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.

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.

ROCKY NOTIONS OF TIME AND SPACE
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

A BRIEF STROLL…IN PRIMORDIAL TIME
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 
** geocaching.com