Friday, October 3, 2014

World War II and Mormon Sex Ed

The night seemed like any other; we had just finished family scripture study, our nightly tradition of reading a chapter from the Book of Mormon before bed.  We had read about a man named Alma who was counseling/castigating his son Corianton for going after "the harlot Isabel."  Both the Bible and Book of Mormon are replete with stories like these, and we didn't take a second thought to the matter. But as my brother Trevor and I started putting away our scriptures, my father looked up and cheerfully asked, "Do you guys know what a harlot is?"

Thus began The Talk.  Trevor and I were instantly alert.  We didn't know what a harlot was, exactly, but neither of us felt this line of conversation was leading anywhere good--children are so perceptive. My father, initially filled with enthusiasm at the perceived parental teaching opportunity, was quickly deflated. Whenever the conversation butted up against specific, clinical terms, he would stutter, stammer and wipe his forehead. Mom tried her best to step in and offer clear explanation.  Her best efforts notwithstanding, Trevor and I eventually shuffled out of the room quietly, feeling wildly uncomfortable and more confused about that stuff than we had been an hour before.

The Talk.  It's among the few shared terrors of human existence.  No matter how anyone found all of that stuff out, it's a fair bet, they were dealt a traumatic experience in the process.  And most humans have to endure it at least twice: once when we're kids (Trev and I were 9 and 11, respectively), and then again when we have wide-eyed, horrified kids of our own doing all in their power to avoid eye contact.  It's the grim duty of every parent.

My youngest brother Nate is seven years Trevor's junior.  My parents, therefore, bore the burden knowledge that their parental duty to give The Talk had not yet passed.

So they put it off like champs.

I was 21 when I came home from my two year mission in Washington State.  I was an Adult, was old enough to drink, (I never did and never will, but knowing I could meant a lot.) and I pretty much had a handle on life.  To my wise, aged eyes, my parents seemed like two fellow adults who had somehow lost their bearing when it came to life decisions.  It was my responsibility to help them find their way again.  I was happy to lend a hand.

One day in passing right after Nate had turned 12, I overheard my mother remind my father they needed to think about giving Nate The Talk.

"You haven't given Nate The Talk yet?!"  I was incredulous.  At 12 years old, I was certain Nate had pieced together mechanics of you-know-what through bits and pieces he had overheard in the seedier corners of the recess playground.  As an Adult, I knew this led to nothing good for my little brother.  My mind's eye saw Nate and his future wife living in separate beds a la Ricky and Lucy, saw him permanently scarred when he learned about you-know-what from a particularly skeezy episode of  "Monk."  My worst fears took the form of a particularly unhappy shotgun wedding.  I wouldn't let this happen to a member of my family.

On duty, I hounded and harangued my parents to tell him.  For months.  Finally, my mother fired back in exasperation, "Stu, fine!  If you think it's so important and easy, maybe you should tell him, yourself!"

"I will if you guys won't!"

Fine!  Let me get him!"  Mom called Nate and sat him down on the couch.  The atmosphere in the room was  suddenly tense.  I'd felt that somewhere before.  Where was it?

"Nate, your brother has something he needs to Talk to you about, and it's really important, alright?"

Mom turned, arms folded and the smuggest smirk I have ever experienced gracing her face.  "Alright, Stu.  Go ahead."

Stuttering and stammering, I wiped my forehead.  "Ok, um, Nate, buddy, uh, I need to Talk to you.  Um, do you know where babies come from?"

My little brother's eyes grew wide and panicked.  He immediately glanced around, searching desperately for an exit.  He didn't answer my question.  This was already going poorly.  I remembered how traumatized I had been when my parents had dumped all the crass details into our laps so unceremoniously, so awkwardly. I wanted to be more deft than that., needed to find an analogy that would introduce the concepts without scarring him.

And then it struck me.

"Nate, you remember about World War II and D-Day?"  Nate nodded silently, still looking mildly frantic.  Mom's smirk had molded itself into a furrowed look of concern.

"Imagine you had a little Higgins boat like they had--you know those landing boats full of soldiers?  You know, like little sea men?  Well, what happened was they were in these boats that went up onto the shore. The boat released its soldiers and all the soldiers stormed the beach.  A lot of the soldiers didn't make it, but they all wanted to be the first one to get to Normandy."

