Gonzo Mindfulness Meditation: What I learned when I explored my brain

In this time of “social distancing,” my friends are knitting, sewing, quilting, gluing and painting every sort of art project. They have assembled umpteen jigsaw puzzles and gotten Zoom drunk with friends.  They’ve elevated binge-watching to an art form. They’re reading books, baking bread, deep-cleaning their homes, and posting on Facebook dozens of times daily.

Me? I’m learning Gonzo Mindfulness Meditation.

What is it? Briefly, it’s being aware of your thoughts and actions in the moment—being, as the saying goes, “in the present.” Notice the thought, acknowledge it and move on, no judgement. The result? Higher levels of happiness. It’s Gonzo, because you just do it, don’t analyze it.

In that spirit, I decided to practice mindfulness as I prepared for my morning walk. Here’s a snippet:
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There’s a tiny hole in the mesh over the toes in my left shoe. Is it because I should be
cutting my toenails more? I hate cutting my toenails. Each snip is from an awkward position. I remember the day I was cutting my dad’s toenails and missed. He screamed. He’s been dead since 2011, but I still feel so bad about that. (Breathe. I can’t change the past. Let it go.)

I wash my hands before preparing my coffee for the road. I didn’t do that before the pandemic. I am so sick of politicians saying they are “data-based.” The way I read the numbers, without a vaccine, at least half of the U.S. population will get infected over the next couple of years. That’s 170,000,000 people. If 20% gets seriously ill, that’s 34 million. There’s debate about the death rate. I’m going with a middling number – one percent. That means 300,000 deaths. OH MY GOD, WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE! (Breathe. Yeah, I knew that, even before Covid-19. Breathe, release the thought and move on.)

Mind-less-ness before mind-ful-ness

1933---packaging_flat_4.1549051760I’m following the guidelines of Mark W. Muesse, Ph.D., in Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction of Meditation, a Great Courses series in audio or video streaming format.

Our mind’s default setting, says Dr. Muesse, is mind-less-ness. He compares our free-range mind to a cowboy being whipped around on a bucking bull. Our thoughts flit at warp speed to past experiences and emotions, and to future hopes and fears, with almost no time spent in the present. (Try it. Take 30 seconds and follow your thoughts to see where they take you.)  The result is we aren’t present in our own lives. As my friend Sue so famously said while she and I were looking at old photos, “If we only knew then how hot we were.”

When you learn to be aware of your thoughts and feelings as they are happening, prof_mark_muesse_4.1395271386without judging them, says Dr. Muesse, you have more options for responding. You have more freedom to act in your own best interest. You can let go of those passing thoughts and worries and experience the moment.

This in-real-time awareness of what’s going through your mind — without judgment—promotes happiness. (Although it must be said that sometimes what you are experiencing in the moment is pain or suffering. The same adage applies: This, too, shall pass.)

Getting there from here

Meditation is, according to Prof. Muesse, is the tool for strengthening the muscle of awareness. Meditation is to the mind what physical exercise is to the body. His program starts from the basics: how to sit, how to breathe, how to relinquish ideas that are at odds with reality. Practicing awareness without judgment leads to greater generosity and compassion, and thus to great happiness.

So, I’m practicing meditation, too—starting each day with 30 minutes of sitting to clear and calm my brain. Then the mindfulness is supposed to carry through the day’s activities.

Professor Muesse speaks about mindfulness in dealing with heavy duty subjects like envy, anger, grief and death. He also has suggestions for more mundane issues like overeating, road rage and perfectionism. He explains with cultural, historical and spiritual references, psychological insights and lots of personal anecdotes—some of them pretty hilarious. Like his perfectionistic streak while redoing his kitchen or his disappointment when he wasn’t chosen to be an astronaut. In the eighth grade.

So, I’m submitting to the Gonzo nature of my immediate thoughts, in order to ditch them for living in the present and enhancing my happiness.  Very quickly, I recognized the scattershot of thoughts that floods my mind with rapid-fire sequences of notions and emotions.

For example:

I go to pee. I try to conserve on the TP. I’ve been wondering if I blow my nose, then use the same tissues to wipe the pee, could I get corona of the vagina?

I wash my hands in the bathroom sink. “Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you.” I wish I were more creative about the tune I sing. I read somewhere that Dan Rather sings “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” (No judgment.)

See what I mean?

I lace up my trail shoes, then microwave a cup of coffee for the thermos. Should I use the cream in the fridge or the Coffee Mate powder? We have to make the real cream last as we only shop once every two weeks now. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how just the two of us use five quarts of half-and-half in a two-week period. (No judgment, Cathy.)

IMG_9650I loop the elastic bands of my surgical mask over my ears. My mask is already frayed and fuzzy just from my walking and grocery store forays. I can just imagine how worn the PPE of the front-line workers get.

I turn on my phone and press the Teaching Company course I’ve been listening to: “The Early Middle Ages.” The Roman Empire didn’t just fall apart after the Barbarians invaded. It disintegrated slowly. I wonder if I’m looking at an American way of life that is on the way to disappearing.

