The Blizzard of 2021

Back in February of 2019, just before the Super Bowl, a big snowstorm descended on the Sierra Nevada and blanketed everything in white. Our snowboard enthusiast nephews and nieces descended too, spilling into spare rooms everywhere in the house, two even flew in from Virginia having heard the news of the big winter blast.

“Meteorologists are calling this the Storm of the Century,” our nephew gushed, smiling and excited as a kid on Christmas morning, hardly able to wait to take his snowboard to the mountain.

“Well, look, it’s only two-thousand nineteen. Isn’t that a little early to be dubbing this the Storm of the Century?” I said to him, maybe thinking I’d calm him down a bit.

“No. This is it. It’s coming now. The Storm of the Century!”

And indeed it was quite a storm. It took me two full days to dig the Subaru out of the garage.

Now it’s late January 2021 and meteorologists, reporting out of Reno, Nevada, are proclaiming this storm the real deal, with snowfall totals in the high mountains literally off their charts, and about 10%  more snowfall totals than the 2019 storm. What can I say? Be careful before you indulge in hyperbole. And be careful before you believe it as it seems to be everywhere.

On Wednesday, the weatherman called the storm a blizzard, though I’m not sure it met the criteria: sustained winds above 35 mph, blowing snow and visibility a quarter mile or less, but of course Andrea and I went walking in it. Visibility was poor, close to white-out conditions at times. But all criteria for ‘Blizzard’ met for 3 hour or more? Perhaps an exaggeration.

The roads were not plowed but were walkable. The fields just off the roads much less so. There I am walking easily enough and in the next moment waist deep in snow.

I think of Jack London and his wonderful short story, To Build a Fire. Maybe his best, would you agree? Did he take a walk like this one in bitter cold and imagine how it might be to try to make it 10 miles to the next village only to be stranded in cold and try to build a fire with fingers so cold he could not hold a match, and then try striking matches by holding them between clenched teeth? Remember? Or if not, dig out that story by a fireside and be reminded.

Or maybe the cold, with wind whipped clouds of snow so hard and pounding, makes you think of Robert Service, Whitehorse bank teller turned Yukon goldrush poet and his ironic and twisted, Cremation of Sam Mcgee. Ah, burning there in a stove the corpse proclaims, “Please close that door…Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

My hands are painfully cold on this walk, no more than a mile or two from home. Can I get frostbite on so short a walk? Perhaps not. Home is only a short distance away, and surely the fire I started in the woodstove this morning will still be cheery and bright, the living room warm. We say hello to neighbors, those few who are braving the storm, and head for home.

Thursday morning, the snow was still falling, and in fact would fall all day and night and into Friday morning, but walking that morning was much more pleasant. I dig out a book of poems, surely someone, perhaps Emily Dickinson or Ralph Waldo Emerson has written of a morning like this one: there’s a promise of sunlight, clouds are heavy but here and there are breaking, and the wind is not so cold. But no one has yet shown you a morning such as this.

More than a million of you visited this site in 2020. I know perhaps a few hundred of you. What were you searching for? Is there something I can give you?

High on the Wheeler Crest the sun lights one high peak, and only for a moment. Andrea and I both catch it gleaming in our cameras. What do I think of? A mountain peak, an actual mountaintop of granite and then the metaphorical, the mountain so many of us—all of us?—seek to find.

Suddenly I remembered a letter to the editor of a dental publication that a young dentist wrote just a few weeks ago. He’d worked as an associate (an employee, basically) of an older dentist for several years and then had ventured out on his own, where he has now floundered for two years. He collects enough money to pay the office light, heat, rent, and salaries, but has not yet cleared enough to pay himself. “When does it get better?” he moaned. And he received advice from other readers. “Let people know you’re a dentist, carry your cards with you, wear your scrubs outside the office, to the store, to the restaurant. And sign up for every insurance plan you can find. Get more patients that way.”

Oh, God, NO! I said to nobody. Wear scrubs outside the office? Especially now, in the middle of a pandemic? Good Lord, what an awful and tasteless idea.

And sign up to be the provider of various insurance plans? Oh sure, there you go, young man. Your overhead is already 100% now let an insurance company discount your fees 30%. Great idea. That way you can go broke even faster.