Nate now wore an expression of mingled horror, bewilderment, and disgust.  I subconsciously realized I never knew how much he and Mom really looked alike; at least, one was doing a pretty uncanny impression of the other at that moment.

I continued, "And when the first soldier gets to Normandy, Normandy turns into a zygote."

Mom gasped, Nate cocked his head in alarmed confusion, covered his ears with his hands, shut his eyes, and hummed.  This was going poorly.  I felt flushed, mildly embarrassed and solidly out of my depth.  I mumbled something like, "I guess you don't know what a zygote is, huh?"

Mom cut me off, stepped in, and started to run damage control.  She started explaining to Nate in direct, scientific language without analogy.  She received points for clarity, but I felt my symbolic description was much more expressive and creative.  Whatever.  Nate got the talk from my mom, which is what I wanted in the first place.

Mission successful.  Though I found the experience more than a little uncomfortable, I'm actually grateful I had it.  I gained a few bits of wisdom that will serve me well when I eventually have to Talk to my own children.  They are as follows:

  • Kids need to hear the details in the most straightforward, clear way possible.
  • The use of D-Day as a historical analogy will forever sully June 6, and will introduce a number of unwelcome euphemisms into your life.
  • It's good to speak clearly without stutter or hesitation.  Aspire to be as good as the greats, like Jeff Goldblum, or Bob Newhart. (Also, never, during The Talk should the term, "Life, uh, finds a way" ever be used.)
  • Don't outsource the job to your barely-not-a-teenager son.  He'll foul it up, bigtime.
I would love to hear any other tips or cautionary tales.  I figure if I start preparing now, I'll be ready to tell my kids.  If I ever decide to have them.  How does that happen, anyway?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Missing Dog: Why Having Pets is Horrible, and Why Everyone Needs One.

Tracker had his share of flaws.

I mean, sure; he's a dog.  And dogs, whatever their size or breed, come with a pretty large and distinct territory.  They can tend to be hyper.  In his youth, Tracker had preternatural wells of energy.  He had worn a running track along the edge of the backyard's fence, a bald patch of packed dirt where once had been soft grass.  He would lap around the yard's circumference over and over, a black and white blur against our white vinyl fence.  I often casually wondered what he was training for.  a greyhound may have been able to beat my little springer spaniel in a sprint, but I was pretty confident Tracker stood among the canine elite in endurance events.  He lived up to the aptly-named springer spaniel breed as well.  That dog learned how to jump our eight-foot fence, and was locked in a continuous man vs nature competition with my father.  Dad diligently devised new ways to improve the boundaries that kept Tracker in, while the dog always devised a new jailbreak to experience the world at large.

Tracker, like most dogs barked.  Incessantly.  His bark was impressively loud and persistent.  It led to more than a few awkward moments with long-suffering neighbors whose patience finally began to wear as thin as the dirt track in the yard.  The bark was fairly vicious.  It was a lie.  Were an intruder to build up the courage to face the dog with the ferocious, snarling bark, he'd find an enthused, overgrown puppy whose nubby tail was wagging so fiercely his whole body shook.

He was an impressive and efficient machine of destruction.  As kids, were we to take off our shoes and get on the trampoline, Tracker would respectfully leave them neatly where we placed them.  Until we went back inside. Any object left in the yard in our absence--cell phones, shoes, frisbees, lawn mower bags, footballs, sleeping bags, barbecue tools, etc.--were his to destroy.  And destroy them he did.  We'd find their remnants, impossibly tiny pieces, spread through the grass like mulch.

As Tracker aged and mellowed slightly, he still maintained his puppy-like excitement to see his People.  He would shake with excitement when we walked in, and thrust his head into our hands.  "Pet me!" he insisted.
We got Tracker as an imperturbably happy puppy when I was ten.  And I took his presence in my life for granted.  Although I had made all kinds of promises to the contrary, I rarely walked him when I was a teenager.  I let my parents feed and water him, and resented it when I had to scoop up the corner of the yard that served as his depository.

Gratefully, in my adult years, I came to appreciate his positive presence in our lives more fully.  I walked him and petted him, and threw his ball--which was whatever ball he hadn't shredded into confetti.  He would listen to me when I was vexed and depressed by life's complexities.  Always, he was unconditionally, unapologetically, selflessly loving.  As we aged together, Tracker started getting grumpy when he was tired.  If you woke him up by petting him, he'd let out a low, less-growl, more-grumble.  "Does sleep mean nothing to you, man?"  he would ask.  But he would often and roll over into my hand, all the same.  I was, after all, his Person.

