Ghosts in Our Midsts

Halloween was months ago, but I’ve been thinking about ghosts a lot lately. It all started after watching the Netflix series “Surviving Death.” In case you missed it, each of the six hour-long episodes explores a different aspect of life after death: people coming back to life after they were technically dead; mediums who communicate with the dead; seeing, hearing, and smelling signs of those who have passed; and my favorite, reincarnation.

Ghosts have always fascinated me. When I was a kid living in an apartment in San Jose, I had a handkerchief that I fashioned into a little white ghost. His name was Willy, and I liked to drop him through the upstairs floor register and onto my unsuspecting sisters’ heads as they walked below. At my grandmother’s farmhouse in Connecticut, I used to disappear into the attic to read her piles of comic books. Casper the Friendly Ghost was one of my favorites! I actually dreamed about riding on a broom with Wendy the Witch. The feeling of gliding weightlessly through the air was something I’ll never forget, even though it was many decades ago and all in my imagination.

Anyway, back to “Surviving Death.” Some sequences seemed like pure baloney – like the medium who channels many different voices of people who have passed. But others were so believable, I’m having trouble deciding whether there is something to this whole surviving death thing. Like the doctor who drowned in her kayak – and survived to describe what she saw next from her vantage point above the river. Or the toddlers who have vivid memories of lives past. Some sequences could be explained away, like seeing or hearing relatives that have passed. The people didn’t appear to be making this stuff up, but who’s to say their minds aren’t playing tricks on them? Mine plays tricks on me all the time. It convinces me that I have much more time on Earth than is likely – more time to do all those things I want to do, see those people I want to see, and make up for all those past mistakes.

Right there between the medium segments and the reincarnation segments were the “signs” segments, where someone who’s passed sends a message to the living. The signs can be subtle, like a flickering light, or they can be more overt, like the appearance of a bird or a butterfly. If you watch these episodes, be warned: when I watched part of one, something fell off my mantle and onto the floor. The next time, a piece of paper fell off my counter, and the third time, my electric toothbrush turned itself on. Yeah, I know – these are all coincidences, but they still freaked me out just a little bit.

If you’re beginning to question my sanity or gullibility, I have to tell you that I’ve heard stories from other people about similar experiences. A friend of mine’s oldest son had memories of a past life when he was a little kid. His ex-wife used to see the ghost of a small child at her past job, and her co-workers saw the same ghost. When I was a teenager dabbling in the Black Arts (as bored high-schoolers are prone to do), I had a couple of terrifying experiences that I hesitate to put in writing, lest I reawaken the evil spirits and invite them back into my currently calm and quiet life. I’ll save those stories for another column.

So, I have reasons for being on the spiritual fence about all this, and I’m going to explore it further on my own. I got a book on mediumship, which is mostly about meditation, but it’s a start. And I’ve been thinking about reincarnation and the signs I’d like to send back to the people I outlive. Projecting my spirit into my childhood puppet, Willy the Ghost, would be fun – until one of my smart-aleck kids blew their nose into the poor little hanky. I’m thinking more along the lines of a raven. That way, I could fly like Wendy and Casper and visit all the places I didn’t get to while I was alive. I mentioned this to my best friend the other day. Later that day we went for a hike and a raven flew overhead. It had something wriggling in its beak – it looked like a mouse – so I may tweak my afterlife persona to be a vegan raven.

 In the meantime, I’m stuck here on Earth with the rest of you, imagining what will happen to me after I die, and looking around for signs of my parents, grandparents, and the many friends I’ve lost over the years. I’m going to take a cue from those mind tricks and use my time on Earth to do more of the things I want to do, see more people I want to see, and try to make up for all my past mistakes. But I’m going to take a few moments each day to meditate, too – and maybe get some signs, real or imagined. The way I see it, taking a little time to communicate with the dead does no harm, even if no one’s listening. But if someone is, and I’m ignoring them, well, that’s a scary thought. Some might say scarier than eating a live rodent – or having a handkerchief ghost dropped on your head.

This blog first appeared as a column in the February 9, 2021 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Buh-Bye, 2020…It’s Been Real

Ah, 2020; what can I say about you? You came in so pretty, looking smart in your January duds, and I happily swiped right. By mid-February, things between us were going so well, you had me thinking long-term. I was so hopeful. Unlike the typical flash in the pan relationships, I saw a future with you. Then sometime in March, that shiny-new-year glow began to fade, and your uglier side revealed itself. You didn’t want me dressing up, going out, or seeing other people. Pretty soon, you didn’t even want me to leave the house. No shopping or dining out. No going to the gym, or drinks at the bar, and definitely no parties.

You were so bad for my health, 2020. So much stress, and with no release, I turned to comfort foods. With no reason to dress up, the sweat pants made it easy, too. Those elastic waistbands are so forgiving. And don’t even get me started on the masks.