I walk out of the house through the garage. The day is beautiful. The irises are in their glory.IMG_9682

About a mile out, I take a slug from the thermos. Ugh! This Coffee Mate is terrible. Then I realize that, in my big creamer debate, I had forgotten to add sweetener to the coffee. Well, so much for mindfulness. (NO JUDGMENT. No judgment. no judgment.)

                                             Am I getting anywhere with this?

How does awareness of my thoughts promote happiness? At the least, it explains why it takes me so long to get out of the house! More importantly, awareness and learning to let go of emotions will be helpful when real trouble comes – times of grief that happen to everyone.

Finally, Professor Muesse makes clear that practicing mindfulness is an aspirational process. When you become aware that you’re being mindless, you don’t beat yourself up. You go forward more mindfully.  No pressure. No judgment. More happiness. The point isn’t to get anywhere, the point is to …oh, you know, it’s the journey, not the destination.

Yes, maybe you will achieve enlightenment and think only of the great philosophical questions of life. Or maybe not. But you want to be there for it either way. It’s your one life.

Tell me: What is your biggest “social distancing” change?

Purple Mountains Majesty _ As Seen from the Hoosegow

Got COVID cabin fever? Me too!

When I fantasize about open spaces and freedom of movement, my mind always travels to the American West. This is not unusual. Traveling west to get away from entanglements has been a staple of the American narrative since before the United States was a country. “Go West, young man,” advised newspaperman Horace Greeley in the mid-1800s.

This is the story of how a Chinese immigrant girl who lived in St. Louis in the 1950s came to discover the American West in a most unusual way. That girl, of course, was me.

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This is the back cover. I have lost the front. It was a picture of Yosemite.

In those days of three TV channels, I saw the West flash by in black-and-white episodes of the Lone Ranger, Zorro and Annie Oakley. Then, The Glory of Our West, a slim book of spectacular color photographs and lyrical descriptions of noteworthy places in the West, miraculously fell into my hands.

My transition to becoming an American was bumpy: speaking English, getting along with classmates, learning American traditions. What the heck was Valentine’s Day and why would anyone decorate a shoebox? In a way, I was as trapped in my life then as I am now in my house. My horizons were claustrophobic.

I was twelve. I had been in America about four years. On a fall day, instead of going home after Mass, Dad drove Mom, my sister and me to an unfamiliar house. It had a curved driveway. Inside was the most elegant home I had ever seen. I was enchanted by the numbers of rooms and couches, the built-in book cases, the curved bannisters. The back door led to a gently rolling lawn with sunlight dancing off the leaves of large shade trees.

I never met the owners. There were just clusters of people milling around. My dad said that I could take whatever I wanted. Stunned, a part of me considered grabbing everything in sight like some crazed game-show contestant. But the well-brought up, self-doubting, Chinese grade-school girl in me wondered if I even heard him correctly. (Just a few years ago, I found out that this afternoon event was an early version of “downsizing” by a pair of elderly sisters who were moving out of state.)

I walked around, picking up a trinket here, inspecting a doodad there. One object I took was a set of pick-up sticks just like the ones I had to leave behind in Hong Kong. Then I decided on a book. On a shelf, I found The Glory of Our West.

In the book were one-page essays about Western landmarks: national parks, among
them Yosemite, Rocky Mountain National Park, Mesa Verde, Glacier, the Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion, Big Bend, Olympic, Yellowstone; mountains such as Pikes Peak, Mount St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, Shasta; lakes like Tahoe, Crater, Pyramid, Snowmass; and a few manmade structures, including Mission Santa Barbara and the Mormon Temple.

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Opposite each essay was a photograph in blazing color. Azure skies. Cobalt expanses of water. Snow gleaming like icing on mountaintops. Red mesas, golden rock spires, adobe-colored stone arches, gray granite cliffs. Brooding dark pines, flaming aspens in autumn, emerald giants of saguaros, pink prickly pear blossoms.

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I read and re-read these little gems of description so much that my book is worn and torn. Also, it’s almost seventy years old! (Doubleday, 1952.) The essays were more than an escape from my daily grind. I learned geological and historical facts, Indian lore, botanical details, and even a bit about fishing and skiing. With the turn of each page, a new vista opened to me.

  I also learned about good writing, sort of by osmosis. The piece on Point Lobos began, IMG_9648“Point Lobos means Point of Wolves, but it was not the gray robbers of the forest that the Spaniards had in mind, but what they called sea-wolves—lobos marinos. We call them sea-lions, or seals.”

Those words were penned by Robinson Jeffers. Other authors include MKF Fisher, Ernie Pyle, Erle Stanley Gardner, Bernard DeVoto and J.B. Priestley. At the time I knew nothing about their fame or their craft. The photographers were equally well known: Ansel Adams shot about a third of the photos. Esther Henderson and Josef Muench were associated with Arizona Highways.

