Sunday, August 30, 2009

53, Going on 92

With my wife attending the state fair today with a girlfriend (thanks be to God; I hate the fair), I drove down early to Cannon Falls, Minnesota and rode the valley bike trail. The paved trail runs 19 miles from Cannon Falls to Red Wing along the converted bed of the Chicago Northern railroad line. The Cannon River meanders between bluffs and over a couple of waterfalls on the way to the Mississippi River, and the railway bed/bike trail runs along side on the south bank of the river. In the old days, I occasionally hiked this rail bed, but a decade or so the railroad ties were removed and a paved bike trail laid. Most of the rail runs through hardwood forests, though there are a couple of stretches through open meadows. The summer has been cool here, and autumn is just about upon us. The sumac is starting to turn, and the wind is brisk, out of the north. I can see my breath in the air at the beginning of my ride.

Some days it is wild flowers that draw my attention, but today it was the birds. A partial list: brown thrasher; hairy woodpecker; catbird; wild turkey; gold finch; alder flycatcher; bald eagle; killdeer.

I'm really just starting to get my aging legs in bike shape, but suddenly I realized that I had passed mile post 15 , which meant that I had another 15 miles to get back to the car. At mile 24 on the way back, I stopped to rest, and was shortly joined by another lone biker, named older fellow named George, riding a casual cruiser much like mine. We are odd men out, because most everyone is riding much more stylish mountain-style bikes than ours. I'm pretty slow, but that's really fine by me. I long since got used to riding at a leisurely pace that actually lets me identify the birds I see.

George and I chatted for a few minutes, and he mentioned that he lived in Cannon Falls and rode out to milepost 7 almost every day on this trail. I felt just slightly self satisfied, mentioning that I had gone to milepost 15 that morning.

"Yes," George mused. "I used to occasionally go to Red Wing and back (a round trip of 38 miles), but that's a bit far for me these days. Once I turned 80, I began to find that 15 or 20 miles was plenty."

"80?" I said, quite shocked. "How old are you now, George?"

"I turned 92 in June," he replied, mounting his bike again. "Nice to meet you, young fellow."

I watched George ride away, and spent a few minutes finishing my sandwich, wondering if 40 years from now I'll still be in the mood for biking. I rode at a decent clip the six miles back to Cannon Falls, but it wasn't until the outskirts of town that I caught up to George.

I told myself that had I not already done 25 miles, I'd surely have caught him much sooner.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

An Illusion of Perfection

To casual passersby, my front lawn is an admirable feature.It has the apparent uniformity of a green felt surface on a billiards table. Some of the neighbors who know me well admire it because they know it is achieved largely without the benefit of chemicals or fertilizers. I never fertilize it, and only the dreaded crabgrass ever gets a treated with spot spray of a selective herbicide. Never, ever, does the entire lawn get broadcast with a layer of any chemical. The fact that it is so green and smooth puzzles the folks who can't acheive anything like it, no matter how much modern chemistry they bring to bear.

My secret is quite simply this. The lawn is horribly imperfect, by design. As any avid amateur landscaper knows, a lawn isn't a uniform culture, but is a hodgepodge of many different types of grasses, and also includes a fair percentage of non-grass species. Over the years, I've become quite familiar with my lawn. At various places, certain types of grass come to the forefront. In a spot in front, a large expanse of fine fescues prosper---my very favorite grass, fine to the touch and easy on the eyes. In other areas, hardy bluegrasses are dominant. In some areas of my back yard, very short bent-grasses dominate. While bentgrasses are very good on golf course greens, they aren't quite so fine for lawns, as they are rather hard to care for in the heat of summer. These small isolated colonies of single species are the exception rather than the rule, and they are in fact susceptible to tragedy.

Most places, though, you will see that the lawn is a mixture of things--bent grasses and blue grasses and fescues. And it isn't all desired grasses, by any means. Much of my seemingly perfect lawn is horribly imperfect. Small spots of wild violet can be seen many places, as well as creeping charley here and there. There are a few plantains scattered about, the occasional dandelion, some oxalis, a bit of chickweed. Overall, though, the effect of all this imperfection is a pretty perfect looking lawn. When weeds sometimes get dominant, I extract a few by hand, with a hand operated core plugger that both removes the weed and root, and also takes a core plug out of the ground which helps with aeration. I never, ever strive for a perfect lawn, though.

The lawn looks great exactly because it is diverse and imperfect. Years ago, I once tried to acheive one of those perfect golf course lawns, and I found that the effort to create singularity and uniformity was disastrous. I reseeded a large section with one very expensive grass seed, which failed miserably. Such attempts are also disastrous in the garden, as any gardner quickly learns that the healthiest garden is not one free of all pests and diseases, but one in which many, many different pests exist in small numbers that keep things in balance. Try to keep black spot fungus off roses entirely, and you open the door to devastation from aphids, for example.

