Tuesday, May 19, 2020

CALLS TO THE OTHER SIDE - In Touch With the Mystical

It started with that old tin-cans-and-string “walkie-talkie” sham. I wanted it to work so badly that it never dawned on me that I was simply hearing my little buddies’ voices through the air.

Technology wasn’t advancing all that fast back then. So when an ad for what sounded like a real walkie talkie appeared in Boys Life, I had to have one. Now I could actually talk with someone I couldn’t hear otherwise—as long as we were no further apart than the length of the 30-foot cord.

Looking back on those precious games, I can now see that they were the genesis of a life-long fascination with communication. Well, not so much the kind you engage in face-to-face—or through a string—but communication that broaches one or more “membranes” of separation: great distances, long periods of time, physical barriers, different environments or mediums. Communication that feels like you've just discovered buried treasure.

    That little Emerson radio might as well
    have been some deep space receiver developed
    by NASA.

When I was about ten, I discovered a magical thing called “skip,” in which AM radio waves, prevented from dissipating into the atmosphere by the electronically-charged ionosphere, can travel phenomenal distances, especially at night.

I’d sit for hours with my ear pressed against the dark brown Bakelite speaker grill of our old Emerson table radio. I’d start turning the tuning knob and, bypassing the clear, strong stations, listen for the faintest signal I could make out.

The reception was intermittent, fading in and out. My goal was to hear a station break while the signal was strong enough to recognize its location or call letters. (Of course, my chances would spike on the hour and half-hour, when stations are required to give their IDs.)

Those faint voices brought down the walls of my room. That little Emerson radio might as well have been some deep space receiver developed by NASA. How mysterious and satisfying to learn that some of the radio waves had traveled all the way across the country—and even a few from other countries. I imagined them as sheer curtains, undulating through a thousand miles or more of starry skies.

Even more seductive was short-wave radio. One of my friends had a rather elaborate set-up for a kid. With his radio we could not only listen in on distant signals, but actually talk with a real person thousands of miles away.

Much later it was the CB (Citizens Band) radio fad. My boss at the ad agency I worked for in New Hampshire had one in his car. With no real need, he’d just put a shout out to any interstate trucker lonely enough to pick up, and then ask about road conditions and speed traps. This medium, though it couldn’t touch short-wave in its reach, had it beat by a mile in the relatively compact size of its apparatus.

When I enlisted in the Army, as luck would have it, I was assigned to the Army Security Agency. Our top-secret mission was to listen in on our own forces’ communications and report any security violations. To do this, we had to become proficient in Morse code.

I got very good and very fast at transcribing code. My motivation, besides getting let out of class early to go play pinball at the PX, was, I’m sure, this continuing intrigue with otherworldly communication. And the secrecy element, sending and receiving messages in code, just added to the enchantment.

         If the sender hit an X instead of the C,
         that’s exactly what would get typed out
         on the recipient’s paper scroll.

In my late 30s I worked for a manufacturing company here in Minneapolis. One of my job assignments there involved sending and receiving Telex messages with customers around the world. That precursor to email would transmit directly, typewriter to typewriter via telephone, messages the sender pecked out on the machine’s keyboard.

Of course, I thought that was pretty exotic. Part of the immediacy of Telex communication was that messages were received exactly as they were typed, character by character. If the sender screwed up and hit an X instead of the C, that’s exactly what would get typed out on the recipient’s paper scroll.

If technology had been plodding along all those years since my cans-and-string walkie talkie, it hit warp speed with the development of the Internet. Now, with e-mail you could review what you’d typed, make corrections—or let your computer’s spell-check do it for you—add attachments, and send it off in a neat little package. Before long, some people's idea of communicating got distilled to a 140-character "tweet."

Then, along came the cell phone, and one’s window to the world and to all the information ever recorded was reduced to a device the size of a deck of cards. And today, with video conferencing via FaceTime or Zoom, we just take for granted both hearing and seeing the people we’re communicating with in real time.

In this rapidly changing milieu, it’s only a matter of time before the device will evolve to something the size of a pea implanted into one’s brain at birth.

      If there’s something down there in that
      cold, dark, liquid place, it eventually sends  

      you a message through the line.

There are other kinds of communication with mystical qualities. Ones far more tactile than technical, where the message is sent in ways other than words or pictures. For example, during the boyhood summers I spent in Franconia, a little village on the banks of the St. Croix River, I’d dig holes in the ground just to see if I came across some old square nail or pottery shard. I was always on the lookout for Native American flint or chert arrowheads.

I imagine what it must be like working on an archeological team that discovers artifacts of long-since-vanished civilizations. Or on a paleontological dig unearthing bones of creatures that walked the earth millions of years before man.  

Fishing is another example, one I fully and frequently indulge. You throw out a morsel of food that sinks deep into a hidden, alien world, connected to you by a thin filament held between your fingers. Then you wait for the offering to be acknowledged.

If there’s something down there in that cold, dark, liquid place, it eventually sends you a message through the line. Is it a kind of fish you’ve caught a hundred times before or one you’ve never seen? Is it big or small? Is it even a fish at all, or maybe an eel or turtle?

