would “make grown men weep.” Turns out I’ve become one of them. How could the most obvious of associations—the sheer misery of that bilious day at sea—have given way to such tender, weepy allusions?

I have a pretty good idea what those allusions are, but I'll spare you the TMI violation.

Aaron Copeland’s "Fanfare For the Common Man"—all three magnificent minutes of it—stirs entirely different feelings. Instead of melting me, this piece makes me stand tall and feel invincible.

While "Fanfare's" sounds themselves are undeniably thrilling, I’m not sure what the emotional association is, unless it’s a cultural one. A meaning derived, I suppose, from this type of music’s use in grand ceremonies and their depiction in film.

Oh, and don’t get me going on Puccini’s "Nessun Dorma," from Turandot. To me—admittedly far from an opera aficionado—it’s easily the most stirring aria I’ve heard. Especially in the hands of Pavarotti, whose performance takes the emotion to the next level.



FULL OF IT
This intrinsic/associative duality brings to mind something I used to tell clients during my graphic design career about the value of a good logo. 

The design, I explained, should be thought of as an empty vessel. It has to be unique and pleasing to the eye, of course. And the really good ones employ devices to make them especially memorable (like the the illusion of movement, or an interplay between positive and negative space).

But filling the vessel with meaning, connecting the visual appeal with feelings that build a positive impression, occurs over time. It comes from repeated association of the symbol with customer experiences. It’s the way the receptionist answers the phone, the quality and pricing of the organization’s products or services, the integrity of its personnel.

Isn’t this what happens with music? Some pieces appeal to us simply for their beautiful exteriors; others, the ones that not only appeal to us, but grow on us, get “filled,” over the course of many exposures, with intensely personal emotional associations.

Let’s make this a conversation. Do you agree that music taps into some well of emotion in nearly every human being? What musical works do that for you? If you hear them too often, does the intensity of the feelings diminish?

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Happy Holidays!

 I wish all my visitors and loyal followers from all over the world—80 countries so far—the very best of this season. For us Christians, that means MERRY CHRISTMAS! (para mis hispanohablantes amigos, ¡FELIZ NAVIDAD!) For my Jewish friends, it's HAPPY HANUKKAH! For all of us here in the northern hemisphere, it's HAPPY WINTER SOLSTICE! 


Whatever your celebration, may these days be kind to you, your families and your loved ones. May they bring you new awareness, wonder and gratitude!

Saturday, December 10, 2022

BANSHEE BRINK – Survival and Serenity On Cross-Country Skis

Ah-h-h, the dry, rhythmic whisper of skis on snow. Sh-h-h…sh-h-h….sh-h-h-h-h. An inch of fresh powder last night, and my green wax is spot on—grabs like tank treads going up hills; slick as Teflon going down.

Vivid sun cuts cleanly through fourteen-degree air. In the forest, trees cast pillars of shadow. Snowflakes, awakened by gentle breezes from their naps on high boughs, dust my jacket with glitter.


My body’s working well; I ask the best from every limb, and get it. My hands are already warm enough to shed my gloves. My spirits encourage me, as if skiing just ahead, laying down solid tracks, making it look and feel so easy.

          Before I know it I’m going way too fast
          to slow down.


Through a small clearing I glide, up a long herringbone hill, along a wooded ridge, and finally over the top. Speed picks up slowly; a little poling, faster and faster; now poles can’t keep up; I nearly brush the trees; hope I can stay in the tracks!

Wait! What’s this just ahead…Oh, no, too late! Over a blind crest and Whoa-h-h-h! A roller-coaster hill drops out from under my skis, sending me into near free-fall. Before I know it I’m going way too fast to slow down. Oh my God, I’m dead.

At the bottom a sudden dip catapults me out of the enclosure of the woods and into open sky over a sea of white. It feels like I'm in the air for five slo-mo seconds. I land more or less on my feet, regaining my balance, and then coasting…coasting.

A few easy strides…coasting…and then, far out on the frozen lake, I glide to a stop. I pause to catch my breath and listen. To the brittle silence of winter wilderness. To the still drumming beat of my heart.

(I later find out that I've just survived "Banshee Brink," one of the area's most notorious cross-country ski trail features.)