In the backyard near the raspberry patch, there is now a patch of lawn where the fescue is dominating. It's very pretty for the moment, but I won't be at all displeased if a bit of creeping charley or a few violets join the party.

Similarly, time has taught me that my inner landscape is a happier and healthier place when a few weeds are accepted as part of the plan. A bit of sadnes occasionally, a sprout of temper once in a while, an occasional outbreak of pride---nothing to worry about really. Perfection, I think, isn't the goal at all, but the enemy of peace.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Stormy Mood

A bit of negativity has settled over me today. Actually, it's quite a bit of negativity. In the greater scheme of things, today is just the ebb portion of the overall ebb-and-flow cycle of life, but for today, anyway, I'm quite aware that it's the ebb with me today.

The outer atmosphere here in MInneapolis has been in this kind of cycle, too. Repeated bursts of stormy turbulence, broken by a day of beautiful sunshine and calm winds. This rhythm has been present for two weeks now. Physicists tell us that one of the dynamics of a thunderstorm is built-up negative electrical energy that suddenly gets discharged through the action of lightning striking the earth. It's a necessary action.  Early this morning, another such storm passed through the city.

I became aware of the negativity about 2:00 am last night, when I awoke sensitive to a shift in the feel of the air——the return of an oppressive humidity after a short break of nice, dry air.  It's been very damp here recently, and while gardening early in the evening, I was aware of a good deal of mould and fungus about. Mold is one of those things I'm allergic to, so it was no surprise that when I awoke, it was with eyes swollen partway shut and itchy skin and eyes. Allergy is another form of negativity. Like many common human ailments——asthma, psoriasis, arthritis, diseases like lupus—--an allergy arises when the human autoimmune system turns against itself in some way These ailments are negativity made physical, and they are a large part of the human experience. 

This physical negativity crossed over into the emotional realm, and this morning I found myself  nursing a mild but evident negativity and irritability toward people around me. My wife, who turned on the TV at 5:00 am to get a weather update; the bus driver who lurched around without consideration for his passengers; the young male passenger wearing his trousers down around his thighs, ghetto style; the woman who bumped me  in the head with her umbrella; the car driver racing to beat the red light.   I was quietly irritated with just about everyone this morning, and it occurred to me that emotional negativity, dark emotions, are really nothing more than a subtle manifestation of the same negative energy that sends thunderbolts from the heavens to the earth during periodic thunderstorms. 

Nothing to fret about, I suppose. Storms this morning are what make clear skies possible in the afternoon.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Simple Energy

Waking up in the morning, there is a simple decision to be made. Most days, we make this decision without even really recognizing that we're making it. If you court a habit of careful self-observation, though, you will perhaps come to recognize this decision you make each morning, each moment.

You can choose to live the day by applying the brakes. Or you can live your day in free-fall, going with the flow.

I suspect that this common decision process is a matter of energy, with a physics very much like magnetic energy. Either we react against things as they are——like magnets of the same polarity repulsing each other; or we're drawn into life, like magnets of opposite polarity pulling one toward one another. 

It's easy to get in the habit of reluctance, of applying the brakes. Living this way, you feel a quiet protest against things as they are. You resist the mortality of the physical body as seen in everyday ache and pain.  You're a little reluctant to get out of bed, to do things. In this mode, your knee-jerk response to the world is one of quiet negation, reluctance, ennui. My hunch is that this impulse arises as a rejection of that most formidable of truths—that we're mortal. In an attempt to deny that truth, we quietly deny life itself.

Normally, I think, this mode of reluctance is present from time to time in all of us, but within a context of give and take. Resistance one moment is replaced by attraction the next, and life is an orchestra of interplay between two energy strains. Fortunately, not many of us are mired in negation all the time. Most of us experience both.

Still, it seems to me that one mode or the other generally has the upper hand in most people. Many people live recessively overall, with reluctance toward the world as it is. This is, I think, the actual prevalent attitude of our culture, this quiet fear and reluctance toward life. Others, rarer individuals, have a happier, more risky approach, in which they meet most of life's idiosyncracies with interest and enthusiasm, moving forward rather than resisting life. 

And I further believe that this isn't a matter of fate or innate personality, but rather that we can choose which club to belong to. The default is the recessive style, I think, as culturally it seems to be the status quo. Fear, after all, pretty much rules us these days, and because it's so common we don't realize it's a choice.  

