Archive for August, 2008

Asking Why

August 31, 2008

One theory of the universe is there is not one but an almost infinite number of universes.  Here are two:


You lead a major proposal effort to win that next big contract.  You spend more money than your company can afford.  A lot of people think you’re on an irresponsible path to destroying the entire enterprise, but you see a once in a lifetime opportunity to break out.  One day, an envelope arrives and you open it.


In one universe, you’ve grabbed the big brass ring.  You’re a hero, toasted at the win party – the Board loves you, the employees love you, the shareholders love you.  You are a visionary.


In another, bupkis.  You’re never given that responsibility again – you humbly return to your previous status of company nebbisch.  They don’t fire you – that would be too generous.  Rather you keep your head low in your cubicle and hope if not for mercy, for anonymity.  


Every day an uncountable number of outcomes occur – car accidents, encounters with old friends, wrong numbers dialed, glass stepped on – or not, you oversleep and show up late for an interview, but it provides an opportunity to show you can recover – or it doesn’t.  Your immune system fights off a bug, or not, resulting in a week in bed – or at work, depending.  In some of the cases where you succumb, it gets out of hand and you die, or you just infect everyone else in the house and they all miss a week of school or work.   Each one of these events branches out into a new set of alternative universes.  Imagine how many universes would be created per second, with billions of people and uncountable other creatures each doing things moment by moment.  But infinity is big enough to contain any number of universes, which makes this bizarre theory not provably wrong.


The web of alternative universes is not navigable – even our single universe is not knowable.  It’s impossible to know what paths the universe we are tracking will lead us down, let alone all those billions of alternative universes and their propagation paths.  


When your most beloved dies, your eyes are opened.  You are forced to realize the impermanence of everything.  Of course you always knew that in a logical sense.  If someone asked you – where will you be in one hundred years, you’d know the answer – dead and gone.  But until a big loss, that’s a complete abstraction you construct walls around, like a little nugget of Kryptonite, and you live comfortably knowing that box is there, but isn’t effecting you at the moment.  Your loss breaches the box.  Now it is not just real but abstract, at times a rapid dissolution into your eventual fate might seem even preferable to life without that person.


Your gaze penetrates deeply into depths you didn’t want to see.  You liked living in the warm shallows – comfortable swimming the sunlit reefs of daily life with its bike rides, meals with friends, ocean swims, rock music and comforts of home, family and friends.  You don’t want to see the dark unlit depths where the big predators are swimming, hunting, those cold and quiet waters.  The shallows now seem an illusion of a previous life.  You have your first experience in a new and frightening world, a reality more real than your present, temporal state.  You spend time lost among the alternative universes you never before thought about – the lands of what if.  


What if you had caught it sooner?  What if you had been more aggressive?  Tried that therapy instead of this one?  Made the trip to the famous medical center?  Not loaned the keys, made one more phone call, chosen a route off the main road.  What if the ambulance arrived sooner, what if you’d had that one more test, chosen a different hobby, kept your child in home schooling, had that operation when you were still young or well enough to endure it, eaten more broccoli.  What about the $600 you didn’t spend for ABS and traction control – or that job you didn’t take in the south where they don’t have snow, or the East where the earthquake probability is lower.  Was that trip necessary at all?  Can’t politicians work a little harder before calling up their armies?  Had the disease struck 10 years later, a cure would have been available, cheap and effective.   


And If death was inevitable, a proposition impossible to accept, what if you had been a better parent or spouse or friend, what if you hadn’t economized on that last vacation, what if you didn’t have that last fight over nothing?  Less time at work and in front of the laptop, more time in dinner conversation.  All those movies you didn’t see together, why not?  The gift you hadn’t yet given, the words not yet spoken.  The financial success that had always eluded you, your child’s graduation – couldn’t we have lived together for just one more milestone?


We can never know what is down all those roads – we can’t even see a day ahead on the road we’re on.  Had you not had those fights, it wouldn’t have been your life and their life and your relationship – it would have been a Disney version.  You could have flown all over the planet for a cure, only to exhaust your energy and bank balance and spoil your last months together in a fruitless, disappointing, Quixotic mission.  Catch it sooner and suffer even more months of anxiety?   Any number of disasters could have happened in that universe where you lived in the earthquake free midwest – a tornado, a tainted tomato, a drunk driver.  


I don’t believe that outcomes are completely beyond human control.  What we do matters – otherwise why pursue engineering, medicine, science – if the human condition has already been written in a book we can only read.  But neither do we control many big things.  There’s a Yiddish expression for our predicament of wishing we had navigated into a universe where we would have avoided our loss and our beloved’s suffering:  Mann traoch, Gott Lauch.  Man plans, God laughs.  


