"...it's like Will Rogers, Jean Shepherd and some grumpy Jewish man all rolled into one."

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


For Mother's Day weekend I'd put together a nice plan where Carol and I would take a leisurely drive through Maine and New Hampshire, across the White Mountains and into the quaint little town of Plymouth. There we would have dinner and cap off the evening by attending a Todd Rundgren concert (our undying love for TR has already been documented here and here). However, Carol decided this plan did not incorporate sufficient (i.e., any) time with her son Josh -- so she suggested a slight modification to the plan. The impact was minimal, requiring only that we get up at the crack of dawn and drive an additional six-plus hours and several hundred miles in addition to the original path so precisely mapped via the Google.

[Brief aside: I call Josh "her" son at this point to emphasize the mother/child connection; he is of course "our" son. Shortly after we moved to Boston, Josh came into town for a weekend visit. After he left, Carol saw one of our apartment complex neighbors who asked, "Did I see you had company over the weekend?" When Carol replied in the affirmative, our neighbor then said, "He looked just like your husband -- was it his brother?" No, Carol replied -- that was "my son". "Oh, from your first marriage?" our neighbor inquired. "No, from my current marriage to John." "Ah -- but you were married before." "No, I've only been married once." "Yes. So, your husband was married previously." "No, no -- we have both only been married one time, to each other." I think our neighbor walked away clear in the knowledge that we were a committed couple and also under the impression we'd adopted a child years ago who had developed an uncanny resemblance to me.]

Carol has dedicated much time and effort since last fall to become a certified yoga instructor. As a result of that process, she has a heightened interest in many aspects of the mind/body relationship. Therefore, when she heard about a "mindfulness" seminar, which one of her yoga instructor classmates was co-facilitating, she was extremely interested in attending and thought it would be an ideal outing for the whole family. Somewhat surprisingly, Josh readily agreed and since it was going to be "mother's day", I also feigned interest and enthusiasm, making only occasional references to the distance, timing, additional expense, anxiety, coordination and foolishness of the enterprise.

We got up très early that Saturday morning. I'd told Carol in order to get to the seminar on time, we needed to leave no later than 7:15am. Therefore, we were underway under dark skies and moderate rainfall at precisely 7:40. We picked up Josh as we passed through Boston, where it was fortunately much brighter, and pulled into the parking lot of the seminar's location the other side of town with two minutes to spare before the scheduled start. Pam, a friend and former co-worker of Carol's, was also attending and she pulled in all of twenty seconds after we'd parked and gotten out of the car. We walked into the meeting room and registered, with the clock now showing exactly 11:00. Mindful of the agenda and showing respect for the attendees' valuable time, the session got underway at precisely 11:27. Hmm...

There were four co-facilitators; a group of women with impressive credentials and a very deep understanding of various mind/body practices -- meditation, breathing, chanting, yoga, massage, Reiki, stress reduction, Qigong (like Tai Chi, but harder to pronounce). They were all experienced teachers and leaders but this was their first time working as a quartet -- there were a few timing and progression hiccups, understandably, but largely the flow of the day went smoothly.

Except for lunch. Scheduled to start at 1:00pm, we broke for lunch closer to 1:25. We'd been told to brown-bag it and that we'd be "eating mindfully". Just in case any of us weren't familiar with the concept (good hunch, that), one of the instructors said she'd give us a "five-minute overview". Fifteen minutes later, we began to eat mindfully -- stopping to put down our food between bites, chewing slowly so we could experience all the tastes and textures, thinking about the origin of the meal (the field where the grain was grown; the farm where the beef was raised; the supermarket where we stood in line at the deli for, like, twenty minutes waiting for our number to be called). Also, we were not supposed to speak. Well, there went Carol and Pam's opportunity to catch up during the break. Every few minutes during the meal one of the instructors kept reminding us to be mindful (that's pretty meta), breaking our concentration and the peaceful silence with verbal prodding to remain focused and quiet. Oh irony, thy name is "hoagie".

We completed an arts and crafts-based activity after lunch and then did more yoga poses along with some stretching, breathing, deep thinking and, surprisingly, binge-watching the final season of "Mad Men". Scheduled to conclude at 3:00pm, you will not be surprised to learn we were still going on with "just one more last thing" at 3:45.

Despite my somewhat callous description of the program and general aversion to what the non-mindful would describe as a "touchy-feely" kind of event, once we arrived I left my reservations at the door along with my shoes and was very happy that Carol, Josh and I were all together and having this experience in common. One of the first exercises involved sitting on the floor back-to-back with a partner (we were encouraged to pair up with someone we didn't know, so our family spread out among the others in attendance) and breathe deeply. At first our focus was on our own breath, the difference between inhaling and exhaling; we then focused on our partner's breath, and finally were guided to tune into the interplay between our combined respirations. We kept at this for some time, maybe twenty minutes, and after a while I found myself... tearful. Not sobbing, not howling, not getting all snot-nosed, but just consumed by the sense of something larger than myself and a genuine feeling of "connectedness" to someone who, mere moments ago, was a complete stranger to me. When we concluded the activity my partner and I stood up and exchanged smiles and a warm, genuine hug. I complimented her by saying she'd obviously breathed before and was quite expert at it. I can beat the snark down but can't kill it.