The clues might come in the form of cautious nibblings or a reckless attack. The creature might pull on the line or it might carry the bait toward you, slacking the line. Some fish gingerly gum the bait to see if there’s anything that doesn’t taste or feel right. Some grasp the bait between their lips, run a few feet and drop it—I guess just to see what happens. Others greedily gobble up the bait and run as fast as they can with it, perhaps chased by rivals.

        It's only a matter of time before there'll
        be some kind of teleportation, and the word 

       "virtual" will fade from use.

Now I don’t know what the next chapter of my mystical messages kick will look like. It’s hard to imagine what wonders technology will unleash next. Perhaps a way to make distance messaging feel more immediate, more personal.

Long-term, I suppose it's only a matter of time before there'll be some kind of teleportation, and the word "virtual" will fade from use, along with our other apologies for all these little glowing screens. And time travel won't be far behind.

Or just maybe one day we'll see a global cultural epiphany. A realization that our obsession these past few decades with all things faster, farther and slicker, despite its sexiness, has taken a toll. And just maybe that will open a creaky old door behind which ten-year-old kids will once again be mesmerized by digging holes and fishing.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

WALKING THE TALK – How Learning Spanish Has Become My Ticket to Adventure

They say one of the best ways to stay sharp as one ages is to learn a new language. Great. But they also say that the best time to learn that new language is when one is about three years old.
Perfect! It’s the best of both worlds for me; I’m a senior citizen who, I’m told, often acts like a three-year-old.

                                                   ~   //  ~  //  ~

My roots are a typical American melting-pot amalgam: a little English, a bit of Italian…but mostly German. My family celebrates that heritage in a well-documented trove of family lore and with a few fine decorative and artistic German heirlooms handed down through the generations.

So, naturally, when I faced the choice of either French or German as my foreign language in high school, I went with the deutsch. Never gave it a second thought.

     None of it fit my romantic image of myself 
     as a Mexican fisherman in a previous life.


Flash forward to about 2002. It was then, at the age of 57, during one of my several identity crises, that I decided I hated German. Truth be told, I’d never liked the hard, guttural sound of it. I didn’t much care for some of the national characteristics it conjured up for me either. None of it fit my romantic image of myself as a Mexican fisherman in a previous life.

Besides, it was becoming quite clear that I might never even visit Germany. But I had been traveling to Mexico, with my parents when I was nine, and a couple of times with friends as an adult. Then I got married, and Sally and I continued the trend, spring-breaking in nearly all of the popular Mexican beach towns.

I think it was Mazatlán where the epiphany happened. As I usually do, I’d boned up on a few basic pleasantries in Spanish so I could be a more gracious visitor, a better representative of my own country.

But on this one short cab ride, when it came time to pay the fare, the limit of my competence in the language came up and bit me. For some reason, cien (a hundred) and diez (ten) switched places in my brain, and I was convinced the driver had stiffed me.

He explained with patience I didn’t deserve. Red-faced, I apologized and handed him the pesos…and a little extra for the painful lesson. And it was at that precise moment that the trajectory of my late-in-life quest for Spanish literacy took off.

Next time in Mexico, I decided, I’ll be able to carry on at least a simple “How’re the wife and kids?” conversation with a cab driver—and be able to correctly count my change. Those were my goals.

So I signed up for a St. Paul Public Schools Community Ed. class: Spanish for Beginners. My teacher was Silverio Rios, an engaging 40-something Mexican who’d been living and working in the Twin Cities for several years.

One evening after class I asked Silverio to join me for coffee and we chatted a bit about my goals for learning his first language. Toward the end of that first get-together, he told me of his plans to take small groups of his students on week-long Spanish immersion trips down to the part of central Mexico where he’d grown up.

That idea captivated me, and, as I was then a graphic designer, I offered to design and write his brochure for him. He accepted, offering in exchange a spot on his inaugural trip.

And so, Voces del Español was born. In August 2003, Silverio, I and three other students flew to Mexico City, then bussed to Querétaro City, and finally rented a car for the drive to the charming little town of Tequisquiápan, which would serve as our home base for the week.

The format involved formal classes in the mornings and an excursion each afternoon. Silverio had designed all the activities to encourage our use of the language in everyday experiences, such as buying produce from the local market or ordering dinner at a restaurant for everyone in our group.

Also included in those experiences was joining Silverio’s relatives for typical family events like a birthday, a wedding and going to the cemetery to tend to family graves. On different occasions we helped make bread with his mom and joined in the elaborate preparation of a mole.

By the end of that first Voces trip, I realized my original goal of engaging in small-talk with a cab driver had already been eclipsed. Now I knew I was capable of more.

My Spanish learning was to become the theme—the key, one could say—to many more travels in Latin America. I eventually went on three more Voces immersion trips with Silverio. With each one, I gained more tools and more confidence in expressing myself. (Not to mention the great joy of being virtually adopted into his family.)