The worst part, 2020, is how much you seemed to enjoy scaring the crap out of me. You made me worry about my health, my family, and my livelihood. You made me question my friendships. You made me question my country. I had to take a hard look at this place and the people in it and decide if we were still that beautiful melting pot we professed to be. Were we still that country of unlimited possibilities, fueled by a rainbow of beliefs, backgrounds, and cultures, and open to all people – men, women, young, old, gay, straight, trans, black, brown, and white? And were we still stronger together, not in spite of our differences, but because of them? You made me wonder whether we had ever been that country. Were we the land of the free, the home of the brave? Or were we a country of frightened bigots imprisoned in our own minds, close-minded and staunchly protective of our own dogma at the expense of the liberties of others? Would science, critical thinking, and free will save us, 2020, or were we and our democracy destined to self-destruct, suffering a slow death by crazy conspiracies and propaganda?

Yeah, 2020, you are not who I thought you were at all. And I’m trying to figure out if there’s anything good to say about you – anything positive that I’ll take away from our relationship. It’s hard because really, you’ve been awful. But you haven’t beaten me, 2020. So far, I’ve survived you. And looking back, I realize the 2020 I fell for back in January wasn’t real. That 2020 was a phony. As the months passed and I got to know the real you, I dealt with it. You showed me the truth about yourself and a lot of other things, and I dealt with that too. You showed me what mattered, and I saw it more clearly. And you showed me that I’m a lot tougher than I thought I was. I’ve learned my lesson; we’ve all learned a lot of lessons. And we’re going to be better. So while I’m grateful for all of that, please don’t hold your breath for a thank you. Or maybe you should…for a long, long time.

This is usually the time when I say, “It’s not you, it’s me.” But that would be a lie. Because this time it’s not me at all. It’s you, and it’s over. Like we used to say in high school, “It’s been real, and it’s been fun, but it hasn’t been real fun.” I know you’ll be around through the end of the year, and I can deal with that. No one should be alone for the holidays. But when the clock strikes twelve on New Year’s Eve, you need to hit the road. And like we also used to say in high school, “Don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you.” Because 365 days (er, 366, because Leap Year) of 2020 has been all I can handle, and it’s time for you to pack your bags and move on.

This blog first appeared as a column in the December 22, 2020 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

‘Twas the Night before Thanksgiving

Twas the night before Thanksgiving, when all through the town

Not a creature was stirring, due to lock down.

The masks were all hung by the front door with care,

In hopes that the food delivery soon would be there.

The children were nestled in front of their screens,

Mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds.

And Mom in her sweatpants and Dad in his jeans,

Counted the days until a vaccine.

When out in the yard there arose such a crash,

I thought it was bears back in my trash.

I put down my beer and paused the TV,

Then headed out front to see what I could see.

A Dominos sign on a green Subaru,

Lit up the yard in red, white, and blue.

I donned my mask and went for some cash,

When the next thing I knew, GrubHub and DoorDash,

Pulled up in front with more bags of treats,

And if that wasn’t enough, here came UberEats.

The noise, it appeared, as I stood there with my money,

Came from the pizza guy, who had tripped over a bunny.

Yet despite his shrieks, was so lively and quick,

He had saved the pizza – wow, what a trick!

We’d all ordered food from different restaurant deals,

And wound up with a delightful seven course meal.

Now! Tacos, burritos, chalupas, and nachos,

On pizza, sub sandwiches, on corn, on potatoes.

To the top of the porch, the drivers they came,

I paid them all soundly, and yes, knew them by name.

Then I grabbed all the bags and pulled them inside,

Threw them down on the floor, with a whoop and a cry.

Like dry leaves that before a wild hurricane loom,

French fries and tortilla chips flew through the room.

Cell phones were abandoned, COVID forgotten,

‘Cause there’s nothing like food, especially when it’s hot’n

Fresh, delivered to your door, to bring a family together

In any situation, any time, any weather.

Especially when someone else cooks it and brings it all over,

And I don’t have to clean up or deal with left-overs.

So as thrilled as I am with the coming Thanksgiving,

I’m happier still with the blessings I’m given.

Like the people who show up to cook every day

And the drivers who bring all those goodies my way.

Despite all the letdowns of this year, 2020,

Let’s be grateful for pizza, of which there’s been plenty.

And as we head into the homestretch of this godawful virus,

Focus on what brings us together and doesn’t divide us.

In the end, we’re going to be pandemic survivors,

In the meantime, remember to tip all your drivers.

From the top of the porch, now call out this greeting:

Happy Thanksgiving to all, and to all, happy good eating!

This blog first appeared as a column in the November 24, 2020 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Thrown for a Loop

It’s been that kind of year. Everything was going well until boom – well, you know. A lot of things fell apart. Not because of anything you or I did. We were all doing just fine – fantastic, in fact.