But how could God allow this suffering of an innocent person – maybe a child?  Now you find yourself reading thick philosophical tomes and thin pop-psyche pabulum.  The infinite domain of the irrational where there is no map, no simple formula that spits out the answer.  There are thousands of proposals – many created by humanity’s greatest intellects, but none of them any more than a convenient lens to imperfectly look at the unseeable unknowable.  Like soaking in saltwater to extract toxins, there’s no harm in immersing your mind in all that thought and speculation until your skin is wrinkled and you just can’t wait to get out of the tub.  


The wind is much stronger than I am.  There are days it gusts so strong it’s impossible to make progress on a bicycle – or even stay upright.  There is weather you and your aircraft are not going to penetrate in one piece.  God is greater than I am, than my aircraft, than my muscles and machines, than my planning and my theories of the nature of all things.  The only choices are – exhaustion fighting or awaiting a better day.  


Our only win strategy is to keep on keeping on – eventually a cold front will push through and I’ll coast in a massive tailwind, the skies will clear and freezing rain will be hard to imagine ever existed.  And in those beneficent intervals, we’ll rebuild our travels, our itineraries, our plans, our temples, our houses, our relationships, our families and our lives.  


Entropy is inexorable, but it is not the whole story.  Human will can rebuild.  Some of those great thinkers of the ancient world concluded that is our shared human mission – tikkun ha-olam – to build the world that is constantly subject to erosion  by chaos.  And in that rebuilding we experience God.  We don’t understand why wind, rain, entropy fight us, but they are all part of the universe which was made for us to dwell in.  One day we touch the wall 10 milliseconds sooner and grab the bronze, and another day we crouch in our cubicle, the thin envelope cast aside but nonetheless the biggest object in the office.  Our only choice is to keep building.   The effort may or may not be futile – we can never know if what we do can make a difference – that is written only in the unfolding of the many virtual universes yet to be selected.  It is only faith, the floating plank we cling to, that doing is preferable to not doing.  But  while we soak in salty waters that doing distracts us from the sting.


Cures for Jellyfish Stings

August 30, 2008

I have only my own childhood and only one brother as a sample set, but that unscientific basis has not deterred me from a simple conclusion – brothers fight.  And not just when they are 6 and 4 years old.  it’s a lifestyle choice.  Tom and I enjoy the adrenaline rush of potential annihilation just as much 50 years later as we did then.  The difference is only that we now don’t wrestle each other to the living room floor and slam doors in each other’s faces – we’ve learned more subtle and effective techniques.


I’m at a launch prep meeting at NASA KSC – Kennedy Space Center in Southeast Florida – never the toughest duty – and staying in the pre-Apollo era, and never since upgraded, Holiday Inn Cocoa Beach.  (Notice how much classier that sounds than Cocoa Beach Holiday Inn – which would imply just another hotel in Cocoa).  As the song said, it’s only words.  Fact is the HICB is the only place on the beach with rates as low as the government per diem.  You can choose between going deaf via the whining of the air conditioner grinding its shot motor bearings to dust all night, or prop the door open and sweat while the mosquitos feast on your ears.  But after a hot and sweaty day in meetings and maybe crawling around the shuttle bay, you can slip into running shorts, get even hotter and sweatier running on the beach, then dive into the Atlantic, which makes the rest of the HI experience totally worth it.   To me, anyway.


Except today a solid East wind had been blowing. I was only in the water a few minutes when I realized my skin was tingling, and a few minutes more of swimming and thinking about the strange sensations, I realized why – jellyfish.  Lots of them.  My arms and legs were covered with red streaks.


I made an adrenaline – fueled sprint back to the beach, ran up to the hotel and jumped in the freshwater pool – hoping to wash off some of the toxin – then retreated to my room and the company of my Anophelic room mates.  Things were looking, and feeling, genuinely painful by then.   My skin was burning, itching, red and swollen all over.


I was panicked – I know about as much about medicine and first aid as your average man on the street knows about building microsatellites – which is to say nothing.  It occurred to me to call Tom.  Granted he’s an orthopedist and doesn’t treat a lot of patients with toxic marine creature encounters, but he’s got to know more than I do.  Should I head for the ER stat?  Ice?  Antihistamines?   Steroidal skin cream?  Soap?  Topical alcohol?   I have no clue, but am beginning to wonder if I’m going to die in this little room.  


This was way pre-cell-phone, and I had to dial in to my Sprint account, then try Tom’s numbers at work – answering service – and then at home.   My fingers hurt just to punch the sticky buttons on the room’s phone.   Caught him just coming home from the hospital.  I laid out my dire situation.  


One nice thing about MDs, they mostly don’t lecture you on what an idiot you are.  I guess they realize their patient’s idiocy is making their house payment – or do they actually have pity on us unfortunates?  Maybe they know patients will migrate to MDs who withhold truth in favor of dignity.  I tend to doubt the more generous interpretation, but I’m glad to get to the point and save the lecture for later – if I live.  