In the intervening years, I have seen the places covered in the book and many others. I have climbed the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park. I have witnessed an aerial battle between an eagle and an osprey above the Snake River in the Tetons. Bill and I listened to classical music in Temple Square. On a lightning-streaked evening, we watched hundreds of thousands of bats swarm out of a cave entrance at Carlsbad Cavern.

One of our favorite places is the Point Lobos that Robinson Jeffers wrote about. It is a jut of rocky granite battered by the Pacific Ocean. It is dotted with storm-twisted Monterey cypresses and is home to deer, sea otters, cormorants – and yes, sea lions.

The Glory of Our West was written at a “bigger is better” moment in United States history. There are some notable problems for today’s readers. Native Americans are seen more as relics of the past than people who still live and work in those lands.

Ecologically, some of the authors’ assumptions seem naïve. Nature is endlessly bountiful and will always renew itself, even if you divert river waters for farm irrigation, even if you keep cutting down old-growth forests for fuel, furniture, paper, even toothpicks. Glaciers move at a “glacial pace,” not disappear within human lifetimes due to global warming. Trout species are transplanted to please fishermen without considering the endangerment of native species.

One sentiment, however, has remained true. In the beauty of the wilderness, in the towering heights of mountains, in the quiet of deserts, in the brilliance of the night sky, our troubles are small.

IMG_9624J.B. Priestley put it this way: “It is years now since on that perfect morning I stared and wondered and worshipped, alone beneath that shining arch; and much has happened since, some of it terrible and heartbreaking; but I have only to be quiet and still and wait—and then I am at Rainbow Bridge again, deep in its silent magic.”

Remembering gazing into the chasm of the Grand Canyon, hoping someday to see into the depths of Crater Lake and knowing that trees I’ve touched have lived hundreds of years — these all make being stuck at home for a virus seem bearable.

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Cottonwood tree at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, 2018                             Left to right —  Margaret, me, Devorah, Bill

Tell me: Is there a place you always go back to in your mind? Why?

COVID Anxiety

I can let my hair go gray! I haven’t seen my hair in its native state for two decades. I can catch up on my 23 episodes of This is Us and, coincidentally, my 23 episodes of Call the Midwife on my DVR. In what is the opposite of binge watching, I watch these shows a few minutes at a time. They grab your heart, pull it out of your chest and stomp on it.

That was what I thought I’d write about. It would be a zippy and funny way to talk about the “leisure” that “social distancing” has given me. But the time for cheap laughs has passed. There are too many people in pain: economic, physical, psychological. Anxiety, like a chilling fog, has seeped into every aspect of daily life.

At the beginning, which was not even three weeks ago, I was taken aback by the undercurrent of economic panic that bubbled up in people who’ve worked for years at their job: a tennis pal who worked at Delta, the secretary at my Edward Jones office, my yoga teacher.

The scope of the suffering was sinking in. The guy who cuts my hair, exactly half my age, what will he do when nobody is getting haircuts? The tennis pros at my club – one of them just bought a house, for God’s sake. Tanya, at Pure Harmony Spa where I never have time to get massages. Can the Royal Chinese BBQ, my favorite restaurant, weather this? The owner of Left Bank Books said, “We don’t want loans. We need grants.”

Childcare is a major issue, especially for workers who can’t work from home. Some daycare centers are closed too. Even parents who have a trusted babysitter increase the exposure risk, albeit a small one. Several of my friends who are in the high-risk, geezer bracket, have become main caregivers for their grandchildren. One of them has traveled to Chicago to do just that. This too is not perfect. They worry about catching the virus from the little ones. They fear making the kiddies sick.

“I don’t want to get sick. I don’t want to be a vector and sicken my family.” Those words play in my mind like a catchy tune. Below that is real dread. Gasping for air seems like the worst way to die. I am claustrophobic. I fear suffocating. I will only go snorkeling if I have a grip on Bill’s tee shirt the whole time in the water.

IMG_9565 2This is my first time to be an at-risk person. I have my own grocery shopping hour! Even so, I only go to one store and get groceries that last more than a week. When I told my son Alex in Virginia that Bill and I were canceling our trip to see them, even without saying anything, Alex’s relief transmitted through the phone.

At times, I fear the worst. That would be if a member of our extended family  got really sick or died. Alex and his wife work at the UVA hospital. Julie works in a medical office. Nicole is a lab tech. Kevin runs a Walgreens. Kristy is a chiropractor. Those jobs seemed very safe … until now. And who would think Scott would be on the front lines as a grocery store worker?

51Sh4KAWeHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Whenever those thoughts crash into my consciousness, I brush them aside with a shrug. There’s nothing I can do. But like pesky flies, those thoughts keep circling back. As I write this, five thousand families have already suffered this fate. If someone I love doesn’t make it through this pandemic, I will be bitter at Donald Trump for the rest of my life. His poor decisions have cost us dearly.