Oh, how Andrea and I would love to sit down with this young man. Could we rescue him from his disaster in the making? I’d like to think we could. At least our advice would be better than what he’s received so far. But before giving advice, we’d ask questions. How exactly did he get himself into this predicament? There is a mountain top. Though mostly cloud hidden, it is in sight. I can see it. Maybe no one has reached the very top in this life. But many have climbed high on the rocky flanks. Andrea and I have been there. Can we show the way? As Browning wrote, A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?

Oh, to be your own boss; it must have seemed a worthy dream to this young dentist; certainly, it seemed a worthy endeavor, but, as you may have heard, nothing is quite so easy as it looks.

And do you have your own personal mountain? Do you have it in sight?

 

Three days after the storm, the morning breaks clear, sunny, with bright blue sky, though still quite cold. Now we can see the full effect of the storm. A few folks are beginning to dig out, and some still need to. The thermometer on our deck reads 10 degrees Fahrenheit. We walk farther today, seven or eight miles, up high even into an area of avalanche danger. I see doorways piled high with snow and remember one time as a kid on a Wisconsin farm when we had to climb through a second story window to get outside and then grab shovels to begin clearing the snow from the farmhouse door. Not many are that deep in snow today, but not many are going to drive anywhere anytime soon. At least the roads are plowed now, though I hear you can’t drive north and access Highway 395 to Mammoth Mountain from here. Surely with another day of sunshine it can be done.

Meanwhile, two young boys and their father have found a good slope of snow not far from their door. They have a sled. Father helps them get set and then sends them on their way. Too soon they turn the sled over and crash in heavy snow. They scramble up the slope and go again. And again. At least once they get a good run down the hill. Then I watch the younger boy crawl on all fours back up to the top while big brother carries the sled. Digging out can wait, can’t it, Dad? They seem to say.

Although freezing cold when we started this walk, a few miles from home we’re both shedding coats and gloves. My goodness, it feels downright hot! When we get home, Andrea opens a few doors. “It’s just too warm in the house,” she says. But then I go out on our back deck for a look at the thermometer. “Don’t leave the doors and windows open too long,” I call to her. “It’s twenty-eight degrees out here.”

 

 

Dietary help for the holidays: Breakfast: The Most Important Meal of the Day—To Skip!

A few years ago, in early December, the stockings all hung by the chimney with care and trimmings on the tree, my son wrote that he had discovered the most amazing holiday treat: Alton Brown’s recipe for homemade eggnog.

Easy enough, separate four eggs, beat the yolks, add milk, cream, sugar, nutmeg, then whip up the egg whites, blend, chill serve with a shot of Captain Morgan’s or your favorite dash of cheer.

Oh my! Elf is going to have to add this to his four food groups (candy, candy canes, candy corn, and maple syrup). Instant addiction. Hey, Andrea, we’re going to need more eggs. And whole cream. And Captain Morgan’s spiced rum. And just leave the KitchenAid mixer out. What a wonderful treat!

Does a treat that can’t be beat have a downside? Usually, right? I put on twenty pounds between December 1st and New Years Day. And I’m not a big guy, so those twenty pounds really showed. “Gee whiz, Honey, aren’t those jeans a little tight on you?”

Well then, I just won’t ever do that again, I decided with Stoic toughness. I can get over most addictions, especially if I don’t give them a good start. So, for the next seven years or so there was no more eggnog at the holidays, and the bottle of Captain Morgan’s sat lonely on the shelf collecting dust. But I did miss it. I thought of it every time we put up a tree.

Then earlier this year I read about various versions of intermittent fasting. Although given fancy names such as the “Eight—Sixteen plan” which meant eating only in an eight hour window and abstaining for sixteen hours, it really just meant Skip Breakfast.

The plans written and talked about were recommended for weight loss, but I didn’t want to lose weight; but oh how I’d like to get the old KitchenAid and eggs out again and not gain.

My variation of the intermittent fasting could be called a Six—Eighteen plan. I do have a morning cup of coffee, but I eat only within a six hour window and go without for eighteen hours. Oh, but during those six hours, my food groups follow Buddy the Elf’s guidelines plus homemade egg nog. Today is Winter Solstice and so far I haven’t gained a pound.