I’ve also travelled to Spain, Peru and Argentina, and attended language schools in Veracruz, Mexico, Panama and Cuba. All, if not dictated by my quest for better Spanish, at least encouraged by it.

      My goal had been edging up too, like one
      of those mechanical rabbits that racing dogs
      chase, always just beyond reach.

One measure of my progress has been the time lapse between when I think of something to say and when the words actually come out of my mouth. I remember quite clearly when that interval was five to ten seconds. In most of my attempts to join a conversation I was getting left behind.

But my competence level kept edging up, and that time interval down. At some point I realized my goal had been edging up too, like one of those mechanical rabbits that racing dogs chase, always just beyond reach. Now I wasn’t going to settle for any less than holding my own in those conversations with native speakers.

I have my moments—occasionally glorified by a couple of tequilas. They’ve included many conversations with Silverio, members of his family or Spanish-speaking friends I’ve met on my own, about a range of topics from art to zoology.

Once I get going, I enter that rarified air where only the relatively fluent survive. Where my mind goes right from hearing the Spanish to replying in Spanish, without passing through an English translation.

I suppose it’s another measure of my progress that I’m now less focused on vocabulary and grammar than on the finer points, like minimizing my English accent and incorporating common filler words—the Spanish equivalents to the English “um,” “well,” “then” or “so”— into my speaking.

Yes, I’ve a ways to go, but I can definitely see the prize. It may be that I’ll never be able to actually grab it; that might take a few months living in a place where no one speaks English. Maybe in my next life.

It’s amazing, when traveling, what knowing the local language does for a person. For me, it’s been kind of like watching and envying a competent musician, and then, with a ton of work, being able to play myself.

My new second language opens doors—to friendships, to avoiding conflict, to finding my way around. And for Sally, it cuts through the awkwardness of her having to shop using just hand gestures.

I can even feel my Spanish competence affecting my posture as I walk down the street, especially in areas where I may be the only person in that town who looks like me. I enjoy seeing the look on a person’s face when someone who looks so unlikely to be a Spanish speaker handles their language so capably.

More than once, that person has explained that they’d expected me, at best, to speak English with a heavy German accent.
                                                     ~   //  ~  //  ~

OSTSCRIPT: My dad, at about the same age I was when my love affair with Spanish began, was also dreaming of learning the language. He chipped away at it, but with all his home and business responsibilities he never really got past the basics. I know that a great part of my motivation has been to honor his dream and make him proud. I believe I have.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

AN UNWORTHY IDOL – My Summers As a Camp Counselor

There’s no better way to notice and celebrate small wonders than to see them through the eyes of a child.

Glad to say, I’ve had a few opportunities to do that: as a parent, as a grandparent, and simply as a keen observer of how folks of all ages interact with wonder. Certainly one of the best was the two summers I served as a camp counselor on southern Maine’s gorgeous Lake Sebago.

I was a sophomore in college when my roommate, Kim, told me of his long love affair with Camp O-At-Ka—as camper, junior counselor and then senior counselor. He encouraged me to apply.

So, with Kim’s recommendation, I became the counselor for Cabin Durham, in the camp’s Junior Unit, for boys ages nine and ten. (Kim was counselor for another junior unit cabin, so we had a good-natured rivalry going all summer.)

If I didn’t already know it, I soon learned that ten-year-old boys are like dynamos of wonder. They’re curious; they see things with innocent delight —most have not yet acquired the hard-edged “attitude” that comes with adolescence.

       The kids understood, almost instinctively, 
       the nature of water.

That summer still ranks as one of my lifetime favorites. I became part of a wonderful, generations-old tradition for campers’ families—most of them from west-suburban Boston suburbs like Newton, Waltham and Wellesley. Many of the boys were carrying on an O-At-Ka legacy handed down from their fathers and grandfathers.

It was an opportunity for me to learn about leadership and collegiality, to immerse myself in life in the out-of-doors and, I suppose, to test my native parenting wings. And then there was the heady feeling of being idolized by a bunch of boys who believed I could do no wrong.

Along with my high-school-age junior counselor, I led my eight campers in the typical summer camp fare: sports competition, boating, sailing, crafting, and performing songs and silly skits. There was also a spiritual component reflecting the camp’s Episcopal Church heritage.

My favorite part, though, was the camp’s embrace of Nature and all the opportunities for exploration and adventure. This was my element, a place where
I knew I could share my wilderness canoeing experience and my gifts for observation, curiosity and spiritual reflection.

In two summers at O-At-Ka I led both canoeing and hiking trips to some of Northern New England’s most beautiful places: Maine’s Rangeley and Mooselookmeguntic lakes region, the Saco River and New Hampshire’s fabled White Mountains. I loved organizing and outfitting those trips, but even better was the thrill of getting out there in the wild, teaching the boys a few new tricks, and observing how the experiences affected them.


Some of my campers came with a bit of experience in canoeing, but none to the extent of that I’d acquired in my wilderness canoe trips in northern Minnesota. So it was fun teaching them various camping skills and demonstrating just how adeptly one can maneuver a canoe using the various paddle strokes.

