Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A HOLE IN TOMORROW – Seeing Right Through Mortality


You may have noticed the gradually increasing frequency of my posts touching on aging, death and dying. This is partly due to my perspective, which I can no longer pretend is anything but that of a senior citizen. It’s also inspired by my experiences as a hospice volunteer. (I spend a few hours every week with people whose days are numbered.)

Despite my long predisposition to the present moment, the older I get, the more often I seem to stray to thoughts of the ever-more-precious future. Like imagining how, when the time comes for me to face my own life’s end, I might do so with half as much grace as my patients do.

       In just the past couple of years, five of my 
       family members and friends have faced a 
       cancer diagnosis.

TOMORROW…AND TOMORROW
I know, I know…worrying about tomorrow is pointless. While it’s probably more useful than worrying about the past, either way there’s little any of us can do to affect the consequences of time.

But there’s tomorrow…and then there’s TOMORROW. For someone simply living out their last days or one facing a grave health crisis, the term could mean, literally, the next day; one might not dare look ahead much further.

But for those of us still fortunate enough to still gaze out on an indeterminate horizon, the view is quite different.


Yes, there’s still that sense—especially if gratitude is part of your daily spiritual practice—of each tomorrow being a precious gift, one you should appreciate as if it were your last. But even that self-imposed filter doesn’t keep those of us in reasonably good health from fully expecting another tomorrow after that…and another…and another...

How cruelly that expectation must change when one receives, say, a cancer diagnosis. These days, I find myself thinking about that all the time, because in just the past couple of years five of my family members and friends have faced that reality.
        It’s an opportunity to introduce ourselves 
        to our faith—or at least an aspect of that 
        faith we may never have been in the same 
        room with before.

CLOSER STILL TO HOME 
Even as I’ve been writing this post, one of those loved ones dealing with cancer—a dear old friend—has experienced a dramatic change in his condition. Steve had been responding quite well to cutting-edge treatment which aimed to seek out and destroy cancer cells no matter where in his body they lurked.

But now, quite suddenly, the cancer has gained the upper hand throughout his body. There’s nothing left to do for him—at least in terms of cure-oriented medical treatment. He’s entered hospice, and doctors advise him and his family not to think in terms of months, but weeks…or maybe even days.

What a fickle friend hope can be. I can only imagine what he and his family must be going through, given that initial ebbing of the disease’s leaden horizon and then its abrupt rushing in and imminently crashing over them.


PERMEABLE PERMANENCE

I guess this is one positive effect of death—a silver lining, if one thinks broadly enough—in the whole human scheme of things. It causes those left behind to confront the reality of our own mortality.

It’s also an opportunity to introduce ourselves to our faith—or at least an aspect of that faith we may never have been in the same room with before.

It’s that faith that renders the dreadful, absolute finality of death somewhat more forgiving. As if that barrier to yet another tomorrow becomes, rather than a dark, impenetrable, tombstone-granite wall, perhaps more like a fine-mesh screen which, while it certainly inhibits our free, physical movement from one dimension to the other, at least allows the free flow of air and sunshine and spirit between the two.

As death becomes an ever-more-frequent visitor to my aging circle of loved ones, I’m asking myself if my faith is up to the task. Can I, as with any other aspect of wonder, learn to be fully present with my mortality? Might I, if faced with a terminal diagnosis, be able somehow to see beyond—if not right through—death’s dark curtain?

Could you?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

WONDERS GREAT AND SMALL – A Thanksgiving Blessing

Here's a Thanksgiving blessing I'd like to share. I happen to pray to God, but if your reverence for the incredible is directed to a force of a different name, feel free to plug it in as you like.

 Oh God, you appear to all of us in different ways. Ways so vast and powerful that we cannot grasp them, so minute that we fail to notice them. Lord, hear our thoughts and prayers of thanksgiving and help each of us be more fully aware of your blessings large and small:

Thank you for the vast expanse, the limitless wonder, of your creation,
And for the cold, wet, honeycomb pattern of the skin on a dog’s nose.

Thank you for Nature’s great ebbs and flows—her awesome power;
her transcendent beauty; her inexorable rhythms,
And for our lover’s heartbeat.

