fbpx

From the Middle of the River

Let’s Travel to Another Place…

I’ve been living in the Land of the Sick—and I’m ready to move.  To begin with, I’m sick with some kind of non-Covid throat infection, and this despite the fact that I wear masks, social distance, and disinfect.  How did these bugs sneak by my PPE to my tonsils?  Then, my brother and elderly mother have spent time this month in the hospital.  My daughter-in-law just video-chatted and said their whole family is sick with fever and nausea and waiting on Covid test results.

Looking for a reprieve from ill health, I turned on the TV…

and the screen lit up with people in hospitals on ventilators.  I walked to the kitchen to make a cup of tea (for my throat) but couldn’t miss my kitchen counter covered with thermometers, throat lozenges, and ibuprofen.  A sticky pad listed the health clinic and doctor’s phone number. The scenery in the Land of the Sick is not so great.

There are other lands to live in and plenty of examples of people who, in dire times, discovered them.  Novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Treasure Island, spent much of his youth in bed sick with bronchial infections.  That didn’t stop him from letting his mind jump a ship bound for exotic, ocean beaches full of nefarious pirates. Teddy Roosevelt too, was a bed-ridden, sickly youth, yet he spent hours with his toy soldiers dreaming of great deeds and military conquests.  Being physically trapped in their beds didn’t prevent these young men from roaming far and wide in their minds.

Another woman I knew told me about her own journey out of the Land of the Sick.

“Koontz and his stories, they saved me,” said Pam. “I got through my cancer treatments and came out the other side, amazingly still sane.”

Pam was just a young woman when she found out she had breast cancer and needed both surgery and chemo. It was a nightmare. She was frightened and became obsessed with thoughts of death.  Then someone gave her a Dean Koontz mystery/horror novel.  Pam told me reading Koontz book she was transported from her hospital room to an alleyway in southern California where some telepathic dog was tracking a killer.

“I wrote Dean Koontz a long letter thanking him for all that he did for me,” Pam told me excitedly, “and guess what?  He answered me back!”

Other lands are far more pleasant than the Land of the Sick.  There’s the Land of Music, the Land of Adventure, the Land of Building.  My father was a trucker in norther Indiana hauling trailer homes across the country.  He spent long hours in the cab of his truck with little else to do but watch the ribbon of highway stretching ahead of him. Dad trucked in a time before podcasts and other entertainments were available. His only diversion was the radio—when he could get reception.  But it was on these lengthy, boring trips to Florida or Massachusetts that dad would design and build a large addition he planned for our house.  He told my mother he had the blueprint in his mind.

This past week I took a hiatus from the Land of the Sick to binge-watch Netflix.

There I saw a great mini-series, The Queen’s Gambit, about a young woman who became a chess master.

In order for Beth Harmon to visualize her chess moves she had to leave the Land of Anxiety and Fear.  No one can concentrate if they’re locked in some awful headspace, but sometimes leaving is harder than we think. Beth Harmon took drugs–not an option for me, unless of course you count Ibuprofen.

Today, my throat still hurts, but I’m no longer contagious. I think I’ll take a drive down the road, not far, just to the place where there’s a little rise. I’ll park the car and sip my water bottle and and watch the traffic in the valley below. Maybe I’ll see a car with an out-of-state license plate, maybe Oregon.  Then I’ll think about that wonderful time we flew kites on the Oregon coast—and escape the Land of the Sick for a while.

 

Image Credit: Covid patient  Image Credit:  Dean Koontz   Image Credit: The Queen’s Gambit

Bad Times and Hard Luck

Winter is coming and many of us are stuck indoors dodging the coronavirus. Sounds like a good time for an inside joke. Isolating is causing me to stress-eat so much my shirt buttons are social distancing.  And, speaking of eating, how are we going to have holiday gatherings during Covid?  Treat everyone like turkeys and avoid from them all instead of just Uncle Cranky?  I might as well mention the job losses caused by Covid.  I’d make a joke about unemployment—but none of them work.

