Tuesday, June 28, 2011

BETCHA CAN'T FIND… – A Simple Game of Observation

Starting when my kids were about three and four years old, they'd spend their summers with me. I did my best to keep them busy learning and having fun. While I worked, they were in summer art programs, at day camp or with friends whose parents were around during the day. Evenings and weekends we also had lots of fun, but sometimes we’d find ourselves with some time to kill—sitting at the laundromat, on long trips in the car, or waiting for Grandma.


To make the best of that time, we invented a simple game of observation. It usually works best outdoors, but it can be fun indoors too. The more varied and cluttered the view, the better. I don’t think we ever named it, but, after playing it once, all I had to do to declare the game underway was to say “I’ll bet you…can’t…find a…," and fill in the blank with the name of any object I knew we could all see. I’d always say the words very slowly, sort of dramatically, which became their cue to dial up their sharpest eyes.

 In order to challenge them for more than a few seconds, I had to find more and more minute details.

Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, at first it was. But my kids proved so good at it that, in order to challenge them for more than a few seconds, I had to find more and more minute details or things that were visible only intermittently (like a waving flag that showed between two buildings only when billowed by the wind).
Since the object was for one sibling to find the object before the other, it became an exercise very much like speed reading—scanning a visual “lexicon” for that one key “word.”

...it takes a little time, which, after all...is the greatest gift we can give our loved ones…and ourselves.

Like anything so wonderfully simple, I’m sure this game wasn’t our exclusive invention. There could be any number of variations; any format will do. The key is to use one’s sight like a laser to cut through the flashy, loud, obnoxious foreground layer that so often clambers for our attention, and see some of the other layers of rich detail life lavishes on us.

The beauty of Bet You Can’t Find… is that the only equipment you need is your eyes, something those of us lucky enough to have good vision take with us wherever we go. And, of course, it takes a little time, which, after all—one of the main points of One Man's Wonder—is the greatest gift we can give our loved ones…and ourselves.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

TIP #15 
Get polarized sunglasses.

Squint as you will; you'll never penetrate that hard enamel glare that sun bakes onto water. 

Regular sunglasses may help ease the pain, but they don't crack the shell. Polarized lenses, though, like magic x-ray goggles, dissolve the glare, revealing the mysteries of that alien world behind reflection.

"Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity."

Thursday, June 23, 2011

MILESTONES – 100th Post - Thank you!

It seems like just yesterday that I first stuck my toe into this blogging ocean. The first of October last year, I posted So This Ant Walks Into a Bar. It got one comment.

At that time, I was grateful just for the support of my family and a few of my closest friends who dutifully came to see what Jeff's new diversion was all about.

Eight months, 100 posts, 7,500 page views and 61 countries later, I'm feeling pretty encouraged. Think I'll stick with it!

And speaking of encouragement, that, besides the joy I find in the writing, is really what's kept me going—from those requisite visits of loved ones, to the small leaps of faith made by my followers, to the cherished relationships I've formed with fellow bloggers, authors and other kindred spirits. This online community is amazingly generous and kind-spirited.

Thank you, everyone! I'll make you a deal: you keep checking in at One Man's Wonder and share your favorite posts with others; I redouble my efforts to keep posting reflections and inspiration worthy of your interest.  

Monday, June 20, 2011

ON BANDED WING – The Amazing Aerobatics of the Nighthawk

Happy summer, my wonder-full friends! Here's another of the countless little ways to fully notice and marvel at this glorious season.

The bird is so common that you can see and hear it almost any warm summer evening nearly anywhere in North America. I’d venture to say that most of us have heard its distinctive cry thousands of times. But it’s so ubiquitous, so enmeshed in the soundscape of a typical summer evening, that few would think to pick it out and explore its source.

Granted, this bird is a bit more elusive than the robin or chickadee; you’ll seldom see one up close. But I guarantee that if you make a point of noticing it and take ten minutes to watch it in action you’ll become as enchanted as I am by its incredible aerial dance.