Tracker aged gracefully.  But slowly, his wells of energy seemed to be drying.  His enthusiasm seemed to fade.  The light in his eyes flickered slightly.  One Christmas Eve morning, we had woken up to find that Tracker had prolapsed part of his bowel.  He was sick.  He wasn't going to get better.  My dad and I clipped on a leash for one last walk.  Our little springer was excited.  We took him to the vet, and he excitedly greeted the other dog in the lobby.

We were escorted to a backroom and I lifted and gently placed my dog on a table.  He was nervous and sick.  He placed his head in my hands and looked up at me.  He didn't break that gaze as the professional and kind vet techs shaved a small place on his arm, placed a catheter, and prepped him for that final medicine we had come to give him.  The tech helping us quietly invited us to say goodbye.  My dad and I kissed our dog--our brother and friend and guardian.  We were both choking on stinging tears and swollen throats.  Tracker, alone, didn't whine or sniff.  He simply looked at me.  "Here we go," the tech said quietly, and she pressed down on the syringe.  Tracker didn't move.  He breathed, locking his eyes in mine.  He breathed again, and in my hands, his body softened, his head grew heavy.  And Tracker closed his eyes.

Chelsea and I recently visited the Humane Society.  I like to go there periodically to pet the animals and take the dogs on walks.  While it's sad, you can't help but feel good upon leaving, having brought so much enthusiasm and happiness to them, for even a moment.  It makes me feel like I have a lot to offer, that I can make a difference in the life of a living thing merely by paying it a little attention.

Pets are messy, loud, hard work, costly, damage-creating, obnoxious, and often-smelly pests.  And inevitably, you will outlive them, and find yourself one day holding a living thing that's wormed its way into your heart as they pass out of life.  It is one of the most heart wrenching experiences I've had.

But I will always have pets.  Everyone should.  Here's why:
  • They are good for your health.  Decades of research have proven that owning a dog or cat lowers blood pressure, heart rate, anxiety, depression, and other mental/emotional disorders.  They can even affect cholesterol levels and in turn, lower incidences of cardiac arrest.  In the event of cardiac arrests, survivors who own pets live longer after their episodes than their animal-less counterparts.  All said, life expectancy and, more importantly, quality of life increase significantly for those that have a furry friend. (Sources: 1, 2)
  • They train you. Pets force you out of bed.  They make you clean.  They make you wash and feed and walk.  They require a certain level of care that instills in us humans an increased sense of responsibility.  Having pets increases good habits.
  • They're living things. Almost universally, people love playing with kittens and puppies.  Why?  They're too young to give a lot of love.  The kittens don't purr, and puppies don't learn to lick or wag until the latter stages of their puppyness.  Yet we all turn to small piles of mush.  It's because they are living things, and we are conditioned by evolution to value life--especially young life--when we see it.  Their individual personalities and temperaments, their love and attention will weave into your family's fabric.  After Tracker, my parents adopted an adorable little hound/beagle we named Bailey.  We love her dearly, but the place Tracker left in our hearts will never be filled.  Both hold a unique place in our family.
Tracker is one of a number of pets that have left their unique prints in our lives. It hurts when they die.  Terribly.  But loss will always be a part of love; that pain has always been small price to pay for the enrichment and joy others bring into our lives--including pets.

Friday, July 4, 2014

America's Ideal Foundation

"We are the greatest nation on the planet."

The doctor looked up from his procedure and had made the statement not with bravado, but with a near-childlike certainty.  It was simply accepted.  A fact.  Whatever context that had steered our conversation to his conclusive finality is faded and forgotten.  But his statement rings strong and bold, and simple in memory:  "We are the greatest nation on the planet."

The Danish nurse working in the room with us, one of the sweetest people I've ever had the pleasure to know, waited a moment and offered a gentle dissent to the doctor's conclusion.  "I may disagree with you," she said simply, with a genuine smile.

The doctor realized suddenly that his statement may have alienated our European coworker and apologized graciously.