But although there is some leap of faith required, it is entirely possible to release the brakes and make the leap into the unknown land. I know a few people who h ave managed it, and others who experiment with it from time to time.

A teacher once described this moment to me in the following way:  "It's like jumping from an airplane, only to realize that there is no ground to crush you when you fall. Not only that, but there never was any ground to start with."

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Citizen of 4F, Aug. 19, 2009

On the 4F bus into downtown Minneapolis today, the mood seemed strangely Mevillian to me.

One of Herman Melville's many strokes of genius was his ability to articulate mankind's struggle to behave in a universe where nature is often indifferent and even hostile to our wishes and preferences. That's the mood I felt on the bus this morning.

Yesterday, during a cool day-long gentle rain without thunder or lightning or wind of any kind, some upper level disturbance suddenly caused a small tornado to drop down through the cloud cover and tear up a small portion of south Minneapolis, about a mile from my home. In a retangular swatch roughly 2 blocks by 12 blocks in size, at least 100 trees were uprooted and flung onto cars and houses. Outside this area, there was literally no sign of wind damage of any kind, and the pattern of the debris tells the authorities that this was a freak tornado.

Fortunately, no one was hurt in any way, but we here in Minneapolis love our trees, and the sight of 100 destroyed elms, ashes, and lindens causes us much sorrow. All evening long, mournful sirens of emergency vehicles sounded in the near distance, as emergency workers tried to restore power and clear streets of debris.

This morning, the drizzle continues as the bus picks its way through the torn branches of south Minneapolis. The cloud cover starts barely 1,000 feet above us, and the tops of the downtown buildings are buried into ragged gray cotton. It's a somber day.

On the bus, Stephanie is having an off day. A stunningly pretty blonde woman in her early 30s, Stephanie normally is kind of a self-illuminating source of energy. Today, though, she's just plain off, and she knows it. Twice she checks her appearance in a hand mirror, and finally gives up in disgust. Pretty woman are probably more often the source of envy, but the burden to keep looking pretty is not something most of us really understand. A pretty girl having a bad day suffers more than usual. 

A new passenger boards at the Super America filling station on 48th street. I'll call him Tom. He has just finished his morning grooming in the gas station restroom, and sips a small cup of cheap gas station coffee. No bus pass for him; the small change he drops into the till is real money to him. He tries hard to be cleaned and groomed, but he is very likely a member of the homeless community, and it's hard to stay presentable when you sleep on the ground several nights a week. His face has a haunted look to it that's hard to ignore.

I open the New York Times, and the first thing I see is an extended feature article about palliative care physicians——the folks who help people in the end stages of terminal disease, as they try to make that final transition with a minimum of indignity. The article has particular meaning for me, as a friend of ours is suffering from cancer that's invaded almost every part of her body, and what I'm reading is directly applicable to what she's going through.

It's a dark morning in every regard, and the only thing that brings me any optimism is the knowledge that nothing whatsoever ever stays the same for very long. 

The weather report says the weekend will be a beautiful example of early fall weather.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

So Have I Heard....Nine Parts

"1. The genuinely happy person is a rare cat indeed. Whether you choose to call it "quiet desperation" or to describe it in other terms, the typical state for most people is, at minimum, a murmuring dissatisfaction with the human condition. Except for rare interludes, we typically want things to be different from what they are. How could happiness be remotely possible in this case?

"2. This quiet unhappiness and rejection of actual conditions—it's born out of mistaken assumptions about the nature of things, and especially mistakes about the nature of who we are. Unhappiness is wrong understanding. There are no other causes.

"3. Our dissatisfaction arises because we are separated and distant from our own experience. In our self-imposed exile, in our detached watchfulness, we are starved for absorbed connection to things as they really are. Rarely are we genuinely "in the flow." Instead, we watch and study and pass judgment.

"4. Our unhappiness is always self imposed. It comes from no other source. There is no "other" that causes our unhappiness.

"5. Evidence of the antidote is available to us. No man or woman is so morose that he or she hasn't glimpsed genuine contentment and happiness. Alas, it scares us and we'd rather not look closely at it.

"6. Happiness occurs when we are absorbed and fully invested in our own experience, without detachment and separation. Even bare examination of our moments of happiness tells us this.

"7. A leap of faith and trust is necessary for happiness, in which our self-imposed exile is surrendered. Fear must be risked. You must leap before you learn that you're already floating.

"8. There is no "self" standing behind and creating our experience of the world. Instead, "self" arises out of that experience, out of the phenomena of the world. Self does not create your experience. Self IS your experience.