Thank you for the fascinating family of man—in all its colors, shades and textures—and the values and aspirations we share.
Thank you too for our family—those sitting at this table and those present in our hearts.

Thank you for the good, the pure, the true that resides at the core
of every human being,
And the chance to share a smile and a kind word with a stranger.

Thank you for your infinite bounty—the abundance with which you
nourish us in body, mind and spirit.
And thank you for this glorious meal we’re about to share.


Thank you for your promise of eternity,
And for this moment—this one...precious...moment of life.

Amen

Thursday, October 19, 2017

AWARENESS TO THE POWER OF N – Finding Our Place In Infinity


Have you ever seen this amazing video by Danail Obreschkow that attempts to show, in just three minutes, the vastness of the known universe? It starts with a close-up of a woman’s face. The camera then begins to draw back. The woman, lying on grass, gradually becomes a small dot in a complex of buildings. The scene soars continuously into ever-broader panoramas: the whole city, then rivers and mountain ranges, sea coasts, the recognizable outlines of continents.

PHOTO: NASA
Out and out the eye travels. Soon the earth itself shrinks to a pin point; then it’s the solar system lost in the distance; then the Milky Way; then other galaxies. And, finally, at about ten billion light years away from the woman’s face, we’re looking at a fine mist each of whose nano-droplets is a galaxy.

This has all happened in 60 seconds. Then the process reverses; the camera starts back toward infinitesimal Earth. Falling, falling…until once again that apartment complex appears, that little speck on the lawn, and finally the woman’s face.

As if that weren’t enough with the perspective thing, the view now moves seam- lessly into the woman’s left eye and navigates a comparable journey into inner space—from cells, to molecules, to electrons…all the way to quarks.

PHOTO: IBM Zurich
     
     Why, one might wonder, do we keep wasting 
     the effort to measure something we all can be 
     quite sure is immeasurable?

A CHALLENGE TO TERMINOLOGY
How stunning, for a visual learner like me, to see this perspective illustrated so graphically. But a few numbers I've come across recently can also make the point.

Yes, our world—this earth—is immense...to us. But in terms of its place in the solar system, meh, we’re just another of eight apples in the sack. (Nine, if one accepts the presence of the as-yet-unseen “planet nine.”)

And the solar system? Our all-powerful sun is just one of at least 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and who knows how many of those twirl their own planets around them?

So you think we’re rhetorically zoomed out far enough to maybe begin grasping the vastness of the universe? Not quite. Take our little galaxy with its billions of stars…and multiply it by another 200 billion. That’s how many galaxies astronomers were thinking existed.

Hubble took this 100-hour exposure of a spot in space previously thought to be virtually empty.
PHOTO: Robert Williams and the Hubble Deep Field Team (STScI) and NASA

That was a decade ago, when the NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope was providing its earthshakingly clear examination of the universe. Current research suggests even that number is at least ten times too small.* Does anyone at all believe that these wild stabs at enumeration won’t just keep growing?

It’s like economic hyperinflation; the currency of classification becomes so worthless that we keep having to issue new, ever-larger “denominations” of terminology. So now, acknowledging the futility of counting even galaxies, scientists are beginning to think in terms of a “multiverse,” comprising numerous universes.

Why, one might wonder, do we keep wasting the effort to measure something we can all be quite sure is immeasurable?

It’s beyond me.

         We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, 
         but perhaps more important… the universe is in us. 
         Many people feel small, because they’re small and the 
         universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came 
         from those stars. ~ DR. NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON

* NASA galaxy count    

Friday, October 13, 2017

CITRUS PARADISI – An Odoriferous Ode to Grapefruit

Years ago, when I started taking Simvastatin (generic Zocor), they said I shouldn’t eat grapefruit. I’m sure glad I stopped—the Simvastatin, not the grapefruit.

There's nothing quite like eating a good, fresh grapefruit. There’s that wonderful sweetness-acidity balance; the fragrant flavor and slightly bitter aftertaste—unlike that of any other citrus fruit; and, of course, that riotous explosion of juice.


And visually, I mean come on, just look at this feast of form, texture and color. The tough, pigskin-like rind, its mottled structure running all the way through. (These distinct little oliferous vesicles* contain aromatic oils that are released when cut or abraded.) The skin’s moist, cottony, cream-white lining (albedo) laced with pink-tinged veins.