For days after that brief exchange, I was mulling over what makes us the "greatest nation."  Or is that fact unsubstantiated, just so much fluff?  Statistically speaking (No American is comfortable with these statistics and many dispute them heatedly), we fall well short of other nations in education, life expectancy, production, and--it has to be said--soccer.  We excel in higher education, educating many of the world's best and brightest in our universities.  We have, by a staggering degree, the biggest military in the world.  (The largest air force in the world is the US Air Force.  The second largest air force in the world?  The US Navy.  No kidding.)  We also have the highest GDP, highest average income, and are among the best in property owning rights, human rights, and freedom of speech.

But do those things make us great?  Does lacking in areas of education, healthcare (depending on who you ask), government spending, life expectancy, and so on strip us of our title of Ultimate Country Champion?
Why exactly do we wave the flag on the Fourth of July?  Our general satisfaction with the status quo of our government is ringing incredibly low, and has perpetually been that way for much of the last two decades, perhaps much longer, depending which values you esteem and which ruler you use to measure.  What's there to wave about?  We make bombs burst in air, don powdered wigs, and recite pledges of allegiance to a flag representing a system of government with which most are disillusioned and frustrated.
So are we the greatest nation on the planet?

Maybe, maybe not.  But of all the superlatives we claim in the world, one stands out to me:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

In the document that declared us a nation independent, the faltering, fighting, fallible founding fathers established something the world had never really seen--a system based upon principles, a government establish around a concept of ideal and intrinsic rights.  Nations theretofore had touted lofty and noble sentiment, and have since.  But never in the history of our planet had a country been established upon an idea.  All men and women are equal.  Every person on this earth, regardless of the happenstance of their birth, religion, race, wallet, etc, is entitled as a human being to life, to freedom, to pursuing happiness as they see fit.  To base a nation upon that kind of ideal was novel, dangerous, radical.

I don't know if we're the "best country in the world."  There are many dark marks in our history, and perhaps even in our current state, where we have faltered in honoring and upholding these principles.  We still struggle treating each man and woman as an equal.  The instituted government has often fallen short of securing these rights.  Still, our country is built upon an ideal foundation that stands even if the structure built upon it groans and creaks and threatens to fall.  Those principles remain.

So on this day where we contemplate our independence, I take solace not in being the greatest nation in the world (and is it a contest, after all?), but that we live in a system established upon such abiding and eternal ideals.  That is really what the flag represents, and reason enough to wave it.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Blindest of Dates: Utah County Romance at its Finest

Most of you may know this story, but it’s worth telling again, in honor of the impending Valentine's Day.  Chelsea courageously copes with the emotional scars I still bear from my many years of post-mission dating in Utah County.  The following recounts my first, and most traumatic, dating experience upon returning from my mission.

Dating in Utah County is completely unique to anywhere else on Earth. Take, for example, the RM factor. Returned LDS missionaries return to their home life and schooling not unlike a newborn entering the world. They're all a little shocked about what's going on around them, have wide, unblinking eyes, are almost completely incapable of social communication, and need to be slapped periodically to remind them to breath. At least, it was that way for me. They also return trailing a habit that was indoctrinated and ingrained in them each moment of each missionary day--a complete and utter terror of the opposite sex. Hugging even your own sister is a little weird when you first return. The problem is that to everyone in LDS culture, an unmarried RM is a loose cannon. To them, it seems few if any RM's can long survive the traumatic rebirth into real-life if they are single. The longer he goes without a girl's hand clasping his own, the more likely he is to watch Family Guy, drink Doctor Pepper, or swear.  Therefore, it becomes the duty of every faithful Latter-day Saint to line up their returned missionary brothers and sisters. (I think it's in the D&C somewhere.)

I think whoever termed it "lining up" had an execution in mind.  It feels a lot that way sometimes.  Take my first "line up" experience upon returning home:

“Stuart!  Welcome back!  This is your old home teacher!”

“Brother Martin!  How are you doing?”

“Really well, thanks!  Just wanted to call and welcome you home.  Also, I was wondering, we’re going to be having leftover pie on Sunday night.  Would you like to come help us out with it?  I think it would be good for us to hear some of your mission stories.”

One of the first things I learned upon returning home was a returned missionary is happiest when talking 
about his mission.   “Absolutely Brother Martin!  I’d love to!”

“Sounds great, Stu.  We’ll plan on you at 7:00”

The following Sunday Brother Martin came up to me in church.  “We still on for tonight?”  He was a grizzly man with a stout body and firm handshake.  He intimidated me like crazy.

“Absolutely!  I can’t wait.”