The family was great. Healthy, happy, doing well in school and in their careers. Our jobs had really taken off too. We were getting ahead, paying down debt, and padding our savings and retirement funds. And our health – well, we were working out every day, at the gym and on the trail. Eating right, too. Why, back in February, I was getting into position to reach around and give myself a big old pat on the back for doing everything right. It had taken me long enough, but all that hard work and common sense had finally paid off and life was brilliant.

Then March happened, and April, and it was all downhill from there. Lots of bumps on that path to paradise I thought I had built. But I just kept chugging along, worked it out. Realized things were going to be different, but they didn’t have to be awful.

A couple of Fridays ago I was on a different path. I took the day off to hike the Venable-Comanche Loop down in the Sangre de Cristo Range near Westcliffe. There’s a waterfall and lots of lakes, and the trees down there are just stunning right now. It’s a hefty hike – nearly thirteen miles and well over 4,000 feet of elevation with all the side trips to the lakes and falls.

I like midweek hikes because I usually have the trails to myself. I like the peace and quiet. Of course, I spend a lot of time planning and figuring everything out so I don’t get off track. I make a map of the area and mark every trail junction and stream crossing. And I carry a compass, GPS, headlamps, and lots of spare batteries. Then I pack up my cameras, sandwiches, snacks, and drinks and head out at the crack of dawn for an early start.

As usual, the hike went as planned. I stayed on track and made it to Venable Falls and Venable Lakes. Turned onto the Comanche Trail southeast of Venable Pass and carefully made my way across Phantom Terrace, a section of trail high above Venable Basin that gets your attention with its narrow, rocky path and extreme exposure. The 35 mph winds were a terror, but soon enough, I rounded the saddle between Spring Mountain and Comanche Peak and was on the descent. At 12,700 feet up, I had 3,660 feet and less than six miles to go, and it was all downhill. My last destination before the trailhead, Comanche Lakes, glistened ahead in the afternoon sun. Worst case, I calculated, I’d be out in three hours. Plenty of daylight – no problem. All my planning, plus the hard work and common sense, was paying off.

Then I was rolling. I forced myself to stop and sit up. Something was horribly wrong. Pain in my side, my arm. My butt. What happened? Deep breaths, in and out, as I cleared my head, calmed myself down. Assessed the damage. I’d landed hard on the camera I had slung over my shoulder, probably bruised some ribs. My arm was worse, though. Broken, probably. The pain in my left butt cheek made no sense because I’d fallen to the right. But I couldn’t remember a thing – not tripping, not falling, not even hitting the ground. I still had my pack on and looked around for my trekking poles. Nowhere. Turned my head and saw the trail eighteen feet above me. And my poles.

The descent took a lot longer than I’d planned. Hiking down that rocky trail with just one trekking pole was slow. Worrying about my arm, which I’d tucked into my camera strap, a makeshift sling, slowed me down too. The last couple hours, I was in pitch dark, but I chugged along, got out, and drove home.

The arm’s broken – two bones, the radius and the ulna. Not sure about the ribs. The urgent care people took X-rays and gave me a splint and a real sling. And I’m on the orthopedic doc’s waiting list.

I put two and two together and figured I must have been hit with something, probably a rock off the east side of Spring Mountain. Falling fast, it hit me hard enough to knock the poles out of my hands, send me down that slope, and leave a baseball-size bruise on my left side.

And once again, I’m having to adjust. I miss the use of my dominant right hand, but I’m teaching my left hand to do all sorts of things. Like work a mouse, unscrew a cap, and butter a piece of toast. Small bottles like eye drops can be opened with my teeth, and larger ones like spices and condiments get squeezed between my knees, their caps untwisted with my healthy, yet uncoordinated left hand. And just as soon as the splint comes off (I’m not counting on a cast, with an average two-and-a-half-week wait for the doctor), I’m going to reach around and pat myself on the back for surviving yet another rock on this crazy 2020 road to paradise.

I’m still smiling, and even though it hurts to laugh, I do it anyway. The universe has an odd sense of humor, a strange way of testing me, of testing all of us. But no matter how many rocks it throws our way, if we keep chugging along, we’ll come out fine. In the meantime, I’m focused on what’s going right. Like my amazing left hand and all it can do. And the fact that my butt took that rock, and not my head. And how typing is still possible in a splint with a little practice. It’s going to be different, but it doesn’t have to be awful.

This blog first appeared as a column in the October 28, 2020 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

The Venable-Comanche Loop at 12,740′. Not a bad place to break your arm as far as views go, but a long way from the car.

