Monday, January 30, 2012

HARD, COLD TRUTHS – Unlocking Winter's Wonders Part Two: Betcha Can’t Lick That Fence Post

Here's the second of my three-part mini-series on the hard-won 
wonders of winter.


There’s a whole library of winter folklore up here on what we only half-jokingly call Minnesota's frozen tundra. Most of the tales involve some combination of extreme cold, a creative imagination and utter stupidity.

Lots of interesting stuff happens when the temperature outside drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit; for one thing, stuff freezes. But take it down another 50 degrees or so, and things really get weird.

For example, the air gets really thick. You can't really see it, but you can hear it: an airplane sounds like it's on approach for landing, but you look up and see that it's still at 20,000 feet. Ever noticed how well some sounds travel through water? It's kind of like that.

If you take a pan of boiling water outside and throw the water up into the air, something amazing happens. Instead of dropping to the ground, the stuff explodes into frozen vapor, hissing as if you'd poured it on a white hot grill.

PHOTO: Sparky Stensaas - The Photo Naturalist

One night a few years ago, the temperature in Tower MN reached minus 60 . (That’s the thermometer temperature, not the wind-chill index.) When the forecast came out, people flocked up there from all over the state to camp out that night. As far as we know, everyone survived with most of their digits intact.

I shuddered when, on closer inspection, I dis-
covered the unmistakeable pattern of taste buds.

When I was in grade school, I was walking home one January afternoon. When I came to a chain-link fence I passed nearly every day I noticed something different on one of the metal posts. I shuddered when, on closer inspection, I discovered the unmistakable pattern of taste buds.

It was a quarter-inch-square piece of some poor kid’s tongue. Everyone around here knows the story, but you never believe it really happens; you think it’s just part of the mythology. But I know—and, more poignantly, that gullible kid knows—it’s true.

Playing hockey outdoors before indoor rinks were common was like a lesson in physics. Steel on ice—the latter seeming equally hard at these temperatures—one gliding effortlessly not on the other, but on a thin film of water. Rubber pucks, their molecular structure transformed by the cold, shattering like some ceramic when they hit the goalpost just right.

We'd fail to notice the exact moment when 
the moderate discomfort of cold toes faded to numbness.

In a lesson more in physiology than physics, we Minnesotans learn at a young age about the price of exposure to minus-50 wind-chills. Most of us have, at one time or another, laced our ice skates a little too tightly when playing outdoors. Then we'd get so involved in learning to skate, stick-handling a puck or showing off to girls that we'd fail to notice the exact moment when the moderate discomfort of cold toes faded to numbness.

PHOTO: T. Jacobs / Science Photo Library
But that's the point at which the die is cast. Even if you're lucky enough not to lose a toe or two, when warm blood starts seeping back into all those frozen capillaries you're in for what will likely be the worst pain of your young life.

Ah, yes, the tales—and the wonders—of a Minnesota winter. I'm sure some of you have your own. If you're sitting under a palm tree somewhere, bathed in luscious ocean breezes, with nothing more to worry about than which SPF to slather on, c'mon, you know you're envious.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

HARD, COLD TRUTHS - Unlocking Winter's Wonders Part One

If it seems like most of the precious little discoveries I describe here have occurred during the spring, summer and fall, there’s a good reason for that: I live in Minnesota. Not much grows here from October through March. And those critters that do venture outside do so quickly.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to discover in winter. Still, more than any other season, this harsh time of year demands an extra measure of our attention—our investment of some time, effort, discomfort and perhaps a little faith—before rewarding us with wonder.

Here's the first of a two-part mini-series on those hard-won wonders of winter.

                                               *          *          *
     Winters here in Minnesota are to those 
     in warmer places as oatmeal is to a rich,  
     spicy paella.

Esthetically, it might seem that winters here in Minnesota are to those in warmer places as oatmeal is to a rich, spicy paella. For someone like me who draws nourishment from color, that can prove a pretty bland diet.

One would think, back when all our buildings were designed, there must have been shortages of materials—even paint—in any colors but shades of white, brown and gray. Not only that, but Minnesotans seem to fear the slightest tinge of color in their clothing. Alas, at least for many of Western European descent, even our skin dares no color!


Compound this dreary palette with our low winter sun’s feeble output and daylight that’s pretty much snuffed by 4:30, and it's no wonder, come February, so many of us suffer from the malaise we call “cabin fever.”

To be fair, if you really put your mind to it, there is, indeed, color to be found in a Minnesota winter. But you have to look for it. Those of us who do catch it in splashes of vivid nylon spilling down a ski slope. It rises in the roaring flamboyance of a hot air balloon.

