A Midsummer Night’s Reading List

OR…The Halligan TMJ Review of Books

I can’t claim to be a voracious reader but looking back on spring and summer I find that I have savored, enjoyed, waded through, occasionally endured, laughed and sometimes even wept through 11-1/2 books.

Why should you read my opinions about these books? I’m not a professional critic, after all. But because of my short list, you might pick up a book you otherwise wouldn’t have considered—or conversely, avoid something you might have thought of reading. And you are free to disagree.

Now it’s also because you might have a preconceived notion that as a dentist I spend my nights in bed with Pete Dawson’s textbook or Craniofacial Pain: A Handbook for Assessment, Diagnosis and Management. In fact, I’m leaving off the list the strictly dental related stuff. The Dental Practice Shift, by Scott Manning lies half finished on my table, and I’ll leave such things alone without comment. Gasp! a book about airway and breathing by Michael Gelb, almost made the list, but it rests on a shelf with other dental texts. It is worthwhile never-the-less.

And journals? If Outside Magazine and the ADA Journal arrive in the mail on the same day, well the Journal will just have to wait.

The List:

1. Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau. Kevin Dann. From Amazon: “To Coincide with the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth in 2017, this thrilling, meticulous biography by naturalist and historian Kevin Dann fills the gap in our understanding of one of modern history’s most important spiritual visionaries.”

Since this is the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth, a number of new biographies are popping up and most are favorably reviewed. Kevin Dann’s is the one I read, and thoroughly enjoyed. You read, or skimmed your way through, Walden back in high school? You might like this slightly different flavor of Thoreau and then perhaps take a chance on Walden one more time.


2. The Cake and the Rain. Jimmy Webb. I don’t have superlatives enough for The Cake and the Rain. If you think it’s sex, drugs and rock n’ roll you’re a fraction correct of course, but the book is written with the same brilliance that brought us all those wonderful Jimmy Webb songs: “Up, up and away,” recorded by the Fifth Dimension; “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I get to Phoenix,” “Galveston,” and many others that became hits for Glen Campbell; “All I know,” Art Garfunkel’s best solo effort; the inimitable Richard Harris version of “MacArthur Park;” and dozens of versions of “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.”

The Wall Street Journal’s review put it this way, “The Cake and the Rain is novelistic, perfectly plotted and quite possibly the best pop-star autobiography yet written.”

The Cake and the Rain is a perfect title as Jimmy Webb experienced a world’s worth of both–and the rain nearly did him in, could easily have killed him, or if not quite dead could have left him unable to remember what piano keys were for. Amazing Grace that he played on. Certainly my favorite book of the year—so far. Just get it.


3. The Nature Fix: Why Nature makes us Happier, Healthier and more Creative. Florence Williams. Thoreau found inspiration in the quiet—well, relative quiet: there was that darned train that shook and ruffled the waters when it rumbled past—of Walden Pond. John Muir said, “The mountains are calling and I must go.” Beethoven loved to ramble among the rocks and trees; Wordsworth of course walked hundreds of miles through English countryside and once, having landed at Calais, walked across France all the way to the Alps. Nature was his greatest muse. Emerson famously wrote of man’s desire to understand his relationship with the infinite, of God and the Universe, and the power of nature to provide a key through direct experience of the wild.

In The Nature Fix, Florence Williams offers scientific proof that we are indeed healthier with lowered blood pressure, better cortisol levels and quieter EEG waves if we’ll just get out and “forest bathe” as the Japanese call it, for a minimum time each week. Studies cited are not just physiological but behavioral as well. The writing is clear and lucid and the message important. Cityscapes can’t offer the benefits of a good walk in the woods, or even a drive down a tree-lined country road if walking just isn’t your thing. In fact the opposite is true: too much time spent with concrete under foot and towering overhead drives up blood pressure and sends the EEG machine chattering. The book is an excellent reminder of our genetically ingrained need for the salve of the natural world.


4. A Gentleman in Moscow. Amor Towels. The year is 1922 and the place, Moscow. Count Alexander Rostov has been placed under house arrest in the Hotel Metropol, where he already resides. Just a few years have passed since the second Bolshevik Revolution and it’s not a good time to be an aristocrat in Russia, especially one who has written a counter-revolutionary poem. If you are seen outside the hotel, you will be shot! Rostov is told. And so begins this delightfully told tale of his decades long confinement, the people, the love, the intricacies of place, the changes.

A clear motivation that leads to his personal rebellion against Soviet authority, you will just have to read for yourself. The finest novel I have read in years.


