Friday, December 30, 2016

HAND PAN MAN – How a Little Music and Kindness Made My Day

When’s the last time you had one of those sublime little moments—a helping hand, a natural wonder, a stranger’s smile—that made you feel Wow, that made my day!?

I’ve been making a concerted effort lately to keep the door of my self-absorbed busy-ness open just a crack so occurrences like that can get in and find room in my soul.

Just this morning I was blessed with such a moment.

I’d stopped—part of my usually mindless morning routine—at my favorite coffee shop for my extra-strong latte. As I chatted with the barista, I noticed they were playing some of the most exquisite music I’ve heard in a long while. And, I thought, what a fine, life-like audio system they must have.

I asked the barista if she knew what was playing or if it was just part of a stream from Pandora or Spotify. She pointed over my left shoulder to a young man sitting and holding what looked like a two-and-a-half-foot UFO in his lap.

As he tapped his hands deftly around the top of the lens-shaped instrument, the sounds he produced had an airy, crystalline brilliance somewhat like those of Caribbean steel drums. It might have been the improvised tone sequences he played, but I also sensed something of the otherworldly mystery of Indonesian gamelan music.

        Often Travis seemed to be more stroking 
        than striking the hand pan.

As I listened, I marveled at not just the elegance of the instrument’s shape, but the deep, metallic colors on both sides, a gradient from a voluptuous aubergine (eggplant) purple to the deepest midnight blue—all with subtle fuchsia highlights. Punctuating the rounded top surface were eight round flattened areas, with deep dents of various sizes in their centers.

The affable musician introduced himself and we talked as he continued playing effortlessly. Travis Wright was eager to talk about his instrument—he called it a hand pan—it’s origin and crafting, and the music. He said the incredible colors were a product of the annealing of the steel during the piece’s crafting.

Surprisingly, the hand pan—or hang—is one of the new kids on the idiophone block. (An idiophone is an instrument that produces sound by its own vibrations rather than those of strings, reeds or membranes.) It was developed in 2000 in, of all places, Switzerland.

Travis explained the unique, exotic tonal qualities of the hand pan, demonstrating how sound vibrations a tap of his fingertips creates on one part of the top move around within the instrument and draw out complementary tones from other parts. He can even create the same kind of etherial “harmonic” notes a guitarist achieves by lightly tapping a string with one finger just as she plucks it with another.

I was surprised at how light a touch it took to generate sound. Often Travis seemed to be more stroking than striking the hand pan.

I asked him if he has a CD or performs formally anywhere. Alas, he said he didn’t—yet—but steered me to some wonderful YouTube examples of other musicians’ fine hand pan playing. Here’s ONE.

There’s more information on the development and use of the hand pan HERE.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

I may be at least partially taking leave of cyberspace for a few days, so I want to wish all my visitors and loyal followers from all over the world—84 countries so far—the very best of this season. For us Christians, that means MERRY CHRISTMAS! (para mis hispanohablantes amigos, ¡FELIZ NAVIDAD!) For my Jewish friends, it's HAPPY HANUKKAH! (starting, for the first time in nearly 40 years, on Christmas Eve). For all of us here in the northern hemisphere, it's HAPPY WINTER SOLSTICE! 

Whatever your celebration, may these days be kind to you, your families and your loved ones! 

Sunday, December 18, 2016

DRIBS & DRABS – The Flavors of Falsehood

Every day I'm seeing more signs of a troubling trend: in more aspects of our lives than folks want to admit, it seems we either want, or are being conned into, a blurring of the lines between reality and …well…something else.

I see it in our culture’s pervasive reliance on little glowing screens—instead of our own senses and experience—to tell us what’s true, what’s real, what’s happening.

I see it in our growing inability to distinguish news from entertainment. And in our ready belief that Facebook friends make us popular or that insipid tweets or mercurial Snapchat posts constitute communication.

I suppose it’s far too easy to blame this epidemic self-deception on this generation’s inundation in technology, but I can think of no other cultural factor since I was a child that can begin to explain such a profound transfiguration of reality.

The signs that we’ve lost our way are everywhere. Our addiction to “reality” TV—which, in many cases, is about as far from my reality as it can be. The belief of many parents—based in part on the “if it bleeds, it leads” editorial MO and 24/7 repetitiveness of today’s mainstream media—that letting their kids play outdoors by themselves is any more dangerous than it was when we were kids.

And don’t get me going about the recent presidential campaign and the fewer-than-half of voters who sullied that solemn office with the election of a vapid TV “reality” star. This pretender and millions of his supporters, marching in lock-step, simply declare, and apparently are convinced, that their feelings and beliefs—not science, not what they can see with their own eyes—are the only reality they trust.