Though my attempt at humor may be fairly lame, the tough times coming this winter are no laughing matter.

The pandemic has already caused a great deal of suffering–but is this really the worst, hard time?

I was ruminating about our pandemic problem when I recently visited a rancher who lives in cowboy country just south of our farm.  Dave wanted to tell me some stories about his ancestors settling the west in the 1800’s, and the kind of winters his family endured in the early days.

“We don’t understand bad times,” Dave said shaking his head. “Winter was a real trial back then. Oh, we get bad winters now. In 1990 we had a cold snap.  Forty below in some places.  I remember I had to bring the cows in to feed. And, 2017 we got dumped on (with several feet of snow).  But my great-grandpa’s family—they couldn’t jump in a warm pickup and haul hay to their cows. At least we’ve got good transportation now.”

Dave showed me a book his Uncle Chet wrote about his ancestors.  His great-grandfather was a teacher from Delaware who came west to stake a land claim.  I leafed through the book and read about the first rock house his great-grandfather built in the high desert near Grasmere, Idaho.

The roof was made of willows, hay, and mud.

Inside the home, coarse muslin cloth was tacked to the ceiling to prevent dirt from drifting down on people’s heads.  Lacking trees in the desert, his great-grandparents burned sagebrush and manure in the fireplace.  Town was forty miles away.

“Life wasn’t easy, but they were young and had dreams,” Dave looked thoughtful. “If you live off the land though, you can’t ever forget that Mother Nature’s the boss.”

Dave said his ancestors learned to expect the unexpected. In the winter of 1919 a mangy coyote wandered into Dave’s grandparent’s yard and fought the family dog in the snow, spewing blood everywhere. Dave’s father, Billy, was just a little boy and loved their cow dog:  Doggone.

Doggone earned his name because anytime there was a mess or something was missing that “doggone dog” was involved.

Dave’s grandmother tried to shoo away the coyote and separate the two animals, but to no avail.  When his grandfather came home, he told Billy they might have to shoot Doggone because the coyote likely was rabid.  Then they learned Doggone had nipped both Billy and several cows in the pasture after his coyote battle. The doctor in Bruneau had to send away to San Francisco for rabies vaccine, and though Billy survived, Doggone and all the cows that were bit, went mad and died.

“That happened—but that wasn’t the worst winter,” Dave said.  The worst winter, Dave told me, was in the 1930’s during the Depression when his Great-Uncle Arthur, who ranched at Wickahoney, Idaho, had no money to buy feed for his cows. He finally went to the Bruneau bank to borrow money, but the bank refused him a loan. Banks were struggling as much as everyone else during the Depression. Not willing to stand by and watch his cows starve, the next day, Dave’s great-uncle hung himself.

“But my dad’s cousin, Rosella, Arthur’s daughter, she survived.  I think those hard times toughened her up, because she lived a good long life after that, well into her 80’s I believe.”

When my visit with Dave ended, I went in my house and walked around marveling at the comfortable and safe environment I live in. The family room felt a little chilly so I turned up the wall thermostat. Then, with a flick of a switch, I brewed some coffee.  As I sipped my coffee I thought about my particular story of oppression: the 2020 Covid Pandemic.  We may not be living in the best of times, but we’re certainly not living in the worst–not even close.

 

 

Image Credit:  Cowboy in snow.    Image Credit: Dave’s ancestral home 1900’s (courtesy Tindall family).  Image Credit:  Amos the cowdog (courtesy Christine Collett).  Image Credit: Cattle in winter (courtesy Christine Collett).