Then there are the fine, gossamer membranes encasing each segment; the wrinkled, irregular seeds; and the feathery, fecund little cavern that runs through the fruit’s core when the central column is removed.

And, best of all, the dense packing of all those glistening, translucent little water balloons (juice vesicles) bursting with liquid.

     Grapefruit was not recognized as genetically 
     distinct from the pomelo until the 1830s.

FORBIDDEN FRUIT
This sublime fruit so engages me that I have to do a little research. I find that grapefruit’s existence was first documented in Barbados, in 1750. At that time it was referred to as “Shaddock”—for a sea captain said to have first bred it—or “forbidden fruit.” More likely, though, it’s a naturally occurring hybrid of Jamaican sweet orange and Indonesian pomelo.**


Grapefruit was not recognized as genetically distinct from the pomelo until the 1830s, when it was assigned the scientific name citrus paradisi.

* http://www.speciale.it/english/citrusfruit.html
** https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grapefruit


Friday, September 29, 2017

BEYOND WORDS – A Dialog of the Spirit

I’ve been visiting Harold (not the man's real name) as a hospice volunteer for three months now. His diagnosis is Alzheimer’s disease, and the reason he’s in hospice is that it’s quite advanced.

When I first met him, Harold could talk. That is, he had enough breath to make sounds, and he could move his lips. He’d even punctuate his comments with hand gestures and the occasional little chuckle. But very little of it came across clearly enough for me to understand.

As for my end of the conversation, I’d tell him what kind of a day it was outside, report on how the Minnesota Twins were doing, or maybe recount one of my experiences I thought might resonate with one of his. Occasionally, when he was tracking, he’d respond to something I said quite clearly, “Oh, is that right?” That was nice to hear.


I did my best. Most often that meant simply maintaining eye contact with him as
he spoke, trying to keep that faintly-received channel open. Since I didn’t want to pretend to understand when I didn’t, all I could do was nod so he’d know I was, if not understanding, at least hearing him.

Once in a while I’d make out a word or two. If I heard “brother,” I’d respond, “Oh, your brother. Uh-huh” or “I’ll bet you and your brother were quite a pair.” Anything to preserve a crack in that shell of isolation the poor man must inhabit.

      I remember vividly why I originally signed 
      up for hospice work...I knew it had little to 
      do with words.

A LOSS FOR WORDS
Harold still likes to talk, but now, at this week’s visit, he’s clearly faded…a lot. He’s gazing up at me with what appears to be the intent of speaking, but I have to look hard to detect the subtle movement of his lips. I hear wisps of air coming out of his mouth, but he can no longer make a sound.

I’m so sad for him; I know he’d once been a pretty gregarious fellow. He still had the will, but not the way. I also feel an arresting sense of gratitude. Yes, of course, simply for not being Harold, but also for the opportunity– the privilege—of being with this good man at such a vulnerable point in his life.


I’m a writer; my stock in trade is communicating with words. So this is unfamiliar territory for me. Yet I remember vividly why I originally signed up for hospice work. I felt I had something spiritual to offer. I wasn’t quite sure how to describe it, but I knew it had little to do with words.

HEARING SILENCE
So I’m sitting here at Harold’s bedside, and he’s just looking up into my eyes. It’s a little unnerving, but I feel something—I’ll call it energy for lack of a better word—flowing between us. It feels good, and I can only hope Harold feels it too.

I take his gnarly hand and hope I can convey some kind of understanding that way. I don’t know how much he can grasp, but I acknowledge how awful it must be to have thoughts ambushed like that before he can get them out. “It’s okay,” I reassure him. “I’m hearing you.”

Our hour together comes to an end. I take his hand again and ask if it’s okay for me to come back next week. He just looks at me. As I walk away, I recall the moment, just the week before, when, after I’d strained the whole time to understand a word here and there, he somehow managed to say, as plain as day, “Thank you for coming.”

Today, he says nothing. But his eyes follow me through the door.

Monday, September 25, 2017

HARD TRUTHS – The Telling Face of Rocks


This gray Keweenawan basalt, whose fifty-foot ramparts flank this stretch of the St. Croix River, is unfathomably old, dating from the Precambrian Eon, somewhere between 500 million and a billion years ago.