He starts rattling off advice.  I have to get a pen and paper.  He starts over – salt, alcohol, soap, salves, cotton gauze – all sorts of stuff.  I have two hotel notepad pages of medications.  I think I can manage putting on shorts and a T, and driving, though it’s going to hurt.  Toughing it out is one of my specialties.  OK, I tell him, I’ll give it a try.  I planned to hang up abruptly, anxious to get going before things got much worse.  


By the way, is this going to work?  I ask reaching for the phone’s cradle.  Tom is a man of few words.  Just do it.  Call me back later. 


 I’m out the door.  Get in car.  Stifle desire to speed to CVS, a manic man on a mission, scanning the shelves under the florescents.  Visa card, keys, drive back.  Pour most of my haul in the bathtub and soak in it for 15 minutes.  Then pat dry and apply the rest of the contents onto my wounded skin. 


An hour later, $55 poorer, wetter, dryer and now covered with creams, things are no better.  But maybe no worse.  I’m suffering, but I’m no longer as certain I will die before morning.  I pick up the phone and call Tom with my update.  


Is any of this stuff really going to work?  I’m desperate for, lacking relief, at least  reassurance.


“There really isn’t anything you can do for Jellyfish burns.  But by the time you make the list, run out to CVS, soak, dry off, apply creams, it will start to go away by itself.”


You mean I could have skipped this whole exercise?  Silence is his response.


A shopping bag full of pharmaceuticals, an hour of running around and an hour in the tub to learn “time heals all wounds?”  


My brother is clearly enjoying this moment of non-communication over the long distance line.  The great surgeon finally offers: “You’ll be fine in an hour.  Watch TV, go for a walk, soak in the tub, swim in the pool, go buy vegetables or whatever it is you eat.  Watermelon – if it makes you happy.”.  


Score one for the big brother.  I spend the next hour walking to Publix for a watermelon and a knife, planning my revenge.  Maybe I’ll save the knife.



When the person you love dies, there are so many things you can do – and I’ve done all of them.  Cry, get mad, light candles, write books, set up memorial funds, erect shrines, pray, talk with friends, families, counselors and clergy, read books on death and dying, go for long long bike rides, and walks – alone and with friends, buy yourself something your loved one would have wanted you to have, invite everyone on the planet to a memorial service, sit in a room with all their stuff and recollect, have nightmares and dreams, or don’t sleep at all, get a dog or a cat, love the remaining people in your life more than you used to, challenge yourself with something new, try to appreciate life more than you used to, stop doing stuff you never wanted to do and start building a new life you like better, realizing this is the only one you’ve got, beat yourself up for being inadequate, or because you should have died instead, play what-if games until you can’t stand them anymore, imagine you’ll reunite with that person when you die (which does reduce the fear of death at least one iota), speak with your departed (who won’t answer), speak with your pet (ditto), sing out loud, set up a charitable fund in their name, put on your game face and go back to work, travel, throw yourself into projects, spend time alone, contribute to the departed’s favorite churches and synagogues, give all their stuff to the needy.  


All this Doing will take months, if not years, and will be exhausting.  Like my alcohol, bath salts, creams and salves, bandages and pills, none of it works.  But it’s something to do while time erodes the acute emotions into a palette that redraws your world in new, maybe darker, but also richer hues.  You’re not going to be 8 Crayola colors anymore – you’re more of a Rembrandt.   You are being reborn – your old self died with that person, and neither of you is coming back.  Your old skin is shed and everything hurts.  New skin only grows back slowly, and for a long time it’s thin and fragile.  


No injury is fun, but its paradox is that when you heal to a certain point, your confidence blossoms.  You walked through the valley of death, or in the case of injury, through pain and disability – and you survived, recovered, better than you thought you would.  


Nobody thinks they can do that, that they have the strength.  Not that they’d want to try.  Not that you had the choice.  You’re suffering, but you’re keeping alive.  You don’t want to be happy, your sadness is your memories and you have every right to keep them and to celebrate them through a measure of misery.   


Its bitter, but it’s yours.  Bitter can be nourishing too.  


I never found happiness in a broken clavicle – a mere nuisance by comparison.  But you can find confidence in your ability to make that journey, and with a new You that can  never quite go home again.  The new You will wander, a nomad without country, possibly forever.  The new You knows: to wander that desert is our shared human condition.

An Admission

August 24, 2008

As the guy who wrote the book on travel as life, I am compelled to blog for the sake of truth:  life, travel or otherwise, is not always pretty.  But would we want it any other way?  Heaven on earth might not be worth living.  If Homeland Security, the airlines, rental car companies and hotel chains were not the disfunctional, homogeneous bureaucracies we love to hate, would we have to create some equally frustrating substitute?  