Poetry and Electing an Honest Man

I bent over the worksheet on my desk and followed the outline of the leaf with an orange crayon, and the acorn with a brown one.  Then I filled in the body of the leaf and acorn, lightly stroking the crayon back and forth. I remember how I admired my artwork in third grade.  Below my colored oak tree was printed a poem, the last two lines I still remember: “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”  I thought about that poem this morning marveling at the colorful ash tree in my front yard turning with autumn. These days pop culture has little use for poetry, but a century or two ago poetry was all the rage.  For me, certain poems are so unforgettable they’ve come to define each step of my life.

Most people are familiar with Robert Frost’s poetry and particularly his most famous, “The Road Not Taken.”  When I was in high school I won second place at the Indiana State Forensic competition reciting this poem.  I remember slowing the final lines down for dramatic effect:  “And I?  I took the road less traveled by—and that has made all the difference.”  The desire of my youth was encompassed in that line.  At seventeen I longed to be unique and make my own mark in the world in my own way.  Now, at the other end of the life cycle, “Birches,” another Frost poem, rings more true.  Frost writes how as an adult he misses his carefree youth:

“So was I once myself a swinger of birches

And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood…”

In college I became a cynic and lost all faith in God.  It was the Viet Nam era and over 58,000 young men and women were fated to die. In 1972 my first grade crush, Dennis Collins, would become a paraplegic fighting in that war.  The banality of weekly death counts numbed me.  I eventually turned to art to reignite my passion for life and living, and joined the college drama program.  I directed my fellow actors in a short performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”  I asked the players to paint their faces white and wear black turtleneck tops and pants as they took turns reciting: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”

When I was newly married a relative of mine, someone I cared for very much, “came out” and told me she was gay.  I remember castigating her because I felt this was a lifestyle choice, and she didn’t understand what she was getting into.  To support my argument I referred to the memoir of poet May Sarton, and the struggles she experienced as a lesbian.  It took a few generations before my thinking, and the thinking of the culture at large, shifted. This attitude change was expressed well in Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese”:

“You do not have to walk on your knees a hundred miles through the desert repenting…

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Eventually I raised my family and began a mid-life career teaching high school English.  I tried all kinds of imaginative ways to make poetry more palatable to my students: a poetry unit using rock music; lessons on dating and romantic poetry; an awards ceremony for the most funny or creative poetry my students could find or create.  Some years I began the class discussion on poetry with Billy Collins’ clever, “Introduction to Poetry”:  “I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide…but all they want to do is to tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it…”

When I finally retired from education, I had more time and became more civic-minded and politically active. Again poetry encapsulated in just a few stirring words my worst fears and best hopes.  Poet William Butler Yeats wrote with such profound insight, several lines of his poem, “The Second Coming,” have been used for numerous book titles:  “…Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity…”

Just this past week I glanced at British poet, Sheenagh Pugh’s, fall poem:

“Sometimes things don’t go, after all, from bad to worse. Some years Muscadel (grapes) face down frost…

A people sometimes will step back from war; elect an honest man; decide they care…”

As time marches inexorably on, I’m beginning to mourn the loss of friends and family members. Soon it will be my turn, and the thought of leaving this life is fearsome indeed. I find it oddly comforting to consider all the great people who’ve gone on before, Shakespeare for example.  I carry the great poesy’s words close to my heart at this age, and it seems a fitting way to end this meditation on my life’s poetry:

“That time of year thou may’st in me behold when yellow leaves…do hang upon the boughs…

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong—to love that well, which thou must leave ere long.”

 

 

Image Credit: Diana Hooley    Image Credit:  May Sarton 

That Thing We Have in Common with Caterpillar Moths

Whenever I encounter dumb, really numb-skull human behavior, I think about a story I read years ago by author Annie Dillard. I’ve never met Dillard, but she seems like my kind of person, someone who likes being outside and enjoys observing the world around her. I’ll readily admit I’m not as keen of an observer as Dillard, and she likes to watch small creatures: birds, mice, insects, and such. I’m more fascinated by large, hairy humans. Some have called Dillard a naturalist, but she’s a great writer. I’m particularly fond of a story she wrote about the caterpillar moth. My only experience with caterpillar moths was when I was a little girl and held them in my hand, and watched their wooly bodies inch across my palm.