It is also the hardest basalt-type rock in America—so hard that boulders of it were used by NASA to test the drills employed on the moon probe.

And yet, these rocks are far from the static, silent objects they seem. There is movement here; those sinuous lines—visible only when the sun shines at just this angle—bring to the moment red-hot lava’s flow when life on earth consisted of little more than algae.

 There are distinctly human 
 utterances here.

VOICES OF TIME
These rocks speak volumes of a broad swath of history. Cracks and fissures recount epic battles between ice and stone, heat and cold, forces commanded by gravity. Lichens, some of their species nearly as old as the rocks themselves, bear testament to those ancient algae. For, in the face of otherwise untenable circumstances, only the subsumption of those algae by the lichen has enabled them to survive.

Near the cliff's base, the St. Croix’s natural scums and dissolved tannins have ranked water-level horizons on the rock face—a subtlety captured in just the last nanosecond of geologic time.


And, perhaps most compelling for their flesh-and-blood kinship with the likes of me, there are distinctly human utterances—portrayals of hands, a buffalo head and other symbols—likely made by Dakota or Ojibwe hunters nearly 1,000 years ago.
 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

COMMON SCENTS – BOX ELDER BUG INSTANT MESSAGING

(A follow-up on my Facebook post the other day showing spruce boughs festooned with bright red box elder bug nymphs)

I’m out walking Sylvia the puppy. It’s cooled off considerably from the last-gasp-of-summer heat wave of the past few days, but it’s still a lovely, fall-ish sunny day.

I notice a couple of small sun-lit spots on the lawn slapped with blotches of red: dense swarms of box elder bugs. One numbers at least 1,000; the other, maybe half that number. The two hordes are about three feet apart.


Sylvia spots them and follows her nose to the smaller group. When she’s about a foot away, they scatter, suddenly, haphazardly…and all at once. Their flight evenly dilutes the red spot, and within five or six seconds it’s gone.

Meanwhile, the larger swarm has not moved. But I watch—fully expecting wonder as usual—as those insects headed that way from the first group reach its perimeter. Then—mind you, I now have Sylvia firmly in tow several feet away—the second legion explodes in flight simultaneously just as the first had.

         I’d have expected one of the heralds to 
         shout "Run for your lives!" or at least
         wave its wings madly.

PHOTO: Timothy Ng

WHO CUT THE CHEESE?
Now, I can understand how the big, red, compound eyes of every single one of the box elder bugs in that first swarm may have caught sight, in the same instant, of the schnauzer colossus coming at them. They’re out of there; no communication needed.

But for the second swarm to have reacted identically, with no sensory input other than the approach of a few fugitives from the first group, begs the question: how do these little red-coats communicate?

I’d have expected one of the heralds to shout "Run for your lives!" or at least wave its wings madly, but it turns out box elder bugs don't do that. Instead, it’s quite likely a matter of scent—one which apparently disperses incredibly quickly.*

All this leaves open the broader question: how do other creatures do it? A murmuration of starlings, chased by a falcon, sloshing like pools of water across a pitching sky. A school of 10,000 of herring veering as one from marauding dolphins.

PHOTO: John Myers

I guess we’ll leave that investigation for a future post. That’s what it’s like with Nature; so many questions, so little time.

* FROM ANIMALDIVERSITY.ORG:
Adults and nymphs have a pair of scent glands located on the dorsal side of the abdomen that secrete monterpene hydrocarbons and may be used for communication. Boxelder bugs also have a pair of ventral abdominal scent glands through which males secrete an exocrine compound during copulation to stimulate or claim the female. It is speculated that males also use this secretion during confrontations with other males. Males are attracted to the odor secreted by females. Boxelder bugs have compound eyes and ocelli, which are believed to aid in perception of the environment along with antennae, the primary sense organs. There are no acoustic or vibrational signals used for communication. (Aldrich, et al., 1990; Bauernfeind, 2005; Millar, 2006)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

OPPOSITE REALITIES – At Sea In a World of Duality

On my frequent trips to New England—more specifically, to the very maritime South Shore area south of Boston—I see nautical charts everywhere. They decorate the walls of bars, hang in peoples homes, plaster the sides of trucks.