My discovery of the common nighthawk began with its voice. I was out for a walk one evening, just before dusk. As I soaked up the luscious air of a summer night and a symphony of people’s laughter, passing cars, distant dog barks, a chorus of crickets and a dozen other sounds, one sound just seemed to jump out at me from all the others.

It was a cross between a high-pitched whistle and the breathy “phew!” of relief we humans sometimes emit after doing something strenuous or stressful. Then add a sound like the “ps” in “lips” at the beginning and you've got it: “psssew, psssew”—repeated every few seconds.

It was one of those things that, once you notice it for the first time, you can't stop noticing. I just had to figure out what that sound was. Looking up at the twilit sky, I noticed a single jay-sized bird with long pointed wings, each split by a lateral white stripe. It was tracing a broad circle, its wings flopping in an uneven, unhurried rhythm. I’d heard of nighthawks, but knew nothing of their behavior. Still, I knew right away that’s what it had to be.

I found a patch of grass, lay down on my back and watched for several minutes. It became clear that the bird’s circular flight path was actually a helix, winding higher and higher with each revolution.

Suddenly, it folded its wings back and dove like a falcon. Plummeting right at me, it seemed sure to hit the street. 

Round and round, up and up it fluttered (“psssew!”). I guessed it was at least a few hundred feet above me when, suddenly, it folded its wings back and dove like a falcon. Plummeting right at me, it seemed sure to hit the street. But finally, just missing the treetops, it pulled sharply out of its dive.

As breathtaking as this feat was to the eye, the noise it produced was even more so. It is one of the most unearthly sounds I’ve ever heard in Nature. The bird books describe it as a “boom,” but what I heard—and have heard many times since—was more of a second-long “whoosh”, but with a couple of subtle musical undertones. (The best I can do at mimicking it is to hum a quickly falling mid-range note while whistling a much higher falling note at the same time. Okay, this is not easy, but it can be done. If you’ve ever heard a Tibetan throat-singer, you might understand. Otherwise, I guess you’ll just have to hear it for yourself.)

After the spectacular dive, the elegant choreography started all over again. “Psssew, psssew…”

Some evening this summer take a moment to see if you can hear a nighthawk. Then just let your eyes follow your ears, be patient and watch the show.

For a closer look at the common nighthawk, including the sounds of its call and dive, see this video from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Common Nighthawk

Thursday, June 16, 2011

FREQUENCY – Tuning In To Discovery

“What are you doing?” my mother asked skeptically. She’d glanced into the living room of our summer home on the St. Croix River and seen what must have been a disturbing sight. There I was hunched over the antique table in the corner, my neck craned, chin resting on the black oilcloth covering.

My left ear was pressed against the dark brown Bakelite speaker grill of our old Emerson table radio. (This radio, now a collector's item, had no digital this or electronic that, just one knob for on/off and volume, and another for tuning.) My right hand, reaching around my head, was on the tuning dial. With my thumb and middle finger grasping the knob delicately, and other fingers extended, I might have been mistaken for a veteran safecracker.

Illustration: Katy Farina

You have to understand that our little community of Franconia, while an absolute wonderland for adventurous kids by day, offered very little to do at night, except for maybe playing games or reading. That night, I was demonstrating my usual disdain for such pastimes in favor of some kind—any kind—of firsthand adventure.

Some nights would deliver a “perfect storm” 
of radio waves to that little Emerson.

If I’d had a name for it, I guess what my mom walked in on would have been called “the fine tuning game.” I’d discovered that, on certain nights, the river valley acted as a conduit, channeling radio waves from great distances. Add clear skies and a phenomenon called “skip”—in which the waves are prevented from dissipating in the atmosphere by some stratum or another—and the night would deliver a “perfect storm” of radio waves to that little Emerson.