Arriving in San Francisco after midnight, anticipating an early start to Friday’s meetings, and three good hours remaining tonight to work the luggage and car rental maze, drive down the Peninsula, check in and get to bed, I lack the energy to fish out my Zen Nano MP3 player, carefully loaded though it may be with thoughtful and intellectually engaging files awaiting some spare time to get a listen.  I read last Sunday’s NY Times on the driver-less tram as it jerks through various terminals, that mysterious East Parking Lot (is there a West?) and the BART terminal.  No one ever seems to get on or off at these stops – we veterans of the business beat soldier on toward the car rental terminus.  Having produced the requisite credit card and driver’s license, I settle into my wheels for the next few days – a bright copper Chevy LHR with the most confusing radio since BMW’s i-drive.  I manage to find a late night AM talk show, and while the exits tick off my progress down the 101 Freeway, I am assaulted once again by the oft repeated, never verified theory that a frog sitting in a pot of slowly warming water will not jump out, and not realizing how hot it’s becoming, will eventually be boiled to death.


The chauvinism of this mythology strikes me since the implication is that a superior species – a human – would get out of the warming bath.  Whereas the idiotic (and hence soul-less and thus worthy not of protection, but rather only of being sauteed carefully in unsalted butter and garlic over a gas flame in the kitchen of a French restaurant), would be so easily unable to discern gradual change.  I wonder – will people save their environment before we ruin it?  Will we transition away from fossil fuel before we overheat the climate or create ever larger, and possibly less confinable, wars between great nations?  Will people ever admit that more people may not forever and always be  better than fewer before our planet can no longer support our tens of billions?  In my own little econiche, will my university be better when 20 students apply for each admissions slot?  30?  100?  Will people be smarter if standardized test classes become available for 9, 8, 6, 3 year olds?  If people travel back to the moon, to Mars, to Io, if we spend enough money on the pursuit of that illusive horizon, will we value our lives or our planet any more?  


Maybe the frog’s clock runs faster than ours, so a ten minute heating cycle from warm to boiling is to him, the way a century’s heating cycle of our planet is, to the overnight talk show, too long to raise any immediate concern.  


Gas prices – isn’t it our American Right to drive whatever car we want to afford?  And prices are down – to $3.99 here in the Bay Area.  So the difference between Man and Frog – a frog can’t extrapolate a line, we can’t filter a noisy signal and see that despite ups and down, gas on average doubles in price something like every 10 years.  Since sunny yesterday was warmer than rainy today, even though it’s April, winter must be coming on…  


These are the dark thoughts that haunt the sleep deprived travel addict.  We survive having learned the fundamental lesson of lousy hotel rooms – they all look better in the morning especially once the suitcase is dragged back out over the door jam, and you can leave that little prison forever.  And enter a new one tonight.  



As my 11th flight of this adventure’s itinerary landed at Providence today, I thought – home after how many days?  I asked the guy on my right “what day is this?”.  21st, he said and I thought, of what month?  I figured that out completely on my own – remembering that if it were September, I’d be leaving for a few weeks in Italy and UK, and that before I left, I told myself I had a full month between trips (unless the unexpected comes up, which it usually does) – ergo it must be August.   OK, when did I leave?  I remembered the Narragansett Bay Swim – that was in July, when the Ocean has warmed a little, but the Jellyfish haven’t yet made their debut.  So I probably left in July, and now it’s August   Summertime, but who could tell?  In the world of airlines and rental cars, air conditioned hotel rooms with windows welded shut, hushed conference rooms for anechoic telecons and enough niggling little time changes that the diurnal cycle becomes a tease – if not a mean joke – all one can really discern with certainty is the appearance and disappearance of snow, if north of about DC, since it’s pretty visible from an airport shuttle even at 1 AM.  Watch out for tree leaves, so unreliable in the West, high country, or piney forests.  And the proclivity of business men for short sleeves and college students for shorts year ‘round doesn’t help either.  Not to mention exhibition seasons which allow football to start in June, and baseball to start in March.  Of course I have only thermodynamicists to blame for Hockey running 11 months a year.  And even more worthy of our condemnation, that inane cliché “frozen floor”.


I left home in Rhode Island, after a month spent cleaning up and moving in after 9 months of construction work, for a week in my other home – in Virginia, itself in the midst of a small avalanche of transfiguration.  Not of its soul maybe, but of constitution.  Though laudably unselfish, sacrificing itself to cushion the fall of a couple of major league trees previously resident in my neighbor’s yard, during a storm – I think that would have been in May – that sign of solidarity among wood products triggered a new round of insurance and care giver calls – this time not in the medical realm, but in drywall, shingles, zoning approvals, plumbing, painting, cabinetry and cleaning.  Rebuilding a part of your house is like throwing out a disk in your back – your back hurts, but for some reason soon so does your arm, and your leg, and your neck.   And eventually your Visa card is begging for mercy.