As Dillard describes it, caterpillar moths like to line up behind a lead caterpillar whose role it is to seek out pine needles, a primary food source. In an experiment, the caterpillar leader was removed to find out if its followers would break rank and find food for themselves. Dillard reported that astonishingly, the caterpillar followers did not vary the route set out for them by their leader, even when there was no food available along this trail. They continued in a “doomed march” head-to-tail around the rim of a garden vase, when just below them down the side of the vase was a stash of tasty pine needles. They mindlessly circled the rim of the vase for seven days, and probably would have starved and died without rescue. Caterpillar moths apparently are insects enslaved by instinct and habit.

I knew a man once, Michael, who like Dillard, enjoyed being out in the natural world. Michael was a fan of all kinds of science though: physics, engineering, astronomy—and bragged to me that he read The Scientific American magazine cover to cover every month.  Michael was truly an intelligent man, not a caterpillar moth at all.  One evening my husband and I invited Michael and his wife over to play Trivial Pursuit, that old board game you play by asking participants to answer questions from different knowledge categories.

Predictably, Michael breezed through all the science and science-related categories, but he was stumped when he drew a Literature category card. Michael was unfamiliar with novels and authors. I wasn’t surprised and thought for sure he’d steer clear of this category in future plays—but he didn’t.  In fact, he repeatedly asked for Literature card questions and repeatedly missed them.  It was as if he thought sheer persistence would gain him the knowledge he needed to answer the Literature questions correctly.  He seemed fixated, unable to break a pattern—just like the caterpillar moths.

My friend Bob on the other hand, is definitely not a caterpillar moth. Bob is a former biology professor who sometimes likes to tease and make comments just to catch people off guard. I mentioned to Bob that I’d gotten my DNA analyzed so I could explore my ancestry. Bob didn’t ask (like most people would) what country my ancestors came from.  Instead, Bob asked, “How much Neanderthal DNA do you have?”

Neanderthal?  I looked at Bob carefully to see if he was joking. Nobody wants to be called a Neanderthal. Everyone knows that Neanderthals are big and dumb. I used to call my teenage brothers Neanderthals because they were hulking brutes that ate peanut butter out of the jar with their index finger. Novelist Jean Auel thought so little of Neanderthals she characterized them in her book, Clan and the Cave Bear like they were caterpillar moths: hobbled by tradition and unwilling to learn anything new.

I did a little research on Bob’s question though.  I found out Neanderthals were actually quite intelligent.  They used tools and could be creative.  They made art.  Most of us with European ancestry have anywhere from 1%-2% Neanderthal DNA.  Whether Bob’s question was meant to be provocative or not, I know how I’d respond to him now:  “Neanderthals aren’t so bad.  Like moth caterpillars and other creatures, they have something to teach us–and of course, the most important lessons are always about ourselves.”

Image converted using ifftoany

 

Image credit: caterpillar moth     Image credit: Trivial Pursuit      Image credit: Neanderthal

 

Not Everyone Wants to Hear an Exercise Evangelist

When I was in college I remember putting on a pair of cut-off pants and sneakers and trying to jog four blocks in the Park View residential area near campus. I weighed much less than I do now, and though my heart was younger and stronger, I was completely exhausted, sweating profusely by the time I finished my jog. The next day my leg muscles hurt so much I could barely walk up the hill from my dorm room to class. I was convinced then, that a lifetime of exercise was not in my future.

The only reason I’d attempted a run that day was to lose weight and a four-block jog did nothing to the numbers on my bathroom scale.

Fast forward forty-seven years, an aging body and the beginnings of arthritis, and now I’m an exercise evangelist.  Movement, I told my 87-year-old mother, is key. Mom grew up in the 1930’s and 40’s when people believed preserving energy was more important than expending it.