"9. The "self" that is commonly described is a false self, and is the principle cause of unhappiness. True self is the full, fearless merging with our own experience. True self is realized when we "fully embrace all the joys and sorrow that life offers" (Joseph Campbell), and no longer watch from a distance."

(I said to myself, walking away, "Physician, heal thyself.")

Sunday, August 16, 2009

You Think Healthcare Ain't Broke?

During coffee break time, some folks at the office have been arguing that health care reform isn't necessary, that we have the best health system in the world, and that we really don't dare trust the government to guide health care reform.

These are folks who are all perfectly healthy.

Let me tell you a little story about our perfect health care system.

Five weeks ago a friend of ours, who religiously goes for health checkups twice a year, went to the doctor for a cough that had turned into pneumonia. She belongs to one of the major health care organizations in this area.

One thing lead to another, and within three days, she was told that she had cancer virtually everywhere in her body--bones, brain, liver, lungs.

"How could this happen?" she asked. "Three months ago you told me I was in pefect health."

The answer was, effectively, a shrug. "These things happen." This even while they acknowledged that such widespread cancer was almost certainly brewing for several years. However, some of the test that would reveal cancer are expensive, after all, and doctors receive bad marks from insurance companies if they ask for too many tests.

In the weeks since, she has undergone brain surgery to relieve pressure, but has been told not to really hope for a cure. The twenty-four-hour a day nursing care she requires will not be paid by her health insurance, unless she is first destitute. Nor can she go to a nursing home for care, unless she first liquidates every asset she owns. So she goes home, where friends and relatives care for as they can, until things get critical and she must go back to the hospital for IV treatments until she stabilizes enough to go home again. Mind you, the cost of hospital care is infinitely greater than it would be to have the nurse visit her at home, but this really isn't possible under her insurance plan.

Hospice care is an option, but again, this really isn't possible unless she surrenders completely and gives up all payment from her insurance company. Her health insurance offers nothing resembling hospice care.

So the "finest health system" in world failed to find cancer that had to have been developing for several years, even though they have done physical exams twice a year for decades. Then, the health system cannot really offer any help whatsoever to someone wishing to quietly fight their terminal disease at home.

We have the finest health care system in the world. Provided you are perfectly healthy.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Strange Bedfellows....Or Perhaps Not So Strange

This is an interesting development. Certain conservative Republicans have recently begun using language that associates the Obama administration with Nazi philosophy. Their attempt, of course, was to use old loathing for Nazis to somehow gain support for their own opposition to Obama's efforts. Hence, a government that actually legislates in an effort to do what's best for all citizens is being portrayed as Nazi social control. Sara Palin created the preposterous myth of "death panels" precisely to try and paint liberals with a nazi paint brush.

This is surely ironic, because there has never in American history been such a clear demonstration of propaganda. Lie often enough, the right wing seems to think, and people will surely take it as truth. They're banking on the assumption that George Bush's strategies are still applicable. The old mantra "WMD, WMD, WMD," has now been replaced by "Obama is Hitler, Obama is Hitler."

I doubt that the Republican intent was to actually gather modern nazi sympathizers into their own fold, but that seems to be what's occurring. Suddenly, swastikas are sprouting up all over, and they are being used under the ruse of being demonstrations against health care reform. Who spraypaints swastikas on the office signs of liberal senators? Why, modern nazis, of course, who now have sponsors like Newt Gringrich.

With some glee, the folks who delight in Nazi symbolism have begun spray-painting hate messages in the context of fighting health-care reform. AFter all, it's not the folks holding civilized town hall meetings that behave like nazis, but those shouting them down right and left.

Neo nazis are coming out of the woodwork, having found their rightful place, at last, in the company of Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. You can see the skinhead relief, their joy, at finally being welcomed by a major political party. At some point soon, we're likely to see the Republicans begin to disavow their new allies. Perhaps Sara Palin, in moment of uncharacteristic insight, was sensing this perhaps when she backed away from her "death panel" metaphor.

Then again, the Republicans need all the help they can get. The modern nazi conservative may be a more significant voting block than we think.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

We Have Met the Nuts...And They is RIGHT there.

I used to think that crackpot-ism was a not ideological phenomenon—that there were just as many liberal crackpots as conservatives.

But an objective look at the current news is beginning to say otherwise. The silly nonsense——or outright lies——being spread around by conservatives regarding Barrack Obama's birth origin, and the conspiracy theories being spun about the dangers of the new health care proposals, have reached new levels of sheer idiocy.