A Spot of Tea

Tea has a special place in my heart. When I was a kid, the kettle was always on in our house. Mom never drank coffee or alcohol, or touched cigarettes, but she sipped cups of hot tea all day long. My sisters and I drank it too. Later on in life, I figured out that Mom probably kept us full of tea so we wouldn’t notice we were hungry. Don’t get me wrong – she fed us three times a day. But the portions were small and there was no money for snacks. A quart of orange juice had to be split six ways and last a week. A steak was the size of a small saucer, cut in six pieces. Usually as tough as leather, too, because Mom wasn’t the best cook. But she sure could brew a pot of tea.

We had black tea only. No green tea, spiced tea, or – heaven forbid – herbal tea in our house. Just good old orange pekoe and pekoe cut black tea, in flow-through tea bags. My mother liked hers piping hot. “Bring it to a rolling boil,” she’d say, emphasizing the “rolling” for effect – and to make sure you didn’t misunderstand her. No tepid tea for Mom. She added a lot of sugar and just a drop of milk. Just enough milk, some would say, to tick you off because it hardly seemed worth the effort to get the container out of the fridge. “Let’s just sit and be quiet,” Mom would say. Then she’d stir like crazy and bang the spoon on the rim.

Anything that happened was a reason to boil water for tea. Done with the breakfast dishes? Let’s have a cup of tea. Finished the laundry? Time for a tea break. Someone at the door? Put the kettle on and invite them in. Then let’s all settle in for a long conversation and a hot cup of tea, or two, or three.

Tea is one of the few habits I’ve kept over the years. I still drink it every day, piping hot, like Mom did. No microwave tea for me. I don’t add a lot of sugar though, just a little Splenda and a touch of soy creamer. I do sneak in a green tea bag alongside the black one, but only for the catechins. I let the green bag steep for a minute and take it out and leave the black one in. That way, I get all the antioxidants and that rich black tea flavor. None of that mossy green tea taste for me.

These days, the experts say black tea is good for you as long as you don’t overdo it. Six cups a day was probably a lot for me as a kid because of all the caffeine, but no one knew any better back then. I drink it now because it’s a habit. I drink it for the health benefits. And I drink it because putting the kettle on reminds me to stop what I’m doing every now and then and take a moment for a cup of tea. I sit and be quiet, like my mother did. And sometimes, just for fun, I stir it like crazy and bang the spoon on the rim.

This blog first appeared as a column in the October 14, 2020 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Tips for a Lovely Haircut

Getting a haircut is typically a mundane task. I drop in, wait a bit, and sit patiently while the stylist takes an inch off the length and trims the bangs. No shampoo, no blow-dry. Pay the nice lady and add a five-dollar tip.

But when you haven’t stepped foot in a salon since March because of a pandemic, a haircut is pretty exciting. It’s a chance to see other people outside the grocery store, have a quiet conversation, and come away with a drastic difference in your look. So when it started raining on my way to a hike last week, and I decided to salvage the time with a haircut, I was amped. My hair was long and getting kind of stringy and spider webby (the post-menopausal women know what I’m talking about) and my bangs, which I’ve been trimming myself, resembled broken twigs. I popped into the nearest strip mall salon, hoping for a short wait.

There was a kiosk with hand sanitizer and a sign-in sheet at the door, and the chairs and tables were turned upside down. It looked like they didn’t want anyone sitting down, or even entering the place.

“I’m sorry, do I need an appointment?” I asked. “Yes,” said a young woman, “but we can get you in – just sign the log with your contact information. She’ll be just another minute and then we can take you.” She motioned to another woman who was finishing up a cut on a middle-aged man and sure enough, as I looked up from the log, he was standing at the cash register to pay for his cut.

The young workers wore masks, but the man’s mask was wrapped around his neck and he was leaning over the counter talking loudly into the cashier’s face. I’d seen this behavior other places, before the mask mandate: customers ahead of me at the grocery store with no mask, leaning over the counter into the cashier’s face and talking at full volume, as if to say, “I’m not wearing a mask and you can’t make me.” I’ve never said anything to them about how they’re contaminating the air for the rest of us – including the cashier – because I’ve seen the videos where people go ballistic over mask use. Instead, I wait until it’s my turn at the counter, then I thank the cashier for being at work so that people like me can still shop for groceries. Sometimes I apologize for the jerk in front of me. Sometimes the cashier’s eyes fill with tears.

With the mask mandate now in place, I wondered why the hair salon women hadn’t requested the man pull up his mask, but that’s when I noticed the sidearm. The guy had a holster hanging off his hip with a handgun sticking out. I turned away to face the wall. I did not want to make eye contact with him for fear I’d say something I’d regret. He whined and moaned for a bit because they couldn’t take anything bigger than a twenty, then he finally paid with a card. And he left.

I blurted out what they were probably all thinking, which I can’t write here because it would not be printed. The women burst out laughing – a release of nervous energy.

“We didn’t notice the gun at first,” the one who had cut his hair said, “and I wanted to ask him to wear his mask, but I was afraid.”

