Thursday, July 20, 2017


Another in my ongoing series of reflections, As If For the First Time, describing the most mundane of daily activities through a fresh lens, one of innocence, wonder and gratitude.

I awoke this morning to a gift, one laid gently on my being by the hand of providence. It is the gift of a certain perspective, one I try to cultivate, but which seldom gets the chance to leaf out in that groggy torpor when thoughts first jostle
to fill the blissful vacuum left by sleep.

PHOTO: Pixabay

It is that rare awareness that, despite what may be on my mind’s calendar for the day, the agenda for my heart and soul will not be confined to some little boxes on a page or screen. It’s knowing my prospects are, at least for this one day, about nothing but blessing and bounty.

In this frame of mind, it is not lost on me that this one precious day just might be my last. It’s not a morbid thought, just a sharpening of my resolve. Let's just say this day most certainly will be the last one just like this one. 

Today, I am uncommonly mindful of how thoroughly, deeply blessed I am, and a silent prayer emanates from my consciousness: Let me be worthy of these many gifts. Let me truly know them, love them, share them.

           Are you able to seize the day, or does 
           the day, with all its expectations and 
           obligations, seize you?

Funny, isn't it, how much more significant this state of promise becomes as one ages. For with each passing year one’s remaining days—however many there might be—become an ever-smaller, ever-more-precious percentage of one’s lifespan. Supply and demand, I guess you could say.
PHOTO: Children's Theater Company

As if to underscore this awareness, it seems more and more of our loved ones find their once-ample outlook suddenly eclipsed by some dark curtain falling between them and their future—a loss, a crisis, a life-threatening infirmity. I thank God—especially on lucid mornings like this—a barrier like that has not yet fallen between me and what I somehow imagine should be the rest of my life.

So, how do you approach each new day? Do you think you fully appreciate the freedom and grace bestowed on you by a future whose only limitation is your imagination? Will you allow yourself the joy of it? Are you able to seize the day, or does the day, with all its expectations and obligations, seize you? Can you see all the wonders it offers as if you were glimpsing them for the first time?

  Greet sun and fresh air today as if you’d spent a lifetime in a cell. 
  Like a wonderstruck child, let a brand new world delight you.
  Then turn this around. Imagine a today with no tomorrow. 
  Notice how your appreciation moves from wonder to gratitude?

Saturday, July 15, 2017

DOWN BY THE TRACKS – The Forbidden Allure of St. Paul’s St. Clair Park

How ironic that the same steamy, southeasterly summer breezes that wafted over my boyhood home with the stench of death from South St. Paul’s Swift and Armour slaughter houses also carried the romantic, mournful wail of trains passing, blocks away, down below the bluff at St. Clair Park.

Those sounds were among my first and fondest childhood memories. Once in a great while, Dad would drive my brother and me over to the park’s scenic overlook where we waited for 15 or 20 minutes to see if a train would come.

PHOTO: Doug Kroll

By the time I was ten, I’d learned that, come nightfall, that overlook was for a different kind of “parking,” the one involving couples doing…what couples do. My trouble-making little pals and I were always tempted to spy on them…but, alas, we weren’t allowed out that late.

      Our parents weren’t idiots; they warned us
      about the shady connection between slow-
      moving freight trains and desperate men.

When I got to be twelve or so, I enjoyed a bit more parental leeway. By that time, my friends and I found what was going on above the hill at St. Clair Park far less interesting than what happened down below on the banks and along the railroad tracks. On those slopes we explored a maze of tunnel-like paths among the thick underbrush, where we found the kind of dangerous and exotic things that begin to open up the real world to a boy that age.

There were the bums. Our parents weren’t idiots; they warned us about the shady connection between slow-moving freight trains and desperate men. Nonetheless, we had a few encounters with those characters. We weren't quite sure which was more com- pelling: the alleged danger or our fascination with the sights, sounds...and smells of scrag- gly men and their paradoxical freedom.                                 
There were the lovers. Once, deep in the underbrush, we happened upon a couple doing what they didn’t quite dare do up above the bluff in their cars. I still feel bad for interrupting them. And they evidently weren’t the only ones; we must have found dozens of used prophylactics down there. I’m pretty sure one of my more worldly pals had to tell me they weren’t balloons.

This romantic appeal of St. Clair Park’s nether regions wasn’t lost on me; in fact, it turned out to be the setting for my first kiss with a girl. I had a serious crush on my little class-mate, Susan. I don’t remember how we arranged for the tryst, but we ended up in a sort of cave under an abandoned coal elevator, where we very deliberately agreed to see what it would be like. It was like…well, what can I say;
I guess you never forget your first time.