    Thank God, the paddlers had been thrown 
    out...because the gunnels slammed together
    with enough force to sever a limb.

The kids understood, probably from playing with it, the nature of water and its ability, even though it’s a liquid, to push back when you force the blade of your paddle against it. They were quick studies. With a little practice, they were handling the basic strokes like old pros.

A bigger challenge was teaching them the concept of vectors—how, to maintain a straight course when the wind or a current is at your side, you have to compensate by keeping your bow aimed at a point upwind of your destination.

The Saco river trip provided a stark lesson on both the vital importance of those paddling skills, and the sheer power of flowing water.

One afternoon we were easily navigating a class-II rapids when we approached a bridge. As one of the canoes without a counselor or junior counselor in it approached the bridge the boy paddling stern apparently got distracted for a few seconds.

I watched, helpless, as the potential catastrophe played out in what seemed like slow motion. The craft had turned sideways, and instead of passing harmlessly under the bridge, it struck one of the v-shaped concrete piers, right at the aluminum canoe’s midpoint. Within seconds, it flipped, open side upstream facing the water’s powerful flow, and then buckled, wrapping itself around the pier like so much tin foil.

Thank God, the paddlers had been thrown out and were able to swim around the wreckage, because the gunnels slammed together with enough force to sever a limb. (Later, the mess had to be salvaged by a wrecker from atop the bridge.)

I’m quite sure none of those boys will ever forget that lesson on focus and physics.

As for my hiking trips at O-At-Ka, the highlight was conquering the Presidential Range, the White Mountains’ string of seven 4,000-foot-plus peaks named for U.S. presidents. Among them, 6,288-foot Mt. Washington, whose summit weather station holds the world record for the highest recorded wind speed not associated with a tornado or cyclone—231 miles per hour.

My cabin group was fascinated by this fact, and the indications everywhere of the place’s deadly reputation—like trailhead signage warning climbers that many others who’d not been adequately prepared had perished here. Or, on the summit, the big chains running over the tops of the weather station buildings to keep them from blowing away.

The White Mountains are small compared with their big brothers farther west. But non-technical climbing in the Whites is arguably more taxing, because, unlike the Rockies, for example, most of whose trails zigzag their way gradually to the top, these trails simply go straight up.

For a ten-year old boy, depending on his physical condition and temperament, such steep ascents are pretty daunting. A couple of our kids got so tired and discouraged that they felt they couldn’t go on. There was embarrassment; there were tears, but I dug deep for the motivational skills and patience to deal with the situation, and we eventually managed to do it together, learning a valuable lesson in teamwork.

        They’re beginning to learn that there’s a
        place where their fears and their growing 

        capabilities intersect.

On both water and land, it became clear how much better than I these ten-year-old boys were as observers, as enjoyers of life in the moment. While I had to be laser-focused on logistics, navigation, and the welfare of my young charges, they just did what kids do; they watched and listened, pointed out the small wonders they discovered, and dared each other to take mostly-harmless risks. Most of all, they just played.

They proved that boys will be boys. While big and awesome got their attention, so did some details—the grosser or gorier the better. Like the power of wind and water, especially when there were stories of deaths involved. Like how plate tectonics had squeezed and lifted this immutable granite into mountains, which then got scoured and scooped by glaciers.

Then there was the way clouds of black flies zeroed in and gnawed along the edges of our buttoned-up collars and cuffs, leaving bloody rings. Or the eerie, plaintive night calls of loons across a mirror lake. And definitely how that insane old man with the glowing red eyes—last seen right here in this area—had stalked, then torn out and eaten the eyes of a bunch of young campers.

Boys both fear and love stuff like that. At that age they’re beginning to learn that there’s a place where those fears and their growing capabilities intersect, where knowledge, ingenuity and practice impart power.

The weather had been fairly warm and calm when we started out, but sure enough, by the time we were nearing the summit of Mt. Adams, the temperature had plummeted into the 40s with steady 45- to 50-mile-per-hour winds. The kids took photos of each other leaning into that wind at a 15- or 20-degree angle. Another lesson on the dynamics of an element.

An unforgettable irony of our ten-hour trek up Mt. Washington was peeking over the last little crest in the trail and catching sight of a big parking lot. That’s right, turns out there are two other ways up (by car and by cog railway). Nonetheless, we all felt proud and triumphant having conquered New England's tallest mountain under our own power.

On these and all my trips, I loved how the group, with a little guidance of course, coalesced into a team, with the boys falling naturally into certain roles—as leaders, as workers, as cheerleaders, as clowns—to handle various challenges.

I also enjoyed teaching the kids some of the observation skills I’d already mastered at that ripe old age of 20: patience; thinking as an animal, bird or fish thinks; and, perhaps most importantly, fully expecting wonder instead of just looking for it.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

ONE BREATH AT A TIME – Surviving the Plague

I’m an old man. At least I am when I think about it.

When one reaches a certain age, it’s pretty hard not to entertain, now and then, the stark reality that one’s days are numbered—and that that number keeps ticking away with each inexorable revolution of the planet.

