Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Jump!

Both of us stood in the hot sun on a very small platform secured 50 feet (20 m) up in a large pine tree. We were looking anywhere but straight down.

We were an unlikely pair to be perched and shaking for somewhat different reasons on the last obstacle on the aerial ropes course.  Given the age difference, it is understandable that we approach mortality, and threats to it, quite differently. For Patrick, my 11-year-old grandson, he can prove that he can overcome his fear and conquer something he has never done before. On the other hand, I am dealing with the increasing intensity of symptoms due to Parkinson’s disease. At 68 years’ old, I need to face the fear that soon I may not be able to enjoy such adventures.

As part of a four-day adventure, Patrick and I started out on the first day by riding 350 km to my hometown, Vernon, British Columbia, on my Spyder. On our way into town, I noticed a large billboard advertisement for a zip line and ropes course. “That might be exciting for the two of us to try”, I said to myself.  

Patrick was game so we arrived early the following morning to scope out the place. Before we knew it, we were putting on the necessary safety harnesses and helmets and receiving our instructions and made our way to the first of the three courses.

We both managed to complete the “green course“, where the cables or ropes on which we balanced were strung from tree to tree at a height of only 15 to 20 feet (6 m). It was challenging, but not frightening.

Next, was the “blue course”. Twice as high, our safety harnesses definitely proved to be necessary. On several occasions, I found myself dangling as if caught in a spider’s web, straining to find a way back onto a stable cable to rest and recover my strength to continue. We managed to complete the series of short zip lines that sent us literally zipping from one tree to another. 

 After resting our tired arms and legs, we moved to the last course, the ultimate challenge, the “black course”.  Patrick noted that, as opposed to the lower courses, he was the youngest black course challenger, while I appeared to be the oldest.

The beginning portions of the black course were similar to the first two courses, just twice as high off the ground, and twice as challenging. The final “obstacle” however is a free fall from 50 feet up, held only by a bungee cord device to which you attached your safety harness. It was, supposedly, able to halt your downward plunge just before hitting the ground.

Patrick was first up. He stood on the edge of the platform for a long time, looking down at what seemed like a very long distance. He hesitated, despite the cheering and encouragement from our guide and others on the ground. I heard them shouting, “Come on Patrick. 3 – 2 – 1 – jump!"  I found myself adding my voice to those below with words something like, “You can do it. Don’t let it beat you.” Little did he know that I was saying those words for my own benefit as much as for his encouragement. But his response startled me. “Push me,” he said. I immediately had two thoughts: first, this situation is not in the book, “How To Care for your Grandkids,” and second, it didn’t require much in the way of legal reasoning to conclude that if something went wrong I would certainly be blamed.

Realizing I had to encourage him to take the leap (but not compel him to do so), I reverted to Patrick’s original strategy: the countdown method. Although it had previously failed, when I reached the final “Jump!” he bravely pushed off from the platform and plummeted downward until the bungee apparatus interrupted the fall before Patrick hit the forest floor.  Success!

Now it was my turn. I hesitated, but only long enough to realize that I had no excuse. Looking down, with no one to give the final countdown, I whispered to myself the advice given by our instructor at the beginning: “Trust your equipment”. I stepped off the platform, surprised at how fast I fell, and equally surprised at how fast my descent halted, well before I hit the ground.

Later, as Patrick and I returned the safety harnesses and helmets, we were both thrilled to have conquered our fears.  Our next adventure?  Skydiving?

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Escaping the Pandemic

Perhaps you have tried during the recent months to be positive, patient, even philosophical, but it just has not worked well.  Since mid-March, society seems to have been slogging through the swamp of Covid-19.  Are you growing tired of reacting to constant cancellations; weddings, celebrations, travel plans, social gatherings, and even memorial services?  Do you feel constantly reminded that we are in the grip of an unprecedented, unpredictable, and so far unstoppable, pandemic, and will be with us for some time yet?

If you are anything like me, you may have tried to tell yourself that this is an opportunity to accomplish some of the items on your “when I have time” list.  But without the press of deadlines, I find myself using excuses borrowed from the growing list generated by those seemingly trying to lower expectations. iI hear, “We just have to make the best of it."

As a person with Parkinson's disease I understand that phrase and I think I know what it takes to have a positive attitude and focus considerable effort to combat overwhelming circumstances.  Nevertheless, for me at least, I need a plan, an extraordinary event that I can look forward to with anticipation.  I need confirmation that life offers more than waiting for the end of isolation and nurturing the distant hope of a cure or vaccination.