5. The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits. Tommy Caldwell. This book has received tremendous critical praise and deservedly so. It culminates with Caldwell’s free climb of the Dawn Wall on Yosemite’s El Capitan, but there is so much more. You may not be a mountain climber, but certainly you have some dream that may lie seemingly beyond your grasp. Enjoy Push for the story, but take from it some inspiration for your own climb—whatever that might be. Simply the best outdoor adventure story I have read in quite some time.


6. Forget me not: A Memoir. Jennifer Lowe-Anker. This beautiful memoir has received mixed reviews, some glowing and some bitingly negative. I may have been pre-conditioned to love it because I’ve watched the documentary Meru at least three times. It’s the only thing I’ve seen in an actual movie theater in the last 2 years (Okay; maybe I don’t get out much). In October, 1999, Alex Lowe, one of the world’s most accomplished mountain climbers, was killed in an avalanche in Tibet and his climbing partner, Conrad Anker, badly injured. This memoir by Lowe’s—and subsequently Anker’s—wife Jennifer is the story of their early adventurous years together, his death, her grief and renewal. I rank it among the best of the last year.


7. Ordinary Grace. William Kent Krueger.

This novel drew universal praise; it was even named novel of the year 2014 by the New York Times. And, while I can recommend it, I found it to be a story that couldn’t quite figure out what it wanted to be when it grew up. Is it a coming of age story of two young brothers growing up in Minnesota in the summer of 1961, or is it at its heart a murder mystery?

In the end, it is a coming of age story told by middle aged Frank Drumm looking back on his 13th summer—a year when it all changed. But wrapped around it is a murder mystery and that may take the reader by surprise—unless you’re already a fan of William Krueger mysteries. And then I suppose you know what’s coming. Surprise! It’s a murder mystery. And the clues are sprinkled, and not too subtly either, almost everywhere.

The writing is fluid, descriptive, emotionally authentic and yet the murder mystery seems tacked on, like an appendage, to what is really the tale of a miracle: one boy’s blossoming in ordinary grace.


8. The Subtle Art of not Giving a F***. Mark Manson. I am not alone in having to force myself to get passed the potty-mouth title. The title may be the only reason this book is a best-seller; there’s a certain appeal to uncensored vulgarity. Still, there is some value here.

While the title may lead you to expect this book to be a call for an apathetic attitude, it is in fact the opposite. It is a call to carefully consider what is worthy of your commitment; it is a call to choose what you will care enough about to act with responsibility and courage. Title and all, it’s a worthwhile read.


9. The Noticer. Andy Andrews. From Amazon.com: “Orange Beach, Alabama is a simple town filled with simple people. But like all humans…the good folks have their share of problems—marriages teetering on the brink of divorce, young adults giving up on life, business people on the verge of bankruptcy…Fortunately, when things look the darkest, a mysterious man named Jones has a miraculous way of showing up.”

‘Sometimes all you need is a little perspective,’ reads the subtitle. And I suppose that’s true. But the solutions to the characters’ problems seem all too pat, too simplistic. Life challenging difficulties evaporate and vanish like wisps of fog in early morning sunlight. A seeming mix of Dan Millman and Norman Vincent Peale, this is a religious science fiction; it is not without merit but approach with some caution.


10. Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices. Thich Nhat Hanh. I read this book while camped under the aspens in the Glacier Lodge area of the Eastern Sierra, so it’s possible that almost any book or no book at all, just breathing in the still mountain air, could have provided a calming of body and mind. I don’t believe that this book is one to read straight through; instead I see it as a series of practices and exercises that one may pick and choose as desired. There are sections that will appeal to you and those can be chosen for their value to visit and revisit as desired. Mindfulness meditation is as ubiquitous as Starbucks these days according to one critic, but that doesn’t detract from its usefulness. I found this small text enjoyable and worthy.


11. Walking the Himalayas. Levison Wood. I expected to thoroughly enjoy reading this account of a months-long trek through the high mountains of south Asia by one of England’s best-loved travel writers. What could there be not to like? And the answer is: Plenty. I’m actually surprised that I finished the whole thing. The book is humorless, lacking in empathy or insight; it’s a good dose of British boredom.

I found it interesting that early in Walking, Woods states that one of his favorite books is Eric Newby’s wonderful A Short Walk in the Hindu Cush. Woods even says he has read that book as many as a dozen times. Too bad Woods didn’t learn anything from one of the best models of excellent writing to be found in English. Walking the Himalaya went straight to my recycle bin—the real not virtual one—and did not find a home on my bookshelves.