And with each breath.

I’ve been thinking a lot about breath during this COVID 19 nightmare. The virus attacks the lungs, especially of people over 60—which I am—and those who have underlying conditions, including chronic lung disorders—which I do.

Death by this infection is not pretty; if neither drugs nor a ventilator save you, it looks like you either die of multiple organ failure or you suffocate. Some choice.

So, yes, I’m aware, as those old deep-sea divers with air hoses must have been, of every next breath and where it’s coming from. And I’m protective of it to the point of paranoia. When the distancing guidelines say six feet, I maintain twenty.

State epidemiologists and their models project this sobering reality: that somewhere between 40 and 80 percent of Minnesotans will eventually contract the virus. And the way I see it, I’ve got to be among the 20 to 60 percent who don’t.

    I turn off the one prayer that seems always 
    to be playing in the background…and turn on
    one that feels truer to my nature.

My emotions swing back and forth between terror and gratitude—if that’s even possible.

Terror’s a motivator, though seldom in a helpful way. So I’m pretty good at not going there. Most of the time, when I manage to draw in all those sticky appendages of emotion that attach to other times and places, I’m able to put myself entirely in the here and now. If there’s something I can do about my concerns right now, I do it. If not, I let it go.

Then I can turn off the one prayer that seems always to be playing in the background: God, please don’t let me catch this thing, and turn on one that feels truer to my nature: Thank you, God, for this day, for this moment, for this one precious breath.

It’s that one breath that intrigues me. Just now, for approximately the half-billionth time since I was born, it’s made my chest rise, and magically, imperceptibly, swapped carbon dioxide for oxygen in something like 400 milliliters of my blood.

How amazing all the little miracles my respiration performs for me, mostly without my even noticing. Of course there have been times when I did notice: when, as a young boy, I held my breath just to see how long I could do it; in my days as a high school and college athlete after the tenth or eleventh wind sprint; during my frequent bouts of bronchitis; while meditating; or when gasping for the thin air in high-altitude places like Mexico City or Nairobi.

        Nowadays it feels as if every single one
        of my breaths teeters on a knife’s edge
        of uncertainty.

It doesn’t seem a great leap then to go all the way back and imagine my very first breath, that one gurgling inhalation, on March 21st, 1945, that started in motion this precious, now-seventy-five-year-old cycle.

To think, any one of those near-countless breaths could have been the last. The one that fell at the instant the car in which I was riding swerved and struck a tree at fifty miles per hour. The one that occurred just when some inexplicable instinct kept me from driving a metal bird-feeder post into what I learned was an unprotected, live buried power cord.

Nowadays it feels as if every single one of my breaths teeters on a knife’s edge of uncertainty. Will this one be just another of those entirely forgettable, spontaneous draws that have inflated me all these years? Or is it one that’s just slightly off—perhaps getting short or labored as the symptomologists warn—boding that my efforts to elude the plague of 2020 have come up short?

Wish me continued success in not dwelling on the latter.

How often are you aware of your breath? When does that happen? Is that awareness shrouded in fear? In rapture? Or in sheer gratitude? I’d love to hear
from you.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

LESSONS FROM TREES – They're Not Going Anywhere Either

Like most folks, I’ve been doing a lot of walking during the social distancing mandate. Along East River Parkway I pass lots of other walkers. Runners and bikers too. But I pass even more trees…and much closer.

So that’s got me reflecting on what lessons we might learn from trees about life during a pandemic.

First, when a tree finds its reach restricted—say something impinges on its trunk, or it grows up next to a big rock—it just grows right around the obstacle or spreads its roots wider to find what it needs. And deeper too.

   We can do that.

PHOTO: Fred Hsu
If its precious view of direct sunlight gets photo-bombed by some grandstanding cottonwood, a tree simply leans over and reaches for a new window in the canopy. (In fact, I’ve seen some small tropical trees which, driven by the intense competition for light there in the jungle understory, can actually “walk” to a new pool of sunlight.)

   We can do that.

Even if it’s blown over or struck by lightning, a tree doesn’t complain, doesn’t blame, doesn’t feel sorry for itself. It simply finds a way to go on. As long as its roots remain intact, it sends up new shoots through the debris and eventually makes a new tree.

   We can do that.


Trees are not solitary beings. Other than a few species which might take advantage of a weakened neighbor, most support and communicate with each other. They actually share.

   We can do that.

Trees employ strategies to inhibit pathogens, and to isolate damage or disease. After all, most aren’t going anywhere, are they?

   We can do that.

And, perhaps most inspiring, a tree possesses near-infinite patience. It might weather wind storms, droughts, fires and floods, and still it survives. In fact, by fending off the assault it only gets stronger.

   We MUST do that.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

CHROMOPHOBIA – The Fading of America

Did you know that some animals can see only in black and white? I suppose that speaks to the economical manner in which Nature divvies out her gifts. Why, for example, waste color perception on bats, whose sonar can pinpoint a mosquito in total darkness?