     If you don’t like brie—or wine…or the office 
     of the Presidency—why accept any one of 
     them masquerading as something else?

There are countless other, smaller indications of this “illusion is the new truth” juggernaut, which, if they weren’t seen in that broader context, might seem trivial. Here’s one:

Just this afternoon, at my local Cub Foods store, I found that the bulk foods area—you know, the aisle where you buy grains, nuts, dried fruits, etc. by the pound—is gone. In its place, a few islands featuring pre-packaged quantities of a fraction of the items they offered last week.

Fortunately, I found one of my staples, dried cranberries. But the first plastic container I pulled out was labeled, “naturally-flavored CHERRY dried cranberries." The next said STRAWBERRY. Then there was MANGO and a couple of others.

Alas, there were no CRANBERRY-flavored cranberries to be found!

So what’s next in this Trump, post-truth era? Jerky-flavored brie? Beer-flavored wine? Bling-flavored sleaze? Honesty-flavored corruption?

In my righteous indignation I ask, if you don’t like brie—or wine…or the office of the Presidency—why accept any one of them masquerading as something else?

Saturday, December 3, 2016

DONE TO A TURN – The World’s Smallest Barbecue

When I was a boy, my family had a summer home on the lovely St. Croix River, about an hour north of St. Paul. My brother and I spent many abundant summers there with Mom, while Dad came and went, commuting most days to work in the city.

Franconia, in its heyday an active logging town complete with school, post office, livery, saloon and jail, had found rebirth in the 40s and 50s as a mostly-summer retreat for well-to-do St. Paul families. With its deep-wooded hills, seething meadows, foot-numbing trout stream and, of course, the river, it was an idyllic place. I spent nearly every waking hour outdoors.

Besides the many other city kids our age who shared the adventure with us, Franconia had its share of home-grown characters. There was old Gus Munch, who lived in the old, never painted home right on Lawrence Creek—and whom, strangely, no one ever seemed to see. There were Spuddy and Ike Vitalis. She had dark, leathery skin and a gravelly, baritone, chain-smoker’s voice. And the twinkle in her eye and warm embrace of all us kids all but compensated for Ike's crusty detachment.

One of Spuddy and Ike’s sons was Jackie, a strapping young man in his mid-twenties—a bricklayer. Personality-wise, he took after his mother; he loved kids…and life. With his well-tanned weightlifter’s physique, spirited blue eyes and naturally curly hair, he was the embodiment of Swedish perfection. And he was the idol of all us little river rats.

     By the time he poked his head out into the 
     gap between boughs, Jackie already had him 
     in his sights.

Every July, my family would host all our Franconia neighbors for a pig roast. Dad would buy a whole pig and rent a commercial motorized rotisserie. Early the morning of the event, while he set up the roaster in the back yard, my brother and I would dig a large pit, fill it with bags and bags of charcoal briquettes, and then, with Dad’s close supervision, light it.

One year, after everyone had gotten their fill of that succulent pork and its many accompaniments, Jackie, like an inspired camp counselor, gathered a few of us boys, and enlisted us as co-conspirators in his vision: our own, kid-sized barbecue. Then, with us in tow, he headed home to pick up his .22. 

We set out up the steep, wooded flank of Monument Hill, eyes peeled for our quarry: red squirrel. At the top, we heard it before we saw it. Fifty yards away, hidden somewhere in the impenetrable needleage of a big old pine tree, the little critter had already spotted us and let loose with his scolding chatter.

I'm afraid that squirrel didn’t know who he was up against. Jackie, giving us all a lesson in woodsman’s wiles, motioned us stealthily forward, and there we just waited the little bugger out. As we all held our breaths, the squirrel must have thought we’d left. And by the time he poked his head out into the gap between boughs, Jackie already had him in his sights.

With the rifle’s sharp clap still echoing through the forest, our kill tumbled to the ground, bouncing twice off the thick, tawny bed of needles. Feeling like heroes, we toted our prize back to the barbecue. The only difference between us and those storied safari hunters like Hemingway or Teddy Roosevelt was that no one even noticed our trophy; Jackie's big hand pretty much enveloped it.

Now came the fun part. We watched, spellbound, as Jackie skinned and gutted the pitiful six-inch carcass. Someone got a coat hanger from the house while I spaded out a little three-by-six-inch pit in the lawn right next to the big pig-roasting pit.

We filled our version of the pit with three briquettes, sprinkled on some lighter fluid and lit it. As the charcoal caught, Jackie helped us fashion our wire spit, complete with a handle for turning. Then, with the squirrel skewered, we mounted the spit between two forked-stick supports and started turning.