11-1/2. Walden. Henry David Thoreau. We all read this in high school, didn’t we? Or at least pretended that we did. We remember an odd young man—at least we thought him young—living alone by a pond in a house he built for himself for 20 or 30 dollars and that he stayed a year or two out there by himself.

And we had to parse the sentences as though we were reading the Existentialist philosophers.

I’ll take my time with my re-reading, if in fact I ever really read it at all or whether I pretended to years ago. It’s full of subtle humor, not so subtle ridicule, and fine observation. Of course he thinks the men in town fools for working so many years of their lives just to pay off a house. He thinks the men in town are fools to sit with cups of coffee in the morning reading the news. Who cares what’s happening in Spain? he wonders. Why so much hunger for useless news?

He thinks most men and women of his day are nearly illiterate. Oh, they learned how to read all right, but as adults they indulge in ‘easy reading,’ as though they were still in third of fourth grade, never continuing to educate themselves. The village, he contends, should be very much a university and its inhabitants should be reading The Illiad, perhaps in the original Homeric Greek as he himself could. Although, in a pinch he supposed that a good English translation would do.

His call to simplify rings true today, as does his early version of Mr. Money Mustache Man’s frugality. And news? Zig Ziglar says if you want to maintain a positive attitude toward life, you should avoid the news altogether—somebody will tell you if WWIII starts.

Personally, I disconnected my cable nearly two years ago and have not watched a single newscast since. But I still enjoy perusing the morning paper while I have my coffee. Thoreau would tell me to give that up.

Simplify, simplify, simplify, he says. My wife, Andrea, wears a Fitbit and it tells her that if she’s tucked in her sleeping bag in our tent on a mountainside she sleeps longer and deeper than in her own bed at home. So why not sell the house and live a year in the tent? I ask. It’s obviously healthier than home after all. But she fiercely, adamantly declines. You can take Thoreau’s call for simplicity only so far I guess.

Thoreau might look at my list of books and call them all easy reading—all except for his own of course. And I suppose he would be correct. I had to reach for a dictionary occasionally in Jimmy Webb’s delicious book, but I turn to it frequently while reading Walden. So many years have passed since he made his observations not just of nature but of men, and so many still hold true. Go do the homework you were assigned back in school and read it.

Welcome Dr. Linda Lukacs

Dr. Linda Lukacs
Dr. Linda Lukacs

Dr. Linda Lukacs (pronounced Lucas) joined our practice in November 2016.

She brings a strong background in diagnosing and treating TMJ disorders as well as experience in oral appliance therapy for snoring and sleep apnea.

Although she has an exceptional academic foundation she also brings with her the caring attitude that you would expect from a person who was a registered nurse before entering dental school.

I look forward to her adding to our available days and hours to help us serve an even greater number of patients.

Linda Lukacs, RN, DDS

Dr. Linda Lukacs graduated from New York University in 2000. While in dental school she was inducted to OKU, the dental honor society and was the recipient of the prestigious NYU Goldberg Pediatric and Orthodontic Award for Excellence. Dr. Lukacs currently works in our office 2 days a week and is also a tenured Professor of Dental Hygiene, lecturing in Pathology, Pharmacology, Head and Neck Anatomy, and a number of other courses at our local dental hygiene program.

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Blackie the Cat—A Love Story

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I was once voted Least Likely to Ever Own a Cat. A farm kid who always owned dogs, and who–from the age of 4 onward– always had an old dog following me around Wisconsin woods and back roads, I never had much to do with cats; and in fact even got a few guilty chuckles from the book “Fifty uses for a Dead Cat.”

Well, but then there was Rocky and in short order Blackie. What happened was this: during a bike ride on a lonely 2 lane blacktop in east San Diego County, my wife Andrea and I heard mewing from the brush along the road and stopping found a little tiger striped kitten that had obviously been dumped off to fend for itself or die.

I pedaled home with one hand gripping the handlebar of my mountain bike while I held a skinny squirming kitten in the other. A bath with flea-soap in the sink, a trip to the vet for shots, and we had ourselves a cat. Our new addition liked to climb up on high shelves, either in the garage or bookshelves indoors and whenever one of us walked by would launch itself, feet outstretched like Superman, tail steering like a rudder and land neat as you please on a shoulder.

“Heck; she’s Rocky the Flying Squirrel,” Andrea declared, and the name stuck.