“Back then we didn’t have to exercise.  We worked!” mom told me. “My mother stood over a hot iron and ironed clothes for hours.  Dad came home tired every day from working in the Dupont Powder plant.”

She almost sneered comparing modern-day notions of physical activity with how hard people labored when she was a girl.

I was a little frustrated because mom has some heart problems, and yet she enjoys sitting in her grey recliner watching the neighbor kids play outside her big picture window. When I went for my yearly physical, I complained to my doctor about mom’s sedentary habit.

“Oh,” the doctor told me matter-of-factly, “lots of older people like to sit in their chair much of the day. Their energy levels are low, and they’re often worried about falling. Sometimes it hurts to move. I understand why they feel this way. Find some ‘exercises-for-seniors’ videos for your mom. That might help.”

I made my doctor laugh when I recounted what a farmer friend told me once about movement and cattle. The farmer said if cows don’t stand up and move around, they’ll “go down and stay down.” He said it’s important to get new-born calves up and moving, looking for their mother’s milk.  And, if a cow is injured or sick, she’ll often do better if you can get her on her feet and foraging, as opposed to laying in the barn stall.

Mom is taking drugs to combat her heart problems, but I wanted her to read an article with a compelling title:

“Closest Thing to A Wonder Drug?  Try Exercise!” (New York Times, 6/20/2016).

She batted away my outstretched hand when I offered my cell phone to her.  I thought she might want to scroll down and read the article online. I knew I was being pushy, but I couldn’t help myself.  I cared about her.

Elderly woman in glasses thoughtfully looking out the window.

“Why don’t you just tell me the gist of it?” she kindly suggested.

“It says,” I gazed down at my cell phone, “‘…of all the things we as physicians can recommend for health, few provide as much benefit as physical activity.’ And then here it says that exercise is the ‘miracle cure.’  It helps your heart, your arthritis, depression, diabetes, and other diseases. It says to realize a benefit you only need to exercise just 30 minutes—on weekdays. That means weekends are off!”

I looked up excitedly from my cell phone to gauge mom’s reaction, only to find her eye lids drooping, ready for her nap. I was reminded then the many times she’d tried to school me: “You just don’t know what it feels like to be this old,” or “When you get my age you’ll think differently.”

The clock ticked quietly in the kitchen, and I waited a moment before I pocketed my cell phone and left. I lightly patted my mom’s hand, “Hey, I need to go. I’ll give you a call this weekend and see how you’re doing.”

As I gently clicked the front door shut behind me, I sighed thinking how ironic life is.  I didn’t like exercising when I was a young college co-ed, and now my old mother feels the same way. The burden of movement is life-long.

 

Image credit:  Jogger     Image credit:  Old woman looking out a window

 

I’m Afraid of the Air…

Outside the sun is rising, a burnt orange ball on the horizon, ominously beautiful. I watch it from the safety of my bunker, formerly known as my home. Like some apocalyptic, dystopian novel, I have become afraid of the air we breathe. It’s an alien invasion of either forest fire particulates or Covid virus. A mask seems like such a flimsy defense against our marauding atmosphere here in the west. Several people, including myself, have wondered, “When will our air be breathable again? When can we give up our suffocating masks and be normal?”

Covid, according to the latest from the scientific community, won’t die down until next year some time. The summer wildfires in our droughty western climate are an entirely different matter altogether. Out of control forest and range fires will continue, says reporting in the New York Times (9/11/2020), until humans change our behaviors.

“What percent of the wildfires this summer do you think are human caused?” I looked at my husband over the rim of my coffee cup this morning.

I’d been doing some research on the subject, and I was curious what he thought. I know my husband to be a well-read man, and as a farmer, an astute observer of the natural world, the weather, and the climate.

“Low, I think human caused, that percent must be low,” he said. “There was that lightning storm earlier this month. I think that’s what ignited the northern California fires.”

