Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Men and Perception

Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut and still think they're beautiful.

(Originally attributed to Amy Thomas, Genola, Utah)

Two Norwegians go to Texas

Lars and Ole get really adventurous, and go on a vacation in Texas. They walk by a store window with a sign that says, “Suits $5.00 each, Shirts $2.00 each, Trousers $2.50 a pair.”

Lars says to his pal, "Vell Ole, vont’cha luke’a’det! Ve coud buy’a hoal boonch a’dees clothes, taak'em bak tue Meen’e-so’ta, den sel'em to’ar frends, and maak’a fortune!"

Lars continues, "Now ven ve go’in dere, dont yue sae’a verd, OK? Joost let me du’tha taukeng —cos ef dey heer yeur accent, dey might tink ve're joost ignorant Norveejuns from Meen’e-so’ta! And den’dey von't vanna sell dem clothes tue os. Now den, I'll tok like I'm a reel Texan, so dey von't kno."

Lars and Ole go in, and Lars tries out his best fake Texas accent,
"Hoawdie, y'all. Vee'll taak
50 ov dem dere soots at five dolors each,
100 ov dem dere sherts at two dolors each, and
50 pairs ov dem dere trouseurs at two-fifty each.

“Vell den, Ah'll joost back up my peak-op and......"

The owner of the shop interrupts, "Ya'll a cup’la Norwegians from Minnesota, ain't you?"

"Yah Vell," says a surprised Ole, “How coud yue tell den?”

“’Cause this here’s a dry cleaners,” replied the shop owner.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Norwegian Farmers and their (nearly) Famous Barn Cats

My relatives on my father’s side are all Norwegians, and when I was a kid we had cousins that still lived on the farm. Some who were in my grandparents’ generation still spoke with a Norwegian accent and used some Norwegian expressions. Our cousins who were my grandparents’ or parents’ age were all addressed as “Aunt” and “Uncle”. Aunt Boletta and Uncle Omar had a dairy farm on which they kept about 30 cows (pronounced “caus”); they were the second generation in the family to work that farm. (Aunt Boletta and Uncle Omar may have been my only Norwegian relatives on my grandfather Lund’s side with a sense of humor, although that’s perhaps another story.) As a very young boy I was occasionally brought to visit them on their farm.

A dairy barn is a magic place to a city kid. The size of the barn alone was nearly overwhelming—it was built to last, entirely out of oak with beams still bearing the marks of the saw cuts made 70 years before I walked inside it. Ten-inch oak boards covered the sides and made up the expansive roof, which was covered on the outside by cedar shingles. It was an enchanting place, the smell of the hay and the old oak, the sounds of the animals, and all the tools carefully arranged on the walls. The hay loft was even larger than the lower portion of the barn. Climbing up over the stacked bales of hay that nearly filled the high vault was like climbing a mountain. There was always a litter of kittens hidden somewhere in the hay loft, but even here they couldn’t be safe. On a narrow ledge near the peak of that vast space sat a huge barn owl on her nest, silently watching anything below that moved.

Only after being strictly instructed that I must stick close and do exactly as he said, was I allowed to follow Uncle Omar around the barn as he milked the cows. Being around large animals like cows was dangerous and required caution and good sense. It was winter, and the cows positively steamed, giving off a thick, heavy, sweet odor I’d never smelled before. The lower part of the barn that housed the cows and dairy machinery was remarkably clean and had recently been painted white, adding the smell of linseed oil to the other layers in the air. Uncle Omar ‘introduced’ me to the cows tethered in their stalls; each one in the herd had her own name and of course personality. They were the biggest animals I’d yet seen up close. He carefully told me how to avoid getting stepped on or kicked. The cows looked neither friendly nor mean; just absolutely huge. As I stood nearby, each cow seemed to take in my appearance with apprising eyes the size of saucers. He let me try to milk a cow by hand, first showing me how he did it, as he filled a tin cup in less than a minute for me to drink. I’d never had fresh milk still warm from a cow. Then I tried milking the cow. It was Impossible; no matter how hard I squeezed nothing happened. He smiled at me, and we both laughed.

I watched Uncle Omar methodically hook the cows up to the milking machine, one cow at a time (hardly anyone milked cows by hand any more by the mid-fifties). He was a large, powerful man who worked with a grace and gentleness you wouldn’t expect from such a big man. The individual tubes from the cows’ udders joined into a single line that drained into a large vat. An electric motor drove the machine, which was basically a sophisticated suction device. Aside from the steaming cows, it was the only source of warmth in the cold barn. The electric motor was connected to the drive shaft on the milking machine with a large, circular leather belt. This is where the term “belting leather” comes from—heavy duty stuff. When the milking machine was running, that belt turned over fast.