For at least a year we’d caught glimpses of a feral black cat living and scrounging on the hillside just east of our house. Wily and quick as light he could catch birds in a flash of teeth and claws. I once saw him catch a rat and then eat the whole thing–feet and head and tail and all. Gross. I knew I liked dogs better.

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The Great Halloween Candy S’mores Taste Test

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The idea germinated during a combined family camping trip in the local mountains over the summer. After all, what do you do on a campout? Roast marshmallows over a campfire, slap the softened, browned or charred result on a graham cracker, add half a Hershey bar, let the chocolate melt a bit, enjoy. Repeat.

There are thirty published variations on this theme, and perhaps hundreds unpublished.

My first foray into the variations involved Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in place of the Hershey’s. That baby still makes my top 3 list, with or without the banana slice.

I don’t remember who came up with the idea first, but whether I did or whether it was my neighbor Dennis, we hit upon the plan of a marathon S’mores taste test involving dozens if not hundreds of combinations. This would be done over at least two nights, perhaps even stretch into a couple of weekends.

And the perfect time for such a test? Halloween of course. What other time of year would there be so much candy in our houses and of such variety?

So on a summer night all those months ago, the plans were laid. The five of us, Andrea and I and our neighbors Dennis, Tracey and eight-year-old Justin headed to our respective tents in adjacent campsites, the campfire still flickering, the taste of Hershey’s still on our tongues, the goo of melted marshmallow barely wiped from our fingers.

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Our October taste test carries some risk of course: Tooth decay, indigestion, diabetes, sugar high followed by the crash, sugar addiction. And so I offer the following as a public service so that you won’t have to repeat this at home.

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Kite Surfing at Windblown Jalama Beach

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A brilliant turquoise-blue day in mid May, the wind is blowing hard out of the northwest like God’s own hair dryer. There’s no escaping the wind that’s a steady 25 knots down from Lompoc and Vandenberg Air Force Base. This is Jalama Beach and seems ideal for one thing and it’s not for taking the kids out on boogie boards. Nor surfing either and not windsurfing. The deal here is kite boarding, and even then just for the experts.

Kite surfing or Kite boarding is a rather new kid on the block having only been invented in 1986. Yet it already has its own magazine and a cadre of star celebrity athletes.

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Once a surf spot, Jalama Beach here on California’s central coast, is now primarily home to kite boarding. It’s not for the faint of heart though. In fact, most of the year beginner and intermediate kite boarders are not allowed in the water here. The beach is long, mostly deserted, beautiful and nice for bird watching, but something in the curve of the shoreline here has created a wind tunnel that creates a force that never gives up.

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Understated Kiwis

andrea-bridge-360After she reached the Travers River Bridge, Andrea took one horrified look up at the featureless rocky bowl that towered above–no real trail, just orange poles every few hundred yards to mark the way–and asked our Kiwi guide, Gary, “Just what are my options at this point?”

“Well, you could walk back down to the van, but it’s about five hours away, and there’s nobody there. I could give you the keys, but you’d be on your own for the best part of two days. So I think you’d better marshal on. It’s not that far to the Angelus Hut. It’s just over that ridge.” He pointed to a lip of rock that looked like it was a few thousand feet above.

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“I really was exhausted at this point. Couldn’t turn around. Couldn’t look down. Where the heck is the trail? I was afraid for my life. Now I am pleased with the accomplishment and wonder how I did it.”
~ Andrea Halligan

 

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Photo courtesy Steven Fishman.
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Photo courtesy Gary Roberts.

So, given her options she indeed marshaled on. There were a few tears, a few words you wouldn’t hear in church, but she did make it to the hut in time for dinner and we staked out a place on the thin mattresses in one of the sleeping halls.

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Angelus Hut. Photo courtesy Steven Fishman.

Like many mountain huts from the Italian Alps to here on the South Island, the Angelus is a plain and rustic hut with 14 of your new closest friends sleeping shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip in one large room. I slept better than I’d hoped.

The next day was to take us back down to Lake Rotoiti. I say “down” reservedly. Gary gathered our little Canadian and American group outside the hut in the morning and pointed up into the mist above us. “You’re heading down today, but first you’ll climb that ridge up there. Actually a couple of ridges. Oh well, maybe three or four. And there are a few little rocky bits along the way. But then mostly easy down to the lake maybe seven miles away.”

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And the Southern Cross

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January 2016, at a sheep station on New Zealand’s South Island.

I pitched our tent yesterday on a grassy hilltop just yards from the shoreline of Lake Pukaki; we had a marvelous view of snow covered Mt. Cook a few miles north. Rain was forecast last night, but though the cloud cover was heavy and the weather cold, there was no rain. We slept warm in the peace of our very private space.