In about ten minutes, our little roast was nicely browned and sizzling. There was barely enough meat for all the kids to have a taste, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that we’d had an amazing, creative, once-in-a-lifetime adventure, one that taught us well—albeit on a Lilliputian scale—the timeless ways of hunting and woodsmanship. I wish all kids could have a Jackie Vitalis to inspire and guide them.

And roast red squirrel? Well, I must say it tasted a lot like…squirrel.

Monday, November 28, 2016

NOT YET A TED TALK – How Small Wonders Miss the Big-Time

After a few of years simply admiring it from afar, I finally got to attend the Children and Nature Network’s annual international conference, held this past spring in my home town of St. Paul. The event proved rewarding in many ways, among them simply rubbing shoulders with folks—from all corners of the U.S. as well as 18 other countries—who, I believe, hold the future of mankind’s shaky relationship with Nature in their hands.

Another benefit of the show for me was being able to talk with attendees about my own modest efforts to promote the Children and Nature Movement—indeed, the People and Nature Movement—through my writing and blogging. I was allotted a table to display my first book, Under the Wild Ginger – A Simple Guide to the Wisdom of Wonder.

The response—albeit from a decidedly like-minded audience—was amazing; I’d made my best guess as to how many copies of UWG to bring, and then, just to be on the safe side, tripled that number. I sold them all. Even more gratifying were the kudos I got from people who’d already read my book and said they’d been hoping to meet me in person.

       For some reason, I wondered what was 
       going on under that green, leafy roof.

Among my customers was a young man from China. Before buying a copy of UWG, he asked me two of the more thoughtful questions folks have asked about my book: Why did you write it? And what is the meaning of the title?

By answering his second question, I answered the first.

One spring evening years ago, I was walking around my neighborhood. Along the edge of one my neighbor’s yards was a patch of wild ginger, a handsome ground-cover plant whose broad, roughly heart-shaped leaves formed a solid canopy about six inches above the ground. For some reason, I wondered what was going on under that green, leafy roof.

So I knelt on the sidewalk, bent over and carefully spread the leaves. There in the cool dark bower below, nestled at the base of each cluster of stems, lay a voluptuous little three-lobed, burgundy, orchid-like flower, as beguiling as something imagined in a fairy tale.

I stood up, brushed off my knees and resumed my walk, my head now pulsing with just one idea: I’ll bet I have at least a hundred experiences just like this one where, simply by changing the way I looked at something, I discovered another of Nature’s countless small wonders. In fact, I’d already written about some of them.

I shared a couple of those jottings with my friend Charlie. He said that if I had enough of them it might make a good book. And with that began a series of serendipitous events which ultimately led to my book getting written, noticed and published by a small New Hampshire publisher.

      I have neither the skills, the tools nor the 
      contacts to get the book into the hands of 
      the people who need it most.

Though UWG has enjoyed only modest commercial success, I’ve been deeply moved by the ways people have told me they’ve embraced and used it: as part of their daily spiritual devotion; as a guide to experiencing Nature with children; as a book club read; as a theme for church leadership retreats and even sermons.

Getting back to my new Chinese friend’s questions, though I’d never been asked why I wrote my book, I have been asked for whom I wrote it. The answer has changed. At first, I thought it was going to be for children. Then, as all the pieces started coming together, I realized it sounded more like a book for adults—perhaps adults with children.

Among my dilemmas was the fact that, no matter my intended audience, the kind of folks who were showing up at my launch events and readings, the kind commenting at my blog, the kind following me on Facebook and Twitter, were pretty much all the same. I was preaching to the choir.

At the urging of one of my writing coaches—my dear wife, Sally—I’ve continued wrestling with how to broaden my audience, eventually realizing that, to be perfectly honest, I have neither the skills, the tools nor the contacts to get the book into the hands of the people who need it most.

So that’s why I’m offering Under the Wild Ginger, free of charge, to any non-profit organization that can use it more effectively than I can to help bring new blood into the Rediscovering Nature movement. They can use it in programming to instruct and inspire, as an ice-breaker with new audiences, or as a thank-you gift to new members, donors or staff.

If you represent such an organization—or know someone who does—please e-mail me——and tell me about the organization and whom to contact. Many thanks, and may you always walk in ways of wonder!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

MOON AT MY FINGERTIPS – The Rise of Lunulae

Those of you who follow my musings here know how I love to contrast, compare and interpolate between the opposite ends of scales—time, size, distance...

The universe is immense beyond our comprehension. Yet this vastness is reflected figuratively at our fingertips. For there, in a single skin cell, exists another  “universe”—one of ever-smaller and smaller particles.