Three days before my flight to Utah I gave the construction crew which had assembled on the main floor of my house a scaffolding that could have painted the ceilings of a dozen Sistine Chapels, a forced vacation.  Violating, I admit, my own rule never to grumble about work getting done, and definitely never to punctuate it.  I needed to find my stuff under all those tarps.  Which I did – though everything was the color of sheet rock filings But I did learn how to clean the filter of my Dust Buster™, itself busted by a surfeit of dust.  Hey, who’s the buster and who’s the busted around here anyway?  That last letter ‘R’ should be a ‘D’.


Maybe it’s the homogeneity of airports – the same geometric patterns of diet and regular Coke and non-diet Sprite and neat little whole juice mugs (what, exactly, is whole juice anyway?  My theory is now that we’re all old and think we can’t metabolize milk, we try to please our mental models of our mothers by drinking anything that has the prefix whole applied to it), plus the same brand of bottled water, gleaming from their exposed vertical coolers, the same brand and selections of nuts, bananas, apples, the same Starbucks franchises, that eventually makes your soul long for something that doesn’t come inside the safety of shrink wrap?  I used to think dressing and undressing four times a day to accommodate the wake up, AM bike ride, evening commute home and then swim routine was a little bothersome.  But my X/C ruggedized Adidas are worn out not from granite, not from long miles of road work early before the day’s first meetings, but from don and doff routines mandated by our Homeland Security bureaucracy.  Nike will soon bring out shoes with reinforced heel cups, not to prevent blisters, but to resist breakdown from sliding them on and off for x-ray scanning.  Hundreds of millions of passengers sentenced to a lifetime of de-shoing and re-shoeing.  Gotta be a market in there someplace.


  I am an inmate of the world’s largest prison system – the American Airport.  You can leave, but then you can’t travel – so you can’t leave unless you don’t leave, and then only if you go back through the line.  The Prisoner and Kafka’s Joseph K. have nothing on me.  I don’t even have a number, except my confirmation number du jour, which is only mine for one check in.  Then where does it go?  Every day I scramble to find a computer and printer to confirm to my airline that the ticket I paid for I’m definitely going to use – otherwise they’ll sell it again.  I type in that number – and it tells me I’m not recognized.  I take comfort in my anonymity.


 I have no right to complain.  In almost a month of taxis, trains, planes, rental cars, hotel rooms, conferences, meetings, dinners, breakfasts, lunches, in- and off-airport meetings, family reunions, and hotel room Wifi connections, everything planned to happen, did happen, more or less on time.  My computer didn’t crash, neither did any of my planes or taxis, and my luggage even arrived on the same flight as my body.  On time, every time.  I feel I’m being set up for a massive fall.  By email today in a concourse of Philadelphia airport (a city I have never been to excepting the Southwest Terminal and on I-95 when I missed the NJ Turnpike Exit), I learned that even my shipments to Matera, Italy, made in preparation for next month’s voyage had arrived on time in good shape.  


Lucky in travel, unlucky in?  Murphy, the 2nd Law and I know one thing – the universe is not symmetric.  Hey, my waist is no longer symmetric.  Like the earth, it has been deformed by a weak but constant force.  In the case of earth, it’s centripetal acceleration from its own rotation.  At least that deformation is to 2nd order symmetric.  My 3.4 oz cell phone isn’t.  My belts’ scars tell the tale.  As likely will my minutes for this month.


Home is where you don’t pay $9 and 11¢ for a bag of almonds and a roll of mints you don’t even like.  And then get handed 89 cents in change and a receipt, as if one day you’ll go to heaven and get a better berth if you carefully documented your completely over the top expenses.  


My best hotel room was an efficiency at a suites hotel – about 250 square feet of luxury that included a knife, fork and spoon in a drawer, a microwave, small refrig with ice maker and, wowie, a stove top and two pieces of cheap Revere-ware, one of which made a pretty decent top for the other one, as they  both lacked that element of the ensemble.  I paid $1600 for a little under a week there – which translates to the payment on a passable McMansion with a small pool.  Without the burden of tax deductions, appreciation, or the ability to leave your stuff there for the nights you have to be somewhere else.    Have you ever wanted to own a Maserati?  You could – for much less money per day than Hertz charged me to rent a Hyundai in Chicago and drop it in Columbus.


But my suites hotel did maintain, for my comfort and safety, plenty of under 6 year old kids to keep the pool lively, and all the coffee I want, 24 / 7, which in my case is… none.  Clearly I am not succeeding in exploiting all the bennies of travel.  In fact, I’m beginning to loathe them.  I have a couple hundred thousand frequent flier miles.  I refuse to think about them.  I can buy $6000 worth of new GM card thanks to my Visa affinity card (I don’t like to think about the concept of my having an affinity with GM either).  Unfortunately I like my old VW.  I have exec points at Hilton – if I knew which hotels were Hiltons (or cared) or what those points would buy me – probably admission to the club floor with a full compliment of foods which in real life I would never touch, proto-edibles accompanied by widescreen CNN and ESPN, which for some reason just remind me that I’d rather be anywhere than in front of any television, regardless of screen dimension or cable channel selection.