One’s thoughts are torn at exquisite moments like this. Between the immediate magic and deeper reflection. I’m not very religious, but for some reason, the words of a chapel reading I heard nearly 60 years ago when I was a counselor at a boys’ camp in Maine come to mind:

May the lake, the trees, the wide spaces of the fields and all the nature
 sights and sounds of earth and air be unto us as gates whereby we enter the vast kingdom of thy presence—and think quiet and compelling thoughts.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

TALKING SNOW – And Other Winter Wonders

It’s early December here in Minneapolis. We’ve just been visited by the season’s first snow storm, which blanketed my home town in eight inches of beautiful, sparkly-white powder. In a typical winter we’ll expect another four to six feet.

Like most of us norteños, I entertain mixed feelings about the coming four-and-a-half to five months of winter.  From mild depression over its getting dark at 4:30, to annoyance at having to don two or three extra layers of clothes to go outside, to the sheer exuberance of a nice ski with the right wax on fresh snow.

My trick for staying reasonably happy through a Minnesota winter—or any season for that matter—is to overcome the downsides by opening my eyes and my soul to wonder.

COLD, HARD TRUTHS
Here, in no particular order, are a few tips I hope might warm your way through these long, cold, dark days, alternating with some of my most memorable winter experiences related to each tip:

Forget the notion that snow is white, and look more carefully for the many colors it wears.

During a watercolor painting class I tried painting a snow scene. I kept wondering why it looked so flat, so unconvincing. The instructor explained that my snow was just “too white.” She was right; I added shadings of blue and violet, even hints of gray, and nailed it.

Snow and ice love to play. Blow them; throw them; slide on them; build with them; make igloos and angels.

When I walked to school as a ten-year-old, I’d pass an old, iron fence whose posts were capped with three-inch spheres. Every cold winter day, my friends and I would each spit on one of those balls. By February, barring a major thaw, we’d have three- or four-inch spit stalagmites.

Snowflakes seem so calm and silent. But see if you can’t make out their whispered breath when a few million of them settle and shift in a light breeze. Listen for snow’s “hush, hush!” under ski or sled. Heed its complaints when crushed under foot or tire.

When Sally and I head home from an evening event on one of those crackly-cold, minus-20 January nights, I love the concert that emanates from the parking lot: snow's squeaking like Styrofoam underfoot; its groaning and crunching under tons and tires; the rasp of scrapers on icy windshields; the labored cranking of cars’ starters.

Don’t curse the freezing air; celebrate it. Marvel at the way it reveals your breath. How its density carries sounds. How it lets you walk on water. Or skate…or drive.

When it drops to minus 20 or colder, I love to take a pan of boiling water outside and throw the water up in the air. It explodes into a cloud of snow, hissing as if you’d thrown it onto a white-hot griddle.

             The hard rubber puck hit the goal’s
             metal post…and shattered.

If it gets really, really cold—like the minus 36 I experienced last winter up in Bemidji—remember how that feels; it’ll make for a kind of warped bragging rights the rest of your life.

My high school’s hockey rink was outdoors, unenclosed. One day when the temperature hovered around 25 below one of my teammates hit a great slap shot. The hard rubber puck hit the goal’s metal post…and shattered.

Appreciate the graceful shapes snow assumes when sculpted by the wind; and its ability to record everything from the passing of a field mouse to the progression of climate change over millennia.

Right after a fresh snowfall, Nature bore witness to a poignant, life-and-death drama right in the middle of my back yard: a line of delicate mouse or vole tracks that ended abruptly. And flanking the very last tiny footprint, the subtle, but unmistakable, imprints of two-foot wings.

Discover snow’s sublime beauty in both its micro and macro forms. An individual snowflake is one of Nature’s most elegant, beguiling creations. And, in the billions, they can bury a freight train, shut down a city or become the medium for gorgeous drifting dunes.

During my Army stint, I spent a weekend leave in New York City. Sunday dawned to the hush of over a foot of fresh snow. The normal hustle and hum of big-city life had been damped down to the easy murmur of a village. The only things moving were people on foot; the only sounds, the laughter of folks having a snowball fight…and swish-swish of one guy skiing.