Now, every barn has cats—it’s an ideal set-up. The cats get food and shelter, and the farmer is relieved of the rats and mice that would otherwise infest the barn; sort of its own little ecosystem. I’m standing there watching Uncle Omar, and I look up at the top of the milking machine and see the biggest, bad-assed orange cat I’d yet seen in my young sweet life glaring down at me. If that cat could have talked, when he caught me looking up at him he would have said something like,

“What’chu lookin’ at, city kid? I’m a barn cat, see—and I do as I please. Piss off, candy-ass!”

As startled as I was, I couldn’t help but notice something unusual about him. As he lay on the edge of the milking machine, I saw that he had a little nub on his butt in the place where his tail should be. This nub was twitching like an orange button that had somewhere to go. As I turned back towards my Uncle, I saw another cat standing near the wall—also without a tail—a terrible, scowling, black and white cat the size of a Springer Spaniel. If he’d been given the facility for speech as well [this one would’ve had a Norwegian accent and no doubt descended from Jotunheimen Mountain Trolls], he might have said,

“Lili Doofken!--Grrrrr! I eet rats baigger dan yue fur brekfust!--Heissss!!”

This little boy from the suburbs was getting the impression that these barn cats were definitely not pets, and that they sure didn’t think much of me. I didn’t ever want to be alone in the barn with them, ever. As young as I was, I still didn’t want to admit to Uncle Omar that they scared me to death.

“Uncle Omar?” [Gulp] “Those cats sure are big—and they don’t have tails!”

“Oh—Ya Vell, Ve gotta spe’shool breed’a kat heer, doncha’ know. Dey’re bourn vee’tout tels—Ya den, I spos’ dey’ll be fae’moos som dey, hmm?”

I couldn’t believe my incredible luck to become acquainted with this rare and barely discovered breed of cats. I asked Uncle Omar if I could go inside and talk with Aunt Boletta about their special breed of cats. I waded through the chickens (if they were alot bigger, and if they weren’t so stupid, they might be scary too), out the barn door (taking care to close it behind me) and ran through the snow to the farmhouse.

I let Aunt Boletta know that Uncle Omar had let me in on their secret—their special breed of tail-less barn cat—and I hoped that they would enjoy becoming famous.

“Vat 'arr yue taukeng a’boat, jung man?”, Aunt Boletta smiled. She had a lovely, kind, and charming smile—years later when I saw my first Ingmar Bergman film, I decided that Boletta looked like Liv Ulmann all those years ago. She patiently listened to my account of meeting their tail-less cats. Finally, she couldn’t keep herself from laughing.

“Oh, det Omar—hees such’a keed'r!” She told me how my Uncle had just been teasing me, and explained the nature of what I’d really seen: In the winter, barn cats like to sit close to the milking machine because it’s warm. Unfortunately, there’s that long, heavy belt on top going around and around very fast. Anyone who’s watched a sitting cat will get the picture—how a cat naturally swishes its tail back and forth, back and forth. A cat sitting in the wrong place (close to the moving belt where it enters a gear on top of the milking machine) swishing its tail at the wrong time, gets caught in the belt.

One of two things happens: (a) the cat is pulled into the milking machine gears and dies a quick and violent death, not unlike when they crawl under the hood of a car to sleep on a warm engine and then someone goes out and starts the car, or (b) the cat’s tail gets quickly amputated—sparing the cat, who uses up at least one of its nine lives by surviving. Of course, you don’t see the dead cats skulking around the barn—and thus the illusory appearance of a barn populated by a ‘breed’ of cats without tails. Come to think of it, having sustained the shock and surprise of a violent tail amputation might have had something to do with the survivors’ disposition. I felt sorry for the cats that died; but my Aunt and Uncle were good and kind people—and for this reason I could accept their matter-of-fact attitude that they (like all farm people) needed to have about the life and death of animals that after all were not pets.

I sat at Aunt Boletta’s kitchen table and smiled as she said, “Var sa godt” and passed me another gingerbread cookie. (Say, “Var-sha goo”--literally “Be so good”. It’s a useful, all-purpose Norwegian phrase, meaning something like, “Here ya go.”)

How to Give a Cat a Pill

[Note: never try this on a tail-less Norwegian barn cat.]

1. Pick cat up and cradle it in the crook of your left arm as if holding a baby. Position right forefinger and thumb on either side of cat's mouth and gently apply pressure to cheeks while holding pill in right hand. As cat opens mouth pop pill into mouth. Allow cat to close mouth and swallow.

2. Retrieve pill from floor and cat from behind sofa. Cradle cat in left arm and repeat process.

3. Retrieve cat from bedroom, and throw soggy pill away.

4. Take new pill from foil wrap, cradle cat in left arm holding rear paws tightly with left hand. Force jaws open and push pill to back of mouth with right forefinger. Hold mouth shut for a count of ten.

5. Retrieve pill from goldfish bowl and cat from top of wardrobe. Call spouse from yard.

6. Kneel on floor with cat wedged gently but firmly between knees, holding front and rear paws. Ignore low growls emitted by cat. Get spouse to hold head firmly with one hand while carefully forcing wooden ruler into mouth. Drop pill down ruler and rub cat's throat vigorously.