      It might wrap you in a bright, cozy throw
      or beguile you with the snapping yellow  
      and orange dance of a fire.


Indoors, color might wrap you in a bright, cozy throw or beguile you with the snapping yellow-orange dance of a fire. It flushes in a ruddy cheek, a warm smile and the resilient spirits of the folks you get to know so well when you’re housebound together for a while.

And, for those of us unsatisfied with man-made color, even Nature teases us with her reluctant hues. Unlike those of summer that nearly accost you, these shades tend to lay low, obscure to all but the most determined eye.


       It's the arresting, pure red checkmark of 
       a cardinal alighting for just an instant.

They’re the raw umber and burnt sienna cloaks the oak trees refused to give up last autumn; the golden, burgundy, crimson, even chartreuse stems of dogwood and other shrubs; the arresting, pure red checkmark of a cardinal alighting for just an instant.


Then there's the snow. Our eyes do a funny thing with color. We tend to perceive it only in comparison with its surroundings. Since there's seldom anything more "white" in our view than fresh snow, we tend to think of it as all white, pure white. But if you look carefully you see that white is relative. There is always color. I've seen snow tinted every imaginable color: pinks, blues, golds, even greens.


It’s the pigment we bring to the mix...that ultimately determines the color we see.

The color of winter is, at its best, a collaboration. Nature does her part, albeit begrudgingly. The rest is up to us. After all, it’s the pigment we bring to the mix—in our openness, our creativity, our zest for life, our expectation of wonder—that ultimately determines the color we see.

Yes, you may have to look a little harder, perhaps open your heart and soul a bit further, but, as with anything in short supply, you learn to appreciate winter’s little wonders all the more for their scarcity.

The alternative? Well, believe me, it can be an awfully long time between October and March.


Saturday, January 21, 2012


TIP #9
Listen to your body.

Feet complain, stomachs beg, hearts sing, heads go on and on. Some of these voices are pushy, others meek; most you politely indulge.

But don't dismiss them. Pay them as much heed as you would your children, for they too are for you, of you.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

WHAT GORILLA? – The Power and Peril of Focus

Imagine someone holding up an item, something very large and very tangible, right in front of your eyes. Can you imagine any way they could do it so you wouldn’t even notice it?

This is the sort of challenge put to me and other viewers of a TV news magazine segment some years ago. Hey, I thought, I’m a really good observer. In fact, I've been in the business of noticing and controlling visual details. Let's see ‘em try to fool me!

The demonstration began with a short piece of video. Viewers were asked to closely observe a group of six people in a small room passing around two basketballs. Three of the people wore black shirts; the other three, white shirts. The charge to viewers was to count the number of times any white-shirted person passed a ball to anyone else.

     Hey, I thought, I’m a really good observer...
     Let's see ‘em try to fool me!


The people started moving around, turning and intermingling, all the while passing, catching and dribbling the balls. After about 30 seconds, they and the video clip stopped. No problem, I thought. I was sure I hadn't  fallen for a single one of those black-shirts’ passes. Yes sir, I saw right through that and all their other tricks to distract me! Fifteen passes*—no doubt about it.

The host promised to give the correct answer, but first he begged our indulgence. He’d show the same film clip again, only this time he instructed viewers not to focus on anything in particular. "Just take in the whole scene," he instructed. Okay, I’m thinking, maybe I did miss a pass or two.

Again the video rolls. The people start passing balls and milling around. It’s obviously the exact same clip. Halfway through the scene, though, a person in a gorilla suit emerges stage left, walks deliberately into the middle of the group, stops, faces the camera, outrageously beats his chest with both arms and then walks out of the scene stage right.


The film is part of an exercise developed by Daniel Simons, a Harvard psychologist who's studying blind spots—our failure to notice presumably obvious things when our thoughts (though not necessarily our vision) are focused elsewhere. He calls it inattentional blindness. He suggests that such a phenomenon might explain a number of otherwise baffling accidents, including one several years before in which a U.S. submarine collided with a Japanese fishing trawler, even though the latter was in plain sight of the sub.

Simons's research showed that more than half of subjects do not notice the gorilla in their first viewing of the film. I’d have bet the farm that I’d be in the other half. I would have lost.

      In this visual black hole, I always sail right
      past our exit, and God knows what else.

Come to think of it, I know from my own experience that this kind of blind spot can happen, not just when visual stimuli compete, but also when the other senses are involved. Just ask my wife. Now I know I’m about the farthest thing there could possibly be from a multi-tasker. So, with much “coaching” over the years, I’ve learned that when she and I are talking I need to really pay attention to what she’s saying.