         It was like the very best,  funnest class 
         in zoology, botany, physics, chemistry, 
         sociology…all rolled into one.

Then there was the wildlife. Turns out we weren’t the only creatures plying those rabbit warrens below the park. There were…okay…rabbits. But also snakes, foxes, raccoons, possums and all sorts of creepy, crawly things. Even—probably because the trains spilled lots of grain along the tracks—the occasional skulking rat.

I must say we rarely looked up lest we miss another rubber, a cheap piece of lost jewelry, a spent bullet casing or maybe a still-smokeable cigarette butt. But when we did, above us was a flying menagerie of other critters: songbirds, crows, raptors, and winged insects. And all of it as exotic as those far-flung jungle scenes we'd see in a Tarzan movie.

And, of course, there were the trains. To a young boy, seeing and hearing one with your dad from fifty feet up and a block away is one thing; being right on the tracks as a 150-ton locomotive approaches—feeling the ground shake, hearing the explosive blast of that horn—that’s another thing altogether.

Who knows how lore like this spreads, but we’d heard that those big locomotives were so heavy they could squash a penny. (We’d also heard that putting one on the track could cause a train to derail.) So, guess which rumor moved us. (Yes, a train actually does flatten a penny quite nicely.)

Maybe it was something we contracted from all those hoboes, but we were also fascinated with the idea of hopping one of those trains and seeing where it might take us. Though I don’t think it would ever have entered my parents’ minds to say, “Never…ever…hop a freight train,” somehow I knew it had to be insanely dangerous.

Still, that didn’t entirely stop us; we’d pick one of the slower trains and run alongside a boxcar’s U-shaped step-up just to see if we’d be fast enough. I think one of my buddies actually did hop up and grab on—but he jumped right off again when he realized the train was speeding up. That whole thing, thank God, could have turned out badly.

Besides all the fun and adventure, it’s hard to overstate the amount of learning that transpired down there at St. Clair Park. Climbing up things; sliding down things; building things; lighting things on fire; blowing things up with firecrackers; digging, piling…oh, and—I'm pretty sure Mom and Dad were smart enough to have guessed as much—smoking.

It was like the very best, funnest class in zoology, botany, physics, chemistry, physiology, sociology…all rolled into one. And no silly parents telling us we couldn’t do what we knew darn well we could.

        Most of parents’ cautions are based on 
        culturally-fomented fears, not facts, about 
        the actual incidence of childhood accidents 
        and crime.


Just now, I googled “St. Clair Park, St. Paul,” and next to nothing shows up; I can’t even find a picture of the place. Though I haven’t driven by for many years, I'm guessing it must have changed considerably. Who knows, maybe it’s not even a park any more; maybe it’s covered in luxury condos.

And I’m sure that kind of place is even further off the radar for today's generation of kids. Hell, parents barely let their children out of their sight any more, much less set them free to actually explore their own limits the way we once did—the only way, in fact, that kids can truly exercise their creativity, judgement and self-reliance.

Much easier to let the little ones fall under the spell of whatever’s lurking on those mesmerizing little glowing screens. No danger there, right?

What a shame, for most of parents’ cautions these days about letting kids roam are based on culturally-fomented fears, not facts, about the actual incidence of childhood accidents and crime—neither of which has proven to be any higher than it was in those halcyon days of our own youth. But I guess lawyers, insurers and the media have their own reasons for letting them think otherwise.

I can still feel the exuberance of testing our boyhood metal against the worst challenges our little urban jungle could dish out. It was a time of such freedom, such camaraderie and fun—a priceless time. Sometimes I dream of going back and being that impressionable, awe-struck boy once again. And now and then, albeit in other, more distant wild places—including some real jungles—I still live that dream.

Except now my lusty, full-voice Tarzan yell comes out in a wavering baritone, not soprano.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

LAYERS OF IMAGINATION – A Geologic Mystery Unfolds

I’ve walked this route, just a few blocks from my home here in Minneapolis, countless times. I always find something new, beautiful, amazing. Today, it was this elegant stacking of rock layers, encountered as I scaled the path down some
70 or 80 feet to the base of the Mississippi River gorge.

Here in the upper reaches of the great river, the water has, over the last 12-14,000 years, incised the earth’s crust, laying bare strata of ancient sedimentary stone. How did these layers form? What was happening around here back then?

I’ve always believed such geologic records, like a tree’s rings or layers of glacier ice, bear chronological evidence of changing seasons and climate trends, floods, fires and volcanic events. So is that the case here with what I think I’ve identified as Platteville limestone?

Could that possibly explain the wide range of thickness in these layers—from five or six inches, to a phyllo-like eighth-inch, and back again? Was there really that much difference between the amount of sediment or water flow from one year (or whatever the cycle was) to the next?