These handsome maps—some are works of art, really—show everything a sailor needs to know about the waters he or she is navigating. Water depths, natural features of the seabed, the ins and outs of the coastline, navigational hazards, locations of natural and human-made aids to navigation, information on tides and currents, and local details of the Earth's magnetic field.


It’s not surprising that sailors would have a unique, rather self-centered way of looking at the world; naturally, they think of the sea as where everything that matters to them happens. And surrounding it, the land, all but void, inconsequential except for its ability to shape one’s course and the winds and currents that affect it.

We landlubbers, on the other hand, see our element as the center of our world. The sea surrounds us. Our maps show everything we need to navigate our element, but leave the oceans nearly devoid of detail. Of course we’re aware of the seas, but, again, they're like an afterthought, acknowledged only for what they can do for us…or to us.


DISH OR CONE?
What can this equivalency of opposites teach a curious person about life? Do opposites—like opinions, let’s say—always have equal value? Metaphysically, might they be just mirror images of the same thing?

With much of what happens in my life I strive for a sort of quasi-Buddhist view: that one outcome has no more relevance or value than another. That the only things that really matter are—to quote the Buddha himself—how much you love, how gently you live, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.

Easier said than done.

  Could the radically differing truths people seem 
  to espouse these days be, like those maps, simply 
  two different, but equally valid, versions of the 
  same reality?

A old friend was once diagnosed with cocci meningitis, a disease which at that time had a very high mortality rate. He chose to fight the disease with an arsenal of non-traditional weapons, including Buddhist spiritual practice. I’ll never forget his heartfelt summation of his chances: “If surviving this is a decadent bowl of chocolate ice cream, then dying from it is vanilla. They’re both ice cream.” (He ended up with the chocolate.)

ALTERNATIVE FACTS

Sure, I know this kind of stuff intellectually; its truth resides somewhere deep in my soul. But what about in my nuts-and-bolts, emotion-tinged real life? Can I really live with such ambivalence?

After all, it might help me as I ponder the extraordinary political and cultural polarization eroding civility in the US—and other developed countries around the world. Could the radically differing truths people seem to espouse these days be, like those maps, simply two different, but equally valid, versions of the same reality?

Or is it just a matter of which slices of the unfathomable totality of reality we choose to see, leaving the rest, like the land to a mariner, as one enormous blind spot?

I must say I’m having a hell of a time achieving the degree of inner peace that would allow me to see some of my countrymen’s utter denial of my reality—think “alternative facts”—as the vanilla ice cream to my chocolate.

What about you? What truths do you find in this notion of opposing voids and their relative validities? Can you stand on the solid ground of your own reason and values, and still accept the contrasting reality of those who seem so at sea? 


Saturday, September 2, 2017

THE HUNGER OF MY STEPS – An Old(ish) Man's Reflection on Mobility

Many thanks to my dear old friend, Robin Easton -- blogger and author of Naked In Eden -- for inspiring this post with her recent Facebook post about healing and her transcendent bonds with Nature.

                                          ~/ - /~        ~/ - /~        ~/ - /~    

Some time in the winter of 1946 I took my first sips. That was all my wobbly little legs and feet could handle.

From then on, though, my abilities—and my appetite for movement—grew exponentially. I played; I jumped; I ran, sometimes just for the sheer joy of it. Eventually I was playing every sport I could. As an adult I skied; I hiked; I led others on hikes. Even in my 60s I was taking stairs, both up and down, two or three at a time. It was delicious.

I got used to that abundance of steps—those flavors of speed, of rhythm, of palpable heartbeat felt all the way to the tips of my fingers and toes. And lately, as
I notice my stride slowing, perhaps shortening a bit, I crave them all the more.


The length and number of one’s steps may abate, but the hunger for them—especially for a person whose whole identity has been about moving, learning, testing his senses—never does.     

Nowadays, I suppose to compensate for the increasingly cautious measure of my gait, I savor not just the number, but the quality, of those steps. I actually think about them and the wonder of being able to move under my own power.

Nowhere do I appreciate this more than in my work as a hospice volunteer, where
I see rather intimately what it looks like to lose the nourishment of one’s steps.