7. Retrieve cat from curtain rail, get another pill from foil wrap. Make note to buy new ruler and repair curtains. Carefully sweep shattered figurines and vases from hearth and set aside for gluing later.

8. Wrap cat in large towel and get spouse to lie on cat with head just visible from below armpit. Put pill in end of drinking straw, force mouth open with pencil, and blow down drinking straw.

9. Check label to make sure pill not harmful to humans and drink one beer to decrease chance you've aspirated it and to wash taste away. Apply Band-Aid to spouse's forearm and remove blood from carpet with cold water and soap.

10. Retrieve cat from neighbor's shed. Get another pill. Open another beer. Place cat in cupboard, and press door against neck, leaving head showing. Pry jaws apart with dessert spoon. Flick pill down throat with rubber band.

11. Fetch screwdriver from garage and put cupboard door back on hinges. Drink beer. Fetch bottle of scotch; pour shot of same and drink. Apply cold compress to cheek, and check records for date of your last tetanus shot. Apply whiskey compress to cheek to disinfect.

12. Call fire department to retrieve cat from tree across the road. Apologize to neighbor who crashed into fence while swerving to avoid cat.

13. Consume remainder of Scotch. Get spouse to drive you to emergency room; sit quietly while doctor stitches fingers and forearm and removes pill remnants from right eye.

14. Perhaps giving a cat a pill isn't something you should try at home.

How to Give a Dog a Pill

1. Wrap it in bacon.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

George Harrison and Monty Python

Some time after The Beatles had broken up, George Harrison (God bless him) wrote to the members of Monty Python.

George told 'the Pythons' how much he liked them, and that he was certain Monty Python was in fact "the next reincarnation of The Beatles". For those of you who weren't around at the time (early 70's), The Beatles in general and George in particular had thoroughly earned by then what would now be called the "street cred" to say things like this and be totally plausible. (And who's to say he wasn't right, anyway?)

Unfortunately, someone in the mailroom at the BBC discarded Harrison's letter, thinking it was a fake. It never got delivered.

So the guys in Monty Python didn't even know about it, … until years later when they met George, who then asked them what they thought about his letter. ("What letter?")

Imagine, getting a fan letter from one of The Beatles, and not knowing about it because someone threw it away?!!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Sneeze in Chem 30

As most of us are, I was raised with certain expectations of etiquette; I was expected always to carry a handkerchief in my right hip pocket. Fundamental issues of etiquette were not to be questioned in my family of origin; they were to be remembered. (For example, to remember how one uses a spoon when eating soup: "As the ships that sail to sea, I push my spoon away from me.") One of my early and very minor rebellions at Carleton was to disregard this habit of always carrying a handkerchief, thinking it 'prissy'. I was two years into my ‘college experience’ before I appreciated the consequence. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, what people are embarrassed about usually makes a good story. (Maybe he was being cynical; I can't tell.)

Anyone in pre-med at Carleton had to take Chem 30, Quantitative Analysis, from Professor Ramette. Among chemistry professors, Richard Ramette was notorious for comporting himself with a barely concealed arrogant sneer. No supercilious snob; the man was just plain ruthless. He had no tolerance or compassion for individuals who didn't perform, and he clearly enjoyed intimidating people. There was a girl who took Chem 30 the year after I did, who always brought her German Shepherd with her to classes; the well-behaved dog lay quietly on the floor next to her. Seeing her and her dog on the first day of Chem 30, Ramette smiled grimly and commented, “That dog will probably do better in this class than most of you.” [Nervous laughter from the class.] For some reason, I still have my textbook for Chem 30 sitting in a bookshelf; it's sort of like a Purple Heart—I took that hit/wound in service of a goal, and lived.

The class was held in Leighton Hall, in one of the large and airy lecture rooms on the West side of the building with elevated rows of seats going up to the back of the room. The chairs with little ‘armrest’ surfaces to write on were lined up in rows closely packed together. Susan Cray (Class of 1971) and I often sat next to each other in Chem 30, commiserating about slide rule errors and speculating in general as to what the hell was going on in this course, anyway. Susan was a beautiful, charming girl with a sophistication and demeanor possessed only by girls (a whole year) older than I was. That she felt inclined to be friendly towards me and seemed even to enjoy talking with me was deeply touching and helped my vulnerable male ego more than she could know.

One week in the late fall of 1970, a particularly nasty cold was going around school. Many of us had runny noses. My head felt thick and heavy; the voices of people talking to me sounded like they were coming from under water. As best as I can recall, I must have been managing my runny nose by manfully sniffling and swallowing [gross], but in any case getting along without a handkerchief.