Other than the overall timing and lunch-consumption issues, there was really only one significant distraction throughout the day, courtesy of one of the other participants. Several people had previous experience with yoga, and this woman told us she did as well -- also transcendental meditation, massage therapy, and I think she may have mentioned fly casting. Anyway, some of the folks came in yoga attire and brought mats with them, as did this lady. We were encouraged to assume a comfortable posture during the lecture portions of the seminar, whether sitting on a folding chair, on the floor/mat, standing or walking -- whatever we felt best suited us at the moment. This woman decided her preferred posture was to run through an endless series of stretches. She was constantly in motion: folded up, fully extended, rolling from side to side, bent in half, reaching skyward... It was impossible not to glance at her throughout the course of the day to see what pose she'd most recently assumed. It put me in mind of those soft-core porn movies you find on cable at three in the morning, where people engage in sex while putting their tingly parts together in multiple positions - standing, sitting, crouching, hanging from the ceiling, on top of and then underneath the coffee table.

(Please note I mentioned soft-core porn movies that you find on cable; when I'm up in the wee hours I watch reruns of "Charlie Rose".)

When the seminar (finally) ended, we said some hasty good-byes to fellow attendees and Carol's instructor friend. We jumped back in the car, quickly dropping off Josh, and then hustled to get to New Hampshire. We had just enough time to check in to our motel before dashing over to the club for our appointment with another healer, Todd R. We had a great time at the show and then spent a largely sleepless night in our motel room. I think both of us were over-stimulated from the holistic insights gleaned from the seminar and their contrast with the amazing burst of energy directed our way during the Todd concert -- pulsating music, non-stop dancing and a dazzling light show.

After a lovely breakfast at an old-fashioned diner in town we started back toward home, returning on the route I'd first mapped out and enjoying the mountain and lake views along the way. I drove and was so entranced by the scenery I may have occasionally wandered into the other lane. When/if I did that, Carol practiced mindfulness by telling me she preferred to remain alive in the here and now, regardless of my apparent intent to move into another astral plane. And when that comment didn't bring me back to the present, she snapped me in my tingly parts. Talk about being tearful while breathing...

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Slither Goest Thou?

We live on a lake, surrounded by trees and next to a marsh. Another way to say that is: we live on an aquarium filled with swimmy things, surrounded by birds, squirrels and skunks and next to a breeding ground for amorous frogs and mosquitoes. Carol delights in seeing a colorful and dynamic variety of birds and other creatures, tracking their movements across the seasons. Occasionally I pick up a piece of wood to place in the fire pit and come across a spider as big as my fist, which is a handy reference since I immediately clench it after dropping the log and retreating in terror upon discovering the menacing arachnid. I say "menacing" but I'm the one who disturbed him.

And then there are snakes. When we launch our kayaks, we often see a small serpent swimming near the shoreline; we'd describe him as "cute" if it weren't for the fact that he's, you know -- a snake. And then a few weeks ago we were standing on our upstairs deck off the bedroom and spied a turtle making his way across the yard. We were amused by his slow and steady pace and speculated regarding his destination. At one point I lost track of where he was and Carol said, "He's next to that big stick in the yard." At that moment, the stick started to move and undulated across the grass, disappearing under the fire pit. This fellow was pretty serious looking -- nearly 4 feet in length and with a solid circumference (I've since determined he was a northern water snake: "known to defend itself aggressively and can deliver a painful but non-venomous bite"). We watched him intently until he finally worked his way to the edge of the lake and slipped into the water. His journey across our lawn took several minutes from when we first spied him, and I was shocked to discover I could go that long without blinking or taking a breath.

We attended our lake association's annual meeting last year, our first time. There was lots of discussion about the condition of the water, the variety of aquatic plant life, and the kinds of creatures residing in and around the area -- loons, osprey, eagles, carp, foxes, turtles... and snakes. One gentleman stood up and declared in a loud and clear voice, "There are NO POISONOUS SNAKES IN THE STATE OF MAINE!" Others in attendance chuckled and nodded their heads in agreement, but my thought was -- "How do the snakes know which state they're in? Snakes can read maps?" If a timber rattlesnake from neighboring New Hampshire (they've got 'em; look it up) decides to cross the border into Maine, is he able to read the signs saying, "Welcome to Maine! The Way Life Should Be" and say "Whoops! Enticing as that sounds - I gotta turn around!"? The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife says the timber rattlesnake has been "extirpated" from Maine. If I had to look that word up, I rather doubt the snakes are adhering to that standard, either. The same department's website offers "Tips for Attracting Snakes". As far as I'm concerned, that knowledge is as welcome as "Tips for Attracting Rabid Animals To Your Living Room" or "Tips for Getting More Eggs in Your Egg Salad".

In fairness, I must say we haven't dealt with a coital coiled snake, ready to spring. We've watched them from a respectful distance and they haven't let on that they're planning any sort of attack. My biggest fear is finding one in the house, especially when I make one of my multiple trips to the bathroom during the night, foolishly thinking I know my way to the toilet well enough that I don't have to bother to put on my glasses before I come downstairs. I'll be perched on the commode and sense some slight movement in the corner next to the tub. With my field of vision a blurry haze, I'll lean closer and closer in that direction until I find myself nose-to-nose with a sleek serpent. He'll flick his forked tongue, tasting the molecules dispersing from my direction and assessing his response. Maybe he'll strike, maybe he won't, but one thing I know for sure -- I will extirpate all over myself.