          During this period the land that is 
          now Minnesota lay along the equator.

In reading up on the subject, I’ve learned that, instead of looking at this in terms of yearly cycles, I should be thinking much, much longer-term. This Platteville limestone formed between 488 and 436 million years ago—a period of some fifty million years.

Hard as it is to comprehend, the land that is now Minnesota then lay along the equator. Tropical seas ebbed and flowed over the area in cycles spanning not years, decades or even centuries, but millions of years, depositing silt and the shells of marine organisms which, with time, pressure and chemical reactions, eventually turned to stone.*

So what is the answer to the wide variance in these layers’ thickness? It turns out that this is actual not all the same rock. According to geologists, the thick, topmost layers are indeed Platteville limestone, a chemically-affected, calcium-carbonate, sedimentary rock comprising mostly-pulverized marine fossil remains.

The much thinner middle-layer strata, seen about three-fourths of the way down my photo, are Glenwood shale, another sedimentary rock made up of much finer particles of mostly mineral-based mud.

Finally, the thickest layers—seen at the bottom of my photo—are St. Peter sandstone, a mix of mostly granular quartz and feldspar with a binder of silica- or calcite-based cement. **

ILLUSTRATION: United States Geological Survey

Some folks might ask me why I’d be interested in how rocks formed half a billion years ago. If you believe in your soul, as I do, that everything—animals, plants, microorganisms and, indeed, the earth—are connected, you might understand.

If you’re susceptible to awe—like the kind you might experience observing details of the moon’s surface through a powerful telescope, or getting close enough to touch the plate some passenger was eating from when the Titanic struck that iceberg—then you most certainly get it.

I thought I was going down to the river for a walk. I ended up witnessing—no, actually touching—something that happened hundreds of millions of years before human beings’ earliest ancestors existed. The awesomeness of that is still sinking in. To me, that was a good day.

* Paul Nelson, “Minnesota and Wisconsin’s Own Platteville Limestone Totally Rocks” - MinnPost, 8/30/16 


Saturday, June 24, 2017

A LOSS FOR WORDS – The Long and Short of Writing

As a writer—and an incurable noticer of all things small and wonderful—I’m fascinated by anyone’s ability to convey a lot of meaning in just a few well-considered words.

Now, I love to spin a yarn as much as anyone, but a few exercises in my life have challenged that indulgence. First, I attended a college (Amherst) where, at that time, the purpose of English One was nothing less than to destroy any illusions we freshmen might have held about already being competent writers. While the prof’s critiques of our feeble attempts at brevity were more scathing than encouraging, they evidently did make an impression.

The second phase of my terseness training was my professional career as a commercial copy writer. I was the guy some of my less-marketing-savvy clients relied on to take their exhaustive list of must-have content and somehow get the key messages across in a trifold brochure.

Perhaps most challenging was writing copy for posters and billboards, which, at a glance, have to catch both the eye and the imagination. This is an area for which the expression less is more must surely have been conceived.

When I wrote my first book, Under the Wild Ginger – A Simple Guide to the Wisdom of Wonder, it started out as a series of essays in which I thoroughly embraced the freedom to write as much as I thought necessary to paint colorful, detailed images for a reader.

Enter the dog-eat-dog realities of the independent publishing world. A small New Hampshire publisher, based more on my concept and title than my manuscript, took a leap and signed me on. But, as specialists in gift books—the kind sold in museum shops—they felt their market expected something much more, shall we say, distilled.

So I took each of those rambling, undisciplined stories, dredged out the essence of its wisdom, and crafted it into a precious 40- to 60-word, poem-like nugget. The rest is history—literally, I’m afraid. (My book, despite its beautiful design and production, and reasonably good sales for the first few months, has, alas, become yesterday’s news.)

The last of my inducements to brevity falls closer to home. I’m blessed to have a life-partner who, as a gifted teacher, has learned to communicate effectively with students who have short attention spans. Sally suffers only one thing less gladly than fools: fools who go on and on.*  Whenever I ask her to look at a draft I’ve written, her first instinct is not to catch the typos or smooth out the flow; it’s to scrap the flowery stuff and get right to the point.

* Which reminds me, have you heard about the new 12-step program for the overly talkative? Yeah, it’s called On-and-On...Anon.

      These well-chosen words have sharpened 
      my distaste for those who equate unfounded 
      certainty with success.

So, besides my ongoing internal battle between artistic license and self-indulgence, I’m always on the lookout for examples of the judiciously-written word. I see and hear them every so often in newspaper headlines, in ads, as opening lines in novels, as jokes, and occasionally—far too rarely, I’m afraid—in political speeches.**

** A notable exception is the short-and-conceit tweets of the current president of the United States. Indeed, they are by necessity short in length…but they are also dumbfoundingly short on substance—to anyone, that is, but the most avid of his followers, who literally do not care what he's really saying.

