Friday, October 21, 2016


 TIP #12
Once in a while, look up.

You'd think this would be a no-brainer, wouldn't you? But, if you're at all like me, it's like breathing. You take it for granted; you forget that, occasionally, it needs your attention. Haven't you ever concentrated so much on something—you know, that body-and-soul concentration where you shut out everything around you?—that you realized you'd been forgetting to breathe?

PHOTO: Pixabay

Well, it's the same thing with looking up. We get so focused on what's right in front of our noses, or what's going on inside our heads, we forget that, of the 360-degree reach of our vision, about half of it—with all its wonders of wisp and wing, billow and beam—lies above eye level.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

THE ZEN ZONE – Twelve Ways to Know You’ve Glimpsed the Essence

Those of you who follow me here know I like to take occasional pokes at the arcane, seemingly impenetrable façade of Zen spiritual practice. I just believe that one can reap the benefits of mindfulness—in a form not all that different from that practiced by serious aficionados—without committing to a lifetime of study, denial, nor a solitary stint on some icy crag in the Himalayas. This post is a reflection on that kind of...well...let’s just call it Zen Lite.

If you’re anything like me, you spend the vast majority of your waking hours either consciously or unconsciously pursuing someone’s—perhaps your own— agenda. It’s as if there’s this insidious, self-refilling to-do list; no sooner do you check off one task than another pops up to replace it.

Welcome to 21st century life in the western world.

Since retiring a few years back, I've been more or less free of the largely client-dictated schedule that used to drive me most weekdays. Even so, I’ve found it very hard to rise above other daily compulsions and expectations.

But then, in the past year, I’ve had to undergo a couple of surgeries—the first, to open up my sinuses and, I hope, avoid the frequent bouts with bronchitis I'd been suffering for several years; the second, major surgery to reinforce a crumbling spine.
         I’ve come to realize what a blessing 
         those operations have been.

And in the month and a half since the latter procedure, I've come to realize what a blessing those operations have been. First of all, it appears they may have cured both my recurring respiratory problems and my chronic pain.

Secondly, the spine surgery has forced me to make room in my daily busy-ness—much of which is really of little consequence—for my rehabilitation. And, for me, at least for the first couple of months, that has meant walking, lots of walking. I've already worked up to over two miles a day…and I plan to do even more.

And finally, the amazing success of my surgeries has given me a new—or perhaps I should say heightened—sense of appreciation for the many small miracles of life. Nowadays I celebrate each and every pain-free step, every single unimpeded breath.

For years I've aspired to be more conscious—of myself, of others, of this amazing planet…of life. Like most folks, I find this hard to do while preoccupied with workaday goals and deadlines. But my forced re-allocation of time, and the recent glow of awe and gratitude I’ve been feeling, has allowed me to renew that quest for consciousness.

One result has been more frequent encounters with a state of mind I’m lightly calling the Zen Zone—an extraordinary feeling of connection with my own body, with life and, dare I say, with the cosmos. And it’s changing me to my core.

So far, as a relative novice in exploring this stuff, I’ve found two ways to rather easily reach such a place of heightened awareness. One is by meditating (which, in the form of a kind of self-hypnosis, helped me immensely in preparing for and recovering from my back surgery). I continue to do it—though I could practice anywhere, I’ve been doing it mainly indoors. Through meditation I follow my breathing, turn deep within myself, and find there a profound sense of understanding, a place which feels like it encompasses all space, all time.

          It’s a place that is all places, that exists 
          not within myself, but beyond.

ART: Colleen Wallace Nungari

During this journey inward I have these extraordinary flashes of clarity. It feels like I truly get that everything—all this beauty, everyone I’ve ever known, all the love in the world, all life’s possibilities are connected, and they're all in there. I've heard it called a state of centered-ness. 