“We didn’t know how he’d react,” said the other woman. Now I knew why they let me in without an appointment – they wanted someone else there in the shop. Not that I could do anything, but maybe he’d behave a little better with more people around.

This time, I got three inches off the length and a nice even trim on the bangs. No shampoo, no blow-dry, but a pleasant conversation with a lovely young woman. I paid the nice lady and added a five-dollar tip. I should have given her more.

This blog first appeared as a column in the September 8, 2020 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Come to Colorado…Next Year

It’s been a “stay local or stay home” kind of summer. Since March, my travels have been restricted to the grocery store and a few local parks. But last week I drove up to Fort Collins to visit one of my kids. He just moved there and since I’ve hiked a lot in that area, I thought I’d show him around.

Fort Collins is a beautiful town. I don’t know what they’re doing up there, but the roads are treelined and perfectly paved. In three days, I didn’t see a single pothole. You’ve probably heard about the downtown area being the inspiration for Disney’s Main Street, and it’s no surprise: even the alleys are clean, neat, and bedecked with flowers. I’d never noticed how pretty the place is because I usually drive straight to a trailhead.

I was there to show my son the great outdoors though, so first thing in the morning, we headed to the marina at Horsetooth Reservoir. And got in line behind a bunch of cars that weren’t moving. That’s when we noticed the billowing black smoke – a boat was on fire and they weren’t letting anyone on the water. I figured we’d be there a while, so I got out of the car to chat with one of the workers about boat rentals. “Rentals? All the boats are rented.” “Today, or for the whole weekend?” I asked. ‘The whole summer,” he said, “you’re not going to find a boat anywhere this year.”

Okay, so no boat. Well, Fort Collins is a big cycling town too. Maybe I’d surprise my son with a new bike. We headed back into town and stopped at an outdoor retailer, then another, then another. No bikes. So we found a bike shop near his home – a place that sold bicycles and nothing else. Here’s what the guy said, “We have no bikes. All the bikes are gone. We may have some in a few weeks if you’d like to check back.” I asked him how a bike shop could have no bikes – that seemed unusual to me. He responded, “This summer has been crazy. Everybody bought a bike.”

By this time, the day was half gone. We stopped for lunch. Sitting outside at a picnic table munching on pizza and salad, I thought about the rest of the day. Me (in all my trip-planning brilliance) had booked a timeslot at Rocky Mountain National Park, an hour’s drive from Fort Collins. This year, you can’t just drive into the park. They have a limited number of rolling reservations offered two days in advance, and they get snapped up in minutes. Our slot was for 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. – not ideal, but it was the best I could do. At least the trails didn’t require a boat or a bike. All we had to do was get to the park, then let our feet take us on our merry way.

I headed for the Bear Lake parking lot and one of my favorite hikes. Not once did it occur to me that this was the most popular trailhead, to the most popular hike, in the state’s most popular national park, on a Saturday, in August. During a pandemic. I didn’t think about all the people who had made summer plans to visit the park months in advance. I didn’t consider all the people from out of state who were visiting Colorado to avoid lock-down in their own states. And I sure as heck didn’t think about how many people had been there all day, and by say, 5 o’clock, would be wrapping up their visit and trying to get out. None of this clicked with me, even when I saw the sign that said the Bear Lake parking lot was full and I’d have to take the shuttle.

I’ve spent a lot of time at Rocky Mountain National Park. Last August, I spend two long weekends camped there, hiked over 50 miles, and had lots of solitude on the trails. This day, the trails resembled a conga line. It was not the park I wanted to show my son, but I blame myself for being clueless about what this pandemic has done to the backcountry.

So after just one hike, we decided to find a less busy trail. We got in line for the shuttle and waited. And waited. And waited. Because there were more than 100 people in front of us, waiting for the shuttle too. After an hour and a half or so, and after six buses had taken away everyone ahead of us, we were finally at the front of the line. A bus pulled in. I stepped up to get on, but the driver stopped me. “Only drivers,” he said, “I’m only taking drivers who are willing to drive to their cars and drive back up here to get the rest of their party.” Well, as you can imagine, everyone at the end of the line was suddenly a driver. Everyone at the front of the line – including some very old people and the family of five behind us who had a baby with them – stood there, eyes wide, horrified. After waiting all that time, sitting on hot concrete in the sun for most of it, we couldn’t even get on the shuttle. I thought about getting on as a driver, but by then I was a little irritated. I figured the next bus would get there a lot sooner than I’d be able to drive all the way down the hill and back up again. This seemed like the smart choice until fifteen minutes later when the next bus pulled up, the door swung open, and the driver hollered, “Drivers only.” This time, I got on the bus.