I traded Richard, the taxi driver, $100 for my suitcase and the last receipt of this trip, wheeled my mortally wounded $370 (not reimbursable) Swiss Army suitcase up my handicap ramp, and greeted Lulu, my hospice-trained cat.  Leaving everything in the middle of the living room, I rolled up my wetsuit into my backpack, traded khakis for a bathing suit, and walked to Charlestown Beach.  The guards were still on their perches – so it wasn’t yet 5 pm and the ocean thereby safe for human visitation, plus or minus the odd jellyfishes.


Having gotten sequentially very wet, somewhat dry and thoroughly sandy, I shuffled back toward my house, marveling at having my feet in contact with earth, sand and pebbles.  Asphalt, in the rare spots we have any, even felt great.  Say of Deepak Chopra what you will, the man understands the value of curling your feet in sand.  The seasons have changed – the air is clearer, crisper, cooler.  I can see Block Island, hidden in mid-summer, by the hazy heavy Atlantic summer humidity.  The license plates are different, they change with the vacation schedules of nearby states and come in waves – New Hampshire, Ontario, Connecticut. the Cicadas are singing, the sun is too low and farther South.  


It’s not that obvious what is a good trip and what is a bad one.  Is a good bike ride one with sunny warm weather and no breakdowns?  Or do we get a lot more style points riding 500 miles in the rain the last hundred minus two rear spokes and a front deraillieur?  In fact, the miles are no easier wet or dry – just the clothing changes.  And if it rains, the world thinks your really a tough dude.  If your luggage is lost 8 times, your flights leave you stranded in maybe Utica and Novosibirsk, and you survive a non-poisonous snake bite exiting a cab in Tegucigalpa, you may in fact have a much better trip, get away with giving a lecture in less than business formal attire but get a free pass, and earn a few attaboys back in the home office.  People find you much more entertaining opening your talk with tales of travel disasters – they are a shared experience of our species.


Frogs don’t take vacations – good or bad.  They learn change doesn’t exist.   Change is inbred to the traveler.  Every trip we return forced to relearn, to reexamine our surroundings.  We take its temperature, measure its light, scan its new population, stroke its complexion.  Because we’re smarter than frogs?  Or maybe we just get around more.  

Immortal Corn

August 22, 2008

Having grown up in the midwest and spent a few weeks per year staying with my grandparents in Lima (where I visited my grandmother, Liesl, yesterday en route home from the West) I spent a lot of time in close range to corn fields.  In the ’60s I used to ride to there – Tom and I tried to do it in 1 day but never succeeded – it’s almost 150 miles which is a long way for two young kids on heavy Schwinn bikes.


Over many hours in the back seat of my grandparents’ big Oldsmobiles, and on bikes riding country roads with crop rows growing taller than I could see over, I developed my corn field analogy.  Imagine a space alien (S.A.) looking down at earth from a hovering UFO – maybe 5 miles up.  S.A. would possibly perceive corn fields as groups of individuals.  They are populations of similar, but not identical, live beings.  They appear alive, and pass through their own stages of life.  They live all over the country, in big cities (Iowa and Ohio farms) and small towns (I used to grow a few in our back yard in Cleveland in a six by twelve foot patch of mud in the back yard, sharing that space with grean beans and a pumpkin vine which never yielded anything bigger than a summer squash).  


S.A. has it about right – corn likes a community, is alive, and has its life cycle.  No two stalks are alike. Some are big and strong and dominant of resources.  Most just get by.  Some are outliers, on the edges of the field or even germinating far from the field, others are central, surrounded by others.  Some grow large ears, some none.  


Now imagine I am S.A. and corn is all the people around me.  So I am both observer and part of the observed population.  As S.A.  I find it far fetched that every one of these corn plants has an individual soul, an immortal soul, and will die only apparently to me as its observer, in fact to live forever with its corn neighbors in a heaven inhabited by God, His minions, and corn angels.  Presumably no corn blight organisms go to heaven, or if they do, it’s their own heaven, separated from corn heaven.  What about Indian Corn – the colored kernels – in fact there are hundreds of strains of corn – are they all in one heaven?  Or multiple?  Can they visit each other?  Sometimes there is Indian Corn mixed in with white or yellow corn, and presumably they interact in life – so how about in death?    And the bees that pollinate the corn?  They could be admitted, but in heaven corn doesn’t need pollination, so no bees either.  Maybe they have their own bee heaven somewhere else – but are bees happy without corn to visit?  And what does corn blight do in heaven if it can’t have corn to devour and spoil? 


Very soon this line of speculation gets too tangled to manage while pedaling under a hot sun.  Shifting perspective a little, how about cats and my beloved dog  Scotty, and the poor robin I killed with a BB gun – thinking a) I could never hit it perched on the electric wires that ran above the property line behind our house and b) if I did, nothing would happen to her.  Wrong on both counts, we buried Mr. Robin in our back yard.  Devastated, I made a tombstone for him with my wood burning set, placed his stiff body in a shoe box, and buried him next to the garage.  