Discover how, when a lake’s unbridled liquidity freezes solid and flat, it sets free your own gliding, swirling dance. You will need skates.

I’ll never forget my first skate on “black ice." Sunfish Lake had just frozen over (just a couple of inches thick), and neither wind nor snow had yet marred its glassy, obsidian perfection.*

Shed the scratchy, stifling coat of adulthood for a while, and free your inner child to delight in the season.

While skiing through the woods, I stopped in a pool of sunlight. I don't know what prompted me to lift my gaze, but suddenly I was awash in a fine, dazzling-diamond mist. The five-year-old in me opened my mouth and caught as much as I could on my tongue. I took a deep breath of pure, sub-zero air and vowed I’d never forget.
I haven’t.

All right, I know everyone who lives anywhere has his or her own war stories about their weather. But I say you can have your hurricanes and heat waves, your super cells and sand storms. I’ll take the winter weather wonders of Minnesota any day. 

 C’mon, I know you’re envious!

* I later learned that another skater had fallen through the ice that day on the same lake. Officials insist lake ice is safest to walk on when it’s clear and at least four inches thick. Even then, you should carry a pair of picks designed to enable your escape in the event you break through.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

WHERE NOTHING IS EVERYTHING – The Sacredness of the Spaces Between

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

I’ve been reading Eckhart Tolle’s inspiring 2005 book, A New Earth – Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. I’d been aware of the elfin spiritual guru’s Zen-like teachings for many years, and have watched several of his interviews about spiritual evolution and the path toward ego-less consciousness. (I also enjoy actor/comedian Jim Carrey’s unlikely musings about his own Tolle-inspired take on life.)

Revisiting Tolle has piqued my interest in better understanding and articulating my own spiritual beliefs, especially where they align with his on the concept of space.

I’ve written in these pages many times about the metaphysical significance of space. How to find it amongst the phalanx of responsibilities and stimuli that press in on us every day. How Nature can help provide that space.

         It’s all just story, whose true setting
         is invariably in the past or the future,
         neither of which even exists.


EVERYWHERE AND NOWHERE

I love the way Tolle delineates the realms of ego and higher consciousness. Ego, he says, comprises all the thoughts, feelings and even experiences that seem to define our lives. Higher consciousness, our true essence, our Being is everything else. It’s like this invisible—yet somehow perfectly beautiful—vessel, which exists both everywhere and nowhere.

While the ego feeds on stuff—Tolle calls it “content”—that comes and goes through that space, it’s all just story, whose true setting is invariably in the past or the future, neither of which, he asserts, even exists.

Content—like emotion, accomplishment, personality or pain—though the ego wants desperately to glom onto it, inevitably comes and goes. Our self-actualization depends on our ability to let it do so while realizing that it has nothing to do with who we really are. 


         Though I often hear people describe their
         ultimate happy place in terms of fullness,
         I experience mine as a divine void.


THE ELOQUENCE OF SILENCE
I love this notion of space being the essence of awareness. It feels like the central truth in which I’ve always known my personal spirituality is grounded. It explains perfectly why, though I often hear people describe their spiritual happy place in terms of fullness, I experience mine as a divine void. It’s why, for example, I find the “moment of silence” sometimes offered in services of prayer and remembrance so powerful.

It explains all kinds of notions human beings find hard to comprehend, but which I know somewhere deep inside to be true. Like how one reality might reside just a membrane’s thickness away from its opposite. Like the seeming mirror images of the immense and infinitesimal. Or how there’s no such thing as a straight line—since they all eventually end up at the same place they started.

That timeless, placeless, formless expanse in which those truths reside sounds a lot like what many spiritual traditions would call God.

                                             ~            ~             ~    

                                SIDEBAR: There’s Nothing To You
In case you had any doubt about the relative importance of matter and space in the Universe, consider this: If one could remove all of the empty space contained in and around every atom in every person on planet Earth and compress us all together, the overall volume of our particles would amount to something roughly the size of a sugar cube! *  **

* “The Volume of Humanity – If All the Space In Our Atoms Is Removed” By Phil Plait, SYFY Wire, Oct. 29, 2018

** Of course, this compression can only happen theoretically. Since the position of atoms in most solids is determined by what’s called wave function, they are about as close together as the laws of physics allow.