To control the spiraling anxiety, I do what I always do. I read a book. I decided to vicariously suffer such a loss. I read William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows, a novel about a Midwestern family during the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic. The book was published in 1937, not twenty years after that scourge. Maxwell (1908-2000) was an editor at the New Yorker for 35 years as well as a novelist and essayist. Maxwell’s mother had died of the flu. He was ten.

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William Maxwell

The title They Came Like Swallows refers to a W.B. Yeats poem about Lady Gregory, one of the founders of the Abbey Theater. The great writers of the day — George Bernard Shaw, John M. Synge, Sean O’Casey, and Yeats himself — all found welcome in her home. Yeats compares the way the writers gather around Lady Gregory to the swallows that come every year.

In the book, the lives of James Morison and his two sons, Bunny and Robert, all revolve around their wife and mother, Elizabeth. The flu sneaks into their lives, first as newspaper articles and local gossip and then as school and church closures. Robert can’t understand why his mom won’t let him join the pickup football game.

In general, influenza is backdrop to competition for toys and mom’s attention between the boys, travails at school and sports; getting ready for a new baby; the WWI Armistice; family disagreements among uncles, aunts and cousins. Everyone in the family gets ill, but at different times. Elizabeth and James both come down with it in Chicago, where they went for her complicated pregnancy.

She dies of flu a few days after the baby is born. Robert feels guilty that he had let his mother into Bunny’s sick room when it was his job to keep her out. James feels guilty that he had taken his wife aboard a crowded train to Chicago. Each believes that he was the vector. James’ devastation is complete.

James “went on up the stairs …to the bedroom which Elizabeth and he had shared, and saw her dresses hanging in the closet, and was struck blind and almost senseless. When he could, he shut the closet door quickly, and pressed his forehead into the long cool mirror which was on the other side.

“Satin

and lace

and brown velvet

and the faint odor of violets.

—That was all which was left to him of his love.”

I finish the book, exhale deeply and return to my life of boring social distancing interspersed with crushing dread for the future.

Tell me: How are you coping?

Flattening the Curve: The Plague and COVID-19

“Should we go see the grandkids in Virginia?”

We have the plane tickets. We’ve reserved the hotel and the rental car. And I would love to luxuriate in the embrace and enthusiasm of my young grandsons. But COVID-19 casts a pall.

Maybe we should drive. Less proximity to potentially-infected fellow passengers. Except neither of us likes to drive, especially over the Appalachian Mountains.

A Harvard epidemiologist said last week that when he travels, he carries enough necessities to weather a 14-day quarantine. That gave me pause. I don’t want to get sick; I don’t want to infect my son and his family or them to infect us. I don’t want any of us to have to endure a two-week quarantine.

Perhaps the decision will be made for us. CDC may recommend that 72-year-old people should “shelter in place.” Perhaps the sure-to-increase numbers of sick people, if only because they are finally being tested, will deter me.

MV5BM2I1ZWU4YjMtYzU0My00YmMzLWFmNTAtZDJhZGYwMmI3YWQ5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjU0OTQ0OTY@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_The scope of this outbreak is unprecedented for most of us. One comparison is the 1919 influenza epidemic that

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Ingmar Bergman

killed more people than World War I. What comes to my mind is the Black Death of the 14th century. Or at least Ingmar Bergman’s vision of it in his 1957 film The Seventh Seal.

This is my first gonzo movie review. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you would probably recognize the iconic scene of the knight playing chess with Death.

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In the 14th century, a knight (Max von Sydow) and his squire have returned home after ten years in the Crusades to find Europe ravaged by the Black Death. This adds to their disillusionment about the Crusades, about God and about their fellow man.

The knight meets Death at the seashore and challenges him to a game of chess. If the knight wins, Death will not take him (yet). They play throughout the film. The knight and squire encounter people who think they can outrun the plague by moving; people who whip themselves to appease an angry God; people who torture and burn a young woman they accuse of consorting with the devil.

They also meet up with a performing troupe consisting of a young family (Joseph, Mary and their baby) and another actor. The troupe joins the knight and squire (and a woman the squire has saved from rape) to traverse a forest together. Death and the knight resume their chess game.

When it is clear that the knight has lost, the knight spills the board, giving the young family a chance to escape in their wagon. The little family pass a perilous, stormy night in their cloth-covered wagon. They wake to a bright, sunny morning. Joseph, a dreamy sort, looks up a hill and sees that Death has caught all the others.

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Thank goodness that COVID-19 is nowhere as lethal as the plague bacterium that killed  upwards of two-thirds of Europe’s population. Still, we have a genuine crisis. I knew it when the Indian Wells tennis tournament was called off a week ago. My friend said she knew it in early March when the James Bond movie got postponed. Trump didn’t figure it out until a couple of days ago.