It was not without some fear of cancellation, and further discouragement, that I set out on my Spyder (like a motorcycle but with two wheels on the front) to see where the road would take me.  Even though it was only a 5 day trip into the interior of British Columbia, with time in the Rocky Mountains, which form much of the jagged border between BC and the Alberta, it was an escape, a breaking free of the imprisonment of the past four months.  I loved it, all 3700 km of it.  Even when it rained for 3 hours straight on the way from Prince George to McBride I found myself smiling.  I did not complain, but rather found myself laughing, when it took me 15 minutes to peel off my sweat-soaked T-shirt after a day of riding in 33-Celsius degree temperatures.  The mini-vacation left me rejuvenated.  It was pure joy. 

The uninterrupted “helmet time” was soul-refreshing.  Hours of riding in silence, feeling the cool shade of endless forests, taking in the snow-peaked mountains, it left me in awe.  There are indeed experiences much more overwhelming than the distraction of a coronavirus.  I encourage you to give it some thought.

Next?

Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Big One That Got Away

We had hooked a big one. A large halibut, maybe 80 pounds or more. The fishing rod seemed to almost bend in half while I leaned back and held on with both hands, the butt of the rod digging painfully into my waistline.

“Let it run. Let it run.” Shouted Keith, our fishing guide. I let go of the reel handle … too slowly.  It rapped my knuckles as if punishing me for holding back the catch that was swimming away for its life. After less than a minute or two the line went slack as if the fish was resting or hesitating, wondering which way to go to shake off the hook I hoped was buried in its mouth.

My legs and arms were already stiff. But I needed to reel the line onto the spool, taking advantage of the momentary indecision on the part of my quarry. I was constantly at the ready to release my grip on the reel handle if my prize catch decided to make a run for it again.

While it had only been a few minutes, I was exhausted. The Parkinson’s-induced stiffness resulted in my tremors moving into overdrive. I was worried I would lose the fish, while at the same time I wanted to prove I could land a trophy despite the limitations imposed on me by my Parkinson’s disease. But discretion won over my ego and I called for my friend, Jim, to take over the rod.

No sooner had the handoff taken place than the reel started spinning, the line whining off the spool as it played out, quickly approaching its limit of 300 feet. “That’s no halibut”, shouted Keith as he got his knife out to cut the line before the rod and reel were yanked from Jim’s grip and dragged into the ocean. We all felt the defeat as the knife sliced through the tense 80-pound test fishing line, leaving the lure and hook embedded as a souvenir in the mouth of the one that got away, whatever it was.

We all stared astern, looking rather woeful when Keith raised his arm.  He was pointing at a large black head that had popped to the ocean surface some 200 feet away. It was a sea lion. Doubtless, it had sunk its teeth into our trophy halibut, dragging “our lunch”, the hook and all the line we had, finishing it off outside the reach of our puny rod and reel.

While we resented losing the battle, we had to admit that we were the intruders, and that the natural hunter had made the catch. Acknowledging defeat is a humbling exercise, but it is, whether facing Parkinson’s disease or some other dominating opponent, one we must accept with the right attitude. Tomorrow, we will fight again.



Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Message Is in the Mask

What is she hiding, a smile or a frown? The black mask covers the lower half of her face, leaving me in doubt, even a little apprehensive. My imagination leaves me with numerous possibilities.

Is this a veil to maintain some mystery, keeping it secret until the moment of dramatic disclosure? On the other hand, is it a disguise, hiding the truth, prohibiting transparency? The words she uses are friendly enough as we enter the restaurant. She shows us to our designated table and asks us what we would like to drink. I wanted to know more about the young woman behind the mask. Yet, I dare not ask too many questions.

As our enjoyment of the first “dine in” meal we have shared for several months moves along, I have the increasing sense that our server is enjoying being able to hide behind the mandatory mask. It is as if she is observing us from a distance, silently questioning why we are attending this masquerade without wearing the obligatory masks.

Such a simple thing; a small swatch of cloth covering the chin, mouth and nose. And yet it leaves me feeling wary and uncertain. Of course, knowing from endless media and medical authorities that these masks are for our protection, and the protection of others to whom we might spread the villain virus. But, is there more?

Masks.  They complicate communication by removing some of the most important nonverbal cues we rely on every day. We are prone to step back from full engagement with those who cover their faces, fearful of potential misunderstanding. For me, wearing hearing aids already presents a challenge. Picking up exact words spoken is almost impossible, especially in noisy environments. Normally, even listening face-to-face, I rely upon lip-reading. Now, add to this the muffling effect of the mask and I am left feeling anxious, exposed and vulnerable.