I’d start turning the tuning knob and, bypassing the clear, strong stations, listen for the faintest signal I could make out. This took a delicate touch; I had to be ready to adjust the volume too, since reception of those far-away stations would fade in and out. My ultimate goal was to see if I could hear a station break while the signal was strong enough to recognize the station’s location or call letters. (Of course, my chances would spike on the hour and half-hour, when stations are required to give their IDs.)

Those faint voices brought down the walls of that dim, musty room. My little Emerson might as well have been some deep space receiver developed by NASA. How mysterious and wonderful to learn how far some of those radio waves had traveled to reach my ear. I imagined them as sheer curtains, undulating through a thousand miles or more of starry skies.

I wrote down the stations’ call letters and locations and kept a list. That summer I logged contacts from as far away as Texas, Arkansas, New York and Quebec. Some of the broadcasts were in Spanish or French, making them all the more exotic to my young ear.

I can now see what a rich metaphor for all 
kinds of discovery this fine-tuning game is.

Reflecting on all of this, I can now see what a rich metaphor for all kinds of discovery this fine-tuning game is. Whether you’re listening, looking, feeling, tasting, reflecting or praying, aren't you just curious to know what’s out there?

How good are you at “listening between the stations?” Can you filter out the static and make out the underlying message? Do you have the patience to wait for something wonderful to happen? 
These questions never become obsolete. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

 TIP #71
Play with a stick.
Feel it, peel it, smell it, scrape it, split it, bend it, break it, balance it, bite it, build it, flick it, float it, carve it, spin it or draw with it.

A young child will think a stick's about the most interesting, entertaining thing there is…until taught otherwise.

Be that child.

Friday, June 10, 2011


(I was inspired to write this post by my dear friend, author and spiritual maven Robin Easton, who always has something inspirational to say -- Naked In Eden.)

I don’t claim to have the secret to happiness. But for the past decade or so 
I’ve been hacking away at some of the gnarled undergrowth that makes that age-old mystery so hard to untangle. I’ve learned a thing or two. And though 
I keep hacking, it seems the more I do so, the less important the object of the quest becomes. Why is this? Here are a few of my observations to date:

Some people seem to think they need a darn good reason to be happy, like something extraordinary has to happen to them first. Otherwise, they figure, they'll just have to settle for either being unhappy or, perhaps, not feeling much of any-
thing at all. I feel sorry for those poor souls; that construct, it seems to me, is exactly the opposite of how the cosmos really works.

     The way Creation intended us to feel most 
     of the time—our default setting, if you will—
     is joy.

No, the way Creation intended us to feel most of the time—our default setting, if you will—is joy. What needs a reason is sadness, anger, fear and all those other lurking saboteurs of joy.

If there's no reason for any of those unpleasant emotions, or, more importantly, if the reason is one we can work our way around or through, well, then we're just stuck with what's left: happiness.

I'm not saying life doesn't throw us a curve now and then. Disappointments show up; we feel lost or out of control; loved ones get hurt or lost or pass away. Of course these events trigger powerful emotions; that's part of life. But, like so many aspects of human consciousness, we'd do well to recognize that these emotions—even staggering ones like shame, grief or hopelessness—are not the end of the world, but temporary storms on an otherwise tranquil sea.

In those periods of turmoil happiness may seem like it's nowhere to be found. But even though we're overcome with unhappy emotions, happiness is still there, in the background, just waiting patiently for its chance to take back its rightful place at the helm of your emotional ship.

So how do you believe in something you can't see? It takes experience, knowing that, as you've observed more than once, this too shall pass. It takes a sort of discipline—keeping your eyes and heart open, at least a crack, for the signs of hope and healing. And, as with anything we desperately want but can't immediately see, it takes faith, in ourselves, in others and in whatever we revere as our higher power.

        If I choose to start rolling back a layer 
        of doubt, regret or anger to see what’s 
        there, it helps if I expect it’s going to be 
        something good.