 Surely Scotty would have a heaven.  She died, clinically, she drowned, in my lap in the back seat of my mom’s car as we raced to the vet – she was beyond old and had advanced COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).   Ever since then, and the drowning death of my bunk mate during a clandestine moonlit swim in the river near our YMCA summer camp, I’ve had a phobia of drowning.  Surely brave Scotty is in a heaven for dogs?  Else how can I believe in an afterlife for myself – one devoid of Scotty?   But if Scotty is in heaven, then why not robin?  And if robin, why not the flies?  I went through a long period as a child befriending house flies – which I later believed might have had something to do with dermal warts I suffered with – but who knows, maybe not.  In any case, if flies, how about ants, which I also protected and still don’t kill if avoidable, and ditto spiders.  And is corn not as smart as an individual ant?  Plants are really pretty clever – maybe it takes more brains to survive without the option to run from danger or move on when conditions turn difficult.  Corn copes.


My mother tells me that the reason my brother and sister were December babies, but I’m a Virgo is that a previous version of me miscarried and rather than miss a year, my dad and her elected to try again immediately.  So how about my unborn sibling – does he or she or it (maybe not yet sexually differentiated) qualify for Human heaven?  And when did the doors of human heaven open – I mean, in the evolutionary sense?  Did proto-humans, pre-homosapiens – get in?  And who decides when the first one got in?  What about his parents, who presumably, like the #2 against Michael Phelps, over a few billion years of evolution, was born 15 years before the official start of the homosapien era.  That first one of us doesn’t get to see his/her parents in homosapien heaven?    And no dogs in our heaven?  So what about me and Scotty?  I have to believe God can work these things out since I can’t.  But then, I couldn’t design a star or even a leaf, but He can, so presumably all these problems are solvable by God.


But for right now, what’s S.A. to make of all this?  S.A. doesn’t talk to people, corn, flies, birds, dogs, or spiders.  S.A. talks to other aliens from his planet, whom he presumably cares about and believes will live forever in heaven.  He is comforted that he’ll join them there at his end.


Where does this lead us?  To a nowhere that is pretty much where all this sort of speculation leads.  Spending enough time on a bicycle in the midwest, one is forced to become a Ghandian, a Nihilist, or possibly a Jew.


Or a midwestern kid enjoying a day on a bike riding the flat gridwork of Ohio’s country roads.  Beaver Cleaver incarnate.   Dogs, Cats and kids on bikes do not mind being a stalk of corn in a corn field of their populations.   They like it.  There’s  comfort in knowing that all our inadequacies, blown tests, idiotic things said in the Principal’s office, and inadvertant gaffs are part of our shared humanity.  There’s a few billion others who will succeed and the harvest doesn’t depend on me alone.  Some of us cover better than others, but whatever our individual styles, at harvest time, the field is plowed under, there’s no infinity in store for any of us, and the deck is shuffled again.  Time ends and the universe becomes a singularity of zero entropy – a new perfection.    New corn sprouts break the soil and at most enjoys nicely aerated footing to grow in as the legacy of its progenitors lives, struggles and deaths.  


Forty years later, I haven’t been able to improve on my cornfield philosophy.  It suffices for me to be a good, maybe even better than average, stalk of corn, appreciate all my neighbors whether I’m in the middle, on the edge, or rooted way across the other side of the road – a life altered by another of nature’s random events – maybe a strong wind at just a certain time.  If I have a few more or less ears, and my kernels are a little bigger, smaller, yellower or sweeter, it will average out.   And when the game is over, I won’t get in the way of the next year’s crop. If anything, my legacy might be to make the way of their roots a little easier.  Why waste my moments in the summer sun sacrificing to be yet another fading portrait in a museum?  My life, my ride, my support of the crop by being a productive part of it – that’s the value of the life of my hamster on its cedar chip and newspaper floor, my turtle living under her plastic palm tree, my poor departed red robin buried beneath his wood-burned tombstone, and me.  Failing even that modest ambition, the next generation will get by, and maybe grow even stronger, if I fail to make things too easy for them.  The best I can do, and maybe the only thing I can do, is leave them the room to play out, in their own ways, their own lives.

Helicopter Rescue

August 15, 2008

Besides avoiding death, being plucked from the side of a rock face in darkness at 11,700 feet altitude by a Utah Highway Patrol jet helicopter yields several benefits.   Among them it is a comfort to know that not only aerospace engineering, company management and university teaching have been infiltrated by bureaucracy.  In addition to the modest $1,190 bill for helicopter flight time (at $700/hour) and $240 for crew (pilot plus the guy who grabs your arm helping you leap off your suddenly much more appealing than it was before help was in the offing rock perch and onto the landing skid outside the polycarbonate bubble), you also find an entry for “incident management”, a disembodied bureaucratic construct which nonetheless gets paid as much as the military trained pilot with 40 years rotary aircraft experience and his search and rescue specialist crew.  