Here then are a few of my favorite brief-but-spectacular compositions:

Often wrong; never in doubt.
As someone who values questions far above answers, these well-chosen words have sharpened both my awareness of and my distaste for those who seem to equate that kind of unfounded certainty with success.
Attributed to Ivy Baker Priest, former Treasurer of the United States, 1905-1975, this clever adage was borrowed by media mogul Donny Deutsch for the title of his 2005 book about business “attitude.”

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
These six precious, poignant words are attributed to Ernest Hemingway, who penned them as his own entry in a challenge to fellow authors to write the world’s shortest novel.

Think outside the box.
This one's thought to have originated as a clue to the now-classic nine-dots, four-lines puzzle devised by British academic John Adair in 1969. The now-ubiquitous saw has clearly replaced "Grow or die" and "The customer is always right" as the most-frequently-used business mantra of all time.
Check it out

Just do it!
Coined at a Nike Inc. meeting with its advertising agency in 1988, this gem has become one of the most effective advertising slogans—not to mention additions to the popular vernacular—in history.

It was 346 BC. Philip II, king of Macedon and father of Alexander the Great, had just conquered all of Northern Greece when he turned his armies south to Sparta. In a message to the city elders, the king warned: “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”
The Spartans replied with a single word: “if.” Just the Spartans being, well, spartan.
Check it out

You are not alone.
A phrase so common and scarcely capitalized upon that it defies attribution. But imagine the hopes lifted, the souls salved, the lives saved by these four amazing, compassionate words.
The expression was commercialized in Michael Jackson’s so-titled 1995 platinum single—the first song in the 37-year history of the Billboard Hot 100 to debut at number one.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
First lines in novels are a case study in pithiness; the should set the stage for every word that follows. This is one of the best—from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

     There is so much in these four words about 
     faith, acceptance, wonder and hope.

Life’s too short…
Another ubiquitous expression, but what's fascinating is its twist—its usage seldom referring to life itself, but usually some other trivial thing we want to put into perspective.

If not us, who? If not now, when?
I love the sheer challenge posed by this one. It’s likely been used for ages in board rooms and church basements around the world, but is better known for its appropriation by a number of notables, from Hillel the Elder at the time of Christ, to Barack Obama in 2010.
Check it out

Clocks slay time.
As a man who plies his trade promoting awareness and presence, this one—just three jewel-like words—conveys a meaning that seems more apropos with every sped-up, dumbed-down passing day.
It comes from William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.

“…but enough about me….What do you think about me?” 
Wouldn't you love to spring this beauty on one of those folks—they should know better—who just prattle on, never caring to ask a thing about you?
It was spoken by Bette Midler’s character in the 1988 film, Beaches, but has also been attributed to former New York City mayor, Ed Koch.

In everything its opposite.
There is so much in these four words about faith, acceptance, wonder and hope. It also implies one of the fundamental truths of human existence: that we, our fellow human beings, other living organisms and this amazing planet we share are all connected.
Attribution? This one, I must say, is one of my own. (I'm sure the concept is far from original, but perhaps the wording is.)

I love you.
Quite possibly the most consequential words ever written or spoken. This one I sincerely hope you have heard—and said—often.

I'll close with couple of my favorite jests that do not mince words:
You've got to hand it to blind prostitutes.

Pretentious? Moi?

Is there a better two-word joke than this last one? If you know of one, I hope you'll share it here by way of Post a Comment.


Monday, June 19, 2017

A FEW TRUTHS I KNOW – To My Beloved Grandchildren

Here are some things I’ve found to be true. You will not be able to wrap these words in your own truth until you are old enough to have seen their meaning for yourself, perhaps many times. But I hope that even a cursory look at them now might help open your heart and mind to them then.

Just because I—or you—know these truths, doesn’t mean they will be easy to live by; for some you will be trying your whole life. Merely caring enough to do so will make you a better person.

                                       ~  //  ~        ~  //  ~        ~  //  ~

  • What you see has more to do with what’s inside you than with what’s right in front of your eyes. People see what they expect to see. Expect beauty and goodness.
  • What you think or say is not who you are. What you do is who       you are.
  • You are not always in control. Sometimes other people get a turn. Often Nature will be in charge. And once in a while there's no choice but leaving it to pure dumb luck.
  • There are some outcomes whose realization depends not on trying harder to make them happen, but on having the patience and faith to LET them happen. You turn them over to a wisdom that’s greater than yours, and you’ll be surprised at how often things turn out for the best.

