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?