I was surprised by his response because he was uncharacteristically, dead wrong. According to my research, 80% of wild fires are started by humans. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions says the biggest issue is that towns and cities are allowing land to be developed for homes in wild and forested areas susceptible to fire. It’s called a “wildland-urban interface.”

As I look out my patio window at the smoky blanket overlaying the landscape, I’m reminded of a Cormac McCarthy book I read several years ago called The Road.

The book was about a man and his son seeking to escape the effects of a nuclear holocaust.

The world was devastated and food was scare because the earth was coated with dark clouds of ash and debris. The earth had plunged into a cold, perpetual twilight affecting all living things, including our food source: plants and animals. Again, the root cause of such a horrific scenario was human behavior.

Can we change our behaviors? How much? Sometimes I wonder. Our basic needs are for air, water, food, and security. What if these needs come in conflict? Our need for clean air battles with our need to feel secure. We want to feel safe living in a natural setting like the forests far away from city crime and ironically, city smog.

Fortunately, Forbes Magazine (5/24/2019) reported on the path to behavior change and two of the three steps are already happening.

More and more people are recognizing that western wild fires are the new normal and need to be addressed.

Secondly, solutions are being developed, cities are starting to zone more cautiously, and homes are beginning to be built with the environment in mind. The third step is harder: making behavior change desirable. To that end we’re all looking to the future, which doesn’t have to be doom and gloom, but can be exciting and new. Though climate change, the problem behind western wild fires, is ongoing, we’re slowly innovating our way to a carbon-free future. My husband, maybe in an effort to redeem his reputation, offered this comment: “You know Tesla? Their electric car division is now worth four times the stock value of gas-powered vehicles. Imagine that?”

 

Image Credit: Dale Hooley, wearing his respirator      Image Credit: The Road

South Africa Comes to an Idaho Farm

The Old South Can’t Solve the New Covid

Recently, both the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama, unlike other colleges who’ve gone online, are dealing with Covid-19 outbreaks. It’s not surprising considering the South had the highest number of Covid infections this summer. Sadly, many southerners can’t afford to go to the doctor or hospital either. Nine of the ten poorest states are in the South. And, if these southerners are looking for federal help to cover their medical expenses, they probably won’t find it in their home state. Of the twelve states still holding out on Medicare expansion, eight of them are in the South. What’s going on Down South anyways?

There’s a lot to love about the South. I know because both my parents were born and raised there in Kentucky and West Virginia. It wasn’t until after they married that they moved north looking for work other than coal mining. I have such deep southern roots my great-grandfather’s name was Stonewall Jackson Lankford, named after the confederate general of Civil War fame. My grandmother was such a hillbilly she chewed tobacco, played the banjo, and regularly exclaimed, “Lord have mercy!”

I’m not sure when or why the South lost ground, economically and in other ways. When my mother went to Beaver High School in Bluefield, West Virginia, one of her older classmates was John Nash, the subject of the movie, A Beautiful Mind. Nash went on to eventually win the Nobel Prize in economics. My dad never graduated from high school, but his school was Big Creek High School. Big Creek was also the alma mater of Homer Hickam, the former NASA engineer who trained the first astronauts, and gained fame as the leader of the “Rocket Boys.” These southerners were not just open to new ideas, they were the ones instigating them.

When I taught history I told my students about the differences between the North and the South before the Civil War. The North was founded by religious separatists like the Puritans who worked hard to build a life in the New World. The South was largely colonized by British nobles seeking to extract tobacco wealth from the land. Georgia actually began as a penal colony. One part of the country industrialized, and the other part was more agrarian and wedded to a medieval economic system based on slavery. This history set the stage for the humiliating defeat the South suffered at the end of the Civil War. Parts of the South still seem in retreat.

I recently gave my mother a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, that wonderful classic by Alabama author, Harper Lee. I didn’t know if mom had read it before, she reads so voraciously, but, she seemed delighted with my gift. This week I visited her again, and asked how she liked the book.