You may have heard me say that, in general, we see what we expect to see. This is as true in our own disposition as it is in Nature. When I lift up a leaf to see what’s under it, I don’t do that because I expect to find nothing. It’s as much an act of faith as it is of curiosity. That is, my chances of finding something increase in proportion to how much I expect to find it. The same is true of happiness. If I choose to start rolling back a layer of doubt, regret or anger to see what’s there, it helps if I expect it’s going to be something good.

When it feels like the earth's dropped out from under your feet, as if emotion's moved you away from your true center, getting happy again may seem like the last thing on earth you can—or even want—to do. At times like these, it may be all you can handle to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. But you must remember that peace and happiness are still there, and will eventually rise up to meet your faithful feet once again.

Once you're back on solid ground, you re-connect with your lightness of being. You again see your world as the ordinary, routine, often mundane, yet breathtakingly beautiful place it is. No reason. Just joy.

What barriers would you have to navigate in order to 
be happy for no reason?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

IN OVER YOUR HEAD – Aliens In the Water

Most of us will never get to outer space. But do you realize we can still experience an alien world, one of great mystery and wonder, where strange, legless life forms lurk; where one can float in weightless slow motion; where sound carries great distances through an atmosphere devoid of air?

Only by imagining that we're experiencing such things for the very first time can we reclaim the wonder they deserve.

Sounds pretty other-worldly, right? I guess, in a way, it's a trick question. In fact, it's just another of the many places right here on Earth that we've come to take so much for granted that we forget just how amazing they really are. Only by imagining that we're experiencing such things for the very first time can we reclaim the wonder they deserve.

The alien world I'm talking about is water. Not on top of it, where we've learned to be pretty much at home—boating, water-skiing, swimming and so on—but under the surface, immersed, beyond that lower limit of our familiar habitat.

When I was a boy I spent my summers on the beautiful St. Croix River, which forms part of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin. The river was our neighbor, our friend, our playground and, at times, our adversary. Every day my brother, our friends and I would spend most of our waking hours either on or in those clear-brown, tannin-stained waters.

Some of my sharpest memories of those waters are of my experiences under the surface. There I learned to escape the dunking and splash attacks of the big kids, and the jolting bites of huge black horseflies. I learned to open my eyes underwater and see, at least fuzzily, the legs of both attacker and victim. Once, while looking for clam shells on the bottom, I came face to face with the ghostly image of a huge pike, which did a piscine version of the double take before darting away.

 I came face to face with the ghostly image of a huge pike, which did a piscine version of the double take before darting away.

And the sounds. Those were perhaps the most mysterious and exotic of all the sensations in that liquid world. The muffled splashing and shouting of other swimmers penetrated from above. The high-pitched whine of an outboard motor pierced my ears, even from a boat half a mile away. Gravel ground and rattled, stirred by human feet or bottom-feeding fish.

But one sound I never did figure out was a sharp, isolated tick, like two small stones being tapped together. It was random, without any noticeable pattern, but frequent enough so I heard it every time I was underwater for more than a few seconds. What, I wonder, could possibly make that sound? Last summer, in fact, more than half a century later, it was still ticking.

I still have never gone scuba diving, maybe because I know I'd get hooked right away. It looks so graceful, so serene. I guess the closest I've come to that experience is snorkeling in the clear waters of St. Lucia in the eastern Caribbean Windward Islands. Though I was a bit insecure about my swimming skills, I remember realizing, once I got a few feet under the surface, that this was about as close as I'd ever get to my frequent dream of being able to fly. What an incredible sensation, soaring over the colorful creatures that swayed and swam 20 or 30 feet below!

What are some of your most memorable experiences underwater? Do you recall certain sounds? Why not share them here?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

 TIP #51
Smell your dog.

You know how dogs smell us with their whole being? Though we can only hope to smell a thousandth as well, we can return the favor. 

Have you noticed that some dogs have a particular warm, nutty smell when they've been sleeping? 
It comes from some kind of healthy bacterial, yeasty thing going on between their toes. (Some people call this Frito feet.) Ears and other parts have different smells. Each is unique to your pet.

Let smells be part of your bond with your dog.