I’m not complaining. If anyone has a right to complain, it’s the people working at the marina, and the bike shop, and the park. I don’t know how they are dealing with this summer’s insanity. But I learned my lesson: Stay home. Stay local. If you do go out, go somewhere that no one else wants to visit. Rocky Mountain National Park will be there next year.

Pulling back into Fort Collins, I was reminded of what a pretty little town it is. I said to my son, “I know today didn’t turn out like we planned, but you know what I’m going to remember most?” I was thinking about the walk downtown, the vegan pizza lunch, and the time spent with my son. He had other ideas: “I don’t know, Mom…come to Colorado: no boats, no bikes, no buses?”

Not what I was thinking, but it was accurate.

This blog first appeared as a column in the August 26, 2020 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Chilling Out with Polar Adventures

The summer heat has been dragging me down. Usually this time of year I get up high in the mountains where the temperatures are cooler and the breezes are breezier. But this year, the trails and campgrounds are packed. With so many people shut out of their traditional indoor activities, they discovered the outdoors and apparently, they liked it. Plus, with schools out and businesses closed, families are looking for ways to keep the kids happy, healthy, and away from screens. Add the influx of tourists flocking to our state from hotspots like Texas and California and you have a whole lot of people out there. So I’ve been staying local this summer. Relief from the heat is hard to come by at 6,035′ so I chill out from the inside.

In the fridge, there’s a jug of fruity beverage for the heat of the day and some cold brews for the evening hours. And as the sun goes down, I close my eyes and dream of polar adventures. I’ve never hiked near the polar regions – never been north of Canada. My closest brush with the Antarctic is a distant relative – my fifth cousin five times removed was Nathanial Brown Palmer, an explorer for whom Antarctica’s Palmer Land is named. I never met him (he died in 1877) but I like to think we share a little polar blood and a preference for the colder way of life. In a few months, when the crowds thin out and the campgrounds empty, I’ll hit the high trails and pitch my tent in the snow. Until then, I’ll settle for the next best thing: a book on polar exploration.

My favorite one is Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. This is the story of Ernest Shackleton, who sailed south in 1914 with the intent of crossing Antarctica by land. Instead, his ship was locked solid in pack ice. Shackleton and his crew abandoned the ship and watched it bend, crack, and collapse under the immense pressure of the shifting ice. The destruction of the Endurance is just the beginning of the tale. What followed was a trek on foot, a sea voyage, another trek, and…I won’t spoil it for you, but the ending is not what you expect. I’ve read this book half a dozen times, and it never gets old.

Recently, I read The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Cherry was the youngest member on Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910­-­1913 South Pole expedition. Though Scott reached the pole, it wasn’t without significant sacrifices – including his own life. Surprisingly, Scott’s trek isn’t the worst journey referenced in the title. That honor belongs to Cherry’s winter trek, where he and two other men from Scott’s party, Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers, headed east to Cape Crozier from the party’s base at Cape Evans. The trio was in search of penguin eggs for scientific research. The book is really three stories in one, and just when you think it can’t get any worse for the men – frostbite, snow blindness, starvation – killer whales surround their teetering ice floe, thirsty for polar explorer blood. Cherry’s writing, along with selections from Scott’s and other’s diaries, make this an engrossing tale. You’ll feel silly for complaining about the heat.

Finally, Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration by David Roberts introduced me to Douglas Mawson, whose 1911-1913 Australasian Antarctic Expedition is every bit as fascinating as Scott’s and Shackleton’s polar trips. Like Cherry, Mawson was more interested in the scientific aspects of exploration than simply reaching a geographic or magnetic pole. Also like Cherry, he survived unbelievable hardships.

All three books are filled with jaw-dropping terror, immeasurable suffering, and divine moments of relief. And they all take place in the bone-chilling cold. Head to your nearest bookstore or give them a call and ask them to reserve a copy of any one of these polar tales. On those long summer evenings when the temperatures barely dip below 90, the Antarctic adventures of Shackleton, Scott, Cherry, and Mawson will give you goosebumps.

Ch25_Ecuador 104-Chimborazo-Susan

In my happy place – high and cold on Chimborazo’s Veintemilla summit!

Photo by Doug Hatfield.

The Story behind the Story

Sometimes we choose our careers, and sometimes they choose us. And sometimes we run out of choices. That’s what happened to me when I was laid off during the Great Recession. I had applied for work at every place in town, but no one wanted to hire me. Jobs were scarce, and the few companies looking to fill positions weren’t interested in hiring women over 50. I knew this was true because at every interview I walked into, I was met with the same tight smile and blank stare. The interviewers would exchange glances that said, “Let’s make this as quick as possible and move on to the next candidate.” They didn’t see “MBA.” They didn’t see “decades of experience.” They didn’t see “senior management, team management, project management.” They didn’t see “Mensa member,” either. They just saw “old.” Old woman. Old unemployed — and unemployable — woman.