“Well, we’re excited to have ya.  Oh, by the way, I’m going to have a niece there I want you to meet.”
My stomach rose and my heart sank.  They met somewhere around the bottom of my lungs.  “Oh, um, ok.  Great.”

His eyes twinkled.  “See you tonight.”  And he walked away.  The Machiavellian bastard. 

That night, I went down to my room to get ready and, on my bedside table, spotted my missionary tag bearing the title “Elder Back.”  It had gotten me through some pretty uncomfortable moments.  I couldn't help it.  I grabbed it and put it in my pocket, a little black, plastic security blanket.

 I showed up on the doorstep.  This time my heart had seemed to migrate to the top of my throat.  I had just spent two years knocking on doors.  Why was my hand so hesitant to touch this one?  I knocked heavily.  It swung open.  “Stu, come on in!”

I stepped into the Martin living room.  There were couches one two of the walls and a series of plush chairs on the third.  On the left side of the room sat the girl’s family—three younger sisters and austere looking parents.  In the chairs to my right sat the Martin family—Brother and Sister Martin and their son.  On the couch on the far wall sat a pretty, but nervous girl with blue eyes and long blonde hair.  She was flanked on either side by what I immediately deduced were her grandparents, definite progenitors of Brother Martin, powerful, stocky, and rough.

In the middle of the room, some distance from the fourth wall, sat a single kitchen chair.  It might as well have had a nameplate reserving it for me.  I sat down.  “Sarah, this is Stu.  Stu, Sarah,” Brother Martin said, not without a slight flourish.

“Good to meet you,” I said as I shook her hand.  It was protocol.  I shook hands.

“You too,” she said.

Then there was an awkward silence.  I wasn’t sure what the procedure was here.  Preach My Gospel didn't cover these situations.  My sudden impulse was to ask someone to pray, but I luckily swallowed it.

“So,” I asked, feigning comfort, which more likely sounded like desperation, “Um, do you do anything for fun?”

She smiled.  “Yeah.  I love tennis and singing.  I also love to read.  How about you?”

“Hey, I like to read too!  Have you read anything good lately?”  This was going well.

“I recently just reread Pride and Prejudice again.  It’s my favorite book.”

“Hey!  I read Austen in high school.”

“Oh really?  What did you think?” she was excited.  This was going really well.

“Wasn’t a big fan, really,” I said.  As the words were coming out of my mouth I realized I was making a dire mistake.  She looked a little affronted, a little crestfallen, and a little annoyed.  I was a little mortified.  I tried to recover. “Well, um, I mean, it’s just that I don’t understand the way girls think all that well.  I didn’t really get it.”

The smile stayed on Sarah’s face, but her eyes fell distant.  Hushed murmurs of disapproval wafted from the audience.  I had the distinct feeling that Sarah’s passion for tennis had come from her family.  They were quiet spectators quietly watching our volley.  Neither of us was winning.

“So, do you have any pets?”  It wasn’t yet 15 minutes in.  I had absolutely no idea what to ask.  She told me about her pet cat at home, but that she wasn’t a big animal person.  “I love animals.”  Crap!  Where’s my filter? The score fell to 30-love, Sarah.

25 minutes in: “Have you ever been to Washington?”  I was playing to my strengths with this one.

“D.C.?  Or Washington state?”


 “I haven’t.  I heard it’s pretty, though.”

 “Oh man, it’s so pretty.  I seriously miss it really bad.”

 “Do you not like Utah at all?”

 “I thought I did until I went there.” That sinking feeling I get when I say something stupid had by this time turned into a sort of dull ache.

 “Oh.  Well I’ll have to try to visit someday.”

 There was an awkward silence.

 40 minutes in: “So what’s your favorite book?”

At our next awkward silence, I realized in horror that I had been out of anything constructive to say for over half an hour.  I had been off my mission for 9 days.  There wasn’t a lot of common ground to cover.  I grasped at the small black tag in my pocket, willing for it to strengthen me.  I suddenly got a flash of inspiration.  I was good with kids!  I was totally comfortable around kids!  I turned to her sister, who couldn't have been any older than nine.

“And what was your name?”

“Jessica,” she said, blushing.

“Jessica, how old are you?”

“I’m 8.”

“8?  So that would put you in 3rd gr. . . “

A grizzled voice cut me off mid-sentence, “Hey, you’re here to talk to her!”  It was Sarah’s grandpa, making a rough gesture in her directions. She was also blushing.