Then there’s another kind of Zen Zone, the one I occasionally find while outdoors walking. And, while the level of consciousness feels like that of my "inner" meditations, its location seems precisely the opposite. Again, it’s a place that is all places, a time that is all time, but now the expansiveness exists not within myself, but beyond. My essence, life’s essence, the Essence, seems to flow into me from somewhere, everywhere, outside of me—from that speck of soil under my sandal to the incomprehensible reach of the heavens.

Part of this happens simply because I want it; I’ve made room for it in my consciousness. But it's also because I'm deliberately practicing it. By doing so I’m able to find that outer-expansiveness more and more frequently every day. It may have started during those daily rehab walks, but now I encounter it at other times too. (Certain kinds of music seem to help put me in a receptive frame of mind.)

PHOTO: Pixabay

Here are the top twelve ways I know when I've found my Zen Zone:

1. I’m aware of human life going on well beyond the reach of my basic senses. It’s a poignant, deeply empathetic realization that, at this very moment, a baby is being born, someone is dying, a crew buried deep in a mine shaft somewhere prays for rescue, folks are experiencing triumph and heartbreak—around the world, in my city…perhaps in some of the houses I’m passing.

2. Strangers pass and I experience a sense of kinship. I wonder about her, what he does, what going home looks like to her, whether he’s happy. As we move on, it feels like we've blessed each other.

3. I believe I am one with other living things too. I regard a tree, a knot of wildflowers, a sweeping green lawn, as fellow sentient beings, each all-knowing in its own way, each my co-inhabitant in the Essence.

4. I feel my own body in a new way. I experience my weight, visualizing each horizontal slice of me, from head on down, bearing the cumulative load of all the slices above. I notice the circular rhythm of my breathing, absorbing each inhalation like water in a thirsty sponge. I’m aware of my blood flowing, from heartbeat to arterial pulsing to all those barely seeping little capillaries just under my skin. It makes my hands and feet pleasantly warm.

      I am myself at all ages, like I was as a boy, 
      like I'll be as an old man. All of it is now.

5. The sun, though a mind-numbing 93,000,000 miles away, warms me as if it were a cozy little bonfire at my feet, its warmth shining on me, in me, through me.

6. Bird song, squirrel chatter, even the rasp and whir of insects, feels like it has meaning, evoking a spontaneous urge to answer. When a critter is close enough, we stop and size each other up. I pray it  knows I mean no harm. And I know deeply that, while we may not have the same blood, and that perhaps ten or twenty percent of our DNA is different, we share the identical ITALforce.

7. Any fear, anger or negative thought I may have carried a few minutes ago is consumed in a calm sea of patience and certainty.

I am myself at all ages—like I was as a boy, like I'll be as an old man. All of it is now.

9. I am unaware of looking for wonder, joy, love; it all seems to find me...and then is me.

    I appreciate each blessing so poignantly that 
    I am aware, simultaneously, of its absence.

10. It’s not as if I’m without a mundane thought—little aches and pains, daydreams, my ever-present to-do list—but somehow they seem to just float lightly on the surface, above the liquid depths of my reverie.

11. I appreciate the blessings in my life—love, good health, peace, freedom…even that venerable cottonwood I just passed—so profoundly that I am aware, simultaneously, of their absence. Knowing they are not yet gone causes tears to well up in my eyes.

12. Finally—and this may well be the most telling of signs—as if any one of these sacred facets of consciousness weren’t spellbinding enough in itself, they all cast their radiance on me simultaneously. If I weren't so calm, I'm afraid it might be overwhelming.
                                            ~ // ~     ~ // ~     ~ // ~

Once again, I am a mere pretender at any respectable kind of Zen meditation. Yet I’m reminded that all of one’s abilities begin with pretense. With any new skill or awareness, what keeps you doing it are those first blushes of accomplishment—Hey, I could really do this!

Perhaps some day I’ll be able to find myself in the Zen Zone—where I am the Essence and it is me—at will. But for now, at least I know a few things to do and places to be where it is most likely to find me. And I know to open my heart and soul to it when it does.

My friends, I wish you such blessings.