Occasionally, this has proven a problem when we’re headed somewhere in the car and I’m also trying to navigate. Apparently, the way my mind deals with serious listening is to turn off all my other senses. In this visual black hole, I always sail right past our exit, and God knows what else. When I think about it, that’s pretty scary. I’m just glad I haven’t missed any “Bridge Out!” signs!

Do these events show how powerful our senses can be when narrowly focused, or how fickle they are when they’re not?

Do these events show how powerful our senses can be when narrowly focused, or how fickle they are when they’re not? If it’s power, it can surely be harnessed for a great deal of good. (Think medical research, the arts or even hypnosis.) Or it can be used for evil. (Think bait-and-switch scams or governments fostering fear to divert attention from their abuses.)

Either way, the lesson is, while appreciating our senses and our minds for all they can do, we can ill afford not be aware of their limitations.

* The correct answer for the number of basketball passes was 15. 
Some consolation!

For more about inattentional blindness here's a link to Simons's book on the topic, The Invisible Gorilla.

Friday, January 13, 2012

IN HOT WATER – As If For the First Time

(This is another in my series of reflections, As If For the First Time, describing the most commonplace of experiences through a fresh lens, one of innocence and wonder.)
A shower feels good any time of year. But in the winter—especially when it's a snow-sprinkling ten degrees outside as it is right now—sometimes a good hot shower's the only way you can reach that chill that's penetrated to your core.

This morning I'm taking one of those showers.

By the time I'm "cooked"...the water's much hotter than it was at first, when I couldn't stand it.

I let the water run until the glass steams up. How relative the heat is. When I first step in, I have to quickly turn the handle down to avoid burning myself. But in no time it feels tepid; I turn it up. By the time I'm "cooked," I've done so several times, to the point where the water's now much hotter than it was at first when I couldn't stand it. Now my skin's turning red—brightest on top of my shoulders, with definite streaks where the nearly scalding rivulets run down my chest.

I play with the tickling jets of water, testing the effect of each on a pruning fingertip. Of the hundred or so strands the shower head dispenses, no two are alike. Some are focused and fierce, biting into my skin; others I can barely feel. Some subdivide their meager share into still finer spray; a few barely drip, choked off by years of lime deposits.

I turn around to face the beneficent bombardment. As it drives heat into my chest, I feel my back cooling. I experiment, and finally perfect a sort of "rotisserie" movement, gradually turning my body while rocking slowly back and forth. That's more like it.

The meditation's put me in touch with something very basic, very pure. A celebration. I am deeply warmed in body and soul. 

After a while, I realize I've indeed lost track of time—in fact, of every thought. The meditation's put me in touch with something very basic, very pure. A celebration. I am deeply warmed in body and soul.

I turn off the water and reach for my towel. The shower head gurgles as it drains. Each drop clips the gray rubber edge of the shower squeegee hanging from the shower caddy and deflects out at my chest. They're cool, but it feels good.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

TYLER'S TOUCH – A Child's Peaceful Presence

Last month, my wife and I attended a wonderful Christmas concert at a local church. It was nearly two hours of music, ranging from choral to hand bells to orchestral; from traditional Christmas fare to some gorgeous pieces we'd never heard.

Since my daughter-in-law was performing in the hand bell choir, we'd volunteered to take care of three-year-old Tyler during the concert.

I've never met a three-year-old who'd sit quietly through two hours of anything.

I've never met a three-year-old who'd sit quietly through two hours of anything. Still, Tyler was doing better than we'd expected, sitting in Grandma's lap, playing with his book and looking around at all the bright decorations. He was especially quiet when the brass section of the orchestra chimed in—seems he's transfixed by horns.

Then, about half-way through the program, it became clear we'd pushed his attention span to the limit—horns notwithstanding. I suppose if there had been other kids running up and down the aisles we wouldn't have reigned him in, but we decided his choice was between sitting more or less still, or heading out to the hall.

For the rest of the concert, he tested our resolve, squirming to get down, sometimes throwing his arms up and inadvertently slamming the book into Grandma's face.

It was as if an electric circuit had been broken.

After one such assault, I reached over and simply took firm hold of Tyler's hand. I expected a little struggle. Instead, it was as if an electric circuit had been broken. Right away, without even looking at me, he stopped squirming. All that impatience, all that energy, seemed suddenly channeled toward that little hand. I felt it and responded by relaxing my grip, resting my open hand, palm up, on my thigh.

Instead of pulling away, Tyler kept his hand where it was. For the next 20 minutes, he unconsciously explored the contours of my palm, thumb and each finger. His hand was warm and dry; it felt good in mine. I experienced a flow of something powerful through that curious touch, a sensation that simultaneously opened and centered me.