I’m happy that we human beings are not among that achromatopsic number. Creation must have figured we’d need color vision to distinguish between fair and forbidding skies, and between poisonous and benign critters.

And, now that we’ve evolved a bit, color perception may not save our lives, but it does set us apart from other species, allowing us to experience beauty and awe. To express ourselves. To make art.

    Once those vibrant hues strike my cornea,
    it seems my optic nerve transmits them right
    to my soul.

I love color. I’ve often written about it as another form of nourishment for me. But, sadly, being a Minnesotan, much of Nature’s show of color is stolen for about six months a year. With the exception of the occasional cardinal or chartreuse parka, winter’s pretty much a gray-scale affair up here.

Sally’s and my annual late-winter escape to Mexico feels like a feast to me—a smorgasbord of color. The animals and birds, people’s clothing, the sea…even the buildings. Once those vibrant hues, in all their values and shades, strike my cornea, it seems my optic nerve bypasses my brain and transmits them right to my soul.

I don’t like the the narrow spectrum of color we entertain in much of U.S. culture, especially up here in the stoic, Germanic- and Norse-influenced northland. Nine out of ten Minnesotans not only paint their houses white, gray or tan, but apply the same esthetic to their clothing. Alas, for many of us even our skin dares no color.

Over the past few decades, my appetite for color has also been increasingly denied by the car industry. Look for yourself; pick any parking lot, any random stretch of freeway traffic. Before you come to a car with any color worth looking at, you’ll count off at least ten with none. White, gray, dark gray and black.

Reminds me of my all-time favorite broadside by a film critic: She managed to portray the scope of raw human emotion ranging from A to....B.

Hello! Life is not a black-and-white movie.

I wonder if there’s not a parallel between our tastes in color and other facets of our culture. For example, might the steady surge in the number of post-apocalyptic novels and films stem from the same dreary pessimism that our color choices do? Or vice versa?

In music, might the trajectory of heavy metal, goth and rap be mirroring the dystopian darkness seen in other aspects of art and design?

It’s gotten to the point where, when I’m out walking, I’ll sometimes stop next to a car with real color and just marvel at it, in all its rich, super-saturated, mica-flecked glory.

I hate to tell you, my chromophobe friends, but a little color can go a long ways toward brightening these otherwise dark, dreadful days. Besides, black and white is not who you are. You know you're more colorful than that.

So if you have a truly vivid jacket, or sweater, or skirt (maybe leftovers from some long-gone fashion craze), put it on for your next walk—or even if no one's going to see you but your cat. Maybe just a bright scarf. And wear some lipstick—if that’s something you’ve perhaps let slide during the quarantine.

Fly your flag, be it the Stars and Stripes, a rainbow banner or that of your favorite football team. String up your Christmas lights. Nothing fancy; maybe just a colorful smile shape. Break out that gaudy flamingo and stick in your nascent garden.

And while you’re at it, trade in that ghastly, ho-hum family sedan for a hot-pink Bimmer. What do you think?

Spring flowers, verdant trees and lush lawns will be emerging soon to cheer us. Come late June, those of us with white skin might gain a little color there too. Then maybe we can put away the show of color we donned to brighten our sheltering-in-place…o-o-or…we could paint the house orange.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

THE SIGHS OF PINES – And Other Sounds of a Pandemic

The bigger the tree, the more wisely it speaks.

I live in the heart of Minneapolis, a mile from the bustling University of Minnesota campus, and less than a block from interstate I-94. So I’ve gotten used to the constant din of tires on pavement, faulty mufflers, air conditioners, lawn mowers, trains and planes. Sally and I pretend the ever-present freeway hiss is the surf, piped in from Zihuatanejo, our second favorite place to live, on the Pacific coast of Mexico.

        Other, more subtle voices of Nature
        get absorbed in the urban sound sponge.

We do hear birds here in the city, but mostly just those within half a block. It’s kind of like trying to spot the Milky Way or Northern Lights through the veil of urban light pollution; they just can’t beat the competition.

Other, more subtle voices of Nature are lost entirely, absorbed in the urban sound sponge. Sounds like gentle rains, pigeon wings, soft voices…and the sighs of pines.

What a shame the latter. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in true wilderness, where pines speak uncontested. They forecast the weather; they shush you when you’re loud; and they lull you to sleep.

            They spoke to me. In whispers I’d
            have missed a month or a year ago.

One recent windy day, I was out on one of the twice-daily walks I’ve been taking since the corona virus pushed us all into more sedentary routines. By now, the route’s become so familiar that I’m finding I hardly notice little natural wonders along the way.

In a small park just off East River Parkway stand a half dozen medium-sized white pines—I suppose you could call them adolescents. Usually, I pay them little heed—except I like to walk through their soft skirts of rust-colored needles.

      So much worry, so much stress over this 
      pandemic nightmare, released just like that.

That day, though, something was different. This time I heard them speak to me. In whispers I’d have missed a month or a year ago, before the city’s volume got turned down. Breathy words that soothed me, counseled me not to worry, to tap into my core of hope and faith just as their own roots reach deep into the soil for nourishment.