So, I'm sitting next to Susan in Chem 30 class, and half way through the class I begin to get an acutely distressing sensation behind my nose, deep in my face. Sneezes usually begin as a mere tickle, and various strategies can be employed to distract the physiologic imperative to follow. Not this time—I felt like a bug was slowly crawling up my nose into my head, and this irresistible itch was going to get involuntarily scratched no matter how I felt about it. It started coming from a point just in front of my brain, and knew it was hopeless; the lid was coming off.

In a single, juicy blast I managed to express nearly a cupful of runny, gelatinous goo down the front of my sweatshirt. Any clinical distinction of it being clear and non-purulent was of no consolation. Susan looked at me with equal parts of sympathy, revulsion, and puzzlement (i.e. “How in the world could you let that happen?!”) I didn't know whether I got anything on her, but that seemed beside the point. Ramette stopped talking, turned, looked up at me, and seeing the mess on my chest looked at me with equal parts of amusement, contempt and indifference. I hadn't felt this embarrassed in a classroom since second grade when I got sick after a lunch of bad chow mien and threw up on Natalie Forster, a sensitive, refined and delicate girl, who sat in front of me. But this time there was no kind and understanding Mrs. Brachagen (my second grade teacher) to send me to the school nurse's office while she cleaned up the mess I'd made.

How can I describe what followed? I just sat there next to Susan in the middle of Chem 30 class with a cup of snot smeared down the front of my sweatshirt, wishing to God I could disappear into the floor. I felt trapped—as though I needed to wait and be granted permission by the lordly and formidable Richard Ramette to leave his class. (We didn’t call him “Richard the Lizard Hearted” for nothing.) What if I tried to leave and he said, “Where do you think you're going?!” If that were to happen to me now, I'd say, “Please excuse the interruption—I'm covered with snot and need to leave now.” However, back in the fall of 1970, I just sat there in my desk for the last 15 minutes of class and wanted to die.

There was simply no way to hide the shimmering glop of mucous spread down my chest and stomach. I didn't want to see the looks on people’s faces in Chemistry class or outside of Leighton as I escaped after class across The Bald Spot to my dorm room in Davis to change.

At the next Chem 30 class later that week, I wasn't sure whether I dared sit next to Susan. But I did, and as I sat down she smiled and gently teased me, “Are you feeling better?” The best I could do was say, “Oh God … yes, thanks.” Bless her; she was kind enough not to press the subject any further. Maya Angeliou once said that we may forget what others have said, and we may forget what others have done, but we always remember how others made us feel.

For years I'd hoped that people would forget that day (I will always remember it). And most have likely forgotten, having more important things to remember, wonder or worry about. So why am I bringing it up here and now? Because it's much better to remember and laugh--to take away the power of the embarrassment--than it is to continue worrying that others may remember what a complete idiot I looked that day.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Actual Notes in Hospital Charts by Physicians

1. Rectal examination revealed a normal sized thyroid. [Ouch!]

2. She stated that she has been constipated for most of her life until she got a divorce.

3. The patient has been depressed since she began seeing me in 1993.

4. Discharge status: Alive but without my permission.

5. Healthy appearing decrepit 69 year-old male, mentally alert but forgetful.

6. The patient refused autopsy.

7. The patient has no previous history of suicides.

8. Patient has left their white blood cells at another hospital.

9. Patient's medical history has been remarkably insignificant with only a 40-pound weight gain in the past three days.

10. She is numb from her toes down.

11. While in ER, she was examined, X-rated and sent home.

12. Occasional, constant, infrequent headaches.

13. Patient was alert and unresponsive.

14. Patient has chest pain if she lies on her left side for over a year.

15. On the second day the knee was better and on the third day it disappeared.

16. I saw your patient today, who is still under our car for physical therapy.

17. Both breasts are equal and reactive to light and accommodation.

18. Examination of genitalia reveals that he is circus sized.

19. The patient was to have a bowel resection. However, he took a job as a stockbroker instead.

20. Skin: Somewhat pale but present.

21. The pelvic exam will be done later on the floor.

22. Patient was seen in consultation by Dr. Blank, who felt we should sit on the abdomen, and I agree.

23. Large brown stool ambulating in the hall.

24. Patient has two teenage children, but no other abnormalities.

25. She has no rigors or shaking chills, but her husband states she was very hot in bed last night.

26. The patient is tearful and crying constantly. She also appears to be depressed.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Soccer Team

I’m hardly the first to ascribe a military metaphor to team sports. Young men seem to be genetically hard-wired to defend the tribe, and the same hard-wiring probably makes them join together and push themselves to their limits in a game that is somewhat like a 'battle by proxy'. Something very primitive pulls us to this experience; we seem to need it. [Note: The experience of young women is beyond my ken—I’d welcome hearing them share it.]

These considerations go a long way towards explaining why young men value the male camaraderie of an eleven-member soccer team: the sweat, mud, sheer intensity of effort, willingly endured pain, harried exhaustion, passionate cooperation, and the unquestioned loyalty towards your teammates while pressing yourself to your absolute limit in a struggle against an opposing team. Many of us wouldn’t have known what our limits really were without college athletic experiences. Moreover, the game of soccer provides an avenue for male affection to be safely expressed between young men within the structure of a game. Some might call it “male bonding”.