  • No matter what anyone may say, no matter what the daily news appears to show, the world and our fellow human beings are essentially kind and beautiful. Others have their own reasons for wanting you to doubt this. Don’t listen to them; keep expecting only the best of life.
  • In those rare instances where someone abuses that faith and threatens your health, freedom or peace, fight back as hard as you can. But do so not in fear, but as a wise parent disciplines a child—with calm, confident authority.
  • Attention is a zero-sum game: however many tasks you juggle, the sum total of your focus can never exceed 100 percent. Whenever possible, do one thing at a time and do it all the way.
  • There are many challenges whose solutions may prove to lie just beyond—perhaps even opposite—what you’ve been taught all your life. Welcome those chances to learn new ways; listen to your inborn curiosity, creativity and good instincts.
  • Whatever your spiritual beliefs, a fundamental truth that encompasses nearly all faiths is that none of us is alone. We are as one with every other living creature and with the earth. There is a constant, immutable love in this reality. You are loved by Creation—no matter what.

  • Pain, loss and sadness, like lousy weather, are parts of life. They’re given to us as opportunities to grow and to help. Storms remind us how wonderful the clear, sunny days are.
  • Take care of your body; it’s the only one you’ll ever have. Other people—or even your own emotions—may tempt you to abuse it, but choose instead to listen to your body. It will tell you what it needs.
  • People will have all kinds of opinions and warnings about what’s best for you—always do this; never eat that—but often the best advise is: everything in moderation.
  • Live in the moment as much as possible. Acknowledge the past for its lessons, but do not regret it. Prepare for the future, but do not fear it. The only time that’s real is now.
  • No matter how unsure and self-conscious you may feel, no matter how much you might envy others for being more attractive, accomplished or confident, know that many of them see you in that same way. Few will ever tell you this, but it is the truth.


         Seek a point of view—and a mindset— 

         from which you can see things as if for 
         the first time.
  • Many people tout their “resume” virtues, the strengths they recognize—or would like to recognize—in themselves. And then there are one’s “eulogy” virtues—the strengths others have seen. They are not always the same. Decide by which you want to live.
  • If you’re taught, as I was, to be modest and unassuming you may tend to avoid the limelight, deflect praise, minimize your own accomplishments. But remember, shining your own light—demonstrating your competence, confidence and faith—not only helps others, it just might show them how to do the same.
  • You may well aspire to do amazing things and change the world. But don’t let visions of the great keep you from doing good. To the world, you might be just one person, but to one person you might just be the world.
  • Two things you might think would fall at opposite ends of a scale—of time, size, space or value—might actually lie right next to each other…or even coincide. Large encompasses small; bad includes good; beauty has its ugly side. In every problem lie the seeds of a solution.

  • Honor your parents and grandparents. At times, they may seem to have nothing to do with your life. But, like Nature, they are part of you. Recognize their gifts and pass them on, and know that, no matter how unworthy of it you may feel, their love is unshakable.
  • Part of any child’s job in growing up is to question—and sometimes challenge—their parents’ authority. But your parents are amazing, loving, very smart people who do only what they feel best protects you and keeps you healthy and happy. It is only when you become an adult with children of your own that will you truly understand that.
  • No matter what your age, never let go of your childlike curiosity and wonder. Seek a point of view—and a mindset—from which you can see things as if for the first time.
  • Never stop learning. You may go through a stage in which your education seems like something not of your choosing; you do it simply because it’s expected. But there will come a day when the stakes in learning become yours alone. You choose it because of the places it can take you, or simply because you’d love to know. The sooner, the better. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Slew of Subarus? Who Knew?

The very first new car I ever bought—In Brattleboro, Vermont, back in 1973—was a wimpy little yellow Subaru DL sedan. I paid $2459 for it. I remember lamenting that its engine was the same size as that of a large-ish motorcycle.

Subarus have come a long ways. Now every time I visit Vermont, I’m struck by the staggering number of them—old and new—I see on the roads and streets.

I’m guessing Subarus, with their relatively small models and across-the-line four-wheel drive, resonate with not just practical needs—the snow, the mud, the rugged landscapes, the small-town and rural digs of many Vermonters—but also their values—love of the outdoors, respect for the environment, an appreciation of scale, responsible consumerism—and perhaps even, as touted in Subaru’s marketing, LOVE.

       The choice of a car is a statement, part 
       of the uniform we wear to show the world 
       our stripes.

Lately, I’ve been noticing a tremendous surge in the number of Subarus plying the streets of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis / St. Paul MN). I wondered if it was just my imagination—or perhaps a self-reinforcing result of my leaning toward a Subaru for my own next car.