People’s reactions to an apocalyptic situation have changed little over the centuries: denial (The dad of the first St. Louis case broke quarantine on day one); hysteria (runs on TP and hand sanitizer), conspiracy theories (in the 14th century, it was God’s wrath; in the 21st century, the Chinese and the US blame each other); taking advantage of others (robbers of corpses vs. price gougers.)

Here’s the big diff: SCIENCE! Streptomycin, an antibiotic, would have stopped the plague. Science will eventually provide a COVID-19 vaccine. But Science needs data. Science needs curious minds. Science calls for changes of plans when the new data come in.

As of today, this is what science knows: COVID-19 is extremely infectious, much more than the flu. No one has immunity because COVID-19 is brand new. I remember a movie in the ‘70s with John Travolta playing a boy with a defective immune system. He lived in a space suit. Like that boy, our bodies are open-season as far as COVID-19 is concerned.

As yet, there is no cure, no drugs that blunt the disease. Medical treatment can only support you until your body wins or loses its battle with the virus.

It is projected that about half of the U.S. population will catch the disease. What we can do is to slow the rate of infection so that the medical system doesn’t get overwhelmed. This is what they are calling “flattening the curve.” You’ve seen the graph. We’re just trying to have people get sick over a longer period of time so that the health care capacity can handle them.

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Image credit: Johannes Kalliauer/ CC BY-SA 4.0

Our case studies are Wuhan, where they had to build extra hospitals lickety-split, and Italy, where doctors have to choose which patients get the ventilators. In a positive scenario, about 200,000 Americans will need to be in ICU. There are only 160,000 ventilators in the US, and of course, most of them are already being used by sick people.

How do we “flatten the curve?” Not many options there either. Basically, try not to catch the bug by “social distancing.”  Social distancing just means seeing fewer people and keeping literal distance between you and them. Because you can’t tell who has the bug — even the infected person may not know—we need testing. Who needs to be quarantined? Who doesn’t?

Sometimes social distancing feels awkward. I hug people. Politicians shake hands. You feel sheepish. It gets even more complicated when it’s family. 80% of Wuhan infections were from within the family.  How do you not eat and sleep near your family?

The film has a brutal example of social distancing. The squire stops a woman from giving water to a dying man. It seemed cruel but practical.

I have a social distancing story from my own family. When my mom was young, TB was a scourge in China. Her mother, a formidable woman, decreed that everyone in her house had to use serving utensils when getting food from the communal platters. No one was to use their own chopsticks, which may have been in their mouths.

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Grandma Shen

Protests came fast. It was inconvenient. Chinese tend to pick up small amounts of food from platters into their rice bowls, then replenish when they’ve eaten that up. Especially within the family, it’s habit to reach with your own chopsticks. Also, it was – and is – a sign of consideration to pick up some special morsel with your chopsticks and plop it into your guest’s bowl. But Grandma was adamant.

Now, as in the Seventh Seal, you cannot outrun an epidemic. You can just flatten the curve. In our case, by social distancing. You know the drill now: minimize close contact with people, wash your hands, cough into your elbow. Also, I dug out my thermometer. Fever is the most common symptom. Science now has a better way to measure temperature than putting the back of your hand to your forehead. Use it.

It strikes me that the knight’s distraction of Death so that the Joseph, Mary and the baby could escape was his way of “flattening the curve.”

Tell me: Do you have a social-distancing plan if a family member tests positive for COVID-19?

Love and Nordic Noir

Human desires are fickle. Human needs are constant. I am not trying to sound philosophical or profound. It’s just the conclusion I came to after my two-week vacation in Florida.

***

“Another f***ing day of sunshine.” I can’t believe those words popped out of my mouth as I squinted at the bar of glary light at the edge of the window shade. I had dreamed of warm weather when I was freezing my ass off in St. Louis. In less than two weeks in Florida, there I was, waking up bitching about sunshine.

I was in a bad mood. I had suffered a series of first-world disappointments on this February trip. We were in Naples, having birdwatched our way more than 300 miles down the state from Tallahassee.

Florida water tasted horrible, like the water came from some cave connected to hell, so strong was the smell of sulfur. It didn’t help that Bill kept calling it “swamp water.”

When we first stepped into our hotel room, it smelled a little bit musty. Once inside, though, I couldn’t detect any problem. So, we unpacked. But each time I walked into the room, I got that faint whiff of mildew. I started worrying about how many millions of mold spores we were inhaling with every breath. Tangles of filaments and clumps of yeast buds with names like hyphae and spherules – I remember them from slides in medical school.

Birdwatching required tramping miles down trails or boardwalks, loaded down with binoculars, bird books, “swamp water,” snacks and, at times, a spotting scope on a tripod. Sunshine and humidity wore us out.

The morning of my complaint, I was excited to be going to Clam Pass Beach. It would be only the second beach we’d visited on the trip. I hoped to see shore birds: skimmers, gulls, plovers and sandpipers. The day quickly heated up into the 80s. We could have waited for a tram but decided to walk the three-quarter-mile boardwalk through mangroves to the beach. Bad move. The mangroves were not tall enough to provide shade.