What was it about Tyler's touch that quieted both him and me so suddenly, so completely?

I knew I was connected with something pure and timeless. The slight anxiety I'd been feeling about his possibly disrupting the service just melted away. Now the music seemed to touch me more deeply than it had a few minutes before. The aura of strangers sitting nearby seemed to wrap snugly around us. I felt closer than ever to my wife.

I was calmly, silently happy.

What was it about Tyler's touch that quieted both him and me so suddenly, so completely? What was the unconscious message he spoke so softly, yet so articulately? I decided not to ruin its magic by asking.

Sunday, January 8, 2012


TIP #82
Get Into a Frozen Lake.

Fissures crack and groan; leaks well up and set like candle wax; bubbles, bobbers and bluegills are frozen in time. 

Keen senses prove that lake ice, like each of us, is no immutable whole, but a tattered raft of so many separate floes.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

PATHS OF WONDER – Can You Get There From Here?

I wonder… Could there be two words more central to human evolution? From the days of our primitive ancestors, it was this simple instinct that set man on his path toward eventual dominion—for good or for ill—over all other creatures and over many of the earth’s other, inanimate assets.

How curious that the verb “to wonder,” is so different in meaning from the noun, “wonder.” To wonder about something is nothing like experiencing wonder. If wondering feeds the mind, wonder feeds the soul. Wondering involves curiosity; wonder is, somehow, about knowing. Wondering is linear; wonder transcends any dimension.

This humility not only makes us better citizens of the world, it puts us in touch with our Creator. 

The one thing that does tie wondering to wonder is that often you can’t get to wonder without first wondering. And that investment, for me, has never failed to pay off.

In Nature’s realm, the curiosity's just the down payment on the real prize. If we're lucky enough to notice something that takes us to a state of wonder, that, in turn, inspires gratitude and reminds us what a small place we occupy in the unfathomable expanse of space and time. This humility not only makes us better citizens of the world, it puts us in touch with our Creator.

Animals of other species are born with some degree of curiosity, but none, as far as we know, has the capacity to imagine or experience wonder. They simply learn from their parents what’s worked for previous generations; they emulate their peers; they learn from trial and error (provided they survive the error); and they follow certain hard-wired instincts. (Think of a cat’s chase response, a cephalopod’s ink cloud defense or a human mother’s letdown of milk when she hears her baby cry).

We human beings, though we still retain some instinctive responses of our own, are blessed with the singular capacity to choose how—or whether—to think about something. We alone can imagine something that doesn’t yet exist, and then create it. We can also decide whether or not to welcome wonder when we have the chance.

Spurning the gift of wonder…deprives you of something you need every bit as much as you do the rewards of more material pursuits.

Sadly, there are people with every opportunity to know wonder who choose other priorities. You know the people I’m talking about; they’re the ones who allow
themselves to be defined by the making and spending of money, power or some other currency. They're convinced there’s no truth beyond their own little spheres of interest, so focused on their concept of “the prize” that they fail to notice the beautiful landscape along the way.

I’m not saying that spurning the gift of wonder is wrong; it's just that it deprives you of something you need every bit as much as—perhaps even more than—the rewards of more material pursuits.

So I’ve made it my challenge—my life’s work, if you will—to wonder. I want to make sure my little path through this place and time is a peaceful, creative, constructive one, one of beauty, appreciation, worship and awe. I don’t know where the path leads, but I’m pretty sure that’s less important than knowing it leads somewhere I want to go.

A central theme of this journey is that, no matter how far I’ve come, many truths will continue to lead me on, always just beyond my reach.

People who are all about knowing...don’t have a clue about wondering, not to mention ever realizing the gift of wonder. 

Do you get the feeling as I do that some people see wondering as a sign of weakness? After all, it’s so inconsistent with knowing. And knowing, it seems, is to many the most highly prized possession of all. Perhaps they're confusing knowing with the truth.

Remember what I said about not being able to experience wonder without first wondering? People who are all about knowing, who always need to be right, don’t have a clue about wondering, not to mention ever realizing the gift of wonder.

What a shame that people can't even find the trailhead for such a beautiful hike! For the path from wondering to wonder leads one through a sequence of powerful capacities: wondering leads to discovery; discovery to learning; learning to imagination; imagination to creativity and, finally, in a connection that few understand and even fewer believe, it's that creativity that opens one's mind and spirit to the sense of wonder.

You'll notice that this wandering, wondering way has no tangible destination—especially if you expect that place to be some kind of easy answer. This is why the knowers of this world choose other paths.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve decided I value the wondering more than the knowing. So I’ll carry on with my perpetual quest for my own version of truth, aware that there may well be none more worthy than wonder.