But as my Dad wisely points out, $1870 I could have easily spent just getting ambulanced and admitted to the Park City Emergency Room and maybe getting a blood test before the bill grew another 0 left of the decimal point with MRI, ER Docs and Nurses, not even counting the luxuries attendant to overnighting on the med-surg floor under those 24/7 florescent grow-lamps.  And my bill gaining yet another order of magnitude with surgery and follow up therapy and medical visits.   In other words, a rescue as expensive as a week’s cycling vacation in the Alps may have saved the equivalent of a retirement bungalow in the Ozarks.  Not counting the months of unproductive time spent in medical care and then in physical therapy, taking drugs and hurting.  Or worse.


Outside of existential issues, how was the hike?  Rocky.  From about the time we reached the bouldered semi-summit for lunch, way ahead of schedule despite climbing a lot of rock with no climbing gear, dressed in T-shirts and running shoes, and started down various nearly vertical walls and chimneys, I cycled through all the modes.  First there was Denying that it was going to be as bad as it in fact was, followed by Bargaining:  if I ever got off this mountain I’d stick to safer endeavors – like cycling to Tyson’s II on the shoulder of Route 7 with cars zooming past at 55 mph, or maybe cliff diving in Monterey.  I toyed with Anger for a while – but getting mad at the only guy who has ever been there before (though it turned out the guide never had been there before – so just as Seinfeld once pondered the definition of “reservation” I began to ponder the definition of “Guide”) seemed counter to my overarching survival goal.  Finally I reached Acceptance – that this is a ridiculous situation but unlike some situations this one is completely cure-able if we made the right decisions.  Which were to give it the best try we could, and then to bail if all else failed.  


While the guide helped talk my left foot and then my right foot down long steps onto toe-width slivers of semi-horizontal rock, me facing the wall and gripping the cracks like they teach at Yosemite, I distracted myself thinking about my recent past.  I calculated that in the last 12 years, I’d spent 10% of my time in wheelchairs, casts, hospital beds and crutches – recovering from bone breaks – 3 clavicles, 2 ankles, one shoulder, several ribs and almost all the bones in one foot.  Another 10% of those years I had spent caring for Nancy.  An AeroAstro friend is just now able to travel – on crutches – months after breaking his leg climbing, and a cycling friend has a chance to go home to a life of 24/7 care in a few weeks following 3 months in the hospital, much of it unconscious, due to a head injury.   He may never be able to work or recover his personality. Then I thought about a passage in one of the library full of death and dying books I studied to help cope with Nancy’s care.  The author pointed out how hard people work, the lengths they go to, the money they will spend – to save their life or that of a loved one.  The same person will put the whole enterprise at risk to save a few seconds at a red light, or to have a little fun on a weekend, or to share a drink with friends out for dinner.


OK, not the sort of thoughts that motivate a person to muster maximum gusto, but few would number among my faults a tendency to spending too much time on the couch for lack of motivation to expend some energy.   


The Guide and I spent 4 hours sitting on our perch, wondering if we were going to spend the night wrapped in a couple of rain parkas trying to sleep in 20°F air next to the burnt-out remains of the microfire he built from the scant combustibles one can find on a rock outcropping.  He skittered around the rocks collecting what wood and boughs he could, but nothing that would do much more than briefly flare.  We saw the sun set across the valley, listened to the absolute quiet when thermal driven wind subsided, and watched the stars emerge in a purple sky.  We wondered what phase the moon would be in that night.  We watched headlights on the road miles away to see if any looked like they were looking for us.  We adapted – enjoying the strange uniqueness of our moment and the beauty of it.  I remembered the last time I slept outside – 26 summers ago rafting a California river.  Camping, I admitted, was not my passion.  


Then we heard the helicopter – but it didn’t come near us.  We thought he didn’t see our little fire and our jackets draped over rock piles.  In fact, our fire was blindingly bright in the pilot’s night vision goggles, and a few minutes later the big rotating blades were on top of us, blowing embers from the fire onto our skin and seconds later I was just a passenger in the back seat of a small aircraft making a short, comfortable flight to the meadow where the day had begun that morning.


Days later 10 minutes still don’t pass without my marveling that I am not in a hospital, that all my limbs are in one piece, though my hands and legs are scared from rock hugging.  This year I watched a person gradually die, and I know what each of us really wants from life – the ability to enjoy it.  The rest, our quest for fun, for experiences, for salaries, for a good watermelon, for a better fitting cycling jersey, for the right stock buys, for all the things we tell ourselves matter enough to trade our time, maybe all of our time, for, as it says on my “Swimming Is Life” t-shirt, is just details.