The awkward silence that followed was so intense, my tag started to bend in my pocket from my grip.
Ten minutes later, out of sheer boredom—it certainly wasn’t out of mercy—Sister Martin said, “Well, who would like some pie?”

I ate my obligatory pumpkin pie, and stumbled out of the house.  Is it any wonder that eight years later, I'm still recovering?

"Courage is being scared to death - but saddling up anyway" -John Wayne

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Zen and Now

I work with this eccentric, hilarious Indian gastroenterologist named Dr. Sandhu.  I've met people that are passionate, but Sandhu redefines the term.  Every few months, it seems, some new fascination has latched on his brain, and he begins seeing the world through a completely different lens.  Paleo dieting was among these crazes, and for months, we found the good doctor in our breakroom analyzing the paleo propriety of our lunches.  Some nurses accused him of paleovangelism and he softened his pronouncements upon our plates, relegating himself to a milder form of endorsement.  During his golf obsession, he was often to be seen reviewing instructional videos on YouTube and, on one occasion, I walked in the room as he was practicing his putt by swinging a colonoscope like a golf club.  These obsessions dominate his conversations and offer him new analogies on how to view life.  (I heard how life was like a fairway so many times, I was about ready to knock myself out with a 5-iron.)  The man's zeal for his interests is unsurpassed.

A number of months ago, my friends Jeff Harris and Natalie Thorsen suggested a book called "The Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle.  Trusting their judgment implicitly, I bought the book and read.  I then bought the audiobook and listened.  I picked up the book again to review.  Review wasn't enough so I read it through a second time within five weeks.  Every time I went to the gym, Eckhart's soothing, German-accented voice preached peace and presence as I groaned out another few bicep curls.  The book was one of the most powerful and influential books I've read in my life.  I couldn't get enough of it.

Tolle's premise is that if we abandon regret and concern for the past, and surrender angst and anticipation for the future, we can be happy, regardless of circumstance, in the present moment.  As a relatively analytic person, I was somewhat confused by his concept that "you are not your thoughts."  Our brains are tools we use to analyze and process, but we are not our minds.  Our identity, according to Tolle, is far more intrinsic and eternal.  Our worth is unimpeachable and unconditional.  If we learn to disassociate ourselves with the judgments of thought, our "egoic mind," we can find a deep, abiding peace that transcends every circumstance and a value that doesn't need justification.  Tolle's message is one of worth, joy, and peace.  And I didn't buy a word of it.

For me, I've always dwelt on problems, concerned myself with the future, and lived in past mistakes and experience.  I figured that was how I could improve as a person.  Learn from the past, prepare for the future, and seek to improve.  Sounds healthy, right?  In some sense, it absolutely is.  But as I read, I started to question, by degrees, my modus operandi.  Instead of analyzing past mistakes, was I instead dwelling on those mistakes, effectively reliving them and punishing myself repeatedly for them?  Undoubtedly, yes.  Instead of planning and preparing for the future, was I often stressing and dwelling about potentials that were complete fictions?  Guilty.  The "what if's" about the future often flash through my mind at such a pitch, I'm effectively paralyzed by them, rendered unable to even prepare for the very potential I dread.  Instead of learning from the past and readying for the future, I agonize over moments that no longer exist and grow intensely anxious for moments that may never exist at all.  Clearly, I can suck at life.

Upon identifying the destructive potential my fixation on the past and future became and how pervasive those fixations were, I began to listen to Tolle.  He points out that the past and future don't exist.  The past is a "shadow of things that have been."  (very Dickensian, really.)  Our memories are so imperfect that we often see the past through a very skewed lens.  And the future, while we feebly try to predict it, simply does not exist, and can't be at all reliably anticipated.  He suggests that our western paradigms (as opposed to eastern, Buddhist or Taoist paradigms) are terminally focused on falsehoods, things that no longer are, or things that don't yet exist.

Arguing that our "egoic mind"--the false sense of self we derive from our thoughts--is the source of all this, he offers suggestions on how to disengage from that identity and simply be present in the now.  Among these are--oddly--"mindfulness," an ill-termed moniker for attentiveness and connection to the five senses in a deep way.  I rarely notice what it feel like to actually breathe, to feel the oxygen fill my lungs and get ferried off to every corner of my body, a constant refreshing that is done independent of my conscious thought.  I rarely concentrate on the ambient sounds--the hum of the computer or the whir of the heater in my apartment, for example.  I never check in with my body to see what it feels like to have the cotton of my t-shirt rest against my chest, or to feel my heart beat, or to smell my newly-vacuumed carpet, or taste the residual mint post-tooth brushing.  While sight is our most commonly used sense, I rarely notice the beautiful, irregular complexity in the patterns wood grains sketch across the top of my desk.  All this to say that if I'm utilizing these senses, in the most literal way being sensual, neither the future nor past is at all concerning.