Playing defense on the soccer team was my natural inclination, unlike my roommate, Jon Wilbur (Class of '72), who was a natural at offense and one of the most gifted soccer players I’ve ever known. Colin Baenziger (‘70) was our team goalkeeper—a lonely position if there ever was one. Goalkeepers don’t explicitly get credit for a team win, but they can easily get blamed for a loss. Defensive players worked closely with the goalkeeper.

A ‘corner kick’ is a means of restarting play when the ball, having last touched a member of the defending team, passes over the line at the end of the field on either side of the goal net (thus, without scoring a goal). When the ball goes out of bounds under these circumstances, an opposing player takes the ball, places it on the corner closest to the defending goal, and then gets to try and kick it into the defending team’s goal net. It’s a little like leaning out the window of a building and trying to throw a ball into a window further down the side of the same building. The difference is this—all the corner kicker has to do is send the ball in front of the goal net to give one of his forwards a chance to then score a goal by kicking the ball into the net.

So, it’s a warm and sunny fall afternoon on the soccer field across the road from Leighton Hall. A corner kick has been called by the referee, and we fullbacks and halfbacks quickly find our defensive positions. I purposefully walk to take my place as right fullback next the goal post closest to the corner, about 25 yards away from where the ball will be coming. I gave our goalie Colin a look that I intended to mean ‘determined’. As I moved to put my shoulder against the post, Colin pressed me, “You got the post?!” Apparently, my expression had instead conveyed, “You could count on me if only I knew what to do.”

Meanwhile, the opposing team’s left wing had placed the ball on the chalk line at the corner, and was backing away as he lined up his shot. Colin quickly stepped back from my post as he positioned himself back in the goal box for the corner kick to come, and shouted to me, “Just keep your right side glued to that post and don’t move!” I did as he told me, leaning firmly against the goal post—I wasn’t going to let him down. The ball would not get between me and the post; nobody and nothing was going to move me off my position.

At college level soccer, boys have developed their power and accuracy in kicking. Try as we might, some of us made an unsubstantial, tentative delivery when we kicked the ball, making a sort of “Puh!” sound. I knew the kid making the corner-kick knew his stuff when I heard the sharp “Thunk!!” sound as the base of his ankle connected with the ball. The last thing I remember as I stood my ground next to the post was the sight of the ball curving toward my head, its surface pattern of black and white pentagons slowly turning end over end, and thinking, “I can NOT duck.” Then, “Bam!!”—the lights went out.

Being wounded in the course of a real war might be honorable, but catching a soccer ball with your face and getting a bloody nose makes you feel just plain stupid. I suppose for whatever I lacked in ability I might have impressed my teammates with my earnest intentions, since I don’t remember anyone laughing at me or giving me a hard time when I came to, flat on my back in the grass. I have no idea how the play went after the ball hit me. Greg Melville (’72) might not remember it, but he helped me walk off the field. I couldn’t see a damn thing; my nose was bleeding and I hurt like hell. As I sat out the rest of the game from the sidelines I tried to watch with my head tipped back and Kleenex held against my nose. A macho man that day I was not.

It was a bad day for many of us. At one point, the opposing team (St. Olaf, wouldn’t you know it) kicked the ball towards our goal from less than fifteen yards away. Colin yelled, “Got it!” When the goalkeeper says this, you stay out of his way—it’s like a command. However, a well-intentioned Jim Plasman (’72) still tried to stop it, managing to get only a piece of his foot on the ball, and deflected it past Colin’s hands and into our own net—thus scoring a goal for the Oles.

As those of you who are soccer fans will appreciate, half-backs (other terms are sometimes used) do a lot of running—forwards play offense and fullbacks play defense, but half-backs are often called upon to do both. Jim Rude (‘71) played half-back and was deservedly very well-liked. He was athletic, capable, friendly, and generous with his encouragement and advice to those of us who were younger and less experienced. He had tremendous stamina.

At one point Jim was trying to block an Ole forward who was maneuvering in mid-field to pass the ball. No one thought it was intentional, but the Ole forward kicked the soccer ball straight at Jim—hard—and it caught Jim squarely between his legs. Jim collapsed on the spot with an audible groan, which elicited involuntary sounds of sympathy from all of us who saw it from the sidelines. Like a seriously wounded comrade Jim was helped off the field by teammates Dan Mabley and Bruce Tully (both Class of ’71). Moments like this bring out in young men an unselfconscious caring towards each other which you generally don’t see.

Finally, Jon Wilbur (’72) deftly intercepted an Ole pass half-way down the field near the side line. He turned and with a sharp and solid kick sent the ball downfield directly over the side line at about eye level; it was a perfect shot. No one saw whether she was actually standing back behind the side line where spectators belonged. But the ball caught a girl (a pretty blonde Ole) square in the side of the head—“Thwap!!”—and damn near knocked her out. It would have been a beautiful pass; both Fred Rogers (’72) and “Broadway Bruce” Tully (’71) were in a perfect position downfield from the stricken girl to have taken the ball to the St. Olaf goal.