“Oh, I loved it! I read it all in one day! I couldn’t put it down. She (Harper Lee) really got the way things were back then, the way I grew up (in the South),” mom told me.

Of course mom enjoyed this book: history and tradition are important to her. Lots of southern music is about tradition and the old ways: fishing in the creek and driving a beat-up pickup with a dog in the back. There’s nothing wrong with this, except sometimes the answers we need now, for example how to deal with this pandemic, can’t be found in the past. Country music star Eric Church gets this. I listened to a song of his the other day on my car radio:

“…Jails are full, factories empty,

Momma’s crying, young boys dying

Under that red, white, and blue still flying…

Stick that in your Country song…”

 

Image Credit:  Stonewall Jackson         Image Credit:   Eric Church

Reality TV Has the Answers

I am not a voyeur.  Yet, when Covid struck and channel surfing seemed more likely than ocean surfing, I clicked the remote until I came upon a couple of reality TV shows that hooked me.  My 600-Pound Life and Naked and Afraid are both full of lurid, ooh-ah moments designed to keep the TV viewers tuned in.

What can I say?  Last summer at this time I was reading a prize-winning book about brain chemistry, and this summer I’m into fat and naked people.

(Please note I didn’t combine those adjectives:  Six Hundred Pounds, Naked, and Afraid is a TV show still searching for an audience.)

These TV shows may offend more discerning tastes, but I have to say, I’ve learned a few things about human behavior watching them.  For example, people will eat anything, ANYTHING, when they are hungry.  A dieting, obese person will claw through the garbage, past coffee grounds and slimy peach pits, to get to the bag of potato chips they nobly threw away the day before.  Naked people may be afraid of the panther in the jungle, but they’re fearless about eating stinky skunk meat.  I’ve also learned will power is not necessarily won’t power, as in I won’t abandon this challenge.  People will “tap out” of the jungle and put on a pair of underwear if the chiggers get bad enough.  Obese people will go back to fried mayonnaise sandwiches if their only other option is lettuce (I don’t blame them).

A fascinating lesson from these shows has to do with resilience, the very trait needed to get through tough times.  I’ve thought about this lesson a lot lately with our pandemic, job losses, and social unrest.  How can we still be okay when life gets difficult?  How do some people on Naked and Afraid survive 21 days without food, water, or shelter being provided?  How is the 600-pound woman able to withstand a year of only 1200 calories-a-day, or less?  They somehow find the resilience they need to meet their challenge.

From the comfort of my couch I cheer them on, thankful I’m not in their situation—but wait, I AM in their situation.

We all live with some kind of struggle.  It may not be worthy of a reality TV program, but we all have some kind of problem we have to deal with, often on a daily basis.

One thing I try to keep in mind about reality TV is how orchestrated these shows are. There’s a certain amount of character and plot manipulation going on (remember that 1998 movie, The Truman Show?)  Yet, there’s also obvious instances of genuine human suffering on reality TV.  I’ve noticed successful show participants think and act more flexibly.  They demonstrate their resilience by making things better, even in the worst of circumstances. The couple abandoned in the wilds of Indonesia built a cozy hut and figured out how to turn a piece of bamboo into a water filter. The 600-pound man found a way to make his meals more appetizing without the extra calories.  He added colorful chopped vegetables and began experimenting with fresh fruit. They made their hardship less hard.

I thought about reality TV when I visited an old friend of mine who’s suffering from a re-occurrence of her cancer.  I’d been meaning to visit her, to see how she was doing, but couldn’t find a good time.  Finally, one day when I was running errands I stopped by her house.  I felt bad about not calling ahead and hoped, considering her recent bad news, she’d feel like talking with me.  I rang the doorbell and when no one answered, peeked into her back yard.  I’m not sure what I expected to find, but I didn’t anticipate my friend smiling and sitting with her husband in lawn chairs.  They were drinking a glass of wine and looking at the lovely white phlox blooming in her flower bed.  In the background I heard the sweet strains of violin music coming from speakers mounted above the patio.