In simpler vernacular, Tolle's viewpoints are really a fresh view on the Chinese-Buddhist philosophy of zen, which is defined by the regrettable website as: "A state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind. Zen is a way of being. It also is a state of mind. Zen involves dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts."

Sparked in part by Tolle, and fed by other thinkers like Dr. Jon Kabat Zin who authored an amazing book called "Full Catastrophe Living," mindfulness and Tolle's version of zen have been gaining momentum in western thought, even being vindicated by scientific study. Time magazine's most recent cover addressed the subject well, and books by the dozens are adding their voice to the movement.

By the end of Tolle's book, I was a disciple.  While I don't buy every word wholesale, I feel that I have been vastly benefited by the counsel it offered.  Moreover, it meshes so well with my own spiritual beliefs (another post for another day, perhaps), that it has been very easy to fold into my daily life.  I now make an effort, among other daily habits, to meditate ten minutes a day.  The effect has been staggering.  I'm more at peace with life now than I've ever been.  I'm more grateful and happy much of the time.  And, at least when I'm actively applying the principles, I'm always at peace.

One day while in the middle of a stranger's colon, I casually asked Dr. Sandhu if he'd read the book.  He gasped, looked away from the screen and peered at me, his eyes flashed with the excited zeal I've come to recognize.  Dr. Sandhu and I had respectively stumbled into a new fixation at the same time.  We have since been eagerly discussing the application of thoughtfulness as taught by Tolle, Zinn, and others.  To the consternation of any nurse unfortunate enough to work with us, Dr. Sandhu and I talk excitedly--with frustration at times because we both have so much we want to say--about being zen, and now, and mindful, and at peace.  Who knew that you could be zen during a colonoscopy?  I have Eckhart Tolle, Jeff Harris, Natalie Thorsen, and Iqbal Sandhu to thank for that.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Cabin Fever

There are three things that keep me out of the mountains in the winter:

Utah isn't exactly known for its lovely winters.  It varies from bitter-cold on one extreme to slightly-less bitter, kill-people-with-asthma-by-pollution on the other.  While going to the mountains is the perfect way to escape it, I'm often more prone to stay in bed than actually breath the smog between my apartment and car.

2- Cold
The bitter cold necessitates such a production in equipment--snowshoes, jackets, gloves, trekking poles, boots, etc.--that I rarely have the time to actually perform the ritual donning of my winter gear.

To be honest, there has rarely been a time when I've had the entire litany of gear within my possession; consequently, I've had to "borrow" gear from my family or friends to perform the winter gear donning ritual.  It's not fun.  Although, after receiving a pair of gloves for Christmas, I'm lacking but one thing: actual boots.  I've previously resorted to triple-socked feet in my normal waterproof Oboz hiking boots, topped off with gaiters.  Once I get actual boots, my retinue will be complete.

3.- Time
Time is the biggest problem with getting outdoors in the winter.  When the sun sets at 5PM, getting outdoors needs to be a planned-upon, deliberate thing.  My ventures into the mountains tend to be a little more like jazz: improvised, sudden, and unintelligible.

In warm months, the majority of my hiking is done in free afternoons following school or work.  That's plain out in the Winter.

These factors conspire to keep me grounded in my apartment, with but a computer, an XBox, and hundreds of books to hold my attention.  (My mildly sarcastic girlfriend would, at this point, interject her favorite pet name for me: poverino.)  Given my ADD tendencies and the departure from my normal, outdoor-centric lifestyle, I'm always left with a pretty intense case of cabin fever.

Cabin fever, while somewhere short of an actual disorder, is backed up by science.  But I don't really need the officials to back up what I already know.  Everyone around me gets irrational, agitated, irritating, and belligerent.  These symptoms are a direct result of their exposure to someone with cabin fever.  They should really stop hanging around me outside of Summer.

Here's hoping that when I move to LA in a few months, I'll be able to get into nature often year-round.