The beach was postcard beautiful. But I was not happy. It was full of noisy people! How dare they? Sunning. Throwing frisbees. Frolicking in the water. Did they not know that they were clogging up a habitat? We saw four piping plovers on the ground and one osprey overhead. Maybe a pelican, I forget. How disappointing. We trudged the three-quarter mile back to our car.

I was hot, sandy and cranky. When Bill drove us by a two-story Barnes and Noble, I cried out. “There!” I said. “I want to go there.”

Besides the blessed air conditioning, the store had a Starbucks inside. The tables and shelves of books calmed me. The iced Americano revived me. I headed for the mystery section.

IMG_9516On impulse, I picked Ragnar Jonasson’s Blackout, an Icelandic murder mystery. It wasn’t even the first of the series (“An Ari Thor Thriller,” the cover said), but I didn’t care. Iceland seemed just the antidote for steamy heat and glary sun.

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Iceland photo courtesy of my son Alex

The greatest difference between me in Florida and the
characters in Iceland turned out to be neither geographic or meteorological. Ari Thor, the cop protagonist, was in his late twenties. He and his doctor ex-girlfriend danced toward each other and then backed off in every possible relationship scenario. Another major character, a TV reporter, wrote in her diary, “Now I was approaching thirty, the decade in which ‘anything seems possible’ [is] almost behind me.” Thirty? Really?

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Author Ragnar Jonasson

Overall, I enjoyed the book. The plot is propulsive. Other than their teenage angst, the characters are smart and likeable. And the descriptions of the towns and countryside are interesting despite formidable pronunciation challenges: Siglufjordur, Landeyjar, Saudarkrokur. I learned some interesting Icelandic customs. Dried catfish is a snack food. Hosts offer milk to their adult guests. Who knew?

I figured it was because Bill and I are much older and have been together for thirty years that the characters’ preoccupation with their love lives struck me as silly. Don’t get me wrong. Bill and I love each other and are committed to our relationship. But when we have the choice at hotels, we opt for two queen beds. Good sleep trumps cuddling these days.

That evening, we went to visit a friend. She was the widow of one of my dad’s colleagues. I had known her since I was eleven or twelve. She had been a doctor, like my dad and her husband. She would have to be ten, maybe fifteen, years older than I.

My friend lived in a high-end retirement community. She was a vibrant woman. She set up scholarships for the workers in her enclave. She monitored the trees and plantings on the grounds. She took courses offered by a local college. She greeted everyone we ran into.

She had invited Bill and me to eat at her clubhouse and to meet her new boyfriend. He lived in her building and was a widower. He was charming and gregarious. He still had his hand in various businesses. He played tennis. He was 93.

You could feel the electricity between the two of them. They chatted constantly and coordinated their activities. They read the Sunday New York Times together in the pool cabana. He was the president and she was the vice-president of the Ping Pong club. They travelled, some of the time, to visit one or the other’s children.

“We’re going to the Caribbean next week,” the boyfriend announced. I asked, “Oh, are you going on a cruise?” He gave a broad grin. “No, to SANDALS.”

“They’re like teenagers,” I said to Bill. “They can’t keep their hands off each other.”  I had

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Bill and me in Jamaica c.1992

a fleeting memory of the heady days when we were courting. We felt old at 43. We were single parents. We had full schedules as doctors. But we PDA’ed (public displays of affection) our way through restaurants, hospital corridors and our offices.

I was dead wrong that the emotional highs of LOVE are reserved for the young, for people like our Nordic cop and Icelandic doctor. It’s a gift – at any age.

Tell me: Is there any better feeling than being in love?

 

High Expectations — And Then There’s Real Life

LuhC - 74  B&W – Version 2Remember when you had homework? I do. I brought home a pile of books: my intentions were so lofty. In those days before backpacks, I bundled them in my arms. The books often slid out of my grip. It was annoying.

Come Friday night, I wanted to relax. On Saturday, pangs of guilt nibbled at me. I should start on the English paper, the geometry problems and that history chapter. Despite my growing unease, I watched TV, read novels, chatted on the phone. I didn’t crack a book. Finally, late Sunday night, when all that was left on TV were televangelists, I’d start my homework.

Turns out that having this blog feels sort of like that. I feel the time pressure but often don’t get around to writing.

Don’t get me wrong. I love writing about books and my relationship to them. I love hearing from other readers how they feel.  But there are all sorts of reasons not to write: a friend’s visit, a walk, a TV show. And the more mundane obstacles: paying bills, washing clothes, buying groceries, cooking, visiting the doctor, even the occasional cuddle with husband Bill.

You may well wonder, what would be the downside of not writing a blogpost? I wonder
myself.  I fear my small but discriminating readership will lose interest. Also, my website on WordPress keeps track of how many “views,” “visitors” and “likes” I get every day, week, month and year. I have to keep my stats up.

Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird
Wikipedia

I console myself with the thought that quality trumps quantity. Look at Harper Lee. She is not just remembered but beloved. To Kill a Mockingbird has sold over 40 million copies since it came out in 1960.  Lee didn’t publish another book until Go Set a Watchman, a first draft of Mockingbird, shortly before her death 55 years later. And her life was just fine.

Well, not so fast. In Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, Casey Cep writes about Harper Lee’s losing struggle to produce a book after the stunning success of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee decided to write about a sensational murder in 1977 Alabama. The victim and the murderer were both black men. The lawyer for the defense was a white man, a liberal in the Deep South.91wsuYkNYLL

Lee was committed to writing this true crime story. She attended the trial. She paid for a typed transcript of the trial. She interviewed relatives, neighbors, officials. She actually lived in the town where the murder happened to gather materials. She became friends with Tom Radney, the defense lawyer, who gave her his legal notes. (The briefcase with the notes were found among Lee’s estate and returned to Radney’s family in 2017.)

Lee’s new work would be about a black man on trial and a sympathetic white man defending him. Sound familiar? As a non-fiction book, Lee faced challenges that Mockingbird did not have. The victim was not blameless, as Tom Robinson was. The Reverend Willie Maxwell was notorious for the suspicious deaths of family members and for collecting insurance on them. And in the late 1970s, the idea of a white lawyer “saving” a black man was not as politically palatable as in the 1930s, the setting of Mockingbird.

True crime writing had also changed, in large part due to Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote. Prior to Capote’s In Cold Blood, crime writing had been considered journalistic or tabloid. Capote called his book a “non-fiction novel,” shaping the narrative arc in novelistic fashion.

That these two giants of twentieth-century American literature were friends and neighbors is stranger than fiction, even though Lee based the character Dill on Capote. Cep notes in her book that Lee accompanied Capote to Kansas to help him gather information for In Cold Blood. The farm folks of western Kansas were put off by Capote’s lisp and odd clothing, They found Harper Lee “warm and empathetic.”

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Lee and Capote in 1976 

At the time, To Kill a Mockingbird had the much bigger impact on me. I felt like a part of the Finch family. I wanted a dad who was as brave, wise and loving as Atticus. I wanted a brother who would look out for me like Jem. I wanted someone to feed me and dress me like Calpurnia.

In Cold Blood made me fear for my family’s life. I was almost sorry I read it. Capote’s approach to non-fiction, however, stuck with me. It inspired my own writing.  His insertion of himself into the narrative and his subjective observations of the story’s action can only be called GONZO. I describe my blog as gonzo book reviews.

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Lee disapproved of many of the liberties Capote took in his book. He changed the timeline, inserted scenes and described the killers’ state of mind. Lee wanted to hew to the facts. But, I suspect, that she found it difficult to create narrative drive and sympathetic characters like she could in Mockingbird. Or, like me, she had chores to get out of the way. In the end, it took Cep to tell this story.

Lee became reclusive in reaction to To Kill a Mockingbird’s overwhelming popularity. She felt the weight of readers’ expectations.  Everyone wanted a piece of her. Some folks wanted her to write their stories. Some people wanted to be paid to answer her questions about the murder in her new book when they found out who she was. Still others just wanted to touch her hem. On the upside, Harper Lee never had to worry about making a living.

Cep weaves a tale of real people in complicated situations – historically, socially, legally,

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Casey Cep

racially. She hewed close to the facts, as Harper Lee would have approved. She made me realize that actual people with problems and hang-ups can write transcendent books. Still, it’s sad to think that Harper Lee buckled under the weight of the expectations of her fans and, mostly, her expectations for herself.

Which brings me back to my expectations for my blog. I remind myself that guilt and anxiety do not increase productivity. And they certainly decrease life satisfaction. And if I am late in posting on my self-imposed schedule, I and my discerning followers will survive the crushing disappointment.

Tell me: Do your expectations for yourself help you or hurt you?

Giants and Gods and Dwarfs

I remember the first movie I ever saw. I was about six. We lived in a refugee settlement LuhA - 16 B&Win Hong Kong, having fled China. I had no idea what to expect when Mom took me to the dark, spacious theater. I had to be very quiet.

Then the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs began. I didn’t understand the English, but I didn’t need to. I got the story. I was mesmerized by the talking mirror, the beautiful queen, the even more beautiful Snow White, Prince Charming, the echoing well, the scary hag.

And the “Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho” dwarfs! As a kid who felt alone, having left my home and my language, I was deeply moved when Snow White found protection and love from the odd little guys with long beards.

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51C7IGsOYHL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I was reminded of this long-ago episode of my life while reading Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology.

I was more familiar with the Greek gods: the philandering Zeus, the vengeful Hera, Hermes with the little wings on his feet, the huntress Artemis, Athena and Dionysius. They were like taller and more beautiful version of humans, sort of like Hollywood celebrities. Unlike the Norse gods, the Greek gods never paid a price for foolish actions or unwise decisions as they were immortal.

