The Last Word

July 31 – August 4, 2017

Jessa’s on a trip that’s so far out in the back of beyond that it needs a guide.  The guide doesn’t show. But nobody quits.

Michelle finds a splendid metaphor for surviving ridiculously unpleasant situations: imitate the reindeer and assume Arctic resignation.

I redux the struggles that Helen and I, and now Jenny, have with creating epiphanal and life-saving mint lemonade.  We’re almost there.

Helen reduxes a mountain hike with her father.  He hikes, she plods.  But she plods with a good eye, a willing heart, and good family.

Craig find labyrinths and mazes when he travels with his kids.  Craig says the labyrinths are almost holy; his kid knows exactly what to do with them.

Labyrinths and Mazes

There is a difference between the two. In one you can’t get lost; one way in, one way out. The other is full of dead ends and false passages.

I take my kids to labyrinths. When they were little, we walked in socks along the path of a smooth stone labyrinth on the floor of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Inside the soaring bay of the cathedral, walking is like gliding, like leaving your body. We wound in and out of each other, the path sometimes bringing us close together, other times sending us apart as we headed from the outside to the center, and from the center back out.

This is a 35-foot-wide replica of the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth, built into to the floor of the French throned church in 1201. According to Labyrinth Guilds caring for these convoluted works of interactive art around the world, these are spiritual artifacts, “divine imprints.” Traveling along one involves three canonical stages: purgation, illumination, and union. Purgation is the entry, leaving the prosaic details of life behind. Illumination is reaching the center. Union is leaving along the same path, joining with God.

This is how my kids learned to do it, and nobody ever told them. They figured out if you spend half an hour walking to the center, you must spend another half an hour walking out.

Mazes, on the other hand, are made of alleys. They have dumpsters and knocked over trash cans. You can get cornered, and at times can’t find the way. I like these, too. Continue reading

Redux: Plodding With My Father

A couple of years ago I climbed Flattop Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park with my dad. I’m back in Colorado this week, again with family, so I thought it was a good time to recall that hike.

The rising sun really does turn things pink.
The rising sun really does turn things pink.

The Milky Way hung overhead. The lights from the far-off plains made a faint glow in the eastern sky. I made one last visit to the pit toilet at the edge of the parking lot, put on my day pack, and began to plod.

I was setting out to climb a mountain with my dad. The mountain was Flattop, a 12,324-footer in Rocky Mountain National Park, in Colorado.

My dad claims Rocky Mountain is the best place in the world for day hikes. Now, I happen to think he is right. For one thing, he’s been a lot of places. And his argument makes sense: The park has a long list of trails that offer a short walk to a dramatic cliff face with a gorgeous lake at its foot. He has tested most of these trails personally. His first visit to the park was as a toddler in the mid-1940s. My great-grandfather was a dentist in Kansas who started going out to Colorado for long trips in the 1930s or so and was spending whole summers in Estes Park, just outside the eastern border of the park, by the 1950s.

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Redux: Helen and I Smack Down Unhappiness

This ran not that long ago, August 23, 2016.  But I feel it should be run again because it has an important update.

Recently, Helen and I made mint lemonade again, this time with Jenny.  As the post suggests, we blended-and-spigoted at the same time, and instead of demarara sugar, we used white.  The pond scum effect entirely disappeared so that was good.  But we put too much ice in blender and ended up with mint-lemonade slushies or however you spell it, and mint lemonade needs to be drunk, not spooned and strawed.

So we tried a second batch and this time the liquidity was perfect but the amount of plant matter was noticeably chewy.  Helen suggests that we blend mint and sugar together before adding ice and why didn’t we think of that before?

Also this time it wasn’t stinking hot on the porch so the mint lemonade was only refreshing and not resurrection.

Here’s the original.


Photo by Pearl Pirie, via Flickr

Science Metaphors (cont.): Arctic Resignation

The Svalbard archipelago, midway between continental Norway and the North Pole, is famous for its polar bears, but it is also home to the distinctive (and distinctively adorable) Svalbard reindeer. Shaggy-haired and stubby-legged, the Svalbard reindeer is not only the world’s smallest subspecies of reindeer but also the world’s northernmost herbivorous mammal, and its survival is something of a daily miracle.