It's not so much that there are crackpots out there shrieking this nonsense that is shocking. What's truly mind-boggling is that this extremist stuff is coming from folks who ought to be mainstream conservatives. YOu have Lou Dobbs on CNN giving credence to the folks concocting elaborate plots by Obama's mother to pave the way, 48 years ago, for her son to one day become president. YOu have members of congress (Michelle Bachmann, to be precise) spinning loony-tunes conspiracy theories over one-world-government use of US census information. Some of these pundits are convincing senior citizens that Barrack Obama wants to force them to commit suicide so that there will be more money to pay publicly for abortions.

This current batch is so unbalanced that Ann Coulter——Ann Coulter!——is now beginning to disavow them.

Used to be, these people lived on the fringe. Now, the fringe has moved to the right side of Mainstreet USA.

For those interested, some interesting and objective debunking of this stuff can be found on

Zen & the Art of Rotten Mood

A good friend called the other day, a bit discouraged because she'd been visited by a couple of days of Rotten Mood, after having enjoyed a month's worth of Good Vibration. Although she didn't say so directly, I had the feeling that she was interpreting the Rotten Mood as a bit of personal failure, as perhaps an indication that her recent good stretch had been canceled. The good stretch had made her feel like she'd turned the corner in some way, so the return of Rotten Mood perhaps hinted at some sort of failure on her part——perhaps an indictment that her recent life changes weren't as valid as she hoped.

This got me to thinking about the role of Rotten Mood in my own life. LIke most people, I am periodically visited by Rotten Mood myself, so here are some personal reflections on my own reactions to it.

First, I don't think it makes sense to simply blow off Rotten Mood as inconsequential or meaningless, tempting though it may be. Rotten Mood that repeats frequently, or comes and stays for a long period of time, is called clinical depression, and this isn't something you can pretend doesn't exist. Rotten Mood seems to me like a natural form of pain response. Just as the burn impulse causes you to recoil from a hot stove, Rotten Mood needs to be acknowledged as a subtle form of pain. It exists as a natural response to some previous conditions, and basic intelligence dictates that we pay attention and learn from it. Rotten Mood, for example, may exist because we have worked ourselves into a state of exhaustion, and we need to cut it out. Or, it may exist because our brain is starved for some kind of nutrient it needs. Sometimes a handful of peanuts or a bit of Prozac might be in order. Rotten mood sometimes visits me after I drink wheat-based beer, for example, which is a signal for me to stop ingesting allergens. On even more subtle levels, Rotten Mood may be the result of a mental delusion or wrong belief. I've known those causes, too. Rotten Mood, like everything, has its causes.

It's also true, though, that Rotten Mood is only that——a mood. It has no particular concrete or permanent reality, and its entry in the encyclopedia doesn't have a photo attached to it, because there is nothing to point to. In very many instances Rotten Mood simply needs to be accepted for a short while until it decomposes and becomes resurrected in some other form——such as bemusement or even Good Vibration. I've noticed a somewhat paradoxical thing: fighting Bad Mood often seems to prolong it, while bland acceptance causes it to get bored. I viewed Rotten Mood as my own tragic failure for many years, which seemed to encourage it to sleep next to my bed, longing to be recognized.Once I gave it its own space, Rotten Mood no longer yells in quite the same way, but is fairly willing to yawn and stretch occasionally and watch TV in the den.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I Stand Corrected

A few years ago, the new federal courthouse building in towntown Minneapolis commissioned a renowned landscape architect, Martha Swartz, to create a public plaza between the courthouse and city hall.

It was a peculiar-looking thing, extremely avante guarde to my way of thinking. I pretty much hated it, as I prefer natural-looking landscapes, and this was one was strange, to say the least. The concrete plaza was interrupted with tear-drop shaped mounds of dirt and grass, placed at a steep pitch, arranged diagonally across the plaza. Concrete cast logs served as benches, with other wire mesh benches also placed in diagonal patterns. Crossing the plaza was an exercise in zig-zagging among the mounds of grass, the concrete logs, the benches.

The arrangment was in large part done this way as a hindrance to potential terrorist attack, as the plaza was rendered virtually impossible for a truck loaded with explosives to cross. No Oklahoma City potential here. This was partially the reason for my distain, since capitulation to this kind of paranoia always annoys me.

Some years later, this plaza is the place where I wait for my commuter bus home from the office, and it has become one of my favorite parts of the downtown landscape. By late afternoon, nearby buildings have blocked the sun, throwing a cool, comfortable shade across the plaza. The grassy knolls undulate gently in the wind, and the jack pines planted in them not only cast shade, but give the plaza a pleasant pine-needle aroma. Waiting for a bus here is among the most pleasant things imaginable, and I have been known to leave work early, or let the first bus line go through, simply in order to spend some extra time here.

Martha Swartz, I stand corrected. I've even looked up your web site, and in the future will visit other public landscapes you've designed.