          It was like waving a nice juicy steak 
          in front of a hungry guy with no teeth. 
          I was a starving man.


CHOMPIN’ AT THE BIT 
Travel adds spice to the dish, helps one appreciate the lusciousness of each step. I’ve learned more about life and love and beauty—and certainly about myself—from my adventures in Mexico and other Latin American countries than
I ever could have discovered staying home.

A couple years ago I traveled to Cuba. The trip involved a lot of walking, from exploring the back streets of Old Havana to climbing rugged hills in the western region of ViƱales. But I was in pain.

For quite a few years an impinged nerve in my lumbar spine had been worsening, manifesting as intense phantom pain in my left hip. By the time I went to Cuba, I could only walk or stand for a few minutes at a time. I hated being the “old guy” who had to sit out a hike or, at best, lag behind.

Problem was, every other part of my body and spirit put me in about the top ten percent of men my age for fitness. It was like waving a nice juicy steak in front of a hungry guy with no teeth. I was a starving man.

But last August an incredible surgeon at the Mayo Clinic gave me my teeth back. Free from pain, and with a back that now feels like that of a much younger man, I’m once again able to give my wandering feet what they so crave: freedom. Freedom to taste still-more-exotic places, test my capacity for wonder, delight as much in the journey as the destination.

I’ve no idea how many more steps are left on my plate. But I’m going to relish each one, not as if it were the first—for that tentative step back in 1946 was simply instinct. No, I’ll relish each one as if it were my last. I guess I believe that these precious autumn-of-life strides, so full of knowledge, memory and intention, are the ones whose taste I will most remember as I slowly, inevitably, starve away to nothing.


Tuesday, August 29, 2017

WHEN IT BLOWS IT SUCKS – The Winds of a Lifetime

Funny I should be working on a post about wind just as Harvey, one the US’s most destructive hurricanes on record slams into the Texas Gulf Coast. I’m in awe of storms like this; some slightly warped part of me wishes I could experience such awesome power first-hand—without, of course, suffering the consequences.

Come to think of it, I have indeed experienced some pretty amazing winds in my lifetime—some even topping Harvey’s 130-mile-per-hour best.

                                          ~/ - /~        ~/ - /~        ~/ - /~

To encourage my readers and the kids in their lives to appreciate the wonder of wind, I often suggest this little exercise: find a draft-free room, light a candle and place it in a corner. Then sit down on the floor five or six yards away and blow toward the candle.

You’ll wait a second or two as your breath, like a wave, rolls toward the flame and, if your aim’s any good, makes it flicker. It just shows how much like a liquid this magical, invisible, life-fueling substance we call air acts, ebbing, flowing, swirling, pouring into voids.

But that’s just a parlor trick. What about the real-life impact winds have on us?

STANDING ON PRESIDENTS
I once led a group of ten- and eleven-year-old boys on a climbing adventure in New Hampshire’s beautiful White Mountains. The goal: to summit a few of the “Presidentials,” a range of 5,000-plus-foot peaks named for U.S. presidents.

The culmination was scaling the legendary Mt. Washington. Now, at 6,288 feet, this upstart’s no Rainier or McKinley. But it does have its own claims to fame, including its prodigious winds.

Signs at the trailheads warn those unaware that climbers die on these slopes all the time, even in summer. That, in the course of the four or five hours it takes to get to the top, conditions can easily change from light, 85-degree summer breezes to a 40-degree November gale.

PHOTO: Erin Paul Donovan

In fact, when we reached the summit we could see that the only thing keeping some of the buildings from being blown away during the worst storms were the steel cables holding them down like a load on a flat-bed truck. This unassuming peak held the record, until 2010, for the highest straight-line wind velocity ever observed on earth: 231miles per hour.

The day my campers and I climbed Mt. Washington the winds only kicked up to about 50 miles per hour. But it was enough to require considerable effort—and a bit of inclination—to make any headway. It was enough to show those kids how powerful a force wind can be, as both ally and adversary.

PHOTO: Jose Azel / Getty Images

    The roof of the next-door apartment building, 
    complete with compressors and vent stacks, 
    lay across my lawn.