So yesterday, while out walking, I conducted my own little survey. I postulated that, if my theory bore out, I’d spot—among the 45 or so vehicle brands sold in
the U.S.—at least four Subarus in the time it took me to walk the eight blocks
back home.

I saw seventeen. And this morning, of the 30 or so cars parked in my office building’s west lot, seven are Subarus.

I decided to check out my theory, and I find—at, of all places,—a
list of the ten states where Subarus are most popular. No surprise to me: Vermont is number one. But among the other nine, Minnesota is nowhere to be seen.
           Might folks be at least trying to make 

           a modest, sensible choice?

So what’s going on? Are Subarus even more popular than I thought in the rest of the country? Has the apparent Subaru boom here in the Twin Cities happened so recently that it simply hasn’t yet made the iSeeCars list?

Perhaps it’s just my neighborhood; like maybe we’re sort of the Vermont of Twin Cities communities. I’ll keep my eyes open as I wander around the rest of the metro, but I suspect the phenomenon is widespread.

My reasoning might best be explained in its own post here, but I’ll bet it has something to do not just with consumers’ needs and the effectiveness of Subaru’s marketing, but with the mood of the nation in this bizarre, post-reason period in
our history.

Given how difficult it is to function in this culture without a car, might more
and more folks, given the paucity of practical alternatives, be at least trying to
make a modest, sensible choice—one that lays claim, symbolically as much as functionally, to their values in the face of the most sweeping attack by an administration on wise environmental stewardship seen in our lifetime?

After all, the choice of a car says a lot about a person. It involves much more than
a practical convergence of needs and features. It’s a statement of personality and beliefs, part of the uniform we wear to show the world our stripes.

The hopeful yet misguided Trump base can have their rattletraps and pickups. And the new oligarchy they’ve chosen to lead them—the only true beneficiaries of this regime’s largesse—can have their Range Rovers, Escalades and stretch limos.

Me? I have more concern and more hope for my grandchildren's future than that...and I’m secure with my masculinity; I’ll take that wimpy little Subaru.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

MY AMAZON ADVENTURE – The Nature of It All

Check out Part IV – Nature – of my series about a recent cruise on the upper reaches of the Amazon River in Peru. It's on my travel blog, El Viajero Contento.

Monday, May 29, 2017

MEANWHILE Back in the Amazon Rainforest...

Check out Part III – Art & Craft – of my series about a recent cruise on the upper reaches of the Amazon River in Peru. It's on my travel blog, El Viajero Contento.

Friday, May 19, 2017

THIN SPOTS – Close Encounters With Eternity

Recently, the mother of my dear old friend, Charlie, died. She was an incredible woman, smart, civically engaged and, at 97, still living independently. As a minister—ordained when she was in her sixties—and someone with a life-long passion for music, it came as no surprise that she’d orchestrated much of her own beautiful memorial service.

Some time before her death, while discussing that eventuality with her minister,
she had noted some of the most important aspects of her own, personal spirituality. Among them was her belief that human beings—at least those of us open to the possibility—regularly encounter “thin spots” in the self-made barrier between our largely-mundane daily busy-ness and other, more transcendental realities.

She felt it was her job, as a minister, to encourage people’s awareness of those convergences, because, among other reasons, they are good places to find God.

          If I could choose between this state and 
          deep sleep, I’m not sure I could tell you 
          which I’d pick.

The other night, perhaps facilitated by that posthumous sermonette, I encountered one of those thin spots in my consciousness.

I’d already had a unique and memorable night. Unable to sleep for some reason—
I seldom have that problem—I’d been lying there, resting quite nicely, though acutely aware of my surroundings, my body, my thoughts. It wasn’t that anything in particular was on my mind, nor even that I was unable to turn off my thoughts;
I truly wasn’t thinking of much more than how amazingly comfortable I was, both physically and mentally.

Instead of any sense of urgency or frustration with not being able to sleep, I just felt utterly at peace. I remember thinking, If I could choose between this state and deep sleep, I’m not sure I could tell you which I’d pick.

Now, to be honest, I can’t say I might not have drifted briefly off to sleep now and then during the night, but it sure didn’t seem that way.

            A tear—a real, cool, liquid tear—
            rolled down my cheek.


Then, some time in the wee hours, I was suddenly aware of a presence. Not a flesh-and-blood presence, but a presence nonetheless. It was my dad. (In the 20 years since he died, I’ve had just one other significant connection with him, so I knew right away this was something special.)

We talked. I don’t remember saying anything out loud, but we talked. My “voice” felt real and true, and his…well, it seemed completely spontaneous, by all ap-
pearances his true voice, not one of my own creation.