Christmas is less than a week away. I hope that this message finds you healthy and happy. I hope the governmental Grinches who are out to cancel the holidays haven’t dampened your spirits overly much, though God knows they’re trying their best (“It’s for your own safety, Peasants!”). And if you are a person whose dietary habits fall apart at Christmas and Hanukkah try this simple trick. Just skip breakfast. You could get cranky by noon, but what the heck? You then get to enjoy holiday treats for the rest of the day.

And I hope you enjoy the company of family and friends as well. Just don’t let the Grinch catch you. Christmas during a pandemic could prove challenging, but have some cheer and in another week say a grateful good-bye to a very weird old year. And happy incremental fasting. Take the vaccine, if you choose and maybe by June, 2021 things will look better.

Merry Christmas.

 

ASMR and Super Bowl Football

I tuned in to the Super Bowl on Sunday, not because I was a Patriots fan or a Rams fan, but just out of curiosity: Could anyone give Tom Brady’s team a good game? While the LA Rams played remarkably well on defense, the answer was, well, I guess not.

Meantime, I wanted to see if anyone came up with one of those creative and surprising Super Bowl ads. I’ve been waiting for someone to do something as great as the Apple Computers 1984 ad for a long time. Only one ad captured my interest this year however and that was the Michelob Ultra commercial featuring actress Zoe Kravitz with whispers first into one mic then another—for a binaural affect—and gentle rhythmic tapping on a bottle of Michelob, a casual roll of the bottom of the bottle on table top, a slow delicious pour. Such a wonderful peaceful and relaxing and yet at the same time attention-grabbing and mesmerizing few seconds of television that it has since garnered more than 13 million views on YouTube. A critic at The Wall Street Journal quipped that most people watching the game were already asleep by the fourth quarter of this bore-fest anyway, but those who weren’t may have been lulled to sleep by the whispering and the gentle finger tapping.

Click on this video to watch the ad:

But the startling affect of the simple and beautifully photographed ad led me to ask a simple question: what in the world was this?

The concept of ASMR has been popular on YouTube for some time, but as far as I know, this is the first time it has been used in a commercial. The ad took advantage of a sensation called Autonomic Sensory Meridian Response in which whispering or tapping or gentle rhythmic swishing sounds can trigger a pleasant tingling sensation in some people. The neurologic, physical response to these gentle and specific stimuli has always been with us, as long as we have had ears to hear. But the label, ASMR is something relatively new. Also, the phenomena have been mis-identified as sexual in some circles, and this appears not to be the case.

Out of curiosity, I Googled ASMR and was directed to several ASMR videos.

I can’t say that I got the tingle as a result. Some were even irritating. But the better examples seemed to produce a deep relaxation, like a nice session of Headspace, and to produce that affect in only a few seconds.

As an experiment, I put on a Polar heart rate monitor chest strap and turned on my Elite HRV app, an app that measures not only heart rate but heart rate variability as well, and played a few of the ASMR videos. Remarkably, some of the examples of ASMR brought my resting heart rate down by 10 bpm or more (one such video dropped my heart rate a full 15 beats) and did so within less than 30 seconds.

Is this just a fad, or is there something useful to be learned and applied here? I know that many people are using ASMR videos to fall asleep and that for them the technology works better than a prescription sleep aid.

Perhaps this is a way to reach a meditative state of consciousness or at the very least to alleviate stress or anxiety. Perhaps there is utility here for dental practices. There are only a handful of published studies on the triggering affect of ASMR as of this writing, and they depend exclusively upon the subjective feeling of the subject. Much more work needs to be done in this area. (Note: I’m available to do the study if the government would like to fund it. I could even write the grant proposal. If the study could involve Hawaii and a supply of Michelob Ultra, that would be a bonus. Presence of Zoe Kravitz desirable but not required.)

Michelob Ultra

Meanwhile, a very forgettable Super Bowl. I thought the Rams might actually make things interesting until that disastrous Jared Goff throw for an interception down close to the Patriot’s goal line. The only lasting image is Zoe Kravitz and the lustrous green of Hawaiian Island hills behind her and the minimalist set with a table, two microphones and that bottle of fitness and wellness inspired organic Michelob. Well done.

 

Turn Left at San Cassiano

Castel Roncolo.
Castel Roncolo. Photo courtesy Topcastles, Creative Commons license.