I can’t remember the score, but we lost the game. There were disasters that day, but winning isn’t everything.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Quiz: You may be a Taliban if you answer "yes" to any of the following

A woman I work with has a son in the military in Afghanistan. He recently mailed to her the following quiz that he and his fellow soldiers had composed. It's a very good sign that they're able to keep their sense of humor. To appreciate this humor, you need to remember that young (18 - 26 for the most part) American men (plus a few women) are making these jokes about an enemy that is trying every day to kill them.


1. You refine heroin for a living, but you have a moral objection to beer.

2. You own a $3,000 machine gun and $5,000 rocket launcher, but you can't afford shoes.

3. You have more wives than teeth.

4. You wipe your butt with your bare left hand but consider bacon "unclean."

5. You think vests come in two styles: bullet proof and suicide.

6. You can't think of anyone you haven't declared Jihad against.

7. You consider television dangerous but routinely carry explosives in your clothing.

8. You were amazed to discover that cell phones have uses other than setting off roadside bombs.

9. You have nothing against women and think every man should own at least one.

10. You've always had a crush on your neighbor's goat.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Near-Disasters in Biking—Mere Humiliation

It was spring, and after my brush with death/disaster the preceding fall (see previous installment, “Near-Disasters in Biking—No Brakes!”) I’d gotten back on my bike and resumed my daily commutes to dental school. As we all know, April and May can be unpredictable in Minnesota, but the dictum “Just dress for the weather and you’ll be OK” still applies as usual.

It was May 1st, and I’d been too distracted during breakfast that day to pay attention to the weather report when I gulped my coffee and saddled up to ride to school. A look out the window showed trees full of tender green buds about to expand Ka-boom into leaves anytime, and I figured it had to be a nice day. As always, I kept my rain jacket and pants tucked in a corner of my pack.

I had an uneventful, if chilly ride to school. Inside school, I had a really bad day. I somehow forgot to bring the wax crown patterns I’d carved at home the night before, meaning they wouldn’t get cast in time for a patient that drove 100 miles for their appointments. Also, I was convinced that I bombed my Neurology midterm that morning—a course I detested.

But worst of all, my girlfriend had dumped me during a mutually tearful lunch. “I’m sorry, but this just isn’t working”, was all she could say. She was a young woman I thought I loved, even though I knew that I really didn’t like her. How is it that we can consciously make these kinds of mistakes in relationships—wanting someone whom we know is definitely not right for us? The Fates could have told me “Wake up, Todd! She’s yet another Oedipal re-enactment, get it?” but as usual they weren’t talking. We may be stupid or crazy to want the wrong person, but this doesn’t make it hurt any less.

When I saw that it had started sleeting rain and freezing flakes outside at the end of the afternoon, I thought that the sky was either sympathizing with me—or else mocking me, I couldn’t decide which. All those bright green optimistic and vulnerable buds out there getting sleet and ice dumped on them. You didn’t need to be a Freud or Jung to get the metaphor for how I felt. Down and out, I got into my rain jacket and pants for the ride home and shouldered my backpack. After a few blocks it was clear that riding my bike was going to be more trouble than walking it.

After nearly two miles of walking, completely absorbed in feeling sorry for myself, I reach a stoplight and when it turns green I begin to cross. There’s a couple of inches of snow on the ground by now, and walking just then seemed to be getting harder. A car honks at me, and then another. “OK, well so what, it’s snowing and I rode my bike today. Big deal!” Another car honks. I think, “Well f*ck you all anyway! So what!? You think this is funny?! My life is totally f*cked—go honk someplace else!!”

At that moment, I feel like something is grabbing at my ankles. I look down, and my rain pants have fallen down around my ankles; the waist cord had broken. It doesn’t matter that I have jeans on underneath. I was a biker crossing the street with his pants fallen down around his ankles, and clueless—until that moment—of his condition.

If I weren’t so sad about my now former girlfriend and at the same time pissed off at everybody honking at me, I could have spent a lot more energy at that moment feeling humiliated, as most of us would tend to feel discovering that our pants have fallen down in the middle of the street in rush hour traffic, with drivers laughing and honking at us.

I’ve had better days.

Near-Disasters in Biking—No Brakes!

It was late October that year, and having begun dental school in September I thought I was doing a good job proving that I really could manage the daily ten mile round trip on my bicycle to and from school. Although, the experience was made occasionally challenging by insane motorists who seemed intent on murdering me, the rare flat tire caused by riding over broken glass in the gutter, and inscrutably belligerent dogs sometimes tearing out into the street after me.