NOT IN KANSAS ANY MORE
The sultry afternoon of June 14, 1981, a tornado churned from southwest to northeast across the Twin Cities Metro, generating winds approaching 200 miles per hour. I’d been repairing a window frame on the second floor of my South Minneapolis home when I first noticed the warning signs: an eerie calm and dark, greenish skies. And then the rain and hail.

It was when I saw debris starting to swirl and heard that storied freight-train rumble that I knew. I grabbed my dog, a candle and matches, and the portable radio and headed for the basement. On the way down, I remember distinctly the feeling in my ears, like being inside a vacuum.

PHOTO: Ernie Melby

It was all over in about two minutes. Thank God, my house appeared to be intact, but when I stepped outside it was a different story. My garage listed to one side, most of its shingles sucked off. The flat, tar-and-gravel roof of the next-door apartment building, complete with compressors and vent stacks, lay across my lawn. Trees and power lines were down. And one corner of the old, solid stone church on the corner lay in ruins.

Ever since I was a boy, I’ve had a fascination with tornadoes. And now I could say I’d been in one. Ironically, I have yet to actually see one.

    Even my trusty “water-resistant” Timex watch 
    proved no match for the pervasiveness of the 
    incredible blast.

THE SOUND AND THE FURY
My buddies and I had just begun what was supposed to be a simple, relaxing overnight paddle trip down the beautiful upper St. Croix River. Unfortunately, we got a late start, so by the time we’d loaded the canoes and pushed off the last glow of daylight was all but gone.

Feeling our way down the river in the dark, we bumped and scraped our way through a series of class-one rapids and began searching the shore with flashlights for a decent campsite. Fortunately, we spotted what looked like the ideal place on
a small, sandy island.

As we pitched camp and started working on dinner, the southwest sky flickered with lightning. Big deal, I thought; what are the chances it will come our way?

Well, come our way it did. We’d finished our late meal and were enjoying an after-dinner drink around the fire when it hit. The only shelter we had was our tents, which worked fine on the torrential rain, but were no match for the wind.

ILLUSTRATION: Encyclopaedia Britannica

In what meteorologists call a downburst,* our little islet was suddenly stomped
on by 50- to 60-mile-per-hour winds, which ripped out our tent stakes, bent the aluminum poles and drove water through both fly and tent. We had to yell to be heard over the wail of those winds and explosions of thunder.

Even worse, the monster stalled right over us, battering us for a good ten minutes—plenty of time to contemplate the very real danger of the trees all around us, anchored only in the loose sand, falling and crushing us, or suddenly conducting 100 million volts of electricity into us through their roots.

When it was over, the only things left supporting the saturated nylon were our cowering, shivering bodies. We might as well have just sat out in the open; everything we had was soaked. Even my trusty “water-resistant” Timex watch proved no match for the pervasiveness of that incredible blast.

        The wind had not only stirred up those 
        challenging waves; it also fanned the 
        cooling process.

TO THE CORE  
Wind can do its dirty work in more ways than just with brute force. I was canoeing with seven friends across Tuscarora Lake in northern Minnesota’s incredible Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It was a cool fall morning and the wind had started to whip up some pretty big waves for a lake of this size.

But we were mostly seasoned canoeing veterans; if we followed best practices for these conditions, it was nothing we couldn’t handle. I guess the key word there is “followed,” because within ten minutes, instead of sticking together, we found our three canoes well beyond shouting distance of each other.


Long story short, a couple of paddlers lost their focus. In a few seconds their canoe got caught broadside to a wave and turned turtle. Fortunately, our second canoe noticed their predicament and went to the rescue.

We managed to haul the shivering canoeists and their partially baled out craft to a nearby campsite, but by this time Win, a wiry guy with no insulating fat on his frame, was showing signs of hypothermia.

In this case, the wind had not only stirred up those challenging waves; it also fanned the cooling process, sucking the warmth out of Win’s body faster than it could produce it. Fortunately, by keeping him awake, sandwiching him between two warm bodies inside a sleeping bag, and feeding him hot liquids, we were able to avert tragedy.

(Ironically, later that afternoon, we were harnessing that same treacherous wind in makeshift sails to propel us effortlessly across another lake.)