My friend may only weigh 120 pounds, and she would never think of leaving her home without her clothes on, but she does have something in common with the people on reality TV:  she’s knows how to be resilient in a challenging time.

 

 

Image Credit:  Naked and Afraid    Image Credit:  photo by Diana Hooley

Image Credit:  Resilience

A Wind that Blows Nobody Good

On a trip to the coast recently I enjoyed watching the wind send ocean spray flying down the beach.  Not all winds though, are so friendly.  Just today the news reported that an inland hurricane, a derecho, packing 100 mph winds, had flattened crops and destroyed buildings and property in Iowa.  Last week, Hurricane Isaias unleashed wind and rain across the Eastern Seaboard.  And a couple of days ago, multiple tornadoes ripped through greater Chicago causing extensive damage.  As the old Jimmy Reeves song says, these were ill winds that “blew nobody good.”

Ill winds have been part of my history—and as a matter of fact, greater Chicago too.

I grew up not too far from the “windy city” in northern Indiana. When I was eleven-years-old on Palm Sunday1965, two tornadoes struck my little town. Twin funnels cut a swath of destruction killing 1200 people and flattening a trailer park just south of where I lived.  There were a total of 47 tornadoes sighted in the Midwest that Palm Sunday.  To this day it’s still considered to be one of the deadliest and most violent tornado outbreaks ever recorded.  Some people in our town were not even aware of the severe weather forecast. They were sitting in church pews celebrating Easter week when they heard the roar of the twisters.

Unfortunately, the tornado season that year did not end with the Palm Sunday tornadoes.  A month later, again on a Sunday, a tornado was sighted in my town June 6.

I remember this tornado even more than the Palm Sunday twins, because it was the day after my brother Sam died.

Sam and I were taking swimming lessons at the YMCA pool when he lost his life.  Though it happened a long time ago, I still remember how devastated my family was.  We gathered together in the little living room of our ranch-style house, crying and hugging each other. Then suddenly, we heard an eerie wail rise up from the street outside, a sound that had nothing to do with our grief.  Firetrucks were roaming the neighborhood and blaring their sirens.  They were warning people to take shelter because a tornado had been sighted.

I walked out the front screen door to see the firetrucks passing by, and then noticed my grandfather standing in our yard watching the sky.  I stood by him for a while, when another man strolled over and asked Grandpa what he thought about the weather situation.  Grandpa just shook his head as if he couldn’t take one more piece of bad news that day.

Eventually, he responded to the man, telling him he thought the weather didn’t look good, the sky was too green and the air too still.

This was the first time I’d heard about one of the more significant warning signs of an impending tornado: the wind stops blowing.  Apparently, tornadoes create a low pressure vacuum, something commonly known as the calm before the storm.  We were all thankful when we heard on the radio that our area was given the “all clear” by the National Weather Service.

After I married an Idaho farmer and moved out west, I had to get used to the never-ceasing winds that scour these high desert plains.  I’d get nervous when the skies darkened and the wind turned into a full gale.  One year a storm came roaring through the canyon near us.  The wind shook our trailer so much, a favored print by the French artist Jean-Francois Millet, fell from the paneled wall, and cracked the frame.

That wind storm almost sent me to the corner of the room cowering in fear.

I’m still afraid of extreme wind events, though today for an entirely different reason.  I know derecho’s, tornado clusters, and increasing numbers of hurricanes are all signs of the climate changing.  Just because we’re dealing with a viral pandemic does not mean this particular problem has gone away.  But unlike a sudden tragic death, we can do something about climate change—and that gives me hope.

 

Image Credit:  Palm Sunday twin tornadoes 1965       Image Credit:  Derecho