Of course, masks have played a variety of roles throughout human history. They have been used to induce fear, provide protection in battle (or in sports), enable anonymity, extend regal prominence, entertain, disguise, and cover-up embarrassment. And now they express confidence in our current obsession to prevent the spread of communicable diseases. But masks are not neutral.

A study by researchers at Bielefeld University, Germany, considered the covering up of different parts of the face and found that observers predominantly relied on the eye and mouth regions when successfully recognizing an emotion. Different moods were detected from contrasting parts of the face. For instance, sadness and fear relies on focusing on the eyes, whereas disgust and happiness are typically detected by concentrating on the mouth area.

And lately, when I see a mask, whether for its color, design, fit, or incongruity, I think about those in our Parkinson’s disease community who struggle with what is called the “Parkinson’s mask”. In such cases, the facial muscles appear frozen and the eyes maintain an expressionless stare. Facial features refuse the brain’s messaging to smile or express emotion. The Parkinson's mask discourages communication, which can encourage self-isolation.

Perhaps these days we all wear masks.  And it is increasingly our challenge to discover and engage the person who is behind the mask.

The human face is, after all, nothing more nor less than a mask. – Agatha Christie

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Just Another Ordinary Day

What day is it?

It may be that Covid 19, which has affected millions of people, has now redefined the meaning of “daily”. Alternatively, it may just be the constant reminders that I am aging, like an irritating and insistent buzzing in one’s thoughts that gets louder and louder. Regardless, over the past several months I have found that each day, while it may have a different name (such as Monday, or Friday), number, and month, has become more regimented and repetitive than ever before. Each day seems to lack serendipity, adventure and distinctiveness. In a phrase, yesterday, today, and likely tomorrow, become “just another ordinary day”. There is limited verve, vigour, energy and excitement in my days as they troop their way through each week. Each day is a soldier, lining up, one by one from left to right, uniformed and marching seven abreast down the calendar until reaching month-end when the page is flipped, and the soldiers disappear only to start the relentless parade down a new page.

Just another ordinary day.

But is it really? Is there any such thing as an “ordinary day”? Perhaps our imprisonment in the “ordinary” is self-imposed. We willingly choose to believe that the door to the cell is closed, but in truth it remains unlocked.  Our freedom to make each day something more than living in a drab cell is our choice.  We need only decide to escape the humdrum interior of our ordinary days. As my parents would remind me on long vacation road trips, “If you are bored, you have no one to blame but yourself”.

I believe that there is no such thing as an ordinary day, except for one of our own making. Instead, every moment is filled with uniqueness. Our days need not drone on like soldiers on parade.

In the same way, there is no such thing as an ordinary person. Just as each day is filled with opportunities and potential, I believe that each person is uniquely qualified to experience his or her journey of days as would an explorer.

C. S. Lewis on Twitter: "“There are no ordinary people. You have ...

Of course, there is security in the routine of an “ordinary day”. It is predictable and safe. In the same way, being an “ordinary person” living “ordinary days” frees us from responsibility to make the most out of life. But we pay a terrible price for enduring the ordinary; guilt, boredom and fear.

What can I do to change my ordinary into extraordinary? My temptation is to fill my calendar with exciting activities. But, like any false promise, these episodic experiences are short-lived. No, much more radical steps are required to ensure that I invest myself, and the hours I have each day, rather than carelessly spending the precious gift of life that I wake up to each morning.

To start, we need to recognize that it is never too late to opt out of ordinariness. The extraordinary is available to us each day. But we must be willing to search for it, to grasp hold of it, to nurture it, and to share it. It might be cleverly hidden in the simple, like a smile that penetrates politeness. Or it might be desperately complex, like taking the initiative to forgive, or seek forgiveness, to right a wrong.

    Your life is something opaque, not transparent, as     long as you look at it in an ordinary human way.           But if you hold it up against the light of God's             goodness, it shines and turns transparent, radiant     and bright. And then you ask yourself in                     amazement: Is this really my own life I see before     me? Albert Schweitzer.

There is no such thing as ordinary. Each of us, and each day that we live, is extraordinary.

 

 


Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Path

No one had cleared the path to the stream that ran behind our house, at least not since my then young children and I had made it minimally passable some 25 years ago. Even then, it was barely discernible as it wound its way through the forest to water’s edge. For a number of years, the rough path had been a source of adventure and discovery, a small pristine valley not easily accessible to anyone other than our family. Recently, I felt the need to explore it again.