After nearly two months of unseasonably dry weather, rain promised for that day had held off during my morning commute. But a steady hard drizzle had then set in during the afternoon, taking more of the yellow and red leaves off the trees with it. As the evening darkness closed in, I headed home to south Minneapolis through the fall rain. My books were safely wrapped in plastic inside my backpack, and I was covered head-to-toe in my yellow and orange rain suit. Wearing my helmet and with my bike well marked front and back with bright lights, I felt reasonably safe.

The rain had made the layer of leaves on the road wet and slippery, but I prided myself in being defensive. However well marked I was, I always assumed that cars wouldn’t see me. Halfway home, I was busy watching for wet leaves and cars as I began a descent down a long hill. Then about 30 yards before an intersection at the bottom of the hill, the light turned red and I started to brake—tried to brake. I squeezed my brakes and nothing happened. Instead, it feels like I’m gaining speed, doing maybe 20 miles an hour, as I’m going towards this red light at the bottom of the hill.

The cross street I’m headed for has now filled with cars rushing through the intersection left and right. Meanwhile, I’m passing a line of cars on my left with their taillights all shining bright red as they’re slowing to stop for the red light ahead. On my right, there’s a solid wall of parked cars glistening in the darkness. Nowhere to go. And no matter how hard I squeeze my brakes, they do nothing. I’m almost at the intersection—I’ve used up my chance to stop. That opportunity is now gone.

The next thing I’m flying into the intersection—not thinking any words—rather a starkly clear and concrete knowing/feeling, “I'm going to die now.”

But sometimes, for reasons no one knows, the Universe smiles upon us. Somehow, the moment I entered that intersection an opening in the traffic parted for me—like some absurd cosmic joke. It was so improbable, like a scene from an old black-and-white Keystone Cops silent flick. With horns blaring on my left and right I sailed on a charmed path through the jaws of death, while out of the darkness some understandably enraged driver shouted, “Ya stupid sh*t, what’cha tryin’ ta do?!”

Then, I was coasting through the darkness of the street on the other side of the intersection, with the rain on the pavement and the staccato clicking of my bike gears the only sounds. Mercifully, no one followed me to point out that I’d very nearly gotten myself killed.

There’s the adage about getting right back on the horse after you’ve been thrown. And those of you who have ridden a horse and been thrown will recognize how apt and oh-so-very-true this advice is. I probably knew better, but I didn’t take this advice that fall—I was too shaken. The next day I took the bus to school, and didn’t get back on my bike until the following spring.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Sailing on Lake Superior or, when I was young and stupid?

A cautionary tale—not without humor—in which youthful arrogance and stupidity encounter a colorful maritime disaster, somehow managing to avoid tragedy.

That was then … summer, 1976.

As I get older, I try to console myself with thoughts like, “It’s not all bad--there are benefits. I’m getting wiser as I get older.” (Transparent self-deception?)

In Gordon Lightfoot’s song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, there are lines that can raise the hair on the back of your neck:

“Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?”

I suspect that anyone who’s been in a storm either at sea or on the Great Lakes will appreciate his metaphor for gnawing fear.

My cousin Rob (Class of ’67) is the kind of guy who’s always been easy for me to look up to—at ease with himself, smart and capable, with the courage to do adventurous things like buy a 33-foot sailboat when he moved to Duluth, Minnesota to work as an Emergency Room Physician for a few years. I was fortunate to sail with him on Lake Superior during the years after college when I was in dental school. I’d drive to Duluth on a Friday night, and we’d head out onto the Lake on Saturday morning.

One Friday night when I arrived, Rob said, “Hey, no need to wait ‘til tomorrow. Let’s head out for Bayfield tonight.” So we left his berth in the Duluth harbor and motored towards the aerial bridge. It was always a treat to blow our air horn—three long blasts—and see the bridge traffic get stopped and the whole span go up, just for us so we could clear our mast as we went beneath it. We motored out past the signal lights of the channel and into the darkness of the open Lake. We set sail and took turns at watches. Aside from minding the wind and the sails, you stay on a compass reading to keep yourself on course. If your course is going to lead you anywhere near shore, then you need to watch the depth gauge too. Rob’s boat drew about five feet of water; any less and we’d go aground.

About 3 AM the wind started to come up fast, the waves were getting big, it started to rain and blow really hard. Spray from the waves started coming over the side. It was the summer of 1976, and the Edmund Fitzgerald had gone down the previous November. “Superior never gives up her dead” occurred to me—I already knew why. The temperature near the bottom of the Lake remains near 34 degrees, which means that the bodies of those who drown—or simply die from hypothermia—sink to the bottom and just stay there, like bags of BirdsEye frozen peas in cold storage. I didn’t want to join them, and tried not to think about it. Things were getting bad enough for us to decide to head in closer to the south shore, drop the anchor, and ride out the storm until dawn. When well anchored with all the hatches secured tightly, Rob’s boat would rise over cresting waves in a storm well enough. We might not sleep much, but we’d be OK.