Monday, October 3, 2016

HEAL! – How Dogs Cure Us

Nature is in every human animal’s DNA. It made us, sustains us and comprises us, body and soul.

No matter how much we may try to control or deny it, no matter how we presume to virtualize it, no matter how we smother it in busy-ness, we can’t escape it. Wherever we live, even if it’s a place where signs of life are few, our essential belonging to Nature is hard-wired into us. And at some level, whether we realize it or not, we all deeply long to embrace it—to bring it home.

This is why human beings have dogs. (Okay, I know dogs aren’t the only animals folks keep as pets, but what can I say? I’m a dog person.)

That reminds me of a joke: Know the difference between dogs and cats? Dog looks up at its person and thinks, My gosh, he pets me, feeds me, talks to me, gives me everything I could possibly need. He must be God.

Cat looks up at its person and thinks, Well let’s see, she pets me, feeds me, talks to me, gives me everything I could possibly need…I must be God.


PHOTO: Mario Sanchez via WikiMedia
From the ancient Egyptian grain trader relying on his cats—while also deifying them—to control vermin; to the medieval lord and his falcon, or the modern hunter or rancher trying to make sense of both loving animals and slaughtering them, our domes- tication of wild animals is as old as we are.

While most of these creatures, including dogs, were originally tamed to work for us, there are, as it turns out, other reasons we’re so fond of having pets; the blurring of the line between expediency and those other less practical benefits dates back at least 12,000 years.

Here are just a few of the reasons why we cynophiles want—and need—dogs in our lives:

Companionship – No matter how perfect we might feel our connection with another human being, personal relationships are hard. We try to be good mates, but we always end up hurting and disappointing each other. We see our own shortcomings reflected in them.
     But with a dog there is no guile, no misplaced expectation. They are what they are…and they love us for exactly who we are. In fact, we see in them many of the traits we wish we possessed.

    I sometimes wonder if dogs don’t feel sorry 
    for how we’ve forfeited our own child-puppy 

A Need to Nurture – Most humans, it seems, are so independent, so self-sufficient, that we won’t admit to wanting—much less needing—anyone to take care of us. But we all need to nurture.
     Sure, we do it instinctively with children and perhaps the aged, but what about after the nest is empty once again; what about for those who no longer have—or have never had—someone to take care of? Two words: bow and wow.


Entertainment – Dogs make us laugh…and cry…and sing and dance… We just love to watch them. We people are fascinating to watch too, but dogs are way more fun. It touches more than our funny bone; it touches a place that yearns to be that spontaneous, that genuine, that free.
     And I sometimes wonder if dogs don’t enjoy watching us too—maybe just to see our reaction to them…or perhaps feel sorry for how so many of us grown-ups have forfeited our own child-puppy spontaneity.

Exercise – You’ve heard dog owners say they’re not sure who’s taking whom for the walk, right? Well it’s true. We need dogs to get us off our big fat butts and thin little screens and out of the house.
     By the way, these folks we see now and then being hauled passively around on their bikes or skateboards by the slave labor of their poor crazed, panting pups…they just don’t get it.

     We have allowed our awareness to be steeped 
     out of us by a culture that can no longer dis- 
     tinguish reality from entertainment. Dogs, 
     thank God, can still tell the difference!

Role Modeling – We find much to admire in our dogs: their generous spirits and modest needs; their unbridled enthusiasm; their obvious empathy when we’re sad or hurting; their fierce loyalty; their ability to thoroughly inhabit the simplest moment.
     And then there’s the way they handle adversity. A dog doesn’t blame anyone if it gets sick or hurt, doesn’t feel sorry for itself when it loses an eye or a leg. Hell, most wouldn’t even blame their owner for abusing them. My wife and I call this “just doing,” and often notice how it educates our own dealings with life’s hard knocks.