PHOTO: Arbor Day Foundation
That chafing of long, supple, five-to-a-cluster needles, like brushes on drums, brought me to my peaceful center. Without thinking, I took a deep breath and sighed myself. So much worry, so much stress over this pandemic nightmare, released just like that.

I stood there in awe for several minutes, savoring that delicious windfall gift, a precious and timely reminder I’d never have discerned above typical workaday ambient noise. And one that lightened and brightened a day otherwise muted by dreadful, deafening habit.

Friday, April 10, 2020

FALLING SNAIL – An Ode to Corn Snow

It’s widely claimed—and as widely debunked—that the Inuit have a hundred or more words for snow. While it’s true many Inuit terms are long composites including numerous descriptors, I don’t figure those count as words any more than the English “heavy, drifting snow that fell in a narrow band across the state.”

In fact there are only a few Inuit words for snow, including
aput for snow on the ground and qana for falling snow. So no surprise that my search for the Inuit term for “granular snow caused by repeated thawing and refreezing of flakes in the atmosphere” came up short. So the English “corn snow”—actually quite a good, concise descriptor—will serve quite nicely.

                                                         ~ // ~ // ~

A squall of corn snow, that late-season holdover of winter, makes me smile today.

Halfway between snow and hail—let's call it snail—corn snow forms during convective storms and disturbances, whose updrafts cause snow to repeatedly thaw and refreeze. It tends to happen in mid-April or even early May. That’s when fluffy snow flakes might melt during their slow drift through the above-freezing air, maybe before we even see them.

But corn snow’s hardy little pellets plummet to earth nearly intact. Then, to the delight of anyone in tune with such minutiae, instead of settling softly onto the sidewalk like so many fluffy feathers…they bounce.

It’s all because corn snow barely qualifies as snow and doesn’t quite meet the definition of hail. For, though it does derive from snow flakes, once it’s been through the atmospheric wringer, it’s no longer crystalline.

And it’s not really solid ice either. A hail stone has the heft, the clear-to-translucent shine of ice, but a corn snow pellet, since it still has air in it, is lighter and nearly opaque like whipped egg whites.

The shape and mass that allows the granules to survive “re-entry” are the same qualities that make them drop straight down. Less chance one will blow into your eye.
                    Theoretically, skiing on corn snow
             should be quite amazing.

And corn snow is the only kind that doesn’t melt when it lands on a warm jacket or hat or skin. Nope, it just bounces off, with all the satisfying pit-pat of raindrops but without the wet.

Theoretically, skiing on corn snow should be quite amazing, slickened by both a physical transformation, melting under pressure, and what’s called an extensive physical property, roundness.

So, in addition to the thin film of melt-water that the vehicles of most winter sports glide on, you’ve also got all those tiny ball bearings rolling under your skis. Should be slick, right? (Maybe not, since skiers call it “poor man’s powder.”)

Have you got any favorite corn snow stories or observations? We’d love to hear them!

Monday, April 6, 2020

THE BANE OF BREATHING – Should Twenty Feet Be the New Six Feet?

As the reputed “wonder man,” I reflect here on the rewards of noticing and celebrating life’s many small wonders. It’s a pretty easy gig when I’m feeling safe and secure; not so easy when the world is in turmoil and many of us fear for our lives.
Nonetheless, I’ve always preached that wonder lives virtually anywhere—indoors as well as out, in arctic cold and Saharan heat, all around us…and even within us.
It also exists in the ominous black tunnel of the worst imaginable crisis. In something as simple and taken-for-granted as a breath. Except that in this tunnel that breath could be deadly.

                                                       ~  //  ~  //  ~

I’m getting pretty good at paranoia. Not so much when life is normal, but for sure now that we’re facing a pandemic.

So, during these days of social distancing, I’m keeping a keener eye than ever on how people are behaving. And for the most part, I’m impressed with how thoughtful my fellow Minneapolitans are being, not just hugging their edge of the sidewalk, but swinging wide onto the lawns and boulevards. A generous interpretation of the CDC’s and NIH’s six-foot guideline.

PHOTO: New York Times

So how did they come up with that number, six feet? The answer suggests a question: What is it that those epidemiologists do? I mean what is their job? My guess is that they walk a fine line between recommending what they know people should do and what they figure people actually will do. Set the number too low and it won’t help; too high and folks might not feel like complying…or even believe you.
             How could we have let all those poor suckers
             believe that six feet of distancing was enough?
             It should have been twenty.

The epidemiologists’ goal, after all, is not to save everyone from exposure to COVID 19; it is to save the greatest percentage of us as is reasonably possible, given all the variables, including human nature. Perhaps they’ve decided that six feet is a measure most of us can understand. It’s all about “droplets,” they say.

As I observe my fellow human beings exhibiting a range of compliance from 0% to about 300%, it’s got me thinking a lot about those realities. That thinking, informed certainly by history, tells me it’s quite likely that, sometime well after the corona virus has gone back into hiding, we’ll all learn the truth about social distancing.