The first indication of any cultural rift in South Tyrol came when Andrea and I headed out on foot from the lovely Park Hotel Laurin in Bolzano and went north along the Talvera River to see Castel Roncolo. The 13th century castle is known for a long and convoluted history and whole rooms devoted to frescoes, called the greatest cycle of medieval frescoes still preserved.

At one point, when Google Maps showed that we were very near the place, but not quite there, the voice of Google Maps, GPS Girl, cheerily and confidently announced, “Arrived!”

We were standing on the sidewalk of a narrow and steeply sloped street with no castle in view. We were probably an interesting sight for locals, two lost tourists wondering what went wrong with our trusted navigation guide. A woman riding a bicycle came along. She wore an ankle length dress, her hair was steel grey, and her bicycle was older and single speed—no fancy gearing for her.

“Excuse me, can you tell me where is Castel Roncolo?” I pointed out the picture of the castle and its name in a guide book.

She peered at the page in the book, shook her head and gave me a puzzled look. “Oh, nien. No Roncolo. Schloss Runkelstein!” She pointed down the street to our left then made a counter clockwise motion with her right hand. “Gehe hinunter, und links, und…” She paused looking for the right word.

“So down there,” I said in English and making the same semi-circle with my hand that she had and then pointed up another street.

“Ja, ja,” she said smiling that I seemed to understand, but then her face became very grave and serious. She gesticulated sharply with an index finger. “No Roncolo! It is Schloss Runkelstein!” Not exactly angry but quite strident, she left no doubt about that other name. And she took off on her bike.

Castel Roncolo, AKA Schloss Runkelstein
Castel Roncolo, AKA Schloss Runkelstein. Photo courtesy Missusdoubleyou, Creative Commons license.
One of the many frescoes in Runkelstein castle.
One of the many frescoes in Runkelstein castle.

And it turns out that the castle was indeed Schloss Runkelstein for centuries and for those who speak Italian it became Roncolo much later. And the city of Bozen became Bolzano. The resort town St. Ulrich became Ortistei. A confusing part of the world here in the north of Italy where close to 75% of the population speaks German and every city, town and valley has two names, or sometimes three.

This is South Tyrol.

Some days later, a few miles past San Cassiano, we turned left at Capanna Alpina and headed up a mountain trail toward the Refugio Lagazuoi where we would spend the night. It was not until we were close to the top, near the mountain hut, that we could see the remnants of the Great War, the war that resulted in part of Austria—at that time Austria-Hungary—being annexed by Italy, and nearly 60 years of turmoil, that, while seemingly quiet and peaceful today, still roils in some Tyrolean hearts.

Lagazuoi hut.
Lagazuoi hut.
Austrian fortifications from WWI.
WWI munitions found on or around Mt. Lagazuoi.
WWI munitions found on or around Mt. Lagazuoi.
Trenches and Italian flag at sunset, near Mt. Lagazuoi.
Trenches and Italian flag at sunset, near Mt. Lagazuoi.

Trenches dot the hillside today, and tunnels, and balustrades all built by the Austrians to prevent the Italians from taking these mountains. Soldiers fought for years here, largely to stalemate, the Austrians trying and failing to beat back the advance of Italian troops, and Italian soldiers failing to take the defensive positions high on the mountain. The mountainsides are so steep here, the winters so harsh, that hundreds of men on both sides of the conflict were killed, not in battle but in avalanches.

Caves and tunnels, dug into the hard carbonate rock—composed of the mineral dolomite from which these mountains get their name—sheltered the Austrians and undermined Italian positions.

In our school days we learned that the Great War began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. But with a further reading of history it becomes apparent that the reasons ran much deeper and that the prospects for war were in place far earlier. One historian has even stated that by late July, 1914, the assassination of the Archduke was hardly more than a side note.

And Italy, though officially part of the Triple Alliance—Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy—declared itself neutral. Prime Minister Antonio Salandro stated that the treaty was for defensive purposes and that because Austria-Hungary was the aggressor, the treaty did not stand. Historians might quibble on that point as Serbia was clearly a violent aggressor as well.

Germany tried to get Italy on its side, to no avail. But in a secret meeting in London, on April 26, 1915, Italy was promised a great deal of territory, including southern Austria, if it would join the Triple Entente of Russia, France, and Great Britain—assuming an Allied victory. It was an offer the Italian Foreign Minister, Sidney Sonnino, did not refuse.