So, we started the engine, pulled down the sails, and headed towards the south shore, watching the depth gauge carefully. Now, if you want to anchor a boat to resist the wind and waves of a storm, seven to one is the safe ratio for length of anchor line to depth of water. Rob did a quick calculation based on the depth of the water and how far off shore we were, and determined how much line we should let out. We dropped our anchor at what we thought was the right distance away from the shore. Rob kept the bow into the wind and the waves as I paid out the anchor line from the bow. Drifting downwind in an arc, we’d nearly reached a point directly downwind from the anchor point when we felt the sickening lurch of the boat beneath us as the keel hit bottom.

As it happens, sand bars come and go each year on the south shore of Superior. That year there was one that went way out into the Lake—and we were stuck on it. Trying to motor off the sand bar into that wind and sea was hopeless. The waves were so big that we could hear the prop racing as it came out of the water with each wave trough passing under us: “Rub,bub,bub--Grrrh-eeeeee!! Rub,bub,bub--Grrrh-eeeeee!!” There was no way that engine was going to push the boat off that sandbar. I was scared—and knew I ought to be.

Clearly, we couldn’t control the boat and there was some risk it might break apart since it was no longer riding on the surface. Lake Superior is always very cold; it doesn’t matter how good a swimmer you are—you have to stay out of the water. There was nothing to do but inflate the rubber life raft and abandon ship. In spite of the wind we could hear the waves crashing down on the south shore in the darkness no further away than 300 yards away downwind. We grabbed our sleeping bags, flashlights, compass and a map, and climbed into the yellow life raft pitching up and down on the down-wind side of the boat. Pushing off, the surging waves and wind blew us up on the shore in only a couple of minutes. We were soaked to the skin and freezing cold—but safe.

We got into our sleeping bags and spent the rest of the night under a clump of bayberry bushes on the shore, trying to get warm in a steady drizzle. We huddled there, cold, wet, and shivering, as we listened to the sound of the waves against the shore. Through the wind we could just make out the “Grmmm--Bum, Bump! Grmmm--Bum, Bump!” sound of Rob’s boat being ground further into the sand bar by the waves.

At daylight, the lake was calm and a grey mist nearly obscured the boat, sitting at an angle stuck on the sand bar. Hiking south through the woods, we found a road and tried to hitchhike into the nearest town. We looked bedraggled and pretty disreputable; no one would pick us up. We walked several miles to Cornucopia, pop. 140. When we asked if we could use a phone to call the Coast Guard, we were helpfully introduced to a guy known simply as “Muffler”, who assured us that he could easily pull us off with his (motor) boat.

An hour later, we’re heading out on the Lake in what turned out to be a boat no longer than 22 feet with an 80 h.p. motor on it—small by Lake Superior standards. As Muffler tosses back his second beer since taking the helm of his boat and is laughing at the spray blowing over the side, Rob and I exchange looks. We’re beginning to have doubts about relying on Muffler. The man seemed fearless—and this wasn’t a good thing. When we round a sheltering point and start slamming harder into really big waves coming off the open Lake, even Muffler hesitates. As he turns around and heads back to Cornucopia he nearly ‘swamps’ his boat under a cresting wave.

A phone call to the Coast Guard and three hours later, we’d made our way back through the woods to Rob’s boat. Around the point comes a 120-foot Coast Guard cutter from Duluth. It was an awe-inspiring sight—this huge, beautiful ship with the American Flag flying above her bridge. They’d come all that way just to help us; it was humbling. To pull us off the sand bar, the cutter eased into a position nearly 100 yards out with its stern directly facing us. Rob rowed out to verbally release the Captain of the Coast Guard cutter from responsibility for any damage to Rob's boat during the operation. Rob rowed back from the cutter dragging the end of a rope as big around as my wrist, which I tried to fix to our bow cleat. The rope was so big that it barely fit. (Moments later I nearly got my fingers caught and crushed under it. That would’ve been goodbye dental career.)

With its big diesel engines making a deep “Thrum-Thrum-Thrum” sound, the cutter slowly pulled ahead to take up the slack in the line. We feel Rob's boat shift, and we're sliding off the sand bar. After waving our arms and shouting "Thank you!!" to the Coast Guard a dozen times, we passed some tense moments as Rob watched below for any water coming in through a damaged hull. Blessed with an absence of leaks, we sailed to Bayfield. We had a nice late dinner in a restaurant, drinking to the good health of Rob's sound ship that had pulled us through--and thanking the Fates for smiling on us.

I hate to admit it now—with blissful ignorance we hadn’t even checked the weather report before we’d left the Duluth harbor the night before. Now that's a blunder that you're just never, ever supposed to make. We were very lucky. Lake Superior is unforgiving; any number of things could have gone terribly wrong.

Nearly all of us have had times when Life has managed to kick us squarely in the teeth. And like many of you, I’ve lost friends over the years; a climbing accident, a suicide, a car accident, among other causes. Sadly, those friends can’t tell us their stories any more.