Palm-to-forehead, we’ll lament God, how could they have let all those poor suckers believe that six feet of distancing was enough? It should have been twelve…
or twenty.

It might come down to the definition of what is meant by a “droplet.” Current wisdom says COVID 19 is spread primarily by droplets of saliva or mucus expelled by a cough or sneeze. Subject to gravity, they supposedly fall to the ground before traveling six feet from an infected person.

But consider this: droplets aren’t the only liquid specks coming out of a person’s mouth. Normal exhaled breath is basically vapor, which is, after all, nothing more than still-smaller droplets. And this vapor, like other aerosols, disperses into the air, which can carry it considerably farther.

        To me you’re not average and very few of you are Joes. 

In a study of how flu viruses are propelled, environmental health researchers at the University of Maryland found that droplet dispersal does indeed happen not just through coughs or sneezes, but also in the vapor produced in normal breathing. MARYLAND STUDY

And then there’s wind.

Air moves. So I figured if I walk past a heavily-breathing runner or biker somewhere along East River Parkway at that officially-suggested six-foot distance, and there happens to be a breeze coming my way—even the air wake generated by that person’s movement—their breath could easily be on me, swirling around my head, in a matter of seconds.

And there’s the chink in my six-foot armor.

Further supporting my paranoia, an MIT researcher suggests the corona virus may be able to waft up to 27 feet from an infected person’s mouth—though this conclusion apparently has not yet been rigorously tested. MIT RESEARCH

          Consider double-arms length distancing as you might
          the filter used to remove lead from your drinking water.

So here’s what I’m asking of my loved ones: Please, please be careful out there. Use more caution than’s being asked of the average Joe. Because to me you’re not average and very few of you are Joes.

Keep in mind the illustrations above showing just how widely, and quickly, a human breath disperses. Think of that as you approach others—and be aware of which direction the wind is coming from.

Consider double-arms length distancing as you might the filter used to remove lead from your drinking water; if a filter fine enough to remove the 85 percent of it that's deemed safe by people who don’t even know you, wouldn’t 90 or 100 percent be much better?

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

INFECTIOUS SMILES – As If For the First Time

Many of you know of my occasional column here on OMW, As If For the First Time. It’s about noticing and celebrating the simplest, most ubiquitous small wonders in one’s life. Experiences so commonplace, perhaps so repetitious, that
we may no longer even notice them.

A hot shower, the sun, water, an autumn leaf, eating an orange or strawberry—it’s
a fresh look at things like this, seen from different points of view and employing as many of one’s senses as possible.

                 I think about them for an extra few seconds,
                 just long enough for wonder and gratitude to
                 come into sharper focus.

Well, this COVID 19 nightmare is really shaking up my sense of what can and can’t be taken for granted anymore. I'm starting to see lots of things as if for the first—or perhaps last—time. By forcing us into our homes, this menace also forced us into ourselves. By confronting us with our own mortality, it’s tapping into a wellspring of awe and gratitude that far too often runs dry.

I don’t know about you, but during these uneasy days I’m finding more and more of my fleeting observations worthy of at least a moment of reflection. So, instead of unconsciously dismissing them in a blur of indifference, I consider them for an extra few seconds, just long enough for awareness to come into sharper focus.

The latest of these little epiphanies came yesterday as I was out walking. It was a pretty gloomy afternoon, a cool, drizzly approximation of November. Still, there were lots of people—and nearly as many dogs—strolling along the bluffs of the Mississippi.

Like the decent, God-fearing Minnesotans we are, everyone was keeping their distance.

Given the shared trauma we’re all going through, I’ve decided that, even if we do have to be a bit paranoid about each other, we can certainly manage a pleasant greeting. So, even as we pass well beyond arm’s length, I like to make eye contact if possible, smile and extend a friendly hello.

At times like this, as in times of war and deprivation, even a mute gesture of connection can be extraordinarily powerful, laden with meaning. How are you doing? I know what you must be going through. Maybe I can’t even imagine.
Fare well.

And thank goodness most folks respond, a few even cracking the distant stare that suggests they’re actually somewhere else like on the phone or absorbed in a podcast. But at least they acknowledge me.

Okay, so call me a narcissist for expecting everyone to notice me. I realize some people wouldn’t do this in the blissful normalcy of life before the C-bug. I'm glad they're doing it now.

After all, during this, one of those rarest of times in history when every single human being on Earth is allied with each other in fighting a common enemy, I would hope we're learning something.

It could—and should—start with our acknowledging our fundamental oneness with our fellow, rather insignificant earthlings and with this, the only habitat we’ll ever share. I’m afraid that if we do not learn at least that, we deserve neither each other nor this beautiful planet we call home.

IMAGE: Pixabay

Social distancing doesn’t mean we can’t look at each other. It doesn’t mean we can't smile—even if we have to force it a bit—and appreciate these simple gestures for the wonders they are. So thank you, even if you’re hurting, for giving a stranger those elemental gifts of a knowing smile and a simple greeting. The connection works both ways.

       One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, 'What if I
never seen this before? What if I knew I would never
       see it again?'
             RACHEL CARSON