PHOTO: John Hurd via WikiMedia Commons

Awareness – It seems more and more people are so captivated by their own mostly-inane thoughts—or, perhaps more aptly nowadays, their iPhones or iPads—that they don’t have a clue what’s really going on, often right in front of their noses…until their dogs show them.
     We humans have rather easily allowed our awareness, our attention spans, to be steeped out of us by a culture that can no longer distinguish reality from entertainment. Dogs, thank God, can still tell the difference! 

Social Lubrication – When it comes to ways of meeting and interacting with other human beings, we’ve all heard the tried-and-true tricks: sign up for a community ed. class; volunteer; hang out in the produce aisle at the supermarket and ask folks how to tell when a cantaloupe is ripe.
     But the best way, hands down, whether you’re a young single person prospecting for dates, a lonely elder or just someone who loves other people, is to walk down the street or through the park with a dog—puppies are most effective. The way I figure, anyone who doesn’t love stopping to pet your dog isn’t worth meeting anyway.


Centering – I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that dogs have a spiritual presence. Like sunshine on our skin or the smell of food, the presence of dogs causes things to happen in our bodies and minds. Something opens up; a hardness inside softens and melts. The toughest character—even, they say, a hardened criminal—turns into a cooing, caressing softie.

Have you ever seen the face of a hospitalized child or a dementia patient light up when that sweet chord of connection with a dog is struck? What is this chemistry, and why is it so powerful that I feel it change me even when I just look at a picture of a dog?

Healing – Pet dogs don’t just take us outdoors, don’t just show us how to be healthy and whole; they impart genuine healing energy to our bodies and spirits. Scientific studies have shown, for example, that petting a dog lowers people’s heart rates and blood pressures.
Therapy dogs provided through a number of treatment programs—for Alzheimers, autism, PTSD, hospice, and many others—are well recognized for providing obvious, measurable healing.

So how do dogs—yours, or perhaps those you only covet—make you feel? 
What do you most admire about them? How do they make your life better? How have they changed you?

We fellow, fawning cynophiles out here would love to hear from you!!

Friday, September 23, 2016

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

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

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

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

At the exclusive private school I attended from sixth to twelfth grade, American-style football was mandatory. That’s right, unless one had a very good excuse, every boy in the junior-high grades had to play full-contact football.

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

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

PHOTO: ImageSourceInternational

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

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

         This was the spine of a crippled person.

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

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

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

No, this was the spine of a crippled person.

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

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

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

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

Goodbye orthopedist number one.

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

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

      Like some desperate little starlet trying to 

      break into pictures, I took what I could get.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHOTO: Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

              I wondered with a little smile

              if I'd been abducted by aliens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 15, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHOTO: Wikipedia

Saturday, July 30, 2016

BALKING THE WALK – How I’ve Let My Devotion to Nature Get "Screened" Out

I write about Nature all the time—about its countless wonders, small and large; its wise counsel in ways of patience and knowing; and its many coincidences with my brand of spirituality. I promote closer connections with Nature for everyone, especially children.

But I’m a hypocrite.

I actually don’t spend as much time outdoors as it may seem. Too often, I fall victim to the very temptation I urge others to resist: the lazy cosmopolitanism, the false presence, afforded by digital technology’s instant “connections” with people, places and information.

It started, I’m afraid, with the publication of my first book, Under the Wild Ginger; my publisher told me I had to put myself out there and promote, if not actual sales, at least a point of view that would attract like-minded readers.

              Cyberspace is a wily seductress.

But cyberspace is a wily seductress. At first the allure was something like the one I felt as a boy when, no longer fooled by that old tin-cans-and-string ruse, my fondest wish was for a real walkie- talkie. Or later when I’d spend hours with my ear pressed against the speaker of our tabletop Emerson radio, fine-tuning among the stronger signals and static for distant stations. This communicating beyond the range of my own, unelaborated ear and voice struck me as nothing short of mystical.
ILLUSTRATION: Quint Buchholz

There’s a certain boundless freedom in sending and receiving messages over untold expanses, across geographic, political and cultural boundaries. The same kind I experience during my favorite, recurring dream: being able to fly. It feels like the very essence of spiritual connection, a magical oneness with time and space and all of creation—not to mention its striking awe and envy into every onlooker.