"If only you knew how much I smell you."
Book title, ROY BLOUNT JR.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

DOE EYES – Beyond Vision

Learning to be a sensitive observer of Nature is like joining an exclusive club. Once you’re in, instead of settling for “standard” experiences, the ones no one could miss, suddenly you’re privy to countless other little wonders—sights, sounds, smells and sensations Nature chooses to reveal to only a select few.

As rewarding as this membership may sound, there’s one more irresistible perk—you could call it bonus, a deal sweetener. Our physical senses can reach only so far. When you get right down to it, few of us ever manage to develop much more than an arm’s length relationship with our surroundings. So the bonus promises more intimate, more private access to Nature’s marvels using what we might call our elite senses. They’re those “little voices” we hear now and then in our hearts or our souls. Call them instincts, hunches or gut feelings, they can make the difference between an interesting experience in Nature and one that’s unforgettable.

Last summer, I was canoeing and fishing in one of my favorite places on this earth, a long, winding slough on the Wisconsin side of the St. Croix River. As I paddled around a tight bend, there, about 75 yards away, stood a young whitetail deer grazing on a grassy sand bar. I froze, except for the few subtle movements of my paddle it took to keep the canoe’s drift on line. Luckily, the wind was slight, from my back.

As I sat there transfixed, the thought possessed 
me: What had this gentle being’s experience 
been of me?

The doe clearly had heard or smelled me and looked up, deploying her huge, translucent, antenna-like ears to discern any sounds of threat. After a long staring contest, she seemed to realize I was harmless, and went back to feeding.

By this time, I’d drifted to within about 40 yards, and again the animal lifted her head, gazed at me unfazed for another 30 seconds and then calmly clambered up the steep, eight-foot bank and into the thick woods.

I sat there transfixed, and the thought possessed me: What had this gentle being’s experience been of me? I savored the sense of communion I felt with her, a hope as much as an observation that she’d been nearly as enthralled with me as I’d been with her.

I’d come now to within a few yards of the spot where the doe had been grazing. My reverie swirled into a strange new vibe. The little voice, I suppose, was animated by a combination of curiosity and an eerie sense that I was being watched. It led me, and I followed, irrationally.


Moving as slowly as I could, I turned my torso toward the top of the bank, just a few feet to my left. I scanned the thick foliage, and there, all but obscured by the leaves, were the deer’s eyes, looking right at me! Yes!, I gloated, she is curious about me!

Sharing this magical connection with a wild animal—mostly on her terms—was breathtakingly joyous for me. (I can’t speak for the deer.) And the icing on the cake was that, even after I’d paddled away, I’d managed never to give the animal cause to be afraid of me. (On hindsight, I realize she might have been better off if I had scared her, since her fear of humans is one of her best tools for survival.)

The one thing it will cost you is something a lot of people apparently still are not willing to pay: attention.

Can you think of moments in which you’ve acted purely on an inkling, persuaded by those little inner voices? I’m not talking about the sense of apprehension we all experience now and then. Those voices tend to come in the form of concerns and dreads, most often heard as declaratives or imperatives: Oh God, I’m in over my head, Don’t get on that plane! or This just doesn’t feel right!  Once in a great while, you hear of someone who credits such an admonition for saving his life, but in most cases, we learn not to trust them. Perhaps we realize how inarticulate an advisor fear can be.

No, the kind of voices I’m talking about are those of opportunity. Because they involve curiosity and wonder, they’re usually perceived as questions: Where did that sound came from?, What made that stick move?, or—the voice I acted on above—What would I do if I were that animal? I’ve learned that these more positive voices, animated not by fear, but by hope, tend to be much more trustworthy.

So do you qualify for membership in the exclusive Nature’s Keenest Observers Club? Would you like to join? Everyone’s eligible. Dues are so modest that anyone can afford them. So why’s it so exclusive? Because the one thing it will cost you is something a lot of people apparently still are not willing to pay: attention.

What do you say, are you in?