So, what are the most memorable scrapes you’ve had with wind? Tornadoes? Hurricanes? Sailing fiascos? Anyone ever flown through the eye of a hurricane?

“The wind is us-- it gathers and remembers all our voices, then 
sends them talking and telling through the leaves and the fields.”  
TRUMAN CAPOTE

* In 1999, a sharp line of storms swept across the BWCAW, unleashing a broad, nearly continuous band of downbursts—called a derecho—flattening millions of trees like the sweep of an immense, malevolent hand. It wiped out some 40 percent all the mature trees in the million-acre protected area.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

BORN TO KILL – The Precious Instincts of a New Puppy

We human beings have been trying to breed and train out our domestic dogs’ wild instincts for 15,000 years.* Or, more accurately, to channel those instincts to best serve our own needs.

With those early wolf-dogs, of course it was handy if they scared away predators and rivals…but not so good if they ate the baby.


Centuries passed, and the roles for which we trained our canine helpers broadened to include hunting and retrieving, herding, search and rescue, rooting out vermin, pulling sleds, racing, and even rooting for truffles.

As the array of distinct breeds has broadened—the AKC now recognizes 190—the diversity of services these splendid creatures provide for us has kept pace. Some of the latest: drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs, personal assistance dogs, therapy dogs and, the latest and somewhat controversial designation, “emotional support” dogs.

   There they were: skills no one’s taught a
   schnauzer for well over a hundred generations.


APPLIED PHYSICS
And that brings me to Sylvia. She’s the eight-week-old miniature schnauzer puppy Sally and I just added to our family last Saturday.


We don’t expect Sylvia to do anything for us but be there when we come home, listen to us when no one else will and let us love her to death. Oh, and not tear apart every rug and piece of furniture we have.

But she’s a smart little thing; after only a week, she’s learning her name, that she gets praise and a treat when she does her business outside, and, quite amazingly, already recognizes tone of voice and facial expression as indicators of our approval.

But those are all things we’re teaching her. What amazes me more is the sheer staying power of those ancient instincts, tracing back to her lupine ancestors and channeled in the late 1880s when miniature schnauzers were originally bred as ratters and guard dogs on German farms.


Last night I watched in awe as Sylvia showed off that genetic imprinted repertoire—skills no one’s taught a schnauzer for well over a hundred generations. Yet there they were on full display as we played a simple pursuit game with her favorite plush toy.

We tied one end of a sturdy six-foot-long ribbon to that limp, pink form—I think it’s supposed to be a pig. I hold the other end and swing the thing around Sylvia in broad arcs. I thought sure she’d clumsily lunge at it as it went whizzing past her, or at best run in circles to follow it.


Nope. She’s too smart for that; from the very first try she showed she knows in
her bones a little something about hunting…not to mention geometry and physics. Instead of attacking in the direction of her “prey” as she saw it, she knew to anti-
cipate its trajectory, and raced directly to the place she knew it would be a scant second later. And she does not miss.

Is my dog a friggin’ genius? He-yeah!

What does your pet do that conjures up its breed’s early domestication? Do you observe vestiges of behavior one might expect had long since been bred out of that species? Whether you have a dog, a gerbil or a giant Burmese python, we’d love to hear from you; please share your thoughts here with a comment, or share and comment on Facebook.

* Estimates of when wolves were first domesticated range from 10,000 to 30,000 years ago. Some claim it happened in Europe; others, in the Middle East or East Asia. Some think early human hunter-gatherers actively tamed and bred wolves. Others say wolves domesticated themselves, by scavenging the carcasses left by human hunters, or loitering around campfires, growing tamer with each generation until they became permanent companions.
A NEW ORIGIN STORY FOR DOGS BY ED YONG – THE ATLANTIC – 6/2/16

Thursday, July 20, 2017

THIS, MY ONE PRECIOUS DAY

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?

SUPPLY AND DEMAND
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?
   FROM JEFF’S BOOK, UNDER THE WILD GINGER – A SIMPLE GUIDE TO THE WISDOM OF WONDER

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.


CARNAL KNOWLEDGE
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.

CRITTERS AND CRUSHERS
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.

BEST CLASS EVER
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.

CRIME...AND PUNISHMENT

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.


WHAT A SCREAM
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.