Those were the earliest days of my unemployment, when I could still hide my age on the job application and get invited to that first interview. But then companies got clever and started including the question, “What year did you graduate from high school?” An answer was required, so you couldn’t skip it. Giving them that date gave away my age and precluded me from getting even a first interview, so when it began popping up on online applications, I stopped applying for jobs online. Ageism may not be legal, but it’s widely practiced. Unless I’m applying for a bartending position, why does an employer need to know when I finished high school?

This painful experience, which lasted for more than two years, was the topic of a talk I gave at the Shrine Club. It wasn’t what I had intended to talk about, but it turned out to be the best topic for me and for my audience. A few weeks earlier, the Colorado Springs branch of the American Association of University Women had invited me to speak at their Author’s Day and Silent Auction. The annual event, which includes a breakfast, raises money for college scholarships for local women. Of course, I said yes. I speak regularly at local libraries and visitor centers, like Garden of the Gods. I have several slideshows, each about a different guidebook I’ve written. One of my presentations covers the 47 hot springs I’ve soaked in across the state, while another introduces the audience to more than 100 waterfalls. A third presentation is all about Colorado mountaineering. All three programs are packed with glorious photos of where I’ve been and information on how to get there — with a little help from my guidebooks. I was ready to speak to the fine women of AAUW and had all the waterfall, hot spring, and mountain maps, photos and graphics to back me up.

A few days before the event, I learned in an email that I wouldn’t be doing a visual presentation after all — I just had to talk for half an hour. What? Talk? Oh, no. No photos? How many ways can I describe a waterfall, a hot spring, a mountain? As long-winded as I am, filling 30 minutes was going to be a stretch. So I tried to write a speech. I tried hard, but nothing came. With nothing to say, I drove to the Shrine Club that Saturday morning, hoping something would occur to me over coffee and quinoa.

The first two authors were so good. Eleanor Brown, the author of The Weird Sisters and The Light of Paris, was funny and polished. The keynote speaker at the event, she was a pro who knew how to engage the audience. Elizabeth Fox, author of We Are Going to Be Lucky: A World War II Love Story in Letters, was next, and her poignant story included letters from the battlefield written by her father and read aloud by her husband, Sid. Sitting there listening to their eloquent speeches, I discarded my plan to talk about my books and decided to tell a different story: how I ended up writing stories in the first place. It would be a tough story to tell, but I looked to the only two people I knew in the audience and focused on them instead of all those strangers. My friend, Lisa, had also been displaced during the recession and had reinvented herself in the higher education field, doing what she loves and is very, very good at. Another friend, fellow Woodmen Edition columnist Bill Dagendesh, was in the writing business, an industry that suffered greatly during the last recession. I figured that at least a couple of people would understand where I was coming from.

I launched right into it: how I had gone from a high salary in high-tech to being unemployed. After two years, I wasn’t just running out of options; I was dangerously low on funds and self-esteem. Writing saved me. I wrote a book proposal, got a contract, and with that published book on my resume, I not only got job interviews — I got hired. More book contracts and other writing gigs, like this column, followed. After four years I quit working for other people to stay home and write full-time.

That’s the short version of what I told those ladies and a few men at the AAUW. It was the first time I’d spoken publicly about what I had been through and putting it all out there felt good. I could tell right away that other women had been there too, and I suspected they had never talked about it either.

There is a lot of shame in being unemployed. I started working at 16 and supported myself my entire life. I stayed in my jobs through two pregnancies, even having my second son on a Friday, being discharged from the hospital on Saturday, and going back to work on Monday. I still remember walking into the 8 a.m. sales meeting and people looking at me like I was nuts. But that’s what you do when you have two kids and you work on commission.

Being self-sufficient has always been a priority in my life, but when no one will give you a job, paying your own way isn’t possible. It’s a miserable experience that you can’t talk about. It’s too hard to be around your employed friends; they just want to talk about their jobs and how they’re spending all their money. Your unemployed friends are just as miserable as you are, and neither of you can afford to commiserate over a beer. You can’t connect with people on social media either: everyone’s either posting photos from their vacations or complaining about how their lazy unemployed friends are leeching off unemployment benefits — you know, “their” tax dollars. Never mind that many of us had been paying into unemployment for decades.

I got a lot off my chest at that talk. It felt good to say it out loud. It felt even better when women approached me afterward to confirm my suspicions: it wasn’t just me. Lots of women — and men — had been gutted during the last recession simply because they were too old to ever be taken seriously again in the job market. Some told me they got lucky and eventually landed a position that wasn’t as good as the one they had come from, but it was decent and paid the bills. Other women told me they eventually gave up and retired. A few, like Lisa, reinvented themselves, discovering new ways to leverage talents they’d developed in the workplace and exploring passions they’d set aside to build a new career that was profitable and even more fulfilling than the one they’d left behind.