Well, blaming the medium for its abuse is a pretty poor excuse. What first brought this line of reflection to mind for me was my wife’s and my annual sojourn in a lovely seaside town in Guerrero Mexico. Last March, the nice little TV in our villa never once blinked on.

Sure, we spent some time on our devices most days, doing some necessary work, keeping in touch with loved ones, sharing a few photos. But those times were quite limited. And, even when our minds may have been in cyberspace, physically we were still in direct contact with Nature during all our waking hours.

Even inside our villa, where there’s no wall separating us from the view over Zihuatanejo bay, delicious warm breezes waft in day and night, carrying the sounds and smells of the neighborhood and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Critters—ants, butterflies, geckos, bats and the occasional tarantula—become our constant companions. And our relationships with our Mexican friends seldom abide the quick phone call, email, or—God forbid—text. No, more folks there take the time to come calling, to spend a few minutes exchanging pleasantries and just being…well...nice.

         It’s not really the physical walls that are 
         holding me back. It’s the virtual ones.

How quickly such wonders soak into one’s skin; by the end of our stay, we were already taking this sustained communion with Nature, including these unhurried visits with people, for granted. But now, with the singular clarity of hindsight, I know why this annual month in the tropics is so restorative in so many ways.

It’s exactly what I’ve been letting slip away, bit by bit, in my life here in the “real” world: the close presence of Nature in my life every day. Paying attention, not just to a little screen, but to the countless small wonders playing out around me in real time and real space.

Now, I realize it might prove impractical here in Minnesota to remove one side of our urban townhouse and let in the air, light (and mosquitos). And winter…well, come on, this is Minnesota! But I’m thinking it’s not really the physical walls that are holding me back. It’s the virtual ones. I’ve been allowing others—content developers, marketers, fellow screen addicts…whomever—to limit what I can experience, to steer the direction and extent of my vision.

This is not what I want. Is it what you want? Don’t we have our own vision, an outlook which belongs to no one but us? Shouldn’t we be the ones deciding what will surprise and delight us, who will become our next good friend, and, in the thick of this surreal presidential election, what and whom we should fear?

       I must make time for the cure before I 
       can recover the time spent on the disease.

Now that summer’s just beginning to yield to fall, I aim to reclaim my birthright—the birthright of every human being—my connection, my belonging, to Nature. And the way to start is to, as I like to put it, get off the screen and into the scene. Like surmounting any bad habit, this will require being thoughtful and deliberate, more disciplined in how I spend my time.

What makes it hard is that I must make time for the cure before I can recover the time spent on the disease. For example, if I’m to take a walk every morning, I’ll have to let go of the time I’m wasting on television or the Internet the night before. Or I may have to re-prioritize the short list of friends I correspond with most often, adding Nature to that inner circle.

And I most certainly will have to change my point of view. I must learn to use all my senses, not just taking in the wisdom and beauty of Nature, but giving something to the transaction too. I call it seeing generously.  It’s a mindset in which we stop trying to impose our will and way on Nature and life, instead vesting in them the power to have their way with us.

That is what we do in Mexico when we stop during our daily walks and cool off in accustomed shady spots. It is what I do when I remember to let life astound me—from those little “floaters” that punctuate my vision from the inside, to whatever horizon the weather defines that day, to the stars on a clear night, to the still-further reach of my imagination.

It is what we all must do if we want to reclaim the sacred bond with Nature that originates deep in our bones and so yearns to be honored once again.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

CAST IN A NEW LIGHT – The Real Reason for the Blue-mination of City Streets

An opinion piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune the the day caught my eye. It's by Paul Bogard, a fellow Minneapolitan, author of The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light.