And so, in 1918, at the end of the war, South Tyrol became a part of Italy. During the 1920s there was intense Italianization of the area with names changed from German to Italian. For a time, under Mussolini, the German language was even outlawed.

Decades of unrest followed. Progress toward the present status of the region was slow, but in 1972 South Tyrol became a semi-autonomous area within Italy’s borders, able to make largely independent decisions, including the decision to pay only about 10% of normal taxes to Italy’s central government in Rome. Today, South Tyrol is the most prosperous region in Italy, and one of the most prosperous in all of Europe.

Still there are people, like the steel haired lady on the bicycle in Bolzano—she would say Bozen– who are unhappy.

Polling data is varied and perhaps less than trustworthy. But depending on exact locale, as many as 61% of the people of South Tyrol would favor either secession from Italy or reunification with Austria.

Eva Klotz, a political leader in Bolzano and founder of the separatist party Sud Tiroler Freiheit (South Tyrolean Freedom), states, “My dream is to reunite with Austria. I’m an Italian Citizen but don’t belong to the Italian culture.”

South Tyrol though is held up as an example of how these cultural differences can be approached. Many parents in the region do the “linguistic slalom,” sending their children to a German middle school then switching to an Italian high school. Young people seem comfortable being with friends who speak either language.

To an outsider, a casual tourist, the system seems to be working wonderfully well. But the rise of nationalism may threaten. The arguments that have been used to define nationhood are many and contradictory. George Orwell decried nationalism in his 1945 essay, “Notes on Nationalism,” yet seemed to especially regard all forms of extremism as problematic. The author, Yoram Hazony, in an essay in the Wall Street Journal, states, “National cohesion is the secret ingredient that allows free institutions to exist, the bedrock on which a functioning democracy is built.”

Despite what appears to be a clash of cultures, South Tyrol does thrive and I suspect will continue to do so.

Meadows and mountains: The Dolomites.
Meadows and mountains: The Dolomites.
Left: Hiking in the Dolomites. Right: Lake Sorapis, near Cortina, Italy.
Left: Hiking in the Dolomites. Right: Lake Sorapis, near Cortina, Italy.

After one night at the Refugio Lagazuoi (bunk beds, a rickety ladder, and a very tiny room) Andrea and I hiked down the other side of the mountain toward Cortina. When close, we caught a cab for a ride into the city. The driver spoke good English as well as German, Italian, and his own mother tongue, Ladin, an ancient language spoken by about 4% of the people in Tyrol. I tried to get a local’s take.

“I’ve heard that taxation here is fairer than in the rest of Italy. That you pay only about 10% of normal taxes to Rome.”

“We pay plenty of taxes!” Obviously, a sore subject.

“Polls say many people here would like reunification with Austria, or secession.”

“Oh, yes. Very true.”

“Still, some say that South Tyrol is doing so well, perhaps it should stay as it is. Polls seem to indicate a lot of people are happy to leave things as they are.”

“Nah. Government in Italy very bad. They might drag us down.”

That interview over, we switched to discussing cars. He was happy to talk about cars. His “cab” is a late model Mercedes. “Seems nobody here drives an old car, or a car in need of body work, or even a dirty car. Everywhere I go I see new Mercedes, BMWs, or Audis,” I told him.

“Of course,” he said. “Why would anybody drive an old car?” His tone seemed to say, Naturally. Obviously. I did wonder though, what happens to all the older cars in Tyrol? Maybe shipped off to Rome?

Despite some indications of disillusionment, the model of a semi-autonomous region within a country has garnered praise. It is held up as a possible model for the separatists in Catalonia who would favor breaking free from the rest of Spain. It has been suggested as a solution for the Basques.

Recently, the Dali Lama visited South Tyrol to meet with local officials and investigate how this model of autonomy was achieved and to carry that idea forward in Tibet—to perhaps loosen the grip of China on that conquered territory.

Meanwhile, is our taxi driver correct in fearing the possible role of a flawed Italian government in lives of those in South Tyrol? He seems to echo warnings you can also hear from Eva Klotz. Italy’s weakness could carry over into South Tyrol. “South Tyrol is not Italy,” she says.