Andrea and I, along with a New Zealand based tour group, took a drive to the base of Mt. Cook this morning and we walked to a glacier-fed lake where icebergs floated. Then a cold rain started and we put on our coats. We were out most of the day. Back at the lodge a few hours later we toured the Mt. Cook museum and warmed ourselves with flat whites in the café before heading around Pukaki to the campsite. The dirt and gravel road beside the lake was slick with mud, but when we got to our tent site we found that the rain had stopped.

We had dinner and some fine New Zealand red wine at the sheep ranch then headed up the hill. We walked through tall wet grass and went to sleep in the best accommodation for miles around, our own tent with air mattresses and warm down bags.

Sometime after midnight I awoke and went outside, barefoot and shirtless. The weather had turned mild; a gentle breeze blew off the lake and the sky was clearing. Without ambient light the sky was very dark and the stars came out. And I saw the Southern Cross for the first time.

Andrea was asleep in the tent and I considered waking her, but decided to let her go on sleeping.

The Southern Cross is not a large or even particularly bright constellation. Mark Twain when first seeing it was clearly not impressed. And yet standing in the tall grass on that little hilltop in the perfect quiet beneath the Southern Cross, I was touched as if there were some magic there in four stars describing a lopsided cross pointing the way to the South Pole.

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Life and Teaching: Searching for the Mystic in the High Sierras

Andrea and William Halligan in the High Sierras.
Andrea and William Halligan in the High Sierras.

I pulled our dirty gray Subaru into the Mosquito Flat parking lot at about 3:00 in the afternoon. We’d driven up from San Diego, and the plan was a quick backpack trip of just three or four days. Our packs were stashed in the back of the Subaru; mine held the tent and rain-fly, down quilt, Thermarest sleeping pad, stove, fuel, and a bear canister jammed tight with enough food for both of us for a few days.

There was also the book. Many people of my generation had read it years ago as it was part of the new age-y compendium back then. It snuggled cozily on 1960s and ’70s bookshelves alongside Thus Spake Zarathustra, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test. Somehow I’d missed it, but I owned the boxed collection of all five volumes and they had been gathering dust untouched for some time. For this trip I brought the first two volumes along: Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East. The thin paperbacks tucked neatly into a side pouch of my pack.

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The Torrents of Spring—Attenuated and Abbreviated in 2015

Nature can create a drought, but only government can create a water shortage. ~ Anonymous

Thousand Island Lake
Thousand Island Lake

I’m sitting at the edge of Thousand Island lake; it’s the 28th of May, 2015 a few minutes after noon on a clear and sunny spring day. The lake is largely frozen over and just beyond its white and splintered surface towers Mt. Banner, its slopes lightly dusted with a powdered sugar coating of fine snow.

In most years, late May would find this spot buried under several feet of snow, but I’m sitting on bare earth. I listen to the three-note song of the mountain chickadee and the high pitched whistle of a fat brown marmot just recently aroused from hibernation and now doing his best to sneak a bag of Fritos from my pack.

A boots-eye view of Thousand Island Lake while a marmot observes my backpack.
A boots-eye view of Thousand Island Lake while a marmot observes my backpack.

It is an early spring and the Sierras have their lightest snowpack since the winter of ’76-’77.

I recall those years and think about state and federal government. I think about the lack of action, the lack of response.

The severe drought of the 70s must have made for a million dinner time conversations. Restaurants displayed little plastic signs on every table, “Due to the drought, water will be served upon request only.”

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Wild!

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Is this the face that launched a thousand hiker’s boots?

Spoiler alert: I might spoil the ending of the book and movie Wild here. If you don’t want to know about the endings, I suggest you skip this. Last year I bought the Kindle version of Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild. Much as I admired her rather fine writing, it didn’t take me long to decide that she was doltish and inane, her hike ill-considered, her past–though perhaps titillating to some–injudicious at best. In short, I didn’t find her someone I wanted to hang out with through all the pages of the book. I put it down. My wife though, stuck it out, through blisters and blackened toe-nails and days of rain. In the end she was disappointed. “It just didn’t come to enough,” she told me. Eventually I picked it up again and slogged my way through. In the end, Ms. Strayed seems to know that 1100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail may have taught her something–she can feel some inkling of it inside, but she can’t articulate it. There is a lesson, but it is like, she says, a fish glimpsed briefly in the water of a sunlit pool, but when trying to reach into the pond to grasp it, it slips away.

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