Of the Norse gods, I knew of Thor the Thunder God, Thor’s father Odin who ruled all the gods and Loki. Loki was often called a trickster. As it turns out, Loki belonged to a race of giants.

Neil Gaiman, a prolific author of fiction and non-fiction, brings a true storyteller’s

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Neil Gaiman (wikipedia)

sensibility to crafting these tales about the Norse Cosmos: gods, giants, men, dwarfs, elves, trolls, monsters and the Dead. The stories originate from pre-Christian, North Germanic tales, that, luckily for us, were written down in 13th century Iceland. I recommend listening to Gaiman read his book. He has a rich, smoky baritone which can be caressing, cajoling or menacing as needed. Think Alan Rickman.

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Bryn Terfil as Wotan (German Odin) in Das Rheingold

 

The characters of the Norse universe had outsized personalities. Odin gave one of his eyes to drink from the well of wisdom. When Mimir, the well’s guardian, said that the price of a drink was an eye, all Odin said was, “Give me a knife.”

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Dan Mills: fineartsamerica.com

 

Thor was physically imposing: “A huge god, red-bearded and muscular, wearing iron gauntlets and holding an iron hammer.” All the gods counted on him and his dwarf-forged hammer to protect them. In one instance, the threat was a mountain giant. Thor made quick work of him.

“There was a flash of lightning from the clear skies, followed by the dull boom of
thunder as the hammer left Thor’s hand. The mountain giant saw the hammer getting rapidly bigger as it came hurtling toward him, and then he saw nothing else, not ever again.”

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Tom Hiddleston as Loki

Loki’s parents were giants. He himself was a shape-shifter and could assume any form. He was very smart, perhaps too smart. His elaborate schemes got him and the other gods into terrible fixes. He never had any remorse. When asked why, he would say, “It was funny. I was drunk.”

One time, he talked the gods into accepting an offer to erect a wall around their home, which was  called Asgard. The reward was the sun, the moon and the beautiful Freya if the builder could complete the wall in one season. With the help of his powerful horse, this man was about to succeed. Then, on the last day of the season, the horse was lured away by a beautiful chestnut mare. The wall did not get finished. In time, the mare gave birth to Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse. That mare was Loki.

An important female in Norse mythology was Loki’s daughter Hel, the ruler of those who died shamefully. (The Valkyries carried those who died bravely to Odin’s Valhalla.) From her name, we get the word “hell.” She had unusual looks: “on the right side of her face her cheek was pink and white, her eye was the green of Loki’s eyes, her lips were full and carmine; on the left side of her face, the skin was blotched and striated, swollen in the bruises of death, her sightless eye rotted and pale, her lipless mouth wizened and stretched over skull-brown teeth.”

Someday, Hel will lead her horde of the Dead to fight against all the gods and the warriors of Valhalla at Ragnarok, the prophesied End of Days. Her Dead will arrive to the battlefield in “the biggest ship that ever have been: it is built of the fingernails of the dead.” Loki will be on board. Loki’s other children will be at the battle too: the Midgard serpent, big enough to encircle the world of humans, and the Fenris wolf, who will eat the sun and the moon. Frost giants, including fiery Surtr with his burning sword, will fight on Loki’s side.

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The Children of Loki (1920) by Willy Pogany

Ragnarok will start with unending winter and darkness. The all-seeing god Heimdall will blow the horn that “will wake the gods, no matter where they are, no matter how deeply they sleep.” Odin on his steed Sleipnir will brandish his dwarf-made spear. All will enter the fight: Thor wielding his hammer; Tyr, the one-handed god; Frey; Odin’s sons and Thor’s sons.

What does this battle with armies of the “Undead” and monsters and ice and fire remind me of? The Game of Thrones, of course. And then it hits me. It’s not coincidental that these two works have similar battle scenarios. The Norse mythological stories are the inspiration for the White Walkers, the Walking Dead and for all zombie movies.

Not just the Undead, but the concept of dwarfs, elves, trolls, giants and ogres are all found in these stories. This is the wellspring of so much that I love in literature, in movies, in art.

This is why the dwarfs in both Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” and the in The Lord of the Rings live underground and are master craftsmen. It comes from Norse mythology. The fact of the existence of the elf Legolas and the dwarf Gimli, not to mention their unlikely friendship in The Fellowship of the Ring, is due to the amazing inventiveness of the early Norse storytellers who created these races of beings.

Marvel Studios have a series of movies about Thor. I have only seen one, Thor: Ragnarok. Of course, they played fast and loose with the characters, including having the Hulk make an appearance.  But I think that’s okay. The myths themselves present such a rich and generous template that people have been adapting them for their own purposes for millennia.

It turns out I have known about aspects of the Norse world practically my whole life, ever since I encountered the Seven Dwarfs in that dark theater in Hong Kong. I just took them for granted.

Tell me: Did you ever have a favorite story that turned out to be based on an old tale?