As I stood alone looking down the steep pathway, I observed that a lot had changed in a quarter-century. Regardless, I saw no danger. The first portion of the pathway looked easy enough; a 20-foot section down which I slid, my street shoes giving me no grip on the steep incline. About halfway down the embankment I remembered it was here years ago that my kids had tried to make a sled track on a rare snowy day.  Citing safety issues, I was the first to try out the snow-packed run.  I soon found out that I was right to be concerned. There was no easy way to stop the sled ride except by plunging into a huge blackberry patch, minus the leaves but not minus the thorns.

Fortunately, this time I was able to grab a large cottonwood tree trunk to stop my descent and avoid another tangle with the older and much bigger blackberry patch. The tree I was clinging to proved to be a memorable marker as it is where the path took a sharp turn and proceeded laterally across the face of the steep slope. When I started out on that portion of the path, there were only a few smaller twigs and limbs covering up the trail. But as I dropped towards the bottom of the small valley I found that the path was almost completely overgrown. The path seemed to lead in numerous different directions at the same time. Although each of the choices looked promising, they all ultimately led to a dead end amid the dense underbrush, fallen trees and patches of stinging nettles. I could not seem to locate any of the familiar natural markers I had expected to find, like the partly decomposed log I had once stepped on, infuriating the occupants of a wasp’s nest.  The angered wasps proceeded to attack my two younger children, causing frantic screams and burning red welts.  That event became a long remembered, often recited chapter in our family history.

The brush had become so dense that I could not see the river. Instead of the noisy chatter of the water rushing over and around boulders and collapsed tree trunks, all I heard was intermittent gurgling off in the distance. Breaking the relative silence, my cell phone rang. “Where are you?” my concerned wife asked. “In the forest behind the house, but I am not sure where” I replied, “But I’ll be home in a few minutes”.

It was difficult to speed up my pace to reach the river, so I thought I would try walking along a fallen tree, like a bridge lifting me above the dense underbrush and marshy areas. However, one thing that people with Parkinson’s rarely do well is balance. In this case, I proved the point by falling off the log, toppling 3 or 4 feet to the ground, landing unceremoniously on my derri√®re. The struggle to regain my footing amidst the mud, skunk cabbage and wild rose thorns proved painful and time-consuming. But once on my feet again I was able to get my bearings. I finally found what appeared to be a very small deer path that wove its way along a circuitous route, leading to the riverbank. What would have taken me seven or eight minutes’ years ago, took over 30 minutes, and that was only one way! With no time to enjoy the fruits of my labor, I set off on the return trip.

While the path did bring back memories, it also left me exhausted, with my clothes soaked through with sweat, and my body bruised, scraped and scratched. Indeed, a lot has changed over the last 25 years, on the path and with me!  


Sunday, June 7, 2020

Measuring Life in Three Hour Increments

How do you measure your life?

As a lawyer, I learned early on that each workday was subject to its measurement in six minute increments. That is, generally, we legal types (as well as many others in service industries) seem tethered to the concept of what is called the “billable hour”. Lawyers routinely record their time spent working on a particular matter/file.  Then, their clients are sent invoices showing the number of hours of work performed, multiplied by the hourly rate of the professional.  The hourly rate is usually based on seniority, expertise and market conditions. In this way, the quantity of legal services provided can be measured, albeit somewhat subjectively. But the quality of the billable time is much more difficult to assess. Not all billable hours are equal.

I think most people tend to rely on quantitative intervals or measurements. These include not only increments of time but everything in life from monetary values (salary, cost of gas, bank accounts, and debt) to the number of “likes” we get on our Facebook page. The disruption of these fixed points on our calendar or other quantitative measurements can cause us to feel anxious, uncertain and insecure. At times, especially during this coronavirus pandemic era, days (and even weeks) slip by, blending into each other without much notice. Viewed from a quantitative perspective, life itself is evaporating one day, hour or even minute at a time.

During these recent pandemic days, I have become increasingly aware of the importance of evaluating my life based on qualitative assessments, not the quantity of time spent here and there. I find that, just as it is difficult to measure the quality of a billable hour, appraising one’s life subjectively is very challenging, as well as convicting. This process demands that just as we spend our money on what we deem to be important to us, how we spend our time (life’s ultimate nonrenewable resource) reveals our priorities.

I cannot measure the beauty of a sunset, the warmth of a baby sleeping in my arms, or the smell of freshly baked bread, but I can continuously ask myself, “Have I spent my time simply calculating life’s quantitative elements (such as age), or am I truly living out my life priorities?”  For me, this is not just an existential exercise. It is grappling with the very practical question, “How can I live more purposefully?”