Yet if friends ask where we’ve been lately, we say, “Northern Italy.” It seems like a true and simple statement.

William and Andrea Halligan, somewhere in the Dolomites.

 

A Moveable Christmas

And then there was the Christmas tree. We have not had a Christmas tree for 7 or 8 years because we fled the country every year at the holidays mostly to escape the crazy aunt who was always there for Christmas dinner then for the opening of presents and she could be counted upon to make someone cry at dinner. A chair would be pushed back from the table scraping loudly against the wood floor and the person who was red faced, angry, hurt with tears streaming down flushed cheeks would run away to another room and slam the door.

So to escape the inevitable drama we spent many Christmases away, usually in Argentina where it was summertime. Not in Buenos Aires though where Christmas is hot, sultry and crowded. Where Christmas Eve is like New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas combined with Fourth of July in D.C. with party noise and fireworks until 3:00 am. Instead we flew to the far south in the region of Mt. Fitzroy and the big ice fields, the Viedma and Moreno Glaciers, Los Glaciares National Park. We stayed at working sheep ranches or a wooded Patagonia lodge called Helsingfors from which we could walk up into the hills and mountains beyond.

William and Andrea Halligan on the road with Mt. Fitzroy in the background.
William and Andrea Halligan on the road with Mt. Fitzroy in the background.
Patagonia 2012-2013.
Patagonia.
Christmas buffet in Patagonia.
Christmas buffet in Patagonia.

The barman at Helsingfors made wonderful pisco sours that were served in front of the big fireplace at a table with crackers and fine cheeses and bowls of nuts. They were served by his pretty assistant and in the background I could hear him attempting to teach her the art of the pisco sour, a smooth delight after miles of walking the high trails thousands of miles from the holiday malls and crowds.

Friends and acquaintances congratulated us on the wisdom of escaping Christmas. A brilliant move, they said.

But this year, Andrea’s father is hosting Christmas Eve at his house in Los Angeles with nearly a dozen relatives. At age 97 he says he is not purchasing or setting up a Christmas tree. We are also invited to a family gathering in Bakersfield, and with the good and bad of Bakersfield, the sadness and bitterness of decades pervading some of the very walls of houses, but where we are going it will be a Norman Rockwell perfect dinner with brothers who are prosperous and who have pretty wives and beautiful and wonderfully behaved children.

And after Christmas, my wife and I want to secret away to a hidden mountain cabin in an undisclosed location.

Christmas tree? We won’t even be home for Christmas. And father-in-law in L.A. would like a tree for his gathering, but is not about to purchase one. Of course our mountain cabin would look festive with a tree. And so the solution: at the local nursery we purchased a live tree in a pot. The tree is small, only about four feet tall.

It is decorated and lighted now and its lights show nicely through our front windows for any neighbors who may walk past our San Diego home. And it will travel with us, ornaments and lights and all to the three locations to the north. I will simply lift it out of the Subaru and carry it fully decorated into each house and plug it in.

So it will be a moveable Christmas, and our first holiday with relatives in nearly a decade.

Ernest Hemingway, in A Moveable Feast said that if one were lucky enough to be a young man in Paris in the 1920s, then Paris could stay with one through life wherever he might travel—Paris for him was a moveable feast.

I have never been to Paris. If I travel to France at all, my preference is Chamonix or Argentiere, or the slopes of Mt. Blanc.

But if one is fortunate enough to grow up on a cozy family farm in northern Wisconsin with snow and family traditions that extend back to a Norway of the early 20th century—Grandmother moved from Norway to snowy Wisconsin in 1912 and the country must have seemed much like home to her with fellow Scandinavians populating many neighboring farms–then Christmases on the farm, with venison and cranberries and lefsa that took Grandmother two full days to make, formed part of my Christmas memory and is a moveable feast for me.

Not quite Paris, but it will do.

And so the tree is up with two weeks to go. We turn out the house lights, turn on the Christmas tree lights and listen to Christmas carols on Pandora.

In a short time, Andrea will prepare Christmas dinner here and pack it up along with the tree and any small presents we plan to give away. And the tree will come along for the holiday travels to the north.

A moveable Christmas for us this year and to you a Merry Christmas wherever the holidays find you.

 

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.

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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