It was a good talk, even without the slides.

This blog first appeared as a column in the November 12, 2019 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Spock on My Shoulder and Bones in My Ear

I fractured my toe a few weeks ago. It hurt like heck, but I didn’t run to the doctor to have it looked at. Like most people, when I have a problem — any problem — I turn to the internet first. Where else can you find expert medical advice without making an appointment, figuring out where you put your insurance card, or having a doctor actually look at your injury?

That’s when Bones and Spock showed up. I guess I should explain. You know how when you have a moral quandary to sort out and an angel appears on one shoulder and a devil shows up on the other one? That’s what happens when I get sick or injured. Except instead of an angel and a devil, I get Dr. “Bones” McCoy and Mr. Spock from “Star Trek.” I wish I had somebody else on my shoulders whispering in my ears — trust me, I’d take Brad Pitt and Russell Crowe any day over these two sci-fi characters — but my imagination has a will of its own, and it came up with Bones and Spock.

So when I knew my toe was messed up, these two showed up with their typical, conflicting advice on what to do about it. Spock, ever the rational one, tells me it’s just one toe – not the whole foot. And that whatever the doctor does is sure to cause me a lot of pain. Then he reminds me that the last time I went to the doctor was when I had that strange lump in my throat. I had Googled my symptoms, diagnosed the problem — a condition known as sialolithiasis, caused by a blockage of a submandibular gland — and even determined the treatment: drink more water and apply a warm compress to the area several times a day. “Spock’s right,” I think, “I should look to the collective intelligence of the internet for the answer.”

Bones challenges Spock’s advice, loudly proclaiming that neither Spock nor I am a doctor (and that he, on the other hand, is a doctor — and not, dang it, a mechanic, coal miner, bricklayer, botanist, bartender, dragon-slayer, or any number of other specialists). He whispers that I need all my toes in tip-top shape for my foot to be healthy, and in turn, my leg, torso, and the rest of me. “It’s not just the toe you should be worried about,” he says, “Your entire foot is counting on you.” Then he calls Spock a pointy-eared hobgoblin and says that I’m just a writer with virtually no medical training. I tell him about my EMT certification from the 1980s and my Wilderness First Aid certification from three years ago and he glares at me like I’m some kind of imbecile.

Spock steps in to remind McCoy that, against his own better judgment, I did go to the doctor about that throat lump, and after an initial check-up, a drive across town for an X-ray, another drive across town for an ultrasound, and a follow-up appointment, the doctor concluded that I had a calcified stone in one of my salivary glands — basically, sialolithiasis. She recommended (after I had spent four hours and hundreds of dollars to confirm my initial internet diagnosis) that I drink water and put warm compresses on the thing. “So there,” says Spock. Or something like that.

Bones isn’t having any of it. I could have had a thyroid problem, or a tumor, he says. Heck, a Ceti eel, like the one in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” could have crept in my ear and was roaming around inside my jaw, preparing to invade my cerebral cortex. You know, like it did to Chekhov. That’s what turned him into a pod person. I look at Spock, who’s sitting on the opposite shoulder with his arms crossed, and get that steely, emotionless stare. Yes, of course he’s right. Bones isn’t a bartender or bricklayer, but sometimes he’s kind of an idiot. I could figure this out on my own.

So I turned to the internet. By now the injury was a week old. Based on that, and the somewhat mangled appearance of the toe, the worldwide wisdom of the web offered two options: (1) surgery; or (2) “buddy-tape” it to another toe, keep it elevated, and let it heal. Since so much time had passed, it would probably heal crooked, but it would still work just fine.

Spock gets in one last jab, “You might live long, but you’ll never prosper if you keep shelling out all that cash every time you stub your toe.” He has a point, and not just on his ears.

I don’t know what made me change my mind. Maybe the fear that it was something worse than a fracture. Maybe that desperate, pleading look on Dr. McCoy’s face. Or maybe because deep down, I worried that a Ceti eel had burrowed into my foot and was eating it from the inside out. I turned off my computer and drove to the nearest emergency care center for a check-up, an X-ray, and an ultrasound. The doc buddy-taped my fractured toe and an hour later, I was home with my feet up.

Spock and Bones didn’t hang around. They never do. But they’ll be back the next time I get a sore throat, a rash, a lump, bump or bruise. And while I could have taken care of the toe myself, I’m glad I boldly went to see the doc. Something tells me that the one time I don’t listen to McCoy, I really will be sicker or more injured than I think and have to suffer the consequences of my own pointy-eared stubbornness.

I need all of me — from head to toe — to be in tip-top shape, no bones about that. In this case, I thought, putting my feet up and wiggling all 10 toes, the needs of the many outweighed the needs of that one toe.

This blog first appeared as a column in the October 8, 2019 Gazette Woodmen Edition.