The piece is Bogard's reaction to a July 17 Strib news article headlined "LED streetlight change puts cities in new (harsher?) light." The essence of his commentary is that the growing embrace of high-color-temperature LED (Light Emitting Diode) technology for street lighting by cities across the U.S.—including his and my home base, Minneapolis/St. Paul—is an ill-considered, shortsighted decision with far-reaching effects on those cities' inhabitants, both human and otherwise.

Click on image to see Madrid street lighting 2011 vs. 2015 – IMAGE: Tech Insider

He cites research by the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization showing that light emitted by the types of LEDs being adopted— those with the bluish-white light of Kelvin color temperatures over 4,000 degrees—compromises human health, causing sleep disorders, confusing circadian rhythms and even increasing risks for some types of cancers.

He makes an equally compelling argument for the adverse effects on non-human nocturnal critters, including 30 percent of vertebrates, 60 percent of invertebrates and insects we depend on for pollination.

All this in the name of safety—one of several LED selling points Bogard refutes.

   Are there really folks who 
   enjoy seeing the view ahead impaled on those 
   slashing swords of ice?

What Bogard fails to mention is the effect the icy stare of high-Kelvin-color lighting on the human psyche. It would be bad enough if we were choosing it just for city streets. But the soulless glare also emanates from folks' back-yard security lights, lighting in public spaces and transit vehicles, and even from newer LED flashlights.

One evening this past spring, as I drove home from work well after dark, I passed a city bus. The lighting inside it was that cold, bluish color. I imagined myself riding that bus, and, barring an exceptionally friendly conversation with a fellow passenger, how utterly alien it would feel.

And don't get me going on car headlights. Are there really folks who enjoy seeing the view ahead impaled on those slashing swords of ice? I know it's judgmental, but the easiest answer is that, along with the renewed trend toward bigger, "badder" cars and trucks, this is an act of pure aggression. In your face, buddy!

PHOTO: PaulTech Network

Back in my college days I flew quite often back and forth between Minnesota and the East Coast. I witnessed, from the air, the first mass experiments in mercury vapor street lighting, another technology challenged by unfortunate coloring.

In the New York City megalopolis, one city or borough might have been awash in indifferent, blue light; another, separated by just a street, train tracks or river, in much warmer, supposedly color-corrected, but still unnatural-looking pink or yellow. And a few neighborhoods still basked in their good-old, cozy incandescent lights. I remember how those stood out, like islands of humanity in a dead sea. I thought that's where I'd live if I were down there.
   The fear has reared its Chicken-Little head 
   in advertising, music, politics, and a seemingly 
   endless series of zombie, dystopian-world novels 
   and films.

Perhaps it will shed some, well, light on this "blue-mination phenomenon to see it in its larger context.

We’re living in a world the media, along with some shameless, demagogic politicians, has convinced some of us is more dangerous than at any time in memory. Radical Muslims beating down our door; immigrants stealing our jobs and corrupting our culture; cops (or African Americans, if you're on that side of the "war") making a mockery of Amurican justice.

It seems anyone with an outsize ego or a buck to make is trying to capitalize on the amorphous, baseless fear. It's reared its Chicken-Little head in advertising, where folks are portrayed lying, intimidating and stealing—even from loved ones; in music, with aggressive, take-no-prisoners sound and lyrics, in neurotic, polarizing politics, and in a seemingly endless series of zombie, dystopian-world novels and films.

Yep, it’s us versus them or else…or else I guess it doesn't sell.

               Warm light makes us feel close, 
               welcoming and secure.

Be afraid, be very afraid, they say. Close the borders; keep your daughters home; lock every door…and kick some serious ass with those ruthless blue lights. Call me a wimp; call me old-fashioned. But in an insecure, paranoid world, keeping warm lights burning—like the proverbial home fires and candle in the window—might just go a long way toward salving the savage beast.

There's a reason human beings soften in candlelight, turn to song round the campfire, and take amazing, glowing photos is that precious light just before dusk. Warm light makes us feel close, welcoming and secure. Feelings I do not fear.