Winter vegetation on Svalbard is sparse to begin with, and because winter temperatures regularly rise above freezing, any greenery is usually covered with ice. So between April and late August, when the Arctic sun shines all day and vegetation grows round the clock, Svalbard reindeer eat frantically, laying on fat for the months ahead. When winter descends, they enter a state that’s not quite hibernation—they stay alert, and their body temperature stays constant—and not quite torpor, for their metabolic rate doesn’t change much. They just … stop moving. Norwegian zoologist Arnoldus Blix has dubbed this curious state “arctic resignation.”

I first encountered the term arctic resignation in The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon, a book I revere (and recommend to everyone, regardless of your brain chemistry). Solomon observes that arctic resignation looks like some varieties of human depression, and it’s true: in addition to spending almost all of their time lying down or standing still, arctically resigned reindeer have low thyroid hormone levels and eat almost nothing. But depression tends to make easy situations hard, and hard situations impossible. Arctic resignation, on the other hand, makes a ridiculously difficult environment survivable. It’s a strategic response to unwelcome but temporary conditions.

Like scale mismatch, arctic resignation strikes me as a strategy that can be applied to all sorts of difficulties. When times are tough, reduce your overhead; get plenty of rest; stay alert; and, when absolutely necessary, trot. When the sun returns, eat to your heart’s content.


Photo of presumably resigned Svalbard reindeer by Flickr user Christopher Michel. Creative Commons.

No Maps for These Territories

Camping and canoeing are all about self-sufficiency. The sensation of our own competence on the land lets us feel our own strength directly, rather than through oblique measures of success like social status or money. So it’s hard to accept when some trips are just so out of our realm that they require a guide.

Ten years ago, for a journey down the remote Thelon River in Nunavut—a trip whose events I’ve detailed elsewhere—it seemed like just such a special case. My father and I signed on with an outfitter who would ferry canoes up the river, coordinate with the pilots about what July day the ice might come off the fly-in lakes, and buy all of our essentials for three weeks in the Far North.

The trouble began immediately. We flew on a float plane to a village on the Eastern shores of Great Slave Lake, ready to meet our outfitter and get packed and organized. No outfitter. We met our fellow travellers and an assistant guide but our fearless leader did not show. A town council member stopped by the outfitter’s cabin, where we were to stay, to say that the he—we’ll call him Taiga Tim—was not welcome anymore in town. Continue reading

The Last Word

July 24-28, 2017

This week LWON responds once again to the ludicrous alarmism of Shark Week. Our fifth annual Snark Week reveals the viciousness lurking in the most adorable of animals, if you’ll only lean in closely enough to hear their villainous scheming.

Raccoons, for instance, have had it in for us since they first got evil ideas from Christopher Columbus, says Erik. They have infiltrated our urban spaces for a multi-pronged attack on our security of the person.

And don’t think for a second that man’s “best friend” is some exception to the rule that cuteness is just another word for diabolical savagery. Jenny reminds us that the pets in our home are just patiently waiting for their chance to gnaw on our rib bones.

“What, you like mammals? Poor judgement on your part,” says Sarah. What does the fox say? You’ll never know, because he only speaks after dinner, and dinner is you.

Ever wonder why four-and-twenty blackbirds got baked in a pie? That’s the only proven method for killing a blackbird, says Cassie.

And don’t get us started on pigeons. Richard’s mild-mannered pup has the good sense to know a deadly threat when he sees it pecking at crumbs on the sidewalk.

Until next year, be on your guard against anything warm, small and fuzzy with big eyes. The sharks are the least of your worries.


Image: Puss in Boots, via Wikimedia commons

Snark Week: Boids


They’re out there, all right.

Welcome to Snark Week 2017!

“Dirty . . . disgusting . . . filthy . . . lice-ridden boids. You used to be able to sit out on the stoop like a person. Not anymore! No, sir! Boids!”

The dialogue comes from the Mel Brooks movie The Producers. The super of a walk-up is referring to the carrier pigeons that the Nazi and aspiring playwright Franz Liebkind keeps on the roof.

I empathize. Not with having a Nazi as a tenant. But with the super’s attitude toward pigeons. Because with pigeons, you never know.

About what? you might wonder.

About anything, I might answer.

I once saw a pigeon in a park pecking at a chicken bone. I had to look away. It was just . . . wrong.

On another occasion in another park my family and I were sitting on a bench when a pigeon began hovering in front of us, at eyeball level. “Shoo!” we said, or some such admonition. It didn’t shoo. We waved our arms. It didn’t budge. Maybe the bird was guarding a nest. Maybe it was mentally unstable. Either way, it just hung there, flapping, staring us down. (It won; we moved.)

But you know who else would empathize about a hatred of pigeons? My Havenese.

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