So I asked Dad some of the questions I, because of both my reserve and his, had never thought to bring up while he was alive. “What were some of the high points of your life?” I asked. Without hesitation, he said, “You and your brother.” A tear—a real, cool, liquid tear—rolled down my cheek.

“Were you happy as an old man?” I asked. “You and mom seemed pretty detached by then, if not downright fed up with each other.” He replied, “Oh, you should have seen us when we were younger! When we got married, we were happy…and we were in love. Back then, we could talk, we laughed, we were affectionate...or as affectionate as conservative, German Americans could be (he winked)—we shared dreams…”

“Yeah, but were you happy during your final years, after you sold your homes and business?” I pushed. He thought for a few seconds. “I guess it was a different kind of happiness, the kind that comes from fulfilling a responsibility. Once I got your mom situated where I knew she’d be looked after, and sewed up some financial matters, I figured I’d fulfilled my purpose. I kind of let go.”

     In a kind of role reversal, I felt I’d taken 
     on the role of parent, and he was the child.

Dad and I talked for quite a while. I filled him in on my life since he passed away—during much of which he smiled and nodded knowingly, as if he already knew. I had to catch myself a couple of times running on about myself and tried to turn the conversation back to him. After all, I told him, this was about him.

He disagreed, but I guess that’s one reason this encounter was so amazingly special; in a kind of role reversal, I felt I’d taken on the role of parent, and he was the child.

I told him how proud of him I was…and am, and how much I love him. And how sorry I am that I wasn’t able to express that pride and love more overtly while he was still alive. In one of Dad’s patented responses—usually issued when the rare mention of love came up—he said simply, with that familiar, twinkly-eyed smile of his, “Ditto!”

Finally—I don’t know if I eventually did drift off to sleep or if it happened consciously—we said our good-byes. But not before I made him promise that he’d come back. He promised…and I’m waiting...

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


See the new series about my Peruvian Amazon River adventures at my travel blog, El Viajero Contento.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


Some people experience a special kind of bliss when they’re near the ocean. Others find this fulfillment from being in the mountains, or the forest or the desert…
I find my special joy of place on rivers.

I recall, as a boy, having a special fascination—along with tornadoes and the sinking of the Titanic—with the Amazon River. Stories, maps, photos, news reports—I couldn’t get enough of them. I dreamed of one day seeing the great river for myself.

PHOTO: Enrique Castro-Mendivil / Reuters

Well, I’ve been in a tornado; I’ve seen the Titanic—okay, I guess James Cameron's documentary footage will have to suffice; and now, at last, I’ll be fulfilling that final dream, being on the Amazon.

Tomorrow, I fly to Lima, where I’ll meet my brother, Dan, for the adventure of a lifetime. After a couple of days exploring the Peruvian capital, we fly for two hours northeast over the Andes to Iquitos, where we board La Perla, a 24-passenger river boat, for a week cruising the upper reaches of what is arguably the world’s largest and most important river. *

I’m not at all sure if I’ll have access to the Internet—I guess I’ll be disappointed if we end up no further from “civilization” than that—but I promise to journal and take lots of photos. I’ll look forward to producing a series of posts here about the experience. Stay tuned...


* Size of watershed: 7,000,000 square kilometers (more than double that of the Mississippi)
Length of river: 6,296 km, (second only to the Nile and 326 km longer than the Mississippi)
Discharge: 209,000 cubic meters per second (12 times that of the Mississippi)

There is another alphabet, whispering from every leaf, singing from every river, shimmering from every sky. ~ DEJAN STOJANOVIC

Friday, April 7, 2017

CHICKEN BUS TO PETATLAN – Plucking Away At My Own Joy

“Peta Peta Peta!” The young ayudante hangs nonchalantly out the clunky bus’s open door barking our destination to folks along Zihuatanejo’s bustling back streets. 

My compadre, Silverio, and my friend, Larry, have come down here to the southwestern Mexican state of Guerrero, Mexico from Minnesota to help me celebrate my birthday. And today we’ve hopped aboard the second-class “chicken” bus for the hour-long trip to Petatlán, a pueblo of 25,000 located 35 kilometers southeast of Zihuatanejo.

(Petatlán is best known for two things. Foremost is the Sanctuary of the Padre Jesús de Petatlán, a church less notable for its architecture than its display of a highly-revered statue depicting Christ collapsing under the weight of the Cross, steeped in legend about its mysterious discovery in the 16th century. The town’s other claim to fame is its busy handcrafted gold jewelry market.)

Among the first aboard the bus, the three of us spread out, grabbing the few precious seats with both unobstructed views and working windows.