Also at our fingertips, an anatomical detail so ubiquitous that we human beings seldom, if ever, even notice it—our lunulae. (I can hardly believe I’ve been writing and blogging about the wisdom of wonder for decades, and this is the first time I’ve thought to post about them.)

PHOTO: Kommissar via Wikipedia
Lunulae are those funny little “half-moons” of lighter color that rise from cuticle’s horizon at the base of our fingernails. In fact, their name actually means “little moons” in Latin.


The lunula is the only visible part of the nail matrix, or the living part of the fingernail. It looks white because it veils the network of red capillaries underneath, and is visible only because the kind of keratin that makes up human nails is translucent.

There are seldom ten visible lunulae on the hands. Their size decreases from thumb to little finger, and for many of us there is none on the pinky fingers. Toenail half-moons are even more elusive, with most people’s visible only on their big toes. Often, lunulae disappear as one ages.

Information about the lunulae of other primates is extremely hard to come by, but what little I’ve found suggests that all animals with flat finger and toe nails do have them. However, in most cases they’re obscured either by the cuticle or by pigmentation rendering the nails opaque.


Lunulae are yet another example of the myriad small wonders hiding in plain sight on, in and around us all the time. Reserve a little time every day from busy-ness to notice and celebrate them. For, despite what may seem a human race losing touch with reality, this is one small yet increasingly vital way we claim our truth.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

LIFE AND LIMB – A Tree Hugger Turns the Tables

In our neighborhood there’s a stately old cottonwood tree. At first glance, you wouldn’t say there’s anything exceptional about it. But I noticed one day that, as cottonwoods often do, this tree actually has more than one trunk. In fact, there are five distinct trunks, each about the same size—probably ten or twelve feet in circumference—evenly spaced in a circle.

The massive columns, just a few inches apart at the ground, lean slightly outward, leaving just enough room for me to step into their midst. I like to stand in that living enclosure and touch the coarse bark. Then I lean back against one of the trunks and focus my awareness on just that place, that moment. When I do that, I feel something extraordinary.

      I imagine its five trunks as fingers, gently 
      holding me in their knowing grasp.

Maybe it’s just a sense of peace, of being in the moment, but I believe there’s something more. I think what I feel is the spirit of that tree, its acknowledgment, its welcome. It’s as if, through my touch, by my deep awareness of its venerable “being,” it too can sense my presence, my spirit. I imagine its five trunks as gnarly, wrinkled fingers, gently holding me in their knowing grasp.

Does the idea of communicating by touch with an inanimate object seem illogical? I certainly can’t prove that my overtures to that cottonwood were reciprocated. But don’t let that stop you from trying. The trick is, first of all, to be open to the dialog. You have to believe that a tree just might have something to say to you.

Second—and this is even harder for most people—you have to believe it is saying something to you. Now let’s be reasonable; a tree can’t talk. But it does have life and thus, my pantheist persuasion tells me, a spirit. And spirits have no trouble at all communicating. I know this.

Friday, November 4, 2016


The turn of hydrangea preziosa’s leaves seems more a blush of spring than fall, the bloom’s exuberant confetti toss exciting their fandango pink tips.

It is an arousal as much of light as color, its tip-to-base progression reminding me that this is not the sensual surge of May, but October's melancholy ebb of green.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016


It's one of those precious late-October-in-Minnesota evenings. I've walked tall this past half-hour, body thriving, spirit nourished by all I see and feel. And then, in one captured moment, as sun nestles into thinning treetops across the river, my stature positively soars. Now I walk in ten-foot strides o'er this patchwork quilt of spent, mauve-tinged cottonwood leaves.

And today somehow the contrast between my cool front and warm back feels especially satisfying. Soon I'll have to get here by 3:30 instead of 6:00 to grow like this. Oh, I'll stand tall, but the reach of these sublime colors will be stunted. And both sides of me will be cold.

Friday, October 28, 2016


A fascinating array of color and life forms inhabit this old windfall. Gnarly white bracket fungus oozes out of dark bark recesses...then doesn’t quite know what to do without a vertical surface on which to cantilever.

Emerald moss seeks out a bit more light on surfaces in brighter shade. And blue-green and gold lichen—a composite, symbiotic organism comprising both a fungus and moss’s more primitive cousin, an alga—likely took up residence here before either of its neighbors.

It is a study, too, of endurance. Fungi and mosses, surviving deep Minnesota winters, can live for years. Lichen, given a more durable substrate than this bark—which is being devoured by the fungus—can easily grow for centuries.

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 force.

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.