Finally clearing Zihua’s maze of narrow streets, we head out into the countryside on federal highway 200. It’s hot, already in the upper 80s, and the constant humidity wafting in over La Costa Grande from the Pacific belies the tawny, dry-season hue of much of the landscape. It’s mostly just the irrigated commercial groves of coconut palm and mango that remain green this time of year.

By now a few more windows have been pried open and the moving air feels delicious. The ayudante, the fingers of one hand neatly interlaced with color-coded peso bills, totters down the swaying aisle collecting the 30-peso fare.

At the stop for Los Achotes, a few folks get off and a lovely young woman and her three-year-old daughter get on and sit down across the aisle from me. I say, “Hola, buenas tardes,” and both turn toward me with the kind of generous, open-hearted smiles I’ve come to associate with Mexicans.

Somehow, those smiles penetrate the corners of my consciousness, places I try
to keep open, but which too often evade the light of day. It’s as if all my petty concerns —boarding the right bus, having change for the fare, getting dropped off at the right stop, the quality of my Spanish, and making sure my buddies have a good time—simply evaporate.

  I feel completely comfortable, completely safe,  
  completely engaged, completely…well, complete.

Suddenly, I’m utterly in the moment, acutely aware of all my senses. I’m struck by the colors and textures of the bus’s gaudy interior, the passing scenery, the people’s clothing and skin; the happy, polka-like strains of  ranchero music the driver’s just cranked up; the smell of that slightly sweet, smoky, sweaty breeze.

I’m sitting there, turned slightly toward the aisle, one arm draped easily over the back of the adjacent seat, feeling sublimely relaxed. Here I am, I reflect, on the chicken bus to Petatlán, a shaky, noisy metal box with hard, lumpy seats and about enough leg room for a child.

And there’s absolutely no place on earth I’d rather be.

In the company of good friends, immersed in a culture I believe I’ve inhabited in a previous life, swept up in exactly the kind of adventure I so often dream of, I feel completely comfortable, completely safe, completely engaged, completely…well, complete.

I’m happy…very happy…maybe as happy as I’ve ever been!

I savor it as long as I can, but my reverie soon starts fraying at the edges, nibbled by other thoughts. As it unravels, I scan memory for other times I’ve experienced such quiet, certain joy; there have been, I regret to say, very few.

         As my guilt and my self-respect have this 
         nervous little dance, I wonder what kind 
         of a person I really am.

Now I’ve never been very good at preventing second thoughts from muddling first ones. And so the rest of the trip is tinged with guilt as I wonder how a man as blessed as I’ve been could possibly count a bus ride among his peak experiences.

For God’s sake, I’m thinking, you’ve been gifted with two amazing children and two grandchildren. You married an incredible woman who has enriched your life. You’ve been to  so many amazing places and so deeply bonded with Nature. You’ve seen loved ones face mortal challenges and survive. You’ve given and gotten so much love.

And yet you consider the simple, fleeting joy you’re experiencing on this bus to
be among the happiest moments of your life? Have I unmasked some kind of shallowness here…or am I just being honest and spontaneous?

As my guilt and my self-respect have this nervous little dance, I wonder what kind of a person I really am. Should I try to change which of my life experiences most tap into my soul? Or should I just accept that this is an authentic part of who I am—the kind of stuff I live for—even though I can barely avoid calling it selfish?

By the time we pull off onto the dusty bus stop at Petatlán, I’ve come to at least a tentative peace with my dilemma. In a kinder assessment of myself I realize that the joy I’ve just experienced in no way diminishes those other, perhaps weightier, gifts of life and love I’ve received.

I conclude that I can no more choose which of life’s experiences truly move me or bring me joy than I can which joke makes me laugh. No, I figure, those opportunities, those all-too-rare gifts of perfect presence, choose me.

And that’s just going to have to be okay.

So, as my friends and I start up the long steps to the church and zocalo, I turn and watch our bus pull away in a cloud of dust. I celebrate the few moments of precious clarity and centered-ness I’ve just enjoyed. And I chuckle to myself at the thought of my plucking, clucking little self doubts…still on that bus.

Friday, March 31, 2017

MARAVILLAS PEQUENAS 9 – Small Wonders, Mexican Style

One too many mescals for Raggedy Andy.

Blue agave leaves. An impression.

Don't piss here, you bastards!

An artisan beads a fine Huichol mask.

He couldn't be...not in the bucket!

The heroic pescador by the fish market

A man whose story I'd like to hear – Petatlán

Padre Jesús de Petatlán

Croton – Codiaeum variegatum

Santuario Nacional del Santo Señor de Petatlán

Roseate spoonbills nesting at Playa Linda

Behind bars – Building the new Kau Kan Kondos

Wood storks at Playa Linda